We’re late getting back to the orchard, sure, but this doe with the broken neck is just too damn good to pass up. The way it’s smelling up the road, open and cooking, has got Denny fixed and immobile. He’s keeping back some, just saying, “Son of a bitch, Waylon. Son of a bitch,” and tries kicking at her back leg, but misses. I edge my boots as close as I can to the dried-up patch of blood on the pavement and wonder how long ago she was hit. Maybe it’s because road kill always makes me think of Denny’s family, or because the only thing I ever really do anymore is think of Denny, but the muscle of the deer makes me think about how he looks in my dad’s shirt, the one we stole last week.
Denny and I would make it into the National League for frustrated kid thieves, because he’s always been really good at being the distraction, and I’m getting really good with my hands. I pull out the Kit Kat bar we stole today and break it even for Denny and me. I’m chewing chocolate and ready to go, but Denny is still frozen. I can be comfortable with that, look at him longer and pass it off as impatience if he looks up.
Denny is sixteen, and I am sixteen, and we are spending a lot of the apple season running to the convenience store for Mason jars and talking about what Kayla Scofield might look like naked. Denny’s dad owns one of the bigger apple orchards in north Georgia, and when the distributor runs out of jars he sends us to get more, which I don’t mind because I like the way Denny takes the mountain corners. He drives faster than he should, but I like our bodies moving at a constant speed. We talk some more about Kayla, about how a lot of the guys at school say she used to give out blowjobs pretty freely a couple years ago. Kayla works at the orchard with us as the cider girl, but what she really wants is to be a flight attendant. She plays this role every time we get cider from her. She has the whole thing choreographed, says she could pour servings without spilling, even if there were turbulence.
Denny talks about how he could take Kayla behind the apple barn and plow her by the big lawn mower his dad drives, practice the narrow space maneuvers for airplane bathrooms, and I hate that word—plow. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about close spaces too, and I get what Denny sees in that. When Denny and I raided my dad’s closet looking for money clips and pocketknives and ended up stealing the shirt Denny’s wearing, we were close enough that our shoulders kept hitting. The thing is, Kayla isn’t as tall as Denny because he’s kind of tall, and so am I, and something about that kind of lining up feels more right to me.
The windows are down, and the mountain air is doing a pretty great job of masking the smell of Denny’s car. It used to belong to his brother, Ashley Jr., but since nobody except Ashley Sr. can call him that, it’s Cole to most everyone else. Cole used to pick up dead things off the highway, pitch them in the backseat, and take them home for cleaning. He’d make possum stew for the family, and in middle school, kids used to give Denny a hard time about his family because they sometimes ate things that might have had horsefly eggs in them. Usually the backseat still stinks, but Denny smells good, all woodsmoke and apple harvest.
I feel okay because I’m spending the weekend with Denny and his family, because they like me, and because Denny’s dad wants an extra pair of hands around the orchard. It’s nice. Denny and I have been hanging out more after football games, and a lot of the times he’s the one saying we should. I know the layout of his kitchen and living room by memory, but I still worry about where I’m going to be rolling out my sleeping bag. It’s autumn, and when it’s autumn at Denny’s place, you can smell it, and that much feels safe.
Kayla hands us glasses of apple juice, cloudy with dew rolling down the sides in starts and stops. It makes the exchange feel more charged than it is. She’s pretty. I can say that much. When she puts those blue Wal-Mart napkins down in front of us, I can see Denny doing the shifting he always does around her, like something about this girl who’s got two years on him gets him drunk. Denny says it’s the color of the napkins that keeps them from looking too low-class. Kayla tells us that today she took a clothespin off the line and is using it to keep her skirt pulled tight like those she’s seen on the flight attendants in movies. Denny leans over the counter to see. Now she has to learn how to walk in half-steps so it doesn’t come undone.
If Kayla didn’t treat me as nice as she does, sitting with me in the storeroom when I feel like shit, I’d hate her for how she can get Denny to look at her. We finish up our apple juice. Kayla looks at me, and I look at Denny, and Denny is looking at the woodgrain on the countertop. As she empties the last few drops from her cup, Kayla tells us that she’s applied to schools up north where she can learn everything there is to know about flight attending.
“They’ll teach me about emergencies. I’ll know what to do in case of depressurization, and I would be doing that in one of those great blue-and-white suits.” She says this, raising eyebrows at me and Denny, like it’s the most important thing we’ll hear all day, and I do have to admit, I want to know what to do in case the cabin loses pressure.
Denny has to pack apples into Styrofoam crates because his family’s orchard is big enough that they actually ship bushels to addresses as far up as Virginia, and now that I’m here, it’s my job too. Kayla watches us head to the back storeroom, and when a husband and wife come up to her for cider she talks to them but looks over the husband’s shoulder at me when we pass barrels of Reds. The storeroom is still, quiet until the squeaking of the cartons peaks, and I sit across from Denny. We shut in apples until my arms are sore.
Kayla’s shift is over by the time we’re done boxing up the mailing crates, and she’s standing the way she thinks flight attendants do, legs close together, hands folded in front of her. She’s got the glazed and smiling “Thanks for flying” look she’s been practicing. Denny likes this look, but I think that’s because Kayla doesn’t come across as professional, only eager to serve.
“There are always entrance exams for this kind of thing. I need to study seat belts and oxygen masks if I’m going to pass. Would you guys help?” Last apple season, it was still “y’all.” Now we get “you guys,” and that part of her flight attendant training kills me because it means she’s changing.
“There aren’t really those kind of exams,” I say.
“What do you know about flying, Waylon?” Denny says. Already I can see the way he wants to rip the flight-attending scarf off her.
“I can use the buckles in Denny’s car to practice,” she says, and Denny says, “Practice all you want,” and I want to die.
She tells us to get in the backseat and pretend to be important businessmen on our way to New York or Tokyo or Singapore, or wherever, and Denny plays so readily into these games that I feel dumber for thinking it too young for us. I hate the back of Denny’s car. I always call shotgun if the three of us are driving somewhere. There are bloodstains and stray hairs, and Denny had a cheerleader girlfriend for almost two weeks who probably saw a lot of this backseat, so I’m miserable. When he leans forward to look at Kayla outside, his back strains against the flannel.
Kayla starts in with her pre-departure lines, and says that, really, she just can’t wait until she has an airline to represent, cities to learn how to pronounce, and people who push a call button just for her—people, she says, who get particularly charged-up about peanuts, and say as much to her as she comes heel-to-toe down the aisle. I think that’s the way I understand her: stuck here the same way we are, and that’s a kind of comfort. But then she starts on the seat buckles, saying how they should fit low and tight on your waist. She leans in through the windows, starts checking buckle connections, and there’s that eighteen-year-old cleavage Denny sometimes elbows me about. I hate that she’s rougher with Denny than she is with me, that he’s smiling about it, and maybe that it bothers me in the first place. And Christ, who does she think she’s kidding? We all know what she’s doing.
“It smells like dead things back here,” I say, and I’m up and out of the car, thinking about depressurization when I open the door, about whether Kayla can fix that or not. I pick my way through rows of Granny Smith, and I hate that it’s routine but it is: this is the same damn row I walk down whenever being in my head sucks. I know the stretches I’ve got to be careful through because there are fallen, rotten apples that squish, and I know by sound alone which tree’s got a wasp nest in it before I cross it. The sun is mostly down and far-off clouds are making that strange dusk light where everything looks like it’s painted in different colors. I’d have thought it was too late in the season for heat lighting, but sure enough, the clouds start flashing orange and pink, far enough away for there to be rain in Atlanta.
“You know planes get struck by lightning all the time?” says Kayla, from behind me. I jump. I don’t like that she follows me when I go off, even if it does feel sisterly, and it’s the way I must look to her that I like even less: hands-in-pocket sad, made small by apple trees. It’s embarrassing. Kayla’s looking up at the clouds now, too. “It’s true,” she says.
“I guess, but no one’s crashed a plane because of it in something like forty years. Damn, that storm’s pretty.” At the end of the row she slides her hand up the inside of my arm, wedges it between my arm and chest, and leaves it there until we both start to feel my pulse through my shirt sleeve. “I’ve got nothing to say,” she says.
“Good, because neither do I.” She leans her head on me and the smell of the orchard gets stronger as it gets darker, around the time Denny catches up to us.
Since I started helping out at the orchard, I’ve learned that most apple trees can’t cross with the same kinds of other apples. They aren’t self-fruitful, so they have to cross-pollinate. Pure Reds or pure Granny Smiths don’t really exist, which is why the green trees seem to blush a little in this light. Denny keeps looking at me, looking at Kayla on my shoulder, and when he looks off at the lightning, I don’t feel all that dependent on him.
Yesterday, on his way home from the Ace Hardware store where he works, Cole hit the biggest possum any of us had ever seen. By the time I saw it in the fridge it had already been skinned and quartered, packed up into big disposable containers, one for each quarter and a fifth for its insides. I could tell it had been big, though. Behind it, other containers with squirrel and deer sat marinating in their own juices.
“Big guy is gonna be for dinner tomorrow, Waylon. Casserole. Look forward to it,” says Cole, dishing out tonight’s dinner, a thick stew with some fleshy meat I haven’t had before. It smells terrible cooking. Denny’s mom and dad are at the table with him already, and they’re talking about college again, saying they’d make it work, that Cole was happy at the community college, and maybe he could like it too. Denny jokes that he’s never heard of anyone majoring in apple husbandry, so he doesn’t really see the point. I’m still staring at the stew, maybe making a face, when Cole says, “Fox. Secret family recipe.” I head into the dining room with everyone else.
Cole said, “Fuck apples,” when he was our age, so Denny feels like he has to stay in the business, and while Ashley Sr. has never said as much, we know well that it is Denny’s only option. I imagine Denny pushing forty, wearing my dad’s shirt, moving crates of apples over and over, living in the same house, nothing at all changed except him, maybe a little bigger from always lifting. I could be happy with that. He could be forty, and I could be forty, and I could be completely happy taking those crates from him and moving them out to his truck.
Kayla headed home after the storm got too far away to see the lightning anymore and Denny kept trying to catch my eye, probably trying to figure out what she was doing wrapped into me. I can stand to be weird around him with this, mostly because I’m always the one who’s pissed off, so I’m being smug as hell, and when I hand him his Coke and sit down, he gets into that woodgrain staring he does. I watch him until he looks up—damn his clear eyes—and I put my fingers on the top of my head like pointed dog ears. He laughs a little and looks down again.
“Denny, cheer up,” says Cole, coming to the table with dishes. “It’s fox. Fox is your favorite still, right?” and suddenly I feel like one of those shitheads who calls Denny and his folks redneck trash. Of course fox is his favorite.
Fox smells terrible, is extremely dry, and tastes wild, like shoving leaves and mulch and smelly river sand into your mouth. While I don’t see how it could be anyone’s favorite, Denny’s liking it feels about right.
There is the sound of chewing for a long time, and not much else.
Denny’s house is quieter at night, drowsy around nine with the bourbon Ashley Sr. and Cole drink, and now, something past midnight, it should be easy to sleep, but it isn’t. Denny’s room is small, so the only place for me to set out my sleeping bag is alongside his bed, and now I’m wishing someone had mentioned the couch in the living room as an alternative because he’s so damn close, his chest rising and falling, and he isn’t asleep either. I feel tight, like I shouldn’t breathe, because that would be making too much noise. I have to think about dead things on the side of the road, intestines and flies, so I don’t get worked up. It only helps so much; his whole room smells like him.
“I’m sorry about my family,” he says. The air won’t settle in around that. I can’t believe how awake I am. He starts rubbing at his shoulders, the first thing about him I fell in love with.
I want to tell him that the fox was great. I want to tell him that I think his family’s better than most, at least better than mine, though folks say we have more class. I want to tell him that Kayla would make a terrible girlfriend, always above the cloud line, and that the more I think about it, the more I’m probably not going anywhere, so he’ll still have me when she goes. But all I say is, “It’s cool.”
“No. It’s really not cool.” He rolls over and his arm slides off the side of his bed. The way we’re lined up, when his arm falls, his fingers land flat on the inside of my wrist, and they’re warm. I need to move my hand, but I don’t; I just look at our skin. He’s not moving either and that makes me more nervous. I pull away and expect something big and terrible—lightning or fire or something. “It really isn’t.”
I hate it. I hate the tension now, and nothing I’ve said to him all year has been convincing or easy, so I don’t even try. Kayla isn’t what keeps him up when it’s too quiet to sleep, like I thought. I don’t know why, but I reach for his hand again. Or I do know why, I just don’t know why I do it, but it’s not there, and when I look at him in his bed, he’s looking at me. We hold that until he pretends to go to sleep, so I pretend to sleep too.
Denny and I have breakfast, toast and orange juice, and he’s saying nothing, has not looked at me once, and in between mouthfuls of scratchy bread I try to think of something to say that isn’t just “Good morning.”
The apple festival in north Georgia starts in a week, and even though we just bought new Mason jars, they’re already filled. Denny’s dad sent us out to get more because they’re having to make new batches of apple butter every day. Denny’s driving and Kayla’s stretched out in the back explaining emergency exit strategies. The only thing I think about is Denny’s hand on me. Kayla tells us that everything on the service cart is in the same place so flight attendants can fill drink and snack orders on muscle memory alone.
“I didn’t say anything before,” starts Kayla, “but I applied for some jobs. Small airlines. No big deal.”
“Great,” says Denny. He’s been on one-word sentences for a while, and I can tell Kayla’s tired of being stopped short.
“So I didn’t say anything before, I guess because I didn’t want to get my hopes high or anything.”
“You’ve heard back?” I say.
“I have.” She sounds like she has nothing else to say about it. Knowing Kayla, and how miserable she must be, I’m sure it feels awful for her, like wanting to throw up in turbulence, having to come back to that cider counter every damn day, then going home to her mom, who wears really bad floral-print dresses and smells like wet sunflower seeds. You can see it on Kayla some days. I tell her I’m sorry real quietly, but I don’t think she hears.
“Anyway, I still think Delta would be great to work for. The uniform’s a good blue. There’s that cute little triangle on the lapel. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
At a red light, Denny says, “That’s it then. That’s what we got. There’s always something wrong with us.” I think it’s the way he said “wrong.”
“What the fuck does that even mean, Denny?” I say.
“What? Nothing. I didn’t mean anything. Just that I’m inheriting shitty apples and Kayla’s going to keep being miserable at the cider counter.” The light’s green. “I’m not really saying anything, Way.”
We pull into the parking lot at the Wal-Mart and for a while no one makes a move to leave. Kayla looks like she could cry, but she’s got that single-emotion training of a flight attendant so you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t know her. Denny’s staring out the driver side when he says, “Waylon, go get the jars,” and he pops the trunk like it’s a punctuation mark.
“Fine,” I say. I try to slam the door, but Denny’s car is old, so the door catches and just sort of closes.
I’m really good at standing in line. When I’m waiting for something—maybe an old woman buying cereal and curlers in front of me, a young dad with an obnoxious kid behind me—I’m really aware of how much space I take up. I get this sense of where my body is, and it feels great, like for a little while I have an idea of who I am: I am the guy standing in line with two dozen Mason jars standing legs-apart and focused on the linoleum. Since no one’s looking, I slip a Kit Kat into my pocket.
When I get back outside, shifting the weight of the jars every other step, I see them. Denny’s in the back with Kayla, mostly worked out of his shirt, and she keeps pushing him off, but not really because she also keeps kissing or biting at the side of his neck. I put the jars into the trunk and slam the tailgate—that feels pretty great, the slamming. Denny looks good without his shirt, a lot more orchard muscle than you’d expect for a sixteen-year-old. Kayla is real quick with her buttons, getting her hair straight again. They make it so easy and natural that I’m not actually bothered at first. And then I think of Denny, him looking right at me and knowing I was reaching for him. And I think of Kayla, her damn well knowing what I meant in the orchard when I said I had nothing to say to her.
Denny gets out of the car, still fingering buttons through buttonholes, and I know he’s looking at me, but I can’t look past his collarbone. He walks around to the driver side, gets in, and starts the engine. I get in beside him and toss the Kit Kat bar into his lap.
“I stole this for you,” I say.
“Thanks,” he says, and we’re just staring at a candy bar, doing nothing until Kayla says, “Let’s just get the fuck out of here.”
Denny left Kayla on the porch of her dark, paint-peeling house after she said she felt like hell and couldn’t even think about cider. She wanted Advil and for us to cover for her back at the orchard. She’d tried putting her hand on my shoulder on the drive over, and I just wanted to open the car door and roll off onto the shoulder with any possum or doe corpses out there. Now it’s Denny and me in the car again on the way back to the orchard like it’s the most normal thing for us to be doing, but it isn’t, because I feel like it’s pretty clear that no one’s kidding the other anymore. But I could still be wrong.
“Look, it happens, right? I mean, it’s normal.”
“Right. I get it. Don’t worry.” His top button is still undone. His sleeves are pushed up past his forearms. I never get the conversations I expect out of him.
“Then why do I feel guilty?”
“I don’t know.”
“You know she didn’t say no, either. I’m sorry, all right?”
The way Denny is taking the corners now is scary as hell, but it feels good, reminding me of planes getting ready to land, how they turn on their sides almost, and how that movement makes me want to throw up. We hit the one S-curve that we love, flying, flanked by creek and rock face. Denny takes it wide and speeds up halfway through because there’s usually no one on the road, and there haven’t been a lot of those flowered, wooden crosses tied to signposts lately.
I can’t tell what Denny is thinking, how many girls he wants to fuck stupid or not, how much he really can’t wait to grow apples for the rest of his life or not, how much he cares about me or not—but I can tell for sure that he doesn’t see the buck. It’s a big buck, too—a ten-pointer easy, and all muscle—but he doesn’t see it. I can tell something about the last sunlight and his shitty headlights casting bad shadows. I can tell that neither of them plans on slowing down, and when I look at Denny to say something, there’s this softness to his face, even his scruff, and I can tell he’s thinking about Kayla, not her body so much, or her voice, but the way things aren’t getting any better for her either. Denny understands things, even if he doesn’t say as much.
The windshield doesn’t shatter, but it spider-webs and makes this sound like depressurization. Denny doesn’t hit his head on the steering wheel, but that’s probably because Kayla always reminds us about seat belts, low and tight. The airbags don’t go off. There’s a sound in the engine like dragging a stick across a chain-link fence.
Denny gets out of the car, and I get out of the car, and we’re spending a lot of time standing and looking at each other, really looking, and then looking at the buck. We see a few ribs poking through his fur, his chest rising and falling. We see how he’ll never walk again, even if he wasn’t dying, because both his front legs hang broken, sagging like wet socks. He doesn’t move much, just blinks every now and again, and wheezes.
“Help me,” Denny says, and he lifts the buck some by the neck and shoulder. I grab his back legs, but mostly it’s Denny doing the work. The buck is more broken then I’d have guessed, and he barely tenses up when we lift him off the ground, mostly because everything is contracted with that fear of death. It feels automatic, lifting him, like knowing exactly where the ginger ale is on the service cart. I must be shaken up still because before I even know what we’re doing, Denny’s got the back seat open, and we’re stuffing a full-grown whitetail into the car with all the old clothes and apple crates.
Denny slams the door and stands there.
“We really fucked him up, Way. Did you see the bones?” Denny’s got his back to me, and he’s staring through the window. I can still hear the wheezing, but it’s muffled. “I could feel where his neck was broken. God, you could almost hear the bones scraping when we picked him up.” He keeps looking at his hands, then back at me. He can’t stop shaking.
I don’t know what else to do. I have nothing. I’ve got my arms wrapped tight around Denny’s chest, and he’s warm in the autumn air. My head’s on his shoulder and he’s not really moving, just dense and standing there. I almost want him to punch me or something, anything, because now I feel stupid holding him from behind like this, but he doesn’t move and I don’t move.
There’s a lot of iron in the air now, deer blood, and we’re so close, his back pressed fully against me. I’m warm, and the engine is loud and clanking. My dad’s shirt is soft, or Denny is. When I let go, he catches himself on the car and looks down, then away, then at my shoes. We say nothing, hear nothing for a while, and I wish I felt relieved but I don’t.
“This car’s not going anywhere, is it? Like this, I mean.” The hood of the car is beat up pretty bad.
“No,” I say. “And now there’s a buck in your backseat.”
We are all deer hair and sweat, and we watch the buck fog up the back windows. Denny keeps rubbing his hands on his jeans, like there’s blood or deer-disease on them. We’re both doing okay; we look fine. We’ll be fine.
We hear the buck bleat through the car door, a gurgled, throaty moan, and I realize I never knew deer made noise.