War Drums

by Keith James

There’s a beach town twenty minutes north of San Diego that folks say went to the dogs. The older beach rats draped on barstools at Peabody’s, with leather-bag skin and salt-destroyed hair, think it happened over night. Forty years of Beach Boys, and poof, a black sea of bass and rage. The streetlights flicker off as the sun comes up and Encinitas is a war-torn site riddled with needles and crushed pills.

But I hear the war drums. In the foreclosed home off Via Malaga, I see the army approaching.

I go to the house that night because I’m in love with a girl. Rachel. “I think we should go somewhere.” She takes a long drag off her Marlboro Red. I look at the little diamond resting in her small freckled nose. She keeps her eyes on me and the smoke inside her. She lets time pull the smoke out of her nostrils. She makes me feel like I were born and raised surrounded by white walls with nothing on them. I say “yes” before she even asks.

We wait in a café on E Street until dark. “No one goes to the house when it’s light out,” she says. It didn’t make sense to ask why. I sip my coffee, and she looks out the window. With her face to the side looking out at the passing cars, I feel guilty that the world doesn’t get to experience this in pictures or magazines. Looking at her feels like stealing. So I steal, and we wait in silence.

 

It was dark.

She says the house is on Malaga but we get off on Manchester, an exit earlier.

“I have to pick up some party favors,” she says, as a challenge.

“Cool.” I shift in my seat.

 

She comes out of the house twenty minutes after we get there. She has me wait in the car. “He doesn’t want to see some guy he doesn’t know,” she says.

She gets back in the car. Her eyes look round and wet. I think of a drop of life put on a glass slide before the plastic cover is flattened over it and placed under a microscope. Two years from now I’d know what that look on a young girl’s face means. Someone in that house tells her how she should behave. All she could do is look away and pray that time still goes off the clock at the same speed. But then, I think nothing of it. She turns the key, and the engine agrees.

We get on Malaga. Three houses down and she stops the car. As the belts of her engine slow, she looks at the black mass cloaking the deep, brooding noise. The sounds from inside hit the walls and make the mass hum a low, shaking note. My mind goes to Everest and the dead bodies used as landmarks to guide the climbers to the top.

“There it is.”

It offers virtually nothing from the outside. I could make out a balcony on its last legs that would give someone a view of the Pacific Ocean for two seconds before it gave in and sent the person crashing to the ground. This isn’t something to look at from the outside and understand, though. Everything happens inside.

She hands me a pill with a loose inside. Little specks of white hang at the bottom, waiting anxiously.

“Swallow it before you get inside.”

“What does it do?”

“They said it makes you feel numb. Should be fun.” She grabs a water bottle of vanilla vodka and slides it in my hand. She kisses me, knowing it’s what I’ve been begging for in silence. It feels good. The fear is gone. I take the pill in my mouth and enough vodka to bury it.

We walk up the path to the door. I notice handprints of an old family. Maybe the ones that used to own this house. This might have been their dream, I think. The grass needs mowing, and all the broken windows are covered with wood. Maybe the dream is too big, or too soon. I look over at her. Her head is down and her fingers are firing off on the screen of the phone. Maybe, I think, people will think she is mine. Her fingers stop. The door opens.

I feel the rush of sound like the roar of a feeding pride. Before I have time to settle, we are in the front doorway. My eyes are adjusting to blue lights and unknown chemicals in a pill some eighteen-year-old thought was best for me. I see herds of youth moving quickly, violently. I’m the oldest there by three years, and I’m only twenty one. I get the feeling that my presence here is inconsequential but universally despised. All the faces have the same jagged grimacing expressions that clash with my constant battle to assume the world is a halfway-decent place. Before I can reach a hand out or say something clever, she is gone. I am high and she is gone. So I wander.

The living room. A fifteen-year-old is punching holes in the walls with his tiny hands, punctuating manifestos written in pen and knives where pictures used to hang. I run my hands against the outline of a backward swastika. The writing is harsh and calls for a revolution, but no method to get there. I read the walls with a distance of us to the Egyptians. I make guesses on the authors’ intentions. I can feel the white specks turn my blood into sugar. Before I can accept my fear, my mental state shifts a thousand times. I stand at the wall and do nothing.

“Who are you?” a cracked voice calls. I turn because the question only makes sense for me. Everyone around me has a fixed role of not contributing to structure. People are moving with intentions to drown plans and purpose in the bathtub someone had already kicked to pieces.

“Rachel’s friend.” I look at him. He is large and draped in a letterman’s jacket. I can see the rusty gears in his head cranking against insurmountable friction to make a thought. I train my eyes on his hand holding a forty ounce, shifting over the base to the neck, not knowing who I am and how running that bottle over my head may be a benefit. But the gears stop.

“She’s in the garage. Follow me.”

I walk in line with a 6/7 bass coming from a speaker that is nowhere to be seen. The vibrations make a hole in my gut and rattle me from the inside out.

I look into a room along the way and see naked legs wrapped around a torso and two young male hands working their way around some type of smoking pipe. Behind them, more young men dismantle what had to be the previous owner’s crib. They are tearing at the bars. The bars break and their fingers get caught on the splinters. The young men smile and yell at one another, holding up their bleeding limbs.

On the ground, at the feet of the crib, are burnt pictures. I think of my crying father huddled over my baby pictures the night before I graduated high school. I wish I were there to see the chemical compounds that allow for a lasting memory to catch in flames.

I go back to the couple, the boy with a naked woman wrapped around him. He chokes and exhales smog that smells like flesh burning. He wheezes and cackles. The naked legs moan. The legs throw their head back and give me a look I don’t want to see. I walk away, but my mind is trained on the sounds. I hear the torch lighter in the boy’s hands.

I make it to the garage. I see the boy in the letterman’s jacket, and he’s visibly wondering how he lost me. The garage looks like it went through a week of being robbed and now the thirty or so people are standing around a collection of stuff no calculated person would ever want to own.

There is a mass circled around two boys running each other up with fists. One is a Mexican boy with his shoulder half out of his socket and ribs that look soft and tenderized. The other is a slight blonde boy I remember from high school.

Chris something. I was a senior and he was a freshman. During his orientation I was the senior that took his group around to show them the buildings and told them how fun the next four years would be. He wanted to make movies. Months into his first, and my last, year I remembered a circle just like this gathered around his brother who just got sent off his bike by Randy Williams’ brand new BMW he received as a gift for getting into San Diego State. I watched Chris something hold his dead brother and for a few moments, I felt like a liar.

I look at their eyes and know none of this is to pass the time; these boys want to destroy something. The Mexican gets caught with a cowboy’s hook and he is done for. The crowd lets out a deep groan of pleasure as the brown body slaps the floor. Chris something wastes no time straddling the lifeless body to finish what he started. Nobody stops him. The bodies in the circle beg for it to continue. The bodies beg to see something exotic. They want to be at arm’s length of burning villages in Africa and war-torn Iraq. The want what is on the news and forced down their throats. They want to see real blood from real suffering people.

I see Rachel slumped down in a beach chair, taking in the spectacle as an afterthought. My pupils work alone in figuring out the light. I trace the origin to a pair of spotlights hooked up to a generator that hums in the corner. I want to be right next to her.

Next to her is someone else though, and he’s talking to others, but looking at me. The man looks to be around thirty. His neck and arms are covered with crude tattoos with as much hate as the walls in this house. He smiles at me. It’s a mixture of gold, rot, and miles-down roads I would never walk on. His dried up eyes search me up and down.

“Rachel’s friend,” he chokes out. Rachel doesn’t say anything. The iceberg-blue rocks in her head don’t move.

I nod. He nods. In a very different way. We look at each other in silence, ignoring the Mexican being beaten behind us.

“Let’s go to the bathroom, Rachel’s friend. Rachel will be there, too.”

He pulls Rachel out of her seat. Her legs are pale and numb. She’s lifeless. The man sticks his tongue down her throat so far her tiny neck swells up. She doesn’t stop it. My heart is knifed and left bleeding. But I move to the bathroom with the three of them.

In the bathroom the man with the gold teeth holds a bag of something up.

“Only the best.” The other guy nods and follows the bag dancing between two fingers. Rachel is sitting in the bathtub with her legs open and up. I look, I know I shouldn’t. She’s got no underwear and something looks wrong. She looks at me with the soft wet eyes again.

“See something you like?”

The gold teeth put his black eyes inches from my face. “You better not.”

The other guy already has the spoon bent and the powder burning. The syrup cools. Mr. Gold Teeth takes a hold of Rachel’s bare feet. He sucks on the toes. “Shit’s nice.”

He spreads apart Rachel’s toes. With his free hand, he takes the needle tip and pops the webbed skin. He is fixated on his hands milking the needle. Mr. Gold Teeth licks his bottom lip which is trying not to crack into a smile. I watch the milk come right back into her. The four of us stop and look at each other. The noise through the speaker feels slower. All of us, good and evil, aren’t growing up. We are being fired off into the distance. I look at Rachel. Her head shakes and tears fall. She mumbles…something.

I lunge to grab her, but I’m not fast enough. Mr. Gold Teeth runs a heavy fist across my face. I feel my jaw bone heat from the friction and mold around his fist. Half the world is purple.

“Rachel is my girl. You don’t get to grab her…”

The bottom of a Vans slip-on brands my mouth. On the rubber waffle of stars and diamonds, I smell the burnt out streets he came from. I fight to stay conscious. Not here. Anywhere but here. I get a good grip on the leg driving a heel into my face. I leverage my foot against the toilet and blast him back into the wall. The other guy doesn’t move, except for slowly raising his hands. Thick tears are rolling down his face and he is rocking to the same slow sound I heard from the speakers.

Rachel is motionless. I pull her up. She wraps her own legs around me and buries her face into my neck. I feel a child’s heart slowly beating against mine. It’s getting late and it’s time to go.

I fight past the bodies, the screaming, the confusion. I drag Rachel through halls of drunken children spitting out calamities of an unfair world. I step over bodies that might be dying. There are fists and smoke and the walls offer words of encouragement. More. More. More. Give me your loudest scream. Kill your parents. Kill your teachers. Kill the president. I feel the heartbeat become slower and slower. I dig my hands down the back of her shirt to give her any warmth I have left. But I feel cold. Past Rachel’s curly brown hair, I lock eyes with what I can only describe as an aloof army, a mass of people striving to be individuals but surfacing as a collective mind of bitterness. I feel my brain snarling and going wild with wanting to kill these children for what they did without knowing.

No. Her. Just her right now. Let this place burn to the ground with them in it. But not her. I can see the door. I feel Rachel’s hand grab at the wall, and I push it away. When they all wake up in the morning, she isn’t going to be here and they can hate her for it. I reach a welcome mat that ended up indoors. Rachel keeps reaching for things to hold onto. In the midst of this chaos, I am shocked I can still be hurt.

We’re out of the house, now. I tell Rachel to close her eyes. I tell her to forget about this place and its sounds and its words and everything that it wants her to think and feel. I am the only one listening. I move forward.

Blue-electric fires out. There are tires screaming for heads to roll. Like me, this town has had enough of the madness and decided to call it in. But when those tires stop and the cops come out I won’t have a second to spare explaining why I have a dying child in my arms. I’m part of the swarm just by where I stand.

The wheels stop. Doors open. Six men in blue busting out of their shirts sprint through the front door, forgetting the two in front of them. Maybe being just outside the house was enough of a difference.

I drop Rachel in the car and speed off before I think about our luck too much.

I turn the radio down and the air off. I want to hear her breath. Please be breathing. It’s soft. At a red light I turn around and watch her small chest pop up and down. I want to tell her to run, far away. Go to a school. Montana. Utah. Go somewhere that isn’t here. Get a sweet boyfriend who loves his family. Hold his hand and promise to never break his heart. Just stay out of this town. My lip trembles and my eyes sting like an open cut.

That house already did its work. She will take it with her and if she doesn’t, she will find it. If I stood at a shore line and begged a hurricane to stay away I’d have the same result. This town isn’t just brick and mortar. It’s the people.

We don’t go to a hospital. I can’t say why. I lay her down at Moonlight Beach just on the other side of the 101. The waves fall and sink in a rhythm. She’s curled up in any bit of anything warm I could find. I listen to her breath fighting against poison. Her beautiful body is limp and I get sick with all the opportunities my mind thinks are present at the moment. Everything I want is lying in front of me and the only pair of eyes open on this beach is mine. I put my hand on her cheek and let my thumb roll over small nose and the diamond in it.

Her hand comes up and softly grabs mine. Her nails are chipped and lime green and I remember that we are young. I drop her hand and head back to her car. I pop the trunk and sift through piles of her dirty clothes for something.

I come back to her with the cleanest pair of underwear I can find. I lift her legs and slide the small garment up her thighs.

Maybe we can forget all of this, I think.

I leave her alone and the sun eventually rises.

Keith James is a recent undergraduate of Idaho State University. Born and raised in San Diego, he became fascinated with the skateboarding culture that lured in the degenerates he calls his friends today. He is a sucker for any story that begins a few minutes past 2AM. He spends his day drinking gas station coffee and walking his dog.

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