This part of Northern California was too dark, Ted felt. It freaked him out. Without a moon, the lack of streetlights gave everything a creepy redneck vibe. Driving with his high beams on reminded him of certain back roads in Vermont—little pit-stop towns he used to speed through when he was a teenager and first had his license. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d ventured this far out of San Francisco. Palo Alto for work at the startup, yes. Oakland to visit friends. But those places weren’t like wherever he was now. The overwhelming, almost chemical smell of the pines blew in through the open car window. At a stoplight, he heard a coyote howl. The old, dense forest was otherwise silent, and Ted flinched when the console in the Prius beeped, and the Bluetooth said, “Incoming.”
“Boo!” Kathy said.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” Ted stared at the GPS. “I’m just a red dot on a blank screen.”
“Well, find out,” his wife said.
He pulled over at a gas station. Standing out front near the bug light was an incredibly tall, incredibly thin man with an orange beard. He had the word SELF tattooed above his right eyebrow. MADE was above the left. Ted asked him.
“Yut,” SELF MADE said, as if he was offended by language, as if it had done something horrible to him as a child.
Ted got back in the car and locked the door.
“Liberty,” he told Kathy.
“Keep going north,” she said. “Another twenty miles. You’ll see a condemned Mexican restaurant called Señor Mister. Pull into the lot, and then text me.” Ted drove on through the darkness of Liberty, SELF MADE shrinking in his rear view, and considered once again the fact that he needed three hundred and fifty thousand dollars by tomorrow. Without it, MicroWeather.com, his baby, was finished. He’d lose his house too. His wife probably. But what should he say when he got to the weed farmer’s? How should he act? As if it were a regular business meeting? More casual? He had no prior experience interacting with marijuana kingpins. He bought an eighth sometimes. That was it. It would last him a month. It was a Friday night, smoke a joint out on the patio kind of thing. He wasn’t the guy for this.
“Be your normal self,” Kathy had said that afternoon. “He’s from New Hampshire. He’s New England. Like you. Be New England together.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Ted asked his wife.
They were in the offices of MicroWeather.com, which took up half a floor in a once-industrial building on the outskirts of Palo Alto. To the south, out the floor-to-ceiling windows, was the promised land: Google, Facebook, various other big ideas that had turned people into billionaires. MicroWeather.com was five geeks Ted knew from Caltech and his wife. The company was seven desks, seven chairs, and a very large room, basically. The geeks were out to lunch.
“How do you even know him?” Ted asked.
His wife was thirty-five and beautiful. She had long, straight, blonde hair, an MBA from Stanford, and ran four miles every other day. But there was a tattoo of a unicorn on her inner thigh that told a story of forgotten dreams. Only the month before, she’d disappeared to Chicago for the weekend in order to catch the final three Grateful Dead shows. Her first ever email address had been email@example.com. She knew how to roll a blunt.
“I know him from the old days,” Kathy said. “The rave scene. He was around.”
“And you just called him?”
“I just called him,” Kathy said. “I explained the situation.”
“The whole situation?”
“The whole situation. I told him about the bank. How this was all very time sensitive,” Kathy said. “But, Ted, he’s a businessman. He’s not going to give us the money out of the kindness of his heart. He’s willing to hear the pitch. But, please, sweetie, do me one favor.”
“What’s that?” Ted asked.
“Make it sound cool,” Kathy said.
Like its founder, “cool” had always been a problem for the company. While at Caltech, Ted, and every other grad student who cared about these sorts of things, noticed how localized weather websites and apps were becoming all the rage. He also noticed that they were all terrible. They relied on National Weather Service info combined with wonky algorithms. For months, Ted thought about the problem, the inefficiency, and the ways in which, as an engineer, science had taken over his life, but then one day he looked at his iPhone. Radio waves streamed in and out of it 24/7. He could map the waves, and chart the way they flowed inside the pressure systems. With enough subscribers, with enough data pinging back and forth, the information would domino. Essentially, the future—whether it would rain, sleet, or snow—would always be known, and down to the square inch. No more surprise storms. No more—whoops, here comes a tsunami! How many cellphones were in the world? Seven billion? More? That’s an accurate forecast, Ted thought. That’s the new weather.
“But it is cool,” he said to Kathy. “It’s totally cool.”
“I know it is, honey. I believe that, really,” Kathy said. “Just don’t, you know, overdo it on the algorithms.”
Kathy was the cool one, Ted knew. Everybody thought so. Friends said it to his face all the time, like it didn’t hurt, like he didn’t know what that made him—the uncool one. There wasn’t room for two cools in a marriage. He understood that. There could be only one, like in Highlander. The same was true for business. But that meant his wife should be the spouse/business partner pulling into Señor Mister’s empty parking lot. She should be the one texting her. But instead Kathy was out to dinner with the loan officer, trying to flirt out a few extra days on the repayment, and Ted was texting to his cool wife: I’m here, Kath!! Now what? Now what do I do?!?
She sent the reply and then smiled back at the red, drunk face of Mr. White.
“Oh, I know,” Kathy said. “Believe me, I know. It’s a bubble. Only a matter of time.”
She was glad he was old. Old and a little fat. Had he been young, it might have been a different story, one she didn’t want to think about.
“I mean, theoretically, a bubble should never burst,” Mr. White said. “It should swell, sure. It should contract, yes. But it should never burst, not really.”
She’d heard all this before. At Stanford. Regurgitated Freidman. The market will prevail. Live long and prosper. Have faith. At the time, she’d believed it enough to have had two Republican boyfriends. Like that was okay. Like that was something people like her did. But it was her choice, Kathy reminded herself. She was the one who’d student-loaned her way into the club. She was the one who’d grown tired of being poor. Tired of having nothing. Tired of being tired.
“But then people,” Kathy said.
“But then people, yes,” Mr. White said. “The human variable.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” he said.
“What’s another?” she asked.
“Foolish,” he said. “Delusional. Unrealistic.”
Like an old pro, Mr. White quarter-turned the last of the Barbera into her glass. They were seated by the front window. To Kathy’s right, the dining room was awash in men and women eating alone. Everyone had a cellphone in one hand, and a fork in the other.
“Which of those am I?” Kathy asked. “Foolish, delusional, or unrealistic?”
“If you’re one of them, you’re always all three,” Mr. White said.
Kathy looked at the people in the restaurant—they were talking, texting, masticating—and thought of a diner in Fresno called the Chat ‘n’ Chew. For years, her mother had waitressed there.
“We need two days,” Kathy said. “Two more days.”
“What’s changed?” he asked.
“We have an investor. Ted’s meeting with him now. But we need time for everything to clear.”
“You’ve had eight months.”
“I know that, Mr. White,” Kathy said. “So what’s two more days?”
“Who is it?” he asked. “One of the hedge funds?”
“No. It’s a small company. Privately owned.”
“An angel investor then.”
“Of a type,” she said.
Kathy had left Rome (the weed farmer Ted was driving up a dark mountain road toward) because she’d had a revelation. She wasn’t going to be one of those women—one of those women like her mother—who didn’t live the life they wanted to. She refused to be among the legion of kept, kept down, or kept from. She’d loved Rome—and had loved the money that came along with him—but she couldn’t plan one more trip to Burning Man for their anniversary. Couldn’t host another end-of-the-season barbecue for the gutter punks who trimmed. Couldn’t be the weed king’s common-law. She’d begun storing up her fuck yous, hiding them away like Rome did duffel bags of cash, and she didn’t like the feel of it.
“They believe in MicroWeather?” Mr. White asked. “And they know about the FCC, the FAA, the privacy lawsuits you’re sure to get?”
“All of that’s hypothetical,” Kathy said. “None of that’s happened.”
“It will,” Mr. White said. “Trust me.”
“Maybe,” Kathy said. “Warning letters are only warning letters. MicroWeather doesn’t need to know if you’re cheating on your wife. It only needs to know if it’s raining where you are. Is it wrong to ask a stranger’s phone if the wind is blowing? If the temperature’s dropped? If it senses an earthquake two miles underground?”
When in doubt, it was best to hit them with tragedy and disaster. You had to give their wives cancer, Kathy thought. Shoot their children in the street. Blow the world apart.
“This is likely?” Mr. White asked. He was very, very serious now. “The investment?”
Kathy didn’t know. But for the call she’d made to him that morning, she hadn’t spoken to Rome in five years. She’d caught him early, at six, before he’d had time to head out to the fields.
“I know you’re married, Kath,” Rome had said over the phone. “I’m on Facebook. I know a lot of things about you.”
Kathy knew a lot of things about him too. He was dating some woman named Monarch. She was young, and looked like a tramp. Her Twitter feed loved life. She Instagrammed horses.
“How bad is it?” Rome asked. “The money?”
“Bad,” she said.
“And the idea? This internet thing?”
“Very good,” Kathy said. She explained it to him. “Does that make sense?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s the weather.”
“But perfect,” she said. “Perfect weather.”
“All this technology,” Rome said, “and all anybody wants to talk about is the weather.”
“It’s the end of the world, Rome,” Kathy said. “Don’t you know that? Flash floods, heat waves, tornadoes.”
“It’s the end of people,” he said. “Not the world. Once we’re gone, the world will be fine.”
“Put it however you want,” she said. The man was infuriating. He knew what she’d meant. “Either way, it’s an opportunity.”
Even as she considered the position she was in—and Kathy was begging him for money; they both knew that—she found it difficult to be fake with Rome. With anyone else, Ted even, she would have immediately agreed, sacrificed her own opinion, and done whatever was required of her to get what she wanted. But it was different with Rome. Her instinct was to attack. With him, her love had always come out wrong. She would want to be gentle, but would end up pushing him away instead. She would pick a fight, or find herself in one despite not wanting to be. Something about Rome, his closeness, the way he’d lived in her, and she in him, had been unsettling. It had felt claustrophobic. It had driven her mad.
“Will you meet him?” Kathy asked. “Will you please do that for me? I’ve never asked you for anything.”
She waited in silence. The tension between them—old and comfortable—was like a worn tee shirt that needed to be thrown out. Kathy felt herself disappear. She experienced the folding nature of space and time.
“Fine,” Rome said. “Send him up. But later tonight. I’ve got work to do. Some of us do actual work.”
He clicked END and noticed Monarch standing in the kitchen doorway. She wore a towel, but her hair was dry.
“Who was that?” she asked, and yawned.
She was beautiful, sexy, and kind, and Rome loved her, he thought, but for an instant he couldn’t remember who the hell she was, or what she was doing there.
“No one,” he said. And then, “An old friend.”
Monarch was half-Mexican, with dark eyes, and even darker hair. A pleasant sleepiness clung to her in the mornings.
“Kind of early,” she said. “Who?”
Rome understood that if he lied to her, it would only end up being more of a thing.
“Kathy,” he said.
The sleep burned out of Monarch’s eyes. She’d heard too many stories around the farm. One time she did this. One time she did that. Over time, Rome had come to understand that Monarch’s obsession with Kathy had very little to do with him. Maybe nothing.
“What did she want?”
“Oh,” Rome said. “Business.”
“Business?” Monarch asked. “Your business?”
“Her husband and her. They’re having some—some money stuff.”
“And she called you?”
“Isn’t that what I—” He stopped himself. “Yes,” he said.
“What do you say?”
“I said I’d hear him out.”
“Her husband,” Rome said. “He’s got a pitch. Some company. A weather thing.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Monarch said. She readjusted her towel, made it tight, and then walked out of the kitchen. She went down the hall toward the bathroom.
“Monarch!” Rome shouted. He tried to be gentle about it. “Mon!”
He heard the bathroom door close. A moment later, the shower came on. He did not hear the curtain, which meant she was either peeing or standing there in front of the mirror, being angry. Monarch was an emotional person. She cried a lot. Something would bother her, and then she would start. He had learned to let her cry, like that Hootie and the Blowfish song. What was that guy doing now? Rome wondered, his mind suddenly gone left. Singing country music? What was that about? How did that work? America did the strangest things to people.
He filled his thermos with coffee, and went out to the truck. On a morning like this, when he felt behind, having to drive slow on the gravel driveway was annoying. But it was a good thing, the gravel. The rocks were a cheap security measure—he’d never not heard an approaching car—but more than a few were sharp. Sometimes, if a guy came up from San Francisco, or flew in from wherever, New York, Boston, there would be a puncture.
Sitting in his living room, Rome would hear the tire blow. After the first few, he learned to keep spares around. The buyers he sold to spent a lot of money to get out his way. Plane tickets. Rental cars. Once they reached him, they spent a whole lot more. He tried to be accommodating. The tires. Plenty to eat and drink. It was in his nature, but it was also good business practice. Everything was reputation. It wasn’t like he sold coke or heroin. He wasn’t cooking meth. Those trips were for maniacs, paranoiacs. The people he transacted with were decent. The idea was to make a nice living. In ten years, Rome had harmed very few. On occasion, he would have to scare someone. He would have to put the fear of God in them. But that was the nature of any business.
After the gravel came the dirt road. The kids who trimmed camped in the pines. On his right, he saw last night’s campfire. It still smoked. A thin gray line like something drawn with a pencil rose up into the branches near the sun. The kids’ pup tents were scattered here and there, and one of their pit bulls lapped up water from a tin pan on the ground.
Rome saw Brian standing on the side of the road. He pulled the car over and rolled the passenger-side window down.
“Mornin’,” Rome said.
Brian had to hunch over to get his head in the cab. Rome hardly noticed the tattoos anymore. SELF MADE, my ass, he thought. ROME’S GUY was more like it.
“How’s it goin’ with them?” He nodded at the campsite.
“Pretty good,” Brian said. “Should be done with the first grow house end of the week.”
“Little problem last night though.”
“The new kid. Botherin’ one of the girls. Well not girl.”
“Right,” Rome said. “Which one?”
Rome liked Okie.
“Real problem?” he asked.
“That’s what she—that’s what Okie said.”
“Okay, okay,” Rome said. “I’ll stop in.”
Brian didn’t emote. Not really. He stared. He stood there. New Hampshire or California—Rome knew it didn’t matter. The country was the country.
“The fence. We got a serious issue up there,” Brian said. “Near the southeast corner.”
“Show me,” Rome said. “Get in.”
They drove up toward the hidden fields. On the left side of the rise, staked tight across the ground, was half an acre of black plastic sheeting. Kathy had mentioned flash floods, and Rome knew about those. After six months of drought, a monsoon off the coast. The loss of that plot had cost him sixty thousand. He didn’t need Kathy to tell him about anything, let alone the end of the world. The apocalypse wasn’t sexy anymore, someone should have told her. It was boring. It was here, and it was going to cost a lot of money. Lots and lots. More than the world could ever know.
One of the things Rome paid Brian for was to check the perimeter fence a few times a week, but during the harvest this proved more difficult than usual. In the grow room for most of the day, Brian inspected for quality, and made the sure the kids weren’t pinching more than they should. The gutter punks, like Okie, took only small amounts—a fat bud here, another there—but the hippies were greedy. You had to watch them all day, and for part of the night. It was annoying, but necessary. Pounds were known to disappear between their fingers.
Rome parked the truck outside the south gate and he and Brian walked east beside the scrub brush and vines that grew across the fence; it was chain link, and rusted in places. They stopped at the corner where the path took a sudden left. Brian squatted and pushed aside a pile of branches and Rome saw the bolt cutters. They were brand new, two feet long, with red rubber grips.
“And over here,” Brian said. He slid over on his haunches like an ape to where the fence met the ground and pulled apart the cut links. “Half a foot maybe. You think it’s—”
“I don’t think,” Rome said. “I know. They hit Bill. They hit Julie. We’re up from Julie. We’re next.” He went down on his knees and examined the cut. “Those assholes worked for me for three years.”
“Could be the other thing.”
“It’s not the other thing,” Rome said. “The other thing is they come here with machine guns, offer me money, and I say, ‘Muchas gracias, señors. No problemo.’ Then I retire. This isn’t that. It’s them.”
“I saw the one yesterday,” Brian said. “The young one.”
“I thought we were straight?” Rome asked. “I bought the land. I paid a fair price.”
“They’ve been here a long time,” Brian said. “They’re an old family.”
OLD FAMILY, Rome thought. That would have made a better face tat. OLD FAMILY or WHISKEY BOTTLE or PILL HEAD. TRUST FUND would have been hysterical, but Brian didn’t do irony.
“I know that, Brian,” Rome said. “I know they’re an old family.”
“They used to be all right.”
“Not anymore,” Rome said. “Now they’re trash. They’re gonna rob me here.”
Rome stood up, then Brian. On the other side of the high fence were five hundred plants. Afghani indica. It was early in the season—they were still in the stretch—but Rome could smell them: their oils, their resilience, their profit. He could do three-fifty.
He could make that happen for her, if he wanted to.
“Whaddya think?” Brian asked.
“Put everything back exactly where you found it,” Rome said. “I’m gonna get the Bobcat up. I’m gonna dig a hole.”
He went at it all day and the better part of the evening. The vibrating interior of the Bobcat cleared his mind, and it was that, the work, the repetitive nature of it—even more than the money—that he was addicted to. He dug the hole eight feet wide and eight feet deep. He put beams in the corners to keep the walls from collapsing. He made twenty or thirty trips in the Bobcat so as to hide the dirt a quarter mile away. All of this he did in a kind of trance. When he was finished, after he covered the hole with tree limbs and branches, and looked up to see the last of the shadows on the mountain, he began to think in a more regular fashion, his past forming, becoming, like the dark. It was an experience Rome found he didn’t care for. Instead of dealing with it, he went down to see about Okie.
It had taken Rome years to think of Okie as only Okie, and never as “she” or “her.” Kathy had always said “they” was fine, “they” was preferred, and Rome used it, sure, but the plural threw him off, not least of which because Okie was one person. He knew it was unfair, but the word “they” brought to mind multiple personalities. Also, after a lifetime of gendered pronoun usage, it was hard to break the habit. Rome was sympathetic to the cause, but the language flummoxed him. Still, he tried. He made the effort. He hadn’t left New Hampshire for nothing. The last thing he wanted to do was to become the kind of asshole he’d hoped to get away from.
The Coleman lanterns were on at the camp. The kids hung them from the lowest tree branches, and left them on inside their tents. Red and yellow, green and blue: bubbles of color were scattered around. The kids moved from the fire to the woods, from the woods to the fire. They cooked their pinto beans, and the half-rotten meat they’d scavenged from town.
Rome saw Okie. They were sitting on the ground outside their tent. They were cleaning their knife. He went over.
“Mind?” He nodded at the ground beside them.
“It’s your land,” they said.
Rome sat. He watched them as they cleaned their knife with a green rag. It was a Bowie, with a brass knuckle handle. The blade caught the firelight. Okie’s neck and arms were covered in a dense mosaic of black ink. Their hair was cut short, and their septum was pierced with a silver ring. They were self-conscious about their lips—the full, pink beauty of them—and they tried to keep them chapped by biting them all the time. In eight years, Rome had never seen Okie in anything other fatigues and a black tee shirt. Rome could smell their body odor, their not-unpleasant sweat. They kept their breasts bound tight against their chest. They said it was their last season, but they’d said that every season. Who didn’t need forty grand? It didn’t matter who you were. A lot of the kids had run away from lives of privilege even, away from the inbred dysfunction of too much old money. Okie was one of those, Rome thought, but he couldn’t remember for sure. They’d mentioned a father once, a sailboat accident. He knew they hopped trains.
“Where were you this winter?” he asked.
“Tennessee for awhile, in Nashville, and then down to this jamboree thing,” they said. “It’s on an island. It’s crazy. Everybody’s queer or trans. Then I was in New Mexico for a few months.”
“Hangin’ out. I went on a spirit quest.”
“In the desert?” Rome asked.
“Yeah. I took peyote. I saw an angel with a black face. I thought it was a sign.”
“But it wasn’t?”
“No,” Okie said. “I asked it.”
“What did it say?”
“It said, ‘Fuck you. I’m just a black angel. There’s black angels too, you know’.”
Okie went into their tent. Rome could hear them moving around. In their absence, he looked at the campsite, at the kids. At one time, he’d known them all. He’d known their names, and stories, and where they were from, and how it was they’d come to him. But that was years ago, with Kathy, who took the time to get to know people. She was cool like that, or had used to be. Now, when Rome looked at the kids, he saw compensated strangers. Except for Okie and a few others, he didn’t know their names. He kept them straight in other ways. There was the kid with the one-eyed dog; the boy who never wore shoes; the girl with earlobes that hung down to her shoulders like loops of taffy. The new kid sat Indian style near the fire. He wore a fedora with the feather of a hawk in the band. He gnawed an ear of corn. He was either choosing to sit alone, or was being shunned. Aside from the kid’s hat—which was stupid, plain stupid—Rome didn’t see the problem.
Okie crawled out of the tent with papers and a small bud in their hand. They sat down next to Rome. They broke the bud apart, and rolled.
“Is that the Silverlight?” he asked. It was his design. The strain was mellow, for the body. Monarch said it hit her in the third eye.
“Yep,” Okie said. “Brian said it was cool. He put it down in the book.”
Okie lit the joint. They took a small hit to check the draw. They waited a second, then took another, bigger hit. Okie passed the joint to Rome. As he exhaled, they asked him how his day was.
“Kinda fucked up,” Rome said. “Kathy called.”
“That explains it,” Okie said.
“Why you look so sad,” Okie said. “A ghost called. The ghost called.”
“I did feel sick,” Rome said. “Like in my stomach.”
“Yeah, man,” Okie said. “That’s exes. They’re like the dead, except they can call you on the phone. My mom can’t do that. My dad can’t. You know why? Because they’re dead. They can’t call me up just to see how I am.”
Hitting the joint again, Rome remembered: it had been the both of them; Nantucket; a freak storm; the maid and the harbormaster crouched in the playroom, consoling; the fortune had been left to a blue-blooded grandmother who wouldn’t acknowledge them.
“What did she want? Can I ask you?”
“Ouch,” Okie said. “You still love her?”
Rome shrugged his shoulders.
“Jesus, man. Really?” Okie said. “That woman is a force of nature.”
“She really is,” Rome said.
“But I always liked her.”
Rome passed the joint to Okie.
“Me too,” he said. “When we were together, Kathy never asked me for money. I’d give it to her, but she never asked me. She said it made her feel kept. She had a chip on her shoulder. It was the size of a planet.”
“I get that,” Okie said. “That makes all sorts of sense to me.”
“Now she calls.”
“She must be desperate,” Okie said. They passed the joint back to him and picked up their knife again. “You remember desperate? It’s a terrible place.”
“But not really,” Okie said. “No offense, but not really. That’s not how money works. It doesn’t help you remember. Not the desperation. Not the fear. Not in this world.”
“I’ve been desperate,” Rome said.
“I’m sure you have been,” Okie said. “But you don’t remember.”
“Sure I do,” he said.
“No you don’t,” Okie said. “Once you’ve got the money, you know? It’s not your fault. Once you have it, certain receptors, they get clicked off. It’s just the way it goes. It’s just how it is.”
Rome hadn’t come by to argue, and he didn’t need a lesson in sympathy, or whatever it was Okie thought they were talking about. If he wanted to, he could tell them his own little sob story. A description of his own father would make them happy theirs was dead. He could say, “I remember desperation, you little asshole. I remember crackers for dinner, and hiding in a closet whenever he came home.” But Rome wouldn’t do that. He couldn’t. The gentleness people required so much of depended entirely on his not being cruel. He tried to live this way, but would forget from time to time. It was a battle.
“What’s the issue over here?” He nodded at the kid with the feather in his hat.
“He gets drunk and weird,” Okie said.
Rome got that. That made all sorts of sense to him. “Does he need to go?”
Okie looked up from their knife. They eyed the kid.
“No,” they said. “I don’t think so. I told him if he looks at me again I’m gonna cut his balls off.”
An hour later, Rome sat in his living room. Across from him, on the other, lumpier couch, was this guy, this husband of hers, this Ted. Rome looked at his phone. Following Duhursts, Brian had texted earlier, and then, right that second: On mountain road. Rome finished repacking the bong. He sent the letter K.
“What makes you any different?” he asked. “Your company?”
“A fair question,” Ted said. He was so, so, so-so high, and it was pretty clear this Rome person didn’t care for him. But who knew, really? Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. Ted was so paranoid he couldn’t trust himself. One thing was certain: there was zero chance they were going to “be New England together,” as Kathy had suggested. This was actually impossible—because they weren’t from the same New England. Ted’s parents lived in Woodstock, Vermont, on the same road where Michael J. Fox kept a house. He’d attended Phillips Exeter, and not on scholarship. He’d skied! He’d skied all the time! That was the New England Ted belonged to. This Rome guy was from another one. It was written all over his sexily creased face. Enormous pickup trucks splattered with mud had rumbled through his childhood. Drunk uncles had thrown horseshoes at the pig roast. He clearly knew how to change his own oil. All that frightening reticence! Ted thought. How would he get his money?
“We’re way better,” Ted said. “I think that’s the main thing.” As soon as he’d said it—he’d said nothing! he couldn’t think! why was he yelling?!? was he?!?—he wanted to crawl under the couch and hide there until morning.
At that moment, as if to rescue him, the most beautiful woman in the entire world walked into the living room. She held a glass of water in each hand, and had long, dark hair, like Pocahontas. She was Pocahontas. She set the waters down on the coffee table, smiled at Ted, and then disappeared.
“Who was that?”
“Monarch,” Rome said.
“Oh, yeah,” Ted said. “Monarch. Right.”
Shit, Rome thought. Ted was stoned out of his mind. The poor idiot didn’t know what was going on. Rome wanted to help—he’d made up his mind to help—but they had to talk terms at some point. No matter how you looked at it, it was a lot of money. What would come back to him? How would percentages work? When would he get to see her again? Beyond logistics, Rome couldn’t launch Ted back into the world like this. He’d crash his car maybe, or get pulled over. Rome asked himself (he was high too—the Silverlight was headier than expected): did he like Ted? And the answer was: No. He did not like Ted. He hated Ted’s guts. He wanted to smash Ted’s well-bred face in. But Rome got it. The guy was sort of sweet. He was nice. Good for her and all that shit. In any case, nice guy or not, Rome had to get this thing over with. The Duhursts were coming.
“Why don’t we step out onto the porch?” Rome said. “Get some air?”
“That sounds amazing,” Ted said.
“Bring that water,” Rome told him.
After a few minutes, Ted was able to communicate more effectively.
“It’s precision, basically,” he said. “That plot you mentioned, all those plants you lost—you could have saved them.”
“Really,” Ted said. “You would have known.”
The air was nice up here. It cleared his head. While he was looking at the stars, he heard Rome’s phone go off.
“Yeah?” Rome said. “How many?”
Ted stepped down the porch steps to give him some privacy.
“I don’t care who ran away,” Rome said. “Who’s in the hole?”
Ted thought maybe he had him. He’d seen a look in Rome’s eye, one he’d witnessed before. It was the look of a man who believed in MicroWeather. Standing there among the jagged driveway rocks, Ted allowed himself a grin. After all, wasn’t this how it worked? Didn’t you come close to ruin? Didn’t success, like fame, reject you first? One day, years from now, he would look back upon all this hopelessness. He would look back upon a moment in time when the dream appeared to be lost . . .
Rome took in the man’s face. What was this preppy asshole smiling about? God, he hated him. Did he not know anything? Did he only know the weather?
“I wanna show you something,” he said. “Get in the truck.”
He rode in Rome’s truck up the mountain. They passed a camp of homeless twentysomethings. He saw a pretty, short-haired girl throw a knife into a tree, and then walk the ten feet to pull it out. Laid across the ground, a big sheet of black plastic caught the starlight. They drove up another, smaller road, and parked outside a fence. The fence was twelve feet high and topped with razor wire. It was in the middle of the forest. The sky was down upon them. The stars were low. The angry voices of men came through the trees.
He followed Rome down a path that went along the edge of the fence. Suddenly, they turned. Were they going north? After a few more seconds, Rome’s flashlight app illuminated a man. Ted couldn’t believe it. It seemed impossible.
“Over here,” Brian said.
“For fuck’s sake. I know where I dug it,” Rome said. “Help me get the branches off.”
The little Duhurst down in the hole had stopped talking shit. Rome had heard him shouting the whole way down from the truck.
“The rest of ’em?” Rome asked Brian. Together, they moved what was an entire felled tree to the side.
“They took off,” Brian said. “I heard their truck. They’re gone.”
“You hear that, you little fuck!?!” Rome shouted. “They left you! You came up
here to rob me, and they left you alone!”
“Fuck you, Rome!” the kid shouted. “My fuckin’ leg’s broke!”
“That’s the least of your problems,” Rome said. “A broken leg won’t matter after I cut your head off!”
“You won’t!” the kid shouted.
“Watch me!” Rome screamed down into the hole. “Watch me kill you!” He could just make out Donny’s face. It was covered in dirt. What was he now? Sixteen? Seventeen? “This land was ours,” Donny moaned.
“It was yours,” Rome said. “I bought it. Now it’s mine. That’s how property works. First one thing is one person’s, and then it’s another’s. Things change hands like that all the time. Something belongs to you for awhile, and then it doesn’t. Isn’t that right, Ted? Isn’t that how it works?”
Ted was over near the fence. He realized he was hanging onto it. He could hear the child crying down in the hole. Kathy and Rome: he got it. He didn’t want to live in California anymore.
“I guess,” he said.
Rome walked over to where Ted stood. He kneeled down in the grass in search of something.
“You’re not really going to kill him, are you?” Ted said into the air.
Rome stood up and looked into Ted’s face. They were close enough to feel one another’s breath.
“No,” he said. “Of course not. Whaddya think, I’m some kind of lunatic?”
Ted looked down at the bolt cutters in Rome’s right hand.
“I’m gonna cut off one of his fingers,” Rome said. “Two maybe. Three at the most.”
Dan Bevacqua lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. His stories have appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Tweed’s: A Magazine of Literature and Art, and the New Orleans Review online.
“The Human Variable” originally appeared in FIGHT (TLR, Spring 2016)