Read The Gospel of Winter Online
Authors: Brendan Kiely
“No,” I said.
“I've always assumed other people have better ideas, that they do know what is best for me. It never occurred to me that they're all just like meâthey're all pretending too. We're all completely on our own.” He bent down to me suddenly and grabbed my shoulders. He looked at my black eye, and for a moment I thought he was going to bend forward and kiss it. My stomach dropped, and I stood with a familiar motionlessness. “Dude,” he said. “Loneliness sucks.” He shook his head and stood up again. He wiped his nose.
Being cramped in the cube now made me uneasy. I kicked my legs out the back side and jumped down into the sand. “Come on,” I said to Mark. “Let's not hang out here. We're too loud. Someone's going to hear us eventually. We'll get caught.”
“Fuck,” Mark said. “I don't know. Maybe it's time I got caughtâthat I really got caught. Maybe that's what I need.”
“Don't be crazy!” I said.
“Fine,” he said. He was looking at the school. He cupped his hand over his eye like a visor to block out the glare from
one of the parking lot lights. “I know a place we can go where no one will hear us.”
He swung out of the cube and marched through the playground into the stand of trees beside the school. The building was shaped like a smooth and blunted scallop shell, with the back being the narrower end and the front of the school fanning out as it faced the street. The front of the school also had more floors than the back, so the roof gradually sloped downward toward the back of the building. A metal fire-escape staircase zigzagged up the side of the building near the back, beyond the playground and the lights from the parking lot. Mark led me to the foot of the stairs and quickly up them to the emergency door at the back of the school.
“Hey, man,” I said. “If we try to go in, it will set off an alarm.”
“We're not going in,” he said. “We're going up.” The window beside the emergency door was covered in metal grating. Mark looked to the roof. “Think you can do this?”
“Come on,” I said. “You can't be serious.”
Mark smiled. It was the first time he had seemed fully relaxed all day. “Yes,” he said. “I know I can do it. But I've seen you swim. Think you can haul yourself up there?” He didn't wait for my reply. He grabbed hold of the grate and started climbing. He scrambled up to the edge of the roof, and when he got there, he hesitated, but only briefly. He held on to the lip of the roof, pulled himself up, and rolled forward, out of sight. I followed, but more nervously. The climb was
even harder than I realized it would be, and when I thought about how high I was off the ground, I didn't look down. As I pulled myself up, my arms shook, and the grate rattled. I could hear the breeze moving the tree branches ten or fifteen feet behind me. I clung on as tightly as I could and continued slowly. When I finally got to the top and looked over the stone lip, Mark was sitting nearby. “Need a hand?” he asked. He planted his feet behind the lip, grabbed me underneath one of my shoulders, and dragged me over onto the rooftop.
What I hadn't been able to notice from the ground was that the roof was terraced. It ran as a flat expanse from where we were to a low wall, on top of which was another flat expanse leading to another low wall. From that wall, the roof sloped sharply upward to a peak at the front of the building. We sat against the first low wall, drinking from our bottles as I caught my breath. Mark didn't usually drink at all, but he slugged down the rum faster than me. He smiled, but there seemed to be some kind of anger still lingering beneath his smile. He finished his rum and threw the bottle across the roof.
“Careful. This is from the office of J. P. Donovan himself. Last time I chugged his stuff, I hosed down Sophie,” I said. I laughed, but he didn't.
“Ha,” he said flatly. “Remember that? That was a good time, until my mother came in with her frigging CIA crackdown.”
“Look,” I said. I grabbed his shoulder. “We're here now.
Let's forget them. We're free. This is how we're supposed to feel. Free!” I gestured out toward the roof in front of us. The lights for the parking lot were below and did not provide much light. In fact, from the roof, we could see more stars, and the dark sky opened up above us. We spun around, lay down with our heads at the base of the wall, and felt our perspective change.
“Whoa,” Mark said. “Trippy.”
He began to laugh, and I did too, glad that he was happy. We shared the rum in my bottle and smoked a little more from the one-hitter. After a while, we were stupid with laughter. I kept pointing up at the stars, and when I did, Mark would point too and then poke me with his other hand. I couldn't stop laughing.
Mark stood up. “Let's get really free.” He started taking off his clothes. I stopped laughing when he was down to his boxer shorts and socks and was staring at me with a straight face. “You too, idiot.”
I hesitated but then followed, glad Mark hadn't taken his underwear off. When I was down to my own underwear and socks, I felt the cold biting up at my feet, and I swigged more of the rum to try to warm up. Mark grabbed the bottle from me and finished it off. He wound up and threw it over the edge of the roof. I heard the plastic cap hit the metal of the fire escape. “Woo-hoo!” he yelled. “Fuck them all!” We jumped around like lunatics and shook our fists in the air, dancing around our pile of clothes.
“I think we can go higher,” he said. “Watch this.” He got a running start, sped toward the wall, and with a leap, scaled it to the next level. “Come on,” he said, leaning over it.
I followed him up, and then again, as we did the same at the next wall. We scaled the sharply sloping roof by crawling up it on our bellies. When we got to the edge, we looked over it to the street below. Another car passed, but it didn't slow down. “Fuck them all!” Mark shouted again. The world seemed to flip out from underneath me. My sense of balance was out of control, and although I wasn't moving, I had the sensation that I was slipping forward, up and over the edge of the roof. I shuffled back down the slope and rolled onto my back. I felt a little better, but again, with the dome of the sky all around me, I felt like I was tipping forward, pitching toward the stars. “Holy shit,” I said.
“I know,” Mark said. “I feel like I'm flying.”
I arched my head and looked back at him. He was still up at the edge, but now he was on his knees, with his arms stretched out on either side of him. I shivered. “Come on,” I said. “Let's get our clothes back on. I can't do this anymore.”
“No,” he said. When I looked back at him again, he was perched even closer to the edge of the roof. “No.”
“No. Fuck them. They can kiss this Senator Kowolski's ass.” He pulled down his boxers and mooned me. He tried to turn himself around on his knees so he could moon the street below, and his feet rose up over the lip of the roof and
wiggled in the air above the front of the school. He laughed and tucked his head forward into his chest, but I couldn't tell if he was crying too.
“Hey, man,” I said.
“How do you do it? How do you stay sane?” he asked softly. He remained perched at the peak of the roof.
“You're the one who always looks together.” His hands stayed firmly planted in front of him and although he pitched forward, down the slope of the roof toward me, his feet still dipped out over the edge behind him as if his socks were drifting off into the neighborhood. “Hey,” I said. “Come down from there, man.”
“Fuck that. I look together? I'm a mess, man. You know that. You know that better than anyone.”
“Dude! You're wasted. Seriously.”
He picked up his head and looked at me. “Are you saying you care about me?” His voice tilted upward at the end, and I couldn't tell if he was mimicking or mocking Josie from New Year's or if there was something genuine in his question.
“Come on, man.”
Mark stretched one leg out farther behind him until his knee was out over the lip. Nearly naked and thrust over the point of the roof, he looked like a berserker figurehead of some Viking ship careening into the darkness ahead of him. And with a sad madness in his eyes, he asked, “Would you help me, really, if I needed it?”
“Jesus, man.” I flipped over and began crawling toward him. “Have you lost it?”
“You know it.” He lifted his hands from the roof and began to lean back. His leg sank farther into the air. He grinned, then his body waivered, he pitched to the side, and he cried out.
He slipped and lost his balance and his whole leg sank over the edge. He buckled and hit the ledge of the roof, but I was able to grab his wrist as he tipped backward. He didn't fall once I had him in my hand. His body trembled as we threw our arms over each other's shoulders, and we slid forward down the roof. Mark didn't resist. I stopped us at the edge of the wall and leaned back against the slope of the roof.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked.
Mark was silent, and after a moment his eyes were red and wet. He had corrected himself, and now he sat beside me with his head down between his knees. He leaned against me, and the breeze across my skin chilled me. “Come on,” I said. “We need our clothes.” We climbed down the first wall, and as we walked across the second terrace of the roof, we could see back over the entire playground and the parking lot below us. To the left, along the road that led to the school, I saw a pair of headlights flash and come around the corner. I hustled Mark toward the edge, but before we could get there the car pulled into the parking lot.
I dropped to my stomach and yanked Mark down with me. “Stay flat,” I said.
I snaked us forward to the next wall and looked over its lip to the level below and to the ground. The car came to a stop near the playground and flipped on its high beams. It was the police. A cop stepped out from the driver's side and waved a flashlight toward the jungle gym, then the swing sets and the concrete climbing blocks. He left the flashlight pointed at the blocks for a while. Our clothes were one level down, but I was too afraid if we climbed over the wall, we would become visible. Flattened, and behind the lip, we remained in the shadows. I was freezing but too scared to move. Mark stayed beside me but didn't look over the edge with me. He lay on his back and, with tears on his cheeks, stared up at the sky.
The cop walked toward the playground and kept his flashlight on the concrete blocks. Finally, after what seemed like forever, he walked back to his car, got in, and switched off his high beams. He remained in the car for a while, idling, until he finally pulled the car around and drove away. When his headlights disappeared behind the corner, I got up on my knees and tapped Mark. “Let's go,” I said.
We jumped back down to the next level and silently put on our clothes. Mark looked depressed. I stamped my feet and rubbed my arms, trying to get warm. I couldn't shake the cold. “Let's get out of here,” I said.
Mark hesitated. He stepped closer and put his arms
around me. I didn't move at first, but then I felt the squeeze and knew it was more than a hug. I wiggled, and he held me a little tighter.
“Come on,” I said to him. He didn't say anything back, and I pushed out of his embrace. “Please,” I said. “I won't do that.”
Mark stepped back. “You can just do that, huh? Turn on and off? Whenever the hell you want?”
“I can't really do that,” Mark said. “Be totally free.”
“Yeah, you can.”
“Really? Fuck you.”
“Look, man, it's okay. It's fine. You just can't ask me to do that. I'm sorry.”
“Yeah, right.” He crossed his arms and stared at me for a moment.
“Look, we're just friends,” I said. “We can be friends. This is great.”
Mark looked away. When he looked back, his eyes were red rimmed and wild. They darted everywhere. He couldn't look at me. “Please,” he begged. “What the hell do you think would have happened if we just got caught up here?”
“But we didn't.” I took a step forward and put a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, let's get out of here.”
“You don't get it,” Mark said, shaking my hand off.
“What are you talking about, man?”
He paced around in front of me and held his arms tight around himself. “I can't take it anymore. I'm losing it. How do you do it?”
“Just try to collect yourself. I don't understand you.”
“Drop the act, man.”
“What are you getting so pissed about?”
“What about being my friend? Think we can strip down all the bullshit and finally get real? I was talking earlier about not going back to Most Precious Blood ever. I was talking about that, man. And you just ignored it. Come on.”
I didn't say anything for a few seconds, hoping that if I stayed quiet, he would begin to calm down and regain enough composure to come up with a plan. I was terrified into silence. I still believed there was some kind of planâsomething we could do to spin this and never have to get back to this conversation. But Mark looked at me, and I wanted to cry.
“Please,” he said. “I'm trying to tell you.” He walked over and stood close to me. “I'm losing my mind, man,” he said. “Don't you see it? Don't you think we both know the same thing?”
I put my hand on his shoulder and kept him at a distance. “Be quiet. Just shut up already,” I said. “Just stop talking. Please don't say any more.”
Mark pulled back. “Why are you saying that? I'm going crazy. I can't be quiet anymore. It's everywhere.” I reached for him again, but he stepped away. “What the fuck? Can't you hear me? I'm fucking dying from the quiet, man. My
parents want to call in a psychologist. They want to know if I'm âsalvageable.' If they can fix me up before I become completely worthless.”