Previously in The Continuing Adventures of Sparky & His Guardian Friggin’ Angel:
“Top’a the world,” Dwayne may have proclaimed, as he and Sparky lay on the roof of a speeding freight train. But when he stood and spread his arms Dwayne discovered velocity, and gravity, and…
Read on to find out where—and how—our self-proclaimed misfits land.
I am sure that in response to the pistol shots the motel manager, the town or state police, or at the very least someone from housekeeping will be alarmed into pounding on the door as we pack the washcloths and towels we’ve rolled up in a pillow case to Jim Frye’s gunshot wound. Acid burns my stomach as we tie the absorbent mass to his gut with torn bedding. Every ache and pain beats in dread anticipation as we deal with the room, scrubbing blood from carpet and wringing sodden linens into the motel bathtub. But it’s a Sisyphean job, and fearful for Jim’s mortality we finally give up, merely wiping our prints out of room 8 of Motel 6.
Unbelievably, no knock comes. No one confronts us as we escort (i.e. drag) Jim to his Prius.
Once Jim’s in the back seat, we face the next step: who drives? Since neither of us has a current license, it’s a bit of a stalemate.
Until Dwayne says, “Spark, that’s the old us. Our new IDs changed everything! Look. My new NV license expires in five friggin’ years. Prob’ly yours, too.” A new debate begins. After forever (all of maybe two minutes), Dwayne’s forehead folds and: “Hand over the friggin’ keys, French Fry. I drove most recent—in Sis’ El Torpedo.”
“You have the keys.”
“Cut the shit, Spark.”
“Dwayne. If we don’t hurry we’ll be transporting a corpse or the cops will come screeching up to arrest us, or both—why would I lie? You grabbed them from his pocket, remember?”
Dwayne’s hand dives into the pocket of his grubby jeans and resurfaces with the keys.
The Prius starts and the built-in GPS comes on. “Good morning, Jim,” says a woman’s voice.
Dwayne says, “Directions to the nearest hospital.”
“Hospital in Tupelo, Mississippi,” she says, and tells us how to get there—both in words and on the navigation screen.
A guy’s entitled to make a friggin’ mistake. A judgment call that ain’t too sound. Right?
Yes, I made a few bad calls while doin’ this Kerouac reenactment with the burn victim. But I got zero friggin’ trainin’ on this trampin’ for glory baloney. And I’ve saved the kid from every jam.
Stupidity, Spark yells. You leap before you look, he says.
I got one answer: Shoot me, kid, I’m tryin’. And we’re still friggin’ alive. So far anyways. Livin’ is the bottom line. What kinda guardian friggin’ angel would I be if I let my George Bailey die? Then there’s the goddamn pivot point—we wouldn’t be in these situations, these jams, except for Spark’s stubborn nature. Spark can blame my blind leapin’, but my plan was 1) find the kid and 2) 180 it for home. Even minus Sis’s shit-canned El Torpedo, my brain had us goin’ north on I-95. Not ‘cause’a homesickness, but ‘cause our old crib was waitin’. With a little luck.
Luck that prob’ly expired weeks ago, when the slumlord found the kid vanished.
But there’s always new luck, and me and Spark’re like a couple Irish Settler dogs rollin’ over in a field’a friggin’ clover. Doin’ paddy jigs. Bono boogies. Take gettin’ blown off a freight train roof that’s goin’ at full-tilt clickety-clack. After that a clown oughta be dead or at least be wheelchairin’ away any days he’s got left, and if he ain’t neither’a those, or worse (which I ain’t), well, that’s what most dopes call damn lucky. As in Hello, Clarence.
But what I call luck, Spark calls stupidity. ‘Cause jumpin’ off the train he got banged up too.
But when the black-n-blues, lumps, scrapes, and gouges’re counted, we’re both right. ‘Cause what Spark’s callin’ stupid—bein’ stupid and livin’ to tell about it—proves the luck we got.
And I’m feelin’ luckier by the minute. I mean, c’mon. How often, after however many downtime hours, do a pair’a banged and bent train-hoppin’ veterans stumble outta trackside woods and into a road? And, like I predicticated to the burn victim, without us so much as raisin’ a sore friggin’ thumb, a car zips to a near-silent stop and a voice says get on in—how often does a shithead get that lucky?
Yessir, Clarence works in mysterious ways. Like showin’ up in a hybrid Prius in the form of I’m Jim, a recovering alcoholic to save our pained asses.
Dwayne flew like a one-winged plane. Or like a bible leaflet stuck beneath the windshield wiper of a speeding car: one minute he stood in fierce train-top wind, and the next, he was gone.
My first thought: I need to do something. Only for the briefest moment did I consider just staying put, letting my guardian friggin’ angel crash-land wherever. Even after I’d crawled over the roof of the barreling train, cold metal burning my sweaty hands, even when I’d reached the ladder that led down the side of the rocking boxcar and grabbed hold of the top rung, as the stationary world flashed by, I still had no thought other than I need to get off this train.
A feat easier to imagine than to complete. The tricky part: I had to get my hiking boots off the train roof and on the ladder. High winds made simply keeping my eyes open tough.
Had I calculated odds, I would have realized that Dwayne’s chance of survival after such a fall (or my own if I Tarzan-ed from a moving train-top to an incredibly cold and hard metal ladder) was slim—but I just acted. My feet swung into the vicious rush of air. My body thwacked steel. I held on. My feet found first one rung, then another, and led me down the ladder. I scanned for a field or spot I could jump off without breaking bones. My plan was to propel myself away from train and tracks and to land so I could roll.
When I regained consciousness, I was sprawled on grass. Sore but intact. Able to walk, or limp, but ambulation was necessary if I was to find Dwayne. Following the tracks, I searched. But the passage of long dark hours persuaded me: My hunt was futile. Dwayne was dead, lost, or both.
“Hey! French Fry!”
I spun to discover Dwayne awake, sitting by a small fire. Cut up, but beaming. “Spark,” he said, “what took ya so long?”
“Everything we own in the world is still on that train.”
“What? You didn’t grab our shit?”
“Can you walk?”
Dwayne pushes, groans, straightens and limps a circle. “A friggin’ miracle! I should be dead!”
Drivin’ a car, even Jim Frye’s new friggin’ Prius,’s like ridin’ a bike and ridin’ a bike’s like sex: A guy just doesn’t friggin’ forget how. Jim Frye the AA Guy’s closin’ in on dead, so I add speed. And with Clitoris (what I call Deloris the GPS lady, ‘cause’a her sexy librarian voice) tellin’ me turn right, turn half-left, go straight, I’m burnin’ serious Prius rubber.
As the Tupelo hospital looks like a friggin’ prison, minus the wire walls, with enough wings to carry a flock’a operated-on geese around the world, I buzz right past.
“Dwayne,” Sparky moans.
“Next nearest hospital, Clitoris,” I say.
“Drysdale County Hospital, Jim.” She starts with the rights and lefts and routes and road names, and more rubber burns. And she keeps callin’ me Jim.
“New name, Clitoris. Dwayne.”
“Dwayne,” she repeats.
“That’s right. And just get us to Mr. Drysdale’s Hospital.”
“Drysdale County Hospital.”
When man and computerized she-voice merge to one, nothin’ can impede speed, and sooner than soon we’re parked in a remote section’a visitor parkin’. Spark’s stubbornness starts us bickerin’.
“Spark. I’m tellin’ ya. Jim’ll be fine propped against that friggin’ hospital wall. So long as you keep your hood up when you drag him over there, the cameras won’t—”
“For chrissakes, Spark.”
“Dwayne. This is our golden opportunity.”
“To let a guy die? Who tried to rescue us? You shot him. So you ain’t happy with my plan, make your own. The shooter in the hood can clean his own mess.”
“Yeah, Spark, it’s a, whaddaya call it, a conundrum, but—”
“Some guardian angel.”
“Thought we were a team.”
He’s right. A’course. ‘Cause what would Clarence do? “Christ, Spark. Alright. Obviously you got a plan that involves me.” I glance at Jim Frye in the backseat’a his now bloody Pruis. “But you best spit it out ‘cause Jim ain’t lookin’ so lively.”
Dwayne sat trackside, dirty, beat to hell, next to his twig campfire. Dawn was breaking.
“Think you can walk?”
“I just got pitched from a friggin’ train. Could have internal somethin’ or other.” He smiled. “Spark. We gotta walk, we walk. Do we got a destination? A stupid friggin’ question, I know, ‘cause we never—”
“I walked a long way to find you. My vote’s that we go through those woods, forget following tracks. I need to find water more than I need to hoof miles to maybe recover our stuff.”
Dwayne struggled to his feet. “Lead the way.” A ten-minute limp and we reached road. Dwayne barked laughter. “See? I’m Lucky Luciano.”
A moment later a Prius stopped and its passenger window motored down. “Whoa. You alright?”
“Been friggin’ better,” Dwayne answered.
“Need a ride?” And once we were in the nifty little hybrid, this early-thirties guy whose cologne waged a valiant battle against our odors of vagrancy (and conjured memories of our short, tragic time with Ezekiel) said: “I’ve been where you are. Drank myself outta house and home….”
And I wondered, what’s that mean—house and home? A tad redundant, but I said nothing.
“Today, by the Grace of God, I am able to honestly claim two years, ten months and seven days clean and sober. The name’s Jim Frye and I am an exceedingly grateful alcoholic.”
“Ya know what, Jim Frye?” said Dwayne. “Close the friggin’ lid on the I found God in a church basement crap bucket. Sure we’re happy for ya, but our predicament don’t include bein’ alkies. And I doubt you ever got blown off a full-speedin’ train. Truth is, you find us hikin’ the long and windin’ friggin’ road ‘cause my brother back there lost his goddamn handsome in a fire.”
Jim glanced in the rearview. “I-I,” he said. I removed my hood, and Jim must have thought that I was burned beyond being able to speak, for to Dwayne he said, “What’s your name?”
Dwayne told Jim, and resuming his flow, said, “Ya ready for the true story?”
“Your brother didn’t get burned?”
“I’m talkin’ the story’a recent days. Details’a what causes damage like this.”
Jim eyed Dwayne’s scrapes and gashes. “Oh. Yeah. Shoot.”
“Well,” said Dwayne, clearly relishing this moment, “Beginnin’ at the end, shortly before you picked us up…” And he related the tale of his flip from a speeding freight train, with a focus on his miraculous luck of “not gettin’ busted serious or dead”.
“Where are we going?” I said, when Dwayne paused for breath.
“Sounds like you need your stuff.” A glance at Dwayne. “The train yard—”
“Where were you goin’?” Dwayne said.
“Huh? Well, actually—”
“The short version, Jimbo.”
“I live over in Forestdale but there’s a job there—”
“Spark. Remember Elly May’s gift?”
I said I did.
Jim appeared worried, vision darting, shoulders tensed, his driving more erratic.
“See, Jimbo, Elly May’s my ex old lady. Ex ‘cause she died. Stroke at twenty-two.” Dwayne made sad eyes for Jim’s benefit. But I spotted actual hesitance in my guardian friggin’ angel’s profile, a reluctance to say more. But a deep breath and: “She left me gold, Jimbo.”
“Anyways. My point’s—why try and get old crap that’s on a freight train somewhere when we can just buy new crap? And ride with you to Bill Clinton’s state? That sounds like a plan to me.”
See, earlier, when we rode as passengers in Jim Frye the AA guy’s sweet fresh-off-the-lot Prius, though that friggin’ hybrid can seriously fly (as I just proved bringin’ him, now a shot guy, to the hospital), I saw the speedometer droppin’.
Seventy mph. Sixty-five. Sixty.
Funny drivin’ from a guy that had places to be. Or so he’d said. I think.
That first ride’s gotten kinda blurry in the haze’a GSW panic.
Point is, Jimbo’s sudden slowin’ prob’ly sparked paranoia in the burn victim. Causin’ him to act un-Sparky-like. Which, consideratin’ all the pain and sufferin’ we been through lately, is likely. Add in not sleepin’ and his normal-thinkin’ noggin musta turned to a fake-fortuneteller’s ball’a suspicion. Spark sounded suspicious when he said: “What’s the speed limit through here?”
The speedometer needle’d hit fifty-five.
“Oh. I just figured,” says Jim Frye, “you know, I mean…no speeding tickets on this trip!” Goofy goddamn laughter gurgled from the AA Guy’s mouth. “Plus it’s getting late.”
He darted his Prius off another exit.
“It’s not even three friggin’ o’clock—”
“I’ll be right back,” Jim said, cutting me off and dashin’ into the Starbucks he’d parked us in front’a.
“Fifth stop, Spark,” I said.
“A coffee would be good,” Spark answered.
“A ride’s gonna hafta be good enough, ‘cause that guy, he ain’t about to offer us one’a what he’s been gettin’.”
When Jim was back with his big coffee and we were back on whatever route we’d been on, Jim said: “You know, I’m thinking that, since I need my wits at this meeting tomorrow, I should get a room. Chill.”
“Could’a been out the other side’a Mississippi by now if not for your goddamn stops,” I said, but not confrontational-like. Or not so Jim noticed. Wearin’ a smile, I added: “Too much coffee, my man. But…sharin’ a room sounds like the best plan I’ve heard.”
Jim guzzled coffee.
“All that friggin’ coffee, you oughta be set to drive straight to the moon!”
“Yeah, except I don’t drink much coffee. Normally. To be honest with you, Dwayne, I’m more than a tad nervous about tomorrow’s meeting.” Goin’ doe-eyed Jim said: “I could sure use some down time. Alone. No offense intended.”
Which was when I tugged a little AA rabbit I picked up somewheres outta my hatless brain: “A shared burden’s half a burden.”
Jim smiled like the friggin’ words were stingin’ bees.
“Listen. You wanna hang by your lonesome in a box, that’s your friggin’ perogativity. But as I said awhiles back, I got gold. Plus actual foldin’ money.” When Jim began to respond, my hand became a stop sign. “I’m thinkin’ we could kick back, have a couple cold ones and a few laughs. Might improve your jittery mood, not to mention my fallin’-off-a-train pains. Rather than gettin’ dumped at some friggin’ exit or kicked to the curb in a town I don’t know jack about, I thought we could take a scout around see if we see a gold buyin’ joint. Not to mention, like them Gilligan bibles, motor inns always got fatty phone books with yellow pages that got places that buy gold. So, basically, it’d be a win-win sitch. ‘Cause the drinks’re on yours truly.”
Jim Frye blew air. “I don’t drink, remember?”
“Well, then you don’t gotta. Or O’Doul’s. You partake’a the non-alcoholic varieties?”
“I have. But.”
“Then O’Doul’s it is! C’mon, Jimbo. Nobody died.” I could almost hear Spark ESPin’ Not lately, but bein’ champ’a pullin’ good moods outta yuppie airheads, I let the hood erase the burn victim.
Jim goes: “Well, we could stop in, say, Tupelo. We’re almost there.”
“Agreed.” A growin’ silence woke up my shoulders. My skull, neck, my arms and friggin’ legs, each’a my spine bones—everythin’ fuckin’ hurt when I quit conversatiatin’. Drunk’s the only way I’d sleep. Not shitfaced so’s I’d be hungover and feelin’ like death in the a.m., but a mellow drunk that’d lull me into healin’ sleep. That’s all I was after.
Jim Frye is heavier than he looks, and hauling his dead weight across a parking lot and through ER doors proves a chore, but we owe the guy, and with both me and Dwayne in hoodies, no one will actually see us. Not so they can identify us. We even shed our sneakers and go in our socks. Sneakers might get caught on security camera footage. Our crusty socks we can simply chuck.
When Dwayne showed me the pills he found in Jim’s suitcase, I felt like his father. “What are you doing in Jim’s suitcase? Dwayne, for chrissakes.”
“He don’t mind. He’s in the friggin’ shower. For forty-five goddamn minutes.” Dwayne gulped all six of them down, dry. Within ten minutes he was unconscious.
“Must have been tired,” said Jim as if thinking aloud. Fresh from the bathroom, he trailed steam. He pat-dried his short dark hair with a motel towel and began dressing.
I focused my attention on the room’s flat screen TV. Denzel Washington. Training Day. Denzel never disappoints; Ethan Hawke’s hit or miss.
I was enjoying the movie, as I reclined on the floor—I’d chosen the wrong number and thus lost my chance to sleep in either bed—but was distracted by the sound of Jim going through his bags. I flashed on the stolen pills and wondered what else Dwayne might have taken. But he wasn’t a thief. He was simply in pain; we both were. Would Jim even notice a few missing pills? Would he care? An odd paranoia invaded my thoughts. Who was Jim Frye? A stranger who that seemed increasingly tense. And why did he slow his Prius? Did his reasons for stopping make sense?
Suddenly they were too weak for my liking.
Didn’t Jim originally say that his big meeting was this afternoon? Today?
I heard Jim’s joints crack and pop as he stretched.
Maybe I just needed to relax.
A pause near Dwayne and Jim padded for the bathroom. The tap ran. He was brushing his teeth.
Unable to shake my free-floating unease, as the movie made its big reveal—that nothing was as it seemed—I crept to Jim’s suitcase. I felt groggy, as if I’d taken the swiped pills. Rifling through the clothes inside, none of which looked like business attire, my fingers met something solid and cold. A gun. A hefty gun that looked dangerous. I rearranged Jim’s items, shut the bag, and went to Dwayne.
“Hey. Wake up.”
Dwayne stirred. “Easy, Spark. I’m a body bruise.” His snore resumed.
Panicky, I plunged my hand into Dwayne’s pocket; I removed cloth and unfolded it. Beheld the contents—three rings. I took them from the cloth, intent on hiding them…somewhere. Or I tried to grasp the rings; in my dopey state, two of them bounced across the carpet.
The bathroom door opened.
A third ring went from my sweaty palm into my mouth. I swallowed. I eyed the two I dropped.
Jim Frye went to the main room’s window, separated the heavy drapes. He opened the door to the world and, with his back to me, sucked deep breaths. Late afternoon sunlight entered through the door and window, and cut shapes in the carpet. Fresh air relieved the room’s stuffiness and cleared my head, and from where I sat on the edge of Dwayne’s bed, I kicked the fumbled rings under Jim’s bed.
Jim closed the door, looked me over. “You want a pain pill? That must hurt.” His chin suggested my scarred skull.
“I’m good, thanks.”
“Just let me know if you change your mind. They’ll help you sleep.”
Arson, attempted murder, freight trains, now robbery and a guy in recovery offering me pills—concepts and images banging blindly about my brain, I stood.
“Something wrong? I mean aside from your being exhausted, filthy, and beat to hell?” Jim gave me a Colgate smile.
Overcome with dizziness, I fell back on the bed across which Dwayne was stretched.
“One hell of a trip.” I rubbed my eyes. “So far. But yeah, I’m okay.”
“Where you headed?”
I chuckled. “Good question. The endgame’s not a place, but a state of mind.”
Jim seemed to be waiting for more and when none came he said, “Sounds mysterious. Or maybe mystical’s the better word.” Jim nodded. “So. Gold, huh?”
This confirmed my suspicions.
“You know, I might know a guy who’d be interested. In taking the gold off your hands.”
“I need a shower.”
“Okay. I’ve got stuff to do.” Seemingly out of thin air, he manifested a laptop. A glance at his watch. “It’s a little past five now. After your shower we should do it, if we’re going to do it.” I mumbled gibberish, as Jim set up a portable office at the room’s table. He clicked and tapped.
I really needed a shower…but….
I came to on the bed beside Dwayne, who was still out cold.
Jim was staring at whatever filled his screen.
“You mentioned pills?”
“Oh, you’re awake,” he said.
“What kind of pills?”
A pause. “Ah, Soma.”
I thought of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with its psychological manipulations. It was the last book I read prior to my exodus and it scared the crap out of me. Dwayne surely wasn’t ready for any sort of orgy porgy. Were the rings I kicked under the bed still there? I had questions for Jim, questions about Jim. But that gun in the valise threw a serious shadow over my confidence. That big gun.
“Thought your meeting was today?” I finally said.
Jim Frye had grown eyebrows. Thick, black. Russian? Woolly Bear eyebrows. How could I have missed these caterpillars? “Tomorrow,” he said. A dark shadow of beard threatened to overthrow his jaw, throat. Even his nose struck me as strange and menacing. His attention shot to his luggage. His solid torso twitched. “Tomorrow,” he repeated, turning back to his screen.
“Hey, Jim. What do you say to some food?”
Jim Frye once again wore a cheery expression. “That sounds like a good idea. Where you want to go? I saw a Chili’s. Oh, but you’ll need clothes—”
“Fast food,” I said. “Greasy, scrumptious burgers and fries. Or Chinese.”
“Not Chinese. It’s a long story, but no. And after the time you’ve had. McDonald’s? Really?”
“Look at us. Jim. A change of clothes won’t do it. Please, Jim, no public places. Actually, I was hoping you could run out, pick some grub up…”
Jim studied me a minute. “Why not?” He lowered his laptop screen and stood up. “Burgers it is. But I get to choose where from.” A flashed smile and he was gone.
Spark’s draggin’ me. Off a bed, across a room. Squawkin’ c’mon, wakeup, and hey!
Heavy fog cloudin’ my mental operations, I went: “What the fuck!”
“Jim’s gone out! Getting food! Quick!” Spark was whisperin’, but urgency made it into screams. I spied a second bed, and the pieces fell together—snap-snap-snap. Motel room. And a guy…Jim Frye the AA Guy. Rememberin’ but groggy as hell. Spark walked me in circles, sat me on a bed. He hefted a suitcase, slapped it down beside me (almost hittin’ my worse hurt finger), popped the tabs—and brought out a monster gun. “Look!” he said.
“Wow,” I said, tryin’ to add up the facts. “Why’m I so looped?”
“You ate pills, remember?”
“Oh.” I rubbed my deadened-but-alive-with-friggin’-pain skull. “And the firearms, Spark?”
“It’s Jim’s. And, well, he’s…the whole thing just doesn’t add up.”
“You better put that thing back, before AA Guy comes back…or it goes off.”
“Thing is, Dwayne, he’s lying. About something. I locked the door, put the chain across. See?”
“Lyin’ about what?”
“He’s in AA and has a bunch of pills?”
“A gun? What’s that for?”
“Who the fuck knows? What time is it?”
“Uh.” Spark spun like he was one’a them tops kids used to toy with. “Seven-thirty. And he said his meeting was today!”
“Whoa! Slow the frig down.”
“I think it’s the rings.”
The Drysdale County ER has forty or so chairs bolted to the floor. About half are occupied and most of these by obviously injured people, though some folks appear to be healthy. Everyone looks healthier than Jim Frye. Our bandaging hasn’t halted the bleeding, his waist is belted with blood soaked rags, and his breathing sounds like erratic wind through a ragged tarp. He may not have long. We have no plan for what to do once he’s inside. We position him on an empty chair in a corner of the ER waiting area; his skull and body lean into that wall.
“What now?” I say, as we back up, beholding Jim. “He’s gotta be seen, but we don’t want to be.”
Despite the hood, I can tell Dwayne’s expression is one of profound irritation. “Christ,” he says. “Get outta here. I’ll meet ya.” When I hesitate, he says, “Go!”
And through the drug-induced fogginess, I remembered. My goddamn mouth flappin’. Stupidity. “Yeah,” I said to Spark. “I seen him gettin’ tense. The mention’a those rings prob’ly had his nuts in his ass. But it’s the eyes, Spark. They’re what gives a guy’s shit away.”
“We gotta do something.”
“Do…what? And why?”
“It’s hard to explain but I don’t trust the guy—”
A jigglin’ friggin’ doorknob. A rap-rap-rap. “Hey, it’s me! Open up!”
Spark, who was still holdin’ the gun, got all fumbly like Barney Fife after a prolongated prostate probe. “Whaddoo we do?” he whisper-squealed.
“Retire the fuckin’ arsenal, for one thing.”
“Hello! It’s Jim out here! With your burger and fries!”
“Spark, you gonna pull an OK Corral on the guy?”
He stowed the weapon back where it came from.
“Now you unlock the door. I’ll pretend like I’m sleepin’. Ask him some questions and I’ll listen. We’ll go from there.” I fake-snoozed on the motel bed as Sparkorama undid the door.
“What the heck?” said Jim, closing the motel door and setting a grease-spotted bag on the table.
“Sorry. I was taking a crap.”
“Oh. I thought…well, I don’t know what.” Jim moved his laptop and sat at the small motel table.
Ignoring the food, I began Dwayne’s interrogation. “So, Jim. What’s the deal with your meeting? First it’s today, then it’s tomorrow? And when tomorrow? We still have hours to drive.”
“What?” By all appearances, Jim Frye was genuinely perplexed.
“Answer the question.”
The eyebrows became darker, more sinister, angry. “If I said today, it was a mistake. I told you I’m nervous. Actually, the meeting’s at two-thirty tomorrow afternoon. Why?”
“What is this?” He stood. Though not tall, he cut an imposing figure. “Sonic Studio.”
“Studio? What kind of studio?”
“Is this a mental thing,” he asked, “some kind of road fatigue psychosis?”
I flexed exhausted, aching muscles, tried to look dangerous. “What studio?” I shouted.
“Look. You’re freaking out, and it’s freaking me out.”
Dwayne leaped up. “Surprise!” He darted across the room like he was going to tackle Jim.
Jim dove for his bag, sunk his arms in it, and rolled. He sat back up with the gun out.
“You motherfucker,” Dwayne boomed in a superhuman voice. The toe of his weathered sneaker sent the pistol bouncing of the wall.
“Son of a bitch,” Jim hollered, up and charging Dwayne. The knotted pair tumbled on the motel carpeting and the gun flipped onto Jim’s bed. Dwayne broke free and went for it but the gun was in my grip. I tried to steady the weapon, not thinking about consequences, blindly intent on shooting a man I didn’t know. An unpredictable stranger. “Stop! Or I will shoot!” I saw a cop shout this on TV once, and it worked.
“Spark,” Dwayne crowed. “Whatcha doin’?”
“Hey,” said Jim. “Hey. Now, Dwayne, this isn’t funny.”
But the moment was beyond my control, a moment I couldn’t correct or reverse. An undefinable force flooded me. I was an angry blister, bloated with fluid, outer layer stretched thin. Thinner. I needed a syllable, words, sentences, a monologue that might have lasted a year, long enough for the mindless moment to pass, but my mouth was a collapsed tunnel, and—
The burn victim was a thermometer with its red line shootin’ the moon. With eyes like a spooked cow’s and wavin’ Jim Frye’s gun. Spark bawled—hit the deck—or he’d shoot. Unsure who he intended to shoot, I went belly-down on the carpet.
The AA guy did, too.
Sparkoblamma joined us, landin’ hard on his belly. The pistol sailed.
Now I eyewitnessed that flippin’-firearm trajectory, and it went into slo-mo. Like we were bozos in a regular livin’ room, reenactin’ a wicked play from a Pats game or some shit—till Sparkola’s fumble smacked turf. Which’s when action speeded and the gun exploded and we were deaf…
And there had to be a hole somewhere.
I uttered a silent movie: “Spark?”
See, the gun’d cartwheeled and hit in a way that might’a sent a bullet anywheres, and Jim at least moved—even his friggin’ lips were flappin’, though I couldn’t hear a goddamn word—and since Spark wasn’t answerin’ or movin’ and I was (and am) his guardian friggin’ angel, I scrambled to the kid. And that super human strength ya hear about, with grannies whippin’ tractors off’a kids and then marathonin’ the busted little bodies to some friggin’ ER—that’s the stuff surgin’ through me when I tossed the kid onto Jimbo’s rental bed and speed-checked him for bloody spots.
Findin’ none, I spun to find Jim on his ass, back propped against the motel room wall, hands on that pain in the ass gun he was pointin’ at me. With Jim’s lips still spurtin’ words I still couldn’t hear and me still charged with super granny power, I somersaulted the length’a the bed, feelin’ a new bullet whizzin’ by my cheek, and introduced my friggin’ heel to Jim’s chin. This left him slumped on his side, unconscious. Blood stainin’ his midsection.
I do as he says—Get outta here!—and as I reach the automatic ER doors and they slide open, I hear: “Alright, everybody, this is a friggin’ holdup!”
Turning back, I see Dwayne standing on one of the ER chairs, arms waving. A sweatshirt sleeve covers one of his hands, which looks to be holding a concealed handgun.
Every eye on him, he yells, “And the holdup’s that this guy’s dyin’! GSW, motherfuckers! So move! Somebody get a goddamn doctor!” Dwayne aims his sleeve-covered hand at an old man.
I don’t wait for more. I’m through the doors, running. A block from the hospital, I slow. Trying to look like a jogger.
Dwayne’s beside me.
“Spark,” he pants, “to the Jap Bat Mobile!”
I dash ahead of him, away from the Prius, entering my element, a mental space where there are only arms and legs, lungs and heart pumping me farther, faster, away. Sirens keen. Distant, then closer, louder. A ninety-degree turn into a wooded area and the sirens shrink, lose power, fade. They’re at the hospital, these cruisers, eager to punish, eradicate evil.
Evil, I think, endorphins flooding my brain. Is that what we are, evil? Is that what we’ve become, Dwayne and I, or are we…lost? Outsiders? Have we entered a no man’s land where anything can happen? A realm where good and evil are not clearly defined, where one must live by his or her wits rather than by a set of rules? Did we go out the in-door to normalcy, a door that locked behind us? Are we stuck in a dog-eat-dog existence?
I’m far from the hospital. Far from Dwayne for the first time in days? Weeks? Months? Time has blurred—maybe it’s always blurred in this fringe realm. Does time matter here? Or is survival all that matters now?
Or maybe right action matters more than ever. Perhaps when one has been alienated from man’s laws, choice is all that matters.
Sitting in these woods, which could be any woods, I burrow my fingers through dead leaves and deep into the humus. We all live and we all die. Since I was burned, I’ve felt that I’m here by some glitch I can’t grasp, living on time that isn’t really mine, each day stolen from another being that deserves it more, but I may have invented this and my life does matter. Could this be my second chance? To do better than I did before? A chance that required losing all I loved? Losing the guy I was? All my previous important—stripped from me?
When I am able, I venture on in tattered socks. My feet sore and bleeding, but I shot a man. Not purposefully, but if I hadn’t picked up the gun, hadn’t feared a man who helped us…who knows? I’ve made assumptions and now must suffer the consequences.
But what is, is, and what is now is my wounded feet crunching death—leaves, branches, seeds, shoots, insects—more death than I can imagine, as I trek toward an unknown future. Where I will try to atone.
In time, the woods thin and finally give way to blacktop. A minor road. And I know. Before I hear the engine, I know. Dwayne is coming.