I hear chains as they approach. There are other rez boys around, so I know I will pay for staring, but I stare. Boys like us are bloodied here. Boys like Micah and me.
Micah walks up with the others. He acts like the others. But boys like him and me, we stand too close. We glance at dirty ankles and want to fold our hands around each one. We watch sweat drip down the backs of bodies like our own and want to catch it with our tongues. We watch for a glimpse of the fine hairs that lead beneath basketball shorts as players’ arms stretch up, as the arms pull at the shirts they wear, as their wrists flick precisely so the ball goes through the hoop, so the ball makes the chains sing. Wind through chime.
Micah plus two. Aster Beckons and Vince Praley. The three of them are towers compared to me. That is the advantage they have in this game, but I’m fast. Much faster than they are. They know this.
“You playing today, Trystan? Or you just going to sit there with your dick twitching ’til the sun goes down?” Aster says. Gets a cackle out of Vince. Smile and a scoff out of Micah. I smile, too, knowing that Micah remembers what my dick tastes like.
“Winning today,” I say. “That’s what really gets me off.”
Summers in Kusabo Lake, humidity sticks to us like skin. Heat ripples off of the blacktop. Our bodies tangle as we play. They’re rough, but I don’t mind. Aster’s elbow clips my bottom lip, and I taste copper. Spit it out. Vince trips me. The ground teethes my arm open. My breath catches as Micah stands behind me, his arms stretched wide as wings. I look at our shadows, and mine is the one with wings. These bright orange balls, like setting suns in our palms, pound against the cracked court. We push them to the ground and they spring right back into our hands.
Alone, after nightfall, Micah and I wear nothing but moonlight until we slip into the river water. The Edisto River crawls through our rez like a slow vein. Water as black as the sky that stretches above us. We get farther from the riverside, and the water covers the lower parts of us. We know all of the shapes that the blackwater hides. All of the shapes the water curves around.
It starts like it always does, just as it has since the first time. We fight each other off. I jump onto Micah’s back and lock my arms around his neck. We laugh. He pulls me off and tosses me away, but the water catches me. He claws through the water toward me, lifts me, spins me, and plunges into the water with me in his arms. We drown and come back to life. We drown, but only for an instant.
After we are out of breath, after our breath comes back to us, Micah falls toward me, whole-bodied. I catch him. With the help of the water, I can hold him. He is tall, but narrow. I hold him up by the small of his back, cradle his head in my hand, hold him above the water. The threads of his hair weave between my fingers. It’s so dark, I can’t see where his hair ends and the river begins. I lean down. I kiss him. Not hungrily—not like the first time. This kiss is like resting.
“Your lip okay?” Micah asks.
“Tender,” I say. “Tastes like a rare steak, don’t it?”
“Sick,” he laughs. “No.”
“You ever kiss anybody in high school?”
“Not sober. And definitely no boys. Got my ass beat enough as it was.”
“Least nobody fucked your face up. I like your face.”
“Kind of pretty, huh?”
“Not even that pretty.” I smile down. “I just like the way you look at me.” “How’s that?”
“Like you don’t want to beat my ass.”
He pulls my head down to his. Kisses me so hard my lip breaks open. He gets to his feet and holds my head between his hands. We stand too close. I’m not even sure there’s water between us. I reach beneath the water, between his legs. I can feel his pulse there. The beat. Must be something like holding a heart.
In a place where everyone knows everyone, it’s nice to know someone better than anyone else does. I’m glad to know Micah that way. Everybody who lives in Kusabo Lake, South Carolina, knows just about everybody else who lives here. We all know what crazy Indians and shitty white folks the roads are named after. Lots of us have last names to remind us of the crazy Indians and shitty white folks we come from.
Crowe Road—my family’s name, mostly Indian, a little black—leads to highway 14. Weber Street—Micah’s family name, mostly Indian with some German—winds into highway 27, which winds up in Charleston. We know who’s Indian, who’s mixed-blood, who’s a little inbred, and all the in-betweens. Which families stay put, and which families break away. Crowes and Webers stay put. We move about as fast as the water we’re named for: Kusabo Lake, where the river moves through so slow, it might as well be still. Hence the name.
Webers stay put, but Micah’s pa couldn’t. He left when Micah was six. Everybody knows this. But Micah tells me the man left after roughing up him and his mama. Darla Weber only let that happen once before she got the shotgun. She missed on purpose, just one time, and told Micah’s pa to go anywhere else. Darla, Micah, myself, and the critters that heard the warning shot twelve years back are the only ones who know that.
I know that, under all that hair, there’s a dip in Micah’s skull from when he pulled a radio onto himself when he was a toddler. I know that his left eye is open more than his right one when he smiles a real smile. Most folks know that Micah’s ma means the world to him, but I’m one of the few that know there’s a healthy, potent dose of fear under all that love. And I know Darla planted that on purpose.
She always told me: Nothing wrong with being afraid. A man without fear ain’t nothing but a boy. Haven’t met her, but I know Micah sounds just like her as he says it. Nothing wrong with love, either. A man without love is just a half-step away from being an animal.
I am a thief, which means I know exactly what Aster Beckon’s hidden parts smell like. I was fourteen when I lifted his gym shorts from the locker room. Replaced them with an almost identical pair of my own. I took his home and pressed the plunder to my face. When I tucked them into my mouth, I thought of the gesture. How he cups his dick in his hands after making a three-pointer. The arrogant smile.
You want this? he says, and my hands are his hands. I bet you do, he says and his hands grip harder. I think of the way he pushes my head into the grass. Like he could drown me on dry land. His hand pressing my head down. But not into grass. No. Not here, as starlight spills into my room. Not while my hands are his hands. I dig my teeth into the taste. Grit of the earth. Grit of the skin. The pressure of his hand on my head. I fight back until I don’t. There is pressure. There is release.
Vince has green eyes, and you can see the way his body works beneath his skin. I watch his muscles move beneath his clothes, too. He’s a few shades darker than me because his dad is a full-blood, unlike mine. Our fathers were friends. Class of 1993.
They both thought their boys would be friends, too. That we, like them, would break into abandoned buildings and carve our girlfriends’ names into the walls with pocketknives. That we would crawl under barbed wire fences at midnight and spook livestock. But we are not like our fathers.
Vince sees the way I look at his green eyes. How I can’t stop looking. How I stare. He can feel the way my hands want to know him. Seeing the way his body works is not enough. I want to feel it. Bone beneath muscle beneath vein beneath skin. I want the thrill of him in my hands. The rush of holding a loaded gun.
I think it’s the heat that makes the boys play mean. They play to hurt, and it’s July. The air so thick that it slows all of us. I am easier to catch on the court. Aster pushes his body into mine with such force that I fall backward. The pavement leaves its sharp kisses on my back. My skin has been dripping for hours, so nobody will notice the tears welling up. I hardly notice them myself. Vince trips me, and I skin my palms. The hot air feels cold on the fresh skin. Hurt can make all sorts of things seem backward like that.
It’s been just over a month, and Micah still stands with the other boys. That might hurt more than the rest of it, but it’s a wound I’m familiar with. I don’t mind it. I think that might be the only way he will hurt me. He’s not as rough with me as the other players are today. Not as rough as he normally is with me when he’s around them. But I’m wrong. Just before I take an open shot, he pushes me. I trip over him, toward the base of the hoop, where the metal pole is rooted into the blacktop.
I don’t know what sound the metal makes because all I hear is the sound my skull makes. I open my eyes and see the sun. I see the half-red sky. No. I see the sun, and I see blood. Because I can taste it. The red of the sky trickling into my mouth.
“What the fuck, guys!” Micah’s voice. “Shut the fuck up!” The other two are laughing.
“You wrecked that bitch,” Vince says, out of breath.
“Get your ass up, faggot.” Aster says faggot like it’s my name.
“Come here, kid,” Micah whispers, pulling me up. “Ma will get you fixed up.”
“I’m fine,” I say, but when I hear myself, I know I’m not. Micah crouches down and tosses my arm over his shoulders. We walk from the court together.
“Micah, looking like quite the Prince Charming,” one of the boys jeers.
“More like the noble steed. Seems like he wants to get ridden,” the other one says. They both sound the same. Micah says nothing. Perhaps he is noble.
We pull into Micah’s driveway, just up the road from the court. My head is coming back, but still ringing and spinning. We step through the front door, and I smell patchouli. Walls as yellow as sunflowers. Micah puts me in a chair, at a table. This is a kitchen. I hear the faucet, feel a warm rag being pressed over my face.
“Ma, you home? Need you out here!” Micah’s voice rings. There must be an answer, but I don’t hear it. “Bring the stuff to stitch up.”
The woman comes into the yellow room—a silhouette against the wall. Micah’s ma works for Black River Lumber. Micah got his height from Darla, though she’s sturdier. Something of a tree in her own right. I have no trouble imagining Micah’s pa running away. She’s scary enough without a shotgun in hand. Got long hair like her son, pulled back into a tight ponytail. There’s a needle in her mouth, thread wrapped around her pointer finger.
Taking the needle from between her lips, she uses a lighter to run a flame over the tip. She asks for my name, so I tell her. She asks me what day it is, and I say Sunday. I must be right, because she nods.
“Pupils aren’t dilated. Good. Seems pretty out of it. But that’s also good.”
I can’t tell if she’s looking me straight in the eyes, or straight in the head wound. “Going to stitch you up, Trystan. Do it all the time. Won’t feel a thing.”
I close my eyes, and she’s right: I don’t feel a thing. As Darla takes scissors to the excess thread, I notice that Micah is holding my hand. “That’s it?” I say.
“Mhm,” Darla sighs. “Micah, go get your friend an icepack and some Tylenol. Just looking at his head is making mine hurt.”
Soon as he heads upstairs, Darla looks back to me. “You must be the one he’s doing all the sit-ups for. Right?”
“What do you mean?” But I know what she means. “How do you—”
“Don’t worry. Worry-face will fuck up my handiwork.” She points to the fresh stitches. “You’re cuter than I thought he’d be able to find. Don’t want any scars on that mug of yours.”
“How can you tell?” That’s all I can push from my mouth.
“It ain’t the way you walk or talk. Just the way you be.” Darla says, standing to grab me a glass of water. “And I don’t care how you be, so long as you’re good to one another.”
Micah thumps down the stairs and hands me a couple of pills. “Icepack is in the basement. Be right back.”
Darla hollers at him as he heads down. “Now that I got your friend fixed up, maybe you can take a break from the games, huh?”
I wonder if we can drown those versions of ourselves in the river. The boys we were. The ones that were cruel to one another. Perhaps there have been enough boys who were cruel. We can bury them in a field. Cover the field in blacktop. We can’t forget they were there, though. The cracks that spread across the concrete, the rivers I carve into his back, the scars we leave—these are maps. Here is where we began. Here is where we went off course. This, right here, all we know is that this is not the end. We’re not home just yet.