The Last Tomorrow, страница 1
The Last Tomorrow
Ryan David Jahn
Ryan David Jahn
The Last Tomorrow
Look at this boy, thirteen years old, sitting on the edge of a bed. His feet do not touch the floor. He wears only white socks and underpants, his narrow frame otherwise bare. The socks droop loose from his feet like empty sacks. His bangs, kitchen-scissor trimmed by his mother, hang unevenly over his eyebrows. There’s a scab on his lower lip, the result of an altercation with a bully at school, and his upper lip is chapped from constant nervous licking. His narrow shoulders are slumped, spine zippered up the middle of his pale, freckled back. He looks down at his lap. His hands rest there. In them, held in his cupped palms like some holy object, a small makeshift pistol.
His stepfather keeps his gun locked away somewhere, but the bullets he stores in his sock drawer. The boy, Sandy, found them by accident. He was poking around his mom and stepfather’s bedroom looking for a few dimes. He wanted to see a movie and eat a bag of popcorn. Instead of loose change he found the bullets. They were in a small cardboard box. He took three. He thought he could get away with three, and so far he has.
It’s been two weeks.
During the first several days Sandy carried the bullets with him everywhere, in the pocket of his wool school pants, and whenever he had a moment alone he took them out and examined them. He went to the bathroom at school several times and locked himself in one of the green-painted toilet stalls just so he could hold them and look at them. They felt heavier in his hand than they did in his pocket. They felt more substantial.
He imagined being able to shoot his stepfather. That would put an end to things. Then he wouldn’t have to be afraid anymore, not in his own house. Then this man who pretended he could replace his dad would be gone. Then this man he hated, who clearly hated him, would be gone.
He had no intention of acting out his fantasy. Not at first. He’d had dozens of others and nothing had come of any of them. Not until last summer, anyway, when he’d imagined stabbing his stepfather to death, while taking his rage out on a cat. Later he felt bad about killing the little thing, but at the time he was simply thinking of this man he despised. He wasn’t thinking at all. But even then he never came close to actually stabbing his stepfather. Even with a knife he felt weak and small. He still does. He feels like little more than a walking cringe.
Every time he comes home from school, every time he steps through the front door, his stomach is a terrible knot of dread. He walks straight to his bedroom, hoping his stepfather won’t see him or hear him, hoping he can pass like a ghost. He hides there till dinnertime, doing homework and reading comics. At dinner he sits stiff, eats without speaking but for please and thank you, eats despite a sick stomach, and tries not to make noise when he chews. He certainly doesn’t put his elbows on the table. Last time he did that his stepfather stuck a fork into the back of his hand. He heard Neil later tell his mother that he hadn’t meant for it to break the skin. I was just trying to make a point, he said, and laughed at his accidental pun. But whatever his stepfather’s intentions, Sandy was unable to use his hand for several days. The holes turned black and the skin surrounding them turned red, and his hand swelled up, and it ached so bad he couldn’t even hold a pencil.
Soon he found himself wondering how he might get his hands on a gun. He looked for his stepfather’s, but found nothing, not even a safe inside which it might be locked. He broke into two different houses down the street while he was supposed to be at school, but came up empty-handed yet again. He didn’t know what to do. The fantasy, which had only begun to take form in reality, was about to blow apart again, like smoke on the wind.
Then it occurred to him that he could make a gun.
Last year his friend Nathan had found a shotgun shell, and they went into Nathan’s garage and put it into his father’s vise and hit it with the rounded end of a ball-peen hammer. It exploded, punched a dozen holes in the garage door, tore out chunks of wood. Great splinters hung off the front of the door, the circle of damage bigger than a dinner plate. It was great and terrifying. Nathan was grounded for a month and told he could no longer play with Sandy. His parents said Sandy was a bad influence. They said Sandy got him into trouble. It had been Nathan’s idea, but that’s the way it’s always been with him.
He gets picked on by other kids at school. Teachers slap the back of his head when it was the boy next to him who was whispering. If he walks into a store he almost always gets yelled at by the proprietor. Sometimes for flipping through the comic books without buying, sometimes for no reason at all. Simply because he’s there and looks like a good receptacle for rage. People don’t like the look of him. Random people on the street will find excuses to yell at him — if he accidentally steps on their shoe, for instance, or bumps into them while running to school.
His stepfather is, of course, the worst of all.
Sandy’s mother told him once that he was a lightning rod. Some people, she said, simply have faces other people want to kick the teeth out of. You’re one of those people, Sandy, for whatever reason, so you’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to be careful and you’ve got to be tough.
But he’s tired of being tough. And he isn’t a lightning rod. He’s a cup. Violence doesn’t flow through him and safely into the ground; he’s been filled up and is now overflowing with it. He feels it pouring out of him like a boiling liquid.
He knows he’ll go to Hell. When he was eleven a preacher named Billy Graham came to town and did revival meetings in a big tent on Washington Boulevard. His mom took him to one of those meetings after dinner and he heard a lot of talk about Hell, talk that stuck with him, so he knows that’s where he’ll go, but he doesn’t care. He can’t live with his stepfather even one more day.
To make the gun, Sandy folded a roadmap until it could be used comfortably as a handle. It was already folded, it came that way, and it took only two more folds to get it to the right size. First he folded it lengthwise to get it the correct width. Then the other way. It was surprisingly sturdy as a handle. He put the antenna into the crease of the last fold and taped it into place. When he was done he couldn’t pull the antenna away from the handle even if he wanted to.
After that he let it sit for a couple days. It was shaped something like a gun, and the bullets he took from his stepfather fit snugly into the barrel, but he couldn’t think of a way to make it fire.
His problem was that his imagination was more dexterous than his fingers. Everything he thought of was far too complicated.
Then, while he was on the back side of Bunker Hill, shooting rocks at tin cans with a slingshot, he thought of the solution. He cut a rubber band and put it through a metal washer and taped each end of the rubber band to the gun’s handle so that he could simply pull back on the metal washer and let go and it would snap against the back of the shell and the bullet would fire.
He hit his knuckle the first two times he tried it, snapped the washer against bone, drawing blood on the second attempt, but on the third try it worked. The sound it made was not nearly as loud as he’d expected, not a bang but a small pop. The bullet put a hole in his bedroom floor and the spent shell shot out the back of the gun and thwacked against his right arm. His mother came in and asked him what was that noise I just heard, and he said I don’t know, mom, and she said strange, could have sworn I heard something, and paused a moment in the doorway looking suspicious. He thought she must know, maybe she even smelled it on the air, but she said nothing. And after a moment she simply told him he needed to wash up for dinner, it would be ready in fifteen minutes. He said okay, and she turned and left.
His arm is still bruised, like someone poked him with a finger,
It looks back at him.
It says tick. . tick. . tick.
It’s just past twelve o’clock in the morning. His mom works nights and won’t be home for hours, so he has time. As long as Neil comes home from the bar early, as he often does, and drunk, as he always does, and as long as Sandy doesn’t lose his nerve, he can do this. He knows he can.
He just waits till his stepfather is sleeping, walks up to him, points, and. .
Teddy Stuart looks across the felt-topped game table to the pimple-faced son of a bitch dealing cards. Dead black eyes and hollow cheeks. Face colorless but for the pink acne on his chin and forehead. Hair slicked into place with a week’s worth of unwashed grease. Like all the dealers here he wears a white shirt with an arm garter, a waistcoat, and a black bowtie. Unlike most of the dealers this one’s a mechanic. Teddy’s sure of it. The little shit has busted him five times in a row on hands under fourteen, and that just wouldn’t happen if the kid wasn’t a mechanic.
There’s nothing Teddy hates more than playing smart and losing anyway. He knows that’s why they’re called games of chance, but goddamn it, chance won’t kick you in the balls five times in a row. Only people will do that: only people have hearts that black. Chance is merely indifferent.
He came out to Los Angeles to make a delivery for the Man, and instead of being allowed to blow off a little steam after a cross-country journey, Atlantic to Pacific, and the stressful handing over of a briefcase with more money in it than he’s personally earned in the last ten years — though he’s well paid — he’s expected to sit across from this pimple-faced kid not much older than the turd he squeezed between his cheeks this morning while the little motherfucker deals crooked hands with a straight face.
There are two other players at the table besides, one on either side of him.
Teddy exhales with a sigh and looks at his cards. A six of hearts and a seven of clubs. Red and black. Thirteen.
The lady to his right hit on seventeen and collected an eight of hearts, his eight of hearts. Stupid bitch keeps collecting cards meant for him.
‘If you bust me again. .’
He clenches his jaw and wipes at his mouth with the palm of his left hand. He closes his eyes, trying to keep himself calm. He opens his eyes and taps the table with a dirty, chewed-on fingernail.
The dealer puts down a nine of clubs.
‘You son of a bitch,’ Teddy says, reaching forward to grab the kid, wanting to pull him down by the collar, slam his smug face against the table. But the kid’s fast — faster than Teddy, anyway. He pulls back, dodging the swipe, and next thing Teddy knows he has both barrels of a sawed-off shotgun pressed against his forehead, hello, looks like your brains might be leaving by the back door, and the two other players are on their feet, taking several steps back.
‘I think it’s time for you to leave, friend.’
‘You cheating bastard, do you know who I am?’
‘I don’t care if your name is Jesus Humphrey Christ, you gotta leave.’
‘You have no idea who you’re fucking with.’
‘Theodore Stuart, a numbers cruncher for James “the Man” Manning who thinks just because he works for someone with some pull, that means he has some pull hisself. Well, your boss don’t have as much pull on this coast as you seem to think he does, and even if he did he don’t have no pull with me, and even if he did have pull with me you ain’t him. Far as I can tell, you’re just a fat drunk who can count money okay, but can’t seem to hold onto any hisself.’ He licks his lips. ‘Now, all this conversation is stimulating, I admit, but I got a job to do, which means you gotta leave. Get to it, friend.’
‘Take the gun off me.’
Teddy knows the night is over, knows he must subtract himself from this situation, but something in him refuses to budge while the dealer has the gun on him. He will have this one small victory. He will walk out of here with a little dignity. He will not walk out of here with his shoulders slumped, with his gaze on the floor, watching his feet drag him into the night. He will not walk out of here hating himself. The kid will take the gun off him or Teddy will not move. Not an inch.
Not a goddamned inch.
‘Take the gun off me and I’ll go.’
‘You’ll go anyway, friend. I’m the one at the trigger end of this weapon.’
Herb Boykin, this place’s owner, wearing a well-tailored suit and a hand-painted tie, is staring at them from across the room. Teddy can see him over the kid’s shoulder. Can see him rock back on his heels with his hands in his pockets. Can see him suck on an eyetooth. Can see him rock forward. Can see him walk toward them.
‘What’s going on here, Francis?’ he says as he arrives. ‘Mr Stuart’s out past his bedtime.’
‘You’re making the other patrons nervous.’ ‘Tell em to relax. I only hit what I’m aiming at.’ He says this without taking his eyes off Teddy. Then he says: ‘Are you gonna leave, friend?’
‘Take the gun off me.’
‘Back away and it’ll be off you.’
‘Shotguns are less than — uh — discriminatory, Francis.’
‘It’s pushed against his forehead, sir. I ain’t gonna miss.’ Teddy can feel tears welling in his eyes. Fifty years old and tears welling in his eyes over an altercation with a kid barely out of high school. But he refuses to lose this battle completely. He refuses to leave here humiliated. He blinks. His eyes sting. He knows they’re reddening and knowing this makes him angry. How dare the kid do this to him. How dare he. He pushes his head against the barrel of the gun, making it hurt, wanting it to hurt, wanting to feel more anger and less humiliation.
‘You gonna pull the trigger or put the gun away?’ he says. ‘Your choice.’
‘Take the gun off him, Francis. Mr Stuart’s leaving.’
The kid hesitates but finally does as he was told.
‘That’s right, boy,’ Teddy says. ‘Do what the boss man says.’
The kid twitches at being called boy and mumbles something about not being no spade. This is good. He’s at least gotten under the kid’s skin. It doesn’t release the spring-pressure in his belly, the tension that wants to explode from within him, but it’s good nonetheless. It’s something.
He stands up and straightens his tie. He glances around the large room. Most everyone is looking at him, silent. He recognizes several of them, their white faces like signs showing him their amused shock. He feels tears wanting once more to well in his eyes, but refuses them, blinks them away.
‘I’m sure it was a misunderstanding, Mr Stuart,’ Herb Boykin says. ‘I do think it’s best if you leave for the night, but you’re welcome back. You’ll have fifty dollars in chips waiting for you at the counter.’
‘I’m not coming back here, you stupid son of a bitch. What happened here wasn’t a misunderstanding. Your dealer’s a mechanic. A cheat. That’s a reflection on you. You and your place. So fuck you. Fuck you.’
He hawks up a mouthful and spits it into Boykin’s face. It runs down the man’s cheek like frothed egg white.
Boykin removes a handkerchief and wipes it away. Then he looks past Teddy and nods. Teddy turns around in time to see a large Negro take two steps toward him while swinging a hefty enameled sap. A moment later everything goes bright, like looking into the sun. Then black.
There is no transition, just click, like a light being turned off.
Headlights flash briefly against Sandy’s bedroom window as a vehicle turns onto the street. It rolls up the hill from the corner and pulls to a stop outside. The brakes squeal. The engine dies, turning over a last couple times slowly, winding down like a clockwork toy, then going silent. A car do
Then five minutes of silence. It rings loudly in Sandy’s ears, like tinnitus.
Finally the snoring begins. His stepfather’s asleep. Soon he’ll be asleep forever.
Sandy pushes off the bed.
The carpet feels strange beneath his feet, coarse and unnatural and unpleasant. He sets down the gun to put clothes on. His stepfather’s asleep; he’s not going to look in on him and wonder what the hell he’s doing dressed in the middle of the night. You up to no good again? What you been up to? You answer me, you little shit, don’t just shrug with that blank-stupid look on your face. What you been up to? Why you dressed? His stepfather’s asleep and Sandy wants to be clothed for what he’s about to do.
Being unclothed makes him feel vulnerable.
After putting on a pair of pants and a T-shirt Sandy collects the bullets from a shoebox under his bed and puts one into his pocket. The other he puts into the back of his homemade gun. He walks to his bedroom door. He stands there for a long time — heart pounding, hands sweaty. He licks his lips.
His mind is chaos, thoughts coming at him from every direction. Don’t do it, you have to do it. What if mom comes home? What if he wakes up? What if mom comes home? Don’t do it. If he wakes up and sees you with the gun he’ll take it from you and kill you with it. You have to do it, don’t do it, just get undressed and get back into bed and go to sleep. Just get into bed and sleep. It’s safer. What if he wakes up? Sometimes you have good dreams. If you go to sleep now maybe you’ll have good dreams. Don’t do it, don’t do it, you have to do it, you’ve got to, you must, don’t-