Half-life

by Morgan Talty

It was Saturday. Early fall. I was sitting up, holding my head, and thinking about my grandmother for not too long before Fellis saw I was awake and asked me how we got down here, in one of the two tall silos at the blue abandoned Olamon Industries. Except for us and some dirt and blown wet leaves and crushed cans of cheap beer, the silos were empty. What light made its way this deep showed me my orange-colored hands. Rust from the ladder we’d used to get down here, and it was that ladder I wanted to say was how we got here, but that’s not what Fellis meant. The answer he sought had something to do with all the crushed beer cans. Or maybe it goes back further, has more to do with why we crushed those beer cans in the first place.

“Dee,” Fellis said. He stood now and brushed dirt off the back of his jeans. “Do you remember coming here?”

I was thinking too much into his question. All he wanted was a memory.

“I don’t remember,” I told him.

“Me fucking neither,” Fellis said.

I stood, and I rubbed my head and neck.

Fellis climbed out first, and I followed. His sneakers on the ladder scraped loose flakes of rust that fell like bloody snow, and so I climbed up looking down at the bottom of the silo. I couldn’t see he’d stopped climbing, and so I bumped my head on his heel.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “Be quiet.”

I sneezed and the noise reverberated through that empty silo. “Goddamn it,” Fellis whispered. “Shut up.”

Olamon Industries was out back behind the tribal lumberyard. It had been years since the industry produced anything or stored any materials in those silos. The tribe used to make audio cassettes, but they started in on that when CDs were becoming a thing, so the venture didn’t last too long. Then the tribe’s business was saved, just for a time, when they partnered with some contractors to manufacture tactical landing light systems for the US so aircrafts could identify landing areas. Not sure why the tribe stopped making those—maybe the US had landed in every possible place so they no longer needed Indians to help them out.

Or maybe we just sucked at making them.

The car Fellis waited for to pass passed by.

We went out and over the edge and climbed down the ladder to the ground.

“Christ, it’s bright when you’ve been in the dark so long,” Fellis said.

We stepped into the woods past the lumberyard, the shortcut to our roads home. And we weren’t in the wooded path for more than a rock’s throw before Fellis asked me to come over for breakfast, said his mom would make us something.

“I got to get home,” I said. “I told my mother I’d go see my grandmother this morning up at Woodlands.”

“It’s still early,” Fellis said. He looked up in the gray fall sky and pointed. “Sun’s right there. It’s not even nine yet.”

“Then I’m late,” I said, and it was then I realized I was shaking. “Can I get a pin?”

“They’re at home,” Fellis said, but I knew he was lying. He had them on him last night. “Come by and I’ll give you some.”

“No,” I said. “I have to get home.”

We came to the end of the path and out onto the road, and Fellis went one way and I went the other.

At home, the driveway was empty, and I cussed on my way indoors and through the kitchen and down the hall to the bathroom where I threw up in the toilet with the lights off. The phone was ringing out in the kitchen, but I let it go. With my head under the sink faucet I swallowed three Tylenol, and then with some soap I washed my hands of the rust, washed my face and behind my ears and around my nose, and then did it all two times more to make sure I got everything, all of it. I refused to look at myself in the mirror.

The phone started ringing again.

My hands were wet when I answered the phone and said hello, but nobody said anything back. I hung up and was on my way to the bathroom when I looked at the stove clock.

It wasn’t even morning; it was half past three in the afternoon.

When my mother came back later, I was in the living room with the TV on low and a lit cigarette I couldn’t drag from without getting nauseated. She had some groceries and asked me where I was this morning.

“I lost track of time,” I told her, and she said nothing because she was sick of me. How could she not be? It’s just been us two for the past six years. How’d we get here? That’s Fellis’s question, but it’s mine too. How’d we get here? I’m starting to think that each time I ask it, each time I consider an answer, I wind up farther away from where I should be, from where I was. Where I had been. I left a lot of things behind. Or maybe that’s not it—maybe it’s that a lot of things had left me behind. Friends. Family. Relationships. The future.

I put out the cigarette and stood to leave. My mother didn’t care to know where her twenty-eight-year-old son was going, but before I left I asked her when she was going next to Woodlands.

“Tomorrow,” she said. She stood at the sideboard with a candle in a glass jar and a knife, lengthening the wick. “Same time.”

I told her I wouldn’t miss it again. She scraped wax off the knife with her fingernail, which she then rubbed off on a dirty cloth. I waited for her to say something more until I knew she’d said it all.

I walked to Fellis’s. His mom, Beth, let me in but didn’t say anything to me because she was on the phone telling someone it was all going to be all right. Fellis was sleeping when I went to him in his room. And he didn’t wake when I nudged him, so I sat in a beanbag chair and wondered where he put those pins, and when I settled on a place—in his dresser—I looked for them but only found some cash and change and sticks of half-burned incense.

I tripped over a box in his room on my way to the bathroom in the hallway. Again, I threw up, and in the light I saw some rust was still on my hands. I washed it all off.

Fellis was awake when I went back in the room, and so I turned the light on. He was sitting up in the bed with his back against the wall. He asked when I got here, and I said a little bit ago.

“How was your grandmother?” he asked.

“I was late,” I said. “Didn’t make it.”

“There’s always another day,” he said. He sat up straighter. “What time is it?”

I told him and he whistled.

“This was the fastest fucking day,” he said.

“Let me get one of those pins,” I said.

Fellis yawned and wiped his face and then looked at his hands and smelled them.

“Rust,” I said. “Did you hear me?”

“Yeah, I heard you. Hold on. Christ.”

He wiped his hands on his shirt and got up and left the room. He was wearing only his boxers. I could hear him out in the kitchen talking with Beth about something. When he came back he held two beers and dropped one in my lap and set his on the dresser, and then he grabbed his jeans off the floor and squeezed both pockets, and then, still holding the jeans, he kicked at the dirty clothes on the floor, looking. He dropped his jeans and went to his bed and tugged the blanket off.

“You can’t find them?” I asked.

He stopped doing what he was doing and looked at me with just a sliver of his face. “Does it look like I can find them?” He started digging again.

Fellis slanted his bed away from the wall and peered in the gap. He didn’t right the bed, and he grabbed his jeans off the floor and put one leg in.

“I must’ve left them in the silo,” he said, losing his balance. “Whoa!” He reached for the dresser to steady himself and put his other foot in his pants, yanked up, and buttoned. “Let’s go up there and drink anyway. My auntie’s coming over soon to cry and I don’t want to be around for that shit.”

If the pins weren’t in the silo, I told myself, I wasn’t staying.

Before we left, Fellis shoved eight beers in a plastic grocery bag, which he made me carry while he carried his hand-crank flashlight and a half-gone bottle of gin, and somewhere between his place and the silo, when we were on the wooded path, he told me to hold onto the bottle and flashlight so he could tie his shoe. When he was done he didn’t take the bottle or the flashlight back until we were at the ladder, and he only took them because I couldn’t carry all that and I told him so. We climbed up the ladder and down into the silo.

Fellis kept his pins in a medicine bottle with the label partially peeled off, which makes sense when you buy from the streets, but he got these prescribed from the doctor on the rez. The flashlight cut the dark of the silo, and I watched as Fellis kicked at the small mounds of wet leaves.

“Here it is,” he said, and he rattled the bottle with the little blue pills before tossing it to me.

I knew better than to take a whole one on a pretty empty stomach, but I couldn’t snap the tiny pill in half, so I took it.

“You’re gonna fall asleep on me,” Fellis said, and he swallowed a blue pill with a sip of beer. He leaned back on the silo wall and slid down it to a sitting position. It was all but dark out now. He cranked his flashlight once, twice—thirty times. He propped it up and in the lit space between us I saw our mess of crushed cans and cigarette butts and crumpled cellophanes and bum lighters and glass bottles.

How long had we been coming here?

Three beers in, I started telling Fellis the story about my grandmother, years back when I was little, when her memory first started to go and she thought I was someone else. I told the story and he said “uh huh” or “mmm” for a time, and when I got to the funny part his hard laughter gave me energy to dig up another about her, which he listened to quietly and with no noise. The hand-crank flashlight cut out in the middle of my story, and when Fellis made no movement to get the light going again I wondered at which part in this second story did he fall asleep? I lay down and used my arm as a pillow, and the sting from the cold metal of the silo against my skin reminded me that she wasn’t dead yet and in the morning I better be up and on time.

I was up in that early, early hour when it feels like anything can happen, that moment right before the sun crosses the horizon in a quick and unexpected burst.

My grandmother.

I left Fellis sleeping. I wasn’t feeling as sick as the day before, but I had those heart shivers, where thinking or not thinking both get you nervous. I was halfway up the ladder when I thought to take some of Fellis’s pins. I climbed back down and looked for the bottle. I found it and knocked four into my palm but I put one back because he was almost out. I couldn’t read when he was due a refill. That bit was peeled off. I swallowed one with no drink and put the other two in the tiny pocket on my jeans, and then I climbed out of the silo and headed home.

My mother was in the bathroom when I got home. I shut the back door behind me.

“Is that you?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’s me.”

“What?”

“It’s me!”

There was coffee left in the pot, and I poured a cup and went to the couch. That pin I took was doing its job: I was for the time being no longer shivering from thinking or not thinking. But I was tired. Real tired.

I lied and said no when she asked if I was sleeping.

“You don’t have to come,” she said. She sat down on the couch next to me and put on her shoes.

“I said I would,” I told her, and I stood up.

On the way off the rez we drove by Fellis walking down the road and in the rearview I watched as he turned around and watched right back.

The only time my mother and I talked during the drive to Woodlands was when she asked me for a lighter and I told her I forgot it. Nothing else was said. And you’d think there’d be some awkwardness in this drive, in this non-talking, but the truth is that we’re used to not talking. Or maybe it’s just me, since I can’t speak for her. But she’s never said otherwise.

I wonder if How’d we get here? is the wrong question. Maybe the right question is How do we get out of here? Maybe that’s the only question that matters.

My mother parked the car in the parking lot of Woodlands, and she asked if I was sleeping.

“No,” I said, and I got out of the car.

Woodlands was a nice-looking place. But like all assisted living centers or places where the old go to die, there was that empty feeling to it, like every part of the place—the walls, doors, handrails, desks, tables, counters, cupboards, board games, TVs, couches, chairs, plants, everything, all of it—was hollowed out and could so easily break, like that colored plastic used in children’s playhouses you see at day cares. If you could squeeze it hard enough, it would be misshapen. And the smell— the smell too had some hollow to it.

A bald man buzzed us in, and a nurse with sharp blonde curls came out from a side office and pulled my mother aside like she had a secret to tell, something to do with my grandmother, but all she said was that my grandmother’s been laughing a lot today, and in hearing that I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time. It wasn’t quite happiness, but something close to it.

I followed my mother down one long hall. This old white guy whose face sagged and who leaned on the wall’s handrail laughed at us, and when I stared at him as we passed he got all serious-like and let out several “whoops” before he laughed again.

“Weirdo,” my mother said, and our laughing wasn’t fake.

My grandmother’s door was partly open, and my mother pushed it and stuck her head in the room and said my grandmother’s name.

“Hi, yes,” she said. “Come on in.”

Even though she could still walk, my grandmother was in a wheelchair, and had it facing the window through which the maples were losing their leaves.

She turned herself around and rolled herself to the center of the room.

She looked at me.

“Hello,” she said.

“You know who this is,” my mother said. She sat on the bed.

“I do,” my grandmother said, but in a way that could have been either a question or a statement.

“This is your grandson,” my mother said.

“I know that,” she said. “Welcome back, gwus. You know, if you were white it would have been self-defense.”

“No, Mom,” my mother said. “This is your grandson, not your granddaughter.”

“That long hair could have fooled me,” she said, laughing. “But I know who he is. I was just making conversation. Abin, gwus.”

My mother pointed to a chair that I did not see. I grabbed it and turned it around and sat.

“I know who he is,” my grandmother said again. “He’s the one who doesn’t do anything.”

“Mom,” my mother said.

“Well,” my grandmother said.

That old white man came to the door and whooped.

“You get the hell out of here!” My grandmother got up from the wheelchair and went to the door. “Go on! Get!”

He didn’t leave, so my grandmother shut the door in his face. “Winooches,” she said, and then she laughed. She sat back down. “What was I going to tell you?” She looked at her finger, which she rubbed. “Forget it.”

My mother’s mouth opened to speak.

“Oh,” my grandmother said. She looked at me. “Before you leave,” she said, “can you check my mail?”

“There’s a mailbox?” I asked.

“At the end of the driveway,” she said.

Mom looked at me and I just went with it. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll check it.”

“I’m waiting for my check,” she said, and then she started in about some bingo game she won recently—“five thousand dollars,” she said, smiling, her hands folded—and how with the money she was going to renovate her kitchen, and if there was some left over she was going to fix up her back porch.

But she wouldn’t have money left over, because she won that money years back when the tribe first opened Super Bingo. What she won wasn’t even enough for the kitchen.

“It’s going to look so nice,” my grandmother said.

“I bet it will,” my mother said.

“You know,” my grandmother said, but I stopped listening to her. Wasn’t it only twenty-five hundred she won? And didn’t part of that get stolen by some rez rats when she was at church? Yeah, I think that’s what happened and why she couldn’t get the kitchen finished. No—maybe it was five thousand. Yeah, it was five thousand. She gave half of it to the church. Yeah! That was it. I remember. And when the pastor found out about that money of hers getting stolen he didn’t even offer to give back what she’d given to the church.

“You sleeping?” my grandmother asked.

I sat up straight and said no. But I think I was.

My grandmother laughed.

“He’s tired,” my mother said, and then she lied. “He just started working at UPS and they have him on nights.”

“Is that right?” my grandmother said.

“Sure is,” I said.

“Good for you. Good for you, gwus. You start paying rent now. You’re too old to be mooching off your mother. How old are you?”

“Twenty-eight,” I said.

“Jesus,” she said. “Older than I thought.”

“Mom.”

“Can I use your bathroom?” I asked.

“Can you?” My grandmother cackled.

In the bathroom I didn’t go but flushed like I did, and then under the sink faucet I swallowed another pin.

They were talking about something they didn’t want me to hear, because they got quiet when I returned. When I sat down, my grandmother was smiling at me, smirking almost, like she knew the totality of my life, knew where I came from, where I was presently, and where I was going. And she kept on smirking at me, and then she nodded like she was agreeing on something, something about me—about where I was headed— and then she laughed and leaned forward and patted my knee.

“I had a brother …,” she started to say.

Before we left that day my grandmother reminded me about the mail. “I’ll wait right here,” she said, and she stood half in her room, half in the hall.

Mom went and started the car and I waited near the front exit for a minute before I went back to my grandmother. She was still at her door, half in, half out.

“There was no mail,” I told her.

“Maybe tomorrow,” she said, and she cupped my chin in her hands. “Listen now—you be good.” She let go and shut the door.

I’d been bumming pins from Fellis for months. Maybe even close to a year. One every three or four days, then one every other day, then one once a day, then two a day, then three a day. Maybe now is when I should stop bumming them. Or go see the doc. No—I can’t see him. But I can’t not take them. The world without them feels too muggy. Too stuffy. Like I can’t breathe.

“You be good,” my grandmother said. It’s worth a shot.

On day three with no pins I asked Fellis again if he knew anyone who was selling. I did good the first two days without them, probably because I drank both nights, once in the silo and then once at Fellis’s because it rained and the silo was all wet.

“I told you,” Fellis said. He was putting in Signs, that alien movie with Mel Gibson and that little girl who leaves glasses of water all over the place. “That fucking kid Meekew has some.”

I waited for the movie to be over before I left. I needed time to think it through, think about how I’d get the money. When I got up and told Fellis I’d be back, he asked me where I was going, and I lied and said to get some money from home, and he asked if he could come.

“I’ll be right back,” I said. “Just wait here.” I took one of his smokes before I left.

I put my hood up and walked down the road and smoked a cigarette dotted with rain splatter and I thought—no, I asked—should I do it?

Over my grandmother’s empty kitchen sink, I busted up the window frame, and I pried it open and crawled inside, and I was crying not because I felt bad about doing it but because I didn’t feel good one bit.

I drank a glass of water and splashed water on my face.

I didn’t think I’d find any money, and so I suppose I tricked myself into thinking that that was a fact, and that that fact would absolve my attempt to take the money I convinced myself was not in the house.

Then why look? I can’t remember.

My grandmother’s house wasn’t too big. It had an upstairs with two bedrooms and a bathroom, and above that there was a small attic I’d never been in before. The bottom floor had the kitchen and living room and another bedroom, the one my grandmother stayed in even though the stairs weren’t nothing for her to climb.

I decided to look upstairs first because I knew if I started downstairs I’d hear above me those floorboards creaking, which my grandmother said were from Goog’ooks walking around, and in hearing it I knew I’d get creeped out and wouldn’t go upstairs, just like I did when I was little and refused to sleep anywhere but in bed next to my grandmother. But there was nothing upstairs except dust and boxes of pictures and old frames and empty plant pots and this cedar chest full of baby stuff that belonged to my mother. I did find an empty carton of cigarettes, Mistys, the kind my grandmother said she quit years back but we always knew she kept on smoking.

I found some change near the couch: a dime and two pennies under the cushions, and a quarter way back under the couch near the wall. But there was nothing else in the living room, nor in the kitchen. There was the bathroom to check, but why would there be money in there?

My grandmother’s room felt like a display, like everything in it— the brown dresser, the bed with the long blue skirt, the two matching nightstands each with a lamp, and the closet behind whose white-colored doors hung all my grandmother’s clothes—was never used but not never used, was just a room in an abandoned furniture store.

The rain outside picked up and hit hard the glass of the bedroom window.

You won’t find anything, I told myself, yet I had a feeling I would find everything.

It was in a safe no larger than a cinder block, and it was half under the bed, half sticking out under the blue skirt. I slid it all the way out. The key was in the hole, like it had been waiting for me, like it had been put there for this very moment. Not a test, no. An alignment, an alignment of something I could not name. I turned the key, and its ridges and grooves lifted the cylinders with such assurance it took my breath away.

Papers, documents, pictures. A rosary. A letter from my sister. Pictures, documents, papers. A letter my grandmother never sent to my sister in an envelope with blue penmanship so sharp I could not read it.

The sound of floorboards creaking above me pulled my head like it was on a rope.

And then they were gone like the Goog’ooks themselves.

The manila envelope was about the same size as the money it held, and I counted it but didn’t really count it, because the whole time I was saying, “There’s supposed to be nothing here.” I began again, and I only made it to four hundred and twenty dollars when a car door slammed shut. I shoved everything back into the safe, including the money, all of it, whose envelope I saw had my name written on it in that blue penmanship of hers. I would take no money right then, not because I couldn’t and not because I convinced myself there was no money to take, but because the memory has always been that I left everything as it was.

I shut and locked the safe, and pushed it back under the bed as it had been. The front door opened and I opened the closet, and when the front door shut I shut the closet.

The bedroom light came on. Huddled between my grandmother’s hanging clothes, lines of light crossing my face, I watched my mother cross the small room to the side of the bed I’d just left. She got on the floor and was out of my vision, but it was like I could still see, could still see what she was doing. She pulled out the safe.

She said something I couldn’t hear. She sat up on her knees, looking.

She started in the dresser drawers, moving stuff around, and then she went to the nightstand closest to the safe, pulled open drawers, and she left them open when she went to the other side of the bed, the other nightstand, passed so close by me in the closet that I could smell her sharp perfume. I did not blink. She left those drawers open too, and she went back to the safe, got back on the ground and out of my sight. Everything she pulled out from under the bed she set on the bed until everything that was under there was on top: old VCRs and unpainted shelves for knickknacks and a basket full of rogue cables and wires and a small plastic tote filled with buttons and sewing string and another empty carton of Mistys.

“Where is it?” my mother said.

Her eyes set on the closet, and she came for it. In my fear I tensed and squeezed each of my hands so tightly shut that I finally felt it.

My gasp made my mother jump back. “Who’s there?” she said, and then, perhaps to frighten the person behind those closed closet doors, my mother declared she had a weapon. “I’ll use it,” she said.

I stared at the key in my hand.

How did we get here? and How do we get out of here? sometimes have the same answer.

“Don’t you open that door!” my mother yelled. “You stay right there!”

She stood at the nightstand and picked up the phone and dialed three digits.

“Yes, I need—”

I wrapped myself in the hanging clothes and barged out through the closet door, and my mother screamed and dropped the phone. I sprinted from the room, and, still clenching most of the clothes to my body, I ran out the front door and into the pouring rain. The longer I ran the heavier the clothes became, the cotton and polyester and wool of my grandmother’s jackets and shirts and pants absorbing the rainwater. When I was on the wooded path I heaved the clothes off me and they plopped in the muddy wet of the earth, and I kept on going until the path ended. I had to cross the street to reach the other path, and I did so just in time. Sirens whirred and whined right past, and I crouched and ducked in a thicket of pines until dark.

Fellis found me down in the silo that night, and I thought he was the police coming for me. He stayed standing on the ladder and shone the hand-crank flashlight in my face.

“What are you doing down here?” he asked.

I told him what happened.

“That was you?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Anyone call you looking for me?”

“Your mom did,” he said. “You think if it rains enough we’ll drown down here?”

The water pooling at the bottom of the silo had soaked through my shoes hours ago.

“What did she say?” I said.

“She was looking for you.”

“What’d you say?”

“That you went home.”

“And what’d she say?”

“‘When was that?’”

“And you said?”

“I don’t fucking know,” he said. “I can’t remember.” He hopped off the ladder and splashed water. “It’s not as deep as I thought.”

“You got a smoke?” I asked.

He lit one and handed it to me. “What are you going to do? Hide down here all night in the rain?”

“I wonder if she saw me,” I said. “She didn’t,” Fellis said.

“How do you know?”

“Because she wouldn’t have said to me, ‘If you see him tell him to call me. Someone broke into his grandmother’s house.’”

“She said that?” I asked.

“Something close to it, yeah.”

Fellis flashed his light around the silo, and I smoked that smoke down to the filter.

“Let’s go to my place,” Fellis said. “My feet are wet.”

If the cigarette hissed out when it hit the water, I didn’t hear it.

I called my mother when I got to Fellis’s.

“Yeah, he told me,” I said.

“I’m all right,” she said, and in detail she recapped what happened, which was exactly as it did happen. “Why would someone rob an old woman’s home?” my mother asked.

“You said they didn’t take nothing?” I looked at the key in my hand.

She didn’t say anything, and I asked her again.

“Yes,” she said. “Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Just those clothes that person ran off in.”

“That was it?”

“That was it.”

We were both quiet.

“I’m filling in again tomorrow,”she said.“So if I’m not home—”

“You’ll be at the tribal offices,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “And give your grandmother a call tomorrow.”

“I will,” I said.

“Don’t forget. And don’t mention her house getting broken into.”

“I won’t.”

“All right.”

I ate some leftovers of moose meat and rice, and when I finished the plate Fellis and I went out back of his house under the awning and smoked to the sound of rain drumming above us.

“Did she have any money?”

I was surprised it took Fellis so long to ask.

A flash of light blinked in the sky far off, and I counted twelve seconds until the rumble.

“Thunder’s coming,” Fellis said, and he flicked his smoke that was half done.

I walked home at three in the morning. I thought Mom was up when I got home, not because the bathroom light was on but because I could have sworn she was standing right there in the hallway, looking at me. I was so convinced it was her I asked, “Are you all right?” But she wasn’t there; I was just seeing shit between the light and the dark.

I turned the stove light on in the kitchen, and then I went down the hall to the bathroom and turned that light off. Back in the kitchen, I again thought I was seeing things that weren’t there: my grandmother’s safe rested on the kitchen table, and it didn’t get any more real when I put my hands on each side of it and carried it like a watermelon to the living room and sat down on the couch with it in my lap. No. It got real when I took out that key and again had my breath sucked from my lungs when I twisted and pulled open the small door.

Forty-seven hundred dollars was in that small manila envelope with my name on it. I counted it in the dim light that stretched from the kitchen to the living room where I sat, and I thought I miscounted— forty-seven hundred dollars?—and so I counted it again but had got it right the first time. Forty-seven hundred dollars.

I took it. I did. Not all of it, and not right then. I sat on it, literally. Sat on what I took. I didn’t even know how much I grabbed. Just some of it. I put the envelope with the rest back in the safe and closed the door and locked it and carried the safe back to the table where it was when I found it. Back on the couch I put the money under me as I sat for a few hours, thinking, really thinking if I should take what I already had, kept thinking about it and thinking about it and thinking about it until it grew light outdoors. And I only moved twice from the couch that whole time, once to make sure the key I held was real and that the safe door was closed and locked, and the second time to make sure none of that money I sat on got dragged with me when I went to check the safe, check to see the key in my hand was real.

Mom got up at quarter to six. I shoved those bills under the couch cushions. Just as I had scared her when I burst through the closet, I scared her again, not meaning to, when I said hi from the living room.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” she said. “I thought you were at your friend’s?”

“I came home last night,” I said.

“You slept out here?”

“Yeah,” I said.

She didn’t say anything more. I smelled the coffee she poured, could taste the hazelnut creamer she used, could taste it thick on the air.

“There’s coffee,” she said, and she took her cup to the bathroom with her.

I poured too much in a mug. My hands shook and I spilled some all down the sides and on the counter, and to get rid of some of it I sipped it and burned my lip and tongue.

I put the TV on just to have it on, and the news was playing. Mom watched it from time to time, when she was taking breaks from getting ready, always standing, never sitting, holding a small white plate with a toasted English muffin with strawberry jam on it, leaving, coming back and standing there again in my periphery, putting earrings in, leaving, returning, asking if she missed the weather, leaving, returning, looking for her cigarettes, her wallet, her purse, coming once more to ask about the weather.

“More rain,” I said.

“Don’t forget to call your grandmother later.”

When her car pulled out of the driveway, I pulled the money out from under the cushion and counted it. Six-hundred and forty dollars. Maybe if I’d felt better I could have done the math, but I got a calculator to figure out how many pins I could get. Enough. I could get enough, enough to last and make plans for next steps, next steps that maybe included going to the doctor. And, I figured, I could even get myself more time, more time to make more plans.

I left Mom’s to go to Meekew’s. He doesn’t live on the reservation—he lives in Overtown in an apartment his parents pay for. Maybe that’s why Fellis hates him so much: he’s got everything taken care of for him, so I don’t even know why he sells drugs. It might be one thing if he took them, but he doesn’t use at all. He’s got that type of future where he knows he’s going places. Everyone knows he’s going places. Because he is.

I get why Fellis hates him.

Before going to Meekew’s, I stopped off at Jim’s Corner for a pack of smokes and a Slim Jim, which I ate in the store up near the door because it was pouring hard. I finished it and was thirsty so I bought a short can of Sprite for fifty cents. I drank it in five swigs. I couldn’t find a garbage can so I just put it in the stand with all the potato chips. The rain didn’t let up when I left.

Meekew’s apartment is across from a bank, and the bank’s digital clock outside said it was only going on 9:00 a.m. I wondered if he was still sleeping or if he was up. The lobby door was open, and I took the stairs up to the fourth floor to apartment 409. I knocked several times, but he didn’t answer. Maybe I just need to give him time, I thought. I sat down in the hall with my back against the wall and waited and waited and waited, but I didn’t hear any noise from that apartment.

The hallway smelled like cigarettes, so I lit one up and stayed sitting on the floor. I had no idea how long I’d been sitting there, but I was committed to waiting. Hours must have gone by. I put my head on my knees and took drags from cigarette after cigarette until I heard the noise, not from the apartment but from down the hall and through the doors, and, when they opened, I saw Meekew.

I stood up and felt how wet and heavy my clothes were.

He stopped walking for a moment and looked at me, and when he figured out who I was he walked down to his door.

“Put that out before you come in,” he said. He took out his keys and looked for the right one.

I put the smoke out in the puddle of water my clothes left on the floor.

Inside his apartment, I told him I was sorry to show up like this.

He didn’t say anything. “I have to be back for my next class this afternoon, so you can’t stay.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I get it.”

“So what do you need?”

I told him.

“How many?” he asked.

I said I had five hundred.

He looked to be counting in his head, and then he left the room. He was gone for a minute or two, a minute or two in which I took in how clean his place was, except for where I stood, a puddle of muddy water under my shoes.

When he came back he had a bottle with the label peeled off.“I only have seventy-eight,” he said. “That’s three eighty.”

I paid him, and before I left he said he should have more next week. “If you’re looking.”

I left and wondered if this, this looking, this constantly looking, is the future my grandmother’s smirk seemed to suggest she knew about.

And then I figured it out. I had the fucking question all wrong. It had nothing to do with us. It had everything to do with me. How did I get here, and how do I get out?

I took three pins before I left the building and walked out into the rain, which got real, real warm by the time I made it back to the rez. I took the path that ran along the river and split through the swamp, and when I passed through that, I realized I was walking slow, so slow, and so I stopped and sat on a fallen tree and looked out at the river and the millions of drops of rainwater plopping on the surface.

I tried to think about what my grandmother saw, what made her smirk, and when I started to feel down about it, that I didn’t know and couldn’t figure it out, I didn’t want to remember it anymore, so I took two more pins, settled into that fallen tree, and I thought I was sleeping until the rain hit my open eyes, the only part of me awake, and I didn’t shut them. Floods. If it keeps raining this whole place will flood. All of it. If I stay here long enough the water might rise up, brush my feet, recede, come back higher, to my knees, recede, come back higher, higher, to my neck, gone again, higher, higher, higher, over my head, and it will go back the way it came but not empty-handed: it’ll have me with it, right out there in the water too murky to see through at first but it’ll keep filling with that rainwater, diluting the pollution, until it’s crystal clear. But it’ll be too late for me to see—I won’t be breathing.

“Fuck,” I said. I burned a hole through my jacket, right down to my arm, and melted my skin like plastic to a flame. I smacked at the red embers of that dropped cigarette, and then I shut my eyes and felt the rain stop.

I was shivering when I woke up in the morning, which I knew was morning by the way the horizon was over the river, how the light rose soft like blood from a scratch. I cleared my throat and tried to stand but fell back from the weight of my heavy clothes. I tried again and was up. On both feet. Barely. Two, three steps—I got it, but I sit back down, give myself more time. I check my pockets for that bottle of pins, but I can’t find it. You be good, I hear her say. You be good. You be good. You be good. Her voice is everywhere but nowhere.

I was supposed to call her. Fuck. I said I would. The sun has come up now, and I got up and walked the path, going only where it was taking me, to the road, the road home.

But no one was there: Mom’s car was gone, the lights all out in the house but lit up bright from the sun shining through the windows.

I picked up the phone but couldn’t remember the number for Woodlands, so I had to look it up in the phone book. I found it and dialed and a woman answered, and I asked her to connect me to my grandmother’s room. She asked if I was family, and I told her I was her grandson.

“Hold on,” she said. “I’m transferring you.”

Static. A low beep, beep, beep. Crackle of answering.

“Who is this?” the voice said.

“Who is this?” I said.

It was a nurse supervisor, and she said her name.

“Well, put my grandmother on,” I said. “Or is she sleeping?”

She said it and I heard it and she asked if I was coming up to Woodlands.

“Are you there?” she asked.

I ended the call and put the phone on the table, and I reached in my pocket for that bottle of pins. But I remembered I lost it—somewhere—and instead I pulled out that key. I stuck it in the safe, which, like the key, didn’t belong to anyone anymore.

Published on November 2, 2022

First published in Harvard Review 59 and in Morgan Talty's debut short story collection, Night of the Living Rez (Tin House, July 2022).

2022-11-02T12:09:45-04:00