Chase loved his bandmates like brothers. Riley, floppy-haired and gangly, manned the fake instruments—melodica and glockenspiel, donkey jaw and rattle—free-playing like a kid in music class. Matt, compact and forever frowning, kept a factory-correct drumbeat, the seatbelt holding them down. The boys did whatever Chase said: changed from three-four to four-four, lost the autoharp on “Never Hated You,” oiled the donkey teeth so they rattled in their wells. For years, Goodnight Baby scored gigs on makeshift stages at illegal party houses in Sunset Park and East Bushwick, performing to a clear view of the back wall. Chase only had to work on getting Riley to play consistently and Matt to play like he didn’t have a gun to his head, and one day they’d be stars. But while he waited for the group to congeal, money ran short. So when Chase’s parents bought a farmhouse but weren’t ready to renovate or move, he emailed his mom. I’m down to nothing every paycheck. And there’s this house out there, which you guys aren’t using. I’ll fix stuff. Like, I dunno, leaks. His mom responded fast. The dump is yours. Just promise you won’t fix anything.
In September, Chase and his band quit their service jobs and rented a van to move from Crown Heights to western Massachusetts, into the tumbledown farmhouse in the forest outside a bad town to work on their first album. The boys scattered their T-shirts, weed, and instruments throughout the dozen tiny rooms. They ran over warped floorboards and spilled boxed wine on the lime-and-yellow linoleum. They dared each other to drink the leak bucket, which caught spiders and the white hair of a ghost. They lit joints on the pilot light, chalked insults on the walls. They slept in separate corners of the house all fall while their friends started PhDs and taught autistic kids how to read Flaubert and morphed from assistants into agents and editors and designers.
Chase and the boys sold their old textbooks and instruments to get by. The refunded security deposit from their place in Brooklyn, which they were startled to receive in full, arrived in the mail. They’d be good for a while. Especially with the credit cards Chase activated from the mail. The only problem was that their student loans would go out of deferment in November. But Chase could hide this news from Matt and Riley until they settled in and realized the sacrifice was worth it. He told himself he was doing a favor to the world of music, to his friends’ creative lives. He stuffed the forwarding address cards from the loan companies into the bottom of his duffel. The farmhouse had no Wi-Fi or cell service, so they could tuck away from the rest of the world.
For two months, Chase got Matt and Riley downstairs every day at dawn and they practiced for five hours. They ate the cheapest possible lunch—ketchup on crackers—then played more and drank beer. They didn’t have a car, so there was nothing to do but play.
“We’re in G, Riley,” Chase said. “Pay attention.”
Matt was harder to reprimand because you couldn’t tell someone to be creative. Or if you could, Chase didn’t know how.
He longed to punch through the gelatin of the music and gulp a breath of the real world.
A week after their first loan repayments were due, three notices arrived in the postbox. Chase buried them under the rug in the living room. He couldn’t ruin their time. On the best days, the music was gelatin that bound and nourished them. One morning in November they nailed “Boaring Love,” their ballad about wild pig matrimony. The song had been goofy, but that day Riley’s saw sang higher and held the notes longer, managing a tinny sorrow. Matt slowed his beat to match the plodding pointlessness of love.
When the song ended, high-fives weren’t enough. Riley arched his back and chirped, and Matt did a stiff-armed jig. Chase pulled them all down into a roiling puppy pile.
That night the boys sat against a steamer trunk, studying the greasy flames in the fireplace, basking in the near-erotic sensation of having made real music. Matt’s buzz cut was close to the skin; bangs gathered in Riley’s eyes. They were children: one sad and tightly wound, the other feral. There was no one with whom Chase would’ve rather moved to the woods.
“Are you cursing me for dragging you out here?” he asked.
“I don’t know, man.” Riley glanced at the clock. “Don’t you ever miss, like, boobs?”
Riley looked like a teenager despite being twenty-six, a desperate energy moving under his skin like fever. In the flame he must’ve felt the heat of two a.m. subways, the warm skin of strangers, thick-aired Adderall dance parties. But Riley seemed delighted whenever he played. Only at night did he pick at the softening floorboards, shoulders lurched forward, gazing into the burning logs. Chase just needed him long enough to finish the album. They’d make it too good, and he’d have to stay.
The only thread hitching Chase to New York was his girlfriend. Five years older and taller than the entire band, Gloria was a Manhattan girl, black hair shining above her peacoat and silky, slate blue scarf. Her chignon never lost strands, fixed in its Platonic form through long, frisky nights. Back in New York, even if Chase and Gloria fucked three times a day, went to dinner and a party, made breakfast nude, he still pined for her.
Chase hadn’t broken up with Gloria, even though he didn’t love her, in case he wanted her some night. He’d promised to call, but once he was in the woods, he never did. He could’ve walked four miles to the grocery store for a signal, but Gloria’s boyish voice would’ve dragged him back. That she’d given up on him was his hope and terror—and the most likely situation. No one had ever thought Chase and Gloria would last. He was short and ratty-haired with eyebrows that kissed over the bridge of his nose. She was a designer at Ralph Lauren, a powerhouse with feet squared on the floor like a basketball star. Gloria said Chase resembled a young Daniel Johnston or Rimbaud, that he was her little genius. She needed him the way cold people need pets. But no—she loved him. This realization frightened Chase because he didn’t feel the same. Whenever his thoughts stalked Gloria, he drilled deeper into the band.
They’d been grateful when Chase took responsibility, like a parent, even if that meant lying like a parent.
One afternoon, as the boys headed out for a walk, the rug slipped and bunched under Riley’s feet. Chase must not have resettled it properly on its rubber mat. Riley chose the envelope with his name and unsealed it.
He looked up when he’d finished reading. “You said we had a lot longer. Like a few months.”
“Those don’t mean anything,” Chase said, gripping the banister.
“Then why are they under the rug?” Riley rotated the page so Matt could read the word nonpayment printed in chunky font.
Matt’s sturdy little body crumpled. “Oh.”
“Look. Guys. I messed up the timeline.” Chase was shaking so hard that his knees buckled. He wished he could consult Gloria.
“Really?” Riley asked. “This was a mistake? And you just freaked?”
“Yeah,” Chase said, breath rushing into him. “I’m sorry.”
The letter dangled from the tips of Riley’s fingers as though he feared it would infect his skin. “But this is, like, our future.”
Matt stepped onto the wrinkled carpet. “I’m sure it’s more complicated than it looks.” He touched Riley’s arm. “Chase messed up.”
The rest of the morning, Riley circled ads in the county paper for jobs at fish markets and shoe factories and appliance retailers. The listings made Chase sick. He’d worked a hundred shitty jobs in the four years since college. He’d hung lights for theater companies where he was zapped by wires thirty feet up. He’d policed the floor of a kennel in Hell’s Kitchen, preventing a St. Bernard from licking a Min Pin’s ass raw. He’d stood outside on daylit movie sets through January nights and held a microphone to starlets like a shaky, proffered dick. He wasn’t ready for registers and copiers and mops, chubby tubs of condiment.
“Don’t worry,” Matt told Chase in the hallway later. “We’ll figure it out.” He reminded Chase that they had some savings. They’d refresh the deferral. Matt’s short stature and round forehead lent him the aspect of a wise, old baby. Chase’s heart slowed.
At practice that evening, Riley ravaged his instruments. Hair flung into his face, and at the end of each song he tossed aside his cymbals, his fiddle, his harmonica. He played badly, as though on purpose, which confounded Matt’s rhythm. Rehearsal deteriorated. Even “Never Hated You” squeaked. Chase ran the song a second time, then again. Frustration built like cheese in his throat.
“Fuck,” he said, slapping the sideboard. “From the top.”
His voice was strained and only fraying further. His fingers fumbled on the fret board like they’d swollen to twice their size. And despite all that, he was still better than Matt or Riley. Though the quality was degrading, their confidence shredding, still he made them run through one last, ear-crushing time.
Matt flopped against the couch halfway through the bridge, dropping his drumsticks. “This sucks.”
The way he said it was so final, rage biting the corners of his words. Riley watched Chase like Chase was his boss at the daycare where he’d worked back in Queens. Here they were, in an uninsulated, falling-down farmhouse with mildewed shag carpet that probably hadn’t even been tasteful in 1972. They were sinking into debt, and they had doubts.
Then it hit Chase: he’d traded Gloria for this. Gorgeous, intelligent, talented Gloria. Gloria who had more of an appetite for sex than any boy, who dampened at the sight of his torso, scrawny and hairless though it was. Gloria, who could’ve worn her sleep shirt and bed-head to a Versace party and looked better than half the girls. So he wasn’t in love with her. So what? He could have her for a night, make himself feel better.
Chase scooped his cell phone from a shelf of waterlogged National Geographics.
“Where are you going?” Matt called.
The screen door popped closed and then Chase was under the dark sky. He hadn’t ventured out at night yet, was used to the city, where there were people on the streets and people in bodegas and people stacked up in stories above. Those people could mug him or reprimand him or yell at him to stop abusing the fucking music, but at least they were there. They wouldn’t let anything truly bad happen. Here someone could skin his face, really take their time, and no one would see.
Leaves blustered against Chase’s corduroys, he smelled the gritty, campfire odor of the woods, and that should’ve been enough to feel better. But when the neon letters of the grocery store rose over the trees, he longed to punch through the gelatin of the music and gulp a breath of the real world. He crouched on the curb and called Gloria.
“Chase,” she said warily. “What are you doing?”
Her voice was tight. “For the first time in eight weeks.”
“It’s just, there’s no service.”
“Then how are you calling?”
He kicked a dead mole, rolling it over to expose its fleshy mittens. “I’m in a parking lot like eighty miles from the house. There’s seriously a dead mole.”
Her voice melted him. Gloria lived in a city of beautiful, rich men. He needed her beside him. Tonight. “Why am I here?”
“I ask myself that every day,” she said, sort of sarcastically but sort of not. He pictured her in her giant sleep shirt, the hem tugged over one knee.
“You have a new boyfriend, right? Tell me it’s over.” There was the click of her vintage pizza clock, each hour a different topping. They’d argued over the eight, which Gloria said was pineapple and Chase said was a pat of butter.
“Do you want this to be over?” Gloria asked.
“Can you come here? Like, now?”
Her voice tightened, turning urgent. “Is everything okay?”
“No, no. It’s not an emergency.” She was really scared. He swallowed a lump.
“If you need me, I’ll rent a car tomorrow. I’ll be there by dinner.”
Gloria hadn’t driven since high school, when she’d rear-ended a pickup truck. She’d been changing a CD and the disk, bumped by the airbag, sliced through the white flesh of her eye. And that was in Chicago, where the roads were as straight as pencils laid end to end.
“Are you sure?” He wanted her so badly. Just for a night. “You hate driving.”
“Chase, honey, I’ll figure it out.”
All day, the band hid out in separate rooms. Singing to the icy mist curling in through the window, Chase told himself that Matt and Riley hadn’t wanted to know about the loans. They’d been grateful when Chase took responsibility, like a parent, even if that meant lying like a parent.
They ate a tense dinner of peanut-butter-potato-chip sandwiches and Skittles arranged in an ashtray like tiny fresh fruit. Chase had almost forgotten about Gloria. She wouldn’t really come. She must’ve realized she was too bad a driver.
He retreated upstairs at seven-thirty, hollowed-out. Matt and Riley marched after him like dogs. When the temperature had dropped, they’d wedged the three mattresses into one room so the whole floor was bed. This way they could share the sheets and blankets and the broken space heaters: the one that shut off at midnight and the one that only hit fifty-five degrees. Wherever you turned, someone’s elbow or chest hair was in your face. The sheets smelled sharp and, tucking himself in, Chase considered their need for a better laundry system than Ivory soap in the bathtub.
“Can’t you wear pants?” Matt snapped at Riley.
“I can’t sleep with pants.”
“Your dick keeps falling out.”
“Don’t look at it then.”
Chase folded a pillow over his head.
Hours later, a voice rang out from the belly of the house.
“Is that Gloria?” Riley asked. “What’s Gloria doing here?”
Chase swam up from sleep. “Um. I invited her?”
“From New York?” Riley’s torso gleamed in the starlight. “In the middle of the night?”
“It’s not even ten.” In New York, they’d be pre-gaming.
“Dude,” Riley said. “Tell us first if you need a booty call. That scared the shit out of me. Plus, what the hell? There’s pussy at the grocery store.”
“You’re the only one who likes that girl,” Matt said. “She’s got really bad moles.”
“Why’d you invite her?” Riley asked.
Chase turned hard on Riley. “Because she’s my girlfriend.”
“Your girlfriend who sucks.”
Matt thought bells should tinkle in heaven when Chase and Gloria fucked, but Riley deemed her snobby. In the quiet of the house, Gloria’s voice rattled off the old walls.
“She’s a good person.”
“Gloria rules,” Matt said.
Riley’s eyelashes lowered. “You never consult us about anything.”
“Chill, okay?” Chase flung off his sheet and advanced into the dark tunnel of the hall. He traveled through studies and kid bedrooms, walk-through closets with slanted, rubber floors and wobbling secretaries, and down the uneven back stairs, moonlight pooling on each step. Gloria’s voice came in closer, then farther away, keening like a lamb.
“But I’ve always been safe.” His voice faded. “As far as I can remember.”
He found her in the living room that featured wooden chairs, mismatched and pressed together with pillows: a poor man’s sofa. She wore a silk blouse under an open herringbone coat with a scarf floating out, her heels piercing the floor. She studied the walls as though they could fold in on her.
Chase was wrenched back in by her musky smell. Her glow defied the limp halogens screwed into the ceiling. Hanging from her fist were dyed-blue daisies from a Korean bodega, an inside joke about his lack of taste. The uglier the present, the more wildly they laughed and the tighter she gripped the nape of his neck when she pulled him in for a kiss. He’d bought her a polyester teddy bear for Valentine’s Day, neon day-of-the-week thongs for her birthday, an airbrushed dream catcher for their one-year anniversary. At the sight of the flowers, his chest lightened. He stepped toward her and she backed away.
“There’s a problem.” The scar on her eyeball was gray in the low light, like a worm guarding everything she saw.
Matt and Riley filled the darkness by the stairs.
“Did you come from New York?” Matt asked. The city felt so remote, an impossible distance to cover in a car.
Gloria shook her head once like no but kept shaking like she’d unhinge her head from her shoulders. Chase reached out to steady her and she let him this time, pushing up against him like a cat.
“What’s wrong with her?” Riley asked.
Her mouth cinched into a suffocated O. “I hit something.”
“I can’t follow the same route twice. It’s a thing I have. I get lost, then find the way. It’s sad, actually. Because sometimes I like a route, but I can’t go back. At least not on purpose.”
“What did you hit?” Chase asked flatly. This was okay. He had to be calm. Information was a shield against whatever dark mess lay beyond the walls of the house.
“I don’t know.” Gloria pulled on the fingers of one hand. Each digit turned first red, then white. “Don’t make me go alone. Please, Chase.”
“What did you hit?” Chase repeated. Gloria started to cry.
The boys changed into warm clothing and reconvened at the front door. The night and the land beyond were a fuzzy black.
When Chase opened the door, moths flopped in like bits of paper.
“Down Old Orchard,” said Gloria. “Half a mile.”
Chase led the way. Gloria trembled, watching the ground. He should probably guide her, but he was unsteady on his feet. Now that he was moving, the whiskey from dinner cycled through his blood and he was tipsy again. Matt and Riley fell back, their silence unsettling. There was too much jellied quiet. Where were the cars on the distant highway, the owls, the skittering of raccoons?
“Something’s out there.” Gloria peered around with haunted eyes.
Chase searched the brush for what she’d seen. A bear’s ugly muzzle? An impossible New England wolf?
The rental car came into view a few hundred feet away, the hazards clicking points of light off and on, off and on. The car was angled toward oncoming traffic. Dark as it was, the vehicle’s silver skin reflected the moonlight, the car’s shape clarifying as they approached.
“I couldn’t look,” Gloria said.
“It could be a deer or a dog,” Chase said. “It could be anything.”
“God, I hope it’s not a dog.” Riley’s mouth was open and damp. Chase should slap him so he’d pull it together.
“Did it run off?” Matt glanced around as though the dog might wave from the bushes.
But then there was the problem of a deer or a coyote bouncing in the forest with a mortal wound, dragging its pain until something started eating it alive.
“Probably,” Chase said as he led the way around to the front of the car. He stopped.
There was a biker on the ground. Chase didn’t know how they could have missed the bent tubes and prickle of spokes under the front of the car, and the man himself, middle-aged, bearded, eyes shut, in Lycra from head to foot. He lay on his back, one arm on his chest, one outstretched, in a spill of moonlight in the middle of black road, black trees, black sky.
The fat fell off Matt’s face until he was a skull. Why hadn’t they come faster? Why had they paused to put on jackets and gloves, hats and scarves? They should have rushed out in boxers and worn-out socks, Riley’s dick hanging out. Then at least they could have said, It was thirty degrees and we didn’t even dress.
There was a finger of red on the biker’s chin, like icing smeared at a birthday party. His eyes opened.
“Hello,” he said.
Chase forced his feet to stay on the road while Gloria and the boys jumped back.
“Holy shit,” said Riley, yanking at the hem of his shirt. “That’s a guy.”
Gloria gasped in relief—she’d known. She hadn’t been able to say so at the house, but she’d definitely known. Chase took in a breath. This wasn’t scary. This was just a person. The person could talk, so he was okay. “Hi,” Chase said, bending to the biker. He tried to sound calm. “How do you feel?”
The biker’s helmet rattled as he swiveled his head. “I gotta get out of here.” He spread one hand on the street and tried to push himself up.
Chase stilled him with a touch. “He’s cold.” He didn’t want to scare anyone, but the biker was like stone.
The biker’s voice broadcast from another planet, distant, wheezy: “I might be dead.”
“You’re all right.” The biker wasn’t all right. Chase was surprised he was conscious.
“How long have I been here?” The biker touched his helmet.
“Gloria?” Matt asked. “When did you leave him?”
“I ran right to the house.” With her face startled like that, Chase could see her infant self. Peanut butter and potato chips floated into his throat.
Before he could succumb, Chase notched his hands into the guy’s armpits and heaved.
“Hey,” Riley said, stepping closer. “You’re not supposed to move him.”
“But he’s in the road,” Chase said, from under pounds of bony weight, though now he wasn’t sure. Was Riley right? But the man could be hit by a car. People took the road fast at night, cars streaking like jets past the windows of the farmhouse. The biker’s knees straightened until he stood. He was taller than all the boys, which wasn’t surprising, but he was also taller than Gloria. Much taller.
“Jesus,” Riley said. “How’d you miss him?”
Gloria held a shaking fist over her mouth. Matt’s hands were stiff at his hips as if he’d tied them there. Chase should scream that this was all his fault. He’d made her come. But his words clogged his throat. Gloria hadn’t needed to drive recklessly, drive into an actual person, for God’s sake. But he had abandoned her. He’d whimpered on the phone.
“Good thing for this,” said the biker, tapping a fist on his helmet. He knocked too hard, jarring his head, and Chase settled him by the edge of the road, arranging his arms on his knees.
“Let’s start the car,” Chase said.
“Yes,” Gloria said, with an alarming smile. “That’s right. It’s all right. We’ll drive him to the doctor and get him fixed.”
There must’ve been a hospital in Worcester, if not Leominster. They could hold the biker steady in the backseat, ensure his head didn’t jostle while they drove to the nearest house for directions.
Riley darted into the car. His profile was bent and shady through the window, his hair an elegant hood. The car started. Chase, Matt, and Gloria gasped with relief.
The wheels edged forward, fighting the bike, which was welded to the axel. Chase tugged the handlebars, but the steel clung to the undercarriage. He couldn’t budge it. The car lurched. The battered bike flipped and scraped the road, sparks spitting over the asphalt. Handlebar tape flapped like unwound bandages. The car stopped dead. Riley hadn’t gone ten feet. He tried the key. He tried the key again. He slammed his palm on the dash so hard the plastic wheezed.
Chase turned to Matt, seeking reason. “We should get him inside, right? It’s cold.” Matt’s lips were blue. “Then I’ll run to the supermarket and call an ambulance.” Gloria didn’t know the way to the store and Chase needed Matt and Riley to help manage the biker.
Matt hugged his barley-colored sweater. “Okay.”
Riley emerged from the car, jittering with animal energy. His gaze raked over the four of them. “This is a nightmare.”
Chase lifted the biker’s arm over his shoulder. Matt took the other arm.
“I can’t believe your girlfriend seriously hit an actual person.” Riley leaned steeply forward, so precariously he was on the verge of falling on his nose. “What’s wrong with her? What’s wrong with you?”
Gloria unlatched her hand from her mouth. Chase had never seen her stunned before.
“You’re so messed up.” Riley advanced toward Gloria. “I’ve been telling Chase that forever. You hurt this guy, man.”
“Cut it out,” Chase said. “Let’s get him inside.” He turned to Matt, wishing he was as sturdy as usual. He could use that wise, old child right now. “Walk in time.”
“You’re straining him.” Riley bounced on the balls of his feet, his hair lashing around his ears. “Oh my god. This is idiotic.”
Chase stepped and the biker stepped and Matt stepped. They practiced for a length of Old Orchard. Matt got the rhythm right for once. The biker stepped heavily, sturdily. Gloria’s limbs fluttered around the party in frightened hope. After ten feet, the biker lurched into the grass to puke. Chase held him by the temples while spasms rushed through his torso, ending up in pools on the frost. Chase willed his hands steady on the biker’s face. “You’re okay,” Chase said. “Hey, now. You’re okay.”
“See,” Riley cried. “Why don’t you listen to me?”
Chase dabbed vomit off the biker. His skin was warmer. Maybe moving him would circle the blood back through him, build his strength back. Maybe he was just stunned.
“Why were you biking at night?” Matt asked.
“Let’s go,” Chase said. He couldn’t stand the biker slumped like that on the grass.
“Give him a minute, Jesus,” said Riley. “Let him rest.”
“I always bike at night,” said the biker, fingering a spot of vomit on his cheekbone. “I live with the kids in Lunenburg and commute to Government Center. I work all day. I get so agitated I can’t lie there with my wife in the dark.” He shrugged. “But I’ve always been safe.” His voice faded. “As far as I can remember.”
He had to squeeze his hand so he wouldn’t slap it across his chest. He was a selfish prick. He was a selfish prick.
“I get that,” said Matt. His cheeks jumped like there was an insect in his mouth. “I so totally get that.”
Riley drifted to the edge of the forest, where he paced as though he might dash off between the trees.
“I lay there many nights,” the biker said, his focus aimed into the distance, like he’d gotten stuck in some other mode. “For years before I realized I didn’t have to.”
In bed with Gloria, sometimes her heat had been too much, and Chase had itched to slip out onto the street. Not cheat or anything, just feel the sky between buildings opening up overhead. When he was with her he missed the feeling of loneliness, as stupid as that was. There were feelings he couldn’t talk about with the band, feelings he didn’t have words for. Gloria’s teeth clicked behind him, but he didn’t turn.
“It’s like a double loss,” the biker said. “Lying there like that. You’ve already lost the sleep, so you may as well not lose the time. I got up one night. I got on my son’s three-speed. And I rode down the little highways like this and the side streets through Shirley and Leominster and Pepperell. Eventually I got a Waterford. It races like you wouldn’t believe. Stops on a pin, too.” The biker looked down the road, maybe realizing the Waterford wouldn’t stop on a pin anymore.
“Fuck,” Riley whispered, clasping his face.
“Do you always come this way?” Chase pictured the biker riding past the farmhouse all fall, silent and beautiful and unseen, until Gloria knocked him down.
“Never,” said the biker. The plums of his cheeks glowed in the moonlight. This was good. Chase should keep him talking, wake him out of his fever. “I can’t follow the same route twice. It’s a thing I have. I get lost, then find the way. It’s sad, actually. Because sometimes I like a route, but I can’t go back. At least not on purpose.” He stroked his wrist, as though thanking it for steering his adventures. The biker had to be okay. There was no other acceptable outcome. “What do you boys do?”
Why was it so difficult to think beyond the small dramas of his own life?
“We’re a band.” Matt glanced at Chase as though he might not be allowed to say so anymore. His neck burned against the cold.
“I’m a big fan of music.” The biker pressed a finger to his temple, but it slid off, wet with sweat and blood. “Music calms me.”
“So sing something, Chase,” Riley rasped from beside the woods. “Sing, you genius.”
Chase would never sing out here. His voice would be weightless against the black tree trunks. Besides, they had to get this man inside. They had to call an ambulance. “Come on,” Chase told the biker. “Can you get up?”
Riley stepped in front of Gloria, his skinny hips jutting out, his hair over his forehead. It was as though his brain had been jarred. “We’re not taking him to the house. It’s a stupid idea.”
“Why?” Chase tried to speak patiently. Getting this man inside was all Chase could think to do. And Matt was in agreement: trusty, practical Matt. At least it was warm inside. There was a dusty bottle of iodine somewhere.
“Your stupid girlfriend hurt this man,” Riley said.
“I don’t even know how to drive,” Gloria burst out.
Everyone stared at her. “And he made you come out here?” Riley asked.
Gloria didn’t nod. But she didn’t shake her head, either. Riley snapped his head toward Chase. “See? This is your mess. Yours. If you bring him into the house, we’re all fucked.”
“Then leave.” Chase was surprised by how calm he felt.
“You’re a selfish prick,” Riley said.
A voice at the back of Chase’s skull sang: Guess what? It’s true.
“No, he’s not.” Matt lifted his wrist, as bright and clean as a girl’s. “He’s doing his best.”
“Fuck that.” Riley breathed harder. “He made her murder someone so he could get laid. And now we’re going to jail because of him.”
The blood left Chase’s head. His feet cemented into the icy grass. He’d brought the boys out here for his own purposes, despite their loans and jobs and reservations. He’d forced Gloria to hurry here in terror because he’d wanted her, and only for her heartbeat. He had to squeeze his hand so he wouldn’t slap it across his chest. He was a selfish prick. He was a selfish prick.
Bent over the biker, Gloria leaked a wheeze. Chase was afraid that if he looked at her he’d yell, too.
“Make yourself useful if you’re going to be an asshole,” Chase said. “Get your phone. Run to the supermarket and call the police.”
Riley’s mouth flapped open. “Me and Matt have always hated you,” he said. Then he tore up the hill.
Chase turned to Matt as Riley’s words wormed under his skin. “Matt,”
Matt’s eyes were a shocking red, gummy at the lids. “I just want everything to be okay.”
“Hey,” Chase said. “He’s gone.” But Matt’s pain had twisted up his face: he’d been good all his life, paying bills, keeping jobs, writing thank yous to teachers in his painful, sloped script. He’d trusted Chase. And Chase had dragged him into a horror show.
Matt pinched the hem of his sweater and ripped it off. He stood there in his pork-colored T-shirt gripping the sweater, chest heaving. Chase waited for the sweater to strike his head. But instead, Matt tossed it to the biker. The biker pressed it to his naked legs as though it was all he’d ever needed. Chase’s chest hollowed out. He should’ve given the biker his own sweater forever ago. Before Chase could thank Matt, or hug him, he vanished into the woods.
There was that sad, divided relief you feel when someone finally dies. The band would never play again. Chase was selfish to care right now, with the biker bleeding on the street, but his world had collapsed.
Gloria dabbed blood off the biker’s face, too gingerly to make much progress. Was the biker asleep? Was that okay? As Chase stepped closer, the biker perked up. “Your friends are gone.”
“They’re getting help,” Chase said. “Now let’s get you inside.”
Gloria was uncertain. “Chase. Listen.”
“Not now,” Chase said.
The biker seemed to have drawn energy from the conflict. He put his hands on the ground and pushed himself up. Chase lunged over to steady him.
“Gloria?” Chase asked. “Can you help?” Maybe Riley was right about moving him. But the biker did seem fresher.
Gloria fit her head under the biker’s arm like an ox joining its yoke. They made it up the hill and through the woods. Chase liked the feeling of helping the man, of Gloria’s arm pressed against his own.
When the house came into view, the biker said, “Nineteenth century?”
“I think,” said Chase. “Yeah. I think that’s right.”
“Epic woodwork on the eaves. This your place?”
“My parents’. They’re going to take it down and build their dream house.”
“Murder,” the biker whispered under his breath, so quietly that the word muddled.
“You won’t like it inside,” Chase said, squeezing Gloria’s arm.
“I don’t care if it’s particleboard and wood paneling. You’ve got to keep the shell. That’s murder otherwise.”
Chase and Gloria fit the long frame of the biker into the house. Chase passed the crumpled blue flowers on the floor. The house must look awful to the biker. Someplace where boys who hated each other curled against the world.
Gloria disappeared, and Chase loaded the biker onto the poor man’s sofa, centering pillows under his head. His legs stuck off, so Chase pushed over an end table, piling paperbacks until he steadied.
Gloria carried in a slice of cheese on a saucer. “Are you hungry?” she asked the biker. There was her intense face again, the Gloria of New York.
“We only eat one sliver a day.” Chase spoke too fast. “It’s the only expensive thing we buy. This is Manchego, so it’s like twelve bucks. We need one good thing, you know?”
“I can’t take you kids’ cheese,” the biker said, but he ate with relish.
“Thanks,” Chase whispered to Gloria. She nodded and Chase’s heart swelled. The ambulance would be here soon. The biker would be okay.
“So maybe you’re not so useless,” Gloria said. Her voice was steady and affectionate. He wanted to lash out and hug her at the same time.
The biker squinted as she left to retrieve more cheese. “Can I help?”
“It’s all right,” Chase said. “She’s fine.”
“No,” the biker said. “She’s not.”
The biker was confused, babbling with his scrambled brain. But when Chase turned to him, the older man’s face was squinted in pity, watching the place where Gloria had disappeared.
Chase’s eyes stung. He could barely find the nerve to worry adequately about a man who was bleeding in his own home, even after he’d been made to see how selfish he was about the music and Gloria and the boys. Meanwhile, this man could spare the energy to worry about Gloria. This biker was a good person, so much better than Chase that they weren’t even in the same category. It wasn’t fair that Chase was the one standing, that he’d wake up fine tomorrow. He wished more than anything that he could give his health to the biker, wither here on the floor. But even that was a selfish wish.
The biker reached out and hit Chase on the shoulder. Chase bowed to accept the punishment. The biker hit him again, and a third time, with an open hand. But no. He was patting Chase, not hitting. He was trying to reassure. Chase tucked his chin against the weave of his sweater and concentrated on trying not to cry. He’d never forgive himself for changing his clothes first, for moving the biker when maybe that was a bad idea, for not marshaling Riley and Matt faster, for failing to comfort the biker. Why was it so difficult to think beyond the small dramas of his own life?
“What’s that?” The biker aimed an unsteady finger across the room.
“My mandolin.” The instrument was tipped against the wall, unprotected by its case: the expensive Breedlove American Gloria had bought for his birthday. He still had his ratty old one upstairs. Secretly, he preferred its damper tone.
“Play for me.”
The biker’s face sparkled. His skin was younger now, his cheeks glowing from the walk.
Chase lifted the mandolin, surprised at how empty it felt. He studied the biker’s fatherly face: his red and gray beard, his high, tight cheeks. He strummed the opening sequence for “Never Hated You,” the song he’d written for Gloria in anticipation of leaving her. His fingers were awkward on the strings, pressing down the double-notes, picking out the pattern he’d worked up for the song, which was fussy for such simple chords.
His opening lyrics escaped with a sour breath, like they’d been tucked for weeks in the back of his throat.
The music woke the house. The light fixture swung on its chain and the windows vibrated. His opening lyrics escaped with a sour breath, like they’d been tucked for weeks in the back of his throat: “However much it seemed like, whenever it seemed I did, girl, I never hated you. I never could have hated you.”
The song was shabby, like someone’s uncle’s song, dusted off after years of disuse. But as he played, his fingers heated and became agile. He’d always sung his own way, in a not-very-good but sweet way, but now he sang on pitch, on perfect key, and it was beautiful. “I never hated you. I never could have hated you.” He could have been in Lincoln Center or Symphony Hall or a church somewhere, and the song would have held up.
The biker nodded in time, then out of time. Gloria fed him chips of cheese. She leaned against Chase on the floor, the biker slack and happy. Chase had done what he could. Soon the hospital would take over, and his responsibility would be Gloria and her new, eerie sorrow.
The biker’s wife was out there somewhere, waiting with the kids in Lunenburg, miles of twisty, dark road from here. As the ambulance howled, Chase leaned deeper into Gloria and tried to imagine their future, without the band, without this house, back under the wild light of the city.