BOOK DEPT XTEAMARTISTS
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Copyright © 2014 xteamartists, llc
Book Dept and colophon and registry code are registered trademarks of xteamartists, llc.
Four young Americans: two of them in college, one recently graduated and still unsettled, and the last—myself—a journalist. Four young adults, bred by the middle class in the United States. Three men and one woman who, like many of us, felt the need to rebel against their dissatisfaction and what they felt was wrong with society. They set out with youthful naïveté to lead by example, to act when others only reacted. Whether or not this happened is debatable. Life, after all, is reaction. It is a series of moments which seem mostly spontaneous, each drawn from some previous moment, and each offering the opportunity of fixing more than we break.
* * *
Late afternoon on December 14, 2012, I was walking down Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, where I work for an online newspaper. I could smell the familiar aroma of pollution and perfume wafting through the steam of my unnecessarily hot coffee. My eyes were glued to my phone, scanning the top headlines as I walked, a talent born of necessity. Story after story, I browsed the exploitation of twenty children and six adults killed earlier that day.
“What the hell is wrong with these people? They’re interviewing these children right after it happened. It’s shameless.”
I passed a teenage couple at the corner of Sixth and N. Congress. The young girl asked the same question I posed to myself. These kids were being questioned by everyone who needed a story, after which everyone who wasn’t in Newtown and still needed one circulated the footage. Headline news. Her boyfriend just shrugged. Our world is driven by media, circulating bullshit and selling it as cheap, paper gold. It was enough to make me sick.
Late afternoon, walking down Sixth Street to the bar after work. After a few whiskies, I would head home to my own bottle. By the time ten o’clock came around, I would usually help myself to a Xanax. I had managed to land a recurring prescription about three months earlier. If I still couldn’t sleep, I might turn on the television and wait. My routine. At twenty-eight, I made my money writing popular and general-interest stories and then forgetting them entirely. With the popular trends—school shootings, fiscal nosedives, Justin Bieber—everything about the world seemed reckless and hopeless, and somehow worthless. When I was working, I listened to every word of every story and every Twitter feed. Off the clock, I did everything I could to run away from a cultural bubble that no longer felt real. A vicious, self-destructive cycle I could not break.
Late afternoon, walking down Sixth Street, I opened an e-mail from a buddy of mine, a journalist on the East Coast. I paused outside of the bar and hailed a cab ride home.
I know some kids that are planning a trip to Connecticut. They’re young. They’re motivated. They’re in Austin. Seems they’re planning a trip up to Newtown to help. Don’t have too many other details. You want to follow them up there? Might be an interesting story in it.
If you’re interested, I’ve attached the e-mail address of the guy leading the charge. Let him know ASAP.
The shooting in Connecticut had me feeling caged. We were less than a week away from the supposed apocalypse and the government still languished in their efforts to improve the economy. The only good news was Russell Crowe wanting to save his marriage, which hardly counts. I couldn’t stand still. I couldn’t do any work. Most of my coworkers at the paper were beyond comprehension. They chased the fear like so many rabid animals. A headline is a paycheck, and a bigger paycheck buys gifts for the holidays. Their own needs crowded out the needs of those they never knew. I thought of quitting.
Once at home, I sat at my desk and stared at the half-empty bottle of Johnnie Walker Double Black propped against my bookshelf of writing manuals, James Joyce, and Ishmael. Getting out of town seemed better than going to work, even if it was for a story. I needed an excuse to break my routine. I needed an excuse to go to sleep sober. Besides, this trip could actually benefit the victim’s families.
I sent an e-mail to the contact my friend gave me. He responded within an hour.
Sounds great, man. 3 p.m., San Jacinto Hall.
“You look like someone looking for trouble.”
I turned around to find a young woman of no more than twenty with brown hair and brown eyes and skin the color of dark cream. She wore brown jeans with a dark green, dolman sleeve pullover, hair in a loose updo. Her accent was smart but acutely Texas, the sort that could rope many a man and break his heart. Her demeanor was casual as she tilted her head and gave me the once-over with a smirk.
“I’m Michelle. Simon’s sister. You must be the journalist.”
She held out her hand and I shook it awkwardly. My voice deepened, some kind of instinctive masculine response. “Arthur. Nice to meet you.”
“You look like an Arthur. Sound like one too.”
“Really? Most people tell me the name doesn’t fit at all.”
“Well, I think it does.” She looked at me with comic disbelief. “Don’t you?”
“I don’t know. It was the name I was given, so I’ve made the most of it.”
Her wry expression remained as she stepped forward and cocked her head in mock seduction. “Do you want to come up to my room?”
She chuckled and rolled her eyes. I grabbed my bag and Michelle led me up the stairs and down a few hallways. My interest in her grew as we walked. She passed the time talking about the weather; an absurd scenario involving one of her friends and a bottle of Miracle Whip; her not having a driver’s license; and her watch, which was purchased in Belgium. She went on so naturally, and I felt I understood some unvoiced expression. She spoke of herself in such a way as to disallow others’ hasty judgement. One could say that my first impression of Michelle was a kindred spirit, lacking certain weaknesses I found in myself.
We passed several other students on the way, but finally she stopped at a door. She turned the knob and paused to whisper in my ear. “Brace yourself.”
Beyond the door was a dorm room filled with the typical collegiate clutter. Books, magazines, papers, CDs, DVDs, and a few clothes littered the floor. The walls were covered in photographs and clippings of cultures from around the world. One was a photograph from Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother series. Another was an article about aid workers in a village in Kenya. An endless row of Kenyan children smiled for the camera. There were snapshots and postcards of European landmarks, countryside landscapes in Asia, and a portrait of Brad Pitt in his iconic role in Fight Club. Two windows on the opposite wall offered a vista of the campus several stories below, a giant oak tree in the foreground with two abandoned bird nests. A peppermint plant was placed in front of a window for light, and I caught the scent of perfume and mint upon walking inside. Two others were in the room, seated by the windows.
“I’m not sure if my car can make it all the way up there. Crazier things have happened, but I don’t know.”
The raspy voice came from a man in his mid-twenties—younger than me, but older than the rest. He had scruff on his face and shaggy brown hair. It looked intentional; one could assume that he was likely clean shaven and clean cut in his youth. He struck me as the sort of kid whom adults looked up to, intelligent and responsible, mature for his age. The sort who rebelled as he grew older, but still retained some sort of habitual, ingrained sense of responsibility. His clothes matched his scruffy face: tattered blue jeans, an undershirt with an oil stain underneath the collar, and a brown suede jacket. The breast pocket held a half-empty pack of Camel Turkish Golds. His attitude and demeanor suggested a modern version of a reluctant James Dean. He looked up as we came in.
“Ah, you must be the journalist. Arthur, right?”
“Yeah. You must be Simon.”
He got up to shake my hand. “I am. I see you’ve met my sister. Don’t let her fool you—she’s more of a firecracker than she lets on.”
I found that difficult to believe as I watched Michelle privately smirk while she warmed a pot of coffee. Simon pointed to a chair in the other corner, where a younger gentleman sat next to a lamp, reading All Quiet on the Western Front.
Simon thumbed over in his direction. “And that intellectual is Jeremy. He questions things more than he actually does them.”
Shaggier than Simon, and with small-framed glasses, he had a beard that nearly reached his grey, denim jacket. His hair, curly and blond, complemented the thick beard and hung to his shoulders. He was stockier than Simon, but not as cut. Though trying to appear unkempt, he couldn’t help but look clean. All of them were clearly middle-class rebels.
“You can kiss my ass, Simon.” Jeremy’s eyes never left the book, but he said it with a half-smile. Clearly, they had spent enough time with one another to develop a sarcastic rapport.
“Well, this is the team, Arthur. Go ahead and have a seat. We’re just sorting out some last-minute details. You want a coffee or something?”
When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. But what does he bring when he’s lodged between baggage and a body in a 1952 Oldsmobile 98?
Within twenty minutes of meeting three strangers pitching a noble road trip, I found myself right in the middle of an old and rusted, once-great vehicle, pushing through Austin’s infamous traffic. To my left was Michelle’s backpack and my journal. A cooler with snacks sat on the floor, which put me in the middle. I volunteered, remarking that I had not reserved a window seat. On my right sat Michelle, who had made no offer to concede the window, and seemed more inscrutable with every passing minute. Jeremy rode in the front, his nose stuck in Remarque, reading about the suffering of man in a war long forgotten by people his age. And mine.
North of 183, the traffic thinned and we began making time past Round Rock. The cloudy skies, lit by streetlights and filled with billboards for Jesus and liposuction, sped past us at sixty-five miles per hour, and already there were the tinges of an undefined liberation I had not felt in months. Perhaps even years. I wasn’t sure if it was leaving Austin or the people I left with. As Simon argued with Jeremy about the upheaval in Greece, I realized how long it had been since I had left town. Work had been a nightmare, and I could never afford to escape to Hawaii, Switzerland, or Acapulco—permanent fixtures in my mind when I thought of vacation. The booze and the pills suppressed the desire, but now I felt that there was something extravagant about my new surroundings. The feeling of liberation and the pursuit of imagination and asylum was evident in my companions. This manifested in the smallest of details, right down to the open windows and the broken air conditioner. Though December, we were in Texas, an island of isolation in culture and environment, body and mind. It was warm. In Texas, the weather is as spontaneous as the women. Of all the women I’ve known, those from Texas contain a particular spark, one which makes men feel at once alive and out of place. Some have argued that Texan women are particularly dangerous. I would second that.
The wind set Michelle’s hair dancing, twirling about and caressing her face. She became more beautiful with every second. It’s funny the things that attract us to someone. It’s not how much they own, it’s not their social background or where they’ve been. It is every molecule and every electron coming together in the right way at the right moment, the flash of epiphanic illumination as she becomes for that passing instant someone whom we completely understand.
“So why are you here?”
“Here—you mean with you guys?” I was startled from my thoughts, taken unprepared by her question. She had been gazing out of the window as I watched her, but now turned her head toward me. Her legs were nearly on top of mine in the cramped space, and I cared so very little.
“Well, obviously you’re here to write a story. I mean beyond that.”
The wind carried her scent. I felt every pore open as perfume and mint crawled slowly up my spine. I was certainly captivated by this girl, but something lay behind her bright, brown eyes and crooked smile. I decided to answer cryptically. I barely knew the girl.
Jeremy tucked in his upper lip and turned his head to the window. As he nodded and returned to his book, I sat back and found Michelle leaning her head into the wind. I tapped her on the shoulder.
“It’s your turn. Who are you? Why are you here?”
She squeezed my arm for a moment as a slow smile came over her. The fresh piece of mint gum left its faint trace in the air even before she placed it in her mouth. She said only one thing. It did not give me relief, nor did it disenchant me from taking this trip. Instead, she brought me back into their world.
“I’m just a follower who’s trying to be a leader.”
Simon found his music. “Art, I hope you like the Rolling Stones.”
I can hear the sounds of birds in the trees, very high above me. Twirling, almost, all about me. Pine and red oak, towering and ancient as redwoods, yet fragrant, blossoming with a youthful vibrancy. The leaves are a deep, saturated green, all reaching toward a clear, limitless sky the color of the deepest ocean. A soft thud echoes in this wilderness.
The din of an otherworldly crowd chattering nonsensically rises slowly, resonating in the dense foliage. A dog runs by my feet, an English Setter called Bonnie. My first dog. Her white coat is spotted with a pale brown, her eyes deep and eager. She runs past me, sprightly as I recall her, and I find myself moving quickly from the ground. I hear the air move around me, the world growing larger, strange proportions, as I rise in circles, gliding aimlessly through the trees. I am perched on a thick branch, feathers ruffled, my eyes darting about. In the distance, through the thick forest, I see a small clearing in which strange creatures run in circles. I cannot even identify their shapes, but their movements feel warm and inviting, beckoning a stranger into their den, their world, their imagination.
I take flight through the trees. As I descend, the world regains its proper size and I land on long legs and bare feet. The soft, wet dirt cools my feet as I near the creatures. Radiant shapes of complete beauty, filling me with vigor and triggering emotions once lost to time. I reach the clearing and the sun illuminates a large group of children, all dancing in rhythm. All with smiles on their faces. I enter the clearing slowly and stay at the edge of this circle, not daring to break their chain.
Some of the children’s shapes belong to friends of my youth whose voices and faces I remember in precise detail. One child breaks from the circle and approaches from my right. The first friend in my life, a young boy named Kirby, no longer alive in my world. He stands next to me. We look into each others’ eyes, and he points to the circle. In the middle of these children, a bonfire slowly composes itself. From the dirt, each piece of wood emerges to take its place in the structure. Sticks and brush fill the gaps as the bonfire builds itself far above our heads. Taller and taller still it grows, and it finally peaks above the trees and sets the sky ablaze.
The structure collapses slowly, the earth swallowing our fire until the flames culminate only several feet above us. The children in the circle are no longer my friends. Their faces I vaguely recognize, their glossy skin resembling a photograph on a screen. These children are the victims of Newtown, their expressions set as I recall them from the news sites and television screens, the Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds. Each child stops the dance. At once, they turn their heads to the sky. The fire burns itself low. If not for this strange wilderness, the fire could not exist.
The first log moves. A second joins. One by one, warm, red logs remove themselves and slowly ascend. As the bonfire deconstructs, my eyes follow the logs in their ascent toward the heavens. The afternoon sky fades to the clearest stars, as though the atmosphere itself is disappearing. A bright flash pierces the wilderness. Screams resonate with screeching tires, and the world contorts around me, the gravity in my stomach like a roller coaster out of control. Reality catapults me out of sleep.
A truck was racing toward us.