It starts like this:

As teenagers at a Holiday Inn in Great Falls.

Matt and I practice dives in the deep end of the pool. We run, we fight, we dive again. We plunge the other’s head underwater. And when Matt comes up gasping for air, pain shooting through his back, I say, “Fuck you, bitch. Stop pretending.”

Later, we drink Smirnoff mini bottles smuggled in by the baseball coach’s son. Acting drunker than we really are, we sneak into a room with a housekeeper’s cart but no housekeeper, and the coach’s son takes a shit on the bed.

We hide in the closet waiting for the housekeeper to come, and when she screams, “Dios mio! Motherfuckers, who shit on the bed?” we run giggling from the room.

Alcohol is funny. The night is benign.

The small pain in Matt’s back is just a pain in Matt’s back.

 

On the way out of Bozeman, the sun lowers into the fields, winter melting off even in the shadows. The mountain range’s silhouette extends forever in either direction, and as dusk settles, I finally know where I should go. I take the exit at Great Falls and head north toward Shelby, a town Matt and I used more than once as a jumping off point for backcountry trips into Glacier National Park.

Shelby is on the Hi-Line, a row of small, dirty towns connected by the railroad that hangs over the rest of Montana like a strand of old Christmas lights. A few weeks back, all the local papers had a story about a hitchhiker from Shelby who killed an old man after the old man picked him up at a Burger King on the Hi-Line. They ate in the car, chatted, and watched the sun split into a thousand colors as it sank, until the hitchhiker pulled a gun on the old man and made him drive them to a cabin near Havre. The hitchhiker tortured the old man for a couple days, chopping off toes with gardening shears and pulling teeth with pliers before strangling him and burying the body. Why the hitchhiker did this, the paper didn’t say. Maybe his Whopper didn’t agree with him. We can hardly guess the shape of our fate or the reasoning behind it.

“Long day?” The woman at the motel office in Shelby puffs from her cigarette and points at my knuckles, which have swollen and crusted over with blood. Scrapes on my right forearm ooze an orange-yellow pus. I can feel a knot forming over my left eye.

Her eyes dig into me as I fill out the registration paper. She’s thin and gray, in her fifties, and already she’s on her second cigarette since I arrived. There’s some oldies music playing back up in her trailer, which is attached to the Totem Motel, and a baby cries and a youngish female voice answers it with a shush. A neon vacancy sign blinks in the window and the streetlamps give Main Street a hazy, sulphurous glow. Driving through downtown all I saw was a pack of wild dogs and a giant “Meth Kills” billboard, as if Shelby’s residents had all disappeared, vacuumed into heaven by the rapture.

I hand her the sheet. “I got in a fight.”

“Well, yeah,” Smoking Grandma says, “but like with anyone in particular? I oughta know if there’s someone looking for you.”

“Nah, don’t worry,” I say, “I shot the guy. He’s not coming.” I wink. Smoking Grandma cracks an unimpressed smile. She’s seen enough riff-raff in her day to tell a loser from a threat.

“For your sake, I hope that’s true. If he gets another crack at you, there won’t be anything left.” She punches numbers into a calculator and pulls a pair of glasses from the pocket of her moth-eaten navy blue sweater. “It’s $33.87 including tax.”

I fork over my credit card. If she has more questions she doesn’t ask them, and that’s fine by me.

This morning I woke up hungover in the cab of my truck, a duffel bag filled with clothes and a .22 I stole in a near blackout from my parents’ garage beside me. I had a missed call from my dad, and another from Comforce Assembly, but instead of calling either back I drove to Flipper’s in the early afternoon, where I drank Rolling Rocks and Old Crow and played pull tabs until I had to puke in the back alley. Later I drove to Danielle’s new boyfriend’s house with the vague sense I ought to do something to feel better. I sat there across the street from Ben’s house text-fighting with Danielle until it came to me that that “something” was to break out all the windows on Ben’s truck. Smooth, round, heavy—the perfect extension of my arm—I was launching a fist-sized rock through Ben’s windshield when he hit me with a flying tackle. We fought, I lost. (He’s a lawyer now, but he was a defensive end at Carroll and can really hit.) And then I drove on out of town in a panic. It hasn’t exactly been a thinking kind of day.

“So, you’ll be downstairs with Dean,” Smoking Grandma says. “We got a big tourist group on the ground level headed to Glacier tomorrow.”

“Dean?”

“He lives downstairs, son. Owns the semi-truck in the parking lot. Your rooms don’t have bathrooms so there’s a shared one at the end of the hall. Just don’t move around Dean’s things and you’ll be fine.”

She hands me a receipt to sign as though this is all perfectly normal. The motel isn’t much to look at—two sagging wings built around the trailer home, and a stairwell to our left that looks like it leads to a cellar full of body parts, but apparently leads to my room. She takes the receipt off the counter, hands me my room key, and we say good night.

 

The rifle makes my duffle bag awkward and heavy as I hoist it from my truck’s cab. When I return through the office door Grandma’s gone and the vacancy light is off, but the baby still cries softly behind closed doors. At the bottom of the stairwell, there’s a hallway with one door at the far end and two more on either side. The ground is uneven and gritty beneath the carpet, and bare bulbs covered in spider webs hang from the ceiling in a page taken out of Buffalo Bill’s guide to interior decorating for basements.

On our last trip through Shelby, Matt and I looked up Yelp reviews for The Totem Motel, attracted by its advertised price of $29.95 per night. “How does one even begin to describe the class of decor and comfort presented in this little blow of a devil’s fart?” was the first of many less than stellar reviews we came across, but easily the most memorable. So much so that, “blow of a devil’s fart” became part of our fraternal language from that day forward. And though that night we settled on a slightly more expensive chain hotel nearer the interstate, Matt and I joked that one day we would return on one of our trips and see just what The Totem had to offer.

A TV blares from the room across from mine, where a man coughs loudly and talks like there’s someone else with him. What is calligraphy? Who is ‘Dire Straits’? It’s Jeopardy, and he’s not a bad player.

I unlock the door to my room and turn the lights on long enough to do a once over. The wallpaper is yellow and peeling, the bed is a single with a hideous flower pattern, and an ancient microwave the size of a small spaceship takes up most of the counter, but if there’s rotting flesh anywhere the musk of cigarette smoke masks it. I flick the lights off and flop on the bed. On my back I stare up. The darkness is so complete it’s a cavern, a cocoon, time outside of time.

In this new place of nothing-darkness, Mom and Dad appear to me. I can see them so clearly in my mind’s eye it’s almost like they’re there. They’re worried, but they don’t know what to do about me. It’s been a few months since Matt died and everything is still a shock. They sit quietly, taking TV in like medicine. Matt’s ancient beagle, Charlie, rests on the couch between them. Charlie’s eyes, milky with cataracts, flutter open and he mewls softly as if emerging from a bad dream. All the house is open and filled with light, except for Matt’s room at the end of the corridor, which is closed, as if still in quarantine.

In Matt’s room is a stack of books with a Donald Rumsfeld biography on top that I gave him after he took a political theory course. Inscribed inside: Know thy enemy. Love, Mike. Coke cans and half-empty bottles of OxyContin litter his chest of drawers. A pill box like old people use sits next to a vaporizer on a desk, a bag of weed only I know about is under the bed, and a breathing mask hangs over a folded up wheelchair in the corner: I can picture all Matt’s old things just where he left them, and my parents holding onto it all like he might come back any minute.

I start to drift off, but the same nightmarish thoughts I’ve been re-hashing for months keep me awake: the last few days before my brother went to the hospital for good. I remember him shirtless, crying, shaking in my arms. He smelled sour, like something was rotting under his own skin.

When I visited that week, I was stunned by his condition. He’d been okay at Thanksgiving. Not improving, but okay. We’d smoked pot and gone to see The Expendables. He’d even driven us. But when I saw him again before Christmas he was on oxygen, a tank next to his bed. Things were so bad I started making promises to him, future hypotheticals where he was alive and we were together, as if that would give him a reason to keep fighting. The only world I’d known was one with him in it, and I was trying to trap him in it no matter how sick he got.

His breathing got much worse even in the few days I was there. At night, he’d misplace his oxygen mask in piles of blankets and old clothes, layers he was perpetually taking off or adding on due to alternating fevers and chills. While trying to find it, he’d give himself panic attacks, coughing fits.

My life with Danielle was over but I didn’t know it. I was too far gone to see that “giving it another shot” meant it was already ruined. At the time, I figured it would be good for her to have the apartment to herself after the stress of the fall. Good for both of us. I’d take all my vacation time at once, spend half with Matt, and then Danielle and I could still have New Year’s Eve together. A fresh start. But the week before Christmas at my parent’s house was hell. Every night with Matt was worse than the one that came before it. During the week, I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor next to him and would wake to his hoarse shrieks. My parents never came back to that part of the house. Either they didn’t hear, or they were just relieved to have someone else to take the burden off them. They’d been living with his sickness for years, ordering their lives around his seasons of treatments, his remissions and relapses, while I dropped in on the odd weekend or when Comforce allowed me vacation time.

By the end of the week, Matt couldn’t get out of bed to use the bathroom. I brought him a bedpan, and he did his best work not to mess his pants. I told my parents that he needed to go to the hospital, that he needed to come off the oxys, that nothing we were doing for him was helping anymore.

I think they knew it was true. But I guess they had been waiting. Waiting and hoping. They’d take him back to the specialist after the holidays. He had another experimental treatment in California at the turn of the year. If only he could just hold on until then.

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