My parents are in the backyard, digging their graves. I’m in the kitchen with Orange, my younger brother, and we’re watching through a grubby little window. My parents work without speaking. They are not fit people, but they do not stop for breaks. Sweat blooms under their armpits and around their bandanas.
The graves are being dug next to the outhouse, and are approaching six feet, by four feet, by three feet.
That’s how I know they aren’t for us.
Still, I decide it would be best to keep Orange from watching, so I suggest we play one of our favorite games: Prank Call! It’s where we dial random numbers and pretend to be debt collectors. Sometimes we pretend to be hookers, too. Or long lost children.
Orange hooks his sticky fingers around the phone receiver, forehead pleating into focus. His tongue lolls out of his mouth like a fat pink slug. He’s an ugly kid—but he doesn’t know that yet—which makes me love him even more.
“Broked.” Orange looks at me, confused.
I press the phone against my ear and listen for a dial tone.
“Broked,” I echo.
Through the window we hear the dirt-gnaw of shovels: the scrape and thump, scrape and thump.
I know I should be full of fearing, but instead I feel a sense of lightness—a birthday party feeling—like anything can happen and it’s my day to choose.
“Put your rain boots on,” I tell Orange, even though the sky is clear and it’s been the hottest August ever.
Orange doesn’t argue. Besides not realizing how ugly he is, he hasn’t yet discovered he’s allowed to say no, which is also something I like about him most of the time.
While Orange gets his rain boots, I hear a new sound: a hush-hush sound. I peer out the kitchen window and see two rectangular holes. Two shovels propped against the outhouse.
I do not see our parents.
Orange comes up beside me, opening his eyes as wide as he can.
“Look,” I say, and point toward two quails tottering across the yard. “They’ve turned into birds.”
I’m joking, of course, but Orange skitters through the kitchen and out the front door, hollering at the quails until they go goosing into the sky.
I run out after him. Now I’m scared, just like the quails, by all the noisiness after quiet. I grab Orange’s hand and keep running. The two of us careen across the yard, plunging into the forest that surrounds our house like a leafy coat—trees in every direction—except for a single narrow road, like a dirt zipper.
Orange and I crash and bump and skin our knees and we go from cold-sweat-scared to laugh-leaping and collapsing in a heap of giggles and blood in the mossy nook of an elm tree.
“Hey you got a light?” says Orange, which is something he must have heard on TV.
I pantomime taking a lighter out of my dress pocket and then we both smoke imaginary cigars. Even half falling asleep, Orange murmurs his funny little songs, and me: I imagine piles of downy coats, pockets full of cough drops and unused handkerchiefs.
When we wake, the sun has sunk low enough to stab sideways through trees. It’s the time of day our parents usually come trundling up the dirt road in their truck and we all sit down in front of the TV and Mom massages Dad’s feet and I massage my own feet, and sometimes Orange’s feet, until Dad calls me a little perv.
Orange and I both wake up stiff, so we start walking through the woods in no particular direction. I can tell Orange is hungry because I’m hungry too. Neither of us says anything, though, because we’re too busy seeing our parents everywhere. We see a pair of squirrels chattering at us from a tree branch. Then two stumps, mossy and indignant. Two beams of light.
Orange shivers because he’s just wearing rain boots and a diaper. He’s potty trained, but he prefers the feel, he says—it’s like a butt pillow—and Mom said it was fine because it meant less laundry.
I pull off my dress and give it to him. The dress drags around his ankles, but he’s careful not to trip. Now I’m in my undies and sandals. It makes me feel strong, being mostly naked. I don’t feel cold. I give Orange another imaginary cigar.
The last dribbles of daylight leak from the forest, and Orange and I begin bumping into things. The bumping is almost fun, though, and I start to get the birthday party feeling again. I start believing things could go on like this: like it might always be my day to choose.
Except then we catch sight of a lamp-lit window.
Orange and I slide up to the house like ghosts, or arsonists. Or like two children who’ve always longed to discover another house out in the woods, but who are also nervous now that they’ve found it. Orange nearly trips on the hem of my dress and makes a squeaking sound. We both freeze but nothing happens. An open window, square as a TV frame, pours out light. We slip our heads up over the windowsill, chins on the ledge, because at night it’s always easier to in-look than out-look.
After a few minutes, I slide my chin off the windowsill. I’ve realized that I’ve seen this show before—I know what will happen—and it makes me feel proud and sad at the same time: my knowing.
Orange keeps watching, his grin lit by the window-glow.
I start massaging his feet. I do this until we both feel a gentle kind of happy.
For now, no one tells me to stop.