Cara came home one morning with some kid in tow. He looked around fourteen maybe – hard to tell sometimes – but his eyes were those of a man who’d spent his whole life in a warzone with nothing much to eat. He stood in the kitchen, glancing around at our meager furnishings as though they were made out of gold. The trappings of a rumored world.
A rash circled his neck, and his hands dangled from his arms like claws. One leg was shorter than the other.
This here’s Ezra, said Cara. He’s agreed to do some jobs for us in exchange for a few days room and board.
Oh, I’ll think of something.
I noticed she didn’t bother telling Ezra my name. They must have had that discussion on the way over. He looked at my face with keen interest for a moment and then made up his mind not to say a word. He gazed up at the ceiling as if it were an unheard of phenomenon and then shuffled out the door and down the steps.
It was a hot morning so I suggested a swim in the river. Ezra smelled awful. Cara laughed and said Ezra’s sister drowned last year in the floods and it left a mark on him. Not much of a swimmer.
I’d known him only a few minutes and already I felt like a specimen of debased gentry in comparison. His warzone eyes peered at me through the kitchen window.
How old was she? I said.
He says she was like a mother to him but she was only a year or two older. I never knew her. Or if I did, I didn’t know it was her. So many of them to keep track of.
Hearing reports like this from Cara – which she seemed to find amusing in the telling – only reinforced my willful seclusion from the rest of the world. And Cara herself had a sister who had gone missing and might be dead, a twin who was her opposite, a slender pixie with beautiful eyes. She had managed to haunt us for years. I didn’t understand how Cara could bring herself to say such words.
She grabbed her axe and went out the door. I sat down in my chair and cobbled together scenarios about what might happen to us in the future, but then I knew I had to get out of the chair and accomplish something with my hands. Sew something. Write something down. Kill a fly buzzing around the room. Anything to drive the thoughts from my head.
Outside I found Ezra standing in a corner of the porch, his frail-looking body canted to one side so that one shoulder stuck up higher than the other. It looked so uncomfortable I almost asked him to sit down. I didn’t see Cara anywhere. The boy had been inspecting her motorcycle which she’d taken apart and spread across the deck, its various components arrayed in a clutter that made sense only to her. But the boy was looking at them now like it meant something to him too.
Maybe that was why he was here. Maybe he was some sort of mechanical genius. A healer of broken machines.
Hungry? I said.
He didn’t say anything. If he couldn’t talk, it might make things easier on both of us.
Hungry? I said again, miming the act of putting food in my mouth.
No, thanks. We had a pretty big breakfast. I won’t be hungry again until later this evening.
The polite, melodious voice coming out of his mouth did not align with his gaunt, dirt-streaked face.
I’m not used to eating much, he said. He tried to smile but it came off more like a wince, which I could understand since I suffered from the same condition.
Well, you just let me know when you do get hungry.
I tried to sound like someone who regularly offered hospitality to guests, but I mainly used my voice for talking to myself in the form of hollow threats, so this is what it probably sounded like I was doing.
Cara came around the side of the house and set Ezra up chopping wood. As soon as he got the axe in his hands, his crooked body came to life with hidden strength. He raised the axe over his head and brought it down in the center of a log, cleaving it in two. I knew how hard it was to do that because I couldn’t do it myself. Not like that. He chopped wood for an hour with a blank look on his face like he barely knew he was alive. I imagined how bad he was going to smell afterward. I wondered if he would break down and wade out into the river if I begged him.
Cara worked on her motorcycle while Ezra chopped wood. Watching them from the kitchen window I got the sensation I was seeing something that had happened a long time ago, something from before.
Suddenly Ezra dropped the axe and wandered off toward the woods. At the edge of the trees, near the boulder I often sat on and cried, he unbuckled his belt and a sparkling arc of piss shot into the ferns. His thin back shuddered as he finished up his business. I wondered what had happened to his sister. Had he been there when she drowned? Had he attempted to save her? Or maybe he hadn’t and now he was racked with guilt. Yes, that was probably it. He hadn’t done enough and now he blamed himself.
Any of those scenarios was possible. But then I started to think of worse things, much worse, and forced my mind to be quiet. It frightened me how easily I could imagine the worst things. How good I was at it.
The boy made his way back across the yard, hefted the axe, and resumed swinging and splitting as if he would never run out of energy.
When he had finished with his task he sat on the steps, waiting for Cara to appear and order him to do something else. Where had she gone? After a while I went out and offered him a glass of water and he took it and guzzled it down and handed me the empty glass.
How you doing? I said.
He looked up at me, shielding his eyes with his hand.
He said, What are all them scars on your face?
I stared down at him, speechless.
He said, Can you see out of your bad eye?
Unfortunately I can.
He laughed, and I liked him for that. I really did. But I wondered what had to happen to a boy so young that allowed him to know how to laugh at a comment like that.
You want more water?
He shook his head no.
I took his empty glass into the house and washed it out. I could see him in the window. He was sitting there with nothing in his face. But then he got up and shuffled over to the motorcycle again and peered down at the disassembled parts with a sharp, speculating interest. When he’d asked about my face, he hadn’t looked like that. Not at all. He’d only been making polite conversation.
He leaned over and picked something up, and I wondered if he’d almost drowned with his sister. I wondered if he was going to stay with us forever. He could sleep in the barn. We could use a little help around the house. In winter he could shovel snow. He could cut a path out to the henhouse, which we both hated doing. He could keep our firewood stocked up. I could teach him to take a bath.
Cara came out of the barn and bellowed something. Ezra didn’t even turn around. Just went right on piecing the motorcycle back together in his head, repairing whatever was wrong with it. When I realized I was doing the same thing, only with him, taking him apart and putting him back together again so his legs were the same length and his sister wasn’t drowned and his eyes weren’t frozen with misery, I kind of hated myself. Who was I to have these thoughts about this boy?
Ezra stayed with us for a few days and I fed him. He and Cara tore the leaky old roof off the henhouse and replaced it. He hacked the tall grass away from the vegetable patch with the sickle. And he helped Cara put her motorcycle back together. Apparently he just had one of those brains.
When the motorcycle started, Cara hopped right on and Ezra climbed up behind her. He turned briefly, his warzone eyes scouring the side of the house, and then the bike sped off up the hill toward the road. When she came back a few hours later, Cara was alone.
Where’s Ezra? I said.
Oh, he stayed out there. But we’ll see him again.
Did you at least get him something to eat before you dropped him off?
Cara looked at me closely. He’ll be fine, she said.
You don’t know that!
You’re right, I don’t. But am I his mother now?
Does he even have one?
I don’t know. He never mentioned her, just the sister.
You should have let me give him something to eat before you took him away.
Are you crying?
Leave me alone.
Now what’s wrong?
I’m just tired. I didn’t sleep well. I think I’ll go to bed.
She laughed and said, It’s not even dark out yet.
I left her standing there in the kitchen, incredulous and wondering. I took my clothes off and crept into bed. I was crying and didn’t care. I closed my eyes, my bad one and my good one, and hoped I would never see another child.
Kevin Spaide has published stories in Wigleaf, Fictive Dream, FRiGG and several other places. His story “Disrepair,” which belongs to the same series as this one, also appeared in New World Writing. He lives in Madrid with his wife and son.