The chip had come from a large rock, smooth and slightly pitted on one side, rough on the other. It was quartz or limestone or some other light mineral. Grandpa would have known what kind. David only knew enough to recognize that the yellow sparkle on the chipped side was pyrite, not real gold.
“I bet it’s a knife,” he said, feeling its weight rest in his palm, “maybe a ritual knife, it’s so pretty.”
Drew scoffed. “That’s no injun knife. It’s not obsidian.”
David put up token resistance. “Naw, look at how it’s chipped—”
Drew dismissed it without even looking. “My dad said the injuns made obsidian knives. Said they could slice slice a man right clean down to the bone.”
Rory did an impression of a man being gutted, making wet sounds with his mouth and clutching his chest. Cheeks burning, David pocketed the rock chip. The three of them spread out over a dry creek bed, sifting through silt and rocks for pieces to graft on report boards. Rory already had three slender tule reeds in one sweaty hand. Drew (Andrew but not Andy, never Andy) claimed to have a bit of scalp he refused to show either of them. Only David was left wanting.
“Man I wish we were doing a report on someone interesting, like the Az-tecs.” Drew tossed a pebble at a bird, frightening it away. “What kind of crappy tribes did we have around here again?”
David had known the two of them long enough to know the question was not really a question, supplying information would be met with ridicule.
“Basket weavers,” Rory said, kicking a branch in their path. “That’s what my paper has to be. Also they made reed boats.”
Drew rolled his eyes. “My dad said the Az-tecs were real nutbusters. Killed people on top of huge pyramids. I’d pay to see that.”
The air around them was so hot David felt like he was wading through it, not walking. Far away, the river growled as if to remind them that they were in someone else’s territory. The boys ascended heaps of slag rock, leftovers from strip mining. Drew, the product of divorce and used to ruling two households, naturally fell to the front of their arrowhead formation. They passed no one out on these paths, everyone with a brain had stayed home or gone to the water to cool off.
“Hang on, I got an itch.” Grinning, Rory snagged some leaves off a nearby bush and shoved them down the back of his pants, making a wiping motion.
“Rory, that was probably poison oak.”
Rory’s grin disappeared.
“Naw,” Drew said with casual authority, “poison oak’s on the other coast. It’s poison ivy.”
“I thought it was the other way around.”
“Guys? Am I gonna die?”
“Actually it’s poison oak. Remember, ‘leaves of three, let it be—’”
“Lots of things have three leaves, are you telling me they’re all poison oak? Anyway, my dad says—”
“Seriously, am I gonna die? I don’t wanna die of a poisoned ass.”
“You’re not gonna die, shipdit,” Drew snapped at Rory, “just get some menthol shaving cream and put that on it. You’ll be fine.”
David was pretty sure that wouldn’t work, but knew he’d be automatically shot down. Maybe he could wait until he and Rory were alone. Rory wasn’t a bad sort when on his own. He just tended to take on the disposition of whoever he was with. David wished he could be like that. Just blend in and make friends in the little time he was here.
They climbed over a felled tree, lizards scattering in their wake. Rory made like he was going to step on one, but they were too fast. Good. David didn’t know what he’d do if they caught a lizard and did something cruel to it.
“You know, the Az-tecs weren’t that great,” Drew contemplated. He was leading them down a meandering route that took them away from the places marked on their xeroxed map and deeper into the slag piles. He claimed to know exactly where they were going, but remained vague when pressed. “Yeah, they were pretty bad-ass, but in the end they got their ass kicked by us.”
“Spain,” David said before he could catch himself.
“Yeah, but people from Spain are almost white. My dad said so. So it counts.” Drew flung his arms out, as if conducting the surrounding wildlife. “He said they cut out people’s hearts and painted pyramids with blood so the sun wouldn’t die. Isn’t that fucking stupid? Like the sun’s gonna go away. And what the hell made them think hearts would work? Why not the brain? That’s where all the good stuff happens.”
“Actually, it makes sense.” David withered internally from Drew’s apathetic gaze. “You want to give something to a god, you give it your most valuable thing. People used to think the heart did everything, not the brain. It makes sense,” he insisted.
Drew let out a noncommittal “hmm” and it fell like the weight of a hammer. Rory squinted, his blonde lashes glowing white in the afternoon light.
“So why did they think the sun would go away?”
“Eclipses. Night.” David realized he knew more about this than he realized, and despaired that it did him no good. Drew was looking the other way, intentionally bored of the conversation. “Think about it: you live when the only light you have is fire or the sun. Night is fucking scary, especially when you live with Jaguars and shit.”
Rory fell into an awed silence.
“My dad saw a puma once when they were hunting in Florida,” Drew said, apropos of nothing. He still wouldn’t look at David. “They scream like a woman. Imagine that.”
“Whoa.” Now Rory looked at Drew, eyes shining with awe. David bit his tongue, mashing the soft muscle with his incisors.
Rocks clattered as they wandered without path or bearing. The river was a quiet hush now, the loudest sound was birdsong.
“Whoa, look at this.” Drew threw his hand out, halting the other two.
A snake lay right in their path. David’s eyes wandered from the diamond head down the fat, sandy middle of it, to the tail crowned with hollow spheres.
“A rattler,” he breathed.
Drew smiled. It was not a nice smile. “Wanna see something? Dave, where’s that knife?”
David felt the sharp weight of it in his back pocket. “Tossed it away. Sorry.”
“Ah.” Drew was already rooting in the slag beside them. He came up with a sharp rock the size of his head. Drew looked them in the eye as he hefted it. David tried to tamp down his horror. He wouldn’t—
In what was either a calculated death blow or an extremely lucky shot, the rock landed on the snake’s head as it tried to escape. The body writhed as if being electrocuted, in its death throws it formed a series of angry loops, tail buzzing dryly.
David felt poisoned. “You killed it.”
“Yup.” Drew nodded. He rolled the rock off the head, leaving the body to flip and twist in a bizarre pantomime.
David flushed. “He wasn’t doing anything.”
“Snakes’re assholes, everyone knows that.” Drew nudged the body with his foot. Already it was running out of steam, its acrobatics coming slower and slower.
Drew laughed, turned on his heel, and started walking. Rory trotted after, casting a glance at the snake. David followed eventually.
The afternoon turned hotter, turned stifling. It was too hot to think. Rory took off his shirt, then put it back on once Drew started laughing about ticks. David could feel the stone digging into skin through the denim of his jeans, as if thirsty for something. He wanted to ask about going back, but knew that it would forever be a black mark in his social ledger even though they all clearly wanted to leave.
“Ah, I’m tired.” Drew flung himself over a large, flat boulder and rested a forearm over his eyes. Rory went limp as an unstrung marionette, perching on a nearby log.
David stood, the heat beating in his veins. Times like these, he felt like he could understand people who came before. People who couldn’t protect themselves with electric lights and air conditioning and automatic rifles. No one could hear them or see them, no one was around to care. Far above their heads, a hawk traveled on an invisible corkscrew of air until it was just a thin shadow on the unforgivingly blue sky.
“Drew? It’s hot. Man, I wanna go home.” Rory wiped his forehead, squinting miserably. Drew said nothing. David suspected he had never known the way, now silence was the only way he could keep up the illusion of confidence.
David felt a tickle in his throat. The air now felt too thick to breathe properly, he swam through it like a fish to Rory.
“We’re lost,” he whispered. “I don’t how we’ll get out of here.”
Rory let out a whimper. His face was beet red and none of them had brought along water.
“Man, my ass itches. It hurts, actually. I think it was poison oak. Am I gonna die Dave? I don’t wanna die here.” Rory cast a paranoid glance at their leader.
Drew was still silent, asleep or pretending to be. He sprawled on the rock like a lazy calf on an altar. What did you do when your leader refused to lead? What did you do when you had no human answers?
“I don’t care if you laugh at me man, I want my mom,” Rory whimpered. “How the hell are we getting out of here?”
David took the knife out of his back pocket and gripped it. His hand throbbed where the rough edges pressed into his skin. Drew’s head was thrown back, David saw or imagined he could see the artery in his neck pulse with rich blood.
“I have an idea,” David said.
And, as if on cue, the sun rolled behind a cloud.