The mower bag rubs against my leg as my dad and I carry it side by side from the front yard, down the driveway, then past our house and the super long garage, then we go between the sandbox and the greenhouse and make a giant L around the veggie garden—the biggest on our street, but not as huge as my cousins’ on Mayne Island—and we brush past the corn and go under the sunflowers and come to the farthest corner of our yard, where the grass is flattened into mud and the compost box stands as high as the back fence.
I climb the side of the wooden box and drop onto the heap, my feet sinking into last week’s clippings, which are an old yellow carpet. Wobbly on the pile, I step backward, giving my dad room as he shakes the upside-down bag. When it clogs I reach inside, shoulder deep. Pull out a fistful of green. My dad shakes the bag again, and an avalanche buries me to the ankles. Unearthing my runners, I march back and forth and flatten the hump like I’m flattening a sand castle, and though it’s hot out and I’m sweaty, the damp smell of the clippings cools me.
We return to the front yard, and my dad yanks the mower back to life. He says I’m too young to help push it, that if I were to slip, the blade could take my foot off. He asks me to stand on the driveway at the chain-link fence between our yard and the neighbors’, because sometimes rocks fly out, he says. I’ve heard them crack against the metal under the mower. That’s why he wears pants even when it’s sunny, to protect himself from rocks. Also to avoid a sunburn on his legs, my mum has told me.
My dad draws lines back and forth across the lawn and I wait for the bag to be full again. The sun like a laser on my neck, I edge along the fence, my arms over the back of it and my feet up on the concrete ridge that the posts go into. When the mower goes behind the evergreen that has a ball stuck inside where not even a hockey stick can reach, the engine gets quieter, muffled, and in the neighbor’s house the baby’s bawling. Then the yelling starts.
“How do you like it when I hit you?!”
“Does that feel good to you?”
“He’s only a baby! He doesn’t understand what he’s doing! You can’t just hit him!”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!”
“Bullshit you didn’t! When your dad gets up you’re gettin’ a lickin’! Ya hear me? Gonna take his strap out and give you a lickin’! You don’t--hit—your little--brother! ”
A bunch of smacks. Then someone wailing, louder than the baby. It’s my friend Tiffany’s house. And the wailing I think is her.
I don’t like hearing her family fighting. My mum says we’re not like them, that we don’t scream at each other or get the strap or the wooden spoon. My mum only yells and spanks me, and I cry. But I cry because I’ve done something wrong, not because it hurts very much.
The mower goes quiet. My dad puts his foot on it and jerks the cord. The engine sputters. Twisting his shoulders, he yanks the cord again.
On one knee, he hunches over the machine, unscrews a cap and looks inside. Then he goes in the garage, not noticing me as he passes, and he brings out his toolbox, which is blue and squeaks when it opens. Dropping from the fence I wander over. The smell of gas and smokiness around.
“Would you get me the Yellow Pages,” he says.
I run into the house, slide the book off the counter and hurry back with it in both arms. After wiping his glasses on the bottom of his shirt, he flips through, finds a page and sets the book open on the lawn. He rolls the mower onto the driveway, clumped strips of grass peeling off from the wheels. He opens the trunk of our car, then—sweating and red under his bucket hat—he grimaces, lifting the mower. I reach in to help him.
“No!” he shouts and I snatch back my hand.
“You could’ve burned yourself,” he explains once the mower’s safely in, but it’s too late—my feelings are hurt, the surprise of it having scared me. Unlike my mum, he almost never yells. And he’s never once spanked me. Getting in the car, he asks if I’m coming with him. But there’s a hardness in my throat that happens when I’m stopping myself from crying. I shake my head, making my mind up to go inside and play in the basement. There it’s cool and quiet and I can be alone, even if there’s spiders.
“Tell Mum I’ll be back in an hour,” he says, then starts the car with the mower sticking out of the trunk. The handle bobs as the car dips from the driveway onto the road. I kick a pebble onto the lawn. Then start toward the house.
Tiffany comes speed-walking down the driveway. Presses a finger to her lips. Her eyes are red from tears, and bits of blue stuff are dried to her face. “Sandbox,” she whispers, not stopping.
“You’re not grounded?” I ask, once we’re safe behind the garage.
“Not yet,” she says. “My dad’s still sleeping.” To not wake up during all that fighting he must be a really heavy sleeper. Like a bear, I picture him.
We crouch in the sandbox.
“I don’t see how it’s my fault,” Tiffany says, picking a bit of the blue from her face and eating it. “Mikee flicked Jell-O at me. Little idiot!”
With my yellow digger, I dig a hole, going as deep as I can. Tiffany smoothes out an area of sand and traces shapes.
After a while she gets up and goes to the side of the garage and looks along the gap between our woodpile and the fence. From there, you can see her driveway and back porch. “He’s awake,” she whispers.
I stop digging and listen: her dad’s gruff voice, and her mum’s, which sounds mean even when she isn’t yelling.
Tiffany comes back to the sandbox. “Are you going?” I ask.
“No,” she says, and cuts a swirl in the sand with her finger. She begins making little slashes around it—sun rays.
I don’t want Tiffany’s dad to come looking for her. He’s never been in our yard. My mum and her mum sometimes say hi over the fence, but I’ve never seen my dad and her dad say anything. My mum says they don’t have much in common. She says that means they don’t have things to talk about, like work or gardening. I don’t know what work my dad does, but my mum says he has a good job with the government. Tiffany’s dad drives a taxi that’s parked in the driveway during the day. He has a black mustache and a belly that hangs out the bottom of his shirt. Because he sleeps all day, I barely see him. And I’m glad, because he scares me. When he and Tiffany’s mum fight it’s even worse than with her and Tiffany, and I can hear things being thrown around their kitchen, crashing and breaking.
A car door slams. Engine rumbling. Tiffany scrambles back to the fence. Tummy leaning over the top, she beckons me. I leave my digger and get there in time to see her dad’s taxi turning onto the street. Maybe tomorrow she’ll get in trouble, or maybe she won’t get in trouble at all. Leaning in behind her, I can smell her hair. It smells of soup: Alphagetti. Her house is quiet except for her little brother squabbling inside.
“Let’s go to the compost,” she says. Lately she always wants to go there. Once I asked her why her parents don’t have one. She said they could if they wanted to.
We sneak back from the garage’s long shadow into the sun, and hurry toward the veggie garden. As we go around it, I look over my shoulder and glimpse my mum kneeling at the flower bed in front of the greenhouse, beside her a wheelbarrow draped with weeds, as if for decoration. I remember I didn’t tell her about my dad leaving, but I keep going, still mad at him for shouting.
When I climb into the compost box, Tiffany’s already cross-legged on the soft new layer of grass. The clippings are drier now, slightly crinkly and warmed by the sun, though one edge of the pile now flutters in shade from the poplars along the fence.
“Wanna see something weird?” she asks.
“I guess so,” I say. No one can see us in this corner of the yard, not from my house or hers. She drops her chin and closes her eyes, then pulls at one lid as if dust or a bug is in it.
“Don’t look,” she says, her fingers moving to the other eye.
“Okay, ready,” she says after a second.
It’s like she has fancy makeup on, except the makeup is her eyelids—pink and raw from being flipped inside out, looking skinned. It’s gross. But as I watch, I start to see her as a pretty alien. And it makes me feel weird, a kind of weird that starts in my tummy and goes down into my thighs, and my runners work themselves under the grass clippings, needing to move.
One of the eyelids flips back to normal—slowly, on its own. Blinking hard, the other one follows. Tiffany rubs them with her knuckles, still gray from the sandbox.
“Can you do yours?” she asks. Her eyes are faded green.
I shake my head, feeling strange. I know my mum wouldn’t like what we’re doing.
“It’s easy. I’ll show you.” She flips her eyelids again, and again she’s a pretty alien.
Under the grass layers my feet explore—among wilted flowers and pulled-up weeds and apple cores and plum pits and carrot peels and eggshells and corn husks and gristle. The smells of all these things twist together, wafting upward through the grass, thickening the air so it’s damp and sour.
“Want me to do them?” Her strange pinkness leans toward me.
I nod and close my eyes. The pile shifts as she scooches closer. I feel her thumb getting between my lashes, then together with her forefinger, delicately pulling. My skin stretches and a fingertip pushes down, doing the flip.
It stays for a second. Then I blink. Tiffany starts the trick again.
Faintly aware of a mower in the distance, I hold still for her.
About the Author: Doug Harrison lives in Victoria, Canada, where he works as a freelance fiction editor, and writes. His other obsession is music. Since 2000, he has recorded five albums with his band Fen, and one solo album, Slug Comparison.