Two-and-a-half months into my stay at Holy Mercy Academy, I went on my first outing. The morning’s hike started in the foothills of Butte de Morts. We worked our way up the side of the hill, in a single file line, in silence. No talking outside. Forbidden. One Holy Mercy Academy Counselor flanked us, and another led. Green shirts. Handcuffs on their belts. Shoreline Marine whistles around their necks, latched to prevent us from grabbing the strings and pulling. They waited for us to step out of line, for a chance to bring us to the dirt. No one dared. No point. Miles of trees stretched ahead of us. Hours of trees. Hours of yellow, pruning oaks. The September sun splintered through the branches, drawing pale map lines across the earth, reminding us of our placement. They might have been beautiful to me, once. Or maybe they were still beautiful, in an alternate timeline, one where I saw the landscape on a camping trip. Now, I hadn’t walked through a mall, or a store, or anything but trees for months. Miles and piles of trees. Every trunk, a notch in the barricade, circling the queer kids into Holy Mercy’s campus like a cluster of fence posts. Miles of trees were finalizing, not beautiful. A reminder: there was no escaping. There was no way out.
Outings weren’t fun, so much as a privilege to entice lower-levels with, the kids tied to the unit. If our conversation wasn’t surveyed, I would’ve told the lower-levels the truth: It’s cold and wet and exhausting, hiking up the hills. Hikes weren’t preferable in September, yet they proved better than being stuck on the unit for weekend Disclosure. The Saturday Therapist spoke of gayness like a peacoat that we would grow out of rather than a big, scary thing that we couldn’t do anything about.
The ground crunched under our feet as we trekked upwards, cracking like Fun Snaps on the Fourth of July. The soil froze over in the nighttime. A pleasant burn stole through my fingers and my toes. The pain made me feel like a person. Plenty of other guys arrived in the early summer months, red and swollen from swim camp, from bike rides in the naked sun. They didn’t pack coats or winter boots. No one could write to their parents to ask them to send better clothes. Letters, monitored. Complaints, marked out with Sharpies. No cell phones, either. The Staff could burn the whole of Holy Mercy down like a Firebox Brick, us inside, and our parents wouldn’t hear a whisper of the spectacle, not until it aired on the evening news. Even then, we’d get the blame. Sinners. Forbidden.
I stared up the line. Andrew, one head in front of me, eyes to the ground. No coat, yet he didn’t shiver. Six months into the program. His feet dropped like lead against the ground. He used to walk like a person. Then he got sent on a Solo, a hike up the mountain with a sack full of bricks, after he comforted a crying new kid with a pat on the back. Touch—forbidden. Now, Andrew walked like a puppet. Behind me was Ethan. I could tell from the slow drawl of his tennis shoes, the way he dragged his feet, heel to toe, like he was walking on a tightrope.
Ethan poked the small of my back, three times: I see you. I smiled.
We went on, up the hill, bloated with jades and yellows. The odor of winter, the crisp aroma of dying leaves, announced the emerging season. I thought back to that August weekend before my mother found me with David McArthur on my twin-sized mattress, touching everywhere before I couldn’t touch anyone again. Before I’d been gooned from my bed in the middle of the night by transporters, carted to Holy Mercy. I thought of that Saturday afternoon at the local waterpark, before the touching: jetting off the tongues of taffy slides, coated in chlorine and chemicals, sucking on chocolate-covered bananas and my pruning fingers.
No going back to that. Not now. Not through the forest. Someone already tried. They ran a month before the frost. Connor. He made it far, but not far enough. Picked up by State Troopers at the border between Texas and Oklahoma. They couldn’t do anything but bring him back. Legal obligation. A week after that, he tried to hang himself in the bathroom with his Nixon hospital towel, then he got transferred to another facility. No hikes. He promised to write, but he hadn’t. Or the Staff had thrown away his letters. Showers were shortened.
Another few minutes, and we reached the first checkpoint. We stopped, checked our fingers and toes, made sure they hadn’t gone rolling o into the snow like Lil’ Smokies. I glared down at Holy Mercy, at the bottom of the hill. A row of dollhouses, from up there, a harmless spread of wooden cabins, seeming to belong to a group apart from ours, people from the real world. The real world. That’s what Ethan and I called it. We had not relocated to a different dimension, not a colony on Mars or a pocket out of space. But Holy Mercy wasn’t the real world. Holy Mercy—a reality so manufactured, so artificial, that I couldn’t imagine we’d encounter a place like that ever again. Not even in juvy, where the Staff promised we’d end up if we stayed on a course not outlined in the green Bibles. Not in juvy, not in prison, not in Hell.
During my first week at Holy Mercy, I wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone but Ethan. He was Level Three. Me, Level One. Ethan became my mentor. Sixteen, same as me. When I first met him, I decided that Ethan was prettier than the rest of the boys there. He wore these long, black curls that tapered off into ringlets at the tips. He had wide eyes and warm cheeks, as if he were always ushed over some small embarrassment. I would’ve likened him for a kid actor, one of those children who starred in cereal commercials and yogurt advertisements, who ended up addicted to cocaine and gliding by on stock-photo modeling. But Ethan had never acted, never dabbled in the arts or the art of drug resistance. He’d never done much of anything, really, that could pull apart the web of dark matter resting within him, those that made him prone to lengthy spells of depression. Ethan replaced all the black space in his head with one subject: Audubon. The boy knew birds inside and out. Their migration patterns, their breeding seasons, their personalities. He could hear a far-off whistle and identify the type of bird down to its coloring.
Ethan became a mentor because he conformed to the program, though only for appearances. He led the breakfast prayers, denounced his love of the queer bars back in Ohio. He played a reformed sinner, led the Bible verses in groups, focused only on birds and Jesus, allowing him to ascend to Level Three. He could drink coffee. Go on walks. Got a monitored ten-minute phone call home each week. He told me to shoot for Level Three, to play along. As he gave me a tour of the place—pointing out the cafeteria, a finch, the schoolhouse, a dove—he offered warnings about certain Staff, those to kiss up to: Mr. Mark had cracked two kids skulls in holds, so don’t try to run if he’s on shift; Miss Evelyn would call you a fag, but don’t argue, or you’ll go to Isolation; Nurse Angel wouldn’t let you use the bathroom for hours at a time, but don’t ask for a patient complaint form, or you’ll get put back on Level One. He told me which kids were snitches, who would turn me over for violating the rules.
The rules: No talking out of Staff earshot, except to your mentor. No talking in the bedrooms. No singing. No communicating with those at the Isolation desk. No curse words. No touching, or hugs. No laughing during groups or classes. No comforting another boy. No standing up without asking. No technology. No sharps. No running. No talking back. No food outside of mealtimes. The list went on and on. Ethan promised I wouldn’t have to remember it all. That I would fuck up and get yelled at or put at the desk, and that would remind me.
Holy Mercy had thirty other boys in their care. Some of them drank young, others crashed cars or stole them, others played video games until their eyes turned blue. Some saw red. Others, like me and Ethan, saw blackness: depressive spells, full dark, no stars. We were all gay, which was the only value that really counted.
On that first campus tour with Ethan, before we headed back inside, I asked him:
“What got you sent here?”
“Marion Gonzales,” he replied. “Barista at a Local Coffee in Columbus,” he said. “You?”
“David. Boy from my class. Did you go anywhere else before here?”
“Oh, yeah. A place called Welp Psychiatric. Here in Butte de Morts, too.”
“And why’d you go there?”
Ethan grinned. “I fell in love with too many beautiful boys.”
Only this wasn’t true, not entirely. Ethan struggled with depression. I learned this during Disclosure, a group designed to hold us accountable for what led us down the path of sin. I also learned that Ethan attributed his gayness to toxic fume exposure in Columbus (a joke, though the Staff took it seriously), and that Ethan’s celebrity crush was Jim Morrison from The Doors (a truth). Ethan always talked during Disclosure. He told me that engaging in groups would help me level-up. Not running my mouth, but saying the right things. Nailing myself to the cross. Admitting to stuff I didn’t do, if I had to, to show them I held remorse, that I wanted to change.
So, I lied, shared false truths. Said I had tried drugs (Ethan suggested drugs), but realized I wanted to be sober once I kissed David. Said that weed had pushed me into homosexual behavior. The Staff ate it all up, scrawled down notes about my progress in their little books. But Ethan was straight-up about Jim Morrison. At meals, he would talk to himself, either about the birds he spotted out of the cafeteria windows—blue jays, red-tailed hawks, mourning doves, mockingbirds—or about Jim. Ethan mumbled, then came up for air with a song on his lips: Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain, all the children are insane, and all the children are insane. The Staff sometimes redirected him for singing inappropriate lyrics, but he didn’t get sent straight to the desk like the lower-levels, so he kept on doing it. Forbidden things didn’t apply to golden boys, boys who were finding their way back to their straightness.
During the first week, in my first session with my Individual Therapist (a bulb-headed man named Locke), I was told not to get too close to Ethan, or anyone else. Locke’s office, filled with Joseph Nicolosi books. Healing Homosexuality sat on his window frame, facing the sun.
“I know Ethan is your mentor, but inappropriate closeness with any of the boys here will hold you back from working your treatment,” Locke said. “Temptation must be resisted, not indulged.”
“Yeah, no, I get that,” I said. “Ethan’s actually been helping me a lot, you know, with the whole gay thing. Like, I don’t even think of him like that. He’s a good influence.”
Only that wasn’t the truth. Not that truth really mattered in a place like that.
“There’s no gay thing, Noah,” he replied. “There’s only sin. And we love you enough to want to help you find your way back from it. Your parents do, too. They love you immensely to have put you here. Do you understand that?”
I nodded. Mom loved the idea of being a Mom. Dad loved the idea of grandkids.
“Good,” he replied. “You seem like a good kid. From the notes kept in Disclosure, it seems like you’re really coming to terms with the behaviors that landed you here. Is that fair?”
“I really am, sir.” Sir, like a hot coal on my tongue.
Then he went through exercises with me, exercises to break my fixations, my sins. He showed me pictures of men in Spandex and Speedos, then told me to close my eyes and imagine them stabbing me. He poked me with thumbtacks. Not hard enough to break skin. He showed me queer porn. More thumbtacks. He told me the words I needed to remove from my vocabulary: Baby, sweetheart, sugar. The language of mothers, of daughters, of strippers, of grocery clerks. He had me share my troubles, then write them out in an Accountability Letter, one detailing all the things that brought me to Holy Mercy. Locke didn’t let me stop at David, or the fake drugs. I had to admit to dreams, fantasies, urges. I made some up, like Ethan said. Later, the Staff made me read the letter aloud to the group, then we spent the afternoon reciting verses about God’s mercy. We prayed. I kept my eyes open. I wondered if any of them believed it. The other boys. I wondered if any of us really had a choice about whether to believe it or not.
Our days were full of groups, therapy, school, and chores. Groups were where we admitted to our issues, spoke of ourselves like convicts. In Therapy, we talked about those things, why we weren’t going to do them again. Mostly things like kissing boys or fantasizing about encounters with men, the desire to wear nail polish or sing feminine music. Those topics satisfied the Staff the most. School took place in a small classroom, each of us at a kid-locked computer, typing simple values into online assignments all day long. No teachers. Chores took up most of the day, supposed to teach us responsibility and personal accountability, or something like that. Washing the dishes, cooking lunch and dinner, mowing the yard, cleaning the cabins. Those who resisted ended up on Labor duty, doing hard work in the dirt field outside, digging holes or relocating rocks. Lessons, they called them. All these things were survivable, but not sustainable. Every so often, someone cracked, threw a chair at the window or cussed out the nurse, and then they ended up outside, digging, digging a hole to Hell. Some boys followed the pattern, not minding the mundanity of the days. We learned entrapment in degrees. Those who didn’t mind the walls didn’t see them. For people like Ethan and I, the walls were concrete, immobile.
We spent our free hours in the dayroom of the main cabin. The dayroom, the mirror-image of a Kindergarten classroom. Our shoes in the cubby. Desks in the corner for those on Isolation, a looming threat to the rest of us. A boxy television. Rows of metal shelves lined with green Bibles and VHS tapes, the sort that we might encounter in school rooms, filled with childhood titles: Punky Brewster, Joseph and the Technicolor DreamCoat, Veggie Tales. I wondered, at times, if Holy Mercy had been a school before it converted people like us back from the edge of sin. I didn’t like to give that too much thought. I preferred to know that it was manufactured for us, to know that it never could’ve been anything good or just.
A fish tank was the only spot of life in the room. Tetras. Ethan and I fed them every morning. Called them our kids, until the Staff got wind of the joke, and told us to knock it off. Said it wasn’t appropriate.
We prayed once an hour. Said some chanting shit, like Today, I choose to heal and Jesus is the answer, God is the path. The only ones who didn’t get to join prayers were the kids digging holes, and the kids at the Isolation desk, toiling over the phrases of the Bible, highlighting passages until they’d returned to their path of salvation. Whatever that meant. They’d come back from Isolation all half-baked. All gone in the eyes. So, I did my chores, and said my prayers, and shared my sins, and shut up otherwise, because I didn’t think I could survive that. Going dead-eyed, dead in the head. And all the children…
Two months into my stay, during chores, I got a concussion. Crashed the unit’s six-speed lawnmower into the wall of the school cabin. My hand conducted the shift lever forward instead of backwards, and bam. My head collided with the wood. I felt something split. The wood, or metal, or bone. I laid on the ground, waiting for the damn lawnmower to run over me, to slice me to shards of my former self, only the Staff got to me before it could drift backwards. Nurse Angel pulled me to my feet, looking a new kind of angry, but I started puking as soon as I was on my heels. She patted my back. Almost motherly.
“Get it together,” Nurse Angel said. “Come on, boy.”
Only I couldn’t. I kept on going. I threw up all the frozen chicken nuggets we’d had for dinner the prior evening, and all the nothing that I’d eaten for breakfast. This little intern named Mr. Timothy just stood there and watched, like I was the stupidest person he’d ever seen.
I ended up throwing up so much that they had to take me into the Emergency Room in town. Ethan offered a concerned wave as they packed me into the Holy Mercy van, then the Staff pulled a blindfold over my eyes, and I emerged again in the hospital lobby, covered in vomit. The sunlight, replaced by the incessant glow of hospital lamps, angel-light streaking down from a wire-bloated ceiling. Hot, hot everywhere. A nurse gave me a new shirt. The doctors took me to my own room and assessed me, ran me through a memory quiz, asked me to remember a set of lines: Blue is for ocean. Green is for grass. Red is for bird. Yellow is for sun. They kept coming in, asking again, and again, and again. I could never remember the color of the bird.
One of the nurses who brought me a water cup asked me about Holy Mercy. It shocked me, hearing her mention the place so casually, like it was a truck stop off I-10. The nurse looked soft, nice, with these Chicklet teeth and a Southern hairdo. Looked like she would never give any thought to keeping kids at a labor camp to make them stop loving each other. Only I knew that saying anything honest would land me in Isolation down the line. So I said:
“It’s fine. Lots of hiking.”
“Sure,” she replied. “It must be beautiful, out there in the woods.”
“Uh-huh. Sure is.”
“And the folks there? They treat you boys well?”
I felt the truth tingle in my throat, pulling itself up into my mouth: No, ma’am. They hate us because of God’s love, and I hate them right back. Let me tell you that, in case I never get to tell anyone else. I felt my hands shake with anticipation, with the nerves of being close to the edge of something new. Only telling her about Locke and Mr. Mark and the whole lineup of Staff wouldn’t accomplish a thing.
To the outside world, we were troubled kids. Not to be believed, not to be trusted. For all I knew, the town’s police had a stake in the operation. The truth, whether spoken or swallowed, was inescapable, tied up by the guardianship that the Holy Mercy Staff had over us.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Yeah, they treat us well.”
Then the Staff came into the room and called my mom, told her I had slipped off the lawnmower because I had forgotten to buckle my safety belt, but that I was recovering nicely. Mild concussion. No permanent damage. They let me say hello to her, with the phone on speaker. I knew if I told her the truth, they’d probably kill me. So I confirmed their story, detail by detail. I felt close to crying, hearing her voice. So fresh, but so unreal. So distant. Like her words belonged to an imposter, someone who loved me with no thought to the space between us that she’d endorsed. After the call, the Staff told me I would be upgraded to Level Three when I returned. That I had done good.
The Emergency Room released me two days later. Although I’d been blindfolded during my initial ride to Holy Mercy, a tactic to prevent escape, the Staff couldn’t fashion another covering over my new bandage. I stared out the window all through downtown Butte de Morts. On one corner, a bar called the Blue Norther’ cropped the street, turning the sidewalk neon blue. On the other side of the road, a bookshop shot up three stories through the air. A tiny record store fell against the edge of the sidewalk, lined by rose flowerbeds. We drove by Riverside Methodist, the affiliate church for Holy Mercy. Stone steps led up to the entryway, a walkway to Heaven. Then through the town square, where tiny rows of tents created rolling white hills all through the roadway, packed with tomatoes, strawberries, handmade soap, and honeycombs. With people. I saw a boy my age with his grip on an apple, kissing the red curve with his lips, and felt the pricks of Locke’s tacks cover my hands. We took a right on red and hit the trees, those miles and piles of trees.
When we got back to campus, Ethan quizzed me once an hour:
“What color is the bird, Noah? What color?”
“Red,” I said, then whispered: “Fuck off.”
“I was worried about you,” he said. “Thought you might be down real bad.”
I didn’t bother telling him that I held more worry for him, that the hospital felt like a vacation compared to Holy Mercy. That the nurses let me eat a pudding cup and didn’t scold me when I asked for two. That I got to watch television, catch up on the world. I considered telling Ethan what he’d missed, according to CNN and ESPN—Usain Bolt had secured three gold medals at the Beijing Olympics earlier in the year, Juno won best screenplay at the Oscars (I had seen it, but Ethan probably hadn’t), and the next presidential election sat right around the corner—but I knew that sharing any of this would only make him sad, so I kept my mouth shut.
That night, at dinner, I got to sit at the end of the table with the other Level Threes. Me, Ethan, and a boy named George. Our conversation wasn’t monitored with the intensity of the lower-levels. We talked about Family Day. Two weeks out. The most anticipated event of the fall. The afternoon that our parents could visit and tell us how our sin had ruined their lives via art collages, monologues, and Family Disclosure. Mom sent a letter to say she couldn’t show. Big meeting at work. Dad said maybe. I asked Ethan if his parents would come. He shrugged.
“You know, my mom, she keeps sending the bills,” he replied. “Pictures of the bills, for this place. I’m thinking of making them into a collage to give her next Christmas. Thoughts?”
“I suggest origami,” George said. “More fragile, so she’ll really have to contend with where she places them. Can’t box origami up.”
“What a novel idea, Georgie.”
“If she comes,” I said, “you better have something to show for those bills. Maybe she’ll take you out if you do.”
“Hm. Well. I’ve learned one thing, at least. The Anarchist Cookbook is full of lies.”
George began to laugh, until one of the Staff caught wind and asked what was so funny, and we all said nothing, nothing at all, that something got stuck in Ethan’s throat. Ethan froze, peered out the window. He pointed out a pair of doves, then stole a glance my way.
“What color is the bird, Noah?”
Ethan nodded. “No red birds around here.”
“Just doves,” George said. “And us.”
We looked around the table. All familiar faces. My blood ran cold.
“When was the last time someone discharged?” I asked.
“Awhile,” Ethan said.
“But how long?”
“Awhile,” Ethan repeated. “Do yourself a favor, and don’t ask that to anyone else.”
He hummed to himself for the rest of the meal.
That evening, I got a bad headache. Rainbows pulsed in one of my eyes. I complained to Nurse Angel, told her about the jets of color, but the Staff wouldn’t give me anything for the pain. Said the ache was God’s punishment for my carelessness, like the Devil was the cause of my concussion. All at once, I felt bitter about covering for them. I should’ve said that they were big-time psychos with God complexes, told that hospital nurse that they said horrible things to us, that they got paid to resent us. Ethan’s words rang in my head—Don’t ask for a patient report form. ‘Cause you’re really asking for a target to stick on your back.
I went back to bed, lay on my mattress. Imagined the whole landscape going up in flames. A wildfire running through the trees, through Holy Mercy, cabin by cabin.
Fwoop. Fwoop. Fwoop.
Locke and I resumed therapy a few days later.
My headaches had become brief spurts of pain, tiny seizures of suffering. Less painful than the thumbtacks exercise, which I thought of with dread as I trudged into his office. Healing Homosexuality had vanished, likely on loan to one of the program parents. Now, another book sat in its place: Understanding and Healing Homosexuality by Richard Cohen. I scanned the cover, pausing over the featured image. A straight couple clinging to one another, the woman’s hand over the man’s chest. The center of his ribcage—not his heart.
I sat down on the sofa, already feeling my palms spring with a deep pain. Only Locke didn’t take out his tacks. He took out his journal and pen. He stared me up and down, assessing something invisible to me. Some new hunch in my shoulders, maybe. Some imprint of fear.
“What do you think of boys?” he asked.
The question surprised me. I’d expected something more pointed, less general.
“I don’t think of them at all,” I said. “Not anymore.”
“That’s not true, Noah. Tell the truth.”
“Noah. Think of your ideal boy. The boy you would’ve sought out when you were deepest in your perversion. Then describe what you feel.”
I closed my eyes and pictured David. David, in his athletic shorts and his red crew-cut tee-shirt, the one that hugged his arms like they might fall off without the pressure. I imagined his warm blonde hair, running my fingers through the roots, feeling the sweat of nothing rolling over him in waves. And my whole body felt hot, red-hot, but not in that good way. Hot, like I was going to burst, to die any minute. I dropped the image from my mind, but it was too late. I opened my eyes, then bent forward and vomited all over Locke’s floor. He scribbled something down in his journal, then he smiled. Really smiled, like everything in the world was kind and good, and he was the reason.
“It’s working,” he said.
“You’ve made remarkable progress, Noah.”
“Does that mean I can go home soon?”
“It means just what I said. You’ve made progress.”
That was all he said. Just what he said. That’s when I knew that there was no going home.
There was no transitioning out, no getting better and departing. There was only going forward, deeper into Locke’s web of brainwashing, until there would be nothing left of me but a few digits on a paper and a chart of lies on his shelf. Nothing left. Dead-eyed, dead in the head.
Ethan and I made our escape the day that the butterflies fell. Two weeks after my concussion. Maybe because watching thousands of orange corpses plummet from the sky made anything feel possible. In the Hill Country, before Butte de Morts, the migration always held my curiosity. I wondered what made the butterflies fly into car grates, into windshields, into brick walls, having migrated all that way just to die, born into time and torn out of it. Ethan and I stood in the field, digging holes, stuck on Labor duty as their descent began.
The day that the butterflies fell—one day after Family Day. Neither my parents nor Ethan’s showed. Dad called Locke, said it would be too hard to see me like that. This reality didn’t faze me. I didn’t feel like their son anymore, left there with a concussion and no additional calls. All I had by that point was Ethan, and he had begun a new descent, drifting into that dark space in his mind. On Family Day, Ethan’s mom didn’t call at all. But he got a letter from her, all marked up with Sharpie, and something in him darkened. We watched the other boys’ parents come and go, wondering if they were lucky or not. And the next day, the butterfly day, all the fish in our dayroom tank died. That morning, their colorful bodies floated like casino chips on the top of the water. Ethan’s eyes were glossy as we assessed the damage. He seemed too drowsy to lift his head all the way. The nurse came over and tested his blood sugar, a quick poke on the finger, then retreated back to her desk.
“Did they prescribe you something new?” I asked.
“Platitudes,” he said. “Straight from the Bible.” He placed a hand on the tank, breathless. “They’re going to kill us.”
“Fish die,” I replied. “It happens.”
Ethan looked at me with a rare anger.
“Aren’t you sad?” he asked. “Aren’t you sad our kids are dead?”
I nodded, but I felt nothing at all. I had been there almost three months, bore witness to meltdowns of all shapes and sizes, watched kids sit at the desk for days, their minds rotting under their skulls. I didn’t have the capacity to be sad for anyone but the people. People like Ethan, who had resolved to survive the place, and still be a person on the other side. Still be someone who knew about stuff, like birds and Morrison and culture. The rest of us would leave all shelled out. Hard on the outside, soft on the inside, with no gray space inside us to grow into something worthwhile. Only mush, rules and proverbs that would melt between our fingers if we tried to scoop them out. But the way Ethan looked at me scared me. If he went soft, there was no hope for the rest of us.
“Can’t do it anymore,” he said. “I can’t.”
“Hey, keep your voice down.”
“Dude, this place is run by psychopaths.”
If the Staff heard him say that, he’d lose his Level Three in a second, and probably half the teeth in his mouth. He quieted as Nurse Angel steered a medication cart past us. Ethan watched the pills go by, sadness expanding on his face like a yawn. Then he spread out his hand, and with a hard smack, he sent a row of bottles flying across the room. Ethan didn’t flinch as their plastic heads knocked the tile. The noise seemed meditative to him, like a shimmer of bees descending on a wasp. Like he’d waited to do that forever. A shiver ran up my spine, sharp as electricity. He continued:
“God, and you know, platitudes are the hardest pill to swallow, because there’s nothing more they can give us than words. Our parents are paying ten-thousand a month for some words. And they’re not even good words. Isn’t that a joke?”
“You’re on Labor.”
I located the voice, just behind me. Mr. Mark. Jesus Christ. He stepped around me, then grabbed Ethan by the arm. I waited for Ethan’s body to drop, for his head to collide with the linoleum, but Mr. Mark shoved him towards the gardening closet, instead.
“Grab a shovel. Then you go out and dig. Six feet.”
“How deep?” Ethan asked.
His voice, laced with sarcasm—high, seductive. Mr. Mark slapped him. I heard the sound, but Ethan’s face, perpetually red, hardly changed color. Without thinking, I said: “Don’t touch him.”
Mr. Mark turned around. His whistle swung off his chest, fell, wrang around his neck like a noose. “You too, Noah. Six feet.”
I collected my shovel quietly, then marched outside with Ethan. The unit door opened and closed with a lazy, rolling sound, like a plane taking off. We walked to the dirt field behind the cafeteria. The cold air stung my arms. We dug together, breaking apart the rough soil, half-frozen, smashing migrating butterflies with the metal hilt of our tools. Ethan started to cry. I pretended not to notice.
“Mr. Mark is a shithead,” I said.
“All he’s here for is the salary,” Ethan replied, wiping his nose. “Pays good to keep us in line. That’s all. If you cut him open, he’d bleed zeros and ones.” Ethan paused for a moment, mouthing something to himself, then he sung: Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind, Dawn’s highway…Dawn’s highway…
“We’re gonna lose our Levels,” I said. “Aren’t we?”
“Yes.” He said this dully. I felt like I’d been punched. Even though there weren’t levels in real-life, in there, they were all that guaranteed us a life.
“Damn,” I said.
“You shouldn’t have said anything to him.”
“He slapped you.”
“And he could’ve slapped you, too. Think with your fucking head, next time.”
Then we both stopped. Stopped, because the butterflies were coming down in reams, now. Coating the earth in hot pools of color. They blanketed the bottom of the grave I dug, that pointless vacancy of a lesson, entombing themselves in one another. Ethan held out his hand and caught a couple, then folded his fingers over them, closing his eyes.
“Let’s run,” he said.
“Yeah. Good one.”
“I’m serious, man.”
“In this weather?” I asked. “We’ll die.”
“Then let’s die,” he said.
I looked over at him, frightened by the cool tone of his voice. He hadn’t even dug a foot into the dirt. Pretty boy, who, three months later, no longer looked pretty. The change had been gradual, but in the pale light of the outdoors, it seemed all the more intense, all the more real. He’d lost hair, lost weight. His stomach curved inward like a bow. The skin of his cheeks, pulled taut against his skull, drew dark shadows across his skin. His eyes no longer lit up like Christmas bulbs.
“Where would we even go?” I asked.
“To the Père Lachaise cemetery,” Ethan replied. “Jim Morrison is buried there.”
“Yeah, okay. Okay.”
Then I dropped my shovel. Ethan dropped his. We started to walk, no rush, expecting someone to take us down. We strolled past the maze of cabins, wired and electric and ugly, like a Boom Town half lived in. We walked with purpose, as if we had an end goal, not a pipe dream. As we approached the trees, I half-expected a hunter to shoot us. Half-hoped they would. An instant-out from all of this. Two bullets in our necks. Romeo and Romeo in purgatory, in Morrison’s wilderness of pain. We stopped at the tree line. Out of habit, I almost prayed. Prayed to Saint Christopher to protect us in our travels. I looked over at Ethan, saw his eyes closed, then I gave myself permission to follow. Only my prayer came more like a vision:
Ethan and I, down by the Dolly River. Spread out on the bank. Shirtless, letting the sun cloak our bodies from our toes to our ears. Listening to When the Music’s Over on a Sylvania from the record store. Free. I opened my eyes. The prayer dissolved.
“I don’t think God would really hate us,” I said. “For liking boys. I really don’t.”
Ethan shrugged. “I don’t know the guy.” We took a hesitant step forward. Right over the edge of the property line. Ethan touched my elbow.
“What?” I asked.
He grinned, pointed to the nearest tree. “A cardinal.”
I smiled. Then we ran.
When I saw the river, I knew we’d made it out. On the drive back from the hospital, I collected portions of the route to Holy Mercy, but not everything. A couple wooden houses, clearings in the trees, the waterline. We hiked onward into nothingness, sweaty, exhausted, knowing that stopping wasn’t an option, unless we wanted to die, which I supposed was an option, and a better one than going back. We passed one of the houses, then a second. The afternoon came and went like a breath. I knew the Staff were out there looking for us. The other boys, wondering where we’d run off to. I thought about George, sitting quietly on the couch, head tucked into the heels of his palms, staring glumly at the tile.
None of that mattered as we stared at the river. Dolly River. The water, full of indents, like crunched black velvet in the evening light. The palest shimmer of sunlight remained visible, extending into forever at the golden hour. Ethan laughed. He ran down to the shoreline and smacked his hands on the surface of the night, sending ripples of dark matter running away in circles. Then he turned to me, wonder in his eyes, as if we’d crossed a threshold that we could never be dragged across again. Not by the green shirts, by the Shoreline whistles. Not by God.
“Tell me, Noah, about your boy. Your David.”
For a moment, pain rushed through my body. Nausea. Locke’s office, the pokes in the hand, the porn on his Acer projector. Recalling David in my head brought bile to my mouth.
“He’s in the AV Club,” I said. “Or was. I don’t know, now. He came over to fix my computer. A computer virus. My mom found us. Kissing and stuff. A virus got me sent here.”
“The virus of sin, Noah,” Ethan said, in Locke’s tone.
“Tell me about Marion,” I replied.
“Baby, I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
The way he said that: Baby. So genuine. Like they never beat it out of him.
We started off again. Still no plan. Ethan ran with a purpose, so I followed him. We ran over a bridge, then into town. Heels, hot on the asphalt. Seeing Butte de Morts through the glassy window of the Holy Mercy van didn’t do the place justice. In the dim evening light, the shops crawling towards closing, the whole place felt lazy and warm. We passed the roller rink, two glowing letters busted, so the sign read OLLER RI K. We avoided the road towards the church, instead jogging towards the main drag, unconcerned with the fact that a police car or a Holy Mercy van could tear by at any moment. The streets, near empty. The only places that remained open were The Blue Norther’ and a little pet store called Cherrie’s.
Ethan stopped running. Sirens filled the distant air, then headlights turned the roadway electric. We ducked behind a supersized owerpot as a vehicle passed us. We didn’t get a good look to see if a SMILE! YOU’RE WITH HOLY MERCY sticker was plastered on the side. Ethan shoved me out from behind the plant, then pointed down the road out of town.
“Go. Flag someone down. Get out of here.”
“Run, and don’t come back, or I’ll fucking kill you.”
“You’ll kill me? Jesus Christ.”
“I don’t know what I’ll do. Don’t Jesus-Christ me.”
“What’re you gonna do?”
“Find a payphone. Call my mom. Tell her to go fuck herself.”
“And I’ll pray, and tell God to fuck himself, too.”
All the color had left Ethan’s face. At that moment, I knew it was over. All the thrill, all the hope. No way we could make it out of the town on our own, not without the Troopers finding us. Even if we did, we had no money, no clothes, no I.D.s. Nowhere to go but a shelter or back home, back to people who would ship us right back to Holy Mercy. I took Ethan’s hand. Squeezed. Felt the pins and needles, and didn’t mind. Then I pulled him towards the pet shop.
“What’re we doing?” he asked.
“Getting more fish.”
Inside, an associate greeted us. She cautioned a wary glance at our scratched-up arms and dirty clothes, but she didn’t ask how we got like that. How we got messy, discarded. “How can I help you folks?”
“You got any fish?” I asked.
“Sure. What kind?”
“I don’t know. This kind.” I held up my fingers, mimicked their gills. “They’re purple.”
“Tetras. Freshwater,” Ethan said. He didn’t smile.
We followed the woman into the tanks. The blue U.V. light in the aquarium section turned Ethan’s skin a sickly shade of lavender. We passed through the glass cells, transparent prisons. Ethan tapped the foggy glass of the nearest aquarium. The fish bodies squiggled at his command. He paused in front of a lethargic gold fish, their home, decorated by a few plastic plants. Ethan stared at them with the same expression that the store clerk stared at us with: that it could be worse expression. As the employee approached the Tetra tank, Ethan dropped my hand. He wandered off down the aisle, out of sight, singing: All the children are insane…
In a moment, I followed. I found him transfixed, walking towards the rear of the store. A birdcage sat against the back wall. A dozen little parakeets posed behind their bars. They whistled at us through thin beaks. Ethan approached the cage. Looped his hands through the bars. He waggled a finger at one of the birds, who pecked at him expectantly. The store clerk came around the corner. Told Ethan he needed to remove his hand from the cage. He didn’t. She repeated it again. Nothing. He started to hum.
I placed a hand on his shoulder, brushed away the dark curls at the nape of his neck, then grabbed his other hand with mine. I loosened his fingers, freed his grip from the cage. He turned, and fell into my chest, and that was all it took. We sunk to the ground. Embracing. Unreal. Forbidden. The clerk took out her phone, pounded three digits. I held on as Ethan cried. Held him for the first time, and for the last. We would be separated. I knew this. But not then. Not yet. Ethan wept and wept. Pins filled my body, filled my mind. Behind us, the birds sang.
Piper Gourley is a professional ghostwriter from Houston, Texas. Their work has been published in Glassworks Magazine, Etched Onyx, Michigan Quarterly Review: Mixtape, and more. As a ghostwriter, they have published over 650 creative articles.