One after another, beyond the sight of human or compound eye, they followed the scent trail of their scout that led to the future. The immediate future was the premise of food to sustain them. But the long view was one of death for many of their brethren and nightmares for a child. Little scout ant did you know all you would wreak? No, of course not, for you were just an ant. But to me you will always be more, you will always be the bringer of fire.

My father’s girlfriend, my brother’s mother, was around. Sometimes she left for hours, days, or weeks. Time meant nothing at my age. All I knew was that she would come wearing a mask of blood and tears and take my brother away, and with him went my sunshine. Eventually she would come back with defeat in her eyes, my brother would run to me with a smile and my sunshine was back with me.

My brother and I were in the room we shared, the only furnishing a bare, stained mattress. So, it was a bedroom no matter how the architect had originally designed it. There was no closet, not that one was needed with our scant possessions. Three windows and a french door, all broken, looked out onto the outdoors. It was summer in Southern California so we did not freeze even in the midst of the coldest nights. As you may have guessed, we lived in an abandoned house. No electricity, no gas, yet oddly enough we still had water. Thank the oversight of the water company I suppose.

We sat in the middle of our room, he in his diaper, I in some torn up pants. A plastic dump truck, all yellow and red, was parked between us. He picked upa small rock, brought it close to his eye and looked at it critically. With a sudden smile he put the rock in the back of the dump truck. It had passed its rigorous inspection, and gifted with a smile for a job well down, it went on its way. Pebble by pebble he went through his pile. If he came across one he wasn’t sure about he would hold it up to me. I would look at it seriously and either nod or shake my head to tell him what I thought of the rock. After each of my contributions I was rewarded with a special smile.

I lived for his smiles, they were a gulp of oxygen to I who was drowning. Sometimes I wondered if he understood what went on around him. For how could he still be so sweet, so loving. Maybe he was insulated being as young as he was. Other times I thought he knew but was just possessed of a rare soul. That must be it because even though he would cower at the yelling and flinch at each blow that connected with his mother or myself, he did not cry. As I lay there dazed, bleeding, or both he would come up to me and lovingly pat me. It was his way of making sure I was okay. Once I responded to him he would smile that special smile that helped me keep struggling against the storm tossed waves that were my father.

When the truck was filled he would push it around while I dutifully made truck sounds for him. Once it made its way to the construction site, the dump, or wherever it was headed in his mind, he would lift the back and dump out all the rocks. He would laugh as the rocks clattered to the wooden floor. Drawn into his joy even I smiled. Though I could not live in the world in which he dwelt, I was allowed to visit when I was near him and what a heady experience that was.

“Hungry,” he said after some time.

“Soon Greggy,” I replied.

“Kay,” and he went back to his play.

It was a good week, we had eaten every day. It wasn’t much, some slices of bread, some chips. There was no fridge, no stove. So, what we ate came prepackaged, and the most important thing, as always, was that it was cheap. My father’s girlfriend could only get so much money away from my father to buy food. After all there were more important purchases to make. Heroine, speed, you know, the necessities of life.

In time I was proven right, his mother came with food. Two slices of bread were held in her hand. Saliva welled up in my mouth at the sight of it. “My boy,” she said with a tremulous smile to my brother. She kissed his head and gave him a piece of bread. He smiled for her, but I was not jealous. For it was a normal smile, not one of the special ones he saved just for me. I was given a piece of bread too and then she departed. No kiss for me, but I was not hers. Already I knew that I belonged to my father. I felt lucky just to get the bread, it was more than I got at other times.

We made our way over to the mattress and sat down amidst the stale, scattered crumbs of the last few days. Greggy devoured his slice in moments, crumbs flew everywhere. While I forced myself to take one small bite at a time. Buckets of saliva broke down the bread before it even hit my stomach.

When he was done Greggy looked at me and asked, “More?” He was not greedy, he was not trying to make me go without, rather he was just little and hungry. Without hesitation I gave him the rest of my slice. He gave me his special smile, it made me feel more full than if I had eaten an entire feast. I couldn’t deny him anything. I only wished I had more to give him. When he asked, “More?” again and I had to tell him no the look in his eyes was enough to break your heart. Maybe that was why his mother never stayed after she gave him food.

“Bug.” All thoughts of food disappeared from his mind when he saw the bug. Following his pointed finger I saw the bug. It was an ant, a large red one. The ant made its way carefully across the expanse of wooden floor all alone. Once it reached the mattress it tirelessly made its way up the side. OH how I wish I had killed you then little scout ant.

“Truck.” With the sight of the plastic dump truck thoughts of the ant left him just as those of food vanished previously. We went to the truck and back to the play that had occupied us all day and would provide entertainment for many days more.

Slants of sunlight made their way across the floor to mark the passing of time. The day went quickly as all days do when you’re busy. Soon the sun was gone, hidden from the world until it was reborn the next day. Dusk had fallen and faded into night. There was no power, thus no lights. Night had come in all its glory. A whole new world awakened, the air was alive with the songs of crickets. Many children feared the night, but I embraced it. There were no monsters in the dark. I had a monster in my life, it was my father and he prowled the world in daylight.

My brother and I sat on the floor. He in my lap, with my arms wrapped around him, and listened to the crickets. After minutes or hours. I know not. Greggy’s head rested against my chest and his breathing was slow and heavy. I held him for a little while longer before I reluctantly roused him.

“Night, night?”

“Yes,” I told him and we both got up.

He made his way over to the bed and toppled onto it, sleep still heavy upon him. Within seconds he was back on his feet, all signs of slumber erased. I went to him to see what was wrong. Large crocodile tears stood out from his eyes. What had happened to make him cry? I would do anything to stop it. A trembling ginger pointed to where he had just lain. “Owwie.” I looked at the bed which was bathed in pale moonlight. There were ants all over it. Gretty had gotten bitten, that’s why he cried. My father had never raised his hand against him, even he could not strike something so sweet as my brother. So it may have been the first time he had ever been hurt.

I didn’t know what to do, I had to get my father. Even though he had not proven reliable, he was all I had. I never sought him out of my own accord for I feared him. But this wasn’t for me, this was for Greggy. So I made my way through nearly pitch black hallways until I got to my father’s room. I took a deep breath and fixed the memory of Greggy’s tears in my mind to strengthen my resolve. Emboldened I went in. My father paced the room like a caged animal. At my entrance he stopped and fixed me with a predatorial gaze. His fingers clasped and unclasped as if he was trying to see what they would feel like around my throat.

“This better be god boy.”

“Greggy’s hurt,” I blurted out.

Slowly, though I wanted to flee, I led him to my room.

“Mother fucker,” he yelled, then viciously kicked the pile of rocks he had stepped on. They rebounded with the sound of a buckshot. Rage simmered behind shadowed eyes. In one dismissive glance at my brother he said dangerously, “He’s fine.” I pointed at the bed, not willing to say anything that might cause his anger to boil over. But no words were necessary.

“Bugs? You got me for fucking bugs?!” He savagely backhanded me and I fell to the floor, the taste of copper in my mouth. Standing over me he screamed obscenities. I knew better than to get up. He wanted me to say down, wanted me to be dominated. “You’re fucking lucky you have a bed. I should make you sleep on the floor like a fucking animal. You better be in that bed next time I come in or else.” As he left he kicked the dump truck which crashed against the wall. “Fucking kid,” were the last words he said, then he was gone.

I should have known better than to get him, but I was young and naively hopeful. Feather light pats on my arm told of my brother’s coming. I looked at him and received a smile/ With it came the strange to carry on once more. Tightly I hugged him and swallowed the blood in my mouth. My father never threatened, he promised. So, we had to get on the bed. Carefully I explained my plan to Greggy. He nodded in understanding and I commenced.

As gingerly as I could I laid down on the stained mattress. I kept my back arched to try to avoid the horde beneath me. The squirming of the bugs below me was fine at first but as soon as I put my weight down and began to kill them their squirming became biting. I was used to pain, but only the kind that came with getting hit. It never occurred to me that there were other kinds of pain. A lesson I was now being taught. What started as a single flame of fire became an raging inferno that swept down my back as those that survived vented themselves upon my flesh.

Greggy crawled onto me and I wrapped him in my arms hoping to keep him above the conflagration. His tears told me that I failed, and maybe it was that knowledge or just his weight, but I weakened. My arch crumbled and I crashed onto the hapless insects. It was death for them and pain for me. I spoke softly to my brother and with all my love, but sometimes words are not enough. Night after night I would lay with my brother atop me clasped tightly and wedged against the wall so he would not fall onto the seething mass under me. He did not cry out but each of his tears that fell on me burned like molten lava, for I could not completely stop his pain. That was worse than the thousand points of fire along my back.

Now I did fear the dark, for there were a multitude of monsters in it that waited for my brother and I. I could not run, I could not hide. Every night I went and sacrificed myself in that stained altar for my sunshine.