The ward where Tess Castillo’s brother Ricky was kept—or lived or was housed or had been confined to, depending on how you saw it—was named St. Ellen’s and was exactly a four hour drive north from Demerit College. She’d made the drive now a dozen times and had committed it (was that the word for Ricky?) to muscle memory: a left out of the faculty lot, a right onto Aberdeen Drive, follow it until it became County Road 181. Then, eighty-seven miles to the interstate. Usually Tess would stop at an old convenience store at the final exit before the highway. The place had once been a bait shop; a giant lake used to sit behind its slumped walls. The lake had dried up. It was now nothing more than a wide empty red cavernous pit with a few shopping carts rusting in the middle. The store was where Tess would gas up and buy a Diet Coke for the rest of the trip. It still had a handmade wooden sign dangling from a pole—a little piece of folk art in the shape of a fish. WE GOT WORMS, it read. Whenever Tess left the shop and pulled onto the feeder ramp she felt as though she were a trout or a salmon or whatever species it was that fought upstream in droves, reaching its final destination with only enough energy to spurt out a few final breaths before dying. Even on sunny days the trip to see her brother came with a sense of no less finality.
But it was fall now and the sun had not been out in days. Around lunchtime a storm had broke. By the time her classes ended and Tess had made it onto the county road she had a headache—a sharp pain behind her right eye—and it took all of her concentration, what was left of it, to focus on not hydroplaning her aging Saab.
She was not looking forward to seeing her brother. In 2002, he became an abstraction to her. That’d been the year Ricardo Leon Castillo, 22, a dropout of Manhattan College, a loner who had recently been evicted from his apartment, was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. In the lead-up to the trial Tess’s parents both seemed to collapse in on themselves. Tess was a junior in high school. The Castillo house sat at the end of a cul-de-sac, and soon the street became a gawker’s cove. In the darkness of the always closed drapes Tess’s mother wept and her father smoked cigarettes and shifted from one room to the next, speaking the Spanish he’d renounced since the Revolution. Ricky’s face had been on the cover of the New York Post, among others. He’d assaulted the leading actress of a network program, Love Without Parole. Critics had written that the show wasn’t any good, but Valerie Moss—only 23 herself then, a blonde from the Heartland—had a long career ahead of her. She was a promising star. Her face had been mangled by the blade Ricky had used on her.
So actually there had been a kind of cultural cache in being Rick Lee Castillo’s kid sister. While he awaited grand jury testimony in New York, Tess found that a group of kids she’d always been afraid of buddying up to her. Girls who stole lipstick. Boys with strange facial hair, boys in bands with names like The Schadenfreudes and Brian Z’s Suicide Lovesong. And because her parents were in shocked catatonia, Tess went out and stayed out late. High, drunk in a basement with a bassist’s hand moving over her, these kids would ask her about Rick Lee. Was it true he’d skinned cats alive when he was a boy? Did he wet the bed? Was he into arson?
Tess found she didn’t mind talking. The truth was, growing up Ricky had been incredibly kind and gentle. He’d been normal. Brilliant. The one problem with Ricky Lee had been how so clearly the Castillo parents favored him over Tess. Whatever Tess accomplished had been frosting on their parental cake; they received her good news with condescending joy—incredulous she’d managed to do anything right.
“It wasn’t like that,” she told her new friends. “He was normal until college. Then he changed.”
“How?” asked Carly Peters. Tess and Carly had been close as children but had had a falling out. Now they were teenagers acting as though they hadn’t once been bathed together. “I mean, how’d he change?”
Tess now knew the language Ricky’s therapists were using. He had a team of them working pro bono to have him committed rather than incarcerated. Tess told her new friends that Ricky had had a “psychotic break” possibly due to the stress and anomie of living in the city; that he had borderline schizotypal personality disorder; that he had probably always been, in some way, mentally unstable and that it had only been a matter of external forces to push him over the edge. Boring stuff, really.
After a silence the bassist said, “Valerie Moss looks like a bitch anyway. She probably fucking deserved it.”
They meant this to be comforting for Tess. It didn’t help. Her brother was insane.
That was a decade and a half ago. Last year, amid some controversy, Ricardo Leon Castillo was granted a monthly furlough. “One weekend per month not to exceed seventy-two hours and not without the company of a parental figure, guardian, or blood relative.” Their parents dead, Tess was now the only option.
It was still pouring when she pulled up outside St. Ellen's front entrance. She did not need to get out of the car. Soon a wide nurse was holding the door open. Ricky Lee appeared with his small duffel bag. He paused a moment in the threshold, surrounded by the warm dry light of the facility, and shook the nurse's hand. Then, with no real concern for the rain, Tess’s brother walked slowly down the big brick steps of the unit's old facade and out into the rain. He pulled on Tess's passenger door, unsuccessfully. The door was broken; just last month somebody in her apartment unit had tried to break into the Saab by shoving a screwdriver into the lock. The only way into the car was on the driver's side.
She hurried around and took Ricky's duffel in one hand and Ricky's wrist in the other and led him over. She tried to tell him how he'd have to slide through, but before he got in Ricky paused and looked at her. Shoving at him was of no use; he'd been a tall lanky kid that'd grown into his frame. He smiled at his sister.
"It's good to see you, Tess," he said.
"It's raining. Get in.”
“Tell me you’re happy to see me first.”
“I’m happy to see you.”
“No,” Ricky said. “I didn’t ask you to follow instructions. I asked you to be happy to see me.”
“I am,” Tess said. She forced a grin. “It’s good to see you, Ricky.”
"Is it?" Ricky asked. He outstretched his arms into a cross and craned his neck, looking down to the tips of his right fingers and back across to his left.
"Can you see me?" he asked. "Am I even here?"
Evident on the south campus of the hospital, or in the utter lack of light from the old elegant lampposts that sat now fizzy or else entirely dark on the grand entrance, St. Ellen's was having its budget cut by the state. This would not have bothered Tess necessarily—the state representative had justified her place on this subject in her platform by stating FUND EDUCATION NOT CRIMINALS—if it weren't that Tess was now picking up on certain signs that Ricky was no longer a priority with his doctors or the staff. There had been a slip up two months ago. Ricky had been caught in the facility's computer lab—a good behavior incentive for certain patients deemed non-threatening—masturbating to a photograph of Valerie Moss. The media hadn’t run the story. Fortunately both Valerie and Ricky Lee were now cultural footnotes.
But now this shit about seeing him? The Christ like pose he'd assumed in the rain? Part of Tess had hoped a gang of ward-goons had sprinted out into the storm, tackling Ricky and taking him away in a straitjacket—as they did in the movies. Instead, when Tess had looked back up at the entrance she'd seen only the glow of the nurse's cigarette coming through the rain.
The next half-hour was pleasant enough. Ricky asked Tess about her dissertation. Did she still hate it? She told him she’d never hated it. Where did he possibly get that idea? Ricky shrugged and looked out the window. He yawned and said he figured everybody hated their lives.
“I don’t hate mine,” Tess said.
“Have it your way, bitch.”
Ricky looked at her. “Isn’t that what the kids say nowadays? They call each other bitches. Hey, bitches. Let me introduce you to my bitch. You’re a bitch. I’m a bitch. This rain is a real bitch, Tess.”
They were on their way to Mulcahy Bend, another hour drive. It had been where they’d spent a lot of their summers as children. Their father owned a cabin there. When he died Tess had seriously considered selling it and using the money to help with student loans. She’d even had the cabin’s foundation and roof inspected. The plan was now on hiatus. She had nowhere else to take Ricky on weekends. Movies and television were prohibited. She imagined them at Six Flags together. A woman and her deranged brother on The Log Ride, hands in the air until water overtook them.
They hadn’t spoken for twenty minutes. The silence made Tess nervous. She had nothing to say, nothing to ask him except what she didn’t want to ask him. Finally, she asked him anyway.
“It’s all right,” he said, pulling a cigarette out from a crinkled soft-pack he kept in his shirt pocket. “A lot of people seem to think the food is lousy. I don’t get it. What do they want? Swordfish?”
Ricky looked to have gained weight. Gordo y feliz, their mother would’ve said. He had his hair cut short along the sides; it was longer, thinner, uneven up top. The product of a distracted or uninterested barber. His teeth had yellowed from chain smoking and coffee. They drove on for a while before Ricky lit his cigarette. He said, “You wouldn’t eat swordfish. You don’t eat any meat, is that still the case?” He exhaled. “Just pussy.”
Tess thought she’d misheard him. “What did you say?”
“Pussy,” he said. “Poon. Cooze. Beaver.”
“Don’t smoke in my car,” Tess said.
Ricky grinned. He rolled down the window and tossed the cigarette out. They were silent the rest of the drive.
According to grand jury testimony, Ricardo Leon Castillo had dropped out of college on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving break, 2002. He had not been attending classes and rarely left his apartment. When he did it was for the barbeque place he liked or to pace Sixty-Third Street, where Valerie Moss kept an apartment. He spent hours there. He was seen outside the Transport Workers Union hall on West End Ave. Some people gave him money. He learned in a tabloid that Valeria Moss was dating a Jewish guy. This infuriated him. He went home and educated himself on sulphuric acid. He decided to kill her with a mail bomb. He listened to the radio for hours. He nearly burned his fingers off trying to make the bomb and gave up on the plan. He walked miles down to Penn Station where he spent whole days collecting newspapers out of the trashcans. He had VHS tapes of every episode of Love Without Parole and photographs of Moss pinned to his wall. He’d written her a number of times. A publicist had responded once, thanking him for his fandom. Castillo kept the letter in his wallet. He quit bathing. He stayed up for days at a time, riding the 7-train to Flushing and back. He avoided the subway. He disliked being underground. But he loved the N and the M and the F in Queens and in Brooklyn. He took the 456 up to the Bronx. He would stand for hours outside Yankee Stadium and stare, just stare. Listening to this, Tess had to stop herself from laughing. Ricky had become a cliché of urban ruin; he had become exactly what their parents had feared. Some lunatic screaming on the streets. Only when the photographs of Valerie Moss were shown in court did she understand the viciousness of the attack. She did not know her brother. She didn’t know him at all.
They made it to the cabin beneath a lessening sheet of the storm. Still it was too late to fish and Tess’s hope that they’d spend part of the evening scouring the nearby woods for suitable firewood—something that calmed Ricky Lee—were dashed. The light rain mottled the face of the lake. It rang on the roof of the cabin and leaked through at a place just above the kitchen counter. Tess put down a boiling pot to catch it. They used some old firewood to make a fire. It went up quick and filled the cabin with smoke. Ricky opened the windows. It was a half-hour before things settled and by then they both smelled like smoke.
There was no computer in the cabin, barely any cell-phone coverage, and after a glass of wine Tess was able to sneak by telling her brother she was going out to the car for her bags, Tess felt better about the weekend in front of her. There was nothing to do. She was happy for that. Boredom was better than nearly anything else she could imagine.
Inside Tess found Ricky had made a pot of decaf. He was sitting by the fire, flipping through a Field & Stream so old the pages crackled when he turned them. “Was this Dad’s?” he asked, holding the cover out to where Tess could see it.
“It wasn’t Mom’s.”
“You never know,” he muttered. “Those people were complete mysteries.”
Those people. Mysteries. And here Tess had always thought of them as a collective yawn, their lives a movement through time as exciting as organized dance lessons. Once Tess had dated a yoga instructor named Karla, a woman who believed with a passion that every person had a taste, a flavor—like a sucker. Tess had told Karla that her parents’ flavor would have been Tax Form. They were high, joking, but she believed it. Believed it until now. They had been strange, hadn’t they?
“What’s the plan, Stan?” Ricky asked.
“Crappie,” Tess told him. “First thing tomorrow morning.”
“Yeah, well. I don’t like your crappie attitude.”
“Don’t crappie on my parade, Ricky.”
“Does a bear crappie in the woods?”
“Not if it’s a catfish.”
Ricky Lee spent the rest of the night looking neither happy nor uneasy about his furlough. He never did: his time in the cabin was of no difference to him. He read three issues of Field & Stream—every article.
Tess graded. She felt bad to admit that these furloughs were actually a massive pain in the ass. She had work to do.
She came across Ben Lutzenkirchen’s essay, “Are We Alone?”
If you consider how big the universe is it is mind-blowing. Yes there is no evidence of space aliens existing but…
Last week, Tess had stayed late in her tiny graduate student office, catching up on her lesson plans. When she left the lot was empty except for Ben, who was standing near her car. Ben was on the basketball team. He had a child’s face still, but a grown man’s body. Tess was startled for a moment, but when Ben saw her coming he turned away from the car and smiled. “I was admiring your ride.”
“It’s fifteen years old. The paint is chipping. The door handle is broken. There’s not much to admire.”
“Nah,” Ben said. “I like Saabs. Old or new. My dad used to collect them, sort of. They’re great cars.”
“Is this a hobby of yours? To stand in empty parking lots.”
“Speaking of my dad.” Ben smirked and raised his eyebrows.
She offered to drive him home. On the way the boy said, “He’s an alcoholic. My dad.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Shit happens,” Ben said. Tess decided not to admonish him.
“Thanks,” the boy said as they pulled up outside the house. Before Tess could respond, Ben had leaned over and put his body on hers and kissed her. It was on the cheek, short, odd—something almost foreign or familial to it. For a second, however, her body had been blanketed by his. Why had she not stopped him? Why had she not mentioned it to her chair? It had been on Tess’s mind since.
She woke with dread. She didn’t like the idea of fishing, even catch-and-release, but it was something that calmed Ricky. It was five, around the time. She dressed in old jeans and a sweatshirt and went up to the lake park bait shop and grocers.
The park where the Castillo cabin sat was owned by an older couple who lived in an Airstream behind the community showers. The old man had had a stroke and now most of the responsibilities fell to his son, a towering well-built man of thirty or so. He had a lot of tattoos, and this morning he wore a tank top and a pair of grey sweatpants. He had a kind of felon’s presence. Tess did not like herself for noticing that the outline of the head of his penis was fairly evident against the fabric of his sweatpants.
She followed him down to the shores of the lake where he set up the trolling motor for the small johnboat she’d reserved. He was mostly quiet, polite. It was too early for him, perhaps; perhaps he was nursing a hangover. When he finished he looked up at her and said, “We’ve had problems with this particular troll. If something goes wrong out there, just call the front office. I’ll come out and fix it.”
Tess was surprised to find that Ricky had gotten up and attended to the fishing rods. By the time she made it back to the cabin, expecting to find him still snoring, he was dressed and tying on the last spinnerbait to a Shakespeare rod.
“This rod,” he said to Tess, “was Papa’s favorite.”
Tess took this as a question. “I’m not sure.”
“No, you can tell. It’s not cheap. The reel is still oiled.”
Then Ricky cast the line out in a long, whispering arch across the common area. The line went on forever. It was a glorious cast, a strong and strange cast. Tess watched the lime-and-red spinnerbait fly like something come alive and moving under its own locomotion. Behind it trailed the steel lip, catching and twirling the pale morning light.
Tess got in the boat and worked the trolling motor. Ricky pushed them off. Whatever remained of the storm was only visible moving south, down to where Tess’s real life sat on pause for her. She was gladly missing a grad student cocktail hour this afternoon. In nine hours the three other English PhD candidates would be meeting at Jaime’s house to drink bad margaritas and badmouth the faculty. She was happy to be here, finally. She looked at her brother, who sat at the front of the boat, grinning peacefully out at the black plane of the water.
“Where should we go?” Tess called to him over the drone of the motor.
Ricky turned and looked at her. “We can go anywhere,” he said. It was the first excitement he’d shown. And for a fleeting moment Tess was inclined to believe him. They could go anywhere.
Where they went was first to a grassy finger of the Bend on the far side from the cabin. Tess cut the motor and the boat slowly drifted and Tess and Ricky went to casting off opposite sides of the boat. The sun was coming up. It was going to be a hot day; Tess could already feel it in the thick air. They were at it no more than twenty minutes when Ricky grunted.
"Got something," he said. He let his cigarette drop into the water and worked over his line. Tess watched him. He'd always been lucky with fish. But as a boy he'd been quick to reel them in, to let their father take over: pulling the hook from the fish's mouth, doing the dirty work of stringing it up. This morning he looked bored. And, bored, he looked to Tess to be playing with his catch. She watched his thumb on the reel. He'd let the line go out, then tamp down on it, pull on the reel.
The fish was not a crappie but a decently sized sand bass. It thrashed against the aluminum hull of the boat in between Ricky Lee's boots. Ricky made no effort to de-hook it, to put it out of its misery. Instead he pulled another cigarette from his soft pack and lit it and looked out over the water. Tess looked down at the fish. It quit thrashing, gaped its gills and stared at the sky.
“I never told you about what I did in New York,” he said.
This made Ricky chuckle. Tess picked up the bass and tossed it into an Igloo cooler filled with melting ice. As soon as the animal hit the water it thrashed again, thumping against the sides of the cooler. Tess closed the lid.
“I mean after I dropped out of college. I didn’t tell anybody. I used the financial aid to pay my rent. I knew eventually Mom and Dad would find out. But I had those months.”
Tess interrupted. “What does Doctor Fitzhugh say about nostalgia?”
“I rode the trains. I rode them everywhere. There were whole days when I’d get on with morning rush, watch people on their ways to work. Newspapers and coffee and bleary eyes. Hangovers. Insomniacs. People cheating on their wives or husbands. I realized how to tell who had what kinds of problems. And then the whoosh of them all leaving. I can’t describe it well, Tess. You’re the reader. But a train after nine and before eleven-thirty is, I don’t know. A sanctuary. A holy thing. I liked the smell of a train just emptied. The human smell that stayed behind. Then the lunch crowd. The afternoon rush. I’d get off a train only to transfer, to find a different line. The ground felt weird beneath my feet. Moving at my own pace. People going out to dinner. Then, the drunks. The people out too late. You can see when a party turns, when a night out becomes desperate. All the cheer masking the pain or anger at some point disappears. Four in the morning. Around then.”
“Doctor Fitzhugh,” Tess said, “says nostalgia leads to melancholy which leads to sadness.”
“Melancholia,” Ricky said without looking at her.
As the morning grew later, they moved into deeper waters. Tess ran the troll. She thought this would let Ricky fish and to take his mind off of things. He’d replaced the spinnerbait with a crank with a three-inch diving lip, but he hadn’t cast. It sat beside him. She took them out toward the highway bridge on the north end of the lake. “Ricky,” Tess said, “I’m going to take us over to the beams. Make sure to stop us.” Ricky nodded but did not move. Tess cut the trolling motor. The boat floated toward one of the concrete beams of the highway bridge. Ricky did not move. “Rick,” Tess said. Then she said it again, but it was too late.
The boat hit the beam with so much force Ricky Lee nearly went headfirst into the lake. Tess’s neck snapped tightly, and the sound of the collision, of steel on concrete, left her ears ringing. Ricky was sitting in the hull. He stood up and put his palms out around the concrete pier and pushed the johnboat away. They floated back out, twirling in a swift circle, Tess’s end more wild and spinning harder around the axis that Ricky Lee’s body weight created. “Jesus,” Tess said. Had she actually said this? She couldn’t hear. Not initially. She sat stunned, watching her brother, standing above her, spin against the open sky, the lake, the distant shore.
“Fuck this,” Ricky said once the boat had quit spinning. “I’m through with this. Let’s get some lunch.”
But the collision had knocked the vice of the trolling motor loose. The motor wouldn’t turn over.
“Are you kidding me?” Ricky said. He looked around. “And there’s only one fucking paddle. One fucking paddle, Tess.” He was irritated. His face had a way when this happened; he chewed on the inside of his cheeks. You couldn’t talk to him, then. He wouldn’t listen. Couldn’t listen, a doctor had said. “What kind of bullshit outfit are they running here?”
“Relax,” Tess said. “The kid told me this could happen. All I have to do is call the desk.”
Tess ignored him. She pulled out her cell-phone. She had one bar of service. She did her best not to let on that this was a potential issue. In her mind she saw her and Ricky sitting side by side, Tess dipping the paddle into the water and then handing it over to her brother so that he could realign the boat before it wavered off course. It was no hell panel in a Bosch; it wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, but the thought of it depressed her. There had been a photograph of them taken as children on this same lake, in a boat not unlike this one. A drunken uncle had snapped it. Ricky in sharp relief, handsome even at five, his stunning eyes and smile. And Tess out of focus, a blur, like a smudged fingerprint. She was thirty now. Most of her friends had families. Entire lives surrounded her, like good pop albums on repeat. And here she was with her fucked up brother, her Cluster A Schizotypal Narcissist sibling in an impotent johnboat, trying to navigate back to their dead father’s cabin.
To the south there appeared a massive red-and-silver runabout boat putting out water at a low voluminous growl, creating an enormous wedge of wake. The kid who ran the store was at the helm. The boat rode high on its kiln keel, and from behind its big steering column the kid looked like a conquering explorer. When he cut the power and glided up near Tess and Ricky the force of the wake rocked the johnboat. The kid seemed unconcerned.
“‘Sup,” he said. “Saw you two had a little accident.”
“Yeah, sorry.” Tess smiled. She told him what had happened with the beam but he didn’t seem to care. He hopped down off the runabout onto their boat as if he’d done it a thousand times.
“Name’s Preston, by the way,” he said to Tess.
Because the runabout rode so high it had shielded the fact that Preston was not alone. Stretched out on the boat’s white leather chaise was a slender brunette in a black and gold bikini. The girl couldn’t have been days over twenty. Sun had coaxed freckles on her nose. She wore enormous sunglasses. Her long slender legs ended with bunioned feet—her one un-beautiful trait, so far as Tess could tell. Preston worked on the vice to the trolling motor. Tess kept her eyes on the girl, who had the mannerisms of a bored housecat; in one of her paws was liquor in a clear bottle, the booze the color of antifreeze.
Ricky was staring, too. The girl had barely moved except to bring the bottle up to her lips. Tess saw her gulp it down. Ricky saw it, too. He watched without blinking. Tess hadn’t seen him this way before. For a wild moment she found she could not look away; she was trying to register if this stranger looked anything like Valerie Moss. She didn’t. Valerie had been a blonde with big lips and skin as pale as grouting putty. The girl on Preston’s boat was dark with tan. Ricky was not hypersexual. In fact, according to his doctors, he had little interest in the subject so long as it did not concern Valerie Moss. Yet here he was. His gape was uncomfortably long. “Ricky,” Tess admonished quietly.
Meanwhile, Preston had very nearly draped himself over Tess. There was little room inside the johnboat. He had no shirt on. It was apparent to Tess that he and the girl had been fucking not long ago. She could smell the girl on his skin. He fooled with the trolling motor and its connected gasline for a while.
“Piece of shit,” he muttered. He looked at Tess. “I’m going to have to tow y’all back to shore. I’m real sorry about this. We can talk refund once we’re inside.”
“It’s not a big deal,” Tess said. “In fact, we were going to head to the cabin anyway. Weren’t we, Ricky?”
Ricky nodded but said nothing.
“What are you thinking, Ricky?” Tess asked. They were tethered to the runabout and heading slowly toward shore. Ricky had not said a word since seeing the girl. Inside Ricky’s mind there existed an entire universe of narratives and complications. Relationships between people who only existed as audible hallucinations. It was what had driven Ricky Lee Castillo to his act in New York. Moss, he’d told psychiatrists, had been his unfaithful lover.
“Ricky,” Tess asked again, “what’s on your mind?”
He turned and looked at her. She saw that he was crying. Tess’s stomach jumped. Ricky picked up the fishing rod he’d been using that morning. “Look,” he said. The tip was snapped. “It must’ve happened when he hit the bridge.”
Preston docked the runabout and tossed the strap over his shoulder and pulled the johnboat up onto the shore. It was midday now, and hot. Some of the old timers had come out of their RVs and were setting charcoal on fire. Tess saw Preston’s grandfather. He was in a motorized wheelchair, his face wild with some kind of joy happening inside his brownout mind.
Ricky got off the boat first and shook Preston’s hand. “Mighty fine,” he said in an affected white boy country voice. “How long did you serve?”
This caught the boy off guard, but soon he smiled. “Two campaigns in Al Anbar.”
“And you saw people’s guts and stuff?”
Preston went red. He unlatched the johnboat and placed it over his body like an animal skin and walked it up toward the bait shop. The girl remained in the runabout. It looked to Tess as though she were having a hard time standing up.
Rick saw this, too. He smiled. “Need a hand?”
She let her sunglasses fall to the end of her nose and stared at him. “You’ve got one of those faces,” she said. “Like, you look super familiar.”
“I’ve been hounded by the media.”
“Ricky,” Tess said, “let’s get some lunch, yeah?”
“You like steak?” the girl said.
“Love it,” Ricky said.
“We’re having steaks.” The girl pointed over to the grandfather’s Airstream. “Come on,” she said, and grabbed Ricky by the wrist and led him up from the shore.
Tess followed. “Wait a sec,” she said.
When they got to the fire pit, Tess nodded at the old man and looked away. His face was caught in a permanent smile. He gurgled out some words. His wife was there. With her right hand, she stoked the fire with an old hearth poker. Her left held a large platter of pink meat. Tess and Ricky Lee’s appearance did not seem to surprise her. It was as though they’d been expected. “Can you help me here, sunshine?” the woman said to Tess. Before she had time to respond, Tess found herself holding the platter. Blood ran out of the steaks and pooled against the ceramic. It’d been twelve years since Tess had last eaten meat, and in that time she’d forgotten the way it looked raw and up close.
She’d assumed the old woman was unburdening herself in order to help her husband, but when Tess looked up, she saw that it was Ricky Lee near the motorized chair. He was down on one knee, cooing at the old man and wiping the side of his mouth with a handkerchief. The man’s wife seemed to have no qualms with this; she sat on a rock and smoked.
Perhaps it was the heat or the stench of charcoal and lighter fluid or the sight of the blood, but all at once Tess felt her knees buckle. “Easy,” said the old woman. “Do you need some help, sunshine?”
“Yes,” Tess heard herself saying, “I believe that would be quite nice.”
Her vision went. When she came to, she felt her neck craned backward at a painful angle, as though she’d fallen against a stump. Her eyesight was blurry but soon focused on the sky and, finally, her brother, who was holding her. “She just needs something on her stomach,” Ricky Lee was saying. “Poor thing hasn’t eaten all day.” He had a chunk of steak on the tip of a steak knife. He lowered it into her mouth and said, “Shh,” and pressed her jaw closed. “Eat now,” he said. He did this again, and again Tess took the steak into her mouth. A moment passed before she sat up and spit it into the grass. Preston and his grandparents and the girl were all sitting around the fire, their knives and forks clinking off their plates. So often Preston cut a small piece and fed it to his grandfather, who gummed it into a paste.
Tess stood. “Come on, Ricky,” she said.
“Don’t be rude.”
“I said let’s go.”
“These fine people are hosting us,” he said. “And you’re being completely—”
Ricky sighed and shrugged and set the plate in the grass. “Sorry, folks. She’s the boss.”
They marched off across the park to their father’s cabin. When they got inside Tess drank some water and told Ricky she was going to write him up. Ricky sat in a chair and smiled. He did not move.
“Did you hear me? The girl. The knife. I’m writing you up.”
“I’m writing you up, Ricky.”
He smiled. He did not move. And when Tess went to her room and showered, Ricky did not move. When she watched some television and finally felt the wave of nausea subside, Ricky Lee did not move. He did not move when she turned out the lights and he did not move when she lay awake in the other room with a quilt up to her neck, listening for a noise. She knew what waited for her the next morning. He would still be there, catatonic. And she would somehow get him inside the car, because she had to. And they would drive back to St. Ellen’s in silence, and Ricky Lee Castillo would resume his life, and she, Tess Castillo, would resume hers. And it would go on and on like that until one of them died, and in the interim she would hate him in a way that was not fathomable.