At breakfast Chub coiled a rubber band around his index finger and watched it purple with blood. He asked if there was any more cereal, or any more milk. I said there wasn’t any of either. He glared at me and then at his finger like it was a hostage. “Go look for yourself,” I said. He set his teeth and watched as his finger ballooned. At ten years old, Chub Munro was a soldier of fortune, and used to pain.
“What now?” he asked. I shrugged. We were out of money, mostly out of food, and our parents were assholes. That much was clear. But I wasn’t sure how to proceed.
“Do you have other family?” I asked. “Anybody we can call?” No one, on my side or his, had come to the wedding between my father and his mother, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. He shook his head.
“Nobody?” I asked.
“Nobody from you either,” he said. Which was true.
In the kitchen, I reviewed the situation. I opened cupboards knowing there was nothing left in them. The fridge was clean and empty but for a tub of miso paste neither of us had touched, and a mesh bag of green apples. “Heads up,” I said, tossing an apple to Chub. It passed through his hands and bounced off his chest, hitting the floor like a fist. Chub eyeballed me with a baleful squint and wandered out of view. The situation in the kitchen was bad, the situation in the house was bad, and the prospects for improvement were dim.
Our parents had met two months earlier at a Reiki conference in Chicago. They got engaged after being partnered in a seminar about dancing with the joy and pain of life. “She moves me more fully into my essence, my most authentic self,” said my father. They decided to make a few sacred changes to their lifestyle: buying a new home together in a new town with no memories, taking a Himalayan trekking honeymoon in Bhutan (which they referred to as the Land of the Thunder Dragon), and getting matching tattoos of trees on their backs. When I observed that he was too old for a tramp stamp, my father told me to stuff it. Our family used to be Methodist. My father used to wear golf shirts.
They wanted to visit Bhutan because it was the last country on earth without television; a Buddhist Shangri-la. The perfect place to take off their work shoes and step onto the eightfold path of renunciation. Their first night in Paro all their valuables were stolen. My father called, leaving a message near dawn to say that the credit card he left for me to use was cancelled and that a new one should arrive soon, that they were heading out on the sixteen-day trek anyway, since it was prepaid, and that Chub and I would have to tough it out until their return, which could be delayed as a consequence of having to get new passports from the consulate in New Delhi. As I listened to the message I heard canned laughter from a hotel television blaring in the background. Turns out Bhutan has had T.V. since 1999.
There was no television in our new house. No internet either. Our parents had closed on it the day before heading off on their honeymoon, leaving everything but a few essentials and blue air mattresses in storage in our old town. They planned to redecorate and move in after their trip. “It will be like brothers camping,” said my father. “Lawrence loves camping,” said Beth. When they finally left for the airport, Lawrence turned to me and said evenly, “My name is Chub and you are not my brother.”
Our first four days together we didn’t talk much. It was the summer before my senior year of high school and I planned to work on my college essays. I was applying to six schools, and wanted to impress each of them with my wisdom and insight, at least enough to draw their attention away from my grades. So far, I had only a title “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been.” Which I had stolen from a friend who got into Georgetown. Chub kept to the empty bedroom he had claimed, reading through stacks of old Guns & Ammo
and Gun Digest
magazines. Occasionally I’d hear the steady grinding of steel against a whetstone as he endlessly sharpened the large hunting knife he wore on his belt. He seemed less like a kid who enjoyed camping and more like someone plotting a murder. I left him alone.
It was the fifth morning, after my father’s phone message, that we realized we were out of food and in something of a ditch, survival-wise. I picked up the apple I had tossed to Chub and returned it to the fridge. There are few things as miserable as an empty house when you feel stuck in it. I didn’t have a car, and even if I had somewhere else to go, I couldn’t abandon Chub. However cavalierly our parents had thrown us together, I didn’t want to be responsible for making things worse. I didn’t particularly care for Beth, but she wasn’t as bad as the cologne-wearing married car salesman who inspired my own mother to run away to Toronto and live in a crap apartment he paid for. I didn’t particularly like Chub either, but in this world of abandonment I wanted to hold firm, at least for a while. My thoughts were interrupted by the sight of Chub, dressed in camouflage, a bandana tied around his large head, sliding open the patio door. “Where are you going?” I asked.
“Recon,” said Chub, sliding the door shut behind him.
I went back to my essay and didn’t worry about Chub until two hours had passed. I wrote the sentence, “I have always liked school,” and got stuck. Then I heard the rumble of water moving through pipes, the sound of an outside hose spigot turned on and then off. I looked out the patio door into the backyard. There was a firepit with a small fire blazing, and Chub squatting next to it, feeding branches. I put on my shoes and stepped out onto the porch. Chub was roasting a misshapen hotdog on a stick over the flames, watching it intently. “Where did you get a hotdog?” I asked.
Chub held up the stick so I could see it clearly. The hot dog had four nubs where its legs used to be. “Want one?”
“Is that a squirrel?” I asked. Chub nodded and dipped the stick back over the fire.
“You’ve got problems.”
“I’ve got lunch.” He spit into the dirt and turned the stick with a practiced hand.
Ours was not the sort of neighborhood for grilling squirrels. It was a Midwestern neighborhood of tidy craftsmen homes with small green yards, clotheslines, and tasteful gardens. There were houses close by to the left and right of us, and another across the backyard, separated by a narrow unpaved alley for garage access. If people in our neighborhood wanted to cook outside, it would be hamburger or brats over a gas flame, not lawn squirrel over a firepit. “I’m going inside,” I said. Chub shrugged and wiped his nose on a camo sleeve.
I chopped up an apple and considered the tub of miso Beth had bought when she stocked the house with the groceries that were otherwise gone. I opened the lid and sniffed at it. It looked like peanut butter. I dipped a corner of apple slice in and found it wasn’t half bad. Through the window above the sink I watched Chub gnawing on his squirrel, cutting hunks away from the small bones with his knife and waving his fingers from the heat of it. I checked my wallet. Four bucks. I walked to the nearest gas station and bought two packages of peanut butter crackers and a real hot dog and a coke and ate everything in the parking lot before heading home. Chub wasn’t the only one who could take care of himself.
When I returned, Chub was nowhere to be seen. Out the kitchen window I noticed that he had elaborated on the firepit, adding a stack of stones that rose up nearly a foot tall, like a beehive. I reached to close the mini-blind, to blot out whatever weird project he was engaged in, but the pull cord was gone. The string had been cut and tied off with a ball-shaped knot so that it wouldn’t drop. I checked two more of the blinds at other windows and found the same. Apparently, Chub had needed twine. I went back to my essay. To the sentence “I have always liked school,” I added “because I believe in personal growth.” Then I changed “liked” to “loved” and sat back. Where was he? The afternoon wore on, and twilight came. My stomach rumbled.
His stomp on the porch brought me out. A heavy tread for such a small kid. He grinned and held up two small brown rabbits, gripped by their ears. “Snared,” he said. “Easy as pie.” The rabbits’ eyes were blank and clouded and their bodies flopped at the ends of their broken necks. Limp helpless things.
“What’s wrong with you?” I stepped closer to him, using my height. “What kind of hillbilly kills garden bunnies to eat?”
Chub’s grin vanished and he stared back hard. “Who listens to a message from his daddy ten times and cries?” Which was me. Chub dropped his hands to his sides and adopted the square-shouldered-chin-raised stance I recognized as the beginning of a fight. Chub was a foot shorter than me; I didn’t back away.
“What are you going to do with those?”
“Gut ‘em and cook ‘em,” he said defiantly.
“Don’t get any mess on the porch,” I said with as much adult tone as I could muster.
His shoulders slumped as he walked down onto the lawn. He knelt and made a few quick cuts with his knife and pulled the skin away as clean as peeling a banana. It was impressive, and I felt suddenly lousy for trying to diminish him. “Probably the first rabbits to be killed by mini-blinds,” I said.
He looked up at me and his grin returned. “I know, right?”
I stifled a comment about Watership Down
and instead helped him build a fire in the strange beehive stove. When the rabbits were gutted and rinsed in the gushing spray of the hose faucet, Chub made a grate of branches atop the opening of the stove and placed the meat on it as if on a grill. “You know what would be good?” I asked. “Some salt and pepper or something. Spices.”
“Mom doesn’t allow salt.” Chub waved some ashes away from the meat.
“I know the thing,” I said. I went inside and got the tub of miso and a spoon. “It smells like dog food, but it’s salty. Not half bad.” I let him smell it and he shrugged so I slathered on some of the paste with a spoon. He turned them over and I slathered them again. “Now all we need is some carrots, or something,” I observed.
Chub nodded. “Keep turning ‘em,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
Chub returned with pockets bulging. He rinsed off finger-thin carrots and marble-sized radishes and spiny cucumbers the length of pickles. It was only June, and our neighbors’ gardens had not come in yet, but the carrots stick out in my mind as best I’ve ever eaten. “We could get more, you know.” Chub pointed at the small pile of produce. “It’s no moon tonight. Easy.”
“How do you know that?”
“If there’s no moon, it’s dark,” said Chub patiently. “They can’t see you taking anything.”
“But how do you know there’s no moon?”
Chub stared at me like I was a moron. “How do you not know that?”
I shrugged. “It’s never come up before.”
When the rabbits were cooked Chub pushed away the rocks to let the fire spark and shine like a normal campfire. The lights of the surrounding houses cut off as the evening progressed and folks went to bed or focused on the flickering blue strobes of their televisions. We picked at the meat, squatting in the firelight like cavemen, letting the grease drip down our chins.
“My dad taught me,” said Chub when we were done, staring into the firelight and wiping our fingers on our jeans. “About paying attention to the moon.”
I nodded. “And how to hunt and all that?”
Chub nodded. “He’s a Navy Seal. And look.” Chub handed me his hunting knife. “They named a knife after him.”
“His name is Buck?”
Chub nodded again. “My dad’s name is Buck.”
In the firelight, under the stars, I should have realized that Chub was ten years old and entitled to his dreams, however fanciful, but instead I snickered and made a crack. Chub jumped to his feet and pointed a sharpened roasting stick at my eye. “You don’t know shit,” he said. “And your fatass dad doesn’t know shit either.” Which was true.
Over the days that followed, we snared rabbit, sling-shotted squirrels, and raided gardens after dark. We drew maps, and Chub taught me the basics of using a compass and how to make rope from the inner bark of trees. I tried to teach him what I knew, which turned out to be not much of anything he was interested in. One night in the backyard I told him that the ancient Greeks thought fire was one of the four fundamental elements of the universe. He countered with the fact that a male mallard duck has a fourteen-inch-long penis. I made no meaningful contribution to his education.
I suspect that the neighbors thought poorly of us, but we didn’t think much of them, living off the land as we were. I set my essay aside, and Chub spent less time alone in his room. The rabbits were plentiful, being nearly tame and predictable in their habits, but firewood became scarce and we had to travel further to find it. Neither of us had showered in a week and when the joggers passed us on the sidewalk they kept their distance. One day we abandoned the house altogether and built lean-tos in the park along the creek, to sleep among the sycamore trees that groaned in the night wind. Chub smeared mud on his face against the mosquitoes and I laughed at him until he flared with anger. He kicked over my sorry lean-to and shouted at me: “If you want to survive,” he said, as though quoting a sacred text, “you have to take action and not be a dipshit.” For some reason, I felt the blood of embarrassment rush to my cheeks. I rebuilt my lean-to to look more like his.
Later that night I apologized. That made him sheepish and shy, and me somehow even more ashamed. “My mom lives in Canada,” I blurted. “She sends me typewritten letters, on paper she makes look old with vinegar and smoke, like you do when you’re trying to fake a treasure map. Can you believe that shit?”
Chub furrowed his brow, which made the dried mud flake. “I’ve never done that,” he said. “Made paper old that way.”
“It’s easy,” I said. “I’ll show you.” He nodded and something clear passed between us. Clearer than anything I found in my mother’s letters, which I had read as carefully as any pirate ever read a map. Chub understood, and I was grateful for it. We threw sycamore balls on the fire and watched them spark until we nodded and crawled into the damp and laughable shelters that somehow protected us through the long night.
They came home eventually, of course. Their trek had been a disaster. Not only were their belongings stolen, it turns out the summer monsoon season is not ideal for trekking in the Himalayas. Beth hated leeches and they were everywhere – on her legs, in her boots, between her toes. Apparently, she had screamed for hours. The marriage ended after the fourth day. Because the house was empty, the parting was brief. My father and Beth drove home from the airport and then she called a cab for Chub and her luggage. Chub packed his duffle bag with a practiced hand and I could not bear to watch. I stood out by the firepit, kicking the burnt ends of sticks as our parents argued inside. I heard the cab honk, and then felt a light shove. Chub stared up at me, his face as unwashed and grim as my own, a souvenir tee-shirt from Bhutan slung over his shoulder. “Goodbye, brother,” he said. I never saw Chub again.
That night, after my father had gotten tight on whiskey and ordered a pizza and we’d had a conversation about how hard it was to remove a tattoo, I went back to my essay. I started on a new page and wrote: “My name is Edward Coogan. I am a soldier of fortune, and used to pain.”
Josh Calendar is a storyteller, IT consultant, and semi-pro gardener. He lives in Iowa City, and this is his first published story.