I liked to run through the center of town with the empty grain silos and the old train station. I'd watch birds in the silos and listen to freight trains coming down the tracks, shaking coal off the runners. Near the station was a narrow tunnel where you could stand with barely enough room for the train to pass. You had to put your back flat against the wall. The train would roar by, just like that, a foot from your face. It made me nervous and excited at the same time.
I came home late one day, after dark, my chest heaving and thick sweat rolling off the ends of my fingers. I had that good feeling you get after exercising for a long time—the one that takes you into your body and makes the things around you not matter as much. The screen door shut behind me with a clack and the first thing I heard was:
"Fuck you, Richard," from Mom in a high voice.
When my parents saw me they hushed their voices and moved into the kitchen. I poured a glass of water and walked past them onto the back porch. The cold water tasted good and the night bugs were in full hum. Their voices grew loud again and I could hear them easily through the window.
"He's staying with us," Dad said. "He's my son and I have an obligation."
"Yeah, and what about your other obligations, Richard? How about those? Huh? I mean, did you stop for one second to think how I might feel? How Eric's gonna feel? "
"It's what's right," Dad said.
"Funny you're so concerned about that now."
Dad opened a beer. Mom came out onto the porch and sat down next to me. She asked me stupid stuff, like how things were going at school and if Collin had moved up a grade yet. I said he had, but I didn't know if this was true. Mom explained that Henry might be living with us for a while. Henry was my half-brother. He lived with his mom in a big house near the city, and she'd gotten herself real sick, and now Henry was supposed to stay with us for the summer. I didn't know Henry very well. Dad took me over to his house once. It was real nice and had a TV room in the basement with a play station and an air hockey table. When mom found out, there was a fight. She called Henry's mom a 'home-wrecking cunt.' She said Dad loved Henry more than he loved me. Dad said this wasn't true but he didn't take me on his visits anymore.
Henry showed up two days later. He stood in the lawn and stared up at our house like he'd never seen one before. He came inside and did the same thing: he stared at our living room with the faded green carpet and then went into the kitchen and stared some more. Henry wore a plaid shirt with a collar that stuck out and made his head look like a flower bud. He had round glasses that reminded me of that doofus Harry Potter.
Mom took me aside.
"Take Henry up to your room, Eric," she said. "Be kind to him."
"I thought you didn't like Henry," I said.
"I never said that," she said.
Henry sat on the floor in my room. He wanted to use my telescope but I told him not to touch that. I showed him the dirty comics I kept under my bed but he didn't seem impressed. I asked him what he did all summer, and he said he went to camp mostly. He asked me where I went to camp and was surprised that I didn't. He said I should go, and that I should learn to swim. It really was a pity I couldn't swim, he said. Henry told me his mom was in Baltimore at the big cancer center and his dad was staying with her. I told him I didn't want to hear about his parents, even if his mom really was sick like he said.
Henry didn't drink kool-aid or soda and wanted to know where our water purifier was. And where was the bottled water, he asked, because there wasn't any in the fridge. He said I shouldn't let the dogs lay on the sofa. He wondered why dad kept the boat in the garage since it was filled with holes didn't look at all like it could float. He asked why we only had one car for two parents.
The neighborhood kids started calling him King Henry. King Henry, they'd say, Your Royal Majesty, Your Highness, Your Lordship. It was all really funny but Henry didn't think so.
Henry followed me everywhere. He followed me out into the woods near my house where we had this old farm building. It had eight sides so it was called the octagon. Luke, Aaron, Caleb, and Jake, they all played down there. Jake said it was an old hut where they used to do meditation. It hadn't been used in a long time and there wasn't a farm there anymore. The octagon had a door without a lock, so we put branches up around the sides of the place so not just anyone could find it. And it was in the woods, anyway, so it would have been hard to spot.
We played this game called the runner. The runner's job was to sit in the middle of the octagon with the door shut. He had to take off his shoes because it's harder to run in the woods barefoot. Everybody else hid nearby. In the woods. In the tall grass. Under brambles. Up a tree sometimes. The runner would count to a hundred. Then he'd come out of the hut and chase down anybody he could find, except he'd be the only one not wearing shoes.
I explained the game to Henry one night and asked if he wanted to try. He said sure. The next day he wore this stupid jogging outfit. Short shorts. He said his mom bought them. It was the first time I saw him blush. When he tried to pull the shorts down his thighs, the top of his underwear showed. Everybody laughed.
We put Henry in the middle of the octagon. It was getting late. The rest of us, we all scattered. Night was coming which made it easier to hide. I had a really good spot under some thorn bushes. Henry came out and sprinted all over the woods in those ridiculous shorts. But with the shadows, he didn't see us. He stepped on a thorn and went back into the hut and shut the door. We waited for what seemed an hour but Henry didn't come out. Henry, Henry the Merciful, we yelled, come and get us! But he didn't. It was getting real dark. Jake and Aaron took some stones and banged them off the sides of the hut. Finally I walked up and opened the door. Henry, that dork, he was sitting in the middle of the room with his face in his hands, crying.
Henry cried a lot after that. He cried at dinner when mom told him to eat his green beans.
"Eat your green beans," Mom said. "Eat your green beans like Eric or you're going to bed."
"Yeah, eat your green beans, Henry," I said, sniggering.
"Shut up," Henry said.
"Both of you stop it," Dad said.
Henry wiped his eyes and picked at his plate. Dad told Henry he didn't have to eat his green beans, and then Mom and Dad started to fight. Mom said Dad was showing favoritism. Dad said she was being cruel. Dad left the table and went to eat in the living room. Mom washed dishes. Henry still hadn't touched his green beans.
After that, Dad took Henry out a lot on their own. He brought Henry to work with him, and he'd never done that with me. Mom said Dad just felt bad for Henry because of his mother and all, but I saw the look in her eye. I knew she thought the same thing I did.
I sat on the front porch and watched Dad and Henry rolling down the street in Dad's truck with the windows down. Dad was smiling. Henry looked happy too.
That night I asked Henry where they went. He said they drove up by the creek. The water was high, and they caught two fish, he told me, smiling. I said the fish were probably diseased and nobody fished up there anymore. Henry just sat there on his bed with this dumb look, still smiling. Mom and Dad were outside on the porch. I jumped over to Henry's bed and sat on his stomach, squeezing his ribs between my knees. Get off, he said, get off, in this pathetic voice. I squeezed harder and lay my fists into his thighs and gave him some real deep bruises that turned blue right away. He wasn't smiling after that.
The next day was Sunday. The other kids were mostly at church so it was just Henry and me. Henry was still real agitated about last night and the bruises on his thighs, which were turning purple. He asked if I wanted to play the runner again. But with shoes this time, he said. He had this funny expression. He looked excited. I said sure because I knew I was faster. Also, I knew all the old places.
He gave me a ten second lead, so I was already at the end of the street when he stood up. He was wearing those dorky shorts again, which made me laugh and hold my stomach and nearly stop running. I ran down Main Street. It was empty. Henry was a block away. I ran toward the station.
The sun was low over the fields, turning the silos red. When I got to the station, I kicked down onto the tracks, stirring up dust with my sneakers. My feet felt light and easy and I could smell the tar. I couldn't believe Henry was still behind me. I looped around the station, breathing hard. Down the tracks, I saw the train gate closing. Then came that tingle along the runners so I knew a train was coming. I made a line for the tunnel. I heard the train now, a low whistle in the distance. The train and the tunnel were getting closer, but so was King Henry. I could practically hear his short shorts squeaking away, giving himself a bigger wedgie with each step.
The pebbles between the tracks bounced. I pushed into the tunnel just as the train rushed by, pressing my back flat to the wall, the wind going crazy.
The tunnel was dark and dusty after the train left and I didn't see Henry anymore. I ran back down the tunnel and found him lying in the tracks. It made me pretty sick actually, to see him that way, even though it was just Henry. Henry the slow.
A man from town had seen us, and he came running over. He asked what happened. I told him there wasn't much room in the tunnel, and Henry didn't press his back flat against the wall like he should have. The man called the police.
There were a lot of questions after that, from the police and from Mom and Dad. Dad was really upset, which was understandable. But I couldn't see why Mom was so sad—with the crying and everything—because Henry was a loser and everyone knew it.
BIO: Elliot lives near Kansas City, MO, where he flies for the Air Force and is at work on his Master's in English through Fort Hays State University. His short fiction is forthcoming in Scissors and Spackle, The Other Room, and War, Literature, and the Arts.