Correctional [Flash Fiction]

Photo / National Library of Scotland

Raw red and stinging, the bite mark hurt Gavin more than any of the many wounds he’d been receiving. It seared through the small, perfectly round, puncture mark and spread through his arm the way wildfire spreads in forests: first in a way that makes sense, treetop to treetop, then in a sudden burst appearing a hundred yards away in an unexpected spot, signalling that it’s out of control. His entire arm was now inflamed, including the shoulder, which was sending bolts of sticky white pain down his back, through his spine.

Gavin sat silently, alternately sucking and biting on his lips. He didn’t intend to make them bleed – he was in enough pain already – but the motion calmed him. He could almost imagine that his own lips were another’s, a woman’s. He’d never kissed anyone before. Unless you counted his mother, which he emphatically didn’t. He hadn’t let her kiss him full on the mouth since his tenth birthday, when his friends had seen her kiss him goodbye before going to play and had made fun of him all day for it. He’d never forget that day. He’d felt stuffed with chalk and stone all day, both heavy and so fragile that the lightest scratch would make him crumble.

He hadn’t written his mother in over a week. Now was a good time. It would take his mind off the awful bite, and Lord only knew what terrible insect gave it to him, and off his belly, which was gurgling with emptiness. There was a ration van on its way to replenish their supplies, but it was running late. No one knew way, not even the commanders, and Gavin and the others were trying not to panic. Some fights had already broken out, though. It was going to be a long afternoon if the van didn’t get here soon.

Gavin pulled his pack closer to him and spread his legs to settle it between them as a kind of writing desk. But even the small strain of keeping the pack balanced with his arm was too much. It was ridiculous, but there he was, lying awkwardly sideways, kicking his pack out of the way. He found a block of wood among the detritus spread around him and used it as a surface to keep his atrocious handwriting more in check than it would have been on the uneven ground. His mother’s letters, when he got them, were usually full of complaints, and one of the repeated ones had to do with her inability to decipher his scrawl. It made the process of writing to her all the more frustrating for Gavin. He wanted to assure her that he was safe, but it seemed that he could never get the message across.

Then again, he wasn’t entirely safe. There was a war on. He and his unit were moving from one camp to another, and none of them knew when they’d face actual combat. But they all knew they would, eventually. They’d reach a field, a valley, a dale – somewhere – where they’d dig trenches and face the dreadful others. The enemy. They’d pull out their guns, and they’d keep their tomahawks handy, just in case anyone got close enough and needed a last minute blow, even though everyone knew the knives were really mostly for show, and they’d kill people. He, Gavin, would kill people.

It wasn’t until he finished writing the letter to his mother that he looked up and realized that the ration van, meaning food, had arrived. His mouth went dry, his stomach gave a leap and a particularly strong gurgle before trying to convince him that, in fact, he wasn’t at all hungry – it often did this when he was excited – and his lips rested softly together, tired f their kissing practice. Food was more important than the idea of killing a man, or many men, more important than a pretty girl, more important than writing home. He got up and ran to join the other latecomers, praying to God that he wouldn’t miss out on anything.

On Command

“Sir-yes-sir!”

Lyle was practicing in front of the mirror again. He had on the army uniform costume that he’d worn on Halloween, and he’d stolen the medal out of his mom’s sock drawer. It was draped around his skinny neck, the gold-colored part resting somewhere around the level of his belt. He marched up and down in his room, trying to make his limbs as stiff as possible, and then turned back to the mirror.

“Sir-yes-sir!”

Under different circumstances, the sight of an eight-year old boy wearing a Halloween costume and walking like a robot would have been amusing. But as it was, it made Robby, Lyle’s older brother, throw his backpack violently across the room. It hit Lyle, who went down right in the middle of another salute.

“Shut up, you idiot, mom’ll be home soon!” Robby gave his brother an extra shove and went to the bathroom to shave. He’d been with his girlfriend after school, and she’d told him she didn’t like his itchy stubble. Trying to calm himself, Robby took out the old razor and placed it on the sink. He lathered his face with lotion, and began, with hands still trembling with anger, to scrape the old, thin blade across his cheek. He managed not to nick his right cheek, his upper lip and his chin, and moved on to the left cheek.

A scream seemed to tear the house into pieces. In the bathroom, Robby cursed as the razor blade cut into his cheek and blood started to seep out of the thin slice. It mixed with the shaving lotion until the lower half of his cheek looked like a marshmallow. Rinsing himself off, Robby got a wad of toilet-paper and held it to his cut as he opened the bathroom door with a crash. A horrible scene met his eyes.

Lyle was face down on the floor, his mother leaning over him. She had the ribbon the medal hung on in one thin, wasted hand, and she was pulling at it, hard. It was still around Lyle’s neck.

“Mom!” Robby dashed forwards, and forced his mother’s hand to let go. He heaved her backwards, away from Lyle, pushing her until she was leaning against the far wall. Her eyes looked dead, and she made no move to go back to strangling her son, so Robby left her and bent over Lyle, turning him over. He was breathing – crying, choking on his mucus and tears, but breathing nonetheless. He huddled in Robby’s embrace, hiding from their mother. Flashing a look of scorn towards her, Robby picked him up and carried him to their tiny, shared room. He took the medal off of him, got him out of the costume and put him in bed. He drew the covers over him and tucked them snug. Lyle was already asleep when he left the room, curled up into a ball.

“How could you, Mom?” Robby faced his mother, who still hadn’t moved from where he’d pushed her. He held the medal forth. “This is what you want? This stupid piece of tin and some gold paint? Take it! Here, take it!” He threw the medal at her feet. Her eyes moved towards it, and she finally moved, kneeling down to pick it up. She looked at it lying in her hand, caressed it, and then held it closely to her breast. Raising her eyes, she gave Robby a withering glare. He didn’t budge, didn’t say a word.

“You never – do you hear me, son? You never talk about your father’s memory that way again.”

She rushed into her bedroom, closing and locking the door, before Robby could scream at her that his father was dead, that he died in a stupid war, that the medal didn’t really mean anything, that his father’s memory lay nowhere near the stupid thing. He slumped against the wall. It was too much, suddenly. It was all too much. His mother had never gone this far before. And Lyle – Lyle was just like her! Why did her need to steal that thing out of her drawer every other day?

Trembling, forgetting about the tissue that was still stuck to his face, Robby went down the hall to where the phone rested on a small table – his father had managed to get a great bargain on it at the flea market, Robby remembered that day… Without dwelling too long, though, he picked up the phone and dialed.

“Aunt Jenny? It’s Rob. Robby. My mom – she – Lyle – I just… We need help.”