After he was laid off, Carson went home and did one hundred pushups. Then he did one hundred abdominal crunches, then he attached the pull-up bar to his bedroom door frame and did pull-up after pull-up until his whole body was a mass of panicked nerves, then he gazed at the mirror over his sink for an hour, not so much admiring as observing the grimy sweat that ran down his crude, shapeless muscles. His eyes traced the arc of an eyebrow, the stray hair that peeked out from a nostril, the curve of his lips, the scar on his chin from where he'd crashed a bike as a child, and then pulled his gaze back to study his torso, contemplate its bulges and dents, and compare his muscles with those of the glossy models and actors in GQ.
Years ago, his father had warned him against the muscles in GQ, misbegotten things produced by extravagant gym equipment and too much time on a man's hands. Carson's father had taught him to treasure the strength gotten by lifting buckets of paint, hauling ladders, mowing lawns, and chopping wood in the backyard. Carson still had a scar from when he'd swung wide and jammed the axe into his calf as a teenager. But since he'd moved out, since he'd subscribed to GQ to appease a desperate door-to-door saleswoman whose whole body smelled like deodorant, he'd found himself slowly being sucked into finding those bodies beautiful. The men in GQ were ageless, solid, with no emotions deeper than those which could be implied by a sardonic grin or a white-toothed smile in a drug commercial. Their physiques seemed effortless, like extraordinary cave formations built by nothing but the slow drip of water.
He called his father, who didn't answer. He turned on the TV and popped open a can of beer. He fell asleep drinking it and woke up in the middle of the night with a headache. Not sure what else to do, he took two aspirin and drove back to the site of what was meant to be but would never become the Hotel D'Mar.
There were no cars in the front parking lot, and no traffic at this hour other than Carson's pick-up truck. He parked in the back and saw a utility van idling by the Porta Potties. Some of the laborers were shoving two-by-fours into it. They froze when they saw Carson, and for a moment he thought they were going to flee, but then they went back to work. Carson parked the truck and stepped outside. One of the laborers held the back door open for him.
He went into the last room he'd painted before the project had run out of money. His boss had insisted on piling as much of the furniture as would fit in the bathroom, and the resulting heap had tilted precariously over his head. Most of it was gone now. Carson picked out two leftover chairs and carried them out to his truck. Then he went back and got more from other rooms. He piled them in the back of his truck, then drove ten below the speed limit back to the little house he rented a mile away from the beach. He and his roommates, all gone now, had made a bonfire one night with furniture from an abandoned Shoney's. They drank cheap beer while sticking chair after cheaply upholstered chair into the fire. The flames had burned purple, blue, yellow, even green as they tore through the seat cushions to the plastic foam within. Carson lit a fire for himself, black smoke rising into the solitary night as he gingerly lowered the chairs into the fire one at a time, but after the first two chairs the novelty wore off and he couldn't shake the feeling that the neighbors were peeking out their windows and over the fence into his yard, so he went to bed, leaving the fire to die out on its own.
He woke up the next day to a call from his father.
"Carson," his father said. "I heard you got fired."
His father used to have a twang in his voice, but it had vanished years ago, and now his jagged sentences sounded affected, like a parent using slang to seem cool to a sullen teenager who'd taken to speaking like an automaton. It always surprised Carson to hear his father talk like that, since he'd dealt with Carson's teenage sullenness by making Carson dig holes in the yard and fill them back in until the simple act of being angry at his father was too much work.
"Laid off, actually. The project ran out of money," Carson said.
"I told you it would," his father said. "You should listen to me before you take a job in construction. I know who you can trust. Talk to me."
"I know." Carson said. "I'm sorry."
Carson heard his father sigh. "You don't have to say that," his father said.
Carson knew that he did.
"Thanks, Dad." Carson still had a headache.
The conversation opened into a yawning chasm, and Carson stood at the edge, wearing a blindfold, not sure which way he was facing. His father excused himself to go to work, and they said their good-byes and hung up.
Carson spent the whole day working out, until he could feel his body fall apart. It was something he liked about construction: the exhaustion, the occasional pulled muscle or torn ligament, the wounds that made him feel close to himself, part of the world, like he'd actually done something worth doing to get them. In a way, he was grateful to his father for pressuring him to work with his hands, and as he did pull-up after pull-up, he found his hatred for the old man and his clipped, smug speech grow less and less with each repetition. That evening, when his whole body hurt and his right arm was so sore he could barely open a beer bottle, he took a flask of whiskey and went to the hotel.
The Hotel D'Mar rose up from the dirt like a half-buried Moorish palace designed by a child, and its flimsy stucco battlements and gaping windows seemed even more regal now that everything that had once surrounded it—the heaps of wood, the dumpsters, the Porta Potties, the nude sculpture by the pool—was gone. The contractors had reclaimed their equipment, the laborers and other scavengers had gotten the rest. The front doorway was already boarded up.
Carson parked in the back again. Someone had placed a rock in the gateway to the beach, and the breeze repeatedly pulled the gate open and slammed it against the rock with a dull clunk. He moved the rock with his foot until it held the gate all the way open, then stepped through.
The path became a wooden walkway with a gazebo halfway between the hotel and the beach. A weathervane in the shape of a swooping osprey spun over the gazebo. For a moment, Carson thought he saw the nude statue from the pool propped against the railing. It was wearing a shirt that clung to its skinny frame and leaning over the edge of the railing to look at something. Its long hair clung to its head, wrapped around the curve of its slender neck. As his eyes adjusted to the starlight, Carson realized he was looking at a boy, about eighteen years old and sopping wet. He must have just gone for a swim.
"You know," Carson said, surprised at his own forwardness, "that the sharks come out at night, right?" He took a swig of whiskey.
The boy didn't look away from whatever was down there. "They hang out mostly to the south, though," he said, adjusting his wet hair. "This part of the beach is pretty safe. I think it's all the boat traffic or something."
As if to illustrate what he'd said, a speedboat cruised in the distance, its engine buzzing like a wasp.
"You know this place well?"
The boy shrugged. "Family used to live here, before they moved inland after the hurricane."
Salt water dripped down the boy's neck and soaked the collar of his tie-dyed T-shirt. It was a few sizes too big for him, as if he'd washed up naked on shore and put on someone else's clothes. "What're you looking at?" Carson asked him.
Carson looked over the edge. The boy had to point at the two dark shapes for a few seconds before Carson could see them.
"Those aren't turtles," Carson said.
"Those are gopher tortoises. They live in the dunes. Dad and me used to take potshots at them."
"Cool," the boy said. "Do they make that noise?"
The boy made a sound like a dolphin, but drawn out and creaking. "The sound turtles make when they fuck."
"You like that word, don't you?"
"It's a pretty handy word."
Carson took a swig of whiskey, and his hand offered the boy the flask of its own accord. The boy took it before Carson could rescind the offer.
"So how old are you?" Carson asked.
"You look young."
The boy took another swig. "For now."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know," the boy said. "People tend to look older when they get older, maybe?"
"It was supposed to be a compliment."
The boy shrugged. "I know."
"So what're you doing out here?"
"I went for a swim," the boy said. "Now I'm watching turtles have sex and talking to some weird guy who just showed up to warn me about sharks. Oh, and I'm underage drinking."
Carson took his flask back and took a swig, but almost spat it out when one of the tortoises wailed. It sounded nothing like a dolphin. It was an infantile sound, a cracked keening, broken off at its peak as if a wire had been cut, severing some vital connection.
"Told you," the boy said. "Anyway, I gotta get going. It's late."
"Okay. Nice meeting you."
"Same. Or something." The boy walked off, leaving a trail of salt water behind him. Carson watched him head back to the beach, and wanted to ask why he didn't go the other way, but instead he took a swig from his flask and tried to make sense of what had just happened. The tortoises went their separate ways, stumbling over the dunes like creatures new to gravity. Carson walked back to the hotel and chain-smoked in the back of his truck. For a moment, he slipped away, but he gazed at his reflection in the truck's rear window until he felt himself come back. Then he went home.
The next day, he called his friends in the construction business, and found that almost all of them were out of work, or out of some of their work, or about to be, or afraid that they were about to be.
"It's like all of a sudden," one of them said. "Everyone's decided they have enough buildings, and they can fix everything themselves."
"So Burkowski's not hiring at all?" asked Carson.
"Not painters, no."
Carson lit a cigarette and took a swig of his beer.
"But he is hiring?"
"Yeah, I think he is. It doesn't pay well, though."
"I don't really care," Carson said. "I need the money, and I need the work or I'm gonna go crazy."
His friend called him back a couple hours later, telling him that Burkowski would take him on as a cleaner.
"It's not bad work," his friend said. "Mostly, you sweep and haul the piss-bottles downstairs."
"Burkowski doesn't like the Mexicans to go to the Porta Potties too much," the friend said. "So they bring all these empty soda bottles and piss in them. Leave them fucking everywhere. The cleaners gotta pick 'em up, I mean it's not part of the job description, but they do, carry them downstairs and dump 'em in the Porta Potties."
Carson didn't know what to say to that, so he told his friend he'd drop by tomorrow and talk to Burkowski. That night he got drunk, and when he woke up he had the feeling that he'd lost something. He made it into the shower and out the front door before he realized what it was: the faint smell of paint fumes that followed him everywhere until he wondered, sometimes, if it was in his head. Underneath it, he smelled kind of nice.
Burkowski hired him on the spot—the junkies who normally did the job had hopped in a van and skipped town for god knew where, and he needed all the help he could get. Carson's only coworker was a man in his forties who'd spent twenty years working for Lambent Construction. They swept the floors, creating thick fogs of dust, and carried lidless two-liter bottles of urine downstairs. The urine was dark, almost amber. Shapeless things floated in it. Everything smelled like paint, and Carson was afraid that he might pass out, but he didn't. When it was all over, he went home and took a shower. The water at his feet was yellowish for the first few seconds, and the smell of urine lingered in his nostrils like a worm.
That night he sat and watched TV in a haze of boredom, lazily drinking beer and not sure what he was watching except that it had sharks in it. At midnight, he went to bed and lay there, staring at the ceiling, imagining the speckled paint melting and dripping onto his face, covering him in paint, burying him in it. He imagined his body rotting away over centuries, replaced by an absence, a cavern in the shape of his body under a hundred feet of paint. The air conditioning, which was on a timer, shut off, and Carson sweated into the sheets for an hour before he sat up, flipped through the channels twice and, because he had nothing better to do, went back to the Hotel D'Mar.
There was no one on the gazebo, and under the light of a full moon he couldn't see anyone in the water. He waited for a moment, not sure why, then turned and went back to his pick-up truck, but the back door to the hotel was open, so he went inside. Motes of moon-bright dust spun around him like fireflies.
He lit the way ahead of him with the LED flashlight on his keychain. Someone had swept the dust into the corner, forming a clear path down a corridor of open rooms to a stairwell in the lobby. A little side path led to the reception desk, but Carson went upstairs and followed a sound of off-key singing to one of the luxury suites.
The boy sat on one of the windowsills, smoking a cigarette between lines of his song, which was in a foreign language that Carson didn't recognize. His hair seemed to glow. At first, he ignored Carson and kept on singing. Then he turned his head toward Carson and almost fell out the window. Carson ran to catch him.
"You surprised me," the boy said.
"Sorry." Carson helped him right himself.
"What're you doing here?"
Carson shrugged. "I don't know. Used to work here, thought I'd see what it was like."
"Well, this is it. Do you like it?"
"What are you doing here?"
The boy sat up straight, leaned forward, scratched his ankle. Carson saw something metal in his boot. "I live here."
"You live here?"
The boy rolled his eyes and sighed. "Who told you?"
"Sorry," Carson said. "Now can you sit up? I'm kind of nervous with you fondling your knife like that."
"In your boot."
"Sorry." The boy sat up straight, then pushed himself off the ledge and onto the floor, where he sat in a crude half-lotus. He wore a black tank top that was two sizes too big for him, and had to pull one of the sleeves back onto his bony shoulders. Light seemed to pool in his clavicles. "You got your flask?"
The boy stood, shakily, then found his footing. "I stole some beer." He walked on tiptoe to a Styrofoam cooler in the corner. "Got it outta the back of someone's pick-up on the beach today. Hope it wasn't yours."
"No," Carson said. "I was hauling bottles of piss around."
"Me too," the boy said. "This stuff is total piss."
Carson gazed at the boy as he dug in his pockets for a bottle opener. Everything about him: the width of his movements, the frailty of his arms, his off-kilter walk and his nasal, lilting speech, all suggested someone completely unfit for squatting. But here he was, belting out an excited cry upon finding a bottle opener before reaching into a pool of lukewarm meltwater to retrieve a pair of bottles that couldn't have been more than a couple degrees above room temperature, opening them and handing one to a near-total stranger.
Carson raised his bottle for a toast. The boy did the same, but instead of proposing a toast, he told him his name. "I'm Halifax."
"Is that your real name?"
"It's where my parents met, or something." Halifax rammed his bottle into Carson's, then took a swig. "They didn't really talk about it that much."
"Cool," Carson said. The name made him think of icy seawater and fog-shrouded lighthouses. "I'm Carson."
"Like the MTV guy?" It was the first indication that Halifax had had a life before he appeared on the boardwalk of the hotel.
"Like the MTV guy." Carson drank long and deep.
Halifax had been squatting in different places for a month. His friends, who had mostly gone on to college, were strewn around the state, and he could couch surf and borrow money that he never paid back. His father, who sometimes seemed to be a gloomy old man and other times a violent, tattooed young drunk, had kicked him out, either when they found out he was gay or when they found his make-up. His story was so confused, so full of contradictory layers and sudden twists from subject to subject that Carson couldn't tell. Halifax showered at a friend's place nearby, but his friend wouldn't let him crash there, so he spent his nights as the only guest at the Hotel D'Mar. He'd run out of exfoliant, and he was afraid the salt and sand in the air would dry out his skin.
Carson listened to everything he said. He wanted to ask Halifax what it was like, being gay, wanted to ask him if the long-legged awkwardness and the illuminated skin came with it or were just something he did for show, and if so, why? At the same time, he felt paralyzed, as if Halifax had a hold over him. Who was he to question someone like Halifax, someone who had walked out of the ocean and knew about the sounds that tortoises made in their most intimate moments, even if he didn't know a tortoise from a turtle? Finally, after a few more beers that seemed to have hardly any effect on Halifax, Carson broke and asked him, "How do you do it?"
"Do what?" Halifax leaned forward and grinned. By this point, Carson could tell he was trying to act like a cartoon cat-person.
"Act like that. I mean, your Dad didn't seem too patient with it."
"I don't know. Just happens that way. Really, the more I think about it, the more I needed him to kick me out of there. He was sucking me in. All those unspoken rules and everything, all that walking on eggshells around his fucking manliness, it all starts to make this weird kind of almost sense after a while. I'd probably break if I didn't get out of there."
"You know, start feeling ashamed of myself like he wanted me to, grow a bunch of muscles and join the army or something. You know, man up, be like Dad, that kinda stuff."
Carson was done with his beer, and there weren't any more bottles left. He lit a cigarette. "Don't you want to?"
"Want to what?"
"Grow some muscle."
Halifax finished his beer. "Never did." Then he paused and added, "Is that weird?"
"A little," Carson said. "I guess."
"I need sleep," Halifax said. "I'm gonna pass out. What time is it?"
It was almost three in the morning. "Same here," Carson said. He had a hard time getting up, his legs heavy and awkward, as if they'd gotten longer. "You gonna be all right here?"
"Yeah," Halifax said. "If I can get some more product. I'll probably pinch some from that grocery store on A1A."
"Okay, then. I'll see you around." And with that, he stumbled into the hallway, oddly aware that he wasn't drunk, but that his legs felt numb. By the time he got to the stairs, they felt better, and he drove home and went to bed.
The next day was blistering hot, and the bottles of urine slid around in his sweaty grasp. He spilled one, pouring amber urine clotted with used chewing tobacco down the stairs, and the foreman made him and the forty-year-old pissboy that he worked with spend an hour cleaning it before the older pissboy passed out from heat exhaustion. Carson's father called him that evening to ask him how work was going, and he told his father it was going fine.
"You don't sound so sure," his father said.
"Have you been lazy again?"
Carson sighed. "I'm not lazy anymore."
"I've always been worried you'd get lazy again," his father said. "You wouldn't be where you are now if you'd worked harder in high school."
"I know," Carson said.
"Then keep working," his father said. "I have to go."
It went on like this for a week. Stinking of other men's urine; unable to say anything to a father who couldn't say anything to him, but wouldn't stop calling; exhausted at the end of the day and on the verge of collapse in the morning heat; his face fading into mist between crunches and pull-ups and glute lifts, Carson forgot about the hotel, and while he still worried about Halifax, the boy was now like a ghostly hitchhiker he'd picked up on a lonely road, only to have him vanish a couple miles later, leaving the smell of old roses in the car. It wasn't until Saturday that he could worry about anything but urine for long enough to buy a jar of exfoliant and head to the hotel.
Someone had tagged the back wall, writing FAGGOTS in big black letters and signing their names in multicolored squiggles that looked more like toddlers' drawings than anything. The back door was shut, but one of the windows was open. Carson looked inside and saw holes in the wall, some with chairs sticking out of them. Carson went in and saw more tagging, long streaks of green and black and yellow where someone had run up and down the hall with a can of spray paint. Broken glass littered the way to the lobby and crunched under the soles of Carson's boots. He'd brought a real flashlight this time, and its pale beam leeched the color from everything, making the walls look sickly.
His flashlight passed over a dark spot at the foot of the lobby stairs. It wasn't blood; it was too thick, too complicated. He smelled rotten eggs and saw the yolks floating in the mix. A trail led upstairs, and Carson followed it.
Halifax lay on the floor, curled up in a corner. Whatever covered him was also smeared down the wall behind him—he'd sat back, then slumped over and curled into a fetal position. Carson caught other smells under the stench of the eggs: vegetable oil, chocolate syrup, spray paint, cheap beer. A purple bruise rose from the skin on Halifax's cheek. He came to slowly, his breathing seeming deeper under the flashlight beam, and when he turned his head to face Carson he did so with the pained movements of an old dog. Halifax smiled; dried blood stuck to his teeth.
Carson took him home. At first, he wanted to take Halifax to the hospital, because the bump on the side of his head and the gulfs of silence between his words made a strong case for a concussion, but Halifax was too afraid of being arrested, or having his parents called, or of something else that he couldn't name, so Carson took him home, not even bothering to put newspapers on the car seat. Then he sat outside the bathroom, listening for a crash while Halifax showered, but nothing happened except that Halifax used up half a bottle of shampoo and still couldn't get all the paint out of his hair. Green lines crossed his bangs like vines.
They hadn't come for Halifax, or Halifax didn't think so. "They . . . I think they just wanted to make trouble. They wanted to vandalize the place, smoke . . . some pot, drink, and I . . . fucking stupid, I went down and decided to see what was going on. They egged me, tagged me . . . beat me, like they did the hotel. I don't know what the syrup was for. Guess they just had it in the house, wanted . . . to take everything they could . . . to fuck things up with." The skin on one side of his face bulged and purpled, swelled over one eye. The other one gazed out at Carson, then darted around the room, clear and nervous as a bird's eye. "Do you have . . . roommates?"
"No," Carson said. "They moved out a couple weeks before I lost my job."
"Lost their jobs, moved in with their folks."
Halifax was leaning against the wall outside the bathroom, and when he sat upright Carson saw a water stain behind him in the exact shape of his body. "Can I . . ." the boy stopped for a moment. "Can I stay in one of their rooms for a while? Until I'm better."
"No problem," Carson said. "Just try to stay awake until the concussion's gone. You sure you don't want a doctor?"
"No doctors," Halifax said. "You promised."
"No doctors," Carson said.
They stayed up, smoking cigarettes and watching TV. Carson kept looking over at Halifax, his eyes on the boy's fingers as he ate popcorn or on his lips as he drank water or on his eyes as they followed the action on screen. At first, Halifax didn't seem to understand what he was watching, and stared blankly at situation comedies as if they were broadcast in Finnish, but by the time the ridiculous infomercials for fifty dollars blenders came on, he was coherent enough that they could make fun of them together, and Carson fell asleep before him.
The next morning, Carson woke up and found a note from Halifax: Went for a walk. Leave the door unlocked. Groggy after only three hours of sleep, he drove himself through his day, spilling two bottles of rancid piss and vomiting a little into the pool. His foreman let him go home early after he cleaned up the mess he'd made. Dizzy from heat, hunger, and fatigue, he got home to find Halifax on the couch. The parts of him that weren't purple were beet red.
"You okay?" asked Carson. He kicked his boots off and noticed that Halifax's bare feet were swollen.
"I've been running," Halifax said. The TV muttered something about hemorrhoid cushions. "And I borrowed your weights."
"Last night . . ."
Carson went to the fridge and got himself a beer. "You should rest. Really. You're in no shape to even try to do anything. I mean, you may still have a goddamn concussion."
"That's what I was doing yesterday, though. Resting. Didn't even leave the hotel, except to go for a swim at dusk."
"There are sharks out at dusk."
"There are sharks pretty much all the time," Halifax said. "And I told you, they're mostly south of the hotel. My arm hurts."
Carson left him and went to his room. His free weights lay on the bed; Halifax had been lifting twenty pounds in each spindly arm. "They'll probably hurt for a couple days," he called out. "Rest them a while, or you'll get rhabdo."
"I don't know what that is," Halifax called down the hall. "But is it worse than getting the shit kicked out of you for no reason?"
Carson had to admit that Halifax had a point. His mind tried to work around it, but he knew the answer wouldn't come until work the next day. He sat down with his beer and watched TV with Halifax and talked about spilling piss everywhere. When evening came, he opened the Venetian blinds and waited for the moonlight to reflect off Halifax's skin and light up the room, but it didn't happen. After dark, Carson turned on the lights. They ordered a cheese pizza for dinner. Grease dribbled down Halifax's wrist.
At work the next day, Carson got a call. He'd just finished dumping urine into the Porta-Potty, so he ducked under a stairwell.
"Hi, Carson." His father's voice seemed mushy, as if he had a mouthful of pea soup.
"Are you okay, Dad?"
"My throat's not right. And my teeth hurt. I think I have a fever. I'll see a doctor soon. How is Burkowski treating you?" He coughed; it sounded wet.
"It's okay," Carson said.
"Maybe he needs a painter."
"I don't think so." Burkowski had just laid off two painters; one of them needed the job for his visa.
"Did you ask?"
"Sure, Dad," Carson said. "I asked. There's nothing else for me."
"Well," his father said. "Your mother wants to talk to you."
"Okay, Dad," Carson said, but he could already hear his father tell his mother to get the phone.
"Hello, Carson," she said.
"Hi, Mom. How're you?" There was a stretch of silence; Carson couldn't tell how long it lasted.
Then she said, "I'm well. How are you?"
"I'm good," Carson said. "I..."
Carson couldn't remember what he'd been about to say, and as he searched his memory, his mother said, "I hope you're doing well. Your father said you—oh, yes, dear, that's good advice. Your father says not to waste time on the clock, and I should call you later."
"Okay, Mom," Carson said. "You have a good day, all right?"
"You too, dear. We love you."
Carson went back to work with the odd feeling that the call had been dropped and would resume at any moment, but it never did. He finished his day by sweeping the stairwells, ducking into corners whenever a barrage of laborers marched up or down the stairs. Sometimes, they shoved bottles of urine into his hand, and he had to run to the Porta Potties to dump the contents. By the end of the day, his back hurt and his legs felt so heavy that he could barely walk.
When Carson came home, Halifax was gone; he'd left another note about going for a run. A few minutes later, he came back in, barefoot and soaked in sweat. "I need to do laundry," he said, and pulled off his shirt. His stomach was soft and an inch wider than his waist.
Halifax's clothes rolled and fell in the washing machine, and he drank one of Carson's protein shakes. Carson lay on the sofa.
"You all right?" asked Halifax. He leaned on the arm of the sofa and chugged his shake. It left a chocolate moustache on his lip.
"I was hoping you'd give me some pointers."
"How're your arms?"
"Better." Halifax stood up, turned on the TV, hunted through the channels.
"Good," Carson said. "Keep it that way."
"Are you gonna tell me how my body's fine as it is or something?"
"Well, it is."
"No it isn't." Halifax didn't even stop changing channels. "If it was, why'd those assholes hand me my ass so easy?"
"That happens sometimes," Carson said. He didn't know where these words were coming from. "You can't do anything about it. You just gotta be who you are."
"But I'm tired of who I am. Who I am is just this stupid rebellion against . . . I don't even know against what. Look where it's got me."
"It's not a bad place," Carson said. "I mean, now that you're safe and everything."
Halifax didn't respond. He stopped channel surfing to watch Nancy Grace, who was saying that a recent celebrity death might be a homicide.
"What I want to know," she said, "is who he was with that night? Why was this person giving him so many drugs? What did this person have to do with him getting in the water?"
She went on, growing louder and angrier, until Carson fell asleep. He dreamed of pushing a shadowy drunk over the railings of a cruise ship. The drunk fell into darkness, and Carson listened for a splash, but it never came.
Carson's mother called him the next morning to tell him that his father was in the hospital. One of his teeth had abscessed, and the infection had travelled to his bloodstream in the night. Carson had learned once, while half-asleep in a middle school history class, that more than one pharaoh had died this way. He thought about that all the way to the hospital, and almost forgot to call in sick.
He had to park half a mile from the hospital, on the far side of a parking lot almost liquid with heat, and halfway to the front entrance he realized that his teeth hurt. When he got inside, he went to the bathroom to look inside his mouth, only to see that his face wasn't there. He spent twenty minutes pulling it back, getting each eye and nostril in its right place, each stray hair between his eyebrows in line, then watched himself for a minute longer, to make sure nothing moved.
His father was on a respirator. His mother sat beside him, gazing out the window, holding her own hand. "How is he?" Carson asked.
"He's..." His mother hesitated. She looked out the window, and ran a hand along the excess skin on her throat. "They say it was a pretty bad abscess, but he's stable now."
"What happened to him?" Carson asked.
"He went to bed with a cough," his mother said. "We thought it was a cold. Then he woke me and I could barely hear him. He sounded so faint and warped. I didn't know something like this could do that to your voice."
Carson's father was watching them.
"He's drugged," his mother said. "He probably doesn't know you're here."
"I think he knew," Carson said.
"He told me he had a toothache. And his throat wasn't right. And something about needing a doctor."
His mother sighed. "Then why the fuck didn't he?"
Carson didn't know how to answer that question, and his mother's face slipped back into its usual fogginess so quickly that Carson wondered if she'd really said it. The machines hooked up to his father let out the same rhythmic beats that they had let out when Carson got there, and his mother stared in the general direction of her husband without looking at him. She cleared her throat once, twice, three times.
"Is he gonna be all right?" Carson asked.
"They'll have to put him on antibiotics," she said. "Until his airway opens. And they'll have to drain the abscess, or abscesses. I think the doctors said there was more than one now. He's getting his teeth out the moment this clears up."
Carson left a few minutes later, after making small talk with his mother about Nancy Grace. He had trouble finding his truck in the parking lot, and almost walked past it; it looked smaller than before. On the way home, he played with the radio, not so much choosing an 80s station as giving up when he happened to be tuned in to one. Billy Idol sneered his way through "White Wedding," and Carson bobbed his head dispassionately until he convinced himself that it meant something. He slowed down so he could hear the whole song, but still got home right when the bridge began.
At first, he didn't recognize Halifax. It wasn't until he saw the heap of hair on the linoleum in the kitchenette that he made the connection to the shaved head watching TV. A red bruise boiled up from Halifax's naked scalp, surrounded by pimply fields of razor burn.
"Dude," Carson said. "What did you do?"
Halifax didn't look away from the screen. He was watching a documentary about Alaskan truck drivers. "I shaved my head."
Halifax didn't say anything for a while. Then he said "I want a job."
"I need money, to pay rent. And get new clothes."
A commercial break started, and Halifax turned around. With his bangs gone, Carson could see every bruise and bump on his face. It made him think of pictures he'd seen of the lunar surface up close: a broken, jagged landscape strewn with rubble, like a war zone. "I'm sick of being me," Halifax said. "I'm not . . . I'm not a real person. I'm sick of being this . . . this faggot, this skinny little hipster faggot."
Carson could feel his face coming loose.
"I wanna be more like you," Halifax said.
"Can you get me a job with that construction guy? I mean, I know it's shit work, but I don't have a permanent address, and I don't have to take that kinda job home with me."
"Yes, you do," Carson said. "You have no idea."
"Plus it's good exercise. That's been the problem for me, y'know? Like, it's hard and stuff. I've gotten too damn soft."
"No, you're not."
"I don't think so. I mean, you have to be pretty hard to get by when you're that girly, right? I don't think I could've done it."
"But I had friends to help me," Halifax said. "I mean, not really, but I could shower and shit. I mean, you didn't see it, but one day I had to go without bathing, and I totally flipped out. Itched myself crazy."
Carson went down the hall to the bathroom, and Halifax followed him for a few steps. "I just don't want to be that kid in the hotel anymore."
Carson stood in the mirror. His face was a blank field of skin framed by black hair that stood out like the spines on a sea urchin. Halifax stood behind him, skinny arms crossed, legs shaking with exhaustion, his face expressionless except for the swelling that squeezed one eye into a look of empty rage. Behind him, the pull-up bar jutted out from a doorway, and after a few seconds Halifax turned around, grabbed it, and struggled to pull himself up. Before Carson knew what he was doing, he walked behind Halifax and hoisted him up until his chin was over the bar. Halifax's muscles shook under his hands, as if he were about to break apart, and when Carson let go of him Halifax stayed airborne, clinging to the bars.
Jonas Oliver was born in Hannover, Germany and grew up in Saint Augustine, FL. He is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and was recently accepted into the MA program in English at West Virginia University. His work has previously appeared in Fiction Fix.