This story is by Jessica Deen and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Yesterday, I pretended not to notice my brother Chad being bullied by some white boys after school when I walked by. The bullies were my boss’s sons, Marcus and Jacob Rowan, and Chad always seemed to be tangled up with them, making them angry.
Marcus had Chad barricaded inside the locker while Jacob kept watch. When I heard Chad call me, Jacob raised his chin, squinting, daring me to challenge him. I turned to walk away.
The metal clanked and squeaked as the locker opened and my brother spilled out onto the floor. His rubber-soled shoes skidded as he clambered to get up.
Jacob lunged at Chad, but he was quick and escaped Jacob’s grasp. Chad stuck his leg out and Jacob tripped over it, falling into Marcus. As Chad started running, he turned back to the Rowans, red-faced and yelling at each other, and flipped them off.
We both ran until they couldn’t catch us and I punched him in the arm with the fist I’d been balling.
“What? I didn’t do anything!” he whined. “I’m tired of this shit and…”
I cut him off. I turned to face him and held his shoulders. “It sucks. But you’re never going to get anywhere fighting with them. It’ll piss them off. Behave and stay out of the way.”
“Bullshit,” Chad said. I kept walking.
He mumbled, “We shouldn’t get shoved around and take it.”
I agreed, but I couldn’t tell him that.
“Chad, you gotta show ‘em you’re better. It won’t be like this forever and you know I need the job. Put your head down and quit stirring up trouble.”
We walked the rest of the way home in silence.
When Mr. Rowan offered me a job helping on his farm in the mornings after my dad died, I couldn’t turn it down. I worked there and he gave me food from the farm for my family, though I was hoping to earn some money, instead. The sack of vegetables I’d bring home were usually bruised and rotten, and I’d have to leave the room while my mom cut away all the bad spots. She was thankful for what we had left at the end and didn’t seem focus on the rest, but it made me sick.
Mr. Rowan called last night and asked me to bring Chad along this morning, adding, “Jakey said he’s a feisty one.”
My skin tingled and my stomach hopped into my throat. I pushed it down, hung up the phone and told Chad to be up for 4:30am, though my instinct was to leave Chat at home. Mr. Rowan never harmed me, but he didn’t stop his sons from tormenting me on occasion. I thought of my dad’s “accidents,” coming home from his job at Rowans when he was still alive with black eyes and red welts.
Chad and I met the Rowans in the dark driveway this morning, their truck already running. The boys weren’t usually there and the sight of them made me uneasy.
I introduced Mr. Rowan to Chad, waving my arm toward him as if he was a game show prize.
When Mr. Rowan told us to get in the truck, Chad marched up to open the door of the cab to climb in. Mr. Rowan boomed, “Whoa! Hand off the handle. You can join your brother in the back,” and hiked his thumb, pointing to the open back where I was already about to sit.
We took a bumpy, dark ride to the back of the property where the lake sat. The familiar smell of hay and manure comforted me. Dawn was beginning and I could see the ripples on the surface of the water.
When the truck stopped, Mr. Rowan stuck his head out of the window and said, “I’m gonna get you guys to cut down a few dead trees. They know which ones and they’ll tell ya what to do. I’ll be back in a while.” He winked at his sons, stepped on the gas, and kicked dirt up toward us on his way out.
Marcus threw ropes in my direction and told Chad and I to tie them around the trees before they cut them. As I wrapped my arms around the tree, a thunderous crack made me snap my head in Chad’s direction. I looked over to see Marcus standing over my brother with a large tree branch. Chad was on his knees holding his head, dazed. I stepped closer to him as the same sound reverberated through my own skull. I fell to the ground on all fours and blow after deafening blow followed. I cowered with my hands covering my face while I tried to reach Chad.
I begged them to let him go, my voice weak, my consciousness dimming. The sickening sounds of thick wood connecting with black skin and bone, drowned out everything else. How was I fool enough to bring him here?
My vision blackened and I passed out until the roar of the truck woke me. I tried to lift my head and a whip landed against my ribs, slicing a warm cut on my swollen flesh.
“Aww, for shit’s sake, you two! I told you to teach ‘em a lesson, not beat them half to death. Jesus.”
I gurgled at Mr. Rowan, tasting iron, choking. I watched him approach Chad, his body unmoving on the ground. He lifted his foot and nudged Chad in the back. He didn’t move.
I crawled toward Chad, but the ground was slippery and wet beneath me, sending my limbs sideways, leaving me unable to get up.
“Get the boat,” Mr. Rowan yelled. The boys scrambled at his raised voice.
I struggled to stay awake, keeping my feet moving, trying to breathe. I couldn’t speak and my eyes were so swollen I could barely see anymore. I reached out for Chad, wanting to hold his hand. All the times I told him to quit fighting so hard and be kind, suffocated me. I wished I told him to fight. I wish I fought like he did. I tried to call his name and one of boys kicked me in the mouth, dripping sweat on my face.
Someone grabbed me by the ankles and dragged me across the ground, the smell of mud strong in my nostrils. Sticks jabbed into to my skin while I dug my nails into the earth leaving weak claw marks in the dirt.
They rolled me on to a smooth surface that smelled like clean, fresh air and I felt a thud beside me. My brother’s hand hit me square in the chest. I grabbed it and my lip trembled. His hand felt so small in mine.
We were lifted from the ground, Chad was folded on top of me in our cocoon, and they grunted from the weight of us. The sound of the water came closer as I kicked at their hands. One of them tied a rough rope around my ankles and then they dropped us into the bottom of the boat, a steel seam at the bottom connecting with and splitting my ear.
As they heaved and water slushed back and forth over the sides of the boat, I took the biggest breath I could. I gripped my brother’s hand and thought of all the times I tried to fade away, to not be noticed, to not be me. I thought of all the times I kept my hand down in class when I knew the answer, passed the basketball in a game instead of taking the shot, took any shit anyone gave me to prove the good in me. I prayed every night I’d wake up and wouldn’t fear what someone might do to me simply because I was alive.
When we hit the cool water, there were dull, cold aches where the lake was seeping into the open wounds on my skin. I fell faster than Chad and it was mere seconds before my hand slipped from his and I could see his silhouette between me and the surface. He looked like he was standing, proud, his feet pulling for the bottom, his arms reaching for the sky.
When the cement blocks I was tied to hit the floor of the lake, flecks of sand and debris hit my skin like pins. I reached out, but not for the surface. I reached hoping to find my brother beside me as I took in all the lake water I could manage into my lungs. It burned. Every inch of me hurt, but in the end, nothing they could do to me hurt the way the fear did.