Truth is, I like Garnet better when he’s messed up on the sweet stuff, so I hold back on the second swig of NyQuil. No, we’re not sick—you’d have to be an old-timer to catch cold in this heat. The carport is sweltering. We’re shirtless, barefoot, alone. Blackberry bushes have grown wild over the door and its wheels are broken. There’s no way Garnet’s dad, Lang, who suffers from hemiplegia, a man frozen from God’s good graces, as he puts it, will look for us here.
“Here’s to your mama and the summer,” Garnet says. His voice is a deep well. We’re side-by-side on the dirt floor and we clink our plastic cups in a thank God school’s done celebratory moment. None of the high school guys with fake IDs wanted to boot for us because I’m an “orphan boy,” and with Lang on an alcohol-free beer stint, we settled for the blue bottle in the bathroom cabinet. The stuff tastes like cheap absinthe.
“To mama,” I echo, who died three months ago when Lang’s canoe flipped at Fisher Lake. This happened not long after they’d shacked up and our families merged. His story was that she’d been at the stern, him on his knees, paddle balanced on the gunwales, when the lake lifted. She wasn’t a swimmer. He managed to climb back in but she sunk before he could grab her. No lifejackets. Even with my misery, I was secretly overjoyed at his injuries—his right side ended up paralysed from a head-blow. They say a brush with death can transform any man into a believer, but Lang’s change was extreme. Homebound and handicapped, he spends his days researching the flood. God’s flood. He twitches at the kitchen table like a gimped spider and stares at pages from Genesis, navigation charts, blurred photos of the lake. Garnet brings him there each week to study the waves before they blot us out. I’m convinced it’s his way of coping.
“It’s damn hot in here.” Garnet takes another swill and leans back, eyes closed. I empty my cup into some nearby dandelions. I want to be sober for what I know will happen next. His penis is swelling to a bulge inside his jean shorts. When he unzips to pull it out, I’m more afraid of the wasps overhead than what we’ll do this time. My fear simmers to anticipation and the room grows small as he strokes himself. Sweat shimmers on his leg hairs. It’s difficult not to look. It might be the heat or the cough syrup, or both, but I give in and put my hand over his. We’ve never touched before, not like this. Wasps disappear into the hive, emerge, land on the warm wood. Garnet keeps his eyes closed. I feel strong with him in my hand, in control since my mom died.
“Let’s hose off,” he says. We bury his orgasm and stand, careful to avoid the wasps and any eye contact with each other. The reality of our sick deed buzzes low and dangerous like the corner nest. At eighteen it’s easier to step around it, to slip back into teenage boy mode and move on.
“Hose off where?” I ask.
“Lang’s gonna want his bath soon.”
“Fuck him and his baths.”
I don’t argue with that. Every day after school since the accident, Garnet has had to give his dad sponge baths. Lang can still get around with a cane but he has trouble with the tub. He refuses homecare. A woman in blue smocks used to stop by but he’d flash his Bible and wave her away. God has done nothing—it’s all Garnet. He’s become a full-time caregiver: he runs baths, grinds solid foods into paste, fetches prescriptions, applies for extended disability pensions, wheels his dad to Fisher Lake for more shots with his Polaroid. The worst is when Garnet runs errands and leaves me behind. If ever I’m alone in the house, his dad will follow me with his purple leg dragging behind him like a dead animal. He’ll tell me to move out because I’m not family. I’m eighteen and can live on my own. He thinks I want to take away his son, which is true. We’ve talked about a town named Zenith. I don’t mention this to Lang. Sometimes he’ll lean in with his blind eye and mumble that he can hear us through the walls at night. Insect, insect, he’ll say, over and over because he can’t shape his mouth to say the real word, and I’ll remind him that me and Garnet aren’t related. Not by law, not by blood. The word hangs off his dead tongue. Insect.
Garnet has stripped down to his boxers. We’re in the neighbour’s yard, unwrapping the garden hose from its hook. There are no wasps here, only barn swallows that cut the air around us. The family is on vacation somewhere warm: a mom, a dad, a little girl who likes bubble gum and has a Dora the Explorer backpack. The whole thing’s sickly sweet but I envy her when she rides her pink bike in the road while her parents watch from the porch.
The antihistamine makes Garnet do funny things, weird things. He stomps rotten crab-apples into powder and throws the sludge at the sky. He tries to lasso me with the hose but dumps the coils over my head instead. We manage to strangle out water in spite of twists in the line. The heat is unbearable. He gets bored with our water fight and drags the girl’s bike from the shed. Candy-coloured spokey dokeys collide and snap with each full rotation of the wheels.
“Get on,” he says. I try to run but he forces me to sit, and I pretend to struggle so he’ll hold me there a little longer. His hands are fast and vein-covered. They like to meddle and touch. They are two creatures that act independent of his brain. He’s told me about his problems in grade school, how his hands would betray him at story hour. The touchy feely kid. His punishment was to sit and hold his butt cheeks while the other kids laughed.
I start to pedal. A sound like wood on tin vibrates from over the hedge. It’s steady, a dull thwack every few seconds, and I realize Lang is hitting the porch roof with his cane. He’s calling for Garnet but Garnet is collecting pebbles in the neighbour’s driveway. I don’t want him to hear his deranged dad so I do a couple laps across the lawn for attention, and it works—Garnet claps and starts to flick pebbles at the spokey dokeys. On my final lap I try to stand but feel woozy, dust in my throat, the air all shimmery. I can see the hook of Lang’s cane swiping at the roof and then it’s gone, and I’m on the ground with my leg twisted at a bad angle. Garnet jumps on me like they do in football matches and I swear he cracks my rib. His cheeks redden with blood as he stares down at me. He wants to know if I’m okay, if I’m hurt. We’re in clear view of the road. Around this time, Mr. Mealy across the street is driving home from work, Irene on the corner goes jogging with her schnauzer, and Nick and Drew, the twins from a block over, are skateboarding the sidewalk’s steep incline. They all know me as the boy with a family without a family, the boy whose best friend is his almost-stepbrother. He’s the almost-stepbrother who, drunk on cough medicine under the white sun, unwillingly uproots both our lives with a heavy, stupid kiss.
I expect shouts of outrage and disgust but the street stays quiet. Lang’s roof-thwacks have also stopped. Garnet passes out with his face on mine—he must’ve sneaked the rest of the NyQuil. In spite of the pain, I can feel my pants shrinking around my crotch. His body is a comfortable weight, an anchor I want to be crushed under for years and years. I manage to slide out and limp to our house for Band-Aids. The front door is open and the living room fan blasts me with cool air. No sign of Lang. The kitchen table has been cleared—no more papers, maps, or pictures, just Lang’s ashtray piled with cigarettes. Over the fan blades comes a noise like falling rocks and I see water pouring across the kitchen floor from the bathroom. Maybe a burst pipe or a clogged drain. My first thought is to wake Garnet but he’d be useless with all that drug in his stomach.
Small waves push against the bathroom door. It’s only open a few inches but I can see the tub faucet has been turned on high and there’s water cascading over the edge. Lang must’ve gotten impatient. He’ll be angry because it’s hard to turn the taps with one dead arm and because I walked in on him trying to get clean. When Garnet gives him baths, Lang has to sit with his knees to his chin because he’s so tall. I watched once from the doorway. His bare back glowed a sickly yellow in the wan bathroom light. The milky cornea of his blind eye faced the door and I knew he couldn’t see me but he kept muttering the same word. Insect insect insect. Somehow he knew I was there. And he’s in the bathroom now but he doesn’t move or cry out. His back faces the door and his torso is slumped over the tub’s edge, arms floating, head bobbing. The tub’s surface is like a rising mirror. He doesn’t get angry when I turn off the faucet and lift him out of the water. He’s lighter than I expect—his skin feels cool, almost soothing, in the heat. I have never touched a man this old before. I have never touched a naked man or wrapped him in a towel to trap in warmth. Parts of his body have turned purple to match the colour of his dead limbs. The room reaches a terrifying level of quiet and I’m faced again with his white eye, but he stares past me to something unseen.
I hear the front door slam. Garnet yells that I’m dead meat for leaving him in the sun to burn. My leg is coated in bloody gravel but the pain has shifted, and cinches in my chest. Lang’s Bible, his favourite King James edition, sits by the sink with a Polaroid picture tucked inside the cover. The book’s spine crumbles a little in my hands. It’s a blurred photo of the neighbour’s house, the garden hose, the bike, me and Garnet in the grass. Bright colours from the spoke beads have bled into our faces but I can’t deny what I see.