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Authors: RICHARD LANGE

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This Wicked World

BOOK: This Wicked World
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Copyright

Copyright © 2009 by Richard Lange

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Little, Brown and Company

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Visit our website at
www.HachetteBookGroup.com

www.twitter.com/littlebrown

First eBook Edition: June 2009

Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Little, Brown name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Excerpt from “It’s Expected I’m Gone,” written by Mike Watt, © 1984 New Alliance Music. All rights reserved.

Used by permission.

ISBN: 978-0-316-05328-0

Contents

Copyright

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

ALSO BY RICHARD LANGE

Dead Boys

For Kim Turner

“There’s a light within the light.”

a cognizant original v5 release october 14 2010

No hope.

See, that’s what gives me guts.

— Minutemen, “It’s Expected
I’m Gone”

Prologue

O
SCAR AWOKE FROM A DREAM OF HEAVEN
. O
PENING HIS
eyes, he saw swollen clouds massed in a dark sky and realized that he was back on earth. No more glittering mansions, no more streets of gold.

He sat up on the bench in MacArthur Park, and the pain that roared through him drove tears into his eyes. His arms, his legs — there was no part of his body that didn’t hurt. He was full of liquid fire that burned him from the inside out.

He lifted his shirt. The makeshift bandage he’d fashioned out of a blue cotton dress he’d found in a Dumpster had slipped out of place, exposing the worst of the bites on his stomach. The edges of the wound were black, and it oozed bloody pus. Afraid to look too closely, Oscar grimaced and slid the bandage back into position.

Struggling to his feet, he hobbled along the concrete path that led to the lake on the other side of the park, careful not to stumble, lest he attract the attention of the police who patrolled the area. He was feverish, dizzy. The shouts of a group of boys playing soccer were like nails being pounded into his throbbing head as he hurried into the dank, piss-smelling tunnel that passed under Wilshire Boulevard.

When he was midway through the passage, he turned to look over his shoulder, and there it was, the devil that had been following him all morning, silhouetted against the square of light at the entrance to the tunnel. Oscar could make out the creature’s horns, its tail, its cloven hooves. He’d always known that the time would come when he’d have to pay for his sins, and he was ready, he would go without a fight, but not until he’d said good-bye to Maribel and the baby. Carlos would give him money to go to them. He had to find Carlos.

He came up out of the tunnel and walked next to the lake. A cold wind ruffled the surface of the black water, and an empty paper cup floating there spun round and round like something wounded. Oscar had seen fishermen pull tennis shoes from the murk, a sleeping bag, a rusty sword, and there were rumors of corpses resting on the bottom.

Near the boathouse a fat white duck quacked furiously as Oscar passed by.

“Farewell, my friend,” Oscar said. He’d been talking to birds since he was a child in Guatemala. The other boys had called him Saint Francis. Spray from the fountain in the middle of the lake, a flickering plume of water twenty feet high, was like a cool hand on his cheek. He watched the tall palm trees that bordered the park hiss and strike like angry snakes.

At the frantic corner of Wilshire and Alvarado an old man preached the love of Jesus through a cheap megaphone that wreathed his words in static. “Jesus is love! Jesus is power! Jesus is life!” Juanito was there too, hawking counterfeit ID cards. He sat on a fire hydrant and whispered offers at passersby, his eyes constantly moving, alert for police or gangbangers who might try to shake him down. Oscar asked if he’d seen Carlos.

“You look like shit,” Juanito said.


Callate, pendejo.
Just tell me where he is.”

“Home Depot, with Francisco. Some white son of a bitch said he’d use them on a painting job today.”

Oscar coughed. The pain buckled his knees, and purple spiders skittered across his eyeballs.

“Come to Jesus!” the old man with the megaphone yelled.

“Yes, come to Jesus,” Oscar said to the devil.

Juanito hissed and shook his head. “You keep talking to yourself like that, and they’re gonna lock you up.”

Oscar crossed Alvarado and headed east on Wilshire. The delicious smell drifting out of a
pupuseria
stopped him in his tracks. He hadn’t eaten in two days, couldn’t keep anything down. When he opened the door, the dark-skinned fat woman behind the counter turned away from the portable television she was watching and looked at him. It was a tiny restaurant: two tables with plastic floral-print tablecloths, the specials handwritten on sheets of colored paper tacked to the walls.


Por favor,
” Oscar said. “Can you give a sick man something to eat?”

“Get out of here, you filthy drunk,” the woman shouted. “This is a respectable place.”


Por favor, señora.

The woman picked up the knife she’d been using to chop carrots and pointed it at Oscar.

“Out with you. Now!”

“Fuck you then, you old witch,” Oscar said. He spit on the floor before hurrying outside.

A block later he stopped and leaned against the side of a building. He was racked by chills that rattled his teeth. God give me strength, he prayed. The devil trotted up the sidewalk toward him. It had a pointy black beard and carried a flaming sword. Oscar saw it best out of the corner of his eye. If he looked at the demon directly, it turned into an old man or a schoolgirl or a mailbox.

“I’m not afraid of you,” Oscar shouted at the devil. “I’m ready to die.” But who, he wondered, would take care of his animals when he was gone?

Carlos, Francisco, and a few others were sitting on a low cinderblock wall next to the driveway at Home Depot. As Oscar approached, a pickup pulled out of the parking lot, and the men swarmed around it, shouting, “Take me.” “I speaking English.” “How many?” The driver shook his head and left without hiring anyone.

“The fat queer.”

“Seriously. He wanted someone to fuck him in the ass.”

“Give me a hundred bucks, and I’ll do it,” Carlos said. He saw Oscar and shouted, “Look out! A zombie!”

Oscar stumbled over to the group and sank to the cold sidewalk, rested his back against the wall. Sweat rolled down his face and neck; his T-shirt was soaked with it.

“Man, I’ve got to tell you, you stink,” Francisco said. “Last night it was so bad, it was like sleeping next to a dead pig.”

Carlos punched him in the arm and said, “Have mercy. The boy’s sick.”

“Sure, fine, so change beds with me.”

Waving Francisco quiet, Carlos crouched next to Oscar and asked him, “How is it today?”

Oscar shook his head, too exhausted to speak. He couldn’t even open his eyes. A police car raced past, lights flashing, sirens blaring, and to Oscar it sounded like the end of the world.

“Have you eaten?” Carlos asked.

Again Oscar shook his head. Carlos moved closer to him, grabbed one of his arms, and draped it around his neck. “Francisco,” he said, “let’s carry him to McDonald’s.”

“What about the painting?”

“That
cabrón
isn’t going to show up. A storm is coming. Get over here.”

They helped Oscar walk across the parking lot to the restaurant and sat him in one of the plastic booths. Francisco left to meet a girl in the park, and Carlos joined the long line of customers waiting to order at the counter. Oscar watched the children in the restaurant’s playground. One little boy had such a serious look on his face as he climbed and crawled and slid that Oscar almost laughed. He thought of his son, looked forward to holding him once more.

Carlos brought Oscar a cheeseburger and an orange juice. Oscar managed to choke down half of the sandwich before the nausea set in. When he reached for the juice, Carlos grabbed his hand and examined the bites there.

“These are infected,” he said. “My father lost a foot that way. You’ve got to go to the clinic.”

“They know that I’m hurt,” Oscar replied. “They may be watching it.”

“We’ll sneak in the back, then. We’ll put you in a disguise.”

Oscar pulled his hand away and shook his head. “It’s not important,” he said. “The devil has come for me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“You’re delirious,” Carlos said. “Your blood is full of poison. Please let me take you to see the doctor.”

Oscar smiled, though it hurt his cracked lips to do so.

“You’ve always been a good friend, Carlos,” he said. “Remember in Zunil, when we stole that burro from the trash-man, and it kicked you in the ass? I tell you, I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.”

“You were supposed to have control over all the animals, Saint Francis. What happened?”

Oscar watched an old man in a McDonald’s uniform mop up a drink that had been spilled on the floor. Was this the better life the man had dreamed of?

“We should never have come here,” he said.

“But we did,” Carlos replied, “and now here we are.”

Oscar pushed away the tray with the rest of the burger on it and sat up a little straighter. “Listen,” he said, “I want to see Maribel and Alex. Could you give me money for the bus?”

“If you promise to go to the clinic when you return,” Carlos said.

Oscar placed his hand over his heart. “I promise,” he said.

Carlos passed him two dollar bills and a few quarters.

Oscar sipped from his drink, then said, “And will you feed my dog tonight?”

Oscar felt stronger when they got out into the fresh air, which was now heavy with the threat of rain. His head was clearer, and he could walk without stumbling. He and Carlos banged fists when they parted in front of Home Depot, and Oscar blinked back tears. He knew it was the last time they would see each other.

On his way back to Alvarado to catch a bus going south, he passed a botanica and decided to stop in. A bell rang when he entered. It was a small, dusty shop, cluttered with votive candles and incense and icons. A statue of San Simón, in a broad-brimmed hat, black suit, and red tie, sat on the counter between the Virgin of Guadalupe and a hooded Santa Muerte.

Oscar’s mother had often visited Simón’s shrine in Zunil to ask for things like luck in the lottery or a new kitchen table. Oscar always thought it was a bit silly, a comfort for superstitious housewives and old men. The Church didn’t even recognize Simón after all. Today, though, Oscar was happy to see something that reminded him of home. Others had left offerings of tequila and cigars, but he had nothing to give. Nonetheless, he bowed his head and mumbled a quick prayer.

“Oh powerful San Simón, please help me and protect me from any dangers. Oh Judas Simón, I call you brother in my heart because you are everywhere and you are always with me.”

The owner of the shop, a tall, skinny man in a long robe and feathered headdress, parted a curtain of beads and stepped through it.

“Can I help you, my son?” he asked.

“I was just speaking to San Simón.”

“You seem troubled. Would you like to come in back for a cleansing? Only twenty dollars, and you will feel much better.”

“I have no money, sir.”

“No money?”

“I am a poor man.”

“I see, but you must understand that you can’t get something without giving something. Especially from San Simón.”

“You smile when you say that?” Oscar snapped. “But you should be ashamed to be living in this world.”

The owner scowled and pointed. “Your nose,” he said.

Oscar raised his hand to his face, and his fingers came away covered with blood.

It was raining when he walked out. He squeezed his nostrils shut with the napkin the store owner had given him and tilted his head back to let the fat drops cool his face. The pain inside him had returned, more intense than ever, but he kept moving, afraid that if he stopped, he wouldn’t get started again.

BOOK: This Wicked World
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