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In the Path of Falling Objects
By Andrew Smith
Macmillan Copyright © 2009 Andrew Smith
All rights reserved.
Our brother fell apart in the war.
Mother fell apart after that.
Then we had to leave.
Even in a perfect world the horse would not have carried me and my brother all the way to Arizona; it fell and died not ten miles away from our home in Los Rogues, New Mexico. And while I sat in the dirt and heat of the dusty road, looking at how my hands had been scraped when we fell, Simon, my stubborn little brother, tried to pretend he wasn't crying, but he cried anyway and pressed his face into the knees of his jeans, soaking the fraying denim with his tears for more than an hour before even looking up at me.
And I don't know what I was thinking. There was no way I could pull that dead horse out of the road, but I was so ashamed at leaving it there that I tried to anyway.
"What do you think you're going to do, Jonah?" Simon said.
And I kept pulling dumbly on the horse's leg, leaning my weight back as far as I could.
"We can't just leave it here. It's embarrassing." I could feel the sweat crawling down my face.
"No one ever comes down this road."
"Just our luck someone will today," I said.
So I jerked at my canvas pack, pinned beneath the hulk of the horse's flank, wiped my arm across my nose as I slung the pack over my shoulder, and tugged the dirty, sagging pants higher on my waist.
"We should go back home," Simon said, his throat still choked tight from the crying.
"We can't. Don't be stupid. We'll starve to death."
"I hate you, Jonah."
Of course I knew that Simon didn't really hate me. It's just something brothers say to brothers, sometimes. Because I always believed that Simon was my best friend. I still do believe it.
Mother and Matthew, our older brother, said we always fought when we were little, but I don't think that's true. But we did have some pretty good ones, at times, and Simon almost always ended up getting me in trouble. He'd always been good at that.
By the time Matthew was in twelfth grade, he began spending less time at home. I couldn't blame him. He'd gotten a job at the bowling alley, and he'd sometimes stay there all night, or sleep at a friend's house just to stay away. But he'd always come back, especially at times when our mother would leave Simon and me there alone. Matthew would bring us food wrapped in waxed paper from the bar at the bowling lanes. We never said it out loud, growing up, but Matthew and I understood that we were all we had, and the three of us brothers needed each other just to survive.
There's only one bed in our room, and when Matthew was home that meant Simon and I had to sleep on the floor with blankets, next to each other to stay warm. When it was real cold, we'd all three sleep in that bed. Sometimes I knew that Simon and I would lose patience with each other, too, because there's only so much you can put up with during the daytime from someone you have to sleep with every night of your life. At least, that's how I look at it.
And now Matthew was gone. Simon and I didn't talk much about where he was. The thought of losing him was more frightening than probably anything else. But we had also gotten used to his not being home, even if we'd never get used to the possibility of his not coming back. And there were things about Matthew that I knew, but never told Simon, and couldn't tell Mother because after we stopped getting letters from him, she just shut down and then she vanished.
Now our horse was dead, and I felt so lost and scared. But I didn't want Simon to know that, so I made him keep walking with me. He didn't have a choice. And he hated that.
So we walked, Simon dragging his feet in the dirt of the road, following three paces behind me. His shoes were too big and he never tied them, so his feet made this awful snoring sound wherever he went.
And I looked back only once, where the road broadened out, curving around a creek bed where cottonwoods picketed, trunk upon trunk, silver-dollar leaves clattering like teeth, but I couldn't see the horse.
"We're going to keep going anyway. I promise I will take care of you."
I knew Simon wouldn't reply, and my words sounded so strange and hollow in the quiet of the afternoon. I guess I hadn't really heard my voice in the past two weeks, or, at least, hadn't noticed it as much as I did out there on the edge of the desert. Mother had gone off with one of her men friends for Georgia, or Texas, or someplace, and Simon and I had been left behind, alone in the crumbling shack of our home.
The electricity had been gone for days.
I was sixteen that summer. My jeans were cuffed even though I was already nearly six feet tall, and where they were folded they had begun picking up dirt and twigs. They first had belonged to Matthew. The shirt I wore had been ordered from an Alden's catalogue; my brother had worn it, too, when it was new. The elbows were wearing through and I kept the sleeves rolled up, the tails tucked in tightly down inside my jeans, almost to my knees. It was too hot for flannel, anyway.
The last letter from Matthew came two months ago, at the end of the school year.
And all Matthew's letters to me were in our pack, ordered, tucked beneath the carelessly wadded clothes and the canteen of piss-warm water that tasted metallic, like it had been strained through the filth in the drain of the streaked porcelain sink basin in the kitchen. At the bottom, under our clothes, was the comp book where I drew my map, and a small pistol.
So Simon and I came down from the hills where we lived, where we had abandoned our horse, the trees thinning out to open on the vastness of the desert, the dirt road stretching in a narrowing line to disappear among the mesas in the distance, the stream becoming nothing more than dampness, shaded somewhere beneath the rocks strewn to mark its path, following the road, or the road following it. On the opposite side of the bed, a derelict trailer sat crookedly, one wheel missing, the blackness of its doorway yawning upward at the shadows of gathering clouds.
We said nothing to each other.
It would rain soon; I could smell it.
The rain came in relentless slate sheets. We saw its approach, a smoky drape across the desert, sweeping toward us like some monstrous black broom, the first spitlike gobs of wet streaking down through my hair and pasting my shirt to my chest. By the time we decided to go back to the doubtful shelter of the trailer, Simon and I must have looked like castaways climbing from the sea.
"Here." I interlaced my fingers to give a boost for Simon's foot at the edge of the trailer's doorway.
"Why do I have to go in there first?"
I don't know why I even put my hands down there. I should have known he would say something like that.
So I just looked at Simon, then, grabbing at either side of the doorway, heaved myself up into the dimness of that crooked trailer.
Water ran down from the top of the doorway, spilling across the blistered linoleum and pooling against the far wall, where gravity had pulled a collection of beer cans and other trash across the slope of the tilting floor. My wet hair hung down across my eyes and mouth. I swept it back over my head and reached a hand out into the rain to help my brother up into the trailer.
There was a door there, hanging open, but it was bent badly, and so I kicked at it until it finally wedged into the jambs and stopped the pounding rain from coming in.
"What if we can't get out?" Simon said.
The rain was so loud inside the small trailer, roaring like an endless swarm of locusts hurling themselves against the rusted skin of its exterior. When the thunder came, the trailer seemed to lift in the air, and we both nearly fell down from it.
But there was enough light coming in through the two side windows that we could see where we were. A bed stretched across the width of the trailer in the back, the uncovered mattress yellowed and torn, offering up tufts of its innards where the cloth had worn through. And smeared all along the yellowing walls were handprints, stamped in the red dirt of the desert, probably made from someone drying themselves here during a rainfall like this one. I put the pack on what was left of a table, attached to one wall, but broken jaggedly across its middle as though bitten by some giant.
I opened the pack.
"It's still dry. We should put on some dry clothes, Simon."
"It stinks like piss in here."
"Least we're not out there."
We changed our clothes, leaving our wet things hanging wherever we could; from the splinters of the broken table, the knob of the door, the edge of the window; our shoes turned upside down at the upper edge of the floor where there wasn't any water. I pulled a tee shirt from the pack but it was Simon's, so I sighed and put it back. My nose was running, water dripped from my hair, and I realized I had nothing else dry to wear in the pack besides some underwear and one pair of jeans that were too big for me. I took out Matthew's letters and stacked them flat. Standing barefoot in the rusted water on the floor, I tossed a pair of socks to Simon, who had climbed up onto the bed.
"These are your socks," Simon said, putting them down, ignored, on the torn bedding.
"Wear them anyway."
I left the pack on the table and placed the bundle of Matthew's letters down on the bed next to Simon's feet. My brother scooted himself back and sat up against the rear wall.
Simon was fourteen then. He stood so close to me in size that people who didn't know us usually thought we were twins. So he was the unlucky third step in the clothes chain at our house, and that meant that, except for the shoes, his were almost always too small for him.
I liked to read. I liked drawing. But Simon liked everything physical, and was good at sports and made friends easier than I ever did. Neither of us had cut our hair in months. We were both smart enough to know that back home we didn't live like other kids. Our mother was always gone, always going to church, and I believed she was embarrassed to be seen with us. Whenever she needed Simon to do something, she'd tell me, like I was some kind of translator or something, or like she couldn't even see him. I know I'd tried to protect him, growing up, and Simon could tell I was doing it, so he'd push back at me, and I'd fight, but I'd never give up on Simon.
And we were smart enough to know we had to stay close. Still, we both played at the game of pretending how opposite we could be; and so it was probably all we could do to tolerate one another as we tried to get somewhere together and alone out on that road. I wondered whether our frail peace would last.
I stood there, my feet cool in the stained water on that peeling floor, listening to the roar of rain, feeling the drips from my hair on my bare shoulders, just watching my little brother act so comfortable as he stretched out across the bed. I pulled my wet hair back and twisted it around into a tail.
The last time we had eaten anything was the day before we left. But we agreed to a rule, Brothers' Rule Number One, that neither of us would ever say he was hungry.
Below the edge of the carcass of the bed, a Time magazine sat atop the castings-off of previous tenants, splayed open with curled and desiccated pages. I picked up the magazine, closing it so I could see the cover, moved Matthew's letters to the side, and climbed up onto the bed next to Simon.
"No one's been here for a while, Simon. This is from last October."
I showed the magazine to Simon, who looked at it blankly, shrugging. The cover showed a checkerboard of square pictures, each alternating between the same repeated black-and-white image of President Richard Nixon sandwiched between color photographs from the war in Vietnam; all of this beneath the banner WHAT IF WE JUST PULL OUT?
"Well, they could have left it a little nicer in here."
The rain continued to roar its drumming on the shell of the trailer.
I thumbed through the magazine. It was like a gift to have found something to read.
"Even if the rain stops soon, maybe we should just stay here for the night and then leave in the morning."
"And then where will we go?" Simon said.
"We already said we'd do this." I sighed. "Dad gets out in two weeks. He's all we got. We should be there."
Our father had been in and out of jail so much that I don't think either of us really could picture what he looked like. This time he was in prison in Arizona. That's what happens to heroin addicts. I guess it's one way of getting clean. Simon and I didn't talk about him much, but now that I look back on what happened to us that summer, maybe it was stupid of me to hold out any hope for things working out for us.
"You're insane, Jonah."
"What else can we do? We got ten dollars between us, and you know that any day they'd be coming to take us away. And most likely we'd end up separated. Then we'd have nothing left."
I had a ten-dollar bill in our pack. I won it months before from a poster contest at school and kept it hidden away, not ever telling anyone it was there, taking it out from time to time to secretly stare at it. Now it was just one of the things we carried or wore that belonged to the small list of everything we owned in the world.
Simon didn't say anything to that. He just sank down lower in his seat on the bed.
I heard Simon yawn.
"Do you hate her, too?" he asked.
I knew who Simon was talking about. Mother.
"She must hate us," Simon said.
"She does. I think so."
"'Cause we pinned her down there. And she wasn't good at it, so she just quit. That's all. Then Matthew," I said.
The rain pounded, making an angry noise.
"And you still don't hate her?" Simon said.
"I gave up."
"When you gonna give up on this?" Simon asked. "On me, I mean?"
"Not gonna. So let's not talk about it anymore."
"Brothers' Rule Number Two," Simon said. "Don't be a quitter."
"Are you making that one up mostly for you or for me?" Simon didn't answer that.
And I said, "Sometimes when it rains like this it makes me feel like it's never going to stop. Like the world's coming to an end."
I got my orders today and I'm going to be leaving on the 25th of this month. They're going to send me to Oakland and then I'll find out where I'm going for sure. Maybe they'll just leave me in Oakland (ha ha).
I'm really tired. I wrote four letters before this one, but I didn't want to forget my little brother. I should get some sleep I guess.
There's a flight line of choppers outside my window, if you could call it a window. When they're taking off at night and in the day, it's a beautiful sight. They fly right over our window about 15 to 20 feet up. You would love to see that and hear it.
I thought it was funny how you said not to write to Mother till after September cause Dad might get out of jail then, and how Simon just said for me to not get killed. I will try. But you and me know why Dad keeps getting himself put in jail. Don't say anything to Simon.
I never liked my name, so Matthew always called me Joneser or Brother Jones or something like that.
I liked how he did that. Everyone else just called me Jonah.
Simon fell to sleep, propped up against the wall at the back of the trailer, his head tilted over and his body leaned sideways. Eventually he slumped over and his head fell down onto my shoulder. At first I was going to push him off — he'd have done it to me — but I stopped myself and sighed.
I felt like crying. I guess I felt like giving up.
But Simon laid down a rule and if I broke it, that would be like letting him beat me in a fight.
The rain ended quietly before night came.
I fell to sleep.
Simon was already awake when I opened my eyes. It was late in the morning and the air in the trailer was becoming hot and thick when I heard the soft rubbery thud of something dropping down from the ceiling and hitting the floor below the edge of the bed where we had slept. Then came the scraping-clicking of movement of legs along the linoleum.
"There's a big scorpion over there under that trash, Jonah."
It didn't really register. I sat up, letting my feet down onto the floor, and then, realizing what Simon had said, lifted them back up onto the bed.
"What did you say?"
"I saw a scorpion crawl under that trash there." Simon nodded his chin to show the direction, across the floor, the trash piled up on the other side of the doorway.
"It's really hot in here," I said.
"I think it's late."
Excerpted from In the Path of Falling Objects by Andrew Smith. Copyright © 2009 Andrew Smith. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
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