Joey had been successfully dodging Tommy, who’d had been tweaked out on homemade meth for nearly a week, until Tommy decided he’d had enough of the stray cat nosing around the house. So he told Joey to leave some tuna out for it and, when the scrawny thing got full, catch it and bring it to him. Joey thought maybe Tommy was going to drown it or wring its neck.
He took several bites from the tuna, left a little in the can out by the front door, and hunched down inside the screened-in porch a few feet away, slapping at mosquitoes, and thought about school starting back up in a couple days. He missed the cafeteria. As long as you didn’t attract attention, some of the kids were okay. He had a couple buddies.
He heard a rustling and sat still. A mosquito landed on his arm. He could feel the sharp itch as it drew blood. It was dark outside, but he could see a shape and hear the tuna can scrape against the broken stones that used to be a kind of walkway up to the house. He listened to the thing eat and jerked to his feet when he realized it might not even be the cat—it could be a coon or a possum. He moved to the door and suddenly heard the sound of the thing purring. He was pretty sure coons didn’t purr.
Joey knelt and put his hand through a hole in the screen. His fingers smelled like tuna—he was a little afraid the cat might mistake his hand for dessert—so he kept them balled into a fist. At first, the cat went quiet, but in a moment, it brushed tentatively against his hand.
Joey could feel the cat’s bones through its thin skin. He brought it into the living room and sat on the floor with it so Tommy wouldn’t yell at him about having it on the tattered, broken couch.
“What’s that?” his sister Chyna asked. She came down the stairs and stood in front of Joey.
“Cat,” he said.
“Better get it out of here before Tommy sees it.” She put a hand on its head and smoothed its fur. It purred.
“Tommy wants it.”
“Oh,” she looked worried. “What for?”
“Don’t know.” He shrugged.
“Don’t let him have it.”
“Okay,” he said.
“I’m serious. Joey.” She stared in his eyes.
“Okay.” He looked away.
She put her hand on his arm. “Really. Just let it go. He’ll never know.”
Joey scoffed. “Sure.”
Chyna was quiet. She petted it some more. Joey set the cat down on its back and rubbed its stomach. It purred loudly.
Both brother and sister jumped as the bedroom door slammed open. Chyna stepped in front of the cat and tried to block Tommy’s view of it as he stalked into the living room.
“What’s that behind you?” he asked.
Tommy took the cat by the scruff of its neck outside to the shed. He told Joey to go get the gas can from the back of Tommy’s truck. Chyna came out to watch. Tommy doused the cat with gas. It shrieked loud and twisted to plant a claw in Tommy’s arm. He cursed and held it out. He pulled his lighter out and lit it. Chyna clapped her hands over her mouth as the cat screamed. Tommy let it go, and it ran—a fiery dart—back into the house and planted itself under the couch. Tommy cursed again and ran in after it. Smoke was already pouring out the front door. Joey went in to see the couch in flames, the flames spreading up the walls.
“Get that TV out of here,” Tommy yelled as he ran out with an armful of valuables. Joey and Chyna ran into the open door of the master bedroom and found their mother, still asleep, and dragged her out into the grass.
“Quit wasting time with that old skank,” Tommy yelled. He ran back in and came out with clothes and his records.
Joey and Chyna roused their mom and explained what was happening.
“You damned idiot,” she said as he ran out with another load of records. He backhanded her and turned back to the house, which was blazing, now.
“Tommy,” Joey said. Tommy turned on him with his hand raised. Joey pointed. The eave above the door—already sagging for as long as Joey could remember was ablaze and falling.
“God damned cat,” Tommy said.
They went to a motel for the night—Tommy and Joey’s mother in the bed, Joey and Chyna in the backseat of Tommy’s car. The next morning, when Joey knocked on the door to ask to use the bathroom, he overheard Tommy on the phone with Joey’s grandmother, who owned the house.
“I couldn’t call the damn fire department because the damn phone was on fire,” he was saying. “I don’t know how it started. Probably the wiring. That thing was a death-trap for years. If you weren’t so stingy…” He put the phone away from his ear and noticed Joey. He made a fist at the boy. Joey went back outside and walked out into a field near the motel to pee.
Joey’s grandmother showed up later from Parkin. She pulled up to the room and waved Joey and Cyna over to her car, a steel whale painted an institutional green.
“Are you children hungry?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Chyna said.
She waved them into the front seat and took them to McDonald’s. As they were ordering, Joey asked if they could get something for Tommy.
“He can get his own,” Grandmother said.
Joey started to say that Tommy would get mad, but Chyna squeezed his hand to shoosh him.
Back at the motel, Grandmother left the kids in her car while she went in.
“What do you think they’re talking about?” Joey asked.
“She’s tearing them a new one.” Chyna stared at the door with a sullen look.
After a half-hour or so, their grandmother came back out. The kids’ mother stood in the doorway watching as she got back in the car.
“How would you children like to come stay with me for a little while?”
“Thank you,” they both said.
She stopped at Wal Mart and bought them new clothes. While she was looking for shoes for Joey, she noticed his were duct-taped.
“What happened to your shoes?”
He shrugged. “The bottom was coming off so I fixed them.”
She got them five outfits each and shoes. She bought them backpacks, paper, and pencils. They put their bags in the car, and Grandmother showed the kids the receipt. “I just spent nearly two hundred dollars on you kids,” she said.
“Thank you,” they both said.
“’Thank-you’ don’t pay the bills.”
When they got to her house, she put them to work mowing and raking leaves. They gathered up fallen branches and weeded her plants in the front of the house. Joey had to climb up on a rickety ladder and clean out the gutters. By the time they finished all the chores she’d listed for them in her close handwriting, it was late afternoon. Joey knocked on the door, and Grandmother sent him around back. She made them both undress and rinsed the mud and detritus off with the garden hose and gave them towels. They dried off and stood in their towels in the entryway, shivering. She gave them each a set of clothes, and they dressed.
“Minimum wage is three-twenty-five per hour,” she said. “You two worked for four hours. Can either of you tell me how much you earned?”
Joey raised his hand.
“Minus room and board expenses,” she added.
Joey lowered his hand.
They ate early, and when they finished, the kids cleaned up. “May we watch television?” Joey asked.
“I don’t like television,” Grandmother said.
She sent them to bed early.
“May we read?” Joey asked.
They searched through the house. Chyna found a Readers Digest Condensed book called Dark Desires. Joey found a paperback Tom Clancy novel behind a bookcase. They sat in their beds on top of the covers, afraid to wrinkle the sheets. Joey woke from Chyna shaking him.
“You were crying in your sleep.”
“Dreaming about that cat,” he said.
They sat up reading their books for the rest of the night.
The next morning, when they came down to breakfast, Grandmother had another list of chores. They spent the day cleaning and repairing things around the house. For lunch, they had soup from a can that she mixed with two cans’ worth of water and had them share. For supper, they ate pasta with a thin sauce that hardly stained the noodles. They were in bed by dark and Grandmother came and knocked on their door. They quickly turned their lights out. She opened the door and said, “Happy New Year!”
“Thank you,” they both said.
When she closed the door, Chyna spoke: “I miss mom,” she said.
“I don’t,” Joey said.
“We could run away.”
“Where would we go?”
“Back to Crowley’s Ridge.”
“Hell, why bother?” They were both quiet.
The next day, they went into town to watch a parade. She gave them the rest of the afternoon off, and they searched the house again for more books. The following day, they begged a ride to the library.
“I’m going to have to deduct the gas money from your chores,” Grandmother said.
They started school the next day. Grandmother drove them into Crowley’s Ridge and dropped them off. Joey collected his first black eye, and Chyna got into a shoving match with another girl. At lunch time, they were called to the office. Their mom was standing by the principal’s office. Chyna gave her a silent hug. Their mother stepped back and looked at them.
“You guys look good. What happened to your hands?” She fingered the blisters on Chyna’s palms.
“Grandmother made us do chores.”
“Nothing’s free with your grandmother.”
“Where’s Tommy?” Joey asked.
“At the house,” his mom said.
They drove out to the house at Hunter’s Rest, a one-time resort community that sat, now, on a stagnant pond. Drunken fishermen threw lines in the green water and pulled out a gar now and then. They passed the gate and turned in to the dirt track that led to the remains of the house, which sat, surprisingly to Joey, just like it had before—sagging and weatherworn, except now, it had a blackened hole burnt in the roof. She pulled up to the house, got out, and went to the workshop off to the side and slid the aluminum door up. Tommy was inside, sleeping on a mattress on the cement floor. As soon as they slid the door up, he started cursing.
“The old bat give you any money?” He asked.
“She’s making us pay off our debt for room and board,” Chyna said.
“And she bought—“ Joey began, but Chyna nudged him silent.
“What’d she buy?” Tommy said.
“Gas. She made us pay back the gas money she spent taking us to school,” Chyna said quickly.
Tommy laughed. “Find anything valuable in her house?”
“No sir,” Joey said. “She doesn’t even have a TV.’
Tommy laughed again. “Stingy old bat.”
Tommy had a TV hooked up to rabbit ears on a chair. The kids sat on the hard concrete and watched it while he and their mother talked outside. When they came back in, the kids’ mom asked if they were hungry. They went and got in the car and she took them back to school.
After they’d cleaned her entire house and fixed everything that needed fixing, and by their reckoning paid her back with interest, Grandmother lost patience with the children. She snapped at them constantly, for their looks, for their smells, for every reason she could think of, and whenever she ran out of reasons, she would simply pinch them whenever they strayed too close.
“My freezer’s empty,” she complained. It was true, the day before, she’d thawed a cake she’d frozen three years prior, according to the date. She refused to let them leave the table until they each finished a slice and then complained about their gluttony.
They decided to sneak away during school and return to their own home. When Grandmother dropped them off, they went inside, waited a few minutes, and left. They walked over to Wal-Mart, just catty-corner from the junior high school, and then made their way through neighborhoods and back streets east, generally following highway 64, until they made it the few miles out to Hunter’s Rest. The gate was open, and they found the house as it had been. Their mom’s car wasn’t there, though, and when they knocked on the shed door, no one answered. It was chained closed, so they couldn’t investigate. They went inside the burnt house and waited, making themselves as comfortable as they could.
Other than the living room, which was soot-stained with a hole in the ceiling, the house was much the same. They dragged the charred furniture out and went upstairs to their old room. Their things were still there, though they reeked of smoke.
They waited out the rest of the day and that night. It got chilly inside because of the hole in the roof, but they huddled under blankets and toughed it out; neither of them could sleep anyway because of the dreams about the cat and Tommy. When no one came the next day, they hiked back into town and spent all the money they scavenged from their combined savings on food. The kids carried their bags back out to the house, joking and laughing for the first time since they could remember.
After they ate, Chyna went next door to a neighbor’s to borrow the phone. She called Grandmother and told her they were staying with their mom again and that she’d kicked Tommy out. They broke into the shed and found an extension cord and ran it to the house to power the TV.
They lived like that for six months. Joey got a job in town at Pizza House and Chyna got a job delivering papers. They spread a tarp over the roof and fixed as much as they could. When they plugged the phone back in, they discovered that it worked, but it only ever rang when the school called about them being absent, so they unplugged it again.
Then, one day, they heard noise outside. Tommy and their mother pulled up in an 18-wheeler. They’d been driving cross country all this time.
“Piss-poor job on the roof,” was all Tommy said. He and the kids’ mom reclaimed their old bedroom.
“Maybe we should go back to Grandmother’s,” Joey said.
“Let me think about it,” Chyna said. Joey sat beside her, quiet, while she stared straight ahead.
The next day, Chyna and Joey rode their bikes into town to the nearest payphone.
“School’s good,” Chyna said in answer to her grandmother’s first question. “Mom’s seeing Tommy again. He moved back into the house.” She spent the rest of the call talking about her job and how she hoped to move up to shift manager by summer. They stayed in town for a while and rode back out to the house in time to see the end of the battle. Grandmother stood by the doorway while Tommy loaded his car. The kids’ mother sat by the shed, smoking a cigarette. Chyna went up to her.
“Mom, if you ever cared about being a good mother to us, don’t go with him right now. Go and meet him later when Grandmother’s gone. Do it for us.”
Her mother sat, stunned, as Chyna turned and walked away.
Grandmother watched Tommy leave. She went to the kids’ mother and lectured her at length while the kids watched. Finally, her daughter in tears, Grandmother left. The kids went over to their mother. She looked up at them and smiled through her tears.
“You can go, now,” Chyna said.
Their mother’s face dropped, and the kids went inside the remains of the house.
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at www.righthandpointing.com/bledsoe. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available at http://tenpagespress.wordpress.com/2011/08/01/the-man-who-killed-himself-in-my-bathroom-by-cl-bledsoe/. His story, “Leaving the Garden,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story South’s Million Writer’s Award. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings, http://clbledsoe.blogspot.com Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.