Me and Matt met out in the wash, the day I was hunting for rattlesnakes. It was hot, and I was walking in the creek, following the long strings of frog eggs that wrapped in and out of the reeds. If I looked close, I could see the tadpoles moving around inside the eggs. That's when I heard the shots.
Matt was standing on the other side of the creek, shooting a bunch of tin cans with his twenty-two. It made a real loud noise, but it didn't bother me. My dad always had guns around, and he used to shoot at stuff all the time. From the time I was a baby, he tried to teach me how to be fearless.
I could see this was a kid just a little older than me--maybe fourteen. He was taller than me, and skinny. He was wearing cut-off jeans and nothing else, not even shoes. His back and shoulders were sunburned, and his skin was stretched tight against his ribs, like a bird's. He had shaggy brown hair, like I always wanted. My dad always made me get crewcuts.
He looked at me and smiled. "Who the hell are you?" he said. "I never seen you around here before."
"I'm Joey," I said. "I just moved here."
"Well, we don't take kindly to strangers around here," he said, still smiling, and aimed his gun at me like he was gonna shoot. I held my breath and tried to look fearless. "Bang!" he said, and then he put down his gun and laughed. "I'm Matt."
I laughed too, then. "You seen any rattlesnakes?"
"Hell, no," he said. "Why, you see one?"
"No, but I'm looking for one."
He laughed again. "What're you, in a hurry to die? You want revenge, or just a pet? You might be better off with a poodle."
"Poodles aren't mean enough," I said.
"You'd be surprised. My mom's got a poodle that's a real bitch."
"I don't want a live snake," I said. "I just want the rattle."
"You want to kill a snake, you should've brought a gun."
"Don't need a gun," I said. "My uncle killed one with a shovel." Uncle Vic killed a rattlesnake in the backyard the week I moved in. He kept the rattle on his dresser. Uncle Vic wouldn't let anyone touch his snake-rattle, or even look at it, so I decided I needed to get one of my own.
Matt smiled at me, and I noticed the space between his front teeth. "You bring a shovel?"
I felt so stupid; I didn't say a thing at first. "No."
"Than I better come with you," he said. "Wouldn't want some snake biting your ass while you're trying to unscrew its rattle." He smiled at me so sweet; I know I must've blushed.
"Can I hold your gun?" I asked.
He laughed. "And let you blow my head off|? What d'you think I am, nuts?" He pressed the gun up against my chest. "You can't hold it, but you can touch it, if you want."
My heart beat a mile a minute. I thought of what would happen if he pulled the trigger. I wondered what it would feel like, a bullet shooting into my chest.
"Be gentle," he said, pressing harder.
I ran my fingers down the barrel of the gun. The metal was smooth, hard and cold. For a second, it was like both of us were holding it together.
"Sweet, isn't it?" he said, licking his lips.
"Yeah," I said, looking into his eyes. "Real sweet."
Matt lowered his gun, and we started walking through the brush. I listened for rattling, trying to be quiet so I wouldn't scare the snakes away. Matt picked up rocks and skipped them on the water.
We were walking through the brush for a while when Matt said, "What the hell is this?"
"What?" I said, looking over at him.
He crouched down. "It's a bird," he said. "All bloody."
I bent down next to him and picked the bird up. It looked at me with one black eye. I could feel it breathing against my hand, warm and soft. The feathers were dark and sticky from the blood, and I noticed how they grew out from under its neck, down its back and over its wings. I wiped the blood away with my fingers.
"It's still alive," I said.
"Set it down
and I'll put it out of its misery," Matt said. He aimed his gun at the bird's
"Jesus! Don't have a fit," he said. "Why shouldn't I?"
I want to keep it."
"It's not as good as a snake-rattle," he said.
"I don't care. It's mine."
I carried the bird in my hand, careful not to move it around too much. Me and Matt hunted around for rattlesnakes a little while longer, but we didn't find any.
It started to get dark, and we walked back up to the tract. All the houses on our street looked the same. Matt told me he lived a couple houses down from us. His house was the same as my grandma's house, only it was painted pink. Once we got to my grandma's house, Matt headed home.
"Hey, I'll see you around, okay?" he said.
My grandma had already gone to work at the hospital, and Uncle Vic was watching TV. Grandma left me a microwave dinner sitting on the kitchen counter. I went into my room, and put the bird in a shoebox. It looked kind of pathetic, just sitting there at the bottom of the box like that. Almost made me wonder why I picked it up.
When I was little, our cat would catch birds and leave them laying around the house, half-dead. For some reason, I thought I could save them. I would stick them in shoeboxes, and dig up worms for feed them. They never even ate the worms; they would just stare at them while they rolled around in the box, all pink and slimy. The birds always died, and I would hold funerals for them and bury them in the backyard. My dad said I was just wasting my time.
We met out in the wash again the next day. I was still hunting for rattlesnakes, and this time I brought a shovel with me to kill them. Matt was looking for things that he could shoot with his gun. Most of the time he just shot at cans or rocks, or up at the sky.
I wanted to shoot, too. The one time I ever touched my dad's gun he smacked me real hard. Matt said he would let me shoot his gun if I paid him five dollars. I told him I'd think about it.
I was searching through the brush when I heard this rattling sound, like maracas.
"Matt!" I yelled, "It's a snake!"
Matt turned back and looked at me. "Jesus, Joey! Shut the hell up! And don't move."
"Where is it?" I asked, raising up the shovel. I stared at the ground, but I couldn't see the snake, only hear it rattling.
"I don't know," Matt said. "It's close, real close. Hold real still."
"Where is it?" I asked. I could feel sweat running down my back.
"Just hold still," he said. He brought his twenty-two up to his eye, and aimed right at me.
"Where is it?" I yelled.
"Jesus, Joey! Just shut the hell up!"
Matt fired. The noise was real loud, and I jumped back and fell on the ground. I couldn't hear anything for a second except the sound of that shot. When I looked up again, there was blood splattered all over my legs. The snake was laying next to my foot, not moving. Matt had blown its head clean off.
Matt grabbed me around the neck. "Jesus," he said, "I thought you were dead meat, you asshole." The way he said it made it sound like a compliment.
"You saved my life," I said.
He laughed. "Guess that makes you my slave now."
He reached down and picked up the snake's body, and shook the rattle. Then he wrapped it around his shoulders. The snake's blood dripped down his chest, staining his skin red. Matt howled like some kind of animal, like a coyote. "Look who got himself a snake-rattle!" he said. "Maybe I'll even make myself a snakeskin belt."
We washed the snake's blood off in the creek. Matt wasn't about to give me the rattle, and I told him I wanted to keep looking. I wanted one of my own.
He said I was being stupid. "You can keep looking if you want," he said, "but if some snake bits your ass, I'm not gonna be sucking the poison out."
That night, after Uncle Vic had fallen asleep watching Cops, Matt came into my room. I was looking down at the bird in the shoebox, when I heard this rattling sound, like maracas. When I looked up he was just there.
"Christ!" I said.
"Hey, Joey!" he said. "Scared you, didn't I?"
I must've blushed. "Hell no. How'd you get in here?"
"Through the door, asshole. How d'you think?" He laughed. He was wearing the snake-rattle around his neck on a string. "My mom and her poodle got blitzed. I got lonely."
"What does she do when she gets blitzed?" I asked.
"Watched TV. Cusses out my dad, like she thinks he's still right there. Sometimes she sings. Bugs the shit out of me." He looked into the box. "What the hell are you still doing with that thing, anyway?"
The bird was hopping around the box, pushing itself with one leg. It looked like a one of those wind-up toys, only broken. "Just watching it," I said. I didn't want him to think I was soft. "I think it's dying."
"Cool," he said, looking closer. "Jesus, it reeks! I should blow its head off, like I did to that snake." He grabbed my arm. "C'mon. Let's go for a ride."
"Where?" I asked.
He moved up real close behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. He was so close I could feel him breathing against my neck. "What're you," he said, his mouth up against my ear, "Afraid?"
I looked down at the bird. All I could think about was Matt's hand on my shoulder. "Of you? Not a chance."
"Good." He squeezed my shoulder. "Whatever we do, it'll be a hell of a lot more fun than playing with some dead bird."
I checked to make sure Uncle Vic was still snoring, then followed Matt outside. He got on his bike and handed me a brown paper bag.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Just some beer."
"Where'd you get it?"
He widened his eyes. "I have my ways. It's not too hard when your mom's a drunk."
I climbed on the back of the bike, holding the bag with one arm and wrapping the other tightly around his waist. I could feel his hipbones, hard underneath his jeans. We rode down the slope, taking the fire roads off toward the wash. Matt's hair blew back in my face, smelling like clove cigarettes.
The night was clear, with a full moon, and it was still and hot. After a while, I heard the sound of water, and smelled the sweet brush, and knew we reached the wash. I could hear a pack of coyotes laughing, not far away. They must've killed something.
When we stopped. Matt grabbed the bag and pulled out a couple pf beers. He opened his can and took a big swig. I reached over for the other one, but he pulled his hand away.
"Say please," he said.
I tried to think of what Matt would want me to say. "Fuck you, I said, and smiled.
"That's fuck you please," Matt said. He opened the can and pushed it up to my mouth. The beer was warm and bitter, and I swallowed it, watching the space in Matt's teeth as he smiled. He laughed when I started to choke. Beer ran down my shirt, and he dropped the can onto the ground.
"Let's swim," he said, and took off his shirt. Then he took the snake-rattle off his neck, and laid it on top. I looked at his bare skin; a small trail of dark hair ran from his stomach down into his jeans. He pulled them off and jumped naked into the dark water. I just sat there and watched him.
"Well, come on!" Matt said, splashing at me. "Don't be shy! The water's fine."
I tried to smile, and pulled off my shirt and jeans. I could feel him watching me, like he was waiting for something. I felt small and pale in the moonlight, like a little kid. I stood there in my underwear, and Matt stared at me, like he was trying to burn a hole in my skin with his eyes. I jumped in the water.
As soon as I got close to Matt, he grabbed me and pushed me under. I closed my mouth real quick, but still swallowed some water and dirt. He climbed on top of me, his body hot even in the cold water. I pushed him off, and raised my head up, coughing and gulping down air.
"What the hell are you doing?" I asked.
He just laughed. "When you're underwater, you should try not to breathe, stupid!" He splashed me, and I splashed him back. Then he started chasing me around. grabbing at my arms and legs. Every time he got a hold of me, he would wrap his arms and legs around me and push me under. He kept pulling at my underwear.
"You're just a little guy," he said, his arms wrapped around me, his hands grabbing at me. "I like that." He pushed me under again.
I coughed and choked again on the dirty water. It was dark, and I couldn't see anything but Matt's body, like a shadow. When I finally pushed my head up for air, I slugged him in the stomach and got away, I climbed out onto the dry sand.
"What's the matter?" he said, climbing up after me. The moonlight was bright on his wet skin. "You're not mad, are you?"
I was looking at his body, the hard muscles beneath his tight skin, and the hair that grew soft under his arms and between his legs. "Not really," I said. "I just don't feel like drowning."
"Sorry," he said. He sat next to me, drawing his knees up against his chest. "Sometimes I play too rough."
"S'okay," I said.
"Shit!" he said.
"What happened to you back, Joey? It's all red." He touched my skin and I pulled away. "Sorry. Does it hurt?"
"No," I said. "They're just scars."
"You fall off your bike or something?"
"No," I said. "My dad. He got mad sometimes. He's in jail now. That's why I live with my grandma and Uncle Vic."
"No shit? Jesus! Makes me glad my dad's not around." He smiled. "Can I touch them?"
I looked at his eyes. He was staring at my body, staring at my scars, all excited. "No."
"Cause I don't want you to."
C'mon, Joey. I'll be real careful. I swear." He looked at me, and licked his lips. I noticed how blue his eyes were. Cold, like water.
"Okay. I guess so."
He traced his fingers along the scars on my back, and my skin tingled where they touched. It made me twitch, like my body was remembering how I got those scars. But it didn't hurt any more. Matt's hands felt good. He moved around to the scars on my chest and stomach. I felt hot.
"Your skin's rough," he said.
I moved my hand up and down his arm, like I'd done when I stroked his gun. "Yours isn't." I tried to look fearless.
He looked back at me and licked his lips. Then he laughed. "Hey, I'll give you a dollar if you blow me."
"Go to hell," I said, and pushed him over into the sand. I looked at him, laying there naked in the moonlight.
He laughed then, like it was all just a joke, so I laughed, too.
Matt didn't want to go home because he knew his mom would still be drunk, so he slept on the floor in my room that night. I didn't sleep, just stayed awake. I wondered what Matt might do to me if I fell asleep. I was thinking about how he kept pushing me under the water, how his hands felt pulling at me, how soft they were when they touched my scars.
I watched him sleeping, his eyes closed and his mouth opened. I watched the snake-rattle, hanging on the string against his bare chest. I liked the way it moved when he breathed. I wanted to touch it. I wanted to touch Matt's chest too, to feel him breathing, but I didn't.
The next morning, me and Matt were eating chocolate cereal and watching kung fu movies on TV when my grandma got home from the night shift at the hospital. She sat down in the big chair and took off her white shoes, like she always did when she got home. Sometimes she would watch TV with me before going to sleep. "Well, hello," she said. "Who's this?"
Matt was sitting on the floor in his underwear, with my bedspread wrapped around his shoulders. "Just Matt," I said. "He lives down the street."
"So nice to meet you," she said. Matt didn't say anything. He was watching this little Chinese guy beat the hell out of a bunch of big guys in black. But he smiled at her real sweet, and that was enough. "What are you boys up to today?"
"Nothing much," I said.
"It's so nice to see you making some friends," she said. "You boys have fun today." Then she got up and went to bed.
Me and Matt watched the rest of the movie. Matt counted the number of people in the movie who got killed. Seventeen. He liked the decapitations best; he would laugh when the guy's head rolled around on the ground. When the commercials were on, he would make kung fu noises and tackle me. We rolled around on the carpet, and we would hold me down between his legs. One time he choked me until I pretended like I was dead. Then he sat on me and wondered about what to do with the body.
"Maybe I'll cut it up in little pieces and throw it out into the wash," he said, and laughed.
After the movie was over we got dressed and went outside. I got on back of Matt's bike, wrapping both arms around his waist, and leaned my head against his shoulder. He was wearing the same clothes from the night before. I breathed in the smell of him, dry brush, sweat, and sand.
We rode down the fire trails into the wash again, but this time we kept on going after we reached the creek. Matt said he wanted to show me where he went to get away from his mom when she was plastered. We stopped on the other side of the wash, at this old building. The wood was gray like ashes, like someone has set it on fire a long time ago.
"What is this place?"
"They used to keep horses here," Matt said. "C'mon." We got off, and he laid his bike down in the dirt. Then I followed him inside. It was cool and shady, except for the light coming through the cracks in the wood.
"What's in here?" I asked. I could hear something moving.
"Just some dirty old birds. Pigeons. I shoot at them sometimes."
"Why not? Makes more sense than keeping 'em in shoeboxes."
He went over to a stack of boxes in the corner and pulled out some comic books and magazines and handed them to me. The comic books were old; some of them had the covers ripped off. The magazines had pictures of naked women in them. Some of them had pictures of naked men. We sat down on the ground and began looking at them.
"Pretty cool, huh?" he said, looking up at me.
"I guess so." I was looking at a picture of naked men, all hairy and sweaty. Some of them looked mad; others looked scared. "Where did you get them?"
"I have my ways. Hey, watch this." He picked up a rock and threw it up into the rafters. Suddenly the air was full of birds, all wings and feathers. All the birds made this sound--it wasn't like a screech, it was this real quiet sound, a sad sound, like a whisper. "Pretty cool, huh?"
"I guess so."
He looked at me and smiled. Feathers were floating down from the rafters, sticking to his face and hair. "Joey?" he said.
"Can you take off your shirt?"
He looked right into my eyes, and I couldn't look away. "I want to see your scars again."
"I like them. I think they're cool." He sat and stared at me, like he was waiting for something to happen. I looked at him for a long time, but he didn't move. Then I raised my shirt up over my head. He moved his fingers over my chest, along the scars.
"Do you hate your dad?" he asked.
"Yeah. I don't care if I never see him again."
"I hate my dad," he said, "and I don't even know him. I hate my mom, too." He moved his fingers over my chest and stomach.
"Why're you doing that?" I asked.
"Cause you're letting me," he said. "Want me to stop?"
"No." I must've blushed, because then he laughed.
He took off his shirt. I stared at the snake-rattle, hanging in front of his bare chest. He pushed me back onto the ground. Then he was on top of me. He was heavy, and all I could feel was his skin. It was real hot. He pressed his lips against my neck. and I could smell his hair, like cloves.
"What're you doing?" I asked.
"Feels good, doesn't it?"
My skin felt hot, too. "Yeah."
"S'okay, Joey," he whispered in my ear. "I won't hurt you."
The snake-rattle scratched against my skin. I looked up into the rafters and watched the feathers floating down. I thought of that dying bird in the shoebox, of the blood on its feathers, and the way they lined up, one against the next.
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