Our throats burned with each drink, our insides too, and the stars were spinning out of their sockets when someone said to Salmon, "Hey, man, where does this stuff come from?"
We never knew where he got it, just that he did. And we never knew when he would. We always asked, and he'd just say, "We'll see." Sometimes he darted into the night and what felt like hours later came back with a bottle dangling in his hand. Sometimes he already had it with him and offered before we asked.
Funny thing, Salmon didn't drink at all even though that's how he got his name, as in, "He drinks like a fish." But "Fish" didn't sound good enough. So "Salmon" stuck, even though he never even drank it. And we're way past trying. We just called him that since he was always the one that brought it. Even his Dad took to calling him that.
Salmon smelled like the woods where he came from. Like the cold night air. You didn't notice it unless you were somewhere else like the diner where the screen door slammed in the summer. Or sitting in the movies, which we hardly ever did anymore. But still you could smell the woods even over the buttered popcorn and that was Salmon.
He lived with his dad out there. His Dad's eyes were two full moons that couldn't see anything anymore, and we just always figured Salmon stayed out in the woods to get away from him and his white pupils that looked at you and past you all at once.
But we were the ones that drank out behind his house where his Dad's white moon eyes couldn't look on us and the trees danced bare around us and our breath was uncurling smoke that we could never pull back. We figured Salmon stole it from somewhere, but we never asked where. Until that night.
He thought a moment, his eyes tracing each of us. His answer was to shove his fists into his jean pockets, turn and slink deeper into the woods. One quick glance over his shoulder told us to come on.
We were all hyena laughter and cussing as we staggered after him. The woods were blurry and dark. But Salmon kept walking sleek and smooth, and the way he hunched his back said, shut up and follow, so we crashed through brambles and vines and saplings after him until we stumbled onto a country road.
Somebody lobbed the bottle onto the gravel, and it shattered in a glass explosion. We squealed with laughter as Salmon started down the road, and the moon wouldn't stay put in the sky.
"How much longer?" we grumbled, "How much farther?" He wouldn't answer anything so we quit asking until up ahead we saw a grove of trees and an iron gate.
The gate was open and moonlight touched its curves and the jagged stones just past it. He walked until he came to a smaller square stone and looked down, so we looked down, too. Someone flicked a lighter, and in the hovering orange, we kneeled over curling photographs of a group of men— still boys, really— and plastic flowers faded and frayed. We traced the cold name with our fingers.
We were quiet then for real, the night spinning all around us until one of us said, "Shit, Salmon. You been stealing from the dead?"
"They always put one back," he said and then we saw the familiar dark bottle nestled between photographs and flowers.
I pictured Salmon walking away from his Dad who sits by the wood stove night after night watching what he can't see and trudging the long lonely road for a bottle he won't drink. When I looked back up at him standing over us, he didn't look like anything in the dark. With the moon behind him, he just looked like part of the night's been erased. Something about those two dark shadows where his eyes should've been seemed sad. Or maybe I just wanted them to be.
And then the lighter flicked off and we were all hyenas again. Someone cracked the plastic cap off and shoved the bottle into my hands. I brought it to my lips, but I wasn't numb enough yet, and it still burned going down.
BIO: Linda Niehoff is a writer and photographer living in Kansas. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, Dogzplot, Boston Literary Magazine, and Forge, among others. She blogs at www.thewrittenpicture.typepad.com and can be found on twitter: @lindaniehoff