To Live and Die in Dixieland — Russell Nichols

None of them can see what lies behind the tree line.

They finger the oak trunks, white hands racing down the bark’s craggy, deep grooves.  There is no blood on the leaves. As morning sun peeks through heavy branches, a light breeze masks the ashy bite of liquid smoke with a blast of sweet magnolias. And Walter Mitchell saw all that he had made—the plantation was perfect. But now he knows the next question will be:

“What’s on the other side of this?”

Walter adjusts his white tie. No need to panic. “That section is closed at the moment.”

Inquiring media reps fling follow-ups at him, but Walter refuses to let their interrogation derail the press tour. Truth is, the whole section went dark around dawn. Was it a bug? A glitch? Had he been hacked overnight? He doesn’t know. Still, he keeps his cool. Any sign of disorder and these wrecking-ballpoint-pen reporters will destroy everything he worked so hard to build.

Walter raises his hands, commanding attention. “Rest assured, it will be accessible once Dixieland officially opens at midnight. Do you want to continue?”

Fallen twigs snap under steps as the group moves into green swaths of sweetgrass. On their way to a section called The Wetlands, Walter addresses questions about the beta tests, how post-trip scans showed higher levels of activation in the part of the brain where empathy resides.

“And if it ever gets too rough,” he says, “the safe word is ‘freedom.’”

The quip, as expected, draws ambivalent laughs. But one of the twelve reporters doesn’t so much as crack a smile. The only Black one in the mob: a younger, brown-skinned lady, short hair shaved on the sides with a crop of orange curls. The holotag on her blouse says Kamara. Probably just a cloutless intern. Nobody to worry about.

“Next we’ll see one of our biggest cotton fields,” Walter says. “Do not be afraid. Dixieland is not a dangerous place. But if you see anything that disturbs you, just look away—”

As the words escape his mouth, the cloudy, blue sky turns revelations red. The wind stops blowing, grass springs to attention and bodies disintegrate all over.

They reawaken back at the San Jose headquarters in a testing room called the Den. Headsets unlatch. Seat-backs raise to upright positions. As the reporters get their bearings, Walter hops out of his chair, scrambling to control the damage.

“I apologize for that abrupt exit,” he says, charging to the adjacent control room. Inside, an IT assistant conducts encrypted displays on a bank of monitors. He looks equally puzzled.

“What the hell?” Walter says.

“I-I don’t know—it was an emergency override, but I didn’t initiate it.”

“Where’s Royce?”

“He’s not answering again.”

Walter presses his hands against his face. This can’t be happening. Not today. Not now. He takes a deep breath, composing himself.

“Okay,” he says. This is no big deal. So what, the system crashed. They can’t crucify him for that. They can’t overlook the genius of his whole creation to focus on something so minor. He adjusts his tie, then returns to the Den.

Kamara raises her hand. “Is something wrong?”

“Not at all,” Walter says. “I forgot we had a scheduled maintenance, but everything is—”

“What’s up with him?” Kamara points to the wide tempered glass window. Standing on the opposite side: a sloppy-looking man in a frayed, gray hoodie with a lopsided afro, eyes redder than the devil’s sunburn.

“Oh, that’s my brother, Royce. He oversees all the technical aspects of the company.” Walter holds up a finger to the group. “If you all could excuse me one second.”

Walter steps out of the Den. He grabs Royce’s arm, leading him down the corridor. Pushes him into a conference room to speak in private.

“Bro, are you trying to sabotage us?”

“We can’t do this, Walter,” Royce stammers. “I messed up.”

“Damn right you did—I’m in the middle of a press tour and we’re fourteen hours away from launching the most anticipated platform in history—”

“We have to shut Dixieland down.”

Walter laughs. “Bro, I don’t know what you’re on right now, but I got these reporters to deal with and you need to figure out what crashed the system. But go wash up first. Jesus.”

Walter heads out, but freezes at the door when his brother says:

“A white boy is dead.”

§

For the record: Walter Mitchell is not a racist.

Certain members of the media keep trying to spin it that way, but Kamara knows that’s nothing but projection. She has been studying the man for months. She re-read his op-ed pieces, analyzed his tech conference lectures, and watched various interviews. Even now, after meeting him face to face, it’s obvious he is not a racist; just a narcissist. How he moves, how he wears a navy pinstriped suit, how he speaks with a permanent smirk, every word steeped in holier-than-thou water. All classic expressions of what her girlfriend calls “male pattern falseness.”

Kamara stands apart from the other reporters, who help themselves to detox shots and babble on about his brilliance. But this story is bigger than any one man. It’s about a system, an idea, a high concept that grabbed the whole country by the throat. And Kamara didn’t come here to pull back the curtain—she came to blow Emerald City wide open.

She pokes her head out of the Den. No sign of Walter or his brother. Something is definitely wrong. She steps into the empty hall, listens for voices. Nothing. Where did they go? The headquarters isn’t that big—a two-story building two blocks from the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose. Walter had explained that ninety-eight percent of the staff works remotely, but this site is the hub where the IT team manages Dixieland’s various data centers.

A text message pops up in Kamara’s FoV. From her editor:

[Almost ready to file?]

Kamara shakes her head to dismiss the message. Her editor still doesn’t get it. On the surface, yes, this would appear to be a basic profile piece about a controversial tech startup: Silicon Valley wunderkind launches platform for white folks to experience slavery in VR—some people are big mad about it. But there’s something deeper going on here.

Down the hall, a door opens. Walter steps out. By himself. Kamara slips back to the Den, hoping he didn’t see her. Seconds later, he reenters. “I apologize,” he says, “but I have to cut our tour short. Big day tomorrow. You understand.”

The reporters bury their deflation under pleased expressions and thank you so muches. He knows how to work a crowd of a certain non-shade, she’ll give him that. Not unexpected. Add a serving of education and a dash of charm to a light-skinned brother in a tailor-made suit and the white liberals are on autoswoon. What an honor to have a smart and safe travel guide to walk them through the historic, haunted halls of the Black ExperienceTM.

Kamara raises her hand. “One last question, Mr. Mitchell.”

“Hit me,” Walter says.

No turning back. She comes out with it. “Aren’t you letting white folks off the hook?”

“I don’t follow you.”

Kamara waves her hands. “You’ve said you created this reverse slavery simulator for people like them to ‘experience the unspeakable horrors of America’s racist history.’” The group fidgets. Kamara goes to a young white girl, fresh out of journalism school. Blood spreading across her face like a bedsheet. “But if, say, this young lady here, say she has these big ideas for anti-racist policies, but she becomes a user and goes to Dixieland on a daily basis. Don’t you think she might feel … exonerated?”

“No, I won’t,” the white girl mutters.

“Okay, so basically you’re asking me if I think Dixieland will eradicate white guilt?” Walter shrugs with that permanent smirk. “Maybe. But man does not live on white guilt alone.”

The others chuckle to ease tension.

Kamara can’t let him off that easy. “But at the end of the day, it’s just a game. It’s virtual. How will this platform lead to any real change?”

Walter moves to her slowly, deliberately, reciting some obviously well-rehearsed speech: “Roger Ebert once called the medium of film an ‘empathy machine’ and proponents of VR have adopted the phrase. Up till now, limitations in technology left a lot to be desired when it came to immersion. But we took it to the next level. This isn’t some RPG. This is real life, baby. They will feel the sting of the lash and the burn of the sun in those cotton fields. She will watch her family get ripped apart because her Black master didn’t like how her daddy chewed pig intestines. You understand? As I said, Dixieland is not a dangerous place. But whoever takes that trip will be changed forever, and that’s real.”

Kamara’s throat locks up. Walter raises his hands to end the tour.

“Thank you all for coming. The exit is just around this corner.” He bows to their round of applause, acting surprised. “Good luck with your stories. Don’t make me look bad.”

And with that, Walter walks out. Reporters exchange wide-eyed inhales, then exit riding a high. None of them look at Kamara. Small as she feels, they might as well be stepping over her. How could she choke like that? So much she could’ve said. So much she wanted to say. But she let this man, this narcissist, twist and convert her words into another empty-calorie monologue.

[How’s it coming along?]

Again, Kamara shakes her head. She can’t go out like this. She can’t quit and call herself a real journalist. Far as Kamara’s concerned, there’s more reporting to be done. That brother in the hoodie looked like he’s got something to say.

§

Royce doesn’t know what to say, or how to say it, or if he should say anything, or just keep his damn mouth shut. In the empty conference room, he paces all around, eyes zigzagging, like the answer is a fidgety cricket he can’t catch. If only the plants on the soundproof walls weren’t holographic—that extra oxygen would come in handy. How can anyone breathe at a time like this? When was the last time he was drenched in this much sweat anyway? Last summer at their father’s funeral? Right about now he’d give anything to trade places with dear old Dad.

Walter enters. “Alright, they’re gone, so tell me exactly what happened—”

Royce grabs Walter by his lapels. “You have to shut it down. You have to!”

Walter unhooks Royce’s clammy hands. “Bro, bro, you’re freaking out over nothing.” With a wave at a sensor, Walter commands a chair to rise from the floor. “Have a seat. Breathe.”

Royce slumps in the chair, cradles his head, heavy with negative self-talk.

Walter crouches in front of him, doing four-count box breaths. “Another panic attack? Listen, you’re not alone here. With everything going on, trust me, I understand.”

But he didn’t understand. He didn’t understand at all. “His mom—the boy’s mom, she called me this morning.” The words come slouching out of his mouth. “Teri Wilcher.”

“Wilcher. Why do I know that name?”

“She’s one of our beta testers and she … she found him in the garage. This morning.”

“What do you mean ‘she found him?’”

“She says he snuck into Dixieland while she was sleep and he … he couldn’t handle it.” Royce looks at his big brother. “The boy hanged himself. Ten years old and he hanged himself!”

Walter stands and paces, rubbing his clean-shaven chin.

“Did you hear what I said?”

“I heard you.”

“She probably told police we did this!”

“No, she didn’t.”

“How do you know?”

Walter turns to Royce. “Even if she did, it doesn’t matter. You know why?” He holds up two fingers. “Two words: liability waiver.”

“Are you for real?”

“Bro, our beta testers all signed it. And we specifically state in the terms and conditions that Dixieland is for users eighteen and up, right?”

Royce drops his head again. Why did he expect anything different? This is Walter: the same guy who hightailed it to Oaxaca days before Dad’s funeral and claimed he didn’t make the return flight because American put the wrong time on his boarding pass.

“Okay, so let’s recap: A ten-year-old boy stays up past his bedtime, steals his mom’s helmet, gets access to a rope, ties the rope, and calls it quits.” Walter shakes his head. “Blame the parents, blame the Boy Scouts, blame God, but no way is that blood is on our hands.”

“But Walt—”

“We did nothing wrong,” Walter says. “Bro, I’m the CEO and you’re the CTO of the most anticipated platform in America. And in less than fourteen hours, this whole world will be live, so I can’t have you freezing up on me, okay?”

A numbness seizes Royce’s body. His stomach rumbles. He didn’t even eat breakfast, but whatever is left down there definitely wants to come up.

Walter puts his hands on Royce’s shoulders. “I promise I’ll send a heartfelt message of condolences. After tomorrow. But if any thirsty reporters try to call, what do you say?”

“You know I hate lying.”

“What do you say?”

Royce sighs. “No comment.”

“That’s my brother.” Walter throws a few playful jabs, then exits.

Royce sits there, box-breathing. After a while, he says: “Okay.”

 He exits the conference room and trudges down the corridor, rubbing bloodshot eyes. Turning the corner, he runs into a woman with orange hair.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Royce says, post-collision. “I didn’t see you—”

“You’re fine, I just got turned around trying to find the exit,” she says. “Hold up, you’re Royce Mitchell.” Royce frowns, stepping back. Is she a cop? He wonders, then she clarifies: “Sorry, I’m Kamara. I’m a reporter.”

“Oh, okay you were on the, uh … the uh …”

“The press tour, yes, I was.” She spins. “Then I got turned around.”

“I know what you mean. Here, I can walk you out.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Royce leads Kamara down the corridor in silence. He wants to say something, but the echoes of Teri Wilcher’s sobbing has hijacked his primary speech functions. Not that he was ever good at conversation beyond open-world game development and gore anime.

“Take care of yourself,” Royce says once they reach the door.

“You do the same.” Kamara leaves, then turns around, biting her lip. “Actually, I’d love to speak with you about your experience. From what I hear, you’re the brains of the operation.”

“Oh, I don’t know about all that.”

“And humble too?” She smiles. “Let me treat this mythical humble genius to lunch.”

Royce glances behind him. He can’t leave. But he also can’t work under these conditions, strangled by anxiety with an empty stomach and a hovering deadline.

§

Walter is running.

As the sun goes down, he races through a dense forest. Pixelated trees whiz by. The sherbet sky melts yellow, orange, and purple.

He jumps over a fallen branch.

He jumps over a sinkhole.

He doesn’t look back. Can’t look back.

Walter escaped a haunted house, where hateful ghosts held him captive. Now they chase him. He has to outrun them.

Sweaty and short-winded, Walter asks: “You sure we’re not liable?”

The response booms down from the digital heavens. “Not based on what you told me. Legally, you’re in the clear.”

He sidesteps a boulder. “That’s what I thought.”

“But you can expect a shitstorm of bad press,” his attorney says.

“I’ve been getting death threats since the beginning. How bad we talking?”

“True, but those threats were speculative,” the attorney says. “Now the social media mob’s got something real to latch onto. I’d hunker down for a Category 5 hurricane of backlash.”

He jumps over another branch. “I’m not putting off the launch, Grover.”

“Hey, do what you do, big-time. I’m just the weatherman.”

Walter stops running.

He waves to quit the endless runner before the ghosts catch him. The forest vanishes, revealing a spherical treadmill. Walter steps out of it into his corner office. On command, the treadmill ejects a towel, then transforms into a desk and chair. As Walter dabs his dripping face, a beep comes through the intercom. Walter tells the attorney he’ll check in later, then disconnects to take the incoming call from the control room.

“Gimme some good news,” Walter says.

“I wish I could, sir, but I’m still having technical issues and—”

“Where’s Royce?”

“I thought … He’s not with you?”

Walter cradles his head. “Holy hell.” Of all the days, his brother chose today to lose it. “I’ll take care of Royce. But you need to fix this, you understand? I’m counting on you.”

“Seems like there was some kind of system overload last night.”

That can’t be true. Walter would’ve received an alert if so. “There was no overload.”

“Sorry, sir, I’m just telling you what the tests are telling me.”

At the window, Walter stares out at the city, this heart of Silicon Valley, his father’s words beating in his ear. “I didn’t hire a mouse,” Walter says. “I hired a man. That means no excuses. No apologies. You man up and handle your motherfucking business. Point blank period.”

Walter disconnects. He massages his temples to soothe the sinus pressure.

 “Call Royce,” he commands.

§

“You need to answer that?” Kamara asks.

“Yes.” Royce checks his watch. “But I’m not going to.”

It took less than five minutes for Kamara to realize Royce is nothing like his brother. Apart from physical differences—him being taller, darker-skinned, with big hair—Royce has a more free-flowing, non-showy energy, which is refreshing. But he’s obviously hiding something.

They sit at a table in one of the seven glass huts of Greenhouse Row, a popular Bay Area farm-to-fork chain. She had never been before, but Royce vouched for the food (one-hundred percent organic ingredients, freshly picked by cropbots) and the setting by the Guadalupe River.

He devours buckwheat pancakes like he hasn’t eaten in weeks. “Sorry I’m pigging out right now. I didn’t get to eat breakfast.”

She takes a spoonful of CBD-infused moringa ice cream. “This is tasty.”

“Mm-hmm. Yeah, see that’s why I love coming here. All authentic. Nothing processed. You can’t heal if you don’t keep it real. That’s my motto. Sorry if I’m rambling.”

“No, no, not at all.”

“I’m not really good at …” He wiggles his hand between them. “Social stuff.”

“Trust me, you’re doing fine.” She knows exactly how he feels. These days, she does most interviews in virtual cafes. Saves the in-person interactions for the big stories, the potential game-changing scoops. Like this one. “You were telling me about ‘tough love.’”

“Oh, right,” Royce says. “Yeah, Dad used to whip Walt all the time.”

“For misbehaving?”

“Not even. Just because.”

“Did he whip you too?”

Royce looks at the river. “Not once—I mean, you know, it wasn’t because he didn’t love me or anything like that. I just … I wasn’t his main mission. I kept to myself mostly.”

The subtext stings with a scary familiarity: how he longs to be seen, how he justifies his loneliness, how he conflates abuse with affection, as Kamara had done time and time again with past boyfriends—and would be still if her therapist didn’t guide her to a path of self-worth.

His eyes remain averted. “And Walt being so light-skinned, Dad thought he was soft, so he’d beat him up hella bad, you know, to toughen him up. To help him reach his ‘potential as a real man.’ Or whatever.” He clenches his jaw. “And I saw it happening, but I …”

He drops his head. Kamara touches his trembling hand.

This snaps him out of his trance. “And you swear this is all off the record?”

“I promise. Of course.”

He pulls his hand away. Chugs his mushroom coffee. He’s retreating. Too vulnerable.

“Do you mind if we go on the record now?”

He nods.

“So during the tour, I asked Walter if he thought Dixieland would let white people off the hook. He said no. But I’m not too sure. They’ve been using trauma porn to get off for a while, so how is this any different?”

Royce chuckles. “It’s different.”

“How so?”

“Because, I mean, for one thing, we’re not the ones enslaved in this scenario. In Dixieland, we’re the masters. Now they get to experience what it feels like to be …”

“What?”

He shakes his head. Kamara studies his face. Something in his eyes makes her suspect: “You think it’s too real. The simulation.”

Royce opens his mouth to respond but stops. Thinks about it. After a beat, he nods. “You know what? Despite everything, I still don’t. And why should I feel guilty for that?” He stands. “But anyway, I better get back.”

Kamara doesn’t object. She thanks him for his time, pays for the meal as promised, and wishes him good luck with the launch. As he walks off, she tries not to beat herself up for all the questions she didn’t get to ask. His words echo in her head: Despite everything, I still don’t. And why should I feel guilty for that? With more time, she would’ve pulled on that thread. Still, she affirms herself for showing up, for doing the interview, for making space for this man to be open. But maybe her editor was right and this is just a basic story with no deeper meaning.

A message pops up in her FoV. Her editor, speak of the devil, checking in.

[Got a lead for you, K.]

Kamara nods and the follow-up message appears.

[A mother claiming Dixieland killed her son. I’ll forward you the voicemail.]

Kamara’s eyes go wide as she listens to the recording.

§

Royce can’t remember what he said, or how he said it, but maybe he shouldn’t have said anything and kept his damn mouth shut. He strolls on the grassy trail by the river, taking in the aliveness of nature—the warblers in the willows, mallards in the water—and stops to reflect.

How did Royce end up here? Why didn’t he get on that plane to Tokyo to meet his ex? Because he bought into his brother’s activist hype, that’s why. This harebrained idea of flipping the script on racial trauma through simulated historical role-reversal. And Royce knew, even way back when Walter first pitched him, it wouldn’t work. Too fetishistic. Too idealistic. Too safe. Because at the end of the day, being a white slave in this world comes with the freedom to unplug at any time. Privilege means being able to look away. But Royce can’t do that. He can’t abandon his brother. Not again.

He continues down the tree-shaded path. A picker-upper robot collects garbage. Overhead, a crow caws. Royce wonders what the caw means? Is it trying to send a message? Scare him off? Warn him of a threat? Royce thinks about his father’s father’s father’s father. Josiah Mitchell couldn’t go for a “stroll in the park.” He couldn’t go birdwatching because he was too busy watching his back. For him, trees were probably torturous symbols of death.

What can you do when even the natural world conspires against you?

“Royce!”

The male voice comes from behind him.

“Where the hell you been, bro?” Walter rushes over. “I kept calling you!”

“Sorry. I needed some air.”

“You needed …” Walter rubs his temples like Dad used to do when he came home from his late shift as a site safety manager. “Bro, you picked the wrong time to—”

“Walter, I need to tell you something.”

“No, no, no, I don’t wanna hear shit if it’s not about the launch.”

“I think I killed that white boy.”

§

This can’t be happening. This isn’t happening. Not today. Walter puts his hands on Royce’s shoulders and looks his brother in the eyes. “There is no dead white boy.”

“What are you talking about?” Royce says. “Yes, there is—his mom called me, she called me this morning and told me because—”

“Bro, listen, listen to me,” Walter says. “There. Is. No. Dead. White. Boy.”

“Can I quote you on that?”

The female voice comes from behind them.

“I had a chat with a Teri Wilcher,” Kamara walks over to join the meeting. “She had some interesting things to say that I’d love to get your thoughts on.”

“No comment,” Walter says.

Royce raises his hand. “Hold on, I have a comment.”

Walter puts Royce’s hand down. “No, you don’t have a comment. He doesn’t have a comment.”

“I believe the man can speak for himself,” Kamara says.

“The man’s got work to do.”

Walter pushes Royce away, but she follows them down the grassy trail.

“Did you have anything to do with Lincoln Wilcher’s suicide?” she asks.

Walter didn’t like this, being out in public. If this were his building, he could throw her out for trespassing on private property, but out here, out in the open, what could he do?

“We told you no comment,” he shouts over his shoulder.

“Sir,” she says, “I heard from you, thank you. Now, to restate the question: Did you have anything to do with Lincoln’s suicide?”

“Yes,” Royce says.

Walter keeps pushing Royce. “No. Royce, stop lying—she signed a goddamn waiver!”

“But she didn’t sign up for what I did,” Royce says.

“And what did you do?” Kamara asks.

“I changed the settings,” Royce says. “Last night.”

Walter stops pushing. “What are you talking about?”

“Last night, I changed them,” he says.

“No, you didn’t. The settings are the same, we can go look right now.”

“Because I changed them back,” Royce says. “I was experimenting.”

“Experimenting?” Kamara says.

“I wanted the Dixieland experience to be more … authentic, you know?” Royce says. “More true to life to what really happened, so I made some modifications.”

“What kind of modifications?” Kamara says. “Did you add castration?”

Royce closes his eyes.

Walter covers Royce’s mouth. “Bro, don’t you say another word, I swear to God.” He jabs a finger at Kamara. “No more questions without a lawyer!”

“Did you add rape, Mr. Mitchell?”

Walter steps back in shock. “You did? What the hell? I thought we agreed not to—”

“No, you agreed! I told you I didn’t want to deliver some watered-down bootleg product! If we’re doing this thing, we have to go all the way—that’s what I said. They have to feel every horrifuckingfying thing! And how was I supposed to know that boy was gonna sneak in? At three o’clock in the morning! But no, I don’t feel guilty. Not one bit. If we have to shut it down, so be it, but this is all part of it. This is reality. This is the horror. Black children aren’t spared. They’re not safe. There’s no minimum fucking height requirement for the carousel of racism!”

A white woman jogger dashes by them with her robot Cocker Spaniel.

Walter drops to his knees in the grass, tears welling. The smell of his dream burning makes him want to vomit like he did all the time as a kid. He can’t even look at Royce.

“I appreciate your honesty,” Kamara says, turning to leave. “That’s all I needed.”

Walter holds up his palms. Through watery eyes, he can’t see her. But the tree that towers behind her reminds him of Dad. “Stop, stop, please …”

She turns around. “You have something to add?”

“I … listen, if you publish this before we get off the ground, we’re history, you understand? I’m not talking about the company. Fuck the company. I’m talking about our lives! You know how this goes. I’m talking about hate crimes and bombings. I’m talking about cops coming for our heads!”

Kamara taps her lip. She stares at the river, then back at the brothers.

“Don’t do this,” Walter says. “I’m on my knees. I’m begging you.”

Kamara shakes her head. “Somebody once told me Dixieland’s not a dangerous place,” she says. “Off the record: I always thought that was bullshit.”

Walter frowns. “What does that mean?”

Kamara walks away.

Walter yells after her: “What’s that mean?!”

Royce puts his hand on Walter’s shoulder. “Means it’s over.”

“No, no I can’t quit!” He uses Royce as leverage to pull himself up. Walter can’t quit. Only weak men quit. Quitting is soft. Quitting for suckers. “We can’t end it like this.”

“Then what do we do?”

After a long pause, Walter nods. “I’ll write that message of condolences. And I want you to change the settings.”

“I changed them back already this morning.”

“Change them back the other way. You were right, bro. I was playing it too damn safe, pulling punches for what? A trophy? White approval?”

“A pat on the back from the crackers of the whip?”

Again, Walter puts his hands on Royce’s shoulders. “I need you to turn it all the way up: amputations, public torture, murder, every single form of racial terrorism and savage act they ever did to us they gotta deal with.”

Royce laughs. “Nobody’s gonna sign up for that and you know it.”

Walter shrugs. “Maybe. Then we’ll go bust. But at midnight we’re setting the world on fire. And I’ll take the heat. I’ll own it. Rather go down in flames than in chains.”

“You go down, I go down.” Royce holds out his fist. “I’m not leaving you, bro.”

Walter daps him up and takes a deep breath. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Royce says.

“Okay,” Walter says. Neither of the brothers move. They stand frozen in the field of grass and riparian shrubs, the river running behind them, the afternoon sun peeking through trees like a witness who can’t look away.