Eddie stood before his father in the kitchen and received his Saturday morning orders. "Downstairs bathroom, cleaned as usual." "Yes, sir." His father was 'Big Will' to everyone except his sons. He gave Eddie a squeeze on the shoulder and then dismissed him. "I'm off to town. Keep an eye on your brother." Eddie looked into the den, where his younger brother, Little Will, sat cross-legged in front of the TV with a bowl of Bugles in his lap. Eddie ducked in to give Little Will a flick on the earlobe. "How come Dad never gives you any missions?" Little Will raised a palm and slowly wiggled his fingers, each of which he had capped with a Bugle. "All in due time, Lurch," he said in a cackley witch voice.
Eddie opened the cabinet under the bathroom sink and took out the bucket of cleaning supplies. Brushes in the back, sponges in the front, spray cans in the middle, all their labels facing forward.
Little Will stole out of the den and climbed the stairs. He walked into Eddie's room and wiped his palms on the front of his jeans and then blew a cool breath into each hand in turn. He stood at his big brother's dresser and admired his collection of electrical insulators. The heavy glass bell-shaped insulators, fallen from their perches high on the utility poles, were lined up like soldiers on the long, low bureau. Some were clear glass, others deep blue or bottle-green. He picked up a green one. He liked its heft, the way it fit in his palm, and its color, which reminded him of a Seven-Up bottle. When he put the insulator back he noticed his greasy prints on it. He wiped it on his jeans and then on his shirt, but that seemed to just rearrange the smudges. He carried the insulator to the bathroom and carefully cleaned it in the sink. As he turned to the towel rack, it slipped out of his hands and bounced off the tile floor. A spall of green glass the size of potato chip shot off the insulator and spun down to a rest in the hallway.
Eddie was cleaning the medicine cabinet mirror when he heard the sharp crack from upstairs. He took the stairs two at a time and found Little Will still standing in the bathroom with the broken insulator in his hands and a pallor about his face. His eyes were cast down at the chip of glass at Eddie's feet. "What the hell!" "I was just...It was dirty." Eddie took the pieces from Little Will's hands and inspected them. "You owe me a green Hemingray Number Forty," his voice high and cracking. "But I don't know where...," Little Will started. "I don't care. You owe me a green Hemingray Number Forty."
Eddie returned to his post, finished the mirror and began on the countertop. He worked fast and absent-mindedly, the anger bubbling up inside of him. He heard the screen door slam and looked down the center hall to see Little Will pedaling his new bike furiously down the gravel driveway. Eddie returned to his work but found himself doing it haphazardly, and that would never pass inspection. He thought about dumping all his chores on Little Will as payback, but his father would never allow that. Little Will got everything, it seemed to Eddie—except the chores. So he slowed down and started over, and as he did, he began to feel the anger in his belly turning into a churning anxiety. It crept upward and tightened his chest and throat. He left the toilet brush sticking out of the bowl and raced for the garage and his bicycle.
Little Will let his bike fall in the tall grass at the base of the utility pole. He slipped off his belt and buckled its ends between two of his father's belts to form one giant one. He laughed as he tried to imagine how fat a man would have to be to need a belt this big. He looked up to the top of the pole, and when he shielded his eyes he could see the late morning sun shining through the green glass insulator. He hoped it was a Hemingray.
Eddie rode out past the grain elevators and over the railroad tracks, alternating his gaze between the fence lines and the tops of the utility poles. He looped through town but saw nothing of Little Will, just little kids on their bikes, little kids in plastic front-yard swimming pools, little kids in the park being watched over lovingly by their parents. Finally he rode the highway out of town. At the top of the rise on the outskirts he spotted a small figure starting up the pole at the end of a driveway. He dropped down into a crouch and pedaled hard, lifting his head just enough to keep an eye on the road and to steal glances at Little Will. He arrived at the base of the pole breathless and panicked. His first shout came out cracked and dry and was blown away by the wind. Little Will was nearing the top, with his feet on the metal footholds, leaning back slightly with the giant belt looped around the pole and the small of his back. He looked like a tiny lineman, but without the hardhat and without any sense of the dangers in the world.
"Will, get down!"
Eddie scrambled to the pole with arms and legs and pulled himself up to the first pair of footholds, his hands full of tar and the smell of creosote filling his nose.
"Will, come down."
"I'm almost there. I can't tell if it's a Hemingway."
"It is? Good."
"No, Will, it's not a Hemingray. Come down."
Little Will was already at the next set of footholds. He loosened his grip and let his weight sag back against the creaking belt. He held his hands to his face and blew into his palms.
Eddie yelled again, "Come down, that's not the one I need!"
"Hang on, I'm almost there." Little Will climbed higher, ducking his slim shoulders around the lowest row of wires.
Eddie felt a paralyzing numbness in his core, tightening his chest and choking off his speech. The day went silent except for the pounding in his chest. He could see the tall grass swaying, but he couldn't hear the wind. He tried to climb, but his hands and feet no longer seemed to be a part of him. As he watched Little Will twisting his way up through the cables, he looked away and searched inside himself for some hope. Maybe this wasn't really happening. Maybe Will was small enough to move safely through the lines. Then he remembered how good Will had been the very first time they played Operation. How he had extracted the Broken Heart without a buzz or a blink of the fat man's red nose.
A shrill buzzing pierced the silence and brought the world rushing back to Eddie's ears. He couldn't tell if it was the cicadas, or the power lines, or his own electrified anxiety. He pulled himself close to the pole and stared straight ahead, too scared to shift his gaze, half-expecting to see Will's small frame falling through his field of vision.
Finally, from above, "How do I get it off?"
Eddie looked up. Little Will's body blocked the sun, so that its rays sparked out around his head like the halos in the stained glass windows at church. "It's not a Hemingway, Will. You got to come down."
Little Will's shadow lay across Eddie's face, and he could see something new there, something small and scared and desperate.
"So we're even?" asked Little Will.
BIO: Jeff Johnson lives in Minneapolis with his wife and twin sons. His nonfiction has appeared in The Sun—Readers Write. This is his first published story.