“Bandana” by Tom Howard

Willow Springs Cover 74 shows blue and brown paint smeared artistically across a rough surface.

Found in Willow Springs 74

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OVER DINNER ONE NIGHT I told my dad about the League of Scorpions, just to break up the deathly silence. I told him how the League was a kind of school club, except instead of doing activities and sports and charitable things, the boys in the club mostly punched kids and wore black bandanas and inspired dread. Told him how the leader of the Scorpions, Tripp Nolan, had a tattoo of a scorpion killing a dragon that was eating a shark. My dad said sounds like they're top dogs in the school and I said yeah that's the case. He said tell me more about the black bandanas and I admitted they were fierce impressive. He said why aren't you in the League of Scorpions and I said they only take one new kid each year, and he said sorry I didn't realize you were so unexceptional and lacking in ambition. That didn't make me feel great, so I said you have to beat someone up just to get an application, and I never even threw a punch before. He said you'd better stop talking now because my love for you is diminishing. Said he was glad my brother Quinn was dead so Quinn didn't have to hear me make that comment about how I'd never thrown a punch before. Quinn killed a dozen Talibans with his bare hands before they strapped an IED to his head and blew him all over Kandahar. My dad said Tripp Nolan could probably kill a dozen Talibans with his bare hands too, sounds like. He said maybe you should focus less on books and more on being worthy of the League of Scorpions. Then he went to his bedroom and turned out the lights and listened to Vic Damone records, which was the only thing that gave peace to his grieving heart now that Quinn was dead and my mother had run off with the bastard Kit Crawford, our former exterminator.

I went to school thinking about who I could beat up without repercussions, main problem being that I didn't hate anybody too much, other than maybe Gary Compton. Gary Compton was already six feet tall in the seventh grade and had to shave twice a day. He was skinny and colorless and gangly like a skeleton, and he had black eyes that shone like demonic marbles. When Gary slapped you or punched you, which was often, he'd look at you with such hatred that you'd start apologizing because you'd think there's no way anyone could look at someone else with that much venom without a god damn reason. After he punched you, Gary would wait a second and then say, "You're a dumb abortion baby." Which didn't make any sense, but it made you feel bad. I wouldn't have minded punching Gary Compton. But Gary was second in command of the League of Scorpions.

I settled on Wesley Bloom. Wesley was small and thoughtful and delicate looking. His mom got her hair caught in the mixer blade while working at the salsa plant in Bridgeport, and after she'd been mixed pretty well Wesley's dad jumped in after her, which most people considered more a suicide than a rescue attempt. After that, Wesley moved in with his grandmother who was blind and half-deranged, and started school at Richfield where he was unpopular because he wore glasses and had a wall-eye and everybody said Wesley was a gay prince's name. Despite all that, Wesley didn't seem bitter. He made a point of being nice to kids who were even weirder and less popular. He gave half his lunch away to the Posner twins, whose lunches were regularly stolen by Gary Compton as punishment for them living in a houseboat and being albinos. Wesley just seemed happy to still be alive and part of the world, maybe because he knew that at any moment he or anyone else could fall into a salsa mixer. He spent most of his lunch hours by himself at a picnic bench in the school courtyard, eating the raisins that were left over from his lunch after the Posner twins received their distribution. He sat and ate and sometimes read a comic book or put his head on the table and watched bugs crawl through the grass around his feet. My point is that he was probably the sweetest and least antagonistic person I knew. He forgave everybody for everything. That's why I decided he was the one I should beat up.

I waited at lunchtime until I saw Tripp and Gary Compton and Teddy Nantz walk into the courtyard, wearing their bandanas. When Wesley walked past me with his raisins and carton of milk, I was nervous, but also angry. I hated Wesley's glasses and his wall-eye and his sad little box of raisins, and the more I looked at him the more I hated him. I hated how defenseless he looked more than anything else. It ended up being pretty easy to sock him in the gut. Raisins flew everywhere ans Wesley doubled over and fell to the ground. When I tried to get out of the way, I accidentally stepped on his glasses. I felt a little bad about that so I jumped off right away, but I landed on his milk carton and sprayed milk all over his face while he clutched his stomach. I looked around and Tripp Nolan gave me the nod. Everybody else just laughed at Wesley who had been dumb enough to be punched in the stomach and have his glasses broken.

Wesley rolled onto his back and didn't move. I said just get up now, kind of whispering to him, but he didn't even look at me. That made me angry, too. Him just laying there, not even bothering to wipe the milk off his face. My dad would've been furious if he'd seen that. So I kicked him one more time because I was so full of hate.

Next day I opened my locker and there was a note inside: "Nice job with the waley. Retorn applecation ASAP." The application asked for my name and social security number, and for me to list the top seven most terrible things I'd ever done.

"Well, what are you waiting for," my dad said when I showed him the application. I'd already described the scene in the courtyard, with the raisins flying everywhere. "Sounds like this Bloom had it coming," he said. "Quinn's ghost is probably somewhat less mortified by you being a blood relation today."

I said thanks but was having misgivings. Wesley hadn't shown up for school and I'd had nightmares all night long. I knew better than to admit this fact. Instead, I made up some things for the application that I thought would impress Tripp Nolan, mostly involving bitterness and ethnic hatred, and I slipped the note into Tripp's locker vent the next morning. Wesley still hadn't come to school. By the end of the day there was a black bandana waiting in my locker.

My dad wanted to celebrate, so he told me to wear the bandana and drove me out to the field behind our old house, which we'd had to sell due to hard times etc. after the divorce. Now the bastard Kit Crawford lived in the house with my mother. My dad shot beer bottles off tree stumps for half an hour until Kit came down from the house and said he was going to call the cops this time for sure, while my mom stood at the top of the hill holding her new baby, the Demon Bastard. I waved but I don't think she saw me. My dad shook his fist at Kit and we got in the car and drove away. Even so, he was in pretty good spirits. He said now that I was a member of the League of Scorpions he could stop referring to me as the one who should've died. I said I appreciated that. He turned on Vic Damone and I tried not to think about the squishy sound Wesley's stomach had made when I punched him.

My first week as a Scorpion was quiet. We met afternoons in Tripp's garage and he flipped through girlie magazines and talked about people who deserved grievous punishment. This included the President of the United States and lefthanders and the Principal of Richfield and the gay couple who owned The Guided Swan taproom and the blacks and a lot of girls he knew and most people named Todd or Jayson with a Y. I just listened. Sometimes I stared at the bandana and reminded myself how important it was. I imagined Quinn standing there with his arms folded over his chest, his clothes covered in Taliban guts, smiling at me. He said, "Someday you might grow up and kill people with your bare hands, too." Then his head blew up again and I flinched, and the others stopped what they were doing to stare at me. I tried to explain about Quinn killing a dozen Talibans and getting blown up over in Kandahar, and mentioned seeing him there in front of me from time to time. Gary Compton punched me in the shoulder and called me a weird doofus pussy. Tripp said he liked that I hallucinated, that it gave me character. Gary said whatever. Tripp said maybe Gary could take a few lessons in being a badass from the weird doofus pussy,since the roomer was Wesley Bloom was out of school because he'd overdosed and tried to commit suicide. Meanwhile, Quinn's head was back together, but he kept reaching around behind him to check for explosives. I closed my eyes and ignored him.

A week went by and I went to see Wesley at his house. His grandmother answered the door and I said I was Wesley's friend and she said that was the dumbest thing she'd ever heard, but she told me the was probably at the dump if I wanted to see him. I asked if she needed some help since she was blind and she said fuck off. So I went out to the dump and found Wesley sitting on an old broken console television, holding a gun to his head.

"What the hell are you doing," I said.

"I'm thinking its better this way," Wesley said.

"It's ass-stupid," I said.

"I'm tired," he said. "Go away."

That would have been the perfect time for me to apologize for beating him up in front of everybody. Or to say that if he could handle his mom and dad falling into the salsa mixer and having a blind grandmother who talked like a pirate then he should be able to handle something like this. Instead, I felt all this anger well up in me. I said, "You wall-eyed coward. Nobody cares if you're tired. You want to go out like that? You think people talk about you now, wait till they hear you couldn't handle things and blew your own idiot head off."

Wesley lowered the gun and dropped his head and said yeah, that's probably true, and then he lifted the gun and shot me in the chest.

My body was still falling when I slipped free from myself. It felt good to be out of it, like shrugging off the snowsuit my mom used to make me wear on snow days. I wasn't angry or worried about anything anymore. I thought maybe I'd go see the world, especially the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wall of China and the aurora borealis. I'd always wanted to see the borealis. I figured I didn't I didn't have much time before I was sent to hell for being a hateful son of a bitch and turning Wesley into a child murderer.

Then I looked down,  and it was a sad little scene to behold. Broken appliances and and scraps of lumber and tile everywhere, the ground littered with candy wrappers and raisin boxes and other trash. And me lying dead with a bloody hole in my chest and a dumb look on my face, with Wesley standing over me with a gun.

He stayed like that for a bit, frozen. Then he stood up straight and put the gun to his head, and I yelled out don't you dare blow your brains out. But if he blew out his brains I was responsible.

He looked up and spotted my celestial form with his good good eye. "You're gonna haunt me till the end of my days then."

"I'm not gonna haunt you," I said. "I just need to make sure you don't kill yourself. My soul's filthy enough."

Wesley nodded and sighed. "Well, I'm just going to jail then anyway."

"They'll put you in juvenile," I argued.

"I imagined I'll get raped there," he said. Not so much complaining as just reporting a fact. "After a while I'll develop some weird personality disorders I guess. I'll be fine medicated most of the time so I don't injure myself or others. Then when I get out I'll be a homeless person and eat garbage and live under a bridge."

"You're not going to eat garbage and live under a bridge," I yelled.

"Well do you have to expect the worst?" Then I thought about it a bit more. I lowered my voice ans said, "Never mind. That is probably what'll happen."

"It's okay," Wesley said. "I'm going to call the police now. Thanks for not letting me kills myself I guess."

But I was already thinking. On the one hand he was a murderer, sure. But on the other hand I'd provoked him. I didn't see how it was going to make things any better for anyone by having Wesley get raped in juvenile and then end up eating garbage and living a bridge.

"You'll have to bury me," I said.

It took some time convincing him that this was the best solution. It also took me threatening to haunt him mercilessly of he didn't follow my instructions. I'm not proud of that. But eventually he gave in. Took most of the afternoon to dig the hole. When it was done and he'd covered my body up, I had him push an old refrigerator over to hide the grave site.

It was getting dark by then. We stood together in front of the refrigerator and Wesley said a couple of nice words. He said he was sorry for stealing the lives of all my potential children and grandchildren, which hadn't occurred to me until he said it. I told him it was okay and they would probably be monsters anyway.

"Now what," he said.

"Lay low," I said. "People will think I ran away. Eventually they'll forget about me and you can go on with your life and be happy."

"As a murderer," he said.

"It's best if you don't keep saying that," I said. I told him to go home and get some sleep. Things would make sense in the morning.

Once he was gone, I hung out for a while at the dump. Mournful cries rose from the graveyard on the other side of the hill. I walked over and stood behind the fence listening to the dead. They were a regretful bunch, and there was considerable moaning. The town librarian, who drove into a like with her three girls a few years back, came over and said I was welcome to join in the morning if I wanted to, even though I wasn't buried on consecrated ground. I said I appreciated that but needed to think. I told her I was trying to redeem myself a little so my soul wasn't so rotten. She said that always works out well, then rolled her eyes and walked away ringing her hands.

I went home and snuck into my house and spent the night in my room. But I didn't sleep. My dad was up the whole night pacing, which made me feel guilty. Every now and then he looked in my room and I waved a little, but he didn't see me and even if he had, I thought seeing me waving like that would've been creepy, so I stopped. I had enough to worry about with Wesley. I needed a plan to salvage his soul, or at least to keep him from getting raped and developing weird personality disorders.

In the morning I found him on his way to school. "Just don't be anxious," I said. "Everything's going to be fine."

"I'm thinking it isn't," he said. "Plus, I feel like it's bad that I can see you. Like it means I'm a lunatic and I'm likely to shoot up the school in the near future."

I said that was the exact wrong way to think. I said we were a team. I'd help him put his life back together and become happy, and he'd help me not have such a filthy soul. First thing, I told him, was to deal with the rumors in school that he'd tried to kill himself. I suggested he tell people he was recuperating all week from a rattlesnake bite.

"Or I could just tell the truth," he said quietly. "Maybe people would be compassionate if I just say I'd had enough and didn't know what else to do."

I said as his spirit guardian I had to strongly advice against that.

We argued all the way to school, and right away when we walked inside kids started calling him names. Only instead of Wall-Eye and Salsa Boy they called him Prince Valium and said he wasn't even good at killing himself. Wesley went to his locker and didn't say anything. Then Gary Compton showed up wearing his bandana, overflowing with rage, as per usual. Other kids came over to watch. Gary pinned Wesley against the locker and said only cowards took pills to kill themselves, and he asked why Wesley was so damn weak and pitiful.

Wesley said he didn't know why. He said he missed his mom and dad and couldn't help the way his eye looked. Said he wished the world was different, and that other kids liked him or at least left him alone to find whatever happiness he could find. Said he tried to kill himself because nothing made sense anymore and he couldn't see things getting any better. And then, finally, he asked Gary Compton for mercy.

Nobody said a word. You could tell Gary was thinking, even while he was holding Wesley up against the locker. You could tell he knew this was a moment of some importance. I really wished something good would happen for a change. I tried to emanate powerful waves of kindness toward Gary, hoping he'd see the opportunity here. I thought it could be like one of those movies where the bully realizes how rotten he's been, and it turns out he's only rotten because he's secretly sad and miserable and a welfare kid. Then he and Wesley could become friends and everybody would learn a valuable lesson.

"Scorpions show no mercy," Gary said.

He punched Wesley four times in the gut and Wesley cried out that really he'd been bitten by a rattlesnake and was recuperating all week. The kids laughed and Gary punched him again and took his glasses and stuffed him in the locker and called him a dumb abortion baby. Everybody cheered, and Gary stalked away full of rage.

When the hallway was clear, I stood next to the locker and asked Wesley how he was doing. He didn't answer. I asked if he hated me and he finally said no, he didn't. But I knew he did. He'd never hated before, but he hated me. And I knew that hate would bloom in his soul.

That night I went home and found Quinn sitting on the floor in my bedroom, fieldstripping his rifle.

"I think I'm making a mess of things," I told him.

"What'd you expect?" He said.

"Thanks," I said. How's Dad doing?"

"He went up to see Kit Crawford today. Accused him and mom of kidnapping you, then tried to jump Kit. Got knocked around pretty bad and Kit put a restraining order on him." He finished with the rifle and set it down. His hands started shaking right away. Then he looked up as if he'd just remembered I was in the room. He said, "You want a hug or something?"

"Appreciate it," I said, "but no thanks."

"We could go see the borealis. Before things get worse."

"Things aren't getting worse," I said. "I'm going to fix this." But he'd already forgotten me and was back at work on his rifle.

Wesley was smiling the next morning when I saw him. A weirdo smile, but still a smile. "I know what to do," he said. He said if he became a member of the League of Scorpions all his problems would go away. No one would lay a finger on him again, including Gary Compton. Tripp Nolan would make sure of that. And he'd have a black bandana to boot.

"This idea," I said, "is an abomination."

"Do you have a better one?"

"You could run away," I said. "You could become a train hobo and travel around the country playing your harmonica." He said he didn't play the harmonica and I said he was making it difficult for me to save his soul. I pointed out that everything terrible had happened as a result of me wanting to join the League of Scorpions. I asked who the hell he was planning to beat up. Someone with even more tragedy in his life? A paraplegic maybe? I said I heard Will Spinner's brother didn't have any bones in his legs. Maybe Wesley could knock over his wheelchair. I said more of the same, pretty furious.

Wesley waited until I was done. Then he said, "I was thinking about Gary Compton."

I said I didn't realize Wesley had a sense of humor. But he said he had a plan, and worst case was that the plan backfired and he'd be killed. I said that was a terrible worst case, and the whole point of talking about the worst case is that it's not supposed to be all that bad.

When Gary arrived at school, he headed straight to Wesley again. Lifted him up, punched him in the gut, and stuffed him in the locker in the locker to another round of cheers. But when kids started walking away, Wesley called out to Gary through the locker vent and asked him if he wanted to make five thousand dollars.

I shook my head and groaned.

Gary waited until the hallway was clear and then he opened the locker. He said if this was a game he'd have to do something considerably more horrible to him, as per the Scorpion code of honor. Wesley said it was no game. He told Gary he had some insurance money left over from the salsa tragedy. All Gary had to do, he said, was let Wesley knock him down in the courtyard at lunch. Gary said if Wesley thought he was getting into the League of Scorpions , then he, Wesley, was a moron in addition to being a wall-eyed orphan. Wesley said no, he didn't expect that. But at least other kids would leave him alone then. Gary said he'd think about it. Said he'd give Wesley a signal if he was going to do it.

After Gary left, I said it was too risky. I was skeptical that Gary would settle for five thousand if he thought there was more insurance money waiting for him.

"Won't matter," Wesley said. "I don't even have five thousand."

I said I'd stop haunting him if he reconsidered immediately. He ignored me. Lunchtime came around and he went to the courtyard and handed the Posner twins their sandwich halves and their fruit. He ate his raisins and sat quietly under a tree. When the Scorpions showed up, he got to his feet. Gary looked over at him and nodded, and then he and the other Scorpions walked away to practice their hateful glaring. I said there's still time not to do this. But Wesley walked straight over to Gary and shoved him from behind as hard as he could, which wasn’t particularly hard.

Gary didn’t fall down. He barely moved. He turned to face Wesley and his marble eyes burned. “I changed my mind,” he said, and he punched Wesley in the stomach harder than I ever saw anyone punch. Only, when the punch landed it didn’t make the weird squishy sound I expected, and Gary’s fist bounced off as if he’d punched a brick wall. He clutched his hand and howled, and fell to the ground. Kids came over to watch as Gary curled up and held his busted hand against his chest and cried like a baby. The hand was already swelling something awful.

Tripp leaned down and said he completely understood that Gary was in a significant amount of pain, but he was going to have to take Gary’s bandana now, no hard feelings. Just that a crying Scorpion was unlikely to inspire dread. Then he handed the bandana to Wesley without a word.

Back at Wesley’s locker, when he was putting away the tile he'd stuffed inside his shirt before lunch, I said I was disappointed. I said this was turning into a tragedy and it didn’t have to be like that. He said things don’t always work out the way we want them to, like, for instance you don’t want your mom and dad to fall into a salsa mixer but it happens anyway. Then he tied the bandana around his head and turned away from me.

Later, I went to Gary Compton’s house to see what he was planning.  I thought maybe I could at least give Wesley advance warning. The house was gray and dirty on the outside, and I figured it would be a mess on the inside too. Figured he'd have parents who screamed at each other and called Gary names, like Shit-for-Brains. Probably it was always like that, since he was little. Probably when he came home from kindergarten with a macaroni sculpture, his dad tossed it in the garbage and said thanks for ruining our dinner, Shit-For-Brains. I felt bad about that, but Gary was still a monster.  Just because his dad threw away his macaroni sculpture and called him Shit-For-Brains didn’t mean he could punch kids and call them abortion babies and cause so much fear and dread.

I stepped inside, and it was even filthier than I expected. Garbage covered the living room floor, but in the middle of the garbage was a young kid I figured was Gary’s brother. He was hugging his legs and watching a cartoon with no sound. I heard voices down the hallway so I went to investigate, and found Gary in the back bedroom standing next to a hospital bed. One of his hands was bandaged and he was using the other to wash his mom’s arms and legs with a sponge. When he was done, he checked the levels on her oxygen tank and her morphine drip. He asked her if she needed anything. She said she needed a new liver. She asked if he was trying to poison her and he said no. She asked what day it was and he told her, and then she asked what year it was and he told her that too. She apologized for asking if he was trying to poison her, and he said that’s okay. She asked if it would be okay if she slept for the rest of the day, and he said yes. He came out of the room and closed the door behind him, then went to the kitchen and washed a few dishes with his good hand. He microwaved a TV dinner, and while it cooked he cleared a space in the garbage for his brother. He set down the TV dinner and told his brother he had to run some errands, but he'd be back and maybe they'd play Crazy Eights. Then he stepped outside and the rage came back as he stormed towards the Bloom house.

Wesley was at the dump, sitting on the refrigerator that was covering my grave. The gun was on the ground a few feet away.

“You need to run,” I said. "Your grandmother will tell him you're here."

“Scorpions don’t run,” he said, and he adjusted his bandana.

“You’re not a scorpion!” I yelled. “You’re a sweet kid. Beneath the murderer, I mean.”

“Not anymore,” he said.

Gary showed up shortly thereafter. Brimming with rage. Hatred flowed out of him, and for the first time I realized there was nothing I could do. Not for Wesley, not for Gary, not for anyone.  All I’d done was make things worse.

“There was never any five thousand dollars, was there?” he said.

Wesley shook his head. “You broke your promise anyway.”

“I know,” Gary said. “And I’m sorry about that. But at this point I still have to kill you.”

"I understand that," Wesley said.

Gary picked up the gun from the ground and pointed it at Wesley's chest. I put my head in my hands and closed my eyes.

The gun went off. When I opened my eyes I expected to see Wesley’s ghost. But Wesley was still on top of the refrigerator. He was looking down at Gary's body. The gun had backfired, or else Wesley had jammed it. Either way, most of Gary's face was gone and he wasn't moving.

Gary’s ghost rose up and looked around, dazed.

So I had to tell Wesley about Gary’s mom and about the sponge baths and the the morphine drip, and about Gary's little brother sitting at home in a pile of garbage and bout Crazy Eights. I said now there was nobody to take care of them.

"That means it’s your responsibility,” Gary said.

Wesley’s face went gray, and he said, “I guess that’s true.”  He turned to me and admitted that he was beginning to hate me now.

He dug another hole for Gary's body as the rain started to fall. Gary and I tried to be encouraging. Wesley tipped the refrigerator onto its side so it would cover both graves, but the refrigerator got stuck in the mud and wouldn't move. By then it was getting dark and Wesley had to go take care of Gary's mom and play Crazy Eights with his little brother before putting him to bed.

Gary told Wesley he'd check back in from time to time, but for now he just wanted to hang out someplace else and empty all hatred from his soul.

I went home and curled up on the bed and listened to the thunder, while Quinn sat at the foot of the bed and played the harmonica. He wasn't any good, but I didn't mind. Every now and then my dad walked in wearing my bandana, eyes hallowed and bruised from the beating he'd taken from Kit Crawford.

In the morning the phone rang. Quinn and I listened in. One of my dad's drinking buddies said he heard the rains had dredged up our two bodies at the dump. The gun was nearby too, he said, hidden under a pile of empty raisin boxes. I closed my eyes and hoped my dad wouldn't remember.

But he did. "Bloom," he said.

He hung up the phone and slipped the bandana back on his head. Then went to get his gun. Quinn shook his head and said we should really just skip town at this point and see the borealis.

Instead, we rode in the car with my dad to Wesley's house.

“There’s still time for this not to end horribly,” I said.

“As horribly,” Quinn corrected.  “And he can’t hear you.”

We’d have comical adventures together, and daring escapes, and moments of sublime, homely grace. Wesley said that really did sound good, especially the grace part.  Then he walked outside and went to face my dad, holding his hands out to his sides.

My dad got out of the car and raised his gun. His hands were shaking. He said I've got you now, you coward. You can't run from me.

Wesley said I know. He said I'm ready.

They met in the middle of the yard. My dad pointed the gun at Wesley's head. Quinn stood next to me and put his hand on my shoulder. Rain was falling and I thought this was it, this would bring about the ruin of everyone I knew.

Wesley closed his eyes, and waited for the end.

But his head wasn't blown off. My dad dropped to his knees on the wet grass. The gun fell from his hands, and his shoulders trembled. I'd never seen him look so old. Rain splattered his bald head, and he stared down at the earth and sobbed. Oh, my son, he said, my son, what have I done to you. What have I done? The words seeped into the wet ground. Wesley stepped forward and said no, I was the one who killed your son and I'm the one that deserves to be punished. My dad shook his head. Wesley said I just want to be good again, the way I used to be. My dad cried out that he wished he could be good again, too.

Quinn and I stood there, still and silent in the rain.

Sirens sounded, far off. Wesley said at last he had to go. Said he'd call the police and turn himself in before the end of the day. My dad sat on the grass and rocked like a child, and the rain fell harder.

Wesley cleaned up Gary's house the best he could. He looked in on Gary's mom and said goodbye, and she said thanks and said she'd miss his wall-eye. He sat on the living room floor and Gary's brother leaned his head on Wesley's shoulder, and they watched silent cartoons as the last of the daylight slipped away.

I didn't say goodbye. The two of them looked nice sitting together on the floor and I didn't want to bother them. I walked outside with Quinn and he said you sure you're ready, and I said I guess I was. And then we were gone, and everything fell away below us.

And even though I'd made a mess of things, I ached for what I'd lost.

Quinn knew the way. We went north until we couldn't go farther. Overhead, the night sky shimmered, ghost-like, full of color.

Gary Compton was already there, sitting with his head tilted back so he could stare up at the lights. I was pretty tired by then, and ready to sleep. I walked over and sat next to Gary. He looked like he'd been crying a little. I didn't say anything, just watched along with him.

"I never knew," he said. "How beautiful it was."

And I said I know, I know, I know.

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