Troy’s mother stumbled into his room while we played video games. Her calloused and shaking hands held his cheeks. She kissed his forehead, and she told him how good he was, that everything would be okay eventually. He furrowed his brow and stared at the small glowing screen. We were twelve.
When I went downstairs to get a snack and there were people in the kitchen, swaying as they stood, silent. They looked at me as if I was an intruder, but nobody did or said anything. Troy’s stepdad was wearing a dirty v-neck t-shirt and a respirator on his face with a Gatorade bottle in his hand, its wrapper faded and peeling, full of white and tan powder. He was shaking the bottle furiously and the people stood around him with their faces slack, like extras in a zombie movie. There was a metallic, chemical smell in the air, burnt plastic but worse, malodorous fumes floating around the mess on the counter and the sink: pill bottles, powder, broken silverware. Everyone looked like shit. They were all wearing dirty clothes, some of the men weren’t wearing shirts, their skin grey and pockmarked. There was a girl a few years older than Troy and me and she was wearing a tank top that didn’t fit her right, and I could see a pink scar that stretched up from her waistband. Troy’s stepdad pulled the respirator down and shooed me out of the kitchen, swearing, and I went back up to Troy’s room. I dropped onto the floor next to the mattress with no frame, no box spring.
“That asshole stole my other games,” Troy said, scanning the rickety shelf next to the TV. He stood up and pawed at the bed sheet tacked over the window, eyeing the neighborhood. “I wish I could burn this place down.”
“Let’s go ride our bikes,” I said.
He shrugged and we went out, and as we rode we kicked over garbage cans, laughing. An old man in a striped robe yelled at us and we kept laughing but I felt bad. It was spring, and a street sweeper was out and we raced ahead of it, shielding our eyes from the dust. Troy was riding as fast as he could pedal and I was trying to keep up with him. He never looked back to check on me, never slowed down at any stop signs or red lights, never waited for me. He just kept going. And I just kept following him.
We ended up at the diner. A safe haven for us, it was a place to get away from our parents and the homework I hated doing, the homework Troy never did. We sat in a large booth in the back, as always. At twelve, I felt even younger, smaller, sitting and bouncing on the red and black pleather seat with my hands clasped on the Formica table.
We ordered our usual, sodas and french fries. The fries came in a large basket, a huge heap of gold, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. Troy used to eat two at a time, always two fries of similar length.
“You got any money,” Troy said.
“Couple bucks, I think.”
We added up our money but it wasn’t enough. It was never enough.
“Fold them in half,” Troy said, grabbing the crumpled bills. “Make them look like a bigger stack.”
We shuffled out of the diner, didn’t glance up at the owner behind the counter.
The buildings near the diner were tall and the wind moved between the alleys and I looked up at the birds flying above us. We went to the bridge in the center of town and stood there, watching the trains rumble underneath us, shaking the bridge and the pavement, gritty sand beneath my scuffed shoes.
“C’mon,” I said, thinking about my homework. “We should go home.”
“Follow me,” Troy said.
Back on our bikes, my body sluggish from the fries and soda, Troy took me all the way to the edge of town and down the wide, paved entrance to the park by the lake. We wove through the traffic in the lot, mostly older guys taking their boats out for the first time that year. There was a rope swing in the woods nearby and kids our age were there, towels draped on their skinny shoulders, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers stolen from their stepfathers. When our bikes skidded in the dirt they looked at us. It was almost dark. I needed to go home.
“Hey,” Troy said. “Can I get a beer?”
There were a couple of chuckles, sideways glances. I felt sweat on my head and on the small of my back. A kid from my gym class stepped forward with two cold, wet cans of beer. We took them.
Troy and I went and sat on the dock as a couple of older guys walked past us carrying tackle boxes and long rods. They looked down at us and shook their heads. I tried to hide my beer. I had only taken a sip. Troy finished his and tossed in the lake. The empty can bobbed on the water.
“I want to get out of here,” he said.
I nodded, putting my mouth to the rim of the can, tapped the aluminum against my teeth again and again until Troy looked annoyed. I handed it to him.
“Where would you go, if you could go anywhere in the world?” he said. He tilted his head back and drank.
I didn’t answer. I knew I wanted to go to college, but I never told Troy.
“I’d be a surgeon in Boston,” he said. “I’d save people’s lives. If I ever get out of here, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
The sun dipped behind the hills that surrounded the town and the sky was a bright stretch of orange and red, with thin delicate clouds. I wanted Troy to see but he was looking down at his beer and at the cold blue water. He leaned toward the dark waves slowly and I caught him.
“We should probably go,” I said.
When we were seniors in high school, Troy had a Toyota with dark windows and rust tinged around the wheel wells. We drove all over town with the leaky sunroof open, cigar smoke pluming out the sunroof and dissipating in a swirl behind us. We played music so loud that we could never have conversations. There was never anything to say.
It was a day in early November when Troy picked me up after school. My college acceptance letters were starting to roll in. I had stopped asking him if he sent in any applications, filled any out, if he was going at all. I fell into the passenger seat as he lit a cigarette.
“You skipped all day,” I said, as the school disappeared in the side mirror.
“Gotta show you something,” he said.
Leaves were dancing across the parking lot at the lake. Troy parked the car in a far away corner and got out. I followed him, zipping up my hoodie. He grabbed a ratty backpack from the trunk and walked into the woods. By that point, the city had cut down the rope swing and the tree it was attached to because some kid went there one night and ended up getting tangled in the rope. They found him a couple days later with his face blue and grey, bloated, a pile of excrement below him. Some people said there was a dozen crushed beer cans nearby, some people said there was a used needle.
Troy crouched at a clearing and opened the backpack. I looked back towards the lake, the waves lapping at the shore.
“Check this,” he said. He pulled a small revolver from the backpack. There were crude scratch marks on the barrel.
“The fuck, man.” I backed away, leaned against a tree.
“Relax. The bullets are in here,” he said, tapping the backpack.
“Why do you have that?”
“It’s cool, right?”
“A fucking gun, dude?”
He flailed his arm, practiced his aiming. “Don’t you want to shoot it?”
I stood there looking at him. His hair was longer than it used to be and his eyes looked more tired, sullen. The skin at his temples sagged. The gun sat on display in his outstretched palm. I took it.
The metal was cold and heavy. I put my thumb on the hammer like I had seen in movies but it wouldn’t go down. I tried to play it off like I was just holding it, just looking at it. I didn’t want to tell Troy I had no idea what I was doing.
“Let’s shoot some shit,” he said.
We headed deeper into the woods. The trees were thick and the forest floor was a wide expanse of brown and green, ferns and fallen trees that were covered with spongy moss. Troy took some bottles out of the backpack and set them up on a stump at one end of a clearing. The canopy of evergreens above made it feel damp and cold. I couldn’t hear any boats or any cars, and I wondered how far we were from the lake, the road, from home. Troy loaded the gun, sniffling and coughing, while I sat on a rotting tree trunk and poked at the soft dirt with my shoe. The plastic on the toe was peeling and black soil had seeped inside, dirtying my sock. I wanted to go home.
“Watch this,” he said.
I stood a few feet behind him and watched him aim. Chest heaving, hand shaking, he lifted the gun, pointed it towards the bottles and pulled the trigger. The shot rang out and echoed against the immense trees, and I clapped my hands over my ears but it was too late. There was a dull, faraway ringing, an instant headache. Troy cursed, his voice was muffled. He fired again but covering my ears didn’t help. He struck one of the bottles and it exploded into a thousand specks of glass.
“Yes, hell yes,” he said. He fired more shots. Birds emerged from branches and flew over us. I dabbed the skin around my ears for blood but there was none.
He showed me how to load it and I closed the cylinder in the frame and stood like he had. He stepped back and watched me with his fingers in his ears. I closed one eye and aimed at the remaining bottles.
My hand shook. The gun felt heavier when it was loaded, as if the bullets weighed ten pounds each. The fake wood of the handle was digging into my sweaty palm.
I thought about the college acceptance letters on the kitchen table back home. The way my mom cried, proud of my accomplishment, upset about me leaving.
“Do it,” Troy said. He still had his fingers plugged in his ears but he looked bored. “Shoot that shit.”
I squeezed but not hard enough and my heart was knocking against my ribcage and I just wanted to leave. Troy groaned with boredom and took the gun from me, aimed for the bottles and began firing faster than he did before, shouting, and he hit two bottles and missed one, glass and pieces of the tree behind them broke off and flew in a great maelstrom of dirt and bark and earthly shrapnel. After the dust settled and only wind moved the trees, he raised his head and looked somewhere off in the distance. The familiar whine of sirens. He took off running, the backpack dangling like a ragdoll from one shoulder, banging off his back. I followed, tried to keep up, tried to dodge the corpses of oak trees, the thick elms, branches and natural refuse snapping and crunching underfoot. My lungs felt scorched, hollowed out by overactivity. We reached the car and Troy tossed the backpack in the trunk. He peeled out, tires screaming, little specks of gravel scattering across the parking lot. Back out on the main road he slowed down, my breathing still labored and frantic, and a cop car sped past us with its lights and sirens on. At a stoplight, he laughed.
“Not bad, huh,” he said.
I was angry but I couldn’t speak. I sat paralyzed, gripping my seatbelt. We drove around for a while, decided to pool our change together for some fries at the diner.
The owner rolled his eyes when he saw us in our booth. There were only two other people there, a man and woman sitting on stools. The man had his head on the counter, a plastic bag full of junk at his feet. The woman was twirling her hair, pulling out strands, cursing under her breath. She kept narrowing her eyes every time she turned towards Troy.
“She know you?” I said.
Troy took two fries and didn’t look. “Probably knows my stepdad.”
“Is that where you got the gun?”
He shushed me. “You better not say anything.”
“Good.” He glanced at the couple. “This fucking town, man.”
“I can’t wait to leave,” I said.
Troy didn’t say anything.
We finished our food and the couple got up from their stools and staggered out of the diner. We stayed until the leftover ketchup coagulated on the plates. The owner stood with his hairy arms crossed over his stark white apron.
“Probably wants to close,” I said, easing towards the edge of the booth.
Our stack of crumpled dollar bills looked like a huge tip, but we barely covered the cost of the food.
We left, drove all night, fast through the streets, smoking cigars and listening to music. The gun was locked away in the trunk, but I was still on edge. The cigar smoke gave me a headache. In my head I was counting down the months, the weeks, before I would be out of town forever, never to look back. I still hadn’t told Troy about the acceptance letters. I wanted him to come with me when I left, but something about him lately told me he wasn’t going anywhere. His sweaty face was close to the steering wheel and his teeth were chattering, grinding. We parked the car by the bridge and looked down at the trains tearing through the darkness of the night off to some other destination that was no doubt better than here. My fingers poked through the chain-link fence and I pressed my face against the cool steel and closed my eyes and stood like that for I don’t know how long.
There was a deafening crash. We turned and saw a massive old pickup truck smashed against a pale-colored hatchback. The hatchback was on its side and one of the wheels was spinning, a turn signal blinking. The pickup’s windshield was intact but covered in a spider web of cracks and the wipers were flinging from side to side over the bumpy glass. The wreck was just past the bridge, where the streets came to T, only a flashing yellow traffic light, no buildings around. No other witnesses.
“Holy shit,” Troy said with a malevolent smile. “That’s my stepdad’s truck.” He was walking slowly towards the accident in zigzagged steps. I stayed on the curb.
Low, guttural noises came from the inhabitants of the hatchback, and as they climbed out I saw it was the same couple from the diner earlier. The man had blood running down his neck from his ears and his nose was smashed into a mess of cartilage and blackened blood. He was tending to the woman, a heap in his arms, her head slack, hair matted down with blood.
“The shit,” he said to the woman. “We gotta get the shit out of the car. It’s him.”
Her head just lolled and he tapped her face numerous times, trying to wake her. A grumbling noise came from the cab of the pickup.
“Goddamn it,” Troy’s stepdad said.
I was frozen. Troy ran up to him.
“Troy,” his stepdad said, reaching out. “You gotta help me.”
His stepdad was crammed against the steering wheel, blood and glass flecked on his forehead. Troy held open the door and his stepdad tried to grab him, tried to hold onto him, but he couldn’t lift his arm up that high. The strain made him moan, a muted gurgling noise came from the back of his throat.
“Troy,” I said. “What do we do?”
He didn’t say anything. He remained still as if in shock or in veneration.
The man and woman were frantically pulling bags and items out of the hatchback. The man was reaching his arm quickly and scraping against the staggered shards of the broken window and blood dotted from his wrist up to his shoulder. The woman stood in a daze.
“We should go,” I said to Troy. I began walking back towards his car.
“I think I’m gonna stay,” he said.
“We should get help,” I said. I pulled at the door handle but it was locked.
“They need to die, Troy,” his stepdad said.
Troy didn’t say anything. He leaned in close, their faces nearly touching.
“Don’t leave me. Finish it.”
I turned and ran as fast as I could down the street. The train under the bridge roared on and I could feel the pounding of my sneakers against the pavement and my lungs felt burnt, depleted, nearly worthless, and Troy called out “Come back” as I turned a corner racing towards my house, and I looked up and saw the moon hanging low in the sky over those blackened hills on the edge of town. I heard someone yell “Help” and the whine of the train persisted until the steel of the tracks ceased their rattling and the train’s horn reverberated through the night, echoing off the buildings. I finally got to my house and stopped to catch my breath, collapsed on the steps of my front porch. I heard the familiar drone of numerous sirens ringing out, watched the red and blue emergency lights twirl and flash for some time until it went dark and silent.
The last time I was in town was for Troy’s funeral. We stopped talking after his stepdad went to prison for the crash. I hadn’t seen Troy in over ten years. I was just about to turn 33, and on track to make partner at my accounting firm outside of Boston. Before I went to the wake I stopped in at the diner. Dead leaves collected with discarded and broken liquor bottles on top of a sewer grate against the curb, an OPEN sign buzzed in the window. I took our usual booth and ordered the fries. The owner was still there and I think he recognized me—either I had grown or he had shrunk. The fries came out and I poured watery ketchup next to them. They were closer to brown than gold. I picked up two at a time and dipped them and took a bite. They were flimsy, limp, and tasted like shit. The booth was being held together with black electrical tape and the floor was scuffed and dirty. I ate the fries but did not enjoy them. There was no one else in the diner. I wondered if it would have made a difference for Troy to get out of town when I did.
Some people said that he died from an accidental overdose, some people said a dealer forced him to shoot too much. Either way, he was found slumped next to a dumpster behind the liquor store. I sat in that booth, a loose spring digging into my thigh, and I couldn’t remember the last conversation we had. I finished the fries and I wiped my hand on several napkins, making sure to keep the greasy paper away from my suit. The owner of the diner stood with his arms crossed over his potbelly, watching me. I pulled out a hundred-dollar bill and held it up to show him, and placed it flat on the table.