Expiration Date – Snippet 04


It was all very well to say “Drink me,” but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry.

“No, I’ll look first,” she said, “and see whether it’s marked ‘poison’ or not” . . .

–Lewis Carroll,

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Lumpy and Daryl had not found Kootie’s bag of quarters in the knapsack’s side pocket, and in an all-night drugstore farther up Fairfax he had bought a cheap pair of sunglasses to conceal his swelling discolored eye. That left a little more than six dollars.

Kootie was sitting on a bus bench now, just because he had been too tired to walk one more block. Maybe it didn’t matter–maybe all the bus benches in the whole city looked like this one; or, worse, appeared normal to normal people but would all look like this to him.

The bench was black, with a big white skull and cross-bones painted on it, along with the words:

don’t smoke death cigarettes.

And he had seen packs of these Death cigarettes at the drugstore. The packs were black, with the same skull and crossbones for a logo. Could that actually be a brand name? What could possibly be in the packs? Little white lengths of finger bones, he thought, stained with dried blood at one end to show you where the filter is.

He was shivering in his heavy flannel shirt. The sunlight was warm enough when it was shining on him, but in the shade like this the air was still nighttime air–chilly, and thin enough to get in between the teeth of a zipper. Maybe when the sun got up over the tops of the storefront buildings this strange night would finally be all the way gone, and the bus bench would be stenciled with some normal colorful ad.

Maybe he could go home, and his mom and dad would be there.

(In their wedding clothes, those two had to have been his real mom and dad, not the bodies duct taped into the chairs in the atrium, the bodies with their eyes–)

He was shaking now, and he leaned back, gripping his elbows tightly, and forced the shuddering breaths into his lungs and back out. Perhaps he was having a heart attack. That would probably be the best thing that could happen. He wished his feet could reach the ground so that he could brace them on the pavement.

Back up on Sunset, hours ago when the sky had still been middle-of-the-night dark, he had tried several times to call the police. Maybe in the daytime he’d be able to find a telephone that worked right. Maybe maybe maybe.

The shivering had stopped, and he cautiously took a deep breath as if probing to see if a fit of hiccups had finally gone away. When he exhaled, he relaxed, and he discovered that his toes could reach the pavement.

He brushed back his black curly hair and stood up; and when he had walked several yards to be able to stand in a patch of sunlight, he discovered that he was hungry. He could afford breakfast, but probably not much after that.

“You waiting for the 217 bus, kid?”

Kootie glanced up at the old man who had spoken to him. “No,” he said quickly. “No, I’m . . . walking to school today.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and hurried on south down the Fairfax sidewalk, forcing himself not to glance fearfully back over his shoulder.

That guy looked normal, Kootie told himself. He might have been just a man on his way to work, curious about this kid out by himself at dawn here.

But Kootie remembered some of the people he’d met during this long, alarming night. An old woman pushing a shopping cart across a bright-lit supermarket parking lot had shouted to him, calling him Al, and when he had hurried away from her she had started crying; her echoing sobs had been much louder than her shouting, and he’d still been able to hear her when he was a block away. Later, ducking away from an old man that had seemed to be following him, he had interrupted a young bum, his pants down around his ankles, defecating behind some trash cans . . . and Kootie shook his head now to drive away the memory of seeing rocks and bottlecaps coming out of the embarrassed guy’s butt and clattering on the asphalt. And one woman had pulled up to the curb in a gleaming XKE Jaguar and rolled down the passenger-side window and called out to him, “You’re too young to smoke! I’ll give you a hundred dollars for your cigar!” That time, he’d started crying because even though he couldn’t understand what she’d meant, he had wanted to run to the nice car and beg the pretty lady for help, but her eyes and lips and teeth had been so glitteringly bright that he could only hurry away, down an alley too clogged with trash cans and stacks of wooden pallets for her car to follow.

Behind him now he heard the familiar puff of air brakes and the roar of a bus engine, and a moment later the big black-and-white RTD bus had gone grinding and sighing past on his left. Kootie distantly hoped that the old man had got aboard, and was going to some job that he liked, and that to him this city was still the malls-and-movie-billboards place Kootie remembered living in.

He watched the bus move ponderously through the lanes of morning traffic–what was down in that direction? The Farmer’s Market, Kootie recalled, and that Jewish delicatessen where a big friendly man behind the fish counter had once given him samples of smoked whitefish and salmon–and Kootie saw a police car turn north from Beverly.

There was a pair of pay telephones in front of a minimart ahead of him, and he slanted his pace to the right, toward them, walking just fast enough so that he could be standing there holding a receiver to his ear when the police car would be driving past at his back. When he got to the phone he even went so far as to drop one of his precious quarters into the slot. I need time to think, he told himself.

He was imagining waving down the police car, or the next one that came by. He would let himself just hang on to the door handle and cry, and tell the officers everything, and they would ail go back to Kootie’s house on Loma Vista Drive. He would wait in the car with one of the cops while the man’s partner checked out the house. Or else they’d radio for another car to go to the house, and they’d take Kootie “downtown.”

And then what? Several times during his long night’s trek he had paused to close his eyes and try to believe that his parents weren’t dead, that he had just hallucinated all that terrible stuff about them being dressed up for a wedding in the living room and at the same time sitting murdered in the atrium, and about the one-armed hobo rushing up the hall and trying to grab him; and he had tried to believe too that the glass brick in his shirt pocket had nothing to do with the people he was encountering; and he hadn’t once been able to believe either thing.

Could he believe them now, now that the sun had cleared the rooftops of the shop buildings across the street and all these distracted, ordinary strangers were busily going to work?

He could do an easy test. With a trembling finger he punched the 9 button once and the 1 button twice! I can still change my mind, he told himself nervously. I can still just run away from this phone–jeez, walk, even.

There was a click in the earpiece, and then a man’s blurry voice: “. . . and I told him to just go fuck himself. What do you think of that? I don’ gotta . . .” The voice faded, and Kootie was listening to the background murmur–laughter, mumbling, glasses clinking, someone singing. He could just barely hear a child’s voice reciting, over and over again, “In most gardens they make the beds too soft–so that the flowers are always asleep.”

Kootie’s chest was empty and cold. “Hello,” he said, in a voice that might have been too loud because he had to talk over the sudden ringing in his ears, “hello, I was trying to get the emergency police number–” It could still be all right, he thought tensely, all the L.A.-area phones could be crossed up in this way–but even just in his head, just unspoken, the thought had a shrilly frightened tone. “Who have I reached, please?”

For a moment there was just the distant clatter and slurred speech, and then a woman’s voice, choking and thick, wailed, “Al? Al, thank God, where are you gonna meet me tonight? That supermarket parking lot again? Al, my legs’ve swelled up like sausages, and I need–”

Kootie hung up the phone without dropping it, and he was able a moment later to walk easily away down the Fairfax sidewalk; but he was surprised that the air wasn’t coagulating into the invisible molasses that, in nightmares, kept him from being able to drag one foot ahead of the other.

It was all real. The sun was up, and he was wide awake, and that voice on the phone had been the voice of the old crazy woman he’d run away from in the parking lot, hours ago. His parents really were dead, obviously killed because he had broken the Dante and taken away the glass brick.

Kootie had killed them.

And even though the police wouldn’t ever believe that, they would make Kootie do things–like what? Identify the bodies? No, they wouldn’t force a kid to do that, would they? But he’d still have to make probably a million statements, which would either be true and sound crazy, or be lies and sound like a kid’s lies; and eventually he’d be put into a foster home somewhere. And how would the telephones behave there? What sort of person would be in charge of the place, or soon come visiting? And if by then they’d decided he was crazy, they might have him in restraints, strapped down on his bed.

He recoiled away from a memory of duct tape.

If he just got rid of the glass brick, would all this stuff stop happening? But who would eventually find it, and why had his parents kept it hidden?

He remembered a Robert Louis Stevenson story about a devil in a bottle–it could get you anything you wanted, but if you died owning it you’d go to hell–and if you wanted to get rid of it you had to sell it for less than you’d paid for it, or it would come back to you even if you threw it into the ocean.

Was this thing worth money, could he sell it? Was it a “cigar”? If so, he could have gotten a hundred dollars for it from the Jaguar woman last night. It seemed to him that a hundred dollars was a good deal less than what he had paid for it.

There was a low, white-painted cinder-block wall around the little parking lot of a strip shopping center ahead of him, and he crossed to it and hiked himself up to sit on the coping. He glanced around at the wide, busy intersection and the sidewalks to make sure no one was paying any particular attention to him, and then he unbuttoned the pocket of his heavy flannel shirt and lifted out the glass brick. It seemed to click, very faintly deep inside, when he turned it in his hand.

This was the first time he’d looked at it in sunlight. It was rectangular, but bumpy and wavy on its surfaces, and even when he held it up to the sun he couldn’t see anything in its cloudy depths. He ran a finger around its narrow side–and felt a seam. He peered at the side surfaces and saw that a tiny straight crack went all the way around, dividing the brick into two equal halves.

The two guys that had robbed him so long ago last night had taken his Swiss army knife, so he worked a fingernail into the groove and twisted, and only managed to tear off a strip of his nail. By holding the glass thing between his palms, though, with his fingers gripped tightly over the edges, he was able to pry hard enough to feel the two glass sections move against each other, and to be sure that the thing could be opened.

He pressed it firmly together again and took off his backpack to tuck the brick safely down among his tumbled clothes. He pulled the flap down over it all and then, since the plastic buckles had been broken last night, carefully tied the straps tight before putting the backpack on again. Maybe people wouldn’t be able to sense the glass thing so easily now.

Like a gun, he thought dully, or a grenade or blasting caps or something. It’s like they had a gun in the house and never told their kid even what a gun is. It’s their own fault I somehow accidentally got them killed by playing with it.

If I open it–what? A devil might come out. A devil might actually come out. It wouldn’t matter whether or not I believe in devils, or that my friends and the teachers in school don’t. People in 1900 didn’t think that radium could hurt you, just carrying a chip of it in your pocket like a lucky rock, and then one day their legs fell off and they died of cancer. Not believing something is no help if you turn out to be wrong.

He heard the short byoop of a motorcycle cop’s siren and looked up nervously–but the cop was stopping way out in the intersection, and, as Kootie watched, he climbed off the blue-flashing bike and put down the kickstand and began directing traffic with broad slow gestures. The traffic signals had gone completely out sometime during the last few minutes, weren’t even flashing red; and then even when the policeman waved for the southbound lanes to move forward, the cars and trucks and buses stayed backed up for another several minutes because nearly every driver had stalled and had to start up again.

As Kootie crossed Beverly, the sound of grinding starter motors was echoing among the lanes behind him like power saws.