Dante could hear the small truck laboring up the slight grade of Baseline Avenue. He heard the clattering as it turned onto the long dirt-covered road leading north toward his street. He recognized the shitty engine and the cargo in the bed. Meth heads. They’d come past his house last night, checking out the cell towers at the short dead end of Minerva Court.

He hadn’t thought they’d come back so fast. It was 2 a.m. No other vehicles around, just the long whine and then the downshift of semi-trucks heading down the Cajon Pass into San Bernardino, coming from Vegas. When he was little, listening in bed, he imagined the trucks like dinosaurs farting their way down the grade.

Tonight was supposed to be better than last night for the show of stars, so Dante had settled down after midnight wearing his hoodie, holding the binoculars. Utter darkness wasn’t possible, but he left his phone inside so even that blue light wouldn’t show. Behind the house were only black acres of sandy field and the old corral. Then the arroyo and the freeway.

He turned the binoculars on his house – thirty feet away down the long cement path bordered with river rock, past the old plow and stone water trough. The ancient redwood shingles on the house had darkened to tight black scales. The first time his best friend Manny’s father picked up Dante for baseball practice, he said to Dante’s father, ‘Damn – these shingles aren’t even painted, homes!’

Dante’s father said, ‘Linseed oil and turpentine. 1889. Sinks in permanent.’

‘I already had to repaint my stucco, man, after a year.’

‘You got a new house,’ his father had laughed. ‘Me – I relax. Watch Saturday Night Fever. Wizard of Oz. Whatever my wife wants to see.’

Manny Jr waited until they were hitting grounders to say, ‘Your dad watches some weird shit. My dad just watches sports.’

Dante said, ‘He met my mom when they were freshmen in theater class. He built a whole graveyard on stage just so he could watch her sing.’

His father’s name was Grief, after some guy who came out from Mississippi with his father’s great-grandmother, Lily. His mother’s name was Larette, after her grandmother back in Louisiana. Larette had painted the two pillars of river rock holding up the porch roof. Fat white pearls in the dark. The front window’s original glass was all wavery – like black Saran Wrap. Dante’s phone was filed in his mother’s coupon box: under P, with Procter & Gamble. He missed her so much he looked at the coupons every day, even though that was babyish.

Strange to have no white moths or the golden beetles his mother used to call candlebeasts. Because there were no streetlights anymore. The copper wiring had been stolen from all of them six months ago. Dante’s father had put up a solar porch light, but Dante had covered it tonight, even though his father never wanted it completely dark. ‘There’s only us left on the block,’ his father said. ‘My grandpa said Lily used to talk about how one fire tamed the wild. We got one light bulb here.’

Lily came out to San Bernardino with the Mormons in their wagons. Not because she wanted to. They had campfires and kerosene lanterns. The same stars shooting across the sky as right now, and Lily had been up listening for horse thieves. Cattle rustlers. She was out here in absolute darkness.

Now it was the Wild Wild West again. These two guys in the raggedy white Ford Ranger were copper rustlers. Dante heard the engine wheezing around the corner, sounding like asthmatic Manny on his way to third base. The truck came slow down Minerva Court, headlights off. If only they wanted to make sure the stars were bright. But they were hunting.

Dante had seen their truck bed last night. Torn-off freeway guardrails stacked like dirty gray rib bones. Brass fittings from irrigation systems, poking up like beaked bird heads. They’d driven on the soft sand at the edges of the narrow asphalt road, all the way into the bushes that hid the fence around the cell tower substation. They’d gotten out, tools clanking.

‘No room tonight, dude,’ the taller man had said. ‘Not for that much wire.’ They got back in the truck and reversed, lights off, all the way down the road.

‘Fake-ass palm trees,’ his father had said about the three cell towers they’d been eyeing back in January. ‘How you gonna put up something so expensive and advertise it to thieves?’

How big was a catalytic converter? Manny’s father and Tyrone had both been pissed off last week because someone stole the catalytic converters off seven trucks, right in the driveways of their houses. Guys went out in the morning for work and their trucks wouldn’t start. They lived up in Oak Creek Ranch. The creek was covered over with cement and hollow fake boulders, but ducks still hung out there. Short steep white driveways like pull tabs in front of each house.

His father laughed at Manny Sr. ‘You got a two-car garage! Why wasn’t your truck in there?’

Manny Sr said, ‘Already got it full of stuff, homes.’

Every day, Dante’s father parked his truck on the sandy shoulder of Minerva Court, and in summer, Dante sat in the bed to watch the sky. He told Manny and Montrell they could race tumbleweeds out here. Saddle ’em up and bet on ’em, they were so big.

‘Tumbleweeds are the edelweiss of our cul-de-sac,’ his mother used to joke, last year.

‘Mormons didn’t speak German or French,’ his father used to say.

‘Cul-de-sac. Like culo. Spanish for ass. We’re at the ass end of the road and the city doesn’t give a damn the streetlights have been out for months,’ his father had told Montrell last week.

August. The time of the Perseids never varied. That was why Dante’s mother had taught him the stars. Must be ninety degrees even now, at 2 a.m. Hundred and twelve today. No coyotes. No rabbits. Nothing moved but the Ranger, creeping toward the cell towers.

They must have come back to strip them out. Shit. Dante didn’t want to go inside. They weren’t predators. They were vermin. Scavengers. They’d be fast. It was so dark they’d never notice him. And he didn’t want to miss the meteors.

He lowered his upper body down onto the metal grooves of his father’s truck bed, between the two toolboxes bolted in on each side. Now he could see only what he’d come out here to see: the sky.

 

Right here,’ Dante’s father had told him when he was seven, his arm sweeping the horizon of the San Bernardino Mountains, the Cajon Pass, the sandy flats and eucalyptus windbreaks and deep arroyos, the tumbleweeds blue-green and big as hippos rising from the earth, ‘here you have predators and vermin and scavengers. Your mom doesn’t want me scaring you. But that’s my job. Right here, you got scorpions, tarantulas, black widows, brown recluse and centipedes. So watch the woodpile and the fences. You got rattlesnakes, especially out by the windmill. They hung out back there when I was little.’ He pointed to the arroyo. ‘You got coyotes, bobcats, feral dogs. Raccoons will fight you. Over by Colton, they have wild burros. Kick the shit out of you. Bite you with them big burro teeth. When your Uncle Perry got the deputy job, he got bit by a damn burro and I had to go help him out.’

Then his father had pointed to the freeway, and the edge of LA. Green city trees and billboards in the distance. ‘You got two kinds of humans might come up on you. Assholes and knuckleheads. Assholes want to hurt you. Not eat you – just hurt you. Knuckleheads are just stupid. You gotta learn to tell the difference fast.’

Now the truck was idling in front of the cell towers. The men were probably thinking that the house and the truck Dante was in were abandoned.

Assholes or knuckleheads – he couldn’t tell yet. A thread of cigarette smoke hung in the air. One guy said, ‘Don’t fuck up, Carlos. Pull the wire. I’ll be back. I’m getting that marker off the old sign we passed.’

The historic marker on Baseline. The brass plaque. The Mormons.

Carlos said, ‘Too fuckin’ boring with no radio. We should play some Metallica, man. Exit light. Enter night.’

‘Shut up, Carlos.’ The taller man reversed and went back down the street, so slowly Dante could hear rocks pop softly off the bald treads. Dante pulled the binoculars onto his chest under the black sweatshirt. He kept his eyes closed. Mouth closed. No white.

The one who climbed the pole to the vault was Carlos. The three fake palm trees and four real ones inside the chain-link fence were topped with barbed wire.

He still had one message from his mother on his phone: ‘Dante, sweetie, I’ll be late from work. Mrs Batiste is really sick now, and we took her to St Bernardine’s. Bring the Sunday paper inside so the rain doesn’t get it.’ Dante hadn’t heard the ring, watching basketball on TV, his headphones on. That was back in December, about a week before his mother was admitted to St Bernardine’s herself.

She never came home. There was a photo of her on the fireplace next to the coupon box. Four nurses on graduation day, all friends from college. Cynthia and Saqqara came from LA for his mother’s funeral. Merry Jordan, the other nurse, had killed herself after her son got shot by a cop. Dante’s mother had stayed in her bedroom for two days after that, and when she came out to the kitchen, the edges of her hair were cloudy around her forehead from tears and sweat and her face in the pillow.

The Sunday paper had her coupons. Hundreds of them arranged alphabetically in the wooden box that once held Lily’s sewing supplies. The coupons killed him. A few times after she got sick, she cried because some of her favorite coupons were expiring and she couldn’t get to the store. ‘Grief !’ she cried. ‘You forgot Tide and Charmin!’

His father had given her the cedar box, flowers and garlands carved along the top, when they got married. Lily’s husband had made it, back in Mississippi, before Lily was sold to the Mormons.

Carlos was working on the fence. Dante could hear bolt cutters pinging on each diamond of chain link, and then a sweeter, more silvery ping on the strands of barbed wire. Pliers and wire cutters and a hammer clanking on Carlos’s belt as he approached the pole.

If Carlos glanced down into the truck bed when he made it to the top, he’d only see a heap of clothes. Black work clothes. His father’s 1958 Apache was too old to have a catalytic converter. Dante could be cool. He heard the thud of each boot on the rungs of the tower.

 

Who the hell designed those fake trees?’ Manny Sr said one day. ‘Must have been some dude from back East. No coconuts out here! Dates, man. Little gold dates.’

‘An unfortunate mix,’ his father said. ‘Those panels look like flat green bananas.’

His father’s favorite word was unfortunate. When Dante struck out at the baseball diamond his father would say, ‘No fortune for you, man, not tonight.’

Manny’s mom always brought snacks – KFC popcorn nuggets. She’d say to Dante’s mother, ‘New eyeshadow, no?’

‘An unfortunate selection,’ his father said.

‘I had a coupon for Revlon,’ his mother said. ‘Magnificent Metallics. Two for ninety-nine cents.’

Dante looked at his mother’s eyelids. Not gold – kind of dull yellow, like bee pollen.

‘Looks like eight days after the fight,’ his father joked.

Manny’s mother said, ‘You never get mad at him, Larette? Fortunado.’

‘You both work with death all the time, man, and you’re always happy,’ Manny’s father said, holding out the chicken for the boys.

‘I’m not dead,’ Dante’s mother said. ‘So I’m always happy.’

‘My clients don’t always end up dead. Not every time,’ Dante’s father said. ‘And someday Dante’ll hit a homer.’

‘You work with death all day too, Mami,’ Manny said. ‘The chickens are hella dead when you fry ’em.’

Manny’s mother sighed. She was the manager at the KFC.

‘Grief!’ his father’s friend Tyrone shouted as he walked up. He still had his EMT uniform on. ‘You ain’t sang yet? Larette ain’t made you sing tonight?’

Larette was so pretty that after Grief had built every set for their high school productions, he followed her to San Bernardino Valley College, where he built sets for all their shows, too. Larette tested him on the lyrics to each song she sang, in every musical. Carmen Jones. The Wiz. Grease. Spamalot.

But to torture him in front of Tyrone or Manny’s parents or his uncle, she always picked The Sound of Music. It was just familiar enough that they’d all recognize something to laugh at. Grief was required to sing two answering verses of whatever Larette chose, and everyone would fall out laughing on the bleachers when he did.

That night, his mother wanted payback for his comment about the eyeshadow. She smiled sweetly and sang her favorite eleven notes. The eleven notes of ‘My Favourite Things’. ‘Pieces of chicken all coated in batter . . .’

Grief rolled his eyes. ‘My son will hit a home run with a big . . . clatter?’

She shook her head. ‘That was terrible.’

Six months ago, during the first Santa Ana wind after she died, Dante had watched the cell towers. North of Baseline, the wind was so strong that even the metal fronds moved a little, like they were dignified and reserved – superior in their stiffness to the wild tossing and crashing of the real fronds. Tumbleweeds flew out of the corral, carried so high that two were caught in the fake trees and hung there for weeks, like giant Christmas ornaments.

That night, his father had sat by the window with him, and sung her second-favorite tune as tenderly as the hatchet-faced Captain von Trapp: ‘Edelweiss’. ‘Tumbleweed, tumbleweed, every winter you beat me. Big and brown, thorns and round, you will always defeat me.’

 

Carlos had made it to the top. Tools banging. The Ranger was laboring back toward Baseline Avenue. Baseline and Meridian. The beginning of southern California, where they laid out the streets that went all the way to LA and Hollywood and Santa Monica. The closest house was a mile west – Uncle Perry’s. Dante used to have to walk to Uncle Perry’s before school if his mother had to stay with someone who’d died, waiting for the coroner. If Dante complained, his father would say, ‘Lily walked seven hundred miles. That was a hella walk, so stop bellyachin’. What my grampa used to say. Bellyachin’.’

The Ranger droned like a pissed-off wasp in the distance, then stopped. Chisel or hammer. Speed freaks took everything. Last summer they took the bleachers from the park. Every single piece of aluminum. They took the copper wire from the park lights. No more games.

Jonny Frias said, ‘Who buys bleachers and melts them down? Who doesn’t call the cops when some pendejo shows up to sell bleachers?’

‘Like the Walking Dead,’ Tyrone said. ‘They come out at night. Season’s over now, fellas. Park ain’t got no money to replace the lights.’

Dante breathed shallow now, wishing this dude Carlos would hurry up. The meteors peaked between 2 and 3 a.m. He’d been waiting all summer.

A screech of metal being pried open, like a crazy jay. A mockingbird started up for a minute, then stopped abruptly. Carlos must have awakened it. Mockingbirds didn’t song-fight in August. They fought in spring. Starting near midnight, lasting until dawn, the birds delirious and high, repeating the same notes over and over from the two tall palms with shaggy fronds perfect for nests.

‘The trees are alive with the sound of mur-der,’ his mother would sing, and then glance at his father, waiting. ‘Ah-ah-ah-ahh.’

‘The mockingbird sings to keep other asshole birds far away,’ his father would sing. ‘Ah-ah-ah-ahhhh,’ he’d add.

His mother tested his father frequently, randomly. He had to come up with something quick or she’d talk yang for the whole night.

‘The hills are alive with the sound of killing,’ she sang.

‘The coyote laughs he got a Si-a-mese today – aah-aah-ah-ah.’

Fucking Carlos. Fucking bird. Tears slid sideways into Dante’s ears. Shit. Shiny on his face. Like torture not to wipe them away. If he moved, Carlos might hear him.

When Carlos pulled the wires, everything would blink and turn black. The only other houses on Minerva Court were boarded up now. Mrs Jameson and Mrs Batiste had both died last year, and their sons were in Rialto and LA. No one wanted to live way out here.

The explosion was as loud as fireworks but more personal. Contained somehow. Damp and muffled for one second, and then – boom.

Dante opened his eyes. The shower of sparks splayed out like a huge Roman candle attached to the pole – a burst of light curving, floating, then invisible.

Carlos sailed out from the metal tower like he was not human. A bulk of cloth heavy and soft. An echoless medium-sized sound on the asphalt. A swift nothing.

Silence. Carlos made no sound.

He was burnt. Maybe that had made his body instantly softer. Rendered. Dante felt vomit rising in his belly. We rendered the beef fat into tallow for candles. Biddy and Hannah and I walked seven hours behind the wagon today. Elder Amasa wanted candles. From Lily’s journal.

Then came soft sounds. About four feet away – Carlos had flown north, toward the Apache. Hissing – breathing, or the skin, or something else? Dante was afraid to look. The smell was so strong and sweet and terrible that he pushed the strings of his hoodie into his mouth and sucked hard to keep from throwing up. One last whisper. Close by. An exhalation. The strings tasted of Tide. Don’t cry. Don’t.

Then the silence was complete. The three swamp coolers attached to the windows of the living room, his father’s bedroom and his own room all went quiet, as if stunned. The house would be an oven in about ten minutes. Unbearable. Fifteen at the most.

Dante had ten minutes, then, until his father woke up and realized the swamp cooler had stopped. Maybe fifteen. He’d come outside to check them.

The darkness was complete. At the sound of the explosion the Ranger had snarled to life and headed back this way. Dante slid his feet out from under the folded tarp. He got out the cop flashlight Uncle Perry had given him years ago. Four-battery, he called it. Dante had a couple minutes before the Ranger made it back.

Dante crouched by the tailgate and turned on the flashlight, training it on the dark heap. A human burnt to lava. Black and red. Black shiny as obsidian through the holes in the jacket. Blacker than any skin. Red, not shiny. Red like the posters in biology class. The back of his head red. The sheath of muscle over his skull exposed. No glisten. Smoked.

Dante dropped the flashlight onto the ground and threw up over the tailgate, holding tight to the rough paint. Cap’n Crunch he’d eaten at midnight. Quivering puddle next to the black boots. Saliva dripped from his mouth and he threw up again, heaving and heaving.

The swamp coolers dripped condensation onto the sand around the house.

The freeway lights to the east were still shining. Semi trucks still shifting gears. But honking horns out on Baseline, which was never free of cars. People who hated the freeway would drive to Rialto or Ontario or Pomona the old way, even at 2 a.m. If the signals were out, someone was gonna die. Someone else besides Carlos.

He put his leg up over the tailgate and just then a tiny breeze sent the smell into his face. He threw up green liquid onto the old chrome bumper. Dizzy and fire behind his eyelids. The Ranger screeched around the corner fast, onto his street. Dante lay back down, shaking, pulling the hood up, swallowing the acid scouring his throat.

‘Sing. Sing.’ What his mother had whispered to his father. What Dante did inside his head when gangsters came up on him and Manny and Montrell at the mall, shoving them around. What he did when they stood at the coffin.

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Clorox and Dove Bars and hell no on mittens.

His mother sang with all the old people in hospice. ‘I take care of them until they pass,’ she told him when he was eight, scared of the word. Not hospital. Hospice. He was afraid cancer was contagious. He wouldn’t get up on her lap when she wore the apricot-colored scrubs. Everyone had cancer. It must seep into her cheeks and fingers and wrists. He ran from her, but his father caught him and made him kiss her. When he was ten, she told him the words. Carcinogen. Metastasize. ‘It can’t jump out of someone’s mouth onto me, baby.’

The smell of Carlos had jumped into his mouth. He heaved again and threw up bile under the toolbox. The Ranger pulled into the oleander bushes. Shit. Carlos. The name was already imprinted in his brain. Under the muscles of his scalp.

Bacterial pneumonia had jumped out of Mrs Batiste’s mouth into Larette’s. She had lasted two weeks. Thought she had a cold. His father took her to St Bernardine’s – the tall buildings to the east. Their lights always on. His father always looked in that direction before he left for work.

‘Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.’ The guy in the Ranger did not speak loudly, but it was a distinct word that carried in the silence. He got out of the car and walked toward Carlos. So tall Dante could see the upper half of him. He heard a knee joint crack. The flashlight click. Asshole or knucklehead. Drunk or high or an idiot. ‘Fuck,’ he said one more time.

A sigh. A sigh from the asphalt. Was that a breath? Or the skin releasing a breath?

What if Carlos was alive inside that crust of black skin? Dante shivered, clenched his jaw shut.

The tall guy said it again. ‘Fuck.’ Then he started walking back toward the Ranger.

He was leaving Carlos. No. Hell no. A dead body right here by his father’s truck? Dante calling the cops, and when they came, it’d be Dante by a dead dude? Hell no.

Dante raised up, got on his knees and said, ‘You finna pack him up, right?’

The man turned and shone the flashlight on Dante. He pulled a gun from his waistband with the other hand and walked back toward Dante, holding both up like movie six-shooters. Black shiny forehead over a black bandanna. ‘The fuck did you say?’ Wiry white dude voice.

‘Sing at death,’ his mother had said. Shoot me then. The cab window hot at his back. ‘Fin-na pack-him-up,’ he said clearly. ‘Your friend.’

‘Speak English, bro. You saw what happened?’ The ears were pink. The fingers around the gun. The black was paint. Like in football. Damn – this was a white guy.

‘How I’m not gon’ see that and he fell right here?’

‘What the fuck are you doin’ out here? At fuckin’ 2 a.m?’

‘Perseids, man.’

‘I told you to speak English. Bro.’ He waved the gun.

‘Stars.’ No. I’m not telling you. I am not your bro. Brah. His mother used to say after a stranger got happy, ‘I am not your girl, and I am not planning to go anywhere.’ The gun. Barrel like one nostril of the bull Uncle Perry once kept in the corral. Bull named Coalmine.

‘Stand up. Hands up, too. I will fuckin’ shoot you. Why are you out here?’

Dante stood. His hood fell. He lifted his hands. Distinctly. Each word careful. ‘Meteors. Shooting stars. Tonight.’

‘Are you messing with me? Don’t mess with me right now. You got a fuckin’ piece? Hand it out here. Slow.’

‘No gun.’ Dante lifted his hands higher.

Definitely a speed freak. Not a knucklehead. Talking too fast. Not looking down. His truck engine clicked and clicked. Overhot. The swamp coolers on Dante’s house ticked and dripped. If his father came out now, the asshole would shoot his father, too.

Then a breeze came and wafted the smell straight toward them. The asshole dropped to one knee and dropped the flashlight. He pulled the bandanna down, gasping, his face cleaved in half. White lips open like a fish. He rested the hand with the gun on his thigh.

The hot wind picked up and rustled the oleander. ‘Whose truck is this? You’re not old enough to drive.’ The man waited. ‘What are you doing out here?’

‘I live here.’

‘Who the fuck still lives out here?’ The guy didn’t take his eyes off Dante’s face. ‘This is Mormonland.’

Congratulations – he’d read the historical marker before he stole it. The heat was building inside the house. Coolers tick, ticking. No power. Dante said, ‘My dad’s people came out with the Mormons.’

‘Bullshit. Ain’t no black Mormons. You’re out here in a hoodie.’ He waved the gun toward the house, like an idiot. Like the pistol was an extension of his finger. ‘Your gangbanger friends in there?’

Dante thought of Carlos’s last breath. He took a smaller sip of air and closed his lips. Don’t hurl. The asshole might get startled and shoot you. Asshole in blackface. He went black to blend with the dark, or he wanted the cops to look for a brother if someone reported the theft.

‘Who lives there?’

‘Me and my dad.’

‘Where’s your dad?’

‘At work.’

‘He left you alone?’

‘He works night security at the construction site by the freeway. Somebody stole the crane last month. On the flatbed. The county hired my dad.’ Before he could help it, he recalled Manny Sr saying, ‘Who buys a crane?’

‘Where’s your mom?’

Dante said, ‘None of your damn business.’

And the guy murmured as if to himself, ‘Yeah, who the fuck wants to live out here?’

Dante’s eyes stung. ‘I’m thirteen. Legal to be home.’

The man spoke casually again, as if still talking to himself. ‘Your house doesn’t even look black.’

Dante looked up at the sky. Perseids. Hundreds of scribbles of silver. Less than a second to linger. Dissipate. Ash.

Then he said, ‘Really? The wood is black.’

The guy turned the gun back on him. ‘Fuck you. It looks like a cowboy house.’

‘Actually it is.’ How long was meth head attention span? Would he just shoot when he got bored? Fuck it. ‘What should be out in the yard, man?’ Dante said. ‘Watermelons? Statue of Eazy-E?’

The guy rubbed his hand across his mouth and looked toward the Cajon Pass. He wanted to be on the freeway now. The bandanna hung around his neck like he was a fake train robber. Speed scabs like black sowbugs on his jaw. When he squinted, his front teeth showed, big and creamy and square like Rice Chex.

‘Finna? What the fuck is that?’

This dude was so high. ‘Finna. We finna go to the store.’

‘Pick him up. Get out and pick him up. You finna whatever the fuck it is.’

‘Hell no.’

‘I’ll shoot your black ass,’ he said, and lifted the gun to Dante’s face.

It had to be so hot inside the house by now. No cooler by the bed. No clock radio playing quiet storm. Old-school R&B love songs to mask the singing coyotes and mockingbirds that made his father cry. The hills and trees alive with the sound of music. Sweat dripping into his dad’s eyes even if they were closed. Salt. Stinging.

‘Pick him up.’ The man took two more steps toward Dante.

‘Time for you to hat up, man,’ Dante said, staring straight into the nostril of the gun. He waited for his father. He spoke his father’s language. Man, your friend Montrell needs to hat up right now because I’m tired of feedin’ his crumb-snatcher ass. Even with coupons, right, Larette? How can y’all eat so much cereal she gotta file ’em under General Mills? The whole corporation! His mother so mad at herself, the week before she died. Twelve coupons expired. Good ones. Tide and Pantene and General Mills. All that Cap’n Crunch. The vomit already drying into a yellow cow patty next to Carlos’s boots.

Dante propped his hands on the tailgate and closed his eyes. He swung his legs over, as he had hundreds of times when his father delivered him to the ballpark, and he waited for the sound. For the bullet in his spine. The smell. The soft sand under his Jordans. The same sand where Lily’s horses stood while they drank at the old trough.

Dante closed his eyes. He bent and touched Carlos’s boots. He put his fingers around the black heels.

‘Turn him over. You’re a weird fuckin’ kid. You shouldn’t be sittin’ outside. You should be watchin’ TV in your fuckin’ house like a normal kid.’

Dante pulled on the boots to turn a circle, so Carlos’s head was north.

‘Turn him over!’

Carlos. Not heavy. Speed freak. His blood not liquid now?

Lily had shot a white man. He’d come to steal her favorite horse, just to mess with her, and she shot him. Buried him under the corral.

Dante knew this asshole would shoot him as soon as the body was in the Ranger. He pulled the boots a few inches, onto the old pitted asphalt, and the body sighed. Carlos sighed. He dropped the boots. Carlos’s back, onyx skin under ragged holes in the green jacket, rose and fell. Carlos was breathing. Dante backed away. The guy lowered his gun and walked toward Carlos.

Dante’s father stepped out from the side of the house and fired the rifle from there. Thirty feet. The tranquilizer dart hit the man in the shoulder blade. Something flew from his mouth and landed in the sand. The gun dropped and he fell to his knees.

Dante ran over and slid a fat splinter of dried palm frond behind the trigger, carried the gun to his father. He picked up the flashlight and trained it onto the other thing in the dirt. Top teeth – a pink-and-white clamshell in the dirt.

‘Fuck,’ the guy shouted, clutching for the dart he couldn’t reach, the blood bright red between his fingers. ‘You –’ he said.

Dante’s father crouched near the guy and said, ‘Call me that and I’ll shoot you in the nuts, man. Just to hear you scream. I will tranquilize your scrotum.’

His father’s hair glistened with sweat in the starlight, his T-shirt wet and transparent over his chest. The pouches under his eyes triangular. Like viper heads. Five puppies, he’d said when he got home at midnight. The mother hit by a car. Musta been half-dead and she tried to crawl back. I had to look forever to find her. By the freeway.

His father had been asleep for only two hours when the power went out. His eyes were slitted and golden.

‘Are you fuckin’ serious?’ the man moaned. He was crumpling, fading.

His father stayed crouching near the man and said softly, almost tenderly, ‘Shut your punk ass up. You know how hard it is for me not to shoot the next dart into your eye? You made my son touch that guy. You put that in his head?’ The knot of bandanna jaunty over the white man’s neck. ‘Oh, you a Fake Crip? You know how hard it is for me not to bury your ass under the corral?’

‘The other one’s alive,’ Dante said.

‘Damn,’ his father winced. He got up and looked at Carlos in the flashlight beam. The skull. The trail of his hips through the sand. ‘Get your phone and call Uncle Perry. He had to hear the rifle. Then call 911. Tell them we need an ambulance. Tell them it’s Grief and ask if Tyrone’s on duty.’

The white man was out now. An animal.

Dante started to walk up the path to the house, light from the sieve of sky on the white stones. His father whistled absentmindedly. Five notes. Snowflakes on mittens. Dante fell onto the cement and cried. Blown sand cutting into his cheek. His father crouched beside him then and whispered, ‘The Leonids come in November, right? It’ll be dark and I’ll sit out here with you.’

 

 

Photograph © Douglas McCulloh

Darling
Root and Branch