The apartment complex where Elspeth and Joseph lived had a dog shit problem and they knew who to blame. It was that guy who lived all by himself below Joseph and his mother, the one who used the vacuum late at night and had those two bullmastiff dogs, big like horses with heads the size of bike wheels. He walked them together—a thick rope knotted around their necks. The other end he wound around each of his forearms and sometimes it was hard to tell who was walking whom. Elspeth’s dad said it was just plain cruel to keep such big dogs in such a small apartment, but she didn’t think they really minded. They just lumbered along and left their big, smoking piles of shit everywhere. Don’t say “shit,” Elspeth, her father told her for the hundredth time.
Joseph and Elspeth had been working on a plan to get his mom and her dad together for a while now and they were finally getting somewhere. She took full credit for the progress because she was the one who pushed Joseph into the pile of dog shit—It was an accident, she told her dad, and he said sure, and I bet you accidentally called him a pencil prick perv-face as you did it too, huh?—and that was why his mom had to call her dad, because they both thought she should apologize, even though no one asked what Joseph did to make her call him a pencil prick perv-face and push him into the dog shit. If they had, she would have told them it was because he said he liked how she was starting to get tits and that he’d always wanted to watch a pair grow from the start. Joseph said he’d forgive her for pushing him into the dog shit if she promised not to tell Sims that he cried and she decided that the memory of his brown stinky butt running all the way home was enough payback for now.
“You can’t just go pushing people into poop, Elspeth,” her dad said, after he hung up the phone with Joseph’s mom.
“Joseph’s mom’s really pretty,” she said.
Her father pretended not to hear this and went back to cleaning his bagpipes because he thought it might make them sound better. The Oswalds, who lived below them, had already taped two notes to their door since he took up playing again, asking if he could please refrain from practicing during mealtimes and after dark. “Can’t appreciate heritage,” he grumbled both times, but brought them a batch of homemade shortbread cookies to apologize.
“That boy isn’t going to keep hanging out with you if you keep doing these things to him.”
Elspeth wasn’t sure what he meant by these things, unless he was counting the time she chewed all six feet of Bubble Tape—that gum that came wrapped up like a tape measure—until her jaw hurt and then stretched it out with her fingers and threw it in Joseph’s hair like a fishing net. He pulled at his head and made it worse and worse until finally his mom just took his dad’s old electric razor and shaved him bald. He wore a knit cap for a full month and Elspeth only saw how bad he looked when Sims stole it off his head and ran around the traffic circle twice before Joseph caught him and kicked him behind the knees so hard he fell over. She felt a little bad about that one—the gum part of it—because Joseph hadn’t even done anything mean to her that time. She was just curious about what they said about peanut butter and gum in your hair so she thought she’d give him a reason to try it out. How could she have known that his mom didn’t keep peanut butter in the house? Elspeth thought everyone did, so she never even got to see what happened. Anyway, his hair grew back and he agreed to forgive her if she’d always take his side against Sims and so far she always had and always would, gum or no gum.
It was a couple of days after Joseph’s mom called Elspeth’s dad that they came up with the idea for their newest game. They were visionaries when it came to making up games to play; he had this knack for designing the rules and she was the best at coming up with the names for each new creation. She could admit they struck out with “Grasshopper Getaway,” which was really just tag with hopping instead of running, so it didn’t really catch on. Normally they were better than that. Someone at school told Elspeth that their cousin heard about “Zombies in the Graveyard” and she lived three counties over. Their games, when they were good, were famous.
“My mom had to wash my pants twice to get the stink out,” Joseph said when Elspeth got to the traffic circle.
“Funny how she can get stink out of your clothes but can’t get it out of your breath,” she snapped back and that shut him up. He could be a real whiner sometimes and she just wasn’t in the mood.
They walked along the outside of the traffic circle by the hedge line twice, just to see what was going on in the neighborhood. The circle was smack between their two buildings—one time they counted steps and Elspeth made it there in eighty-seven from her front door and Joseph made it in eighty-nine, but he had shorter legs. It was their favorite place to play because the hedges along the rim closed off the middle and made it feel like a secret island.
“Look what I brought,” Joseph said.
He pulled a red bandana from the side pocket of his pants and held it out to her. It was folded over several times into a triangle.
“Bandit robbers?” she asked, but Joseph shook his head and took it back from her. He unfolded it and rolled it longways.
“Here, let me blindfold you.”
“Come on, trust me, I have an idea.”
“Eat shit with your ideas.”
“You say shit too much.”
“So what?” she said, already annoyed by him and they’d only just started playing. “I like the way it sounds. It sounds just like it should.”
“You just say it because Sims does.”
“Sims is a shithead.”
Joseph looked over the hedge, nervous-like. “Shut up. You never know when he’s spying on us.”
Sims was twelve and reminded them every chance he got that he was two years older and bigger than they were. He said both of their names sounded like a lisp and spat Elsptheth and Josptheth at them like it was some kind of insult. Joseph was way more scared of him than Elspeth was, but that was probably because Sims hit him that one time and she knew he’d never hit her since she was a girl.
“Fine,” she said. “What’s your idea?”
The next thing she knew, the blindfold was on and Joseph was spinning her in a circle by her shoulders. Thinking of the mastiff piles all around her, Elspeth held her footing even when things got swirled and dizzy.
“Okay,” Joseph said, satisfied with his spinning. “Now follow my signals to get to the other side of the circle without stepping in anything.”
“The rules are I can only say one-word directions, like forward, backward, left, right, and stop. You gotta pay attention.”
“Are you saying I’m a bad listener?”
“I’m saying if you don’t then you’re going to end up with your foot in a pile.”
“This is stupid.” Elspeth made a move to take the blindfold off, the ground underneath her still feeling shaky.
“You’re stupid. Just do it.”
“You’re going to lead me right into it.”
“Well, I get points for every direction you follow exactly right. And you get points for not following if you think my directions are wrong. Call BS.”
She made a noise like a snort. Joseph couldn’t even say ‘bullshit’ way out in the circle without fearing his mother was going to come and make him lick a bar of soap.
“How many points do I get if I make it all the way across?”
“Ten. And then you can blindfold me.”
Elspeth tilted her head up to check if she could see down her nose and out the bottom of the blindfold, but Joseph had put it on tight. She said, okay let’s just do it, and stood cautiously at attention. She guessed she owed this one to him, after pushing him into that pile that was fresh and kind of runny, like the dogs ate something bad that day. Besides, she’d already thought up a really great name for the game, but didn’t want to say right away so it wouldn’t be a wasted idea in case it didn’t turn out to be worth it.
Joseph’s voice was further away, but she heard him call “forward!” and so she started to move just a little bit, tiny steps where she barely lifted her feet, so if she was going to hit some shit, she’d at least only get the toe of her sneaker in it. He yelled, “stop!” and Elspeth froze and then started slowly moving left at his command, then forward some more.
“Bullshit!” she screamed when he told her to move left again because she thought she might smell it, but she was surrounded, so who really knew. Joseph’s giggle let her know she was right and she grinned in his direction.
She made her way through several more commands, called bullshit on him twice, and then touched hedge. Pulling off the blindfold, Elspeth pumped her fist in the air: winner.
“See?” Joseph said. “Told you it would be fun.”
“Landmines,” she told him, breathless for some reason even though she took slow steps the whole way. “It’s definitely called Landmines.”
Elspeth tied the blindfold over Joseph’s eyes next and spun him by the shoulders—a little harder and faster than he spun her—and took her position across the circle to give the commands.
“Hey, dipshits!” she heard from behind her and knew before turning that it was Sims. Blind Joseph looked in his direction too, and Elspeth noticed how much pointier his nose looked when it wasn’t flanked by his big ears, now flattened under the bandana.
“Left,” she said to Joseph, ignoring Sims. But Joseph’s feet didn’t move; he stood at attention with both of his arms raised up from his sides a little, like he was getting ready for something to happen.
“Hey little queers,” Sims called to them again. He was standing on his tiptoes so his head hovered above the hedge line. His face looked fat without his body, which was fat enough by itself. He had one of those stomachs that shook when he ran and thick ankles that seemed to go right into his shoes without ever stopping to become feet.
Elspeth said over her shoulder for Sims to get lost and focused on Joseph, who she could tell was about this close to taking off his blindfold and making a break for it. There was a big dog mess right in front of him, almost like both of them squatted in the same spot to combine forces and create something so gross it would just have to get stepped in. She’d been planning on bullshitting him into stepping in it, but now with Sims watching she knew she couldn’t do that to him. “Left,” she said again, to get him away from it. There were flies moving around his ankles and landing in the poop, which was so fresh it shined, coiled together like the intestines inside Elspeth’s Anatomy Jane doll.
“You’re about to be full of shit, Josptheth!”
She yelled for Sims to go shrivel up and die and he called her a word that was so bad, she didn’t even know what it meant.
Joseph was starting to panic, his arms fluttering at his sides and his head moving fast between their voices.
“Left!” she yelled. “Left, come on!”
But it was too late. Joseph pulled the blindfold off and threw it to the ground. It landed a few inches from the big pile and so he kicked it too, sending it further away in a floating arc. He didn’t look at her, and Elspeth could tell he was embarrassed because the ends of his ears were flamed up, so red they looked like sunburn. She wanted to push Sims into a bush and hope he got stuck on the thorny leaves and then she wanted to get a pooper-scooper and just fling shit at him. He ruined it; the game was done. Joseph looked small, smaller than normal, as he walked back over to her and Elspeth fought inside herself whether she wanted to pat his arm or punch it.
Sims was laughing and walking away. “Why don’t you losers just make out already?” he yelled and then called them pussies, meowing like a crazy cat.
“Just drop it,” Joseph said before she could say anything.
“You can’t let him get to you like that.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Elspeth wanted to grab his big red ears and pull them off his head. He looked like a ferret and she wanted to tell him so. She said something instead that came out jumbled and angry about how Sims was right, he was just a big-fat-scaredy-cat and if he wasn’t her only stupid friend in this whole stupid world she wouldn’t ever play with his stupid face again. Half of it she said to his back as he stormed away, taking big stomping steps around the piles toward his building. She stood there until the door slammed shut and then for a little while after.
She waited until after 10:00 the next morning before she knocked on Joseph’s door wearing the bandana over her eyes. It was wet from being left in the circle overnight.
“Well, hi there, Elspeth.” Joseph’s mother’s voice.
“Can Joseph come out?”
“Not sure he wants to, sweet pea. He seemed pretty upset last night.”
Elspeth pushed the blindfold up onto her forehead and looked at her. Once, when they were a lot younger—so much younger that she wondered if Joseph remembered it too, but she wasn’t about to ask him—they’d seen his mom walking around her room naked. She had a pooch stomach and a shiny stone hung from her belly button. Her boobs drooped over onto her ribs, not perked up like they looked when she wore clothes, and they ran back to Joseph’s room giggling because they’d known they’d seen something they weren’t supposed to see even though they didn’t quite get why. They took off their own clothes and strutted around like she did, pointing to each other’s funny parts. Joseph stood with his legs wide and waved his wiener and Elspeth held her hands out over her flat chest like she had real tits. His mother came in and caught them, even though Elspeth ran to the closet right away. She helped them back into their clothes and then called Elspeth’s father. Elspeth heard her laugh when she told him on the phone, but neither of them would smile to their faces. It’s just not appropriate, they’d said, but never told them why. Now the idea of seeing Joseph naked again was the grossest thing Elspeth could imagine. She’d rather eat her own toenails.
“Just tell him I’m here,” she said and sat down on the porch steps to wait, blindfold back on.
After a few minutes, Joseph sat down next to her with a thump, but didn’t say anything. She could feel him staring at her through the bandana.
“You aren’t a scaredy-cat. Your face isn’t that stupid and you only kind of look like a ferret. Okay?”
“You never said I looked like a ferret.”
“Well I thought it, and it wasn’t the first time.”
“You look like an antelope.”
She took off the blindfold and handed it to him. “Landmines is a really good game. Sims is a shithead.”
“Sims is a shithead,” he repeated, quietly, so his mother wouldn’t hear.
They headed back to the traffic circle and Elspeth felt glad to have Joseph with her and no longer mad, even though she’d never tell him that. She asked him if his mom had said anything about her dad lately, thinking it was about time they move on to Phase Two of their Love Connection Plan, but he didn’t say anything, just looked at his feet as they walked, so she asked him again.
“I just don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said.
“Why the hell not?” Joseph hated it the most when she said ‘hell’ because his mother was Catholic and took things like that real serious.
“She thinks he’s old. And that his Scottish thing is a little weird.”
“It’s not a thing. He’s just Scottish. We’re Scottish.”
“She said he called her lassie once by the mailboxes and it was weird.” Joseph looked at her with a wrinkled nose.
A voice came from outside the circle. “Did she also tell you that Elsptheth’s dad puts his diddle in other guys’ buttholes?”
She felt her whole insides get hot as she spun around to see Sims, looking dumb as ever.
“Cut that shit out, Sims.” She heard what he said over and over again inside the walls of her head. It sounded so bad she almost felt like she could taste it, too.
“Just calling ’em like I see ’em. And that pops of yours is one raging butt-stuffer.”
Joseph told Sims to shut up and Elspeth loved him for it. It felt like she might cry and she couldn’t even explain why, but she knew she couldn’t do it here and so instead she reached forward and pushed Sims back with both hands. “Take. That. Back.”
“Think about it, Elspoop,” Sims said, only stumbling slightly against her push. “He’s always baking. He wears that stupid skirt.”
“Kilt,” Joseph said quietly from behind her. Elspeth could tell he felt bad for making fun of how Scottish her dad acted.
“Oh, and there’s the part about how he likes the way butts taste.”
She stopped pushing and instead just stood there. She didn’t know what to say or even if she should say something. Sims straightened his shirt and reached out, yanked her ponytail hard, and then walked off back toward his apartment. Elspeth could hear him singing to himself as he went; the only word she caught was her own name.
Joseph was quiet beside her and she couldn’t look at him. She heard him tell her not to let Sims get to her and it sounded irritatingly familiar. The bandana felt like a flame in her hand and she wanted to throw it after Sims—fat, stupid, angry Sims—and watch his body catch fire, watch him turn into a pile of ash.
“We have to do something,” she said, her words slow and even. “We need a plan.”
Joseph shook his head at her. No, he kept saying. No, No.
“I’m going to make him pay.”
They sat in the middle of the circle well behind the hedge line and talked in low voices. She wanted to put dog shit in the toes of Sims’ shoes. She wanted to put raw meat in his pockets and then cut the ropes that held back the mastiffs. She wanted to put the kind of medicine in his soda that would make him poop water. She wanted him to never ever ever ever say anything about her father ever again.
“How do you think of these things?” Joseph asked, and she felt dangerous.
They met in the circle the next morning. Joseph brought the blindfold, but he handed it to her like he wasn’t so sure it was the right thing to do. It had rained the night before and the grass was still wet enough that blades stuck to Elspeth’s sneakers. Joseph looked nervous, so she showed him the rock she’d found and walked him through the plan again. He could sometimes be a big chicken and she really needed him to play along today.
“Think of everything he’s done,” she said. “This is our chance and then he won’t mess with us ever again.”
Joseph nodded, but his nose was running so much that he kept wiping it on the back of his hand and it made him look like even more of a wuss. She knew this was really all up to her.
“We’ll play the game, just like before. And then he’ll come along and ask to play, too.”
“What if he doesn’t ask to play? What if he just makes fun of it?”
“Then I’ll say something like ‘you try it if you think it’s so easy’ and then you hand me the blindfold.”
“And you’ll throw it.”
“Right—well, I’m the better thrower than you, so it only makes sense.”
“I could throw it,” Joseph said. “I just don’t want to.”
Elspeth rolled her eyes. The only reason Joseph thought he was any good at throwing things was because she was really good at catching. “Well, whatever. I’ll throw it.”
“And you’ll hit his shoulder.”
“And he’ll be so embarrassed that we tricked him that he won’t ever bother us again.”
“What if he’s just more mad?”
Elspeth rubbed the edge of the rock with her thumb. One side was really pointy, almost like an arrowhead. “He won’t be,” she said. “He’ll be too surprised we fought back.”
They started to play Landmines, but only kind of. Joseph went first, but Elspeth didn’t even try to trick him, she just walked him around the piles of shit. They were harder to see now after the rain, now dimpled down into soft mounds. She was on her second turn being blindfolded when she heard Sims from behind the hedge. He was singing a song about them. First comes love then comes marriage.
“Shut up, Simmion.” Elspeth ripped off the blindfold and tucked it into the same pocket of her shorts as the rock.
“Do you always let girls fight your battles, wittle Woseph?” Sims was laughing as he pushed through the hedge and stepped into the circle, just narrowly missing stepping in one of the mastiff piles.
Elspeth didn’t even need to turn around to know Joseph’s ears were red. She put her hand in her pocket to feel the rock. “You wish you were brave enough to play this game with us,” she said. Joseph echoed with a soft yeah from behind her and she fought back a sigh.
“Yeah, right. Forget about your dumb game. I wouldn’t play if you paid me. I have better things to do.”
“Oh, sure you do. We wouldn’t want to get in the way of all the eating you have to get to today.” Elspeth arched her back and put her hands on her stomach, pretending to shake it like a Santa belly. She felt Joseph take a step closer to her.
Sims’ eyes narrowed for just a second, but then he laughed. “I wouldn’t expect you to know what I’m talking about. Joseph gets it, don’t ya, Joe? So how many times a day do you jerk it while thinking about Elksbreath over here?”
Elspeth looked between them to see if Joseph knew what he meant. Sims laughed again.
“See? She doesn’t even get it.”
“I get it,” she said. “I get it so much that I get it more than you do.”
Sims started laughing again and Elspeth thought she heard Joseph laugh a little too, so she turned and glared at him. She felt the plan fading away, felt them losing again. Words like diddle and butt-stuffer were so loud inside her head she could barely think.
“I bet you only think our game is stupid because you know you can’t do it,” she said. “We’re the masters at it.”
“Please. That game is so easy anyone could do it.”
“Prove it.” She held his eyes while she reached into her pocket to pull out the blindfold. She kept it balled up with the rock inside and pressed the pointy end so hard against her finger, she thought she might draw blood.
“Fine, give me the stupid thing.”
She meant to throw underhand because her aim was better that way, but at the last second she wound up and pitched it overhand. But the rock didn’t stay inside of the blindfold like she thought it would. Instead, it hurtled forward by itself and the blindfold fell onto the wet grass, not far from her feet.
Sims didn’t make a noise when the rock came in contact with his forehead. Instead, he stood there for what felt like forever, not moving and Elspeth thought this must be what her father meant when he said someone was dumbfounded. But then the blood started to pour down Sims’ face, into his eyes and around his nose, over his lips and coloring his teeth when he opened his mouth to scream. Joseph was screaming too, but she wasn’t. She wasn’t anything.
“Do something!” Joseph yelled, but Sims put both of his hands over his face and ran from the circle, blood leaking between his fingers and onto the backs of his hands.
“Murderers!” he shouted as he left, and then all Elspeth heard was the sound of his sneakers running on the asphalt and Joseph crying behind her.
“What have we done?” Joseph said. His nose was running even more now that he was crying and he wiped a long smear across the side of his cheek. “Is he going to die?”
Elspeth shook her head, but she didn’t really know. She’d never seen that much blood before.
“What if he dies?” Joseph was crying harder now.
“He isn’t going to die. It was just a cut. It was just a rock.”
Joseph sat down in the grass and hugged his knees. “Did we wish him dead?” he asked.
Elspeth shrugged her shoulders, which didn’t mean yes or no, just that she didn’t know, that she didn’t actually know anything, except that yeah, she did wish him dead and she wondered what that meant about her. “He isn’t going to die,” she said again.
“What do we do?”
She wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to do anything; she was the one who threw the rock. She wanted to tell him that maybe she was always planning to throw it at his head, but she didn’t know if that was true or not. She wanted to ask him to show her what it meant to “jerk it” so she wouldn’t feel so stupid anymore. She wanted to understand. Joseph was crying so hard now that it almost sounded like he was laughing. She looked at the top of the hedge and waited for the Gotcha dipshits and then, when it didn’t come, she waited to start crying, too.
“What did we do?” Joseph said over and over and Elspeth thought about how much dog shit had melted into the ground where he was sitting, that at one time or another every inch of this place had probably been covered. She hated herself for not feeling the right things. She hated Sims for bleeding because if he died she wouldn’t be allowed to hate him anymore and then she hated herself even more because she thought she probably still would. She hated her dad for wearing kilts and Joseph for understanding things that she didn’t. She felt like all the things Sims had ever called her.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “Everything’s the same.”
“Don’t you get it?” Joseph asked.
“He was wrong,” she told him. “He was wrong about my dad and he was wrong that you’re a baby.” She nodded to show him she meant it. And then she did start to cry, but it didn’t feel like it was for Sims. She thought it might be for Joseph and it might be for her, too, and then she thought that it might just be that she was still angry. She didn’t know if she’d ever stop feeling this angry.
Elspeth brought her shoe down hard onto a pile of shit and stomped it dead. The rain had made them extra soft, their coils no longer really clear. It made a sound like mud and shot out to the side and so she moved on to the next one. She stomped harder this time and made a noise like an explosion when she did it—ptweeeww—and it splattered on her legs and caked around her sneakers but she just didn’t care. She said every nasty word Sims ever taught her as she jumped in them, sending shit flying, and Joseph just watched her like he didn’t know who she was anymore and she wanted to ask if he remembered showing each other their naked bodies and shaking their parts but instead she just shook her own, blowing up all the landmines and squishing all the shit.
Cortney Phillips Meriwether is a writer living in Buckhannon, WV, with her basketball coach husband and very anxious dog. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from North Carolina State University in 2012 and is the fiction editor for Pinball. Her work has previously been published in Bartleby Snopes, The Coachella Review, and HOOT.