A boy, teenaged, with the broad shoulders and neck of a man much older and of a much older time (a blacksmith maybe, or maybe a woodsman), with eyes now beginning to sting from the day’s thick wet heat not yet dying, with his backpack strap wrapped around one heavy hand, walked alone up a crooked gravel road bordered by gently animate walls of green that reached their fingers out onto the road, and towards the boy, and towards the sky. A school bus had dropped the boy off at the head of this road and driven away, and when it did no one inside had looked back.
Ahead of him, just to his right, the green broke open and a house appeared, metastasized shack slumped in a yellowish field. This house was the dishwater color of unpainted wood and behind it, just visible from the road, was a chain-link pen in which three speckled dogs lay sleeping. Next to the house crouched an exhausted pick-up truck brindled with rust. Stephen saw the truck and his grip on the backpack tightened.
He walked up the front steps of the house quietly and quietly let himself inside. He set his backpack on the couch by the front door. The couch had a pattern of pink roses worn to burlap brown on the arms and the edges of seat cushions as pitted and dented as the truck outside. Across from the couch sat a TV on a TV tray and next to it sat a broken recliner. On the far wall, by the window, stood a bookshelf that held no books; on its shelves were only a few old pictures and a hurricane lamp with an inch of red kerosene pooled in its base.
Stephen walked light as a thief to the back of the house. He stopped before his father’s bedroom door and listened to the sounds coming from the other side of it. The door was not closed but only pulled to, and now Stephen laid his fingertips on it and pushed it open.
His father sat at the edge of the bed, naked, his legs spread open to accommodate the boy who knelt between them, a boy younger than Stephen. This boy’s head was dark and sleek as a beetle, and Stephen’s father leaned back with his eyes closed as it bobbed on his lap like an empty tin can on rough water. Stephen pulled the door back to the jamb and walked away, out of the house and into the yard, around back to feed the dogs who, when they heard his steps, bounded up from their naps and galloped in crazy circles howling.
It was nearly dusk by the time they came out of the bedroom. The last light of the failing sun slipped in around the sheets of tinfoil taped to the west-facing windows and wrapped itself around the room like a dirty bandage. Stephen sat at the table eating cold baked beans from a pot. When he heard his father’s footsteps coming, he put his spoon down and set both hands on the table. He stared at the pot, waiting.
“Pablo here needs to be movin’ on.”
Stephen looked up. Luke and the boy stood together in the kitchen doorway, the boy in front, Luke behind with his hands on the boy’s shoulders. The boy swayed between those hands as if moved by some music Stephen could not hear. His lips were red and pulpy like he’d just finished a popsicle; a wet streak of purple ran out from the corner of his mouth.
“He told me he’s got a sister over in San Antonio he wants to stay with, isn’t that right, son?” Luke moved a hand to the boy’s chest and clapped him once, hard. The boy’s eyes opened wide and he nodded. Luke looked down at him, then up to Stephen and nodded also.
“I told him we don’t keep people here that don’t want to stay,” he said. “Told him that’s not what family is supposed to be about, didn’t I, Pablo?” The boy was still nodding but Luke clapped him on the chest again. Do this with your hand cupped tight to trap the air and it will be loud but not painful. Luke kept his hand flat.
“Told him I know the state won’t like it, but that’s ok, I can handle them. Told him we’d find some way to do without him.” Stephen looked down. Just in front of the boy was a bare spot where the old wood floor showed, scratched and black tar sticky. The linoleum curled away from that spot as if something strong and vicious had burst through there.
Luke shoved the boy forward and Stephen caught him one-handed. The boy’s head snapped forward hard and when he brought it back up, his bottom lip was bleeding. His eyes were dark and glassy, hooded marbles. He weaved and Stephen held him by the arms.
“I gave him some money for a ticket,” Luke said. He stared at Stephen until Stephen looked up at him. “And I gave him a few sips for the ride.” Luke tapped a cigarette out of his pack and stuck it in his mouth but did not light it. The boy’s head swiveled toward Luke and Luke looked away. “Take Pablo to the station now,” he said as he walked out of the kitchen. “Y’all know I’m no good at goodbyes.” He came back with a duct-taped duffel bag and threw it at Stephen’s feet.
By the time they got outside, the boy could barely walk. The sky was dark save a fat rose red smear over the treetops and the frogs were everywhere and singing, a plague of them popping from the ground like hot grease. The boy did not want to step on any; he shuffled and stumbled until Stephen picked him up and carried him to the truck, lifted him onto the seat and belted him in. They backed out onto the gravel road.
The boy lay against the seat, panting slow. He rolled his head to the side and said “You. Got my bag.”
Stephen shook his head.
The boy’s head flopped like his neck was broken. “Thanks you. Thanks. You take good.” He slumped against the seat and was quiet. Stephen drove on.
He drove through the empty back roads until it was safely night, then headed down towards the freeway. He came to a stop sign and looked over at the boy. His eyes were closed and some thick fluid, bile or vomit, seeped from the corners of his mouth. Stephen reached over and put two fingers against his throat just under the jaw. A car pulled up behind them and Stephen drove on.
He hit I-10 and turned west. They rode through the big lonely stretch between Sulphur and Vinton where nothing lies beyond the freeway but swamp and the things the swamp conceals: animals and the cracked-open bodies of cold machines. Stephen reached over again, laid his hand over the boy’s nose and mouth and squeezed. A sound came out of the boy’s throat. He tried to twist his mouth away. Stephen squeezed harder. He pinned the boy’s head against the seat. The boy jerked weakly, his hands fluttering like injured birds. His chest strained against the shoulder strap, then relaxed. The boy stilled.
Stephen pulled his hand back and wiped it on his jeans. The Sabine was coming up and now he got off the freeway and onto the turnaround lane that went under the bridge. He unbuckled the boy’s body and pulled it down into the foot well, but there was no one around to see.
Stephen parked beside the water. At night it had the glossy blackness of an oil slick and the stars reflected on its crawling surface looked to him like small silver fish trying to break free before they choked in it. He walked around the passenger side and lifted the boy onto the seat. He turned out the boy’s pockets, cradled the boy’s empty body in his arms and carried it to the river. He laid the boy down on the water and watched the water take him. Then he got back in the truck and drove home.
Luke was already in bed, splayed and unmoving as a man struck down by lightning. Stephen put the money he’d taken from the boy’s pockets in the small wooden box on Luke’s dresser and went to his room. He lay down and tried to sleep.
Aunt Ruby came two days later.
Aunt Ruby, with her rusty nest of hair and too-long nails and body like a pile of something soft and wet gone to rot, lurched out of her black Crown Victoria and onto the dirt of the driveway like a man sick and long at sea will lurch onto land: as if his joints are greasy ball bearings and he can’t remember anything good about the world. She moved towards the house with a fat DSS folder in her hand trying to vomit up its papers. Stephen and Luke stood on the front porch watching. Luke turned and said “Go get your aunt a beer and a chair for her fat ass. I don‘t want her in the house. And mix me a potion.” Then he went down to meet her.
“Baby girl!” he said, and her eyes rolled. “I was hoping you’d make it up here today. Come on up the porch and have a cool drink.”
“Fuck off,” she said. “This ain’t no social call.” She flapped the folder at him and he backed up. A large brown purse bulged from under her other arm like some obscene pulsing growth and when she’d made her way onto the porch she let it fall with a grunt of relief.
Stephen brought out a kitchen chair and put it down by the door where the boards were strongest. Aunt Ruby settled onto the seat and began fanning herself with the folder. She took the bottle Stephen offered without looking at him and pressed it against her temple. “Hot as piss out here,” she said.
Luke held out his palm and Stephen handed him a glass. He took a sip, leaned against the house and raised an eyebrow. Ruby nodded. “It’s about that boy,” she said and took a long drink. She belched against the back of her hand and brushed it over her blouse. “School says he hadn’t been in for quite a while. Weeks. He sick?”
Luke crossed his arms and shook his head. He sighed and looked up as if for guidance or strength. “Ruby,” he said. “I hate to tell you this, but that boy run off just about a month ago now.” She opened her mouth and Luke put up a hand. “I know, I know. I should’ve told you right away, but after that last one run off like he did, I was afraid of how it might look. I was hopin’ this one’d come on back on his own and—”
“Oh, shut up Luke.” She set her beer down and pulled a pen from her purse, then opened up the folder. “I expected as much when the school called me,” she said while she wrote. “I’ll put that he ran off yesterday. That way you’ll still get a check.”
“Kind of you,” Luke said. “You know what a help it’s been, me still on light duty. And the Fast Cash gone up to takin’ three percent now.”
Ruby rolled her eyes again. “If you got a bank account like a normal person you wouldn’t have to worry about it.” She looked up at the glass in Luke’s hand and snorted. “How’s your cough?” He ignored her.
Stephen leaned against the doorframe with his hands behind his back. He had a rubber band around his wrist, thick and blue. He slipped a finger beneath the band and ran it around and around, rabbit on racetrack. Luke came over and put a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s a shame,” he said. “He and Stephen were gettin’ real close. You don’t know where he’s run off to, do you, son?” Stephen shook his head.
“Those boys hit eleven or twelve and you can’t hardly keep ’em no more, especially if they‘s runaways to begin with.” Ruby dropped the pen back into her purse and picked up her beer. “Nothin’ to do with you. I don’t expect they’ll give you any trouble over it.”
Luke nodded. “Well,” he said. “That being the case, you think you could get me another one?” He reached behind Stephen and pulled the rubber band tight against his wrist. “It’s a help to us, out here all alone.” He pulled harder and the band snapped.
Ruby laughed. “Yes, yes. Lord knows we ain’t got no shortage.” She finished her beer and rested the empty bottle on her thigh. “The sad truth is,” she said. “Boys like that’s just a waste of resources for us. They’re ruined long before we get them into the system.”
She held out her bottle and Stephen reached for it. “The truth is,” she said again. “Boys like that can’t ever truly be helped. Probably the best thing would be to do the same thing we do with those dogs been messed around with.”
“What’s that, Ruby?” Luke sounded like he might be smiling.
Ruby sighed open-mouthed, teeth slick with spit; it was like steam escaping from a sewer grate. “Put ‘em to sleep, I guess,” she said. Stephen stumbled backwards against the front door and she finally did look at him, her gaze as bland as a cat’s. He went inside and Ruby said “That boy looks more like his mother every day, God rest.” In the kitchen Stephen heard his father slap his knee and laugh like he’d heard a great dirty joke.
They had another boy before the next week was out.
“Son, this is Pablo. He’s your new brother. Pablo, this is Stephen.”
Stephen sat on his bed with his hands on his knees, head hung heavy as a bull’s. He looked up. The new boy stood next to Luke, barely taller than Luke’s belt. He was as pink and blonde and widely smiling as a cheap doll.
“Ruby dropped him off last night. I told him you’d show him where the bus stop is.” He palmed the boy’s head and shuffled his hair. The boy turned his head up, smile stretched even wider.
“Now, son,” Luke said to him. “I’m gonna have to get on to the plant, but your big brother Stephen is gonna take real good care of you.” He turned to Stephen. “He’s had some rough times but I told him that’s all over now, right Pablo?” The boy stopped smiling and looked at some point in the corner. His lower lip trembled and Luke knelt down before him. “It’s ok, son,” he said and pulled the boy close. “That’s all over now.” The boy clung to Luke’s neck and his back heaved once, twice. They separated and the boy turned to face Stephen, smile restored. His cheeks and eyes were dry.
It had rained overnight. The two of them walked carefully down the old wet road and heard only the crunchy suck of gravel underfoot and the various screams of birds. The new boy was wearing a red rain slicker and his backpack kept trying to slide off his shoulder. When they were out of sight from the house, he turned to Stephen and said “Got any smokes?”
Stephen shook his head.
“Fuck.” The boy exhaled as if blowing out candles. “I haven’t had a smoke since they picked me up. I was gonna swipe one from your dad but I didn‘t get a chance.” He saw a thick stone in the road and kicked it into the bushes. A sudden wind shook drops out of the trees and the boy hopped to one side to avoid them. “It sucks. You ever been picked up?”
Stephen shook his head.
“Smart,” the boy said. “They go through all your shit and just take whatever they want. It’s as bad as getting arrested.”
At the main road, they stopped. A car passed them, and then another, both headed in the same direction.
The boy watched after them. “That’s the way to town, right?”
“It’s not far, right? A couple miles, maybe. You could walk it?”
“Cool.” The boy unshouldered his pack and laid it under a bush. He kicked some leaves over it and then stood back, considering. “I’m gonna head into town and pick up some smokes. Maybe see what kind of trouble I can get into.” He raised the hood of his raincoat and looked over at Stephen and smiled. “I’m just joking about the trouble,” he said. “It’s something my grandma used to say. Don’t worry. I’ll be back here by the time you are.” He bounded into the overgrowth like a deer and was gone.
When the bus dropped Stephen off that afternoon and he didn’t see the new boy anywhere, not on the road or beside it, not on the ground next to the place he had hidden his backpack (also gone), not back in the woods as far as his eyes could see or his ears could hear, nowhere, just gone, he felt first, even before the fear for himself, a mute weary relief—Good, he thought, and would not allow himself to think further. There was an ancient crook-limbed oak at the mouth of the gravel road and Stephen leaned against it and rehearsed what he would tell his father.
A few feet above him the new boy straddled the fat end of a branch upon which also sat (at the opposite end) a squirrel who answered his shout with a spasm of shocked chattering barks. The boy waved and tossed down his backpack, then shimmied down himself, unlit cigarette in hand.
“Hey,” he said again. “I scare you? Don’t be mad. I saw you looking for me! I told you I’d be back in time.” He spoke grinning and somehow breathless, as if he’d just won a race no one expected him to. He stuck the cigarette between his lips and dug in his pocket for the lighter. “How was school? What’s the school here like? You want a smoke?” He reached into his bag and pulled out a pack of cigarettes already a third gone. Stephen took one and the boy passed him the lighter. He lit up and passed it back. The boy tried lighting his own, but the flame guttered in the breeze. The boy struck it again and Stephen stepped forward and cupped his hands around the fire.
“Thanks, man,” the boy said. “That’s always a problem when it’s windy. Of course, your hands are a lot bigger than mine, so probably not for you, but for me it is. Matches are even worse. Matches suck.”
Stephen looked away.
“God,” the boy said with a mouthful of smoke. “I haven’t been to school in forever.”
They stood together in the shade of the tree, smoking. Stephen looked at the boy’s bag. It was much fuller than it had been in the morning.
“You know, this town isn’t too bad,” the boy said. He pulled out another cigarette and lit it off the burning nub still in his mouth, then spit that into the grass. “I mean, it’s nothing, there’s like nothing here, but it’s pretty, and there’s no cops anywhere, and nobody said shit to me the whole time I was out.” He took a drag. “I got these from the machine in that diner? The one up there at the bend? The guy didn’t even look at me. I bet I could get a bottle off him, too. And I found a truck stop that looks good, make some money. And then when I was coming back I grabbed this.”
He reached into the bag and pulled out a brown cardboard shipping box as big as a loaf of bread. It had a jagged rip along the seam where the boy had opened it, splitting a sticker that read “UPS 3 Day Select.”
“I got it off some guy’s porch,” the boy said. “It’s some kind of vitamin drink. I’ve never seen this shit before. You work out, right? I mean, obviously. Here, take it.” He tossed the box at Stephen. “It’ll be good for you.” He shouldered his bag. “Oh my God, I am starving. Come on, let’s go.” He turned and began walking toward the house. Stephen pulled the bottle out. It had a flyer rubber banded around it, glossy and studded with exclamation points. Stephen pulled the flyer off and slid the rubber band onto his hand. He put the bottle and the flyer back in the box, picked up his own bag and followed the boy to the house, cradling the box against his chest.
Beyond the house were woods and swamp and beyond that were the refineries and chemical plants that puff out smoke like tired gray dragons crawling with men. Most have gas flares and these flares tower above everything living. Stephen stood before the kitchen window watching them, the only lights in the sky.
“So, how was your first day at school?”
The boy grinned, mouth stuffed with mashed potatoes. “Great!” he said. He grabbed a tumbler of milk and drained it. Luke shook his head, smiling. He had two beer bottles in front of him, one to drink from and one full of cigarette butts. He liked to start with beer and move on from there; it was a bad day if he started with lean. “Son, you eat like a linebacker!” he said.
The kitchen window was over the kitchen sink where Stephen stood doing the dinner dishes, scrubbing scorched bits of potato out of a pot. When Luke came home from work, he’d told Stephen to make something special for his new brother’s first day, something that went well with hot dogs. He and the new boy sat in the living room watching TV while Stephen cooked and when they came in to the kitchen and saw the big bowl of mashed potatoes next to the pot of hot dogs sweating in their pink water the boy had clapped his hands together like he was trying to catch a fly and squealed “My FAVORITE!”
The boy gathered up his plate and fork and brought them to the sink. He put a hand on Stephen‘s back, up high between his shoulder blades. Stephen jerked and dropped the pot in the sink; it rang ugly and loud. “Everyone was real nice,” the boy said. “And they didn’t even give me any homework on account of it being my first day.”
“Well, that was awful sweet of them,” Luke said. “Stephen showed you to the stop and showed you around the place good?”
The night was thick with clouds and smoke; they hid the machinery of the gas flares so that only the flames were visible. These bits of fire lay suspended in the sky like hot scattered tears.
“Oh, yes sir,” the boy said. “He showed me around great!”
Later that night, after Luke had fallen asleep, Stephen heard the soft groan of the front door opening and closing, and the whisper of steps moving across the grass into the night.
The boy skipped school again the next day and when Stephen got off the bus that afternoon he saw a bright orange bow, clumsy, made of cloth, stuck to the oak tree with a bent safety pin. Stephen took down the bow and stepped into the woods. Ahead was another strip of cloth on a bush and further on another, tied loose around a skinny mimosa humming with bees.
The woods in this place are a tangle of trees and vines that open up only in brief random places: bare floors of dirt and a ceiling of leaves. He found the boy in one of these, low green room strewn with feathers of sunlight. The boy lay on his stomach reading a magazine and chewing gum, cigarette in his hand and another behind his ear. A half-eaten sandwich lay next to him. Stephen snapped a branch between his fingers and the boy looked up and smiled. “Hey!” he said. “You found me.”
Stephen set the handful of cloth down on the dirt.
“You like that? I would’ve done breadcrumbs except for the birds,” the boy said. He took the cigarette from behind his ear and reached it up to Stephen. Stephen tweezed the very end of it between his fingers. The boy pulled back and dug the lighter out of his pocket and tossed it to him. “It was a T-shirt somebody had out to dry. Look at this!” He grabbed a piece from the pile of cloth and pulled it apart in his hands like a cobweb, delighted.
“I got gum, too, if you want.” He went for his pocket again and Stephen shook his head. “But it’s cool! Check this shit out.” The boy took a drag off his cigarette and blew a bubble with slow concentration. The skin of gum stretched thinner and thinner until the bubble popped, disappeared in a cloud of smoke. “Ta-da!” the boy said. “Magic.”
“No offense, man, but this state fucking sucks.”
Stephen glanced at him. They were walking up the gravel road to the house. The boy had taken both Stephen’s book bag and his own and slung them onto his back. He puffed under their weight like a tiny pack mule.
“I mean, in general,” he said. “New Orleans is cool. I made a lot of money. There’s always something going on. But outside of that.”
“Your dad’s cool, though,” the boy said. “He seems nice. He just likes his dick sucked. He didn’t try to fuck me. Or does that come later?”
A grackle shrieked and swooped them, dirty black wings beating air against their faces. “Shit!” the boy said and fell.
Stephen lifted the bags off the boy’s back and pulled him to his feet. The boy brushed gravel off of his shins. He was not crying or angry but only looked at the sky and looked at Stephen and said “Fucking birds, man” in a voice full of admiration. He smiled.
“What’s your name?” Stephen said.
The boy smiled bigger. “Colby,” he said. “But that’s stupid. My grandma always called me Cookie. Because I’m sweet. Also because whenever she wanted to get me to be quiet she’d put a cookie in my mouth. She said it was the only time I’d stop talking. She’s dead now. You can call me Cookie, if you want.”
Stephen nodded. They walked.
Cookie said, “I was beginning to think you didn’t like me.”
Stephen shook his head.
“How’d you know I wasn’t really a Pablo?”
The dogs in the pen heard them coming and began to bark. Cookie laughed and called to them. “I love those mutts,” he said.
“He calls all of you Pablo,” Stephen said. “He thinks it’s funny.”
Cookie looked at him, head cocked.
“Come on,” Stephen said. “Let’s go feed them.”
Beyond the confines of the pen and the house and the dying grass on which they both sat—beyond the woods that Cookie ran through and Stephen went to find him— there is more well-shadowed ground, a strange wilderness through which run strange wild things: giant rats and the gators that feed on them, bobcats and feral boar. These last, some large as a man with tusks thick as railroad spikes, steal through the nights eating whatever they can without fear of predation. There are no wolves to swallow them here, and the leopards that can catch them are only sometimes loosed.
Cookie unlatched the pen gate and the dogs came on baying; he rolled around on the grass as they squirmed and wagged and licked at his face. Stephen took the lid off the garbage can that held the bag of food and set it aside. He dipped three bowls into the can and brought them up brimming.
“How come you keep ‘em out here?”
“They’re not house dogs. They’re for hunting.” Stephen set the bowls down and the dogs ran to them.
Stephen shook his head. “He can’t see blood or bone. Makes him sick.”
“How come you got hunting dogs then?”
“My mom had some. They’re gone now, but these were their puppies, the ones we couldn’t sell.”
“What happened to her?” Cookie asked.
Stephen shook his head again. “It was a long time ago.”
“My grandma had cancer for a long time,” Cookie said. “It ate her up from the inside.”
They stood quiet, watching the dogs. They both knew what a long time was, and that seemed to both a sort of sweet sad wonder.
“What kinda dogs are they anyway?” Cookie asked.
“I don’t know,” Stephen said. Cookie shrugged and then Stephen closed the pen and the two boys walked back to the house together.
But Stephen did know what the dogs were. It was a word Luke never bothered to learn and a word Stephen would never speak because it belonged to the remains of a memory flawed and pretty as a cracked glass eye: An early green morning, a larger hand guiding his own over red dappled fur, a woman’s voice laughing in his ear, sighing softly “Catahoula.”
This was the only lie he ever told Cookie. Or anyone.
“Guess how old I am,” Cookie said. He sat at the kitchen table cleaning ears of corn. Stephen stood at the counter slicing a rectangle of quivering luncheon loaf into thick strips for frying. “Go on, guess. You’ll never guess. Nobody does. Wait, did your dad tell you already?”
Stephen shook his head. He took a strip in his hands and flopped it in a bowl of flour. He set it on a piece of wax paper and lay another piece on top like a bed sheet. “I don’t know,” he said.
“Guess!” Cookie said. “No, ok, you don’t really have to guess, but you want me to tell you?”
The boy stuck a long curl of cornhusk between his teeth. “I,” he said, “am going to be fourteen at the end of next month.”
Stephen turned. Cookie put his hands behind his head and tipped his chair back. He nodded gravely, cornhusk cigar bobbing. Stephen stared at him until he started to grin. “Liar,” he said.
“No, for real!” Cookie said. “I know I don’t look it, but trust me. I’m just little. Also, I play it up. A lot of guys love it. I can tell your dad does. I could tell right away.”
They heard the truck pull along side the house, rattle choked to a sigh and then silence. Cookie gathered the corn husks and silk and threw them in the garbage. He stood on tiptoe and put his lips to Stephen’s ear. Stephen froze. “Watch this,” Cookie whispered.
The front door slammed and Cookie ran out of the kitchen. “Daddy’s home!” he yelled. “Daddy’s home! Hurray!”
After dinner Cookie helped Stephen wash the dishes. They stacked them wet and shiny on clean fraying rags.
When they were done, Stephen put his hand through the greasy slick of water to pull the plug and got a cut on his palm from a knife they’d forgotten, a serrated shark half floating down in the muck. Stephen rinsed his hand under the tap. Cookie folded a damp rag and grabbed Stephen’s hand and pressed the rag in against the cut. “It’s not bad,” he said. He pulled the rag away, then bent his head quick as a bird and kissed the pink line in Stephen’s palm. “All better.”
The sound of metal clanging in the garbage can and they both looked up. Luke bent before the fridge and grabbed another can of soda. Without straightening, he opened it and drank, then topped it off from the bottle of syrup he kept in the door. “My,” he said, standing back up. “Aren’t you two cozy.”
This was how the boys spent their days. In the morning they parted, Stephen to school and Cookie to town and the woods; in the evening they met and walked home together. Each day Cookie skipped and each afternoon Stephen found him in that same small space in the woods. Each time, Cookie had a new prize: a cigarette lighter shaped like a hand grenade, a fistful of candy bars. A cut-glass bottle of perfume brilliant as a rhinestone.
“My grandma used to wear it,” Cookie said. “I lifted it from the drugstore.” He sprayed a scrap of the orange T-shirt and tied it around the thin arm of a bush. He turned to Stephen. “Do you like it?”
“Now it’ll smell like home.” He sprayed another piece and tied it.
“You lived with her?”
Cookie nodded. “After my mom took off. That’s how I ended up here. She lived in Metairie. Mom and me were living in Houston. You been to Houston?”
Stephen shook his head.
“Oh, man!” Cookie said. He regarded Stephen with that hot mix of exaggerated disbelief and pity that is insufferable in all but the very young. “You’re fucking kidding me. We need to go!” He snapped his fingers. “My birthday! It’s next week! We’ll go celebrate.”
Stephen picked up a piece of cloth and slowly pulled it apart.
“Come on, it’s like three hours away. Less! We’ll take the bus. A ticket’s maybe twenty bucks. I’ll get yours, don’t worry. We‘ll go and spend the night and come right back.”
Stephen shook his head.
“Hey,” Cookie said. “Don’t be scared. I got friends there, I’ll show you where everything is. You’ll love it!”
Stephen shook his head.
“Is it your dad?” Cookie said. “It’s your dad. You don’t think he’ll let us go.”
“I know he won’t.”
Cookie smiled. “Don’t you worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of him.”
After dinner, Luke sat on the couch watching TV and Cookie curled up beside him like a cat, rested his head on Luke‘s thigh. Stephen sat in the recliner, doing homework. Cookie waited for a commercial to come on and then said “Daddy?”
Luke slipped a hand under Cookie’s head. He seemed to be testing its weight, as if it were a melon of indeterminate ripeness. “What, son?”
“There’s a school trip next week. To NASA! We’re gonna get to see the astronauts and the space shuttles and everything. Oh, Daddy, can I go? Please?”
Luke stared at the TV, now sliding his hand over the boy’s hair. “I don’t know,” he said. “How much does it cost?”
“Oh, it doesn’t cost anything, Daddy! They had an essay contest and somebody in my class won so now the whole class gets to go! Please, can I go? Please?”
“Well,” Luke said. “That does sound like an awful good deal. I don’t see as how I could say no.”
Cookie squeaked and put his arms around Luke’s waist. “Yay! Thank you, Daddy! I’m so excited!” He squeezed Luke tighter and then pulled away. He sat up straight on the couch. He furrowed his brow and his lip began to tremble.
“What’s the matter, son?” Luke said.
“It’s just,” Cookie whispered. “Well, it’s an overnight trip, and I’m kinda scared. I’m gonna be there all by myself in a whole new place!”
“Now, Pablo,” Luke said. “That’s just silly. You’ll be with your whole class.”
Cookie pouted. “But I hardly know them. And some of them are real mean to me.” He looked down. “Cause of what I used to do.” He grabbed Luke’s hand. “Can’t Stephen come on the trip with me?” he said. “I know nobody will mess with me if he’s around!”
Luke looked over at Stephen. Stephen kept working.
“I don’t know, son,” Luke said slowly. “You really think they’d let him come with y’all?”
Cookie nodded, eyes wide. “My teacher was the one who said he should come,” he said. “I told her I was scared and she said why and I told her and she said don’t you have a big brother and I said yes and she said— “
“That’s fine,” Luke said. He got up and walked over to Stephen. He stood beside him a long time, staring. Stephen did not look up. “Fine,” he said again. He clapped Stephen on the back. “Sounds like you’re going to NASA.” He squatted down and closed Stephen’s book, snapped the rubber band around his wrist. Stephen raised his head. Luke’s eyes were flat black stones. “I’m sure you two will have a real good time.”
There was a sound like scratching at his bedroom door and Stephen’s eyes opened wide in the dark. He looked at the clock on the nightstand without moving. 3:27.
The door opened and Cookie stumbled in. Stephen sat up and Cookie sat down heavily beside him. “Busy night,” Cookie said. “Busy, busy.” It sounded overcooked, mushy in his mouth. He caught his heel against the leg of the bed and knocked his shoe off. It tumbled across the floor.
“Oh shit,” Cookie said. “Oops.”
Stephen walked over and picked it up. It was barely bigger than his hand. He knelt in front of Cookie and gently slipped the shoe back on. “Thanks, man,” Cookie said. He fell back on the bed, eyes closed. “I’m beat.”
“Where’s you go?”
“Truck stop.” He dug in his pocket and pulled out a lump of money. He handed it to Stephen without opening his eyes. “Count it.”
Stephen counted. “Two hundred dollars.”
Cookie smiled, put two thumbs up. “That’s what I’m talking about.” He sat up. “You know how much money I’ve got now?”
“Almost three grand. You know what else?” He leaned toward Stephen. “I know where your dad’s money is, too.”
Stephen got up. He walked to the door and pressed it tight against the jamb.
“When he fell asleep,” Cookie said. “I went in that pretty box of his. You know? It’s got that glass on top and it’s all pink inside?”
“It’s a jewelry box. It was my mother’s.”
Cookie nodded. “It’s in there! In that drawer, but not. It’s got like a secret thing underneath—”
“A false bottom.”
Cookie waved him quiet. “Anyway, I counted it, and that’s like another grand right there.”
Stephen leaned against the door. Cookie sat on the bed, rocking gently. They regarded each other.
“Listen,” Cookie said. He spoke carefully, as if the words themselves were fragile and his mouth might break them if he were not gentle enough. “Between what I’ve got and your dad’s money, we could get a place in Houston easy.”
Stephen looked at him.
“No, listen,” Cookie said as if he’d protested. “I thought this through. My grandma’s dead. Nobody’s gonna be looking for me. You’re gonna be eighteen soon.”
“Whatever! Listen, listen.” He took a deep breath. “We’ll get a place. You look old enough. We can hustle a few months and then you’ll be eighteen and you can get a good job. I’ll pick up stuff we can sell. We can study at night and we’ll get our GEDs. Listen.” He flopped back on the bed, breathless, mouth open, his tongue wet and purple.
“How much did you drink?”
“Oh fuck!” Cookie said. “That doesn’t matter! Listen. We can do this. I don’t know. I mixed myself three or four, I guess. He won’t care, I know he’s got more bottles.”
Stephen nodded. He hooked an arm under Cookie’s legs and turned him to lie lengthwise on the bed. He untied the shoes and took them both off, set them side by side by the door. He shook the sheet out and let it drift down over bed and boy both.
“Here,” Cookie said. “Come on, I’ll make room.”
Stephen took a shirt out of his drawer and folded it into a rough square. He lay down on the floor and tucked the shirt under his head.
“I’m sorry,” Cookie said. “I didn’t mean to take your bed.”
“I can go if you want.”
“It’s ok. Just go to sleep.”
“You’re not mad at me?”
“You want me to sleep on the floor and you take the bed?”
“You want me to go back to your dad’s room?”
“No.” Stephen pushed his palms against his eyes. “I want you to stay. I want you here with me. Ok? Please. Go to sleep.”
He already had.
The smoke and clouds raced steady through the night like birds in migration. Their path cut patterns in the moonlight that glowed on Stephen‘s ceiling. He turned on his back to watch them. The T-shirt bunched and he smoothed it beneath his head. He lay still and listened to Cookie’s breathing, soft low whistle in the dark.
Stephen did not wake when the alarm went off because the alarm didn’t go off. He did not wake when Luke opened the door and stood looking from the boy in the bed to the boy on the floor and back before he slipped in on stocking feet and pulled the clock’s plug out of the wall and slipped back out again. He did not wake when the sun poured thick through his window to flood the room. Stephen woke when Cookie knelt beside him and lightly kissed his sleeping mouth.
“Rise and shine,” Cookie said. Stephen jerked upright with a sudden shock of breath. For a moment he didn’t know who he was or where. He had been woken in the midst of a dream he could not remember, only that it felt like he was walking on razor blades and he was holding a knife and he could not speak.
Cookie smiled at him and his confusion broke up and drifted off like sea foam. “Why did you do that?” Stephen said.
“I think we’re late,” Cookie said. “One of us must have knocked the clock out of the wall. You gotta get moving if you‘re goin’ to school.” Stephen got up and shook the T-shirt out. He grabbed a pair of jeans from his dresser and stepped into them. Cookie watched. “Your dad left for work already, I guess.”
Cookie jumped to his feet. Luke pushed the door open but did not come in. He stood with the bottle of syrup in his hand, half-empty. “I decided to take a day off. I think there’s some things we all need to discuss.” Stephen pulled the T-shirt on, shaking.
“Hi Daddy!” Cookie said. His smile was an axe wound.
Luke did not smile. “Get your clothes on and come on in the kitchen.” He pointed the butt of the bottle at Stephen. “Both of you.”
Stephen watched him walk away. Cookie went to the window.
He came to where Cookie stood and looked where Cookie looked, out to the yard where the Crown Vic now sat, dark and shining as a top hat, as a hearse.
They knew. They knew everything. They had known almost from the start.
They knew Cookie had never been to school because the school had called Ruby when he never showed up. They knew Cookie had been stealing because Luke had come up behind him one evening and seen him sliding a flattened shipping box with an address Luke did not recognize down the inner wall of the garbage can to the very bottom. They even knew about the low green room in the woods.
“Had the dogs out lookin’ for tramps,” Luke said. “Took me right to it.” He drained the bottle into a tumbler of soda and set it before him on the table.
Stephen and Cookie sat silent. Stephen kept his head down, but Cookie looked politely from Ruby to Luke as each spoke. He did not speak, but nodded once as each of his transgressions was recounted, gave a small, close-mouthed smile when Luke mentioned the dogs. When Cookie saw Ruby’s car out on the lawn, something about him had changed and he became neither the boy he was for Luke nor the boy Stephen knew but some third boy, still and coolly watchful as the man who makes his living at cards, the man whose fortunes depend on the flexible strength of his lies.
“I called your foster father as soon as the school called me,” Ruby said. “We were hoping that if we just allowed you some time to adjust, you would go on your own. We know how difficult adjustment can be for boys with your…background.” She paused to take a sip from a travel mug she had brought. She stared at Cookie. Cookie did not blink. “However,” she said, “when Luke called me last night and told me about the latest development, I thought it best that I come and hold a family conference.”
“The latest development,” Cookie said.
“I know you’re planning to run away, son,” Luke said. He looked to Stephen. Stephen did not look up. “You were gonna help him.”
“No,” Cookie said. “He didn’t know anything about it. I told him the same story I told you.”
Luke shook his head. “He knows you ain’t been goin’ to school.”
“No,” Cookie said again. “I get on the bus with him everyday. I just leave when it drops me off at the school.”
“What about in the afternoons?” Ruby said.
Cookie shrugged. “I told him somebody’s mom was dropping me off on her way home. That’s how come I was always here first.” He laughed. “Come on!” he said. “It’s not like he’s asking me a whole lot of questions. He hasn’t said two words to me since I been here.”
Luke began to pry the label off the bottle with his thumbnail. He eased it off with the greatest care, by millimeters. He would not take his eyes off it. “What about when it came time for the trip?” Luke said in his softest voice. Under the table Stephen’s hands curled into fists like flowers blooming in reverse. “What were you gonna tell him when he didn’t see none of your classmates at the station?”
Cookie sighed. “Look,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings here, but I was never actually going go with Stephen. I mean, he’s nice enough, but not exactly my type. I just asked if he could go cause I thought that would get you to let me go.”
Luke looked at him.
“Hey, it was just an idea. I‘m not saying it was a good one,” Cookie said. Luke’s pack of cigarettes was on the table and Cookie took it. “You don’t mind, right?” he said, and lit one. “Long as we’re all being honest.” He smiled. Luke and Ruby both stared at him. He leaned back and put his feet up on the table and began blowing smoke rings. “You like that?” he said. “I’m pretty good with my mouth. Right, Daddy?”
Luke turned to Ruby. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s you and me go talk on the porch.”
They walked out and Cookie put his feet back on the floor. He took a drag off the cigarette then walked to the sink and drowned it under the tap. He stuffed the wet butt down the drain. He breathed in deep and exhaled slow and rattling. Stephen looked up at him. “Stephen,” Cookie said. His eyes sparkled. “I’m really, really sorry.”
Ruby left. Luke came back in. He looked from one boy to the other and said, “I think it’s time for lunch.”
There was a picnic ham in the fridge and a quart of potato salad Ruby had brought —it was about to expire, she said. Stephen brought it to the table and Luke waved him away. “Over there,” he said, pointing to the counter. “I don’t wanna look at that bone.” Stephen set it beside the sink and sawed rough pink slabs of meat off the ham with an old butcher knife, laid them on a plate for sandwiches. Luke and Cookie sat at the table and watched each other. Finally, Luke sighed and said “Ruby’s a good woman.”
Luke sighed again. “She’s a good woman,” he said, “but she doesn’t understand a lot of things about the world. She doesn’t understand what it’s like to go from livin’ on your own like a man to livin’ like a little boy again.”
“What I’m tryin’ to say, son, is that I understand why you been skippin’ school, why you wanna run away.” He nodded to show that understanding. Stephen walked to the fridge for the potato salad and Luke reached out and snapped the rubber band around his wrist as he passed. Stephen grabbed a beer and handed it to him. “You got people in Houston?” Luke said.
Cookie‘s eyes flicked up to Stephen and back, light as a moth. “Maybe.”
“Well, we don’t keep people here that don’t wanna be kept. That’s not what family is about.”
Cookie held himself very still. “What are you saying?” he said.
“I’m sayin’ that if you got somewhere else you’d rather be than here, I won’t stop you from goin’.”
“Yep,” Luke said. “In fact, if you want, I’ll have Stephen here drive you to the bus station. I’ll even give you money for your ticket.”
Cookie laughed. “Yeah, then call the police and tell them I run away. You want me to give you an address to send them to? Tell you where I‘m gonna be working?”
Luke smiled. “Why would I do a thing like that?”
Cookie raised an eyebrow. He licked his lips slowly.
Now Luke was laughing. “Don’t worry,” he said. “There ain’t no shortage of boys like you. I got it on good authority.” He winked. “Long as we’re all being honest.”
Luke shrugged. “Why not? You don’t wanna be here, but some other boy might. What’ve I got to lose?”
Stephen set their plates on the table.
“Eat up, son,” Luke said. He raised his beer. “To your last meal.” Cookie smiled. He picked up his cup and tapped it to the bottle. Stephen twisted the rubber band tight against the thin clean skin of his wrist.
Luke pushed a sandwich into his mouth and took a bite. “Soon as you’re done,” he said, “you can pack up and I’ll have Stephen drive you over to the bus station.” His breath smelled of cough syrup and beer and long-dead pig.
They finished eating and Cookie went to pack his things. Stephen gathered up the plates and cups and silverware and took them to the sink, filled the sink with steaming water.
“Don’t go to the river,” Luke said. “It’s too early.” He stood behind Stephen and grunted at his ear. “Leave him belted in and bring him back here. You can go back out when it’s dark.” His jaw was tight. He finished his beer and slammed his bottle down on the counter. A brown lozenge of glass cleaved off the bottom and spun into the dirty water.
“All right,” Cookie said. He held his swollen backpack in front of him with both hands like a doctor’s bag. “I’m all set.” Stephen scrubbed at the dishes in the hot water. He scoured them. He added more hot water. His hands were red, boiled.
“Good boy,” Luke said. “Go on put your bag in the truck. Say your goodbyes to the dogs, I know you like them. Stephen’ll be right out.” The front door banged shut. The dogs began to bark.
“I ain’t give him nothin’ so he might not go easy,” Luke said. He was breathing hard. When he spoke, his mouth shot hot flecks of spit. Stephen began to stack the dishes beside the sink without rinsing them. Plate, plate, cup, fork.
“I know that little whore’s been out nights,” Luke said. The truck door slammed. Cup, fork. “You best bring me that money, too.”
Another fork, plate, serving spoon, knife. Stephen could see his reflection in the kitchen window. He could see Luke looking at it behind him. He opened his mouth. Luke closed a hand around his throat, pushed his thumb in hard. “You got nothin’ to say, boy,” he whispered, just like he used to. “You got nothin’ to say. And there ain’t no one to hear anyways.” His lips stretched into a leer. Stephen watched himself in the window, fascinated. In the old rippled glass, he looked like a drowned ghost.
Stephen closed his mouth. Luke put his hand down. Stephen nodded and the ghost in the mirror nodded back. He smiled, and he could see Luke smiling behind him. Then he turned and grabbed Luke by the shoulder and shoved the knife into his chest up to the hilt. Luke’s mouth opened and Stephen let go of the handle and covered it. Luke looked confused; his numb dumb heart kept trying to beat around the blade of the knife. Then it stopped.
Stephen let go and Luke slumped to the floor. Outside one of the dogs howled and Cookie laughed and howled back. Stephen bent down and picked Luke up in his arms, carried him to the bedroom like a stunned new bride.
“So how long have I got?” Cookie said. “Before your dad calls the cops.”
Stephen shook his head. “He’s not going to.”
“Really? What about Ruby?”
Stephen looked up at the rearview as if he would see her there. “She won’t be back for a while. You’ve got time. A few weeks at least.”
Cookie stared out the windshield. “You could still come. If you wanted.”
“I can’t. They‘ll be looking for me.”
Cookie ran his finger over the glass. “He won’t let you go.”
“No,” Stephen said. “He won’t.”
When they got to the Greyhound station, Stephen reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick envelope folded in half.
“It’s for later,” he said. “Don’t look at it till you get to Houston. Ok?”
Cookie drew an x over his heart.
Stephen handed him the envelope. It sprang open like a clam. Cookie pressed it in half again between his hands. He took his top hand off; it sprang back open.
“Here,” he said. “Wait.” He folded it in half again and shoved it under his butt. He took Stephen’s hand. Stephen flinched but did not pull away. Cookie drew the rubber band off his wrist and wrapped it double around the folded envelope. “Ta-da,” he said.
Cookie stuffed the envelope down into his pocket and grabbed his bag and got out. He closed the truck door and stood at the open window. He had to tilt his chin just a bit to see all the way in. “I guess I shouldn’t tell you where I’ll be,” he said. “In case they ask you.”
“No,” Stephen said.
Cookie looked at the station and looked back. “Well, you know,” he said. “I’m gonna be there a while. It’s a fun town. So, maybe.” He shrugged and pulled out his cigarettes. “Maybe in eight months or so you might feel like making a visit, I don’t know. Maybe I‘d just happen to be around the bus station and see you there.” He stuck a cigarette in his mouth and lit it.
“I’d like that,” Stephen said.
“Really?” Cookie said. He smiled and looked down and ran a hand over his neck. “Me too.” He looked back up at Stephen. Stephen smiled at him.
“Ok,” Cookie said. “Ok, I better let you get back. Thanks for the ride. I’ll see you.”
Stephen nodded. Cookie turned and walked toward the station. Stephen backed out.
“I left you something!” Cookie yelled from across the parking lot. “I forgot to give it to you yesterday! I put it in your room!”
Stephen nodded. He waved. Cookie waved. Then he turned and walked away.
Stephen parked the truck alongside the house. He went around behind it and got the bag of dog food and the leashes. He walked the dogs down the gravel road to Cookie’s place in the woods and tied them to a tree. He ripped a long split in the dog food bag and laid it on the ground. He went back to the house and got a big bowl and filled it with water. He set it next to the bag and shored it up with handfuls of dirt and gravel so the dogs wouldn’t tip it over. He gathered up what was left of the orange T-shirt and dropped bits of it behind him as he walked back to the road.
Stephen went back to the house and inside it and then simply stood in the living room a moment, thinking. He saw the hurricane lamp. He picked it up and went to the kitchen and got the big bottle of kerosene they used to refill it. He took the lamp and the bottle into his father’s room.
He had laid Luke down on the bed and closed his eyes and covered him with a blanket in case Cookie had come in, and now Luke looked just like he always did when he was sleeping: normal, like anybody. Stephen sat down on the bed beside him. He reached out. Stopped. Took a breath. Reached out again, put his fingers against Luke’s cold still throat. Stood up. Opened the bottle of kerosene and soaked the body with it, then splashed the walls. Shattered the lamp against the door.
He looked at the box on the dresser. He had left it open when he got the money out for Cookie and now he pushed the drawer back in. The box had a pink silk lining and a pretty glass top and was made of some dark red wood he did not know the name of. It had been his mother’s but she had died and now, staring at the box, he tried to remember her face and could not. He picked up the box and put it under his arm. He struck a match and tossed it on the body and walked to his room.
Stephen set the box down on his bed and stepped into the bathroom. In the medicine cabinet was an unopened bottle of syrup and now he cracked the seal on it, opened it and drank deep, took a breath and drank again, closed it and shoved it in his pocket. He drew himself a glass of water and swallowed it, rinsed the glass and set it neatly next to the cup of toothbrushes. Cookie had not taken his, a green child’s toothbrush with cartoon bears on the handle. Stephen took it and put it in his pocket.
He went back to his room. The fire was already eating at his father’s door. He sat down on his bed and looked around. His hands felt thick and clumsy. He yanked the shoes off and threw them across the room. He lay down on the bed with his mother’s jewelry box behind his knees. He yawned. Then he sat back up.
On the nightstand. A cardboard box. Stephen pulled it into his lap. It had already been opened but the address was still clearly visible. The Bently Family. Stephen recognized the street. It was less than a mile away.
Stephen reached inside and pulled out a large round tin, blue as the sea. There was a note taped to the top. The note said “Stevie.” He peeled it off. He was having trouble keeping his eyes open. He dug his thumbnail into his wrist. Concentrate. He opened the note.
Hope School is going well. Your Momma tells me you like Music the best! I miss you. Can’t wait to see you this Summer!
He pried off the top of the tin and looked inside. Cookies. All different kinds. At least a dozen. Cookies and cookies and cookies.
Stephen smiled. He laughed. He got up, hugging the tin to his chest with one hand, staggered to his shoes, stomped his feet into them. The smoke poured in under his door like pewter boiled into a vapor. He coughed, closed his eyes, turned back to the bed and ran an arm over its unseen surface until he found the jewelry box. He curled his arm around it and now with both arms full he went to the window and opened it and tumbled out onto the ground.
The truck shimmered so enticingly out of reach that he thought he might never reach it, this oasis in the desert. But reach it he did, and threw himself behind the wheel. Three hours. Maybe less. His eyes tried to close but he kept them open, focused on the house. The fire was not yet visible from the truck but he knew it was in there, running fast and deadly. He put a hand in the tin and pulled out a cookie and put it in his mouth. Now he did close his eyes to let the world go dark, and in this dark he felt the cookie soften on his tongue. He tried to will himself to taste its sweetness, to take heart from love clearly meant for someone else.