Winning Short Story 2017: Adult 2nd

Finders by Carolyn Huizinga Mills

   Mama told me to watch Joey so she could have a nap. I hated playing with Joey, but Daddy said since Mama was gonna have another baby soon I was supposed to help out. He said that when he was in the fields, I was the Man of the House, even though I was only seven and still had to do everything Mama said. Joey was just four so he didn’t know how to do nothin’ and he cried easy, which is why I didn’t like playing with him. He cried once when I said he smelled bad. But it was true. He did stink. After I said that, he went runnin’ to Mama and blubbered on about how mean I was and then Mama gave me a look and stroked his hair like he was a bunny or something. 

    If you rub a baby bunny on the head, right between its ears, it will close its eyes and fall right asleep. It can’t help it. Daddy showed me how to do that, but when I tried to tell Joey about it, he didn’t have no interest in tryin’ it. He couldn’t sit still long enough to hold a baby bunny and make it go to sleep the way I was showing him how. When Mama sat there rubbing Joey’s head after I told him the truth about how he stank, I thought maybe she was tryin’ to get him to go to sleep, like one of those bunnies. Then none of us would have to listen to him complaining, which was a thing we could all do without.

    “Come on, Joey,” I said now, tryin’ for Mama’s sake to look happy about havin’ to watch him. 

    Mama smiled at me and fixed a pillow behind her head on the couch. I dragged Joey outside and he complained right away about how hot it was.

    “We’ll play in the shade,” I said. I wanted to play armies with my little plastic soldiers in the grass so I could pretend they were in a jungle, but of course, Joey didn’t like that, either. 

    He made a face. “That’s boring,” he said, only it sounded like borween the way he said it. “Let’s play Finders in the corn.”

    This was why Joey always needed someone to watch him. “We’re not allowed in the corn, Joey. You know that.” 

Daddy had told me you could get lost in the corn and wander around for days until you finally died of dehidenation, which was when you had no water. I promised him I would never ever go in the cornfield, not even just at the edges. He nodded and patted me on the head. He knew he could trust me, which was why he made me the Man of the House when he was out workin’ in the fields.

    Joey sat down with me under the shade of the big maple at the side of the house. He picked up two of my soldiers and started crashing them together. I turned my back to him and began settin’ up my armies real careful. 

    Chewed-up Man was my best fighter. Mama almost threw him out after our old dog Scamp tried to eat him, but I begged her to let me keep him. I didn’t care about the bite marks. They made him look tougher. 

Right now Chewed-up Man was hidin’ behind a stick, getting ready to attack three enemy soldiers. They couldn’t see him or hear him yet, but he was gonna need help because there was three of them. I moved another soldier closer. He was creeping through the jungle grass to fight with Chewed-up Man, when I realized Joey wasn’t making his smashing noises behind me no more.

    I turned around. Joey was gone. I thought for sure he’d gone into the house and was waking up Mama which made me worried real fast. But then I saw him standin’ at the edge of the driveway like he was fixin’ to cross the road.

    “Joey!” I yelled. “What’re you doing?”

    He looked back at me with his big, wide eyes. “I wanna frow rocks in the pond.”

    I shook my head and walked over to him. “And you were gonna cross the road all by yourself?”

    “There’s none cars,” he said.

    We crossed the road together and went on down past the turkey barn to where the pond was. The grass along the steep edges was so long that it tickled my knees. Joey looked like one of my toy soldiers hidin’ in the jungle.

    “You have rocks?” I asked him.

    He held up a hand filled with stones from our driveway. One by one, he threw the tiny pieces of gravel into the water. They looked like raindrops hittin’ the surface of the pond. After we were done with throwing rocks in the water, we walked back across the road and I decided to check on Mama to see if she was done her nap. It was too hot to stay outside much longer and I wanted to sit by the fan for a bit. Maybe Mama would even make us lemonade.

    “You wait out here,” I said to Joey. “I’m gonna see if Mama’s awake.”

    Joey scuffed his toe in the driveway and then squatted down to draw a shape in the gravel with his finger. I slipped through the kitchen door, being careful not to let the screen bang shut. Mama was lying on the couch all peaceful with her eyes closed tight. I wondered if Joey and I could sneak inside and play something quiet without disturbing her. We sure could use a drink. Maybe I could get Joey to colour at the kitchen table. He liked colouring okay. I tiptoed past Mama to the cupboard where we kept our crayons and scraps of paper. She didn’t even twitch or nothin’.

    As quiet as I could, I pulled out some paper and a box of crayons. Then, for good measure, I took a page of stickers, too. We could make something for Mama. That would be a nice surprise when she woke up.

    I went back outside to get Joey and to tell him he had to be quiet or else.  I could see some circles he’d drawn in the stones on the driveway, but he wasn’t standing there no more. I looked around the yard, under the maple tree where my soldiers were still waitin’ to attack each other, and then over by the barns. But I knew Joey wouldn’t go in the barns by himself. He was too scared of how dark they got inside. 

    “Joey,” I called. “Joey, come on. We’re going back inside now.”

    Nothing.

    “Are you hidin’ on me, Joey? Playing Finders?” I walked over to the cornfield on the other side of driveway and poked my head in to look up and down the first row. The corn may as well have reached all the way up to the sky. I stepped into that first row and called Joey’s name again. Then, making sure I could still see the edge behind me, I went in a bit further. I stayed in a straight line and counted how many rows deep I was. But when I couldn’t see the yard or the house no more, I stopped. “Joey!” I called over and over. “Joey, this ain’t funny! You need to come out right now. Daddy will be spittin’ mad if he finds out we were playing in the corn.”

    I didn’t like being in the middle of all that tall, tall corn. I kept thinking about how easy Daddy said it was to get all turned around and confused so that you ended up walking further away from where you wanted to be instead of closer to it. I was only eight rows in, but I wanted to get out real bad.  

When I stepped onto the grass again, my breath was comin’ all funny and I was so happy to see the house my eyes started cryin’. But Joey was still missing. Mama had told me to watch him and now he was lost in all that corn. How long until he died of dehidenation wandering around in there? Why couldn’t he just listen? I was scared of going back in to look for him but I was also scared of what Mama would say when I told her what happened, so I just stood there lookin’ stupid, not knowin’ what to do. 

    Then Mama was standin’ on the porch, hollerin’ my name. “Michael,” she said, “what are you doing over there? Come on back to the house now.”

    I dragged my sorry feet to where she was standing and before she could ask, I said, “I can’t find Joey. I left him outside for just a second and when I came back he was gone.”

    Mama was silent. She must’ve been thinkin’. Finally, she said, “And you reckon he went in the corn?”

    I nodded. “He wanted to play Finders in there, but I told him ‘no’! I told him we weren’t allowed in the corn.” I looked up at Mama to see how mad she was.

    She didn’t look mad. She looked scared. She came into the yard without even puttin’ her shoes on and started calling Joey’s name real loud just like I had earlier. I figured even if he wouldn’t listen to me, he would come when he heard Mama’s voice. 

Only he didn’t.

    Mama went back inside to call Mrs. Wallace, our neighbour who lived just down the road, to tell her Joey was missing. Then she told me to check all around the barns, inside and out. “Look everywhere he likes to hide,” she said. And she kept calling his name, over and over. 

    Mrs. Wallace showed up with her two daughters and they ran around the yard like chickens calling Joey’s name like he might be hidin’ in the grass or something. I finally looked inside the barns, even though I knew he wouldn’t be in any of ‘em. When I got to where the bunny cages were hangin’ on the wall, I sat right down on the dirty cement floor and started to cry. Just because stupid Joey couldn’t listen to nobody, I was going to get in big, big trouble. I told him we couldn’t go in the corn. I told him!

    By the time I came out of the barn, Mrs. Wallace had called the minister and he was gonna go and get Daddy from the far fields. I was in for it now.

    “I can go back in and look for him,” I said real quiet to Mama. “He’s not that great at hidin’.”

    “I’m not going to have two kids lost in the corn,” she said. “You stay right here.”

    The minister had brought some other people with him and Mama didn’t stop any of them when they formed a line and walked into the cornfield together. I worried about how many people might die in our cornfield and what Daddy would say when he heard Mama just let them all walk in like that.

 

    It was Daddy who found him. Down at the pond. He must’ve gone back to toss more rocks and then decided to go swimming or something. I guess he crossed the road all by himself, like he tried to before. Later, I found out his shoes and socks were sittin’ in the tall grass at the edge of the water and that’s how Daddy knew he’d gone in the pond.

    When I first caught sight of Daddy carrying Joey in his arms as he walked toward us, I was hoppin’ mad at my little brother for crossing that road again and scaring me into thinking I’d lost him in the corn. I waited to hear what Mama would say, especially about his wet clothes and hair, but I wasn’t expecting the sounds she started making. Before I could figure out what was wrong with Mama, Mrs. Wallace whisked me and her two girls away from the yard and straight into the kitchen. She told us to sit at the table and then she just started pacing across the floor making her own soft noises. 

    I stood up to look out the window but Mrs. Wallace shooed me away.

    “Sit down, Michael,” she said. “Everyone just stay at the table!”

    So I sat there starin’ at the paper and stickers and crayons I’d set out for Joey so he wouldn’t wake Mama when we came inside. When the minister came in to make a phone call, Mrs. Wallace made us all move to the living room and then she kept talking so I couldn’t hear anything the minister was sayin’. Mama and Daddy were still outside with Joey and all the people who’d come to help look for him. 

    I knew by then that things were bad. Something cold and heavy was sliding around in my body and I had to pee, but I was too scared to move. So I just sat on the couch waiting and waiting and waiting until the minister came into the living room and sat beside me. Mrs. Wallace stood up then and disappeared with her two girls real fast. The minister touched my arm. I didn’t want to hear him say it, but he did anyway.

 

    Mama had to go to the hospital because of the baby. Daddy said the shock might make the baby come too soon and it wasn’t ready to be born yet. No one said out loud that everything was my fault, but they didn’t need to. I knew it in my bones. 

After, I took all my plastic soldiers to the pond and I threw them in one after another. Even Chewed-up Man, my best fighter. I watched them sink to the bottom of the pond and I wished I could follow them. I wanted so badly to disappear. But Daddy said that when Mama came home, she would need my help more than ever and he was still countin’ on me to be the Man of the House. 

“Can you do that? Can you help your Mama and try to make things easy for her?” Daddy asked.

I nodded, but I wondered why Mama would ever count on me to help her again. I figured no one had told Daddy yet that I was the one watchin’ Joey when he went to the pond. When she came home, Mama would tell him, and then he’d know the awful truth about his ‘Man of the House’. 

It was worst at night. I would fall asleep with the missing weight of my little brother pressin’ on me like a heavy stone. And then I would dream about all my drowned soldiers and a baby that didn’t want to be born.

But mostly, I dreamed about findin’ Joey in that cornfield.