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ONE: MY HATE CRIME
CHARLIE BALTIMORE MURDERED ME when we were eight years old.
We had broken into his dad’s—my uncle’s—home office because we’d watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and because his dad had recently bought a handgun. It was a walnut-handled .38 with a snub nose that his dad bought because he was nervous living so close to Chicago, and Charlie wanted to show me the click noise that guns make in the movies when the heroes or villains run out of bullets. I stood in the earth-toned office with a yardstick in my hand, doing the best sword moves my arms could muster, complete with the most menacing face anyone had surely ever seen. Charlie smiled and pointed what was supposed to be an empty gun at me and pulled the trigger.
The gun kicked in his hand and put a bullet1 in the wall eight inches behind my chest, tearing a hole in my lung, nicking a ventricle of my heart, and spattering the wall behind me a deep shade of suburban tragedy. I don’t remember it hurting; mostly I just remember Charlie screaming the gender-neutral scream that only an eight-year-old can make, followed by everything going dim and weightless.
The rest of the evening was fuzzy. I remember a lot of jostling: my brain being jostled as my Aunt Mar put my head on a pillow on her lap while we waited for the ambulance, muttering, “Ah Jesus. Ah Christ Jesus, just breathe, Moses”; jostling as Charlie buried his sobbing face into his mother’s arm, holding my sleeve; jostling as a large Ambu bag was fitted over my face before two very big men wheeled me out of the house.
The ambulance smelled like electronics and plastic and rubbing alcohol.
At some point, between snapshots of consciousness, we got to the hospital where the jostling stopped because gunshot wounds are nasty business, and for three minutes Charlie Baltimore was a murderer.
I know what happened because I’ve heard the story a hundred times:
They lost you for those three minutes until they found you again.
It was bleak.
Grim. Darkest—pardon the language—but the darkest fucking hours of my life.
You were lying there, and then the EKG started monotoning. At least that’s what the doctor says.
We were hysterical. We didn’t even know about the flatline until after.
Both just sobbing in the hall.
No, that’s only something they do in the movies—they only use shock pads to fix a heart that isn’t beating right.
I just—I’d rather just skip to the part where—
They were about to call it when you came back.
You sucked this great big gulp of air in.
Tension pneumothorax. Had to put the chest tube between the lung and the chest wall.
It was a mess. The bullet broke apart.
Then the machine—right, the EKG—started beeping again.
Not that I remember any of that, obviously. I just remember the jostling and then all of a sudden being very thirsty because it had become three days later. The doctors had brought me around and I was lying in a bed that was much too big for me with tubes running out of my arms and my parents were sitting on the edge of the hospital mattress.
Sometime before I woke up, my parents had put a huge Superman shirt on me, like it was something I’d grow into—since death had apparently lost its sway over me.
I don’t know if I dreamt it, and I never asked, but I seem to remember my mom twirling my hair through her fingers before I woke up. She was sitting with me, running her hand through my hair, and I remember starting to hear her words midway through her sentence.
“… thought that all the beams that held me up inside were going to freeze and fall apart if you didn’t wake up, sweetie.”
I blinked and they were all standing around my bed.
My father looked like someone who’d been told that his son had been shot in the chest and had spent the whole night picking out which clothes to bury his kid in. My mother looked more like a person who’d come back from the dead than I probably did—like she kept disappearing, if only just inside herself and only until she snapped back to the raw and focused world.
They were holding hands, which was something I hadn’t seen them do since Dad had moved out the year before.
When Charlie came to visit the next day, he brought me his Nintendo DS to christen this new, post-trauma version of us. It was the first time I saw the unstoppable look in his eyes. There had been lessons on both sides of that barrel: one that said, “You can put a bullet through my heart and I will rise again,” and one that said, “I can pull the trigger and it will not keep you down.”
* * *
Like so many evenings for high school juniors that begin with the perfect storm of boredom, teenage hormones, and a wild abundance of free time, this one began with the disposal of a body. We barreled down the empty main drag in town, spiraling up tails of December snow in our wake.
“Shit Moses, go! Go go go go go!”
“Stop yelling!” I yelled. “Freddie’s fucking dying on us. He’s gonna fucking die,” I said more to myself than to Charlie.
“Don’t you fucking doubt Freddie!”
I risked a look over my shoulder to see if we were being followed. There was a very good chance that we’d been spotted and the police had since been called. But in the frantic sideways glance over my shoulder, I didn’t yet see flashing sirens; I saw the large, human-shaped pile under the blanket in the back seat that was banging back and forth with each unsteady turn we made.
“Do you think Harper saw us?” I asked Charlie, my eyes beaming down each side street that we passed. We were headed for the unincorporated patch of woods at the edge of town—the closest thing to no-man’s-land that stood between our sleepy little town of Guthrie and the much more awake Greenfield, which paled wildly next to Chicago, just seven miles north of that town line. I turned down the radio so that I could focus better.
“He’s a priest, of course he did! Guy has the eyes of God!”
“Minister,” I said, still half-looking at the rearview mirror.
“Harper’s a minister, not a priest—” I cut the wheel left, hard, sending the car fishtailing around the corner, bouncing the wheels off the snowdrift and making the ABS whir. “He’s a minister of a Protestant church.”
Charlie grunted and twisted in his seat, checking behind us. A hand fell out from beneath the blanket in the back, pointing toward our destination: Pinz!, the bowling alley that was only a mile away, still only a mile away.
“Regardless of his official title—”
Then, red and blue flashing lights erupted into the dark night behind us, maybe two blocks away, because of course we had been seen. “Cops,” Charlie said over the seat. “Floor this motherfucker! Freddie, don’t you even think about dying on us.”
But Freddie didn’t answer.
Even though the heater didn’t work, I felt my body going hot and my ears turning red, matching the red and blue lights flash-flooding into the car. Flooring it is exactly what I did not do. The squad car was blazing up behind us and I slowed down enough to make the sharp right turn on the dirt road that would wind us through unincorporated land, right to the bowling alley. We went skidding onto the icy road as the cops blazed past us, the sirens changing quality as the squad car spun uncontrollably.
“Holy shit,” I said to the rearview mirror.
“Holy shit is right,” Charlie agreed. Then, hammering the dash with his open palm, “Come on Miracle Boy, go! Go go go!” He was smiling while he said it, while the small-town cops were pirouetting on the ice behind us, because we thought that we were juggernauts.
When you’ve come back from the dead, it’s hard to imagine any other rules applying to you. Even when the police have been called, even when the minister witnesses the first of your numerous crimes that night … when your cousin calls you Miracle Boy, you remember how unstoppable you are. I flipped the headlights off so we’d blend into the night as we wound down the dirt road before being dumped into the lefts and rights of the moonlit industrial street behind Pinz!. We peeled into the lot, lit by one streetlamp whose bulb cast a circle of yellow light filled with dreamy snowflakes.
The streetlamp flickered out as we careened past it, sliding to a stop near the dumpsters in the back. The sirens were bouncing off the buildings just a few blocks away, the police still looking for us as we threw the doors open and ejected ourselves from the car.
“Grab the rope!” I said as I clicked the trunk button for him and flung open the back door.
He didn’t need to be told; he was already headed for it. We were running on two hundred percent—an already well-oiled machine, power-injected with a cocktail of adrenaline and a fresh batch of Brain Evulsion. The sheet had loosed itself from the body in the back and its lifeless eyes found mine in the harsh light. I tucked the white sheet under and around it while Charlie pulled the neatly coiled rope through a hole in an old crate in the trunk marked Live Snakes.
The body was stiff but didn’t weigh enough to stop us. I pulled it onto the lot and Charlie looped the rope under its arms. Its ankles in hand, we headed for the rusty ladder leading to the roof of the bowling alley.
Just like all of the other—albeit cop-less—nights, this was going to be the hard part.
Charlie jumped onto the ladder, trailing the rope with one gloved hand and climbing with the other. He popped his head over the edge of the roof, said, “Ready. Go!” and then started hoisting the rope, pulling the shape under the sheets toward the roof. From below, I supported the weight as best I could, balancing the cold, stiff feet on my shoulders until finally, grunting and cursing, we made it to the roof.
The sirens had gone silent and dark.
“We’re doing this, man. We’re doing it!” Charlie said, stage whispering.
We stood the body up on the stage made of wooden pallets we’d lashed together. This was not the first night powered by Brain Evulsion; we’d spent the last month getting everything together, making sure it was all as perfect as we could possibly make it. The other shapes, huddled under dark sheets, sat silent in the night.
“You ready?” I asked as I secured the feet of the last body.
He didn’t answer; he just smiled and ripped the sheet off like a lounge act pulling the cloth from beneath the crystal glasses full of brilliantly clear water.
We’d seen the man with the beard thousands of times. The most famous carpenter in the world. The Wine Maker. The Fish Giver. But we’d never seen him like this.
Jesus stood before us, his plastic electric guitar slung by his side and his finger pointed at the ground. The minister, Harper, had gotten Rock ’n’ Roll Jesus on special order with the hope of getting the kids excited about religion.
I aimed his arm up, pointing it toward the clouds and the city and past all of the innumerable onlookers that would drive by in the morning. Behind me, Charlie started taking the other sheets off.
He tore the bulbous low-to-the-ground sheet off of Plastic Buddha, who sat with his bass guitar comfortably in his lap. (Only Jesus had brought his own instrument. The rest we’d bought at garage sales or garbage-picked.) On drums—which were way harder to bring up a ladder than plastic religious deities—Vishnu sat with four drumsticks, poised for the best drum solo the universe had ever seen. Behind the mic, the Lou Reed cutout was on lead vocals with his hands taped to the microphone and a yarmulke rubber-banded to his head. When we couldn’t easily find a figure to stand in for Muhammad, we settled on hanging an enormous Pakistani flag behind the band.
“Cops?” he called over to me, the sheets draped over his arms.
I skirted the edge of the building and, when I didn’t see anything, I gave him two very enthusiastic thumbs-up. He nodded and went back to working on the cords. We ran hot with Brain Evulsion—an unholy combination of No-Snooz trucker pills, black coffee, hot sauce, and Mountain Dew—and we were unbeatable for it.
“Does it smell funny up here?” he called over his shoulder.
“What?” I didn’t smell anything, and I didn’t think to realize that maybe him asking a question like that was a red flag. In all of the night’s torrential adrenaline, I forgot who I was dealing with; I forgot I was with Charlie Baltimore.
“You don’t think it smells funn—nothing, never mind.”
“It’s a bowling alley, of course it smells funny. Probably the dumpsters.”
“Okay, let’s do it!” he said. He had managed to shuffle his cigarettes out of his pocket and was contorting around the armful of sheets to light a Winchester.
“Wait!” I said. “I almost forgot.” I started patting my pockets, looking for the Glo-Paint Sakura marker I’d brought. And even though for a second I’d thought I’d forgotten it, of course I found it because we were unstoppable.
Across Buddha’s big loving belly I wrote, And the Lords said, “Let there be jams.” The words showed up green and lurid in the night, and lo, they were perfect.
I dropped to my heels, connected the orange extension cord under the pallets, and jabbed the play button down on the old paint-stained and sticker-covered radio at the foot of the stage—a cheaper and more dramatic alternative to leaving an iPhone behind. We waited in heavy and humid silence to see if it would work: if, just this once, all of the elements would work together in perfect harmony for us.
Radio static through the boom box.
Hissing nothingness from the speakers that were supposed to be playing the mix CD we’d made.
The band looked through us, their instruments ready to go, unity through rock and roll crackling beneath their sacred fingers.
Lolling siren lights scanned for us with red swooping eyes.
I stayed crouched in front of the boom box, willing it to sing. Praying to all the gods before me to make the damned thing work.
And then everything.
The opening chords to Guns ’n’ Roses’s “Sweet Child o’ Mine” were like a holy javelin of rock and roll that exploded into the night. It was the only song we’d put on the CD: all twenty-three tracks were the very same, and they were set to repeat.
“Yes. Okay, go! Go go!” I shouted back to Charlie, who was waiting at the edge of the roof.
Charlie was already sliding down the icy ladder, his coat flying out behind him in a cloud of nicotine. I didn’t turn into a pillar of salt when I looked back; I watched the gods of rock play under a banner of white icicle lights. They were the greatest band in the history of time and culture, equalized under the gospel of rock and roll.
And in the morning, when all of the bleary-eyed people found the ladder locked, they would have to see it. They’d have to see all of their gods that they couldn’t agree on, all playing the same song, and they’d have to stop and stand still and listen.
An act of love and unity as absurd as hate and destruction.
Something big and bawdy and beautiful.
Something only a superhero could pull off.
I shot down the ladder and closed the gate around it, latching it shut with a padlock that we’d brought ourselves, as Charlie dove into the driver’s seat. There were only so many roads for the cops to check before they found their way to Pinz! and the music was loud enough that we wouldn’t have been able to hear their sirens if they were right on top of us. I jumped into the car next to him.
“Hey,” he said, turning to me, pulling the world to a stop. Even in the dark of the car—a darkness made more complete by the overcast winter night and the shadow of the old bowling alley—I could see his face. He was staring straight out over the steering wheel, his eyebrows pinched together, the muscle in the side of his jaw clenched tight. He pulled his hat off and scruffled his short brown hair.
“It’s two days until Christmas.”
After a beat, I said, “Merry Christmas.”
He looked at me, then broke into a big, stupid smile. I held my hand over, palm up, and he slapped it just as he slammed his foot down on the gas. The wheels spun before catching the pavement and launching us forward; we made it twenty feet before the engine made a dropping, thrashing noise and we rolled to a clunky stop.
“Freddie!” Charlie said, banging his fists down at ten and two, before attempting to seduce the engine into working again, saying, “Come on baby,” and trying to get it to turn over. Freddie, the 2002 Mercury, was dead. Smoke bled from beneath the hood and drifted toward the sky.
I splayed my hands out in front of me and closed my eyes, running all of the options we had against all of the options we didn’t. Across the expanse of snow-covered cars and lamps, I saw a single headlight sweep into the lot; it was attached to a cruiser that looked freshly beat up. I knew the cop had seen our car when the red and blue lights came to life and the vehicle started rushing toward us.
My guts turned into a tight, heavy fist. “Charlie. Charlie! Shut up, man, I’m trying to think.” I squeezed my eyes shut harder, focusing on an imaginary dot in my mind; a nexus, a laser point, the middle of a whirlpool. “Okay. I got it: We panic.”
“Way ahead of you, man.”
“No, no, we act like we just got here and found the car because someone stole—just get out and look panicked and out of breath.”
He gave me a dull “That’s it?” look before dropping his shoulders and screaming as he whipped the door open, yelling about goddamned thieves.
“Not hysterical! Do not act hysterical!” I said, grunting, as I climbed out of the car.
We stood next to Freddie while “Sweet Child o’ Mine” started up again. The divine band was framed by two enormous, unlit bowling pins. From the parking lot, the music sounded crisper than it had from the roof as it expanded above us.
The encroaching red and blue strobe lights from the cop car turned our shadows into giant black cutouts against the doors and windows of Pinz! Our negatives flashed, growing and framed by red, then blue, then red, as the cops came careening to a stop in front of us, and I swear that for just a second, in the epileptic chaos of the lights, it looked like the music and lights lined up. For one perfect moment the gods and the world and us played together, all lit by the same uneven glow, and when the music swelled and the lights went brighter, we were looking at a miracle.
When the music started warping and the lights we’d strung up started popping, sending sparks raining down on the flag and the pallets, I realized we weren’t only being busted for stealing Rock ’n’ Roll Jesus—we were also looking at arson charges. The green flag had ignited and dropped, draping around the band. It brought Buddha and Vishnu together in a warm embrace before the flaming polyester melted through and through, igniting the deities and the pallets we’d bolted them to.
The music around us became police sirens and wheels grinding deep into snow.
Somewhere Charlie was yelling, and in that somewhere, my heart was pumping hot pulses of clean and utterly genuine panic in my throat and ears.
And I remembered Charlie asking about the smell.
And I remembered who was standing next to me.
And I thought, No fucking way did you just get me to burn a building down.
The flames licked up from the wooden base, growing with each violent gust of December wind. The heat circled Jesus and Lou Reed, intense enough to light the end of Jesus’s guitar and droop his pointing arm until it addressed me and me alone. Lou Reed toppled, sending tendrils of smoke rising past the yarmulke that was singeing and lighting.
I felt my gloves reach up and grab two fistfuls of hat. I clicked over to autopilot as the officer spilled out of the squad car and demanded we turn around and get on our knees. Hands already on my head, a gun pointed at me for the second time in my life, and my body trembling from the Brain Evulsion, I turned. And out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Charlie was smiling.
Even after all the shit Charlie had pulled over the years—even after the many, many times I’d seen that smile—my first thought was that he was smiling because he knew, somehow, that it was going to be okay. But as we dropped to our knees, I realized what that smile really meant.
“You fucking didn’t,” I said.
“I did,” he said, awestruck, like even he didn’t believe what he was seeing.
He’d finally pulled off the special kind of stupid and reckless stunt he’d always talked about.
In front of us, I could hear the cop barking into his radio that he needed emergency response vehicles. He cut himself off and yelled at us to get on our stomachs. I watched, twisted around with my hands still on my head, as Jesus sank into the flames. Jesus sank how you’d imagine a ship sinking: straight down, permanent, and hugely silent, vertically into the pool of nothingness beneath. In the paradoxically sped-up and slowed-down moment, he eventually melted into an amorphous, bubbling pool of smoldering plastic where all the gods we had thought to steal swirled together into one holy and indefinable mass.
My blood was molten lead and every movement was a heavy gesture through air that had gone thick. The heat from the building was starting to find us; it caressed our faces and made our kneeling shadows shudder in fiery prayer.
Sometimes, when you’ve just inadvertently lit a bowling alley, a handful of gods, and a boom box on fire just a couple days before Christmas, and a police officer is pointing a loaded weapon at you just like your cousin did nearly ten years prior, you can’t help laughing.
You laugh because you’re a miracle and bullets don’t slow you down and because the more you try not to laugh the more you can’t stop. You laugh especially hard because you fell for your cousin’s shit the way you’ve always fallen for it. You laugh because you realize you’re laughing when you should be crying or screaming.
I heard my voice stumbling over words, trying to articulate to the officer that it wasn’t what it looked like, and felt my legs slowly insisting themselves to a standing position since standing had to look less criminal than lying prone in a bowling alley parking lot. The officer pointed his service weapon at me and demanded I get down.
If the fire had been part of Charlie’s stupid, reckless plan, then what the cop did next was something my cousin had failed to imagine: the officer took a step forward, tensed his shoulders, and readjusted his grip on his gun, moving like he was a half second away from pulling the trigger.
And then Charlie’s voice, which, even through the roaring flames, wasn’t filled with the absurd laughter I’d expected. It was the tone of someone who’d expected to watch the fire on the news, not in person, and not with a gun trained on us. It wasn’t the tone of someone who expected a gun pointed at his best friend and cousin.
The tone was rattled. The kind of tone I hadn’t heard from him since we were eight and I was all but dead.
Charlie’s voice cut through the heat as he stood up too, taking a step toward the officer with his own hands up. I didn’t hear what he was saying because the officer was faster and louder than him: Guns ’n’ Roses warbled and drowned in the fire as peaceful, loving Buddha expanded and burst and the startled officer shot Charlie in the head.
Copyright © 2018 by Tyler James Smith