Angie kicked the alarm bar on the back door and the siren blast filled the terminal, bleating its call onto the street as we ran behind a row of trucks toward the corner. We cut out into traffic and went around the block, charging back up to Atlantic. We stopped on the corner, took a couple of deep breaths, held them as two more cruisers blew past us. We waited for the light, sweat pouring off our faces. When it turned red, we trotted across Atlantic, through the red dragon’s arch and down into Chinatown. We walked up Beach Street, past some men icing down their fish, past a woman tossing a barrel of fetid water off the back of a tiny loading dock, past an old Vietnamese couple, still dressed in the garb they’d worn during the French occupation. A small guy in a white shirt argued with a beefy Italian truck driver. The truck driver kept saying, “We go through this every day. Speak fucking English, goddamnit,” and the small guy said, “No speak English. You charge too fucky much, goddamnit.” As we passed, the truck driver said, “Now ‘too fucky much’ that I can understand.” The small guy looked fit to shoot him.
We caught a cab at the corner of Beach and Harrison, told the Iranian driver where we wanted to go. He looked at us in the rearview. “Tough day?”
No matter where you are, “tough day” and “too fucky much” seem to be part of the universal language. I looked at him and nodded. “Tough day,” I said.
He shrugged. “Me too,” he said and pulled onto the expressway.
Angie leaned her head against my shoulder. “What about Bubba?” Her voice was hoarse and thick.
“I don’t know,” I said and looked at the Gap bag in my lap.
She took my hand and I held on tight.
I sat in the front pew of St. Bart’s and watched angie light a candle for Bubba. She stood over it for a moment, her hand cupped around it until the yellow flame grew fat with oxygen. Then she knelt and bowed her head.
I started to bow mine, then stopped halfway, caught in the middle as always.
I believe in God. Maybe not the Catholic God or even the Christian one because I have a hard time seeing any God as elitist. I also have a hard time believing that anything that created rain forests and oceans and an infinite universe would, in the same process, create something as unnatural as humanity in its own image. I believe in God, but not as a he or a she or an it, but as something that defies my ability to conceptualize within the rather paltry frames of reference I have on hand.
I stopped praying or bowing, for that matter a long time ago, around the time my prayers became whispered chants pleading for the Hero’s demise and the courage necessary to have a hand in it. I never did get the courage, and the demise happened slowly, witnessed by my impotent stew of leftover emotions. Afterward, the world went on and any contract between God and myself had severed, interred in the hole with my father.
Angie stood up, blessed herself, and walked down off the carpeted altar to the pew. She stood there, looking down at the Gap bag beside me, and waited.
Bubba was dead, dying, or severely wounded because of this innocuous-looking bag. Jenna was dead too. So were Curtis Moore and two or three guys in the Amtrak station and twelve anonymous street kids who’d probably felt dead for a long time. By the time this was all over, Socia or I would join those statistics too. Maybe both of us. Maybe Angie. Maybe Roland.
A lot of pain in such a simple plastic bag.
“They’ll get here soon,” Angie said. “Open it.”
“They” were the police. It wouldn’t take Devin and Oscar long to identify the Unidentified White Male and the Unidentified White Female who shot it out at the train station with gang members, aided by a known gunrunner named Bubba Rogowski.
I loosened the string at the top of the bag, reached in, and my hand closed around a file folder, maybe a quarter-inch thick. I pulled it out and opened it. More photographs.
I stood and laid them out on the pew. There were twenty-one in all, their surfaces splintered by the triangles of shadow and light cast by the stained-glass windows. Not one of them contained anything I’d want to look at; all of them contained things I had to.
They were from the same camera and location that produced the photograph Jenna had given me. Paulson was in most of these, Socia in a few. The same scuzzy motel room, the same grainy texture to the film, the same high camera angle, leading me to assume they were stills from a videotape, the camera probably positioned eight or ten feet up, possibly behind a double mirror.
In most of the photos, Paulson had removed his underwear but retained his black socks. He seemed to be enjoying himself on the small twin bed with torn, stained sheets.
The same couldn’t be said for the other person on the bed. The object of Paulson’s affection if you could call it that was a child. A young, extremely skinny black boy who couldn’t have been any older than ten or eleven. He wasn’t wearing any socks. He wasn’t wearing anything at all. He didn’t seem to be having as much fun as Paulson.
He did seem to be in a lot of pain.
Sixteen of the twenty-one photographs captured the sex act itself. In some of these, Socia appeared, leaning into the frame to give Paulson what appeared to be directions. In one, Socia’s hand gripped the back of the child’s head, yanking it back toward Paulson’s chest, like a rider reining in a horse. Paulson didn’t seem to mind or even notice, his eyes glazed, his lips pursed in pleasure.
The child seemed to mind.
Of the five remaining photographs, four were of Paulson and Socia as they drank dark liquid from bathroom glasses, chatting it up, leaning against the dresser, having a swell old time. In one of those, the boy’s slim leg was apparent, just out of focus, tangled in the filthy bedsheets.
Angie said, “Oh, my God,” in a cracked, high-pitched voice that sounded like it came from someone else. The knuckles of her right hand were in her mouth, and her whitening skin rippled. Tears welled in her sockets. The warm, stilted air in the church closed in on me for a moment, a weight against my chest that left me slightly lightheaded. I looked down at the photographs again, and nausea eddied against the walls of my stomach.
I forced myself to look down at the photos, to hold my eyes there, and soon, my eyes were drawn to the twenty-first the way they would drift toward and fasten onto a single flame in the corner of a dark screen. This was the photograph, I knew, that had already burned its way into my dreams and my shadows, into that part of my mind that I have no control over. Its image would reappear in all its wanton cruelty for the rest of my life, particularly when I was least prepared for it. It was not taken during the act, but afterward. The boy sat on the bed, uncovered and oblivious, his eyes taking on the ghostly image of what he’d already ceased being. In those eyes was the shriveled cast of dead hope and a closed door. They were the eyes of a brain and a soul that had collapsed under the weight of sensory overload. The eyes of the walking dead, their owner oblivious to his loss, his nakedness.