Blinders

Tom Darin Liskey

Becoming


When I saw my older sister waiting for me at the bus stop, I knew something was up. The school bus was moving downhill from the ridge road, and I could see her sitting on the hood of the Fairlane parked by the stop sign, singeing a clump of split-end hairs with a cigarette cherry.
  It was mid-October, but she wore only a tight-fitting calico blouse in the Indian summer weather. Her slim legs were crossed at an angle with the heel of her boot resting on the front bumper. The breeze tussled the browning grass and the hems of her bell-bottom jeans.
  I don't know why she was waiting for me. She was on the outs with mom and was no longer living at home.
  Anyway, I was still pretty pissed at her. The last time I saw her a couple of weeks ago, she was stoned out of her mind. My mother sent her and her boyfriend Dale to meet me at the bus stop. She took the green plastic army paratrooper I had won at the school bazaar that day and burned cigarette holes in the cellophane parachute.
  Then she threw it in the air and laughed about it when it fell to the ground. She danced around the downed toy paratrooper singing "Age of Aquarius" and other stupid hippy songs. Dale thought it was funny, too. I thought they were being butt wipes.
  The bus�s hydraulic brakes hissed when the Bluebird slowed to stop, but she didn�t take notice of me. When I stepped out of the bus and the doors clapped shut behind me, she finally raised her eyes from the clutch of hair in her hand.
  �How�s the fourth-grader today?� she asked. She sounded bored.
  I shrugged, but didn�t say anything. She shook her head and rolled her eyes up at me and turned back to tapping the cigarette's ember on the hair ends.
  �Whatever,� she said.
  I peeked past her. No one else was in the car. I was surprised she came alone.
  �Where�s the other half of the brain trust?�
  �Propagating revolution somewhere, I suppose. Anyway, smart aleck, you and I got something to take care of today.�
  We were only two blocks from our house.
  "Mom?"
  My sister sneered at that. �You�re a funny kid. You should go into comedy or something.�
  �I�m not the one in hot water. Laugh all you want.�

*

  Cissy had moved out - or been kicked out depending on whose side of the story you were listening to - right after she ruined my paratrooper.
  Things had not been good between her and my mother following the death of my father last year. They fought all the time, and it had gotten worse over the past couple of months. Cissy couldn�t stand mom�s holier-than-thou attitude. It got to the point that my sister even refused to go to church with us anymore.
  The fighting was constant and Mom moved my sister to the small room over the garage. Even that didn�t help much. They argued so much we couldn�t make it through one meal before the sharp words between them began flying.
  Cissy and Mom weren't on speaking terms when my mom found some pot in my sister�s pants pockets. They had a big knock down and drag out because of it - the worst I had ever seen. It was so bad my mom sent me to my room because of the arguing. There was yelling and accusations and threats I didn�t understand.
  The fighting finally abated around midnight when I saw car headlights cut through the darkness of my bedroom. Someone had pulled into our driveway. I didn�t know if it was my mom�s pastor again. He had come before to talk to the warring women.
  When the front door slammed shut and the vehicle backed out of the driveway, the headlights retracing an arc across my the wall, I knew it was Dale. He and my sister sped off into the night together.
  I could hear my mother sobbing in her room next to mine for the rest of the night. My mom never mentioned the fight, but when they took prayer requests at church, Cissy always topped the list. I nodded down the block to our street.
  �So you haven't been by the house?�
  I found myself hoping she had - my anger over the toy paratrooper melting away. I knew my mom was sorry and I missed her being around, too. She shook her head and snorted a laugh like I was crazy.
  �This is about you, buddy boy. Not her.�
  She flicked the cigarette in the ditch and jumped off the hood. She pulled a set of car keys out of her pocket. She shook them.
  �Let�s go.�
  If our mother found out about this, I�d be the one to get into trouble next.
  �I gotta get home - I don't want mom to get mad at me.�
  Cissy shrugged. �We won�t be that long. I promise you. Anyway, she�ll understand. I�ll ask Sister Fox to call her.�
  �Mrs. Fox?�
  My sister nodded. Mrs. Fox was my friend Steven�s mother.
  Steven had been sick for much of the school year with leukemia. I didn�t see him at church anymore. My mom said it was because he was getting radiation treatments.
  Cissy grabbed my book bag and threw it in the back seat. She opened the driver's door and slipped in behind the wheel and cranked the engine. She gunned the motor and turned on the radio, nodding to the empty passenger seat for me to get in. I opened the door and slid in beside her.
  �Are you sure mom�s not gonna get mad at me?�
  She winked at me. �No way, man. Anyway, it's about time you help take some of the heat off me.�
  She threw the Ford into drive and headed out of town to River Pines where Steven lived.

*

  Steven was two years ahead of me in school, but his family went to our church, too. His dad, a burly ex-Marine with sideburns and a thick knot of muscles in his arms, played guitar in church. Steven�s mother was on the praise-and-worship team with my mom. Steven played guitar with them for a while until he got too sick. No one said so, but I could tell things were going poorly for him.
  The family started missing church and Mrs. Fox, and Steven�s two little brothers came alone without their father. The woman looked worn out. It was like something heavy was pressing against her chest, making her short of breath. At prayer request, she asked the church members to remember Steven. She said Steven needed a miracle.
  One time Steven�s dad came alone. He played guitar like a wild man during church service. Then at altar call he went down to the front where he slumped over the old pine board altar and trembled with his face buried in his clenched fists. The elders and deacons gathered around him to lay hands on him for prayer and he howled out. I had never heard anything like that before.
  None of the Foxes had been to church this month. The only thing we had heard about Steven was a request from our pastor. He asked the congregation to continue praying for the family.
  �He�s real sick,� my sister said lowly.
  She turned down the radio as we merged into slow-moving traffic on Main Street.
  I looked out the window.
  The storefronts lining the road were festooned with Halloween decorations. Tonight everyone else would be trick-or-treating. Not me. Mom was dead-set against it. She said hippies were putting razor blades and acid in apples and oranges. Anyway, her church was against kids going out. There would be a party in the church basement if I wanted to go to that later.
  Cissy didn�t say anything more as we drove past the last stoplight in town when it was about to turn red. Beyond the town limits, all we saw were feedlots, farm equipment stores, and bare fields. River Pines was only about fifteen minutes away now. Cissy tapped a cigarette out of a pack on the dashboard. She told me to press in the cigarette lighter below the radio. When the coil was red hot it popped out. I handed it to her. She lit her cigarette.
  �If you say anything about his hair, I�ll knock you in the head.�
  �What are you talking about?�
  �They did things to Steven to see if he can get better. But it made his hair fall out.�
  �I know they told us at church. It was chemo or something.�
  �I�m just saying - no smart aleck comments - seriously.�
  On either side of the highway the broad, alluvial-rich cornfields had already been harvested. The stubble lining the furrows glistened in the afternoon sunlight. It was warm weather today, but birds were flying south.
  Cissy blew a cloud of smoke out of her mouth, and slowed at the turn off to the Fox home before she stubbed it in the ashtray. The family lived on brow of land near the river. Cissy parked the car in the gravel driveway at the foot of the hillock. We walked up a path of railroad ties that Steven's dad laid as steps to the front door.
  Cissy popped gum in her mouth to hide the cigarette smoke. Mrs. Fox was one of the ladies who prayed in the church over Cissy. And I knew my sister really liked her. She had even been my Cissys youth pastor before my sister went wild and Steven got sick.
  Cissy gently knocked on the storm door. Mrs. Fox cracked the door and peeked out. I could tell she didn�t want any guests, but when she saw it was my sister, her eyes widened and her mouth became a perfect O. She pushed the door open.
  �Oh my Lord, Girl. Come on in,� she said, throwing an arm around my sister.
  Then she laughed and slapped her hands when she saw me. She seemed genuinely pleased.
  �Ha! Now who is this strapping young man who has come with you?�
  Sister Fox stepped back and measured me with mock surprise. �It can�t be more than a month that I last saw you, and look how you�ve grown.�
  She turned back to my sister, �And you! Look how beautiful you are.�
  My sister blushed as Mrs. Fox lead us into the living room. She eyed us one more time with her hand covering her mouth. She smiled again and tugged at my sister�s blouse.
  �Now you two follow me.�
  She guided us to the kitchen. It was brighter there and I could see that the woman�s eyes were tired. The radio on the kitchen counter played soft music. It surprised me because it was classical, maybe Mozart. An open Bible lay on the kitchen table. The chair was at such an angle I could tell she must have been sitting there when we knocked. She pointed to two other places at the table.
  �Please sit - but what do I owe this surprise to - since I don�t see your mom?�
  My sister sat down. �I was hoping you could call her and let her know I�m here with my little brother. I thought Derek could see Steven today - that is, if he�s not too tired or anything.�
  My sister suddenly seemed shy and quiet in the kitchen - not the loudmouth who liked to get mom riled. I had not seen her so polite in a long time. Mrs. Fox smiled and patted Cissy�s knees.
  �He�s been having a good day. I�m sure he�ll be happy y�all came by.�
  Mrs. Fox stood up, pressing the wrinkles out of her dress with the palms of her hands.
  �How about I make us a cup of tea after I take your brother down to Steven�s room? Then I can call your mom.�
  My sister nodded with a faint smile.
  I told Mrs. Fox I could go on my own. I had been over there plenty of times before. I left them in the kitchen.
  Steven was a strange kid. He knew the Bible better than any of us. But it wasn�t like he was prudish or even holier-than-thou. He liked to play pop songs when his dad wasn�t around, and he was the first in our group to kiss a girl.
  But we used to give him a hard time because he played church music. We called him Little Preacher - and we didn�t always mean it in the best of ways. He really took Sunday school seriously, but he could be funny, too. He had us in stitches when he told knock-knock jokes, talking like John Wayne.
  As I walked to Steven�s room, I heard Mrs Fox talking with Cissy about the district's annual Bible quiz. I was surprised that Cissy sounded interested. When I tapped the door to his room, Steven didn�t answer. I waited for a second or two and then rapped it again. No response came, so I eased it open.
  The room was dark and Steven lay fully-clothed on his bed with his back to door. I whispered his name, but he didn't stir. His breathing was short and raspy - and I could see that breathing did not come easy. His shoulders heaved with each breath, like he was having a bad dream.
  I looked over to his bed. Even in the darkness, I saw Steven�s hair was gone. If he had been having a good day earlier, it had passed. He didn't take notice of my presence in the room or the light from the hallway at my back.
  There was a book with an illustration of Babe Ruth on the dust cover lying next to him. I picked it up and ran my fingers across the words on the page, then placed it down again gently.
  I took soft steps away from his bed, and then I stopped. I stood in the center of the room looking at the sum of his life so far. The baseball pennants pinned on the wall, little league trophies, the shelves crammed with books and model airplanes and the electric guitar he played at church resting on a stand in the corner.
  When I turned to leave again, the floor creaked beneath my feet. Steven seemed to moan slightly, but then his breathing returned to its quick and troubled clip. I eased the door shut behind me.
  I could hear the muffled conversation of my sister with Mrs. Fox in the kitchen. The door to their backyard was at the end of the hall. Beyond that there was a clearing in the woods near the river. I left the house and followed the trail to the clearing, running as fast as I could.
  Steven�s dad had cut down the undergrowth when he and his brothers were younger. He built a treehouse on stilts for his sons and a fire pit in the middle of the clearing. The family sometimes invited kids over from church to roast marshmallows and hot dogs on Saturday nights. The fire pit was edged with smoke blackened field stones and fallen logs to sit on.
  Out of breath, I sat down and grabbed a twig. The stick was charred at one end. I started scribbling in the dust. This was why sister brought me here. She knew Steven was dying - and that troubled me. Seeing Steven that sick made me think about my dad again. Neither my mom nor sister would talk about him or his dying. It was like he just simply disappeared from our lives I knew my sister was still mad at my mom because she would never take me to the hospital to see my dad. I heard my mom tell someone once that she thought it would be too tough on me - seeing my dad lying there crippled by lung cancer in a hospital bed. I wish she would have.
  The wind picked up, and I could hear Steven�s little brothers, Emmet and Lee, playing in the tree house back in the woods. They were closer to my age, and I could tell they were at a game of cowboys and Indians. Their fort was under attack, and they screamed out that they needed reinforcements. Then the brothers hollered at their make believe marauders.
  I was afraid they were going to call me over to play if they saw me, so I stood up and walked further down the path to a little pier on the river. I sat on the edge of it. My feet dangled but did not touch the water. A barge with a full load of coal came around the bend. It saw me and sounded its horn. I waved back.
  The last time I was here with Steven, we had gone fishing. It was before he got sick, and there were dragonflies zipping across the face of the water that day - their iridescent wings flashing in the sunlight.
  Today there was only the lapping of the waves against the pier�s pilings. I tried to think about what we talked about that day - but I could not. It scared me because the same thing was happening with my dad. I could not remember what his voice sounded like any more. I looked south to where the barge and its commerce left twin white furrows in its wake.
  The brothers were still running around the woods playing. They didn�t act like it was anything different for Steven to be up in the bed sick. Maybe they were so used to seeing him that way that it didn�t bother them anymore. I wanted to yell at them to shut up, but I didn�t. I just sat there and cried. I just didn�t know who I was crying for.
  When I walked back into the kitchen, my sister was standing behind Mrs. Fox at the kitchen table. She had a white bed sheet tied around her neck. It covered her chest and lap. My sister had some hairpins clinched in her teeth as she put a pink plastic curler in the woman�s hair. The music on the radio was playing a little louder, and Mrs. Fox was even laughing a bit. The oven light was on, and the contents in the pots and pans on the stove bubbled and steamed softly. Mrs. Fox smiled at me.
  �You back?�
  �Yes, Ma�am. Steven was asleep, so I didn�t want to bother him.�
  She looked saddened by that. �It�s okay, son. He just gets tired so easily.�
  I didn�t want her to feel bad, so I said: �I�ll come back another day so we can hang out.�
  �Good, because this darling sister of yours not only washed and did my hair without my even asking, she�s helped me make dinner for those hungry boys of mine. She keeps this up and I�m going to feel spoiled.�
  My sister put the last curler in Mrs. Fox�s hair and took the hairpins out of her mouth and laid them on the table. She undid the sheet and folded it and placed it next to them. She looked at the clock on the wall.
  �I guess I need to get my brother back home, but I�ll help you clean up.�
  �No, please,� she said. �I expect your mother has supper cooking for you and your brother, too.�
  Cissy seemed saddened at that. She nodded, and then said: �Thank you for calling her.�
  Mrs. Fox drew me in and hugged me.
  �I�m sorry about Steven, but please come back. He needs to feel like he is still a boy. He needs that.�
  Cissy tapped my shoulder and we went to the front door. Mrs. Fox squeezed Cissy�s hand and kissed her cheek.
  �You are so precious little one. Never forget that.�
  We got into the car and turned on the road to the highway. Cissy tried to light a cigarette with her shaky hands, and we almost went into the ditch before she slammed on the brakes. She threw the car into park and flung her arms around my neck.
  My sister pulled me close to her and started crying without saying anything. It was the first time she had hugged me since our dad died. Her tears ran thick on my cheek and neck as she squeezed me and trembled. But what I remember most was the smell of her hair on my face. It was like sunlight.






Tom Darin Liskey

TOM DARIN LISKEY was born in Missouri but spent nearly a decade working as a journalist in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in the Crime Factory, The Burnside Writers Collective, Sassafras Literary Magazine, Hirschworth and Biostories, among others. His photographs have been published in Roadside Fiction, Iron Gall Press, Blue Hour Magazine and Midwestern Gothic. He lives in Texas.





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