Man of Straw
By Russell Nichols
I pissed my PJs when I saw that scarecrow.
It was the middle of the night and everybody was knocked out. Marcus, my big brother who died the week before last, had his door cracked. I heard him snoring under the hum of the refrigerator. The carpet creaked under my feet as I stepped into the dark living room. I wanted to turn back, but I had to pee so bad and Mama told me Jesus didn’t shed blood for bed-wetters.
I never made it past the living room. Because that’s where I saw it: that stuffed body in our front yard, grinning at me through the window, face colored black, egg shells for eyes and straw sticking out the top of his head. My scream came out the wrong hole, wet and warm, streaming down my flannel Captain America pants.
I ran back to my room.
“The hell you doing?” asked my brother, Nick, on the top bunk. My adopted brother.
I was fumbling in pitch blackness, trying to change, trying not to think about what I saw, but couldn’t shake the image: that face, those eyes, the straw.
“N-nothing,” was all I could get out.
Nick reached down to cut on the light, catching me in my soaked boxers. “Damn, man, again? Marcus got you shook?”
My throat felt like I swallowed chalk. Right then, Mama came in, a nervous wreck in a raggedy robe. “What’s the matter?!”
Before I could cover up Nick said: “Lionel peed on hisself again.”
Mama looked at me with that look of disgust a mom has when her ten-year-old boy can’t control his bladder and pee like a real man. But I was too afraid at the time to feel ashamed. When she realized I caught her look, she tried to cover it up by rubbing my shoulder (like that would help) and asking if I had a bad dream.
Nick said: “I think he scared Marcus might die again.”
Words still weren’t coming up, so I pointed out toward the living room. Mama frowned at Nick. He shrugged. I kept stabbing the air like I was pushing an invisible button for an out-of-order elevator till they got the hint.
In the living room, we faced the window, staring at the scarecrow who stared back at us.
“Who you think did this, Mom?” Nick asked.
“I don’t know.”
Without thinking, I asked: “You gonna c-call the police?”
Mama gave me the side eye like I just sneezed in church. She looked back at the cracked door where the snoring was coming from, then whispered: “Do not tell Marcus about this.”
“How come?” Nick asked.
Mama went into the garage for a second. She came back in holding a coat and a Hefty garbage bag and said: “Commandment Six.” Then went out the front door.
Me and Nick remained silent as we watched Mama yank that scarecrow up out the grass, rip it apart limb by limb and stuff everything into the black bag.
Nobody was supposed to know about my brother being home.
It was all lowkey, a top-secret operation Mama called “a gift from God Almighty wrapped by the government.” The procedure hadn’t always been private though. Nick told me there were twelve other transfers before Marcus. Nick had Googled everything he could find about the New Reconstruction program, but personally, I didn’t care about the background. I was just happy my big brother was back in the house and not dead anymore.
The day before his return, Mama sat me and Nick down in her room and gave us five new “commandments,” which she said we better commit to memory or so help her God:
1) Do not ask Marcus what it felt like to get shot by a cop.
2) Do not tell a soul including your friends about Marcus’ death.
3) Do not stare at Marcus. (“He’s not an alien or a ghost or a zombie, he’s your brother.”)
4) Do not startle Marcus.
5) Do not ask Marcus about his new body.
And now, this just in:
6) Do not tell Marcus about the scarecrow.
Mama said the first few weeks would be weird, but we had to act like everything was all to the good. But that morning, watching her bag up that scarecrow under the golden light from the lamppost, I knew right then it was all to the bad.
“You sleep?” I called up to Nick from the bottom bunk.
He groaned. “What you want?”
I got the sense he didn’t want to be bothered so I said: “Nothing.”
“We got the zoo tomorrow. Go to sleep.”
But I couldn’t sleep. That was the problem. How could anybody sleep at a time like this? I tried to picture sheep jumping over a white picket fence, but I was cold all over, feeling like that scarecrow was there in the darkness, right there over my bed, daring me to open my eyes.
“Nick,” I said, “you think Marcus will b-be hurt?”
Nick laughed. “Nah, bruh, he a soldier.”
True. That was one thing Marcus had I wish I had: fearlessness. I had everything else. Same brown color skin, same shape eyes, same crooked smile, even though he didn’t smile that much. People always said we looked just alike, except he had dreads and I had a big fro. He was also five years older and half-a-foot taller, but Mama said I’d pass him up one of these days. Unlike him, I was afraid of dying. I was terrified of the streets outside my window, where sirens rang out in dark and I just knew one of those police bullets had my name on it.
I pulled the cover over my head, trying to hide from my fear. But the scarecrow kept popping up, flashing on the back of my eyelids. I couldn’t breathe. Mama said whenever I had trouble breathing from a panic attack, I should call on Jesus. That never worked, but maybe I was doing it wrong. I called on him for weeks after Mama and Dad’s big fight and Dad got arrested. Jesus never answered. I don’t know. Maybe he was busy. Or sleep. Or he didn’t hear me.
Or maybe Jesus blocks calls from black boys.
Later that morning, Mama came rushing into the living room, fully dressed with her keys jangling. I was on the floor, playing Call of Duty on Xbox. Nick was on the couch, eating stale Corn Flakes, using his phone to upload sheep videos to his Feedme page.
Mama frowned at Marcus’ room where the door was still cracked. “He’s not up yet?”
I shook my head. “Where you going, Mama?”
“I, uh, I gotta run to the church to help with this shoe drive.”
Nick bolted up. “What? I thought we were hitting up the zoo.”
“I know, baby, but I forgot about this. Where’s my Bible?” She went into the kitchen, her heels clicking across the white tiles. Came back out, Bible in hand. “Next weekend, I promise.”
Didn’t bother me. I didn’t want to go to the zoo no way. Nick wanted to see the sheep. Ever since he did his report on Dolly, the sheep that got cloned, he’s been obsessed with them.
“See you boys later on, okay? Be good,” she said.
Then Nick blurted out: “Can Marcus take us today?”
Mama paused at the door, tapping her Bible like she does when she’s conflicted about something. She looked back at Marcus’ room, then raised her forefinger to us.
“You can ask him,” she said, “but if he says no, that means no, you hear me? Don’t go hassling him about it. And you better remember the commandments or so help me God. Especially the new one, understood?”
“Yes, ma’am,” we said.
Mama left. Nick raised his hands up, celebrating. I didn’t know what he was celebrating for. He didn’t even ask yet and I doubted Marcus would be down to go. He just came back to life. Why would he waste time taking us on some stupid fieldtrip?
“He won’t go,” I said.
“Shut up, pussy, you don’t know.”
“He’s my brother. I know him better than you.”
Nick laughed. “I’m a realer brother than you, nigga. All you know is how to piss yourself. Don’t think I ain’t hear you boo-hooing last night like a little—”
Right then, the door to Marcus’ room opened.
“Who crying?” Marcus said, stepping out in gray sweats and a v-neck T-shirt.
“Stutter boy over here,” Nick said.
Marcus went to the kitchen, dumped Corn Flakes into a bowl. “What you crying for?”
“He’s lying,” I said and shot Nick a look to shut up before he messed around and broke the new commandment.
“Yo Marcus,” Nick said, “what you getting into today?”
From the kitchen Marcus said: “Why?”
I kept my eyes on Call of Duty.
“I wanna go to the zoo,” Nick said. “Mom was finna take us, but she gone to church, so she said you could. If you free.”
“Were y’all up early this morning?” Marcus asked. “Thought I heard voices out here.”
“Nah, I was knocked out. Didn’t hear nothing,” Nick said, tapping me with his foot.
“Me neither,” I added.
Marcus came over to sit on the couch, munching on his cereal. He looked the exact same as before, but ever since he came home, I found myself looking to see if he had the same scars, the same moles. But I couldn’t look for long. That would be staring (see Commandment Three).
“What’s up at the zoo?” he asked.
I wondered how Nick would answer. He couldn’t say the sheep. If he did he’d have to explain Dolly, which would lead to cloning, which could lead to a question about new bodies (see Commandment Five). Nick had to be thinking what I was thinking because he said:
“It’s the grand opening for the cyberbird exhibit.”
I was so distracted by all this, I forgot I was in the middle of my campaign. On the TV, my character suddenly got blasted with enemy fire and I got scared, thinking Marcus was seeing this happen and having flashbacks, so I cut off the TV quick before I died.
The room fell silent.
“Aight.” Marcus yawned, stretching his arms. “I could use some fresh air in my life.”
Soon as we got to the Oakland Zoo, I knew it was a bad idea.
We had taken an autocab, the three of us, trying to get there early to beat the traffic, the heat and the crowds. But we lost to all three. By noon, the zoo was a zoo and with all that chaos, Marcus just seemed, what’s the word, overwhelmed? But he never let on. Didn’t say much of anything. He just stood there for the most part, watching mechanical blackbirds and bluebirds and Egyptian Geese soar all over that big glass bird house with no way out.
“Yo I didn’t know they still had sheep here,” Nick said later as we were passing the petting park even though I knew he knew. “I’m a go feed ‘em right quick.”
He ran to the fenced-off area. Marcus walked the other way to a bench away from people. I didn’t know if he wanted space, but I followed him anyway and sat down.
“Looks like they’re days are numbered too,” he said.
I looked at Marcus. He was always talking in code, even before the transfer. The words went over my head most of the time. He must’ve saw I was lost because he pointed to a holographic display: NEW BIONIC SHEEP COMING SOON!
I watched as Nick fed grass and straw to the real ones. “Where will the real sheep go?”
Marcus shrugged. “Extinct, most likely.”
He stared straight ahead with eyes that seemed empty. I looked away so he wouldn’t catch me seeing him, or trying to. I remember Nick talking about scientists in Italy who cloned something called a European mouflon, one of the smallest sheep in the world, an endangered species. I wanted to tell Marcus about that to cheer him up maybe, but didn’t want Mama whooping my ass for talking out of turn. Mama had a thing for sheep too.
“Jesus is the shepherd and we are his sheep,” she told me once.
“I’m no sheep,” I said.
“Child, it’s a met-a-phor.”
Then she sent me to my room to memorize Luke, chapter fifteen, verse four to six: Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.”
I thought the scripture was stupid. If I had a hundred sheep, why would I go after one who got lost? Wouldn’t be my fault his fluffy ass wandered off. And the other sheep wouldn’t care either. They’d be happy they had more food for themselves. That was the day I realized the Bible was full of manure. Unlike my big brother Marcus. He always kept it real. And I wanted to keep it real too, so I made up my mind to tell him about the scarecrow.
“This m-morning—” I started, but he cut me off with a question.
“You know what’s scarier than death?”
Scarier than death? What could be scarier than death? I waited and waited but he just stared off with those empty eyes, and we sat there, the two of us, listening the bleating sheep.
On the way home, a two-car collision on 580 forced the autocab to take a detour back to Richmond. But through Oakland, the stop-and-go street traffic made the driverless taxi overheat, breaking down on MacArthur Boulevard.
Marcus banged his fist against the dashboard. “Ya’ll stay there,” he told us, stepping out to check under the hood.
Two minutes later, a cop car rolled up. My heart, caged in my chest, started thrashing. I wasn’t there when Marcus got shot by that cop, so I could only imagine and that was terrifying.
“Should we get out?” Nick asked.
My body stopped functioning. Couldn’t see anything either because the hood was up, blocking my view. “He said ssstay here.”
I heard the cop. “Step away from the vehicle, sir.”
And I heard Marcus. “Hold on, man, hold on, I paid for this cab.”
Then the cop again. “Step away from the vehicle, sir.”
Through the passenger window, I saw Marcus step back, hands lifted up, like how Mama does during praise and worship. Still couldn’t see the cop though.
Marcus said: “Look, all I’m tryna do is get home.”
Then Nick opened the door.
“Wait—” I said, but he got out with his hands up, leaving me alone in the car.
I heard the cop asking: “Who else is in the cab?”
But I didn’t move. I couldn’t.
Marcus put one hand out to the invisible cop. “Here, scan me.”
“Don’t be stupid, boy. Put your hands up.”
Then it was silent. Then Marcus took a step forward, disappearing again behind the hood. I watched people walking by staring at him like he was a bad guy. But he wasn’t a bad guy, he was my big brother. And I had the worst feeling inside that I might lose him again.
But then I heard the cop say on his walkie: “Everything’s clear.”
He called another autocab for us and drove off without another word.
“What happened?” I asked once we were back on the road.
“He saw who I was,” Marcus said, gazing out the front window. “They gotta scan me if I say so. Part of the program.”
“So you get a pass?” Nick asked.
Marcus didn’t answer. I looked at Nick. I could tell he was thinking like I was thinking, that we better let it go for the sake of the commandments.
“Yo keep this between us, aight?” Marcus said.
“Bet,” Nick said.
“Aight,” I added, but as I watched the buildings go by I kept thinking about what happened and hating myself for being too scared to get out and help my big brother.
I wasn’t supposed to be here. In the world, I mean. Doctors said Mama couldn’t have another child after Marcus. But she and Dad wanted a second so they adopted Nick. Then three years later, out of the blue, I happened. The Undeniable Lionel, she called me. Used to tell me my origin story at night to calm me down after bad dreams. How I almost got choked out in her belly because the umbilical cord was wrapped twice around my neck and I couldn’t breathe.
“I don’t know how it happened,” she said, “but you made it out.”
“You were scared?” I asked.
“Was I scared? Child, I never been more scared in my life, tell the truth, but I called on Jesus and just like the Lord delivered me, the doctor delivered you. A gift from God Almighty.”
On my birthdays, family would come over to celebrate, bringing me gifts like a refurbished Xbox and my Captain America PJs. Two years ago, Mama stopped throwing “miracle parties” though, I guess, because she didn’t want Nick feeling left out.
Now I was feeling left out.
On Sunday after church, the whole family came out the woodwork to celebrate Marcus being back home. My big brother got a smartwatch and one of those LED shirts that flashed Now You See Me then Now You Don’t.
Me and Nick were sitting out front. I had my eyes on that spot in the grass where the scarecrow was. He was uploading sheep pictures to his Feedme page.
“Peep this one.” Nick showed me the pic he got of Marcus by the petting park mugging for the camera. Marcus told me smiling is a sign of weakness. But him looking so serious didn’t look right with all those sheep behind him.
“I g-got your caption,” I said.
“What you got?”
I was only joking, but he laughed and was like: “Bet.”
But I didn’t know Nick really posted it till that night. After the house was all cleared out and Marcus had gone to bed, Mama scolded us something crucial.
“What’s Commandment Two?” she whispered in the living room.
“Do not tell a soul about Marcus’ death,” we said.
“Do you know what a soul means?” she asked. “That means not people online.”
I raised my hand and said: “Mama, we didn’t think—”
“I know that’s right,” she said, “and all that non-thinking’s gonna get us in trouble!”
I shook my head. I wanted to tell her she was being paranoid for nothing. Straight up. Who would link Jesus’ resurrection with Marcus being a clone? Nobody.
I wanted to say that, but instead, without thinking, I said: “You told people.”
She popped me in the mouth. “Boy, don’t you get smart with me. I told family. Fam-i-ly.”
It got real quiet. I was done talking. The post was already deleted anyway, so I didn’t get why Mama was bugging out. I just wanted to go to sleep. And she was about to dismiss us, but Nick, for whatever reason, decided to open his stupid mouth.
“The caption was Lionel’s idea, Mom,” he said under his breath.
Mama glared at me and what I saw in her eyes was worse than anger or disgust or extreme disappointment. It was the look of regret a mom has when she wishes her baby had never been born. I wasn’t the miracle child anymore.
The next week was hell.
Mama hardly spoke to me. She was so focused on helping Marcus get his life together. But my brother was struggling. He didn’t want to go back to school, but couldn’t find a job to save his life. He applied to do yard work in Richmond and El Cerrito, and stock inventory at Lowe’s. He even called the zoo to see if they had any openings. But he got shot down. Time and again. Because word got out about him, who he was.
Was it my fault? Mama seemed to think so the way she was acting. All distant. He started changing too: not speaking, barely eating and, according to Mama, hanging out with folks he had no business hanging out with. I couldn’t talk to Nick about this. He did apologize for snitching, but I didn’t trust him still, so I kept it all bottled in.
That next Wednesday, late one night when I couldn’t sleep, I heard Marcus and Mama arguing through the wall:
“What’s your problem, son?”
“You putting all this pressure on me!”
“See this is why Spider killed himself.”
I remembered Spider. He was Marcus’ road dog. Used to come over all the time or they’d go out, play basketball or whatever. I knew he had signed up for the New Reconstruction program too, backing up his memories on the regular. But he didn’t get shot by the cops though. Spider shot himself. And Mama said suicides don’t get cloning privileges.
“No. Your friend killed himself because he was too scared to face reality.”
“He wasn’t scared of nothing! He was depressed like me!”
“Boy, you ain’t nobody’s depressed. You’re lazy is what you are. Moping round doing nothing with your life. God gave you a second chance and here you go blowing it. Do better.”
“What I’m supposed to do, huh?”
“How about a j-o-b?”
“Mom, ain’t nobody tryna hire me. They know what I am.”
“That’s a crap excuse and you know it. They can’t not hire you just ‘cause.”
“They say I’m not qualified, but they look at me like …”
“Like I’m a scarecrow. Like I’m stupid.”
“Are you stupid, son?”
“Are you stupid? Without a brain? Did your marbles get lost in the transfer?”
“Then quit acting like it.”
The house was all quiet after that. I didn’t move for a while, lying in the dark on the bottom bunk. Nick was asleep. I closed my eyes, tried counting sheep but I kept picturing bionic sheep with fake wool jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. All that splashing in my head made me have to pee. Badly. So I took a deep breath and crept out into the dark hallway.
The carpet creaked under my feet. The old fridge was humming in the kitchen. I felt my body shivering, but I wasn’t cold at all. And as I passed the living room window, I didn’t want to look and I knew I shouldn’t look, because if I looked, that would make it real: the image in my mind, the memory of that face, those eyes, the straw.
But I couldn’t help myself.
I looked and there it was, staring dead at me, only this time, he wasn’t alone. Behind that stuffed body was another body, a shadow hunched over, putting the scarecrow in place.
I didn’t think.
I didn’t think about whether he had a gat on him. Or a blade. Or fists bigger than my face. I just reacted out of instinct like a dummy and raced out front to catch whoever it was in the act. Charging at the shadow person and throwing my fists into whoever’s head was under the hoodie.
He pushed me off of him.
The sight of my big brother turned my feet to stone. “M-Marcus?”
He climbed to his feet, started coming toward me with a blank face.
Commandment Four. I startled him.
Was he high? Sleepwalking? Either way, he wasn’t looking like himself, but he kept walking, closing the gap between us. And I swear I was about to pee on myself, but I held it. Like I held my breath. Like I held everything else that wanted to scream inside me.
Marcus went past me to sit on the steps. I followed him and sat down too.
“I didn’t have nothing else to do.” He pointed to the scarecrow. “That’s how they see me. Might as well own it, know what I’m saying?”
“You will. One of these days.”
I wished I said yes. He was talking in code and I wanted him to know I understood him. Truth was, I didn’t understand him, but at least I was trying to.
“Marcus … what’s scarier than death?”
Everything got real still like God Almighty pressed pause on the whole world.
Right then my big brother broke down crying.
I only saw Marcus shed a tear once. At Spider’s funeral. And I didn’t care if I was violating Commandment Three, I did not turn away. I couldn’t because I blamed myself. If I never gave Nick that stupid caption for that stupid pic for his stupid Feedme page, Marcus would have a good job by now. He’d be living like a straight-up normal person instead of putting up scarecrows in the middle of the night. I felt guilty all over.
“This my fault.”
“That p-picture. With the sheep.”
He shook his head. “Picture, no picture, we was doomed from jump.”
“What you mean by that?”
“We the black sheep.”
The words made me feel a type of way on the inside, hurt but angry.
“I’m no sheep,” I said.
He put his hand on the back of my neck like Dad used to do. “You got a good head on your shoulders, bruh. Don’t ever lose that. Don’t be like me.”
Why would he say that? Like him was all I wanted to be.
Slowly he stood up, kissed my head. “Take care of the fam while I’m gone.”
“Hold up, where you g-going?”
He shrugged and as he walked off I heard his voice in my head, echoing from before, talking about the real sheep at the zoo: “Extinct, most likely.” And I sat there, watching my big brother till my eyes hurt, and I lost him in the shadows of the streets.
Mama cried for weeks. Nick got kicked out of school for whooping some white dude who said something about Marcus being fake. Every night I waited for my brother to come back. I didn’t cry though. I wanted to, but I held it. Obviously I couldn’t go to the police, but I had to do something. One night when I couldn’t sleep I asked myself what would Jesus do.
And I got my answer.
It was June, I remember, because Mama was doing another shoe drive for the Juneteenth Celebration in West Oakland. I acted like I was too sick to go to the fair with her and Nick. Mama said a prayer for God to heal me. Soon as they left, I crawled out of bed. Peeked in Marcus’ room. Everything was all in order. Like he was coming back any day. I believed he was, but I decided to make fliers to help, you know, speed things up. I didn’t tell Nick because he would’ve told Mama. And I wanted to surprise Mama, show her I was still a miracle child.
In the living room, I used Marcus’ old laptop with the cracked screen. First, I needed a picture. I thought about using the one of Marcus from Nick’s Feedme page, but that got us in enough trouble. Thought about using a picture of me since people always said we looked just alike. But that wouldn’t be smart either. Then I remembered what Marcus said to me that night:
“That’s how they see me. Might as well own it, know what I’m saying?”
On the page I centered a picture of a black scarecrow, a code I figured he’d understand, but just in case he didn’t I typed:
PLEASE COME HOME BROTHER
I printed out a hundred copies to post all over the neighborhood. I took a deep breath before going outside, trying not to think about what might happen to me on these streets.
My brother was lost and I had to find him.
So far, he hasn’t responded. But he will. One of these days. I know he will. You’ll see. He’s gonna come walking across the front yard and through the front door, and everything will go back to how it was before the clone, before the transfer, before the hospital, before he passed away after that cop tried to blow my brother’s brains out.
About the Author
Russell Nichols is a speculative fiction writer and endangered journalist. Raised in Richmond, California, he sold all his stuff in 2011 and now lives out of a backpack with his wife, vagabonding around the world. Find his work in Fiyah, Apex Magazine, Fireside Fiction, Strange Horizons, Nightmare Magazine’s POC Destroy Horror special issue and others.