Set on Earth

Stories by Ray_Thompson


Table of Contents
The Graffiti Artist
Well, Shit
Janine
138
The Brilliant Disguises of John Vaughn
Punk Legends
Prophet
Phantom Limb
The Music
Meanwhile in Baghdad


- Night Mode -


The Graffiti Artist

My breath fogs the windshield, and for the life of me, I can never remember if I’m supposed to turn the heat up or down for that. This will be my third winter with a license. Well, once it is winter. But there’s time. I haven’t passed a single car and there are no headlights as far as the eye can see; I’ll have nothing but time tonight.

I check the rearview mirror one last time for cops, and then I hit the brakes, easing off the road and up to the forest line. I pull the keys out of the ignition, grab my backpack from the passenger seat, and flip the headlights off—I forgot that last time. I got halfway up before I realized, and I had to climb all the way back down, all while a pair of headlights were approaching in the distance. State trooper. Told her I almost hit a deer, and that’s why I was in the ditch, out of breath, and—unbeknown to her—toting a bag filled with spray paint. I didn’t get the chance to finish last year. This year will be different.

Headlights off. Next step, the billboard lights. They make the control box as much of a pain in the ass to get into as they possibly can. Last time I opened it up and it was nothing but circuits, so I took a few educated guesses. Wouldn’t you know it, they worked. But this time I have a more elegant solution.

Clip!

The geniuses made this box out of indestructium, yet amazingly enough, the wire leading up from it is coated in nothing but plastic. No spotlight for me tonight, but during rush hour tomorrow, my work will have center stage.

I sniffle as I climb up the pegs. I’ll have to add that to my pocket list for the winter: keys, jackknife, wallet, tissue. And chapstick. Last winter, I learned that my lips had spent many snowy seasons in undue agony. But I’ve learned to help things like that. Hence why I’m up here.

I pull myself up onto the platform, then place foot in front of foot, running my hand along my canvas. Hopefully the law firm won’t mind if I borrow some of their ad space. They’ll take it down either way, but in the meantime, maybe they’ll appreciate the artistry.

Gripping the side of the billboard, I gaze out at my homeland of Wisconsin. Absolutely terrible. Well, the stars are pretty and all. I wish I could say the same for the people, but what they lack in looks, at least they make up for in cynicism. It’s a coping mechanism, really. Winter sucks, so hey, why fight it? Let’s make our personalities match the weather; let’s make ourselves cold and bitter and hope for the best.

The best hasn’t happened yet. It’s gotten us by and we’ve even managed to laugh about it, but self-deprecating humor only works for so long before there’s nothing left to take away. I unzip my bag.

I give the first can a shake, and reach up as high as I can while applying the white coat. First a big, solid circle, right in the center. Then I walk the platform from one end to the other, filling in a wide box underneath my professional, lopsided, almost-round shape. It’s alright. This coat is just the base anyways. Winter here has taught me that as redundant as it feels, it’s better to dress in layers. I toss the can back in my bag and take one last look over my shoulder for headlights.

Next comes the black. A quick few shakes lead to a quick few shapes as I work atop the circle. After that come the letters underneath, and as the spray paint mixes with my icy breath, I laugh to myself. Perfect timing.

I climb down, then work whatever duct tape magic I can on the severed wire. The heat blasts as I pull back onto the road—foggy windows be damned.

A quick glance into the rearview mirror shows my handiwork. And I’m proud of it. I really am.


Try to smile today


Well, Shit

I’m a dead person who hasn’t quite died yet.

Maybe if I hadn’t been separated from Brian, I wouldn’t be dying all by myself. Maybe if my jacket had more snow on the outside than the inside, I’d at least die more comfortably. And, maybe if I hadn’t broken my leg when I fell, I’d find the strength to die trying. But one way or another, this mountain has already killed me.

I don’t mind everything being over. I really don’t. I get it, and I welcome it. It’s just the waiting that gets to me. Well, that and the cold. And the acute fire shooting from my leg to my chest. And the bleeding, and the nausea, and my fucking head. I want to die, and I want to do it myself so that when it happens I can know that it’s really over—that I won’t wake up and be right back in the fucking snow, waiting to find out which limb I’ll lose first. If there’s a way to get out of this alive, fantastic. But the closest thing I have to being saved is in the left-hand pocket of my pack, which is buried God knows where.

I tried finding that orange plastic pistol, but lying on my back in the snow, there wasn’t much I could see but white. Moving was a bitch. My leg was sheer fire, and that wasn’t all of it; other parts were broken. Even propping myself up on an elbow only worked for a flash second before I collapsed. I could feel the powdery snow on my cheek, and at first it stung. But the sting wasn’t so bad. If nothing else, it was a distraction from my fucking leg. I wish it would’ve lasted, but it looks like this just isn’t my day.

Once I couldn’t feel my cheek anymore—or the rest of my face for that matter—I took off my hat and threw my goggles as far as I could. I know what I was thinking: I thought it would be a defiant moment of victory. That if the cold was going to win, I was going to embrace it.

Instead, throwing my goggles just made me vomit. Something about the movement hit me wrong. I don’t know, but whatever the cause, it’s just another reason to want that flare gun in my hands, whether I’m shooting it into the sky, or my mouth, or anywhere but fucking nowhere.

I’m shaking now. Not just imperceptible vibrations, either—it’s stuff that’d seem almost comical if it wasn’t a pain in my everything. It’s amazing. I don’t have the strength to sit up, but I can have what might as well be a damn seizure. When the shaking started, I figured it would hurt my leg, or my head. But by this point, I can feel neither. So at least there’s that. I try to wiggle my toes, but even if they are moving, it certainly doesn’t feel like it.

Then I see it: a bright orange streak of light in the evening sky, shortly followed by another. Brian. Whatever warm feeling I have left in my chest grows cold—he’s in trouble too. But hey, at least the lucky bastard has his flares. Maybe somebody will come to his rescue, carry him off just in the nick of time. The lucky bastard has his flares.

Well, shit. Since I can’t feel my leg, I might as well find mine too.

Sitting up goes much better this time. I hear a pop from my leg that makes me want to throw up all over again, but aside from a turning stomach, I don’t feel a thing. Maybe slowly freezing to death is the best thing to happen to me today.

I have to say, the view from my icy grave really is beautiful. Now that I sit up above the snow, I can see that. It would be better if my eyes weren’t shaking in my skull, but still, as far as places to die go it’s not bad. Mountains of grey, jagged stone. Snow. Barren trees, and best of all, not a living thing in sight but yours truly. It makes me smile.

I spot my pack pretty quickly, sitting less than a dozen yards away. It’s not quite within reaching distance. At this point though, I wouldn’t expect any less.

Crawling was never more tedious. Lunging forward, I outstretch an arm to brace myself. All it does is plunge through the snow and get me another faceful of winter. Fuck Yukon. By the time I get to my pack, my head is killing me in the most literal way you can imagine. It was bad before, but the motion, it just makes it feel like—like a flare through the eyes.

I don’t remember passing out. I remember collapsing onto my pack, but I don’t remember closing my eyes there. It must have happened though, because it’s dark now. It doesn’t matter. I know where the orange pistol is. Even without seeing, I can find it. I take off a glove, trembling. I’m kind of glad I can’t see my fingers. They must be a sad sight. I can’t make out my hand three inches from my face, and I sure as hell can’t feel it either, but I know where the zipper is, and after a few tries I hear it open.

Reaching inside, I can barely even curl my fingers enough to grab the plastic piece of junk. But I do; I get ahold of it and I don’t let go. In what little light there is, using what little coordination I have left, I open the chamber and load a shell. I start to close the chamber. Start to.

“Janine!”

Brian.

I roll onto my back, clutch the flare gun against my chest, and look out into the darkness. This mountain has killed me. But at least he’ll see how his warm voice melted the powdery snow from my cheek, and he’ll know I didn’t die all by myself. He’ll see how my head rests against my pack, and he’ll honestly believe I died comfortable. He’ll see the flair gun in my hands. At least he’ll think I died trying.


Janine

“Janine!”

Meet at the trailhead by noon. You can go down a harder route, I trust you, just come back to the start when you’re done. I’ll be waiting with warm cocoa and a smile. I love you darling.

“Janine!”

That had been the plan. As I called her name for the second time, it sunk in that it had been the only plan. But the sun was a bit past its peak, and the cocoa wasn’t quite so warm, and I was still waiting.

“Janine!”

I reached for my pack. After digging into the small pouch at the front, my hands returned with a notepad and a ballpoint pen. The ink at the tip was frozen, but no matter; warming the pen gave me time to think. The route was difficult. They’d given it a rating of double black diamond. It was far too much for me, but for Janine?

“Ja-nine!

She could make it. She cut through the slopes with ease. She made double black diamonds look like ballet, employing a balance of grace and power that was truly her own. She was already on her way to the trailhead to meet her sweetheart, who sat with a pen in the corner of his mouth, hoping that the cocoa would still be warm when she arrived. Janine could make it. But just in case she couldn’t make it before sundown, I took off a glove and wrote.

Janine,

If you’re reading this, please go back to the cabin. Don’t wait for me, because I’ll be right behind you, eager to hear about how your day went. I’m glad we could finally make it up to Yukon. Spending time with you this week has been a joy, and if you can stomach a blue square route, I’d love to have you by my side tomorrow. Sorry if the cocoa is cold.

Always yours,
Brian

I fired two flares in the air. If she was lost—She wouldn’t be, but if she was—then she would be able to find her way. I set the notepad and the thermos by the trailhead post. Then I reaffixed my skis, faced the mountain, and remembered to smile as I set out to find my darling, my everything, my Janine.

She was out there. I repeated it to myself with each trudge through the incline, because it was the truth. I would spot her soaring around the trees, pushing the limits of her skis. She would make it look as delicate as if she was cutting through clouds. She would stop when she saw me, and I would explain everything, and we would laugh. It kept the smile on my face, just thinking about what a kick we’d get out of the whole thing when it was over. She could make it, and she was out there, and I was coming for her.

Night came, but I knew I would see Janine just over the first ridge. When I cleared it my smile disappeared, just for a second. The valley below was an impossible sight to pick apart. The only light came from the moon, which reflected off the snow and gave the whole landscape a certain radiance. Janine would adore it on our way back out, and with that sentiment, my smile returned. I took off my goggles, trying to gain any edge in determining what each black speck in the valley was. Most were trees, undoubtedly. But any one of them could have been so much more, and unless I could adjust to the darkness, I would never know.

I inched my way down the slope. It was steeper than any blue square I’ve ever been on, and if Janine would have been there to see the way I clung to each tree on the way down, she would have smiled and told me to grow up. I would smile back and ask what the fun in that would be, and then instead of clinging to trees on the way down, I would cling to her. Goddammit Janine, I needed you there.

“Janine!”

My ski slipped. It’s ridiculous how suddenly that can happen. One second I was inching my way down, and the next, gravity and the mountain were convening to decide which breakneck speed was right for me. A tree caught my fall, and even if the bark struck like a hammer against my chest, I breathed a sigh of relief. Patience. It was a double black diamond for a reason.

I inched my way downward again, and again, I slipped and collided with the next tree down the line. It was efficient in a brutal sort of way. I was getting the shit kicked out of me by Mount Lucania, but if it was the fastest way down, then I would embrace getting the shit kicked out of me by Everest himself. Inch, slip, smack! Inch, slip, smack! Inch, slip—

Nothing. I tumbled, lurching between the black sky and the shining ground. I was free, untethered from the slope, unbound by my skis, liberated from any earthly control. Nothing stopped me as I rolled down the slope, until something did. My head snapped forward, and my lungs flattened against the tree. I clutched my side, not sure what exactly I’d ruptured, but certain that the tree had left more than just another bruise.

“Jan—”

Lightning rattled my cognizance. Whatever was broken inside of me, it made shouting out of the question. Even my breath came in a spasm, and I writhed against the snow, trying to figure out living all over again. My equilibrium had left me, and with every second I laid there, my other senses were following. The cold took my touch. The collision distorted my sight. But the mountain wouldn’t get everything. I would find her. I clutched at the tree, and I pulled myself up, and I clung to it as I looked for my missing skis.

One stuck out of the snow nearby, and I was able to reach for it without letting go of the pine. I snatched it, and as soon as it was in my hands, I nearly dropped it again. It wasn’t mine.

I squinted back into the dark. There were nothing but shadows, and they danced as I staggered every which way, fighting for my balance. I clung closer to the tree. Straining against the night, some of the shadows gained definition. Some were still trees, but this time, some weren’t. Down the slope was a pack, and against it, my darling Janine! The pine left my grasp, my feet left the ground, and I couldn’t have been happier as I tumbled down the mountain all over again. I came for you sweetheart, and I never thought twice. When I touched the base of the valley I crawled, yard after yard, until I could hold you; until I could tell you everything would be okay. Then I saw you.

Oh. Oh, Janine.

I saw that you had fallen. I saw that you had inched, slipped, smacked. I saw that you had tumbled, and I saw that you had crawled. Your eyes were frozen, locked onto the peak of Mount Lucania, and you held an orange pistol against your chest. I saw that you tried.


138

Our house made a lot of noises at night. It groaned as gusts of wind pushed the walls. It popped and hissed as the radiator kept out the cold. And if one of my dad’s esteemed colleagues—drunks—happened to be spending the night, then the floorboards would creak under their weight as they walked to the kitchen for another beer. These sounds were a part of our lives. So they never struck me as so revealing until the night I opened my bedroom door at 3:00 AM.

The hinges screamed for every inch I turned them, and I must have spent an hour subduing the sons of guns. I would coax the door open just a hair, and then wait. If I heard footsteps coming down the hall, as I was sure I would, then I would jump back into my bed and act asleep. “It was the wind opening the door,” I would say. I didn’t end up needing the excuse though. I got through the creaky bastard of a door and out into the hall, and the rest was cake. I mentioned that our house’s floorboards creaked for guests, and that was true. But for those of us who lived there, we knew exactly how to step around those spots.

There are times when we have to make choices. Not right choices or wrong choices—those are figured out afterwards. Just choices. And at the well-balanced and ever-reasonable age of sixteen, I made the choice to take my dad’s car out for a 3:00 AM drive.

Our house sat on this big ol’ hill. The hill was so big, in fact, that when I took the car out of the garage in stealth mode—neutral—I still ended up doing thirty when I hit the backroad. And lord, when I hit the road and threw it in gear, you can bet I was doing a hell of a lot more than the speed signs tried to tell me.

On the county road I flat-out floored it. The blacktop flew under me. My heart pounded harder than the 200 decibel beat of License to Ill. My fingertips were electric, and my expression was the same. The headlights were off, because fuck it: I was invincible, and flying through the night made me feel cool as hell. The gauge said ninety, then one hundred, and when I hit the other car, I was doing well over one twenty.

Flashing lights flew around my field of vision as I came to on the pavement. And funny enough, the first thing I thought wasn’t that “oh, shit” feeling—that came second. What came first was the acute torture of having my canine tooth cracked in half. I writhed there on the blacktop road, thinking that from that point on, that toothache would be my entire life.

And then I heard my best friend’s voice saying my name: “Jake?”

Oh, shit.

“Jake, Jesus Christ man, are you okay?”

I came to realize that there was a whole world around me, beyond just my toothache. There was my best friend—what were the odds—and there were our cars, crumpled together at the hoods like paper.

“Jake, man, answer me!”

I moaned something and nodded, which he took to mean that I was fine.

He breathed out, crossed his arms, and turned to the pair of totaled machines. “Fuck, man. What are we gonna do?”

I stood up. It felt weird, being able to stand on the solid ground. I felt like I should’ve been floating instead, or flying, or anything else to make it clear that this hadn’t really happened. I wanted to be back in my room. I wanted to still be waiting for my dad to fall asleep, except this time, I wanted to change my mind about sneaking out.

“Jesus fucking Christ, man.”

I agreed with my friend wholeheartedly, and I tried to tell him so. But the words… they didn’t come out right. When I tried to say them, they came out on top of each other, and Miles looked at me funny.

“What are you saying? Jesus, Jake, sit down, right now.”

I did what he said, because I knew his “I’m fucking with you” voice, and that wasn’t it. He went to the trunk of his car, and I laughed when he came back with a first-aid kit. Fucking boy scouts, man. Miles must have been waiting to use his merit badge skills like this for years.

He pulled a flashlight out of the kit, and before I could ask what he was doing with it, the prick was already shining it in my eyes.

“Christ.”

That bad? I thought, but the words all tried to jump out at once. Which did answer my question, the more I thought about it.

“Let’s just sit down for a while, Jake.”

And there we sat. He called his mom and asked her to come get us. I thought he had a death wish, and I tried to take the phone from him. But she was already on her way. I could’ve sworn I heard Miles say hospital.

“You know I could kill you right about now,” Miles told me. “I mean I could really kill you. No headlights? Jesus, man.”

We were sitting side by side, looking at the cars. I wished one of them would burst into flames, so it would feel more like a movie.

He looked at me, then shook his head. “I’m just glad you’re alright. Talk to me. How fast were you going, anyways?”

I smiled—minus one tooth. “One thirty eight.”

“One thirty eight? Fuck, man, maybe I should kill you, for the sake of all those other poor defenseless drivers on your road.” He laughed and punched me on the shoulder. As if on cue, the hood of my dad’s car burst into flames.

The doctors said the concussion wouldn’t leave any permanent damage. My dad said, “What’s it matter? The kid’s retarded anyways.” But the noises changed around our house. The sharp clinking of beer bottles became the soft clang of soda cans. The shouts of drunks were replaced, over time, by the laughter of my little brothers and sisters. Most of my dad’s old friends stopped hanging around. I think my mom would’ve liked that last one the best.

There are times when we have to make choices. Not right choices or wrong choices—those are figured out afterwards. Just choices. And at the well-balanced and ever-reasonable age of sixteen, I made the choice to take my dad’s car out for a 3:00 AM drive.

I spent a lot of time thinking that was a bad one.


The Brilliant Disguises of John Vaughn

“She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid,
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by—
And never knew.”

-Masks, by Shel Silverstein

John Vaughn entered his home, and bolted the door behind himself. He placed his hat on the hat rack, his coat on the coat rack, and his mask on the shelf beside the others. His wife, Sasha Vaughn, was there to greet him at the door. Not one second after he removed his mask, she kissed him. He kissed her back, and told her how much he loved her. John then went to the kitchen to prepare a mug of tea, and Sasha followed.

He had gone into work that day wearing his mask labeled “Dutiful” on the inside cheek. He’d carved the mask from whitewood after his first day on the job. Everybody there put on faces, after all—why shouldn’t he? Over the course of his first few weeks at the company, John painted his mask. He gave it a smile that never ceased to be pleasant, and eyes that never blinked in front of his monitor. If his coworkers saw him outside of the office, they would never even recognize him. He took pride in that. When it came to making masks, John Vaugh was an artisan.

But at any rate, John went home every day to a wife who loved him—not just his made-up faces. Most of his coworkers weren’t so lucky.

John brought his mug of tea to the living room, where Sasha sat holding the day’s newspaper for him. He took the paper, ran a hand through her golden hair, and again told her how much he loved her. Again she kissed him, and the two settled down for their quiet afternoon in uptown suburbia.

Unveiling in Whitaker Park

This Friday, Mayor Hamilton was proud to unveil a statue in Whitaker Park, commemorating the noble sacrifice of our town’s very own Alexandra Wheeler. From a young age, Alexandra dreamed of outer space…

John looked up from his paper to Sasha. She sat curled up in the chair beside him, her chin resting on the armrest, facing his way. Heh. Cute. John gave her a smile, and returned to his paper.

…Alexandra dreamed of outer space. She dedicated countless hours of exercise and study to getting accepted into the NASA space program, and she and her family were overjoyed when after years of hard work, Alexandra got her wish: she would be the next astronaut destined for the moon.

John looked up again from his paper. In her chair, Sasha had inched just a little closer to him. He pretended not to notice, and again returned to his paper.

Tragedy struck upon reentry, when—

Sasha tore the paper out of John’s hands and leapt onto his lap, where she ravaged his face with kisses. John leaned into her affection; he caressed her soft, golden hair, running his fingers deeper each time, and deeper, until he could feel her skin underneath, and all the while she dug into his face with her smooches. She clawed at his shirt, her nails biting into his ribs, and it was only then that he eased her away. He placed a hand against her chest, and—kissing her all the while—firmly guided her off of his lap. He stood up from his chair, and she sat down in front of him, wagging her tail.

“Someone missed me today. What d’ya say we go for a walk?”

Sasha barked and bounded towards the door, her nails ticking on the hardwood floor as she went.

John took one last sip of his tea, wiped his wife’s affection off of his cheek, and followed after her. He put on his hat, and his coat, and he picked out a mask while Sasha’s tail thudded against the door, as if reminding him not to forget her. For the walk, John decided on his most elegant mask to date: “Normal”.

He didn’t bother to lock the front door as they left, because he didn’t worry about thieves: it was visitors that scared the hell out of him. He kept one hand in his coat pocket as they walked, and the other held his sweetheart’s leash. Truly, it was no wonder why John Vaughn would be the best mask maker around.

As it so happened, demasking others was his favorite pastime. Compared to the sturdiness and intricacies of his own masks, the veneers of strangers were as solid as wax paper before him. On that particular walk, John’s first subject for scrutiny was another couple, who were walking along the same sidewalk as him and Sasha. The couple held hands. Or, the woman held the man’s hand—god, how her knuckles were white. As the couple passed, the woman smiled at John, using her construction-paper mask to do so. She smiled as though she were having her photo taken; she smiled too much. She showed too many perfect, white, construction-paper teeth. Meanwhile, her eyes—her real eyes—looked everywhere at once, scanning between John, her man, her feet, and the neatly trimmed hedges of the nearby lawns. So the woman was nervous. And she was, for reasons unknown, afraid of losing her husband.

John guessed infidelity. On whose part, he wasn’t sure; paper masks still concealed some things. But John would bet all the money in his wallet that one of the two had been unfaithful.

On the way to Whitaker Park, John peeled back the masks of a drunkard, a braggart, a klepto, and a man doing his damnedest to remember his anger management lessons. Sasha, also on the social hunt, found smells from a rabbit, a squirrel, and several types of canines. John leaned down to give her a pat as they arrived at the statue of an astronaut.

Alexandra Wheeler was constructed from granite upon a 4’ by 4’ by 4’ slab of marble. She stood 11’ tall with the marble base, and would stand 7’ tall without it. She was fully dressed in her moon-landing gear, aside from her helmet, which sat by her boots on the marble slab. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and her granite eyes looked up, out of Earth’s atmosphere.

John knew some things. He knew her hair wasn’t really in a ponytail, because it was chiseled from granite, and so it had to be formed in place, rather than pulled into a hair tie organically. He also knew that, in high school at least, he and Alexandra had both stood well under seven feet tall. Finally, he knew it was tragic that they’d carved her monument from stone and cemented it to the earth.

Nonetheless, John was enamored by the artistry: here was the antithesis of his life’s work in creating masks; here was a statue designed not to hide a person, but to show her.

“What d’ya think, Sasha?”

Sasha wagged her tail at the mention of her name.

John nodded, and gave her another pat. Maybe the statue wasn’t so tragic after all. Maybe there was something beautiful about the openness of it—as far as John remembered, Alexandra was one of the countably few people he met who never wore a mask.

John and Sasha continued on to the dog park, which existed as a fenced-in section of Whitaker Park. It was the park that John always took Sasha to, for its very simple rule: no dogs on leashes. Even as they neared the gate, Sasha was already pulling against her collar. John leaned down and unclipped her.

“Hey, moron!” came a voice. John turned around, and saw the same drunkard from earlier in his walk. “Your dog ain’t supposed to be off its leash until it’s inside the fence!”

It. Not her, or even a forgivable him. But it. John took a deep breath in, held it, and exhaled as he counted to five. He had spent too long constructing his “Normal” mask to blow it over this. But oh, how worth it it felt.

Technically the drunkard was right: John was supposed to wait until they were inside the fence. What the drunkard failed to realize was that it didn’t matter. John didn’t keep Sasha on a leash to control her, or to keep her from running away. He would never dream of the former, nor she of the latter. He kept her on a leash because it was the law, and while donning the “Normal” mask, John Vaughn had to be a law-abiding citizen in every right… which technically made the drunkard correct again.

“Sorry,” John said, and his mask gave off an embarrassed smile. “I didn’t realize.”

“Alright, alright. Just get the mutt into the park or put it back on a freakin’ leash already.”

“She,” John said.

“What?”

She,” John asserted. “Her name is Sasha.”

The drunkard shook his head and turned to walk away. “You fuckin’ dog people.”

John clenched his fists, and took another deep breath. And he held it in his chest until it burned. One, and two, and three, and four… and five.

Okay. This was good; his mask hadn’t cracked. John Vaughn was still an artisan. He was still the best mask maker around. Not a deviant to the public eye, and certainly not a zoophile—just normal.

He opened the gate, and Sasha bounded into the park, where she immersed herself into the pack of dogs already present. Upon entering the pack, she sniffed each of the others, finding out where they’d been since the last time she saw them. John applied the same concept as he approached the pack of humans.

“Hi John,” said Karen, who had brought the beagle.

“Oh, John, good afternoon,” said Mrs. Howard, who was watching over the terrier and the pug.

“John, good to see you again,” said Mr. Barton—upon hearing this greeting, John frantically double checked his disguise. It was still intact. Just another case of Mr. Barton’s unintentional sense of humor.

Everything was on the up and up, as far as John could see—and here, he could see better than ever. The people at the dog park were no different than the others; they still covered themselves with wax-paper masks, including Mrs. Howard, who had known John for years. John could see past these masks if he wanted to, and glean all of the information he needed to guide their conversations that day. But there was an easier route: the dogs. Nobody masked their dogs. They were natural and free, to whatever extent their owners let them be. That was why he fell in love with Sasha. She was all at once the perfect emotional partner and the perfectly masked accomplice. She was perfectly loving to him, to whatever extent that he was perfectly loving to her. So he made sure that she was his equal, because ultimately, it was the only way that she could be his better half. Every time he watched her play with the other dogs, he envied them—he envied their freeness.

John heard the gate squeak, and turned to see a pair of new faces. The dog was a German shepherd, and an energetic one at that. The owner…

John felt weak in the knees. He fell half a step towards her, and he did a double take, and when his suspicions were confirmed then he stumbled towards her again. Her mask was made of whitewood, and without looking, he knew the single word on the inside cheek: “Normal.”

She put a finger to her lips, and from across the park, he felt her whisper in his ear: Shhhh.

He tore his gaze away from her, and forced his eyes back to the pack of dogs. But already, John Vaughn began making plans. Someday. If they were both such artisans of mask making, and if they could so clearly see eye to eye—really see eye to eye—then they would someday find a way; there would be a time and a place to remove their masks together.



The Origins of Three or Four Punk Legends and One Hell of a Rock Band

Contents
Prelude: When Punk Rock Came to La Meseta
Chapter 1: Yote
Chapter 2: Hailey Beckstrom
Chapter 3: Nicholas Kennedy
Chapter 4: When Johnny Hick Returned
Chapter 5: Jace Jeck
Chapter 6: Sharyn Sweet
Chapter 7: Sharyn Ruthless
Chapter 8: Quinn Jefferson
Chapter 9: When Johnny Went Marching Home
Chapter 10: Aretha Franklin, ’80
Chapter 11: Sammy Now We’re At The Wars End
Chapter 12: Legends


Prelude: When Punk Rock Came to La Meseta

The youth of La Meseta grew up with nothing better to do than to respect their elders. On May 21st, 1979, Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits arrived in a flatbed Ford to change that. Rice O' drove with one hand at twelve and the other on his beer. His real name was Rice Henderson, but the boys had taken to calling him Rice Paddy, and then Rice O’Paddy, and eventually the original meaning was dropped all together. Joey Low Action sat shotgun; he had given the nickname to himself, on account of how the strings of his guitar always buzzed against the fretboard when he played power chords. His real name was Josef Epstein. Yote sat in the back, sporting dark aviator sunglasses that made him feel less shy. His real name was Nathaniel Todd, which had no connection to his stage name. Johnny Hick stood in the bed of the truck, and what's more, he stood with the true Punk Rock pose, which he claimed to have invented himself: one leg poised far back, the other leg lunged far forward, and slamming his right shoulder down into each and every strum. Nobody knew Johnny Hick’s real name.

The truck coasted to a stop on Brackney Street, a dirt road which connected La Meseta to the highway. Several promises had been made leading up to this moment, not the least of which was an agreement between the four of them: wherever the needle hit empty would be the place they called home. And so it happened that Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits claimed an abandoned gas station on Brackney Street.

They all got out of the truck. Eighty-four cents for gas. Johnny lit a cigarette as they approached the building.

Rice kicked in the door—it was unlocked, but he kicked it in anyways—and the band had a look around. Joey found twenty-three cents under the dusty tray in the cash register. Yote found a dried up joint resting on the restroom sink, and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. He tried not to look at himself in the mirror while he took it. Johnny wandered around back. There, he spotted the cellar doors.

The band joined him in his descent down the concrete steps. Soon, four lighters served as spotlights in the cement room. They danced around the space, uncovering piles of odds and ends. Until—CRRRK, VRAAAAAM!

As soon as Rice powered up the generator, the lights flickered on overheard. Most of what the lights revealed wasn't surprising: dusty shelves retired from the gas station above, and an assortment of rusted-out auto parts. But Johnny Hick saw the pile of wooden beams and planks in the corner, and he knew what had to be done.

By the end of the night, the band had constructed a stage against the far wall of the cellar. They had moved their stolen band equipment from the truck to the station. They had spray painted, right over the station's counter, the glorious name of Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits.

Punk Rock had come to La Meseta.


Chapter 1: Yote

The ghosts of Punk Rock walk beside me as I approach the abandoned gas station. Less than a dollar per gallon, even counting the numbers that have fallen off the sign—this place has been out of operation for a while now. To my right, Sharyn tucks in her shirt. To my left, Rice straightens his tie. We haven’t quite adjusted to wearing uniforms yet.

We head around back, where the worn gravel under our feet gives way to worn grass. Each one of us has been here before. Back when gas really could cost a dollar, we used to call Brackney home. But that was then. Now the walk sends chills through my skin, and I wish that we had agreed on suits to go with our white dress shirts. But no—suits are the uniform of the enemy. We have to be the good guys now. For once in our lives, we have to be the ones in white.

Rice bends down and takes hold of the cellar doors, which were also painted white once. I can’t remember a time when the paintjob here was pristine, but I can at least remember when white still clung to the building in peeling strips.

“Would you look at that,” Rice says, standing back up. “Locked up tight. You were right, Sharyn.”

Sharyn steps forward with a crowbar. There never used to be locks on Brackney, and if anyone did put locks on Brackney, that poor son of a bitch would be lit on fire and stoned to death. But then again, a lot about Brackney has changed. The Punk attitude isn’t PC anymore. Only the music, which by some spectacular feat of delusion, they can treat as a separate thing.

Sharyn holds the cellar doors open for us, and we step inside. The basement’s chills shoot under my skin—I remember the first time I came here after hours.

It was the day I met Yote. Now in fairness, a lot happened on the day I met Yote. For starters, I punched my stepdad in the face during breakfast. I missed the bus because of it, too. I almost got expelled for cussing out my math teacher, and to top it all off, I made the proud decision to drop out of the eleventh grade anyways. But that wasn’t the day I stopped going to school. That was the day I met Yote. And who would’ve thought that after a day of Punk-Rock decision making, it would be the casual meeting in the night that signaled the end of the world.

That night, I had approached the cellar doors alone—Sharyn was asleep then, and Rice was still a stranger. I shut the white-painted doors behind me, and with only slits of moonlight to work with, I felt my way down the steps. It’s not like I needed to see anyways; even then, I knew Brackney well enough.

There was a pile of stolen band equipment to the right, and a light switch to the left. As soon as I got down the stairs, there would be a dinky, rickety, all around dangerous stage sitting on the other side of the room. Nobody ever died at Brackney, but still, my money for first blood always went on that hack job.

I placed a hand on the concrete wall, and strode along its surface towards the left. All in all, the room wasn’t huge. Twenty steps marked my arrival at the corner of the cellar—it also marked the fact that I had missed the light switch. I turned to give the wall another run, but froze when I heard a scratching sound. My eyes strained for something to see, and I scanned the room like a crazy person: one who honestly thought she would be able to see in the total blackness of an underground cellar. At night.

What the hell was down there with me? What kind of wildlife would even think it was a good idea to live near La Meseta? I started back down the wall again, stepping quicker, running both hands against the coarse cement in search of a switch.

The sound flared up again, and that time I witnessed its source: not a rodent, but a single flame, right where the stage stood.

“Lookin’ for the power?” said the fire.

I froze at my place along the wall. Five more steps, and I could be at the stairs. Fifteen, and I could escape.

The flame above the stage went out, leaving its phantom lingering in the darkness. “Switch is on the other side, but don’t bother. Only reason the lights work on the weekends is ‘cause they hook ‘em up to a gen’rator. ‘Til Friday night, the lights are as dead as these amps.”

The far wall lit up, and my eyes took a moment to adjust. The first thing I registered was the dude’s lantern, flickering and ancient. Shortly thereafter, I saw that this man did, in fact, belong in Brackney. The black jacket, the spiked out hair—Punk Rock was never a hard style to spot. But there were also a lot of smaller things to see about him. There was the cherry of his newly lit cigarette, which stuck straight out from between his lips. There were his oddly pointed ears, which I swear to god twitched when I first looked at him. And there were his dark, aviator sunglasses. Here was a man sitting alone, in an underground cellar, at night; so why the shades?

He looked at me—near as I could tell—and then hung his head down at his bass. “You look like shit.”

I shrugged as I approached him. He was probably right. It had been an eventful day. “So what the hell are you doing down here?” I asked him.

He looked older than me. Not by much; maybe he was twenty. But definitely older.

“Hidin’,” he answered. “You ain’t doin’ the same?”

“I don’t know dude—”

“Stop,” he said. “Stop callin’ me dude. Call me Yote.”

“Yote?”

“Yeah dude,” he said, giving his bass a strum. “You haven’t been comin’ to Brackney for long, huh?”

“About a year,” I said. “You?”

“I ain’t been to this place in over a year, but dude, I built this place.”

What could I say to that? As I sat down next to him, his stench of smoke and beer was unmistakable. He didn’t exactly smell trustworthy, but then, who in the Punk scene did?

After taking a drag, he added, “You don’t have to believe me. I sure wouldn’t. But come by this weekend. Me and my band are comin’ back, and we’re takin’ this place by the balls.”

“So you play?” I asked, pointing to his bass. It wasn’t a question, so much as an invitation.

An invitation which he accepted, graciously and immediately. From the second he hit a string, I didn’t believe there were any words on earth to describe his technique. Now, decades later, I’ve come up with just a few: fucking fast. He played with such unequivocal speed that I hardly even noticed it was slap bass—a style uncommon to Punk, and unheard of to Brackney. Slapping was for lame-ass funk and jazz. Or at least, that’s what I thought, until a stranger wearing shades in a cellar showed me otherwise.

He stopped on a dime and collapsed backwards onto the stage, like his body needed an outlet for the sheer loss of momentum. Zero to one hundred, and then right back to zero. “I play,” he said with a grin. He laid back on the stage, catching his breath. “How about you?”

I unstrapped my guitar and handed it to him.

“Oh.”

I nodded. My guitar was fucking trashed. A million different scratches covered the body, and a crack ran down the neck.

“Bummer,” he said, handing it back.

“If you want to help me murder my stepdad, just say the word.”

“I’ll pass on that one,” he said with a smile. “But if you’ve got nothing better to do, I can show you how to play bass in the meantime.”

We sat on that stage for hours. And now as Sharyn shuts the cellar doors behind us, my chills go away: I’ll get to play that hack job of a stage, one last time. A roar sounds from the corner of the room, and the lights flash to life, illuminating my favorite venue. Brackney. Oh how I missed thee.

The next morning, Yote and I climbed the stairs out of the cellar. The sun hadn’t even come up yet, and already, that day felt brighter than the last.

“Trust me,” he said, stumbling over a patch of gravel. As I had found out, he smelled like booze for a very straightforward reason. “You’ll dig it.”

My throat closed up as we approached the front doors; I’d never been in the building. In the cellar, absolutely—but never in the actual building.

Turns out, changing that wasn’t hard at all. The door wasn’t locked. In fact, it was barely even attached. All it took was a light push, and we were inside. To the left was a dusty counter, and at the center, all of the old shelves had been stacked into a pile. But as Yote had promised, there was something much more worthwhile to see.

The graffiti. A gallery of teenage angst, enclosing on all sides of us.

“Every band who plays here gets to tag their name,” Yote explained. “’Least that’s how the tradition goes. Technically speaking, it’s fair game to anyone with a few spare minutes and a can of spray paint.”

Garbage Collectors. DISclosure. Oh God the Noise the Wind Makes when it Presses Against the Window in My New Apartment at Night Sounds Exactly Like a Masked Intruder, I’m Sleeping with my Bedroom Door Locked even though My Roommates Haven’t Moved in Yet and the Front Door has been Bolted Since I Got Here—that one was runner-up for my favorite band name. But one was written bigger and bolder than all the rest. Tagged in yellow spray paint behind the dusty counter was the glorious name, of Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits.

Well, sort of. Somebody crossed out a few words and added their own, so it read, “Dikhed Fukfase and the Sellouts!”

It got a snicker out of me. Here I was getting over the second worst day of my life, and that little immature act put a smile on my face. I had never heard them play, but Dikhed Fukfase and the Sellouts had just become my new favorite band.

I left Brackney and headed back for the heart of La Meseta. That morning, all I knew was that a gun was too expensive, so I would probably have to kill my stepdad with the remnants of my guitar.


Chapter 2: Hailey beckstrom

The back door was locked. The back door was never locked, but lo and behold, the bastard who lived in there was learning. It would be an easy door to break down. Hell, I could knock on it the wrong way and the thing would fly off its hinges, probably taking half of the house down with it. But there were bad, disgusting people inside, and it was best if they never knew I had been there to begin with.

I crept to the nearest window and glanced inside. That room belonged to an addict, and even from outside, it smelled like it. It smelled skunky. It smelled dirty. It smelled sour, and really, that was the part that got to me; the entire room smelled like it had bad breath. I didn’t want to go in there, even if the window was wide open.

I rounded the corner to the side of the house, snuck a peak into the next window, and gagged out loud at the sight. Acid stung behind my eyes, and I scrambled as far away as I could before falling to my knees and barfing out my stomach. That room wasn’t my entrance either—there was too much love happening in there, and I refused to have any part in it.

The next window looked in on the living room, where a fat bastard sat on the couch with a beer in his hand, staring off into space. The radio blared, and I almost smashed through the window then and there just so I could change the station. Baseball. I didn’t give a fuck about which team had more points, and quite frankly, I didn’t see how anybody in their right mind could give a fuck about that. But after I stopped myself from reaching for the window, I did get an idea, and I headed for the back door again; I would get to have some fun smashing it in after all.

I crouched at the back door, listening for the next homerun. I’d been forced to hear that repetitive bullshit so often that I knew exactly how it would be: a team would score, the commentator would lose their fucking mind, and I would have just enough time to make a little noise.

Come on. I only needed a minute inside—less if I could help it.

So score already.

Hit. The fucking. Ball.

“Jacinta?”

My adrenaline spike made almost as much noise as she had, and I spun around to cover the little girl’s mouth. She got the hint and stayed absolutely still, until slowly, I removed my hand from her face—which just so happened to be beaming at me.

“Hi Jacinta,” she whispered.

In those days, there were only two decent people in the entirety of La Meseta. I wasn’t one of them. The first was Sharyn, who I would be meeting up with after breaking and entering into my own home. The other was my little sister Hailey.

“You look different,” Hailey said.

“Is my hair getting too long?” I asked with a smirk.

“You barely have hair,” she asserted, and she wasn’t wrong. Even on a guy, my hair would be shorter than most. “Where were you yesterday?” she asked.

“I was staying with a friend,” I said. It wasn’t a lie. I would never lie to her. I just didn’t want to make her worry either.

“Have you eaten today?” she asked. I told her it didn’t matter, but as soon as she heard it, she knew what it meant. She took off her backpack and started rifling through it, saying, “You have to eat. Here, have an apple.”

“Are you sure you don’t want it?”

“Jacinta.”

She said my name the right way. In Spanish, the J sounds like an H. Ha-seen-ta. But to most in California, the J is just a J, and it was something I’d given up on correcting a long time ago. I spoke more English than Spanish anyways.

“Alright, fine,” I said, taking Hailey’s apple. “Thank you, I mean.”

When she was around, I kept my language on a short leash. At Brackney I would swear. At work I would swear. Even at school, I would swear so much that it almost got me expelled. But I wanted to be a good influence on Hailey, and I’m sure she wanted the same. So on some level, I think we both pretended that breaking down your own back door was normal. I had to teach her the opposite of everything I stood for; I had to teach her courtesy.

“How’s everyone inside?” I asked, taking a bite of the apple.

“Hank won’t leave your room, and I don’t think Jane knows you’re gone. Mom is really sad.” She looked down at her feet, and her voice shook when she repeated, “Jacinta, mom is really sad.”

“Hey, Hailey,” I said. She looked me in the eyes, and I had to look away from her, and I hated myself for that. I didn’t know what to tell her. I couldn’t lie; I wasn’t going back home. Hank would keep being weird, Jane would keep making out with her boyfriend everywhere we looked, and mom would keep using until it killed her. But I didn’t want to be rude and tell my little sister all of that. So I settled on pulling her into a hug. “You’ll be fine. I love you, you know that?”

I felt her nod. “Want me to go around and unlock the door?”

“It would be super cool if you did,” I told her, and she ran off. Seconds later, the door cracked open, with her standing behind it. “Now get to school,” I whispered, “or you’re going to be late.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be…”

Again, I wanted to lie to her: fine.

“I’ll be around. Thanks again for the apple.”

I stepped inside. First order of business: I took my backpack, snuck to the kitchen with it, and filled it with as many cans of beer as it would fit. Second order of business: I charged into the living room and swung my guitar at the radio so hard that both things shattered into a million flying pieces. Third order of business: I got the fuck out of there before my stepdad could beat my ass for a third time that week.

I’m glad Hailey isn’t here right now, in Brackney. She’ll see me on the news again tomorrow, along with Sharyn and Rice. She’ll know about what we’re doing, and she’ll get it, because she’s older now. But things between us haven’t changed. I still try not to swear when I’m around her, and tonight, I intend to swear. I still try to be nice when I’m with her, and tonight, I have to be a bitch. And I still try to be a good influence on her, even though really, she was always the one who influenced me. She’s the inspiration behind this whole movement: The Hailey Beckstrom Revolution. This is for her, and for her teenage daughter. This is for all future generation of people. But mostly, this is for her.


Chapter 3: Nicholas Kennedy

“You filled the entire backpack without him noticing?”

“Fourteen cans.”

“Wow Jacinta, I think that’s a new record.”

Sharyn and I stepped into her garage. Her parents weren’t rich, per se, but by La Meseta standards? They might as well have been royalty, and their garage showed it. The nice cars were parked in there with us, but they went ignored. What really mattered was the part of the garage we were in: the space off to the side with a couple of bean bag chairs, an assortment of instruments, and one hell of a sound system.

Sharyn took a tape out of her pocket.

“Another bootleg?” I asked.

“Not quite,” she said. “There was a new guy in school today. Not that you would know, you little dropout.”

I rolled my eyes, and she smiled as she continued.

“Right now he’s in detention for giving Meseta High their dose of Minor Threat over the PA.”

“No fucking way.”

“Way, I was the one who gave him the tape. And in exchange, he gave me this one,” she said, handing me the cassette.

Aretha Franklin, ’80 was jotted on the label.

“Seriously?” I asked, handing it back.

“He said it was misleading. Let’s just listen.”

Sharyn popped in the tape, and the two of us collapsed into our beanbag chairs. I closed my eyes, trying to picture the venue. Spotlights, I decided, and smoke. Eight foot tall amps. Deeper underground than Brackney—yeah, good enough. Now all we needed was the band.

Because, for a while, all we could hear was the murmur of a crowd. I wanted to pick information from them—the name of the place, or hell, even a genre. But the entire crowd was talking over itself.

Until we heard a voice:

“Hello drunk fucks, how is everyone tonight?”

The tape nearly maxed out with applause, but I wasn’t impressed. Sharyn and I were from Brackney, after all: a place where bands were shitty until proven otherwise. The only reason I clapped along was to make sure I hadn’t gone fucking deaf.

“Are you ready for some real music Avalon?”

A guitar ripped through the audience, which cleared the way for the drums to kick in. They got right into it, too: straight to the good stuff. It sounded just like the Punk passion I was used to from Brackney, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was something else in there too. When they sang, it had the anger of all my stepdads combined, and the cadence of a nursery rhyme. When they played, they didn’t just wail on their instruments; they wailed on their instruments like their hands had accents.  Sharyn mentioned that the new kid was from Ireland. Between the vocals and the guitars, that sounded exactly right.

The guitar dulled down, and the bass picked up. Lights dimmed. The amps hummed.

Things slowed. I felt dizzy, as people all around me shifted in and out of focus. Each musician gave one last strum.

And then, like a feather landing on the ground, they stopped.

The audience hushed.

And the singer smiled.

He spoke into the microphone. He didn’t yell, and he didn’t scream—he spoke, and it carried just as much of a hit.

“Let me tell you folks something, because I don’t think you’ve all heard. Back in Glendive is a police van waiting to arrest us.”

A few people from the audience booed, but the singer cut them off.

“Sh-sh-sh, it’s alright Avalon, because I have the solution. Our drummer tonight isn’t a very bright lad, but he can count to four. I know he can, he’s been doin’ it all night. So he’s gonna count to four, and on four, I want every person in this place to scream. I want you all to scream so preposterously loud that they won’t send us the police van; they’ll call us a fuckin’ ambulance because they’ll think we’re over here dying. Are you ready?”

The audience was still. Even the amps stopped humming.

Perfect silence.

“One fucking-two fucking-three fucking-four, get the fucking police men off our fucking front door!”

I jumped from my seat and blasted my lungs out in raw assent—and I couldn’t even hear myself against the fiery detonations all around me. I reached over and clung to Sharyn, making sure I could still feel things. If the band had told us we were marching off to war, we would have followed them the very next second. That was the power of music: that was Punk in a nutshell. Country was Patriotism; Pop was Capitalism; Punk was War. What the drummer had said wasn’t the most intellectual thing put into words, but in the company of anarchists, there was no denying the energy behind it.

“That was fuckin’ beautiful Avalon!” the singer praised.

In the stillness that followed, somebody shouted a question from the front row: “Hey Ryan mate, what’s your band called?”

Immediately, the people around us started shouting out nonsense: Frank Sinatra, Janis Joplin, The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, John Lennon—most of them weren’t even band names, let alone the name of the band on stage. I looked to Sharyn, but she could only shrug.

The Beach Boys was guessed for the fourth consecutive time, and at that, the singer cut them off. “Yes, I know that last night we were the fucking Beach Boys; that was last fucking night. Night before that we were Elvis Presley. Drummer Boy, what are we this time?”

The drummer walked up to the microphone, and gave a little wave to the audience. “Hey Avalon, how’re ya going. Tonight, we are Ryan Romano and his Friends who can Actually Play Instruments.”

“Oh, is that right?” Ryan asked. He crossed his tattooed arms. “Fine then. Tonight, we’re That Loser Band That Just Lost a Singer.”

A thud resonated through the amps, and a mixed reaction from the audience followed. Some booed, some cheered, and all were very, very drunk.

Drummer Boy picked the microphone off of the ground, and the sarcasm that followed wasn’t lost on me. “Wait, Ryan, come back, we’re not angsty enough without you. Ryan, please, we’re all talentless bogtrotters who can’t sing. Ry—”

PFF!

Another round of cheers from the audience, as Ryan Romano reclaimed his mic.

“Tonight we’re Aretha Franklin, and while Drummer Boy regains his consciousness, Aretha Franklin will be a total beatless clusterfuck. Chiseler, what should we play next?”

Sharyn got out of her seat and walked forward. With the tap of a button, she removed the tape from the sound system. “They’re good, aren’t they?”

I nodded. Avalon dissolved around me, and Sharyn’s garage returned.

We agreed to invite the new kid to Brackney that weekend. She told me all about him. His name was Nicholas Kennedy—also known as Chiseler Deadly. He had just moved halfway around the world from Northern Ireland to California. Plus he was a Punk: that was the main thing, really. He could be a transgendered left-handed silverback gorilla and Brackney wouldn’t bat a fucking eye. As long as he was anti-authority and he could play the guitar, he would have no problem fitting in.

“He told me I could keep the tape,” Sharyn said. “I wasn’t really sure I wanted to trade out a perfectly good Minor Threat bootleg, but now that I’ve heard it, I’m sold.”

I agreed. And, since we were on the subject of Punk, I asked her if she had ever seen Brackney’s graffiti.

“No, I don’t think so,” she said. “Is that what you were busy with all day?”

“Yeah, or, you know… all night.”

“Seriously? Wait, is that why you wanted to stay over? Oh my god, if you told me—”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I didn’t plan on staying there anyways. It sorta just happened, and anyways, it was pretty cool. We should check it out sometime.”

“Sure, maybe this weekend,” she said, setting the tape aside. She sat down at the drum set in the corner and stomped on a couple of pedals. Nodding to a guitar, she asked, “Feeling up to it?”

I was. We jammed out for a while, and even if we sounded like rusty garbage that had been set on fire, it was refreshing to hold a good guitar next to a good friend.

Honestly, she was a good friend from the start. On the surface she had this sweet, good girl attitude. And it wasn’t a lie; she could be sweet. When it was clear nobody in school wanted anything to do with me, she went out of her way to like me. That couldn’t have been easy. She was friendly, helpful, and downright pleasant.

But not innocent. Under that layer of sweetness was a layer that everyone at Brackney had witnessed at least once. She still wouldn’t say anything rude, but under the right circumstances, she’d knock some asshole’s teeth out. It was kinda fun to watch. They never seemed to know what was coming. She was sweet and she was ruthless, and I always used to wonder which side was really her.

That night she was sweet. She brought a few blankets from the house into the garage, and told me I could spend the night there. She said her parents had agreed to letting someone stay over on a weeknight for once in their lives, but only because they didn’t know the whole story. None of us did, really. None of us had any idea what sort of foundation had been laid out over the last couple of days, and none of us knew that change was on the horizon.

I shake myself from the past and look up at Sharyn. She sits at the drum set on that rickety stage, and amazingly enough, she doesn’t look any different than she did in ’85. Older, maybe. But not changed.

“Hey,” I call up to her. “Remember that day we thought Nick was a fun guy to be around?”

“Was it a whole day?” she asks, smiling at me.

I smile back. Nick had his moments, but they were just that: moments. As I walk the extension cord from the generator to the stage, I try to recall just how many moments he’d had in those first few days.

The first one had to be the day after we listened to his tape.

It was the first time I saw him in person. He was leaning against his light-blue van, red hair slicked back, and of course, arms crossed. When Sharyn and I arrived in Nick’s driveway, he opened the van’s back doors and we all piled inside.

I’ll admit, as I did then, that the van looked nice. The floor was carpeted, lights rimmed the ceiling, and he even managed to stuff a couch in there. It took up half the space, but it was in there. Hanging on the wall opposite the couch was a shiny red guitar, and lying on the ground under it was a bottle of whiskey. Which was fitting, because the entire van smelled like rock and hard liquor.

Nick closed the door behind us. Feeling around under the couch, he produced a couple of shot glasses. He handed one to me and one to Sharyn, and then he grabbed the bottle and unfastened the top.

“To new friends,” he said, pouring Sharyn a shot.

“To new friends,” she repeated with a smile. She drank, and then shoved me for laughing when her face twisted up.

“And to other people,” Nick said as he tipped the bottle in my direction. He didn’t even look; half of it ended up on my shoes.

“Well, likewise,” I said, nodding at Nick before I took my drink. I lifted the shot glass, tipped my head back, and then… paused. “Actually,” I said, and I set my shot glass on the floor. “Actually fuck that.”

I snatched the bottle, lifted it to my mouth, scrambled out of the van, and puked in the gutter. The epitome of smooth. I knelt there for a while, doubled over with my head spinning. Sharyn came rushing out right away. She asked if I was alright, and I nodded, somehow thinking that it was believable. Nick took a little longer to arrive, but I heard him the whole way, laughing his accent off.

He knelt down to my level. “That was great, well done. Come on, let me help you up. Sharyn mentioned that you wanted to learn how to play the guitar.”

I glanced at her. Glared, really.

She only shrugged. “What I said was that you wanted to learn how to play the guitar like him. Oh, don’t give me that look. You were trying to copy his riffs all night. At least you were close.”

Once we were back in the van, he handed me the shiny red guitar and asked me to play it. I was happy to oblige. As he lit a cigarette, I played a couple of chords to make sure the instrument was tuned. Then I gave it my all. No build up, no subtlety; just straight into it like I’d heard last night from Nick’s tape, and the night before that from Yote.

I didn’t even get through half a song before Nick took his guitar back by force.

And then he told me something that stuck. He put me through a lot of shit in the following years, but there are still a few things I have to give him credit for. This was one of them.

He said, “You have passion and that’s great. But everyone has passion, and usually it sounds like shit. You have to disguise it, you have to dress it up. You have to make your shitty passion look as elegant as you possibly can, or else people will know you’re no more special than they are.”

There was his first moment. I admired every last one of his words—but being the manifestation of angst that I was, I couldn’t bring myself to show it. “You don’t get the idea of Punk music, do you?” I said.

“And you don’t get the idea of music, do you?” Nick responded. He played some lighthearted jig, while still holding the cigarette between his fingers. Showoff. “Here, see what I’m doing here? Look. Now play it.”

He handed back the guitar. It took a few tries to pick up, but I got the quirky little melody. He mumbled along to the tune, and after a few repetitions, he said, “You’ve got it, not bad. Now try to make it your own.”

“What, so turn this kid song into rock?”

“If that’s what your own is.”

Truth be told, back then in Nick’s van, I was no expert when it came to the guitar. I could play it, but I wasn’t its master. There were still chords I couldn’t get right, songs I couldn’t play to save my life, and techniques I’d never even heard of. But there was something bigger, and time after time, Nick was the one who taught it to me; passion is shit, but the right inflection is a wonderful disguise.


Chapter 4: When Johnny Hick Returned

The extension cord almost reaches the first set of amps. Almost.

“Hey Rice,” I say, pulling at the taut line in demonstration. “Why not move the generator closer this way?”

“Jacinta, I fear for my life just saying this, but greater men than you have tried,” he says, taking the cord from my hands. “In fact, it was one of the first things we tried. But that machine is bolted, rusted, and cemented to that spot, and frankly, I would feel wrong trying to take it away from there after all these years.”

He nudges the amps closer to the generator, then kneels down to hook them up. The second they connect, he looks up and sticks his tongue out at me. I roll my eyes as I give him the finger. It’s good to be back with these people.

The cellar doors creak open, and in walks another man in a white dress shirt and a whiter tie.

“Am I late?” he asks with a massive grin.

Rice looks up from the amps. “Joey!” he yells, and the two run for each other. I catch Sharyn cringing at how hard they smash together; if it were a tackle, both of them would be knocked dead onto the concrete floor. But it was, as it turned out, just a hug.

“We must be waiting on more,” Joey says, looking around. “Not that I’m not happy to see you guys, but come on; four people does not a revolution make.”

“They’re coming,” I promise. “It’s good to see you again, Joey.”

And not just him: all of them. Because something big is going on here. Something bigger than four ex-Punks standing around in a cellar. But to tell the story of now—for you to know why it matters—I have to tell the story of ’85. I have to tell the story of Brackney. I have to tell the story of Johnny Hick, of Yote, of Rice, and of Joey. I have to tell the story of Nick, of Sharyn, and of a diehard Punk named Jacinta Beckstrom. The story of now—if you don’t mind me spoiling it—ends with Punk Rock committing terror and declaring war on The United States of America. But to tell you that story, I have to tell you The Origins of Three or Four Punk Legends and One Hell of a Rock Band.

So let’s get right to it.

We’ll start, as this entire movement did, with Brackney. Brackney Street was constructed in 1921, to better connect La Meseta to the highway—that was the city’s version of the story. The real story had more to do with connecting bootleggers to their buyers without making either party drive by the police station. In 1972 a gas station was built on Brackney Street, in 1975 it went out of business, and by 1979 there wasn’t a person alive who could remember what that out-of-the-way gas station had been called.

Then came Punk—four of them. A glorious band by the name of Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits materialized out of fucking nowhere. They were locally famous, a hit at parties, and just about everyone between the ages of 13 and 31 was head over heels in love with them. They were The Beatles of La Meseta, which might sound impressive, until you take into account how unimpressive La Meseta is.

Their base of operations was an abandoned cellar on Brackney Street. The music scene isn’t always a physical place, but in La Meseta, there was no question that the Punk scene was Brackney. There was something about the station that just screamed of code violations, so the less people knew about it, the better. It had no signs. Just a few cars parked out front every weekend, and a couple of muscle heads hanging around out back. They acted like guards, but the Punk scene wasn’t the place for concrete authority. When we brought Nick there for the first time, the muscle heads stopped us and asked who he was. And without a moment’s hesitation, they both received a shove; one from Nick himself, and the other from a decidedly ruthless Sharyn.

Inside, the cellar had a completely different vibe than it had on the night I met Yote. For one thing, there were lights; we could see in great detail the layers of filth lining the walls. There was also sound; no bands playing just yet, but the collective volume of a few dozen people joking and arguing in their own little clusters. And then there was a personal favorite: the smell. Cigarettes, pot, booze, sweat, angst, rebellion—music. Punk Rock has one hell of an odor.

“Jacinta!”

Sharyn’s voice brought me back to earth.

“Jeez, finally you hear me. Did we already lose Nick?”

In answer to her question, we heard a sharp scream. All heads turned to the commotion.

A man knelt on the edge of the stage. He wore dark aviator sunglasses, except, one lens was cracked. The other lens was covered by his hand, which clutched at his face. Nick stood directly in front of him, examining his freshly reddened knuckles.

“Oh my god!” Sharyn yelled. “Do you know who that was?”

“Some poof,” Nick said, “trying to pick me up.”

“That’s Yote,” I told him.

Sharyn turned to me. “Where did you hear about Yote?”

“He’s the one I was hanging out with the other night.”

“He’s the bassist of Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits,” Sharyn told me.

And all at once, things started to make sense. Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits sold out, and they didn’t do it discretely; they bent over for anyone who could write a check with their name on it. Sharyn had known them in their prime, and she assured me that they were never bad people: they just got too successful to be Punks. Then the success faded, and in a grave moment, Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits found that there was nothing else left. So I knew why Yote had been sitting in Brackney after hours, and not during show time. After hours, Yote could visit his old home. During show time, he would get pummeled to death by a room full of sellout-hating anarchists.

Sharyn walked towards the stage. “Yote, are you trying to get yourself killed? Come on, let’s get you out of here.”

“I’m fine,” he said, stumbling to his feet. He took his hand off of his face. The shades were shattered. There was no way in hell he could see out of them.

In unison, three very memorable people joined Yote on stage. Joey Low Action sat at the drum set. Rice O’ handed Yote a bass, and then stepped to the other side of the stage with a guitar. The singer took the mic, and all at once, a slew of boos washed over Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits. With a toothy smile, Johnny Hick brought his legs together, spread his arms wide, and hung his head to the side. It took a bottle being hurtled at his chest for him to get down from his metaphoric cross.

“Alright, easy, easy Brackney,” Johnny Hick said, shaking the clinging glass from his bomber jacket. “We come in peace!

To the side of the stage, I could see Yote crouched down and whispering to Sharyn. Their talk was brief. After only a few exchanges, Yote stood up and looked away from her.

Sharyn returned to me and Nick, while Johnny Hick addressed his irate audience. He spoke very deliberately, as though he were trying to cover up some hint of southern twang, but couldn’t quite hide it.

“Yes, we were sellouts! But we changed, and things are all good now. We got out of our contracts, and you can rest assured that in the spirit of anarchy, none of us has had a real job in months. So, lovely Punks of Brackney: can a few regretful fuckwits put on another show for you?”

While the audience doled out their mixed response, Sharyn spoke to me and Nick. “Yote’s wasted, there’s no getting him off that stage. Will you two help me carry him out if it gets too dangerous up there?”

“Count me out,” Nick said. “I’m not touching the nance.”

“What’s with you today?” Sharyn asked. “Nick, he’s drunk.”

“Well that doesn’t change the fact the he’s a queer now does it?” Nick asked back. “So no, I’m not touching him.”

Shrugging, I said, “I’ll help. He seems alright.”

“Oh good, I’m surrounded by queens. If you’re trying to make me feel at home you’ve got England and Northern Ireland mixed up. We both listen to the crowned cow, but they’re the ones who actually enjoy it.”

Johnny Hick cut off whatever rant Nick had in store, announcing, “The people of Brackney are undecided, what a riot! Fuckwits, should we play?”

Rice O’ began strumming, barely touching on the strings. The audience wasn’t happy about it one little bit, but that didn’t stop Joey’s drums from creeping in anyways. Yote joined the quiet rebellion, and all at once, the four exploded into rock ‘n roll.

Snatching the mic from the stand, Johnny Hick yelled, “Looks like we’re gonna play!”

Sharyn put a hand on her temple and inched closer to the stage. Nick rolled his eyes and walked off to some other part of the room. I stood in place, listening to Dikhed Fukfase and the Sellouts. They weren’t bad. Not as good as the tape from the other night. But not bad.

The gathering riot in Brackney had a different opinion though. Things were thrown at the band. Nothing big at first: crumpled up pieces of paper, aluminum cans. Some jackass threw a grapefruit, which was… an interesting choice. Eventually bottles were lobbed, then thrown, then hurtled, and that was when shit got ugly. A couple of people jumped on stage. One struggled with Rice O’, trying to take his six string. The other knocked Johnny Hick out cold, getting a wave of cheers and not a hint of sympathy from the Punk Rock hive mind.

Sharyn dashed to the stage and pulled Yote down. After getting over my disbelief, I ran to help her. Bands were booed off that rickety stage every night—it was tradition. But it was never so quick or violent. Sharyn and I plowed through the crowd, Yote in tow, knocking elbows and bumping shoulders. Nobody tried to stop us; they wanted Yote out of there just like we did. But the crowd was in such a frenzy that I felt a lot better when we were through the cellar doors anyways.

Outside, Yote broke free from Sharyn’s grip. He didn’t try to go back inside. He just stumbled off into the night, in a constant state of almost falling over, but never quite going all the way.

“Was he like this yesterday?” Sharyn asked. Yote’s silhouette faded into black.

“He smelled like booze,” I admitted. “I don’t know, does he usually slur his speech?”

“I wouldn’t know, he’s usually drunk.” Sharyn sat down on the coarse grass and sighed. “Why did he have to come back here? He knows how touchy Brackney gets about sellouts.”

The cellar door slammed open, giving way to a hick and two fuckwits. They collected themselves for a moment, and then one of them squinted at us.

“Sherry, is that you?”

“Hey John.”

“Will you be around tomorrow? Because I do believe we have some catching up to do, but right now we’re hunting bassist. Yea high, refuses to be seen without sunglasses, drunk off his ass: have you seen him?”

Sharyn pointed the three in the right direction, and Johnny Hick nodded in thanks. I turned to Sharyn as soon as they disappeared from sight.

She sighed. “Okay, let’s hear it.”

“Hear what Sherry?”

“Hear that. We dated for a while, I was a stupid freshman, it was weird. And for the record, I didn’t like him calling me that name either. I’m just fine with the name my parents gave me.”

I leaned back on my elbows to look up at the night sky. “Me too. Yours I mean. I think it fits you.”

“Jacinta, I’ve been meaning to say—”

The cellar door slammed open again, that time revealing just Nick.

“You two have gotta get back in here, there’s a black man on stage!”

“So?” Sharyn asked.

So? Maybe here that’s normal, but in Glendive it’s a rare fuckin’ sight!”

He disappeared back into the cellar, and Sharyn stood up.

“We brought him here, I guess we should humor him. Sorry he’s being a dick. He was a lot nicer in class.”

I stood up with her, and we started walking to the cellar doors. “So what was it you wanted to say?” I asked before we went inside.

“Hm? Oh, it’s nothing, I’ll tell you some other time.”

“Are you sure? There’s—”

“It’s nothing.”

Ruthless.

Nick wasn’t wrong; there was a black guy playing the guitar on stage. The crowd wasn’t too engaged, but to be fair, Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits were no easy act to follow. I spotted Nick standing right up front, and Sharyn standing right beside him.

“First a mob forms over some poof, and now a black man,” Nick said when I arrived. “Is Brackney this interesting every night?”

Sharyn crossed her arms. “That mob was not just about Yote, and the guy on stage is named Bill.”

“Well either way we’re coming back tomorrow,” he said. He didn’t seem to notice that Sharyn was about to knock his teeth out. “And we’re coming back with guitars,” he added, which gave Sharyn pause, therefor saving his life.

Sharyn and I glanced at each other. We’d talked about playing Brackney plenty of times, but always found an excuse not to follow through. The unspoken truth is that we were terrified. I didn’t mind cussing out my teacher, because I couldn’t bring myself to give a fuck about what the school thought of me. But Brackney was my world, and I didn’t want to ruin it—for myself or for Sharyn.

Breaking our eye contact, Sharyn told Nick, “We’ll practice tonight and see what happens, but I doubt we’ll be ready to play tomorrow. We don’t even have a band name.”

Nick scoffed. “If Hickwit Johnny and the Poofs is what passes for a name then we shouldn’t have a problem at all. Sharyn, what’s that thing?”

“What thing?”

“That thing we learned in chemistry, what is it?”

Sharyn didn’t know what he was talking about, and there was a good chance that he didn’t have a clue either.

Nick passed around a flask he’d smuggled in, and the rest was a blur. I don’t remember who else played that night, I don’t remember if Sharyn ever got around to saying what was on her mind, and I don’t even remember how we ended up back in her garage. But Nick must have remembered that thing from chemistry, because it ended up tattooed along our forearms.


Chapter 5: Jace Jeck

When I woke up in Sharyn's garage, the first tattoo I saw was Nick’s. In bold, fancy letters it read, Flashpoint Zero.

Despite my head pounding from the night before, I smiled. He was dedicated to this half assed, drunken idea of a band. But then I saw Sharyn’s arms, and getting ink didn’t seem at all like something she’d do, and even if she would, it sure as hell wouldn’t be on her forearms, where her parents could see. My stomach sinking, I looked down. Sure enough, on my left arm was the same pair of bold, fancy words. Flashpoint Zero. I didn’t know whether to scream or laugh.

Fuck. It was all I could think. Over and over and over, as though somehow, that word would explain everything. Fuck fuck fuck.

“Where’s the bastard!” Nick shouted, and I flinched. I flinched like I had been caught doing something I wasn’t supposed to. But as Nick opened his eyes, he continued, “Where’s the bastard who… stole my… oh. Morning Jacinta. I suppose the bit about the cider thief was a dream then. Why are you startled? What’s on your arm?”

He pointed to my tattoo, and in doing so, he saw his own.

“Oh for fuck’s… Flashpoint Zero, Chiseler Deadly. What the fuck is this?”

“I don’t know,” I told him. “Mine says Flashpoint Zero, and… oh.”

There was ink on my other arm too: Jace Jeck. What the fuck did that mean? What the fuck had Nick put in his flask last night besides whiskey? And if my tattoo said Jace Jeck while Nick’s said Chiseler Deadly, then what the fuck did Sharyn’s say? What the fuck, man?

My head full of too many things to walk right—namely booze and regret—I crawled to Sharyn.

“What’s she got?” Nick asked.

“Flashpoint Zero, same as us,” I reported, setting down her left arm. “And the other one… huh.”

“Well, out with it.”

“And Sharyn. Her other tattoo says Sharyn.”

Nick moaned as he laid back. “Well Jace, sounds like we’re bandmates. Pick up a guitar, because by the time we leave this garage, Flashpoint Zero will be a halfway respectable act. It’s either that or one of us chops the other’s arms off, and I’d hate to do that to you.”

I stood up. Or at least, I got off my ass for a second before falling right back on it. My head was spinning like never before, and questions swirled around in the midst. Was I really in a band with some racist Irishman who I barely knew, or was the whole thing an elaborate prank? How pissed would Sharyn be when she woke up? What would Hailey think when she saw my tattoos? How much did I fucking drink?

“Jacinta, come on, get up,” Sharyn’s voice encouraged.

I don’t exactly remember going back to sleep, but Sharyn was perched over me when I opened my eyes, and Nick was playing a guitar off in the corner. The odd thing is that Sharyn was supposed to look upset. She was supposed to be angry, or at least regretful. But she smiled. Not just with her lips, either; she was practically hovering two feet off the ground.

“So Jace, how do you like being branded?”

I explained that it was uncomfortable, but more in my head than on my arms. I started to ask if she remembered what happened, but Nick chimed in from the corner.

“She remembers. She’s the one who told the tattoo man how to spell half the words.”

I looked at Sharyn, and she shrugged. Standing up and offering me a hand, she said, “It sounded really cool at the time. Not to mention, all three of us were more than a little hammered.”

I walked over to the guitar rack and picked one up. Out of habit I gave it a strum, to see if it was in tune. Normally it was at least close. Not that time. I reached to turn a peg, but Nick spoke up again.

“Don’t touch that. I tuned every one of those guitars just right.”

“Right for what?” I asked, playing a mangled chord to prove my point.

“Right for our show tonight. Each one of those guitars is tuned to make you not sound like shit. In Glendive we called it cheating, but the black man was doing it last night and nobody seemed to care. So forget every chord you know, and get over here so I can teach you the three you need.”

“You sound pretty confident,” I said, grabbing the first peg. As I brought the tune back to where it belonged, I continued, “But I’m pretty confident that I don’t need to cheat.”

“You cheated on every test I’ve ever seen you take,” Sharyn pointed out.

“Well that’s different. Music is something I actually care about,” I explained. I walked closer to Nick. He gave me a deathly glare as I twisted the pegs and stretched the strings. “If you don’t mind me saying, I’m actually pretty fuckin’ amazing at playing the guitar, and I can sure as hell do it without cheating, and I’ll prove it to you tonight!”

I was face to face with him, and our expressions were as tense as the strings. I waited for something to happen: for him to shout, or spit, or fucking headbutt me.

He breathed out through his nose. With clenched teeth, he uttered, “We’d better practice then.”

So we did; Flashpoint Zero rehearsed for the first time. We worked out a few basic melodies, Nick taught Sharyn the lyrics to some songs from Avalon—the Punk scene of his hometown—and by that evening, we actually sounded halfway respectable.

As soon as it was late enough, we packed our guitars and headed to Brackney. None of us had played there before, but Sharyn and I could explain to Nick how it worked. One act would climb onto the stage and play a song. If the audience liked it, then the act wasn’t booed off the stage. But the audience was never a creature of patience. No matter how good an act was, I’d never seen one get through more than three songs.

That night the place was packed. After the commotion over Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits, I suppose word got around that there might be an encore. When we arrived, there was already a band leaping from the stage, and nobody else was rushing to replace them. My heart was throbbing somewhere between my throat and the back of my head as we crossed the room and climbed that rickety platform.

Sharyn stepped up to the mic, and she introduced us in a voice that came off as—for her anyways—surprisingly pissed. She boasted about Chiseler Deadly being from the greatest Punk band in the UK, and how Jace Jeck was the baddest chick on the west coast. She was wrong on both counts, but it got some people’s interest. After shouting out for the first time ever that we were Flashpoint Zero, Sharyn took the mic stand back to the drums.

All too soon it was time to play. Just like we rehearsed, Sharyn gave us a beat. Then I started a rhythm, and Chiseler took the lead. At first my eyes were glued to my hands. I didn’t want to fuck up. Not in front of Brackney. Sharyn sang, and not only that, but she sang with well-disguised passion; she sounded pissed as hell.

I did glance up from my hands halfway through the song, which was a mistake. I didn’t fuck up—my fingers did what they were supposed to. But my stomach turned three times over at the crowd. They weren’t booing or cheering. In fact, they weren’t doing anything. Their reaction was the most neutral thing I’d ever seen in my life.

Chiseler made his way over to me, still playing, and had to shout in my ear to be heard over the amps. “We’re losing them! Any ideas?”

I nodded and stopped strumming, letting the ghost of my last chord fade out through the crackly amps. Chiseler followed suit as I walked back to Sharyn. She stopped too, midway through the second verse, and for a moment the only sound in Brackney was the murmur of the audience.

In the stillness I whispered to Sharyn, “Remember that thing I always wanted to see someone try?”

She sighed. “Get ready to run when this turns bad.”

With that she started tapping on the snare. I took the mic stand from her and marched with it, keeping in step with the military beat. After planting the mic front and center in a room full of Punks, I snapped off a salute.

“I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America.”

That got a reaction.

“Und to the republic,” I continued, extending my arm as the audience raged, “für die sie stands, eine nation, unter Gott, unteilbar, mit Freiheit und Gerechtigkeit für jeden.”

By the end my arm was held straight out over the audience, heiling the hell out of them. And they were cheering. Whatever statement they thought I was making was one they loved. Letting out a Punk Rock rebel yell I slammed on my guitar, took a step forward to capture the true Punk Rock pose, tripped on a loose board, and lost consciousness front and center on stage in a room full of Punks.

That fucking stage.

Waking up for the third time that day, I found myself outside near the cellar doors, which were propped open as people left. Nick and Sharyn were talking nearby. When I stood up, somebody leaving Brackney stopped and turned to me.

“Hey, good show,” he said—it was Bill. “If my mama died, I don’t think I could ever perform again. You’re a lion.”

All I could do was stare. After a moment of avoiding my puzzled gaze, Bill turned and left. I stood there like an idiot, glad he liked the show but wondering why the hell he brought up his mom. Nick and Sharyn noticed I was up, and they walked over. They gave me that look. The same look the audience gave me while I was on stage. The same look Bill just got done giving me. That god-awful neutral expression.

I asked if something had happened after I passed out. Sharyn said she was sorry and I asked her what the hell for, but it was like she couldn’t speak. I looked over at Nick, who didn’t even hesitate.

“Your ma died last Friday. Sounds like it was an overdose. I’m sorry.”

“Where’s Hailey?” I asked.

“Who—”

I lunged and took Nick’s collar. “My sister! Where the everloving fuck is my sister‽ Donde es mi hermana motherfucker‽

“Mate, you want to let go of me right this second.”

I thought I was going to kill him. In that moment, there was no doubt in my head. But his eyes grew wide. Before things could go any farther he was out cold on the ground. Sharyn stood behind him, rubbing her knuckles.

“She’s probably at your house,” Sharyn said. “Come on. Let’s go get her.”

“No. Thanks I mean, but you stay. If he stands up, I want you here so you can knock him back out.”

I ran. I ran to Hailey so I could tell her everything would be alright, that our mom was in a better place, and that I would rescue her from that bastard of a stepdad. I ran to lie to her. By the time I got to our street my lungs were a smoky inferno, and every muscle in my legs was telling me to stop, but the beating muscle in my chest was too stupid to listen. Everything was ready to give out from under me by the time I reached the door. There, and only there, I let my hand rest for just a second on the knob.

Then just another second. Then three.

A minute.

Two.

…The door wasn’t locked. In fact, it was barely even attached. Yet I stood in front of the door and shook. My hand rattled the doorknob and my knees trembled before they finally gave out, leaving me lying on the concrete doorstep.

I wasn’t running to a goddamn thing. I was running from: from the basic responsibilities I couldn’t handle, from the life I’d reduced myself to, and from the fact that my mom was dead because of me. Because she was. I killed her. I killed her by being a fuckup.

I wonder what she would think if she could see me now, sitting on the edge of Brackney’s stage with Sharyn and Rice and Joey, miles above all the chaos that happens around us. And now I remember that, Christ, that’s how she lived too. No matter how tall the waves of chaos got, she could always get a little bit higher. She just made the mistake of getting too close to the sun.

Hailey kept me from reaching for the sky that night. She opened the door. It was so easy for her too.

“Come inside,” she said from the doorway. “It’s cold out.”

“No Hailey,” I said, trying to wipe at least three things from my face. “You have to come with me. I have to save you.”

“From what? Jacinta, come inside. It’s cold out.”

“I can’t go inside,” I told her.

“Why not?”

“Because I can’t!” I snapped. It was impossible to reason with her.

“Jacinta,” she said, her feet planted in the doorway. “You look like shit. Come inside. It’s—”

“Cold out,” I finished. Still trembling, I stood up and followed her into the house.

I gave up. She won.

And why wouldn’t she? I was pathetic. In the last few days I had more drinks than actual meals. I hadn’t showered or even changed my clothes. My body was damp with sweat, and my cheeks were soaked in tears. And I hadn’t noticed it as I walked inside with my little sister, but when I fell down at Brackney, the stage gave me a nasty cut on the forehead.

Hailey made me less pathetic, at least for the night. She made me eat, she made me shower, and she made me wrap up my head wound. I didn’t argue with her about any of it.

When Hailey decided I was a decent enough human being, we sat together in her room. I noticed, then, that we were the only ones home. I asked her about it, and she explained where everyone was. Hank was staying with my mom’s sister. Jane was with her boyfriend, naturally. Our stepdad never said where he’d run off to, but we could agree that the bar was a safe bet.

Something still bothered me. “Hailey, why were you the only one home?”

She had friends. She could’ve gone to our aunt’s house with Hank. She knew that Sharyn would’ve let her spend the night. There were plenty of other places for her to be. Our stepdad sure as hell shouldn’t have been her first choice.

“Because I had to be here when you came home,” she answered, looking down and crossing her arms. “Why did you leave? Why do you have to cause so much trouble?”

“I don’t—”

“Don’t lie to me!” she shouted, glaring up at me with tears in her eyes. “You disappear out of nowhere and you come home all disgusting. And you have tattoos! What do they even say?”

“This one says… you know what, just forget it. I’m sorry I’m the worst sister in the world, okay? It’s just not easy to be as good as you are when there’s so much to be pissed off about.”

“Like what?” she asked.

“Like society.”

“Like what about society?”

“The people,” I answered, avoiding her stare.

She stamped her foot and pressed, “What about the people?”

Everything about the people!” I began, somehow still confident that Hailey wasn’t going to win round two. “They just… I mean, you wouldn’t understand.”

“You’re right, I don’t. I’m going to bed. Please, be here in the morning. Don’t be around. Be here.”

That night marked the end of a few lives. My mom’s of course, although that night, the memories of her were some of the most pleasant thoughts I had. I was never too close to her, and a big part of me regretted that. But the memories I did have of us together were mostly positive.

That night also marked the end of Jacinta Beckstrom’s life. She died when Hailey took away her fight. She went quietly too; she slipped away as silently as her mom. Maybe they’re hanging out somewhere, haunting some guy who preaches about drugs never being a solution.

Jace Jeck was my new name: a Punk Rocker with a halfway respectable band and one memorable performance under her belt. Things were changing so fast that I could make a whole new identity from it. I was still a rebel—that much was the same. But for once in my life, I wanted to be a rebel with a cause.


Chapter 6: Sharyn Sweet

See, after my mom died, I did a lot of thinking, and a lot of talking. Almost every weeknight, Yote and I would sit in an empty cellar on Brackney Street, planning our Punk Rock revolution. We planned what we thought was everything: the songs we would play, the speeches we would make, the changes that would happen. But that was always kind of the problem with being musicians: the changes only happened. They weren’t fought for. They were just sung of, and somehow, that felt like enough.

Yote was the one who finally saw through the bullshit. One day, while out walking in downtown La Meseta, he passed by a cop. And the cop said, “Hey kid, take off the shades for a second.”

And like an epiphany, Yote’s response flowed from his lips with tact and grace: “Blow me.”

Yote was arrested, and news spread quickly. When I first heard about it from Sharyn, I could feel the revolution in the air; when she told me that Brackney was actually pissed off about their beloved sellout being taken, it was like static electricity had jumped from her tongue to my ear, and I shivered and smiled.

We all met at Brackney. And by all, I mean everybody: all the Punks of La Meseta had congregated in the cellar. Johnny Hick was on stage with his remaining Fuckwits, talking the packed crowd into a frenzy.

“We have an obligation,” he said so deliberately. “We have a fundamental duty as Punk Rockers, right here and right now. People of La Meseta, I’ve asked nothing of you. When we first came here in a flatbed Ford, we came here to Rock, and you loved us for it, and we loved you back. When we sold out you hated us, and on the inside, I was proud of you. Today, I still ask of you nothing. Today, I command that you march with us!”

Punk was War.

Our hundred-man militia marched to the police station. Sharyn approached the woman behind the desk, and asked for the release of Yote. When that didn’t work, Johnny Hick stepped forward. He took Sharyn’s request and rephrased it as a demand. Again, nothing. The woman behind the desk insisted that there were no visiting hours until Monday, and that we couldn’t bail Yote out because his bail hadn’t been set. As if we would give these pigs a penny. We spent at least an hour in there, each of us taking a shot at arguing with her, but she wouldn’t budge from behind her bullet proof partition. Not one inch.

Punk was War.

When she asked us to leave, it was like Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits couldn’t even hear her. Punks began banging on the glass. Rocks were passed in from outside, and the muscle heads slammed them into the bullet proof partition. And it cracked. And it was only then that the woman behind the partition understood: she could die here. She could be the casualty.

Punk. Was. War.

She sounded an alarm, and at that point, some punks fled—lowercase punks. Fuck ‘em anyways. All the uppercase Punks just shouted right back at the bells and sirens. More officers arrived behind the partition, and in all my life, I never heard a more beautiful rainbow of colored language than what was directed at those men in uniform. The Punk Rock mob was pulsating forward, an unstoppable throng of pent up anger.

And then, I felt something tugging me back. Away from the cracking partition, which came closer to giving way with every tempting second. Away from the mob. Away from revolución. What had the nerve? What had the nerve to take me away from everything I ever wanted?

“Jace!” she shouted. “Jace, we have to go! This isn’t music, it’s fucking anarchy!”

I don’t know if I had ever heard Sharyn swear. She dredged me through the torrent of Punk, against it, and I didn’t let her. I sure as fuck wasn’t letting this fight go. And she was ruthless. She hit my legs out from under me, and dragged me out the door. I kicked and punched the whole way out, because she was making me just like the others: like all of the low down, good for nothing, cowardly lowercase punks.

She laid me down on the sidewalk. I tried to get up, to rejoin the ¡revolución!, but she held me against the light-grey concrete. She suffocated me against it. She laid on top of me, pressing all of her weight—all of her strength—into my chest. Crushing me. And then I felt a drip on my face. I looked up, and I didn’t see rainclouds. I saw Sharyn.

My friend was crying.

I felt her labored breathing in her chest as she crushed me. I felt her hip bone digging into my stomach, paralyzing me, and keeping me pinned. I felt her hands holding mine against the sidewalk, making my knuckles red on the concrete, and there was no spite: we held hands like lovers.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. The words barely escaped my throat before they choked me, but I wanted to say them again and again: I’m so, so sorry.

She kissed me, on the lips, until neither of us could breathe. She picked me up. We walked away.


Chapter 7: Sharyn Ruthless

Johnny Hick laughed. He even slapped his knee, overdoing it just like he overdid every gesture. Straightening his face, he bellowed, “Well why the hell not? It isn’t like me and the Fuckwits have a reputation left to lose! Tell you what; if you can get some equipment together, we’ll meet you at the station tomorrow at six, bright and early.”

Sharyn and I agreed, and with that, our two bands went our separate ways.

The riot had been a disaster. Not a disaster, but bad. The Punks were scattered. Some were arrested, some hospitalized, and others quit the Punk scene altogether. So when it was all said and done, Sharyn proposed a new approach. Not a riot. Not a lynch mob. Just a protest. Just music. If it happened to be loud and directed at the police station, well, who in their right mind was going to complain after what had already happened?

We took Chiseler’s van to Sharyn’s garage, where the three of us piled her parents’ sound system into the back.

Sharyn was bisexual. It was a new word to me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. After the kiss outside the police station, she told me that she liked women, and men. We held hands as we walked to her house. I told her that I didn’t like men or women all that much, and she told me the word for that was asexual. I said it was just asocial.

When the three of us had finished stuffing the sound system into Chiseler’s van, we decided to write a song for the occasion. One that would combine the finer aspects of Punk Rock anger and Punk Rock brotherhood.

As we were working on the lyrics, Sharyn threw out a line about Yote’s brown eyes. Now, I’d only seen his eyes once. During one of our late-night meetings in Brackney, his shades had slid down his nose in the middle of an experimental bass jam. He slid them back up a second later, never missing a chord, but I remembered his eyes distinctly; they were blue. I mentioned it to Sharyn, but she insisted that she’d seen his eyes too, and that they were definitely brown. We agreed to disagree and moved forward, but I kept thinking about it as the night went on. What color was hidden behind those dark aviator sunglasses?

The next morning at six, bright and early, we hopped in Chiseler’s van and parked it across the street from the police station. Johnny Hick and Joey Low Action were already there when we arrived, along with the Punks who had remained loyal to them—thirty in all. Rice O’ couldn’t make it to our performance, on account of being arrested in the riot. We all worked together setting up the equipment: a drum set in front of the van, amps to both sides, and a mic stand on the vehicle’s roof. And to really give our performance a kick, Johnny arranged the remaining punks in front of the van, in a formation that would revolutionize defensive Punk Rock war tactics. It was time to get the attention of the people.

Chiseler and I played California Über Alles as loud as we could strum it, but we played at just slightly different tempos. By the time the chorus came around, we were already several bars apart from each other. Johnny Hick stood on the van’s roof, playing a requiem. Joey Low Action’s strings buzzed against the fretboard as he played power chord after power chord after power chord. Four guitars in complete disharmony. Not everybody walking by was thrilled to hear our brand of music, but even if they didn’t like it, we weren’t easy to ignore; the people stopped to listen.

When there was enough of a crowd, Johnny Hick spoke into the microphone with his deliberate, barely southern twang. He told a story—a fable as he called it—about a coyote who just wanted to wear his sunglasses in peace, but was bullied by the big, mean, angry javelinas. But the javelinas didn’t know that the coyote was friends with the wolves.

“La Meseta,” Johnny said to the people, “our dearest friends Yote and Rice are stuck in a jail cell across the street, and they have done nothing wrong!”

By the time Johnny Hick’s story was over, we’d drawn quite a crowd. A couple dozen people were standing on the sidewalks around us, cars were slowing down to get a load of what was happening, and a handful of cops were standing outside of the station. We were getting somewhere with this after all.

Sharyn hopped up onto the van’s roof with Johnny Hick. She sang, just like Johnny Hick had spoken, about what happened that day. And about the riot.

Before we were even halfway through the song, we heard what we’d been expecting from the beginning: a response. From across the street, over a megaphone, we heard a cop give us a command.

“Pack up your instruments and leave. This is a violation of public noise law and obstruction of traffic. If you do not leave, we will have no choice but to use force.”

“Hear that?” Sharyn said over the microphone. “They want us to leave. What do you think La Meseta, do you want us to leave? Go on, if you want us to leave, shout, ‘We love cops!’”

Johnny Hick took the mic, adding, “And if you want us to play another song, shout, ‘Let Yote wear his sunglasses in peace without being hassled by the javelinas of this city!’”

The audience became an insane garble of shouting. It was a mix of both phrases, but it was impossible to decipher who was saying what. In the end we decided that there must have been enough people shouting for another song, because that’s what we gave them, and we sure as hell couldn’t hear anyone complain. While we played, I noticed that the police had disappeared back into the station. I was so in-the-moment that it didn’t even worry me. I was riding the high the crowd was giving off, and it felt fucking incredible.

When the song was over, there were six cops standing across the street, decked out in riot gear.

“Well oh my my, here come the javelinas!” Johnny Hick said in his singsongy way. Joey tossed a burlap sack up to Johnny. Reaching inside, Johnny pulled out a pair of sunglasses. “People of La Meseta, I have an offering for you. Those cops are about to come over here and make us stop playing, but you know, we just aren’t ready to go quite yet. So, people of La Meseta: everyone who helps stop them from getting to us will get shades of their very own!”

That mixed things up. As soon as he reached into the bag and started tossing the sunglasses down to the crowd, they went into a frenzy. They weren’t Punks. Half of them didn’t even look like they’d heard a rock song in their lives. But they were with us. The police walked forward while Chiseler and I played, and Sharyn stood on the van with Johnny Hick, finishing the song we’d written the day before.

The police started walking forward, and amazingly enough, the crowd didn’t give a damn. We’d assembled our own army, from scratch, with nothing more than music, a story, and some cheap shades. The police tried to get through the crowd, but they kept getting pushed back. The police took out their clubs, but still, the crowd pushed them away. They were actually putting their safety on the line for a bunch of no-name Punk Rockers.

The cops had to break through eventually, and there was really no way around that. Beating and pepper spraying their way through the crowd, they got to the drummer first: Joey. They pulled him away, but he kept drumming until the drums were out of reach, and even then he swung his sticks on the riot shields. Next to get snatched was Chiseler Deadly, who didn’t go quite as passively. He swung his six string at the first officer, cracking it in half. He tried to run—he didn’t make it. He was tackled to the ground by two more cops, who got a couple of swings in before cuffing him. Johnny Hick must have split by this point, because I never did see him again.

I climbed to the van’s roof with Sharyn, and got an overhead view of the riot we’d started. It was beautiful. Not even an hour ago, the street had been empty. But I looked over a sea of all types of people. We’d pulled them from their boring lives, and we’d given them something to fight for.

Sharyn smiled, with tears in her eyes. “This one is good,” she said. “This one is their fault.”

I held her hand. She was a fucking genius.

Before she was taken, Sharyn said one last thing into the mic.

“This is Jace Jeck, I’m Sharyn, and we’re two thirds of Flashpoint Zero. God fucking bless every last one of you, there will be an encore!”

They pulled us down, and wrestled us into handcuffs. From there, all they had to do was get us back through the crowd and into the police station. Walking through that frenzy of damn maniacs, I realized how much of a miracle it was that nobody got killed that day.

We were arrested. We were booked and thrown in jail. But, at the end of the day, we beat the system; we saw Yote, and we didn’t give those pigs a penny.


Chapter 8: Quinn Jefferson

Joey and Rice were in the cell next to me and Sharyn, so we couldn’t see them. They were making a hell of a lot of noise for us to hear though, clanging on the bars and hollering at the top of their lungs. Chiseler and Yote were in the cell across from us. Yote sat in the corner. He’d taken his shirt off and tied it around his head. Dude was serious about not letting people see his eyes.

Sharyn and I were trying to talk to Chiseler across the hall, but between the distance and the noise from the Fuckwits, it was no easy task. Sharyn would shout a question, and Chiseler would shout an answer to a completely different question. Chiseler would shout a remark, but neither of us would hear it, so we just kept going in a useless loop. There was one thing he kept repeating, but it didn’t make any sense, and we figured we just couldn’t hear him right. He told us that Yote was being arrested for resisting arrest. We tried to ask him what he meant, but he kept saying that was the only charge: resisting arrest. We kept asking, again and again, whether we’d heard him right.

The hours passed, and the Fuckwits managed to settle down. We heard one of them—Sharyn said it was Rice—have a moment of clarity. Out of nowhere he started weeping. Either he couldn’t hide it or he wasn’t trying in the first place. He kept muttering on about how he fucked up, how he couldn’t believe he was so stupid, how he was going to spend the rest of his life in jail without ever playing another show. Joey tried comforting him, but the Fuckwit kept weeping, inconsolable.

I asked Sharyn, “Do you think he’s right?”

“Nah,” she answered, looking out of our narrow window. I had looked through it earlier. There was a view of the street where our performance had been. “We’re not getting out of here cheap, that’s for sure. But of course we’re getting out of here. How many people do you think were in that crowd?”

“Counting the people in cars? I don’t know, a hundred,” I guessed.

“Did you see anyone recording it?”

I shrugged. “Why?”

Before she could answer, I heard Chiseler pipe up from his cell. “Hey ladies, speaking of recording, I saw a video once where two fines girls were in a cell just like yours. Just throwing it out there.”

Sharyn rolled her eyes. “Careful what you say Chiseler; I saw a video too, and it started with two guys a lot like you and Yote.”

“Fuck, don’t remind me. There are six perfectly good cells around here, but do we each get our own? Of course not, I have to share mine with a looney fuckin’ queer.”

“Oh my god, what is your obsession with that?” Sharyn asked. “Has he hit on you once since you got thrown in here?”

“He’s probably thought about it! But no, he hasn’t said a damn word, he just sits in that corner. Hasn’t ate or slept since we got here, at least, not that I’ve seen.”

“Hey Chiseler,” I said, joining the conversation. “Did you see his eyes at all?”

“Of course I haven’t fucking seen them, he hasn’t fucking opened them. Besides, why would I care?”

“Yeah yeah, you’re straight, we get it,” I informed him. Speaking up a bit louder, I said, “Hey Yote, can you settle something? What color are your eyes? You don’t have to show us, but could you tell us? Sharyn thinks they’re brown, but I think they’re blue. Which is it?”

He didn’t say anything. He just sat there, acting like he couldn’t even hear us.

“Hey Yote,” Sharyn tried. He continued to sit. “Could you hear what happened from in here? Man, you should’ve seen it for yourself, but I bet you could hear it. There were at least three hundred people on the street just outside. We started a riot, just for you. I tried to bring you some sunglasses by the way, but they took ‘em away of course, so sorry about that. But hey, cheer up dude, we’re here for you. All of us. We’re here for you.”

He mumbled something. None of us could hear him. He stood up from his corner of the cell and shuffled to the bars, keeping a hand out to guide himself, mumbling the same thing the whole way. When he reached the bars, he pulled the shirt from his eyes and spoke loud and clear.

“Thank you.”

One eye was brown, and the other eye was blue.

Joey and Rice started clapping and whooping. Apparently it was the first time even they had seen his naked eyes. Sharyn was at a loss for words, and I suppose I couldn’t say much either.

Yote continued to speak. “What that fucking pig did isn’t right, so thank you. When we get out of here—and we will get out of here—we can’t just forget about this. This can’t be the end of it. Fuckwits, Flashpoint Zero: what do you say we go on tour?”

It wasn’t long at all before we came to the unanimous agreement: fuck yeah we would go on tour. Local legends Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits, performing with the newcomers Flashpoint Zero. It sounded incredible.

“Just one minor point,” Chiseler brought up. “Maybe you Hickwits have toured before, but me and Sharyn and Jace, we haven’t exactly played more than two places.”

Tying his shirt back over his eyes, Yote said, “Don’t worry about a thing. We’ll lead you through it. Hell, we’ve got at least another couple of days in here; why not practice?”

“Well, let’s see,” Chiseler said, and began listing the reasons. “We don’t have any instruments and I’m pretty sure only Sharyn is really a singer, so there’s one thing. We don’t have anything to write the songs down on, there’s two. And we’re in jail, not exactly the most inspiring place. Is three reasons good enough for you?”

“It might be good enough for you,” Yote said as he sat down with his back against the bars. “Me, I’ve been practicing since we got here. Close your eyes man. You don’t need an instrument to write a song, and you don’t need paper to remember the spirit of it.”

Chiseler shook his head and sighed. “Christ, I thought the hippies would all be dead by now.”

“Peace and love to you too my brother.”

“Fuckwit.”

“Chiseler.”

“Ladies,” Sharyn interjected, “careful with the pillow talk. I’m sure there’s somebody who would love to see a sequel to that movie, but I’ll tell you right now that it’s not me. Anyways, I’m with Yote; let’s try to make the best of this.”

The next day was Sunday. We spent our time figuring out material to fill an entire show. We swapped lyrics we’d been thinking of, and did our best to explain the melodies we’d come up with, despite the fact that none of us could sing for shit. Even Sharyn’s singing was more along the lines of shouting, so a cappella suited her about as much as it suited the rest of us, meaning it didn’t. But despite the fact that six musicians were stuck in jail without a decent voice between them, it was actually a good time.

That changed when we heard a bang from outside. We all stopped talking. We were anticipating something else, some kind of follow up. Instead there was nothing. Dead fucking silence.

“That sounded like a gunshot to everyone else, yeah?” Chiseler questioned. We all nodded, and he said, “That’s what I thought. Is this something you people know about?”

Sharyn shook her head. “I don’t know anything about it, but—”

There was a second shot, and some shouting. From there things erupted. We could only listen as gunshot after gunshot sounded off like a metronome. There was shouting and screaming and sirens, but from our cells, we couldn’t see or do a thing. Rice broke down all over again, going on about how he fucked up, and how he was going to die in that cell.

A red-faced cop came stomping in and shouted at each of us, demanding information on what just happened.

Chiseler laughed out loud at him. “Fuck off,” he said, forgetting that even if there were bars between him and the cop, it was the cop who could have them removed. “What would we know, anyways? We’ve been in here all day.”

“Four of my officers are on their way to the hospital right now; you will show respect!” the cop barked, slamming his club on Chiseler’s cell.

Yote stood up, still blindfolded, and rested his face against the bars. “You first.”

That’s how Yote earned a black eye to go around his blue one. The cop stomped away, and Yote tried to hide it, but we could all tell that he was hurting.

“It’s alright,” Sharyn told him. “It might not seem like it, but that was about the best thing he could do to you. It’s just more proof that these cops are bastards.”

We were taken to court the next Monday to get our bail set. When we arrived outside the courthouse, I saw what I never would’ve expected. I saw a crowd of people, and they were wearing dark aviator sunglasses—every last one of them. As we were taken through the crowd they went ballistic. Yote heard them, but he still wouldn’t take his blindfold off to look, no matter how much I told him he should’ve seen the crowd that was fighting for him. We were dragged into the courtroom, each of us being escorted by one or two cops. The only one who walked with some dignity was Sharyn.

I’m not a lawyer, not even close, but I’ll bet Yote could’ve gotten all of his charges dropped right then and there if he would just show everyone his black eye. But of course he wouldn’t do that, so he took his turn with the judge, just like the rest of us.

All in all, we’d racked up quite a few charges. All of us got resisting arrest, which was bullshit for Yote, because he never resisted a damn thing. Most of us were accused of inciting a riot. I’ll admit, that one wasn’t too far off. In fact, it was right the fuck on. There was obstruction of traffic, which they did warn us about, but at that point it was the least of our worries. Chiseler and Joey got assault and battery. There were a couple of other minor offenses in there as well, specific things I could never remember the names of.

The lowest bail was Yote’s: one thousand dollars. The highest was Chiseler’s, set at thirty thousand. That bail was about as reasonable as us getting arrested in the first place. So we got taken back to jail, waiting to see if anyone would show up and break us out.

I knew I was shit out of luck. The only person who would care enough to bail me out was Hailey, and she just didn’t have the money. I wouldn’t want her blowing it on my keen sense of justice anyways. Sharyn’s parents could have afforded to get her out, but after everything that happened, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they left her in to teach her a lesson. I had no idea where Chiseler stood. Even after months of knowing him, I’d never seen his family, and part of me wondered if he actually did just live alone in his van.

As it turned out, Yote was the first to leave. The Fuckwits had no idea who would bail him out. We thought it might have been Johnny Hick. We weren’t even close on that one.

Within a few minutes of Yote leaving, we were on our way out too. Greeting us on the outside was a man in a brown leather jacket and dark aviator sunglasses, which matched the pair that Yote had put on.

“Sharyn, Jace Jeck, Chiseler Deadly, Rice O’, and lastly but not leastly, Joey Low Action: are you ready to be famous?”

“Yote, who is this guy?” Sharyn asked as the seven of us walked out of the station.

“Quinn Jefferson,” the man answered, reaching out to shake her hand.

Sharyn didn’t reciprocate it. Instead, she repeated her question with a new emphasis: “Yote, who is this guy?”

“Quinn Jefferson,” Yote said, scratching at the back of his hand. “He says, well, he says he has an offer for us. He wants to be our manager.”

“Did you tell him punks don’t get along well with managers?” Sharyn asked.

“He told me you’re smart,” Quinn insisted. “I have a hunch you can appeal to reason here.”

“A hundred thousand dollar hunch?” Sharyn questioned.

“It’s nothing, I’ll get it back when you six show up for your court date. And you’re going to show up, and you’re going to have damn good lawyers, I’ll make sure of it. Just hear me out.”

“You’re being nice,” Chiseler observed. “Knock that right the fuck off.”

“Look,” Quinn said, resting his hand on Sharyn’s shoulder as we walked. “The people love you and the authorities hate you; you stand a hell of a lot to gain and a hell of a lot to lose, and it can happen just like that!” he said with a snap of his fingers. “You don’t have to commit to anything now, but just take some time to think, and give me a call. It’ll be worth your while, I promise.”

He handed each of us a business card and walked away. Chiseler tore his to pieces right away, and Sharyn tossed hers to the wind. But Yote and I, we did something different. While none of the others were looking, we each slipped the card we’d been given into a pocket. We saw each other do it, and we knew what it meant; we were contemplating treason.

We all went to our homes, or whatever the closest thing each of us had to a home was. As soon as I stepped inside, I could tell my stepdad had heard the news. He sat at the kitchen table with a bottle of booze in his hand, staring at me. That was nothing new, but the part that came next…  He spoke to me. He didn’t yell or scold; he spoke, and it was chilling to realize that the drunk fuck had a voice.

“You’re like your mother you know. Whenever she told me stories of when she was young, they would always remind me of you. Jacinta, don’t do what she did. Don’t try to be everything everyone wants you to. It’s impossible. Just do what you can and leave the rest to people you trust… And Jacinta, if you steal any more of my beer for your friends thinking that I won’t notice, then you better enjoy them, because they’ll be the last thing you and your friends ever drink. Goodnight Jacinta.”

I slipped away to my room without saying anything at all to him. Even when he wasn’t violent, he could punch me right in the places it hurt the most. I curled up in bed and took the business card out of my pocket, using the dim light from my window to read what it said.

“Quinn Jefferson, music producer. When you can’t make the right call, make the call that matters.”

I rolled my eyes and threw the card in the trash.


Chapter 9: When Johnny Went Marching Home

We all got the news. I heard it through the radio. Sharyn was told by her parents. Nick saw it on TV. None of the Punks told each other. We all just kind of… knew. The bangs we had heard in jail were gunshots. They came from one shooter, perched on the roof of the building opposite the police station. Ten officers had been hit. Five killed. Sharyn and I needed denial, so we went to find the murderer.

Johnny Hick wasn’t at his apartment, but all three Fuckwits were there when we knocked. Yote answered the door.

“Hey Sharyn, hey Jace,” he said as he stepped outside. We all walked together to a secluded, seedy courtyard of the Umber Lane apartment houses. Yote smelled like he’d been showering in booze. “Did you hear ‘bout… ‘bout Johnny Hick?”

“Yeah Yote, we heard,” Sharyn said, giving him a quick hug.

When she tried to back off he clung to her, asking, “Why’d he do that? He was always taking care of people, so why’d he do that Sharyn? Why‽

Sharyn pried him away and did her best to explain it to him, but nothing got through.

“Man, fuck my band,” Yote said, spinning around and swinging a fist in the general direction of the other Fuckwits. “They don’t know. They don’t know what they’re doing, they just did everything he said. I bet if they weren’t in jail, they’d’ve got guns and shot cops too. Nobody was supposed to die Sharyn! Not over me.”

“I know Yote—”

“Fuck that name! That’s the name I had when I was in that band. I ain’t in that band ‘nymore. I quit.”

“Come on, you guys will figure it out—”

“Sharyn, listen! I don’t want to figure it out! Fuck those guys man, I don’t care. What would we even be called?”

“Who?”

Us! Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits, it’s no good ‘nymore. Johnny Hick is gonna be in jail for life once they find him, and the Fuckwits, they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Sharyn, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing! Fuck this man, it’s over, I’m done with them and I’m done with this whole fucking Punk scene.”

“Me too.”

Sharyn and Yote turned to me.

“For real, I’m with you one hundred percent; this scene is too fucking dangerous,” I said. “I can’t handle it anymore. But I sat with you in Brackney for hours Yote, night after night, listening to you play the bass, and you’re too good to let that skill go to waste. Quit the Punk scene if you want to, but don’t give up on the music, man.”

“Big words,” he spat. “What the hell do you want me to do then?”

“You still have Quinn’s card, right?”

“Yeah,” he said, “back in the room. It’s—”

“Get it,” I said. “Call him.”

“I don’t have a band, why bother?” he asked.

Sharyn stepped forward with an answer. “Flashpoint Zero could use a bassist.”

“I don’t know man. I just don’t know.”

“None of us do,” I pointed out. “I mean… Fuck, you know?”

Yote let out a heavy breath. “Okay. Yeah. I’ll go find his card. And if you ever see Johnny Hick, and I mean ever, you tell him that I think he’s garbage. Not in a good way, not as a stupid Punk scene compliment, but just plain nasty trash. I’ll be right back.”

While Yote was gone, Sharyn turned to me. “That was quick thinking there, nice job. But are you serious about selling out? You know we can never go back to Brackney once we make that call.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said with a sigh, “and I hate that. But who even knows if Brackney will be there next week? After Johnny Hick’s rampage… I don’t know if I can still be a part of all this.”

“Good,” Sharyn said. “Because I think we can do this—the right way. Here’s to selling out.”

Yote came back with Quinn’s card, and we walked over to a pay phone. We made the only call that mattered.

Quinn offered to meet us anywhere. We told him where we were, and he said he’d be right over. He promised we wouldn’t regret a thing. When that call was over, we made one more.

“Hey, Chiseler Deadly?”

“Yeah, is this Jace? What do you want?”

“I’m at the Umber Lane apartment houses. Yote joined our band, we’re selling out, and I can’t keep getting us free beer. If you still want to be in Flashpoint… he hung up. Should we take that as a no?”

When Quinn showed up a few minutes later, he had this big grin on his face, which he couldn’t quite shake. He wore the same brown leather jacket, though he didn’t wear the shades anymore. He shook our hands. As a sign of good faith, I was the first to go. I was a little surprised when it didn’t feel like shaking hands with the devil. He grinned like the devil. But he shook hands like anybody else.

And as I shook his hand, in my periphery, I saw a light-blue van tearing down Umber Lane. It came to a screeching halt beside us, and Chiseler came storming out of the vehicle, ready to rip the head off of the next person he saw. Turns out, the next person he saw was Quinn.

You!” he shouted. “A couple of them may be stupid, but I know they can’t all be stupid. What did you tell them? Why aren’t they kicking you arseways?”

“Chiseler Deadly, I see where half of that name comes from,” Quinn said with his grin. “Love the enthusiasm, but take it down a notch, there’s no need to yell. Let me ask you something; what do you want in life?”

“To get drunk and get loud, same thing I’ve always wanted. And I have it, and you can’t tell me otherwise, so fuck off.”

“What if I told you that you that there were better things than getting drunk.”

“I’d laugh and call you—”

“Cocaine, how’s that for an answer?” Quinn said, his grin growing larger on one side of his mouth. Chiseler stuttered, and Quin went on. “Now listen, I won’t officially endorse it, but I will say that a friend tells me it’s a hell of a lot better than any alcohol on Earth. But it ain’t cheap either. You could afford some with what you do now, I’m sure, but to make it a habit? You’d need a high paying job. How does rock star sound?”

Quinn held out his hand. Chiseler stared him down, but Quinn remained unwavering, with that devilish grin hanging on his lips. Slowly, Chiseler reached out and took the offer. They shook, even if Chiseler never stopped glaring at him.

Avoiding anyone’s eye contact, Chiseler mumbled, “So what now?”

“Let’s get something to eat,” Quinn said. “We can talk about it over a nice dinner. And don’t worry, it’s on me, I insist.”

We went to a restaurant I’d only seen from the outside. It was the nicest place in La Meseta, which didn’t say much for La Meseta, but did say something for Quinn. During the whole meal, there seemed to be something off about him. Every time he spoke he did it with a smile. Every time he listened he would nod, and keep his eyes locked on whoever was talking. And when he would laugh, he would double over as far as the table would let him. Towards the end of the meal, I finally realized what was so different about him; he wasn’t fake. He didn’t pretend to smile, he smiled. He didn’t pretend to listen, he listened. And when he laughed, he fucking laughed.

At one point he noted that we were short a few people. Sharyn had to explain to him that Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits had broken up, and that Yote had ended up with us in Flashpoint Zero.

Quinn nodded as Sharyn spoke, and then said, “I heard the news, and I just didn’t want to believe that it was really our own Johnny. But if it was, then it’s good that we’re getting as much distance from him as we can. I’m sorry to hear about your friend.”

“What friend?” Yote asked, louder than a sober person would have asked it.

“Fair enough, I read you loud and clear,” Quinn nodded. “So let’s get down to business. You go to court next Friday, and you will be there, capeesh? This isn’t just for the sake of my bail money—but it is for the sake of my bail money. It just happens to concern your future too. It’s hard to make music when you’re behind bars.

“Now, I’ve got the best lawyer I know working on your cases. You four didn’t make it easy for him, but rest assured, the guy’s a wizard. Yote, he promises he can get you cleared of all charges, and if you’d like, he says you actually have a solid case against the state. Jace and Sharyn, you’re getting off innocent, provided you can make a heartfelt apology for holding up traffic. Chiseler, you were the hardest for him; he may be a wizard but he can’t alter the past. You might get fined, but don’t worry. We’ll take care of the money, and you won’t spend a night behind bars. Everything sound good so far?”

We nodded. “Fantastic,” he continued, “that’s what I like to hear. Now, let’s talk about the music.”

We discussed tour routes and dates. Nothing was set in stone, since we didn’t know for sure if we’d all be in or out of prison, but we were starting in Mexico and driving up the west coast to Canada. Quinn knew the owners of some places we could play.

It was around then that one last thing occurred to me: “Hey, Quinn. Have you ever even heard us perform?”

“You’re kidding me, right? Sharyn, please, tell me she’s kidding. Jace, you have no idea how big you are right now, do you? It was all over the news, hell, I’ve got people calling all the way from New York who want a piece of you guys. Somebody recorded your little stunt the other day. Whoever it was, they did you a massive favor; that one video for the news stations to play is what made the difference between years in prison and a lifetime of success. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, get some rest and try to look pretty for your court date, because we’ve got some legends to make.”


Chapter 10: Aretha Franklin, ’80

Chiseler never did end up getting along with Yote, but during the first tour, that didn’t stop either of them from putting on a show. And damn, could Yote put on a show. In all my years at Brackney, I’d never seen a bassist as downright slick as he was. He still hid behind his shades around the clock, but if that helped him let loose, then I had no reason to complain. Besides, those sunglasses were a part of him. After the riots back in La Meseta, the shades had become our icon.

As years went by, Chiseler turned out to be a song writing machine. Sharyn tried to write just as many as he did, since she was the one who sang them, but she just couldn’t keep up. For every song that she wrote, Chiseler had another three lined up. Between the cocaine-fueled adventures and the nonstop partying, none of us could figure out where he found the time to write anything at all, let alone the quality work he was putting out. It was roughly half a decade later in ‘91 when we finally learned the truth.

We’d just finished yet another tour. In Sharyn’s opinion it had been our best, and I understood where she was coming from. We’d reached a point where we weren’t just a novelty; we had a following. Maybe not a massive one compared to other bands of the time—fuck, we had just gotten out of the 80s—but it was absolutely unbelievable compared to where we came from.

Sharyn and I were at Yote’s house—we’d all gotten houses. None of us had seen Chiseler in the week since our last tour, but he left us a message telling us to keep an eye on the news. So the three of us sat in Yote’s living room, fixated on the TV, rightfully concerned about what was in store.

“Coming up next,” the anchor announced, “an interview with Chiseler Deadly, guitarist of Flashpoint Zero. Or perhaps, former guitarist. Stay tuned, we’ll be right back.”

“Well shit,” Yote said, tossing the remote across the room. “What do you think’s gotten into his head this time?”

Sharyn sighed. “Do you really think there’s a head left for ideas to get into?”

“You have a point,” Yote nodded. Reaching onto the coffee table, he offered me and Sharyn our choice of two bowls. “Weed or popcorn? You’ll definitely need at least one to get through this.”

By the time the commercials were over, the three of us were as prepared for the news as we ever would be: we all opted for weed. The anchor began.

“Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit down with Nicholas Kennedy, better known by his stage name, Chiseler Deadly. As a founding member of Flashpoint Zero, he has been a key figure in the band’s success.”

“Bull, shit,” Yote said. “Name one thing we couldn’t have done without him: one fucking thing. I wasn’t even in this band from the start and I did more to get us off the ground. Fuck, man. There should be laws against lying on the news.”

On TV, they had cut to a new clip. Chiseler and the anchorman sat across from one another in a dimly lit, nearly empty, overall dramatic room. It didn’t look like the kind of room where good news came from. Chiseler was wearing a white collared shirt, something I wasn’t convince he even owned before the interview. His slick red hair had been trimmed down, and for the first time in roughly half a decade, he wasn’t doing or holding anything illegal.

“So,” the anchor said, “you came here to tell the world about a dark secret regarding Flashpoint Zero, is that correct?”

“That’s right Alan.”

Sharyn giggled, in spite of the circumstances. “Are we sure this is the same Chiseler? If they didn’t say his name, there is no chance I would have recognized him.”

Chiseler went on. “For the last six years, we let people believe that all of our music was original. But the truth is, almost all of our hits are stolen.”

“The fuck‽” Yote yelled. As he stood up he bumped into the coffee table, sending both bowls crashing to the ground. “How the hell does he even… oh, fuckdammit!”

“How can this be?” the anchor asked. “Music doesn’t just get stolen by mistake.”

“Well Alan, I grew up in Glendive, a lovely town in Northern Ireland. There was a band there that I admired, and I always looked to them for inspiration. But when Sharyn—”

“Your singer.”

“Yes, that’s right. When Sharyn, my singer, found out about their music, she insisted that we copy it word for word, chord for chord. She said that we could get away with it since no one had heard of that band, and for years, she was right. But I was never okay with it. It always seemed dishonest.”

“Astonishing,” Sharyn said, folding her arms.

“Astonishing,” the anchor echoed, clasping his hands together. “So why did you decide to speak out now, six years after the band’s first album?”

“I can’t live a lie anymore. As of the end of our most recent tour, I’ve left Flashpoint Zero. If they want to continue stealing music, that’s their business, not mine.”

“Fascinating, just fascinating. And what’s next for you Chiseler?”

“Please, call me Nick. I’m going solo, and I have plans to release an album by the end of the month. An album of original music, of course.”

The phone rang, and Yote stomped off to answer it. The interview was winding down anyways, and clearly, the damage had been done. Sharyn still couldn’t help but giggle about it.

“Remember that tape he gave me when we first met?” she asked.

“The one you traded him the Minor Threat bootleg for,” I nodded.

She nodded back. “I haven’t stolen anything and you damn well know it. But I think we know where Chiseler’s been getting his songs from.”

Yote walked back into the room. “It’s Quinn,” he said, holding up the wireless phone.

He put it on speaker, and Quinn’s voice came through. “Is everyone there? Listen, I’m already on this, but you should all know that it ain’t gonna be pretty. Sharyn, you need to tell me right now that you weren’t involved in stealing those songs.”

“I wasn’t,” she confirmed.

Quinn let out a deep breath. “Good. We have to distance you three from Chiseler as much as possible. You know the drill. I have to make some calls, but for now, just stay put and don’t talk to anyone, got it? I’ll tell you when it’s safe to go outside again.”

For a few days, we just waited. We watched as Chiseler ran around trying to shatter our reputation, and we listened to Quinn as he ran around trying to catch the pieces. A week had passed before I got a call from Sharyn.

“Pack a bag,” she said. “We’re going on a trip.”

“Where to?”

“Glendive, Northern Ireland. I’ve been listening to Nick’s tape. We’re going to find a Punk named Ryan.”

So that’s what we went out to do. Against Quinn’s advice, we three remaining member of Flashpoint Zero packed our bags and took a plane across the ocean, where we tried our damnedest at tracking down someone we’d barely even heard about. All we had was the name of the town and the name of the person: Glendive, Ryan Romano. Based on the tape, he was a singer.

We started by asking around. It was a small town; they barely had enough roads to justify calling one of them Main Street. So, it seemed like the kind of stereotypical place where everyone would have known each other. But we talked to everyone in sight on the first day, and not one person acknowledged that there was ever a Punk scene in Glendive. As if to punctuate that point, there was a knock on our inn door as we settle in for the first night.

The man standing on the doorstep had deep set eyes. So deep that his eyes were shadows, and I couldn’t tell if he ever blinked. “So you’re Flashpoint Zero, huh?” the stranger asked.

“Who wants to know?” Sharyn asked back.

“Lester Ramos,” he responded. “Pleasure to be meetin’ with yeh. You wouldn’t know much about Glendive I take it.”

“No, we wouldn’t,” Sharyn answered. “Why?”

The man shook his head.

And then he left.

We didn’t sleep much that night.

The next day, we just looked. We’d all come from a scene of our own, and we knew that the Punks had to congregate somewhere. A cellar like Brackney, somebody’s garage like half of the other Punk bands from our time, or maybe even one of the fields that surrounded most sides of the town. We poked around high and low, and all the while, we felt the people’s deep set eyes on us. As a group, they were easier to laugh off. We’d performed in front of thousands. A couple dozen farmers weren’t doing shit to our psyche.

We spent two days combing the town. By the second afternoon, there was a police officer who just happened to go wherever we would. The message we were receiving wasn’t subtle: Go away. Leave.

On both of the following nights, there was a knock at the door, finalizing the town’s point, just in case we’d managed to miss it.

The same man: “So you’re Flashpoint Zero.”

Sharyn: “And you’re Lester Ramos. Want to tell us anything?”

Shake, “Nah,” gone.

On the fourth day Sharyn was fed up with the town. She took our rental car, apologized, and said she’d be back by night. We told her not to worry about it. She needed the distance more than we needed the car. Having looked everywhere but inside people’s homes, Yote and I took a walk to the beach. The water made ice feel cozy, but from the sand, it was a nice place to let go for a while. It had been so long since I was bored enough to be entertained by waves.

Yote sat beside me. He toyed around with the sand, and the little rocks. After a while, he asked, “Hey Jace, can I tell you something?”

“If it’s not something mushy about this moment, shoot.”

“Nothing like that,” he said. “I just thought you deserved to know that I, Nathaniel ‘Yotewell’ Todd, am a homosexual. I’ve thought a lot about it, and I can’t hide it anymore—this is who I am.”

“Well Yote, I have something equally shocking for you. I, Jacinta Beckstrom, am at least half Hispanic,” and with that I gave him a shove. “Come on man, I know you like dudes more than I do. It’s never exactly been a secret.”

Yote laid face down on the beach, not bothering to get up from my push. His voice muffled by the sand, he said, “I know you know, but this town is so bland that it’s literally killing me, and I want to make sure I die honest.”

“Yeah, we should’ve brought our instruments,” I said with a sigh, still trying to keep myself occupied by the waves.

“What we should’ve brought is enough liquor to drown the ocean, but yeah, instruments would be nice too,” he said as he sat up. “Hey, mind if I get mushy for just a second? I promise it’s not about the moment.”

I shrugged. “What’ve you got?”

“Do you ever miss La Meseta? Just in general I mean. Would you ever go back?”

“Never,” is what I wanted to say. But it was dishonest, and if the blandness of Glendive was going to kill me, then Yote was right; there was no point in dying a liar. So after a sigh, I admitted, “I do go back, all the time. At least once a month to see Hailey. Would you go back?”

Staring off into the ocean, Yote nodded. He opened his mouth, but before any words could come out, he switched to shaking his head. “The people I’d go back for don’t wanna see me. My friends, my old bandmates, Brackney; they all think I betrayed them, and I guess—”

“I thought we had an agreement about mushy moments,” Sharyn interrupted, walking up from behind us. “Come on, reminiscing about home in front of the sunset? Really? I thought we were a rock band.”

“Aye, you’re Flashpoint Zero.”

I laid back in the sand and looked up at the new voice. “Oh, hey Lester. Anything you want to tell us?”

Lester nodded. He took a look around the beach, and when he’d decided that we were sufficiently alone, he explained the situation to us. He was surprisingly verbal.

“Back in the day, this town was nothing. Just a place for people to do fuck all but stand around and breathe and eventually die, leaving room for the next poor fuck to stand around and breathe and eventually die. Nothing especially bad about that, but nothing remarkable either. So a few people decided to change it. See that island there?” Lester asked, pointing out to a speck on the ocean.

We nodded, and Lester continued. “That’s the place you lot have been looking for. Every other weekend, dozens of young fucks wanting to get away from the monotony of Glendive would sail out to that island. It never had an official name as far as anyone knew, but towards the end, we all took to calling it Avalon.”

“The end?” Sharyn asked.

“Always has to be one eventually, and it can never seem to be a happy one either. Every other weekend, your friend Nick would sail out there with his brother Danny, and the two of them just loved to be part of the show. They weren’t the favorite to many, but they had a fair bit of talent, especially considering they can’t have been more than thirteen. Sometimes Danny would bring a friend of his along, I can never remember the lad’s name. A-something. Well anyways, one day A-something decided to bring some girl with them. Her name I can remember. She was Morgen, and she was the sweetest girl I’d ever met.

“But she was… too innocent for the place. Too pure. It was overwhelming to her, and as soon as the music started, she ran off. We looked for her. First just A-something and Danny, then Nick as well, and eventually all of us. We swept the island until morning, but she was nowhere to be found. Some think she was killed, most say she drowned, but either way, things weren’t the same in Avalon anymore. The scene died down, people stopped playing, and Avalon was left empty. Aside from one lad. Every other week, A-something would sail out to Avalon alone, until the day he left Glendive for good. He said he could still hear her out there. We called him crazy for it, but even when he was older, that’s what he kept on saying.”

“Did you believe him?” I asked.

Lester shrugged. “He seemed to be telling what he thought was the truth, but he always seemed a little… off. Something wasn’t quite right about the lad. But whatever he heard, it kept him going back to that island, so there must have been something to it. Anyways, that whole mess is why you won’t hear anyone talking about Avalon anymore, and it’s part of why you fucks got away with stealing songs for so long. Even the people who rightfully owned those songs still preferred to remove themselves from anything that happened on that island.”

Sharyn looked into Lester. “Who are you?”

He grinned. “Lester Ramos is the name I was born with. You might know me better as Chiseler Deadly, or maybe, as the guy who’s going to kick Nick’s arse in the second I see him.”

“Wait,” I said. There was… no, there was no way. “You’re the real Chiseler; and you’re more pissed at Nick than you are at us?”

“Of course I’m pissed at that rat!” Lester shouted. “Back in the day that little shit was obsessed with us! At first it was cute and flattering and all, but it got old right fuckin’ quick. It started with him demanding to join our band, and when we wouldn’t let him, it just got pathetic. When he moved away to the states and we started hearing our sacred songs sung in American accents on the radio, we knew exactly who the fuck to blame. So yeah, I’m not thrilled with any of you, but I’m sure Nick is the root of this fuckin’ mess.”

Sharyn smiled. “Would you mind saying all of that again in front of a camera?”

“It’d be my fuckin’ pleasure,” Lester said with a hearty nod.

By the time morning came, we had everything we would need to destroy Nick’s reputation and salvage our own. We had a compelling story, a testimony from a member of the band that Nick had stolen from, and Lester gave us his personal permission to continue using Avalon’s songs. He said we could even use a song he’d just written, titled All of the Reasons Nicholas Kennedy is a Filthy Fucking Rat. We passed on it at the time, but told him we’d consider it.

The three of us returned to America to give Quinn the footage. When we showed up at his house, he was… quiet. He was quiet. We told him we had something that would save us, but he just shook his head. “Forget it. Nick’s done causing problems.”

“Why?” Yote asked. “Unless he confessed that he was full of shit—”

“He did,” Quinn interrupted. “He left everything in the note, right before he shot himself this morning.”

That wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. And I didn't buy it. We were supposed to outwit him: catch him in his lie. He was supposed to lose, not give up. He was never that type. Part of me still believes it was one last form of spite. That he knew we had found something.

“So what now?” I asked, not even sure who I wanted an answer from.

“Lay low for a while,” Quinn suggested. “Take some time for yourselves. Once this whole thing has blown over, we can talk about what’s next.”

I did what he said. I locked myself in my house, and for weeks, I did nothing but play the guitar. It wasn’t soothing, but it was a way to get everything out. I would feel pissed off at Nick for everything he’d done, and so I would shred until my fingers were raw. I would feel sad that he was gone, and so I’d slow everything down and put myself in a trance set to the most sorrowful chords in existence. Sometimes they weren’t sorrowful enough, and I would invent my own. But no matter how despairing I could make my guitar sound, I needed something more to get me through it all.

I called up Yote, and the two of us went back to La Meseta. We didn’t tell Sharyn. She wouldn’t have let us go, and she would have been right not to; going back there was an accident waiting to happen. Yote and I knew that, but damned if we were in any position to care what we were getting ourselves into.

We were prepared to sneak inside. We’d concealed our faces under hats and scarves, and combined with his aviators, I couldn’t see Yote’s face at all. But when we arrived at the abandoned gas station, we found the cellar doors propped open. The muscle heads who used to guard Brackney’s entrance were nowhere to be found. Glancing at one another, we went inside.

The place looked similar to how it always had. There were groups of people clustered together, some talking and some laughing, and there was that rickety stage that I always resented. But something had changed about Brackney. The air was different. Yote noticed it too, and he was able to put it into words better than I ever could:

“They really cleaned this place up.”

And that was exactly it. The walls had been washed and painted white; the whole place was well lit; and they’d managed to change something even deeper about the place. They’d managed to change the smell. It didn’t reek of cigarettes and booze, or pot and rebellion. The place didn’t smell like anything at all. It was empty.

Yote and I climbed the stage, but we didn’t reveal ourselves quite yet. We just jammed out some melodies behind our disguises, taking care not to play anything that could be recognized as Flashpoint Zero’s. The audience wasn’t booing us off the stage, which felt good. Even without our reputation backing us, we still had the skills to impress people. After a few songs had passed and the room was at attention, I walked up to the mic.

“I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America.”

Just like the first time I’d done it, the audience flipped out on me. They booed, they hissed, and they acted like I was poisoning them. But when I revealed my face and continued the pledge in German, it only got worse. Things were thrown, people rushed the stage, and Yote and I ran across the room and up the stairs for out fucking lives, laughing the entire way.

I still loved those Punks. Even if they hated my guts, I just had to admire their dedication.

As we put Brackney behind us, I asked Yote, “Did you find what you were looking for there?”

He nodded. Then he shook his head. Then he just shrugged. “I’m not exactly sure what I was looking for in the first place,” he admitted. “To be honest, I almost never am. But I think I found something as we were running from the mob. Even if I didn’t have a much of a point in being there, I had a good time along the way. So going back might not have been for something, but hey, at least it wasn’t for nothing. How about you?”

“Same.”

“Good. Now let’s never have a mushy moment ever again.”


Chapter 11: Sammy Now We’re At The Wars End

We did avoid another mushy moment for as long as we could help it, which was helped by Quinn’s advice to lay low for a while. A while turned out to be a lot longer than I thought it would be. Two years, essentially.

Our next major tour was in ‘93, and it was accompanied by an album we were damn proud of: Avalon. We’d worked with Lester Ramos (the real Chiseler Deadly) to make the album a respectable tribute to the music of Glendive. He even did some recording sessions with us, just to be sure things were what they ought to have been. Yote offered Lester a spot in Flashpoint Zero, but after smiling and calling us sellout fuckheads, he declined and returned to Glendive. I didn’t blame him.

The Avalon tour started in La Meseta. Hailey was there to meet us, and even if I always made it a point to visit, seeing her never got old. She’d been doing just fine since I left. Hell, probably better. She wasn’t the innocent girl I used to see her as, but even as she grew up, she was easily the best person to come from my family. Not that that says much, but still, she was doing more than alright.

That tour had a few memorable moments. In Salt Lake City, Sharyn managed to lose her front teeth is an alcohol related incident. She got them all fixed up before we left for Denver, but on that night, we played our first completely instrumental set. We were praised as artistic for it, which was good, because that was about the furthest thing from the intent.

Yote was feeling down in Minnesota. He bet me and Sharyn that he could choose a person from the audience to fill in for him halfway through the show, and not even Quinn would notice. Quinn noticed immediately, and for losing the bet, Yote had a choice; he could break his streak of over five years and have sex with a woman, or break his lifetime streak and perform an entire song without his shades.

We tried to ask him how he felt about it afterwards. After all, she’d been an attractive woman, and a very nice woman, but unmistakably a woman. He wouldn’t talk to either of us until Detroit, at which point he said he was done making bets with either of us.

Things were good for a while. No Johnny Hick, no Chiseler Deadly, no cops: no antagonists. The three of us were happy being lowercase punks. And then I had to blow it.

It was 2012. We had just set off on another world tour. Our first performance—Live at the Radio City Music Hall—was winding down. We’d played our encore. Sharyn and Yote were leaving the stage. The audience was leaving the building. But I stayed. All week, as we were prepping for the tour, I’d had the lyrics to a Rancid song stuck in my head. Tim Timebomb and Lars Frederiksen rang on in an infinite loop.

 

Little Sammy was a punk rocker
Now it's time for you to leave home
Whoa, Sammy now the war is over
Whoa, Sammy now we're at the war's end
We’re at the war’s end
We’re at the war’s end

 

I stood on the stage, where the lights had been shut down, and I kept thinking back to something Sharyn had said when we were sixteen. It was like a flashback to a war. The only war I’d ever been in.

“Jace, we have to go! This isn’t music, it’s fucking anarchy!”

And I nodded. Yeah. I hit my palms against the strings of my guitar, rhythmic in 3/4 time: one two three one two three one two three one two three. What ever did happen to anarchy? What ever happened to us being uppercase Punks? What ever happened to riots?

 

The war couldn’t be over.

 

I stood at the mic.

 

Punk was War.

 

“Don’t any of you move another fucking muscle.”

They listened. Every single person in Radio City Music Hall stood at attention: every Punk and punk in a black leather jacket; every mother and father who used to have spiked up hair; every thug who was ever in a three-chord band of their own. It had been years. They were starving for orders.

“We have an obligation,” I said so deliberately. “We have a fundamental duty as Punks, right here and right now. People of New York City… march with me.”

I hopped down from the stage and walked down the center aisle. Fans piled over each other to get close to me, to touch me. I was a Punk Legend. Fuck that. Legends were people from the past. Legends were relics of history. But I wasn’t finished. Not by a long shot. Sharyn and Yote joined me, and our army marched. We marched outside onto Rockefeller Center. We marched to Central Park. And there, we marched all through the night, around the same path. We started with too many to count. We formed a complete loop around the park, with the head of our line overlapping the tail. But as the night went on, the line thinned further and further, until the loop fell apart and we no longer surrounded 153 city blocks. I kept on marching. As the sun came up, I could see our numbers were even fewer. Thirty in all. I stopped. I turned to one of them. His hair was died pure red, shaved at the sides, and spiked into a mohawk. His black jeans were tattered, and his black jacket was spotless.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I’m marching,” he told me.

“Why?” I asked him, because I still didn’t know.

“Because we have a fundamental duty as punks! Because fuck the man! Because… because you told us to!”

“Go home.”

“What? But you said—”

I shook my head. “The war is over. You can go home.”

I led a somber march to the nearest police station, with Yote and Sharyn as my only comrades. One last hill to take. And then it could be done.

We entered the police station, and I walked up to the woman behind the bullet proof glass.

“I would like to donate ten million dollars to your department, in honor of the five officers who we killed in ’85.”

The band dissolved after that night. Sharyn joined an alt-rock band called Scuba Crew, which in the end, was only ever famous for having the old drummer from Flashpoint Zero in it. Yote was declared missing in 2013. Every year afterwards, Brackney held a candlelight vigil for their true punk hero. It had been Johnny who was responsible for all the bad stuff, they said. I resumed the use of my former name—Jacinta, with the J that sounds like an H. I settled down in a remote cabin in Canada. I chopped wood every morning for fuel, walked through the forest every afternoon for kindling, and burned the fan mail as tinder.


Chapter 12: Legends

Chop!

Set a new log. Step back. Position one hand at the foot of the axe, and another at the neck. Swing as you step forward, bringing the hand at the neck down to meet the hand at the base.

Chop!

Repeat.

When I first went out to the cabin, I had calluses on the fingertips of my left hand. I had gotten them when I was eight. I had just learned the three essential chords of old-school rock ’n roll, and I was eager to let the world know.

Chop!

After staying at the cabin for long enough, I got different calluses. I got them on my palms from chopping wood in the morning, and on the soles of my feet from walking through the woods during the day. In the evenings, I sat on the cabin’s porch, looking at the wildlife. I’d started to recognize some of the squirrels.

Chop!

I didn’t mean to give them names. The squirrels, I mean. It started as a joke. I named the first one after myself.

Chop!

Hailey, Sharyn, Nathaniel, Joey, Rice, Bill, Lester, Johnny, Nick: I’ll admit, the names got out of hand. I found myself getting angry when they acted out of character. It wasn’t worth that. So I tried to forget the names.

Chop!

I tried to forget about Sharyn and Yote.

Chop!

I tried to forget about Johnny and Nick.

Chop!

I tried to forget about rock ’n roll.

Chop!

I was going to forget about Rock ’n Roll.

Chop!

I was going to forget Punk.

CHOP!

I was going to forget Jace—

Chck!

“Ah, fuck!

I kicked the pile of split logs, and they rolled down the hill. I bent down to pick up my freshly beheaded axe handle, and I hurled that down the hill after the rest of the fucking wood. The head could rust in the grass for all I cared. Fuck it. I went for my walk.

My hands trembled as I went. I hated that. I hated that feeling of inaction: that my hands were doing nothing. I’d played the guitar for 35 years; the calluses on my fingertips were gone.

But it’s not like I was in the woods against my will.

I listened to the birds as I made my way down the footpath. Their songs were calming. They didn’t remind me of anything at all. The sun was warm that day, but it only came through the trees in patches, making it the perfect no-pants weather—it was a tradition that had started mid-summer, and had carried on year-round. Over a thousand days without being seen by another human is a long time.

I could smell the lake, and if I took care to walk softly, I could hear the shallow waves breaking on the beach. I stopped walking. I stood, and I closed my eyes, and I listened. The waves moved as a single mass: in, and out. In, and out. The birds called—I recognized their songs. I heard the skittering of something in the leaves, and I decided that it must have been one of the squirrels, and I smiled at the idea that in spite of all my efforts to the contrary, I’d made a friend.

I opened my eyes. Standing on the trail ten feet in front of me was a coyote. And I swear to christ I knew him. The spiked out hair. The twitching ears. The apprehensive way he looked at me. Un-fucking-canny.

He jumped off into the woods. I watched him go. But I wanted to chase him.

On my way back to the cabin, I heard music. Not bird songs—a guitar. As I entered the small clearing where the cabin sat, I saw an old friend sitting on the front porch, picking the tune to When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

“Good news,” Sharyn said. “Music sucks again.”

She stood up and handed me my guitar. She told me that guitars weren’t popular. That ‘good’ music was sensitive, and guitars weren’t soft enough for that anymore. I took my axe. This was a war I could get behind.

“I was hoping for more,” Joey says as we leave Brackney. It’s still just the four of us: him, Rice, Sharyn, and me.

“They’re coming,” I promise. “We just have to make them.”

We pile into the light-blue van that we rented in tribute. The drive to San Samarra is electric: I can feel the revolution in my fingertips as I sit shotgun, strumming our new song, and our old ones. Behind the wheel, Sharyn sings. In the back I can hear Joey’s strings buzzing against his fretboard. Rice O’ taps against the back of my seat like a war drum, so hard that he almost knocks the dark aviator sunglasses off of my face.

Terror, as a noun, is defined as the use of extreme fear to intimidate people. If what Sharyn says is true, and people don’t listen to real guitars anymore, then what they’re about to hear will be the most appalling act of terror the west coast has ever seen. We exit the van. Sharyn had leaked to news outlets far and wide that a reunion was going down, and as we walk through the crowd in our white suits and ties, I think that they hardly recognize us. They flood the streets in the hundreds, but we pass through like ghosts. We climb to the rooftop of a hotel, two stories high, and the four of us stand side by side on its edge, looking out over our Punk Rock army. I have the honor of playing the first note in Hailey’s Revolution.

Bring on the war.



Prophet

Contents
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10


Chapter 1

Life is a bastard. I used to think there was some flexibility to it; I thought that surely, if a man took the path of righteousness, there would be something worthwhile for him on the other end. Well I’ve been up and down that path more times than I care to count. I’ve been at the lowest chasms and highest cliffs of humanity, I’ve scoured the trail in between, and there were even times when I searched for some other route. And yet, I’ve found no more peace as a holy man than I had as a lowly one. Life really is just a bastard. I know that now, and truth be told, I think the lord’s known it from the very start.

First He tried to hide it in an apple. When that failed miserably He decided to drown the world, as one does. But even after the flood, the people knew that something wasn’t right. Those were the days of Babel, and working together as a single people under a single language, the Babylonians built a tower in order to speak with the lord. There, from atop their mighty tower, they asked the lord a simple question.

“Almighty Creator, why is life a bastard?”

To which the lord promptly responded, “Listen you little shits, you try making something that’s perfect. Now bugger off!”

And the lord divided the people into peoples, and He gave them different tongues, and He smashed their tower to dust. And for a while that worked. He even gave us a book which claimed to have all of the answers in it, in case we ever wanted to question Him again. But I’ve read that book since I was a boy, and I’ve yet to find the lord’s answer to the only question on my mind in these present days of turmoil.

Why is life a bastard?

Our tower may have been smashed, but we’re nearing a second Babel with each passing day. In fact, it’s quite possible we’ve already built it here in San Samarra. From my steeple, I see a building that stands out. It’s not immaculate. It’s not even particularly tall. But there’s a woman sitting on the edge of its rooftop, and it seems to me like she’s asking the lord a great many questions. If she jumps, then I’ll know the lord answered those questions truthfully. If she jumps, then I’ll know that life is a bastard because the lord made it that way by mistake. If she jumps, then I’ll climb over the edge of this steeple and I’ll jump too. But until she falls from that edge, I’ll stay here in my steeple, with a cross hanging around my neck.

Because I don’t hate the lord. I respect Him for trying. However, out of the same respect, I wear a ring around my neck as well. It’s the ring of a mate who tried just as hard and failed just as completely. Right now two names are engraved on its worn surface: Sarah and Daniel. There’s plenty of room for two more names though, should the need arise. The first name is my own, which is Aidan. The second name is the lord’s, and with the time left in this world, I’d be glad to etch in whichever name He feels like using.

The ring brings back memories. I never knew Sarah, but I knew Daniel when the two of us were young. We grew up together in Northern Ireland, the best of pals and all that. But because life is a bastard, my family moved south one summer, and I didn’t hear much from him after that. Sometimes he would write, but over the months his words became impersonal. The last letter I received from him arrived on the day he turned seventeen. It was impossible to mistake the letter for anything but a goodbye.

He ran away from his home shortly after that, and for the longest time, nobody knew where he went. His family gave up hope and moved to the states. The younger brother made it big as a musician, but life is a bastard, and now all the lad has to show for it is the nicest gravestone for miles.

And that’s where the story should have ended. Both brothers were dead, or might as well have been, and the parents were thoroughly heartbroken. Boohoo, tragedy, tears all around. But of course, that’s not where the story ends at all. After twenty seven years of respite, the story picked up again on what felt like a normal and bastardly day, which began with a less-than-pleasant time at work. The familiar sound of shattering glass resounded through the bar, and although it was impossible to feel any enthusiasm, I responded without much hesitation. A bottle had been knocked to the floor by two regulars. They exchanged unpleasantries as I was cleaning up beside them.

They were the only two at the bar, but for a grey afternoon, that was more than usual. The man in the vest had arrived first. He’d given us each a smile, sat down, and kept to himself, saying he didn’t want to get us sick. I believed the fella. Clearly he was ill, as proven by the sniffles that would sound off every thirty seconds, without fail. And clearly his intentions were well enough. After every sniffle he would chuckle, smile, and apologize for showing up.

The moment Leonard entered, Jack’s friendliness left. As the two argued, their words were still marked by a sniffle every thirty seconds, but no smile to match it.

I finished sweeping up the glass, and the bartender addressed the two, whose conversation had grown quite loud. “Alright boys, that’s enough out of the lot of ya.”

The man in the vest shut his mouth and returned all attention to his drink, reclaiming what was left of the smile he’d entered with. The man in the cap continued to bark at his acquaintance.

The bartender leaned in between the two. “Leonard, I know you can hear me. We have this conversation every week.”

“I hear ya Rick. I just don’t much care for what you have to say.”

I walked to the storeroom to toss the broken glass, but before being on my way, I couldn’t help but comment. “Rick won’t tell ya this Leonard, but there are other bars in Belwyn, and you’re welcome to any of ‘em.”

I set about rearranging the items on the storeroom shelves, trying to distract myself from the fact that nothing needed to be done that day. The conversation in the other room was growing louder once again, but I paid it no mind. I was too preoccupied with pretending to care. Besides, it was a grey afternoon, and nothing much ever happened on grey afternoons in Belwyn. Nothing much happened in Belwyn at all.

It took a blatant scream before my attention was called back to the other side of the storeroom door. I returned as Leonard was holding a jagged edge to Jack’s vest. The four of us stood there at the bar, not one of us saying a word, and not one of us making a movement.

I looked to Rick. He looked back, but he risked nothing further. Jack sniffled.

All too soon the glass shimmered and then disappeared, time and time again, into a tangible human being. From behind the bar Rick tried to pull the aggressor away, but the damage was being done and Rick was unable to help it. Ripping myself out of disbelief, I ran to Leonard and wrapped myself around him, trying to restrict the slippery bastard. He kicked at my shins as our arms wrapped themselves into entanglement. He swung his razor shard for all his worth, but I kept its edge away as I pulled him to the ground. Unable to make contact with at anything, Leonard tossed the piece of glass, hitting Jack yet again. After seeing Leonard forfeit his weapon I relaxed a bit. He snapped his head upwards in return, and as I recoiled from the flash, Leonard got loose.

Leonard slammed the door behind himself, and Rick asked if I was well. With my face twisted, I retorted, “What the bloody fuck do you mean am I well? Help him, he was stabbed amadán!”

Rick ran to the other side of the bar, where he looked the bleeding man over. “Oi, can ya hear me Jack?” he asked, speaking directly into Jack’s face. Getting a weak response, but a response all the same, Rick looked over the man’s wounds as I grabbed the phone to call for help.

An ambulance arrived, as did the police sometime later. Once they had left, Rick called it a day. He told me to go home and get some rest. So after a less-than-pleasant time at work, I returned to my flat, where I was soon taking part in my favorite pass time: fuck all. The blinds were shut, the television was off, and I was sprawled out on the couch being a lazy sod.

Only something strange happened. For the first time in weeks, maybe months, I heard a knock.

I stood up and went to answer the door, but before I was even off the couch, there were second thoughts in my mind. I was tempted to say that the person chose my room by mistake. After all, there were dozens of people living in the building. Not to mention, as I stood from my couch, my bed suddenly looked very comfortable. But since it was such a rare occasion, and I was already up, I didn’t see the harm in investigating.

Before walking out, I stepped into my bathroom and glanced at the mirror. Looking back was a strapping old face framed on all sides by a tangle of red hair. I flashed a smile, telling myself that the black eye Leonard had given me wasn’t all that noticeable. After running my fingers through my beard to smooth down some of the more blatant imperfections, I turned and opened my door.

I don’t know who I was hoping to see on the other side. An ex maybe, or a drunken acquaintance. But the man standing in the hallway startled me. He was ghostly in appearance. His face was scarred and hollow. It was clear the man had once been blonde, but his receding hair had lost most of its colour, and the remaining strands wafted in the air as though they too wanted to leave him. He had been adjusting the cuffs of his black jacket, but when he noticed that I’d opened the door, he looked up. He smiled, and it was only then that I recognized the spectre.

“Danny?” I questioned, hardly saying the name out loud. Apparently ghosts could read lips, because he nodded, and his shoulders shook in a brief laugh. I stepped into the hall, but left one foot behind, to stop the door from closing. Just in case. “I’ve hardly recognized ya.”

“You don’t look so different,” the man regarded. His voice struck a swift blow to my chest, and I had to force my next breath. The voice hadn’t changed. Danny used to speak softly, like he hadn’t a care in the world. And despite this man’s otherworldly qualities, he too spoke just as soft. “I suppose it’s been a while.”

I just stared. His presence was petrifying, even if that presence was a head shorter than me and a good deal narrower. He swayed from side to side, and it was impossible to tell why. Perhaps he was nervous. Perhaps swaying is just something dead people do.

I managed to reply to him, “Aye, twenty years at least.”

Giving a sideways nod down the hall, Danny asked, “Would you care to take a walk?”

I took another step forward. The door swung closed behind me, and with that, I was trapped with the ghost of my old mate. I asked him, “So what’s brought you back around here?”

“A few things,” he shrugged as we walked. “You mostly.”

“I’m flattered, truly. But why now? Stop me if I’m wrong, but surely you’ve had plenty of chances to come back from the dead over the years.”

 He laughed. “Is that what I did? Nah, there are a few people I’d like to give a good haunting, but you’re not one of them.”

“I want to believe ya Danny, I do. But it’s eerie shite like that that’s making it difficult.”

“Well for what it’s worth, the pathetic friend you used to have is gone,” Danny said, tapping his temple. “The man before you is a new friend. One longing for simpler times.”

“Sounds more than a little contradictory, don’t ya think?”

“Story of my fuckin’ life,” he said as we turned off of the sidewalk and into a park.

Things were quiet for a while as we looked around. My gaze wandered anywhere but towards the ghost by my side. I did my best to keep a calm look about me, but in my pockets, my hands wouldn’t stop fidgeting. Danny looked cool and collected, like terrorizing the living was something he did every day.

I asked him where he’d spent the last twenty seven years of his life, and he said Sagemont. I asked him why, and he wouldn’t say. I asked him what he’d been doing in Sagemont, and he said he’d been a musician like his brother, only not dead. I asked him why, and he wouldn’t say. I pointed out that he was doing that eerie shite again, and he acknowledged that he was. When I asked him why, he finally responded, “I don’t think you’ve grasped the meaning of ‘I won’t say.’”

We found a bench to rest at. It wasn’t exactly a nice day for a walk. Nice days in Belwyn were extinct, it seemed. But the wind wasn’t too bothersome, and the clouds weren’t too grey, and so we sat on that bench for a while, not saying a word as we took it all in.

Silence between us used to be a comfortable thing, when we were young. What was the need for words when you knew what someone would say anyways? But the man sitting beside me was a stranger—he told me so himself.

“So what’s brought you back around here again?”

Danny reached into a jacket pocket, and retrieved a bundle of euros. For the first time since he knocked on my door, his smile disappeared. “Well I have this now, which is something. Not much really, but since I don’t have any plans, I thought it might interest you.”

My eyes grew wide for a moment, and I leaned close to give him a sharp whisper. “Put that away; you don’t know what people would do to get their hands on it.”

“If they want it they can have it, there’s plenty more.”

“Christ, it’s no wonder you’re smilin’ so much.”

“I don’t like to think that has a thing to do with it, actually,” he said as he stuffed the bundle back into his pocket. “It wasn’t worth the price, not by a damn sight.”

“And what would that price be?” I questioned. He wouldn’t say, so I sighed and looked away. “Well would ya at least tell me about that pendant of yours?”

“This?” he asked, pulling on the slim silver chain around his neck.

There was a ring at the end of the chain, which he held between two of his fingers for me to see. It was made of a lustrous metal, I never did figure out exactly what, and a series of thorny vines had been engraved along the outside. Squinting closer, I spotted a line of tiny letters on the polished inner surface.

“There’s a name on it,” I noted, as though he were somehow unaware.

“Yes, Sarah.”

“You didn’t off and get married, did ya?”

Danny didn’t say. Instead, he tucked the ring away and leaned back. “Enough carry on about me now. What’ve you been doing these days?”

“Not as much as I’d like to be, I tell ya,” I responded as I leaned back with him, spreading my arms out over the wooden bench. “Seems the world became a craiceáilte place since we were kids.”

“You know I still can’t understand you when you launch into phrases like that,” Danny admitted, and as the words came out, I could see his smile resurfacing along with them. “But I doubt if it was anything pleasant.”

“Still haven’t taken your ma’s advice and learned your own language?”

“What use is a dying tongue anyways?”

“It’s not dead as long as there’s someone to speak it.”

“But being the last one keepin’ it alive must get lonely,” he countered. Rather than admitting how entirely correct he was, I glanced off at the sky. The clouds didn’t seem to be getting any lighter. “Sorry if I’m being difficult,” he said. “I’ve just been doing a lot of thinking in these last weeks. Not all of it about you, not even most, but—”

He stopped mid-sentence, as though there were a pair of unseen hands at his neck. I asked him what was wrong, but he just shook his head, clenching his fists. After doubling over in a sharp inhale, Danny expelled a long and aggravated breath.

I began to put a comforting hand on Danny’s back. Began to.

I just couldn’t bring myself to it. I retracted the gesture. Instead we sat on the bench, physically near each other, but separated by twenty seven years of emptiness. Rain drops fell in lieu of tears, and the park goers dispersed. All except for me and Danny. It was only when I started to shiver that he spoke up.

“I’m sorry I bothered you, just go home.”

“And where will you go?” I asked.

Danny’s pained expression tightened even further. “I have a hotel room across town. I can walk. It’s not far.”

I stood, and in the cold Belwyn rain, I offered Danny a hand. “Why don’t you come on back to my flat? If nothing else, it’s closer.”

“The distance doesn’t matter much anyways. I could get a cab,” he pointed out as he stared up at me.

“Up to you mate, but I like the idea of spending the night together. It’d be a bit like old times.”

Danny reached up and took hold of the lingering gesture, bracing himself on it as he rose to his feet. We stood there as if frozen by the chilling rain, hands and eyes locked together, until Danny raised his voice to be heard against the downpour. “It’s good to be back in good company an’ all, but this rain is fucking ridiculous!

“Sneaks up on ya, doesn’t it?” I projected as we strode through the downpour. “Not much rain in Sagemont I gather?”

“East England, I’m surprised it’s not a desert!” Danny told me, shouting over the growing roar of the torrent.

Splashing through the puddles, Danny’s eyes exhibited a familiar glimmer—one which finally matched his smile. As the two of us stumbled our way into the flat, I heard the sound of my own laughter, a sound I hadn’t even realized I was making.

“What are you so cheery about?” Danny asked.

“Nothin’ special, just reminded me of the days you and I would bunk off and go sailing. D’ya know the time I mean?”

“When not thirty seconds after we’d left the docks, the storm of the fucking century passed over Glendive? Of course I remember; we were scared witless, but it didn’t even pale in comparison to when your mam found out!” Danny exclaimed, eyes still glimmering.

Walking down the hall in drenched shoes, I asked him, “So what sort of millionaire dresses like some punk from the seventies?”

“One who was a punk in the seventies?” he suggested. “Or maybe one who can’t quite come to terms with how much he’s got.”

“And how much would that be?” I asked, taking a key from my pocket and sticking it in the door.

“Just shy of thirty million.”

I stopped rotating the key mid turn, my breath needing to be forced once again. “Thirty million did you say?”

“Aye, at least that’s in actual euro. Apparently there’s more in assets. I never cared to learn the full number.”

Exhaling, I opened the door and we stepped inside. “If this is a joke, well fuckin’ done; I believe every word of it,” I said as I kicked off my shoes.

Removing his soaked jacket, Danny said, “If only I could be so lucky.”

“Still won’t tell me where the fortune came from?”

He released an abrupt laugh, and shook his head. “There’s nothing fortunate about this. Although I suppose us reuniting is something, isn’t it?”

I agreed with him as he took a look around the room, not that there was an abundance for him to look at. I ambled over to a mini fridge and grabbed two beers, offering one to Danny. Waving it away, he said he’d never touch the stuff again.

“Well brilliant, more for me.”

I closed the fridge with both bottles in hand. Danny dropped onto the couch, and asked, “So how’ve the years treated everyone in my absence?”

“Depends on who you’re asking about,” I said as I sat beside him. Over the course of the evening we reminisced over the past, and I told of what our various acquaintances had made of themselves. Some people had ended up better off than others, but most of their lives had been on par with my own. We didn’t talk much about our personal lives. He didn’t care to say anything, and I didn’t have anything to say.

A few hours had passed before we agreed that we were exhausted. He spread out on the couch, and I took the bed. Sleep came within minutes, but in those minutes I had a thought. I thought, for a few minutes that night, that maybe life wasn’t a bastard. Maybe life as a whole wasn’t that bad.

I wish Danny would’ve read my mind and slapped me, because it was the dumbest thought of my adult life.


Chapter 2

Danny was watching some news report from the states when I woke up. He seemed captivated, but when I sat up, he turned and apologized for waking me. I insisted that he hadn’t, and he insisted that it was inconsiderate either way.

“Also, I’ve been meaning to ask,” he mentioned, “just how did someone as reclusive as yourself manage to get a black eye?”

“Leonard Briggs, he’s how. But what pisses me off to no end isn’t him or anyone like him, vile as his type are. He stabbed a man, over a fistful of cash by the sound of it, and hardly anyone acted like that was a crucial problem. They treated it as though that much were normal. The fact that nobody gives a damn; that’s what pisses me off more than a black eye ever could.”

“But you were one who did give a damn?”

“I was.”

“Then what’s it matter? I’ve spent the last hours watching news from all over the world, and there’s been a theme. It’s undeniable that there are bad people, but there are good people to balance them out. Like these fellas here, look,” Danny said as he gestured back at the television. On the screen was a photograph of four teens in a parking lot, packed to go camping. “They’re making that black kid out to be the most rotten soul on the face of this earth. But the one standing beside him, the one bent as the River Shannon—he’s good. The bad people exist, but the good people keep them balanced.

“Of course, sometimes, well,” Danny nodded at my injury and concluded, “sometimes that balance isn’t kept seamlessly. But there is a balance. Take pride in knowing that you’re one of those who keep it.”

I sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, listening to the news. When the story was finished I turned to Danny. “Three men are dead, maybe more, and you’re concerned over a black eye. Which group does that put you in? Is Daniel Kennedy a good man or a bad one?”

Danny glanced away, and admitted, “I don’t know that I’m a strong contender for either.”

“Let’s just forget about it then,” I said as I stood up.

He sat in silence for a moment while I got breakfast together. We’d barely stopped talking since his return, and in that silent moment, it occurred to me why that was. When he talked, I could hear his soft voice, and remember that he used to be my dearest mate. There was a time when I was closer to him than he was to his own brother. By the sound of his voice alone, it was easy to mistake him for the same person he was before. His voice made him alive, and based on the way he looked, perhaps his voice was the only thing tasked with the responsibility. He was pale. He was gaunt. Many words could describe him, but I always went back to the same one: ghostly. As I offered him a plate, I was all too eager to hear his voice and banish the spirit from my residence.

I prompted him, “I shouldn’t be hard on you for caring about the black eye. If anything, I should be harder on myself for the fact that I’ve yet to mention your scars. I’d ask where you got them, but I already have the strangest feeling that you won’t say.”

“Finally caught on, eh?” he chuckled. “At least I don’t ever have to go back to where I got them. You don’t have to go back to that bar either, if you don’t want to.”

“Some people still have to work for a living.”

“Aye, but we don’t have to be among them now, do we?” Danny mentioned, pulling the bundle of euros from his pocket and tossing it to me.

“Even if there is as much as you say, it can’t possibly last a lifetime,” I said, leafing through the notes.

“Almost thirty million? I don’t see many ways it couldn’t.”

I handed the bundle back. “This is too much. You didn’t ask to spend the night, and I’m not asking you for money.”

“But then, I did spend the night regardless, didn’t I?” Danny said. He set the bundle on the couch between us and continued, “You’re the only friend I’ve got left Aidan. I don’t want your life to be any more difficult than it has to be.”

“Before you came back around I thought I had it pretty good.”

“Your eye seems to disagree.”

“Alright, I quit,” I declared, feeling a smirk work its way onto my face. “If you showing up with a minor fortune of misfortune wasn’t enough, Leonard Briggs is the bastard who stamped the deal. Just wish you’d make me work for it is all. You know I’m not comfortable accepting gifts.”

“Good, consider this the last gift you ever have to accept,” Danny said, picking up the bundle and throwing it my way yet again.

I caught it, and I held it for a moment. Thirty million. Far more than enough to never work another day in my life. Fortune such as that wasn’t supposed to come knocking on the door out of nowhere. I held the bundle, but it was heavier than its physical qualities let on.

“You have to explain where this came from,” I insisted. “I live a modest life, and I’ve worked hard to make an honest living. I can’t imagine that you’ve spent the last quarter of a century working ten thousand times harder.”

“Look, Aidan—”

“I know,” I interrupted, and I tossed the money back to him. “You won’t say.”

“I certainly wouldn’t like to, but,” Danny paused and closed his eyes. Reaching behind his neck, he unfastened the clasp of his pendant, and collected it into his cupped hand. With his head turned down at the ring, Danny spoke.

“I thought about it all night. This much needs to be said.”

I can’t say how much of Danny’s story is the truth. I like to think he was sincere, but in all honesty, I have no way of knowing. To further complicate things, there are some details I filled in myself: things which he never said, but which I pictured nonetheless. In short, this is his story as I remember it.

It began on a random day in October. While strolling through an alley, a teenager’s eyes darted every which way, scanning over the area. A tattered winter coat was wrapped around his torso. It was a few sizes too big with a few too many rips to be the embodiment of warmth, but if nothing else, it was more comforting than the crisp air. His shoes were in the same condition, held together by duct tape and will. Stopping beside a rubbish bin, he took one final look around before removing the lid and peering inside.

“Got’cha,” came a voice from behind the teen. “I seem to recall you saying that you were done eating out of these for good.”

The teen turned to face the young man. “Life can be rough. You should know that.”

“Been out here as long as you have, that’s the truth,” the older of the two said. Animating his words with nonsensical gestures, he asked, “So just what is the almighty Danny Boy doing eating out of the trash? Didn’t he have the world in the palm of his hands not two days ago?”

Danny tossed the lid back in the general direction of the bin, and while walking away, said, “Bugger off Hick.”

“Seeing as we’re equals your majesty, I think I’ll go wherever I damn well please. So, playing your songs not working how you’d hoped? The people aren’t clamoring to see the bard?”

“No, they aren’t. But they’re paying me more for that than you’re getting for sitting around pissing in your pants.”

“Hey now, no need for that. We’re in this together, you and me.”

“No, no we’re not. With your pick of people to pester in Sagemont, why you chose me is a damn good mystery,” Danny remarked as they stepped out of the alley. The North Sea came into sight. Walking towards it, Danny asked, “Is there something you wanted?”

“Nothing more than some companionship.”

“Couldn’t a’ picked a worse person for that I’m afraid. Stick around if it suits ya Hick, but at the end of the day, you’ll always be as unpleasant as you’ve been on this fine morning.”

“You’re a bit of a prick, you know that? I told you that music is a fickle business. You will never make it alone, that much I can promise.”

Without response, Danny continued on his way and left the man behind. The scent of the sea reached Danny soon enough. He proceeded to the pier, because he knew the pier’s end was a peaceful sort of place. It was rare to find anyone else on it, and those who did venture out were never too bothersome.

Sitting at the edge, Danny took a scrap of paper out of one pocket and a worn down pencil out of the other. He stared out at the water for a moment, then began scrawling words on the paper, adding to what had already been written. He sat there for hours, even after the sheet had been filled from top to bottom, crossing bits out and making amendments.

Upon returning to the town, Danny sifted through a bin yet again, this time taking more care to make sure he was alone. The smell was repulsive and the very concept was enough to keep him away as often as he could help it, but the alternatives were few and far between. Grimacing, Danny retrieved his meal for the evening; an orange that had long since gone bad, and some meat that was in no way identifiable. He took care not to smell either item as he ate. It was a few minutes later that he gagged, falling to his knees in the alley.

Standing behind him once more, a voice could be heard saying, “My my, what have we here?”

“Go,” Danny began, and after taking in a sickly breath, “to Hell.”

The man went on, as though the doubled over lad hadn’t spoken. “You’ve been here for what, a year and a half now? And still, you can’t keep down your food. Pitiful really.”

“Easy for you to say, ya dirty, disease ridden bastard.”

“Right,” the man affirmed. He took a knee beside Danny. Giving the teen a hearty pat on the back, the man said, “Take care now,” as Danny emptied the contents of his stomach onto the frosty pavement.

Vomit stung his throat and tears blurred his vision as Danny stumbled his way to a brick wall and collapsed there, gripping and pulling at his vibrant blonde hair while he suppressed the urge to scream. The man leisurely walked out of the alley, laughing all the while.

“Son of a fuckin’ cunt!” Danny called after the man when he was out of sight. He sighed and closed his heavy eyes, only to have them grow wide when the man returned to the alley, headed for the mess of a teenager.

Half a dozen strides remaining between the two of them, the man stopped. From a respectable distance he uttered, “What did you call me?”

“It wasn’t—”

“What did you fucking call me‽”

Exhaling, Danny repeated, “I called ya the son of a fuckin’ cunt.”

The man crossed his arms. “The world doesn’t take kindly to our type Danny Boy. As far as they’re concerned we are not people, we are not human, and we are hardly even animals. We’re homeless. We’re garbage. But what will piss both them and me off to no end, is some goddamn punk with an attitude, thinking he’s at the center of it all. Wake up, before it’s too late.”

With that the man turned and left, hanging his head.

Danny’s body sat limp. With a moan, he pulled out his pencil and paper. Squinting at the sheet in the day’s diminishing light, Danny once again began to edit, writing as quickly as his trembling fingers would allow. When he was finished, he stumbled out of the alley and onto the streets.

“Roger!” Danny called as he opened the door to a pub. “I need my guitar.”

“You sure you need it now?” the bartender asked. “There’s hardly anyone here.”

“Aye, just hand it over, there’s something I need to figure out,” Danny said. Reaching behind the bar, Roger produced a beat up guitar and handed it to the teen. Danny took the instrument and a stool, and proceeded to a corner. “Thanks for holding onto this for me by the way. You’ve no idea how helpful it’s been.”

Roger nodded as Danny sat down to play. Mismatched fragments of sound christened Danny’s session, though they eventually became more whole as the night carried on. The night brought with it more pub goers. Many had been there on previous nights when Danny had played, but there were also plenty who hadn’t. Danny took a deep breath, and moved to a more central spot against a wall, checking once more that his guitar was in tune.

By the time that night’s performance was nearing its end, it had been like any others. A few people had tossed their loose change his way, but most acted as though they hadn’t noticed his presence at all. After another group had left and fewer than half a dozen people remained, Danny stopped playing. With a grin, he announced, “I wrote this next song myself, so I apologize for that. This one’s called Wake Up Twice.”

And so, Danny sang. He sang about a pair of friends named Kenny and Maurice, and how they were considered inseparable. He sang of when, at the age of fifteen, Maurice and his family had moved away, and how a combination of distance and time had withered their friendship. He sang about time when Kenny, after years of self-inflicted struggle, left his hometown and travelled far far away. And finally, he sang of Kenny being told he needed to get his life together, and how some morning the boy would have to wake up twice: once from his sleep, and once from his delusion.

Danny stood and walked to the bar. As he reached over and handed Roger the guitar, a woman sitting nearby commented, “That was a beautiful song you played there.”

Danny glanced at her. “Yeah?”

The woman chuckled, and introduced herself. “I’m Sarah, it’s nice to meet you. But I must say, it was nicer from a distance. You smell something horrendous.”

Danny felt his face run warmer. “Aye, not something I even notice much these days. I, well, you heard the story.”

“I wouldn’t mind hearing another.”

“Well I’m sorry to disappoint, but to find something pleasant I’d have to go back further than I can recall clearly, and I’d rather not bring you down.”

“Oh, is that why you go around singing that Wake Up Twice tragedy? To cheer folks up?”

“But that was a song; I can say whatever nasty shite I want to in a song and more than likely it’ll go unnoticed, provided the melody is nice. I didn’t expect anyone to notice at all really, especially not at this hour.”

Sarah stared down into what remained in her glass. “When one’s looking for something to be happy about, sadness has a way of jumping out at them.”

Danny looked closer at the woman before him. The two spoke until the pub was closed, mostly of what pains the world had caused them over the years. Despite the overlying subject, there was no sense of gloom. Danny grinned more that night than he had in total since he’d set foot in Sagemont, and Sarah’s expression was a close match. When told to leave they were reluctant, but nonetheless, they exited the pub and went their separate ways.

The next night Danny returned, and upon arriving, he locked eyes with Sarah once again. Again Danny performed, and again they spoke. Danny asked if there was any reason she’d come alone to the same pub two nights in a row, and Sarah responded by saying that he’d done the same. Within half an hour of closing time, Sarah asked, “So just how does an Irishman find himself so far from home?”

Danny set down the drink that Roger had gifted him, and asserted, “Well it damn sure wasn’t an accident. Maybe a mistake, who’s to say? But not an accident.”

“Why would it be a mistake?” Sarah asked, putting a hand over his.

“Is it that unclear? I’m homeless Sarah; things aren’t exactly going as well as I had planned.”

Sarah’s grip on Danny’s hand tightened. Pulling on his arm, she stood and said, “Come along then.”

“What’s this—”

“Come with me to my house. I can’t believe I was so naive, not realizing your predicament sooner. For God’s sake, you must have outright told me a dozen times or more.”

Danny stood and followed her outside. “Hold on, I got myself here, and it’s my fault if I’m stuck.”

While she hurried along, Sarah insisted, “You’re not stuck. If there’s one thing I can do with the time I have left, it’s helping someone who’s more than deserving.”

“Hey!” Danny called, tripping over himself to keep up. “What do you mean, ‘time I have left’?”

Sarah dismissed the question and tried to walk faster. Grabbing her by the arm, Danny held her in place and insisted on an answer. In explanation, Sarah wept. She wrapped her arms around her newfound companion, and between forced breaths, she whispered the answer he had insisted on. The two continued to walk, a silence hovering around them.

“This is your house?” Danny asked as they approached a wrought-iron gate. Gazing past it, he mused, “It’s a bleedin’ mansion.”

“Not quite,” Sarah dismissed as she opened the gate. Once inside, she showed Danny around, reminiscing of events that had happened in each room when her family had been more complete. Despite her recent confession, she struck Danny as quite happy while recanting her memories, as though those thoughts existed in their own sacred world. Eventually she showed him to a guest room located across the hall from her own room, and wished him a good night.

Danny laid on a bed for the first time in over a year, yet found little rest.

Ten years passed. On a random day in October, Danny found himself walking once again to a pier that he used to visit so often. He had avoided it since meeting Sarah. On that morning however, some shapeless notion had caused him to return, and what’s more, to return alone. It was foggy that day, and as Danny took his first solitary step onto the pale wood, the bench at the pier’s end was beyond his sight’s grasp.

“What are you afraid of Sarah? If there’s something I’m missing, please, tell me. You don’t know how much you mean to me.”

Danny looked to his left, seeing nearby waves break against the shore.

“It’s nothing either of us can help Danny, okay? These last years have been hell and I’m grateful for what you’ve done to improve them, but this has to come to an end sooner or later.”

To Danny’s right was a trio of children, playing in the sand.

“Sarah, there are people who can help.”

Overhead was a vast expanse of grey. It was uniform, and quite possibly infinite.

“Sarah—”

“Stop saying my name like that!”

Danny’s new coat shielded him from the cold air, but still he shivered. The bench at the pier’s end came into view, accompanied by the blurred silhouette of the person sitting on it. Danny shook his head when it became clear who the man was. Turning around at the sound of footsteps, the man inquired, “Danny Boy?”

“Aye Johnny Hick, it’s me.”

Danny sat beside the homeless man, who said, “I can see why you came out here so often. It’s lovely.”

“It is, but to me it was always more than the view.”

Johnny Hick looked in every direction. He listened for a sound. He tried to use any number of other senses to understand what Danny meant. After coming up with nothing, Johnny Hick said, “Tell me then, what else is here?”

“This spot, right here, is the farthest away from Glendive one can possibly be without leaving Sagemont, and without getting their arse soaked.”

“You are interesting Danny Boy, and I have no problem saying that.”

Danny asked, “So what’s your story?” as he looked out over the waters.

“What, I only get one?”

Danny considered the question. “You can have as many stories as you see fit, I was just asking.”

Scratching at his short beard, Hick responded, “No, forget about it. It’s important to me. To you, it’s just a curious whim.”

“I didn’t m—”

“Danny Boy; some people learn to take the hint. Just let it be.”

Danny apologized, and Hick continued, “We’re complex beings, people. When we met, you didn’t care about a thing I had to say. And after living the good life, now you can find the time. Why is that? Why are you out here today?”

“It’s Sarah. She’s unwell. She can’t seem to leave her bed but she can’t sleep in it either, she’s trying medicines but hating every last one of them, and it’s getting to the point where she’ll hardly speak to anyone at all. I came here to clear my head.”

“Does she know what’s ailing her?”

Danny lowered his head and folded his hands.

“Cancer.”


Chapter 3

Danny looked up from his ring. The rest of the story is as expected; Sarah passed away, leaving Danny with a fortune and a heartbreak. Danny never did say how he spent his remaining years in Sagemont. Maybe I’ll figure it out someday. Or, maybe I’ll accept that he wanted that part of his life to remain a secret. In the meantime, I’ll just stand here and stare over at the woman atop the second Tower of Babel, wondering why she hasn’t jumped yet.

After Danny told his story, the two of us went out on the tear. We said it was to mourn the life behind us, but in equal part, it was to celebrate the life ahead of us. Despite his initial protests, I did convince my old mate into a drink or two. Or eight. Christ, maybe more, I just can’t remember anything after that point. All I know is that I woke up the next morning in a hotel, alone.

For a while I laid on the bed, voluntarily immobile. It was by no means my first time feeling like the universe had a personal grudge with my sensory, but it was disagreeable all the same. I’d found that the best cure was to not think too deeply about it. So lying on the bed, I pushed all thoughts aside: no tale of Danny’s past, no hopes about the future, and no consideration to where my mate might’ve been at that moment. Although when the hangover did begin to pass, it was that last thought which grabbed be.

I had a look around the room, and spotted a note sitting on the nightstand. It read, “WenT To The rooF To GeTt some air. heres TO LIFE!”

Well. I flew to the door and pulled it open, but jumped at the sight of a man in a baseball cap, standing right in my path. Not forfeiting a single step back, I asked, “Where is he Leonard?”

“Your little mate? I didn’t touch the lad. I must say though, I haven’t been fond of your antics lately.”

“Shouldn’t fiends be in jail this time of day?”

“Why would I want to go there? It’s a dreadful place to tell you the truth, been there before, nothing to do all day but think. You ever get to thinking Aidan? Nah, you wouldn’t have, you don’t look mad enough. Thinking makes a man mad.”

As he droned on my patience withered. Through with his rambling, I commanded, “Leonard: away.”

We glared at each other, and we both cast our contempt downwards, because we both knew we were the bigger man. I wasn’t fucking about; I would have fought him again. I would have taken the smugness off his face and knocked it clear past the pier in Sagemont. All I needed was for the bastard to be the one responsible for it.

But he wasn’t attacking me. In hindsight, he was never going to. I was standing on the balls of my feet, knees bent, fists and teeth clenched. Leonard was simply standing. When he started to move I started to throw a punch, but he stepped aside, and I was left with a funny feeling. I wanted a challenge, something to fight, something I could conquer. But life is a bastard, and I didn’t even get that.

I walked down the hall and stepped into the lift. It was only as the door was sliding shut that Leonard shouted, “You might want to hurry! He wasn’t looking so good!”

Before the door closed, I caught a glimpse of Leonard laughing.

I slammed my first into the wall. It came back bloodied, but I did it two more times before the lift opened on the highest floor. There I saw Danny, passed out in front of the roof access door, and I didn’t know whether to embrace him or to bloody my knuckles once more.

His head turned in my direction, and his eyes opened. “Aidan?”

I sat against the wall beside him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I ha, ugh, I have to, say somethin’,” Danny declared, trying to get up.

“And what’s that?”

Having failed his attempt to stand, Danny was on his stomach yet again. “Sarah: I loved her, y’know that?”

“Aye Danny, I know that,” I confirmed.

A look of distaste spread across his face—the words resting on his tongue were too sour to bear. He rolled to his back, where he spat, “Good. I can’t rem’mber if I, if I told her.”

I looked down at him. His new appearance still hadn’t grown on me, but I’d come to accept that the ghostly man was, in some way, Daniel Kennedy. Never the most sentimental, but always quite aware of the world around him. So when the ghost lying on the floor couldn’t remember whether or not he’d said a phrase as simple as “I love you,” I assured him that he surely would have.

“Aidan,” Danny repeated.

“Yes?”

“I lied when I was talkin’ to Johnny Hick, that day.”

“What did you lie about Danny?”

“It wasn’t cancer,” he spat again. “She was sad, she was, always so sad. I couldn’t stop her.”

“Fuck mate, why would you lie about something like that?”

Danny closed his eyes. “Suicide,” he mumbled, “it’s a type of cancer, if you think about it.”

Then our location struck me.

“Danny. What were you doing trying to get on the roof?”

“I don’t blame her, you know,” he went on. “I can’t… I can’t say I’m happy for her, or even that I know she’s at peace. But I don’t blame her.”

“Danny? Danny! Wake up, I know you can hear me!”

It was too late. If somebody were to walk by, they would think I was sitting there with a dead man. In many senses, they wouldn’t have been wrong.

I pulled Danny’s arm over my shoulder and stood. I carried him to the lift, and then to his room. Or at least, the room I thought to be his, since I hadn’t bothered to check the number before rushing out. I tried to turn the handle, but it wouldn’t budge. Ready to start punching walls again, I set Danny down and went through his pockets in search of a key. What I found instead was a folded up piece of paper, bearing words neatly written in black ink.

“I, Daniel Kennedy, leave the Feldtmann fortune and estate to Aidan O’Moran. Goodbye friend.”

That was it. Two sentences were all he was going to leave behind. My hands trembled as I read it, over and over again, trying to understand. There was so much more for him to say, certainly more than two bleeding sentences. There were decades of his life he’d yet to touch on. Even if he didn’t want to live any longer, he could at least explain the life he was leaving behind.

I was at a loss. There was my last good friend, unconscious before me, and he never wanted to be conscious again. Was it wrong to blame him? What in the bastardly world would I tell him when he woke up? And what was I supposed to do in the meantime?

I would pray. That’s what I would do. I got on my knees, right there in the hallway, and brought my hands together in hopes of some miracle.

I can’t put my prayer into words. The message I sent the lord that day was beyond English, beyond Gaelic, and perhaps it was even beyond the language of the Babylonians. But it was something I understood, and it was sure as Heaven and Hell something He could understand.

The lord heard my prayer. If He hadn’t, then the lift doors wouldn’t have opened. A man pushing a cart wouldn’t have stepped into the hall and seen me kneeling before an unconscious corpse. The man wouldn’t have run to me and asked what had happened. The man wouldn’t have been Jack, the same man who was stabbed the previous day. Before standing, I uttered to the lord the most heartfelt gratitude I had ever felt.

“Aidan?” Jack questioned. “I can’t even begin to guess what you’re doing here, but I need to thank you for yesterday.”

“It was nothing, you don’t have to—”

“No, I do. It takes a special—”

Jack,” I interrupted. “It really was nothing; I didn’t put that much thought into it, and neither should you. How are your wounds?”

He nodded down at his right arm, which was wrapped in a sling. “Only deep cuts were right here from trying to defend myself. Doctor said I was lucky. They just sewed me up and sent me on my way. So uh, who’s your friend?”

“His name is Danny,” I explained. “Listen, I know this sounds odd, but could you get us a ride to the hospital?”

“Oh God, is he—”

“He’s fine,” I assured, knowing full well that it was a lie. “But I’d really rather get there before he wakes up.”

I could see the wheels turning in Jack’s head—what few wheels there were at any rate—as he considered the circumstances. Hoping it would help, I warned him that Leonard was lurking around the hotel. When Jack learned that little piece of information, he was insistent that he drive us himself.

I picked Danny up and carried him once more, following Jack to his car. Not much had changed when we arrived at the hospital; Danny was just as unconscious, and I was just as concerned. As Jack dropped us off I thanked him, and as I carried Danny inside, I also thanked the lord once more. I told the woman at the front desk that we needed a room. She asked what for. I told her it was for detox. That wasn’t the complete truth, but it was enough to speed things along. Besides, after the way we’d been drinking, it couldn’t have hurt.

Things were automatic for the next few hours. I followed as they put Danny on a gurney and brought him to a room. I watched them stick needle after needle into him. A doctor asked me questions about my mate. I answered them as well as I could, and before the doctor left, I told her one last thing which she hadn’t asked about.

“He was trying to get to the roof. This note was in his pocket. I think he wrote it yesterday.”

She took the note. After glancing it over, she placed it on her clipboard and said, “We’ll keep an eye on him, thank you. You’re free to leave. He might not be up for a while. Of course, you’re also free to stay, if that’s what you’d prefer.”

I nodded and leaned back in my chair. She stepped out of the room, leaving just me and Danny. A nurse would stop by every half hour, but he never said anything. Maybe out of respect, or maybe because he had nothing to say. Either way, I was grateful for the quiet.

In my head I kept going over what would happen when Danny woke up. What he would say, what I would say, how we would come to an understanding. Yet it was impossible. The conversation never ended well, no matter how many times I went over it. We would both leave the room very unhappy with each other, every single time.

It was dark out when he opened his eyes. He looked out of place. I doubt he expected to wake up in a hospital, but I believe the truth of the matter is that he didn’t expect to wake up at all. After glancing at the needle in his arm, he was the first of us to speak.

“What’s all this then? What happened?”

His voice struck a swift blow to my chest, and I had to force my next breath. The voice had changed. From that point on, he spoke exactly as he looked: ghastly. His tone screamed of his disregard for anything earthly. It was impatient, like he had better places to be, and it was detached, like a part of him had already left.

“Don’t give me that, ‘what happened?’ bullocks. You were trying to jump.”

Danny made a gesture, I don’t know that there’s a term for it. First he scowled, and then he brought his hand to his chest. His fingers were gnarled into a claw, and they shook along with the rest of his arm. Finally he bunched the fingers into a fist and brought them down onto his leg, screaming, “Yes! You’re God bloody fuck damn right I was trying to jump! Why the hell shouldn’t I‽”

“Why the hell shouldn’t you?” I repeated, astounded by the question. Counting the list on my fingers, I said, “There are people who care about you. For as long as I’ve known you, you seemed happy more often than not. You have so much more to say, and so much more to do. And you’re a millionaire ar son Dé!

He scoffed at the five fingers I held up. Holding up five of his own, he retracted a digit with each of his counterpoints. “There aren’t people who care about me; when I left, they all carried on just fine. I ‘seemed happy,’ what does that even mean? I know what happiness is, but I’ve rarely felt it, so don’t go calling me the man I never was. As for the money, just don’t fucking go there mate. That money has given me the chance to do anything I could want, and all it’s proven is that I don’t want a damn thing.

“And having so much left to do and say, well, I suppose these fingers actually sum up my feelings on that quite nicely,” he said, returning attention to his hand. The middle and index fingers were still held high, and the back of his hand was facing my way. That gesture did have a name in Ireland, and to put it into more general words, it told me to fuck off. “You don’t tell a suicidal man he has things left to do Aidan, because it’s simply a lie, every single time.”

“So why did you come find me?” I questioned. I forced my hands to be still. Both of us needed to calm the fuck down, because I’d played this scenario out in my head, and it hadn’t gone anywhere. “It sounds like you could have slipped away without anyone ever noticing, so why complicate things? If it weren’t for me you could have been dead days ago. If you think I’m such a bastard for keeping you here, then you have to tell me why you sought me out. It wasn’t by mistake, and it certainly wasn’t from the goodness of your heart.”

“Because Sarah wanted me to be happy. She tried to herself, but she couldn’t, and so before she hung herself she asked me to be happy in her place. Well guess what: I can’t either. I tried—I came here looking for somebody who I used to be happy with, but I just can’t. So I don’t think you’re a bastard for keeping me here, but you’re blind if you think there’s any point to it.”

That’s when the nurse and the doctor walked in. They’d heard the commotion, and they asked me to leave. I explained it to them, but they weren’t willing to listen. They just insisted that I get away from him.

I prayed again in the waiting room, and this time I can put it into plain English. It wasn’t a complicated request, but it was something that only divine intervention could carry out. I prayed that Danny would be alright.

I woke up the next morning in the same waiting room chair I’d fallen asleep in. A new person was at the front desk, and I asked him about Danny’s condition. After tapping a few things into a keyboard, he said, “We released a patient named Daniel two hours ago. I would have woken you if I knew you were with him, but it says here that his condition was stable.”

Stable. I just had to laugh. I was doubled over on the desk, laughing my arse off, barely able to breath. Stable! After everything that was said, after the doctor saw his death note, after they pumped an inhuman level of alcohol out of him, they told Danny that he was balanced! And that made me his balance keeper. I’d fucked up, there shouldn’t have been any question about it. Yet there somebody was, telling me that I’d done everything right. For a brief moment I knew what it was like to be God. And for every moment after that, I understood what a terrible burden that was.

I left the hospital with tears in my eyes. I can’t even begin to guess what emotion had formed them, because from the desk to the door, I believe I felt them all. I stumbled through Belwyn towards my home. Everything felt so new! I noticed a couple across the street, and I could see the insecurity within their mutual soul. I passed a stray dog, and I could see the passing traffic through its colour blind eyes. I was the vast grey sky looming overhead, and I was the vast grey world underfoot. Whether He meant to or not, the lord had granted me His vision.

I saw Danny. He was standing on the roof of my flat, three stories up. I waved to him. He waved back. It didn’t take divine sight to know what was on his mind. I walked inside and climbed up the stairs. The door to the roof was wide open, and as I walked through it, Danny was still standing near the edge.

“I’m done discussing it,” he announced. “Say what you want to, but I’m done.”

“Well you can’t expect me to just stand here,” I reasoned, taking deliberate steps towards him. “You want me to be happy for you, like Sarah wanted you to be happy for her.”

He tried to hide his surprise. He didn’t want me to know that I was right. But it was a pointless thing for him to do, because I didn’t have to read his face; I could see his soul. There was something inside of it, something I was overjoyed to see. There was hope.

Then I saw something that was less encouraging. His hope was wrapped around a cluster of destruction, and that destruction wasn’t entirely spiritual. There was something real to it.

“What’s in your jacket Danny?” I asked. “You don’t have to discuss it. Just show me.”

With a sigh, Danny reached into his jacket and produced a pistol. He also pulled at the ring around his neck, snapping the chain. He glanced over his shoulder at the three story drop, and then he spoke to me. “It’s in case I couldn’t jump.

“I never did wake up a second time. Fuck, with all my rambling about it you’d think I could learn. But look, here’s Danny with a pistol in one hand and a ring in the other, the crazy bastard. See the way he brandishes it, smell the whiskey on his breath, feel the roughness of his cheek—know the uncertainty within him and realize the world means nothing to the damn crazy lunatic while he obsesses over the same two people who should’ve known to leave him be! Watch him and be bloody well hopeful that the tempest doesn’t cross your path, he’ll hurt ya whether he means to or not!

“You mean well Aidan, and I love you for it. But this is for the good of the both of us.”

I took a step forward. “This doesn’t have to be over,” I told him. “There’s still some part of you that doesn’t want to let Sarah down; there’s still some part of you that wants to be happy. Come to your senses mate.”

“I’m more sensible than I’ve been all my life, and it feels damn refreshing.”

“Then you’re a damn fool!” I exclaimed.

Looking me dead in the soul, Danny countered, “I’m a damn fool with a gun. You think you’re the only one who sees the world in a special way? I can read you Aidan, and more importantly, I can read myself; we both know that this ends here.”

As Danny brought the pistol to his head I bounded towards him, and dove in time to pull the gun from his hand, unfired. Caught in momentum’s swing, I also grappled Danny away from the edge, and gave him a rough push to a more central part of the roof.

“Well that’s one way to say goodbye,” Danny said with a twisted smile as he regained his balance, staring into my soul.

Pointing the pistol at Danny’s legs, I said, “So help me lord, I will ruin your life if it means saving it.”

With the ring still tight in his grasp, Danny walked towards me, unaffected by the threat. Only a few steps remained between the two of us when I had a thought. Danny saw it, and his feet stopped dead.

Inhaling deeply, I shifted my aim from Danny’s legs to my own head.

“So help me lord, I will ruin your life if it means saving it.”

Both his heart and his mind were caught in a frenzy, and Danny lunged for the weapon. He knocked it out of my hand, but in doing so, so he lost his footing. Danny cascaded over the edge. I reached out for him and our hands connected, as did our minds. I understood all of the questions he could never answer. Even with his earthly wealth, and even with his divine vision, there were things he didn’t know. That profound uncertainty had been draining him of life for the last ten years. When I took his hand, I took his burden; we both fell.

I laid on the sidewalk, facing the churning sky and watching Danny become a part of it. His body sat beside me, his neck cracked and his skull fractured. Letting out a wordless scream, I reached to my friend and took hold of a limp hand. The same hand which held his ring. I felt him die. I felt the pain leave him.

And that’s where the story should have ended. Danny was dead, and I was broken. Boohoo, tragedy, tears all around. But of course, that’s not where the story ends at all. It’s where the story begins.


Chapter 4

Three compressed vertebrae. A broken hip. A shattered femur. Four years have passed since then, and it’s a miracle I can even walk. That fall devastated my body, but at least bodies can heal. The real damage, the questions: those will go on far longer than my lifetime.

Here’s the way I see it. I got the questions from Danny. Danny got the questions from Sarah. Sarah got them from some other unfortunate soul, and so on and so on, going back through history. Lao Tzu and Confucius, Plato and Socrates, even Jesus Christ and his apostles; every generation had people who were looking for answers, and when every generation failed, they handed the scraps of their understanding to the next. All hoped that someday there would be answers, but there aren’t. It’s been aeons since Bebel, and still all we have are the damned questions.

Before he died and before Greece fell, Socrates shared the extent of his answers with one simple phrase: “I know now that I know nothing.”

After an exhaustive legal battle over Daniel Kennedy’s last will and testament, combined with a solid year of physical rehabilitation, I needed somewhere to come to terms with the fact that I knew as little as Danny and Socrates and the lord. I needed somewhere faraway, somewhere I could remove myself from any and all obligations. I needed somewhere to think. For months I searched for such a place. First in Ireland, then in the rest of the British Isles, then in the rest of Europe. The search was fruitless until I set foot in California. Maybe it was the worldwide acclaim of the place, or maybe it was the lord trying to kill me, but some notion told me I’d found my thinking grounds.

I used a small fraction of the Feldtmann fortune to pay for a penthouse in San Samarra. Warm weather, isolation, and a view of the ocean; everything about it held a sheer pleasantness. On the day I arrived, I could tell the landlord wasn’t expecting me. He was expecting someone, but that someone wasn’t a towering Irishman whose beard and posture were equally gnarled. I frightened him. I could see it in his soul, even if his body had clever ways of hiding it. He shook my hand as he told me his name was Clarence Holland.

After instructing someone to take my baggage, he led me to a lift and pressed the topmost button: thirty two.

“You will no doubt become infatuated with the ambiance of this residence,” he assured. “The atmosphere has been tailored to—”

“We’ll see it soon enough.”

I had to interrupt before his sophistication killed me. Everything about him was false. He was a pathetic soul wrapped in expensive clothing, using grand words to mask his unimpressive thoughts. His mouth did remain silent for the rest of the ride, but the small courtesy was nulled by his racing mind, which scrambled for something with which to amend the situation. When the doors slid open he might as well have dove from the lift.

“Here we find the entryway, which is connected directly to the lounge. You may leave your cane beside the coat closet if you would like.”

“I wouldn’t like to leave this cane anywhere. This might be hard for you to wrap your mind around Clarence, but some people actually use these things because they need them.”

His thoughts betrayed his calm face, and I concealed a smile. Toying with his delicate composure provided all the entertainment I’d been craving. He was the first person I’d properly met in San Samarra, and already, I could see that the city wouldn’t disappoint.

Clarence swallowed at the nothing in his throat. Desperate to fill it back up, he began explaining the room we were in. “This is the lounge, spacious enough for a multitude of people yet comfortable enough for only a few. Against the east wall is an extensive home bar, and the west wall is composed entirely of—”

“Is it stocked?”

“I’m sorry sir?”

“The bar, is it stocked?”

“Yes, it should be,” he said, and with that I made my way behind the counter. Clarence followed, prattling on about the features of the room.

He mentioned the fact that the west wall was one massive window, which looked out over the terrace and the sea. He talked about the vaulted ceilings, and the relaxing colours, and a laundry list of other things that didn’t need attention drawn to them. I poured myself a drink while he poured out commentary on the other rooms in the house. The master bedroom and the guest rooms in the north hallway, the kitchen and the office in the south. He described every nook of the place as though I didn’t have eyes of my own.

When he left, I could finally crack a smile. I glanced through the shelves behind the bar, picked another bottle at random, and stepped out onto the terrace, where I sprawled out on a cushioned chair, set my cane to my side, and brought the bottle to my lips. For the first time since being cursed with the lord’s divine vision, I was truly happy.

I didn’t leave my penthouse for weeks. I didn’t want the feeling to end. Food was delivered to my door. The bar’s stock was plundered, and the view from my terrace was drunk just as rapidly. It felt that life’s bastardhood was finally at an end.

But of course, the life of sloth and gluttony couldn’t last forever. One morning, I awoke with a strange memory. I recalled a visitor. I couldn’t remember who, not exactly at any rate, but it had been someone familiar. At first I dismissed it as a dream, because it shouldn’t have been anything else. Still, when I woke up that morning, it didn’t feel like waking up alone.

Nobody was in the master bedroom. I stumbled down the hallway, and looked in on the two guest bedrooms. Just as empty. Shaking my head, I staggered past the lounge and into the kitchen. While I ate, I tried to clear up the memory. For once, there was a less than existential question stuck in my head; who was with me last night?

I didn’t finish my breakfast. Before I was even halfway through it, I heard a skittering behind me. Turning in my chair, I spotted something curious: nothing. The kitchen was vacant aside from myself. Everything was still. Scratching at my beard, I pushed aside my food and lowered my head. Who was with me last night?

My eyes clenched shut as I grasped at the vague memory of a person. Nobody had told me they would be visiting, and regardless, nobody would have a reason to visit anyways. For weeks I’d scarcely shared a word with another human being, until last night. Who was with me last night?

I opened my eyes, and there at my feet was a grey haired rat. Thirty two floors off the ground, and I spied a bloody rat of all things! I grabbed my cane and took a swing, but the cane collided with the ground, cracking a tile in the floor. The rodent had scurried away and moved to the kitchen doorway. It looked at me with its black, soulless eyes. How long had this rodent been there?

I braced myself on the table and stood up. It didn’t move. Even as I limped towards it, it just stood on its hind legs, staring at me. Only when I threw my cane did it dash away. Cursing, I followed the creature, retrieving my cane along the way. Could this rat have been my company last night?

The pursuit led me to the lounge, where the rodent was running in circles. As soon as it saw me it stopped and stood on its hind legs once again. It only stared at me. I snatched a vase from a nearby table and hurled it at the rat, but again to no avail. Again it fled, and again I followed. It was a nimble creature, yet it only ran just out of sight before pausing. Every time I pursued the rat it would run again, and then again it would rest just out of sight. Why did this pest mock me?

I threw decorations and furniture at the grey haired beast, and while the walls became littered with scrapes and holes, the rat went unharmed. It stood in place on its hind legs as if to imitate me, and its black, soulless eyes continued to stare! Why did this nuisance torment me‽

It ran to the terrace, and I followed. There on the terrace was a grey haired rat on its hind legs, standing on the railing and staring at me with its black, soulless eyes. There on the terrace was a grey haired man in a black jacket, sitting on the railing beside the rat and looking out over the sea.

Impossible.

“I suppose it’s been a while.”

No! “You’re dead!”

“I think a fairly solid case can be made that I’m not.”

“But I saw it! Titim gan éirí ort, I felt it!”

“Well see again—feel again.”

There was no denying it; his soul was right there. If anything, it was more vibrant than when I first saw in on the rooftop. Rather than an immense cloud of doubt, there was a tenacious beam of hope shining through him. It was unbelievable, yet there it was; my friend Danny, back from his second trip to the grave.

“Come on, we have work to do,” he announced. As he did, the grey haired rat leapt from the railing and scurried into the lounge. Danny followed it inside, noting, “Clever thing, isn’t she?”

I did my best to keep up with the two. “Does she belong to you?” I asked.

“If anything, I belong to her,” Danny said with a laugh. “This is Apollyon.”

I stopped walking as ice crept up my spine. “The demon?”

First the flood, then Babel, and eventually Sodom and Gomorrah—the lord has shown that he has no problem with taking destruction into his own hands. But no matter how vast the destruction, he always let something slip by unharmed. There was always some survivor afterwards: somebody who could carry on and tell others what had happened. The lord always left someone. His wrath was never total. Apollyon was total. Apollyon was there for when the lord finally decided it was time for the end of days. Apollyon was the apocalypse.

“You know as well as I do that Apollyon was once an angel,” Danny remarked. Evidently he hadn’t lost his ability to read souls, nor had he lost his comfort in doing so. But his sentiment was of little worth, and it didn’t get me to budge.

Instead, I reached for the cross on my necklace. The grey rat stopped and stood on her hind legs, staring at me with her black, soulless eyes. Danny sighed as he gave up on convincing me to move ahead.

“Look,” he said, “I don’t know why I’m here on Earth, but I do know that redemption is possible. All of the second chances I’ve been given should prove that. So if humans can be redeemed, why can’t angels? Maybe this is a test. If Apollyon, as a female rat no less, can lead my stray soul down the path of righteousness, then she can return to her place as an angel in heaven.”

“I don’t know Danny. It’s quite the leap.”

“And the fact that I’m alive at all isn’t? You don’t have to believe me, but please, don’t let me face the gates of Hell. Not again.”

As soon as he said that, I realized something about him. The beam of hope in his soul wasn’t hope at all; it was obsession. Similar in nature, but far from the same. He wasn’t striving for something because he believed he could, but because he believed he had to. He was terrified.

I unfastened my necklace. Apollyon stood in place as I took a few steps towards her. Then I hurled my wooden cross at the grey haired rat, and as before, she ran to dodge it. But afterwards, something new happened. She didn’t flee to another room. Instead, she walked to the cross. First she inspected it, sniffing it from several angles and nudging it with her paws. Then she picked it up with her teeth and brought it back to me.

I bent over slowly, in part due to my crippled back, and in majority due to my crippling apprehension. As soon as I had a firm grasp of the cross, Apollyon released it from her grip. I stood up as the rat scurried off to the north hallway. She stood on her hind legs just within sight, looking at me with her black, soulless eyes. Danny walked towards her, and asked if I was willing to give Apollyon a chance. I didn’t give him an answer, but I did follow the two of them, and I suppose that was answer enough.

Apollyon led us to a guest room, adjacent to my master bedroom. I lingered in the doorway while Danny did a few laps around the space, inspecting it. He examined the upscale furniture, looked through the sole window, and ran his fingers along the white walls.

Nodding, he said, “Alright, this will do. Let’s clear it out.”

“What? Wh—”

“We’re answering the questions: all of them,” Danny asserted, gripping my shoulders. He pushed me into the room. “Now help me move this desk.”

We set about moving everything from the guest room into the lounge. The smaller appliances such as clocks and lamps we could each get by ourselves, and most of the furniture could be carried between the two of us. The bed had to be dismantled to fit through the hallway, but even without tools, we made it work. We spent hours tearing that room to shreds. We even got the carpet ripped out. By the end there was an unsightly heap of odds and sods at the center of the lounge, but the guest room was cleared, and that’s what mattered.

Next, we got a black marker from the office and brought it to the emptied room. We wrote down the questions. Any query that Danny or I could come up with got a spot on one of the walls. It was nearly morning by the time we finished, but finish we damn well did. As the sun’s light began to show itself through the window, there was only one question which remained. Danny handed me a knife from the kitchen and I slid its edge along my palm, feeling nothing but satisfaction. I rubbed my hand against the back of the door, the only blank spot left, to create bold, red letters.

“Why is life a bastard?”

I woke up on the uncarpeted floor. My hand felt cold, and my head felt light. Both could be explained by the pool of red to my side. Apollyon was lapping at the puddle while Danny sat against the wall, watching.

“Let her do it,” he instructed. “I don’t know why she has a taste for blood, but let her do it.”

“You never did explain why you’re here. You mused about why she’s here, but you never explained yourself,” I said, not getting up from the floor. My vision went in and out of focus between the angel and the ghost.

“You never did ask. I’m just here to answer the questions, and that’s all I know.”

“But why you?”

He shrugged. “Maybe God was plastered, because I have no idea. But whether this was a gift or whether it was a mistake, I won’t squander it.”

I tried to read the walls, but my head only spun. “So you really believe we can make a dent in all of this?”

He grinned. “I don’t know Aidan, but past experience has shown that if it comes down to it, we can always die trying.”

“Then what’s next?” I asked, grinning back.

Danny gestured at the walls, which were effectively grey as my eyes tried to distinguish between the blurred black questions and their empty white background.

“Pick one.”

“But there are so many!”

“Well pick one,” he insisted, nodding at the nearby knife.

I reached for the blade and Apollyon dashed away, finding refuge in the doorway. My fingers wrapped around the knife’s handle. I worked my way up to my hands and knees, then onto my shaking feet. After finding a suitable stance, I twisted around and launched the blade at the opposite wall.

Pain shot through my crooked spine and I collapsed onto the hard and bloodied ground. Apollyon stood on her hind legs in the doorway, watching me with her black, soulless eyes. While I reeled in agony, Danny strode over to where the knife had been embedded in the wall. A smile flashed across his face. Unable to stand, I squinted up at the words until they became familiar.

“What is the distinction between the body and the mind and the soul?”

Apollyon ran down the hallway, and Danny followed her. As they left, he instructed, “Get some food and get some rest. Tonight we begin the journey of boundless miles.”


Chapter 5

Standing in front of the mirror, I pulled yet another coat over my shoulders. It was the third outfit I’d tried, and it felt just as ridiculous as the other two. Still, it was an improvement, and the sun was already setting. With a sigh, I picked up my cane and stepped out of the master bedroom.

“I’m ready to go.”

“You’re ready to go to a funeral mate. Here, unbutton your coat, and put away the scarf. We’re in California now, and the last thing we need is you frying to death. Are you sure you can’t wear something more suitable?”

“I need the coat, it makes the gloves look reasonable. And I need the gloves, with the number I did on my hand yesterday. Can we just get on with it?”

“Right after you Lady Killer,” Danny said, motioning to the lift. As soon as I opened the doors, Apollyon scurried between my legs and stood in the corner. Danny shook his head, saying, “Clever, clever thing.”

“She’s not coming with.”

“Well she’s not getting left behind. Look, you’ve already got the coat on, just put her in a pocket.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“To be fair, it’s not the only ridiculous thing.”

Apollyon flailed in my pocket, and it was tempting to defy my friend’s wishes by leaving her behind. On the ride down I kept running my fingers through my hair. Danny insisted I looked fine, but considering he looked dead, I wasn’t keen on taking his word for it. Apollyon had become still by the time the doors slid open, which brought some comfort.

In the lobby we were met face to face with Clarence. He was just as surprised to see me then as had been the first time.

“Mister O’Moran, I was just on my way to pay you a visit,” he said, his tongue barely keeping up with his frantic thoughts. “Our doorman made a note that he hadn’t observed you entering or departing since you had taken residence here many weeks ago. We were both concerned for your wellbeing. Pardon the intrusion, but I must inquire; are you well, Mister O’Moran?”

“Croi follain agus gob fliuch!” I bellowed, entirely to fuck with the man’s head. “How could you question my health Clarence? Look at my mate Danny; he’s the one you should be worried about!”

Clarence’s entire being squirmed, as though he’d never heard of humor. A false man living in a world without laughter. Truly pathetic. I would pity him, if I believed anyone but himself were to blame.

Wiping the smile from my face, I asked, “Is this the same doorman?”

“Yes Mister O’Moran, this is h—”

“What’s your name lad?”

“Liam Jacques, sir,” the doorman said with a nod and a smile. On his neck was a black tattoo of a crown, not quite covered by his uniform’s collar.

“Liam, your soul reeks of sin. You’ll never make it into Heaven, so let’s both try to make the best of your time on Earth. You stay out of my life, and I promise to stay out of yours. Do we have an agreement?”

“Of course,” the doorman said, his smile never faltering. “Anything else sir?”

From behind me I heard a burst of laughter, and Danny stumbled forward. Patting Liam on the shoulder, Danny said, “Kid, you might not care, but you made my day. Come along Aidan, leave the lad alone. We have far more important things to worry about.”

Liam held the door open, and I stepped out onto the streets of San Samarra, accompanied by my twice-deceased friend and a rat who was somewhere between angelic and demonic. We walked until we found a bar, and considering our skillset, it wasn’t a long walk at all. The bar we found was called The Cask, and it seemed as good a place as any. After ordering our drinks, Danny and I took a booth in the corner.

“How about her?” Danny asked, pointing across the room.

I shook my head. “She’s with her friends. I’ve seen it a thousand times, they won’t leave without her. That girl at the bar, sitting by herself: she’s the type we’re after.”

“Well go on then.”

“What, me? You’ve always been better with the women, I’m not ashamed to admit it.”

Danny glared at me. “Have you forgotten about Sarah already? Aidan, why do you think I’m doing this? When I saw the gates of Hell, it wasn’t the grotesque souls within which bothered me. It wasn’t the abominations lurking, waiting for me with open jaws. No, none of that mattered. It was the realization that I’d have to spend the whole of eternity without her. That’s why I have to get into Heaven this time; that’s why we have to answer these questions. So I’m sorry, but you’re on your own for this one.”

“You could have said, ‘no.’”

“Would you have listened?”

“That’s fair. Wish me luck.”

I approached the girl at the bar, and at first things went well. She was friendly, she was charmed, and above all else she was drunk. I told her about my penthouse, which nearly sealed the deal.

But if things had gone well, I would be able to say what her name was. Before I had the chance to ask however, she happened to spot something. It was a certain rat, sticking her nose out of my coat pocket. The nameless woman gasped, and shied away without another word, never to be seen again.

With a sigh, I returned to Danny. “Told you that bringing her was a bad idea.”

“Relax, we’ve still got the rest of the night.”

“Well can you at least hold on to her?”

Danny reached out to take Apollyon, but before I could hand the rat off, somebody sat down with us. He bore a stench of booze and smoke. It was almost as overwhelming as the stench of Liam’s soul had been. He looked about my age, and wore dark aviator sunglasses.

“Can I help you with something?” I asked, holding my pocket shut.

“Maybe,” he said, and leaned in closer. “I heard your consersation with that girl. Wanna get outta here?”

“I should knock you out just for saying that.”

“Well if you change your mind or wha’ever, I’ll be here ‘til they close,” the man said. With that he left me and my mate alone.

“Come on,” Danny said with a grin. “What’s it matter? If this gentleman wants to come back to the penthouse, we should let him.”

“I can’t Danny. I may have sinned before, but this is crossing a line.”

“Aidan, the work we’re doing is above sin, and far above lines. If we can find the answers, I doubt the lord will be too particular about how we got to them.”

If things had ended there, I wouldn’t be able to say what that man’s name was. It was Nathaniel. Nathaniel Todd.

Masking a scowl, I stood and followed after him. “Hey, Whatsyername! I’ve changed my mind. Let’s go somewhere.”

“I knew you’d come around, but dude, that was way faster than I thought. So where we goin’?”

We left the bar and walked down the street side by side, with Danny laughing his arse off behind us. When we arrived at my building, Liam held the door open for us. I didn’t look at him, but he had no trouble staring me down. All the while he wore that shit eating grin of his. I pressed the topmost button on the lift, and began my ascension with Nathaniel, Danny, and Apollyon. Nathaniel was so shitfaced that he didn’t even ask about Danny. Not once. The doors slid open and Nathaniel began to speak, but before he could get a word out, I whacked my cane across his head.

Danny and I spent the night clearing out another guest room, on account of our guest. By the time we finished, all that remained in the room were a couple of wooden chairs and an unconscious sodomite.

His eyes opened the next morning. He tried to move, but couldn’t. It took Nathaniel a couple moments to notice why. Glancing down, he could see that his ankles were tied to the legs of the chair, and his arms were tied to its back. He only laughed.

“Shit dude, you’re into some kinky business. I wish I could tell you that last night was fun, but to tell you the truth, I was out of it.”

I sat in the chair across from him, staring.

“Hey, if I did something out of line last night, I apologize. I’m in town to see a close friend, I don’t know if I told you. But, I figured she might not even care about seeing me anymore, and one thing led to another, and I got wasted instead. So I might not have been myself, is what I’m sayin’. If you do have anything to drink though, I could stand to stop being myself a little more.”

Still I only stared. He would be even easier than Clarence.

“Dude, seriously though, I need to know you’re only playin’. Now that I’m not quite as drunk, you don’t look quite as friendly. Come on, talk to me, say somethin’.”

I pulled the kitchen knife out from my coat pocket. He bolted back in his seat, but the ropes held fast.

Jesus Christ—”

“Don’t take his name in vain!” I snapped, standing up. “You don’t deserve to say it at all. Now tell me, who are you?”

“I’m nobody,” he whimpered, still trying to back away. “I swear dude, if I did something, it wasn’t on purpose.”

I raised the knife and demanded, “What’s your name?”

“Nathaniel Todd, Jesus fuck—”

The dull edge of the metal connected with his kneecap. His entire body recoiled, but against the ropes, all he managed to do was tip himself over. He thrashing against his restraints on the ground as a slew of curses escaped from his clenched teeth.

With his cheek pressed into the floor, he pleaded, “Let me go dude! Whatever you want, it’s yours!”

 “We’ll find out whether or not that’s true Nathaniel.”

With a chuckle, I turned and opened the door. Apollyon came bounding in, followed as always by Danny. He held a pen and a notepad.

“Nathaniel Todd, did I hear that right?” Danny asked, scratching the name down on the paper. “Nathaniel, we’re going to do some experiments. My mate Aidan will—”

“So what do you want dude? I swear I can get it, and I won’t even tell anyone this happened. You just have to let me go.”

I kicked him in the ribs. The chair creaked as he tried to curl up, but still, the restraints held firm.

“Don’t interrupt him!”

“Relax, Aidan. Look at him, he’s terrified. How’s he supposed to think straight? Now Nathaniel, my name is Danny. I’m only here to observe. This is my mate Aidan, but I take it you already knew that. While I take notes on your body, mind, and soul, he’ll be trying to separate one from the other two. That way, we can find out just what the boundaries are. Is that clear?”

Nathaniel didn’t respond, so I repeated Danny’s question in a harsher tone. Nathaniel only mumbled gibberish. I caught a few names in the mix, and the words “I’m sorry” more than once. But none of them were names I knew, or apologies I cared to hear.

Danny took a knee. He ran a hand down Nathaniel’s cheek. “It’s okay lad. When it’s over, you’ll have done the world a favor. Stand him back up Aidan, and get these sunglasses off of him. I’d like to see his face.”

I did as Danny said, and pulled the chair upright. When I reached for the sunglasses however, Nathaniel turned his head away. That was a mistake. Forming a fist around the knife’s handle, I rammed my knuckles into his temple, then his nose. A tingling resonance ran through my hand each time. He bled, yet when I again reached for the sunglasses, he again turned his head.

“Fascinating,” Danny said, writing as quickly as his fingers would allow. “He’s willing to put his body on the line to defend those sunglasses. Take them away once; we need to see which part of him stands so much to lose.”

Holding Nathaniel’s chin in place with one hand, I grabbed at his glasses with the other. He resisted, but it wasn’t enough, and the tinted glass was removed.

“Well isn’t that curious,” Danny said, still taking notes. “One eye brown, the other blue. I hope all of our work will have this many surprises.”

“Kill me,” Nathaniel blurted.

“What was that?”

“You heard me Fucktard. You’re,” he began, but paused to spit blood. “You’re clearly insane, and you already took my pride, so kill me.”

“Danny, thoughts?”

“Danny,” Nathaniel said, rolling his head towards Apollyon. “Let him d—”

“What,” smack, “did I say,” thwack, “about interrupting‽”

“Careful, careful, keep him alive,” Danny insisted. “But don’t stop either. His mind is slipping away from his body and soul. We’re getting close to something.”

I knew just the thing. I held Nathaniel’s glasses in front of his face. He looked away, but that didn’t stop him from hearing them snap.

“Well I’ll be fucked,” Danny said, lowering the pen and paper. “His mind is alone, we fuckin’ did it Aidan! All that’s left is separating the body and soul, and hell, that’s the easy one. Just don’t make it too fast. We need to know the exact limit.”

He didn’t flinch. A knife going clear through the chest, and he didn’t even flinch. His heart continued to beat, but he remained unmoving as I wrenched the blade out of him and thrust it in again, this time striking the ribs. His mind didn’t notice that his soul had come unraveled. Seven inches of stainless steel through the heart, and he didn’t even flinch.


Chapter 6

I stepped into the office. Apollyon sat in the window sill, and Danny was shuffling papers about. He would pick a sheet up, scribble a handful of words, then just as soon he would set it down and pick up another. Each time he wrote he mumbled to himself, but he dropped this habit when he noticed me in the doorway.

“Well look who decided to be useful after all. Are you finally clean? All thirty two floors must be out of hot water by this point, so I certainly hope so.”

“Don’t talk to me that way,” I responded, taking a seat in one of the chairs across from the desk. I cupped my face in my hands and let out a deep breath. “It’s been a rough couple of days.”

“And if you keep moving at that rate it’ll be a rough couple of millennia before we’re done. Hey, look at me; ya did good this morning. Thanks to our friend Nathaniel we know that the body, mind, and soul can be separated.” Danny tossed down the pages he was holding and sank back into his chair. “We know the parts are distinct, now we just have to figure out exactly how. We need to do more research.”

“More? Wasn’t the whole point of this to answer the question?”

“If it were as simple as killing a man, it would’ve been answered already,” Danny pointed out. Sitting back up and sliding the papers around, he elaborated, “There are so many theories to try, so many definitions to uphold, so much to simply think about!”

“So what’s next? You’re the one who knows what he’s talking about, so where do we go from here?”

“I can keep plenty busy in this office, doing all the brainy bits. I never would’ve thought it, but I’ve actually taken a liking to it. I’ll stay up here in this penthouse, figuring out which tests need to be done, and you go out on the streets to keep the test subjects in fresh supply.”

“How many people are we talking about?” I questioned.

“All of them for all I care. If we run out we’ll move to another city.”

“But when does it stop?”

“When we’ve answered the questions!” Danny shot, bringing his fist down on the desk and scattering the papers. He set out to arrange them again, and sighed, “Every last question.”

Neither of us talked for some time. But with questions on the mind and divine vision at the ready, true silence was hard to come by. We didn’t speak, but nonetheless, we were forced to know how the other felt.

“Well anyways, I just came here to ask: what do we do with the body?”

“We? Nothing. I’d love to go out on an adventure Aidan, but there’s too much to be done up here. Besides, I can’t just leave Apollyon. She hasn’t moved from that spot in the window all day, and I doubt she’ll be moving anytime soon. As for you, buy a boat and lay the man to rest at sea.”

“Won’t that be suspicious?”

“Ah yes, I can see the headlines now. ‘Millionaire moves to California and buys a boat, police investigations are underway.’”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about the fortune as well—”

“Keep it. As long as we’re using it for a good cause, I couldn’t care less which one of us technically owns it. Just don’t let me starve, or Apollyon for that matter, and all will be well.”

“And the estate?”

“If it’s not too much trouble, I’d like you to keep it in your name. I never plan on going back to that place, but I couldn’t bear to see it changed from the way it was.”

I nodded, and turned to leave him to his work. Before I could however, I had to mention one last thing. I pulled a photograph out from my pocket. Half of it had been soaked in blood, and was difficult to make out. But the other half was clear: two children. One was a pale boy with a frown on his face. He was only halfway in the picture, though the way he blurred as he ran away suggested that he didn’t want to be in the picture at all. The other child was an Asian girl, whose hair flowed into the overlying splatter of red.

“This was folded up in his wallet. I can’t be sure it tells us anything, but it was there, in case you wanted to know.”

I laid it on the desk and turned away. Danny could bother himself to his heart’s content with the picture for all I cared, as long as I never had to look at it again.

Under the circumstances, it felt like purchasing a boat should have entailed more complications. And yet, within a mere day of killing a man, I became the owner of a lovely little vessel. I named her Morgen’s Lament, after a girl I used to know. Her picture is still around somewhere, but that’s another image I could go the rest of my life without.

Before tainting the craft with my wicked intentions, I decided to take her out to sea, just once. It was a lovely day after all. The breeze was cool, and the sun was just about to touch the horizon. Even the rhythm of the waves held a reminder from my younger days.

Christ, I couldn’t enjoy any of it. I saw the most magnificent sunset, yet all I could see were his oddly coloured eyes. I smelled the sea, yet all I could smell was his blood. I felt the waves, yet all I could feel was the knife, plunging into his chest. The worst part wasn’t that I had to think about these things—it was that I didn’t much mind the thoughts. As a whole, my present situation didn’t repulse me.

There, on my first trip aboard Morgen’s Lament, I knew that my balance keeping days were behind me. Instead I was tasked with a much larger role. I was figuring out the very nature of balance: identifying the motivations of the keepers and destroyers, the whys and hows of the system which very well may govern humanity. Figuring out if balance is the system at all, and if it isn’t then why not, and if it is then why not something else? And these questions didn’t even take up an entire wall!

When I brought Morgen’s Lament back to harbor, the sun was over the horizon. There was quite a lot on my mind as I walked back to my building, so the first time she spoke to me, I didn’t quite notice. She was more assertive the second time around.

“Hey! I’m robbing your crippled ass, pay attention!”

I turned around to see a woman pointing a gun at me. She didn’t even try to conceal it. There were people all around us, yet they all passed by while she held her arm extended, pistol pointed at my head. The lower half of her face was covered by a white bandana with a black crown at its center, but that hardly made her invisible.

I had to laugh. I couldn’t help it, even if her soul told me that she’d likely shot people over less. My amusement managed to turn more heads than her threat to my life, and that just made me laugh all the harder. San Samarra, home to some of the most jaded fucks on Earth. I took out my wallet and handed her every last dollar.

“Take it,” I said between laughs. “You’ve earned it.”

I turned back towards my destination. I can’t say what it was that struck me so funny. Thinking back on it, my journey to answer the questions could have ended right then and there. It would’ve been quite the ending. But perhaps that was why I laughed: the way a single act, and not even a well thought out one, could put an end to so much.

It might have also had to do with the whiskey I drank while out at sea. Hard to say.

She had my money, but I felt her soul seize up. Confusion, it looked like. Rather than coercing somebody out of a few stray bills, she had amused somebody out of well over a hundred. When she finished processing what had happened, I found that she wasn’t nearly as gracious as I would have hoped.

She followed me. She kept her distance, suspecting I wouldn’t notice, but there was no doubt that she was after me. I could only suppress the urge to laugh even more. She had no idea what she was in store for.

I saw that Liam was stationed at the door. It seemed he was always there, although that can’t have been true, since he still had time for sinning. He held the door open with his grin bold as ever, and when I made it a few steps into the building, he called after me.

“Mister O’Moran sir, do you know her?”

“Aye, I know her,” I said, turning to bask in the look on both of their faces. In hindsight, I should have seen the similarities between them. She’d lowered her bandana, allowing me to witness her expression in all of its baffled glory. “Let her in.”

Liam nodded, and the woman stepped forward. She was deeply uncomfortable, that much was clear. But better yet, she was stuck. She couldn’t decide what to do, so she went along with the blatantly treacherous flow of events. She followed me to the lift in a trance, and didn’t say a word on the way up. When we reached the top I stepped out to the lounge, which still held the heap of odds and sods from the guest rooms. She was so preoccupied she didn’t even find it strange. She only followed me, eying everything that wasn’t nailed down.

“You’re free to take whatever you want of course, lord knows I can’t stop you. But if I could make a suggestion, I think you’ll make the best of your time by helping yourself to the safe. I can show it to you, it’s right over here. Do you have a name?”

“Tonya,” she answered in a daze.

I led Tonya to a guest room: the one where Nathaniel’s blood was still seeping its way into the floor. She fell to her knees the second she stepped in, gagging at the sight and the smell and the death. Unlike Nathaniel she didn’t go down with a single strike of the cane, but she was subdued, even if it took a while. I set about using the rest of the rope to tie her to the free chair, face to face with Nathaniel. She would have quite the rude awakening.

“I thought I heard someone with you. I appreciate the enthusiasm mate, but when I said to get more test subjects, I didn’t mean right this moment. There are still loads of things to get straight before we’re ready for another test.”

“But with Nathaniel it only took—”

“He was different. That test was just to make sure the question we’re asking is valid. We’re not done with him either by the way; you still have to get him out of here, and the sooner the better.”

“What’ll we do with the girl in the meantime?”

“Keep her tied up I suppose.”

“Well, I’m going to see about getting the stiff into a suitcase. Let me know when you’ve made any progress.”

Tonya was still unconscious when I came back to the guest room some minutes later. I stepped around her and set my suitcase on the floor, away from the red pool near the chairs. Then I worked at untying Nathaniel. Many of the knots were swamped in blood, and they wouldn’t move. The same could be said about his joints. All of his limbs had gone stiff, and even when the bonds had been wrestled apart, he continued to sit upright.

It was clear he wouldn’t fit in the suitcase I’d picked out, or any of my other suitcases for that matter. Even if his joints could bend, there wouldn’t have been enough space. As I was scratching at my beard in search of a solution, my eyes caught a glimmering piece of metal. I looked at Nathaniel again, and then back to the suitcase. It could work.

Bending down on my cane, I picked up the kitchen knife. First the arms. I hacked away at his shoulder, and the initial swings were effortless. The blade sliced through the skin and slid out with ease, then gashed through the muscle and could be pulled out with a bit of force. But the bones were a problem. No matter how many times I gave them a dull whack they just, wouldn’t, break.

I tried bending and twisting the shoulder in every direction, but still, nothing. I settled on brute force. If I could pull out his mind, then surely his arm would be no matter. I yanked and yanked, and just as the joint popped apart, Tonya’s eyes popped open. She didn’t take it well. She shrieked and struggled against her ropes, but she accomplished little. Still, she was louder than I was comfortable with. I dropped Nathaniel’s arm and raised my cane to strike.

Just then someone came storming in through the hallway. The intruder had a bandana pulled halfway over his face, just like Tonya’s: white with a black crown. He brandished a pistol as well, with what I could only guess was a silencer on the muzzle. I nearly fell backwards from the startle he gave me, and I had to lower my cane for balance. He didn’t say a word. He began untying Tonya, shifting his gaze between the ropes and me. I should have recognized his smug, arrogant, sinful soul the moment he stepped into the room. But I could only stand there, staring at him, trying to figure out where I’d seen him before.

Tonya was still shrieking when she was untied. She wouldn’t go with the intruder. He pulled her towards the door, but she only pulled back, flailing at him with every free limb. Finally he struck her across the cheek. That got her running. Rather than running with the intruder however, she was running away from him. Tonya sprinted from the room, and the intruder chased after her.

I was left alone. I bent down to pick up the knife, but something else drew my attention. Tonya’s gun sat beside her chair. I picked that up instead, and walked into the hallway in search of two unwanted guests. With the noise Tonya made, it wasn’t difficult to find them.

They were out on the terrace. Tonya was cowering at the far edge, while the intruder knelt in front of her with his hands on her shoulders. He spoke softly to her, in a voice that sounded so familiar.

When Tonya saw me walking onto the terrace, she stood up. She stopped screaming. Looking directly at me, she went limp. Her body cascaded over the railing and fell thirty two floors to the ground, and her soul showed no signs of regret.

The stranger turned and faced me. His bandana was lowered, and that’s when I was able to recognize him.

“I thought we agreed to stay out of each other’s affairs,” I reminded him, pointing my pistol in his direction.

“Yeah, I thought so too you sick motherfucker!” he shouted, flashing his firearm as well. “I—”

Liam fired at the ground beside me. While he was aiming elsewhere I charged at him, unleashing my wrath through my cane. He covered his head and his pistol was knocked from his hands. It joined Tonya’s body, thirty two stories down.

Victorious, I stepped back and pointed my pistol at him once again. “You’re going to do what I say. You understand.”

He nodded, but that shit eating grin crept across his face. “Would you believe I shot at a rat? You might not care, but for the sake of my pride, I had to at least tell you. I’m getting killed because I shot at a fucking rat.”

I looked at where he’d fired. Starting there and leading back into the lounge was a faint trail of pink.

“Lad, you’d better hope you’re a bad shot. Come on, back to the guest room. If you try to run you know what’ll happen.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from him. He could have overpowered me, and I didn’t even doubt that he could outwit me if the situation were right. He was smug, but he deserved to be.

He remained complacent as I brought him to the guest room. I set down the gun to tie him up, and as soon as I’d done it, I realized what a perfect opportunity I’d provided. But he didn’t take it. Instead, he smiled and helped me tie the ropes. I looked over the knots he’d made. They were just as solid as the ones I would have tied.

With Liam secure, I went to check on Apollyon. She wasn’t in the office, nor was Danny. I found both of them in the kitchen. He was lying on the floor beside her, and he looked ill, even for a dead person.

“Not the friendliest visitor, is he? I think I liked Nathaniel better.”

“Danny, you’re—”

“I’m fine. Apollyon too, she was grazed at the worst. Tell me all about what happened later. I missed most of it. Right now though, I think you have some unfinished business.”

“Are you sure we shouldn’t keep him around? You know, for the tests? Half the work is already done.”

Danny shook his head. “He’s risky. For now let’s just try and not get arrested. Sound good?”

I left Danny and Apollyon to themselves, and walked back into the guest room. Liam was still sitting in the chair. Still tied down.

“You know,” he said, “I’m not questioning your system here, but that body’s gotta leave this building eventually. I don’t mind looking the other way.”

I tapped at his neck. “What’s this? The black crown, what’s it mean?”

“It’s hard to explain. We’re sort of like a gang.”

“Sort of?”

“We are, but it’s like, bigger than that. I can’t think of the word. It starts with an S.”

“And what’s this gang of yours called?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, nobody says.”

“Somebody must,” I prodded, reaching down and grabbing the knife. “Think real hard now.”

“I’m telling you, I can’t—”

He grimaced as the knife ripped across his chest, but his pride smothered any trace of a scream.

“We can do this for as long as you’ve blood left to lose. Now try again; what does the crown mean?”

“It means your mother was a whore and your sister—”

I slashed out again, making a cut directly on top of the old one. “You know what it means. It’s on your lips, I can see it. What’s the crown stand for?”

His grin returned. “There are scarier people than you Mister O’Moran, and I work for them every night. The name is secret because if people knew the size of this gang, this, this syndicate, that’s the word! If people knew the actual size of this syndicate, they’d be trying a hell of a lot harder to end us. But without a name for something, people have a harder time piecing it together. That’s why—and I’m sorry Mister O’Moran—I can never tell you.”

Smug bastard. Nathaniel had been no challenge. Clarence was cake. Tonya, I hadn’t even been trying. Yet this doorman, this smug bastard, sat bleeding from the chest and smiling like he didn’t even realize it.

“Do you know about the tower of Babel, Liam?”

“No sir, I don’t.”

“You should. Back in the early days of the Earth, the people all spoke the same language. These were the people of Babel. Together, under one tongue, they could do things that nobody today would dream of. One day they built a tower, just so that they could speak to the lord. And do you know what the lord did Liam?”

“No sir, what did He do?”

“The lord saw what the people were capable of, and so He destroyed their tower, and He took their language!” and with that, I stabbed him in the jaw.

Blood trickled down the corner of Liam’s mouth, spilling forth from his shit eating grin.

“Fascinating. Tell me another story.”

I laughed and walked to the doorway. “Get some sleep. There will be plenty more tomorrow.”

The next morning, Danny was livid.

“Well isn’t this just splendid! Let’s go over the list, shall we? To begin with, even if there weren’t any evidence, this place is in a state; this office is covered in papers, the lounge has a heap of rubbish piled higher than either of us, one guest room is covered in blood, and the other is filled top to bottom with questions. But oh no, that’s not the half of it! There’s a corpse sitting right below the terrace, and as if that weren’t enough, there’s another up here in the bloody penthouse!

“But wait, there’s more! There’s a living witness to all of the above, and where might he be? Gone! Escaped, disappeared, we’ve no idea where he is! Do you know what this means Aidan? We’re fucked! From every possible angle we are completely, without a doubt, fucked!

He collapsed back into the office chair. He glanced over the papers on the desk, and in one sweep he pushed them to the floor. I could only watch him act like this for so long.

“We can fix this. First we get Nathaniel out of here, which we already know how to do. Then—”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Danny asked, glaring at me. “This is what happens when somebody tries to answer the questions. They get fucked. I don’t know why, but it happens every single fucking time.”

“But all of those things you said about getting into Heaven—”

“Guesses!” he shouted, pounding his fists on the desk. Tears welled in his eyes as he told me, “All just guesses. How should I know how to get into Heaven? I’m sorry to break it to you Aidan. These questions aren’t the solution. For Christ’s sake, they’re only the last hope. And what’s more, even if answering the questions is a one way ticket to paradise, we haven’t answered a single one of them. We’re fucked Aidan. Completely fucked.”

“Well would you rather grasp at what little hope there is, or give up? Because we may be fucked, but mate, that’s never seemed to stop you before. So defier of death, philosopher of ages, answerer of questions; what do you want to do?”

“I’ll tell you what I want to do. I want to walk out to that terrace and jump. The only thing stopping me is that I know it wouldn’t make a difference.”

“Fine then. Jump and take that damned rat with you. I’m going to go toss a couple of limbs into the sea, and if I get arrested or shot on the way there, then I’ll be sure to meet you for a drink in Hell.”

“They don’t serve drinks in Hell. I asked.”

For the first time I can remember, Liam wasn’t at the door. In his place was a much simpler soul. The new doorman didn’t grin, and he didn’t sin. He merely opened the door for a man toting two severed arms.

I took Morgen’s Lament out of harbor and onto the sea. It was a nice day. Not quite like the last, but good all the same. The sky was blue, as it tended to be, and the waves were gentle. Before too long there was nobody in sight. I tossed the arms overboard, watched them delve below the surface, and I felt just a little bit better.

Going out to sea became a ritual for the next few days. I would throw his legs overboard, and I would feel just a little bit better. The next day I would throw his torso overboard, and again, I would feel just a little bit better. The next day I would throw over the rags used to clean his blood from the guest room, and again, I would feel just a little better. It was only on the final trip that something remarkable happened.

It was a pleasant day like all the others: not a cloud nor person in sight. In my hands I held the head of an innocent enough man. At least, a man who never deserved to be in the path of the question bearers. I stared into his perpetually open eyes for a long while. One was still brown and the other still blue, though both had yellowed over the days. From my pocket I retrieved a pair of dark aviator sunglasses. They’d been taped together. Not quite the same, but as close as I could get them. I placed the sunglasses over Nathaniel’s eyes, and then I dropped his head into the sea, along with the kitchen knife and a bottle of whiskey.

That’s when I was struck by lightning. From the clear blue sky came an immense light, more intense than I ever thought possible. It brought me to my knees and I raised my hands to block the brilliant glare, but it shone straight through me, illuminating my very soul. Kneeling aboard Morgen’s Lament, I heard the angel Gabriel speak the words of the lord.

“Aidan my child, a great storm is approaching, as humanity has sinned for far too long. But fear not, for there is yet hope. In three years’ time, there shall be a convergence within your city. This convergence shall have the power to cleanse the world of sin. But be weary, for this convergence shall also have the power to set forth the great storm. I give unto you the question; is humanity worth saving? Go forth my child, and lead them.”


Chapter 7

I went to the room with the questions, armed with a bucket of white paint. Before even the first brushstroke, Apollyon and Danny came rushing in. Danny pulled me back and asked if I’d lost my mind, but I struggled against him and kept painting over the walls, getting rid of every last question. I even painted over the door, no longer caring whether or not life was a bastard.

Once finished, I explained it to him in a way that I hoped he would understand. “You weren’t sure whether or not answering the questions would get us into heaven—well neither am I. But out on the ocean today, the lord spoke to me. Danny, the lord sent Gabriel! He posed a question, one we hadn’t written down; is humanity worth saving? The world is in our hands mate. We need to figure this out.”

Danny began to speak, but before his thoughts could become words, Apollyon ran out into the hallway. As always Danny followed after her, and as usual, I followed him. Apollyon led us to the office. She leapt onto a chair, then onto the desk, and then onto a newspaper. She nosed through it, seeking out a certain page, and when she found it she tugged it out from the rest of the papers. I picked it up, and Danny looked over my shoulder as I read.

The page told about the closing of a church in San Samarra. While there were many other churches in the area, The Kingdom of the Redeemed served a special role. It focused on taking people from the streets and transforming them into a functional member of society through the lord’s grace. However, they didn’t have enough funding to keep up the effort, and so they were forced to shut down. In closing, the paper said that the building would be auctioned off on the following Monday.

“Refresh my memory Aidan, today is what day?”

“Monday.”

“And we have how much money?”

“More than enough to buy a church.”

“Hm, so it’s settled then,” Danny resolved, following Apollyon out of the room.

“Nothing’s settled,” I protested, chasing after him. “What do we need a church for?”

“Could it really hurt? This rat is a demon on the path to becoming an angel, your best mate is a ghost brought back to life, and you’re a prophet who was given a task from the Lord himself. I’m just saying, if anyone deserves to have a church, it might as well be us.”

Given the circumstances, I don’t know why I’d bothered putting up any fight at all. I left the penthouse and went walking through downtown San Samarra, with a rat in one coat pocket and an absurd amount of cash in another. I didn’t think much about getting robbed. If Liam’s gang had anything arranged for me, then it wouldn’t matter how much money I was holding.

There was quite the crowd at the auction, and when I saw the church for myself, I could understand why. It was surrounded on all sides by the most desolate urban environment imaginable, completely dissimilar to the uptown San Samarra that I’d been living in. The place was so degraded that I suspected it would be easier to survive in the desert.

Yet the church stood out. Its walls were painted a pure white, and stained glass windows stretched from the green ground to the peaked roof. Unlike the other buildings, the church didn’t look apt to collapse at any given moment, and it was one of the larger structures in the area. Looking through the eyes of a prophet trying to determine whether or not humanity was worth saving, I understood why that particular church would be perfect.

I signed up for the auction, and while I waited for it to begin, I looked out over the crowd. Most weren’t bidding at all. They were there to see what would become of their church. The crowd that day struck me as one of the gentlest I’d ever witnessed, and compared to the sinners and drunks I’d been spending my time around, it was a refreshing change. There was, however, one soul which didn’t match the rest. On his neck was a tattoo of a black crown. He held a briefcase in his left hand, and a bidder paddle in his right. I didn’t know him, but I knew what he stood for, and I knew what he wanted.

When the auction began he was the first to bid, starting on a number so high that many left the moment he said it. There were a few who tried to surpass him, but he didn’t hesitate to go even higher. As soon as the bids tapered off, I raised my paddle and shouted a number much larger than was remotely necessary, just to see if it would throw him off. While I did get his attention, I didn’t get his surrender. He and I continued to raise the stakes as the people in the crowd whispered to one another, trying to figure out who these people were who so vehemently wished to rule The Kingdom of the Redeemed.

The man with the tattoo raised his paddle again, and I could tell from the bitter desperation in his soul that he was raising his paddle for the final time. I won the auction. I had my very own church. Danny gave me a pat on the back, and said I’d done a fine job. The crowd gave a round of applause, though I could see that it was only a gesture of politeness. Nothing more.

One man spoke up through the applause, raising his voice to be heard by the entire crowd.

“Hey, rich man! Before you go running, I gotta tell you something. Growing up, my life had a lot of emptiness. I played the guitar in this place called Brackney, and for a while I thought that that was happiness. Then I realized that I was never gonna get any further than that in life. One day I got a call from my cousin. He said I had to come down and check out this church, because it would turn my life around. And you know what? He was right. Thanks to this church I’ve got a job, I stopped using, and above all else, I got to feel His redemption shine upon me.

“That’s what this church means to me, and I don’t think I’m the only one who it means something to. So I’m asking you rich man; what does this church mean to you?”

All eyes were on me. Looking back at the crowd, I could tell that he wasn’t lying; nearly every one of them held The Kingdom of the Redeemed dear.

“What’s your name lad?”

“My name is Bill.”

“Bill, I want you to gather everyone who ran this church before today, because next Sunday these doors will be open, and redemption will be offered to anyone who can accept the true word of the lord almighty.”

The announcement was met with another round of applause, only that time it was different—that time it was real. I saw the joy in their souls flourish, and it gave me chills. The only one who was displeased was the man with the tattoo, but his contempt couldn’t rival the adoration of the crowd, the clapping and whistling, the shouts of excitement and the cries of happiness.

A man in a black collared shirt stepped forward. Shaking my hand, he said, “I don’t remember seeing you before, but you showed up in the nick of time. I’m Father Hansen, and I’d be happy if we could go over a couple of things.”

Father Hansen, Bill, Danny, myself, and a half a dozen others retreated into the church, where a more peaceful discussion could be held. Father Hansen led the way, bringing us down a flight of stairs and through several corridors before we arrived in a compact room. The walls and floor were nothing more than rough cement, the furniture was merely a round plastic table surrounded by creaky wooden chairs, and the sole decoration was a cross hung upon the wall. We each took a seat around the table. Father Hansen spoke first, using a voice so gentle that it reminded me of Danny’s, back before he’d died.

“I can’t express how grateful we are, honestly. I dread to think of what would happen to this church if the man with the black tattoo had won the auction. The lord works in mysterious ways—we’ve long been aware of this—but forgive me if I try to make some sense of it. Why did you do this Mister…” and here he trailed off, not sure how to address me.

“O’Moran,” I finished for him. “Aidan O’Moran. I came here because an angel sent me.”

“Are you for real?” Bill asked, his posture stiffer and his soul quick to guard itself.

The others reacted similarly, aside from Father Hansen, whose soul hadn’t changed a bit. His voice remaining just as soft, he said, “Please, go on. Tell us everything.”

So I did. I told them about my friend Danny, and how he’d come back to visit after years of absence. I told them about the Feldtmann fortune, and of course, the misfortune which surrounded it. I spoke of Danny’s first attempt at suicide, and of the divine vision I’d received as a result. When I revealed Danny’s eventual death I was anticipating a great deal of surprise. He was right there with us after all, listening along as though it was all brand new to him. But nobody seemed to mind that he was right there with us; not one of them questioned it.

Moving on, I told them about my time in San Samarra. Father Hansen tensed at the mention of Apollyon. It seemed to be the only thing which truly bothered him. I told them about Danny’s return, and about the questions: how Danny, Apollyon, and I sought to answer all of them. I did leave out the murder. Perhaps I would have told Father Hansen in confidence, but I couldn’t risk the others knowing.

I told them about the angel Gabriel, who spoke unto me the words of the lord almighty. I repeated for them the question He posed. Finally, I ended on Apollyon’s directions to come to the auction, and how—divine intervention aside—helping The Kingdom of the Redeemed just seemed like the decent thing to do.

When I’d finished my story, nobody rushed to be the next to speak. Everyone sat in a reflective silence, aside from Danny, who said that the lot of them could stand to liven up a bit. They ignored him though. Everyone did.

Bill was the first to grab their attention. “Father, you gotta let us into that head of yours. What do you think about all this?”

“I think, Mister Joston, that I must consult a power much higher than myself. Thank you again for your contribution Mister O’Moran. You’ve changed more lives than you realize, and if what you say is true, then you may have the chance to change countless more. But today our faith is being scrutinized more than ever before, so there’s no such thing as being too careful. While this is being sorted out, please feel free to—”

Apollyon leapt from my pocket and onto the table. Most shot out of their chairs and pressed their backs into the cement walls, as though they were attempting to sink right into the foundations. Bill fled through the door, openly screaming as he did. Danny and Father Hansen both had a much different approach; they both lunged towards the rat. Father Hansen was the first to reach her, wrapping his hands around Apollyon and holding her in place.

“Careful!” Danny commanded, backing away from the fuming priest. For the first time, I saw that a man devout to God could have just as much fire and brimstone pulsing through his soul as any sinner on the streets. Attempting a more soothing tone, Danny repeated, “Careful.”

“This is The Kingdom of the Redeemed, is it not?” I reminded Father Hansen, and his grip on the rat relaxed a small bit. “Of all redemptions, surely this one matters the most.”

Father Hansen released his grip. Apollyon stood on her hind legs at the center of the round table, staring at the priest with her black, soulless eyes.

“I must consult a higher power. Good day Mister O’Moran.”

I left The Kingdom of the Redeemed as the sun was dipping behind the surrounding buildings. Danny walked beside me, going on about how thrilled he was to be making actual progress on a holy mission for once. I nodded as he spoke, and I was glad as well, I truly was. But I also had my worries. The lord had chosen me. What if He made a mistake? It wouldn’t be the first time. I would do anything and everything to answer the lord’s question, but I just couldn’t shake my doubts.

A man stood on the sidewalk in front of me and Danny, and he gave us temporary reprieve from our thoughts. On his neck was a black tattoo of a crown. He held a briefcase in his left hand, and a shotgun in his right. He pointed the weapon at me and I stopped in my tracks, resting both hands on my cane.

“Doorman said you made him a deal; you stay out of our business, we stay out of yours. Ringing any bells? I sure hope so. He left town because of you, and he even did you the favor of taking care of Tonya, since he knew you wouldn’t.”

“Let him go Bruce,” came a voice from behind me and Danny. The speaker stepped forward, so that he was stood between me and the man with the shotgun.

“Bill?” Bruce questioned, squinting into the night. “Damn brother, you—”

“I’m not your brother anymore, and I haven’t been for a long time.”

“These church going motherfuckers really brainwashed you, huh?”

“Don’t play games with me Bruce. I don’t know if you believe in Hell, but I know you believe in death, because you’ve seen it too many times not to. ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,’ John 15:13. This man is my friend. He’s my brother, and I won’t let you hurt him.”

Bruce lowered his shotgun. “Fine. You want to let this go, I’ll let this go. But don’t ever expect me to forget it. You’re running out of freebies O’Moran; I’ll be sure the next one costs you.”

With those parting words, Bruce crossed the street and walked off into the night. I turned to Bill, but he wouldn’t meet my gaze. Glancing instead at his feet, he explained, “I go the same way to get home, and uh, I just saw what was going down, and so, yeah. Sorry I ran out earlier. I’ll see you on Sunday.”

“Goodnight Bill!” Danny called as we left, chuckling to himself.

“What’s gotten into your head lately?” I asked. “You’ve been acting different. More lively, I suppose would be the word.”

“That’s because I’ve got a reason to be. Aidan, I’m going to see her again! I’m going to answer a question and I’m going to see the love of my life! I can’t help it if that puts a skip in my step and a lilt in my voice. You should be overjoyed too, honestly; He spoke to you. To you, Aidan! Consider that for a moment. There are billions of people, and He chose you.”

“So what if He chose me?” I asked as Danny danced around me, not a single care about what a fool he looked like. “Jesus chose Judas, and that didn’t seem to work out too well for either of them.”

“Are you Judas?”

“What?” I asked. I heard him just fine, but I could barely process the question.

“You heard me; are you Judas?” he repeated, still smiling like a fool.

“No Danny, I’m not Judas.”

“Then don’t worry about it, you’ll do fine. He has a plan, doesn’t He? God I mean; He has a plan.”

“Yes Danny, He has a plan. Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Peachy,” he responded, quite literally skipping at that point. “We have a church, we have a question from the lord himself, and wouldn’t you know it, the two coincide perfectly. He must have a plan, because that can’t happen by mistake, can it Aidan? Can it?”

I was running out of words for him. “No Danny, that can’t happen by mistake. Settle down, will you?”

Danny sighed, and returned to a walk. “You’re not as much fun as you used to be.”

“Getting so familiar with death will do that to a person. You might have been brought back, but as far as I know, mortality is still alive and well within me. It’s more of a burden than you seem to remember. When we were held at gunpoint just now, did you even feel anything?”

Danny chuckled again. “He was pointing the gun at you mate.”

I shook my head and pressed on, keeping my mouth shut for the rest of the walk. Danny continued to pester me and make a fool of himself, but I paid him no mind. Once back at the penthouse, I took Apollyon out from my pocket and placed her on the ground. She scurried off to the terrace, and Danny followed her, wishing me a good night. I told him to sleep well, not knowing if he even slept at all, and I went to the master bedroom.

There, I prayed. There was no great favor I wanted from the lord, and no immediate problem that was beyond my ability to solve. I just wanted to keep in touch. I wanted Him to know that I was doing my best to answer His question, which He seemed to care so much about.


Chapter 8

I oversaw the preparations for Sunday, but in truth, Father Hansen was the leader. He knew what had to be done and he knew how to do it. I owned the church legally, but he owned it in every other respect, and I was willing to acknowledge that. Throughout the week I tried talking to him about my vision, but he refused to speak of it until he was more certain. The way he disregarded the subject gave me the impression that he wouldn’t budge until the pope, an angel, and the lord himself all convened to confirm my claims.

Bill was more willing to speak with me. I told him about my youth, and how my friend Danny used to play the guitar with his brother and a bunch of hooligans before finding the lord. In turn, Bill told me about The Kingdom of the Redeemed, and all of the people who had been helped because of it. I asked Bill about Father Hansen, but he was reluctant to say anything. I asked him about the gang Bruce was a part of, and he showed the same hesitance. Still, of all the people I spoke to, Bill was the most informative and the most charismatic.

There was only one thing I went out of my way to accomplish before Sunday. I left the routine things to Father Hansen and those who adored him, but there was one thing about the church which I had to change, and Father Hansen would have opposed the change more than anyone. I did some poking around, made some calls, and had some people come by the church late on Saturday night, when nobody was around.

When the people arrived on Sunday, there were a few conversations I kept overhearing traces of. There was plenty of talk about how an Irishman abroad had materialized out of nowhere and purchased the church. Sitting with Danny in the frontmost pew, I also heard a fair amount of whispering about what my motivations might be. But the thing on everybody’s mind, whether they said it or not, was the veil. It hung behind the pulpit, covering what had once been a stained glass rendition of an angel.

I smiled to myself, because that Sunday morning, I was the only one who knew several things. And before noon on that same Sunday, my secrets would be known to the masses.

Father Hansen stood at the pulpit and gave his sermon. As the name of the church would suggest, his sermon was on redemption. He went over instances of biblical figures being saved by the lord’s grace, and he also spoke of people in San Samarra being saved by the same divine force. In closing, he addressed the topic on the minds of many that day.

“As you’re no doubt aware, a man has come to help save us all. Just as all was lost, and The Kingdom of the Redeemed was in the fell clutch of unholy men, a man came and rescued us. But he comes with more than just an earthly fortune; he brings with him the word of the lord himself.”

Here the congregation fell silent, and Father Hansen let that silence linger. His face may have hid it, but his soul reveled in the still moment he had created. When he spoke again I expected him to qualify my message. To say it might not be true. But he only left it at, “Aidan O’Moran, I implore you to tell these people what the lord has told you.”

Supported by my cane, I stood up and made my way to the pulpit. Danny walked beside me, and Apollyon rested in my pocket. Before The Kingdom of the Redeemed stood a priest, a spirit, an angel, and a prophet; before The Kingdom of the Redeemed stood the monarchs of humanity’s last great revolution.

“There is a storm upon us!” I bellowed, pushing myself to muster even a fraction of the power I’d felt from the angel Gabriel. “This storm, as the lord almighty has told unto me, has the power to bring about the end of days!”

I paused, only to hear several murmurs from the congregation. Slamming my cane down upon the pulpit caused a sharp thwack to ring through the room, making those who spoke to hold their tongues.

“Looking out upon every one of your souls, I see a great many reasons to pay attention. This may be The Kingdom of the Redeemed, but even so, sin is running rampant. If this storm were to be unleashed today, not a single person in this room would find himself in Heaven by the end of it. Live your lives well, for when they end, your souls shall be handed down to a place that will make wellness a distant memory.

“However, the lord has also given us a reason to hope. If your souls are worth saving, then the storm will divert from its course, and the world may carry on. But I ask you, as the lord asked me; is humanity worth saving? People of The Kingdom of the Redeemed, I’ve seen humanity at its most loving, I’ve seen humanity at its most cruel, and I’ve seen humanity at its most pure. And even having seen humanity from every possible angle, I still have no answer to this question.

“So, people of The Kingdom of the Redeemed, I ask that you join me in answering this question, because in three years the lord will require an answer. As of now, I haven’t an answer to give him. If you believe every word I’ve said, then I ask that you stand. If not, I ask that you leave this church immediately, because this is no longer The Kingdom of the Redeemed. From this moment forward, we stand for something greater. From this moment forward, we seek not to redeem individuals, but to redeem humanity. From this moment forward, we are Church of Apollyon!”

With a flourish I turned and pulled down the veil, revealing not a stained glass angel, but instead a stained glass rat. The morning sun shone through its dark, soulless eyes, illuminating the congregation as they made their decisions. Some did leave, and looking at their souls, I wasn’t sad to see them go. But many more stayed and held on to those beside them, their souls teeming with everything from fear to fervor.

I returned the pulpit to Father Hansen, who shook my hand as we passed. While the congregation lapsed into disorder over my revelations, Danny took it as an opportunity to say, “You did good mate, or at least, you did a whole lot better than I would’ve bet on. At this rate, I might get to see Sarah again after all.”

Rather than trying to calm the congregation, Father Hansen merely shouted over them, spitting the fire and brimstone I’d first seen when he went after Apollyon. “You heard the prophet! In three years we will not only have the correct answer, but we will have the best of humanity on display to back it up! No matter what we’re called, I ask that you never forget what we stand for! Your days of sinning will soon be behind you! Go now, and decide what really matters: your earthly tethers, or your eternal souls!”

Father Hansen stepped down from the pulpit and took me by the arm. He led me to the steeple, where we climbed the narrow winding stairs. At the top, we could see over much of downtown San Samarra, and even from overhead, it wasn’t a great sight to behold. I could see my penthouse off in the distance, in a much nicer part of the city.

“Sorry about the climb,” Father Hansen said, nodding at my cane. “I like to come up here after a sermon and watch the people as they leave. I thought you might like to join me.”

One man waved up to us from the street, and Father Hansen waved back, with a smile spread across his face. I started waving along with him.

“So you got word back that there was some truth to my vision after all.”

“Actually, no,” Father Hansen admitted, still smiling and waving. “The bishop overseeing me refused to entertain the notion that a demon such as Apollyon could ever be redeemed. Going against my better judgment, I sent a letter straight to the archbishop above him, but he wouldn’t consider it either. Make no mistake; the Catholic Church will disown us after that display we just made. But can I be honest with you Aidan? I think the Catholic Church has lost sight of what really matters, and they’re not the only ones. They’ve all forgotten about something that Church of Apollyon is bringing back: a purpose.”

“Thank you Father,” I said, looking upon our people. “If you didn’t declare your faith in me, not one of them would have listened to a single word of what I said. If we won’t have the support of the world then so be it, but all the same, I’m sorry to get you in trouble with the church Father.”

He shook his head. “I didn’t choose the life of priesthood because I enjoy being part of a system that’s been flawed for centuries. I chose it because I love the lord, and I love the people. I may have had my hesitations, but you don’t need to apologize to me, because this is what I’ve been waiting half a lifetime for. This is the purpose that matters, and if the rest of the church is too deaf to even hear the idea of it, then I’m glad to be rid of them.”

“All the same father, I’m sorry to drag you into it.”

Up on the steeple, we conversed about how the day had gone, and what our plans for next week were. He complimented my quick work in getting the window changed, and I thanked him again for his faith in me. Danny was with us atop the steeple as well, but he kept to himself, fascinated by this view of the city. He leaned farther off the edge than I was comfortable with, but I trusted that even if he could die, he wouldn’t want to after what had happened that morning.

“Turning to me, Father Hansen asked, “Is Apollyon with you today?”

“She is,” I answered, reaching into my pocket. “Would you care to see her?”

He nodded, and I retrieved the rat. She was docile in that moment, and sat still in my hand as I held her out. Father Hansen knelt down and got on her level. He stared into her eyes, but I doubt if he saw much in them, because there wasn’t much to see. He raised a hand to her, and ran a thumb down her back. She leaned against him, and he continued to stroke her back, smiling.

“So this is the one destined to end the world. The king of the locust, the angel of the abyss. The fate of humanity lies her tiny, tiny paws. Come on now, she’s adorable.”

“Thank you!” Danny exclaimed, finally engaging us. “Glad I’m not the only one who thinks so. Aidan hates bringing her everywhere, and for the life of me, I don’t see why.”

“It’s hard to think Armageddon is finally upon us,” Father Hansen sighed. “In just three years, all of these buildings will crumble, demons will emerge from the abyss, all who bear the mark of the holy will watch as those around them wish for death. We can’t let that happen you know. If there’s a chance to stop it—if this great convergence can at least postpone the apocalypse—we have to take advantage of it. To save humanity.”

“What’s there to save?” Danny countered. “If a beautiful soul such as Sarah’s can wither while a wicked creature like Leonard prospers, then why bother to save something that no number of balance keepers could salvage? If it really is a choice, then I say we put humanity out of its collective misery.”

I shook my head. “Both sides are valid. It’s what makes this choice so difficult.”

“Have faith,” Father Hansen said, beginning his descent down the steeple steps. “And not just in God. Also, if it’s not too much trouble, we should find some time to go over next Sunday’s sermon.”

I agreed that we should, and he disappeared down into the church. I stayed up on the steeple for an hour at least, trying to wrap my head around the totality of what could occur. Everything and everyone I’d ever known, washed from the earth. It wasn’t an easy thought to process. I’d seen plenty of things go away, but never all at once, and never so completely.

When I did leave the church, I was met outside by a stranger. He said he’d stayed behind to speak with me, and displaying a toothy grin, he introduced himself as a journalist for a local paper. He asked if I could answer a few questions. I told him that if he didn’t mind walking with me, then I didn’t mind the company. After all, with the network of people in San Samarra who were looking for a reason to kill me, it felt safer to travel with as many people as possible.

The journalist made an effort to get as much of my story as he could, and at first I wasn’t bothered, because there were parts I was glad to share with the public. If the world was ending, they deserved to know about it. But other things, I was careful to avoid entirely. The world didn’t need to know that I was a murderer, no matter how justified.

When we arrived at my building he thanked me for my time, and I told him that I was just glad to be getting the word out. At the time, I didn’t quite realize the impact that brief exchange would have.

I rode the lift up to my penthouse as always. Yet when the doors opened, I was startled by a familiar nuisance. He stood at the center of the lounge, wearing a baseball cap and holding a glass of liquor. There was no doubt as to where he’d stolen his drink from. Raising the glass in my direction, he greeted, “Top of the morning Aidan!”

“Piss off!” Danny shouted, taking a step forward. He stood ready to tear our guest limb from limb. Apollyon remained in my pocket however, and Danny remained bound to her side, never able to leave the rat.

Not in any rush to exit the lift, I asked, “Leonard, what are you doing in my penthouse?”

“Well to tell you the truth, I just had this nasty itch. I was back in Belwyn, going about my business as usual, when I happened to walk by a certain building. You know the one; it’s where a certain someone was said to have died, and a certain someone else gained a fortune because of it. And as I walked by, I thought to myself, ‘I wonder what that janitor ever did with all of that blood money?’ So I asked around, talked to a few friends, but nothing. Nobody had any sort of idea as to where you’d run off to.”

“Get to the point,” Danny grumbled, chomping at the bit for a chance to charge.

“Of course, you’re busy people, sorry for being a waste of time,” Leonard said, nodding at Danny. “The point is that I found you, and if I don’t walk out of here with a mere million of your American dollars, I’ll have to show you why your old mate Jack flinches at the very mention of my name.”

Danny spit at Leonard. “Piss. The fuck. Off!

Leonard finished off his drink and tossed it to the ground, shattering the glass upon the floor as he sprinted at us, and Danny lowered his stance, ready to meet him head on. If I had still been in good health, I’m sure I would have joined them. But with the condition of my back, there was no way I could scrape with Leonard for a second time. I raised my cane. But rather than using it to smash in Leonard’s teeth, I used it to press the button for the first floor.

The lift doors glided shut. Danny’s soul hissed.

“How could you be such a fucking coward‽” he demanded, thrashing against the doors. “You’ve been face to face with an angel among angels and a demon among demons, yet you run like a bualadh craicinn soith from a mortal fucking man‽ Ní mórán thú!”

“Danny!” I shouted, grasping him. I stared into his soul. It burned with such a passion that he didn’t even realize what he’d done. As we looked at each other, his wits returned to him with each heavy breath, and his rage subsided. Not entirely, but enough for him to pay attention to what I had to ask him. “Where did you learn to curse like that?”

He gave no answer.

“abair é!” I implored, dropping my cane and grabbing both of his shoulders. “Cén chaoi a bhfuil a fhios agat an teanga seo?”

“Níl fhios agam,” he stammered, retreating up against the back wall of the lift. He slid down against its polished surface until he was sitting in the corner. With his hands pressed to his forehead, he repeated, “I don’t know. Maybe… maybe I picked it up listening to you. But I don’t know.”

When the doors opened on the ground floor, I marched to the front desk and explained that somebody had broken into my penthouse. After giving a brief description of what happened, two men in uniforms were sent up to apprehend Leonard. Meanwhile, I was instructed to wait in the lobby.

Ten minutes passed. Danny sat in silence as he contemplated where he’d learned to curse in Gaelic. Twenty minutes. He mumbled to himself, stringing sentences together in a language he shouldn’t have known. After thirty minutes, the uniformed men returned to the lobby. They told me that they’d found nobody in the penthouse, no signs of forced entry, and no glass shattered on the lounge’s floor. Leonard cleaned up quickly.

They asked if I wanted to file a police report, but with a scoff, Danny said, “Don’t bother. If he shows up again, I want him all to myself.”

With Danny’s sentiment in mind, I told them that a police report wouldn’t be necessary. I walked outside. Danny followed, asking where I was off to.

“To get a drink,” I told him. “And since I’d rather not get it from the penthouse where a criminal might be lurking about, I’m going to a bar.”

“Ah, brilliant, because we know there aren’t any criminals here on the streets of San Samarra.”

I ignored him and continued walking. There were countless places to get a drink, but I sought out one building in particular. It boasted a large decorative barrel beside the door, which was the mark I was looking for. Inside The Cask, I sat down and ordered a drink.

“What are you hoping to accomplish?” Danny asked. His footsteps paced back and forth behind me.

“I’m trying not to think,” I told him, and I told him truthfully at that.

““You’re fucking what?” he demanded. Apparently the truth wasn’t what he’d hoped for. “How could you not want to think right now? You—”

“Shut up for once.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Stop talking.”

“You’re the only one sayin’ anything,” a janitor commented as he strolled by. I glanced back at him. He just shrugged and continued walking, saying, “Hey, it’s none of my business, sorry to bother you.”

Danny sat down beside me, and said, “To be fair, you were talking quite loud. And quite rude. And—”

“I get it.”

“Get what now?” The janitor asked, turning to face me and Danny once again. Neither of us answered him. With another shrug, he smiled and said, “It’ll come back to you, don’t worry.”

Danny leaned closer to me, and whispered, “Christ, this whole city is filled with lunatics. I think I actually feel at home for once.”

I did my best to stifle the laugh, useless as the effort may have been. With an amused sigh, I reached for my drink. If Leonard thought he could upset me by staking out in my penthouse, he was mistaken.

Four drinks later, somebody else entered The Cask, and daylight followed her inside as she opened the door. I’m not sure why I thought the time of day mattered; tattooed hooligans seemed more than comfortable working at any time of the day or night, and Leonard was no connoisseur of subtlety himself. But all the same, when she opened the door, I was glad to see that there was still light in San Samarra.

Her name was Charlotte. She walked into The Cask that day and sat right down beside me, where she ordered a drink from the bartender and asked me if she could borrow a cigarette. When I told her I didn’t smoke, she walked over to the man further down the bar. Truly, it was love at first sight.

More people arrived, and as each one opened the door, the daylight outside grew dimmer and dimmer. Danny and I kept to ourselves, aside from occasional interruption from the janitor, who would walk by every few minutes just to impart upon us some nonsensical bullocks.

Charlotte drifted around the room, taking cigarettes in exchange for her company. Her hand was bandaged, her voice was off, and her soul was simply drenched in unpleasant circumstances. And yet, despite offering nothing to the world, she continued to find people willing to hand her a cigarette. It was strange to me, and I felt that Danny must have been right; the city must have been filled with lunatics.

The night continued on peacefully enough, until something in my guts began to twist. The room tilted as I staggered between the people, which didn’t help my churning stomach in the least. I bolted through the bathroom door, dove into the first open stall, and began the less than graceful process of turning my stomach inside out.

When the slew slowed down, I realized there was somebody in the adjacent stall. It sounded like they were in my same predicament. Between her coughing and her cursing, she was easy enough to identify.

“One of us seems to have gotten lost,” I commented. “I was in a hurry, but I do recall seeing a pair of urinals on the way in here.”

“Fuck off, ya—”

She was cut off with another fit of gagging, and the mere sound of it sent me reeling once again. Danny held my hair back as an all too familiar pungency filled my nose.

“Just fuck off,” she told me. “I’ve had a lot to deal with and you’re not doing anything to make it better, so just fuck off.”

“You don’t sound American. Tell me, where are you from?”

“I’m from Fuck Off, now fu—”

Once again she was unable to finish her thought.

“What a shame,” Danny commented, “now we never will know where she was going with that one. Could’ve been anywhere really.”

“What are you laughing about?” she questioned.

“Nothing clever,” I assured her. “I want to say you’re from England, but that’s not quite right, is it?”

There was a moment of hesitation, and then, “I was raised in London. I spent the last thirty years in Australia. You don’t sound American either. Where are you from?”

“Raised in Northern Ireland, spent most of my life in plain ol’ Ireland, moved to this lunatic harboring city about a year ago. How are you liking it here?”

“Better than where I came from.”

“Aye, same. My name is Aidan.”

“Charlotte.”

“I heard. I also heard you end every conversation tonight by saying that you’ve been sleeping on the streets, trying to hide from men with black crown tattoos.”

“So?”

“So it’s a piss poor hiding spot; the streets are exactly where those men are. I know a place that’s safe from them.”

“Oh, do you now? They were in Gillinport, they’re here in San Samarra, and they were on the boat ride in befuckingtween. Why should I believe that you know of the one place where they aren’t?”

“Because that one place is my penthouse, and they gave me their word they wouldn’t break in again.”

She made a sound, and at first I thought she was getting sick again. But as she continued, I realized that she wasn’t sick at all—she was laughing.

“Fuck it, I’ll follow some stranger to his alleged penthouse if it means I don’t have to get killed in my sleep. Wouldn’t be my worst decision this week.”

“Fair warning, there might be an extortionist sociopath lurking about up there.”

“Just one? I’ll knock his head in myself.”

Danny chuckled, and said, “I like her already. If you two can manage to stop spewing out so much disgustingness, we should really get back there. It’s getting late.”

We heeded Danny’s advice and left The Cask, stumbling all the while. The cane helped quite a bit. It almost made me wish I’d thought to bring one drinking all my life. When we made it to my building, Clarence was standing in the lobby. I didn’t have any desire to speak with the false man, but he approached as soon as we entered, and so I was left with little choice.

“Mister O’Moran, you have my sincerest apologies. I can’t begin to speculate as to how an intruder may have—”

“Fuck off.”

It got another chuckle out of Danny, who noted, “Her vocabulary truly is remarkable.”

Clarence didn’t say another word. He just let us pass through to the lift. Once inside, I asked Charlotte why it didn’t bother her that I was serious about the sociopath.

“Because I didn’t think you were joking about it in the first place,” she answered. “That was the most believable part of what you said. I’m just impressed that you actually have a penthouse.”

The doors opened, and I gave Charlotte her pick of guest rooms. She settled on the room which once held the questions. Thankfully, Danny and I had thought to return it to its original state, more or less. Perhaps her choosing that room was meant to be a sign. A sign as to what, I was too drunk to say. But all the same, I suspected that it meant something.

I may have been under a couple of influences, but after releasing Apollyon and retiring to my room, I still made it a point to pray. It was a prayer of thanks. I thanked the lord for guiding me towards forming Church of Apollyon. I thanked Him for helping Father Hansen to see the truth, despite the others within the church having their doubts. Lastly, I thanked Him for Charlotte, and for whatever role she was meant to play in all of this.


Chapter 9

The next morning I found Charlotte in the kitchen, leaning back in a chair and peeling an orange.

“You’ve got a rat problem,” she mentioned, glancing up at me. “But no sociopaths that I’ve seen, so I suppose it evens out. Why did you let me stay here?”

“Last night, you mentioned having a past with those men who have black crown tattoos,” I said, taking a seat across from her. “I want to know everything you know about them.”

“Well, I can either disappoint you or I can start making shit up, because I don’t know much about them at all. I don’t even know what to call the fuckers.”

“How were you involved with them?”

“Mate of mine, the dumb cunt, thought it was a good idea to borrow money from them, and I got caught up in the mix.”

“What happened to her?”

“He’s dead,” Charlotte said. Separating a slice from the orange, she added, “I suppose I will be too, but thanks for the hospitality in the meantime. The view from your balcony is lovely by the way.”

“Isn’t it?” I agreed, thinking back to the days when the view was something new. The endless cityscape to either side, and the open ocean straight ahead. The city provided a certain fuel for getting things done—for getting questions answered. Whatever role needed to be filled in this pursuit for understanding, the city was capable of filling it. And the ocean was something to marvel at as well. So many things had happened out at sea. It’s where the lord spoke to me, but even before that, the sea held many memories from my youth. Sometimes Danny and I would spend hours out on the waves, sometimes talking and sometimes not, basking in the sunlight and freezing in the waters.

I longed for those days again. I longed to be content with so little on my mind. I longed for the Danny I once knew, and for his brother who I never understood, and for my parents who had passed on, and for Morgen.

Morgen.

“Charlotte,” I said. I tried to choose my words carefully, so that she might understand them. I considered appealing to reason. I considered evoking emotions so deep that she would have no choice but to listen. Eventually I settled on, “If you’d rather not be killed by those fuckheads, you’re welcome to stay here.”

She set the remnants of the orange on the table. “No offense to you personally ya cheeky fuck, but I’d rather die a few days sooner with dignity than a few days later as a whore.”

“It wouldn’t be about that,” I insisted. Honestly, the thought hadn’t even occurred to me. “I understand why you’d think that way, but trust me, it wouldn’t. In fact, I can prove it. Last year, before moving to the states, I fell down three stories and broke my back. For weeks, nothing below my waist worked. Nothing. Eventually I was blessed enough to get my legs moving again, but it seems that some miracles are beyond the lord. So truthfully, I couldn’t make you into a whore if I wanted to. But even so, I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Then why? What the fuck do you want from me?”

I thought about an answer, searching again for the words that would make her stay. But if those words existed, then I couldn’t find them. I was left with telling her the truth.

“Nothing. I don’t want anything from you Charlotte, and I’m sorry if I’ve acted foolish. You just remind me of someone is all, but you’re not her, and you’re nothing like her, and I’m sorry I thought you might have been. It was just something in your eyes. You’re free to stay or you’re free to go. I don’t mean to force you either way.”

I reached for my cane, but before I could get up, she spoke. “Wait. Who was she?”

“No one you would care about.”

“Well who was she to you?”

“It’s a long story.”

“I have time.”

“It’s a story I’d rather not talk about.”

“What was her name?” Charlotte pressed, reaching out and grabbing the orange. Separating another slice, she insisted, “At least tell me her name.”

Then I noticed something. Something so small that I hardly even noticed it at all. Charlotte was gentle. She cursed like vulgarity was a mandatory part of grammar, and she had the voice to match it. She smoked herself dry and drank herself back to equilibrium. She was nothing like her. And yet, I noticed just then, that her hands were gentle. She’d peeled the orange neatly enough to not get its juice on her hands, and as she separated each slice, she did so with great care, almost verging on reluctance.

I gripped my cane and stood up. Walking out of the kitchen, I did my best to face away from Charlotte so I could hide my eyes, which watered over something I should’ve stopped caring about decades ago.

“Morgen,” I forced though my choking throat. “Her name was Morgen.”

I wiped the tears away while walking down the hallway. It was amazing how fresh an old scar could feel after so much time.

Not that time healed anything. Sometimes it seemed that way, but all time ever did was help me forget about things for a while. And if that’s all there was to time, then I knew several bottles filled with nothing but time. I grabbed one of them as I passed by the lounge and onto the terrace. Danny was out there with Apollyon, staring off into the ocean.

“Lovely view, isn’t it?” I asked him as I leaned against the railing. I poured a month down my throat. “I think so anyways. Charlotte seems to think so as well.”

Danny nodded. “I always enjoy it when Apollyon wanders out here. It’s a peaceful place to spend the end of days.”

“What do you suppose that rat’s looking at right now?”

“The church. Her church. She wants me to go there.”

“Right now?”

He shrugged. “Eventually anyways. Not just to visit though. She wants to stay there. I didn’t want to tell you, since I know you’d be so overjoyed to be rid of us. You’d send us off the second you found a reason to. But there’s not much point in trying to keep a secret when you’re living with someone who can literally see your soul.”

“You know I don’t want to be rid of you Danny. Apollyon I could take or leave, but you’re my best mate, and you know it. Hell, look into my soul of you don’t believe me—don’t think I’ve forgotten that you can read people as well. If Apollyon wants to leave, and you’re certain that it’s for the better, then I won’t question it. But before you go, we ought to go out on the ocean again. It’s been too long.”

“I’d like that,” Danny said, turning and looking at me. Then he told me something deeper. He didn’t say it with his words, or even with his expression. He told me with something that only I would be able to understand; he told me with his soul that he was nervous about living in the church with just Apollyon for company. He was worried about what Apollyon might want with the place. He was worried about getting lonely. He was worried about the gangsters breaking in and killing him in the night. He was scared. But in spite of it all, he said, “Tá mé réidh le rud ar bith a thagann chugainn.”

I’m ready for whatever comes next.

“Tá súil agam go mbainfidh tú cara. Muinín agam i gcónaí leat.”

I trust you mate. I always have.

After getting the rat into my pocket, Danny and I stepped into the lift, headed for simpler times. We took Morgen’s Lament out of the harbor and onto the sea. For the first time in a long time, I felt true happiness. The sea always had a calming effect on me. Combine it with a good mate, a good day, and a good cause in our future, and my soul was shining just as brilliantly as the sun overhead.

Reminiscent of the days of our youth, Danny and I didn’t share a word with one another. We didn’t need to. We understood everything, and it was wonderful. It was wonderful to have one last good moment with him.

When we returned to the land, we set out for the church. Inevitably, we passed by a handful of gangsters along the way. Based on their staring, it was clear to see they knew who we were. But for reasons beyond my understanding, they were true to Bruce’s word, and let us pass by unharmed.

At Church of Apollyon, we said our goodbyes without saying a word. I unlocked the door, set the church’s namesake inside, and that was the end of it. Danny walked in after her, forever bound to the rat’s side, and I set out for the better part of town. Again, the hoodlums glared as I passed, but did nothing more.

When I returned to the penthouse, Charlotte was stood on the balcony, staring out over the city. She was smiling. I smiled back.

“So, you’re still here.”

“Aidan, I don’t know who the fuck you are or what the fuck you’re on about, but I’d like to find out. I really would.”

She did find out over the course of the next few years, and she wasn’t the only one. News was spreading all over the state about a millionaire who had moved to America and started a cult. They weren’t the headlines I would’ve hoped for. Still, it got the word out all the same, and with each passing Sunday there were more and more people packed into the pews. Each week Father Hansen would deliver the sermon we’d worked on, and each week I searched the basement for Danny.

When I could find him, there would always be talk of answering the question. He spent a good chunk of his time there reading the bible, over and over again. If he couldn’t find the answers themselves, then surely, he would at least find the tools with which we could get answers on our own. Eventually we did settle on a solution. A simple one. Perhaps too simple for something so grand, but it was one that we could both agree on no matter how much we disputed everything else.

In the chaotic days after Babel, two cities came to be—Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities were sinful places, and the lord realized that flooding the earth and smashing the tower hadn’t accomplished anything at all. He decided to destroy the cities, but before He got around to it, Abraham posed a question.

“Lord,” he began, “would you destroy the cities if there were fifty righteous men inside?”

“Of course not,” the lord answered. “I would spare the cities if there were fifty righteous men inside.”

“And lord,” Abraham continued, “what if the number were only forty five? Surely, if you would spare the cities for fifty, you would spare the cities for five less than fifty. Am I wrong?”

“Of course not,” the lord answered again. “I would spare the cities if there were forty five righteous men inside.”

They carried on for quite some time and in quite a recursive fashion, until they reached an agreement. If Abraham could find ten righteous men, a mere ten men in all of Sodom and Gomorrah, the lord would spare the cities.

And so that’s what I looked for. Every Sunday, I looked for righteous men. Father Hansen was a simple enough start. Bill Joston may have had a wicked past, but in more recent years, he had proven himself to be a righteous man as well. Each Sunday I looked deeper, and as the months went by, the list of righteous men grew longer.

Sundays were the highlights of my life. In fact, they may as well have been the only part of my life at the rate time passed. I sit here, atop a steeple in San Samarra, wondering what happened to all of that time. It can’t have gone far; it was just here.

Just recently, Charlotte and I were sitting down to dinner, sharing stories about the scrapes we’d been in. She never doubted my stories either. Ridiculous as some of them were, she always had faith that I was telling the truth, and eventually the truth became that I loved her for it. I might have married her, if the world weren’t coming to an end. I could see it in her soul that she would have married me too.

Just recently, Danny and I were running through the Belwyn rain, laughing our arses off. He was so alive. He didn’t look it, but he sounded it, and that was enough to convince me of the life in him. But just as he lost his looks, so too did he lose his voice, until all that was left was his soul. And even that seemed to have been going lately. Every week, when I managed to see him, it seemed he’d become less like himself and more like the rat he was bound to.

Just recently, Morgen was telling me that she wanted to go sailing, just once, so she would know what it was to feel the push of the wind and the roll of the sea. It was so recent, and yet, so impossible to return to.

Last Sunday was the day I returned to an age old question; why is life a bastard? It started as a last minute addition to the sermon. Father Hansen had mentioned that he wanted to do a more thorough job of telling the story leading up to my revelation, and so I suggested that he throw in some of the questions Danny and I had attempted to answer.

As always, Father Hansen did a fantastic job through and through. And on that day, he had to. That day, Church of Apollyon was overwhelmed with the number of people who had arrived. I sat in the front row between Danny and Charlotte, with Apollyon in my pocket, listening to Father Hansen as he spoke.

“And how quickly the time does go. Today, a mere three years later, we are less than a week away from the most climactic hour in all of creation. We are joined as always by the prophet Aidan O’Moran, who I invite to join me on the pulpit so he may share his answer with us all.”

There was an explosion of applause as I stepped up to the pulpit with Danny and Apollyon. These were my people, and I was about to tell them the news that would change their lives in the best or worst way possible.

“Over the last three years, I’ve sought an answer as to whether or not humanity deserves to be saved. Looking out upon you today, just as I did three years ago, I still see sinners. I still see thieves and adulterers and deceivers and many, many nonbelievers. But rejoice Church of Apollyon, for when the great convergence comes, you shall be saved.”

When I announced my decision, the wrath that flared up in Danny’s soul was unlike anything I’d ever seen. He still didn’t feel that humanity was worth saving, but it didn’t matter. I’d made my choice, and seeing the smile on Charlotte’s face, I didn’t regret that choice in the least. Last Sunday, she was the answer to the lord’s question. She was the tenth righteous man.

Father Hansen thanked me. Charlotte continued to applaud. The audience lost their feckin’ minds. Danny slapped me, claiming that I had just announced to the world what was unquestionably the dumbest thought of my adult life.

“Before you go, I must tell you one last thing!” I shouted over the audience. “Last night, as I was praying, the lord told me something. Tomorrow, three years after the lord sent the angel Gabriel, the great convergence will take place in front of this very building. I ask all of you to be there. Go with the lord Church of Apollyon, and come back with your sins, for they shall be cleansed from your very souls!”

I left the church, and I set down Apollyon on my way out, so that Danny wouldn’t be forced to follow me. After all, it was clear that he didn’t want to. I left Charlotte behind in the church as well. It wasn’t uncommon for her to stay there long after anyone else, and figuring that this was one of those times, I walked back to the penthouse in solitude.

It was a strange feeling, being alone. I used to prefer it, but after being deprived of it for so long, it felt foreign. Almost uncomfortable. I would have a thought, but nobody to share it with. I would try to start a conversation, only to realize there was nobody with whom to start a conversation. Despite the fact that Danny hated me, I wished I had forced him to come along.

I arrived back at the penthouse seeking Charlotte’s company, but she was nowhere to be seen, and I couldn’t seem to recall why she wouldn’t be there. I checked each room, but discovered nothing until I walked out onto the balcony. There, mounted on the railing, sat a periscope. It was aimed downwards toward the city. I hadn’t put it there, yet there it was. Tied to it was a note, which shook in the wind. I steadied it, and read the brief phrase.

“You’re all out of favors. This is the one that costs you.”

Below the two sentences, there was the simple outline of a black crown. I looked through the telescope. I almost wish I hadn’t. I almost wish I ignored the damn thing, and that I didn’t see what was on the other side, and that I could still say I disagreed with Danny when it came to the dumbest thought of my adult life. But when I looked through the telescope, Church of Apollyon came into focus. And there, in the steeple, stood Charlotte. And there, in the steeple, stood a demon with a tattoo on its neck, holding a pistol to Charlotte’s head. And there, in the steeple, humanity was assassinated.


Chapter 10

I all but ran to the church. Perhaps I should have realized the danger, or at least the futility, but all rational thoughts were superseded by a simple disbelief. Just as everything was about to be right. Just as I’d decided that humanity could be saved. Just as I had answered an unanswerable question, a single action threw everything out of balance. I refused to believe it was so simple.

When I arrived at the church, I found the area vacant. Nobody lingered outside, and I heard nobody when I stormed through the doors.

I climbed the steeple steps. I had to find some disproof. Something, in ainm Dé, anything which would call into question what I’d seen. But there she was. She lay limp upon the floor, with a gaping red wound on either side of her head. Her soul had left her.

I sat there, for quite some time, thinking. Or, trying to. It was difficult. With Charlotte or Danny always present, it had been so long since I’d thought on my own. And, after maybe an hour of running my mind in circles, it was Danny who I set out to find. Because it was impossible; I couldn’t think anymore. Not by myself.

As always, he was in the basement with Apollyon. He was furious with me. I was furious with him.

“How could you let her get killed‽”

“How could you let humanity continue this ceaseless suffering‽”

“What would you have me do? There was hope! Ten righteous men! Perhaps you were too delusional to see it. Perhaps you were too wrapped up in your obsession over Sarah, one woman it’s been years since you knew the company of—”

“Don’t fucking go there mate—you know I can see your soul just as well as you can see mine. Morgen, does that name sound familiar? Charlotte, there’s another. It’s only been a few minutes, I’ll grant you that, but we both know that it would be the same given a few minutes or a few decades without her. I couldn’t do anything to stop them from killing Charlotte, and you know that. But know this as well; even if I could have done something—even if I wasn’t bound to this fucking rat—I would have let them kill her. I would have watched and I would have smiled, because I know that you would damn humanity over her, just as the lord will damn humanity over us.”

“A bhastaird santach!”

“An gceapann tú gur bhfuil tú ceann a labhairt‽”

“Tá mé an ceann amháin a labhairt!”

“Prophet O’Moran?”

I spun around to see Bill. He had a look in his soul; he was frightened.

“Can you not see that we’re in the middle of something?” I questioned, astounded by his audacity.

“I can see that, Prophet O’Moran. I just don’t understand who ‘we’ is.”

“Danny!” I told him, pointing directly at my former mate. “Daniel Kennedy! To my recollection, he’s been here every day since we bought the church three years ago!”

“I’m sure he’s been with you in spirit,” Bill said, taking a step back. “But I’m telling you, right now; I don’t see anyone here but you and me. I… I’ve never seen Danny at all.”

Impossible!” Danny shrieked, but Bill didn’t turn his head. Danny charged towards Bill, but Bill didn’t flinch. Danny drove punch after determined punch into Bill, but Bill didn’t recoil. Danny scraped and seethed and sobbed, but nothing could move Bill Joston, the second righteous man.

I stumbled out of the basement. Upstairs, I picked up an old phone. After dialing a number I’d come to memorize over the years, I was met with the sound of a familiar voice.

“Hello?”

“Father Hansen, it’s Aidan.”

“Is something the matter? You sound quite a bit… off.”

“Father Hansen, have you ever seen a man named Daniel Kennedy?”

“You’ve told me about him many—”

“But have you ever seen him?” I insisted.

The first righteous man paused. “No. No, I don’t suppose I have.”

I hung up and dialed another number, one which I had more difficulty remembering.

“Yeah?”

“Is Jack there?”

“Speaking.”

“Jack, it’s Aidan O’Moran. I need you to tell me something. After you were attacked by Leonard, and we ran into each other at the hotel, do you remember that?”

“Well of course.”

“Was there a man named Danny with us?”

“Of course there was, what kind of a question is that? He was barely with us, but yeah, I brought you and him to the hospital.”

“And what happened after that?”

“I wasn’t there—”

“But you must have heard something! After you dropped us off, what happened next?”

“He died, mate. He died in the hospital. You were right there with him.”

I hurled the phone across the room. It was then that I noticed Bill, standing just around the corner. He held a cellphone in his hand, and after taking a few careful steps forward, he turned the screen towards me. On it was a map.

Bill asked me, “Did Danny have a brother named Nicholas?”

“He did.”

“They’re buried together, a few miles down the coast. I can drive us there if you want to see for yourself.”

I nodded, and followed him outside. Before we left the church, I grabbed a few things from a utility closet. After tossing them in the trunk, we each took a seat in his car. Along the way to the graveyard, Bill explained that he’d known Nicholas Kennedy when he was younger, but that he always thought of him by his stage name, and so he never considered that the two Kennedys might be related. I listened, but there were more cataclysmic matters on my mind.

He parked in front of the graveyard’s gates. They were locked tight, so I retrieved my tools from Bill’s trunk. First a pair of bolt cutters, and next a shovel. The locks snapped easily enough, and we proceeded into the graveyard as the sun was setting. Bill led me straight to the twin gravestones. He said it had been a while since he was there, but that he could never forget where a punk legend like Nicholas was buried. And he was right.

Nicholas “Chiseler Deadly” Kennedy, 1969-1991
Daniel Kennedy, 1968-2012

I pressed the shovel into Bill’s hands.

“Dig.”

“Prophet O’Moran, you can see the grave—”

“Well I could see Danny too, couldn’t I? Don’t question me. Not ever, but especially not now. Dig.”

Bill did as he was told. We were there in that graveyard late into the night, the passing of every few seconds being marked by the sound a shovel ripping through the earth. I stood, watching as the hole grew deeper, and deeper still, until metal struck wood. Shortly after, the casket was unearthed.

“Open it.”

“Prophet O’Moran, I—”

“Open it!” I commanded, and once again, Bill obeyed. Using the shovel for leverage, he wrenched open the box. After the deed had been done, he cast the shovel to the ground and walked off towards his car.

I crept closer to the chasm in the earth. As promised, there laid the long dead remains of Daniel Kennedy. The rotting, soulless remnants of the one who kept me company, even after he had passed on. There was something about him, lying there. He wasn’t the tormented being who I’d come to know. Lying there in the earth, he was peaceful.

And that’s where, I wish to the almighty lord above, the story could have ended. There I was, coming to terms with the fact that Danny’s soul had left this world after all. Coming to terms with the idea that maybe it was for the better. But the story doesn’t end there. If it ended there, then there might be a hint of sweetness in this bitter, bastardly world.

Danny opened his eyes. He scraped his way out of the grave, painstakingly, as though it was his first time coming back from the dead.

What are you?” I whispered, backing away from the undying beast before me.

But Danny didn’t speak. He reached for his neck and pulled at the silver chain which hung there, freeing Sarah’s ring from himself. He threw it in my direction, and when it hit me, when the questions and the balance and the memories all collided, the graveyard was no longer empty. Standing to Danny’s left was Sarah, and to his right was Charlotte. I turned to run, but standing behind me was Morgen, her face the pale and blurred phantom of what it had once been. Leonard, Nathaniel, and Tonya all closed in on me, forcing me to the ground.

And then lurching above me, suspended by immense black wings, appeared the demon Apollyon. Not as a rat, but as the apocalyptic behemoth which he truly was. I thrashed against the cold dead hands of everyone I’d known, but their strength was beyond this world, and I could do nothing as Apollyon dug his razor claws into my soul, ripping the very life from my body.

Holding my soul in his terrible clutches, Apollyon posed one final question.

“If life itself is a bastard, why would it ever be worth saving?”

With that, he thrust my soul back into my mortal body and flew off into the night, taking his flock of the dead along with him. The only token of their presence was a silver ring, lying in the grass beside an unearthed grave.

And so now I sit here, in a steeple in San Samarra, where both a cross and a ring hang from my neck. With a scowl, I rip the cross away and throw it over the edge.

Bring on the storm.



Phantom Limb

Contents
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10


Chapter 1

Sometimes, the best one can hope for is escape. I’m standing outside a church, holding hands with another man, and we’ve both come here to escape in our own way. He says he’s running from the law. I say there are deeper things he’s trying to get away from, but cliches aside, I get why he’d want a fresh start.

My name is Regis Maxwell, and I’ve been escaping all my life—though when I was a kid, it was just called pretending. Let me paint the picture.

We were out in the woods, playing a game: escaping. By we, I mean myself and the three real friends I had back in those days. Mason was one of them. He was pretending to be a monster. He’d chased the other two up a tree, and it was my sworn duty to rescue them. Their names were Drake and Iris: a brave knight and a kindhearted princess.

Mason stomped around the base of the tree, using the deepest voice a ten year old could muster to challenge me to a fight. He held a gnarled stick, and he swung his club in such a way that would strike fear into the heart of any child. Still, I stood and faced him, wielding a stick of my own and building up the courage to test it.

“Monster!” I proclaimed, shifting my feet in the brush as I prepared to do battle. “Let my friends go, or else!”

Mason released a wicked laugh. “I’d like to see you try, stupid!”

And with that blow to my ego, we fought. He swung first, heaving the club over his head and bringing it down in a vertical chop. Acting on the impulses I’d spent years escaping to perfect, I moved my hands to either end of my staff and raised it up, causing a sharp thwack! as our weapons collided.

The monster’s blow proved mighty, and my staff was cracked in two. Tightening the grip on my new dual weapons, I unleashed everything. He tried to block my attacks, but his club was cumbersome, and he faltered more often than I struck. He tried to swing back, but I was too agile, and he couldn’t land a hit. In the end though, it wasn’t me who killed the monster. Leaping from the tree, the brave knight Drake pushed the mean monster Mason to the ground, where the beast closed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. He had been vanquished.

Drake and I high fived, and Iris climbed down from the tree. She thanked her heroic saviors, and we told her that it was no problem, that it’s what the good guys are supposed to do. Still, the princess persisted.

“Regis,” she smiled, brushing the hair out of her face. “For your bravery, you may kiss the one you rescued from the monster.”

I stared at the kindhearted princess Iris. She was leaning ever so slightly forwards, with a certain gleam in her eye. I doubt my face was ever redder. I glanced down at the mean monster Mason, whose eyes were still closed tight: a natural actor. I looked to the brave knight Drake, who was exerting an incredible effort not to laugh. My young mind racing, I faced Iris once again.

“No thanks,” I declared. “I don’t want to.”

Her smile vanished. “But you have to! Regis, it’s part of the game; when you rescue someone, you have to kiss them on the cheek!”

Well, fine then. I stepped forward. I closed my eyes, I held my breath, and I kissed the one I’d come to rescue, right on the cheek.

“Not him!” Iris shouted, and I locked up. I didn’t know if we were pretending anymore, so I just didn’t do anything at all; I could only stand there and take it as she asked, “How does that even work? Regis, you’re supposed to kiss the girl!”

I didn’t know where to look. I tried staring at the kindhearted princess Iris, but I couldn’t stand seeing her tears, because they made me shed tears of my own. I glanced down at the mean monster Mason, but he’d opened his eyes, and I could tell he was using them to judge me. I looked to the brave knight Drake, but his gaze was the worst of them all, because his deadpan stare didn’t tell me anything. It didn’t tell me he understood, or even that he was surprised.

I couldn’t escape with any of them anymore, so I had to escape from them. I tore through the woods, barely noticing the scratches that crossed my legs as I cut through the bushes. I heard somebody following me, but I didn’t care who, because I wouldn’t be able to look at any of them anyways. I only wanted to escape. When my lungs were too overworked to run anymore, I dove into a shrub. I hid. The footsteps behind me slowed down as they grew closer, and then they stopped all together.

“Regis?”

Drake’s voice.

“Regis, come back. I know you’re hiding. Just come back.”

He couldn’t see me. There was no way. I stayed tucked away, and I tried not to breathe too hard, even if my lungs stung as much as the thorny bush. I bit my lip. I kept my eyes closed tight.

“Regis, I know it was a mistake. I’m not mad at you, I promise. Stop hiding.”

I held back my breath, and my voice, and everything else that wanted to explode out of me. There was another shuffle as Drake sat down.

“I’m not leaving without you. My mom said we can have a sleepover, and we always have sleepovers when our moms let us. Please, stop hiding.”

We sat in the woods, neither of us quite sure where the other was. I don’t know how long we were there for. Sometimes when I think back, I only remember hiding for a few brief moments. Other times, it feels like a million years passed before I stood up and we saw each other.

“It wasn’t an accident. I meant to choose you.”

“Okay.”

No escape, no pretend, and no game. That moment was real. It must have been a little too real, because for years, we acted like it never happened.

Drake understood that I liked boys, even if we didn’t know the word for that yet. By the time we got to middle school and learned what being gay meant, Iris began to understand as well. But Mason was different. Even past middle school and throughout high school, he treated me like I was diseased. According to him, I was a plague on society: one he could cure with a strong enough dose of ridicule. It’s because of him that I continued escaping, even throughout high school. I pretended to be normal, and the act wasn’t just around him.

Of course, today I’m standing in the street among a crowd of thousands; a mob of religious extremists, any of whom would crucify me in a heartbeat. And I’m holding hands with a man, and truth be told, their judgements are the least of my worries right now. So something happened.

It was four years ago, roughly. We were camping that night. I sat between Drake and Iris on a fallen tree, while Mason paced along the same patch of grass for the umpteenth time, trying to avoid the smoke billowing up from the fire. We were all seniors in high school, and close to graduating in the class of 2012.

Squinting through the smoke, Mason asked, “Why the hell are we camping? It’s still too cold out.”

“Yeah,” Iris said, “that’s what the fire is for. Besides, if we waited until it was warmer, the mosquitoes would be back.”

“Well I’m going back in the tent. This smoke literally hates me right now,” Mason grumbled. I began to speak, but he interrupted: “Yes, literally. I know what I said.”

“Good night to you too, Mason,” Iris sighed.

“Mm, isn’t he just charming?” I asked.

“I heard that, faggot.”

“You were supposed to, and it’s not gay if it’s sarcasm.”

“Well it’s gay if you’re a faggot,” Mason countered before zipping the tent flap behind himself.

Iris told me to ignore him, and I nodded. “Trust me, I’ve been doing that for years. I’m just worried.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well forget about me; what’s he making other people think? There are no gays in our school. Doesn’t that seem strange? In fact it’s more than strange, it’s statistically impossible. I’m not saying it’s entirely his fault that everyone has to hide, but still, he can’t be helping.”

Iris reached for a stick. Poking at the fire, she said, “Just try not to think about it too much. Don’t do anything you can’t take back.”

I shrugged.

Iris flipped a log over, and I could hear the fire. Really hear it. It crackled as Iris prodded the burning wood, and there was something mesmerizing about it. I could get lost in the light, the warmth, the sounds, and I could forget that there was anything else in the world. The sound of waves on the nearby lake disappeared. The tent—harboring my only enemy in life—disappeared. My two best friends, sitting right beside me; even they disappeared, until Iris tossed her stick into the fire, snapping reality back into place.

“I’m going to bed too,” she said, standing up. “Wish me luck.”

“Night,” I said. “I might join you soon.”

Iris disappeared into the tent, and I leaned back, glancing at Drake. He hadn’t looked away from the fire since it had been lit. I wasn’t even sure if he’d blinked. When he got so absorbed like that… I wouldn’t admit it out loud that night, but I worried for him. And I had to break him away from it.

“You’ve been quiet today,” I mentioned. “Something wrong?”

Drake inched closer to the fire. “Nothing. Just thinking.”

“About?”

“Nothing.”

“It can’t be nothing if you’re thinking about it.”

“Why not? I’ve been thinking about nothing for weeks,” Drake said. A log snapped, sending embers airborne. A few settled on the tight curls of his hair, but he didn’t seem to mind, or even notice. “We live on an immeasurably thin line between nothingness and somethingness. It’s unbelievable.”

“Somethingness?” I questioned. He might have been staring at that fire for longer than I realized.

“Like, here on the ground, we get to experience somethingness. Then, not even a hundred miles off the ground is nothingness,” he explained, leaning even closer to the flames. “It’s a nothing so profoundly empty that it kills you. And Los Angeles is farther away than that.”

I nodded, and he continued. “You’re walking on the sidewalk, and you experience somethingness. You’re an individual with ideas and opinions and potential. A car swerves a few feet off the road and you turn into nothingness. It’s over, you’re done, and it amazes me that more people aren’t terrified by that. Even the few who realize it treat it like it’s unimportant. Like what they’re doing with their limited somethingness matters. I know I do. I could be doing anything. Instead I’m sitting here in the woods just outside Foxboro Nowhere, not doing a goddamn thing but existing.”

I reached out and pulled Drake away from the fire. After getting a look, I took back my hand. “Sorry, you were getting a little close. How does that not burn?”

Drake leaned back. Looking into the sky, he shrugged. “Bigger things on my mind I guess.”

“Yeah, that was… interesting. Somethingness you called it?”

He nodded.

I continued, “You’re right about it—how fragile things can be. But most of it is out of our control anyways.”

“It is out of control, and that’s exactly what worries me. But I’ll shut up before I bore you with some rant about free will or whatever. And Regis?”

“Hm?”

“One more thing.”

Drake turned his head and gave me a kiss on the cheek, and then he looked back into the fire. And that was it. The second he kissed me is the second things started happening to put me in San Samarra years later, holding hands with the love of my life. But I was so surprised—so stupidly happy—that I didn’t realize it. How could I? I could barely even talk.

“Was that…”

“Yeah man, you mean a lot to me; you’re my somethingness in the world. You’re why I hold onto hope that free will is real. If such a good person can exist, I’d hate to know it was all just a coincidence.”

I turned Drake’s head towards me and kissed his lips, with my eyes closed, holding my breath. Apparently some things didn’t change.

“Jesus, your face is hot,” I mentioned as we parted.

“Thanks, I like yours too.”

“You know what I meant,” I said. “You were way too close to the fire.”

“But you’re alright with this?”

“With us? Trust me, I’m more than alright with it. I just had no idea you felt the same way.”

“I didn’t, for a while,” he admitted. “I was never into guys. When you kissed me back in fifth grade, it was just another thing. But we got a little older, and I realized that in general, I was never into girls either. I’m more about individual people, and as soon as I knew that, it hit me; you and I were always more than friends.”

“Good.” I put an arm around Drake’s shoulders. “I’m not saying I wasn’t happy being just friends, but this is even better.”

We sat there, arm in arm, looking at the fire. I’d never felt so close to someone, and honestly, at first it was fucking terrifying. I wasn’t used to being so genuine. I was always hiding behind a wall of sarcasm, or a facade of apathy, or a few clever lies—just something to protect myself if things got too real. That moment with Drake was the realest thing I’d ever felt, and as my heart raced and I thought about what I could do to get out of it, it dawned on me. I didn’t want to get out of it. For the first time I could remember, maybe the first time ever, I had both feet in reality and no intentions of leaving.

So I settled in. I let myself lean against him, and my heartbeat mellowed out, and I took a couple of deep breaths. Reality wasn’t all that bad. I stared into the fire, and just like before, the world slipped away, piece by piece. Except for Drake. He stayed with me, as my somethingness in an abstract world of warmth.

I sat up. “As awesome as this moment is, it’s getting late. Are you coming to the tent?”

As I stood, Drake stayed in place. “I think I’m gonna sleep by the lake tonight, once the fire goes out.”

I nodded and said goodnight. With a bigot only a dozen feet away, it was probably best that Drake and I weren’t near each other anyways.

Before zipping the tent behind me, I cast one last glance back at him. He was staring at the fire again. He sat closer to the edge of the fallen tree. Wrapped up in the allure of the flames, Drake stumbled and fell forward into the burning logs. The night weighed heavier as I ran to him.

He released his breath in a string of curses and recoiled from the blaze. Lying on the ground and taking massive breaths, he tapped at his face. I knelt beside him, asking if he was alright. Still out of breath, he held up a trembling thumb and began laughing.

I joined in, and punched him on the shoulder before offering him a hand. As I helped him up, I asked, “My god, are you ever in pain?”

Drake leaned against me, using me for balance as he caught his breath. “Apparently not, now let’s get this fire out.”

“Still sleeping on the beach?”

“Yeah, that’s the plan.”

“Good, I’m coming with. I know you’re friends with him, but I swear, Mason even manages to annoy me in his sleep.”

We used Mason’s water bottle to extinguish the fire, and I got our sleeping bags from the tent while Drake kept an eye on the remaining embers. When they died out we made the short walk to the lake, and laid our sleeping bags down side by side. We talked for a while, kissed more than once, and fell asleep closer to one another than we ever had before. For once, my actions weren’t about escaping. I just wish I could say the same about his.


Chapter 2

Drake wasn’t at school the next Monday, which was a shame, because there was so much more I wanted to talk about with him. I mean, I’d just found out my lifelong crush had feelings for me too; how could I spend a second apart from him?

I sent him a few texts that day. The first one asked about where he was, and the last one just said, “Hope you’re alright dude. It’s stupid, but I miss you.”

It was lunchtime before I got a response. Not much had changed since fifth grade; I still sat with the same group of people. And, even if I didn’t like all of them anymore, I was glad to have a place where I belonged. When my phone buzzed, I practically tore my pocket apart to get at Drake’s message.

“Hey I’m fine, just woke up, probably gonna stay home today.”

Well there went that hope. I responded, “You were gone for half of last week, I don’t even know how often this month. Sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah Regis. I’ll be okay.”

I put my phone back in my pocket, and told Iris that Drake wouldn’t be at school that day.

“Again?” she asked, after swallowing a bite of what passed for food in Foxboro High School. “What’s wrong with him this time?”

“Nothing, apparently. He didn’t say,” I shrugged. She stared at me, until I added, “I know, it’s bullshit, but that’s what he said.”

She dropped her spoon to the tray. “You’re damn right it’s bullshit. Why doesn’t he just say it?”

“Embarrassment?” I suggested. “Pride? Secretly a superhero and has to hide from the world?”

“A hero, huh? We must be thinking of different Drakes.”

“Give him some credit,” I said. “He’s better than… than Mason here, isn’t that right Mason?”

He looked up from the other side of the table. “What are you cocksuckers talking about?”

“Nothing,” I told him. “Thank you.”

“What, they can’t both be villains?” Iris asked.

Mason leaned in closer. “Seriously though, what?”

Waving her hand in the air, Iris answered, “Drake, I guess. We’re worried about him.”

Mason grabbed his fork and pointed it to Iris. “You and Drake need to fuck already.” And then pointing to me, he added, “And you need to stop letting him fuck you.”

“Mason—”

“No Iris, I mean it. I know this little fag has been with every dude desperate enough to try him, I just never thought it would be Drake.”

“How?” Iris questioned. “How could you possibly know that?”

“Why the hell else would I find them passed out spooning on the beach? Besides, you’re not sayin’ I’m wrong.”

“You’re wrong.”

“Whatever.”

“Exactly, talking to you is pointless. Come on Regis, the bell’s about to ring, let’s just go.”

The two of us stood up and walked away, traversing the crowded lunchroom. I thanked her for her help, and let her know how close I was to saying the wrong thing.

“I know,” Iris noted with a shrug. “But look, don’t worry about him. He’s just an asshole.”

“I know he is, and I know it shouldn’t matter what I am, but to a lot of people it does—”

“Well to me it doesn’t, okay? And it doesn’t to Drake, and we’re the only ones who really know. So what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that everybody else has such a problem with it, alright? Just… just forget about it.”

I turned and walked in the other direction. I bumped into a few people in my haste to the front door, but when I arrived, there was no one to stop me from leaving. And fuck it; if Drake could miss weeks, then I could miss half a day.

After placing my hand on the metal bar, I heard her again. “You’re one person. You can’t change the world.”

“I know Iris.” My hand lingered on the bar. In the glass door’s reflection, I could see that she was pretty. Even through the glass’ glare, and through her crossed arms, and through my own frame of mind, I could see that she was an attractive person. I could even see that she was trying to watch out for me. But in spite of all the things I could see in her, what we couldn’t see was eye to eye. “Even if I can’t change the world, it wouldn’t kill me to help a few people out.”

I pressed on the door and began walking. Every space I passed in the parking lot was full, and as I walked by the cars, my vision became focused on one thing. I walked a bit faster, making my way between the aisles as quickly as I could manage. When I arrived in front of Mason’s car, I stopped. I rested a hand on the hood. A lot of things crossed my mind as I stared at the metallic beast, and in hindsight, I wish I’d followed through with every destructive impulse. I just didn’t have the nerve to. As soon as I’d arrived, I broke my gaze and continued walking away from the school.

Nothing could divert me from my course, not that anything was trying. I walked down streets I’d known all my life, inhaled the familiar spring air, and observed all of the houses that never seemed to change. It felt strange to be the only one around. Before and after school, there was always someone in sight. But apparently for six hours every week day, Foxboro became the most tranquil ghost town on the continent.

I arrived at a familiar house and stood in the doorway. I took a moment to breathe, and to make sure I looked alright. Normally I wouldn’t have cared whatsoever, but normally I didn’t have a special someone in my life.

I knocked. When there was no response I knocked again, continuing until the door opened to reveal a poorly shaven teen with distant look in his eyes.

“Hey Regis,” Drake said, leaning against the doorway. “What’s… what’s up?”

“That’s what I’m here to find out. Maybe it sounds dumb now that I’m actually here, but I’m worried about you.”

“Worried?”

“yeah, it’s just… can I come in?” I asked. He nodded and stepped to the side. As we walked into the house, I continued, “You’ve been acting different lately—”

“I’m sorry, have I ever acted especially normal?” Drake asked as we stood in the entryway.

“Point taken, but I think it’s bad this time. You’ve always been pretty open with me and with Iris, and probably with Mason for reasons that confuse the hell out of me. Why don’t I ever see you at school anymore?”

“I’m fine, man. I’m just sick,” he said.

“You don’t look sick, you look like a mess. You’ve been wearing the exact same clothes for a couple days now. Did you just wake up?”

Drake crossed his arms and glanced away. “When I texted you, yeah. So what? I just couldn’t sleep last night. I was up until, like, four.”

The conversation continued as we walked over to the couch in the living room. “Look, I know you’re into the whole stoic thing. I keep a lot inside too, so honestly, I get it. But if something’s wrong, I want to help you.”

“Shit, you’ve been my best friend since we were kids,” Drake said, sitting down. He closed his eyes when I sat down next to him. “If I have something to say you’ll be the first to know, but I… I can’t talk about it.”

“But there’s something wrong,” I asserted. “I promise I won’t make fun of you if it’s embarrassing, or anything like that. You remember last weekend; if you can tell me that kind of thing with no problem, then it worries me what you keep a secret.”

I put a hand on his shoulder, but he was quick to pull back from the contact. “It’s just stressful, you know? In a few months our lives change forever, and everyone else seems to be taking that pretty well.”

“Drake, is that it?” I asked. It was inconsiderate of me, but I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. “Believe me, you’re not the only one freaking out about graduation. But most people are pretty good at hiding it. I’m actually surprised you’re not one of them, considering how quiet you usually are.”

“Well, quiet and indestructible are a little different,” Drake said, his eyes still shut tight.

I sighed. “Hey, I’m sorry, okay? I know I said I wouldn’t make fun of you, and I’m not trying to. I just expected it to be a lot worse.”

His eyes opened, and he did something that he never did; he expressed himself. Not just in words, but in every aspect. His face wasn’t a blank slate. It was worried, and it scared the hell out of me.

“Regis: it is worse, alright? A whole hell of a lot worse.”

I nodded, but Drake closed his eyes again. This time when they opened, they’d returned to neutral.

“Forget it,” he said.

“No, look at me,” I insisted. As intimidating as his openness was, I’d become infatuated with it. I wanted more. “You’re right, we are close to graduating, and I’d hate it if anything happened to fuck it up. So tell me what’s wrong. You can start with another easy one, if there is another one of those.”

“Fresh out,” Drake said, and the hint of a smile broke through his inhibitions. Then it disappeared, as he seemed to remember how exposed he felt whenever he showed an inkling of real feelings. Even when he did speak of emotions, it was as though he were describing what someone else might feel, and not at all what he was going though. That detached way of speaking is how he continued when he told me, “I’ll put this as clear as I can, because it makes me sick, and I never want to say it again. There have been a lot of school shootings lately; I want to set the fucking record.”

I had no words. In that moment, I felt gravity pulling me downwards. The sound of his breath and the absence of mine left a forceful impact. I knew what Drake had been staring at in the fire.

Breathe. Escape wasn’t an option. So just fucking breathe.

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yes, okay.”

Drake collapsed back into the couch. “You don’t believe me.”

“Of course I believe you, I just don’t know what to say.”

“Say you don’t hate me, or hell, say you do,” Drake suggested. “Just say whatever you’re thinking.”

I began to speak, but there was a hesitation. I didn’t hate Drake at all, and at the time, I didn’t believe there was anything which could change my mind. But what was I honestly thinking in that moment? In that brief hesitation?

I arranged the words as carefully as I could. If I couldn’t escape my thoughts, I at least wanted to escape their directness.

“I think I’m nervous, and I think this is crazy. But I think I still love you.”

I leaned forwards and wrapped my arms around Drake. Both of our breathing came a little easier.

“Thank you,” he said, his expression on the verge of giving something away. “I missed you when I had to hide so much.”

“So what do you want to do?” I asked.

He backed away from my embrace, saying, “No idea. I can tell you all of the things I don’t want to do. I don’t want to talk to a therapist because I like my thoughts to be my own, and I don’t want to take any medication because I could never be sure what’s real and what isn’t after that. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I don’t want to keep holding everything back. So I don’t know if I want to do anything at all.”

“Well can I ask one more thing?” I requested. Drake nodded. “What makes you want to do that? I’m not saying you’re a bad person, and I’m not even saying it would make a difference if you were. I just want to understand this.”

“I’m just sick of the bullshit I see in the world,” Drake began. “I’m not mad at anyone in particular, except maybe myself for thinking this way. I hate people, but not for anything they’ve done. I get that it makes no sense, trust me, but I see myself in them, and it’s not a good thing. Then there’s the whole nothingness train wreck.”

“Drake, be honest,” I asked him, wrapping my hand around his. Again, he nodded. Breathe. “Are you telling me you want to die?”

He laughed. Even if it only lasted for a second, that second was too fucking real, and I was left holding his hand. I felt him as his body shook, just once, with amusement. “Regis, after everything else I just said, how could I possibly want to live?”

“It’s not fucking funny!” I shouted, and I pushed him away.

“No, it really isn’t,” Drake said as his twisted smile faded. “But did you really have to ask? I may be crazy—I may be completely fucked up in the head—but sometimes I like to think I’m still smart. And if I follow through with any of this, I’m smart enough to know my life might as well be over whether I’m dead or not.”

Breathe, dammit. “I love you Drake. I don’t think you could change that if you tried. But you need help. Are your parents still out of town?”

“For the rest of the month, but they wouldn’t do anything.”

“Well then you can stay at my house,” I offered. Looking around the room, I added, “Or I can stay here. It doesn’t matter where. I just don’t think being alone every day is helping you.”

“Okay, sure, we can spend tonight here. But can we stop talking about this for now? It’s bringing me down even more than usual.”

“Gladly,” I approved. I stood up and stretched, after being physically worn out by a conversation. I couldn’t help but smile at Drake as I asked him, “Christ, what happened to us?”

He laid out on the couch and shrugged. “I think we got older, nothing else to it. You got smarter, I got fucked. It happens.”


Chapter 3

Something felt different the next morning, even before I opened my eyes. I felt more comfortable, more secure—almost like I hadn’t woken up at all. I felt warmer. And when I did open my eyes, I realized that it wasn’t my imagination for once; I really was waking up face to face with Drake.

He gave me a peck on the nose. “Morning lover.”

“Isn’t that, like, double sarcasm?”

“Good morning Regis,” he tried again.

“Mm, that’s better.”

I glanced over Drake to see his alarm clock, which displayed half past three. Huh. For once, I understood why he enjoyed sleeping in so late. I was just about to tell him that too, when we heard a knock at the door.

“You should probably get that,” I suggested. “At least you’re wearing pants.”

He nodded and went scavenging for his shirt. I stayed under the blankets for a little bit longer. On one hand, I did want to see who was at the door. But on the other, I was just so damn comfy.

Drake gave up on finding his old shirt, took a new one out of his dresser, and asked how he looked.

“Like you didn’t just sleep with another dude? I don’t know, you’re fine, just go. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“I would’ve also accepted handsome,” he mumbled as he left the bedroom.

With some effort, I forced myself out of the covers, stood up, and did a leisurely lap around the room. I picked my jeans up from the foot of the bed, and spotted my shirt off in the corner. But what really caught my eye was something sitting on Drake’s dresser. It was a photograph of four kids. It was a familiar one; I could have described it without even looking. But right then, I wanted to look anyways.

At the right edge of the picture was a scrawny kid with pale brown hair. He had a big, cheesy smile on his face, and I smirked right back at him. I hadn’t changed much since then.

Case in point, the younger me had his arm wrapped around the shoulders of the boy beside him. Not that I was the only one invading Drake’s personal space. To his other side, Iris had tilted her head and rested it against his, so that her long black hair was draped over his chest. I don’t know which one of us claimed him first, but either way, Drake didn’t look thrilled to be given the attention. He just stared into the camera with his ever-defensive eyes.

I couldn’t help but think we belonged in some ridiculous pamphlet about diversity; one picture had captured three races and three sexualities, and to top it off, we were almost getting along. The only thing to throw the balance off was Mason, who was only halfway in the photograph. I couldn’t remember the reason, but he didn’t want to have his picture taken that day, so he would storm away every time the flash was about to go off. There were actually quite a few things I couldn’t remember about that photograph. Where and when it was taken, who it was taken by, what the occasion was; all the things I was too young to care about at the time.

The voices on the other side of the bedroom door snapped me out of the past. Drake was in the living room talking to Iris. Meanwhile I was naked, looking at a photograph of us as children. That little moment of clarity got me moving. I set the picture down and finished searching the room for my clothes.

When I stepped into the living room, Iris was asking Drake about what had happened yesterday.

“We talked,” he answered, giving a shrug. “I’ve just been stressed with graduation coming up, it’s no big deal.”

Iris wasn’t quite looking him in the eyes while he spoke. She smiled, but she crossed her arms. I’d seen that look from her before. She knew something was off, and she was going to figure it out if it killed her.

“What aren’t you telling me?”

Drake and I glanced at each other. If he had a way of escaping the situation, he didn’t show it. We all stood dead still. Nobody said a word. The only movement was Iris’ cheery expression growing more and more forced.

Lying, that was an option. “Nothing Iris,” I could tell her. “Nothing else happened at all.” I could also step back into the bedroom and hope she hadn’t noticed I was there in the first place. There were options, but the stillness felt tangible, and I couldn’t bring myself to disrupt it.

At least Drake could manage another shrug. “You can tell her if you want,” he said, and sat down on the couch.

I stared, telepathically screaming at him, “Which part‽

As usual, his face didn’t reveal a thing, and the stillness was growing thicker again with each passing second. Breathe. I took a seat beside Drake and looked up at Iris. Breathe. I put an arm over Drake’s shoulders, just like I had in the photograph, and I tried to give her the same cheesy smile to match it. The expression she wore didn’t make smiles easy.

To hell with breathing, just go for it.

“I think it’s safe to say we’re in a relationship.”

Silence. She took a few small steps backwards. When she reached the door she broke into a run.

“What was that about?” Drake asked, staring at the empty doorway.

I was at a loss. “She was fine with me being gay, and this is kind of exactly what that implies. But she seemed, like, really upset there.”

Drake shook his head, and then stood up. “I’ll be back in a second.”

He followed her outside, leaving me alone to wonder what the hell was going on. A lot of questions went through my mind. Was Iris that opposed to two guys being together? Did Drake know something I didn’t? How quickly could a day go from perfectly comfortable to nerve wracking as hell?

But something more practical occurred to me while I sat there by myself; Drake’s parents had guns. That meant Drake had guns. They weren’t locked up, they were kept in the master bedroom’s closet. He’d shown them to me once. I glanced at the front door, and hoped I would have enough time.

My hair stood on end when I went into his parents’ room, even if I was the only one in the house. Opening the closet door, I saw that it was just as I remembered: a pistol, a rifle, and plenty of ammo for both.

I didn’t bother with the bullets, because I figured they were useless without the guns. Instead I grabbed both firearms and closed the closet, trying to make it look like I hadn’t even been there. In an ideal world, I would return the guns the day before Drake’s parents came home, and I would be the only one to know they were even missing. I went down to the basement and wrestled the washing machine away from the wall, then stashed the guns in that narrow gap. At a glance, nobody would notice anything out of place.

I got to the top of the stairs just as I heard the door opening, and I dove for the couch, hoping to make it look like I hadn’t moved an inch. If Drake had taken just a few more seconds, it might have worked.

“You alright?” he asked as he stepped inside. He gave me a look, something between confusion and amusement. At least it was better than most of the looks he’d given me the day before.

“Yeah, I’m good,” I answered. “So what was up with Iris?”

“She sort of had a crush on me. It was a long time ago. I thought she was over it, but apparently not. Anyways, we sorted it out.”

I nodded. It didn’t shock me. Less than an hour ago, I’d been holding photographic evidence that her feelings for Drake might have lasted as long as mine. And that’s what worried me.

“Are we still…”

“You don’t even have to finish that. Of course we’re still together.”

Since school was already over, Drake and I decided to spend the day at his house. I called my mom to tell her who I was with, and that I’d be with him for at least the rest of the week.

She was the only family I knew. I had no siblings to speak of, our distant relatives didn’t keep in touch that often, and there wasn’t even the mention of a dad. It was just me and her, and I think that’s why she was hesitant to let me leave home so suddenly. But she was smart, and as the phone call went on, I think she began to understand. I’m not sure which parts she picked up on, but she got enough to know that I wasn’t just trying to spite her. In the end she said I was old enough to make my own choices, even if she didn’t care for them.

The rest of that Tuesday was predictable, but that didn’t stop it from being one of the better days that week. Of course, the details fall into two categories: incredibly disinteresting and incredibly intimate. Suffice it to say, I would choose that day over any other to live over and over again, for the rest of my life.

Somehow we managed to wake up before seven on Wednesday morning, and Drake drove us to school. On the way we listened to the radio, and the host had some things to say about the recent events in the world of rock.

“What’s up everybody, this is Armageddon Radio! If you haven’t heard the news then you’ll have to show me the rock you’ve been living under, because it must be a big one. Another member of Flashpoint Zero has gone a bit too mental. This time Jace Jeck has split from the band, and she’s insisted that she might not be back for a while. Rumors are unclear, but it sounds like she’s gone into complete hiding. Not sure what that’s all about.

“Flashpoint Zero has cancelled their upcoming tour, leaving thousands of fans including myself pretty bummed. But hey, love her music, love her message, hope she gets well soon. Until that happens we’re playing nothing but Jeck. If you’re listening Jace, this one’s for you; hope it means something. Stick around.”

“Well that sucks,” I said as Behind the Shades came on. It was one of Flashpoint Zero’s first songs. I’d never paid attention to what it meant, but after hearing the first few lines, I understood why they would play it. “They’re like, my favorite band.”

“Just give it time,” Drake said, entering the parking lot. “I’m sure they’ll get back together before it even sinks in that they broke up.”

As he searched for a spot to park, I asked if he would be okay.

“I’ll be fine,” he promised. “At least for today. Besides, even if I did want to do something, I left my guns at home.”

If it was a joke, I wasn’t laughing. “Son of a bitch, you thought about bringing them, didn’t you?”

“Well I didn’t, did I?”

“Fair enough. But in the future, something more than just, ‘It would take fifteen whole minutes to drive home and back,’ should be stopping you.”

We got out of the car and went our separate ways. I didn’t talk to many people that day. I spent my time in class staring at nothing, and my time between classes avoiding eye contact in the halls. I couldn’t look at any of them, knowing what somebody was probably wishing upon them at that very moment. I hadn’t done anything against them, but still, I felt guilty to be among them.

When it was time for lunch, the only time Drake and I had together in school, we sat at our usual table with the usual people. Iris gave me and Drake a smile as we sat down. I smiled back.

“Drake, ya queer motherfucker!” Mason yelled. “A little late to drop out, isn’t it?”

Drake’s poker face blew me away. Calm as ever, he responded, “Don’t be so confident, you’re stuck with me for another few months. And call me queer all you want, just don’t shout it for everyone to hear.”

“True, wouldn’t want people thinking I’m friends with a fag.”

“Fags are fantastic, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Drake said. Iris cast a glance at him, but he continued. “They can’t reproduce which has to help the planet out, and you’ll never meet a nicer person than one who wants to fuck you.”

“I’ll give you that,” Mason said with a chuckle. “But seriously, it’s fucked up.”

“Have fun playing hard to get; us fags love a challenge.”

“I’m serious man, knock that shit off. And what the hell do you mean ‘us’?” Mason questioned. Drake shrugged, and Mason drew the line. “That’s it, I’m outta here.”

He stood to leave, and Iris asked Drake what he was doing. Drake started to explain, but was cut off when I shouted, “Hey Mason!”

“Yes, Queer Motherfucker Two?” Mason inquired as he turned back towards the table.

“Since you’re gonna tell people whatever you want to anyways, tell them the truth.”

With those words I pulled my lover into a kiss. A kiss in front of Iris, Mason, the lunchroom, and what might as well have been the world. Drake managed to pull away within seconds, but the point had been made.

Mason pointed at us, made his thoughts on the event clear to everyone within earshot, and walked off. Iris, Drake, and I sat in silence for the minutes that remained before the bell, and nobody came close to breaking it. I was locked in place, just like I had been after the first time we’d kissed.

I couldn’t help but overhear conversations from other tables. They whispered about what had just happened, but the part that threw me off was how they returned to unrelated subjects, as if their social media and video games were the most interesting things in the world. The same world that had just swung open the doors to something meaningful, only to have them slammed back shut by somebody’s latest post and another person’s high score. I didn’t know whether to be pleasantly surprised by the lack of caring or genuinely offended by the exact same thing.

When the bell rang and most people stood to leave, I whispered an apology to Drake. He said it was okay, but that he needed some time to think. As I left the lunchroom, I noticed that Iris was sharing a few words with Drake as well, and I didn’t think much of it at the time. Maybe I should have.

I waited by the front door for Drake after school. I watched my classmates pouring out of the building, hundreds of them, and I felt that guilt again. How could someone want all of these people to die? I picked faces out of the crowd, faces of people I’d been around all my life, and tried to put myself in Drake’s shoes. I tried to find a reason to kill them.

The first face that caught my eye was Adam’s. He’d lived in Foxboro since middle school. I hadn’t said two words to him in six years, but I’d seen him plenty of times in passing. He was leaving school alone that day, which struck me as odd, because he always seemed to be with at least a couple of friends. Whenever he was with them he was a complete goofball, but alone, he seemed to keep to himself. Either way though, he wasn’t hurting anyone.

But those were my own observations. I had to find something to despise about him. I had to want him dead.

The fact that we’d never talked, that wasn’t a bad place to start. How could that even happen? For six years we’d known each other’s names and seen each other at least a thousand times, but we’d never had a conversation—not once. Did he care that little about me? Did he only see that I wasn’t strong and fast like his athletic friends, and assume I must not be worth the time?

No. No, probably not, since I’d never taken the time to talk to him either. So what else could I blame? What else would Drake blame? Maybe society. Once in a while he would start these philosophical conversations about anything from language to physics to existence, so society was in the realm of possibility. It was society’s fault that Adam and I hadn’t had a conversation, because society told us that it was weird to talk to strangers, and society is made up of people; if the people went away, then the bullshit of society would disappear.

I shook my head, clearing that train of thought from my mind. Maybe I was getting somewhere with it, but I wasn’t feeling it. I didn’t want to kill Adam no matter how hard I tried. If anything, I wanted to go talk to him. It would have to be some other day though. I’d been standing there trying to get myself to want him dead for at least ten minutes, and he was nowhere to be seen. And neither was Drake.

I tried texting him, but he didn’t respond. I tried calling him, but he didn’t answer. Despite the circumstances, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. His phone could have been dead, or silenced. Shaking my head once again to clear up any lingering thoughts of murder, I started walking to his house. While going through the parking lot, I noticed that his car was already gone, and I felt like an idiot for having waited around for so long.

Drake’s car was in his driveway, and from a block away, I could see him standing outside and talking to a familiar figure: Mason. They weren’t in each other’s faces or at each other’s throats. They were simply standing a respectful distance apart and having what looked to be a relaxed chat. Together they left the driveway and started walking, both of them oblivious to me.

I followed. It was nosey, but it was something I felt obligated to do. After all, Drake had shown he wasn’t the most stable, and Mason didn’t seem like the type to keep people from doing something stupid. Sneaking around didn’t feel completely moral, but with so much at stake, it felt more right than wrong.

They were easy to follow. I stayed a block behind them, and they didn’t even glance back. Mason pointed out a direction at literally every street corner. I was no expert tracker, but somehow, I was comfortable assuming that he led the way. Before long they got to where they were going. It was a house I’d never paid much attention to, and after Mason knocked at the front door, the two disappeared inside. Not much could be said about the house from a distance, although as I got closer, I didn’t even have to step onto the lawn to make out the sound of rock and roll.

I stood on the sidewalk. Following them through public streets was easy enough. It was impolite, but it’s not like I was breaking any explicit rules. There was something about the step off of the sidewalk that felt more mischievous. I looked at the house the way I’d looked at Mason’s car. My foot hovered above the driveway the way my hand had hovered on that beastly hood. One breath. Two.

Yeah, I could conquer this one.

I walked up to the house. The curtains were closed, and as I got closer, I could hear that Armageddon Radio was still committed to blasting Flashpoint Zero. They were the only rock station Foxboro ever got, so in addition to bracing myself for Mason, I also got ready to hear the same band for as long as the host felt like playing them. I glanced around. As far as I could tell, the house didn’t belong to anybody I knew. If I knocked, I would find Drake and Mason on the other side. But somebody had to have let them in, and if I knocked, I would have to face whoever it happened to be. It might have been someone friendly, like Iris, or Drake. It also could have been someone I was at odds with, like Mason, or Drake. Or maybe it was a complete stranger, like Adam. Like Drake.

Three breaths. Four. A pause, and eventually, a sigh. I sat down on the front steps. Fuck it, I didn’t have to conquer that one anyways. They would leave sometime, and I could confront them then.

I listened to a muffled version of The Ballad of No One as it emanated from the house. I suppose I understood why Armageddon Radio was playing that one too. Earlier, they’d played Behind the Shades because it was a song about standing up in the face of opposition, and it might motivate Jace to get back together with the band. Similarly, they played The Ballad of No One as I sat there, unwilling to face an unknown obstacle, because that song was also about standing up in the face of opposition. And then failing miserably. And then wondering what the point of trying was in the first place. So I understood that they were playing The Ballad of No One to make me realize what a dumb choice I’d made by following Drake and Mason to the house to begin with.

Fifteen minutes passed, and Armageddon Radio’s host hadn’t lost any enthusiasm since that morning. “Still no update on Jeck,” he announced, “but here’s to hoping everything’s on the up and up. Next is an Avalon C-side you probably didn’t know about, eloquently titled, All of the Reasons Nicholas Kennedy is a Filthy Expletive Rat. Ain’t that the truth. We’ll be here all day, playing nothing but Jeck. Stick around.”

I nodded.

Half an hour in, and I remained vigilant. Mason wouldn’t win this one. When the host came back, he was still just as committed to his words. “We can wait as long as it takes Jeck. I have nothing to do and you have nothing to prove. Up next, I don’t know, let’s put Flashpoint Zero on shuffle. Whatever song happens, happens. Stick around.”

Drake wasn’t a bad guy. He was lost, but not bad. I trusted him.

At the hour mark, the host came back on, asking, “How much longer is it going to take? Jeck, we love you. Yote and Sharyn must be losing their minds worrying about you; about the band. What’ll it take to end this? Up next is Invictus. They didn’t write it, but lucky for us, someone happened to be recording the one time they played it. Stick around.”

Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul

Drake really did cling to his principles. For better or worse, Mason wasn’t going to talk him into anything. Not a chance.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed

He hid it so well, too. When he stared into the fire, the only reason I worried was because I knew him. And when he opened up just a little, just enough to tell me what was on his mind, he didn’t even back down. He acknowledged his mistakes, the faults in his reasoning, but damned if he would back down. He had to be the victor.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me unafraid

He had to be the victor no matter what. The mean monster Mason lay defeated. Troubles with his parents had been buried years ago. Even his emotions were demolished in the pursuit of being the victor over his own damn self. What would he destroy to conquer them all again?

It matters not how straight the gate
How charged with punishment the scroll
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul

I knocked at the door. I got no response so I knocked harder, until I was ready to smash the door off of its hinges, because I knew Drake would win any fight thrown at him, and I knew that Mason had all the wrong fights to offer.

Armageddon Radio quieted down. “What is it?” someone asked from inside. I would recognize the depth of Drake’s voice, or the unevenness Mason’s. The person on the other side of the door was a stranger.

“Let me in. I need to see what’s going on in there.”

“Sorry, I don’t know you.”

I knocked again. “Hey! What if I know someone in there, then what?”

There was a pause. “Who do you know?”

“Drake Reddick, he’s… a friend. I saw him go in there with Mason.”

Another pause, followed by, “Hang on a second.”

I raised a fist to knock again, but decided against it. I stood waiting on the porch for another minute before the door swung open and the relentless victor came stumbling out.

“Regis!” Drake exclaimed with a smile across his face, wrapping an arm around me.

“I’m real sorry dude,” a younger teen said. He was the one who’d been speaking earlier. “Him and Mason were down in the basement alone, and me and Cody knew they’d be drinking but we had no idea—”

“It’s alright, it’s alright. Just try to make good choices, okay?”

He nodded, and so did his friend standing behind him. They asked me not to tell anyone they were there, as though the thought had even crossed my mind. If I was going to call the cops about anything, it wouldn’t be some place where underage drinking happened; it would be about the underage drunk guy I had to help back to his own house.

Having practically carried him for the last third of the walk, I laid Drake down on the couch.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Drake, what were you thinking back there?” I questioned, but only got an incomprehensible mumble in response. I sighed, and continued, “I just hope you’ll be okay… do you think you’ll be okay?”

A look of sorrow spread across Drake’s face. Just uninhibited sorrow. I don’t know how much he drank, but for it to make him so open, the amount must have been damn near lethal. He grabbed my arm and said he was sorry.

“Hey, we’ll get through this,” I assured him. “Compared to some other things, it’s not a huge deal. Was this your first time drinking?”

His brow furrowed. “Not the beer. Iris.”

“What about Iris?” I asked, matching his expression.

“We did… I’m sorry Regis,” Drake said, and he leaned forward to give me a hug.

I held him back by the shoulders, and I asked him, “You did what? Tell me what you did with Iris.”

“She kissed me. After school today, before Mason and I went to that place, she kissed me. I didn’t kiss her back, but, I kinda liked it,” he confessed, and then he lost whatever remained of his consciousness.

Unbelievable. Drake rested his slumbering head on my lap, and I sat there, staring down at the complete mess of a teenager who I loved.

He could conquer anything. He did conquer anything. There were no lines and no limits. So I worried about what he considered a victory.

Drake opened his eyes later that day. I’d moved to the wooden chair nearby, and when he spotted me, I think he got that locked feeling I was so familiar with. He just stared at the ceiling for a second, and then closed his eyes again. I stood and moved my chair closer to the couch. He winced at the piercing screech of wood scraping along the floor.

I rested a hand on the side of his head, and asked if he was awake.

He opened his eyes to a squint. “Yeah, kind of. When did you get here?”

“Do you remember anything?” I asked.

“My head remembers it. My mind is a little fuzzier.”

“Do you really not remember what you did?”

“A little? Shit, I don’t know. How much did I tell you?”

“You can’t be serious. All of it, I hope.”

Drake raised both hands to his ears, protecting them from the volume of my voice. I felt like I was whispering, but he didn’t look like he was acting. Uncovering one ear, Drake asked, “The beer?”

“Found out about that one first hand.”

“Iris?”

“Yes, that too.”

Drake lowered his hands back to his sides. “So what now? I assume you’re pissed off.”

I leaned closer to my significant other. Not quite my friend. Not quite my boyfriend. Significant other felt vague enough. “I thought I knew you. I thought I knew why you did things, even if I didn’t always agree. Now I’m just not sure. We’re not breaking up; we need each other way too much for that. But something needs to change.”

“If it helps, you and this hangover have convinced me not to drink ever again in my whole damn life. That was my first time, and obviously it didn’t go well.”

“Good. Now what about Iris?”

“I don’t know man. You think you’re confused? Spend ten minutes in my head right now, then try to tell me you’re confused. I’ve always kind of liked her, but not on a level even close to you. Maybe I really did like the idea of being kissed by a girl, just to see what it was like. Hell, maybe I just made a stupid mistake because I lost the ability to control my own life. Fuck, my head!” Drake yelled. He stood up, walked to the kitchen, and started getting a glass of water.

I placed a hand on his back. “Hey, I forgive you, okay? Earlier with Mason, that was just a mistake. I wasn’t there with Iris, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on that one too.”

Drake downed the glass of water and slammed it on the counter. With flickering eyes, he told me, “You have no idea how much that means.”

We embraced, and Drake rested his head on my shoulder. We stood in the kitchen, swaying back and forth, simply existing in Foxboro Nowhere. Being wrapped around the person I loved, I couldn’t help but relax. I like to think Drake felt the same way.

The daylight passed, and under the cover of night, Drake and I found ourselves at a playground we used to frequent when we were younger. We sat on the swings, joking and talking and remembering.

Moving leisurely back and forth, I said, “You know, I miss this sometimes.”

“Miss what?”

“Being kids, being simple. The biggest problem in the world back then was when Iris scraped her knee and insisted she’d never walk again.”

“Or when you and Mason completely stopped talking to each other?” Drake asked.

“Heh, yeah. I kind of forgot when our contempt used to be pretend.”

“Remember when we used to not kiss?”

“Ugh, wasn’t that awful?” I said with a smile, giving Drake a light push. We both rocked side to side, laughing like we’d never swung in our lives. Looking up to the cloudy sky, I remarked, “I’ll admit, some things about growing up aren’t so bad.”

Drake looked up with me and agreed. “Yeah, some things are good. But you know what sucks? This is such a nice night, I’m with the love of my life, and I’ve never felt more suicidal. It just feels like this would be such a perfect last moment.”

I reached out and took Drake’s hand, as both of us continued to look up at the dark clouds. “Well I’m not letting go of you for a very long time, so enjoy the moment all you want.”


Chapter 4

“Well that was the most uncomfortable experience of my life,” I told Drake as we left the lunchroom. “At least Mason didn’t say anything, but still, it felt like he was staring a hole through my head.”

“And then there was Iris, trying to act like everything’s normal.”

“Mhmm. If you want to know the truth, I’m not even that mad at her,” I admitted. “I just wish she’d own up to what she did.”

“Well you should talk to her about it,” Drake said. “She can be half as stubborn as me sometimes; she could go the rest of her life without bringing yesterday up.”

I shrugged. “I guess I could catch her after school. And can I just say, in spite of everything going to shit, you seem a lot better today. Anything special going on?”

“Not really, it just feels like a good day.” Drake paused, and then he laughed, saying, “Shit, maybe I really am crazy.”

“You’re not crazy. You’re optimistic.”

“And optimism is the most insane thing I’ve ever heard of. Can you even imagine a world where everything works out in the end?”

“Okay, fair enough. I have to get to class, but hey, let’s hope everything works out just this once.”

Drake leaned in close, and he whispered, “I think it will. I really think it will.”

I looked at every face as I walked through the halls that day, trying to find a reason to kill even one of them, but I couldn’t do it. None of them had gone out of their way to make my life any harder, and to nullify things even further, I just didn’t know most of them. I’d grown up with these people, yet most of them were strangers. And back then, I was too insanely optimistic to dislike a stranger.

I took Drake’s advice and found Iris as she was walking home from school. We walked side by side for a block, and she kept her eyes locked straight ahead the entire time. She sped up, but I matched her pace, so she sped up again, and it got to the point where she might as well have been running.

“Hey, slow down, alright? I’m not mad, I just want to settle this.” I wasn’t expecting her to listen.

“So he told you,” she observed, slowing down.

“He did tell me,” I nodded, “and it made me a little angry at the time. But I’ve forgiven him, and I’ve forgiven you.”

“Oh, you forgive me, well isn’t that nice,” she said, speeding up again.

“Hey, I’m trying to work things out. Why are you being like that?”

“Because maybe I don’t want to work it out. Maybe I’m still pissed at both of you.”

“I’m sorry, what?” I asked as we started the passive-aggressive footrace yet again. “How are you mad at us?

“Because Drake doesn’t really like you, okay? He just likes the idea of dating another guy. It fits his whole, ‘I’m secretly different than other people’ thing, and it disappoints me that you can’t see that.”

“I know you think you’re looking out for me Iris, but I seriously doubt that. I doubt he decided to get with a guy just because most people wouldn’t, and I doubt he turned you down just because having a girlfriend is normal.”

We were nearly back to running all over again.

“So then,” she said, “all that really leaves is that he thinks I’m some unattractive bitch—”

I grabbed Iris by the shoulder and spun her around, stopping her on the spot with a kiss on the lips. We stood face to face with each other, just like we had all those years ago. Except this time I wasn’t locked up in anxiety, and this time she wasn’t crying. “I doubt that too.”

We started walking again.

“You didn’t have to do that,” she said. “You could have just told me.”

“It got the point across though, didn’t it? Besides, you seemed to enjoy it.”

Iris started to lie, but she was never very good at it, because she would always end up blushing or giggling. That time she did both, and admitted, “Yeah, I liked it. So does this make you and Drake even or something?”

“Maybe to you and him, but I’m about ready to throw up. Not because of you personally—I just don’t, well, you understand.”

“Sure do,” Iris said. She and Drake both had this unique talent. In all my life, they’re the only two people I’ve seen who could smile with the corners of their mouths turned down. Those are the most legitimate smiles I’ve seen too, because they’re the ones that they tried to suppress, but that fought through the stubbornness anyways. One of those stubborn smiles broke through on Iris as she added, “And thanks, I know that must’ve been hard for you.”

“Don’t worry about it; I just want to keep you close. When Drake first told me what you two did, I won’t lie, I couldn’t help but be mad at you. But then I thought about what it would be like if you and I weren’t friends anymore, and it made me sad.”

“Dammit Regis, do you have to be gay? The only two guys I’ve ever wanted to be with, and they’re more interested in each other. Still, I’m sorry I kissed Drake. It won’t happen again.”

“Who knows, maybe him and I will break up someday and you can give it another shot.”

“Aw, don’t say that. You make a cute couple.”

I couldn’t blame her for being upset before. If she’d been the one to end up with Drake, I probably would’ve been upset too. I was just glad she could get past it, because when I told her that the thought of us not being friends made me sad, that was the absolute truth.

“Hey, I’ve been staying at Drake’s place for the week, and I was probably going to head over there pretty soon. Wanna tag along? It’s been a while since just the three of us had the chance to hang out.”

“Yeah, that last weekend really does feel like forever ago,” she said, and I couldn’t tell whether she was in agreement or whether she was mocking me. Still, she said that she would like to hang out, so we kept walking side by side.

Along the way, I thought back to the photograph sitting on Drake’s dresser. We hadn’t changed at all. Iris and I were still wrapped around Drake, Drake still didn’t smile much, and Mason was getting further and further out of the picture. I decided to ask Drake if I could borrow the picture, so that I could bring it home to my mom and see what she knew. If anyone could remember the details surrounding that picture, it would be her.

We arrived at Drake’s house and I tried to open the door, but the handle didn’t budge.

“That’s weird,” I noted as I knocked.

“What?” Iris asked.

“It’s locked. He never locks the door.”

Iris turned to leave, saying, “I guess he went somewhere.”

I locked up.

“You alright?” she asked.

“No no no, shit,” I mumbled as I shook the door handle. I treaded back and forth for a moment, then turned to Iris and told her to help me find a way in.

“What? No, if he locked the door then he doesn’t want us in there.”

Exactly, now help me find a way in!” I pressed as I paced around the house, eying each window. Iris followed. When we got to the back, I found that the door there was locked as well.

“This window is open,” Iris said, capturing my attention. “But it has a screen over it.”

“Good, let’s tear that down and get in there.”

“What’s gotten into you?”

“I’d really rather not say. Wait here, I’ll be right out.”

“Okay, you do your thing… I guess.”

I tore through the mesh screen and stumbled inside. I prowled through every room in the house, but didn’t find Drake in any of them. Cursing, I rushed to the basement, nearly tripping over myself as I flew down the stairs. The washing machine was exactly how I left it, and reaching behind it, I found two guns. I looked them over, trying to decide whether or not anything was out of place.

They looked fine. I worked on getting my breath back to normal. My hands shook as I set the firearms back behind the washing machine.

I walked back up the stairs, and made my way to the window I’d entered through, but I paused as I passed by Drake’s room. It wouldn’t hurt to borrow the photograph right then and there. Besides, there was no point in acting like I hadn’t dropped by; I’d made my presence pretty clear with the torn apart window. I took the picture out of the frame, tucked it into a pocket, and got the hell out of that house.

As I climbed back through the window, Iris asked a pretty reasonable question. “Anything I should be worried about?”

“Apparently not.”

“Ever going to explain what just happened?”

“Probably, just not right now. If you don’t mind though, there’s one more place I want to check.”

“Listen, Regis: I don’t know what’s happening, and unless you can tell me, I’m probably going home. This is just getting creepy.”

I looked back at the torn apart window. I thought about the photograph of children that I’d more or less stolen. To top it off, it sunk in that I’d kissed someone who I wasn’t even attracted to, and who hadn’t wanted anything to do with me at the time it happened. Clarity wasn’t giving me a break that week.

With a sigh I said she was right, but that I still had to find him. She just nodded, and said an uneasy goodbye before we went our separate ways.

Drake wasn’t at the house he’d gone to with Mason. I stood on that porch, knocking on the door and trying to call him, but he wasn’t anywhere to be found. He worried me. Even if he’d been having a good day, I didn’t know where he was anymore, and it just plain worried me.

Maybe Iris was right though. It was getting creepy. I’d become the textbook definition of an obsessive partner, and even given the circumstances, I realized that I was going a bit far.

I returned home for the first time in days, and my mom wasn’t shy about showing how happy she was to see me. Hell, I’m not embarrassed to say that I was happy to see her too.

When she brought her infant son to Foxboro back in the nineties, she must have left everything behind her, because I rarely heard about her past. Maybe she was escaping. And I wouldn’t have guessed it, but by showing her that picture of me, Drake, Iris, and Mason, I was uncovering a part of her past that she’d made it a point to avoid.

“Oh, Regis, where did you find this?” she asked, gently taking the picture from my hands.

“Drake had it,” I explained, looking on with her.

She continued to stare at the picture, while speaking softly to herself. “I can’t believe this ended up at Drake’s house of all places. I wonder how it ever could’ve gotten there. Regis, do you know what this picture is?”

I shook my head. “I was hoping you could tell me about it.”

“I took this picture for your father, so he could see that you were growing up alright. I never sent it to him though. I always meant to, but I could never send it.”

I was stunned. It had always been one of those unspoken things. A subject to avoid. I just assumed that for some reason or another, she never really knew him.

“You know… where he is?”

She nodded. “More or less. I always felt that it was better for both of you if you didn’t know about each other. He had a dream to follow, and I didn’t want to hold him back. And you, well you turned out just fine without him, and I’m proud of that.”

She hugged me as my mind rushed with all of the information. For a moment I forgot about Drake, about shootings, about nothingness, and about escape. I didn’t lock up because I hadn’t done anything wrong, but, still. I could barely move.

“If you want to know who he is,” she said, “I think you’re more than old enough.”

He could have been anyone. Maybe a friend, or maybe an opponent. Clearly a stranger. Not someone I could care as deeply for as my mom. Someone who, under any other circumstances, I wouldn’t have cared about at all.

I shook my head. “Right now mom, I think I’d rather not. But if you still want to send him that picture, I don’t know… maybe he deserves to know about this.”

She nodded, and said she was glad to have me back home. I was glad to be with her too, but there was just too much on my mind for me to act like things were normal.

I spent the rest of the day in my room. My entire life, I’d been led to believe that I didn’t have a dad—at least, not one who mattered. Then a random photograph made my mom tell me otherwise. If she hadn’t seen it, would she ever have told me? And if she hadn’t told me, would it ever even bother me? It was too much, considering how preoccupied I already was with Drake. I just needed some time to sort things out. A thousand years would have been nice, but one night would have to do—the next morning at five, Drake pulled up in my driveway.

“Holy shit, what happened to you?” I asked, looking at him from head to toe. “You look awful.”

His forearms were tinted red, and looking closer, I saw they were covered in cuts and scrapes. His face wasn’t in great shape either, with a massive bruise turning part of his clean-shaven cheek purple. I could only wonder what kinds of wounds hid under his clean black T shirt. He looked exhausted, but his breath came steady and even.

“There was an… actually, it’s nothing, forget it. Are you ready to go? I can give you a ride.”

“Sure, but on the way you have to tell me what happened. And seriously, I have to know; do you ever feel pain?”

I tried getting Drake to talk about why he looked like he’d been through Hell and back, but he remained dismissive. He kept his calm, and the whole way there, he wouldn’t answer a single question. When he parked in the farthest space from the school’s entrance, he looked me in the eyes. His expression told me nothing as he handed me a revolver. I didn’t have to look down to know what it was, or where he’d gotten it, because it was the exact revolver I’d tried to hide from him.

I stared, unable to blink out of fear that I’d miss something in that fraction of a second.

“Drake. I need you to tell me right now what this is for.”

“That’s up to you.”

He reached behind the passenger seat and retrieved an assault rifle, along with a handful of loaded magazines. He stuffed four into his pockets, and slid a fifth into his weapon. He got out of the car and began walking towards the school, leaving me behind.

With him facing the other way, I looked at the revolver in my hands. Fumbling with the cold black metal, I opened the cylinder to reveal six loaded chambers. As I closed it, I looked around the parking lot. The sun had barely even risen, and nobody was in sight but Drake. After shouting profanities and punching the dashboard, I got out of the car. He was halfway across the parking lot and showing no signs of stopping.

Gripping the revolver in my hands, I took aim at Drake. A tear fucked up my sight, because I knew that I had to find a reason to kill him. I’d known him all my life. He would never try to hurt a single living creature, because behind that outer layer of indifference was the most compassionate human being on the planet, and for as long as I could remember, I had loved him. Even as he walked towards the school toting a loaded assault rifle, there wasn’t any doubt in my mind; I still loved him. Nothing could change that.

I let out a scream that shook my throat raw, and I threw the pistol. Bitter contempt guided its path, and the cold black metal struck Drake in the back of the head. He fell to the ground and I sprinted for him, seeing nothing but blurs. Drake stumbled to his feet, loosely clinging to the rifle, but he wasn’t even up before I smashed into him with all of my weight, knocking both of us to the ground. The rifle left Drake’s hands and skidded beyond reach, but the pistol was still right alongside us.

Drake reached for it, but I kicked it away. The two of us grappled at each other as we crawled over the jagged pavement, each of us certain we had to reach the revolver first. I looked into his eyes and saw nothing—no hint of remorse and no sign of guilt. Complete and total apathy.

Drake took hold of the pistol. He rose to his feet, pointed the revolver down at me, and didn’t say a word. I rose to my knees, but no farther. Neither of us moved. I kept my eyes locked to Drake’s, trying to show him nothing. Trying to be as indifferent to his actions as he was to my life.

It broke him.

His lip quivered, and the revolver shook in his hand. Driving the pistol forward, he yelled, “C’mon! Do it already, gimme a fuckin’ reason! Gimme a damn fuckin’ reason already!”

No feelings. No expression. Breathe.

It almost made the lifetime of escape feel like time well wasted.

Drake tried to return his face to its perfect neutrality, but the effort didn’t last. Scowling, he dropped the revolver to the ground. He turned his back to me. He staggered away, and in his absence, I collapsed. The rough surface of the pavement dug into my cheek, and my gasps of breath came in infrequent spasms, and I tried to accept that the love of my life was the monster. It had never been Mason. Mason was nothing compared to the one I’d given my heart to—the one who left me bleeding in the vacant parking lot. He never pulled the trigger, but it was all the same. He left me bleeding.


Chapter 5

If it were up to me I would’ve laid there forever. It was all gone. Everything I’d ever felt secure in was torn away. Gone. It was like staring into the fire. Every cloud overhead, every stab of the asphalt under my cheek, every sound in the distance, every blurry sight, every person, every memory, every piece of the world, everything had slipped away. But even the fire would’ve been something. Even the fire would provide some semblance warmth. For the first time in my life, I experienced nothingness.

If the principal hadn’t stopped her car next to me and demanded to know what happened, I might still be laying in that parking lot to this day. But she did, so I tried my best to answer her questions. The words just couldn’t get out through the chest imploding sobs. There I was, eighteen years old, bawling too hard to explain a situation that wasn’t my damn fault. I felt like a fucking child, and in the worst way possible.

With all of my effort, I was able to get a few short words out. “He went, that, way. I tried. I’m sorry.”

She picked up the pistol, then the rifle, and she put them in her car. Then she picked up a traumatized student and set him on his feet. My legs were trembling, but I could stand. She looked straight at me. Her eyes weren’t empty. They showed nothing but understanding.

“It’s okay. Let’s get inside, and you can talk when you’re ready.”

She brought me to a vacant room, and said she’d be right back. Between the four white walls was nothing but a table and a few chairs. It felt cold. I felt cold. My legs shook, and I rubbed at my arms, trying to warm up, even a little. Fuck, it was colder than any winter I’d ever been through. The chill skipped the skin altogether and went straight for the bones.

The door opened and I snapped back against my chair. It was just the principal again, poking her head in. “I called the police, and they’re on their way. They said that if you can answer some questions, they might still be able to find who did this. I also called your mother to tell her what’s happening. Everything’s going to be okay Regis. If you need anything, ask.”

I thanked her, and she stepped out again, leaving me in the coldest room in the fucking universe.

I barely had a moment to think before my mom walked in. It didn’t even seem possible, how fast she got there. And it didn’t even seem possible that with her there, her arms wrapped around me, the room felt just as cold. She tried comforting me and I tried telling her what happened, but my jaw was just too frigid for words to come out right.

Next to arrive were the police, who requested that my mom leave. Before she would take a single step, she asked me if I’d be alright. I couldn’t say anything, on account of the room being so fuckin’ cold, but I managed a shaky nod.

Talking with the police wasn’t any different. They started with broad, open-ended questions. What happened this morning? Do you know anything that might help with the apprehension of those involved? Later they narrowed the questions, and I was able to give some answers: Drake Reddick, west, just me and him. But a majority of what they said didn’t even register. The cold was making my ears numb.

When they left, my mom walked back into the room with a blanket. I guess she could feel it too. I still shivered, and the room still didn’t feel any warmer, but at least the blanket gave me some comfort—some childish distraction. I tried one more time to tell her about it, but she shushed me, and told me to settle down. It almost made me mad. Shit, if I could settle down I would, but it wasn’t exactly a switch I could flip on and off. I wasn’t the monster. I’d tried, but I couldn’t be.

Most of the day was spent in that same freezer of a room. Nobody else was shivering, which confused the shit out of me, since I was curled up under that blanket like I was on the verge of losing a limb to the sheer lack of temperature. And for all I knew, I could’ve been. Reality had changed. At that point, with nowhere left to escape, I was more vulnerable to reality than ever before.

“Regis Maxwell?”

I jerked my head up to see a new pair of people. One man and one woman, both wearing suits. The man extended his arm. I went through the motions of shaking his hand, even if my fingers were too stiff to curl up.

“I like your name,” the woman told me. “I’m Eva Mortensen, this is Br—”

“Roman,” the man interrupted, the corners of his mouth perking up. “Sounds like you had quite an eventful morning. We’re here to ask a few questions about that.”

“I talked to the police,” I said. I was a little warmer, apparently. I didn’t feel warmer, but I could talk again.

“We talked with the police as well,” Eva said, sitting down across the table from me. “But would you mind going over some things with us?”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

Roman leaned against the closed door. “Good. What’s your relationship with Drake Reddick?”

“We’re friends.”

“Are or were?”

“Were,” I told him.

“Sure you were nothing more than friends? We were told about an incident at lunch last,” Roman paused to shuffle through the handful of papers. “Wednesday. Got another friend of yours some detention time. You know him?”

Roman tossed a photo in my direction, and when it landed, I reached out to straighten it against the edge of the table. “Yeah, that’s Mason. He was Drake’s friend, not mine.”

“Recognize this one?”

Another photo was thrown onto the table. Eva snatched it away, but by the time she did, I had already seen it: a picture of Mason sitting in the passenger seat of his wrecked car. The mean monster Mason, slain at last by the biggest monster of them all.

“Roman!” Eva scolded, tucking the photo into her own assortment of papers. “He’s barely eighteen. Regis, I apologize, you weren’t meant to see that. You’re not the one we’re after, and your friend Drake is still under investigation.”

Roman interjected. “Investigation? Don’t lie to the kid; we know exactly what that punk did. Only thing we don’t know is where he’s hiding.”

Eva stood and directed Roman out of the room. While their backs were turned, I wiped a tear from my eye before it had the chance to fall.

Eva sat back down. “Until we have the whole story, Drake is under investigation,” she insisted. “My partner Bret can be insensitive. Do you mind if I record this?”

Eva pulled a tape recorder out of her pocket and held it up for me to see. I only glanced at it, and shrugged once again. “Did anyone but Mason get hurt?”

“Three,” Eva said. She put the tape recorder away. For a second, her voice didn’t sound quite as professional. “Two dead, one with minor injuries. But we don’t know for sure that—”

“What do you want to know?” I asked. I looked up at Eva, showing her no emotion. I trembled no longer. My breath was steady and even. “Record anything you have to.”

She met my eyes, and I didn’t look away.

Life went on whether I was ready for it or not. I graduated high school, and spent most of my summer trying to understand things a little bit better. After all, death had come and love had gone. Alone, I’m sure that either one would take some getting used to, but together, I didn’t even feel like I was in the same world anymore. There were some days when I didn’t leave my room at all, because at least my room felt a little familiar. I just laid in my bed, curled up under a pile of blankets, trying to feel a little less cold. I’d found that it wasn’t just that one room in the school; I was cold no matter where I went.

I think of it this way. For the brief time we were a couple, Drake showed me what love was. He was the only one I loved, and even before that week, he was the only one I wanted to love. But at the end of that week he poisoned it, akin to poisoning an arm. Rather than letting the poison spread, I cut the arm off. I stopped loving. Not just Drake either—I gave up on love for everyone, forever, as though it were no longer a part of me. I forfeited that section of my life so that I could keep trying to live the rest of it, however difficult that had become.

And sometimes I still feel love’s absence, in the form of an unshakable coldness: my own phantom limb.

There were people who helped me along. I was never on my own, even if there were days when I wanted to be. My mom helped. It might sound pathetic, but without my mom there, I really don’t think I would’ve made it. She understood me. In hindsight, maybe she understood me better than Drake did. She did what she could to save me from freezing to death, and there were some days when that possibility came closer than I’d ever like to admit. Then there was Iris. I don’t know if she fully understood what I was feeling, but she’d lost a friend too, so I knew she at least had an idea.

Drake was never found. Every day of that summer, I was living in anticipation of some news, any news at all. Truth be told, I can’t even explain why I cared. It wasn’t like he would come back and make everything better again.

And that was assuming he was even alive.

I suppose it didn’t matter, whether he was alive or not. I should have treated him like I treated my dad: he played a role in my life, but that role disappeared as soon as he left. But some part of me would’ve known that was a lie. My dad was easy because I’d never known him. But I’d known Drake, and I’d loved him, and I at least wanted to know what happened. I wanted resolution.

Since that resolution couldn’t come from Drake, I had to seek it elsewhere. I talked to Adam. It was the fourth of July, and I figured I should get out, even if I didn’t much feel like it. I went to the park where Drake and I had spent some time together before he left. Some part of me hoped to see Drake sitting there on the swing, as though nothing had ever happened, but I knew it wasn’t possible. Instead there was Adam, sitting alone. I don’t know if I’d call it a sign, but it was something, so I sat down on the swing next to him.

He said hey, and asked what was up. He actually didn’t seem to mind that I’d sat down with him. I told him I didn’t really know why I was out, but I sat down because it seemed weird that we’d never talked. He agreed. Simple as the conversation was, I realized that it was the first one I’d had for months with anyone but Iris or my mom.

“So are you going to college?” Adam asked, swatting a mosquito on his shoulder. His face was illuminated as a firework went off in the distance.

“That’s the plan,” I answered. “You?”

“Yeah, not that I know why. I’ll be heading up to Rycroft.”

“Same,” I told him. Another couple of fireworks went off, but the main show had yet to start.

“Hey, not to sound intrusive or whatever, but is there a reason you haven’t been out much? You’re kind of a celebrity around here, but me and some friends were talking about it, and we realized that nobody’s seen you since graduation.”

“Can you blame me?” I asked, swatting at a mosquito of my own.

“Guess not. But hey, I’m glad you stopped by, because I’ve been meaning to thank you. Maybe you didn’t mean to, but when you kissed Drake in the lunchroom that day, it showed me that not many people really cared about two guys being together. Sorry if that sounds dumb. I mean, compared to what almost happened a few days later, I’m sure that kiss was nothing to you. But it meant a lot to me. It helped me come out, and I’m not the only one. So yeah, thank you, you really made a difference.”

And if Adam had stopped talking there, that would have been all the resolution I could ask for. But things can never be so easy.

“Hold still,” he told me. He slapped my back, and I gave him a look. I wasn’t exactly used to people touching me. “Sorry, you had a mosquito. And Regis?”

“Hm?”

He kissed me on the cheek. It was returned with a punch to the jaw. Some fucking resolution.

Maybe I should give Adam more credit. He might have left me feeling like shit for many, many reasons, but at least he helped me get back into the world. I started talking to people again, and by the time I left for Rycroft, I was ready to stand on my own two feet. I left behind my friend and family—both singular. There was an aching in my heart and a coldness in my bones, but at least I was alive. At least love’s poison hadn’t killed me.


Chapter 6

Iris helped me move into the dorms. I wasn’t bringing much, and she knew it, but I appreciated the sentiment. After all, she was moving out of state, and we wouldn’t be seeing each other for a while. She made me promise to keep in touch online. It was a promise I hoped to keep, but I think we both knew it wouldn’t be quite the same.

“So you have no idea who your roommate is?” she asked for about the fifth time, laying my blankets over the top bunk.

“No idea,” I repeated. “I just know his name is Bradley Jones.”

“That’s so weird.”

“His name?”

“That you don’t know anything about him. Who doesn’t find out as much as they can before they move in with someone?”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine. Sometimes I like to mix things up and have faith in people.”

I wasn’t exactly telling her the truth. It was true that I hadn’t cyber stalked Bradley, but it wasn’t because I trusted a stranger. The way the last few months had gone, I barely even trusted Iris. The only reason I hadn’t tried to find anything out about Bradley was because I was afraid of what I might find. Since there was already so much to be afraid of, I didn’t even want to go there.

“So you seriously have no idea—”

Iris stopped when she heard someone fumbling with the lock. My mind began the search for places to escape, but the door was already open, and in walked Bradley. He set his bags down and turned to me.

“‘Sup?” he said, extending his hand.

I reached out to shake it, and said, “Not much, glad to meet you.”

“Yeah, same. So who’s…”

“Iris,” she answered. “Don’t mind me, I’m just helping my friend move in.”

“Alright, well cool,” he said, backing out of the doorway. “I’m gonna go catch up with a few friends from last year, but I’ll catch you later.”

“Okay, see you then,” I said as the door closed. Iris gave me a look: one that only she could pull off. Without any words, she called me an idiot and a friend at the same time. “What?”

“‘Glad to meet you’? That’s the best you could do?”

“Honestly, if you could see the thoughts that were racing through my mind, you’d just be impressed I was using real words.”

She shook her head and smiled. “So what do you think?”

“About?”

“About Bradley! Come on, open up a little, it’s not like I even have anyone to tell your secrets to.”

“Well, meeting him was kind of underwhelming,” I said with a shrug. Iris rolled her eyes, and again I had to ask, “What? I mean it as a good thing. With all the stress I’ve been under lately, I’m really just glad that Bradley seems like a regular guy.”

“If that works for you, then good. Now be honest with me again; are you going to be alright on your own? You’ve been a lot better lately, or you’ve at least acted like it, and it’s great to see. But you know that you can always call if you need someone to talk to.”

“I’ll be fine,” I told her, pretty sure it was a lie. “But you know I’ll call either way.”

Iris smiled again. She wasn’t done worrying over me. Not by a long shot. But at least she was smiling, whether she meant it or not. “I think you’ll be fine too. It’s a long drive home, so I should probably hit the road. Can I get one last hug before I go?”

I nodded. She wrapped herself around me, and I pulled her closer, and just like that I didn’t want her to go. She was a good friend. My best friend, at that point. And as soon as she left, I’d be all alone in Rycroft, no matter how many people were around. I could feel her warmth, her breath, her caring. It wasn’t love, but it was enough to remind me of what love felt like, just for a second.

That moment ended too soon, like they always do. She walked away and I was left by myself.

I climbed up to the top bunk and just laid there. It was weird to think about how I’d be spending the next year in a new place. I’d lived in the same room of the same house in the same town for as long as I could remember, basically my entire life. And that all changed in a matter of hours, which only felt like seconds after they happened. I’d gone from the familiarity of Foxboro Nowhere to the foreignness of Rycroft Somewhere, and the strangest part of the whole thing was that in most ways, it didn’t even feel that different. There were hundreds of familiar faces I might not ever see again, and hundreds more that I would have to learn, but it didn’t even feel like it mattered.

I jumped down from the top bunk and ran to the door. I had to get out of that room. I strode through the hall, giving half waves to the others moving in, but not stopping when they said hello. They were all strangers to me, yet I knew them as well as the people I’d gone to school with since kindergarten. I yanked open the door to the stairwell and marched down the steps. I had to get out of that building. Outside there were dozens of vehicles lining the road, and people carried all types of boxes and suitcases into the dorms as the sun beat down on everything. They were sweating, but I didn’t understand how, because it was just so fucking cold. I started running, hoping that maybe it would warm me up. I sprinted around people, down streets, past buildings, trying to shake that fucking chill.

I left campus and sprinted through the surrounding city of Sienna. I’d never seen so many people! They all acted like it was normal to be around thousands of other humans, all packed so close together that it was impossible to breathe, all so cold that I couldn’t stop moving or I would die. I kept running, repeating to myself that I would be fine. I would be fine. I would be fine. I would be fine. I passed the city limits and ran through the suburbs. At least out there I could find the room to breathe, and as long as I could keep breathing I could keep moving, and as long as I could keep moving I wouldn’t freeze to death. I would be fine. I began to sweat, and the sweat cooled me down, and I collapsed, shaking on the cold cement sidewalk. I kept shaking. I was moving. I would be fine. I crawled off of the sidewalk and onto the blacktop street, where a visible heat radiated up from the asphalt. It looked so warm, but it was frozen to the touch, and I could only lay there in the street, shaking. Moving. I would be fine. I would be fine. I would be fucking fine.

My memory gets hazy after that. I know I laid there for a long time, and I know I got up. I don’t know where I went. I know it was somewhere cold, and I know there weren’t many people around. I don’t know what the hell I was doing so far from home. I know I’d lost my mind for a few hours. I don’t know exactly why, or exactly how I got it back. The first distinct thing I remember after collapsing is calling a cab from a pay phone in the middle of nowhere.

On the way back, the cab driver told me about the last time she had to pick someone up from the SOS phone. I nodded along, but I wasn’t quite listening. The air conditioning was blasting cool air into the already freezing car. It made it hard to pay attention to anything else.

When she dropped me off at the dorms, she said one last time that there were plenty of people I could talk to if I needed any sort of help. I nodded, but I barely heard her. I was too preoccupied wondering how the sun could be so cold. Since there was a line of people waiting to use the elevator, I turned to the stairs once again. My shoes felt like blocks of ice, and each step up reminded me of how numb my toes were.

Bradley was hooking up a TV in our room. He said hey as he kept working at it, and I said hey back as I dug around in a bag for my sweatshirt.

“It’s getting late,” he pointed out, glancing at the window. “Looks like it might rain soon too. Mind if I ask where you’ve been all day?”

“Just out walking,” I said as I pulled the sweatshirt over my head. It didn’t make me any warmer, but at least it was comfortable.

“You’ve been walking for ten hours? Must have been one hell of a walk.”

I said it was, and I hopped onto my bed, searching for some warmth under the blankets. “I just wanted to see what was around town.”

“Find anything interesting?”

“Nope.”

“Yeah, Sienna kinda sucks. Campus isn’t bad though. You can find pretty much anything you need around here,” he explained. Then he stopped fumbling with the chords behind the TV and turned to me. “So I hate to ask, since I figure you probably don’t like to talk about it, but I have to know; are you the same Regis Maxwell who went to Foxboro High School?”

“I was sort of hoping people wouldn’t put that together, but yeah, that’s me. I guess there aren’t many other Regises.”

Bradley laughed to himself, and said, “At least your name makes you sound like someone important. Mine just makes people think I smoke weed and listen to reggae.”

“And do you?”

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, what can I say? Same as your name I suppose. Anyways, I’m sorry you had to go through all that. Drake sounded like a pretty terrible person.”

I didn’t know how to respond. Was he? From Bradley’s point of view, as someone who only saw what was on the news, Drake could have easily been the worst person in the Midwest. Even from my perspective, he still might have been. I just didn’t know. The fucker tried to kill me, but I just didn’t know.

Bradley must have picked up on my uncertainty, because he shrugged, and added, “Or maybe he seemed alright. Either way, you did the right thing.”

That one I could agree with; I’d done the rightest thing I was able to. Even if it left me shivering for years, at least most people survived. Pulling the blankets closer, I asked, “So you don’t mind living with a gay roommate?”

“As long as you can put up with a certified stoner,” he responded, grinning. “Relax man, it’s all good. I’m into chicks, but if you ever end up bringing some dude over, just remember to put something on the door. And if anyone gives you shit, let me know about it. I’ve seen like, every kung fu movie ever made, so I’ll give ‘em a crane kick just for you.”

He laughed again, and I managed to laugh along with him. Bradley was an alright guy.

Classes started the next week, and it was clear from day one that I had a reputation around campus. Some people were eager to start a conversation the moment they saw me, while others wouldn’t even acknowledge my existence. They were all strangers to me, yet somehow I was somebody to them. I hated it. In high school I could escape into the crowd, but in college, the crowd had become the thing I was escaping from.

I didn’t make any new friends over that first semester. There were some people I talked to, and hanging out with Bradley was alright, but my real friend—singular—only seemed to exist on the other side of my phone. Not that the lack of new people bothered me. It made too much sense for it to bother me. I hadn’t made any friends since elementary school, and even if that group was smaller than it used to be, it was the only group I’d ever known.

There was somebody who had been around for almost as long though, and even if I didn’t care much for him, at least he was familiar. It was winter by the time he and I finally talked to each other again. I was trudging through a snowy campus in a hurry to get inside, hating how the physical coldness just made the phantom chills even worse, when I heard my name.

Turning around, I sighed and slowed down. “Hey Adam.”

“Hey, it’s been a while. I figured since last time went so well, I might as well strike up another conversation, see what happens.”

“Look, I’m sorry, punching you was out of line—”

“No, I get it, I was going way too… I don’t know the word, pushy I guess. And besides, don’t go thinking you’re some world class boxer, I healed up pretty fast.”

Adam tilted his head up, showing me that there wasn’t any lasting damage where I’d hit his jaw. I was glad to see he was fine, although I wasn’t thrilled to be seeing him in general. Looking forward again, I asked, “So was there something you wanted?”

“Why do you ask?”

“We’ve walked by each other a lot since last summer, and this is the first time you’ve said anything. I just want to know what this is all about.”

“Well, on the Fourth of July I might maybe have been a little drunk.”

“And?”

“Well, I might maybe be a little drunk right now. Makes it hard to stop myself from saying I like ya.”

I stopped walking and turned to him. “You know who my last boyfriend was, right?”

“Yup, Drake.”

“And you know he was nothing but great to me for as long as I could remember?”

“Well, sure—”

“You know that relationship ended when he killed three people, tried to kill countless more, and threatened to kill me?”

Adam nodded.

“So you could see why I might have trust issues,” I concluded, laying back in a snowbank. I would be cold either way. Might as well have a reason for once. “Adam, I don’t hate you, you seem nice enough. But I just can’t.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. He sat down in the snowbank beside me. It might have seemed like a gesture to show his dedication, but at the time, I got the impression that he was too drunk to care that he was sitting in the snow. “But come on, could we at least hang out sometime?”

“Depends, does your version of hanging out have a happy ending?”

“Only if you want it to. So uh, I doubt it.”

“You know what? Sure, why the hell not?”

“Awesome. Here, let me get you my number,” he said. He reached for his phone, but between the cold and the intoxication, he had a hard time getting into his pocket. When he finally did get it out, his fingers were too stiff to work it anyways, and he gave a defeated sigh.

“Don’t worry about it,” I told him. “It’s not like we won’t see each other around. I’m going to get inside, but I’ll talk to you later Adam.”

I’m not sure what possessed me to agree to hang out with him, but I think the main thing was the familiarity. Even if we were never close, at least we grew up in the same place, and we knew the same people. I felt like we might understand each other because of that. I meant it when I said he seemed nice enough. But if he ever made a move, I would have no problem proving that I could punch a hell of a lot harder.


Chapter 7

When winter break came, I did end up hitching a ride back to Foxboro with Adam. Along the way he talked about plans he had with some friends back home. Most of the names were at least familiar, and even if I didn’t know any of them personally, it was oddly satisfying to be able to put a face to them.

As Foxboro grew closer, he quieted down a bit. He turned off the radio. When we entered the city limits, he asked me a question I wasn’t prepared to answer. “What do you want to do with your life? Any ideas?”

Hell if I knew. There were countless things I wouldn’t mind doing, but none of those things really stood out to me. It was like being asked to choose the best key on a piano, or explain which letter of the alphabet was better than the others; they all seemed fine to me. Every key, every career, every letter, every pass time—all of them were okay. None of them were bad, but none of them seemed all that special either. So when Adam asked what I wanted to do with my life, all I could do was shrug and ask what he wanted to do with his.

“I think I want,” he began, but stopped himself. He started over with, “I think I need to make a difference.”

That kind of vague determination sounded familiar, but it wasn’t the pleasant familiarity of putting a face to a name. I had to ask him, “What do you mean by that exactly?”

“So like, take any social issue. Homophobia would be a good example I guess, since we’ve both been there. There’s nothing wrong with being gay. Growing up I figured there must be, since hardly anyone talked about it, and when they did, they almost made it sound unhuman. But no, turns out there’s not a single reasonable argument that can explain why being gay is a bad thing.

“So why is it a problem? Well, I think it’s the same thing as racism or sexism or any of those other isms. People just allow it to happen, and for a long time, sometimes fucking centuries, nobody really questions it. It takes special people to go against—”

He was cut off by sirens, and I glanced in the rearview mirror to see a cop car behind us.

“Shit, I guess I was speeding, I didn’t even notice,” he said, almost making it sound like an apology. As he pulled over, he finished up with, “Anyways, the world needs more heroes. I just hope I can be one of them: a hero like you.”

Yeah, Regis the hero. A legal adult who wasn’t able to get through a week without some kind of nervous breakdown. A scrawny guy who spent most nights in an objectively warm bed, trying not to shiver so he wouldn’t wake up his roommate. A faggot who not only couldn’t get over something that happened months ago, but who couldn’t even say whether a murderous sociopath was a bad person.

Hell, Drake was more of a hero than me. He was the one who went out of his way to make a difference. At least he actually thought about it. Whenever I stood up for something, it was just a stupid impulse. Drake had been thinking things through for months, maybe years. He wasn’t academically gifted, but he was a genius off paper. So if he thought about it for that long, then he must have realized something, even if it was something I could never understand. I was careless. Drake was the hero of lesser circumstances.

I tried to push these ideas aside as the officer talked to Adam. Still, I knew there was some truth to the train of thought, and I hated to take away its momentum.

Adam dropped me off at home, and I couldn’t help but smile when I opened the door and heard my mom’s voice. We’d talked on the phone of course, but it just seemed so much more real in person. Even if nothing exciting happened, it was good to be home. Rycroft may not have been a terrible place, but if I had to spend the rest of my life there, I don’t think the rest of my life would be especially long. Foxboro was where I belonged. I might not have realized it before leaving, but really, it was the only place where I felt at home.

When Iris came over the next day, I didn’t think I would survive the onslaught of attention. After getting over the initial joy of seeing each other, we ended up going for a walk. The town I was in and the friend I was with could make up for the brisk wind. The familiar sights, the familiar sounds, even the familiar air; I questioned why I ever felt the urge to escape from such a perfect place. Then we happened to walk by Mason’s old house, and I remembered that there’s no such thing as paradise.

Mason held a strange place in my memory. For the longest time, I felt that he was the only person on the face of the earth who could disappear and make the world a better place. Even when he died, I wasn’t too upset over it. I was more devastated by the loss of Drake’s humanity than by the loss of another human being, and what did that say about Regis the hero?

As if reading my mind, Iris asked, “Do you think about them too?”

“Are you kidding? In class I hardly learn anything, because the whole time the professor’s talking, I’m just imagining what I would say if I saw Drake again. Half the people I see scare the shit out of me, since I’m always thinking about what those last moments must have been like for Mason, and when I look up and see the person’s face, I see Mason’s instead, for just a split second. I spend every night staring at my door, hoping Drake will knock. I miss him Iris. It probably makes me a terrible person to even say that, but I miss him.”

Iris pulled me into a hug. There, in front of Mason’s old house, she whispered to me a dangerous secret: “Me too.”

I hugged her back. Because I believed her, and goddammit was I sorry to hear that.

A few blocks later, she asked if I’d thought about seeing anyone new.

“Not really,” I told her. “I don’t think there’s anyone I could be that intimate with. Like, ever.”

“You can’t just spend the rest of your life alone.”

“Well watch me try,” I said, somewhere between a bitter joke and a bitter truth.

Iris almost looked concerned. “What about Adam? I know you’ve been talking to him.”

“I’m sure I could like him as a friend, but I doubt there could ever be much more than that. Listen, I know it sounds depressing as hell, but I don’t mind spending the rest of my life alone. It might not have taken long, but I’m sort of burned out on love.”

At that moment, the chilling winds trumped the warm familiarity, and we headed for the shelter of Iris’ house. Before we made it halfway there, a car pulled up beside us, and a voice called, “Hey, faggot!”

I could barely believe I was hearing that right. It wasn’t news to me that some people had a problem with my lifestyle, but even Mason had a filter, albeit a poorly functioning one. I had to see who this was. I turned to the car, and saw that it was nearly full of people. Leaning out of the driver’s side window, with a goofy grin on his face, was Adam.

Iris and I walked closer to the car, and I forced a laugh. “You really had me there.”

“Thought you’d appreciate it. Want a ride to someplace less blizzardy?”

I turned to Iris. She smiled, and said, “You can go have fun with your new friends, but I should probably get home soon.”

“Are you sure? It’s not even dark out.”

“Yeah, but you know how my parents are; they still think I’m twelve for some reason. Really, go ahead, I won’t mind.”

“If you don’t want me to—”

Regis,” she interrupted, grabbing my shoulders and turning me towards Adam’s car. “I want you to. It’s alright, we’ll see each other plenty during the break, and I can handle you being around other people.”

I was all but forced into the backseat on the driver’s side, right behind Adam. In the passenger seat was somebody I’d seen before, and I shared the back with an equally familiar face. Neither of them would look at me, but I recognized them either way. They were the two kids who had been in the house where Drake and Mason went drinking.

“Yeesh, she was in a hurry to get rid of you, huh?” Adam noted. Pointing to the kid in the passenger seat and then to the one in the back, he said, “This is my little brother Cody, and his best friend Jody.”

“It’s just Joe,” one insisted.

“Alright then Joe, what’s your last name?” Adam asked. I could see him grinning in the rear view mirror already.

Joe rolled his eyes, and mumbled, “Drew.”

“Well there you have it. Joe D., Jody—you can barely hear the difference. Now as long as you’re in my car, your names are gonna rhyme and you’re gonna like it,” Adam commanded. Joe kept quiet, and Adam clarified, “Come on, you know I’m joking.”

“Yet you still call me Jody.”

“And I always will,” Adam promised, stepping on the gas as we rounded a turn. The car drifted along the snow caked road, and the brothers in the front seat whooped and hollered as the car glided, freed from its typical traction. I managed a smile. It was good to feel that lurch, those bumps, and then the snap back to a smooth course.

When Adam pulled up to a certain house, that smile vanished. It was the house where I’d first run into Cody and Joe. It was the last place I really remembered seeing Mason alive.

I got out of the car and followed Adam through the front door. There were already a dozen or more people inside, some of whom looked more familiar than others. Rock was on the radio, beer was in almost every hand, and as promised, the place was plenty warm. It beat the hell out of the cold air outside, at least. Cody and Joe were quick to join a circle of younger people. I couldn’t imagine that I was a very intimidating person, but under the circumstances, I could understand why I might be discomforting. Adam set off down a creaky old set of stairs, and I followed, curious to see where Drake and Mason had spent some of their last days in Foxboro.

It was much quieter in the basement. The sound of Armageddon Radio still reverberated through the ceiling, but it was muted, and difficult to make out the specific song. They’d finally given up on Flashpoint Zero though.

There was basically nobody else downstairs—only one guy passed out in an ancient-looking rocking chair. Essentially, Adam and I were alone.

He opened a fridge, and offered, “Beer, pop, water…”

“Any soda’s fine.”

“Sounds good,” he said, tossing a can my way and taking one for himself. We each took a chair on opposite ends of a coffee table, which Adam reached under to retrieve a chess board. Holding it up, he asked, “Know how to play?”

I nodded. It had been years, but there was no doubt that I remembered how. It was a game Drake had liked and Mason had hated, so I got plenty of enjoyment out of it.

As we set up our pieces, Adam said, “Hope you don’t mind that I took you away from the party up there, but this seemed more your style.”

I nodded again. “Yeah, you’re not wrong. Thanks for recognizing that.”

“Hey, it’s what I do. So, still no idea what you’re going to do when you graduate from Rycroft?”

“Not a clue,” I said, placing my last rook on the board. “You’re up first, when you’re ready.”

He nodded, and reached for the pawn in front of his king. “Well I have an idea for you. Something to think about.”

“Alright, let’s hear it,” I said, moving a pawn forward to mirror his.

He slid his queen through the opening he’d created, bringing it within a couple spaces of my pieces. Nothing significant was at risk, but it was still a bit unnerving. “Yesterday I said I wanted to be a hero, but I never got the chance to explain what I meant by that.”

“Yeah, I was wondering what you had in mind,” I said as I moved another pawn forward, prepared to take his queen in the next turn. It looked like a solid defense. Even if he tried to take the pawn before it could take his queen, the pawn was backed up by two others, so he would still lose the queen unless he backed out. But it had been a while since I played chess.

He moved his queen over and took the first pawn I’d moved, putting his most powerful piece directly in front of my most vulnerable. “Check. Listen, I didn’t mean to worry you, but here’s what I’m thinking; I want to get into politics. I think you should too.”

I moved my bishop, blocking his attack. He could easily break through the defense, but if he did, there was no question that he would lose his queen. “I don’t know. I’m sure you’d be just fine at politics, but I didn’t even want to be part of that party upstairs. How could I ever stand in front of a crowd and deliver a speech?”

Adam moved his queen straight towards me, breaking my defense at the cost of his power piece. I wouldn’t even be able to spare it if I wanted to; he’d cornered my king so that it couldn’t escape, and according to the rules, I had to protect it by whatever means available. “Check, if you can even call it that. I figured you wouldn’t like the idea. But I’m asking you to think about it, that’s all. You have plenty of time to get over your fear of public speaking, and besides, you have everything a politician could ask for: a heroic story, a trustworthy face, and no shady past as far as I can tell. You’d be perfect. Just think about it.”

I used my queen to capture his. “Maybe you think so, but really, I just don’t see myself going that way. You said I don’t have a shady past, and that’s true enough, but in the present my mind can get shady as hell. At least if I get some job in a cubicle somewhere, nobody will be surprised when I lose it one day.”

Adam moved another pawn forward. “Just think about it.”

We continued moving pieces back and forth. At first, it was difficult to say who was winning. I held my side of the board, keeping all of my pieces near my king. Adam was persistent however, and even if he lost many of his own pieces, he was able to whittle mine down just as quickly. Eventually, as Adam advanced his rooks through what remained of my once solid defense, my king had nothing left to do but escape.

“Really though, don’t you want to make a difference? Check.”

“I thought you said I already did.”

“You did, and I’m not saying it wasn’t anything to be proud of. In one move you completely changed the atmosphere in the high school, and if that wasn’t enough, you literally saved lives afterwards. That was two days. Just imagine what you could do over two years. Check.”

“I didn’t do any of those things on purpose. Really, they just sort of happened.”

“Even better—just imagine what you could do in two years of actually trying. You could change the world. Check.”

“Who says?”

“I do. Checkmate.”

“Alright, I’ll think about it,” I said as I knocked my king over, conceding defeat. “Good game by the way. Do you play chess often?”

“It’s one of my favorites,” he said with a shrug. “Not that I can find many people to play it with.”

“You’ve got plenty of friends,” I pointed out, setting up my pieces again.

“Yeah, but to be honest with you, I’m not sure how I ended up being friends with them in the first place. They’re mostly good people, but none of them are interested in the same things as I am. Not that I can blame them; I’m into some pretty boring shit.”

“Hey, nothing wrong with that. Honestly, this is the most interesting day I’ve had in months. So if you’re boring, I wouldn’t even know what to call myself.”

We played a few more games, and talked over a few more things. It was engaging to think strategically again—to be locked in a battle of wits. Adam would push forward in each game, and I would have to find a way to stop him. Sometimes it worked, even if usually it didn’t.

As we set up our pieces for the final round, Adam asked, “So do you think you’ll ever be in love again? I’m not trying to hit on you this time, I swear, but you must have to open up at some point.”

“I really, really doubt that I’ll ever be in another relationship, let alone in love.”

As usual he advanced, and as usual I defended. Just like before, it was difficult to say who was winning. Even as we lost pieces, we lost them at the same rate. Even as he closed in on my king, I would escape to safety in a few simple moves. And even as the board looked nearly empty, there was no clear winner.

“I understand that you have a hard time trusting people, but there must be some part of you that wants to open up.”

“Then I don’t think you do understand, because I promise, there isn’t.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“I guess I’ll take your word for it, but I’m sorry, I still have a hard time believing that. Anyways, neither of us have the pieces to put each other in checkmate at this point, unless you see something.”

“No, it seems pretty impossible. Good game though.”

“You too man. I should probably get Cody and Jody out of here, and maybe you too. I didn’t mean to keep you for so long.”

 I pulled out my phone and checked the time. “Oh, yeah, I didn’t even realize. Thanks for picking me up by the way. You could’ve driven right past and I wouldn’t have even noticed.”

“Like I said, it’s what I do.”

I spent the rest of that break doing something that was long overdue, but that could only happen in Foxboro; I got myself back together. It was odd to think about how such an arbitrary place in the middle of nowhere could be so important to me, but somehow, I don’t think I could physically live without going back there every once in a while. It was home. It was the closest thing to Heaven I would ever experience, and maybe that was sad, but at least I knew that it was something real. Something I could go back to whenever I needed to. Something I could trust in to keep the uncomfortable thoughts in my head from completely surfacing.

Throughout the break, Iris kept me sane. She was a reminder of all the good things that had happened in Foxboro. There were some bad memories, and there had to be, but she did what she could to keep things more or less positive.

My mom also made a difference. She kept me warm. I don’t know how she did it, but she had these ways—just little things I could never hope to name—that made the world seem alright. She understood. She cared. Maybe that’s all there was to it.

And then there was Adam. He’s the one who gave me a direction in life, even if I wasn’t certain about it. Because of him, I declared my major as soon as I got back to campus; I went into political science. I figured I could always change it later on. In fact, I figured that I probably would. Everything about it felt off. I hated being in the spotlight, and I barely understood how politics worked. To top it off, I didn’t know the name of anyone in office except for President Valentine himself. I didn’t know if he was a good president or a bad one, or any of his policies, or anything at all really: nothing but the man’s name.

So there were only three reasons I declared a major in something I knew nothing about. The first thing was that, as Adam said, I had plenty of time to learn. Maybe it would even grow on me. The second reason, also from Adam, was that it would let me make a difference. I sure as hell wasn’t prepared to fix the entire world, if that was even a possibility. But if I could make things right for a few people, then I figured I might as well give it a shot. Clearly I had no compelling reason to live for myself, so I might as well live for the rest of humanity.

And that was honestly the last reason: political science was something. Just plain something. I could find meaning in it, and just like Foxboro, I could know it was there. It made things feel a lot less pointless, and a lot less empty. A lot less cold. I still wasn’t warm by any means, but by my second semester at Rycroft, I wasn’t on the verge of freezing anymore.


Chapter 8

Some time passed. Winter came to a close, and seeing the snow melt away gave me nothing but satisfaction. It wasn’t even close to summer yet, but the worst of it was ending. I’d made it through the cold.

When I got back to the dorm one day, Bradley was staring out of the window. It was rare to see him doing anything other than watching TV or staring blankly at his homework. So rare that I was almost concerned to see him doing anything else.

He snapped out of his daze as I closed the door behind me. “Jesus, don’t sneak up on me like that. But hey, man, I am super glad you’re back, you don’t even know.”

“Did something happen while I was gone?”

“Yeah. So uh, this chick came by in a suit, and I was freaking the fuck out, because I thought she was the DEA or some shit, and I’d just got back from lighting up at a friend’s place, and I hadn’t come down all the way quite yet, so I’m all worried that I’m going to get arrested and kicked out of college and my life will be ruined, all because of the dumbest law ever, right? But it turns out she was looking for you.”

“Wait, are you sure?”

“She knew your name and where you’re from, so yeah, I think she was.”

“Who was she? What did she want?” I asked. I was drawing a blank as to who would ever be looking for me.

“Eva Something, I think.”

“Eva Mortensen?

“Yeah, that’s it, for sure! She asked me if I’d seen you with anyone unusual, and I was a little too buzzed to deal with the concept of a usual person, and I’m pretty sure she knew. But anyways, she said to tell you that she wanted to talk to you.”

“Did she say if she’d be back?”

“She never left. She’s been sitting there for twenty minutes,” he explained, pointing to the window.

I looked out with him, and just as he said, there was a woman in a suit sitting on a bench across the street. It was the same Eva who I’d talked to almost a year ago.

“Hey, where are you going?” Bradley asked as I turned back towards the door.

“I’m going to talk to her.”

“Yeah okay, I get that, but what’s the plan?”

“Bradley, she’s not with the DEA,” I assured him, and he relaxed. “She is an FBI agent though,” I added with a smirk.

Bradley stood up and put a hand to his head, saying, “Come on man, don’t do that shit to me! Now I don’t know whether or not you’re even telling the truth. Hey, wait, before you go: wanna get our own apartment next year?”

“Can we talk about this literally any other time?” I asked. Eva showing up might not have meant anything at all, but in case it did, I wanted to find out as soon as possible.

“Yeah, we can talk about it whenever, but I really think that living off campus would be better for both of us. Anyways, DEA or not, if she comes back up here then give me a signal. I don’t wanna flush my stash, but I’d rather do that than have her find it.”

“Sure Bradley, I’ll give you a signal,” I said, rolling my eyes while my back was turned.

As I rode the elevator back down to the first floor, I had a hope. It was a complete minefield of flawed logic, but it was still a hope. I hoped that Eva was there to say that she’d caught someone. That after nearly a year of searching, she’d tracked down Foxboro’s most infamous outlaw.

I jumped when the elevator doors opened to reveal Adam.

“Hey, you okay?” he asked, not putting up much of an effort to cover his amusement.

“Yeah, just thinking about something.”

“Well hey, I came to ask—”

“Can it wait for just a minute? You can go wait in my room with Bradley if you want, but I really have to go take care of something.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I am phenomenal, but really, I have to go take care of this.”

I walked past Adam. I didn’t mean to ignore him like that, but I saw him almost every day. I hadn’t seen Eva in almost a year, and I never quite expected to see her again. Yet, when I stepped outside, there she was. She stood up when I crossed the street, and she offered her hand when I crossed her path.

As we shook hands, she observed, “Looks like you’re doing a lot better than you were the last time we met.”

“You have no idea,” I told her. She sat back down, and I did the same. Trying to downplay my excitement, I started by asking her something I couldn’t have cared about less. “Where’s Roman?”

“Classified,” she responded.

“Oh, I—”

Eva cracked up. “I’m just messing with you; Roman doesn’t do anything nearly interesting enough to be classified. He left the FBI a month ago to join the secret service. Last I heard the president is still alive, so I guess he’s doing alright.”

I commented on the president’s last line of defense being the worst line of company. She laughed. It made me think that the last time we’d met, the good federal agent bad federal agent thing wasn’t an act. She still fit the role just fine.

“So, you know I’m not just here for a friendly visit,” she said, and I nodded. She continued by asking, “Have you heard from Drake Reddick since he left Foxboro last year?”

I shook my head. “I wish I could tell you I did, but I haven’t heard anything at all.”

“Well that’s the main reason I’m here: to ask if you’ve seen him. The other reason is to keep you updated on the situation, in case you happen to see him after I leave.”

All I did on the outside was give Eva another solemn nod. On the inside I might as well have been doing cartwheels up and down the street—there was a chance I would see him again! An actual fucking chance!

I worked at containing myself as she explained, “To tell you the truth, this case has been abandoned for quite a while. But, last week, we received various reports of someone in Nevada who, apparently, looked just like an old friend of yours. We haven’t found anything conclusive: no video, no accounts from actual authorities, not even a consistent location. But there were enough reports to give us a reason to be curious. That’s really all we know at this point.”

“Nothing else?” I asked. Carefully though; any more, and I would come off as a little too curious.

“Nothing that isn’t classified. And I’m sorry, but this time it actually is classified,” she said as she stood up. I stood with her, this time trying to conceal disappointment. “Anyways, thank you for your time.”

“Yeah, no problem, thank you for yours.”

We began to go our separate ways, but after a couple of steps, Eva turned back towards me. “Oh, just one more thing—you’re a better liar than you realize. Politics should suit you just fine.”

And then I wondered how much she knew. About me, and everything I was going through. About Drake, and where he might be. Hell, whether or not he might be alive. But I knew I had to let it go. The last year of my life had proven that worrying over things didn’t stop them from sucking.

…Still, I wondered.

Back in my room, Adam and Bradley had plenty of questions. They both sounded concerned, even if Bradley’s concerns were more focused on the bag of weed under his dresser. I insisted to both of them that it was nothing serious, and that she was just checking in before closing the case for good. I’m not even sure why I lied. It just felt easier that way.

“Anyways,” I said, trying to push past the subject. “You said you wanted to ask me something?”

“Oh, yeah, Bradley and I were just talking about it. Turns out we have similar timing. Terrible timing, as he tells me, but still. I just came by to ask if you want to get an apartment next year. I sorta like the idea of having a place that’s more to ourselves.”

I shrugged. “Yeah, why not? I bet the three of us could find a place.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Bradley said. Then with a snicker he added, “But just to warn you man, Regis throws raging parties basically every night. It’s just a never ending stream of sex and drugs.”

“Oh I’m sure,” Adam said. He looked off to the side when he continued, “But yeah, the three of us, that’s cool I guess.”

Throughout the week, we went around Sienna looking for somewhere to spend the next year. Adam said he’d had a place in mind, but the only apartments they had left were two bedrooms, not three. Bradley brought up that he wouldn’t mind sharing a room with me like he already was, but Adam told him to forget about it. I wasn’t oblivious. I understood why Adam was upset that Bradley was moving in with us. Like lying about what happened with Eva though, ignoring Adam’s hints just felt easier.

Bradley was right about Sienna; it kinda sucked. After a week of searching, it seemed that Adam’s first pick of apartments really were the only ones that were decently priced, decently untrashed, and decently close to campus.

Adam and I were at his dorm when he said it. “Look, Pepperdale is clearly our best option. I think we can agree on that. No matter which way we split up the rooms, it’s still better than any of those other places.”

“I agree,” I told him. “But I have a pretty good idea of who you’d want to share a room with, and I have a pretty good idea of why.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be like that,” Adam insisted. “When I first looked at those apartments, we were each going to get our own space. But yes, now that Bradley’s moving in with us too, I’d rather share a room with you.”

“And I’d rather not,” I told him. “You’re a great friend, but I told you, I’m not looking for anything more than friendship.”

“Tell you what,” Adam said, and he reached under his bed. A moment later, he held a chess board. “I’ll play you for it. Winner gets to pick the rooms. It doesn’t have to mean anything more than friendship.”

Against my better judgment, I agreed. The two of us had been playing the game quite a bit, and even if he won more often, I felt that I was getting better. The stakes were higher than usual, but still, if it would make him drop the subject then I would be glad to give it a try.

When we started, I noticed that he didn’t attack right away. For the first few moves, he remained on his side of the board. I kept an eye on him, but even when I left an opening, he didn’t advance.

“So I really don’t know much about Bradley,” Adam said. “What’s he like as a roommate? What’s he all about?”

“He’s double majoring in mathematics and art, believe it or not. He says he got so high once that he saw the fourth dimension, so he’s taking math classes to be able to comprehend what he saw, and art classes so he can try to convey the experience to others.”

“Does he really think he’ll be able to do all that?”

“He doesn’t seem very attentive, but he can be deceptively smart, so who knows? As a roommate though, he’s impossible to complain about. It’s your move.”

“I know,” Adam said, staring at his pieces. He moved a knight forward, paused, and then moved it back. He settled on moving another pawn forward—the forth one in four turns. “Yeah, Bradley seems like an alright guy. I was just wondering.”

I was satisfied with my own arrangement, and growing restless for him to finish his. Straying from my typical fashion, I moved a bishop straight past his pawns and claimed a rook from his back row.

“So be honest; why do you want us to share a room?”

“You don’t have to remind me to be honest. It’s because I like you. I think I’ve been pretty upfront about that.”

“And I’ve been pretty upfront with the fact that I’m just not interested.”

“Yeah, you have,” Adam said, moving another pawn. He stood up and walked over to his mini fridge, opened the door, and stared inside. “Want anything?”

I heard him, but I didn’t answer at first. I was too focused on something else. Despite the fact that Adam had yet to move forward, he still hadn’t defended his king; he’d trapped it. The only problem was that I hadn’t been moving forward much either, so even if he was setting himself up, I wasn’t in a position to take advantage of it.

“Regis? Anything?”

I moved my knight to the opposite end of the board, where it sat ready to block his king’s few escape options. Then I moved my queen forward, so it was poised to finish the trap in the following turn.

“No thanks, I’m good.”

“Suit yourself,” Adam said, walking back to the board. My heart beat faster as he approached, because I knew he would notice. He had to. He was too good at the game to miss something so obvious. When he got back to the board, he barely even glanced at the pieces.

He tipped over his king.

“Good game, but I sort of realized how childish this is getting. I don’t want to force you into anything. You can go ahead and pick the rooms.”

“You’re serious right now,” I said. In my head it had been a question, but out loud, it sounded more like pointing out the obvious.

“Yeah, I am.”

“Well, thanks, and good game to you too. I should go get ready for my next class, but really, thank you.”

We said our goodbyes, and I stepped out of his room. I only made it to the stairwell before I had to stand still for a minute. There was this feeling somewhere in my chest. It was just a light tingle, but it drove me crazy. I’d cheated. I’d cheated, and he never would have noticed. It was dishonest, it was uncomfortable, it was sickening, it was wonderful—it was wonderful. As I leaned against a railing, ready to vomit over the edge, there was something else to the uneasy feeling; there was a smile, just crossing the corners of my lips. I stood there in the stairwell, giggling. I was a liar, and it felt wonderful.

I turned around and marched back to Adam’s door. He opened it after a few frantic knocks, but he wasn’t opening it fast enough, and I nearly knocked him over as I pushed through the doorway. Before he could say a thing, I took both sides of his head in my hands and pulled him into a kiss.

I’m not sure what I was thinking. It didn’t even feel like I was thinking. After all, I would never be the one to kiss him—not even a year had passed since I’d renounced love forever. But I had to admit that I felt something for Adam. It wasn’t love, not at all. Not quite, anyways. But it was something. Apparently it was enough.

Adam pulled away to collect himself for a second. With a laugh, he said, “How ‘bout a little warning before you make my fantasies come true, goddamn.”

I clung to him, still barely feeling like myself. “You and me. We’re sharing a room next year.”

And without warning him, I leaned forward and gave him another kiss.


Chapter 9

The next two years were great. There weren’t any particular moments that could prove it, but still, it was this intangible feeling that I experienced more often than not. I’d found warmth again.

I could find warmth with Adam. He was a fantastic guy all around, and heat radiated off of everything he did. I told him I loved him. I didn’t completely mean it; just like a missing limb, a shattered heart doesn’t really grow back with any amount of time. But once in a while, while I was with him, I could swear my phantom limb was alive and well. So even if it wasn’t the complete truth, I wasn’t ashamed to tell Adam about the feelings I swore I felt.

Although that was another thing I could find some warmth in: lying. Being a clever deceiver. I didn’t feel like myself when I did it, and since I’d spent most of my life as one pathetic individual, feeling like someone else didn’t feel half bad.

Of course, as myself or anyone else, I could always find warmth in Foxboro. It’s where I belonged. It’s where I could count on finding everything and everyone that mattered to me. And after graduating a year early from Rycroft, it’s where I found work as a lawyer. I’d tried, but in the end, politics wasn’t quite for me. It was too damn boring.

Still, I couldn’t give up on making that difference. I figured if I couldn’t change the world all at once in the most underwhelming process known to humanity, then I could at least try to help people along on a more personal level. Not to mention, there was always the chance of getting some landmark case that really would affect people on a larger scale. Maybe then I could make that difference that Adam was always talking about.

I was worried that he might be upset when I changed my major. Although when I explained to him that I was going after the same thing, but from the bottom up instead of the top down, he just laughed and said that it was the gayest thing he’d ever heard me say. So I guess he wasn’t all that upset after all.

That landmark case never exactly came. As soon as I’d secured my place as another lawyer in Foxboro, I might as well have become invisible to the world. I did what I could to help the town, but really, the town didn’t need much help to begin with. It was already a great place, and all I had to do was keep it that way. Adam congratulated me anyways. He said that even if I didn’t feel like I was making a difference, I was on the right track.

When the summer ended, he had to go back to Rycroft to finish his senior year, and I had to stay in Foxboro to keep my job. We met up as often as we could, and every time, I told him I loved him. It felt less like the truth with every passing week, but I would keep on telling him, as many times as it took to sound like I wasn’t lying. To him, or to myself.

Through all the years, through all the times I felt cold and all the times I found warmth again, and through all the times I told Adam that I loved him, there was still something that I could never seem to get off my mind. And in the winter, that something returned to Foxboro Nowhere. At first I didn’t recognize him. While I drove back to my apartment, which I was sharing with Adam over the winter break, the man was just another face. But there was something off about him. He was standing on the sidewalk, in the far-below-freezing wind, staring at a house. Mason’s old house.

And that’s when it hit me. It hit me like a fucking semi, and I had to slam on the brakes and just sit there, trying to decide if I’d really just seen who I thought I’d seen. Was it him? Was it the one who forced his way into my dreams and my nightmares alike, on any night when I could actually find the warmth to sleep in the wake of his coldness?

Yeah. Son of a bitch, it was.

He’d grown out his hair and adopted a pair of glasses, but the face behind those features was too familiar to mistake for any other. I sat in my car for a minute or two, unsure of what to do next.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to decide at all. When it was clear that I wasn’t going to move anytime soon, he started walking instead. I could have stepped on the gas and gotten the hell out of there. I could have at least locked my doors. But when he started walking towards me, I found the guts to do something even more bold than escaping. I put my car in park, opened the door, and met him halfway. And there we stood, face to face, our breath frozen in the harsh winter.

“You know, for almost four years now, I’ve been trying to come up with the words that could express how sorry I am.”

“And?”

“There aren’t any.”

I tried to be bitter. I tried to show him that I could be just as uncaring as he’d been, and that I didn’t have to show any of my feelings either. I tried lying to him, but all of it was useless. There were plenty of people I could lie to—plenty of people I could go the rest of my life not giving a damn about. But Drake was never one of them.

“If there aren’t any words, then why the hell are you here? Drake, do you know how much you fucking meant to me‽ You were a monster!” I screamed, and I shoved him away, and I staggered back.

“I know,” he said. “You don’t have to tell me because God, I know. I’m not here to ask for your forgiveness, since there’s no one in the world who deserves it less than I do. I’m here for your peace of mind. I’m here so that if there’s anything you have to do to forget about me and move on with your life, you can do it. And if there’s not then I can leave, and you’ll never see me again. I’m sorry Regis. I know that words will never come close to expressing it, but God dammit I’m sorry.”

I didn’t know what to tell him. All those countless hours I’d spent picturing this moment, and I didn’t know what to tell him.

“Drake, I don’t even know who you are. I like to think you’re the person I was friends with for so long: the one who was always there, the one I could trust, the one who I loved. Everything was perfect man. What were you thinking?”

“Do you really want to know?”

There was something in his expression. It was the same thing I’d seen when he confessed to kissing Iris, and it looked just as sincere as the last time. It was shame, and it was regret. I could only hope that he meant it.

“Yeah,” I answered, “I really do want to know. Let’s go back to my place and talk. It’s fucking freezing out here.”

“Okay. Whatever you want. Although, I hear you’re living with a certain someone who might not be thrilled to see me.”

“Adam. He’s out with his brother and some friends, and they shouldn’t be back until morning. Come on, let’s go.”

I turned and got into my car, and he walked the other way to get into his. Along the drive, I had a moment to reflect on everything. The moment wasn’t long enough, but even if we were driving across the country, it never could have been enough time for me to sort everything out. He was back. The monster was back, and I still couldn’t say whether or not I hated him.

When we arrived at the apartment, Drake and I sat down on either end of a couch. The situation felt so familiar that I almost cried.

“So,” he said. He faced me, but kept to his side of the couch. “What do you want to know?”

“For starters, I want to know what the hell was going through your head that day. Why didn’t you go straight to the school? Why drag me into it? I’ve tried to figure you out for so long now, but I can’t, so go ahead and tell me.”

“Because I didn’t want to be accountable. I know it’s a shitty thing to say, but in the end, I trusted your judgment a hell of a lot more than I trusted my recklessness. If it’s any consolation, you didn’t just save the lives of a bunch of strangers; you ended up saving mine too. Maybe you don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. You saved me.”

“How? How did I save your life?”

“You really think I pictured myself living through that day? One way or another, that was supposed to be it for me. But you made me see that it didn’t have to be like that.”

“And what happened after that? Where have you been for the last three years?”

“Out west. Nevada mostly. There’s really nothing too interesting about it. A few stories worth telling, but none as life changing as what happened right here in Foxboro. I’ve made it a point to live a boring life since then. I don’t drink, I don’t talk to people much, and hell, I don’t even watch TV. I guess you could say I was meditating; I wanted everything I thought to be mine, not the influence of something else. And I think it helped. I’ve mellowed out a lot since then.”

“So why are you back? Why now?”

“When I left Foxboro, I promised myself that I’d come back some day. The reasons then were nefarious, no doubt. But the idea stuck, even after the reasons changed. By the time I mellowed out, it was because I hoped coming back would be courteous. I’m not here to try and screw up everything you’ve worked for while I’ve been gone. Hell, it sounds like you’ve moved on just fine without my help, so congratulations on that. I’m not even being sarcastic, because goddamn, that’s something I sure as hell haven’t done a great job with. But I’m back now because I built up the courage to face you again. I fucked up, and I’m sorry, and I want to make it up to you however I can.”

“You want to know what you can do to fix this?”

“Name it.”

“Don’t disappear again,” I said, reaching out and taking hold of his arm. “On the day when you held that gun to my head, I’ll be honest, I was wishing you would just go away forever. But it didn’t even take a full day before I was wishing to see you again, no matter what the reason was. You meant the world to me Drake, and it might not be the same as before, but you still do. For fuck’s sake man, I love you.”

The room blurred as I spoke, and I had to wipe the tears from my eyes. When I did, I caught a glimpse of Drake doing something I never thought he was capable of; he was sobbing. He was showing complete, genuine, goddamn emotions. I curled up against him. He wrapped an arm around my shoulders, and for a while, we just sat there. He thanked me over and over again, saying that he didn’t deserve it. I told him to shut up, since there was no one in the fucking world who I would be more willing to give another chance, but it didn’t stop him from repeating how he felt.

When things got less emotional, Drake took his arm off of me. “Like I said, I’m not here to try to ruin anything. Based on what little news manages to escape Foxboro and get all the way to Bellpond, it sounds like you and Adam are happy together.”

I nodded, and adjusted myself so I was back on my side of the couch. “Thanks, I… I got a little carried away there. But yeah, things between me and Adam have been good. It doesn’t change the fact that I still want you around though. As a friend of course.”

“Of course,” Drake repeated. “We were friends for years. I’m sure we can make it work again. Right?”

I nodded, almost automatically. Like it was some obligatory response. But when I thought about it, it just made me want to laugh. Drake and I, friends again. Unbefuckinglievable. I made an involuntary noise, and at first it felt like laughter. But as it came out, some of the weeping still reverberated through it, and so it became this meek little sound that was just perfect for how I felt. Finally I just told him.

“All those years we were only friends drove me crazy, you know that?”

He sniffled, and let out a pathetic little chuckle of his own. Shaking his head and smiling, he said, “Me too man, me too. So what now? You’re in a relationship, and not to mention, your job depends on the public thinking you’re an honest person.”

“Nobody has to know,” I said, and as soon as it came out, I felt that little buzz in my chest. That feeling that seemed almost unreal, but had to be something, because it also felt so damn satisfying.

“Somebody would catch on,” he insisted. “We’re in Foxboro, ground zero, the exact worst place for me to hide. I’m amazed that nobody’s come breaking down that door already.”

“Tell you what. I’ve got a friend in Sienna. I lived with him for a few years, super laid back dude. His name is Bradley. He lives on his own now, and I bet you could stay with him until Adam goes back to Rycroft.”

“Regis,” Drake said. “Please, just don’t. I’m serious about not screwing anything up. If you want me around, then you can be damn sure that I’ll be around. But I won’t let myself screw up your life. Not again. I’m not worth that.”

“You—”

“No. I’m flattered, but I’m serious.”

I was dumbstruck. “Drake, don’t you understand? You’re worth everything to me. You’re my somethingness.”

It was an impasse. Before seeing him again, I was never quite sure how I would feel if he came back. Once he was around, I was dead set on keeping him close. But evidently, he was dead set on the opposite.

“At least stay here for tonight,” I pleaded. “Tell me one of those stories you mentioned. I’m dying to know what you’ve been up to.”

“Alright,” he said. He settled in on the couch. “I’ll tell you about the one anomaly: the one interesting thing that happened.”

He saved a man’s life. That was the story. He’d found a man in the desert, and the man was bleeding, and Drake saved him. There was more detail in Drake’s version. A lot more detail. But conveying the simple irony of Drake saving someone from death is a story unto itself.

Drake said that he ought to get going before it got too late. I insisted that Adam wouldn’t be home until morning, but Drake wasn’t willing to risk it. He said he would still be around. I promised that I would hold him to his word as we said our goodbyes.

Before he left my sight, I had to give him a hug. I couldn’t help myself. He was back. The love of my life was back, and I never wanted to let him go.

He stepped outside, drove off, and I was left wondering when I would see him next. Days? Weeks? Hell, ever?

I laid in bed for the night, just thinking. But for the first time in a long time, the thoughts that kept me up at night weren’t unpleasant. I didn’t want to sleep, because if I did, I would lose that buzz of comforting ideas. Even if he wasn’t there at the moment, and even if he never came back again, he was alive. He hadn’t dissipated into nothingness, never to be seen again. He was alive, and he was the friend I’d loved, not the monster I’d resented.

When morning came, it brought a hungover Adam along with it. I feigned sleep as he collapsed into bed. I was happy to see that he’d come back just fine, but I preferred to stay in my head for a little while longer.

There were so many things I wanted to figure out. How could I keep Drake close without anyone else knowing? What would happen in the long run? Should I tell Iris about any of it? What was going to happen with Adam?

It was this last question that bothered me the most. He was curled up right there beside me, with his head under the blankets, trying to hide his senses from the sunlight. Here was a human being with his own thoughts and emotions, and as far as he was aware, everything was going great in his life. We said we loved each other. Even if we didn’t always mean it, we at least had some reason for saying it. He was a great guy, and I really did care about him. I really didn’t want to hurt him.


Chapter 10

I didn’t see Drake the next day. I paid attention to every face I passed while I was out running errands, in hopes that one of them would turn out to be his. None did. I saw many vaguely familiar faces, and a handful that were new, but I never saw the one face that was even more familiar to me than my own. If I was going to see him again, it would be on his terms.

When I returned home for the day, Adam was there to greet me with a kiss. Normally I would have enjoyed it. That time I almost slapped him. But I did my best not to show it; I kissed him back, and I tried to make it seem real. For once, deceit wasn’t just a hobby. This time, if he caught on that something was going on, there were stakes. I could lose him. I could lose Drake, too. More than likely I would lose them both, and if that happened, it was back to that fucking coldness. So I guess I did feel something when I kissed Adam back, but it sure as hell wasn’t fondness; it was determination. I could make things work. I had to make things work.

After the kiss was done with, I noticed something. With a small laugh, I asked, “What the hell kind of music are you playing?”

“What, you got somethin’ against swing?” Adam asked, swaying over to the living room. Moving to the beat, he beckoned me closer.

I smiled, but crossed my arms. “Not a chance, Casanova.”

“Come on, we’ve never danced,” he said, committing even more to his moves as the song picked up. He had that goofy grin on his face. I would’ve thought he was mocking me, if the rest of his swinging body didn’t attest to how genuine his intentions were. “When’s the last time you heard of a love story where they never danced?”

“We’ve never danced for a very good reason,” I insisted. “I don’t know—”

Sure you do!” he said, working his way back to me without losing the beat for a second. I’d seen him dance at parties, but he never looked as committed to the idea as he did that night. It had me a little worried. Did he know?

But when he took my hand and pulled me to the living room, the thought left my mind and I followed along, rolling my eyes as we went.

“Can’t we just have sex like we usually do?” I complained as he walked me in circles. I hated to admit it, but I did feel the rhythm. I wouldn’t have felt it on my own, but he moved me to the music, and I’d begun to step in time with him. It was clumsy, and I acted like it was incidental, but to tell the truth—I liked it.

Wrapping a hand around my waist, he said, “Why ruin such a good mood with something so routine? Let’s mix things up!”

With that he pulled me closer, forcing me to keep up. He was leading, although a better word might be carrying.

“There, that’s it!” Adam said, still grinning. Without warning he spun me around, and that brief dizzy moment finally rearranged my mood.

Cracking my own goofy smile, I asked, “What is up with you tonight?”

He didn’t answer. Instead, he just reached for the radio and turned up the volume. His dismissal made me nervous, but as the night went on, I couldn’t have cared less why he was so keen on dancing; I was just glad to be a part of it. Every worry melted away with the rhythm, and even if I sucked, getting lost in the music was just plain entertaining.

By the time a slower song came on, I’m not sure if what we did could be called dancing. We didn’t step, we didn’t swing, and we hardly moved. We just stood there, wrapped around each other and swaying back and forth, simply existing in Foxboro Paradise. And maybe it really was paradise, at least for that moment. Maybe, if that moment had never ended, poisoning paradise wouldn’t have been so tempting. But for every wonderful moment Adam and I shared, breathtaking as some of them had been, he just couldn’t compare to the one who had held my heart for as long as I could remember. The only thing that could have made that night with Adam better is if I had shared it with someone else.

The next day, I couldn’t find a moment away from Adam—he followed me from room to room. Sometimes he would offer an excuse. In the kitchen, he just wanted to get a snack. In the living room, he wanted to watch TV. But as he ate, and while the TV was on, he never paid much attention to what he did. If I looked his way then he would act normal, but from the corner of my eye, I always saw that he was much more focused on something else: me. It was driving me crazy by the afternoon, and when he followed me from the bedroom to the living room for the third time, I outright asked him about it.

In response, he said, “Guess I’m not so subtle then?”

“Have you ever been?”

“Yeah, fair enough. It’s just that I’m going back to school in a couple of days, and I’m really going to miss you. So if I’m being a little too overbearing then I’m sorry, but that’s the reason why. I love you, you know that?”

“Sure, you tell me every day. I’m going to miss you too, but hey, it’s not like we’ll never see each other again.”

“But it’s not the same, and you know that,” he said, taking my hand in his. Squeezing tight, he explained, “I like being here with you in every sense possible: mentally, romantically, and physically. And If I can’t have all of it then I’ll take what I can get, but at some point, they all build on each other. And I’m worried that if I leave for another few months, it’s all going to come crumbling down.”

I didn’t even know how to lie to him at that point. For one thing, I wasn’t sure what kind of lie I could tell. If I said everything would always be great between us, then it would only make ending things that much more impossible. If I said that things between us had never been great, then I’d be doing him a disservice; Adam was still incredible, even if there was someone I would rather be with. Someone I couldn’t stop myself from being with. And even if there was a lie, I wouldn’t want to tell it to him.

I hugged him. I told him I loved him, and maybe I meant it. We spent the rest of the day together, as well as the rest of the days until he left. In hindsight, I’m glad we did. I never realized I would miss him someday. But as glad as I was to spend time with him, I was also glad to have him leave: it meant that Drake could come back, like he’d said he would.

A few hours after Adam left, there was a knock at the door. And sure enough, there was Drake on the other side. The door hadn’t even closed by the time we were embracing. His grip felt so familiar, so comforting. So warm. I wanted to kiss him, but when I tried, he pulled away.

“Not right now. I don’t know how deep things are between you and Adam, but if you have any feelings for him at all, I want you to think about this. He could offer you a whole lot more, I’m sure.”

“He could,” I nodded, still clinging to Drake. “He could offer me a relationship that I don’t have to hide from the world, and he could offer me plenty of good times with the parties he goes to, and he could offer me more affection than I could ever ask for.”

“Then I guess I’ll start with a simple question—why, Mister Maxwell, are you groping me?”

“Because, I don’t want any of those things,” I said, nuzzling against his chest. “I don’t care if I have to hide something from the world, because I’m used to doing that anyways, and I don’t need their approval to be happy. I don’t care about the parties, because at the core I’m boring as fuck, and I can’t say I’ve ever found enjoyment in being around a bunch of strangers.”

“And the affection?”

“I don’t hate it,” I admitted with a shrug. “But all the affection in the world can’t replace the one thing Adam could never give me.”

“And what might that be?”

“You,” I said, wrapping his arms around me. “It’s you. It’s always been you.”

“Then how do you want to make this work?” he asked.

“First, we are going to snuggle on that couch, and I hope you enjoy it because that step is not optional. Then you’re going to tell me all about what you’ve been up to for the last few years: all about it.”

“And then?” he asked, following me across the living room.

“We’re a couple of smart guys. I’m sure we’ll figure something out.”

Steps one and two went off without a hitch. I laid on his chest, feeling his voice as he told me about his new life. The one he’d made for himself from scratch. It sounded peaceful. Not much happened in Bellpond, Nevada.

“I’m sold,” I finally told him. “I break up with Adam, we move to Bellpond, and everybody lives happily ever after. How’s that?”

“Not bad. But it could be better.”

“Why, what would you rather do?”

Some say there’s no such thing as a happy ending. And, to a point, I suppose they’re right. I would just add to the notion by saying there’s no such thing as an ending at all.

And as I stand in the streets of San Samarra, holding hands with the man I love, things are far from over. Maybe the law will never find Drake here. Maybe he’ll even maintain that newfound inner peace of his. But there’s always that chance. The chance that things might resurface. That he’ll make mistakes. That one day he’ll wake up to find that he’s not the knight he always tried to be, but instead, the monster he always fought against. He already has the name for it. And me—I can never escape. Not from some things.

On the morning Iris called to say that Adam had died from cardiac arrest, a part of me died too. I never wanted to hurt him like that.

Among all of my regrets in life, the way I treated Adam over the years easily tops the list, and that list will follow me wherever I go. My life has been one cold fucking blizzard, and as a lying lawyer in the most awful city on earth, with a killer holding my hand as we stand in a pride rally, nestled in the midst of thousands of churchgoers, I’m well aware that the coldness is far from letting up. I welcome it.

Bring on the cold.



The Music

Contents
Chapter 1: You Artists are Insufferable
Chapter 2: Rice and the Ant
Chapter 3: Black Paint
Chapter 4: Ruben’s Cardboard Box
Chapter 5: Flawless Form
Chapter 6: Knockin’ on the Dragon’s Door
Chapter 7: Focus Blurred
Chapter 8: Incognito
Chapter 9: Dirty Deeds
Chapter 10: Composition
Chapter 11: Fever
Chapter 12: Honey
Chapter 13: Hell
Chapter 14: Highwaymen
Chapter 15: Susan’s Invitation
Chapter 16: Ring Finger
Chapter 17: Prescription Pills
Chapter 18: Terry the Killer
Chapter 19: On Black Coffee and Winter
Chapter 20: Former Artists
Chapter 21: Grey Figures
Chapter 22: Bossa Nova
Chapter 23: Bom Dia,
Chapter 24: Metal
Chapter 25: Patricia
Chapter 26: Armament
Chapter 27: Tracing his Finger through the Dirt
Chapter 28: Dylan
Epilogue: Je Vis


Chapter 1: You Artists are Insufferable

Ruben entered the café. He sighed as he straightened the wrinkles of his tan jacket. Against his now-ex’s advice, he had refused to throw the thing out. Bob Dylan gave Ruben a pat on the shoulder, and the two continued.

They walked by the maitre d', who only glanced up and nodded as they passed. Ruben and Dylan made their way to the far back corner of the smoky café. Susan sat there, and when she saw the two approaching, she handed her half-smoked cigarette off to Lady Gaga. Gaga took it, inhaled, and gave a single wave to Dylan. Dylan nodded back.

Ruben took a seat across from Susan, and slid down the back of his chair until only his head poked up above the table.

Susan leaned forward over the table to compensate, settling for nothing less than direct eye contact. “Malcolm wants me to remind you that you have to send him the sketches before he can color them.”

“Yeah, well, tell him I’m moving to France,” Ruben responded.

“You speak French?”

“Oui.”

“You speak any other French?”

“Non.”

“So Katie dumped you?”

Ruben paused. “There another French word for yes?” he asked, and slouched onto the ground. When he came back up, the waiter took his order.

“Beautiful day,” the waiter mentioned, writing down Ruben’s usual request for black coffee.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Ruben said, and reached into his left jacket pocket. Then he remembered that the left pocket still had a hole in it, and he reached into his right. As soon as he’d freed his cigarettes and a lighter, Ruben slouched back down. “But I am moving to France.”

“It’ll be alright Ruben. She wasn’t—”

“Careful. Careful with your next words, Susan.”

Susan stirred her coffee, which had gone lukewarm waiting for Ruben. He waited patiently enough for her response, but he was curious: what response could she even give? Katie wasn’t right for him? Susan would know better; Katie was entirely perfect for him. There are other fish in the sea? Susan would know better than to say that too.

Susan sighed. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Ooh, see I like those!” Ruben said with a smile. He sat back upright, and folded his arms on top of the table.

Now her turn to lean back, Susan sighed again. “I might leave Malcolm for the same reason Katie left you. Ruben, you artists are insufferable.”

Ruben snorted, and a sharp smile smacked itself across his face. “That’s no secret Susan. Everybody knows that.”

Ruben handed her a worn folder. No Filler, No Filter Studios was stenciled at the center. Below it, Ruben had jotted Chemosynthetic, Issue 12.

Susan took the folder and stood to leave. Ruben asked her, “Are you really going to leave Malcolm?”

“Are you really moving to France?”

Ruben glanced at the waiter, who set the coffee on the table. When he looked back to Susan, she and Gaga were already walking away. He called after them.

“Tell him he can move Malcolm Sanchez above Ruben Craig on the front cover, just this once. My treat.”

Susan didn’t look back, but Ruben knew—just knew—that she was rolling her eyes at him. And smiling. Ruben knew she would be doing both.

Ruben and Dylan sat at that table long after the untouched coffee went cold. There was a window to their left. It would only take a glance for Ruben to see the beautiful day the waiter had promised. But Ruben didn’t look through the window. He didn’t look at the others as they came and went from the tables around him. He barely even looked down at his paper as he sketched.

A small home. What was on the inside didn’t even matter, just as long as it was the only place for miles. And that’s what he sketched: miles of trees, fields, and open blue skies from left to right across the page, all leading to a small home tucked safely to one side. Ruben sketched a man leaning over the railing, looking out over his handiwork. He started to draw Katie next to him. He erased her when he remembered better.

You artists are insufferable.

He erased every last line of her, only to find she had left an empty spot where she’d stood. Of course. Of course that’s how it would be.

Ruben lifted the cup of coffee, slid the paper underneath, and set the cup back down on top. On his way back to his apartment, Ruben practiced French under his breath. Dylan sang It Ain’t Me. It seemed fitting.

The streets of Manhattan were packed that day. Maybe not by local standards. But by the standards of a born, raised, and escaped Wisconsinite, Ruben knew the truth: Manhattan was packed 24/7. He also knew it was only a matter of time before everyone else realized it.

Oui.

Non.

Quelle heure est-il?

Je vis dans la prairie. Très bon.

Ruben and Dylan rode the elevator to the fifth floor of the apartment building. As was custom, Dylan waited outside while Ruben went in. But before closing the door, Ruben held it open just a crack, waiting for Dylan’s last few chords.

You artists are insufferable.

Très bon.


Chapter 2: Rice and the Ant

Rice stared at the ant. Or, more accurately, Rice had been staring at the ant for quite some time. He had found it in his room. He and Johnny Cash had been jamming out some blues when the ant caught his eye. Rice could have crushed it then and there. He didn’t. He watched it. He laid on the edge of his bed and observed the tiny black speck crawl across his floor, and Cash watched along with him, holding the strings of his guitar mute. Once the ant had reached the doorway, Rice stood up and stalked after it. Stalked was the right word: one way or another, this ant was Rice’s game. He followed it down the hallway, careful not to get too close. Cash flanked the game, uncannily silent in his boots. As if the ant had already scouted the apartment in advance, it crawled straight for the kitchen. Poacher. Rice knew what the ant was after from the beginning, but to catch it from start to finish in the act, Rice liked the way it felt under his tongue. Poacher, poacher, poacher. Rice stared at the ant as it picked a crumb off of the counter. He stalked closer and towered over the ant, his shadow dominating it, and still—still—the ant picked up the crumb. It was brave. Rice couldn’t fault it for that.

Ruben entered the apartment as the ant was securing its crumb. He walked to the kitchen counter and stood beside Rice, joining the hunter in stalking the game.

No, stalking wasn’t the right word anymore—not for Ruben anyways. Ruben did watch the ant, but Rice knew that he didn’t watch it in the same way. Rice watched the ant drop the crumb and saw a time to pounce. Ruben watched the ant drop the crumb and weighed whether or not the ant would want help picking it back up. He must have decided that the ant wouldn’t. Probably because if it were Ruben who had dropped the crumb, he would rather struggle with it himself. Ruben would struggle for the rest of his ant life with that crumb.

Which gave Rice a question.

“How long do ants live?”

Ruben didn’t take his eyes off of the insect. Days, Ruben thought. How could it be any longer than a few days? In the grand scheme of things, what was there for one ant to do?

Rice crushed the ant with his thumb. Ruben’s soul cracked under that calloused digit just as readily.

For fuck’s sake, Ruben thought, at least give the damn thing its days.

He let out a pointed sigh.

“Oh, what?” Rice questioned. “No wonder I could never take you hunting. Hell Ruben, it’s an ant.

Ruben shrugged—physically.

Mentally, Ruben crushed Rice under his thumb. He flattened Rice against the floor. He pulverized Rice’s muscles and bones as though he was folding a crisp new crease into a piece of construction paper.

But on the outside Ruben shrugged, and mentioned, “It’s Sunday. Don’t you have church to be going to?”

“As a matter of fact I do,” Rice said, and he walked to the couch. It wasn’t a long walk from the kitchen to the living room, because for all intents and purposes, the two were one in the same. One was linoleum and one was carpeted—the only difference between the kitchen and the living room was that one was harder to clean when Rice tracked in dirt.

It was something Ruben marveled at more than anything. He watched as Rice sat on the couch to lace up his boots, and he wondered: where in Manhattan does this man find so much mud to walk through?

“You coming?” Rice asked.

“Never do.”

“Someday you might,” Rice assured, and he offered Ruben a smile.

Ruben, for once in his life, smiled back at the notion of finding God.

“So Katie dumped you?”

“Against all of my desperate pleading,” Ruben conceded.

Rice shrugged, and stood up to give Ruben a rough punch on the shoulder. “What country are you moving to this time, buddy?”

“France, and stop knowing me so well.”

“Never gonna happen. Send me a letter when you get there, one with lots of words I don’t understand,” Rice encouraged, and with that he and Cash walked through the door. Hopeless romantic son of a gun.

He and Cash arrived at the elevator on the far end of the hallway. Rice pressed the call button while Cash fiddled with the pegs of his guitar, trying to fix some minor abnormality in the tone.

It works for him though, Rice decided. He needed a little heartbreak. He practically runs on the stuff.

The elevator doors opened and Rice stepped inside. As his foot tumbled through the pitch black of the empty shaft, Rice had one more thought: Oh.

Cash took a firm hold of Rice’s shoulders and yanked him back into the hallway. Rice stumbled backwards through the tilting hall, farther and farther, no distance being safe enough from the breech in what was possible in a civilized goddamn society. He collapsed with his back against a wall, trying to find the breath to pray with.

Thank you, Rice mouthed. His breath refused to obey him, even for this. Lord Almighty, thank you.

Cash, with one hand gripping each elevator door, leaned into the dark shaft and had a look. First down. There was blackness on all sides as he looked, though at the very bottom of the tunnel, at the very end—there was the light. Next Cash looked up, and was quick to get his head back into the hallway; the elevator slid down into place, and as it did, it let out a little ding.

Fuck you.

A thought of Rice’s which was shortly followed by another: Forgive me, Lord. If this is because I’ve been cursing, I’ll never curse again in my life. I’ll never even think to.

And for the rest of his life, Rice Henderson never spoke nor thought nor tolerated another curse word.

Rice made a beeline for the stairwell at the other end of the hall. Cash stopped holding the elevator door open and followed, a wry smirk plastered across his lips. It was lost on Rice, but found on Dylan, who grinned back from his spot beside their apartment door. As the two passed by Dylan, the next door down the hall swung open. Out stepped their neighbor Terrence, dressed in cutoff shorts and a pink tank top, and heading for the elevator. The lord was testing Rice two times that afternoon.

Rice watched Terrence strut down the hall. Say nothing and you never have to see that faggot again—Rice didn’t consider faggot a curse word.

Cash watched Rice. He watched the creases appearing in the middle of Rice’s brow, and the corresponding wheels turning as diligently as they were able.

“Hey Terrence,” Rice said.

Cash gave a nod.

Terrence turned, as did Freddie Mercury, both of them flaming with curiosity.

“Take the stairs with me,” Rice offered. “The elevator isn’t working right now.”

On the way down the five flights of stairs, Cash and Mercury never said a word to each other. Cash was turning peg after peg on his guitar, but with every adjustment he made, the guitar just went further out of tune. Mercury wanted to speak. He wanted to sing! He wanted to shout! Yet for all of the times he had pictured this very opportunity, he just couldn’t think of what to say. For the life of him, he just couldn’t think of what to say.


Chapter 3: Black Paint

Malcolm had been painting when Susan returned to their apartment. As she nuzzled his neck from behind, she gently told him, “I like it.”

“How?” Malcolm responded, and he put down his brush. He stepped back, giving the painting a stare that was every bit as intense as his feelings towards it. “There’s nothing abstract. You might as well be looking at the real thing.”

“And that’s what makes it good,” Susan reminded him. “A lot of artists would envy what you can do with those brushes.”

Susan looked into Malcolm’s eyes and smiled, while Lady Gaga looked at Malcolm’s outfit and grimaced. “Besides,” Susan added, “your fashion sense is more than abstract enough.”

His pants were some unnamable shade of green. His shirt’s color was equally impossible to describe, as every thread of it was smeared in a different mixture of oils and powders. After hours of painting in lieu of showering—days, if Susan was being honest with herself—Malcolm’s hair stuck out in every direction, the dark brown tufts speckled with every tint and hue on his pallet.

Gaga tried to wipe a streak of orange from the side of his face, but it was in vain: the second she’d wiped it off, he scratched his cheek and replaced the orange with red. Susan leaned forward and gave Malcolm a kiss on the right eye—the only place she could kiss him and not get paint on herself. With this same concept in mind, she was careful not to embrace him, for fear of ruining her fall jacket.

A fashion designer engaged to a ragamuffin, Susan thought. The tragedy is palpable.

Malcolm collected up his brushes and headed for the kitchen to wash them off. Susan followed. The kitchen was, in some respects, the same room as the living room. There was no wall between the two, and they were decorated in the same modern way. But the kitchen was down a small flight of stairs, and tucked into its own special corner; it was a layout which Susan had admired when she first saw Malcolm’s apartment.

Though in many ways, Malcolm’s apartment had changed since Susan first saw it. Originally, there had been different artwork in the living room—Malcolm hated having the same paintings up for more than a few weeks. The walls had also been a different color, though which one, Susan couldn’t say; most likely, they had been painted in the same way as Malcolm’s hair. But the most noticeable difference in the apartment wasn’t the decoration. The most noticeable difference was something that Susan had stricken from the place.

And it had been no easy task. There were heaps of it when Susan first arrived: what could only be described as a painter’s clutter. It had almost impressed her. Every surface had things laying on it: damp brushes, crusted over pallets, sketches—Susan had saved the sketches. But most of the artist’s clutter, she had cleaned up.

Gaga continued to glare at Malcolm.

“What should we do for dinner?” Susan asked.

Malcolm dropped his brushes into the sink and turned on the faucet, creating a wash of color as the stream ran through the bristles. Picking up the first brush, he asked, “Weren’t we eating with Janine and Brian tonight?”

Gaga rolled her eyes and stomped off. “Malcolm,” Susan said. “I don’t even want you standing in front of the window dressed like that, much less eating out at a five star restaurant. Besides, they can’t make it. There was a problem with the travel agency.”

“Oh,” he acknowledged, moving to the next brush.

“So,” Susan said. “What should we do instead?”

“There’s some frozen—”

“No,” she interrupted. “Not a chance. If you point to the freezer right now, we’re going to have a very serious talk.”

He retracted his index finger.

“You’re rich,” Susan reminded him, taking off her custom-made fall jacket. She could risk adding a few abstract colors to the shirt underneath, and she did just that as she wrapped her arms around Malcolm, holding him tight. He turned and hugged her back, and she leaned into him even more, pressing him against the sink where the hot water still ran.

“I’m rich,” Malcolm repeated. “And?”

“And you dared to think about making your fiancé suffer through a third consecutive night of frozen dinners. At least meet me halfway and order a pizza.”

From 5:15 until 6:45, Susan and Malcolm loved each other.

As Susan finished off the last slice of pizza—she could hardly get Malcolm to eat any of it—she remembered what she had set down on her way in. She got up from her spot by Malcolm’s side on the couch, and then returned moments later, holding a folder.

Malcolm leafed through it, examining each panel of Chemosynthetic, Issue 12. Susan leaned against him and read along, though more specifically, Susan was reading Malcolm.

Admiration. She noticed admiration in the little physical reactions he had on every page: a heavier exhale after reading the punchline on panel four, a slight twitch of the wrist after seeing the main character ambushed on panel 20, and a stiffer posture after finding out the antagonist’s secret intentions on the final page. Susan saw Malcolm’s admiration for Ruben.

“He knows how to be abstract,” Malcolm said. “And he hasn’t even smoked a fucking joint in over a year. Explain that one to me, babe.”

“He’s good,” Susan said, shutting the folder. “And so are you. You’ve painted dozens of amazing abstract works, and if you want more proof, I have a drawer full of sketches that say you’ve thought of hundreds more. You just have to figure out…”

“How to function like a regular human being when I’m not on drugs?”

Malcolm stood up and walked to his painting.

Susan stood behind him. “It’s a great piece, abstract or not. It’s like looking at a photograph.”

“Then why fucking bother!” Malcolm shouted, and Susan jumped back. He pushed the easel and sent it clattering to the ground, beautiful-hideous painting and all, and he brushed against Susan as he stormed by her, leaving a streak of abstract color against her shoulder.

“Malcolm!” she shot back, and followed him across the living room. He was heading for a doorway that she didn’t like him heading for. “Tell me you won’t—“

He slammed his studio door behind himself, and she felt her first tears as she heard the door lock.

She sat down. Lady Gaga, having been waiting beside the door for an hour already, offered Susan her half-smoked cigarette. The two watched Kurt Cobain as he knelt over Malcolm’s toppled canvas, smearing fistfuls of black paint onto the photo-realistic portrayal of Janine and Brian.


Chapter 4: Ruben’s Cardboard Box

Ruben pulled the cardboard box out of his dresser, employing the same care that he’d used when holding his infant nephew for the first time. Since then, Ruben’s nephew had grown up some. The infant had turned into a kid, and it was only right for roughhousing to follow. Ruben could swing his nephew around by the arms until both of them tumbled to the ground laughing; his stomach turned at the idea of being so careless with the box.

He walked across his room, from the dresser to the work desk, holding the box with both hands. He watched his feet on every step, mindful of any clutter that could make him lose his balance. Even his breath was monitored—just why was beyond Ruben, but still, it only felt appropriate.

He reached the desk, and—not too rough—set the box down on the scratched wooden surface. Ruben released his breath as he sat down.

Finally, Ruben unfolded the top.

The first photograph he pulled out was one of his home in Wisconsin. As he stared into the house nestled among the woods, Ruben put himself where he had been when the picture was taken.

Where he had been was with his sister. Neither of them were any older than 12. They were standing behind their mother as she took the “before” photo.

Whoever painted this house puke-green was an imbecile, his mother had said. He’d giggled at it then. He giggled at it again as he held the photograph. And he smiled thinking about how if he ever showed her the photo in his hands, she would say the exact same thing again.

Next was the after photo. There, forest-green. Good choice kids. It looks much better now.

Ruben put the two photographs back into their place at the front. The order mattered. Memories were unreliable, and that was okay—Ruben had his cardboard box. He pulled out a photo at random, careful to hold its place in the box with his free hand.

Peg, he thought, smiling at his twin sister. They weren’t identical for clear enough reasons, but their features were uncannily similar; even their mother had mistaken them for one another, albeit in her periphery. Same lips. Same chin. Same shorter-than-average height, same arrogant posture; same eyes that always looked just a little bit defensive, even when they weren’t. Ruben looked at the photo of Peg holding her newborn son, and he still saw himself in her. The good stuff and the bad, no doubt—Peg was an artist once too. But as she smiled with baby Patrick in her arms, Ruben mostly saw her good side. He wanted to smooth down her short, black, curly hair, and tell her that everything for her and Patrick would work out just fine. In his head, he made plans to visit. Plans that he intended to keep regardless of whether or not he really moved to France over Katie.

Over Katie, he thought to himself. He laughed out loud, as though there were anybody else in the room who he had to lie to. Now that’s a good one.

He put Peg and Patrick back into their spot and took out another picture. An earlier picture. One farther away from…

Anyways.

The next photograph was brighter, much brighter than any of the others. The lens flair alone threatened to consume the picture, and the rays of sunlight scattering off the snowy landscape weren’t helping. Even the subject was mostly white: a billboard.

My first work of art, Ruben thought. It was, by no stretch of the imagination, his first work of art. There were several photographs in the cardboard box alone which could prove that Ruben and Peg had both been artists ever since they could hold a marker. In truth, Ruben’s first work of art had been the blue lines he drew all across his sister’s giggling face when they were each a year old. The vandalized billboard was just Ruben’s first work of art that mattered.

Ruben put the picture back, and then he folded the cardboard top back onto his cardboard box. He stood up, took the box in both hands, and walked it back to his dresser. When he returned to his chair, he spun it to his other desk: his business desk. His desk that wasn’t scratched and stained and free. He booted up his computer—a computer which was old enough for booting up to be a process rather than an instant—and as he waited for the screen to come to life, he pondered the question.

How long do ants live?

His answer remained the same: Days. It has to be days. In a just and righteous universe, an ant shouldn’t have to live for any longer.

When the computer was ready, Ruben went straight for the browser icon that was closest to his mouse. He typed Rice’s question, one key at a time.

And he was blown away:

Months.

Sometimes years.

Ruben ran a hand against his face, and through his short, black, curly hair.


Chapter 5: Flawless Form

Cristy looked for a fault in Terry’s stance. As it turned out, finding such a thing was no simple task. His feet were placed as they were supposed to be. His elbows were kept close to his sides, and his chin was kept low. His arms weren’t clenched in fear, or even in anticipation; they were, however, coiled to strike.

And in spite of Terry’s flawless form, Cristy threw the first punch. She sent her fist sailing right for his immaculate face, hoping to tarnish it, even just a little. He rolled with the blow and smashed the air out of Cristy’s chest, all before it even registered that his black glove had moved. Fucking jackass! Cristy hissed. The room around her tilted from side to side. She strained every breathing muscle she had, forcing the air back through her lungs, stabilizing the whirring room.

And in this way, Cristy didn’t go down. Instead she sent a kick his way, in hopes of catching her opponent by surprise—

No luck. Terry grappled her leg and threw it upward, flipping Cristy’s upper body into the rubber mat.

She got back up. This time, she didn’t look for a flaw in his stance; Terry had long since perfected the art of performance. There would be no flaws to speak of. She didn’t hope to catch him off guard, either; after a lifetime of defending himself from gay bashers, Terry’s guard would be high strung 24/7. But it was this last idea that she did take something from.

She stopped seeing Terry in his black gym clothes. Instead, she chose to see him in the clothes he’d entered in: the cutoff shorts and the pink tank top. His queer clothes. His fag clothes. And that was all it took—Cristy wouldn’t lose to a fag. Not in the first round, no matter how perfect his stance.

She juked him, and being the flinchy queer he was, he actually took the bait; Cristy retracted her fake right and hit him full force with her left, landing a solid paff! on his immaculate, stupid face.

Cristy followed through with another two cracks, right to the exact same spot, and he was too dazed to do a thing about it. She pummeled him to submission, to the ground, not letting up, unrelenting: unrelenting.

Fuck your stance! She sneered at him, and for good measure, she dropped to a knee and snapped off another punch to his gut. Your stance ain’t shit without a real fucking man behind it!

She went for a kick, but her sneaker was blocked by a well-polished dress shoe. Michael Jackson had to push Cristy away, just to stop her from killing her good friend Terrence.

As the blood stopped ringing in her ears, Cristy heard the hoots and cheers from around the gym. And quite suddenly, Cristy felt small. She helped Terry up, and apologized for being so rough.

Terry rubbed his swollen cheek. “In your defense,” he said, “it was a boxing match.”

Cristy smiled, took two steps back, and centered her feet. “Does that mean you’re up for round two?”

Terry was flawless in form, but Cristy was indomitable. As she stood in the shower after their workout, that’s exactly what Michael told her.

“You’re unbeatable Cristy,” he promised, and with such an innocent smile. “You’ll knock Duke Cane dead.”


Chapter 6: Knockin’ on the Dragon’s Door

Malcolm no longer saw the canvas in front of his open eyes. He had been staring at it for too long. He thought about painting a pear, and just as soon thought of putting a bullet through his head.

It couldn’t be done; abstractions needed fuel.

“So,” Kurt said. “Which one are you giving up on?”

“It doesn’t have to be a choice, you know.”

“One or the other,” Kurt insisted. “Trust me. I would know.”

Malcolm tried once more to see the canvas. He lifted his brush to make a mark—just one mark. Any mark at all, and it would be abstract, and he could be done with it. He could unlock the door and apologize to Susan. It could be over. On that one positive mark, he could stop painting forever.

His hand ghosted by the stretched linen.

Not even a mark. Malcolm disparaged the canvas! “What a worthless canvas you are!” he shouted at it! He shouted it in every language he knew. He shouted in Spanish, hearing his father’s accent creep its way onto his tongue. He shouted in French, hoping to claim some of Ruben’s abstractions: to use them. He shouted in broken Italian and even more broken Portuguese, telling his canvas that it was no good, and that it could go straight to hell along with his brush.

But then, Malcolm wasn’t holding a brush, nor was he looking at a canvas. He was holding a syringe—he was looking at his future.

“You’re worthless,” Kurt said. He spoke it in plain English: there was nothing between the lines. “Final chance, Malcolm.”

“Fine then!” Mal screamed, and with every inch of his being he thrust the needle forward! Crying out in sheer torment, he kicked the canvas onto the ground and fell right on top of it, abstractions already racing through his retina.

Mal could give up on his fiancé. His art fucking needed him.


Chapter 7: Focus Blurred

“Oh-hoho, man!” Rice said, jittering into a ball on the couch.

Ruben smiled. “It’s good, isn’t it? First time in TV history that a hero shot an unarmed villain.”

Rice stood up to get another beer. “You know, I’m glad you chose tonight to get depressed and watch reruns, because that was something special.”

Depressed, Ruben thought—and still smiling. It summed things up about right. The phone rang, and he stood up to get it. The next thing he knew, he was bracing himself against a wall, with a faint ringing in his ears.

Hey, Ruben, you alright?”

And then Ruben had to try very, very hard to remember why he had just stood up.

Okay then. I’ll get it.”

Ruben stood in the living room. He knew that much. The carpet under his feet waved like grass. His mind went back there, to grassy fields, where he’d spent countless days with Peggy. Being the only two black kids in a less than liberal county, Ruben and Peggy Craig had spent a lot of their time together.

Didn’t even realize we were black, Ruben thought, standing in Manhattan and looking down over Wisconsin. That was the kicker. Mom had to find a picture of Grandpa Craig just to convince us.

Rice hung up. “That was Susan,” he said. “Malcolm’s in the ER.”

“What?”

“Come on, let’s go. It’s not far from—Ruben!” Rice shouted, and he rushed to pick his friend off of the ground. “Come on buddy, I didn’t think you had that many. Hey, listen: we’re going to go see Malcolm and Susan, alright?”

Rice helped Ruben get his shoes on, while Cash grabbed a coat for the fall weather. The carpet continued to wave under Ruben’s feet. He and Peggy sat beneath an oak tree. Usually they climbed it, but that time, they were sitting underneath it. The oak was a pillar; it was the only thing that stood tall amidst the prevailing grasslands of their hometown. Ruben and Peggy sat with their backs against the bark, and with shoulder touching shoulder. The cars in the distance were black specks against the light of day. Peggy opened her backpack and pulled out their lunch boxes.

The oak was a pillar; as Ruben and Peggy sat in the field, all alone, it was the oak which protected them from the wind. It gave them shade as they ate their sandwiches. When the lunch boxes were empty, the tin containers rested against the tree, just like Ruben and Peggy Craig. They sat against the oak and watched as the black specks on the highway turned into flashes of light in the dark.

Ruben held Peggy’s hand. The oak was a pillar; as they fell asleep underneath it, the oak felt like a reason for the grassy field to exist. It was the focal point, as Ruben’s art teacher would insist on calling it. Peggy would just call it the oak tree.

Outside, Dylan didn’t sing a song about an oak tree. He sang a song about a dragon.

Rice gave Ruben a hearty pat on the shoulder. “Come on,” he said, and he helped Ruben to his feet.

Dylan stood outside of the door, which was to be expected. What wasn’t expected was Terrence, standing side by side with Mercury. Rice noticed the bruise on Terrence’s cheek, and in truth, he didn’t care all that much about how the queer had gotten it.

“I heard something going on over here,” Terrence explained. “I just wanted to see if everything was alright.”

“Pretty far from it,” Ruben said. He stumbled past Terrence, headed for the elevator.

Rice turned him towards the stairs instead. “We really don’t have time to talk, Terrence. A friend of ours is in the emergency room.”

“Oh my god,” Terrence said, raising a hand to cover his mouth. He dashed back to his door, and before the door had finished closing, he was back in the hall with a set of keys. “Let’s go.”

Rice sighed and started walking, doing his very best to shepherd the gaggle of musicians down the hallway. “Thank you Terrence, but really, we’re fine.”

“You’re drunk,” Terrence countered. “I’m driving and I won’t hear it any other way.”

Mercury stood at the end of the hall, blocking the stairs. Rice was tempted to borrow Cash’s guitar and use it as the most literal blunt instrument imaginable, but he didn’t, because Terrence was right—he and Ruben were wasted.

“Okay,” Rice conceded. Mercury stepped out of the way. “But you are going to speed the whole way there. Deal?”

Terrence sped so fast that Rice would later swear all three of them had been drinking. Ruben sat shotgun, and with each screeching turn, he became a little more sober. Eventually he was sober enough to realize that emergency rooms weren’t always for dying people, and this idea felt worse to Ruben. Malcolm was an artist: if he were dying, there would be poetry in it. But emergency rooms weren’t always for dying people. They could be for people who were just plain broken, and if that was the case, then Ruben decided he would sign his name in the hospital’s guestbook—right under Malcolm Sanchez.

Then Ruben giggled to himself. A guestbook in the emergency room. Shut the hell up brain, you’re drunk.

Terrence drifted to a stop in front of the hospital doors.

Actual drifting, too, Rice noticed. “Thanks, Terrence.”

“Call me Terry.”

Rice laughed and shook his head. “I had a girlfriend named Terry. That makes you Terrence, Terrence.”

Ruben and Rice walked into the hospital, flanked on both sides by their musical counterparts. Dylan lit a cigarette, solely because nobody was going to stop him. The four walked by the line of people at the front desk, and Ruben put his hands on the counter. “We’re here to see Mal.”

“Sir, please wait—”

“Malcolm Sanchez!” Ruben insisted, and Rice had to pull him back.

“My friend is exceptionally drunk,” Rice told the petrified receptionist. “And so am I. Could we get a room number for Malcolm Sanchez please?”

The four weren’t given a number, but instead, their very own security escort to the waiting room. Ruben sat still. Rice sat still. Dylan and Cash set down their guitars.

The oak was a pillar. Even after Peggy stopped walking out to the field, the oak had held strong. It still shielded Ruben Craig from the wind.

“Did I tell you that I looked up your question?”

“No, you didn’t,” Rice said. “Which question did you look up, buddy?”

“The one about the ants. The worker ants can live for years. Some queens live as long as horses. But even the workers can get a few years.”

“That’s interesting, Ruben. Thanks for sharing.”

And at that time, Terrence walked in. He sat down right beside Rice and let out a heavy breath. “Sorry I took so long. When I got in here, they had no problem pointing me to you two. But parking was such a bitch—”

“Hey!” Rice shouted, standing out of his chair and backing away from Terrence. “There are kids here! Watch your language, come on.”

Terrence stared blank up at Rice. “I didn’t realize—”

“There’s a lot you don’t realize, Terrence.”

Ruben sighed. “Take it easy. He was nice enough to give us a ride.”

“Oh, and why do you think that might be?” Rice asked, looking Terrence dead in the eyes. Not Terry. It had to be Terrence.

The look Terrence gave back was a lot of things. It was emotional, first and foremost. To tell which emotions they were though, Rice wasn’t qualified to say. Terrence’s eyes were trying to hold a lot back, and the worst part was that as fruitless as the effort appeared, his eyes were actually quite successful; Terrence hid his iceberg of hurt like a champ. Mercury glared.

“Christ Rice, I want to know you,” Terrence said, standing up. Rice was surprised to find that, face to face, Terrence was just a fraction of an inch taller than him. And from that immeasurably advantaged position, Terrence repeated himself. “I want to know you. And Ruben. And all of the other people who I see in passing every single day of my life. But that doesn’t mean I want to fuck you Rice. Pardon my French.”

As Terrence walked away, Dylan’s poorly stifled laughter was the only sound in the waiting room.

“A focal point,” Mr. Knight had said, “is the center of a piece. It is, at any given moment, what the eye is most drawn to.”

Susan entered.

“He’s fine,” she told them. “And if he doesn’t go to rehab, then I’m leaving him tomorrow.”

End of Day One


Chapter 8: Incognito

Mercury urged Terry away from the door. He pushed, he pleaded, he shoved, and he begged, but it was fruitless—the man wouldn’t budge.

Terry wore a long sleeved shirt and full length pants. His hair, normally spiked, lay flat. He had wanted to wear makeup. Given his skillset, covering the bruise on his face would have been child’s play. But no—at this moment, Terry had to be up front about every little detail. He’d come to Rice’s door with nothing but good intentions, after all. He hadn’t come to demand an apology, nor did he seek revenge. He only wanted to put the past where it belonged. He wanted to clear the air on floor five.

The door swung open, and Terry said it in terms as plain as could be: “I’d like to get lunch with you, Rice.”

Rice looked how he always did: like a cowboy. Even without the spurs. Even without the bandana. Even without a length of rope or a patch of leather, Rice always looked like he had just walked off the set of a western. And with his cowboy glare, Rice pierced through Terry. The ocular trick shot went straight past Terry’s eyes and landed in his temporal lobe, where Rice planted the word without saying so much as a syllable:

No.

And with that, Rice shut the door.

—Which Terry held open. Mercury just about murdered him. Rice stood there with a certain stiffness in his posture; it was easy to forget that, in spite of Terry’s flamboyance, he was actually quite strong. Quite a bit stronger than Rice, as it turned out.

“It’s not a date,” Terry insisted, shoulder forced against the door. “I promise: I just want to clear the air.”

Rice was out of trick shots, so Cash stepped forward in his place. “He’ll be out in two minutes.”

And the door swung closed.

Terry breathed in, and out. Things slowed back down. Time to recoup, and get ready for round two.

“You have to admit,” Terry said, “that could have gone worse.”

Mercury didn’t humor him. “You’re in a very delicate ballet, darling, and your partner hasn’t even rehearsed.”

Terry picked a piece of lint from his shirt, and flicked it to the ground.

“Forgive me then, Mercury; let’s see how long we can keep up the dance.”

The door opened.

“Okay,” Rice said. He wore a denim jacket, a pair of sunglasses, and an honest to god cowboy hat. “Let’s go.”

It’s a disguise, Terry realized.

“So is yours,” Mercury hissed.

And they were both right. The reason for Rice’s disguise was very straightforward: he didn’t want to be recognized. Not with Terry, he didn’t. Terry’s disguise, on the other hand, was a bit more involved. No trace of pink could be found on his person that day, and he wore the highest cut shirt that he owned. Even his slight lisp had, mysteriously enough, disappeared. For the sake of Rice’s comfort, Terry had disguised himself flawlessly.

They headed off for the diner down the street, and as they did, Terry was acutely aware of the space between himself and Rice. Was it too far apart? Or was it normal? What was normal for a situation such as this one? Some part of Terry wished that he didn’t notice these things, but the truth of the matter was that it was these attentions to detail which made him a master of his craft. It’s what all the critics had been saying, as of late: every detail was spot on. Terrence Young was flawless.

Terry shook the thoughts out of his head as he entered the diner behind Rice. The two and their musicians were seated, and the waitress gave them time to think over their orders.

“So,” Rice said. Even after stepping inside, he hadn’t removed his hat, or his shades. “You wanted to clear the air. Let’s clear the air.”

“You know I’m queer,” Terry said.

Rice gave a nod. “I noticed.”

“Name one other thing about me.”

And at that, Rice faltered. “Come again?”

Terry internalized his smile, and leaned back on his side of the booth. “You heard me. Besides the fact that I’m queer, I want you to name one other thing about who I am. My career. My interests. My last name. Anything at all.”

Terry wished he could watch Rice’s face, but alas, the shades. All Terry could see was the cowboy’s frown getting deeper. The eyes would have said everything; they would have told whether Rice was frustrated, or uncaring, or perhaps, in some small way, regretful. But all Terry could see was the frown.

“You got me,” Rice said. And then he cracked a smile.

Terry couldn’t stop himself from smiling back. The frown had been negative—lots of things were negative. But the smile! The smile meant that Rice, on some level of his being, didn’t despise Terry’s presence.

Rice folded his hands on the table. “Tell me about yourself, Terrence.”

“I’m a performer,” Terry said. It was the first thing that had popped into his head. “Dance, mostly, but I’ve studied theatre as well. Performance is my art form. It’s my passion.”

“Is that right?” Rice said, leaning forward. He took off his shades, and used them to point at Terrence. “That would explain it. Every few weeks, you look like a different person. Not completely, but just enough that it throws me off. Method actor?”

“That’s… absolutely correct,” Terry said, letting his smile go free. “How could you tell?”

“I’m a composer,” Rice answered. “It’s not required that I know about theater and film and all of that, but it helps.”

Terry slapped the table. “Henderson. You must be Rice Henderson. You’ve written the score for every western performed in this city!”

“You say that like there are lots of them,” Rice said, setting his cowboy hat on the table. “I also do noir, samurai cinema, punk—even avant-garde productions if the idea doesn’t make me sleepy. I do like westerns though, so you got me there.”

“I’m sorry Rice, I could have sworn you said punk.”

Rice looked down at his fingers. He moved them through the air, as though he were holding down chords on a phantom guitar. “It’s a long story,” he said. “And I’m over it. That said, I still have a soft spot for disobedient three-chord bands.”

Terry and Rice had lunch. They discussed their respective crafts, and by the time the bill came, the last garment of Rice’s disguise had been shed; his denim jacket sat folded up beside him. The two returned to their apartments, and their musicians followed. It took Rice some time to realize what had happened. He sat on the edge of his bed, thinking about it, trying to find the piece that seemed off.

And then it struck him.

You had a good time, Rice thought. You honest to god, whole-heartedly enjoyed spending time with Terrence.

Rice no longer said curse words. So instead, he punched a hole clean through Cash’s guitar.


Chapter 9: Dirty Deeds

“Aaand one gram of iocane-cocaine brings your total to zero dollars and zero cents. Anything else I can get for you?”

Cristy smiled. “That should be all. Thank you.”

“No Miss, thank you. Duke Cane is a crook. Good riddance to the scum.”

Michael and Christy left the dealer’s townhouse, and headed for The Den.

“You’re unbeatable Cristy,” Michael reassured her. “You’ll knock Duke Cane dead.”


Chapter 10: Composition

Rice was alone in his room, and his solitude was total; Cash had been banished to Dylan’s usual spot outside the door, and incidentally, Dylan was nowhere to be found that day. Which was fine. Rice had things to work out, and having other people around wasn’t helping.

He stood in front of his whiteboard. Black bars were printed across it in rows of five, because most often, he used the board to lay out his compositions. But not that day. He could have written symphonies that day, and every one of them would be nothing more than an excuse to put off what was really on his mind.

He wrote a name at the top, above the black bars: he wrote a title.

Terrence.

But what was the body of the work? What was Terrence?

A performer, Rice remembered, and he added that amidst the black bars. Terrence Young, a dancer and a method actor.

He wove the concepts through the black bars, navigating the white space, coating the board in solid black ideas. But those didn’t cover it. They didn’t cover the half of it! Rice slammed down his marker and picked up another one: a pink one. It had come with the pack of six colors, and naturally, it was the one which Rice had used the least. But quite suddenly, he was glad that he hadn’t thrown it out.

Gay, Rice thought, and found a way to express it on the board. Queer, flaming, unashamed homosexual.

But the composition wasn’t complete. Terrence wasn’t complete. Rice cast aside the pink marker and picked up another. He had been right: the black marks on a white background weren’t enough by a long shot. There needed to be grey areas. There needed to be color. There needed to be lines and dots and dashes of every size and shape weaving around each other, just as a dancer weaved through the air, just as an actor danced through their lines. There needed to be all of this. The complete picture was essential. It was mandatory.

Rice set down his last marker and stepped back.

His hands rested on his hips, and his mouth hung open. “Huh.”

He called a pastor. After sketching out the complete framework for a human soul, it seemed like the natural thing to do. There were still gaps in it—things Rice didn’t know, and therefore, couldn’t add to the whiteboard. But on the whiteboard was Terrence. Rice stared at it the entire time he was on the phone.

“No Pastor, it’s not that,” Rice tried to explain. “I like women. I like the idea of having a family someday, even if I have been putting that off for a few too many years. I like God, Pastor.”

The pastor was silent for a moment. The pastor was often silent for a moment. If Rice didn’t know better, he would swear that it was deliberate.

“I believe you, Rice,” the pastor finally spoke. “You’re in church every Sunday, always near the front, always listening closely. Listen closely now: ‘These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.’ John 15:12. Have a nice day Rice. God be with you.”

“And also with you. Thank you, Pastor.”

Rice didn’t set down the phone. He wouldn’t have guessed it even a minute earlier, but as it turned out, he had another call to make. The number wasn’t too difficult to find; he was calling a punk legend, after all.

Ringing. A very, deliberate, silence.

“You’ve got Yote.”

“Hey man. It’s been too long.”

“Rice? Shit dude, what have you been up to? Normally I wouldn’t answer an unknown number, but it said New York, and I just had this crazy feeling. Have you talked to Joey lately?”

Rice stared at the whiteboard. It’s like he doesn’t even remember.

“Hello? This is Rice, right?”

“Yeah Yote, it’s me. And listen, I owe you an apology, and it’s long overdue.”

“What?” Yote said, and he even managed to laugh, as though he actually had forgotten. “I’m going to be playing in New York in two days. We should get together.”

“Of course, yes, but Yote,” Rice said. “I’m sorry that I never accepted you. All of you. You know, the gay thing.”

Silence had a way of attacking at the worst possible moments, and Rice would be struck dead if he was going to let it linger for a third time.

“Are you still there?” he asked.

“Yeah dude,” Yote answered. “And whatever crisis you’re going through, we’ll talk about it when the band and I get to Manhattan. But that’s not for two days, so let me spoil it for you now: you have zero things to apologize for. Maybe it was different from your point of view, but as far as I was concerned, you and everyone else in the punk scene were pretty damn accepting for a bunch of anarchists.”

Rice sighed. “Thanks Yote.”

“No problemo, Fuckwit. Talk to you soon.”

Rice laughed so hard that he was worried he might sprain something. He went down to his hands and knees, too lightheaded to stand, trying to find a position where he could force air into his contracted lungs.

Fuckwit had meant something different back then. But Rice no longer used those kinds of words, and so, he decided that he would have to take Yote’s word for it; maybe no apology was needed after all.

Well, okay: maybe one apology was needed.

He walked out and went to get Cash. Without a word spoken between the two of them, Cash already seemed to know. He followed Rice to the next door down the hall, and together, the two of them waited in silence.

The door opened.

“Hey Rice. Something on your mind?”

“Terry,” Rice said, and that was answer enough. “Ruben is out buying an irresponsible amount of fireworks. Want to come set them off with us?”


Chapter 11: Fever

“So this is illegal, right?”

“Oh, very,” Rice answered, triple-checking the fuse.

Terry nodded. “Just checking.”

One long fuse had been rigged up to the irresponsible amount of fireworks. They sat at the edge of the apartment’s rooftop, and were pointed out over the street.

Ruben also stood on the edge, and in this scene, that was what mattered. lightning bugs filled his head. They swarmed all around him, in his ears, in his eyes, in his mouth, in his nose, until all he could see and hear and feel were flashes of light. They numbed him. They made his feet feel like they were floating in tingling clouds. The bugs went deeper, burrowing into his fingertips, swarming down his lungs, and at first they choked him, until they became the air itself and the world expanded into a massive floating sea of flashing insects. It was at this time that Ruben opened his eyes. Because while standing on the edge of the rooftop, Ruben had fainted. And as the lightning bugs stopped glowing one by one, Ruben looked up to recognize the face of Bob Dylan. Ruben felt cold. Tiny pebbles dug into the back of his head.

He had fallen backwards. He was still on the rooftop. Still alive. But all too easily, the lightning bugs could have carried Ruben away.

He tried to stand up, but Dylan kept him pinned. “You need help Ruben,” the folk singer said. “See a shrink.”

Ruben sat up. The lightning bugs still rang in his ears. He could still feel them in his fingertips.

“You okay buddy?” Rice asked.

“Ruben, I said are you alright?”

Ruben stood up and shuffled to the roof access door. He walked back to his apartment. He locked the door. He bolted it. He dragged the couch over from the living room and barricaded himself inside. Lucid, he went into the bathroom and locked that door too. He turned on the shower to block out the sounds. He sat under the showerhead, clothes and all, to block out the tingling lightning bugs.

Oui.

Non.

Quelle heure est-il?

Je vis dans la prairie. Très bon.

The Music


Chapter 12: Honey

Peggy Craig was sitting on a park bench in Wisconsin, watching Patrick roughhouse with his best friend Sam, when she got a call from Manhattan. She didn’t want to answer it. Ruben was ever the artist: drama followed him like cattle. But as a former artist, she knew that her opinions meant the word to him. God only knew what opinions he was collecting in the city.

She answered him. “Hi Ruben. How are you?”

“Good, good. How’s my favorite sister?”

“You mean your only sister?”

“Yeah, that one,” Ruben said, and Peggy smiled.

She’d heard that joke every time she and Ruben had spoken lately. It still wasn’t funny. Peggy just smiled because she got a kick out of how funny Ruben believed himself to be: how much he willed himself to be. He could be a salesman, if Andy Warhol were the one painting the labels.

“Well things at home are just fine,” Peggy said. “I’m at the park with Pat and Sam.”

“How are they?”

“They’re great,” Peggy said. She took a deep breath in. A slow breath. The kind that Ruben needed to learn how to appreciate. But it was okay; deep breath out; she would walk him through it, just one more time.

“What’s on your mind, Ruben?”

“Katie left me,” he said. “And Susan’s going to leave Malcolm. And I must be going crazy, because I think Rice has a boyfriend.”

Peggy snorted. “Rice the Cowboy?”

“Rice the Cowboy.”

Peggy laughed again. “Well I’m sorry to hear about Katie, and it’s a shame that Susan and Malcolm aren’t working out. But if you think Rice the Cowboy is anything but a by-the-bible heterosexual man among men, then you really are crazy Ruben.”

“Well, that’s the part I called to talk about.” He went quiet. She heard him calculating his words like they were numbers: numbers he would have to dial in the right order to get a response. He wasn’t wrong. “You know I’ll get over Katie,” he said. “If Rice has been hiding in the closet, God bless him, I’ll get all the free manicures I’ve ever hoped and dreamed of. Susan will find a new husband. Mal knows how to get over Susan with drugs, and they might kill him, and that’s how he wanted to die anyways. But I think I’m losing it Peggy. I think I’m honestly losing my mind.”

Peggy watched Patrick and Sam closely. Pat had climbed a tree, and with some help, Sam had followed him. The whole time Peggy talked to Ruben, Pat and Sam had been sitting on the same branch of the oak. She pretended not to see them holding hands.

“Peggy? Are you there, or am I just talking to myself?”

“Come visit, honey. The city is no good for you.”

In Manhattan, Ruben smiled. His cardboard box sat on the work desk, and he held a picture from it. A picture of an oak tree. Ruben ran a hand through his dark, curly hair. “Honey,” he repeated. “I haven’t heard that one from you in a long time, Peggy Craig.”


Chapter 13: Hell

“Where are we?” Cristy demanded, and it wasn’t demanded from a position of power. She was bound in handcuffs, and being walked along with a veil over her head. She was in the capture of Duke Cane, who for the last week, had proven to be unkillable.

Duke Cane answered her question. “Underground.”

Cristy could have guessed that.

Duke Cane felt her disdain, and changed his answer. “Hell.”

Cristy could have guessed that too.

They stopped walking.

“I want to say more,” Duke Cane admitted there. “But I’m bad with my words. You were special, Cristy.”

Duke Cane unsheathed his claymore of a knife. Grey metal shot through Michael Jackson. Cristy only flinched, and then it was over.

Duke Cane withdrew his knife from her chest. He wiped the blade clean. He looked at her for a while.


Chapter 14: Highwaymen

“Thanks, man.”

“Any time dude.”

The cowboys had just left the restaurant. It was cold outside, so they didn’t stand on the street for long. But they did stand long enough for Yote to ask Rice an important question: “Are you happy with the way things turned out?”

Rice considered it. Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits had been a long time ago. He was reformed. He was a good Christian, with good work as a good composer, and plenty of good friends.

“Yeah, what am I sayin’, you’re just fine,” Yote said. “Still, after that whole thing with Nick… Flashpoint Zero could use another guitarist. Just say the word.”

Yote walked one way with Willie Nelson. Rice walked the other with Johnny Cash. On the way back to his apartment, Rice entertained the idea of joining a punk band again. It would be different than the last time. Better. He could avoid making the same mistakes; he would know the warning signs, and he could be the one to draw the line when things went too far.

But there was the problem: punk always took it too far. Rice decided he’d rather not be involved.

…Yet he paused as Yote walked away, waiting for moral guidance.

Cash didn’t weigh in.

So, right, then. Rice decided he’d rather not be involved.


Chapter 15: Susan’s Invitation

“Well, we’ll see.” Ruben hung up the phone as Rice entered their apartment. And when he did enter, he paused. Boots cemented to the floor, Rice pointed at Bob Dylan, who was standing very much inside the apartment.

Ruben shrugged. “He’s growing on me.”

Rice began to take his boots off at the door, also in the mood for firsts. “So who was on the phone?” he asked.

“Susan.”

“And?”

More than ever, Ruben wished they were allowed to smoke inside the apartment. “She wants us to go to Cascade.”

“Ha!”

“Yeah, but this time she meant it,” Ruben said. “It’s part of Malcolm’s rehab. He has to have a good time without drugs. So they’re going to Cascade.”

Rice set his boots by the door. He looked at Ruben. The man’s clothes were wrinkled; his hair untrimmed; his face unshaven. And on any other day, Ruben would rock the ragamuffin aesthetic. But something had changed about the graffiti artist. Deep purple rings hung under his eyes.

Rice didn’t like what he wanted to say. To his roommate. To his buddy. But he was trying to be a better person, and sometimes, good people needed to be honest.

“Ruben. Buddy. I think you need to have a good time too.”

Ruben crossed his arms, and consulted Dylan. “What do you think? Is he right?”


Chapter 16: Ring Finger

Five artists approached Cascade on foot. Malcolm was wearing a tuxedo, as per his fiancé’s advice. It fit him exactly.

“You look sharp,” had been Susan’s comment. Like a knife had been Ruben’s. Because Ruben knew things about Malcolm. Better yet, he knew things about Mal. Malcolm was clean. Mal was an addict. When Malcolm painted, he was a realist, and he scorned himself for that. That was why Mal existed. Mal was high. Mal was extreme. Mal’s mind was on another level. When Mal painted, he was abstract and in love with himself. Ruben didn’t go to Cascade to have a good time: he had called Rice a faggot for even suggesting it. Ruben went to Cascade because he knew Mal would be there, and for Susan’s sake, Mal had to be assassinated that night.

Susan itched for a cigarette, but on account of Malcolm’s rehab, she had agreed to quit. She hated him for that.

Terry walked beside Susan, talking fashion. It had been Rice’s idea to invite Terry, and the performer had jumped on the opportunity. Between rehearsals and work outs, he hadn’t been out in too long. Plus, it was an opportunity to get to know Ruben. He really did want to know all of them. Rice had proven to be a friend, against all odds.

Double file, the five artists entered Cascade, and The Music fell over them. Lady Gaga and Kurt Cobain led the way to the dance floor, and were followed by Johnny Cash and Freddie Mercury. Bob Dylan split from the pack and posted up at the bar. He told himself he was there to stand guard: to stop Kurt from setting foot near a slippery slope. To pass the time, he ordered himself a drink.

Kurt and Gaga found themselves at the center of the dance floor. They circled each other. Gaga’s eyes flashed over Kurt, scanning for a fault in his appearance. To both of their dismay, Kurt was dressed like a gentleman. He went through the motions she did, but The Music didn’t have him under any trance; he had built up a tolerance. Few things could get him to feel alive anymore, and slowly but surely—oh-so-very surely—Gaga herself was fading from that list.

Cash and Mercury found a corner to dance in, though their versions of dancing were distinctly not the same. Cash stomped his feet, while Mercury glided on his. Cash clapped on every fourth drum hit, and nodded his head on every second. Mercury turned with the trancing rhythms, with the beat serving only as a framework. All in all, they were both impressed with how quickly the other had dissected the song. Cash decided there really was nothing too worth hating Mercury about. Mercury decided that by the end of the night, he would dance with Cash.

Already, Dylan had downed several drinks. And, noticing that the man beside him was wearing a zebra-print suit, he felt it was only appropriate to comment. “Hey brother, the Serengeti is that way.” Dylan smiled as he ordered another drink. He had forgotten that he was only black in Wisconsin.

The lights went ballistic and the dance floor followed. Gaga moved furiously, hitting a new move at every flash of the strobes. With no mind of his own, Kurt followed her example; every pose she hit, Kurt would strike it in the next flash of light. There was nothing abstract about it. Every new movement felt fake. But Kurt kept up, because he couldn’t help it; he was compelled by Gaga. He had to follow her every pose.

Mercury moved closer to Cash. He danced right beside the man, until—on occasion—they brushed against each other. Mercury meant nothing by it. He wanted to kiss Cash no more than he wanted to kiss Gaga. But he was fascinated by Cash all the same, and he wanted to see what the cowboy was capable of. So he moved closer yet again, until the cowboy did something distinctly new: he took Mercury’s hand. He took it and swung the dancer all around, waltzing it seemed, and that was just perfect for Mercury, because as long as it was any dance—any real dance, with rules and form—Mercury could keep up. He and Cash flew around each other, two bodies in orbit, and neither was quite sure how the other had become so locked in their pull.

Kurt no longer followed Gaga: he challenged her. He beat her to the punches. He dared her to keep up with him. And she moved just as reckless, the two of them blurs even in the strobe lights. Fucker, Kurt glared. I changed my goddamn mind. You’re not taking everything away from me.

Gaga felt the same. She moved towards him, hurling her body at him in a way that was violent. Had she a weapon, Kurt would be killed.

At the bar, Ruben noticed more and more people glaring at him. Mostly people of color. Real people of color. He avoided eye contact and ordered another drink.

Cash had spent his breath. Mercury, with a devious smile, pulled him off of the dance floor and through a side exit: one that led directly to an alley, cool and quiet. The two walked farther down the dark pathway. Rice’s head was still spinning from the dancing, and Terry was simply enjoying himself too much to worry.

“Do you think I love you?” Terry asked.

“Not really,” Rice told him, and then he pulled the queer closer.

As Rice and Terry kissed, their musicians faced one another. Cash reached out for a handshake.

“Freddie Mercury,” the highwayman said, “I admire your work.”

Mercury blushed profusely, and returned the handshake with a sweaty palm.

Terry pulled away from Rice. “What in the hell was that, cowboy?”

“An apology,” Rice said. “I got lost in life a long time ago. And I’ve been trying to find my bearings. Thanks for helping set me straight.”

Inside, Kurt and Gaga couldn’t be separated by a laser-guided buzz saw. They swung in tandem parallels, perfect mirrors. People cleared the floor around them, cheering on the unprecedented performance they were witnessing. Then The Music stopped, and the artists fell to pieces.

“I love you.”    “I love you.”

Kurt and Gaga left the dance floor. They took a taxi home, and they held each other for a long time.

Dylan was dragged away from the bar, and out into a cool, quiet alley. Rice and Terry heard a scream that made their blood run with ice. Rice’s blood ran just a little bit colder.

Years earlier, Rice and Ruben had met on the road. Rice was heading for the east coast, and Ruben was leaving Wisconsin. On one particular night, the two happened to stop into the same bar. It didn’t take long for the artists to recognize each other as such. They hit it off immediately. Ruben had nowhere special to be, and by the next morning, it had been decided that the two would be travelling to Manhattan together.

The next night at the next bar, Ruben felt cocky. He borrowed Rice’s knife, and with the attention of all staff and patrons, he spread his hand out over the counter. He called it pinfinger. Others said five finger fillet. Regardless of the details, Ruben was a well-practiced champion. He could play by any rules. To demonstrate, he stabbed the spaces around his fingers from thumb to pinkie and back again, repeating a few times, picking up speed. Then, when everyone had no choice but to acknowledge the crazy motherfucker with the knife, he asked them for challenges. Someone called out Australian, and so he stabbed thumb-pointer-thumb-middle-thumb-ring and so on. Someone said English, and so he did the same thing in reverse. From the back Ruben heard Lower Slobbovian, and so he smiled as he jumped the knife between his fingers at complete random. Rice said Taiwanese, and Ruben took a tenth of a second to recall how they played it in Taiwan. In that tenth of a second, Ruben’s ring finger was severed and the bar was stained red.

Rice’s blood had run cold when he heard Ruben scream—really scream—for the first time. And in the dark alley outside Cascade, Rice knew whose scream he was hearing again; his buddy was in deep shit.

“Where the hell are you going?” Terry demanded.

The cowboy didn’t answer. He didn’t stop sprinting. Not for a goddamn second. He had to stop the screaming.

Two men pinned Ruben against a brick wall. Duke Cane stood before him in a zebra-print suit, dragging his claymore of a knife down Ruben’s torso, over, and over. Ruben’s shrieks haunted the island of Manhattan.

Duke Cane was making his first cut into Ruben’s face when the cowboy arrived.

Rice saw white.

When he came to, Duke Cane was dead on the ground. Ruben sat against a brick wall screaming, his blood mixing in the alley with the pimp’s. Rice’s knife dripped nigger blood. And the muzzle of Terry’s pistol was smoking.


Chapter 17: Prescription Pills

Dr. Wu braced himself for his next appointment. Patience was critical, and he had tried. God help him, he had tried to be patient with this man. But his 3:15 client was testing him.

On their first session, Dr. Wu had beheld a man with a face that was scarred to shit, and chest wounds that made it hard for the man to breathe. But the man did something incredible; he tried to downplay the fact that he had been mutilated. He joked about it. All well and good: humor was a coping mechanism that Dr. Wu approved of wholeheartedly.  But the man didn’t need a therapist because of his injuries, no. The man needed a therapist because he was deranged. Honest to god, the man thought he saw musicians.

Ruben Craig entered Dr. Wu’s office.

“Hello, Ruben.”

“Hey Doc,” Ruben said. He shook the doctor’s hand, and took a seat on the couch. “What fun activities do you have in store for me today?”

Dr. Wu sat down in a chair beside the couch, holding a pen and notepad. The arrangement was cheesy, and Ruben had been sure to point it out during their first session. But when asked if he would prefer something different, Ruben said it was all fine. Wu clicked his pen. “I’d like to talk to you about your new medication.”

“Hit me,” Ruben said, and he laid back on the couch.

“Have you been seeing anything unusual since you started taking it?”

“Nothing new, Doc.”

“Headaches? Nausea?”

“Already had both from the pain killers.”

Dr. Wu made a note of it. “And these visions of musicians. Do you still see them?”

“Always. And if I can’t see them, I hear them.”

“You described Bob Dylan as your personal musician. Is he here right now?”

Ruben laughed, and looked… well, he looked all around the room, and it was plain to see that he and the doctor were very much alone between the four white walls. Ruben laid back down on the couch. “I can’t see him right now, Doc. Maybe he stayed home today. But he is around.”

Dr. Wu jotted another note with vigor. “Tell me Ruben, these musicians: what do they do?”

Ruben reflected on it.

“Do they tell you to do things?” Wu pressed.

Ruben laughed. “Not a chance in Hell, Doc. They know better than that.”

“Do they ever do things on their own, then? Can they move objects without your help?”

“Sure, all the time.”

“But they aren’t real, Ruben.”

“Well, I suspect they’re deeply metaphysical.”

Dr. Wu suppressed his disapproval. He had dealt with patients who were far more gone. What made this man a simple case was exactly what made him so infuriating: he acted fine. In every measurable way, Mr. Craig should have been in and out of therapy faster than Dr. Wu could write a prescription. But there was something psychotic lodged in the man’s mind, and by God (or any other means necessary), Dr. Wu would pull it out.

“Dr. Wu?”

“Yes Ruben?”

“Am I crazy? And be honest, because if I am, there are some people I need to keep myself away from.”

Dr. Wu leaned back in his chair, and chuckled. “You’re not a danger, Ruben. You’re hurt, and you’re coping with it in an unusual way. But you’re not going to cause harm to anyone at all. Let’s keep your medication at the same level for now. It seems to be working.”

Ruben nodded. “Okay, Dr. Wu. Thank you.”

Wu put the notepad aside. “Tell me Ruben, is there anything else on your mind?”

Ruben thought about Katie, but he didn’t mean it. Reflexively, he knew he should still be missing her. But he didn’t. He barely remembered why he cared about her to begin with.

The Music


Chapter 18: Terry the Killer

Terry sank into the bed, his breath hot after fucking his first casual hookup in months.

“You’re good,” the man said. Terry had forgotten his name. It might have started with an H, or a T. “You’re like, really, really good. How often do you do this? Just hook up with a random guy?”

Terry stared up at the ceiling.

“Come on, it can’t be your first time, stud,” H.T. pressed. “Tell me about it. Tell me a story about one of your crazy hookups.”

Terry crossed his arms, and exhaled through his nose. “I killed someone,” he said. H.T. laughed, but he wasn’t as good of an actor as Terrence Young. So Terry continued, thinking out loud about the facts: “Fifteen… no, sixteen days ago. I killed a pimp. He had killed my friend Cristy. And he was in the middle of killing my friend Ruben when I shot him. Right where the brain meets the spinal cord. The police said it was the cleanest kill they’d ever seen. It wasn’t in the news for very long, but you can look it up if you don’t believe me.”

H.T. got out from under the sheets. He bent down to pick up his clothes, but he never took his eyes off of the killer—could he be a killer?—in his bed. H.T. opened his mouth to say something more, and it didn’t upset Terry when he came up blank. The man left, and Terry continued to stare up at the ceiling. It was a popcorn ceiling.

Killer.

Flawless Killer.

When Terry took the shot, he hadn’t known that his target was Cristy’s ex-pimp. He hadn’t even known that Cristy was dead. So why did that justify it so perfectly? Why did Terrence Young feel like the same person he had been beforehand?

H.T. reentered the room, armed with pepper spray. “Get the fuck out of my room you motherfucker. Now!”

Flawless Killer.

As Terry dressed, he made up his mind that it was the adjective that mattered: Flawless. Over the course of a lifetime, people acted out all sorts of nouns. Terry alone had been a student, a queer, a dancer, and during some particularly dark times that he no longer cared to speak of, he had been a fry cook. But no matter what nouns people became, they always tended to follow the same adjectives. And Terrence Young was flawless.


Chapter 19: On Black Coffee and Winter

Ruben sat in the café, with his cup of black coffee sitting at the corner of the table. He hadn’t touched it. He was busy ending his career: Issue 13 of Chemosynthetic would be the last thing that No Filler, No Filter Studios ever put out. There was no point in continuing. There was no point in pretending that Kurt and Dylan weren’t dead.

Ruben’s chest heaved. If he breathed in too much, his wounds would split open, and he would die. If he kept taking shallow breaths, his head would fill with lightning bugs, and he would die. He tried not to think about it too much. If he thought about it too much, his headache would worsen, and that would kill him too.

Before he had ever met Malcolm Sanchez, Ruben had released the first few issues of Chemosynthetic in black and white. To end the series in black and white was only fitting. When Ruben was finished with the last line of the last panel, he would hand the issue to the publisher personally.

Ruben didn’t like black coffee. In all the time he’d been coming to the café, Ruben had never had a sip. He liked the way black coffee smelled. He liked the ruggedness of it. In comic books and old TV shows, Ruben liked any character who took their coffee black as tar. From a distance, black coffee was hands-down Ruben’s favorite. But Fuck. He could never drink it. It made him choke.

In Central Park, Susan sat on a bench. There, the world rushed around her. Women chatted as they passed by, and their children flocked around them. The trees were dead. Winter had come.

Which was great for business: winter clothes would be in high demand. Susan had already laid out the patterns. Her clients loved them. The debut would be a smashing hit.

Susan listened to the two men on the bench beside her.

“She’s makin’ me go vegetarian. Can you believe that? The one thing she said she could never make me do, and now she’s doin’ it.”

“So what, you just gonna never eat meat again?”

“Of course I’m gonna eat meat again, retard. But when she’s around, what else can I do? She’s my wife. I gotta listen to what she says.”

Susan snapped away from the conversation when she heard Ruben scream. She stood up to help him, but by the time she was off of the bench, the child’s mother had already knelt at the boy’s side to look at his scraped knee. Susan stood, watching, as the mother helped the child up. The mother asked if the boy was okay, and the boy said he was, and she hugged him before they continued walking. Dry leaves rattled at Susan’s feet. They were cold and dead and ugly, and that was the last straw: Susan was never seen in New York again.


Chapter 20: Former Artists

“Hey Ruben.”

“Hey.”

“Things are pretty fuckin’ weird right now, huh?”

“Yeah Malcolm. They are.”

“Let’s tag something. Right now. I’m feeling it.”

That was the phone call that put Ruben Craig and Malcolm Sanchez on the streets in the dead of night. Their backpacks were heavy, and they jingled from all the cans of spray paint held inside. Malcolm had a winter face mask on, designed by Susan Byrd herself. The frost of his breath poured through the mask like a dragon’s fire. Ruben wore a scarf. He couldn’t take deep enough breaths for them to be seen in the cold.

They agreed on a building without speaking; they gravitated towards the Radio City Music Hall like moths. They scaled the marquee, and there, the two artists—soon to be former artists—looked over their canvas.

“So this is it,” Malcolm said. “The end.”

Ruben nodded.

They each set down their backpacks and got to work. They made the air thick with chemicals. Malcolm’s dragon breath swirled with the intoxicating fumes, and for one last time, he could see the abstractions. He shifted from can to can, pinpointing the exact colors he needed to make his final work something unreal. Ruben used two cans at a time, just so he could keep ahead of Mal in laying down the framework. The graffiti artist in Ruben had a final hour to be proud of.

The final can clanged to their feet, and the former artists shook hands. Neither could see it, under the other’s winter clothes, but they were both smiling like children. Mal went to buy Susan flowers. She deserved it. Ruben stayed at Radio City Music Hall for just a little longer, staring up at his final piece of art. It was grand. It would be noticed. And best of all, it mattered. Ruben made a choice, then. He decided that he wouldn’t kill himself that winter after all. From the front wall of Radio City Music Hall, a young Bob Dylan smiled back at Ruben in approval.


Chapter 21: Grey Figures

Malcolm walked into the apartment, carrying a paper bag filled with groceries. There were vegetables in there. Fresh vegetables. Things he had to search for in the grocery store, instead of going down his usual route through the frozen section. Malcolm set the bag down, to take his shoes off at the door. They were dress shoes, and they slid right off. He made sure they were placed neatly side by side, and then he picked the bag of groceries back up, and brought it to the kitchen. There, he unpacked items from the bag, one by one, putting them on their respective shelves. When he was finished, he folded the bag flat, and placed it in the trash.

There were flowers on the kitchen counter. He moved them around a bit in the vase, arranging them to face the front door. Then he took out his phone, and added another bouquet to his shopping list for the next time he was out. They were difficult to bring back in the winter, but he needed them. He also made a note to take out the trash later. It was only half full, but it was starting to smell.

Malcolm walked to his studio. When he arrived, he took the apron from the rack beside the door, and fixed it over his black sweatshirt. He had always felt comfortable in the sweatshirts Susan designed. He had three left, and he wasn't going to get paint on another one.

He approached the massive canvas he had set up: seven feet tall, and fifteen feet across. It barely fit in the room, and he wasn't sure how he was going to get it out when he was finished with it. It was a mural. It was a work in progress, as well, but there was progress. Five grey figures stood in a line. Originally those figures had been the outlines, but the more Malcolm worked on the piece, the more he liked leaving them grey. At the center stood Ruben Craig: ringleader of this merry band. He held a mug of black coffee in his hand. Or maybe it was a mug of whiskey. Or maybe it was painkillers. At the moment, there was just a cylinder, filled with something hard and grey.

On the left side of the canvas stood Susan Byrd in profile, face to face with Malcolm Sanchez. They danced like they were in color.

Off to the right of the canvas were the others who had been there that night: Rice Henderson and Terrence Young. Malcolm didn't know them very well. He wasn't sure what to have them doing yet, but he liked to have them there, because they were an important part of the story. They were a part of why she was gone.

Malcolm tried not to think about that as he put on another layer of grey. He used to be able to paint without drugs. That was the old normal. And he had liked it when that was normal. He could find it again. He could search for it.


Chapter 22: Bossa Nova

Malcolm hung his latest painting above the couch in the living room. Everything was still clean, for when she came back. But another month had passed.

For the first time, all of the paintings hung throughout the apartment were Malcolm’s original work. Some were abstract, and some weren’t, but they had all been parts of a journey. He felt better. Better than when he had been using, in fact. The painting he’d just hung above the couch was one of himself: a photo-realistic Latino man who cleaned up well.

Malcolm returned to his studio once more. He put on his apron, which was coated in a rainbow of oils, and which hadn’t been worn over a sweatshirt in weeks. He set another canvas on the stand, picked up the next of his old sketches off of the pile, and got to work painting.


Chapter 23: Bom Dia,

The apartment was still clean. Malcolm still had a sizeable stack of old sketches left to burn through too, but he found himself using them less and less as the winter went on. Though he hardly ever noticed that it was winter to begin with: he stayed in his apartment as often as he could, and anyways, it was getting warmer every day.

Malcolm could hardly see the walls in the living room anymore. There wasn’t a single space that wasn’t occupied by something abstract: all of the canvases fit together like puzzle pieces. He was standing at the center of it all, having just put the final piece in place, when his phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number.

“Bom dia, você ligou para o número errado, como posso ajudá-lo?” Malcolm asked. He liked playing games with unknown numbers, and he had been brushing up on some of the languages he’d nearly forgotten, for a trip he was planning in the spring. Here, he was speaking Portuguese: Good morning, you’ve reached the wrong number, how can I help you?

Malcolm waited for a response. Nothing. His thumb was on the button to hang up.

And then he heard her.

“Please,” Susan said, and Malcolm flinched. “Tell me you didn’t move on.”

Malcolm grabbed his wallet off of the kitchen counter, and sat down by the front door to put on his shoes. “Where can we meet?” he asked her. “I’m clean. I promise.”

“I’m in France. Do you want to come visit?”

Oui. Je t'aime, Malcolm told her.

Je t'aime aussi mon amour, a déclaré Susan. Je suis navrée.

Speaking in another language was tricky: Malcolm didn’t quite know if he was still playing games.


Chapter 24: Metal

Ruben skipped past another channel of static. Rice flipped through his CD book. Terry had nodded off in the backseat, with his cheek pressed against the cool window.

“I still have two more Sonic Youth albums,” Rice offered.

“Shoot me,” Ruben said.

“Velvet Underground?”

“Ooh, warmer.”

“Lulu?”

“I thought you stopped swearing.”

Ruben drove ten miles over the speed limit. It was Wisconsin tradition—he would be more likely to get pulled over for doing ten under. He kept one hand on the wheel, and the other on the radio, trying to find some relief from Rice’s CD collection. Most of the CDs were good, but after sixteen hours in the car, ‘most’ had run dry.

Rice flipped back to the first disk in his book: Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits, Live. It had been recorded for cassette in 1982. Why Rice had cared enough to have it converted to CD was a mystery; he still hadn’t listened to it. It was his own band, but they split just three years after the recording. Rice hit the road and met his buddy Ruben. Joey became a pharmacist, or something along those lines. Johnny Hick sprinted off the face of the earth. It was only the bassist, Yote, who got roped into another punk act.

Rice looked at Ruben, from the corner of his eye. He still couldn’t get used to the scar. When he thought of Ruben, he always pictured the Ruben he had first met: all ten fingers; full, youthful cheeks; a devilish smile; and no disfiguring scar gouged down his face. Rice sighed, and looked out the window.

Just then, Ruben’s hand froze on the dial. “No shit,” he murmured.

Waylon Jennings sang through the static. All these years, and 108.4 remained the only station in the county. On every trip home, their enduring taste in music continued to astound Ruben.

Shaking his head, he shut the radio off. “The man's dead. Give him a rest already.”

Ruben and Rice entered the Kipper Lake city limits in silence. They passed by a brick silo, which stood apart from the woods in a small field, shared by cows. The silo used to be red. It used to be like a lighthouse, signaling Ruben home. But it wasn’t anymore. It was pale, and tilted.

Soon, Ruben was negotiating the backroads of backroads. The hills grew even more pronounced, and the gravel became narrower between the trees. Then the road became a driveway. One final turn, and the trees gave way to a forest-green house. Ruben parked on a tan patch of dirt beside the garage.

“So this is where you’re from?” Rice asked, looking up at the house in the woods.

Ruben nodded.

“Huh,” Rice said. “That explains some things.”

The three travelers stepped out of the car, and took a moment to stretch.

“Ruben!” a woman called. The three turned to see her step around the garage, holding a garden trowel and a dirt-caked pair of gloves. She had short, black, curly hair, and was smiling at her visitors. “How the hell have you been this year?”

“Not too good,” Ruben said. He didn’t have to elaborate. She could see for herself the scar, and the way he no longer tried to smile. “But how are you holding up, Peg?”

She didn’t hear a word of his question.

“Hey, don’t worry about me,” Ruben said. He stepped forward and hugged her—very slowly, so that he could watch that her trowel didn’t come near his chest.

She put her arms around him, and when he let go, she stepped back.

“So,” Ruben said, “how’s my favorite sister?”

“You know, for the life of me, I couldn't tell you,” Peggy said. She looked up at the house. “It doesn't feel like it should now that she's gone—it doesn't feel any different. But then I walk around the house looking for her until I remember that she's not here anymore, and I miss her. I miss her in the most helpless way.”

Ruben nodded. “I’m sorry to hear that, Peg. How's Pat?”

“Hasn't said much today, but come on in. He'll be glad you drove over.”

That night, as Ruben laid in his childhood bed, he considered disappearing. He considered walking off into the woods and just being… gone. It wouldn’t matter where he ended up, because he really wasn’t thinking of himself in the matter. He was thinking of Pat, and of Peggy. Of Susan and Malcolm. Of Rice, and, he supposed, of Terrence. It would make things easier for them. They wouldn’t have to wonder when Ruben had stopped existing—was it the day Katie left him? The night his face was cut into like a block of clay? Maybe it was when he started taking pills—that was the one Ruben liked to think. Zombie pills, he called them. Turn you into a walking, talking husk.

If he disappeared that night, he could give them a date. They would know, within the black line between two squares of a calendar, when Ruben Craig had up and… gone.

He stood out of bed and opened his duffel bag. He pushed aside his loose clothing, until he found an orange pharmaceutical container. He gave the bottle a shake, and the zombie pills rattled inside.

He opened his window.

The pills landed in the garden all the way across the yard, safely away from Ruben. And already, Ruben could hear the beautiful voice of Tracy Chapman, singing in the room across the hall. He could hear Mercury and Cash down on the ground floor, composing. And he could see Bob Dylan, sitting on the foot of his bed in the moonlight, wearing a devilish grin and a guitar.

The Music


Chapter 25: Patricia

Ruben stood in the basement with Bob Dylan. Dylan was standing watch at the stairs: Ruben had missed having an accomplice so into mischief. Rice was fun from time to time, but only when his punk side showed. Modern Rice was a bore. Dylan was timeless.

In the short time he had been lingering down there—an hour or less, and probably less—Ruben had turned the basement into a gallery. Hanging on walls, sitting on and against the couches, and all over the floors, Ruben had spread out pieces of art. Art created by himself, and of course by his twin sister, Peg. Most of it was signed, so it was easy for Ruben to pretend that they had different styles. But he knew that any difference in taste or skill was imagined, because there were a few that weren’t signed, and for the life of him, Ruben couldn’t tell who had made them.

One was a painting of the house that he stood in, albeit when the house was older. The house sat in the woods. It was painted forest green, and it had two levels of windows, with a garage sticking off the side of it, and a decently sized lawn creeping in every direction. The remnant fencing from a horse corral could be seen scattered throughout the yard, though no horses had been kept when Ruben lived there. There was a dirt driveway, and sitting on the porch…

Ruben looked at Bob Dylan. In the painting, sitting on the porch in a patio chair, and in the basement, standing watch at the steps. Ruben beckoned the real Dylan closer. The folk singer walked over, behind Ruben, looking over his shoulder at the painting. Dylan picked the painting off of the wall and turned it over. On the back of the canvas were the initials PC.

“What on God’s earth have you done to this basement?”

Peg stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking at Ruben, who held a painting of the house. Peggy navigated her way to him, through the maze of artwork laid out on the floor.

“You were good, Peggy Craig,” Ruben said.

She squinted at the painting he held up for her. “What’s the date on that one?”

Ruben flipped the canvas around once again. PC 6/14/1966.

Peggy laughed, and turned to look at the other art that her brother had laid out. “Ruben, I would have been two.”

Ruben hung the canvas back up, and looked at it with another eye. “I never knew mom painted.”

“You never knew her birthday either,” Peg said, sitting down on the couch beside Chapman. “For such a romanticist, I’d think you would know birthdays, anniversaries, all kinds of sentimental dates.”

“Romanticist?” Ruben asked, sitting down on the couch beside Peg. Dylan took a seat beside Ruben. “If I was still an artist, those would be fighting words.”

“Aren’t you though?”

“Aren’t I what, Peg?”

“An artist,” she said. “I just can’t picture you as anything else.”

Ruben smiled at Peggy. It was forced, and if he had any shred of romanticism left in him, it would have hurt to force a smile that convincing. “When we were kids, I never used to believe that you could be anything but an artist either,” Ruben said. “Even now, I still think you’ve got it in you. Let me hear you play.”

Peggy looked to Chapman, and they both smiled at the idea. With care, the blues rock singer-songwriter handed her guitar to Peg. Peg positioned the guitar on her lap, nearly flat, so that she could see the strings better. She put her index finger behind a fret with some force, and then arranged the rest of her fingers where they belonged, one by one. The strum was rough.

She sighed, and she let the strings go. The ones she had held down buzzed, pieces of chord echoing, and then fading, and then gone. “I don’t even remember which one that is,” Peggy said.  “Parts of artist stay, Ruben. Little shreds. But it falls apart after long enough. Let’s hear you.”

“I never—”

“Mm-mm, that’s not an answer,” Peg said. Dylan grinned, and shoved his guitar over to Ruben.

The Music was fresher in Ruben’s head, and he made up his mind to start with a G chord. It felt wrong from the start. Without a ring finger, he had to use his pinkie on the high E. That was an easy enough shift. Some people did that regardless of missing digits. But Ruben had never quite gotten used to it.

And that was just the start: Ruben felt like he’d suffered brain damage. His chords were manual, not natural. He had to think, between each shift, how to make the next sound. And he strummed so painfully heavy. It had only been a matter of months; what happened to him?

“Why are you smiling, Peg?”

“You miss it, don’t you?” she said. She matched his strumming, playing muted chords.

“I don’t miss the drama,” he said. “You’d be surprised by how much of it goes away when you stop looking.”

“Why should I be surprised?” Peggy asked. “I stopped painting a long time before you did, Ruben.” She still muted the strings with her right palm, but with her left hand she formed the chords to mirror Ruben’s Song—The Music.

“But did you ever stop thinking about it?” Ruben asked.

“Yes,” she told him. “God Ruben, yes. I stopped thinking about it as soon as I decided I was done. It would be unhealthy if it still obsessed over anything related to the art I made when I was in high school.”

“Is that all art was to you?” Ruben asked. He put a little extra sting into his strum. “Peggy Craig, how could you say something like that to me?”

“Ruben, I love you, but you can’t do this to yourself,” Peggy said.

“I know,” Ruben said. “This isn’t healthy. I can’t keep thinking about it.”

“No, Ruben. God no. You can’t stop.”

Ruben and Peggy played music together.


Chapter 26: Armament

Ruben ran through the forest. It was the dead of night. He had seen somebody trespassing from his bedroom window. They stood there, on the edge of where the property was lit: in the shadows, near the forest. No discernable traits. No telling if it was a man or a woman, or even if it was something that could be a man or a woman. It only stood there, watching the house. When it glanced upwards, towards Ruben’s window on the second floor, Ruben shuffled out of sight. He stood in his shirt and underpants, pressed against the wall beside the window. He looked around the room. In the corner was a baseball bat, from the summer he had feigned an interest in athletics.

Ruben shrugged. It was good enough.

With armament in hand, Ruben walked down the stairs, each step creaking in a familiar way. When he reached the bottom, he ducked and crawled to the living room window. He crouched under it, taking shallow breaths, quick ones. Ones that didn’t hurt the tattered skin of his chest, and didn’t let him get too lightheaded from the pounding blood in his eardrums. Ruben shot his head up to the window and then pulled it back down, only enough time to get a snapshot glance of the figure. But it saw Ruben. It saw Ruben, and it was turning away, back towards the woods. Back to where it could hide until the right time to strike. Until Ruben was asleep, unable to defend his nephew and his sister.

Ruben locked the front door behind himself as he left the house.

He ran through the woods. He could hear the trespasser’s footsteps right ahead of him—he could hear the breathing. The frantic gasps of air that were not so incidental as an animal, but not so calculated as a human. Ruben swung his bat, and it cracked against a tree, and the trespasser let out a shout, and that one did sound like something a human voice could make, maybe, if it were scared enough. But Ruben continued to chase, bat left behind in the dark, fallen from his hands after the ricochet.

Ruben had senses about the woods in the way some people had senses about the city: knowing how to walk through crowds; knowing what parts of town to avoid; knowing which people walking down the street were lunatics. Ruben had senses about the woods, and as he gave chase, he noticed that there was another presence keeping pace behind him. A shadow to Ruben in the already dark forest, feet bolting off of every mound of dirt he did, and avoiding every fallen branch with the same careful footsteps.

And god, was Ruben exhausted already. Already he couldn’t find the breath—already he was cheating his skin to fuel his lungs. He could feel his scar tissue stretch and fall back, and stretch again, only further this time, and it stung.

Ruben tripped. Pain hit him in the face and torso. The trespasser got away.

And then there was the monster behind him. The one that had not tripped over the same gnarled root that Ruben did. The one that had followed all the right steps and missed the bad ones. It had caught up with him. He couldn’t stand. His kneecap was broken, shattered, obliterated, out of commission, fucked.

Duke Cane appeared from the shadows. He held a claymore of a knife, and he was furious. Ruben tried to crawl away, but Cane picked him up. Ruben rose off the ground, kicking with his good leg, but none of his hits made a difference to the giant. Cane pinned Ruben against a tree. Ruben saw the glint of the knife, and he looked down: he saw it this time, entering his chest, this time not with the intent to maim, but to kill. This time, cutting out Ruben’s heart.

Ruben fought back. He put both of his hands against one of Cane’s, the one that held the knife, and Ruben pushed. God help him, he pushed against the hilt of Duke Cane’s claymore.

But then it was over. Duke Cane dropped Ruben to the forest floor, not because Ruben had won, but because it was finished. Duke Cane loomed over Ruben on the ground.

Ruben felt damp leaves against his cheek. He reached up, to touch one of them. To hold something before he died.

Ruben woke up slowly. He didn’t jump, startled by the fact that he had died again, in another nightmare. It was getting worse. There was getting to be less of a difference between his nightmares and his waking world. Ruben laid with the side of his head on his pillow, damp with sweat. Between his fingers, he toyed with a bit of the cloth from the pillow case. He felt it aggressively, until he’d forced it to stop being a leaf out in the forest. Until he’d made himself understand that he wasn’t really dead. Ruben woke up slowly. And when he got out of bed it didn’t feel real. In his head, he was going back down the stairs to chase the faceless trespasser all over again. He didn’t look out of any windows this time. He focused on one thing.

In the basement, he turned on the light. The art had been put away. In unpacking and repacking the canvases earlier that day, Ruben had found something. In the trunk in the basement in the corner, Ruben found firearms. Two of them were hunting rifles, which had belonged to his dad. The other was a twelve gauge, which Ruben’s mom had got to defend the house after dad left.

Ruben walked back up the stairs with his shotgun, holding it with intent. The butt of the gun was firm against his shoulder, and he pointed it around every dark corner. His finger was already pressing the trigger: it was only a question of whether or not he would press it a tiny bit harder.

When Ruben had breached and cleared his room, he was tired again. Lightheaded. He laid back down. He would wake up the next morning with marks on his cheek, from where the metal had reached through his pillow and bit him. But it would be worth it, for the comfort.


Chapter 27: Tracing his Finger through the Dirt

Rice sat in a deer stand with Pat. The stand was old, rotting, and made up of planks of wood that were nailed with rust to an aging tree. There was barely room enough for the two of them on the platform in the woods. Pat’s legs had to hang off of one side, and Rice’s off of the other. They were back to back, searching. Hunting. Rice missed hunting. Living in Manhattan for so long, there weren’t many opportunities to track large game. Nothing larger than ants, anyways.

Pat was telling Rice a story. Or at least, that’s what it seemed to be. Rice tried to listen. He tried to follow Pat’s train of thought, but Rice’s mind was elsewhere. Rice’s mind was on the rifles.

This was the most recent time Rice had held a gun: Ruben had handed one to him, and one to Pat, and told them to go make trouble. The first time Rice held a gun was when he was young, very young, and his dad took him out to go shoot targets. But there was a middle time. A time in his twenties when he held a gun. Not fired it, but held it, and all of the weight of the shots that had been discharged from that evil barrel.

Rice tried to pay attention to Pat’s story, but his mind was wandering. His mind wandered back to his own story—back to the story of Punks and anarchy and music. Back to that middle time when he had held a firearm.

There was a protest, started by his own band, Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits. The protest turned into a riot, and Rice found himself in jail, along with the members of what would turn out to be a much more successful band, Flashpoint Zero. That was always Rice’s claim to fame, when he needed to impress: “I once shared a cell block with all four members of Flashpoint Zero. Let me tell you about it.” It sounded impressive, saying it the way he did, but he was careful of when to use it. He didn’t use it around anyone who really knew their music history. He didn’t use it around anyone who knew the truth of what he was saying: “I was once an accomplice to genocide. I once listened, from the inside of a police station, as the singer of my own band committed murder after murder on the street just outside of my cell, until they weren’t murders anymore, until it was a massacre. I listened to my best friend in the world sniping cops from a rooftop. I listened to him as he tried to murder Punk Rock. Let me tell you about it.”

Rice tried to pay attention to Pat’s story. It was a fine story. Really.

But he couldn’t listen to it. Rice was thinking about what happened after the massacre: after he got out of jail, and after his band had broken up, and after the fourth member of his band had become the fourth member of Flashpoint Zero. After that. Rice was thinking about the massacre gun.

Johnny Hick had never left town. He had stayed, tucked away in the shadows, crashing on the bedroom floors of the Punk Rockers who hadn’t heard the news yet, or worse, of those who had. He moved from host to host. And when he had burned La Meseta to the ground behind him, he met Rice on the outskirts, at an abandoned gas station in the desert, to deliver one last farewell to a genre. He had given Rice the gun. He had told him, “You carry this now. I’m done for a while. But you carry this.”

Johnny Hick gave Punk Rock to Rice. Rice took it, and slung it over his shoulder, and saluted Johnny Hick. Johnny saluted back, and when they lowered their hands, it still wasn’t quite time for Johnny to leave yet. The two sat down, Indian style, between the two rows of gas pumps.

“Where are you going after this?” Rice asked.

“Away,” Johnny said. “Underground. You won’t hear from me for a while.” His voice was tired.

Rice nodded. He would miss Johnny’s company, and that was why he didn’t shoot the singer dead on the spot. Rice did want Johnny Hick to die: he’d never wanted to kill anyone more before in his life, and he would never have a better chance: the man was sitting in front of him, in the middle of nowhere, and he had handed him the weapon. Rice fiddled with the rifle, until it opened, and inside was a shiny brass round. He looked back up at Johnny and asked, straight up: “Do you want me to kill you?”

Johnny laughed, and looked down at the ground. Tracing his finger through the dirt, Johnny said, “No, Rice O’. I don’t want you to kill me.”

Rice had been Rice O’ back then. They had all used different names. Joseph Epstein became Joey Low Action, and when it was all said and done and La Meseta was left in ashes, Joey became Joseph once more. Nathaniel Todd, upon becoming a Punk, had turned into Yote. That name never changed back. He stayed Yote; he would always stay Yote, until his deathbed, whether it was with Johnny Hick and the Fuckwits, or Flashpoint Zero, or some other band that Rice had never heard of. And Johnny Hick… Johnny Hick was always Johnny Hick. He’d never been anything else but Johnny Hick, nor could he ever be. He wasn’t born, and he would never die, unless Rice shot him then and there at the gas station outside of La Meseta. And he wasn’t going to do it. Not a chance. He was going to walk back into town with the rifle slung over his shoulder, and he was going to bury the rifle in his yard, like a seed, and then he was going to leave La Meseta too. Because once the seed was planted, he wouldn’t need to do a thing at all; Johnny Hick had done all of the work already. He had moved from host to host, fertilizing the ideas in their heads—the idea of Revolution; the idea of him; the idea of a punk named Johnny Hick, who could never die, because nobody in the world had ever believed for a second that the Legend could be human.

Rice glared over at The Immortal.

“Tell me your name,” Rice said.

Johnny Hick smiled, looked down at the ground, and shook his head.

Rice O’ stood up, and he pumped the chamber closed, and the firing pin sat ready to punch a hole clean through Johnny Hick’s skull. “Tell me your goddamn name!”

The Immortal frowned. He was sad, because once again, it was time for him to leave. He stood up. He put his back to Rice, and then he walked off, into the desert. Rice never saw him again. Ever.

In the deer stand, Pat had finished telling his story, and was waiting for input from Rice.

“Mother. Fucker.”

He’d said it under his breath: his first swear in months. Pat didn’t hear him, and didn’t ask what he had said, and moved on to saying something else. But Rice had swore, because he was no longer Rice Henderson: he had never been Rice fucking Henderson. He was Rice O’, and he was going to start living like it again: he was going to buy an electric guitar. He was going to shave his head on the sides, and spike it up down the center. He was going to get a face tattoo. And when everything was wrapped up with Ruben and Terry and the house in the woods, Rice was going to go back to La Meseta, and he was going to dig up a rifle. He was going to find Johnny Hick, if he could, and he was going to put an end to The Immortal: he was going to learn the secret of Johnny Hick’s real name.


Chapter 28: Dylan

Peggy, Ruben, and Patrick sat in the front. Out of respect, Terrence and Rice were seated in the pew behind them. The musicians all sat in the back of the congregation, clothed in a somber black.

Peggy and Ruben held hands as the pastor delivered their mom’s final service. Patrick was the only one who cried outwardly.

After the service and the burial, Ruben stayed in the churchyard. He knelt in front of her grave for the longest time, when everyone else had left.

 

Patricia Alison Reid
Musician and Poet
Loving mother & grandma
August 2, 1944 – March 7, 2012

 

Ruben remembered her poems. God, how he remembered her poems.

Dylan sat cross-legged in the grass behind him, pulling up blades. Both of them wore sunglasses. Ray-Bans. The older model. Dylan’s seemed to fit him better. Ruben’s felt necessary though: nobody got to see his eyes.

His knees sank into the dirt.

He apologized to his mom for leaving. For not visiting that often. It wasn’t like he never called, but still, he could’ve done better. He could’ve done a lot, lot better, to not be like his dad. He promised his mom that he did take after her, a lot more than he took after him. He apologized for his name.

When Ruben Craig stood up, Dylan handed him a 40 oz. The two walked farther into the churchyard.

“Ever been here before?” Ruben asked.

“You never took me,” Dylan said, lighting a cigarette as they walked.

“Yeah, didn’t think so. Let me tell you about it. That one there”—Ruben pointed to a black headstone, as tall as either of them. He explained that that one belonged to a witch. The other kids would take turns walking up to it in the middle of the night. Anyone who touched it got chills. Ruben and Peggy went out there once and they got chills too, but that didn’t count, apparently, because they were together. You had to be alone, were the rules.

Ruben pointed out another stone in a family plot, this one shorter than their shins, and grey. There were initials on the top. MM. No other markings or features. My mutt, my man, my mistress. Mary Magdalene, Marilyn Monroe. Mickey Mouse. Marshall Mathers, maybe, if Kipper Lake was still guessing and they didn’t know how old the stone was.

“What about that one?” Dylan asked, nodding at blue-tinted marker.

“I don’t know about that one,” Ruben said. “You tell me about that one.”

“Well that one’s mine,” Dylan said.

“Is that right?” Ruben asked, grinning, kind of.

“Well you don’t know, you haven’t read the news, maybe it could be,” Dylan continued, kind of grinning back. “Maybe I died a week ago. Maybe I died yesterday and they buried me here and you missed the funeral, you son of a bitch. Did you think about that? Don’t read the news though. Don’t bother. Let me tell you about that grave. That grave belongs to Mal, how about that?”

Ruben smiled to himself. “I like that. Not Malcolm though?”

“No, course not,” Dylan said. “Course not Malcolm. He’s fine, wherever the hell he is.”

Ruben and Dylan reached the far end of the graveyard. There stood a marker, knee high. No dates. No list of accomplishments. Just the name.

 

Jim Craig

 

Ruben tipped the malt liquor out over the crisp March dirt, until the bottle was empty. Then Ruben bared his teeth, and behind his shades his eyes were a Brimstone: he cracked the bottle against the granite, cutting into the letters of his father’s last name.

Ruben Reid left the churchyard. Dylan sang a new song as they walked. On the way out, Ruben touched the witch’s marker. It was cold on his palm, and he stood there for a long time, waiting for the chill to spread, but he felt alright. All things considered, he felt pretty good.

Ruben and Dylan walked down the gravel road to a small house in the woods, tucked safely behind miles of trees, fields, and open blue skies. When they arrived, they found that Rice’s car and Peggy’s SUV were both packed with luggage. Standing beside the vehicles were Ruben’s friends and family: a cowboy, a performer, a sister, and a nephew.

“We’ve been waiting for you, buddy,” Rice said when Ruben arrived. “If we’re still on for Mount Rushmore next, then somebody has to work the radio.”

Ruben crossed his arms. “What makes you think I’m riding with you, punk?” he asked, and he grinned down at Pat.

On the first leg of their road trip, Ruben sat with his nephew in the back seat of an SUV, showing the kid how to play the guitar. No chords yet, or even songs. Just scales. But it was a good start. The kid learned fast.

The group called it a night in Minnesota, and pulled in to the next hotel.

Ruben and Dylan split a bottle of minibar scotch. They spent the night playing music, and talking, and laughing. It had been a while since Ruben played music. He was never even a musician, per se, and he still didn’t consider himself one, but it put him in a good mood. Dylan had said so himself.

“But you’re always in a good mood after you make art,” Dylan said, gesturing with his cigarette.

“I’m not an artist,” Ruben said back, trying to work out how a B minor worked with only three fingers. “When did I make art today?”

“Earlier when you smashed that bottle against your dad’s name, that was art. When you and Peg were holding hands, that could be art too. Right now,” Dylan said, pointing to his guitar in Ruben’s lap. “That struggle is art.”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Ruben said, taking his left hand off of the instrument.

Dylan rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t have to mean anything, who said art had to mean anything? Who said there ever needed to be a message? You did it and it was art because you’re an artist, get over yourself.”

“You think it’s that easy?” Ruben asked.

“I don’t think you want it to be,” Dylan said, not laughing anymore. He stared at Ruben Reid. “Malcolm went back to painting you know. It took him two weeks. Maybe three. But he was back at it almost as soon as he’d quit forever. Isn’t that like him? Why can’t you just give it another try? What’s the point of being stubborn if you’re wrong?”

Ruben lived the rest of his life with nightmares, but they fueled a better part of him. He never made it back to Manhattan. Terry was the only one who did. Rice stayed on the West Coast, where he bought an electric guitar, and a shovel to dig up a massacre gun. Peggy and Patrick went back home to Kipper Lake, and Ruben visited them often. But in his heart, Ruben was a graffiti artist. He and Dylan went from town to town and highway to highway, finding billboards that didn’t have a message, and giving them one. Always a smiley face to cover the ad, and then one word underneath to give the whole thing meaning: Laugh. Sing. Relax. Dance. Call mom. Make art. Give love. Let go. Smile.


Epilogue: Je Vis

“It has to be him,” Susan said. She and Malcolm laid together in their bed, both of them looking at Susan’s laptop. On the screen was a news report from America, showcasing all of the vandalized billboards. Susan rolled her head over to look at Malcolm. “You know his style better than I do. What do you think?”

Malcolm reached for the laptop, and zoomed in on one of the images. He couldn’t decide whether the smiley faces were abstract, or just icons. But the style was definitely Ruben. The style was definitely old school Ruben, whose graffiti Malcolm had seen for years before meeting the artist behind it—they tagged over each other’s spots so often that it became a game. Tag, you’re it. Mal could spend days painting one spot, staking out hour-long blocks when the place was safe for him to work. And as soon as he was done, Tag! Sometimes Mal wanted to kill the man who so casually painted words over his abstractions.

But then Mal fought back, and what fun the graffiti artists had! They chased each other’s work around the city. Mal would see a smiling stick figure on the side of an apartment complex, and he would twist it, until the stick figure’s disproportionate body was no longer endearing, but gruesome. Until the smile wasn’t happy, but stretched, and pained. Some days later Ruben would see a melting hammer painted in an alleyway, and write, Dalí did it better, right on top of it.

With time, Mal realized that he looked forward to the comments. He enjoyed them; they made him laugh. So one night he set a trap.

He found an electrical box, a big green one away from any streetlights, and he painted a woman on fire. Her clothes were a part of the flames, even her skin beginning to peel and lift away into smoke. When he was done, he waited. He laid prone on the rooftop across the street, peeking just over the edge, waiting for his partner. They were already partners. They complimented each other’s work. It didn’t matter that they had never seen each other.

Sure enough, Ruben appeared before the woman on fire. Mal drank in the sight of his rival. He watched as the comment was written, and then he let the man disappear into the night.

Mal climbed down and had a look. The words were written over the woman’s breasts, clothing them.

Truce?

“It’s him,” Malcolm said, leaning his head against his wife’s.

She smiled. “Good.”



Meanwhile in Baghdad

Contents
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7


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.


Chapter 2

A man woke up terrified in the dark. He listened, and as he listened, he felt out his surroundings. Firstly, he was on a bed. There was no sound in the room he was in. Secondly, the bed was a twin, raised off the ground, high enough that he couldn’t feel the ground under it with his outstretched hand. There was a light humming coming from somewhere outside the room. Thirdly, the man wasn’t restrained to the bed: he had a blanket and pillows, not the ropes he’d imagined he felt when he first woke up. The man

got out of bed. His bare feet touched the floor. Carpet. He dug the soles of his feet into it. The man’s head throbbed. He looked harder at the room. A blinking green light on the ceiling. Green felt safe: maybe a smoke detector. Nothing was safe: maybe a camera. The man got back onto the bed, and stood up, balancing so that the box spring didn’t squeal under his feet. On top of the bed in the dark the man felt like an impossible giant. He reached up to feel

the machine the green light came from. Plastic, disk-like. Circular ridges, no lens. Probably a smoke detector. The man felt the ridges until he got to a flat piece of plastic he could remove. After taking it off, he removed the batteries—two triple A’s—and stashed them in his back pocket, just in case. He was wearing pants. Clothes. Suit pants and a shirt with a stiff collar, turned down. Underwear. No socks or shoes. Undershirt. No tie. He put the plastic battery cover back on the smoke detector and got off the bed. The man walked towards

any side of the room, crouched low, dragging his feet, guiding himself with the tactile sensation of his bare toes on the carpet. The tips of his fingers made contact with a wall, and he walked along it, dragging his fingertips against the surface—coarsely painted—until he could find something like a door or a window. He found a set of strings, dangling against the wall from a high place: the kind of strings used for pulling curtains up and down, with a conical plastic piece at the bottom. The man crouched low, well below where the window would be, and faced the room. He pulled open the curtain

and the flash of light blinded him for a microsecond: he forced himself to keep his eyes open and see that he was in a hotel room with nobody in sight. He sprinted low for the bathroom door, ripping the microwave from the wall on the way as weaponry. When he flung the bathroom door open he found nobody inside, and he

exhaled, walked back to the counter, and set the microwave back down on the counter where it had been. He plugged it back in, ran it once for two seconds, to see that it still worked. It seemed to but he stopped it before the beep or the ding. The man walked over to look out the window. He wasn’t on the first floor: the second. He didn’t know of how many. Out the window he saw a very, very small town. The man guessed then that he was on floor two of two. Dust moved across the light-grey streets. In the distance in one direction he could see a factory, and in the other direction he saw desert. Based on the sun, it was just before or just after noon.

The man relaxed his muscles.

He looked at the room again. One twin bed, the sheets now unmade. A pair of dress shoes and socks by the door. A microwave and a stack of papers on the counter. The man walked up to the papers and inspected them. Pay stubs. Hotel bills. Grocery receipts. Darren Mills worked at Bellpond Packaging and Manufacturing Plus and had been renting hotel room 221 of the Bellpond Inn for the past fourteen months. And he was a vegetarian.

Was the man Darren Mills? He couldn’t remember. He…

The man walked to the door, cracked it open, and looked both ways down the hall. Empty. He walked back into the room and sat on the edge of the bed. There were things he should have known. If he was Darren Mills he should have been able to say so. He didn’t think he was Darren, but he couldn’t think of another name that suited him better. The man walked into the bathroom.

In the mirror was a Caucasian—Hispanic?—predominantly Caucasian male. Thirties? Younger? On the left corner of his mouth was a stitched and cleaned gash going downwards towards his chin. The man dry heaved into the sink, but held his stomach. Gripping the counter in his fist, he felt the gash from the other side with his tongue, and could feel the stitches on that side too, although he couldn’t look into the mirror and see his tongue poke through the gash, which was good.

No. It wasn’t good that there was a gash at all. Everything about this was bad. Situation normal, all fucked up. The man walked back out to the main room.

Under the counter was a mini fridge. Resting beside it were two heavy weights. The man—Darren?—crouched down and opened the fridge. Inside was yogurt, an apple, cabbage, two tomatoes, a resealed bag of tortillas, and a plastic-wrapped can of refried beans.

The man stood up. There had to be something to go off of. He looked around the room again. It usually didn’t take this long.

What usually didn’t take this long?

The man’s eyes fell on a piece of paper sitting under the microwave, with just its white corner sticking out. Had he been the one who set the microwave on top of it, or had he uncovered part of it by moving the microwave in the first place? He pulled the paper out from under the box and read.

 

Help yourself to anything in the fridge. I’ll be back from work by 5:30. Charge the room if you need to make a call.

Darren

 

The man set down the note. In the course of a minute, he had learned he was in a hotel room in a place called Bellpond; he was not held there against his will; he knew how to deal with a situation just like a man in a spy thriller or those two from Boondock Saints; he was in physical pain from the gash creeping down his mouth; and he was not Darren Mills.

 

 

The door opened at 5:26 and in walked Darren. He was a tallish black man with short hair and a stubble goatee, dressed in a white and orange factory uniform. Darren saw that, on the counter, there sat a paper hotel cup filled with diced tomatoes and a paper hotel cup filled with shredded lettuce. In the microwave was another paper hotel cup filled with refried beans.

The man stood up from the foot of the bed, and faced Darren with a half smile—the half of his mouth that wasn’t cut. “Welcome home, honey.”

“Sorry. I don’t think I’m over my last boyfriend just yet,” Darren told the man. Darren stood just in front of the hotel door, which had clicked shut as he was talking. As soon as it was closed, he had leaned back against it.

The man shrugged. “It was a joke. Yours was too, but I think only part of yours was, and you really do have an ex-boyfriend who you still want to be with. Am I close?” the man asked.

Darren Mills was silent for a little bit. The man could practically see Darren remembering that his hotel door opened outward, and he cloud leave without ever putting himself an inch closer to the man who had just unraveled something that was probably supposed to be a secret.

The microwave beeped.

“Just a guess,” the man said. He turned to take the refried beans out of the microwave. “Taco?”

Darren and the man sat side by side at the foot of the bed, each of them eating their meatless tacos. They weren’t bad. The man was pretty sure he wasn’t a vegetarian like Darren though, because he had a nagging feeling that the tacos were bland.

“What’s your name?” Darren asked.

“Don’t know,” the man said. “Call me the name of one of the brothers from Boondock Saints. Murphy.”

“Aren’t they Irish?” Darren asked.

“Yeah, good point,” the man said. He took another bite from his bland taco. It was tricky eating in a way that didn’t get food near the stitches on the inside of his mouth. “How did you… why am I here? In this hotel room with stitches on my face. You weren’t the one who cut me.”

“No,” Darren agreed. “I found you like that in the desert last night. You were unconscious.”

Darren and the man went over the details. Darren had found the man in the desert, and carried him back to the hotel room. The man had dried blood on his face, but wasn’t bleeding. Already stitched when Darren found him. Once inside the hotel room, the man had woken up. He’d gone to the sink to wash his face, and told Darren that he was going to get some rest, and that he was fine, really. Darren wasn’t sure what else to do other than let the man sleep. Darren slept on the floor and went to work in the morning. Upon waking up, the man couldn’t remember any autobiographical information. Didn’t know his name, didn’t know who he worked for, but had a feeling that ‘who he worked for’ was the second most important thing to know.

And then there they were. Two unusual people in a hotel room. The man had finished the two tacos he was able to stomach—able to mouth—and was pacing back and forth. Part of the reason he paced was because he felt energized: he was learning. This was good. The other reason he paced was because he was still in a great deal of pain, and moving helped.

“One more thing,” the man said. “Why did you bring me here? Why not a hospital?”

“Town doesn’t have one,” Darren said. “I don’t have a car to drive you anywhere else. Couldn’t put you in a cab or drop you off at the police station.”

“Why not?” the man asked.

“Sorry?”

“Why not bring me to the police station?” the man repeated. “Who the hell are you and what kind of felony did you commit that my life was worth less than the risk of being seen by cops you son of a bitch? You’re living in a hotel instead of an apartment and all of your expenses are paid in cash, not credit, because you can’t use your real name. I want to know who the hell you are.”

Darren—not Darren at all—laid back onto his bed. He rubbed a hand against his temple, staring up at the ceiling. “Drake Reddick. Sound familiar?”

“No.”

“Good.”

“What did you do?” the man asked.

“DUI. Three people dead. An attempted school shooting the next morning.”

“Classy. That it?”

“Not really.”

“They know it was you?”

“Feds, cops, and the rest of America for about two weeks.”

The man looked out of the window. He understood why the curtains had been closed. He suspected they were closed by default in that hotel room.

“I need your help Drake.”

Drake closed his eyes, breathed in through his nose, and out through his mouth. “I need to fucking move. You’re the first person I’ve told about my real name you know. Now Bellpond isn’t safe for me, and I have to find somewhere else where you’re not, so thanks. Thanks for that.”

The man continued to look out of the window. The window faced west—the man had been keeping track of the movements of the sun. Bellpond, according to Drake, was in Nevada. The man faced California then. No. He faced a single point in California. “You helped me,” the man said. “Last night in the desert, you could have left me, and you would have been fine, but you helped me. I need you to help me again. I need you to take me somewhere.”

“I don’t have a car—”

“Don’t lie to me,” the man said. “That’s omission. You don’t have a car now but you have more than enough cash under the mattress to get us to California. I could have taken it and been well on my way before you got back here. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t because I wanted information, and I’m not taking it now because I still don’t want to rob you. So hear me out.”

 

 

The black wolf looked at the deer with the scar under its mouth, prey that so proudly danced in front of him. The wolf was a vegetarian. But he didn’t believe the deer’s charade for a second.

 

 

The man looked at Drake, the killer who believed that on the inside, he wasn’t wicked. The man had seen wicked before, he knew that much, whether in the first or third person, and certainly in the second. The man had seen wicked. He was looking at wicked. He didn’t trust Drake at all. But he could use him; a partner, or a killer bargaining chip.

“I want to know who I am,” the man said. “You have some kind of higher calling, internal or external, I don’t care. But I remember a tower in San Samarra. No details. Just that it exists. I’ll give you directions as we go.”

 

 

Rice, Terry, and Ruben pulled into a parking space at the Umber Lane apartments. Peggy and Patrick had stayed in Los Angeles for the day, but Rice had to make a trip. He took their rental car—plus the restless Terry and Ruben who came with it—and made the drive to La Meseta.

The Plateau,” Ruben had said when he saw the city’s welcome sign.

Rice had lived in La Meseta for six years among very fluent Spanish speakers: he had been told what La Meseta meant in English. Afterwards in 1993, he also learned what The Plateau meant in Grunge. But he nodded as Ruben showed off his linguistic skills. He liked Ruben. If this was going to be the last day he saw Ruben for a while, he wanted it to be nice.

After Rice parked, he went around to the trunk and took out the shovel he’d purchased on his way to the plateau. Cheapest shovel at the hardware store, because it was only going to be used twice: once to dig up a rifle, and once to bury a Punk. Rice took the shovel firm in one hand, closed the trunk, and began to walk.

He walked around the buildings, followed by Ruben and Terry, until the three had arrived in a courtyard. Most of the windows looking in on the courtyard had their blinds closed. Those that didn’t were empty. Following Terry’s advice, the three of them wore orange caps and reflective vests, also purchased at the hardware store: camouflage for what came next. Rice walked to the center of the courtyard, right next to the dead cypress tree. He dug.

When he reached six feet and the rifle still wasn’t there, he dug deeper.

When he reached seven feet and he found nothing but stones, he dug wider.

When he had dug a grave, Terry told him to stop. Whatever he was looking for wasn’t there. The blinds had been opened, and people were looking at them.

As they walked away, Terry and Ruben both conceded that Rice should take the car. They could both find a way back to Peggy and Patrick in Los Angeles. The three said their goodbyes. Take care. Knock ‘em dead. I’ll see you around, buddy.

Rice drove away from the Umber Lane apartments. In the trunk was a suitcase full of clothes, and a shovel stained with dirt. Rice’s hot and blue guitar sat in the back seat, tuned, and begging to be plugged in. He drove with one hand on twelve. He was trying to decide if he should get a tattoo before or after visiting Joey.

When Rice walked into the pharmacy his skin was still blank, but he did have two piercing in his left eyebrow, and one through the bridge of his nose. He had remembered that tattoos took time to heal, and he needed to be in a good condition for the upcoming hours or days. But he did need to represent. His hair was shaved on the sides, spiked up down the middle, and dyed and assertive blue. Rice Fuckin’ O’ approached the pharmacist behind the counter.

“Holy shit,” the pharmacist said, staring at Rice up and down. “It’s like I’m looking in a fucking time portal. Where’s Johnny?”

Rice shrugged.

He looked over his shoulder. He and Joey were alone. Joey’s nametag said J. Epstein, and seeing that hurt a little. But a part of Rice could understand it.

“When’s the last time you heard from Yote?” Rice asked.

“God, years I think,” Joey said, scratching the back of his head. “Why, getting the band back together?”

Rice laughed, and shook his head. He pointed up at the cameras lining the ceiling. “Do these record audio?”

“They—”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m going to kill Johnny Hick. I don’t think that’ll bother you enough to tell on me for saying it.”

Joey flattened his lips, pressing them together into a narrow, pale line. Quietly, he told Rice, “I’m going to have lunch in five minutes. Why don’t you meet me outside.”

Rice nodded, and left. He had misjudged. His words almost put Joey in tears.

Rice lit a cigarette. As he held the lighter near his mouth, he tried to think back to whether or not Johnny had smoked. By the time he had pocketed his lighter and taken his first drag, he was pretty sure that everyone in the punk scene had smoked. Some had quit since then, or were in the process of quitting, but the fact that smoking happened at one point in their lives was, as far as Rice remembered, universal.

Rice wondered about lung cancer in The Immortal. He wondered about addiction. He was pretty sure The Immortal couldn't get cancer, since that was, eventually, fatal. But could The Immortal become an addict? Was smoking to him a compulsion or a design choice?

Rice heard the pharmacy door open behind him, and stamped out his cigarette butt.

“I don’t think you should do it,” Joey started.

The two of them began walking down the sidewalk. The city was one Rice had never been to, but had been ambiently aware of, living not too far from it in his punk days. Some place in SoCal. Not on many maps, but otherwise, a nice place to live. Mostly retirees. Not too many punks.

“Convince me,” Rice said. “I’m willing to hear you out.”

“Well have you listened to the radio?” Joey asked. Maybe not Joey for very long. Maybe soon to be J. Epstein, depending on how he presented his defense for Johnny Hick. In the meantime, it was Joey who told Rice, “Punk music has been making a comeback lately.”

Rice felt chills across his mohawk; he was talking with Joey Low Action alright, in the flesh and blood.

“Listen, I think he’s a son of a bitch,” Joey said. “I really, really do. But why do you want him dead? What’s it fix?”

“Nothing,” Rice said. “It fixes shit all. I still want him dead.”

“Why then?”

Because he’s dangerous, was one reason, but it wasn’t a very good one. It didn’t cover Rice’s ass, since Rice was the one plotting first degree murder as they spoke. Because he deserves it, might have been a closer truth. Because he hurt me. Because he hurts us. Because he hurts all of us.

“Because Johnny killed punk,” Rice answered, practically in bold. “Because he built it and then he shattered the cornerstone, and left us standing on a house of cards that was already falling by the time he was gone. And I don’t think he deserves to walk away from that.”

Joey Low Action gave his unconditional blessing, and Rice began his hunt.


Chapter 3

The black wolf and the deer stood with their hands on their hips like in a painting, looking into the car’s engine on the side of the desert road. It was a beater. The badger selling it said it wouldn’t drive much more than a hundred miles, and he was right. It had gotten the wolf and the deer most of the way to San Samarra, then died fifteen miles outside the city limits.

The wolf took one hand off his hip and pointed to a plastic tube. “What if that thing—”

“I don’t think so,” the deer said, knocking the hood closed. “Unless you were about to use a real word of automotive terminology? Something that shows a little more understanding of how cars work than what if and that thing?”

The wolf and the deer began walking. It was different to the wolf’s nighttime walks. Still a desert, but this time gruesomely hot. This time the wolf’s thick coat weighted him down, and made him pant after only the first few minutes. At least the car had had air conditioning.

The black wolf was enduring. He could handle heat. By the end of the first mile, he had stopped himself from panting. In through the nose, out through the mouth. More forceful than he normally would breathe, maybe. But he played it off fine.

They walked on the shoulder. The deer walked on the road, his dress shoes hitting on the dark grey pavement. The black wolf padded through the sand. It felt a little more familiar, after all of his desert walks. This was not, by any measure, the same desert. This one had sand blowing against the back of his neck, cutting into his fur, getting stuck; he brushed it out occasionally, but only when he felt he really had to. Not when it was a small bother; only when it was a matter of actually scraping into the skin. This desert had cars flying by them at eighty miles per hour; they drove by fast enough to blow more sand up at the wolf’s neck, and slow enough to notice and judge him if he brushed it out. This desert didn’t have a visible moon; this desert had Helios. This desert had a Sun. The wolf wouldn’t give the sun the courtesy of looking at it, much less giving it a howl.

With every minute, the sun set further into the wolf’s field of view.

The deer was the first to break silence. “What’s the deal with you? Are you a tough guy or what?”

The wolf wasn’t quite sure how to take that.

“I mean in fairness, you probably are a tough guy. I’m not saying it’s an act. You’ve got big muscles, you’re stoic. I’m sure your boyfriend was super into it. Maybe wasn’t as into how emotionally unavailable you are, but still, two out of three ain’t—”

“Knock it off,” the wolf said.

“Oh I’m sorry, knock what off?” asked the deer.

“Acting like you know everything,” the wolf said. “Stop doing that.”

“Am I annoying you?”

“No.”

“Offending you?”

“No.”

“Then I think I’ll keep going,” the deer said. He didn’t smile. There was no smile on the deer’s mutilated lip. “Your boyfriend, let’s find out more about him, huh? He’s the first thing you brought up to me. First chance you got when we started talking in the hotel, before you were even through the doorway, your mind went to him. He’s hurt you too: you didn’t like it when I brought up that you two aren’t together and that maybe it was your fault. I mean, I don’t know if you broke up before or after you became a murderer. Let’s keep talking, maybe I’ll fucking figure it out. What I want to know is, have I been wrong yet? About anything? Anything at all I’ve said today? Because I feel like I’ve been right since I woke up this morning, and when I woke up this morning, you can be goddamn sure that right was the last thing I expected to feel.”

The wolf kept care not to bare his teeth.

“Ask me one,” the deer said.

“Ask you one what?”

“A question, tough guy. Ask me something.”

“You don’t know who you are. What am I supposed to ask you?”

“I don’t care, anything,” the deer requested. “Jog my memory.”

“Your name,” the wolf said.

“No idea. Next one.”

“Address.”

“Nope.”

“Address of your home when you were a kid.”

The deer thought for a second. “Nothing.”

“Current president.”

“Valentine,” the deer answered, correctly.

“Junior or senior?”

“Neither, just Valentine,” the deer answered, correct again. “Nice try though.”

“Movie where the guy has a chainsaw for a hand.”

“Evil Dead or Army of Darkness. I can’t remember which one he gets the chainsaw hand in. I don’t think it’s because of the amnesia.”

“Movie with the line, ‘Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die.’”

“Princess Bride. Christ, why did I see a movie with a title like that?” the deer said, smiling. “I feel like I was probably a badass. Princess Bride is not badass.”

“Inigo is pretty badass,” the wolf defended. “I watched that one with my boyfriend when we were in middle school. His mom had it on VHS. He gave me a black eye reenacting the sword fight between Inigo and Westley. Did you like the movie?”

The deer paused, and very slowly nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I did. Ask me another one. We’re getting somewhere.”

“Favorite band?”

“I don’t hate ACDC. I don’t think I was much of a music person.”

“Favorite movie?”

“The Departed.”

“First girlfriend.”

The deer opened his mouth to speak. Nothing.

The wolf and the deer continued walking, talking movies. The deer liked suspense thrillers. He was good at figuring them out. The wolf liked movies that made him think. Movies where there was no answer, explicitly. He’d hated trying to follow The Departed. Hadn’t even made it to most of the scenes that the deer wanted to talk about.

“You know I still think you’re a pretty terrible person,” the deer said, out of the blue. They had been talking about The Usual Suspects. Apparently the subject had changed. “It’s not even what you did. DUI is a dumb mistake, but it sounds like a one-off dumb mistake. School shooting, I mean, the unpopular kid revenge fantasy is real. But I don’t think you’ve changed much since all of it happened. You’re working on it. You want to make up for what you did, hence why we’re here, I get that. But I’m pretty sure that you don’t think you did anything wrong. I’m pretty sure you still think that you’re a good person.”

The wolf breathed in the scent of the wounded deer, and exhaled through his nose. “At least I know what I did.”

The deer nodded. “Nice shot.”

The wolf and the deer had walked five miles by the time a car pulled over to offer them a ride.

 

 

Rice pulled over on the side of the road. He looked a little different than when he had talked to Joey in the pharmacy. He had grown a short beard. He got ink too, settling in for the long hunt. Band names and symbols of Punk, ripped right from the graffiti in the gas station on Brackney Street. He made it a point to track down the same artist who gave Jace and Nick and Sharyn their tattoos all those years ago. It was worth the effort. It showed. His body was a tribute to Punk Rock. On his forehead, he tattooed the symbol for anarchy.

He had spent more than a year tracking incidents of rebellion. Keeping up with the new Punk bands, introducing himself, asking about their influences—what made you want to play a genre that most people would call dead? What bands do you like? Where are all of you from? You don’t sound like you’re from City, Town, or Suburb X.

The search had lead nowhere. Rice was on a new lead. A better one. It lead straight into San Samarra. On the way, he found it in his heart to do a good deed; he’d been hitchhiking before, and he figured it must have been harder to get a ride in 2013 than it ever was for him growing up. No trust anymore. No brotherhood. Rice threw the car in park and stepped out into the desert sun, putting on his sunglasses as he stood.

Strangely, the hitchhikers didn’t come any closer. One had stopped the other. Rice started walking towards them. He understood how he looked, decked out in leather and a pure blue mohawk that was probably dyed that color, not the least of the reasons including that it wasn’t the same color as his beard.

In an effort to look friendlier, Rice took his sunglasses back off and smiled.

His smiled dropped when he recognized Drake Reddick, the one who had escaped scot-free from that car crash back in Minnesota. Rice put his sunglasses back on, opened his car’s trunk, and reached inside for his rifle.

“On your knees!” Rice ordered, walking closer to the two.

They complied, Drake doing so much more obediently than his friend, who was slower to get down.

“Hands above your heads!” Rice ordered next.

Again, both of them complied. Rice went to each of them, patting them down for weapons. He pulled two batteries from one of their pockets, but otherwise found nothing.

“What’s your name?” Rice asked, pointing the rifle at the man he didn’t recognize. Rice was standing in front of the two, a couple paces away.

“I don’t know,” the man answered. Rice noticed the fresh stitches on the man’s lower lip.

“Bullshit!” Rice shouted, and fixed his sights on Drake. Gesturing to the other man, he asked, “What’s his name?”

“He doesn’t know,” Drake repeated. “And I’m sorry. I remember you: Rice O’. I’m sorry for—”

“Shut the hell up,” Rice ordered. He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a phone, balancing the rifle in his other arm. He’d never dialed 911 before. As it rang, he reflected on that. He might have had plenty of reasons to in his lifetime, but Punk and authority were opposing factions. It took a big fucking deal for either side to cross that barrier and ask for help from the other.

The operator picked up the other end.

 

 

Sand grit against the man’s knees and dress shoes.

“Friend of yours?” the man asked Drake.

Drake shook his head. “I used to be a fan of his band.”

The punk held the phone away from his ear, and gestured between both of them with the rifle. “Hey, both of you shut up.”

The man pressed his teeth together. He could feel that he was getting severely sunburned from being out for so long. It didn’t feel good on his open wound. The goal then was to steal the punk’s car and drive to a pharmacy where he could get some aloe vera or any other sunburn remedy, and an inane amount of pain killers.

“I’m on the highway East out of San Samarra,” the punk said, “and I am pointing a rifle at the head of Drake Reddick. No, not like that: there’s a warrant out for his arrest. Look it up. Then fucking google it. I won’t kill him if you get here before he tries to run. I’m at…”

The punk took the phone away from his ear again, and looked past the man and Drake for some kind of exit sign or mile marker, but found none, because he soon turned in the other direction. The man was off his knees and into the punk’s back full force before the punk could report that he was near mile marker eleven. The man yanked the rifle from the punk’s hands, but the punk held on, a hell of a lot stronger than the man would’ve thought given the punk’s age. Late forties at the very youngest. The punk headbutt and the man jolted back. The punk kneed the man in the chest and the man fell over. The punk fired a round right next to the man’s head. The man couldn’t hear all of the words the punk said afterwards, through the ringing, but toward the end he made out the phrase “Warning Shot” and other shouted expletives.

The man looked at the crater formed in the sand by the bullet, not more than two inches from his face. Jesus. The punk wouldn’t think for a second

that the man would attack so shortly after that but he did, kicking out backwards and tripping the punk into the sand so that the anarchy symbol on his forehead landed directly on his own fired round, not lethal anymore, but ironic, and that could hurt too once the punk had time to reflect on it. While the punk was still falling the man had taken the rifle from him and now stood on top of him, one dress shoe digging deep into the punk’s back

and then knocking the butt of the rifle into the punk’s head.

Drake was off his knees and approaching the man by this point, but the man turned the rifle on Drake’s chest, and Drake stopped.

The man inhaled, exhaled, and spoke: “I want you to remember that right now, in this moment, I am choosing not to kill you. I am choosing not to wait here for the police and turn you in for the warrant money. It’s because I think you have changed after all.”

Drake turned the punk over onto his back, checked for a pulse and breathing, and later reported that he had found both. He took the punk’s phone, and said to the 911 operator, “Mile eleven,” before the man could snatch it out of his hands, hang up, and put it on airplane mode. The man took the rifle and threw it in the back seat before he took the wheel, with Drake riding passenger.

 

 

Rice woke up to the sound of cars screaming past his head. His head was a glass jar cracked in half. He reached back and felt blood. Purple blood, from mixing with the blue dye of his mohawk. He tried to sit up but was nauseous and couldn’t handle the movement. He inched his hand under his head again and probed, feeling a wetness—blood—but no massive gaping wound. No bone. It was a question of will then. If nothing physically was stopping Rice from standing up, Lord help him, he would stand the fuck up.

And he did. He got up to sitting, vomited to his side—can’t ruin such a nice Cramps shirt, not that barfing on it would make much difference—and then stood the rest of the way, teetering on his feet. He stumbled towards his car. His car. Where was… “FUCK!” Rice shouted into the sky. He looked down, almost falling over from such a drastic change in perspective (something’s not right) and saw that his rifle was also taken. Phone too. Rice stumbled up out of the sand and onto the road.

There wasn’t traffic. There were cars, but very spaced out, none of them competing for place. Rice waved out at the first car, and it screamed by him. He shouted back, calling the driver a cuntfucker whore and then stumbling into the road, standing on the dashed white line between the only two oncoming lanes of traffic. The next car braked and tried to swerve around Rice, but he jumped in its path. A rib might have cracked on the hood. He heard something crack, but didn’t know if it was a car part or a him part. He was already cracked. His brain leaked through the back of his skull, and holy God did he feel every oozing second. Rice removed himself from the hood and got in the passenger seat.

“Drive me somewhere you motherfucker or so help me God you will wish you’d run me the fuck over and never looked back.”

The driver’s hands shook on the wheel as he went. Rice considered that maybe he’d been too assertive, but didn’t spend too much time on that.

Rice didn’t ask to go to a hospital. He would go to one afterwards, and save himself a trip. He gave the driver directions to the outskirts of San Samarra, where a storage facility butted against the open desert, and then got out of the car. The driver sped away before Rice’s door had finished closing.

Rice walked out into the desert, about a hundred feet. The sun was coming down, the underside of the blazing circle just touching the horizon, flattening against it, the world around him melting as his own head did the same.

Decades ago, Johnny Hick had left La Meseta, walking away from Brackney and into the desert. After a fruitless year of trying to track The Immortal, Rice had decided to take a different route. He’s gotten a map and a ruler and a marker, and he drew a straight line out of Brackney, exactly as The Immortal had left.

In the distance, Rice saw a man approaching. He had his rifle slung across his chest, and a jagged skull for a face.


Chapter 4

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.


Chapter 5

The man and Drake walked through the front doors of the high rise and into the lobby. It was large, like the lobby of a big expensive hotel. The man wasn’t entirely sure what the purpose of the building was, but there was a jittering in his chest like radar, telling him he was definitely in the right place.

“Where now?” Drake asked.

“Elevators,” the man answered. “We want to be on the second highest floor.”

Drake nodded, and the two proceeded to the elevators on the other end of the room. As they waited for one, Drake made a request. “Whatever’s up there, please, don’t kill anyone.”

“What kind of movie do you think we’re in?” the man asked. “That weirdo on the highway was part of your story, not mine. For all we know there’s a very boring office up there, and I’m just going to get scolded for being late to work.”

“You didn’t make the promise,” Drake said.

“Look who’s learning,” the man said. He smiled, partially because he was proud of Drake for showing any sign of intelligence, and partially because of the laughable amount of painkillers he was on. He poked himself hard in the ribs, really digging into himself, and felt nothing whatsoever. He smiled a little more. “How about this: I won’t kill anyone unless they try to kill me first.”

“You’ll bait them,” Drake said. “Come on. I don’t think I’m asking a lot.”

The elevator doors opened.

“Okay,” the man said. “Fair enough. Maybe who’s up there is on my side and I’ll regret having killed them later. So I won’t. Happy?”

Drake and the man stepped into the elevator.

As they rode up, the man wondered what he was supposed to be feeling. It probably wasn’t tension (not the abstract notion of tension, but a real tension, like he was being pulled in opposite directions by his head and his feet). He probably wasn’t supposed to be keeping an ear out for footsteps on the elevator’s roof. He probably wasn’t supposed to train his breathing to match with the floors they ascended, so he’d be ready for it if someone got in the cabin and he had to neutralize them. Neutralize probably wasn’t in everyone’s default vocabulary.

The elevator doors opened. Drake and the man were hit by a bright light and a rank blast of air. The man stepped out of the elevator and onto sand. They were outside. Clear blue sky in a bustling marketplace. The man turned and saw Drake walking out of the elevator doors, which on the outside, had become tent flaps. They flapped shut as soon as Drake exited, and when they flapped back open again, the elevator was gone and the man and Drake were stranded.

Stranded where? The man looked around.

Foods for sale. Dried things. Barrels of grains. Electronics sitting on shelves and ceramics hanging from thin ropes under merchants’ tents. People moving through all of it so densely that the man was being jostled left and right, and had nowhere to go to get out of their way.

What the hell had the man found in this high rise?

The man was then touched on the shoulder, and the people in the marketplace faded. The tents remained. The air was still thick with the smell of human body odor, dried meats, and all types of spice. The sky was still blue and there were still many footprints left in the sand, but suddenly, the world felt empty. The man turned to see who had touched him, and was faced with Death.

Death’s face was jagged and pale. It stared into the man, deeper than the skin, and the man wondered if maybe there was such thing as the soul, because Death seemed to be so intently looking at his.

“Liam Jacques,” Death said, and the man swallowed, and nodded. “Come with me.”

Liam and Death walked side by side through the still marketplace. Drake flanked them, following behind, keeping up, but weary of those who walked so calmly through this place of ending.

“Where are we?” Liam asked. He hadn’t been able to narrow it down further than the Middle East.

“Baghdad,” Death answered. “Ask the question you really want to.”

“No offense,” Liam said. “I don’t know if I can count you as a trustworthy source of information.”

“You were born in Canute, Oklahoma to Frank and Linda,” Death continued anyways. “Your hometown was boring, but your dad ran a small movie theater in the next town over, and you went to work with him whenever you could to watch the exciting films. You saw some a dozen times. You wanted to be like the characters in them. So you got analytical. You studied. And you learned. You left home after high school to become an FBI agent. You didn’t have a degree but you tested well and they accepted you into a shorter, more direct program. Your name was Liam Jacques.”

Liam kicked at the sand. “Cool. Thank you, really. I won’t take your word for it, but that sounds about right.”

Death continued. “You were undercover, pretending to be a member of a gang in San Samarra. You got too into your role. Against mission guidelines, you tried to rescue another gangster from a lunatic with a knife. You got stabbed. The other gangster got killed. Your gangster boss found out about all of it, and didn’t like that you let the other one die. He had you taken out to the desert, and left there as an example. This man saved your life. The next day you discussed coming here while eating vegetarian tacos. Satisfied?”

“They were really burritos, come to think of it,” Liam said. He walked a little bit further away from Death. Enough space that a third person would be able to walk between them very comfortably. Liam’s skin was getting cold on the side that was closer to the Reaper.

Death took off his mask. Liam, master of masters in observation, hadn’t noticed that Death was wearing one. But there it was in Death’s hand, the face of a skull, jagged and pale.

Liam looked at Death’s real face. It was young. Handsome. So handsome that he looked like he should have been a movie star, but then, maybe this wasn’t Death’s real face either.

Death held out the skull mask. He stopped walking through the marketplace, and turned back to Drake, who froze. “I wanted to give this to you,” Death said, holding the mask forward to Drake. “I’ve wanted to for a long time.”

Liam could see the hair on Drake’s arms stand on end, not just metaphorically. “Nothing you say,” Drake said. “Nothing you could ever say. Nothing, will get me to take that from you.”

Death nodded. “Okay. I’m sorry to hear that.”

Liam was listening to Death as he spoke, but he was paying attention to something in Drake. Something in his eyes. A look just below the surface. A faint recognition. The same one Drake had when he saw the punk on the highway. “You recognize him,” Liam said.

Death gave a curious glance to Liam, and then faced Drake full on.

Drake swallowed, and nodded. “You’re Johnny Hick. From Brackney, in La Meseta, California.”

Johnny Hick nodded. “Nice to finally meet you.”

Drake was lost for words at that.

Johnny then continued to walk through the empty marketplace, and Liam followed by his side.

“So if he won’t take it,” Johnny said, holding out the skull mask to his side

which made Liam jump away, get in a fighting stance, as though Johnny had just tried to stick Liam with a knife.

Johnny nodded, slowly. He held the mask out in front of himself, and looked at it. Goodbye, old friend, he seemed to say. He brought the mask forward and gave it a kiss on the mouth, and then faced Liam. “Let me convince you.”

 

 

Johnny froze time. The man had no choice. That endless day in Baghdad, Johnny showed Death to a blank man named Liam. He showed blood spilling in The Battle of Bunker Hill, Johnny gutting British Loyalist after Loyalist until his blade broke off inside one of them. He showed the black smell of The Plague, and every dying, feeble, exhausted cough that fell from the lungs of the people. He showed Liam the single cell of the first organism on Earth to pass away. He showed Liam every death to happen on the planet since then, in detail. He showed Liam every act of slaughter. Every sickness. He showed Liam what it was like when he got stabbed in the jaw by a madman, all the pain that it caused, don’t you ever forget the pain that it caused. He showed Liam himself dying in the desert sand at night, and he showed the savior that was sent by Death to rescue him. He showed Liam all of the tyrants slain by Johnny’s sword, rifle, or plague. He showed Liam a world where he hadn’t killed these tyrants, and it was more repulsive than all of the bloodshed Liam had seen prior to that. He showed Liam a world where nobody died at all, how full it was, a throbbing, festering biomass of trillions collapsing the earth in on itself, crushing one another under their collective impossible weight. He showed Liam how the quality of life had been improved through the sciences seeking to fight against their mortal shackles, fight to understand it, fight to get the most from their time. He showed Liam all of the art o beautiful masterpiece that had been inspired by the coming and passing of life. He showed the churches, the sanctuaries, the parties, the support groups, all made to help mankind band together against their one true enemy, disparate without him. Liam saw that Johnny, o miracle of miracles, was a hero.

 

 

Liam reflected on his life. For most of it, he was singular. For a day, since waking up in the hotel room until just moments ago, he had been an empty vessel. And now Liam was an uncountable plurality, too much to contain within a human mind.

He took the skull mask in his hands. He accepted his new role as Hero; as Angel; as Death. He fit the mask over his face. Around him, he saw the city on fire.


Chapter 6

Three lives and a bloody nose. Those were the transgressions. That was what Drake had to make up for, and nothing more. He thought about how he would phrase his request.

The wolf and the deer sat on a park bench in a calmer part of Baghdad. Johnny had left to go meet with the other gods. The people in the marketplace had returned, and time had resumed. Nobody was any the wiser that the antagonist had just changed under their noses.

The deer’s mask fit over the top of his head, leaving the muzzle free. The antlers had to go, for the mask to fit. It didn’t seem like that much of a sacrifice. There were open wounds on each side of the deer’s head where the antlers would go, partially covered by whitewood. Soon the wounds would heal over the wood, and the mask would be unremovable, as much as the antlers had been.

“So,” the wolf said. “Liam. It’s a good name.”

The deer shook his head. “It was a good name. But I’m not Liam Jacques anymore. It’s too single. I like the sound of Malak. It means angel, in some languages.”

“So… why not just use Angel?” Drake asked.

“Malak sounds cooler,” the deer said, smiling under his mask. “I might’ve used Drake, ‘cause it’s like a big evil dragon, but you took that already, so screw you buddy.”

Drake sat a little more upright on the bench. He took a breath in. His breath was something to savor now. Now that he was sitting on a park bench with the Reaper. Now that he was asking Death a favor. “Three lives and a bloody nose,” Drake said. “That’s what damage I caused in Foxboro. I’ve been trying to make up for it since then, and I saved your life in the desert, so that’s one. But now I know that every life I save after this won’t matter, because you’ll just take a thousand more while I’m not looking. So I have a favor to ask.”

The deer remained silent. The wolf couldn’t tell, through the mask, what kind of expression the deer wore.

“Spare two,” the wolf said. “At you discretion. Just don’t take them right when you’re supposed to.”

Malak nodded. “I can agree to that. How about the bloody nose?”

“I’ll do one better than a bloody nose,” the wolf said. “I’m going to fix a broken heart. I just have to fix myself first.”

Malak nodded. As though waking up, Drake then found himself in his hotel room in Bellpond. This time though, his conscience was clear: Drake, human, began to meditate.

 

 

Rice sat in his very own room in the hospital. On some level, he’d expected to share the room with some stranger. That was always how it went, right? Two strangers get stuck in hospital beds side by side, and over the course of their stay, one of them learns something from the other. Maybe one of them dies, to really sell it.

But Rice wasn’t stuck in a room with a stranger. Much to his surprise, he was stuck with a visitor.

“Wow,” Sharyn said from the doorway. Very first thing.

Rice had bandages wrapped around his thighs and around his head. The ones around his head covered his anarchy tattoo. The doctors had cut Rice’s shirt off in the search for more open wounds, so his chest and back tattoos were shown off in full. Sharyn recognized every band name.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Rice said. He pushed the button that sat his hospital bed up. He didn’t like that it was electric. He wanted it to be mechanical like a reclining chair. A more satisfying movement for a warrior like himself. Instead he was stuck with the old-folks-home technology. As the bed rose, he continued, “Really. The doctors were amazed at how easy it was to stop all the bleeding.”

“So what happened?” Sharyn asked, sitting in the room’s chair beside the bed.

Rice, now sitting upright, frowned at Sharyn. “I lost. I tried to kill Johnny for everything he did in ‘85, and I lost, bad.”

“John did this?”

“Yeah,” Rice said, laughing through the word, drawing it out into three syllables: Yeah-heh-heh. “It was fucking brutal. What are you doing here so fast? I didn’t just wake up from a coma, did I?”

“I live here, smartass,” Sharyn said, rolling her eyes. “My phone was exploding over a Punk Legend being carted into the hospital, and I thought it might be worth driving a few blocks to go check it out.”

Rice nodded. “Hey, I gotta know,” he said, sitting cross-legged atop the hospital bed. He wouldn’t realize until after Sharyn had left that his wounds—all of them—were healed under the bandages. “Did Johnny ever tell you his real name?”

“’Fraid not,” Sharyn said. She leaned back in her chair. “Even when we were dating. He was always just John.”

Rice nodded. “Worth a shot. Thanks. One more thing?”

“Shoot.”

“A couple years ago, Yote offered me a spot in Flashpoint Zero. I didn’t give him an answer, but I finally made up my mind: if you guys ever get back together… I want in. Joey too. Tell Yote I said that.”


Chapter 7

Malak sat at a table in a pub, slowing the passage of time. He could grind it down to bullet time, then steal bar peanuts from people’s hands before they reached their mouths. The perfect crime. Malak felt he was using his second chance in life to the fullest.

He had his eyes on a man and a woman at the bar. The man was a giant. Robust felt like the word, even if the man had walked into the pub on a cane. Red hair and red beard. Laughing loud at most things the woman said. This was the man who stabbed him.

The woman was of real interest to Malak. She claimed to be named Charlotte when introducing herself to others in the pub, but that was a lie. Charlatan. She wore a mask that the others couldn’t see. It was constructed from the same material as Malak’s. Whitewood. Expertly carved. This made him curious about her, and so, she was the first one Malak spared.

 

 

At night, outside an unnamed gas station in La Meseta. Malak watched as people gathered. They all held candles near their chests, in memory of a missing man named Yote.

A lot of them dressed like the punk who had held a gun to Malak and Drake by the highway. One of them was, in fact, the very same man. Rice Henderson. Rice O’. Rice Something—or just Rice. Nearby Rice in the candlelight were other people of significance. Ruben Craig, or Ruben Reid. Joseph Epstein, or Joey Low Action. Sharyn. Just Sharyn.

Malak wondered about her. How she could live a life for so long with just one name to all of it. Had she never changed?

Malak—not The Man nor Liam Jacques—wondered.

 

 

Malak stood outside a house in Canute, Oklahoma. It was raining and nighttime. He had frozen the night to a standstill, and the raindrops hung in place. A sky of potential energy that was going to crash down soon, but for the infinite moment, stood still.

Sitting inside the living room window, like displays in a museum; please, don’t touch. They sat in soft reclining chairs. Linda was upright, and Frank was leaned back in his seat. Both of them front-lit by the TV. They didn’t look happy in the way that happy looked in movies: no big smiles, no holding hands. They watched the news. Frank’s eyes were half closed.

Please, for the love of my God the Lord, don’t make me touch them tonight.

Malak remembered: he was allowed to save one more. Obligated. He held onto the moment for a little while longer. Time could be slowed and stopped, but not reversed. He couldn’t go back to when this house was his. He couldn’t even go back to when Frank and Linda wanted to move, but were afraid that their son wouldn’t know how to find his way back to them. He could only wait, in the moment that his dad was supposed to die, and wonder if it was crueler to leave him when he was supposed to be moving on.

He could only walk away. Forced—obligated—to come back later.

But that was later. Malak had time.

 

 

In the snow, warm behind his mask. He watched Drake, standing in front of an old house in Foxboro, and he understood why Johnny had chosen both of them as candidates for the mask. They weren’t so different, on the inside.

He watched as a passing car parked in the middle of the road. The driver got out and walked up to Drake. The two men embraced. Malak was unseen, but gave Drake a thumbs up. Good job, friend. Way to make even.

Drake got in the passenger seat of the car, and the two drove away from Foxboro without sharing a word. Why bother? It was what both of them wanted. The first words between them in years would be spoken later that night in a motel, the whispered words I still love you and the whispered response I love you too.

 

 

In a church steeple in the morning. In San Samarra, of all places. And the woman in the whitewood mask. He had given her three more years. But that was really all he could afford to give her. He shouldn’t have even given her that.

Malak killed her atop the Church of Apollyon steeple. Fitting? He wasn’t sure anymore.

He walked back down the steeple steps, and out the front doors of the church. He sat on the curb all night, letting time pass as it was supposed to. Trying to remember what it was like when he’d been one of them.

 

 

The next day, people began to arrive. First the giant man, Aidan O’Moran. He entered the front doors of the church and locked every door behind himself. Soon, his people were gathered on the streets out front, joining hands in jubilant prayer.

Next, people in rainbows gathered on either sidewalk: women holding hands with women, and men with men. Among them were Drake and Regis. A marching band could be heard approaching in the distance.

Last to gather were those with black jackets and spiked out hair. With them came Sharyn, Jace, Rice, and Joey. The new Flashpoint Zero found their way onto the roof of the building across the street from the church. As Jace plays her first chord, Malak freezes time.

He’s done a lot of work to figure out that this is the moment. This is, for Earth, as good as it gets. He can’t go back or he would. Maybe there were better times before this. But he can’t undo anything. For now, he can only leave it, and be glad for the people he looks out on, because he’s left them in a moment when they have what they want.

He takes off his mask.

He sets it on the ground.

He stands up, and he goes to check on everyone, everywhere, just to be sure he got it right.

 

The End











Creative Commons (and Copyright) Notice

Creative Commons License
Set on Earth by Ray Thompson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License as of Tuesday, May 9, 2017. Have fun folks.
For permissions beyond the scope of this license, or just to say hi, talk to me at http://retribution.fm/about/contact.

Previous Copyright Notice:

All stories in this book were written by Ray Underscore Thompson and published to various sites on the internet at various points in time. Many have been updated, in small or large ways, since publication. The Graffiti Artist © October 9th, 2015, Ray Underscore Thompson, who cannot remember the circumstances under which the story was written nor where it was first released, which bothers him greatly. Well, Shit © March 9th, 2014, Ray Underscore Thompson, first released for critique by The Shut Up & Write Critiquecast. Janine © April 2015, Ray Underscore Thompson, first released for critique by Words Imperfect. 138 © May 28th, 2016, first released to retribution.fm after being rejected by a literary magazine. The Brilliant Disguises of John Vaughn © March 16th, 2016, Ray Underscore Thompson, first released to retribution.fm after being rejected by a different literary magazine. The Origins of Three or Four Punk Legends and One Hell of a Rock Band © July 27th, 2015, Ray Underscore Thompson, now heavily revised after being released as part of a much worse book called The Silence Before. Prophet © July 27th, 2015, Ray Underscore Thompson, also first released as part of The Silence Before, but having required significantly less revision than The Origins of Three or Four Punk Legends and One Hell of a Rock Band. Phantom Limb © February 5th, 2013, Ray Underscore Thompson, first released under a different title on a now defunct website, then majorly revised in 2015 for rerelease in The Silence Before. The Music © Ray Underscore Thompson, released as a web serial to retribution.fm over the course of eleven months and two days. Meanwhile in Baghdad © November 16, 2016, Ray Underscore Thompson, first released to retribution.fm as the final piece in the Set on Earth collection.

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