We walked with our backs to the smoke and flames of the city. I squeezed my skull between my palms and went grrr and you pinched a little chunk of cartilage inside my ear, said if I pierced it, the migraines would go away.
I said, “You’re kidding.”
You said, “Swear.”
“If it doesn’t work,” I said, “I’m hacking my fucking ears off.”
We were passing a building with busted-out windows and you knelt and plucked a shard of glass from the dirt and handed it to me, said, “Okay, deal.”
I slid the glass inside my pocket.
In the distance, a banshee screamed. Inside my head, it echoed.
We walked under a ladder that was propped up against a concrete wall. The wall stood alone, severed from everything that once gave it purpose, rebar jutting out like exposed tendons.
We crossed the bridge where you said not to look over and I said I wouldn’t, but I did, and there were a dozen bodies floating on their backs and I followed their lifeless gazes to the sky, where they last searched for god in the clouds, but saw only smoke.
You walked ahead down the river bank, watching your steps, checking back every few seconds to be sure I was close behind. Your black hair was glowing from the fire. I caught you sticking your tongue out to catch a flake of ash on your tongue and you looked back and smiled and I smiled back and we went on smiling, looking for sharp objects in the dark.
We came upon a gray body that’d been coughed up on the shore. You stopped inches from it and held up a hand.
“Hey, this oughtta work,” you said, and then you planted your foot on the spine of the naked body and pulled an arrow out of its head. It made a wet, crunching sound as you twisted and yanked the thing out. Other arrows riddled the body’s torso and legs, but we only needed one. You stuck the head of the arrow in the gentle flow of the river and then wiped it on your sleeve.
You stood next to me and said, “Tilt your head,” and I did, and you closed one eye and squinted the other, two fingers pressed near the arrow head. You said, “Okay, ready?” but didn’t wait for an answer. You stabbed the arrow through the little cartilage in my ear and it sounded like someone chewing on gravel and the pain was like a fire. You pushed it in until the edges of the arrowhead began to flare out and then you snapped off the wooden part of the arrow and left the sharp triangle stone in my ear.
I touched it and winced.
You kissed my ear and your lips were red.
My head swam, numb. I said, “I think it’s working.”
You smirked and gave a shrug like, duh. Your eyes fell to the face of the body beneath your shoe. You squinted, focusing a minute. Said, “Sort of looks like you.”
I got on all fours next to the body’s face and ran my fingers over the curvature of his cheekbones, down his nose and lips, caught my reflection in his black eyes. “Maybe this is my father,” I said.
You said, “Yeah, could be,” then skipped ahead with a lost interest.
I said to the body, “Sorry, dad,” unsure of what my apology meant, just feeling like there were a lot of things to be sorry about. I got up and brushed myself off and called for you to wait up.
When I caught up to you, you slipped your fingers between mine and we walked on a little further until we came to the orchard graveyard, which is just something we named this vacant lot covered in building rubble and yellow grass and dead trees.
Somewhere in the distance, we heard a sick moaning that was more like hopeless hunger than passionate pleasure—a noise that was all too familiar around these parts. There were multiple voices belonging to some back-alley train of thrusting bodies that fucked mechanically with blank faces. We tuned them out, climbed to the top of a pile of debris and leaned against each other. From here, we could see the river carrying corpses, the field of dead trees, and the flames of the city licking the sky.
I asked if you thought things used to be different and you said, “It’s always been this way, far as we know. What’s it matter?” Then you touched the tip of the arrow sticking out of my ear and grinned, said, “It looks kinda cool.”
I said, “Really?”
You curled your lip. “Sort of.” Laid your head on my shoulder.
The bodies in the river raised and sank and spun in circles. They were one with the waves. I think I might have seen a star through the smoke in the air.
Kelby Losack is a woodworking artisan and hip hop journalist. He is the author of Hurricane Season, The Way We Came In, and Heathenish, and co-hosts the Agitator podcast with J. David Osborne. ︎︎