Anasthasia Shilov

The summer started with Patty dying, and though it was difficult, Harrison’s father told him that death was simply a part of life. Patty had been their sweetest heifer. They got her in ’95, the year Harrison was born. “Y’all came home just a few days apart,” his father would say. They liked to joke and say that Harrison had come from the cattle auction, that there’d been a bidding war for the genius baby boy. Harrison didn’t like that, just like he didn’t like Patty dying, and he didn’t get the damn lesson he was supposed to learn from it all.

“Sometimes, son,” his father said, “you’ve got to be able to let go.”

Harrison began to cry, his mother wrapping him in her arms. When Harrison got like this, his father would turn red and ask him to dry it up. He said that no young man with good sense should be crying all the time. But Patty dying was reason enough, so he let him be. His father had stopped trying to toughen him up years ago. Harrison would be at school up north soon. His father thought it best that he grow up in the real world, let life rough him up a bit. He’d grown up too soft, but that was his mother’s fault.

Harrison wailed on the back porch; his father headed to the barn. His mother kissed his forehead and went inside to finish dinner. A few of the cows were grazing still, lazily swatting gnats with their tails. In the evening, clouds of mosquitoes became visible, backlit by the setting sun. Harrison’s eyes followed a cloud, watched the changing shape float across the yard. He felt like his insides were peeling, like old paint flakes off wood siding. He thought it was unusual to feel empty after graduation — everyone else seemed so excited! — but also he thought that it was self-centered to think this experience was unique to himself. Everyone gets sad when they grow up. Still, Patty’s death felt emblematic of something. He stopped crying when the muscles in his face grew too tired. He watched cattle lumber from the barn to the pond. He thought maybe they were mourning, too.

His father started up the tractor, a sound that he could hear in his stomach, and the rumbling sent Harrison inside.

Lying on the living room floor, the timber cold on his shirtless, sunburned back, Harrison could faintly hear the tractor. He imagined what his father was doing. His father would pull the tractor behind the barn, its hulking tires squishing the mud and manure. He’d take the front end loader and lay it down next to Patty’s slack body. Then he’d scoot her over onto the lift. Harrison imagined his father tearing up. (Only twice had he cried in recent memory, and that was Harrison’s graduation. Before that, his sister’s.) His father would raise the cow up, above his head, above the tractor, and drive this way across the pasture. If the herd saw this, they’d moo so loud it would sound like crying. Patty would be laid to rest in the old riverbed. The spot had become a sort of cemetery; coyotes thought of it more as a buffet.

The landline in the kitchen rang. His mother answered.

“Hey, you! Oh, yes, we are so excited. I turned over the guest bed this afternoon… It’s no trouble at all. It’s the least we could do… He’s driving all this way! Have mercy, poor boy. Y’all stay out past Stillwater, no? Well have him take 51 to Tulsa… He’s only been driving a year now! Well, don’t you worry, Tulsa ain’t too bad… Then he can hit 412 and take a right at Locust Grove. From there, he can just follow the signs that say Briar Ranch… Mhmm. Okay, then. Tell him we’re looking forward to it… Alright. Bye-bye.”

Harrison picked himself off the floor and walked into the kitchen. His mother still had the phone wedged between her shoulder and face, her neck cocked forty-five degrees. She had both oven mitts on.

“Was that Ronnie’s wife?” Harrison asked.

“It was,” she said, “Their boy Lou is going to be getting in on Wednesday.”

“He’s the one working with dad?”

“Yeah,” she said. The kitchen timer started screaming. “Probably just for a few weeks.” She lifted the hot dish onto the stove top. Harrison closed the oven door and grabbed some plates.

“Go get your daddy,” she said, “and tell him that supper is ready.”

II.

Lou interrupted their breakfast. All summer, Harrison’s mother had made Harrison and his father sit down to drink coffee at eight in the morning. Harrison and his father had never particularly fought; rather, there existed an unspoken tension, a difference in perspective. She thought these quiet hours together could suture any adolescent wounds, heal the family before the last baby flew the nest. They sat in silence, listening to Lou’s pickup truck throw dust down the gravel driveway. He knocked on the door and Harrison’s mother answered it with a cup of coffee.

“This here is for you,” she said. “Sure you’re tired from the drive.”

He was tall, but not that tall, the type of guy who grows an inch or two when he puts on his work boots. His build wasn’t much broader than Harrison’s, but he had definition. His hands looked heavy. His forearm, dark from the sun. Above the crease of his arm, the gentle curve of a bicep, relaxed. From the not-sleeve of his cut-off shirt, red hair sprung out. He seemed sweaty. Harrison ate his eggs faster. Lou wore clean Wranglers and dusty boots. He had a heavy freckled nose that leaned a little left. When Lou spoke, it seemed to come from somewhere deep in his chest. Harrison studied the stranger’s Adam’s apple and thought he could see it vibrate.

Lou took the seat across from Harrison.

“Lou, this is my boy Harrison,” his father said. “Harry, this is my new apprentice, Lou.”

The two boys stood now, half-leaning across the dining room table to shake hands. “It’s nice to meet you,” Lou said. Harrison felt the calluses on Lou’s hands.

Harrison’s father went on to tell them that when he was their age, he worked with a rancher in Texas, and it had been ​Lou’s ​father who’d convinced him to do it. The two of them were thick as thieves back in their prime, and even though they stopped raising hell and started raising kids, he still thought of Lou’s father as a brother.

The two boys sat studying one another, taking turns catching the other’s eyes. When Harrison’s father started to talk about the day’s work, Harrison went to help his mother load the dishwasher.

“Now, what’s his deal?” Harrison asked, whispering.

“What do you mean, ‘What’s his deal’?”

“Why’s ​he​ here, working with Dad? Aren’t the summer hands typically younger? That kid’s older than me.”

“No, he’s actually the same age as you. He only looks old because ​he’s ​been​ ​working.”

“Then why doesn’t he go out and get a ​real​ job. Dad’s only good for teaching. What’s this working man ​got to learn?”

“Well, Harrison,” she said, “if you must know, his daddy’s sick and pretty soon that boy will be running a ranch all on his own… Maybe you two will get along, make friendly.”

Harrison grabbed a cup of coffee and went upstairs.

His room was filled with light. He plopped down and sent dust spiraling in the sunlight. The light fell over the room in streaks, partitioned by the dust-covered blinds. Everything in the room collected dust. Thin layers over the books he’d finished, thicker layers over the books he never started. He often vacuumed the rug, thinking he could fight the dust, but it only ever seemed to make more. He would have opened the window to let in fresh air, but it had been bolted shut years ago when his sister was caught smoking cigarettes on the roof. Luckily, the room rarely had any light, only in the mornings; it spent the rest of the day in shadow, giving the appearance of a room more tidy. He would never clean this room again. In two months he’d have a new room. This one, he thought, would be a time capsule, untouched. The dust would stay on the books, the dust would grow. The shelves would begin to sag under the weight of time and dust. The sun would still stream in every morning, but would the dust be disturbed? Who would stir up the dust, make a flurry of it all? He didn’t like the image of his static room. Maybe his mother would clean the room when he left.

Away from the noise of his father, Harrison thought about his day. He grabbed his notebook to collect his thoughts. He had to gather himself like this every morning, writing like a madman about what he’d done, and what he had to do, rather than actually doing anything. Sometimes he could make sentences, writing pages about the previous day, night, the breakfast, the plan after breakfast, the plan for the day, the plan for the summer, the ​idea ​of a plan for college, fantasy. Other times, his words came out in a fury, a mess that he couldn’t read the next day. His window looked out over the front yard, where the sun was still rising. Sometimes he’d watch it.

Today​, he wrote,​ I need to make a trip into town to pick up books. What books? Something light, something fun… No more classics, nothing old, nothing that could have ever been assigned in AP Lit. Something new, something ​contemporary​. Look at me, Mr. Cosmopolitan. But shouldn’t I read an oldie-but-a-goodie? Like a ​Southern ​classic. Something they’ll expect me to have read when I get to school. Welty? Faulkner? I’d read O’Connor but it just gets weighed down by God.

He stopped for a moment.

Dad’s summer help just got here — Lou. He’s apparently​ ​my age. His voice makes him sound dumb.

He didn’t want to write more. He didn’t want to materialize any of those thoughts.

I should re-read some things this summer! When again will I have the time to pleasure read like this?

But he kept thinking about Lou. The gap in his teeth. The great wash of freckles.

He could hear Lou talking, picking up every other word, a lot of “ma’am” and “sir.” He imagined the shaking Adam’s apple. He didn’t want to think about it. He needed to get out of the house.

Downstairs, Harrison announced that he was running into town. His mother asked him to get her some honey; his father asked Lou to tag along and grab a sack of chicken feed.

“Well, I might be a while,” Harrison said, reluctant to share the drive. “I’ve got to find some books.”

“No worries,” his father said. “Take y’all’s time.”

Lou offered to drive. He drove a green Chevrolet missing its tailgate and left rearview mirror. Crushed cans of Mountain Dew spilled out when Harrison opened the door. It smelled like cigarettes. Harrison waited until they were down the driveway before he asked for one.

“Of course,” Lou said, leaning over Harrison’s lap to open the glove compartment. He fished out a pack of Marlboros and a lighter, handing them both to Harrison. The radio played static, gospel music whispered in and out. Neither of them bothered fixing it.

Lou asked if Harrison followed sports and he said no. Which was good, Lou continued, because he didn’t either really. He used to, back in high school when he played, but after he quit football, he felt anxious watching the games. Harrison had never played sports, he said. When he was in fifth grade, the teachers made him their “special project,” the “gifted” student. He was the best state test taker in his school, and only now looking back did he realize it wasn’t necessarily for his own good, but for the good of the school. Lou laughed.

“It’s awful, really,” Harrison continued. “They groomed me for college and sent me on my way, but most of my class isn’t even going to community college, much less a university. A good number didn’t even graduate.”

“I didn’t graduate,” Lou said.

“Why not?”

“My dad got sick this time last year, so I started helping out. You know, pick up the slack. I didn’t have the time to go back to school. Nobody made me. So I just didn’t. Which is fine. It makes sense, too, because this is what I’m going to do with my life.”

“Is it what you want to do?”

“I mean, it’s what I should do.”

“What’d you want to be when you were little?”

“I wanted to be in the rodeo.”

He lifted up his shirt to reveal a tattoo. On Lou’s ribs, a cowboy riding a bronco, his hat raised above his head. Harrison studied the figure, his eyes wandering around Lou’s waist to the trail of red curls.

“Did it hurt?”

“Kind of,” he said. “Felt like falling in an ant bed.” Lou mimed pinchers with his index finger and thumb, pinching the air when he said this. “Like hundreds of little bites, one by one.”

III.

On Tuesday afternoon, Harrison and Lou decided to jump in the creek. They’d just finished mowing the yard — Harrison’s lone chore, but Lou had offered to help. Lou tore at the overgrown flower beds with a weed wacker while Harrison cut the grass. All the work in half the time.

It hadn’t even been a week since Lou arrived and the family couldn’t remember a time before him. Somewhat effortlessly, Lou matched their rhythm. He made his own routine that fit like a puzzle piece, working around and with everyone else. He’d wake in the morning and join them for breakfast. After, he’d head to the barn, feed the dogs. Then Harrison’s father would have some task for him. Ranching in the summer is less about the cattle and more about the grounds. Lou mended fences and bush-hogged. He checked on the cattle every day, around noon, and ushered them into trailers when

their time had come. In just a week’s time, Lou had been stung by three red wasps and one honeybee. He’d met both cousin Larry and Aunt Bean. He’d joined the family for church on Sunday morning and accompanied Harrison on daily trips into town.

Harrison never truly cared about his father’s work, but he listened when Lou talked about it. He understood the work to be both necessary and fulfilling, but couldn’t see the labor the way they did, as if it was a duty.

Harrison hated working outside. His skin went dewy with sweat, the unrelenting sun beat his shoulders. The lawnmower sent pollen and snippets of grass flying, clouds of debris he inevitably collided with. The particles stuck to his skin like flies to honey. He felt disgusting afterwards, coated in this tacky layer. Rather than shower, he liked to go for a swim.

The creek was across the pasture, over the fence and behind the treeline. Harrison drove the four-wheeler too fast, Lou on the back. He felt Lou’s arms wrap around his waist, felt them tense as they climbed a hill, relax as they coasted down.

They parked, dipped between the barbed wire, and pushed through the trail. Briars caught their shins and pricked the soles of their feet. Neither paid it any mind, familiar with the wear and tear that came from playing in the woods. Lou led the way despite not knowing exactly where to go. They could hear the trickle of water.

Harrison knew this creek well. It’s where he learned to swim, where he and his sister used to hide away and play pretend. Mixed in with leaves, he used to find sun-bleached turtle shells. The creek was home to hundreds of them, thousands, and when they died, their innards were picked out by raccoons and ravens. Their shells would be left behind, subject to the sun, and at some point, they turned chalky white.

“The water’s cold,” Lou said, now standing ankle-deep.

“It’s spring-fed,” Harrison said. “It’s supposed to be.”

“​It’s supposed to be.​ What a way to say it! The river doesn’t ​have​ to be cold.”

“Yes it does. All the springs that run into it are freezing. The water comes from, well, somewhere cold underground.”

“Isn’t it hot beneath the earth’s surface?”

“Well, yeah. But there’s a lot going on down there.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Lou said, laughing. He was addressing the creek. He waded up to his waist. “You can be whatever temperature you want to be.” He extended his arms and jumped in against the current.

They swam for a while, jumping off a fallen tree into the deep end, swinging from the knotted rope that dangled above.

Then: “Do you want to see Patty?”

“Who’s Patty?”

“She ​was​ our best lady cow, such a sweet thing.”

“She die?”

“Yeah, just before you came.”

“Is that why things seemed tense?”

“No, things are just like that.”

Up on the opposite bank, they could see down into the old riverbed. Harrison found it hard to believe that it used to be full of water. It looked just like a dip in the ground, really, a small gully filled with dead leaves. When they started walking, their feet sank into the earth, the cool mud pushing in between their toes and sticking to leg hair. Harrison pointed across the gulch.

“That’s where she was,” he said. “They’ve done picked her apart now.”

“She’s still there,” Lou said, pointing to her ribcage. It shone a bright white on the dark mud that it seemed to be sinking into.

“Yeah,” Harrison said. “I guess you’re right.” He was walking toward Patty’s carcass when he heard it. The faintest rattle, the warning that came too late. Lou shouted something, but he couldn’t hear, all he could hear was the rattle, growing louder. “Where is it,” Harrison shouted. “Where is it!” Lou found it — a rattlesnake, young with a short little rattle on it. He took a fallen limb and pushed the snake’s head into the mud. He grabbed the tail end and started spinning it around. The snake couldn’t fight the momentum and extended into a straight line, a rope being swung. Lou took it over his head and released, sending it sixty feet away. The boys ran back to the creek.

“What the fuck was that?” Harrison asked.

“Something my cousin taught me,” Lou said, laughing now. “Don’t ya think I’d make a good cowboy?”

IV.

Harrison sat on his bed and looked out at the rising sun. His coffee was getting cold on his bedside table. He grabbed his notebook. Downstairs, his mother was talking to Lou, but Harrison couldn’t make out the words, only the sounds, the impression of Lou’s voice. He felt flush.

What to read today? I could get ahead of readings for next semester, but is that too try-hard? I don’t want to be​ that guy ​in class, the one who chimes in, first day, to say, “Actually I’ve read the entire syllabus already, and…”

I should just read something in ​the New Yorker ​and call it a day.

He stopped for a moment.

Lou and that snake… wasn’t that the damndest thing?

I thought at first this feeling was envy; this boy showing up, working with my father and getting on with my mother like he’s the only begotten son. But it’s different than that, right? If it was envy, I wouldn’t want to spend my afternoons with him, doing nothing. I wouldn’t want to share things with him, right?

His mother’s laugh wiggled through the floorboards.

And really his voice is hot. He doesn’t sound dumb. I think I like his voice. What’s wrong with that?

Harrison left the notebook and grabbed his coffee. He plopped down the stairs.

Downstairs, a new voice, his sister’s. She’d meant to call, she said, but decided that a surprise wouldn’t hurt. She was out here running errands and thought she’d come visit, maybe stay for dinner. Harrison’s mother was overjoyed.

“Go get your daddy,” she told Harrison. “Tell him Kelly’s here.”

Harrison spent the day with Kelly. They ran to the grocery store, bumping into everyone and their mother. They went to the burger shack on Old Mill Road. They took his car down backroads, windows down, and listened to the Dixie Chicks.

“That boy’s a looker,” Kelly said.

“I mean,” Harrison sputtered, “yeah, I guess.”

“You guys been getting along alright?” she asked, turning to him.

“Yeah, we’ve hit it off alright,” he said, eyes on the road.

“Well, stop over at the Chevron,” she said. “I’ll grab you boys some beer. Don’t tell Daddy.” 

Harrison smiled. “I’ve missed you, sister.”

At home, Harrison found his father and Lou showered and sitting at the dinner table. His mother, apron tight around her waist, ran back and forth from the kitchen, bringing dish after dish. On the table there was a bottle of wine and five glasses. Harrison had never been allowed to drink with the family, but his father thought now a good as time as ever. He’d be off to college soon and Lord knows they drink there. Kelly stopping by was reason to break the seal. “Your first drink,” his father said. “Ain’t you excited?” Kelly and Lou laughed; Harrison tried to keep a straight face.

Everyone went to bed after dinner, except Harrison and Lou.

“I’ve got a surprise for us,” Harrison said. They dipped out into the night, popped the trunk, and found a six-pack of Coors Light. “A little badass for a boy genius,” Lou said. They took the rack behind the barn and sprawled out on a flatbed trailer. Lou said, “Now I’ve got a surprise for us.” He pulled a pack of Marlboros from the pocket of his shorts. Harrison didn’t smoke all that much before the summer, it was just one of the things Lou brought out of him.

“How does one go about getting involved in the rodeo?” Harrison asked.

“Same way you go about getting involved in anything, really.” Lou said. “I’d just start doing it. I’ve a couple cousins training in Texas. I could join them, get better than them, move down south and ride.”

“You wouldn’t be scared?”

“Scared of what?”

“Those things are massive. Imagine their rear legs coming down, stomping you.”

“Death ain’t all that scary.”

Lou asked what Harrison wanted to do after college and he laughed. His sister hadn’t known what she wanted to do and ended up getting married and having babies. Harrison said he’d like to do that.

“But you’re the man,” Lou said. “How’s that supposed to work?”

“I can have any kind of family I want,” Harrison said. “Who says I can’t raise a baby?”

“Fair enough,” Lou said, taking a sip of his beer.

They let silence take over. The two boys laid back and looked up at the stars, all so bright in the boundless sky. “Do you believe in aliens?” Harrison asked.

A moment passed. “Probably,” Lou said. The silence was growing; the space between them shrinking. Harrison felt the tickle of Lou’s leg hair on his thigh. Then, the knocking of elbows. Both boys were edging closer, scooting into one another. When Harrison lifted his head to look over, Lou met him in the middle. He felt his breath,

warm and smelling like cigarettes, on his face, down his neck. Harrison ran his soft hands acorss Lou’s buzzed red hair.

V.

Lou wouldn’t look at Harrison. It wasn’t that he was avoiding him, rather mornings were never the most social hour. Always coffee, eggs, more bacon, and toast. Then, Lou to the barn, Harrison to his desk. But this morning, Harrison wanted some eye contact, some confirmation that the night before had actually happened and that it was alright. Lou had no way of knowing this is what Harrison wanted. In fact, Lou seemed calm as ever. Nothing he did seemed any different from the day before. But it was different, Harrison thought. Something had happened, things had changed, right? Harrison wanted to cry.

Harrison winced as his father flipped through the paper, the sound sharp and painful. Perhaps the hangover was exacerbating this want, he thought. Maybe Lou felt the same way, he thought. He looked up to find Lou skimming the classifieds, downing his coffee. He seemed fine. Coffee should fix this, Harrison thought; it would make him think clearly, get his gears turning. He chugged a third cup before retreating to his room.

He closed his eyes, but the sunlight beaming in made pink the dark of his eyelids. He wanted to fall back asleep, now, but he’d drank too much coffee. He wanted to not think, to be void of the emotions that were bubbling inside him. He felt overwhelmed. All he could do was remember. The warmth of Lou’s breath. The embarrassed laugh that followed each kiss. The fumbling, the clumsy. The leaning on one another as they walked back to the house. The tiptoeing up the stairs. The sleeping sound in separate beds, holding onto this secret. He grabbed his notebook.

Is it so bad that I have this crush,​ Harrison wrote. ​And, yes, I admit to myself now what it is. A stupid crush, a foolish falling for a person who is insignificant to me and my life. Is that harsh? I don’t care, that bastard. He doesn’t care for me, he doesn’t love me, why should I protect his feelings. For Christ’s sake! It’s my goddamn notebook. I can say what I damn please.

Downstairs was quiet. Everyone must be outside. No voices drifting up the stairs.

Imagine Dad’s face if he knew. We perverted brotherhood. They’d say this was a bad idea, maybe even call it a phase.

Harrison heard the tractor start.

What did Kelly mean by asking me those questions? Does she see something I don’t? Could she tell me?

His heart was racing; the coffee was catching up with him.

Maybe I shouldn’t trust Kelly. I don’t know why I’m like this.

He looked down from his window and could see Lou driving the tractor, his shirt off, his sweaty back catching the light.

VI.

On Saturday nights, Harrison stayed up to watch ​Saturday Night Live​ for his father. His father had recently rediscovered ​Saturday Night Live​, but never could stay up late enough to catch it. He said that when he was Harrison’s age, he loved the show, and it was a shame he’d missed so many years of it. Rather than try to stay up, which he knew he never could, he decided to upgrade the family’s satellite television package to include DVR. Harrison’s job was to watch the episode, record it, and report back to his father with whether or not it was worth watching.

Lou had never heard of the show before Harrison showed it to him. Every Saturday, Lou joined Harrison, letting him explain the jokes that didn’t land or needed context. Harrison liked to make Lou laugh, and though he couldn’t take all the credit, he still felt a sense of accomplishment when he properly relayed a punchline.

That night, Dwayne Johnson was host.

“You think he’s hot?” Lou asked.

“What do you mean?” Harrison said.

“I would,” Lou said. “But I don’t like all his tattoos.”

“But you have a tattoo.”

“Yeah, but I don’t want to fuck myself.”

They waited until the musical guest took the stage to step outside for a smoke. The two hadn’t talked about what happened a few days prior, though they’d spent a considerable about of time together. Lou had been going about as if nothing happened and Harrison tried to follow along, play it cool. They sat on the back porch swing.

“You going to forget about me when you go off to school?” Lou asked.

Harrison wasn’t expecting this. “Of course not.”

“You can. It’s easy to forget folks. It’s just how it goes; people come in and out of your life and you just got to keep moving on.”

“You sound like you’re ready to forget about me.”

“Bull shit. I couldn’t if I tried.”

“Oh, so you’ve tried?”

Lou smiled with the cigarette hanging from his mouth.

“Want to go for a swim?” Lou asked. Before Harrison replied, Lou tore out across the yard, sprinting through the field. Harrison kicked off his shoes and followed, the tall grass whipping at his legs. They reached the creek and fought to catch their breath; their knees gave out beneath them. Their limbs interlocked, tangled in a knot of body on the moss-covered earth. Harrison was breathing hard and laughing. Lou looked so grown-up, his chin stubbly, his face indecipherable. Harrison thought he saw confusion in it, or shame? Lou inched closer to Harrison. Maybe it was intrigue, relief, or something else? The moon fell behind dense clouds, making the unreadable face nowunseeable. Harrison heard Lou’s breath getting closer until it met his breath, their chests rising and falling in unison. Harrsion felt Lou’s heavy hands moving down his back. They tore at their shirts, laying back to feel the cool dirt on their skin. Harrison picked himself up and stretched one leg over Lou. Lou was still breathing hard; Harrison had caught his breath. They kissed. Harrison could smell Lou’s day on him, the sweat from his work that he’d not yet washed off. Harrison’s mouth trailed his neck, over his chest, down. He pulled away, just a few inches, and wished the moon or sun or some sort of light was out so that he could see the freckles so close, that he could count them and never forget. Lou struggled with the buttons on his Wranglers; Harrison helped him. They threw their jeans to the side; balled up their shirts to make pillows. Harrison could feel Lou’s heart pounding between his legs, pressing against him.

“Do it,” Harrison said, unsure exactly what would come of it.

Friction, initially, and pain that felt red. Harrison was glad now the moon had left because he didn’t know what his face looked like. He felt a few tears, but then the red faded, the friction was gone. He felt wild.

Lou got up to go wash off in the creek. Harrison stayed behind and looked up at the sky. There were stars up there, he knew that, but he couldn’t see them, so he imagined maybe they’d all burned out. Night would always be dark — he’d remember that. When the moon peeked out through a gap in the clouds, Harrison caught a glimpse of Lou. He was waist-deep in the water, scrubbing his dick.

Harrison turned back to the sky. When Lou came back, dripping wet, he curled up next to Harrison and they stayed like that for a little while, until the moon came out again and they wanted another cigarette.

VII.

Lou told Harrison he hadn’t cried since the spring. He’d been in an accident. His cousin’s truck collided with another; the Ford folded a bit, pushing the dashboard down into Lou’s legs. Lou described the pain he felt, the dull ache in his femur. But more than that was the confinement. He couldn’t get out of the seat, couldn’t pull himself out of the truck. In the few minutes before help arrived, Lou imagined dying in the truck, stuck to the vinyl interior for eternity. That’s when he cried — when he thought he was dying. Folks pried him out with a crowbar and he learned that he hadn’t broken any bones after all.

“Well, are you going to cry today?” Harrison asked.

“Doubt it,” Lou said. “I’m tired of crying for my daddy.”

The two boys walked into the church. It was a church neither of them had been to, with green carpet and yellowing hymnals. An old lady played the organ with clumsy hands and they waited for folks to file in. Lou sat in the front next to his mother; Harrison sat a few rows back, next to his. The preacher began with a prayer, then went into scripture, then gave a half-baked eulogy because Lou’s father had never really been the churchgoingchurch-going type and the preacher had no real clue what to say. Harrison’s father was one of the men carrying the casket out and the congregation followed.

Harrison had to help his mother walk through the cemetery, her heels sinking beneath her. “How’s Lou?” she asked.

“He’s alright, I think.” Harrison said. “He’ll be fine.”

“You know, I’m really glad you two got close. This is a tough age as it is.”

She pushed him towards the front, sitting him next to Lou. Harrison let his shoulders relax, his arm falling to press softly against Lou’s. Lou pressed back. Harrison thought about the future, for once not his own, but Lou’s. He’d be bound to the ranch now, the rest of his life had begun. Lou would live his father’s life and die like him, too. Harrison imagined years from now getting a call from Lou’s wife. She would be hysterical on the phone, sobbing, dry-heaving when she told Harrison thatsomething terrible had happened. Harrison would go to that funeral, say a few words, comfort the woman who loved Lou more than he could. Maybe ​more​ wasn’t the right word. The woman who loved Lou better, who loved Lou the right way, the way his mother loved his father. That kind of love can run a ranch, can raise babies, can move on and let go.

Harrison squeezed Lou’s knee as they lowered the man into the ground.

After the service, Harrison cried in his mother’s arms. She stroked his head, lulling the boy in the front seat of their car. “It’s going to be okay,” she said. He thought it wouldn’t, he knew it wouldn’t — he didn’t know, and hated not knowing.

“What’s the matter with him?” his father asked.

She said, “He’s crying for Lou.”