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All of us was sick with it.
Sick as dogs, my brother said. I didn’t know what we was sick with, but whatever it was, we was sick with it, and watching the city broil wasn’t helping no one.
The sun, white, almost, made the heat rise in unforgiving waves from the pavement. The world shimmered behind those waves, like all of life was just a mirage, and sweat coated our bodies, dripping down our foreheads and back and arms, our shirts stick to us when we hadn’t even done nothing yet.
Sometimes, we’d put our money together and go buy a 15 cent ice cream soda for all of us to share. But Billy Hartman, who was almost bigger than three of us put together and twelve times as pale, always drank at least half of it, and even though I didn’t think it was very fair I had my wits about me and kept my mouth shut.
It was good, though, sitting in the parlor, even though Billy Hartman did drink lots of our ice cream soda, because it was one of the only places we could stay that was air-conditioned and where we didn’t have no one glaring at us.
Billy Hartman was nice, I guess. At least, that’s what my brother said, and he said that if I wasn’t nice to him then we might be in a world of trouble. Which confused me a little, but just as I was about to open my mouth to ask he shot me a look and went and walked off down the street. So I treated him nice, even though he acted like he was older than all of us. Which isn’t fair, because I'm six and they’re eleven, which isn’t a big difference I think, and he can’t be going treating the other boys like they’re little like me because they’re big.
One day, though, Sam, the man who ran the parlor who always said “That’s Mr. Sam to yous,” when we called him by his first name, told us that he couldn’t sell us nothing no more. He told us to leave. And at first I thought it was a joke, but some people started to turn around and they opened the door, letting the heat of the day blast in, and already my neck began to sweat with the anticipation of it.
My brother put his hand over my mouth to make sure I didn’t say nothing. I tried to lick his hand to get him to pull away but he didn’t, and maybe it was because my tongue was so dry from the hot. So I kept trying until he turned to me, glaring, glancing at his friends as they left the parlor. He took his hand away from my mouth, eyes dark.
“Wait for me outside,” he muttered, “and don’t look in. It don’t matter what the others are doing. Don’t look in.” Normally I wouldn’t of listened to him when he said things like that, but this time he looked real serious, and it scared me a little. So I glanced down, away from his hard glare, and walked back out into the Atlanta heat. I didn’t dare glance back at my brother and Billy Hartman, even though I wanted to real bad.
Everyone else who had come with us was all pressed up against the doors and the big glass windows, and I guess they were hoping to get some of the cool through osmosis, or something, and they was watching my brother and Billy Hartman in the parlor and throwing around words like ‘segregation’ and ‘civil rights.’
Me, I stayed back, like my brother told me to, even though I wanted to go look real bad. But I didn’t, because I was scared, just a little, so I curled up by the sidewalk near a tiny square of shade by a telegraph pole. It didn’t help none, but it was nice to pretend it did, so I hugged my knees to my chest and let the sun beat down and boil me all over like I was a little brown egg. The people at the window slowly left, kicking pebbles and cans as they walked, but I stayed where I was cause my brother and Billy Hartman weren’t out yet, and I couldn’t go nowhere without my brother.
They did come – or so I thought. My brother’s shadow cast over me before I saw him himself, and for a second I didn’t even notice because I was so happy that maybe a cloud had found its way across the sky. But it was just my brother.
His lip was kind of bloody, and his nose didn’t look quite like it was supposed to. He sat down right next to me, spitting on the pavement. It sizzled and evaporated in a second. For a second, he didn’t say nothing: he just stared into the heat waves, floating back towards the sky, crumpling the world a little. He didn’t say nothing about Billy.
I dunno what we was sick with. But we was sick. All of us was sick. Sick as dogs, my brother said.
Sick as dogs.