Meanwhile in Baghdad

—Chapter 1—


<< >>




Johnny Hick moved shovels full of black dirt over his shoulder. He wore a black leather jacket, which baked him in the California noon-day sun. Underneath the jacket he wore a Black Flag T-shirt. The hole he dug was two feet deep, being made deeper still by the shovel Johnny punched into the ground, over and over, slinging dirt behind himself. Johnny was old. Grey consumed his stubble. He had been clean-shaven that morning, but the hole was three feet deep now, and being made deeper. It wasn’t his first hole of the day. They were scattered around the courtyards of the Umber Lane apartments, black dents in the hot ground, where Johnny had been digging since sunrise.

Nobody saw The Immortal as he worked. His mask made sure of it.

He had commissioned the mask a week prior, from another man named John. It may not have been the other man’s real name, just as Johnny Hick surely wasn’t The Immortal’s. But John Vaughn was what the man called himself, and if that gave them something in common, then Johnny Hick was happy to oblige him.

Johnny had heard of John Vaughn through rumors: rumors of an artisan. A Stradivari. Someone who could craft masks so perfect as to change how others saw the wearer. If you want to appear brave when you are a coward, you go to John Vaughn. If you want to appear tall when you are short, you go to John Vaughn. If you want to appear normal when you are strange, you go to John Vaughn, and beg him to make you a mask as fine as the one he was likely wearing at that moment. Because it was said that John did wear his own masks, every day, so as to appear a perfectly normal man.

It was also said that John Vaughn was a dog person. And so it was that Johnny Hick traveled to a dog park in uptown suburbia.

Johnny Hick surveyed the park: it was large; there was plenty of room for dogs to run, and dogs did run; they chased each other in circles, far from the man in the black leather jacket with the Fugazi T-shirt underneath. The dog park itself was only a small part of a larger park: a fence separated the two pieces. The fence was well-kept. The gate didn’t so much as squeak when Johnny Hick entered.

At the center of the larger park, there stood a statue. Johnny looked at it, leaning forward against the dog park’s chain-link fence. The statue was an astronaut. Her dome-helmet sat by her feet, and her eyes looked upwards, willing herself away from Earth. Johnny saluted her efforts. He could appreciate people deciding they wanted to leave.

Johnny had left Punk Rock to its own devices all the way back in ’85. All in all, he felt they did a good job with it through the rest of the 80s. In the 90s they lost it a little, and although Johnny looked as young as he ever was, he could feel his age for the first time: the bones in his feet grew sore, and his movements became stiffer. He noticed lines on his face one night, not wrinkles yet, but almost. Negative spaces fit between an otherwise okay complexion.

The 2000s hit Johnny like a loaded van: his hair lost all of its color, brown to grey over the course of only a year. His wrinkles came just as fast: they were like ugly war trenches, carved in his once dashing features. By the year 2012, his hands became arthritic. He wouldn’t be able to play a guitar, had he owned one, and that was the line Johnny drew in the sand: he would return to his people. It was clear that they needed him.

It was a nice day in the park. Sunny. No wind. Quiet. The dog owners stood together, away from the strange man with the short grey mohawk. Johnny wondered if any of them knew about his band. It was doubtful. These were sheltered people, even as adults. They thought they had heard Punk, but that was only the 2000s variety: the type that was killing The Immortal, song by phoned-in song.

Johnny looked at all of them once more. A woman watching over two small dogs, a terrier and a pug. Her curled red hair sat obediently on her shoulders. There was a man keeping focus on his golden retriever. It was a big dog, and he was a normal sized man. Last, there was a heavy man with a rottweiler. His moustache glistened with sweat, which he wicked off every so often, into the air and then onto the ground.

Johnny waited for John. He watched the dog owners. These mundane people. These normal, normal…

One of them was more normal than all the rest. Normal in every conceivable way: average height, average complexion, average pleasant suburban expression. A face that promised he had never heard of such an angry band as Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits. John Vaughn had entered the dog park twenty minutes ago, without Johnny Hick even noticing. Standard greetings to the others in the park—Hello, How have you been, Haven’t seen you here in a while. A small wave to Johnny, and then staying hidden among the pack.

Johnny approached the man with the golden retriever. The normal man. And when the normal man noticed Johnny beside him, he gave a pause. A slight terror, for it was said that John Vaughn was also very good at reading people, and if John Vaughn was reading Johnny Hick, then he had every right to be terrified by the god of Revolutions and Punk Music.

But the terror was only a guess on Johnny’s part, because not a single muscle moved in John Vaughn’s face: not a corner of the mouth turned down; not an eyebrow raised. Only a new kind of smile when he eventually asked, Who are you here with? I don’t see your dog.

I’m here to commission a mask, Johnny said.

John Vaughn feigned ignorance.

You make masks, Johnny insisted. I want you to make me one. I want you to make me a mask as good as your own, but I don’t want one that covers my features like yours: I want a mask that shows me. Make me Death.

John Vaughn nodded. Follow me home, when we’re done here, he said. I hope you don’t mind if we stay for a while?

Johnny looked to the golden retriever that John had brought with him, and he nodded too.

As Johnny Hick threw black dirt over his shoulder in the California noon-day sun, the mask hid his grey stubble. It hid the scratches on his cracking flesh. Those parts weren’t him. They weren’t The Immortal. The Immortal was Death, and his whitewood mask showed it in a way that every culture could recognize: his face was a skull. Pale, jagged, and menacing. Around him, the Umber Lane apartments were burning.

 

 

In the city of Baghdad, millennia ago, a servant was out running errands for his master. The servant was tasked with delivering letters, and picking up produce for that evening's dinner. The servant was walking through the marketplace, having just delivered the last of his master's letters, when he felt his shoulder jostled.

It was normal to be bumped in such a busy square, but this jostling was deliberate. The servant turned to see what was the cause. When he turned and met eyes with the one who had pushed him, his blood ran cold in the desert heat.

Mere moments later, the servant was back at his master's house. The master was upset with him, for he hadn't bought anything for that night's dinner.

The servant told his master to forget about the dinner. The servant explained that while out in the marketplace that day, he had been pushed on the shoulder by Death, who scowled at him in the most terrible way.

The master's mouth gaped.

The servant continued, pleading with the master, that the master should lend his finest horse, so that the servant could flee to Samarra, a city miles and miles away.

The master agreed with this plan, and sent his servant off as the sun was just passing noon.

The master then went to the marketplace. He wanted to speak with Death, for his servant was a good one, and he was upset with Death for frightening him. The master found Death standing near a merchant's tent, his bony face pale and stretched, forming a wicked smile that showed too many teeth.

Death, said the master.

Death looked down at him. What do you wish to say to me, mortal?

Why did you frighten my servant today? the master asked, crossing his arms at Death, who was surrounded in a chilling aura, colder even than the shade of the merchant's tent. Why, when you encountered my servant, did you scowl?

Death turned his head upwards and laughed. The look I gave your servant was not one of intimidation, but one of surprise: I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra, and I have no idea how he'll make it in time!

 

 

You carry this now, Johnny had said, years ago, to his bandmate Rice O’. I’m done for a while. But you carry this.

Rice had taken the rifle, but didn’t carry it for long. He buried it in the dirt, like a seed. And decades later, it was time for a harvest: Johnny’s shovel struck the butt of the firearm.

He dug carefully around the weapon, recalling the shape of it: a long-rifle, with an excellent scope. Tarnished now, no doubt, but it would kill.

Johnny unearthed his gun.

He walked away from La Meseta, rifle slung over his shoulder, into the desert. The next revolution was coming. He had to make preparations.

 

 

The black wolf could hardly be seen at night. He walked through the desert, a type of meditation. No sounds to think about. Just the wind—not worth thinking about. No sights in the solid sheet of desert dark. The wolf was cold, but not unbearably so. His coat was thick. He would be back in his hotel room before sunrise.

It was a strange thing, the wolf found, living in a hotel. There was an air of impermanence. He could leave. He had left his home for the first time a year ago, and he had spent a little over eighteen years getting ready to do it. He could leave the hotel room that night if he wanted to: he could already be gone. He could decide that when he had closed his door behind himself that evening, it had been the last time he would touch the door at all.

The wolf pushed the thoughts downwards. He started over, beginning his thoughts with a focused core: breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Repeat, until no other thoughts tried to jump in. Not without his command.

Nothing.

Wonderful Nothing.

The wolf's eyes were open in the desert night. It hardly mattered. Either way, he began to see ghosts, acting out a play around him, a theater troupe of the dead, all humans, most playing the roles of monsters.

The first to arrive on the desert stage, floating along as the wolf walked, were the extras. People standing around with red plastic cups in their claws, the actors lit as though they weren't in the desert at all. Lit as though they were in a house, with the lights dimmed, to hide the party from the cops. They all talked in ways that didn't matter much, other than to set the scene—banter about how cool the party was, talking about who they might try to hook up with, who needed a ride with who, whether there was any weed left or just booze.

Then, through the crowd, the wolf saw the actor who had played himself. A black teenager, short hair, smiling a little bit more than he wanted too, but too drunk to help it. He was happy. It was a rare thing. A good night.

Standing beside the black actor was a white one, shorter, playing Mason. One of Drake’s friends at the time. Some of the details about the white actor were wrong. His hair was the wrong shade between brown and blonde, and a little too straight. He stood up tall, when his posture should have been more stooped. Back to back, Drake and Mason would have been the same height. It was only Drake’s bad posture and Mason’s worse posture that made Mason shorter.

It wouldn’t have seemed weird, if the black actor playing Drake wasn’t so dead-on perfect. Right down to the blue eyes. Rare genes. The ghost troupe might as well have found Drake’s younger brother, not that he had one.

“Hey man—” Mason began, and started over. Not messing up his line. Just playing a drunk teen. Over-slurring things. “Hey man, it's like... we gotta get out of here soon. It's late as shit. Foxboro is an hour from here.”

Everything about them blended with the rest of the crowd, so well that none of the others noticed when the two left. Both of them finished their drinks, and then walked out to the driveway. Mason tried to get in the driver’s seat of his truck, but Drake held him back.

“You’re not driving,” Drake said. “You’re wasted.”

“Yeah, I’m fuckin’ wasted,” Mason laughed, and handed his friend the keys. “Good luck fucker.”

The truck idled along beside the black wolf as he walked. The truck had been going much faster, down the dark county road, when Drake had really been behind the wheel. But for the purpose of the scene, the human actors kept pace with the wolf in the desert.

The black actor’s hands tapped on the wheel. There was no music. Just an absent tapping that filled the truck.

“You good?” Mason asked.

“Let me ask you something,” Drake said. The actor’s heart was pounding.

“Dude, I don’t wanna hear it,” Mason said. “I don’t wanna know if you’ve sucked dick, or taken it in the ass, or just… just keep it to yourself. Like, what the hell is so hard about that?”

“Fuck off, it’s not about that,” Drake said. “And fuck you, by the way, for making him feel like shit about himself just because you’re uncomfortable about it. No, hey, I’m serious: I fucking hate you for that. Make fun of me. I can take it. He’s off limits.”

“What, you love him?” Mason bleated. Smug.

“Yeah, I fucking do love him, fuck you,” Drake said. The truck idled faster. “This isn’t about that though. I’m not trying to make this about that.”

“Christ, I hope you have sucked his dick already, it’d be easier to listen to than this.”

Drake’s fingers tapped on the wheel faster.

Mason turned on the radio, but Drake switched it back off.

“Okay princess,” Mason said. “What’s on your mind, huh? Tell me all about—”

“A school shooting,” Drake said.

Mason tried to remember how he was going to finish his last thought.

Drake pressed forward: “Are you in?”

“Am I… am I in?” Mason asked, mouth hanging open, staring over at Drake. “The fuck is wrong with you—”

Another vehicle struck the truck head-on. Drake would later see analysis on the news, reporting that it had been him who swerved over into the other lane, and not the other way around. Drake wasn’t sure if that was true or not. He didn’t know if there really was evidence of that, or if they were just trying to vilify him even further. Either way, there was a crash. The black wolf stopped his journey to walk through the scene. His padded feet made crunching sounds as he walked over shattered glass.

In the truck, Mason dead, and Drake trying to find any evidence that Mason was still alive. Drake had already watched that scene. The more he thought about it—and he thought more often than others would guess—it was the people in the other car that got him.

Their acting was more interpretive. There wasn’t a well thought-out script for them to work with. Only what Drake had caught in his periphery while focused on Mason. The only strict direction was that there were four of them. The one in the passenger seat had a bloody nose. In the back, a man with a black mustache and a man with a black pompadour both sat limp. Later reported dead. Apparently dead on impact, but Drake hadn’t stayed around long enough to find that out first hand.

The driver of the other car had looked familiar to Drake in a way that was hard to place. Like a recurring background character in a TV show. And, like most things about that night, Drake learned the details later, from the news coverage, on TV, online, and in print. Wherever he could find it. The driver of the other car was a Punk Legend: a member of Johnny Hick in the Fuckwits. A band that lived in music-history fame for helping form Flashpoint Zero, but better known for the lead singer’s massacre of five police officers in 1985. The news media tried to eat that up—the parallels between Johnny Hick’s real shooting and Drake Reddick’s attempted one—but Rice O’ had refused interviews and the two shooters were nowhere to be found for questioning, so that part of the story died down.

The scene faded away as the black actor ran off. At first he was followed by Rice, but the dark was better for escaping than it was for following. The Punk Legend soon returned to the man with the bloody nose.

The man with the bloody nose and the man with the moustache were both homosexuals; the news devoured that, as a substitute for being able to compare Drake to Johnny.

The black wolf continued to walk through the desert. He had failed again. The point wasn’t to remember the Foxboro Incident. The wolf howled, loud, expelling all thoughts of it.

The point was to fix himself. And the only way to fix something as broken as him was to destroy it completely. When Drake left Foxboro, the first things he destroyed were his feet. He walked through states, from Minnesota to Nevada. He had no memory of the journey. By the time he arrived in Bellpond, the bottoms of his feet were a blistered, bleeding mush.

Next he destroyed his muscles. A job in a warehouse, where they were used to hiring illegals, and didn’t look too closely at social security numbers or false names. He stayed in a hotel, once he had saved up the money for a security deposit—no credit card. When he wasn’t working, he was using his room as a gym. By the end of the year he had fixed his body. He stood tall and straight. During this time, he had thought about nothing.

It was only in the last couple of months that Drake took on the real challenge. How do you destroy a mind in pieces? How do you break only a part of it, and then make it better, and not have it broken again by the rest? Drake hadn’t figured that out yet. So he walked. He walked every night, through the desert, where he was forced to think of something that would help.

But so far, no luck. The only solution he had found was suppression: think of nothing. It was no good. He wanted to think about things. People. A person. He wanted to make the world better, to balance out the ways he’d made it worse: three lives and a bloody nose. Until that night he had stayed neutral, but that was the night that he became a monster. That was the night he became a negative tally on humanity’s scoreboard.

The wolf’s foot struck something in the sand, stopping his travel. He moved to step around it, but it was larger than the rock he was expecting. He crouched down to see, in the starlight, what it was.

The black wolf’s heart beat faster.

He pushed the man—a deer—on the shoulder. “Are you okay?” he asked the buck.

No answer. Looking closer, the wolf saw that the buck had blood on his face, mostly dried. The wolf checked for breathing, and found it. The wolf checked for a pulse, and again, found it. The wolf tried to wake the man, but again, nothing. The wolf picked the deer up out of the sand, and began walking back.

This makes up for a life.


<< >>


© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 16, 2016