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My body felt like a foreign thing, but I managed to move back toward the road. Behind me Anibal was mumbling, but as I walked his voice blended with the crackle of the fire as the flames spread to the roof and the heat passed over one side of me. Having grown up around him, I was used to always thinking first of what all Anibal didn’t understand. As I crested the hill, though, and saw the valley spread out below me, the brown trickle of the road through its bottom, it occurred to me that Anibal could see his world and everyone in it as clearly as I saw the country before me; his conditions trapped him as if in a high tower that let him peer into the distance but from which there was no way down. Not too far away was the deep blue of the Columbia and, further off, dark clouds were bunching against the horizon. I came down the slope easy, letting my weight carry me.
Stud was leaning into his truck’s open hood, laying a hand against the radiator to check the heat. By the time we’d gotten the hay that had fallen off loaded back up, Anibal was coming over the hill. None of us said anything, Stud didn’t even look at his brother, and I tried to imagine that we’d done nothing wrong. While Anibal climbed in the cab, I helped Stud kick the loose grass that’d fallen off the bales into the ditch beside the road—neither of us said it, but if someone took an interest in the house we didn’t want them finding any trace of us. Then we loaded up, and Stud fired up the Chevy.
As we left, I looked toward the house and saw a fringe of yellow over the top of the hill. The weather was turning, and after months of dry heat I could smell the rain, which would stop a brush fire, but I worried the trail of black smoke rising into the air would attract attention. On the way back, Stud and I began to talk—not about anything, just to remind ourselves of who we were—and before long Anibal even spoke up. In this way, we managed to act as if there’d never been any blaze, no flood house or no feral dog. A couple hours later, as we pulled into my aunt’s drive, raindrops splattered the windshield, and I caught sight of the house and the warm, yellow light of the kitchen windows. That night I listened to the storm as I lay in bed and imagined the phone ringing the next morning, my aunt answering it and hearing a fire investigator’s voice. No one called though, and Stud and I took off a few days after, heading west.
It would be years and years before my cousins and I were all together again, at my aunt’s funeral. Stud’s rangy frame had filled out by then, and he had a gut, two kids, and a wife. There was even talk of a house back in Ketchikan. I’d given up drinking, and was working on my second marriage, a little one on the way. We’d become the kind of men who have mortgages and family pictures in their wallets, similar ideas about the world.
Anibal had bounced between different jobs and unemployment. He still murmured to himself under his breath, still had his same grease monkey sense of humor. They’d sold all the horses, and when I went to see him at our aunt’s place the weeds were starting to take back the pastures; inside, all the lights were off and the curtains were closed, and there was a half-eaten tin of sardines and a scattering of crumbs on the kitchen table. It had been so long, and I could tell I was making him uneasy, that he wasn’t used to me anymore. Stud and I were both at the La Quinta in town, and I wished we’d insisted on staying out at the ranch. With his mom gone, Anibal was so utterly alone—I don’t know what I could’ve done, what good I was capable of—but I wished then for a chance to go back, to make time in my life, to love him.