Two hours later, I’m sitting on the patio, my bandaged leg resting on a plastic footrest. I stare out at the backyard and the trees behind it. The rifle rests on my lap, fully loaded. The ax is beside me, washed clean of my brother’s blood.
Ralph sits next to me, staring out at the backyard. James, his old friend, stands by the grave Tyler made earlier today. He just stands there and smokes, smokes and stands there. Waiting.
It seems that’s all life is—just waiting.
Finally I say what needs to be said:
“It happened this morning.”
Ralph glances at me. “What did?”
So I tell him about how my father told me he sometimes wonders why he and Mom ever bothered to adopt me in the first place. I tell him about the secret Amanda and I were keeping from everyone, how we were going to the abortion clinic tomorrow. I begin to tell him more, about every bad thing I’ve ever done or said or even thought, but then realize that he doesn’t need to know this. This is just for my benefit. Like a confession before dying. Ralph will listen, of course he’ll listen, but he doesn’t need to hear the rest, so I stop, tell him I’m sorry.
He shakes his head. He opens his mouth, takes a breath, and I’m almost afraid of what he might say next, how he intends to pass judgment on me. But what he says is, “‘A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that has fed of that worm.’”
I just stare at him.
“It’s from Hamlet,” he says, his smile grim. “I taught it every semester for twenty-six years, so no wonder I’ve got the blasted thing memorized. It’s from when the young prince tells his uncle how ‘a king may go a process through the guts of a beggar.’” He shakes his head. “Even Shakespeare knew it, way back then.”
“How nature works. The cycle of the food chain. Man thinks he’s at the top, that he’s untouchable. But he’s wrong. Because when he dies, what else eats away at his corpse except worms? They’ve always been there, feeding away on us. And now … now they’ve gotten hungrier, and nature’s allowed them to grow.”
He stops talking and just sits there, again looks out at the backyard and James standing by the grave. James, a shadow in the fading light, turns and says, “Ralph, it’s time.”
Ralph nods, glances at me. And in that glance I see what he doesn’t want to say. He doesn’t want to say goodbye, because he’s afraid it’ll be his last. That’s why I’m here, after all, with the rifle in my lap and the ax beside me. In case he and James come back changed.
He stands, sighs, and places his hand on my head. Without looking at me, he whispers, “About your old man, Josh. Don’t worry about a thing he said, all right? He doesn’t know who you are. You’re much stronger than he ever was, or ever will be.” He pauses, grins down at me, and whispers, “He doesn’t know a goddamn thing.”
And then he walks away. Across the lawn to where he meets James. Both men look at each other, talk briefly, then turn and disappear into the woods. Neither one of them looks back.