Two by Two

by H.L. Fullerton

“Marcus?” his caseworker said, her hands folded on Mama’s kitchen table. “Did something happen to your sneaker?”

Marcus looked down at his size thirteen feet—two shoes, one old, one new. “No ma’am.”

“Why don’t they match?” She didn’t understand that matches weren’t the same as pairs. Daddy never told her about arks.

“They’re opposites,” he said. Daddy explained it better because he had more words. That was okay. Marcus was better at pairing.

“Like your socks?”

One foot, two foot, red foot, blue foot. Marcus smiled and nodded. “You and me, we’re opposites, too.”

“I guess we are. Is your father still spending all his time at the hospital?”

“Mama got sick and Daddy took her to a place to get better.” He told her this every time.

“He hasn’t called me about your job placement. Can you remember the name of the place he took her, Marcus?”

Daddy wasn’t coming back, he’d made a—what was that church word Mama used?—a sacrifice.   But Marcus couldn’t tell the nice lady that. She wouldn’t let him stay by himself. “I cleaned the kitchen,” he said. Marcus kept the house the way Mama did, before she caught the cancer. When he forgot what to do, he checked the notes Mama made to help him remember.

“And you did a good job.” She scribbled on a piece of paper. This lady liked making notes, too, but they weren’t helpful like Mama’s. “I’m going to leave this for your father. When he comes home, you’ll tell him I stopped by?”

He nodded and she left. He hoped she wouldn’t become a trouble because he was running out of blessings and Daddy never told him what to do if that happened.

Marcus missed Mama. She was a blessing, one of his best. He and Daddy wanted to put her sickness in the box, but Mama wouldn’t give up one of her blessings. “I’ll pray to Jesus,” she said and, “God never gives you more trouble than you can manage.” Which made Marcus feel bad about the things he put in the box.

Mama called it the Lucifer box. Daddy said Mama had the religion wrong. “It’s an ark of Ma’at. While other men built pyramids, our family built arks.” Mama said Daddy was a pagan in need of a repentance.

Marcus thought Ma’at’s ark must be like Noah’s. Animals go marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah. He marched and sang until his parents took him to the Bronx Zoo to see the animals. The zoo wasn’t anything like Noah’s Ark. No boat, and the animals weren’t in pairs. But Daddy said, “Not all arks are boats. Some arks are about balance.” Then he and Marcus played the opposites game. Happy and sad. Black and white. Zebra and peacock. Lion and bat. Marcus was better at the game now. He knew that zebras paired with tortoises.

Their ark was red. It was not a boat, but was made of wood. It looked like a box, but it acted different. In feet, it was two by two by two, but nothing ever filled it up. It was old; its paint flaked off. When Marcus was five, he put toys in it and Daddy yelled at him. Marcus cried and Daddy said his toys were gone for good. He said Marcus couldn’t play in the temple-room no more and put a lock on the box, but the box ate the lock. Marcus wrote a story about a lock-eating box when he was eight and got an A.

After the lady left, Marcus found a cat by the mailboxes. It was dark brown with caramel swirls, like his favorite candy. He liked dogs better. They were friendly and good listeners. So was he. A cat would be his opposite, maybe even a new blessing.

He named her Snickers and brought her inside. Snickers liked him better after he made them dinner. He told her not to scratch up Mama’s sofa. Cat didn’t listen.

The case lady came by again with her questions, but Marcus was more worried about the bills that kept coming. Mama never told him how to pay them. Bills made Mama and Daddy fight, especially ones from doctors. He checked all his lists, checked them twice, but no notes about bills and Marcus couldn’t find the ark no matter how many doors he opened. Maybe it didn’t want bills. Maybe it was playing hide-n-seek.

First time Marcus used the box, it stole his toys. Second time, he made a pair: his favorite t-shirt that Shawn Dawkins tore and Ashanti’s hair ribbon. Ashanti said she was his girlfriend. Mama said he was too little for that yet, so he gave her up. You take the good, you take the bad, you put them in for the box to have. And Shawn Dawkins never bothered you again.

Another time, Marcus got an F on his algebra test. He paired that with his A story to make the bad grades go away forever. Marcus hadn’t been the same since.

Marcus opened the kitchen door, found the box. Ark sat dead center on Mama’s table, half a plastic tarp hanging out of it. Box smelled bad. It was gouged and stained. Maybe his last pair hadn’t balanced right. Maybe arks didn’t like giftwrap.

Cat batted an empty soda can off the counter, making sticky trails. Marcus took it away and Snickers leapt on the table. Marcus grabbed her. He needed a blessing and Cat didn’t go with bills. “Box ain’t for playing,” he said. “Might eat you up and burp you out.”

He lifted the lid and pulled out the tarp. Empty—no toys, no ribbon, no essay—no Daddy. Marcus shouldn’t have put Mama and Daddy in the box. It made the case lady and the bills come—more trouble, not less.

Snickers jumped in. “Get out,” Marcus yelled. One cat had no balance. Every trouble needed a blessing; every blessing required its opposite trouble. Two by two, had to be, and no take backs. Box’s rules.

Snickers, his pair!, curled up in a corner. No, no! Now Marcus had to make things right. Stupid cat.

He left the top open.

When the case lady visited next, he asked her to find his cat.

Notes …

H.L. Fullerton writes fiction—mostly speculative, occasionally about monsters—which is sometimes
published in places like Buzzy, Freeze Frame Fiction, and Daily Science Fiction.

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