Cougar starts it, really. Every November, wherever they are, there’s always a makeshift altar. Sometimes it’s on a beat-up motel end table, or the back steps of some back-alley safehouse. Pooch finds the truck’s tailgate open one year, ofrendas piled on a camouflage scarf. Cougar’s traditional about it. There’s candles, usually, or firelighters, if they’re out in the bush. Chocolates scavenged from the MREs, still in their foil wrappers. A bottle of tequila, if they’re near civilization. A fistful of marigolds, sometimes, mud still clinging to their wet roots.
It’s Roque, surprisingly enough, who starts adding things. A bracelet, one year, made of little white shells and tiny mirrors, delicate enough to fit a kid, or maybe a woman if she had fine bones. A package of Marlboro cigarettes, the silver foil tented open to reveal one or two missing. A polaroid, once, overexposed, with the top edge singed away. A woman’s smile, and a man’s hand, cupping her cheek.
Once Roque starts, Jensen takes it as a cue. An ATX power connector from a motherboard, the brightly-coloured wires tangled in a loose knot. “I’ve left a lot of laptops in combat zones,” he says, when Cougar finds him doing it. It sounds like a joke, but Jensen’s eyes say otherwise. One year there was a stack of Batman comic books, a bottle of generic aspirin, and a pair of mirrored sunglasses. There’s a photo of a smiling man sticking out from the comics, his head shaved, with his arms wrapped around Jensen’s sister.
Pooch never sees the point, and he says so, but he usually leaves a rose and an open can of Coors Light. “For my mom and dad,” he says, and smiles. He usually drinks the beer before flies can find it, because, “Dad would never want it to go to waste.”
Clay doesn’t mind, but he doesn’t do anything until Bolivia. They walk out of the jungle on October 29th. On November 2nd, after five days of absolute, tight-lipped radio silence, Cougar rips out the curtains, breaks all the glass, and lights twenty-five candles in the window of their hotel room before he disappears into the crowded night. “Fuck,” says Roque when he sees the mess, and goes after him. Clay stands in the broken window, the heat from the candles almost oppressive, and watches Roque push his way through the crowd below. Behind him, Pooch is curled on the other bed, almost wrapped around Jensen. They’re both too still, lying on the edge of sleep, both watching him. Clay sits up with the candles all night, one eye on the window, watching for Roque and Cougar, flicking his gaze back to the bed every so often. He relights the candles each time they go out. He doesn’t know what else to do.
Aisha never adds anything. The next year, she watches the pile accumulate without ever actually seeing anyone start it or add to it. Clay sees her watching, and she just shakes her head. “There’s nothing,” she says. “The dead don’t need anything from me.”
It’s a lie, of course, but he never calls her on it.