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[Excerpt from] The Saints of Mud
Charlie had counted for only three minutes. It was unbearable for a nine-year-old. One Mississippi, two Mississippi…he bounced each syllable so it sounded like a circus song. Michael always demanded more hiding time than most kids, because he chose his spots with a neurotic pickiness. He was rarely satisfied. The branches of a well-cloaked tree? Too obvious. Under a wheelbarrow? Unoriginal. Under a bed? Easy.
Often, Charlie would finish the tedious counting and stand, victorious, ready to search—and Michael would be standing behind him, arms crossed, his face smeared with a scowl. I didn’t have enough time, he’d argue, I need more. Charlie would sigh and count again. But not this time.
It was a scorching summer day, and the air was damp, gluing Charlie’s pants to his skin like a wet cloth. The day begged for swimming and bug-catching and hide-and-seeking. Charlie was young and innocent and didn’t want to be anything, but he was all-knowing and all-cool, as most nine-year-olds were. Michael was eleven, but really twelve because he rounded up, as most eleven-year-olds did.
“You count first, Charlie, because Mom made me clean up after breakfast,” Michael said, taking off his shirt. The Missouri summer sun always called for bare skin, and Michael never refused.
“Okay, but not more than five minutes!”
Michael squinted in thought. “I only need a few minutes this time. I know just where I’m hiding.” He grinned slyly. “You ain’t ever gonna find me, Charlie.”
“You just wait!” he growled. He sat on the ground, buried his face in his elbow, and began to count. His brother’s shoeless feet pattered on the damp grass and disappeared in the breeze. Three minutes passed. This time, he would find Michael.
He jumped to his feet and took off running on his toes, like Michael did. Silence was the key. If you’re quiet, they don’t know you’re coming and they make a ruckus trying to get positioned right, Michael had said.
He checked the easy places first. The house, the backyard, the swing out front. Sometimes Michael chose a simple spot because he knew it would be overlooked. Once, Charlie had searched for an hour before giving up and going inside—to find Michael sprawled on the sofa. “I win,” Michael had said, taking a drink from his lemonade.
But the obvious spots were empty. Charlie moved on to the harder places, the ones that were occasionally overlooked and required more planning. He checked the overturned canoe in the garage, where mosquitoes laid delicate rice-shaped eggs in the standing water, and he peered inside the rusty oil barrels that lined the walls in the abandoned factory. He checked the splaying oak trees, the overgrown elderberry bushes, the beach. A half-hour passed as Charlie swept from beetle-infested logs to the Johnson’s cow barn, to inside their toy chest and under the sink. The places became a blur of colors and sounds, and the heat beat down ceaselessly.
Finally, he stopped. Michael had won. An hour had lugged by, and the afternoon sun had crept to the west like an injured bird.
“Michael, you win! Come out!” Charlie yelled as he stood in the driveway, panting in the heat like a droopy hound, the flies picking at him. He ran through the house yelling his defeat until his mother shooed him out, and then he ran through the fields and along the beach shore and tired factory. He shouted until his voice was hoarse and his hair was wet with sweat—and the only answer he got back was his own echo. The sun crawled further west.
Charlie stood hopelessly in the long grass of the field. Never before had Michael abused the best hiding spots. He always came out smirking and victorious when Charlie hung his head in defeat, but he was always ready and willing to count for Charlie and give him a chance at redemption. But now, Michael had slipped away on muddy feet and was gone.
Charlie sat down and pulled his legs against his chest. He tried to be brave and strong, like Michael had taught him when they had become men. On that day, they’d stood by the water’s edge and pressed their cut palms together. Charlie sworn to a code, a code for them alone, as brothers and as men.
But now, as he sat hopeless, he felt the hot tears boiling in his eyes. He fought them, but they spilled down his cheeks and neck, unwanted pests. He wasn’t a man now. Michael was missing.
He needed help, though a real man wouldn’t, and he bolted toward the safety of his house. The doors slammed behind him as he threw himself across the stone entrance and into his mother’s warm hip, an explosion of runny words and snot. He hid his face in her apron, trying to be a man again but thinking of Michael and crying more. Finally, she understood, and she looked at the clock. Three hours had dragged by without Michael.
The next hour passed in a blur of Charlie’s oily tears. His parents slipped out and looked for Michael, and their voices wafted in through the open windows. Then there was a phone call, and a police officer clad in black marched through the house, grunting snippets to his parents. Then he left to search, and Charlie was sent out to search too.
“What do you think I’ve been doing?” he sobbed before stumbling outside.
The code was gone. His brother was gone. Michael, and everything he created and belonged to and wished for, were gone. Charlie’s thoughts spun around his mind like broken-winged birds. All the things they’d done and places they’d loved. The cold lake, the sweet-smelling cow barn, the trees and grass and abandoned houses, the old cars and farms—
Charlie stopped, his vision still clouded with tears. The smudged image of a rusty car flooded his mind. Near Sheep’s Creek. He’d only checked the wider part of the creek when he’d looked for Michael, but the car rested further down, where the water trickled around thick cattails. Look at that old hunk a’ rust! Michael had said as they stood on the hill above it. You could prolly climb right in there.
Charlie jumped up, scratching his knee on the gravel driveway and ignoring the pain. He ran. Down the driveway, down the road, through the winding trails they had trampled in the thick grass of the field, past the barn and factory. He sprinted up Deadman’s Hill with burning legs. The car below was a smudge in a river of green, and Charlie sprinted toward it like a bull charging red. The car’s rounded body was clay-colored and dull, withered by the weather and wetness of Missouri. The doors were off its hinges and the glass missing, and the car sat on its belly like a dead lizard. Charlie stormed up the rusted beast, his heart pounding with fear that God would scare him with an empty car.
But He didn’t. Michael was sprawled across the rotting backseat, his bare torso stretched in the fleeting light and arms hanging loose over the edge. His scraggly bangs hung over his eyes and his chest rose and fell like the beating pulse of the lake waves, sending a soft snore through his nose. He was asleep.
Charlie was a man again, and always would be. He looked at his palm. The blood they’d shared still flowed through his body. Brothers for eternity.
Charlie laughed aloud. Michael would never leave him. He was here now. He’d be here tomorrow.