Hammer and Bone
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The purest evil lives in the hearts of men.
Carnival mystics. Zombie tribes. Bad magic in the Bayou. Mage-princes, alien cities, and soul-stealing priests. The grim monsters in the worlds of these dark, speculative tales are true horrors, but it’s the people you should fear the most.
People like Michel, a boy pining for his best friend, Ray. But a presence in the swamp calls Michel to avenge another lost love, and he must decide which summons to answer. Or Angelo, a prescient cop who denies his visions until they endanger the man he loves. Or Bellew, an overseer in a shantytown of criminals sheltering a revenant and feeding it from their ranks.
From ruined lands of steam and iron, to haunted Southern forests, to brutal city streets where hope and damnation flow from the same spring, only a few stubborn souls possess the heart to challenge evil on its own terms. Some wield magic, some turn to rage or even love, but the ones left standing will survive only if they find the courage to carve their own paths to freedom.
Even if it means carving through flesh.
Winner: Best LGBT Book in the 2015 Rainbow Awards!
Winner: Best LGBT Anthology / Collection in the 2015 Rainbow Awards!
Winner: Best Cover: Illustration in the 2015 Rainbow Awards!
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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On his way to the hardware store, Michel Comeau stumbled over Hell.
An old car was sunk to the doors in coffee-brown marsh waters at the foot of a grass-covered embankment. Chipped chrome declared it to be a Chevy Impala. The paint had long since peeled off to expose the metal beneath, and the hood was a humped, beetle-shell of florid rust veined with crawling lines of mildew and moss. A nest of paper wasps made their queendom in the back dash. The rotting upholstery bulged with putrid water, and the steering wheel had blistered with heat.
The folks of Lapin called it the deer path. It was an unnamed county access road, unused by traffic because it dead-ended into a raised earthen levee, but residents had been walking it since the town’s founding. A seedy town center squatted on the other side, a single avenue of shops and dingy offices accessible from the deer path only by foot. Michel had made the trip into town a hundred times, maybe two hundred, but had never veered off the path to explore. There wasn’t any need: one piece of lowland Mississippi marsh looked pretty much like the rest, and most often the new sight you were hoping for turned out to be a patch of fermenting dog turds or a dead possum. Michel had learned early in life that anything unseen was probably best left hidden and alone.
At first, he saw only a faint glow amid the green outlines of the car, a smear of noon-day light that he might have mistook for something in his eye. He turned his head as he passed the area, his sneakers slowing on the muddy grass and stopping next to a dead anthill.
Forgotten was the frequent daydream about running away to Gulfport or Biloxi, to find work on a rig or a shrimp boat. Forgotten were the paperback sci-fi novels in the back room of Tep’s Hardware that Tep himself lent out for free. Forgotten was the five-dollar bill in his pocket, three fifty of which was for the wooden handle he’d been told to buy. He even forgot the ice-cold soda in the big metal cooler on the sidewalk by Tep’s store.
Sweat trickled down the slope of his nose, dangled from the end in a fat drop, and fell onto the rubber dome of his sneakers, all unnoticed.
“Huh.” He tilted his head like a confused collie pup. The ground around the swampy wreck was disturbed, big patches of mud and earth displaced, as if something had emerged from below and pushed them aside.
The green became a shimmering wall. He could still see the Impala behind it, but it was steamy, like the car windows had been during all those muggy nights when he’d sat outside Miss Pritt’s house, his dad’s shiny keys dangling in the ignition. On those nights, he would reach up and swipe the wet window with his palm and try to see inside the house, but the curtains were always drawn. In the back room, the lights were always out.
Michel’s mother found the pictures of Miss Pritt wearing her black lace bra and slip in his dad’s bureau drawer, right under the .38 pistol. The bullets were mildewed and gummy in the chamber, but dad had always said the .38 was a good gun. It would fire even with ancient bullets and even in the cold shower his mom had taken it to. There were six in the chamber when she’d gone in, four when she came out feetfirst, naked and bloody. The first shot might have been a trial run.
The police found the pictures, and the wives of Lapin found Miss Pritt. She lost her teaching license and wound up serving drinks past the county line. Michel was sure Miss Pritt had never envisioned how the dangerous flirtation with Albert Comeau would turn out, just as he was sure his mom had never, on her wedding day, seen that bullet in the shower coming.
Sometimes you just ended up where you ended up.
Sweat pooled under his armpits and rolled down his sides over his skinny ribs. He could feel his toes stewing in his dirty sneakers and the damp, mucky heat between his legs.
It took him a moment to realize that the thought wasn’t his. He would have thought go, not come.
His throat suddenly ached with soreness, like he’d swallowed an apple core, or like something had tried to crawl inside him and had only gotten halfway in before it stuck. His hands flew up and cupped the sides of his neck, and the pain left.
Come closer. I’ve been waiting so long. I have so much to show you, Mike. You can’t run from it.
It was over a mile from the deer path to the big clapboard house he lived in on Lilac Road. He ran all the way.
Albert was in the weedy yard working on his boat. The flat-bottomed skiff was forty years old, with more patch than paint, and Michel doubted it would ever know water on its hull again. Albert bent over the housing of the outboard motor, a screwdriver in his hand and the sun baking his bald spot to a flaming red. He cursed at the motor and wiped sweat from his face. The paunch he’d grown when all hope of strange pussy had gone stretched the buttons of his shirt, bulbs of pale flesh poking through.
Michel picked his way through a patch of stinging nettles to the side of the boat. When Albert saw he was empty-handed, he hauled back and slapped him across the face.
Michel had expected that. He was just glad Albert hadn’t used the hand holding the screwdriver. He locked eyes with Albert and refused to look away.
Albert hit him again. “Gimme my money back, you little shithead! Chickenshit faggot bitch, can’t walk through the woods alone!” He snatched the five-dollar bill from Michel’s hand. “Get inside and clean your face, or are you just gonna stand there and cry?”
Michel wasn’t crying. Albert stared at him like he had something to say but it had gone wandering in his brain, confused from the scorching heat and the Hello Sunday six-pack he’d already sucked down.
“Look at you,” Albert sneered, colder now.
Albert looked right at him and saw someone who wasn’t there. His mother’s genes were stamped on him like the burn-shadow of a nuclear ghost, or the branching scars marring the skin of a boy struck by lightning. He had his mother’s slenderness, her black hair and her long silences, and the worst sin of all: her wide dark eyes that took in everything and gave nothing back, least of all to Albert.
Michel had heard the whispers of Albert having “married down” when he’d wed Celeste Lebal. She had Creole blood and wasn’t native to Lapin—two marks already against her. In the early days of her marriage, she roamed the woods for wild ginseng and bloodroot, the black braid of her hair reaching to her knees. No amount of slurs could stop her from placing charms made of her finds around Michel’s neck, but Albert had found a way to make her stop.
Michel wiped a finger under his nose, painting it with blood, and stared back into Albert’s watery blue eyes. He knew that Albert would have cheerfully killed him right then, if he could have gotten away with it.
Albert snorted and stomped off to the battered white truck in the driveway, muttering about cowards and .38s.
Michel clomped up the steps to the wooden porch and past the knee-high statue of the Virgin Mary in blue-painted robes, who posed next to a stack of rusty paint cans and the iron pipe Albert used to prop up the hood of his truck. She’d belonged to his mother. On the day of her suicide, Albert had dumped it down the back slope into the canal. But no matter how many times he threw Blue Mary into the water, come morning there she’d be, robes and wimple covered in mud, a slug crawling in her brown hair.
Entering the house he’d been born in was like walking into a cave: deep and dim and soothing after the blistering heat of summer. A benevolent twist of a wooden frame pitched over a shallow dugout that had once served as a root cellar and moonshine stash. Pecan trees shaded the roof and provided shelter for a large dray of squirrels that raced over the tar paper night and day, occasionally prompting Albert to dig his revolver out of the faded bureau and thin them out. Albert would push the bullets into the chamber one by one, his thick lips mouthing silent curses. He would sight carefully and squeeze the trigger, reducing squirrel skulls to sprays of red mist. Once, Michel had heard Albert mutter his mother’s name while he was at the task.
He made himself scarce on those days.
The red-checkered curtains in the kitchen had been on the rods since Albert’s wedding day, though the checks were an insipid pink now and the linen was so frail it would have come all to pieces with a good wash. The white sink was porcelain over steel, pitted with age but big and useful, and he still remembered his mother washing dishes there after dinner, dazzling sunlight streaming in through the wide windows and painting copper lights in her long braid.
He remembered her voice too, begging Albert not to hit him, promising him she wouldn’t make the charms anymore, dressing his hurts and rocking him to sleep. Tout va bien, mon bébé. Maman est là. Tout va bien.
I’m here. All is well.
A plastic yellow clock ticked time away in the windowsill. He picked it up and wound the back six times to keep it running. It had been a wedding present from his mother’s people. “The only damn one,” Albert was fond of saying. Michel could pinpoint the day when Albert had stopped talking about his mother—except to say it was Michel’s fault she was gone. He had cried too much, demanded too much of her, made her crazy with his bad dreams and screaming fits in the middle of the night. Michel knew about the dirty pictures in the drawer, but somehow the guilt clung to him, sticking like a tree frog to a leaf. Maybe he needed the blame. How else to explain why his mother had left him?
He picked up the loaf of bread on the wooden counter, opened it, and sniffed. Sweet and yeasty, just shy of sprouting mold. Good enough for sandwiches. A canister of peanut butter and a small Mason jar of strawberry preserves from Mrs. Lambert were in the cupboard. Ray’s mother was always sending things. Ray said it was because she wanted Michel and Ray to stay friends now that they were out of school, but Michel didn’t need gifts for that.
One rainy day when he was in ninth grade, Ray had dropped by Lilac Road while Albert was beating the shit out of him.
Michel had been huddled against the living room wall, arms up to shield his head from Albert’s fists, when suddenly it all stopped and Ray Lambert was standing over Albert with a shovel. No one had ever looked so much like an angel. Ray had helped him into the bathroom and cleaned the blood off his face with feathery hands that felt like kisses. By the time Albert came to, Ray had moved Blue Mary into the living room and the shovel into the shed. Albert had woken up to see Blue Mary’s eyes staring down on him. He never beat Michel that badly again.
Michel would have followed Ray into Hell.
The sandwich was gritty and thick, sticking to the roof of his mouth. He poured a glass of water from the tap, wishing for milk and knowing there’d never be any unless he bought it himself. More preserves would have thinned the peanut butter some, but he went spare on those, wanting them to last. He’d have given his right arm to belong to a family like Ray’s.
The Lamberts were a big, loud clan of millworkers, housewives, and enough kids to fill a barn. He liked Ray’s house too, though it was no nicer than his, just larger. If you wandered in at dinnertime, Coy Lambert—Ray’s daddy—would grab a clean plate, wedge it between a brace of kids, and wave his hand like a kingly giant: “Have a seat and fill your plate, son. One more mouth ain’t nothing.”
The kids were always coughing and barefoot, and the seats of their pants were thin, but they were fed, kissed, and cuffed in equal turns. None of them were allowed to grow up mean, and none of them were thieves. It was the best any parent could hope for.
He didn’t know what his father wanted from him. It puzzled him that Albert hated the sight of him and yet wouldn’t let him go. He’d tried more than once. Three years ago, he’d gotten all the way to Shreveport before a patrol car picked him up. The Shreveport PD had turned him over to Sheriff Dupuis, who had him back on the front porch by four thirty the next morning.
“You take him. He won’t quit runnin’, so he ain’t my problem no more. He’s yours.” Albert tried to push the door shut on Dupuis.
Sheriff Dupuis stuck his boot in the door and shook his head in that sluggish, patient way of his. “I got nowhere to take him. He hasn’t broken any law. If you don’t want him, the State gets him, but they’ll be out to see you first.”
The mention of the welfare poking around, asking after Michel’s mother and the past, broke Albert’s resolve. “I’m still going to give him a hiding.”
Sheriff Dupuis’s mouth had gone thin like a piece of wire. “If he was mine, I’d beat him less and talk to him more.”
“Well, he ain’t yours, and ain’t you just lucky?”
Albert slammed the door on the sheriff, but he didn’t beat Michel. He stopped paying most of the bills and ceased any pretense of being a father. They had running water and electricity, but he couldn’t remember the last time Albert had brought food into the house or bought him a pair of shoes. As a result, Michel had grown up the way a weed grows: tough and surprisingly dogged. He fished and crabbed in the afternoons for his dinner, worked weekends at the Crawford’s market for a box of groceries, and picked through thrift store bins to keep clothes on his back. When he graduated high school and turned eighteen in the same month, he fully expected Albert to throw him out. He hoped for it.
It was nearly September, graduation had been in June, and still Albert hadn’t made his move.
He knew better than to believe that Albert had forgotten that his son was legally no longer his problem. He was just saving his meanness up for something special. He pondered leaving again, just getting up in the middle of the night and slipping away. Albert couldn’t even call the cops on him anymore. But if he did leave, it’d have to be for good. That meant leaving Ray Lambert behind too. He wasn’t sure he could do that, and anyway, there was no point.
In the marrow of his young bones, he was wiser than Albert. He knew there was no running from what was to come.
When he finished his sandwich, he washed the sticky jelly off his hands and gave the dented butter knife a good rinse. He took the folded yellow towel from the oven handle and dried the dull blade before putting it back in the drawer. It wasn’t that Albert would notice the mess one way or the other, but he wasn’t giving Albert two excuses in one day. He slid his tongue over his lower lip, hating the metallic taste and the gross, aching numbness of swollen tissue.
A clang outside signaled that Albert had given up on his boat repair. The screen door banged, and Albert stomped into the kitchen, eyeing Michel narrowly as he turned on the tap and washed his greasy hands in the stream. Michel stood back and braced his hands on the counter behind him. He knew that look. Albert was daring him to speak, daring him to utter one sound. When Albert was done washing, he took the clean yellow towel and wiped the rest of the grease from between his fingers, then threw it to the floor and walked out.
He stood with his heart pounding, listening to Albert’s boots click-slide down the hall, around through the house, and out the back door again. He looked through the kitchen window and saw Albert get into his pickup. He’d put on his one good chambray shirt and stuck a little black comb in his pants pocket. Albert adjusted his mirror and combed his gingery hair into thin curls, vain as only a man who was once briefly handsome can ever be. He was on his way to some bar, some dive in the next county where no one knew his name. He’d be gone for days, maybe weeks, if Michel was lucky.
Michel bent his knees to retrieve the dirtied towel, examining the black stains ground into the fibers. He turned the cold tap on and fished the sliver of soap from the side of the porcelain sink, then stood there for the next fifteen minutes patiently scrubbing.
Don’t hit him anymore, Albert. Tout va bien.
Michel woke sweating, his throat raw, the crack of thunder in his ears. He turned his head and saw bullets of rain smacking his bedroom window. The wind smelled clean as fresh laundry, and his sheets were damp on the side nearest the wall. He wiped his face and sat up, coughing to clear his aching throat. He hadn’t had a screaming dream in years. “Fits,” Albert called them. Maybe they were. They’d stopped when he was a boy, when he knew that Celeste would never hold him in the night again.
He shucked the linen case from his pillow and stuffed a corner of it into the hole in the window. His wet shirt stuck to his chest, and he pulled it over his head and dropped it to the floor. Lightning flashed, throwing long shadows across his bed. His door was open, the hallway yawning black beyond.
He knew without checking that he was alone in the house. Maybe Albert had finally found a date who liked the smell of whiskey and sour sweat. He tried to picture that, tried to imagine Albert heaving and grunting away on top of some faceless woman, just like he had seen him do to Miss Pritt. He tried, but all he could conjure was his mother’s face.
He swung his legs to the floor. The soles of his feet brushed the smooth floorboards as he got his bearings in the dark. Slow thunder pealed close, a boulder rolling drum-hollow across the sky. The window panes rattled with it. He could feel it under his toes. A bloom of lightning lit up the bare walls, and the open door gaped like a hole punched in the world, a question mark in the shape of a gravestone.
He thought he heard voices in the living room, talking low, and for an instant he had a horrifying fear that Albert had brought a woman home.
He heard a sound like a shard of ice snapping in two, and blue light flared around him, a great strobe stabbing into every window, every doorway, and every crack in the walls. He flinched, and for a split-second, it was full daylight. The boom shook the house to the foundation, the weathered wood trembling so hard that dust sifted down from the rafters and blessed his head.
There’s no running from me.
He jolted like he’d been strapped with Albert’s belt, not knowing if the voice was real and in the room or just inside his head. Another silent flash blinded him, and the crackle of ozone burned his nose as a diamond-bright ball of light winked into existence in the doorway. It rippled with condensed energy, pulsating and alive. He shut his eyes, but the image was burned into his retinas. He could see it with his eyes closed, just as it could see him with no eyes at all.
Come and see me, Mike. I have so much to show you, so much we can do together. She wants you to come to us. Don’t make her suffer.
He scrabbled back and wedged himself in the tight space between the wall and the bed, covering his ears.
Come out, come out . . . come play with us. We’re under the house, Mike.
A tingle of hysteria snaked up his spine to the back of his neck. He bent his face to the dust of the floor and howled. He didn’t care who heard him. He wanted someone to hear, someone real. Someone human.
Mocking, mouthless laughter scalded his mind.
“Go away, please go away, go go go, leave me alone . . .” he whispered, more prayer than wish. “Blue Mary, make it go away.”
A second crack of energy made all the fine hairs on his arms stand up. When he dared to open his eyes again, he was alone in the dark. He crawled out from behind the bed and stood in the center of his room. When he felt the hot stream of piss running down his legs, he cried like he hadn’t done since he was seven and they’d carried his mother out feet-first.
The hot sun mirrored off Slate’s Pond and pricked Michel’s eyes with a thousand points of diamond. He licked sweat off his upper lip and watched Ray bait his hook and cast his line with one throw.
Ray was a big, good-looking boy with curling gold hair and dark-blue eyes. Michel had never seen eyes as deep blue as Ray’s, as if the color had fallen in love with itself and was using Ray to show off. Clothed in a faded blue T-shirt and jeans, with the sunlight on his hair, Ray looked like a little patch of sky himself.
Slate’s Pond smelled like a bale of hay after a heavy rain, frowsy and stale. Wind blew in furnace gusts, cooling nothing. Dragonflies skittered over the tops of cattails. Near Michel’s ankle, a coffee can of dirt and earthworms writhed audibly as the creatures burrowed deep to shield their skins from the burning sun. A fishy stink wafted up from the can, and Michel poured a handful of water into it. He’d return the survivors to his yard later, to be dug up again next week.
Michel stood on a bank of silt and gray sand and cast his line out for the tenth time that morning, watching the sinker plop near a submerged cypress log. A second line cast near to his, and he looked over at Ray.
Ray glared back at him sullenly before turning his attention to Michel’s crowded bucket of catfish wedged into the dirt.
“You always do better than me.” Ray’s own bucket was empty.
Michel shifted his bare toes in the sandy bank. He shrugged with his hands on the pole, causing his line to jig, and squinted against the sun. “It doesn’t matter. We split it up fifty-fifty, same as always.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Maybe you’ll get a big’un to make up for it.” Flatheads grew to enormous sizes, though the usual in Slate’s Pond was no larger than five pounds, which grieved Ray to no end. There were two things Ray was dead serious about: one was his sister never, ever going out with Jed Hamlock again, and the other was fishing. The love of fishing seemed to run in the Lambert blood.
“I’ll still know you’re better than me,” Ray said.
“You’re good at lots of other things.”
“Things that don’t count next to fishing.”
His fingers tightened on the pole, raising the line up and letting the hook dangle near the surface in a way that would never snag a bite from a cat.
Ray sighed. “Drop your fucking line, Mike. I ain’t mad.”
He dropped his line and grinned at Ray. “Did you bring anything to eat?”
Ray nodded. “I got some cheese crackers, couple of marshmallow pies, and some beers I hope my dad won’t miss.”
His line jigged, sending tiny ripples spreading around the log. He watched it close and spoke to Ray without turning his head. “You want to cook some of these for lunch? I’ll skin ’em if you make the fire.”
“I didn’t bring any pliers.”
Ray nodded. “There’s a hammer in the shed, somewhere anyway. A nail shouldn’t be too hard to find.”
Five yards into the trees was a fishing shed made of old two-by-fours and aluminum siding. Coy Lambert had built the thing before he’d married, and like Coy himself, it had weathered harsh years but was still in one piece. Michel’s line stopping wiggling, and he figured it was a minnow or a turtle. Twenty minutes later, Ray’s line caught hard, and Michel had the pleasure of seeing Ray’s grin when he realized it was the biggest flathead he’d caught all year.
“She must be ten pounds or better,” Ray marveled, handling her carefully, wary of her sharp spines.
“Not bad at all.” It was high praise, man to man, and he wasn’t surprised when Ray disagreed and said it was the best fish caught in this pond ever. Like the elder Mr. Lambert, Ray preferred to do his own tooting when there was occasion for it.
“You might be right,” he said, allowing Ray the victory. He stuck his pole firmly in the dirt and took his bucket of catfish to a pine tree, grabbing the can of worms on the way. He placed the worms safely in the shade while he hunted a nail inside the dusty shed. There were several in the corner of the dirt floor, and a ball-peen hammer was hanging on a screw. Vivid sunlight poked through nail holes in the roof, and he heard mice rustling in the back of the shed, but the place smelled sweet with pine resin and moss. He’d never been afraid to spend the night here when Albert had one of his tempers.
He took the nail and stuck it through the head of the largest of the middling-sized catfish before hammering it to the pine tree. Two quick slashes with his pocket knife, and then he gripped the skin of the catfish between the jaws of the pliers and worked it carefully down the body. When he’d stripped all of it off, he gutted it neatly and let the innards hit the ground. Between ants and raccoons, the mess would be gone in a day.
He cut a couple of reeds, severed the filleted catfish from its head, and skewered the soft, pale meat onto the sharp ends. When he had four fish done, he took them to Ray, who’d stuck four neat, Y-shaped sticks on either side of the fire. Ray cooked the fish while Michel rinsed fish blood from his hands, then sat beside Ray as the fire popped and smoked. The fish were cooked by the time they finished the crackers and pies.
Michel nibbled the blackened fish. Greasy bits of soot peppered the pale meat, but he was so hungry, he ate it anyway. “We should have saved the pies for dessert. Or brought some salt. Something.”
Ray laughed, his mouth gray with ash. “Fish and marshmallows. I wish we had some of my ma’s greens.”
Michel nodded, eyeing the stand of cattails on the water. He knew about cattails and daylilies, and that some of the greens near the water were edible, but it only took one slipup to make you regret it. He chewed thoughtfully, his eyes on the bright flashes racing over the pond’s surface.
“Albert’s always hunting food down here. Turtle. Nutria. Whatever he can find. Wild Stew, he calls it. He tried to skin a beaver for dinner, once. It smelled like he was cooking a cat.” He picked a thin bone from between his lips and dropped it into the fire. “I thought about sticking some castor beans into his stew, once. Or maybe some water hemlock. He’s so drunk all the damn time, no one would think I done it.”
Ray stopped eating and stared at him, the smoke rising between them. “You oughtn’t to say those things. Even if you feel them, you shouldn’t say it. He’s your father.”
“He don’t act like a father. He never has.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Ray put the bony remains of his fish down and wiped his fingers on his jeans. “It’s not about him. I don’t give a damn about old Albert Comeau. You thinking about doing those things can hurt you.”
“I don’t see how. I have to think about something when he starts . . .” He sucked the grease off his thumb and waved the other hand. “You know.”
“A beating ain’t murder. One day he’ll be long gone, and you won’t even remember.”
His heart lurched sideways. “Really?”
Ray nodded. “My ma says all things pass with time, even the bad. And people? The worst ones always get what’s coming to them. That’s what she told Linda when Jim started slapping her around, and six months later, he totaled his truck on I-20.”
Jim had lost his left arm and mangled his foot in that accident. He couldn’t whip a dog now, even if he could catch one.
“You just got to ride it out. He’ll be gone from your life sooner than you know.”
And then? But he knew Ray couldn’t answer that. He wondered if Linda’s man-troubles were all that different from a father who wanted you dead, but looking into Ray’s big blue eyes, anything seemed possible. He picked up a stick and jabbed it idly into the embers. “I was only running my mouth, anyways. You know that, right?”
Ray popped a can of beer open and drank the foam off the top before offering it to him.
“Sud-sucker.” Michel laughed and drank it down. Some people liked the foam. He didn’t care one way or another, but the thought of Ray’s mouth having been right where he placed his gave him a sweet and familiar tingle.
Ever since junior high, when Ray’s shoulders had widened and his baby hair had gone from dishwater blond to deep gold, girls had been pitching themselves at him left and right. Ray took several up on their offers, but then Ray’s dad gently reminded his son that there hadn’t been a bastard Lambert since the Civil War. Any girl Ray knocked up he’d be walking down the aisle with. Ray got Michel to buy him a box of rubbers at Walgreens, and they’d stopped playing around. He wanted to ask Ray why, but he thought he already knew: why settle for another boy’s hand when girls were giving up a lot more?
He would have been happy to offer more, but there were names for boys like that. He never wanted Ray to say those names.
He passed the beer back to Ray. Ray tilted his head way back, exposing the strong, tanned lines of his throat, and slurped from the can.
“I thought about finding a job in Shreveport,” Michel said, watching him.
Ray dropped his chin, his cheeks puffed out with beer. He swallowed and looked at Michel with hurt in his eyes. “Shreveport’s pretty far away.”
He wanted Ray to say more. Knew he wouldn’t. “Yeah, well, there’s no jobs here. And I have to do something. College is out.”
“Yeah, for me too,” Ray murmured. “Not that I was really hoping. It was just nice to think about it sometimes, about how it would be.”
Ray’s grades were worse than his, and his were only average. There were few scholarships for mediocre students, and none for those like Ray, who tried but couldn’t make his mind stick to books and math problems. There were cars to fix and fish to catch, brothers and cousins to play football with, and it was almost never cold. When life is an endless summer, a classroom can feel like a prison.
“You could come with me,” he offered lowly.
Ray brightened. “Where to?”
“I don’t know.” Shreveport was the only big city Michel had ever been to. Ray had been to none.
“What about Jackson?” Ray burped and wiped crumbs from his chin. “And there’s work down in the Gulf too. Shrimping and oil rigs and stuff. We’re strong. We could make it in Jackson or New Orleans.”
“New Orleans?” He liked the sound of that. He pictured moonlight on canals, eating fried shrimp, Mardi Gras, music, and drinking beer on the sidewalk. Ray must have seen him daydreaming, because he leaned over and pushed his shoulder hard.
“Wake up, dumbass. We ain’t there yet.”
Michel made a grab for the beer and swiped empty air when Ray laughed and jerked his arm back. Michel tackled him. Beer went flying and both of them moaned in disappointment when the can hit the water.
Ray laughed and wriggled as Michel poured a handful of sand on his neck. “Now you owe me a cold beer, dick-weed.”
“That skunk beer was warm as piss.” His knees straddled Ray’s chest. “You want to take it out in trade?”
Ray’s steady blue gaze wavered. For a moment, Michel saw something hot and eager move behind Ray’s eyes, then it was gone. “Naw, man, we don’t do that kid stuff anymore. We got girls for that now.”
He shrugged. “Maybe you do.”
Ray frowned and pushed at Michel’s knee. “Come on, get off me.”
He sat down in the damp sand. “Why’d we stop, anyway? I know you didn’t want to.”
Ray sat up and brushed the sand off. “We would’ve gotten caught.”
Michel took a pine twig and stripped the bark from it, looking away. “We were always careful.”
“Not that careful. My sister saw us once. You remember that, don’t you? I was so scared she was going to tell my dad that I puked for a week straight.” Ray picked up a pebble and rolled it between his fingers before tossing it into the water.
Michel watched the pebble arc and land. Ripples swelled on the water’s surface, producing a scatter of glints that hurt his eyes. He blinked hard and swallowed. “I wanted to tell my dad. I still do, every time he calls me a fag. I want to tell him he’s right and rub his face in it, but then I know I’d be dead.” And I’d never see you again.
“It bothers you that much when he says that?”
Michel broke the twig between his fingers. “It don’t bother me one little bit.”
“Is he right?”
He nodded. “Does that bother you?”
Ray shook his head. “Not me.”
He didn’t know what else he could say. Ray had made up his mind, and he couldn’t think of one reason why he should change it. Ray had made it plain: We got girls for that now.
Ray’s voice had changed, and Michel turned to him in hope. “Yeah?”
“You got to put it behind you. Everything. Not just you and me. You don’t get it, do you? You’re the lucky one.”
Lucky? He felt a prickle of resentment that was hard to push away. How could Ray say that to him? Ray, with his full set of parents, his sisters, cousins, grandparents, and even his two big, stupid dogs. Ray had everything. How could Ray call him lucky?
He couldn’t think of any answer that wouldn’t put bad feelings between them. Michel reached for the can of worms and rattled the moist, lumpy contents under Ray’s nose.
“Yeah, I’m real lucky. About as lucky as these guys.” He glanced at the angle of the sun. “If your mom’s counting on those fish for dinner, we’d better get them to her soon. You got enough for today?”
Ray nodded and got up to help gather the fishing poles. Michel reeled the lines in and began securing the hooks to the ends of the poles, stowing them for another day. “We can clean fish at my house. Albert ain’t there and your mom hates fish guts in her kitchen.”
Ray went to the shoal to fill a bucket to douse the fire. He stopped at the edge, staring. “Mike . . . look.”
He turned. A bright ring half as wide as the horizon had appeared around the setting sun, and to either side a fierce bright spot blazed in the sky. He joined Ray at the water’s edge. “What is that?”
Ray shook his head and smiled so wide that it hurt Michel’s heart. “I don’t know. I don’t care. Just look!”
The pond lapped gently at his toes. The trinity suns were distorted and reflected in the water, long banners of light spanning the surface of the pond, reaching for him.
“I hope this never ends,” Ray murmured, his head tilted back.
Ray never took his eyes off the lights, and Michel kept watching Ray, both of them adrift in their own fascination and worship. Ray cupped his hands around his mouth and hooted loudly in sheer joy, heckling the sky or himself. He skipped a rock over the pond, and the three suns rippled and became a thousand.
Michel joined him, adding his voice, egging Ray on as the strange, slanting light blurred into gold, melting around them. Ray clowned and grabbed Michel’s arms, and they danced in a circle, awkwardly primal but moored and no longer astray, feet kicking up sand, howling a lunatic chorus.
It was the happiest Michel had been in a long time.
When the cleaned fish were lined against the cool bottom of the sink, they took turns washing their hands in the second basin, sharing the sliver of Ivory soap. Michel hung the damp towel over the handle of the oven door. Ray leaned his butt against the counter and studied the scuffed linoleum.
The big yellow clock ticked into the quiet, seeming to bounce off the walls. Michel picked it up and wound it, turning the key six times, like always. He replaced it in the windowsill, aware of Ray’s eyes on him.
“Is it always that loud?”
He shook his head. “No. Depends on the weather. It gets kind of loud at night if the wind is still.”
“Doesn’t that annoy you, keep you awake?”
He traced his fingers over the water-stained oval of glass covering the clock face. A last bit of gray light filtered in through the leaves and painted a hazy bokeh effect at their feet.
“I guess it could, if I let it. Take Albert, for example—”
“Nope, you can keep that asshole.”
“Funny.” Michel kicked his sneaker. “I can’t change Albert, but I choose how I want to feel about him. Albert’s nobody. I don’t care if he hits me or even if he hates me. I don’t care if he lives or dies. Now this clock, I can decide how I want to feel about it too. My mom loved this thing, so I decide to be comforted by it.” Michel tried to remember that day, to muscle it out of his memory and see once more the way her bare feet looked on the stretcher, but all he could conjure was the shape of her back as she washed dishes, standing right where Ray was. “What I choose to feel is the one thing no one can take from me or make me do,” he murmured. “It’s all mine, forever.”
He jerked his head up at Ray’s tone, praying not to see ridicule.
“Jesus.” Ray’s eyes were fond and devoted in a way that Michel hadn’t seen since the first time he’d gotten drunk and blown Ray in the front seat of Mr. Lambert’s car. “Nobody says things like you do. Nobody I know of even thinks like that.”
If he could only put the whole of what he felt into his voice, if he could somehow force his vocal cords to heave his heart through his throat, Ray would know everything he wanted him to hear. He’d been keeping it all inside for so long. His chest ached with it, as if his lungs were too full of air and he had to get it out, had to tell him.
Ray held his gaze and nodded.
Ray’s teeth clicked with his when their mouths met. His hands shook as he placed his palms on Ray’s chest, just resting them there as Ray kissed him, and it was sloppy and wet and salty and beautiful.
Right in the middle of the kiss, the corners of Michel’s mouth turned up in a smile.
“What?” Ray panted, eyes bright as sapphires, hands fumbling and restless on Michel’s waist.
“You,” he smiled. “Where’d you learn to French?”
Ray exhaled in a sound like relief and grinned back. He slid a hand into Michel’s hair and cupped his neck, fingers moving in a caress. “Maggie Doucet,” he said, and yanked him closer.
They swayed a little, breathing each other’s breath, close as they could get with their clothes on, writhing like a couple of earthworms. Michel felt a surge of pure, honeyed horniness spreading through his thighs, so sweet he could almost suck it off Ray’s tongue, something golden and drippy and aching to be explored, prodded, spread open, and lapped up. His sweaty palm groped at Ray’s crotch, and he shared a moan with Ray. A warm rush swept up from his chest, and his fingers tore clumsily at Ray’s zipper.
Ray’s cheeks flushed with pink heat that made his face look all sleepy and sated. Michel sucked on Ray’s tongue, resisting the urge to nip like an excited puppy, and grabbed Ray’s hip, grinding against him.
A brightness crashed into Michel’s eyes, and he went down, hurt exploding across his temple. He tried to raise his head and couldn’t, his jaw hanging slack, stupid with pain. “Ray?” he mumbled. His tongue felt thickly numb, like he had a mouthful of warm glue. When he looked down between his knees and saw the color, he realized it was blood. He thought of Blue Mary, and the last truly appalling beating he’d endured in this house.
Blue Mary, save me.
A shining length swung toward his face. He ducked, primitive reflex taking over, galvanizing his muscles with a jolt of adrenaline. His face hit the floor, and above him, he heard a sickening thunk of metal hitting flesh. Ray dropped heavily, stone-cold out of it. Another thud, and then another, while Michel wasted precious seconds being stupefied.
Later, he couldn’t recall how he’d gotten off the floor. He only knew that the snarl erupting from his throat hurt coming out. He was on Albert like a pit bull, fingers curled into hooks as he clawed for his eyes, for the metal pipe, for Albert’s balls, anything. His hands scrabbled against Albert’s chest, popping the fake-pearl buttons on his chambray shirt. His nails raked Albert’s skin. He frothed at the mouth with bloody spit, his rage too immense for his skinny, juvenile frame. He dug in hard, drawing deep, crimson grooves across the thick flesh.
Michel imagined hollowing out Albert’s chest like a gourd, reaching in to wrap his fist around the cords of the hidden organ. If he’d had a knife, he would have cut the beating lump from Albert’s breast and stomped on it.
Albert jabbed the end of the pipe into his belly. Michel coughed and bent, and Albert’s arm snaked around his neck, cutting off his wind. Michel could smell the sickly-sweet ooze of Wild Turkey seeping from the pores of Albert’s skin, gusting on his breath.
Albert’s hairy forearm pressed against his jaw. He tucked his chin and used his teeth, crunching down into the muscle. Albert wailed, jerking his arm so hard that the nerves in Michel’s teeth zinged with pain. The pipe boomed hollowly on the floor, rolling under the sink.
Albert gave him a vicious shove and stumbled back. They faced each other over Ray’s body, and realization breezed through the kitchen like the first salty breath of ocean air.
Ray groaned and tried to turn over, dark red streaming from his nose. Michel hawked up a mouthful of spit, shaking, his chest heaving. The thin, ferric taste of Albert’s blood covered his tongue now, turning his belly sour. Albert backed away toward the door, his eyes on Ray, on the blood flowing over the floor that must surely have put him in mind of another day, another hemorrhage of life.
“Where you going?” Michel lurched after him as far as the door, blood running over his lip and down his chin, teeth hurting. The screen door banged. Michel braced himself against the frame and watched Albert disappear into the woods. “Where you running to, huh?”
Haunting and beautiful, Hammer and Bone is an impressive and inspired collection.
[These stories] are all dark, disturbing, twisted. All in different ways. All throw you into different, intriguing, very well built worlds.
This was the most unique book I've read in a long, long time...There is something both beautiful and haunting in the way this author writes.
There is something both beautiful and haunting in the way this author writes.
[U]nique, intriguing, addicting and ultimately a very excellent read.