Michael Hyde

His mother and father having gone to town, Justin Shape was wild and savage and ran foaming at the mouth after his sister, Geraldine, in the pink corduroy jumper. "I'm mad," he growled, clambering after her on all fours. Whenever she stopped to cry, he spit and slobbered and sent her screaming in search of safety. She ducked behind the pair of plastic flamingoes and the pale birdbath in the front yard, twice she ran for the front door of the trailer, but he was five years older and faster and always there to cut her off. "Stop! Stop!" she cried and covered her eyes like it would all go away if she didn't have to see it. Justin stopped beside her, his face inches from her bare legs, and let a trail of spit slide from his big lower lip and onto her skin. "Now you've got it," he said. "Now you're mad." Geraldine fell down onto the ground, turned her face into the grass and cried, until she grew very quiet, as if she were dead.

It all started a week before when Splinter, the collie-dog, came out of Uncle William Shape's field, dragging across the highway and into the yard. The old dog's coat was caked with mud and the hairs on its head stood hard like the bristles of a hairbrush, not soft and obedient as they'd always been. Justin's mother was the first to see him. She was hanging laundry at the side of the trailer. The other two dogs, Sandy and Pepper -- mutt bitches but good rabbit-hounds -- went up to Splinter, wagging their tails, so happy to see him. He'd been gone for three days, chasing after the ghost-scent of a possum or a spike buck that had him mystified and led him all over the more untouched parts of the Shape Family property. That first night he was gone, the entire family listened to him for hours. He'd bark for five minutes, then let loose a howl that turned the whole valley upside down. "I don't think he can find his way back," Harold Shape, the father said. He yelled a half-hour straight for that dog, his low voice filling up the empty valley with echoes and replies, until he grew hoarse and couldn't yell any more.

Loretta had known something was wrong then when to Sandy and Pepper's cheerful welcomes Splinter replied with a snarl and a stretch of drool weighing from his jowl. She yelled for help and held the laundry basket in front of her like a shield until her husband came onto the porch. He was expecting she'd seen a mouse or maybe a garter snake had slithered into the yard, but when he saw the collie's eyes rolled back and the way it was hanging its head so low to the ground, he hurried into the trailer to grab his shotgun and a handful of shells. Justin and Geraldine came into the yard and stood there, no matter how many times their mother screamed for them to get inside. They were happy to see their father's dog had come home and were calling him with outreached hands. That was when they heard the loud crack and saw Splinter drop to the grass. He was still kicking a little as they ran toward him, but they stopped when their father yelled at them to stay the hell away. He shot the collie again, just to make sure, then chained Pepper and Sandy to their cramped dog-boxes at the back of the trailer.

At lunch, Justin listened to all his father's talk and knew enough not to try kicking Geraldine under the table. "It's real bad this season," Harold Shape said. "I feel terrible for Splinter having to spend his final days like that. All heat up and crazy, his brain turning to pudding right inside his head. It was a bad end to a good dog." He took his tobacco pouch out of his pocket and pressed a thumbful into the corn-cob pipe Uncle William had made for him a long time ago. This was the one he always used when sweating with the cement company or doing the work on Uncle William and Aunt Darla's farm. His dark wooden one, on the other hand, was used less often: only for company and following the early morning grunts Justin sometimes heard on the other side of his parents' door. "He didn't know his head from a hole in the ground and he ended up like that. Poor, stupid cuss." Then Harold Shape got quiet, just smoking at the corn-cob pipe held to the side of his mouth.

"I want you kids to watch it," he said finally. "If you see something acting crazy, you run in the other direction."

"How do I know if it's acting crazy?" Justin asked. He took an unfinished piece of cornbread from Geraldine's plate and palmed it into his mouth, eating it like it would run away if he didn't eat it fast.

"You'll know crazy when you see it. Watch yourself eating and you'll know crazy."

There were phone calls all throughout the day; people calling about the rabid dog, people calling just to keep everybody on edge with the phone ring, ring, ringing every five minutes. Loretta Shape handled the calls while Harold buried the collie in the yard. Justin and Geraldine watched their father drop Splinter -- shrouded in a black garbage bag -- into the hole; they felt each shovelful of dirt that fell against the plastic and were quiet until their father finished.

For days all they talked about was madness: dogs going mad, raccoons and cats, even mad squirrels. With all the possible rabid animals running around, Justin and Geraldine were confined to the front yard. "You don't need to be going over to your aunt and uncle's," Harold and Loretta told their children, because it was too far and getting there meant going by woods and fields and it just wasn't safe this time of year. "You've been spending too much time over there anyway," Harold added. Geraldine obeyed, because she didn't know any better, but Justin couldn't stand it. Everything was at Uncle William's and Aunt Darla's farm. Dawn and Hope, his two cousins -- even if they were girls -- were the only other kids for miles. Plus, there was Uncle William who was magic and strange and acted more like a child than an adult ever should. Seeing him always made Justin wonder how his uncle could be part of the same, real world.

The Saturday morning Harold and Loretta Shape had gone to town was Justin's first chance to escape. He knew his parents would be gone for at least half the day visiting Grandma Shape in the home. His mother had wanted him and Geraldine to come along, telling them their grandmother was very sick and ready to die, that it might be their last chance to see her. Geraldine nodded, as she did to everything everyone ever told her, but Justin wouldn't take it. He ran along the cramped hallway of the trailer yelling no, no, no. Then Geraldine joined in, too, and stomped behind him, as if leading a brass band. They didn't stop until their father came out of the bathroom, and when he did they stopped abruptly. "Justin's old enough to take care of Geraldine," he said, to Justin's surprise. "There's nothing for them at the home anyway." It was the only time Justin could think of that his father had taken stock in him. So, when the opportunity presented itself, he was reluctant to go against his father's word. He tried entertaining himself with Geraldine, and that's why he chased her around like the rabid collie come back to haunt her. But now, as she lay face down in the grass, her pink jumper slid up past her knees, he realized what a small child she was, how really boring.

He pulled his sister to her feet. Her eyes were splotchy from crying and matched the color of her jumper. She said she didn't want to go, but when he growled like a dog and told her she'd be eaten alive and go mad if she stayed by herself, she followed.

Instead of going down through the cornfield the collie had come from and then crossing the rill to get to Uncle William's farm as they usually did, Justin and Geraldine walked along the highway. He couldn't get her to go anywhere where "rabbit animals" might be hiding; actually, he didn't want to go there either. They followed the highway to the mouth of the farm's gravel lane and turned onto it.

On one side of the lane, a grove of trees shot up along the stream. To the other side the cornfield spread around the rest of Uncle William Shape's farm like an open hand. They could see the orange of the farmhouse's tin-roofing above the flagging corn-tassels and were looking at the house and the two girls playing in the yard when a vole scurried across the lane in front of them. This made Geraldine scream and Justin grab onto his sister's sleeve. They ran the rest of the way.

"What are you doing here?" Dawn said. She was Justin's age and unwound the jump-rope she'd used to bind Hope to the large apple tree in the front yard. There were apples all over the ground, Justin noticed, most of them green except for the brown undersides that were warm with decay.

"We came to play," Geraldine said.

"Mom said you weren't allowed to come any more until it rained and all the rabbit animals were better," answered Hope. She was closer to Geraldine's age and had buck-teeth and talked with a sucking sound like she had a piece of fruit in her mouth.

"We were allowed today," Justin lied.

Dawn said that since it was her house, they had to play what she and Hope wanted. First they were going to play make-up. Justin said "No," and Dawn told him to go home then, so he changed his mind and said "Okay, if we have to play that," though he didn't mind all that much. It was something to do.

Dawn went inside and came out again with a blue and purple kit that closed with a clip in the shape of a G. Hope started making-up Geraldine, and Justin told Dawn to make him up like a wolfman or something if she had to make him up at all. She said she had to and rolled out a tube of bright pink lipstick.

Justin watched his sister slowly transformed beside him. She looked more like a clown than anything with her rainbow-colored face. Hope held up a mirror and told Geraldine she looked beautiful. "Let me see myself," Justin said, but Dawn wouldn't let him.

"I'm not finished yet." She paused every few seconds and held her finger against her check, like a painter considering her next stroke.

"I don't want any of that lipstick on my lips," Justin said. It was then that he saw Uncle William step from between the rows of corn along the far side of the yard. Justin stood up and leaned against the apple tree, like he wasn't playing with the girls.

Uncle William came across the yard toward them. He was older than Justin's father, but much thinner and tow-headed. Justin's mother had told him that Uncle William was once an intellectual, which sounded so strange and foreign but seemed to fit. That was why he never did any of the farm work and spent his time in books and hobbies. That was why Justin's father had to do everything to keep the place in shape. But Uncle William always made Justin feel comfortable, and he had a weird sense of humor. When Justin talked to him, it was like talking to funny Arlo Truit or Mark Richmond at school. "He's a child in a man's body, a strange child," Aunt Darla always said and laughed behind her big breasts.

Uncle William walked into and out of the square shadow at the side of the farmhouse, slugging his shoulders, and Justin could see the one noticeable result of his uncle's strangeness hanging soft and dark at the end of his uncle's arm. It was a glove almost, but more, because it was the skin of a baby raccoon hollowed out like a puppet and slid over top Uncle William's right hand. It had small marble eyes, but you could tell it'd been alive. Often Uncle William could be found sitting in a chair or under a tree, stroking the raccoon-glove in his lap like it was a real live cat. Though Justin couldn't remember a time when his uncle was without it, he thought there must have been times he'd forgotten. Aunt Darla joked he even slept with the stupid thing on. Then she laughed and said she sort of liked it though when it touched her bare skin and it made her feel oh so oh so but she'd stopped saying anything else about it then and just smiled at whatever she was holding private inside her head. With Uncle William, though, the glove made sense. It was all part of his biggest hobby: taking things from nature and reinventing them, turning natural things inside out. Justin watched his uncle shifting slowly across the yard and this feeling came to him.

There were several stories about how Uncle William started wearing the raccoon-glove. One story Justin had heard, the one his father told, was that when Uncle William was a little boy, he reached up into a tree and damned if there wasn't a raccoon sitting there. Too bad for William, but he'd reached right up its ass and his hand was stuck forever. Justin's mother said he only told the story that way because he was jealous Grandma Shape had given William the farm and not him. "I work the farm, William owns it. It's always been that way," Harold Shape replied. "William's the reason Mom turned against me in the first place."

Hope and Dawn told the story about a secret fraternity their father had been in while at the state college. It was a sacred brotherhood, they said, and their father was one of a select few. It involved rituals that were unknown to most people. When Justin asked what kind of rituals, they said they didn't know, except that their father had to wear the raccoon-glove the rest of his life or his fraternity would find out and kill him.

The third version came from Grandma Shape before they moved her to the home. It was during the 4th of July picnic when she pulled Justin to the side of the storm cellar. "Your Uncle William was the sweetest boy," she began. She went on to tell about the hole in her heart and how it'd been put there one day, then doubled in size a few days later. She talked about William being sent home from college and Harold breaking William's hand, a big fight. Her voice had faltered a bit, her eyes fixed on a single blue point in the sky, before she rambled on about the extra-terrestrials that she was convinced lived in town and the chickens she'd had to decapitate and pluck as a young girl. "You know," she said, "I can still hear those bloody heads screaming in my dreams." When Justin asked his father about what all Grandma Shape had said, his father only had one thing to say: "She's a crazy old loon."

While the girls continued to apply make-up and Geraldine turned her skills on Hope, Uncle William came over to where they played beneath the apple tree. "I thought you kids had to stay at the trailer," he said. Justin looked at the raccoon-glove that hung limp at his uncle's side. As far as Justin knew, he was the only one who still marveled at it. No one else talked about it much -- he was warned time and again not to -- so he never did either, though it was often on his mind.

"I'm sorry to hear about Splinter," his uncle said. "He was a good dog."

"Yeah. He was dad's favorite."

"I see you've been playing make-up with my girls."

"Isn't he beautiful?" Dawn said, then laughed.

"I'm supposed to be a wolfman."

"A wolfman, huh? I'll believe it if you do." Uncle William smiled. "Why don't you come on inside and get something to drink, say 'Hi' to your Aunt Darla?"

Justin nodded and followed his uncle inside. Aunt Darla was squeezed between a wooden chair and the kitchen table, doing embroidery.

"Well, I didn't know you were here," she said. "Will you have something to drink?"


She got up from the table and opened a bottle of orange pop. "You like Crush don't you?"

Justin nodded.

"What's that you got all over your face? Have those girl's been making you up?"

"He looks pretty, doesn't he," said Uncle William. "He's a wolfman."

"A wolfman? So that's what kids are calling them now-a-days." Darla handed Justin the pop and sat down again at the table. "You know, William, if you can find the time, that cellar smells a little too musty for this time of year. I wouldn't ask you to do it, but I think some of those apples we brought in are starting to ferment in the pantry."

"That could be."

"I'd do it myself, but would you mind going down there and doing something about it?"

"If you want."

"Yes, I want, and you can take that wolfman with you. Keep him out of those girls' way." Aunt Darla winked at him, then returned to the careful stitches that were slowly forming a pair of butterflies.

Justin followed his uncle down the creaky steps to the basement. It was damp and smelled like apples as Aunt Darla had said. There was one window that let a little light into the wide-open space. The walls, which were only dirt, were cool and every now and then the tip of an earthworm would emerge from the black earth, twirling around a few times in the air, searching blindly for more soil, before it finally gave up and sucked itself back into the wall.

Uncle William started transferring some apples from the pile in the corner to orange-crates. He used only his left hand. The raccoon he held behind his back, so it was out of the way. "Do you want one?" Uncle William asked, then tossed Justin an apple.

"Need me to help?" Justin said.

"No, it's all right."

Justin bit into the apple. His teeth slipped so easily through the tender skin and into the soft insides that were completely ripe, almost over-ripe, so that juice dripped down his chin and onto his shirt.

While Uncle William shifted the apples' position, Justin looked around his uncle's workbench on the darker side of the room. Along the ceiling were a series of squirrel tails and feathers from ruffed grouse and pheasants and albino peahens. There were mounted antlers of a twelve-point buck, an eight-point, a spike. Raccoon-hides, much larger than the one Uncle William wore on his hand, were stretched tip to tail along skinning boards big enough for surfing. Then, nearby, on a small, almost forgotten cornershelf, several eyes yellowed in the insignificant light coming through the window. They were not alive, not belonging to anything breathing, and when Justin bent forward into the black corner with the yellow eyes he found several small raccoon pelts, like the one on Uncle William's hand. His uncle alternated them from week to week with the one he wore, so they wouldn't get so smelly, so they wouldn't rot away. Justin touched them and let the fur smooth between his fingers. He breathed in.

Justin knew his father and Uncle William were still hunting-buddies. It was always Harold Shape that made the kill, William Shape who dressed and preserved it. Justin had gone with them once, possum-hunting, maybe two years before. He'd been so proud to be wearing one of those miner's hats with the light on top. Uncle William lent him his. It was too big for his head, but Justin didn't mind and clicked the light on and off, watching it fan away the night. The dogs were barking all over, then running around in circles at the base of a tree. His father, with the gun, was angling it toward the treetop, toward two disembodied eyes that hovered in dark space like fireflies who'd gone too high. "Give me some more light up there," his father had said. Justin held his head back so the light caught the possum at the top of the tree, but then he was clicking it on and off, watching it reflect then lose the possum's eyes. Then he heard the small tinkling sound of tiny things breaking. His light had gone out, the bulb broken from the inside. "You shouldn't have been playing around," his father said and shot the possum that landed with a thud at Uncle William's feet. It looked like an oversized rat, dead, with its long pink tail coiled about its body, its white triangle teeth angry from its mouth. This was the first and last time his father invited him to go stumbling through the night.

"That should do the trick," Uncle William said. "Finding anything interesting over there?"

"Yep." Justin pretended like he hadn't been looking at the other raccoons and reached for a pair of crow's feet that were attached to a long dowel rod.

"That's a back scratcher I made," his uncle said and demonstrated.

Justin wrinkled up his face in disgust. But it was cool, too, in a way. The basement had always been a place where fear and attraction combined. Just about every time Justin visited, Uncle William would find something to show him, some new or old or ongoing project he was working on. Things like the tree-stump cookie jar and the corn-cob pipe that'd been a peace offering to Justin's father. And the less traditional things like the bird-beak necklace and the purse made from a sow's ear. Uncle William said plants bored him pretty much, so he focused on the parts of animals. Sometimes he asked Justin to help, sometimes he told Justin what to do and quietly watched him, sharing the anxious space of the dark basement.

"I can fix you up with one of these back-scratchers if you want," Uncle William said, shining an apple against his shirt.

"No, that's okay." Justin lowered his eyes and looked at the raccoon on Uncle William's hand. All the legs had been removed. Some black nylon thread had been used to sew the holes shut.

"Well, our work's finished here. Now I can go back to doing nothing. Just the way I like it."

His uncle's hand was moving around inside the raccoon skin; Justin saw it pushing out against the fur, like some secret life caught in the animal's belly and squirming to be free. He watched his uncle's thin white wrist shifting under the raccoon's tail, bending delicately one way and the other. He imagined what the hand must look like, until the imaginings became too horrible to imagine. Then, all of a sudden, his uncle tugged at the tip of the glove, grasped the raccoon at the neck and pulled. In one quick motion, the glove was off and staring back at them from atop the workbench. Justin almost gasped when he saw Uncle William's hand, though was glad he didn't because he would've had trouble explaining his reaction.

He'd expected his uncle's hand to be all black like the basement, to have some deformity or be riveted with warts and have an extra finger or two. But it looked perfectly normal.

His uncle started rubbing his hands together. "It cramped up," he said.

"I don't think I ever saw your hand out of that coon-mitt before."

"Of course, you must have."

"No, I'd remember," Justin said. "I thought maybe you didn't have a right hand at all."

"That's what a boy's imagination will do for you." Uncle William held his hands out in front of him. "Nope, they're both here. Pretty as peaches. Your dad says I have hands like a girl's because I never worked an honest day in my life. Your dad says a lot of things about me, I'm sure."

Justin looked back and forth between his uncle's white hands and the raccoon snarling atop the workbench. "So why do you do it?"


"Why do you wear that like you do?" Justin pointed at the raccoon.

"Oh . . ." Uncle William walked over by the stairs and picked up one of the apples he'd sorted. It made a soft kissing sound when his teeth bit in. "Well, I belong to the Raccoon-Indian tribe of the Susquehanna Valley --"

"No, really."

"Yes, really."

"Does it have to do with you being a little boy and sticking your hand up a raccoon's behind?"

"Who told you that one?"


"I could've guessed." Uncle William gathered up the five or six raccoon-skins from the corner shelf, carrying them to the workbench and dropping them into a soft pile.

"Does it have to do with a secret fraternity at your college?" Justin continued.

"Maybe. That's what I tell my girls." Uncle William fished around inside a large drawer and found two stiff-bristled brushes, one of them with its handle broken off.

"Come on. I'm good at keeping secrets."

"You start brushing these out and maybe I'll tell you." He handed Justin the brush-with-no-handle and one of the raccoon-skins. "Just take it nice and easy. Don't want to pull all the fur out."

Justin took the brush in the palm of his hand and started sweeping it across the raccoon's back. The coonskin moved and arched each time Justin brought the brush from its black-masked face across its back to the root of its ringtail. "So are you gonna tell?"

Uncle William looked at him and smiled. "You're what they call persistent. Do you what persistent means?"

Justin shook his head, holding the raccoon tighter against him as he brushed because it was so soft and warm, so new to his arms.

"It means something that just won't go away. Not that I want you to go away."

Justin nodded and heard the floorboards complaining above his head as someone, most likely Aunt Darla, shifted around the kitchen.

Uncle William looked toward the stairs leading upward that were dark and quiet, then looked Justin eye to eye. "Well, I'm not the greatest storyteller. I'm more of a storylistener, myself, but if I tell you, this has to stay just between us. Do you think you can do that?"

"I'm good at keeping secrets."

"Okay then." Uncle William stopped for a moment to gather the loose hairs he'd brushed from the raccoon's back and put them in a careful pile on the workbench. "You see how my one hand's a little smaller than the other?"

Justin looked at his uncle's white hands held in front of him. The one was noticeably smaller, now that he could see them side-by-side. "Yeah."

"You daddy did that. He squeezed the hell out of my right hand, he was so angry. Broke practically every bone. This happened right after I was sent home from college. And your grandmother, she was steaming after the dean called and told her what I'd gotten into."

Justin held the raccoon pelt against his chest and started thinking what it would be like to wear it himself for a while. Since Uncle William had so many, he thought it would be okay, but he was too afraid to ask.

"Well, I guess that's another story altogether. Related sort of, but not really. I told you I'm not the greatest storyteller. So anyway, your dad broke my hand, but he was still so angry, he said he was gonna teach me a lesson. Your dad was always good at teaching lessons for someone who only finished high school."

Uncle William paused, and nodded, at some invisible thought inside his head. "Yeah, that's how it went. So you see, I had this baby coon I'd trapped and was keeping as a pet. But your dad, he was still angry, so he put some rat poison in the coon's food dish. It killed it eventually, but that baby coon went down hissing and carrying on, spitting up green. It was a horrible sight. You wouldn't think your dad could be that mean would you?"

Justin shrugged his shoulders and thought about how his father had shot Splinter. But that'd been necessary.

"So then, I, of course, had to outdo your father. I carved out that little coon and turned it into a glove so every time he'd see me, he'd have to think about what he did. He said I could go to hell with it if I wanted, and I said I wanted. But that first one's long gone. I buried it when it started to rot. But let me tell you the funny thing. The funny thing is every time your daddy and I go coon-hunting, he's helping me out. And endless supply. It sounds crazy, but I get a kick out of it. I like getting under his skin."

As Uncle William talked, Justin continued to brush at the raccoon-glove in his arms and focused on Uncle William, the firm tops of his shoulders, his different sized hands, the line of muscle along his neck that begged and contracted every time he spoke. "But what did you do to make him so mad?" Justin asked.

"Nothing much," Uncle William said. He looked up, caught Justin staring. Justin turned quickly away and fixed on the small lighted window on the other side of the basement. There was silence, and though Justin was no longer looking directly, he could see from the corner of his eye that things were happening, blurry, half-formed movements were taking place nearby. "I just touched him." Uncle William said. He put his small hand on Justin's shoulder. "I just touched him like I'm touching you now."

Justin could feel the weight of Uncle William's hand, the new sense of warmth passing between them. He felt this warmth spreading through his chest, down past his stomach, through his legs. He stared at the raccoon in his hands, its mouth spread open, its teeth showing. "There's nothing so wrong with this, is there, Justin?"

"I guess not," Justin said. He didn't know if it was right or wrong; he only knew the warmth that was lighting its way through his body was new and exciting and uncomfortable and not meant to be there.

"Your daddy got mad over a little touching like this." Justin felt his uncle's thumb, moving slowly, across his skin, pushing under his shirt collar. "I knew you were on my side. I knew it."

Justin was swallowing hard, and he could see thin girl legs running past the basement window, scattering the sunlight. He wanted to be outside there with them. Aunt Darla was still shifting around upstairs, sliding a chair across the floor. She was so close to knowing. Justin wanted to tell her, get her attention and yell, but the cold emptiness of the cellar had found its way to his throat and was blocking his words.

He couldn't look at Uncle William whose hand was massaging his shoulder, he couldn't look at the raccoon-mitt he held close to himself for support. He was looking instead at the one window and then at all the animal faces and animal parts, staring down from the dirt wall.

His uncle's hand had started down his back when the cellar door flew open, and light from the kitchen flooded down into the darkened space. "How you fellas doing down there?" Aunt Darla yelled from the top of the stairs. But she couldn't see them from where she stood.

Justin felt the pressure on his shoulder lessen, and so he started away. He dropped the raccoon onto the floor. The heat of his uncle lingered with him though, stretched behind him like a comet's tail as he ran. But Justin couldn't stop. He went for the stairs and brushed past Aunt Darla in the kitchen.

"What's wrong with him?" she said. Justin heard his uncle answer, "He was afraid of my back-scratcher," and Aunt Darla laughed.

In the yard, the sun touched Justin's face, made his eyes flutter as he ran into the outside world. It was hard readjusting to the familiar shapes -- the trees, the tractor, the barn -- that came out as shadows because the sun was too bright. He blinked a few times, trying to give the girl silhouettes playing in the yard their proper faces. When everything came into focus, he unloosened Geraldine from the tree Hope and Dawn had tied her to, and pulled her along.

"I'm not going through the woods," she said.

"You can't take her like that," Dawn yelled.

Justin told Dawn he was gonna punch her if she didn't keep her fat mouth shut, that Geraldine was his sister and he was left in charge.

"You don't know how to treat girls," Dawn screamed after him. "You never will!"

Justin pulled his sister among the trees, across the stream, and then through the cornfield. Geraldine screamed all the way about what could happen to them, about all the animals she knew were just waiting under leaves and in other dark places. Justin wasn't listening; her voice was high-pitched and far away.

Harold and Loretta Shape had just pulled into the driveway when the children broke through the field. It was about the same place Loretta had seen the collie a week before, and this time, too, she covered her mouth. "What strange animals are these?" she said to her husband, who was also staring open-mouthed at their painted faces. Justin didn't even stop to look both ways but charged across the road with his sister behind him. When they'd climbed to the top of the hill and stood before their parents, both of them were gasping hard for breath.

"I told you two not to leave the yard," Harold Shape said. "And here you are wearing make-up." He hit Justin across the back of his head. "Wash all of that off before somebody sees."

Justin took each word of his father's scolding, then went inside.

"Don't I look pretty?" Geraldine asked.

"Of course, you do," the mother answered.

Inside the trailer, Justin finally got a good look at himself in the mirror. He saw the disgrace his father had seen. It was there in pink lipstick streaked across his cheeks and the half-moons of blue eye-shadow above his eyes. He scrubbed so hard with the brush and washcloth until the make-up was gone and his skin was pink. He dried his hands on the hand towel, but when he put it down again, he noticed a small streak of red. He thought he'd missed some of the rouge, maybe some of the lip-stick, and looked at his hands, along his arms. It was then that he saw just above his wrist, a small puncture, barely visible except for a bubble of blood. He remembered back to his haste in leaving the basement. He remembered -- now that he let himself think about it -- one of the raccoon's teeth catching him just as he dropped it. He remembered feeling something like a pinprick, but he hadn't stopped to acknowledge it, or even wonder, because all he'd thought about was getting out of that basement and running into the light.

He went to his room and lay down on his bed, curling so that his arm was close to his head where he could watch the small red puncture at the center of his forearm. The raccoon's tooth -- the bite -- had entered in the white area between two veins that were thick and blue with blood. Justin noticed the skin was raised just slightly around the wound, around the deep red center he knew was connected to his insides, his life. The heat was still there in his chest, though it had faded slightly in his legs and lower stomach, but now it spread into his face and head and hands. It was quite alive now in these different parts of his body, not altered in its intensity, but shifted in focus. Justin tried squeezing the wound together, hoping he could make the skin latch onto skin and heal itself. He was hoping the warm feelings would go away, but now they were so strong in his head, spinning and dazzling like a thousand miniature batons twirled by an equal number of miniature majorettes.

The sun was going down. Justin could hear his father's voice in another part of the trailer. It filled up the small place, the thin walls and visited each of the rooms. Justin remembered now Uncle William's hand on his shoulder. He remembered, too, his father's hand, pushing him toward home, meaning for him to wash-up. They'd not felt that different at all; both had conjured up this heat that lingered and fueled itself under the skin. Justin thought again of Uncle William's thick shoulders, the hand removed from the glove, the one tiny hand.

For hours he passed in and out of sleep. His mother tried to wake him for dinner, but he didn't budge. "Stubborn," his mother said.

Sleeping, Justin had dreams filled with the severed parts of animals in search of life, and then the animal lives were in search of their bodies. He woke up finally to find all the heat had rushed into his head, leaving this lumpy, liquid feeling just behind his eyes. The rest of his body was chilled -- though covered with sweat -- and he stumbled out of bed, into the hallway, in search of a glass of water.

Justin's father was sitting in the living room, his shirt off revealing the bristling barrel of his chest. The warm wooden pipe angled from his mouth, and the smell of the burning tobacco -- that any other time would've made Justin feel at one with his father -- was nauseating and unbearable. Justin's father looked surprised to see him; he made a half-attempt to shield his bare chest with the newspaper he was reading. Justin could hear his mother, humming, somewhere in the back of the trailer.

"Your mother and I thought you were gone for the night," his father said.

Justin stared at his father's chest, his father's lips that were forming the words in controlled, practiced movements. Justin felt a sudden need to touch him, to know that his father was real. It was the heat behind his eyes. He felt ready to cry, to confess to everything, to tell his father the truth, that he was going mad and could feel his brain changing to warm pudding inside his head. He wanted to tell his father not to shoot him, that he wasn't going to hurt anybody. The words were on his lips, ready to spring with life, but Justin kept them to himself and buried them in a dark place just below his chest.

He lay down on the loveseat that was almost too big for the living room and watched the TV. Pictures were flashing so rapidly, their colors merging and swimming. The colors -- so crazy before his eyes -- made Justin think of Splinter, the poor dog's final days, his last remaining hours. Justin thought about that invisible scent Splinter had been chasing all over. What good had it gotten him? Then he imagined everything through Splinter's eyes, the murking through swamp-water, the mud caking his body, the branches lashing from above and the raspberry briars that grabbed at anything passing nearby. Justin imagined the heat working up in Splinter's brain, the body slowly losing control of itself until it was warm all over. And then there was the howling. They had all heard it from the porch -- the howling that came from somewhere deep inside the collie and filled the night with its uneasy sound.

xconnect home
issue contents
e-mail us

CrossConnect Incorporated 1996, 1997
E-mail us with feedback