The smell of jerked chicken infected his dreams. The crackle of the pan and the smell of the crisp, acrid herbs made him moan and roll with hunger. His mother’s hands rubbed a leg with the red and black powder and placed it in the dancing oil, her diamond ring throwing prisms across the stucco walls. Hunger bit at his stomach, his eyes rolling back with it, until he woke. The room was quiet. Lou slept like a corpse, unmoving, silent.  Disappointed that his dream was only that, Carl rolled toward the cinderblock wall. He stared at a black smudge just above eye-level from where he lay. He worried the source of the smudge, what could have made such a mark. All sorts of uninviting possibilities emerged in the darkness of his lower bunk. There was shit, of course, blood, dark when dried, or the scuff of a shoe. Sometimes the men worried their shoes would get stolen at night, so they slept in them. Lou didn’t worry about anything. He shoved his duffel bag under the bed, tossed his shoes on the floor, and made Carl put his brand new boots next to them, their tan suede pristine.

He closed his eyes against the smudge and tried to return to his dream, but it eluded him. Instead, the faces of people Lou wanted to kill, from the Queen of England to the President of the United States floated before him. He shot some of them, too. In his daydreams, Lou let him shoot the most important targets—a policeman, a fireman, a government agent. He tried to imagine kissing Savannah Miller from his Geometry class, his hands stroking her glossy black hair, his lips opening against her full, pink lips. Some whispered her dad was a Lummi dog fighter and bare-knuckle boxer, so Carl kept his distance. But when she stretched back in her chair, her hair sweeping the desktop behind her, her deep bellybutton exposed, he couldn’t breathe. In an instant, Savannah disappeared, and he went back to shooting people—his teacher, the asshole in remedial math who made fun of his accent, the girl who laughed when he said they lived at the shelter—but mostly, he shot people he didn’t even know. He’d picture a man walking his dog, and pull the trigger. He’d see a college girl carrying her books over her chest and talking to her friends, and he glide by, his bullet lodging between her eyes. The hunger made him mean, made him want to hurt people who could eat, kids tossing fries into their mouths downtown bam.  He wasn’t able to sleep, but he could feel the squeeze of the trigger under his fingers, the blast as the bullet flew from the muzzle. He let the meanness take him over, gave into it, until he was shooting Mr. Foley, who ran the shelter, and even Lou. He shot Lou three times, just to make sure he was dead. When he stopped breathing, he walked over, and shot him again, right in the head, just to watch his body twitch.

He pinched himself. Lou wasn’t like the other assholes. He was trying to make Carl pure in spirit, and Carl wanted to be. Not so much in Allah’s eyes, but in Lou’s. He wanted Lou to approve, because he knew Lou had a hard time of approving. Lou didn’t like anything or anyone except Carl’s mom. And she was going to die. Carl knew that the first day he spent with Lou. Right there at the Kingston Airport, Lou told him, “We’re going to kill your mom.” Carl just nodded, hiding the fear deep in a pocket inside. His mom often spoke of his little pocket inside, the place where he kept memories of his real dad, German, and his dead brother, Davy. That day his pocket filled up. He cried in the little airplane bathroom, wiping his face frantically with little translucent tissues, trying to be a man for Lou.

The morning crept across the windows, turning the sky from jet to gray to blue. A clear day. Carl loved clear days, the sun making Mt. Baker glitter. The sun was his only tiny reminder of the house in Jamaica, a house Lou built by himself. Up on stilts, it leaned a little after a couple of hurricanes, but it stood. Carl heard Lou stir, and closed his eyes, pretending to sleep. Lou shook him gently. He pretended to stretch and yawn, pretended he didn’t want to get up. It was a lie. He wanted breakfast, he wanted to go to school where his English teacher, Mr. Billings, slipped him apples and bread from home. But it was important to Lou that he play along. He didn’t know why. Like so many things he played out, he just knew it mattered, and he didn’t question it beyond that.

“You do your homework?” Lou dragged a comb over his head and tugged on a sock.

“Sure.” Another lie. He was feeling guilty. “Should we pray now?”

Lou stopped, one sock on, the other dangling from his fingertips. “Well, sure. If you want to, son.”

Carl relished being called son. It made him warm, like his dream of his mother’s kitchen, the jerked chicken in the pan. “Okay.”

They got on the floor. Lou said he made up his own Islamic ways, and their prayer was no exception. He spread a tattered bathmat in front of Carl, and Carl knelt. Lou prayed on the bare floor. Neither bothered figuring out which direction was east, they simply knelt side-by-side. Lou pitched forward first, and Carl followed. Carl tried to focus on prayer, on the goodness of Allah, of Mohammed his prophet, but instead, he thought about Savannah. Lou muttered more about Allah, and Carl tried to join in, but Savannah sucked him in, overtook him.

“There is no God but Allah,” and the way Lou said “All-AH” bugged him. Carl muttered AL-lah, like a newscaster, like a teacher at school. They talked about Allah and Islam in World Geography class with Mr. Whilmer. On Friday, when Mr. Whilmer asked if there were any Muslims in the class, Carl proudly raised his hand. Fuck you, Christian motherfuckers, he was thinking. Fuck you. Savannah flashed her gray green eyes toward him and tossed her hair. He didn’t look back, he felt her like a ghost, her eyes going over him, sizing up his new boots, his military haircut, his accent. Lou cowtowed again, and Carl followed. His knees started to ache, even through the high pile and rubber backing of the bath mat. Lou bought it at the dollar store. It was their own kind of Islam.

When Carl stood, Lou rolled up his bath mat and handed it to him. His head swam as he stood, and he grabbed the bunk for balance.

“You need breakfast, son.” Lou pulled out the box of saltines and the squeeze bottle of honey. “Have as much as you need to feel full, and remember AllAH is great.”

Carl took the crackers and honey. He could go through an entire box at breakfast and still feel ravenous at lunch. He followed Lou to the basement cafeteria. He gripped the handrail on his way downstairs to keep the steps from swimming out from under him. The kitchen was full. Lou and Carl sat by themselves in the corner, the clink of spoons against bowls, the sizzle of eggs, the slurp of oatmeal surrounding them. Lou got up and took a plate from the end of the hot line. He took pancakes with syrup and oatmeal and soy bacon. Carl watched, envying the butter spilling over the sides of the pancakes, the glitter of syrup, the thick smell of bacon. He poured more honey on his cracker and ate it, wiping his sticky fingers on a paper napkin. Bits of it stuck to the honey and came off on his fingers.

Lou sat down and dug in. Because the Christians made such a fuss of praying before meals, Lou decided they wouldn’t say any prayers before eating. “Prayer,” he had told Carl, “is for the privacy of our room.”

Carl munched another cracker. Lou poured him a glass of water from a metal pitcher in the middle of the table. “Drink up. It’ll fill your stomach.”

He did as he was told. He had a quiz in Geography on the provinces of Canada. He was expected to pass. Even half-starved, he got excellent grades. Mr. Whilmer even mentioned college a few times. College. He had finished half the box when Lou dug into his pancakes.

“We’ll hit yard sales this weekend. How does that sound?”

Carl nodded, staring at the pattern of cinnamon on the surface of Lou’s oatmeal. “Yeah.”

“We can maybe pick up a gun, go target shooting. You’d like that.”

Carl was still bitter that Lou sold their rifle. He said he needed the extra cash, but he always seemed to have cash. Cash poured out of his pockets, stuffed his wallet, filled a portion of his giant duffel bag.  Cash did not seem to be the problem. Carl snapped a cracker between his teeth. The honey was making him hungrier.

Lou fixed him with a stare. “You have something to say, acolyte?”

Carl didn’t look up. “When are we going on our trip?”


Frances Badgett

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Excerpt from “Carl”