Family Business

by Nathan Elias

 Before leaving the house, Darryl told Zane to carry the cans of green and yellow paint. And if he ever wanted to grow up to be a man like their father, he wouldn’t cry or fuss about it, either.

They lived out on a big stretch of Ohio country and the road leading from their house to Tannenbaum’s Junkyard was a two-mile walk. It was a blistering day in July, a week after the works. Scraps of star-spangled papers and matchsticks littered the long, dusty road.

Every few feet Darryl looked back to find her brother stopped, trying to collect the carcasses of firecrackers and bottle rockets from the ground. He shoved his pockets full of firework guts.

“Hurry up, you heathen!” she yelled. He picked up the paint cans, running to catch up.

“Why do I have to carry these all by myself?”

“Don’t you want to grow up to be a man, like dad?”

“Dad’s dead.”

And it was the truth. Their father was killed in a car accident on Christmas before Zane could remember, along with their elder brother, Bobby. Less than a year later their mother took up with another man, mister John Tannenbaum of the Pennsylvania Tannenbaums. He came along and adopted Darryl, Zane, and the first daughter, LaShae. They left Pennsylvania for Ohio where John could open his business, Tannenbaum’s Junkyard, to support his new family.

“Give me that,” Darryl said and took the green can from him. “And don’t you pick up anymore trash off the ground. You were raised better than that.”

He smiled and carried on down the road beside her.
 
“This is a family business,” John had said to Darryl. “If the business is to thrive, it requires help from the whole family.”

John’s business was scrapping and trading. He bought old machines and vehicles, or fostered unwanted ones, reviving them in the junkyard to turn a profit. His latest project was a rundown school bus bought at the county auction. He rebuilt the engine and removed most of the seating to make renovations for a motor home, which he would sell for twice what he paid. The final touch was the custom paint job. Green with two yellow stripes on the other side: signature John Tannenbaum coloring.

Darryl had wanted to tell John to paint his own stinking bus, that their real daddy was waiting for them up in heaven. It was an inch from her lips, but she knew why her mother had married the man. It wasn’t because he was nice or handsome--God knew he wasn’t. It was the money, and his want for a family to call his own. Their mother needed someone around to show her and LaShae the truth about men, and a father for young Zane. For that, Darryl loved and honored her mother, and would keep her tongue held tight.
 
~

They found the bus past rows of oily auto parts stacked high in mounds, a valley of shrapnel. The bus’s insides were hollowed out, mostly empty, all seats ripped away and scattered in the dirt with the rest of the junk. Darryl imagined the bus as a rotting skeleton of a giant, extinct beast out in some desert.

“First, we’ll paint one side green,” she said, “and while it dries we’ll paint the other side green. Once we’re done with the second side, we’ll paint one set of yellow stripes. Then we’ll climb up on the roof and paint it. After the top, the second green side should be dry, and we’ll paint the last set of yellow stripes. Then we get to go home.”

Zane’s face lit up at the thought.

The hot sun beat down on their necks and backs until finally their skin peeled into white flakes. After several hours the bus was covered in a dull green, yellow stripes on one side. Darryl and Zane were on top of the bus painting opposite corners when Darryl heard her brother scream. She looked around and couldn’t see him, and when she looked down he wasn’t there, either. The sound of his cries emanated--he was down there somewhere, alive and possibly broken.

Darryl crawled down the bus and ran around it until she saw him there, face down in the dirt, his skin scraped red and ashy. The paint can had come down with him, his body covered in the dull green. Darryl checked him to make sure no bones were broken, and soon she knew it was just the shock of the fall that had him in tears. She helped him to his feet and before long his eyes dried and his breathing slowed, and she carried him on her back on the long road home.
 
~

Darryl prayed that nobody would be home so she could clean Zane up without them noticing. God must have been listening that day because the house was empty, no sister or parents.

In the kitchen Darryl wiped all the dried blood from Zane’s knees and scrubbed the green paint from his skin. The paint, however, would not come out of her brother’s hair, no matter how many times she washed it. She was trying to soak the green out all night when she heard John’s truck pulling up to the house.

Darryl knew that if her mother and John saw Zane’s hair covered in paint, she would live with their punishment for the rest of the summer. She snuck him into the bathroom and told him to stay quiet, like a good brother. He kept his mouth shut as she took the scissors from the drawer and cut all the green out of his hair. By the time she was done, Zane’s head looked like a lawnmower had been at it. But he didn’t fuss about it, no--because she was his big sister, and she carried him all the way home on her back. He just smiled up at her, and she smiled back, and they swept all his hair off the floor.​
Nathan Elias is the author of the novelette A Myriad of Roads that Lead to Here and Co-Editor of Varnish: A Journal of Arts and Letters. His work has appeared in The Blotter, Eclectica Magazine, Hobart, Literary Orphans, Birdville Magazine, and forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys. In 2015 his short film “The Chest” premiered at Cannes Film Festival.