Smoking has been a hobby of mine. I know not when I learned it, not precisely, but I remember it was some time during high-school. That, I am told, is average for an American. My parents, and my friend's parents, remember fondly their first cigarette. Such a story is on par with "My first swig of Whiskey," or "The first time I had sex in a bathroom stall."
It's a rite of passage. It happens to all of us. And when it happens, and when we hear about it, we greet you with cheers and open arms. You are now, officially, one of us. At least, that's how it is here. I don't know how it is in your town, or how it is in your city, or how it is in, perhaps, your trailer park. Those are all acceptable places to live. I live in a small town.
The town is home to several notorious gangs, all of which, over the years, have grown less and less violent. Smoking as often as all of us do, you begin to grow apathetic for all that is not petit and easily manageable, and waging blood wars is way out of the comfort level of the resident gangsters. That's not to say they're not unpleasant, though. Smoking and drinking and cursing and hitting, feebly, what their scraggly arms can manage. Any unlucky enough to be betrothed to one of the gangsters here in our quaint little town can truly say that they have become well acquainted with the lowest possible form of society.
This is beyond a shadow of a doubt. There are those of us who are, in fact, well educated. But the education goes little way to provide us with a good mood, and a set of virtues. Nobody in the town is virtuous, nobody pretends to be. As a kid, we used to play a little game where one of us would do something bad and the other would pretend to care and report it to a parent. The parent, usually slightly intoxicated, would sigh benignly and come to see what the fuss was about. Upon discovering that we had impaled a squirrel or broken somebody's shin, they would roll their eyes and get back to whatever message it was they were composing on their smartphone, cigarette in hand.
Ah, good times. But all of that would come swiftly to an end, I would make sure of it. At the center of our town is an old clock-tower which, unlike the rest of the city, is completely untouched by graffiti and vandalism. The thing is made of pristine black brick, and ascends four stories into the air. It no longer ticks; nobody in the town can remember it ever ticking. For as long as anyone can remember, it has stood, in all its unmolested majesty.
Today, I was going to change that. I planned to spray-paint an enormous mural, declaring who I was and what I had done, what I had been the FIRST to do, in bold red letters. It was going to be glorious.
That day I awoke with fire in my soul. I sprung out of bed. Never had I been so energized in all my life. I stomped downstairs to grab some breakfast and a smoke, but decided that today I would abstain. No, today I would get thrill enough from the glory of conquest. My footsteps thudded on the dull wooden floorboards as I made my way into the kitchen. It was strewn with pieces of junk and loose clothing, including undergarments, hung from random pieces of furniture. You couldn't even see the wooden part of the chair that I was going to use; it was covered clothing. I liked it that way, it was like cushioning. We weren't rich enough to afford cushioned chairs, so I guess this was better. It also eliminated the need to have a dresser, and those things just took up too much space.
"Morning," I said to my mother. She grunted, not looking up from whatever game it was on her phone. Whistling to myself, I grabbed an apple from the bowl on the table, shined it, and looked at myself in its' reflection. Glaze and pesticides, I knew, but what the hell did I care? I took a bite. It was glorious.
"I'll be back before ten," I said to my mother. She waved a hand at me and muttered, "Mmmkay ..." before going back to whatever it was she was doing on her phone. She sure loved that phone. On the porch, I encountered my father. He was staring off into the horizon and smoking a cigarette.
"Mornin," I said to him. He squinted at me, and spit onto the porch. He didn't say anything.
"Awful nice out today, isn't it?" I said to him. He turned his head slowly to survey the landscape once more, and then looked back at me.
"Yeah, I guess you could say that," he said. "Beats livin in a cave." I patted him on the back and left him to his smoking. Wandering across our front yard, I stopped at the door of the small shack I had erected as a youngster. It was now in shambles, but the level of protection or structural stability was never all that important. So long as I could tuck something underneath the timbers, it was good enough for me. My hand snaked under the criss-crossed boards, and closed around a can of spray-paint. As I pulled it out, it felt heavy in my hands; plump with the juices and chemicals which would win me my victory today. Stuffing it into my pocket, I went on my merry way down the street. Two doors down, I turned inward and walked up the pavement to the door of a house. I knocked, and I waited, chewing on the waxy apple.
There was muffled yelling, and then an old, tired, balding head poked out of the doorframe.
"Yes?" it said. The man sounded tired, as if he hadn't had a smoke for a while.
"I'm here to see Jason," I said. The man looked back within the house, and then returned his gaze to me. His head receeded into the shadows of the interior, and in a moment or two my friend Jason came bounding up to the door. He stopped at the threshhold and stood, staring at me. He must have seen the bottle of spray-paint in my pocket, for he proclaimed,
"Wow, you were serious about doing that?" in a startled tone of voice. I clasped his hand and pulled him out of the doorway. He stumbled, and then regained his balance, looking up at me.
"Couse I was serious, dude," I said. "When am I not serious?" he was about to list off a number of times when I interrupted. "Besides, who would not be serious about this?" That seemed to shut him up. I whumped him on the back, and he gave me a nervous smile.
"You sure about this, man?" he said to me. I looked him in the eyes, and then let my gaze drift around. The city was a mess. As per usual.
"Yeah, I'm sure," I said back. "After this, you won't have to take any shit at school. It'll just be coasting from now on, my man." He glanced at me, and then at the landscape, and then back at me. He seemed unsure, so I thought of some way to take his mind off of things. I thought that if we started walking, it would leave less room for doubt.
With a hearty slap on the back, I set off jogging toward the tower.
"Hey, wait up!" Jason yelled at me, as he kicked his chubby behind into gear and tried to catch up. We reached the tower in no time, and I suddenly felt myself filling up with uncertainty. Maybe this isn't such a good idea, I heard myself think. Maybe we really should just turn back and find some other way to make our name ... But it was too late. Whatever angel was trying to steer me away from doing what I was about to do was horribly misinformed; there was no dissuading me now that I was set on my course. What was to be done would be done, no ifs ands or buts about it.
That, I think, was one of the biggest mistakes I had ever made.
We walked up to the gate, and stared up at the old tower in awe. The thing was really quite beautiful, in an old, dark, nightmarish kind of way. You could almost feel the night in the thing, as if no matter what time it really was it would always be 12 AM here. It certainly felt like that now, and the hot midday sun began to melt away into the background as we continued to stare. My skin felt like it was turning to ice.
I shook off the feeling and grabbed Jason by the sleeve. "Come on," I said, and I swung the gate open. There was no lock, of course. There was no need for a lock, because nobody ever came in here. And they were right not to.
Inside, we found boughs of just about every creepy weed you could find; nightshade, being one. I had never seen nightshade before in my life, but the word seemed to have just popped up in my head now as I stared at the purple hooded flower, some of which wept, while others opening their petals to the sky. Stone angels stood guard over the guarden, as if the dark statues had been carved specifically for that purpose - they hadn't. Each held spears in both hands, pointing to the top of the tower. The tips were sharp, and jutted out like pieces of bone. I would know, of course, because of one very bad fracture I had seen on the playground. It was all fun and games, of course, until Isabelle's mother had come to find her twelve-year-old child with a bone sticking out of her leg. Had she not intruded on our little game, we would have been able to finish trying to get the bone back inside, to try and make Isabelle stop crying. She wasn't having any of it, and for that part, neither was her mother. The both of them went screaming from the playground, and to a hospital. And after that, they went screaming from the town, in their four-door sedan. Nobody had heard from them since.
I moved on past the unkenpt, untended garden of flowers and set off towards the ladder that led up toward the clock face. Just then I got an idea. Justin followed me uneasily, carrying a second can of spray-paint. The plan was to get up as far as we dared to go, along the rickety scaffolding that still hung in places on the tower, and mark every square inch of it with paint. This would be no small fear, as even the hardest and most reputable gangster in town could not brag of laying a single mark on The Tower. We would be the first.
His heavy breathing was loud and labored, and I felt sorry for the guy. Jason didn't get enough exercise, and so it was hard on him now to be climbing so many steps.
"Couldn't we just play video games or something?" he said to me, as we ascended. I rolled my eyes behind his back and said back, "Yeah, we could, but who the hell would be impressed by that?" which seemed to shut him up. We continued to climb until we were at the clock face. Jason looked confused, and he had every right to be. The plan was, after all, to paint the back of the tower, which I had been planning on doing as well up until that point.
"What's going on?" he said to me. I grinned at him devilishly and pointed to the clock face.
"See that? That's the clock face. Everybody looks at the clock face for the time. It's the one part of the tower that gets the most attention. Everybody looks at that thing, right?" I said.
"Yeah .." he said. "What's your point?" I rubbed my temples and tried again.
"If we're going to leave a mark, something to tell people we've been here, we should probably leave it where it's going to get the most attention, right?" I said to him. The point seemed to strike home. For a moment, his face lifted, and I could see excitement entering his eyes. He knew just how often people looked at the face of the clocktower, although nobody could tell you why. But then his look of excitement faded, and turned into a look of fear.
"Maybe we shouldn't, man." he said to me. "I mean, if there really is something, like, supernatural about this tower, we should leave it alone, right?" his words made sense, but his point could not. We had come here for the express purpose of defiling the tower. The supernaturality was the only point worth arguing, although it might be worth a little curse to get our reputation to where it would be if we pulled this off.
Grinning at him madly, I lifted my can to face the clock face. My finger was on the nozzle. The look of fear intensified.
"No, man, don't ..." his words trailed off. I pressed on the nozzle, and paint sprayed forth. Jason lept at my hand, and I pulled it away. He had made a dedicated lunge, however, and his weight carried him past my arm, his arms wheeling, trying to grab something ...
But it was too late. He teetered, and fell backwards, towards the garden. I watched in horror as he fell, down, down, until a spear pierced his back, and he slid all the way onto the hand holding it. His spine cracked. His eyes bulged. Blood erupted from his mouth. He twitched and gurgled and spat and then, turning his head to one side, lay still.
I gagged, holding back vomit. I fell to my knees, clutching at my mouth, and the little can of paint fell onto the wood scaffolding. Looking up, suddenly, I remembered the paint I had sprayed on the tower face. It was nowhere to be found. The clock tower was clean. My eyes drifted back to Jason. Perhaps he had absorbed the paint in his lunge?
But then I heard the steady drip-drip-dripping. I looked down, and saw my arm. Bone was protruding from it, and off of the bone was dripping a steady stream of dark, cherry colored blood. The same color as the spray-paint. The pain hit me, rocked my head back, and tossed me to the edge of the scaffold. With my good hand, I grabbed my head and screamed. My head hurt. My arm hurt. Everything hurt, so, so much.
Suddenly my world changed. I was lying upside down, suspended by my ankles in a dark, brick torture chamber. The stiff body of Jason lay under me, his lifeless eyes looking into mine. I threw up. The bile erupted from my mouth the same way blood had erupted from his. It now lay dried on his chin. You could still see the trails it made, up either side of his cheek and into his hair, painting a kind of smile. So much for our reputation.
The pain lasted what seemed like forever, and I screamed and moaned and wailed in agony. Scissors cut and snipped at my flesh, tearing my innards out, and slicing muscles and sinews in two. At the end of it, I fell out of my shackles. I could see two bodies, both mine and Justin's. Mine was mutilated in ways that are too horrible to describe; there was very little flesh left, and only one eye remained in its socket.
"I told you this wasn't a good idea, man." said a voice. I looked around, fearfully. All around me, the shadows seemed to contort in menace. Justin approached me, out of the shadows.
"Dude," he said, casting me a doe-eyed glance. "I think we're dead." I agreed.
I don't know how long we stayed there, but eventually we got out. We found a small hole at the top of the wall that let in sunlight. We were able to pass through the bars that would keep anything solid from getting out - and we emerged in the tower gardens. The angels had come alive, now, and were shaking their heads at us. Some even cried. We went on a walk, then. Back, back the way we came. Things weren't so different from how they had been, although we could guess that a few days had passed. It was evening, now. We approached my porch, and Justin waited by the gate while I went in.
"Have you seen Rog?" I heard someone call. Rog, or Roger, I should mention, is my name.
"No," came the reply. It was my mother. "But he left a note." Curious, I passed through the door and into the house. My mother did, indeed, hold a note. This is what it said.
Dear mother and father,
For reasons I cannot rightly address to you at present I have chosen to leave you both. I hope you will be happy with this decision, and get along fine without me, for I may be gone for some time. You may not ever see me again.
Tears rolled down my mother's cheeks. It was in my handwriting, all right, but I had not wrote it. I was guessing that Justin's family had received a similar note. My father grabbed it out of her hands, to see what all the fuss was about. He studied it a moment, and then gently set it down on the table.
"Well," he said, in a faltering voice, "I just hope he went off to do something important ..."