Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

The Third Position

 

 

Casey swung the five gallon water tank off his back, leaned the special bicycle pump his brother had constructed up against the "No Trespassing" sign on the fence next to the gate, put down the plastic sack of marshmallows and looked up the tractor lane to where the street and the first houses began.

No sign of his older brother yet.

Well, anything could have happened. Maybe his brother couldn't find her house.

Maybe the new girl had said no. Or maybe she had asked her mother and her mother wouldn't let her. Or the whole family was off on a trip. Something like that.

Suddenly he saw the two of them coming around the corner up there by the burnt-out warehouse. The tall one, that was his brother, and the shorter one, yeah, that was her all right, the new girl.

So: Now things were starting to happen.

"Got everything?" said his brother passing right by Casey, slinging the water tank up on his back and attaching the tube that came from it to the bicycle pump. “You ever seen a rig like this?” he said to the girl.

The girl was hanging back a ways. She had the reddest hair Casey had ever seen on a girl.

"See, you get about a zillion shots with this baby," said his brother giving the gadget  some good pumps and aiming its nozzle up in the air. The water jumped up in a narrow stream, then fell apart at the top and tumbled back toward the ground.

“Yeah!” said his brother.

But the girl was still hanging back.

"Do it, Casey," said his brother.

His brother was telling him to play the game. They had done this together lots of times.

So Casey put his hands up in the air and said in a fake, high voice, "Oh, please, please, please don't shoot me."

His brother was aiming the nozzle at him.

"Sorry, friend,"  he said in his pretend western cowboy accent, "I ain't got no choice in this matter."

"No, no, no, no!"

Casey tightened his eyes and the water caught him right on the face, mostly on his nose and cheek.

Casey opened his eyes as the water dripped down off his chin onto his T-shirt. The girl was staring wide-eyed.

"Now," said his brother carrying the pump over to the girl, "you shoot him."

"Him?" said the girl.

"Right  between the eyes."

"I don't think . . . ," she started.

But she took the pump. By the way she held it Casey could see she didn’t know what she was doing. But, then, she was a girl.

"Like this," said his brother, pointing the nozzle at Casey and placing her one hand along the barrel of the pump.

She squished her head down, her red hair falling over everything.

"Like this?"

"More this way," said his brother pulling the pump toward Casey. "Do it, Casey."

So Casey did the game again. He put his hands up in the air and said in that high, fake voice, "Oh, please, please, please, don't shoot me."

"You say," said his brother to the girl, "'Sorry, friend, I ain't got any choice in this matter.'"

The girl was already beginning to laugh.

"Go ahead," said Casey's brother.

"Sorry, friend . . . ," she started, but before she got any further his brother reached over and pushed the pump handle and a stream of water shot right past Casey, at least a yard to the side of him.

"Oh!" the girl cried out, almost dropping the pump and bringing one hand up to her mouth.

"Not like that," said his brother.

This time he got himself right behind her and reached his arms around her, which was no problem, of course, since he was a lot taller than she was. He aimed the pump again at Casey.

"You ready?" his brother said to her.

"I guess."

"Casey!" said his brother.

So Casey went through the game one more time. He put his hands up in the air and said, "Please, please, please don't shoot me."

The girl starting laughing again.

"Now you say . . . ?" said his brother.

"Sorry, friend . . . ," the girl got out.

Casey closed his eyes.

This time the water hit down there, right in that place, because Casey could feel the water go inside and start to trickle down his legs. Just as if he'd let go. He opened his eyes, looked down there and saw that dark stain on his pants.

The girl let out a cry, dropped the pump, turned away and looked back through her fingers at what had happened.

"Casey," said his brother, "the rest of it."

His brother was asking him to do the rest of the game. So Casey staggered this way and that way, and finally, letting out a groan, fell over, only not on his back as he usually did, but on his stomach so that the girl wouldn't look any more at where she'd got him.

Lying there he heard his brother say to the girl, "Now, guess what? I'm going to shoot you!"

Casey rolled over and saw his brother had picked up the pump and was aiming it at the girl. The girl screamed and ran along the fence. But Casey could also see she liked it, his brother threatening to shoot her. He even saw her stop when she didn't really have to.

"Now I'm going to do it!" his brother said bringing the nozzle up.

The girl covered her face with her elbows and bent over.

But his brother didn't shoot her. Instead he slung the water tank off his back and put it down near the “No Trespassing sign” at the gate. Then he pulled the small connecting hose between the pump and the tank off and tied the hose in a knot so it didn’t leak like it would have done without the knot.

“So,” said his brother, “we got a special place. To roast marshmallows." He pointed to the woods to the left side of Old Man Harrison's pasture. "You want to come?"

The girl had taken her elbows away from her face and was looking back at Casey's brother. Casey could tell that she had really expected to be shot.

"What?" she said.

"You want to see it?" Casey said, getting up, but turning away from her so she couldn't see the wet place.

"I . . . ," said the girl. "I can ask my mother."

"You don't have to ask your mother," said his brother.

"I should ask her," said the girl.

"Forget it," said his brother.

His brother was already picking up the plastic bag with the marshmallows. Then he indicated to Casey that he should take the water tank. “And this is for you,” said Casey’s brother holding out the pump to the girl.

"I really think I should ask my mother."

"Forget your mother!"

"Well, maybe," she said. "But, you know, just for a while."

Casey managed to get his arms through the straps of the water tank. That was always his job, carrying the water. His brother never carried the water. And the tank was pretty heavy!

His brother went over to the gate with the sign that said, "No Trespassing!" and pushed against it, forcing it open.

"Let's go," he said.

The girl followed Casey's brother through the gate. Casey followed both of them with the tank of water on his back. Just after Casey closed the gate he saw the girl had stopped.

"That sign says 'No Trespassing!'" she said to him.

"Oh, nobody cares," said Casey.

"Isn't there a farmer? An owner? Someone like that?"

"You mean Old Man Harrison?"

"Is he the owner?"

"Sort of," said Casey.

They started walking again, Casey's brother now well out in front, then the girl carrying the pump and then himself with the tank of water. At least walking behind her, she couldn't see what had happened to his pants.

But when Casey looked down the stain wasn't so dark. And he didn't feel any wetness going down his legs any more. That was a good thing about water compared to the other stuff. After a while, especially in the summer, the water just went away and wasn't there anymore.

"You know," Casey heard his brother say to the girl, "you've got good aim. With that pump. You might make a good scout for us. We're always looking for good scouts."

"A scout?" said the girl.

His brother went off telling her about the squirt gun wars they had some Saturday afternoons in the summer against the guys from Coralville. How where they were walking right now, the pasture, was "No Man's Land," but as soon as you got into the trees on either side, was different. That was a war zone. And how our side's woods were over there to the left and the Coralville guys’ woods were over to the right. And how up here in the pasture there couldn't be any shooting, or if someone shot you it didn't count. But as soon as you got into the trees then it was really for real.

"See over there?" said his brother. He was pointing to that clump of tall bushes that stuck out a ways into the pasture called Babe's Point. "That's the best place for scouting."

"Jesus!" said Casey.

He had just seen Old Man Harrison coming up from the railroad tracks walking with his cane. Sometimes he called the police if he saw anybody in his pasture.

"Oh, Jesus!" Casey said again.

"This way!" said his brother.

He grabbed the girl's hand and pulled her off the path to the left into the trees. Casey was right behind them.

"Down! Down!" whispered his brother, crouching over as he ran - the way soldiers do in the movies. The girl crouched down and was running right behind him, but with the water tank on his back Casey was dropping further and further behind.

When his brother got to the place where the ravine dropped off, he stopped. The girl was looking all over the place.

"Casey," said his brother when Casey got to where they were, "check him out."

"Right," said Casey.

He eased the water tank off his back.

"I'll be right back," he said to the girl.

Casey started off. This is what he was really good at. Being a scout. He knew how to walk so no one could see him. Which trees to stop behind. And how to walk so no one could hear him. That was really important for a scout, too. Not to step on twigs, or things like that. Not to make any kind of sound.

Now he was especially careful where he stepped as he got near the end of the bushes at Babe's Point. Because this wasn't a game on Saturday afternoon with the Coralville guys. This was for real. Old Man Harrison might call the police.

And what do you know? Looking through the last bush he saw Old Man Harrison going through the gate at the end of the pasture. He was about to walk up the street past the houses and the burnt-out warehouse.

So, the danger was over.

On the way back Casey didn't watch where he was walking because now it didn't make any difference if he made noise or not.

But when he got to where the ravine dropped off his brother and the girl weren't there. Casey leaned out holding onto that curved tree trunk and saw his brother below helping the girl down. As Casey was watching the girl slipped and his brother caught her. He lifted her all the rest of the way down to the level place by the stream.

"He's gone!" Casey shouted.

His brother looked up and gave him the "Shhhhhh!" sign.

Casey started sliding down. He was good at this, too. Which was important for a scout. How to beat a quick retreat if you had to.

"He's gone," Casey repeated when he got down to his brother and the girl. "He's up at the gate. I mean, he's through the gate."

"Where's the water?" said his brother.

"Don't you have it?"

"Don't you have it?"

So Casey had to climb all the way back up and get the tank and strap it on, and this time coming down it wasn't so easy because of the tank on his back. Water really weighed a lot. People didn't realize.

When he got back to the stream, they weren't there. But, of course, he knew where they had gone.

So Casey started off. Looking ahead down the stream he couldn't see it, the secret place. Most people never even knew it was there. But it was there. You just had to know. A year ago Casey hadn't known. Then his brother had shown him. So now he knew what all the older guys in the neighborhood knew.

When he got past the two stones near that limb that had fallen down last autumn in the storm, Casey eased the tank of water off his back and let it down next to the pump. Then he crouched down and went through the little tunnel into the kind of cave they'd made leaning branches against some fallen trees. And, of course, there they were, his brother and the girl, sitting on the bigger log. So Casey sat down on the smaller log on the other side of the fire circle. He saw his brother had just finished building some sticks teepee-fashion over a crumpled-up newspaper and he had the big blue box of matches with the word "Diamond" on the top beside him.

"Want to light the fire?" his brother said to the girl.

"Can I? You think I can?"

"Sure. Of course, you can."

His brother took a match from the box and handed it to the girl. But Casey could see right away that she didn't know how to scratch a match.

So Casey picked up the flat stone they always used and held it out to her.

"Here, scratch against this."

"That?" said the girl.

Casey took the match from her and pretended to light it, drawing it across the stone. But he didn't touch the head of the match against the stone.

"Like so," he said.

She took the match, but suddenly Casey's brother took her hand and pulled the match and her hand over the stone. The match burst into flame. Then his brother drew her hand over to an edge of the newspaper that was sticking out.

"There," said his brother.

"That's the best place to light it," said Casey.

Immediately the flame started up the newspaper and began to lick at the sticks.

His brother leaned over and blew out the match. "You don't want to burn yourself."

"You got to be careful," said Casey.

They all sat there and watched how the flame went up the sticks until even the tops of the sticks were on fire. Then some of the twigs at the bottom began to glow red and give way, and as they did some of the other sticks nearer the top readjusted themselves.

Casey looked at the girl looking at the fire. She really had the reddest hair he had ever seen on a girl. And, also, she had lots and lots of freckles, mostly on her nose and running out onto her cheeks. And now he saw that her eyes were almost green. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen a girl with green eyes before.

Suddenly his brother said, "Hey, I'll be back!" and he crouched and went out through the little tunnel.

Casey and the girl sat there looking at the fire.

"I like fires," she said.

"So do I," said Casey.

"They're so nice. Especially outdoors."

"I agree," said Casey

"I like the outdoors, don't you?"

"Oh, I do."

"I think the outdoors is the best."

"It really is the best."

"I agree," said the girl

"Look, I'll show you something."

Casey reached behind him and lifted a rock away. There was a kind of shelf behind the rock.

"See, this is where we keep everything. Like sticks for the marshmallows."

Casey pulled three sticks out. They all had sharpened ends.

Suddenly from above them: "Yeeeeeah!"

That was Casey's brother letting out a whoop.

"Come on!" shouted his brother.

"Come on," said Casey to the girl.

Casey got out through the little tunnel first and looked up and saw his brother swinging way out over the ravine on the rope they'd tied to the branch of the big oak tree.

"See!" said Casey to the girl when she came out. He pointed upwards.

"Oh, my goodness," said the girl holding her hand over her mouth and watching Casey's brother swinging back and forth above her.

"This way," said Casey.

He started up the slope to the big oak tree. The girl followed.

But he saw her slipping.

"You need help?" he said to her offering his hand.

"Oh, no thanks."

"Yeeeeeah!" shouted his brother as he swung back to the base of the oak tree, the place they called "The Second Position."

As soon as he stepped out of the loop at the bottom of the rope he pushed the rope toward the girl. "Now you."

The girl stepped backwards. "No!"

"No?"

"No!"

"Tell you what," said his brother walking down the slope with the rope to the place they called "The First Position." "Hup," he said to the girl, making a stirrup with his hands.

"He wants you to put your foot in his hands," said Casey.

"Come on," said his brother.

"Go ahead," said Casey.

"You promise . . . ?" said the girl to Casey's brother.

"Oh, sure," said his brother. "I promise. Here. And lean on my shoulder."

She got one foot in his hands, put both of her hands on his shoulder and Casey watched as his brother lifted her up. Then Casey saw his brother put first one hand, and then the other, right under her bottom. When he had his hands right under there, he lifted her further up.

"All right?" he said to her.

"Oh!" she said.

"Take the rope."

"What?"

"Take the rope."

Casey watched his brother move his hands. And Casey couldn't quite believe it. His brother had gotten one hand, his right hand, off her bottom and put it right there, that is, right in on it, that place where girls were different from boys. His hand was right there.

"No!" said the girl trying to fall back down, and Casey saw his brother's hand was even more pressed in.

"All right," said his brother, taking his hand away and letting her slip down over him.

"Oh, wow!" she said when she got her feet back down on the ground.

Casey saw she was smiling.

"You liked that?" said his brother.

"Sort of," she said.

"You could have taken a swing."

"I was afraid."

"I'll show you," said Casey jumping up and grabbing the end of the rope. "You watch!

He pulled the rope back up the slope to the "Second Position."

"I'm going to do it," he shouted down. "Look!"

He made sure he had his one foot in the loop at the bottom of the rope and a good, tight grip higher up and swung out yelling "Yeeeeeah!" On the swing back he managed to get his body turned around so he had a good landing.

"That's the way you do it!" he shouted.

But he saw his brother and the girl were already starting down the slope toward the secret place. He saw her slip and his brother held out his hand she took it.

"Now I'm really going to do it," Casey shouted down. "You watch! The big one!"

Casey pulled the rope up the slope past the "Second Position" to the place they called "The Third Position." The "Third Position" was the most dangerous place to swing from because you had to make sure to push out sideways and miss the oak tree. He'd only done a swing from "The Third Position" once before and that swing didn't end right because he hit the oak tree coming back.

"Look!" shouted Casey. "You watch!"

He got his foot in the loop at the bottom of the rope, held on really tight, and gave a sideways push. Right away the ground dropped out from beneath him. When he reached the end of the swing and started coming back, he knew something was wrong. He was trying to turn around when he saw the tree trunk coming right at him. He got his foot out just in time and pushed.

The next thing he knew he was on the ground, his right arm stinging.

He sat up and looked at his arm. It was all red and white where it had been scraped and little beads of blood were beginning to come out of the skin. But he could move his fingers and everything like that.

He stood up and shouted down, "See that?"

But nothing from his brother and the girl.

"That was a really good one," he shouted down. Then he shouted, "Hello?"

He didn't hear anything but he could see more smoke coming out of the top of the secret place.

"I'm coming down," he shouted.

His arm was beginning to sting even more.

"I'm on my way!"

When he got through the tunnel Casey saw his brother had the coals burning really red and had two sticks with marshmallows on the ends of them.

"You don't want to get it in too close," said his brother handing the stick to the girl. “It’ll catch on fire.”

She took the stick and placed it so that the marshmallow pointed in toward the coals but wasn’t too close to the coals.

"You can get it closer than that," said his brother.

"Like that?" said the girl.

"Look," said Casey. "Look at this.

Casey held his arm out. More and more beads of blood had appeared on the skin.

"Oh!" said the girl. "Oh. How . . . ?"

"Swinging. I hit hard."

"Oh. Does it hurt?"

"Not much," said Casey. He said this, although, really, it was hurting more and more.

"Oh," said the girl again.

"It's nothing," said Casey leaning over and reaching with his good hand to get a third stick.

But when he reached out for a marshmallow with his other hand more pain went up his arm. And he couldn't close his fist on that side very well now either.

"I like this," said the girl. "I like being here. Roasting marshmallows. It's fun."

Then she said, "I don't like being a girl."

"You don't?" said his brother.

"I wish I were a boy. I wish my mother would let me go out into the woods when I wanted. If I could, I would change."

"To a boy?" said his brother.

"Boys have more fun."

"I don't think you can change," said Casey from across the fire

"You know what makes boys different from girls?" said his brother.

"Of course, I know," said the girl.

"You do?"

"Sure, I know."

"Most girls don't know."

"I know."

"What do you know?"

"I know the difference."

"So what is the difference?"

"You want me to say it?"

"Go ahead and say it."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Penises. Boys have penises."

Casey had never heard a girl use that word before.

"Do I have a penis?" said Casey’s brother to the girl.

"Probably. I guess you do."

"And girls? Do girls have penises?

"No, of course not."

"What do girls have?"

"We have a different thing."

"What kind of different thing?"

"A different thing."

"I could show you mine," said Casey’s brother. "My dick."

Casey had never heard a boy use that word, "dick," around a girl. When the guys were talking, all right. But not around girls.

"You know what I mean," said his brother. "You know what I'm talking about. So you can see. You can look all you want. Take all the time. And then you could show me yours."

“What?” said the girl.

“You know what I mean,” said his brother.

Suddenly the girl’s marshmallow burst into flame. But his brother and the girl didn't seem to notice. Casey leaned over, got hold of the stick with his good hand and began to blow on the marshmallow.

"Casey! Go home!" said Casey’s brother.

"I got her marshmallow here."

"Out!"

Casey let the girl’s stick with the marshmallow on it drop in the dirt, crouched over and was about to start through the little tunnel when his brother said, "And take the stupid water tank."

Once he was outside the tunnel Casey stood up and looked at the water tank. It held a lot of water. Most people didn't realize that. But it was really heavy and his brother always made him carry the water tank and never gave him a rifle to carry.

That wasn't fair.

That wasn't fair at all.

Casey reached down and with his good hand turned the tank on its side, unscrewed the cap and watched all the water gurgle out, gather into a puddle, then break through some leaves and run downhill.

Suddenly a horrible pain shot up his arm.

A terrible pain.

It was more than he could bear

He almost cried out.

But he didn't cry out.

He would never cry out.

Because a good scout never made a sound.

 

 

  

 

Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) who has had over 90 stories published in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review, and The Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories, and twelve of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He was a finalist for a collection of short stories in the Iowa Publication Awards for Short Fiction, the George Garrett Fiction Prize for Best Book of Short Stories or Short Novel, and the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction.