Michael, Friend and Brother
Neither his ma nor his pa ever kissed or hugged him or offered a kindly, cheering word. When his father was sober and no more than a tad angry he never hesitated to smack the boy across his face. When he had drunk his fill of sour, cheap whiskey and still felt cheated and betrayed and more convinced than before that the world was against him, he would smash a rough fist into the boy’s face.
Unbroken darkness behind. All of the things that should be visible in the rearview mirror—the surface of the wet, unlit road, the trees and the shabby unpainted wooden shacks along the sides, the stars speckling the inky-black sky—that Harlan knows are there, seem to have dissolved in the rain. He thinks, I guess maybe they ain’t there. Maybe none of it happened. The pervasive nothingness is dismal, unnatural, ominous. Harlan squints through the rain-streaked windshield, and then he returns to the rearview mirror, disturbed by the black emptiness, as if the old Ford is hurtling through the dead vacuum of space. At the same time, he takes comfort in the fact that no other vehicles are back there. He eases his rigid grip on the steering wheel, pries loose his stiff, clammy fingers, and holds on in a more natural manner. He is able for the first since they scrambled into the car hours before to take a deep breath. The steady drizzle that had made the earlier part of the day cheerless and unsettling has, little by little, turned into a relentless downpour. That, along with the weak illumination provided by the one badly aligned headlamp on the car, causes the center line of the narrow, curving roadway to become blurry and ill-defined. Easing off the accelerator pedal and trying to peer past the persistent rain drops and heavy splatters on the windshield, which the wipers only manage to stretch out and spread, Harlan shifts uncomfortably in his seat, winces in pain, and mumbles to himself, “An awful day in my natural life and too damned far from Mississippi.” Curtis, in the seat next to him, leans all the way forward, his chest pressed against the dashboard, and sucks in short, nervous breaths as he scans the sides of the road. One of the two men in the rear seat, Jake or Michael, coughs and then groans.
“How much longer we gonna be on this friggin’ road?” Curtis whines. “Where’s that turnoff? I hate every second I’m here up north.”
Harlan, his lips tight, his eyes tightly focused on the indistinct yellow line, takes another deep breath, says nothing.
“It’s like we been in the middle of nowhere forever,” Curtis drawls, turning to Harlan, who, staring straight ahead, remains silent. Then, Curtis, his forehead touching the cold, sweaty windshield, pants with excitement, taps Harlan’s arm, says, “There it is, right there, boy, the turnoff for the interstate.”
Harlan ignores him and stays on the road.
“What the hell, man? You missed it. What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“Oh, God, it hurts so bad!”
“Shut up back there!” Curtis, who has angrily thrown himself back in his seat, snarls without turning around. “Now, why you hadda miss that turnoff, Harlan? We woulda been on our way home. Turn around.” He does not attempt to hide his disgust. Then, in a plaintive, conciliatory tone, he adds. “That’s what you said we was gonna do. Why didn’t you turn off?”
“I got my reasons.”
“Yeah. You always got your reasons.” Then, after a few seconds of reflection, Curtis continues: “Thing is, are they always good reasons?”
“Now, that’s a good question. We’re gonna find out sooner or later.”
“Harlan, Curtis, you gotta take me to a hospital,” Jake whimpers from the rear. “I hurt real bad and I can’t see outta my eye, the right one.”
“You gonna be okay … or else you gonna die. Either way, shut up!”
“Curtis, don’t be like that,” Jake whispers and then takes a deep breath, chokes, coughs. After another few seconds, he pleads, “Help me, man, Curtis. God, I don’t wanna die. My eye and my neck hurt somethin’ fierce, like the devil’s eatin’ me alive, and I’m bleedin’ real bad and I can’t see outta the eye.”
“Keep it together. Harlan’s gonna take us somewhere safe. Once we get there we’ll tend to you.” Then, turning to his left, he says, “I don’t get why you skipped past that turnoff.” When Harlan remains silent, Curtis slams his hands against the dashboard; then he sits back in his seat, more worried than angry.
“You guys gotta help me. It hurts bad and I’m swallowin’ blood, like to drown in it. You gotta find a doctor around here.” There is no reply from up front. Jake chokes, coughs, whimpers. Then he emits a barely audible dog-like squeal.
“Jake, for the last time, shut the hell up! We ain’t gonna take you to no hospital or no doctor or to … I don’t know—Wal-Mart or anywhere’s else.”
“Ain’t just me. Mikey too,” Jake croaks. “I think he’s dead—Mikey is—or else, he passed out. Mikey’s quiet and he feels cold.” Jake pulls in a breath and lets it out with a deep hissing sound; then he chokes, coughs, moans, sobs.
Turning around, Curtis says, “Mikey ain’t dead. He got winged, I think maybe on his shoulder. I saw when I got him in the car back there. You don’t die from that; it’s just a scratch. And you’re okay too. Be a man. Fight the pain.”
For the next twenty minutes or so, as the rain beats down on the car and on the dark road, the two men in the front seat are silent; the only sounds come from the back: Jake’s labored inhalations and exhalations and coughs and occasional guttural moans and higher-pitched cries. Curtis turns around once and looks at Michael, slumped down on the rear seat, his head against the closed window, his eyes shut. He ignores Jake. He thinks about reaching out and touching Michael, but decides against it. He does not want to know. Besides, he thinks, What can I do? Like Harlan says, we gonna find out sooner or later.
Harlan grimaces in pain. He first felt a twinge of discomfort in his abdomen and side when he scrambled behind the steering wheel back there, hours ago, and started driving. Now it hits him like a deep slice to his belly. He knows what it is, but he is mystified. Why had he not felt it in the big house when the old man unexpectedly appeared at the bottom of the staircase and unloaded his shotgun at them? That’s when Jake and Michael got hit. How could he not have been in pain when, a few jagged seconds later, he realized he was lying on the floor, staring dumbly at the veined pattern of the marble tile? Then, when, with animal instinct, he had bolted up and lunged at the old man, why had he still felt nothing? When he saw that the man was down and no longer posed a threat, he had lifted Michael up, thrown his limp body over a shoulder, and carried him to the car. Still no pain. The first couple of times he felt it—mostly when he shifted his position behind the steering wheel—he had put his hand there, the area right above his belt buckle. His jacket was wet, and he wondered about the shredded fabric, pocked with dozens of little holes. Of course, he knew. He thought, birdshot, but he pushed that bit of insight from his brain and concentrated on driving. Then, as the weak afternoon light dissolved and the rain came down steadily and turned into a torrent and they had traveled a good distance south, he had cautiously reached under his jacket. The skin of his abdomen felt raw, squishy. Now it hurts, but he is too tired to think about it.
Harlan drives; he fights the urge to close his eyes. He is thirsty too. He knows he needs water. He also knows he has to be strong, cannot give in to the pain or to the slow draining of his life force. He knows that pulling to the side of the road and turning the driving over to Curtis is not an option. If there ever is a time to maintain control, this is it. He pictures Curtis getting behind the wheel and nervously jetting down the flooded rural road and skidding into a tree.
A cup of hot black coffee, with maybe a little sugar, would hit the spot.
He looks at the fuel gauge, disturbed by what he sees. Not a good time to stop for gas; this late at night, people notice you, remember, especially three men who are bleeding. Better to find someplace to hide the car, ditch it, maybe burn it. But, where? Not anywhere along that highway. That’s why he bypassed it. Some little dirt trail? How would they spend the night there without water or food? If they kept the engine running for warmth they would be miles from the nearest road, with no gas. A motel? Risky. Harlan is sure a report about them has been issued. The old man might be able to describe them, but, of course, he might be pretty hurt, maybe a fractured skull. Maybe dead. Then, there’s the woman; she did see them from the top of the staircase. Probably did not catch a good glimpse, but she saw them. At the very least, she would tell the cops that there were three men. Curtis had not entered the house. He was supposed to wait in the car by the curb, make himself useful as a getaway driver, but he had gotten out to take a leak, mostly because he was nervous and felt antsy. Curtis is always edgy and excitable before, during, and after a job. When Harlan reached the car and saw Curtis standing there looking stupid, he pushed Michael into his arms and then jumped behind the wheel. Curtis, stunned for a second, finally pushed Michael into the back of the car like he was a sack of potatoes and then scrambled into the front, surprised to see that his hands were bloody. When Jake reached the car he yanked open his door, stumbled, and fell onto the back seat; his door was still open and swinging and his legs were dangling, almost scraping the street as Harlan peeled out from the curb. Curtis had to turn around and reach over and pull Jake in all the way so he wouldn’t fall out. Then he yelled at Jake and smacked him on the top of his head a couple of times to get his attention. Finally, Jake, who looked like a half-blind, blood-smeared drunk, understood, and managed to pull the door shut.
Now, as Harlan drives, he attempts to put the pieces in order. He knows it is possible that the old woman had seen them drive away. If so, she might be able to describe the car, but, no, she surely would have gone to the aid of the man, most likely her husband, and not to a window. People are as predictable as other higher order animals; they do what they are naturally programmed to do in order to survive and to help those connected to them to survive. In this instance, from the top of the stairs, the woman saw the man get knocked down and she surely caught sight of the three intruders. Unlikely she could describe them, other than to say they were white and in their twenties or thirties, with short, scraggly beards. If she made a move, and did not just remain frozen in place, it would have been to go to the man on the floor at the foot of the stairs. Harlan reminds himself that people—and not God or the gods or fate or whoever or whatever—control their own lives. He thinks it is funny in a cruel, self-defeating way, and pretty pitiful that folks believe a benevolent Supreme Being guides mankind and watches out for their welfare. If there is a God, and he believes there might be, then he (or she) is a tricky bitch, a cold-hearted fiend. No, not a fiend, but neither is it a benevolent entity. Harlan smiles grimly, thinking that people are on their own to make their choices and then live with the consequences. Those choices and the consequences are generally bad, and more often, harsh and nasty, and, then, one day, it all ends.
He drives. More than the pain in his gut, he is thirsty—so parched now that his tongue and throat feel swollen. Curtis renews his complaints about the turnoff. Jake moans and cries and chokes. Michael is silent.
Harlan spots a darkened service station in the middle of the shadowy woods up ahead on the side of the road. He slows down, turns into it, and rolls the car to a stop a few feet from a hurricane fence at the rear of the property.
“Get out, Curtis. Break that lock on that gate. We’ll ditch the car in that lot back there and take another one. Go!”
Curtis exits the car and examines the padlock in the dim glow of the one headlight. Returning, he tells Harlan through his open window, “It’s a big job. I’m gonna need some tools.” He walks to the office and peers through a side window. He returns to the car and says, “I’ll take the tire iron from the trunk, break the window, see if they have bolt cutters or a power saw.”
“No. That’ll take too long. We can’t just sit here. Stand back.”
“I don’t know, Harlan. Maybe it ain’t a good thing to do. It’s one of those, you know, kind of a tough fence, and the lock’s heavy duty. Even if you do it, a busted gate’s a dead giveaway.”
Harlan throws the car into reverse, giving Curtis only a fraction of a second to jump out of the way as he rapidly backs up to the edge of the road. He shifts gears, floors the accelerator, and barrels into the gate. The rapidly moving vehicle explodes against the gate with a thunderous metal-against-metal clang. Jake, who has fallen to the floor in the rear of the car, whimpers. Michael, also on the floor, is silent. The smoking front end of the car is crushed-in almost as much as the gate, which, while still attached to the fence, has bellied into the enclosed parking lot; the windshield is a mass of spider-web cracks. Harlan rubs his forehead where it collided with the steering wheel. He backs up again, this time to the middle of the road, shifts into drive, and hurtles toward the fence again, knocking the gate off its hinges, bursting into the yard, and smashing into the front end of a junked pickup truck.
Jake cries out. Harlan attempts to back up so that he can move away from the now-gateless fence and off to the side of the yard, but the front end of the car and the front bumper of the pickup truck are locked in a death grip, like rival moose caught in each other’s antlers. He floors the accelerator; the car moves only a foot. He shifts gears and then guns the engine again. With the front tires scraping and howling as they rub against the crushed fenders, Harlan manages to push the pickup truck a few feet further into the yard. There’s a harsh sizzling sound and the unpleasant odor of overheated coolant. The engine abruptly shuts down. Harlan turns the key. The starter cranks. Then nothing. He painfully exits the smoking car, grateful to see that Curtis has had the presence of mind to force the wrecked gate, with the padlock still intact, more or less back in place.
“Told you that lock would hold,” Curtis says. He pushes the gate another inch so it is almost properly closed. Then, looking at Harlan, he adds, “You’re all bloody—your jacket and jeans … and your belly. You got shot too.”
“Appears that way,” Harlan replies. He swallows hard and grits his teeth. Then, pulling down the blood-stained bottom of his jacket, he looks around. “Nothing but junks back here,” he observes. Then, instructing Curtis to wait by the car, he looks out through the gate, pulls it open and, wincing in pain, squeezes through. He forces the gate closed again. Through a window of the office he spots a candy machine and another one containing drinks. He knows there might be an alarm. Not likely, but you never know. What they need now, more than food or drink, is a car.
The rain has lost its punch, powering down from a torrent to a persistent chilly drizzle. In addition to being dehydrated, Harlan is suddenly cold and feels as weak and helpless as the runt of the litter, the one that will not survive. He holds his throbbing abdomen and fights a wave of nausea. He tries to think of better days, finally deciding he has not had many. Then, wet and bone weary to the point of exhaustion, he looks around. Five cars and two trucks are neatly parked in the area in front of the service station. He checks. All locked. He returns to the enclosed parking lot and tells Curtis to help Jake off the floor and onto the seat of the car. Then he opens the other rear door and lifts Michael off the floor and onto the seat. His friend’s eyes are closed, his skin is damp and cool, and he does not seem to have a pulse. His neck, shoulder, and left arm are coated in a coagulated smear of blood, through which Harlan can see pellet wounds. Telling Jake, who is moaning, to be quiet, Harlan bends down so that one ear is against Michael’s nose. He hears a faint, irregular hiss and feels a wisp of moving air.
“He dead?” Curtis asks. “He looks dead.”
“Close to it. I think he will be soon.”
Jake cries softly. “My Mikey,” he croaks between tears. “What am I gonna tell my ma?”
“Shut up,” Curtis commands. “You don’t never see your ma no more.”
“But he’s my little brother.”
“Maybe you should take his wallet, Harlan, and whatever else he got.”
“Already thought of that. Get Jake out and wait at that gate. Once I tend to Michael I’ll join you.”
As Curtis helps Jake out of the car and forces him to walk to the gate, Harlan searches Michael’s pockets, taking out everything—wallet, cash, tissues, candy wrappers—although, thinking ahead, he knows it will not be necessary. I never done this before. Shouldn’t have to be Michael. I guess it’s like takin’ care of a dead pet dog. He puts an ear to Michael’s nose again, hears nothing.
Harlan approaches Curtis, who complains that he is having a hard time keeping Jake standing. “Then put him down. Let him slump against that fence. I’m going out to get us a car.” Ignoring Curtis’s repeated question about whether Michael is dead, he pulls the damaged gate open and walks out to the edge of the road. No cars in sight. Still as black and desolate as the far side of the moon. He walks back to the building. One elbow shot shatters the glass of the window. He waits. No alarm. After another few seconds he convinces himself that is able to continue to ignore the hot pain rising up from his abdomen and the unpleasant sensation of cold, gummy blood that coats his undershorts. Time enough to nurse myself later, he thinks. Two more elbow shots knock the remaining large shards of glass loose. Then, as he braces his arms on the window frame and slowly lifts one leg up, a vicious, burning thunderbolt shoots up from his abdomen to his chest and into his skull. He sees black and falls to the wet ground, landing on his back, hard. A second … or a minute later, he is awake in the middle of a frigid puddle, looking up at the unbroken black of the night sky. He struggles to suppress the urge to howl, and waits for the searing, all-consuming pain to abate. Then, pounding the heels of his open hands together over and over again, the pain lessens and he regains control. He lies quietly. He decides that it would be nice to die where he is. Then he has a new thought: more likely than not, he will still be alive in the morning, at which point the owner of the service station will see him and the others and call the cops. Harlan is more than willing to die right then and there, but even more determined not to spend even one day in prison.
He struggles to his feet, leans against the building, and calls to Curtis.
“You look like a dead man,” Curtis observes as he approaches.
“I can’t climb up. You do it. Find the keys to the cars out there.”
“Okay. Where they gonna be, Harlan?”
“I don’t know, Curtis, damn it! Check the place out. Quick! Drawers, cabinets. Break ’em open if you have to. Take as many as you see, all of them, and find us some gasoline too, you know, in one of those red cans, or engine oil or anything we can use to start a fire. And get some drinks. Don’t turn on no lights. Hurry. We been lucky so far. A cop car can come down that road any minute.”
After saying that he understands, Curtis easily climbs into the window frame and drops to the floor of the service station office. Harlan grits his teeth as he holds onto the building. Curtis climbs back out a few seconds later with several sets of car keys in his hand.
“Okay. Give them to me. Did you find gas?”
“I forgot. I got nervous, and I forgot.”
“Go back in, Curtis. I’ll drive one of those there cars to the fence so we can get Jake and maybe Michael—if he’s still in this world—into it. Hurry up now. We gotta get going.”
Choosing the most commonplace-looking vehicle for that rural section of south-central Wisconsin, an older model Buick, Harlan tries all of the keys, finally coming across the correct one. He is ready to throw away the other ones, but then decides to hedge his bet. The Buick does not start, so, grateful that he has held onto all of the keys, he exits the vehicle and tries a newer model Volvo. The engine starts, but it whines like an alley cat in heat. Fan belt, he thinks. The next one, a newer model minivan, starts like a charm. Here for an oil change. He drives it to the front of the fence, but when he steps on the brake pedal the vehicle glides a few feet before rolling to a squishy stop. No time to try another one. I’ll drive this one real slow. As Harlan carefully climbs out of the van, Curtis throws an armful of candy bars and cans of soda onto the front seat. Then he hands over a black-smudged squeeze container of Kingsford Charcoal Lighter, asking, “You gonna set the old Ford ablaze, Harlan?”
“Yeah. Have to … too much fingerprints and DNA … and Michael. I believe he’s dead. If they identify his body, which they will, they’ll be onto us.”
“Oh, I musta left my prints and whatever in that office. Maybe we better light her up too.”
“No. That ain’t right. Can’t put the man outta business. Besides, your prints and DNA are mixed in with hundreds of others. Come on … get Jake off the ground and into the van. Stay with him. I’ll check on Michael again. If he’s breathin’, I’ll take him with us. If he ain’t, I’ll light him up with the Ford.”
As Curtis helps Jake into the van, Harlan walks to the enclosed yard and approaches the side of the car where Michael is slumped down on the seat. He reaches in and touches Michael’s forehead; it is cold. He bends and puts an ear against Michael’s nose. Again, he hears nothing, feels no current of air. It ain’t nothin’, he tells himself. Friend and running buddy? Yes. Like a brother? Yes.
They have spent years together, been through Hell together. Harlan survived adolescence because of Michael. They both hated the prison-like atmosphere of school, and so they frequently cut out or just took the day off. By the age of sixteen, they were spending afternoons, evenings, entire days drinking cheap wine and smoking weed. Then, as Michael’s family dissolved, at least partially because of Harlan, the boys experimented with crack, and then meth, and then pills and heroin, and whatever other substances they could lay their hands on. During that period of time, they were both angry and disgusted with everyone and everything around them, and so they escaped it all by getting high. They stole whatever they could in their little town to feed their habits and grinned their way through several dicey situations.
By the time they turned seventeen their lives were dictated by the need to obtain ever more drugs. Because they were always short of money, they spent a great deal of time breaking into the homes and cars of what passed for rich folks in their impoverished Mississippi town and on one or two occasions they snared small sums of money from cash drawers in local stores. They lived for, hungered for the intense euphoria and the exhilarating sense of heady freedom that came from being high. Of course, they were sick as dogs and wracked with pain, as well as pathetically weak and profoundly ashamed of themselves when they came down. In addition, during those dark times, they felt utterly defeated and worthless and often agreed that there was no point in living.
Finally, around midnight on Sunday at the end of a mind-bendingly frantic drug-fueled weekend, they smashed a window and climbed into the local bank, where, much to their surprise, not one penny was available for the taking. Not hearing an alarm (There was none because, during the bank’s century of operation, it had never been robbed or broken into.), the boys thought about getting high again and relaxing on the cushiony sofa in one of the offices, but then they remembered that they had left their stash in its hiding place, a Folgers Coffee container under a rock in the deep woods outside of town.
Disappointed and depressed, Harlan and Michael climbed out of the same window through which they had entered, managing to miss the local patrol officer on his rounds by just a few seconds. When they reached their tent in the woods, for reasons neither of the boys could explain, they both decided they had to radically change their lives. They were so close to each other, as if they were twins, so attuned to each other’s thinking, that they rarely needed to discuss plans or thoughts or feelings. Therefore, without any preliminary conversation, they made a solemn pact to kick their habits cold-turkey. They sealed the bargain by swearing that if they were unsuccessful they would blow each other’s brains out, but first, they indulged in one last binge.
The next morning, the boys packed their tent, along with food, lots of water, and two pistols, and then they offered a neighbor fifty dollars—which they did not have—to drive them deep into Tishomingo State Park, a huge, almost trackless wilderness in the northeastern part of the state, hours from where they lived. When they exited the neighbor’s car they told him to leave, saying they would hitch a ride home in a few days, at which point they would pay him. The first day was one of the best the two boys ever had. That evening was uncomfortable, but bearable. The next three days and nights, during which, lugging their tent and food supply, they searched in vain for someone to drive them out of the park and to the closest town, were hell. They were sick, in pain, and becoming frantic. They feverishly trudged in the direction of the park exit, stopping frequently to guzzle water and shiver and throw up green bile. They also took long breaks, during which they dozed off in the shrubbery on the sides of forest pathways. Although they complained that they did not have the energy to walk another step and during the worst times said, “That’s a good spot to lay down and end the misery,” they softly encouraged each other to go a little farther. By the time they made their way to a road, where they flagged down a big rig whose driver took them almost all of the way home, they were exhausted and weak, but over the worst part. They hoped they were on the road to recovery.
Even though Harlan and Michael have stumbled over the years, they have mostly managed to stay away from the substances that had held them prisoner and had, for all intents and purposes, robbed them of their humanity. Now, when they break into houses and take cash and whatever else they can lay their hands on, they use the ill-gotten gains for rent and cheap food and beer, and not for drugs.
Harlan gently clamps Michael’s mouth closed and presses his ear against his friend’s nose. Then, closing his eyes, he concentrates. After a few seconds, Michael’s head jiggles as if he is attempting to suppress a laugh. Harlan gasps, opens his eyes, and pulls away. Michael gurgles, sucks in air, shudders. Then he is still. Now, when Harlan clamps Michael’s mouth shut and puts his ear to his friend’s nose he hears, feels nothing.
Harlan stands there, looking at Michael, lifeless in the back seat of the Ford. He is angry and mournful at the thought that he is about to torch the man he has loved as a brother, who he has known from the time they were boys, from what seems like the beginning of time. Even so, he does not feel guilty about what he is going to do; after all, dead is dead. Neither does he feel bad for Jake, a man-boy who will forget about his younger brother as soon as he has eaten a good meal and slept in a decent bed. Michael’s ma? No. Muriel is … who knows where, living with who knows whom, and most assuredly trying to drink herself to death. Roger, Michael’s pa? Who knows where he is or even whether he still is. As Harlan thinks of all of that, he still does want to bring Michael home, back to Purgatory, Mississippi, to the place where he has or had lived all of his life.
He bends forward, puts his ear to Michael’s nose again. He feels moving air, but knows it’s a damp breeze drifting into the car. Michael is dead. Harlan can see, through the ugly smear of coagulated blood, that some of the shotgun pellets had torn into Michael’s neck, ripping open the carotid artery on that side, causing him to bleed out. No bloods seeps out now, although the wound is open. Even if Harlan were to have driven Michael to a hospital, he probably would not have survived, and his body would now be serving as a honey pot of information for the police. And, if Michael had survived, the hospital would have notified the police that they had a gunshot victim, which would have led to their questioning him. Michael would never have revealed anything, including his name, so the police would have held him, maybe arrested him. However, it is likely that, dead or alive, the authorities would have been able to identify him, and that would have inevitably led to Harlan, Curtis, and Jake.
No. Any attempt to save Michael’s life would have sacrificed the other three men. Michael would not have expected any of the others to do that for him, and Harlan does not feel in the wrong about having allowed his friend to bleed to death in the back seat of the old Ford.
Curtis calls to Harlan from outside of the enclosed parking lot. Harlan knows that standing here, checking and double-checking Michael, is putting the three of them at risk. It is just a matter of time until a police car comes down the road, and, with nothing else around other than trees and decrepit shacks, any cop worth his salt would surely check out the darkened service station. Even so, he bends toward Michael again, hoping to hear and feel nothing, reassure himself that his friend is gone. Nothing. He whispers Michael’s name. Then he puts his ear to Michael’s nose again. Nothing. He kisses Michael’s cold forehead, something that he had never done during their many years together as friends, housemates, partners in crime, and brothers. He has always known that Michael had felt a love for him that was beyond the bounds of male friendship. Once, only once, on the morning after he and Michael had hosted an all-night party with two women they had met in a bar, as Harlan emerged from his bedroom, hung over, sexually drained, and with his mouth feeling as if it was filled with cotton balls, Michael got up from the broken-down couch in their small, cramped living room and gave him a bear hug and kissed his neck. Harlan laughed, pushed Michael away, and pointing to the woman asleep on the couch, said “Go do that to Carolanne.”
I promised I’d always be there for him, but he’s gone. It’s just his dead body sittin’ back there, Harlan tells himself. Then he reassures himself that what he is about to do, what he must do, is simply to cremate Michael’s body, which is just as respectful as burying him in the cemetery in Purgatory. In addition, it is the practical thing to do; it will allow Curtis, Jake, and him to survive. After all, survival is a basic instinct, the only principle that Harlan believes is true and necessary and natural.
Harlan moves out from the car and straightens up. He squirts lighter fluid onto the front seat and dashboard. Then he sprays the rear seat, but not Michael. He knows he has to do that—baptize Michael with this flammable holy water to prepare his friend for his journey to eternity, to Heaven, if it exists—and he will, but not yet, not until the car is ablaze, not until he is prepared to take that step.
As he works to develop the courage, he considers the irony of the name of their hometown, something that he and most other folks who live in that little hamlet hardly ever think about. According to the old timers, the original settlers were a group of escaped convicts from a jail in New Orleans during the time when it had been French territory, along with a few Natchez women. The convicts had strangled their guards one Sunday morning during Mass at the prison and then scrambled over the stone walls to freedom. Well, not to freedom, but to the harsh journey toward it. They ran from the colonial settlement and fought their way through tropically damp uncharted wilderness for weeks, surviving on whatever was growing on trees and bushes and drinking from whatever sources of water they came across. One night, shortly after they had miraculously managed to cross the dark, turbulent Mississippi River into the Mississippi Territory, famished, exhausted, and deathly ill, they stumbled into the campsite of a band of Natchez who had never come into contact with Europeans. The Natchez took the men in and tended to their needs, whereupon many of them contracted a variety of deadly illnesses from their guests. During the next few weeks, most of the Natchez, along with several of the sickest, weakest Frenchmen, died. The survivors, a handful of Frenchmen, one Natchez male, and a dozen Natchez women and children, having run out of food, trekked several miles further east, stopping at a place alive with game. Despite the fact that they were exhausted and weak, the Frenchmen, following the lead of the Natchez man, managed to kill two deer, which they skinned, gutted, and cooked over an open fire. After they had eaten their fill and rested, they established a makeshift settlement. The Natchez man, who had appeared to be healthy, became feverish and died. Francois Rousseau, a sometime pirate, declared himself leader of the group, and, telling the others that they had escaped Hell but had not yet reached Heaven, he named the outpost Purgatoire. Years later, when English-speaking people moved to the area and settled in the town, they called it by its English translation, Purgatory.
Harlan shakes his head and smiles as he thinks that he and the others are in Hell and are trying to return to Purgatory.
He pulls a pack of matches from his pocket and strikes one. A damp breeze blows it out. The same with the next one, so he leans into the car, right over Michael, and pulls loose another match. He strikes. It catches, stays lit. He flicks it to the dashboard and backs away at the same instant that the front interior of the car explodes in flames. Bits of hard plastic spit and flutter and drift to the back seat, causing it to catch fire. Standing outside of the Ford, Harlan aims the container of fluid at Michael, but he hesitates. The fire blazes up around Michael. It is smoky and noisy, sounding like applause. From where Harlan is standing, just outside of the car, the skin on his face and hands is close to scalding. He remains where he is, accepting the punishment.
Finally, he squirts Michael.
In the fraction of a second during which Michael’s body erupts in flames and becomes a red-orange torch, his head jerks in Harlan’s direction, his eyelids flip up, and his mouth opens wide, exposing two rows of uneven teeth.
As Michael’s body burns that image scalds itself into Harlan’s brain.