Arnold walked up the newly-plowed dirt road, feeling the brittle cold on his face, looking ahead at the crossing framed by high, clean snow banks. He knew that a week was probably not long enough to stay away, but he was tired of waiting for the bus by himself. His aunt would just have to live with it. He clumped in his rubber boots up to the tar road and crossed to the other side. His cousins – snowsuits, red cheeks, pluming breath – watched him drop his paper bag beside their array of lunch boxes in the packed snow.
Julie, the nicest cousin, said, "Hi, Arnold."
Arnold said, "Hi."
Linda, the oldest cousin, stood atop the snowbank with her hands on her hips. "I thought you weren't allowed up here any more," she said.
"It's a free country."
"It's private property."
"Not the road."
Arnold's cousin Mark climbed the snowbank from the other side and looked down at him without speaking. Arnold wondered if he was still mad about their fight. He knew his aunt was: he could see her staring at him out the kitchen window. As he watched she turned and spoke to someone he couldn't see. Then Uncle Mike came outside, dressed for work. He backed his car out of the driveway, drove forward and rolled down the passenger window. He had jet-black hair and a sharp nose, like Arnold's mother. Like Arnold, too. All the cousins looked more like their mother, with light brown hair.
"Arnold," Uncle Mike said, "I'm surprised to see you here."
Arnold shrugged his shoulders.
"It's only been a week," Uncle Mike said.
Arnold looked down at his boots, looked back up when his uncle said, "Well, what do you think, Mark? You being the injured party and all."
"I don't care," Mark said. He raised a mitten, touched under his right eye.
Arnold wished now he hadn't socked him. But Mark shouldn't have said he was stupid, either.
"All right," Uncle Mike said. "But Arnold, you need to keep your hands to yourself. "
"Okay," Arnold said.
His uncle stared, like he was still thinking it over. Finally he straightened behind the wheel and let the car idle toward the road. When it was even with the big snow bank he stuck his hand out the window and waved over the roof of the car.
"Bye Daddy!" the cousins all cried.
The Plymouth turned onto the tar road, and the cousins walked out to watch, the legs of their snowsuits whispering together. Then Julie pointed in the opposite direction and yelled, "Bus coming!" and they hustled back, grabbing their lunchboxes and lining up according to age. The bus came hissing to a stop and Mrs. Harrison levered open the door. Arnold followed Mark up the steps and along the aisle toward the Hurd brothers, who lived down the tar road toward Route 1 and always got on first. Mark said, "Hey," to them and slid into the seat opposite. He didn't move over, so Arnold kept going and took the next seat.
The door folded shut; the bus low-geared into a turn onto the dirt road. Arnold sat back, watching Mark smile at the Hurds. Arnold called them the Turds, but Mark didn't think that was funny any more. Mark liked them now. He'd even been invited over to their house. Arnold still thought they were sissies, though. They had blond hair and long eyelashes. They wore gloves instead of mittens and were always reading books. Tim Hurd had his eyes glued to a book now, holding it close to his face. His head nodded as the bus bumped down the dirt road, but he kept right on reading, snapping a page over.
Arnold leaned forward and said, "Whatcha reading?"
Tim Hurd briefly turned the cover toward him: Herb Kent, West Point Fullback.
"So you think you're gonna be a football player?" Arnold said.
"Not particularly," Tim Hurd said.
"Not particularly!" Arnold mimicked, with a look at Mark. But Mark just moved impatiently on the seat. Arnold reached out and poked Tim Hurd in the arm. "Timmy Turd, West Point Fullback!" he said.
The bus rattled along.
Tim Hurd's brother turned and said, "Why don't you lay off him, Arnold?"
"Why don't you make me?" Arnold said.
Tom Hurd bounced around forward. He looked out the window at the low little house set back from the road, where Arnold lived with his mother. As they drew closer he whispered something to his brother, who took one hand off his book long enough to smother a laugh.
"What's so funny, Tommy Turd?" Arnold said.
"Oh, nothing," Tom Hurd said, and at that both he and his brother laughed. Even worse, Mark was grinning, as if he knew what they were talking about. It was probably something he'd told them, Arnold thought darkly. Mark knew everything about him.
"Spit it out," he told Tom Hurd.
"Watch out or I will," Tom Hurd said back.
"I double-dare you," Arnold said.
Tom Hurd turned and sat still, like he was holding his breath. "Maybe we're chickens…"
"Shut up, Tommy!" Mark said from across the aisle.
"…but at least we don't live in a chicken coop!" Tom Hurd finished, his eyes wide.
For a moment nobody moved. Then Arnold stood up and swung one fist after the other, punching down at the cowering boy, not stopping until Mrs. Harrison jammed on the brakes, throwing him forward, then backwards into the seat. He was all through anyway, and he just sat listening to Tom Hurd bawl until Mrs. Harrison had him by the collar, dragging him up the aisle toward the front of the bus.
Mrs. Harrison was strong for a lady.
"Sit!" she said when they got to the stairwell.
Arnold sat on the top step, in the slushy dirt from the kids' boots.
"Who started this?" Mrs. Harrison said, looking down the aisle.
"He punched Tommy!" Tim Hurd said.
"Is that true?" Mrs. Harrison demanded.
Arnold was afraid he'd start crying if he answered.
"Tommy Hurd said Arnold lived in a chicken coop!" Julie said then.
"Is that true?" Mrs. Harrison said.
"Yes, Mrs. Harrison!" Tom Hurd said. "But he still started it!"
Mrs. Harrison put her hands on her hips while a few more kids gave their two cents' worth. Then she said, "All right, I'll take it from here. First, Arnold, we do not hit on Mabel Harrison's bus. Ever. Is that clear?"
"Yes," Arnold whispered, his throat tight.
"Second," Mrs. Harrison said, "we do not mock someone's station in life, ever. Is that clear?"
The words station in life hit Arnold like a big, icy snowball in the gut.
"Yes, Mrs. Harrison," the kids all said.
"I'm sorry," Tom Hurd sobbed.
"I'll need a note from your mother," Mrs. Harrison said. "Yours too, Arnold. And you can stay right where you are until we get to school." She looked at all the kids, then stepped past Arnold and took the driver's seat. Soon they were rambling down the dirt road again, stopping to pick up Daryl Hopkins, Emily Pruden and the Phillips kids. They squeezed past Arnold and moved to their seats. When they sat down the whispering began as the other kids filled them in.
Outside, fat snowflakes began to fall.
The bus reached the turnaround at the end of Lambert Road and headed back. When they reached Arnold's house all the kids looked out the window. Arnold looked too, through the long, smudged windows in the door. You couldn't really tell that it had been a chicken coop, he thought. Arnold's grandfather and uncle had renovated it after Arnold's dad had left, adding windows and shingles and a door. It had been a brooder coop anyway, not a real coop like the empty two-story building behind it.
Arnold could remember when the big coop had still been full of chickens. He could remember the noises the chickens made. He could even remember his grandfather chopping their heads off on a stump, and how they ran around headless, and how everybody jumped out of their way so as not to get splashed.
The bus moved on, and some of the kids turned their heads, kept looking.
Then they were back to the tar road and everyone faced forward.
During recess Arnold thought he heard a kid say, “Chicken coop,” and he clamped a headlock on the kid and rubbed his face in the snow until Mrs. Elliot ran up and stopped it. For punishment Arnold had to spend the afternoon in the Principal's office, sitting at a table in the corner. He didn't mind that so much. It was better than being in class, with everybody whispering. But when Mrs. Kimball shut the door and sat down with him and started going on about his family, he wished he was back in the classroom. Mrs. Kimball was too nice. She had a long, gray ponytail that sat on her shoulder like a little pet.
"It's not easy growing up without a dad," she told Arnold.
"Uh-huh," Arnold said.
"But you still have to behave yourself," Mrs. Kimball said. "Otherwise you're going to spend your whole life in and out of trouble, Arnold. That's not what you want, is it?"
"Nuh-uh," Arnold said.
She let the ponytail slip through her fingers back onto her shoulder. She kept talking, and Arnold pretended to listen. But he couldn't really listen or it would make him cry because her voice was so kind and she kept trying to look into his eyes. He nodded and said, "Uh-huh," and thought about other stuff. He thought some more about the big coop. It was quiet and dusty, and you made echoes when you walked around. There were these round metal bins where the chickens used to eat, and all these weird little metal spectacles lying around that the chickens had worn. It was funny about the spectacles. His grandfather had told him that if the chickens didn't wear them, they would start acting creepy. He'd been following his grandfather around while he worked on the brooder coop, asking him questions. Without the spectacles, his grandfather had said, the chickens would turn into killers. You wouldn't think chickens could be so mean. They'd pick one poor chicken out and gang up on it. They'd chase it into a corner and peck at it until it died.
Arnold shivered and stopped thinking about the chickens.
The Hurds weren't on the bus going home – their mother had picked them up – and Arnold felt like things were almost back to normal. He even sat with Mark and invited him to come over after they got off the bus. Mark didn't know about coming over, though.
"Mum probably won't go for it," he said.
"We've got coffee cake," Arnold said. His mother had brought it home from the shoeshop. Coffee cake was something Mark's family never had, because Mark's mother didn't think it was good for you.
Mark thought it over. "I'll try and sneak out."
The bus pulled up at the crossing and Arnold got off at the cousins' house. He crossed the tar road and walked back and forth out of sight behind the snow bank. He knew Mark had to make it look good. His mother thought Arnold was a bad influence. Once Arnold had let Mark shoot the .22 that his dad had left behind and she'd found out about it. They'd taken it out into the woods behind the big coop and had shot it at a pine tree for a half hour. It had a scope that made the trees look close. But Mr. Hamilton from down the road had come down into the woods and had taken the rifle away. He'd told Arnold's mother and Mark's mother and they'd had to sit through a lecture from Mark's father. Afterward Arnold's mother had hidden the rifle, although it didn't take long for Arnold to find it in a dark corner of her closet behind the dresses and coats.
Mark finally came outside. He pretended to go down to the field behind their house, then cut through the bushes and ran around the corner of the crossing onto Lambert Road. Arnold fell into step with him and they scuffed down the road. It was getting dark already, but Arnold could see a car parked in the space next to the path to his house. It wasn't Mrs. Soule's Belair, though: his mother must have gotten a ride with somebody else. This was a white Falcon. Arnold knew his cars pretty well. He and Mark walked up and looked in the Falcon's windows. There were clothes folded and stacked on the back seat and hanging from hangers in the back windows. An army duffle bag sat on the floor. Arnold tried not to believe that his father had come home.
They walked toward Arnold's house and the big two-story coop behind it.
"Whose car?" Mark said.
"Somebody that gave her a ride home."
Arnold opened the screen door. They went inside just as the curtain parted in the doorway across the room and a tall guy with a mustache ducked out. The man blushed and grinned. "Well, hello there!" he said. "School's out, I take it?" He was shoving his shirttail into his pants.
Arnold's mother came out. "You had to lally-gag, didn't you?"
"Whose fault was that?" the man said.
Arnold's mother giggled and raked a hand through her hair. "I guess you caught me, Arnold!" she said. "But you didn't have to bring company! How are you, Marcus?"
"Ok, Aunt Carolyn."
"How's things up at the plantation?"
"Okay." Mark looked at Arnold. "Maybe I'd better go."
Arnold shrugged as if he didn't care.
Mark turned his eyes toward the kitchen table and the coffee cake covered by waxed paper.
"Can Mark take a piece of that?" Arnold asked.
"Why not?" Arnold's mother said.
Arnold took the waxed paper off, cut a piece of the coffee cake and handed it to Mark. Mark said, "Thanks! See you later, Arnold. See you, Aunt Carolyn," and took off out the door. The door slammed and Arnold saw him run past the window, stuffing the coffee cake into his mouth.
"I guess it's time for me to go, too," the man with the mustache said.
"Call me?" Arnold's mother said.
Arnold left them hugging in the kitchen corner. He walked through the living room and parted the curtain to his bedroom. They didn't have doors to their rooms here in the good old Brooder Coop. "Doors are expensive," he snarled out loud. He flopped on his bed with his hands behind his head. After a minute or two he heard his mother walk up and say from outside the curtain: "Arnold, I'm going for a ride, honey. You be good, have some coffee-cake yourself. I'll be back in a little while."
"Where are you going?” Arnold said.
"Just for a ride. Be good, now!"
Arnold heard the front door shut. He went to the window and watched his mother run up the path and get into the Falcon. The Falcon backed onto Lambert Road and rolled up the road toward the crossing. When it was gone Arnold went through the curtain into the living room and down to his mother's room. He ducked under the curtain and took the .22 out of the little closet where she hung her dresses and sweaters. Remembering about it had made him want to shoot it again. He took it outside and around the house to the big coop. He'd hide it out there. She'd never even notice it was missing. The big coop's door hung on one hinge and there was snow on the floorboards. There was no glass in any of the windows. It was cold. He ran up the stairs, hid the .22 behind a feeder near a corner. Then he went back to the house. He took the rest of the coffee-cake over to the couch, turned on the TV.
Arnold was lying down in the dark when his mother came home. He said, "Hi!", but she didn't answer. She went heavily into her room and banged around. Then it was quiet. Arnold thought he'd better leave her alone, but after an hour he got too hungry. It was way past supper time and his stomach was growling. He tiptoed up to her curtain and listened to her breathing.
She went on snoring.
"Mum?" Arnold said again, and she smacked her lips stickily.
"Mum!" Arnold said. "Can we have supper?"
"Can't a person take a nap around here?" his mother slurred.
Arnold parted the curtain and looked in. "I'm hungry!"
She threw the covers back, stumbled out of bed and came after him, but she got tangled up in the curtain and fell. Arnold grabbed his jacket off a kitchen chair and ran outside. He waited, but she didn't follow. He zipped his jacket, stuffed his hands into the pockets and walked up toward the road, scuffing through an inch of new snow. When he got to the streetlight he could see his breath in the air. It had stopped snowing and the stars were out: bright pinpricks clustered above. A cold breeze blew past, pecking his cheeks and the tips of his ears. He wished he'd had a chance to grab his cap with the earmuffs. Down the road to his left he could see the Phillips' house – that used to be his grandfather's before he died – all lit up. He looked the other way, toward the crossing. The big house was all lit up, too. He could walk up there; he'd done it before when his mother was on the warpath. He even took a couple of steps that way, picturing the big, warm rooms, kids sprawled on the floors. But then he remembered his aunt was mad at him. She'd probably slam the door in his face. He stopped and looked back at his little house – dark except for the light over the door – and, looming behind it, the two-story coop. At least he could get out of the wind. He trotted back down the hill and ducked past the cockeyed door into the big coop. It was still and cold and dark. He climbed the stairs, feeling his way, and walked out into the open room. He remembered the .22 and retrieved it from behind the tin feeder and walked around the coop holding it like a soldier. But then he scuffed some of the spectacles with his heel and that was creepy, it made him think about the chickens ganging up.
Arnold stood still in the dark, holding the rifle. He backed into a corner by a window and knelt, turning to look through the scope at the crossing. The streetlight on the corner jumped into view. Then a car cleared the woods on the right and he followed it across the field and past the cousins' house until it disappeared behind the bushes on the left. You could only see the top of its roof behind the snowbanks. He swung the barrel back and saw his aunt move past the kitchen window. She was out of sight, though, when the .22 went off. It didn't make very much noise. It almost seemed like nothing had happened until the door opened and Arnold's uncle came out and looked around. When Arnold pulled the trigger again his uncle ran back inside.
Arnold turned and slid down to the floor. He lay the .22 down, hoping he hadn't hit anyone. He blew warm air on his hands. After a few minutes he could hear a siren in the distance. He was interested to see what would happen next. He didn't care what it was, just so somebody came and got him. It was freezing in the coop, and it was getting creepy again, too. He couldn't stop thinking about the chickens. It was hard not to when you were sitting there alone. In the cold and dark, with the siren getting louder, he imagined a big gang of them, moving around without their spectacles. He could picture them scratching from room to room, getting closer all the time.
(originally published in Zoetrope All-Story Extra)
Jim Nichols lives on a little river in Warren, Maine with his wife Anne. He has published fiction in numerous magazines, including Esquire, Night Train, paris transcontinental, Zoetrope All-Story Extra, American Fiction, The Clackamas Review, River City and Portland Monthly. He's a past winner of the Willamette Fiction Prize, and was awarded an Independent Artist's Fellowship by the Maine Arts Commission. His collection Slow Monkeys and Other Stories was published by Carnegie Mellon Press.