In the summer he takes him to the creek to show him a dead body. They follow the leaning fences through the mud and the leeches and the pesky poisoned rhododendron; they balance on fallen moss-covered logs one paw before the other, feeling a thrill akin to Indiana Jones across the low and muddy water, stagnant between the greyish brown rocks. Moose picks a leech from his front paw with his teeth. Marshmallow bats at a yellowing fern and the ladybug dangling from a single spiral. He eats the ladybug with a flick of his sandpapery tongue. The body is a raccoon’s, a few days old with its guts all fileted under the July sun; they sense the toxic warning with their thin pink noses. Plus, it’s not even in a creek but on the road: Boylston Street to Prospect Street to Old Mill Road and towards the quarry where it meets Route 128. They circle the corpse gingerly—tails lowered, as if in respect, the downward arch of anxiety. Marshmallow’s tail is a dustbroom black and majestic, with its fur as wide as a baseball bat. Moose’s tail is slender and tapering like a German sausage, black but with speckled hairs of white, the hair of a respected news anchor who occasionally lies.
Moose sniffs at the splayed-out raccoon and Marshmallow calls him a chickenshit and dares him to actually touch it.
Fuck you, Moose says, you touch it.
Don’t speak to your brother like that, says Marshmallow, I’m older than you. Show some respect.
Oh yeah? Well, I dare you to lick it.
Dare you to pick it up and carry it all the way home in your mouth.
No way. I double dog dare you to, uh, hump it.
You’re such a dumbass. You can’t do double dog dares already, dumbass.
They know to head back before dinnertime. Some of the neighborhood bullies pass by on BMX bikes and flip them off, but they ignore them. It is still light out, pink and blue. The pavement is warm. They steal some plywood from the tract houses under construction behind their street and build bike ramps in the garage. Moose half-heartedly saws at a few pieces into triangles but Marshmallow does most of the work. Later that night a water gun fight breaks out—all the kittens in the neighborhood come out with their Super Soakers, high-pressure artillery that could bombard the Normandy coast. The two tabby sisters Lizzy and Cici corner Moose behind their backyard shed and lay waste to his fur at point-blank range. Annoyed, Moose spends the rest of the night licking himself clean while Marshmallow fires up Goldeneye on the N64. Temple, Klobbs, first to 5 kills. Moose watches his older brother destroy his enemies with a look across his face like some kind of awe. It is still warm out.
Every day in the fall, Marshmallow rolls a joint and watches the DVD commentary of The Boondock Saints while splayed out on a torn leatherette couch that is somehow always warm. On one random Tuesday afternoon, while half-drunk himself, he presents Moose with his first alcoholic drink: a lukewarm glass bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade that he pilfered from their neighbor’s deck. Moose can sense every whisker tingling. I can’t feel my lips! he yells, and Marshmallow laughs and laughs and laughs until he starts coughing, hacking up a hairball the size of a Vienna sausage that lands with a plop onto the wet and sticky Olefin carpet.
I want some tater tots, says Moose. Put ‘em in the oven. Four-fifty. Crisp ‘em up nice.
We’re all out, Marshmallow says, bitterly, as if it’s Moose’s fault. Freezer’s empty. Plus I keep asking you to clean out that nasty-ass toaster oven.
Can we go to Wendy’s? I’ll be your guardian or adult or whatever.
Marshmallow laughed. Yeah right. You’ll never fucking be an adult.
After some more convincing Marshmallow—dogeared learners permit in tow—drives them to the Wendy’s in Edgemere in a rusty Mazda 323 hatchback that he had traded $200 in pot for. Moose crawls across the dashboard. They blast Godsmack and Dropkick Murphys as they speed on the thickly settled streets, not quite winding roads and not quite suburbia, past old women angrily gesturing at them to slow down. Fuck you, Marshmallow yells out the window, I am slow! The Mazda nearly stalls in the drive-thru. On the way back Moose watches Marshmallow put away four Spicy Chicken Sandwiches with one paw on the steering wheel and it is the most impressive thing he has ever seen in his life.
Winter howls through the trees like an injured wolf. Marshmallow grows out his wild and unruly mane, spends the next few months wearing the same stained 107.3 WAAF hoodie with holes in the sleeves for his thumbs, black cargo shorts from Spag’s on Route 9, stops licking himself just to see if he can get away with it. On the mornings at ten degrees Fahrenheit he drives past the bus stop and yells at the middle schoolers: cold enough for you, you pussies? As if it’s their fault for reacting to the wind chill. His voice all gravely and forceful as if trying on a costume, acting a role for which he never should have been cast.
All winter long it’s plastic sleds flung into the deep-packed forests, icy snowballs with rocks in the center, frozen pellets in the hopper of a Tippman 98, the paintballs ricocheting like musket fire. That long winter Moose stays indoors, burying his face into soldering irons and wiring diagrams. He sniffs at the heady smoke coiling from plastic and tin, installs stereo equipment in his brother’s Mazda: twin Sony Xplōd subs in the trunk, 800-watt Kicker amps, a Kenwood DVD player in the dash that Marshmallow just happened to find one day—all custom wooden enclosures, sprayed with flocking to look like it came from the factory. He hears his brother punching holes through the drywall. He could always use some more electrical equipment.
One afternoon Marshmallow comes down the basement stairs with his friend Brisket, shy and shaggy-haired. So yeah, he says to Brisket, this is my brother, what a fuckin’ nerd.
Aw man he can’t be that bad.
You finish that computer yet Moose?
Yeah like ages ago. You saw it, it’s in my room. But I’m never gonna let you in my room.
Oh I’ve been there. I’ve stolen all your beer that you hide under your bed. I know where you hide your porno.
Shut up! I don’t have any porn!
I hide my pornography in my dad’s coffee table. Right where the old remotes go. It’s the last place he’ll ever look.
Nobody cares, Brisket. I’m here making fun of my stupid brother for jacking off in this basement all day.
Dude I’m doing all this for you! Wiring all of these harnesses for your shitbox car. Can you stop being a dick to me for once in your life?
Brisket stares at the two, not knowing what to say, and decides to curl up on the stairs and lick his butthole.
Marshmallow glares at Moose. This will be something Moose remembers for years: that sensation of being in the basement with nowhere to go the only exit blocked and you are about to claw your way out of your own fur.
Marshmallow’s longer hair allows him to hide deep into his hoodie, where he keeps his Sony Discman, his nascent inner monologue drowned out by Tool and System of a Down and Limp Bizkit’s seminal Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water. The winter turns to grey sludge the consistency of concrete, squishy and gravely between his toe beans, Moose—trying to eviscerate the sensation of cold from his petite bony structure, trying to suffer for his bushido code, he must suck it up, must control his shivering until it is imperceptible underneath his Goodwill Army surplus jacket, where the roundness of his backside rises up and down and nobody can see it unless they bury your face in his soft and scratchy domestic short hair, to hear his purring like a dull, low humming.
When the spring arrives, Marshmallow takes Lizzy to senior prom. I thought you said prom was lame, said Moose.
No way, he says. She’s in heat bro.
He’s too tough to admit that he’s had a crush on her since 8th grade. He’s afraid to tell his brother how his breath slows down when she walks down the stairs to the cafeteria for square pizza and tater tots, and for a moment he stops grinning at freshmen to get in line and stand close behind her and breathe deep. He doesn’t know that Brisket, Stella, Doctor Mario, Bernard J. Katz Attorney At Paw, and the foreign exchange student Chairman Meow have all gotten to her first. Moose is fixed and therefore has no energy left. In the bathroom Marshmallow runs his lines over and over, all of his best rehearsed jokes, recycled bits from Dane Cook albums. After an eternity he emerges in his rented tuxedo, his clip-on bowtie all askew; Moose notices that his fly is down but doesn’t bother telling him.
How’s my hair?
Gross. Greasy as hell.
The summer before Marshmallow goes off to college he calls himself Captain Marshmallow—a dignified role, an occupation, as if in command of a sailing ship or a battalion. Moose starts to wear a black cowboy hat, cocked to one ear and constantly falling off. It makes him look like a villain which is exactly what he wants. He chews on the straps until they fall off and then he bats them around until they roll underneath the auditorium bleachers.
At Amherst, Captain Marshmallow develops a crush on his English Comp teacher. Daphne is young and long-haired with bright yellow eyes and she likes to lie down where the sunbeam goes, her tortoiseshell colors aglow as she follows the light. She just married a good boy named Hank whose fur is entirely black except a triangular patch on his belly, so white it seems trimmed like a well-groomed ski trail. There is a dignity in the way they sit. They perch atop dumpsters, statuesque, smoking Maverick menthols, glaring at the passing cars. They push their butts off the dumpster lid. He smells like fresh printer paper and warmth. She smells like cherry stems and radiator heat. She licks at his flank with her tongue and feels a low frequency, rising on the last note in patterns of four, and repeating, like radio signals from Siberia. After Lizzy broke his plum-sized heart it is everything that Captain Marshmallow wants in his life.
That first semester Captain Marshmallow falls in with a clowder of libertines who drop shrooms in state park reservoirs, who throw plastic spoons at midnight screenings in black-box theaters, who resemble patchwork broken Furbies in body and spirit. He stands on tables, raising his haunches, shouting in defiance in unison in protest against things he hasn’t yet learned. He listens to Fleet Foxes and Joy Division and Kings of Leon before anyone knew who they were. Music he used to make fun of. He kisses a calico named Princess Dumptruck as well as an orange boy named Willie Nelson—at first on a bet, and then, one more time when nobody’s looking.
At the Union Station bus terminal Moose picks him up in the Mazda. It is a crisp fall day and the air smells like pine needles and diesel. Captain Marshmallow tries to make conversation, tells Moose he’s gonna become a writer someday. He reads Moose a poem he wrote about “the attainment of possibility.” Moose rolls his eyes—first at the poem and then at the banality of this small talk: he’s already said that he’s gonna apply to WPI for electrical engineering, swear to God, but he failed AP Calculus this semester, and last week Cici turned him down to go see 2Fast 2Furious, so what’s the point of anything anymore? Later me and Brisket and Doctor Mario are gonna hit up Sonic and then get hammered at the quarry, Moose tells his brother. Then adds, you’re welcome to join.
On his custom-built computer Moose plays Counterstrike, screaming curse words into the microphone. He watches gory Flash videos on Newgrounds. He stays in his room all day. Yowling at all hours of the night, he pisses under the bed and on top of the sheets, scrawls nonsensical phrases up and down his arm in a fat red Sharpie. He claims that he’s inventing a new language, the words inescapable. Now his brother sneers at him for what he’s become, he says—as if one semester at Amherst can undo what you fundamentally are? Fuck off.
At night Moose goes for a drive in the Mazda. Boylston Street to Prospect Street to Old Mill Road. Cracks on the dashboard point the way north. Through dense rows of corn off the side of the two-lane highway, still green in their stalks, all chaos and stringy when viewed up close. Past the rows of triple-deckers, past the white-steepled churches, into thickets of eastern hemlocks, Holden, West Boylston, Princeton, Wachusett Mountain, moving in slow motion, almost dragged backwards, doomed to repeat the same asphalt squiggles in an infinite loop.
When he was still a kitten he had figured it all out. Mewling into the soft recesses of his mother’s belly, he figured out what it was like to die. Blinking at the warm lights overhead, crossing his eyes until he felt dizzy, he wondered if he could believe what his pale green eyes saw. While brushing his teeth in the bathroom he stared at the wallpaper, the fleur-de-lis pattern a grey faded green. Did a mother’s nipple taste the same—salty and warm and buttery—to his brother? Did we inhabit the same universe, or could we conjure one for ourselves? He pawed at his banana toy, yellow for now, but it could have been purple for all he knew, and he could tell himself that it was purple all along, all he would have to do is blink. It would change before him, he told himself, he could will it. He could master the universe. It was all right there. Just close your eyes and sleep.
Blake Z. Rong is a writer and journalist in Brooklyn. He recently received an MFA in Writing & Publishing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is the author of the nonfiction work Beautiful Machines (Gestalten, 2019). His debut collection of poetry, I Am Not Young And I Will Die With This Car In My Garage, is forthcoming to be published with Atmosphere Press. His short stories and poetry are forthcoming in Poetica Review, Vagabond City, and Isele Magazine. A former automotive journalist, his nonfiction and essays have been published in print at Panorama, Autoweek, Hagerty, and Road & Track, among others. He hails from central Massachusetts and is currently working on a collection of stories.
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