Today when she awakened them, she made them stand up to listen to her. The day before, they had fallen asleep in their beds while she spoke. She hadn't liked that. Tucking her hair into her scarf with blue fingertips, she promised to return by suppertime. When is that, Will did not ask; already their mother now was knelt down, her mouth in a mutter: You aren't to do things, then. Unless Dennis says. Dennis is old enough to know better, you see. Look up to him and he will be able to trust you. When she arose she took the hand of Will's brother, held it like a hopeful minister. In the room it was hardly light, the air carved of sand.
Will went back to bed while their mother now was in the kitchen, making their early sounds. He rolled over as Dennis went out to clean the sink and make water for her morning tea. Dennis was always doing this. He made his bed too. They talked in the kitchen in the morning; she told Dennis the things her husband used to do. Dennis said Oh wow and laughed a lot. He acted like living here was not bad. Will listened to their mother now counting out apples, there you are then, three soft lumps on the counter for each of them.
Dennis asked her if she and her husband had kids before and Will cringed. He had asked other times.
When she had gone and Dennis came back, Will hissed at him, “Why do you ask her? She'll never tell.”
Dennis said “I know,” and slipped into bed.
“I want to go to the sand dunes,” said Will. Their mother now had said that if Will were good for a week they might take the Saturday bus to the sand dunes.
“Oh, we'll get to those dumb sand dunes,” Dennis said. He went back to his fake sleep.
“If you don't screw it up,” said Will. They slept there for hours in the gathering haze until the sheets got hot and gauzy wet. In Will's mind the sand dunes were exotic shapes, unaccountably scented of lemon. A ring of woods stood around them, perfect for running, a perfect place to hide.
Now the ceiling fans were pushing around the baked kitchen air. The apples were gone, already gnawed to their bony stems. Will sat in the corner of the kitchen with the brown paper bag in his lap, eating sugar from a tablespoon. The red and yellow wallpaper roses behind him were faded down to silver-gray. This house was like a puzzle he'd stopped enjoying long ago. Their mother now did not feed them much, so he snuck food, but it was not easy. She had rules and she counted everything. So now did Will, disdainfully. He knew the home inch by inch: the four knotty potatoes under the sink, the swallow of buttermilk in its carton dated today, her rows of vitamin bottles, dingy white. But sugar was difficult for her to count. That was what he stole, licking it off tablespoons, feeling it swim back on his tongue and turn orange.
Dennis was gone. The door held five locks: four he could flip or turn or pull from inside. But one had a key and Dennis had it. He hadn't even noticed when Dennis left, but now the key scratched in the lock.
Dennis had two Sprites in green glass bottles.
“Where did you get the money?” Will wanted to know.
“Drink slow,” Dennis warned. “This is all you'll get until dinner.”
Will uncapped the bottle and drank fast.
“She said she'd be back for supper,” Will complained. “But supper is when she gets home anyway.”
“She said she wouldn't be too late.”
“You like her,” said Will, “so you lie.”
Will saw his brother coming and shrank away, but late. Dennis uncoiled his forearms and flicked Will onto the floor. Then the shoe with its mud-colored laces came down on his breastbone. The air left him with a short balloon squeak and when he tried to breathe it would not come back. To squirm only made his chest go flatter. He squirmed.
“Quit asking questions,” Dennis’s voice said.
Will could not answer. But he knew that Dennis wasn't interested. A brother was just another kid. With kids you didn't settle things the normal way--talking, screaming. You waited. They would only set you free if you waited.
When the foot came up off his chest, the wet air pouring in made a sound like the toilet flushing. It was horrid to be hearing his insides work. Dennis retreated to the front room and said something low. Then he took his key out and left again by the front door. A stripe of real light opened across the floor and closed. After the door shut and the key made its mouse-scratch in the outside lock, Will could smell the air.
When his chest did not burn so much, he crawled over to the door and tested the knob.
Out the mail slot he could see the houses across. The wood around the slot was splintered and wet and shreds of envelope paper stuck there. It had rained.
After the howling in his ribs had gone down, he took three spoonsful of sugar. His spit came back, cold and white. Dennis said that sugar was not food but in school they said that most food was sugar, so how could sugar not be food? Will closed the bag and rolled its top over--two times, as their mother now seemed to do.
Dennis was still gone and Will was scaling the attic walls. The boards that held the roof down were soft there; they sloped in. If Will climbed up their curved inwards slope he could look out the opticon. A fat bacon-colored pigeon liked to sit on the sill outside the window and peek in. It flew off because of Will. Climbing up wasn't something he was supposed to do. Careful, their mother said, please, you two. That meant everything: stay off the table, stay off her knees, don't kick doors shut or open, please don't play in the attic so much. From the opticon, Will saw the paper mill with its white-striped smokestacks and lettering. He could see the Christian school they didn't go to, although their mother now was a Christian and it was only a block away. Kids there played a slow ball game on concrete; it seemed to have many rules. The houses across the street grew flowers from windowboxes. The spokes of their TV antennas blurred and doubled before his eyes. If you waited long enough, maybe all day, you would see one of them move.
Then Will spied Dennis coming down the street.
Getting down from the opticon was simple. You just let go. Your shirt flew up and covered your face, then you smacked down on the floor. Will dropped and waited and hit, and his legs gave way like stacks of blocks, crash-landing him on his back. He counted the time until his ears stopped humming. From Will doing this, said Dennis, there had become a crack in their mother now's bedroom ceiling. A week ago Dennis showed him a piece of something white, the size of a domino.
“It's plaster,” Dennis had said. “Do you know that Mother's ceiling is falling apart? Do you know that if you do that many more times, her whole ceiling and the light is going to fall down, and the light, and you, and kill her in her bed?”
“I don't do it when she's home, stupid,” said Will.