Short Story: Penny Candy

They waited. Shoulder to shoulder they sat on the front porch plucking freshly thorned briers from their skin. Born eleven months apart, they were two peas in a pod.

Hours ago their mother had shouted, “stay away from the briers!” as the two sprinted out the back door and across the lawn as if puppies freed from their kennel. They ran towards the whispers of a rakish boy who roamed the briers with cigarettes and sweets.

Just inside the blue Cape Cod on the corner, their mother began her Sunday cleaning ritual while their father digested freshly drawn engineering plans. Their mother first made room for her bucket and mop. Then, one upon the other, she pulled and stacked the four slotted wooden chairs from the kitchen. In the bathroom, she turned the faucet and filled her mop bucket with hot steamy water. She allowed her hands to idle under the water, turning them from pink to red and then from tender to painful.

As their mother organized and their father scoured the fine graphite lines intersection upon themselves, Simon and his brother snuck back inside the house. They removed two chairs from the stack and laid them on their slotted backs as if they had tipped over. Simon and his brother then sat with their spines against the seat bottoms and their legs placed on the chair backs. Using the armrests as thrusters, they piloted their improvised rocket ships, rolling side to side as they dodged asteroids and navigated their way through the galaxy.

When the novelty of the make-shift rocket ship had worn off they'd do something that drove their mother crazy. They’d stretch their calf-high white cotton tube socks, tugging at the toes until the excess cotton hung floppy past their toes. With their socks drooping, they’d lie on the carpet and pretend to swim - the stretched cloth acting as flippers. Hours later they’d leave the water, exhausted, and jump from the couch to Dad’s chair, and back again to avoid the sharks. Once the sharks had gone, they’d find their way back to the carpet. With their socks still stretched long and floppy, they’d swim for hours. Exploring, laughing, and draining every ounce of energy from their muscle fibers as their mother finished the last of her Sunday cleaning.

When the floor dried, their rocket ships became kitchen chairs again. The couch cushions ceased being places of refuge in the dangerous sea. The dirty mop water found the toilet with a whoosh, and the cleaning supplies made their way back under the sink.

Piece by piece the memory of his brother disappeared.

***

There were pieces of his brother scattered around the house like an unfinished puzzle. His room was untouched. His toys idled. Three pairs of shoes cluttered his closet: rain boots, muddy sneakers and dress blacks that his brother had worn only once to their grandfather’s funeral. Simon missed his brother more than anything. And because no one spoke his name he missed him even more.

Since his brother disappeared, Simon’s parents no longer kissed him goodnight or woke him for school. They placed a lock on his brother’s door and put the key above the frame. However Simon, who had seen his parents in the hallway when they hid the key, had since removed it. This allowed him to visit his brother’s room often. His parents, wrought with grief, were unaware of Simon’s presence in the hall, or that he even existed. This kept Simon small.

Each day the house squeezed more life out of Simon. No one inside had exhaled in weeks, turning everyone the pallor of grief. To stop the house from suffocating, Simon kept all the doors and windows open. In the winter, snow blew through the house, onto the carpet, and buried Simon up to his neck. His fingers turned blue and tiny ice crystals formed on the surface of his waxy skin.

In the spring his skin began to itch and prickle as the water from the melting snow dripped throughout the house. During this time his mother’s cries grew louder. He’d lay his head on the wet floor and watch her bare feet dangle above a handful of uncapped pill bottles. For his mother, it was a dreadful thing to love what God can touch. Simon wanted to have the perfect words to soothe. He wanted his words to reach his mother’s heart and silence her cries, but Simon had no words to carry out such a task.

His father was an engineer, analytical, ruled by logic, unlike his mother. When his father spoke, there was little emotion. After dinner, he'd sit in silence and sink deeper into his favorite chair, leveling his raw red-rimmed eyes on the pages of his Popular Mechanics and Machinist Magazine, searching for understanding in science, not God. With each passing day, Simon watched his father disappear as if an invisible weight was forcing him deeper into the cushions.

Months passed. As his mother addled, his father raked the autumn leaves into equal piles. Though he spent more time staring into the hillside where the dry grass swayed. When he raked, he reached forward with slow, gentle strokes as if to pull the earth towards him, so he could search every inch himself.

Simon spent his Sundays outside with his father. He waited on the front steps and stared into the hills where the woods grew heavy. He searched for the older boy who stank of cigarettes and sweets. The tall blonde boy who lived high, high on the hill, and who brought with him a stale gust that stirred the neat piles of raked autumn leaves. The boy whose blue jeans sagged past the heels of his boots, fraying the denim and separating the fabric into thin, ugly strands.

The police came to the house many times, as did the neighbors whose hesitant knocks went unanswered. The neighbors left behind food wrapped in tin foil before returning home to draw their blinds, deadbolt their doors and hold their children tight as the boy with skin taught as a snare drum lingered beyond the tall grass.

***

On a Monday, in the midst of the second summer, Simon found the candy wrappers under his brother’s bed, led to them by the army of ants cutting across the carpet. They were inside a mason jar—­­faintly sweet, bound in the pages an old comic book, and placed inside his favorite Battlestar Galactica tin lunch box. A crumpled hodgepodge of Tootsie Rolls, Butter Scotches, Cinnamon, Big Red Gum, Bubble Yum, and Gobstoppers, hundreds of wrappers. His brother had protected the wrappers, hiding them in a place where only Simon knew to look. A place where his brother kept his most treasured secrets.

Simon kept his brother’s secret. How they had once spoken to the blonde boy in the briers. There was no telling his mother who worked on sealing herself in the tomb of her room or his father, who was without words, or the police who came by the house less and less. Simon was a wavelet in an ocean of silence holding a heart full of words without volume.

As his dad worked the yard, searching, Simon sat on the steps, sniffing the air for the pungent scent of cigarettes and sweets. On a late August afternoon, a bone-dry wind resurrected the boy from the briers. He held a burning cigarette in one hand, and a small wrinkled paper bag in the other. And now he stood in Simon's yard.

“Candy?” the tall boy asked, his purpose a whisper. Simon watched the tall blonde boy cinch his belt and pitch forward on his feet.

“Five for a nickel,” the boy mumbled in a voice so hollow it struggled to part the air.

“I have no money,” Simon said. Then he looked away. The blonde boy closed the distance. The scuff of his boots hushed on the grass inches from Simon.

“Here,” he said. “These are on me.”

“Thanks,” said Simon.

“Meet me tomorrow on top of the hill. I’ll have more candy for you.”

“Top of the hill,” Simon said.

Then the grass consumed the tall blonde boy.

Simon put the candy in his pocket and ran. He dashed past his parents who sat in silence - two weeds strangling each other in grief, and past the narrowing halls and smothering walls. He snuck into his brother’s room, closed the door, and slid under the bed.

From underneath the bed, he pulled out the lunch box. He removed the jar wrapped in comics and dumped a handful of candy wrappers on the floor. Then he pulled out the candy that the tall blonde boy had given him, unwrapping several pieces. Simon laid them alongside the ones his brother had hidden. They were a perfect match.

***

Simon hiked the path to the top of the hill. He marched through the briers. Winding and climbing until he reached the point where he could see the rooftops below and stood with his head touching the clouds. Propped against a tall tree was the boy.

“I have no money,” Simon said.

“It’s okay,” the tall boy said as he moved to stand in front of Simon. He loosened his belt, and his pants slithered to his ankles, revealing his pale, skinny legs. Then he slipped his white underwear past his knees, exposing his hard-fleshy middle. Simon said nothing, as the boy forced the warmth into his mouth.

***

With the first strawberry moon a gentle breeze came from atop the hill. It blew past the tall uncut grass and into the empty yard where spring flowers had breached the soil.

Across the yard sat a shrunken house where a father had passed through his chair and into the earth. At the end of the hall a mother had wrapped herself so tight in grief she mummified her womb. But above the house and past the clouds, two young boys played. They imagined chairs into rocket ships and laughed until they tickled the uncut grass in the yard of the tiny house far below.

R.E. Hengsterman is a writer and photographer. Born helpless and nude he now wanders under the Carolina blue sky. Twitter @robhengsterman and www.REHengsterman.com