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These Violent Delights
Author: Micah Nemerever

Prologue

 


By the time Charlie punches out it’s well after midnight, and everyone else has long since gone home. He switches off the lights and watches the long aisles cascade into darkness, then pulls the roll-up door shut behind him. When he steps out from under the awning the rain drapes over his umbrella like a shroud.

The air clots around his breath. At the far side of the warehouse a train wails past. Charlie thinks about knitted blankets and hot chocolate, half-forgotten childhood comforts he’s a few years too old now to admit to missing. The others all have families and wives and happy plans for the holiday; Charlie just has matinee tickets and Lucy begging for scraps of his TV dinner. He’s exhausted, he thinks, because it’s easier to remedy than being lonely.

As he turns onto the side street he fumbles, thick-fingered, for his keys. When he opens his car door a crown of rainwater disperses from the roof and scatters. The air inside is even colder than outside—Charlie blows into his cupped hands and hopes the chill hasn’t seeped between his bedsheets.

He starts the ignition. The engine screams. The rasp of tearing metal is followed by a heavy death rattle. Charlie quickly shuts off the engine and holds the wheel in white-knuckled hands. He’s accustomed to dead batteries, flat tires, engines too stubborn to start in the cold, but whatever just happened was far worse.

He’s drenched by the time he remembers his umbrella. He lifts the hood with a squeal, hoping there’s a miracle waiting in the unreadable mess of his engine. But Charlie has never been much of a mechanic. There’s nothing in there for him to see.

He steps back and heads toward the phone booth, but stops in the middle of the street—he squints through the rain and sees the receiver swinging from its cord. For the first time Charlie lets his dismay tip upward into anger.

“Fucking—teenagers.”

He will have to return to the telephone in the warehouse break room. He exhales hard and stalks back to the car, leaning inside to grab his umbrella. There’s the germ of a headache now, just behind his eyes.

Charlie slams the door and straightens. When he looks out into the street again, he is no longer alone.

“Are you okay?”

A battered black car has appeared in the street beside him. Rain slicks down the windows and roof, but the passenger door hangs open. A boy is leaning toward him, one arm braced above the doorframe. His dark hair is artfully untrimmed, but he’s dressed well. Argyle pullover, toffee-brown jodhpur boots; a suburban choirboy in halfhearted revolt.

Charlie stares at him, and he smiles.

“That looks like fun.” The boy nods toward the steaming hood of Charlie’s car. “Have a wrecker on the way?”

Charlie slowly shakes his head. “Phone booth’s out of order.”

The boy gives a sympathetic wince and turns toward the unseen driver. Then he nods and turns back to Charlie.

“We can give you a lift home if you want,” he says. “Car’s not going anywhere—you might as well call the tow from someplace warm.”

Charlie lifts the hood again to take one last, hopeless look into his engine. He sighs and slams it shut.

“I’m in Polish Hill,” he says. “Is that out of your way?”

“Not at all.”

The boy slides to the middle seat, and Charlie shakes off his umbrella before he gets inside.

The driver is a kid, too, copper-haired and slim. His clothes are as well cared for as his friend’s, but they’re conspicuously cheaper; his plaid flannel shirt has a generic plainness to it that makes it look as if it had been sewn at home from a pattern. Behind the boy’s Malcolm X glasses his dark eyes are solemn, and when he greets Charlie he does not smile.

He stares just a second longer than he should, then catches his friend’s prompting glance, chews his lip, and looks away into the road.

“He’s shy,” says the dark-haired boy. “Don’t mind him.”

Charlie nods, unoffended. The boys are younger than he’d thought, maybe even still in high school. He wonders what these two were doing, driving around all by themselves. Honor-roll types, clean-cut, out for a midnight joyride. It’s a poignant thought, almost charming. Charlie was a different kind of teenager—lousy grades, on the football team but never great at it, a lumbering straight man to the class clowns. But he knows what it is to wonder what everyone else is doing differently in order to be happy; he knows what it is to skirt at the outermost edges of friendship. He can still remember the companionable quiet, the fleeting warmth, of the moments teenage boys spend being lonely together.

The wipers click and the vents breathe hot. The redhead steers with his hands at ten and two on the wheel, as if he hasn’t been driving for very long. The other boy reaches across Charlie’s knees and takes a thermos from the glove box. The contents smell of hot broth and rosemary, something Charlie’s grandmother might have made when he was sick as a child.

“Want some?” the boy asks. “It’s chicken and rice.”

“Nice of you,” Charlie agrees.

He holds the metal thermos mug steady while the boy carefully fills it. The first mouthful burns Charlie’s tongue, but it shocks the cold from his bones, and it tastes all right. At first there’s the barest tang of soap, as if the mug wasn’t rinsed properly, but after a moment he can’t even taste it.

The dark-haired boy takes a sip from the thermos and offers it to his friend, but the driver shakes his head curtly and keeps his eyes fixed on the empty street.

It’s quiet for a while. Charlie finishes his soup and rolls the mug between his hands. His scalded taste buds are starting to itch.

“What are your names?” he asks. He’ll forget the answer as soon as he hears it, but he’s grateful for the promise of home and the weight of hot food in his belly, and he wants to be courteous.

The boy beside him thinks before he answers, like he’s deciding whether or not to tell the truth. He looks apprehensive, but doesn’t appear to know it.

“I’m Julian,” he answers finally. He gives his friend a pointed look. The other boy is silent for a moment, as though summoning the will to speak. His jaw is a nervous taut line. This one gets on Charlie’s nerves a little, as anxious people often do. Shyness he can forgive; cringing dread is harder to stomach.

“Paul,” the driver says, blank-faced, so quietly Charlie almost can’t hear him.

Charlie looks between them, at how differently they are dressed and how Paul avoids meeting Julian’s eyes—how little they look or behave like friends. Once again, more insistently now, he is curious what they were up to before they found him. But there’s no reason for him to be uneasy. They’re just kids, and he’s on the verge of reaching home. Once he’s there, it won’t matter anymore.

His fingers are too warm around his empty cup. The heat from the vent suddenly clings like his childhood Ohio summers. He fumbles with the zipper of his parka, but his fingers are rubbery and fever-fat. The thermos cup is rocking on its side between his ankles before he even knows he’s dropped it.

Julian grins suddenly and elbows his friend’s arm, as if to include him in a joke.

“Where exactly are you in Polish Hill, Charlie?” The sudden clarity of Paul’s voice is startling. There’s an echo of Murray Avenue in his vowels, but he overenunciates as if he learned to speak by reading—in the middle of exactly, where Charlie has never heard it before, there’s the precise, conspicuous click of the t.

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