After his father died - gasping out his last breaths, grey-lipped, still staring at Ed like he wasn’t sure whose he actually was - Ed Little walks out of the hospital, and keeps walking. He doesn’t sign any of the forms, or wait to speak to anyone; he just leaves.
In Davis, Yolo County, after a few nights at the YMCA he meets a group of other young men and women in the park downtown who don’t seem to mind, or even notice his nervousness.
His shyness is his constant companion; he never seem to know quite what to say next, just blurts out whatever seems right and then finds himself blushing down to the roots of his hair. But they pass him reefers, call him ‘Eddie,’ kiss him on the lips and invite him to crash in their place for a few weeks, a rambling old house off the main street belonging to somebody’s grandmother.
He sleeps with one of the girls, and then one of the guys. And then they all three spend a honeyed afternoon on a rug of coloured braided cotton in the little attic room where Ed sleeps, tucked up under the eaves like a bird’s nest.
It doesn’t help him feel any less lonely.
Every morning, Ed wakes up more and more aware of the forty, then thirty-two, then twenty-four bucks rolled up inside a pair of socks in his knapsack. He needs a job, and he needs one fast.
But then someone passes him a reefer with a cup of coffee and the whole day passes in a haze. When the dope wears off, he panics, and then he gets stoned again. He likes being stoned, the fuzziness blurs the sharp edges of the panic he can never quite seem to outrun.
One day, he’s lying on the grass in the park with the group, pulling daisies and listening rather than talking while one of the girls threads them through his hair. Feeling the urge for some sugar on his tongue, the neat pyramids of oranges and peaches over by the farmer’s market beckon him over, and a wrinkled, bright-eyed old farmer in a straw stetson hat gives him two peaches that are past their best for half nothing, and Ed finds himself asking if they need any help.
The farmer looks at him. ‘You look strong. Could be, if maybe you’d stoop to wearin’ a hat instead of… those.’
Blushing as the farmers laugh, though it doesn’t feel ill-natured, Ed brushes the daisies out of his hair.
It turns out to be a good gig.
Prettymuch all he has to do suits him perfectly, requiring just muscle and no thought. He comes out to help at the farm a couple of days a week - heaving buckets and yelling at pigs and fixing fences or whatever else they need him to do that day. And other days he works the farmer’s market with Jonah, taking the crates of gleaming fruit and vegetables from the old guy’s truck, hump them up to the trestle tables set up in the little square, and arrange the fruit in neat, attractive piles.
The part of the job he likes least is the cash box, but provided he keeps it in sight at all times, and checks and rechecks amounts taken and change given - he can handle it.
It’s in the little square by the farmer’s market that he first hears the man preaching. He’s a slight man with sandy hair, grey eyes, and a narrow, vulpine face, but somehow, the way he speaks, and moreover the way people listen, mean Ed is unable to look away from him.
This first time, after an hour of declaiming the man raises his hands like he actually thinks he’s Jesus and says, ‘And who will come with me?’
To Ed’s surprise, a couple of people get up from where they sit listening on the grass and follow him; two girls, one young man.
The young man Ed’s noticed before. He’s tall and broad-shouldered, the sun glints off his strawberry blonde hair, the livid burn that runs from just under his jaw, down one side of his neck to disappear under his clothes, which are a mix of dollar-store-cheap, and khaki.
Even if he didn’t stand like he does, like he should be leaning on a rifle-butt, there are enough hollow-eyed young men like him around for Ed to know he was a soldier.
He watches the preacher hold out a hand to the soldier - he’s a head and a half smaller than him, but still the soldier seems awed as he takes it.
The preacher raises the hand to his mouth and kisses the knuckles, like men do to women in old movies, and the soldier shifts uncomfortably. The preacher’s grin is like the glint of sun on a razor blade.
Ed watches them walk away.
The second time Ed sees the preacher, the soldier is with him.
The soldier is wearing a loose brown tunic top and trousers made of some kind of hessian, and his eyes are almost glazed, his movements slow. In contrast, the preacher is hot-eyed, more confident, and his speech draws a bigger crowd this time.
Ed can’t hear everything from where he stands, back behind the trestle tables, dodging wasps and counting out peaches and oranges into hands and bags, but it seems to be about shedding your old self and being reborn through conscious effort. The rejection of the constructed self, of everything that was imposed on you.
Despite himself, Ed feels every hair on his body rise and stand, quivering. If it were possible - could he remake himself?
The soldier sees him watching, and lopes over to the stall, asks, ‘Hey. How much for an orange?’
Ed finds himself looking into light brown eyes - amber, or caramel maybe - and sees the shine of metal at his throat, two sets of dog tags.
Ed's eyes flick up from the dog tags to his face and for some reason his mouth says, ‘On the house.’
He picks up the biggest orange he can see in the pile and holds it out to the soldier, who smiles, seeming bemused. ‘Thanks.’ His amber eyes linger on Ed’s as he takes the fruit from his hand.
Ed puts a dime from his own pocket into the cash box as the soldier walks away, and wonders at how fast his heart is beating.
The girls that went with them last time are nowhere in evidence. Ed leans over to Jonah, nodding at the preacher. ‘Do you know anything about that guy, Jonah?’
Jonah pushes his hat back on his head and squints in the sunshine, ‘All I really know is where they’re camped out. One of those girls he left with last time lives with her old granduncle up on a hill farm - nothing much to it, all scrub and brush, bit of wheat. But word is there was a crowd of about twenty of ’em living in a bunch of vans, and now they’ve prettymuch moved in up there, got some kind of commune going. The poor old man’s bedridden, half-senile - he don’t have a clue what’s goin’ on.’
‘Gosh,’ Ed says, then blushes at himself. Gosh.
‘Dale saw her a few days back,’ Jonah continues. ‘Walking through the field dressed like an Amish girl, headscarf and everything. Stay away from them, if you ask me. People like that one -’ he nods to the little preacher, who is pacing up and down, pointing at people in the crowd, energised, his face lit by a light within himself - ‘Chew you up and spit you out. I’ve known enough of them to know that.’
Ed looks at the preacher, and feels a subtle, irresistible thrill of - fear? Excitement? ‘I’d believe it,’ he says.
The third time he sees them, the women are back. Dressed as Jonah said, in aprons and headscarves, each with a bushel of wheat in a sling held against their bodies, like Ed’s seen pictures of women in foreign countries carrying their babies. The soldier, standing a little behind and to the left of the preacher is holding one too, leaning it up against his shoulder like a rifle. Ed can’t take his eyes off him; his full, slightly sulky mouth, the teasing glint in his amber eyes.
Ed is distracted, and craning to hear, ends up giving people who ask for oranges peaches, and people who ask for peaches grapefruit, until Jonah gets pissed off and tells him to go on and take his break, and don’t come back until he’s sobered up. Ed’s not actually that stoned; it’s his blood beating fierce and wild that’s making him slip.
He gets closer, finds a van he can lean against that’s near enough that he can hear but still has enough of a distance from the main crowd, and tips his hat low over his forehead for some shade.
He listens; the preacher’s words flow over him, through him, awakening something old and heady in him - something he thought had been crushed flat long ago.
‘You don’t have to be who they told you you were,’ the preacher says, standing on a makeshift stage made of crates so he can look out over the crowd - do his eyes meet Ed’s then? Or is it just a trick of the light? Ed’s spine prickles; the preacher’s eyes pass on.
After he ceases speaking, the women and the soldier pass through the crowd, passing out blades of wheat. The soldier works his way through the people near Ed, then pauses at the edge of the crowd and hesitates, looking at him.
The crickets singing, the sun high, Ed pushes his hat off his head and presses it against his chest like he’s at church, and then blushes at himself.
The soldier grins, and comes toward him. As he approaches, Ed sees the haze in his eyes, notices his pupils are a little blown. His throat - the unmarked side - is peppered with bruises; lovebites, Ed’s mind corrects, and his knees go a little weak.
The soldier stops in front of him, and taking the blade of wheat in his hand, puts it in the corner of his mouth to chew the stem. Ed can’t help looking at his lips, then drags his eyes away to meet his eyes.
‘He doesn’t want us talking to the farmers,’ the soldier says, nodding back to where the preacher is standing on his stage.
A few new recruits holding blades of wheat are filing up to him; he tips up each one’s chin, men or women, and each receives a kiss on the forehead, the cheek, or the lips, seemingly depending on what he sees in their faces.
‘I’m not a farmer,’ Ed blurts, and the soldier smiles. His eyes crinkle, and he takes the stalk of wheat out of his mouth, twirls it in his fingers.
‘Didn’t think so - you stand wrong. Look the part, though.’ His eyes rake up and down Ed’s body, clad in dusty jeans and a sleeveless denim shirt - with the hat he must look like a farm-hand.
‘I help them out.’ Ed shrugs. ‘Needed the money.’
‘You come with us,’ the soldier says, stepping a little closer, so close that Ed can feel his breath on his face, smell the sweet smell of hashish and grass and sweat from his clothes, ‘You won’t need any of that.’
Ed’s mouth has gone dry; he’s not sure what his eyes are saying, but he finds himself holding out his hand for the blade of wheat.
Instead of handing it to him, the soldier takes it, leans in towards Ed and threads it through his hair, tucking it in behind his ear. ‘Come and meet your father,’ he says, and holds out his hand.
Swallowing, Ed takes it.
‘This is a dumbass move, Ed,’ Jonah says, counting out Ed’s wages into his hand.
Ed doesn’t say anything to that - he knows he’s right. His gut, his brain, his instincts are all telling him exactly the same thing - but at the same time, it’s irresistible; he simply can’t not go with them. He’s wearing his hat again; the blade of wheat is scratchy against his ear.
As he turns to go though, Jonah says ‘Wait,’ and puts him a bag of peaches in his hands, the ones that are good right now, but won’t last another day. ‘You’re a good kid.’ He nods at him. ‘Take care.’
To that, Ed says ‘Thank you,’ and feeling Jonah’s eyes on his back, turns to follow the soldier.
Up close, the preacher’s face is sharp and mildly handsome, his eyes quick. ‘What’s this?’ he asks, nodding at the bag Ed’s still clutching, and his eyes go over Ed’s shoulder, to the line of trestle tables and vans, and stare hard.
‘A gift,’ Ed says stupidly, and then the preacher’s eyes slide back to him, and he smiles. ‘Put it down there.’
Ed places the peaches in a little pile of mixed belongings, and then turns back to the preacher. The little man leans down from his stage, takes Ed’s face in both hands and pauses there a second, looking at him. His palms are hot and dry on Ed’s face, his grip strong.
Ed’s blood is beating fast and hard - with terror and - and something else, something deep and dangerous, and as if he sees it in his face, the preacher smiles at him again, fixing him with his hard, glittering eyes, and leans in to kiss him tenderly on the lips.
It’s a second too long to be chaste, and Ed feels the barest flicker of tongue against his lips before the preacher pulls back, taking his smell of incense and tobacco with him.
‘Welcome,’ he says, and releases him. Ed stumbles off to the side, where the soldier is waiting for him, grinning.
‘Hickey,’ the preacher says to the new recruits, in the back of the van driving up a bumpy dirt road into the hills. ‘It’s not the name I was born with; I took it from someone else. Someone who owed me something. That’s what we do here - we throw off who we used to be, give ourselves our own names.’
The soldier looks at them, and says, ‘Heather.’ Ed sees his fingers twitch toward the metal at his throat, and catches how Hickey shifts, as if in displeasure. Then he realises everyone has turned to look at him.
‘Uh,’ he says intelligently, and feels himself flush. But then he thinks of - of Jonah, a man with a wife and three nearly grown children who all seem to love him, a man who - when he speaks, even if it’s on nothing much consequential but what the weather’s likely to do next - the other men stop and listen.
‘Jonah,’ Ed says, and the group in the van murmur a hello.
The farm is up on a hillside; they get out of the van and Ed sees there are more parked around the yard, ranging from colourfully painted to battered.
The old-fashioned farm buildings are ramshackle, but there are signs of work ongoing - the tiles on the roofs of the old farmhouse and some of the outbuildings have been lifted off and are stacked in neat rows to be replaced, and the big barn is half-way through being whitewashed, it’s doors thrown open wide.
‘Take care of the children, Heather,’ Hickey says as he hops down lightly from the van. ‘I have some things to do.’ He turns and looks at them all. ‘We’ll initiate you all in the chapel at four.’ Then he’s loping off toward the house.
A dark-haired woman who introduces herself as ‘Tuunbaq’ tells the girls to come with her, and Heather takes the men through to some long, low outbuildings. They have been fitted up with army surplus cots, a crate beside each one for personal effects. ‘The women’s bunk house is over there,’ Heather says, pointing across the yard. Ed’s only seen the women in the distance so far; headscarfed and busy, carrying baskets or loads of wood.
He’s noticed Heather always seems to come to stand beside him, unless Hickey is there, in which case he’s at his post just behind his left shoulder.
‘Do you sleep in here too?’ he asks, and Heather looks over at him, that glazed look to his eyes especially pronounced. Ed can’t help looking at the bruises on his neck; up so close he can see teeth marks, and how the skin of the burn is pinkish and agitated looking.
Heather sees where he’s looking, and his face changes, closes, and he turns his body away. ‘No,’ he says shortly. ‘I sleep up at the house.’
‘I wasn’t - I didn’t -’ Ed trails off lamely, in the face of Heather’s hard, defensive stare. God, his eyelashes are so long, look so soft. ‘It looks a little raw is all,’ Ed manages eventually. ‘Like it hurts.’
Heather just blinks at him. ‘It always hurts,’ he says, but at least he doesn’t look mad any more, just... tired, maybe. Burnt out.
‘All right,’ Heather calls out suddenly, and there is the soldier again, a man used to giving orders and having them obeyed. ‘Dump your personal shit in the boxes, and then we’ll go and get some lunch.’
In the other long, low building some of the headscarfed women are serving small fried potatoes and tomatoes, bread, and cheese, cafeteria style. Ed accepts a tray and goes to sit down at one of the empty tables, trying to throw off the impression he’s back at high-school, not sure where he should sit.
Heather sits down opposite him, some other young men tailing him. At another table at the other end of the room, the women are sitting together too.
‘Hey,’ says a curly haired, blue-eyed skinny kid, and reaches out his hand to shake. ‘It’s the orange guy! How’s it going, man? So you decided to join us?’
Ed hesitates, but he senses nothing in the kid but simple friendliness. ‘Yeah,’ Ed says, ‘Guess I did,’ and then abruptly the road of things-to-say runs out ahead of him, and he drops his eyes to his fried tomatoes, putting a forkful in his mouth so he doesn’t blurt out anything stupid.
The kid companionably eats some of his own tomatoes, then says, ‘Say, what’s your real name? Mine’s Tommy. Armitage. This is Billy Pilkington.’ With a tip of the head he nods towards Billy and Heather. ‘We were all in the same unit.’
Heather stretches back in his seat, and crossing his arms, without raising his voice or even looking at Tommy, says, ‘If you’re not going to follow the rules, Jude, then what are you doing here?’
In the little silence that follows, Tommy - or Jude, Ed supposes - drops his eyes, cowed. ‘Sorry, Heather.’
‘Don’t let Father hear you talk like that, if you know what’s good for you,’ Heather says mildly, and Ed feels a sudden, spinning rush of déjà vu.
Ed’s face is burning.
The big barn has been converted to a sort of chapel, and the light is filtering down through the windows, dust motes dancing in the air. The stage is wooden planks fixed to orange crates - the pews are cushions or hay bales, it smells of dust, and mice, and the sweet straw still scattered around the edges of the big space.
Ed is shirtless. His hands are at his waistband, but he can’t make them move; he can’t strip naked with all of the rest of them watching. He’s frozen and burning up both at the same time, and he doesn’t know what to do.
‘Jonah. We’re waiting.’ Hickey is looking at him; the rest of the new recruits have already stripped off. Hickey is dressed in the same light hessian cotton that the rest wear, though his are bleached so white as to be almost blinding.
Ed looks up and around at them, and the sight of all of that naked flesh, the puckers and freckles and tattoos makes his head swim, and he puts a hand out toward the floor instinctively - Jesus-fuck, don’t let him faint, not here, not in front of all of these people.
Hands grab his hips - big hands, big, and warm - and with his vision dancing with black spots, he’s tugged forward to lay his head against a bare shoulder.
‘Breathe, farm boy.’ It’s Heather; Ed can feel the metal chain of his dog-tags, the roughness of the scar tissue under his cheek. ‘In and out.’
‘’m not,’ Ed says, and Heather cocks his head down toward him. ‘Not a farm boy,’ he clarifies, though he’s said that to him before. With a few more breaths, his vision clears and his balance rights itself and he can raise his head back, off Heather’s shoulder.
Ed suddenly realises Heather, like the rest of them, is completely naked. He flushes, skin burning down to his toes, when Heather grins down at him. ‘Shy as one,’ he says.
‘The smoke,’ Ed says, and hopes he doesn’t sound as defensive as he thinks he does, ‘And it’s hot in here. And I skipped breakfast.’
But still, though he tries again, his hands stumble at his fly, then freeze. And then he starts becoming aware of his breathing, his blood beating hard in his head again, and when he looks around, everyone is staring.
Hickey’s face shows no discernible emotion. He’s watching Heather rather than him, yet something in his expression makes Ed’s skin prickle and the blood rush from his head and he feels himself getting shaky again.
‘I’m sorry,’ Ed says, and closes his eyes. If he can’t see them they can’t see him, right?
‘Here; I got it.’ Heather’s voice, and Ed feels his hands on his hips again. ‘Chill, brother. We’re born naked, and not knowing shit about shit - that’s a state of honesty.’ He unbuttons Ed’s pants, slips them down his legs, then his hands go to Ed’s waistband and pause.
‘We die all dressed up in who we told ourselves we were, and if we think we know shit about shit by that point, it’s a delusion.’ He pulls down Ed’s underwear, the warm air hits Ed’s skin, and Ed hears his own breath draw in sharply.
Heather swats him gently on the bare ass, and lets go of him. ‘See? Nothin’ to it, man.’
Swallowing hard, blinking in the brightness once he opens his eyes, Ed steps out of his trousers and goes to stand with the rest of the new recruits. One or two of them pat him on the shoulder.
‘Thank you, Heather,’ comes Hickey’s voice, and they all turn to look at him, standing on the raised dias. He doesn’t sound - or look - particularly happy, though he’s smiling that knife-point smile. ‘Nice to hear you’ve been listening, though you got it a little garbled.’
Heather’s shoulders stiffen; he flushes. Hickey holds out a hand, and his smile fades. ‘Come up here, Solomon.’
A little ripple goes through the group, and Heather’s head comes up, he’s staring at Hickey with an expression Ed doesn’t like on him - a big dog that’s been kicked one too many times recently, and now expects to be kicked again.
‘You’ll notice I’m not giving Solomon the use of his true name, the one he chose for himself when he came here,’ Hickey says conversationally, even pleasantly, as Solomon mounts the steps and comes to stand, naked, in front of Hickey, fully dressed where Solomon is naked, almost dwarfed by Solomon’s size. ‘That’s because I can’t. Because Solomon is still hanging on.’ Hickey’s eyes travel to the pair of dog tags on Solomon’s chest.
‘You’ll strip others, but you’ll not strip yourself - not truly. Is that it, Solomon? You have too much pride. Kneel.’
Slowly, Solomon kneels. Once he does Hickey moves like a snake, backhanding him across the face with one sharp, hard crack. Ed jumps, feels his balls draw up hard and tight.
Solomon’s eyes are closed, his head bowed. Hickey reaches out and takes the chains of his dog-tags in his hands and yanks them hard. It breaks the chain but also pulls Solomon forward, and Ed sees his face twist in pain, the hand on the side of his scarred neck clenching into a fist. Hickey flings the tags off into the darkness; Ed hears them land in the dirt at the back of the barn.
‘Now,’ Hickey says, almost kindly, and tips Solomon’s face up to his. ‘Isn’t that better?’
Solomon’s eyes open, and the look in them wrings Ed’s heart. Hickey puts out his hands to him, Solomon takes them, and Hickey says, ‘Rise, Heather,’ and pulls him to his feet.
‘Thank you, Father,’ Solomon mutters, and comes back down the stairs to the group, moving carefully, as if he’s consciously having to avoid any stumbles.
‘So,’ says Hickey brightly, looking down at them all. ‘Shall we get on with the ceremony?’
It involves having a bowl of warm oil and water poured over his head, having his flanks and chest and legs scrubbed off with rough sea-salt by two acolytes, and then going to kneel in front of Hickey.
Hickey touches his chin, looks down into his face, eyes sparkling. Ed’s whole body is covered in goosebumps; he is shivering. Hickey leans in to kiss him on the lips, that bare, hot flicker of tongue that - that stirs Ed between the legs.
‘Repeat after me,’ he says to Ed. Then he murmurs, a couple of words at a time, phrases that seem to float around Ed, as he repeats them himself.
They burn, as if Hickey’s seen into him somehow, stripped him to the quivering, naked soul, reached in and eaten his heart right out of his chest for no other reason than he loves him.
I am, I will
No longer, will I
Lay down, play dead
Beat-down, gun-shy, martyr
I rose, I roared
I will - I am.
Ed repeats the words, and then, when Hickey raises a hand, he rises to his feet.
The big, dark space spinning all around him, he goes to collect the shirt and trousers of light cotton that Tommy hands to him.
There’s less dope here - that seems reserved for those with higher up positions, Hickey and Heather and Tuunbaq always seem to have some.
Instead, there’s a weak mushroom tea that everyone seems to drink in the afternoons once the sun is too high in the sky to do much work outdoors - it relaxes, gives colourful visuals, a feeling of peace.
The women, who seem, Ed is noticing, to have no respite from their own chores, don’t partake. They don’t speak to the men, or look at them, or interact with them at all unless strictly necessary, and their long skirts and scarves and averted eyes make Ed nervous enough that he avoids them too.
The work is physically hard, but suits Ed perfectly, used as he is to helping out Jonah’s crew. The first week passes, then the next, and Ed is aware he is being observed, being measured, so he keeps his head down and helps Tommy fix a roof, gets the old disused well up and running with Solomon, helping the big man heave a new heavy wooden crossbar into the frame they’d built for it.
Solomon sometimes takes him with him on runs into town, leaves Ed in the van with his rifle and the engine running as he delivers boxes to various addresses. Ed doesn’t ask what’s in them, just keeps an eye out for cops, or any passers by that look particularly interested in them.
At almost all times now, Solomon is silent. Folded into his baggy hessian shirt, a deeper brown than the others, probably to show his position as Hickey’s second, his eyes are elsewhere.
He’s often bruised, too - marked around the neck by sharp teeth, a sucking mouth. He doesn’t seem to notice how Tommy and Billy and most of the other young men shift uncomfortably when they look at those bruises, or if he does notice, he affects not to.
He’s changed from that smiling soldier who came to Ed’s stall to buy an orange, and that loss tugs at Ed, but if nothing else Ed is well-versed at saying nothing. And so their work together is completed in mostly easy silence.
One of the days, they work especially hard up on one of the hills, managing to get an entire pergola for grape vines up within about four hours. Then they both sit down under it, exhausted, passing a bottle of water back and forth and looking down at the valley. It’s still hot, though the sun is low enough in the sky that the horizon has turned blood-orange red. The crickets are whirring.
‘My father died,’ Ed finds himself saying, out of nowhere.
Solomon looks over at him, hat pushed back on his head, and Ed continues.
‘I… hated him. I think I can say that, now. I never allowed myself to say it, or, I guess even think it, when he was alive.’ He traces a hand through the dusty grass beneath them. ‘He wasn’t a terrible guy or anything,’ he offers. ‘He just didn’t like me much, I guess. Couldn’t ever do anything right.’
Solomon looks at him. He licks his lips, then says, voice gravelly, as if left disused too long, ‘My friend died. A lot of my friends died. But - my best -’ He breaks off, clearing his throat, looking away into the blazing glare of the sun going down over the hills.
Ed leans over and kisses him.
Solomon makes a small sound, and his hand comes up to Ed’s face. Ed breathes into it with a flicker of tongue, gentle, but strong, telling him he wants more - more than this, if Solomon can spare it. Solomon pulls away, eyes closed, and turns his face up to the sky, shaking his head.
Ed takes his opportunity; he kisses the scar tissue below Solomon’s jaw; he kisses the bruises; he hears Solomon’s soft exhalation of breath, and comes back to kiss his mouth again.
He only lets up when the gentle pressure of Solomon’s hand on his chest presses him back.
‘Sorry,’ Solomon says, and his hand is on Ed’s cheek again. ‘But it’s not a good idea.’
They walk back down the hill in silence, splitting paths at the farmhouse. Hickey is sitting on the porch, cross-legged, addressing a group of new recruits, and his eyes go from Solomon - loping up the steps toward him, face closed - to Ed. The expression in them is curious; meditative.
Ed turns and walks away.
One evening in the third week, Hickey stands on the porch of the farmhouse and calls him over. ‘Jonah.’
Ed puts down his hammer and comes over to him. Sol is standing in his customary pace behind and a little to the left of Hickey, and doesn’t look once at Ed when Hickey says, ‘I’d like you to come to dinner in the house tonight, Jonah. With Heather and I.’
Ed tries not to look at Solomon’s face, frightened of what he might see there, and instead focuses on Hickey. ‘Yes, Father. Thank you.’
Quick as a flash, Hickey takes something out of his pocket and throws it up in the air at him. Ed catches it automatically - it is a piece of soap.
‘Bathe before you come,’ he says, eyes laughingly alight.
When the sun goes down, Ed goes out to the tap behind the bunk house, and washes in the cold water, his heart beating hard and loud in his throat.
Ed doesn’t need to knock at the front door of the farmhouse; Tommy is standing sentry, his rifle - he’s a crack-shot at rabbits, they have rabbit stew most evenings thanks to him - easy between his thighs. He nods at Ed, says ‘Go on in,’ and then shoulders his gun and hops lightly down the rickety porch steps.
Ed pushes open the door, and catches his breath. It’s almost dark inside; candles are flickering in jelly jars placed all the way up the stairs, on the floor all the way down the hall to the kitchen.
‘Hello?’ Ed calls.
A door opens at the end of the hall, and there is Hickey, slim and spare and outlined in light that seems blazing now Ed’s eyes have adjusted to the dark.
‘Jonah,’ says Hickey. ‘Come in and join us.’ He is wearing a loose vest that shows a V of chest, his bare, muscular upper arms, patterned with looping, abstract tattoos.
In the big, old fashioned kitchen, herbs and a skinned rabbit are hanging from the ceiling over an ancient range cooker. There is a pockmarked, scrubbed old table, big enough for twenty to sit around, but instead there are just two chairs, one which Solomon is sitting in, and one which Hickey is standing over, waiting for Ed to approach.
As he does, Solomon shoots him a look; he’s nervous, hands clenched on the table. On it is a platter of what looks like confit rabbit, tiny, buttered dumplings, and a plate of strawberries.
It smells incredible. Ed’s stomach growls audibly, and he blushes.
Hickey grins. ‘Hungry?’
The fare here is plain, and Ed loves food, and due to it carries just a little huskiness along with his solid, linebacker’s muscle.
‘Yes, sir.’ Jesus, he’s already getting hard.
‘Oh, oh, oh,’ says Hickey, stepping up close to him, ‘There’s no need for that. Call me Cornelius, Jonah.’
Hickey’s skin seems golden in the light from the large oil lamps dotted around the room, his eyes gleaming their graphite gleam.
Just as Hickey leans in to kiss him, hard, callused little hands cradling his face, Ed realises that there are only two chairs, two place settings.
Hickey’s lips nudge his open, his tongue slipping into Ed’s mouth, and his hands slide down Ed’s shoulders, his arms, his sides, and come around to grasp and squeeze his ass, pulling him flush against him.
When he releases Ed, leaving him with a slow bite to the fullest part of his lower lip, Ed is breathing heavily, his blood humming with want. He knows what Hickey is - a slinking, sharp-toothed little carnivore. But Ed? What is Ed, at his core, but some small, furry thing, some tiny animal which, seeing its fate arrowing through the long grass toward it, can only bare its throat, and hope for a merciful end?
Hickey turns to Solomon, and pushes Ed forward. ‘Say hello, Heather. Don’t be rude to our guest.’
Solomon looks up at Ed, and he looks - his face is - Ed wants to kiss that look off it, the look that says he’s sorry Ed is here, that Ed has been involved.
‘Hello,’ he says tonelessly, and Ed responds, quietly, ‘Hi.’
Ed shifts his stance so that Solomon’s eyes move down to his crotch, can see his obvious interest.
‘Go on Jonah,’ Hickey says, sitting down behind him. ‘Have a seat.’
Ed looks at him, unsure whether Hickey means the floor, but then Hickey gives him a little push toward Solomon, and Solomon shifts himself so there is room, and Ed crosses the few feet between them to sit in Solomon’s lap.
‘Hi,’ Ed says again, breathlessly, stupidly, his heart beating wildly in his chest, his cock eager.
Looking down into Solomon’s face, he sees just the barest edge of that smile, the glinting edge of that soldier-boy who laughed at him and tucked the blade of wheat into his hair.
‘Hi, yourself,’ Solomon says, and Ed realises it’s the most Ed’s heard come out of his mouth in two days.
‘Now, there we are. Isn’t this nice?’ Hickey’s pulled his chair over; Solomon’s smile flickers out. ‘He likes you, you know, Jonah. Don’t you, Heather?’
Solomon jerks a nod.
‘And you like him, don’t you Jonah?’
Ed nods. His hand moves; he’s about to reach out and touch Solomon, leaning back in his chair, looking up at Ed in his lap like he’s cursed and blessed both. But something makes him stop and look at Hickey, and he lowers the hand, lets it lie against Solomon’s thigh instead.
‘Aren’t you going to offer our guest something to eat, Heather? He’s hungry.’
Solomon picks up his fork, and quick as an adder’s bite, Hickey’s hand comes out over Solomon’s.
‘Use your fingers,’ he says, his voice low and velvety, and the way he looks at Solomon, the contemptuous interest mingled with possessiveness makes Ed move his thumb where it rests on Solomon’s big thigh; a tiny, barely there stroke.
Solomon feels it, looks up to Ed’s face and touches his mouth, the pad of his thumb dragging down Ed’s lower lip, which is still stinging from where Hickey bit it. Then he reaches for a piece of meat from the platter, and holds it to Ed’s lips, and watches as Ed takes it from him.
It’s wonderful, herby and salty and luscious, falling apart in his mouth - and Ed hears himself moan in pleasure. Another, and he keeps quiet this time, but sucks the salt from Solomon’s skin, meeting his eyes and giving him just the barest suggestion of teeth.
A dumpling the size of a cherry follows, he takes that as well, closing his lips around Solomon’s fingers and sucking the butter from them; he can hear Solomon’s breathing getting faster, can feel him coming to life under his pants, pressing up hard underneath him. Two more, and Ed moans again; it’s so good - so good.
Hickey reaches out and turns Ed’s face to him, beaming light, and warmth, and a glowing, beatific approval. He holds a strawberry between Ed’s lips, squeezes it into sweet pulp with his fingers just inside Ed’s mouth, then after Ed swallows, kisses him like he is his most treasured possession, running his hands up and down his body.
‘So strong,’ Hickey says, arranging himself behind Ed so he is looking at Solomon over Ed’s shoulder.
There is an undertone of mockery in his voice, a little edge that causes the hairs on the back of Ed’s neck to stand up. Hickey pulls off Ed’s shirt, reaching around to run a finger down Ed’s collarbone and hard, dark little nipples. ‘So healthy -’ he strokes Ed’s hip and stomach, their taut muscle and slight padding. ‘So... whole.’
Solomon doesn’t react, in body or in look, though Ed sees his cheeks flush a deeper, ruddier red. Ed’s trembling, with desire and fear and anger, and he’s desperate to kiss him; feel his lips, taste his mouth, touch his large, scarred body, so he leans forward and does - to hell with Hickey. This is what he wanted? This is what he’ll get.
Ed could drown in it; Solomon’s lips are soft, he’s kissing Ed slowly and carefully, holding himself oddly stiffly until Ed realises it’s because the angle is stretching the scar tissue on his neck, and adjusts his position.
Solomon breathes out and touches Ed’s face, his cheekbone, and then, right in his ear, Ed hears Hickey’s voice. ‘Isn’t this nice, us all getting along so well.’ Then, ‘Get up a moment, Jonah. Heather, on the table. On your back.’
Solomon’s eyes locked on Ed’s face, those long dusty-coloured lashes brushing his cheek as Ed moves. The moans Ed is wringing from him, boiling his blood, making him moan himself. Hickey slipping his hand down in between them and biting Ed’s shoulder and hissing instructions into his ear like profanities.
Ed almost stumbles down the steps, despite the oil lantern Hickey gave him before kissing him, a hard, throaty, grasping kiss, and going back inside and shutting the door behind him. Ed blows out the lantern at the bottom of the steps, puts it down, and walks away from the house, through the dark, silent farmyard.
Once he’s out of view of the house, he stands looking around at the shadowy buildings and up at the moon, magnified huge and yellow, and breathes deeply. His body is aching, that twinge of muscles not used every day, and suddenly anger crystallises inside him; the cold sensation of water turning to ice.
Ed turns to the barn, looming huge and shadowy. Though the farmhouse windows don’t overlook the barn, a trickle of fear runs down his spine as he slips into the deeper shadows by the wall of the barn. He breathes easier once he’s slipped inside.
He makes for the furthermost corner, racking his memory - had it been here? No, a little further - there. His fingernails track hard-packed dirt and straw and mouse-shit until they close around cool metal.
Ed stands, and in a shaft of moonlight that streams in through one small, high-up window, he reads, Sergeant Solomon Tozer on one set of tags, and then on the other, Private William Heather.
Then he hears voices, soft and hushed, but getting louder, and ducking back into the shadows, crouches down behind a broken wooden cart.
They come to stand right by him. ‘I’m telling you Tommy, this is deep shit. We need to get the hell out tonight. This place will be crawling with cops by tomorrow.’
‘Look, they don’t know for certain it’s him -’
‘They fucking do, Tommy. They were showing a picture to anyone that came in; robbery, arson, murder - a fucking triple, I heard some guy say.’
The skin of Ed’s throat prickles, where Hickey nipped and licked and sucked, where he’s sure, even now, a purplish blush of bruises are blooming.
‘Jesus Christ,’ Tommy breathes.
‘We have to go.’
‘Not without Sol. We can’t leave him, Billy-’
‘He’s too far gone, Tommy - that fucker’s got him in it up to his neck, Silna says the women are sending the shrooms as far down the coast as Santa Barbara now; she’s telling them all to get the hell out.’
‘Listen.’ Billy’s voice gentles. ‘Hickey’s fucked with his head. He’s not ours any more. He’ll turn on us.’
Ed’s thigh is cramping from crouching; he tries to shift it, but in the dark it nudges the cart, triggering a landslide of old junk down onto the floor.
He looks up into lantern light and the barrel of Tommy’s rifle.
Ed sees Tommy’s eyes go to his neck and then slide away, embarrassed. Tommy motions him up with his rifle, Ed complies, putting his hands above his head.
‘You spying on us, Jonah?’ asks Tommy.
‘Of course he fucking is,’ says Billy. ‘Sol was with me today - he heard every word. He’ll have told Hickey, and then they sent their newest true believer out here to -’
‘No.’ Somehow, the way he says it, the anger boiling up in him, impossible to contain, makes them stop, exchange a look.
He bites it back, meets Tommy’s eyes. He’s the gentler soul, will look for any excuse not to shoot him. ‘Look in my pocket. That’s what I came in here for.’
Billy steps forward while Tommy covers him, a sneer on his face that changes when he pulls out the tags. He shows them to Tommy wordlessly. Ed holds out a hand for them, slowly and carefully - no sudden movements.
‘I can get him out,’ he says to them. ‘I want to get him out.’
‘How?’ asks Billy.
‘I’ve got an idea,’ says Ed.
He hopes - he very much hopes - it won’t get them all killed.
The dawn is full of smoke. It’s billowing down from the wheat field, and Ed runs through the farmyard, the buildings looming up through the gloom at him like icebergs.
He hammers on the door of the farmhouse, shouting ‘Sir! Father! It’s the wheat! Heather!’
Across the yard, Billy and Tommy have the engine of one of the vans running. It’s packed with enough shrooms to sell to get them across ten states, four changes of clothes, two day’s food and the hundred and ten bucks they have pooled between them. The engine is quiet, idling just on the edge of hearing and if Ed can just cause enough of a ruckus with the fire so Hickey doesn’t notice, if he can just get Solomon away...
The door slams open, and Ed backs back down the porch steps, slipping, having to touch the ground to right himself. Hickey is shirtless, as is Solomon; both of them are armed with rifles, and both of them are pointing them straight at Ed.
Ed does his best to look as panicked as he feels, and says, again, ‘The wheat field.’
Hickey walks a little way forward, looking at him with open, glittering interest. ‘I don’t give a rats ass about the wheat field,’ he says, conversationally.
He nods at Solomon, and Solomon advances down the steps toward Ed, the rifle trained on his chest. ‘It’s worthless. Didn’t you know that, as a farm-boy?’
‘Not a farm-boy,’ Solomon says to him, back over his shoulder.
‘Interesting that this happens now, don’t you think, Heather?’ He cocks his head, squints over into the smoke where the van is running; his rifle swings around to that direction. ‘Who’s over there?’
‘Me.’ Tommy’s tall, curly-headed shape steps out of the swirling smoke - his rifle is pointing at Hickey. Ed internally curses - Fuck. Fuck, Tommy. ‘Hey,’ Tommy calls, ‘We’re getting out. Come with us. Come on, man. Put it down.’
‘You’re getting out,’ says Hickey, as amused as if Tommy's said he’d decided to take up square-dancing.
Solomon’s gun has swung around to cover Tommy.
Ed steps forward, slowly, hands up, toward Solomon, and as he looks at him, the gun swings back around to Ed’s chest. ‘Solomon.’
Solomon meets his eyes, a warning, desperate edge in them. ‘What’re you doing, Jonah?’
‘Ed,’ he says, and holding out his hand, lets the two sets of tags dangle down from his fingers on their chain. ‘Edward. Your name is Solomon, isn’t it? Your real name. Your friend was Heather.’
Ed ignores Hickey, ignores Tommy, focusing only on Solomon, on his terrified, agonised eyes. The muzzle of the rifle pointed at Ed’s chest is trembling.
Ed takes a slow step forward, drops his voice down low so only they can hear. ‘Come with us. Come with me. He’s full of shit, and you know it.’
Bizarrely, he finds himself smiling at him, though there are tears in his eyes, and he’s trembling, so scared his bladder is straining, threatening to let go.
‘Please?’ he asks, and holds out his empty hand to him, palm up, open.
‘Be very careful, Heather,’ Hickey calls from the porch, and Ed sees a flash of rage cross Solomon’s face.
He wheels with the rifle, then two shots - loud, louder than anything Ed has ever heard before, and without conscious thought Ed’s crouching in the dirt. But then Solomon is falling forward, toppling toward him, and whatever strength Ed has is focused on running forward to grab him, drag him, pull him back. More shots, shouting, but he’s not focused on it, just on dragging Solomon back, back into the smoke, back toward the van, back toward safety and oh god, oh god his hands are wet and slick and he can smell iron -
Billy. Billy grabs Ed’s shoulder, grabs Solomon’s rifle from his trailing arm, and screams, ‘In the van - get in the fucking van,’ and stepping up shoulder to shoulder beside Tommy, adds further shots to the frenzy of fire coming from the porch.
Ed gets Solomon into the back of the van, shaking so hard he gets his feet stuck in the door, then cursing, pulling them free, and slamming it shut. Two more slams, and then Billy is shouting, ‘Drive! Fucking drive, Tommy,’ and Tommy is shouting ‘Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up -’ and the wheels lurch into life, and then they are moving, barrelling out of the yard, people ducking out the way, shots still ringing out behind them.
Ed is on his knees in the back, leaning over Solomon, whose eyes are glazed, whose hands are over a hole in his thigh, bleeding
‘Is he alive?’ Tommy asks, lurching the steering wheel, panic making his voice high and shrill, ‘Ed, is he fucking alive?’
‘I’m alive, Private,’ comes the slurred response. ‘Don’t excite yourself.’
Ed’s eyes overflow; he leans down and presses his lips to Solomon’s, and one big, bloody hand comes up to card through his hair, cradling the back of his neck.
Solomon - Sol - breaks the kiss, looks at him, frowning, and slurs, ‘You hit? You’re wet.’
Ed looks down, realises he doesn’t need to go to the bathroom any more, and that his trousers are wringing. He looks at Sol, and incredibly, starts laughing, bubbling over with hysteria. ‘Pissed myself,’ he says, and Solomon blinks, and then he’s laughing too, tears leaking out of his eyes, especially when Billy turns in his seat and says, ‘What? What? Piss in my van - piss in my van?’
‘Not a farm-boy,’ says Sol slowly, eyes still laughing at Ed as he touches his face with a big, shaky hand. ‘Not a soldier either, huh?’
‘No,’ says Ed. ‘Nope. Sorry.’ And kisses him.
They take the back roads until Sol’s breath is coming shallowly and the silence has grown tense.
Ed’s been thinking, and clearing his throat, says, ‘I think - I know where we can go. I think I know someone who might help us.’
‘Yeah?’ Tommy meets his eyes in the mirror, ashy pale still, but focused. ‘Which way?’
Ed peers out the windscreen, looks at the shape of the valley, tries to parse that with their location right now. ‘Left,’ he says. ‘Keep bearing left - I’ll know the place when I see it. Look for orchards; peach and oranges.’
Jonah was right, he thinks. It was an absolute dumbass move.
But, he thinks, his hand gripping tightly to Sol’s, sticky with sweat and dried blood. But.
It was worth it.