I became the fool who fabricated folly, the fractured heart which failed to round up lightning into the same spot, and the ordinary man will never understand how a notorious demon changed the sole reason I was reborn into a wake of chaos. It feels right to get these words off of my chest yet feels wrong to be blessed with another breath. Before the witness of order, I was paint running wild down a blank wall, until every direction dried up. Such is shame. Twenty years from now, I’ll fulfill the promise I keep next to both truth and scars. To the naysayers, one day it’ll all make sense and there won’t be sense to make. To those like me, be careful, for I’ve braved a storm, one which peeled back all layers and made me an honest man. This is my testament to the truth.
The most wonderful time of the year brought the most bitchin’, bitter wind as I slipped through the door of Bruno’s House. Brass bells jingled off of glass. Aromatic coffee swirled in a science flask, clasped by the barista’s smooth hand. Ethiopian blend. Hallelujah. Eyes shot up from a smattering of sophisticates, scattered amongst round tables, under the mellow ambiance of yellow light—but one ballsy specimen did not belong. A bald man in black, grinning underneath an ice-cold stare, followed my every move from the farthest seat in the café. His gun gleamed from his lap, hardening my façade. I only nodded my head to a rhythm. Angst-driven music blasted from an earphone, bouncing in sync with the violent lub-dub of my heart. I winked at the prudes fuming behind their books, paid for my brew, then darted back out into the cold. Snobs, all of ’em. Under shortened breaths, I scanned through the playlist of my MP3 until I reached my mantra, Neon Waterfalls by The Kool Rummy. I loved nu metal forever and always—it prophesied the enigmatic evolution of pop culture—in spite of the fact that the year was two-thousand and three, and the pathetic sheep began their ritual wandering from the short stint of recent phenomenon. Chugging coffee released a sudden collage of colors, each brushing across my vision like strokes of solar rays. Every muscle relaxed. Manic mood throttled. It was time for another dangerous night in my hometown, the wannabe city of Ripton, Colorado. The clock, deep in the heart of downtown, struck the top of the hour. I faced Bruno’s biggest window and watched the walls wave. Another strike of time sounded. The man was gone.
Sonic sounds of hip-hop, shocked with bass note grooves and aggressive guitar riffs, channeled into my mind as I let the song take me away and explain the world I despised:
The pharisaic are gettin’ jaded,
Guerrilla war’s miscalculated,
We gonna blow up the whole damn world ’til we suffer the hatred,
Sick of this whack-ass grind,
and all the Baby Boomer’s bout to get a piece of my mind,
Take ya briefcase and fill it—spill it—put a million dollar bills in it,
Withdraw nothin’ but a ghost of a soul,
Boost ya credit score of compulsive control,
Now zip it up tight and listen how this goes:
All you do is keep tradition
and all we want is for you to listen
You keep your walk within the walls,
but these eyes see neon waterfalls,
These eyes see neon waterfalls,
Life’s become so overrated
Life is so complicated.
Life was so complicated. The only thing helping my world keep its spin on the tilted axis was Alexandra Augustine—my beloved. She hated her name, but I adored it. Miles Varro, your name is the bomb dot com, she’d blurt, but I abhorred it. Months prior, we moved into our first home to get away from the roughest neighborhood in town. Coby Shad. We, offspring of poor peasants, were in over our heads. I was confident we’d get our feet underneath us and figure things out like the rest of the Generation Y, but she began to have her suspicions of my routine retreats into Ripton’s nightlife. The woman’s curiosity was taking a crack at my own code.
Ring. Ring. Ring. I shivered from head-to-toe, stammering on the tail-end of her voicemail wailing from the speaker of my Nokia.
“Hey, good news. I can make a few bucks. Please call me back, don’t do this. I miss you—really need the Jeep tonight, too. Pronto. Don’t worry, things are looking up.”
Beep. She had taken off without warning, so I ventured home on-foot. Again. As I zig-zagged through a maze of streets and alleyways, an ominous omen began to speak to my soul, due to one mental lapse of superstition. I forgot to put a penny inside my right shoe. Shit. Each audible breath slowed down the speed of time, and each note of Neon Waterfalls gushed an adrenaline rush into my system, sitting on its heels. Can we just get it together, already? I thought, as an oddity of silence overshadowed the scuff of my Doc Martens upon the pavement. And doesn’t she know any better than to be alone at night? The world’s not safe anymore. Wind whistled through congested gaps between homes and ached every one of my phalangeal bones. A presence was lurking, so I threw on the hood of my jacket, looked left—then right. Nothing.
Angular branches clawed at a green sign. Willow Street. Brimming with winter wonder-landscapes and overblown snowmen, my block lined down a slight decline within the city’s rolling hills. Middle class life was underwhelming, better yet, the covered mole of the socioeconomic hierarchy. Ripton was like a dime-piece divorcee who let herself go all the way from hott—to not. So much beauty, yet so much baggage. I smiled every time a neighbor bitched about the high schoolers who ran around deer humping. Tis the season. Population was divided between the citizens who chased the dollar at the expense of their kiddos, and those trapped within Coby Shad. I learned, from the moment we stepped out of our roots, that the middle was just as flawed as any lower community. They knew how to cover every blemish with delicate care. We escaped to get civilized, only to see each day get more dramatized. Hell, when you’re twenty-four and broke as a joke, you have nothing to lose and everything to hide. Oh yes, don’t you worry, there’s more dirt to dig up.
My life became even more volatile when Alexandra would disappear for a few days…and it was no different on this particular night of legend.
The cracked steps of our front porch were crawling with tree roots, surrounding a clowder of feral cats fighting over rotten casserole on a rusted plate. Our home was a glorified shed with a driveway and grass-patch of grub worms. I didn’t understand how in the hell that damn house was a steal for poor folks, but real estate agents are magicians with masking faulty heaters and foundational shifts. We were fortunate. It was twelve-hundred square feet, almost double the size of our previous space. Past the squealing door, jumbled keys hit the floor, and I slid off the gray toboggan to shake out my long mane of hair.
“Alexandra?” I said, glancing back at the drive.
The Jeep was still gone. Another burst of vivacious color violated my vision, and it was only a matter of time until the real Miles Varro came out to play. Whilst pouring myself a glass of whiskey, the craving for a quick cash-grab began to churn. I needed money fast. My old lady had no idea what kind of trouble I was in—correction—we were in. Her sporadic days of fasting turned into ritual. Once her ribs started to show, I knew it was all in the name of penny pinching.
“She’ll understand, she always does,” I said, then finished off the liquor.
Life is overrated, I’d contemplated its perpetual meaning many times, but forever plaguing my every second of existence was one intricate thought: the choice between struggling to keep our lights on, and easy money. Both created the most evenly-split fork in the road. We were stuck in a rut, it was what it was. Allies told me to just leave and be free, but we couldn’t even afford a trip to the neighboring electric city of Ollie Grove. It was too late. The hole I had dug myself into was far too deep to escape and flee. Well, I suppose I can’t hold back any longer.
On Christmas Eve, I was set to deal a kilo of cocaine with thirty-five grand on the line.
Underground drug dealing was damn-near deceased; however, I had managed to find a boss who allowed me to sling around small-time deals. The kingpin was a Russian brute, with a false name which carried some weight around those parts, and he assured me that if there were any mess-ups, I’d owe him fifty instead of the gracious cut he agreed to. Something was swelling inside the pressure cooker. The beeping of my Nokia overpowered the volume of my MP3. I rushed to the kitchen counter, and my glass shattered against the fridge. Bad omen number two.
“Simeon?” I answered.
A charismatic voice forced my heartbeat into a wacky rhythm, “Miles, be a good boy and meet our friend in twenty minute. I will send the text message to give direction. Remember, no complication. I watch you at Bruno’s—sweating like a pig. You look frail.”
His dialect was as strong as the Vodka shots I avoided at The Republic, a local bar where Alexandra earned her side of the wages. Ever since I had convinced him that this was a one-time sling of coke, he questioned the motive behind the move.
“This is it. One-and-done. I still haven’t heard from your crew. Did they flake out? Don’t play games with me. I need this money, we’re barely getting by—my girl can’t even take a hot shower for more than a couple minutes.”
“Miles, Miles. You worry. There will be no problem from them, I promise. Pawns move first. Kings construct line of march. Just a friendly little chat, swap for cash, and neeploha. Not so bad,” he replied.
Resting my forearms on the counter, I narrowed my eyebrows mid-thought. One more deal. One last risk to make some profit and get us by. Everything will be up to speed without her here to pry in my ear. I’ll apply for that job in the spring and restore our footing. I walked into our bedroom. A bookcase used for occasional reading stood at the foot of our bed, and inside the top shelf lay a lengthy text. Its jacket was solid black with gold-engraved script on its spine. Dose of Wisdom. I snatched it from the back, sliding it out from its slumber. A week prior I had hollowed out its pages and stuck my .44 Magnum between both covers. Five out of six bullets remained in its revolving chamber. Alexandra only pretended to be a scholar, and I sure as hell didn’t read. To her, books equaled looks. Chicks worship decoration—and dudes despise its creation. With surgeon hands, I placed it into my jacket pocket. Nerves almost forced me out of following through with the boss dog’s plan. I needed backup. Ripton was full of crooks, but on the same token, my head was at stake. I bit down hard on my toothpick, sucked air through the spaces between my sensitive teeth, then closed our front door behind me.
Willow Street was desolate. A street light zapped off, emanating a sound similar to a moth within a luminescent lantern, and was followed by a set of tires rolling up to the curb from the right-hand run of the street. Behind dark tint, someone cranked down the window of a rickety Buick. The man in passenger seat pulled his maroon turtleneck over the bottom half of his face and stared into my eyes like a lone wolf.
“Get it done, you wanted this. Simeon’s doing you a solid by gifting sixty-percent of the cut. Don’t blow your shot, peckerwood,” he said.
“Where do I go to drop-off the change? I need some cover on this one. Make sure you get there faster than last time, I almost broke my back jumping out of the old lumberyard’s second-story window. Those guys all had Tasers.”
“Let us worry about all that shit. Don’t get wise, part-timer. Here’s the drop,” he said, slipping me a folded sticky note whilst cranking the window back up. The driver sped off down the street, leaving remnants of exhaust smoke spreading across my neighbor’s lawn.
“Pawns get killed first, too, Simeon,” I muttered.
A.C. Sherman Elementary School, the determined destination of the deal, lay on the south side of an old railroad within Coby Shad. Scheduled freight trains, heading eastbound, created plenty of noise for cover. This swap seemed like a top-notch easy fix, in a hop-scotch system of cheap pricks, to get a piece of the pie. All I wanted for Christmas was to save my ass. The clanking of chain-linked fence echoed against anchored poles. I climbed over and entered the darkness. My shoes scuffled on the concrete and the streetlight disappeared. I kept my trigger finger ready whilst edging around an open greenhouse reeking of mold. A car screeched to a halt from the other side of the fence. I whipped my head around, but it was only a lime-colored Mustang making a drag through the neighborhood. Late again. Hell, the only reason I’m not peacin’ out is the guaranteed twenty-one g’s. Money talks, I thought. Puffs of smoke drifted right past my nose. I flinched. My cheekbone met the feel of cold steel and the sound of a quick click.
“Take your finger off the trigger. It’s shaky. Your gun’s bound to go off, a raspy voice said, struggling to stay strong through the stranger’s stoma.
Logic told me to run, but instinct begged me to hold out for the cheddar. Simeon lacked grace; it was Greek to him. Even if I was locked inside a cage filled with wild animals, I was expected to cough up the cash. No mulligans.
“Look, I pay the price here if you don’t give me a fair shake. Relax,” I said.
Two other men emerged like phantoms from the shaded area, each wielding a weapon. Red-laser sights aimed at my sternum. I showed them my palms while catching a glimpse of shiny fur glistening in the moonlight. Moments later, a separate coat was visible.
“Meet Louis and Rauff, our left and right hand,” the stoma-fied man said, pausing to pet his pooches. “They’re the baddest Pits I ever did see. Look at those wicked scars. We’d have to blow their brains out before they stopped piecing you up,” he continued.
Louis and Rauff foamed at the mouth and alternated barks. Check mate. The cronies with the Pits roughed me up, and the coke was snagged from my clutches. Elongated wheezing escaped my lungs as both knees smacked solid ground. No backup, that shit will get you every time. Two bad-omen premonitions rang their victory bells. Coby Shad pulled no punches with underground crime, it was street sense I’d failed to learn.
“Thanks for the drop. Rule number one—don’t listen to music when you’re tip-toeing in foreign territory, especially nu metal. It’s the bastard child of grunge,” the leader said while his compadres burst into a roar of laughter. Growls from the dogs grated my ears as they sniffed at the kilo.
“Simeon runs the show, and he’ll leave his mark. A Chelsea smile for a small sling of blow? Just wait ’til you see those wicked scars, bitch,” I replied.
“Bitch, huh? We’re not the one carrying the package. He’ll kill you first. In Ripton, the last thing he wants is to start a fire on Christmas. It puts peaceful operation at risk and there’s less money inflow. Goodnight, rook.”
The butt of his pistol smacked me square across the temple and I was out like a light. While Neon Waterfalls continued to emphasize life’s complication, one reality destroyed those lyrics. One subconscious truth latched onto my unconscious body.
I would no longer be breathing in less than twenty-four hours.