Evan Merrill walked to the opening at the far end of the barn loft and told his sister to get ready to take her clothes off. His shirt was damp and he could hear yellow jackets swarming in the corner. Mary stood quietly off to the side, the outline of her training bra bleeding through her t-shirt, her face beaded with sweat.
Evan brought the heat into his lungs and coughed. The heat made the barn a shell of cracking wood, creaky underfoot. In the loft, a haze of dust and hay hung in the air, an upturned Dead Sea that had hovered for as long as the barn had had a foundation. Evan adjusted the crotch of his jean shorts. He thought of what his father had told him summers in Texas were good for: producing petrified cow shit and scorching the land, making the plains as barren as the Egyptian desert, God’s great plan to spoil any profit the spring rains brought.
“They ought to be here by now,” Evan said.
“Who?” Mary asked, screwing the toe of her saddle oxford into the floorboard.
Evan didn’t answer. He visored his palm and leaned half his body out the opening. He looked at the ground below where patches of green were starting to fade into the browning pasture. A second barn was falling in on itself across the way, its petrified wood sun-stained, dark as dried blood. The ground was absent any water, the parched earth separating into disjointed puzzle pieces of tiny, mud-dried islands of paddock.
Evan glanced up the hill and the rock road leading to their house, its foundation propped on beams and cinderblocks, which created a crawl space where spiders and rattlesnakes and Evan’s stash of National Geographic magazines lived. The crawl space was banded with broken sections of white latticework, and from where Evan stood it was a dark blur.
Evan scanned the horizon in each direction. Their house was the only home in the subdivision with corral fencing that contained half a dozen horses and a pack of mangy dogs that nipped at their hooves and peed on the fence posts. A year ago, just before Reagan’s second inaugural, there had been a zoning dispute that tore the neighborhood apart, and in the end Evan and his family were able to keep their livestock, the flies and manure and stink of the feeding trough, the smell of old country.
A cloud of white chalk and dirt had been kicked up on the horizon, just beyond the house. Evan spat and it dropped like an anvil in the windless afternoon.
“Ain’t this some bull,” Evan said. He brought his body back inside the loft and walked over to his sister. “They’re here.”
“Who’s here?” Mary asked. She looked down and contemplated her dusty shoes. Mary’s ponytail was long enough to touch the rounded peak of her bottom, the brownness of it lost in the dark corner where she stood. She was circling her body at the waist, nervous, swinging an imaginary hula-hoop.
“The twins. When they come up that ladder I want you to take that shirt off. They haven’t seen a girl before.”
Mary popped her knuckles.
“They’ve seen girls, Evan.”
“Not like they’re gonna,” Evan said. He took his hat off and itched his buzz cut, digging dirty nails into flaky scalp.
“Well daddy better not see them,” Mary said. “He’s liable to wear them out.”
“Daddy’s not gonna wear anybody out,” Evan said. “Hell, Mary.”
“After they burned down the shed last weekend he’s liable to do anything.”
“Daddy wore me out and I’d wager that was enough to go around. He said I’s lucky he didn’t shoot a bottle rocket at me too, see how I like getting burned.”
“You shouldn’t have talked back,” Mary said.
Evan put his hat back on and shook his head. He looked at Mary and then down where a line of cigarette burns edged the slope of his forearm.
“You shouldn’t have talked back,” Mary repeated.
“All I said was it’s an accident, told him it was a Roman candle that got away from us, not a bottle rocket. Said nobody meant to burn nothing down, not hardly.”
“Well—” Mary stared at Evan’s forearm.
“Well nothing, Mary. Besides, he’s one to talk. I know you won’t disagree.”
Evan ducked back outside the barn and he could see the twins riding next to each other on dirt bikes, spitting rocks in their wake. He looked at his sister.
Mary backed farther into the corner until she was forced to squat under the angle of the roof.
“No touching,” Mary said. “I don’t mind ya’ll seeing.”
“Just my shirt, that’s all,” Mary said.
“I heard you the first hundred times.”
“You’re not strong enough to do anything anyway.” Mary stood up, her arms crossed at the elbows. She stood two inches taller than Evan, who was older than her by one grade.
Evan looked at Mary.
“The hell I’m not,” Evan said, and pointed at her.
“You know I can run faster than you. I’m the fastest girl in the seventh grade by a mile. I’ll be up that hill before you’re out the barn.”
“If you can get out.”
“Fine, Mary, they won’t touch you. Me neither.”
The twins clawed their way to the top of the ladder one after the other. They were breathing heavy and the sun had blistered their freckled cheeks. They took a step inside and Randal used his forearm to wipe sweat up and over the wavy cowlick stamped onto his forehead.
“What the hell took you so long?” Evan asked.
Bobby looked at Randal.
“Multiplication tables,” Randal said.
“Mama made us go up to 12,” Bobby said.
“On a Saturday?” Evan asked.
“Twelve times twelve ain’t easy,” Randal said. “It took a while.”
“Well, get in here. We been waiting.”
The twins walked to Evan. The three boys huddled in the center of the loft. They turned to stare at Mary.
“Well?” Bobby asked. “What’s the plan of attack?”
“I told you we’d manage a tutorial before the dance next weekend,” Evan said. “Mary, get over here.”
Mary didn’t move.
“Mary,” Evan repeated.
“You know,” Randal said, “we don’t need a real tutorial. I thought you were half kidding.”
“Like hell,” Evan said. “You try getting a bra off your first time when it truly matters and you’ll walk away wanting. You’ll hear my father say Satan himself fashioned the clasp.”
Bobby put his hand on Evan’s shoulder. “I could stand the practice.”
“Damn right you could,” Evan said. “There ain’t a one of us who could get it undid with our eyes open let alone behind the gym in the pitch dark of night.”
“I don’t know,” Randal said. “It’s Mary. She’s your sister—”
“And your cousin, so what difference does it make?” Evan asked. “A clasp is a clasp. I told you, Mary’s game.”
Mary stood up.
“Evan, I said just my shirt.”
“You at least got to show us how to work the clasp,” Evan said. “We called this meeting on account of the clasp. It’s central.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” Mary said.
“I’m not sure that’s a matter of fact,” Evan said.
“Then you can double check your facts.”
Mary pulled her shirt off and held it in front of her. Her skinny arms made an X across her upper body, barely able to conceal the tan trainer hugging the flatness of her chest, its straps disappearing over sun burnt, peeling shoulders.
“See, it’s like you’re in a swimming suit, that’s all,” Evan reassured.
“You’re starting to sound like dad,” Mary said.
“The hell I am.” Evan broke rank and walked toward Mary.
“The hell you are,” Mary said. “This is it. Far as I’m going.” She tossed her shirt into the corner, nicking the yellow jacket nest on its way to the ground. The nest fell to the floor, spilling forth an angry swarm, yellow jackets losing themselves in the dust and haze of the loft. Mary stood half naked, her slight frame light as a watercolor in the dimness of the corner.
“Son of a bitch,” Evan screamed. He slapped at the air in a panic.
Mary turned to see the angry yellow jackets behind her. She burned past Evan and the twins with her arms over her chest, and disappeared down the ladder.
“Mary!” Evan yelled. He untangled himself and raced toward the ladder hole, where a fireman’s pole could have aided his escape. Randal and Bobby were already in front of him.
“We thought you were kidding about Mary,” Randal said, swatting at the air in front of him as he stepped down the ladder.
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t,” Evan said. Yellow jackets made atomic circles around his head. “Hurry up!”
“We need to reschedule,” Bobby said, looking up at Evan as he disappeared.
Evan started down the ladder and the swarm closed in.