By Molly Franklin
“Cooper, just shut up back there, will ya?”
“What am I even sayin’?”
“Just shut up.”
“Why’d the kid have to come?”
Presley curled back into the leather seat at the sound of Danny’s voice. Her younger brother sat in the back of the truck, his face gnarled in the reflection of the rearview mirror. Cooper’s face was flushed highlighting the fact that he wasn’t old enough to shave or even have acne yet. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt so every time Danny turned on the gravel road, it would send the kid’s small body to the other side of the truck in an ungraceful somersault. Presley had to give him credit though. He didn’t holler even when Danny made it a game to try to smash Cooper’s head into the back window.
Danny was eighteen and had a mean streak that even she was scared of that he wore as a scar under his full bottom lip and a star tattoo crudely drawn in the space between his pointer finger and his thumb. On one of their first dates, Danny had bragged that he had done it himself in juvey. Presley really liked it, but she never wanted him touching her with a boiled down needle. He wanted to put his name at the bottom of her back. Sitting in the car one hot August night, he said there was nothing hotter than knowing she was his. She asked him why he needed a reminder. He shrugged, picking under his nails with a pocket knife. That night he left three hickeys around her neck like a noose.
“Cause he said he’d scream and wake Mom up if he couldn’t.”
“So?” Danny asked throwing a glance at her from under his baseball cap. His arm was dangling out the window and the sound of cicadas pounded in through the opening, fighting against the dust and the heat. Presley clutched her dad’s shotgun between her thighs, the metal cooly kissing the inside of her thighs. She let out an aggravated burst of air, trilling it through her lips.
Her and Danny usually went coon hunting once a week. They’d take the truck out and turn off the headlights and wait cross legged on the grass until they could shoot at something. Presley liked the way a coon sounded when it got shot. She liked the way it sounded falling out of the trees taking down leaves and branches. Danny made it a point to jump up and find it. He could smell death, that’s what he always said. He liked to stare at it, the dead thing, and no matter how hard he tried, she didn’t come over to see her handiwork. She just wanted it to rot- unseen and forgotten. It reminded her of what her future was like in this town.
“So, he’d fucking do it.”
“Yeah, I fucking would.” Cooper’s voice rose from the back and he stared at the couple through the rearview. Danny’s 12 gauge shotgun was hanging above Coop’s head, mounted to the back window in a black rack. There was a pine tree air freshener that was dangling from the nose of it. Cooper was wearing an orange vest, something that Danny had found balled up in the back seat. Danny told him he could have the jacket, but he wasn’t allowed to touch the guns. Presley couldn’t help but think that the word ‘fuck’ sounded foreign on her brother’s tongue like a second language that he had learned, but there was still something about the vowels or the emphasis that sounded off. He put too much stress on it like he wasn’t sure if he was using it in the right context. He wouldn’t dare say it in front of their parents. She hadn’t even heard him say it when he was holed up in his rooms with his friends.
“Shut up.” Presley called back. Her black hair tickled her ears and the heavy bass that was pumping through the speakers pulsated over her freckled skin. Danny reached over, his star tattoo flashing, as he lowered the volume and turned off the headlights immediately plunging them into the Iowa dark. He turned off the road, sliding from pure gravel to slicked back, overgrown grass. As he drove forward, the wheels of the truck stumbled over the dips in the landscape like a drunkard stumbling out of a bar. He stopped in front of the line of woods, the tops of the trees that contrasted the blueish black skies like old lace. As the truck came to a stop, Presley pushed open the truck door and the ‘door ajar’ light came on and the ring of an alarm jiggled in the air. Danny turned over his shoulder to face Cooper.
“Can you handle being outside or do you have to stay in the truck?” Danny’s voice was condescending and Presley bristled.
“Why do you think I’m such a baby?”
“Why do you think? You probably don’t even have hair on your balls yet.”
Cooper’s face grew red in the small amount of light coming from the ceiling of the truck. Danny’s mouth split into an uneven smile, his jagged canine teeth burned like the stars in the sky. They were Presley’s own constellation that she liked to connect with when they kissed.
“Seriously, I don’t even want to think about it.” Presley muttered.
“Am I right, little man? Or do you got any curlies down there?”
“Danny, knock it off.”
Cooper’s small body, all elbows and knees connected with tissue paper skin hurled itself in the space between the front seats. He pummeled over his sister’s side, crawling over her lap and out the door.
“Hey! Watch the gun!” She called after him as he had half fallen on the ground. She readjusted in the seat, one hand on the muzzle of the gun.
“Seriously?” Presley’s mouth turned down slightly.
The sound of Danny’s smug snickering faded and his face dropped. “What?”
“You just had to get him going?”
“I proved my point, didn’t I?” She rolled her eyes, huffed, and then stepped out of the truck, bare feet sinking into the dewy ground, her orange metallic nail polish caught like a flick of flame in the green.
Danny’s boots hit the grass on the other side and he walked around until he could lean against the hood of the truck. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a butterfly knife. He flipped it open and started whistling. Presley glared back and him and squinted her eyes against the night to find the orange outline of Cooper standing next to the woods. Taking careful steps so she didn’t step on any snakes, she walked up to stand behind him.
“What?” He lifted his arm and then roughly rubbed the back of his hand against his wet cheek. Presley stood next to him and she pressed the gun down in front of her like a cane in an old musical number, something their mom had shown her on their black and white TV.
“He didn’t mean anything.”
“Why do you even like him, Presley?”
She sighed and looked up into the sky with so many stars that it lit everything so nothing was lost. Their mom had asked her that question a few times before and she always came up with some generic answer; that his smile made her get all jittering and he treated me like she was a princess. Something to make her mom nod nostalgically and say something like “That’s what gets you when you’re young.”
“He doesn’t think I’m stupid.” Presley wanted to take back the words as soon as they came out.
“But you’re not stupid.”
“Yeah, I am.” She squished the wet ground between her toes and stayed facing ahead. A humorless smile chipped her face. “School just isn’t my thing. I try really hard, but failing comes more natural. Just as natural as breathing.”
Cooper’s face turned up towards her. He was almost to her chest now and his jaw was becoming more defined. He had less of the angel look that she had always envied when she was younger. He looked more like their dad, a mad man with a beer gut and no potential. Even though she didn’t like his golden curls and little cheeks, she hated the idea of him turning into their worthless father who made it a point to live his life in an unhappy circle of hungover and disappointed.
“Don’t know why I fight it so hard. I’m a junior in high school now and the teachers, they don’t even care anymore.”
Crickets sounded in the background and she thought about an orchestra, a decrescendo that was happening so she could speak louder. “So, I met Danny in the principal’s office while I was waiting for my tutor. After talking to him I realized he was dumber than me. When we’re together, he never makes me feel stupid.”
“I don’t think you’re stupid.” Cooper’s voice was small.
“Why is that?”
“Cuz I can do long division before anybody else in my grade because you showed me how to. Remember? You made me do it on napkins whenever we went to restaurants.”
She felt her lips slightly twitch up. “Yeah.”
“So, see? You taught me something. And now I’m the best in my class at long division. So you can’t be stupid.”
His scrawny elbow hit her side and she turned to look into his face, blond hair was sticking to his too wide forehead in lines like in a barcode dripping. His eyes were too big for his face, blue and hopeful. She thought about hers and how they were the color of dried mud caked to a wheel flap.
“Guess that could be true.” She tried to smile and draped one of her arms over his shoulders. “C’mon. Lemme show you how to make a coon-grenade.”
They walked back to the truck where Danny was pulling apart pieces of grass and throwing them out in front of him. “You guys ready to do this?”
“Yep, let’s get it.” Presley gave a toothy grin and leaned against the front of the truck next to Danny. She felt herself relax and Danny let out a deep breath. He leaned down and kissed the side of her forehead, his chapped lips brushing against her hairline. Bringing the gun up to his shoulder, he wiggled closer to her.
“Now, all you do is wait. Cooper, look towards the trees. Listen for the rustling. Once they get comfortable, they will let us know they’re there.”
Racoons are bigger than you give them credit for. Bigger than a house cat and more vicious, they bumble around clumsily on short little legs that shouldn’t be able to support their tails, but they do. Presley pushed the the gun against her face and she felt the healing bruise that was left there from the last time they went hunting.
“Babe, on your right. About 100 feet. I can see one.” His voice was calm. Cooper was standing next to her, his body stiff. She could see him tensing his jaw out of her peripheral vision. Presley looked through the scope of the shotgun and caught the movement.
“You got it?”
“Yep. Little bastard’s mine.” She caught the movement in the tree and the flash of black marble eyes. Looking at it, she smiled and pulled the trigger.
“No!” After the gun fired Cooper’s hand reach up and pushed the muzzle of the gun.
“Hey, what did we say about touching guns!” Danny’s voice ran out. “Fucking stupid.”
“Cooper, what the fuck? You can’t just push the gun up. I could have shot you or Danny or me!”
Cooper’s body stilled, but then he ran to where the dead racoon had fallen out of the trees, the branches shimmying under the impact.
“What the hell? What the fuck is wrong with him?”
“Cooper, stop!” She yelled after him.
“Jesus, just let him go. So fucking stupid.”
She whipped around and pounded her finger into his chest. “Don’t call him stupid.”
His bushy brown eyebrows furrowed and he pointed to Cooper’s back with his gun. “I’m not chasing after the bastard. Shouldn’t have even come.”
“Hold my gun.”
“Are you serious?”
“Hold my fucking gun, Danny!” She pushed it into his chest, replacing her finger. She turned around so quickly her hair fell out of the ponytail holder and sagged against her neck.
“Jesus, you’re both idiots!”
That was the first time Danny had called her stupid. She blinked hard and took off in the direction that Cooper had disappeared. The grass turned more dangerous, tangled and snarled like uncut fingernails. She pushed aside branches and bushes were scratching at her legs like skeleton fingers.
“Coop?” She pushed away dangling branches, their reptilian green licking her arms and legs. “Cooper?”
She heard the muffled sound of his voice like talking through a wooden door. “C’mon, c’mon.”
He was kneeling in the dirt. She could see the tail of the raccoon like a feather duster laying next to him. The orange vest was a neon sign against the grays that filled the space. The air twisted around her like a lasso trapping both of them, the heat tugging at her skin.
“It can’t be gone.”
Presley’s feet dragged, the rough rope of humidity tucking into the folds of her body. She felt it at the back of her knees. As she peered over his shoulder, she saw Cooper’s white hands layered in a thick slave like oil or jam.
“Jesus Christ.” She muttered.
“He can’t be dead.” The matted fur was torn apart, the intestines spilling out looking like pink silly putty. Cooper kept pushing them back into the destroyed skin, folding it over until it tumbled out again. She grabbed at his hands quickly.
“Why?” He sobbed.
“Why did you kill it? He didn’t do anything to you!” Cooper fell back away from it, his white tennis shoes facing the carcass.
“Cooper, what did you think I was doing when I said we were going hunting?”
“Just shooting at things.”
Presley fell to the ground and the thick sticks rubbed against the back of her thighs leaving imprints of the earth branded there. She pulled her knees up to her chest and watched as Cooper’s chest rose up and down heavily like a puppet dangling from a string.
“He didn’t do anything.”
“They don’t have too.”
Cooper’s hands were laid out in his lap, his palms facing upwards. He was crying, tears falling down his face.
“It was just wrong place, wrong time. It’s not that I was after this raccoon.”
“Was he a bad raccoon?”
There were moments when she forgot her brother was only nine. Sometimes he was younger, his blond curls messy, his face so devoid of pain. And sometimes he was older like when he let their mother climb into his bed after having a fight with their dad. Presley always felt older. She remembered sitting at their uncle’s funeral after he had been shot outside of a gas station. She had to buy a black dress and the sleeves were made of mesh that made her armpits itch. He was barely a year then and had babbled through the entire service. But she remembered. Their mom still kept articles about it hidden away in a shoe box.
“They aren’t always bad. Sometimes it just happens.”
“It’s not fair.”
She pushed herself off the ground and crawled over to him on her hands and knees. The shuffle of leaves played with the sound of him crying. She was reminded of the orchestra again. She sat next to him and brought his head to her chest. Presley kissed the top of his head and then rubbed her cheek against his hair.
His breath came in in giant gulps like a fish washed up on the beach and she felt the tears through her t-shirt.
“Do you know what we can do?”
“What?” Cooper’s crying had slowed down and now I could feel him floating inside his skin, the voice tired and breathless.
“Do you want to bury him?”
He nodded his head against her chest.
“Okay, okay. We can do it together, okay?”
He nodded his head again and then they both moved to their hands and knees in front of the raccoon. Thank god, it had rained. Presley could feel the dirt wedge under her fingernails as they pulled at the ground, pulling up leaves and grass. Usually at this point, Danny would be driving back to her farmhouse, parking next to the chicken coop and then they would be making out, the sound of her parents fighting drunkenly in the living room being blocked out by the sound of Danny saying he loved her. Instead she was here, digging out a hole in the middle of the woods to bury something that she had just killed for no other reason than she could. And she had never felt bad about it until now. Or maybe she had and that’s why she never followed Danny into the woods to see the dead thing.
She thought about her uncle’s artificial face in the open casket. She thought about her brother’s hands digging into his stomach and trying to put the pieces back together. She thought about her mother having to drive home after the wake because their father had passed out on the funeral home’s couch.
“Do you think it’s deep enough?” Cooper asked as he wiped his forehead with a hand covered in a combination of blood and dirt.
“Yep, I think so.” She said. Presley reached for the raccoon. It was nearly split in half and it’s body moved like a slinky between both of her hands. She placed it in the small hole and they both started to cover it, watching as the fur dissolved into the dirt. She stood up and wiped her hands down her jean shorts, her finger dipping onto the skin leaving muddy fingerprints on her thighs.
“Wait!” Cooper turned behind him and stumbled toward a tree. Underneath it sat a bed of little wind flowers. He picked a bunch, careful not to crush them in his hands. As he walked back to the small grave, he placed them on top gingerly, some of the white petals speckled with blood and dirt.
Molly Franklin is a fiction writing student at Columbia College Chicago where her passions include fuzzy animals and murder- enjoyed separately of course. She has been previously published in I AM FEMINISM magazine and Lit Literature where her voice has been described as “beautifully disturbing.” Feel free to follow her at https://www.facebook.com/MESFranklin/?ref=hl where she posts regularly about singing, acting, painting, and, of course, writing.