What more could they really have done? What could I?

Matt and I sat there on his bed holding each other, trembling. He tried to sleep sitting up because he didn’t feel like he could breathe while on his back anymore.

“I’m gonna die,” he said that last night he spent at home. “Don’t let me die.”

“I won’t,” I said. “I promise.”

When he finally fell asleep, I knew I had to take a break. I wanted to see Danielle, to be out of my parents’ house, even if just for a couple hours. I grabbed my keys and drove to my apartment across town. Near 2 a.m.—no traffic except for a few semis on the interstate and light snow falling. I wanted to lie up against her, smell her, feel her curve into me. If I could just do that for a little while, I thought I’d be able to face Matt again, face my parents.

I opened the door to the apartment. The TV was on but no one was watching. The screen was paused on a DVD menu: When in Rome.

Kristen Bell’s dead eyes forever etched in my memory now—mid-smile, those teeth shining impossibly white like a child’s.

Beer bottles were scattered all over the counter alongside a half-drank bottle of white wine. I walked back to the bedroom, opened the door, quietly, almost imperceptibly at first. Dark. Outlines of two bodies in bed, one larger than the other. The larger body was Ben’s, though I didn’t know it at the time. He was naked and uncovered. His thick, hairy arm hung off the edge and a chain on his wrist gleamed in the light from the kitchen. The room smelled like Danielle but wrong. The air was heavy and wet with bodies and a cologne I didn’t recognize.

After that, there were only pieces. The bottle of white wine from the counter sloshing in my truck’s middle console. Beers. Driving. Then just blackness. I woke up back on Matt’s floor wrapped in a pile of his blankets, him staring at me, eyes wide with fear. Where did you go? Why did you leave?

 

I pull out my phone. There is another missed call from my dad and a litany of texts from Danielle.

Wtf

What is wrong with you!

You’re out of your fucking mind come fix this shit now!

Ben says if you pay for the truck he’ll consider not pressing charges

I know you’re hurting but you have no right to pull this shit

Don’t act like this is all my fault. How about last fall?

When you put your hands on my throat? Did i just make all that up or what??

This isn’t about your brother or me. This is about you.

Your parents say you have a gun????

Answer me??

On and on like this. I begin a response, but what to say? She isn’t wrong. And all I want to do is get drunk again, to find the place of no decisions with no victims.

I google Shelby, MT alcohol.

ABC Liquor: closed.

Kum and Go: closed.

Safeway: closed. PERMANENTLY.

The TV across the hall blares and my head throbs, a hangover setting in. Fuck this. What’s his name? I get up and walk across the hall and knock.

The door opens to a man in his forties with close-cropped, thinning hair. He wears a flannel shirt and a pair of sweatpants tucked into wool socks.

“Yeah?” He has a coffee mug in his hands that isn’t filled with coffee, and his eyes are wet and red, his breathing heavy like answering the door has been some great effort.

“Hey, I’m across the hall and wanted to know if you know where to buy booze.”

He smiles at this and rubs his stained undershirt which is stretched tight over his gut. “Liquor store, huh? There’s a place all the way up by the interstate,” he says. “However, you’re in luck.” He gestures grandly back into his room, which is clouded with smoke like there’s just been a grease fire. “I got a sorta one right here.”

“No… I didn’t mean to bother you. I just wanted to see if you knew a place.”

He looks me over like he’s seeing me for the first time. “Jesus, you look like hammered dogshit.”

I turn to go.

“Nah, fuck it, I’m just kidding. Come in and have a drink.”

There doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. I say yes and follow him in.

“Southern Comfort all right?”

“Sure,” I say, and he opens a cabinet containing two handles of Southern Comfort and the odd assortment of spices and canned foods.

He grabs another mug and pours me half a cup of straight whiskey.

“I’m Dean.” He hands me the mug. “Helluva game going on here,” he says, the Jeopardy theme song playing.

“Mike,” I say. Dean goes to the corner and brings an aluminum folding chair.

“You’ll excuse the accommodations. I don’t have a lot of company,” he says, punctuating the information with a wheeze of a laugh.

“No problem,” I say.

Dean sits down on a plaid recliner, and I unfold the chair next to him. He drinks the whiskey in loud slurps, like there is no more whiskey in the room, like this is the last whiskey in all of Montana, and even though I haven’t had a drink in a few hours, I do the same, and am buzzed again in no time.

The room is sparse and much larger than mine. A single bed against the far wall, a shotgun propped up in the corner, and a chipped cherry table beside the recliner. A big, brown owl mounted on the wall over the TV stares out at us. It looks like something from the Bozeman swap meet where Danielle and I would sometimes go on Saturday mornings. We’d scan the piles of tweaker-owned goods and pick out random things for our apartment: a Tombstone, Arizona decanter, a jellyfish poster, broken stereo speakers. After a while, when the hangovers became too great, when Comforce had me pulling weekend doubles, we stopped going. Later, I heard a story about how one of our favorite booth owners was murdered by her husband. A couple days into a meth binge the husband became convinced a transmitter in his wife’s stomach was sending a signal that would lead police to their house and their crystal stash. He gutted his wife like he was hollowing out the body cavity of a deer, and threw her guts on a bonfire in the backyard. As his wife’s insides crackled and turned black in the flames, the husband realized he might be transmitting too. He turned the knife on himself, and when the cops finally arrived—alerted by neighbors who complained not of the noise nor of the fire itself, but of its accompanying stench—they found him pawing through his own intestines in the blood-soaked dust, on his knees as though in prayer to the gods of meth.

Dean lights a cigarette. He offers me one but I pass.

My phone buzzes again and I ignore it.

“So who you been fighting?” Dean says between puffs.

“No one.”

“Yeah, I hate it when ‘No One’ kicks my ass, too.” He laughs, then belches so loud it’s like a dying bullfrog lives in the back of his throat.

“My ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend,” I say.

Dean snorts. “He an asshole?”

“Sorta.”

“Sorta? So then maybe you’re the asshole.”

“Maybe,” I say.

He nods, like that answers everything, and goes back to shouting answers at the TV. What is uranium? Who is H.G. Wells? What is the Louisiana Purchase? And what the hell, I join in.

“Amsterdam!”

“Don’t forget,” Dean says, “answers come in the form of a question.” He smiles in a big, drunken way as he blows smoke out the side of his mouth. We go on like this for a segment, neither of us talking other than to shout at Trebek, like these answers could get us somewhere, like knowing them is going to win us something.

Who is Harrison Ford!?

What is a Beluga!?

What is Ho Chi Minh City?

The episode goes to a commercial, and Dean gets up to pour us two more glasses of whiskey. He brings the mugs back and leans into me as he hands one over. A few sips short of shitfaced, it crosses my mind that in another life, I’d feel fear. There’s the shotgun in the corner. I don’t know what else Dean might have taken before I arrived. No one knows where I am.

“Have at it, Mike. Bottoms up,” Dean says, grinning.

But instead I am comforted. Dean is like the king of all drunk uncles everywhere and he has welcomed me in for the night. There is no danger here except us to ourselves.

“So what’s the deal?” he says.

“What deal?”

“Your girl,” he says. “I mean what’s the deal with your ex-girl?”

“Cheating.”

“Get caught?”

“Yup,” I say, “but I’d call it justifiable in this case.”

“That’s the rub, ain’t it?” Dean says, cracking his knuckles. “You fuck someone over and they fuck you over and then you’ve got no one to get mad at but yourself and where’s the good in that? That’s why I can’t do relationships anymore. I’ve been in real jail. I’ve been in love jail. They’re the same thing: a box you get locked inside that you can’t get out of. It’s just me and Stevie now.”

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