The Best at Dying

by Joshua Allen

A cold wind settled on East Dubuque, Illinois. The river brought that wind, carrying it downstream like a stick in the ripples. Brad shuddered in his cab, unaware of the cold. Brad was twelve again. His brother Connie was screaming, chanting as he danced around with a plastic camouflage machine gun in his hand. "You didn't even flinch, that was fucking awesome!"

Connie, fresh out of jail, was all Brad could think about these days. Brad felt the ground slam his back. Pretending to die in the middle of their favorite game: war. In war, good soldiers died for their friends and brothers. They fell down flat because they couldn't feel, and they didn't ever, ever flinch. Brad was the best at dying. His brother Connie, the master at using the sacrifice as fuel for revenge, unleashing unholy hell on the enemies as Brad lay there at his feet, pretend blood coating invisible wounds. Later, Connie discovered crystallized methamphetamines, and the attentive older brother, the one Brad knew would always take on his little brother's battles when the lines were drawn, crumbled away quickly and permanently. Connie. There had been good times. Brad shuddered, now feeling a stronger gust of wind pulling him from his dream. Brad woke when a metallic click snapped into his ear. He jumped, turned his head. The dark empty barrel of a gun was staring back at him and for a moment he thought he must still be dreaming, because he'd been dreaming of dying. But then the gloved hand behind the gun tightened and the dark-skinned face behind the hand snarled. The face belonged to a kid no more than seventeen. "Let's ride, Regulatah." When Brad didn't immediately react, the kid jabbed him in the temple with the cold steel tube. Then, in a voice

that sounded almost introspective and educated, he added, "Or I can paint that window with your brains." Brad leaned up, still feeling the cottony wetness of the dream world in his eyes. He put the car in reverse. Blinked. The world came into focus. He looked to his left as he pulled out. No cars. No other cabs. A drunk, possibly homeless man was sleeping in front of a store window half a block down, a brown paper bag held near his lips. Brad backed out of the diagonal parking spot along the side of the street and into the road. He pulled his column shifter into drive. Brad's voice sounded hollow to his own ears, as though devoid of life. "I have two hundred dollars. All yours." The kid lowered the gun out of sight and smirked, but didn't speak. If Brad had been living in a city, he would have had a Plexiglas shield between himself and the back seat, but small town cabs didn't have that. The kid looked away for a moment. "Fucking right." The kid turned back, his face suddenly lit up with almost comic animation. He pushed an invisible hat up with his gun and spoke in an imitation of a cowboy bad guy. "Yer money or yer life." Brad's heart stopped. He found himself squeezing back the pressure from his bladder. "You can have the car too." The cab wasn't Brad's to give, of course. It belonged to the company and was old and dented.

The kid pointed to the left. "Turn down there, stay off the bridge, preacher's kid." Brad's heart leapt. How could this kid know anything about him? Brad turned under the bridge and up the low hill on the other side. The bridge would have taken them back to Dubuque, Iowa, back to where there were still cars and people driving them who'd had a bit too much to drink. All the nights Brad had cursed those drunken drivers. Now he'd give anything to be among them. The kid pointed the gun instead down a long road that Brad knew terminated at a small marina on the Mississippi a few miles down. Except for the occasional passing barge, the Old Man would be deserted this time of night. Brad glanced in his rearview. The kid was looking out the window absently. He looked far away, as though thinking about some event coming up. The kid winced. Maybe he was worried about a school project. The crews on the passing barges wouldn't hear him screaming from the marina, not with the noise of the tug and the river filling their ears. Most of the boats were out of the water this time of year. The ones that weren't would be empty. Brad tried to wet his lips, but his tongue was like sandpaper. He'd made sense of the boy in the back seat's words:

preacher's kid. His mind's calculus could draw only one trajectory from that zero point. Connie. He and Connie were both preacher's kids. if the young man behind him knew that fact about Connie, he knew that about Brad, too. And if this was somehow Connie's doing, then he might be dragging Brad into something much worse than a little armed robbery. Truth be told, Brad had been expecting to hear about Connie any day now, but he'd been expecting a return to jail, or death--not this. Brad glanced in the mirror. The kid scratched his head with the barrel of his gun. Brad said, "I'll get out here." The kid didn't respond, so Brad felt a little bolder. "It'll take me an hour to walk back to a phone from here, but I won't even call the cops until tomorrow." Still nothing, and he felt even bolder. "You can have my cell phone and my credit cards. I won't say anything." The kid turned his attention back to Brad. Brad could see the kid aiming the gun at the back of the driver's seat. "Sorry." The kid said the word with a shrug. ain't it, Preacher's Kid." The kid made a shrug that said Sucks to be you. "Sorry." Brad repeated the word quietly.

The kid was black, young, but distant. All the times Brad had kicked out people he thought of as rednecks for insisting on being racist pricks, and this was his fate? Brad tried to read the kid's face. Brad saw a wedding dancing through the kid's mind. He could see reflections of the cake, the men in tuxedos, the minister in a full robe, the wrinkled organist, and the white-walled church no bigger than an airplane bathroom stuffed with people fanning themselves with their poorly-glued programs. The kid was supposed to give the best-man's toast and was terrified to speak in front of God and everyone. The kid winced again. Brad's cab reached the rectangular surface of the marina parking lot. This was the last bit of pavement on this stretch. The river filled the space on three sides of them now. The Mississippi River was silent beyond, though its stench reached them. Brad kept driving straight. "Park up there, PK." He aimed the gun at Brad's temple. "You don't mind if I call you that, do you?" Brad shook his head. The kid motioned with the gun to the far corner, close to the water. Another car was parked up there under a lone functioning street lamp. Brad felt a prickly sense of relief. He was going to be all right. The kid was meeting someone. He just

wanted a free ride, that was all. The rest was a joke. One of Connie's prison friends playing a sick joke. Brad would probably even be allowed to keep his cab. The kid probably just needed Brad's money. Just enough money to buy a wedding present. Brad stopped the cab with the tires still on the pavement, but just barely so. The black kid said nothing. The CB blared to life in a burst of static. The dispatcher's voice, a voice that always reminded Brad of a macaw he used to visit at a pet store when he was a kid, screamed out into the silence, "Seventy-six, you awake out there, or what?" Brad glanced back at the kid. The kid motioned with his gun. "Skin on out." Brad pointed at his radio. "But that's me. They'll think something's wrong if I don't answer." The kid shrugged and repeated his command. "Something is wrong, PK." Again the kid pushed up his invisible hat. His eyes went wide, white disks in a black void. "Time to mosey." He flashed a bright white smile. The radio came to life again, but it was muffled this time as Brad stepped out and closed his door. His hopes of keeping the cab sank. But surely they wouldn't kill him. Why would anyone want to kill him? They meant to get some money out of him, maybe rough Connie and he up a little. Right now, Brad

would take a beating with a smile. The kid got out and pointed his gun at Brad's face. The back door of the other car opened. The kid pushed Brad forward with his gun. When they were close, Connie stepped out. He looked strung out. High on something. God knew what. Brad felt initial relief, but the feeling died the next instant. "This our man, PK?" The kid stabbed Brad in the shoulder with his gun. Connie avoided looking Brad in the eyes, though Brad was staring right at him. Connie nodded. Brad waved his hand. Surely Connie was helping him. The kid put his hand on Brad's chest and pushed him backward one step. The gesture was almost polite. The kid stepped into the doorway of the back door. For a second he pointed the gun back into the car, where Connie was sitting. "Be glad it isn't you. For touching my little nephew. Up to me?" The gun swiveled and now Brad was again the target. "I put you down like a lame horse." Brad's stomach sank back down. When he was younger, Connie had gotten in trouble for molesting the neighbor's kid. At the time, Connie had been young, so no one called the cops or anything. Years later, Connie's first arrest had come for statutory rape of a thirteen-year old girl. Connie had been twenty-four at the time. Brad could see the story play out with

instant clarity, like a holy vision. Connie had traded Brad's life for his own. The kid with the gun looked at Brad and shrugged. "Say goodnight, PK." Brad saw the dark barrel of the gun come up to his face. Would he see the bullet coming at him, or would the world just go black and that would be all she wrote? Would he feel his bowels empty? "Wait, man." Connie's voice from the back seat, shaky and distant, like a man about to lose his hold on reality. The kid moved to the side and Connie emerged. "He's my brother." Connie held out his hand. "Let me do him." The kid shrugged. He twirled the gun like a gunslinger, the movements mixed with a kind of fluid dance of the kid's hands which blended in with the kid's coat and were nearly lost in the darkness. A few quick moves later the gun was aiming butt first at Connie. The kid flashed another toothy smile. Brad's brother took the gun. He squeezed it, pointed it in the air, adjusted his grip a couple of times, and then pointed it at Brad's heart. Connie was looking at Brad now, full in the eyes. "We're clear after this?" Brad opened his mouth to respond. All the fights they'd had over the years flashed through Brad's mind in that instant: the

time Connie had been high and mad at his girlfriend and had roughed Brad up, the time Connie had locked Brad in the basement all night with no lights, the time Connie had snuck into Brad's room and fondled him... None of that matters, Brad wanted to say. All is forgiven, Brad thought. , Connie. All you had to do was ask. But of course, Connie wasn't talking to Brad. The black kid shrugged. Brad could see another gun emerge from his coat as he spoke. "That's right, PK. Make sure you put it right between the eyes. Don't want him scampering away." Brad closed his mouth. Connie raised the gun up to Brad's head. The gun shook. Brad thought about the games they used to play, about the fake deaths he used to perform for his brother, to inspire him to greatness. Falling without flinching, like a dead man, a hero. He wondered if that real death would be dramatic. He wondered what he'd say for his last words. Brad felt himself choking. He couldn't breathe. He hadn't thought about himself and Connie playing army in years and now this. Brad realized his hands were up around his shoulders. He dropped them. Connie winced, turned away slightly, preparing himself for the blood splatter and the rest of the unpleasantness that would follow.

Or was that a wink? Was Connie so fucked up and strung out, his wink almost got lost in unreadable facial contortion? Brad's only hope was if this were true. Something leapt out of his chest and like a cold wind on his face and gave him a gentle shove. Brad started falling an instant before the gun was fired. The gunshot was a small explosion in his ears followed by profound deafness. Brad fell. A burning finger touched his foreheadhead. A thin, white-hot snake slithered through his hair. He felt his body hit the gravel at the edge of the parking lot, as limp as the dead. Or maybe he was dead. Maybe dead was no end, but just an endless staring at a black sky. He wasn't breathing. He didn't dare blink. There was nothing for a silent moment that seemed to stretch out as long as the Mississippi River that flowed endlessly just beyond the trees. The wind stopped. Then there was another pop, this one distant and buried in a small box on some island far away from where Brad was. Brad felt something heavy land on top of him, big and heavy as the sky itself, but still he didn't so much as flinch. When a wetness dribbled down his face and the taste of blood entered his mouth, still he didn't move. Then there was a voice distantly shouting, then the sound of a car kicking up gravel.

Brad tried breathing, but his mouth filled up with that thick liquid, filled with something that reminded Brad of flakes of tuna floating in a creamy macaroni and cheese. This was his hell: damned to choke on this mess for eternity. Brad kicked out his arms and legs, suddenly panicking for air. He was losing control of his body, on the verge of fouling himself. He emerged from under the weight that had fallen on him and into the night air. His blew the chunky liquid out of his mouth and then breathed, his eyes fixed on a cluster of trees in the distance, trying to fight back whatever that pressure inside his chest and throat was trying to do to him. He felt that if he moved he would fall off a cliff. An eternity passed before one shaking hand finally wiped his face, clearing the mess. Brad sat down on the bumper of his taxi cab and stared at what had been lying on him. Of course, it was Connie. Connie's head was split open, blooming like a bloody lily. Brains were everywhere, spread out across the gravel and sand like sticky bread for seagulls. Brad steadied himself, glad now that he had not eaten tonight. Brad probed his forehead with his fingertips. There was a dent on his forehead. It was tender to touch, but Brad forced his fingers to give him a report of the damage. The bullet had gouged a crooked path in his skull, but the bullet had gone just

high, delivering only a glancing blow. His brains were still tucked safely away. Spiny bone poked his finger through blood and ruined skin. Distantly, Brad heard sirens. "You armed kid? You need an ambulance?" The voice was down by the marina. A single light shined down there. Brad didn't answer. A man approached from the darkness. "I saw you land. You didn't even flinch, man. I thought you were really dead there." That was fucking awe-SOME! Connie squealed from Brad's mind. The man stopped some distance off. Brad kicked dirt on Connie's body, which smelled of shit and fresh death, like the rabbits their dad used to make Brad hold up by the legs while he gutted them. Brad tried to make himself think about what had just happened, to put all the pieces together, but when he tried to hold his concentration, it slipped away like wet soap. He felt tired. Maybe he'd just sleep. Brad closed his eyes and felt himself falling. He heard Connie's squeal. His eyes popped back open. No. He wouldn't be sleeping. Connie was going to be sleeping enough for the both of them.


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