"Triage" was originally published in FreeFall Magazine.
Ray’s thick, freckled hand was warm and damp on Sam’s shoulder.
“Just sit back and ride. That’s all there is to it,” Ray said.
“How do you turn it on?” Sam asked.
“Just like a car. Easier than a car, actually,” he replied. Ray struggled to pull a small set of keys out from his denim pocket before dangling them in the air in front of Sam. The golden light sifting through cracks in the shed walls bounced lazily off the metal, lighting up the familiar green and yellow logo on the keychain.
“I’ve never driven a car.”
“Never? Geez, what’d your dad teach you?” Ray asked as he shuffled over to the side of the riding mower, his work boots scraping against the grit of the shed floor.
“It’s easy. You got your gas, your brake, shifter, and blade controls. You use that to raise and lower the blades. If you’re on grass, blades down. If you’re not, blades up. Simple as that,” he said.
Ray’s wife shouted for him from their home but he didn’t seem to notice.
“You got it?” The large man stared at Sam.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Good, I’ll be inside. Come and get me if you chop your foot off,” he laughed as he tossed the boy the keys.
Ray turned to leave but stopped before opening the door, grabbing a bottle of sunscreen from a nearby shelf, and throwing it to Sam.
“Use it,” he said.
Sam popped the cap off the sunscreen. He rubbed a small amount of the lotion onto his forearms while studying the mower. It looked almost new.
“Give it here.” Ray lumbered over and pulled the bottle from Sam’s hands. He squeezed a large amount of it into his palm and the tube sputtered like a car with an empty gas tank.
“The sun’ll get you everywhere, kiddo. You gotta keep your skin safe or you’ll end up as dry and cracked as a baseball glove before you’re thirty.”
Ray motioned for Sam to turn around and he did. The lotion was cold on his neck and Ray rubbed it into Sam’s skin with meaty hands. Ray placed the bottle on the tractor and continued to rub the lotion down to Sam’s shoulders and upper back.
“There, how’s that feel, Sam?” the man asked, his breath wafting around to the front of Sam’s face. It smelled of bacon.
Ray squeezed Sam’s shoulders lightly, massaging the muscles there.
Sam quickly spun away from the man, grabbing the collar of his muscle shirt tight around his neck.
Ray had a puzzled expression on his face. “Alright, alright. Easy, Sam. You need to get loose before a day’s work is all,” Ray said with an innocence that made the boy question his own reaction.
“I think I’ll be fine.”
Ray breathed in deeply. “Suit yourself.” He rubbed the remaining lotion onto his stained jeans.
“We’ll have lunch ready for you at noon,” he said. Then he left.
Sam turned and drove his foot hard into one of the tractor’s tires. The pressurized rubber didn’t offer much give. He was breathing hard and it felt like his rib cage was tightening in his chest. He steadied himself against the machine and began to breathe deeply; his eyes watered as his heart slowed.
He tried to distract himself with the tractor. There was a large, plastic tube that angled out from under the mower. It bent upwards and ran up behind the seat where it would deposit the finely chopped grass clippings into two large fabric bags. There was a hole in the tube about the size of a golf ball right at the bend.
Sam knelt down and ran his finger around the edge of the hole. Bits of wet grass fell off the edge into his hands. They left a green stain on his skin almost instantly.
He felt his phone vibrating.
“Hi Sam, I’m glad I caught you. How’s your first day going so far?” the female voice asked.
“That’s good to hear, Sam. Look, we’ve had some new arrivals and are going to have to move you into a room with Jake and Dillon. I just wanted to let you know so you aren’t alarmed when you get back, okay?”
“Share a room? That’s bullshit! Why can’t Jake and Dillon move their stuff into my room?”
“It’s just easier this way, Sam. Moving one person instead of two, their room is quite a bit bigger too,” the voice said calmly.
“Who’s moving my stuff?”
“We’ll get one of the boys here to do it.”
“I don’t want any of those cocksuckers touching my stuff,” Sam said.
“Sam, listen to me. I know this isn’t ideal, but we have three more boys coming in who need a room.”
“Then put two in my room and the other one with Jake and Dillon.”
“Sam, they’re brothers. They want to stay together. I’m sorry. This isn’t up for discussion. We need to move you. I just wanted to give you a heads up.”
He didn’t respond.
He ended the call, sliding the phone back into his pocket before jumping into the mower’s seat. He grabbed the steering wheel in one hand and ran his other over a few of the gauges.
Sam inserted the key into the ignition. It started up immediately, the sound of the motor reverberated off the small walls of the shed. Sam could feel the vibrations hitting his chest, out of time with the rhythm of the beats inside it.
He pushed his hand into his pocket and produced two neon orange earplugs. He squished each of them between his finger and thumb and rolled them a few times, making them small. He pulled each ear back with one hand and inserted the small plugs with the other, letting them expand and dull the din around him.
He had seen the construction site safety videos so many times he had the words memorized. The youth shelter he was staying at had a wide assortment of training videos to better prepare him for a job, but he only ever watched the one. There was a girl in it he liked the look of. Her hair was platinum blonde. Sam had never seen a woman with hair so light before.
Ray appeared in the doorway again, his silhouette lit at the edges with morning backlight. He was carrying a hat and threw it to Sam.
“It’ll keep the sun out of your eyes!” he shouted. Sam couldn’t hear him but he was pretty sure that’s what he said.
The boy pulled the hat down over his black hair and waited until Ray left.
The morning passed smoothly. Despite never having driven anything, Sam found he picked it up quickly. The townhouse complexes he was responsible for were quite large and it would take him at least a couple of days to cut the front lawns of each unit and the large fields surrounding the complexes themselves.
A few hours in he caught himself smiling. He had to admit, he liked the work. He got to stay outside, work up a sweat, and the money was more than he’d ever made trying to pawn off the junk he’d take from his aunt’s home.
More importantly, it was quiet throughout most of the day. Not only did the earplugs keep most of the noise to a minimum, but many of the residents weren’t home while he worked so he never had to worry about making small talk with them.
He ate lunch outside on the mower. Ray’s wife had encouraged him to stay inside, out of the sun for a while, but he felt uneasy around Ray.
The sun was directly overhead and, without a cloud in the sky, the grass baked alongside the cement walkways around the property. Sam took his hat off to wipe the sweat from his forehead. The turkey sandwich was dry. The iced tea wasn’t. It cooled him down from the inside out and gave him the boost he needed to get moving again. He had cut about half of the complex during the morning and looked toward the eastern side of the lot. There were a few more people outside now but most of them stayed within their fenced backyards.
A small group of children were playing in one of the open areas he was tasked with cutting. Sam walked closer to the group and discovered they were building a fort. They had stretched a few old sheets across some chairs and were working on a sign.
“Hey, you’re gonna have to move all this. I’m cutting the grass here,” Sam hollered to them from a distance.
The kids continued playing. Sam moved in closer.
“Hey!” he shouted louder this time. The two children who were making the sign looked up. Sam waved his arms and repeated his message. The children said something to the others and a small girl holding onto a sheet let her shoulders fall. Sam waved them away again and the group got into motion taking down their fort piece-by-piece.
Satisfied with the result, Sam walked back to the mower and started it up. He did several laps around the complex to give the kids time to move all their objects. He moved closer to the spot with each lap and now noticed the sheets had been covering quite an elaborate setup. There were purple cushions and yellow blankets, one of those toys you only see in doctors' offices, the kind where you push wooden beads along thin metal rails, an old typewriter, colouring books, and a few board games; in the centre, a small wooden box had been tipped upside down. The box had a red cross painted on the side of it, like a miniature medical tent. Two words were scribbled above and below the symbol; he could only make out the longer, incorrectly spelled one – Hopsital.
That was the last object to go. One of the girls grabbed the box and started making her way back to the group while another knelt down and appeared to be digging at something in the tall grass.
Sam was about to yell to the girl to move but her mother called her. The little girl stopped digging and looked towards home, then back at the dirt, then back home with another shout from her mother. She stood awkwardly, half of her body facing home and the other half rooting itself at the spot.
Even with his earplugs in he could tell the girl was arguing with her mother, who was now walking towards the girl, her expression not a happy one. She motioned sharply to their home and the little girl started the long march back. Her mother grabbed her by the wrist and walked her back to their fenced-in yard.
The small girl looked back several times as Sam approached the spot where the fort once stood. The other children were now lined up only a short distance away, each holding a remnant of the fort in their tiny hands.
Sam lined up the mower to the path he was cutting, but he couldn’t help but look back at the children. They seemed more disappointed than sad, but they were sad too.
The girl who held the wooden box in her hand caught Sam’s eyes. She was close enough now that he could read the words on the box - Bird Hopsital.
And as he drew closer to the vacated spot, his mind made two sudden connections. The first was that he was about to drive the mower over an injured bird. The second was less a thought and more of an impulse to move his foot to the brake.
His foot moved quickly to the pedal but then hovered over it, held back, before returning to the gas.
The next few seconds were, while slightly muted for him, impossible to ignore. The bird was sucked up into the spinning blades, crushed and broken. Some of the larger bones could be heard ricocheting off the inside of the plastic tube before being deposited in the bags behind Sam.
The parts that were not large, the feathers, the blood, the smaller bits that had been broken down, were shot through the hole in the bend of the tube. A fine red mist flew out over the grass alongside the mower, coming to rest on the strip of uncut grass separating Sam from the children watching.
Sam slowed the mower to a stop and turned off the ignition. He turned to face the children, a few of which had already turned to walk home. One of them cried. One stared at Sam. One stared at the grass. One stared into the sky. One of the wooden blocks on the toy from the doctor’s office made a hollow plunking sound as it slid down its metal rail.
Sam cleared his throat, straightened his hat, turned the ignition back on, and finished the rest of the lot.
Later that evening, Sam returned to the youth shelter and found his new room. He had a shower, brushed his teeth, and got ready for bed. One of his new roommates snored quietly beneath him. He stared at the textured ceiling for a few moments, searching for all the new hidden patterns.
He breathed deeply and turned onto his side. He had no trouble falling asleep.