I stared at his sandwich. Sliced down the center, the left half slouched a bit. Grease trickled down the stack of meat and scrambled egg.
Tate called for me again. He held the turtle up as far as his arms could stretch. His arms were really thin and that made his elbows look big. From far away each scute of the carapace looked like a bloodshot eye.
"Keep eating." Dad bit his thumbnail and poured three packets of sugar in his coffee. The newspaper spread across his lap, opened to the local police blotter. "He'll be back in a few minutes to complain about his cold sandwich."
"There's nothing worse than a cold sandwich. It's a sin." Mom drank a glass of whole milk while leaning against the counter. The milk was so white and I imagined it was incredibly cold.
I finished my sandwich and wiped my lips, then drank the rest of the orange juice, swamped with heavy pulp. It was squeezed in Olentown, where Dad bought bottles from the farmer's market. He was on a kick as of late: he only bought locally-produced food, except for the candy bars mom craved. My uncle said he was becoming a Communist.
"Maybe I should go out there." I pushed back my seat but waited to stand. Dad said I could so I did.
"What're you going to do with that?" I wiped crumbs from my jeans.
"Keep it in the basement. It's moist and cool down there."
"Shit." I looked inside. Mom and Dad both stood in the picture window. Dad held up Tate's plate. He exaggerated the motion of a bite.
"Your food's cold." I poked at the turtle but Tate pulled it back. "Fuck you, man." I turned to go back inside.
"Wait." Tate lifted the turtle in front of his mouth; well, at least in front of his mouth so our parents couldn't read his lips. "Are you coming tonight? I've got some crazy shit to show you."
I didn't answer. I walked away, and he knew that meant yes.
"He'll give you shit over that." I pointed to the bottle and tried to rearrange my pieces.
"I'll replace it." He sucked down a swig. It was loud, like water down a mucked drain.
"You have to go to the farmer's market to replace it."
He set the bottle on the counter. He must have shaved his goatee before leaving for class because it was smaller. "Where's that?"
"Shit." He turned the cap back on the bottle and put it in the fridge.
"You're stupid." I pressed a piece into an open area and the image began to come together.
Tate sat beside me. He ate a handful of potato chips and chewed near my face. "We had to sketch a mannequin today. Barechested. It was weird to see the fake nipples. They were way too dark."
"What do you mean too dark?"
"They looked like burnt chocolate chips." He pointed to the puzzle. "What's that a picture of? A giraffe?"
"A beach in California."
Tate leaned over and squinted his eyes. "Fuck you. I see its neck."
"That's a bunch of rocks. It only looks that way because I haven't finished it yet." I took a few chips. "What happened to that turtle?"
"I put it back."
"What were you messing with it for anyway?"
"I'm taking biology this semester. I thought maybe I could study it." He stood and rubbed his hands together. "You're wasting your summer. What fucking eighteen year-old puts together an animal puzzle?"
I tapped a piece on the table. I wanted to ask him who waits until they're 28 to go to college. But I didn't say anything. Tate hovered over me, though, taunting me to say something. He lost his license two years ago: the cops found the front tires of his Civic stuck in a stream, Tate high as the moon.
"I'll see you tonight, man." He patted his greasy hand against my cheek and left again.
Dad glared. "You mean he drank half of it." He slammed the bottle on the counter. "That's a goddamn sin. I'd rather him drink two than half of one."
"I told him so." I finally found the top left corner piece. This beach puzzle was round, and the lack of hard edges made creating the outline difficult.
"You're going to have to move that puzzle." Dad tossed the box on the ground.
"Time for dinner."
"It's 2:30. We never eat before 6."
He picked bits of potato chips from the tabletop. "Where's Tate?"
"I don't know. Doesn't he have an afternoon class?"
"No." He looked at the picture on the box and then at the pieces. "I called the deli but he isn't there either."
"You've got to stop calling the deli. He's not a little kid."
Dad sat next to me. "Is he smoking again?"
"He doesn't smell like it."
Dad looked at the driveway. "You can hide it. Guy at work used to do it during his lunch hour. He rolled them at the benches behind the building. We would watch him from the window. One day we told on him."
I shuffled through the pieces for a match. I never could finish a puzzle: the basement was full of half-finished portraits, scenes of British countryside, city panoramas. I guessed that in every home lay unfinished scenes.
Dad put a hand on my shoulder. "Can I tell you something?"
"You need to come to this farmer's market with me."
"I don't want to."
"Are you going to spend the whole damn summer vacation making pictures? Girls make puzzles, Alan."
I crossed my arms. "I like seeing things come together."
"Then take a class. Tate is. Drafting 101."
"He's drawing boobs."
I noticed that Dad had buttoned the top button on his shirt. He wasn't the type of guy who wore a tie to work and abandoned it during the car ride home to symbolize his freedom. He always wore short-sleeve dress shirts without ties during the summer, but never used the top button. It made his neck almost disappear. His wide, pale face looked like a potato. I felt sorry for him, in a way. I knew all about Tate but I wasn't going to say a thing.
So when I heard an idling car in the driveway I assumed Tate was back. I left my puzzle, confident because Dad was in the bathroom with the newspaper and there was a big article about Mr. Mandell, the play-by-play announcer for the local high school, who was offered a job with the farm team for the Kansas City Royals.
I walked outside. It was Tate's car but Tate wasn't driving. He wasn't in the car at all, in fact, unless he'd been dumped in the trunk. This weird guy was driving. He stepped out: his hair parted down the center like an ass crack and he wore a blue shirt with a lone yellow strip along the center.
I looked back inside. I was still in my jeans, sandals, and a t-shirt I got for winning the 171 wrestlebacks last year. "Dad will kill me."
"Tate told me to tell you to not worry about it."
Maybe Dad would go straight from the shitter to bed. Mom was staying with my Aunt Grace to help decorate for the family reunion.
I stuck out my hand. "What's your name?"
He shook it. One shake: down and hard. "I'm just driving you there," he said, and sat back in the car.
After they let Tate down Levin bear-hugged me. "Douchebag." He wrestled 189; he was an asshole. "Finally came out of your fucking house."
Tate wore orange-rimmed glasses and a blue-shirt, opened to his chest. He leaned against the wall and laughed. He wasn't talking to anybody, and he wasn't looking at anybody: he stared at the ceiling.
Levin's attention was diverted by the blonde and I slipped away to Tate. "We've got to go home."
"Fuck, brother. When did you get here?" He hugged me, swallowed me up. He stunk.
"Some dude came to pick me up."
"That's Sam. He doesn't drink. He's cool. This is his place." Tate put his hands on my shoulders. "I'm glad you came. We're going to do it in a few minutes."
"We should go home." Sam had given me the keys and I dangled them in front of Tate. "Now, man. You're fucked up enough."
Tate hugged me again. His breath was sour on my ear. "I swear to God we'll leave. Just do this first with me." He let me go, smiled, and then took me by the elbow and we went out the back door.
We walked through high grass for what felt like an hour. Tate kept his grasp on me as if I would run away. I would, I guess, and a drunk hand on my arm wouldn't stop me if I really wanted to. But at this point I was curious.
We stopped at a clearing a good half-mile from the house. A Ford truck rested on busted tires. A fold-out table was next to the truck, and on the table were three bottles, evenly spaced. A low fire rose from a ring of rocks.
When we stopped, when Tate finally let me loose, I put my hands in my pockets and waited. He said he'd be less than a minute and he was, but when he came back into my sight he held a rifle and a bottle of lighter fluid. He poured lighter fluid into each of the bottles, slung the rifle strap over his shoulder, and carried the bottles near the fire.
I could still hear the party behind us. I could run back, make it far enough to disappear in the dark. I could drive home and tell Dad but he'd call the police and, even worse, call Mom. The night would never end, and I wanted it to. I wanted to go to sleep, to wake up the next morning without an alarm, and eat a sloppy breakfast sandwich and drink some pulpy orange juice. I wanted to go with my Dad to the farmer's market and turn a squash a few times and sample blackberries and buy a potato pie, all so that Dad would shut-up about it. I wanted to be anywhere in Barton County but in that clearing.
Tate set a bottle in the fire and ran back to me. He slid into the grass, the rifle held against his chest. "Move back, dude." He shifted, aimed the rifle, and tried to catch his breath.
"You're fucking nuts," I said, and stepped back.
"Just wait." Tate's breaths finally slowed. The fire began to rise. Tate lifted the rifle. "You've got to catch it at just the right time. It's got to be perfect." He looked up at me: at first he simply lifted his face toward the sky, and his eyes had to find me. "You've got to be perfect."
I was looking at the fire when he shot. I swore the bottle exploded before I heard the sound but it didn't really matter: the fire swooped up and out in a huge globe. The flame sputtered twice more before burning evenly.
"Damn." Tate rolled on his back, the rifle at his side. He screamed and shook. "Don't tell me that wasn't fucking awesome. Did you see it light up the sky? Like a goddamn rocket crashed into the ground."
He stood. His face was wild in the night. The fire made everything a bit skewed.
"No more puzzles, bro." He handed me the rifle. I took it and watched him pour the lighter fluid into the next bottle.
Dad pulled him all the way inside and held him against the fridge. "I trusted you." In the light I could see that Tate's shirt covered with grass stains. I stood next to them, unsure of where to go.
The puzzle had been dumped back inside the box.
"Come with me."
I didn't want to go anywhere. I was comfortable in bed, and finally the day was going to end. I was almost there.
I shifted up on my elbows. "You're nuts. Dad will kill you. And me."
"He fell asleep to the radio. He won't wake until morning."
The wind kept the night cold. Tate led the way down the back porch and into the yard.
"What are we doing?"
He didn't answer. He moved forward, nearly ran, but slowed as he neared the shed. He held back a hand for me to stop. He walked around the shed, dragged his feet in the grass, kicked around. Then he got on his stomach and shined the flashlight below the shed. When he stood the flashlight was still on, lighting random flashes of grass, shed, skin. "I can't find it," he said, and looked at me as if I was supposed to know what to do.