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.

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.”

Who is Stevie? His semi-truck? A pet I don’t see? An affectionate name for an underage prostitute he frequents in Great Falls? I have no idea, and Dean does not expound.

I call out more answers for Jeopardy, getting a few right, while Dean gets all the rest, and between the two of us, we kick the ever-loving shit out of Trebek and his Jeopardy dorks.

“Where’d you learn all this shit?” I say.

“Just fucked a lot of complicated women, I guess,” Dean says.

“No,” I say. “I mean Jeopardy. How do you know all the answers?”

“Oh,” Dean says. “Mom was a school teacher. I suspect she took it home with her. I was headed down that path too but then the usual things got in the way. You know, got a girl pregnant, discovered the fountain of youth.”

“The fountain of youth?”

“Crystal meth,” he says, snorting dramatically and wiping imaginary residue from his nose. “How about you? College?”

“Yeah,” I say, “graduated with a degree in history.”

“Ah, I see,” he says. “One of them bachelors of fuck all degrees.” He reaches out to slap me playfully on the shoulder.

“Pretty much,” I say. “I was into Indian stuff. History and politics: forced sterilization, Leonard Peltier, uranium in the drinking water, that sort of thing. So was my brother. Thought we were gonna be lawyers, activists, politicians, something.”

“Then what happened?”

“Rent,” I say, and Dean laughs at my cheap joke.

“And my brother,” I say. “He got sick. Then I started working at Comforce in Bozeman. Help my folks pay bills and all. That was a while back.”

“Fucking Comforce. Fuckin’ A. I used to have friends at the Comforce in Great Falls. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I guess,” I say, but I don’t agree.

Dean surveys the room and settles on the shotgun in the corner and starts mumbling. “Man, I gotta piss, I gotta fucking piss.” He goes to get up but falls back in the chair. “Hahaha, I’m shit ass drunk,” he says.

The next clue is: He was an American truck driver who gained fame as the ‘Lawn Chair Pilot.’

I’m at a loss.

“Who is Larry Walters?” Dean says.

A contestant answers but he’s wrong.

“Larry Fucking Walters,” Dean repeats.

No one else answers and time runs out. “LARRY MOTHERFUCKING WALTERS, YOU FUCKING TWATS.”

I’ve never heard of this person, but Dean shouts it again. “LARRY MOTHERFUCKING WALTERS. MOTHERFUCKING LARRY WALTERS, YOU FUCKING STUCK UP RICH FUCKS.” Dean’s so worked up he guzzles down the rest of his whiskey and accentuates his anger by smashing his mug-holding fist into the end table. The table flips over sending ceramic shards with it and russet-colored blood spurts from Dean’s hand onto the underside of the table.

“Fuck! Matt! Grab me a towel, man. Will ya?” I pause. Did he call me Matt? Did I imagine it? Is it just a coincidence? He waggles a finger with his good hand in the general direction of the kitchen, one eye closed like he’s trying to steady his vision.

“Yeah, yeah, I got you.” I get up, but in the short time it takes to get a towel and come back, Dean’s fading out, opening and closing his eyes, the bloody hand cupped against his greasy undershirt.

“Dean, you okay? You okay, man?”

His head lolls back, deep dry creases running around his eyes like miniature coulees. He breathes heavily and blood settles in the cracks in his hand. The cut is more superficial than the amount of blood suggests.

“Yeah yeah yeah,” he murmurs.

I shake him a bit, but a staggered snoring sets in. He’s down for the count. It’s just Trebek and my thoughts now.

 

The trouble becomes this:

After two years of remission, Matt’s cancer comes back. He gets a $200,000 bone marrow transplant and moves in with my parents to recover. My parents pay the insurers, and I look for a job to pay the rest.

I am twenty-two. Because I have my degree, Comforce takes me on as a shift manager overseeing the pouring of 10,000 pounds of identical plastic brackets a day into a metal hopper to be sorted on an assembly line the length of a football field.

Life is sixty hours a week looking over the shoulders of trailer park kids from Belgrade, Three Forks, Big Sky, and end-of-the-line laborers who resent me being their boss due to my lack of experience and my overabundance of education. We—myself, the kids, the past-their-primers—all feel one of two ways: too good to be there or too numb to care, and we often feel these ways at the same time. As long as quotas are met, a pint of whiskey throughout the day is acceptable—though many of the workers, especially the young ones from the farthest flung no hope villages, saunter through the day with the zombified glaze of the opiate user.

I come home drunk one night to find Danielle updating spreadsheets on her laptop. Her problems are where to apply to graduate school, her sister’s unending engagement, and her boyfriend’s burgeoning drinking problem. In that order. I watch her type for a while. The idea that this is work makes me hate her.

Danielle has recently started as a clerk at Ben’s law firm and summarizes her day with her new vocabulary. “Summons,” she says. “Affidavit,” she says. “Garnishment,” she says. “Working lunch over cocktails,” she explains.

“Good luck with your new life,” I mumble.

“Huh?” she says, barely looking up.

“Good luck with your new life,” I say louder.

“What the hell does that mean?”

“It means I see you disappearing, completely,” I say. “It means I see you pouring out.”

“And what, exactly, are you doing that’s so important? Whose life are you saving?”

I am on top of her. It is a slip of the tongue, an honest mistake, but my hands don’t care as they clamp down on her throat, my fingertips deep in her carotid artery before the emergency shutoff switch flips in my brain and I curl into a throbbing ball of self-hate and tears.

 

At the counter in Dean’s room, I pull out my phone. Danielle has texted again:

I talked to Ben. He’s whatever. A lot of people love you and you aren’t thinking of them right now. Just come back home. Just call back your dad. He’s calling me now.

I read and re-read Danielle’s text and try to think of a response. I was wrong, I finally type. About the pouring out.

I finish another mug of whiskey and wobble across the room. Dean’s still passed out, ash peppered down the front of his undershirt. His hand will hurt in the morning, but otherwise he’ll be fine. When he wakes, maybe he won’t even remember my name. If anyone asks, maybe he’ll say he talked to some strange guy named Matt.

In my own room I grab the duffel and the .22, and I walk back out into the hall and find the bathroom at the end. There’s a shaving kit and a half-rolled tube of toothpaste on the counter, mouthwash and a few bars of soap on the toilet lid. I lock the door and turn on the shower. Seated on the edge of the toilet, I place the rifle across the bathroom sink and watch condensation form on its barrel. I take off my shoes and socks, then my shirt, then my pants. Steam gathers in the room and clouds the bathroom mirror.

 

“Where the water goes is how the earth is shaped,” Matt says, mimicking something one of his favorite Indian chiefs would have said.

“Yeah, but where the water goes so do fucking bears trying to eat us,” I say.

“Are you going to piss and moan this whole trip, or are you going to indulge your sense of adventure?”

During a period of remission, we hike backcountry in Glacier National Park through Boulder Canyon. Two miles in, a stone kicked by withered Blackfeet Indian mules who leave steaming piles of green shit every fifty yards falls from the trail above us and hits me on the elbow. By the time we reach the river, I can hardly bend my arm to take off my pack.

“Piss and fucking moan,” I say.

“Fine,” Matt says, seriously. “Then at least shut the fuck up about it.”

It is after my sophomore year in college, which is after Matt’s sophomore year, too, since his treatment has forced him to take off from school. It is early summer, a thick, wet heat settling in the low country that appears to make the canyon walls ripple like the folds in a girl’s skirt. I stare into his angry eyes. Have they always been so green? Did the chemo do something to the color? To him? And I imagine him tripping, bending an ankle, or worse—cruel and juvenile things because I am in pain and because for the first time in a long time, he is not a patient. He is my older brother again.

When we finally set up camp, we do so in a grim silence until Matt throws his pack at me and I chase him into the water. I tackle him. My arm—it seems—is suddenly healed, and Matt jumps up like a mad man, splashing me. We run around in the shallow stream of jade-colored water, hearing our cries echo all around us. Not for any one reason, but because we are young, because we are brothers, and because we can.

That night around the fire I load our bear gun.

“Do you think you could do it?” Matt says while poking a stick into the blue wisps of flame.

“Do what?” I say. But I am thinking of how when we were kids we used apples for target practice. I am thinking of how when the bullet entered it left a small, smooth hole, but when it came out the other side, it blew the core and all the sweet parts out with it. A brief flash of heat and light and then everything turned to useless mush. I am thinking that I could never do that to a bear, and I am thinking that Matt has read the same long-term prognosis for his cancer that I have.

 

I put the rifle stock-first on the motel bathroom floor and press the barrel to the underside of my chin. The metal is cool, though somehow it’s not enough, not quite real, like the nerves there don’t work right or I’m touching myself with it over layers of clothing. There are flecks of blood on my knuckles and a pain in my stomach from all the whiskey radiates into my back like a beam of pulsing heat. I push the gun harder up under my chin, and I put my right index finger on the trigger. And that makes it all real. I think of all the people who have managed to pull the trigger, and all those who never had the choice. How it’s such a simple thing to do. Just a little bit of pressure and then darkness.

“LARRY FUCKING WALTERS!”

The gun pops out of my grip and clatters to the ground. I’m shaking. Heart fluttering in my chest like it’s trying to get out. How long have I been here?

“I gotta piss like a naked race horse out here, Mike,” Dean yells, pounding on the door. “Quit jerking it and let me the fuck in!”

I’m so shocked all I can do is laugh. It comes from my sternum, where the memory of Matt still vibrates, from so deep the peals of laughter are like light. I laugh as hard as I’ve ever laughed. As hard as anyone could ever laugh. So hard it drowns out the shower, Dean, my phone buzzing. I laugh so hard my vision clouds with tears and I rise above the room, the basement, the Totem Motel, all of Montana, until I’m floating there alone in the darkness, naked and shimmering, a smile across my face.

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