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Not From the Absence of Violence

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On the flat expanse of the sickly yellow prairie where the nothing becomes more nothing the further you look, where the wind heads in endless and devastated lines down the empty low country, where the air if you stand still long enough tastes of the dirt and the wheat and the rain—between the urbanization of places like Wichita and Norman and Lincoln—in the scattering of the nothing towns where no one stays and nothing lives except the truck stops and the dirt and the storms—Phillip Morgan and Brandon Shaw set up their lives in the tracks of the thousands of others from before and in preparation for the thousands that will come after. The white van spattered with mud caking the tires and the bottom of the doors and the radar satellites and the computers with their weather systems. The handfuls of sweaty cash and the few and sundry piles of old clothes barely washed since leaving home a month ago. And the determination above all—the perseverance and the patience.

Two qualities Phillip has never once in the four years they’ve been doing this seen any sign of in his companion.

“Did you see the look that bitch gave me?” Brandon spits, disgusted in the specific and focused way he gets when he’s not sleeping enough. “Like—okay, honey, but you’ve seen trash worse than me roll through your fucking station.” He glares at the truck stop over his shoulder with a sneer coiling his upper lip. “Least I have a city to go home to when all this shit is over,” he half-yells, and Phillip cringes, gripping his arm, dragging him to the van.

“She’s just tired, Brandon,” Phillip says, climbing into the driver’s seat and watching Brandon mount the steps on the other side. Waiting until he’s fully in before he cranks the engine and listening to the radio crackle and spit and hum through several twists of the dial. Finally he settles on a station that’s picking up vague and uncertain traces of Skynyrd from such a distance it sounds like the signal is way back in Texas. Or in Hell. Phillip’s pretty sure that wouldn’t be a very far stretch… “So are you, you should sleep.”

“You fucking sleep,” Brandon mutters into the crook of his arm. He’s staring out the passenger window as Phillip makes the turn back onto the main road in a way that makes it abundantly clear what the real problem is—there weren’t any tornadoes today. A lack of tornadoes means Brandon has nothing to photograph, nothing to send in—and, consequently, no cash. And they’re down to their last fifty. Phillip counted after lunch.

“Sun’s going down,” Phillip says, keeping his voice as mild as he can. Brandon’s anger and frustration alone could fuel a small supercell right in their van. “We should stop in this town for the night. Keep going tomorrow.”

Brandon mutters something else. Phillip breathes out. You asked, he says, fiercely, to the part of his brain that as always is begging him to drop Brandon on the side of the road and go home. You asked to come with him. You always ask.

“You know it always takes a while for us to see one,” Phillip says, very quietly, and Brandon makes a noise not quite a laugh. Closes his eyes against the gathering purplish dark. Out here in this nothing land Phillip can see the sun at last leaching the last of its light from the sky, on the horizon which seems decades away, and endless, and so, so flat. Like nothing he could’ve dreamed of or imagined. It’s so lonely out here. It would be nothing, he imagines, nothing at all to get lost.

“Fine,” Brandon says, and his voice is tight in a way that makes Phillip aware he’s won some non-argument and will pay for it later. “Find a motel.”

~

Technically speaking the motel isn’t “in town”, though privately Phillip thinks that claim is bullshit—it’s within walking distance of the grocery store, which looks like it was never renovated nor even touched hardly after the Great Depression. Indeed nothing in the town or at least very little looks as though it was touched after World War 2, including the people, who seem sunken into the very land that’s birthed them. Phillip watches the woman at the motel eye them both sharply as she takes Phillip’s credit card and hands them each a key—living in New York for so many years made him forget to some degree how unaccepting the beating heart of the country is. That here they’re all entrenched in their sun-bleached clapboard churches and their Fundamentalism and he can’t imagine what he and Brandon must look like to her, sunburnt and dirty and knocking shoulders because they haven’t stood more than a foot apart when they don’t have to since freshman year.

“Room 134,” she says, and gestures with her thumb. “Round the back. Mind you watch for snakes.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Phillip says, tensely polite, but she’s already turned back to her computer.

From the van he and Brandon pull their clothes and their laptops and haul them to the room. Then for a moment they stand on the porch looking out into full darkness. The wind singing softly across the plains, into the emptiness. Across the horizon to the west Phillip watches lightning slick itself long and forked like haunted blue-white fingers through invisible mounted clouds.

“Storm’s coming,” he says, nodding at it over Brandon’s shoulder. Pressing his forehead against the overwarm skin there, breathing in the scent of diner food and smoke and old nearly faded detergent.

Brandon shakes his head, watching at his phone. “Storm’s going,” he says, but a moment later reaching back to tangle his fingers with Phillip’s: “But could be more tomorrow.”

In the room Phillip has a brief, lukewarm shower while Brandon splashes his face in the sink. When he’s done showering he stands for a moment dripping wet and staring at Brandon in the cramped bathroom the door of which refuses to shut all the way because of the sink. Brandon is half-hard against his leg and Phillip shivers watching his clever fingers move to clasp his thigh. He’s smirking in the soft and amused way he does when he knows Phillip wants something he’s not going to ask for and after a moment his other hand moves up to curl its way through Phillip’s hair. His eyes are fixed upon Phillip’s mouth.

“Well?” Brandon says, still with the one corner of his familiar, thin mouth pulled up, and he and Phillip grip at each other all the way back (stumbling and shaking and laughing into each other’s mouths) to their bed. They fall back onto the mattress with Brandon still grasping Phillip’s scalp hard enough to bruise and Phillip kissing him with a fevered desperation like he’s been possessed. Biting his mouth and swallowing every thick and hoarse noise he makes.

They come nearly together against a low distant rumble of thunder and afterwards Phillip lays staring at the water stained ceiling while Brandon smokes a cigarette through the cracked window and hums “Simple Man” at the base of his throat. Occasionally Phillip glances at Brandon, at the pale and thin stretch of his back and shoulders. The slowly darkening marks of skin where Phillip’s teeth or nails sunk in. The familiar and tight line of his jaw.

At length Brandon gets up from the window, crushes his cigarette into the same ash and nothing as the rest of the plains, as the rest of forever, and walks back to the bed, and lays down beside Phillip. He still looks relatively annoyed in the specific way only Brandon can, as though he’s the only person on the planet who has ever had any sort of problems. As though his problems are by default magnified to a thousand percent. He folds his arms across his chest like a corpse until Phillip tugs them apart and rolls Brandon onto his side so they can kiss. He tastes acrid and sharp and a bit still like the burgers they’d had down the road and Phillip licks the taste clear from his mouth.

“We’ll get it tomorrow,” Phillip says against Brandon’s lips. Feeling lazy and heavy and half-awake.

“You better be right,” Brandon mumbles. The threat as empty as anything. He curls their fingers together, presses his forehead against Phillip’s collarbone. A moment later they are both asleep.

~

In the morning Brandon wakes him before dawn with a crooked smile adorning the right side of his mouth and his fingers in Phillip’s hair tugging gently at the base of the scalp. “Up and at ‘em, sunshine,” he says, when Phillip opens his eyes, and waves his phone at Phillip at an angle too close for Phillip to properly see what’s on the screen. He shoves at Brandon’s thin and pale wrist, annoyed, and sits braced against the headboard with the heels of his hands dug into his eyes.

“What the hell, Shaw,” he mumbles, and Brandon waves the phone in his face again:

“Storms are supposed to start up later this afternoon,” he says, and, “gotta get something in you so you’re coherent.”

The air outside is thick and hard, a seething and living thing. Across the dirt and gravel street lining the motel the cornfields are waving like a vast and yellow sea. The surface wind already picking up. Phillip follows Brandon to the parking lot and stands for a moment staring easterly at the pinkish stretch of sky across the horizon. He wishes he had Brandon’s mania—certainly over the years they’ve both developed this fascination with storms, but for Brandon it’s like something deeper—like a religion he must follow, that he must be devout to down to the last second. Phillip would never dare call him fanatic to his face, nor zealot neither, but he’s thought it, many times. Especially at this hour of the morning when he’s barely awake and can’t understand why they have to be up now when the storms won’t arrive for hours.

But it was his choice to follow Brandon here, he reminds himself. It’s always his choice to follow Brandon everywhere.

They walk back up the road a ways until they reach the grocery store. This early Phillip assumed it wouldn’t be open but from inside come weak fluorescent lights and Brandon pushes the door open with his elbow. The floor is tile, unwashed, sticky from years of feet and food spilled and trodden upon its surface. Like everything else in this town it seems unlikely this store has been renovated since prior to the Great Depression. The shelves are not fully stocked, most of the cans are dirty or dented or both. There’s a small cold food section near the back with uncertain-looking half-gallons and quarts of milk lining its walls—all of them sweating, some of them three days before their expiration dates. Phillip imagines the health inspector casting some bleary eye upon this store once every few years when he remembers this town exists, giving it a pass because after all who would come through.

He and Brandon skip the milk. Brandon takes from one shelf a crinkled box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Phillip takes his favored Apple Jacks—the taste will be dry and cling to his tongue for hours but at least it’ll be something. They walk up to the cash register together with their cereal—Phillip is only vaguely surprised to see a register that looks like it was last produced in the late 1980s—and the clerk, sleepy eyed, acne-ridden, sunken into this town like the rest of them, like the fields, like the endless miles of nothing, rings them both up with his mouth half open and flushed at the corners.

After, they walk out again into the growing dawn. The sun’s nearly crested over the horizon and they sit to watch it on the ancient rocking chairs outside under the awning. Phillip leans with his head against Brandon’s shoulder putting Apple Jack after Apple Jack thoughtlessly into his mouth, hardly tasting. He can hear the hum of the lights inside through the thin walls. The low rush of the wind across the fields to their left. The sound like the sea, constant and heavy. Unceasing. Across the cornfields the sun has made a soft effect like blood spilled upon the sea. The clouds gathering are rich and white and high.

“Fine day for a storm,” Phillip says, echoing or trying to echo what he’s heard Brandon say in the past, and Brandon glances at him momentarily:

“So you have been paying attention,” he says, and Phillip turns away in a futile attempt at hiding the flush upon his cheeks. Feeling as always that warmth spread through his body when Brandon compliments him, however indirectly. After a moment looking back and discovering that Brandon is watching his mouth. There’s a light shine of cinnamon on his; Phillip can’t help it, he reaches out to brush it off and Brandon’s teeth close gently upon his thumb. Making him shiver.

The sun increases and sharpens the air. Casts upon Brandon’s face a scar of gold, catches in his eyes. The pupils shrink and Phillip tangles their ankles together lightly until he sees in the distance a car coming their way—

“We better go,” he says, nodding, and Brandon snorts, and gets up, and takes Phillip’s cereal box, and they walk back to the motel and the van and their equipment brushing shoulders.

~

They check out of the motel and drive twenty miles west. Increasingly as the day goes on the air grows hotter and more oppressive. Phillip’s shirt, his hair begins sticking to his skin with sweat. Brandon mouths at it lightly against the back of his neck when they stop for lunch at another roadside diner with the tasteless moist hamburgers and the pale green pickles and the coke that’s too sweet because it’s nearly flat. On Brandon’s phone there’s a supercell forming—the rain starts up as they leave with their hands greasy from the food and Phillip’s palm sticky from where he jerked Brandon off in the bathroom. It strengthens as they drive—thick drops splattering the windshield with a sound like fat sizzling on a stove. Lightning leaping from one cloud to the next overhead, in brilliant arcs and lines. Crackling and fizzling out only to be replaced by another and longer strand. There are a lot of things Phillip doesn’t like about this job, but he has to admit, it gives a view like no other.

Brandon pulls over at length in a sodden patch of dirt on the side of the road. The rain which has been strengthening and dissipating in equal measure since they left town has now slowed to a light pattering which runs in soft rivulets down the windshield, cutting through previous paths. There’s hail, too, but it hasn’t been enough that Brandon seems overly worried—pea-sized drops of it, hissing as it falls to the ground.

They’re both watching the cell form overhead. Brandon has the same manic gleam in his eye he used to get in high school when he was getting away with something illicit, like smoking in the bathroom or stealing Mr. Cadell’s car keys so they could go for a drive during lunch. He’s got his camera up—they’re sitting in the back of the van with the doors open and their legs hanging over the side and the equipment, the radar, set up, it’s Phillip’s one rule and he’s always shocked every time Brandon follows it—they have to stay in the van. If the tornado veers off course they have to be able to get away. He isn’t losing Brandon because Brandon thinks he can outrun nature.

“F-Fuck,” Brandon breathes, staring up like he’s watching something holy. Stuttering as he does when he’s excited.

The air is charged all around them. Laden with moisture. Gradually the rain ceases entirely. Only the wind is left. The wind and the crackling of the grass around them.

Then, like a vast and powerful wheel the clouds begin to rotate. From their thick dark depths the funnel cloud descends upon the fields, hovers for a moment, hesitating—on the ground dirt swirls and lifts like fingers to meet the tornado and it touches earth like a snake swallowing a meal, like to devour the world. It thickens against the corn and the dirt. It undulates and coils. Backlit as it is by the sun which has somewhat reappeared through the storm clouds it looks dirty and golden and dangerous. Summarily this is often how Phillip thinks of Brandon, who himself is leaning forward, snapping his camera, trembling with excitement. The corner of his mouth visible to Phillip is twisted up. The tornado is a rope, and then a trunk, and it’s whirling in the corn, twisting and writhing like it’s in pain. The wind off it makes a haunted whistling sound; Phillip thinks he’ll never get used to that, above anything else he witnesses out here.

Brandon after a time reaches over and curls their fingers together. “It’s g-gorgeous,” he breathes. His voice is caught in his chest.

“Yeah,” Phillip says. Watching the tornado dance.

It lumbers slowly away, gliding across the fields like a great swollen animal. Spitting up dirt and corn and grass at its base. Howling its displeasure at the world. They sit for a long time after, watching. Until it at length ropes out in a ghostly display of white and string in the sky, dancing like fog and smoke into nothingness.

When it’s disappeared entirely Brandon puts aside his camera, and his equipment, and shuts the van’s doors. Pushes Phillip back against the floor of the van, against a pile of old sweatshirts accumulated there over the years. His fingers in Phillip’s hair, his eyes intelligent, amused.

A moment later they’re kissing, devouring, and Phillip rocks upwards, gripping Brandon’s hips, to the sound of the wind and the corn rustling and the fast, choppy, familiar breaths against his mouth.