The Saga of Hollow Sons
By Gren Assad
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1. Curse of Disconnection
On Monday, Eli sat in the back row of his essay composition class and slipped in and out of consciousness, struggling to force himself awake by strength of will alone. He had spent the past three nights chasing the Old Man until sunrise and had only slept for five hours during the course of the entire weekend. His nocturnal habits were ravaging his body and taking him well past the point of giddy exhaustion, to border on self-cruelty. But Eli endured the discomfort without complaint. It was rare to stumble onto the Old Man’s trail at all; and sometimes he and the others went months without picking up a scent. After three consecutive nights of productive pursuit, any level of fatigue seemed bearable.
Normally, Eli would have encouraged the arrival of sleep, regardless of his surroundings. He rested infrequently and couldn’t afford to be selective about the times in which sleep visited him. But Eli happened to like this particular teacher and felt it would be an insult to fall asleep in his class without a fight. The English teacher, whose name Eli had never bothered to learn, genuinely cared about the subject and the students. He cared about the tuition that everyone had paid to attend and about the discussions that he tried to engage the class in. He was young, probably fresh out of graduate school, and openly assumed that everyone in the room shared his concern for the class. This blatant display of na´vetÚ always made Eli feel guilty about his own apathy. So Eli made a conscious effort to act like an interested student. He covered his mouth when he yawned, smiled encouragingly at the teacher’s clever anecdotes and scribbled in his notebook at appropriate times. And today, he struggled valiantly to keep his eyes open.
About halfway through the two-hour class, the teacher assigned the students a freeform exercise. He instructed them to write, without pause, about the topic of their upcoming essay. Eli happened to be awake during the explanation of the assignment, so he picked up his pen and feigned the role of a dutiful student. The exercise ended promptly after five minutes and the teacher demanded that everyone set their pens down. Then he gave the class another five minutes to reread what was on their papers and highlight interesting themes or ideas. The purpose of the assignment was to draw out thoughts that the students might explore in their later writings. A single sentence, written over and over again a half dozen times, covered the top eight lines of Eli’s paper. The sentence read: “Alexander the Great conquered the civilized world by the age of twenty-one.”
Eli’s essay didn’t concern Alexander the Great at all. The assignment involved watching a contemporary sitcom and discussing what, if any, social issues pervaded the episode. Then the students had to contrast the show and its issues with the ideas and attitudes of a sitcom from the fifties. But the teacher had instructed them to write what came to mind, taking care to avoid conscious interference, and Eli had done as he was told. It was late November and he had celebrated his nineteenth birthday only three weeks earlier.
After the reread, the teacher offered the class a choice of taking a ten-minute break or continuing with the second hour of the lesson uninterrupted. He added the stipulation that, if the students agreed to continue straight through, he would dismiss them fifteen minutes early. The class, which included a large number of smokers, took a vote and the ten-minute break won by a landslide. Immediately after the vote, half the class stood up and left, many without the intention of returning. The teacher excused himself and left to use the restroom. Eli stayed seated in the back and positioned his notebook so that no one could see his hands as he scratched a message onto the surface of his desk. With the tip of his pen he carved the sentence, “When I sleep I dream of fire,” above another inscription that read, “FTW I wasn’t born with enough middle fingers.” Afterward, he returned his book to its previous position on his desk, placed his pen on top of it and turned his attention outside. He gazed out of the nearest window and watched as the gray sky turned a dark, bruised color before finally fading to black.
A pretty girl with dark hair sat off to Eli’s left and as he stared out at the sky, she called over to him in a conspiratorial voice. The girl was slim and curvy and overly polished, the physical manifestation of most of Eli’s fantasy lovers. Eli knew the girl in a casual, classroom sort of way but had never learned her name. So when he turned to face her, he lifted his head in a stiff nod to let the girl know that she had his attention, rather than offering her a polite, personalized greeting.
“Did you take my Harry Potter pen?” she asked with a smile, as she glanced around her desk and checked the floor. The girl sounded playful and coy but Eli was unable to tell that she was flirting. He rarely ever looked into a strange girl’s eyes and, as a result, had difficulty in reading them with any degree of accuracy. Her intentions didn’t matter to Eli though. He didn’t feel like playing or flirting. So he shook his head and said “no” flatly, as if the girl were actually accusing him of robbing her pen.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” Eli said. “I wouldn’t take your pen.”
“Can I borrow a pen from you then. I think someone took mine.”
Eli lifted his book bag onto his desk and began rooting through his belongings. It was a polite gesture and nothing more. Eli carried the same items with him everyday and he knew that a second pen was not in his inventory. His bag held a spiral notebook with a yellow cover that he had used for the past two semesters; a blue pen with an AmeriCamp logo embossed along its side; a hardcover edition of The Saga of the Volsungs; and a wooden mask, painted white with smoke-stained streaks running up and down its face. After searching for a quick minute, he informed the dark haired girl that he didn’t have a pen for her to borrow.
“Will you keep an eye out for my Harry Potter pen though?” she asked. The classroom was mostly empty and the girl’s eyes were practically gleaming with a desire for some attention but Eli didn’t notice. He nodded a cold response to her request and they didn’t speak to each other again for the remainder of the class. The teacher returned a few minutes later, asked the members of the class to settle down and then opened up his textbook to an essay on the structures of families throughout history.
“So, okay,” he said. “What do most of you think of when you think of a typical American family? Normal, rather. What does a normal family consist of?”
An Asian kid who sat in one of the middle rows near the wall raised his hand and described a normal family as a married couple with kids.
“Okay, that’s good. What about grandparents?”
Without raising a hand, someone announced that, under the guidelines of a normal family, grandparents didn’t live in the same household as their children.
“What does it mean to belong to an extended family?”
A tiny girl who sat next to the door described an extended family as a unit that included people outside of the normal members who were linked by blood in some way to the household.
“Normal members?” the teacher asked, trying to remind the students of the definition first given.
The Asian kid who had supplied the first answer raised his hand and said again, although a little quieter this time, that a normal family consisted of a married couple with children.
“Okay good. Now I’m sure some of you have studied Roman civilization, ancient Roman civilization I mean, either here or in high school. Right? Most of you are familiar with ancient Rome, Caesar and gladiators and all that. Does anyone know what the Ancient Romans considered to be a family?”
No hands were raised. The essay that served as the basis for the discussion, which had been assigned to the class a week earlier, focused on the family models used by Western cultures. The ancient Roman version was the first type mentioned in the text.
“Anyone? No one. Okay people, please just remember to check your syllabus because there is at least one reading assignment scheduled per week. Maybe I forgot to mention this one.”
The teacher had reminded the entire class of the reading assignment during both meetings of the previous week. He even mentioned it twice during the Thursday meeting, in which he cut short another discussion because no one had read the essay on the gun culture in America. The semester was half over and he had faithfully reminded the students of their weekly assignments during every single meeting. He had also handed out two copies of the syllabus to each student, had listed the readings on the College of Staten Island website and personally bought two copies of the textbook and reserved them at the campus library for those that couldn’t afford the book.
“So, how about, everyone turns to page 334 and we’ll … if you didn’t bring the book please look on with the person next to you. Does everyone see the paragraph on 334 that starts ‘The typical Roman household’? That’s where we’re going to focus. Now it’s important to realize that a Roman family didn’t link itself through a blood bond. Instead they believed that a family consisted of all the people who lived in a particular household, whether they happened to be related by blood or not. This practice even extended to Roman slaves who often … ”
Even before the actual idea materialized in his mind, Eli felt an odd, almost primal, fear bubble up in his belly. Seconds later, a strange thought crept over him as he listened to the teacher summarize the essay that he hadn’t bothered to read. Eli felt an oily slickness wash down from his hairline to his chin and immediately realized that his face was dripping off his skull in one long, slow, undulating wave. Eli lifted a hand to his head and ran the tips of his fingers down his skin. The surface he touched was smooth beyond compare, devoid of any bumps or divots or noticeable texture. The bulge of his nose was gone, along with the indents of his eye sockets, the ridge of his forehead and the slopes of his cheeks. A featureless, sterile oval stretched out beneath Eli’s touch where a fully formed, although wholly unremarkable, face had been only minutes before.
Without thought, Eli stuffed his hand into his book bag and gripped his mask. It was a desperate act, in the way that a man about to tumble off a staircase will involuntarily reach for a handrail. The wood was rough and unforgiving and he wanted to snatch it out of his bag and press his face into it. But the teacher droned on without pause and the other students busied themselves with anything but the lesson. Eli felt as if he were safely anonymous for now, so long as he didn’t make any sudden movements or call attention to himself and his face. He slowly removed his hand from his bag, folded his arms across his desk and buried his head in the crook of his elbow. The class continued uninterrupted as Eli reminded himself wordlessly, over and over again, that none of this was real.
Real or not, it had been happening to him frequently in the past few weeks and on average occurred almost once a day. For the first time in his entire life, Eli actually considered the possibility that he might be insane. He’d once heard somewhere that a person who questions his own sanity is sane by default, since such an act requires a certain level of objectivity not common among the mentally diseased. But that idea gave him little solace as he sat quietly in the back row of his English class, cradling his blank face.
Rooster had warned him long ago that the shift between lives would be a graceless affair and Eli had believed him from the first. Over the years he’d often witnessed peculiar scenes while outside of the mist’s embrace. Much like a lack of sleep, they were a necessary inconvenience that came with the pursuit of the Old Man. Sometimes he would pass a bathroom mirror or catch a glimpse of his reflection in a glass door and see a clean, peach slate. Other times the mask would be staring back at him, even when he knew it was tucked away safely at home or in his book bag. But those had all been isolated cases with months or even years separating each episode.
Recently, as the incidents became more frequent, he had taken to carrying the mask with him everywhere and at all times of the day. Something about having it close at hand eased his mind in a way that nothing else could. He knew that it was nothing more than a thin piece of wood covered with a layer of paint but it helped, in the same way that a nightlight will help dispel nightmares.
But even the mask couldn’t wash away all the byproducts of Eli’s graceless shift, all the intrusions and odd visions that seemed to bleed together. A prime example was the arm in the puddle and the fear that it had left in him. The arm was an image that would stay with Eli forever, an image whose impact couldn’t be diminished by time. Last week, he had been crossing the street when an entire arm, black and bloated and glistening, had reached out of a shallow puddle and tried to clutch at his passing foot with a gnarled hand. The motions of the arm had seemed only a blur to him; and by the time he reached the sidewalk, the limb had vanished and the surface of the puddle appeared completely still again. But the event had left him shaken and so disturbed that he hadn’t told the others about it, particularly Rooster. If Rooster had heard, he would have wanted to return to the street under cover of the mist, find the puddle and attempt to dive into it.
The class was supposed to end at twenty after six but the teacher let the students out fifteen minutes early, despite the ten minute break that they had voted to take. As everyone filed out of the classroom, he reminded them to read the essay regarding images of violence toward women presented in the media and to think about how those images impacted public attitudes.
“Start outlining your essays,” the teacher said, as kids pushed past him obliviously. “Try to find a handful of interesting ideas to focus on. And form an opinion. Don’t be noncommittal. Hammer away at your points because your audience might not listen otherwise.”
Eli waited until everyone had left the classroom, including the teacher, before packing up his belongings and leaving. No one paid him any attention as he sat in his corner seat and stared off through the window, seemingly lost in a daydream. He locked his head into an odd angle, keeping his face turned away from the room, and a strategically placed hand covered a large part of his secret until he felt safe enough to let down his guard. An unmistakable silence and stillness settled down on the room and Eli knew he was alone. He stood up, slipped into his flimsy sweatshirt and zipped it up to his chin. Then he pulled the sweatshirt’s hood all the way up over his head until a pale gray flap hung down to the middle of his forehead, slightly obscuring his vision.
Eli walked down to the campus center without drawing any attention. Strangers passed him in the halls and on the campus’ sidewalks but most of them were focused elsewhere and wouldn’t have noticed if Eli were naked. Occasionally people lifted their gaze as they crossed his path, trying to make some polite eye contact, but the sweatshirt’s hood blanketed his face in shadows. It was dark and the campus’ streetlights that stood guard at every intersection threw off weak beams of pale, white light. They failed to illuminate much of anything and helped to keep him hidden from the world.
He dug around in his pockets as he moved, trying to scrounge up as much money as he could for a quick meal. The last time he’d eaten was the night before, at around eight, when he’d bought two slices of pizza during his walk home from the bus stop. He found eighty-seven cents, ninety-two counting the Canadian nickel in his back pocket, and decided to buy a Snickers bar for the ride home. At the vending machine in the campus center, a squat kid with a backwards hat and two arms filled with books stood staring at the limited selection of candy for a full fifteen minutes before making his decision. He ignored Eli’s polite coughs and continued to block the entire machine until finally purchasing a bag of Fritos. Then the kid collected his chips and his change and turned around, slamming directly into Eli like a fullback executing a perfect block. Books flew everywhere, but the bag of Fritos stayed firmly inside the kid’s tight grasp.
Red-faced with embarrassment and anger, the kid bent down and glared up from the floor as he collected his books and stacked them back into his arms. Eli watched impassively; and when the kid asked him to pass a textbook that had fallen nearby, Eli kicked his foot out in one swift motion and sent the book skidding across the hallway in the opposite direction. The kid mumbled something under his breath and then chased after his book.
Eli bought a Snickers bar and ate it slowly as he walked off campus and up a few blocks to his bus stop. The trip from the campus center to the bus usually took him about twenty minutes, but he walked slowly and made it there in a half hour. His bus arrived ten minutes after he reached the stop. Eli boarded the bus and then took a seat near the back, where it seemed least crowded. The only other passenger nearby was a raggedy man who sat across from him, rocking back in forth in his seat as he hummed an unrecognizable tune. The raggedy man had an oddly shaped head that had been clean-shaven once, but was now covered with short, bristly hairs and matted with grease. His big, doughy hands were stuffed into a pair of ancient wool gloves that had the tips of each cloth finger snipped off, exposing the man’s dirty nails and the scars that arced across the pads of his fingers.
The bus’s engine flared up and the street and sidewalk outside started to drift past, blending into a blur of unrecognizable scenery. Without warning, the raggedy man started to snap his fingers, laying down a rapid beat that complimented his hummed tune. Each audible pop seemed louder than Eli would have guessed possible, considering the man’s age and infirm appearance.
“Didn’t anyone tell you its winter, boy?” he asked suddenly, his fingers never slowing. “Late fall, I mean, late fall. But still, cold as winter.”
“It’s cold out. Don’t you own a thick jacket or something?”
“Yeah,” Eli said.
“Well why don’t you wear it? Cold out there. Cold like winter. Don’t you feel it?”
“Well if you feel it then why don’t you wear your jacket? You own the jacket, right? Not like anyone is asking you to buy the jacket. You got it, why not use it?”
“I like the cold.”
“Not like this you don’t. This is cold like winter. Don’t nobody enjoy this.”
“No, I do. I like the cold, cause it lets me know that I’m not dead yet.”
The raggedy man opened his mouth to respond but paused like a stutterer caught in the middle of a tough word. “What was that?”
“I said, I like the cold because the discomfort I feel lets me know that I’m still conscious … still sentient, that I haven’t ceased to be. Sometimes I just need a reminder.”
The raggedy man tossed his head from side to side and leaned in as if he hadn’t heard Eli correctly. Eli didn’t repeat himself a third time, so the man dismissed him with a wave of his pudgy hand and turned his attention away from the stalled conversation. Then the raggedy man patted himself down and stuffed his hands into the deep pockets of his overcoat. The humming didn’t resume after the snapping died away.
The bus continued on its route, stopping and picking up new passengers while dropping off others. No one went back to sit near Eli, who adjusted his hood nervously every two minutes, making sure that the flap of cloth came down as far as possible and stayed close to his skin. Sometime during the ride, an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia settled down on him and the sudden urge to flee the bus and step outside flared up from a place deep inside. Eli recognized the sensation immediately. Buses have a certain smell and feel that permeate from inside them, caused by the body heat and breath and presence of all their passengers. During most rides, people crack their windows and vent this stagnant air; but on cold days, open windows release heat as well as air, so the windows often stay closed. As a result of breathing in recycled air and sitting in the sickly warmth of complete strangers, people often act peculiarly on buses during the cold seasons.
Eli once witnessed two teenage girls arguing in the back of a bus a few weeks before Christmas, while on his way to the mall to do some shopping. The feud escalated and one of the girls pulled out a box cutter and sliced open the other’s cheek. The wounded girl touched her face in shocked disbelief just as the bus came to a sudden stop. She stumbled backward, reached out to grab onto a pole in an effort to steady herself and then dragged her bloodied palm across a nearby window, leaving a smeared handprint on the Plexiglas. Although he couldn’t remember a single gift he received during the holidays that year, the image of that handprint, and the feel of that bus, never left Eli.
He debated fleeing the bus for a quick minute and decided that a walk would do him good. Outside, on the sidewalks, people minded themselves and kept their stares to a minimum. Eli pressed the strip of plastic that signaled requested stops and strolled off the bus at the next available opportunity. The bus had passed about a dozen stops but still had a long way to go before reaching Eli’s. The walk home took nearly an hour. Once home, hr set his things down in the middle of his apartment and tossed off his hooded sweatshirt, taking care to avoid the small mirror that hung near his bathroom door. He rummaged through the fridge and found a bag of frozen, curly cut french-fries to be the only edible item in the entire house. Eli turned his oven onto four hundred degrees and set the bag of fries down on the counter to defrost.
While waiting for the oven to heat up, Eli took a seat on his awful couch and skimmed through his political science textbook. He flipped to a chapter on the obsolescence of major war in the modern era. He had an in-class essay exam to look forward to on Wednesday, but studying didn’t worry him. He knew the material well enough. The textbook served as an excuse for avoiding his real work, writing for Rooster. Eli owed Rooster two weeks worth of summaries and had been promising their prompt delivery for the past few days. Rooster endured the delay without complaint though. He knew that Eli often fell into sullen, unproductive moods but that he always delivered eventually.
Eli fell asleep on his couch sometime during the argument that ethnic struggles within a country threatened world peace more than any other type of aggression. His nap didn’t last long. The phone rang shortly after his eyes closed. Even under normal circumstances, he disliked talking on the phone and avoided it as much as possible. He often walked to the nearest pizzeria to place his order in person, like a human being, rather than request something from an anonymous voice over the phone. So in retaliation for being awakened, he stubbornly refused to answer the call.
After about six rings, the house fell back into relative silence. Then the second call came and rang a full fifteen times before quitting. By the third call, Eli gave in and walked to the kitchen to answer the phone, motivated by aggravation alone and not by any desire to find out who was trying to reach him.
“Meet us at Rooster’s house.”
The voice on the other end of Eli’s conversation belonged to his best friend in the entire world, Michael Bellamonte, or Bella as their childhood buddies had dubbed him.
“Liar. Get here soon. We’re going to meet somebody.”
“I’m not coming.”
Eli explained that he had a test to study for and an essay to write by next week, in addition to the work he still owed Rooster, but Bella didn’t believe any of it.
“Seriously,” Bella said. “We’re going to leave, in like, an hour.”
“Good. Have fun. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Eli and Bella argued back and forth for a few minutes, neither man budging even slightly. Bella called his friend a hermit and demanded to know why he wasn’t coming out. Eli supplied the same lame excuse over and over again; and when Bella ordered him to come out tonight with the others, Eli refused flatly.
Suddenly some muffled noises passed through the phone, followed by a loud bang as the receiver on Bella’s end smacked against something hard and metallic.
There was no answer. A few seconds later, the sound of three distinct beeps came through the phone.
“Sorry sorry, I’m at a pay phone. I dropped the phone and had to scrounge around for some coins cause my minutes were up. Everything okay, Easy?”
The nickname Easy was Eli’s alternative to his real name. The same kids that had dubbed Bella had bestowed the title upon him. Very few children in the neighborhood where Bella and Eli grew up had only one name.
“Yeah, everything is fine.”
“You don’t sound fine.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“I know your sullen voice and I think this is it.”
“Shut up, you don’t know anything.”
“I’ve been you friend since before puberty changed your voice. I know what you sound like when you get in one of your ruts.”
“You’re a lunatic.”
“Have you written those pages for Rooster?”
“No. I told you that already.”
“Listen, I’m fine. Just got some work I have to get to.”
There was a brief silence as Bella contemplated the conversation.
“Easy?” he asked.
“I’ll be over in a little while.”
“No, you don’t have to come over. I’m … ” Eli heard a dull thud, followed by an audible click, and then a crisp dial tone rang in his ear.
Out of the corner of his eye, Eli caught a glimpse of an image in the mirror outside his bathroom. His peripheral vision filled with ruddy colored flesh and a mass of darkness. Curiosity bit down on him and before he could stop himself, Eli turned and stared at his own reflection. To his relief, he saw that his facial features had returned completely; but he also noticed a glint of green light that seemed buried in the centers of his pupils. As he stepped forward to inspect the reflection of his eyes closer, the odd glow winked out of existence and his normal gray eyes gazed back at him.
Eli hung up his phone and turned away from the mirror to see Maia staring through his kitchen window with a bored expression drawn across her face. A small window over Eli’s kitchen sink faced directly into the bedroom of the next house, and only a few feet separated his window from that of his neighbors. When the lights were up, he could see everything that happened in the room across from his kitchen. That room belonged to the youngest daughter of a family of five, a fifteen-year-old girl named Maia.
Maia and her family had moved from West Virginia to New York when her mother’s cancer worsened unexpectedly, in search of better treatments. Her parents brought some strange religion along with them; and although Eli had never learned the name of their church, the basic tenets of the faith seemed to be that the Devil was everywhere and New York was Babylon and Maia was the whore riding atop the ten-headed beast of the apocalypse. Maia’s parents kept her locked away in her room during a large portion of the day. They literally shut the girl’s door and bolted it, refusing to let her leave without good reason. Her room had no TV or radio; and in the year that Maia had lived next to Eli, he’d witnessed her spend only five minutes with a friend in her bedroom unsupervised.
Eli waved to Maia and she waved back half-heartedly. She was sitting in a beanbag chair in front of her only window with her neck craned upward, trying futilely to gaze up at the sky. Eli’s roof obscured her view but even if Maia had enjoyed a clear glimpse at the sky she wouldn’t have seen much; the stars, as always, were mostly absent that night. Pollution and the combined glare from the island’s garish streetlights usually blocked all but the brightest of stars.
Eli lifted his textbook off the table to show Maia that he was in the middle of studying and she raised up a floppy textbook from her lap as well. The cover of Maia’s book was red and Eli recognized it as a Russian language workbook; he’d seen it a few times before. As they sat by their respective windows they skimmed through their reading assignments, together in solitude, and occasionally looked up to catch each other’s stray glances. After fifteen minutes of studying, Eli realized that he had been interrupted during the start of a much needed nap. So he folded up his textbook and strolled out to his couch where he fell asleep in minutes.
Sometime later, a sharp sting, like the jolt of pain that accompanies a mosquito bite, raced across his forehead and snapped Eli back to consciousness. He peeled open his eyelids and saw Bella staring down at him. His first thought upon stirring was that Bella might be the strangest sight in the world to wake to. Bella refused to shave because he was incapable of growing a full beard; and as a result, a dark mat of sparse stubble covered his cheeks and parts of his neck. Although the mangy whiskers might have seemed appealing on a different man, the shape of Bella’s face prevented him from enjoying the benefits of the facial hair. Bella had a thin face with tight skin that hugged ever bone of his skull and pulled his lips back over his teeth, giving the appearance that he didn’t possess enough skin to cover his head. His hair hung down to his shoulders, straight and unwashed, and two crescent moons of discolored flesh ringed the lower halves of both his eyes.
“Wake up you stupid cunt,” Bella said. He lifted his hand and flicked Eli in the forehead, eliciting another burst of stinging pain. Bella’s fingers were long and bony and capped with unclipped nails.
“What? What time is it?”
“Don’t know. You don’t have one goddamn clock in this whole place. You’re oven was on when I came in, by the way.”
“Did you shut it off?” Eli leapt off the couch, sending his political science textbook tumbling to the floor, and dashed into the kitchen. The bag of curly fries stood on the counter, resting in a small pool of water from the melted ice that had once clung to the outside of the bag.
“No I warmed my hands over it. Of course I shut it off.”
Eli took a seat at his kitchen table, folded his arms across the tabletop and laid his head down onto the backs of his hands. Bella strolled into the room and took a seat opposite him at the table.
“Wake up cunt,” Bella ordered. “Come on, we’ve got to go.”
“Why are you calling me a cunt?”
“That’s my new thing. I’m calling everyone a cunt now. Like the guys in England and stuff, Great Britain or whatever, always calling each other cunts.”
“Sorry, we all can’t be as dignified and classy as you. Wake up stupid.”
“Well than stop doing that. Come on lets go.”
“Go where?” Eli asked.
“Meet Rooster. Where else?”
“Like hell you can’t. You need something to do. That’s why you’re acting like this.”
“I’m acting like this because I haven’t slept for more than five hours in the last three days.”
“Oh wow,” Bella said, drawing the “wow” out into a long and obnoxiously sarcastic sound that rose and fell with a singsong pitch. “I haven’t slept since last Wednesday. Right now, I’m just riding it out … waiting for the crash, man. And if it doesn’t come soon, I’m just going to use the Scarecrow remedy.”
Eli and Bella shared a mutual acquaintance named Scarecrow, a man who had received his handle long before he’d met either of them. Scarecrow had the perfect nickname because he was tall and lanky and his hair grew up into a thick, curly puff that ballooned outward around his entire head like the soft end of a Q-tip. Over the years, Scarecrow had developed a technique for dealing with an interrupted sleep schedule. The remedy involved consuming a bottle of cheap wine along with a bottle of Nyquil and then riding a bus for a few hours. The secret of the remedy was the intangible power of a bus, which often causes passengers to become unbearably tired. The sedative effect of the ride was hard to determine exactly. Some people thought it might be due to the slow rolling of the huge machine. Others blamed the almost rhythmic stop-and-go motions that the driver caused by constantly having to switch between the gas and the brake. Scarecrow himself believed that the people who rode buses were generally an exhausted collection of vagrants that exuded undetectable sleep pheromones. Whatever the reason, the remedy worked but only in a pinch. It never truly helped insomnia because the subject hadn’t regained the ability to fall asleep, but had instead enjoyed a quick reprieve from his curse. Fortunately Eli and Bella didn’t suffer from insomnia, just a poor lifestyle.
“Wake up!!!” Bella slammed his fists up and down on the table, creating a booming drum roll that lacked any discernable rhythm. Eli didn’t move at all so Bella stood up and checked the empty fridge. “Maia’s up,” he announced suddenly.
Eli lifted his head off his arms and glanced toward Maia’s room just in time to see the girl cross in front of her window. She tossed him an absentminded gesture with her hand and Eli waved back.
“You got a beer there?” Eli asked, noticing for the first time that Bella held a clear glass bottle in his left hand.
“Yeah, you want some?” Bella closed the refrigerator door and opened up the freezer.
“Hand it over.”
“Only if you agree to come out with us.”
“Unlike every girl that you’ve ever slept with, I can’t be coerced with a sip of beer.”
Bella chuckled and then slammed the freezer door shut. He stood in place for a long minute, watching Maia with the purposeful stare of a patient hunter as she moved about her room.
“Goddamn it, I don’t know how you sit here and stare across at her.”
“Got to feel bad for that kid. Her parents keep her locked up in that room everyday. I swear, they don’t even let her out on the weekends. I just try to entertain her … at least give her a link to the outside world or something.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Bella said. He left his post near the fridge and sat back down at the table, taking the seat opposite the window so that his view of Maia’s room was unhindered. “I understand why you stare at her … give her some company or whatever. I just don’t know how you actually do it. She’s adorable. I can’t look at her for more than five minutes without wanting to smash a brick through her window and jump across to her room, throw her over my shoulder like a fucking pirate and just take her.”
“She’s fifteen,” Eli said, trying to sound like the voice of reason without coming across too stern or zealously protective. He understood Bella’s point; describing Maia as adorable seemed like a cruel understatement. But he would never admit that he found her attractive, not to himself or others. In his eyes, Maia’s age trumped her beauty
“Don’t have to tell me,” Bella said. “I’m not the one staring at her every night.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Whatever man,” Bella said with a smile. “I’m not here to judge.”
“Why are you here?”
“To draw you out of your cave.”
Maia crossed back in front of her window and fastened a sheet of paper to the glass with some tape. Then she collapsed into the beanbag chair that always sat in front of her only window and stared across at the two young men, her elbows placed on the windowsill as she rested her chin in her palms. Her eyes, as always, looked big and sad and her mouth was locked in a sulk that might have appeared cute if it didn’t hint at her troubles. Eli noticed that her hair fell down past her shoulders in subtle waves of loose curls and that it looked red when viewed from certain lighting angles. On the sheet of paper attached to the window, the word “CONVICT” stood atop a giant arrow pointing downward.
“Must be really clamping down on her,” Bella said.
“Think she did something to her hair. Didn’t it used to be darker … straighter too. I think it used to be straighter.”
“That’s probably why they’re punishing her. She dolled herself up and now she’ll feel their wrath.”
“Girls like that, girls with strict parents … they become absolute animals when they finally break loose. Bet she’s like a power line, like a goddamn turbine, of sexual energy, just waiting to be tapped into.”
“What kind of a thing is that to say about a girl?”
“Just an observation.”
“Well I don’t need your stupid observations,” Eli said. “Did I ask for one? Did I? No, I didn’t. So leave her alone, she’s just a kid.”
“Sure thing, old timer. You forget that we were fifteen only four short years ago?”
Eli didn’t answer. He had only been participating in the conversation on a superficial level, adding comments that seemed appropriate at times that seemed reasonable. Bella’s remarks about Maia’s sexual appetites had stirred him enough to snap him out of his own thoughts and cause him to focus on the discussion, but now he returned eagerly to his interior monologue. His mind drifted to the only question that he ever considered when he sat and stared over at Maia. Rooster once called it the “eternal question”, the endless debate over the degree of connection between the two separate individuals.
Sometimes Eli suspected that Maia could read lips; and if she couldn’t, then he didn’t understand her reasons for staring back at him. Whenever she sat in front of her window, he tried to entertain her as best he could but he never did much. The physical limitations of the their rooms and the impassable space between them hindered their fun. They made stupid faces at each other and goofed off and played with shadow puppets. During the summer, Eli had brought his TV out onto the kitchen table and watched Mets games with her. But most of the time they just stared at each other blankly and mumbled to themselves, like two lunatics talking to imaginary therapists. His best guess was that Maia felt comforted by the knowledge that someone -- anyone --recognized her plight; but beyond that, he never understood what she got out of their time together.
“Forget it,” Bella said. “Look, I’m just messing with you. You know I wouldn’t ever touch her.”
“You wouldn’t ever get the chance.”
“But if I did … if I did get the chance, I wouldn’t.”
Eli smiled to himself. “That’s because you’re a fag.”
“Yeah right, you wish I was a fag.”
“What are you doing in my house fag?”
“Trying to get you to leave!”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Yes you are, you’re coming out with us tonight.”
“No I’m not, I got a test Wednesday. Need to study.”
Bella laughed out loud and slammed his hand down onto the table. “Goddamn it. That’s a good one. You’re a funny guy, you know that?”
“I swear. Want to check my syllabus?”
“No, I don’t give a fuck about your syllabus,” Bella said, enunciating the last word with dramatic pauses so that it sounded like sill-uh-bus.
“Sorry, big man. Academia calls and I must answer.” Eli stood up, walked out of the kitchen to retrieve his political science book and then strolled back in with his face buried in the text. He took a seat at the table and started flipping through the pages slowly, pausing occasionally as if he were taking note of pertinent facts.
“You’re an ass.”
“Why? Cause I have a test?”
“No, because you don’t give a damn about that test. You know it and I certainly know it. The only reason you even go to school is to collect financial aid checks so you can live in this grand estate.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you tonight, Bella.”
Eli closed his book with a deep sigh. He tossed a nervous glance over his shoulder and was relieved to find the face staring back at him from the mirror was his own.
“It happened again today.”
“Right in the middle of class Bella. Without any sort of warning.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My face … that blankness.”
Bella took a long sip from his beer bottle and nodded with understanding.
“Felt it this time. I actually felt my face losing shape. Ever feel it, Bella? Feel it while it’s happening?”
Bella coughed quietly, clearing his throat as he stared off into space. A detached, thoughtful expression crept over his face and Eli knew the answer to his question from that look alone, knew in the way that only two friends who should have been born as brothers can wordlessly know each other.
“It’s happening more frequently too,” Eli said. “Almost once a day for me. Sometimes its quick and other times, like today … ”
“We should talk with Rooster about this.”
“We both know what Rooster would say. He’d call us a couple of pussies and question our loyalty to the hunt.”
“Still, he should know.”
Eli shrugged. “Whatever. I guess so.”
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.” Bella hopped up out of his chair and started to pat his pockets, looking for a pack of cigarettes that he didn’t have. He walked out into the living room and then back into the kitchen, where he paced anxiously in front of the stove like a little kid waiting outside a movie theater trying to building up enough courage to sneak inside. “Suddenly, I need some fresh air.”
Eli agreed to go for a walk only after Bella promised to buy him something to eat. Before they left, both men dragged the TV from the living room to the kitchen and placed it on the table. Eli flipped through the channels until Maia found something that she liked and signaled for him to stop on a Discovery Channel documentary about primate families. The program wasn’t very educational without sound, but Maia thought the baby monkeys looked cute.
Eli and Bella left the house and wandered up the street toward an all night deli that stood a few blocks away. Their plan was to buy a single sandwich and split it, since Eli had no money and Bella had only five dollars. They cut in and out of narrow side streets as they walked, wandering in crisscrossing circles for no reason at all. After drifting up and down a dozen blocks they stumbled onto a squad car perched in the parking lot of a closed gas station, waiting with its lights off to catch any drivers who ran the light of a nearby intersection. The two cops immediately spotted the beer that Eli was enjoying, charged out of their car and shouted at him to dump the bottle out on the ground.
Eli complied without protest but Bella mouthed off and turned his outrage on the two officers. He shouted at the cops indignantly, demanding to know who got paid to catch criminals while they sat in a gas station and accosted harmless citizens. The beer hadn’t been Eli’s to discard, since Bella had purchased it and only consumed a quarter of the bottle, but the cops didn’t care about Bella’s ownership rights. One of the policemen, a slick Italian type who looked like a mobster without a suit, offered to make Bella a criminal by charging him with public intoxication and underage drinking and then dragging him down to the precinct. Bella thanked the cop for his compassion and then snapped to attention, throwing a stiff arm into the air like a Nazi lieutenant on parade. The cop gave Bella the finger and ordered Eli to move his friend before he got himself into trouble.
“Home of the free,” Bella shouted, as Eli dragged him away.
“Go home and have a warm glass of milk, sweetpea,” the cop yelled back.
Eli dragged Bella for two blocks before the enraged man finally calmed down and stopped resisting. The walk to the deli was relatively calm afterward. Bella bitched out loud about cops and the idea of policing in general and shouted for everyone to rise up out of their homes and storm the police stations. He pointed out that the citizens of the island outnumbered the police by about four hundred to one and that an uprising would be painless if everyone stuck together. But his words incited nobody and only a handful of people even bothered to look out of their windows and find the source of all the noise.
The deli was a shabby building with a low ceiling and a garish sign that advertised the establishment’s name and specialties in white and green florescent lights that were bright enough to blind anyone who stood and stared for long enough. The sign claimed that the deli was open “25 hours a day and 8 days a week” and Eli doubted that claim, although he had seen it open on Christmas day as well as Thanksgiving. Inside, Eli scanned the racks for the cheapest drink available while Bella ordered a Turkey sandwich. An old woman with thick glasses and stringy hair stood near the door and mumbled incoherently to herself as she rifled through a dozen lottery tickets like a poker dealer.
“No winners,” she announced suddenly. “Not today.”
Eli found a one-liter bottle of nameless cola that cost fifty cents and handed it to Bella.
“You believe this?” the lady with the lotto tickets asked him. “Not one winner.”
“The odds aren’t that good. They say you have more chance of --“
“I win all the time,” she said. The woman’s lips were thin and wrinkled and when she spoke, they scrunched together into an odd little oval, as if she were making a kissing face at the end of every word.
“Really? How much.”
“I think the most I won was six-thousand but I always give it all back. I keep playing and give it all back.”
“Good luck with that.”
“Yeah, thanks. One time I won two thousand and then five hundred two days in a row. Back to back, you know.”
“Is that right?”
The guy working at the deli finished making the turkey sandwich and tossed it onto the counter next to the cola bottle. He rang up the charges and the total came to four dollars and change. Bella paid with his five dollars and took the items without asking for a bag.
“One time I won three hundred dollars … or, no I thought I won three hundred but it was actually fifty. That happens sometimes. You look at the numbers and you think that they’re the ones on your ticket but they’re really not.”
Eli gave a polite chuckle and strolled out of the door behind his friend. They sat down on the low curb of the sidewalk together, ripped the sandwich in half and ate with all the couth of two pregnant hyenas. The sandwich lasted about three minutes and Eli’s taste buds didn’t even have time to register the flavor of the meat before the meal ended. Afterward Bella opened the bottle of cola, sipped from it slowly and then passed it to Eli who took a long gulp and handed it back. The drink was thin and overly sweet and lacked a great deal of the fizz that other carbonated drinks often had.
“We got to get to Grasmere,” Bella said. They had enjoyed a long silence and the partially digested food was settling into their needy stomachs. Breaking the quiet seemed almost criminal but it had to be done. The matters of the evening had to be tended to.
“That’s where Rooster and Nav are. I left them at some girl’s house.”
“Some girl I know.
“Who is she?”
“Don’t know. Hoss introduced her to me.”
“Hoss?” Eli practically spat as he said the name.
“When were you hanging out with Hoss?”
“Saw him on the train. He was with a few people and he came over to introduce me to everyone. What could I do? Get up and leave the car or something?”
“Should have punched him in the throat, right in front of everyone.”
“Hoss ain’t that bad a guy.”
“Yes he is.”
“Not bad enough to hit.”
“Who knows, I just might hit him the next time I see him.”
“No you won’t.”
“She live near the train station at Grasmere?”
“Oh … I don’t know. Don’t think I’ve ever been to that train station.”
“Well how did you get to my house?”
“Took a cab.”
“Know this girl’s address?”
“We could always take a cab then. Rooster or Nav have any money?”
“Probably not but I’m sure this girl does. If not we can just skip the fair.”
Eli shrugged noncommittally, as if the plan didn’t matter to him either way. Suddenly he heard the sound of a ringing bell, followed by shuffling feet, and he turned around to see the old woman with the lottery tickets walking out of the store. She inched her way methodically along the sidewalk, as if she were about to tumble off of a tight rope, and then changed her direction when she spotted the boys. She walked over to the curb and stood next to Eli, staring out onto the nearly vacant street with uninterested eyes.
“What cab you want to call?” Eli asked, completely ignoring the presence of the stranger.
“Speed,” Bella said. “If we got to ditch the cab fair then I want it to be a Speed cabby who gets stuck.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Bella stood and walked to the nearest payphone to make the necessary call, leaving Eli and the old woman alone together on the curb.
“You’ve got to keep playing if you want to keep winning.”
“What?” Eli asked.
“That’s why I keep playing. My sister thinks I’m crazy cause of all the money I spend on lotto. But she don’t understand that I got to keep playing if I want to win.”
“Is that right?”
“Absolutely. She can’t understand that. I don’t know why.”
“Maybe she thinks that if you saved the money, instead of spending it on the tickets, you’d make out with more in the end. Despite the winnings.”
“I don’t know about all that.”
Eli shrugged and sipped from the bottle of soda. “So long as you can spare the money, what is it any of her business?”
“That’s right, I got my own money.”
“There you go.”
“She don’t even have her own money.”
“Of course not.”
“She’s got a husband who owns a tow truck. That’s where she gets all her money. One time my car broke down near her house so I walked over and knocked on her door to get her husband to come and tow me. She opens the door and says ‘Pat, what are you doing? Walking through the neighborhood.’ I says to her, ‘No, what kind of a lunatic goes walking in the middle of the night?’”
Eli laughed and set the bottle of soda down, tightening the cap so that he wouldn’t be tempted to drink it all. Bella returned after making the phone call and informed him that the cab would be here in fifteen minutes.
“Speed always says the wait is fifteen minutes.”
“Bet you we’ll be here for at least an hour.”
“Now I’ll be glad to dodge the goddamn fair. Serves them right, fucking liars.”
The two young men waited for the cab impatiently, trying to maintain a steady conversation while ignoring the old woman’s pointless interjections. Fifteen minutes passed in what felt like the span of an hour. A few stray cars rolled up and down the four-lane boulevard, but otherwise the street belonged solely to the three restless figures that held the sidewalk. Bella made a second call, a half-hour after his initial call, and returned with the same news. The cab was to arrive in fifteen minutes.
Twenty-five minutes later, a dented minivan with a rusted bumper pulled up to the curb and honked loudly. The van’s windshield was smashed in both upper corners and the word “Speed” was stenciled between the two sets of spider web cracks that stretched outward from the damaged areas. Without saying goodbye to their newfound acquaintance, both young men stood up and entered the makeshift cab.
Three teenaged girls occupied the front row of seats so Bella and Eli made their way to the second row and sat on opposite ends of the car. Eli placed his book bag in the empty seat between them.
“Where you headed?” the driver asked.
Bella supplied the driver with the name of the street and a phony house number. The driver removed a walkie-talkie from his dashboard, pressed the small button on the device’s side and informed his dispatcher that he had picked up ride 18. Then he returned the walkie-talkie to its clipped position on the dashboard and sped off down the street, blowing through a stoplight that stood on the verge of turning red.
Background noise filled the cab as all three girls talked at once and an easy listening station leaked through the speakers and the dashboard squawked with messages from cabbies and dispatchers who occupied a common frequency. Eli couldn’t single out any one particular sound so he turned his attention away from the inside of the van, choosing instead to stare out of his dirty window and watch the rush of houses pass.
Bella leaned forward, resting his arms on seats in front of him, and poked his head into the conversation of the three young girls. They noticed him immediately and their talk came to a sudden halt as all three girls turned to look at him curiously.
“Hey pretty girl,” Bella said, focusing his attention on the girl who sat nearest to the sliding door. She had long, dark blonde hair and muted eyes that looked as if they hadn’t seen an interesting sight since birth. “Ever read Catcher in the Rye?”
The girl laughed at Bella dismissively and then turned a wide-eyed look toward her two friends, who began laughing as well. Bella remained perched on the back of the seat, like a vulture eyeballing a dying creature persistently, and waited for an answer.
When the girl near the door finally realized that he wasn’t deterred by her rudeness, she fixed a curious gaze on Bella. “What?” she asked.
“No? Never read it? Good book. You should pick it up some time. My name’s Bella.” He offered up his hand and the three girls stared at it with disbelief, before bursting into another round of laughter. The noise made by the girls wasn’t a delicate, bubbly giggle filled with humor but, instead, sounded like an unattractive bark dripping with disdain. The sound was so grating that it shook Eli out of his daze and returned him to the scene taking place in the car.
“I’m sure it is,” the girl said. She made no move to accept Bella’s offering, so he dropped his hand against the side of the seat rather than withdrawing it.
“And you are?”
“A complete stranger.”
“For now anyway.”
“Excuse me, we were having a conversation before you interrupted.”
“Sorry about that. Sometimes I forget my manners when I see a beautiful woman.”
Or a snotty bitch, Eli thought. He kept his mouth shut though. Bella was a big boy and deserved to fail on his own accord.
“Well you should try to fix that,” the girl replied.
“I know I should. But I’m really hopeless when it comes to pretty girls.”
The girl near the door passed an agitated look to her friends and all three girls turned their backs simultaneously, ending their own conversation and leaving Bella stranded. Bella gave a nonchalant shrug and sat back in his seat without even a hint of dejection or embarrassment. No one talked for the rest of the ride but the radio station and the walkie-talkies filled the vacuum, preventing the car from plunging into total silence. The cab pulled up to the girls’ stop, an all boys catholic high school that was holding a winter dance party. The girls paid their fare, left the driver a dollar tip and then slipped out of the sliding door. The driver radioed to his dispatcher that ride 17 had been dropped off and then cut a U turn across a double yellow line and sped off toward Grasmere.