Well, momma says it ain’t really babysittin’, considerin’ that it’s my younger brother I gotta watch. Can’t ‘sit your own family, that’s what she says. She calls it “lookin’ after.” That’s all well and good, but I also hate lookin’ after Charlie.
Momma went off to visit our nana out at the hospital. Nana had a bad fall and momma goes to see her once a day at least. Sometimes I go, too, but that day I had to stay home. It was harvestin’ season, and dad was movin’ grain.
“I need you out in the fields with me, Tony,” he’d said.
I guess momma hadn’t heard him that mornin’ at the breakfast table, ‘cause she stuck me with Charlie.
Charlie’s four years younger than me, makin’ him eight and me twelve. Charlie tries to help out, but he’s still so small, a real runt if’n I ever saw one.
When it’s harvestin’ season, dad don’t like Charlie out in the fields with us. He just gets underfoot and sends dad cussin’.
So I got ready to help out, pullin’ on my overalls and straightenin’ my John Deere cap. Charlie was runnin’ ‘round at my feet, pissin’ an’ moanin’ about me not playin’ with him.
“Momma said you gotta watch me!” he shrieked.
Jeezus hell, can that boy shriek.
Dad was gettin’ real irritated and he’s a pain to work with when he gets like that. I sighed and started to rack my brains, lookin’ for something to keep the little booger busy while I helped dad move corn.
The idea struck on me and I smiled.
“Hey, Charlie, how about we play hide ‘n’ seek? I’ll even count first.”
Charlie’s eyes went wide. He really loves hide ‘n’ seek, so I knew I had ‘im. ‘Course, the first words out of his mouth were, “regular boundaries?”
Livin’ on a farm, we had to set boundaries when we played games like this. Normally, we weren’t to go in the fields or the grove. We also had to stay away from the road, the bins, and the ol’ chicken coop, which was perpetually in danger of fallin’ to pieces. Charlie rarely went to these places anyway, but he always huffed when we set the boundaries – “That just ain’t fair, there’s not enough places to hide,” he’d pout. ‘Course there was, we had three barns at least to tuck himself away in. But this time I thought I’d humor him.
“How ‘bout no boundaries, Charlie? You can hide wherever you want. Just be careful.” I paused and then added, “And you’ll have to give me a little more time to find you. Bein’ as there’s so many more places to hide and all.”
His eyes lit up and he bounded out the door, shoutin’ at me to count to a hundred and no peekin’, don’t you even dare. While he searched for a hidin’ place, I followed my dad out to the grain bins.
Dad had me help him set up the augur. We were movin’ some of the grain from the bins to the gravity wagon. That’s not the hard part of farmin’, not really, you just get the augur set up and let it be. Sometimes dad’d have me standing on the ladder of the wagon, watching to make sure everythin’ was smooth sailing, but just as we set it up, one of the neighbors, Mr. Greenleaf, came shootin’ up the driveway in his truck.
Dad sent me out to meet him and he got right to the point, no shootin’ shit or anythin’.
“Came to let ya know that yer daddy’s cows got out,” he said. His eyes sparkled a bit and I could see he was enjoyin’ givin’ us the bad news. I swore a little under my breath as I ran back out to dad.
My dad was none too pleased and started sayin’ those words he made me promise never to say. He asked Mr. Greenleaf to watch the augur for a bit while he and I put the cows back, if it weren’t too much of a bother. He nodded and made a show of goin’ out to the bins, like he was some kinda hero or somethin’. That only put dad in a worse mood, seein’ as he wasn’t too keen on Mr. Greenleaf an’ didn’t like to owe him anythin’.
So dad and I went out and rounded up the cows. It was a pain in the ass, tryin’ to herd up them beasts. It took us a few hours, and dad only got madder as time went on. “They’re ornery fucks,” that’s what he’d tell momma when he thought I wasn’t listenin’.
By the time we finished herdin’, it was suppertime. Dad drove us back to the farm – the cows had made some real headway so we’d had to take his truck out on the highway. Momma was already back, I could see her car in the driveway. That was the first time that I thought back to Charlie. Shoot, I never even pretended to go look for ‘im. My heart sank as I thought about how mad ma would be. I bet Charlie was in there right now, cryin’ and screamin’. I’d sure catch hell for leavin’ him alone.
To make things worse, Mr. Greenleaf had gone home long before. His truck was nowhere in sight, and he’d left the augur on.
“Tony, go shut that thing off,” dad said.
I jumped out of the truck and dad went to put it in the shed. I started runnin’ towards the augur when I heard ma callin’ out the front door.
“Tony, you three are back! When you’re done helpin’ your father, can you bring Charlie in?”
My heart froze. Charlie wasn’t inside? Could he still think we were playin’? My mind was runnin’ through all the places he could be hidin’. Shoot, why hadn’t I set boundaries?
I decided to turn off the augur before goin’ to search for him, figurin’ dad would be mad if I didn’t listen to him first. But even as I went up to it, I could tell something was wrong.
See, the augur had been runnin’ all day, but the gravity bin wasn’t full. It was only half-filled with corn. That, o’course, meant that something was clogging it up.
Now, I ain’t never been a real bright kid, I can tell ya that much. In fact, I’m dirt stupid, as momma would say. But right then, I just knew. I just knew what had happened somehow and I started screamin’ an’ bawlin’ my head off until dad heard me and ran for me.
“What in blue hell is wrong with you?” he shouted. ‘Course the shoutin’ stopped when he saw that the augur was clogged. He knew, too.
“Charlie?” His face was white. I nodded and kept on screamin’.
Dad tried to dig through the corn, but it’s really impossible, ‘specially when there’s so much of it. I ran up and shut off the augur, not that it would help much anyway. He kept on diggin’ through the corn as momma came out to see what the fuss was.
Finally, he came to his senses and pulled up the door on the back of the wagon. All that golden grain started spillin’ to the ground. Dad tried to wade in, but the corn was comin’ out in a fury an’ he just had to sit there and wait.
Eventually, Charlie’s body came in to view. I was too shocked to do much as dad climbed into the wagon and pulled him out, as though that could do any good. He pulled him onto the ground and I saw that his skin had gone gray under the corn dust that coated him.
Dad yanked open his mouth and I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget seein’ that. See, his mouth was all full of corn. I heard later that it was full down into his lungs, too, but I wouldn’t know nothin’ about that. I just saw that corn shoved into his throat and I knew he wasn’t comin’ back.
Sure, dad tried. He tried to dig the corn out while he sobbed and momma screamed. He did his best but it just plain didn’t work. The ambulance still took Charlie to the hospital, but it was more for our sake than anythin’ else. Charlie was deader’n a hunk a wood, that was certain.
Our family weren’t the same after that. Momma got real quiet afterwards, never really seems to talk much. Sometimes I hafta ask her questions a few times ‘fore she heard me. Dad started drinkin’ and stopped farmin’. He never blames me, says it was his fault for not havin’ me watch my brother.
But I always blame myself.
It’s been a few weeks since the accident. Everythin’s changed so fast. But there are two things I know for certain.
One: every night, I’ll have the same dream. I’m lookin’ for Charlie, just like playin’ hide ‘n’ seek but it’s diff’r’nt, somehow. And then I see him, coming out of the field, crawling on his belly. He looks like a scarecrow, dressed just like the one we had out in the field. And he opens his mouth and eyes and the corn just pours out…
Two: I really, really wish I’d set them boundaries.