It wasn’t that he wasn’t there, I supposed, that made the need to return home so pressing. Had I been asked, I wouldn’t have been able to provide an answer beyond nameless unease that carved a channel down my sternum, rendering civics class white noise. Boris skipped school often, but rarely without me, unless his dad needed him, and though he wouldn’t tell me what for—I liked to imagine, in the beginning, that it was some kind of mob espionage, and that he stood around in the formal clothing he so resented and sipped vodka and played a young oil baron or wealthy miner’s son—he always told me, would put a chlorinated finger to my lips and whisper, is okay, Potter, will be back Wednesday. This felt thicker. A lecture about the United Nations blinked into gravel beneath my bike tires on the road blinked into beige carpet blinked into the arid expanse of hallway leading back toward our room.
I stopped outside the doorway, admonishing myself for acting like a fretting mother. Boris was fine. Boris drank a handle and didn’t feel a buzz. Boris toed loose roof tiles twenty feet to powdery dust on the pool deck and never slipped, never stumbled. Boris didn’t have nightmares. Boris once stared down a coyote on the edge of the desert at dusk, lightning eyes and shoulders curled into feral brackets. The animal had taken off after a terse second, during which I imagined my dad’s reaction to finding us torn to shreds next to an abandoned Honda Civic, and Boris had dusted his hands off, like he’d done well at something he’d learned in school, and slapped me clean across the back, See, Potter, we’re safe. He’s scared.
I stepped through the door. Midday sunlight created a mottled canvas: rumpled duvet, dirty white sheet, bottles friendly beneath the bed, no Boris—no Boris? No, there, a ball beneath the duvet with half a sock out.
“Boris.” Please. “Boris?” Hum of the air conditioner like the cave in my chest I couldn’t stifle. He moaned, weakly, Boris for ‘I’m hungover, pity me’. My irritation won over my instinctive desire to let him sleep and I shoved the mass of him across the mattress with my knees digging into the spare meat of his back. (I didn’t feel vindictive. I felt, inexplicably, like crying.)
“Fuck, Potter.” A sound like a broken-off sob. Wait. He shoved the duvet down, panting, and I looked at him properly. Wrong. Black curls plastered to a fever-bright face. High, red blooms of colour marked his nose, cheeks, ears. His lips were white and bitten, and the hand that wasn’t curled around his stomach was fluttering ragged near his mouth.
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Don’t ask me, Potter. Woke up, can’t move. Feels like шершнем. Hornets.” Talking seemed to aggravate his stomach. I barely listened to a stream of Slavic invective, going through a list of what could be wrong: food poisoning? no, I was fine, and we’d eaten the same frozen pizza; alcohol? Boris had an iron stomach, made chicken noises at me when I bent over the toilet bowl with strings of bile dripping from my mouth; drugs? we’d split a joint, barely a gram, ashy and weak. Every line of thinking led me to some grave and sudden fatal illness. An image of Boris’ body flashed into my mind unbidden, the blush gone, blood pooling into his limbs while his head lolled where I couldn’t prop it up. He wouldn’t have a funeral, because his dad struck me as more likely to burn the house down, claim the insurance money, and leave (though this was likely a fundamental misunderstanding of both their relationship and the delicacy of fraud). I thought, absurdly, that I would have to take him, Boris, the hollowed-out shell of him, and bury him properly. He was too big for me to carry—I’d have to roll him up in the carpet and push him down the stairs. The landing in the middle would pose an issue, too narrow for maneuvering.
“What- the fuck is in your head?”
Bright-eyed. Looking at me even through pain like I was correcting his grammar again. Alive. Here, here, here
“Shut up, shut up, I’m trying to see what’s wrong. Can I—?” I reached a hand out to graze over where his t-shirt had ridden up and caught his hipbone, taut pale expanse marred by pink half-moons where he’d dug in his nails.
“I’m thinking is not the right time for that?”
I jerked my hand back and bit down on a scoff. “Dumbass—I’m trying to see what’s wrong with you.”
He grinned. I felt, for a moment, like prey; for him to say that, in the middle of the afternoon, sober, sparrow losing it on the withered rhododendron outside the window, made me flush with anger. I pushed the voice saying any excuse, huh to the shadowy recesses of my mind, counting out a litany of he’s hurt, he’s hurt, he’s hurt, blocked it over, papered it up.
“Go on then, Doctor Potter,” he said, levity just enough to belie a darker, gritted thing.
I laid my hand—willing it still—against Boris’ stomach, felt searing heat, sweat, a knot like tied cord beneath my fingers. He blew out heavy through his nose as I pressed to demarcate the outline of what I assumed was some sort of swelling. Which organ? Spleen? Liver? I thought desperately back to the hardwood floor of my apartment, where my mom and I paged through Grey’s Anatomy and traced the outlines of each delicate drawing. The left lower side was usually—
“Think it is appendix? Body finally gives up ghost, huh? After all this,” he flung a hand through the air without looking, as though to indicate the bottles, baggies, stained carpet, empty house, desert, us. I thought of the first Planet of the Apes. In thousands of years, would the Nevada house be mired, half-sunk in sand? Small remnants of peeling skin and scorch marks and pieces of plaster.
“Potter. Идиот. Come back.” Boris cocked his head down, and I saw my hand still splayed across his stomach, holding. He furrowed his brows but didn’t speak, just inclined his chin in a barely perceptible nod of assent. More trust, I realized, than he would give any real doctor. I felt like I was maybe seven, and slowly, slowly (but steadily, because he was whining high and weak on his exhale, as close to a true admission of pain as he ever came) traced my hand across to the lower left and pressed insistently. Probably harder than I should’ve. If I let myself sink, there was my mom’s voice helping me pronounce “Rovsing’s sign” and a friend of hers who’d had emergency surgery and Andy with a pinched face holding the Encyclopedia Brittanica. But Boris flinched like I’d stepped on him and covered his right side.
It felt good to be right for a moment.
“Proszę przestań.” Beneath me, the reminder that this wasn’t a victory was whispering through his teeth. He looked, if anything, like an eighteenth century French aristocrat, powder-white face and splotches of watercolour pink on his cheeks. “Pomóż mi.”
“English, Boris, please,” I said, easing his fingertips from where they threatened to draw blood against his skin. He didn’t respond, which set panic buzzing behind my eyes. “Boris? Borys. Bood- bud laska.” This was as far as my Ukrainian stretched beyond curse words and various heavy, starch-laden foods. Nothing. Stars sparkled, disappearing when I blinked, and I promised myself I could pass out only once this was over, once he was safe, better. Nice as it would be to check out, I owed Boris more than that. The times he’d saved me—told me he’d saved me—from basically everything under the sun (but mostly myself) amounted to a debt that didn’t bear thinking about, much less increasing. I would help Boris, I would make him better, we would sleep away the afternoon and wake up in the evening to a sunset dripping through the windows like blood and a Bond marathon on the movie channel. If he’d talk to me. Not sure what else to do, I lightly touched his face, wet where his hair stuck. Nothing. I slapped him, sound ringing through the room. He flinched back, made a meager effort to swat at me, and rolled to face the wall, curling up tightly. He could have been eight for how small he was, knobby jut of spine visible even through what I was pretty sure was my black t-shirt. It was as though I could see the pain radiating off him in waves; it swam through the air and hit me square in the chest, draping black across my shoulders and back, a dull feeling of not again.
“Boris, I’m calling 911.”
“Boris, the house is on fire.”
“I know—it’s not- it’s- I don’t know what else to do, so if you don’t turn over and talk to me in the next ten seconds, I have to call, okay?”
I waited. Nothing.
“Stay here. I’ll be right back.” I briefly squeezed his shoulder but the heat there burned, and I withdrew, flying down the stairs into the empty living room and wresting the landline from between two couch cushions. With a finger on the nine key I paused. The average 911 response time to our school—which was, as it happened, something of a magnet for broken arms and preventable bouts of Snickers-induced anaphylaxis—was already just under ten minutes. To get to our outpost of foreclosed giants would likely take over fifteen, but it seemed as though Boris would survive at least that long without worsening drastically. That also gave me time to prepare the house for the paramedics. I knew I couldn’t manhandle Boris down the stairs alone, which meant they’d have to go upstairs and get him, which meant I had fifteen minutes once the call hung up, or less, to make a loving family home out of beer bottles and mismatched, shoplifted groceries. I’d been witness to worse things. (Yes, you had, said Weltie, eyes like dull marble. I hope you can save him. I felt that the you couldn’t save me was implied.) I dialled the number.
“911, what’s your emergency?” It was a woman’s voice. She sounded like she’d been trained in compassionate urgency.
“I need help. My friend is sick.”
“Okay,” she said, and, “what’s your address?”
“76 Saguaro Drive.” A cactus that didn’t grow in Nevada.
“Perfect, dear, what’s your name?”
“Theodore Decker. I just need an ambulance- not-”
“I’ll let them know, okay? Can you tell me about your friend?”
“His name is Boris, he’s fifteen, he’s really hot- he’s burning up, he won’t move, he’s clutching his stomach, he’s not moving, he’s not m—” I stopped when I realized I was on the verge of hysteria. Deep breath. Blank dark space where nothing hurt at all.
“That’s good, thank you, that helps us a lot. Is his breathing okay? Can he talk to you?”
Larry had impulse-purchased a wireless landline, and it felt like a life raft as I leapt back up the stairs two at a time.
“Give me a second—” I held the phone away from my mouth and covered the speaker with my palm “—Boris, I’m on the phone with 911 now.” Nothing. I couldn’t even see the rise and fall of his breath and choked on a swallow. No. No, no—“He’s not responding. He’s—” my tongue felt three times its size, ballooning in my mouth. Something hot pricked the corners of my eyes.
“Theo, help is coming. Can you follow some instructions for me?”
“Yeah. Yeah, tell me.”
“I need you to get close to him and put your hand near his mouth, okay? Tell me if you can feel air moving.”
Somewhere, the Met was bursting open, rubble spilling from behind plaster, splintering Rembrandts into variegated slivers no one could ever put back together. Three hundred years felt like a very long time, and yet I could imagine being in this moment forever, between not knowing and knowing. Hang in the liminal space where maybe he was just crashing after too much beer and I didn’t have to leave the house and walk into the desert until it got quiet, again, finally.
“Theo? I need you to help Boris for me,” said the operator, and then, to someone else, “can you check in on ALS 12? I have an unresponsive child.”
I kneeled on the sheets and put one shaking palm against Boris’ mouth. I had to reach around his face, and the heat seemed unfathomable, but—you don’t have to die, now, I thought—breath rasped against my skin. “He’s breathing! He’s breathing, I can feel it,” which should’ve woken Boris from this stupor to berate me for yelling, but as it was just echoed off the beige walls and hurt my ears.
“Great, that’s good. Can you put two fingers beneath his jaw and tell me how his heartbeat feels?”
She was talking to me as though I were much younger, and it soothed something tangled from the panic. Someone could help, this time; was here, cared only about me, and Boris, and this moment. When I moved my hand to cradle Boris’ jaw he blinked, syrupy-slow, and half-smiled for a second, and then it was gone. His pulse sped beneath my fingers.
“Too fast. It’s too fast, and it’s hard to feel. Why isn’t anybody here yet?”
“They’re on the way. They’ll be there soon. In the meantime, don’t hang up—stay on the line and tell me if Boris gets worse or changes, okay?”
“Yeah, there’s- please get here.”
I put the landline on speaker and set to work picking up amber bottles and hiding them beneath a box of abandoned ski equipment in the closet. On the nightstand our roach was ashed into a glass of soda (even I could recognize this as distasteful) next to a baggie of weed Boris lovingly called skunk shit. Into the closet. Next to the contraband went our pile of dirty clothes, because I was worried someone would notice the blood, ask what had happened (weeks ago, hill, gin, too fast on the bicycle and over the handlebars into a pile against Boris’ skinned knees, laughing at the sun). More respectable. What next? Closed the closet and fluffed the pillows near the head of the bed, pulled the sheet taut, and laid the duvet back neatly. How long had it been? It had to have been more than fifteen minutes, and I thought to ask the operator but couldn’t form the words, couldn’t coax my mouth into anything more than trembling.
I folded myself next to Boris, sitting, and (he couldn’t tell, wouldn’t remember) began to stroke through his hair, like my mom would do for me when I was a little kid and came down with the flu. It always made me feel like no matter what happened, this is what the world came to: something warm, something soft, again and again and again.
There was a weight across my shoulders, stifling and itchy where it hit my bare skin past my sleeves. Like dead grass in high summer—it would bite and nip at your back if you fell asleep outside, all of the desert like a warning to grow a harder shell before you were stung and burnt and ground into sand. Sometimes I forgot the human crush constant garbage concrete slam of New York, a thousand miles away—nothing, said the desert, has ever existed before me, and I will outlast everything.