by Kevin C. Jones
followed by Q&A
“Gwen?” Tom is looking at me over his sub sandwich from the deli counter in the cafeteria.
“What if you could kill someone and get away with it?”
I don’t know how he eats those things, with mayonnaise squirting out of the side like snot and all of that cheap processed turkey and pickles and shit he puts on it. I ignore him and go back to my Diet Coke but he’s insistent today and it looks like I might just have to pay attention this time.
“So what?” I say. “What if you could?”
“Who would you kill?”
You’d think it’d be a long list, wouldn’t you? I mean, anyone in the world and nothing would happen to you. No one would know. Just snap your fingers and someone’s gone.
It’s not. A long list, I mean. There actually aren’t that many people I’d kill. That I know, anyway. I’m leaving out third world dictators and human rights violators and most of the football team and the guy who invented algebra. Of course, he’s probably dead already, right? I mean, algebra’s been around for a while now, so why waste space on the list for him? Like I said, it’s a short list, and no, my mother and father aren’t on it, although you might think they would be. If you knew me, I mean.
And you don’t.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’d have to think about it.”
“Oh,” he says. He looks disappointed. I think he has a big list. I think he wants to tell someone. I think he’s afraid that if he seems too enthusiastic someone will report him to the principal or a teacher or something and that’ll be it. Schools nowadays, they have a low tolerance for that sort of thing. Talking about death, I mean. Killing, lists of fantasy homicides and all that, I’m sure you understand.
They say that the metal detectors at the front doors are to protect us, but we know better. It’s for them: teachers, parents, staff.
I’m not stupid. I watch the news. I know all about the shootings and bombings at those schools in the Midwest. I’ve had my mandatory sensitivity training just like everyone else here. I watch what I say.
I learned to watch what I say after my fight in gym class last semester. After my meetings with the police and the school psychiatrist and the MMMPI. After lots of ink blots and no car for a month. After that the school believed me when I said I was sorry for punching out that other girl in the locker room. I’m pretty sure they believed me, but sometimes I think that the security guards are watching me a bit closer than the rest of the kids in the hallway. It’s hard to tell.
“I’ve got to go,” I say. “History test, see you.”
On the way to class I go by a group of Goth kids standing by the Spirit Wall. They hiss as I walk past but the last thing I need is another trip to the office so I block it out and think happy thoughts. This is something I get told once a month in Group, “Think happy thoughts.” Like it’s Peter Pan or something. My counselor, Marci, tells me this all the time too. It’s usually at the end of my weekly one-on-one in her office downtown. We bullshit for most of the hour my parents require me to attend and then, in the last five minutes or so, she reminds me to think about things that make me happy. The way Marci explains it, it’s supposed to make me remember why life is such a great thing. She doesn’t say that it’s supposed to keep me from punching out another student, but it’s what she means. Like my parents, she reminds me about how I was only able to stay in Key Club because my dad’s such a pillar of the community and blah blah blah, and all that shit. Like I’m really into extracurricular activities. Like I’m doing student government and the model UN for myself and not because my mom was school valedictorian like a million years ago.
I’ve gotten really good at nodding my head at all the right moments. At looking like I sincerely believe every word my counselor says. I took two years of drama, including Summer Stock Theatre. It’s paying off.
Friday night after my parents have gone to sleep I sneak down to my car and drive over to the park by Kari’s house and call her on my cell phone.
“Yeah?” She says. She’s whispering and I picture her sitting on her bed, hunched over, head tucked under a dark, hooded sweatshirt. She’s so dramatic. We’ve been in three plays together and she’s always going on about wanting to do something exciting instead of just reading about it. Instead of just standing on stage, pretending to be somebody. When I told her I needed a partner for what I was going to do tonight, she begged me to let her come along.
“I’m here,” I say.
“Okay, give me a minute, my parents just went to bed.”
“Can you do this?”
“Yeah,” she says. “They must’ve drank about three bottles of wine tonight.”
"What’s the occasion?”
“My brother got into med school,” she says. “All I heard for two hours was ‘You’re next kiddo’ until the Merlot ran dry and they went to their room to watch Leno.”
“Okay, get here soon.”
I wait about fifteen minutes before I see the headlights of Kari’s new Jetta in my rearview mirror. She parks her car, gets into my Honda, and off we go to the river. I was right, she’s wearing a black hoodie and sweatpants, her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. We look like members of some obscure all-blonde terrorist group. Like an Animal Liberation Front cell, except we both bathe on a regular basis and shave our legs.
Because it’s late the entrance to the river is closed, so I park down the street a few blocks.
“What about security?” Kari says as we get out of the car.
“Nothing, just Park Rangers, easy to dodge.” They’re shit, spending the whole shift tooling around in their Ford Broncos, dreaming of becoming real cops some day. I hand Kari the backpack I brought for the rocks and we duck through a hole in the chain link fence that’s been there forever.
It’s only a short walk to the riverbank. We actually don’t need to go all the way down to the water to get the rocks; there are plenty of them lying around on the sand just past the parking lot and the picnic area. We grab a bunch of round ones, grapefruit sized, easy to throw. Anything larger and we risk losing accuracy. Anything smaller and we won’t do enough damage. She licks her lips and carefully selects each rock before gently placing it in the pack, like they’re Easter eggs. Like they’ll break if they get too close to each other. Her nails have been French manicured; they shine in the moonlight.
“What?” She says.
I look up at her face. “What do you mean, what?”
“Why are you staring at me?”
“I’m not, I…wait, did you hear something?”
Car sounds. Headlights in the distance, getting closer. We drop to the ground behind some bushes as a Bronco goes by. Park ranger. I watch as he rounds the corner, making his way down to the visitor’s center and the nature area where I went on a field trip in the fifth grade. My class got to hold a frog and a tarantula. A long-haired guy from the university taught us about ecosystems.
“Come on,” I say. “Let’s go before he comes back.”
We jump up and run back to the hole in the fence, Kari bitching about the weight of the rocks she’s carrying on her back. At the car, we drop into our seats, I key the ignition, and we’re gone.
One grapefruit-sized river rock can destroy one rear window of a parked automobile if thrown at the proper angle and appropriate velocity. The average replacement cost of a rear window in tonight’s target neighborhood is $368. Kari and I have eight river rocks in my backpack. Over the next ten minutes, how much damage will she and I cause by driving 45 miles per hour with the headlights out, hurling rocks through the back windows of luxury automobiles as we pass by?
From the river, I drive back through the neighborhood, scanning for targets of opportunity. The first street I find has enough cars, but too many streetlights. The last thing I need is some over-excited Neighborhood Watch member to write down my license plate and call the cops. I circle around for a few minutes, jumping from street to street, past million dollar homes with wide, circular driveways, four-car garages, and For Sale signs with my mother’s name and realty company on them.
“How about that one?” Kari says, pointing towards a group of cars at the end of the block.
“No streetlight, enough room to get up to speed,” I say. “Okay, you know what to do?”
“Roll down the window and toss the rock, right?”
“You have to make sure you get the right angle or you’ll just hit a taillight or the trunk,” I say. “Get a good arc; aim for the center of the windshield.”
“How do you know this?”
“Just throw it at the right time,” I say. “You’ll see. Get your gloves on and get ready, here we go.”
I read somewhere that you can’t get fingerprints off of rocks, but I don’t want to take any chances. Kari puts on a pair of rubber gloves and digs a rock out of the backpack.
“Where did you get those?” I say.
“My dad’s bag at home,” she says. “One of the advantages of having a doctor for a father.” She gives me a big smile and I feel my face get hot.
Kari rolls the window down and I turn off the headlights. I can still make out the speedometer as we get closer: 35, 40, 45 miles per hour. The car is just up ahead, a brand new Mercedes resting against the curb like a sleeping child.
“Now,” I say.
Kari leans out of the passenger window and hurls the rock toward the car. For a moment I wonder if she messed up, then I hear the back window implode, followed by the car alarm’s whoop whoop whoop as I hit the gas and tear away.
“Jesus,” Kari says, her voice barely a whisper. “We just, I just…Jesus.”
“I know,” I say, reaching over and squeezing her arm gently. “You okay?”
She looks over and there’s a light in her eyes I’ve never seen before.
“There’s seven more rocks,” she says. “Can we use all of them?”
“We can do whatever you want.”
After it’s over, I drive Kari back to her Jetta.
“That was great,” she says. Her face is flushed with excitement. She’s standing close enough for me to smell the lotion she puts on her face. “When can we do it again?”
She reaches up and pulls her hood down, takes out the ponytail. My heart beats like a caged rabbit in my chest as I take a strand in my fingers, brush it away from her eyes. It feels like spun silk against my skin.
“Soon,” I say. “I’ll let you know.”
“What are you doing?” She tucks the strand behind her ear, cocks her head at me.
“Nothing, you had hair in your eyes.” My hands drop like they’re made of stone. “You did great tonight.”
“Thanks,” she says. “That was crazy. Whoever owns that Mercedes is going to shit when he…you know, sees all the glass…hey, are you there?” She’s slowly backing away from me, opening the Jetta’s door.
“What are you staring at?”
“Nothing.” Panic rises in my throat like sickness. Kari wipes her mouth with the back of her sleeve, looks at it, back at me.
“Is there something on my lips?” She says. “You keep looking at my mouth.”
“No.” My face, hot. “Nothing.”
She gets into the car. “You’re being weird,” she says, and closes the door. “I’ll see you at school.”
“Wait.” I knock on her window. She hits a button and the glass retracts with a whine.
I can hear music coming from the stereo, the low hum of the car’s engine. A couple of blocks over someone’s dog barks. Even in the dim light of the dashboard I can see how blue her eyes are.
“Nothing,” I say. “Just, you know, don’t tell anyone.”
“Yeah, duh,” she smiles. “Thanks for letting me come with you, it was cool.” I watch her drive away until the taillights disappear. Tomorrow, I tell myself. I’ll let her know how I feel tomorrow.
I go home and crawl into bed. I dream of Kari’s mouth, car alarms and broken glass.
Kevin C. Jones’s fiction and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ink Pot, r.kv.r.y., and the anthologies Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform and Boomtown: Explosive Writing from Ten Years of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program. He lives on Florida's Gulf Coast where he teaches writing and literature.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: The character (Gwen) just showed up in my head one day and wouldn’t leave, so I had to tell her story. The rock throwing section stems from an actual incident during my high school days, but the less said about that, the better.
Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?
A: An accordion: They’re awkward, strange, slightly infuriating, yet people seem to like them anyway.
Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences?
A: Amy Hempel, Daniel Alarcón, Junot Diaz, Dan Simmons, and too many others to mention.
Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?
A: Any place I’ve got a fairly quiet moment.