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Tu quoque by Jake Andrews

 

After earning a BA in English and creative writing at the University of Alabama, Jake studied Christian theology, receiving a PhD from the University of Aberdeen. He has worked at the Universities of St Andrews and Cambridge. Throughout this time, Jake continued to write fiction, and after eight years in Britain, he will return to the USA in August 2013 to take up a place in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA program.

1st place - 2013 Raymond Carver Contest

 

The first ricochets off the pine tree to his left and rebounds from his jeans, rolling to a stop a few feet away. With his foot, he brushes the brown pine needles away, and he listens before looking down. He has to squat to see it, the small, round object, gleaming in the pallid light. A slight sting on his back, through his t-shirt, brings the BB into clear focus, and he freezes as the third one hits his head. He can feel the embedded ball beneath his hair as he glances around, trying to see where they are, trying to hear the cock of an air rifle, the crack of a branch. The laughter of what must be a group of them. The woods are silent, and then he hears a pop, the sting on his cheek almost simultaneous, bringing tears to his eyes, and he begins to run as another hits his shoulder.

It’s not a steep incline, but momentum builds, carries him headlong, through pine woods, downhill, and he slips on pine needles, and he catches himself, tree bark scratching, his fingers sticky with sap, but he can’t stop, he must keep going. His grandfather’s house is at the base of the hill, across the highway, two fields over, and his legs move faster, faster, and the light fails, and the sky darkens, trees but shadows, and he can barely make out the path. He knows it turns, but can’t see where.

They’re behind him, calling to one another. Crashing over branches and leaves. Screaming, whooping, yelling.

A root snags his foot and he scrapes his hand on the tree to steady himself. He keeps running, faster now, no longer certain it’s sap on his hand, the hill sloping towards the road. No sound of traffic, he must have a ways to go. There’s a fence to climb.

“He’s headin’ toward the highway,” one shouts.

The solid path gives way to soft grass and pine straw, and he is slipping, his ankles threatening to twist, the soles of his shoes not gripping, but his legs continue moving. He must slow down. Missing the turn of the path means there’s a drop ahead, and he can just make out the change in topography, the way silhouettes of trees seem to be half as tall, the way the ground is darker beyond that point, and he tries to slow himself, sending his feet slipping, his upper body tilting, backwards then forwards, gravity tugging him beyond himself. The only way to stop is to fall, but he is going too fast for that now.

“Fag’s gone straight down the hill, goddamn it.”

“Mitchell,” a voice says, “grab me my pellet gun.”

He doesn’t have time to look side to side. He doesn’t have time to think about what they’re saying.

“You can’t hit him from here.”

He swerves to miss a tree. He stumbles but remains upright.

“You watch me.”

The ground falls away and he’s in the air, arms before him, eyes open as he sails ahead, and all he can see is the trunk of a fallen tree.

“Shit.”

“You see that?”

“What’de just do?”

He hits the ground. It stuns him. For how long he lies there, he doesn’t know, only realizing he slid towards the tree, across pine needles and leaves, when he uses it to stand up, unable to suck in air, the loud heaves from his body terrible and frightening. The bark stinging his hands. He could’ve broken his neck. It hurts, not being able to breathe, more than he would’ve thought.

“There he is.”

The pellet hits the trunk as he climbs over it, and they pump their guns as they give pursuit. The noise of an articulated lorry—the road is close. He can’t catch his breath.

“Where’s Billy?”

He comes out of the woods and the fence is on the other side of a ditch and, beyond it, the road. It’s lighter here, outside the canopy of trees, light enough that he pauses to check the surroundings. He must go through the ditch, up the other side, and mount the fence. Then he’ll be to the road. The noise of two of them crashing through the trees behind him, calling to one another. There’s got to be one more, but he doesn’t see him. Pausing, counting to three, trying to catch his breath, he gets ready to run, and then he hears him, approaching from the left, and he looks, and there’s Billy Fordham, running right for him, his BB gun in two hands, swinging across his body, and he doesn’t have time to pause.

“I got him,” Billy yells up the hill, stopping, kneeling, aiming.

He takes off, running across the open area, staggering into the ditch, his hands sinking in mud, up to his wrists, and he tries to pull them out, the sickening suck of sludge, and he hears Billy chasing him, and he frees his hands, and he crawls, his jeans sticking in the ground, bogging him down, and he senses Billy standing above him, and he feels the BB hit his shoulder, as he stumbles up the other side, his shoes slipping in the wet, red clay, and he scrambles up, and he hears the other two reach Billy, and he gets his hand over the top, and he pulls himself up, hearing three pops, feeling two stings. He doesn’t know why but he can’t stand, so he keeps moving on his knees to the fence, using it to heave his body up, placing his foot on the first slat, the sound of them sloshing through the ditch. He doesn’t have time to slip so he makes himself move one hand, one foot, at a time, and they draw closer, and he gets his right leg over the fence, but he doesn’t look back because he’s afraid a BB will hit his eye, and so he doesn’t see the boy when he grabs his left foot, beginning to pull. He still doesn’t look back. He clings to the fence. Tries to free his leg.

“You ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“Come here.”

“Don’t let him go, Mitchell. Give it here.”

He tries to kick the one holding him, but Mitchell’s pulling his foot, not giving him the leverage, and he tries to fling himself off the fence, but Mitchell holds him there. Headlights are approaching, and he doesn’t mean to, but he cries out for help.

They start laughing, whooping.

“Help,” they cry, “help.”

“Help me,” they cry.

He tries to wrest his leg away, and he finally looks at them and sees the tall blond one drawing a knife out of a backpack. He starts kicking, hard, and the one called Mitchell cries out when he hits him in the jaw, but Billy grabs his foot as he goes to jump, yanking him down, and he almost falls off the fence, on to him. While he struggles to maintain balance, Billy grabs his shirt and begins to pull him back across the fence. He screams.

“Help,” they cry, “help.”

He clings to the fence with both hands, and keeps trying to kick Billy, and Billy keeps pulling his shirt. He releases his left hand, swings at Billy, feels Billy’s shoulder when he hits it, but Billy doesn’t let go.

“Motherfucker,” Billy says.

He struggles, trying to pull himself across the fence, and he can see the blond one coming closer, can see his teeth gleaming white in the moonlight, the knife in his hand, and he tries to kick, and he pushes up with his left foot, trying to get leverage, his shirt slipping from Billy’s grip. Mitchell grabs for his shoe just as he thrusts it out, connecting with Mitchell’s chest, sending him backwards, out of breath, propelling him across the fence and on to the ground. They start to climb behind him, and the blond one shouts at them not to let him go. He tries to stand and slips, his mud-caked shoes sliding on damp grass. Finally, he can stand, runs straight for the road. They’re behind him, but at least their guns are on the other side of the fence.

“Don’t let him get to the house.”

The asphalt of the highway firm beneath his feet, he turns left, sprinting as hard as he can, wheezing, lungs burning. They are gaining ground, and a horn sounds, and he swerves off the road. He doesn’t look back. The wind from the passing lorry sucks the air from around him, then he feels he is about to be blown over, but he keeps his feet beneath him. He runs. He can’t hear them, then he does, their feet striking the asphalt, the sound of their inhalations, their exhalations, growing closer and closer.

The mailbox is ahead, illuminated by the porch light, even in the dusk.

He doesn’t know how close they are, but he can’t look back. Run. They pant behind him, and the mailbox is there, to his right, and he plants his left foot, but it slips from beneath him, and he feels his jeans tear in the gravel, and he feels one of the boys trip over him, and the other two are brought up short.

The blond one still holds the knife, fury in his eyes.

He doesn’t hesitate. He pushes off, right foot planted, and he shoots past the mailbox, runs for his grandfather’s porch. Gravel crunches beneath shoes, and his ankle twists, a crack in the pavement, and he turns towards the steps. Don’t look back. He runs towards the light, towards the front door, wheezing sounds hurting, and he doesn’t look back, and he runs up the steps, past the blue buzz of the insect catcher, feet pounding on wood slats, and Sally starts barking, and he rams into the door, twists the knob, collapses inside.

Three silhouettes on the street watch, before one of them spits, all three turning, walking into a field, disappearing in the darkened land.

.  .  .

The hydrogen peroxide bubbles on his knee, turning pink in the center of the scrapes. Standing in the bathroom, the green mat damp from the water running down his legs, his jeans and trainers tangled in the corner, he waits for the bubbles to fade, and then he pours more liquid from the brown bottle. There’s a cut beneath his eye, whether from a BB or a limb, he doesn’t know. He dabs it with a tissue, held gently in his hands, themselves scraped red and white, now cleaned from the black sap and dirt.

“Ali?” She knocks on the door. “Is everything okay?”

“I’ll be out in a minute.”

She doesn’t say anything for a moment, but he can feel her, a presence just behind the door, waiting for him to say more.

“Grandpa said,” she pauses, “you were bleeding.”

“I’m fine. Be out in a minute.”

She remains outside, and he doesn’t move. He holds the bottle still, at an angle, over his knee, and he watches the bubbles fade away. When she departs, her footsteps make no noise on the carpet. A joint creaks, only slightly. What he feels through the sole of his foot is the weight of her moving along the floor, down the corridor.

He pours more liquid from the bottle, watching it coat his knee and splash into the basin, and the bubbles seem fewer. While waiting for them to disappear, he inspects the cut on his cheek. It only bled a little, and he wets another tissue with the hydrogen peroxide and lightly presses it to his face, gently rubbing the dried blood away, wincing at the tenderness beneath his fingers. Closer to the mirror, he lowers his jaw, stretching the skin taut, and sees if he can pull the cut apart. It isn’t deep, just sore. It looks better now that the blood’s been washed away.

His knee is scraped raw, but all the dirt and pebbles appear to have been removed. Beneath the sink, where the hydrogen peroxide was, there’s a faded box, its white plastic faded to eggshell, its dark blue leeched white, betraying just how old the sterile contents must be. The clasp snaps open, and, to his surprise, the bandages within are new and orderly, the ointment cap still in its tamper-proof plastic.

He daubs the antibiotic on his knee but can’t find a plaster that will cover the scrape. A square cloth bandage, secured with tape, is the best option.

Satisfied, he finds a pair of trousers in the hamper and pulls them on. Removing the belt from the torn jeans, he looks them over. Coated in mud, one knee completely ripped open. He balls them around his trainers, listening at the door before leaving the room, making his way slowly to the basement, listening for any movement, but their voices come from the kitchen, in hushed tones, muted exclamations.

Downstairs in the basement, he pitches the bundle into one of the bins, but back at the steps, he turns to retrieve the shoes. He should at least try to clean them. They were a gift, from before, from his father, from before his mother brought Ali here. He leans into the bin, catching the whiff of slightly rotten banana peels, and he pulls at the jeans, the mud now dry and crumbling, until he can grab the laces.

Outside, he beats them on the ground, knocking some of the still-damp mud from the soles, and he sets them aside, to wait for them to dry.

.  .  .

The four of them eat in silence, his mother eyeing his face every few minutes, his grandfather watching his mother, and his grandmother studying the table.

“That stuff any good?” his grandfather says, pointing with his fork at Ali’s plate.

“I like it.”

“Looks like slop to me.”

“Daddy,” she says, turning away from her son.

“I’m just saying, the boy’s got to eat something or he’s just going to keep wasting away.”

“It’s got rice and lentils,” Ali says.

“But where’s the meat?” He holds his fork up, a piece of chicken skewered. “There’s no way you won’t be starving in an hour.”

“He’s been eating like this for years, Daddy.”

“Well, look at you, boy, all pale and gangly. He needs some meat on his bones. I eat Chinese food, I’m hungry thirty minutes later. I don’t know how y’all do it. You mean to tell me you don’t have any kind of desire to try some of this?” He aims it at the boy, then eats it.

Ali looks back at his curry and eats another bite, resting his fork and knife on the plate, feeling the weight of the trousers on his knee. He looks at his grandfather, but he doesn’t speak.

“I think that dish is interestin’,” his grandmother says, now looking at the wall, “I mean, I wouldn’t wanna eat it ever’day, and I’d probably want some meat with it my own self, but I tried a bite earlier and it was different.”

“Different. Eating crickets is different. You want to try that?”

“Daddy—”

“Look here. I’ve known a good many people eating food like that and not a one of them was born here.” He’s no longer paying attention to the table. He’s motioning with his fork, talking towards the television in the other room. “You see what they’re doing to those boys in Iraq? In Kuwait? How about what they did to us in Vietnam? You think about it. You think about sharing food with them. When’s it hurt anyone to eat a hamburger? Have a bite of chicken? Sometimes I just don’t know what to do with you all.”

“I wasn’t born here,” Ali says, looking at his plate, taking a bite, and then another, in the silence that follows.

“Well,” he says, “you, well. Your mama, she was, and you’re hers, and all her kinfolk were, so you might as well’ve been.”

“What about dad?”

Even he doesn’t have anything to say, and Ali can’t look at his mother because she won’t be looking back. She’ll be thinking about her husband. He looks at his grandfather, who looks at his grandmother, who shakes her head, barely. His grandfather inhales, and she shakes her head again, staring at him, trying to keep him silent.

Ali looks at him, but he’s looking at the food.

“A waste of a life. A poor excuse for anything.”

“Grant, stop,” his grandmother says.

“Should never have agreed to—”

“Daddy.”

Ali watches him, his grandfather’s jaw clenched, the sagging chin beneath it, a few unshaved hairs in the line between neck and chin, his bald scalp ringed with shaggy, grey hair, his nostrils flaring.

“If I could go back and stop that mess I would. I’d keep you from making that mistake. You can always tell. I knew it. Your mama knew it. Even your own sister knew it. Biggest mistake you ever made.”

Ali stands, the chair scraping across the floor, and he looks down at his grandfather. The napkin in his lap, the crumbs of bread down the front of his shirt, the buttons sagging open, his belly peeking through. Ali feels his mother’s hand on him but shakes it off, and he doesn’t look at his grandmother. She’s probably hyperventilating, and his grandfather doesn’t even look up. He takes a bite of his chicken, and while chewing, says, “Well it was.”

.  .  .

The only light on the porch is the blue insect catcher around the corner, its hum constant and rarely interrupted in the cool evening. When he used to visit in the summer, with both of them, he would sit here and watch the flash of lightning bugs, listening to unfamiliar sounds. Chirruping crickets, the rise and fall of the cicada song, the call of a tree frog. A cracking branch, the zap of the catcher. His father would be out here too, sitting on this swing, avoiding the constant drone of the television. “American telly,” he told Ali one night when he found him out here, “is just one big advert.”

Tonight, the land around is quiet, a light breeze revealing a hint of autumn. Real autumn, when the leaves turn and the skies go grey, vivid yellows and oranges, reds, bright and sharp against such a backdrop, each leaf visible, every blade of grass. Not the autumn they have here with its pine needles and brown leaves, its sunny sky. The haze rendering all of it blurred, indistinct. You don’t even need a jacket unless you’re avoiding family on the porch on a windy night.

He cranes his neck and peers through the trees and sees stars. More than you can see back home. Except, for now, this is supposed to be home. He grows conscious of the pulse in his palm and in his knee. He feels the jeans scraping across his skin when he moves. The bandage must have come undone. He blinks and tries not to think about it.

The porch light comes on, and, rubbing his eyes dry, he has to squint, even in its faded yellow light. The deadbolt clicks. The hinges creak. And she emerges through the screen door.

“Please could you switch off the light?”

She leans back, half in and half out, and the darkness returns. The hydraulic arm of the screen door sighs, pulling it shut. He feels her sit beside him, hears the swing’s chain take her weight. Looking out at the surrounding land, nothing is visible.

Minutes pass in which she says nothing, in which she rocks the swing back and forth with her feet, while he begins to discern differing degrees of darkness, the silhouette of a tree against the black of the sky, branches obscuring stars. He won’t break the silence.

She rocks the swing, and his legs move with the motion, keeping time, not rushing. He looks at the blue light reflecting on bushes at the corner of the porch.

In the distance, he hears the blast of a train horn, and it will be just behind the house in a moment. She rocks the swing, and his legs move with it, keeping time.

The train draws closer, and the two of them continue to rock in silence, and then he feels it vibrating the house as it passes a few hundred yards away, and then it sounds its horn again, at the intersection in the town center, and then, after moments, the land grows silent, and the rocking slows.

“You want to talk about it,” she says. It’s not a question.

He doesn’t look at her. He doesn’t want to speak. But he can feel her eyes on him, even in the darkness.

“Your father phoned earlier.”

“I don’t want to talk to him.”

“Darling,” she hesitates, her hands moving to her lap, “you need to talk to him. He’s your father.”

Don’t say anything.

“I told him to call back tomorrow.”

“I won’t be here. After school, I’m going walking again.”

“What happened on your walk today?”

He looks out beyond the porch, his eyes angled up, to keep the unexpected moisture from spilling over. “It was stupid. I got going too quickly and couldn’t stop. I fell.”

She is quiet, her attention unwavering, waiting, but he does not add to the story.

“Grandpa was looking for you.” She changes tack, once more, unrelenting. “He wants to apologize.”

“He’s ignorant.”

“Alistair.”

“He is. I don’t know why we have to stay with them.”

“It’s just temporary, just a few months, once the teaching becomes full time.”

“It’s been two months already.”

“We’ve discussed this,” she says, turning on the swing.

He doesn’t say anything. He looks out at the darkness, in the direction of the field, and he can feel her beside him, watching him, and he remains silent. The insects call in the night, and the hum of the catcher is loud. He feels the jeans on his knee. His ankle is sore. “I want to go home,” he says, and saying it, his face burns. He feels her weight shift behind him, feels her hand on his shoulder, soft, tender, and he feels tears on his cheek, salt stinging the cut, but he won’t call attention to them by wiping his eyes. She moves closer, her hand sliding around his shoulders, and he sinks into her embrace, her arms enfolding him. He doesn’t fight her, allowing himself to rest his head on her chest, feeling her hand caress his back. Relaxing, he hates her.

.  .  .

In the shower, the water stings the cuts and scrapes, but after a few seconds, he can relax, and he puts his head back into the stream. Massaging his scalp, he feels the bump from the BB. He presses it, which sends a sharp pain through his head, so he stops, deciding to feel around it. That doesn’t hurt, so he presses the sides of it, like he would a pimple, before he touches it gently with the pad of his finger, trying to get it to move.

The clink on the tub makes him panic, expecting to see red on the porcelain, trying to stop it as the water carries the BB towards, and then down, the drain. He checks his hand. There is no blood. Though, when reaching back, there seems to be a hole beneath his finger.

.  .  .

He awakens the next morning to a quiet house, and in the kitchen, he finds a small wooden whistle beside a wrapped egg-and-cheese buttermilk biscuit. The whistle is a peace offering, placed there by his grandfather as an apology. Breakfast from the fast-food restaurant down the road is simply what he does every time they’re there.

The whistle is crafted from hickory. Holding the old, brittle wood in his hands, he remembers how his grandfather took him out the first time, across the stream and into the trees. The leaves were green. It must have been near Easter. He remembers a trellis with a vine growing over it. He remembers watching as his grandfather killed a scorpion, the only scorpion he had ever seen in person. They found it in with the dishes, and he killed it with a piece of wrought iron that he had laying by the house.

“These here, you’ve got to be careful with. They’ll keep stinging at you long after you’ve squished their heads.”

He watched as the pincers ceased moving, but the tail kept jabbing at the iron rod. Finally it stopped, and his grandfather kicked it off with his boot.

“Come on, bud, let me show you something neat,” he said, and they walked across the bridge, past the grapevine, and into the woods.

Remember the smell of his pipe, the scent of tobacco and its sweet smoke. Remember how he pulled the hickory limb down, flexing it, letting you see how to tell it had some sap in it. “That way, the bark’ll slip right off.” He withdrew his Old Timer pocketknife, and he flipped out the long blade. Clenching the pipe in his teeth, he cut off part of the branch at an angle.

“Here, hold this,” he said, handing the boy the rest. He cut a notch in the three-inch length of wood, worked the small blade of his knife around the edge, knocked it on a tree, and then slipped the bark straight off, a hollow core. “Feel that,” he said, handing over the naked wood, “how it’s slick and wet? Now we just cut here at the notch, slip it in here like this, and then we trim this other piece to make the pitch we want, and we put it right back in here like this, and there you go.”

He handed it to the boy and tossed the unneeded limb away.

“Go on, give it a toot.”

The taste was unfamiliar, incomparable to anything he had yet experienced, and he blew and heard the high-pitched sound. Even now when he tastes something woody, he thinks of that first whistle. Every time he visited, his grandfather took him out and made one, even if it wasn’t late spring and the bark cracked.

.  .  .

The ringing phone startles him.

“Hello?”

“Hi Alistair, it’s me.”

He doesn’t respond. He forgot.

“I’d hoped I’d catch you before school. You alright?”

He looks out the window, wondering if he can just hang up the phone, and he watches a squirrel climb a tree, jumping from one limb to another. He can hear his father breathing, waiting, so he says, “Yes.”

Once more, Ali watches the squirrel through the window as it leaps to another tree and scurries up into a clump of leaves, to a nest, and his father hesitates, waiting for Ali to speak, and then, “What have you been doing?”

“Not much.”

There is only silence, then the sound of his father taking a breath as he waits, as Ali switches the phone to his other ear, holding it away from his mouth as he takes a bite and chews the biscuit, and then his father says, “Your mother said you were spending time with some friends last night. Have fun?”

“Not really.” Ali does not elaborate, and he checks the clock on the microwave, finishes his food in three bites, and then says, “Dad, I need to be leaving for school.”

“Of course. I just wanted to call and say hi, that’s all.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll talk to you again soon, okay?”

“Okay.”

He’s about to switch off the receiver, but he hears the voice coming, tiny from the earpiece, “Alistair?”

He listens, but doesn’t respond.

“Whenever you want to come and visit, let me know, we’ll get you a plane ticket.”

“Okay.”

His father doesn’t know what else to say, how to end the call, and Ali won’t help.

“Bye for now,” he says, finally.

“Bye.”

.  .  .

Sitting on the metal bleachers, the angled sun bright in his eyes, he can’t stop touching the hole at the back of his head. Earlier, he tried to use a shaving mirror to see it, but failed. It feels like that part of his skull is missing. Below, on the American football pitch, the football field, boys practice crashing into one another, the smack of shoulder pads and helmets, while off to the side, another group of students practice their instruments and keep time, marching across a lined field.

“Hello,” a voice says behind him, and he turns and sees a girl shielding her eyes from the sun, looking down at him. “Can we join you?”

She doesn’t wait for a response. She moves down to him, the light brown of her dress shimmering in the afternoon light, and a boy follows her, Ali’s age, shy.

“You’re Alistair, the new student,” she says. “I’m Summer, and this is Trey.”

“Hello,” he says as she sits beside him, Trey beside her. “Nice to meet you.”

“Does it hurt much?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Your head. You keep rubbing where they shot you. Here, let me have a look.” She kneels on the bench beside him and tilts his head down to her, her fingers in his hair, and this close to her, he can smell the shampoo in her dark brown hair, and her breasts are but millimeters from his cheek. He can see the stretched fabric of her bra through the armhole of her dress, and he can’t stop looking. “Gosh, it looks like a perfect little hole. Trey, look at this.” She shifts, letting Trey closer, letting Ali’s eye see the flower petals near the front of her bra before she shifts, her abdomen running the length of his side, her hands in his hair, her scent penetrating him.

“Did it hurt?” Trey asks.

“How did you know?”

“They were talking about it this morning, laughing,” Summer says, releasing his hair, sitting back beside him. “It doesn’t look bad, just like some little round divot in your head.”

Her knees, still tan from summer, slip from her dress, and she has to stop it from sliding further up her thighs. The sun is warm, even in this autumnal afternoon, and Ali removes his jumper.

“So, you’re from England.”

“Yes.”

“I wanted to introduce you to Trey because he’s from California. His mom’s a—what is she?”

“A radiologist.”

“And his dad’s a college teacher. Anywho, I thought I’d introduce you two.”

Ali greets him, but Trey is distracted by movement on the field below.

“Well, I’ll leave you two boys to get to know one another… .”

She walks away.

He watches her depart, the way the sun shines through her dress, revealing in silhouette the curving flare of her hips, the angle at which her legs meet, her naked form. He watches until she vanishes beneath the bleachers.

The two of them sit in silence, the only noise the slamming of shoulder pads, the boom of a bass drum, a coach’s whistle.

“I tried to tell her,” Trey says as he stands.

“You don’t have to go.”

Trey begins to speak, then freezes, watching a blond boy remove his helmet and walk across the field. Ali sees him too and suggests they depart.

.  .  .

“This is mine,” Trey says, outside a newly built house. “You want to come in for some tea?”

He accepts the invitation, not realizing Trey means the sweetened, iced variety. He sees Ali’s face and says, “Oh, I forgot, how about a soda?” And as he gets it, he says, “My mom loves England. She lived there when she was in college. I bet she has some hot tea bags around here somewhere, if you want.”

“A soda’s fine.”

In his room, they discuss music, and play a few video games, but he can tell Trey’s working himself up to something.

“I should probably be going. My grandfather’s keeping a close eye on me these days.”

“I feel like I should know him.”

“He owns a sign shop,” he says, “and he goes to First Methodist.”

“Oh, yeah, he’s really nice. I like him. He gave my mom a pack of cards to give me when I had the flu. I like to shuffle. You play spades?”

Ali doesn’t say anything. “Shoot ‘em in the nuts,” his grandfather said once, watching news reports of a parade through Disney World, a river of red before a fairy-tale castle.

“I should be off,” he says, standing, but Trey remains seated, looking at his hands, and Ali can see him working himself up. He tries to get out of the room before Trey starts.

“They got me too,” he says, Ali’s hand almost on the door. He doesn’t look at Trey because the boy is nervous when he speaks, and he grows silent again before he says, “I couldn’t get away,” and then he sniffs, “They held me down,” Ali wants this to stop, he wants to get out, “He, he pulled out a knife,” Trey pauses, and sniffs again, and Ali doesn’t want to know any more, but his throat is too dry, the memory of being pulled back across the fence too strong, and Trey says, “They held me down, and,” Ali needs him to stop, please stop, “and he slipped the knife under my belt and pulled, cutting it apart,” his voice is shaking, “I couldn’t get away,” he’s crying behind Ali, and Ali faces him, but can’t look at him, “They pulled my shoes and pants off. I couldn’t stop it,” Ali remembers the blond boy’s smile in the dusk, and he hears Trey sniff, “He threw the knife into the ground beside me and helped them hold me down,” Ali wants him to stop, but Trey keeps talking, his voice shaking, “while they pulled my shirt over my head. I thought they,” his voice falters, and Ali can’t look at him, “I was so scared,” Trey says, quietly, “They had me pinned down, in just my underwear. I couldn’t get free,” he speaks almost silently, and Ali looks at him, “They let me go, they had my clothes in his backpack, and he said, shooing me, ‘Go on, go on get outta here. Get.’ ”

.  .  .

Later, he will feel guilty, sitting on the porch in the darkness, the feel of the hole in his head beneath his finger. He will feel guilty for seeing Trey sobbing, snot flowing from his nostrils, his whole face shining. He will sit, not rocking the swing, not moving, but staring at the night-shrouded land around him, listening for some noise in the distance, anxious that some specter will rise from the fields, replaying over and over the memory of turning back to the door, the memory of grasping the handle, the memory of saying, “I really need to go. Thanks for the Coke.”