Killing Time

OMMEL threw a half-drank bottle of Coke at the first kid who refused, catching him on the knuckles and sending him home in a dusty tumult of tears. He laughed into the boy’s tailwind and turned back to the group, his face a challenge. ‘So is anyone else too chickenshit to go through with it? You? You?’ Nobody admitted to being afraid.

The same kid’s father had accosted Rommel a few weeks previously, playing soccer on the council green; he said, ‘I’ll break your head if you ever get my young fella into trouble again, and I don’t care who your father is. Fucking stay away from my son.’ Rommel laughed while the other children got nervous; shrugging and turning from the guy, saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. The big man. Just keep talking.’ Rommel never showed anything but confidence and defiance. Everybody envied this.

He pointed to a broken spike in the school gate’s ironwork, pale and crumbling in its centre. ‘See that?’ he declared, the proud initiate of arcane knowledge, secrets from the adult world. ‘That’s where Jimmy Feeney drove a spike through his foot. Years ago. He was climbing the gate and he slipped. Right through the bones. They had to cut it with an electric saw.’ V got that languid, baffled look on his face and said, ‘They cut off his foot?’ Rommel slapped him on the head, a few times. ‘No, you stupid shit. The gate. They cut the gate.’

A dreary village in a dreary time, a bloodless hamlet off a secondary road. There wasn’t much to do on elongated summer evenings – too far from the sea, Dublin was another planet, and nobody went abroad back then. Or at least, those who went that far didn’t come back too often. Nothing to do but mess around with time: kill it, waste it, watch it, get fed up with it, wish it were later, tomorrow, next year. Impose your will on time.

Rommel had a game, learned from an American cousin recently visiting. It was all the rage over there. This was scary and seductive; it exerted a magnetic pull on the imagination. He gathered the group inside the school walls as day slid slowly into evening, shadows lengthening, a murky projection of the creepy old building, the sky a bleed of orange and purple. It had been a hot day.

Four remaining, and all had a nickname. Eleven- and twelve-year-olds, immersed in fantastical comic books and dreadful TV shows…you had to have a nickname. Codewords for the exclusion of others. One called herself Ace; she couldn’t remember why, but it sounded cool. Rommel’s handle was an homage to the Nazis. It seemed daring and anarchic at that age to profess admiration for something so taboo; swastikas on bags and Hitler moustaches on the pictures in textbooks. V was named for a trashy science fiction series, and Nettley after the alleged coach driver for Jack the Ripper. (Also taboo, also irresistibly appealing to callow minds.) He was the only one who hadn’t chosen his own moniker; it had been conferred, by his friends, to his displeasure.

‘Stand in a line. Here, up against the wall. C’mon, get a move on.’

Rommel arranged the other three, hands on their shoulders, a nervous, giddy line-up. He smiled, handsome and dangerous. He had strong features, violent-green eyes, set deep in his head. Girls would go crazy for Rommel when he was older. He said, ‘Stand straight. Heads up. Come on, heads up. Chest out. Take a deep breath.’

V looked sideways at Ace. He was scared, unsure of why exactly, and Ace was always more kind to him than the others. V was a strange kid: not exactly unintelligent, but almost moronically naïve and credulous. He lived in a chaotic home with kind-hearted but dysfunctional parents and three younger siblings, all of whom bullied him incessantly. But he was a nice fellow, sweet-natured, who dreamed of joining the airforce. Rommel teased him about this; he would say, ‘My first cousin got turned down for the airforce and got four Bs and two Cs in his Leaving, and is taller even than Ace, and looks like Patrick fucking Swayze. So why d’ya think if they turned him down they’re gonna accept a humpy four-eyed goon like you?’ V would shrug and nod, as if in agreement.

An old man passed on his bicycle, rising and falling with his exertions. His ears, seen close up, were almost translucent at the top; they glowed in the sunlight. Rommel glared at his passing. He turned back to his friends and stared casually at Nettley.

‘Right, Netters. You can be first.’

Nettley was very small, puny and slope-shouldered. He had the physique of a pensioner, seemed deficient in vital minerals. He grimaced; he glanced at the others, a silent plea, unwilling to voice his fears. Ace took a step forward.

‘I’ll go first. I want to go first.’

Rommel frowned, a little put out. Then he shrugged and said, ‘Alright. You first it is. Obviously not a chickenshit like Nettley there.’

Ace said, ‘Leave him alone. Just do it.’

Rommel moved her shoulders back, her thin girl’s chest pushed forward. He stared at her and Ace met his stare. Rommel said, ‘Look at me. You have to concentrate or it won’t work. Focus on my eyes. Okay…take a big breath and hold it.’

She inhaled, smoothly and deeply, her lips pursed. She kept her eyes on his. Rommel whispered, ‘Breathe out…now’, and punched her hard on the chest a moment later. Ace reeled, bending over, her arm reaching for the wall to steady herself. A vortex in her head, tightness in the lungs. Points of the spectrum danced behind her eyes. She was aware that she was crouching; one knee on the ground, the other pointed forward at an angle. All sound had dimmed to a tinny return of a distant echo. She didn’t feel Rommel’s hand on her arm, struggling to lift her. Ace settled into a seated position, instinct moving the requisite parts of the body. She slumped like a discarded marionette and gazed at the middle-distance. Her mind felt unfocused, at a sickly remove from things around her. She closed her eyes and eventually came around.

‘…shit. That worked. It actually worked.’

V and Nettley sat next to her, the same disconcerted glaze on their eyes, the same paleness of the skin. She looked up at Rommel: he smiled, triumphant.

‘You were out for a few minutes at least. Fucking hell. I didn’t think that would work at all. You know, a kid died doing that in the States. My cousin told me.’

Ace said, quietly, ‘Your cousin…what?’

‘Frankie. He told me a kid died doing that. A classmate of his. Loss of air to the brain or something. Ha ha. You guys are some dumb bastards.’

Ace looked at the other two, resurfacing, Nettley shaking his head like a dog after a swim, V darting glances around him. He looked confused; he started to cry, his pudgy hands balled into his face. Ace put her arm around his shoulders; she said to Rommel, ‘Did you do it?’

He replied, ‘How could I do it? I’d nobody to hit me. You three were all…’ He whistled and spun his finger in the air.

Ace stood, a little unsteady. She breathed deeply and felt herself return to ground. It was noticeably darker; she wondered how long she had been out. The long evening had almost run its course and night was lurking around the borders now.

‘You had nobody to hit you. Of course.’

Rommel smiled, wolfish, very composed. He pulled a half-smoked cigarette from a shirt pocket and lit it. ‘Hey, if you can’t handle it, then fuck off out of the gang. Shouldn’t be any girls allowed anyway. Right, lads?’

V was still crying; he refused to look up. Nettley stood and dragged his friend from the dusty concrete, little fists kneading his eyes. Nettley swallowed and said, ‘I have to go home. My mam will have my tea ready.’ V murmured, ‘I’ll go with you.’ They tottered to the gate, around onto the pavement. Their heads disappeared as the wall swallowed them from view. Ace looked back at Rommel. He was still grinning, but turned away from her gaze. He laughed, sourly.

‘What? What are you so riled up about? I didn’t force you to do anything.’

Ace laughed herself. She nodded and said, ‘Right. Sure.’ She brushed grit from the seat of her pants and hoisted herself up onto the wall. Ace dropped gently to the other side. She wiped a drying smear of saliva from the side of her chin and began walking home. Rommel stood in the schoolyard, smoke rising from the cigarette butt, as shadows oozed forward, the fingers of night.

Skipping School

oanne told her teacher she believed in God. Her Bible class teacher. What the hell else could she tell him?

She fidgeted in her seat, her hand automatically reaching down to smooth the pleats in her skirt. Joanne hadn’t expected the question, hadn’t expected anything like it. Mr. Galloway’s class was usually the most boring hour of her day. He liked to go on and on about King David and the Ten Commandments and Leviticus. Joanne couldn’t have cared less.

She had been staring across the classroom at Brad when the teacher asked the question. Brad was the only boy she knew with red hair. She gawked at him not because she had a crush on him or anything, but because he wore his orangish mane in a tight crew cut like her brother before they shipped his ass to Iraq.

“Of course I believe in God,” she had answered, her head snapping around to face her teacher, her cheeks flushed because – just maybe – she’d been caught ogling Brad.


Joanne struggled with the question. What did he mean by it? One didn’t need a reason to believe in God. It was automatic, something she had done all her life. She believed because her mom and dad had raised her to believe. And because all the priests expected her to. Because her parents had dragged her out of bed for Mass every Sunday for all of her twelve years, and what was the point if he wasn’t real? And she believed because her grade in Bible class pretty much depended on it.

When she couldn’t answer the question, Mr. Galloway turned it over to the rest of the class.

“Because the Bible says so.”

“Because the universe didn’t create itself.”

“Because he talks to me when I pray.”

“Because without him there would be nothing.”

They sounded like good enough reasons to Joanne. She wondered why she hadn’t been able to think of any. She watched her classmates–boys in their starch-white shirts, girls in their plaid skirts and tube socks–work themselves into a near-panic raising their hands, squirming, vying to show off their smarts. Joanne didn’t feel like she belonged. Soon enough, the lecture changed course. Mr. Galloway told the story of Job. Joanne zoned out. She’d heard it a thousand times before. She glanced across the room at Brad.

ater in the hallway, Joanne marched toward math class while Amanda followed her like a sad puppy. Amanda tried to tell her what it felt like to kiss Jason from down the street. Normally Joanne would have been extremely interested in any story about kissing Jason, but just then she was preoccupied by math class. The doorway loomed before her. It would be division today. Long division. Joanne just couldn’t take it.

“Let’s ditch, Amanda, just you and me,” Joanne said. “Let’s skip class and go to the park, the mall–anywhere. Let’s get out of here.”

Amanda looked at her like she’d suggested shooting Father Mattias in the face. Joanne sweetened the deal. She had a little money left over from her birthday. They could buy fast food. And then there were the cigarettes. Joanne had been pilfering them from her mother for weeks, one or two at a time. This morning she’d meticulously wrapped them in a red bandanna and shoved the package to the bottom of her purse next to the letter from her brother.

Joanne could see from the expression on her friend’s face that she very much wanted to smoke these cigarettes. But, inevitably, she chickened out. Amanda was a cunt.

ater, Joanne sat by herself on a park bench. She munched a cheeseburger and sipped Coke through a straw. The afternoon was colder than she’d expected, and she cursed herself for leaving her coat on the rack in homeroom. She’d thought about retrieving it but decided not to risk drawing attention to herself.

She had expected the park to be full of kids. The park was lousy with them on weekends. Now that she thought about it, it made perfect sense that they’d be in school, but the park was weird without them.

The swings stood empty. She considered playing on them but decided against it. The thought of swinging by herself in the empty park depressed the hell out of her.

Her cup gurgled as she sucked out the last of the cola. It didn’t even taste like soda anymore. It tasted like watered-down shit. She put the empty cup and her cheeseburger wrapper on a heap of garbage overflowing from the trashcan beside the bench. Then she fished through her purse for the cigarettes. When she came up for air she held one cigarette, a lighter and her brother’s letter.

She struggled with the lighter. She hated those things, hated the way the teeth on the metal wheel dug into her thumb, hated how it would slip and she’d lose the flame at the last possible instant.

Eventually she got the job done. She smoked not because she particularly liked it but because it was what one did while ditching school. She took another puff and wondered what all the fuss was about.

The letter sat on her lap. It wasn’t going away. She’d made her brother promise to write her every week, and now he’d been gone for six months and this was the first she’d heard from him. The day the letter arrived in the mailbox she seriously considered throwing it the fuck away. Now she had folded and unfolded it so many times she feared the seams wouldn’t hold and it would fall apart into rectangles.

She opened it and read it once again. Her brother began by calling her that nickname he knew she hated. Then he said he was very, very safe and having as good a time as possible, considering the circumstances. He said the food was mostly normal, but he’d tried some Iraqi cuisine once and it was wretched, goat and lamb prepared in the most bizarre way possible. He said sometimes he felt like joining the Army was the right thing to do, and other times he just didn’t see the point, like the war was doing no good and he had given up what should have been the best years of his life.

He asked her to be good to mom and dad. He told her to “buckle down” in school. He told her he loved her. Joanne remembered he’d told her the same thing the day he left, and it had been the first time she’d heard those words from him.

She folded the letter closed for what must have been the thousandth time. Her cigarette was spent. The sun was setting. It was time to go home.

She walked through the park and across the street to the sidewalk that would take her where she needed to go. She noticed an electronics store at the corner by the crosswalk. A newscast played on a big television in the window, and while the news typically bored her, this particular segment was all about soldiers in the desert. Lots of soldiers. She couldn’t hear the anchor, but she could tell by his demeanor that something big was happening.

Joanne noticed her own reflection in the glass. She always hated her hair, not quite blond, not quite brown–a frizzy wreck. An afternoon at the park hadn’t improved it.

A man crossed the street. He stopped a few feet from her and watched the television through the window. He rubbed his jaw and sighed.

“What a mess,” he said, turning to walk away.

“What’s going on?” Joanne asked. “What’s happening with the war?”

“Huh?” the man said, acting like he hadn’t understood her even though Joanne knew good and well he had.

“The war,” she said, pointing to the television. “Is something going on?”

“Oh yeah, yeah,” he said. “The Marines will be in Fallujah by morning.”

“So it’s just the Marines?” Joanne asked.

“No, no. It’s everybody. Tanks, planes–everybody. What a mess.”

The man rubbed his jaw again and left. Joanne watched the television for a while. She considered going home, and then she just didn’t. She leaned against the shop window, watching the cars whiz by while the sky turned dark. She folded her arms against the cold. Then she fished through her purse for another cigarette, pulling out a crooked one. A small ball of lint clung to the filter. Joanne straightened the cigarette and removed the lint. She lit it on her first try.

Joanne thought about the war.

She thought about her brother.

Joanne made up her mind about a few things. She was already late and knew her parents would be frantic, so she decided to go home as soon as she finished the cigarette, or maybe after another. She felt cold but the smoking warmed her. Joanne decided she no longer believed in God.

Chess Rules

“You can’t move like that,” Ryan said, moving his brother’s pawn back. “Now move the right way or I’ll move for you.”

The two boys, neither a day over ten, sat in the corner of the hectic classroom. Recess was taking place in the classroom due to excessive snow. Ryan and James were huddled over a plastic chessboard.

“The pawn can only move up. Up ‘till you get it to the other side,” Ryan said.

“Why?” James responded.

“Because those are the rules and that’s how we play the game.”

James looked down to the small board to see the squares of black and white. Two different shades of empty. Beneath it was a magnetic pad to hold the pieces in place. He remembered the rules his father had taught them at home. Pawns don’t move like rooks. They certainly didn’t move like kings. Pawns move forward unless they’re claiming another piece. But they weren’t home. The squares were all the same anyways.

“Let me move it or I’ll stop playing,” James said as he moved the pawn to his right, away from his brother’s rook. The magnetic sheet beneath the squares responded the same. It held the piece down with a vigorous tug, indifferent to color or placement of the square. Both boys looked at the pattern break. It irked both of them how one player could try to change the rules of the game.

“Move it back or I’ll tell,” Ryan said. “I’ll tell the teacher! I’ll get you in trouble for cheating.”

“No,” James responded calmly. “We play this way or I don’t play at all.”

“You can’t move like that,” Ryan said, moving his brother’s pawn back. “Now move the right way or I’ll move for you.”