To this day, whenever I smell burning tires in moist night air, that sequence flashes to me. The sequence: I hear a thump! and turn. The man’s body slams against the hood. Slides up it. Then rolls back down. It could have been a physics demonstration: up the slope, then down.
Kevin was driving. I had shotgun. He slammed on the brakes. But it was too late. I vaguely recall curses shooting out of Kevin’s mouth. I vaguely recall opening the door and stepping out, my head dizzy from adrenaline. I had to get out, the car felt too small. Reality came into focus when Kevin shut the car door behind me, put the car into reverse, backed up ten feet, then slammed it and sped off.
“Fucking son of a bitch!” I shouted after him, but he was already gone.
The guy was bleeding from the head. His face was all skinned up and cut. He lay there. I reached out. I touched his neck. Nothing. No pulse. Goddammit. I hoped I was doing it wrong. It was not like I know this stuff. Maybe my hand was in the wrong place. 9-1-1! My hand shot into my pocket for my cellphone. But then something held me. Kevin was gone. This probably was murder. He did it, not me. It was his responsibility, his moral decision. I wasn’t going to be blamed for Kevin running this guy over. He was dead. That’s it. Nothing they could do. He was reincarnated, or in heaven, or some shit like that.
But the thought tugged at me. I gradually brought out my phone. It was out of batteries. I didn’t plug it in yesterday. It felt good to see the screen light-gray and blank, and the buttons not responding. Now, I really had no choice. I did the best I could. Nothing to do, but walk back.
Half an hour later I was home. It about eleven PM. Late enough that nobody saw any of this, I hoped. Me, Kevin, and Lisa lived in an older house in the city limits, between Uptown, which was mostly hipsters and homeless, and Grove Hills, where shoulderless roads snaked around foreclosed McMansions. Hills in a city are for shanty-towns and the filthy rich/middle-class, and nothing in between. Hills hide them, and we can pretend they don’t exist. Keeps things going.
I opened the front door. Lisa was slumped on the couch, and didn’t look up. She was high as usual. I had to just say something. “There’s serious trouble.” Lisa gave out a pig-snort of laughter.
“Jesus, Lisa, someone is — shit. Some guy got hurt.” The only reason we tolerate her is because she has the nice office job and owns the house and pays the mortgage on time. Kevin pays some sort of rent, I think, but I was just crashing on the couch until I found a job. I sometimes wondered if she thought we were actually her friends.
I fell into the couch. Lisa handed me her pipe and lighter, as if in reply. A weird little smile started to twitch into her face again. That just pissed me off.
My eyes wandered to the kitchen counter. I saw my cellphone charger, plugged in by the toaster. I felt my heart-rate increase. Images popped through my head like machine gun fire. The police questioning me. My fucking it up. A murder trial. Kevin saying I did it. Prison. American History X, and getting raped by neo-Nazi skinheads. In my mind, there was no middle step between accidental homicide and getting raped by Nazis. That’s what the justice system is about: systematizing Nazi rape. I kept my eyes open, since when I closed them it was just me and my thoughts.
Weed was just making me more nervous. I could not relax. It wasn’t guilt. I didn’t do anything wrong. I wasn’t the one driving. I just now noticed the TV mumbling on. TVLand, Gunsmoke: James Arness was shooting a bunch of nameless Indians. I pictured myself as a black-and-white cowboy. I heard a pounding of hooves that matched my beating heart, violins and timpani echoed over the rolling hills of Kansas, and a valley teaming with black-and-white mounted Indians stretched out before me. I pressed the stock of the rifle to my bare shoulder, splinters scraping against my cheek as I sighted down it. I timed my breathing and pick them off one by one. Each time, I would pull back the bolt and watch the copper casing fall to the ground, and each Indian I shot would launch comically off of his horse, his arms flapping like a bird. Flapping harder, he would discover he could fly, and that is when I saw his soul separate, winging up to the spirit guide that glided above him. They were resigned to begin the next leg of the journey.
“Will, what’s, what’s going on? You’re like — something’s up.” Lisa’s voice drifted to me, pulling me out.
“Nothing. It’s nothing.” It was nothing. Kevin just drove away. I need to just drive away. I was letting this get to me. It was not my fault. I shrunk into myself, and promised to keep my eyes open.
The next day I woke up tired. My head rolled over toward the TV, which was still on. Lisa walked by me shoving breakfast down her throat as she pulled on a coat sleeve, her key-ring hooked on her finger. Dangling keys flash like jewels. My ears rung for some reason.
After a shower I had a couple eggs and a whiskey, and without thinking I headed out. I walked toward where we hit the guy. I had to. I had nothing else to do. I have a four year degree, five digits of debt, and have been unemployed for six months. At least I gave up the job search, so now I don’t count toward unemployment statistics. My mom warned me about being a statistic: I do what I can do. I wouldn’t say that I was hard-on-luck because a lot of people are worse off than me. But what I can say is that the American dream is just Santa Claus for adults. If we’re rich we can say it wasn’t just inherited from our parents, but because we’re on Santa America’s nice list. The only part that sucks is getting lumps of coal every Christmas like I was. If you do exist, Santa America, I hate you.
When I got there is when all the weird shit started to happen.
There was no body. I think I was at the right place. The red house — I remembered that. There was the Blockbuster. I remembered being afraid someone in there saw, but nobody came out or said anything. The neighborhood street looked so tranquil in the daytime. Doubt crept in. My mind recited all the details again, to try to find something inconsistent. A dream? Was I just remembering something wrong? But then I saw a smear of blood on the curb. That was where he was. Did the guy not die? If the cops found him, I think they would have put up tape or something. So maybe he didn’t die. Kevin was gone all night, maybe, I thought, Kevin came back and moved the body.
“Will.” The voice felt like a metal comb scraping up my spine, and when it reached my brain stem I spun around.
He was standing there. Yeah, the guy we hit. His face was still cut up, and his skin was as gray as his ripped trench coat.
“I know who you are.” Well, fuck me.
My lips pumped a few times before sound came out. “You, you didn’t die.” Probably not the right thing to say.
His mouth split into a wide smile. “But I did die. The hit to my head killed me.” He pointed to a gash on his skull, covered with dried blood.
My brain flashed through the thought process again: he presses charges, police, manslaughter, prison, then Nazi-rape. I realized I had a few phrases of a speech prepared from yesterday. Scattered phrases to explain my innocence. Some parts addressed the listener as “officer” , others as “your honor” , and other parts as “Kevin, you fucking asshole” , but I managed to censor it down to something appropriate for this guy (at first, “sir” , then just “man” ) and I rambled out some sort reply. I emphasized the cell-phone bit. It sounded like court-room quality evidence, something simple, that the jury could understand, like that glove thing with the OJ trial. I wasn’t in a courtroom, but still. As I spoke, his green eyes stared into mine, and he did not move. Eventually, I stopped, mid-sentence I think, since it looked like he was going to talk.
He said, “Inside each one of us is a reptile, a beast without speech or comprehension. It lies curled up near our stomachs, in a restless sleep. Sometimes, you can feel it stir. It’s a sick feeling in your stomach. Have you felt it stir?”
He sounded like a parent. I guessed it was some shit about conscience, so I said, “Yeah, sure, I guess.”
“On one day, they are all are going to burrow out of us: every reptile in every person on earth, all at the same time. It will be the ending of an age, the dawning of a new world order. Every one of the magnificent reptiles, free once more! It will be amazing! Can you picture that?” He arched his back and looked straight up. He stared at the sky as his body shook. He began to laugh. It sunk in. He was insane. I half expected Batman to glide in: clearly we have a Arkham Asylum escapee.
He continued to laugh. It faded into a hypnotic background-noise to me, for as I looked at him, I pictured his reptile. I thought about it ripping through its weak mammalian captor. It wanted to recover liberty it had lost. As his laughs shook his body, I imagined this monster extending its neck for the first time, ramming its sleek nose through the man’s throat, choking his laugh into gasps and gurgles. Then I would see the beast thrusting its head out of the man’s gaping mouth, the man’s jaw splintering from the force. With this first breath of air, then beast would realize its strength and true size. Air would expand its lungs, and it would grow to be larger than its human shell, causing the man to peel open evenly like a flower’s bloom. Finished with its shedding, I imagined it now squatting naked in the heat of the day, as do all cold blooded creatures. It would have forgotten all of its friends and enemies. The reptile would be unemployed like me, purposeless like me, but we would live in an earth peopled only by such reptiles. No longer on earth would there be friends or enemies, genders, identities, names, clothes, or purposes. There would be no purpose for purposes. It would live its days under the sun, hunting, fighting, killing, but have no offspring.
He suddenly stopped laughing. He brushed by me. He walked up a lawn to a house. I followed him. A breeze pushed porch chimes into each other, and they played once more the only song they have ever played. His eyes were focused on a bush. I followed his gaze. A little green lizard was stepping its way through the twigs. It was a male: the red disc puffed out from its neck every few seconds. Bright red with yellow polka-dots.
“A green anole,” he said. I bet I was supposed to be impressed with his child-like curiosity. “On that day, you will be the only human left —yours will never hatch.”
“Why not?” I said.
He didn’t look at me when he replied. “Because you are William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny. In 1856, you will lead our American servicemen and women to conquer Nicaragua. You will spread democracy to all the superstitious lands. You will make great sacrifices during this War on Terror. As dictator, you will transform Nicaragua into a wealthy English-speaking slave-state, a beacon of prosperity for Central America. You are a true patriot, William Walker.”
My last name’s not Walker. His knowledge of me seemed to stop there. “I’m going to be quite the fucking hero, aren’t I. Nicaragua had it coming.”
He turned. “Do you think I’m kidding, William? None of this is a joke. Sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and follow me.”
I said, “Well, guess what. I don’t have anything, so —” This was it. It was time to tell Jesus to take the Valley of the Shadow of Death Transit back to Nazareth. I started to give him the ASL for fuck you, only sign I knew, in slow motion for dramatic effect. He adjusted his trench coat and I spied a holstered rifle hanging low by his side. I froze. The middle finger of my right hand half extended, pointing at my forehead. My left arm was half way to my shoulder, fingertips at my heart. Karma is like that.
“Follow me.” He began to walk. I followed him. As I walked, I started a series of mathematical estimations. How fast I could run vs. how fast he could run, with a coefficient of how well he could aim added to how fucking insane he was. Subtract from both sides by the chance of a lawsuit, and solving for x gave me: I’m fucked. I worked it out again in my head just to make sure, but got the same answer. So I followed him.
As we marched, his mouth moved slightly but said nothing. I guess he was preparing his thoughts. He got to the entrance of Grove Hills. He rested his hand on its fake wood sign. “William,” he said, “when I died, I felt myself drifting above my corpse, I saw Him, and He leaned over my body, and put His holy hand on my neck, and breathed into me the harmony of life. For he told me that there is one whom I must assassinate, for only death can harmonize life.” Assassination? Christ.
“His spirit lives in me, and I am no longer mine but His prophet. He showed me visions. I saw a mob knocking over a wall of human corpses that divide the races. I saw a field of corn, and He told me to chop down every stalk that stood too tall. I saw an ocean of iPhones, dotted with canoes.”
“This is what it means: a generation will not have passed when the Facebook walls will be torn down. The Twitter followers will become leaders, and no cellphone will get any bars. On that day, the lands will be divided, there will be no cities and no hills, and it will be the end of this age.”
He stopped. I realized I had been holding my breath. I guess I expected a sudden “Now you die” non-sequitur at any time during his ramblings.
We walked down a few winding streets (this neighborhood was too rich to afford sidewalks), and stopped at a large Tudor-style house. The door was hardened wood and metal with a lion-head knocker. He tried the handle. Locked. A few feet to the right was a big window. I followed a step behind. He bent down to the ground and picked up a smooth stone from the landscaping. He turned.
“Cast the stone into the window,” he said.
I looked at him in awe. “Are you insane?” (Yes, I actually said that.) “The security on this place — cops will be here in minutes!”
“If you do not have courage, then knock on the door, and let the occupants take you in.”
I stared at the knocker. It was made of polished brass. Lions are wild and untamed. Here its visage was captured by humans only to be repeatedly smashed in the neck. As I looked at it, I imagined it transforming into a real lion, a rippling mass of muscle and teeth enraged at the years of disrespect. It would tackle me on the rough concrete. It was a being of violence. It would judge me then, a convulsing frail organism crushed under its weight. In its eyes, I would be found as guilty as its former captors.
What the fuck was wrong with me? I saw myself: this bony body weakened by years of inhibitions. When I was a kid I would have thrown a brick through a window on my own on a Tudor castle. No problem. It was funny: the owners piled on money so they could pretend that money could make them feudal tyrants. But then, adult-me was standing there trembling. It was like all the shit I went through these last few years year — unemployment and job applications, two attempts at a stable life with a girl, and the rest of the time getting trashed — all that shit, all the shit I thought was real, none of it prepared me for this moment. Just the hours and hours of the nothing I did all day piled on top of me like that lion. I had sleep paralysis once and this is what it felt like. Indolence, violence, it pressed on my chest. It was the heaviest nothing I ever knew.
Nothing clever to say to the door-knocker in front of me or the lunatic behind me. Neither would understand. I was just another fucking loser. So I threw the rock.
He smashed out the rest of the window with the butt of his gun. He said to me, “Stay here, and no harm will come to you.”
He climbed in. I didn’t hear any alarms. I felt queasy, but somewhat elated. It took a couple seconds for the excitement to wear off and the more appropriate panic to set in. What the hell had I just done? I started running home. I heard a loud crack from behind me. It sounded hollow, but sharp. A rifle round had echoed over Grove Hills.
All this shit was just too weird. I needed to start a new part of my life. I needed to move on. I needed to do something. Kevin wasn’t home, though I would have beat him if he was. That would have been something.
When Lisa got home, she told me some weird guy had stopped her on her way to work. Inquired who else drove that car. I asked her why the fuck she complied, and, after all, he could have been a fucking cop (though of course I knew who he was), and she just advised I should take it easy, and stated she was in a hurry, though she then offered some vague apology. Then I told her I was moving out.
She said, “Oh, that’s good news. Did you find a job?” No, I was too busy being held hostage by a gun-wielding lunatic you kindly directed to me.
“No, I’m moving back to Fort Lauderdale. Back to my parents I guess.”
“Okay, well, it’s not like anything here is yours so it should be pretty easy to move out. Good luck on your job search. Um, bye.” She went up to her room. Bye? That’s it? I was the only one who was nice to her ever — I mean, we were friends, right? Well, fuck this place. I grabbed my backpack and bag. I took a bus to Amtrak. Late that night I was at my parents’. Hadn’t called ahead since I left behind my cellphone. Never felt like plugging it in again. But the door was unlocked and I was their son and they were as unhappy as always to see me.
I got another loan. I enrolled in a community college. I’ll get a two-year degree in something that will actually make a lot of money. Maybe I’ll get on Santa America’s nice list for once. If Santa America was really just my parents, I was screwed anyway.
Nobody would believe half the shit that had just happened to me, so I didn’t tell anyone. I was nervous at first, but nothing happened. No cops at the door or anything. About two weeks later I was on a bus in Miami, and I saw a photo of the preacher guy on the front page of a newspaper on an empty seat across the aisle. My heart pounded a shot of adrenaline. I picked it up. Under the photo: Entrepreneur Drew Lidstrom. He had been recovering from a mental break-down one year ago. Broke into his own home two weeks ago. Beat to death his housekeep after she tried to wrestle the gun from him. Then suicide. He missed his heart, but bled to death after three hours, said the examiner. I read the rest. No mention of me or an accomplice or anything.
Christ. The whole assassination thing — was that about himself? Maybe he was letting loose his reptile, or something equally insane. I don’t know. A vague idea floated into my head, about how I just ran away from the house. There was nothing else I could do without getting in trouble, of course, but still something was there. I wanted to change. Instead, I let the same guy die twice.