He lives on a playground. That’s what all the guys who come to The End say, and they’re right, except it’s better than sandboxes, it’s concrete and wheels and woods and dogs running free, and he never had to go to school a day in his life and Luke Barrett is his dad.
He’s not afraid of breaking his bones or cracking his skull, he’s not afraid of fast cars or girls or loud noises. He’s not afraid of Luke Barrett. He’s not worried about the heat or water or electricity being turned off, because his dad always takes care of things, and so what if they did get turned off, anyway? He could still get up in the middle of the night to skate under swirling galaxies like most people get up from their stuffy little beds to drink a glass of water. And he does—he throws off the covers at four a.m. even though he’s sixteen now and should be used to it all. And sometimes his dad, who sleeps with both ears cocked, hears the scrape of the wheels carry down the hill and jogs out, board tucked under arm, to join him. They skate together, trading off at the lip until the sun comes up, while the girlfriend, if there’s a girlfriend, curls around Luke’s pillow, and in the barn the minions sleep like their heads are made of rock.
One thing Grady Barrett still fears, secretly, is the shack up the west hill. Unattended by his father, it’s hung onto all the creepiness it had when he was little. He’s cleaning it out anyway when Bender bangs open the door asking if he hears noises in the woods, like wild peacocks or something. Grady knows it’s just his dad and the girlfriend, Quill, up in the clearing, but he tells Bender it might be peacocks and he’d better go check it out. “Bring a feather back,” he says as his friend disappears in the darkness, and he writes latch for door on his list. Then he crosses out latch and writes bolt.
Spiderwebs, studded with insect carcasses, trail down the walls and hang from the crossbeams. After catching one straight across the face, Grady pulls down as many as he can find and rubs his hands to get the sticky threads off. Switching on a second lantern, because it’s full dark out now, he keeps working until Bender comes back shaking his head and muttering, Fuck you Grady asshole. He didn’t get the joke about the feather. They go to skate, joined on the way by two of the dogs, Monk and Chick, trotting out from the barn. Any dog born at The End must think that skateboarding is just a normal human activity—that all two-leg walkers swoop around on boards just like they drink out of bottles, piss in toilets, and suck smoke out of little paper twists. Bender fires up a joint as they walk. Grady doesn’t smoke because it stuffs his lungs too full to breathe; it makes the sky press down and the earth too soft and rubbery. Skating, he could fall off his board, skid face-first across the concrete and not even feel his own skin tear. He doesn’t know why people call that relaxing.
The spotlights are on at the Sugarbowl. They find Cranium lying by the rim, resting his head on his board, and Grady says, “Hope our skating doesn’t disturb naptime.”
“Fuck you, your dad had us pouring concrete for about twenty hours today.” He sits up and lets the dogs lick his face. “Yeah, clean me off, pups, I need it.” He gets Chick to roll back and forth, pawing the air while he rubs her belly.
“Grady.” Bender clacks his board down at the lip. “I want to get that eggplant.”
Grady gives Bender some pointers, then trades off skating with him and Cranium while the barn, house and trees all settle into the same deep shade of blue-black. It’s nearing midnight when they hear Grady’s father coming up the steps. “Here he is,” Bender announces, “the Great Masturskater.” Bender likes the old jokes best. Quill is with Luke; while Cranium skates, the two of them stand over the bowl looking deeply content, hands sliding happily up and down each other’s bodies. Grady wouldn’t mind making a girl smile like that. He watches his father take the tie from her halter top and loop it around his neck. She reaches back, scratches her fingers in his hair.
Monk has wandered off, but good old Chick is still around, sniffing a caterpillar to see what kind of food it would make. Squatting, wrapping his arms around her doggy belly, Grady watches Cranium overshoot a backside air and land hard on his ass. Quill flinches. “Oh, Jesus, be careful,” she says. “How long since you opened your head in the half-pipe?” Luke unyokes himself and starts calling across the fields for more dogs, more skaters, a radio: more more more more more. But when Grady gets ready to put in, his attention snaps back, and he tells everyone to watch.
The sky is thick and bright with stars. Grady slides down under it, alley-oop scoops and lays a burntwist, rides the wall, ollies off. And his father calls down yes, fuck yes. He always says that Grady will be outskating him by the time he’s twenty. When he comes back up, Bender and Cranium clap him on the back and say, “Born on a fucking skateboard,” wishing they were him. Two of the older guys come up from the house, one swinging a boom box against his leg. Luke finds the classic rock station—only that and two country stations come in clear—and passes around a joint while Bender tries eight or nine times to make the invert, trying to do like Grady said, not carve backside, get more speed before he plants his hand on the coping.
Luke gives the last hit to Quill and says, “Come on, Bender, what are you going to do?”
Sprawled at the bottom of the bowl, Bender gives the answer. “Fuck my fears.”
Luke has to leave at sunrise, so he takes Grady aside to give instructions for his absence. Money for food is in his drawer—drawer key in the regular place—but he shouldn’t use it all; Luke’s not sure if he’ll come back from the expo with cash in hand or have to wait for a check. “And someone might come to shut off the electric,” Luke says. “If it’s Wallace, the big guy with the beard, give him the baggie of weed in the coffee can. If it’s another guy, say I’m away but you’re sure I sent a payment.” He crooks his arm around Grady’s neck. “Okay? You okay with that?” They’re the same height now, Grady’s face exactly even with the crowfooted eyes, the instructing lips, the thick black stubble: the face he knows better than anything. He nods okay. “What else are you going to do?” Luke asks.
“Work on the shack.”
“All right.” Luke smiles, and draws him into a big hug before he and Quill head off. Grady knows his dad likes that he’s making his own place. Fuck your fears.
Still, if Quill weren’t here he’d sleep in Luke’s bed for the next few nights. That’s what he usually does when his dad goes away, and he can sleep in that bed for twelve hours at a stretch. In his own bed, he has nightmares, which is probably why four a.m. seems a better time to skate than any other. He’s learned a hundred tricks over the years for trying to fall back asleep. A guy who used to stay at The End, who helped Luke build the very first ramps, taught him one that worked for a while: imagine a dot behind your eyelids and stare at it, stare at it, don’t lose focus, think only of the dot but don’t think about the dot. Think: dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. But sooner or later the Dark Heavy creeps in and presses its cold hands against his throat. Dot won’t help that. Only getting up will help, only tucking a skateboard under his arm and climbing the hill. Only centripetal force, only speed, only down and up and around and around until there’s no direction, only motion, and nothing can catch him.
He looks into the bowl. There’s a right sound in Bender’s wheels he recognizes. Straight up to the coping, Bender grabs the board with his back hand, plants the front hand down and balances: an upside-down egg for a perfect moment before his wheels touch back and he’s in the butter, shooting up the other side. He whoops, euphoric, and then his face darkens. “Where the fuck is Luke? I can’t believe he didn’t see, goddamnit. You’ll tell him, Grady, right?”
Grady balances his board over the lip and says sure, shifts his weight, hurtles down, carves smooth arcs faster and faster, plants, lifts, turns and flies.
Keep the sky where it belongs. No gravity no gravity no gravity no.
The next morning, everything is quiet and everyone is sleeping in. When the cat’s away the mice do not play. They rest. Except for Grady. In the shack, he uncovers several murky jars of unknown goop, and a pile of moldy and sun-faded papers. He thinks that whatever else used to be in here was why Luke got the property so cheap. Luke and the dot guy cleared it out themselves, and they came back to the house with the grimmest faces he had ever seen. When he asked what was in there, his dad said ghosts.
The breeze stirring the paper pile smells leafy and loamy, but it’s got a sharp edge, and Grady thinks if he’s going to live in here he’s going to need a lot of blankets. He unfolds his list. While he’s looking for the pen, his blood, which has its own sharp edge, halts in his veins.
She’s yelling his name, very breathy, very frantic, and when he opens the door he sees that her face is pink from running. “It’s Chick,” she says. “Bleeding bad. Is there a vet?”
They get her car and drive it as close in as they can—she doesn’t care about rocks under the tires or branches scraping the sides—and then go on foot the rest of the way. When he sees Chick it feels like a big piece tearing out of him. She’s lying in a horrible position on a bed of yellow leaves, which are pooled with dark blood and sticking to her fur. Her breath is fast and shallow. Eyes open but not looking. Grady goes to his knees, cradles her head and looks up at Quill.
“It’s coming from her stomach,” she says. “Let’s hurry.”
Chick is everybody’s favorite. The first dog ever born at The End, a pit bull Australian shepherd, and every bone in her body sweet. She doesn’t resist the hands gingerly lifting her into the back seat; Grady climbs in with her and Quill navigates back to open air, where she almost runs down Bender trying to play chicken with them. “I will hit you,” she yells out the window. Grady almost smiles in spite of everything. He tells Bender to get in shotgun, and then ignores his twisted-around head, his wide eyes on Chick and his what-the-fuck mouth.
“Grady, there are some clothes in the way back,” Quill says. “You could use a shirt to stop the bleeding.”
He digs out a black one in case she wants to wear it again, and zones out to the radio for a while, pressing the shirt against the wound, stroking Chick’s head and staring at the back of Quill’s. He guesses she hasn’t found anywhere to buy the red dye here; she’s got about an inch of blond roots grown back in. Even with the hair and the tattoos, she has an air of college about her—he’d thought she was snobby when Luke first brought her home—but it’s cool that she’s so worried about Chick and doesn’t mind getting dog blood all over her car.
She’s gunning it, too. It’s thirty minutes to town, but they might make it in twenty. Grady’s leg is trapped under Chick, and slowly, gently, he shifts his position. No phone in his pocket. “Bender,” he says in a voice that sounds like his father. “Call information. We should let the vet know we’re coming.”
Quill talks to the woman at the desk while Grady carries Chick to an exam room in the back. The vet is a tall, bony woman with a frown carved into her face, and he’s glad of that; a smiling doctor would disturb him much more. She parts Chick’s blood-matted fur with her gloved fingers. “Your dog has been shot,” she says. He isn’t surprised. He’s run into hunters on the far reaches of the property before, though they should damn well know better than to come so close to the house. Not finding an exit wound, the doctor fills a needle, calls to an assistant and sends Grady to the waiting room.
He slaps at a stainless steel cart on his way. Does Chick know? he wonders. Is she thinking, I have been wounded, I have been shot and they are trying to save me? Or is it all feeling—a pain out of nowhere that creates a totally new world: square rooms and bright lights and people in white coats who might do what they’re doing to her forever.
He sits next to Quill. She asks if Chick’s going to be okay, and he says the doctor doesn’t know. One leg of his jeans is ripped below the butt, and the back of his thigh sticks to the vinyl seat. Unsticking it, he slides down so his shoulders are level with the chairback. One thing he’s inherited from his dad is a lack of ease in sitting. Across the room, a mothery woman pets the fat, meowing tabby on her lap and tries not to look too long at the grungy teenage boys and the girl with the bright red hair. Luke gets juiced on people’s stares, goes right up and asks if they’re interested in any body part in particular, but Grady always pulls his hat down to his eyebrows and looks away.
Bender’s round Texan voice is floating and circling above him. You can count on that guy to keep up the chatter; he’s going on to Quill now about his time in juvie, how he felt like a whole different person before he came to The End. Grady wonders how much of an exaggeration that is—how different of a person it’s possible to feel like. Quill’s eyes keep flitting over to check him; they’re bright and probing and warm. He can see why his dad likes her so much.
“How’s the shack coming along?” she asks. “You don’t think it’ll be too creepy in there at night?”
“It’ll be okay,” he says. “I don’t sleep that well, anyway.”
She tells him a trick he hasn’t heard before. Pick a word, see the letters in front of you, and keep making new words by changing one letter at a time. List, lost, loot, boot, book. “Yeah,” Bender says, “but what’s after that? Boob, and then even I’d be awake.”
Grady says he’ll try it. He wishes he were skating. He hates this compressed air and the tinny voice of the TV in the corner, attended closely by the woman with the tabby.
Quill dials her phone and circles the waiting room once, then sits down, frowning. “What do you think’s going on?” she asks, and Grady says that there’s a bullet in Chick.
“People shoot dogs here?” She looks angry. She looks a little ill.
“They hunt,” Grady tells her. He remembers now having heard a shot early in the morning. Hours before Quill found her. A distant, echoing crack that seemed like it was probably part of a nightmare before he was fully awake. And then he felt the meaty quaking of his heart and started looking at the dot. If only he’d gone out to investigate.
“What were you doing up in the woods anyway?” Bender asks Quill.
“Well, detective, I go up there a lot. There’s a spot that’s good to sit and write.”
Grady nods. He’s seen her trek up there plenty of times with a thermos of coffee and a pack of M&M’s. She’s a grad student, as she reminds Bender, and she’s working on a book.
“About some women poets in North Africa.” She lifts her face and pushes a wry smile up at the ceiling. “Want to hear more?”
Bender scratches his head. “How did that lead you to The End?”
“It didn’t, Luke did.”
She’s not snobby, Grady decides for sure, just different. Most of Luke’s girlfriends had at least skated a little. What was it like to come to their world as the odd one out? List, lost, books and boobs.
The vet walks in and Grady gets to his feet. She frowns extra deep and tells him that the bullet has pierced Chick’s lung and lodged in her spine. She doesn’t know the extent of the damage yet, but Chick would need surgery immediately, and rehabilitation later, and might still wind up partially paralyzed. It could cost thousands of dollars. “The option of putting the dog down,” she says, “might be something to consider as well, in this case.”
Quill is holding her phone to her ear, saying, “It’s me again, Luke—come on, pick up.”
If Luke were here, Grady is sure, they never would have come to the vet’s. Luke would have taken care of it, then would have bought a bottle of whiskey and not spoken to anybody for days. And who’s to say that wouldn’t have been better for the dog?
The vet tells them to come in back when they’re ready to talk, but not to wait too long.
He sits back down with his face buried in his hands. He wishes he were grinding, sliding, wiping out, tumbling, scraping his skin against concrete. “You can’t get my dad?” he says into the calluses.
“No, and he can’t be there yet, he only left five hours ago.”
Bender says, “Where’s he skating?” and Grady mumbles Daytona.
“Florida? Well, that’d take him through Georgia, right?”
“Shut up, Bender,” Grady says. He peeks out the side of his hand at Quill, who has clearly caught the smutty note in Bender’s voice.
“What’s in Georgia?”
Bender had met the Georgia girl last year and described her with the aid of a couple of soccer balls. Now Grady can hear his jacketed shoulders lift in a shrug. “Nothing. It’s just on the way is all.”
He can sense how stiffly Quill, next to him, is holding herself. He presses his fingertips into his eyelids, fighting an urge to punch the stupid minion. And he still has to do what he has to do to Chick. Still has to step up, say it aloud and make it happen.
But it’s much too quiet to say anything. Even the tabby has stopped its meowing and the desk clerk stopped her typing. So quiet everyone but the tinny little squawkers on TV might have vanished, or might be hiding behind furniture, training guns on each other. He raises his head. Everyone is still there, looking at him, and the vet is in the doorway. “I’m sorry, Mr. Barrett,” she says.
“Yeah, I know you’re waiting on me.”
Grady feels Quill’s hand on his arm. He follows the vet back and stands for a minute. All of Chick but her head is covered with a small white sheet, as if she were a child in bed. He knows why they did that, and he doesn’t pull the sheet back. Chick saved him from having to give the order, but he was about to, he was just about to say it. He kisses her on the head and goes back to the waiting room.
“Bender, give me your phone.”
He crosses the room as Luke’s voice comes on, even smaller than the TV voices, saying, “Bender, I’m busy, what do you need?” “No,” Grady says, “it’s me, Dad.” He tells him where they are, tells him about Chick, and then when his father starts asking how it happened, he puts the phone to his chest. “Do you want to talk to him?” he asks Quill. She shakes her head.
She pays the bill for Chick before they collect the body. Grady sees her real name on the credit card—he hadn’t known or even wondered. “Do you say it Lye-na or Lee-na?” he asks, and she tells him Lee-na.
On the way home they stop for gas, and while she’s pumping, Grady goes in to buy a pack of M&M’s for her. He adds a Coke for himself so it doesn’t seem as weird. Still, she looks surprised. She tears open a corner and shakes some into her mouth, then passes the pack around. She’ll leave Luke. He’ll talk a good game, but she’s smarter than that. Grady hopes he remembers, by the time it comes out, to get a copy of her book. He’s already forgotten her last name from the credit card.
Autumn sunlight is blazing all over. The older guys are listening to Motörhead and skating the half-pipe. Quill would normally park right there, but she keeps going past the half-pipe, past the barn and into the hills.
They carry the body up to the spot with the best view. Cranium jogs up behind them, demanding to know where they’ve been, and then he sees Chick wrapped in the sheet and looks like he might cry. “Should we wait till Luke comes home?” he asks and Grady says no. He hurries to retrieve the shovel he left leaning against the shack. He wants to get Chick buried before the other guys wander up, or before the darkness starts pressing down. Even in bright afternoon, its depths are waiting everywhere. Not just around the shack, but in the trees, the barn, the house and concrete hollows: in everything he loves and will inherit, in the ground that would swallow harder things than his dog’s body.