David sat against the rough wooden boards of the cow stall and watched Gertrude die. She opened her big brown eyes once toward the end and gazed at him for a long moment. In the glow of the lantern light, her lashes cast deep shadows so David couldn’t see what emotion might be in those eyes. Was she grateful he was sitting up with her? Did she know it was time to go? Was she relieved to finally be leaving this farm where she’d spent her entire long life?
But she was just a cow. Probably she thought none of those things. When she closed her eyes again, it was for the last time. An hour later she stopped breathing, and she was gone.
It felt like an era passed with her, silently and stealthily. David was there when Gertrude was born. She was the first cow that was his, designated as such while still in the womb, a birthday present from his parents. He raised her and showed her at the Harrisburg farm fair when he was in eleventh grade. She was a beautiful brown jersey with classic lines, and she won a third-place ribbon that day. David was proud enough to burst. For years afterward Gertrude was a reliable, strong milking cow.
A farmer didn’t get sentimental about animals. That was plain stupid. But David was not able to kill Gertrude when her milk production fell off. She’d half performed for another decade until he eventually retired her to pasture. If anyone asked, he told them it was good to have a mature cow around to show the rebellious younger ones what was what, teach them the routine. And Gertrude was a leader by personality. She knew how to put other cows and heifers in their places. But the truth was, David just couldn’t bear to load her in the truck and take her to the slaughterhouse.
She was a part of his boyhood, and it was right she was dead now. God knew the boy in him was a far distant memory.
He turned off the lights in the barn and walked back to the house. It was foolishness to have stayed up with her. The day’s work had to be done whether or not he had a good night’s rest. He was too old for this.
The light in the kitchen was on as he approached the house. He checked his watch. It was just past 5:00 a.m. Amy must be up.
For the past two years, Amy had come home from college for the summer to work as a nursing intern at the Lancaster hospital and to help him run a CSA program on the farm. It was Amy who did all the customer work. She made up the flyers, packed the boxes of produce, and met with the customers every week when they came to pick up their shares. She was good at that sort of thing. He wished he could pay her more, but like every other operation on the farm, the profit from the CSA was a very faint line of green. David honestly didn’t know how most farmers made it. His grandfather had paid off the farm, but still, between property taxes, upkeep and maintenance, animal feed, and everything else, he made just enough to get by. As his dad used to say, the gravy was thin.
He opened the sliding glass door and saw Amy in her bathrobe pulling some fresh eggs from the fridge.
“Hey, Dad.” She yawned. “What are you doing out at the barn so early?”
“Aw! That’s a shame.” Amy didn’t sound too broken up about it. Then again Amy learned young not to get attached to the animals.
He grabbed a glass from the cupboard, went to the fridge, and poured himself some orange juice. But when he went to lift it to his mouth, he was surprised to discover a hard, thick lump in his throat. He put the glass back on the counter and breathed. Ridiculous. He hadn’t gotten particularly choked up, even when Susan died. But then she was sick for a few years. Her death was a blessing in the end.
“Things live. Things die. That’s the way of it.” His voice was gruff, but the lump eased. He drank his juice.
When he put the glass down, Amy was watching him with a frown. “You sound so cynical. I worry about you, Dad. You should take Mrs. Robeson up on her offer for dinner. I think she really likes you.”
“I’m not interested in Mrs. Robeson.”
Amy rolled her eyes. “You should give her a chance. Mom’s been gone two years now. She wouldn’t want you to be alone forever. And Mrs. Robeson taught both Joe and me in Sunday school. She’s a very nice lady.”
David gave Amy a warning look. “I don’t care to discuss my love life, thank you. Are you gonna cook those eggs, or are you waiting for them to hatch?”
Amy snorted a laugh, but she opened a cupboard and brought out a skillet. “Slave driver! I just worry about you. I hate that you’re all alone here when I go back to school. Joe hardly ever comes home.”
“I don’t mind.”
“I know! That’s the problem. You’re turning into a crusty old hermit. Next time I see you, you’ll have a beard down to your belly button. I know you live on TV dinners, hotdogs, and chips. It’s not healthy. You should get remarried. I know Pastor Mitchell thinks so.”
“Pastor Mitchell wants to get some of his old maids and widows married off so he doesn’t have to handhold them so much. I’m not interested.”
David was half teasing, but Amy still gasped. “Dad! That’s a terrible thing so say!”
David waggled his eyebrows, unrepentant, and exited the kitchen.
He went upstairs and took a shower. The sleepless night hit him along with the hot water, and he knew it would be a long day. Why had he felt compelled to sit up with Gertrude? She probably hadn’t even known he was there. But at the thought of her, another wave of sadness hit him. An image ran through his mind—one of falling leaves and the boy he’d been playing in them, laughing. He had no idea where that came from or why.
Out of the shower, he used a hand to wipe off the fogged mirror. He looked at himself critically to see if he could get away with not shaving this morning. His reflection surprised him briefly, as it always did. He felt so old. He always expected to see white hair and a sagging face when he looked in the mirror. But there were only a few strands of gray at the temples of his dark-brown hair and in his close-cropped beard. His face was not young, but it wasn’t sagging yet either. He’d lost a good thirty pounds since Susan died, so he actually looked younger.
Fine. He might not look old, but he sure felt it. And he suddenly understood why he sat up with Gertrude. He wanted to watch her as she escaped the farm at last, as she simply left her body and went away, gone where no one could prevent her going and no one could follow.
One day David would leave too, maybe just that way. He’d shut his eyes and vanish, leaving a shell behind. But dear Lord, he was only forty-one this past May. Even if he died when his dad did, at age fifty-eight, he had years to wait yet.
Just to… wait.
He couldn’t bear the melancholy look of his reflection. Foolishness! With a huff of self-disgust, David dried himself off and brushed his teeth, avoiding glancing in the mirror again. He was in a hurry now. Chores awaited and no one was going to do them for him.
* * *
Christie got to his feet in the small bathroom stall. He had to put his hand on the wall to help himself up, though whether it was due to the booze he’d consumed or his thirty-year-old bones was anybody’s guess. The thump thump of the bass from the music out front made the black stall quiver under his hand.
“That was great! Can I return the favor?” The young Latino hottie looked at Christie hopefully.
“No thanks. I’m good.”
Christie hadn’t gotten off, but he was cool with that. He got hard, and he had some fun with his hand down his pants, but he’d lost the urge to climax. And that was definitely down to the dirty martinis. The martinis and his own ennui. He only agreed to hook up with the guy because he was obviously a tourist, and he screwed up his courage to come over and talk to Christie. He hadn’t wanted to reject the kid. And yeah, the guy was hot too, with light caramel-colored skin and big soulful eyes. He was so young and green he was practically fluorescent.
“Fantastic. Oh—wait. I have something.” The guy dug a baggie containing three blue pills from his jeans pocket. “X, man. Guy gave me a sample. Says it’s awesome stuff.” He opened up the baggie, took out one pill, and held the baggie open for Christie.
“No thanks. I’ve had too much to drink already.”
The guy shrugged and swallowed his pill dry. “Save ’em for later, then. And think of me.” He winked, closed the baggie, and stuffed it in the front pocket of Christie’s tight jeans.
“Thanks.” Christie smiled. He didn’t plan to take the pills, but it was nice of the guy to offer.
“Have a good night!”
The young hottie left the bathroom. Christie followed at a slower pace, washing his hands at the sink and rinsing out his mouth. In the mirror his pupils were large, the black surrounded by only a sliver of blue. He looked washed-out too, old. He suddenly felt on the tired side of drunk. He wanted to go home.
Out in the club, he made his way through the crush of bodies. It was Saturday night and The Boiler Room was packed to health-hazard levels. Christie didn’t have the patience for it. He’d been feeling off lately, more critical of his usual scene. He surveyed the crowd looking for his roommate, Kyle.
The dance floor and bar area held the usual mix of tourists looking for the “gay New York club experience” and the regulars, who were dotted here and there in clusters. Christie knew all the regulars. He was one himself. And of course there were the assorted jack-offs with their eyes focused on their phones. What are you looking at? Grindr? You’re at a club, douchebag.
The flash of annoyance reminded him of why he was tired of this scene. It was so shallow, so transient. The tourists came and went and the regulars stayed, growing bitchier and more cynical by the year—not to mention older. Christie included.
And Jesus Christ, was it just him, or were the twinks getting younger every day? Babies, all of them. That was Christie once. Now he felt like aged beef. The thrill of it had definitely begun to wane, but it was hard to break the habit of eight long years. All his friends in the city were into this scene, especially Kyle. His best friend was nowhere close to wanting to rein in the party just yet.
Christie spotted Kyle on the dance floor with Billy. Billy was a local too. He was a big, sweet-hearted muscle guy who had a massive crush on Kyle. They slept together now and then, but Kyle was the last guy on earth to settle down. He’d hooked up with at least one other guy tonight Christie knew of for sure, a cute redhead. He also looked plowed.
Christie made his way over to them. “Hey!” he hollered. “I’m ready to head out.”
Kyle pouted and took both of Christie’s hands, forcing him to dance. They danced together for a few minutes, but Christie really was over it. It was after 1:00 a.m., and he just wanted to leave. “You gonna stay?” he asked Kyle.
Kyle shook his head. “No. I’m good. Let’s go.” He kissed Billy hotly, and they waved good-bye to the regulars as Kyle pulled Christie out the exit.
They walked the six blocks to their place. Christie loved living in the East Village, but he had to admit the proximity of The Boiler Room was a huge factor in his decision to sublease his pricey but tiny apartment. And it certainly was a factor in Kyle’s moving in. Their place was only a one bedroom, but Christie paid more rent, so he got the privacy. Kyle slept on a pull-down wall bed in the living room. It was a constant battle to keep the place from looking trashed. But despite its many disadvantages, the apartment had three undeniable perks: location, location, location.
They all but carried each other up the six flights of stairs. As was their postclub routine, they kicked off their shoes, scooted out of their tight jeans, and settled on the couch for a final round in their underwear. Kyle lit a joint, and Christie grabbed a half-full bottle of red wine from the kitchen and uncorked it. He slouched back on the couch and held the bottle aloft on his palm, testing his sobriety. It wobbled. A lot.
“You’re gonna spill that, idiot!” Kyle complained. “And that’s, like, wed wine!”
“Wed wine?” Christie giggled. Kyle handed him the joint, and Christie took it with one hand, put it to his lips, and inhaled. Just one toke. He was still drunk on the martinis.
“Wed!” Kyle tried again. “W-Rrred! Red! Wine!”
They both cracked up. The red wine in question tipped dangerously. Christie passed Kyle the joint and brought the bottle to his lips. “Guess we’d better hurry up and drink it, then, before I spill it.”
Kyle took a hit, held it, and let it out in a fragrant cloud. He took another immediately, toking so hard the paper on the joint flamed red. Man, that guy could smoke a joint down to a nub in minutes. He held the joint out to Christie.
“Nah, I’m good.”
Kyle shrugged and took another deep drag.
“Thank God I don’t need to get up early tomorrow. Sundays rule,” Christie sighed. He was already dreading the hangover.
“Except the day after Sunday is Monday,” Kyle bitched, sounding funny because he was trying to hold in the smoke.
“Don’t remind me.”
Christie used to love his job as a graphic designer. But lately he’d been uninspired, and his relationship with his boss had soured too. He knew it was his fault. He wasn’t working up to his usual level. He needed to hit up an art gallery or something. Find some fresh motivation. Maybe he would do that tomorrow—a lazy Sunday art stroll.
His eyes fell on the stack of legal documents lying on the coffee table. Or…. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Could that provide some fresh motivation? He snorted. It’d provide fresh manure, more likely.
Kyle noticed what he was looking at. He started singing, loud and purposefully off-key. “Old McDonald had a farm, eeii-eeii-ooo!”
Kyle snorted like a pig and snuffled against Christie’s shoulder. Christie laughed.
“I keep telling you, it’s not a farm, it’s just a house,” Christie protested.
“’S not the city, ergo it’s a farm. Flies, pig shit, and really, really, really tall corn or green beans or whatever.”
“You’re so wasted. It’s a little house in farm country. Quit drooling on me, and put that out before you burn your fingers.” Christie shoved Kyle over. Kyle blearily put the nub of his joint in the ashtray.
“Wish some rich relative would leave something to me,” Kyle muttered.
Christie’s Aunt Ruth hadn’t been rich, but she was sharp and frugal. She left her house to Kyle, free and clear. The lawyer thought he could sell it for a hundred grand. But Kyle wanted to at least go see it before he sold it off. He had fond memories of visiting that house as a boy.
“Was that the last joint?” Kyle complained.
“Yes. Anyway, we’ve both had enough. Time for bed.”
“Fuck.” Kyle sounded despondent. He ground his eyes with the palms of his hands. “What about pills? You got anything?”
Christie looked at his watch. “Jesus, Kyle, it’s almost 2:00 a.m.”
“Oh, come on! Weed just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I won’t be able to sleep. Do you have anything or not?”
Christie looked at his friend, or tried to. Everything was a bit blurry. Damn, he really had drunk too much tonight. He had five dirty martinis at the club, plus a shot Mick bought for him. It was all over the course of at least three hours, so it didn’t seem like a lot. But one thing about being a regular at The Boiler Room—the bartenders went heavy on the booze in your drinks, and he hadn’t had much dinner. The single toke on the joint pushed him over the edge into the unpleasant side of stoned. His head swam.
Kyle, however, was sitting up looking at him expectantly. Was he genuinely not high enough? Whatever. Christie wasn’t his babysitter. And it wasn’t like they were going out anywhere.
He took the baggie the hookup gave him from his pants pocket and tossed it to Kyle. “A guy gave those to me. Said they were X. I didn’t actually know him, though. So maybe we shouldn’t—”
Kyle was already opening the baggie. He popped both of the blue pills into his mouth and swallowed.
“I’m sorry, did you want one?” Kyle put a hand over his mouth. He looked truly abashed.
“You’re such a bogart!”
Kyle giggled, then giggled harder, until he was half lying on Christie, laughing. “I’m sorry! So, so sorry! That was rude! And they were your pills too! Oh my God!”
“I’m not a dork!” Kyle sat up and put his shoulders back, flashing his best clubbing smile. No, Kyle wasn’t a dork. He was fucking glorious. He had platinum-blond hair, big blue eyes, and a fragile build, just like Christie himself. They were practically twins. Guys loved Kyle, and he was a sweetheart too. He was a total slut, but he’d give you the shirt off his back. Then again, Christie had no room to slut shame.
Kyle wobbled a little as he posed. His eyes went funny. Worry niggled at Christie. Kyle should not have taken both those tabs. “You need to drink some water, Ky. I’ll get it.”
He went into the kitchen to get them both some water. It was definitely time to call it a night. Would Kyle be able to sleep after taking two tabs of X? Or would he be up for hours, trying to get Christie to talk? God, please don’t let him freak out like he did a few months ago after taking some pills at the club. He scared Christie that night.
He stood at the sink, letting the water run cold for some time. He blinked, coming out of his daze. He filled two tall glasses of water and went into the living room.
“I want you to drink this whole glass. You’ll—”
Kyle was slumped over on the couch. His eyes were rolled back, showing a sliver of white under parted eyelids, and foam came out of his mouth. His body convulsed in soft jolts.
Christie screamed. “Kyle!”
Instantly the evening changed. The two glasses Christie carried hit the floor and shattered, sending water everywhere. “Kyle, oh my God!”
Glass cut Christie’s stockinged feet as he stumbled to the couch, but he just winced and kept going. He shook Kyle’s shoulders and pulled down his jaw, fighting against the clenching of Kyle’s teeth. “Kyle, are you all right? Kyle!”
Christie looked around, desperate for something to keep Kyle’s mouth open. How could he even breathe through all that foam and gunk? Christie ran back into the kitchen, cutting his feet again, and grabbed a towel. He twisted it into a rope as he ran back, and he forced it between Kyle’s teeth. “Oh God. Oh my God!”
He fumbled for his phone on the coffee table and dialed 911. “Help me! Please! My friend, he’s OD’ing. He’s having convulsions!”
“Calm down, sir. Give me your address.”
Christie gave her the address. “We’re on the sixth floor, apartment 613. Please hurry!”
“The ambulance is on the way. Now sir, I need you to stay calm and help him. Can you do that?”
The operator—God bless her every firm and caring word—gave Christie directions for clearing Kyle’s airways. He wasn’t convulsing anymore, but now he was unconscious. The operator walked Christie through moving Kyle onto his side so he wouldn’t choke.
Christie did everything she said, but he felt like he was fucking it up. He was a mess and still too drunk to think clearly. He grabbed Kyle’s phone with one hand and sent a quick text to Billy. He needed help now.
It felt like mere seconds before Billy pounded on their door and Christie let him in. Billy said nothing, merely fell to his knees beside Kyle on the couch and took over CPR like he knew what he was doing. His face was white with fear and tears swam in his eyes.
“Sir?” Christie had forgotten he was still holding the phone to his ear.
“My friend is giving him CPR,” Christie whispered to the operator.
He felt like he might throw up. The room went gray. The phone slipped from his fingers and terror seized him.
What if I’d been too high to call the ambulance?
What if I’d taken those pills instead, or if we’d each taken one? Would I be like Kyle now too? Who would have called the ambulance then?
Is Kyle dying? How the hell do I live with myself if Kyle dies?
For the first time in eight years, Christie prayed. He prayed absolutely and sincerely and with everything he had. Please God, please let Kyle live. I swear, I will give up partying forever, never touch another drug or drink. Just let Kyle live!
From the distance came the sound of sirens, and then Christie’s world went black.