Yet another barred door rolled shut with a heavy clang that reverberated down the next corridor and automatically locked behind me. Sealed ever deeper within the complex, so dreary and lacking in natural light, its disorienting subterranean quality did nothing to dampen the claustrophobic panic swelling within me. Nor did the pair of tattooed inmates up ahead who, looking up from their half-assed floor mopping, fixed me in hard baleful eyes which, despite the presence of the enormous guard escorting me, made me feel as susceptible to an unholy end as a tethered goat. Ever since Phoebe had dropped me off, the sight of the tall chain link fences topped with tight coils of razor wire, the sniper towers with their dark tinted windows, the stars and stripes snapping under an angry wind, all made my instincts scream: “Turn around right now and RUN!” So what countervailing forces were suppressing them and propelling my leaden legs onward?
None that had any influence over Dylan, that’s for sure. “That does it,” he had spluttered shortly after the bug strike, getting nothing out of his cigarette unaware that, in his fumbling attempt to light it, he had burned a long smoldering hole down its side. “Fuck this,” he said, flinging it from the window and peering up into the sky as if it might next rain African elephants.
“Has it occurred to you Dylan, your life might be less stressful if you quit smoking?” I asked.
“That does what?” demanded Phoebe.
“Next exit, I’m turning around and going home. That’s what that does.”
“Do you think he could be gay?” mused Dani as we watched Dylan and Phoebe arguing in the parking lot from the window of the truck stop diner. “Look how he’s got his hand on his back with his hip stuck out like that. It’s effeminate.”
“That’s the way a woman stands when she’s pissed.”
Perhaps, but it also struck me as the way a young hood might stand when getting dressed down by his mother in public and has a gun shoved down the back of his pants for just such occasions. But now he had wound up and kicked one of the fat unyielding tires on a rig parked behind them and was cartoonishly hopping around, grimacing, on one foot. “That kid’s a walking contradiction on a lot of different levels. I wouldn’t speculate too much on his body language.”
“I almost hope he is gay,” she sighed.
“I get the feeling if I took off my clothes and danced around in front of him stark naked, he wouldn’t pay a damn bit of attention.”
“You mean you haven’t already?” Dani’s eyes narrowed to slits at this and she huffed indignantly even as she struggled with the smile catching in the corners of her mouth. God, she reminded me of Melanie sometimes and I watched her with melancholy fondness as she struggled to locate the zinger comeback eluding her.
“So, that’s all settled then,” said Dylan sliding into the booth next to Dani, slapping his hands together and looking excessively pleased with himself while Phoebe stomped off to the restrooms. “I’m– ”
“Heterosexual after all?” I ventured, causing Dani to direct a swift eye-watering kick to my shin under the table.
She needn’t have bothered. Only a flicker of bafflement registered in Dylan’s face before he shook it away and continued in bubbly high spirits, “I’m going to drop you dopes off in Lucasville and then I’m out of there.”
“Going to keep heading south down to Lexington. I’ll hang out there until you’re good and done with all this grim reaper shit. Then I’ll come get you.”
“What’s in Lexington?”
“Real Kentucky bourbon for one thing, Paul. I can bring some back for you if you want a break from that horse piss you drink.”
“You read my mind,” I said, swirling the muddy dregs at the bottom of my cup of Jack-spiked coffee.
“There’s a guy at Pappy Van Winkle’s who owes me. Stuff is velvet.”
“Sounds like an underpants outlet for old men, but I’ll take your word for it.”
“What about me?” whimpered Dani with all the dejection of a dog left out in the rain.
“Don’t worry, you’re coming with me babe,” said Dylan sunnily. Before Dani could register that he had just called her “babe” or that he’d slung his arm around her shoulder, he planted a noisy wet kiss in the middle of her forehead which, Dylan ever in the process of exsanguinating from some part of his body, left behind a glistening red smear. She slowly rotated her head back in my direction, shoulders quaking as some vesuvian joy awoke, spread across her stunned face and ignited the gases in her eyes. Oblivious to wearing Dylan’s kiss, and her hair pulled back in a tight braid, she looked like a freshly anointed Hindu brimming with the promise of nirvana.
“So long suckers!” Dylan might as well have been saying when, a few hours later, he saluted us through the windshield before spinning the wheels and literally leaving me and Phoebe and the bags dumped at our feet in the dust. Standing there in front of the roadside we had just checked into, we watched Dani castaway waving out her window until the highway doglegged southwest and they were gone. Right the hell out of Dodge.
Probably playing the ponies and drinking Pappy Van Whatevers this very minute I lamented, my tongue dry and perspiration tracking down my side as a heavy steel door with a shuttered sliver of window loomed up ahead.
“You alright, Hoss?” said the guard in a honking voice, resting a giant’s hand on my shoulder that, under his tremendous height and pear-shaped girth, tilted me over towards him. On the wrong side of 50, he had the unpaved red face of a professional drinker and sported a singed walrus mustache that concealed his entire mouth even when he talked. But when you found his eyes, sunken above dark bunched skin, they were gentle and steady and invited unpolluted answers.
“He ate the face off a girl my daughter’s age,” I said mechanically, recalling one of the godless bedtime stories Phoebe had read me the night before from a fat scrapbook of newspaper clippings she had brought along. “While he…”
“Praise God we soon won’t be sharing the same planet with him,” he interjected, as if God was going to be relocating Carrick Mayweather to Mars. “And I’ll tell you something else,” he said, as we came to a halt in front of the door. “The party got started early last night, from what I hear. Bright boy found himself, how shall I say… accidentally left alone in the boiler room with four of the biggest, meanest sons of bitches we got in here. They could hear him screaming through the heat vents all the way down in S Block.”
“So, what, is he half dead in there?”
“Not a scratch on him,” he said with a merry wink. “Round 2 tonight with any luck.”
“Right,” I said softly, picturing myself in an easily removable orange jumpsuit cornered by four iron pumping convicts chomping at the bit to vent all their angry hopelessness. “I know someone who will be delighted to hear that.”
“So, are we ready, Hoss?” said the guard, shaking out a long toothy key from the jumble hanging from his belt. “Or do you just want to call it a day?”
“Ready,” I heard a disembodied voice say and as the door slowly swung open it released a sour vinegary odor much like the stench of fear that wafted over from Gary during the Lajes landing. I clutched at my crucifix through my shirt and reaffirmed under my breath the solemn vow I had scribbled on the back of countless bar mats since my conviction:
DEATH BEFORE JAIL
“Ladies and gentlemen, captain here. Santa’s sleigh is creating some wake turbulence in the skies tonight and the wind is against us. We require a steep takeoff out of here and it’ll be tricky but hang on to your seats, I got this. Champagne will be served as soon as we reach cruising altitude. Over and out,” I said merrily, adjusting my headset to better anchor the reindeer antlers Melanie had given me earlier.
“God, this never gets old!” I cried a few minutes later, pushing the 777’s nose higher, my organs jiggling inside me as every rivet in the aircraft shook under the wind. Below, the blazing lights stringing Long Island faded fast and above the golden sails of the International Space Station winked into view. Hard to imagine there were people in there. Hard to imagine there were people anywhere except for us right here, right now in this mini sky-city streaking across the night towards Newfoundland and the black, cold waters of the Atlantic beyond.
“Watch your angle of attack, Paul,” said Gary sharply. “It’s a plane, not a damn rocket ship.”
“Tomayto-tomahto,” I said giving him a playful elbow to the ribs he swiped away irritably.
“Not if you stall out, it isn’t.”
“Lighten up, Gary, it’s Christmas eve and you’ll never be more free and alive than you are right now!”
“Sure,” he grunted with a sidelong glance at my tinkling antlers. “And don’t start lecturing me about fear of flying and jet roulette. I know the odds…”
|CAUSE OF DEATH||ODDS OF DYING|
|Struck by Meteor||1 in 700,000|
|Flesh Eating Bacteria||1 in 1 million|
|Shark Attack||1 in 3.7 million|
|Struck by Lightning||1 in 9 million|
|Struck by Airplane Part Falling from the Sky||1 in 10 million|
|Airplane Crash||1 in 11 million|
“A person would have to fly on average once a day every day for 22,000 years before they would die in a U.S. commercial airplane accident.”
Dr. Arnold Barnett, MIT
… and it’s not flying I’m scared of,” said Gary.
“Breakfast time, Mr. Manson,” sounded the shrill voice of Sister Vera, as a meal tray came clattering down on my bed table. I poked at the warm aluminum bag slumped over the lip of the plastic plate still recovering its equilibrium. It looked dishearteningly like the one from yesterday morning which, when I’d pulled back its seal, had released a puff of sweaty sock odor and contained two pieces of damp bread Sister Vera had insisted was toast.
“It’s not toast. Toast is toasted. Hence the name. Even the airlines struggle to fuck up toast.”
“Language, Mr. Manson!”
“It’s true, I work for one. What did you do with this? Bring a bedpan to a boil and steam it?”
“Mr. Manson, this is a hospital not a restaurant.”
“Right. Where if sickness doesn’t kill you, the food will.”
“Now, you listen to me,” hissed Sister Vera, making a tight fist as if in preparation to deck me. “Guess what happens if you don’t start eating right this instant?”
“I’ll live to see another day?”
“I’ll report loss of appetite which means you won’t be going anywhere soon.” The words hit me like a hammer blow. All night long I had been listening to my roommate on the other side of the curtain separating our beds alternating between sobbing and vomiting something so vile smelling I had no doubt he was dying; his insides having gotten a head start on decomposing. The only thing that had saved me from slipping into howling madness were the minibar bottles I had convinced Melanie (still in that sweet prepubescent age where she would have walked over broken glass to please me) to smuggle in for me during a visit with Ally earlier in the day. Now, the threat of being stuck another interminable night with him in this horror show of needles and tubes and catheters and beeping monitors and itchy sheets and dull fluorescence and hollow corridor voices convinced me to attack my steamed piss bread as if it were one of the delectable onion burgers I snarfed down at JFK before flying.
But when I looked up at Sister Vera, her mouth twisted into a malignant sneer, her eyes feasting on my misery, she struck me as the reincarnation of a younger, slenderer version of Aunt Carrie. Right down to the writhing Jesus crucifix surfing a swelling undulation in her tunic formed by breasts better suited to a stripper. The lunge towards it, so reflexive it even surprised me, was halted in its tracks by the tearing of stitches above the throbbing spot in my abdomen where my appendix had nearly exploded. I shrieked once, pornographically decorating Sister Vera’s face with the pulpy contents of my mouth; Sister Vera shrieked twice and fled; and my roommate began whimpering piteously like something run over.
I stood at the foot of my bed shrugging into my overcoat, blood slinking around my wedding band and down my finger from where I’d yanked out the IV, blood spotting my gown where the stitches were leaking. Not much time before Sister Vera would be back, probably with a cohort of burly orderlies instructed to fasten me into a straitjacket. “Help… help me please…” rasped my roommate from behind the curtain. Pushing it aside, I was startled to see a man only ankle-deep in his thirties, not the sulfuric old geezer I had developed in my mind, sunken so deep in his bed he looked as though he was being slowly consumed by it. It had been pushed up close to a window besmeared with greasy fingerprints and containing only an unbroken red-brick wall, fuzzy under slanting morning sun, for a view.
“What is it, man? Hurry, I got to run.”
“My… my breakfast…” he said, half lifting the arm not plugged into three different IV poles and flapping at the food cart Sister Vera had abandoned. I swung it over to him, burning in shame as it dawned on me that, after a night of emptying his stomach, this man was famished for the very food I’d been so petulantly railing against.
“Here, knock yourself out,” I said and, after a glance up at me with the wild, desperate eyes of someone drowning, he turned away to stare out the window as if the red-brick wall might crumble under the weight of his suffering and reveal the able-bodied world still obliviously humming along without him.
“Or at least that’s what I thought. It only occurred to me later he was probably too weak to reach for his own tray. He probably just turned away in disgust. But I was frantic. I just took off. Left him there with a cart full of meals he couldn’t eat.”
“I’m sure he got one in the end,” said Shannon absently, harp plucking at the ridges of her corduroys, her pen lying untouched atop a blank pad at her side. What’s up with her today?
“I still think about that guy a lot. Stuck in that… that prison,” I said, meat grinding the word. “With no gas in the tank to run like I did. What a way to end your days. I’d rather put myself down with the .38. I’d–”
“.38?” chirped Shannon, suddenly attentive, her twitchy bird face activated. “You have a gun?”
“No,” I lied not because I didn’t want to explain how I had come into its possession, but because I couldn’t remember how I had.
“You said, the .38.”
“I meant a .38.”
She stood up abruptly, walked over to the window and drummed on the glass with her fingertips as if telegraphing a message in Morse code to one of the insurance geeks across the street.
He’s got a gun. Stop. Lying about it. Stop. Notify your people. Stop…
Letting out the short sigh of someone who has just come to a decision, she returned with some crumpled papers retrieved from her desk. “I think,” she said, ironing them out before me on the coffee table, “you may have left these behind last time.”
“The way he was trying to break down that wall with his eyes, I would have dragged him out of there with me if I wasn’t half-dead myself,” I said, Phoebe’s face half in shadow now that the sun had slipped from the sky and filled the drab motel room with soggy twilight. “So that’s why I hang on to that thing,” I concluded, nodding at the .38 lying in her lap. Had Phoebe been my girlfriend, I would have nailed the articles of the riot act to her head for snooping through my things, especially since she had done it while I was out battling with an uncooperative cigarette machine on her behalf. In all my years with Ally, she had never been a snooper and that’s a fact because had she known there was a loaded gun in the house, easily discoverable in the bottom drawer of my desk, it would have ended up at the bottom of the Hudson not far from my bullet riddled body. Whether it was inherent trust in me or an inherent desire not to know, who’s to say, but even when I loaned her my computer forgetting it was paused mid-way through Alice’s Anal Adventures in Wonderland, rather than rain down grief and misery on me, Ally had hooked it up to the TV so we could watch the rest of it together. What a magnificent, rare creature she had been in so many ways I was only now beginning to fully appreciate.
“I don’t understand,” said Phoebe softly, glancing out the window where the red neon ‘VACANCY’ sign was slowly flickering to life, its ‘N’ burned out, and lonesome highway noise came through like the distant roar in a shell.
“You have control of your life up until you’re admitted to hospital or– ”
“Now do you understand?”
She nodded and smiled weakly as she set down the .38 on the windowsill with a heavy clunk and reached for her cigarettes. “I’m sorry I went through your shit. It’s not my place,” she said, her face aglow in lighter flame. “You know we all love you, don’t you, Paul? Me and Dylan. Dani and Lucy. Your friends.”
My friends. What was it Dani had said to her father? “If I want to go with my friends, I’ll go.” Is that really what they were? And what would they think if they knew the other night, before heading out to meet them at Milkwood’s, I had stood out on the end of the dock as the pale moonlight feathered across the lake, put the gun to my head and pulled the trigger, the one round I had spun in the cylinder not making it to the firing chamber?
After I had shaken out the six bullets into the palm of Phoebe’s hand and folded her fingers over them, I said, “Here, you hang on to these for now. Russian roulette is an ugly game.”
To be continued…
*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL
© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 15), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.