Chapter XI. - Hearing The Screams (continued..)
“Okay, so if you promised to stay out of bars in McMinnville, how do we find the NVA?” asked Eric Sellars as they walked along the quad at Ashdown Academy. They were dressed in their dark blue school uniforms, with a dark green tartan plaid skirt for Annette, along with parkas and sweaters against the weather, their books under their arms. It was their first day back after the long Christmas break. The school authorities had told Annette she could have some more time off if she needed it, but she had responded that she wanted to get back into the routine of school as soon as possible.
“We don’t,” said Annette. She took a deep breath “Eric, I think we need to quit seeing each other, and you need to put some visible public distance between you and me. I’m going to do something, one way or the other, and my father is right. I’m probably going to end up destroying myself just as surely as Jan did when she swallowed those pills. I have no right to take you with me on this death trip.”
“I’m in,” he said. “I mean it, Annette, I’m in. I loved Jan too, not like I love you, but she was important to you, and that made her important to me. If you don’t want to be with me anymore, I can’t make you, but if that’s the way you want it, then I’ll go after Flammus myself. As corny as this may sound, if I can’t be with you I don’t much care what happens to me.”
“I know,” she sighed. “That’s what bothers me. I thought a lot about what Dad said, about what will happen to him and to Mom and to you if I fuck this up, which I probably will.”
“But you’re going ahead anyway?” he asked.
“I have to,” said Annette. “It just can’t be any other way, Eric. Dad was wrong about one thing. At some time we have to lift our heads up from the trough, and we have to let ourselves hear the screams. I can’t let this go, Eric. If I don’t let myself hear the death scream of my own sister, if I pretend I don’t hear because I’m afraid or because it’s just too darned inconvenient to hear, then it will get easier and easier from then on, and eventually I will be just as deaf and dumb and blind as everyone else. Somebody has to hear the screams, Eric, and do something to stop it all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not Joan of Arc, and I’m so scared of what I’m doing I think I may shit myself sometimes. But I just can’t do anything else.”
“That old saying about the truth will set you free is crap,” said Eric. “The truth isn’t liberating, it’s lethal. We live in a world based on lies, and anyone who chooses truth, they’re going to try to destroy. There's no way I can stand by and let you go into this alone, Annette. You’re doing it for Jan. So am I, a little. But mostly I’m doing it for you. I want to, I have to, and I don’t want you to ever blame yourself. You offered me an out, and I said no. I’m in. Now how are we going to find the NVA?”
“I’ve got one possible idea,” she told him. “About two years ago, Dad and I were coming back from the All-State swim meet in Salem. Remember, the one where I won the junior hundred-meter? We were in one of his company cars, a Caddy, and as we were going down the interstate an engine light came on and it started to lose power. Dad pulled off at Woodburn, and we found a gas station with a service section. It was kind of seedy, but the old guy there seemed to know his stuff. Turned out one of the Mexicans at the bank motor pool hadn’t bothered to check the transmission fluid, and the transmission was screwed up, and so Dad arranged to leave the car there and called a limo to come down for us from town. Anyway, we ended up hanging around this gas station down in redneck country for a couple of hours. They had a waiting room, sort of, with some old magazines, and I noticed there were a couple of copies of the Northwest Republic stuck in among the old People and Sports Illustrated magazines.”
“That’s the newspaper the Party put out, back before they were banned after Coeur d’Alene?” asked Eric keenly.
“Yeah. I wasn’t really interested in politics back then, and I just glanced at them. But I wandered into the office area where the vending machines were, and I also noticed that on the back counter this guy had a couple of bumper stickers from the Party put up, and a little stand with those little flags in it, an Oregon state flag but not a Stars and Stripes crossing it. It was that Jerry Reb flag they show on TV sometimes, the one that looks like France, except it’s blue and white and green.”
“I doubt he still has it there, since it’s good for life imprisonment these days,” commented Eric.
“No, but don’t you get it?” Annette pressed him. “That guy must have been with the Party, or he knows somebody who is. He might be able to point us in the right direction.”
“If he’s still there,” said Eric. “If he hasn’t been arrested or fled underground himself after Coeur d’Alene. Okay, so what do we do? Just walk up to this total stranger and say hi, guy, can you hook us up with the NVA, because we’ve got a nigger we want them to kill? I’m sure he’ll fall over himself to be helpful.”
“It’s all we’ve got,” said Annette.
“Speak of the damned devil!” said Eric, his lips turning down in a bitter sneer, his eyes riveted across the quad. Annette looked over and saw a group of students coming out of one of the mellow red brick buildings, all wearing the neat blue serge uniforms of Ashdown Academy, boys with trousers and girls with skirts and knee socks, and both with the blue blazer and Academy patch. In the center of the group was a huge figure, all six foot six inches of Ashdown’s star forward and shoo-in first-rank NBA draft choice, Lucius Flammus.
Flammus must have had some Watusi or other Nilotic ancestry. His skin was so black as to look almost as blue as the serge of his jacket, and instead of the usual round Negroid skull his cranium was elongated, almost hatchet-like. Stripped down into his basketball uniform, his body was lithe and superbly muscled, not the typical negro athlete template built like a refrigerator. As big as he was, Flammus moved down court like lightning, and he shot with the speed and accuracy of a striking cobra. He boasted, correctly, that in his entire life he had never missed a free throw. If Flammus scored less than seventy points in a game, he was having a bad night. He was eighteen years old and still had not reached his full growth; the sports doctor on loan from the NBA who was assigned to his specially tailored training program predicted that with the help of certain special “nutritional supplements” he’d top off in a couple of years at six foot eight.
Lucius Flammus was a stupid being who made up for his stupidity with a sharp, cruel, vicious cunning that compensated somewhat for the fact that he was a moron. He was totally without a single vestige of moral feeling or conscience. He ate, slept, and lived for but two things on earth: basketball and white females. Another one of his boasts was that he had never slept with a black or a Mexican girl. He did not use drugs himself, at least not hard drugs, since that would have interfered with his basketball game, but he kept a whole pharmacy on hand of both legal and illegal substances as party favors and bait for anything and everything white and female he could get near.
Using crack cocaine and ecstasy tablets, it had taken less than two weeks for him to charm, seduce, and abandon Annette’s confused and vulnerable sister Jan, who was just starting her second year at Ashdown Academy, a year behind Annette. Jan hadn’t gotten the message, and she had made the mistake of going to Flammus’s dorm room one night in November, looking either for more drugs (according to Flammus) or some kind of reconciliation with the great love of her life, according to Jan’s incoherent iPod-recorded suicide note, which Ray Ridgeway had allowed Annette to hear, but not his wife. At the conclusion of this encounter either the two of them had a “farewell break-up fuck” (Flammus’s version) or Flammus had raped Jan (her iPod suicide note version.) This was the act that had left the girl pregnant, depressed, and half out of her mind, or rather more so than she normally was, and that had led to her New Year’s Eve freakout and death on the rec room floor.
Now Ashdown Academy’s official Black Boy With The Ball bee-bopped down the sidewalk with his admiring Caucasian coterie in tow, laughing, shucking and jiving, and babbling in his best gangsta rapper style. He was completely unconscious of the two pairs of white eyes watching him from across the quad, raging hatred and deadly serious murder in their hearts. After Flammus and his entourage had turned the corner, Annette said, “I’ve got French class fifth period and a study hall sixth, which I can cut.”
“Gym for sixth, which I will be glad to cut rather than look at that ape showing us all how he’s got more moves than Ex-Lax,” said Eric.
“Feel like a drive down to Woodburn?” asked Annette.
“Yeah,” said Eric.
It was about four in the afternoon when they pulled up to Jarrett’s Tune & Lube in Woodburn. The sun had come out on their drive down, the Oregon sky was blue for a while, and the rather seedy clapboard gas station was illuminated in the pale wan light of a crisp and cold winter afternoon. They were in one of the Ridgeway family Lexi, the white one, which Annette had decided was appropriate for this trip. They watched as a middle-aged man with long hair in greasy jeans and a plaid shirt pumped some gas for a customer and checked her oil. “That the guy you remember?” asked Eric.
“That’s him,” said Annette.
“I’m sure,” she said.
“I thought you said he was old?”
“He is old,” said Annette. “Well, old compared to us.”
“Okay, so how do you want to do this?” asked Eric. “Go buy some gas we don’t need and start dropping hints, tell a few nigger jokes, what?”
“Let’s just do it, Eric.” She turned and looked at him. “Last call, Eric. You can at least stay in the car. You know I’m not asking because I doubt you. I’m asking because I love you, and I owe you one final chance to back out of this.”
“I know,” said Eric, opening the car door. “I love you, Annette. Now let’s go see if we can cop ourselves a couple of life sentences.” They got out of the car as the customer drove away and walked up to the pump jockey.
“What can I do for you kids?” he asked cheerily. On closer inspection he was a thin man of medium height; his long hair beneath the battered and stained baseball cap on his head was a dirty blonde laced with gray, and he looked at them through cheap Wal-Mart wire-rimmed spectacles with thick plastic lenses. They looked down and both spotted an odd tattoo on his right hand between his thumb and forefinger, a diamond with the crude letters “AB” over it. Both the young people recognized it as a prison tattoo.
“This is going to sound kind of weird, sir, but we’re trying to find somebody,” said Eric. “I think you might be able to help us.”
“And who might that be?” asked the man politely.
Annette stepped forward. “Okay, look, I’ll tell you exactly what this is all about. Sir, my name is Annette Ridgeway. This is Eric Sellars. You probably don’t remember me at all, but about two years ago, my father and I stopped here at your station for a couple of hours to get our car fixed. When I was here then, I saw that behind your counter there you had a little stand with a couple of flags on it. There was an Oregon state flag, and there was a three-colored flag that was blue and white and green. Plus there were some copies of a newspaper in your waiting room called the Northwest Republic. I think you can guess who we’re looking for. Now, have we come to the right place?”
While Annette had been speaking, a change had come over the man in front of them. It was impossible to define, except to say that during her few words the man seemed to become somehow hard and real. When Annette had begun speaking, he was a man of flesh and blood. When she finished, through some silent transmutation he was made of steel.
“I am going to ask you a question,” he told them both in a soft voice that struck them almost dumb with terror. He did not raise his voice, or make any threatening gesture, but all of a sudden both of them understood what they had gotten themselves into. “Who else have you told about me and about this place?”
“No one,” said Annette.
“We told no one,” confirmed Eric.
“I see. So you two fucking rich kids have the gall to come into my place of business and imply that I am some kind of racist terrorist? You’re saying that I hate people because of the color of their skins or their national origin? That I am in some way disloyal to the United States of America? I’ll tell you what. Both of you get back into your goddamned Lexus and you get the hell out of here. Do not ever let me see either of you around here again. Am I making myself clear?”
“Yes, sir,” said Annette, gulping. Suddenly she knew that this man was turning over in his mind whether or not he should kill her and Eric.
“Yeah, okay, man, our mistake,” said Eric. “No offense intended, okay, man? Fine, we’ll go. Just be cool, all right?”
The two of them backed away and made it back to the Lexus. Eric started the car and then all of a sudden there was a knock on the window. He rolled it down. The pump jockey leaned in and said to them both, “Look, I don’t know what the fuck kind of game you two kids think you’re playing. But I’m going to give you a word of advice. Whatever it is you’re doing, stop it. One thing I learned at a very young age, about your age, in fact, is that if you go looking for trouble, you’re gonna find it. You don’t want to go looking for the Boys. Because if you do, then somebody who isn’t as loyal to this great country of ours as I am might make a phone call, and then the Boys might come looking for you. You don’t want that. Trust me on this, you don’t.” He turned and walked away, and Eric peeled the Lexus out of the gas station.
The man went inside the gas station, opened the drawer and pulled out a cell phone, and dialed a number. A male voice answered. “Sugar Shack.”
“You guys got any more of those jelly donuts you sent me last week?” asked the man.
“Plenty,” said the man on the other end. “You need some?”
“Yeah. I need some donuts, right away.” He closed the phone. Damn! he thought to himself, looking around the gas station. I’ve been here for ten years, and now I have to go on the bounce because of a couple of goddamned kids!