It was gray and cloudy but hot as shit. We were sweating through our t-shirts as we rode our bikes alongside the gridlocked highway, a stretch overrun by stoplights and big-box stores and Korean barbecue joints. Past the windshield repair place, past the massage parlor, past the tire store we rode through the heat and exhaust, half-inflated innertubes hung around our necks. I had a nice chrome bike because I'd stolen it, whereas Allen and James had nice bikes because their parents had money.
The lake was a shit show that day as always, horny teenagers crowding the shore, all kinds of contraband lurking in their sand-covered backpacks. The cumulative base from the stereos in the parking lot was enough to make you go deaf. It was the kind of urban lake that had lost all dignity, having been forced to swallow motor oil and fertilizer and pissed-out meds from a secretly medicated city. Not to mention the goose shit everywhere, a gray film covering the lake, the only revenge for flocks of ornery birds whose ancestors had laid claim to this rotting place decades ago and then left them with nothing to do but stalk the grounds and honk at the people who'd ruined paradise.
We didn't care about any of it. We just wanted to take off our shirts and feel the sun on our chests, stare at girls in bikinis. Maybe weasel some beers from the older kids. We locked up our bikes, blew up our innertubes and set out for the small uninhabited island at the center of the lake. The water was boiling, offering little relief from the sun that had burned through the haze during our bike ride. I was dizzy from blowing up the innertube and my mouth tasted like plastic, but I felt good, free, as we paddled away from shore. Over the splashing I could hear James and Allen ribbing one another up ahead of me.
"You're full of shit," Allen said. "Laura did not blow you. She's too straight for that."
"Whatever, man," James said. "Just cause your girlfriend won't give it up." I dunked my head underwater, preferring the sound of oblivion to their chirping.
When we got to the island we ditched our tubes on the shore. The island was small, about a hundred yards long, a decidedly overgrown and deserted place with only a few clearings people had carved out to camp or party. With no particular destination in mind, we made our way through the network of tunnels that had been cut through the all-consuming blackberry bushes. The tunnels were so short we had to duck as we walked, being careful to avoid the thorns, rotten blackberries littering the path below, smelling sickly sweet.
"Kyle, your family could probably live here," Allen said to me over his shoulder. "You know, when you guys get evicted again."
"Fuck yourself, rich boy," I said. This was normal for us. We communicated via conflict. We came to one of the clearings and stopped to look around. No one was on the island – we'd already walked its perimeter and seen no signs of life – but someone had been there recently. We saw the remnants of a campfire, some garbage strewn nearby. Beer cans, toilet paper, candy wrappers. James crouched to examine something behind a log. "Check this out," he said. "Some junkies were here."
"Let me see," Allen said.
"Don't touch it, dumbass!" James said, but Allen ignored him.
He reached down gingerly and picked the object up. When he lifted it in the air I could see it was a syringe. "How about that, Kyle," he said. "Looks like your brother has been here."
I was ready to kill him right there. I wanted to. Another part of me wanted to cry, which was something I couldn't allow to happen. I said nothing.
"Jesus, Allen," James said. "You're ruthless."
"What?" he said. "We've been talking shit about dildo's junkie brother for years."
"Right," James said. "Then he went missing, remember? Jackass."
No one knew what to say then, so we paced around for a few minutes, swatting away summer bugs.
"Let's go back," I said finally, knowing it was up to me to break the silence. "Maybe we can score some beer."
"Gotta piss first," Allen said.
"Me too," said James.
While they were in the bushes I picked up the syringe, using a plastic bag I found nearby as a glove. I walked ahead of them and used the needle to poke a hole in Allen's tube. I was only going to make one hole, as a joke, but once I got started I couldn't stop. I just kept stabbing the thing. We were maybe a hundred feet from shore when Allen started sinking. "What the fuck?" He yelled. "Who messed with my tube?" James and I were laughing, paddling ahead. We didn't know Allen was such a bad swimmer. I figured he was being dramatic as he yelled and thrashed behind us, but we soon realized he was in trouble. We swam back and James offered to share his tube, knowing I wasn't in a charitable mood.
No one spoke as we paddled toward the mainland, me at the front of the pack. I knew James and Allen were behind me somewhere, but I felt alone. Even from a great distance I could see our bikes chained to a rack in the parking lot, their chrome bodies gleaming in the sunlight. In front of that clusters of people on the beach had oriented themselves toward the water like there was something out there to see, like no one seemed to know it was just a lake. There was no wind, no boats nearby, but the surface of the water was choppy. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my shadow, paddling dutifully, another me, its hand pushing water aside, and I couldn't tell by looking which one of us was forcing the action. I looked forward again and took a wave in my mouth. I accidentally swallowed some, causing me to gag. The water was hot, it tasted communal, the waste of generations infiltrating my body. I pictured myself drowning, the water overwhelming me, my body sinking, columns of murky light illuminating the depths until I reached the cool floor of the lake where it was dark and my limbs became entangled in chemically fed weeds. The bottom looking up: this was home.
The dock was packed with kids laughing, smoking, dangling their legs. I climbed the ladder, set my tube down and folded my arms across my chest. The sun was already drying me off, I could feel beads of water evaporatoring on my back as I stood there, waiting. James came up the ladder first, followed by Allen. I was surprised by how excited I was to see Allen's chubby face rise above the edge of the dock. He looked at me then looked away as he brushed his darkened hair out if his eyes. Water dripped from his red trunks as he walked toward me. James, dragging the tube behind him, tried to distract from what had just happened. "Lots of girls today," he said. "Let's see if we can get some to go back to Allen's."
We were quiet for a bit, then Allen spoke up. "That was fucked up," he said to me. "I'd make you buy me a new tube if I thought you had any money." He wouldn't look me in the eye, which made me happy. I knew he wasn't yet committed. I could change that.
"You had it coming," I said. "Talking shit is one thing, but not about my brother. Not anymore."
"Don't be such a pussy," he said. "It was a fucking joke."
"You're a fucking joke," I said reflexively. I stopped to gather myself and Allen laughed, not in a friendly way.
"You make jokes about your family all the time," he said. "Don't get all high and mighty on me now." His gestures were becoming more animated now. He was talking louder, his tone had changed. People nearby were starting to listen in. "Listen," he said. "Nobody picks their family. It's not your fault you were born into a crack house."
I looked down at my feet, then back to the island in the distance before locking eyes with him. "You're right," I said, nodding. "You can only do so much. Take your sister, for instance. Daddy could afford to send her out of state for college, but he couldn't keep my junkie brother out of her panties."
"Sure, right," he said. "Your brother nailed my sister."
"Like twenty times," I said.
"Right," he said. "We've covered that.”
"I walked in on them once," I said. "She was pretty into it, just so you know. My brother may be strung out, but he knew a few things about how to make her come."
The people who'd gathered nearby, watching the conflict escalate, laughed nervously. Allen laughed too but he was mad, his body was stiffening, gathering strength. "Too bad he's probably dead now," he said. "Or sucking dick for smack in an alley somewhere." He was talking himself into anger now, I could see the lines in his face sharpening as he got going. He was almost yelling. I chose not to speak. Let him do his thing, I thought. Let him think he's in control. His mouth was all drama now, I watched it tremble and contort, spittle gathering at its edges, but I was unwilling to grant his words meaning. The power to ignore was something I owned, and so I transformed his speech into shapeless sounds, dull rumblings, distant thunderclaps I sacrificed to the sun. I stood there and absorbed the noise, smiling, watching his mouth while also registering more figures closing in on us, sunburned kids with expectant faces, the unkind smiles of a crowd that craves violence.
The dock was burning my feet but I remained planted while Allen shifted his weight back and forth. I saw James over Allen's shoulder, watching, a ghost inside his pale, freckled skin, orange hair, tired eyes, not the problem but not a solution either. He was always lingering at the edge, looking on indifferently, unwilling to take a position. I kept my hands at my sides, clenched and unclenched my fists, waiting for the moment to ripen, keeping time by my pulse, the base of a distant stereo pounding at roughly the same tempo, giving me the sense that this place and me had merged into one entity, I was performing some kind of religious rite and the job of everyone here was simply to watch. Hit hard, hit first. This is one of the few worthwhile things my father ever taught me. He knew nothing of books or learning but he had mastered his fists, along the way cataloguing hundreds of methods for swiftly ending conflict. Aggression, disregard, will: These are the forces that shape the events in books anyway. By using them my father was a writer and, despite everything else, I could love him for that.
I waited for more people to show up. I wanted them to see what would happen, all of us together creating a scene I could keep with me long after Allen and I were no longer friends. They began shouting at us, some of them telling us to stop but most of them encouraging us to get to it. I could tell the crowd was fueling Allen's anger. He had become their instrument, the localized expression of their collective unrest. "Allen," I said calmly, but he couldn't see me, he was yelling through me. "Allen," I said again without raising my voice. " Allen. Allen. Allen." I cupped my hands to my mouth and inhaled deeply, as if I were about to yell, and he snapped back to attention, pausing to hear what I would say. I hesitated for an uncomfortably long time. The crowd, still growing, muttered. "Allen," I whispered through my cupped hands. "I fucked your sister once too. I stepped in because my brother needed a break."
He was unreadable suddenly, quiet, uncertain. Then he struck. I saw a flash of light on my left cheek, felt the pain of his right fist connecting flush. Disoriented, I stumbled back but did not fall. He came at me wordlessly, trying to wrap his arms around my midsection, his first mistake, I knew this right away without having to think about it, because don't grapple until you have no other choice, but then again what does this kid know about real struggle? I tasted blood in my mouth, salt and iron, a rush of saliva that I spat on his bare back as he tried to grab me because I wanted him to know this was not a game. I lifted my knee into his lowered chin, causing his head to jerk back sickeningly. I heard yelling, cackling somewhere around us after the impact, the crowd was impressed, but the noises were all muddled, like they were being routed through a cable on the bottom of the lake, and anyway I was too busy going to work on Allen, dropping him to his back, climbing on top, throwing fists not with rage but with precision because you can't lose your head, the emotional one always loses. Shot after shot I landed and now he was covering up, it was about to be finished, people would soon break this up, I knew, but not before I looked over and saw my shadow wailing away, that was me over there again, me letting myself find the deepest bottom available, neither loving nor hating the process, just doing what the men in my family have always done, the one thing we've always been good at, and I'm not sure I was smiling exactly, but that's how it went down in my memory, me with a big bloody grin, a silhouette in action on the shore of a troubled lake, caring for nothing but the moment, the sunburn on my neck, the pain in my knuckles, my ribs, my jaw. The only thing that mattered was that there was blood sizzling on the planks of the dock, some of it Allen's, some of it mine, and in the heat and frenzy of disconnected instants no one could tell whose was whose.