by Ben Shapiro
Another Liberty Island Preview! “What’s Fair?” is a chilling crime pulp from Ben Shapiro.
I’ve always thought of myself as a fair man.
That’s all I ever wanted: what was fair. When the plowing was done, and when it was time for supper, all I wanted was the same as what everybody else got. Not more, not less. Fair’s fair, I always say.
I remember a time when I was a kid that Dad gave me and Jim Christmas presents. He gave Jim a wristwatch and he gave me a hunting knife. Boy, was Jim taken with that wristwatch. He’d wear it around every day, rain or shine, always careful to keep it clean, to keep it wound. If he scuffed it up, he’d buff that scuff right out – he’d spend hours with a handkerchief, spitting on it and rubbing it, spitting on it and wiping it until it looked brand new.
I didn’t really like my hunting knife. I wasn’t big like Jim then — it wasn’t until later that I hit my growth spurt. But Dad kept after me to try it out, and I wanted so bad to please him, so I headed out to the woods to see if I could catch something. Sure enough, I found me a rabbit. When I pounced for him, though, he was faster than I was, and he skittered away like his tail was on fire.
But I wanted to show Dad that I knew what to do with a knife. So I chased him and chased him – and I finally cornered that old rabbit in a rocky little dead end. He’d move to his left, and I’d move to my right to cut him off. He’d move to his right, and I’d jump with him. But he was too smart for me: he charge straight at me, and before I knew it, he’d gone right between my legs, like that ball Buckner missed in the ’86 Series.
Well, I turned around and there was that rabbit, sitting there, staring at me, like he was laughing. And I got so mad that I took that hunting knife and I threw it at him, like James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven. Just about took his head off, but that rabbit moved like lightning. He was gone. And I heard a plunk from a creek that ran through the woods. The knife was gone, too.
When I got back home that night, I was too embarrassed to tell Dad what happened to that knife. But the next morning, when Jim got up, he found that his watch was dented. He couldn’t buff that out.
I met Em – Emily, that is – when I was in high school. She was about the cutest thing you’ve ever seen: strawberry blond with a knockout body and a button nose. Blue eyes, too. Like a miniature Britney Spears. She was on the cheerleading team. By then, I’d hit that growth spurt I mentioned, and I was a big, burly kid, the fullback on the team. I was barreling kids over – I mean steamrolling them – and coach said I was a sure thing for all-state.
The minute I laid eyes on Em, I knew she was the girl for me. I knew she liked me too, you see. She wasn’t the first girl I’d ever gone out with – when you’re the star fullback on your high school football team in a small town like Jefferson, there are plenty of girls after you, looking for something to tell their daughters about twenty years from now. But Em was something special. When I was on the field, she’d cheer and she’d look at me, and I felt like I was playing just for her.
One night, after the game, me and Em got to talking. Don’t ask me what we talked about – I wouldn’t know. Probably the game, or her classes, or some other such nonsense. And by the time we looked around, the sun had gone down and it was late. She looked up at me with those big eyes, through her eyelashes – I could see she’d combed them special for me – and she asked me to walk her home. Of course, being no fool, I said sure.\
She lived in a nice area of town, and I lived near the fields, so we had to walk past my house to get to hers. As we walked by, I pointed at our house. I have to admit, I had some guilty thoughts about Em, and I knew that Dad and Mom weren’t home.
My guess was right – she wasn’t shy, either. She batted those eyelashes and told me she’d love to see the house. Could I show her around?
She didn’t have to ask me twice.
We walked up to the door and I took her in my arms.
And that’s when Jim opened the door. He was back from State, where he was studying agricultural engineering, and he looked at me, laughing with his eyes, and said, “Hey, brother. I’m home.”
When I turned back to introduce Em, she was looking at him. They were married six months later.
The next summer, Dad died in an accident. Mom was walking around like a ghost, and the farm was going to ruin. Jim and Em, who were off living near State, came home to help take care of Mom and the farm. Dad had left him in charge, since he was the first born.
Jim and Em moved into the house with us. The farm was still workable, and Jim figured that he could save up enough money to buy some machinery. Jim took over the master bedroom with Em, and Mom moved into Jim’s old room. I stayed where I’d always been.
It was pretty terrible to be around the house, what with Mom haunting it, so I spent most of my extra time in the weight room at school, bulking up for the season. I didn’t like to be near her. It made me feel depressed inside. I was a senior, and I was getting invited to all the best parties, anyway.
One night, Jim and Em asked if I could take care of Mom for a while so they could go out and grab dinner. I said sure.
I was downstairs watching TV when I saw the water dripping through the ceiling. It turns out that Mom was in the bathtub, her head under the water, not breathing. I’d learned some basic mouth-to-mouth, and I was able to get her breathing again, but she was never the same after that. Now Jim and Em and I had to help her get to the bathroom, shower herself, feed herself.
And that fall, I blew out my knee in the second game. There went the scholarship offer to State. I bawled like a baby – not because it hurt, but because it just wasn’t right. I was so close to that scholarship I could taste it.
Em was like a saint. She took care of Mom and me, and she made sure we got what we needed. Jim worked the farm, and he’d come back at night, and Em would have dinner all ready for him.
Pretty soon, I was able to get around on my own – I’d never be able to run again, but I could at least help out. Jim used me mostly for field work, and he handled the sales and the accounting and the marketing and whatever the hell else needed to be handled. I thought it was pretty cush of him to sit there in the air-conditioned office and make the decisions while I sweated, but there wasn’t much I could do to complain – he’d been to college. He knew his stuff.
We got along like that for a few years. Things hummed along, or I guess moseyed along is more like it. Until Jim had his idea.
It struck him one day while he was taking a look at the wheat crop. That night, at dinner, we couldn’t stop him from running on at the mouth.
“Em, Tommy, you won’t believe this,” he said.
“Hold on, Jimmy,” said Em, “Mom’s drooling.” She wiped at Mom’s mouth while Jim babbled on to her. He never was good at listening.
“… the plow is just not aerating the ground, baby.” He whipped out a piece of sod from his pocket.
“Jimmy, take that dirt away from the table,” said Em.
“Look at how dense it is. Look how there isn’t any oxygen getting in there. What if there was a plow that was even finer about aerating the ground? My God, we could feed the entire world with machinery like this. Make grain cheap as dirt!”
He started diagramming charts at the table. My head was spinning, and I wasn’t paying attention. I don’t think Em was, either. She was wiping at Mom’s mouth. And I have to admit, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
I’d never seen Jim so excited. He wasn’t the excitable type, you understand. He got straight A’s through school. He was always teacher’s pet. Everybody knew he’d go to college and make a name for himself. And Jim knew it, too.
Ever since he came back to the farm, he’d been in a funk. Like farming was too low for him. I always think that’s why he holed up in the office and let me do the grunt work.
But now he was excited again, the energy coming off him like the buzz in the air after a lightning strike. He was drawing diagrams, and he was grabbing Em around the waist and singing little songs to her, and he was even holding up those drawings so Mom could see, even though she wasn’t really seeing anything.
Then he came around and gave me a hug around the neck. It was the first time he’d hugged me since we were in elementary school together.
“Tommy,” he said, “we’re gonna be rich.”
As much time as he had spent in the office, he was now spending it in the barn, messing with our mechanical plow. Every time I’d go in there, he’d be underneath the thing, a hammer or a wrench in his hand, bashing away at the thing, tightening something here, screwing something there.
The finances went to the dogs. One time I signed a check at the grocery and we were overdrawn. Another time, the mortgage man came down the road and asked if we needed more time on the payment. We didn’t – Jim had just forgotten to pay him. Even Em was getting worried about his absentmindedness.
And with Jim out of control, things spun out of control. Soon Em was having to take care of the finances, which meant that I was having to take care of Mom. And I was still working the fields. Meanwhile, Jim was obsessed with that machine.
One day, it was hot as blazes outside – so hot that the sweat would dry on your forehead and then break out again until you felt like you didn’t have any moisture at all left inside you. I was out in the fields, as usual. And Jim was in the barn, cool as a cucumber. He’d even brought a little unit air conditioner out there with him. “I need to keep my head clear,” he’d told Em.
The heat was so soggy that the waves were coming up off the ground, like gas out of an oven. I stopped for a moment to wipe off my forehead. That’s when I looked up at the house.
It was burning.
I hollered at the top of my lungs for Jim to get in there and find out what the hell was going on. Jim didn’t answer. I hollered again. Silence from the barn.
My first thought was that a fuse must have busted in the house. But when I sprinted toward the house, I could see that the smoke was coming from inside the house. From Jim’s old room. Mom’s room.
I busted into the house like I was breaking through a defensive line, and rammed my way upstairs. There was Mom, in the bed, and her sheet was on fire. “Jimmy!” I hollered. But it was Em who came to help me. She rushed in with a bucket of water and doused Mom and the bed. I grabbed an old dress and started whacking away at the fire. Pretty soon, between the two of us, we’d put it out.
I sat there panting for a minute. Mom was sitting there, holding a box of matches and crying. She didn’t know what she was doing.
And I started to get mad.
I ran down the stairs. Em called after me, but I didn’t care. I went outside and headed for the barn.
Sure enough, Jim was under that plow again. I stood there for a minute. Then two. It must have taken the bastard five solid minutes to notice me. When he did, he got out from under the plow, stood up, gave a kind of little smile, and asked what was wrong.
And I knocked him flat on his ass.
“Listen, Jim,” I said to him, “you’ve been having it your own way all this time. But some things are gonna change. You’ve been king of this place for our whole life, but I’ve had enough of it. I want my piece.”
He looked at me and I could see he really didn’t understand what was going on. Here was this smart guy, and all the sudden he was playing stupid. I started to holler again. “I’m out there, busting my hump to bring in the bread, and you’re sitting here underneath this damn machine all day long, tinkering with nothing.”
I could see Jim was starting to get mad. It took a lot to get Jim mad. He’d look distant behind his eyes, somehow, like he was hiding behind a wall. His eyes would go kind of cold, and his fists would clench and unclench. He stood up and stared at me. The vein in his forehead was popping out.
“Tommy,” he said, “you don’t do anything of importance around here. You think I need you to run this place? I could hire a field hand for one quarter the price. I’m doing it out of charity for you. You’ve never held down a real job. You’re still going on and on about your days back in high school. Nobody cares anymore.
“I produce.” The spark in his eyes was beginning to return. I knew this meant he was especially mad. “You aren’t worth anything. You’ve got no education. You’ve got no prospects. You know what Dad told me before I left for school? He said, ‘Look after Tommy if anything happens, Jimmy. He can’t take care of himself.’ So what do you think I’ve been doing?”
I started to talk but he gave me a look that said I’d better shut my mouth. He kept going. “You know what I’ve been doing in this barn all this time? Trying to make something for myself and for Em, sure. But mostly, I’ve been trying to take care of you. Still. Even though you’re sullen, and you’re lazy, and you’re ungrateful, and you think somehow I’ve cheated you. Even though I spent years helping you with your homework, teaching you the rules of football – hell, I even got that man from State to come see you play. When this thing makes us a million bucks, I’m planning on sending you to college. So you can make something of yourself. But if you want to leave, you pick up and you get the hell out.”
He pointed at the door. I left. When I looked back, he was under that plow again.
About a week later, I heard something stir in the house in the middle of the night. I figured that maybe it was Mom, so I slipped on my pants and stepped into the hallway. Mom’s light was out, but the light from downstairs, the kitchen, was on. I could hear Jimmy snoring in the other room. It rattled the door to his room a little.
I tip-toed downstairs. As I got closer to the kitchen, I could hear the sniffling. I nudged open the door, and sure enough, Em was sitting at the table with her head in her hands.
I sat down next to her and asked her what was wrong.
“I didn’t want any of this,” she said. Her snot was dripping a little, but she looked as beautiful as ever. She was wearing her robe, and it was open just a little at the top. I could see her breathing.
“Any of what?” I asked.
“This,” she said. “I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to have to take care of Mom, or be a farmer’s wife, or watch my man start to lose his mind from being pent up in this little cage of a town.”
She looked so beautiful with the tears in her eyes, dripping down her face. I reached over and wiped them off with my big meaty hand.
“Do you remember when I first brought you here?” I asked her.
“Of course,” she said. “That’s when I first met Jimmy.”
I stumbled for the right words. “You know, I had a crush on you. Do you remember we almost …”
A frightened look crossed her face. “No,” she finally answered. “I liked you a lot, Tommy. But never like that.”
That struck me hard. “Sure you did,” I said. “If Jimmy hadn’t been home –”
“I liked you a lot, Tommy,” she said again. “But I liked a lot of guys. It was different with Jimmy.”
I put my hand out and touched her arm. It didn’t make any sense. But she pulled away.
I got up and walked out of the house. Then I ran.
I found myself in the woods. It was dark, all right, but I’d been in those woods many times, so I could see. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Maybe I just needed to clear my head. The woods had grown over since I was a kid, and I stumbled on some tree roots, scraped up my arms pretty bad, cursed my own stupidity. How could I have said that to Em? Humiliated myself like that?
And how could she say that to me? She knew she was lying to me, and to herself. I remembered holding her in my arms. And I remembered Jimmy’s smiling, smart face. And her eyes turning up to meet his.
The cold water rushing through my boots brought me back to reality. I’d walked right into the creek, and my feet were soaked. I’d be sloshing my way back home tonight, I thought.
Then I saw it, glinting there beneath a rock. It was like the movies – a beam of moonlight was hitting it just right. My hunting knife.
I took it as an omen.
It wasn’t two days before Jimmy came running into the house around dinnertime. Everything had been awkward in the house between me and Em, but I’m not sure Jimmy had noticed anything. Now, he came rushing into the kitchen. His hands were covered in grease.
“It works,” he whispered. “It works!”
He reached out and grabbed Em and whirled her around like a pinwheel. Her skirt flew up a little, and I looked away.
He looked at me, too, and his eyes were bright. “Tommy,” he said, “I want to show you this.”
Em looked confused, but Jimmy grabbed me by the arm. “Come on, kid,” he said. “This is our fortune.”
He led me to the barn. He stood next to the machine. “Now, Tommy, I want you to look really closely. Watch what I do. We’re gonna have to sell these up and down the country, and I’m gonna need your help. You can be my sales deputy – people like you, and people around here remember when you were scoring touchdowns.”
He leaned over and pushed a red button. “You hit this button,” he said. “And that gets the motor going. Now, look underneath.” I squatted, and I saw a whole new-fangled blade system underneath the plow. It was jumping and shaking in a queer way. “That aerates the soil better. You don’t have to know how it works – you just have to know that it does.”
He hopped over to me like a jackrabbit and grabbed me by the arms. “Kiddo, we’re all set, from here to the Flood! You’re a junior partner in the firm – and we’re headed right to the top!” His smile was infectious. I could feel myself smiling, too.
And then the knife was up under his ribs. He looked so confused. For a minute, I was confused, too. Then the blood started to gurgle from his mouth, and I pushed him back, and the machine was still bucking and shaking, and his legs went out from under him, and before he could say or do anything, my foot came out from under me and kicked him in the ribs, and he grunted, and he rolled under that machine he loved, and the ground was covered with his blood. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t scream. But Em did when I came in the house, covered with his blood.
After the funeral, the police came to see me, but there was nothing to say about it. He’d been mashed up by that machine, so there was no evidence. They just said it was tough for me to go through this, now that I was responsible for Mom and Em, and asked what I would do. And I told them that it was okay – I had a way to take care of things.
That afternoon, I drove over to the big agricultural machinery store to see the boss, Mr. Ebsen. I told him about our new specially-aerating mechanical plow, and showed him some of Jimmy’s papers from his desk. His eyes lit up. He asked if he could come out and see it. I told him I’d give him a ride.
When we got to the barn, I didn’t even hesitate. It was quiet in there, which I wasn’t used to, but I knew that my fortune was lying inside. And I knew that all I needed to do was to hit the little red button.
“Now, watch if you please, sir, Mr. Ebsen,” I said, in my best fancy voice. “You are about to see the machine that will revolutionize American agriculture.”
And I hit the button.
And nothing happened.
I could feel the sweat start up under my collar.
“Hold on, Mr. Ebsen,” I said. I got down on my hands and knees, and I crawled underneath the machine that had killed my brother. It was still rust-colored from his blood. I hadn’t cleaned it off yet.
I don’t know what Jimmy had done under there, but it didn’t look like any normal plow. It was totally changed. So I hit it a couple times with a wrench, then got out and smiled. “Let me try again, Mr. Ebsen,” I said.
I hit the button again. And again, nothing happened.
Mr. Ebsen looked at me and shrugged. “Well,” he said, “when you get it working again, come and let me know. I think we can do business together.” He walked toward the door. “And sorry about your brother. He was a genius with those things.”
Then he was gone.
I walked back to the house. It was empty, except for Mom. Em was gone, too.
And I’ll tell you right now, it wasn’t fair. None of it. I just didn’t have the breaks Jimmy had. I wasn’t born smart like him. I didn’t get the education. I didn’t get the luck or the girl.
Ben Shapiro is Liberty Island’s West Coast Editor
So now, I’m sitting here, messing with this damn contraption. And I’ve got Jimmy’s rusty blood on my hands. And Mom’s in the house, waiting for me. And the house is awful quiet.