By NATHAN GOWER
Outside the house, in the quiet expanse of a densely wooded backyard, the opossum was already lurking toward his fate. If it were on one of the benign nights, the nights when Dad hadn’t been drinking, Joseph might have heard from the quiet of the living room the clanking of the trash can outside, the rustling of the garbage spilling to the cold, cracked driveway as the opossum scoured through pizza crusts and crumpled beer cans. But the night wasn’t benign, and the house wasn’t quiet. So the opossum was left to his work.
This was one of the nights where Joseph’s face was pinned to the living room carpet, his older brother’s forearm driven into the tender spot where his vertebrae joined his cranium. That’s what Mrs. Conn, his fourth-grade teacher, called it: cranium. He often mouthed the word to himself on nights like this, rolled it around with his tongue to distract himself from the pain. Mom was in a Xanax coma upstairs, and Dad was tinkering in the garage with an open bottle of Maker’s Mark at arm’s length; so the brothers fought, each trying to survive in his own way. With his ear pressed hard to the boot-worn carpet, Joseph heard the bristling of the fabric, the drumming of his heart. The sound of his own exhaling breath whooshed through his skull. I’m under water he thought my cranium is under water he thought what fun to swim in the living room.
The side door creaked—the one leading in from the garage—and Ben released his victim. “Don’t you tell,” he whispered, his hot breath floating across Joseph’s ear. “I swear to God you better not tell.” Then he gave him a final punch, a sharp jab to the teeth, and Joseph felt blood trickle into his mouth. He sat up and smoothed his wrinkled shirt. He clenched his mouth shut so Dad wouldn’t see the blood. When Dad walked in with the bourbon sparkling in his eyes, he was carrying a shovel. He held the wooden shaft stiffly, a splintered extension of his arm, a rusted metal hand. A cigarette dangled from his lip.
“Get the hell up,” he ordered, “and come outside.” Ben shoved his hands in his pockets and followed behind Dad’s wobbly gate. Joseph swallowed a gulp of blood and trailed in line. Tastes like metal he thought I’m chewing pennies he thought my belly is a piggy bank.
The porch light glimmered off the spilled metal trashcan and slung a shadow out on the rest of the frosted yard. Plastic wrappers and flecks of rotting food trailed around the fallen can, and next to it was another metal bin, this one upright with the lid tight and secure. The boys shivered in the November air, but Joseph dared not ask to go back and get his coat. He watched Dad’s breath steaming from his nostrils like a raging cartoon bull. Blood pooled in his mouth by his gums and he wanted to spit, but he only watched Dad in silence and swallowed.
“I got the bastard trapped this time,” said Dad. He clanked the side of the upright can with the shovel. The opossum rustled against the trash inside. Joseph thought about how dark and quiet and warm it must be inside the closed can against all that soft trash, and just for a moment, he wished he were the opossum.
“What are you gonna do with it?” asked Ben. He pulled his sleeves down over his purple hands.
“I’m not gonna do a damn thing,” said Dad. He extended the shovel towards the boys, the metal head floating between them in the icy air. “You boys are gonna kill it.”
Joseph looked at Ben and then at the shovel. The metal scoop looked mean and cold, and he thought about how it would feel to be smacked with it. It would crack my cranium he thought. Cranium. Cranium. Ca-ray-nee-ummmm.
“Why don’t you just shoot it?” asked Ben. He rocked back on his heels and shivered. Dad took a long drag on his cigarette, the amber glow of the ash blazing against the black of the night in the distance. He blew wispy streams of breath into the sky, and Joseph wondered how much was smoke and how much was carbon dioxide. He swished his blood between his cheeks.
“Boy,” said Dad, “you’re gonna kill that opossum.” He pulled Ben’s hand out of his sleeve and thrust the shovel into his grip. “And he’s gonna help.” Joseph looked up to see Dad’s finger pointing between his eyes. He saw the hairs on Dad’s knuckles silhouetted against the porch light, and he wondered when his own hands would be like that. Dad tipped the can over on its side, easing the top down to the ground as to not jar the lid off. Joseph watched as Ben glided his hands down the length of the shovel, and he knew he didn’t want to look at Dad. He was trying to come up with something, trying to plan a way out.
“Now pull that lid off,” Dad said to Joseph, “and then watch your brother smack that son-of-a-bitch.” Joseph eased toward the can. He’d been in situations like this before and knew that stalling would only make things worse.
“But how do I … ” Ben started, raising the shovel into his grip, “I mean, what if it gets away?” He never took his eyes off the trashcan. Joseph bent down and gripped the handle of the lid. The blood was filling his mouth and he wanted to get it over with.
“He won’t get away ’cause you aren’t gonna let him” said Dad. “It’s either the opossum or you, son, so I suggest you aim well.” Joseph pulled on the lid and rattled it free. Ben raised the shovel above his shoulder, ready to strike. But the opossum stayed hidden in the can. The quiet of the night hovered over them. Joseph wished that the opossum had vanished, that God had made it disappear, that Ben wouldn’t be able to kill it and it wouldn’t be anybody’s fault; but when he looked into the cavernous can, he saw the glint of two innocent eyes peering out from the darkness. Make it disappear God he wished make us all disappear. If he could speak opossum, he would have told it to just stay quiet in the can and to think about its favorite word.
But he couldn’t speak opossum, so he stood up and rattled the can with all his might. He kicked the can and smacked it. He punched it once and then twice. The blood slipped from his lips and splattered onto the can, and the opossum hissed and scampered out. Ben clenched his eyes and slung the edge of the shovel down, catching the opossum neatly between the head and the back. Where the vertebrae joins the cranium thought Joseph. Ben let the shaft of the shovel fall to the ground, and tears welled up in his eyes. The opossum’s tail twitched against the concrete, and then it was still. There was blood under its limp body, but Joseph wasn’t sure if it was his or the opossum’s.
“Is it dead?” Ben asked. He looked Dad in the eye. “You think I killed it?”
Dad flicked his cigarette butt onto the opossum and shrugged.
“It might be playing opossum,” said Dad. “You just never can tell with these damn things.” Joseph bent down and spat the last of the blood against the cracked concrete. Let it be dead he prayed God let it be dead. He stood upright against the silence, watching with dread for any sign of life.
Nathan Gower holds a master of fine arts degree in writing from Spalding University and currently serves as an assistant professor of English at Campbellsville University. A writer of fiction, poetry, screenwriting, and critical essays, his work has recently been published or exhibited in the Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Baltimore Review, the Birmingham Arts Journal, Louisville magazine, 94 Creations, Expositions: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, The London Screenwriter’s Festival, and elsewhere. He is currently working on an interdisciplinary humanities doctorate. in Aesthetics and Creativity at the University of Louisville.