We never left them dangling there for long, swaying back and forth between the fenceposts, little Jenny’s skipping rope suspending them above the ground in scuffed pink neckties. Sometimes Jenny would spy on us then come running over with glossy red eyes, flailing her knobby arms in the air, crying for her skipping rope back. Then Mark would step in front of her with arms folded over his chest, the way the old man always did before he removed the belt from his pants one self-satisfied loop at a time, and Jenny would dig her bald heels into the dirt and spin homeward on a dime, threatening to tell Ma. She never did though cause she knew her neck was the perfect size for a little pink necktie, and she also knew Mark enjoyed just the thought of her in nothing but that. Jenny was smart for a nine-year-old.
So when she ran to us all wild-eyed and well-eyed that dusty Sunday morning in late summer, raw streaks of skin on her face swelling through a week’s worth of no bathing, it was nothing unusual when Mark started to fold his arms over his chest.
“That one’s still alive,” I said, nodding to the last of three orange tufts dangling from the skipping rope. The poor thing gurgled and swatted its claws at the air.
Mark turned his head over his shoulder and launched a wad of spit the size of a half-dollar onto the creature’s head. The spit landed on its good eye (Mark had melted the other shut with the brass Zippo the old man had given him for his seventeenth birthday that spring), and the kitten gasped. “Choke on that.”
Jenny dug her heels into the dirt like usual, but she didn’t turn back for home that time. Though her whole body vibrated with shakes, she willed herself in place and only her twitching toes peeking through Ma’s sandals gave her worry away.
“Ma’s bleeding,” she told Mark, as if he would care. Our Ma wasn’t his. According to Mark he didn’t have a Ma, but everybody knew different. The day she got bail was the day he never saw her again, and by then he hadn’t seen her since he was five so he didn’t care none when the court placed him with us. It’ll be nice living with the Dearths, Mark told me the judge said to him, the Dearths are a good family, and the Missus’ll take good care of that growing boy’s appetite. Sure, Ma fed Mark good, and he liked to brag about it to Jenny telling her he could feed her good too. But the old man had had her first and even though he didn’t like the old man any more than a person likes to stick a lit match in his eye, Mark kept away from little Jenny.
“Ma’s bleeding bad,” Jenny pushed, leaning straight-legged towards Mark until her calves looked like two glue sticks about to snap backwards. When he just kept on standing there she turned to me with tears and prayer all over her face.
“Scott, please come home. Pa’s in one of his ways again.”
Mark reached back and yanked the skipping rope when the last marmalade started to yowl.
Jenny crouched down to look at the kitten and cried out when it made a raspy noise and kicked its hind legs at her. “Can I have him, Mark? Please? Please can you give him to me? Marmalade color is my favorite kind!”
“Go home,” Mark ordered, yanking the rope again.
“Nobody ever lets me have nothing.”
With that Jenny let out a big huff and spun homeward so sharp she left one of Ma’s sandals behind.
“Jenny’s right, you know,” I said, scuffing my boot on the ground. “She has no friends around here. A little girl shouldn’t be lonely like that.”
Mark’s eyes followed Jenny until she disappeared into the trailer park. “She don’t need friends. You see how girls her age dress around here? Bunch of little whores.”
He glowered over his shoulder at the last kitten. The unforgiving sun had welted the dirt, blood and spit onto its face thicker than piecrust, and the two others were starting to shrivel like day-old party balloons.
“Won’t hurt her to have a cat,” I persisted, taking a swig from the flask Mark handed me.
Mark poured the backwash from his flask onto the live kitten’s head and made it yelp. “What Jenny needs is a dog. Something real ugly and mean to keep that filthy bastard in his place.”
It was rare Mark showed concern for what the old man was doing to Jenny. Most often he accused her of lying about it, making up stories to win his attention. Then she’d start to blubber and follow him around the trailer with her rosary, swearing on every last bead she was telling the truth. One time Mark made like he believed her, and Jenny went to hug him, but then he snatched her rosary and smacked her across the face with it and told her the next time she lied like that a doctor would have to remove each and every bead from her stomach one by one with a rusty butcher’s knife.
Mark yawned. “Garbage truck should be here by now.”
“Bill says to burn them right away now,” I reminded him, taking out a can of gasoline from my rucksack. “Says it reeks up his dump too much doing it there.”
“Bill’s a lazy son of a bitch. All he does is drink and fuck.”
Mark had been real unhappy since we moved to Neverlee County. He had wanted to go to the city, but the old man didn’t want to live somewhere where his social security officer could make him get a job, and Ma really wanted a trailer with awnings on the windows and found the perfect one in Neverlee. It was a small community, only twenty lots besides ours, and the neighbors were quiet except one guy whose pit bull bitch
moaned and groaned so loud after he took her in at night the old man sometimes called the sheriff. There wasn’t much to do, especially during summer when school was out, but Ma enjoyed cooking and cleaning for the senior neighbors, and the old man made some pals at the tavern. Me and Mark found ourselves a job, if you could call it that, “keeping the community clean” by killing off strays. Kittens mostly, there seemed to be a new litter born every day, but sometimes there were pups and Mark liked dogs better so he went easier on them. He was always keeping an eye out for a good pup for Jenny even though he knew she wanted a kitten. And that last one hanging on the rope, well, it was kind of cute despite its burnt eye and all.
“It’s Jenny’s birthday tomorrow,” I said.
Mark leaned his leg against the fencepost and rolled two cigarettes. He lit one for me, the other for himself, and then he held the old man’s Zippo under the marmalade’s backside.
“I thought about giving this one to her,” he drawled proudly, admiring the flame as it grew and crept up the tiny orange tail. “Then she come over and seen it so it wouldn’t be a surprise tomorrow, now would it?”
“Guess not,” I answered, feeling a bit sad for the squealing animal.
Once the squealing became too much for even Mark, he untied the kittens from the fencepost and kicked them into a pile to pour gasoline all over them. The three together didn’t amount to the size of a full-grown cat, but they smelled as bad as any burning thing. After that, we packed our stuff and headed across the field for home to see what was the wrong with Ma.
“What about Jenny’s skipping rope?” I asked.
“She can get it herself.”
“It’s no good now.”
“So she don’t have another, and she likes to play rope after mass.”
“Pa’ll take care of her.”
It was nearing high noon, and the sun was so heavy and sticky everything around us looked flattened to the ground with a layer of see-thru glue. The cracking sounds under our work boots confirmed we had been in a drought all summer although the trailer park rippled and shimmered ahead like a freshly watered plant. About a quarter-mile away from home we came to a pile of deflated truck tires and crushed beer cans and sitting right on top was old Millie, one of the neighbor’s cats that was having a new litter every month it seemed. She gazed up at us with lazy yellow eyes and stretched a front paw in the air as if to say, Why y’all lookin’ so sour?
“Whore.” Mark walked past Millie so close he knocked one of the tires sideways, and she slid off her fort. She landed in the grass heavy like the babies inside her were rocks instead, and suddenly she didn’t look so self-satisfied anymore. I watched the old girl work at standing up, spreading out her four limbs to steady herself, and called to Mark when she let out that unmistakable pre-birthing groan.
“She’s gonna have them tonight.”
“We could give one to Jenny.”
Mark stopped and turned to watch Millie, who had finally assembled herself into a standing position and was waddling over to me with that combination look of fear and expectation all females get before they birth. Ma had looked that way before she gave birth to Jenny. Everybody else had been excited about my little sister’s coming into this world, and I remember not being able to understand why Ma was preparing for the event like a person prepares for a funeral.
Mark made like he was going to come over and inspect Millie but in the end he said,
“If it means so much to you then bring the cat back and hide it under the trailer,” and continued home.
I thought hard about bringing Millie home and keeping her until she birthed, but if she had her babies when the old man was around then not a one of them, not even little Jenny’s kitten, would live to suckle its first milk. Truth was I didn’t like the old man and what he was doing to Jenny any more than Mark did, but I couldn’t stand against him the way Mark did.