June 26, 2024

Swimming in Great Salt Lake, Utah, from the Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library. 
The Third Year 
Fiction by Corley Miller
This kid Kova, who had been telling us we weren’t working hard enough, and should want more for ourselves, took the first tab of acid and lay down on the couch in his big wide Carhartts and his big smelly sweater. An hour later he got up and crossed his arms in front of his face like an X and went out into the June night: a dust storm. Six hundred miles from an ocean and in the west wind you could smell salt, detergent, death. He came back in with his arms still Xed and said someone’s calling from below. Enoch looked at Kova.  Tessa stuck out her tongue. It was a kind of audition. I looked at Emily. 

Kova had come the week before, all the way from New York to Salt Lake City, all the way and chose us, walked into our house. Just walked in on a Tuesday afternoon and looked around—May, all the doors open begging for sun, that fresh dusty summer smell, Tessa in the studio upstairs, Enoch working on some knickknack or other, Emily and I in the first-floor living room, flopped on the big couches, watching nature documentaries. Animals were mating, and hunting, and eating and bleeding, but the saddest moments for me were when the animals left home; when their new wings carried them out and away, away from the parents who had fed them with their own mouths and into a world that was trying to kill them and was dying itself. This kid Kova. Wide pants and that heavy stained sweater, dark hair, eyes riding dark saddles. A bullish body. He wasn’t likable. 

That year we had good drugs. That year the floors were always dirty. That year a steel monolith showed up outside of Bears Ears and just gleamed until some rock-eating mountain boys came in the night and removed it forever. That year the lake was the lowest it’d been since 1966, a year we couldn’t imagine. That year it snowed eight hundred inches and turned the Wasatch white and soft as sugar. That year Enoch made pdfs implying tax fraud, painted blood on thrift-store mugs, sent long emails about auditions and choreographies. That year the April melt flooded canyon homes and little parks in the valleys and the mountains stood up slate and solemn as always. That year it was cool to show up at parties looking like you’d barely survived, because that year it was cool to barely survive.

That year the legislature was making things illegal, but we didn’t care. We were already illegal, or as good as. We’d tumbled out somehow: out of ski-house throuples and pre-law programs and real estate apprenticeships and our parents’ good regard. That year we were artists. Not that kind of artists. We didn’t want white walls or pissy little placards with seven synonyms for vibes. We didn’t think we were special or meant to express anything written on our souls by our grandparents’ god or another. We just wanted to hang around a little, and make some things people liked, and not do too much harm. 

Emily still had a little parental regard and her dad was some big flipper in town and he’d given her this place—this big old Utah settler mansion on S 100, three stories and six bedrooms and a wraparound porch and a historical marker plaque by the front door and every inch warped or peeled or blistered. He’d given her three years to fix it up and get herself started in the family business. Emily’d done like six months of fixing and then left the church and decided she wanted to be an artist and her dad stunned everyone by sticking to the three years. He had some kinda thing about covenants. It was the third year. He’d told Emily she had to do something with the house or it’d be squandering God’s blessings and he’d tear the place down and build apartments. We were perverting the course of linear inheritance and also God’s plan for increase. Emily knew it. She’d put on the cross necklace and go out for dinner with him downtown, and when she got back she’d sit on the porch tugging the necklace and cursing a lot. Then she’d say “Whatever, something will turn up,” and go to bed, and in the morning if her dad came up she’d look confused, like you’d mentioned an actor in a show she hadn’t watched. I thought it was hot on both sides: to be dressed up and mad, and then to forget about dads completely. But I couldn’t, and it was the third year. We were out of time. We were all hanging around for different reasons. I was hanging around for Emily. 

 Kova showed up, though. In May. We’d all moved in to try and make art. It was a collective. We were doing three or four things. Enoch wanted to do immersive theater. He had this idea about a family. You went around the first floor—kitchen, huge living room, huge dining room, library, sunroom, a couple bathrooms—and it seemed like a family of four had been raptured: a perpetually boiling teakettle, unfinished theology homework glued to the kitchen table, pillars of light in places they’d been sitting. When you went up to the second floor you opened some binders and found out the whole thing was a tax-avoidance scheme and they were hiding in the basement. When you went down to the basement you discovered the parents had killed each other somehow and maybe the kids had escaped. Some of us thought the whole thing was morbid but: as far as we knew immersion was mostly about knickknacks, little props you left around the house, and Enoch was the knickknack enthusiast and so he got to decide, and he loved this whole abducted/tax-fraud/co-murdered thing. “That’s what belief is,” Enoch said. “That’s what it is. In three layers: holiness, fraud, death.”

The pillars of light came from these homemade LED rigs that Enoch moved around the house every couple of days; sometimes you’d walk into a room and just get blinded. The perpetual teakettle ran on a lithium battery and Enoch started it every morning to make sure it worked so the house always had a faint high whine. We weren’t very unified. It was the third year. We had three big couches in the ground floor living room. Emily and I liked to ideate, which was when we lay on two of the couches and got high and talked about things we wished would happen. Kova just walked right in.

“Is this the art hou—are you guys the artists?” Kova said. 

“Definitely,” said Emily. “Totally.” 

“I heard you were doing something interesting,” said Kova. “I’m here to help.”

We didn’t trust him. We were doing it our way. We were a team. Later we’d all think, but nobody would say, that the funny thing about Kova was that we never knew how he arrived. He didn’t drive. And we hadn’t heard a car show up. But there he was. He’d showed up. 


Kova helped. Kova was cagey about where Kova had come from. Kova had been in New York. Kova had worked for galleries. Kova had written for magazines. Kova had made video art. Kova said the names of galleries, places Kova’d run or maybe worked or maybe just visited. Said them like spells. I wrote down a couple of the names so I could google them later but I never googled them. Kova had been on podcasts, famous podcasts, but under names that weren’t Kova. Kova had to leave New York after the second time he poured lime jello in the rooftop pool as this private club everyone went to. Kova said the club was “bullshit anyway.” Kova said “stop taking care of each other.” Kova said “artists have to be selfish.” Kova said “you like the problems you have.” Kova said “you guys have real talent. You could do real work.” Kova wanted us to spend more time making art. 

Not a lot of this held together. Kova had big moocher energy and did not seem that interested in making art, Kovaself. Emily stuck him in one of the cavey bedrooms with no windows. Kova seemed happy enough, but we weren’t. 

“Dude’s awful,” Enoch said. We were all in the kitchen. “All he does is tell us we all suck.” Enoch got good graphic design work that paid for most of our food, and had an old red-and-gold Ford Ranger we could haul around supplies in, and that meant he had more pull in these conversations than he might have. 

“I dunno,” Tessa said. “Haven’t we been talking about getting to the next level? Somehow?” Everyone but Tessa knew Tessa was the real artist, the one’d end up selling things at biennales and getting retrospectives. Tessa thought Tessa was a fuckup. 

“Yeah,” said Enoch, “that’s what the immersive is about.” Enoch’s idea was that we could charge admission and it would appeal to Emily’s father. Emily’s dad had coached Enoch in youth football and Enoch believed they had some kind of mystical male connection that could resolve as salvation. 

“I mean as artists,” Tessa said. She crossed her arms and rubbed her opposite triceps and looked at Emily and I. “Not like, local entrepreneurs. There’s already Meow Wolf. Let’s at least see. I mean—Taylor, what do you think?”

I looked at Emily. Tessa was usually shyer. For like a year we’d been talking up Tessa to everyone we met, gallerists and funders and everyone, we set up meetings and studio visits, and then Tessa slept through them, Tessa didn’t show up, Tessa refused to say anything about her paintings, it never went anywhere. 

Emily was sitting on the counter looking down and her hair had fallen across her eyes. Since he’d arrived Kova’d mostly been hanging out with Tessa, up in her studio where she did the paintings. Abstracts, sometimes big rifts of gel impasto. 

“Tessa, what is it like up there?” 

“I don’t know,” she said. “He hangs out. He asks little questions. He has opinions about blue.” Then she opened her mouth a little and looked around. “He says I should paint more like a bitch.”

I laughed. Even Emily laughed a little. Maybe it’s what she thought too. Tessa sounded different than usual. 

“I think you can’t kick someone out before you get high with them,” said Emily. 


A thing about Emily is that she’d left the church as a set of dogmas but maybe not as a set of fundamental ideas about how the world was built. She did think someone had made it on purpose, and she thought the purpose might have hung around, like dust or pollen, still making things turn out the right way. And she thought that if you tried hard enough you could maybe talk to it, that thing that’d hung around. So she saw drugs as opportunities to discover something: a better world, that’d been planned and not quite built. 

I’d never been in the church. My parents had done that work for me. I wasn’t a good artist. Not in any technical or material sense. I could barely draw a bird. But I was brave, and I felt strongly, and like every three months I came up with some kinda way of making those feelings into objects. Usually I thought the ways were stupid but other people liked them. I was the most successful, but not because I deserved it. 

That year I was working on putting things back together wrong. I’d thrift housewares, lamps and vases and old televisions, and I’d break them in the basement, and I’d put them back together just a little bit wrong. The trick was to make it wrong in a way that had charm, but it was hard to tell in advance. Emily would come down and help, and we’d break something six or seven times, hoping. Then she’d say “Wow, we made great progress,” even if we hadn’t, even if breaking had just been breaking, and she’d go back up the stairs humming, like there was nothing left to worry about, and roll a joint to have with dinner. 

At night, at 2am, when we weren’t that high anymore and Netflix had started showing us ‘High School Coming of Age Dramas’ with bad plots and worse cinematography, Emily would drift in and out of sleep, and I’d lie there thinking of what a drag coming of age seemed like, and then she’d turn over and reach out and grab my hand.

“I cherish you, Taylor,” she’d say in a small sleepy voice. “I cherish you.” 

I said it back, though I didn’t like the word. What you cherished was like a cherry: small, too sweet, maybe dyed. Gone in a mouthful. I said it back. But what I meant was I loved her. Love was a weird word too: it took a lot of weight. When you said love a lot of people heard parent shit. The two cars, the picket fence, the orange kitten, the kitchen remodel. Emily’d had all that for free, from her father, and I knew I’d never have it at all. The love I meant went up like the mountains, copsed and runneled and dotted with the sweet smell of streams. But it was also something you could fall from, and then it’d be a long way down. 


Someone’s calling from below. It hadn’t been a good audition. Enoch wanted to get rid of him right away. Emily said that it was cool to make pronouncements but not to make unsettling pronouncements. I said it did sound like necromancy shit. Tessa said what was the point of leaving the church if people were gonna do drugs and act like prophets anyway, at least J. Smith had like written a book. Emily said ok and she’d tell him tomorrow to move on. 

But that night, when Tessa was painting and Emily and I were watching Lost again, Enoch was down around the old storm doors trying to figure out what kind of clues he’d have to leave to make it feel like the kids had escaped, and he looked up and saw the old television junction box on the side of the house, from when it’d been a boarding house in the 50s and the one trunk line had to run to eight rooms. 

“I just thought about it,” Enoch said, “and then I started digging.” He’d gotten the shovel from the old shed. Enoch was like that: he just had nows. He had to do things right now, or else he wouldn’t, and when he did them he had to just do them. I think it was kind of the opposite of Emily’s thing: he didn’t trust tomorrow, or even five minutes from now, to be good or even to exist. So he was a guy who dug things up at midnight. He was alone that way. 

“Okay,” Tessa said, “but like, what?” The rest of us were eating breakfast in the big yellow kitchen. The permanent teakettle was whining. 

Enoch set a black cloth bag on the table. Something heavy in there. He looked at Emily, who set down her chia thing. 

Kova’d shown up and was leaning in the doorway, just out of one of Enoch’s rapturous LED pillars. He was looking at Emily too. 

“Mm-mm,” Emily said, shaking her head. She looked at me. “Tay? Can you?” 

So I walked over and picked up the bag. Or tried to. It was really heavy. I stuck my hand in and felt something hard. I had to tip it a little to get my fingers under it. When it came out it was just a thing, a flat heavy thing a little bigger than a cell phone but way heavier, and then it wasn’t a thing: it was gold. 


Fifteen thousand dollars of gold, we ended up estimating. A weird number: a lot, if you just wanted to buy weed or oat milk or a used car. But basically nothing, if you wanted to convince someone’s father to let you stay in a house, or change the real conditions of your life, or of five people’s lives. Because there were five of us now: we still didn’t like Kova much, but did we have to? Did we like each other? Fifteen thousand dollars of gold, and it ended up sitting there on the dining room table, next to the glued-down unfinished theology homework. We knew we had to do something with it before Enoch tried to turn it into some kind of knickknack. Kova could have asked us for like half the money but never really seemed to even notice it existed. 

But it just sat there. Everyone had important work to do. Enoch had to fabricate three hundred pages of pdfs implying tax fraud for the second story. Tessa had to paint and go to her job as a barista. Emily had to work on her big snakey sculptures, down in the basement where there wasn’t cell reception and it wasn’t even her fault if she didn’t take her dad’s calls. I had to lie on the couch, midnights and after, watching Emily watch and wishing that she wanted to be loved, or loved by me. Kova hung around, looked in on people’s studios, went out in the evenings and came home at unpredictable hours and told us we were bad but also good, good in the things that we were but bad in the things that we chose and cared about. 


Chase butterflies. One night Kova came home, high out of his mind, holding onto furniture as though he loved it. Emily paused the TV. Kova went right up to Tessa’s studio where the lights were always on. I thought of reaching for Emily, kissing Emily, and of the long fall from the mountains. And then Emily unpaused the TV. In the morning Tessa came down and we asked if Kova was alright. 

“I think so. He kept telling me to chase butterflies. I don’t know. He went to bed after a while. I gotta go, I’m late.” 

Enoch thought Kova had designs on Tessa. He used that word: designs. He thought Kova was threatening her somehow, or would hurt her. Emily and I weren’t sure. Tessa and Enoch had slept together for a couple months last year and who could say what people wanted, or why, or what they were talking about when they talked about harm. 

“Tessa seems fine with it, whatever it is,” I said. “Like has Tessa said anything to you?”

“No,” Enoch admitted. “But it’s just like—she’s different. You see it, right? She’s different. It’s like some siege.”

“I mean I think we should wait? For Tessa? To at least be upset? Before we get upset for her? About sieges?” Emily said. Still we agreed to talk to them both: to Tessa and to Kova, when we saw them. 

But Tessa came home that evening changed again. We were making lentils. She’d had the closing shift at that little coffeeshop in the Avenues, Publik, the one that felt like a boat—a slow Monday afternoon dripping with summer, and there she’d been about to clean the espresso machine when a last customer came in—she made him a matcha and, when he came to pick it up, noticed the butterfly tattoo on his forearm. So she’d started a conversation: and he’d turned out to be a curator—not even a local Utah guy but LA, and—“he liked the work,” she said. “I showed him the bitch paintings.”

Enoch made a face and pulled one of his pillars off the ceiling. He said he was going to put it somewhere else, it didn’t make any sense to get raptured in the kitchen. 

So we never talked to Kova, or asked Tessa if she felt besieged. That night the house felt different too, swirling. Emily and I lay on the couches and watched documentaries. Things were crying out, there had been fights and wounds, and now they screamed in their own voices. The camera was listening, but you couldn’t tell who else. A lot of this shit broke my heart, but I suspected Emily had different ideas. 


Anyways when Kova at the end of the Fourth of July party came into the living room where we were all sharing a spliff and said you have to walk on water, and then you’ll do the real work, we didn’t wait or fuck around. We’d figured out how this worked: Kova got high and knew the future, and we had to figure out what he meant, the way clever animals or student wizards had to figure out. 

So we started trying to walk on water. Enoch froze a pair of boots in ice and walked across the front lawn and the back. Emily called a couple of kids she knew from the University’s fine art department to see if there was some material solution. I got a bucket of black paint and scrawled the word water across the sidewalk in front of the house in big furious capitals where you could see it from Emily’s window. That week there was water everywhere: Enoch flooded the kitchen on purpose, Emily filled tubs with weird chemicals, I cut hieroglyphs into the floors, on each side of the warped doorframes. Tessa wasn’t that involved. She was trying to finish paintings for this LA guy. And Kova was somewhere else, but who cared: together we were going to solve it. 

It was Emily who had the idea to go out to the lake. Not to walk on it, but to get some of the crust. We’d heard a lot about that crust: accumulated aeons. The water flew up off away and left the heavy things behind. Mercury, arsenic, selenium, antinomy. Emily wanted to fill some tubs and make from it a model of the lake, then walk across it. Walking on the ghost of water, maybe. 

We got in Enoch’s Ranger. It was after midnight. I was in the backseat. We’d all been smoking weed from West Wendover. We left Tessa at home: we were losing her anyway. LA had noticed her. She would go up, and float with her kind. And we’d stay here, baked in our flat pan, brittle. Enoch knew a back road north of Antelope where you could drive right down to the lake, right down. We weren’t talking much. 

But it was hard to tell, actually, where the lake began. We came down off the hill and it was—it was just flat. We went down another little bank and all the headlights showed us was Utah: the flat hard ground, sometimes cracked, all a little yellow in Enoch’s soft beams. We were high and together. 

“It’s like driving a UFO,’ Emily said. 

“Like being aliens?” Enoch asked. 

“No,” I said, because I knew what Emily meant. “Like being the only ones in the galaxy.” 

We went over the ground. Somewhere there was a lake, or had been. Maybe it had been here, last week or the week before, or the week before that. Enoch said the ground was getting a little soft. Emily said to keep going. We had to be really sure it was the lake. I saw Enoch’s eyes in the rearview: they flashed. We kept going. It was three or four in the morning by then. 

Then we saw the gleam: just a glisten, a seam between the dark land and the dark sky. It was water. I didn’t know how long we’d been driving. Emily said keep going. We kept going and the lake caught the light and was yellow in front of us. 

“Okay, this is close enough,” Emily said. We got out of the truck. The ground was a hard crust and then broke and your foot fell an inch. We got the buckets out and the shovel and walked around to the front where we could see in the headlights. I stumbled on something and followed it with my hand: a dead bird. Emily and Enoch dug three buckets out in the headlights. I watched and thought of the bird and how it had hatched, how it had peeped, how it had learned: to fly, and to be alone, all at once, in the same fall. I made sure Emily didn’t touch the dead bird as we got back in the Ranger. 

But the truck wouldn’t move. The wheels went around and around in the soft dirt. Enoch tried three times. We tried digging, and we tried pushing, and we tried laying the shovel under one of the wheels. Enoch swore a lot and Emily sounded guilty. Both of them thought this was their fault and I didn’t know who to take care of. 

It didn’t work. Nothing worked. The truck wouldn’t move. So we started walking.  Emily wanted to carry the buckets. The two tracks of the tires made a long straight road that led home and we walked it. The buckets got too heavy for Emily and I carried them for a while. When I had the buckets my feet went further down and got wet. I guessed I was walking on water, and I didn’t like it. We all knew the sun would come up and wouldn’t be our friend. Nobody was high anymore. I set down the buckets next to the tracks. Emily didn’t complain. Enoch was walking up ahead, proving a point. Whatever we were walking on we were breathing too and it would kill us. 

For a while when it was still dark I was angry. I was angry with Emily who hadn’t known better and with Enoch who made such a big deal out of being a man and was supposed to know better, and with Tessa who wasn’t there, and with Kova who’d started all this, and with myself who could have stopped it, all of it, at any time, except I was in love. But I was angry too with everything. With the wind for blowing, and the clouds for how they’d scattered and burned, and the lake for drying. Where did they get the right? Who gave them the right, when it was supposed to be our time. 

Then it got a little lighter, and a little lighter, and we saw the dry bed around us, and the little puddles, and it hadn’t meant anything for me to steer Emily around the dead bird for now in the light they were around us twisted and splayed. In the dark they had only been dead because they were still but now in the light they were dead because something had hurt them until they couldn’t stand it any more. Emily saw many of them and cried and I knew this was the real work, whatever work it was: to see this, and fix it, or simply to know it, and to grieve. Or at the very least know which was which, fixing or knowing or grieving. The sun kept coming up. 

Every year there are good sunrises here: pure peach flooding the sky, and pushing down the face of the Wasatch as it crests the long horizon. But I wasn’t there. I was thinking about the Fourth of July Party. We’d inflated a kiddie pool in the yard, filled it with bubble bath. Every dirty art kid from Sandy to Ogden’d showed up, pierced and rampant, grilling burgers and watermelon. Someone made a cake entirely of cheese from Whole Foods, brie and gruyere and cream cheese spread on top like frosting, and we lit sparklers at dusk and drew shapes and watched our faces flicker in and out. Enoch had a book with a timeline of historical events, and he was going around quizzing people on which came first: toothpaste or the internal combustion engine? The thresher or the machine gun? The baby monitor or the nuclear bomb? Everything was dry, open, felt like sliding. I didn’t know anybody’s name and it didn’t matter.  I’d told Emily I loved her and she’d told me she cherished me. 

Then most people left and it was just us sitting around in the kitchen, where there were still three beams of rapture. And Kova came in, and moaned for a while, and said it. You’re gonna walk on water. And then the real work is gonna start. We heard that, and we liked it. Because it felt like we’d been chosen for something. And who doesn’t like being chosen? I was thinking about that out there on the lake, when we were walking on water. We’d always known we’d been chosen, actually—it was what’d given us the strength to leave the things we’d left, and to be poor and kind, and to want the better world. And we’d been right. We had been chosen. It’s just that for a while we thought we’d been chosen for something else, something that was easier or more fun, or at least that didn’t hurt as much. Emily was walking along beside me. I figured I should say something, tell her a story, to help the time go by. 


It was all the way morning by the time we got back to the dirt road. Later than that by the time we got back to cell service and could call a Lyft. 

“We’re gonna fucking kill him, right?” Enoch said. We were way out on the fringe, the last paved road, and you could only see a few houses under construction. Someone was supposed to say, don’t kill him. But we were all getting sunburns. 

In the car, on the way back east, back south, back east, Emily sat in the front seat asking questions, trying to be nice. Enoch and I sat in back and we could smell each other’s sweat. 

At the house it looked like nothing had happened but morning. But inside Tessa had taken over the living room: she had a big canvas set out, right in front of the TV. 

“I needed the downstairs light,” Tessa said. “I’ll move it in a couple days. Where were you guys? You look rough.” 

I was waiting for Emily to explain where we’d been. Kova was lying on one of the couches, in my spot, looking at Tessa. Enoch hadn’t stopped at all but stomped straight through the living room and into the kitchen. Emily wasn’t explaining. She was looking at the painting. 

A big painting. It wasn’t done. Half of it was still blank, with pencil sketching. Emily wasn’t saying anything, and I wasn’t either, because it wasn’t a painting either of us would ever be able to say anything about. It was too true, and too sure. It was bigger than we were. It was the painting that would make everything worth it, and I looked at Emily to make sure she was seeing it too. 

Then Enoch came back in with the shovel. 

He walked over to the couch and swung it at Kova. 

Kova, who rolled a little on the couch and caught it on his hip, and cried out. Just the flat part of the shovel: a mercy. But Enoch spun it in his hands and swung it again. The blade this time.  

“Enoch!” Emily shouted.  

Kova rolled over the back of the sofa just in time. The shovel went half an inch into the back of the sofa and stuck. 

“Enoch!” Emily said. 

Tessa ran over. Kova was behind the couch, crouching: a cat. 

“Enoch, stop!” 

“Is that what you want?” Enoch shouted. “Do you fucking like this? We could have died!” 

Then we were all looking at Tessa. She looked bad. Tired and small. She coughed a little.

“Are you alright?” Emily asked. 

“It doesn’t matter,” Tessa said. “It’s not supposed to—it’s not supposed to feel good.” Her eyes kept diving down to the side. 

Enoch tugged once more on the shovel. But his shoulders fell and you could see the rage was gone. 

“He’s got to go. By tomorrow. I’ll actually fucking kill him.” He was pointing at Kova. 

I was looking at Kova, too. I was looking at his bright eyes and his dirty sweater and planning. I still had some of the acid left from last weekend, and Tessa’s painting was in front of the TV anyways, so that night I was going to creep down to the cave, the windowless bedroom, and give it to Kova, and wait for him to tell me, because it was my turn.

Corley Miller is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah. His work has appeared in Pigeon Pages, The New Republic, LARB, and n+1, among others.