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  • Writer's pictureRhys Lee Hamilton

Peanut Butter


Gravel crunched beneath two pairs of dirty sneakers, filling the empty afternoon. A loud ping echoed over the field as a rock ricocheted off the old railroad track they followed home from school.

“Stop that,” Will muttered, eyes firmly locked on the ground. The sun beat down on them, the air above the tracks hazy. It had been months since Will’s last trip to the barber, his overgrown bangs shading his face, but his brother Silas’ fresh buzzcut left his scalp exposed, his nose rapidly reddening. 

“Or what?” Silas retorted, throwing another. Ping.

There was no need to reply. Or what? Or nothing. Will watched his laces, dyed tan from the dirty mud moat around their house, flop with each step. 

Everybody knew that Will and Silas had different daddies. If their faces—one oblong and asymmetrical, the other sharp with a violent kind of handsomeness—didn’t give it away, the old lady who worked at the gas station would. According to her, Will’s momma was a good-for-nothing skank who’d open her legs for any fella’ who came knocking ‘round. At least, that’s what she told Will whenever he went to buy a Mars bar after school.

Will desperately wanted to know who his father was, but his mother’s mouth was locked tight, only cracking open to take a drag from her cigarette. At least Silas knew his father, if only by name and photograph. 

“Peanut sittin’ on a railroad track,” Silas crooned loudly and off-key, “heart all aflutter. ‘Round the bend came the Number Ten. Choo! Choo! Peanut butter.” Each choo was punctuated by a hard shove at Will’s shoulder, pushing him further away from the tracks and into the tall grass. 

When they were younger, Silas would sing the song to make Will, distraught over the fate of the peanut, burst into tears. At five years old, there was nothing funnier to Silas than making his little brother cry. 


 

The screen door shuddered in its frame. Will glanced up from his fervent dish-scrubbing. It was just the wind, so he turned his eyes down again. He opened the door that morning, the thin metal screen acting as a film separating the house from the world, like the membrane inside an egg. 

Joanne was visiting. She said she’d arrive at noon, but traffic getting out of the city was temperamental, so there was no telling when she’d get there. He wanted her to feel welcome, so he left the door open for her to come in any time. 

She was the youngest and the best of them. Her daddy stuck around long enough to change their mother’s last name and then die in Korea. Will missed him—the big man with a sleepy smile and arms so hairy you couldn’t see the skin, who sang commercial jingles to their mother until she whacked him playfully with a hand towel. The memories of him were hazy and distant, now. He was a childhood fiction, like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.  

“Why’re you so damn fussy?” Silas sneered. “Some fucking dirty dishes in the sink ain’t gonna kill her.”

“Shut up,” Will hissed, scrubbing harder, like the Palmolive dish soap would dissolve his sins along with the remnants of pasta sauce.

Expression smug, Silas sidled up behind him, dug his fingers into Will’s hips, and whispered directly in his ear, “Bitch.”

Will tensed, gritting his teeth. “Go away.”

Silas laughed, sharp and cruel, as he sauntered into the hall, the smell of cheap cigarettes trailing after him.

Joanne was preceded by the smell of gasoline, her rickety, four-door sedan clattering up the dirt driveway like windchimes in a shopping cart. Quickly washing the last dish off, Will toweled it dry and returned it to its brethren in the cabinet, wiping his hands off on his jeans.

The door creaked when he pushed against it, breaking the membrane and emerging out into the world. At the same time, Joanne's car door opened, and she came tumbling out like an excited puppy—all enthusiasm with no grace.

He still remembered meeting her, marveling at her little hands and her happy parents. Silas peered over his shoulder, still dubious about the new baby, and eloquently remarked, "Huh," in the same way someone might say, "Well, I'll be damned." They glanced at each other, experiencing an unprecedented moment of agreement the likes of which would never be seen again—Little Jo was sacred. She might as well have been the second coming, as far as they were concerned.

Smiling at his grown sister as she ran up and flung her arms around him, crying, "Will, I missed you!" he knew, at least in that, he'd made the right choice. Her long hair, bleached a summery blond, caught in the short hairs of his beard like a sock on Velcro as she squeezed the life out of him. Pulling back, she smiled, eyes sparkling. 

“I missed you, too. How’s it going up there in the big city, little miss journalist?” As he spoke, he shepherded her into the living room.  It remained exactly as it had been when they were children, and Will wondered if that was why Joanne didn’t visit as much anymore. Too many memories.

She plopped down on the couch with a beleaguered sigh, worn pleather squeaking beneath her. “I love my work, I really do, but it’s just so frustrating! Nobody ever listens to me.”

Nodding along, he fetched the pre-prepared pitcher of sweet tea and poured her a glass. He set the already sweating glass in front of her and she thanked him, still so polite. 

“That’s a shame. Don’t they know you’re always right?” he said teasingly. She stuck her tongue out at him.

It was easy to coax her into talking about work. There was a lot to share, after all. Her life was interesting and exciting, a flurry of new people and places. All his days were spent the same way, so indistinguishable from each other that he often had trouble remembering what was today, what was tomorrow, what was yesterday. 

As she spoke, he noticed the twang of her accent was blunted. He heard she’d started going by Anne. Her boyfriend, a lawyer from California, called her Annie. That’s good, he thought. She’s becoming her own person.  

“I been meaning to ask you, Will, what’re you planning on doing with your share of the money Momma left us?” Joanne asked, abruptly changing the subject the way she did when she wanted to startle him into giving an honest answer. 

“Haven’t thought about it much,” he lied. 

“I was thinking, maybe you could use it to go back to school. It’s never too late, you know. You could come stay with me in the city and—” 

“Jo, we’ve talked about this.”

“Yeah, but…Why not?” She’d asked him the same question over and over again after he told her about his decision at seventeen, but he supposed his explanations never held up under her scrutiny, every excuse crumbling beneath the innocent questions of a little girl tugging at his shirt with jam-sticky fingers. 

“‘Cause he’s a fuckin’ pussy, Jo,” Silas shouted from deeper in the house. 

“I’ve got work,” Will said, in lieu of an answer. It must’ve been confusing for her as a kid, hearing him talk about college like it was the last ticket to Heaven and then abruptly deciding not to even apply. She did what he couldn’t and left, forever stupefied by the lack of his footsteps before her.

Reaching out for his hand, she murmured, “Staying here isn’t good for you.” They both knew she meant the house, not the town. Maybe she meant the town, too. Maybe she meant everything.

“I'm fine, Jo.”

They talked for hours, until the sun was low in the sky, just starting to brush the treetops outside. 

“It’s getting late,” he pointed out. “You should head home before it's dark.”

Big blue eyes caught him in a snare as they said their goodbyes. “Promise you'll come visit?”

“Sure.” It didn’t taste like a lie, but he’d told so many he couldn’t even remember how truth tasted.

Waving, he watched her car clatter its way into the distance until it was only a speck of rust on the horizon. Turning, he took in the house.

Faded white paint chipped off the wooden siding, collecting in the mud around the foundation. The water table was so high you couldn’t dig a hole without it immediately filling with water, the ground perpetually saturated. He’d given up on trying to keep the outside clean a long time ago, but he kept the inside up. Stepping back through the door’s busted membrane, he ran his hand over the wooden backs of the dining room chairs. 

As a child the two-bedroom house seemed so cramped with five people living in it. Then four. Then three. Then two. Then one. Now, it seemed empty, as if no one had ever lived there at all. 

He took two cold beers out from the fridge. The letter had already been sent and would reach her by the end of the week. Eyeing the teal phone on the wall, he thought of the call he’d gotten the previous weekend. The California lawyer wanted his blessing, stumbling nervously over his words. Will hoped he didn’t talk like that in the courtroom. His knee-jerk reaction was to say no, that she was too young, but she wasn’t. The little girl living in his mind was divorced from the reality of a capable young woman. And despite being both from California and a lawyer, the boy was alright. Will had to let Little Jo grow up. 

Drinks in hand, he locked up the house and walked out back, through the field and to the tracks. It took twenty minutes to get there, halfway through what had once been their forty-minute trek to school.

Will frowned at the spot in the field where he bludgeoned his brother. It felt like there should still be a pool of blood, even though over a decade had passed. For some reason, it was irritating. The audacity of the soil, to swallow up the defining moment of his life.

“I’ll never leave you, you know,” Silas cooed. “Never ever.”

Not bothering to look at him, Will sighed. “I know.”

“If you knew back then, would you have still done it?”

“Yes.”

A moment passed. Silas stared at him, lips slightly parted in surprise, then began to cackle. “Maybe you ain’t such a pussy after all! Coulda’ fooled me.”

His mirthless, wild laughter filled the air until it was close to bursting, working in chorus with the distant, whining cicadas. 

Will watched the tall grass sea undulate with the wind. “Do you remember…” He paused and licked his lips. “Do you think you were ever happy?”

It was a stupid, childish question.

“Never ever.” Silas smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Never ever.”

“Mm.” Now, he looked up. Gazing at his brother's face, forever frozen at eighteen, Will felt very old.

An accident. He tripped and hit his head on the tracks. Coming from Will, the lie had been so believable. Will was a good boy, so polite. People said his momma raised him right. And with that, the whole town silently breathed a sigh of relief, not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth.

But his mother had known. She never said, but he knew she knew. And he knew it was what killed her—the knowing.

He wasn’t sure when he'd decided to do it—if it had been premeditated or heat-of-the-moment. Every night before he went to sleep, he thought of all the ways he could end his brother. Sometimes it was in revenge and sometimes it was in self-defense. But he’d never committed to it. Didn’t know if he even had it in him. He could imagine it, but he could imagine a lot of things.

At the end of the day, all he knew was that nobody was coming to save him. His real daddy wasn’t going to appear to spirit him away and protect him from the monsters underneath his bed. No one would stop the wrong end of a cigarette from being pressed to his tongue until all he could taste was ash and burning flesh. No one would fix the broken fingers on his left hand. No one would heal his soul. Not even God. 

The eyes of the world turned away from him, pretending he didn’t exist. 

It was like everything suddenly became clear that day, staring at the back of Silas’ head as they walked home like they always did, just the two of them. Sometimes he wondered if there was only ever the two of them. It certainly felt like it every time Silas held him down by his throat, the world fading at the edges until there was nothing but Will fighting to breathe and the sound of Silas grunting. They shared a special language—pain. Will could see Silas’ suffering, so like his own, and wondered who Silas really wanted to hurt.  

That day, he had Silas’ bat in his hand. Silas was saying something to him. Silas was always saying something to him. But Will wasn’t listening, blood a thunderous cacophony in his ears. And then he swung.

Jo’s daddy told him once, “When the dog can only remember pain, you’ve got to put it down.” 

“You’re thinkin’ too loud,” Silas complained in the present, crouching down by the tracks. “It’s harshin’ my vibe.”

“Oh?”

“Don’t ‘oh’ me, candyass.”


Refusing to rise to the bait, Will silently sat on the iron rail next to him and cracked open both beers, setting one by Silas, who glared down at it. Will took a swig of his own, deciding halfway through a gulp that he would chug the whole thing. Surfacing from the alcohol with a gasp, he chucked the can down the tracks. Metal hit metal with a ping.  

“Whatcha’ waitin’ for?” Silas planted a hand on Will’s chest and shoved him down, his back hitting gravel and rotted plank. “Get to it.”

“Yeah,” he breathed, checking his watch. Adjusting himself slightly so his head was resting on one rail, his knees slung over the other, Will settled down.

Like this, staring up at the emerging stars, peace flooded over him for the first time in a very long time. Maybe the first time ever. “Never ever,” Silas said. “Never ever.”

“Yeah,” Will repeated, speaking to no one.

He felt the train before he saw it, vibrations extending through the metal beneath him, rhythmic and insistent. The iron beneath him rumbled, thrashing his brain inside his skull, but a little discomfort meant nothing to him.

“Peanut sittin’ on a railroad track,” Will began, more mumbled than sung, “heart all aflutter." A trembling anticipation budded in his chest. 

“Round the bend came the Number Ten…” He could hear the train’s call, so close now. A forlorn whistle—Choo! Choo!

Will closed his eyes. He didn’t need to look to see Silas’ crooked smirk as the last vestiges of his brother delighted in victory.

“Peanut butter.”


 


Rhys Lee Hamilton is an emerging writer and MFA candidate in Writing and the Savannah College of Art and Design. His previous work can be found in Aphelion Magazine, Savannah Magazine, and on his website, rhysleehamilton.com.

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