The Serpent Papers

Novel Excerpts by Jeff Schnader

The Serpent Papers
Synopsis

In 1972, J-BEE, a Columbia University student, must decide whether he supports the Vietnam War or the anti-war movement. He grows up in 1950s-60s America, son of a naval officer, whom he idolizes. His generation is inculcated with notions that American might is right and that America can’t lose a war. At Catholic school, he and his friend, GILLY, are beaten by nuns which brings them closer to one another but also instills anger in J-Bee.

Headed to Babylon

There are things I’ve never told anyone, secrets hidden away in a vault with the doors clanged shut, forty years ago or maybe fifty, in the deepest recesses of my head. Secrets not previously told because they might have jeopardized my future by branding me a pot fiend, a beer hound, a left-wing radical or a white pointy-headed bigot. But I’m older now with a dwindling future, and the story is ready to be told.

Everything starts with the seed, and then come the roots. I was born into an America proud of its pugnacious power, having never lost a war in its history. Flag waving and pride were an integral part of what it meant to be an American in the 1950s and 60s, and the children of this era were brought up on these principles like mother’s milk. My father was an officer in the U. S. Navy, and I grew up proud to be his son. I remember when I was a tot, sitting on his lap, facing his uniformed chest, touching the colored ribbons and other baubles of military accomplishment strung there as decoration. He was a broad-shouldered powerful man, and next to him I sat protected by a formidable warrior under the umbrella of the might of the United States armed forces. At home, he bounded around the house and was everywhere at once, painting walls, repairing the deck, building outdoor furniture in the garage. If he spied me while he was planting in the garden, he would suddenly bolt to catch me, grabbing me as I shrieked with excitement, snagging me by the waist in the crook of his arm and then wrapping me up in the garden hose. He would say, “You want me to tie you in knots?” and I would say “No!” though I really meant “Yes!” When I started going to church, I felt I was walking with the most important man there, a paragon of society. I observed the admiration that other congregants lavished upon him. In my mother’s face and demeanor I saw that she idolized my father as well. I bathed in our happiness as a family so that when my brother Jerry came along, he became one of us, and he was mine to protect and nurture as my parents had nurtured me.

Yet nothing so perfect endures. As a boy I wanted to please my father by mirroring his views and his mighty charisma, but as I grew up, either through random misfortune or through a concatenation of irreversible events, I became an angry boy. Eventually in a disorganized emotional state I found myself on the threshold of manhood, and I was confronted by the usual choices young men must make. In the case of choosing where to go to college, I made an impetuous if not unexpected choice, but only after my father sat down next to me one evening and turned the TV off.

“We should talk,” he said.

I felt my lips tighten against my teeth. I felt my muscles contract.

“About what.”

“Your marks are good—”

“What about it?”

“We should talk about your future.”

We looked at each other. Our relationship had changed; I was now beyond his reach. I would choose where to go to college without any pressure to please him. I wanted to go where I wanted to go, and I wasn’t going to discuss it.

“You have choices,” he said.

I stared back.

He shifted in his chair.

He was an accomplished man, my father. As an officer, he was either telling others what to do or being told what to do by superiors, and now I watched him struggle through a conversation with a person outside his professional hierarchy—me, his son, over whom he had diminishing control. So much had happened in the prior few years that both he and I had changed individually, and now I felt a pointed dislike towards him.

I remember the afternoon when my antagonism crystallized. I was sitting in my room, tormented by unyielding acne, brooding a teenage sulk, listening to The Airplane’s Bless Its Pointed Little Head, Fresh Cream’s NSU, and The Star-Spangled Banner by Hendrix. I was gazing into the pockmarked angular faces of the Rolling Stones silhouetted in shadow on the cover of their album Out of Our Heads. The music was dangerous and foreboding, and I wrapped myself in its darkness. It was a spooky time, a time when the fears of growing up mixed with all manner of other fears from asking a girl on a date to being shipped to Vietnam.

As I sat tapping the floor, singing without a thought in my head, my brain conjured up images of Lola Quinn, a girl in my class whose slacks fit snugly to the meat of her thighs and whose breasts stuck pertly against her pink leotard top. In this state of rapture with fantasies and hormones running rampant, I made an unplanned decision to call her, thinking to use an excuse about homework. Forgetting to turn down the music, I picked up the phone and dialed, listening to the rings with ratcheting tension. The moment Lola answered the phone, I said “Hello,” but my father began banging on the door, which oscillated with his weight as he alternately pushed and released. I heard my mother’s voice behind him yelling, “David—you’ll break the hinges!” to which he shouted, “Unlock the Goddamn door!”

I knew right away they were drunk, and I panicked, shouting, “Just a sec!”

I ran to the door and opened it, and my father barreled in shoulder first, trying to keep his balance with his arm outstretched yelling “Goddamnit!” As he stumbled, he straight-armed me in the chest and grabbed my shirt, ripping it as I fell over backwards. He snatched the phone from my hand and slammed it down in its cradle, howling, “No one can think with this racket!” He went to my stereo and whacked it with his arm, scraping the needle across the record, ripping the vinyl with a sound that screeched through the speakers. Horrified by this ferocity, I stood up and watched as the disk skittered off its platter and across the floor.

“I’ve had enough of this!” His face was red; he reeked of alcohol.

“Dad—what’re you doing?”

“We’re trying to have a quiet night downstairs! But you!”

He lifted his hand and slapped me hard on the face with his palm. This surprised me; he’d never slapped me before. I was stung and humiliated, worse than from the whips of the Sisters, and it angered me beyond belief.

I shouted, “Goddamn abusive son of a bitch!”

He replied with a roundhouse and a closed fist, barging forward as he swung. Instinctively I ducked, lifting my arm to deflect the blow, but my elbow caught him on the chin as he lunged, and the impact hit him hard.

He was enraged. He grabbed me with both hands by the throat and squeezed.

I couldn’t breathe. I would have fallen over, but he held me up. I felt lightheaded; I saw rainbows. I opened my mouth to tell him to stop, but my throat could only rasp. I vaguely heard my mother’s voice, and she was saying, “David! Stop!”

He turned his head, loosening his grip. He threw me on the floor and pointed, saying, “You’re not the only one in this house!” He staggered out the door, banging his shoulder on the jamb and cursing.

I coughed and couldn’t stop. My throat hurt. I reached up and touched my head which throbbed everywhere, especially where it had struck the floor. I was dizzy. My mother leaned over me then, and the smell of liquor was so strong, I wretched.

“You okay?” she said, bleary-eyed with sagging lids.

“He’s a fucking animal!” I croaked.

“He had a bad moment,” she said. “We all do.”

“He’s a brute!” I went into a coughing paroxysm.

She opened her eyes heavily, licked her lips and said, “He didn’t mean it. Why’d you get him all wound up? What’d you do that for? I don’t understand any of this.” She turned and went downstairs, and I heard them talking loudly until I heard my father start to blubber. By the time he came back to speak to me, all teary-eyed and apologetic, I had physically recovered, but the space I once had in my heart for him had vanished.

***

“Go on,” I said as we sat together in front of the TV, so calmly that an onlooker would have thought our relationship perfectly normal. “Tell me about my college choices.”

I liked to see him uncomfortable; I glared at him. I wanted to intimidate him even though it seemed impossible. I felt possessed—there was a demon in my chest, controlling me from inside, stoking my conviction that my father was somewhere at the root of the violence I had inflicted on others and the damage I had suffered as a result.

I wasn’t going to let him off easy.

“You have a future to consider,” he said. “You have great potential. Given all your options, we think you should go to college at Annapolis which is a fabulous place. Or perhaps Notre Dame. Or the University of Virginia, which has a strong ROTC program.”

“Maybe I’ll volunteer for Nam instead,” I said, enjoying my insolence. I looked him in the eye and flashed a wide fake smile.

“You could volunteer,” he said stone-faced and austere, preferring to ignore my impertinence. He responded objectively, “We want the best for you—we always have. But the military needs intelligent men like you. Why not go as an officer? Get training and education and then you’ll get a commission. Start on the steps to the top—why be a grunt in the mud? Be an officer and achieve a great future. There will always be another war; America will always have a fight somewhere. There will be medals for you as you achieve the milestones of a military career. You’ll have plenty of opportunity on that front. The glory will be greater…”

He hesitated, seeming to want to say something more but checking himself. He adjusted himself in his seat, pinched his nose and cleared his throat before adding, “And you’ll be somewhat safer as an officer.”

I thought of a gathering at my parents’ house when they had invited their officer friends and wives. The men came in uniform that day, bedecked in their bars and medals, gleaming with the honor that their ornaments symbolized. My father told me afterwards that the medals stood for the great achievements in service to country that he and his friends had garnered through glory. He said that a military career was a story told in sequence, and the ornaments they wore, each medal a tribute to the wearer, were stepping-stones to a place at the table with the military elite. “They are the sum total of a military life,” chirped my mother, basking in his radiance.

***

“You know I have connections,” said my father. “They can open doors for you. We can get you into the Naval Academy.”

“I won’t go to Annapolis.”

He was surprised. “Why not?”

“I don’t want to be a warrior.”

“Want or not, you are one. I know who you are, and you’re a fighter from a long line of fighters.”

“How in Hell would you know if I’m a fighter?”

“You’ve been a fighter ever since you could walk. I used to watch you trade punches with that oaf Gilly when you were five and he was six. He would knock you down, and you would get right back up and hit him back! By gosh, you were half his size!”

I remembered Gilly at that age—he was such a big kid that his older brother had called him “Genghis Fat Boy.” I also recalled my anger and humiliation for having been decked by such a stupid lout, which is what I thought of him at the time.

“I also heard about your defiance towards your teachers in grade school.”

“You knew the Sisters were beating me at St Eustace,” I said, “and you did nothing? Why’d you let them do it!”

“You know what I think about St Eustace: those teachers built your character. They’ve hardened you for the conflicts that lie ahead.”

“And that’s what you think—the beatings were good for me.”

“You know that’s what I think: the beatings aren’t good in themselves, but the overall effect is positive.”

“St Eustace— they’re evil. Father Croghan, the Sisters, I see what they are. After what they did to me, I’m not a Catholic anymore. I don’t know what I am, but I see what you are because you sent me there! I used to worship you, but now I see you’re no different from them!

“Is that why you don’t wear the cross we gave you? Is that why you aren’t taking communion anymore?”

“That’s right!”

It was a lie, but I wasn’t going to tell my father that I had committed what Catholics call a mortal sin—an act of terrible violence that took me to the limit of my self-control in the darkest moment of my life. No, I would never tell him that my impurity in the eyes of God, worn on my soul like disfiguring paint, was the real reason I couldn’t take the sacrament.

“By God,” he said getting up from his chair, the blood of his face deep red, “I should take my belt and whip you!”

“Do it!” I said, jumping to my feet. “Do it! That’s something your Goddamned school taught me! They’ve taught me to take a beating— just like you wanted!”

We stood face to face a few feet apart. Though he was an inch or two taller, I was nearly full-grown. Our gazes met, and his eyes flashed a lack of restraint, but then he smiled unexpectedly.

“It’s like I said—you’ve confirmed it. You’re a warrior.”

He sat back down and chuckled.

“Sit,” he said, sweeping his arm magnanimously. “Stop trying to provoke me all the time, and tell your daddy what you want to do with your life.”

Maybe I was being perverse, tired of being bossed around, rebelling against the endless control and the weightily expectant yoke of being next in a rigid line of military men. I wasn’t a good Catholic boy anymore, and I found myself trapped in the hypocrisy of pretending to be good. I wasn’t going to a Catholic college or anywhere close to home—no Notre Dame or University of Virginia for me. I would go into exile, a place with no connection to the military or to my family, somewhere secular where the forces of good and evil could array themselves around me and vie for my soul as I faced the mirror of the greater universe.

Questions hanging over my future stoked the fires of my agitation until finally, in the end, I decided to head to modern day Babylon, Fun City, Gotham, Pleasure Island, where I would study civilization at the jaded but greatest repository of knowledge in the Western world. It was 1971, and I was going to “Hell on earth,” as the Sisters of St Eustace would say, Columbia University—hotbed of radicalism, den of iniquity, home of left-wing, bomb-throwing Jew-boys, stomping ground of Black Panthers and commie-pinko organizers. I would walk the ivied quads at the hub of the Weather Underground, but whether to strike the stone of the liberal hippie world with the conservative hammer of my fathers or to shatter my soul and shake my genealogical tree by joining the forces of as yet unknown, long-haired brothers was unclear to me. A battle was brewing inside me. I was an angry boy, a lost boy, and I would seek redemption or fall into a fissure and tumble into Tartarus, like the dead in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, rising from the earth on Judgement Day, to be flagellated by demons and roasted in hellfire for the whole remainder of God’s eternity.

And for the rest of my waking life.

***

It was pain and anger that drove me from my home, out of Virginia and away from the Catholic Church. Such feelings have always triggered memories of my father and the beatings I received at the hands of the nuns. Yet there has been nothing so pure as the pain I’ve suffered when mulling over the life of my brother, Jerry.

There was something wrong with my brother when he was born. I had heard that the birth was difficult, and Jerry seemed unresponsive in some ways though responsive in others. It was an ordeal that went on for nearly two years. Some of the doctors said he was autistic while others, with a confident doctorly air, said that he had a birth defect with brain damage. Others wanted to know if my mother drank a lot of alcohol during the pregnancy which, I later found out, she had. The voicing of all these possibilities was devastating to my parents who were confused by such disparate opinions and lived in a state of constant torment as they wondered which horrible reality would be the final and true outcome for their son.

I was only seven when he was born, and I was frantic as the months went by because I sensed that Jerry, due to his vulnerability, might be in some kind of danger. My worrying was compounded by the fact that I didn’t really understand everything that was happening, only that something was wrong, an intuition heightened by the continuous yelling of my parents at one another. The whole episode brought me a sense of responsibility for another human being that I’d never felt before, making me love my brother unconditionally.

As Jerry got older, he seemed to become more normal in some ways. He was supposed to be damaged, but he progressed well. He walked early; he had great balance; he was coordinated. He responded to play with smiles and giggles. Then one day, one of the doctors stumbled on an answer: Jerry was just short of stone-deaf, but he would be able to understand language with hearing aids, one in each ear. The doctor warned, however, that his speech might be permanently impaired because of his inability, even while wearing the hearing aids, of discerning the clarity of words spoken to him. Further, he said that in order for Jerry to learn, he would have to concentrate much harder than other children, especially on the specific enunciation of his teachers.

I rejoiced at the news, jumping and punching the air. I now knew he had a chance, and I swore I would always be there to bring him safely through the world. I made this pledge at the age of eight, swearing a Catholic oath of protection and acknowledging that I would die to keep that oath, determined in the way of children who see the world in black and white. Every night thereafter, I sang him to sleep with nursery rhymes. As he got a little older, I played blocks with him and read him bedtime stories. When he approached school age, I became obsessed with a fear that he would be sent to St Eustace and be vulnerable to abuse and beatings by the nuns. I didn’t think he had the fortitude that I had, and his deafness would make him both a target and unable to follow the sternness of his teachers’ commands. I knew how rigid a place it was.

He ended up in public school. There were no nuns, but other children supplied the abuse. Groups of boys chased him after school and knocked him down which was why, most days, he came home humiliated or terrified. I knew the bullies. I talked to them and threatened them. I even tried to reason with them, but nothing changed.

On Jerry’s eighth birthday, my parents gave him a banana bike. We taught him to ride, but he didn’t need much help; he was a natural. My father had been a big athlete in three sports in high school, and I played soccer at Catholic High, but my brother could ride a bike faster and with more tricks than any kid I’d ever seen. It was during those days that I saw, for the first and last time, my father get a twinkle in his eye for Jerry, his handicapped son. He rode his bike all over the neighborhood and beyond. At dinnertime, it was up to me to find him and get him back home. I think that bicycle was freedom to him. It was his Promised Land, a release from the torments of his life. The bullies couldn’t catch him as he zipped around, and this made him confident and gave him a taste of power.

One day in June, one of those long days when the sun lingers into the evening, my mother called me inside and told me to find Jerry for dinner. I thought I knew where he’d be, down at Bolduc’s soda fountain, sitting on the floor next to the comics rack, reading Casper and Richie Rich. He wasn’t supposed to be there because it was on a busy road, only the width of the sidewalk and a line of parked cars between the store and the heavy traffic, ripping down Guinea Woods Pike. It was hot and hazy, and as Bolduc’s came into sight, I heard a commotion. Two bigger kids were chasing Jerry, and he was screaming, ‘No! No! No!’ I saw him on his bike pedaling to escape them as fast as he could, catapulting himself between two parked cars, off the curb and into the air.

It all happened fast. I saw him turn his head over his shoulder to see his tormentors, one beefy boy and a taller girl, their faces contorted with bullying rage, shouting obscenities at a child who had done nothing wrong except wear hearing aids. I watched it all as boy and bike launched onto Guinea Woods Pike, followed by a terrible noise, a fatal hideous clank as Jerry crumpled against the metallic wall of cars, headlamps all in the same direction, relentless traffic moving with idiot purpose through time and space.

A delivery truck hit him, snapping his head back and splashing red as he and his bike flipped upwards. A second car hit him as he fell, crushing both him and the bike. I saw the tires bounce and the car jolt as it went over his body, extinguishing any remainder of breath. I ran over and stood, powerless, watching his body contract with convulsions and then stop. His chest was flattened; the left side of his face was stove in. His left eye was gone; his head was gashed, and blood pooled onto the road. A woman was out of her car and screaming, but all sound became muffled, all vision became gray as a shroud of numbness enfolded me. I was alone with my pain, kneeling next to his body, begging to God that he spare Jerry’s innocence and have me flogged to death by the Sisters instead. And then I had horror and emptiness, and everything disappeared from the face of the earth except anguish and the poor inert body of my brother, lying small on the asphalt, thin, broken and now forever alone.

***

Before the police came, I knelt by Jerry’s body as it lay on the pavement, a small crowd of onlookers gathering round. The two bullies who had run Jerry into traffic had evaporated into the night. But I had seen their faces, and I found out who they were. They were in ninth grade, my age, but in the public high school. They hung out at the Bolduc’s strip mall every day and would be easy to find.

The police investigated at the scene but found no bullies and no one at fault. “Some deaf kid barreled into traffic on a two-wheeler. Flattened by one of those delivery trucks. Stone dead inside a minute.” At the funeral, my parents couldn’t look at me. My father stood with his mouth all crooked like an open gash across his face, and my mother cried continuously. I hated them for not safeguarding my brother enough. Intellectually, I blamed my father— he had had the power to alter events that I hadn’t; I knew it was his fault. Yet in my heart I felt unbearable guilt, a desperate and inescapable horror for my own inaction. Recalling my physical proximity to Jerry at his death, I played the scene over and over in my head, reliving my pain. I forced myself to remember that I had done nothing at that moment to intervene to prevent his death. Gilly said that I hadn’t had time to do anything, that it happened too quickly, but my heart didn’t let me escape. Me, it had been my fault—I had done nothing to protect my little brother when he had come face to face with mortality, his ultimate need for shielding, his irreversible demise.

The coffin was small. It went into the ground, into a hole with dirt piled around it. The priest said a few words about Jesus’ love, but what did Jesus have to do with it?

My heart was beating, but it was stony cold. I was going to kill those two kids, and I told Gilly, “They killed Jerry so I’m going to kill them. Simple.”

“What do you mean?” asked Gilly. “You can’t!”

“I can’t? Watch me!”

“No, listen!” He grabbed my shoulders. “I’ll go with you, but you can’t kill them—it’s a mortal sin! Don’t throw your life away for those losers!”

I stood looking at Gilly, the big shot athlete with the handsome face and rippling muscles that captured girls’ hearts. But his face wasn’t pretty now—the brow was furrowed, and the eyes were dewy. It was a tense, urgent, begging face. Begging me not to do anything rash. He knew me, and he knew what I might do. His expression had more caring than anyone had shown since Jerry’s death, and this made me pause.

“Listen!”

“Okay,” I said, “but I’m going to hunt them down, and when I find them, I’m going to punish them!”

“Thank the Lord God of Ireland and the Catholic Church of My Fathers!” His words were comical, but he wasn’t being funny.

“To hell with the Church—what’ve they got to do with it?”

“Yeah,” he said. “To hell with the Church! And to hell with the Sisters!”

Gilly meant what he said, but I was uncertain about taking him with me, and I brooded over it. If he came, he would endanger himself as an accessory to violence. He would also be a witness against me, however unwittingly. He was my friend, and I wanted him to come, but somehow it wasn’t enough. No, this was my problem, and I’d do it on my own.

So I spied on the bullies. After avoiding Bolduc’s for a while, they started going back regularly. I watched where they went until I had their routine down pat. They would stay until dusk, and then they walked home through a series of weeded lots, sprinkled with junk, rusted cans, broken cardboard boxes and scrubby trees and vines. Somewhere in the middle of this expansive, unpeopled place was an abandoned trailer that someone had set fire to years ago, standing alone and blackened, its windows shot out with BB guns, its door torn away like a gaping mouth. They always walked past that trailer and then through a small clump of trees on a worn-down path through waist high weeds.

This was a place for an ambush.

I hardly knew what I was doing, but I spent hours wandering that lot and examining the terrain, both physically and in my head. I thought about it during breakfast as my mother jabbered away at me, in class as the math teacher droned on, and after school, lying on my bed, looking at the ceiling. I was going to do this, and I would do it right or not at all. I had a twelve-inch, serrated Gerber Mark II Combat Knife and a nine-inch BC41 World War II British Commando Knife, but I didn’t want to do the kind of damage these knives could effect, nor did I want to risk killing them unintentionally if things got out of control. I wondered whether I might take the knives and brandish them to create fear, but I concluded that a threat of deadly force might create an unpredictable situation. In the end, I decided to take my broom-handle stickball bat wrapped in black tape at one end. I would spring out and catch them by surprise, and they would get a beating they would never forget. Beatings could be fatal, so I would have to be circumspect, not lose my head. However, if the nuns had taught me anything, they had taught me the meaning of violence and abuse, and they had also taught me its technique. I was sure that these softer, public school types would feel the judiciously executed brunt of my learning.

I would have to take the boy first, make sure he was down and couldn’t run, and then I would move to the girl. The idea of hitting a girl was bad, but I would have to overcome my feelings because she was as guilty as the boy, and she was just as accountable. She was bigger than me, and she killed my brother, so why would I shrink from making her suffer?

But it wouldn’t be easy. I would hit her because she deserved it and because she would have to know that I meant it. I would have to threaten them both, and they would both have to believe me. They would have to know that if they talked after, I would come back and kill them. Even if I didn’t quite believe it myself. They would have to fear me to make the whole thing work—they would have to believe that if they ratted on me so that I ended up in prison, I would return after my release to hunt them down and make them pay with their last drop of waking life.

I sat in front of the mirror in Jerry’s bedroom, planning my attack. I imagined how it would be, meeting them in that lightless, empty lot. It would be dusk, and I would wear charcoal on my face and the cammo shirt my father had bought me. I would be invisible. I would spook the bastards.

When the day came, I sat with my back against the blackened trailer, amongst the scrub and broken bottles, and I waited for the sun to go down. They would be coming from the south, and I had placed myself so that they would have to walk past the open door of the trailer and then past me, crouching in silence, hidden in the high weeds. I had the broomstick bat, about four feet long, the taped end in my hands for a good grip, and I listened for voices.

For a long time there was nothing, but then I heard a rustling through high grass, not from the direction I had expected. I stood up fast, without moving my feet, so that I made no noise. I held the bat up, ready to swing it, and I listened. Sweat formed on my forehead in beads that tickled my skin, but I stood still.

The sound moving towards me got closer. It was high-pitched, but it was low to the ground, always swishing, and I realized it was some kind of animal, maybe a cat or a possum. Maybe even a snake. It suddenly changed direction and moved away, and I relaxed my grip and eased my breath out. I wiped my brow, careful not to mop the charcoal off the lower part of my face. I put the bat down and took one hand off and leaned, once again, against the trailer wall, feeling the wall give slightly, a soft sponginess of rotten wood, dampening my shirt which wicked up the moisture.

The trailer was a perfect place to dump dead bodies, away from the eyes of the world, deep in a useless, empty lot. The aromas of decomposition would be hidden by the musty smell of a thick layer of mold in the rain-sodden structure, far from the humanity of Bolduc’s and the noses of shoppers, minding their own business, bustling a hundred and fifty yards away. My father had told me a story about smell, about rotting bodies and men, whom he knew, who had hidden in a pile of dead Germans in St. Lo to avoid being captured. There were maggots, rats, and unbelievable stench, and when they tugged at an arm or a leg in an effort to cover themselves, the limbs of the dead fell apart, and the bellies spilled open, the initial nausea making them want to vomit in waves.

Suddenly I heard voices—their voices—coming up the dirt-packed path from the south. The boy was panting as he dragged along.

“Christ, Laureen.”

“Stop worrying about it. They don’t even know who we are.”

“He was just a little kid.”

“Grow up, Stankewicz. You say the same thing every day. There are kids dying all over the world. He was this little deaf kid—that’s all—and we didn’t do anything wrong.”

“It wasn’t right.”

I saw the girl pass first, pirouetting along the path, amongst the vegetation, chattering away, and I hated her. My stomach clenched, and my bowels threatened to flush themselves empty. The anger I had stowed away, a gift from the Sisters, percolated into consciousness, and I trembled with fury.

The boy, Stankewicz, thick-necked, broad-shouldered and squat, lumbered past me with his head down.

I leapt out, bat over my head, and screamed at the top of my lungs. Stankewicz screamed in terror and put both arms over his head to protect himself as my bat came down with a savage blow.

He screamed again, and I hit him again over his shoulder as he ducked and fell. Then I hit him on his back and on his legs, and he tumbled into the weeds, whimpering. I flogged him, lifting the bat over my head and bringing it down hard, battering him over and over again until I saw blood wetting the back of his shirt where I had pounded the skin off his bones. I realized that I might flog him to death so I stopped, finding a trace of control, panting and sweating.

“Stay there,” I said, pointing the bat at him, “or I’ll kill you.”

Then I turned to the girl who stood transfixed and in terror, her hands over her mouth. She was taller than me and fairly muscular in the arms and chest for a girl her age. I faced her and held my bat horizontally and back to my right, ready to do damage but unsure that I would.

“You wouldn’t hit a girl, would you?” she whispered, but with scorn, showing her teeth.

“You killed my brother, and you’re gonna pay.” But I still wasn’t sure.

She licked her lips as if thinking. Then she reached for something in her belt and came up with a stiletto. She pressed the button, and the blade snapped out.

“I’ll cut you, you little faggot. I’ll cut your nose off and your eyeballs out. You better get out of here while you can. I can kill you, and it’ll be self-defense.

This wasn’t in the script, but it made her a lethal opponent, and an irrational tide rushed through me, a surging unstoppable madness. I swung my bat and hit her hard below the knee. Her legs upended as she spilled to the ground, her stiletto flying up and away into the dark sea of grasses.

She shrieked.

“You’ll cut me?” I yelled. “You’ll kill me? So do it!”

As she was getting onto her hands and knees, wailing, trying to stand up, I lifted the bat over my head and swung it flush against her back, knocking her flat-faced onto the ground. When she tried to get up a second time, I hit the side of her chest with a hard thud, so hard that I felt her bones give, more than I expected. She grunted and went down again, breathing hard and coughing. I hit her once more, and she coughed again, this time expectorating bloody foam which hung off her lip.

“Oh, God,” she said hoarsely, coughing more. “Oh, God.”

I wanted to hit her again. I wanted to smash her skull to bits. The adrenalin pumping through my veins was calling me to violence, screaming in my ears, “Crush her! Hammer her!”

But it was enough, and I knew it. I must have broken her ribs, and the bloody foam scared me. And then, like a beacon shining through the jumbled mists of my emotions, I felt Gilly somewhere near me, maybe at my shoulder, so invisibly tiny I couldn’t see him, speaking in my ear, whispering, “No, J-Bee—don’t do it! Don’t!”

I stood up straight and let the bat slip into one hand. I slouched and wiped the sweat off my face.

“Listen up, both of you. You hear me?”

There was no answer, which scared me. But I did hear them breathing.

I raised my voice. “Answer me, or I’ll fuckin’ hit you again! Do you hear?”

“Yes,” said the girl in a tiny, whiney voice. “I hear.”

The boy was crying and said nothing.

“I should kill you. You deserve to be killed. I want to kill you. But I’m letting you go. It can end here. If they ask you, you can make up a story—I don’t care one way or the other. But if you ever tell anyone how this happened, or anything about it, I swear I’ll hunt you down and find you. And you better pray that I don’t find you because, even if it’s twenty years from now, I’ll never give up until I end you. And if it comes to that, I’ll make sure you really understand pain.

“Stop!” said Stankewicz. “Stop.” He was sobbing now. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I can’t believe what happened—it happened so fast. And he was just a little boy.” He looked up at me, and his face was white and bloodless. “I’m glad it’s over. I’ll never tell. I swear.”

I saw his face, and then I saw Jerry’s face. I saw his child’s smile, saw the hearing aids.

It was dark now. I felt my tears gush, and I turned and ran away. In a small clearing, in a trash strewn lot, I cried for my brother, knowing it was over and that whatever I did, it couldn’t matter because I would never see him again.

About the Author

Jeff Schnader

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My impetus for writing this novel is that in 1972, I was a participant at Columbia University when students held massive demonstrations and were beaten by the NY Tactical Police in full battle regalia. I am now a physician and Professor of Medicine. I trained at Johns Hopkins and was a scientist for 25 years. I was a journal editor and have authored 50 publications, including in the New Engl J Med. I am inspired by Jane Austen (read every word she ever wrote), the angst in Poe, Orwell’s journalistic style and Fielding’s humor and plot. Currently, I am writing another novel.