With the increasing weight of the air she breathed, she saw the fire in the black distance marching like a demonic caravan along the ridge line. The wind spoke of the fire’s intended path and she knew they had to veer west or turn back. Turning back provided several possibilities but most of them ended badly. She had no idea how many men were combing the forest from the direction of the camp or if there were any at all. Only three miles west, the craggy hills meant a slower pace than they needed to make the river by dawn. Sam had warned of the unexpected in the forest and how risky this plan could be in light of the unrest in the valley. He had warned her and she had insulted him. She wished he were here now to roll his eyes and solve the problem. She wished the children’s legs could move faster. She wished she had a weapon.
They huddled among the oaks at the west side of the park. There’s a citrus colored streetlight on that corner where they divided the Roman candles between them in even numbers. Some of them made these quick defensive looks over their shoulders like they were a clutch of birds. I was walking Almo under the same color glow at the opposite end of the block and I would say that I was thinking about nothing but that’s not true. Those fleeting seconds before the explosion, I was without a doubt thinking about how I was going to explain to my daughter’s fiancé how I named the dog after a character in an ancient Roman poem. And then my hearing went and there were parts of those kids dropping out of the sky like heavy confetti. Almo jolted stiff-legged from the sound and vibration of it. My hearing went away, replaced by that high frequency thing. Some of the fireworks were still shooting from the black middle of this mess. It was a mess. I hate that it happened. They just wanted to have fun. They just wanted to be kids. Now they’re just memories of kids. I say I hate it. More like I hate that it happened to me but the rest of it is too sad to ponder at length. Too sad.
She’s dead. Or dying. No. She is dead. And she will always be dead. She will never grow old. She will never disappoint or be disappointed. Not with her looks or her age. She will always be this young. The heartache of wrinkles and blemishes will never find her. Heartbreak will never slow her down. Hate for her enemies will never guide her. She will never compete for all those frivolous things that consume other girls. She will never know betrayal. She will never receive retributions for whatever variety of innocent mistakes. She is dead. She is dead and now I will carry all her potential with me. I am certain this burden will always be mine. I am her now, in some unavoidable capacity. The blood is on my hands and her lost potential is bound to me forever. She is dead now and forever.
Ya know, even though my Dad seemed as though he could turn on us, he never did. Always fair. Always willing to listen. Reasonably reliable. I will miss him and his face. I hate that I think of how his face changed overnight. At dinner he’s my dad. At lunch he’s an old man. It scares me. I know how that sounds but you know what I mean. Then I think about other things. Things that don’t weigh as much. I love him. I always lapse into a sense of him still being around. Not in any incorporeal sense but you know, like he's in the neighborhood. More in the way I speak about him. Like, I love my dad.
A skulking darkness swallowed the gate and the soft hills of the valley as the horses sidled past the two men at the rail. Gaston had just lost faith in his grip on his tickets and shoved them into his pocket. Roberts—now known wider as El Correcaminos—wasted several minutes describing his most recent financial failure before Gaston shooshed him into silence and pointed at the horse with the large red six on his flank. That’s our boy, he said. He’ll pay today. Roberts dragged his thumb across the number on his ticket, wanting to elaborate on his difficulties. But Gaston spoke first. Sometimes, Gaston told him, things are not as detrimental as they seem. El Correcaminos offered him a worried expression. Gaston described the vacuum of space and two galaxies wrapping around one another in cosmic collision. From our vantage, the violence of this event is obvious. Then he estimated the millions of stars that populated the clusters as they whizzed past one another in the fusion. Those gargantuan structures racing headfirst at the speed of light will produce very few collisions, he said. They are so large and so porous that the violence is an illusion, Roberts. El Correcaminos couldn’t calculate Gaston’s expectation for the metaphor and he felt sure this description held no sway over current circumstances but he dared not contradict the patriarch, his missing little finger a constant reminder of their hierarchy.
In that black place on the river where even the sun could not penetrate, Jacob stood knee deep in the current near the bank. He gripped the backpack with his thumb between his shoulder and the strap. The school administration would be calling his parents soon. He had to start moving but reflection heaped upon him in the importance of this moment stopped him. This act could never be undone. A new and inescapable beginning lay before him and he stopped for a brief respite, not hesitation but recognition. Reverence. Dr. Scott had shown him the scripture and explained the flaw in the theology, the thousands of years of misinterpretated text. Hell did not exist. It was a fabrication run amok and the result opened for Jacob the clearest picture of reality he had ever known. If the result of sin was oblivion then he would gladly let his lust for revenge hurl him there. Destruction struck him as a weak and toothless punishment. Destruction meant rest.
Bits of grass fall to the pavement from the green streaks on his calf high socks. He’s shaking his head and flicking his wrist in the air beside him, complaining about the emergency vehicles in the alley. Third time this year, he tells me. At least there wasn’t a child this time. I crane my neck above his shoulder to see more of the bustle behind his house through the open fence gate. Some college kid, he says. You remember the mother and her kids a couple of months ago, he reminds me. They’re buying it in the neighborhood, I tell him. He concurs and stamps his foot then he surveys the block like he might catch a glimpse of the crime. He grumbles that if he knew where they were, he’d have to deal with it himself. Something about duty and righteousness. I want to remind him how old he is and maybe give him a few examples of how he could get hurt but why really? He never leaves this yard if he’s not locked in his truck, headed to a buffet somewhere. He’ll bark and fume over OD’s in his alley but he won’t do anything about it. He’s no better off than that dead kid back there. Hell, statistically, they both voted for Trump.
He said it because he is weak and vain. His gamble gave instant reward, attentive faces, yearning postures. All eyes leveled on him. He told them the outlandish story was true. He said he was there when it happened and the questions began. I could see the embellishments flocking in his eyes. I saw fingers of fire rush through his audience. Some of them ran off to tell others and soon others arrived. By this time their speaker had grown integral to the tale. The pregnancy of the extraordinary moment bade me to cling to him, counsel him on this sort of power.
There are dogs on the trail. I count their prints while waiting for her to change clothes. I suggest the hike can wait until after lunch but she insists. I gesture to the silt on the path. She stands for moment with her head aslant. I can’t see her face. With an abrupt sling of her wrist she tells me she’ll be fine. She says it’s time to move on. The very words her brother told her a month ago. We stride on our heels in descent of the soft rail drawn in a seine wave across the face of the cliff. The beams of the young sun burn opaque and appear supported in space by the spear tip shapes of the pines. She is ahead of me. I’ve spent much of the hike focused on her ass in the denim shorts but also checking her composure. There’s no trembling. No skittishness. Until the bark. It echoes through the cathedral of the ravine as if uttered from something supernatural. She freezes. An ocean tide of air moves the trees then fades into a silence as still as her pose. Another bark. She turns to me, the wig out of place just enough to be noticeable, and she shakes her tears at me as if she fears she will never be able to move again.
I notice the stars. It’s not normal to see stars here. I've waited on the corner for the three blondes and the hairdresser for too long. When they arrive, drunker than I had left them, the gay fellow runs his hand front to back over the Mohawk he shaved on my head back in their hotel room. The girls grab me and cut a path through the crowd sloshing between the barricades, all the while complaining about a thirty block power outage due south. That explains the stars and I point them out but they didn’t seem to care. As I had predicted to myself hours ago, we're in a hip-hop club where the girls' presence causes immediate conflict. An angry woman smashes a bottle into a man’s head just for talking to one of them. Not long after this, a guy approaches me and says he sincerely thought I was Chuck Liddell. I cannot look like Chuck Liddell. Not in here. Not right now.
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River of Blood, a novel about anarchism, atheism, racism, violence, family, and corruption.
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Unless noted, all pics credited to Skitz O'Fuel.