Chapter 1: When in N.Y.C.
October 31st, 2002
"Sometimes it's better to light a flamethrower than to curse the darkness."
— Terry Pratchett
Adrenaline is sweet music to Leah as she and her friends visit an amusement park in New York. Retro lights and fast rides. Kids laugh, while their worried families sprint after them.
Hurling his shrunken cigarette in the wastebasket, Holden trudges around the trash littering on the boardwalk. Ferocious seagulls manage to consume half-eaten food until they are shooed away by random strangers.
"Jesus," Holden moans in a revolted tone. "Do these shitholes ever hear of a garbage can?"
"Holden, the amusement park is full of snot-nosed brats," said Leah. "Do you honestly think they care about recycling?"
Hazel brown eyes scope across the stunning rides as Holden searches for the parking lot. His freezing hands rest inside the pockets of his denim jacket.
Underneath it is his dark red flannel and a soft gray t-shirt with a Nirvana logo on it. His thick jeans and black combat boots help keep the cold wind from freezing his legs. Hanging over his shoulders is his black bag adorned with pins ranging from a red Anarchy symbol to diverse grunge bands.
Leah, on the other hand, dresses like she is going to a rock concert. Her brown hair is swept to the side, revealing multicolored highlights. Black polish vanishes with her chewed fingernails as Leah picks her teeth for any popcorn kernels.
The cold breeze stimulates her green army jacket, black Ramones t-shirt, and denim shorts. As the moist dirt soils her favorite Doc Martens, Leah scratches her nose piercing and asks Holden if he wants to play one of the carnival games.
"No, thank you," said Holden. "I like walking around."
They travel across the boardwalk as tourists and kids waltz past them. Some were held onto their cooked food and prizes, while others count the line of tickets they earned from the arcade.
Smoothing his eyebrow piercing, Holden looks up at the cloudless sky and wonders when the stars are going to come out. Ever since he was a little kid, Holden used to lie on his front lawn and study the constellations with his grandparents. But now that he's turning twenty-two this month, Holden is focused on other things—like paying rent and attending night classes.
Once they reach the booths, Holden's pager buzzes loudly inside his pocket. Leah stops walking. Her questionable eyes teach him how to read the message to himself.
"Aw," he groaned. "Has she ever heard of a day off?"
Leah crosses her arms. "What's up?"
Dropping his pager inside his left pocket, Holden ran his fingers through his messy brown hair.
"It's from my boss," he replies.
"Oh, God. What does she want?"
"Do you remember the guy who is going to testify against the Italian mafia? Albert Schultz?"
The news wasn't a surprise to Leah, but the name is familiar. Before Leah had gotten out of bed, her journalist girlfriend Paige wouldn't stop talking about Albert Schultz. She believes if he testifies to the grand jury, then the entire mafia would go down.
"So is this guy a real McCoy?" Leah asks in a doubtful tone.
"Yeah," says Holden. "The good news is that the mafia is in Riker's Island."
"What's the bad news?"
"Albert Schultz wrote a six-thousand worded draft of his experiences and he wants me to read them."
"Yeah." Holden stretches his arms and puts them behind his head. "The park looks like it's going to close soon. Let's find Matt and Callie."
The neon lights soar into the dark blue canvas as fireworks shower New York with intense color and cracking noises. Excited feet stop. Precocious eyes broaden at the sight of vigorous explosions — all except for Holden and Leah.
While the fireworks show went on, they journeyed through the park to find their friends. Holden and Leah checked the bathrooms, examine the rides, and asked the tourists if they had seen their friends. But no one has any clue where Matt and Callie are.
"Jesus fucking Christ," Holden stops pacing then asks Leah if she remembers where Callie and Matt head off to.
As Holden shoots her a fierce look, Leah throws up her hands in frustration.
"Oh, give me a break, Holden." she snaps. "For all I know, they're probably fucking in some shitty bathroom."
* * *
Holding Matt's hand, twenty-one-year-old Callie Swan gazes at the bustling park and asks him if he wants to meet up with Leah and Holden.
"Nah," Matt shakes his head. "I am feeling a little dizzy from that crazy rollercoaster ride."
He fixes with his gray beanie as his thick, black curls tickle the back of his neck. Matt wears a Ying-Yang necklace, an oversized green t-shirt, baggy jeans, and sandals. Playing with his wedding ring, Matt notices his wife Callie smoothing her floral blouse from the chocolate Oreo crumbs. Her soft hands tuck inside the pockets of her zip-front jeans.
Pushing the thin dreadlocks out of Callie's almond brown eyes, a thoughtful Matt asks: "What's wrong, babe? Do you want to sit down somewhere?"
"No, honey." Callie rolls her eyes. "It's just that I told you not to go on that ride."
"I know." he moans, sliding his arm around Callie's shoulder. "But it was so fun! Do you remember the time we rode the fucking Thunderbolt together on our first date?"
Callie's cheeks redden. When they first rode the Thunderbolt, Callie clung onto Matt's arm like a nervous six-year-old. The angry wind caused her frizzy hair to smack her terrified face; her vocal cords were strained from screaming.
Squeezing the bridge of her nose, a flustered Callie sighed, "I wish I never got on that damn ride. Did you know I almost choked on a fly?"
"Oh come on, babe." Matt snickers. "You were smoking hot."
"Fuck yeah. Why do you think I married you?"
Bowing her head, Callie grasps his hand then leads Matt to the carnival games. Some made cotton candy, while others have children sacrifice their monthly allowance to test their wits, strength, and patience.
As he watches kids crying over their failed attempts, Matt Ramirez couldn't help but feel sorry for them—especially the little girl who wanted to win a stuffed Fluttershy at the Fish in a Barrel game. From the left-hand corner of the booth are shelves full of stuffed animal toys.
Aiming the shotgun at the moving targets, the child tries shooting at them but she misses them every time. Once the ammo ran out, the girl's tears ran down her sullen face, soaking her pink Mickey Mouse t-shirt and jeans. A sympathetic Callie leans against her husband's shoulder.
"That poor girl," she solemnly remarks. "I wish we can do something for her."
Matt nods in agreement. "Yeah, that's why I am going to win it for that kid."
Callie's lips curve into a nurturing smile.
"Aw, that's a great idea." she grins. "Maybe you should do it."
Scratching the back of his head, Matt utters a shameful sigh. "Are you sure you want me to do this? Because I can—"
A stubborn Callie interrupts him by nudging Matt over to the booth.
"Go for it," she urges. "I'll be rooting for you all the way."
Matt laughs nervously. He moves toward the booth, unravels his sleeves, and grabs the toy shotgun. The piercing light shines on his tattoos. Some are small, while a few capture the game attendant's interest—especially the wrist tattoo of a small dragon eating its tail.
"Hello sir," Matt grinned. "I would like to have that stuffed Fluttershy pony."
"Ah, I see." the game attendant smirks. He tucks the light-gray hair behind his large ears and stares at Callie. "Do you want to win a prize for your pretty girlfriend?"
"She's my wife." Matt politely corrects, handing the attendant a twenty-five-dollar bill. "And I appreciate it if you don't hit on her again."
He loads his plastic firearm, aims at the shifting targets, and finally hits the bullseye. Unlike the child, Matt is an excellent marksman. The silver conveyor belt moves slowly. Loud, cheery music annoy Matt that he almost chipped the dark blue walls behind the metal fishes. Nevertheless, he manages to put down sixteen targets until Matt runs out of ammo.
"Hey, looks like we got ourselves a new winner!" the game attendant squeals.
After Matt won the game, he retrieves the adorable plush pony from the shelf and presents it to the little girl.
"Here you go." he beams. "I think this little Fluttershy deserves to have someone to play with. Don't you?"
The girl's deep green eyes darken. "I don't want it," she pouts. "Fluttershy is your toy."
"Yeah," Matt agrees softly. "But between you and me, I am a bit too old to be Fluttershy's best friend."
"What? How old are you?"
"Wow, you're super old."
This made Matt laugh even more. "I know, kid." he agrees. "That's why I think Fluttershy should keep you company."
Delighted, the girl throws her tiny arms around his neck, collects the pony, and scampers past an astounded Leah, who finds the couple standing in front of the small booth.
"Hey, lovebirds!" she cries out. "Over here!"
Matt stops scratching the scar on his left eyebrow then stares at the breathless Goth girl.
"Huh?" Matt frowned. "Is that Leah?"
"I think so." Callie approaches her best friend and asks what is going on.
"Haven't you heard?" Leah scoffs, putting her hands on her hips. "Holden has a job to do tomorrow. So, let's go."
"Really?" Matt asks in a doubtful tone. "I thought he is on vacation or something."
"Oh please," grunted Leah. "We all know Barbara isn't the type who gives out paid vacations to her part-time employees."
Removing his beanie, an exhausted Matt tidies his hair and asks Leah about Holden's whereabouts when a Dodge Caravan steers towards them. Its paint is as black as night; dim headlights shine the trio's faces as the car stops near them and rolls the windows down.
Reclining behind the wheel is an exhausted Holden studying for his mid-term exams. He pushes a small pencil behind his left ear and scans A.P. Calculus formulas before looking up at his friends.
Matt swings open the door and crawl inside the Dodge Caravan. Although the gray seats are still warm from the afternoon sun, they reek of stale French fries and chicken nuggets.
"Jesus Christ," Matt howls. "Did you stole this from a soccer mom?"
Holden shoots him a look. "I rented it from a friend, okay?"
"Seriously?" Callie scoffs. "You rented this piece of shit from a friend?"
"Look guys," Holden snaps furiously. "I know the car is not that great, but it gives me a little wriggle room in my budget."
"Aw, look at big Holden." Leah comments in a baby voice. "He's got a little budget for his soccer mommy car."
Flipping his middle finger in her direction, Holden continues his speech.
"Anyway," he says. "Do you guys need me to drop you off at your places, or are you all good?"
"Cool." Leah shrugged. "We can all use the ride."
Looking up from her dark blue Vans, Callie makes a face. "Doesn't your girlfriend have a car?"
"Yeah," said Leah.
"Why don't you call her so she can give you a ride?"
Leah leans her back against her seat and closes her exhausted eyes. Reddish-brown curls tumble near her eyelids, but she effortlessly pushes them back without getting them in her eye.
"Let's just say we're going through a rough spot," she tells Callie. "My girlfriend is so fucking needy, it's pathetic."
Holden's eyebrows rose. "Shit. Sorry to hear that."
"Whatever," she mumbles under her breath. "Can you just drive?"