The day Angel brought that damn rabbit home, I told myself it was nothing to get upset about. I told myself it was just this minor, annoying thing. I’d been around long enough to know that’s how boyfriends can be—annoying—especially once they’ve moved in. This time I wanted things to be different. I wanted Angel to stay. I’d try hard to tolerate his ways, because, honestly, Angel’s got so many good qualities. Putting up with things, I’d decided, was better than always getting into it. Getting into it is what my mother would do.

    Anyway, about Angel’s rabbit. He called it Victor. He told me it was a show rabbit, a champion of some kind. He said it had pedigrees, said I could shoot pictures if I wanted. At first he claimed to be keeping the rabbit for some friend. Before long, he was calling it collateral. He was holding on to the rabbit until this friend paid back what he owed. After a week, he brought Victor’s cage onto the mud porch. These arrangements, he promised, were temporary. Every time Angel opened his mouth, another version of things came tumbling out. Looking back, I’m guessing he owned that rabbit all along.

    “We’ll get him some females,” he said after the second week. “They’ll breed. It’ll be our business enterprise.”

    I told him this girl’s life was plenty full without that.

    “They’ll have Victor’s bunnies,” he said, not giving up. “They’ll be purebreds too. They’ll be valuable.” He got out paper and pencil. He wrote figures, erased, wrote some more. Then he slapped the pencil down, and he smiled over at me. Angel’s dimples just melt my heart.

    He held up the numbers. “Every twelve weeks,” he said, “we’ll double our money.” I told him again it wasn’t for me.

    Understand. This rabbit, Victor, was nothing like what you’d think of as a real rabbit, the kind you see running wild. He wasn’t the usual tame kind either, not one you’d give a kid for Easter. He was huge, the size of a boar raccoon, much too big for holding on your lap and way too skittish to pet. More than once I tried. His teeth could take your finger at the second knuckle. There’s nothing you can do with a rabbit like that. So Angel kept Victor in that wire cage out on the mud porch. Day after day the rabbit sat out there, staring at my boots.

    Maybe it’s because Angel’s got that name that he thinks he can do no wrong. Down at Gilly’s Gas-N-Go, where he works, Juanita and Holly pronounce his name “on-hell,” which is what I call him too, all chica-like, every time he gets puffed-up and full of his macho self, which he does way too often.

    How many times I told Angel to burn the pissy newspapers and empty the turds piling up in the tray under Victor’s cage, I can’t say. Twenty times. Probably more. Maybe you think, when I noticed them piling up, I should’ve done it myself, which is what Angel finally said for me to do—empty the tray and burn the newspapers—instead of hassling him. But here’s how I see things: this place might not be a mansion, but it’s mine. I hold clear title to it and to the acre and three-quarters it sits on. That’s no small thing in this world. I’ve got a paying job at the mall camera store, and I’m learning a profession, which is more than I can say for some. Every day I show up for work, even times I don’t always feel like it. More to the point, this rabbit I’m telling you about is Angel’s, and that makes the turds his too. That’s how I think, and that’s what I told him.

    “If you feel that way, I’ll get rid of him, sell him right now,” Angel said. He tried to look pitiful. He stuck his fingers between the cage wires to scratch behind the rabbit’s ears. It was the first time I’d seen him try that. Victor crouched to get away from him.

    It was late on a Saturday afternoon. I was just home from work. I needed a warm shower and a cold beer. I didn’t need this.

    “Someone will buy him,” Angel said. “You’ll see. They’ll gut him and skin him, cut him up for rabbit stew.” He glanced over like he expected me to care. You could tell he was bluffing.

    “Go ahead,” I said. With my hands I made a gesture like wringing a neck. Maybe I bulged my eyes out too. That really set him off. When we get into it, I can’t hold back. Neither can he. Holly says we’re too much alike to last.

    Angel slammed out of the house. Even Victor jumped at the noise, and he got all agitated and twitchy for a minute in his cage.

    You can call me heartless too, call me a bitch like he did. I don’t care. Sometimes a bitch is not a bad thing to be. Anyway, I’m just saying straight out how things were that day with my boyfriend and his damn rabbit, which, by the way, he didn’t bother taking when he climbed into his pickup and sped off.

Twenty minutes later I was drying myself outside the shower stall when Kyle McKell called. I’d heard he was due back from the army any day, and here he was, just home and calling me.

    “Dempsie,” he said, “I’m coming over.”

    Everyone in town knew about the leg he’d lost fighting in Iraq. The story was in all the newspapers. So even though Holly and I had plans to go dancing that night, I told Kyle, “Come ahead.”

    “Get out those pictures you took,” he said and hung up.

    The pictures he meant were from five years ago. You might say they’re what got me my job at McKell’s Camera Outlet. It’s nothing I ever talk about though. And by keeping that whole episode secret, I’d almost forgotten it myself.

    Right away I called and canceled plans with Holly. I didn’t say why, which probably misled her into thinking Angel was responsible. Then I started rummaging through drawers, looking for where I’d hidden those photographs.

    While I searched, I couldn’t stop thinking about Kyle’s lost leg and the three steps he’d have to climb to my front door. Somehow I imagined him showing up in a neat khaki uniform with medals on his chest. He’d have an empty pant leg pinned up and wood crutches jammed under his armpits. It’d be a scene from a movie.

    I had found the pictures and was sorting them on the bed when I heard a motorcycle rumble to a stop out front. The engine revved and shut off. Through the split in the bedroom curtains, I saw Kyle climb off the bike. He turned the bill of his ball cap from back to front. From behind a saddlebag, he unhooked a black walking cane.

    Kyle’s pant leg was definitely not pinned up. In fact, he walked on two legs, walked with a rolling kind of gait. If you didn’t know Kyle McKell from before, if you hadn’t seen how he was then, all agile and athletic, you might think he was just bruised up a little. You might think he’d turned an ankle or twisted a knee, judging by how he walked. You’d never suspect that one of his natural legs was gone.

    By the time I got to the front door and opened it, he had his fist up and ready to knock. “Kyle,” I said, going out. I hugged him carefully, not knowing what still might hurt. His balance wavered for a second, which made him hold me even tighter. His clothes smelled musty, like they’d been in his parents’ basement too long.

    “Hey, Dempsie,” he said in my hair. My name sounded good coming from him.

    Dempsie is what almost everyone calls me. It’s okay as names go. It’s nothing you’d want painted on an overpass though. It’s actually my last name. Ashley, my first name, is way too common for anyone to use, anyone except my mother, that is. She never calls me Dempsie. Never. Dempsie is my father’s name, after all, a name she swears will never pass her lips again, never in this lifetime. She thrives on bitterness. “Besides,” she says, “what kind of name is that for a young woman when she’s already got two sweet names like Ashley Lynn?” Most of the time I answer the phone when she calls. I just listen though. I quit arguing years ago.

    Kyle seemed taller. Broader too. He isn’t hard to look at, but he isn’t what you’d call handsome either. He has too much nose and not enough chin, which means he photographs best straight on. His face seemed more sculpted, at his cheeks and around those hazel-brown eyes. It gave his face a more purposeful look. He tucked the ball cap into his waistband coming into the house. With a few finger-flicks, his corn-silk hair fell into place, neatly mussed. Beneath his dark gray jacket, Kyle wore a steel blue shirt. His shiny black sweatpants whispered as he walked. They gleamed too, with snaps and zippers everywhere.

    I cleared Angel’s three Oaxacan pillows off the couch so Kyle could sit, and I went to the kitchen for beers. When I got back, he had the jacket off, and he was rolling up a shirtsleeve. His left forearm had a strange shape. Angry scars, red raised ones, branched up it like rivers. “I wanted to show you this first,” he said, “and skip all the awkward talk.”

    “Ouch,” I said without meaning to. I sucked air between my teeth. You could still see the surgeon’s stitch pattern. Stray black hairs sprouted up in odd places. He raised the arm and showed the other side. The skin was a patchwork, some tanned, some pale blue and veiny, like the sides of a newborn’s head.

    I was holding the bottles—Negra Modelo and Bud Light—that I’d brought from the kitchen. I gave Kyle his choice. He took the Mexican beer, sipped, and seemed pleased. He turned the fat bottle in his hands, reading the gold label or pretending to. The writing was all Spanish.

    I piled two pillows on the floor and sat. “Does it hurt?” I asked.

    “The arm?” He shook his head. “Not like the leg.”

    I’d almost forgotten the leg. I wondered how much was gone.

    Kyle kept studying the bottle. “The arm’s got a permanent ache,” he said, “deep in the bones. You know what I mean?”

    I couldn’t imagine. For some weird reason, I wanted to touch that arm.

    “They tell me the pain goes away,” he said. He smiled as if there was something funny about that.

    “Three times a week I get physical therapy,” he said. “Exercises.” He moved his arm, cranked it like something mechanical. Then he let the arm rest on the knee of the leg that must have been artificial. That ankle beneath his pant leg was fat as a softball. Kyle made a fist with his hand and he squeezed an imaginary rubber ball. The arm muscles slithered under the patched-up skin.

    I had to look away. I made myself look away, and when I did, I wanted to look back again, wanted to look closer. A shudder ran up my back. This wasn’t like I’d expected.

    “It’s okay, Dempsie,” Kyle said. “It’s nothing I like seeing either.”

    “I’m sorry,” I said. I truly was. I felt his hand on my quivering knee.

    I got to my feet, and the hand fell away.

    “I’m the same person,” he said. “Just look at me. That’s all I’m asking. Just look.”

    I picked up my beer and backed away. “I’ll go get the pictures you wanted,” I said.

    “Just look,” Kyle said again. “Don’t walk away. You owe me that much.”

    He was right, of course. I did owe Kyle McKell.

    I crossed the room to the couch again, set my beer on the table, and sat beside him.

When you’re young, you do stupid stuff. I know I did, lots of it. This one time, Ashleigh Tinker and I hatched a plan to steal a camera to take on our senior class trip. We’d be going to Washington DC, staying at a hotel five days. It would take every bit of my savings. We wanted pictures of monuments and museums, not just postcards but pictures we were in. There’d be partying at the hotel too, which was another reason we needed that camera. We intended to make memories, ones we’d treasure forever. We wanted a real camera, not the drugstore cardboard kind or a cheap plastic one like my mother’s, which you couldn’t even find film for anymore. I wanted a quality camera. I wanted one bad. And the more I thought about wanting one, the worse the wanting got.

    Tinker and I downed whiskey shots out in her father’s toolshed to calm our nerves. We rolled a joint from the old man’s weed scraps, and together we smoked it down to the pinch. By the time we got to the mall, we were way calm.

    Kyle McKell, whose father managed the store, sat on a stool behind a glass counter. He was reading a magazine, which he slapped closed and tucked away when I went in.

    “Hey, Dempsie,” he said. I remember being amazed that he knew my name.

    I started chatting with him. I told him about our class trip. I leaned across the display case, looked in, and pointed at different cameras. I asked him about the Minoltas and Nikons, about lenses and different kinds of film. Every time I’d point at a camera, Kyle would bring it out. He seemed friendlier than I remembered from school, more relaxed. He let me handle the cameras, let me get the feel of them, let me see each one up close. Before long, we must have had a dozen spread out.

    “Someday,” I said, “I’d love to work in a camera store.” I framed his face in a viewfinder and clicked the shutter. Even without film, it felt real. “I might study photography too,” I told him, “and own cameras like these.” Just saying something out loud can make it seem possible.

    Kyle looked toward the front of the store and then back at me. “Really?” His voice sounded husky now.

    “No lie,” I said. It felt risky, revealing dreams in the middle of so much deceit. But he had kind eyes, and that’s what I did.

    While he was busy with me, Tinker was supposed to wander in. She’d find the best display camera, something compact, and slip it into her shoulder bag. She’d signal with a cough and then leave. That was the plan. It was a good plan too, one that had worked in other stores for cosmetics.

    Kyle glanced toward the front again. I looked too. We were still alone. He put the camera down. “Wait here, Dempsie,” he said. “Mine’s in the office, a Pentax. You think you could handle it?” He started for the back of the store without waiting for my answer.

    Opportunity doesn’t always bother with knocking. Sometimes it just throws open the door.

    As soon as Kyle disappeared behind the office curtain, I grabbed the compact Nikon and slipped it into my bag. I went around the counter and snatched the empty box too, then hurried back to where I’d been. When he came back with his camera, I was fiddling with the bulky Minolta’s lens, really studying the settings.

    The expression on Kyle’s face wasn’t so relaxed now. He looked toward the front door once more. Everything inside me pulled tight.

    “You picked a good one, Dempsie,” he said, “that Nikon.” He pointed to where the camera had been.

    I straightened, stepped back, groping in my mind for some way to deny it. There was no way, though, and I knew it. My insides sank. I took the box and camera from my bag and put them with the others on the counter. “It’s back,” I told him. “I put it back.”

    “No harm, no foul?” Kyle said. His eyes were hard to read.

    “Nothing happened,” I told him. I wasn’t far from tears, which I did not want him to know. “You’ve got your camera back.”

    He fitted the Nikon into its box and put the cover on. “It’s not my camera,” he said. He slid it back across the counter. He busied himself putting the others away, then took up the Pentax again. “This is my camera, Dempsie. Everything else here,” he said, “it’s just merchandise.”

    I looked at the box, looked at Kyle, looked at the box again, waiting for him to say clearly what was going on. You could tell he was turning something over in his mind.

    Just then I heard Tinker’s fake cough. With everything going on, she’d come in without my noticing. Kyle didn’t seem to have noticed her either. Even after the fake cough, he didn’t so much as glance her way.

    He said, “You want the Nikon?” His face told me nothing.

    I reached for the box, but Kyle grabbed it first. “What?” I asked.

    He let go, took his hand away. It trembled a bit, retreating. “It’s yours,” he said, “if you do me a favor.”

    I looked around the store for Tinker. She was nowhere to be seen.

    “Shoot some pictures,” he said. “Shoot pictures of me. That’s all I’m asking.” His voice trembled now too. “Have them developed while you’re in DC.”

    I picked up the box, the Nikon inside. Confusion swirled in my head.

    “Please?” he said.

    When I still didn’t answer, Kyle reached for the magazine he’d tucked away. He opened it on the counter and turned it to face me. He flipped pages, showing me what he had in mind.

    The photos Kyle wanted me to take that night weren’t the kind he’d want his parents to see. They weren’t what he’d want anyone in Burkitt County to see. Maybe not in the whole state. The photos were for his friend, Dwight Poole. Poole had moved that month to Chicago, joining a dance company there. Kyle explained all this later that night, explained it as I hesitated outside the room he’d rented at Motel 6. I told myself I could still change my mind.

    “I’m gay,” he said, as if I hadn’t figured it out from the magazine he’d showed me that afternoon. “You’re in no danger here.”

    “I know,” I said. Still, I didn’t budge. It felt dangerous, being anyplace with him.

    There was a frustrated look on Kyle’s face. “Please, Dempsie?” he said. He took the key card from his pocket. “Please don’t make this so hard.”

    He slipped the card into the lock slot and pulled it out. The lights flashed green on the first try, which I took as a positive sign.

Tinker and I each had our own cameras for the DC trip. I brought enough film for both of us, even though her camera turned out to be digital. The first day there, I took Kyle’s four secret rolls for developing at a pharmacy on Rhode Island Avenue. On the film envelope I checked the boxes for double jumbo prints and glossy. I made up a name and address for the yellow envelopes. Two days later, when the clerk handed me the photo packets, her undisturbed face told me she hadn’t peeked inside. I paid and left the store. When I felt certain that no one was following, I opened the envelopes and looked.

    I liked what I saw, these posed photos of Kyle, the way the light looked on his skin, the deep shadows and subtle colors. Everything looked more real in the photos, looked more vivid than it had that night. The photos seemed somehow precious—artistic, in a way—like paintings. Artistic. It’s a way I hadn’t seen myself before.

    You might wonder why I ordered double prints. I could say I just checked the box because it was there. That wouldn’t be a lie. I could say that I wanted an extra set to be safe, that I didn’t totally trust Kyle about letting me take something valuable like that camera, no strings. That’s what I told him about the double prints, and there’s more than a little truth in it. I could tell you that I wanted copies because I realized, even then, that Kyle’s motel photo session could be a start for me in photography, that I wanted to remember that as much as the DC trip. That would be true too. Sometimes life offers a person way more reasons than they need.

I sat beside Kyle on the couch and let him show me his injured arm. He talked about the attachments, the muscles and nerves involved, the finger numbness, all the ligament damage. I tried not to be squeamish. He traced things with his finger as if he could see inside. He kept talking about that injured arm in expert ways. He knew how it all worked together. He knew it the way Angel knew cars.

    “My father wants to hear nothing about wounds,” Kyle said. “He wants to hear about good deeds, what he thinks I was doing there. My mother leaves the room if I even mention the arm.”

    “Or the leg?” I was more than a little curious about that.

    He finished his beer. “She can’t handle any of it,” he said, handing me the empty.

    I was in the kitchen getting him another beer from the refrigerator when Angel came in the back door. “Whose Harley’s out front?” he asked, easing the door closed.

    “You’re back,” I said. I wished he wasn’t.

    “Maybe,” Angel said and shrugged. He wasn’t over it yet either. “Who’s here?”

    “My boss’s son,” I told him. “Kyle.”

    “The wounded one?” Angel asked. I nodded. He took the beer from my hand and popped the cap with his belt buckle. “He going to stay late?”

    “Maybe.” I shrugged. I could be that way too. Behind the milk, I found a carton of onion chip dip. It looked okay. Smelled okay too.

    “You think he’s something.” Angel said. He wrapped me in his arms from behind, grabbed on to me like everything I’ve got belonged to him. He did it in a playful way, having decided by himself that it was time we made up. “You think this army man is the real deal,” he said like a growl in my ear.

    I jabbed with my elbows, jabbed hard and twisted free. “He lost his leg over there, Angel!” I tried to keep my voice down. “For Christ’s sake!”

    “Dios mío!” he gasped, staggered back in mock horror. “Then we must help him to find this lost leg, to find it before he falls over.”

    With my empty hand I swung at him. He was quick though, stepping back. Like a boxer, he feinted, slap-jabbed at me, danced away. “I float like the butterfly,” Angel said. He shuffled his feet, circled across the linoleum. He could be such a muchacho at the worst times.

    I put frozen pizza treats in the microwave, pressed buttons, and dumped potato chips into a bowl. “You joining us?” I asked.

    “Three’s a crowd,” he said.

    “Suit yourself,” I said. I tried to mask my relief with another shrug.

    Angel took the chip bowl from my arms, and he grinned. “I like crowds.”

    “You got nothing to worry about in there,” I said. It was truer than he knew. I spread warm pizza treats on a plate and started collecting up everything—bowls, plates, and new beers.

    From the cupboard, Angel grabbed his green hot sauce, the stuff he sprinkled on everything. “Bring napkins,” he said, tucking the tiny bottle into a shirt pocket. “And relax, chica. You won’t hardly know I’m there.”

    I grabbed napkins, and we went to the front room.

    “Wow,” Kyle said, seeing what Angel and I were bringing. We must have looked like old married hosts. It really wasn’t much, just refrigerator and microwave food, and I told Kyle so.

    “She’s so modest,” Kyle said, “this girlfriend of yours.” He got up and stood long enough to shake Angel’s hand.

    “Dempsie? Modest?” Angel said. He sputtered a laugh.

    “You know. Humble,” Kyle said, sitting again. He put his cane on the floor. “About the food.”

    “I know the word,” Angel said. “I spoke English since I was two.” I hoped he’d quit right there. Not likely, I knew. He took his beer and some chips and went to sit in his favorite chair. It’s off to one side, a plush chair with a side holster for the television remote.

    Kyle tried the chip dip. “I’m just saying not everyone can put on a spread with no warning.”

    “My brothers and sisters, all of us, we’re bilingual,” Angel said. “That’s what you’d call us if we were anglo anyway, bilingual, not ESL, which is what everyone wants to say because it’s us.”

    I offered Kyle the pizza snacks. He took some on a napkin.

    “I always dream in English,” Angel said, “even back in Mexico.”

    “Strange,” Kyle said. His interest seemed real.

    Angel pulled the hot sauce bottle from his pocket and sprinkled his chips. “It wouldn’t be my choice for dreaming,” he said. “Spanish is better for everything but school. You can mean more, talking Spanish.”

    “Angel promises he’ll teach me a little bit,” I said. “Un poquito.” I’d already learned a few phrases.

    “But then she will know all my secrets.” Angel winked at Kyle. You’d think they were pals and I was just some girl. Angel leaned over the side of his chair and offered his bottle of hot sauce to Kyle, who took it.

    “I learned some Arabic phrases,” Kyle said. He put the sauce bottle on the table without using it. “They trained us how to give greetings in Iraq,” he said, “using the right gestures so we wouldn’t offend anyone. We learned to shout out these Arabic commands too, so the Iraqis would know what to do.”

    Angel came over and got another beer. “They say it’s hot over there.” He said it to Kyle like a question. He stole a quick look at Kyle’s legs, glanced fast and then away. He couldn’t help it either.

    “Hotter than the hinges of Hades,” Kyle said. You could tell by how quickly he said it that he’d said it a hundred times before.

    “I can’t stand summer heat,” I said.

    “Iraq heat is real heat, oven heat, all day and every day.”

    “You get used to it though,” Angel said, standing there. “Right?”

    “Not me. Some said they did, but I never believed them.” We all drank from our bottles then, the three of us together, as if that Iraq heat had found its way into my place.   

    From the table, Angel grabbed up his little green bottle and went back to his chair. When the subject was heat, he’d usually say something about Mexico or August heat in tobacco fields he’d worked. Angel could get competitive about anything. He wasn’t this time though. Instead, he asked, “How’d it happen, the leg? You get shot?”

    “An explosion.” Kyle said it like it was nothing.

    “An IUD?” Angel asked.

    “IED,” I said.

    “Probably a grenade,” Kyle said, “something thrown.” He shrugged again. This time I saw the tension in his shoulders, the strain on his face. He only wanted it to be nothing.

    “We’re patrolling like we do every day, five of us, and I’m telling Horton some dumb joke,” he said. “In an instant, the world’s upside down. I can’t hear a thing. I see Horton not five feet away, and he’s lying there all opened up like meat. I try to get up, to run with the others, and I’m totally pissed because the leg, which I don’t know is gone, won’t work.”

    “Santa Maria,” Angel said. He made the sign of the cross.

    “Next thing I know, I’m in a hospital bed. Bags of fluid are draining into me, and some of it must be sedatives because the minute they tell me the leg’s gone, my world goes white. I wake up in Germany.”

    “I’m sorry,” I said. I put my hand on his good leg and then took it away. It was hard to know what to say or do. We ate and drank in silence, the three of us, for the longest time. All the while, you could hear the battery wall clock across the room tick off seconds.

    “Dempsie,” Kyle said at last, “how’s your photography?”

    I let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.

    I brought out my portfolio and showed him my best nature photographs, my plant and horse and scenery photos, most of them taken within a mile or two of my place. The horses weren’t thoroughbreds. They were regular horses, ones my neighbors kept and rode or just kept now that they were old.

    On the television, Angel watched his Spanish cable channel, a variety program with an audience that was part of the show. Angel kept the volume low. On the show, a Mexican chef in a high white hat was giving lessons, cutting a whole watermelon to make a fancy basket of fruit and melon balls. A bikini model was his student. She wasn’t acting very bright, making lots of mistakes. She tried to cut the melon with the dull side of her knife. Nobody could be that stupid. Skinned peaches slipped out of her hands. She kept licking juice from her fingers, laughing as she did. Before long her watermelon basket was a wet mess. She was too. She tried hard though, and the audience applauded and laughed. Angel, on his fourth beer, laughed too.

    Kyle leafed back through my photography folio. He really looked at each print, the big ones and the small ones too. He asked questions. Sometimes he’d flip back to an earlier one, comparing it. When he finished, he closed the folio. “Now,” he said quietly, “you’ve got some pictures for me?”

    In my bedroom I gathered up the photos he wanted and the negatives too. I don’t think they all got back into their original yellow packets or all the negatives and photos matched up. But it all was somewhere in the bundle I banded together.

    When I got back to the front room, Angel had turned off the television. He was over by Kyle, in front of him, pointing the neck of his empty bottle at Kyle’s legs, asking some question. Kyle didn’t seem to mind. He reached down and unfastened snaps on his pant leg. He opened it halfway up to the knee, spread the pant leg wide.

    Angel knelt, trying to get a better look. He didn’t look very steady doing it.

    Kyle’s lower leg was a black pipe not too different from his cane. It looked like something a plumber might use. The pipe screwed into a ball-shaped ankle twice the size of a real one. An axel ran through the ankle, the fat ends coming out more or less where anklebones should be. The bottom third of the ball disappeared into Kyle’s shoe, which I realized now wasn’t any more Kyle’s than the fake foot was. The shoe belonged to the machinery.

    “There is a motor in there?” Angel asked.

    “The ankle?” Kyle shook his head. “The only motor is in the knee.” With his two hands, he flexed the foot and ankle, moving it like walking. “The ankle has hydraulics and springs inside,” he said. “They adjust when my weight shifts.” He pulled up on the toe of his shoe, and the ankle flexed. He let go, and the foot moved smoothly back straight.

    Angel was sitting on the floor now. I could tell he wanted to see more. Kyle must have realized it too. He unfastened several more pant-leg snaps, exposing the knee hinge and some upper leg, a wide metal strut.

    With a knuckle, Kyle tapped the shell covering the knee. It made the sound of an empty terrapin shell. “I’m still learning to use the new motor,” he said. “It’s experimental.” With both hands he grasped the strut and lifted. The knee bent with a hushed, whirring noise. A small smile came across his face.

    “That’s the motor?” Angel said. He moved around to where the light was better.

    “Quiet, ain’t it?” Kyle said. “I feel it though, feel it like you wouldn’t believe, this quiet hum and tiny ratchet clicks up in my hip.” He moved the leg again and flexed the knee almost silently. The smile came back. I couldn’t look away. I tried to imagine the sensations—the hum, the intimate clicks—tried to imagine feeling them deep in my own hip. For a moment, I thought I did.

    “It’s like you see in movies,” Angel said, “people with robot parts.” He opened another beer. “Fucking Schwarzenegger.”

    “Robocop,” I said. “He’s just movie CGI shit, all computer-faked stuff. This is real.”

    Angel looked over at me like he’d forgotten I was there. “What I’m saying is the idea’s the same. The concept.”

    “They can fake anything in movies,” I said. “This is fucking real.”

    “You want to see real?” Kyle said. Using his good leg, bracing his weight with an arm, he scooted awkwardly from the couch to the floor. He rolled onto his side and worked his pants waist down past his knees. Then he held his shirttail aside.

    His shorts were this white elastic material, legless briefs, tight like cycling shorts. Several inches of leg stump showed, the skin red, the flesh lumpy. The stump disappeared into the fake leg’s fitted leather boot. A crisscross harness strapped the thing in place like a jockey’s saddle—one long diagonal strap to the opposite hip, a short strap to his groin, crossing an ugly scar there.

    My insides clenched up. I had to look away.

    He rolled onto his side. A braid of fine wires snaked up from the backside of the boot. Just above Kyle’s waist, low on his back, the wires were taped to a wide blue tattoo. “My landscape, a nerve resection,” he said, “a neural rerouting that works with my trusty computer chip.”

    He rolled back, cinched both straps tight, and then patted the side of the boot. “Computer chip’s right here.”

    “Damn!” Angel said. He knelt close to look.

    Kyle’s hand moved to the front of the boot and lifted a leather flap. “Batteries included,” he said, showing them. They looked like they belonged to a cell phone. With a finger he pried loose a fabric packet wedged beside the batteries. “Also convenient,” he said, unrolling the fabric on the table, “for a private stash.” He removed a fat joint and stuffed the packet back.

    “Fuck, man,” Angel said. He rocked back and laughed. “You’re loving this too much.” He slapped Kyle’s good leg, slapped it like an old friend.

    Kyle swung backhanded at him, swung hard, his fist thudding on Angel’s chest. Angel lost his balance and fell back against a chair. “It’s all fucking toys,” Kyle said, biting on the words. “Nothing but bright, shiny toys.”

    “I didn’t mean nothing.” Angel stumbled to his feet. He looked at me like I should do something about it. “Cabrn,” he muttered at Kyle, and he went to the kitchen.

    The change in Kyle, his flash of rage from nowhere, had taken my breath. Now he worked his pants back up, bent, and snapped the pant leg. When he finally sat straight again, he looked over at me. There was a vacant look in his red-rimmed eyes, not at all like the eyes I remembered.

    In my hands I saw the photo packets, the ones he’d come for. I held them out to him. He stared for several seconds, uncomprehending.

    “From DC,” I said.

    He took them then and tucked them away in his pocketed pants. I wanted to tell him that I hadn’t shown them to anyone, not even Angel, that I’d kept his secret and he had nothing to worry about. I wanted him to know that. I couldn’t say any of it though.

    Kyle worked himself up onto the couch again. He lit the joint, inhaled, and offered it to me. I took it, toked, and let the smoke settle deep in me before passing it back. It was the weekend, Saturday night, Sunday tomorrow. What the hell.

    From the rear of the house, I heard loud banging and dull thuds, and I rushed to see. Angel had picked up the rabbit cage. He carried it now, staggered with it. He was trying to take the thing outside in the dark, trying to fit it crosswise through the porch doorway. I switched on the light. Inside the cage, Victor cowered, his eyes darting and panicky.

    I pushed past Angel and propped the door open with a broom handle. “Turn sideways,” I told him. The chill evening air was a splash on my face.

    Angel made it through the doorway, bumped through, and managed to hit all three steps going down without falling. He lugged the cage out across the dark yard.

    “What’re you doing?” I yelled.

    “Setting Victor free. You think I did something wrong,” Angel yelled back. His breath puffed out, small alcohol fog-balls in the air. “I think this rabbit offends you by being here.”

    “Keep him, Angel,” I yelled. “I don’t care. Just clean up after him.”

    He set the cage down, unlatched and opened the door. Victor hunkered in a corner. Angel kicked the back of the cage. He kicked it again. He banged the top mesh and sides with his hands. Victor squeezed through the door opening and wriggled out. Once out, he hopped heavily across the yard, zigzagged into the darkness, and headed for the woods out back.

    Angel came toward me, pushed past me onto the porch. He picked up the tray full of rabbit turds and took it out to the burn barrel. He dumped it there, a disgusting topping for yesterday’s trash. Back on the porch, he gathered up the pissy newspapers, the other old newspapers stacked there, took them out, wadded them, and stuffed them into the burn barrel too. Then he touched a match to it all.

    “It’s best all around,” I said. He might not have heard. I walked out to Angel. I put my arms around him and tried to kiss him. No way was he letting that happen. Not yet.

    “He won’t make it,” Kyle said, coming out from the house, pinching the joint. How much he’d heard, I didn’t know. “Tame rabbits won’t survive in the wild.”

    “Big expert,” Angel said. “He knows rabbits too.”

    Kyle came over by the fire. There wasn’t much smoke, and what there was went straight up. The heat felt good on my face. “I raised rabbits years ago, dozens of rabbits,” Kyle said. “They were a 4-H project.” He extended the joint. Angel looked at it, thought for a second, and took it. “We sold them all for meat afterwards.”

    “You had them butchered?” I said. “That’s so cruel.”

    “Set them free,” Kyle said, “and they won’t survive. They’ve got no immunities. They pick up parasites, all sorts of diseases. They’re easy prey too, prey for coyotes, for foxes, even dogs.”

    Angel offered the joint back. Just that fast, you could see him mellow out.

    Kyle waved it away. “Any more and I forget which legs are real.”

    Angel gave a laugh. “That one,” he said, pointing like it was a guessing game, as if the guy could suddenly switch his fake leg. “Am I right?”

    Kyle got a kick out of that. “They’re both real,” he said. “It’s the third leg, the one that’s gone but still feels real, that’s the one that can screw you up.”

    “You still feel it?” I asked. My brain was slowing down.

    “It’s weird. Sometimes you forget. You think it’s still there.” He looked serious now. “It hurts like it’s still there, and it itches sometimes—the knee, the ankle, the foot. It feels wet in the bathtub. Believe it’s there at the wrong time though, and you’ll fall flat.”

    “The leg is gone,” Angel said, and he nodded. “Its soul remains.” I thought about it for a minute, the idea of a leg’s soul. It was a thought I liked thinking, something I could almost believe.

    “It’s all illusion though,” Kyle said, as if he’d been thinking it too. “The doctors, they tell me it’s a phantom in my head. It’s all muscle memory and unconnected nerves firing like they’ve still got work to do.”

    Two or three streets away, a dog barked. Another answered from farther away.

    “Dogs are everywhere in Fallujah,” Kyle said, “dogs nobody owns anymore. They follow us on night patrols.” He looked away. “We shoot the ones that bark.”

    Angel peered off into the darkness, stared out toward the woods. The trees looked ghostly in the dim moonlight. “Is that true?” he asked Kyle, “What you said before about rabbits set free, about coyotes and everything?”

    “I’m afraid so,” Kyle said.

    Angel started walking away, heading out the woods path. “Victor,” he called, as if that rabbit was some house pet. For the minute or two after he’d disappeared, you could hear Angel whistling too.

    With a stick I turned the smoldering fire to make sure everything would burn. The smoke smelled like road tar.

    Kyle unzipped a deep pocket, took out the yellow bundle, and moved closer to the fire. He opened the photo packets and started going through the photographs, looking at them. He fed one and then another into the flames. Dark ashes and bright embers rose up, drifted up like resurrection, vanishing in the night sky.

    “You don’t have to do that,” I told him, reaching for the stack. “I didn’t show anyone. I wouldn’t.”

    He pulled away and kept at it, looking at each photo, dropping it in the barrel. One time he stopped and held up a photo for me to see. “You’re good at this, Dempsie,” he said. The one he held was my favorite too.

    “Save it for me?” I wanted to beg. He could burn the others if he wanted. They were all his, after all. But why not let me have that one?

    For a moment I thought he might. “I can’t,” Kyle said, and he let it fall.

    After they all were in the fire, he dropped the negatives in too, the empty envelopes, the rubber bands that had held them together. He stepped back and turned away from the fire. “It’s not that I didn’t trust you,” he said. “Besides, my parents already know how things are with me. I told them in the hospital.”

    “Then why?” I asked. “Why burn everything?”

    Kyle tapped the shaft of his cane on the fake knee. “This is me now, someone with a wired-up tech-toy for a leg,” he said. He hit the leg again, hit it harder. “This. It’s who I’ve got to be from now on. The old Kyle McKell, the one in the pictures, the one with two good legs?” His hand fluttered up like one of the embers. “I’m better off forgetting.”

    We walked back to the house. As we did, I thought about Kyle, how he’d make a good boyfriend for me—an excellent one maybe—except for the part about being gay. If it weren’t for that, I could imagine us as a couple, which is to say I really liked the guy. I could get used to his nose and chin. And Kyle, he definitely needed someone like me, especially now. Okay, it wouldn’t work. I know that. But the thought definitely crossed my mind. Like a freight train, it crossed.

    A million bugs swarmed the porch light. Kyle used his cane climbing the steps. I tried to help too. He went up without needing it though. You could hear his hum and clicks this time, such inhuman sounds coming from inside a man.

    The idea arrived then that Angel must have thought all along that there was a secret connection between Kyle and me. I wanted to believe that he had, wanted to believe in the worst way. Imagine, mattering that much to someone.

    In the corner of the porch, I saw a twitch, looked closer, and saw Victor. The rabbit was nestled against my boots. His eyes were on us. His ears lay flat against his head. He didn’t look frightened now or excited in any way. Lying there with my boots, Angel’s rabbit looked downright comfortable.

Jim Tomlinson lives and writes in rural Kentucky. His debut short story collection, Things Kept, Things Left Behind, won the 2006 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His work has appeared in New Stories From The South 2008, Five Points, Shenandoah, Bellevue Literary Review and elsewhere. Jim’s second book of stories, Nothing Like An Ocean, will be published in March by University Press of Kentucky.

Back to Freight Stories No. 4


Jim Tomlinson

Angel, His Rabbit, and Kyle McKell