William didn’t need keys to successfully steal his mother’s navy blue Camaro. He knew how to hotwire it in ten seconds flat and lived for the jolt of electricity that shot through his body every time the engine roared without a fuss. But tonight, he was able to snag the keys from his mom’s purse when she passed out on the back porch, lit cigarette in her hand and a can of Natural Light in her lap, like every night she was off work. William didn’t bother checking his mother’s Outback schedule anymore, even though it was conveniently located on the refrigerator, attached to the yellow door with a magnet that read: Ass, gas, or grass…nobody rides for free! No, William could predict his mother’s work schedule based on how much booze she brought home the night before. Today, she went through a twelve pack and was shitfaced when he came home from school, meaning she was off. She passed out hours before sundown, the fingers of her free hand outstretched as if waiting for William’s deadbeat father to put her to bed. But it was Friday, and William knew he and his best friend Phillip would be getting into something real fun—maybe real illegal, but always real fun.
He propelled the Camaro onto Combee Road and figured he cut somebody off based on the double bird the driver gave him. It wasn’t like William didn’t see the truck; he just didn’t give a fuck about traffic laws and certainly not about the truck’s driver, whose fingers looked similar to plump kielbasa. William looked out the window as he sped. He noticed a woman, clad in jorts and a wife beater, as she took off from the bushes. He was pretty sure her pathetic, car-less John was counting to ten before leaving, just in case any cops happened to drive by as they often did. Eaton Park was a sideshow.
When he turned onto Phillip’s street, he watched in the pink twilight as Phillip’s shirtless brother Danny cut the front lawn with a mower that looked older than Jesus. William pulled into the driveway, snugly, right behind Mrs. Collins’ shitty Civic. Danny stopped the mower and waved in his direction, revealing a patch of dark hair under his armpits. He was fourteen now and the sight of him electrified William, making the little hairs on his forearms stand up. He also noticed the way Danny’s tanned biceps flexed and back muscles tensed as he pushed the stubborn mower to a stop. William was intent on beeping for Phillip—hoping to avoid other members of the Collins family at all costs—but he saw Danny walking towards him and decided to get out.
“Hey, Willy,” Danny said, grabbing the shirt which hung from his back pocket and wiping it across his face. “Hot one still.”
William offered his fist, Danny returned the gesture, and William felt a surge of heat trickle into his cheeks. “Fuck yeah it’s a hot one. Your mom is a bitch for making y’all mow the lawn in this weather. She must be some kind of sadist.” He was proud of himself, having first learned that word after viewing the bondage porno Phillip gave him last week.
Danny shrugged. “Phillip was supposed to be helping ‘cause, you know, Tammy broke her collarbone.”
“Yeah.” William wanted to pat Danny on the back and assure him it was okay, but he resisted. He wasn’t sure if things were ever going to be okay between Danny and Phillip. “It’s almost done, though, right?”
Danny shook his head, draped the shirt across his shoulder. “Nope. I still gotta do the backyard.”
“Not tonight, though. It’s too late. You may be a fast runner, but you can’t never catch up to the sun.”
Danny smiled. “Want to come inside for a minute?”
“Naw, man, I’m gonna have a smoke out here. Go ahead and tell your brother.”
As he watched what was left of the sun dissipate, blanketing the HUD houses and live oaks in horror movie-like shadows, he lit a Kool and inhaled deeply. The menthol sliced his throat, and he exhaled through his nostrils, stifling a cough. He leaned against the closed garage door, smoking and swatting the occasional mosquito. They didn’t normally bite him; his mother used to tell him his blood was too sour.
Phillip threw one of Danny’s sandals at William, announcing his presence, and William jumped, acquainted with the silence. “What the fuck?” William picked up the sandal from the concrete and forced a chuckle at Danny’s expense. “Nice to see you too, dick.”
Phillip approached him, flashing a devious smile and exposing a distinct gap between his two front teeth. William hated the gap. They bumped fists. “Let me get this back to your brother.”
“Fuck him,” Phillip said. “Let sissy boy Danielle figure it out himself. He’s lucky I don’t rub it in dog shit and shove it down his infected faggot throat.”
William ignored the insults, he was used to them, and walked into the house. Danny stood in the kitchen focusing intently on making a plate of pizza rolls for Tammy, Phillip’s youngest sibling, who sat on the couch, sling across her chest. William nodded to Tammy and walked into the kitchen, the odor of pepperoni filling the room and replacing the scent of Mrs. Collins’ Virginia Slims. The oven beeped impatiently.
When Mrs. Collins hollered from her bedroom for Danny to shut that fucking thing up, William realized he had forgotten why he entered the house. He still held Danny’s flip-flop in his dumb hands, and his cigarette was almost entirely ash.
Danny pressed the button that turned off the oven and spun around, paper plate of baked pizza squares in his hand. “Oh hey.”
“Hey. Uh, you left this outside.” He held out his hand, displaying the sandal, aware of his own awkwardness. His whole body was on fire.
“Thanks. You can just put it by the door.”
“Oh. Yeah, sure.” He took a pizza roll from Tammy’s plate and pushed it into his mouth. “Thanks. See you later.” He knew better than to ask Danny to tag along.
Sometimes, if they scrounged up enough money, they could get someone to buy them beer from the Circle K. As long as Mr. Strickland wasn’t running the register, William knew they could get away with stealing a couple Olde English 32s if they had to. Mr. Strickland’s eye patch hid a hawk’s eye, Phillip always said, and he could see for miles.
After securing beer plans, William and Phillip usually had to steal a car, but tonight, they could skip that step and get right to picking up chicks. Even though William jacked off three times today—once in the shower and twice more after school, clutching a Hustler magazine, his jeans at his ankles—he still needed a release. Usually, they got two girls, one for him and one for Phillip, and took them out to the old phosphate mines. The thought of this—of bare breasts, sweat, foggy windows, and the sound of friction mixed with desire—made William’s dick move. He hoped tonight was one of those nights.
“Hey man, don’t go that way,” Phillip said as William turned the car back onto Combee Road. “I want to pick up this chick Nikki, and she lives over by Lake Morton.”
William lit another cigarette and slid the pack to Phillip. “She better have a friend.” He knew he could get to Lake Morton from Crystal Lake Drive, so he kept his course.
Phillip lit a cigarette and smoke billowed from his nostrils. “She does have a friend, this one fire crotch named Caitlin. They’re both from my school.” Even though Phillip and William were the same age—well, William was technically older by two months—Phillip was held back in sixth grade. Phillip’s school, Pathways, served as an alternative school for bad kids, and Phillip, who got caught peddling ground up aspirin and selling it as cocaine, had four months until he could drop out, for the court mandated that he stay in some kind of learning environment until his eighteenth birthday. William didn’t like having to go to school without his best friend, but he did like that Phillip knew girls from all over Polk County.
“Cool.” William took a drag off the cigarette. “What about beer?”
“Later,” Phillip said.
They left Eaton Park in the rearview and turned onto Crystal Lake Drive. Almost immediately, the neighborhood began to change. The houses were no longer government issued and most of them had two cars in the driveway, some of them newer than 1990.
Phillip turned on the radio and flipped through William’s mother’s presets, which were all country and southern rock. He sighed and, after some time, found a station playing Ludacris. Phillip turned it up too loudly, but William didn’t object.
They entered the Lake Morton Historic District, and Phillip told William to keep going. When they neared the lake, William caught a white man, briefly, in his headlights. He stood along the lake watching the car, the way women do on Combee Road. William looked away, quickly, for he had heard about gay men selling themselves at Lake Morton. He just didn’t think it was true. “Where’s my turn?”
“Right here. Pull over.”
William’s heartbeat quickened, a hammer against dense fabric. He didn’t see any houses, nor did he see any high school girls standing around. All he saw in his driver’s side mirror was the silhouette of the man and the ember of his cigarette. “But, there’s—”
“Just pull the fuck over, Willy.”
Phillip drove back because William couldn’t stop shaking. They traveled in stillness, and William could see the dried blood on Phillip’s knuckles in the red glow of the traffic light. He knew Phillip never intended to pick up any girls. The shame was nauseating.
When they made it to Phillip’s house, they had to park in the ditch because Mrs. Collins’ boyfriend’s van was parked behind the Civic. William hoped Phillip would just leave the keys in the car so he could drive home, but Phillip took them out of the ignition and climbed out of the car. William followed, not wanting to rouse Phillip or endure another fight.
“I stole that fag’s joint. Come smoke it with me in the garage.” Phillip dropped the keys into his pocket.
William didn’t want to smoke a joint. It was well after midnight, and he felt paranoid already though he hadn’t really done anything except watch as Phillip tackled and mounted the man, beating his face until there was nothing left to see but red. The sounds of his fists against the man’s face sounded to William like splattering rain. He wasn’t sure if the man was dead or just unconscious, but his screams stopped about halfway through. Once he was finished, Phillip kicked the man twice in the stomach and spit on him; then, the boys ran back to the car. After William pulled over a block away to throw up, Phillip took the wheel. They hadn’t spoken much since.
Inside, seated in a swivel chair that was meant for an office rather than a garage, William took the joint from Phillip’s bloody hands. He inhaled, felt the smoke swell in his lungs and move to his belly. Then, he coughed for what felt like hours until Phillip got him a Dr. Chek from the mini fridge. They smoked about three quarters of it before William put it out and set the roach down in Mrs. Collins’ crowded ashtray.
“Don’t put it in there,” Phillip said, red-faced from his last toke. “Rick will smoke it for sure. Give it to me.” In the smoky room, which smelled faintly of Malathion, Phillip looked devilish; his white t-shirt had blood flecked onto it to match his crimson knuckles. William did as he was told.
Phillip got to the recliner first, so William had to sit on the couch with Danny. It would’ve been fine under normal circumstances, but now nothing was fine, and William wasn’t sure if it ever would be again. He had trouble looking Danny in the eyes when he spoke to him, and he was grateful for Phillip’s continued silence.
“Hey Daniel, make us some more pizza rolls.” Phillip kept his eyes on the television, flipping through channels with a remote held together by duct tape. “Get us some Cheetos too. Not in a bowl, though. Just bring the whole bag.”
Danny rose from the couch and accidentally tripped over William’s knobby knees. “Sorry,” Danny said and William nodded, folding his long legs into his chest. He still felt a tinge of heat when their bodies touched, and his head felt heavy from the weed. He remembered the welts that covered Danny’s body after he’d been caught messing around in Mrs. Collins’ underwear drawer; it had been four years, but William couldn’t forget that Phillip put the welts there.
Phillip found Pulp Fiction and William fixed his eyes on John Travolta and Uma Thurman doing the twist on the dance floor. Danny was back a few seconds later. He handed the open bag of Cheetos to William, and William took a handful of puffed cornmeal from the bag, placed them on the crotch of his running shorts. Danny passed the bag to Phillip and Phillip put the bag in his lap. After gobbling a handful or so of chips, Phillip would wipe his hands on the arm of the recliner, staining the faux-leather with a film of orange. He never asked William if he wanted another handful, and William never asked either. Neither Rick nor Mrs. Collins emerged from the bedroom, and William assumed Tammy was sound asleep as well.
Once William’s belly was full of pizza rolls and Dr. Chek, he felt relaxed. He still didn’t think he could drive, but he was comfortable with Danny’s thigh resting against his own. Phillip snoozed on the recliner, feet extended, with the now-stale bag of Cheetos still in his lap and the keys to William’s mother’s car in his pocket.
Pulp Fiction had ended, and the boys now watched Sharon Stone cross and uncross her legs in Basic Instinct. William wasn’t sure if peeking under Sharon Stone’s skirt was exciting him or the sensation of Danny’s body beside his, but his penis throbbed.
Without thinking, he put his hand on top of Danny’s. Danny looked over at him. They shared a long stare and Danny interlaced his fingers with William’s. William’s stomach erupted with flutters. He should’ve let go right then, so Danny understood it as a brotherly gesture, but he didn’t. He couldn’t. When Danny put his hand on William’s knee, he didn’t stop him, didn’t say anything either. He just grabbed the fleece blanket adorned across the arm of the couch and laid it across his lower body, inviting Daniel’s smooth hand into the place beneath his boxers.