My mother locked the door on us at eight-thirty. We weren’t allowed in until noon—for forty minutes for lunch—and then we were back out until five-thirty when my father got home. If we had to pee, we went in the bushes behind the shed.
Mostly, my brother and I swam and played around in the pool. We’d see who could drink more chlorinated pool water before throwing up. We’d beat each other with noodles until there were so many welts that it seemed we’d run through a cloud of angry hornets. We’d read from the pile of books my mother had left on the picnic table for us. Sometimes we threw the books at each other. Once, Dale, who was a year younger than me, got hit in the eye and it forced my mother to emerge from her crypt-like bedroom—the only place we had air conditioning—and take him to the doctor. He got to stay inside for a week.
It was August and we’d spent the entire morning in the pool. Our fingertips were pruned, but we began to sweat the moment we got out. I was standing by the side of the pool waiting for Dale to finish peeing—I could hear him spelling out his name and imagined that he was spelling it out on the plants, as well—when I saw a pair of slugs on the pool’s wall. I watched them slide along, bit by bit, leaving little milky trails behind that quickly dried in the sun. I’d never seen one before, though I had watched my father eat escargot once on a cruise ship and I knew they were vaguely related.
Dale finished up and came to stand next to me. I pointed.
“Look,” I said, “Slugs.”
“Let’s kill them,” he said.
Dale walked over to the shed, punched in the lock combination, and pulled the two barn-style doors open. He came out a moment later with a canister of Morton salt.
“Dad uses this whenever he sees slugs.”
I was older, but my father never taught me these things. He told me instead that I was soft. When he went to Home Depot, he took Dale. When he needed help raking, he asked Dale.
“Why?” I asked.
“It dries them up,” Dale said. “And makes them bubble.”
I’d learn words like desiccate and osmosis later on.
Dale opened the spout and shook the can at the slug. The salt hit like hail on the side of the pool. Most dropped to the ground, but some landed on the slugs. We waited. After a moment, Dale poured more salt in his hand, took a step closer, and threw the salt Spider-Man web-style at the lead slug, coating it. It began to bubble almost immediately, curling in on itself before extending and curling back again.
Dale let out a yip of delight. He threw salt on the other slug. Soon, the first had fallen to the ground. It continued to writhe in the grass. I hadn’t been around death before—I wouldn’t find out that our pet rabbit, Sasha, hadn’t actually been taken to a farm for another two years—and this was all new to me.
I wondered if the slugs were married. I wondered where they came from, where they were going. I couldn’t see their eyes and they didn’t make any sounds, but I wondered what they were thinking.
The other slug fell. Dale clapped, watching with wide eyes.
“Isn’t this great?” he asked.
I felt ill. They told us in school killing was wrong, and that’s exactly what this was. Killing wasn’t discussed with yard pests in mind, and at our age they didn’t talk about torture. They did talk about mercy, though.
I looked around and picked up a rock. They would still die, I thought, but they wouldn’t have to feel more pain. I brought the rock down on one slug, then the other. Over and over I pounded them into the dirt. They wouldn’t hurt anymore, I was saying to them in my head. Slug snot coated the edge of the rock. After a minute, I heard Dale yelling at me.
He’d backed up, like he did after I hit him with the book. I stood, rock in hand. He put his hands up. I looked from him to the rock, dropped it, and began to cry.