Anibal, Stud, and I watched the burgundy tractor as it crossed the hayfield. The acreage was marked with green rows, loose clippings piled in lines that striped the flatness. Slow, the machine lurched like an elephant, dragging a baler that devoured the cuttings, churned the alfalfa into bales, bound them in twine, and pushed out the grassy deposits, defecating one every five yards.

My cousins and I had grown up like brothers, and there was a time when I was sure I felt what they felt, knew what they knew. I’d been away three years though, and now I wondered what it was they saw when they looked out on the field. For me, it was the strange, present nostalgia of being home and knowing I was leaving before long. But they’d lived all their lives in the counties east of the Cascades, and that was something different.

“Shouldn’t we go over, say hi?” I asked.

“Mom says he’ll talk your ear off if you give him a chance.” Stud waved at the man on the tractor, who drove straight ahead without seeing us, a handkerchief tied over his nose and mouth, his head engulfed in the black exhaust that smoked out of a pipe on the Massey Ferguson’s hood.

“Dirty air filter,” Anibal muttered, like he was quoting out of a manual. “Change filters every six to eight months.”

In his wallet, Stud had a check for two hundred dollars from his mother, my aunt, who had sent us to take fifty bales. She knew the farmer and usually came to get the feed herself, but she was sick and so I’d ridden along in her stead. Stud had insisted on taking his rumbling, patchwork Chevy that he’d bought out of a junkyard when he was fifteen and had been fixing up for the past seven years, and we’d driven a couple hours toward Colville, north of Spokane. In a week, he and I would take off in his pickup; he’d put his home behind him, drive me back to Seattle, and then head north on the Alaskan Highway and lose himself in a new life.

Stud finally caught the eye of the farmer, who, with a wave of his hand, seemed to indicate that we could buck our load and settle up after. We worked the end of the field opposite from where the tractor roamed. Anibal and I put our hips into it as we hoisted the fifty pounders and swung them up into the truck’s bed, where Stud organized them in a crosshatch pattern, so that the rows of one layer lay perpendicular to the rows above it. Once we’d taken all the bales from an area he’d climb down and drive the truck forward, and Anibal and I would walk to where he stopped the rig; open-mouthed and panting, we staggered after the truck like zombies doggedly pursuing a movie star. An hour into it, Anibal and I were glistening with sweat, but Stud looked as dry as the broken stalks of alfalfa that covered the field. When we’d taken the better part of our load a mutual need for rest grew among us, and, too spent to speak, we piled into the Chevy with nods of agreement and drove to the edge of the hayfield, to trees and shade.

Out of the sun, we huddled in a stand of Doug fir. Anibal leaned his bulk against the trunk of a mammoth, old tree, while Stud perched on a round knot that jutted out of the ground. From a cooler my aunt had packed we took granola, apples, and elk jerky, stuffing the chilled food into our mouths and washing it down with swigs taken off a pitcher of iced tea. When we’d finished eating, Stud reached in the cooler, brought out a translucent-blue pillbox, and opened the compartment marked SUN, emptying the contents—square, saffron, oblong, eggshell, hexagonal; nearly a half dozen altogether—into his hand. He held them out to Anibal.

“Mom told me to make sure you take everything. No bitching, no argument.”

“You guys want some?” Anibal asked, accepting the pills into his open palm. “It’s the good stuff. You just—shoom—fly away.”

“Shut up and take them,” Stud said.

“What about you, cousin?” He extended his hand with the meds in it to me, picked out one fat, circle-shaped pill, and held it to his eye. “Here, this one here: you can finish loading this hay by yourself, drive it straight to California if you want.”

He’d never liked the cocktail of pharmaceuticals that his various medical conditions had earned him, but it was hard to argue with how they calmed him, evened him out. Most of the damage had been done when he was still a baby in Guatemala, before the adoption, and it had taken my aunt years to understand what all he suffered from, what could be done to help it.

I might’ve played along with Anibal, but Stud’s face was granite, so I waved him off. “No, I’m good.”

He clapped his hand to his mouth, throwing in all the pills at once, and swallowed. He licked his palm, saying, “Thhheeeyyyy’re great!”

I was so used to Anibal’s quiet, the way he mumbled to himself and rarely spoke at full volume—he was on the autism spectrum, and that was in addition to the diabetes, the hep B, and his developmental disorders. During the last week he’d been having outbursts like this though, and I felt anxious as he looked me over with a jagged energy.

Stud pretended to pick at the moss between his feet, and my hand went to my shirt pocket, but I didn’t have any cigarettes because I’d quit smoking since I’d come home six months ago. The sound of the tractor roaring off in the distance had grown louder, and when I looked up I saw it inching in our direction. It pulled up beside Stud’s truck, and the tall, starved-looking farmer detached himself from the driver’s seat. He tugged down the handkerchief he’d been wearing over his face, and it hung in a loose circle around his neck.

“How many you get so far?” he asked, and listened to Stud’s answer. The man spat into the ground and leaned back, seeming to speak to the treetops. “You boys picked a hot one to come get it—they said it’s supposed to rain this week, but I don’t put any stock in that. You’re lucky my tractor broke down in June or I might’ve had it cut and bailed weeks ago. Probably sold too. With the drought this is some of the last hay in the state.”

Stud got to his feet, took the check from his wallet and folded it in half, handing it to the farmer. He didn’t even look at it as he slid it into his pocket. All was quiet for a while, and a rare breeze shook the foliage as we listened to the calls of a hawk turning spirals above the field. Eventually, the man turned to Stud, “I been out to Union Gap a few times, got some family out that way. Saw you play for East Valley once or twice. Saw that game against Grandview.”

“That was two years ago,” I said.

“Three,” Anibal corrected.

“You were something,” the man said. “Did you get a scholarship for college? I’m sure you had offers.”

“No,” Stud said. “I’m not big enough for the college game. Anyway, my time was up.”

“What you doing these days?”

“Moving to Anchorage in a little. Have a buddy up there who’s got a welding shop. Might do some guide fishing.”

“Man alive, you sure could sling it though.” The farmer dropped back and made a throwing motion, but his bony limbs robbed the drill of any grace. Stud was silent, and, saying he’d leave us to it, the old man wandered back to his tractor, shook it awake with a turn of the key, and rumbled out into the sun. Soon after he left we hauled ourselves up and started to our work. While we bucked the rest of the hay Anibal spoke only in cereal slogans: “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!”; “They’re after me Lucky Charms!”; “Kid tested, mother approved.”

I was exhausted, so as we started in I asked Stud if I could stand in the bed and arrange the load. “You know how to stack them?” he asked.

I told him I knew what I was doing and waved off his explanation. Catching bales and wrestling them into the pattern, I watched my mismatched cousins from the bed of the truck and thought about Anibal. He was working at an auto shop, but couldn’t deal with customers and my aunt said he was barely hanging onto the job. Though he didn’t seem it, he was older than Stud by several years, and this had always complicated their dynamic. I’d been an only child, but before I went to college and my parents retired to Hawaii, we’d lived in the detached apartment on my aunt’s horse farm; the three of us had grown up trail riding and hunting in the bush for invisible Vietcong—out on the paths of the forest, and then later at school, Stud and I had always looked out for Anibal. We were family, and as a boy I couldn’t have imagined this world would split us up. Other than his mom and us, Anibal didn’t have much of anyone, and I could tell it was going to be hard for him without Stud.

It took us two hours to finish with the hay. By the time we were done our skin was caked with specks of grass, and the salt from our dried sweat frosted us like the sand that clings to you after a day at the beach. When I looked at the stack I realized I’d done the top layer in the wrong direction, but I was too tired to fix it and we were going to tie the load down anyway. Anibal got the rope out of the cab and tossed it up to me, and I tugged it over the bales and threw it down to Stud on the other side.

Hopping down from the tailgate, I licked my cracked lips and, tasting blood, looked up at the bales in the truck bed: they were piled five high, the load seeming to take up more space than the rig itself. I couldn’t believe the Chevy would be able to move under that burden, but Stud got in, started the old girl, and put her in gear. She eased into a motion that looked unnatural, like a tugboat pulling a freighter ten times its size. Anibal and I went to the passenger side and climbed in.

On our way out the farmer walked over to us, and Stud stopped and rolled down his window. “Tell your mom I’ll have it ready a month earlier next year. Give you folks the same price, special discount for the East Valley legend.”

I remembered the game the old man had been talking about. I’d been a freshman at the University of Washington, but finished my classes early and came home in time for the 2-A regional, semi-finals. On the freezing metal bleachers I sat with Anibal, who’d insisted on coming when my aunt asked him if he could sit through the whole game but winced at the squeaks and honks of the visiting team’s band tuning up. Though later I would personally testify to Stud’s all-out, on-fire quarterbacking, I saw exactly one play of the first half: the opening kickoff, which ended uneventfully in a pile of bodies at the twenty-five yard line. Feeling an itch in my throat, I excused myself to the concessions; at the FFA stand down on the shredded-rubber track I bought a bird bath-sized coke and then stole into a restroom stall, dumped most of my drink in the toilet, and poured in a flask of Sailor Jerry’s. I’d liked drinking since my first can of Busch Light back when I was a student at EVHS; I liked the false feeling of control it gave me, and as I struggled to keep my head above water in college, to achieve the same kind of success that had come so easy back home, I’d started liking it even more. Returning to the stands I ran into an old friend: Ché and I had run cross-country together, and she was still in high school. After the last meet of my final season, she’d told me that she’d once hoped we would go out, but I was leaving for UW and it was too late. Her parents had immigrated from the Philippines, and she was the smartest kid in the senior class. Catching up, we walked away from the field, out the ticket gate, and into the gravel beneath the bleachers. I told her about the U—leaving aside the bad grades and black outs—and she told me about the East Coast schools she’d applied to, her early admission to NYU. When I offered her my spiked drink she took a whiff of the straw and hesitated before having a pull. When we started kissing, she embraced me for the first minute, but then pulled away, saying, “Okay, whoa now.” She put a hand on my chest and shook her head. “I should probably go.” Standing in the dark, I watched her walk towards the parking lot, then gulped down the rum and coke as a cheer went through the crowd above.

At the start of the second half I was back sitting next to Anibal, who picked his nose and flicked his findings at the backs of the visiting fans. My aunt didn’t seem to notice I’d been gone and she stared at the field, flinching every time Stud was hit or knocked down. People said the last quarters were less dramatic than the first, but over the years I heard enough talk about the game it became as if I’d seen the whole thing myself: the story started with how bad the East Valley O-line was that season, how stout the Grandview D; the linebackers slipping through holes and Stud scrambling in the backfield from the first possession of the game. To my glazed eye the blue jerseys chasing my cousin seemed to be spellbound disciples reaching for their messiah, arms outstretched, athletic-tape-wound fingers extended, desperate to touch him; and Stud, radiating light, always with one more twist, one more shim-and-jive move, slipped away and threw gorgeous parabolas down field that were so perfectly arced all his receivers had to do was hold out their hands and accept salvation. It was early December and puffs of white fog darted out of the players’ helmets as they fought up and down the dew-slicked field. At the end of the third quarter Stud broke out in a run, passing the thirty, the twenty, the ten, still going, jumping over a blocker, diving, ball extended. Touchdown.

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.

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.

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