chlorate: (The Look)
chlorate ([personal profile] chlorate) wrote2010-02-06 01:31 pm

A Crowd Is Not Company, 3/3

Part One

Part Two

They have to give up on three-quarters of the land because they don't have enough men to work it. Nate knows it kills Brad to see it go to waste, but it's better that they work closer to the house, anyway, because they can't be too far from Walt. They take turns staying with him when he is feeling particularly bad, but that falls mostly to Nate, who has also taken on most of the housework. They've closed off the damaged parts of the house, however, and have no time to repair them. They cannot go into Mathilda anymore; Brad goes on his own nearly thirty miles each way to the next town over to get them supplies, a trip that takes at least two days. Ray teaches Nate how to use a rifle effectively and makes him practice reloading it.

Nate and Brad barely speak. Brad is harsh with his directions and critical of Nate's work, but is working so hard himself that Nate cannot resent him for it. It's brutal and exhausting, and every night Nate's bones ache and he never gets enough sleep; his head barely hits the pillow before Brad is calling them up again before dawn. Brad is a workhorse and never seems to tire. Nate never sees him sleep or rest except to take his meals. Ray develops dark circles under his eyes and loses much of his spirit, never venturing crude jokes or indulging in long monologues about outlandish plans and ideas to make them all rich. He works doggedly and sleeps on a bedroll on the floor next to Walt's cot. Nate and Brad share the room off the kitchen formerly occupied by the other men. Sometimes he has just enough time before he falls asleep to remember the last time the two of them were sharing a room. That time feels so far away now, and Nate sometimes wonders whether he imagined all of it.

Walt doesn't get better but he doesn't seem to get any worse, either. He is very frail, too weak even to hold a spoon for very long, his face drained of all color most days and unnaturally flushed on others. Nate has to wash out bloody rags frequently, and Walt barely has any appetite.

Brad has forbidden any of them from going up the stairs because of the fire damage, but one day when Brad is out Nate decides to brave it anyway to see if any of his books remain. There is soot everywhere but the damage doesn't seem as bad as they had feared, and the floor is stable, at least. There is debris scattered all over, though, and it takes Nate a few moments to realize that much of it is the remains of his books, the covers torn off, the pages ripped up and charred. He bends down to pick up a few scattered pages, blackened and crinkled, mostly unreadable. After shuffling through them, he picks up a relatively undamaged pamphlet and recognizes it immediately. There are a few others that are almost wholly intact underneath the other rubble, and Nate collects them to bring downstairs to Walt.

When Brad returns, he eyes the charred paper scattered around the kitchen table and glares at Nate.

"You been upstairs?"

"Yes," Nate says.

"Damn it, Nate, I can't watch you every second," Brad says scathingly, and he sweeps the pages off the table. They scatter, the charred bits flaking off and creating a small black cloud of dust.

Walt starts wheezing harder almost immediately, and Ray stands up abruptly from his chair, knocking it over backwards.

"What on earth is wrong with you?" Nate says to Brad, hurrying forward to help Walt sit up and bend forward.

Brad turns and storms out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind him and making the house rattle with it.

Walt begins a violent coughing fit, and Nate hopes it will be a short one; sometimes they start and don't stop until Walt is blue in the face and they all think each gasping breath will be his last. There is only a little bit of blood this time. As Nate helps Walt wipe his mouth he can feel how badly Walt is shaking.

"He's scared," Walt croaks, looking up at Nate like he's pleading with him. "Don't leave." He grips Nate's sleeve with surprising strength.

Ray picks up his chair and sits down in it, but he drops his head into his hands.

Nate clenches his jaw and turns to pick up the scattered papers. He flips through one and stops, recognizing it immediately. "How appropriate," he mutters.

"Read it out loud," Walt whispers, leaning back and folding his hands over his stomach.

Nate looks up at him and then back down at the paper, trying to find his voice. "'All mankind is of one author and is one volume,'" he reads. "'When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.'"†

"Fuck, shut up," Ray says, and gets up quickly, making his way to the door and stumbling outside.

"You believe that?" Walt says.

"What?" Nate says, turning away, mostly to hide his face from Walt, who is dying, and not one of them can do a thing about it.

"What you read."

Nate stares down at the words sightlessly. "I think it was written by a man who wanted to know and to be known. We're all alone if we don't have that."

"And heaven is all of us layin' open to one another, just like that."

"We can have that here, too, if we let ourselves," Nate says.

"We don't, though, do we? We have to wait for God to do it for us."

Nate looks out the window at the sun setting. "It's not easy, feeling helpless. You'd think it would be, since feeling helpless means doing nothing." He works his jaw. "And even worse is knowing that you can help but you aren't being allowed to."

"Brad don't lay himself open to no one," Walt says.

Nate doesn't know how to answer that, so he says nothing.


The work gets easier as Nate gets stronger, but he knows that he could be the strongest man in the world and never get through the impenetrable fortress Brad has built around himself. Brad never smiles or laughs and hardly even speaks. Watching the glacial pace of Walt's battle with death takes its toll on all of them, but they never speak of it in front of Walt, a circumstance that does not prevent Walt from evincing terrible and unjustified remorse about his condition that makes everything a thousand times more devastating. Their nerves are all in shreds; they've found dead animals on the porch, heard gunshots in the night and even had to put out another small fire in the field that they all know was started deliberately and maliciously.

Every time Nate even broaches the subject of changing anything, Brad shuts Nate down quickly by telling him he's free to leave if he wishes. Ray doesn't say much of anything and it is perhaps his quietness more than anything else that makes Nate so uneasy about the path they're all on, committed to some bleak ending and unable to see a way out.

Nate contemplates leaving by himself a thousand times. He's sick of the taste of corn and beans and has involuntary, mouthwatering dreams about his mother's insipid but undeniably delicious dinner parties, what it's like to cut into a succulent piece of veal, the feel of pastry melting in his mouth, the cool slide of ice cream down his throat. Even the trite conversation of his mother's society friends and the pompous, tired, cynical wit of his own friends begin to seem preferable through the generous tint of his memory, when every day he faces the depressing, tense silence of mealtime with three other men broken in their various ways. Something is holding him there, however; perhaps, Nate thinks, it is only all the things unspoken, vague possibilities and mirages of what could have been had everything not gone so spectacularly wrong. But that had all been set in motion long before Nate arrived, and he can't shake the feeling that there was a reason he had been sent here, even if that reason was only rescuing Brad and Walt and Ray from the claustrophobic clutches of this land, deceptive in its open vastness.

The weather gets hotter and hotter; Nate's skin turns golden brown from working under the sun. He tears the sleeves off of several shirts to make them cooler, but sheds them altogether when he sees Brad and Ray doing the same. Sometimes he catches Brad watching him, and the ferocity in his face makes Nate tremble. But when Nate straightens and wipes the sweat from his forehead, staring back at Brad and breathing hard, Brad just turns back to his work, his jaw clenched and body taut.

And still Walt hangs on as if he's waiting for something. The sound of his coughing becomes a comfort rather than something to dread, simply because it means he is still fighting death in terms they can all understand; it's when Walt's eyes begin to look vacant and he stares unseeingly at the wall, still and quiet, that they panic. This happens more often after Dr. Bryan makes another visit in mid-June to check on Walt and leave another small glass vial of laudanum. He also decides to bleed him, and Walt lies in his cot like one dead for days afterward, barely moving, the pale grey of his face beginning to look waxy.

Nate braves going into town for his post in July. There's a letter dated in April from the family lawyer informing him that the transition of his father's assets that was to happen on his twenty-fifth birthday has been successfully completed, and hinting strongly that it would be wise of Nate to return to Boston to oversee the business now that he has full control of it. He has also, as Nate requested, enclosed a list of several of the sanatoriums recommended by the family physician, one in Massachusetts, one in upstate New York, and one in Switzerland. "Passage overseas could be arranged at short notice," he writes. "I have already requested a place on the waiting lists of all three. If it is not too late and you wish to proceed, let me know as soon as you are able."

Nate folds the letter up quickly, putting it in his pocket, but when he turns around to start walking home he is confronted with Mattis' smiling face.

"It's been a while, Nate. Didn't know you were still hanging around."

"Didn't you?" Nate says. "Someone seems very concerned with keeping abreast of the happenings in Brad's home."

"That right? Well, now. Perhaps they's just being neighborly."

"That must be it," Nate says dryly. "If you'll excuse me." He brushes past Mattis, but is stopped by his voice.

"You talk to them boys," Mattis says. "My offer's only gonna get lower. Way I hear it, if the crop don't come in this year, Colbert's finished, and I'll have the bank in here and getting that piece of land out from under him so fast he won't know what hit him. I suggest you let him know there ain't nothing he can do about it."

Brad had told no one about the financial pressure he was under, though Nate should have guessed. No wonder they weren't trying to repair the house. The truth was that Nate was not accustomed to thinking about money very much at all and, when he did, had equated the Spartan lifestyle of late with preventative measures rather than those made of necessity.

Nate goes back to the post office and writes a reply to his lawyer. He makes it home quickly enough that Brad doesn't realize that he's been gone. And of course he tells Brad nothing about Mattis' threats.

He does, however, take the next opportunity that offers itself of speaking to Ray when Brad is out of earshot about Brad's financial situation.

"What d'you wanna know?" Ray says. They haven't had rain in a long time, and everything is dryer than it should be. They're both exhausted and miserable; the well is getting low and they've been rationing water.

"Is dire financial straits?"

Ray wipes at his forehead and rests his hands on his hips. "Fuck, I don't know. This place weren't managed well before he came on and I heard tell that the old man left a lot of IOUs behind when he died. I think we was just starting to do alright when he had the house built back when he thought he was gettin' hitched. But in the last few years Mattis and Schwetje have made it near impossible for Brad to sell his crop. He has to pay extra to get his crop to distributors who want to sell cheap. He's also supporting most all of our families. But he must be having trouble if he's lettin' people go like this. No one wants to leave Brad, he takes care of his own."

"You two gonna stand there gossiping like a couple of girls?" Brad calls from across the field.

Ray sighs and goes back to work.

The heat only gets worse, and the air has a strange dryness. They get many thunderstorms but hardly any rain, not nearly enough to keep the crop as healthy as it should be, and everything begins to dry up far too early, stunted and desiccated. Everything is dusty and brown and hot to the touch. Brad has them dig giant trenches around the fields to clear a circumference around them so that if lightning should strike and a fire starts it won't spread too far. It's brutal work and Nate feels like he's broken at the end of every day.

After that's done they spend as much time as they can sitting still out of the sun. Walt suffers more than any of them; Brad carries him outside because it's cooler in the shade of the barn than shut up in the house. Sometimes they even take him to sit in the cellar. It soon becomes a choice between keeping the animals watered and using water for washing up. Nate comes across Brad and Ray helping each other shave their hair off; he asks them to do the same for him so his head won't get so uncomfortably hot when he wears his hat. Ray says he's going to go ask Walt if he wants his hair shorn, and he leaves Brad holding the blade in his hands.

"Come here," Brad says roughly, gesturing at the stool. Nate does, unbuttoning his shirt to pull his collar away from his neck.

Brad takes up the scissors first. He runs one hand through Nate's hair carefully, and Nate has to stop himself from closing his eyes. Brad cuts his hair short, his fingertips pressing gently against Nate's neck and scalp to hold his head steady, and sometimes Nate imagines that they linger a little bit on his skin, but of course he can't be sure. Brad is so careful with the blade when he begins the shave, and Nate's senses are suddenly all heightened, which always seems to be the effect when Brad gets close. He can hear the hum of insects, the crinkling movement of drying corn stalks, the scrape of the blade on his own head, even the soft push of Brad's breath. His hands are so steady, but Nate feels like he's going to melt into the ground. All too soon Brad is done. He wipes at Nate's head with a rag, and then his hand rests for just a moment at the place where Nate's shoulder and neck meet. Then he takes it away, and Nate can tell even in the way he turns to take the supplies back into the house that this rare reprieve from his usual terse, taciturn behavior of late is over.


A traveling photographer named Wright comes to town a few days later. He pulls up in front of the house with his heavy camera and equipment in a small gig and asks if they want their photograph taken for ten dollars and room and board for the night.

"Ten dollars is a lot of money," Brad says.

"I'll pay it," Nate says.

Brad glares at him.

"Best ten dollars you'll ever spend," Mr. Wright says. "This photograph will last your whole life."

"Let's do it!" Ray says, slapping Nate on the back and coming forward to help the photographer unload his equipment. They spend a long time setting up, and Nate tells Brad to shave and gets Walt dressed.

They bring two stools out in front of the house. Walt and Ray are to sit on them, and Brad and Nate stand behind them. They have to stand still for a long time for the exposure; it is fortunate that the sun is so bright and that their sweatiness won't be visible once the photograph is developed.

Walt is tired from this small exertion and Brad is silent and stony, but Ray and Nate enjoy Mr. Wright's stories and conversation and he leaves them the next morning with a clear photograph. Walt looks almost healthy in the picture, since the pallid greyness of his face does not distinguish him from the complexions of the three others. Brad is giant and forbidding, the brim of his hat shadowing his eyes, and Ray looks mischievous. Nate is glad they captured this moment in time. Despite all the things that have happened, he has a feeling this is a time in his life he will always want to remember.


The next time Nate is able to sneak away to check his mail he is not accosted at all; the whole town has been brought to a halt by the eerie stillness of the drought. The streets are nearly empty.

The letter he'd been waiting for has arrived, and he takes a brief moment to pen yet another reply before starting home again.

When he gets back to the house Brad is sitting on the back porch cleaning his rifle. He looks up at Nate and the piercing coldness of his stare fills Nate with dread. Nothing about his sojourn has been easy, but Brad has been so inscrutable and remote of late that Nate is almost afraid of him. He waffles between being afraid of him and being angry with him.

"You told me you were coming back to rest," Brad said, looking up at Nate darkly. "And I find out from Walt that you jaunted off to town."

"I didn't jaunt. I had to check my mail," Nate says shortly, moving quickly toward the door.

Brad is too quick for him, however; he stands in one smooth movement, blocking Nate's way, looming over him.

"Brad. I want to go inside. I have something I need to discuss with Walt."

"If you're going to stay here, Nate, I need to know where you are all the time."

Nate purses his mouth, trying to keep a hold on his temper. "You may not be interested in doing anything to change this situation, Brad, but I am, and I'm damn well going to do it whether I have your permission or not."

Nate can see Brad pale with anger under his dark tan.

"I working my fucking ass off, Nate," Brad hisses. "This is all I know how to do. I have nothing in the world but this land and this farm, but I'm doing the only thing I can, and you have the nerve to tell me I'm not interested in doing anything to change this situation?"

Nate flinches a little bit, angry with himself, now, for letting his temper get away with him. "This is why I was sent here, Brad, it must be. So that I can help you. I've got the money. Let me send Walt to a sanatorium where he can get the help he needs. Then I can loan you the money to hire the men you need to keep the farm productive and the bank at bay and you can turn things around here. I'll make sure you can visit Walt when you want to, and I'll go back to Boston and be out of your life."

Brad stares at him incredulously for a moment, then gives an abbreviated laugh of derision. "You think you can just buy me off like that? Take away everything that's ever meant anything to me, throw money at everything and expect it all to come out right? Walt's gonna die in that place, that fancified death factory parading as a holiday spot. They can't do a thing for him, don't think I don't know that."

Nate wants to shake him. "So obviously you are content to stand by and do nothing! Is that it?" he cries. "I'm trying to help you, it's the only thing I can think of to do, and meanwhile you're sitting here on your land that's becoming more worthless by the day and turning into something that I don't even recognize. You're holding on to something in that head of yours but it isn't what's best for you or Ray or Walt, it's just some stubborn righteousness. You're fighting people who will obviously stoop to the lowest, most despicable ends to achieve their goals, and for what? Just to maintain some illusion of control? Look what they've done to you, they've turned you into a murderer, you think that puts you in control of anything? You're not a murderer, Brad, I know this, and yet you've killed how many men—"

"I live with that," Brad shouts. "You don't have to."

"But I do, Brad," Nate says coldly. "We all do."

Brad scoffs. "You were raised in a different world, with your money and your rich house, everything soft and easy, and you don't like what you see when you have to come down here and see what's happening on the ground, where people have to do awful things to scheme and grasp and hold onto what they need in life."

"Yeah? And what is that? Do you really think it's best for Walt to waste away here and for you to sleep with your rifle and work all of us to death for a principle?"

Brad stares at Nate for a moment and Nate thinks maybe he can see hurt in his eyes. It cuts him to the quick, but before he can say anything Brad turns abruptly and goes into the kitchen, where Ray is trying to repair his boot with a hammer and some tacks and Walt is watching him listlessly. Nate follows, leaving the door open, because the night is warm and Nate likes to be able to watch the fireflies.

"Ray, Walt," Brad says. "Nate has something he wants to say."

With that generous introduction Brad shuts his mouth and crosses his arms.

"Alright," Nate says slowly, silently cursing Brad's abruptness. "Well, I've just had a letter from my lawyer in Boston, and he writes that he's been able to secure you a room in a hospital in Massachusetts, Walt, where you would receive the care you need to fight this. They have some excellent success rates. The best one is in Switzerland but we don't have much time. You could start at the one in Massachusetts and if your condition improves enough to travel we could take you to Switzerland. I've all the arrangements in place should you choose to go. I want to help you, and this is, I believe, the best way I could, maybe the best way anyone could. I just wish we could have done this sooner. What do you think?"

Walt blinks at him for a few seconds and then turns his eyes to Brad.

Brad is silent at first, but Walt just keeps looking at him as if asking for his blessing. Finally Brad clears his throat. "I think you should go, Walt. It's the best chance you've got," he says with obvious difficulty. "I want you here, but I can't keep you here in good conscience knowing that there's a chance you could get better."

"Would I go by myself?" Walt says. His eyes are nearly always watering, but now they look particularly sad.

"No," Nate says. "Ray could accompany you. I can write ahead to make sure there is someone to meet you at the station in Boston and convey you to the sanatorium. I will follow as soon as matters are settled here."

"What matters?" Ray says.

"Matters that don't concern you," Brad says.

Ray sets his jaw but does not press the issue.

Nate continues. "You would like it there, I've seen it. They have beautiful gardens and glass buildings you can sit in during the day. You can have visitors at any time and Ray could even stay with you. It would just be temporary, until you can get better. Brad will even go visit you."

Again Walt looks to Brad as if to verify this, and Brad nods, though his mouth is tight.

"How do we know this'll actually make him better?" Ray says.

"We don't," Nate says, "but I think it's better that he get away from here, with the way things are."

"We could hear you fighting about it, you know," Ray says.

"Then you heard what Nate had to say and why it makes sense," Brad says shortly.

"Why is he suddenly in charge?" Ray says. "He ain't even been here a whole year yet. What, he spends a few days in the field with us and suddenly he's running our lives? I—"

"Ray," Brad says sharply. "Look, I don't want you and Walt to leave. That's the last thing I want, and as angry as I am about everything that's happened in the last year—and I am angry, Ray, I am so angry—Nate is the one good thing that has happened to us. You said it yourself just a few weeks ago."

Ray frowns.

"Now, I'm asking you, I'm asking you both to go to this fancy hospital that only people like Nate can afford, because it'll give Walt a chance that he won't get here. You've trusted me this far and I'm asking you to trust me now, because I trust Nate."

Nate can't quite believe what he's hearing. Brad isn't looking at him, just has his eyes steady on Walt, like he's encouraging him. It's a strange effect; Nate can see almost the exact moment when both Walt and Ray accept Brad's leadership and give in to their trust in him.

"When do we go?" Ray says.

"As soon as possible," Nate says. "We can start for the train station tomorrow. Let's help you get packed now."

There isn't much of anything to pack; Walt has three shirts, his Bible, and a comb. Ray doesn't have much more. They go to sleep early and start out for the station in the middle of the night so that they can do most of the travelling before the sun comes up.

Walt is mostly silent on the drive, propped up as he is on a quilt behind the seat. Ray drives and Brad sits up on the box with him, and Nate sits in back with Walt.

"Am I gonna see you and Brad again?" Walt asks quietly, after they've driven a few hours. Nate can tell from the way Brad's back tenses slightly that he's heard, though Walt has next to no voice by now.

"Of course you will," Nate says. "You'll be safe at the hospital and under the care of some of the best doctors in the country. Maybe even the world. And if you do well maybe I can take you to Europe and they'll make you good as new."

"I just want to get better," Walt says, and Nate can see even in the dark that he's crying.

"You will," Nate says.

Up on the box he sees Brad put a hand to Ray's shoulder for a moment, gripping it tightly as if holding him in place. When he lets go, he turns his head partway and looks back at Nate out of the corner of his eye, and Nate tries not to imagine that he's thinking about what he will do to Nate if it turns out he was all wrong about everything and this separation was all for nothing.

The sun comes up and the ride seems endless. Nate has to get down and walk a few times, unable to stand the stifling stillness of sitting in the bed of the wagon. Walt lies down and they drape the blanket over the sides of the cart to shade him.

Finally, nearly twelve hours later, they arrive at the train station. Nate sends a telegram to his lawyer and buys Walt and Ray their tickets while he waits for a reply. The next train to Des Moines leaves at ten o'clock the next morning, so they arrange to spend the night in a boarding house. They eat a meager meal served by the matron, who has a pinched mouth and seems to resent them deeply for bringing a consumptive boy into her home, though she cannot say no to the money. None of them are able to muster much appetite.

Brad disappears shortly after dinner and Nate and Ray help Walt to the room, which they will share, Walt and Ray in the bed and Brad and Nate on a trundle bed that pulls out from under the big one. Ray stands at the window, silently looking out at the empty, dusty street and frowning. Walt sleeps, and Nate goes downstairs to write letters making arrangements for getting the money together to loan Brad, for Walt and Ray's arrival, and for his own return to Boston, which he cannot but feel will be imminent.

After that is finished he goes to the room and tells Walt and Ray all about what will happen once they get to Boston, trying to assuage Walt's fear and Ray's obvious reluctance.

At nearly eleven o'clock that night Brad returns, hauling a crate of what looks like wine up into the room.

"What's all that?" Nate asks, sitting up from where he's lying in the trundle bed. Walt and Ray blink over at Brad in the darkness.

"Traded one of the horses for it," Brad says, dropping the crate in the corner and taking his hat off.

"You traded a horse for a case of wine?"

"It's a fuckin' drought, Nate. It's not as if we'll be needing the horse on the farm anyway, is it, with all the boys gone?"

"Are you drunk?"

Brad laughs. "No, Nate, I'm not drunk. Hell, I wish I was."

"You know spirits are not permitted in this house, she was very clear—"

Brad laughs. "Yeah, what's she gonna do about it? I wasn't exactly fighting my way through a crowd waiting for the pleasure of letting one of her beautiful rooms when I came in the door just now."

"But the horse—"

"One less animal to keep watered," Brad says tersely. "And trust me, we're gonna need this wine if we don't get some more rain soon."

"Give me one of those," Ray says, climbing out of the bed.

Brad takes one out of the case and tosses it at Ray, who catches it and pops the cork, taking a swig.

"Don't let 'em catch you with that on the train," Brad says.

Ray rolls it up in one of his shirts and stuffs it into the burlap sack that they're using for luggage.

Nate lies down again and turns his back to the room so that he's facing the wall. He's worried about a lot of things - about Walt, about what it will be like with Brad when it's just the two of them and these crates of wine, Brad simmering with resentment and anger at the whole world, Nate included. And he's worried about what it will mean to say goodbye to Brad when the time comes. Despite the awful way things have been lately, it will be even worse to be separated from Brad, to know he's alive in the world and yet so far away.

The air in the room is stifling even with the windows open. He can hear the soft rustle of clothing as Brad takes his shirt off, and soon he's flopping down on the bed behind Nate, causing it to shift. The mattress is old and there's a dip in the middle; Nate involuntarily rolls right to the center, his shoulder and side flush against Brad's.

They both lie there silently, Nate too scared of drawing attention to their situation to move and Brad as inscrutable as ever. Nate is painfully aware of Brad's every breath, the slow, steady movement of his chest, and he can smell alcohol on Brad.

The minutes tick by, and Brad's breathing is so steady that Nate begins to think he's asleep. It is uncannily light in the room because of the moonlight coming through the window. Nate turns his head as carefully as he can and looks over at Brad. Brad has his eyes closed and does, indeed, look to be asleep. Nate takes the opportunity to study him close up, his eyes sweeping over Brad's profile. His skin is pale, almost blue in the moonlight, like marble. Nate's gaze shifts up to his hairline, and that's when he notices that he can see the tiny throb of Brad's pulse beating quickly at his temple.

Nate jerks back involuntarily, realizing that Brad is awake and probably aware of Nate turning to study him. Brad does not stir at Nate's sudden movement, further evidence that he wasn't asleep, just keeping still, a pretence for Nate's benefit while his heart raced. Nate quickly turns around again, trying to still the beating of his own heart.

Everyone wakes up unrested and volatile; Brad and Ray get into a shouting argument over who forgot to wind the small clock in the room and Walt is completely silent. The morning is sticky and hot and still and moving at all is abhorrent, but they all drag themselves to the station, Walt leaning heavily on Brad and Ray.

When it is nearly time to board the train, Ray takes Nate's arm and drags him a bit away from the bench where Brad and Walt are sitting.

"You'll come get us as soon as you can?" he says, with the air of a skeptic who will doubt any answer Nate gives him.

"Yes," Nate says. "There are just some things about the farm I need to work out with Brad first."

"I'll be okay, but you can't forget about Walt. I know it's easy and all, thinkin' you wanna help him, but if you go back to your rich life in Boston you can't just have your lawyer send a check to the hospital and forget about Walt. He ain't got much time left."

"What makes you think I would forget about him?"

"You been cut off from the world here at Brad's. I just know, it's different when you get back with your old friends and old ways."

"I won't forget about either of you. I'll be back soon, I just need to help Brad settle things down here a little."

Ray grimaces and scuffs at the dirt under his shoe.

"Listen. I...maybe you already know, maybe I shouldn't say if you don't. Maybe it was clear as day to you when you first came here. But there's more reasons than just his worries about the farm that Brad is the way he is. Most folks have heard even though they don't know if it's true or not. The ones who work for Brad may've heard and don't care 'cause they got things in their own past that they don't want told or they know the world ain't a fair place."

"Maybe Brad doesn't want this talked about—"

"I think you should know, it might give you a better understanding of why he is the way he is and why he's stubbornly holding onto that piece of land like they're gonna have to rake his bones away to get him to leave it. He shoulda left a long time ago, back when all this trouble started. Ain't nothin' been easy since the story spread after he bought the farm. Someone passing through town recognized Brad from when he was a kid and that's when folks started talkin' behind his back."

Nate knows he should probably stop Ray, that this is something he shouldn't know if Brad has not told him, but he can't quite bring himself to say anything, because he wants to know everything about Brad, is so deeply in love with him that he's greedy for any little bit to do with Brad, whether true or untrue, real or made-up, exaggerated or downplayed.

"You probably know he was adopted," Ray says, "by a family that'd been out here a while. Brad's real parents were Swedish immigrants, I think his name when he was young was Alexander. But the whole family 'cept Brad died in a typhoid outbreak only a few weeks after they got here. Brad was old enough to know bad luck and what it would mean for him, but he was taken in by this family. They'd had a boy named Brad who died and they wanted to replace him, or so the story goes, but of course they just ended up hating him for not being their boy. So they treated him like just another hand around the place, 'cept he didn't have to be hired; he was cheap 'cause he was adopted. They was real hard on him and I think he was beaten and pushed around a lot. It weren't a real family for him."

These kinds of stories are not uncommon, Nate knows, but still it is difficult to think of Brad living this life.

"When he was about thirteen they threw him out with nothing, no money, no references, nothing. He had nowhere to go and from what I heard everyone wondered why. But the story soon got out, probably because their daughter told. They had another son who was real close to Brad, they was always sleepin' together and Brad was always doin' this boy's work for him. He was kind of a sickly child, 's what they say, but he clung to Brad something fierce. And what I heard is..." Ray's voice trails off.

"What?" Nate prompts, though he thinks maybe he already knows. "What did you hear?"

"They say old Mr. Colbert found the two of them getting a little too close, if you know what I mean. The boy blamed Brad and Brad didn't say a word, though they cut his back open with a bullwhip and threw him in a ditch out in the middle of nowhere."

"And people still tell this story," Nate says.

"Yeah. I think the root of the problem in Mathilda is that they're afraid of this, they think he's bringin' some evil to their town, some real biblical Sodom and Gomorrah shit, and Brad don't ever do nothing to help himself in their eyes. People bring up the fiancée who left him as proof, and Brad's too proud to ever even acknowledge he knows this is what people think about him or to defend himself when people spit at him and try to hurt him because of it."

Ray takes hold of both of Nate's lapels, fisting them tightly. "I been thinkin' about this, I thought long and hard on the drive over here and last night, when none of us could sleep. Me and Brad and Walt, all we've got is each other, the other guys come and go but the three of us have been family for a long time now. But Brad's always been in charge of us, he's always had to take care of us and it's like he's our dad more than anything. And because he feels that responsibility for us that makes it impossible to help him. He won't lean on no one 'cause everyone's leaning on him. And then Walt gets so sick and it's made everything even worse. But then you came and we could all see Brad looked up to you. And I see now why I gotta go with Walt, why we have to leave Brad at least for a while, because we weren't doing any good here anyway, being such a burden on him. Now, I don't know what he's trying to prove by staying here, but he's got you and you're going to see it through, right?"

Nate feels his eyes watering slightly. He nods.

Ray shakes Nate emphatically, just once, still gripping Nate's lapels. "You need to either help him erase this from their memories so it don't color everything he does, or you need to help him let go of whatever he's trying so hard to hold on to and get him the fuck out of here."

He lets go and steps back, almost glaring at Nate before turning and walking back to where Brad is sitting with Walt on the bench. Walt is leaning on Brad with his eyes closed, pale as a sheet despite the heat.

They help Walt onto the train and then it's time to say goodbye. Nate gives them his card for introductions and Brad gives them money. Walt looks up at him blankly.

"Don't worry. Got it for that horse," Brad says. Then he leans down, his hand resting lightly on Walt's shoulder, and says something quietly next to Walt's ear that no one else can hear. Walt nods and looks down at his hands.

Ray just looks at Brad, his brown eyes infinitely sad, and then takes his seat. Brad walks off the train quickly.

"Good luck," Nate says. "I'll be there as soon as I am able. Maybe with Brad in tow."

Walt looks up. "If I don't see you again—"

"You will," Nate says automatically.

"But if I don't," Walt says with surprising vehemence. "I want to thank you for everything you've done and are still trying to do."

"You're welcome," Nate says. "I only wish it were in my power to do more."

The conductor calls the all aboard, so Nate shakes both their hands and leaves the train. Brad is standing in the shadows of the depot with his arms folded, his face shuttered. Nate stands next to him and they watch the train depart. A few other people watch it go, waving and calling goodbyes, but Brad and Nate are silent.

When the train can no longer be seen Brad turns to leave, Nate following, not knowing what to say or do. They water the horse and start out for home, neither of them speaking, though the silence is as taut as a bow string. Or, Nate reflects, maybe that is just his imagination, because he now has so much to mull over after Ray's revelations at the train depot.

The heat is worse today than it was yesterday, and they have to stop in the shade of one of the scarce trees along the road to wait out the worst of the sun toward late afternoon. Everything is dry, yellow, dusty. Nate leans back against the trunk of the tree and closes his eyes, trying to swallow though his throat is dry, while Brad unhitches the horse to bring it under the shade, too. It's foaming at its sides, glistening with sweat and heaving.

The minutes tick by; even the insects are silent.

"What did Ray tell you?" Brad says abruptly.

Nate opens his eyes.

Brad is standing with his back to Nate, looking out over the plains that stretch endlessly in every direction.

"He told me a little bit about your childhood," Nate says, choosing his words carefully. "And he wanted to make sure that there was something I could do to change the situation here."

"And that's loaning the money to keep me from losing the farm, is that it?"

The harshness in Brad's voice makes Nate want to moan his frustration aloud, some long wail of supplication meant to show Brad how much it pains Nate to see him suffer, to know this terrible history of his, to know that all of Brad's stubbornness stems from having felt helpless all his life to have any control over his destiny. But even though he knows Brad might understand, might truly listen to the words he's saying, what Ray told Nate only convinces Nate more that Brad would never allow himself to accept what Nate wants to give him most of all. Nate knows now that, barring some apocalyptic circumstance, whatever it is that exists between the two of them, no matter how close they get to it, the world they inhabit and the circumstances of both of their lives will ensure that it is unattainable in this lifetime.

Nate wants to blame Brad for it, for refusing to rise above the unfairness of a past that has followed him despite his attempts to make something of himself, but that, too, is unfair, and Nate won't be on the other side, trying to pull Brad in yet another direction. All he can offer is his financial support, but it appears Brad is going to make this difficult, too, and Nate wants to get on his knees before Brad and beg him to let Nate make life a little easier in this one small way.

"Brad," Nate says finally, "I'd take care of all of it if you'd let me. I'd pay for every loss and want nothing for it but that you be left in peace to do what you want. Even if..." Even if what you want has nothing to do with me, Nate wants to say, but he stops himself because that would bring everything that Brad seems determined not to acknowledge out in the open.

"I've never had to ask anyone for help," Brad says. "Not since my parents died and help did me more harm than good."

"We'll make the arrangements," Nate says, "and then I'll leave for Boston and you can be sure that no further harm will come to you from my help."

"If that's how you want it," Brad says.

"It's not how I want it," Nate says harshly. "It's how you want it, it's what circumstances dictate, is it not?"

Brad doesn't answer, which is what Nate has come to expect by now, a fact that doesn't make it any less frustrating.

When the sun starts to set they hitch the horse up again and start down the road.

Nate dozes off after dark a few times, ending up with his cheek on Brad's shoulder. Brad rouses him gently when they get back to the house, which is dark and empty, of course, and they fall onto their cots in exhaustion as soon as they can.

When he wakes up Nate thinks it's dawn because of the light on the wall coming through the window of the room they're sleeping in, but it's a strange, dim, flickering orange light, and in an instant Nate knows something is terribly wrong. He stumbles up out of the cot and to the window, and he can see huge flames licking up at the black sky from the corn fields. Acres and acres are ablaze already, the dryness having made the fire catch quickly, and the smell of smoke is heavy in the air.

He turns around and sees Brad sleeping, still dead to the world and to this new calamity. Nate puts a hand to his shoulder, pressing it lightly for a moment, and Brad shifts a little, making a small noise. Nate's heart is beating fast out of fear and panic about the fire and terror at the prospect of Brad having to face yet another terrible blow to everything he has worked so hard for. There is no way they will be able to salvage the crop now, and Brad will be even worse off. Nate remembers wishing for some apocalyptic event that would force Brad to let go of everything, but now that it has happened he wishes it hadn't, afraid of what it will do to Brad.

"Brad," Nate says, his voice cracking, and shakes him. "Brad, wake up, please—"

Brad's eyes blink open and he looks up at Nate, still confused, and the look in his eyes makes Nate's eyes water.

"Brad, there's a fire—the fields—everything's burning," Nate says, feeling like something is choking him.

Brad's face hardens with frightening quickness, and he sits up. They both fell into bed with their shoes still on. Brad pulls his suspenders up over his shoulders and strides out toward the door, Nate hurrying after him.

The smoke is thick enough and the air still enough that it's difficult to breathe. The only thing to be thankful for is that there is hardly any wind, and what little wind there is seems to be blowing the fire away from the house and barn. The fields are dry and withered enough that the burn is quick and won't get too hot. Brad makes his way toward the edge of the field, which is already charred and barren, and just watches as the fire voraciously leaps across hundreds of acres, the stillness of his silhouette against the flames making Nate's eyes burn more than the smoke.

"Should we try to chase it? Let the others know?" Nate croaks over the crackle and roar.

"Don't bother," says a new voice, and they both turn around to see Trombley smiling and sitting Brad's horse, holding a rifle. "They all know, they was all in on it. They've been planning something like this for a while, only they was too scared to go through with it. But I wasn't." He chews the grass between his teeth and smirks out at the fire as if delighted by it. "Ain't nothing personal, Brad, and it never was. Hope you know that. "

He urges the horse toward the road but turns around abruptly.

"Oh, and I let all your animals out. Seems they weren't too keen on sticking around to watch the blaze."

Brad doesn't say a word. He'd turned around shortly after Trombley made his presence known and didn't dignify Trombley's speech with any response whatsoever.

Nate is almost afraid to look at Brad's face but he wants to very badly, so he comes forward.

"Brad," he says.

Brad doesn't move; maybe he hasn't heard Nate, but Nate sees wetness on his cheek, a streak through the dirt. Before he can stop himself, Nate reaches out to touch it.

The moment he makes contact Brad turns his head and catches Nate's wrist in a strong grip. Nate can see the fire reflected in Brad's eyes; he's terrifying, again, some horrific pain in his face—defeat, perhaps, or scorching anger, something so strong that it is impossible to conceal, even for Brad.

"There's nothing we can do," Brad says, like this is something he has tried to keep from saying his whole life and can't hold in anymore.

"I'm so sorry," Nate says. Brad is still gripping his wrist, so tight that the blood flow is cut off from his hand.

Brad draws him closer, Nate stumbling over the few steps between them, and Brad catches him around the waist with his other hand. The roar from the fire dims in Nate's ears to be replaced by the roaring in his own ears; he stares up at Brad, both of them on that brink they've been on before, and Nate has one wild moment to wonder whether Brad is going to jump, this time, before Brad bends down quickly and kisses Nate.

It's different from any other kiss he's ever experienced. Brad is fierce, and Nate feels his insides turn to liquid as Brad's arms crush him close. Brad is huge, his body wrapping around Nate's and lifting him up off the ground so they can reach each other. His hands are everywhere, sure and strong, and Nate hears himself make horrible, shameful noises when he feels Brad's hand reaching down the back of his thigh to bring them flush against each other. Everything around them is hot, but nothing burns like Brad's mouth on him, on his lips, the line of his jaw, his neck, everywhere Brad can reach. Nate has his own hands fisted in Brad's shirtfront. They're both sweaty and covered in dirt but there's something about rubbing it all off on each other that is the most intimate thing Nate has ever done. Why now, he wants to ask, why next to your burning crop? But Nate thinks he knows the answer, and all he can do is give Brad everything he wants, to let Brad have his way for once, because it is what Nate has wanted for so long now too.

Brad breaks away and buries his face in Nate's neck, and Nate can feel the wetness of Brad's tears, can feel the way Brad's chest is heaving. Nate wraps his arms around Brad's shoulders and runs his hand over the short blond fuzz on Brad's head, hair that has just started growing back. He feels silly and useless, trying to soothe Brad like a child, but Brad just holds on tightly and breathes against Nate's neck, his trembling slowly subsiding.

The fire is farther away by now and dawn is breaking, the sky turning grey over the charred ground directly before them. Nate can see the fire checked at some of the barriers they dug.

Brad raises his head and they look out at the damage together.

"I'm so tired," Brad says.

Nate turns back to look up at him, eyes going over every inch of his beautiful, tired face, and cups his cheek in one hand.

"It will be alright," Nate says. "What you lost—"

"I've got you," Brad says possessively, nearly growling the words, "I've got you now, and that's all that matters. Nothing I've done matters until now, starting from now, with you."

He scoops Nate up in his arms and carries him back to the ruins of his house, dropping him down on Brad's cot in the little room they've been sharing and falling down into the tiny space with him.

"I've lost everything," Brad says, leaning over Nate, "but you, you I'll hold onto forever. You're trapped, Nate, I'm never letting you go."

"No," Nate moans, "don't ever let me go."

They both smell like smoke, but it doesn't matter; they cling to each other anyway, Nate tucked up under Brad's chin, and fall asleep together, the fire dying outside, everything tying Brad to this place going up in the billowing black smoke.


Brad is still asleep when Nate wakes. It must be late afternoon; the air is heavy and humid but cooler, and Nate thinks he can hear thunder in the distance. As quietly as he can he raises himself up so he can see out the kitchen window through the door of the room. There's smoke rising from a few places but mostly the fire has burnt itself out, held in check by the ditches Brad was so determined to keep clear around his land. They'd dug them around 60-acre blocks, so Nate thinks Trombley must have gone to each field to set fire to them all, ending with the ones closest to the house.

There's still smoke in the sky, or maybe, Nate hopes, they're real clouds.

He lies back down, head pillowed on one of his hands, and watches Brad sleep. Brad is sprawled on his stomach, head turned to the side like he'd fallen asleep watching Nate. Nate reaches over and runs a finger lightly over Brad's forehead. Brad flinches a little but doesn't wake up, and Nate withdraws his hand.

"Brad," Nate whispers, soft enough that he won't wake Brad, but out loud, because he wants some part of Brad to hear this, even if he is not aware of it.

"I wondered for so long why I was here. My family thought I was just running away from my responsibilities. I told them I needed to get away for a while, to find something that would allow me to take over my father's work and start living the life I was trained to live. And I wondered what good I could do for you, why fate had conspired to bring me here, to your house, to be confronted with all the terrible things you are facing, all the cruelty and unfairness, the unkindness of people, the small-minded hatred they bear for those who think or act differently. I hated that I was just a burden to you."

He touches Brad's eyebrow as gently as he can, marveling at the pale downward tilt of it, so low over his eyes, the way it serves to make Brad look so forbidding when he chooses, but so harmless and innocent now.

"But you did need my help. I had something I could give you, I just had to find out what that was. And it wasn't money, like I thought for a long time. You taught me to care about things and to fight for them, to be tenacious and own up to responsibilities. I came for you to give me that, but I also came to free you from being crushed under all of that, to help you let go of taking responsibility for all the evil things that happen in the world. I want you to let yourself lean on me, to let me be the one you look to if you feel alone, to show you how we can try to be happy. I think I can see the way, even if we have to rely on your strength to carry us through. Do you understand? I hope you do."

Brad's hand is resting in the space between them, and Nate covers it with his own hand, their fingers entwining. Brad stirs at that, his eyes blinking open, and Nate imagines he can see their whole history in Brad's eyes as he stares at Nate, smiling slightly and curling his fingers to hold on.

Nate can't help it; he leans over and bites at the cleft in Brad's chin, something he's wanted to do for months and months. He can feel Brad's skin stretch under his teeth as Brad smiles, laughs, even, a low rumble in his chest. Nate reaches down to unbutton Brad's shirt, his fingers trembling slightly, but Brad waits patiently, never taking his eyes off Nate's face.

When Nate gets the buttons open he presses his hand to Brad's sternum, feeling the lean hardness under the soft bronze of his skin.

Brad sits up to pull his shirt off, then reaches over to yank Nate's open, buttons flying, but Nate doesn't care. Brad rolls over on top of him and Nate can barely think. Brad's mouth is all over, and he works his way down Nate's chest, licking and biting and sucking so that Nate doesn't know whether to laugh or moan. His stomach caves when Brad rests his cheek against it, rubbing his face against the skin there like it's comforting to him.

Nate is so hard he thinks he might embarrass himself, and Brad makes it infinitely worse when he mouths Nate through the fabric of his trousers. Nate is shocked; he's never done anything like this in his life but it feels good enough that he doesn't care where Brad learned to do that.

"Brad," he moans, looking down, and Brad looks up, resting his chin on Nate's hip.

"What do you want, Nate?" Brad asks, running his hand along Nate's flank.

Nate thinks for a moment. "I want you here close to me," he says finally, and Brad smiles, hoisting himself up so that he's lying beside Nate, head propped up on one arm.

"And what else do you want?"

"I...want you to touch me," Nate says, fighting embarrassment, but the hungry look on Brad's face makes him brave.

"Like this?" Brad whispers, and his hand moves down into Nate's trousers.

Nate reaches down to undo them and pull them aside, and Brad leans down to kiss the side of Nate's head as he starts stroking Nate, slow and sure and deliberate.

Nate hisses and turns his face into Brad's. Their breath mingles and Nate's heart-rate climbs with each movement of Brad's hand.

"Brad," Nate says.

"You're all mine, ain't you?" Brad says, his speech lapsing and his own breath quickening. "God, Nate, you're here with me, after everything, I got you right here."

"Please, Brad," Nate says getting desperate, trying not to arch up off the cot but wanting to push his hips into Brad's fist and let go.

"Come on, Nate, I wanna see, I wanna see you—"

"Brad!" Nate cries just before he loses his mind completely, Brad's lips pressed to his temple and his other arm around his shoulders, like Brad is catching up all of Nate's pleasure and hoarding it between them, keeping it safe.

No sooner does Nate go limp then Brad reaches down to undo his own trousers. He rolls over onto Nate and pushes up against him. Nate is so blissed out that he can barely move, but he raises his knees and cradles Brad's hips between his thighs. Brad supports his weight on his forearms and lets his head hang down, rocking his hips against Nate in tight little thrusts, his huge frame rocking the small cot. When he comes he groans loudly, and Nate catches up Brad's pleasure, too, holds it all close to him. When Brad collapses on top of him Nate reaches around to run his fingertips over Brad's back, over the painting he knows by memory, now, from having stared at his shirtless body in the fields so often. And he feels what the painting was meant to conceal—thick, raised welts, scars from childhood beatings.

Brad doesn't jerk away, just lets Nate feel him and learn him, their bodies slowly stilling. Nate feels strangely cool after having come, and everything is just right, perfect even, though they are lying in a half-wrecked house next to burning fields.

"Will you take me to Boston so I can see the ocean again?" Brad says.

"Yes," Nate says. "I'll take you anywhere. We'll get Ray and Walt and sail across the ocean, go to Europe, see the Alps. Walt will recover and we can start again, you can help me reorganize the family business if you like. Or we can go somewhere all new."

They continue making plans like children plotting an adventure. When they get hungry Nate scrounges for food in the pantry while Brad goes down to the cellar. By dusk they're eating carrots and beans in the shade of the porch, clouds gathering dark and heavy on the horizon.

"I smell rain," Brad says.

Nate smiles. He doesn't know if it's really coming or not, but he is content to believe, with Brad, that it will.

†The painting in Brad's room is Fishermen at Sea (1796) by Joseph Mallord William Turner.
†Nate quotes John Keats' Ode to Autumn, Psalms 103:12, and John Donne's Meditation XVII from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1623).

[identity profile] 2010-02-07 03:02 am (UTC)(link)
Beautiful, wonderful, sweeping, gorgeous. I have nothing intelligent to say, apologies. ♥

[identity profile] 2010-02-09 03:34 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you so much for reading :)