KC was seven years old when he first realized that all grownups are a little broken inside. He was seven, and scared, and in the sewage-shit-stink of his then-flooded basement, with a couple of garbage bags hauled over his legs and duct-taped for the journey as his seventeen-year-old brother Colin stood at the basement door, peering down into the muddy black and cheering him on in his own way.
“See it yet?”
KC brought his hand shakily up, aimed the faulty beam of his flashlight in front, then to both sides. Behind and back up the stairs, temporarily blinding Colin.
“It’s gross down here, Col. Can I just come back up?”
“You rather be grossed out and have a fan, or clean and die of heat stroke?”
KC aimed his beam down near his bagged feet, where he could see newly submerged wrecks scattered in the fetid water–diecast cars, cap guns, video games. In time they’d be covered in seaweed and barnacles, select destinations for the most intrepid miniature divers. But for now they were lying in wait, all of them clamoring for the chance to puncture the plastic film that separated KC’s feet from hundreds of gallons of raw sewage. He looked back up at the top of the stairs where his older brother still stood.
“How about have a fan and be clean?”
“Can’t have your shit-covered cake and eat it too. Sorry, kid.”
KC wheeled around the room, sent up ripples in the knee-deep water as he did.
“But maybe… maybe Mom’ll be back soon. Back with a fan.”
“Sure. And she’ll bake us cookies and tell us what wonderful little boys we are and pinky promise this is the last time she goes over to her boyfriend’s while we’re stuck here in the shit.”
“But she said she was just getting more gas for the generator.”
“And the last time she ‘got more gas for the generator’ she was gone the whole weekend.”
“And the time before that she was ‘running a few errands’ for a week. And the time before that she was ‘taking the car for a wash’ even though it was pouring outside, and the time before that–”
“Col, can you just come down here and help? It’s hot and I can’t see nothing and your flashlight’s better.”
Colin made his own makeshift duct-taped bag boots and waded down into the water that was already gathering a film at the top and frothing up like some unspeakable mug of root beer. KC was right–Colin’s flashlight was way better.
“Never send a boy to do a man’s job, huh?”
“You’re not eighteen yet, Col. You’re still a boy too.”
“Shut up, Case.”
“Shuttin’ up now, boss.”
After their shared song and dance was over, they glided quietly through the murky pool, flashlight beams constantly adjusting and searching, each step carefully calculated. Old, hoarded newspapers floated in the spots where stacks weren’t deep enough to remain rooted to the basement floor, the soggy headlines now shouting out to no one in particular.
“Wouldn’t be as hard to find without all of Mona’s crap stacked all over down here.”
“You mean Mom?”
“Mona. Mom. Whatever. You still looking?”
KC aimed his beam blindly this way and that, hoping that he looked busy. His ruse worked for a while, until:
“Either look for real or go back upstairs. But don’t expect to get any of the fan once I find it.”
KC’s beam took on a much more natural path then, and lucky for KC Colin couldn’t quite make out the little-brother-pout he was sporting on account of low visibility.
“You’re not gonna be dorning, right?”
“Dorming, you mean?”
A nearly imperceptible sigh.
A smattering of flies were gathering near the water’s filmy surface, attracted by the smell but dismayed by the lack of places to land.
“But you should dorm when you go to college. Find some school on the other side of the country. Don’t even tell Mona where. Study your ass off. Get scholarships. Trust me, kid.”
Colin made as if he was pushing aside a stack of floating family photos to check for the fan behind their now-waterlogged TV, but he was really just keeping himself busy as he waited for KC’s response.
“You wouldn’t ever say you were just going to get gas for the generator and then leave forever, right? You wouldn’t do that?”
“No, I wouldn’t do that.”
The two of them marched on through the muck with hands held up and out of splashing range. Traversed the minefield of toys with absolute caution.
“Mom’s not coming back this time, is she?”
Nothing but the muffled splash of bagged feet maneuvering awkwardly. Flashlight beams criss-crossing in the dark.
“I don’t know, Case. All right? I don’t know. And I know you’re scared, and that’s okay, but right now we need to find this fan. We can talk about it later, and be scared later, ’cause I’m scared too, Case. I’m scared too.”
“Case, for God’s sake, I–”
“Col, I found the fan.”
A very audible sigh this time.
“I grabbed it off the cabinet, but then you started talking about being scared and I dropped it a little in the water and it got a little wet and I’m sorry, Col. Don’t be mad at me, please.”
Colin turned his beam toward KC, who was now proffering a dinky little fan as if it were a sacred relic. Colin was careful to keep the beam at KC’s chest so as not to blind him. Looked in his eyes.
“I’m not mad, Case. It’s fine. Great. You did a great job.”
Colin waved KC on to lead the way back upstairs, which he gladly did, the fan held aloft like some putrid trophy.
“I love you, Col.”
“I love you too, Case.”