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Army Men

Justin Hunter

    I prick my hand on something under the sofa. When I pull my hand back, I expect to see blood, but there is none. I press my head to the floor, my nose poking under the torn base of the microfiber sofa, and I see it. Right there next to my yellow, foam rocket—the one Lyle said wasn’t under there. It’s a needle. I pull it out and show Lyle.
    We both sit in the middle of the living room and stare at it. I place the needle on the floor in front of me, and it settles between the thick, brown threads of carpet. My brother, being six, thinks it’s the coolest thing in the world but doesn’t know what to do with it. I’ve got five years on him, so I know exactly what we should do.
    “Let’s throw it at the wall like a dart.”
    “Won’t Mom be mad at the hole?”
    “It’ll be a small hole. Plus, Mom sleeps most the day, she’ll never see it.”
    “What about—” Lyle stops, but I know what he was going to ask. He forgets sometimes. I don’t need to tell him Dad’s not coming home. He figures it out on his own then moves on.
    Turns out, needles don’t fly like darts. We can’t get it to stick into the wall, so Lyle says we should use it as a squirt gun. I tell him that’s a stupid idea. We decide to fill it with water and inject the barrel cactus Mom keeps on the front porch.
    Tina comes up the dirt driveway while we’re pumping the cactus full of water. She winks at Lyle then messes up my hair.
    “How you doing, Jack?” She asks.
    “My name’s Jackson.”
    Tina holds her hand up in front of her, shrugs, then walks into the house.
    “I like her,” Lyle says.
    “I don’t know.”
    “She’s just a babysitter.”
    Lyle takes the needle from me, shoots water across the porch, and giggles. “She’s always here when Mom’s here. And you said you don’t need a babysitter.”
    I leave Lyle to keep playing with the needle and go inside to make lunch. Tina is talking to Mom in the back bedroom. Mom’s voice sounds like it’s underwater, or like she’s talking too slow. I stop trying to listen and think about last night.
    She came out of her room in the middle of the night. I heard the television and saw her sitting on the couch, staring at the screen. I sat in the hall and pretended I was watching the show with her.
    Sometimes, she comes and lays on the floor in my room or Lyle’s room. When she does, she makes noises in her sleep, kicks like a dog, but I don’t ever wake her. I’m not sure she slept at all last night, though.
    I make a couple sandwiches for Lyle and me, then I make a few more for school tomorrow. They gave us lunch cards after Dad died, but I hate the food they serve at school. I throw the sandwiches in plastic bags, slide them into paper lunch sacks, toss in a couple apples, and I put it all in the refrigerator.
    I start to pull open the front door to tell Lyle to come eat, but I stop when I hear Tina.
    “He’s coming later for the money,” she says from the back bedroom. “You got it right?”
    Before my mom can respond, I hear a thud. Tina laughs, and I sneak through the living room and peer down the hall. Tina is leaning against the wall Mom started painting a few months ago but never finished. She’s half-sitting, half-standing. She smiles at me before standing straight and walking past me toward the kitchen. She comes back with a spoon and goes into Mom’s room again.
    “I can’t spot you this time,” Tina says before shutting the door.
    I find Lyle in the backyard—a collection of weeds, dead grass, unfilled holes from the times we had dogs, and old car parts my dad used to collect.
    “Jackson, I put it with its friends.” Lyle smiles at me. “They’re army men coming to attack our house.”
    I cross the yard to the pile of dirt he’s standing near, ignoring his salute. “What’re you talking about?”
    “Look.” He points to the top of the pile of dirt. I follow his red-skinned arm—I need to get him some sunscreen—and I see the needles. Ten of them, standing straight up.
    “Where’d you find them?”
    “They were here,” Lyle says. “In the hole. I stood them up and stuck them in the dirt.”
    I tell him to stop being dumb, to grow up. Then, I drag him toward the house. He tells me he doesn’t want lunch, that he doesn’t want to go inside with me. He asks if he can play with his friend Jaime.
    “No,” I say. “Jaime lives too far down the street.”
    Lyle punches me in the arm and tries to kick away, but I hold him. I want to get mad, but the way his eyebrows crease and the way his lips stretch tight reminds me of Dad. So, I don’t say anything, and we go inside to eat.


    Mom tries to cook dinner for us later that night, but she doesn’t make it past the sofa. She’s too sick, and I tell her that’s all right. Lyle tries to get her to play cars on the living room floor, but she stumbles back to her room instead and falls asleep.
    Tina had brought over a couple frozen dinners when she came by earlier—chicken nuggets and pudding. I guess she’s not all bad. She likes to joke with us, sometimes she shows me how to answer a question on my homework, but mostly she’s in the back room with my mom.
    I help Lyle scoot his chair in at the wooden table. When Dad bought it, the table was smooth, polished. Now, it’s dented and covered with crayon and crusted food.
    “Did you get the mail?” I ask Lyle.
    “No mail on Sundays, dummy.”
    I throw a nugget at him. “From yesterday, stupid.”
    He nods while shoveling pudding into his mouth, nuggets untouched.
    “Eat your chicken.”
    “Mom wouldn’t make me.”
    “Yes, she would. Just eat the chicken, Lyle.”
    The orange of the sunset slides down the wall near the side window until we’re in the shadows. I flip on the light and remember the three days we went without power. I don’t know what she does with it half the time, but Mom has money. The military gave it to her, but she forgets things sometimes. Like the bills.
    “My face hurts,” Lyle says.
    “Yeah? Well, it’s killing me.” The yellow light against Lyle’s sunburned skin makes him look orange.
    Lyle laughs like he always does when I make that joke, then he narrows his eyes. “I’m serious. I want Mamma to put some of that stuff on me.”
    “The green stuff?”
    He nods and takes a bite of chicken. His pudding is gone.
    “I’ll get it.”
    I walk through the living room toward the hall when someone knocks on the door. I look at the door, waiting. It’s a heavy door, made from an old oak my dad always told me. It’s got two windows toward the top, but I can’t quite see out them. Some of the kids at school are two or three inches taller than me, now.
    I pull the purple curtains away from the living room window and look toward the porch. I can’t see the man’s face because of shadows cast by his cowboy hat, but I see the gun on his hip. The man knocks again. I start to head back to the bedroom to hide, but I see Lyle standing in the entryway to the kitchen, looking at me, expecting me to handle it.
    I suck in as deep a breath as I can and open the door. The man looks like he’s been left in a smoker too long. His brown skin matches his eyes. His black mustache wraps around the edge of his mouth and twitches as he moves his lips He nods his head and touches the brim of his black Stetson before walking into our kitchen, past Lyle.
    Lyle holds my waist. “He’s a cowboy.”
    “No he isn’t.”
    “Look at him.”
    “I see him, but he’s not a cowboy.”
    His plaid shirt is tucked into faded blue jeans. His black and red cowboy boots ride halfway up his calf.
    He is a cowboy.
    The man walks back into the living room, winks, then heads down the hall. His boots disappear first, somehow. I follow him, just enough to see him go into Mom’s room. Something breaks in her room, and Lyle grabs my shirt, tugging, trying to get me back to the living room. But I watch.
    “This is a start, but I will need more,” the man says.
    “More what?” Lyle asks.
    “Money,” I say, eyes fixed on the doorway to Mom’s room.
    “I’ve got some.”
    “Not your change.”
    “It’s not change, it’s money.”
    “It ain’t enough,” I say.
    When the man leaves Mom’s room, I fall back into the living room. Lyle falls behind me. I lift him up and we stand by the couch as the man walks across our living room toward the door, crumpled twenty-dollar bills in his hand. He tips his hat once more and is gone.
    Lyle sits on the couch and asks how cowboys make money. I ignore him and go down the hall. I look into the room, expecting something—I’m not sure what, but something. But Mom’s asleep on the floor next to the bed.
    When I get back to the living room, Lyle asks if I want to play Nerf guns.
    I do.


    By the end of the week, Tina is yelling. The day after the cowboy came, she didn’t yell. Or the next day. But now, she’s yelling.
    Lyle and I just got home from school, and we’re sitting in the kitchen. I hear Tina say something about cracking open the trust fund. About making sure they’re covered. I try to ignore it and make a peanut butter sandwich, no jelly.
    Lyle colors on the table. I should get him paper, but I don’t.
    Mom missed a parent-teacher conference today at school, but I told the teacher it’s because she had to work, reminded the teacher about my Dad. I hate doing that, but I’ve had to a lot more lately. I don’t want strangers asking about my mom.
    “We should go outside,” I say.
    Lyle keeps coloring, so I grab him by the arm and pull him toward the back door. “Stop, Jackson. I was coloring.”
    “I know, but we don’t need to hang around inside all the time.”
    In the backyard, Lyle walks to his needle army and reorganizes them. The sun has already fallen behind the mountains, but there’s enough light to last us a while.
    If I stayed inside, I’d listen. I’d try to understand things that I don’t want to understand. Out here, I can just play.
    I pick up an old soccer ball, but it’s flat. I drop-kick it across the yard, over Lyle’s head. He chases it but stops, looking down the side yard toward the front of the house.
    “There’s a truck,” he says.
    I come stand by him and see the pickup. A gray Dodge Ram with a cattle guard. I can’t see who’s in it, but I can see the person get out. Whoever it is disappears down the walkway toward the front door.
    I run to the back door and stand with my back against the wall just to the side. I lean over enough to see inside, through the kitchen and toward the front door. Lyle stands in front of the back door, in plain sight. I pull him behind me.
    The front door swings open, and the cowboy walks in. At first, he just stands in the doorway, hat pulled down low on his head, gun tucked in his holster. Then, Tina appears in the living room. She holds her hands out in front of her and says something I can’t hear.
    The man smiles, then he slaps Tina. She falls to the floor and holds her arms in front of her face. The man picks her up, slams the front door, and presses Tina against it.
    “Stop!” she yells.
    He doesn’t raise his voice enough for me to hear, but I can tell he’s angry. He places his forearm against Tina’s throat and she starts coughing.
    Lyle tries to slide past me to see, but I hold him in place.
    “What is it?”
    After Tina’s face turns red, the man removes his forearm from her neck and draws his gun. He places it against her forehead and says something.
    “She’ll get it,” Tina yells. “She’s got money.”
    The man starts to walk toward the hall, but Tina grabs his arm. He pushes her back against the wall, shoves the gun against her temple. He pulls back the hammer.
    Tina presses her hands into her pockets and pulls out a wad of cash. She hands it to the man, and the man holsters his gun. He steps back, counts. He nods, points down the hall, then tips his hat.
    When the man leaves, Tina falls to the floor again, crying.
    I run to the side yard, and Lyle follows. I get there in time to hear the door slam and see the truck drive away. When we return to the back door, Tina’s gone.
    I walk into the kitchen with Lyle on my heels. We sit at the table and listen. Tina’s talking to Mom. She’s crying and yelling. She says she’s not coming back here. She says Mom is on her own.
    I ball my fist. Mom’s not on her own. She’s got us.
    Tina doesn’t look back when she leaves. The house rattles when the door slams shut.
    “What happened?” Lyle asks.
    He shrugs, then starts coloring on the table again.


    Two days later, the cowboy is back.
    “Buenas noches,” he says as he walks through the door.
    I back away and give him room.
    “Is your mother back there?” He nods toward the hall, and I wonder how his hat stays on his head. His shirt is darker but just as plaid.
    I shrug, but Lyle says, “Yes, she’s back there.”
    The man smiles and wipes his mustache like he’s trying to flatten it.
    “Who are you?” I ask.
    “Me?” He smiles. “I am nobody.”
    Before he left for Iraq, Dad told me I had two jobs. I had to protect my little brother and I had to protect Mom. If I didn’t feel right, he told me, I should call the police. I don’t feel right. Like when I took my first at-bat during Little League, shaky and sick.
    The man doesn’t go to Mom’s room. He walks into the kitchen, circles the table, looks at each chair. He taps the top of one of the chairs—the one near the refrigerator—and slides it out. He sits down then places his cowboy hat upside down on the table.
    I follow him in and sit across from him. “You shouldn’t be here.”
    Lyle stands close to the table and reaches for the man’s hat, stretching his arm and lifting himself on tip-toes. I smack his hand away.
    The man laughs and Lyle laughs, too.
    “I like you boys,” the man says. “Family is important, no? But you are right. I should not be here. Yet, I am here. And I need to speak with your mother.”
    “She’s sick,” I say.
    “I’m sure that she is.”
    “She is,” Lyle says, climbing into the chair next to me. “She sleeps a lot and throws up a lot.”
    The man nods, slides the gun from the holster on his belt. He pushes something and the magazine falls out just like it does on my pellet gun. He flicks a bullet out of the magazine with his thumb, sets the bullet in the middle of the table, slides the magazine back into the gun, and holsters it.
    “I’m leaving this with you.” The man taps the table near the bullet. “I want you to watch it. Make sure it stays here. We would not want it ending up anywhere else, would we?”
    Lyle shakes his head.
    The man stands and looks me in the eyes. “Your mother needs help, boys. But I am not the one to help her.”
    He walks back into the living room. I hear him in the hall. At first, the knock on my Mom’s door is soft, but I don’t hear her open it. Then, a boom. It sounds like wood breaking, like when I snap mesquite branches across the concrete porch out front.
    “Is Mamma all right?” Lyle asks.
    I ignore him and look at the phone on the wall. Lyle and I called 911 a couple years ago, just to see what it was like. I wanted to show Lyle what a real policeman looked like, so we called and asked for one to come. The officer that came to our door sat us down when he realized nothing was wrong, and he told us not to call again.
    But I think I should call. It’s different this time.
    I stand and grab the phone.
    “What are you doing?”
    I put my finger to my lips and tell Lyle to keep it down. I can’t hear the man anymore, so I start to hang up, then there’s a thud against a wall in the back of the house. I think I hear my mom cry. Then, a slap.
    I dial.
    The voice on the other end of the phone asks what my emergency is, and I whisper about the man in our house. I give our address and hang up.
    “The police are coming,” I tell Lyle.
    He frowns like he does right before he forces a cry, so I go to the refrigerator. I grab a Yoo-hoo and toss it to him.
    “It’ll be all right,” I say.
    There’s another crash from Mom’s room. Lyle tells me to go check on her, and I know I should. But I don’t.
    A minute later, the man is back in the kitchen. He picks up the bullet from the table, slides it into his pocket, winks at us. “Your mother understands now.”
    “He called the police,” Lyle says, pointing at me.
    I shove Lyle’s chair so hard he nearly tips over. I look up at the man who has narrowed his eyes. His eyebrows look thicker, shading his entire face. He rubs the handle of his gun, the he grabs his hat.
    “I wish you had not done that.” He places the hat on his head and touches the brim with a slight nod. “Enjoy your night, niños.”
    The man leaves and shuts the front door behind him. I walk into the living room and pass photos of Dad on the wall, some with him in uniform, some without. I pass the sofa and walk down the hall. I stop outside Mom’s room and take a deep breath. Lyle is right behind me, but I don’t turn around. Mom’s door is open, splintered pieces of the door frame on the ground. We go in.
    The nightstands are flipped on their side. Mom’s jewelry box is smashed on the floor. The sheets are crumpled next to the bed, and all the pillows are torn open, stuffing dusting the carpet like that time a few years ago when it snowed.
    And Mom is crying in her bed.


    It didn’t take the police long to get there, but we’re not waiting on them anymore. Lyle and I are back on the sofa, waiting for someone else.
    He taps me on the elbow. “Do you think I can get the other soldiers and put them outside tomorrow?”
    “What soldiers?”
    “The ones from Mom’s room.”
    Mom had stayed in her room while we waited for the police, said she needed to clean up. I didn’t see how she was going to clean the bruise on her face, but Lyle and I went to the living room anyway. When the police came, they took Mom out of the house with her hands behind her back.
    She screamed for us. Lyle screamed too, but I held him close.
    Now, Lyle’s holding Mom and Dad’s wedding photo. The police officer who spoke to us earlier is in the kitchen talking to other officers. We’re supposed to wait for someone to come talk to us, to take us somewhere else.
    Lyle frowns. “I want Mamma.”
    “I know.”
    I tap him on the shoulder until he looks up at me.
    “Does your face hurt?”
    He nods.
    “Well, it’s killing me.”
    Lyle fights back a laugh, then his face cracks. He sets the photo down and hugs me. I hug him back and don’t let go.

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