The summer I turned nine we had grasshoppers. An infestation, Mama called it. They gnawed through the Swiss chard, the spinach, Papa’s special plants hidden behind the garage. Some were the size of shotgun shells—ugly suckers in their desert camo fatigues.
“These ain’t like your hoppers,” Wyatt said. He thumped the plastic roof of the bughouse in my arms the same way Mama reckoned a melon’s ripeness. Inside, my pets crawled on a bed of pine needles and grass and twigs: Yoshi green, each smaller than a brick of Bazooka, eyes unblinking like beads of sap.
Wyatt crouched and slapped the ground. When he rose, a beastly grasshopper writhed between his fingers.
“Shoulda left our garden alone,” he said. The dirty crescents of his nails dug into the grasshopper’s leg. “Fat ass.”
My armpits went slick with sweat. “What if we keep that one?” I asked. “Plenty of room in the bughouse.”
Wyatt grinned at me, then tore off the grasshopper’s wings and let them flutter to the ground. The grasshopper convulsed, mandible gaping and oozing spit that made me think of Papa’s chew. The juice trickled down Wyatt’s wrist. Indifferent, he tromped across the yard to the gate between our property and the forest. He flipped up the latch and set the grasshopper’s head in the hole where a padlock could loop through.
“Wyatt,” I pleaded over my brother’s shoulder, curious and queasy. He swung the latch down. The grasshopper’s head dropped. Wyatt cradled and poked at the body until it stilled, then tossed it aside.
I squeezed the bughouse against my chest.
“Deserved it,” Wyatt said.
By lunchtime, heads were mounded at the base of the gate like a pile of birdshot. I stood along the fence and watched from a distance, mute, just outside the guilt-line. Each rusty creak of the latch made my stomach careen like a spin on a Tilt-A-Whirl.
When Wyatt was done, he gathered the headless carcasses and scattered them into the forest for the birds, then ran into the house. I set the bughouse down and followed. Wyatt’s voice bounced through the open windows and down the porch steps as he bragged to Mama about his conquests. The screen door hissed behind me, but Mama paid me no mind. She was smiling, bent over the kitchen counter slathering a knifeful of jelly across a slice of white bread.
Once she stacked the PB&J, corners aligned, she cut it crosswise and set both halves in front of Wyatt. She watched him take a contented bite, then another. I pulled a chair out beside him, its legs screeching across the linoleum, breaking her spell. Mama disappeared into the pantry and returned with a can of Slimfast. She cracked it open and shoved it toward me.
On the hottest day of the year, when the cinders felt like burning coals under our bare feet, Wyatt and me and the neighbor kids shimmied into our swimsuits and took turns hosing each other down in the yard. After our fingertips pruned and we grew tired of the sharp groundwater stinging our faces and shins, Mama came outside and passed out beach towels smelling of old sunscreen. She raised her eyebrows at me, thin like the rest of her. “We need to do something about that,” she said, fixed on my belly that stretched the swimsuit’s purple polka dots oblong. She made the same face Wyatt made when he chose a grasshopper for execution, then wrapped the towel around my middle.
Wyatt chewed his sandwich. His skin glowed green in the afternoon light. As I settled into the chair, my thighs ballooned beneath me, brown and blotchy with freckles and dirt. I breathed, and my belly swelled. Disgust flooded my throat. I chugged my strawberry Slimfast, chalky and thick and warm, coating the roof of my mouth like a layer of paint. When I set the empty can down, Wyatt was squinting at me. Cruel words hid behind his tongue, the upward curl of his lip—a set mouse trap.
Before his mouth could trigger, I scrambled away from him and Mama and retreated to the bughouse I’d left by the fence. I lifted the roof and plucked the first resident I could find. The grasshopper fought me, wings spreading flat like a Swiss army knife as I fed it through the hole in the gate. When I swung the latch down, I felt the separation of head from thorax, the crunch of exoskeleton. Its antennae and legs twitched, then the whole body slackened. I yelped, dropped it, and puked on myself. The front of my shirt was streaked with pink.
I picked up the bughouse, sniffing back tears. The front door slammed, and Wyatt’s eager footsteps drew close.
“Finally do it?” Peanut butter was smeared in the corners of his mouth. He squatted and inspected the brush around the gate. “You murdered the good kind,” he said, rolling the grasshopper’s head in the dirt.
I wiped my dripping nose.
“C’mon. Just bugs,” Wyatt said, softer. He duck-walked away from the gate, searching. Within seconds, he smashed his hand into a clump of weeds. “Try this.” He slipped a grasshopper into my palm. Big and brown. It drooled all over me in fear.
Wyatt guided me to the gate, my fingers trembling on the scorching metal. When the latch came down, I watched the head drop. My stomach didn’t flinch.
“See?” he said.
I scrubbed my hand on the coarse hem of my jean shorts. The juices wouldn’t come off, sticky and sour and everywhere.