From that first day, Nate took possession of his brother, and when Matty turned two, Nate decided that he should walk. Nate stood facing his baby brother and pulled him up by the arms, holding him steady while Matty forced his first uneven steps toward the encouraging face of his teacher. For Nate, this was serious business, and Matty walked. Two years later, when the mill’s insurance finally agreed to pay for prosthetics, Matty followed Nate everywhere, even into the bathroom. He’d walk slowly, his arms tense at his sides, his face scrunched up like he’d licked a lime.
“What’s wrong with him?” I said. “He need to go number two or something?”
Anne laughed and rolled her eyes. “He’s trying to walk like Nate,” she said. I turned to watch him creeping behind his brother into the kitchen. “Without the limp.”
Nate was determined that Matty be normal; looking the part was never enough. The first day of second grade, Matty cried out from the boys’ bedroom that he couldn’t find his arm braces. By that time he was walking fine without them, only a slight limp, but he tired easily. He’d already made a habit of spending hours alone, playing quietly indoors or reading in his room, and he grew more impatient and irritable the longer he was on his feet.
“I’ll help him,” Nate said, now a cool, burr-headed sixth grader, and minutes later they emerged from the back hall together, Nate with a hand on Matty’s shoulder. Anne was flipping pancakes onto plates, we all sat down to breakfast, and later Matty walked to school without his braces, his older brother at his side.
This past August, while Matty was packing his things for his move to college, I did some rooting around in the attic. I was digging through a hope chest, trying to find the brass cigarette lighter my grandfather had gotten as standard issue while serving in World War I. He’d given it to my father, who gave it to me, and even though my son and I don’t smoke, it was the only family heirloom I’d ever had, and I wanted to press it into Matty’s palm before he left me for college. Crawling out of the attic, I saw one of Matty’s old braces sticking out of a box, and I took it down with the lighter.
“You remember the day you quit using these?” I asked, and Matty smiled, his eyes bright.
“You mean the day Nate hid them from me?” Matty said. He raised his eyebrows and nodded at the old lighter in my hand. “What else you got there?”
In the years since Nate’s death, nothing I asked of Matty had come free of charge. A few days after the funeral, I’d sat the boy down and pressed him for details about the accident. I wanted to know if he’d seen Nate after the crash, if my oldest had moved, or spoken, or if Matty had seen him breathing. Anything. But Matty just sat there, his fingers drumming the kitchen table. “I’m hungry,” he said, so I took him to town and bought us a pizza. A small gesture, I thought. Hardly a bribe. His favorite dinner for an hour of conversation. At first, I thought it a harmless exercise. After all, Matty had shared a bedroom with Nate, had walked to the bus stop with him on school days, had seen him and talked with him and laughed and joked with him for hours each day while I tended to business at the mill. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted these stories. I wanted the time I had missed, and over the years I found myself engaging in all kinds of bargains, buying Matty’s memories of his brother. Paying for bits and pieces of Nate’s history.
Whether it was the look on Matty’s face—something between a smile and a smirk—or whether my sudden bitterness rose from the fact that he was leaving me, from the sight of all his belongings boxed up and ready to move, something started sparking in my guts, a crackle of resentment for this game we’d been playing for years. I’d brought the lighter down as a gift, by damn, not a payment.
“This,” I said, slipping it into my pocket, “this is mine.”
Matty nodded and I knew that this too would have a price. If he remembered some pact between kids, he’d want to keep Nate’s secret, hold on to a sacred bond with the brother he’d lost. That way, he’d have a memory of Nate that was his alone, and as much as I wanted that for Matty, or as much as I should have wanted it, the thought tripped a mine of jealousy in me. Dammit, I thought, I shouldn’t have to pay for it. Shouldn’t have to pay a red cent. He’s mine. Nate’s my son. “Where’d he hide them,” I said, “the braces.”
Matty turned back to his boxes. He was leaving me. He already had. “I don’t remember,” he said. “Somewhere.”
The year Matty left his crutches at home, two weeks before Christmas, Anne and I had it out over the dogs and the dirt bike. She was peeling potatoes at the kitchen table, her hands working furiously, independently of her eyes, which were locked on mine, keeping me from the evening paper.
“Matty can’t take care of a dog,” I said. “Much less two. He’s too young.”
“But Nate’s old enough for a motorbike? Christ, Tom. At least the dogs are free. Mrs. Burke says they’re housebroken and gentle and good with kids. And Matty needs them. They’ll get him out of the house more often. He’s the palest seven-year-old I’ve ever seen.”
“Get Matty the dogs,” Nate said, walking in from the back hallway. He stood with a hand on the refrigerator door. “I’ll help take care of them.”
Anne gave him a little wink. “See there,” she said, “Nate will help out,” as if that settled it.
Here’s a confession you don’t hear too often: even parents have favorites, one child that pulls at our heart or bolsters our pride or simply reminds us the least of the things we despise in ourselves. For Anne, that child was Nate, and though she loved Matty, loved him as any mother loves a son, crippled or otherwise, it was Nate who found her eyes the heaviest and most often upon him. Perhaps because each time she saw Matty limp or pull off his prosthetic foot, it cracked her heart a little wider. Or maybe it had nothing to do with Matty. Perhaps her love for Nate was simply four years older, but I don’t believe it. I never have. By the time Matty was five or six, if he had his socks and shoes off, he couldn’t have limped around the room fast enough to catch up with Anne’s averted eyes. Anne would protect him fiercely, from other kids, from the unkind word, even from his brother, but when it came down to it, I have to believe she favored Nate. He had grown up right, and strong, and whole, the way Anne had known he would.
That night, after our argument in the kitchen, she joined me under the quilts, put her head on my chest, and let out a moan I’d come to know. “Oh, yeah?” I said. “Somebody need a little roughhousing?” Beneath the sheets, she cupped me and gave me a playful squeeze. “Now,” she said, “you going to agree to the dogs or do I have to use force?”
Her hands were cold, and her hold on me sent an electric chill arcing through me from tailbone to temples. “We do the dogs,” I said, “we’ve got to get the dirt bike, too. Nate heard everything we said, you can bet on that. The dogs, the bike, the whole shebang. That kid’s sly, probably stuck up for Matty just to increase his own odds.”
Anne loosened her grip a bit and turned her head, propping her chin up on my ribs while she thought it over. “Touché,” she said, rolling onto me. “You’ve got a deal, mister.”
Tonight at the wake, Lonnie’s mother shook my hand, then stared me dead while I offered my condolences. She didn’t say a word, and I was surprised and almost disappointed by her restraint, by her ability to keep the blame in check, to stay cool and quiet with all that grief sizzling away inside. The casket was polished and shining and closed, and while I stood against the back wall, wondering how soon I could leave without showing any disrespect, Big Red leaned next to me and exhaled hard, the gin heavy on his breath. He was wearing a suit, his tie in one of those enormous Windsor knots, but his trademark red beard was scraggly as always.
“Oh, man,” he said. “You meet the mother yet?”
I nodded, and he shook his head, his eyes rolling drunk and loose in their sockets. “What gets me, Tom, is there’s nothing in that box. Nothing left of him, you know? There can’t be.”
Later, I followed Red outside and stood under the front awning while he smoked a cigarette. He’d run out of matches, so I handed him the lighter I’d been carrying with me since I’d retrieved it from the attic. I’d polished it, replaced the flint and wick, and filled it with fuel.
Red flipped it open, lit his cigarette, and blew smoke from his nose. “Do me a favor?” he said.
“Come up to the mill with me. I’m a little sauced to be running the debarker alone.”
On Christmas morning, when we led the boys out to the barn, Anne teased them with the latch, saying it was stuck, letting them squirm a while with excitement before swinging the doors open. Inside, the two dogs were curled up under Nate’s new blue Honda CR80. They were full grown—half Lab, half Golden—one with copper fur that seemed to shine even in the dim dawn light of the barn, the other a dull yellow thing with huge drooping eyes. Both were female, but Matty insisted on naming them Bo and Luke after his favorite TV characters.
“That’s stupid,” Nate told him, rolling his eyes. “Those are guy names.”
“I know,” Matty said, using Luke’s long red tail like a whip to swat his brother. “But they like it. They’re tomboys.”
Within a month, Matty and the dogs were inseparable. They walked him to the bus stop in the morning, announced his return with a melody of mismatched howls in the afternoon, and slept huddled together at the foot of his bed each night. And as Nate became a better rider and began letting Matty ride behind him on the Honda, the dogs would trail them, running and barking all the way up to the forest’s edge at the Petit Jean River. Weekends, I’d pay the boys with gas money for washing my truck. Inspecting their work, I’d squat down beside the rear fender wells and point out the missed spots that I pretended to see. “I don’t know, boys,” I’d say. “You may have to do this quarter panel all over again.”
“Come on, Dad,” they’d say. “You promised.”
I never let them off easy. I wanted to have those minutes with them before they rode off to the woods. Today, if I could have them back, I’d keep them there in that driveway, scrubbing that truck indefinitely. And though in time they would recognize the injustice, and call me on it, and surely come to hate me for it, still I would persist, but in those days, when to my mind lost time could be counted in hours or days, I had little to lose by letting them go. “All right,” I’d say, handing them each a dollar. “Just be careful.”
Late that winter the clouds stretched solid and low from horizon to horizon and the pine branches hanging over the highway sagged under the weight of their ice-laden bark. At the mill, the workers huddled around propane heaters, and the planers had to be honed daily to prevent them from biting jagged chunks out of the frozen logs the men pushed through the blades.
Just before the five o’clock shift change, Anne called. Her voice was quaking, panicked in a way that sent my blood to drumming in my ears. “The boys,” she said. “They took the bike out, Tom. I told them not to, but I was working in the kitchen and I didn’t hear them. Jesus, Tom, they’ve been gone for hours.”
“What do you mean, hours?”
“Hours, Tom. God, I didn’t want to bother you.”
“Call the sheriff,” I said. “The ranger station.”
“I thought they’d come right back.”
“Anne, just call.”
I remember concentrating on the road. Sheets of ice kept blowing from the trees and slapping against the windshield. In the dark of winter dusk, the night seemed to narrow in on me, and as I roared down the hills into the valley ahead it swallowed the light of my headlamps.
The police found them the next morning near the bank of the Petit Jean, and later, at the station, a bearded deputy with deep-set eyes slid the pictures from the accident report one by one across an unfinished pine desk. The Honda was on its side, bent and buried in the brush near where a washed-out trail met the water. Nate hadn’t flown far. He was twisted under the towering oak that had stopped him cold, his head snapped forward under his chest, his arms barely distinguishable from the tangle of roots at the base of the trunk.
There were no pictures of Matty. They had found him first, followed the high-pitched whining of the dogs right to him. He’d flown farther than Nate, to the water’s edge at a bend in the river. He’d shattered a kneecap and cracked two ribs in the fall, but it was the cold that would have killed him.
“Dipped into the digits last night,” said the officer who met us at the hospital. “And him laid out like that on the frozen river bank, it’s a wonder, it surely is, but when we pulled those dogs off him he wasn’t even shivering.”
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