Daisy, California. Population 2,726.
WHEN Peter Armbruster moved there when he was ten, it became 2,727. Children were born, old folks died, a few folks moved in. When Peter’s cousin, Michael, died in Afghanistan twelve years later, it was 2,813. Wait, no—2,812.
Because you had to count Bodi.
A month before he’d shipped out, Michael snuck his mom’s car out of the garage to help Bodi move all of his stuff from the bedroom of his old house to nobody-knew-where-at-the-time. As far as Peter knew, they went out the bedroom window, because Bodi’s mother wouldn’t have let Michael in her house right then, and Bodi himself was lucky all his shit didn’t end up on her lawn. The roar of Bodi’s Harley Davidson at two in the morning was pretty much the last anyone in Daisy knew for sure about where Bodi had gone—anyone except Peter. Peter had kept track. Bodi showed up in Arcata not much later, where he had opened a machine shop and was living in a flat above it, according to rumors. Although Peter was never sure of the identity of the occasional Daisy resident who had seen him, Peter knew that’s where he’d gone. Peter had checked those rumors out himself. He dreamed about Bodi in those six years, and always, always, he was somewhere other than Daisy, and he was happy.
The day Peter’s aunt Aileen got the news about Michael, she sat down abruptly on her front porch—not on the swinging seat behind her but on the boards. It wasn’t a collapse, per se, just a simple statement that she would take this news on her own terms, and Peter tried hard not to think bitter things such as that was how she expected the rest of the world had to live its life too: on her terms.
Peter helped her up and took the telegram from her nerveless fingers and then walked her into the house. Later, he’d start the neighborhood phone tree, wherein he’d call her best friend, who lived a mile away, and her parents—his grandparents—who lived down in Sacramento, and they would spread the word. Eventually, even Michael’s father, who lived up in Crescent City, would hear, although he didn't bother to show up at the funeral.
But in the meantime, it was only Peter James Armbruster and Aileen Catherine Armbruster in the silence of the house they’d shared for over eleven years. It had been that long since Peter’s mother had brought him to Daisy. He’d been ten, and his mother had been exhausted and grieving. Even if she didn’t have the means to raise him, she did have the love.
They’d heard from Ginnifer since then: she often showed up on Peter’s birthday, bearing cards and stories, and Peter had learned to love those visits—but also not to expect them. The last time she’d been there, she’d managed to hold on to a job and a boyfriend for a couple of months, and Peter could sense the relief in her, because the gypsy life she’d led hadn’t been of her choosing but more thrust upon her. Peter actually had more of a life in Daisy by then, and he hadn’t begged to go with her. He’d spent his first two years as a child pleading to leave with her. After Bodi arrived, he’d stopped begging, but just because he felt like he had chains that bound him to the wormshit of a mountain town didn’t mean that his mother’s absence hadn’t hurt.
And those chains that bound him hadn’t offered much comfort, either. After Michael had shipped out, it had mostly been just Peter and Aileen, echoing around in the big yellow two-story house that sat a block back from Zinnia Street, the main drag through Daisy.
Although it was maybe seventy-five miles from the ocean, Daisy was close enough to the foothills of Highway 120 to sit in the red dirt of the mountains. The dusty ochre-colored sunshine filtering through the blinds in the west-facing window tinted all of Peter’s thoughts and memories. That sanguine shade of light was omnipresent. It shined on the day his mother left him in Daisy, it shined on the day Bodi had left, and that light would forever bleed on the day when they found out Michael’s life had ended.
“Say it!” Aileen snapped as Peter put the kettle on the stove and, conversely, set about getting some ice in a glass. Ice water first, tea second. He had no idea why that made sense.
“Say what,” he muttered tonelessly. He knew what she was talking about, but he didn’t want to talk about it. His own mind was running a nonstop film loop of Michael, as Peter had known him. Michael had been four years older than Peter. When Peter had arrived in Daisy, Michael had been every bit as lonely living in that house as Peter had been in the six years since Michael had left. Peter had been an instant little brother for Michael. And Michael?
Michael had set Peter’s sun and his moon and his stars. He’d painted the sky black for the deep summer nights and initiated the breeze that breathed through Peter’s window into his sweltering attic room. Michael, with his dark, curly hair and his deep brown/green eyes (his father’s eyes—Aileen never let him forget it), had been everything Peter wanted to be. For Peter’s first two years in Aileen’s house, Michael had been Peter’s everything, and for the next four years, he’d been the other half of Peter’s everything.
And then he’d been gone.
“Say that I killed him,” Aileen spat now, wringing her thin, dry hands. She’d been pretty once. She had. She’d had blonde hair and a lively face, a wide smiling mouth, and sparkling blue eyes. By the time Peter had gotten there, she’d been middle-aged at thirty-four. Now she was ancient in her forties.
“A land mine killed him,” Peter said without emotion. “Just ask the DOD.”
“That’s not what you’re thinking,” Aileen snapped. She was crying. Her voice wasn’t breaking, and she wasn’t sobbing, but her eyes were red and her nose was swollen and there were tracks down the faint sheen of dust on her lean face.
“If I knew what I was thinking, Aunt Aileen, I’d tell you,” Peter said with resignation. For a moment, he watched his fingers pick at the cheap laminate on the wooden counter. He closed his eyes tight and saw Michael as he had been the morning before their entire world had fallen apart. He’d been happy that day: his face had been flushed and his hair had been tousled. Peter had been the only one to know why, but his smile—white teeth in a tanned face and green/brown eyes that crinkled in the corners, inviting people in—had been transcendent. Michael Hickham (unlike his mother, he’d kept his father’s name) had wanted the entire world to be as happy as he was. Peter had managed, too, at great personal cost to himself, to be as happy as Michael that day. He’d worshipped his cousin. He wouldn’t have deprived him of a thing in the world.
“You’re thinking I killed him,” Aileen said again, and she wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. “You’d be right,” she whispered. “You’d be right. But I didn’t make him go on that second tour. I didn’t make him go enlist.”
Peter swallowed. “You didn’t tell him it was all right, either.”
He walked out of the kitchen then and called her best friend, proud of the way his voice was steady and he kept the tears out. Joelle was over in less than five minutes, still wearing an apron and dragging her seven-year-old by the arm. Aileen fell into her friend—who was one of those lively, bosomy women who made everybody feel at home—and sobbed on her shoulder while Lucy sat, bewildered, on Aileen’s green flowered couch.
Peter went in to check on the little girl, turned on the television, and found a cable station with kids’ shows on it.
“What happened?” Lucy asked, looking into the kitchen, where her mom was holding Peter’s aunt Aileen like a little girl.
“My cousin died,” Peter said.
“Aren’t you sad?” the little girl asked. She had straight brown hair with a little pink bow in it on the side. She was wearing cut-off shorts with sparkles in the pockets and a pink halter top, and had skinned knees. She was completely secure in the little world of Daisy, knew she could ask questions and be exactly who she was and the world would adore her. Peter wished to hell he had ever been that unselfconscious about anything in the world.
“Yeah,” he said, not wanting to think about it.
“Then why aren’t you crying?”
“’Cause I’m not ready yet,” he said.
When Michael was sixteen and Peter was twelve, Michael took Peter into the garage to work on his motorcycle. They’d spent a lot of time in that garage in the two years since Peter had first arrived at Daisy, but Peter was going through a growth spurt and was, like a lot of kids that age, clumsy as hell. He tripped on the toolbox on the floor and sliced his left hand open on the uncovered circular saw that sat in the corner. Michael was appalled.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Peter James. What in the fuck were you trying to do?” Michael literally ripped the T-shirt off his own back and wrapped it around the cut, which was gaping widely in anticipation of blood.
“That’s weird, Mikey,” Peter said, looking detachedly as the blood began to seep through the T-shirt. “It doesn’t even hurt at all.”
“Yeah, give it a fucking minute,” Michael half laughed. Later Peter would figure out that he was fighting hysteria, but then, the exasperation had been comforting. Peter would be okay if Michael could still laugh. “Here, you come sit in Mom’s car, and I’ll go get the keys and drive you to Crescent City, okay?”
Crescent City was forty miles away, but it had a small med clinic, and Peter could get stitches there.
“Will it hurt when we get there?” Peter asked, his voice faint and far away.
“Yeah, Petey—it’ll hurt like a motherfucker. Don’t worry. You’re not gonna get away that easy.”
Halfway to Crescent City, he’d been fighting tears. By the time they’d gotten there, he’d stopped fighting.
So now Peter sat on the couch and blindly watched SpongeBob SquarePants and wondered when the pain was going to start.
PEOPLE came and comforted Aileen. Half the town gathered in the front room and brought casseroles and cakes and cornbread, and Peter moved silently in and out, stacking dishes, cleaning up, wrapping food, making note of whom to write a thank-you note to and who got the casserole dish when they were done.
By eight o’clock someone had given Aileen a Xanax and put her to bed, and Peter grabbed his denim jacket (because it was early spring and there was a chill in the air yet) and the keys to his little ages-old Toyota Corolla and slid out the side door from the kitchen.
“Where you going?” Joelle asked, and she was tired, too, and her voice was short. “Your auntie needs you!”
“I’ll be back before she wakes up,” he said, although Arcata was nearly a hundred miles away.
“So your cousin’s dead and you’re just going to take off all night? That woman raised you!” Joelle snapped.
Peter looked at her, wondering where all of that warmth that he’d seen at the kitchen table had gone. He needed it now, oh God, yes he did, but he knew better than to expect anything from this town when he needed it. He’d had a roof over his head and food on his table, clothes on his back, and Michael, whom he’d loved. He’d had everything he’d needed, and the town wasn’t going to give him one more thing.
“I’ll be back before she wakes up,” he repeated. “This won’t take long.”
“What’s so damned important that you need to do it right goddamned now?” Joelle’s eyes were unattractively small when she squinted them like that. She was much prettier when she was a big blowsy white woman, radiating sunshine and goodwill.
“Someone’s got to tell Bodi,” he said, his blood throbbing at him to get out that door. “It’s only right.”
“You think his mama hasn’t already done that?” Joelle asked, and Peter shrugged.
“Not if she’s anything like Aunt Aileen, she hasn’t.”
Joelle’s attitude dropped from her like a comfortable coat, and what was left was bare and uneasy. “All right. I’ll stay here ’til you get back.”
“Thank you,” he said, and he was gone, thinking that the truth was, he couldn’t have stayed in that house one more goddamned minute and kept dragging one breath in after another. If Joelle hadn’t been there, he would have left his aunt alone to whatever solace she could find in a bottle of pills.
THERE was probably a specific geographic line for when the thick redwoods and foliage of Klamath National Forest gave way to the rolling hills and soft greens by the ocean, but Peter had, for every day since he’d arrived on Aileen and Michael’s doorstep, managed to be elsewhere in his head when he passed it. He just knew that the world got… better. One minute it seemed you couldn’t roll down the window without choking on the closeness of the woods, and the next, you rolled down the window and wore the smell of yarrow and salt on your skin. The wind was constant, and it always came off the water, even if the water was five miles away, and it always smelled of… better. Better places, better things, better times.
And once Peter reached the twisting, cliff-twined, rock-fraught passage of Highway 1 and turned south, he was going toward Arcata—and even before Bodi had moved there, becoming Daisy legend, Arcata had held a special significance for Peter. Arcata had been Peter’s Holy Grail. Arcata had housed that magical place called “school.”
“MOM, why can’t we?” It was the summer before Peter started high school, and Michael’s voice echoed up the stairs straight to Peter’s room. Until the day before Michael had enlisted, neither Michael nor Aileen had realized that a conversation in the kitchen carried all the way up the stairs, but for Peter, it was comforting. No matter what the adults around him were doing, he had a warning system in place. He heard Aileen talk about Ginnifer Armbruster’s drug habit, lament that nobody knew who his father was, and complain bitterly about Michael’s father and how the bastard could never do more than send the bare minimum child support.
“Why can’t we what?” Aileen’s voice was sharp. She was baking for church the next day. Peter had helped her, quietly, after he’d gotten home from the chess club meeting, but she still had a lot to do. He didn’t know why she’d sent him to bed early—maybe he’d just gotten on her nerves.
“Why can’t we send him to college?”
“That money in the bank’s for you, Michael, not for him!”
“Yeah, but I’m not going to use it!” Michael said, and his voice was firm—firmer than Peter had ever heard it.
“What the hell do you think you’re going to do besides go to college?” Her irritated question was accompanied by the dropping of a cookie tray on the table, and Peter longed desperately for a cookie. He’d asked for one, after he’d helped, and that’s when she’d sent him to bed. He lay there, smelling the cookies, thinking resentfully that if she wanted him to listen to what she said all the damned time, maybe she’d better start giving him cookies.
“Bodi and I are going to start a machine shop,” Michael said excitedly. “We’re going to fix motorcycles and do custom work. Bodi’s uncle already taught him all the basics, and he’s been showing me—”
“Yeah, remember where that got us? Peter’s hand all sliced up. Sixteen stitches, Michael—do you have any idea what that doctor bill was?”
“Yeah, Mom. You’ve told me enough times. I’m sorry, okay? It was an accident. I’m just saying that—”
“And I don’t want you hanging out with that Kovacs kid. There’s rumors about that boy—”
“What? That he takes care of his little sister?”
“His retarded little sister. How do you think she got that way?”
“Brain damage from an accident. And she’s nice, Mom. Stop calling her retarded—it sounds mean.”
“Yeah, whatever. That boy is funny. Everyone in town is saying so. Do you know what he checks out of the library?”
“Yeah, I do, but I’m his best friend. What business is it of yours?”
“Poetry. And not just any poetry—”
“Ovid’s love poems.” Michael’s voice dropped, became a little dreamy. “They’re beautiful, Mom. I want Petey to read them. He’d totally get them—”
“That kid has enough problems!” Aileen snapped. “Look at him—he’s skinny, he’s girl-pretty—people keep telling me he’s a fag. He’s going to get the shit kicked out of him in school!”
“No,” Michael said grimly. “Not anymore.”
Lying in bed, Peter had a sudden epiphany. Michael picked him up from school twice a week. Toward the middle of eighth grade, Michael had picked him up off the ground a couple of times after he’d gotten thrown in a trash can or been tripped in a mud puddle or had his lunch ground down his shirt. The second week this had happened, Bodi had been in the car and had helped Michael bandage Peter’s knuckles, because Peter did put up a fight. There were just more of them, and they were bigger.
One day the week after that, all of those kids came to school with black eyes and fat lips, and the torture stopped. Peter had always suspected that it had been Michael, and now he knew—
“What do you mean? What did you do?”
“Not me. It was Bodi.” Michael’s voice held justifiable pride. “Bodi got pissed. He sees enough of that shit going on with his sister. He doesn’t put up with it—not for her, and not for Petey. It’s not a crime to be somebody this town has never seen before, Mom. And that’s what I’m saying about Petey—”
“He can’t have your college money, Michael. That’s yours.”
“I don’t want it. Bodi already has start-up from a bank down in Eureka. He’s already got a client base just working at the garage in town. I’ve been helping him for a year, we’re going to—”
“You’re going to stop hanging out with that kid!”
“I’m almost eighteen. You’re going to stop telling me who my friends are.”
Michael didn’t get mad. Not really. His voice just assumed this almost unearthly calm, the sort of calm of a big bank of clouds about ready to unleash hell. Not even Aileen was immune when her son sounded like that, and her next words were almost placating.
“Just remember, Michael, people around here think a lot of you. You wouldn’t want to ever let them down.”
“I wish you’d worry less about the people around town and more about the people under your own roof. Peter is really fucking smart. He’s smarter than the teachers—hell, I think he checks Mr. Szabo’s math for him. And he’s talented. Have you seen the models he’s made of the solar system or—”
“None of that is going to get him a real job, Michael!”
“The hell it’s not! Who do you think designs all that shit we have in the classroom or the library, Mom? Science sculpting is big work!”
“Well, it’s nice to dream, but when he’s a grown-up, he’s going to want something to fall back on. Joelle’s husband said he can wait tables when he’s ready.”
Michael’s voice almost broke then. “Mom, if you’re not going to do anything for him when he graduates, I will. He can come live with Bodi and I in Crescent City or Arcata. We’ll be set by then. I don’t want him to stay here if that’s the only kind of life you want for him—”
“It’s a fine kind of life,” Aileen said, like she was talking to a bothersome child. Like she was talking to Peter.
“It’s a life of giving up,” Michael said. There was the sound of the kitchen screen door slamming and Aileen calling after him ineffectually.
“Michael! Michael, tomorrow’s church! Don’t go off with that boy when we’ve got church tomorrow! Michael!”
But no, Michael was not at church the next day. The Sunday afterward, Peter skipped out on church too, and followed him, and found out why.