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Authors: April Lurie

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BOOK: The Less-Dead
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Across Guadalupe, on the sidewalk of the UT campus, the Christian youth group zealots are handing out cartoon tracts entitled
Heaven or Hell: Which Will You Choose?
I’ve seen the tracts before. St. Peter is welcoming this repentant drug addict into the pearly gates, but there’s good old Lucifer, complete with horns and pointy tail, tossing some poor sucker—a college professor
holding a book by Friedrich Nietzsche with the slogan “God Is Dead”—into the lake of fire. A pretty obvious scare tactic, if you ask me.

Anyway, when we first arrived, to keep up appearances
stay out of trouble, I checked in with Marty, our twenty-three-year-old youth pastor, who thinks he’s all hip and cool, all down with the teen scene, which he’s
. Then I stuffed some tracts into my pocket and told him I’d be performing music across the street with Carson. I guess he assumed we’d be playing upbeat Christian songs, but what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him, right? I’m so pumped up right now from doing Jet’s song that I want to scream,
Hell! I choose hell, you idiots!
but then I see Carson pointing across the street. “Whoa, look at that!”

A skater dude, about our age, is carrying a big wooden ramp over his head. Marty helps him set the ramp in the street and begins placing orange cones around it to ward off cars. Next the skater picks up his board and starts doing all these amazing stunts. Meanwhile our fans are crossing Guadalupe to watch, and the youth group is having a field day handing out their tracts.

that guy?” I say, mostly to myself. “I’ve never seen him at church before.”

“Hmmm, I don’t know,” Carson says. “But isn’t that Aubrey?”

“Huh?” Aubrey has always been anti-street evangelism. Like me, she believes that if a person wants to find God, God will find him or her. But there she is, looking especially beautiful, leaning against the UT campus wall and watching the skater. Standing next to her is a girl I don’t recognize.

Carson’s mouth hangs open. “Wait a minute, who’s the girl with Aubrey?” His eyes are glazing over, and he’s got that hungry, horny wolf look. “Noah, come on, grab your stuff. Let’s go over there and say hi.”

One thing about Carson is that he has no idea when a girl is completely out of his league. Which is most of the time, including right now. The girl standing next to Aubrey is
. “I don’t know, man. I don’t think it’s a good idea—”

But before I can object any further, Carson’s packing up our guitar cases and pulling me across the street. “Hey, Aubrey!” he shouts.

When Aubrey sees me, she frowns and folds her arms across her chest. I wonder if
seen the article in the paper about the murder suspect. I know she’d be interested. Suddenly I’m desperate to talk to her about it. Aubrey was always the one I could confide in, but not anymore. Carson sets down the cases, smiles at the new girl, and holds out one hand. “Hi, I’m Carson, and this is Noah. Don’t believe
Aubrey’s told you about us.”

The girl laughs and shakes his hand. Carson holds on to it longer than he needs to. “All right,” she says. “I won’t. I’m Kat. I just moved here from Dallas. Are you guys with King of Glory?”

King of Glory Christian Center is the name of our church. Well, my
church. Except for a grueling hour on Sunday mornings, I try to avoid the place as much as possible. Which is difficult, since Aubrey’s father is the founding pastor. Carson’s been there a couple of times with me, mostly to piss off his dad, but he’s certainly no regular. Too hard-core for a guy who’s been told all his life that religion is
the opium of the masses. “Oh,
he says. “Yeah, we go there.”

Aubrey rolls her eyes. “What are you guys doing here, anyway?”

“What do you mean?” Carson says, looking all offended. “We’re here to spread the Word.”

“Spread the
?” I say. I expect Carson to break into his highly entertaining impersonation of a televangelist, but he doesn’t.

“Yes.” He shoots me a warning look and turns to Kat. “Noah and I were just playing some gospel music across the street, and now”—he digs into his pocket and pulls out a tract—“we’re going to witness to the lost.”

Kat seems to think Carson is incredibly funny. She’s also buying his story. “Great, that’s what we were about to do,” she says.

I raise an eyebrow at Aubrey. She looks away. I inch closer to her and whisper, “Did you see the article in the paper? About the murder? They caught the guy, the one who killed Kyle Lester.”

She looks at me, stunned. “Wow, that’s great. I’m glad they finally got him.” For the moment, she doesn’t seem angry with me anymore. It’s almost like we’re back to being friends. She’s about to say something else, but now the skater dude comes flying toward us.

“Hey, girls, what’s up?” He’s wearing a T-shirt that says
Got Jesus?
In fact, he kind of looks like Jesus: long hair, carpenter’s build, life-of-the-party kind of guy. He hops backward off his board and uses just enough upward torque to
catch it with one hand. “Hey,” he says, “you’re Noah, right? Son of the famous Bible Answer Guy?”

“Uh … yeah.” I don’t like the way this guy is standing so close to Aubrey. Like he owns her or something. Also, how does he know my name? Probably heard it from Marty, who no doubt clued him in that I was a pagan.

“Cool,” he says. “I’m Brandon. I guess you already met my sister, Kat. Anyway, I’m a big fan of your father’s. I tune in to his show whenever I can.”

“Groovy,” I say, although I doubt he catches my sarcasm. Actually, I’m barely listening to this guy. Mostly I’m watching the way his arm is brushing against Aubrey’s and how she doesn’t seem to mind it one bit.

“Hey, I like your dreads,” he says to Carson. “I tried to grow those once, but, well, let’s just say it didn’t work out.”

Carson beams and touches his nasty locks. “Thanks. The trick is the rubber bands.”

“Brandon, this is Carson,” Kat says. “He goes to King of Glory.”

“Awesome.” Brandon slips his hand into Aubrey’s. My stomach plummets. “So are you guys here to evangelize and hand out tracts too?” he says.

“No,” I answer, staring hard at Aubrey.

am,” Carson says. “But, well, I’m sort of new at it, so maybe”—he grins at Kat—“I could tag along with you?”

“Sure,” she says.

I glare at Carson; he ignores me.

“We’ll do guy-girl teams,” Brandon says. “That’s how
Marty likes it.” He looks at me. “You, uh, sure you don’t want to join us, Noah? We could use your expertise.”

Expertise? Is this guy kidding? “Yeah, I’m sure. Actually, I was planning to wander around, check out the new age shops, buy some tarot cards, score a gram or two.”

“Oh, okay,” Brandon says, laughing. “I guess we’ll hook up with you later.”

God, this guy is such an idiot. “Yeah, later.” I pick up both guitar cases and whisper to Carson, “See you around,


Carson’s been born again, I guess I have to go solo. I walk several yards to the UT campus’s main entrance, take out my guitar, strap on my funky harmonica headgear, and find a seat on the concrete steps. I’m in a pretty melancholy mood right now, so I decide to sing some haunting old folk tunes by Lead Belly.

It’s kind of weird—most people think I don’t believe in God, but I do. I pray when I’m alone, and it’s like me and God are having a conversation, even though I do the talking. It was a couple of years ago, right around the time I discovered what my dad would call worldly pleasures—art, poetry, literature, and secular music—that I realized how much I was missing. I figured out that I don’t need a church or a sermon or a plan of salvation to feel close to God. All I need is my music.

I begin with “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Mr. Flynn, our former AP music theory teacher, was the one
who introduced us to Lead Belly. And even though Mr. Flynn ultimately hung me and Carson out to dry for the hash jelly experiment, I have to thank him for opening my mind to new genres. After I heard Lead Belly, something inside me changed and I began to think about my music in a totally different way.

I sing the chorus a few times:
“My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me. Tell me where did you sleep last night?”
Then I close my eyes and play the melody on the harp. The notes are all minors and it almost sounds like my harmonica is crying.

“Man, someone must have seriously broken your heart.”

I open my eyes and see this tall, wiry guy—about my age, maybe a little older—standing on the steps right in front of me. He’s got pale blue eyes, and he’s watching me intently. His hair’s pale too—blond and long, reaching to his shoulders. There’s something familiar about him, but I can’t place him. “No, don’t stop,” he says. “Keep playing. It just sounds so sad, you know?”

“Okay.” I shrug and continue.
“In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine, I would shiver the whole night through …”
This time I keep my eyes open. I sing the chorus a few more times, and when I finish, he smiles. He’s good-looking in that grungy, bohemian kind of way. No doubt he’s had better luck with girls than I have.

“Hey, is it all right if I sit down?” he asks.

“Yeah, go ahead.”

He pulls a small leather notebook and a pen from his back pocket, takes a seat beside me, and begins to write.

“Um, what are you doing?” I ask.

“Oh, I’m jotting down those lyrics, if that’s okay. I’ve never heard that song before. It’s great.”

“Thanks. It’s an old slave song, by a guy named Lead Belly.”

He looks up. “Lead Belly?”

“Yeah. He was this real tough dude who supposedly had an iron gut for liquor. He played a twelve-string and sang gospel and blues. His music’s amazing.”

The guy nods. “Cool. I’ll remember that. Thanks.” He finishes writing, closes the book, and looks at me. “Anyway, was I right? Did someone just break your heart?”

I nod. “Yeah. Last night my girlfriend, well, ex-girlfriend, I guess—it’s complicated—anyway, her name’s Aubrey; she told me she didn’t want to see me anymore.”


“Yeah, she’s over there with a skater named Brandon. Do you see him? The guy who looks like Jesus? They’re witnessing to the lost souls on the Drag.”

He peers across the street and smiles wryly. “Lost souls, huh? You mean like me?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Like you and me.”

He lifts his chin. “See Doomsday over there?”

Across the street, standing on the steps of the Methodist church, is the old, bearded homeless man, a street evangelist who’s been a fixture on the Drag for as long as I can remember. Today he’s wearing a sign that reads ARMAGEDDON IS NOW! “Yeah, I see him here all the time,” I say. “Is that his name? Doomsday?”

“Yep. He’s a friend of mine.”


“Don’t be shocked. Doomsday’s an interesting guy once you get to know him. But when he’s all riled up, he likes to preach at me, tell me how the end is near and how I need to get right with God. I always tell him the same thing: I
right with God. And I’m not afraid of dying.”

Personally, I
afraid of dying, but I decide to keep it to myself. This whole conversation is pretty strange. I’ve known this guy for, what, five minutes and we’ve already discussed my nonexistent love life, God, and death. I’m not really sure what to do at this point, so I hold out my hand. “Hey, I’m Noah.” We shake.

“Nice to meet you, Noah. I’m Will.”

That’s when I notice a tattoo on the inside of his right forearm. In black letters are the words “The Road Not Taken.”

“Hey,” I say. “That tattoo on your arm, it’s—”

“A poem,” he says. “Do you know it?”

“Of course,” I say. “It’s one of my favorites.” In the same way Lead Belly changed how I thought about music, that poem by Robert Frost changed how I thought about words.

He stares at the tattoo and recites, “‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I …’” He waits for me to say the next line.

“‘I took the one less traveled by.’”

He looks up. “‘And that has made all the difference.’”

Suddenly I remember where I’ve seen Will. At school. “Hey, do you go to the Rock?”

“Ahhh, yeah.” He leans back and studies me. “You’ve got a friend, right? With the funky hair?”

“Yeah, that’s Carson.” I point across the street, where
Kat is talking to a college student. Carson’s standing right behind her, like he’s an evangelist in training, but actually he’s just staring at her ass. “Today we were supposed to be making our Austin music debut, but instead, he met a girl from church and got saved in two seconds flat.”

“Oh, right, I see him,” Will says. “Looks like his mind is really on the Lord, huh?” He laughs. “So, anyway, how’d you and Carson wind up at the Rock? You guys seem pretty harmless.”

“Oh, we, uh, ate some hash jelly on crackers, right before music theory. It was sort of an experiment.”

He grins. “An experiment? Now,

“Yeah, I suppose it is. So, how about you? Why are you there?”

“Oh, well …” He winces. “That’s a long, tragic story. One you probably don’t want to hear.”

I shrug. “Try me. I’ve got plenty of time. Carson’s in full evangelical mode. Aubrey’s busy with
. Looks like I’ll be sitting here for a while doing nothing.” I take off my harmonica headpiece and set it on my lap.

Will gives me a strange look, sighs deeply, and gazes up at the sky. “Why does this always happen with guitarists?”

“What?” I say. “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing. Forget it.” He plucks the pen from behind his ear and taps it against his book a few times. “All right, fine, I’ll tell you my tragic story. But I’ll have to start from the beginning. Otherwise, you wouldn’t understand. You’d just think I was a major asshole.”

“I doubt it, but all right. Go ahead. Start from the beginning.”

“Okay. You see, both my parents died when I was ten years old. Killed in a car wreck.”

I sit there blinking. This is not what I was expecting at all. “Hey, listen, Will, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize—”

BOOK: The Less-Dead
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