We were wobbly on our asses atop a pair of flipped trash cans, waiting for that fat fuck Officer Dan while passing a pint bottle of Ezra Brooks between us (something my cousin Abel had bought us with cash we’d lifted then lifted again right out from Abel’s back pocket) in the deep vegetable shade of insatiable weed-vines twining and binding up Old Margaret’s front porch, everything canted and slanting on rotted posts with the windows all busted out, front door stripped clean off the hinges and of course Old Margaret dead some seven years or more. The smog of July was the hot, foul breath of a dog, stale and gluey all around us. Like the sounds of birds filling up the house. Like the electric sense of a storm on its way that never actually comes. And halfway finished with our sour brown pint, right on time, Officer Dan turned down the dead-end half-block of Macomber, pulled a U-y at the bottom—just out front of where Jaylee and I were hidden behind wild vine leaves—then rolled up to the curb outside Jaylee’s mother’s door. Except for Old Margaret’s great big house of many sinking rooms slouching at the street’s abbreviated terminus, both sides of Macomber were lined in identical brick row houses packed in tight side-to-side, no room for alleys least of all yards and each distinguished only by its once-vibrant coat of purple or pink or gold or orange. Jaylee’s mom’s was the tomato-red place faded down to the luckless tones of a very old, very hard crust of uncheesed 7-11 pizza. The sort of thing you’d find stomped into the sidewalk on a miserable Sunday morning. And God, such doughboy arrogance, the way Officer Dan fussed with his belt and holster and baton before marching from his cruiser up the stoop, strutting inside without so much as a knock. In the rooms behind us and the dark above, the thrill of a billion expectant cooings cooed while we ticked off the seconds between when Officer Dan hoof-stepped through Jaylee’s mom’s front door and when his stretch-slacks and their armament, we estimated, thumped to the bedroom carpet. It was on. Jaylee and I raced down Old Margaret’s busted steps, dumped out all over the cruiser’s trunk our plastic Rite Aid bag of croutons soaked in castor oil, then backed the fuck up to await the snapping card-shuffle of innumerable clapping wings in approach.

The pigeons did not disappoint. In a wave, the dull tin sky disappeared behind a downward-falling curtain of squab, the whole hoard singing an impressed and warbling hymn of thanksgiving as they exited Old Margaret’s—from roof beams and windows and hidden nests in the eaves—to settle upon the banqueted cruiser. Even without the poison, the happy mess they made was toxic and immediate. Then the castor oil hit, a panicked gurgling rose in polyphony, and the wild flock descendant from Old Margaret’s rooftop cote extruded its yellow napalm slime all over Officer Dan’s hood and roof, windscreen and trunk. It didn’t occur to us until much later that our prank probably killed off a generous swath of those innocent ring-necked birds. Even if we had figured that, though, in that moment, it was of no concern. Jaylee and I in unison screamed Every Pig Has a Corkscrew Dick and bolted as fast and hard as our drunken little legs would propel us, up Macomber and across Cross Delano and into Hotdog Park, past the vendors with their mustard-stained patrons and into the hillside woods brambling like a jungle above the concrete retaining wall that looked like art but wasn’t. Breathless, alone, we raised out pint in a toast to our success, finished the bottle, then finger fucked under a squirrel-heavy oak, nuzzling and giddy beneath a shopping cart impossibly caught in branches twenty feet up or more.

None of which, of course, would stop Officer Dan from later that summer becoming Jaylee’s lily-ass stepdad. Nor would it stop Jaylee and me from flushing a lit cherry bomb down her mom’s toilet during the vodka-tang heights of the wedding’s after-party. Nor would it stop the resultant screams or backhand slaps or sidearms drawn with drunk and earnest ire, not to mention ten minutes and two blocks later when Jaylee’s left leg got crushed to talcum when she found herself pinned between the emergency call box we’d been making a mad dash for and the reinforced grill of Officer Dan’s cruiser. The unenlightened among us might be tempted to suggest that Jaylee and I very likely in our exploits were making matters worse. But hear this, idiot: Jaylee never took a drink until she needed some way—any way—to escape. Never stole or vandalized or blew apart a toilet. And Officer Dan was the only thing ever she had need to escape. That, sure, and the resigned defeat or defeated resignation (take your pick) flattening more and more her mother’s root beer eyes. But that didn’t start until Officer Dan started, haunting the new widow’s door and air and sheets like an insect or a disease. So really, in a sense, Jaylee only ever fought against that one inciting thing. Who was I to leave my home slice hanging?

Stepdad Dan backed up and peeled away while Jaylee like a microphone dropped. Upon its pole now bent like a question mark, the emergency call box squawked with staticky hysteria, so I shouted at it to come!, please!, hurry!, then collapsed on the sidewalk, pulling Jaylee on top of me like she were my baby and I’d just given birth. I held her tight against the shakes. Deep in shock, her eyes were just pupils now, black and endless, a cartoon of how eyes should be. It’d have been hilarious if it wasn’t so goddamned horrible. Whatever she could see, it wasn’t me and it wasn’t the streetlights bowing reverently overhead. Instead, little fishes knifed in and out of coral. She told me all about it. She whispered through chattering teeth. Pink fish and sapphire fish and clear fish with electric lights sizzling along their transparent spines. All of them darting around and through a living coral so much like a radiant amethyst brain. Wherever she was, it sounded pretty okay. Far away from Old Margaret’s and far from any shopping cart marooned high up in a tree. In the glow of perfect water, they floated in fishy calm. When a shadow passed in the currents above, like a wizard’s trick, into hiding they’d all disappear.

If it’d been a promise I thought at all I could keep, I’d’ve told her we’d be there soon, just Jaylee and me and the electric schools. All of us all afloat. Any passing shadow would just be she and I above. Harmless. Instead, I just shushed her and prayed it’d be okay. We’d figure out some other way of making a way to get by. Then the first responders arrived and hoisted Jaylee’s body—broken and insane in her overflow of pain—from where she belonged on the cradle of me, took her away in the wailing van on a promise of turning dust back into bone, while I rocked myself calm alone on the pavement, trying to construct what the life ahead of us might possibly become—where we would live now, how we’d get food—as down the street and coming toward me, circling blue lights drew near.

© Douglas W. Milliken
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Douglas’ interview]