ANDREW MARINUS - WHEN THE MUSIC'S OVER
Andrew Marinus writes mostly speculative fiction, with an occasional comedy article at Cracked.com. He lives in Vancouver BC.
“When the Music's Over”
An empty 2:05AM parking lot is all geometry – white lines on black pavement, angles of light cast from the orange, high-mounted halogens. It’s the magic hour when the whole glass carnival of a city goes silent and still, jutting out towards the stars.
Alice and Junior face each other . Alice contentedly rocks on her feet, still coming down from an earlier ecstasy trip. “Virgil, give us a song we can move our feet to.” Junior, rigid and uneasy about his first dance lesson, takes a sip from his mickey of whiskey and looks to back where his chalk sits on the pavement, below his unfinished scrawl: THEY SAY THAT LIFE’S A GAME, AN-
Not too far away Virgil and Mal stand under a light post, holding twin beers. An open eight-pack sits by their feet, half empty.
Mal prods Virgil. “You should play Cap. Beefheart for his first dance lesson. “Gimme Dat Harp Boy”, maybe?”
Virgil shakes his head, using his free hand to scroll through the songs in his ancient screen-cracked iPod. “I figure we should help him out rather than pull the rug from under him.” He hits play and a restrained ballroom-type waltz begins.
“Okay dude,” Alice says to Junior, “Put your hands on my waist. Lower.”
Virgil and Mal observe without comment as the duo trips into action. Alice’s voice instinctively drops its regular ‘skateboard girl’ casualness for something more precise and instructive: “You start by moving your foot here... and when my foot goes here... there you go... and here... that’s it...”
Stumble. “Dammit I'm too uncoordinated for-”
“The key is to get out of your own way,” she tells him patiently. “Let yourself flow in-sync with the music. Your feet know what to do all by themselves.”
Junior’s awkward undulations fall into line. Their dance floor spans four parking spaces’ worth of tarmac.
Then Alice’s phone starts beeping out an “Under My Thumb” ring tone.
“Sorry, I kind of have to take this.”
Breaking away from Junior, she answers her phone. “Ja, mein herr?”
Noise. Her father sounds like he’s been up waiting for her for four or five hours, sitting in a chair by the front door with nothing to do but froth. Alice throws in a few “hey”’s and “wait a minute”’s, but mostly just waits patiently for him to run out of steam. When he does, she moves in with clipped tone – “I’m seven-fucking-teen, dad. How many years do you think a kid should go before being let out of the cradle?” Junior returns to scrawling out his graffiti, a little bummed but smiling at her gall.
A loud minute later, Alice hangs up, swears once, and looks up to the night sky.
“What’d that dick have to say?” Virgil calls, sympathetic.
“Nothing worth remembering.”
Junior's not even halfway done his chalk stanzas when the gun goes off. It’s a Webley-Fosbery, an antique automatic revolver from 1915, and it's poking out the back window of a dark blue pickup at the end of the lot. A bullet flies out. The barrel chunks itself back into place, fires. Fires. Fires.
Something rasps by Junior’s ear. A window shatters three blocks back. Ricochet tings off a lamp-post next to Mal. Alice’s head puffs out in a spray of red. Asphalt crackles four blocks away. The tail-light of a car at the other side of the lot spatters plastic-
Mal steps behind the post next to him without thinking. Virgil drops down without thinking. Alice slumps to the pavement without thinking, with a sickening crunch.
Junior’s body tries to move, but there’s no cover anywhere near. Still bullets though, BLAM – BLAM – BLAM. The first is a rustle of air, the second clangs off Mal’s post again, and the third slaps away a chunk of flesh from Virgil’s upper arm.
One second of frozen silence, and then the blue pickup shifts into Drive. The tires burn out against the pavement before they catch and launch the truck forwards.
Virgil looks down at his bulleted arm, mouth agape. Mal, still standing behind the pole, asks, “You all right, man?”
Junior looks a dead girl in the eyes. She's on the ground not five feet in front of him, shattered cell phone next to one limp arm. Where her nose should be, there’s a big red hole. Her blood trickles to the pavement.
“Hey!” He stands up and sprints after the truck.
For five seconds it looks like he might make it, tenth-grade-decathalon-third-medalist legs pumping hard behind him. Then the driver sees him in the rearview and shoves the gas pedal down. The truck belches forward.
“License plate!” Junior shouts, “One! Three! Seven! R.! F.! L.!”
Mal searches himself for a pen. The truck makes a right turn behind a building, and it’s gone.
Junior stops running, but doesn’t want to turn around and come back to face the blood on the pavement.
Virgil cuts loose his first cry of pain. Mal asks, “What was that plate number again?!”
From a muffled street somewhere, there is the two-second hurricane crash of vehicles slamming into each other. Then horn.
Standing still, Junior flashes on the bullet-hole through the middle of Alice’s last, perplexed face.
He sprints down the street, cuts past block after block, paved slabs and painted lines angling into one another ahead, falling apart behind. Red lights. Green lights. Yellow lights. At every intersection he looks in both directions for any sign of a crashed car. After ten blocks, the constant car-horn drone is splitting his head apart.
Rounding the next street, he finds a grey shitbox Volkswagen mashed up against a crumpled, darkened streetlight. It was felled by an impact to the driver’s side. Even a block away, Junior can see the semiliquid red mass spilled out the driver’s-side window.
The truck is gone, but there’s busted glass and a dark blue side view mirror lying in the road.
Junior stops twenty steps short of the wreck, heaving in breath. The point of impact was right about where he’s standing.
He ran a red light and smashed through someone else. And just... kept going. Junior shuts his eyes and inhales deep, through his nose – a calming technique.
The air smells like machine oil.
His eyes snap open and fixate on the pavement. There's shrapnel and litter – and an oil slick.
Down the road a ways, there's another oil slick. And one more further up the road, near the leftmost path of a fork in the road.
Junior stands there, looks at the oil, at the corner, at the Volkswagen driver. When his breath’s halfway back to normal he starts after the oil-smell, nose to the air like a bloodhound.
Somewhere behind him, a police siren warbles into life.
What exactly are you doing right now? The cops don't need your help... most dead kids played 'detective' too, you know.
Four blocks of oil slicks away, he finds the dark blue truck steaming next to the sidewalk, crumpled engine ticking as it tries to cool. Unoccupied. In the box, there’s a half-dozen ejected bullet casings.
He dumped the bullets. Did he reload more?
Who does this truck belong to?
The shattered passenger’s side window renders the locked door useless. In the glove compartment there are papers identifying the truck’s owner as Gerald Orr. In the backseat, there’s a paperback copy of The Long Walk, split in the middle like someone’s constantly flipping back to the same part. And there's bloodstains all over the upholstery.
Shooter in the back. Driver in the front. Two people.
Within walking distance of you. Right now.
To his left, past a curve in the road, a crosswalk starts beeping. Junior’s head swivels around and he takes a step in that direction.
What’s the point? You got one’s name and you can I.D. the car. They can keep running all they want; won’t stop the cops from catching up.
He looks at his watch. 2:23am. Sunday morning.
He does the math. Twenty-nine hours and thirty-seven minutes from now, you’ll be sitting in Home Ec.
But she won’t.
His legs move. Momentum builds up, fast. Stars and streetlights accelerate past his eyes.
The key is to get out of your own way... let yourself flow in-sync with the music...
He turns a corner and the moon swings between buildings.
Your feet know what to do all by themselves...
After pulling his shoes off on impulse, his socked feet on the pavement are utterly silent. A satellite blinks overhead, drifting from one glass horizon to another.
Up the street, footsteps clap against the pavement. Shadows pass under street lights. A voice layers itself over everything: “-two spics and a fucking nigger and you gotta hit the one white girl? Boy, you better learn to shoot better or I'm gonna tan your ass with a belt sander, you hear?”
There's a sob, something unintelligible. Junior’s steps falter. The sob is male, pained, young. Kid-young.
“Fucking press down harder and less blood will come out!”
Junior approaches the figures. One’s a bulky monstrosity in crisp khaki pants and a turtleneck. Several steps behind him is this small curly-haired boy maybe twelve years old, one arm held gingerly by the other. A rough-looking revolver is tucked in the back of his plastic belt. He struggles to keep up with dear old Dad.
“Crying from a broken arm... If your mum was still alive, she’d be fucking disappointed, get me? She wanted a man, not a boy.” He’s beating his kid – swinging belts and backhands into the skin with every word.
Thirty steps behind the boy, Junior moves like dead air, legs mechanical. He doesn’t really want to keep going. A kid with a gun in his hands and this man's voice in his ear... trapped in the same house til he's eighteen...
The boy asks softly, “What’s going to happen to the truck-?”
“Why don’t you shut up about the truck, huh? I know the guy at the impound. It’ll be fine.”
The cops’ll still find it within blocks of the Volkswagen. Your name... you’re not getting away from this. Child services can take the kid-
“Shit...” Something metal falls to the father’s feet. He stoops to pick it up. Junior only gets one look at it glinting in the streetlight, but it stops him fast as a landmine.
It’s a brass police shield.
So Alice’s body just became an unsolved statistic, and the kid isn’t going anywhere.
Junior stands in place for ten long seconds watching the shadows huff and puff along the pavement. His eyes measure things not readily apparent, and then he ghosts after them.
Sock-footedly silent, he comes up behind the father-son team and snags the gun from the kid's belt. The kid cries out. Dad turns around. “Who- You let him-?!”
Junior steps into the road, moving the kid out of his line-of-fire. Points the gun. The Dad's Adam's apple bobs as he looks down the barrel. He's got sallow yellow skin and the kind of self-satisfied pudge that comes with being a wealthy antique gun collector. And now he has the cop shield out again.
“-listen you will be FUCKING YOURSELF if you do this – YOU SHOOT A COP, THE REST WILL-”
Junior lines the sights up with the Dad’s head.
Mal crests over the rise behind Junior, wheezing.
In an instant, the Dad’s voice takes on a voice of cool authority. Waving the cop shield, he says, “Police! Sir, I need you to phone 911 right now – this kid with the gun carjacked me and my son. Oh my god, he shot a girl...”
Junior’s eyes sag. He looks at Mal. Mal swallows, closes his eyes, and says, “Okay.”
He looks at the Kid. The Kid looks down at the pavement, supporting one broken arm with the other... and shrugs.
Dad sees it and goes quiet.
Mal and the Kid both cover their eyes.
Junior aims for the mouth. The Dad’s cheek puffs out and skull fragments spray out the back of his head. The hole in his brain feels itself and a shrill scream comes out what's left of the Dad's mouth.
The gun’s an automatic, so it doesn't stop after one bullet. Junior’s finger responds by clamping down on the trigger. Staccato shots veer all over, tear holes through the man's turtleneck. Dark fluids spatter in the orange streetlight. The Dad's scream cuts off like an unplugged alarm clock and he slumps to the sidewalk one limb at a time. Last to fall is his hand, reaching towards his son.
No one moves. No one claps.
Junior’s hand aches around the emptied gun. He looks at it, then tosses the gun into the gutter.
“Kid, the cops – actual nice cops – are going to come here in a few minutes and take you places. Your Dad was a bad person. We all know bad people sometimes. You gotta get over that shit, forget it.”
The Kid’s twelve-year-old eyes don’t react. He hasn’t looked at the dead Dad behind him yet. Will he look back at all?
His dull, innocent face...
...Alice’s dead, innocent face.
“But,” Junior says slowly, “if you ever forget her... I’ll kill you.”
He turns and walks to Mal.
The Kid calls softly. “Am I broken?”
Junior shrugs. “Today, maybe. Tomorrow you don’t have to be. It’s something you gotta work at.”
Then he and Mal walk – past the next block, over a rise, and the Kid’s gone.
Police sirens mill about in the distance. Mal huffs and puffs. “How did you get here so fast?”
“Track and field medalist.”
“Did you have to be so rough on him?”
Junior adjusts his glasses. “He wouldn’t look at his dad. Means he would push away thoughts of Alice, too. Young, he can form whatever self-serving rationale he wants – soften the hit – all smiles and pleasantries...” He blinks. “I want him crippled. Just a little bit. For her... I mean it's not like he'll go to prison or anything. He’s under eighteen.”
“Same deal for you.”
Silence proliferates. They arrive at Junior’s shoes. He slides his feet in, takes a step, then halts.
“Wait, you just ditched Virgil to deal with the cops by himself?”
“He told me to! Figured you were going to get yourself shot.” There is a long pause. “Are you... okay? After, like, shooting a guy?”
“He deserved it.”
“Not what I asked.”
Junior looks down at his hands. “You know when you crumple an empty beer can and throw it in the trash – it felt kinda like that.”
He rubs the index finger on his right hand. The trigger finger.
“Except you get beer all over your hands. And you're wearing your best shirt, so you don't want to wipe them off on that, so you're looking around for something to wipe your hands with, but there's nothing, and you can feel the beer getting sticky, flies buzzing around your head like vultures-”
Sirens edge over the sound horizon, sweep inexorably towards them.
“So what happens now?” Mal asks.
“A lot of bad noise. And a phone call home. Jesus-” Junior's body deflates. “Mum and Dad...”
“I can call them first. Explain things...”
Enough walking – they stop at a bus-stop bench. The cops will readily come to them.
“Was he really a cop?”
“Yeah. The worst kind.”
“Why'd he start on us?”
“He didn't like the look of our skin colour.”
Mal looks over in disappointment. “That's it?”
The squad cars blare into their street. Headlights reflect off Junior’s glasses. He speaks in a rush: “Take some pictures of me, my face. That way any bruises they give me during arrest-”
“No cell phone,” Mal says dismally.
“Well. Shit.” Junior thinks a moments, then takes off his glasses and hands them over. “Take these, so they don't get broken. Can't afford another pair.”
Mal takes and tucks them into his jacket. “Don't worry. You're under eighteen, too.”
Junior nods without enthusiasm. What can they give you? Community service? Mental hospital? What will everyone say, knowing you’ve killed someone?
Time’s up. Tires roll over the curb, and the first cop steps out of his vehicle, wrath in his eyes, gun out of holster. And all at once, Junior sees the world like some senseless, layered shape, with an ooze of malice poured across and through it, perpetuated down generations of people – wrongs righted with murk, leading only to more murk.
Junior raises his hands in surrender without being asked. The cop doesn't slow.
A second cop leans out the window of the squad car and announces crisply, “Officer Nash, what are you DOING?”
Bad Cop Nash looks around awkwardly. To have assumed his partner was a certain kind of person, who would keep quiet, and to be absolutely shafted like this... His body goes cold, and he is unable to process how to react. “Uh-”
“Take your hand off that pistol.”
Nash looks down, slides the death-stick back into its holster, looks up, and aggressively avoids eye contact with anyone.
A long silence develops as Nash hopes Good Cop will take the reins, and Good Cop steadfastly refuses to acquiesce. Junior and Mal exchange glances.
Nash breaks first. “Identify yourselves.” Can't even bring himself to shout anymore.
“Ed Simmons, Jr.” Junior points to his friend. “Malkovich Leward.”
“What connection have you to the bodies?” Nash can't figure out what to do with his hands. He gracelessly points over his shoulder with one thumb. “Back there?”
“Do you not listen to the police feed?!” Good Cop shouts, exasperated. He yanks the dial on the police radio up and turns on the megaphone with a squawk of feedback. Then a dispatcher's voice says, “-blue pickup truck wanted in connection with fatal hit-and-run and shooting. Two young civilians may be in pursuit-”
Good Cop finally steps out of the car. “Put your hands down, kid. Nash, go report that we've found them while I take a statement.”
All it took was one level-headed officer to put an end to this cycle of malice, and it took nothing more than a few well-placed words.
Junior examines Good Cop. He's got kaleidoscope eyes, bright throughout, coated with temporary outrage. His eyes say, there are lines you don't cross when you wear a gun at work, you arrogant rookie. And then his mouth opens and says it aloud to Nash, who climbs into the cruiser without looking back.
“Okay,” Good Cop pulls a notepad and pen out of one pocket. “Sorry about that. Just tell me what happened.”