by JOEY R. POOLE
Simon found the body floating in a puddle behind the pump house. The girl’s arm was broken, twisted behind her head, and yellowed stuffing leaked from the smiling slit in her throat. He tossed her back into the gathering water and turned her face-down with his toe before he shut off the spigot. He wondered whether it mattered that he’d found her with the water still running, if Ricky was trying to tell him something. For a second Simon marveled at how far Ricky had carried the game the two of them had played all summer, ever since they’d found the box of stuffed animals and rag dolls the dead girl’s family left in the attic. The game worked like this: Ricky was always the killer and Simon the detective. Simon had to wait exactly twelve minutes—about the amount of time it took him to play a couple levels of Space Invaders or to squash out all three of his amphibious lives trying to cross the road in Frogger. During this time, his older brother would select a stuffed animal or a doll from the box to be the body. Ricky would leave the body somewhere that Simon could find it and then he’d run away and hide. Ricky said that all killers subconsciously wanted to get caught, and he left obvious clues to his whereabouts. Both of them were armed with air rifles, and the game inevitably ended in a shootout when Simon followed the trail of clues to Ricky’s hiding place. The goal was to kill the other by scoring a hit to the torso. The game seemed unfair to Simon because Ricky always had the advantage of surprise and camouflage, but they’d never discussed switching roles, and Simon accepted the doomed hunt as his lot in life. Ricky always left easy clues—an open gate, his shoe hung from a tree branch, once even a detailed note signed with a bloody thumbprint and taped to the severed paw of a stuffed Tigger. Lately, though, he’d grown more sophisticated. He’d begun leaving false evidence, springing traps, leading Simon farther and farther away from the backyard. Simon was tired of the game. The BB embedded in his forearm from a week before still throbbed like a toothache and he’d begun to give up hope that it would work its way out so that his mother would never see it. The shiny metal crown of it showed through his skin, and the flesh around it had grown crusty and smelled like the underside of a garden hose. The game was Ricky’s invention, and he always won. In the beginning, he would simply hide the bodies. Lately he had taken to mutilating them as well. He’d used one of the hanging basket hooks on the front porch like a meat hook to hang a teddy bear wearing a Santa hat, and had burned a stuffed Miss Piggy after stabbing her through the heart with a tomato stake. He’d apparently twisted this one—a rag doll with straw-colored hair and a checkerboard bonnet that wouldn’t stay on her head—violently enough to nearly tear her button-eyed face off. Simon wondered if Ricky had wrung the imaginary life out of her before or after he drowned her in the flooded grass. Ricky said those things mattered. When they found the bodies it was important to find out exactly what the killer had done to them. Simon could never understand why. Simon scanned the yard for clues. The gate in the chain-link fence between their house and the overgrown backyard of the abandoned house next door was open; Ricky had gone that way. Simon didn’t bother to duck low or conceal himself as he walked through the jungle of knee-high crabgrass and mimosa bushes, for it had been weeks since Ricky had holed up this close to the backyard. He guessed that he’d find another clue there, and he was right. On the other side of the yard, he saw a piece of the doll’s tattered bonnet hanging from the top of the fence. The location of the clue seemed to indicate that Ricky had gone down a trail that Simon had never walked but which Ricky swore led to an abandoned rock quarry where he’d once watched a bunch of girls from school go swimming with their tops off. Simon took up the chase, trudging through the briars a few yards off to the side of the trail. It made for slow going, and he was sure Ricky would hear him coming a mile away as he hacked and stomped his way through the underbrush, but it was better than waltzing nakedly into danger out on the open trail. A summer of learning the chase and getting stung with BBs had honed his senses, and he froze like a startled fawn when he heard a branch cracking somewhere ahead of him. There was nothing else to be heard except the rustling of tiny creatures in the dead leaves. A rivulet of sweat rolled down the back of his thigh and he felt swampy inside his jeans. He wanted to be anywhere else but here, sweating through a futile chase, waiting for inevitable pain and stinging failure to fly at him from out of nowhere. Suddenly it dawned on him that he could simply give up. He could refuse to play the game at all. He could walk brazenly up the path back to the house, make himself a jelly sandwich, and spend the afternoon dodging the bombs dripping from orderly rows of Invaders. He was about to do just that when suddenly his quarry was right in front of him holding the drowned doll’s bonnet. He hadn’t even heard Ricky walking up the path until the grinning, blank-eyed skull of his Misfits tee shirt was framed by a gap in the jasmine bush behind which Simon cowered. His heart leapt into his throat and he steeled himself for the stinging before he realized that Ricky didn’t see him. “Come on, faggot,” Ricky yelled back toward the house, the way he did when he grew bored with waiting for Simon to find him. “I’m in the woods.” Simon thought about the silver BB sunk in the flesh of his arm and wondered if his own shot would bury itself in the soft flesh of Ricky’s belly. He raised his rifle slowly, and squinted down the barrel, holding his breath just the way his father had shown him, and sighted on one of the skull’s ragged teeth, one he figured would be just to the left of Ricky’s belly button. He felt for a moment as if he’d lose his Fruit Loops, but he managed to squeeze the trigger. Simon did not know that his bedroom had once belonged to a dead girl until a bucktoothed boy who spent his recess running up to smaller kids and rabbit-punching them in the arm had told him. “Her name was Sherri,” the boy had said. “She was in the sixth grade, but she had big tits. She got, like, raped and murdered. They never caught the guy.” That night, at the supper table with a mouth full of fish sticks, Simon informed his mother about the dead girl and asked her what rape was. Ricky drooled mashed potatoes he laughed so hard. “You might better ask your dad that when he gets home,” his mother said. Simon waited for him to get home from work and eat supper before springing the question, but his father was no help. He seemed embarrassed by the question, and just said that it was something that bad men did to women before he descended into the basement where he’d sequestered himself pretty much every evening since they’d moved into the house. Simon sat in his room and played Asteroids with the sound turned off so his mother would think he was doing homework. He heard pool balls clicking together from down in the basement, a piano from the old, lonely-sounding records his father played tinkling away softly. Just as a tiny shard of asteroid destroyed Simon’s last ship, insistent drums began thumping through the wall from Ricky’s stereo, and it wasn’t long before his father was beating on the ceiling with his cue stick, yelling for Ricky to shut off the goddamn noise. Ricky either didn’t hear the yelling over the music or he pretended he didn’t, and Simon winced when he heard footsteps stomping up the basement steps. He went into the hall, wanting to run far away from the scene he knew was coming, but it was too late. Ricky’s room door was open, and he saw his father rearing back to kick the stereo, aiming for the speaker closest to him. His foot got caught in the speaker box and he fell to the floor, the screaming vocals and guitar suddenly silenced but the drums and the rolling bass still pouring out of the other speaker. Ricky sat on the edge of the bed and almost laughed while their father worked his foot out of its trap. When he finally got back on his feet, the tiny bald spot at the crown of his head had gone pink and he lunged at Ricky. Simon had never realized how much bigger than their father Ricky had gotten, but he was a full head taller when their father grabbed him by the hair and snatched him off the bed. “You think it’s funny, big boy?” the man asked, looking up into Ricky’s face. “Huh? Huh? You think it’s funny?” He gave a little tug on Ricky’s hair and Ricky whimpered “no” before correcting himself and saying “no, sir.” Their father let go of Ricky’s hair and looked up at Ricky, who still towered over him despite his slumped shoulders. “I didn’t think so,” their father hissed. “You’re big but you ain’t shit. And I will pop you in the mouth next time you want to laugh at me.” He opened his mouth to say something else but seemed to deflate suddenly, and he turned to leave. “And turn that shit down,” he said, almost politely, before descending once again to his hermitage in the basement. Simon fell asleep that night thinking about the dead girl in whose room he now slept and dreamed that the paint peeled off the wall in his bedroom, revealing pink-striped wallpaper festooned with prancing unicorns. A month later, already bored with summer, he explored the attic while his parents were at work. The loose insulation itched his eyes and stuck to his face. The family who’d moved out hadn’t left much of interest up there: a fake Christmas tree in a box, melted candles, a set of encyclopedias, an Easy-Bake oven. Off in the corner, Simon saw a blue arm sticking out of a huge box. It was filled with stuffed animals, rag dolls, and molded plastic infants. When he dragged the box down stairs and showed it to his older brother, Ricky’s eyes seemed to light up. Later, Simon often wondered if the terrible game that was seemingly Ricky’s one true calling in life was the first thing that occurred to him when he saw the box of forgotten dolls. The wound on Ricky’s belly did not bleed until Simon dug the tweezers into it to retrieve the BB that had lodged itself inside. Simon felt the pellet and thought he’d grabbed hold of it, but the tweezers held only a lump of greasy, yellow-white fat that looked and smelled like margarine. He wondered for a second if Ricky had no innards, no living organs, if he was filled with this stuff like the doll bodies and teddy bears they mutilated were stuffed with cotton wads and straw. Simon could feel the muscles beneath Ricky’s stomach tense and heard him gritting his teeth as he went back in with the tweezers. He was repulsed by the wiry black hairs that he had never noticed before around Ricky’s belly button more than he was by the blood and the ooze from the wound, which he found fascinating. This time he felt the tweezers scrape against something metal and he retrieved the pellet, tearing the hole a little as he pulled it out. He watched intently as the peroxide Ricky poured into it fizzed out like a tiny volcano. He’d hoped Ricky’s fervor for the game would be dulled by his injury, but it was only intensified. This time, though, Ricky insisted that Simon play the killer for the first time in weeks. Simon did not possess the same flair for the game, the same violence of invention that was Ricky’s hallmark, and so he found himself plucking one shiny black eye from a rag doll that already leaked stuffing from its armpit and dropping it in the same pool in which Ricky had drowned its sister. Reluctantly, he trudged down the same path through the woods, wanting only for the game to end with the sting of a BB on his chest so that he could retire into the air-conditioned safety of the house and immerse himself in killing marching hordes of ever-advancing aliens. He wedged himself in the crotch of a dogwood tree a few feet off the path and listened for footsteps. The woods were quiet, like the heat had smothered the birds and baked the insects into a silent stupor. Just as he settled himself into the tree, not even bothering to ready his rifle, a jet droned overhead, raising a white welt on the sky. The empty roar of it was punctured by a plinking noise near Simon’s head. Ricky had cheated. No more than five minutes had passed since Simon had abandoned the doll. He looked down to see Ricky standing on the path, squinting down the barrel of his rifle, the mangled doll hanging by one limp leg from his pocket. Simon tried to shimmy down the tree, but his foot got trapped in a crook and he fell into the briars. He looked back to Ricky, who stepped forward until he was about two body lengths away and fired. Simon heard the pop of the rifle before he felt the fire in his cheek, just below the eye. His first thought was that he should not cry. And he did not, not until Ricky knelt over him and put his hand on Simon’s hair. “Oh, shit,” Ricky said. “I meant to hit you in the chest. It’s okay, though. It’s not your eye, okay? It’s just your cheek. It’s okay. It’s not your eye. Okay?” Ricky brushed Simon’s cheek with his fingers, leaning close, his breath smelling like Slim Jims, then covered his mouth with his hand like he was thinking hard. There was blood under his nails, smearing in sweaty smudges on his chin. “It’s just—come on, let’s go inside and clean it up. The BB ain’t even in there. It’s nothing.” Simon had never said fuck you to anyone before, and only a choking, girlish sob came when he tried to say it to Ricky. He tasted blood and snot and leaned forward to hide his embarrassment in the dead leaves. “Come on, get up,” Ricky said, a little rougher this time, the tone of his voice betrayed a little by the tenderness of his hand kneading Simon’s back. “Come on. We have to clean that up before Mom gets home, figure out what we’re going to say happened to you and all.” Simon sat up abruptly, and his gaze pushed Ricky’s eyes away. “I’m not playing this stupid game anymore,” he said simply. “Okay, okay, you don’t…” “And I’m going to tell Mom you shot me.” It was the last thing he wanted to say, but there it was. He felt like a crybaby, so he puffed out his chest and stood up and said it again. “I’m going to tell her you shot me and that you go around…whatever it is…raping those doll things.” “You don’t even know what that fucking means.” All the tenderness was gone from Ricky’s voice now. “You just—well, I guess we could say you were doing something stupid like looking down the barrel or something, and it just, like, went off somehow...” Simon laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of it, laughed until he snorted, the snot running onto his lips. Ricky swung the doll by the arm and hit Simon in the face. He swung it again, hard enough to knock Simon down, and stood straddling him, pummeling him with doll until its arm broke off. Then he kicked Simon in the gut and picked the doll up by its head, rubbing it into Simon’s face. “Play with your fucking doll, pussy,” Ricky said, “and figure out what the fuck you’re going to tell her because if you tell her I shot you I swear to God I’m going to…” he trailed off, never finishing his threat, and kicked again at the dead leaves before turning to run back toward the house. Simon thought he was dying. There was bile in his mouth and an aching emptiness in his lungs and he tried in vain to suck air back into his chest. Finally he caught his breath and sat up, blinking in the blinding brightness of the sun. The rag doll winked at him one-eyed and seemed to laugh at some joke that only she understood. He picked her up by the yarn of her hair and dug his fingers into her chest until the fabric tore and then he began to pull out her matted cotton guts.
JOEY R. POOLE is a writer and composition instructor from Florence, South Carolina. His stories have previously appeared in The Southeast Review and Clapboard House. He is currently trying to trick himself into writing a novel by working on a collection of connected short stories.