You are reading Fiddleblack #19
A tall man dressed in a Grim Reaper costume walks into first period AP Government with a California Highway Patrol officer. The Grim Reaper points at Casey and tells her to step forward. She gets up and walks over to him, looking back at Harold like he has any say in whether she should stay or go. The CHP officer steps forward. He reminds Harold of a hawk—keenly hooked nose, sharp eyes. The class begins whispering, their murmurs seeping into the back of Harold’s skull like voices recorded through a cheap microphone.
Every 15 minutes, the officer says, someone in the United States is killed or injured in an alcohol related incident.
Harold unwraps a piece of gum, shoves it into his mouth, then another.
Every spring, the school ran a program called Every 15 Minutes to underscore the dangers of drunk driving. The Grim Reaper appears, removes random students from class every 15 minutes, paints their faces ghoulish white. Then they return to class—the Walking Dead—silent reminders of what’s at stake when people drive drunk. Harold looks down at his desk, blinks, prays this is all some hallucination from the joint he and Alfonso shared in the 7-Eleven parking lot. His eyelids stutter shut, then stutter open. The Grim Reaper puts his hand on Casey’s shoulder. Officer Hawk-face clears his throat, narrows his eyes.
Casey is now another statistic, he says.
Casey looks at Harold—everyone does. He slouches back in his chair and looks up at the ceiling, thinks about the bag of Doritos in his locker. The officer reads her mock obituary, which Harold tunes out. He constructs his own—a little more honest, a little more pertinent to Casey’s life story:
Casey Lynn Gadsen, born May 19, was killed on April 12 when her car was struck by a drunk driver. She was Student Council Treasurer and loved photography. On a Model U.N. trip in January, she let Jared Chang fingerbang her, while her boyfriend left numerous texts because he hadn’t heard from her all day and was worried sick. She then texted him at two AM saying she was tired, going to bed, would call later. He then left three messages, asking her to call back because he wanted to make sure she was okay. She never called back, didn’t own up to what happened on that trip until the night before her “death,” when she told her boyfriend how it meant nothing because everyone was really drunk. “Besides,” she said, “Jared’s with Liz Kovalenko now and he loves her, and I love you,” which made her now boyfriend laugh so hard he couldn’t breathe straight. His breathing was still fucked up the next morning, so he and his friend Alfonso got high before AP Government, the deep tokes being the only thing keeping him from hyperventilating.
Hawk-face and the Grim Reaper lead her out. Casey looks back at Harold.
Casey is survived by her father, Wallace; her mother, Sharon; her brother, Derek; and Chang’s finger.
The door clicks shut. Casey’s gone. Some girls start crying like it’s all some kind of shock, like they hadn’t already gone through the exact same shit last year. Chang looks at him, sadly shakes his head. Harold shrugs.
Harold had spent his night planning on how to break the news to Liz Kovalenko, how her boyfriend fingerbanged his girlfriend back in January, but she’s not in class today. She probably would have just blamed him anyway, and Chang would have kicked the shit out of him. He asks Mr. Davis if he can get a drink of water. Mr. Davis tells him to stay put, so Harold shuts his eyes, drifts into the darkness.
Liz is in Drama Club. She’s probably going to take part in the car crash they’ll stage on the football field after lunch, a cheap replication of true loss. Chang will probably cry when he sees her wrecked body, won’t even once think about that Model U.N. trip to Virginia.
Harold opens his eyes, and Mr. Davis tries to get things back on track, but no one can concentrate on the 24th Amendment, or poll taxes, or Jim Crow Laws.
The Walking Dead, and the kids from the staged accident, will be sequestered overnight at the Best Western in Redondo. Their friends and families will think about what it means to lose someone to drunk driving. The next morning, there will be an assembly where everyone can reflect upon their feelings of loss. For one entire night, everyone gets to pretend to lose someone. Harold won’t have to pretend—his brother Dana was killed two years ago by a drunk driver. His mother spoke at last year’s Every 15 Minutes assembly about what Dana’s death did to their family. She’d told them she and her husband had recently divorced because of it, which was bullshit because all they did was fight, even when Dana was alive.
Harold closes his eyes, dreading that assembly, sitting through the video showing what happens to everyone involved in a drunk driving fatality—the victims going to the coroner, the drivers being booked, jailed, charged. The video ends with a montage, pictures of the kids who “died,” so their “deaths” can be forever etched in everyone’s memories. They’re not even real victims, just a bunch of kids playing dress-up. How can he take any of this seriously?
Harold thinks about the man that left his car T-boned against Dana’s car at the intersection, how that man fled the scene, how the police caught him a mile from the accident with a .19 BAC. His mother has cried every Fourth of July since the one Dana spent at his girlfriend’s house, the one he never made it back from.
Harold opens his eyes. He pops a stick of gum, then another, chomps furiously. He really wants a drink of water.
The bell rings, and everyone gathers their books. Mr. Davis asks him if he’s okay.
You shoved an entire pack of gum into your mouth, Mr. Davis says.
My mouth is dry, Harold says.
Mr. Davis shakes his head. Harold closes his textbook, looks down at his notes—doodles of lop-sided cars, deflated faces, jagged spirals. For the next couple days, everyone will act like they care about drunk driving, pledge not to do it. A few years later, one of them will get into a car, swear to their friends that they’re okay, head out on the road. And then some other kid will get to hold his mom’s hand once a year while they watch the fireworks on TV.
Harold and Alfonso share a joint in his car during lunch. This bullshit song comes on, and Harold skips ahead to the next track—Casey likes that bullshit song. He reclines the driver’s seat, watches the thick, sweet smoke roll across the ceiling.
They get out of the car and walk toward the cafeteria, lunches in hand. By the time they notice the young CHP officer at the entrance, it’s too late to turn back. The officer says hello, leans in and looks into their half-shut eyes, sniffs the air. The gold name tag on his chest reads Fishman, and Harold concentrates on it because the officer is smiling. The officer looks down at the bag crinkling in Harold’s hands, then back up into Harold’s eyes.
Don’t be stupid, fellas, Officer Fishman says. Not today.
The boys nod, walk into the cafeteria, take a seat at a table. Harold opens his bag, pulls out the sandwich and Coke, remembers the Doritos in his locker. Could anything possibly go right today?
Casey and the other Walking Dead kids eat silently at a table by themselves, skulls painted on their faces. Black eye socket circles painted around their eyes, the black tally marks drawn on their white lips to look like teeth. Someone even took the trouble to shade in their cheekbones.
Casey sees Harold, looks down. Harold doesn’t know what to do with his hands. She sits, head lowered, spooning yogurt into her mouth. Harold scans the room for Chang, who’s sitting with some other jocks, laughing, pounding the table, making spectacles of themselves. Harold takes a bite of his sandwich, chews on a rubbery piece of lettuce. Mayonnaise is all he tastes.
Holy shit, Alfonso says. Check it out.
He looks out the window of the cafeteria, sees Officer Fishman, arms crossed, laughing with Mrs. Bowen, who was captain of the cheerleading team when she went here. Once when they were drunk, Alfonso told Harold he liked to jerk off to the picture of her in the trophy case, the one where she’s seventeen and doing the Chinese Splits in her pleated skirt. Every time Harold sees her, he tries not to laugh at the image of Alfonso standing in front of the trophy case, committing that photo to memory. Alfonso asks if he’s staring at her ass. Harold doesn’t answer.
Yeah, Alfonso says. I’m staring at that ass too.
Harold examines Officer Fishman—square-jaw, dimpled chin, intense blue eyes—he looks like the kind of the guy that comes out of the Jiu Jitsu studio down the street from where his mother works, the kind of guy that wears tight T-shirts and faded jeans, calls everyone Bro. Does Mrs. Bowen’s husband know she giggles with other men?
Officer Fishman smiles at her, nods, thumbs locked around his belt loops. He’s probably thinking about fingerbanging her.
Dude, Alfonso says, you know who that cop is?
Harold shakes his head.
That’s Tad Fishman. That’s Mrs. Bowen’s brother.
Why would I know that?
The guy holds the state record for assists and field goal percentage.
He can shove his records up his dick-hole.
Whatever, man. Dude’s a baller. I bet he got mad pussy when he went here.
A kid drops his tray, the fork and spoon jangling on the tiles, the plastic cup bouncing and spilling his fountain drink everywhere. Ice cubes scatter across the floor like diamonds. Everyone claps as though this were the first time some idiot dropped his lunch tray, and the kid drops to his knees, desperately putting everything back on the tray as if the celebration will stop once he puts his tray on the rack. The ice is so wet and shiny against the tiles.
Harold’s eyes struggle to stay open. He finally forces them open, realizes he’s jumping forward in time—it’s as if he has a time machine in his head. He closes his eyes. The kid’s kneeling in front of his tray looking like a dipshit. He opens them again. The tray is gone, the kid kneeling with napkins, wiping up his mess. The ice cubes are gone, and Harold is sad about it—they looked so cool spread out like that.
I think Liz Kovalenko’s gonna be in the crash, Harold says.
She wasn’t in AP Government.
You think Chang knows?
The janitor wheels out a mop and bucket. The kid walks away, and everyone claps again. He raises his arms, smiling in triumph, as someone else cleans up his mess. Chang and his crew laugh, give the kid a thumbs-up as he walks past. People start chanting speech, speech, speech, speech. Everyone’s so pleased with themselves.
Fuck Chang, Harold says.
Mrs. Bowen hugs her brother and leaves. Fishman sees Harold and winks, presses his thumb and forefinger together, brings them up to his lips. Harold closes his eyes. Everyone disappears.
The crowd parts for Casey. She looks so uncomfortable, all that white paint caked on her face. Harold shoves his Chemistry book into his locker, sees the Homecoming picture taped to the inside of the door. He waits for her to walk past so he can take the picture down—she doesn’t walk past. She stands behind him.
The theme was Island Getaway. She’s wearing a lei. The backdrop—a red sun exploding across a pink sky. They look so stupid in their oversized straw hats. His eyes clamp shut. All he wants is for time to move forward.
After the dance, he and a group of friends had rented a room at the Best Western in Manhattan Beach—the same Best Western the Walking Dead will spend their night. They’d spent most of the night trading shots and getting high on the beach. He and Casey stayed behind after everyone left, sitting on the sand, staring up at the moon, sharing a flask of Wild Turkey. They staggered back to the crowded motel room, stepping over the passed-out bodies. The only place they could lie down was the cold bathroom floor. They held each other, kissed in the dark. The ventilation fan was still on. He swore he heard the ocean.
He presses his forehead into the photo. His eyes open. Nothing’s in focus. People start to whisper. He’s not going to turn around, even though she wants him to.
The bell rings. It sounds broken—he knows it isn’t. A teacher tells everyone to move along to the football field.
Harsh bro, someone says. She’s not really dead.
Mind your own business.
He turns around and she’s gone. He closes his eyes again, just to make sure.
Harold and Casey were in the driveway unloading his father’s minivan when the cops pulled up to the house. They’d just gotten back from watching the fireworks at Redondo—Harold, his mother and father, and Casey. Dana was at his girlfriend Mollie’s house. The two of them had planned on leaving the next morning for Portugal. A year after Dana’s death, Mollie came to the house, told Harold’s parents about the abortion she’d had at the end of that summer. The three of them sat at the table, Mollie crying, telling them she was sorry, Harold’s father telling her he understood, his mother sitting straight, staring into space. He’d felt horrible for eavesdropping and went up to his room, remembering how Mollie barely made eye contact with anyone at the funeral, how her arms hung limp when his mother hugged her.
Until the cops showed up, it had been the best night of his life—he and Casey holding hands, watching those explosions bloom over the Pacific Ocean. She’d cried during the finale, all those fireworks clustering together, people cheering, children waving their sparklers into the sky. The cops got out of their squad car, walked up to the porch, where they talked to his parents, and then his father wrapped his arms around his mother, who began to wail.
Your brother’s been in an accident, his father said. Walk Casey home and then come right back. We’ll be back as soon as we can.
But I want to come with you.
Son, his father said. Please. Stay here.
Harold walked Casey home. Her parents were asleep. They went into her TV den and sat on the couch. Casey fell asleep, her head resting against his heart. He sat there for the rest of the night as she snored softly in his chest, the TV on Mute, angry that his father had called him Son, that he didn’t want Harold there.
When he was six, his mother’s cat Pepper had kittens. He’d loved those kittens and spent every morning on the couch stroking their soft, velvet skulls. A little kitten they’d named Sasha managed to crawl behind a couch cushion. Harold had no idea Sasha was back there when he sat down, settling into the cushion holding her brother Magic—the one they were going to keep. His mother found Sasha smothered behind the cushion while Harold was at school. He swore to his crying mother it was an accident, swore he’d never meant to do it.
His father sat him down for a talk before bedtime. Harold looked up at him, their faces illuminated by the Nite Lite. His mother had cried all through dinner.
Son, his father said, you have to be careful with them. They’re just babies.
Is Mommy okay?
She’ll be fine, Son.
Harold’s father kissed him on the forehead and walked out, closed the door. In that moment, it seemed like his father only called him Son when he was upset with him. The last time he’d been called Son was three weeks prior, when he’d busted out the living room window with a soccer ball, and his father told him how irresponsible it was to play ball in the house. It was like his father had forgotten Harold’s name whenever something upset him. They gave the remaining kittens away the next day, including Magic.
I’m sorry Son, but your mother and I think Magic might be better off in another home.
Pepper was spayed a month later.
Casey woke up, looked into his eyes and tried to smile. Harold asked her why they didn’t want him in the hospital with them. He couldn’t understand it. She got up and straddled him, unbuttoned her shirt.
But your parents—
They won’t wake up.
Her parents didn’t wake up, and Harold spent the rest of that night gripping Casey’s hips, sliding his tongue into her mouth. They took the condom outside, buried it in the trash bin. Casey held him as birds began chattering in the trees.
The wreckage of a head-on collision, a Volkswagen Golf and a Dodge pick-up, sits at the 50 yard line, right on top of the Spartans logo. Harold watches from the back of the bleachers. The roof of the Golf is crushed down, and he can’t help wondering how the roof could cave in like that in a head-on collision. Trevor Gibbs, President of the Drama Club, sits shotgun in the Golf, dazed and bloodied. Liz Kovalenko, the driver, lies face-down on the hood of the Golf.
If only this were real. If only this had happened while Chang was at the Model U.N. Conference with Casey. If only Liz, suspecting Chang had a thing for Casey, drove Trevor up to the woods, shared a bottle of Vodka with him, chased it with cans of Red Bull. If only Trevor wasn’t gay. Then he could’ve unbuckled his pants, and Liz could’ve leaned over, and lowered her head into his lap, dreaming of how she would break the news to Chang. Of course, Liz never would’ve had the chance to tell Chang, dying in a head on collision that somehow also managed to mangle her roof. Liz is covered in blood, her arm dangling off the hood. How did she manage to get through the windshield with the roof caved in in like that?
The driver of the pick-up is Darshan Ramachandran, a midfielder on the soccer team. He and Harold were teammates once, until Dana died and Harold quit the team. Darshan gets out of the truck, looks at Liz’s body. He freaks out, screams Holy Fuck over and over. Harold smiles, blinks, or at least he thinks he blinks. At any rate, his eyes close, then open again. It’s possible he’s not even smiling right now. He runs his fingers over his lips.
A CHP cruiser pulls up—sirens blaring, red and blue lights flashing. Officer Hawk-face steps out of the cruiser and confronts Darshan, while the other, local basketball hero Tad Fishman, jogs over to check on Trevor. They chase Darshan—who tries to escape on foot, but falls to the grass. Harold tries not to laugh as the officers pull Darshan to his feet. Fishman chuckles as they dust the white chalk off of Darshan’s knees and cuff him. Hawk-face shoots Fishman a dirty look. Harold looks down four rows at Chang, who genuinely looks concerned—what fucking idiot.
An ambulance comes, followed by a white van, an old Dodge Ram with COUNTY CORONER painted on the side, and Harold laughs. A police chopper flies over the crowd. Harold shields his eyes to look up at it, gleaming in the sun, the propellers slicing through the daylight. There was no helicopter to help Dana, but where would it have landed if there were? He turns to Alfonso.
Dude I’m really high right now.
Are you crazy? Alfonso says. Knock it off.
A cool breeze hits Harold’s face, and he closes his eyes, just to rest them for a bit. Alfonso nudges him awake, tells him to stop being a dick. Now there’s a fire engine on the scene. The Walking Dead kids are sitting in the front row, the breeze sifting through their scalps, their hair fluttering. It’s a beautiful day.
Liz is strapped to a yellow plank, the firefighters performing fake CPR on her, their elbows bending every time they pretend to push down on her breastbone. She’s wearing a neckbrace, an oxygen mask. Casey’s hands cover her mouth, something she does when she’s upset. She did this last night, cupped her hands over her mouth, when she kept saying she was sorry over and over again. Harold is thirsty.
They wheel Liz to the ambulance. The freshman girls sitting in front of Harold start to shake and sob. He leans over and tells them she’s not really dead, and they look at him, and Alfonso yanks him back into his seat. Chang lowers his head, and his shoulders jump up and down, and Harold can hear Chang’s low moans from where he’s sitting, and one of the offensive linemen puts a giant hand on Chang’s back.
Darshan is now in the back seat of the cruiser. The firefighters pry off Trevor’s passenger’s side door with the jaws-of-life. The helicopter lands, the force from the propellers flattening the grass, and Chang’s wailing is drowned out by the pulsing throb of propellers. Casey turns, looks over her shoulder, the black paint from her eyesockets streaking the white paint on her cheeks, trailing like fireworks before they burn out and disappear into the ocean. Harold knows those tears aren’t for him.
Earlier this morning, before the Grim Reaper, Casey had asked Harold if he’d been crying because his eyes were red. He told her he hadn’t. She told him she had. He told her he knew. His eyes close, then open, then close. He keeps them shut. Everything still happens.
Jeff Chon is a graduate of the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College of California. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Word Riot, Barrelhouse, Heavy Feather Review, and The Seneca Review among others. He is the editor-in-chief of The East Bay Review.