Fiction Issue 2015: 'Salvage' | Fiction | Chicago Reader

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Fiction Issue 2015: 'Salvage'

"Never has he been so disappointed to discover something so incredible."

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Brendan doesn't know about the swords yet. They're still in his future, buried under mothballed Sansabelts, wigs, and a stack of vinyl thick with Motown 45s. But even so, a giddiness flares within him as he sweeps the kickstand of his bike and pedals into the heatless midday sun: today is overripe with possibilities, a pinata of a Saturday ready to break open and yield its treasures.

"Move it, will you?" says Kyle, releasing the handlebars to fuss with his watch. "It's afternoon already."

"Right behind," Brendan says, struggling to keep pace. Their parents are working at the bakery, so Kyle's in charge. He's Brendan's authority on the important things: girls, the Cubs' chances, the differences between the F-15 and the F-16. As Brendan pulls alongside, his brother rips ahead, the sound of tires like a zipper yanked back and forth. A jab of envy bruises the younger boy. He's only nine, but old enough to see the differences in their trajectories. Kyle moves through the world like a magnet through iron filings, capturing tokens of admiration.

Each autumn, Brendan's teachers brighten at his last name during roll call. Star pupil, gifted hands, natural talent. Things all of them say about Kyle, and none of them say about Brendan. A line of Kyle's trophies runs along the fireplace mantel, shaming the participation ribbons in Brendan's sock drawer.

The boys cut into an alley, one of many they've trawled scavenging for things to fix, bust, or play with. Bottles and lightbulbs and huge cardboard boxes. An Etch A Sketch leaking powdered aluminum. A waterproof radio in perfect condition, which Brendan kept. Of all his beloved possessions—a He-Man figure still in its package; a model of the space shuttle Endeavour; a pearlescent geode—the bike is Brendan's favorite. A few days ago, after nearly an hour of practice and one twice-scraped elbow, he taught himself how to pop a wheelie. If he could just maneuver into Kyle's line of sight . . .

Through the alley and beyond the Metra station, the scalloped awning of Bernie's Corner Store comes into view. The bicycles stutter over the tracks. Kyle brakes hard and lays down a streak of rubber.

"What do you got?" he says, snaking a licorice-colored cable around their bikes and a parking meter.

"Six dollars."

Kyle padlocks the bikes. "Good." He removes a rolled-up magazine from his windbreaker and slaps it against Brendan's chest. "Hold this. I got five."

Once inside Bernie's, it takes their eyes a moment to adjust. Three aisles of canned goods, cereals, and sodas. From the far corner the glowing screen of the Street Fighter II game throws light onto a stand of Hostess Ding Dongs. The damp, fragrant air suggests wet leaves and clay, and its richness transports Brendan so completely, he forgets whether it's autumn or spring. Beside the cash register sits a jar filled with foil-wrapped hearts and a sign—valentine's chocolates 50% off—and the sight of it returns him to the present, to this Saturday in March 1992. Easter, the next of the four candy-bearing holidays, is mere weeks away. He'd know exactly how many days, if only he had a Casio digital watch like Kyle's. Its beveled face shines like obsidian as Kyle counts his money. He wears the watch to bed, and he's never let Brendan touch it, despite the younger boy's solemn promise not to fiddle with the settings. The watch was a special birthday present, their parents said, because Kyle was entering a special time.

What this meant, Brendan isn't quite sure. But in the past four months his brother has grown three inches. He ditches Brendan after school to haunt basements with a scrum of older, rat-whiskered boys, and locks Brendan out of their bedroom for no reason. Every phone conversation ceases when Brendan gets within earshot. And the last time their parents sent them to the drugstore, Kyle stole a pack of baseball cards, quick as a cobra, while the checkout lady's back was turned.

Now Brendan is no tattletale, but first Communion is a month away, and he worries about accepting the Eucharist with even this minor stain on his conscience. It weighs him down like an extra math book. It also reminds him of his and Kyle's worst fight. The week before Halloween, Brendan found a shoebox of waterlogged Topps cards beneath a tree in Dan Ryan Woods. Hidden among the no-names was a complete set of the Boys of Zimmer, the '89 Cubs. Maddux, Dawson, Dunston, Grace, all there, along with Kyle's hero, Ryne Sandberg. A daydream took shape: the expression of delight on Kyle's face as he unwrapped the Sandberg card, sandwiched between the halves of a Lucite case, on his upcoming birthday. And though Brendan alone carefully peeled apart each card and baked them dry under the hot grille of his bedroom radiator, then sheathed them in a Trapper Keeper's plastic sleeves, Kyle pinned him to the floor and stole them all under threat of beating. So for Kyle's birthday Brendan gave him nothing, but his brother didn't notice. He was too absorbed in his stupid watch.

By the following Sunday, as Brendan knelt in the confessional and counted off his sins for Father Wojociehowski (gluttony, talking fresh), he was more than ready to unburden himself. But when Father Wojo asked if there was anything else, Brendan's voice caught. Kyle would never know if he told. But Brendan would know. The kneeler's dimpled padding felt thin and useless beneath the smooth stones of his kneecaps. A confession would be something like tattling. Something babyish. And whether in God's eyes, or Kyle's, or his own, that's the last thing he can afford to be.

JOHNNY SAMPSON
  • Johnny Sampson

Brendan thinks of himself as a good boy; every hair-tousling grown-up says so, and until now it's been easy to decide between obvious rights and wrongs. But lately those choices have assumed vastly different proportions, like a prairie sprouting a skyline. Now some loyalties tower over others. Now he must choose among different constructs of rightness, each one living in the shadow of another.

That's why he invited Kyle here today, even though Brendan sucks at video games. He hands the clerk two weeks' allowance and says he'd like five dollars in quarters and the rest in chocolate hearts, please. And though Kyle will probably win every match and eat most of the candy, they'll be together again.

The arcade game rivals their grandmother's china cabinet in mass. Kyle plucks his magazine from Brendan's grasp and lays it open on the console. "I gave Perry three Spider-Man issues for this," he says. "It's got all the guys' moves."

"Huh, great," Brendan says, with as much enthusiasm as he can muster. Mostly, he's hoping the comics Kyle swapped did not include the one with the center spread where Spider-Man catches Mary Jane midair. The scrawny, awkward boy who saves the day—it's gratifying to throw himself into that fantasy, though one part of it doesn't quite compute. He's friendly with most of the girls in his grade, and he's traded Hardy Boys for Nancy Drew books with Gretchen Vandenberg, no big deal. But the excitement that girls inspire in Kyle and his friends remains beyond reach. If pressed, he'll agree that Cindy Crawford seems "hot," though there's no conviction behind it; he can play the notes, but he can't hear the music. Twin discoveries: Mary Jane wears high heels in the Spider-Man illustration, but Mary Janes are also a kind of shoe that are sometimes not high heels—Gretchen wears them to church—and last week Kyle stretched the phone cord into the bedroom closet and whispered something about "scoring Mary Jane," which probably has to do with sex.

"You gotta pick a guy," Kyle says, around a mouthful of chocolate, "or it'll pick for you."

The game hits Brendan with a tsunami of color and sound. "Am I the guy on the left?"

"The right. I jumped over you."

Brendan loses twice, quickly. The machine gulps another quarter, and he cranks the joystick in wild circles, smashing buttons. Only at the end of the third match, when the game briefly falls silent, does he hear Kyle's watch alarm.

"Damn," Kyle says.

"Is something wrong?"

"No, I just need to see—" He hikes a thumb over his shoulder. "Can you stay here for, like, 20 minutes? Be back in half an hour, tops."

"Can't I go with?"

"Just stay." He digs into his pockets, retrieves a fistful of change. "Have the rest of mine."

"Sure," Brendan says, the urge to plead his case diminishing. "I'll be right here."

Kyle mumbles a thank-you and slouches away. Buoyed by his newfound fortune, Brendan unwraps two chocolate hearts to find both pieces coated in white blooms. His mother has thrown out shipments of chocolate like these at the bakery; the chalky texture means the candy didn't temper properly. But it seems a shame to waste them, so he tucks one into each cheek. As they dissolve against his molars, he glances at the clock on the wall. Where could Kyle have gone that Brendan couldn't follow?

While the game resets, he consults the magazine and something clicks: techniques he thought were simultaneous are actually sequential—he needn't hit all the buttons at once. He has to time them, like the piano arpeggios that dad makes Kyle practice. He wins the next three matches. Oh, man, is Kyle going to be impressed. With $1.25 remaining on the console, Brendan unwraps the final piece of chocolate and places it on his tongue. A look at the clock sends a pulse of worry fluttering though his chest. The clock is stuck. Its second hand jerks back and forth, a long red blade cutting through the same slice of time. How long has he really been here? Definitely more than a half hour, but probably less than an episode of Quantum Leap. He's had, what, ten pieces of candy? And spent a pirate chest's worth of quarters.

"Damn," he says aloud, the word freighted with the uncertainty of a foreign tongue.

He walks to the front of Bernie's, afterimage dots swimming at the margins of his vision. The storefront window frames the harsh, brilliant light outside.

"Has my brother come back?" he asks the clerk.

"The other boy?" the man asks. "Sorry, don't think so."

A knot forms in Brendan's belly as he returns to the game. The screen's supersaturated colors turn garish, nauseating. Maybe he shouldn't have eaten all that chocolate.

At the tinkling of the door chime he pokes his head into the aisle. It's only a lady buying Lotto tickets. But before the door can close behind her, Kyle drifts in. His eyes find Brendan's and he tilts his chin up.

"Hey," he says, closing the distance with a languid, rolling gait. "Sorry. Got held up."

"That's OK," Brendan says a bit too loudly, perhaps betraying how close it is to being not OK. "What time is it?"

Kyle draws a long breath as he raises his watch. "Whoa," he says. "A lot later than I thought." He grimaces and surveys the crumpled foil scattered on the game's console. "Any hearts left?"

"No, but I still have some quarters. And I'm way better at the game."

"Nah, I'm done," Kyle sweeps the remaining coins into his hand. "But I could eat." He strolls down the aisle, trails his fingertips over a box of crackers, a package of cookies, and a dented can of Chef Boyardee before settling on a bag of Funyuns. Brendan follows, trying not to feel rejected.

Kyle tears open the bag as they exit. Outside, the cold sun backlights a cloud bank that threatens to smother the sky. Brendan shades his eyes with the flat of his hand, but he can't make sense of what he sees. The sight of the naked parking meter freezes the candy in his stomach into a dense, heavy brick.

"Kyle, where are the bikes?"

Kyle whirls left, then right, craning his neck over the row of parked cars. He lets out a low moan as he crumples the Funyuns bag.

Panic hits with the force of a water balloon on sunburned skin. "Weren't they locked up?"

"They were, I could have sworn."

The confusion on his brother's face unmoors Brendan. Don't cry, don't cry, he thinks. With the heels of his hands, he holds back tears, takes a deep breath and lets it shudder out. "I'll tell the guy," he says, and throws open the door to Bernie's. Kyle stands in the nearest intersection turning from street to street, a grim-faced pitcher sizing up runners on every base. He throws his hands in the air and snaps them down in frustration.

"The guy see anything?" Kyle says when Brendan reappears.

"No, but he's calling the cops for us."

"Wait, what?" Kyle frisks himself, seizes something in his coat pocket as his bloodshot eyes fasten themselves beyond Brendan. "We gotta leave."

"But we have to tell the police."

"Now," he says, landing a jab on Brendan's shoulder hard enough to let him know he means it. He breaks into a jog, back toward home.

"Where are you going?" Brendan shouts. A bleak thought intrudes: together, their bikes must be worth a small fortune. The thought of telling their parents what happened sets Brendan's pulse racing. ("You stood there playing games and eating candy while someone stole your bikes?")

After running for what feels like a mile, a hot coal flares under his rib cage. "Kyle," he says, but it comes out as a rasp. The side cramp steals his breath, forces him to walk. He can't afford to let Kyle out of his sight; he can navigate using a few neighborhood landmarks, but his internal map of the world is pitiful—a few clusters of territory joined by thin travel corridors, surrounded by an unexplored ocean of lookalike residential blocks. He takes a deep breath through the pain and calls out to his brother.

Kyle puts his hands on his knees and leans against the maple at the edge of someone's property. Plastic flamingos stud the house's front lawn. The mesquite smell of barbecue wafts Brendan's way, the whole unjust world deaf, dumb, and blind to his calamity. "Why," he hunches to favor his cramped side, "did you run like that?"

Kyle stands and glances at his watch. "We need to find our bikes before mom and dad get home."

"But the police­—"

"Forget the cops. What are they gonna do?"

"There's no way," Brendan says, shaking his head. "The bikes could be anywhere."

Kyle covers his face with his hands, as if shutting out the enormity of the task ahead. "We take the alleys home. Check the backyards, in case somebody stashed them."

"That's crazy," Brendan says, but Kyle is already moving.

Sluggish from candy and the pain in his ribs, Brendan trails his brother into the alley, peering into backyards and open garages. What could be more futile? A number of impressions accumulate as the hour wears on: the same two-swings-and-a-slide playground on every tenth property. Hammocks clotted with last year's leaves. Hot tubs and pools dormant beneath winterized canvas. Two clotheslines of holey briefs billowing at full sail. The tallest elm he's ever seen dangling a tire swing from a branch like a giant tossing a yo-yo.

Three blocks from home, Kyle levers his upper body over a fence and a sandwich bag falls out of his coat. Brendan picks it up, examining what to him look to be two poorly rolled cigarettes.

"Oh, shit," Kyle mutters.

"What is this?"

"Just give it here, quick."

"Are these . . . pots?"

Last fall, a policeman named Sergeant Kohler came to the elementary school for D.A.R.E. Day and lectured the class all about the Ways to Say No. Brendan still has the Police Pal badge the sergeant gave out at the end of his talk. The realization he's holding actual drugs sends a charge through the air like the kind that precedes a summer storm.

"Are you on pots?"

Kyle smears a hand across his face. "You gonna tell?"

Brendan holds his brother's gaze. Discovering yet another of Kyle's secrets locks his anger into crystalline form, hard and multifaceted as his geode. He drops the bag and walks away.

"Hey, careful," Kyle mumbles, scooping up the bag and rolling it tight. "Where are you going?"

"Home!"

"Hey, wait a sec. I see something."

"Don't mess with me."

"Just look."

Brendan turns around. Near the end of the alley, a fragment of sunshine glints off metal. The veins in his neck throb as he moves closer. Two bars, canted at an angle that could be a bike frame—

"Is that?"

"Told you."

Even as Brendan recognizes the shapes for what they are, the fact of their existence is so wondrously alien that he can't quite accept it. Jutting from a trashcan stuffed with old newspapers and clothes, are two samurai swords.

Never has he been so disappointed to discover something so incredible.

"Are these real?" asks Kyle, his eyes wide. He pulls one of the weapons out and holds it aloft. Roughly three feet long, with a gently curved blade, it looks to be in perfect condition—ceremonial, maybe. He taps it against a telephone pole. It rebounds without making a dent. "Not even sharp," he sighs.

Sifting through the trash can, Brendan finds rope-belted robes, a lady's wig marred by bare patches, a frilly shirt with ruffles at the wrists and collar. A stack of half-size vinyl records topples and slides to the bottom. The sword is heavy, much heavier than the sticks and cardboard tubes Brendan has swung around like a lightsaber. The balance is different too, as if more of the mass were in the handle. He runs a fingertip along its edge, daring it to cut him. Dull as a spoon. The hilt is crosshatched with tightly braided fabric, and fits perfectly in his hands. How could someone throw out something so beautiful?

Kyle lifts a harmonica to his lips and blows a scale. "Wait," he says, patting his chest pocket with his free hand. "Where's the magazine?"

"Oh, no," Brendan says, reaching back through his memory of the day. "It must still be on the game."

Kyle whirls and kicks the ground, spattering gravel across the trashcans. "This whole day," he says, seeming to shrug off the fog that clung to him all afternoon. He points a finger in Brendan's face, fast enough to make the younger boy flinch. "This is your fault."

"My fault? You ditched me."

"That was the official strategy guide! It's worth, like, eight bucks," Kyle says, clouds of stale breath breaking over Brendan. "You owe me."

An ugly tide of anger courses through Brendan. "You got our bikes stolen!"

"Give me that," Kyle says, making a half-hearted swipe at Brendan's sword. There's a startling greed in his half-curled lip. It lasts only a second before his face goes blank, as if he's tumbled backwards inside himself, down where Brendan can't follow. "Fight you for them."

With a flick of his wrist he crashes his blade into Brendan's, sending a funny-bone jolt through Brendan's arms. Kyle takes a step, turns the handle two full revolutions, and slashes wide. "Stop it," Brendan says, backpedaling, a frightening pressure building in his head.

"Come on," Kyle says, poking the tip of his blade into the puffy squares of Brendan's down jacket. "En garde!"

"I said stop," Brendan says, but it comes out all wrong—loud and high and strangled—as he swings, hard. The blade catches Kyle's wrist with a thunk and he cries out as his sword clatters to the ground.

"Oh, Jesus," Kyle says, pulling his hand inside his jacket sleeve. For a horrible second, it looks like Brendan really chopped his brother's hand off. Kyle squeezes his wrist under the opposite armpit. "Oh, God, I think it's broken. What the F?"

Brendan drops his sword. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to," he says, but the lie scalds him as it leaves his mouth. He's ruined everything, busted Kyle's wrist at the start of baseball season, and for that Kyle will hate him forever. The world goes wet and wavy.

"Jeez, don't cry." Kyle rolls his eyes. "Look, I can move it, a little." He turns away, affording Brendan a moment's privacy.

Brendan buries his face in the crook of his arm. One house over, a screen door groans open and bangs shut. Someone's mother leans over a railing and hollers for her girls to come home. Her words send a tremor of dread over the boy. His parents' disappointment, soon to be added to his brother's contempt. Failure upon failure. He swallows hard, blinks at his shoes, and wipes his eyes.

Near his toes, splayed like a stunned bird, lies his brother's watch.

Don't cry out, he thinks. Brendan stoops to retie his shoelaces. The watch's chipped housing reveals the guts of a printed circuit board. His blow severed one of the wrist straps from its mount, leaving it dangling from the tenuous grasp of the other one's buckle.

He slips it into his pocket, for safekeeping.

Brendan stands and picks up a sword—his or Kyle's, he's not sure which is which anymore. His heart tries to punch its way out. Say something! Kyle will notice the missing watch at any second. But he doesn't. Kyle hugs himself and bounces in place as the wind picks up.

"We should get going," Kyle murmurs. "Mom and dad will be home soon."

Brendan nods, unsure of his voice. Deep in his pocket, the watch radiates guilt like a pulsar. He'll fix it somehow, patch the damage, rebind the straps. He's just holding it for now. He'll tell Kyle in a moment, any second now. No more secrets between them. Kyle kneels to retrieve his sword and becomes whole again as his hand emerges from the cavern of his sleeve.

Kevin Leahy is a lifelong Chicagoan. His fiction has been published in The Best American Mystery Stories (2013 edition), Slice, Opium, and The Briar Cliff Review. He won BCR's 2012 fiction contest.

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