Air strikes began in January that year. Every day during third period Sean and Eric watched Operation Desert Shield on the television perched in the corner of their History 9 classroom: Nighthawks like broad triangular kites, F-4s and Hornets twisting and diving, tracers burning green-yellow arcs in the night vision. All was propulsion and bursts of illumination, trails of fire shot through sparkling constellations. Their ears thrummed as buildings convulsed and collapsed in the crosshairs, 50-caliber guns recoiling like snakes. One class period began with a Tomahawk cruise missile sliding slow-motion from its vertical launching system like a slick orange alien erupting from its mother’s womb, like something from Star Wars.
Sean and Eric were mesmerized when the Sith lord swept through the smoking carnage aboard Princess Leia’s rebel vessel, choking men with his invisible hand, tossing crates with his mind. Sean and Eric read all night in a backyard tent when they stayed at each other’s houses on the weekends, killing a two-liter Coke each, racing to see who could read the most. They read Tolkien, Heinlein, Asimov. Of comic books, they read Batman and The Punisher. Dark avengers were their favorite—outcasts, vigilantes, the scourgers.
They were best friends and did not want any others. They had little interest in talking to their classmates. The radio played Wilson Phillips, Paula Abdul, Phil Collins, but Sean and Eric listened to Danzig, the Replacements, Dead Kennedys. And then came Romeo and Juliet. They groaned when their English 9 teacher sent them home with permission slips—guys in tights? But when the lights fell and that Martian language bounced through the theater, they felt the words in their shoulders and tasted them in their mouths: fatal loins, piteous overthrows, heartless hinds. And then came the swords. Mercutio was okay, but Tybalt was it: a genuine high-flying badass. Turn thee, Benvolio, and look upon thy death!
After school they hung around the smooth suburban streets leading between their homes, grinding their skateboards on the curbs, tearing open their knees, talking about girls and books. They’d seen Stephanie Wisneski, black-garbed queen of the punkers, reading Nietszche, so they borrowed a copy of The Will to Power from the library. The title rose up to them like Stephanie’s perfume and black fingernail polish, lifted them like a wave. Romeo and Juliet weren’t supposed to be anywhere near each other, but passion lent them power, and what was the will but passion pursued with resolve? Sean and Eric took turns holding matches under sprigs of pine as fragrant white smoke frothed like hot gray storm clouds. If you only knew the powerrrr of the Dark Side!, said Sean, and then smashed it all into the ground with his feet.
But they came out of the pines and maples to find Jimbo and Burk loitering in Justin Kampke’s front yard, drinking beer and throwing a football. Justin was only a sophomore and was already the second-string varsity quarterback, and someone said he’d had sex with the new Home Ec teacher. As if kicking their asses was going to be the most boring thing he did all week, Justin underhanded the football to Burk and walked toward Sean and Eric, Burk and Jimbo right behind. So, said Justin, You skaterat pussies just get done blowing each other or what?
Sean and Eric stared at their shoes, shifting their skateboards under their arms. Jimbo coughed up a sizeable luggie and blew it lazily across Sean’s chest. Burk sucked enough snot to fill his mouth. Watch this, he mumbled, grinning.
Sean looked to Eric, who cleared his throat but said nothing. So Sean dropped his skateboard and took out his pocketknife and locked open the blade. Burk almost choked. Justin howled in amusement—What’s the skaterat pussy gonna do with his grandpa’s pocket knife? Like a child slipping into the deep end of the pool, Sean raised his left hand and drew the blade slowly across the meaty part of his palm, a string of blood spilling down his wrist and hanging red in the streetlights. Eric watched his friend as if he were seeing a stranger do this.
Justin grimaced, disgusted. Jimbo and Burk shifted uneasily. As Sean’s hand dripped on the road, Justin killed the rest of his beer and tossed it in the drainage ditch: Skaterat faggots. Back on his lawn he picked up the football and held up a middle finger with the other hand. Sean raised his bleeding hand in return, middle finger extended, and quoted loosely and loudly from Nietzsche—You got no right to existence! You suck compared to higher men!—while Eric dropped his skateboard on the road, testing the wheels.
Third period was boring the next day. The tiny explosions were beamed from some giant sandbox thousands of miles away. To pass the time, Sean punched Eric in the shoulder to see if he could get Eric to punch back. When Eric fell out of his desk, laughing and rubbing his arm, they were both sent to the principal’s office.
On the way there, they slipped out the back door onto the parking lot adjoining the playground, the swing sets, the basketball hoops. They walked until they were in the stand of birch and pine trees that separated the school property from the insurance company. Spring had come early, and the trees dripped snowmelt. They smoked a cigarette and watched the first class spill out of the cafeteria into the midday sun, scattering and gathering like flies on scat. Sean sighted these insects down the imaginary barrel of a maple branch. Eric picked up a branch, considered how he might best hold it as a weapon. He asked Sean if he’d ever fired a gun.
Who hasn’t? Sean said, unseating a bird nest with his maple branch. Want to see something?
They skirted the school property and the insurance company, making their way through the hospital campus and behind the credit union, and down the street where their families lived. In Sean’s basement, he inserted a thin screwdriver into the gun cabinet’s lock, wiggling, fiddling. The .22 and the 12-gauge watched placidly from behind the glass door, locked solid. The boys’ reflections frowned in the glass. Sean raised an eyebrow, tapping the glass with the handle of the screwdriver, but Eric shook his head, laughed that idea into ridiculousness.
On the back deck, Eric and Sean smoked another cigarette and drank Mountain Dew from a two-liter bottle, their feet resting on white plastic lawn furniture. Somewhere on the roof, a chickadee sang her eponymous song. School sucked, teachers were morons, the other kids were total fucking tools, and all the girls were either fat or stuck up except for Stephanie Wisneski, whose eyes were like portals into another dimension. Someone said she was a lesbian.
Sean grabbed a tent pole from where they were piled beneath the drying line, where the tent hung in the afternoon sun. He tossed it to Eric and raised his own. The ability to destroy a planet is fucking weak next to the power of the Force!, said Sean, thrusting at him, clacking. The Force? said Eric, getting into it, I hate the word—as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee! Have at thee, fuckwad!—clack, crack. When I left you, Sean intoned, I was but a learner, but now—
Then Eric accidentally clipped Sean’s left hand, the hand that just yesterday he cut across the palm. Sean fell, clutching his hand to his chest, cursing. Eric apologized, but Sean just cursed louder, pounding the slushy snow red with blood. Eric looked in three different directions, wondering if he should try to find help. Sean rolled to one side then and stood suddenly, unsteadily. He picked up his tent pole and drummed it against his leg, his wounded hand balled into a bloody fist.
Sean, Eric said, Jesus Christ, cut it out—you know I didn’t mean it.
You never mean it, Sean said. Just like you didn’t mean to puss out the other night.
Sean charged, thwacking at Eric’s defenses. He battered Eric’s fingers until Eric dropped his tent pole and fell backwards into the bed of azaleas lining the fence, the flowers shivering red and white.
Eric raised his hands—Okay, I give.
If you will not fight, Sean said, gliding the tip of the aluminum tent pole through Eric’s bleach-blonde hair, tracing a freckled Nordic cheekbone before resting at his ear, if you will not fight, then you will meet your fucking destiny.
Don’t, Eric said, Stop, but the words paled like twin ghosts and rushed to join the cold winter sky.
David Bowen graduated with an MFA from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro in 2003, and then co-founded New American Press with Okla Elliott, with whom he co-edits and publishes MAYDAY Magazine, a forum for new writing and ideas that has featured commentary by Annie Finch, Stephen Burt, Mark Halliday, David Orr, Don Share, and Ange Mlinko, as well as new fiction, poetry, interviews, and reviews.