In this interview, we talk with Naropa MFA grad, Renee Zepeda, about her book Boy Energy: Notes on Departure, inspiration, and wanderlust.
By Hannah Jones
Mumbai airport has the strange effect of making you feel like a superstar as soon as you set foot in International Arrivals. You’ve been traveling for 48 hours, your hair is now standing up without the assistance of any product, and your clothing emanates the stale scent particular to a cabin after an overnight flight. All of this being as it is and yet the meticulous cosmopolitan atmosphere of the empty terminal makes you feel as if it is the deep breath before the storm of photographers awaiting your arrival in the blinding white of the sandstone courtyard. You have approximately thirty minutes to savor this illusion of glamour before you are through customs, have collected your bags, your driver has collected you, and you ascend the ramp to the Mumbai highway. Five more minutes and you are now driving through the outskirts of the world’s largest slum. The way your stomach drops when the little girl with no hand knocks on your window in deadlock traffic and asks for change is unprecedented, but it is not yet a symptom of culture shock.
You have been in India for nearly a week and are visiting a leprosy colony. Here, a man whose fifteen-year-old son recently died of polio invites you and your companions into the front room of his two room home with great sincerity. His wife prepares chai, she is smiling, always smiling and you cannot find the sadness in her eyes because she is so glad that you have come to visit, but you know it will be there once you have gone. Neither of them speak any English, but they listen with rapt attention as you find some paltry words of sympathy for their loss and equally limp words of thanks for their hospitality. You are secretly glad that they do not speak your language and try to give them greater honesty with your eyes as you slip on your sandals and depart. A hand on your shoulder, the translator explains that the father wants the young woman from the West to encourage his thirteen year old daughter to stay in school. Her parents will never be accepted- touched by a disease that has long since left them, they will never be contagious again, and yet their isolation is complete. They cannot read their own language. They want more for this pretty girl than the life that often waits for a pretty girl in the third world. She is still a child, not so good at hiding the sadness in her eyes- her brother was supposed to carry the hopes of this family on his shoulders. She does not feel ready. She does not feel she will ever be ready. The exhaustion that sets in after you have departed is as visceral, if less violent, than the horror of your first day driving through the slum, but this bone-tired feeling is culture shock.
You have been in India for three weeks and your students are so bright, there is so much in them – they are still young enough that their only asset is love. They bully and make peace and tumble and stand up again and again. They learn so quickly, they grasp what many children back home do not – education is a game, an ever-present and thrilling state of play. Many of them eat their only meal of the day in the school. They serve each other. No one eats until someone else has begun to be made full. In watching them at this routine, you are made full. During the day, the bruises and cigarette burns, the half-attendance, are a part of the day. Underneath the Indian sun, the days have no pale hours, no shadows complete enough for imagination to escape into. But in going back to the apartment, where you dream on their smiles and tears with equal weight, you wake up in the middle of the night and are the emptiest you have ever been. You are angry and guilty and sorry, so sorry. This too is culture shock.
You have been in India in month and just now has it begun to be a part of you, instead of apart from you. Up until now, the dogs warring outside your window, the complete sonic confusion at all hours, the scents and sights have driven you to swim against the current. It is contrary, all contrary, to what you know, but now you have begun to know. You pick up a word here and there. The colors are as bright as the nights are dark. The heat does not so willfully invade because you have begun to notice the breeze. You do not come home from the school with the sneaking sensation that you cannot bear it, you cannot bear the current of sadness, the completeness of the poverty. You have begun to realize it is just life and that it hurts and elates in its own time and that it unfolds to reveal that it is much the same at its core, no matter where you are. You sleep through entire nights. This is adjustment.
Hannah Jones is a certified Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) instructor currently working to improve English literacy among slum children in a community in India. People can follow her adventures and mishaps on her travel blog at: http://bookingpassage.wordpress.com
By Ron Heacock
I did not ask for the gun, but I am honored to have received it. The dogs knew the boy was there before I did and although they tried to warn me, I could not understand. You see, like most rural residents, my dogs are my alarm system. Of course they create a ruckus over almost any disturbance; it doesn’t have to be a threat. The Little One doesn’t see very well and, for some mysterious reason, the others think that she is some kind of early warning system. She hears a pipe ping or catches the shadow of a fluttering leaf and it’s a four alarm fire. The other two idiots just react and amplify.
There is a different kind of barking that they indulge in now and again. That’s when a usurper has crossed into their domain. Traditionally it is another dog. People in my county know better than to wander uninvited onto someone else’s land – you might get yourself shot. When the dogs detect a trespasser they go berserk, like a motion detector has been tripped; some faint seismic activity, invisible and silent to my dull senses, causes repeated alerts at all hours.
That night they started in around midnight. Now, at my age, I don’t normally sleep more than a few hours, but they were ringing the bell every hour on the hour, so by dawn I realized I had not been sleeping at all.
In late June the sun comes up before 5 and even though I had no reason to be up that early, the sun was a welcome excuse to get up already and let the damn dogs out. The lazy mutts usually will not even come down stairs when I go to make the coffee, but they were whining and door scratching. I figured there was a stray sniffing around the chickens.
Being stiff and sleepy, I shuffled down the stairs and opened the front door without even looking. “Git-em,” I mumbled, as they exploded outside, a howling dog tornado. Before I could even get the door latched I heard a ferocious “BANG” and a yipe.
It’s funny how some sounds can just rattle the sleepiness right out of you. I was awake and in the front lawn before I knew how I’d gotten there wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and torn cotton T shirt. The dogs had scattered, Finn and Little One were on the porch already, dazed and panting. The terrier, Loki, was nowhere to be seen. I rounded the corner of the house to confront the source of the noise and caught sight of what appeared to be a teen-age boy dressed in an ill-fitting Yankee civil war re-enactment costume. He was fumbling the breach open, apparently attempting to reload a long barreled rifle. Without thinking I called out, “hey, what the hell…”
He snapped around to face me, bringing the firearm up, its bayonet glinting in the early morning sun. I raised my hands over my head and yelled across the yard to him, “There’s no need for that son. Put down the gun and let’s see what this is about.”
His image seemed to waver in the rising heat. He did not lower the gun. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the intensity of the colors; the green of the covering sugar maples and the lushness of the grass; every blade and leaf stood out separate and vibrating slightly. The rust-red barn behind him and the black wood fence running up to the forest-green tube gate were almost glowing. The sky, an unusual shade of ultramarine, was streaked with tattered wisps of silver.
And then there was his uniform. It was the deepest navy blue; the jacket buttons bright gold. Funny thing I realized later is that there was no heat; the wavering must have been something else, because I didn’t imagine it. The image is burned in my memory as clear as a high resolution photo with its green grass, blue boy and red barn.
I was pretty sure he hadn’t had time to reload and standing a hundred paces in front of me, the bayonet posed little threat. It crossed my mind that if he decided to charge I would look pretty ridiculous, an old man, sprinting through the lawn in my underwear. The thought made me smile. I guess it smoothed my voice out when I said, “Son, you don’t want to hurt no one, lower your weapon and lets you and me have a talk.”
You know, I couldn’t really see his face at that distance. Just the same, I could swear that I saw the tears in his eyes before I heard the sob. He fell to his knees; the bayonet point stuck into the lawn as he bent forward and pressed his face into his hands.
I will always be a father no matter that my children have long ago moved away from home. And that young soldier, even though he was only dressed up as one, crying before me touched a deep place in my heart.
I walked over and knelt beside him. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “I’m not a man who kills widows and babies. She looked like my sister. I will never wash the blood from my hands. Look,” he held his dirty palms up to my face. I did not see any blood. “It has stained them permanent and I will be damned to hell forever for what I have done.”
He just fell over before I could speak. I didn’t know if he was asleep or unconscious. Loki had showed up and he licked at his face. The boy mumbled, “Mercy, please.” At least he wasn’t dead.
I couldn’t leave him out there on the grass, but I had no intention of dragging him into the house. I started up to the porch and turned around thinking, “It might be best if I just put that gun inside for him while I go about getting dressed.” I called Loki, but he wouldn’t budge; he’d hunkered down in the grass next to the boy. I figured that it had been a while since he had a young man around. Kids go off and leave their childhoods at home along with their childhood pets. I went inside and dressed, filled a glass with cool water from the fridge and brought it back outside.
When I stepped off the porch the shimmering around the boy’s body had intensified and the colors were brighter still. The landscape behind him changed as I watched. I heard a strange out of phase wind blowing. I do not know exactly how to describe the sound of it. The subtle blanket of the morning birds slid between forefront and background with a clanking rumble of voices, animals and harnesses.
Smoke drifted from somewhere nearby. The fences of my front field evaporated and replacing the rolling pasture, normally dotted with cattle, was the most astonishing panorama I have ever witnessed. This was no civil war re-enactment. This was real. A sprawling army of men and tents, horses and wagons, cannon and low lying smoke covered the scorched battlefield that now ran from where Pigeon Roost Road should have been, across Sneed’s 1000 acres to the woods beyond. I shook my head to try and clear it. In response, the scene became more vivid, crystallizing. A pair of uniformed men supporting the boy on their shoulders led him away and down the incline toward the heart of the encampment. He forgot his hat and damp hair hung limp across his face, his head lolled from side to side as they half dragged, half walked him away. I distinctly heard him repeat: “Mercy, please,” and one of the others answered, “We need all the mercy we can get William, come on now, you’ll be better soon.”
Loki trotted along at his heal, looking up at him as though he had a rare steak in his pocket. I thought to call after him but I didn’t. In truth I couldn’t speak. My throat had closed up and tears were blurring my vision. I blinked hard to clear my eyes and wiped at my face with the back of my hand. The smoke was acrid and greasy, the sky over the encampment purple and bruised. All the earth surrounding them was pitted with cannon craters and several trees were splintered and burning.
My horror grew the longer I watched. My ears were filled with men’s screams and the shrill whinnying of horses. Every so often a loud gunshot punctuated the background murmuring of this writhing city.
I could take no more.
I turned away and looked past my back yard to the rolling hills dotted with round bales fresh from the first cutting. I suddenly realized that I still had the boy’s gun. Without turning to look at the army on the front fields, I went into the house and grabbed the rifle. I did not consider how I would explain myself; a Southern man in a Northern encampment. My only concern was returning the weapon to a soldier who would need it.
When I stepped off the staircase into the yard the entire bivouac had vanished. It took a long moment to realize my mouth was open; I closed it, scanning the fields again for a sign of the army that I had just witnessed. The smell of all that death and smoke still filled my nose, but the sky was clear, a cow lowed in the distance. As I crossed the dirt driveway, walking toward my front fence, my toe caught on something sticking out of the soil. With the gun in my hand and I bent down and pried a Federal army crossed-cannon emblem from the soil. A little scratching around unearthed an engraved name plate and 2 brass hat buttons.
Loki never returned. I guess that boy needed him more than he needed me. The gun is an 1861 Sharps, 54 caliber falling block action 3 band rifle; it has only been fired a few times. There is a pellet primer still in it and an unfired brass-cased round. Presumably William actually got it loaded, intending to shoot the dogs or me. Its existence is impossible. You see, aside from the proper patent engravings and the serial number, which falls in the range of the Berdan Sharpshooter rifles, the iron it was forged from is very unique. It was founded from ore mined in northeastern Massachusetts; it has a specific spectrographic signature. This ore ran out in 1870. But the gun that I took from William, as well as the primer cap and bullet are new. They show no sign of age, no wear from use. It is as if the gun and cartridge were made a few years ago. There were only 500 of these fire arms ever made.
After considerable expert wrangling, the gun was pronounced an authentic civil war artifact and appraised at 1.5 million dollars. I will leave it to my children; I cannot bring myself to sell it regardless of my need and its value.
As final note you should know that boy was William Heacock. His name was engraved on the plate that came from his hat and his initials were carved into the burl walnut buttstock of his rifle. His family lived in Bucks County Pennsylvania. He had a sister and four brothers of whom all but one died on the battlefield across from my farm in 1864. The one surviving son was named Emerson Heacock and he was my great grandfather. I have never told anyone where I got that gun until today.
Ron Heacock lives with his wife, Karen Walasek, and his loyal service dog, Finn. They split their time between the farm, HillHouse Writer’s Retreat, in the hills of southern Tennessee and a loft in the city of Portland, Oregon. Ron spent many years as a performing songwriter and has shared the stage with notable performers from Alan Ginsberg to Pete Seegar. His work has been published in Guideword, Spark-On-Line, Sensored Magazine, The Pitkin Review and The LIMN Literary & Arts Journal. He is currently pursuing his MFA in creative writing at Goddard College at the Port Townsend Campus.
The idea that photography is a way to capture and store a split second in time has never really appealed to Camille Rogine. Instead of capturing, she’s always been interested in photography’s potential to create. Montage is a process of layering time: She condenses singular moments in order to form new moments that have never existed. In this way, she creates visual artifacts.
In the past she has studied architecture, plant biology, invertebrate biology, neurology, environmental justice activism, journalism and farming. Montage allows her to condense, pull, and extend these pursuits, eventually finding their commonalities. Some of her photos have appeared at the Woodstock Arts Gallery. Others have appeared at Sleepscapes. A few have earned awards, including The Robert Savage Image Award, and the Sam Spanier Image Award.
To follow her work:
ATTEND: February’s San Francisco RAW Festival
Or all of the above.
By Mike Correll
Freeway traffic flows like the endless current of some black bottom river, cars and taxis swimming in the smog choked channels. Reflective street signs materialize in the darkness, electrified by advancing headlights. Underneath the overpass the sound of rubber on asphalt throbs to an irregular beat, a congested industrial heart.
Birdie slept here often, inside her dark alcove. During the day she perched and drank or smoked a little rock. She fancied it the perfect place: just a short trek to the nearest spanging spot and a quick hop over the fence, down the hill and through the park for a fast getaway.
She was dozing when it happened. Tweekers dozed (in her seasoned opinion), never quite asleep, yet never fully awake. Tires squealing above her head tore her from this borderland. Filtered through the asphalt it sounded like a scream. The sound was metallic, sheet metal in the mouth of a giant.
A black sedan sailed into her line of sight, flying off the overpass and arching downward. Its front bumper crashed into the street below, glassy eyed headlights exploding, electrical nerve endings showering sparks across the dark pavement. As the back end dropped, one wheel, bent on its axle, snapped off and continued to roll up the street. The car rocked backwards on its three remaining wheels. Exhausted it came to a creaky stop and let out a steamy sigh.
The silver guardrail hung in her view, peeled loose during the impact. A sleek black figure dressed in a three piece suit appeared at the edge of the overpass. It moved decisively, climbing down onto the torn and dented guardrail which rocked under its weight. Time seemed to speed up, the figure’s movements fast and jerky like a stop-action character: a leap from the railing, landing on the concrete slope leading to the road, sidesteps down the embankment, at the car, yanking on the door handle, suit jacket thrown back, a long barreled handgun drawn, shattered glass, arms thrust through the jagged hole, yanking, a body emerging with each pull.
She strained, squinting, to see what the driver looked like. It was a woman in a black evening dress, broken glass sparkling in her hair like drops of water. The figure continued to pull until most of the woman’s torso was hanging out the window. Hand pressed in the center of her chest holding her flat against the car, her lower body still partially inside the car and twisted at an unnatural angle. The woman’s face screwed tight as the gun barrel came to rest between her eyes. Four strange sounds pierced the night: “ch’rp, ch’rp, ch’rp, whiiiiir”, each one erasing more of the woman’s head. The gun vanished into the recesses of the suit jacket and the executioner disappeared around the driver’s side of the car.
Gone was her tweeker doze, replaced by the vision of what had been the woman’s head now smeared down the side of the car. What about the gunman? Was there another car above on the freeway somewhere? She moved before she had decided what to do, scrambling from her alcove and out from under the overpass. The sounds of the freeway were more intense than below―the push and pull of the vehicles first blowing then tugging at her clothes. There were no emergency vehicles, only a set of black tire marks, twin snake skins leading up to the severed guardrail. Farther up where the road widened a black Lexus sat with its flashers on. She trotted along the garbage strewn freeway, protected from the traffic by concrete blockades. When she reached the car she hopped the blockade and checked the door handle, it was unlocked. The keys were still dangling from the ignition switch. The car rumbled to life; she’d never felt that before, certainly not in a Nova or Geo.
She put a good five miles between herself and the “accident” before the thoughts caught up. What happened, some kind of assassination? I stole the assassins car, but for what? It’s fun to drive, but it’s gonna run outta gas and I got no money to fill it up. Where am I goin’?
A GPS system sat on the console. Upon the screen several indicators moved about, one was immobile. I need to stop and think. She exited the freeway and watched the dark building fronts scroll past until she found a suitable alleyway. Perfect, a spot between two overflowing dumpsters. The car fell silent and she fumbled for a moment before locating the lever for adjusting the seat. Reclined and relaxed she drew a short length of resonated glass pipe from her pocket, the remnants of the last rock still nestled against a torn and wadded chunk of Brillo pad. The pipe felt comfortable against her lips, a kiss from an old friend. The heat from her Bic brought the crackling sound she had come to know so well. Smoke bloomed within her lungs like some rare prickly flower, her heart rate jumping with its sprawling petals. Blood raced to her head and with it the rapture of dizziness. Her numb lips parted and her thoughts sped as a film reel. The indicators on the GPS continued to crawl about like electric ants, all but one. I should find that one. Maybe I should take the car to Ranger, maybe not. Once Ranger laid his slimy eyes on the car, I know what will happen.
She called him Ranger but most people knew his as “Cook”, “Short Order”, or just “Chef”, which had evolved into “Shep” and then later “Sheppard”. But she called him Ranger, from his military days. She met him when she was thirteen and he was a shitbag then the same as now. She liked him though; a soft spot was a soft spot.
Nowadays he was operating out of an Airstream he had buried out in the woods, what he called “the war zone”. She marveled at his smarts. A guy who spends all his time breathing toxic chemicals shouldn’t be able to think up those kinds of ideas.
Most people thought he worked out of motel rooms, hopping from motel to motel. Only she knew about his lab. Motels were only for selling and partying, sometimes (maybe once a week) for sleeping, but certainly not cooking. He had to tell someone, to impress someone, and who else but his little Bird? Her mom named her Starling, Star for short, but he thought it was too much of a hippy name, like Sunshine or Sparkle, so he called her Bird or Birdie.
She wasn’t a hooker so he couldn’t really be her pimp, but he protected her like one. She had this boyfriend named Jenkins. He beat her all the time. When Ranger found out he took Jenkins to the rail yard. Ranger had this eye dropper full of acid, talked about it all the time. By the look of it Jenkins had been screaming something fierce as his eyes liquefied, his mouth was open so wide, his lips stretched tight over his exposed teeth, but you couldn’t hear him over the trains. Ranger left him in the middle of the rail lines. It was the midnight rail line rush and train cars were thrumming by in all directions; the police only found parts. She doesn’t know how he got away with it, but that was Ranger.
Ranger would help her with the car, but she knew she should explore all of her Rangerless possibilities first.
Several blasts from the pipe and she felt revived, refreshed, ready to find out about the GPS indicators. The car moved through the alley and back onto the vacant road, and now the need to breathe fresh air, to feel its caress against her skin. Where’s the window handle? She fumbled about until a switch finally dropped the window, only now the mirrors were cockeyed and the emergency flashers were on. With the wind came the sour city smells, refreshing in a way only a tweeker could appreciate. One more stop was definitely in store.
Sonny was a gawky guy, all knees and elbows. Greasy blonde hair formed a helmet above his enflamed, pimpled face. He lived with his mom, Jabba the Hut, at the “Sunnyside” trailer park, lot 6a. Tonight was the usual: a microwavable dinner, SpongeBob on the tube, and then out into the night. Death Metal pounded in his ears as he mounted his BMX and hit the streets.
He could lose a cop in a matter of seconds, and car prowling from a bike made the most sense―alibi and escape all in one: “Officer I was just out for a cool night ride”. And if that didn’t work BMX maneuvering always did, cop cars can’t go down trails or rails. They can’t traverse aqua ducts or enter abandoned houses.
Tonight had been lucrative. He was weighted down, strapped with goods. He’d have to stop off at a stash spot soon otherwise he’d appear too conspicuous, plus it was hard riding with jewelry and car stereos. He knew just the place: a dicey little card room with 24 hour rental lockers.
The strip mall parking lot was its usual desolate self: several old model cars parked atop the heaving and cracked asphalt. An old Winnebago held its post near a dumpster vomiting garbage onto the greasy blacktop. The Winnebago’s occupant was a local fence, but Sonny wasn’t done for the night. First the locker, then another round, the fence would come last.
The entrance to the lot was sloped and gave him enough speed to bunny hop a bench in front of the Asian market, and then another near the nail salon. He readied himself for another jump, but slowed and swerved around the bench and behind a column. A black Lexus rounded the corner entrance to the strip mall, its halogen lights washing his eyes in blue. It pulled into a diagonal parking spot near the card room and fell silent. He became a shadow behind the column.
In essence all card rooms are the same: shady and smoky; Blackjack’s was no different. The usual cast of characters circle a ratty, chalk scratched pool table.
Sweat always seemed to find its way into his eyes at the most inopportune times. The game (games actually) rested on this shot. It was progressive gameplay, each game upping the stakes. The winner of the third game would take all: a generous sized eight ball and three-hundred bucks. It was the kind of game a hustler waited for, his opponent a daisy, the stakes high, the law non-existent. He had two options, squabble with a handful of bank shots or hop the 4 and sink the 8 ball for the game. His burning eyes pleaded with him to remove the cigarette from the corner of his mouth and wipe his forehead. His ego begged for the glory of the win, for a decisive shot with no hesitation. His stick moved and his eyes squeezed against two drips of sweat trembling on his lashes. The sound that followed made him smile inside (lest he smile outwardly and destroy the mystique of his stoicism).
“Cocksucker!” The daisy barked as he slammed his house cue down on the table. “Any other fuckin’ table and you’d a missed, prob’ly a fuckin’ matchbook under the table leg or somethin’!”
“You won then huh Breaker?” She said listlessly. She sat at the bar with her back to the room―a fragile bodied girl with a hard look about her face.
“Yup.” Breaker replied as he lit a new cigarette from the smoldering butt of his previous one.
He rolled a smoke ring the size of donut off his tongue and reached above the hanging table light. He palmed the spoils: a thick stack of twenties and a plastic bag tied at one end. The girth of powder felt comfortable in his hand.
The girl went by “Dex” or “Dixy”, among other things. She held post at the bar where Jimbeem, a buggy-eyed bartender loomed, absently polishing empty pints. She was underage but Jimbeem was one of her best customers so he couldn’t really balk at her barroom appearances. She had a deal like this at every dive in town.
Dex was from down South originally, had hitchhiked her pre-teens away, but was starting to feel settled by Breaker’s side. He wasn’t faithful, but neither was she, couldn’t be given her line of work. At the end of the day though she knew she was safe with him. He was like her dad in some goods ways, though not in the bad ways―he never forced her.
“Order me a shot a Jack.” Breaker said as he dismantled his pool cue.
“Jack huh? Musta been a good one, none a this twenty bucks shit. Straight Jack? How ‘bout a boilermaker?” Jimbeem asked.
“Sure but make it with engine oil, that light shit tastes like mineral water.” Breaker replied as he pulled up a seat next to Dex.
“Guinness, Becks, or Black Butte?”
“Gimme the Butte.”
“Well what was it worth?” Dex inquired as she poked at a pile of cigarette ashes on the bar with a toothpick.
“Three large and a ball.” Breaker said.
“Did someone say ball?” Jimbeem asked as he approached with a dark glass of beer and a brimming shot of whiskey. “Ball, as in Ballin’?”
“Well then I reckon the walk-in cooler’s beggin’ for some company.” Jimbeem continued.
“What about Security?” Dex implored.
“You think he gives a shit?”
Breaker and Dex turned to look at the card room where the Security guard was currently ogling a porn magazine stashed within the confines of his activity log.
“Hey look who’s here!” Jimbeem hollered pointing at the front of the bar.
“Hey girl!” Dex exclaimed, jumping from the barroom stool with her arms open.
“Hey Birdie.” Breaker mumbled.
Dex met Birdie halfway and hugged her close. “Fuck I haven’t seen you in forever. Where you been?”
“Killin’ time under the state route, same old shit, till today anyway.” Birdie replied.
“What’s up today?” Dex asked as they moved to the bar.
“I got a mission thing to do.”
“Mission, what’d you join the cloth or somethin’, gonna clean us all up, help us find Gaaaawd?” Jimbeem blared.
“No I uh, well the thing is…I need Breaker’s help.”
“What’s it worth?” Breaker asked.
“Would you believe me if I told you I was drivin’ a new Lexus?”
“No I’d ask if yer smokin’ wet again.”
“Look if you don’t want in on this then I’ll go talk to Ranger.”
“No, no, don’t take this to that over-the-hill meth cookin’ cocksucker” Breaker said waving with hand dismissively, “You drive up in a Lexus he might snipe you out, think yer the Feds or somethin’.”
“I just need you to come along. If anyone fucks with me you do what you do best.” Birdie explained.
“And what’s it worth to ya?”
“It’ll all depend on what we find, but look at it this way, I’m drivin’ a Lexus. You ever know me to drive, let alone a new car?”
“Well then take yer chances, but I’ll bet the payoff’s worth yer time.” Birdie said. Breaker smoked silently not looking in her direction. “I see how it is. I’ll just go to Ranger if yer gonna be a dick about it.”
“It’s all good Birdie. Fuck Ranger! I’ll come along.”
Cecilia knew about the group years ago but hadn’t joined until August of this year; it was now October. Her late husband had introduced her to the group at one of his elaborate social gatherings, but it wasn’t until after his death that she became a member.
Cecilia was a homebody. She loved her cats and her soaps. She made a mean meatloaf and could embroider like nobody’s business. Her husband had been her rock, and when he died she nearly did too. But, as is often the case, she lived and was lonely. So when August 1st rolled around she had built up her courage. She donned her best evening gown, climbed into her BMW and drove to town.
The first person Cecilia met was Phyllis and they hit off right from the start. More than anything Phyllis was the reason that Cecilia had decided to play the game. Cecilia envied Phyllis, but not because she was thin and attractive, which she was, but rather because she seemed to float above everyone. She was like a balloon with only a thin string attaching her to the ground, yet she wasn’t snobbish. Phyllis seemed to have no cares. She was a high stakes gambler, had been for most of her life, and as any true addict will tell you she was always looking for a bigger rush and a better pay off (not that she needed the money). It was more the process of collecting; she was a money collector.
Phyllis was a pedigree princess, born of riches and prone to boredom. Her first addiction had been Dressage, which is where the gambling bug bit her. But it was all too pretty, too coifed. So she had turned her attention to more gritty pursuits, beginning in backroom brothels and eventually working her way to the ultimate gamble―life and death.
The current round of games had begun with thirty six players back in August; they were now down to twelve. All the games were similar though unique in their own ways. In this game the players started out with identical cars and identical guns. Each car had a handheld GPS system which tracked the other players’ movements. Each GPS was programmed with a different cash prize location, so no one knew where the other players’ prizes were, only where each other were. A player could go straight to their prize, collect, and attempt to return to the “Safe House”, or they could go hunting. Hunting meant locating another player, taking their GPS, and collecting two prizes.
The rules were few yet firm: Each player had to dress in formal wear. A GPS could be obtained by any means necessary. If you took a player’s GPS you had to execute them with one of the provided guns. Failure to execute a player stripped of their GPS would result in prize forfeiture. All players began at designated “start” locations at a designated start time. No one could be executed at the Safe House or within five miles of it. Once the clock started ticking each player had six hours to return to the Safe House. To advance to the next round a player had to return to the Safe House within the six hours, prize or no prize.
Cecilia cleaved the night in her Lexus, a shiny black knife parting the darkness. She had no concern for the hunt, just her cash prize; she wasn’t greedy. She was speeding, though not enough to draw attention from cops. She glanced down at the GPS just in time to feel the impact of her opponent’s car shouldering into her passenger side, pushing her forcefully into the guardrail. Toe on the brake and she dropped back, leaning heavy on the steering wheel and hoping for a three lane merge to the nearest off ramp. Her opponent was quick and intercepted her mid swerve, again corralling her to the left side of the freeway. A quick heel toe combination, brake then gas, her opponent on her bumper and it was too late. The PIT maneuver spun her and the world became a wrenching blur of stringy light wrapping the darkness. Her car tore through the guardrail with a wild metallic scream, the impact snapping her teeth shut on her tongue. Then she was flying.
Time passed, she could tell, though it felt as if she had just blinked. She was still spinning, yet her eyes told a different story. The passenger window shook inward, sparkling like ice. Her black evening dress pulled taught against her skin as the fabric bunched between knuckles thrust near her face. The passenger window’s jagged teeth bit at her as she was pulled through. The smell of Old Spice hung heavy and a black gun-barrel-eye stared at her indifferently, then nothing.
Sonny waited until he heard Blackjack’s door slam, and then peddled smoothly up to the Lexus. He slid in quietly, the unused tools in his lap. He couldn’t believe the Lexus wasn’t locked. He pulled the door shut slowly, listening for the faint click and waiting for the dome light to darken. Pen light between his teeth he inspected the dash. The GPS was the first to disappear into his backpack, the stereo would be next.
Breaker stepped through the front door and squinted at the parking lot, which was somehow brighter than the card room. Dex and Birdie followed him through with signature looks, prairie dogs peeking from their burrow.
“See check it!” Birdie exclaimed pointing at the Lexus.
The pen light bobbed and dipped like an enormous firefly, blurry behind the tinted window. “Yer getting’ robbed girl.” Breaker said nodding in the direction of the car.
“C’mon!” Birdie yelled, waving for Breaker as she ran across the sidewalk.
Breaker made it to the car first and had Sonny on the ground in a choke hold before Dex or Birdie could catch up. Sonny retched and slapped at Breaker’s forearms, his legs peddling uselessly, his face purple and cartoon like.
“It’s Sonny! Let him go!” Dex hollered at Breaker.
Breaker let Sonny fall panting onto the asphalt. “You fuckin’ douche. What’re you doin’?”
“How’d…I…know…it was…yers?” Sonny wheezed, rubbing at his throat.
“Opportunity knocks, huh?” Breaker said with a smile.
“Hey man a new Lexus,” Sonny motioned to the parking lot “Here.”
“What’d you take?” Birdie snapped, snatching his backpack from the ground and rifling through it. “See, this is what I’m talkin’ about.” Birdie held up the GPS. “It’s got all kinds of thingy’s, most of em are movin’, but this one’s not.” She said pointing at the monitor. Breaker and Dex looked over her shoulder at the indicators.
“Are we gonna go for a ride or are we gonna stand around here in the lot with our thumbs up are asses?” Breaker asked.
“Where’re you guys goin’?” Sonny peeped.
“None a yer fuckin’ business.” Birdie replied, tossing his backpack on the ground.
“Hey he could help. Who knows what we’re gonna find right? I mean he’s got mad skills with locks and shit.” Dex lobbied.
“Alright but he doesn’t get anything if we find somethin’.”
“No, no, it’s cool. I’ll just come along an help. Lemme go stash my bike real quick.”
“Hurry up then.” Birdie ordered.
The traffic had quieted. Lone cars cruised past, their beaming eyes warding away the darkness. A cool breeze swept the fedora from her head and her long hair was unleashed, flickering brown flames in the glow of the street lamp. She was glad to be wearing the three piece suit.
Phyllis was flexible, often expected the unexpected, but this she hadn’t planned for. The car was gone. She pulled the GPS (she’d taken from Cecilia’s car) from the depths of her jacket and accessed the menu. At least she’d memorized the coordinates of her prize location. She programmed them into her new GPS and began trekking down the shoulder of the freeway with her thumb out.
Looming in the distance, maybe a quarter mile down the way was an exit ramp. She made a bet with herself: she’d cut a diagonal across the freeway from where she was to the exit ramp, she wouldn’t deviate from the path, if she made it her prize would be life. She pulled a silver watch from her breast pocket and calculated―she had one hour and thirteen minutes to get to the Safe House. A car tore by, its horn blaring. She smiled. The night is rich. Rob it.
She made it to the exit ramp. She knew she would. The exit ramp was strewn with drifts of garbage. She made a game of kicking a miniature plastic vodka bottle, following it wherever it came to rest.
She felt the vehicle coming before she heard it. The brakes squeaked as it slowed. He hung his head out the window, a cratered face with a patchy brown beard. He pushed the brim of his John Deere hat back with a curled knuckle.
“Look like ya need a ride.”
“Well hop on in then.”
She leaned down a bit and surveyed the inside of the battered truck.
“Well?” He asked.
“Make you a deal.” Phyllis smirked, reaching into the folds of her jacket. The gun flashed silvery black as she brought the barrel inches from his face, “Ch’rp, Whiiiiiir” went the silencer, and his head snapped back. The door creaked on its hinges and swung open, his body tumbling onto the asphalt. A stream of blood, black under the exit ramp lights, trickled down the road.
The truck sputtered and coughed into life. She pulled through the stop sign at the end of the exit ramp, down the on-ramp and back onto the freeway. The truck shook like an old man with palsy as she pushed the speedometer past sixty. A western crooning voice crackled from the dusty dash speaker. She glanced at the pocket watch: fifty-seven minutes. She’d go to her prize location first. She’d have to hunt too; she couldn’t show up at the safe house in anything but a Lexus.
Breaker was driving, that was the deal. He would only go along if he could drive. Birdie had nothing to bargain with so he got his way. Breaker always got his way.
He was slow to action, always surveyed before striking, but had earned his nickname with fists not patience. He had cut his teeth breaking noses in the third grade, and by the sixth was expelled from school for landing a teacher in the intensive care unit. That was the last year he would grace school with his presence. The rest he learned slinging dope at the bus station.
Sonny and Dex were in the back. Birdie had to keep warning Breaker to slow down; it wouldn’t do them any good if they got pulled over. Birdie was trying to navigate but they weren’t getting any closer to the location.
“So what’re we doin’ anyway?” Sonny asked.
“Drivin’, what’s it look like.” Birdie snapped.
“We’re gonna check out a spot on that GPS. Birdie thinks it might be somethin’ good.” Dex said.
“What’s the deal with this thing anyway?” Birdie asked.
“You gotta use it right. You can zoom in an outta different areas to get the street info.” Sonny explained. “Here lemme check it out.”
“Let him see it Bird.” Breaker said.
“Look, we can screw around all night, run outta gas an never get there or you can hand it over.” Breaker said impatiently. “He’s good at this shit, he’s all techy.”
Birdie reached back and dropped the GPS in Sonny’s lap. “Fine.”
Sonny surveyed the GPS, “Get on the freeway. Head south”.
When Phyllis saw the indicator trekking across her GPS screen she knew she had a new opponent. They had her by a couple miles and she was losing ground, fucking truck. It wasn’t far though. She pushed the gas and the truck shuddered like an epileptic. She’d run it into the ground to catch the Lexus.
“It’s right around the corner Breaker.” Sonny said excitedly.
Breaker slowed and everyone began looking around. “We’re right on top of it. Just pull over and we’ll get out.” Dex said. She’d been watching their progress on the GPS; Sonny was holding it so she could see. Breaker pulled up to the sidewalk and stopped.
The stars were barely visible beyond the glow of lights. It was one of those funny parks that the nuclear company financed, as if the enormous cooling stack would be less obscene if there was a pond and a grassy knoll at its base.
“Watch out for two headed ducks.” Dex giggled.
Sonny walked with the GPS held high, the others followed closely behind. They stopped at a stone drinking fountain. “Right here. It’s right here!” Sonny said.
“Wow, a drink a water!” Breaker said with feigned excitement. “You really got somethin’ here Birdie.”
“That can’t be it,” Birdie said “We gotta look around.”
Sonny’s face was lit from the GPS screen, his eyes gleaming in the electric glow, “Hey guys, one a those dots is comin’ right to us.”
“Huh?” Breaker mumbled.
“Lookit.” Sonny held out the GPS.
Phyllis swung the truck around a tight corner and could see a group of shadows near the glassy surface of a park pond. She gassed it and bore down upon them. The shadows scattered, except one, whose surprised face turned into the glow of her headlights just as the truck grille connected with their body. The truck lifted high and dropped. The back end swung askew as the body was kicked sideways, motionless atop the crushed grass. The second collision was more raucous, the truck grille splitting open like a mouth around the stone drinking fountain, which erupted in a plume of water. She kept on the gas and the truck screeched and bucked over the stone shards before dying near the edge of the pond.
The shadows converged on the wrecked body of their partner, seemingly uninterested in her. She flew from the truck, her gun drawn, sidestepping over the muddy ruts the truck had torn in the lawn. The package lay amidst the remnants of the fountain. She scooped it up and stuffed it into her jacket.
Money in hand Phyllis climbed into the Lexus. As she had suspected the keys were in the ignition. After being in the truck she felt like she needed a bath, but the Lexus had a cooling, almost cleansing effect.
She could see the group of shadows huddled, nearly motionless, near their fallen cohort.
At ease. In the driver’s seat. Everything was falling into place.
The tires tore turf, the smell so green, and the Lexus lurched across the sprawling lawn.
Breaker had seen some pretty brutal shit before, but Sonny’s mangled body was right up there. The top of his head hung like the opened pop-top on a ketchup container. His skin was tattooed a mottled green and black where grass and rubber mingled like war paint. His limbs wrapped crazily about his body. But the worst was his eyes, marble white orbs glistening with the glow of the cooling tower lights.
“Where’s Birdie?” Dex said, jarring Breaker from his stare.
“Birdie. Where’d she go?”
Phyllis checked her timepiece: thirty seven minutes. No time for Cecilia’s prize. She set her course for the Safe House and tuned her attention to her surroundings, the hunter becoming the hunted.
From within the folds of her jacket she pulled an elaborate looking Zippo and a silver tooled cigarette case, selecting one with a dollar symbol emblazoned just above the filter. Painting the dark with the glowing ember she drew a long drag and snapped the ash out the cracked window. The night had not been nearly as lucrative as she had intended. She dragged upon her cigarette and watched the dark freeway tear past.
It happened so quickly she still had a lungful of smoke when the cord wrapped around her neck. The voice came just as fast, “I’ll kill us both if I have to! I got nothin’ to lose.”
She knew right away where she had failed: she hadn’t checked the back seat. The gun that had been lying on the passenger seat was gone.
“I might not know much, but I know knots. You struggle and it’ll tighten. I gotcha on a leash and the gun is pointed at ya.” Came the female voice.
“Seems like you have the upper hand.” Phyllis croaked.
“I’m gonna let this loose a bit, but don’t forget whose got the gun.”
“Impressive…display…young lady.” Phyllis wheezed amidst a stale paunch of smoke.
“How do you know I’m a young anything?”
“Call it a hunch. Listen, I’ll make you an offer.” Phyllis said in a raspy voice. “I suggest you take this package of money and get out when I pull over. You don’t want to go where I’m going.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
Birdie had never seen this neighborhood. Houses like juggernauts held post along perfectly paved blacktop. Some stood back from the road behind expansive and precisely manicured lawns and topiaries. Others towered over the road, their white columned porches casting scalloped roman shadows.
“There’s still time.”
“I’m goin’ with you.”
“Listen I don’t care about your safety. I can’t show up with you in tow. If I show up with you we’re both dead. So, for both of us, take the money and get out! This is a solo gamble.”
“Says the woman on a leash with a gun in her back.” Birdie scoffs.
It was a Kirtland Cutter home and impressive would be a derogatory adjective. Circular turrets, archways, and intricately shaped rails buffered immaculately bricked promenades. Amidst the elaborate décor Birdie looked the most unlikely occupant to be exiting the home. Her entire front was awash with red, splashed like Rorschach patterns upon her skin and clothes. Each trembling hand held a gun. She stopped, turned, and looked at the house, it stared back at her. She wiped blood from her face with the back of her forearm, her finger still firm on the trigger. A small smile played at the corners of her mouth as she headed back into the house.
She walked slowly, straining forward against the weight of two duffel bags hanging from her shoulders. Her shadow was long in front of her; lights from the many windows of the home casting a crystal corona about her back. When she reached the Lexus she lowered the bags to the ground and stood leaning against the car, taking a moment to catch her breath. Once the bags were loaded and she was comfortably seated, she craned around and pulled the zipper back on one of the duffel bags. Benjamin smiled at her in his awkward little way. It had been a gamble, and a good one at that.
Mike Correll earned his B.A. from Western Washington University, pioneering a degree titled “Imaginative Movie Making: Screenwriting, Video Production, and Fine Arts.” Shortly thereafter he was awarded “Best Documentary” and “Best Animation” at the Projections Film Festival in Washington State. He is currently directing a feature documentary about “Painter of Dark” Chet Zar. He is a thinker, sculptor, filmmaker, and writer with ten years worth of unpublished, written works including screenplays, poetry, non-fiction, and fiction.