Pelican Town was so saccharinely wholesome it made William’s teeth hurt.
He looked around the town’s homey pub and took a swallow of the deep brew Gus was famous for. Coffee and chocolate, blended with hops—a dark brew to fit his dark mood. The bitterness was a welcome contrast to the well-lit bar, and the peppy music streaming from the ancient jukebox in the corner. William took another drink, already on his fourth of the night. This cheerful and cozy place was home now.
Home sweet home.
Two years of work, two years of busting his ass, and he’d successfully driven out all of Joja Corporations methods of choking the town into a dried shell, the way it had done to Poplarville and Kasmina forty miles up the road. In Pelican Town, the bus worked. The clogged, polluted river was now sparkling and clean. The small quarry had reopened on the north side, and Pierre’s General Store was once again a bustling hub of commerce. He’d even repaired the old community center. Miss Penny finally had a real classroom in it, and wasn’t forced to tutor from a pair of pushed together tables in the library.
Two years into this grand experiment of rebuilding the rusty shack of his life and he’d done it. He’d reached his goals. He’d gone the distance and made this town what Pops always dreamed it could have been.
He should be happy.
Yet less than two weeks after meeting all those goals—less than fourteen fucking days—and he was sitting in the bar, drinking and trying to ignore the stretch of grey that had crept into his vision. Emptiness, its hungry maw a constant pain, ate at him. He hated it, the gnawing that consumed what satisfaction he managed to hoard, with little care for how the teethmarks felt against his spirit.
He closed his eyes and pulled at his hair. Something was missing. Something was always fucking missing.
It was Friday night, and anyone who was anyone was at the Stardrop Saloon, the small town’s watering hole. The chatter in the place was incessant. William opened his eyes again, soaking in his surroundings and the people those voices belonged to. Clint, the blacksmith, on his left. Robin and Demetrius on his right, dancing to a jukebox song, still in love after two kids and a business. He gave a nod of acknowledgment to Kent, who was standing to leave with his wife Jodi. His gaze rolled over people, naming them like he’d repeat the names of seeds he was planting. Leah. Emily. Sam and Abby, playing pool in the corner. Lewis and Willie. Elliott. Pam.
Finally his eyes settled straight ahead, to a man hunched on his barstool. Shane Daniels. William took another long swallow of beer, studying the town pariah.
As men went, he was plain. His hair was a bit greasy, his face ruddy with a permanent five o’clock shadow. He wore a ripped and frayed hoodie with the JojaMart logo on the back. As far as William could tell he had no spatial awareness; he just sat staring at the polished countertop, his fist tight against the glass tankard. William had ignored the guy ever since his first day in town, when a genial ‘hello’ had been met with a grunt and silence. He’d steered clear since then. No point in forcing conversation with a grumpy fucker when there were plenty of friendlier people around.
William looked down at his glass.
He knew them all now. He’d come through and sold produce to Pierre’s General store and to Gus, the barkeep. Swapped recipes with Caroline and Jodi. Gone to a few of the town shindigs, smiling and laughing with the populace like a good boy. After the community center had been completed, he’d even been given a damn trophy.
His leg started to jiggle up and down, captive with pent up energy.
What the fuck did any of these simple country bumpkins know about what made a hero?
He drank until his glass was empty and looked up at the beams that crossed the pub. His eyes followed the grain of the wood, wondering what he was even trying for.
How about just try to get another drink?
He stared ahead again. Shane was still hunched over the bar, oblivious to William’s internal frustration. Other than maybe Clint, he was the stockiest fucker in the joint. Broad shoulders and probably a little fat, though it wasn’t the obesity of the self-indulgent—just the extra weight that came with a lack of motivation. His fists were curled around his pint like it was a lifeline.
Just get your drink, fuckhead. Don’t shit where you eat.
It would be…wrong, he knew, to antagonize a stranger. Even worse to do it to a neighbor. The Daniels’ ranch was due south of his place by less than a mile. Seeing as Marnie had the best feed in town, and with calving season not too far off, it would be the worst idea in the world to poison that well.
Maybe it was the pent up frustration. Maybe it was because he’d not shared more than ten words with the guy in the two years he’d been here. Maybe he’d had too much to drink.
Or maybe he was just that type of fucked-up asshole.
He pushed out of his seat and crossed to where Shane sat. Leaning against the bar, he shoved his empty glass into the other man’s personal space, just past the point of politeness. When Shane ignored the gesture, William took another step over and deliberately bumped into his shoulder.
The contact of aggressive energy sent red sparks through his body, like a tap of steam on his pressure valve. He crowded closer, not looking, just letting his bulk take up space that wasn’t his.
The void was calling. The colors had bled out of the day. Those sparks of ego were the only thing keeping him anchored, and maybe a fight was exactly what he needed to cut the sweetness of this place.
Shane frowned, sliding his stool down the bar.
Any other day and he’d have grabbed a fifth of whiskey after punching out of his shift at the grocery store, taking it to the dock to drink in private. Away from the jukebox. Away from the fake laughter, and assholes who didn’t respect his damn space.
Any other day.
The saloon felt distant. Mechanical, almost, like the inside of a clock. Shane sat in the middle of it, still and silent while bodies ticked around him on their preset trajectories, moving like parts rather than people. No one knew that for Shane, this wasn’t just any other day.
He stared into the inch of beer at the bottom of his mug, vision swimming. He couldn’t be alone. Not on the 18th of August. If he was alone he would do something stupid, and if he did something stupid it was Jas who would suffer. If anything he should be spending time with her, but he couldn’t do that either; not when her bright freckled face was like staring into a damned time machine.
He would’ve been thirty-one today, just like Shane.
Gus came around the front of the bar, bustling as always on a Friday night. Shane motioned for a refill, punching those thoughts into the back of his head to join all the other bruised and beaten thoughts of the night. He had no idea what number drink he was on anymore, but the goal was simple: get fucked up and forget. While he still could, at least.
He tried to knock that thought back too. JojaMart was closing, and there was nothing he could do about it. Three more weeks and he’d be out of a job, out of the pitiful paychecks that helped him drown the shittiness of his life in a pint. That was reality, but that was for later—another problem for his future self to deal with.
Cheerful sounds continued around him, distant and hollow. Shane gazed at the counter and waited on his beer, but he’d barely begun to zone out when the hairs on his neck began to creep. Following the ominous feeling, he turned. His face grew hot.
It was the same fucker who’d shoulder-checked him, once more standing too damn close. The local farmer, Shane realized. Not that he knew the guy, but Marnie sometimes did business with him. Big guy too, with one of those ridiculous hipster beards, and colorful tattoos all over his neck and arms. He didn’t look like a farmer to Shane. He looked like he belonged on a calendar page in some jerk-off’s shed.
Probably manufacturing steroids out in one of his barns.
And what the fuck was his deal, anyway? Leaning all casually against the bar, as if he hadn’t just forced himself into Shane’s bubble for the third time that night. Shane opened his mouth, ready to tell him to back the hell off, but at that same moment Gus reappeared with a foaming pint.
“There you are, son,” he said, plopping the ale down and rushing off to fill another order.
Shane glared at the farmer’s profile before turning back to the bar.
Of course it’d be tonight. After countless nights in the saloon with people giving him the berth of a fucking leper, of course it was tonight that someone would fuck with him. Sighing, he reached for his drink.
His hand was knocked out of the way by a set of tattooed knuckles.
Turning his head in slow disbelief, Shane watched as the guy grabbed his beer. He lifted it to his mouth, taking a confident swallow, then licked the foam off his lips. Setting it down—fist still wrapped around—he stared at Shane with piercing blue eyes.
Shane’s heart began to pound its own tattoo in his chest. His hand clenched in his lap, itching to connect. Though it’d been years since he last threw a punch, he was struck by an uncontrollable urge to jam a fist into that stupid bearded chin. Hitting this guy would probably be a deathwish, but since when was he a stranger to deathwishes?
Don’t do anything stupid. You came out tonight for a reason.
Stupid? Shane swatted back the thought. Because stupid was getting up in another motherfucker’s business and stealing his drink out of his hand. Stupid was messing with someone when you had no idea how little he cared for his own stupid life. And stupid was what he did next—because before Shane realized what he was doing, he’d reached over and flicked the guy in the forehead.
A hand shot up through the space between them, lightning-fast reflexes snatching his wrist.
“Now that ain’t nice,” the farmer drawled, beer on his breath as he leaned in. “You wanna touch my face, you gotta take me to dinner first, sweetheart.”
Shane, stunned, sat perfectly still while the other man looked him up and down as if taking inventory. His heart pounded harder, adrenaline slamming into his body with each beat, and he braced himself, because the second this fucker let go he was going to yank that ridiculous beard and bash his head into the counter.
Then his wrist was released. Before Shane could go through with his plan, the man drew back, looking at him. An amused expression slid over his face.
Shane shoved back with such force the stool gave a sharp squeak and went onto two legs, his face burning.
The universe hated him. That was the only explanation. It hated his pathetic existence, and that wink was the sick fucking cherry on top of its sick fucking joke of the night. The small gesture felt like a finger digging into an infected wound, and Shane’s chest seared with fresh hatred as he righted the stool. He yanked back his beer, mumbling, “Faggot.”
It was, he discovered, the wrong thing to say.
The temperature in the room dropped twenty degrees. Those blue eyes—already cold—iced over even more. The man they belonged to stood. He placed one hand on the bar, towering over Shane, his voice dangerously quiet. “What did you just say, asshole?”
“I said get the fuck away from me.”
“What’s wrong?” he crooned, growing closer. “You drink so much tonight you lost your memory, or you just too chickenshit to own up?”
“Those who slur loudest are usually covering something. So which are you, pal? A homo or an asshole?”
“Just somebody minding their own business, fucking try it some time,” Shane snapped. He turned back to face the bar, and under his breath muttered, “Prick.”
The beer was slapped out of his hand. It crashed to the floor, the shattering of glass on hardwood ringing through the air. A hush fell over the pub as the amber liquid began to pool around the shards.
Pin-drop silence, but for the jukebox softly in the background.
The farmer crowded closer to Shane, all shoulders and clenched jaw. “You got something to say,” he hissed, “you say it like a man.”
Shane’s whole body seized up as he stared at the broken drink on the floor. He lifted his head, slowly, and bored into the man’s stare with his own.
“Prick,” he spat.
A wild, maniacal grin burst over the farmer’s face.
“Wrong again. My name is William. Now, you had something else to say. Say it again. Go ahead, call me that word one more time.”
Shane was too drunk, too stupid, and too pissed to back down now. He pushed his face right up into William’s.
“I called you,” he said through clenched teeth, shoving a finger into the broad chest, “a goddamn” —another shove— “motherfucking” —another shove— “PRICK.”
The word had barely left his lips when William reached out and hauled him up by the collar in one powerful movement, slamming him into the wood-paneled wall behind them. A light fixture rattled above Shane’s head, and several people in the bar collectively jumped to their feet. They were background noise though, barely registering as William’s hand twisted Shane’s collar so tight he couldn’t breathe. He struggled, his shoes barely even touching the floor, and a chord of real fear struck.
This guy was going to fucking kill him. He could see it in those eyes, ones that had gone from amused to hardened over like a goddamned psychopath in a matter of seconds. Without a doubt, he was going to get his face pummeled tonight, and, flinching, he braced for it.
What he got was a sheet of ice water.
The second it hit William’s grip released as if by spring. Shane dropped to his feet, choking in air and blinking against the drops that blurred his vision.
Gus stood behind the bar with an empty bucket, looking furious. Shane had never seen the jovial man with such an expression, nor had he heard such impatience as the voice that thundered, “THAT’S ENOUGH, GENTS!”
Shane steadied himself on the wall, gulping against the cold. William stood in front of him, soaked to the bone and gasping just as hard. His shoulders rose and fell, his blond hair wet and dripping in his eyes—eyes that still looked like they wanted to rip a hole in Shane. He glared him down eerily for a few more seconds.
“Yup,” he said at last, still panting. “Too much of a fucking coward.”
He spit at Shane’s feet, dug into his pocket to pull out some cash, and dropped it on the counter before stomping out of the bar.
The people inside, previously so silent, began to hum with low, anxious voices.
Shane couldn’t be fucked to listen to them. Couldn’t be fucked to look if they were staring. The word coward stampeded through his brain, trampling every other thought to dust. He stormed past the twittering patrons, knocking over the barstool in his way, and shoved through the saloon door so hard the bell—which normally gave a soft chime—reverberated violently through the air.
If he was going to die, it was a damn good night to do it.
William burst out of the saloon, furious and dripping. He squeezed his hair and growled. His shirt stuck to him, soaking into his jeans. He hated wet clothes—hated the too-soft fabric clinging to his skin.
It hadn’t been enough. It had been like fucking foreplay before getting off, all heavy breathing and posturing, but no actual release of the noxious energy that filled him.
It’d been a while since someone had been stupid enough to use his sexuality as an insult. Homophobia had been rampant in the armed forces, but a few punches and bruises usually fixed that right the hell up. The last derisive sniff had come from that Morris chucklefuck, and William had set him back a few pegs in the name of equal rights.
But he hadn’t even gotten the chance this time.
You’re losing it, the sane part of his mind warned him.
William blamed that stretch of consciousness on the six months he’d spent in addiction counseling. If he could’ve shot off that part of himself to make it shut the hell up, he would’ve swallowed the gun barrel in a heartbeat. He didn’t want to hear that logical blend of his mother’s loving voice tempered with his father’s patience. He was keyed up, knew it was wrong, and didn’t care.
Even if it was pointless. Egging that guy on? Pointless. Shaky and cowardly fuck had been too scared to really be a goddamned challenge. And where was he? Soaking wet with a long walk home for fucking nothing.
He’d been so close to something real, to something so good and visceral he could’ve sunk his teeth into it. But he’d seen Shane’s fear. It was like smelling cookies and then realizing it was only someone’s dainty-ass candle. He’d been kidding himself the entire time to think, maybe, there was someone with enough balls in the soft and sleepy town to give him a true break of this goddamned grey night.
He squeezed his shirt, leaving a trail of drips as he stalked towards home.
Tomorrow he’d go to Zuzu, he decided. He could put the animals on auto-feeders and go get fucked up at the Mirage for a night. Go find a real fight, and maybe a real fuck. He’d gotten out of his ban last month, so why the fuck not get re-banned? He clenched his fists, the plan in no way satisfying the needs of tonight.
William froze. His heart slammed into his chest, the voice ramping him back up with an excited need as he turned his head.
“Asshole!” it shouted again.
Footsteps came up behind him too fast, gravel scraping underneath worn shoes. William’s mind could place his assailant with no trouble, and even though he knew the hit was coming he didn’t try to stop it.
If he’d known how hard it would land, he would’ve.
A fist driven with uncoordinated rage brought a burst of stars behind his eyes. William stumbled, stunned, one foot moving out to catch his balance. His lip had split against his teeth and he touched it, holding the blood up to his eyes. Heart pounding, he turned his head, slowly, unsure exactly what he was facing.
Shane stood there, eyes wild with fury, a twin spirit of frustration that had boiled over to violence. Whoever the scared fucker had been in the bar, something dark and ugly had taken his place. William rolled his head on his shoulders, a beacon of focus clearing through the chaos. With a driving force he aimed a fist back at Shane, letting it bounce off his face, giving him a taste of his own medicine, letting go of the leash on good manners, good behavior, and good fucking peaceful country living.
Shane took the hit with the acceptance of a man who was no stranger to beatings and expected to take more. It was breathtaking, and William didn’t intend to waste the gift. He closed with him, driving his shoulder into Shane’s stomach, and Shane retaliated by bringing his fists down like a mallet on William’s back. His aim was drunkenly bad, glancing off the ribs with a bloom of pain. William slammed him into the grass near the riverbank before he could re-aim his pile-driving punch onto an already fragile spine. He straddled Shane, pinning him with his thighs, and began to mechanically and methodically punch his face.
He jabbed him once in the eye, once in the jaw, and just as he was going for another eye shot in the name of matching bruises, since he was a considerate motherfucker like that, Shane head-butted him in the nose. It was another fire-blossom of agony and William reeled back, breathing out through his mouth.
As soon as he was free of the pin, Shane dove forward. The dive caught William in the solar plexus and knocked the wind out of him in a brutal rush. He managed a single kidney jab—hard enough to get Shane’s attention but not so hard that he’d be pissing blood in the morning.
Shane flinched back, shouting in either pain or fury.
William, wheezing, stumbled and held his fists at the ready. His nose was bleeding freely and his jaw was on fire. Despite it all he grinned, panting breaths flicking blood into a mist over his mouth. He was sweating, his muscles roiling, a heady cocktail of adrenaline-laced chemicals fueling the reactions.
“Didn’t think a faggot could hit you so hard, huh, Sadsack?” he taunted.
Shane swayed on his feet, one eye squinting at him, before he roared another challenge and drove forward like a gridball linebacker.
William anticipated the moment, bracing his knees and taking the hit, pivoting his hips to slam Shane up against the nearest tree. They were eye to eye now, breaths mingling as William planted his legs, pressing in at three points. Shane had one arm pinned behind his back, William’s forearm over his collarbone, and William’s other hand pinning an arm over his head. He stood close, very close, and could see his face.
The moon was above them, the forest around them silent, the only ambient noise the flow of the river as it made its way toward the sea.
For one, stupidly clear moment, William thought Shane looked intoxicating this way. Blood dripped over his brow, and his eye was swelling. This close, William could see the pulse pounding against his throat. It reminded him of the way he’d leave a lover, all worn and exhausted, delicious in the aftermath of their fucking. He sure as fuck was sore. He was going to have a black eye of his own, and be chewing out of one side of his mouth for days.
The silence stretched, Shane puffing hard to get his breath back. The guy hadn’t spoken at all in the fight; hadn’t bothered to give William any reason for his sudden decision to get his ass kicked.
“You just don’t give up easy, do you Daniels?” William asked, starting to ease up the hold, experimenting to see if maybe, their fight was over. “God…” He was impressed despite himself.
Shane shifted, and William pressed himself tighter. For a moment their hips were closer, their bodies nearly flush with one another. Shane wasn’t even that much shorter than him. His frame was masculine and tough, and god, what a bruiser. Why hadn’t he looked at this guy before now?
As William had the thought, he stiffened, eyes wide as he realized he wasn’t the only one getting hot from this.
Like he could sense it, Shane struck, exploiting the mercy, ripping his hand on the bark behind him to slam it into William’s abdomen. William groaned between grit teeth, the fist as hard as a damn hammer. Jerking, he twisted the arm he still had possession of, turning Shane around and kicking the inside of his knee. Shane was forced to the ground. Despite the violence of the move, William was careful—joints were delicate, and he wanted the big bastard down, not out.
“Impressive. Giving as good as you get, huh?”
Shane lurched once, trying to find purchase to wiggle out of the hold, but William twisted his thumb and slammed him back into the grass.
“Now,” he hissed, “let’s have a little chat.”
Shane did not oblige the request, only panting against the ground. William didn’t let up the pressure until his shoulders sagged.
“The fuck do you want from me?” Shane finally rasped.
William shivered at the sound, the feeling of power over another scratching an itch within him, one that had been ignored for over two years of his self-imposed exile. When was the last time he’d gotten into such a satisfying fight?
“Say,” he said, leaning down, his chest now flush with Shane’s back, “I’m sorry I called you a faggot, William.”
He could feel Shane’s pulse from the thumb on his wrist. It was going rabbit-fast. Just like his own heart.
When Shane tried another half-hearted struggle William realized he’d relaxed his hold, probably out of appreciation for the body that was straining beneath him. He waited but Shane didn’t speak, just wheezed out hard, jagged breaths that created little ripples in the grass under his face. William held his pressure, though. He didn’t want to give the guy the idea this was over.
“How ‘bout this?” he said. “I’ll count. I’ll even go slow so you can follow me. I’m a nice guy like that.”
Face still in the grass, Shane bit out, “I didn’t do jack to you, man.”
“Words,” William drawled, “have meaning. Lemme lay out what you gotta answer for, Daniels.” He squeezed Shane’s shoulder, but only once, not yet willing to cut off all blood supply. “You took my beer—”
William let him struggle, trying not to pull too hard on the arm. He wanted him pinned, not broken. The last thing he needed was to pay some other guy’s medical bills. Still, Shane would be sore on that shoulder for days, and William darkly wondered if he’d remember how he’d been pinned down like his little bitch when he felt it throb and pang.
“Rude,” he chastised. “As I was saying before you fucking interrupted me—you stole my beer, and then you called me a faggot. Guess you were out the day you townies learned manners.”
Shane surged up and William shoved him back down.
“Now be a sweetheart and apologize,” he said, breathing hard, anticipation ringing down his spine. “One… Two…”
“Three,” Shane spat, dropping his head. “I don’t fucking care.”
William could feel the shoulders shaking underneath the pressure of his pin. With his free hand he sank his fingers into Shane’s hair, rubbing them slowly but with pressure. He gave the scalp a gentle squeeze, the lesson clear—he didn’t have to be gentle.
“That’s not what your racing heart says,” he said, stroking Shane’s head one more time before gripping it hard. “And I can feel it. I can feel that beat like a bass drum.” He inhaled Shane’s sweaty hair, a smell that would haunt him. “You get off on this too," he whispered, leaning close. “You. Like. It.”
He held him for a moment more, waiting. But Shane was beaten. William let go of the arm and it flopped down next to Shane’s face, his dark eyes staring at the ground in surrender. The look was so deeply satisfying that he almost didn’t want to leave him there…but he would.
He pushed off, standing, and brushed the dirt from his knees.
“Until next time, Daniels.”
And with that he walked home, leaving Shane alone in the dark.
Shane was thirteen when he took his first real punch, and he deserved it. At least, that’s what his dad said. It’s what his mom said after with her silence, passing by his bedroom without a word of the eye socket that resembled a bloated prune plum.
He’d made his dad think he stole the last thirty dollars from the tin above the stove. He hadn’t, of course. But he’d made his dad think so, which was just as bad an offense. Shane had come home with a brand new backpack that day. He’d won it at a fair set up in the school gymnasium. It was his own dumb fault, tossing the dingy one he’d used since second grade in order to sport the new one home. When Corey Daniels returned from work to discover the flashy new toy—and the missing money that meant no possibility of bourbon that night—it was only natural he’d taken it out on his son.
It was just one hit.
“You fuck up, you pay the price,” he said after, when Shane, without crying, had crumpled to the floor. “I’m not an unreasonable man, but you’re old enough to know how shit works.”
Lying on the cold ground, smelling damp earth, his clothes soaked and his body beat, Shane thought he probably deserved this too. Probably deserved it more. He knew what he said—knew he’d been trying to incense the guy. But he hadn’t meant it. Shane might’ve been an asshole, but if people would just leave him alone then he really did not care what the fuck they did in their lives.
The leaves above him rustled. A few crickets chirped, echoing in the dark. Other than those soft sounds, the night around him was peaceful and almost silent.
What a strange word. Before tonight, he would’ve said peace was a near-empty saloon, a crackling fire, and a brain that was drunk enough to forget. But right now the world was enveloped in a different sort of peace. Sure, it felt like his body had been snapped in twelve places and littered about the forest floor—but those snaps must’ve released something inside him, because now there was nothing left.
Just pain, and nothingness.
He wondered if anything was broken or ruptured.
His head was pretty quiet. That didn’t happen much.
Well, it wasn’t totally quiet. There was a splitting pain in his skull, and a tympani-like thumping between his ears. Better than the usual incessant chatter of his brain, though. Was he even drunk anymore? It didn’t feel like it, but neither did it feel like any kind of sobriety Shane had ever known.
He pulled himself up, gasping at a sharp jab below his ribcage, and paused a moment to sit and adjust to the pain. Another dart shot through his shoulder as he lifted his hand, examining the bloodied back where it’d ripped across the tree bark. He wiped the blood on the front of his hoodie, staring into the darkness and taking slow, excruciating breaths.
If only he could stay here all night, in this exact position. Walking home felt like an impossibility; the ranch might as well have been on the moon.
He tried to picture William’s face. All the pieces were there, but he had trouble putting them together. The blue eyes. The full beard. The long wet hair on top of his head, hanging down over shaved sides. Even his mouth, bloody from Shane’s fist. But he couldn’t keep the image as a whole from shifting, from swimming around like some kind of surrealist painting in his mind’s eye.
Until next time, Daniels.
Maybe he’d do it again. Maybe he’d show up once more to pummel him, and that would be the way Shane went out—in a painful, peaceful haze on the edge of a dark forest, after all his energy was spent.