Meanwhile in Baghdad

—Chapter 4—


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Johnny walked through the desert, coming up on a city. He moved differently through time. When he’d left La Meseta with the rifle and mask, it was the March of 2012. As he came up on San Samarra, it was well into the Spring of 2013. Under normal circumstances, the walk would never take a year. But the immortal moved through time as he had to, a temporal spectre. Not in the same rush the mortals around him often seemed to feel, consciously or not. Hurrying, trying not to lose time. Trying to make up for lost time in all the wrong places. The immortal had a big picture, because he could afford to. He arrived at the outskirts of San Samarra exactly when he had to. He arrived, very deliberately, just as everyone else was. Not too late. Not too early. The perfect time to show up for the party.

Standing in The Immortal’s path was Rice O’. Johnny drew his rifle. He opened it, examining the shiny brass round, and then he pointed it at Rice.

Rice screwed his eyebrows down, scrutinizing the man in the skull mask with the massacre gun. I gave you a goddamn holy courtesy twenty eight years ago, Rice said.

Johnny threw his rifle to his side, where it landed in the sand with a light thud.

Rice relaxed his expression a little.

Did you ever use a sword? Rice asked. I’m curious. Just how old are you?

Johnny thought back to when he got his rifle. He had indeed traded it for a sabre, which had broken during The Battle of Bunker Hill. Johnny was on the side of the American Patriots. The side of change. Turmoil. Unrest. In his heart of hearts he was a Revolutionary, and in his view, there had never been a better war since. It was that war when he started using the name Johnny. Hick was added later, during the dust bowl.

Rice knelt down, and pulled up the leg of his faded tattered jeans. Strapped to the inside of his calf was a sheath, from which he pulled a knife. The seven inch blade reflected the setting sunlight. He set the knife in the sand and shifted to kneeling on his other knee. From the other pant leg he pulled an identical knife, which he threw to Johnny.

A sword fight, Rice said, finding his grip on his hilt. I came here to shoot you. I’m glad that I lost my gun on the way. I think that would have ended things too quickly.

Behind his mask, The Immortal smiled deep. He stepped forward.

The Immortal stabbed at Rice. Rice parried and jumped to the side, then went to stab Johnny back. He got Johnny in the chest. It was like stabbing a brick. Rice’s hand bounced back from the blow, the tip of the knife bent.

The Immortal waited patiently as Rice realized, for the first time in his hunt, that he could lose.

Johnny stabbed again, and again Rice parried and jumped back. This time Rice stayed back. The Immortal caught Rice looking around for something to use: anything in the scenery that would help. There was only sand.

Rice lunged at Johnny, and Johnny broke Rice’s arm: grab, knee, crack. Rice writhed on the ground once, and then got right back up. In his hand was a fistful of sand, and he launched it at The Immortal’s face awkwardly, unable to bend his arm. The Immortal’s mask blocked every grain, and anyways, the attack Rice followed it with was clumsy. The Immortal really was a swordsman once. He blocked. Rice tried to juke The Immortal, but there wasn’t a chance: Johnny began to block the fake move, realized the tactic, and dodged the real attack. Johnny stabbed between Rice’s legs, gutting Rice’s thigh muscles and a femoral artery. Rice fell to the ground screaming in anger.

The anger.

On the ground, clutching at the leg that was bleeding the most, Rice told Johnny that he talked to Joey. Joey had told Rice to kill Johnny, and do you know why? It’s not because you killed cops. Fuck, the cops. It was because you murdered the genre. You set the poisoned seeds in all of our heads, including mine, and now my head is leaking and the poison is running out, and I can think clearly for the first time in decades. I don’t know your real name. But you, Johnny Hick, YOU are the reason Punk is dead.

Rice was lying on the ground with blood between his legs, looking violated. Johnny turned his back on Rice, and went to get his rifle.

When he came back to Rice, Rice was smiling. He was on the ground dying, and laughing. He tried to keep a straight face, but just couldn’t help himself: Rice had the giggles.

I woke up it was seven, I waited ‘til eleven, Just to figure out that no one would call, Rice sang, and then fell into another fit of laughs.

Johnny felt something inside of himself.

 

I’m just a kid and life is a nightmare,
I’m just a kid, I know that it’s not fair
Nobody cares cause I’m all alone, and the world is
Having more fun than me, tonight

 

Johnny felt he needed to sit down for a minute. He felt… he felt what he had felt for the last decade, but he felt it worse. He felt it from where he hadn’t expected it, ever. He felt the rotting corpse of his genre festering inside of himself, and he had to drop the gun to the ground, his hands too aching and pained to grip it any longer.

Rice kicked Johnny hard, knocking The Immortal down to his level. He continued to sing the shitty pop punk song, line after line, shuffling against the sand to get right up next to the man in the skull mask. Rice took Johnny’s wrist. Johnny pulled it away, but Rice took it again, insistent, singing forcefully now, singing at Johnny. Rice stuck the bent tip of his blade into Johnny Hick’s sternum, and it sunk in so smooth that Rice had to look down, and make sure he hadn’t missed and stabbed the sand.

Johnny was on his back, looking up at the sky, and into the old face of a friend. A friend who looked more Punk now than when Punk was thriving. Johnny looked up into the face of his old guitarist, who was murdering him.

This was the kind of Punk Johnny had been looking for.

Johnny sat up, pushing the blade further into himself. The Immortal couldn’t see people’s thoughts, but he had a good guess for what was on Rice’s mind: No. No, come on, that’s not even fair.

Rice shuffled off of Johnny Hick as The Immortal stood. There was a kind of repentfulness to it: Sorry I stabbed you. Let me get off, and we’ll call this good.

But that wasn’t the way of things. The Immortal got on top of Rice, pinning him down with a knee between his ribs. Rice tried to squirm out, but his efforts were weaker now, with his blood soaking the sand around them a dark black. Johnny opened Rice’s mouth with both hands. Rice pushed against it, but Johnny was insistent, and he had a lot more time than Rice did. He was able to keep Rice’s mouth open with one hand eventually. With the other hand, Johnny ripped off his own Black Flag T-shirt, which was soaked in blood around the chest where Rice had stabbed him. Rice tried again to close his mouth or turn away, but Johnny held the shirt over Rice’s head and squeezed.

Drops of immortal blood landed on Rice’s tongue, and Johnny could already see changes happening inside of his former guitarist. He got off Rice. He walked over to his rifle and picked it up. During the seconds-long trip from Rice to the massacre gun, The Immortal’s chest had healed. By the time Johnny walked past Rice again with his rifle in hand, The Immortal looked younger. Some of his wrinkles had gone; those that stayed were the accentuating kind; the ones that made Johnny look pretty. Handsome, even. Johnny continued towards San Samarra to meet with his next appointment.

 

 

Rice looked at the massive setting sun, holding his gaze there on something filled with awe and beauty, because he didn’t think there was really anything after this. He remembered the first time he took acid with his brother Jake. He’d become part of the sun that day. He’d looked up at it and felt choked up about the fact that he had never noticed it before, not really. He made peace.

Rice sat up in the sand. He remembered the first time he found out there was anyone else in his town that played rock music. His name was Yote. When Rice asked his real name he said Nate, but that he liked Yote better. He balled a fist and shoved it against his cut leg and he screamed. He used that scream as momentum and stood up and started walking towards the city. He felt his brain really had been drained of something evil.

Rice and Yote were the formative duo of Punk Rock. Johnny came later. Rice remembered that distinctly now. He limped into the city limits, through the storage facility. Midway through, somebody in a grey jumpsuit saw Rice and ran up to him, yelling for help from others who appeared out of nowhere, blurry in one eye and crisp in the other. They picked Rice off the ground, and he remembered when he and Yote and Joey and Johnny all broke into the high school after dark, moving load after load of band equipment into Rice’s truck. How old had Johnny… It didn’t matter. Rice remembered Joey writing something on the chalk board before they left their hometown for good. It had been too dark for Rice to see the blackboard, but he remembered the sound of Joey writing in chalk, squealing stone against stone.

The memory of that sound kept Rice awake as he was lifted into an ambulance. He remembered as far back as he could. Before Joey, Johnny, or Yote. He remembered a time in elementary school. An older girl named Terri. In the back of the ambulance, Rice smiled. He was fucking born to be a rock star. Rice bragged to his brothers and one of them told his mom, and Rice was beat, hard.

The man with clean clothes in the back of the ambulance took Rice’s hand away from his leg and applied a bandage. The woman with clean clothes stuck something in Rice’s arm. Finally, Rice remembered the good side of Punk. There was one. Taking in people who were outcast. Deviants like Yote. Users like, well, Yote. Punk was hostile, and a hostel. Rice remembered finding Joey scared out of his mind because there was a pack of fucking skinheads picking on him. That night was the night they’d left town. Rice remembered. As he fell asleep and woke up, over and over again in the back of the ambulance taking him through San Samarra, Rice remembered.


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© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 16, 2016