Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The King of Ashland County

Uncle Reggie couldn’t afford to fly to Ireland to find a selkie wife, so instead he drove across the country to Carmel-by-the-Sea and came back with a selkie queer. I was fifteen then, and so ready to get out of Perrysville that California sounded like paradise.

“This is Cian,” Uncle Reggie announced, dragging a lanky teenager into the front room where the three of us were getting high. Netflix was trying to shame us into moving off the couch by pausing The Vampire Diaries with their “are you still watching?” message, but none of us had gotten up. Cian was a freckled brunet who sneered as he yanked his arm out of Uncle Reggie’s grip, which left red finger marks on his pale skin. I tried to make eye contact with him, but Cian looked past us to the wall.

“Cian’ll be staying with us for the foreseeable future,” said Uncle Reggie. “You lot will treat him with respect, and he’s not to leave the house.”

“Hey man,” said Vicki, hauling herself into a position that was almost sitting up. “You want a beer?”

Cian looked from her to Uncle Reggie to the door. “Yes,” he said.

“They’re in the fridge,” said Vicki, slumping down again.

Cian stepped cautiously into the kitchen. Uncle Reggie stayed in the middle of the room, something the three of us tried to pretend didn’t matter. Cian came back with a can of Natty Light in each hand. He set one of them down on the coffee table, clearing aside other empties and a half-full package of Oreos. He picked up a mechanical pencil we used to unclog Dustin’s glass bowl and punched a hole into the beer, then shotgunned it with the neatness of experience. Morga whooped, and the rest of us cheered with more cautious enthusiasm.

“See?” said Uncle Reggie. “I knew you’d get along.” He clapped Cian’s shoulder. Cian flinched but reached for the second beer and cracked the top, sliding away from Uncle Reggie to join us on the couch.

“Fuck this place,” said Cian. “And fuck you, too.”

But he was smart enough to have gotten out of range of Uncle Reggie’s hands before he said it.

“Hope you enjoyed your little vacation while I was gone,” said Uncle Reggie to the rest of us. “Tomorrow’s Monday, and I expect you to get back to fucking work.” He started to leave the room, but Morga, our frizzy-haired middle school kid, called,

“Wait, wait, would you hit play?” and pointed at the battered laptop.

Uncle Reggie stopped. “I won’t tolerate that lazy bullshit,” he said, turning on her. “If you can’t get off the couch for a half second you don’t deserve TV.” He pushed the power button and held it ‘til the laptop screen blacked out, then reached over Morga’s head to tear down the bed sheet we were using for a curtain. The early afternoon sunlight made the room look even smaller and dirtier than it had in the dark.

“Get outta here,” he ordered. “I don’t care where you go, but don’t come back until tomorrow. Except you.” He pointed at Cian, who’d stood up faster than anyone else and was already two steps towards the door. “You stay. And you, Vicki.” He paused and stared hard at me and Morga. “Morga and John, get out. And don’t take any more of my pot with you, either.”

But of course we did.

• • • •

“So why is your name Irish if you’re not Irish?” asked Dustin a few days later. He’d moved to the biggest city around—Cleveland—and we didn’t see much of him anymore, so it was kind of a special occasion for him to be back on the couch with us, talking shit and taking charge. Uncle Reggie was actually his uncle, and Dustin was the reason the rest of us called Reggie that.

“Why is your name Dustin? Or why is her name fuckin’ Morga?” asked Cian. “Cause your parents were twats, that’s why. Same with me as with everybody, yeah?”

His accent wasn’t quite Irish; it was too slight to place, too slight even to be sure that it was there from word to word. Cian was a good looking kid, the way Vicki was, or cool kids generally were. He always looked like he’d just popped out of the shower, something about him a little bit fresh and a little bit damp, and this was sensual enough to make me feel weird. Granted, I was a teenage boy. The wallpaper could give me an erection if I looked at it slantwise.

“Morga’s short for ‘Morgan,’” said Morga. “It sounds cooler.”

Dustin talked over her. “Are you gonna go to school?” he asked Cian. “I mean put it off as long as possible, but not so long you bring the fucking police around to check on you.”

The Vampire Dairies was on in the background again. Vicki had scooted up close and turned on the subtitles so she didn’t have to miss a word.

“I’ve never been in school,” said Cian. “I’m not in anybody’s record books, and nobody’s going to look for me.” His tone made this seem admirable and mysterious instead of pathetic.

“So what the fuck are you doing here, then?” Dustin asked. “If you’re not going to school and not dealing drugs, what’s the point of you?”

Cian shrugged. “I’m a lucky charm.”

Morga giggled. “Get it?” she asked. “You’re Irish, and Lucky Charms?”

“I’m not Irish,” said Cian.

“You’re magically delicious,” Morga cackled to herself.

“Are you still working for Reggie?” Vicki asked, glancing at Dustin over her shoulder.

“Now and then,” said Dustin. “But Cleveland isn’t Loudonville High. There’s rules, there’s an infrastructure, and it’s not like I know anybody. Anyway, I’m trying to get a job at the airport, and they do drug tests.”

Not using drugs to get a job seemed incredibly grown-up. Getting out of Perrysville was a high priority for everyone who happened to be born there. That Dustin had done it made it look easy, made me confident that I’d get out, too. There wasn’t anything for the people who stayed except drugs and grinding rural poverty.

“Seriously, though,” Dustin said. “How are you guys?”

He brushed his hand along Vicki’s shoulder as he said this, sliding his fingers under the oversized neckline of her sweater.

“Fine,” said Morga. As the youngest we never let her get as high and drunk as the rest of us, so she was always moving faster than we were. “We’re all fine even though you moved to Cleveland, and we didn’t need you here anyway. We’ve got Cian now, he’s the new you.”

Both Cian and Dustin looked surprised at this. I was surprised, too, to hear Morga so inelegantly articulate a hurt I’d been trying to ignore.

Vicki reached over her shoulder to cover Dustin’s hand with her own, still not looking away from Netflix. “It’s more like,” she said mildly, “Cian is the new me.”

“Actually I have a question for you,” I said. I felt sleepy and warm and zen, surrounded by all the people I cared about, with a case of Natty Light in the fridge and the knowledge that I could sleep here on the couch in Uncle Reggie’s doublewide rather than slogging home through the February cold.

“What, John?” asked Dustin.

“No, no, for Cian.”

Cian tilted his head and blinked at me. His brown eyes were warm and liquid, half-hidden by messy bangs.

“Can you really, uh, not leave?”

Everyone was quiet. Even The Vampire Diaries seemed caught in a dramatic pause.

Cian blinked again, then said, “Yes.”

The zen drained out of me, and I turned to Dustin. “So is this a thing now?” I asked. “Like, kidnapping?”

I could totally play being hard at school—shit, even Morga could play being hard—but basically nothing we did was difficult or scary or cool. Everybody knew my mom was in and out of jail, and people took it for granted that I’d inherited her criminal instability. I sold eighths that were always short, or let rich kids pay me $20 to show up with a bowl and smoke with them while their parents worked. I even kept a straight face while they acted proud of themselves for engaging with the underworld of Ashland County. Tough older kids who’d graduated to meth instead of adulthood knew my name because they all came around to Uncle Reggie’s, and by knowing me they lent me the appearance of their sad, desperate edge. Reggie took a good cut of everything I did, and even though I liked to throw around the phrase “drug dealer,” I didn’t really feel like a person who was hard. Uncle Reggie called himself the King of Ashland County, but no one else did.

“Kidnapping’s not really Uncle Reggie’s . . . thing,” said Dustin.

“I’m not trying to be dramatic,” said Cian. “But your uncle brought me here from California and I’m not supposed to leave the trailer. So it is kind of a thing, yeah?”

“I mean.” Dustin gestured at Cian sprawled out on the couch, a beer in one hand and the other picking at a hole in his jeans. “It doesn’t look like you’re trying very hard to escape.”

“He took something of mine.” Cian finished his beer and then crunched up the empty can. “I can’t leave without it.”

We waited to hear what object was so important: drugs, money, even a passport, which would explain his almost-accent. Instead he said, “Do you guys have any big bodies of water around here? I mean, big?”

“Um, Pleasant Hill Lake,” said Vicki. “I dunno how big ‘big’ is, but it’s big enough to drown in.”

“Lake Erie,” added Dustin. “That’s the big one.” A slow grin spread across his face. “Uncle Reggie steal your swim trunks?”

Cian ignored him. “Not big enough. I live in the ocean and your uncle stole my skin and now I’m stuck ‘til I get it back. And believe me, I’ve torn this fuckin’ trailer apart looking for it. I don’t think it’s here.”

“Your skin,” repeated Dustin. Morga reached out and touched Cian, running her palm along his arm, and he allowed this with only a roll of his eyes.

“If you guys help me get it back,” he said, “I can get you the fuck out of here. I can show you what the world looks like from under the sea.”

• • • •

Okay, the thing is, I’ve never done enough drugs to make me crazy. Once, when I ate some shrooms, I thought my body was a mobile city, home to a nest of termites who controlled my every move and whose primary motivation was to cause me pain. And that scared me, right? That my entire life was a lie and I was just this hollow simulacrum. But then like twenty minutes later I remembered I was me, and that everything was fine, and that termites had never been inside me. Don’t get me wrong, it was a really scary, mind-blowing twenty minutes. But that’s the worst it’s ever been. I’ve never sobered up and still believed that crazy things were real, or had one enduring fallacy that followed me from trip to trip.

So it was a little bit over the top to have this hot dude only a little younger than Dustin, a dude who seemed cool, who seemed hard, and who also believed something totally insane.

It made it hard to take him seriously about Uncle Reggie “kidnapping” him, too.

A few days after Cian first used the word “selkie” (which sounded exactly like the kind of word you’d make up while tripping balls), I cut my last class and showed up at Uncle Reggie’s doublewide to find it empty. I was excited to have the whole place to myself, to know that I could smoke in peace and listen to whatever Pandora station I wanted and finally get a break from Vicki and Morga’s goddamn Vampire Diaries. I’d just settled in with a bowl when the door slammed open and Cian trudged out of the snow in bare shoulders and unlaced Chuck Taylors. It wasn’t ’til he walked in that I remembered he wasn’t supposed to be gone.

“Hey,” I said quietly. He startled like a deer and blinked at me.

“Hey,” he said after a moment, then settled in next to me on the couch, so close that our arms brushed. He was shivering and smiling and there was frost in his hair. “I just stepped out for a minute to cool off,” he said. “Figured nobody’d mind. Don’t tell Reggie, okay? Not that it fucking matters though, yeah? Fucking doesn’t. You want a beer?” He stood up again and brought a couple cans back from the fridge without waiting for an answer, then sat back down just as close.

“If you’d told me I’d ever end up living in a trailer in Ohio with a bunch of baby druggies, I’d have told you to fuck off,” he said, almost to himself. “Of course, nobody ever told me that, because who’d’ve thought it up? I mean, drugs are the problem in the first place, yeah? If I didn’t get too high and leave my skin fucking laying around, I wouldn’t be here. There were times when I thought the whole ocean was too small to contain me, and now . . . this.” He spread his arms to take in either the trailer or Ohio or both, and when he settled back down again one of his arms draped over my shoulder, as if he’d left it there by mistake.

“Look, it’s not . . .” I tried to remember how it felt when I first started showing up here, when all the people who were my friends now were intimidating strangers and Uncle Reggie—who could be gentle, could be kind—was nothing but a white-trash Fagin in a wife-beater.

“And you’re all okay with everything,” he continued. “Drugs again. Otherwise how could Dustin . . . I mean, his girlfriend and his uncle. It’s gross, isn’t it? It’s all sex and drugs in the first place, that’s the problem, yeah. Can I have a hit of that?”

Still moving too fast, he undraped his arm and used both hands to cradle the bowl, then exhaled a long stream of smoke. I didn’t want this strung-out California selkie to think badly of us.

“It’s a little gross, I guess. But Uncle Reggie takes care of us, you know? I have fucking spending money, something my own mom couldn’t give me even if it occurred to her. And food. He literally feeds us when we’re hungry.” This point was impossible to overstate. Not that I was starving to death at home, but Uncle Reggie fed us all the time, as a matter of course, even if it was just day-old pizza or box mac and cheese. He was the person who’d bought me new socks when all my old ones were full of holes and washed my hoodie when it reeked of weed. He handled the minutiae of caretaking that had so overwhelmed my mom, and he made it look easy. “And it’s different for Vickie, anyway. Sometimes girls just have sex with people they don’t want to. It sucks, but it’s not like some massive tragedy.”

“What about boys?” Cian asked. “Do boys ever do that?”

“I mean if they get too drunk maybe,” I said. “Go home with a fugly girl by mistake.”

“And those are the same thing?” Cian opened the second can of beer as he spoke, the one I thought he’d brought over for me. He set it down next to the first open can and then looked at both of them, bewildered.

“Sure,” I said. “Obviously.”

“What about you? Have you ever had sex with anybody you didn’t want to?”

I tried to put together a story—a girl at school, Emily Summers maybe, who wanted me but that I couldn’t be seen with, on account of she was too fat. She’d fall in love with me while I laughed at her, and out of pity we’d fuck and the whole thing would be a terrible mistake, and Cian would understand then that I was a complicated person, and also maybe a person that other people loved and desired.

“I haven’t had sex at all,” I said instead, keeping the words low and close.

Cian looked over at me for the first time. His bangs fell down into his face, wet with the melted frost, and I wanted to move them out of his eyes.

“I mean, I want to, though,” I said. “It’s not my fault.”

Cian laughed as he picked up the two beers and finally handed one of them to me. “It’s like everything I’m saying hits you backwards,” he said. “We’re living in the exact same rooms and seeing the exact same things and living utterly opposite lives.”

“Of course a dude like you gets laid all the time,” I snapped, putting the beer down on the table. I pictured him and Vicki, the two most attractive people I knew, tangled up like my favorite YouPorns. Cian’s laughter was loud and mocking; the only other sound in the room was the buzzing of the space heater.

“I gotta go.” I stood up, even though what I really wanted was to pass the bowl back and forth.

“Oh, c’mon,” Cian called after me. “Stay awhile!” But I slammed the door behind me, angry with him for laughing at my virginity.

• • • •

Morga hunted me down at lunch, abandoning the middle school playground to slog almost a mile and find me smoking a cigarette behind the Loudonville High cafeteria.

“I think he’s telling the truth,” she said. She was wearing a goofy striped anorak, her frizzy hair peeking out of the hood in random directions.

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “Can’t this wait? I don’t want to be seen hanging out with little kids.”

“I think Cian’s for real,” she announced. “Like, Uncle Reggie did kidnap him, and he does live in the ocean, and I think he needs us to rescue him.”

I felt a surge of tenderness at her sincerity, and also a surge of irritation that I was the person who had to shoot her down. “Look,” I said gently. “I’m pretty sure Cian’s a junkie and I’m definitely sure he’s a liar, and anyway you’re too old to believe in fantasy creatures.”

She glared up at me. “I didn’t say he was a fantasy creature. I said he lives in the ocean, which is probably full of homeless people if you think about it.”

“Dead homeless people, maybe,” I said, finishing my cigarette and flicking it into a pitiful snow drift. It was too cold for more snow to fall and make everything look nice, and too cold for the shit that was left to melt.

“Well I’m getting him out of here,” said Morga. “And you can help me if you want to get out of here, too. Cian said if I get his skin back, he’ll take me to California and I can live on the beach and he can live on the shore and we’ll eat fish and steal beer and keep moving south until there’s never a winter again.”

I exhaled and watched my breath cloud up between us. “Do you even like fish, Morga?”

She wrinkled her nose and glared at me. “I like tuna noodle casserole.”

“Look, just don’t . . .” I started to say, hang out with junkies, but really that precluded her from ever visiting Uncle Reggie’s trailer again, and she was better off there than at home. “Don’t believe crazy shit, okay? Cian’s kinda sad, and sometimes sad people tell themselves stories to feel better. But believing something doesn’t make it real, okay?”

“Don’t patronize me,” she snapped. “If you’re gonna help us, then help us. If you’re not, then at least don’t be a dick about it.”

She turned and flounced down the road. It even looked like she was going back to school instead of taking off. Morga was a good kid in her own dumb way, and that weird striped anorak was the only spot of bright color against the February grays and browns.

• • • •

How I came to be on Morga’s side of things was by cutting class again. Once upon a time, I tried really hard in school, until I realized no amount of try-hard was going to pay for me to go to college, and that anyway I wasn’t smart enough for scholarships. Not stupid, just not smart enough. It was a shitty, gloomy day, threatening snow and already dusk-dark at 2pm. All the lights in the trailer were on, and it looked cozy as I came up the gravel road. The trailer sat alone on a couple acres of wooded property that wasn’t worth doing anything with, a little less than a mile from the nearest paved road. In the summer, it was a fun place to run around, and Dustin used to organize us into games of cops-and-robbers even after we were way too old, so we could get a good buzz on and chase each other through the woods with all the glee of little kids.

Nobody ever tacked the bed sheet back up over the window after Uncle Reggie ripped it down on Cian’s first day, and as I got closer I could make out two figures on the couch: Uncle Reggie and Cian. It took me maybe longer than it should have to see that they were fucking. Cian was on Uncle Reggie’s lap, facing away from him, his body moving in the same rapid pulse as Uncle Reggie’s, his eyes open and a look of utter boredom on his face. And that was what creeped me out even more than Uncle Reggie acting gay all of a sudden: Cian looking like any other kid during a test, after he’s glanced through the questions and realized he doesn’t know the answer to any of them, and that it’s going to be a long, long time until the bell rings.

They were doing it on the same stupid couch where we drank and smoked and watched Netflix and talked.

For a minute, I had the weird feeling that Cian could see me looking in at them, that his boredom and contempt were directed at me personally, but it was dark outside and light inside and of course he had no idea I was there.

I went off the path and walked out into the woods behind the trailer. I didn’t know exactly where Uncle Reggie’s property ended—I had the impression he didn’t, either—but between two dead trees at the bottom of a hill was a big rock that I was just barely strong enough to lift on my own. Underneath was a cheap wooden box, and in the wooden box were two gallon Ziploc bags, a pistol in one and $1000 in the other. Uncle Reggie took me out and showed me the day after Dustin moved away.

“You’re the back-up man of the house now,” he said. “This shit is for emergencies only, and if I ever, ever catch you fucking around with any of it in a non-emergency situation, you’ll regret it. But I know you’re a good kid, and that you wouldn’t fucking steal from me. Am I right?”

And he made it right by saying it was right. I thought of myself as a secret guardian, and I’d fallen asleep at night imagining drug deals gone wrong and Vicki and Morga in need of rescue. Uncle Reggie’s gratitude, Dustin’s respect, Morga’s worship, sex with Vicki. Cian didn’t figure in: I didn’t know what to do with his sideways glares and casual touches and damp hair. Obviously Uncle Reggie did. I wondered how Morga had known before I did. I had a weird moment as I lifted the rock, when I guessed maybe that was what Morga fell asleep to at night: seeing herself as a rescuer too, saving Cian and maybe Vicki and maybe even me, her villains and mine always different people.

I tried to guess what Cian fell asleep to at night, and all I could think of was drowning.

The box wasn’t closed tight, and as I lifted it out of the ground I saw that was because it couldn’t close tight. Messily folded over the plastic bags was a thick brown pelt that smelled like musky fur and salt. I pulled it out and held it up in the dim light. It could’ve been a cape or a blanket or a coat, and as I stood there looking at it, snow started to fall. I wrapped it around myself, and it smelled like Cian smelled when he was drunk and leaned over me to grab another beer. The fur was the same color as his hair. I stood in the woods and the snow, wearing someone else’s skin, and I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the ocean.

• • • •

If I was a better person, I guess I would’ve been in more of a hurry, but here’s what makes me not a better person: I liked things the way they were. Before Cian, I’d never had to wonder if Vicki liked sleeping with Uncle Reggie, because it had always been that way. Now I had to wonder all kinds of stupid shit: had he ever slept with Dustin? Morga? Had he been secretly fucking everybody but me? Had he ever tried to sleep with me, and I was just too dumb to notice? Because I was fifteen and lived in rural Ohio and maybe wasn’t as quick to put shit together as I should have been, the word “rape” wouldn’t occur to me for years. It’s not like any of us had a functional family unit to compare to what went on at Uncle Reggie’s. We just felt lucky to be cared for, lucky to be loved.

And I would never have used that word, right? But that was what it felt like when Uncle Reggie cooked us food and bought us clothes and gave us weed.

So I put it off until Cian and I just happened to be alone, instead of finding a way to make us alone and tell him sooner.

“I can get your skin back,” I said, as we sat on either side of the space heater in bare feet.

“No you can’t,” he said. “You don’t even believe me.”

“I touched your fur,” I said. “It still smelled like the ocean.”

He drew up into himself, and then we weren’t two friends hanging out on a slow Sunday morning anymore. He was like the sorry meth-mouthed motherfuckers who came around with nothing to give and that angry hunger that nothing else could fill.

“Yeah?” he said, voice tight. “What do you want for it?”

And here is what makes me the least better person of all: I understood how Uncle Reggie felt when he got to play God. I knew that Cian would do anything I said, and for a minute I pictured it: me not a virgin anymore, him cooler and older and hotter than me but suddenly less than. I wanted to run my hand through his seal-brown hair, and for him to look at me with the intimacy of fear and respect, with the look that Vicki started wearing more often after Dustin moved away.

What I said was: “When you skip town, you gotta take Morga with you. And you gotta take care of her, okay? She fuckin’ adores you.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Of course.” There was honest surprise in his voice.

“I mean it. She’s like thirteen. I’m basically saying you’d have to be her dad from now on.”

“Jesus,” said Cian. “That’s a lot to ask, man.”

“She can’t stay here,” I said. “You know what kind of shit happens here. And her home isn’t any better.”

Cian stared at me, biting the bottom of his lip and looking faraway. “I’m not . . .” he said. “I don’t have a history of being very responsible.”

“You start now,” I said, and swallowed. “She deserves better.”

He was quiet for a minute, fingers busy picking at the lose threads in the giant knee-hole he’d worn into his jeans.

“Yeah,” he said finally. “If I can get Morga to California, I promise to give her a better life than this.”

“Okay, then. Get your shit together and follow me.”

Cian laughed. “I never had any shit in the first place, yeah? I’ve been ready to go since I got here.”

So I led him out back, down the hill to the two dead trees and the Ziploc bags, which had always been meant as an escape plan rather than a rescue—just not an escape plan for us.

“Shit,” he said, as I took his pelt out of the box. “I’d never have found it out here. Never.” He held out his hands, and I only hesitated a little bit before I handed it over.

Cian wrapped himself up in the fur and skin, laughing with a more sincere sound than I’d heard him make before. He pulled me into a hug, all warm wet skin and cold fur and the smell of salt and sweat. He kissed the corner of my lips, and I clutched him close and kissed him with my mouth open, all awkward teeth, and he let me blunder for a moment. Then he put his arms around me and was careful with his tongue, and other than this I’m totally straight, but that was maybe the hardest I’d ever been.

“What the fuck is this,” said Uncle Reggie from halfway up the hill between us and the doublewide.

“Nothing,” I said, pulling away and tugging my coat down to hide my erection.

“It’s fuck you forever, that’s what it is!” crowed Cian, holding the sealskin up high so that it hung behind him like a cloak. “You’re not the King of Ashland County; you’re just the king of shit!”

“I’ll show you shit,” said Uncle Reggie, with a remarkable sense of calm. “Both of you. I thought you were better than this, John.”

And the dumbest thing in the world was that I didn’t want him to be disappointed in me.

Fuck you,” said Cian again, and as Uncle Reggie kept coming towards us Cian picked up a rock and threw it at him. It missed, but he picked up another and did it again, and this one struck Uncle Reggie in the shoulder. Uncle Reggie broke into a run down the last of the slope and tackled Cian. They sprawled on the ground with Cian’s sealskin haloed around them, and Uncle Reggie brought his fist down on Cian’s face. Cian was tangled up in his skin and tried to throw Uncle Reggie off, but didn’t manage.

“Stop it,” I said, not loud enough to matter. Uncle Reggie hit Cian again, and Cian was laughing or yelling or crying, so Uncle Reggie hit him again, and again, until he quieted.

“Stop it!” I yelled, and I was really afraid, the way I hadn’t felt for a long time. “You’re hurting him!” Cian smiled up at the sky with bloody teeth, and Uncle Reggie stood up, taking the sealskin with him.

“This shit is done,” he said. “Absolutely done. John, get Cian inside and clean him up. I’m going to forgive you both, but I’m not fucking happy about it.”

“Give him back his skin,” I said.

“I really thought I could trust you like I trusted Dustin,” said Uncle Reggie. “I’ll have to find a new place to keep everything now.”

The box was still at my feet, so I bent down and picked up the Ziploc bag with the gun in it. For a country kid, I’d had relatively little experience with firearms, and all it would take to fuck me over now was something as simple as Uncle Reggie not storing this one loaded.

“You put that down,” Uncle Reggie snapped, as I took the gun out of the bag.

“Give him back his skin,” I said.

“Jesus Christ, John. Put that down, I’m not dealing with this right now.”

I had to point the gun at Uncle Reggie and say it a third time to make him take me seriously.

“Please,” I added, swallowing.

“Just shoot him!” said Cian, sitting up with obvious difficulty.

Uncle Reggie tossed the sealskin down, and Cian scrambled for it.

“Now what?” asked Uncle Reggie. “Do you have a next fucking step here, John? How long are we going to hang out in the backyard while you wait for your little friend to hitchhike out of here?”

“Shoot him,” said Cian. “He’s a piece of shit, and he deserves to be shot.”

“An hour,” I said. “We’re going to stand out here in the freezing fucking February weather for an hour. Cian, come over here and take this money.”

“You little shit,” said Uncle Reggie. “You won’t shoot me. You don’t even know how.” But he didn’t move. Cian came over and took the bag of twenties.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered in my ear. “I’ll take Morga, too.”

I listened to Cian’s muffled footsteps as he crossed the snow, and then the gravel road.

“You can’t . . .” I said to Uncle Reggie. “You can’t treat people like that. It’s not okay.”

He just shook his head. And the weird thing was that I knew I’d hurt his feelings with this betrayal, that he really had trusted me.

It was more like forty minutes than an hour when Uncle Reggie spat on the ground and turned to go back inside his doublewide. I let him, and tucked the gun into the waistband of my pants like any other gangster or meth head, and walked home through the gray Sunday afternoon.

• • • •

I didn’t try to go back to Reggie’s after that. He was arrested a couple months later, after a series of anonymous tips about his myriad criminal activities. I imagined Morga and Cian blasting the Ashland County Sheriff’s Office with calls as they traveled west. I tried to text Morga a couple times, but she didn’t answer, and when they threw out an Amber Alert and interviewed everybody about her disappearance, I could honestly say I had no idea where she was. Cian’s name didn’t come up—he wasn’t in anybody’s record books after all.

Vicki ran off to Cleveland with Dustin without bothering to graduate from high school first, and Reggie got shipped out to prison. I tried to avoid hearing about him, which was hard because that was all anybody wanted to talk about now that they had to find new sources for their shit. And since I already knew everybody, since I’d spent so much time there anyway, it was easy to set up in Reggie’s old doublewide, to handle not the width or depth of business that he had, but to contribute in my own small way.

And unlike Dustin and Vicki and Morga and Cian, it was a long, long time before I got out of Perrysville.

Caspian Gray

Caspian Gray

Caspian Gray is a used car salesman who has previously worked as a funeral director’s apprentice, a pet nutritionist, an English teacher in Japan, a Japanese teacher in America, and a crystal healing “expert” in a head shop. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares a home with a tall man and a small dachshund.