What it Means to Count Down
by Christina Sun
The boy stands with the yowling beagle puppy, whose name he can’t recall. It might be Yip, Pip, or Skip—he isn’t sure. The boy is expecting burgers, Fourth of July fireworks, and late night talks with his oldest brother. He’s brought his own toothbrush and a set of aerial shells smuggled in from New Hampshire for the special occasion.
Instead, this is what he gets: salty lasagna with the consistency of mashed potatoes. He gets a damp mattress. He gets this pain-in-the-ass mutt who won’t stop barking and biting and shitting absolutely everywhere. But worst of all, he gets a note from his brother saying he is out with Kelly, and “will be back soon.” No welcomes, no burgers, no heart-to-hearts. No brother.
This is what he gets after traveling from Boston to Times Square to Fairfax on two Peter Pan buses that smelled like cats and cheap deodorant. Because the brother hadn't picked up his phone, the boy hailed a taxi with a driver who spoke only in Russian. Confused, the driver first brought the boy to a state penitentiary before bringing him to the correct address. The house was small and somber. His brother still did not pick up, so what was the boy to do? He decided to crawl through the open window. He decided to tear down the bug screen. He would fix it later. It would be something he and his brother laughed about that night.
When he was younger, the boy was one of sixty-thousand people who filled up Gillette Stadium. He watched his brother watch the players with something like fire in his eyes, so much so that the iris’s flecks of gold seemed to engulf the pupil. At this, the boy settled back in his chair and gazed out at the field, trying to see what his brother saw so it could be something they shared.
At night he hears something. Some scraping. A creak. The boy sits up on the couch where he fell asleep, pulls the throw in a little tighter to his throat. The TV is still on and pulses out a laugh track from a bad sitcom. His hand unearths the remote from under the blanket and when he presses mute, he holds his breath. There is faint patter like a mini monsoon.
He whispers, “Eli? Eli? Is that you?”
The pattering halts and after two heartbeats, the boy sidles off the couch and peers around the doorway. The front door is open—not enough for a person to pass through, but just wide enough for a dog.
“Crap,” he says.
The boy is afraid of the dark. At ten-years-old, it’s not something he likes to admit. It’s one of those nights where there isn’t a moon, and every shadow could be a person. He cups his hands and calls for the dog from the door. Fireworks go off in a nearby yard—brocade crowns, the same kind the boy brought with him. He creeps out into the sparks of light and calls again.
One time Eli made him kill their pet fish. It had been floating at the top of its tank, the fin crooked and the gills swollen an angry red. The mouth kept popping open and closed, like it was grasping for something just out of reach. “Well don’t just stand there,” Eli had said. He pushed the boy out into the night, grabbed a shovel from inside the shed. He poured the tank out onto the ground and handed the boy the shovel.
“Don’t make me,” the boy said. “Eli, don’t.”
Eli snapped his fingers. “Quit crying. The more you wait, the more he suffers. Remember: be quick, turn off your brain, stop the pain.”
The boy finds the puppy cowering under a log, and he wonders if it’s the sound of the fireworks or being lost that’s making it so distressed. The puppy’s fur glows red, then green, then blue. The boy doesn’t want to get bitten again. He promises himself he will pick the puppy up when eighteen fireworks have gone off—the number of years he thinks he has to be for his brother to love him. He counts ten, eleven, twelve and closes his eyes, flexes his fingers. He swallows, shuffles his feet, stops. He can still see the flashes even though his eyes are closed. Be quick, turn off your brain, stop the pain. He is still waiting. He is still counting.
Christina Sun is a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has work featured/forthcoming in the Kentucky Review, Atticus Review, Gravel, and elsewhere. She writes and spams at christinaashleysun.wordpress.com.