We burned down the boathouse in August.
Bobby had a handprint of soot on his face, the sticky heat of the fire tracking lines of sweat to the edge of his jaw. He looked back at me and smiled, and later, as we sat on the sand watching the sun set with astonishing power into the tree line around the lake, his fingers still tasted like gasoline.
Two days after that, the police came back.
Bobby said to me once that the important thing is to be something that people will remember.
Almost exactly one year ago, I’d met him breaking the heads off wooden matches and stuffing them into a penknifed gash in a tennis ball. He was out behind the library, thousands of books that had been water-damaged by the recent storms built like a mossy city around him. I was leaving school for the day, though it was not yet noon, a sick headache yawing around behind my eyes, and I stopped when I saw him, his rough curly hair and wide shoulders.
He grew up, a few months later, to say that I’d loved him from the start, but that wasn’t what happened.
There were several twisted little encounters like that, in the hallways and the parking lot. Once I started seeing him, he was everywhere. He looked at me like he knew all about me, that I burned the eyes out of photographs and got drunk alone on the roof of my parents’ house, blinded by the night.
I heard stories about him. He’d transferred from Kenwood Christian. There was a bloodstain on the dashboard of his car, and baseballs in the pockets of his backpack. He walked out of his classes sometimes, just picked up and left like he owned his life completely. A number of people said that they’d heard him talking to himself, curled up around his knees with his mouth moving on his knees.
He caught my arm in the boys’ on the fifth, spidery brown sigils on the tile and dried hanks of toilet paper stuck to the ceiling, and said, “I’m Bobby.”
I was half in the door and half out, and I looked back at him. He had a small torn smirk on his face, and the sun was behind him, broken through the wrought-iron cage of the bathroom window, white around his edges. I liked the look of him, the impatience in his smile. I said my name was Rich and he said, “Richie?” and I shrugged.
He grinned at nothing, his eyes skittering away from mine, and told me to meet him after last bell. At the time, I had a long history of bad judgment, recklessness a blood disease inside, and he looked like the kind of guy who could hurt me very badly, so I said okay.
He lived out on Westfall, near the lake. Tall house on a wedge of land twenty miles out of town, with shingles littering down from the roof, the grass overgrown and knee-high, and Bobby carved a tally mark into the porch rail every day; they stretched up and around, thousands of them. It was senior year and we both stopped going to school almost entirely.
We slept in the attic, with the broad sail-shaped windows opened to the Indian summer that made us act like we were drunk, handsome and strong amid the flannel blankets and sleeping bags infested with dry leaves, the curling pennants on the wall. We spent days in the boathouse, where it was cool and dark and small forest green frogs darted through the soft-rotted wood of the walls and the boats. Bobby had a cousin who bought him beer, and we chilled them in the lake, lay out on the beach getting wasted in the heat.
He set traps for the mice and squirrels and woodchucks, and there was a hole in the dirt on the eastern side, a nest of matchstick white bones and tiny elongated skulls.
Bobby liked to talk about space, and geology, and firearms, and his skin burned in odd patterns, starfish on his back, out of focus finger-lines on his shoulders. He itched for weeks when it peeled, floated in the water with his shoes still on. He said my name a lot, Richie, which was the only thing he ever called me, like it was some kind of prayer, and for a long time the way I understood him best was with his eyes slit and the sun on his face.
He was my best friend, as much as that meant anything. A few days before Halloween, he made a fake bomb out of PVC pipe and play-doh, scribbled gray with magic marker, and left it in the main hallway fifteen minutes before the bell rang. We sat up in the highest seats of the bleachers at the football field, watching hundreds of kids streaming onto the grass in orderly lines, the fire alarms still blaring, cops blue-black like bruises and scurrying around the perimeter of the school.
Bobby was addicted to over-the-counter cold medication. He carried blister packs of Contac around in his pocket and swallowed them dry, his eyes sparkling and manic, his face flushed. At night, he drank Nyquil straight from the bottle, and I couldn’t wake him up for at least six hours, his mouth stained green and the patches under his eyes swollen.
It made him babble sometimes, pseudoephedrine hot in his veins, his clean teeth gnashing. He didn’t make much sense, sneering in the starlight and saying brokenly, “I’ve been in trouble every day of my life.” I hummed up at the ceiling and thought about the lunatic tilt of satellites out of orbit, not really paying attention to him. Bobby used to talk to himself and now he talked to me, and it wasn’t much of a change.
Out in the boathouse, on a Sunday, Bobby told me that he’d died when he was a little kid; there was a storm and it knocked over a tree, which knocked over the power lines, and he’d been electrocuted, standing in his socks in the flooded street. His heart had stopped for three minutes. He said that to me in the damp perfect dark, the whites of his eyes flat as coins, and then he’d said that was how he knew that he’d live forever.
The rain rolled in while Bobby was explaining the scars on his hands to me, the gnarled pink gashes always so smooth, something about rope. I got up when I heard thunder and shut the attic windows, and saw the sky gathering thick over the lake and the trees, heavy black with picks of lightning racking briefly downwards.
That night, under the pounded glass, rain reflected on Bobby’s chest and stomach, I took hold of the strange, near-paralyzing anger that I had lived within my whole life, and licked the dent of his hip. He arched up a little bit and, again, said my name.
All the time we spent in the attic and the boathouse, on the nubby worn tread of the living room carpet, in the slants and off-kilter angles of the house on Westfall, did something unexpected to the both of us. I was seventeen and he was a young nineteen, having repeated second grade when it was discovered that he couldn’t read, and there were four straight days in November when we saw no one but each other.
Bobby liked fucking around in the lake, with the sunlight bouncing on the water and our bodies seal-slick. He liked to push and rub against me through our shorts, and once we stumbled past the place where the sandy bottom sheered off into nothing, thirty feet offshore, and I sank beneath the surface so neat and so easy. He set his fingers in my collarbone like it was a ladder rung and kissed me until I felt like I could do anything.
I became deeply attached to our fugitive way of life. I got nervous whenever we went in to town or I had to go home; it was too loud and fast, too many faces that weren’t kin in the way that Bobby was. I spent the fall sluggish and always half turned-on, made numb and wordless by the hard warm places that I found, the catch in his voice and the life outside, passing us by.
We were drunk for days when it got too cold to go swimming anymore. Bobby started catching lightning bugs in mason jars, but they died off quickly, usually before morning, and then vanished; winter had arrived in frost and silver.
Near Christmas, I realized that Bobby was insane.
I woke up in a rowboat, the seats of which we’d torn out with crowbars months ago, tarps and burlap laid down over the splinters. There were cracks in the ceiling of the boathouse, dozens and hundreds of them in the full light of day, scattered like tinsel all white and gold and blue, but it was dark outside and I could only see a nail of the moon in the northwest corner.
Bobby wasn’t there, and I climbed out of the boat shakily, dazed and weak, bones salted away. I’d been asleep in all my clothes and my coat, too, and I felt the score of a zipper mark on my face. It was so cold.
He was in the water, and I thought I was dreaming because there was ice rimed at the edge, glossy black. He was floating on his back, in his jeans and sweater and shoes, and he kept sinking down and kicking his way back up.
“Bobby,” I called, and lifted my hand. He let himself drift upright, his legs working under the water, and I saw the drag of his sweater on his shoulders, the glitter of ice in his hair, and he was shaking so hard the lake blurred around him.
When he came to the shore, he was thrashing and jerking uncontrollably, his eyes and his lips blue, his soaked jeans hanging off his hips so that I could see how white that blade of his skin was. He put his arms around me, and because I was half-asleep still, I buckled under his weight, locked my knees and pressed my face against his frozen throat.
“It’s just,” he said, grinning hugely and still slamming around unpredictably, jarring me. “Sometimes I get too hot, you know? Sometimes it’s really quiet and I think it might not be so bad.”
He was crazy, brightly real with it and dangerous, and I didn’t care at all. He tasted like lake water.
The snow on the path and the shore was dirty and crowded into my shoes, and Bobby put his hands in my pockets when he’d forgotten his gloves. We stayed out so long that eventually our breath didn’t even cloud anymore, and I wanted frostbite to take our fingers and our noses, leave parts of us in the woods as sacrifice. I took off my jacket and stripped off my shirt and hooked it around Bobby’s neck, letting the weather do what it would to me, my face close to his. He touched the stiff skin of my stomach and we tried to fight off the spring with all our strength, holding the season at bay, but April showed up anyway.
I didn’t sleep very well. There was something wrong with my heart, it went too fast and frightened me and I was not used to fear. Bobby put his hand on my ribs and said, “Oh, okay,” and thumbed open his jeans, straddled my body like it was the solution to everything. I liked my position beneath him and the fast run of heat in the mildewed cool, so I didn’t tell him he was wrong.
Sometime in May, Bobby asked, “You love me, Richie, right?” and I shrugged again.
I wasn’t at all sure what I was doing. Bobby was so strange, climbed trees hand-over-hand to tip nests from the branches, spat on roadkill, threw rocks at the fish in the lake. He was dismantling the attic with old tools, one plank of wood at a time, and there were crooked bald wounds in the walls, the floor. He licked and bit at me until I screamed, until the loons in the woods screamed back. He was waging a war against something, but it wasn’t clear what.
In the morning, though, in the attic with the sunrise like syrup through the windows, Bobby laid his head on my chest and I fell asleep for the first time in weeks.
Summer came on strong. There was electricity in the air and the tall yellow-headed sourgrass in the far field caught fire. We could see the flames from the attic, smoke clouding blackly up and the acrid smell making me cough, turning Bobby’s eyes red. A few days later, the wind picked up and the air tasted like ash and dirt, and Bobby talked for awhile about renewal.
One afternoon, I came back from the house with more beer and he was floating facedown in the lake. His arms hung loose like fallen flags, wet curls stuck to the back of his neck. I sat down on the shore and set the beer in the sand next to me, watching him drift, feeling a sense of dull peace.
He was dead and maybe I had loved him. I thought about how cool his skin would be when I fished him out of the water, how heavy he would be, how he would taste if I fit my mouth over his and tried to breathe for him. I imagined his funeral and coming down to the boathouse in my black suit, my thin black tie, my muddy church shoes. My lovely fucked-up dream, my treacherous best friend, all of it overboard and down.
Maybe I had loved him, but I couldn’t really tell. I inhaled the stagger of salt and ozone in the air, thinking that here I was, alone at the lake on this perfect day, one of two young men and the only one still breathing.
Bobby exploded then, throwing himself upright in a wild, triumphant furl of water, laughing, shouting, “Did I scare you, Richie? Did you fall for it?”
I told him, no way, and we had sex in the water, Bobby’s cold arms around my neck and his legs around my waist. Crows shattered across the sky, cawing and ominous, and I clung to him, praying for the hardest of landings.
In July, Bobby said that he’d invited these girls out, and I lifted an eyebrow, smirked. He shook his head, sliding to the floor and pushing my knees apart. “We’re not gonna sleep with them,” he said, and I tipped my head to the side, “No?”
Bobby opened my shorts and took my hand, placed it in his hair. Bobby liked to be guided. He said that one of them was an old girlfriend he’d had at Kenwood Christian, and that he was afraid the world outside of Westfall had disappeared during our months-long skid, and that he wanted to see her to make sure that she still existed.
I led him down, and amid curses and god, I promised him, gasping, “Anything, anything.”
The girls were small and pretty and the one I was supposed to talk to had deep brown eyes and a lisp. I learned from the Guardian, days later, that her name was Laurie. Bobby and his girl talked roughly and without success in the kitchen, drinking cokes and gin and rum and soda water. There was something unresolved, a clear strain of hatred between them, and Bobby bared his teeth, twisted my wrist back when I reached for a mug.
I didn’t drink much, because it was confusing having other people in the house, to see Bobby talking to someone who wasn’t me and wasn’t imaginary. Laurie smiled at me shyly and said I looked tired, and I didn’t know what to say.
We went for a walk, late at night when the drunk had time to settle in, and I got the flashlight from the cabinet above the refrigerator, because the girls didn’t know the path the way we did. Bobby and his girl were still fighting and I watched him jagging his head to the side. I thought about the ice in his hair, the manic drive of light in his eyes.
The fight got worse. She was shouting at him and I tried so hard to make sense of what she was saying, but a year spent in Bobby’s company had destroyed me for normal people. The words split and deformed, and Laurie was trying to settle them, shooting me hard looks of concern that I brushed off, staring at the slash of Bobby’s mouth and the anger bunching in his arms.
Bobby’s girl was weeping, and through it, she said something that froze him. In the midnight shadows of the trees, on the soft beat path, Bobby snarled and I saw his eyes, bright as spun gold, and I whispered his name without thinking.
He killed her then.
He took his penknife out of his pocket and a shard of moonlight caught the blade as he opened it against his palm. He looked right at me for a second, and I felt it like a blow to the chest, stunning me because I hadn’t felt much of anything in a very long time, and then his arm swung, a neat backhand and a strangled wet sound and then the girl’s knees hit the ground.
Bobby grinned. “Richie,” he said, and Laurie shrieked, tried to run, and I caught her around the waist before I could think about it, dropping the flashlight to skew crazily through the underbrush. I hooked my arm around her throat, snug against the hollow of my elbow, and I smelled apples, probably her shampoo. She was trembling and warm, my chin on the nape of her neck, where a film of sweat had broken out. She was begging me to let her go, but I barely heard; I was still staring at Bobby.
He wiped the knife off on his jeans, leaving a dark stain the shape and size of two fingers pressed together, and I wondered if it would be red in the morning, or dried to black already.
Bobby came up to me and my terrified armful, and he gently touched my face and told me, “Do what you will.”
When I broke her neck, when I killed her, it was so easy. I wanted to kill her again.
I felt her going, a small jerk and then nothing. I laid her down on the dirt, kneeling carefully and mindful of her lolling head, and I thought we must have looked nice, out there on the path through the woods, with me on my knees beside her pale, pretty body in the leaves. We must have looked like we were in love.
I smoothed the crumpled hair away from her temple, and closed her eyes with the flat of my hand. Bobby stood over us as if he would give us benediction, heal the broken places and make me once again whole. His face shadowy and old, but he was still grinning, rubbing his marked hand on his leg.
“Look what we did,” I said in awe. He held out his hand and I let him pull me up, let him kiss me with the bodies at our feet.
I was waiting for something, guilt or horror or remorse, but all I could think about was the sticky tack of Bobby’s hand on my neck, the autumn-cool of his mouth, the snapped-free careen of this impossible thing that we’d done.
We tied rocks to their necks and waists, and dragged one of the rickety rowboats out of the boathouse, using two-by-fours for paddles. The night was almost unbearably dark, the moon disappeared behind a cloud and showing only a faded nimbus of silver and gold. Black water pooled in the bottom of the boat, and Bobby said that we would have to be quick about it. At the center of the lake, we rolled them over the side and when Laurie went down, one of the rocks caught on the edge of the boat and we flipped.
Underwater, I opened my eyes and saw the girl drifting down with her cute summer dress lofting ghostly around her, her body jackknifed by the weight of the stones so that her legs and arms floated upwards like kite strings, thin and white. There was a colorful cartoon band-aid on her thumb. I grabbed hold of Bobby’s belt and pulled myself above the surface, coughing and shaking.
We swam back to shore and sat side-by-side on the sand, watching the little boat sink slowly.
Bobby put his head on my shoulder after awhile, and I put my arm around him, felt the damp crinkle of his hair under my chin. “I love you so much it scares me,” he said, and I nodded, thinking what a beautiful night it was.
We didn’t hear anything for a few days, and then it was just a missing persons report in the Guardian, and Bobby made weak kid’s ships out of the newspaper, set them afloat to capsize and drown. We didn’t talk about it, and I found on the third day that I wasn’t really thinking about it, either.
The weather became vicious, hit triple-digits that week, clogged by humidity. The attic became unlivable, and we slept on the beach. We slept in the lake, in the thin shallows where the water pushed up onto the sand, and I dreamt of rain.
Bobby punched the wall suddenly and said, “Fuck, why didn’t we run away?” but it passed quickly and he shook his head, muttering about evidence, scratching at my belt. We were fucking around even more than we had before, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. We were strung-out and stammering, washing our mouths out with lake water as if by pretending it were clean, we could make it so.
The police came on a Sunday, and Bobby made them coffee while they asked us questions. Laurie had told someone that she was going up to Westfall the night she disappeared, and her mother had remembered a nice boy, one of Laurie’s friends, who lived up there, and so there were police in the kitchen.
Bobby claimed total innocence, lying so well I was tempted to believe him. All his good parts bled out of him, and he even made them laugh. I was fiercely turned-on. He introduced me as his best friend and said I’d been with him that night and asked me to lie for him and of course I did. I thought about the band-aid on Laurie’s finger and the way she had smelled like apples, remembering the soft warmth of her in my arms, and I looked at Bobby and told the men that we hadn’t seen anybody that night.
Bobby wished them the best of luck as they left, and then sucked me off in the hallway, and we ran to the lake laughing, bare feet pounding the path.
I wasn’t thinking about where we would end, Bobby and me. The wicked summer had us in thrall, wet leaves stuck to our backs, silt in our hair, and I knew that it would bring us down, but I had never known what I would do with my life, and this seemed as likely as anything.
A week or two later, Bobby woke me up with a hand snuck under my waistband, and whispered in my ear, “Our problems are reoccurring.”
He smoothed his palm over my hip and slid out, and I pushed myself up on an elbow, shaking sand from my hair, squinting against the sun. We were on the beach, made less real by the weight of the sun, and Bobby took my chin in his hand, turned my eyes to the water.
Laurie’s body had come ashore.
I rolled to the side and got sick on the sand, heard Bobby laughing behind me, “It’s not that bad, man.” I didn’t want to think about it, gray skin with open bloodless welts and lank hair smeary green and the rot on her dress and the bites taken out of her and her huge eyes faded completely white.
I got to my feet and went up to the boathouse, where I found a canteen of rum punch and drank until I felt steady and couldn’t taste anything. Bobby was still sitting on the beach, motionless as a sentinel, and I laid my hand down on his shoulder as we regarded the recurrence.
Bobby said it looked like the knots on the rocks had come undone, and I nodded. He said nothing worked out like in the movies, and I didn’t know what he meant, but I nodded again anyway.
He said, “Evidence,” and hauled her body up to the boathouse. I didn’t look, fixing my eyes on the water and wondering when the other girl would show up. Bobby disappeared into the woods, in the direction of the house, and came back with the girls’ purses, which we’d stashed in the attic, and a can of gasoline, and a book of matches.
“Bobby,” I said as he was preparing things, stepping high through the crab grass to douse the outer walls. “This’ll fix it?”
He looked back at me, my murderous savior boy, and I thought then that I did love him, honestly and with everything in me, or as much as I was capable of, anyway, because he looked so clean with a rash of sand on his cheek and a shadow of my teeth on his neck. He would have to forgive me for anything I ever did, because I had become what he wanted.
“She ain’t coming back again,” he told me, and tossed the gas can through a window in a sparkle and clatter of glass.
He offered me the matches and I sparked the whole book, set alight a shard of driftwood. I moved my hand close to the flame and couldn’t tell any difference between the air and the fire. It was August and my life was melting away.
I threw the wood into the boathouse and it exploded, shoving us both to the ground. Bobby was laughing again, whooping up at the smudged sky with his head thrown back. Ash and soot settled over us and I liked the feel of it, gritty and spare on my arms, my neck.
We slept on the beach again that night, waiting for the other girl. I sweat patterns and codes through the ash, my feet washed clean by the water, and I felt my heart stop for something close to three minutes, watching Bobby curl and shiver and reach for me hopelessly in the night.
The police found Laurie’s car a couple of days later, which we hadn’t even considered and which had been parked hidden from the road by a copse of trees, at the end of the house’s long driveway.
We were in the attic and we could see them gathering down on the road, a quarter mile away and still their urgency was evident. It had seemed that they would write the girls off as runaways, and we would get away untouched, never be made to redeem our faithless summer, but the cops’ silver-plated sunglasses flashed and even from the attic window we could tell that they were looking up at us.
Bobby looked at me. “Run?”
I thought about it, and ended up shrugging. Bobby grinned; he’d always liked my inability to make decisions. He ran a quick hand through my hair and I was having trouble breathing because of the dust and the thick air and the measured tramp of our future, coming up the drive.
“Then we’ll stay,” he said, and went over to the trapdoor, clapped it closed. He pushed a wooden crate of paintings over it, and the sea chest that had come across the Atlantic with his great-grandfather, and draped the mess of sleeping bags and blankets over the top of it, as if they had the same kind of weight.
I watched the police spreading out when they reached the top of the drive. “They’re surrounding the house,” I reported, feeling a tight burn under my skin.
“Well,” Bobby said, and came back to me, turned me away from the window with his hands on my waist. He walked backwards until we stood under the highest point of the peeked roof, leaks and wires of sunlight at the places where Bobby had torn the boards off. “You and me, babe.”
I fit my hands together on the back of his neck, traced my thumb along the line of his throat. Sweet fucked-up blue eyes and nervous mouth and this long year that we’d spent within arm’s reach, sun-drunk and blamelessly at peace. My mad Bobby, smiling at me like this was how he’d planned it all along, and I halfheartedly sought out the evil in him, but evil didn’t look like anything.
“You and me,” I echoed softly, and his face broke with a grin that almost hurt to see. He spun me slowly through the dust and sunlight, our bare feet leaving prints in the floorboards, and Bobby said to me, “It’s just, sometimes I can’t stand how good my life is.”
They broke down the front door then. We kept moving, not quite a dance but almost, hearing them start to pound on the attic door. I couldn’t look away from him, not for a second, and he took his hand off my hip to get his knife out and open it with his teeth. I took it from him and tapped the blade on his teeth and he ducked backwards, laughed.
We came to a stop and faced the trapdoor, the barricade that wouldn’t hold. I gave Bobby his knife back and he put his arm around my shoulders, feeling the floor tremble, feeling the press of air at my back. Bobby bit the side of my neck, and I thought that I would feel the sting of it, of him, until the moment I died, which ended up being true.
Pow! Um. Yeah. It’s a really good song. Lyrics boldly stolen from it and other Okkervil River songs, particularly ‘Love to a Monster,’ which I had on repeat for the last hour. It’s also a PWP (parents what parents?) high school AU, which seemed to fit the mood.
Bonus: Initial idea for it, which I wrote right before I went to sleep, to remind myself in the morning that this might be a pretty rad idea.
This, acted out. It’s an AU and a fucking creepy one. Purposeless and amoral. Privileged and made numb by the heat, fucked up little encounters and a long long summer.
Each doorway covered
By at least twenty men
And they’re gonna take me
Throw me in prison
I ain’t coming back again.
I ain’t coming back again.
When I was younger
Handsomer and stronger
Felt like I could do anything
But all of these people
Making all these faces
Didn’t seem like my kith or kin.
Didn’t seem like my kith or kin.
And Colin Kincaid
From the twelfth grade
Guess you could say he was my best friend
Lived in a big tall
House out on Westfall
Where we would hide when the rain rolled in
Where we would hide when the rain rolled in.
We went out one night
And took a flashlight
Out with these two girls Colin knew from Kenwood Christian
One was named Laurie
That’s what the story
Said next week in the Guardian.
Said next week in the Guardian.
And when I killed her
It was so easy
That I wanted to kill her again
I got down on
Both of my knees and
She ain’t coming back again.
She ain’t coming back again.
Now with all these cameras
Focused on my face
Well you would think that they could
See it through my skin
Looking for evil
Thinking they can trace it
But evil don’t look like anything.
Evil don’t look like anything.
(break it down, boys)