Had he not run out of sugar, Abraham wouldn’t have left his house at all. It’s the sixteenth of the month, and a storm stirs in the air of his small Southern town.
Had he not run out of sugar, Abraham wouldn’t have left his house at all. It’s the sixteenth of the month, and a storm stirs in the air of his small Southern town. Inkblot clouds roll in from the horizon. The summer wind roars through his broken passenger-side window as he drives the two miles to Penny Joya’s, since the co-op is closed, cursing himself the entire way for not realizing sooner that he didn’t have enough sugar to make the week’s wine. He should be halfway through it by now, standing over the boiling mixture so that he can leave the batch to cool before he potentially retreats to the cellar.
Humidity suffuses his collar when he returns home with the half-pound of sugar. The back door batters on its hinges behind him, and the kitchen smells like rain and his mother’s old cigarettes. He looks at the clock mounted above the kitchen window, then out the window itself. His brown hair tickles the nape of his neck. He ties it up and splits the seam on the bag of sugar. He’s pushing his luck, but, if he hurries, he could beat the storm. He could have enough time.
The dandelions are fresh from that morning, picked under a sallow dawn. Like the previous Sunday and the Sunday before that, Abraham lines them on his grandfather’s cutting board and decapitates bloom from stem. He’s never been good at this, not in all his twenty-nine years. As he brings the water to a boil on the gas burner, he cleans each flower, picking the remaining green from yellow. His brother used to manage it in one perfect cut. Crumb, his mother’s old cat, sits on the counter a couple feet away and watches him critically. Rashes like rosettes swell across his knuckles. The wind whistles through the old faults in the window frames. The foundation creaks and leans. Usually, he listens to his mother’s favorite vinyl, but the time constraint forces him to cut a few corners.
It’s been several months since the sixteenth and its storm came on a Sunday. June’s storm flooded the garage and the dandelion patch. May’s was so loud he forgot to use a mitt when he removed an aluminum pan from the oven, and then he had to drive through it, forty miles and one-handed, to the nearest hospital. He doesn’t remember April’s. The back door shudders, and he wonders what July will bring.
Abraham delivers the dandelions to the glass bowl and kills the burner. The gas line clicks. There is a knock at the front door.
He looks across the empty house. His mother’s cherished photograph of two bears, hung on the far wall of the screened-in porch, looks back at him. It has been years since anyone has knocked on his door. Not even the milkman bothers. Abraham sets the bowl beside the butter bell.
A stranger stands on his mother’s favorite welcome mat. Around them, the wild grasses snap beneath the bilious green sky, but as Abraham contemplates his visitor’s whitecap hair and caramel-candy eyes and crescent smile, he forgets the fury. They lift a hand to secure the heart-shaped sunglasses nested in their hair, and Abraham remembers the large sunglasses his brother used to wear, red rims the color of the licorice they shared as they waited for their mother to pick them up from school.
The young brothers slide into frame, Abraham and then Thomas, blue and then red in their new windbreakers. They are sitting on the braided rug on the floor of the screened-in porch with Abraham’s demolished ice cream cake between them, vanilla melting into the skillet their mother had placed under it. A candle in the shape of a nine lies beside it. A chocolate cookie crumb sticks to the corner of Abraham’s jealous, down-turned mouth as he eyes Thomas’s windbreaker. He looks at his own windbreaker and picks at the zipper on the pocket. The part of his hair is crooked.
“Abraham,” his mother says, her voice out of frame but loud, close to the speaker. Thomas looks up from his glass of sweet tea. It matches the color of his hair.
“Ma,” Abraham says impatiently but looks up. The frame quakes in his mother’s clumsy hand. Her palm makes a sound against the speaker like smacking lips. Awe eclipses the discontentment in Abraham’s gaze as he meets the eye of the lens. “Is that a camera?” he asks with gasping excitement and moves to his hands and his knees as if he’s ready to crawl for it. He almost puts his knee in the marbled ice cream puddle on his paper plate.
“It’s from Penny Joya,” his mother answers.
Abraham gets to his feet. His head moves out of frame. He nearly kicks over his plastic cup of sweet tea. Thomas stares at the lens like he can’t understand it and pulls at the scrunched elastic in the cuff of his sleeve. “Penny Joya got me a gift?” Abraham asks.
“No,” his mother says. “You think Penny Joya knows when your birthday is?”
“I don’t know.”
“I got it from her garage sale last week,” she says. Abraham’s blue windbreaker fills the frame, until Abraham is close enough to cloak the lens in shadow. White noise blots the speakers. “—came with tapes and everything. She didn’t charge me a dime for it. I better make her some wine.”
Now in Abraham’s hands, the lens stares at the floor, the thinning wood polish. The handle of the skillet breaches the upper right corner of the frame. Abraham audibly learns how his small hand fits around the clunky camera until the lens lifts and Thomas comes into view, wide-eyed, curious, uncertain. Spring’s evening light leaves his shadow long and his face the color of a penny.
“Abraham, you’re going to make her some wine,” his mother revises. She sounds as if she’s one room over. “If I’ve taught you anything in this life, I better’ve taught you not to be rude. Someone gives you a gift, you thank them, you hear?”
“Thank you,” Abraham says quickly, like it’s a chore to rush through, and the tape cuts.
“Oh thank god,” the stranger says, laughing, barely heard over the current that howls across the patio. Their laugh comes to Abraham like rain comes to a drought. “Your driveway’s a mile long, do you know that?”
Their cropped jacket flutters around their ribs. The material reminds Abraham of the vibrant windbreakers he and his brother wore as children in the late nineties.
Abraham steps back to welcome the stranger into his house. “I do,” he murmurs.
“Thank you,” the beautiful someone says, and comes inside. Summer’s smell remains on their clothes and the heels of their cowboy boots echo across the herringbone floorboards. The row of hooks mounted to the wall catches their attention, where Abraham’s car keys hang among others long forgotten.
They hang their own key, adorned with a bottle opener and a skeleton sculpted from hot pink plastic. “My car broke down on the highway. Could I use your phone?”
Eyeing the red bubble they blow with the gum in their mouth, Abraham nods. “Sure,” he says and offers his cell phone from his back pocket.
“Appreciate it,” the stranger responds. They pop the gum. The ochre polish across their nails matches the floral wallpaper in the foyer.
They lift the phone to their ear. Abraham blinks, and an electrical current sparks between the stranger’s temple and his phone. Smoke trails idly from the speaker.
“Oh,” the stranger muses, watching it.
“No problem,” Abraham insists and takes the phone. Carefully, he lowers it into the large crock beside the coat tree. “It’s okay, I have a landline.”
Their footsteps fill the farmhouse as Abraham leads them to the kitchen. The stranger continues to look around at the old details, examining the histories of Abraham’s blood with mild pleasure.
“Oh,” they say again and duck over the jars of fermenting dandelion wine stacked on the kitchen table. Abraham has dated each jar with masking tape and marker. The stranger picks at the label that’s warping with humidity, and then crouches to look at the only modern things in the place: cameras and speakers and laptops piled under the table, all for Abraham’s work.
“Here you go,” Abraham says, and takes the phone from the wall mount. The cord is long and uncoils as he sets it in the stranger’s hand. The few lamps he lit for the dim afternoon flicker. The wall jack turns black. His visitor stands and lifts the phone to their ear. “I don’t hear anything,” they say, and pass it back to Abraham. The line is dead.
“What happened to your car?” he asks as he hangs it up.
“No idea.” The stranger laughs, and the light shudders again. “I was driving, and white smoke started pouring out from under the hood. I pulled over and couldn’t get it to start after that.”
“That could be anything.”
The stranger smiles. They are the brightest thing in the room. “I know.”
Abraham sighs and tucks his hair that has come loose behind his ears. Sugar crystals fill his nail beds. Through the window, he watches the clouds dip towards the creek running through the backyard. “Well, I’d drive you to town myself, but the mechanic is closed today.”
“Ah,” the stranger says, nodding. “Sunday.”
“The sixteenth,” Abraham corrects.
“Ah,” they agree. “The sixteenth.”
Abraham contemplates the neutrality in their tone, vowels flat and cadence even. “Where are you from?” he asks them.
“Where are you from?” the stranger parrots, the gum between their teeth when they smile.
“All right,” Abraham says impatiently. He ducks his head to assess the anger growing outside through the window. “We should head to the cellar.”
White daylight swallows Abraham’s face. He surfaces one feature at a time, nose, cheekbone, brow, his skin like the colorless wax candles his mother never burned. Finally, the color settles. His freckles bloom across his cheeks. The sky is painfully blue around his head. He squints at the lens. Strands of his brown hair come loose from the tie and blow in the wind that sounds like static on the speakers. It’s about an inch longer than it was on his birthday.
“Abe!” Thomas’s voice howls over the outside noise and Abraham looks out of frame. His skin creases around his eyes as he squints through the sunlight, upper lip curled. “Just because you got a camera doesn’t mean you get out of harvesting.”
“I know,” Abraham snaps in return, and the scene spins, blurs, reorients by the sight of Thomas with Papaw’s scythe. It’s nearly as tall as he is, but he wields it like he was born to do only that, his small hands sure around the wooden handle as he cuts through wheat stalks that stand to his brow. Wheat berries drop to the ground. The vibrant blue sky pales above his red windbreaker.
“Come on, help me,” he says with a look toward the camera, crouching to collect the wheat on the tarp spread out next to him. “Mama’s going to have a cow if we don’t get enough in before the storm.”
“I’ll tell her you said that.”
The camera trembles with Abraham’s steps. The wind swells and sounds like the ocean caught in a shell. Thomas grows in frame and the wheat whips into the path they’ve created for themselves, laid with snapped stalks and dirt turned over from their stomping. Abraham tries to push the berries into the tarp with one hand until Thomas meets the camera’s eye and says, “Come on.”
Once the camera is on the sturdy ground, the scene steadies. Abraham ducks in from above, adjusts the lens, gives it a little smile of reassurance. Wheat crop frames his sneakers, which bend beneath his weight as he crouches, the soles split near the worn-in heels.
“Abe,” Thomas’s voice cuts clear through the noise. He sounds like he’s scolding Abraham again. “You know they say Papaw made the big storms, right? The Sixteen Storms?”
The grass hushes as Thomas’s boots fill the frame. He takes the scythe and disappears from view.
“Nuh-uh, shut up,” Abraham says. He drops to his knees to push the wheat to the center of the tarp.
“No, it’s real,” Thomas says. “No one’s ever told you that? They say he cut down a tree from the woods and made them so angry they made the storms that come every month.”
“Who? Made who so mad?”
The noise swells and cuts. Wheat berries pass through the scene. Hairs of wheat beards shudder in the corners of the frame. Abraham drags the tarp further down their row, his body growing smaller and smaller. Thomas comes into view further down, scythe propped over his shoulder. His brow catches the sunlight until he sets the tool down and unzips his windbreaker. It’s halfway down his arms when Abraham jogs closer and closer and grows to a monstrous size.
“They don’t talk to me,” he calls and the lens goes white. His excited breathing is fast and rhythmic as he carries the camera to their new harvesting spot. “No one ever talks to me. Only Emma Joya kind of talks to me, but, when I try to sit with her at lunch, all her friends move.” He pauses. “I don’t want school to start again.”
“I wish they didn’t talk to me,” Thomas says and tosses his coat onto the wheat in the tarp. It sits at the center of the frame, heavy and red, arms spread, hem crumpled on itself, until Thomas appears from the left and snatches it away. “Don’t tell Mama I just did that.”
“People at school talk to you?” Abraham asks as Thomas knots the sleeves of the jacket around his waist. He is in a tank top with thick straps, the neckline old and sagging from his narrow shoulders. He shields his eyes with a hand and regards the camera from the shadow cast by his palm.
“Only when they wanna fight,” he says and picks up the end of the scythe. He drags it in the grass behind him, pulling it along as if it were a wagon.
“Is that why they don’t talk to me?” Abraham asks. He trails after Thomas. The frame bobs up and down. Thomas’s shoulders have begun to turn pink. Wheat fibers cling to the scythe’s edge. “Because you keep fighting with them?”
“They’re fighting with me, Abe,” Thomas says without turning around. “They’re fighting with us.”
“But I don’t want to fight. I didn’t do anything.”
Thomas stops. The scene leaps and the grasses whisper and Thomas sheds to the left, out of frame. They have come to the western end of the field, where landscapes converge: Wheat tapers into wild grasses into enormous, dark woods. Only a split rail fence bars them from the towering trees and their darkness. The shadows between them look like dead footage on the film.
“Yeah,” Thomas says off-screen. “But they think Papaw did.”
July’s storm seizes the electricity. Abraham sits several feet below ground with his new stranger and Crumb in the white beam of a flashlight. The storm cellar is narrow and brimming with jars of fermenting dandelion wine. They infiltrate the cardboard boxes lined against the concrete walls, piled on them as if they were shelves, circling them like scavengers. The visitor takes one from under his chair and lifts it into the light. It’s dated three Decembers ago.
“Is this legal?” they ask him. Their voice sounds as if it comes from everywhere. Rain pounds on the doors closed overhead. A wet, sodden smell permeates the air.
“Yes,” Abraham answers, and strokes down Crumb’s relaxed spine. He remembers his laundry hanging on the line outside. The stranger’s nail polish is the color of the wine. “It’s just wine. We did whiskey, too.”
“Is it all for you?”
Abraham shrugs. “I used to bring them to the town hall meetings. No one was interested.”
“Where do you grow the dandelions?”
“Out back. There’s a patch that blooms at the turn of summer.”
Abraham touches the warm rash on the back of his hand. “Me too.”
The stranger looks at him through the jar, sees how he changes, how he stays the same. “Do you like dandelion wine?”
“Sure,” Abraham concedes.
“Is it worth the trouble?”
Shrugging, Abraham tips his head back against the concrete wall behind him. “It’s a family tradition.”
“Where’s your family?”
When Abraham remains quiet, the stranger returns the jar to where they found it. “Is hoarding a
family tradition, too?” They gesture to the numerous boxes.
“No,” Abraham says, his voice clipped. “But Papaw built the house. His things are still here.”
Neither of them knows the time that passes. The stranger sits on a folding chair across the cellar from Abraham, and the space allows only a few inches between their knees. A hole torn into their jeans exposes their sun-tanned skin.
“What do I call you?” the visitor asks and slips out of their windbreaker.
They laugh. “Liar.”
Abraham swallows. “What?”
“No one named Abraham is younger than fifty years old.”
Abraham barely smiles. “It’s a—”
“Family name, yeah.”
“It was my father’s. And I’m only twenty-nine.”
They grin. “I’m thirty.”
“All right,” Abraham says and shifts in his chair, careful of Crumb in his lap. “What do I call you?”
The stranger offers their hand into the light between them and casts a dark shape across the wall. They lean forward, their face a battleground between light and shadow. Their eyes shine like the cold sweet tea Abraham’s mother made for the hottest summer days. “Call me Bryn,” they tell him. Abraham takes their hand and flinches when a spark ignites where they touch. “Bryn,” he says.
“Abe,” Bryn replies.
“Do you like that?”
“No, not at all.”
“Well, you’ll like this even less.”
Confusion creases Abraham’s brow. Bryn opens their mouth wide and shows him their tongue. Abraham doesn’t realize what he’s meant to dislike until he feels a strange sensation at the back of his neck. Gasping, he releases Bryn’s hand and finds the sticky tack of chewed gum under his hair tie.
There is unapologetic trouble in Bryn’s smile and Abraham feels drunk, so drunk he could have believably consumed the seven jars beneath his chair.
To Bryn’s left is a box labeled KITCHEN SUPPLIES in Abraham’s mother’s handwriting. Abraham ushers Crumb to the floor and, shoulders hunched under the low ceiling, clears away the jars of wine from the top of the box. Bryn holds out their hands to take what won’t fit on the floor at Abraham’s feet. His heart sounds like a horse race. From the box’s stale, mothball depths, Abraham finds a pair of scissors, the same metal things that his grandmother once kept in the kitchen junk drawer, the joints so old they creak as loudly as the floorboards.
He replaces a jar in Bryn’s hand with the scissors. His fingertips brush their warm, dry palm. “I’ve been meaning to cut it anyway,” he tells them. There is a quiver in his voice. The flashlight brightens.
The next morning, Abraham wakes at dawn to the sound of singing. It’s a tone-deaf song that winds up the narrow stairwell of the farmhouse, the same tune his mother hummed in the shower. It wakes him again the morning after, and the morning after that. By the fourth morning, he no longer remembers when he used to wake by his own alarm. The seven identical mornings of that week are seven identical doors that lead him into one long corridor, one long day that begins when he looks through the curtains in his childhood bedroom and grinds his teeth against the noise. Descending into the kitchen, he finds Crumb perched inside the morning’s yawning shadows, inspecting the mischief that Bryn conducted while he slept. Seven different tricks, yet each feels identical to the last, each collapsed into a prolonged, delirious fever that sheds any sense of time.
The overturned salt shaker comes first. “Oh, Abraham,” Bryn says, and Abraham finds them at the head of the dining table, wearing his own cotton robe over their clothes, “you’re out of salt.”
“Abraham,” they say, their muddy boots resting by their chair legs. Through the window behind them, the rosy light blushes across the creek. It collects in their hair, and there are only splintered remains where the firewood for the water heater usually sits. When they look at Abraham, their eyes glint the wine color inside the jars on the table. “The wood is too wet to use today.”
They say, “I think the milk has turned” and contemplate the funnies from an old newspaper only feet away from where they had left the milk to spoil on the counter.
And, stripping the toile wallpaper of the screened-in porch with their fingers and a steak knife, “I hate this wallpaper.”
As Bryn stands to warm the gooseneck, Abraham retrieves the hand broom from the pantry and sweeps the salt from the floor. “Do you want a ride to the mechanic today?” he asks.
Bryn responds over the sound of the running faucet. “I threw your car keys into the wheat field across the road.”
Bryn responds over the sound of Abraham measuring the temperature of the tap. “I dropped the firewood into the creek.”
Bryn responds over the sound of Abraham rinsing the sour milk down the drain. “I found a TV and some VHS tapes in the storm cellar.”
The kitchen towels hanging from the oven are his mother’s Christmas towels, embroidered with holly berries. Static chews the scene and then recedes. The butter bell is exactly where Abraham keeps it, between the knife block and the farmhouse sink. The countertops are the same light wood laminate and the cow-shaped salt and pepper shakers keep their place on the back of the stove.
Thomas kneels on one of the kitchen chairs so that he can better oversee the mess on the counter. Their grandmother’s apron makes a red bow at the back of his neck. Crackling carols play from the turntable out of frame, “O Holy Night” easing through its melody. It’s so slow it sounds mournful. Thomas checks the thermometer he’s been holding in the steaming pot on the stove and sets it aside to stir in the sugar and lemon juice. Cutting boards, dandelion stems, lemon peels, and a box grater wait patiently at his elbow.
The scene ambles closer to the stove, close enough to see the blue flame flickering beneath the aluminum pot. Thomas begins to chop the raisins, and the quick rhythm of his knife on the board sunders the music. It sounds like clapping in an ear. Steam clouds the lens. The frame pulls out just enough for it to clear. Golden liquid roils in the shadows of the pot.
“This is why you’re so bad at making the wine,” Thomas says once the chopping stops. “If you actually practiced, you’d get it.”
“I’ve practiced enough,” Abraham says. His voice is loud and usurps the noise.
“Nuh-uh,” Thomas mumbles and slides into frame. Through the steam, his expression is creased, stony with concentration. “All you do is pick the flowers.”
Thomas lifts the cutting board over the pot and uses the chef’s knife to guide the raisin bits into the water. He turns enough to show the bear embroidered to the breast pocket of his apron. Droplets of wine splash from the pot and Abraham steps back. The kitchen window comes into frame. The daylight outside is white and impenetrable.
“You like doing it,” Abraham says.
“No,” Thomas mutters and sets the cutting board on the counter, “I like not getting yelled at by Mama.”
The burner clicks as Thomas turns off the flame. Carol of the Bells crescendos as Thomas, bare-handed, lifts the pot from the stove and sets it on one of the cool burners.
“I’m gonna go see how Mama’s doing with the whiskey,” Abraham says. His voice wars against the music, vowels flattened by the tolling bells. If Thomas responds, he’s too far away to be heard.
The scene spins. Static glints across the screen like stars in the rural night sky. Abraham’s bare feet move across the floorboards. Pyramids of fermenting wine in labeled jars cover the kitchen table. A fresh Christmas tree stands in the corner of the screened-in porch, winking with warm white lights. Thick, velvet ribbons of red and gold drape between the branches. His mother’s painting of the bears is in grainy shadow. Black.
Hours unspool, respool. As Abraham combs the wheat field, dandelion cotton collects in his hair, on his tongue. He begins the search for his car keys out of responsibility, because he needs a new phone for work. Because he doesn’t know who he is without his habits. He shoves through the wheat stalks and takes off his shoes so that he’ll feel his keys if he steps on them. His search slows. The sun radiates on the back of his neck. He glows. Allergic congestion makes him dizzy, delirious, and he loses equilibrium, lies down in the meadow and disappears entirely from the world he knows. The soil is cool through his T-shirt, wet from the storm. As the shadows dwindle, as his hot skin turns the color of the morning’s bashful dawn, he roams so far that he finds Bryn’s face in the wildflowers, bluebells around their smile.
“What do you do?” Bryn asks. They stick out their tongue to show Abraham one of the hard caramels from the bowl he keeps on the coffee table, his mother’s favorite brand.
“Video editing,” Abraham answers, with sweat on his brow, with thirst in his mouth. Dirt
between his toes.
“Do you like it?”
Abraham contemplates their mouth and runs his tongue over his teeth. “Sure,” he says.
Bryn purses their lips and blows the sweet scent of caramel towards him. The ends of their hair turn the color of a lemon slice seen through a glass of sweet tea. Abraham’s mouth waters. His knuckles are the color of the blush in his cheeks, the sunburn on the naked back of his neck. “As much as you like dandelion wine?” they ask him.
“Enough,” he breathes. He moves to his knees. The sodden ground is cold through his jeans.
Bryn’s words sweep another gust past his ear. “Show me how much.”
Royal purple clouds roll through the endless sky overhead. Abraham goes to the creek and drops at the rocky bank. Stones bruise his knees. Cicada song grows around him. In the water’s surface, he sees his own face, eyes dimmed by frenzy and cheeks bright with heat. Open-mouthed, he plunges his head into the water, feels it on his teeth, his tongue, running its endless fingers through his cut hair. It cleans him of the lingering clippings.
He surfaces in a different set of clothes, in air that is unseasonably cool. The sky is the color of cement. There, inside the water’s black depths, he sees the vague shape of the firewood. Abraham removes his shoes and socks and runs his feet across the wet bedrock.
“You won’t be able to use it for a few days,” Bryn says, crouched at creekside. The black lenses of their sunglasses reflect Abraham’s face.
“At least I actually know where this is.”
Bryn laughs and unwraps a caramel from their pocket. “I told you where your keys are.”
As Abraham descends into the shallow water, Bryn laughs. The cool wind blows. “Okay, then,” Abraham says, breath stuttering as the chill in the water binds the muscles in his calves. “I can—actually see where this is.”
“That’s a family thing, too?”
Abraham exhales a punished breath. “Is what?”
He loses shape and his toes numb beneath the water; he missteps and slips, throws his hands out. Bryn’s hand, palm warm and nails polished with the water’s sinister pigment, catches Abraham’s. They press their thumb to the puckered burn scar on Abraham’s palm. “Believing only in things you can see.”
Then, it is night. Abraham doesn’t know which night, but Bryn’s hand is in his, and little else matters. Cross-legged on the hard floor of the living room, they’re surrounded by his family’s legacy: old whiskey bottles. The night’s wind penetrates the stripped walls, insulation strewn about like the innards of a dismembered pillow. Abraham’s voice, twenty years younger, sounds from the tube television, the tape’s date, 04/09/2000, stamped in the lower corner of the screen.
Thomas’s open red windbreaker brackets the frame. Shadows gray the white collar of his T-shirt. His uncertain fingers brush the speakers and make their own racket before he settles into the center of the scene. He’s at the kitchen table, arms folded beneath him, head ducked low. Jars of wine glint from the darkness behind him like eyes in the nighttime wilderness. His blond hair is the color of his mother’s, his father’s, his grandfather’s, whiskey.
Thomas frowns at the camera. He is ten years old and his brow is creased like his mother’s, dug like the ditches at the side of the highway that runs through town.
“I don’t know why you don’t run away,” Thomas mutters. His nail beds are black with dirt. “I wish you’d run, Abe, there’s nothing keeping you here. I mean, yeah, you got Dad’s name. But Dad died before anyone knew him. I got Papaw’s. Everyone knows Thomas. Everyone hates Thomas.”
Lines of static run like rolling pins over Thomas’ image and distort his hard expression. He stares at the lens like its silence is the second half of this conversation. “You’re not even good with the wine,” he says. “You make Mama do the whiskey. She won’t even yell at you about it. She makes me do the wine. I told her yesterday that I wouldn’t do it and she wouldn’t let me have dinner until I did.”
He pauses. The kitchen light shines in his hair and down his oily nose. Age is hard in his dark eyes. They lack color in the tape’s blotchy image.
“You weren’t even here,” Thomas spits. “I told her where you went, even though I promised I wouldn’t. I told her you went into town for a bag of licorice, right? And she just said, ‘Thomas—’” His voice pitches into an imitation of his mother’s, “‘—don’t make me tell you again. Get.’ She probably doesn’t care if you make the wine or the whiskey because it’ll turn out so badly. It would be a waste, we’d have to throw it out.” His expression steels, but his eyes are glassy, brimming with emotion.
“You’re a waste, Abe,” he says.
“If you’re not going to do us any good here, I wish you’d just go,” he says.
Reaching towards the lens, his palm covers his image. He says, “Just once, I wish you’d get in trouble.”
“You never told me you had a brother,” Bryn notes with whiskey on their mouth.
Abraham shrugs. Whiskey steeps in his chest, behind his eyes.
“This house looks exactly like it did back then,” Bryn says. Abraham hears them speak in sound before he hears their words. Now, Bryn’s nails are a blood red, and Abraham watches, hypnotized, as they trace the burn stamped across his lifeline.
“My mother hated change,” he murmurs.
Bryn laughs and Abraham sees it in the darkness when he blinks. “Another family tradition.”
“I like change,” Abraham mumbles and watches Bryn’s profile as they turn their attention once more to the tape, the fourth they’ve inserted into the VCR. The electric light turns their face the color of moonlight, and the glow from the lamp gilds their hair.
Bryn slowly lifts Abraham’s hand to rest their pink lips in the cradle of his palm. “Like you like dandelion wine?”
The black night howls outside and runs a trepid finger down Abraham’s spine, beneath his canvas jacket. “Oh, fuck,” he murmurs, reminded of the dandelion mixture that’s gone cold, that’s waiting for him and his mother’s colander and cheesecloth to strain it. But Bryn’s knuckles blanch around his and they root him firmly to the floor.
Bryn points to the television, and Abraham sits back down.
Daytime. Abraham trembles where he stands in the creek, braced by Bryn’s support. Water and blood, helium head and needlepoint pain. His knuckles strain in Bryn’s hand, his breath stuttering as he watches poppies bloom around his toes. He feels like he’s eight years old and slicing his palm on the paring knife that his brother tossed unguarded into the dishwater. A crawdad surfaces at the other side of the stream. Even if the water wasn’t debilitatingly cold, he wouldn’t be able to move, wouldn’t be able to lift himself from the fanged rock that has cut into his foot.
“There,” Bryn assures him, their face rippling in the red creek. “See that?”
Abraham’s arm trembles. Bryn trails their fingertips over the soft skin of his wrist. They pull him out.
The sky is colorless and absent, another cold daylight as Abraham struggles with the lingering pain. He thinks that Bryn has proposed they gather firewood from the woods across the wheat field. Without meaning to, he says, “They tried to burn down my house.”
“Show me where,” Bryn says, standing at the center of the access road. The vibrant, unkempt grasses around bow toward them like flowers seeking the sun. Abraham limps and leads them to the southern edge of the screened-in porch, his new injury sanitized and dressed by Bryn’s steady hands. He kneels beside the lattice that hides the space beneath the screened-in porch, and sets the firewood sling
When he pushes the soft, rotting wood aside, shows Bryn the cinder block foundation of his house. Much of it is charred black, and Bryn whistles. “Impressive.”
“It was,” Abraham says. He can hardly look at it. He stares at a new enamel pin on Bryn’s windbreaker that reads CPR/FIRST AID CERTIFIED. “They were only fireworks, but there were several of them, stuffed under the porch while I was inside.”
Abraham shrugs. “They think my family caused the storms.”
“It’s crazy what people used to think.”
Abraham thinks he hears something ironic in their tone. “This was just last year, but it isn’t the first thing they’ve done. I repaired the porch myself and took the mailbox from the end of our driveway. Never put it back up.”
Bryn crouches and runs their delicate fingertips across the black stone, then inspects them as if expecting the pigment to have transferred. Abraham thinks for a moment that he can smell the burning wood. “What about your mail?”
“I never get mail.”
The scene ripples like sheets beat in the wind. Static fills the shadows, cuts the shapes, until the kitchen settles in frame. Thomas and their mother sit at the kitchen table. He slumps so deeply in his chair that only half of the chair’s red checkered cushion remains on the seat. His head is tipped back, and he holds a bag of ice to his round face.
“Let me see it,” his mother instructs and tears open an alcohol wipe. An old first aid kit sits open at her elbow, the case made of rusting metal. Sunlight refracts through the jars of wine behind it on the table. They look gold, godsent.
Thomas lowers his head. A bruise turns on the white skin around his eye like dusk turns in the sky. His mother grabs his jaw, jerks his head to the side, then the other. Thomas sits indignantly.
“Who did this?” she asks. In that voice, the words themselves are a threat.
“Simon Rutledge,” Thomas mutters.
“What’d you say to him?”
“Ma—” Thomas complains, but stops when she presses the wipe to his cheekbone.
“You said something, Thomas,” she tells him. “You can’t stop saying something.”
Thomas watches her from beneath his lashes, frowning, before he closes his eyes. “Everyone was saying that Papaw took a tree and that’s when the storms came,” he finally murmurs. Abraham’s hand over the speaker muffles that last word. The frame shrinks around their bodies as Abraham brings the camera closer, and Thomas’s voice is more audible. “He said we were a town curse.”
Their mother rubs the wipe against Thomas’s skin as if she could smear the bruise out of place if she tried. “Thomas, you can’t listen to them,” she says and leans back. They look at each other with an identical scrutiny, the similarities so perfect they can only come from shared blood. She drops the wipe into the kit and takes a cigarette from the breast pocket of her loose blouse. Sweat shines over her brow and she stands. The frame decapitates her until she shrinks into the background to open the back door.
“Mama, is it true?” Abraham asks off-screen.
As Thomas looks up at the camera, their mother’s voice comes from far away. “Course not.” She crosses her arms and turns to shadow. Sunlight softens her edges.
“But it’s what everyone’s saying,” Abraham presses. “They say there’s gods in the woods. Even Penny Joya, she said that Papaw took a tree, cursed the town, and—”
“Abraham, enough,” their mother barks.
“They’re lying, obviously,” Thomas snaps. “They don’t know anything. They’re full of shit.”
“Thomas,” their mother scolds.
“What?” Thomas shouts, turning in his chair towards the shape of their mother. “What, they are! There are no gods in the forest, and they didn’t make the storms because Papaw took a tree, and they didn’t kill him for it. We have a goddamn porch to prove it.”
Plumes of smoke muddy the light behind their mother. “There’s nothing in those woods except the bears, you hear?” she says. “I’ve seen them.”
In a breathless silence, Abraham’s pulse bloats into his head. When he looks at Bryn’s face, their piano-key grin, he suspects they know what he’s going to say. “Bryn,” he says, and the gust blows a chill down the back of his shirt, “How did you know anyone lived at the end of this road?”
When Bryn seems satisfied—bored, even—with the evidence of the explosion, they help Abraham down the long road, though his injury elongates the trek. Gravel loosens underfoot. With one arm around Bryn’s shoulders and the leather sling in his other hand, Abraham limps the mile, looks left down the interstate, looks right, the road providing him a direct path from one end of the world to the other. There are no cars around. Clefts like veinwork run through the pavement, and Bryn helps Abraham across the wide, empty highway, through the wheat field. The smell of it is in the air, and the crop is good this year, golden and healthy.
Abraham looks at Bryn, who is suddenly chewing something. “This is the wheat we used for whiskey,” he tells them softly. The words surprise him. Bryn snaps the gum in their mouth and uses their free hand to push the sunglasses down onto their face before they look at Abraham. Abraham wishes he could find it in himself to take them off so that he didn’t have to look at his ballooned reflection.
“Another family tradition?” Bryn grins.
“Well,” Abraham says and looks at their mouth, “I was never good at it.”
“Are you allergic to wheat, too?”
Abraham shakes his head. Bryn’s hand eases down his ribs, to his waist, their fingers warm through his linen shirt. “Just couldn’t figure out the malt.”
When he turns forward, he finds them at western edge of the field, where only a split wood fence bars them from the woods beyond. Abraham stares at the hole in the fence, beams snapped and fanged and rotting. Bryn whistles and leads him through it.
Sunlight, now, in columns through the screens on the porch. The paneling splinters his fingers as he tears it from the wall. In the open doorway, the wallpaper lies shredded, torn and ruined. Bryn continues to wear his robe as they use a crowbar from the tool shed.
“Careful,” Abraham says as he eases a splinter from his nail bed. “The electrical wiring.”
Bryn folds the wooden plank in half. It’s old enough to do so, yet not so thin that it breaks; the sound of it is agonizing, every tearing vein visceral and felt in Abraham’s chest. Bryn’s knuckles turn white around the crowbar. Today their nails match the ivory doilies that cover every flat surface of the house, some knit by Abraham’s mother herself, though most are from Papaw’s days.
Something amber glints through the hole in the hot daylight, latent sunlight freed from within the walls of Abraham’s house.
“Oh, Abraham,” Bryn laughs, and drops the crowbar to the floor. It falls with a thud that frightens Crumb from her bed. Abraham wipes the sweat from his brow and watches as Bryn’s hand disappears into the wall. “I don’t think there’s wiring back here.”
They show Abraham the old bottle, stained dark by the years. Age has stripped the color from the stiffened tape wrapped around the jar.
“Jesus,” Abraham says. “How old is that?”
“Prohibition era, I’d guess, ” Bryn laughs and turns it in their hand. “Papaw, you’ve been bad.”
It is the first they drink when night falls. They watch six tapes in total. By the time Bryn chooses one labeled 07/16/2000, they have already started on a second jar. It’s the largest in the group they’ve gathered on the dental chest. “Oh,” Abraham says as Bryn switches the tape, fingers slim and moving with a dexterity that Abraham can hardly comprehend. “I don’t—want to watch this one.”
But Bryn laughs and says, “I know.”
The world tips and Abraham finds himself sitting on the front porch swing beside his beautiful someone, listening to the howling in the night, the rancor far off. They each hold a glass of dandelion wine in their hand, poured from one of the jars on the table. Bryn rocks them back and forth, lazy as their bare toes brace against the porch. Beneath the wild noise, cicadas buzz in the empty railing planters.
“Do you think those are the bears?” Bryn asks, voice far off, as if from down the driveway.
The night is hot, full of stars, and Abraham sweats in his t-shirt and cutoff shorts. Bryn appears comfortable in their jeans and tank top, the porch light shining in the golden studs down their earlobe. The milk was delivered sometime when the sky was blue. It remains forgotten on the doormat. “I don’t know what they are,” Abraham murmurs.
“Right,” Bryn says, and snaps their gum. “Where’s your mother, anyway?”
Abraham fixes his gaze on her windchimes, her doormat, the southern edge of the deck with wood that doesn’t match the rest of it. “She left,” he says. “In body when I was sixteen. In mind when I was ten.”
Bryn nods their understanding and gestures to the black night with their glass. “Because of the bears?”
“Have you ever heard a bear like that?” Abraham asks.
This batch of wine is particularly potent. It warms Abraham’s throat and softens the enduring ache in his foot. The smell of impending rain passes on the breeze, and the windchimes sing. Abraham leans his head back against the swing.
“Yep,” Bryn says.
Abraham closes his eyes again. “Liar.”
“They only sound like that if you make them mad.”
When Abraham opens his eyes, he finds a mound of chewed bubble gum in his drink. He contemplates it for a moment before he mumbles, “Thank you.”
Even now, after all this time, the canopy of the woods is so thick it weaves its own night overhead. Led by Bryn’s hand at his waist, Abraham steps into the darkness between the colossal trees. They bar him from the wheat field. He sees only darkness. Twigs snap beneath his uneven gait. All other noise fails, even his racing heartbeat, which he feels like a drumbeat from his head to his toes. He hardly dares to breathe, the smell of wet greenery and enormous life everywhere, things he has never understood.
The darkness is such that Abraham would believe himself suspended in mid-air, if his foot didn’t thrum in pain every time he set it on the soil.
Abraham knows by touch that Bryn stands beside him in the woods. He knows by cold instinct that they are grinning.
With the sling around his wrist, Abraham pulls the flashlight from his back pocket, and shines it into the darkness. Where he remembers green and brown, leaves and mud, eyes and hostility, his light catches a spectrum like the hidden colors of an oil spill. Sorbet runs down the faces of the narrow, leggy trees. Peacock blue in the leaves, bubble gum pink in the underbrush. The smiling ax wound on the nearest tree looks like an orange peel before it slowly turns the color of Bryn’s cherry nails.
“Look,” Bryn murmurs, and their voice is new, echoing, as large as the darkness itself. Abraham turns the flashlight down the line of their finger. With half a mind, he sets it between his teeth and crouches. Grasses have grown around his brother’s, his papaw’s, ax. An abundance of sticks and twigs lie at his feet. As he begins to gather them into the wood sling, he uncovers the small bones, the fingers first, then the radius, ulna, all cradled in tendrils of plant growth, all claimed and molded to the forest floor.
Abraham closes his eyes.
“No,” Bryn says and grips Abraham’s knee. “Look.”
Wind bludgeons the camera’s speakers. Summer wheat snaps and the field tosses like the sea in a tempest. It all trembles in Abraham’s struggling hold, as if the camera is particularly heavy that day. Slowly, Thomas’ back comes into frame from the left. His cherry-red windbreaker and the bottle-green sky. His youth makes him small inside the tall crop, but his determination is steady. At his side, he holds Papaw’s ax, its large crescent edge splintered with wood.
Abraham calls his brother’s name from behind the camera. The wind distorts his voice.
Thomas stops them at the split rail fence and hoists the ax into both hands, holds it like he would a baseball bat. His hair whips in the wind and dry lightning flickers overhead. Everything blanches around the blackness of the woods.
Their voices return before their images. “Thomas, I don’t want to—” Abraham starts as Thomas’s body resurfaces from the lightning’s blinding white.
“There’s no curse, Abe,” Thomas shouts. “I’ll show you, and you can show them with that camera. There are only bears.”
He brings the ax down and rends the fence post. The wood cracks. The sound splits through the field, flattens in the speakers, deadens the howling wind. Thomas does this three times. Wind billows under the hem of his jacket. The frame is loyal to him and keeps him centered until the fence posts cave.
Thomas stomps into the woods, stomps down the thin wild grasses in his way. Abraham follows and, gradually, darkness blankets the camera lens. The wind stills. Only the sound of Abraham’s labored breathing penetrates the speakers until twigs fracture under their hurried feet. The flashlight Thomas took from the cellar cuts a perfect circle from the darkness. The light is grainy and white, nothing in focus until it falls upon the wide trunk of a tree that has appeared from nowhere.
“Thomas,” Abraham breathes, whispers it like a swear.
Thomas is a white, gilded edge. “Watch, Abe,” he says. He has yet to sound clearer on camera. “I’ll show you.”
He puts the flashlight between his teeth. The tip of his nose turns red hot in the beam of light. His blond lashes glint like cobwebs at dawn. The ax head arcs up through the light, a newly-lit firework on its maiden voyage as Thomas lifts it above his shoulder. Abraham stops breathing. The ax strikes the wood. The light slips out of frame, and the scene goes dark. A great noise ruptures the speakers. It’s enormous, as if to make up for the absence of image, like wind through a tunnel, like a screaming hoard, like the whistling descent of countless missiles, loud and full, so wild that it escapes the speakers’ distortion.The analog date remains stamped in the corner of the blackness.
Abraham’s panting and stumbling footsteps interrupt the fury. Light bleaches the scene. Abraham’s tinny, staccato sobbing usurps all other noise as the white balance settles, and the storm comes back into view. The clouds are emerald. The wheat lashes in the distance. The grasses are gray and brown. Abraham’s sneakers are blurs of red. He gasps, he bleats, he leaps over the splintered wood of the fence. The scene spins. He is alone.
Rain patters on the speakers and the frame turns white, then black.
Abraham lies whiskey-drunk on the braided tapestry of the screened-in porch. His mother’s bears
look down upon him. Bryn takes the glass from Abraham’s hand. The tape howls from the television and Bryn slips into Abraham’s lap. Firewood and linen, Abraham presses their nose to Bryn’s throat and groans.
“Who are you?” he asks Bryn, whose dewy skin sticks to his own where they touch.
Bryn’s soft hands frame Abraham’s cheeks. He looks into Bryn’s whiskey eyes and sees the colors of the forest, the spectrum of wonder and cruelty. He leans his head into Bryn’s hands. They run their thumbs beneath his lips, over his teeth, his bones, and his breath shudders across their knuckles. His
tears wet their fingers.
Bryn smiles. It is wide, splitting, and affectionate. The light blanches on the television and haloes their hair until the white balance settles. They murmur into the small space between them, but Abraham cannot hear them over the noise distortion bursting on-screen. The lamps dim. Abraham arches on the floor, puts his hands in Bryn’s hair, and Bryn sheds their tank top. Abraham no longer wants to close his eyes. He spreads his fingers down the rows of Bryn’s ribs, pulls them down. He cries into their chest. He bends his knees between their legs. They peel his T-shirt from his damp skin, press him to the coarse rug, and unzip his pants.
They hold Abraham’s face in both hands, push their thumbs against his high cheekbones, and Abraham cries a second time because he can’t blink. Because he does not want to. Because he finally knows what he wants. And he gets it for that moment, with his heels pressed into the rug and Bryn’s knees under his thighs and Bryn’s throat open wide and their head tossed back and the power in the house cuts.
Rain comes on the eighth morning. It drums softly against Abraham’s window and draws him from sleep. Everything in the bedroom is dreary and he sits up. His hands are empty. Crumb lifts her head and peers at him from the foot of the bed. There is no song, there is only silence.
The analogue clock on the wall reads 10:02. It is Sunday.
A sob bubbles in Abraham’s throat and he lays his hand over his eyes.
The noise of the downpour fills the house, taps on the walls, rushes like wind through the cracks in the doors. Aside from the creaking floorboards, it is the only sound, and Abraham, dressed in his tank top and cutoffs from the night before, stands among the wreckage of his week. Wallpaper in ribbons, VHS tapes strewn beneath the settee. Ornaments knocked from the dental chest, the smell of dandelions and pine and vinegar in the air. Salt grains between the floorboards, newspapers piled on the dining chairs. Bandage unwinding from his foot. Sunburn across his shoulders. Empty candy bowl. Nothing but space between his fingers.
The dandelion water, the sugar, citrus—all exactly as he left it.
Carefully, he traverses the debris, moves from room to room. Only when he looks does he realize that the television isn’t anywhere near a wall outlet. That the wood, all that he tore from the walls and the floor in the screened-in porch, the product of Papaw’s labor, is gone. That his car keys hang by the door, and the small, hot pink skeleton on Bryn’s key has been replaced by one made of ivory, grass-stained bone.