You walk across the field to get as far away from the house and your parent's rowing as you can. Now you sit on the cold brick step outside the old shack your daddy uses for his tools, where he hides out if it gets too much for him in the house, and too wet for him to be in the fields with his plough or horses.
You sit with your small hands hidden in your lap beneath your faded yellow dress with its off-white pinafore, and stare out at the old barn where you and your brother Joel used to play some years back, before he was found, drowned in the river a mile away or so. You can see him sometimes, often when you least expect him. He stands there with that stupid grin on his face and those deep dark eyes, his hands stuck in his trouser pockets, poking out his tongue as he often did. Now as you stare at the barn, you wish he'd come to you and sit down beside you and whisper those things he'd whisper to you way back, which used to make you laugh out loud and make you put your hand over your mouth to prevent any more guffaws flowing out, bringing your mom's eyes on you with their dark intensity and coldness.
Your eyes have that large openness about them; round as bull's eyes, Joel would say, with a hint of the haunted deep down in them, as if you'd been punished once too often and the eyes stayed wide and open out of habit. Your top lip is narrow like a knife slit, but the lower one pouts, as if stubbornly refusing to smile even if something strikes you as funny.
You turn your head back towards the house. The sound of voices has gone. Best out of it, you muse, screwing up you nose, drawing your lips tight against your teeth. When your daddy takes to drink, he's liable to strike out at whoever is near or throw things in his blindness of temper. Or your mom would grab you out of his reach and push you out of the room, accidentally banging your head on the wall or door as you travelled from room to room.
"Can't you find anything to do, Claudine?" your mom had said, eyeing you darkly, giving you a slight shove towards the door some moments back.
"She ain't got no sense for work," your daddy had said, his eyes wild like a taunted bull. "Ain't got no more sense than that darn cow in the field."
"I'm not afraid of work," you had muttered, moving backwards, out of his hand's reach, not looking at his grey eyes, bloodshot with drink and sleeplessness, and that scent of the fields and animals about his person.
You look back at the barn and sigh. Joel'd have taken your hand by now, and run with you into the barn with a game in mind, and a laugh about him like a garment, and that grin hanging on his features as if he'd discovered a secret treasure, or seen something that needed telling to you, like the time he'd seen your daddy and that Molly Maine in the hayloft some summers back, and giggled it all to you as he grabbed you and kissed your cheek, and tickled you until you fell aching with laughter on the hay-strewn floor.
You move your hand and push it through your long black hair, which is parted down the middle like a crooked path through a wood. Then you shove the black tresses behind your ears, bring your hands on to your knees and tap them nervously.
"Shall I show you where I saw them?" Joel said that day, grinning as if he'd found a pot of gold.
"Saw who?" you asked, following him across the field.
"Daddy and that Maine girl," Joel said. He looked back at you, searched your eyes for understanding.
"Where were they?" You looked at him, watched him swing his arms beside him as if were a soldier off to war.
"In the hayloft," Joel stated. "They didn't know I was hiding on the other side of the barn." He stopped outside the barn and held you still. "Not a word of this to anyone else, understand?"
"My lips are sealed as if with wax," you muttered impatiently.
You stand up from the cold step and wander over to the barn. The old wooden doors are tall and wide and you have to pull with all your might to open them and enter in.� The smell of hay and animals hits you. You draw the doors closed behind you, move inwards into the semi-darkness. You tread your dark heavy boots across the barn floor, you turn around and around and look about you until all becomes one huge twirling scene and you fall down in a giddy sickness.
Joel ought to be here now, you muse, sitting back against a bale, rubbing your hands on your yellow dress. You sit and stare until the barn becomes still and stops twirling about you. You listen for the slightest sound.
Nothing. Not even bird song. Just the stillness and your own breathing.
Your daddy found you here once hiding with Joel and he struck your brother with a backhanded slap and sent him sprawling across the floor. "Ain't no place for kids," he bellowed, turning to glare at you, thinking his next move, his eyes seemingly hollow as if someone had stolen his eyeballs and left only empty spaces behind. "If I find you in here again, you'll get more than you bargained for, now, get!" And you and Joel scampered like rabbits out of the barn and across the fields, not stopping until you were out of breath and the fear had subsided.
"Hate him!" Joel stated glancing back the barn.
"Ought not to hate anyone," you said. "Least of all Daddy," you added, feeling for Joel's hand, gripping it like it was a doll long lost.
You stand and climb the hay bales until you reach the top and sit in the dust-filled air. You listen for mice or rats. Listen for far-off voices. Nothing, just your own deep breathing. Your eyes adjust themselves to the semi-darkness, you look around you, see the sunlight seep through the small slits in the walls. You clamber over the bales, peer through one of the slits. The house seems miles away. Your mom is outside now, hands on hips, feet apart, her head to one side as if she sought an answer to some bewildering question. Your daddy is walking away from the house, his back to his wife, his stride strong and purposeful; his head dropped forward, his hands in tight balls of fists hitting the air about him like a demented prizefighter punching at shadows.
"Hide, Claudine," a voice whispers behind you.
You turn and Joel stands grinning at you, pale as snow, stooped as if he'd winded himself. "Joel? That you?" And you reach out to touch, but only feel air and dust.
"Hide yourself, he's coming," Joel says, moving back into the shadows.
You peer once more through the slit, your daddy's not in sight. You freeze and turn towards the space where Joel had been and is now gone. "Joel? Where you gone?" you mutter into the air.
The barn doors are pulled wide and you push yourself back against the wooden walls, your head lowered into your lap. You hear the sound of your daddy's boots across the floor and the muttering of his voice below. You cringe like a mouse. Your body aching with tightness.
Your hair falls into your eyes, you push it away with your fingers, bring your hands together as if in prayer. Your daddy is cursing, saying words your mom'd beat you for saying if you even as much as whispered it in passing. You hear his feet climbing the wooden ladder into the hayloft, his breathing heavy, his voice still muttering foulness.
Joel is beside you suddenly, his hair limp with dampness, his clothes hanging from him like rags and his grin gone. He eyes you briefly, then moves to the ladder and pushes it with the force of a gale, it falls backwards into the darkness, and your daddy's voice drowns downwards on to the ground below with a heavy thud.
Joel turns and grins. His eyes are full, dark, and reaching out to you. Then he's gone. Vanished like a dream.
The stillness wraps itself about you; the air is full of dust, an odd welcome death lingering below in the silent shadows.