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Phil was back floating in the creek-hole, untethered from the weight of his body. You must be the luckiest man this side of heaven, the doc had said, him sweating and rolling from a fever dream as they deposited him in the backseat of George’s old Dodge and the clapboard hospital slipped from the window. The clouds were white the day they let Phil out. Small puffs of pipesmoke that slid away along with the doc’s words into the slough of uncertain memory. 

He lay on the worn backseat and felt the high plains wind scuff across his face through the flapping canvas. They had tried to shave him, those whitecoats, the juju men with the victrola voices and the clipped, hippocratic phrases straight out of the medical digest, but he had pushed their hands away half-cut with fever and morphine as he was.

You’re upsettin him, George had said. Why don’t you quit it. God bless Fatso, as if Phil were anything other than rageful at the strange hands and the clean lysol-scent and bright sheets of the place, the mumbled cries of the mummified shapes lumped like haystacks on the iron beds too busy self-pitying to know they were already dead.

Bronco Henry had died in the corral with his head cracked and his ears leaking clear fluid onto Phil’s chaps and shirt. "I ain’t dyin in no damn hospital,” Phil said.

“Sure you ain’t,” replied the immobile figure that was George, stationed like an army gunner behind the wheel. “We’re going home, Phil. I’m taking you home.”

The peak of the ranch house appeared in the sky’s frame. A martin swooped, small flashes of yellow beaks as the chicks peeped and chirped from their shadowed nest. Feet slowly descended the wooden porch steps—too soft-soled for boots, Phil figured—and there was the pale upside-down face of the kid looking down at him through the window as if he were some sideshow attraction or one of the many butterflies pinned to the display board in Phil’s bookcase, the odd angle making the kid’s unblinking eyes seem cold and alien as a lizard’s. 

Phil tried to lift his hand and passed out.

*

The room needed airing. Peter watched a trickle of sweat roll down Phil’s neck and vanish into the line of his collar. So, things had gone differently than he had hoped; that was how it was. There was no exact science, no exact measurement, no easy formula to set the scales in his favour. He had known Phil would fight it. Still, a man was just a man, and if his father had taught him anything men lost more battles than they won.

Peter picked up the cloth and dabbed at Phil’s forehead. His patience was long and unwearied, practiced and carefully constructed as a pair of gloves or a length of rawhide rope.

*

“He’s not well, Rose,” George reported, grave as an assayer at a pinched-out lode. “He’s not well at all. Incredible he rallied at all, to tell the truth of it. But that’s Phil for you.”

What Phil was was back in the house, coughing and groaning on the other side of the wall after two weeks of blessed silence. Two weeks without the need to drink. Rose had been restless, ill herself, with George waiting hand and foot in between the long trips to Herndon to see his brother. 

Was it cruel to have hoped for the worst? 

A muffled moan and creaking of bedsprings answered. She thought of the bottle, emptied in the yard. But she had George. He was careful with her as if she were the one who had nearly died, tender in his ministrations, good and faithful and kind; she couldn’t have asked for finer company in her recovery, if not for the fact that his attentiveness toward her left Peter the only one to care for Phil.  

Lola shied away from his door; Mrs. Lewis baulked at his semi-lucid crudities, his hollow threats and wilful stubbornness. Only Peter could enter unaffected. She feared the glow of his face, the sharpness of his eye when he emerged from that room and shut the door gently as not to disturb the patient inside. It pleased him. She told herself it was the part of his father in him, the doctor glad to lessen suffering through his art, if not for the eerie familiarity of seeing him similarly enlivened by the flayed specimens neatly arranged on his sideboard. 

She thought of buzzards high above the prairie. She thought of crows huddled at a rotted calf, their beaks and glossy feathers flashing in the midmorning sun, circling, always circling. She slept. 

*

The shadows sloped long into Phil’s room, dark with years of boyhood past. There was a thick smell of sweat and sickness grown in the days of fever that left the air stuffy and choked, but Peter kept the windows closed and the door tightly shut, thinking of the barn, the hot evening musk of hay and leather and coiling flakes of cigarette smoke. 

He sat with his notebook in his lap. The skin of Phil’s hand was swollen and taut, the wound a crusted black, and Peter sketched it with his a fine black pen that had once belonged to his father. Cramped notes filled the margins. A doctor should take an interest in his patient; after all, Phil was his responsibility. In more ways than one. 

A sliver of white through Phil’s eyelids. A tremor ran through his uninjured hand, light as a trembling rabbit’s heart. 

“Do something,” Phil groaned, half-intelligible. “Christ, don’t you see someone’s gotta do something?” 

Peter put down the pen.

“What’s that, Phil?”

“I—” Phil’s chest rose and fell, trapped in a dream or waking Peter couldn’t tell. “Bronc. Gettup. Quit it and get the hell up.” 

“He’s not going to do that anytime soon. Bronco Henry’s dead, remember?”

“No,” grunted Phil, jaw clenched and working. “He can’t. That dirty god damned steer…I ought’ve  been the one.”

“That’s the truth, Phil.”

Peter smiled a thin smile just for himself, doused the lamp, and got up from his chair. It was not the first thing Phil had said in his hearing, but it was the first to have some sense to it; a picture sketch to match his own, faint and lined with that buried sense of knowing. 

It was another thing to file away among the mail order cut-outs and pressed, paper-thin flowers. All this time and Phil never did tell him exactly how Bronco Henry had died. 

*

Phil woke from the pain and the itching and the dry prickled patch of desert that was his tongue. For the first time, he knew himself. The window was an empty blue slate but he imagined the mountains at its edge and he imagined the dog, mouth open, teeth set to bite. 

George’s bed empty as it had been since Georgie-porgy found himself that wilting little rose to take up with, but the crease in the pillow was fresh enough. As if a figure, given to vigil, had laid down atop the sheets, close enough to reach out a hand to touch Phil in the dark. 

Phil slowly swung his long legs out of bed and sat there, breathing hard and shallow. The kid had set a trap alright, snared tight around his bitter heart. Which sensed itself trapped and all the more dangerous for it. 

*

Rose no longer feared the creak of an open door or the foot on the stair, thinking only of George reaching for the handle or the tread of his heavy feet coming up to bed. Which was why, on descending for breakfast, the clink of cutlery in the dining room gave her less pause than it might have done during those days of mockery and shrinking panic; why it was just George, come back early from his morning rounds to prepare the comfortable silence they usually shared together as they ate and remarked on the shape the day might take.

She entered the room with a smile prepared on her face. And there was Phil, hunched at the head of the table with his sweat-greased hair scraped back and eyes red-looking, his colour high and flayed. She blanched.

“Phil!” she exclaimed weakly. He had dressed himself with effort, shirt buttoned to his chin and napkin perversely tucked into his collar as if for a high society club. 

“Well, I don’t know about you but I’m just about starved,” he said, speaking past her, his bared teeth particularly wolfish in gaunt and bristled face. “Oh yes, famished and that’s a fact.”

There was something wild and unfocused about his eyes, usually sharp and piercing as arrow-points. It made her stomach clench, seeing him at the table with his bloated hand resting among the silverware, stark and terrible on the spotless tablecloth.

“I—I don’t think you in much state to be up and about, Phil,” she offered. “Why, Mrs. Lewis can make you up something to have in your room. You don’t want to make things worse, do you? Peter’s been taking such good care.”

“He’s been taking care, all right. Your Pete. Not many ladies go about looking the way you look, having birthed a snake. Sure, he slithered out all right.” He laughed a thin and barking laugh. “Peter piper plays the tune, and off we go a-dancing.”

There was something in his lap. He ran his long fingers over it feverishly, and she saw it was the rope, the rope George had said had been the last thing Phil had asked about before the fever took him. Peter’s rope. 

“Why don’t you give that a feel?” he asked, holding it out. “Good rope. It’s in the hides, you see.” 

He lurched to his feet, brandishing it at her, the coil unfurling to slide past his boots as he stepped forward.

“Thought he’d get me to hang myself with it. Learn that from his pa, did he? Old doctor Gordon, guess he found the short drop the only way to get away from his two little vipers—that sound about right?”

He was closing in, as was that old panic that had her shaking her head, choked for what to do as he reached out for her with his cracked and blackened hand, ever closer—

“I don’t—” she gasped, and then Peter was at her side, pushing Phil away from her, a real and surprising fury cold and terrible in his face. 
The rope slapped to the floor between them. 

“Don’t touch her,” Peter murmured, an angry flush spotting his usually pallid cheeks. “Rose, did he—are you alright?”

Phil staggered forward and seized Peter about the throat. For a moment they were locked together—Phil wild, Peter twisting in his grip—and then Phil crashed back against the wall with a pained growl, clutching at himself. The terror at the moment broke against the terror at the look on her son’s face, searing as an iron. For a moment she thought he might knock Phil to the ground, and trembled at the idea, for when did boys defend their mothers like this with such calm and brutal sufficiency?

And there was George, his hand on the boy’s shoulder, asking what on good earth was going on and what was Phil doing up on his feet when the doctor said he was barely out of the woods, of all the reckless things?

All the while she kept her eyes on Peter as he carefully kicked the rope under the armchair as if it were a live snake coiled and ready to bite, or a talisman of some great and evil power. But it was just a piece of rope. No one ever got killed just from touching a piece of rope. 

It was how you used it that did the killing. 

*

It was an odd thing, said the doctor, that a fellow as strong-willed as Phil should not get better as he ought, and instead relapse with a bout of terrible fever and cramping stomach. Strange, agreed Peter, and went upstairs to take down the plants drying on the line in his room. 

He experimented a little at a time. Thin stew served well to hide the bitter taste, and some soups took it better than others. His mother grew more relieved with every day Phil spent abed. 

“Never seen him sick but once,” George confided, stolid but perturbed, after Peter’s newest update him on his brother’s condition. “That time Phil near froze to death and was laid up for days after, and the only one he’d let near him was old Bronco Henry. Rest of us got our heads bit off we tried to go near him. Bronc had his own ways, see. Was up in the house when he wasn’t out roping, cheered Phil no end.”

“How’d he cheer Phil?”

“Oh,” George said uncomfortably. “I don’t know. Just by being there, I guess. Not that anyone’s ever matched Phil, but Bronco came close.”

“They were friends, Phil and Bronco Henry?” asked Peter, without inflection, careful to not seem too interested in what lay behind the answer. 

“I guess so, yes. It was hard when Bronco passed. Hard on Phil, that is. You wouldn’t think to look at him, but it cut him up real bad.” 

“I suppose he never had any other friends like that.”

“Friendship never seemed to matter that much to him. He’s sort of closed-off, far as that goes.”

“Do you think we’re friends? Me and Phil?"

“Oh. I’m sure he likes you plenty. You’re a good boy, Pete. And I think it does Phil good, having someone to talk about the old times, pass on what we learned from Bronco. He made you that rope, didn’t he?”

“That’s right,” agreed Peter.

*

Things slipped into a well-worn routine until George’s birthday. Rose fretted about the table placements, the handful of ranchers and their wives invited and gladly accepting of the chance to spend a pleasant evening in the old Burbank house, to see the trappings of money and maybe hear the grand pianola if their hostess was so kind. It mattered so much to her. 

The day before the proposed party Peter sat and helped his mother prepare the canapés, elbow to elbow as it had been with just the two of them at the Red Mill; he watched her face, the care she took to make everything just so. Yet another thing they shared. 

“It’s a shame about Phil,” Rose sighed, pinching the dough into shape. “I know it would hearten George, to see him up and able and making those jokes. It won’t be the same, I just know it. I wouldn’t even mind, if it would give George his brother back; he cares an awful lot for Phil. You and I don’t know what it’s like having a big brother, or what it’s like to care for one. It must be awful seeing him like that.”

Peter finished peeling the shell from a hardboiled egg. “Would you like it,” he asked, “if he were there? Phil, I mean?” 

“Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “Yes, I’d like it, if it made George happy.” 

They sat in contemplative silence at the table while the light dimmed around them. And the next day, as if by some miracle, there was Phil descending the staircase step by stiff step, all done up in his town suit and his hair combed and his beard trimmed back, to where George and Rose were standing in the hallway ready to greet the first guests. 

“Couldn’t miss a shindig like this, huh, old-timer?” remarked Phil, pale and sweating but upright. “Shouldn’t call you that, perhaps, less I want to set myself with the fossils. That a new hat?”

The look of amazement on George’s face was worth the fare of admission. Peter watched and settled Phil in the armchair by the corner, pleased to see how Phil inclined his head toward Rose as they went. A start, at any rate. Phil bore the light and chatter with uncustomary grace, taking hands and barking out remarks like some ensconced dignitary, while Peter sat and watched and listened. 

And how George was pleased to see his brother present! And how too was Rose pleased, beaming at the success and the buoyant cheer on her husband’s face. 

“You’re really trying to kill me, aren’t you, Pete-me-boy,” grunted Phil after the fifth set of pleasantries with some cowpoke’s simpering wife. “It’s not enough, the sick and the pain. You want to see me crawl on hands and knees to lick the boots of some old yammering fool, all in the name of people’s notions about right and proper?”

“I reckon I do, Phil.” 

“Christ.”

Peter sat next to the chessboard and took a piece in his long, spindled fingers. “You’re doing very well. Soon enough we’ll say you’re feeling poorly and you can go to bed.”

“Got it all figured out, huh? And how ‘poorly’ will I be feeling, in truth?”

“Well, that’s up to you.” Peter moved the pawn into position and looked up at Phil expectantly. “I tried to learn at the boarding house, but you can teach me if you want. I guess I’m not all that good.”

Phil laughed a sharp laugh that cut clear above the chatter of the room. “Like that’s in any way true,” he said. “You can show me a trick or two, I’d be willing to bet.” 

They made a sight, the sick man and the boy brooding over the chessboard in stony mutual silence while the piano climbed cheerfully into the wide expanse of night that surrounded the house. George watched them and smiled a small smile, and put his hand on his wife’s shoulder. He was glad. The evening was unspoiled. A once in a blue moon time of talk and goodwill in that old quiet room so prone to sighs and jeering, given over to fellowship, and open spirit. 

Why, even Phil was enjoying himself. George had the experience and could tell that sort of thing. 

*

Things were all out of whack. The ranch hadn’t foundered in his absence; the barn had not caught alight, the cattle not gone wild, the accounts remained in order despite his darker imaginings. It gave him a low and sour feeling, seeing it all chug on without him. 

He leaned against the house and watched the black and white collie bitch trot across the yard at Peter’s ankles, nipping playfully like a pup. Another thing suckered into Peter’s mincing undertow. 

He whistled but the dog would not come. He called its name. The dog ignored him, as did Peter.

“You little bitch,” Phil grumbled to himself and stalked off to his own reserves. 

He found himself longing for some company, but the bunkhouse was barred to him; the only thing the men asked about in there was his health, and that just about bored him to tears. George was in town. That left Rose and Peter, and he’d just about claw his own eyes out than press himself on their company. 

So what? He was used to being lonely, of treading his own high and lonesome path. The thought of wishing otherwise struck him as intolerable as dying. 

*

Peter found the door to his room open. He crossed to his desk, noting with displeasure that his journal lay open, pages ripped carelessly from the seam. He had only come up to change his shirt after his fountain pen burst in his breast pocket—the first of many annoyances—and he was tired and sour from the heat.

“How’s that for being right?” asked Phil from his seat on the bed, holding out a new-made paper flower, delicately twisting it between his clever fingers. “No matching the master, of course, but a fellow sure can try."

“It’s fine.”

“Just fine?” Phil, wounded, mock-clutching at his chest. “Well, that’s a harsh thing to hear for a greenhorn such as myself. Better hang my hat up now, if that’s how it is.”

“You shouldn’t be in here."

“It’s my house, ain’t it?”

“Half of it is.” 

“Ah, you reckoning this half’s the part belonging to brother George and your dear maw. I get downstairs, you get upstairs; that how it works? Or how about we split it down the middle like old King Solomon? No?” 

Peter crossed to the chifforobe and pulled out a clean shirt, unbuttoning his own ink-stained one and shrugging it carelessly on the back of the chair. The skin of his forearms between cuff and elbow delineated by freckles as dictated by gloves and rolled shirtsleeves, in stark contrast to the paleness of his shoulders and chest. The musculature moving clear beneath like the diagrams in his textbook. 

The flower in Phil’s hands stilled. “They don’t grow here,” he said, looking down at his chapped hands. “Flowers. Even those few out in the yard, for that tender care. Fool’s errand. Can’t grow what can’t be grown.”  

“It’s worth trying. What’d a man be if he never tried for something better?”

Phil flushed. “You think you’re one slick operator, huh? Think you can come in here and—”

“You don’t look so good, Phil,” Peter stated, moving close and fixing Phil with that flat stare, who did not darken and who did not look away. He placed a palm against Phil’s forehead. “I think you’d better head back to bed. You’re likely to get worse.” 

The piercing eyes betrayed by the dry swallow of the throat. “How about that.” 

Phil’s gaze flickered across the narrow plateau of Peter’s chest, the scattering of fine hairs trailing down his navel. For a man scrupulous in treading his own path high above the rest of the crowd, it was plain as day to Peter what he was thinking right in that moment. 

He had levelled him, and Phil did not entirely dislike it. 

“I’m afraid so.” 

Peter plucked the flower from Phil’s lap and held it up for inspection, turning away and placing it in the inkwell on his desk. He put on his new shirt and when he faced the bed again he found it unoccupied, the hallway filled with Phil’s sharp whistling as he retreated to the darkened sanctuary of his own room. 

*

Phil made it to the alley just in time to sink to his hands and knees. 

Out of sight from the hired hands, as far as small mercies went, though he was sure they were bound to remark on his ill-bearing as soon as he made his excuses. A bunch of clucking hens, the lot of them. Why, I didn’t know you took to wearing gloves, Phil; why, you’re looking mighty pale, Phil. Why don’t you sit down like some doddery old woman in the shade there while the boys take up the slack and laugh behind your back? 

A picture of Bronco Henry flashed across his mind, shaking his head, hard face creased with that secret smile of his. 

“Goddamn it,” Phil hissed, and yanked at his shirt. 

His stomach was in knots. He even knew which plants the boy had picked, learned from Phil’s own books detailing the surrounding flora and fauna. Why he let Peter unseat him like this was anyone’s guess, but he knew it had something to do with the cold anticipation of it, the testing of the boundary looped around their curious game. The boy’s mettle as hard and stubborn as his own. All leading to that rope-taut moment where Peter would give him that long, hard look which meant Phil would be doubled over by nightfall. 

The old bottles and tins were piled up against the house and he grabbed one and threw up into it, shaking and retching and wondering if Peter had seen him depart and was, even now, preparing the water and tonic by his bedside, and cursed himself for the thought. His hand splayed against the wall of the house. 

“Are you alright, Phil?” asked a voice, and he’d be damned if it was anyone other than little old Rose. 

“Just peachy-keen,” he said, screwing his eyes shut tight. He was sure she was standing there, big eyes goggling, maybe smug with the satisfaction of seeing him undone like this in the same way he had revelled in her pitiable drinking. “Me, I ain’t ever felt better. You just toddle off now and leave me be.”

If there was any sense of order in the world that would have sent her packing. But no, there she was, hovering at his shoulder while he did his best to keep his gall within. He baulked as she placed a hand on his back. Why, not a month past she wouldn’t have dared even speak to him, let alone approach him! Let alone place the small warm weight of her hand on his trembling back and let it rest there, as if he were some colicky colt that needed soothing, murmuring kind words.

“It’s going to be alright, Phil,” she told him. “It’s going to be quite alright, you see.” 

Christ, he’d sooner hitch a line to the moon than believe a half-baked notion like that. 

*

Phil’s sickness ebbed and flowed. Sometimes he provoked it, sometimes Peter caught him unawares over some inexcusable rudeness, and in truth Phil didn’t mind much as long as it meant that the boy put his hands on him. Wiping his brow and lifting water to his lips like some invalid. If Peter would just put his hand on his arm as he had done in the barn, that gentle pressure seeping deep down into his bones, without the illness and the masquerade—but the wanting of it was too weak and newborn to bring into the light. 

“A pannano for your piano,” he said, depositing a delicately carved replica of the grand in front of Rose’s sheet music. She looked up at him with a desperate surprise, seeking the hidden joke or veiled attack and finding none, which terrified her all the more. These new assaults of courtesy and friendship left her unsettled for hours after. 

Phil grinned. It wasn’t as if the boy could object. 

“It’s very…kind, Phil. How talented you are, to make a thing like that.”

“Oh, you know,” he shrugged, and left her to her groping confusion. He headed out to the yard and took in the length of blue-washed mountain, the wind rippling through his shirt and hair but he paid it no mind. The dog still had its bite. Up there somewhere in those distant hills Bronco Henry had seen him as he was, and let Phil see him in turn; the cementing of that friendship deep enough to outlast the grave. 

The boy saw him pretty clear, too. He poked at the underbelly of Phil’s lean longings, cut into him a little piece at a time. Oh, Phil knew that all too well. 

He wandered to the barn and let the slatted dark slip over him as he approached the saddle on its stand. The leather warm and welcoming under his hands as an old friend.

“Hello, Phil,” said Peter from where he perched on the high-stacked bales, the white flash of sneakers kicking idly in the air. The kid was always showing up where Phil wanted to be alone. Phil hadn’t been back to the creek since the last time, but he wondered now, if he were to make the trip…perhaps he might find a way to see past the kid’s unnatural coolness, force him to show his hand a little. 

That was an idea. The thought of it raised the heat at his neck as he looked up into the semi-dark and saw Peter take out Phil’s tobacco pouch and begin to roll himself a cigarette. 

He watched the boy lick the paper and roll the tobacco in one neat line. Maybe he’d laced it with something special just for Phil, to make him flayed and useless and grasping, to get him trapped in the coffin of his bed for good while the world slipped past him and the saddle in the barn went worn and scuffed with age; heat parting his lips and a hand close to his face, that shallow hope swelling in his chest as he dared let himself feel that longing that had shattered his heart.

The match flared high above him and a few flakes of ash trailed through the air before him, like falling snow. The barn was stifling. A few sparks could set the whole place up with the pair of them inside, breaking up the old wood and weatherworn shingles that Bronco Henry had helped put down all those years ago.

Phil removed his hat. Maybe the cigarette was just a cigarette.