Introduction by Calvert Morgan
It’s hot today, the first of this year’s really hot Sundays, and what I’m feeling as I write this is what Brandon Taylor evokes in the title story of his new collection: to sit within the now is oppressive, it draws life right out of you, but midnight always comes and things are moving in the middle distance and soon enough—like it or not—we’ll all be moving too. So what do we do until then? What do we do before everything breaks?
Taylor’s gift is his ability to hold you in that now, like a dragster gunning against the brake until the rubber starts to smoke. He opens “Filthy Animals” in a moment of complete torpor; it’s a daredevil move for a writer who wants to seize our attention, but then Taylor never fails to arrest us. His language, in that first scene, is as thick and irrefutable as the basement air: Milton and Nolan stew in the musky heat. Woolly Christmas garlands and old coats peer at them from corners. Milton is so drowsy, so lazily high, he can barely expel himself from his beanbag chair. But Nolan, in his eye-searing orange hoodie, has brought a different posture: How are you this wasted already? Tate and Abe say there’s a burner on the hill. Watch how their dialogue cuts through the funk:
Unless you wanna waste a good high in your fucking basement.
You’re such a little girl sometimes.
And there it is—provocation, demurral, insinuation, jab and feint and jab, a goading pantomime that somehow contains all the savagery to come.
When I first read Filthy Animals, the collection, this was the story that astonished me most. Nolan marches Milton off not just to a party but to a kind of gauntlet, a dizzying confrontation with everything unresolved: his uncharted future, his unacknowledged love for Nolan, his uncertain engagement with the blunt force of adulthood. Up on Glad Hill—that name!—we watch, heart in hand, as Milton is drawn, taunted, forced into unwanted intimacies, until the evening’s unruly energy finally resolves into violence. And afterward, as Milton contemplates his “boxed-up boyhood,” we wonder not only what he will choose—Idaho or elsewhere—but how he will learn to live, there or anywhere, and to reckon with the tenderness in his heart.
– Calvert Morgan
Executive Editor, Riverhead Books
[Brandon Taylor is an editor-at-large for Recommended Reading]
One Last Night with the Worst Best Friends
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“Filthy Animals” by Brandon Taylor
Milton and Nolan stew in the musky heat of Milton’s basement, sipping lukewarm coffee from styrofoam cups. Upstairs, Milton’s parents watch the news and clear away the remnants of dinner, their footsteps and the clattering of dishes in the sink like thunder. Nolan’s busy on his phone, trying to find out what their other friends are doing—there might be a party later. Woolly Christmas garlands and old coats peer at them from corners.
The night is just getting started, but Milton is already a little drowsy. Low music plays, a riff on a riff on a riff of some song by the Cardigans, sped up and looped infinitely over a soft electro‑synth.
“You drowsing or what? It’s all this sleepy‑ass music.”
“I’m good, I’m good,” Milton says, and tries to sit upright on the beanbag chair, but it’s seen better days and he almost dumps himself on the floor.
“How are you this wasted already?”
“It’s my birthday,” Milton says. “I’ll do what I want.”
“Tate and Abe say there’s a burner on the hill.”
Burner means that there will be ten to fifteen people they vaguely know and kerosene‑soaked rags torched in metal barrels. Cheap whiskey, cheap beer for the Christians. Coke, molly, and weed for the true believers. Heavy bass pumping from the mudder trucks—Kendrick and Luke Bryan in some kind of awful mash‑up like a diversity poster. Tommy Boy cologne, white polos, Wallabees, and dark denim turned white in the crotch and ass from wear. Exhausting.
“Unless you wanna waste a good high in your fucking basement,” Nolan says, his gaze leveled on Milton.
“You’re such a little girl sometimes.”
Milton shimmies his jeans up over his basketball shorts and pulls on a gray sweater made for him by his grandmother from the wool of Sturdy Matilda, her bossy ewe. “Get up, lazy.”
Nolan is already dressed in his jeans and eye‑searing orange hoodie. They’re almost the same height, and people sometimes mistake them for siblings. Nolan is beige and drenched in freckles. Milton has only one black grandparent, but Nolan calls him a pale-ass nigga just the same. Milton doesn’t see a resemblance except for the parts of them that aren’t white.
On his feet, Nolan punches Milton in the gut, then bounds up the stairs. Milton stomps after him, grabbing at his heels. They emerge into the back hall, and Nolan jerks the door open and sprints out through the garage to the safety of the driveway. Milton catches sight of his mother in the living room.
“Where you boys off to?” The gentle music of her voice makes Milton shift awkwardly near the door. He rests his hand on the outside knob. She’s folding a thick blanket.
“The hill, I guess.”
“Make sure you’re back before too late.” There’s something else, he knows, but she won’t bring it up.
“All right, yes, ma’am,” he says.
“Milton,” his father says from the kitchen. The news plays through the ending credits. Wheel of Fortune will be on soon. His father’s tall and solid. He watches Milton over his glasses and that long straight nose of his.
“Sir?” Milton asks. Nolan kicks a pinecone from foot to foot at the end of the driveway. Milton waits for his father to say what he needs to say.
“Having a good one?”
“Yes, Pop,” Milton says. “I am.”
“Get back safe.”
“Yep?” Milton puts his forehead to the white grain of the door. Nolan’s on his phone in the yard. His father twists a white towel around the inside of a glass bowl, though it must certainly be dry by now. The opening music of Wheel of Fortune enters the living room, and the glow from the television illuminates the side of his mother’s face. Her pale brown eyes are on him, too. He thinks for a moment that they’re going to stop him. It’s his birthday. Let me have this one thing, he thinks. This one thing. Before it’s all gone. His eyes sting a little.
“Thanks, Pop,” Milton says, and he gently taps the door with his fist. His mother smiles at him and turns to the television. His father goes back through the kitchen doorway. Milton shuts the door behind him, lets it click firmly, and steps out into the cold.
It’s the very beginning of November, and the early evening sky is the color of crushed lilacs. A thick forest of pine trees encircles their subdivision, and beyond that, in the distance, is the shadow of the mountain, one of those low hills at the cusp of Appalachia in northern Alabama. Standing in his driveway, Milton cranes his neck back and stares out over the top of his house and the next and the next, all the way into the city that has been built into this mountain, its lights like a string of pearls. Wood smoke crests on the air. He’s trying to fix the image of the mountain in his mind, because soon he’ll be halfway across the country, shoved down into a valley.
After winter break, Milton’s parents are sending him to what they are calling an “enrichment program.” For the entire spring, he’s going to be on a small farm in Idaho, trying to make something of himself. No phone. No internet. Nothing but the hard slopes of the hills and what he imagines to be the vast plain of the sky, studded with stars, streaked with clouds. They have been disappointed with the shape his life has taken, and this is their last attempt, they say, their last big effort. Milton doesn’t know what they want from him. He’s seventeen today, and he feels that he should have more control over his life than he has. Nolan’s got it easy by comparison—his parents give him whatever he wants.
Last week, on Glad Hill, he and Nolan got popped buying the pot they smoked earlier. Tate and Abe had said that this was it, this was the end of high cotton, and Nolan had shrugged. Nothing came of it, of course. No charge materialized, because it turned out that the cop who’d busted him had beaten a domestic charge the year before, thanks to Nolan’s dad. The thing that bugs Milton about it is not that Nolan gets off all the time. Nolan complained about his dad after the fact. He said he loved me, Nolan said. They don’t give a shit. It gets on Milton’s nerves. Nolan wouldn’t enjoy being treated like an animal circling his parents’ love like a too‑small enclosure. Milton would just like a little elbow room.
On the night Nolan got popped, the same cop delivered Milton home in the back of the cruiser, but didn’t turn the lights on. Instead, he sent Milton out into the cool night on unsteady legs, tipsy and a little queasy. His parents looked at him as though from a precipice and shook their heads. No, that’s it, Milton. No more chances. How many times was that already since spring? Four? Five? No, Nolan wouldn’t like it one bit, parents whose love had a long, reproachful memory.
Idaho had materialized as a vague threat in September, and that threat had grown ever more solid until they came into his room a few days before and laid it all out for him. His father had put the pamphlet in his hand. Milton had taken it, though he couldn’t meet their gazes. His room smelled damp on that day. Outside, he could hear music from a few houses over. Maybe it was best that he got some time away. That he spent some time on his own, learning how to be a man on his own terms. To see what the world would hold for him if he kept on this way. But Milton had wanted to ask them, What way? Because he drank? Because he smoked? Because he ran with Nolan and Tate and Abe? Because he’d stopped going to church? Because he stopped praying? He had sat clenching the slick, laminated pamphlet, its cover featuring a tough‑looking boy with a white line down his face, on one side smirking, sneering, mean, and on the other a stern, hard gaze. But Milton couldn’t tell which was meant to be the before and which was supposed to be the after. He’d stared at the pamphlet, thinking, What’s so wrong with me?
They said they’d write him letters when he went—or his mom had, anyway. His dad said nothing except that he expected him to do something with this chance, not to piss it away.
“Come on,” Nolan says.
Milton squares his shoulders. He hasn’t told Nolan about Idaho or the camp yet, but soon he’ll have to. After Thanksgiving break they’ll have finals, and then Christmas vacation, and then it’s Idaho. He shoves his hands in his pockets. He can hear how pathetic he will sound if he’s like I have to tell you something or There’s something I gotta say. Like he’s about to ask Nolan to prom or to the fucking movies. There’s no way to get into it that isn’t dramatic or stupid. It’s all like showing off or making a scene. He can’t get it out and downplay it at the same time. So he keeps it to himself. He’ll text or something on the way to the airport. That’s when he’ll say it, when there’s no turning back, when the suddenness of the information will flash and disappear in the same instant. Easy. Simple.
The homes in the subdivision are all the same two levels, squat in the front and narrow in the back. They’re in shades of pale blue and ecru, with hunter‑green shutters. Even the mailboxes are the same matte black plastic at the ends of the driveways. It’s a wonder that they don’t all wander into and out of one another’s homes by accident, so remarkably identical are these houses, and as they wind past them, Milton wonders, as he always does, if each house harbors some better, happier version of himself, and if so, who does that make him, on the sidewalk with Nolan, if not the failed twin—the bad news come to rest at the door of his true self, the real Milton, the one not meant for Idaho in the spring.
“You on one tonight,” Nolan says. “You could have stayed in your basement.”
“I wish you would drop that,” Milton snaps.
“Titty Baby’s all upset.”
“Stop pretending to know shit about how I feel,” Milton says. They’re outside Hank Dayton’s place at the edge of the subdivision. Hank’s beat‑up Chevy drips oil onto the pavement.
Nolan frowns, then scowls, then takes a step toward him. “This is the shit I’m talking about,” Nolan says as he sticks a finger directly into Milton’s chest. “Just what is up your ass?”
“I said I’m good.” Milton pushes up against Nolan’s finger, and Nolan shoves him. Milton shoves back, and they grip at each other’s shoulders, their feet shifting for purchase. Their shoes scrape across the pavement, and Nolan calls him a pussy, a fag, a bitch‑ass nigga. But the heat has gone out of the grappling, and they’re wheezing for breath by the end of it.
“You lucky it’s your birthday,” Nolan says. He spits thick and white down between his knees. Milton finds his breath more easily than Nolan. His pulse slows.
“We can go again.”
“Quit playing.” Nolan puts his hand up to stop Milton from getting closer. Milton slaps at his palm. They knock fists, let it go. They cut into the woods, and as they go, Milton raises his fingertips to his neck where Nolan had put him in a headlock. He’s burning there. Alive with heat.
As kids, they had made a game of testing each other’s courage by seeing who could go farthest into the woods at night. They’d shut their eyes and dart ahead as if they could beat their fear with speed.
“Do you remember that game we used to play out here?” he asks.
Milton steps over a thick branch downed in his way, and Nolan scrapes up alongside him, almost tripping. “Jesus.”
“We used to go through here without looking,” Milton says. “Used to.”
Their footsteps throw up a soft rustle as they move across the bed of leaves and sticks. Milton feels his way ahead with his feet, searching for hidden dangers. Nolan bumps against him occasionally, and Milton commits these nudges to memory along with the shape of the mountain pressing against the night sky.
“Who are you texting anyway? Abe?”
“No, not Abe. Nobody, really.”
“Somebody,” Milton teases. “Can’t be nobody, can it?”
“None of your business, anyway, is it?”
“None of my business,” Milton repeats. “Sure.”
“Do you really want to know? That’s weird, right? But I’ll tell you if you want to know.”
“If you wanted to tell me, you would have.” There is more meaning to Milton’s voice than he intends, but he cannot deny the truth of it or how much it bothers him. Perhaps it’s that soon he’ll be gone and whoever is on the other end of that phone will remain. That even when Milton’s gone, Nolan will be able to speak to this other person, and so this moment may be the last time he and Nolan will walk together through these woods, among the shadows of their history. He grins, pushes at Nolan’s shoulder. “Don’t be so sensitive.”
“We’re almost there,” Nolan says. Milton catches the tilt of the sky through the trees overhead. The incline underfoot pitches higher.
“Man, look. You got something to say, then say it. You hate me? What?”
“I mean, you know, if you’re sick of my shit, I get it. I don’t think it’s fair, but I get it.”
“I don’t even know what that means, Nolan.”
“It means if you’re sick of my shit, I get it. I would be.”
“I’m not sick of your shit,” Milton says, but Nolan isn’t looking at him. He’s back on his phone, scrolling.
“Because I didn’t jump up right away to go hang out with fucking Abe? Come on.”
“Why do you hate him so much?”
“I don’t hate him. I don’t hate anybody,” Milton says. They’re at the edge of the woods now. The park is a series of gentle green slopes, trees, paths, and farther on, a playground of sorts. In the distance, he sees a couple of people with dogs tossing colored disks in the low light of evening. The sound of traffic from the nearby road washes in like the sound of the ocean.
“Don’t cry, man,” Nolan says, and Milton almost screams.
“Shut up,” he says.
“Are you gonna cry about it?”
“Cry about what, Nolan?”
“Hell if I know, you won’t tell me anything.”
“Well, that should tell you everything, shouldn’t it? What’s to tell?”
When they reach Glad Hill, people are gathered around an orange fire in a barrel. Music plays from a portable speaker nearby. Milton doesn’t recognize anyone except for Tate and Abe, of course, and one or two others. Abe is enormous, well over six feet and bulky. He resembles a large, white bull, with a massive head and a forehead that juts forward. Tate is almost hilariously thin, reedy and short. He has crooked teeth but a good, kind face. He is neither good nor kind, however, and his favorite act of violence is to burn holes into people’s clothes when they aren’t looking.
Compared with Nolan, they are rough and dull. But then, compared with Nolan, anyone would seem lesser, made of inferior stuff, Milton included. Abe and Tate bring out the worst in Nolan, excite the animal part in him. The last time they were all together, smoking in the woods and drinking cheap beer, Tate gripped Nolan’s arm, hauled him up, and punched him. Not a hard punch. Tate could never hurt Nolan. But the surprise of the act, the vicious courage of it, made Nolan stagger. Milton was up off the ground in an instant, gripping Tate’s throat, but Nolan pushed him aside, and headbutted Tate one hard time. And then, in the evening, they were all over each other, he and Tate and Abe and Milton, throwing fists and elbows. They fought for what felt like hours, but for what must have been only minutes, biting and scratching and punching.
After that fight, Abe and Tate went home together, shouting and shoving. Nolan reached for Milton’s raw, ugly hand. The scabbed edges of their fingertips brushed once, and then no more.
Here, tonight, with the fire going loud and brilliant, Milton tightens up. Abe cracks a loose grin.
“Millie,” he says.
“Fuck you, Abraham.”
Abe smiles—a cold dagger in the night.
“’Sup, No Dick?”
Nolan gives Abe the finger, which elicits a hoot. Abe slaps his hand against his thick thigh and then stands up. “Beer’s in the cooler, ladies.”
“God, I hate him,” Nolan says with a shake of his head.
“Could have fooled me,” Milton says.
“Well.” There’s nothing to say. They’re here. Milton finds a place under some trees and squats. Around the tree from him, some skinny kid is going at it with a girl. Their wet kissing sounds to him like slugs being peeled apart. Nolan’s standing with Abe and Tate, talking. He’s gesturing broadly with his hands, telling some story or another. Abe’s expression is placid and gentle. Abe used to be good—sweet, even. They were all in Sunday school together, the four of them. But then something had gone wrong in each of them, something turning suddenly hard and cold and malicious. A wildness in them waking up after a long hibernation.
Milton hears Nolan’s voice over the music—he’s making a sound like gunfire, spraying all the people around them with bullets made of air.
“Keep the change, you filthy animal,” Nolan says, and more gunfire rains down on them. It’s that scene from Home Alone where there’s a movie playing, an old movie, and the man on the screen pulls out a gun and shoots someone who had come to betray him or something like that. Nolan aims his fingergun squarely at Milton’s chest and fires as if he, too, were nothing more than an animal. The gesture’s cruelty jolts him momentarily, and in an instant, an awful transfiguration: Nolan, the hunter, fierce and terrible, come to shoot them all down. Milton digs his fingers into the ground to steady himself.
There’s a hand on his shoulder, and Milton jumps. A girl he doesn’t know.
“Hey,” she says, “isn’t it your birthday?”
“How did you know?”
“I saw it online. We’re friends there.”
“We are?” Milton strains to remember where he has seen her face before. At school, maybe, or out with everyone like tonight. But she is plainly pretty, pale and blond with delicate features. He’s familiar with the look, everything straightened and cleared, frosted and dyed and perfect.
“We are,” she says. Her voice is musical and high. “I’m Edie.”
“Oh, I know. Happy birthday, by the way.”
“Thanks,” he says. Even though he doesn’t ask her to or make a gesture that’s welcoming or open, she sits next to him.
“Shouldn’t you be out celebrating?”
“What do you think I’m doing?” he asks, and she rolls her eyes at him.
“I know, it’s great.”
“Then why are you here?” she asks.
“Nolan wanted to come, and I couldn’t tell him no.”
“That boy,” she says, and it makes Milton lean toward her.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, I don’t know. People have a hard time telling him no. Or he has a hard time hearing it, I should say.” There’s something resigned about the way that sounds to him, and Milton wants to press her on it, but before he can, Abe and Nolan have made their way over.
“You can’t sit around here talking all night. We gotta get you high,” Nolan says. Then, noticing Edie, he smiles. “Hello, Edie.”
“Nolan,” she drawls.
“How you been?”
“Oh, you know.” She shrugs.
“How’s your sister?” Nolan asks, and something mean catches the underside of his words. But Edie sighs, rises from the ground. Abe snickers to himself nearby. Edie turns her head subtly, her eyes ranging over all their faces. They are not alone. They are at the edge of the crowd. The holler and hoop of the others. The music pressing down on them all, percussive, driving in the way Nolan remembers church music to be. So solid in its presence that he had once asked his mother if it was the Holy Spirit, and she had laughed and said, No, boy, that’s just the drums. Edie’s shoulders open and she tilts her chin up stiffly.
“Better every day,” she says firmly.
“Glad to hear it,” Nolan says. “Praise the Lord.”
“On high,” she says, her voice a wavering song. Then, with a glance at Milton, a failing smile, she slides between Nolan and Abe, and then she is gone.
“What was that all about?” Milton asks, but Nolan has already turned away from him toward Abe.
“You got it?”
“Then I need to see Tate. Don’t go anywhere,” Nolan says directly to Milton, who nods. He, too, leaves. Abe leans against the tree and folds his arms behind his head. Milton’s digging in the ground with his shoe.
“When are you going to get it over with?” Abe asks.
“Get what over with?”
Abe smiles. He comes away from the tree toward Milton, and Milton takes a step back, roots himself against the ground, bracing. Abe leans down and whispers, wet against Milton’s ear: “When are you going to suck his dick? It’s getting pathetic.”
“Fuck you, Ahab,” Milton says, but he’s shaken by it. For a moment he worries that Abe’s voice has carried to Nolan, who is just a few feet away.
“Oh, it’s not me you want to fuck,” he says, licking his lips.
“I’m not the fag.”
“I didn’t say you were,” Abe says, calmly, evenly. “I said you wanted to suck Nolan’s dick.”
“Please shut up.”
“There’s no shame,” he says. “I mean, I don’t blame you. It’s nice.”
“Oh, and what do you know?”
“Plenty,” he says, and then steps backward. There’s a small drop‑off, where you slide down until you’re standing under the crest of the hill. Abe vanishes. Milton follows him through the veil of gray night, down the grassy hill.
“What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about,” Abe says, even as he’s reaching for Milton’s pants to undo them. Milton grabs Abe’s thick wrists, stills him.
“What is it you think I know?”
“Oh, you have to know,” Abe says. “About Nolan and those girls and me. He had to have told you.”
“No,” Milton says, his mouth dry. “I don’t know anything about it.” Abe grips him through his pants, and he’s hard, against his will, he’s hard. Abe starts to pump his dick through his jeans, and he smirks.
“Well, last week, he says, hey, bud, I got this girl. She and her friend are a couple of freaks, do you want to come over? I say, yes. I come over. They’re already naked, going at it, licking each other all over like a bunch of cats.”
“You’re lying,” Milton says. Abe guffaws, soft and deep. He pushes open Milton’s jeans and grips his bare cock. Abe’s hand is warm and rough.
“I’m not. One of the girls gets real antsy about it. Nolan’s already poking around inside of her, and she’s like, no, you gotta stop, you gotta stop. And Nolan is like, let me finish, and I’ll stop.”
Abe is pumping him harder and faster, rough. It hurts, but it also feels good, and it’s that first time that someone has wanted to touch him, has seemed to need it the way Abe does. His eyes are hungry and wet.
“So he’s like, no, I’m gonna finish, and she’s whining and crying, and I’m like, shut that bitch up, I’m losing my hard‑on, and her friend is like, no, no please, let us go home, and I’m like, shit, man, it’s not worth it.”
Milton pulls away from Abe, but Abe has gripped the back of his neck and kisses him now, hard. He pulls away again, and this time, Abe has had it, pushes him up against the hill, leans in and growls.
“What’s your problem, man? You want this or not? They’re gonna be here any minute.”
“Want what?” Milton asks, and then, looking down, remembers his cock and how hard it is, and how damp. But there is also the hellish image of those girls in that room, trapped with them, wanting nothing but to go home, to be anywhere but there. “I don’t want anything.”
“Then do mine,” he says, pushing his hips forward. “Come on, it’s almost there anyway.”
“No,” Milton says.
“Come on.” Abe takes Milton’s hand and puts it on his dick, and after a moment, Milton does it, gives in, takes Abe into his hand, and strokes him until he comes quietly, his face nestled in the crook of Milton’s neck.
Tate and Nolan slide down the hill and find them sitting on the ground.
“Got the shit,” Nolan says. Milton can barely look at him. Nolan sits on a rock next to him, and Milton tries not to breathe because he cannot trust himself not to turn the air into words. Nolan rolls a joint and hands it to Milton. “Your birthday, you start.”
Milton lights up first, even though he can still feel the joint from earlier in the day. He takes a long inhale. He hands the joint off to Nolan, holds the smoke inside, lets it build. Then he lets it glide out, slow and easy.
“What were you and Edie talking about?” Nolan asks.
“She wished me a happy birthday,” he says.
“Is that all?”
“Yeah—how do you know her?”
“I don’t. Not really. I know her sister better,” Nolan says, and there’s a not a crack in his voice or his face, nothing to suggest anything more than a passing acquaintance. Abe chokes on the joint. Nolan shrugs casually. He takes a hit off the joint. The red bead of its lit end is angry with heat, like a sore.
“How do you know her sister?” Milton asks, watching Nolan breathe smoke out into the air through his mouth and nose, his eyes closed, as if in a state of ecstasy. The calm that comes with the edge of pleasure after pain has given way to something sweeter. Abe takes the joint from Nolan, and there’s a pause, a silence rising out of the smoke. “How do you know her sister?” Milton repeats, and this time Nolan opens his eyes and pins Milton with a sharp, direct look. There’s confusion in his gaze, suspicion, annoyance.
“Why do you want to know so bad?”
“Is that so?”
“Ladies,” Abe cuts across them, making a chopping motion with his hand. He’s got the joint pinched to the corner of his mouth. “Let’s not get carried away here.”
“Who’s getting carried away?” Nolan says.
“Okay, okay,” Tate says, and he makes to snatch the joint from Abe’s mouth, but Abe swats him hard across the face, so hard that there’s no way it’s a joke, there can be no way back from it. Tate puts his palm to his cheek, slides it down to his lip, where there’s already blood. Abe hisses, leans forward to inspect his hand, which must be hurting him now, the impact of it. Milton tenses, glances at Nolan, who is looking at them all as if from some vast distance, as if he’s already on the other side of what is to come and is looking at them with pity. Nolan leans forward and puts his chin in his hands. Milton feels a hot, hard knot press down against the back of his throat.
“Pussy,” Abe says to Tate, who is not crying, just blotting the blood from his mouth with his fingertips.
“Fuck you,” Tate says, spitting.
“You can’t take a lick? One little slap and you’re bleeding like a pussy. Fuck.”
“That’s enough,” Nolan says.
“Oh, that’s enough.”
“Abe,” Nolan says.
“Abe. Listen to you. You’re a bigger faggot than Millie and Titty Tate both.”
Heat fills Milton’s nostrils, and his vision momentarily blurs. He puts his knuckles into the bulk of his thigh and grunts.
“Just a couple of little nigger fags,” Abe spits.
The light from the fire is distant and inadequate. Milton leans forward to catch Abe by his throat. Abe’s eyes switch to him suddenly, widen, and then go slender with hatred. He smirks, the heft of his shoulders opening up. He’s leaning toward Milton, too. Their fingers brush, but before they can get a solid hold on each other, something hard strikes the back of Abe’s head and he gives a little jerk. The impact is dull, abbreviated. There and gone again, hardly discernible at all.
Milton’s gut drops. Tate leaps up, breathing hard. Abe watches him, perfectly still despite having been jarred suddenly into motion. Nolan hangs over him. He’s still holding the rock in his hands. It’s the size of an apple. His face is pale and smooth. Then Milton sees it all happen, as if at once: Tate rushing, Abe tumbling backward, Nolan reaching out to grab him, and that horrible, horrible burst of sound, a guttural roar, and then there is blood running along the edges of Abe’s face. It’s hard to tell where it’s coming from. His scalp? His nose? His eyes? His cheeks? Where, where is the source? It’s warm and slick, sticky as it oozes out of him, gathering into torrents that fill with dirt as he moans and writhes. Milton gets his sweater off and blots the blood the best he can. He tries to get Abe’s face clean. Abe’s eyes dart around quickly, in fear, in flight, in pain. He’s on the ground, laid out, twitching, convulsing, and the three of them are trying their best to get the bleeding under control, but they don’t know where it’s coming from. It’s hard to know, in the dark, with their clumsy hands, where to press to stop the insides from leaking out. Abe fights them, thrashes on the ground. Tate keeps muttering, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” And Nolan’s straddling Abe to try to keep him still, saying, “Abe, please Abe, stop, chill, fuck, chill.” But it’s Milton with the sweater trying to find and plug the source of the blood. It’s Milton who eventually feels the loose plate of bone shifting under his scalp, and when he looks up, Nolan’s staring right at him, his pupils wide, as if he’s been suddenly thrust into the light from some vast, deep water. Abe’s hand lands on Milton’s arm again, his fingers stiff, his nails piercing Milton’s skin. Abe’s eyes widen, and his groans turn to something like the lowing of cattle. His eyes then roll to the back of his head, and he seizes one hard time, goes so still and rigid that for a moment, none of them dares to breathe, dares to do anything. They wait, holding on to Abe, as if that alone could bring him back to himself. He jerks again. Fills with motion, and they all exhale. Nolan turns to Tate and says, “Call a fucking ambulance.” Milton holds his sweater to Abe’s head, holds it as still as he can and tries, with his eyes squeezed shut, to imagine himself far away from all of this. From Abe and Tate, from Nolan, from his parents, from himself. Anywhere else. Anywhere else.
Milton doesn’t put the sweater with the dried blood back on. There’s too much of Abe on him already by the time they load him into the back of the ambulance, groaning and gummy. Milton leans against the side of a tree at the edge of the park. He feels like he’s made of something insubstantial. Nolan is coming toward him through the twilight of the cop car headlights. He’s just given his statement on the matter, probably. Milton had walked away after giving his, unable to stomach the way he knew Nolan could effortlessly tell a lie. They were all standing around, and Abe must have tumbled off the side of the hill. No, sir, they weren’t drinking. Freak accident. Tate had gone home, chewing his fingers raw, eaten up with nerves. Nolan, their fearless leader.
Nolan reaches Milton, looking tired, run down. He smells like blood. Like a wild thing. Like when they used to play in the woods and come home smelling like wildcats, their mothers said, wrinkling their noses. Half raised, half animal.
Nolan drops down to the ground and sits among the roots of the tree, and Milton wants to join him down there, to put an arm around his shoulder, to hold him close. Milton hands him the yellow hat from before. They’re both a little shocked it’s not covered in blood. Nolan lets out a snort.
“Jesus,” Nolan says, shaking his head. Milton kicks one of the roots.
“Think he’ll be okay?”
Milton’s fingers are still sticky. He’s got blood caked under his fingernails.
“Fucking Abe,” Nolan says, a wet creak of sympathy in his voice. “Ah, well.”
“You really did a number on him.”
“Seems like I did.”
“You all right?”
“What do you think, Milton? I bashed Abe’s head in. How do you think I feel?”
“I wish I knew,” Milton says, which makes Nolan sigh loudly. He picks up a loose rock and hurls it into the night.
“Man, I’m tired. Would you just spit it out already?”
“I’m leaving,” Milton says.
“Well, fine. You smell like shit anyway.”
“No, I mean I’m leaving this spring. My parents are sending me away.”
“Idaho,” Milton says. “They’re sending me there because I get into all this shit here, and they want to fix my fucking life.”
“Maybe then you’ll stop being such a little bitch,” Nolan says, and there’s a hint of levity in his voice.
“Oh, great, can’t wait,” Milton says. “Cannot wait.”
“Hey, come on, Milton. It’s been a terrible night already.”
“I can’t be here anymore,” Milton says.
“What does that mean?”
“What I said. You coming? Staying? I can’t be here,” Milton says. But that isn’t exactly what he means. What he really wants to say: Come with me. Come with me. Let’s go. Let’s get away from here. Let’s go be by ourselves. Let’s go. But he cannot ask that. And if he cannot ask it, Nolan cannot and will not answer him.
“I’ll stay a little longer,” Nolan says. There are still three or four cops in the distance, watching the last of the smoke trickle out of the barrels. They put out the fire. They sent everyone home. But Nolan wants to stay here among the wreckage of the night, this lost evening. There’s a kind of sadness on his face, a flicker of regret, but Milton is not sure if the regret is for what’s happened to Abe or because the evening’s been busted up early. Nolan spits off to the side, kicks a few stones down the hill. “Maybe I’ll hit you up later. We can try this birthday thing again.”
“All right,” Milton says.
“Or you could stay, too,” Nolan says.
“No, I can’t,” Milton says.
“I guess not,” Nolan says, giving Milton a long, slow smile that leaves Milton chilled.
Milton turns, moves underneath the black‑stubble cedar and pine trees, the scent of burning paper wafting after him. He cuts into the woods, which are cloaked in a sooty mist.
Milton runs without thinking, without caring what he will emerge into on the other side. What he craves is the sensation of distance traveled, raw mileage. It suddenly seems to him, snapping twigs and getting whipped by lashing vines, that Idaho is not the worst thing that could happen to him, that even if he were to stay, Nolan would already be lost to him.
Milton reaches the other side of the woods. The night is thickening overhead. The mountain looms. He can see his house from here. His stomach turns. He retches. His throat is hot with vomit. His eyes water. In the distance, he can hear branches breaking. The woods shift with soft, hushed voices of motion. He leaves the woods entirely and steps back onto the street. Milton thinks again of all the homes and their interchangeable lives and wishes that it were as easy as stopping at someone else’s door, knocking, and switching places with the version of himself who lived there. If only he could enter into another version of his life, one in which things have not gone quite as horribly awry—if only he could pass from this world into the next or into the next, some other place without Abe or Tate, some place where he and Nolan might be as they were, though perhaps they have always been this way, full of violence and calamity.
Maybe he’s had it wrong this whole time—it’s not that Abe and Tate bring it out of Nolan, and it’s not that Nolan brings it out of them. They’re always in the thick of violence. It moves through them like the Holy Ghost might—except the Holy Ghost never moved anybody to rape a girl or ruin her life. The Holy Ghost never moved anybody to bash a boy’s head in. There was some other god, then, a god for whom the spilling of blood was a prayer, an act of devotion. And they’ve been praying to that god their whole lives.
The streetlights glow, and bits of grass stick up coarsely from the pools of shadow below them. Milton puts the butt of his hand to his eye, which is throbbing, low and deep. The pressure in his chest intensifies, and he thinks, in that moment, of cutting himself open to let it out. Toward home, then, he says to himself. Toward home. His steps are stiff, ragged, hard, but he keeps going. One foot in front of the other until he’s at his door. The lights are off. He unlocks the door and pushes it open with his hip. Then it’s down the stairs, into the warm cave of the basement. He tugs on the cord and the basement is once again bathed in dim, yellow light. His mouth is sour and skunky from vomit and spit. His hand feels filmy and gritty, from Abe’s come and blood and the dirt and the grass. He glances down and sees smudges on his palm, white mucosal remnants, like he’s squeezed snails or slugs. There was a time when he and Nolan were boys and playing out by the creek, when they’d catch frogs and other small animals and bash them with rocks until they resembled nothing like themselves or anything else. And when they got older, they shot deer and pulled fish from the river and held them up, grinning into cameras, smiling like Look what I’ve done.
Milton turns and sees along the back wall of the basement his father’s work stand. Hard, flat wood with metal rivets to keep it in place. A string of knives hang along the wall. Milton puts his hand against one medium‑size knife, touches its cold, silver surface. He takes it down and holds it against the fat of his palm. Nolan, he thinks. He slides the knife up, though not breaking skin. He presses it to the crease below his fingers. Nolan, he thinks again, and he puts the back of his hand against the table in the corner. He couldn’t cut his fingers off even if he wanted to. Not with this knife, its edge too dull, his bones too thick.
Bones. Milton smirks to himself. There’s a thought. What he wants is not to maim himself but rather to pry open the world, bone it, remove the ugly hardness of it all, the way one might take the spine from a deer or a fish or some other animal snared. Milton lifts the knife from his hand and stabs it into the table. When he was younger, he killed senselessly because the thrill of the act was like dipping his face into a clear, rushing stream. He didn’t have to consider the lives he ended. It was as if they were merely parts of a game, tokens to trade with his friends. If there was any merciful part of his childhood, it was that, the cleanness of it, how the act didn’t taint them, how the violence seemed to leave no trace at all. But he’s older now, and the meat of the world is full of bones. Everybody’s walking around all the time full of bones, full of jagged shards, flecks of hardness that need taking out and would, upon swallowing, prompt a person to choke. There’s no mercy in the basement tonight.
Nolan, Milton thinks, and he squats by the table and thumbs the numb place left by the knife. He digs his nail into the thin, translucent space left by the knife until he sees the blood pooling beneath the skin. The pain abates quickly and leaves behind a memory so friable, so delicate, that it’s like blowing an eyelash and making a wish.
Milton lies down on the floor. The oblong shapes of boxed‑up boyhood toys throw curious shadows that shift along the walls and the raw, unfinished struts of the basement. They look like the muscles of some enormous animal, getting ready to leap, to strike, to snatch him down into its shadowy belly.