One night last year, my brother Brian and I were taking garbage to the end of the driveway. The driveway is superlong and we can’t see the street from the house, so we’d always go together, no matter whose chore it was. We have one of the giant plastic cans with the wheels that rumbles like thunder. It was late, but we’d put the garbage out at night before.
Brian pushed the can into place, next to the mailbox, and a deadshift ran at us from under the trees. We get a lot of them out our way. It jumped him from behind. It was a little one. Not a kid, but not tall either. The little ones are faster sometimes.
Yelling brings more of them – sometimes Dad sits on the back deck at night with a shotgun, yelling on purpose. But Brian and I didn’t have the shotgun, so we didn’t yell.
I shone my flashlight at the deadshift’s face, but I didn’t look in its eyes. Deadshift eyes don’t change like zombies do in the movies. But if you look into them, you see what death is like. I looked once, then for a long while after I dreamt about my mom with deadshift eyes. In the dream she would run at me like she was going to pick me up and hug me. I got maybe three hours of sleep a night when I had those dreams, and I almost had to go to summer school.
The deadshift let go of Brian when I shone the flashlight at it, so I pushed the garbage can backwards. Right when I did it, I thought: What’s that going to do? They’re not scared of garbage. But it was enough. The deadshift fell back. Then it leaned forward again. It took a swipe at me over the top of the can, and its fingernail scratched my cheek. Like an idiot, I put my hand up to my face. The little fucker skittered back into the woods like a pissed-off raccoon.
“That was close,” Brian was still on his back. He turned around to get up on his knees, and his hair fell forward away from his neck. I still had the flashlight on, and that’s when I saw.
“Dude,” I said.
“What?” He looked past me, into the trees. “Is it back?”
Brian was one year ahead of me in school. He would have been two, except he got left back in ninth grade. Dad said he was adjusting to more work. The truth was, he was adjusting to pot and hash. He didn’t smoke it, he ate it. He was a sweaty fat kid who hung out with stoners but always liked eating more than he ever liked smoking.
“Don’t eat the brownie on my desk,” Brian would say, right when I walked in his room.
He and Dad got along aces. You wouldn’t think so because Dad’s not someone who would usually be okay with sweaty fat kids or stoners. But Brian would go find Dad in the basement or on the deck, and he’d just sit there and listen to Dad talk about how he felt sorry for us kids because by the time we were his age there’d be no such thing as land ownership anymore, and our families would be slaves on a government manor.
By the time I started high school, Dad was grabbing beers out of the garage for both of them, even on school nights. “Tammy, you could do worse than to end up like your brother.”
The kids on the bus called Brian and me hillbillies when they thought we couldn’t hear. Sometimes when they knew we could.
When we got back up to the garage and into the light, Brian saw the scratch on my face.
“I think we better tell Dad that you fell down. If he thinks you got scratched, he’s gonna want to…he’ll lose his shit.”
“Is it bleeding?” I went to touch my face again and Brian grabbed my wrist before I could. I’d never seen him move that fast. Not for a brownie or a friend honking a car horn in the driveway or for anything.
“It’s red,” he said. “Hard to tell for sure.”
We went inside the house and past the sliding doors on the deck.
“You kids gotta do the garbage earlier,” Dad called to us from outside. We couldn’t see him on the deck. He’d keep the lights off a lot of the time. But we heard the click of a beer can opening. “There’s all kinds a shit out here tonight.”
Brian and I have different moms. Brian’s mom met Dad at a rally and it took him a year to figure out that along with being cool with guns, she was also cool with abortion and pot being legal and gay people getting married, and none of that was cool with him. Brian lived with his mom until he was three. She died of breast cancer, and Brian got sent back to Dad.
After Dad and Brian’s mom got divorced, Dad went to church for a little while. That was where he met my mom. She was fifteen years older than him, and her friends told her to go to church to meet guys. But all she did there was help clean once a month, and the only guy she met was Dad, when he stopped on the way home from work to light a candle after Tammy Wynette died. He asked her back to his house, and he cooked them steak on the grill that we still have.
My mom got breast cancer too. I don’t remember her. Dad says I’m not much like her. He also says she was a saint.
When Brian went into the bathroom with me to clean my face up, that’s when I realized he was really worried. Brian and I hadn’t been in a bathroom together for years, not even to brush our teeth. When I was little, Dad used to make Brian take me to the ladies’ room because he didn’t want me seeing guys peeing, and he didn’t want ladies getting mad at him for going into their bathroom. Dad figured they’d be less mad at a little boy, and he was mostly right. But Brian was real embarrassed. He’d stand by the door and push me further in, toward the stalls. “It’s not fair,” I’d hear him say over and over again while I was trying to pee.
I wiped off the scratch – that’s really all it was – with a washcloth. Brian went into the medicine cabinet and found the first aid cream. He smelled it. “I don’t know what this does, exactly, but it can’t hurt. Maybe it flushes the crap out? Don’t put a bandaid on it, because then it’ll look bigger’n it is.”
After we got me cleaned up, Brian went out to the deck with Dad. The bathroom window was open and I could hear the snap of another beer can opening. I could hear both of their voices. But the wind was blowing through the trees, so I couldn’t hear what they were saying.
I stood on the bathmat, and looked at myself in the mirror.
We’d had a unit about what to do in health class, when a deadshift bites you. People in different places learn different rhymes. Ours was stupid. It was meant for little kids. But I watched myself say it in the mirror anyway, while I listened to my father and my deadshift-scratched brother get drunk.
Scratch or bite, make sure it’s right.
Back when I was in seventh grade and Brian was in ninth, I was a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier than he was, even though he was fat and I was only sort of fat. The doctor said that Brian would catch up growing, I would slow down, and it would all right itself eventually.
After school, Brian was supposed to stay home and babysit me and do homework. But his friend Gary had beer and weed and hash, and Gary wouldn’t come over to our house. So Brian went over there and came back high every day. He ate it, so there was nothing for Dad to smell. If Brian’s eyes were red at dinnertime, he said it was allergies, and Dad bought it.
The kids at school all knew, though. They’d come up to me in the hall and say, “Can you get your brother to cook us some meth? Is your dad in a militia?” At first I was angry, but then I figured out that if I laughed about it too, I’d be on the better side of the jokes. Then I figured out that if I bought my own clothes instead of wearing my dad’s plaid shirts to school, I’d be even further on the better side.
One afternoon Brian came home earlier than usual because Gary’s mom had thrown them all out of their house. He plopped down on the couch next to me and took three beers out of his hoodie pocket. “Whatdya say, Tams? Wanna go kill these?”
I looked up from the fashion magazine I’d bought at C-Town on the way home. “If Dad finds the cans, he’ll kill you. They’re not any of his brands.”
“We can take them to the shed and I’ll get rid of them later. C’mon.”
The shed’s out back. It’s pretty beat up-looking, but it’s solid. Dad kept stuff in it that he couldn’t bring himself to get rid of, like a busted lawn mower and a big wheelbarrow. There was a sleeping bag and some soup and a couple of gallons of gas, in case the economy went to shit and we needed to leave. Brian and I both knew the combination on the lock. I unlocked it while he bounced up and down on his heels, with the bottles clinking in his hoodie pocket.
There’s no window on the shed, just a tap light inside. I tapped it while Brian took out the bottles and set them on the floor of the shed.
"Go ahead and take one,” he said. “I’m pretty wrecked already.”
Dad had given me a beer a couple of times for laughs, so it was no big deal. I twisted off the top, held the neck of the bottle like I’d seen bad kids do on TV, and took a sip. “Nice.”
“You look nice drinking it,” Brian said.
I turned my hip, and slouched a little. “Thanks.”
He picked up one of the other bottles and opened it. “We should chug. Want to?”
I knew he’d win. I wanted him to win. I wanted to know what it was like to think about Brian like Dad did. So we finished our beers and I barely tried and Brian won. He let out a huge belch and I laughed, and I think maybe that was the only time I let someone beat me at something and I felt good about it.
“I win!” Brian said, wiping off his forehead. “What’s my prize?”
“There’s a sleeping bag back there,” he said. “With Dad’s survival stuff. We should, you know, try it out.”
I laughed again.
“It’s only fair,” he said. “Don’t tell me you’re chicken.”
“I’m not chicken.” I set my empty on the floor of the shed, and stood up again. The floor felt a little uneven. “But I’m also not a hillbilly.”
“I don’t care about any of that.” He put his hand on my arm. For one second, just one, I was scared.
Then we both realized I was looking down at him.
“Fucking hillbilly.” I shoved past him, out of the shed.
The morning after the garbage can and the deadshift, I ate a piece of toast and watched Brian when he wasn’t looking. He was still moving a little fast. He was pale naturally. It was hard to tell if he was breathing shallow. Don’t fat kids always wheeze?
He caught me looking at him and he was like, what?
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m just tired.”
Dad patted him on the shoulder. “C’mon, son, you’ll miss the bus.”
When Gary got sent to military school last year, all of his customers went to Brian. At school there were always kids who I didn’t know asking me where my brother was. Usually kids owed him money, or he owed them money, or they thought he’d ripped them off. They came to me, even though he had a phone he got at Walmart.
A girl cornered me at lunch, before I could pick up a tray even.
“I have no idea where the hell he is,” I told her. “Did you call him?”
“He went home sick in biology,” she said. “Can you give him this?” She put a rolled up $20 in my shirt pocket. As if that was going to be something Brian would care about at all if he was sick like I thought he maybe was.
I snuck out the side door of school that’s always unlocked and I ran most of the way home. I don’t do a lot of running, and I threw up in the bushes when I got there.
Brian wasn’t in his room or playing Xbox. I thought maybe he was already shifted and running around in the woods, with the other deadshifts. Then I heard the beams of the back deck creaking. I went to look and there he was, wearing his old Pokémon bedspread over his shoulders and pacing, sweating, pale. When I slid the porch door open, he looked at me. But for a second, I could tell he couldn’t see me.
“The back of my neck is like fucking hamburger,” he said. “Why didn’t I feel it?”
I sat with him for the rest of the afternoon. It was sunny but the back deck is under trees, so it was shady there. He got tired of pacing and sat on the patio steps, and he moaned just underneath his ribcage. “We got to do something before Dad comes home, Tams.”
“How about the shed,” I said slowly. “You can stay there and then we’ll have time to figure shit out. I’ll tell Dad that Gary’s back in town and you went to see him.”
So that’s what we did. I put Brian in the shed with a bag of food from the kitchen. By then his shoulders were starting to swell in a way that I knew wasn’t good. We didn’t touch the tap light.
“This sucks,” Brian said in the dark.
“It’ll be okay. We’re badass hillbillies.”
“Anytime,” I said, and I pulled the door shut behind me.
Dad came home, I told him about Gary, and we both believed my story. “Gary and Brian were nothing but trouble together, god bless them,” he said.
For dinner I made us burgers on the grill.
“I didn’t know you know how to use the grill,” Dad said after I took the plates away. “Brian teach you that?”
I told him yes, even though I’d taught myself. It wasn’t that hard.
“Good thing for you to know – never know when that might come in handy. And if Brian’s made better burgers, I’ve never had one.” He patted me on the shoulder and went to get his gun for the deck.
During the day I went to school. Kids pressed urgent messages and cash into my hands because Brian wasn’t answering his phone. They didn’t make fun of us. They needed him too much.
During the evening I cooked for Dad and me. I made chicken fillets, homemade potato salad, corn on the cob, strawberry rhubarb pie.
“Your brother needs to come home soon,” Dad would say. “There’s no way Gary’s mom cooks this good.”
During the night I left the window open and sometimes I thought I could hear a howl. But it came from along the tops of the trees, instead of rising up from the corner of the yard. Maybe it was a coyote.
All that time, I thought about unlocking the shed. I’d unlock it and take Brian to the hospital, where they wouldn’t be able to do anything. Then I thought about setting him free to roam when no one was looking, like lots of people did when their kin got bit and shifted. But I couldn’t bring myself to do that either. Either way, I’d have to see Brian’s deadshift eyes. Even though he had to be dead for real by then, because he’d never fed on anything. That would be the way I would always see Brian, every time I tried to go back to sleep, and every time I couldn’t.
It was easiest to not unlock the shed. It was easiest to say I didn’t know where my brother Brian was, and it was easiest to make salad and steak and apple crumble for dessert.
Eventually, school called. Dad stopped by Gary’s house on the way home from work and found out that Gary wasn’t home, Brian wasn’t there, had never been.
There’s still enough biting and scratching, especially out in the woods, so there’s still enough disappearing. It is and isn’t a surprise when people stop answering calls and don’t come home.
“Brian would tell us if he got bit,” Dad said. “Maybe one of the militias conscripted him and he can’t get word out yet.”
“I could see him not telling us.”
“He would tell us, Tammy.”
A week later, I found a place under a tree in the woods, far back enough from our yard that I couldn’t see the house. I started to dig a hole. I was afraid Dad would want something from the shed – he was doing more around the house to keep himself busy, and eventually that would have to mean getting the wheelbarrow or the gas cans. If he saw Brian deadshifted and dead in the shed, he’d know who locked him there, and who’d said nothing for weeks.
I made the hole deep because I didn’t want a coyote bringing an arm or a leg to the deck. It took almost a week of time after school. I took off my digging clothes outside and hid them and the shovel in the garage every day. I started dinner and took a shower while it was in the oven. Meatloaf with tomato sauce, hot and sweet sausages, lasagna.
“I’m going to need a new belt,” Dad would say.
The day the hole was ready, the clouds were fat and heavy with rain that wanted to happen. The school year was almost over but already I could smell August, that heat that comes and doesn’t change for anybody. I knew the big wheelbarrow and the sleeping bag were in the shed, and I figured I could use them to move Brian out to the woods. Roll him with my feet onto the unzipped sleeping bag, throw the other half of the bag over him, lift it into the wheelbarrow, push. Like anything else that we found dead on the property, but with the sleeping bag instead of tarp, because Brian wasn’t a raccoon or a dog or a deadshift, except that he was a deadshift.
I unlocked the lock on the shed, and I took the chain off. The door wouldn’t budge for a second, and I realized it was because something was up against it. I gave the door an extra kick and that worked. I stepped inside the shed. I took a breath, and I tapped the taplight.
Brian was on his side on the floor. His back was that weird ashy gray deadshifts all go. He’d ripped himself up a little along his sides, and on his neck. I could still recognize his black t-shirt and cargo pants and shoes and his hair, all matted and rumpled like it was a Sunday morning and he was going to fry up some bacon and eggs for us if Tams would just get the coffee started, Jesus did he have to do everything around here?
His back was moving up and down, slowly.
“Brian,” I said. I thought he wouldn’t know his name. He was too far gone. But his shoulders, which had totally collapsed after the swelling like they all do, even on the deadshifts that aren’t my brother, they twitched. He began to flip over onto strips of the sleeping bag that I saw was now shredded up all over the floor.
“Oh no,” I heard. “Oh no oh no oh no.” For a second, I thought it was him. It was me.
In the end, we walked to the hole together. Without the sleeping bag, and him being dead, he was too big, too brittle. Maybe I could have gone to the house for the rifle and a tarp, but I couldn’t leave him alone again, not even for the two minutes it would have taken to get them.
Brian had started to grow taller like the doctor had said he would. But he was still a little smaller than me. I could pull him up and hold his hip against mine, as long as he moved his legs.
I don’t know how I got us out of the shed and into the woods. He smelled terrible. He smelled like a hardware store and death, where we are all going to be someday no matter what we do. Outside, I could try to find the clouds and August and rain. I could think as we shuffled through the leaves, please don’t look at me Brian, please please just don’t look at me. I can’t, I just can’t.
I’ve never seen anything like him before or since, but I know he heard me.
We got to the edge of the hole I’d dug, and I felt his feet stop moving.
“You got to go in there,” I said. I was so tired and he was so heavy and I didn’t know what time it was and I’d left the shed wide open and Dad would be home any minute and he would have questions if I didn’t get back there soon.
Brian had looked at the ground the whole way out there, and he started to lift his head.
“No,” I said. “No eyes. You gotta go, Brian.”
The back of his neck wasn’t much like hamburger anymore. I could see where his neck bones were. That’s how he talked to me, with his neck bones.
If I wanted him to get into the hole, if I didn’t want to ever see his eyes, I was going to have to do something for him.
It was only fair.
“Okay,” I said. “Hurry up.”
I closed my eyes and I tried to smell the rain, and I didn’t have to wait very long at all.
I got sick on the last day of school. I got the school bus to let me out at the hospital. I told them that a deadshift scratched me in the back yard while I was weeding. I showed them the scratch and they bought the story. They locked me in the shift ward for four days. When I didn’t turn gray, when my shoulders never swelled, they sent me home. That was okay. I could sleep at night. That’s more than anything else in the world, anymore.
In my yearbook picture, I look nervous. I look like I want you to eat my food. I look like nothing’s fair. I look like a hillbilly. I look like I won.