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My aunt was on her feet; I had my fist in the air. You might not have thought Anibal even noticed, but I saw his lips tightening into a smile. Though there were times he couldn’t relate to people, in that moment I knew he was even prouder of his brother than I was. It was a kind of connection.
Stud took some of the biggest hits I’d ever seen in that game, threw three TDs, and rushed for one more, carrying the team to victory, 31-27. EVHS advanced to the finals to face Ellensburg, which had almost a dozen players who’d signed commitments to Pac-10 schools; they flattened East Valley 51-14, sacking Stud nine times and giving him a concussion. But within the confines of the Union Gap city limits, what my cousin had done stood as an achievement, enough of a feat to earn him his nickname and allow him to shed the more mundane Steven.
But the glow of those days had long faded as we drove away from the hayfield, following a dirt road that wound parallel to a tributary of the Columbia. Anibal hummed a tune that Stud had told him to hush about, and green, mounded hills rose up to the west.
A burning scent crept into my nose as we came over a tall rise, the smell growing stronger, and then as we rattled down the hill Stud was hitting the brakes—something in the back shifted and banged as we lurched to a stop. A cloud of steam rose from the grill, and we looked at one another as the rumble of the engine faded to a hiss.
“Dammit,” Stud said, throwing open his door.
Anibal and I followed suit and climbed out. Most of the top bales had fallen off the load and lay in different degrees of brokenness on the road around the back of the truck. Stud examined what remained of the uppermost layer, seeing where I’d arranged them wrong.
“I told you how to stack them,” he said, not looking at me. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“You told him,” Anibal said.
“It’s overloaded anyway.” I took out my cell, thinking we’d have to call for a tow. “Can’t haul this much weight.”
“It’ll be fine,” Stud said. “Put that away. We just have to let it cool.”
Stud hoisted himself up onto the hay and started pulling at the ropes, and Anibal disappeared around the front of the truck. I heard the hood pop.
“Don’t screw it up any worse,” I shouted in his direction, though of course he knew what he was doing. I let the tailgate down and lifted one of the less-busted bales up, feeling my sour mood in my skin like a hangover. Then I heard Stud: “Where you going? Anibal!”
The truck had come to rest at the bottom of one hill and beside another, smaller rise, and I saw my cousin stalking up this second slope. There was nothing around there but prairie and a few clumps of trees, but when I looked toward where he was heading I spotted the roof of a building just barely visible over the rise, maybe two-hundred yards off. Stud began climbing down, muttering, “Where the hell’s he going?”
I started toward the hill, recalling how when we were boys I’d once challenged Anibal to a race—I can’t remember where, but we were little and somehow my aunt saw—and as soon as he’d started I’d tripped him and ran on ahead. Sturdy woman my aunt: through the botched adoption and learning that the child she’d become mother to was “not in good health,” through an ugly divorce from a man with a wandering eye, through my being put on probation by UW and coming to stay with her after my dean suggested I take a term off, and through Stud’s deciding to move away, this is the only memory I have of her snapping at me. “Don’t take advantage of him like that. You’re supposed to help him, not push him down—care for him,” she said this last with a handful of my ear, as she led me to a corner where I had to stand looking at the walls for ten minutes. I followed Anibal, feeling sorry for yelling at him and filled with the same guilt that’d been in my cheeks back then.
Getting closer, I saw places on the roof where the shingles had been torn away, exposing a layer of bone-gray wood. When we crested the hill and the house came into full view, I knew something was wrong. It was a yellow, one-story, ranch-style house set in a depression on the other side of the hill; about three feet up the siding all around the wood was dark with water damage, and, if there had been a driveway, it was lost under the tall grass that covered the land. In the spring, a downpour had mixed with the snowmelt and flooded parts of the state’s northeast. I’d heard there was still damage in some areas. This place looked abandoned.
“What are you doing?” I asked him.
He didn’t turn, but kept walking toward the house. He went to one of the dark windows, putting his hands on either side of his face to peer inside. “I thought they might have some coolant.”
I came up next to him and looked in. A layer of silt was dried three feet up the floral wallpaper, and there was no sign of people. The furniture was gone, the carpet ripped out, the sockets were missing light bulbs and, on the walls, pale rectangles marked where pictures had hung. It was like a skeleton ship washed ashore after years at sea.
“I don’t think there’s anything here we can use,” I said.
Stud was walking up behind us. “What’s—”
A yelp startled me. We turned to see a dog watching the three of us, its wet, pink tongue dangling. It was bigger than a terrier but smaller than a lab and had come around the corner of the house. It kept its eyes on us, pawing the ground and letting out a bark every few seconds, not threatening, just letting us know it was there. Its mane was matted, and I could see burs and twigs tangled in its fur. A crust of what looked like blood was dried around one of its ears.
“Come here, boy. Come on.” Anibal bent at the waist and took a couple steps toward the animal. “Hey, boy.”
“Stay away from that thing,” Stud said. “Probably has rabies.”
“It’s fine,” Anibal said. “Just a little guy.”
Taking a step back, the dog seemed ready to bolt into the tall grass, and yet it didn’t. Below its neck a shiny, metal tag dangled from a faded collar. It bared its teeth as Anibal crept forward and I felt a twinge in my chest. He was holding out his palm—“Anibal, get away from that thing!” Stud seethed—but our cousin brought his hand down and patted the dog’s head.
The mutt seemed frozen, but relaxed after a few seconds. Anibal began petting it all over, stroking its neck and back, and the dog panted and let itself be loved.
“Jesus H,” Stud said.
After a minute the dog turned and trotted around the side of the house, the three of us in tow. We came around the corner to what had once been someone’s backyard, but was now a forgotten corner of the world. Behind the house was a wooden barn washed gray by the seasons; someone had left the sliding door open, and the dark interior gaped at us like an open mouth. Stud stood with me in the shade. The grass had gone to seed and brushed our knees. We watched Anibal play with the dog.
“I worry about him once I’m gone,” Stud said.
“Your mom will be around. He’s got his job.”
“There’s nothing to be done. I can’t stay around here forever. I have to start my life.”
“He’ll make friends, find his way.”
Stud had studied welding at a technical academy in Yakima after high school and worked in a machine shop until it had folded a few months prior. My going away for college had given him ideas and now, on the verge of leaving, he was like a blind man who’s just found the bars on his windows.
He turned, examining the house, then went to the back door and tried the knob. To my surprise it creaked open, and he shot me a smile before disappearing into it. I followed, inhaling a mouthful of moldy air as my eyes adjusted to the dim; it was cool as a refrigerator in the house. There were no doors inside, and I could see into the living room where Stud had wandered.
I made my way to the kitchen. The linoleum was coming up at the seams, corners curling away from the walls, but they’d left the cabinets and I opened each drawer, finding mouse droppings and yellowed contact paper. Atop one of the shelves I saw the half-hidden corner of something, and when I took it down it was a dusty pack of Camels, a lighter wedged in with the cigarettes; someone’s left-behind stash. I hesitated a moment, and then plucked one out and stuck it in my mouth. The lighter took a few flicks, but soon I had it going.
The sound of breaking glass brought me to the living room. I found Stud kicking out one of the front windows, smiling maniacally. I was moving toward him, thinking to ask what in the hell he was doing, when my foot went through the floor.
I threw the lighter and the Camels aside and struggled against the rotten board I’d stepped on, which my leg was wedged in. Stud came over and squatted down in front of me.
“Need some help?” he asked, and then plucked the cigarette from between my lips.
“I got it,” I said, though I was stuck. I could feel a layer of dried mud beneath my shoe.
Stud took a drag off the cigarette, and then cocked his head as he examined the wood around my leg. Standing, he kicked in one of the boards, and using my hands to push up, I managed to free myself. I lay on the floor a moment, feeling a light headache forming behind my eyes from the stale tobacco. Stud picked up a couple chunks of rotten wood and threw one at the kitchen window, cracking it on the first try. He still had it. He grinned and hurled the other piece, shattering the glass, and I could see how being stuck at home had turned him against this place, made him resent everything he’d ever known.
I got up and headed for the back door. It wasn’t until I was almost outside that I heard the barking, not friendly this time. In the yard, Anibal and the dog faced me, and the withered animal was shooting its voice in my direction again and again. When I looked over my shoulder I saw Stud had ripped the paper lid off the cigarette pack, lit it on fire, and was using it to set a corner of the living room wallpaper alight. Flames leapt up, covering the pattern of pansies, and black smoke spread over the ceiling.
“Shut up, boy,” Anibal said. “Shut up, now. They’re just playing.”
When I came outside the mutt approached, and I knew it’d heard us destroying its home. Edging along the back of the house, I took a step and the dog sprang, covering the distance between us in a blink. I tried to jump away, but it caught my pant leg in its teeth. Looking down, I saw it release my jeans and lunge at my calf, and its teeth were a fistful of needles.
In a blur something struck the dog and it released me and I fell against the house’s siding. A couple feet away, Anibal was between the mutt and me, and it snapped at my cousin. He laid into it with a kick and it crumpled like a beer can onto the ground. Anibal was sobbing at it: “Shut up, shut up, shut up.”
He had the heel of his shoe on the dog’s neck, and the animal’s legs were limp, its eyes begging forgiveness. Panic soaked me as Anibal shifted his weight to his foot that was strangling the dog. I pulled him by the back of his shirt, and he turned and hit me on the ear and then grabbed my shoulders and took me to the ground in a heap. I felt the heat of his crying as we went down, and then everything turned dark as his mass smothered me. The fall had knocked my wind out; I couldn’t breathe when I opened my mouth. For a long second spots of color burst in the blackness—I stopped fighting and waited for what would come next. And then, all at once, sweet air filled my lungs and I was looking at the sky, where clouds tinged with orange whispered along.
“What’s wrong with you?” Stud was standing beside me, speaking to his brother, who rubbed his ribs, a print from one of Stud’s boots on his t-shirt. Looking behind me, I saw the dog trotting toward the barn, the shadow of a limp in its gait. “You’re going to hurt somebody. Christ.”
“Stupid fucking dog,” Anibal muttered. “No one’s coming back. They left. Gone.”
Stud’s anger broke. He stood there a long minute and then turned. “Don’t start with me on this, Anibal. Don’t start,” he said as he walked away.
When I pulled up my pant leg the skin of my calf was red with teeth marks, but the dog hadn’t broken the skin. Getting to my feet, I could see into the house through the open back door: flames like orange feathers had covered one wall, and the smell of smoke was thick on the air.
“Gone,” Anibal said. “Left and gone.”
“I’m sorry,” I said to him, my head still ringing, my shoulder aching where I’d fallen.
“You went first,” he said.