At night, when they get home from work, his parents strap on their weapons and go at it. Mom’s is a rig lashed together from leather belts and metal braces and ram’s horns, wrist-thick and corded. Dad wears a boar’s head with tusks like carving knives and antlers bolted to the top. They don’t even talk anymore, just kit up and go into the backyard to beat each other bloody.
From his bedroom along the side of the house, the boy can hear the snapping and clacking of collision, over and over and over. He hides underneath his blankets, like that’ll block out the noise. He hides for hours, waiting for his parents to tire themselves out. It goes on like this for months. Some nights he watches from the kitchen window, careful to stay as still as he can for fear of disturbing the darkness around him, as if he might send waves puckering through the night. He doesn’t want them to know he’s there, not that they’d care if they did. They’re too busy charging and hacking at each other, then getting to their feet and doing it all over again.
This is the only time they use their words, too, but of course it’s ugly.
Dad boils the air around him with hate and curse words.
Mom screams things that are racist.
Their fights take hours each night. The boy gets real good at making his own dinner. He eats in front of their shitty little TV with the volume turned so up that it hurts his ears. He pretends he can’t hear them in between commercials, in those silent little gaps of programming. But he does hear them. Everyone hears them.
Sometimes at school the other kids talk about it when they think he can’t hear. They say things that make him hate himself. He doesn’t invite anybody over after school anymore. He remembers it being fun, before the fighting started, but now he’s too embarrassed and scared they’ll get hurt. His teacher, Miss Cho, is pretty and she’s nice to him, but he suspects it’s out of obligated pity rather than anything genuine. She asks him if he wants to talk about it, but he doesn’t want to tell her and anyway how would he even explain things like the nights they come inside still wearing their weapons and go into the bedroom and fight some more because that’s what grownups do sometimes. He doesn’t talk to Miss Cho, doesn’t tell her about all that.
In June, school’s over, and he doesn’t have any escape any more. Maybe it’s the heat, but his parents’ fights go from bloody to savage. Mom cracks dad’s ribs. Dad punctures one of mom’s lungs. Mom shatters one of dad’s knees. They go to the hospital again and again. They don’t bother with excuses. They come home wearing patchwork fixes and retreat into separate rooms. Dad gets drunk and whiskey-red and screams incomprehensible gutter noise while he punches the walls of the guest bedroom, painting them with red blots and scraps of knuckleskin that stick in the wetness.
Mom locks herself in their bedroom and goes deathly silent.
By July, they’re going out to the backyard in the mornings before work, too.
They never see him anymore. They don’t talk to him, don’t look at him. Pretending that he’s okay is getting harder. He gets nightmares every night, now.
One morning, he wakes up and they’re both gone. The house is an empty ruin, like a tornado tore through and carried them away. Coffee splashed across the kitchen wall, the table upended. The fridge door lolls open like a broken jaw. Somebody kicked in the TV. The front door’s knocked off its hinges and the summer heat floats in, sickly against the boy’s skin. Someone’s written the C-word across the living room wall in what he’s pretty sure is poop. The boy feels like crying. He goes back to his room and undresses and hits himself in front of the mirror until the feeling goes.
They’re gonna come back. They’re gonna.
He’s alone for three days.
When they finally return, they’re all smiles and sugar. They’re talking to each other. They clean up the warzone without a single complaint or insult or slur. It’s almost like it used to be. They tell him that they love him.
It doesn’t last.
One night over dinner Dad says something normal and mom goes at him with a screwdriver, pitting bloody spots out of his arms and chest. A couple minutes later, they’re out back again, charging at each other in their horrible headgear, crowing and prancing and wrenching blood from each others’ hides.
The next morning, Dad is gone. He doesn’t come back for three weeks. Mom takes to living in her terrible horns and seething at the still-broken front door for hours on end, willing him to come back so she can hurt him some more. When she thinks the boy is asleep, she sets her shoulders and hammers at the walls, leaving uneven constellations of holes punched in the plaster throughout the house.
When Dad finally does come back, he’s not alone.
The boy doesn’t recognize Miss Cho at first. She’s wearing a miniskirt. She’s got pretty legs and a nervous smile and a scared look in her eyes that says she knew more than she let on but she didn’t know enough. Dad grabs her on her ass in front of everyone and she tries to get his hand off her but he makes her leave it. The boy can see how bad she wants to leave. She’s nice and she doesn’t deserve this and the boy can’t help but wonder how much his dad told her and how much she had to figure out on her own.
Then, Dad asks the boy if he’d like to have a new mommy and Mom just loses it. She charges and her ram’s horns turn Miss Cho’s face into a smashed-in mangle in one shot and the boy runs screaming out the back door, over their blood-fed dueling ground and into the woods beyond. Hot tears rip at his cheeks and the hitting doesn’t work anymore so instead he finds a stray cat and hurts it until it goes cold and stops making noise and then crying isn’t a problem and he’s okay again.
He comes back the next morning and finds Mom and Dad still banging their heads together, screaming at the top of their lungs. It’s not even words anymore, just animal glossolalia drenched in blood. Miss Cho’s still on the ground, smeared in red and twitching. One eye is half out of her head and looks like runny eggwhite. The boy starts to scream and the noise melts into the clack and howl of his parents and they all keep it up until they each pass out.
When the boy wakes up, his head hurts and he calls the ambulance for Miss Cho. She doesn’t die, but she’s not pretty anymore. His dad never calls her again. A few weeks later, Mom moves out, spitting and cruel and vulgar. She tells dad she hopes he gets AIDS. She tells the boy that the horns are his now. He tells her he doesn’t want them. She tells him to not be a faggot and then she leaves.
They’re waiting for him on his pillow when he gets back to his room. He doesn’t mean to but he tries them on and finds that they fit just right. He goes out to show his dad but there’s another stranger in the living room. He knows her, it’s Miss McHenry from school and she’s in the living room and she’s smiling with what his mom used to call blowjob lips and he hates her and he can’t even hear the ugly stupid things his dad is saying anymore.
Fury bleeds into his brain like black poison from the roots of the horns, and he’s screaming again. He runs out the backyard to bang the horns against the tree, sharpening them until his dad’s ready to come out and take his shot.
Matthew Lyons is probably taller than you, not that it’s a competition or anything. His work has most recently been published in Out of the Gutter, The Molotov Cocktail, Animal, Abstract Jam and more. Complaints can be filed on Twitter at @reverendlyons