It’s a Phase

Kevin Sterne

Contest Winner

My nephew takes pictures of dead animals with a disposable camera. My sister said this might be an issue when she asked me to watch him for the weekend.

      “It’s a phase,” she tells me. “Mark and I think he got it off the TV. Just don’t let him watch anything on the Syfy channel.”

      “Does he touch the carcasses?” I ask. This is my first time doing this: caring for and protecting a small human. “Should I be having him wash his hands?

      My sister looks at me like I am the disappointment that I am. “No and yes.”

      I’m an absolute last resort in her book, but when four babysitters, Mark’s mother, and the dog walker cancelled she asked me to watch him while she and Mark go away to Divine Duet Oasis—a couple’s retreat and spa—to “detox.”

     “So Mark’s been hitting the sauce again?”

      She tucks her bottom lip under her top teeth. I’ve been her brother long enough to know there’s something she’s not telling me. “It’s not like that.”

      “There’s a difference between an alcoholic and a functioning alcoholic.”

      “You would know.”

      “You’ve met Jerry before.”


      She expects me to screw up, and even makes a point of showing me the survival-grade first aid kit she’s tucked in the boy’s backpack.

      “For when you need it.”

     “You mean in case we need it.”

      “No, I mean when you need it.”

      Before she leaves she kisses the boy on the cheek and gives him a wad of twenty-dollar bills.

      “Have your uncle take you to dinner,” she tells both of us. “And no friends over. By friends I mean Jerry.”

      “Why don’t you give me the money?”

     “Because I know you’ll spend it on drugs.”

      She’s not wrong. She is paying me to watch the boy, but she only gave me half up front. I guess to ensure I keep him alive. That’s my sister for you. The boy and I watch her slide into her Mazda and zoom off.

      The boy is brown-haired and straight-standing. He rarely talks, and when he does it’s in pointed, accusatory statements.

      “You buy drugs. What kind of drugs do you buy?”

      “The best kind,” I tell him. “Now go play. I have a lot of work to do.”

      That part wasn’t a lie. I’m filing my quarterly taxes, which, as a small business owner, is mostly me sifting through soggy receipts and notes written on napkins while the boy wanders the woods behind my apartment. I write off half my condo as a home office, bundle my $600 in parking tickets under “vehicle expenses,” and explain away nearly every grocery store trip as a “business meal” while taking breaks to smoke a joint and peek out the window. My nephew is still alive. I have a bag of mushrooms that I’ve committed to not eating the whole weekend. I think my sister would be proud.


Not two hours go by before he’s back in the house.

      “What is it? Do you need water? How often are they feeding you?”

      The boy tells me my neighbor yelled at him for walking in her backyard.

      “She told me to get the hell out of her section of woods because I’ll scare the Sasquatch.”

      “Don’t curse,” I tell him.

      “Fine. She told me to get the bleep out of her bleeping section of the bleepity-bleep bleeping woods.”

      I put my head in my hands. My neighbor Angela is a bit loony-toons. She has this idea in her head that there’s a Bigfoot roaming the woods behind our properties. I look at my computer screen. I’m going to owe the IRS a lot of money if I don’t get serious about fudging these numbers.

      “I’ll talk to her. You just keep doing whatever you were doing. And wash your hands.”

      Angela and I used to get along. When I first moved in, we’d wave and say “hi,” and ask each other how it was going. She baked me a tray of her gooey butter cake and I brought over left-over pizza. But a few months ago, I got really drunk and peed in her window well because I thought it was mine. Common mistake. She caught me because it was around 2 p.m. on a Saturday and chased me back into my house with her riding lawn mower. I tried to explain that I was taking a nap and must have been sleepwalking. And sleep peeing. But she wasn’t buying it. We haven’t been on the best of terms since.

      Outside, Angela is trimming her hedges with big cartoonish shears. She’s wearing a leopard-print shirt, skin-tight leather pants, and thick, red lipstick. She always does this: gets all dolled up to work in her yard. I wonder which neighbor she’s trying to impress today. One day I’ll make an elaborate spreadsheet of all her potential romantic interests. But not today.

      “Angela,” I say. I’m too afraid of her to make eye contact, so I talk to the patch of grass in front of her.

      “You keep that boy out of my section of woods. I don’t want him spooking the Sasquatch.”

      She snaps the big shears with vim and vigor, her taut and wiry forearms glistening in the afternoon sun, and I can’t help but imagine it’s my head she’s thinking of every time she squeezes the shears together.

      “He’s only here until tomorrow, Angela, he isn’t bothering nothing.”

      “I don’t want him stepping in the fox traps.” She says this softer, more concerned than angry.

      I nod my head at the ground. The last thing I need is the boy walking with a fox trap clamped to his foot.

      “Once you catch something,” she tells me. “Those things are hard to reset.”

      I tell the boy to stay on my side of the woods, and that seems to satisfy Angela because she heads back inside. I wave two middle fingers at her back. The boy giggles at this and I feel good suddenly, having earned the boy’s approval.


I find some spark of creative energy and bundle all my illicit drug purchases under “health expenses,” which isn’t untrue; back in the fall I ate a bunch of mushrooms and cleaned a hot tub for four hours.

      Time to celebrate.

      I sit in the backyard and smoke a joint while the kid wanders in the woods like Bigfoot. I’m pretty high when he emerges from behind the boxwoods and scares the bleep out of me.

      “How much is my mom paying you to watch me?” The boy says this like I’ve committed a crime.

      “$300 for the weekend,” I answer truthfully. “Which I could really use.”

      The boy nods and stares at me. Then he pulls out the wad of twenties my sister gave him.

      “I’m hungry.”

      “Goddamn,” I say, “me too.”

      We’re about to leave when suddenly, in one of the oaks, a red-tailed hawk and a squirrel start going at it on the top branch. They’re really duking it out, too: the hawk flapping and screeching, the squirrel clawing and squeaking. I clap my hands hard together and yell, “Hey, be friends. Break it up.” But this doesn’t do anything, so I find a medium-sized landscape rock in Angela’s yard and lob it up at them. The rock doesn’t come close. I take the boy’s disposable camera and chuck it, this time a bit closer, and scare the hawk away but hit the squirrel in the head. I apparently hit it just right because it falls to the ground without a sound and doesn’t move. The boy and I go and stand over it. It’s super dead.

      “Don’t tell your mom about this.”

      The boy snaps a picture of the dead squirrel with the camera that just killed it.


We drive to Applebee’s. I drive. The neon apple welcomes us like moths to a lamp. Shockingly, the place is nearly vacant. We’re seated immediately.

      “Get whatever you want,” I tell the boy. “We’ll eat like kings.”


      “That’s what I’m doing.”

      I order steak with a side of chicken and request a bowl of French onion soup be poured over all of it.

      The boy orders an old-fashioned doughnut with cheese curds and a side of bacon.

      I also tell the waitress it’s both of our birthdays. She doesn’t even ask to see any proof, just brings out one of those skillet cookies with a sparkler candle stuck in the middle. No one sings to us and I am happy.

      The meal is mediocre but we scarf it all down without hardly speaking. We make primitive grunts as we mash our food. At some point in the middle of it all the boy stops and smiles at me.

      “This is great,” he tells me. “My mom would never let me do this.”

      If there’s a definition of happiness, it’s this right here.

      “If I were your mother I’d raise you differently.” And I imagine, briefly, our life together: me waking up responsibly every morning, not hungover, frying eggs on the electric stove; sending him off to school with a sack lunch of mostly Chips Ahoy! cookies, which he could trade for better food; taking him to his baseball games and harassing the umpire; giving the sex talk.

      I wait patiently for the boy to say I wish you were my mother, or I wish Mark would die, or something as heartfelt, but he just does this half smile without opening his mouth and dunks a chunk of his doughnut in my soup.

      I’ll take what I can get.

      We keep eating. We eat until we can’t eat any more. Then we eat until the plates are thoroughly cleaned. The boy pays the bill while I pick at my teeth with one of those fancy toothpicks and show him how to calculate a 20 percent tip.

      “Your mom’s a cheap bleep but I’ve worked these kinds of jobs. This is people’s livelihood.”

      The boy just looks at me blankly and I take this as him understanding me.

      On the drive home I pull over and we both throw up by the railroad tracks.

      “I’m so proud,” I tell him between hucks. “I’m not even drunk.”


I start a pit fire in the backyard and sit with my bottle of Jim and my joint while the boy wanders the woods with my headlamp and his camera.

      “Remember to use the flash,” I call to the boy.

      “Stop yelling.” Angela emerges from behind her hedge, decked out in camo. She nearly scares the bleep out of me.

      “It’s a full moon,” she tells me. “The Sasqui are most active during a full moon.”

      I just nod and take a long drag from my joint. Angela heads into the woods to spend the night in her deer stand. It occurs to me that she is batshit crazy.

      I watch her disappear into the brush and feel my business/personal/burner phone vibrating in my pants. It’s a flip and built like the piece of shit I am; the caller ID screen is broken, the antennae is missing, and calls always break up on the other line. But I always answer the calls. Business never sleeps, except in the off-season, and I need the money, especially when it’s the off-season.

      “This is Desperate House Guy: Handyman For Hire.”

      “It’s me.”


      “Your sister. How’s he doing?”


      “My son. Your nephew. Have you used the first aid kit yet?”

      “He’s fine. We just got back from dinner. Did some real bonding. We’re having the time of our lives.”

      I yell to the boy, who is pushing a massive branch into the fire. “Come tell your mother how much fun you’re having!”

      The boy shakes his head as the branch catches fire. The flames spit and lick their way up the gnarled wood.

      I tell my sister her son is busy. He’s writing what looks like the word BLEEP in the air with part of the burning branch. The smoke outlines words in the air like a plane’s exhaust or a child’s crude handwriting.

      “By the way, how’s Mark? Does he have the shakes yet? Best not to go near him. Leave the bathroom door unlocked. Maybe fill the tub with water. Let him sweat it out.”

      I can hear her sigh on the other line and I imagine she’s doing that lip tuck thing. “Listen, I think we’re getting a divorce,” she says. “Mark and me.”

      I let the crackling fire fill the silence. My sister is crying on the other line. Maybe I’m a worse person than I let on. But I don’t feel sorry for her. She’s disapproved of nearly every lifestyle choice I’ve made in the past 15 years. Her husband—I guess soon to be former husband— a small business lawyer, hasn’t once offered me even a shred of pro bono advice. The both of them lead miserable lives. It’s the boy I feel sorry for.

      Maybe if I were a better person I’d have something more supportive to say to her than, “I hope this is the best thing for the boy.” But that’s what I say.

      Eventually we hang up and I tell the boy his mother and father miss him a lot. I grab a flaming branch of my own and write the word divorce in the air but it just appears as a jumble of smoke.


That night I dream I wander into the woods to spook Angela, sneak up behind her in her deer stand. I lurk around by the light of the full moon, tiptoeing amongst the architecture of the forest, sticks and bramble and spider webs, in my drunken state. And even though I can see well I don’t notice the fox trap that wraps around my foot and digs its teeth into my ankle. Blood trickles and shines crimson in the moonlight. And I yell for the boy but my words come out more beastly and guttural than any sort of human communication, something like, “Ahhhh Rawrrrrrr!” The pain is mine and the noises are my pain and the more I pull on the fish hook-like trap the more it latches into my flesh and the pain and the noises my mouth make become one in the night.

      By the magic of my dream world, all the pellets of Angela’s shotgun whip around me and pass by me and flow through me. I am immune. I am Martial Arts.

      And we meet face to face there amongst the mighty oaks, Angela’s gun aimed at my head.

      “Please don’t kill me,” I plead. “I need to care for my son.”

      Suddenly the boy is giving me my bottle of Jim, commanding me to drink. And while I gulp down the nectar he and Angela pry the trap from my foot. He bandages it with gauze from the first aid kit.

      I see Angela is crying and I tell her “Don’t cry, I’m not dead yet. You can’t kill me that easily.”

      But she shakes her head and says there never was a Sasquatch it was just me, her dumbass neighbor, all along like her friends had tried to tell her. She feels dumb and I look at the boy bandaging my leg and feel equally if not more dumb but the boy reassures us then that everything will be okay and to never stop believing, to never stop dreaming.

      And then I’m awake and the morning is banging my head like a hammer, I’m still drunk. Highly unusual for me. Honestly hasn’t happened since college. And there’s a throbbing pain in my leg. And it’s wrapped in gauze. My bottle of Jim is empty on the nightstand next to the open first aid kit. So there’s that. I close my eyes and try to fall back asleep, try to slither back into the dream world where life is simpler and I can create a happier reality.

      My leg hurts so bad I could cry. I think I am actually. The pain is like stubbing my bare toe on cement. It’s like slamming my finger in a door. It’s like when my folks told me and my sister they were getting a divorce plus when my sister told me it was my fault. All of these things combined except concentrated in my calf meat. And I can’t possibly sleep with this going on.

      I hobble into the living room and the boy’s watching TV and eating a bowl of cereal I didn’t know I had. If I wasn’t drunk and in pain I’d be impressed by his industriousness. He doesn’t look at me.

      I stand in front of the TV. He tries to look around me. “Last night sure was fun, aye?” I try to smile but the pain in my leg has somehow moved to my mouth and it hurts to move my cheeks more than necessary.

      “You got really drunk last night.”

      He’s acting…what’s the word for it: standoffish, talking at the floor in front of me and the popcorn ceiling above me.

      “Has Angela said anything?”

      “She begged me not to call the cops. She was swearing a bleep ton.”

      “You don’t have to tell me.”

      “You’re worse than Mark.”

      This hurts.

      “I guess your mother will be happy we used the first aid kit.”

      “I called my mom.”

      This hurts more. Everything hurts and I think about crawling back into my bed.

      I realize the boy is safer without me around.

      We sit without saying anything, watching Bigfoot Hunters. On TV, two men with shotguns wander some back country and talk in low whispers, and then it cuts to grainy footage of a Bigfoot bumbling through the brush.

      I catch Angela in my window, face pressed against the glass. Literally the last person I want to see. “Jesus H. are you okay?” she mouths from behind the glass. “I’m so sorry.”

      I open the sliding glass door and invite her in. She doesn’t stop saying, “I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so sorry.”

      “It’s okay,” I say even though I’m not sure if it is or if it ever will be.

      “I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so sorry.”


      I try to ignore her by watching the TV.

      I point at the TV. “Ten bucks says they won’t find anything.”

      The boy says: “Duh. The government would cover it up.”

      “It’s true,” Angela says.

      I can’t argue with this logic, so I don’t.

      The two backwoodsmen don’t catch anything, shocker.

      I stick out my hand for my ten dollars and the boy gives me the disposable camera. He tells me he’s used up all the film. I read the small print on the cardboard casing. The thing holds 30 pictures.

      “These can’t all be pictures of dead animals.”

      The boy nods his head in affirmative. As a last ditch effort to reinsert myself in his good graces I drive him to the one-hour photo. I drive with my left foot which if you’ve never done it is a lot harder than it sounds.

      We play Jurassic Park pinball at the bar across the street while we wait. The boy has natural ability and will one day be better than me if he keeps a consistent practice. But he’s not yet strong enough to tilt the machine like me. I beat him easily.

      We get the pictures and look through them right there at the counter. It’s just dead animals; I don’t really know what else I was expecting. Dead squirrel. Dead raccoon. Dead bird. Dead bird. Dead bird. Dead field mouse. Decapitated rabbit. The lady working the one-hour photo gives me dirty looks while the boy and I thumb through them, but I don’t give a bleep what she thinks. The boy and I are bonding.

      “These are memories,” I tell her.

      “What about this one?” The boy holds up a blurry image of something brown and hairy standing upright, half-hidden behind a tree and some brush. I take it in my hands and inspect it more closely. It could be a bear. It’s definitely big enough to be a bear. Or it could be something else.

      “What do you think it is?” The boy’s voice cracks and I can’t help but smile. His cheeks flush red. He’s growing up right before my eyes.

      “Bigfoot?” he asks again.

      “Evidence,” I say and shove the picture in my pocket.


My sister shows up looking like she hasn’t slept all weekend. She doesn’t ask about my foot or anything about last night or the weekend at all, and so I keep my mouth shut too.

      She leaves the Mazda running so I know my time with the boy is limited. I’m sad to see him go.

      “I’m not going to hug you,” he tells me. “Because that’s weird.”

      “Fair,” I say, and put my hand to his shoulder like I’m going to instill him with some sage advice. He doesn’t know yet just how hard things are going to get. And I know this dead animal thing is probably going to get worse. My leg might be infected and I should go to the Minute Clinic. But all I can think to say is, “Try not to watch too much TV.”

      “You too.”

      I give a nod to my sister, and do something I would never imagine doing and I give her a hug right there, a big ole’ bear brother sister hug.

      “It’ll be okay,” I say. “It’s not your fault.”

      She doesn’t say anything, just kind of noodles in my arms until I let go. Her and the boy peel out of my driveway.

      Back inside, the Syfy channel is still on. I watch a little of Bigfoot Hunters until I spot Angela out in her yard. I remember the picture in my pocket and I hobble outside to meet my neighbor.

Kevin Sterne

is the author of All Must Go (House of Vlad). His fiction has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Maudlin House, Monkey Bicycle, Literary Orphans, and other great places. He lives in Chicago and loves running and trees. Read more at


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