“The pagans were a small, exclusive gang of kids that hung out on the outskirts of the school campus, behind the clumps of trees surrounding the parking lot. There were all sorts of sick rumors about them, like that one of the girls had set fire to the music room a few years back by just summoning a flame into her hand or some shit, or that the guys in the group had turned the pool water into beer.”
I am terrified and also a little bit excited. Mostly because Jude said I have a story to tell, and she doesn’t lie about anything. I guess that I do have a story, and I’ve collected all the moments that make it up, but I don’t know how to string them together in a way that makes sense because my life doesn’t really make sense. I’ve saved up these fragments to write about, and I was always waiting for the right time to start working, but now the “Right Time” is staring me in the face, and I am scared shitless because I don’t want to fuck this up. I have screwed up a lot in my lifetime, but this thing feels sacred. I have this notion that it’s the one something that I can’t mess up because if it goes bad, then it’s like I’ve gone bad.
My name is Russell. Up until I turned sixteen, I lived with my mother in a suburb of Springfield, Illinois. The house was small and dumpy. My mother’s name is Bliss, which I thought was pretty fucking ironic seeing as all she really did was watch true crime TV after my father left. He was a quiet, friendly dude named Carl, who always seemed a little nervous. He was really gentle, didn’t talk much, and had a weird bald spot on the back of his head. Back when Carl was still around full-time, my mom was happy. She smiled a lot and hummed Elvis Presley songs.
Things were pretty run-of-the-mill, I suppose. And then my father was hired to work a nationwide circuit for his car dealership when I was ten. Things were a little tight in terms of finances, and my mother began to slide into depression. When he was gone, her smiles were infrequent and looked kind of manic because the happiness never reached her eyes. She lost her job when the local post office branch shut down, and we started living on welfare checks. After six years of this, he sent us a letter from Chicago. My mom read it first, and then left it to drift onto the kitchen table, turning slowly to walk to her room. I don’t think I was very surprised either when I read the note. I knew in the back of my mind for a while that his absence would soon become permanent.
It was still a tiny bit of a jolt to see that what I had feared in the abstract was no longer abstract, but very much real and very much happening to me. The letter was sappy and emotional and full of apologies.
He was sorry, but he could no longer live as the person he convinced himself he was.
He was happy now and living with a man named Herb, who was his partner.
He loved Bliss, but just not in the way that she loved him.
He had tried and tried for years, but couldn’t bring himself to care for her in the way she deserved to be cared for.
He would always care about us, but he could not be a part of the family any longer.
He told me I could come visit him whenever I wanted, and that Bliss could feel free to take loans from him if needed. I still loved him, sort of, but I knew I would probably not visit him.
Even though I barely interacted with my mother anymore, I felt a little twinge of pity watching her sit alone on the couch, swaddled in blankets, watching The F.B.I Files. She was pathetic, an overgrown child, no longer able to take responsibility for anything.
Don’t think I was weak or a pussy or anything. I was still planning to get the fuck out of there as soon as I could. Just to see the world a bit. Or at least get out of Illinois.
In late junior high, I went to an end-of-the-world party where I drank for the first time, and I smoked pot for the first time. Obviously, the world didn’t end, so the party ended up being my gateway into the world of marijuana. I smoked occasionally throughout freshman year, and a little bit more in the summer before sophomore year, and then even more throughout sophomore year, mainly because I fell in with a crew of self-proclaimed pagans who worshipped Satan and Mother Nature or some shit.
Before I got friendly with the pagans, I was buddies with this guy Darren, who I thought was really cool because he had a green buzz cut and wore a leather jacket from his uncle’s biker gang, but he turned out to be a little weird in the head. He was one of those emo types inside, and he tried to hide it by pretending to be “hard” and “gangster.” He tried to get me to enter a suicide pact with him in February of freshman year. Even though my life was kind of shit at the time, I still wanted to make it through. It seemed sad to die without ever having actually kissed a girl, so I decided to leave Darren and to find new friends instead. Darren didn’t kill himself, but he did move to Texas at the end of the school year.
The pagans were a small, exclusive gang of kids that hung out on the outskirts of the school campus, behind the clumps of trees surrounding the parking lot. There were all sorts of sick rumors about them, like that one of the girls had set fire to the music room a few years back by just summoning a flame into her hand or some shit, or that the guys in the group had turned the pool water into beer. Anyway, there were a few people in the crew at the time that I joined.
There was Melody Armstrong, a really pretty former cheerleading captain who now wore lots of layers of knit clothing and odd fabrics and lots of necklaces and had like ten ear piercings. She was still the wet dream of lots of guys, even after she transformed into a weirdo. Some creepy guy wrote a haiku about her after gym class one day in the locker room:
Your stomach so pale and tight
I want to screw you.”
I had a bit of a crush on her in elementary school after she beat me in a race at lunchtime. That was back when you could actually see her bright, blue eyes without the layers of black eyeliner masking them, back when she didn’t cover up her freckles with cakey makeup. There were lots of pervs at my school who used to watch the cheer team practice, just to catch glimpses of her skin while she did flips and leaps and shit.
The unspoken leader of the crew was Gunner Jorgensen. He was this tall, lanky guy with a handsome face. His face was angular and sculpted, and he was the main reason why the pagans were almost (counterintuitive as it may seem) mainstream. Gunner was clever, but didn’t get good grades because he rarely showed up to his classes. He was a junior. He listened to heavy metal bands like Cannibal Corpse and Burzum and Varg Vikernes, and he lived in a modified cabin in the woods. In addition to being very good-looking, Gunner was very charismatic, but also ruthless and cold. A dangerous combination, in hindsight.
There was also this girl Raven, who transferred in during her junior year. She must have been ordinary once, but she definitely wasn’t by the time she arrived at my high school. She wore goth clothing and an assload of makeup, heavily applied around her eyes like that chick Avril Lavigne. She really did look the part of a witch. People made fun of her in the beginning, but she didn’t seem to care. Somehow, rumors and gossip spread from her old school about how she’d been expelled for doing lots of drugs and bringing a sacrificial knife to class, and then people didn’t fuck with her anymore. She became kind of friendly with the pagans really quickly.
Most of the girls who had been in the group had hooked up with Gunner at some point, but Raven wouldn’t let Gunner into her pants, and I think that he latched onto her because she was a challenge. She became like the queen to Gunner’s king.
There were other kids in the group too, a few random dudes named Jack and Rudy and Smith, and then there was one other girl named Jane. She didn’t talk much. The pagans would mostly just hang out in the wooded areas on campus and smoke and stuff. After school, we’d hang at Gunner’s cabin instead. I did my first hallucinogens with them during some weird, batshit Wicca ritual. We’d do those sorts of things occasionally, but most often, we’d just chill as a group and get high and/or drunk and break glass for fun, because nobody could hear us from the middle of the woods.
So I ran with them for a few months during my sophomore year, and life was pretty interesting. Being with them kept the drugs flowing, and the girls were hot. I wouldn’t say that the pagans were really the type to share your secrets with or whatever, but Darren was long gone, and there was nobody else of interest in my school, so it was them or nothing. At any rate, my mother was kind of wigging out at the time, and she was drinking and crying a lot, which caused me to feel weird and uncomfortable in my house. I began crashing at Gunner’s occasionally, and then more and more, until I was spending most of my time at school or the cabin. I only went home when I needed more clothing, really. Over the summer before junior year, I lived with the gang full-time.
At least once a week, Gunner would throw a sort of party at his cabin. It was at one of those parties that I decided to emancipate myself from the pagans and potentially get out of Springfield. At the time, it was only a little idea at the back of my mind, and it slowly grew as I realized how crappy things were with my mother.
So anyways, the cabin was really dim and kinda grubby, and it had a pentagram carved into the wall of the main room where we all used to chill. Beer was flowing, and joints were circulating, and we had all sort of fallen into a groove. We weren’t talking though because Gunner had put on some weird, head-banger metal shit and it was too loud for conversation.
It was a sizeable group that night: me, Jacko, Rudy, Raven, Jane, and Raven’s cousin from out of town named Isadora. That probably wasn’t her real name because it sounded kind of medieval and uncommon, but I never asked nor did I ever see her again, so it didn’t matter. Gunner and Melody had disappeared into another room.
After a while, the CD ended, and the room was weirdly quiet for a moment before we heard raised voices from Gunner’s room. It was uncomfortable, to say the least. The words were unintelligible, but it was obvious that the two of them were violently arguing with each other, and there was even a crashing noise or two. Then, the argument cut off abruptly, as though they finally realized that the music was no longer playing. The door slammed open, and Melody strode out, looking furious. There was a small cut along her left cheek, which was an angry red color. Gunner shouted the word “slut” after her violently. Needless to say, the rest of us were sort of embarrassed at having overheard the emotions of what was probably meant to be a private conversation. Nobody said anything to Melody as she shoved open the door that led to the deck.
A few of us made awkward conversation until Gunner put another CD in, and the death metal resumed playing. He looked like he was fuming — his nostrils were flared, and his eyes were doing some weird, intense thing, and I joked to Rudy that he looked like Loki, the evil Norse god (because Gunner was Nordic, ha ha.)
A little while afterwards, Gunner motioned to me to come into his kitchen, which actually just consisted of a derelict fridge, a broken camp stove, and some wooden cabinets where he put his used takeout boxes. I zig-zagged my way over, and he put his hands on my shoulders.
“Melody wants a piece of this,” he slurred (he was obviously obliterated), motioning to himself. “She wants a piece of me,” he said again in a weird, drunken sing-song way, followed by a foul burp.
I refrained from telling him that Melody Armstrong definitely did not want a piece of him, as he had just called her a slut. Instead of saying anything, I patted him on the back and told him to sit down. He did, and he continued to speak.
“All the ladies want a piece of Gunner. All of them.”
This time I couldn’t help but chuckle and nod, because Gunner sounded like a ridiculous sleazebag.
He sang to himself again — this time his lyrics were “poppin’ cherries everywhere I go!” — and I began to laugh. The drunkest, the most pathetic, and the most unfiltered and uncalculating Gunner was trying to make himself sound like a virile sex stallion or some shit. I was laughing so hard, I almost started to cry. Granted, I was smacked and would have laughed at just about anything.
I was wheezing and wiping my eyes when I said to Gunner something along the lines of, “Dude, you disrespected her. We all heard it. I’m just saying, she probably doesn’t want a piece of you. Like not even a tiny piece, man.”
Like I was dreaming, Gunner’s expression soured, he pulled back his right arm and slammed a fist into my abdomen. He learned how to box freshman year, enough said. I curled up on the ground in the fetal position, retching. My eyes watered, and Gunner just stood over me, watching. Through the pain, I noticed that his face looked curious, and it reminded me of scientists. I guess the best way I can explain it is that it was like he was just watching me to see what would happen. He looked cold, detached. But my mind was still swimming with thoughts, and I felt overwhelmed, so I closed my eyes for a little bit.
After a while, I managed to stand up straight, but I was still reeling from shock. I felt a bit out of whack at that point, both physically and mentally, but I grabbed another beer from the cooler and headed out to the deck to sit and breathe. I chose a spot somewhat close to Melody, who was sitting alone and looking sort of pensive, but also pathetic. I popped the tab of my beer and took a few sips.
It was in that moment that I decided that Gunner was kind of an egotistical, sexist maniac. Somewhere deep inside of him, where his conscience was supposed to be, his ego just sat, watching his life happen, and majorly jerking off.
I said “Hey”, to Melody. She didn’t say anything but sort of looked at me and half-smiled. She hadn’t been crying or anything, but her mouth was turned down at the corners and her eyes looked droopy. We were quiet for a few minutes, and I took a few sips.
But then, I don’t really know what came over me, because I turned to her all of a sudden and said, “I’m leaving the crew.” She looked at me blankly. “I’m outta here. You should come with me. Not in, like, a weird way. But these guys are really weird. And Gunner’s an asshole.”
She nodded slowly and looked almost convinced, but maybe not convinced enough because after a second, she said she wasn’t sure, and that those guys were still her friends. I said cool. She said sorry. I said that it was no big deal. Then, she looked down, and that was the end of the conversation, so I took a few swigs from my can and got up and left from the back. I was done, gonzo, desaparecido.
I returned early the next morning when everyone was dead asleep, or too hungover to notice me, in order to gather up my stuff. That was the last time I went to the cabin. But it wasn’t the last time I spoke with Gunner. A few days later, after I had taken some time to regroup, I was in the library when Gunner walked in. He looked at me like he was curious, but he was also smiling in a weird way. Gunner’s smile is kind of scary, which just adds to his intimidating presence. His teeth are perfect and white, and his canines are really sharp because he underwent a procedure to have them filed into points a while back. The corners of his mouth pull away when he smiles, and so he kind of looks shark-like, predatorial.
Anyway, he said, “Hey bro, what’s up?” or something similar, and I responded in such a fashion. It had been a while. The group was doing well. I was fine back at my mom’s house, just helping her around the house and stuff. He asked me what had happened that night of his party, ‘cause I had just sorta disappeared. I made up some phony story about how my mom needed me to help move some furniture or some shit, and that I had drank a few too many anyhow and needed to rest.
He seemed to buy it though because he nodded and said, “Been there, man,” and that was the end of that. He had either been too drunk to remember the punching incident, or this was his weird way of apologizing. Either way, I had made my decision.
But in typical Gunner fashion, he brought the conversation back to himself. “Dude, you’ll never believe it. I hooked up with Raven a few nights ago, man! Let me tell you, that chick is a freak in the sheets. But she’s also a freak on the streets, so I guess just a freak overall.” He laughed at his own joke, and I smiled. Inside, though, I just felt like he was being a prick.
“And you wanna know something?” I didn’t say anything, but Gunner didn’t need encouragement. “Afterwards, she told me her real name! It was like, Caitlin or Maddy or some shit. I don’t remember.”
“Wow, man, that’s whack,” I responded, but the whole time I was thinking, What a fucking douchebag, he hooks up with a girl and then can’t even be bothered to remember her real name.
Needless to say, my friendship with Gunner was over. We made a little more awkward small talk, and then I came up with a shitty excuse to leave. He told me to come and stop by the cabin sometime soon, that my presence was “sorely missed” (which I didn’t really believe. Pagan satanists don’t really tend to form many meaningful attachments, I guess.) On my way out, we power-shook, and I began to walk away.
“Hey, Russ,” he called after me, and I turned to listen. “Blood brothers, man.”
I replied, “Blood brothers forever, dude.”
We nodded, and he said, “Wicked.”
And then, I walked away, and that was the last time we spoke. I don’t miss him.
Getting ready to leave my mother’s house was not particularly difficult. I don’t own very many things. My room didn’t look too different once I packed the necessary items into a backpack. Bliss had been sitting on the couch, dazed the whole week. I felt a bit concerned at first, but then reasoned with myself and decided that this could be good for her, not having anyone there to do shit. Maybe she’d take back her responsibilities and be a normal mom again by the time I came back. That was the only way I could reconcile leaving. I guess I do have a soft spot.
Saturday night came, and I felt really restless, but also nervous. I began to worry if maybe I shouldn’t leave Springfield at all, but I figured I’d never know if I’d made the right choice until I left. I’d already paid for the tickets — Springfield to Chicago, Chicago to San Francisco. I had no excuse to stay. Before leaving that morning, I left a note on the table for Bliss that said that I was leaving for a few weeks, and that she shouldn’t look for me or try to contact me. Not that I actually believed she’d go out of her way to get in touch. It was just a way for me to feel like I wasn’t just abandoning her. She’d be fine. My departure would be good, maybe even for both of us.
The morning was brisk for late August. The sun hadn’t fully come up yet and made the low-hanging clouds look like a child had finger-painted on them in an orangey pink color. My bag seemed lighter that morning, and I felt pretty good, or at least I felt much better than I’d felt the night before.
I walked quickly into town and up the hill onto the exit from Route 125. The walk from the exit that led into Pleasant Plains was pretty short, about ten minutes or so. Soon enough I was on the side of the highway, and I stuck out my thumb in order to hitch a ride into Springfield. A few cars passed by me, followed by gusts of wind and car exhaust fumes.
Finally, a pickup truck stopped, and the passenger door opened. I grabbed my stuff and jumped in. The guy who was driving the truck was short and had a beer belly and a thick brown mustache. He asked where I was headed. I said Springfield, and he nodded and said he was headed there himself. He introduced himself as Bud, I said my name was Russell, and we shook hands. There wasn’t much more to say, so Bud turned on the radio to the local country station, and I rested my head against the window of the truck. I liked how I could feel the cold glass pressed against my temple, vibrating softly.
After about forty minutes, we could see Springfield ahead of us. Bud asked where he should drop me off. I said the Amtrak station, and so that’s exactly where he left me, standing on the corner with my bag and a nervous fluttering in my chest.