ESCAPE ROUTES

Elijah was my friend until he shot up the school.

He came over to my house every weekend for as long as I could remember. We played video games all night. Halo 2, mostly. I had an Xbox and PlayStation 3 and a GameCube with all the best games for each one. My consoles were neatly arranged in a tight space with all their cords plainly labeled. I often reached back into the crevice behind my TV to connect and disconnect the consoles from my TV. Elijah had an equally cramped corner of my bedroom which was, informally, his. He brought his Xbox and a little TV and arranged his things on the opposite wall to me. He’d left the TV and Xbox and controller and a hoodie and a lighter with me when he went home last weekend. I don’t know if he left his things by accident. His fingerprints lingered in my room like evidence of a crime I didn’t have anything to do with. I’m innocent.

I didn’t go to his house much. There was always a decent chance that his parents would start screaming at him about his grades, or about chores. There was always something for them to be mad about. He liked pissing them off. His Mom and Dad bought him basketballs and baseball gloves and golf clubs and hoped he would become someone new. In return, he was perfectly happy to hate them, to hate school, to hate Bush, hate the suburbs. Everything. Each year, since kindergarten, he’d happily accumulate another hate. 

We played video games on the weekends. He narrowed his vision onto only the screen in the corner of my room.

“Fuck you,” I said. 

I threw the controller onto the ground more aggressively than I expected. A faint crack filled the room. I immediately picked up the controller and inspected it for damage. Nothing had happened.

“Quit being garbage, pussy,” he said, happily. He almost always won against me.

“Did I ever show you eFukt?” I asked. I set my controller onto the ground.

“No.”

“It’s a whole bunch of porn bloopers. Like, totally insane.”

“Camwhores,” Elijah said, unimpressed. 

I turned around in my chair and logged onto my computer. Elijah pointlessly toyed with the controller.

There were all kinds of new videos that’d been uploaded since I’d been on eFukt last. Crazy shit. No matter how ready I thought I was, eFukt blew me away. It was a cheap website, like 4chan or GeoCities, with practically no design built in. The owners of eFukt had built a website to shock, not to impress. I found the video I was looking for and, when I did, I clicked on it and unplugged my headphones from the computer and started the video.

I’m calling him, she said.

You’re calling him?

The camera was pointed downwards, towards her face. She was young. She had long, brown hair and bright, blue eyes. She was beautiful, perfectly preserved, as if nothing at all had happened to her. Harsh lines of makeup slashed across her face and caved her cheeks inward. Her eyelashes hung away from her face. The phone in her hand dialed on speaker phone. She opened her mouth. He bounced his pink cock on her tongue and she opened her mouth, just a little, and slid her head forward and inhaled. Her cheeks were sucked in and she bobbed until, at once, she backed up. Hi Dad, she said. He pushed his cock against her cheek, as a reminder. She flicked her tongue against the head. It pulsed. She smiled upwards, at him, then at the camera. Yeah, she said, I just thought I’d call to say hi and see how you’re doing. She looked up and shrugged. She smiled. She swallowed him and buried her nose against his decorative pubes. She bobbed up and down, carefully, conscious of her technique. That sounds fun, she said. Oh, nothing, just sitting at home. It’s been a pretty, I don’t know, you know. Exactly. Wait, Dad, one second. She nodded at the camera and held her tongue open. His hand came into view and he jerked off into her mouth. She swallowed. Sorry Dad, I was just getting something to drink. But hey, I think I’ve got to go now. Yeah, Love you too. Alright, bye.

“Well?” I asked, “hilarious, right?”

“Another camwhore,” he said. “I’ll show you something really crazy. Get up.”

We exchanged spots and I hovered over his shoulder anxiously. Everything I’d ever thought and felt had been Googled on that computer. Every so often I cleared my browsing history and, Jesus on my side, there wasn’t anything for him to accidentally discover.

“I’ll tell you when to look. Close your eyes,” he said. I went against my better judgment and did what he said.

“Alright look.”

A small boy, no older than ten years old, was sitting at a table. The table was fashioned out of a flimsy-looking wood. He didn’t wear shoes or a shirt, like he was at home. Behind him, the walls hovered in the shadows. A machine was on the table in front of him. His body slumped onto the table. His head lolled onto his shoulder at an unnatural angle. His skin was dark. His face had been pixelated and blurred out, as if to protect his dignity.  The floors were dirt. His feet were dirty. He was alone. The boy’s arm was directed downwards, into the machine, and was oddly long, stretched out to an inhuman length. Shredded bits of red were coming out of the machine. The meat was red. Fresh. 

“The fuck is this? Where’d you get it?” I asked

Elijah giggled, then laughed, openly, into the air, and then fell back into himself, hysterical. “The fuck’s wrong with his arm?” I repeated.

Elijah stifled his laughter, swallowed his tongue, and a smirk twitched at the edge of his mouth. He leaned forward in his chair and pointed at the kid’s arm. The picture moved into focus. 

“It’s a meat grinder,” he said, “and that dumbass put his hand in.”

“What the fuck,” I said, “that’s fucked up.”

He inched his face closer to the computer screen. 

“Yeah, he’s definitely dead. This kid got his hand stuck in the meat grinder and someone stopped by and took a picture. It’s not like they tried to help him anyways,” he pointed at the ground up flesh, “how would you even fix that.”

“Couldn’t say,” I said evenly. 

“There was this Al Qaeda video I saw here earlier, you’ve got to see. It’s insane. They’re in Iraq, or whatever, and these towelheads are all around this guy and, no shit, they literally cut his head off. You’ve got to see it.”

“Fuck that,” I said.

“Don’t be a pussy.”

“I’m not.”

“Then sit your bitch ass down. You’ve got to see this.”

He scrolled through the webpage. The grotesque flitted past, barely acknowledged, as Elijah meditated on death. I reached down and unscrewed the cap off my two-liter of Mountain Dew. I held the bottle with two hands while I chugged and drowned my tongue in cold sugar. I felt my taste buds going numb. I brought the bottle down, careful not to spill on my parents’ carpet. The few seconds of distraction calmed me down. I ignored Elijah’s harsh tone.

I focused on his clean, blond hair and the facial hair which shadowed his face. He looked almost exactly the same since elementary school. The details of his face had taken shape, then become permanent. His eyes were a flat, curious shade of blue, which offered nothing. He spoke with a third degree of removal, as if he were imitating an imitation of an imitation. My lips salivated against my will. I swallowed. I lifted the two-liter to my lips and took another swig of soda that blitzed my tongue again until I tasted nothing.

“C’mon,” he said, “it’s just the internet. Who cares?”

My mouth salivated again.

“Hell no,” I said, more firmly. 

What had once been a slight, invisible fissure had erupted. That night a new landscape emerged in my bedroom where, for the first time, we were equals. 

***

I don’t have many memories of my life before Elijah. There’s a picture in the living room, on a bookshelf with the other knick-knacks, of me graduating pre-school. Me and a group of other children smile out of our toddler faces. My face is unfamiliar in that shape. I only recognize the face of a boy who liked the color pink who I both didn’t like and felt sorry for. I don’t remember his name.

Elijah and I met on the first day of kindergarten. Mom walked me into Mrs. Peters’ classroom for the first day and, to my surprise, she left me there for eight whole hours to work out a future for myself.

A bell rang and, with the ease of an expert, Mrs. Peters gathered the class in a circle. She sat in a chair above us and pulled a book from a crowded bookshelf. Her voice wobbled in between authority and comfort while she read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to us. The other kids gasped and screamed on cue. I stayed quiet, a half-step behind the rest, confused by when I should feel what and how much. The story continued without my participation. When she finished the book and dramatically closed the cover, as if to signal that a great moment had come to an end, the other kids were stunned into silence. Mrs. Peters slipped the book back into the stack next to her chair. She watched us. 

“And that’s the book.” she said. 

She stood up. The lightness of her voice did not betray the completeness of her authority.

Mrs. Peters guided us towards our desks. She had put the desks together in groups of four and called them quadrants. She had taped our names into the corner. She had assigned the seats according to alphabetical order. I was right next to Elijah. There must have been two others in our quadrant, but I don’t remember them. They’re shadows now. 

“Now who’s ready for their first assignment?” Mrs. Peters asked, as if she’d offered us some great prize. 

Her orthopedic shoes sounded mildly against the carpet as they paced through the room. She held a piece of construction paper in her hands and made strong, personal eye contact with each of us. 

“You get to make your own, new name tags. Personalize them so that we all know which desk is yours.”

Mrs. Peters scattered cardboard paper throughout the class, to each child the color they preferred, so that blacks and whites and reds and blues and purples and greens were spread unevenly throughout the room.

Elijah picked a black piece of construction paper and a black marker. He bent his head down. His hands flew across the paper enthusiastically. His eyes flitted back and forth, from the name card to his own paper, meticulous of each curve. The blackness of his marker disappeared into the blackness of the paper. Mrs. Peters came to our quadrant and looked over his shoulder.

“Black on black?” she asked. “Are you sure? You can hardly even see what you’re writing.”

“I like black,” he explained, “it’s my favorite color.”

“Not blue?” she picked up the blue marker, “blue’s a good color.”

“Mom says it’s a pretty color,” he admitted.

“Your mom’s right about that.”

“I don’t want a pretty color. I want black.”

I perked up and listened to Elijah. He carried such firmness and confidence in his voice that I, caught unaware, was entirely compelled towards him. I capped the blue marker in my hand and let it roll into the pile of other markers. I picked up a black and traced over my own work. Streaks of blue stubbornly shined through my name. I traced the letters over and over again, deepening the blackness, until I was satisfied that the blue had been erased.

Mrs. Peters nodded at Elijah, as if she were contemplating a complex problem. 

“Good work,” she said, finally. 

She moved on, towards a different group of desks, unaware of the seed that’d been planted. 

My class of kindergarteners were let out for recess first. The playground’s concrete was old, cracked, and tufts of grass sprouted in unexpected intervals. The string basketball nets breezed mildly. Further out, the pasture was a stretch of gold-green grass which curved over the hill and out of sight, towards the neighborhood cemetery. The school hadn’t built a fence between the playground and cemetery yet.

Mrs. Peters opened a door and the classroom followed her outside in a single file line. We were the first ones to witness the clean, empty playground. Mrs. Peters stopped abruptly and turned around to us. Another teacher emerged from the same door we had come from with a new, entirely unknown class of kindergarteners I didn’t even know about.

“I’ll be standing here,” Mrs. Peters pointed, “with Mrs. Janssen here. We’ll be able to see all of you. Be good. There’s a bunch of balls right here to play with. You’re not allowed to go over that hill over there. If you get too far, we’ll call you. Sounds fun, right?” My class cheered. Mrs. Janssen launched into her own speech with her own class. Mrs. Peters stepped aside and gestured towards the open playground.

Clumps of my classmates screamed and, in unison, scattered throughout the playground towards their separate territories. We established kingdoms all throughout where cliques were formed. Those of us who went to the swings would grow up together, as would the ones at the monkey bars, as would the ones who started playing tag. Small, arbitrary choices, made before we could possibly understand the meaning, would grow up and become complicated. The status quo would be established. First a personality would come, then an identity and, once we’d fully formed, each of us would drift into the future in order to make history, entirely unaware of how kindergarten had changed us. 

I circled around the playground and put my hands to the monkey bars. I watched the boys fish out a soccer ball from the bin and bounce it once, then twice, in an incapable way. The ball slipped from their control and rolled away and the boys scrambled after it. One boy pointed towards the field and they disappeared. A game of tag had formed on the mulched playground. I stopped a girl who was nearest to me and asked if I could play tag with her too. She thought about it then said no. 

We’re playing tag,” she explained, gesturing towards the other girls, “sorry.”

“Oh,” I said. My mouth wobbled with a sudden sadness as I turned away. 

On the edge of the playground, a solitary boy had his own swing set. The swing’s chains moaned with pleasure as he crested backwards, then forwards. He did not smile, as if he were focused on something in the distance, then flew off. He was suspended, momentarily, in front of the sun. Elijah, unable to launch himself into Heaven, crashed back into a humble Earth. His skin scratched against the mulch.

Elijah stood up and regained his balance. He swiped his hands across his clothes and cleaned himself of debris. He reached a foot into the mulch and drew a thick line to mark the distance. Satisfied, he turned around and climbed back onto the swing and pumped his feet, forward, then backward again. He didn’t pay any attention as I neared him.

A new line of students emerged from the school and the screaming voices in the playground. Our solitary place was becoming crowded. A group of first graders beamed towards the Elijah’s and my swing set as if it belonged to them.

I flipped the swing seat one, two, three times, quickly, then leapt on board. Elijah, at least, didn’t seem to mind having me around. I wanted to see how far I could fly like him. Elijah flew into the air again as if he was entirely unaware of me. He landed well short of the line he had drawn for himself.

“That wasn’t as far,” I said.

“You can’t get any further.”

“Yes I can.”

“No you can’t.”

 There was the trace of a challenge in Elijah’s voice. There were, even on that first day, hints of arrogance and cruelty dancing at the edges of his voice that would, in time, blossom.

“You were crying.”

“No I wasn’t.”

“I saw you.”

I pumped my legs, higher and higher and, when I landed, Elijah stood further out. He pointed to the line he’d drawn in the mulch.

“Told you, you couldn’t,” he said. 

***

From then on Elijah and I had practically shared my bedroom. Gradually, the toys were replaced with a Nintendo NES, then a Nintendo 64, then an Xbox, a PlayStation 3, and a GameCube. My Mom put the Lion King blanket in the closet and bought me a tie-dye colored one.

With Elijah in the room there was no space to negotiate between us. We floated in proximity to one another. A mild heat pulsated from Elijah’s body and mixed, ever so slightly, with me. His nearness was delirium-inducing and I had to focus my attention anywhere else. My walls were tacked up with all kinds of posters of bands I liked. Metallica, Three Days Grace, Manson, Breaking Benjamin. There was also this painting I’d gotten when my parents and I went to Cozumel. That was the only time I’d been out of the country.

We left in between Thanksgiving and Christmas because flights were cheap then. My parents were always worried about money but, at the same time, they gave me a used car the day I turned sixteen. I never knew if they actually didn’t have money or if they just said that. Elijah’s parents obviously had plenty of money but they didn’t buy him much. Nothing he wanted, anyways. It was hard to know how much or how often the adults were lying to us.

My parents weren’t worried about me skipping school for a week because I’d always done well. That was halfway because the classes were easy but halfway because I knew my parents would lose their minds if I ever got a C. 

We landed in the airport and the intercom was in Spanish. Everywhere I looked there were people with darker skin than back home. They had dark eyes and dark hair and they were speaking Spanish for real. I didn’t understand what the hell they were saying. Three years of language classes meant absolutely nothing.

When we arrived at the resort, all evidence of Mexico had been scrubbed away. The hotel clerks and maids and bartenders and cooks all knew perfect English. We scuba dived. We ate. We sat on a vacant beach.

We were served.

The night before we left the resort there was a guy who set up a booth in the open air, next to the check-in counter. Everybody had to walk past him squatting on the ground, hunched over a piece of paper and a can of spray paint in his hand. He had long hair that he’d tied into a ponytail. Pictures had been scattered around him, these almost unreal-looking paintings, of a large moon hanging above a waterfall, of a ship on an empty ocean, of crystal blue waters and glittering treasure waiting on the beach. The man kneeled on the ground, like he was praying. A cardboard sign was posted up next to him: Ten Dollars. A mute crowd of white Americans had gathered around the kneeling man to watch him work. Occasionally, a woman reached into her fanny pack for a bit of sunscreen and offered it to her husband, who frowned and shook his head mildly, as if he couldn’t be bothered. The resort was full of Texans. I’d learned that, at least, during my stay at the resort. That, and to not tip the maids because they’d be fired if I did. 

He held a can of spray paint, an orange one, like you’d see in Home Depot, and waved it up and down like a maniac and sprayed the paper. He waved his hand above the paper and scattered orange across the page until, suddenly, he stopped and set the can down, in line with the rest. His fingers trilled up and down and hovered above the colors, as if he were unsure of himself, until he snatched one up and shook it, too. He worked at the same, insane pace, faster and faster, and sprayed his poison into the air. He layered the colors on top of one another. He rubbed his dirty fingers across the paper and smeared the colors together, all purples and black and blue. I was entranced. When he finished, a full, blue moon landed onto the picture, giving shape to the rest of it. 

He’d created a quiet, secluded waterfall that’d never been touched by man. The water was so pure it reflected the moon. Palm trees circled around the pool of water and a mountain range rose in the distance, far, far away, like an adventure. I asked my mom for $10 to buy it. She frowned, considering the fortune I’d asked for. Usually, she refused to buy me things I asked for. She was a structured woman, highly generous on Christmas and my birthday but, on unimportant days, she was careful of every dollar. In Mexico, caught in between a once-in-a-lifetime family trip and an uneventful Thursday, she relented and fished in her purse for the ten dollars.

I went into the circle, handed the man my mom’s ten dollars, and pointed to the picture he’d just finished. He nodded. I smiled, proud of my ability to speak between languages. Gracias, I said. No problem, he said, smoothly. He signed his name in the corner of the picture and handed it to me with a vacant face. I was suddenly guilty of something. Robbery, perhaps. I held the picture in my hands simply unable to believe what a mere ten dollars had bought me. I was shocked that such work was worth his time, and I wondered, really, how poor do you have to be to make beautiful paintings for tourists, hunched on the ground in front of them, like a beggar, entirely drained of dignity?

I was careful with the picture when I packed it in my suitcase. It was still perfect when I got home and that just about blew my mind, like a vision of another world. I asked my mom for twenty bucks and, after some negotiating, she relented. I bought a frame and put it on my wall, next to the Marilyn Manson poster. They calmed me down. Marilyn was an artist. And the Cozumel picture just didn’t look like anything else in my room. I had a lot of black clothes and, on the walls, were the black and red band posters. I’d duct taped my desk chair so that it was that shiny, metallic looking gray. With all that black and gray and red in my room, I looked at the Cozumel picture, with palm trees and a big, blue moon. It calmed me down, like a dream, as if I could be somebody new. 

I motioned for Elijah to get up out of my chair so I could be next to the window. We exchanged spots again and I was back in my chair. Outside, the streetlights stretched up and down the block, around the corner, and into the blackness, like floating stars. I reached for my Mountain Dew and drank it with two hands, like a baby’s bottle. I stared at the curve of Elijah’s neck while I breathed him in for a second too long until I remembered myself and went back to looking out the window. The streetlamps floated indifferently. Elijah cracked his knuckles. He reached down for his controller then, fingering it, finally gave up.

“Jesus,” Elijah groaned, rubbing his eyes, “it’s only one?”

“Looks like it,” I said. I was calm. I wasn’t sure why Elijah said that. 

When it got that late, I was always hopeful that he’d give me some sign. I wanted him to take his shirt off or reach across and kiss me or touch my neck. Or maybe he would invite me onto him. My tongue was weighed down with the years of accumulated, unspoken desire. Music churned in the background. My chest tightened and my vision narrowed until all I could see was the redness of his lips. I forgot about the beheading videos.

“Can I kiss you?” I asked. The words surprised me.

“What the fuck?” he asked. He glared at me as if I had betrayed him somehow. I didn’t dare repeat myself.

“Seriously what the fuck is that?” He leaned backward in his chair.

“I always knew you were a faggot,” he said, finally. “It’s time for me to go anyway.” He got up from his chair and put on his shoes and left the room.

— Zack Austin lives in the Midwest with his husband. His work has previously appeared in (mac)ro(mic) and Drunk Monkeys magazines. He can be found on twitter @prozacck