The saplings stood in neat rows along the winding avenue, each leafless maple growing from a dark hump of soil that resembled a small grave. They rose six, seven feet above the sidewalk. With flashlights and a trowel, we uprooted the shortest one we could find and carried it off to our plywood fort in the desert. I was fourteen that year, and so was Kilburg. It was late on a Sunday—warm and arid, though summer was still two months away—and I’d left my house in the middle of the night without permission. Surrounded by catclaws and schist rocks, the rickety fort sat stark and uninviting in the middle of a dried-up arroyo. Kilburg had said that all the outside needed was a little greenery, a few trees.
Earlier that evening, I’d learned that my father was going to die, and I was glad to be out in the open, away from home. Kilburg had convinced me to sneak out my bedroom window and meet him at the end of our block at a quarter past eleven. Now he had me on my hands and knees, scooping rocks and hard-packed dirt, baked solid after a rainless winter. The drought that had begun in December had yet to subside. People joked that their faucets might soon run dry. Out at the fort, a twenty-minute walk into the desert that bordered Las Vegas to the southeast, the air sometimes smelled of the chlorinated swimming pools and freshly mowed lawns that were partially at fault for the city’s water shortage. Beside me, Kilburg massaged his aching stump. He could stand for only so long before he had to remove his prosthetic leg, a hollow plastic thing, a mannequin’s appendage. He had diabetes, and had lost his leg at the age of six due to a blocked artery.
“I don’t know about you,” Kilburg said, “but I sure could use some action.” The leg, which had once matched the color of his skin but had faded to an unnatural ivory, lay beneath him in the dirt. He sat crouched on it as though it were a log next to a campfire. In one hand he held a flashlight, and with the other he kneaded his stump in a slow figure eight, avoiding the spot in the center where the skin had been knotted together like the end of a sausage.
“Action?” I asked, tossing a clump of dirt over my shoulder. “What kind of action?”
The sapling was balanced against the overturned paint bucket we used as a bongo drum. Behind us, the fort stood at an angle, leaning westward, undeserving of its name: it wasn’t fortified in any way, and appeared on the verge of collapse. But deep in what seemed to us an uncharted region of the Mojave—there were no trails, no cigarette butts or empty beer bottles—and concealed by the arroyo’s high, crumbling banks, it was at least unknown to the rest of the world. Building the fort had been Kilburg’s idea. We spent an entire Saturday wrestling with the sheets of plywood we’d found in his father’s tool shed. We shaped a door frame with his ancient jigsaw and dragged the sheets one by one through the desert to hammer them together, but in the end our construction was nothing more than four unpainted walls and a low, flat roof, less complex than your average doghouse.
Kilburg shook his head at the ground, the way he did whenever I asked him a question. “Action,” he said. “Chicks. Jesus, do I have to explain everything?”
“Oh,” I said, and lowered my eyes back to my work.
Travis Kilburg was tall and muscular, with long earlobes and a wide, open face. He wore a military buzz cut, and it seems to me now that his complexion always had a greenish tint to it—like the patina of an old bronze statue—his eyes dark and serious. He liked to talk about sex, about the many girls whose virginity he’d taken, though I knew he was a virgin himself. We both were. Neither of us had ever even kissed anyone. Kilburg was perhaps incapable of honesty, no matter what the topic, and I played along whenever he fabricated his exploits of seduction and conquest.
I stabbed the trowel into the dirt and leaned to grab a few pebbles from the hole. I didn’t mind doing all the work. It was taking my thoughts off the news my parents had delivered over dinner. According to my father’s doctor, a rare lung condition—a fibrosis—was responsible for his chronic cough, for his labored breathing, which in the last couple of months had grown louder and raspier. My father explained that his lungs were in bad shape, their tissue scarred. Without at least one transplant, he told me, swallowing the words as he chewed, the fibrosis would prove fatal. The only person I’d ever known to die was my grandfather on my mother’s side. He’d had a heart attack two summers earlier.
“You bring the booze?” Kilburg said now. He put a licked finger to the air. “It’s about that time.”
“Just some schnapps.”
The liter of Bushmills I often borrowed from my father’s liquor cabinet had been half-empty when I’d checked earlier that night, and I’d chosen a bottle of DeKuyper Peachtree instead, paranoid that my father might have secretly taken to watching the volume of his whiskey. I had a hunch that Kilburg might declare the schnapps an unacceptable offering, but he only shrugged and said, “Whatever, man. Booze is booze.”
I held the sapling up to the beam of the flashlight. Dark soil clung to a knot of roots. A shiny worm writhed from the soil and twisted around like a periscope. I positioned the roots in the hole and scooped the dirt back in, patting it flat around the trunk.
“There,” I said. “What do you think?”
Like the fort, the sapling leaned heavily to one side, in a way that made it look pathetic.
“Just as I pictured it,” Kilburg said. “This place looks better already. When that thing grows leaves, we’ll have ourselves a little color out here.” He kneaded his stump harder now, as though working a pulled muscle. “Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s celebrate.”
I reached into my back pocket and brought around the bottle of schnapps, a pint. I handed it to Kilburg, and he uncapped it and sniffed the contents. He crinkled his nose, then caught himself and smiled. “Just what the doctor ordered,” he said. “All we need are some women and we’d have a party on our hands.”
“Tell me about it,” I said, laughing through my nose the way Kilburg sometimes did.
He took a long pull and winced as he lowered the bottle. Kilburg rarely discussed his health, and at the time I wasn’t sure if having diabetes meant that he shouldn’t be drinking. I’d never seen him test his blood sugar or inject insulin, nor had I ever thought of his illness as life-threatening. He seemed to have a high tolerance for alcohol, or pretended to. He would do almost anything for attention. Just above the knee joint, his prosthetic leg opened into a kind of cup, and it was from here that he would occasionally drink my father’s whiskey. Into the cup fit a concave socket, attached to which was a leather sleeve that laced up like a shoe. If Kilburg took a clumsy step as we crossed the uneven terrain of the desert, the socket would come out, popping like a cork, and he would pitch forward into the dirt. What’s more, the knee and ankle joints creaked when he walked, and his stump itched and perspired and developed weekly blisters. He moved with the lopsided gait of an arthritic old man. At school, kids tormented him, calling him “Peg Leg” and “Gimp”—especially two thuggish, athletic-looking boys in our class named Todd Sheehan and Chad Klein, neither of whom I’d ever seen without a wad of chew plugged into his cheek. They were both as big as Kilburg, and tried to trip him whenever they had the chance.
“College chicks,” he said now, taking another pull. “That’s what we really need.”
We were still in junior high and I wondered if Kilburg had ever even met a college-age woman.
“I’d go to UNLV for the babes alone,” he offered, “but my dad says college is for people who think they’re too good to work.”
Kilburg was the son of a chemical-plant operator, and he often found a way to incorporate his father’s opinions into a conversation. He was determined to follow in the man’s footsteps, to land himself a job someday at Kerr-McGee, where his father had worked for the past twenty years. Perhaps because my own father was an engineer, Kilburg needled me about being what he called a “richie,” even though my parents shared a Mercury Capri that was nearly a decade old, even though we lived in a small ranch house just up the block. Both our fathers worked in the desert, but the Kerr-McGee plant was only twenty minutes outside the city. The nuclear test site where my father worked was more than an hour away.
Three years earlier, Kilburg’s mother had run off with a gambler from Arizona, a man she’d met at a poker table. His father was tall and potbellied, and he glared at you with stony eyes, and when he spoke his black beard parted to reveal a mouth full of crooked teeth, many of which overlapped or were angled to such a degree that you could see their rotting undersides. Evenings, he nursed an Old Milwaukee in his Barcalounger until he fell asleep. More than once, Kilburg had shown up for school with a fat lip, or a bruised cheekbone, or a cut above his eye. When I asked him, the Monday after we’d built the fort, why his wrist was black-and-blue, he told me that a stereo speaker had fallen on him—knocked over by Tarkanian, his German shepherd—but I suspected the injury was punishment for the wood that had gone missing from his father’s shed. Still, Kilburg worshipped him, perhaps because the man was all he had left.
Presently, he switched off the flashlight and slipped it into a pocket of his shorts. “C’mon,” he said. He handed me the bottle and scooted himself off the prosthetic leg and onto the ground, his real leg stretched out in front of him. Pushing with his hands, the same way we eased ourselves down the sloping banks of the arroyo, he inched across the dirt and into the fort.
I crawled behind him through the low door frame. A green shag rug, taken from a supermarket Dumpster, covered the hard dirt floor. Flashlights hung like inverted torches in each of the four corners, dangling from shoestrings nailed to the plywood. One or another of the bulbs was always faintly flickering. Each month Kilburg stole the latest issue of Playboy from the 7-Eleven near our school, and our only interior adornment was a glossy centerfold of Bernadette Peters, thumbtacked to the wall opposite the door frame.
I took a sip of the schnapps and coughed as it burned down my throat.
“There you go,” he said. He took off his shoe, a white sneaker whose mate was outside, on the foot of the prosthetic leg. “We’ll make a man out of you yet.”
Before long I had a terrific buzz going. My head had grown numb, and I was loose-jointed, slurring my speech. The two of us lay flat on the rug. In the still air I could smell sagebrush and Kilburg’s cheap drugstore cologne. He kept saying, “You drunk yet? You feeling anything?” I pinched my eyes closed and a kaleidoscope of color spun behind the lids. When I opened them, Kilburg was leaning over me, his breath warm on my face.
“Get off,” I said, squirming, but he held my arms. The stiff weight of his torso had me pinned. I looked away. Through the door frame was the moon: white light in a black sky. When he put his lips to mine, I let out a grumble, doubtful at first of the tingling sensation that rained from the crown of my head to the tips of my fingers. Kilburg slipped his tongue into my mouth, and I gave in to the kiss. Soon he eased off me. He touched my ears, my cheeks, the side of my neck. Then he forced his stump into my hip, and gave a shudder when my erection brushed against his own. I brought my arm up around his neck, but he batted it away.
“Easy, lover boy,” he said. He rolled off me, laughing.
“I thought, I thought,” he mocked. “Relax. We’re not fags, man. It’s only practice for the real thing, for when we get girlfriends.” Kilburg narrowed his eyes as if the answer to a troublesome question had finally dawned on him. “We’re drunk, Nick. We’re not thinking right. Don’t ever tell anybody about this.” He fumbled with his shoe, trying to get it back on. “You do and you’re a dead man.”
My father began taking a daily dose of prednisone, a steroid meant to decrease the inflammation in his lungs. Over the past several weeks he’d undergone a CAT scan and a bronchoscopy—procedures I’d never heard of—and already there seemed to be a lack of hope in his eyes, as if he’d predicted the ultimate uselessness of treatment. After dinner he read from newspaper articles about the drought, now one of the longest in the city’s history, his voice thin and scratchy as he shook his head in disbelief. His hands had fattened from the prednisone and taken on a yellowish color, as though he’d soaked them in formaldehyde. How long did he have to live? The question troubled me, and yet my worry was often replaced by daydreams of being at the fort with Kilburg.
We continued to sneak out after dark, the course of each night the same. We hid behind the corner of an office building, or in the shadows of an empty strip mall, peering from the darkness until the coast was clear, waiting as motorists made their way up and down Eastern Avenue. To the trill of katydids—everywhere that spring—we dug a twig-like sapling from the earth, wrapped its roots in a plastic produce bag, and made our way by flashlight into the desert. By the end of May—as the days grew longer and the air even drier, the sun scorching the valley with what seemed to be malice—our saplings numbered seven around the fort. After planting one, we’d saturate the ground with water we’d brought in a plastic thermos. Later, we’d drink ourselves to recklessness and find new ways to express our attraction: unzipping, fondling, going farther every time, Kilburg always in control.
I concocted elaborate fantasies in which we spent entire weekends together and woke each morning on the shag rug, unclothed in each other’s arms. Not a day went by that I didn’t think about him. I felt lucky to be more than just his friend, though I was convinced I wasn’t gay, having decided on a precise distinction between bona fide homosexuality and my curious interest in Kilburg. Surely a person could be drawn, temporarily at least, to a member of the same sex without being a homosexual—surely there were explanations. Like Kilburg, I didn’t want anyone to know about what we did at the fort.
Mornings, we walked together to school, through our neighborhood and up Eastern, past each of the humps of soil we’d emptied, caved in like little volcanoes. But when I ran into Kilburg between classes, he usually ignored me.
My mother started speaking of my father as though he were already dead. “Before long, it’ll just be the two of us,” she might say with tear-filled eyes. When I failed to cry, she’d insist I was in a state of denial. But if my father was around, my mother was all smiles. She prepared his favorite meals, surprised him with tickets to a movie or a new set of golf clubs. She bought him watches, ties, books by his favorite authors, and—in June, for his forty-fourth birthday—a new Buick LeSabre, an expense my parents couldn’t afford.
One night when I returned home late from the fort, around one o’clock, a light was on in the family room. I’d never been caught sneaking out, and I feared that my parents had finally discovered my absence. I crept between the shrubs to the window, squinting into a space of light where the curtains didn’t quite meet. I saw only my mother. Her knees were drawn to her chest in my father’s leather armchair. She glanced up and I ducked below the edge of the window, holding my breath. But when I looked back in—cautiously, my heart hammering in my chest—she was staring down at the carpet. For some reason I kept holding my breath, and then I thought of my father, of what it would be like to struggle for air. My mother had told me that soon he would need to use an oxygen tank to breathe. I imagined tending to him. I imagined my mother fretting at his bedside. My chest heaved, and I let go my breath. Kilburg and I had parted only minutes ago, but I realized I missed him, as though I might never see him again.
My mother got up from the chair, stretched her arms, and switched off the light. I walked down the block, but Kilburg’s bedroom window was dark. He lived in a big split-level with wood trim and aluminum siding, out of place in our neighborhood of low stuccoed houses. A trailered boat took up most of the driveway and an orange ’67 Mustang was parked against two bricks in the middle of the yard. A single agave grew beside the rusted automobile, the grass a sunburned brown. The development dipped along a hillside, and the distant valley was a bowl of glimmering light, the Strip a reddish flare across the land.
I walked around the side of the house, through the open wrought-iron gate. The backyard had never been landscaped, and patches of creosote grew from the wind-blown dirt. Along the cinder block wall stood an abandoned lawn mower, two of its wheels missing. I sat down in an old blue wheelbarrow overgrown with dandelions and quack grass, as if, like the lawn mower, it hadn’t moved in a hundred years. It was a school night, but I remained in the wheelbarrow for a long while and deciphered constellations in the night sky, a skill my father had taught me. Kilburg was asleep in his bedroom. I wondered if he even liked me, or anyone else, for that matter. I’d never seen him completely naked, but I pictured what he might look like—a solid torso, two arms and a leg—and I unzipped my shorts.
The following morning I was running late for school. When Kilburg knocked on the front door, my mother told him to go ahead without me. Fifteen minutes later, I was making my way through the neighborhood when I spotted him at a corner. He should have been in class by now, but there he was, thirty yards away, surrounded by Sheehan and Klein and a third boy named Walsh, who’d been in my gym class the previous semester. Suddenly Sheehan swung at Kilburg and clipped him on the cheek. When Kilburg raised an elbow to shield himself, Klein took a step forward and kneed him in the groin. Walsh stood back and watched it all, howling and stomping his heel on the concrete. Doubled over, Kilburg stumbled to the left, then to the right. I waited for his leg to come off. Like a felled tree, he tipped slowly to one side. His textbooks spilled from his arms as he hit the sidewalk. I knelt behind a beat-up Impala. We were half a mile from school, and I considered running for help, cutting unseen through the desert and summoning the principal, then decided against it. I wondered what, if anything, Kilburg had done to provoke the boys. Billy Walsh was short and skinny, a loudmouth and a tagalong. I figured I could take him in a fistfight if I had to. But I’d recently chipped both my front teeth during a game of touch football, and I imagined Sheehan and Klein kicking them in entirely while Walsh held me from behind.
It was a hot, clear morning and sunlight glinted off the Impala’s chrome bumper. As I leaned against it, I understood that Kilburg was only someone to feel sorry for. Perhaps this, beyond his physical appeal, was what I liked most about him—the difficult home life, the unfair disadvantage of his disease. I suppose I loved him, or thought I did, and I waited to feel compelled to rush to his defense, to act as any good friend would. But the feeling never came.
I peeked around the bumper of the Impala, holding my breath the way I had in front of my house the night before. Some cars had slowed during the commotion, but none of the drivers had gotten out to help. Kilburg groped around on the sidewalk, trying to stand, but before he could get to his feet Walsh bent down and pulled off his prosthetic leg, tossing it as far down the sidewalk as he could.
Kilburg struggled to sit up, then dragged himself over to the leg as the three boys walked off with his textbooks. Almost as though he’d sensed my presence, he looked up the street a few times and squinted at the Impala as he held his groin. Every part of me wanted to help him, but if I revealed myself now he would know I’d been watching all along. I remained behind the Impala as Kilburg reattached the leg and limped off toward home.
He never did show up at school, and when I called his house in the afternoon there was no answer. That night I found him at the fort. He was sitting outside on the overturned paint bucket, rubbing his stump in his usual way. The prosthetic leg rested beside him in the dirt. Inside, the flashlights were on, and a dreary glow spread from the door frame. The air smelled strongly of weed.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him.
His neck and arms were spattered with dime-size welts, as though he’d been pelted with stones. He had a black eye, and the side of his face, badly bruised, looked like the palm of a catcher’s mitt.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
I sat down in the dirt. It seemed that not all of his injuries could have resulted from what had happened that morning. Some of them must have been his father’s doing. I didn’t know how to ask him if it was true that the man beat him.
“What happened to you?” I said.
He relit a joint and shook his head as he looked down at the leg. The laces had come untied, he claimed, and he’d tumbled down a flight of stairs at the school library. He’d gone there to check out a few books on gardening, since all of the saplings we’d planted appeared to have died. There were ten in all. Many had sprouted leaves, but now the leaves hung from their branches like rolled parchment. There had been no end to the drought, and the water we’d brought to the fort hadn’t been enough to keep the maples alive.
“Jeez,” I said, and felt a revulsion for myself, a churning in my gut. “You look pretty bad.”
“Thanks,” Kilburg said. “I’ll heal.”
“Did it hurt? The fall, I mean. You in any pain?”
He took a hit off the joint. “I bet you don’t even jerk off,” he said.
I was caught off guard and for an anxious second I wondered if he’d seen me in the wheelbarrow behind his house the night before. I felt a kind of soreness—a sudden pulsing—between my legs. I squeezed them together and hugged my knees and shrugged.
“I jerk off,” I told him. “Who doesn’t?”
“Girls don’t. Girls don’t have peckers, stupid.”
“Whatever,” I said. “No shit, Sherlock.”
He raised an eyebrow and glared at me. Then he handed me the joint, burned down to nothing. I’d smoked weed only once before, with a cousin at a family reunion in Illinois. I inhaled, pinching the joint between my thumb and index finger the way I’d been shown.
“Good stuff,” I ventured, managing not to cough.
Kilburg strummed an air guitar. In a rock-and-roll falsetto, he began to sing: What I want, you’ve got, and it might be hard to handle. But like the flame that burns the candle, the candle feeds the flame. It was a Hall & Oates song we both liked. You make my dreams come true, he squealed.
My eyelids grew heavy and a dense warmth surrounded me. I had a sense of time passing slowly. I was suddenly very hungry. “Awesome,” I said, and laughed.
Kilburg took a breath. “Holy shit,” he said. “I’m so goddamn stoned.”
For a few seconds neither of us spoke. The sun had set hours ago, but it was probably close to ninety degrees outside. Heat rose through the desert floor. A cloud of smoke hovered above the fort. It seemed to drift into the night as I extinguished the joint against the side of a rock. Kilburg mumbled to himself, gesturing with his hands. I couldn’t make out the words. Already my forehead was throbbing, and I was glad I hadn’t taken a second hit.
After a time, I heard him say, “I’m going to fuck you.” Just like that, my high was gone, or I thought it was. “Yeah,” he said, as though he’d reflected on it and made up his mind. He spoke slowly, his voice soft but emphatic: “I’m going to fuck you.”
In the distance a coyote wailed. The desert around the fort was aglow in the milky light of a full moon.
“Stand up,” Kilburg said, louder now. “Pull down your shorts.”
I did as I was told and stood in front of him with my shorts and underwear bunched at my ankles. I felt the twinge of an erection, and soon it bobbed beneath the hem of my T-shirt. In a corner of my mind I could already see into the future, into tomorrow or next week, when I would look back and yearn for this moment. I knew it would seem distant, fictional. Somehow I wanted to savor it, even though I was scared.
“Kneel down,” Kilburg told me, and I knelt before him. He sat up straight, his real leg outstretched. He took my hands in his, and his thumbs trembled in my palms. He was just as scared as I was. The muscles flexed in his arms, while a vein bulged from the side of his neck. He tightened his grip, squeezing until it hurt. Then he grabbed hold of my head and pushed it into his crotch. He leaned over and put his lips to my ear. “First you’re going to blow me,” he said.
I unzipped his cutoffs and rested my cheek against his knee, where I could smell the sharp scent of his groin. He took a deep, eager breath, but when I kissed the inside of his stump, tasting the salt of his skin, he flinched and pushed hard at my shoulder. I looked up at him. In the light from the door frame, he was working his jaw like an animal.
“Get away from me,” Kilburg said, his face twisted in anger.
“What is it?” Still kneeling, I smiled in a way I thought might comfort him.
“I’m not like you!” he shouted. “You make me want to puke. You make me hate myself.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Just shut up,” he said, pressing his fingers into his eyes. “Jesus Christ.”
I pulled up my underwear and shorts and sat back down in the dirt. I looked through the darkness, and it struck me that all across Las Vegas, at that very moment, people were having sex. When I’d turned twelve, my father had tried to broach the subject of intercourse, uncomfortably explaining that, beyond the fulfillment of desire, it was an act of love. But right now people were doing it, I was sure, in motel rooms and bathrooms and parked cars and storage closets, and they either loved each other or they didn’t. Did it make any difference? It seemed possible that simply being with someone—anyone—was enough, and I had the idea that desire was nothing more than a form of desperation.
“I promise not to tell anyone,” I said to Kilburg, sounding helpless. “I wouldn’t ever do that.” I considered taking off my shirt. To make my chest look more feminine, I’d plucked what few hairs I had from around my nipples, and I wanted to show him. “Trav,” I pleaded.
“I told you to shut up,” he said, and zipped his cutoffs. He pinched the knotted center of his stump, tugging at the skin.
I’m not sure what made me do it, but when Kilburg closed his eyes, as if he were trying to recall some piece of vital information, I told him my father was sick. “He’s going to die,” I said, crying now. I thought of how Kilburg’s mother had left him without notice, and I wondered if he ever cried over her when no one was around.
“What?” he said.
“My dad—” I clenched my fists and tried to choke back the tears. “My dad’s going to die.”
“When? What are you talking about?”
“I don’t know when,” I said. “In the next year, probably.”
Kilburg stared silently at his hands, his arms loose across his lap. “Wow,” he said, almost in a whisper.
I could tell he didn’t know what to say next. Between low clouds the stars seemed to float through the sky like distant aircraft, flashing in and out of sight, faint in the light of the moon. I thought of them falling in slow motion, all at once—a blizzard of stars—down through the universe and into the valley, filling it up before melting away. For a couple of minutes there was only the noise of katydids, a steady chirr that filled the air. A breeze picked up and stirred dirt around the fort. The clouds came swiftly together, padding the sky. I thought of the smell of sagebrush when it rained—at once fragrant and repellent, something like the smell of your hand after you licked it. Kilburg nodded his head. He seemed to have calmed down. He bent forward and picked up a rock and chucked it into the night.
“Why didn’t you help me this morning?” he said.
I wiped the tears from my face and looked him up and down.
“I know you were there.” He lifted his chin. “I saw you behind that car.”
I tried to think of an excuse. Kilburg pulled a flashlight from his pocket, switching it on and shining it at a Joshua tree. Heads of sagebrush rose up among the catclaws. He pointed the flashlight at a small cluster of jimsonweed swathed by long white flowers shaped like trumpets. He circled the weed with the beam and clicked his tongue.
“If you wanted to hallucinate,” he said, “you could eat those flowers. Problem is, they might kill you.”
“I’m sorry,” I told him. But I was still thinking about my father. In my mind, as in my mother’s, he was already dead. I pictured his last, gasping moments, then his wake: he lay in an open casket, done up with cosmetics to resemble the living, the way my grandfather had lain at his own wake two summers earlier. I saw Kilburg beside me at the burial, and imagined that afterward the two of us would sneak into the cemetery at night and plant a sapling behind my father’s headstone. I imagined Kilburg as an important part of my life, even though I could feel that this would be our last time together at the fort—that we were more or less done.
The breeze that had picked up grew stronger, sending a tumbleweed bounding past the fort and lifting a plastic produce bag we’d left in the dirt. A dust devil spun elegantly and died. I hadn’t stopped crying, but I tried to hide it by blinking away the tears. I told him again that I was sorry. One of the tears landed on my forearm, and even though I’d felt it fall from my chin, I thought for an instant that after five long months it had begun to rain. But the clouds had already started to separate, exposing the moon and the stars, floating east toward Frenchman Mountain.
Kilburg knuckled his shoulder. He set the flashlight in the dirt and reached for the prosthetic leg. A scowl darkened his features as he pulled the sleeve over his stump and tightened the laces. For the first time it occurred to me that he had a potentially critical illness: if it had cost him his leg, I reasoned, it could just as easily cost him his life. I was suddenly convinced that, like my father, Kilburg wouldn’t live long.
“I guess I thought we were friends,” he said.
It was late, and I could feel that I was still pretty high. I was tired and I wanted to go home. Finally I stood, brushing dirt from my shorts, and offered Kilburg my hand.
“We are,” I lied, because that seemed less hurtful than the truth.