Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
It’s dark without a window. When I can’t see the ceiling I worry about gravity.
The first time he ever touched you it was bad. You flinched. There was no place to be alone in the group home and everybody was dying to narc on each other. He would lose his job and you would be placed elsewhere. Other kids were ready to take your bed. Then more counseling. And scared you might have a seizure when he kissed you. Because he never saw you. What you look like when it happens and would he still want you. You feel like an animal, sick inside. But no one ever touched you like he did, sober with slow hands and shy. Like a mother. And he said he knew what to do if you seized.
The look on Mary’s face when she caught you with him. Early morning asleep with your legs naked around him, uncovered for the heat. The bed so narrow. Your pillow on the floor with his clothes.
He said his job didn’t matter. He said he wasn’t such a good cook anyway and he was trying to be funny. He said he would get you out of the house. But they got a court order to keep him away. If you weren’t 18 he’d be in jail for statutory.
It’s hot in here and smells like bleach. The guy in the next bunk cries all night. In the morning his arm moves slow under the sheet. His face is like prayer and he sounds like a girl when he comes. The lights are on at four and I walk past the showers. The slap of rubber shoes. Naked men rubbing oil in their hair. Voices hollow and steam falls damp on skin. Two rows of facing toilets, 20 in each row and two feet apart on the side. Old guys sit in there for hours. Smoking cigarettes and telling stories. At first I couldn’t shit with somebody staring me in the face. I just try to be quick and not look at anybody. They catch a boy like me looking at them and think maybe I’m asking for something I don’t want.
Tomorrow is your birthday. His note said he’d come after last meds. To listen for his bike in the gravel.
At dinner the other kids kept looking at you. Saying things with their teeth. Two bites of spaghetti and you felt sick. Then a movie on TV. Now in bed you pretend to sleep.
All you hear is the dark. It has a noise like the ocean. Your door opens with a crack of light. Then a longlegged shadow. Mary, whispering.
Are you awake, Emma.
You sit up in bed, sheets at your chin so the clothes don’t show. Dressed in black like he said.
It’s time for meds, Mary says. The white paper cup in each hand.
You nod and open your mouth. Mary tips the first cup and three pills slide for the back of your throat. You trap them under your tongue, lumpy and bitter. The other cup is water. Mary always holds it for you like you’re crippled.
Are you okay, Mary says.
You groan and roll over like you’re half asleep. Mary leaves and you click on the light, spit the pills into your hand. The blue one is Depakote for seizures and you swallow it. The red one is supposed to keep you from dreaming and the yellow makes you feel dead.
You drop them in the toilet.
Seth should be here soon. You arrange the sheets to look like a body. Then try to relax, to wait.
I decided to stop shaving. If I look crazy maybe no one will fuck with me. I have a job now on the cement crew. If you refuse to go out on a crew they send you to population with the real mother-fuckers. No one in my block is doing more than three to five. Drug charges and assault. There’s this black guy named Kool. He says he’s not about to work some shit job for the white man. They send him to population and he’s back in three days, ready to work.
I ask him what happened.
He says some dude got stabbed to death while he was brushing his teeth.
I’m at the next sink, he says. Blood come out his mouth man, blood and fuckin toothpaste.
The scratch at your door. He kisses you lightly on the mouth and says let’s go. He says Mary is busy with paperwork. You follow him down the hall with shadows. Into the laundry room. Water noise and thumping. Seth has staff keys and you go out the door where the garbage is. You smell spaghetti sauce. Together you walk his mountain bike down to the gate and stay close to the bushes. Seth says he still knows the code for the gate. If they haven’t changed it. He throws the keys into the dark, laughs and says those were Mary’s keys. You ride double on his bike like kids.
Where can we go.
I think we should get out of town.
Okay, you say. Your hands on his rising hips.
We can dump the bike at my place, he says. Then walk to the bus station.
I don’t have any money.
Don’t worry. He’s out of breath.
You are quiet for a while. You haven’t been outside Juniper House in six months. Headlights slide over you from behind and you feel your shoulders cringe. But there’s no bedcheck after meds. Mary won’t come to your room until morning.
Seth. I have to pee, you say. I’m sorry.
It’s okay. We can stop at Sweet’s. I need cigarettes.
Did you get my pills.
Yeah. Enough for two weeks. After that we need to think of something.
You have to take the Depakote three times a day. You still seize sometimes but not as bad.
They put Kool on the same crew as me. Worst thing is the strip search after work. Hundred guys naked on a concrete slab surrounded by guards. They smoke and laugh and grab at their crotches. We stand in line with an armful of clothes. One guard checks my clothes while I do the dance. Armpits and mouth and hair. Bark like a dog and beg. Save the asshole for last and bend over a long time.
A yellow neon sign blinking in the window. Three motorcycles and two cars in the lot.
Is this place safe, you say.
Inside it’s dark and smells like sawdust. Seth points you to the ladies’ room and goes to the bar for change. Everyone looks at you. In the bathroom you wash your face. You don’t look different yet. Your hair just hangs and you wish you had lipstick. Seth is waiting for you. When you get outside the bike is gone.
Fuck me, Seth says.
Then you see it’s in the back of a truck. The engine is running and the headlights shine back off Sweet’s plate glass window. There’s a man leaning on the driver’s side door. He’s tall, his chest and face in the dark. Cowboy boots crossed at the ankle, one foot bouncing up and down. Blue jeans black with grease. His shirt is untucked and unbuttoned to his stomach. Sleeves rolled up to the muscle.
Who is that, you say.
That’s Oz. He’s a friend. I owe him money.
The man steps forward. A beard black around his mouth and chin.
Evenin, Seth. He touches his hat. Sister.
How you doin, Oz.
I can’t complain. I seen your bike and thought to give you and your lady a ride.
The hat hides his eyes but he is smiling.
Seth looks at you. This is Emma.
Pleasure. My friends call me Oz. He offers his hand and you lift yours.
His hand is warm and hard and swallows yours but gently.
Listen, Oz. We really don’t need a ride. Thanks though.
Seth still has your other hand. The bones rub and touch in his grip.
Sometimes I try not to think of you. The air is too dense. I sit on my bunk listening to the others breathe and murmur. I look around and details rush at me. Four guys crouch on the floor throwing dice, their hands the color of ash. Their lips wet and flapping. Sores and pimples mark their skin and across from me this mongoloid kid is pulling apart cigarette butts. Eighteen years old, he just transferred from the juvenile facility. He’s been locked up since he was 12. He grew up inside and barely speaks English. He has no teeth. His arms and chest are covered in bad tattoos, blue ink from ballpoint pens. He collects cigarette butts and shreds them until he has a pile of loose tobacco. Then he eats it, drooling on himself. The dice crack against the wall and someone laughs. The low whisper of voices. It’s hard to separate word from thought. I’m afraid if I think of you I’ll lose you. The way a cat steals a baby’s breath.
Oz doesn’t take no for an answer. He holds the door for you and you sit in the middle. Oz doesn’t ask where you want to go. He just drives and the radio is loud. The floor of the cab is buried in clothes and tools and garbage. Smell of oil and the seat makes cracking noises. Seth holds your hand, rubbing circles with his thumb. Oz seems okay to you except a little too friendly
What we need is some beer, he says.
Wish you would take us to my place, Seth says.
Not fore you drink a beer with me. Old time sake.
He pats you on the knee. Leaves his hand there for a second and you can’t tell if Seth notices.
Now don’t be nervous, Seth.
Oz looks at you as he talks, his fists lumped on the steering wheel.
Need to relax, he says. Believe your sister wants to have a party.
A passing car lights up the cab and you see his eyes for the first time. The pupils are like needles.
She’s not my sister. But I guess we could drink a beer with you.
What I need to hear.
Oz cranks up the radio. After a minute he pulls into a 7-11 parking lot. He leaves the engine running.
Not gon believe this Seth, he says. But I don’t have my wallet handy.
Is that right.
If you can spot me a couple dollar I will get you back.
No problem. Seth doesn’t move.
Oz strokes the wheel slowly with his fingertips. Why don’t you get us a 12 pack then. I got a big thirst. And don’t get no Jew beer.
Do you want anything, Emma.
You shake your head. His lips move, silent. It’s too dark and you can’t read them.
Oz stretches like he feels cramped.
Little sister gon keep me company, he says. Go on now. They stop sellin at one.
Seth opens the glove compartment. You see the butt of a gun but Seth ignores it. He pulls out something else. Looks like I found your wallet, he says.
No money in there, Oz says. He smiles big but you can hear him breathing.
Seth puts it in his pocket.
Whatever. I trust you, he says.
And you watch him walk across the parking lot.
Oz turns the radio off. He thinks I won’t run off with you cause he got my wallet. Nothin in there cept a couple busted credit cards.
Inside Seth moves from the beer cooler to the register. Three people wait ahead of him.
The other night in the dinner line some ugly black dude tells me I’m cute. He leans in real close and I can see up his nose. He says he’s gonna make me his little punk. Without thinking I hit him in the stomach. Two guys break it up before I’m dead. Now I look around and he’s watching me. I’m careful about when I go to the bathroom.
You slide a few inches along the seat. Then Oz grunts and his body is across your lap.
Excuse me, sister.
The weight of his chest on your thighs. You hold your breath. He snaps open the glove compartment and digs through it. Then he’s off you. The gun is black with a wooden grip. He looks at it briefly, ignoring you. Then he slides the gun deep under his seat.
Never can be too careful, he says.
From the truck you can see Seth from the waist up. He shifts the beer from one hand to the other. His face through the window is blank. He’s looking at reflections.
How long you know Seth.
Not long, you say. Six months.
I known him for years, Oz says. Since he were a boy.
Then Oz reaches for your pack. What all ya got in here.
You don’t answer and you hear the teeth of the zipper.
Well, he says. Look like you all goin for a little trip. Where you goin.
I don’t know, you say. You roll the window down halfway but the air is still. No traffic noise.
Inside Seth is counting his money.
Seem funny not to know where you goin.
Then he opens Seth’s pack. Whoa. What we have here.
My pills, you say. Those are my pills.
Are you sick, sister.
No, you say. Inside Seth is at the counter.
I’m allergic, you say.
Well. Do they get you a buzz.
No. Not at all.
Could be you don’t take enough. He unscrews the lid. You don’t mind, he says.
Seth comes out now, walking fast. Oz dry swallows several pills and tosses the bottle on the floor. It lands on a pair of crumpled pants. Seth climbs into the cab with a box of Black Label and you put your hand on his leg. Seth reaches under his shirt, pulls out a rose wrapped in plastic.
It’s your birthday, he says. His lips on your cheek and Oz is watching.
Birthday, he says. Well, shit. Crack them beers.
Seth hands them each a beer. Oz drinks his in one long swallow and wipes his mouth with the palm of his hand. Give me another, he says.
Your pills are still on the floor. You bend at the waist and snatch them up.
Seth looks at his watch. Not time for those is it.
No, you say.
Oz is watching.
They fell out of my pack, you say.
Seth nods and lights a cigarette. His beer unopened. You unwrap the rose, touch its petals to your face. It has no smell. A plastic nipple of water is clamped onto the stem.
You whisper thank you into Seth’s ear. Oz is watching.
How old are you, sister.
A good year, he says. Now. Seth. Your sister tells me you all leavin town but she don’t know where to.
Seth looks at you. Lines of nose and lip. His eyes are in the dark. We haven’t decided yet, he says.
Fair enough. Oz turns the radio back on, loud. Let’s drive, he says.
In here a joint is two dollars. Skinny and tastes like dirt. A blowjob is 50 cents. There’s a white guy down the way. His hands move like birds and he looks like a hairdresser. I guess he’s queer but does it matter. Last night I couldn’t sleep and I watched him. Three guys with their shirts off stood around his bunk. He did one of them while the others watched. They took turns with him. I don’t think they paid him. One of them hit him in the face. After they left he sat there, still awake until the lights came on.
I think of the praying mantis, waiting in stillness and almost invisible. But the mantis is an efficient killer. The guy I hit, his name is Elvis. He’s watching me now. He lifts his little finger and wiggles it.
He says something to his boys and they laugh and holler.
Kool says don’t sweat that shit. Elvis got easier places to get ass.
But he did explain something to me. He says guys like Elvis don’t see themselves as faggots. To them a white boy’s mouth is just like a pussy.
Oz drinks one beer after another. The radio is loud and he slaps the dashboard. His hand falls on your thigh and rests there. You watch him closely. The seizure meds always make you drowsy but they don’t seem to affect him. Your beer is warm. Seth drinks two, sipping them patiently. He holds your hand in his lap.
Do you all mind we make a little stop, Oz says.
Seth turns the music down. Rather you drop us by my place.
Well. I was thinkin, Oz says. I could use a vacation myself. What do you say we go down New Orleans in the truck. She’s a sweetie on the freeway.
I don’t know, Oz. I was thinking to head west.
Oz snorts and the truck swerves lightly.
Whoa, he says. I know ya don’t mean California. Fuck that noise. Can’t even get a decent meal out there. Hippies everwhere and the water got herpes in it. No, sir. New Orleans is where you want to go.
That might be, Seth says. But Emma has family out there.
Is that a fact. Oz looks at you. Wherebout.
Oh, you say. In Oregon.
The cab of the truck is full of smoke. Oz turns the music back up.
I love Bruce Springsteen, he says.
Later he breathes into your ear. Gon make a stop.
There’s a contract out on Rabbit. He’s a country boy with orange hair and he cheated someone 20 bucks at spades. Kool loves it. Five roll-ups and a sticky bun to smoke some fool, he says. Rabbit sits on his bunk. Sucking the end of a cigarette. Eyes closed but he knows everyone is watching him.
Oz stops the truck alongside a row of dark houses. His hands are slack on the wheel. The music is still grossly loud. He puts his arm around you. They a beer left, he says.
A couple, Seth says.
Go on crack me one.
Now don’t be nervous.
I’m not nervous.
Think ya are, says Oz.
With both hands you lift his arm by the wrist and guide his hand back to the wheel. He’s drunk, grinning at you. You can’t tell how drunk
I got this idea, he says. We go down to New Orleans an have us a good time. Then you all want you catch a bus out to Oregon.
What are we doing here, Seth says.
Where my beer at.
You take an open beer from Seth and give it to Oz.
Sister, he says, Thank you. He pours beer down his throat.
What are we doing here, Seth says.
Old girl I know. She gon sell us some blow for the drive. You got some money I hope.
Oz pounds on the door for a long time.
Damn woman sleep like a dead body, he says.
Then a light comes on and the door opens. Woman in a bathrobe. Dark across her face but her legs look old. Oz. Goddamn you. I was asleep.
Look here, Lou. I got some friends.
What you want, she says. Then coughing.
I brought some beer. Oz lifts the ripped open box.
Come in then, I guess. The door widens.
Sunday morning and everyone is at church. They don’t believe. They go to look at the female prisoners. It’s early and I wonder if you’re awake or dreaming. If you talk in your sleep. If your hair is tangled and dark across your face. If you can see the sun from your window. The chapel is across the courtyard and I can hear them singing.
Inside Oz flops down on the loveseat. You look through the kitchen to the bedroom. The rooms are mostly clean. Oz waves a hand. This here is Seth and little sister. This is Lou.
My name is Emma, you say.
Lou sticks her hand in the beer box.
Wake me up in hell, she says. Only two beers in here and they hot.
I believe we need somethin stronger. Oz rubs his belly.
Lou opens a beer and holds it over the coffee table as foam runs over her hand. She takes a long drink, then looks at you.
Where my manners. Sugar, you look fierce tired.
The only other piece of furniture is an armchair buried in laundry.
Oz, she says. Get up and let these young people have the sofa.
What the fuck. No, sir. He reaches for the other beer but doesn’t open it.
That’s okay, Seth says.
It’s no trouble. Lou puts down her beer and bends to gather an armful of clothes.
You go to help her and she says, no sugar. She throws the clothes into a corner. Oz watches with eyes almost closed. You take the chair. Seth sits on the floor.
Mind if I smoke, he says.
Not if you gonna share. Lou smiles and Seth gives her a cigarette. She puts it in her mouth and bends to get a light from him. Her robe falls open and you see breasts large and freckled. Long nipples and you wonder about children. Lou sits on the edge of the loveseat next to Oz. Crosses her legs and blows ladylike smoke. The beer is balanced on her knee like a teacup.
She looks at you. Now what’s your name, sugar.
It’s Emma, you say.
Still a child.
I’m 19 today.
Do you stay with your Momma.
No. I was in a halfway house. I got out today.
And is this your boyfriend, Lou says.
Emma, don’t. Seth’s eyes are hard.
Oz opens his beer and foam runs over, wetting his crotch.
Lou ya know what we come for, he says. Fuck this socializin.
She doesn’t look at him.
Some folks like to act nice, she says.
Oz speaks slowly. Lou get the shit fore I lose my temper.
Take it easy, she says.
She opens a drawer in the end table and takes out a music box. When she lifts the lid, a tiny harpsichord begins.
What is that shit, Oz says.
It’s Bach, Seth says. A lullaby.
You notice your fingers are tingling.
There’s a white guy across from me and he’s losing it. He’s here two weeks and won’t take a shower. I could smell him. Then this morning some guys show up at his bunk.
Why ain’t you took a shower, one says.
I don’t need one, he says.
One guy sniffs him, doglike. Nostrils curling. But you stank, he says.
Fuck you, the guy says. His voice slips and that’s all it takes.
Two of them hold him down and the others strip him. He’s hollering and bouncing his hips. The other prisoners stomping their feet. White guy twists his neck sideways and bites somebody’s hand.
Goddamn shit. And a black fist loops down to split his cheek. White guy crying now, whimpering. They yank his underpants down, ripping the elastic. Everyone laughs. His genitals are small and hairless. They drag him to the showers and throw him down on the tiles. After a while I guess it gets old and they leave him in there. The water still running. When the guy comes back he sits on his bunk wrapped in a white sheet. Still dripping wet and blood on his face and flabby chest. His belly is like milk. He looks at me a long time. Like he knows me or something.
They pissed on me, he says. Gave me a golden.
I offer him a cigarette.
Think that’s funny, he says.
I been watching you, he says. You think you’re tough enough and nobody gonna fuck with you. I don’t know. I believe you might be wearing lipstick soon you don’t watch out.
I stare at his soft white belly and wonder. How would it feel to cut him open.
Lou holds up a brown vial. One hundred, she says. It is uncut.
No such thing as uncut, Oz says. Give her some money Seth.
Don’t have a hundred.
Well, then we got us a dilemma.
I guess so. Seth smokes, staring at Oz.
Your left arm is numb and strange. The voices go under. Only the music is clear. Double vision and you try to focus. Listen to me, boys. Lou is talking. Breathing is thick and tongue swollen lump.
Emma. Emma. Seth is looking at you. Left arm swing heavy and Seth something crash. Dead legs tremble everything blank. Seth twisting his face in dark. Someone lifts you bottomless floor. Fingers on your wrist. Then Seth whispering touching your lips. Goddamn. She pissed herself. Then Seth’s voice. Oz. Shut the fuck up. You can see and hear but can’t talk. You’re on the floor and wet. Seth kneeling beside you. You hide your face against his leg. It’s okay, he says. That was just a little one.
My Lord, says Lou. Is she all right.
She will be. Seth lifts you like a child. Where’s the bathroom, he says.
Through the kitchen. I’ll show you.
The bathroom is clean and bright. Smell of female things. Lotion and powder like a mother’s bathroom. Wallpaper yellow with blue. You sit on the toilet.
Water running into tub.
Help me undress her, Seth says.
Lou takes his hand. Now you go on, she says. I’ll take care of her.
Seth looks at you. Are you okay, he says.
You move your head and smile with dead mouth.
They some whiskey in the kitchen, Lou says. Go on now have a drink with Oz.
You feel Seth kiss the side of your face.
Don’t you worry, Lou says.
Then Lou is on knees before toilet. She takes your shoes and socks off. Her hands are warm. Lou is gentle. She slides down the jeans and panties quickly, lifting your legs. She drops the wet things in the sink.
We need to soak those for the stain, she says.
She helps you raise your arms and pull the shirt over your head. She reaches around to unhook the bra and her fingers barely touch your skin. Lou is careful.
In the bath she washes your thighs and belly with a cloth. The water is skin temperature. Lou touches your face.
Such a pretty little thing, she says.
She strokes wet hair away from your eyes. She kisses you lightly on the mouth. Her lips cool and dry, then gone.
Now, she says. Is that better, sugar.
They got Rabbit today. Everybody hollering and the air was alive. They smashed his head into a metal bunk post until he dropped. His hair like black ribbons. They kicked him in the belly and he flopped around. He’s gonna be shitting blood for sure. Before the guards got there everybody floated away. Nobody saw nothing.
An hour later Skinny Pimp stops by my bunk. He says word is I’m next for popping Elvis in the gut that day. They gon love you till it hurt, he says. White tooth smile.
What do you mean, I say.
Elvis got a red bra and panty from his sister. You gon look sweet as pie in that shit, he says.
Then he points at Kool.
Kool know the truth, he says. He gon get him some that ass too.
When he’s gone Kool shakes his head. Skinny Pimp crazy, he says. Don’t listen.
But he tells me I need to steal a spoon and make a shank.
Sharpen it against some bricks.
Don’t worry, he says. I watch your back.
I put three bars of soap into a sock until I get a spoon. I don’t sleep. Kool is watching me now and I watch him. I don’t know what the fuck is real.
You dream of a crashing noise. Arms asleep heavy around you but it’s not Seth. You’re in bed with Lou but not naked. You were wet and Lou bathed you. Then the crash again and grunting voices. One of them is Seth and you get up. Through the kitchen and you find a lightswitch. Oz is on the floor, holding his neck. There’s blood. Seth by the door. He’s buttoning his jeans, hands shaking over the belt buckle and he doesn’t look at you. A knife on the floor beside Oz. He makes a wheezing noise like water in lungs. Blood between his fingers and blood on the knife. The table is kicked over.
Seth, you say. What happened.
Oz, he says. Oz. It was the money.
He wanted the money.
He wanted the money and what. You stabbed him.
I had to, he says. But still he doesn’t look at you.
Oz is starting to spasm and there’s too much blood.
We have to get him to a hospital.
I know, he says.
Seth picks up the knife. It has a lock blade and he folds it, puts it in his pocket.
Lou doesn’t want the cops here, he says.
You kneel beside Oz. The skin of his face is cold. The wound below his left ear. His hand is weak, losing pressure. You wrap a t-shirt around his throat. Seth looks out the window.
Check his pockets for the keys, he says.
You feel along the sides of kicking legs but no keys.
Then you see his pants and belt are undone. The white of his underpants. Seth, you say.
Nothing, you say.
You fumble with the belt. Seth watches you. Oz won’t be still. You shove him and he rolls over. You find the keys in his back pocket. Then Lou is there, in the lighted doorway. The bathrobe hangs open and she doesn’t say a word. Seth drags Oz to his feet and together you get him out to the truck. Oz heavy and arms clammy between them. Seth at the wheel. Oz falls against you, his blood on your skin. Seth clicks on the radio and changes the station. He lights a cigarette. He stares at the windshield and tells you to go inside, to get your stuff. He holds Oz by the collar to keep him from falling when you get out.
When I woke this morning I smelled peaches and I was sure you were next to me. It was your hand twisting between my legs and your mouth at my ear. Your voice sweet and threatening. It was your tongue like a thorn to my skin. Your belly and thighs urgent pressing against me. I came into the sheets and I never opened my eyes. It was a dream. I’m sure it was a dream.
At the hospital you wait together on a bench.
Seth doesn’t look at you.
Did you get your pills, he says.
The nurse comes to ask questions about Oz. His date of birth, his social security number.
Seth says he doesn’t know.
How did this happen, she says. Seth shows her the knife and she goes away. An hour passes.
Two policemen come toward you. Dark leather jackets. You shrink from them. One of them pulls you away from Seth. The other one asks for the knife and Seth gives it to him. You are barefoot. Your shoes are at the house. Your clothes still soaking in Lou’s sink.
Who’s knife is it, the officer says.
It’s his. Oz.
Seth never looks at you.
That the victim.
Yes. Oz. I stabbed him.
Was it the girl. Were you fighting over the girl.
That’s right, he says. It was the girl.
I’m okay so far. If they let you come visit me please bring cigarettes.
Will Christopher Baer was born in 1966 in Mississippi, and now lives in Davis, California. Seizure is taken from his unpublished short story collection, Luxury & Incest. He wrote the screenplay for the film Bloodnoise, which is being shot by Push Films in San Francisco. He is currently writing a novel.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.