It was better when Clint was real little, at least that's what Barney says. He says they used to live up in the attic over Daddy's store, except the problem is that it's not really Daddy's store. It really belongs to those bastards at the bank (that's what Daddy always calls them) and they came along and said people can't live in there.
Clint's tried, but he doesn't remember living in the store at all. When they had to move, they got a trailer, but that was a lot of money, so Mama had to start working more and she started using that powder stuff so she could do double shifts. (Clint knows it's called meth, but he also knows it's a secret so he tries not to even think the name.) Barney says that Mama didn't used to double-sleep, the way she does now when she comes home from a long shift, the way she just lies there and she's more asleep than asleep because you can't wake her up.
Barney says it was better when they lived over the store, that when they lived there, Daddy wasn't always mad like he is now, but Clint don't think that Daddy's always mad these days. Daddy clips their toenails and gives them money for popsicles and he's started teaching them how to hunt. Daddy has a rifle and he takes the boys into the woods and teaches them how to hold steady and shoot and Clint is real good at it. He kills a rabbit on their first time out and they eat it for supper. Daddy takes him out hunting some more and it's great and it's just him and Daddy because Barney stays home.
It ain't always great, though, not even mostly great. Mama doesn't pay the electric bill and a deer that could've lasted them months and months goes rotten. And they're fighting and Daddy's pulling her hair and banging her head into the table and Barney and Clint hide under the trailer, right in the middle where Daddy can't reach. And then Daddy and Mama are doing that pushing thing and Clint can hear Mama crying and going all still like she's about to double-sleep. He knows it's called fucking but that's a bad word and he tries not to think it.
The next time Mama asks for money for the groceries, Daddy says, "Why should I give you more when you just waste everything? You should've made a decent budget for the shopping and the bills, or do I have to do everything around here?" So Mama says they have to make do, which means they eat ketchup sandwiches and dry cereal and the boys know better than to complain or they get a smack.
One day, Barney comes home with a note from school saying that they want to do some tests and put him in the stupid class and Daddy writes 'NO FUCKING WAY' on the paper and says, "Give that to your teacher."
Clint starts kindergarten a few days late because nobody registered him, but he finds out that he kind of likes school. There's blocks and the playground has monkey bars and his teacher is very nice and she smells good. Even though he likes school, Clint doesn't go there too many days. Sometimes Mama is double-asleep or Mama's at work and Daddy's passed out by the TV and nobody wakes the boys up and tells them to get ready and they miss the bus.
And sometimes Clint is too loud or too rowdy or he leaves his toys out to get stepped on and he gets smacked. And then Mama or Daddy say he's sick and he stays home until the bruises fade. They do that to make sure the government doesn't start nosing around private family business, or at least that's what Clint's Daddy says. He says the police will come and take Clint away if they don't watch out.
So Clint misses a lot of school and they write him a note saying they want him to do kindergarten over again. And Clint is almost happy about it because he can't wait to see Daddy write NO FUCKING WAY, but he doesn't. He just writes his name and his drinks bourbon.
In the summer, Daddy is angry because those bastards at the bank want to take his store away. They don't know how to treat a man. Daddy says you treat a man with respect and the bastards at the bank just want him to lick their boots. Barney tugs on Clint's hand and says to come play outside, but it's sundown and it's buggy outside and Clint doesn't want to get bit any more than he already has. Barney does that sometimes – he tries to get himself and Clint away when Daddy's really mad, but Barney is also regular bossy and Clint can't always tell the difference.
Besides, Clint is just drawing with the markers his teacher gave him at the end of the year and drawing can't be bad. But now there's a hole in the paper. How did that happen? And there's marker on the table. And Daddy's mad, he's real mad, and he straightens up his ring to give Clint a thrashing when something crazy happens.
Barney throws the bourbon bottle at Daddy. It breaks and it's everywhere and Daddy's bleeding. And Daddy looks double mad, looks like he doesn't even have a brain, just teeth and a bat. Barney says, "Clint, stop acting stupid and go hide or I'll beat you up myself!" So Clint shimmies out the window and he crawls under the trailer and for some reason it doesn't occur to him until he's out there that Barney's not coming too. And he can hear Barney screaming and crying and there's a cracking sound, a popping sound over and over again, and Daddy is yelling too, and Clint just lays in the dirt and covers his ears, watching the bugs crawl by.
Clint sees a praying mantis, and he has an idea. He rolls onto his back and he folds his hands like he's seen kids do on TV and he prays, 'Dear God, please make my Daddy die. Kill him dead and I will say thank you and thank you and thank you.'
Mama finds Clint under the trailer in the morning when she gets home from work. He peed himself overnight, so maybe it was better he didn't sleep inside. She tries to take care of Barney. Daddy broke most of his fingers and Mama says he should go to a doctor but nobody wants the police to come and lock everybody up, so they set his fingers and they make splints from tape and good hard sticks. Barney isn't crying for real, but he's all red and sniffly. It's a bad summer.
And then it's fall and Clint is six and he's going to kindergarten again. He doesn't want to go back to kindergarten. He was already three grades behind Barney and he's starting to think he'll never catch up. Then a lady sticks her head in the classroom and says she's looking for Clinton Barton and Clint thinks that they must've changed their minds and they're going to put them in first grade after all, but instead she says she's Mrs. Moore and she wants to have a little chat with him and nobody's in trouble.
They go to a little room with a big desk and a round table and she turns on a tape recorder. She offers to get him a juice from the cafeteria, but Clint says no because he has a bad feeling about all of this and now his stomach hurts.
She says, "Did you have a nice summer?"
"Did you play with your brother?"
"What kinds of things do you like to play with him?"
"Legos. And Godzilla."
"How do you play Godzilla?"
"You build it with Legos and then you say 'Oh! No! There goes Tokyo! Go go Godzilla!' and you smash it up."
"That sounds like fun. Did you get hurt this summer?"
Clint doesn't say anything.
"Sometimes when kids are playing, they might trip and skin their knees. Did that happen to you?"
"Did your brother get hurt this summer?"
As soon as she says that, Clint's stomach hurts really bad and his face feels hot. Mama took off Barney's splints before he went to school, so nobody should've known about his fingers, but they were still kind of bent funny and here was this lady asking questions. Clint's mouth feels dry and stiff and he isn't sure he could talk if he wanted to.
"Did your brother's hands get hurt this summer?"
Very slowly, Clint nods because that's one of those questions that grown-ups ask even though they already know the answer.
"Tell me about that. How did that happen?"
Clint doesn't know that Mrs. Moore talked to Barney in this same room and that Barney told her he tried to climb up the side of their trailer but the window cover snapped shut on his hands. Clint doesn't know that, so he says, "Barney got bit by a dog. The dog bit his hands. Some of the other trailers got real mean dogs."
When the boys get home from school, Mama and Daddy are there instead of at work and Daddy's really mad. He says there was government people poking around and he knows that one of his boys must've said something to somebody. Clint says he swears he didn't tell nobody and Daddy backhands him across the face. He smells like bourbon.
Mama tugs at Daddy's arm and says not to make this worse and let's just go for a drive.
After they leave, Clint crawls under the table and he holds his hand right outside his mouth like he wants to suck his thumb.
"Get out of there," says Barney. "Quit being stupid. Everything is gonna be fine."
They watch TV for a while. They get hungry for dinner and Mama and Daddy still aren't back, but they don't want to get in trouble for turning on the hot plate, so they eat pickles and spoonfuls of peanut butter for dinner. It's dark out and Mama and Daddy still aren't back yet.
"Let's go outside while it's still light out," says Barney.
They put on their shoes because Mama doesn't work that hard to see her boys run around barefoot like savages. Barney helps Clint with his shoes because they don't fit so good and it's hard to smoosh his feet in. There's still some fireflies out, so they try to catch them. Barney really wants to catch a cricket, though, because he thinks he can keep it as a pet like a boy did in a book they're reading at school.
Clint sees the lights first, red and blue and white over the yellow-green of the fireflies. He tugs at Barney's shirt and they run back inside the trailer and lock the door and slink down low so nobody can see them through the windows. Clint wonders if he should go get Daddy's rifle.
Then there's two police officers knocking at the door but Clint and Barney know better than to open it, so the lady cop takes a big tool and she makes the door open and there's really no place to hide in the trailer but they're under the table anyway and Clint's hands are in little fists in Barney's shirt.
The man cop says, "Which one of you is Charles Barton?"
Charles is Barney's real name. He raises his hand like it's school.
"Do they call you Charlie or Chuck?"
The man cop looks at Clint. "And you're Clinton?"
Clint nods but he doesn't let go of Barney's shirt. "Yes, sir."
"Do you boys have any family nearby? A grandma or grandpa or aunt or uncle?"
"We got a grandma," says Barney. "She lives at the Oaktree home."
"We're going to call her and-"
"She don't really talk," says Barney. "They say her brain don't work anymore. She just lie there."
"I see," says the cop. "Anybody else?"
The boys shake their heads.
The man cop makes a 'come here' motion with his hand and the lady copy comes inside. They both sit on the floor across from Clint and Barney.
The lady cop says, "Boys, your mother and father were in a car accident tonight. The ambulance came and took them to the hospital, but there was nothing the doctors could do and they died."
Clint is in two places at once. This has never happened to him before and he's not sure if it's really happening to him now. He is in the trailer next to Barney and across from the cops who are saying that his Mama and his Daddy are dead, but he is also lying under the trailer and watching bugs and praying to God to make his Daddy die, but not his Mama too, definitely not her. Both things are happening at once and it is making his eyes hurt. He can hear Barney asking what's going to happen to them now, but he can't really hear it all that good – it's like Barney is small and far away and not really real, like the whole thing is a story book or a TV show and Clint doesn't think his skin can touch anything for real, no matter how hard he tries.