By: Rachel Petty
Cain Abernathy punched a kid while his sister was waiting for the bus, and that was how it began.
The kid had called his sister something that couldn’t possibly be true because she was only thirteen, and it made Cain snap—sharp edges jutting out at all the wrong angles. The word the kid used was only okay when Cain said it from across the kitchen table when Sarah was texting some boy with a heart beside his name. The insult always made her blush, lightheartedly offended, and slip her cell phone where Cain couldn’t see. This time, though, the word made Sarah scream.
The moment fractured—too-slow—and Sarah’s hands went everywhere. They covered her mouth, desperately grasped Cain’s shoulders, and finally came to rest on the kid’s disheveled cheek, an inadequate apology for what her brother had done. The expression on her face—equal parts embarrassment and accusation—unsettled Cain even more than the sight of the kid curled up on the ground.
“God, Cain,” she whispered. “You broke his nose.”
Cain imagined his own nose, smattered with freckles and too-big for his face, and decided that the kid’s wasn’t broken. It couldn’t be. He hadn’t meant to break it, only to make it a little more crooked above that stupid mouth that had called his little sister a slut.
Sarah didn’t look like his little sister now. There was something motherly about the way that she knelt down beside the kid whose blood splattered the warped pavement like some twisted ink-blot test. Tell me about your mother, the splatters mocked as Cain stared down at them. He imagined that their mother might have looked something like Sarah then, but he couldn’t know for sure. He had been too small to remember anything beyond a quiet lullaby and soft red hair after she was taken away from him on the day his sister was born. Cain knew better than to wonder if she would be proud of him.
He turned from the scene, his head too full of conflicting emotions to continue standing there in the street. Sarah called out after him, but he pretended not to hear. Cain didn’t like to think that he was a villain, but the smear of red on his knuckles told a different story. He didn’t look back.
The next day at school, Cain went straight to the counselor’s office without meeting anyone’s eyes. The monochromatic painting that hung crookedly against the back wall was starting to make him a little sick because he had stared at it so often. The guidance counselor was a thin man who spent his weekends at the Mexican restaurant in the town over, nursing a pitcher of margaritas and then slipping out the back door with the pretty bartender, pretending that no one was able to see. Today, he wore a dark tie and a terrible combover, and that made Cain a little sick to look at, too.
“My sin can’t be any worse than what he’s done,” Cain told himself in the space between his breaths. “Who is he to tell me to get my shit together?”
What he told the counselor was, “I’m sorry,” in a level voice he couldn’t make sound like his own. For his apology, he was awarded three days away from school and a firm, final look of disappointment.
To the kid he punched, he wanted to say, “This was never about you,” but he kept quiet and stared at his worn-out sneakers. Usually, he only knew how to make things worse.
“Can we talk about this?” was what Sarah said when she appeared in his bedroom doorway later that night.
Cain looked up from the Rubik’s Cube in his hands. He had pulled off all the red stickers and placed them in a line on his wall. He continued to twist the pieces absently because the feeling in the pit of his stomach would not let him be still. He thought about asking Sarah who the kid was, if his nose was really broken, if he had been at school that day—because none of those were things that Cain knew—but he couldn’t quite find the words.
“Just promise me you won’t do this again,” she pleaded, the hurt in her eyes finding the weakest spot inside him and wrenching him apart in a surprisingly different way than his guilt did.
“I promise,” Cain smiled. He uncrossed his fingers from behind his back, just to be sure, and that was how it ended.