My brother has two rocks so he gives me one. We shoot them across the red soil and they bounce like they’ve got some place better to be. I rub the spot on my shin where earlier my brother had called me a dirty, rotten cowboy and smashed a different rock against my leg like the rock was a water balloon, my blood the water.
He adjusts his headdress and says, “I ain’t going home.”
My brother is an explorer of the great American Southwest. Today, though, he is native. His face is painted with red splotches of soil mixed with hose water. The soil is caked on like Mom’s foundation, flaking like the bottoms of her feet.
“We live with the earth now,” my brother says.
Mom says we shouldn’t play Cowboys and Indians anymore, what she calls Police and Natives. We shouldn’t be seen outside, my brother in his dollar-store headdress, face painted like a real American. Mom is one-eighth Navajo which makes us one-sixteenth. Dad calls us mutts and scoundrels. He calls us bad boys.
My brother runs to fetch the rocks. His headdress is too big and weighs his head down to one side. I lower Dad’s cowboy hat over my eyes until I can’t see anymore.
Dad says we rose like phoenixes out of Mom’s belly, but Mom say’s we arrived, like Albuquerque. “One day you were just here,” she says, as she takes off my brother’s headdress. She makes him stand by the sink and washes his face clean with a soapy dish rag. The same rag we saw her use earlier to clean off our dirty breakfast plates, when her face had been doing something funny with her eyes from all those onions. Now she says, “How many times have I told you?”
My brother hisses and counts out loud. “Six, eight, seventeen, twenty-five, one-hundred.”
“That’s right,” Mom says.
My brother’s face is red from the rag. Mom looks at my bloody leg and frowns but doesn’t say anything. Instead, she cleans the rag and wipes my leg after I sit down at the kitchen table. I count Dad’s scrunched up beer cans by the trash. There’s six of them—the number of days since any of us have seen him.
“You boys don’t know how to play nice,” Mom says, “you get that from your father.”
“Nuh uh,” my brother says, sitting down across from me, opening a Mexican Coke. “He fell exploring, ain’t that it?”
I nod, but Mom knows our truths from our lies.
“Give me food,” my brother chants, banging his hands on the table.
“You boys will eat me out of home,” Mom says. “You will eat me out of life. I wish I could have kept you inside my belly until you turned to stone.”
Mom says if we’re good boys, she’ll take us out of Albuquerque and farther west, where the soil is brown and things grow as tall as the sky.
Her white friend with the oversized jade necklace comes over after my brother goes to bed, and they sit around the kitchen table, ashing their cigarettes, talking about their husbands.
“Sometimes it’d be easier if he were dead,” Mom says.
She doesn’t know I’m listening. I’ve become an expert at being covert. My brother the explorer, me the documentarian. We’re not bad boys, we’re just misunderstood.
I wear my brother’s headdress because, at night, I get to be the Indian and he the sleeping cowboy.
Mom and her friend laugh like wild desert animals. The kind you hear late at night making all those pitiful noises, the ones in those documentaries my brother watches on TV. I watch Mom and her friend hold hands across the table.
Outside, I go behind the ancient juniper tree that tells me and my brother stories. The soil is red and talkative. I dig up my brother’s slingshot, the one I buried last week after he pummeled my legs indigo with bruises. I wash the slingshot off with hose water and pick out rocks for my brother—not small rocks, but rocks the size of fists, rocks from the great American Southwest.
Nicholas Cook lives in Dallas, TX, along with his dog. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, (b)OINK, 100 Word Story, Lost Balloon, Unbroken Journal, and elsewhere. His story The Peculiar Trajectory of Space Objects won second place in the Feb 2017 Bath Flash Fiction Award. Find him at nicholascook.com.