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Nobody paid much attention to the account on the news of the first killing, but it made me feverish with anticipation and dread. I felt dizzy as I listened to the report of what had happened hundreds of miles away. My forehead was dotted with droplets of sweat. Shaun couldn’t help noticing how distracted I’d become. As we sat there together on the couch, I stared at the television screen long after he turned it off.
—Xenie, he said. Are you okay?
I tried to nod my head, but my body wouldn’t respond.
—You’re so pale, he said. What’s the matter?
Shaun was genuinely concerned. He rubbed my cold hands, trying to stimulate some circulation.
I wanted to tell him, but I was overwhelmed by the multiplying images of violence rattling through my mind. The teenage boy walking into the local battle of the bands in the rented veterans hall and pulling out a handgun. He aims his shots squarely at the group onstage. The drummer tumbles backward off his stool. There’s blood on the wall. Another bullet brings the lead singer to his knees. There’s a hole in his chest, but he reaches toward the scattering crowd, arms extended, as if he’s trying to say something.
I needed to be alone. I went upstairs and locked myself in the bathroom. I sat on the floor and waited for the unsettling visions to subside, then I turned on the shower. Usually I loved to sing while I washed. I’d belt out tunes, lyrics half remembered, the sound of my voice obscured by the rush of water and the echo off the ceramic tiles.
But this time, I remained under the pelting stream until it ran ice cold, until my fingerprints vanished in folds of puckering skin. I only opened my mouth to let it fill with water, letting it overflow, until it felt like I was about to choke.
The boy with long hair wakes with a shout, knowing something is wrong. His hand thrashes around, probably searching for a lamp, but the bedside table is empty. He sits upright and clenches the sheets in his fists. He remains motionless while his breath slows and his eyes adjust to the darkness. He’s having trouble remembering something. He combs his brown hair out of his face. He’s fully dressed in strategically ripped jeans and a vintage cowboy shirt. Even his high-top sneakers are laced.
He takes several wobbly steps toward the window. He stretches the kinks out of his trim frame, then slides open the curtains, but no light streams into the room. It’s pitch black outside. Down below, the shadowy expanse of grass, the stand of overgrown boxwoods, and the outline of a concrete pathway creep into focus. His chin drops to his chest. Memory comes flooding back. Oh shit, he’s late.
The boy with long hair turns on his cell phone, winces at the glowing display of the time, and makes a call. Nobody answers. He hangs up without leaving a message. For several moments, he stares into the corner of the room, as if expecting some shape to materialize from the shadows.
He spots a note at the foot of the bed. He cautiously uncreases the paper. The handwriting looks like it was executed underwater. The dissolving letters form a name and street address. Some sort of reminder to himself. At the bottom, he’s inscribed a set of circles, one inside the other, that resembles a target. He seems hypnotized by this increasingly tight series of spirals …
Bands were being shot in the middle of their performances all across the country. The noise duo at the loft party in the Pacific Northwest. The garage rockers at the tavern in the New England suburbs. The jam band at the auditorium on the edge of the midwestern prairie. The bluegrass revivalists at the coffeehouse in the Deep South. There was never any fanfare. The killers simply walked into the clubs, took out their weapons, and started firing.
Everybody was slow to call it an epidemic. They didn’t want to believe these deaths were connected. I tried to discuss it with my coworkers at the diner, but they reacted with raised eyebrows and sideways stares, treating me like the customer who only ordered glasses of chocolate milk and claimed that birds were trying to communicate with him. They keep following me, he said. They never shut their filthy fucking mouths.
I kept my ideas to myself, even though it was clear that the killers weren’t acting in isolation. It was as if they’d all been infected by the same idea. They seemed to be obeying the same subconscious marching orders.
Somehow I knew each act of violence was a prelude to another. The night before each new shooting, I’d find myself closing the curtains throughout the house and pacing figure eights in the bedroom carpet without understanding why. These events seemed like something plucked from my most disturbing daydreams. Whenever I thought about the bodies of the dead musicians, my mind went blank.
Was there some kind of message?
I blew the dust off my old tarot deck. I laid a black cloth on the kitchen table, cut the cards, and arranged them. Each arcanum was illustrated with lurid gothic lines. No matter how many times I shuffled them, I was always confronted by the catastrophic image of the Tower, lightning striking a stone structure, fire leaping from the windows, human figures tumbling through space. It felt like a spell had been cast, giving shape to something formless floating in the air. Part of me worried that somehow I had unleashed it, as if I had accidentally uttered an incantation in my sleep.
The boy with long hair stumbles from the darkened bedroom into a narrow hallway. He lurches past the entrance to the bathroom and flicks a switch. A bare bulb illuminates the worn shag carpet, the old framed photograph, the faded red wallpaper. The walls seem sprayed with a disorienting pattern of violent splotches. Only on closer inspection do they reveal themselves as miniature roses, each interlocking petal intricately etched.
He starts down the staircase and trips on the first steps. Catching himself on the banister, he slows and descends one tentative step at a time. The ground floor of the house is dark. The only sounds are the hum of a distant dishwasher and the squeak of his sneakers across the wooden floorboards. As he navigates the living room, he narrowly avoids banging into the exercise bicycle. He unlocks the front door and sets foot in the yard. The beat-up sedan at the curb beckons.
The boy with long hair slides into the driver’s seat and slaps himself in the face. His eyes flare to life as his cheeks redden. He turns the ignition, revs the engine, and peels into the empty street. The floor is scattered with CDs, but he doesn’t put on any music. He rolls down the windows and lets himself be enveloped by the sounds of the night. As he coasts downhill, swerving through a succession of dimly lit side streets, he consults the note with the address.
He arrives at a cul-de-sac lined with bungalows whose yards alternate between barren dirt patches and knee-high weeds. The car skids to a halt in front of a white stucco house. The front porch is bowed by a molting leather couch. Splintering planks are nailed across one of the windows. The porch light secretes a gauzy malarial glow. The boy sprints up the overgrown walkway and slams his fist against the front door, beating out an enigmatic rhythm …
Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Jackson