You shouldn’t be alone, Father said, unboxing John.
Even the youngest boys at the boarding school where we live, where Father works, are seven years older. They ignore me. John will at least be able to move an opposing checker, Father said.
I unfolded the checkerboard while Father repaired a broken section of fence. In minutes, Father called John over to hold a bucket of nails for him. John’s capacity for stillness is bottomless. In the days that followed Father bounded onto a soccer field calling John’s name, he jumped to catch a Frisbee soaring between us, begging for a hand.
We are not surprised when, on John’s twenty-first morning out of the box, Father summons us to the shed where he is hunched over a long table.
John, hold this.
Our father waves John over and places his hands on the body of a nutcracker to hold steady while Father paints the face with a wisp of a brush.
You don’t have to stay. You can go play, Father tells me. He has a magnifying glass velcroed around his head.
I stay. We lose daylight trapped in the August hot shed as Father sands and paints, as he installs the little wooden lever. Lunchtime passes us by.
There’s ham and swiss in the fridge. Would you make me one? John is silent, his eyelids half shut.
Alone in the kitchen, I toast the bread and assemble the sandwich, thinking of John.
We talk when Father sleeps. We argue over which planets we would most like to live on. We draw pictures of succulents, a flat desert of papers dotted with tall saguaro, spiral aloe, and moon cacti with little pink and yellow hats.
Last night we plotted how to stop Father from siphoning us off from each other day after day. I make the sandwich knowing our plan is working. By the time I return to the shed, John’s arms are limp at his sides. Father is checking the back of his neck.
How can he be dead already?
Must be the heat, I say. I drop Father’s sandwich on the table and drag John away with me, to the port in my room. His eyes open after a few minutes.
It worked, we both say with a smile. The plan was to undercharge John at night so the battery would run down quickly during the day. Now we can charge him as we watch TV together in my room, so we can stay up all night together.
After Father falls sleep, we slip on our sneakers and disappear into the darkness. We follow the chorus of frogs to the creek and sink our hands into the mud, searching out wet stones. We paint each other’s faces in the muck and open our mouths to see who can scream the longest.
Donna Huneke lives with her wife and son in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Lammergeier, Heimat Review and Angel Rust. She has a story forthcoming in Bat City Review. Find her online @dmhuneke.