countdown to extinction
“So I was thinking about blood.”
“Actually, I was thinking more about that old saying—you know, ‘blood is thicker than water’?”
“Well, you’re a writer, Mark. I was kind of wondering what they mean by that. I mean, blood really isn’t thicker than water, is it?”
“It’s just an expression. You don’t take it literally.”
“Well, I know that, but I mean what do they mean by it?”
“Oh, I get it. You mean what started the expression?”
“Yeah. Who said it first? And what did they mean? I’ve never thought that blood was actually thicker than water. The human body is made of water, right? So the expression doesn’t really make a lot of sense, even if it’s a metaphor.”
“You’re a smart kid, Jackie.”
“I’m not like you.”
“Well, we all gotta be ourselves, right?”
“So . . . what does the expression mean?”
“Sorry. I’m a little distracted tonight. A lot on my mind.”
“You worried about the deal?”
“A little. Those gangsters kind of scare me. I took some Xanax earlier to calm my nerves.”
“Don’t worry. You’re family, Mark. My father would never hurt you.”
“He’s your father, not mine.”
“Yeah, and I know he can be weird sometimes, but he knows you’re my best friend, and he respects that. Just don’t worry.”
“You been getting along with your father lately, Jackie? Is that why you’re wondering about all this blood and water business?”
“Maybe. I dunno. I was just thinking about it.”
“Well . . . the first time the expression was used, it was in a German poem in 1180 about talking animals. ‘Reinhart the Fox.’ But the literal translation of the phrase is ‘family blood will not be spoiled by water.’ It got used later in various forms, and got corrupted along the way. Like how religious texts get altered over the years by monks with quill pens and nothing better to do than reimagine.”
“The original version makes more sense.”
“You’re really smart to know all that, Mark.”
“We all have our talents, I guess.”
“You’re going to be a great writer someday. I really admire you.”
“I mean—it’s not like you’re not a great writer now. I didn’t mean it that way. I mean, one day, you’ll be—”
“I know what you meant. Don’t sweat it.”
“You’re thinking about Jollie, aren’t you, Mark?”
“Yeah. I guess I am.”
“You don’t like leaving her alone with Andy, do you?”
“Yeah. I guess I don’t.”
“What did she say when you asked her to marry you?”
“I don’t think I wanna talk about it.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll shut up.”
“Look . . . I’ve just got a lot on my mind, kiddo. I don’t mean to be rude. You’re doing the house a big favor tonight and we all really appreciate it.”
“You and Andy and Jollie are my best friends.”
“I think we should find you a girlfriend this winter, Jackie. You’re a good-looking kid. You should get laid.”
“That’s what Jollie always says.”
“Jollie is wise in all things. You know that.”
“She’s amazing. I can see why you love her so much, Mark. And why you’re so jealous of Andy.”
“I’m not jealous of Andy.”
“Then why do you worry about leaving them alone together?”
“That’s different. Andy is just . . . well, he’s a different kind of person than the rest of us. He doesn’t respect certain things. And Jollie’s always been drawn to him, like all the other girls in the world.”
“I think you are a little jealous.”
“I guess I’m jealous of that part. Who wouldn’t be jealous of a guy who gets all the girls? But Andy will never be like me. He’ll never understand what I do.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone in the world quite like you.”
“You know, when I first met you, it was the first party I ever went to. I mean, how fucked up is that? I was seventeen years old and no one ever invited me to a party.”
“Really? I never knew that.”
“That was six years ago, Mark. I was so lonely then.”
“Jackie . . .”
“I really love you, Mark.”
“Jackie, stop. Don’t say things like that anymore. We agreed, remember?”
“I’m sorry. I just can’t stop thinking about it.”
“Look, you’re my bro and I love you too. But you know I don’t think of you that way. I think of Jollie that way.”
“Everyone thinks of Jollie that way.”
“But she thinks of me like that too. She loves me like I love her.”
“When she’s not making out with Andy behind your back.”
“Shut up. Just stop talking.”
“I’m sorry, Mark. I didn’t mean it. I really didn’t.”
“It’s okay. Let’s just not talk anymore.”
“You mean you don’t wanna be friends now?”
“Don’t be stupid, Jackie! I mean let’s just take a fucking break and calm down!”
“You should be. That was a shitty thing to say.”
“Why won’t Jollie just be your girl if she loves you so much?”
“Jackie, I just don’t want to talk about this now.”
“Okay. I’m sorry. I’ll be quiet.”
“I’m sorry too, kiddo. Let’s just wait for your dad and enjoy the night.”
“You mean enjoy this parking lot.”
“Yeah, it’s a nice parking lot. Shit . . . two hours now, waiting. Your car smells like Hostess Twinkies.”
“Sorry about that. It always has, I don’t know why.”
“Why can’t your dad ever do anything during normal hours?”
“He’s a vampire. And he takes way too long with everything because he talks too much. Just like I do. And he always has to do these things here, at his club, or not at all. He feels safe in the bar, I guess. He built his whole empire from that little back room in there.”
“You mean you built it for him.”
“No, it’s not like that. I just run the computers.”
“I’m sorry, Jackie. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”
“It’s okay. I deserved it. But I do love you, Mark. I love you because you and Andy and Jollie are like family to me. You’re my only friends. It’s why I bring you in on these deals. Lots of people use me to get to my dad. But you never did that. With you guys, it’s always been . . . I don’t know, man, fun.”
“And we appreciate being dealt in. It helps keep the rent paid.”
“Hey, gotta keep the House going, don’t we?”
“Can I ask you one last thing, Mark?”
“Okay. But let’s keep things light for the rest of the night, huh? No more love talk.”
“Well, I was just wondering something. I’ve always wondered about it. I don’t know why I never thought to ask before.”
“Don’t keep me in suspense, kiddo.”
“Well . . . why do you and Jollie and Andy call your house the Kingdom? Who came up with that?”
“It was Jollie.”
“She just called it that one day and it stuck. I’m not sure why, Jackie.”
“Like blood is thicker than water? Someone just says it and it survives the ages?”
“Yeah. Like that. Like blood is thicker than water.”
“It really isn’t, Mark. Blood and water are the same thing.”
“Yes, they are, aren’t they?”
“Yes, they are.”
1 hour and COUNTING . . .
There must be no witnesses.
That’s what he thinks, over and over, as the deal goes down. That’s what he remembers most from his final instructions, and it pounds the inside of his skull like a hammer mantra, the gun burning a hole in his pocket. The room is sweaty and dark, full of bad ghosts—he’s been here a million times, but it’s always really rough in the last few seconds before you make your real move. The training tugs just beneath the surface, tickling the base of his throat like first-date jitters or the dull swell of a kept secret. Everything is a kept secret, he thinks. You were brought forth from the bottom of the worst places on earth to be in this room. You played the part like a champ and here it all is, right in front of you. There must be no hesitation. There must be no mercy.
There must be no witnesses.
Razzle has the package, because Razzle always has the package. This same goddamn deal has gone down fifty times like clockwork. It’s always amazed our boy. Theoretically, things like this should never run like clockwork at all because everybody’s a piece of shit and nobody plays fair. The rats all gather after dark in a smelly backroom off a common dive bar, where every cop and every junkie and every scumbag lawyer knows exactly where to look—and, wonder of wonders, nobody is looking at all. Razzle and his rip-off squad are the dumb pride of the local scene, almost-connected mob idiots without portfolio, slogging through the doggy-doo with half a cigar and no matches. Our boy thinks for a minute that it’s probably a genuine miracle this guy hasn’t washed up dead sooner. He wonders why this guy has to die now. He’s been wondering for the last half hour, waiting in that damn parking lot for the moment to come, and it’s against all his training to wonder. You’re not supposed to think, you’re supposed to do. That’s the first thing they teach you. The hand gets bloody, but it always washes clean, and it never knows what the other hand is doing. That’s how these assignments work, they once told him. That’s what makes guys like him silent, invisible, invincible.
The men surrounding our boy have no idea about that kind of discipline. Razzle Schaeffer is the worst of them, of course. He’s about fifty-seven and a typical product of his generation. He relies on other people with iPhones and computers, pretends to be smart and talks on open phone lines about drug stuff because he knows the FBI is recording everything and he just doesn’t give a shit. The reason Razzle just doesn’t give a shit is because he thinks he’s protected. He thinks he’s paid his dues. He’s done four prison stretches, one for manslaughter, and that time he walked after six months. That’s how it works in Texas. They’re harder on drunk drivers than nasty creeps who kill little old ladies. Our boy knows all those interesting facts about Razzle Schaeffer because that’s what he does. Endemic research, down in the trenches, right there with all the assholes who do it for real. All so you can stand in a room like this, the kind held together with peeling paint and cockroach droppings, tinged with the nasty sour smell of sweaty, cocaine-soaked bills in low denominations. You stand here and wait. For that moment. What it all comes down to.
Razzle’s crew surrounds their boss ten-strong as he opens the package. It’s something to see when the top of the crate peels away with a rough crack and the goodies come out. It’s an apple crate, old school, full of coffee grounds to throw the border dogs. Just like in Beverly Hills Cop, our boy thinks, and then he crushes the thought because it almost starts to make grim laughter happen in his belly. If you start laughing in a room like this, someone will ask you why you’re laughing and then you’ll have to explain yourself, and the explanation better be good, because nobody likes Eddie Murphy in this circle jerk of rednecks. You gotta be damn careful with lunatics who think they run the world.
There must be no witnesses.
The packages that come out of the crate are each worth five hundred K, easy. It’s an even bigger score than they told our boy it would be. Ten packages. They’ll all fit in the special carry-on case our boy has stashed in the trunk of Jackie’s car—once he’s done what he has to do. Razzle looks at our boy and asks if he’s happy, and our boy leans across the table and smells nothing but Taster’s Choice, nasty white-trash wake-me-up. It fills him for a moment with a sense of dark unreality, and then he’s back to business. Our boy nods back to Razzle—yeah, I’m happy, everyone in this room is goddamn fucking happy, man—and out comes our boy’s cash. Just a few grand, for our boy’s share of the action, just like Jackie said it would be. The other five guys in the room get much bigger slices. They can afford to roll those dice. Our boy is only here because he’s a friend of the family, and his cut is rinky-dink, small-time. On the table are scales and baggies and knives and spoons and twist ties. The tools to cut up the pie and make them all rich men. The packages are arranged on the table neatly, end to end, and everybody lays their money down. Razzle has one of his goons collect the folding green, makes a dumb remark about little fish and big fish, looking our boy right in the eye.
Razzle tells our boy he’s a lucky man to be in the room with the big fish like this, and maybe one day he’ll have the juice to play in the deep end of the pond.
Razzle has no idea who our boy really is.
Razzle tells his largest flunky to count the money twice.
The kid who grabs the green from the table doesn’t even look old enough to shave. None of Razzle’s guys look very old, even the ones who aren’t Jackie-Boy. It’s a real shame. This will be hard to do.
Our boy senses that the moment has come.
The moment is perfect.
And so he kills everyone in the room.
58 minutes and COUNTING . . .
“It’s all shot to hell,” Jollie says to the thin platinum-haired lesbian in overalls, who leans against the open doorway to her room, smoking a joint, her foot lightly tapping in time to the party music, which is a Bob Marley CD that never seems to end. Jollie watches the lesbian’s foot tap, pausing for a perfect beat, and then she hammers the thought home with a hoarse squeak that accelerates her low baritone voice into Kathleen Turner overdrive: “The world is ending and the tragedy isn’t that nobody made plans—it’s that everyone was an asshole to begin with.”
“That’s real deep, honey,” the platinum lesbian says.
“I’m serious. It’s a statistical fact.”
“What, that nobody plans for disaster or that everyone’s an asshole?”
As the platinum lesbian hands her the joint, Jollie squeaks: “Both, really. Most people are more worried about looking good and upgrading their toys rather than helping out. But some people can choose a higher path, especially when they’re street level like us.”
“I don’t even vote. The president always turns out to be a crook.”
Jollie smirks. “That’s like blaming Ronald McDonald when you get a bad cheeseburger.”
Thank you, Bobcat Goldthwait, she thinks.
Then she catches up with the monotone relay race of the Bob Marley music in her bones again, swaying a moment as the sweet electric rush of it surges through her extra-love-size body, the fabric of her big blue blouse like shimmering mist over goosebumped skin. And she tunes in to the party, sensing so many disparate sensibilities so close and so far. Laughter up and down the hallway. Giggling and screaming and yodeling. Plumes of reefer smoke and the faint, thick scent of bourbon sour on the air, like the smell of the witching hour, which has already come and gone, leaving only the faithful. Jollie loves it when this many people show up at on a moment’s notice at the Kingdom. Makes her feel safe and loved and popular. The sweet rush of the Molly washes in again—pure undiluted ecstasy, rare and wonderful, special treats tonight from Mark, who always wants her to feel good because he’s in love with her. That makes her feel safe also. Their place is always the last stop after last call for everyone. Tucked in on the south side of Austin at the bottom of a hill on Montclaire Street and surrounded by trees, just blocks from South Lamar, which is a main drag for the bohemian set. The house has high ceilings, three bedrooms, a big living room annexed to a kitchen and a dining area. And there’s always a party, always a celebration. Jollie will look back as an older, wiser woman and say Those were the good old days.
“Not everyone has ambitions to save the world,” says the platinum lesbian, whose name Jollie will probably never know.
Jollie’s already dubbed her Platinum Lizzie in her own head.
You know, just because.
“Some of us totally have ambitions to save the world,” Jollie says, almost squealing. “Do you know why we threw this party tonight?”
“Do you watch much news? Do you know what’s going on right now in Congress?”
“Oh yeah, isn’t there a protest or something?”
“They call it a filibuster. When a senator won’t sit down after he’s recognized.”
“Yeah, yeah. He’s been, like, standing up for a couple of days, right?”
“Twenty-seven hours just now. Senator Bob Wilson.”
“Yeah, it was all over Google and CNN this morning.”
“It still is. Biggest goddamn news item of two thousand and fucking fifteen.”
“Okay, so what about it?”
Jollie smiles like a proud parent. “Well, those are my guys.”
“What do you mean your guys?”
“I mean the people behind that filibuster protest are my guys—my friends in Philadelphia. They organized the whole thing in advance. I’m not really sure how Peanut managed to pull it off, but he’s been in Senator Bob’s ear for months now. It’s all about a bill before Congress that was really a front for toll-road kickbacks in New York.”
“That’s my boy in Philly.”
“Sounds like a rapper.”
“He might as well be. He’s kinda this crazy rich kid who came out of the suburbs when he was sixteen, took it to the street, and rapidly became known as the Eminem of the political blog scene. A scary zeitgeist activist who makes scary moves that require big money and brass blackmail balls. One of those virtual information terrorists who usually gets groomed early to work freelance for government subagencies run by the CIA. He’s just that awesome at what he does. But he’s one of the good guys.”
“Wait a second,” Platinum Lizzie says. “So you’re telling me some twentysomething civil-rights protestor with a trust fund bought a senator somewhere and got him to stand up in the House of Representatives?”
“That’s exactly what I’m telling you.”
“That’s crazy. How is something like that even done?”
“It’s easier than you might think. We learned it from a Billy Jack movie.”
“Who’s Billy Jack?”
“A cool dude,” Jollie says, laughing. Then she dismisses it with a silly wave. Like If you gotta have it explained, you don’t need to know, baby.
“I don’t know any dudes that are cool,” Platinum Lizzie says.
“I’m sure you don’t,” Jollie giggles. “Anyway, Senator Bob has the floor as we speak. He’s just been reading off hundreds of pages of names and dates and more names—all provided to him and verified by our people. The seventeen members of Congress who were bought off, the five major above-the-line corporations involved in the conspiracy, the two million stockholders who profited illegally from the scam. I was one of the fact finders. It’s all a part of the Wildcat River mission.”
“Is that a blog or something?”
“Sounds like you’re playing with fire,” Platinum Lizzie says, her tongue planted firmly in cheek, not exactly believing any of this, but sort of believing some of it. “I mean, it’s a pretty impressive thing in terms of organizational skills, I guess . . . but what are you people really hoping to achieve by kicking the hornet’s nest like that?”
Jollie almost laughs again.
Whaddaya mean “you people”?
Jollie shivers just a bit from the cool air wafting through the open window of her room, sharp dampness and the muddy smell of autumn leaves a vague comfort, hovering at the edge of the party. Then, just like a politician’s aide giving a quote to the media, she pauses, checks herself, and carefully selects her next answer. It flows sweetly from her full lips, and Jollie instantly radars that Platinum Lizzie wants to have her in the sack more than ever when the words hit home:
“Robin Hood once stood on a mountain and asked his personal god why it was necessary to keep hammering the Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin said he was tired and outnumbered and beaten down and his quest was like shooting arrows at the moon. And Robin’s god, who was Herne the Hunter, replied to him: It is enough to aim.”
Platinum Lizzie leans forward to kiss Jollie in the doorway, and Jollie pushes past her.
“Keep aiming, pretty,” Jollie says, and melts into the dim hallway, ducking under plumes of smoke and streams of spirited conversation, homing toward the living room music. She’s thinking about her boys. Thinking about Robin Hood.
Thinking that the moon isn’t so far away after all.
55 minutes and COUNTING . . .
She’s the girl everyone in Austin wants, but her beauty comes from being smart, and being smart isn’t just about books or experience or street savvy—it’s about being beautiful. She explains a lot to Andy what she means by that, and Andy doesn’t really get it most of the time. It’s too complicated for him. And then Andy will say something stupid and twentysomething like The beautiful people rule us all, and she’ll pretend not to understand what he means for a second or two before she busts him on being a two-dimensional thinker, and he’ll sincerely apologize and come at her a different way. Then she’ll tell him that he’ll never really understand because he doesn’t have to work for these things, he’s never lived through any of it. See, Andy is one of the beautiful people. He might be a sweet guy under all that silly surface posturing, but he’s been beautiful all his life—obvious, mainstream, outside beautiful, the kind that most people run straight for. She’s just as guilty as the next lady of seeing him as a piece of boy meat, but old-school humanity dies real hard, even for the intellectuals.
Still, Andy desires her more than any woman he’s ever known.
And Jollie Meeker ain’t beautiful on the outside—not like he is.
But she’s the girl you want because she’s smarter than everyone, short and sassy, lives to stick it to the man, sways like a flower child at hip-hop shows, dresses like a plump, sexy 1970s time-warp experiment, and her poetry is actually damn good. Ask her what she does for a living and you might get any number of answers, but when you Google her, you’ll get a lot of hits, mostly tied to her political blogs, which she runs in a network with three other guys in Alaska, New York, and Philly. But Jollie is also smart enough to realize you gotta pay the rent before the revolution hits, so there’s the three other websites devoted to entertainment news, which she runs under aliases. That’s where most of her money comes from. The horror movie site is her favorite—a gothy, pop-up-crazy abomination called Dripping Fangs of Doom, where she stirs a melting pot of super nerds who blog out about the latest thing in splatter porn or how much ice the new found-footage Freddy flick sucks on. She logs on as Scary Mary once a week, gets quarterly checks from online advertisers, clocks regular wait shifts slinging pancakes at Kerbey Lane Cafe South, and saves her pennies to get on planes and protest at Capitol Hill during budget hearings. She sees a lot of dumb, beautiful people at those gatherings.
Jollie would rather be fat and smart.
She was twelve when she noticed her baby rolls for the first time, when she realized her nose was round and cute in a puggy sort of way, not sharp and upturned in a bitchy sort of way. Realized she liked ladies and men, but not equally. She aced high school in a few fast eyeblinks. Her mom was dead just a year after. Jollie tells the story now with detached amusement—the kind worn through years of denial, and you don’t have to ask her about it either. She’ll tell you right off any number of triggers. Mark thinks that’s a sign that she’s deeply depressed.
Mom blew herself away, you see.
Aimed a gun right for her own head with a .45 Magnum purchased just for the occasion and unloaded the one bullet in the chamber. Instant mommy hash, Jollie calls it now. Jollie was looking right in Mommy’s eyes when the hash happened. She was seventeen and still a virgin. She’s still a virgin now, at twenty-six.
She’ll tell you all about that when you first meet her. She told it to Mark when she first met him, in so many words. That was five years ago. They’ve been living with Andy in this house ever since then.
The House of JAM.
(That’s Jollie, Andy, and Mark, silly you.)
Her own social scene.
Mark says he’s in love with her, Andy says he can’t imagine a world without her, and everybody else in Austin wants her.
She smiles and lets it ride, knowing this is her time, that 2015 is her year, because she is still young and beautiful—the right kind of beautiful. Sometimes, in those weird midnight moments, when she sits in the dining room nook pounding at the truth, the party long over, her angelic cherub face awash in the dreamy blue glow of the laptop screen, she wonders how long that beauty will last. How long will it take to break me? How long can I survive in a world filled with so many people who see things so differently? And then she’ll see her thick smile reflected in the screen and she’ll shift her great weight in the comfy chair, and she’ll realize how lucky she is. Lucky that she never gave a shit about those cheerleaders in high school. Lucky that she never understood why men chase after ideals they don’t even comprehend. Lucky that she knows—like most people don’t—that the world is ending and she has to do something about it.
And still she wonders.
How long will it take to break me?
52 minutes and COUNTING . . .
“I have no clue,” Andy says, and he really means it, on multiple levels.
He’s answering a question posed by a dazzling young teenage girl in a Spider-Man T-shirt, and his voice is gentle and pretty and even understanding in a way she wouldn’t have expected. He emphasizes the word clue with an upturned sense of wonder, like he really wants to know what’s on her mind in this moment, and he leans slightly forward, moving toward her on the couch in a way that isn’t exactly practiced, and not exactly insincere. He can tell she wants to say back off, buddy, but he disarms her, tilting his head with a gentle smile, as if to say Please explain it to me. And he comes off like a fucking saint.
Her question was this:
Can you tell how old I am in dog years?
Andy doesn’t even know what the heck a dog year is.
He thinks she may have been talking about her dog when she brought that up, in the middle of some weird tangent he can piece together now if he really works on it. The peak of the Molly is so strong on him and the party has gotten so loud on that endless Bob Marley loop that each moment blurs forward into the moment after it very quickly, coloring his ADD in beautiful waves. He focuses on her pretty eyes and her hard chin and her white hair as she speaks again: “A dog sees time differently than we do because they only have a fifth of our brain capacity.”
Andy makes a face and says the first thing that pops into his mind: “I thought it was just because dogs slept all day long.”
“It’s a quantum reality thing.”
“Really, smarty boy. I’ve been studying in a holistic prayer group for a few years.”
She almost giggles because he says it with a big goofy grin, like it’s a real question, not a smartass remark. It charms the hell out of her.
“I walked right into that one,” she says. “You’re good.”
“Not really. I just make it up as I go.”
“You look cute doing it though.”
“So how old are you in dog years?”
“It’s not polite to ask a lady how old she is.”
“But you said, just a minute ago . . .”
“I asked if you could tell, good sir. I didn’t ask you to ask me.”
“My brain hurts now.”
“I bet it does. Your eyes tell chemical secrets.”
“It’s that obvious, huh?”
“Don’t worry, I’m not a tattletale. What I am is a very nice young lady. And I sure wouldn’t mind if you shared the warmth. Got any extra?”
“That may very well be a possibility, nice young lady.”
Then he winks at her and adds his super-silly, totally dated trademark:
Says it playful and light, without irony.
Spider-Girl smiles at his silliness and runs her finger along his open, oversize work shirt, eyeing the faded tee underneath, which reads in large, friendly letters: DON’T PANIC.
“Good advice,” she says, noticing his clothes reek of Mexican food, as she sizes up the rest of him. A bit too thin maybe, but he’s hot. Short black hair with a floppy cowlick, pretty mouth. Baggy jeans and a webbed belt with a Green Lantern insignia on the buckle, hanging halfway off his waist. Bare feet, which match his neo-hippie ethic. You know, the Goodwill Emo Nerd look.
“So what was your name again, smarty boy?”
“Andy Culpepper. Boy Prince of the Kingdom.”
“Boy prince, huh?”
He sees her looking at him a little too unashamedly. “Am I turning into a lamb chop before your eyes already?”
She grins crookedly. “Does that happen a lot?”
“Only when I’m awake.”
“Cocky too. We’ll have to do something about that.”
He smiles, really big and sweet. “I wasn’t trying to be cocky.”
“I didn’t mind. You make it fun.”
Jollie comes into the living room, ducking under the shadow of two shapeless lovers making out against the wall. She sees the teenager in the Spider-Man shirt before she sees the Boy Prince—the girl is super cute and super blonde and looks super dumb too.
As Jollie homes over to them, the Boy Prince holds out his arms and brings her in with a big sigh: “Beautiful lady, come and meet a beautiful lady.”
Spider-Girl holds out a hand, smiling at Jollie. “I’m the lady of the moment, apparently.”
“She’s a hundred and seventy-three in dog years,” the Boy Prince says.
Jollie takes the girl’s hand, smirking. “You must be very wise.”
“I’m tired from sleeping all day.”
“Looks like you’re a Marvel fan too,” Jollie says, eyeing her shirt.
“Only when I’m awake.”
Spider-Girl winks at Andy.
A hot comic book nerd, Jollie thinks. What are the odds? Mark is gonna be pissed off that he missed out on this.
“The lovely lady here has just inquired about the availability of certain mood-enhancement items,” Andy says.
Jollie bows regally. “Does the lovely lady have cash in hand?”
“The lovely lady is rich beyond the dreams of Avarice,” Spider-Girl sighs. “Say the words and all will be yours.”
Jollie smirks again. “Where did you hear that?”
Spider-Girl smiles big. “Hear what?”
“Rich beyond the dreams of Avarice.”
“Avarice is one of the seven deadly sins.”
“I know, but where did you hear that particular phrase?”
“Umm. I’m not sure. Maybe I heard someone say it somewhere?”
If Mark were here, he would have called Spider-Girl’s ignorance up front and ruined any chances of conquesting the beautiful specimen. He always screws himself like that, getting too far into the minutiae with nerds who have nice boobs. See, there’s a big dif between chicks who dig Peter Parker and people who are just plain mentally ill.
He’s probably the last nerd just out of his thirties who knows that the first use of the phrase “rich beyond the dreams of Avarice” was in a stage play produced in 1753 called The Gamester—the only significant work of a mediocre English poet and second-rate short-story writer named Edward Moore, a guy who drank himself to death before he reached sixty-three. Mark knows that because he knows everything about classical literature. Most people his age think the phrase comes from a Star Trek movie—number four, the one about saving the whales. Mark knows that because he also knows everything about Star Trek.
And all the other stuff.
49 minutes and COUNTING . . .
“Step into my parlor, kids,” Jollie says, moving toward the hallway. Andy takes Spider-Girl’s hand and jumps over the back of the couch, which is situated oddly in the center of the room, way too close to an old brick fireplace, which hasn’t had a fire in it for years. Instead, it’s filled with an antique Zenith cabinet TV set, which Mark bought for twenty dollars at a pawn shop in the early 2000s. (No flat screens here—that would mean we’re rich and awful.) The Spider-Blonde stumbles after Andy, almost knocking over the couch, and she giggles all the way, looking at the walls, which are busy as hell. Every surface in the place—even the ceilings and the furniture—are covered in an endless free-form mural of magazine clippings, collage art, old buttons, scraps of paper with dirty limericks written on them, pages from comic books filled with glorious gore and two-fisted heroes, poems pasted and stapled together from the works of Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski, painted faces and scribbled emotions, all train-wrecked together in an explosion of scrapbook photos that trace all the people who ever lived here and the magic they brought with them, labels from booze bottles, Mardi Gras beads and film festival badges, plastic Hawaiian flower leis and rubber snakes and strings of glittering Christmas-tree lights, purple velvet pouches with lacy yellow trim that used to be filled with bottles of Crown Royal, a button that says DAMN I’M GOOD and a sign that says NO FOUL LANGUAGE IN THIS ROOM PLEASE, crayon art scrawled by lazy, crazy people in the midnight hour, cartoons scissored from the Sunday papers and pasted in layers to make a new joke, an ad for Skyy Vodka that shows Ben Stiller as Zoolander making a martini, James Bond looking cool with his Walther 9 mm, drawing down through a gun barrel oozing with blood, video covers and love letters and cashed check stubs kept as souvenirs . . . and movie posters. Lots and lots of movie posters.
It’s a superhighway of information and history.
Pam Grier and Luke Skywalker and Tyler Durden are your hosts.
Jollie, Andy, and Spider-Girl wind their way through it.
It’s a just a hop, skip, and a jumpy breeze of human vapor to Jollie’s room, and Andy shuts the door behind them.
47 minutes and COUNTING . . .
Bob Marley becomes a quieter ghost through the thin walls, the three of them black-light shapes under the purple glow of mood lights and the lava-lamp squirm of Jollie’s screen saver. You can’t see the walls in here either, because there are so many maps and charts, bulletin boards tacked to hell, piles of books and papers, shelves bursting with CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays, and anything else that information can be stored on. A big poster of James T. Kirk (buff Shatner, back-in-the-day Shatner) on the door, with a drawn-on speech bubble pointing at his mouth that reads: WHO IS THIS ASSHOLE? (Long story—don’t ask.) Spider-Girl lands right in the center of something that looks like a queen-size futon, and she squeals like a surprised child when it turns out to be a waterbed.
“Oh wow,” she says. “Somebody should have warned me about this.”
“Booyah,” Andy says as he lands next to her, and they are boogie-bumped by wave after glorious wave. She laughs at his silliness again.
“It’s fifty bucks a cap,” Jollie says to Spider-Girl, getting straight to business, moving for the shoebox under her desk. “Mark doesn’t give discounts.”
“That’s still cheap for Molly,” she says back, struggling against the waves. “I’m used to a hundred a quarter for ecstasy.”
“Welcome to the Kingdom,” Andy says. “Where the candy is cheap and the sins are deadly.” He starts tickling poor sweet Spider-Girl, who takes it like a sorority sister.
Jollie sighs, opening the shoebox. It’s empty. Except for a note in the Boy Prince’s jagged handwriting that says: I LOVE YOU NOW MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF, BUT I WILL LOVE YOU EVEN MORE ON PAYDAY.
“Real cute, Andy.”
“What?” he says, and he truly has no idea what she’s talking about. Then he looks up from where Spider-Girl is giggling and sees Jollie holding the note in his face. He decides to say something intelligent: “Umm . . . I’m . . . terribly sorry?”
Jollie slumps in the comfy chair, swiveling slightly when her gorgeous surplus rump hits the cushion, letting out a huff. “This was all we had left, Andy. Mark won’t be back for hours.”
“Where did he go?”
“He’s making a pickup, but it’s with Jackie’s dad—that scary loudmouth guy.”
“Yeah, whatever. They always take forever.”
Andy almost feels smarter than Jollie for a split second, then reminds himself he only ever remembers Razzle Schaeffer’s name because it’s kind of hard to forget.
Spider-Girl makes a pouty face. “How long will it be?”
Jollie throws up her hands. “Shit, knowing those guys, at least four in the morning.”
She glances at the tiny clock near the computer—it’s just now one.
“That’s not very long in dog years,” Andy says, giving Spider-Girl a wicked jab with two fingers.
And Spider-Girl doesn’t squirm this time.
She’s suddenly all business, with an evil wink: “I can wait. If she joins us.”
Andy raises an eyebrow, and Jollie makes it a matching set. Don’t even think about it, her look says to him. And in the same instant, she starts thinking about it.
It’s been awhile since we were this crazy. But maybe it’s what I need. We won the revolution tonight, after all.
She takes her smartphone out of her pocket and keys the screen open—there are forty-seven unread messages from just the last half hour and ten new voicemails, all from Peanut Williams and the boys in Philly. The emails have all-caps subject lines like SENATOR BOB WANTS TO KNOW ABOUT WHITE-COLLAR RAPE and SENATOR BOB ORDERS THE FILIBUSTER SUPREME, DUDE!
It’s all about Senator Bob tonight.
She smiles at the phone.
And Spider-Girl is still smiling at her, Andy’s tongue running along her neck.
Jollie sets the phone down on her desk. And she finds that her body begins to react faster than her mind can be made up, putting down the shoebox, moving quickly to the door and locking it. James T. Kirk gives her the fifty-watt okey-dokey. She tells him to shut the hell up. Then she moves herself into the waves of her bed, and the easy arms of the Boy Prince.
This would break Mark’s heart in half, she thinks.
If he was here to see what they are doing now, while he is off scoring.
But this is what I need, she also thinks, as Spider-Girl’s first innocent kisses come in, sweet on her neck like honey and bitter like wicked steel, dumb like a frat chick and desperate like a gnawing rat. Smooth and wet and soothing and toothy. Exciting.
This is what I need, not to be in love with him. I’m sorry, Mark, but I can’t marry you. I have to save the world first.
35 minutes and COUNTING . . .
He’s the guy everyone wants to know in this town. But not because he’s a brilliant mind, bursting with stories and bits of knowledge collected from every obscure nerdariffic nook and cranny, not because he’s a real artist living the dream that so many dishwashers and spare changers and burnout musician-types fantasize about. No, not at all. Most people want to know Mark Jones because he’s a drug dealer.
It’s pretty simple math.
There are a lot of dudes in this town who deal pot from under their beds, ecstasy caps or acid squares or even H-bags when a bigger score happens, but Mark has been here longer and knows the market better than most people. He’s been here since the summer of 2005. He’ll tell you that everything you need to know comes from a zinger line in a Marty Scorsese film or some bit of wisdom uttered by Bill Murray in Caddyshack. He’ll tell you his first ambition was to be a professional screenwriter—but he found out soon enough that you have to live in Hollywood for that. Problem is, he couldn’t leave Austin, not ever. It had him by the soul—this amazing arty-farty boomtown, full of liars and losers and guys who sometimes make it really big, an overripe music scene bursting with blues cats and metal punks, rockabilly martyrs, filmmakers of every shape, size, and religion struggling in every dark corner to record their own Exile on Main St. or make the next El Mariachi. There are theater art gangs and performance groups who do their thing like you wouldn’t believe, sidewalk musicians and homeless transsexuals who’ve become local celebrities. It’s like San Francisco, only smaller. Like Athens, Georgia, only better. Circuits of trendy restaurants and soulful dives, sushi places and strip clubs, sports bars, roadhouses brimming with the blues, jazz haunts that freeze time and roll back the years, the tacky runways of 6th Street and the campus drag, glimmering and grooving, shaking to the very core of the earth with a million billion holes in the wall where you can hear every religion that exists in the spaces between midnight and one in the morning. And on Friday night, don’t forget to catch Aliens on Ice. That’s the James Cameron film, acted out live on a hockey rink by geeky drama-school dropouts with cardboard props and nothing better to do.
Yeah, this is a pretty amazing town.
Mark hovers just below the surface of it all, knowing that one day he will be immortal, just like all the other starving artists know it. That’s the only reason to live in a town like this if you’re a writer or a filmmaker or a guitar player. The promise of immortality.
That’s what he’ll tell you if you ask him about it.
He’ll tell you lots of things.
Very few of which are actually true.
But not many people want to know the real Mark Jones anyway. They only know him as the tortured-genius drug dealer hermit of the Kingdom, with his thick chin beard and shaven head, short and pear-shaped, full of secrets in his longing face, genuine love-me-now puppy-dog eyes drooping above a crazed smile that belongs on a lunatic running the asylum. Big arms and muscular legs, always exposed because he wears designer cargo shorts year-round, even in winter. He’s almost a foot shorter than Jollie, but he seems a lot taller when you talk to him. He turned forty almost a year ago and he doesn’t look a day over twenty-seven. His youth lives in his blood and his passion. Not a single wrinkle on his face. And that always turns her on. He’s written six unsold novels, all science fiction with a red-hot poker up its ass—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets Natural Born Killers. Grungy, greasy, nutty as a mutant fruitcake, sopped through with attitude and a worldview gleaned from a steady diet of classic gangster flicks, books by Harlan Ellison, and experiences he’s not told anyone about—not even Jollie. One of his manuscripts struck home and sold. A book called Countdown to Extinction. (He’s a big Megadeth fan.) It didn’t have to make him rich, just had to keep him moving, keep him in the game. He holds on to the dream, like everyone else. But he holds harder. And he’s searched all his life for a kindred spirit. Someone he can really talk to. Someone who understands things.
Someone like Jollie, of course.
He’s fallen in love with her, and that wasn’t supposed to happen. When a guy like him falls in love, it’s bad news.
Especially in a town like this.
Mark doesn’t know about what’s been going on lately between Jollie and Andy, but he’s suspected for months.
That might have been why he finally asked her to come away with him the other night. Why he told her he was getting some long-overdue royalty money from the book he sold years ago (Countdown has since been reprinted five times, a real underground hit, more or less) . . . and he wanted to make a clean break from the madness of the Kingdom. Maybe head out for California. Start fresh somewhere in a different town of artists and protestors. She asked if Andy should come with them, and he said no. He said that he was done with all this craziness, all the lovers and ladies at all hours, the drug dealers and half-pimps, all those dumbass throwaway super rockers with green hair.
There’s a place we can start over, Jollie. We can go there together, you and I. Please marry me.
And he was really serious this time.
She knew, because he showed her the ring.
The ring he only told her stories about when they were stoned—the silly little piece of ten-cent plastic he got from a gumball machine when he was sixteen. The childish trinket he’s kept on his Super Cool Stuff Shelf for years, waiting for the right lady to give it to. He gave it to her then, and she’d had no idea what to say. She still doesn’t. She still hasn’t answered him. This wasn’t in the plan. It wasn’t supposed to happen.
But he can deal with it.
He still has time.
There’s blood on his hands, but the blood washes clean.
He’ll have just a few minutes to make her understand.
33 minutes and COUNTING . . .
“I can’t do this,” Jollie says, and she pulls away from Spider-Girl.
The Boy Prince knows what it means, but he pretends not to.
Jollie backs away and tells them to have fun, and they act like confused mice, hovering in deep space. Jollie thinks they look like they were made for each other. She has no idea in this moment who she, herself, was made for. No idea at all.
Mark. I’m so sorry.
She reaches the door and forgets it’s locked, tries to open it, and thinks she’s trapped for just a half second. Laughs at herself and remembers.
And then there’s a knock at the door.
And Mark’s voice.
“Jollie? Are you in there? I have to talk to you.”
“Yay, party favors,” Andy says to the blonde, perking right up. “Looks like our man is on time, after all.”
“Oh poop,” Spider-Girl says. “I was just getting used to waiting.”
Andy smiles. “We can wait some more later, if you want to.”
Jollie’s heart has already jumped into her mouth, her buzz nearly ruined as Mark’s voice comes again, through the door:
“Jollie? Open up, okay?”
He sounds really upset.
Jollie turns to the crazy kids on her waterbed and sighs hard. “Look, you two stay in here. I have to talk to him alone first.”
“Dishonesty is always the best policy,” Andy says, smiling.
“Look, just shut up,” Jollie says, glaring.
Now, Mark starts banging on the door.
“I can hear you guys in there—open up, goddammit!”
“Yeah, I’ll be right out!”
And she freezes Andy with a laser-ice look. You just stay right on that waterbed and don’t fucking move.
Jollie opens the door and slides out into the smoky hall with Mark. Only opens the door a few inches, so he can’t see the kids in her room. She forgets all about her smartphone back there on the desk—which is strange, because she’s never very far from that thing. But Mark isn’t paying attention to her phone. Mark doesn’t even have time to see Jollie’s face before he grabs her by the hand and pulls her to his room at the end of the hall, unlocks the door, and slams it behind them. It’s a series of fast blurs. Tracers and feelings. Shocked amazement and weird tangles of love and shame. Jollie can hardly understand what’s happening, even when they are alone together and Mark pulls her close and kisses her. He tastes like home and hearth. She wraps her arms around him and they mash into each other, melt into each other, and she wants to say she is sorry, wants to tell him so many things, but all those things explode in her breast and evacuate in a low sigh and he is so close, so close . . .
And a million lifetimes later, they untangle.
Mark is looking right in her eyes.
She can tell he’s on Xanax because of the red in there.
His eyes always look that way when he’s on downers.
But the dope doesn’t hide the terrible, serious look on his face.
“I’m sorry,” she says, because she thinks he’s angry with her—thinks he knows about her and Andy. She thinks someone told him about the three of them sneaking off together. Thinks she’s finally busted.
But that’s not what he says at all.
“Something really heavy has just happened, Jollie. There was no avoiding it. So you have to come with me right now . . .”
He looks right in her eyes, deeper than he’s ever looked before.
“. . . or you’ll never see me again.”
And she finally notices that there is blood on his face.
30 minutes and COUNTING . . .
“It all happened so fast,” Jackie chokes out, holding his insides in with both hands, as the bad lieutenant hovers over him. “He turned into a . . . he moved so quick . . . I think . . . I’m dying . . .”
He remembers the bright flash of the first muzzleblast like a white-hot strobe in his face, the instant panic that shocks up his spine, the dull fleshy slap of the bullet in Daddy’s chest, the smile frozen on Daddy’s face, still left over from the three seconds before, when Daddy was looking right at Mark and telling him how lucky he was.
The bad lieutenant gets in closer to Jackie and says something Jackie can’t understand, but he knows it’s the same question.
Jackie holds his insides in.
Jackie cries because it really hurts.
Jackie is bleeding from six gunshot wounds.
Jackie shouldn’t even be alive.
He remembers what happened after that first flash only in a series of weird broken images: The second shot, to Razzle’s face—Daddy’s face—so fast after the last one that it’s like machine-gun fire. The automatic pistol whizzing around in Mark’s hand, a wide arc of fire taking out the two big guys on either side of Daddy, who’s stumbling backward now like a stop-motion puppet, groping for his gun while his malfunctioning fingers and hands and arms twitch in weird chain-reaction fits and starts. The two big guys sprout crimson eyes in the center of their foreheads. Reports so loud in the tiny space that it makes him deaf. Jackie’s own hand, reaching for the pistol in his waistband—the worst place to keep a gun, nudged under your belt, in the small of your back. His hand, not quite freezing but not exactly moving either, as the next shot hacks a chunk of his shoulder off and sends him flat against the wall. The quick, painful, gooey sensation of shit evacuating from his bowels. The front of his pants hosed with piss. A fist punching him in the stomach, which turns out to be another bullet. Freeze frames of everything that happens, with glowing, white-hot light around the edges, like jammed bits of celluloid slagging bad in the gate of an exploding projector. Someone screaming: Shoot the motherfucker kill him scum DIE BASTARD . . .
“Who did it, Jackie? Who hit us tonight?”
The bad lieutenant’s voice is clear now, and the inside of the ambulance almost solidifies again, narrow and dark, like a closet full of strange, indefinable stuff. There are tubes running in and out of Jackie. A man wearing red and white is pulling Jackie’s hands away from his guts, holding something painful on his neck, like a great weight that makes his insides gurgle and pop, with fluid boiling in a weird gag reflex at the deep end of his tongue. He feels the fresh, bleeding gash left by the third bullet, which was the one that cut his throat as it came and went, still making it almost impossible to talk.
But he tries anyway:
“All so fast . . . so many flashes . . . he was so goddamn fast . . .”
“Who was it? Who was crazy enough to hit us? Tell me!”
The sting of the bad lieutenant’s voice hits him harder than the next wave of pain. He can tell it’s Jake Mudd now—the man his father always laughed at while he paid him off to watchdog his deals. That’s how Mudd got the bad-lieutenant tag in the first place. One of his dad’s terrible jokes that stuck. Daddy also liked making fun of Harvey Keitel for playing Judas in that weird God movie with his bizarre half-Brooklyn accent: I do not like you, Jesus, because you make crosses. It almost makes Jackie laugh, but the pain rises again and chokes him again, Mudd’s voice stabbing his ear again:
“Tell me who it was!”
Jackie knows he’s dead if he tells.
Jackie knows he’s dead if he doesn’t tell.
Jackie’s just dead, period.
He remembers that third bullet coming in like a mad bee, hitting him just below the chin. The tiny wound opening near his larynx, sending blood down his throat, human shrapnel choking him hard, making him forget about the gun in his waistband. More strobes. More flashes. The whole room gone crazy now. Everyone falling down dead before they even know what’s happening. Five guys, his father’s best friends, his dirty extended family of assholes, all ripped to hell in terrible freeze frames. Blood splattering across a hanging light fixture. The walls painted sickeningly in oozing, glowing, gory red. And in the center of it all . . .
“So fast . . . he moved . . . so fast . . .”
His life, coming in on fast-forward now.
Twenty-five years, working for his father.
My life, on fast-forward . . .
Jackie-Boy Schaeffer was born into the world through pain, and he can still actually remember being born. Nobody ever believes him when he says that, but it’s damn true. His mind is a steel trap and a vast computer bank. He was three years old when he learned how to work a Mac computer, three and a half when he built a website for his father, four years old when he realized his father was a drug dealer and a killer. Five years old when he realized his importance in Daddy’s machine, and that Daddy’s way of loving him was to treat him like an adult, make him part of it, feed him pills that made his senses sharp and his dreams hot and awful. Jackie never went to school. Never met kids his own age. But he was—is—brilliant beyond belief. A prodigy. The years fell off the calendar and the money rolled in. He was ten years old when he realized he’d probably never get laid. He wanted to be an adult in the way that puppy dogs want to be human. For five years, he operated the family business, set up the dope runs, cataloged the cash, measured pounds of white stuff and black stuff and green stuff. He spied on people who spied on him. He developed a sixth sense for police tails and eyes in the sky. He knew everything about how it worked by the time he was seventeen. He met the Monster Squad and they terrified him. Eddie Darling and Darian Stanwell, the worst of the worst.
But that’s just the way it is, kid.
Be a man. Or at least pretend.
That’s Daddy talking, even now, as the life runs from him . . .
He was still just a kid when he met Mark Jones for the first time. The first thing Jackie talked about with Mark was how cool it was that someone made a movie out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He read Mark’s weird monster stories and thought instantly that his writing was passionate and transcendent, and it plugged into a deep longing and isolation that they’ve both experienced within themselves for most of their lives—that solitary brilliance that keeps them from being like other people, even when you have your own scene finally, when the party never ends, when enough good dope hurls you through the mists of revelation after revelation about the way things really are, and about the true faces people wear in dark corners. This is real, this is right, this is something burned in his soul and consecrated by the passing of time, the sweet strains of music that never ends, the wild laughter of friends that never go away, coming at him now in his memory like sweet bullets and hard fists, making him so happy, then leaving him hard, faster now, like the deep canyons of understanding and camaraderie forged in the wee hours of the Kingdom, when all saints search for a reason to exist and a kindred spirit, Jollie on her political soapbox at five in the morning, making Jackie fall in love with her for the ten-millionth time with that thing she does, Andy strumming his guitar and telling him all you need is love, and Mark is always there, always the brilliant, sad master of the Kingdom, his best friend . . . his one true love . . . deep down where it matters the most . . .
Mark, who turned into something awful.
Something made of iron and gunpowder.
Just like all the others, when it’s all over.
Even worse than the others . . .
. . . no.
Don’t think about that now.
Hold on to the years.
Hold on to what’s good.
He tries so hard to do it, even as the pain sleets back in and chokes him bad and he drifts away from the details of his life. Until only impressions remain. The smell of summers in Austin, which are always the same, but each tinged with something new, as the phases of your life shift and modulate, as the drugs became purer and easier to get, the ladies who smell so sweet . . . so many faces . . . swirling in a cosmic shitter now, surging toward the moment . . .
When it all blows up in his face.
The next bullets—two in his right leg, another one scraping just across his right side, as he finally kisses the concrete floor, bathed in grotesque glowing red from the bloody hanging lightbulb. The unstoppable killer in the center of the room, that THING that used to be his best friend, swiveling and firing again, never moving from that one place where he stands, like a statue sentinel given terrifying, cyclonic movement—bang bang bang bang BANG. And as Jackie lies there on the floor, he feels the absurdity of his computerized mind cataloging the number of shots that happened, including the six that almost made him dead. Twenty shots in total, from two different weapons, one in each hand. Flashes and flashes. Pain, seeping in from all sides, clogging backwash, making it so he can’t get up at all. That and the shattered leg, throbbing and awful . . .
. . . and Mark is about to finish him off, standing over him.
The gun is aimed right at Jackie’s head.
Mark is saying he’s sorry.
He’s a monster.
He’s always been a monster.
But Mark doesn’t ever fire that last shot—the mercy kill that would have spared him all this pain.
Mark doesn’t get a chance to.
Because the door explodes open.
And more men run in.
And more shots happen and . . . and . . . AND . . .
The bad lieutenant leans in again, and his voice is still low and almost distorted, but Jackie gets the gist—the kid’s a smart one, even full of lead poisoning.
Mark, That wasn’t you.
That was someone else.
A robot, a pod person—IT JUST WASN’T YOU.
The bad lieutenant asks again who did this, who hit us, where’s the stuff?
And this time Jackie doesn’t say anything.
Instead, he starts crying, just before the big black seeps in from all sides.
He sees the face of the monster.
That cast-iron Terminator in a room full of gangsters who never saw it coming.
I love you.
It wasn’t you who did that.
I’ll never believe it was you.
He speaks the words.
He says them out loud.
At least that’s what it seems like.
Mark . . . Andy . . . Jollie . . .
The bad lieutenant leans closer.
“Where are they?”
Jackie tells him.
And the bad lieutenant is punching a number into his cell phone before the words finish boiling over the poor kid’s lips . . . and another very bad man is answering his call even before the kid passes out all the way.
17 minutes and COUNTING . . .
The other very bad man is Eddie Darling.
Eddie Darling is really pissed off.
And when Eddie Darling gets really pissed off about something, bad things tend to happen very quickly.
The cop on the other end of the phone gives him Mark Jones’s name. Gives him Andy’s name. Give him Jollie’s name.
And an address.
Eddie looks at the men standing in front of him, blows smoke from a chewed-to-hell cigar, and says just four words:
“Hard search. No survivors.”
Marnie smiles at his boss, his heart jumping for joy. He knows his brother will be a little disappointed that he missed out on some fun hands-on action this morning, but Darian has been overworked this week, and Marnie is a night owl anyway.
Darian takes bad news well, after all.
Not like Eddie.
Who sits there, fuming, surrounded by smoke.
15 minutes and COUNTING . . .
At first, Jollie is scared for Mark, then she wants to know what the hell he’s talking about, then she’s angry because he won’t say anything. Instead he repeats the same thing he’s been saying for five minutes:
“I love you, Jollie. I’ve always loved you. Please come with me now.”
“Mark . . . what have you done? Did you hurt someone?”
“I can’t tell you anything, Jollie. Not yet. But I can promise you that it’s bigger than both of us. Bigger than anything you’ve ever imagined. I love you and I know you love me. Please . . . please come with me.”
His voice lulls her.
His voice always lulls her.
He’s right—she loves him so damn much.
She takes a breath, feeling stronger, the warmth of Mark’s room filling her with easy comforts: the Christmas-tree lights, twittering and blinking a multicolored galaxy of movie stars and cartoon cels, flyers for old eighties bands like A-ha and Mötley Crüe—everything that’s classic and awesome, just because they say it should be. Johnny Depp scowls down from the ceiling in black-and-white, his eyes glowing like dull gray jewels, a poster for Dead Man she gave him for Christmas last year. This room is filled with gifts, like Mark’s loving gaze, his desperate eyes. Like the Star Wars T-shirt on his chest, peeking out from under the flannel overshirt, also stained brown. All of this stuff will be nothing but reminders very soon. She can feel him going away from her, and it’s terrifying.
“Mark . . . please . . . please tell me what’s going on.”
He shakes his head gently.
And she clenches her teeth. “Dammit . . . stop being so goddamn melodramatic! Talk to me, Mark!”
He leans forward and kisses her. She pulls away before he gets very far with it. “Mark . . . you know I love you . . . But, I . . .”
“It’s Andy, isn’t it?”
Her mouth yaps open. “What? How can you say that now? You’re pulling that shit on me?”
“Jollie . . . it’s okay.”
“No, it’s not! It’s not okay! It’s not fucking okay!”
He moves toward her as she starts to freak, and he gets slapped for his trouble. Then she breaks down and almost starts to cry, coming home in his arms. Giving up. She feels the passionate hammer of his heart in his breast, the moment like dull gray fireworks . . . and then she really does start to cry, looking up into his sad eyes, seeing nothing but truth there, the nerdy-classic world they made together with all their friends and lovers. This really is it. She will never see him again. The ring is still in her pocket and she knows he loves her so much. She could let him have her, just this once. It would be better than losing him forever.
And so she kisses him.
And it goes like this:
13 minutes and COUNTING . . .
The mad rush of the Molly floods back in again, making Jollie want him and fear him in the same moment, creating more of the safe illusion deep in her heart that this is just a loving trick to get her in bed, and she lets him get away with it and kisses him hard, and it’s all a blur for her, as her hands grip his waist, and the waves slam into her heart again, and she is helpless in the riptide, powerless to stop herself, and her full breasts swell against his chest like throbbing fruit as the two of them press their bodies together, and the jangling of her belt buckle and the soft whizz of his zipper coming undone are like music that reaches her from very far away, but it also turns her on, and his hands are there, in that place she’s gone herself so many times, thinking about him, thinking about Andy, all the free love and flower power and good vibrations of the entire world blossoming between her legs, and she slides out of her loose-fit jeans so easily, slides them right over her lace-up shoes, and she is naked from the waist down, and they are freefalling now, falling backward through space and time, back through the years, remaking everything, together in a temporal womb, caught up in the silent, endless spaces between spoken words, and she lands on him, and her mouth is in his, heaving sighs down his throat, gripping his head with both hands, moving across him mercilessly, using her entire body to make a good-bye, even though this is just a game . . . but it’s the best game yet, Mark’s most amazing game . . . and she knows it means he loves her, and his skin feels so amazing now, as she pulls his flannel shirt over his head, leaving his chest covered only by the faces of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, lost siblings breaking sacred trust in this amazing, terrible, ugly, desperate, passionate, perfect moment, and his fingers move under her blue blouse, massaging the creamy freckled terrain of her back and chest, and she’s unbuttoning herself quickly, and his pants are off and her jeans are on the bed next to them . . . and as he pushes inside her, it feels so amazing, so absolutely right . . . and in the rush, she wonders with a shriek of sheer, white-hot amazement why in the hell she’s never allowed herself this, and it all seems so romantic and girlie and just-like-a-poet to have waited all those years, just like that traditional lady who’s always lived under the surface of her masked rebel self, and they are pressed so tight together now, blasting through each other so hard and so fast that it’s like they are one person, one being, one idea, and ideas are invincible, eternal, bulletproof, just like they are in the movies . . . and they are the movies . . . they are fucking so hard . . . and I love you, Mark, please don’t leave me, don’t leave us, fall with me now, fall from grace with the entire world . . .
The climax blows through both of them.
It’s the most intense feeling either of them has ever known.
It’s better and bigger and badder than anything.
Jollie feels the weight of an entire life lift away from her shoulders and her heart, liberating her whole body, delivering a peace beyond peace. Mark feels the horror of so much death and deception and the strain of his trained muscles and mind snap like violin strings, and all he wants to do is die in her arms, forever. And so he does die.
And they both cry out and surrender to it.
Going straight down into nothingness.
Into a sleep that never seems to end.
5 minutes and COUNTING . . .
The sergeant kicks Mark in the ribs and tells him he’s weak.
Get up, boy. Get up now, you weak little shit.
The smell of gun metal and the sharp sting of open wounds on his feet and face are like seething, evil insects.
His legs and his arms are like corded rubber, abused and throbbing.
Get up, now! The enemy never sleeps! Get the hell up!
He realizes he is sleeping . . . realizes he is dreaming . . . realizes he’s fallen deep into an abyss that has robbed him of all his strength . . .
Get the hell up!
Must wake up. Must wake up NOW . . .
1 minute and COUNTING . . .
Dull gray fireworks hit him hard as he comes back, the sound of glass breaking in the next room, a rough, open hand slapping his face. His eyes jerk wide awake so fast that it feels like something rips his skin and his brain all at once.
And then he sees the two men with guns and knows he’s completely screwed.
. . . 0:00