By Hannah Bell
The gun is cold in Ernie’s hand, heavy with more than just its weight. He looks down at the scrap of paper resting on the table in front of him and reads over the familiar name that’s scratched out in blue pen, as though it might have changed since the last time he looked.
“We can’t keep both of you around no more,” says Conn, flicking ash from his cigarette in Ernie’s direction. “Ain’t profitable. Simple as that. Now’s your chance to prove you’re loyal to more than just him.”
Ernie doesn’t give him an answer, and Conn doesn’t stick around to beg for one. He keeps the weapon; he’ll need it if he says yes, and he’ll definitely need it if he says no.
Ernie used to want to be a cop. His dad, Ernest Senior, had been one—stuck in a dead-end traffic gig, but still a hero in his kid son’s eyes. Ernie wanted to be like him. That was until the day before his twelfth birthday. A garbage man doing his rounds found the old man face down in a ditch, cold as the crack-of-dawn frost. After that, Ernie decided he wanted to hunt down the kind of people who put bullets into guys who came home from work and drank plain soda water while the Bee Gees played on low volume.
It’s funny, thinking about all of that now.
At eighteen, Ernie takes his air and his cigarette smoke in equal measures. He sits on a bench at a kids’ park and watches as the parents shepherd their little ones away from him. He drops the butt of one cig on the rubbery base surface of the playground, another already waiting between his lips. He shields the flame from the cold wind until the freshly-lit glow is steady. It’s a motion so familiar he could do it even as a blue-lipped corpse.
He checks his wristwatch, a scratched steel thing that had come off his father’s cold wrist and been warmed by Ernie’s ever since. The second hand stutters and then sprints through five ticks at a time. A new battery will cost him more than the timepiece itself is worth. There’s a shaky engraving on the underside that his old man had done himself; there’s always time, it says.
There’s another bench nearby, where a breastfeeding mother had been before Ernie lit up. He doesn’t feel bad about the smoke chasing her away; it’s better that she’s not here.
A ginger-haired man in a shabby leather jacket takes over the bench, lies back in it and spreads himself out so that no one will dare to sit beside him. He’s more a boy than a man, honestly; he’s Ernie’s age and Ernie still doesn’t feel like anything he’d call a man.
“Shit weather,” the boy remarks, his voice lilting under the suggestion of an Irish accent.
“Yeah,” Ernie agrees.
Then he stands, grips the paper takeout bag he’d brought with him by its rolled top, and places it in the nearest trash can. He leaves without another word, knowing that the boy will collect the bag and the wads of money inside it—payment for the weed Ernie already picked up. He wonders whether the boy knows that the next time they see each other there’ll be bullets splitting the air. After all, he figures they’ve both been given the same instructions.
Ernie met Mack when he was fourteen. Mack was on the basketball team, and he and his gang of friends cut class to smoke down behind the courts. Everybody knew that. He lounged around in his baggy satin shorts, spread his legs across the unsteady plastic chairs in each classroom like he was sitting on a throne. Ernie looked at him and saw the kind of person who could stand up for himself.
There’d been a Secret Santa in their class at the end of the year; the teacher had sliced up an attendance list and placed one name in front of each student. Ernie had unfolded the thin strip of paper and found the name Cormag Moray printed there in the sans-serif letters of government school bureaucracy. It was supposed to be anonymous, but everyone always found out who their gift was from, so Ernie thought carefully about what might impress Mack.
Two weeks later, Mack unwrapped a cigarette tin printed with a basketball pattern and a couple of Bic lighters which, to Ernie’s relief, he tucked away before the teacher saw them. Mack searched the room for a second, found Ernie and nodded, just the tiniest tilt of his chin, and with that Ernie was no longer invisible.
The first time Mack spoke to him, Ernie was pinned to the saggy chain link fence outside the school, a stranger’s big hand closed too-tight around his throat. He’d just been waiting for his mother to pick him up; she’d had some kind of work meeting that ran late, so Ernie had stayed in the school library until it closed. Then he’d waited out on the street for her, but she must have been caught in traffic. Trying his best to be patient, he had undone the clasp of his dad’s watch and pulled it off to read over the engraving like a mantra: there’s always time. That was when he’d heard the voice.
“Looks like a fancy watch for a kid.”
Ernie didn’t answer, but the speaker sauntered towards him all the same.
“If you got money, I got a lil somethin’ you might wanna buy,” he continued.
Ernie felt his face burning up, his pulse accelerating into a painful thudding. There were any number of things he should have said—no I’m not interested, or the watch isn’t really worth anything. Or he could have run; it wasn’t too late to run, was it? Wasn’t there always time?
“My dad’s a policeman,” was what tumbled out of his mouth, though. It was a shield he’d often thrown up as a young child, back when it had been true.
“The fuck’d you say?” the man growled. One long stride and he was shoving Ernie backwards. Up close, his grey hoodie smelled like it might show up white if you washed it, and his bared teeth were so nicotine-stained that even the ones without crowns looked a goldy-brown. The fence gave a metallic rattle as it took Ernie’s weight.
“My dad’s a policeman,” he repeated. The words were infinitely harder to say when he had time to think about them.
“You some kinda informant or somethin’?”
“No! An informant wouldn’t have said—”
“Christ, Travis, don’t be such a fucking moron!” A new voice, tinged with an accent that reminded Ernie of someone—
“This little shit says he’s gonna report us to his cop daddy,” the man, Travis, protested. His speech was rushed and sticky, his spittle sprinkling Ernie’s cheek.
The newcomer, a man with light, short hair and a dark expression, continued towards them.
“We gotta get rid of ‘im, Conn, man.”
“My dad’s—” Ernie wheezed past the pressure on his windpipe “—dead. I lied. Please let go—”
“For fuck’s sake, get off him,” demanded Conn. “That true?” he asked, turning to Ernie.
“Hey—you’re in my class, right?” Another new voice, higher in pitch, lazier in tone, piped up, and suddenly Ernie knew exactly who Conn’s accent had brought to mind.
“You know this punk?” Travis glared.
“Yes,” Ernie managed, the words stringy in his raw throat, “yes, we have class together.”
“He a good kid, little brother?” Conn turned to Mack. From the way he said it, Ernie wasn’t sure whether being good was a good thing or not.
“He ain’t some snitch,” Mack replied, and at that Travis finally let Ernie go. He took a step back, away from them all. Ernie looked, wide-eyed, at Mack.
Mack just grinned and pulled a Bic lighter out of his pocket, flicking a flame into existence, playing his fingers across it like they couldn’t be burned.
Mack and Conn lived with their aunt Aileen, who didn’t seem to care what the boys did as long as they kept their hands off her stack of gossip magazines and the unlabeled bottle of clear liquid she kept on the top shelf.
“Cormag,” she’d glared when Mack and Ernie stumbled in through the door. Her voice was stern but sing-song with Irishness. “You’re late.”
“Sorry,” said Mack. Ernie had heard him apologise before, on the orders of teachers, but this was the first time he sounded anything but flippant.
“You brought a friend?” Aileen asked. She seemed surprised, and that surprised Ernie. Mack was popular; surely he brought friends home all the time.
The living room was small and uncluttered. There was one couch, which was occupied by Aileen, and a small coffee table where she stamped out the cigarettes she was done with, and rested her empty red-and-white Budweiser cans. The slick flat screen TV stood out against the smudgy wall it hung upon, and an x-box console rested on the ground in front of it, cords and controllers tangling out across the carpet like tentacles.
Mack picked up two of the controllers, handed one to Ernie. Ernie had played before, but never GTA.
“You learn quick,” Mack observed after a few games. Ernie had been told that before, by his mother and his teachers, but the secret glow of pride that Mack’s praise ignited within him was new.
Afternoons at Mack’s house became tradition.
“Man, I wish I could afford the new Playstation,” Mack whined one day, stabbing frenetically at the buttons on his controller. “Travis has one. He says it’s sick.”
Ernie remembered his first encounter with Travis. Months later and he still didn’t like him, but Travis hadn’t been any trouble since Mack and Conn made it clear Ernie was with them.
“I’d help you out, but I’m just as broke,” Ernie said. Most of the money he earned at Mickey-D’s was spent on making sure he and Ma could afford breakfast cereal and microwave dinners.
“Hang on,” Mack paused the game they were playing. “I’ve got an idea,” he said,
“Where did that come from?” Ernie thought he could feel his eyes bulging out of his head as they looked over the bag of money Mack returned with, each blink failing to snap him out of what must have been a hallucination. With that many fifties, there must have been over six hundred dollars there.
“Don’t matter where it’s from,” Mack said with a grin, “just matters what we can do with it.”
Ernie wasn’t convinced.
“Take this, buy your Ma a mother’s day present,” Mack held out a couple of the bills. “Trust me.”
Ernie imagined his mother’s chapped lips stretching into a rare smile, imagined the eyes that were always red-rimmed and watery from exhaustion lit by a flicker of happiness.
“Thanks,” he said, pocketing the money.
Now, as he walks away from the park, brisk but not suspiciously fast, Ernie wonders whether Conn would really sell out his own little brother. He supposes that maybe he would; there are higher-ups that Ernie’s never properly met, but even square-jawed, hard-eyed Conn turns bone-china pale when he thinks he’s pissed one of them off. God knows he’s paid in loose teeth for enough of Mack’s stupid ideas. Mack had always been reckless and Conn had always been angry about it, but they’d still been family in the end, and he’d always vouched for him. Maybe this time is just one too many.
Ernie’s hands are cold, turning the kind of numb that aches like a fresh spreading bruise. He abandons his cigarette and tucks both hands into the pockets of his jacket. It only cuts the wind a little.
Passing the liquor store on his way home, he spontaneously decides to step inside. He buys bourbon, the largest of the bottles the store stocks. The shop assistant wraps it in a brown paper bag, the same way Conn had wrapped up the gun.
Ernie remembers another bottle. Two boys sneaking a taste of moonshine.
“C’mon, she ain’t coming back until after dinner,” Mack swore, clambering up onto the kitchen bench to reach the highest cupboard. Ernie had seen Aileen use a stepladder to access it last time he’d been around. The way Mack’s aunt eyed the level of the liquid in her special bottle, Ernie was sure it didn’t matter where she hid the thing; if any went missing, she would know.
He pointed this out to his friend.
“Nah,” Mack replied, unworried.
“Are you sure?”
“God, Ernie, for the tenth time, I know my own aunt. It’ll be fine.”
They sat on the couch, and Mack put his feet up on the coffee table beside Aileen’s magazine collection. He pulled the top off the bottle, held it up to his lips and took a swig.
Ernie watched his face contort briefly, like he was sucking on a lemon. Then he grinned and passed the bottle across.
Before Ernie’s mouth even met the glass, his nostrils were burning from the fumes. He ignored it, forced himself to take a sip. It felt like he was swallowing bug spray, or maybe gasoline. It was hard to really discern a flavor underneath the overwhelming strength.
He coughed as it went down. Mack laughed.
“This stuff’s like seventy percent alcohol,” he explains. “It’ll be worth the taste, you’ll see.”
And it was. Ernie remembers marvelling at just how much it was. The small mouthfuls he took burned, each one sudden and furious, but together they lit a steadier, gentler fire in his belly, one that made his skin feel warm, and turned the room fluid and golden around him.
It would have been better if Mack hadn’t been right about the alcohol. It would have been better if, months later as they sat on the floor of Mack’s room, Ernie hadn’t accepted the blunt that was offered to him, figuring that Mack knew what was okay, what was best.
The memory teases its way in and out of his grasp:
“Oh, you fucking moron,” someone was saying. Shouting. Loud, angry.
Ernie was hungry. He was always slightly hungry, but he felt like he hadn’t had anything in a week.
“Conn, bro, just chill—”
“—shoulda known you couldn’t handle the goddamn responsibility—”
“—smoke the product, Jesus, how much is left, what am I gonna tell—”
It would have been better if Mack hadn’t been right about the weed, as well.
It would have been better if they’d never done it again.
It would have been better if Ernie’s mother hadn’t reeled him in for a tight, desperately grateful hug when he started bringing home enough money to buy fresh meat and vegetables regularly, or if walking down the street with Mack and Conn and the other dealers they hung around with didn’t make Ernie feel taller, stronger, more useful and better looked out for.
It would have been better if—
The bourbon and tumbler each hit the wooden surface of the kitchen table with a heavy clunk. Ernie hastily breaks the seal on the liquor and pours a generous measure of it into the glass. On a whim, he gets out his dad’s old Bee Gees record, setting the needle of the ancient turntable in place before his hands become too unsteady. Getting drunk has never felt quite as marvelous as it did that very first time, but it’s always been good enough for there to be a next time.
He drinks until the music fades off into static. Takes his watch off and tries telling himself that there’s always time, but can’t see how there could be; by tomorrow night he’ll either be a dead man or a murderer.
They’re supposed to meet in the car park near a half-demolished apartment block at the end of town where the folks know better than to tell the law what they see. Ernie pulls up, Conn’s firearm so heavy in his pocket it feels like it could slip right through the fabric of his hoodie, even burn its way through the car floor and burrow down to the fiery centre of the earth. It feels like it’s dragging him there with it.
He can see headlights rounding the corner, recognizes the crackling growl of Mack’s fixed-up old Mustang. Ernie wonders, with a bitter humor, what his father would say— glances at his wrist only to remember he’d left it bare. He takes the gun out as slowly as he can, rests his finger on the trigger and tries to imagine himself actually pulling it.
The noise of Mack’s engine doesn’t cut out, just keeps growing louder. Ernie looks up through the windshield just in time for it to shatter in his face. There’s the unholy explosion of gunfire—one two three four, maybe more—he doesn’t know, just knows the flames searing through his chest, a prelude to eternity.
Hannah Bell lives in Sydney, Australia, where she is currently working on a combined degree in Law and Writing. She spends most of her spare time songwriting, drawing, and working on short stories and future novel ideas. She has previously published pieces of creative writing and non-fiction in Thistle Magazine, where she contributes as Art Editor. You can find her late-night ramblings about music, coffee, superheroes and life’s other necessities on Twitter at @sgt_potts.