short fiction

14 Words and One Last Word

It was a text from Jordon. That’s how he found out about the shooting at the hog plant.

 

He switched on channel 5, the shithole town’s shitty local news station. But it was just the lady who did high school sports and the city council meetings standing there at the entrance to the plant, repeating all the things they didn’t know, so he went on Twitter. Predictably, it was full of bullshit: people on the #JesusJunction hashtag were saying ten were dead, twenty, it was Muslims, it was the government, the so-called victims were crisis actors. There was already a #JJshooting hashtag. He kept clicking again and again, kept swallowing beer after beer as the afternoon slid into night, that same gravitation that swiveled his head when he passed a wreck on the highway

Finally, they started releasing names. DeShawn Williams was dead. Denny remembered Jaksin Queshire, a weird kid in metal shop class who laughed like Beavis. Daisy Jaye Waller. Allegra Rutherford.

And then they said “Josiah Boyd Seaver.”

Kip.

His old man had come up with “Josiah” during one of his Bible-thumper periods. Kip hated it. In school he’d always sit there silent, arms pretzeled on his chest, if a sub called roll with that name. Denny was one of the few people on Earth who even knew the “Boyd” part. Kip’s mom had been a Boyd.

They kept saying on the news that Kip was one of the dead.

Then they started saying he’d been shot by the police.

Then, the news anchor said he walked through the Tyson Foods hog processing plant with two guns – a pistol and a long rifle – killing six and wounding twenty including a state trooper, and that law enforcement had finally cornered him and opened fire, hitting him 37 times in the head, chest and abdomen.

One smart son of a bitch used the phrase “suicide by cop.”

Denny hit the off button on the remote. On his way out to the backyard, he grabbed the matches and the black pack of American Spirits from the windowsill by the door. The night air was still and stupid with the late-summer heat still radiating off the cement patio. He flashed back to being fifteen, Kip laughing at him awkwardly holding a cigarette. “You can always tell when somebody doesn’t smoke,” he had said then. Denny still stuck the butt in the side of his mouth to light it like Kip did, shook out the match the same way Kip always shook it out. He paced there under the shadows of the trees in the yard for a long time, until smoking bored him.

He didn’t actually remember deciding to go and get more beer, he just found himself in his shitbox Ford Escort headed towards the redemption center on Route 231. He grabbed two 40-ouncers of King Cobra out of the cooler, then had a second thought and grabbed a third in a clumsy grip between his first two fingers, got out of there without having to do more than shove some bills into the cashier’s hand and grunt. He opened up the first 40 in the car.

He plugged his phone into the speakers as soon as he got home, and just let it play on shuffle. Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” came on, and he turned it up until it made the cheap little sound system buzz.

The second bottle disappeared as quickly as the first.

#

One night, back in 11th grade, the meatheads on the wrestling team were having a pool party. Kip had heard about it, and they decided to go even though nobody liked meatheads. Denny was wearing his leather bomber jacket, the cheap steel whip in the inside pocket. In one of the martial arts novels him and Kip were always reading, there was a South African commando who carried a telescoping steel baton – a sipo, it was called – that was supposed to hurt like hell without breaking bones. Denny found one online. He wasn’t looking to get into fights, but Kip thought it was cool. They practiced the wrist flick that opened the sipo, beat on trees and phone poles with it.

They had been at the party for a couple hours and an unknowable number of beers when Denny went to get a lighter out of his leather and found the sipo was gone. As he was groping through all the jacket’s pockets, he felt his feet suddenly leave the ground. A couple of the meatheads had him, carried him like a kid. Denny wriggled uselessly as they got to the edge of the pool and tossed him in, the world tumbling. He climbed out, trying to laugh it off like he was in on the joke, but the meatheads wouldn’t stop ragging him.

Bobby Hornick called him out. He stood there, wet, dripping, his clothes clinging to his narrow frame. Hornick was about three inches shorter but at least thirty pounds denser. Always. Fucking always. The few fights Denny had ever gotten into were invariably started by somebody so much bigger that it was no contest.

Running was always Plan A. And maybe it was because of the beer or maybe it was because Kip was watching, but Denny decided to stand his ground this time. He went up on his toes, thinking of Floyd Mayweather, and Hornick laughed. “Yeah, that’s right, bounce like a nigger.” Denny threw a punch, felt it connect, heard him grunt. Hornick recovered fast and caught him in a wrestler’s tackle. Denny, who didn’t know the first thing about wrestling, got flipped like a rag doll as Hornick came around for a choke hold. The world dissolved into gray formlessness as the sounds of the party faded into the whoosh you hear when you hold a shell up to your ear. The last thought he had before passing out was right, so this is how I die.

Bobby Hornick would come back to school with a splint on his nose and his arm in a cast, avoiding Kip and sneering at Denny. His voice was comically nasal and he had to struggle to open his locker with the wrong hand. It should have been satisfying, but it burned. Denny almost wished he had a scar or even a bruise: something on the outside that showed.

You’re not such a pussy, Kip told him. Look, he said. You stood up.

Denny dropped his head, pretending to nod. The hallway was scuffed linoleum spotted with black macules of ancient gum. His hair hung in his face. He didn’t meet Kip’s eyes.

#

Denny woke up dry, eyes stuck to his lids. The Cobra had put him down hard. He checked the news while making coffee, but there was nothing new, not really. There were a couple brief reports about Kip, and people were already bitching that the ‘killer’ got too much attention. He opened his email. He didn’t actually want to read email, but it was better than the news.

10 new messages, six of them spammy. One from his mom, something she had forwarded, probably a corny joke or some political bullshit.

One from kipster1488.

One message from that stupid address Kip had been using for the past couple years sat there unread in his inbox. He hovered the mouse over it, but his finger didn’t click the button, couldn’t. It was almost like it would break something, like the unread email was the last thing still tethering Kip’s soul to Earth. He closed his laptop.

A ray of sunlight was burning through the window, a bright rhombus on the cracked and worn contact tile. Denny filled a glass with tap water, the smell of swimming pools wafting up. He gulped it down like medicine, walking stiffly into the living room. He flipped his laptop back open and clicked through tabs he had left open: pictures of New Zealand, a story about a book festival in Auckland, how to find a Māori village buried by a volcanic eruption in 1889. For a long time, he’d been thinking about trying to emigrate there: about as far from Jesus Junction as it was possible to get.

He opened Kip’s email. It was one word.

He closed the email.

Time passed. Jordon texted him to say they were going to visit Trixie MacAslan, somebody they had known since they were all kids in CCD together. She was in stable condition at White County Medical Center, a hole in her side, a kidney in a medical waste bag on its way to an incinerator somewhere. Trixie had been a party girl in high school, sold weed and coke. Denny heard she cam-whored for a while, but she’d kind of dropped off the map since then.

After a while he texted back. OK.

#

There were a bunch of people inside her room, as many as the nurses would let in at one time. The air in the waiting room was charged with a weird mix of excitement and dread, people milling around like tourists on The Island of the Almost-Killed. Jordon was standing in a corner. They slapped hands and tried to make small talk for a desultory minute before giving up and retreating to their phone screens, the vending machine.

Denny got waved in after ten minutes or so. Trixie was in full-on “brave survivor” mode, though he could see a hint in her eyes of fear, or shame, of being on the edge of shutdown. He mumbled what he figured might sound like encouraging words and listened for a while to Mercy Howard going on about some other girl they knew.

After he came out, Jordon was still hanging there in the corner talking to Murphy Daniels. Murphy used to play guitar for Saigon Cyberdust, the hardcore band Jordon and Denny had started in 10th grade and fucked around with through the wasted year after high school. Murph’s mom worked at one of the megachurches out Route 24, one of the massive monuments to Christ and capitalism that gave the town the name of “Jesus Junction.” Denny drifted over and they both shut up suddenly, a little shame-faced, like they’d been caught talking shit at a wake.

“You hear about Ben?” Murphy said.

“Nah.”

“Tried to top himself.” Murphy’s face was twisted with something like humor, something like disgust. “He cut his neck and his mom found him.”

“Is he okay?” Denny looked around him, suddenly feeling in on the conspiracy.

“He’s downstairs,” Jordon said. “They aren’t letting anybody in to see him.”

“Like anybody would want to,” Murphy said. “Fucking pseudo-cide bullshit.”

Denny thought that was a pretty dickish thing to say. He might have had some comment to make about it if he didn’t kind of agree. He had known three kids who killed themselves – actually did it, not just the ‘cry for help’ shit – and Denny was still pissed at every one of them. It was like a big ‘fuck you’ from a train headed south at a hundred miles an hour, an insult without a chance for a comeback. They were saying I’d rather be dead than deal with you and leaving you to pick up the pieces. Faking it was like ten times worse than that.

“Bullshit, Murph.” Jordon got quiet when he was pissed. “You don’t know what else was going on in his life. If.. if this never happened, could have been something else that pushed him over the edge. You don’t know.”

“Yeah, but…” Murphy threw his hands up. “there’s like a million better exit strategy than a knife to the throat, for fuck’s sake. I know his mom has a gun. There’s ropes, there’s fucking bridges. He wanted to get caught. He wanted to make this about him.”

“What the hell’s wrong with you, man.” Jordon’s said in a low, crackling tone.

“You guys.” Denny gestured to some girls crying in the corner. “We don’t gotta do this here.”

“I’m done,” Murphy said. “I’m gonna go to Cherries. Fuck all this.”

“Yeah,” Jordon said, “spending the night in a tit bar is gonna make everything better.”

“Don.” Denny raised a hand. “Let’s leave it.”

Murphy snorted. “Yeah,” he said. “Seriously. I’m out.”

Jordon stared after Murphy as he walked away. Denny could see a comment start to form on his lips and moved into his line of sight to cut him off.

“Forget him, man.” Denny lifted his chin at Jordon. “Guy’s an asshole.”

Jordon’s eyes simmered silently for a couple of breaths. “Yeah,” he said.

#

Denny was following Jordon’s car, then got caught at a red light on the edge of town. Kip used to say that Denny was more of a brother to him than his own brothers ever were. They did everything together, even when there was nothing to do. Kicking down the door of the abandoned house on the corner by the middle school, an idiotic mid-day B&E that got them both stuck doing six weeks of community service at the White County courthouse. Stealing Kevin Houston’s codeine after he got his wisdom teeth removed, smoking it in Kip’s bong and coughing up clouds of toxicity.

He drove on automatic pilot. A farmer dragged a John Deere drill through a field of stubble, seeding late summer forage.

The one memory Denny kept shying away from was the time they had split that whole jug of the turpentine wine Antonio DiMeo’s dad made in the basement. Denny thought he was the more fucked up than he’d ever been, and then they chased it with rails of crank they snorted off the case of an old Whitesnake CD. They had eventually both passed out and…

Denny kept driving along the Sorreltown road. He let the car coast to a stop at the intersection with 43, passed a hand over his eyes and lit a cigarette. A quail ran in the soft shoulder. If he’d had a gun he’d have taken a shot at it.

When Denny had come to, Kip was still out. They were lying side-by-side on the pull-out bed, heads facing in opposite directions. He looked up and saw the outline of Kip’s dick through his shorts. Denny’s hand moved like it was attached to somebody else, and pulled down the waistband of Kip’s shorts slowly, slowly. He reached in and took it out and just gazed at it, the meat of him, in the light of the plasma screen. He grasped him, the flexible stiffness so like his own and so different. When he opened his mouth…

A horn blew. Denny threw his cigarette and hit the gas, speeding away from the car that had pulled up behind him. The fucking quail burst up out of the bushes, flying ahead of the car. Denny almost touched it with the bumper before it suddenly took a sharp turn off into the fields to the left.

#

Denny and Jordon ended up at Friendly’s. Jordon talked—in almost obnoxious detail— about a new modular synthesizer rig he had been building. Denny hadn’t touched his bass in years, and even though he knew it was at least partly coming out of his own embarrassment, he still gave Jordon a shit about his hobby. A black kid living in a small town in the middle of nowhere with a solder gun and a synth-punk obsession was, he argued, legitimately funny.

A cop was standing in front of them waiting for his order, talking on a big Samsung. All the town cops were wearing the little orange-ribbon memorial pins on their uniforms, which Denny thought was a bit of a ballsy move: a lot of people in town blamed them for not stopping Kip sooner. The ribbons were everywhere, but Friendly’s was a bit more understated than most of the places in town. Maybe they figured that it’d be better not to remind people about the town’s tragedy when all they wanted was a Jim Dandy Sundae.

Denny took a booth by the back. He didn’t know why, it just felt weird to be on display. It also probably had something to do with the TV bolted to the wall, which was still on a continuous loop of shooting news. They were talking about Kip’s “associations” as they passed by.

Jordon slipped in to the bench across from Denny. “How is that for you?” he asked.

“How’s what for me?”

“The stuff about Kip. I know you guys were close.”

Denny shrugged, feeling cold. “We were,” he said, “but not so much since he got out of prison.”

“No?” Jordon said. “So I guess he didn’t invite you to his Nazi parties?”

Denny chuckled awkwardly as if he got the joke, even though he didn’t. He looked up at Jordon, who was keeping a pretty straight face. “Wait,” he said, “what are you talking about?”

“Come on,” he said. “Don’t try to play me like that.”

“Like what? What the hell are you talking about?”

“You acting like all this is news,” he said, gesturing behind Denny at the TV. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

Denny twisted around on the bench to see Kip’s picture on the screen, enhanced to highlight the neck tattoos he’d gotten at the Terre Haute prison camp: “14” on one side and “88” on the other.

“You know what those tats mean,” Jordon said, “right?”

“No,” Denny said. “But why do I get the sense you’re about to tell me.”

“Shit.” Jordon raised both eyebrows in genuine surprise. “You really had no idea, huh?”

“No idea of what? Explain it to me like I’m five, man.”

Jordon looked to the side, like he was trying to find somebody else to handle this for him, then turned back, looking down. “The 88 means Heil Hitler,” he explained. “H is the eighth letter, so two 8s is two H’s: H for Heil, H for Hitler. The 14 is another one of their slogans, I don’t remember exactly what it stands for. But he was a white supremacist, Dennis. Your boy Kip was a Nazi.”

Denny thought about it. It actually made a lot of sense: he had been spending more and more time with pieces of shit like Billy McKendrick, who everybody said was an actual Klansman. Denny figured the only reason Billy didn’t just walk around in KKK drag all the time was because he was so much of a pig that his white sheet would be covered in barbecue stains and dip drool. Kip and Denny had started drifting apart years before he got sent to Terre Haute, and Kip had gotten a lot darker and more intense after he got out.

“I guess it never came up.” Jordon’s face was impassive, but scorn dripped from his voice.

“Don,” Denny began. He opened his mouth but nothing came out. It had never occurred to him to question what it was like for Jordon to be who he was, where he was, in a mostly white town where everybody either told racist jokes or heard them. Denny thought he himself wasn’t racist, although from Jordon’s perspective he wondered how big a difference it made that he just pretended to laugh at the jokes rather than telling them.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Denny said. “You’re right, I had my head up my ass, I guess.”

Jordon shrugged. “In Jesus Junction,” he said, “it ain’t hard to do.”

The TV show changed, and Denny felt something unclench inside. They started talking about girls, and Jordon went on and on about Denny’s exes for what seemed like forever to Denny.

“Man, how come you kept doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“Trying to trade up, I mean,” Jordon said. “You kept playing women like miniature golf, always lining up the next hole.”

“That’s… that’s a messed-up way to put it.”

Jordon lifted a shoulder. “Show me the lie.”

#

Denny did end up googling the 14-88 thing. And Jordon had been right: the 88 was for Hitler, and the 14 was a reference to something called “the 14 Words,” which was apparently a big deal to white supremacists. It went “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” which to Denny seemed like kind of a bland motto, except for the whole Nazi part.

His phone vibrated and he saw Hailey’s number on the screen. He let the call go to voicemail. Hailey Duane had been Kip’s girlfriend from about junior year onward, and Denny had always been sort of fascinated by her. Her dad was military, her mom was from the Philippines or Malaysia or someplace where the women were sleek and mocha. Hailey ended up with a face like a Forever 21 model, bisected by high, razor-sharp cheekbones tapering to a sort of an elfin chin. Denny always kept his distance: Hailey was Kip’s girl, even when she wasn’t anymore. It was that combination of attraction and taboo that still, even now, made his hormones jump every time her face popped up on his Facebook. She had even messaged him directly once and it was like an espresso shot right to Denny’s veins, but she seemed off, like she was high or just out of it. Denny didn’t want to risk fucking things up with her so he never followed up. There were more nights than he could count, though, where he lulled himself to sleep with fantasies about how it might have gone. Embarrassing, teenage shit.

Denny played back the voicemail. Something about Kip’s mom Veronica, “Ronnie,” how Hailey was going to see her. Kip’s mom was a piece of work: every time Denny was over their house, his mom was either wasted or off with whoever was the latest boyfriend to guest-star in the drama of those years. Kip and Denny had gotten high off her supply a bunch of times, and—almost—never gotten caught. After Kip got sent to Terre Haute, the word was that his mom just spiraled down the way old pillheads always seemed to. Denny felt a bit shitty about the fact that he had just assumed she was dead.

He called Hailey back. She was in her car on the way over, the gray noise of wind a counterpoint to her flat voice on the phone. She’d gotten a call that made her nervous: Ronnie was incoherent, mumbling, saying random shit about “the night,” things like that which Hailey didn’t understand and frightened her. Would Denny come?

Denny wasn’t sure why he said yes. He didn’t feel any loyalty to Ronnie that made him want to get caught up in her mess, and he didn’t want to start something with Hailey – at least he didn’t think so. Either way, it seemed like a shitty way to try and get laid, but he said yes anyway, slipping into his jacket and grabbing his keys. He had to go back for his wallet.

Ronnie lived in the Bentwood Arms now, a miserable excuse for an apartment building that looked as haunted and skeletal as the name sounded. Hailey’s old blue Mitsubishi Eclipse was parked in the lot out front, and Denny pulled the Escort in next to it. He went in and Hailey opened the door, Ronnie reeling in the background.

“She’s freaking out, I don’t, I don’t know what…”

The room was cluttered with groceries, papers piled on the floor in drifts, random bits of furniture that looked trashpicked, magazines everywhere. Spoiled-milk funk in the air. Hailey kept freaking out as Ronnie staggered around the room and Denny wanted nothing more than to turn around, get back in his car, and forget any of this shit had even happened. But he didn’t. He couldn’t.

“Did you call 911?” Denny reached out and gripped Hailey’s shoulders. Her eyes finally focused on him, biting her panic back.

“I…” she took a shallow, shuddering breath. “No. No, I didn’t know…”

Denny took his phone out and started to dial. He got a hit of Hailey’s confusion, because he didn’t know what to report, other than an old lady acting crazy. He stopped. “Ronnie,” he called, but she was lost in her own world, staggering from the living room towards a shadowed hallway at the back of the unit. Denny caught up to her and spun her around. Her eyes drifted loose in her head, her hair thin and wild, standing out from her head in wispy curls. “Ronnie!” Denny shouted. “Veronica! Mrs. Seaver!”

“Sterwitz,” she snapped, her lips barely moving. “It’s… I’m… Sterwitz…” She sagged and her knees began to buckle. Denny followed her down, holding her arms and squatting as she slumped to the floor. She seemed to have no weight at all, her bones hollow like a bird’s.

“What did you take?” Denny tried to raise her chin, but her eyes began to roll back and her body went limp. He shot out a hand to try and catch her but only managed to push her shoulder to one side as she collapsed.

“Oh my god…” Hailey’s voice was low and terrified. “Is she…”

“Go look in the bedroom,” Denny said, his voice sharper than he intended. “Look in the bathroom. See if there’s anything, like Xanax or whatever, something that would knock her out.” He held a hand up to her nostrils and felt the faintest sensation of breath. Good. The phone was an arm’s length away where he had dropped it, and he dialed one-handed as he fumbled at her wrist. He couldn’t find a pulse, but realized he didn’t really know how to check anyway. He probably couldn’t find his own.

The paramedics came and said she was breathing, but shallowly. Hailey had found a near-empty bottle of Buspar and an empty pint of Smirnoff rootbeer-float vodka in her bedroom, and told the cops so as the ambulance sped off. Denny collapsed on Ronnie’s couch, spent. He was more than a little surprised when Hailey asked him to come home with her.

#

She was living in one of the new-ish condos down by Green Knoll Park. It was clean, and actually pretty styled-up inside: a mix of mid-century modern and IKEA.

Hailey took a big bottle of California red out of the fridge and offered Denny a glass. He couldn’t really get why people drank cold red wine, but alcohol was alcohol. She offered him a chair and sat on the edge of the couch near him. They talked about anything other than Kip’s mom, than Kip, than the hog plant. She had been a radiologist for more than three years and was thinking about getting her associate’s. Denny stared at the line of her throat as she drank, the understated earrings. She was still a moth orbiting the bug-zapper that was Jesus Junction, he thought, but there were depths to her, ambitions he’d never suspected in high school.

He was caught completely unaware when she leaned in and kissed him. You fucking idiot, he thought. He had been playing it cool, respectful, and made her be the aggressor instead of being a man about it. He got so hard so fast that it hurt. She pulled hungrily at him and he slid against her, plunging in as far as he could go. She cried out and bucked her hips against him, driving him faster and faster. Denny felt a surge at the base of his cock with growing alarm, and tried to slow the rhythm as best he could, but her want and his own defeated him. His orgasm was intense and overwhelming, but the pleasure was replaced by shame almost immediately. Denny didn’t think he’d lasted a minute.

He went down on her, as much to avoid the look on her face as out of gallantry. He sucked and stroked her, nearly gagging on the taste and smell of his own cum, until she came mercifully quickly. He wiped his face on the sheet in embarrassment before rolling back to lie at her side. She gave him a cat’s grin and kissed him gently. “Such a good boy,” she teased, licking at his chin.

#

Denny woke up, hungover as shit, in his own bed, alone. He felt a melodramatic sort of longing for Hailey, which made no sense. She didn’t, and was never going to, have the kind of feelings for him where turning whatever the hell that had been into a romance made any sense. He was her booty call, nothing more. Just hangover sadness fucking with his brain chemistry.

His phone lit with a notification. Shit. The funeral. Denny jumped out of bed and dropped his boxer briefs on the way to the bathroom. He turned the water on full cold, clenched his teeth and plunged under the spray, felt every muscle contract as a high squeal escaped his throat.

Lamoureux Funeral Home was on the far side of town by the old grain elevators. It was aggressively bland, with gray plastic siding and a lawn that was almost definitely fake. Steel grates covered the windows, to deal with what was apparently an ever-present danger of mortuary thieves.

Even though Ronnie was still at County Medical, everybody had apparently decided to go ahead without her. Denny filed in with the others, wearing his one good suit. He saw some faces he knew, a lot that he didn’t. Towards the back of the hall were a couple of guys in suits even cheaper-looking than Denny’s, big dudes with close cropped hair and tats visible even past the collars and cuffs of dress shirts. One of them caught his eye, a dude he recognized… fuck. Billy McKendrick. He rolled over, filing up space with his outsize aura, people instinctively moving away from him.

“You knew him from high school, right?”

“Before,” Denny said. “We rode the bus together in middle school.”

Billy nodded. “You know he’s a hero, right?”

Denny stared, like words had suddenly lost meaning.

“There’s a reason he did this,” the dude continued. “Don’t believe the media when they call him ‘disturbed’ or what-the-fuck-ever, and don’t buy the bullshit that it was some kind of grudge at work. He was a sworn Drop-Out.”

Denny could hear the capital letters in his tone. “What’s that?” He wanted to know, and also really didn’t want to know. “What’s a Drop-Out?”

Billy smiled, like he was explaining a private joke. “A Drop-Out is somebody who knows that society has deteriorated past where anything can be salvaged or gradually reformed by following politics or written law.” His voice had a cadence to it, like a sermon or a rehearsed speech. “I know you don’t understand it – yet – but it’s an enlightenment that’s coming, and you’ll either get it or you won’t. Josiah was determined to unleash iron justice even at the cost of his life. Agree or not, you have to respect what he did.”

“Kip hated that name,” Denny said absently.

“He believed in blood, honor and loyalty,” Billy went on as if Denny hadn’t said anything. Words in capitals again: Blood. Honor. Loyalty. “He knew that even killing every last political whore, bureaucratic pig, and shabbes goy won’t bring down the Zionist occupation government, but actions like his start shockwaves of paranoia that ignite massive confusion and stir discord.”

Denny felt his mind shut down like a cornered animal, heart racing. His crew was chatting among themselves and not paying any attention to him. Nothing was keeping him from turning and walking away, but he couldn’t. Once he’d watched spider paralyze a potato bug it had caught in its web.

Billy smiled thinly. His malice was concentrated, room-temperature hate. “Anyway,” he said, “I just wanted to check in with you. I know you and Josiah had history. You need anything, you come and call on us. You know Fumducks, on 421?”

Everybody knew the shithole biker bar with the stupid name. Denny found himself nodding, almost in reflex, before he could stop himself.

Billy clenched a fist casually, like a salute, like a wave. “Good talk,” he said, turning on a heel.

Denny’s heart wouldn’t get back to its normal rhythm until he was miles down the road.

#

Jordon called while Denny was still driving aimlessly across White County, trying to get keyed back down. Denny put him on handsfree and mostly listened as Jordon talked about the band he was putting together. “Like Six Finger Satellite,” he was saying, “but more hardcore.” Denny said he’d think about it and explained that he was just coming back from the funeral. Jordon made sympathetic noises and let him go. Denny decided it was good enough to let Jordon think he was distracted by grief.

Kip, even in the days before prison twisted him into whatever he’d become, always made fun of his music, called it “faggy,” blasting Slayer or Slipknot or one of those darker Scandinavian death metal bands. He’d dropped out of the band, even as he and Kip were growing apart.

Remember. Kip’s last word rattled around Denny’s brain. Remember the fuck what, exactly what? Denny wanted to be pissed about the mindfuck that Kip had left him, but what about Daisy Waller’s family? What about Jaksin’s?

He called Hailey from the car and showed up at her apartment in mourner’s clothes instead of going home. They fucked again, and this time he was able to put in a little more respectable performance before busting his nut.

They lay there in the post-game languor, sharing one of her Marlboro Lights as she talked about a friend Vince in Chicago who was looking for roommates. “It’s a real world there,” she said. “Real people, having real lives, not this fucking town of death.” She turned to him. “You feel it too, right? The death cult? The way the people feed on it?”

“Yeah,” Denny said, though he felt like he lost the thread. “Chicago is cool,” he added lamely.

“I’m fucking getting out,” she said. “You should, too. This town will drag you under.”

She stubbed out the Marlboro and went to piss. Denny wiped his dick absently on a sheet, wondering about death, about Jesus Junction, about the Drop-Outs. She had a point. The town was circling the drain, and he could swirl down through it or do something.

“You got anything to drink?” he called.

#

The next afternoon, Denny sat alone on a bluff above the river, a tallboy at his feet. Him and Jordon used to come up here, back in the Saigon Cyberdust days. He thought about the kid he was back then, before everything he ever did had to involve alcohol or weed or pills or all three.

A bird was singing, a sort of whittering whistle. The word “whippoorwill” came into his head. Was that the kind of bird it was? He wasn’t sure.

He grew up hating the Denny he had been. Painfully fucking earnest, spending all his time reading books or playing bass, nurturing a stupid dream that music might mean anything at all. Instead he spent years trying to be someone he wasn’t even sure he wanted to be, still looking up to someone who might never have actually existed. Being a precious, pretentious little nerd looked almost like nobility compared to that.

His phone vibrated. He looked down and saw Hailey’s name on the screen.

The lights of the town were around the bend to his right. Him and Jordon liked this place because you could look out and not see the strip malls, the megachurches, the stinking hog plant or any of the bland sameness of the tract houses that sprawled over Jesus Junction. Hills rolled off into the distance, the setting sun behind scudding clouds.

The phone vibrated. Voicemail.

The birdsong came again.

Whip-poor-will.


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