They’d all arrived to tonight’s fire while the sun was setting. Shanna rode all the way out there in Jason’s pick-up. His was the only vehicle allowed to drive through the fields. Everyone else had to leave their cars or trucks back on the road, because it turned out their tucked-away destination was on Jason’s family’s land. They’d discovered this accidentally late one night, while drinking beers around a fire, when Jason’s gun-toting uncle snuck up on them and cocked his rifle. Jason’s father dragged him out to his uncle’s trailer the next afternoon. They talked until they agreed that Jason would work his uncle’s fields, unpaid, the first two summers after his eighteenth birthday. Jason knew the man well enough to take advantage of him and he did it; the man had cock’ed a rifle only a few feet from his girl. Once his uncle sobered up he’d forgotten the reason he couldn’t stop them. He only remembered that his nephew was drinking with his friends on his land almost every night and he couldn’t do a thing about it.
Shanna’s purse sat open on the passenger seat of Jason’s truck. They’d been navigating a kind of half-relationship since school let out a few weeks ago. She was reluctant to call Jason her boyfriend. Everyone knew that her best friend Kaylee fell in love with Jason back in second grade. He’d helped her up when Hank, another close friend, another presence around the fire, pushed her into the dirt. Jason pulled her up and broke Hank’s nose for her, and she gave him her heart right there on the playground. She was sure she’d never love another man. So Shanna and Jason kept their fooling around as casual as they could, both knowing it hurt Kaylee but she’d never admit it. She was always the first to arrive whenever they met at Jason’s though. She walked up with Sarah that night and saw that Shanna and Jason already had the fire going. Sarah opened the six pack she’d carried from her car back on the road. They each took a beer and waited for the others. Jason smoked a few cigarettes while the girls talked.
Hank and Junior stomped loudly through the grass carrying the cooler between them, which they deposited on the tailgate and opened immediately. The sharp cracks of cans being opened, the peal of laughed greetings rang like church bells opening a Mass as beers were passed. Hank avoided addressing Kaylee immediately, but leaned against the truck next to her after catching up with everyone else. He knew she thought of him as her big brother. She watched his two little sisters since they were in diapers and knew his family intimately, enough that she’d felt a part of it for years. She became a regular presence in his home after his mother died giving birth to his twin sisters. She looked after those girls and gave them everything he and his father couldn’t. He couldn’t tell if his feelings for her stemmed from her assumed role as the woman of his house or if he’d have loved her anyway. She never acknowledged his feelings for her, and he always wondered if that was her silent rebuke or if she simply didn’t know. So, afraid to lose her, he never implied what he really wanted from her.
Junior took his usual place next to Jason at the fire. They’d grown up next door to each other, and were friends before they could talk. They tapped their beers together and slugged from them as Willy tramped up with his little brother and a man they’d never met. They raised their beers to Willy and Tommy, and the stranger raised a bottle of whiskey in greeting. “This is Carter,” Willy explained. “He just moved out here from New York City.”
“What the hell for?” Sarah called out to the new face across the fire.
“Freedom!” he called back. They laughed him into their conversation.
“He’s a musician too!” Tommy said, eager to become a part of his big brother’s group.
Sarah raised her eyebrows and smiled. Carter walked over to the truck to offer her some of his whiskey. The men sized him up while he talked to her, and listened to Willy tell them about conversations he’d already had with his new friend. He soon walked over to their side of the fire and they began sharing stories. He told them of the unbearable claustrophobia of the city, the constant press of people, the thriving system of gossip that made privacy impossible. He left out the reputation that gossip machinery had trapped him into, the character he was expected to play every time he went out. He didn’t say he’d come to this antithesis of New York City to escape the chains of his own tiny celebrity. He told them he yearned for freedom, without specifying that the freedom he wanted was simply anonymity. They drank together. The sun sank lower and the fire reached higher.
“I like Mi’Lady’s alright, but I much prefer this place.” Carter raised his bottle of whiskey and a chorus of beer cans rose with it.
“Whatth’ fuck is maladies?” The question rose from one of the men around the fire. This particular hollow had been their midnight-host and the keeper of their secrets for nearly a decade. They’d grown here. In the hard clay soil beneath their feet their own roots had spread down. They wound around each other, like the roots of massive oaks pushing through the damp darkness to guarantee they never fall. Those roots, pushing themselves deeper from the soles of their shoes whenever they stood in this glade, wrapped through each other and back around themselves, binding them to each other as much as to the place itself. Tonight they surrounded a pile of cinderblocks barely containing an increasingly ambitious fire. Jason’s old truck had been backed up to the fire. Its’ open tailgate formed a shelf for the cooler of beer and a row of denim shorts and pony-tails. The girls laughed whole conversations into each others’ eyes.
“Mi’Lady’s…” Carter began to answer as his bottle swung his arm down. He looked into it and was surprised at how low the splashing bronze surface had sunk. Hank Willams III filled the silence his trailing voice had created. A golden, whiskey-colored haze had been rising in the back of his head for a while now. The beauty of its’ imminent explosion reminded him of the bar he was attempting to explain. His mind redirected, began grabbing out for words. That bar on Prince and Thompson had been a favorite of his since he was shy of twenty. They still haven’t asked to see his ID – they seemed determined to remain a bastion of the old Soho. The bartenders were either men old enough to be sailors from the second world war, or girls young enough they’d probably used fake IDs to get the job. He sifted through his memories for a story that could explain a bar back home in Soho to these people who had mostly never seen a city larger than Burlington. Finding suitable words, he took a step to the side and continued, “is the exact opposite of this place. Every song costs a dollar, every drink costs ten, and some real assholes hang out there.” The men and the girls laughed at his self-deprecation and raised their cans again, this time in hesitant affirmation. They took long pulls from their beers.
“Here,” he went on, “you feel like a fucking human being. You can look at the stars and see how insignificant you are, and you can stand at a fire and you can drink with your women – it’s what Man has done since the beginning of time. It makes you feel connected.”
The laughter of the group fell. The women looked at their men and the men looked into their beers. It was certainly what they had done since the beginning of time. They were seeing themselves reflected on him. They looked into the mirror of this newcomer’s perspective and couldn’t tell whether he was just any funhouse mirror or if he was the one mirror the carnies snuck in unchanged, unbiased, with no warp at all.
They hadn’t inducted a new friend in years. They’d always been the same group of about six or seven.
This new perspective was unsettling them. Any one of them could look across the fire at any other and explain his childhood, what grade school was like for him, the name of his first kiss, the story about the time they all snuck out but didn’t know where to go so they started walking through fields until they found this place. Any one of them could remember going with any other on that first drive after getting a drivers’ license. They knew each others’ extended families, played with each others’ siblings, and at times they let resentments grow into hatred between them. Their proximity forced them to heal the wounds they caused each other. They also knew that a night like tonight wasn’t about any of that, and probably no night was. The laughter of the group rose again as more of them called out jokes. They baptized their friend in their histories, stories about nights they’d shared, pranks they’d plotted and punishments they’d helped each other laugh off, their first jobs and how they’d been fired. They told him about their town and the ties between their families. The fire’s fingers grabbed for the sky and occasional shouts lifted them higher.
“We ain’t gonna go lookin’ fer deer again!” Sarah called out, kicking herself down from the tailgate. Carter’s eyes blazed at the suggestion of looking for deer as a midnight activity, and he immediately thought about how his friends back in Manhattan would respond if they’d heard her say that. He doubted any of them had ever gone “lookin’ fer deer.” Before he could think about it long enough to laugh at the people he left behind another idea was shot into the group.
“Let’s go set Abe’s calf loose!” This call came from Jason. He wasn’t truly their host, but ever since they found out it was his more his land than any of theirs they allowed him a degree of authority when they met there.
“I thought we said we weren’t gonna make decisions drunk anymore,” Shanna forced an exaggerated pout over her smile and kicked herself off the truck too.
“Oh I made this decision a while ago, I just ain’t done it yet.” The little pack began packing down grass in a path from the fire to the road.
Carter fell into step with Hank, passed him his bottle, and asked what they had against Abraham. He was eager to adopt their grievances as quickly as he had their after-dark pastimes. Hank took a long swig of his friend’s whiskey and swung an easy arm around Carter’s shoulder. “brother, it ain’t a pretty story.” They kicked through grass until Carter’s stingray-skin boots and the steel-toed boots of his partner
met the damply packed dust of the road. Hank began to recount the crimes of Abraham.
“So two springs ago our boy” he waved his beer can vaguely toward Jason, “got hisself a coupla’ piglets and raised ‘em up pretty fat pretty quick, and ever’ so often Abe’d come over and see ‘em and they’d have a coupla’ beers, and everybody was cool. ‘n one mornin’ one of them pigs is gone. We looked everywhere – I mean everywhere. The fields, the barn – everywhere. Anyway, ’bout ten days later Jason’s over at Abe’s shootin’ the shit, and goes to grab ‘em both a coupla’ beers. So J opens the fridge door and sees the head of his baby pig – could even see the kind of serrated edge Abe used to cut it off.”
Carter stopped in the road and grabbed his friend’s arm. “I have seen and heard some horrible things, but that is fucked up.” Hank found his friend’s eyes in the dark and nodded into them. The heavy screech of a rusty gate swinging open broke their reflection. They padded up the road silently. Jason and Junior had lifted the chains off the calf’s stall and stood holding them. Hank found and attached a lead to the calf’s collar. The calf woke immediately, and seemed to recognize the opportunity they offered it. A moment later Shanna led it across the road into a pasture of grass taller than the calf itself. The calf wandered through the grass and vanished. Junior hid the chain. He knew Abraham would either find it within a few days or use another to recapture his calf, so he settled for simply making the calf’s inevitable recapture a bit tougher. Hank swung the barn doors closed and they made their way back to the road.
The dust of the road swirled lightly around their shoes. They stood side by side and watched the calf’s progress through the grass by watching where it swayed. The calf seemed to pick up speed as it tested its’ liberty, swerving left and right. Without an explanation Jason turned and walked back to the barn. He opened the door slightly and reached an arm inside. He returned to the group, sighted down the rifle and shot once. The rest of them stared at him as he lowered Abraham’s gun. They heard the calf fall heavily. Jason returned the gun to the barn and walked back to them. Shanna had wrapped her arms around Kaylee. Sarah leaned into Hank’s shoulder, anger smearing her features. Carter just stared, mouth open. They all watched Jason walk back from the barn in a heavy silence broken only by the dying gasps of the calf.
“He wasn’t really free anyway. Abe just woulda’ caught him again.” Jason said without looking directly at any of them.
“At least he had a chance! You never even gave him a chance! Maybe he woulda’ made it!” Sarah shouted back. Hank wrapped an arm around her and looked at Jason.
“I get that it’s fair ‘n all, J, but Jesus. You coulda’ done it when the girls wa’n’t around.”
“Oh shove it, Hank. You don’ know shit about shit. Your daddy wouldn’ know how to raise a creature if Jesus hisself showed him how.” Jason spat a heavy wad of tobacco into the dirt of the road.
Willy walked away then, unwilling to watch Kaylee cry her betrayal, again, to see his friends beat each other to the ground over nothing, again. He just shook his head wearily and started back down the road. Hank stared at Jason and ground his teeth, then turned and followed. The others trailed after, staring at the ground. The girls huddled together, holding each other while they walked. Tommy came after and Carter followed them. They’d walked about ten minutes like that, in a silence that pushed down on them. Gravity felt stronger, pulled their boots more deeply into the dust.
Then they heard behind them the unmistakable crunch of bone hitting flesh. They turned to see Jason doubled over, grabbing his gut in the dirt on the side of the road. Junior stood above him, rubbing his right hand, flexing it out of a fist. He turned to look down the road and returned his friends’ stares defiantly. They said nothing. He turned his back on his childhood friend and walked toward them.
They walked half an hour, near each other but each alone. Time dilated between them, pushed them further apart. Carter looked up and saw the universe above, stars that had been blocked by buildings his whole life now nested in the silver streaks of galaxies. One by one the others followed his eyes to the constellations that had borne silent witness to their lives and their crime.
They were all looking skyward when a rattling car peaked on a small hill on the road. Shafts of bright light suddenly filled the woods around them and they raised their arms over their eyes. They split to the edges of the ditches on either side of the narrow road as the car slowed down. None of them looked at old Abe as he drove by, his hand out the window in a wordless greeting. They walked past him to their cars. Shanna got into Kaylee’s car with Sarah. They all knew they’d see each other back at that spot soon, if not tomorrow night. They didn’t bother thinking about whether they agreed with what Jason did. It’d been done, and they accepted it like they accepted the rain. Only Carter was struck to the marrow by how quickly their party had spun into inexplicable violence and their quiet acceptance of it. He knew then that he didn’t know these people at all. He climbed into Willy’s truck behind Tommy, and jumped out when they stopped at his driveway.