On the Western slope of Colorado, just outside of Telluride, the San Juan Mountains have been hazy the past two days because of a fire accidentally started by a homeless schizophrenic’s cigarette.
From the cocoon of a hammock, you stare up at the blackest sky counting stars through the haze. It’s the kind of expansive darkness you only see when there’s no cities nearby. Juniper trees are twisted just out of reach.
Your boyfriend’s arm is slung around your neck. This is how you camp now: the stars and the dark, the smell of burning plastic from two sites down, the bear that’s been seen in the area. The other bears have already run off except this one that’s been fed by people. If it, too, doesn’t run off, it’ll have to be euthanized. You don’t think this is fair, it’s not the bear’s fault people are stupid. You told this to the camp host when he warned you earlier that morning about keeping food out of cars and packed up indoors.
You think you’ve never seen anything like this — so black and dusty with speckles of fire scattered over the hill and the stars clustered just so, so that it doesn’t actually seem like there are that many, the billions and billions flecked with other life forms. Your boyfriend’s breathing is steady and his arm is still and you want to remember this, right here, this exact moment in five years.
When you were thirteen, and some years before that, you would go camping with your grandparents and two cousins. The camper was from the 70s with a sage green stripe belting the metal casing. Your grandpa drove a red Chevy and he called you Skeeter. Inside the camper was a small bathroom to the left where you stood over the toilet to shower, once you turned inside the camper, a kitchenette with a two-burner stove, fridge, sink, and short countertop was on the left and across from that was the table that folded into a bed. You and Anna slept on that. In the back was a small couch that converted into a bed that your grandparents and Devon slept on.
On the stove grandma cooked mac and cheese, at the table you and Anna made dream catchers out of wire hangers and fishing line. This was likely the last summer you went camping in Missouri on Lake Wappapello somewhere to the west of the river.
Here’s what you remember now: that fall after your last camping trip, Travis moved in down the street from Devon. Once, they held you down on your grandma’s living room carpet, pressing the barrel of a BB gun against your thigh. Travis pulled the trigger, and if you told anyone they’d kill you.
Devon was born dead and blue, his daddy ran off and his mom was hooked on meth so he lived with your grandparents, his eighth birthday was cowboy themed, he’d won a baseball little league medal that your grandma proudly displayed next to the television, once on a different camping trip your grandpa whipped him with a switch, and after two years of sleepovers with the boy down the street it was too late. After Devon was sent to the Bootheel Mental Health Clinic, where he attended group therapy twice daily and wore red t-shirts for five months, you remember your mom saying maybe he just should’ve stayed dead.
After he got out of the facility, he gained fifty pounds and tossed every piece of red clothing in the house.
What Devon remembers, what he’ll tell no one, not you or the girlfriend he lived with for four months after getting out of jail for the fifth time, or the string of therapists at the Heartland Mental Health Roundup, is being called beautiful for the first time by a stranger, the friend down the street. Thinking that twelve-year-old boys are not beautiful.
Travis had once said that his dad had blown his face off with a rifle, so he’d known what it was like to have no one, and it’d started slow with a hand on the top of Devon’s knee moving up and up like a brown recluse finding a dark crevice to hide. Hearing, we have to — you’re the only one who understands, as it escalated to being forced to lay on his stomach while Travis finished. This scene playing like a busted VHS tape, rewinding and fast-forwarding over two years.
He remembers being called retarded because he was dyslexic and reading at a fourth grade level, and the blue of Travis’s Batman sheets, his face being smashed into the worn cotton fabric — a color he sees sometimes when he closes his eyes in the shower or after the first time he tried MDMA. It’s the color of new intake prisoner jumpsuits, of the cover of his sixth grade reading textbook, or that lake with the odd name where he used to camp.
Now, just like it was then, it’s quiet. Devon is only a few strands of DNA from being you, and you realize you don’t own any red shirts. It’s the only glimpse of a moment you’ve thought of him in years. You turn over into the side of the hammock, face pressed against the water-resistant fabric, and feel for the pellet lodged into your thigh, rolling the bead along the inside of your skin.
At this altitude, your head feels a bit light, but not all of the time. You’ll drink some water and the moment will pass.