On the side of the tracks that no one bothers to wander except the homeless and the hopeless, JP and I sat quietly behind the burnt-out shell of an old Firebird. Were things ‘business as usual’, we would be halfway through a case of Coors right now, plotting our next longshot plan for fortune and fame. The past week had changed all of that.
For a fleeting moment earlier in the morning, I’d completely forgotten about the murders that had rocked our block. I woke up happy as a lark, fished out some clean-ish clothes out of the small pile next to my bed and quickly dressed before heading out to meet up with my brother-from-another-mother. I grabbed my Walkman, put on my headphones and began the twenty-minute trek to our hide-a-way.
Not long after, I looked over at the road and saw JP. He was dressed in his usual grungy jean jacket. The lanky teen began sliding down the embankment that led down to this discard pile of a hangout. A dust cloud erupting behind him like his redwing boots were some sort of dirt bike. He caught himself at the bottom of the hill, took a few steps forward to shed the momentum, then plopped down against the back fender of the rusted Pontiac.
I smiled, happy to see him as always. It wasn’t until JP’s long hair shifted away from his face that I remembered what he’d just had gone through. Those eyes, normally so full of life, looked about as vacant as the old Tultex plant on the corner of 5th Street.
I felt ashamed for forgetting what had happened to him, even for such a brief moment. The fact I was able to put it out of mind at all, even for just a morning, felt like a betrayal of sorts. For the longest time there was nothing said between us at all. An air of awkwardness hung over us like the smoke from a cigarette; a choking sort of silence.
I tried to speak, but my voice seemed to catch in my throat and came out as a weird breathy whisper instead of intelligible words. I shut my trap before I managed to embarrass myself anymore. After a while, JP finally broke the silence.
“I was there the night he did it,” I heard him say. His voice, like his eyes, seemed hollow.
It didn’t really hit me at first, the weight of those words. After a moment, it slammed into me like a sledgehammer.
“Oh yeah, is that right?” I said, as if on autopilot.
JP looked back at me. He looked like he aged a decade in a single week. Gone was the boyish face of my best friend. If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought it had been stolen, switched with the face of some random stranger.
“Mmhmm,” he said. “I haven’t told anyone that you know, not even the cops.”
JP took a crinkled pack of smokes from out of his jacket pocket and shook out a pair of cigarettes. He leaned forward and passed one to me before sticking the other cigarette in-between his own cracked lips. I hesitated to accept at first, but quickly leaned forward accepted the offering.
“Thanks, JP,” I said as I fished for my lighter.
As we lit our smokes, I couldn’t help but grin. One of us always seemed to have what the other needed. I couldn’t change what had happened, but I could be what JP needed right then and there-an open ear.
JP smiled a little as he stood up and crawled onto the hood of the Firebird. Maybe he was thinking the same thing I was. He stretched out like a cat and laid back, staring up at the overcast sky.
After another brief moment of silence, JP blew out a cloud of smoke and resumed his story.
“I wasn’t supposed to be there. That’s what he told me anyway,” JP said. “There’s some solace in knowing that, not much, but a little.”
JP took another hit of his cigarette, then continued on.
“Dad hadn’t locked the door before he went to bed that night. I guess he was trying to be nice since I have the tendency to forget my keys, but that’s how the killer got in. Mom had been working in her studio on her latest track. She had on those over-the-ear headphones, y’know? The ones that cancel out the noise from all around? Well, she didn’t hear him come in behind her.”
JP’s parents weren’t the nicest people in the world, but he still loved them regardless. I knew a thing or two about having difficult parents, maybe that’s why we tended to click so well. But even if your folks suck, no one wants to see them butchered, mostly.
“Mom’s scream woke my dad up, which was a miracle in itself. Dad is-- was a heavy sleeper. He ran down the stairs heading for Mom’s voice, but he was gutted as he rounded the corner to the staircase. Dad plummeted down those damned stairs, he was bleeding really bad the whole way down. By the time he reached me at the foot of the stairs, he was already dead and gone. I’m not stupid. I’m well aware if most of your insides are on the outside, you’re generally a goner, but for whatever reason I still tried to wake him up! What the hell was that?!”
I started to answer, but I didn’t know what to say. He was right, it was crazy. But that didn’t mean I was going to be the one to point that fact out. That wasn’t part of the job.
“I’m sure the Ripper must’ve felt the same way, because he cocked his head at me, plague mask and all. When he got to the bottom of the steps, he had his blade ready to slice and dice, but he-he, uh...just stopped short of stabbing me. Like, it makes no logical sense, I know that, but he had this vibe that came off as...well, almost remorseful. Maybe even curious.”
“Is that when he said that to you? That you weren’t supposed to be there or whatever?” I asked.
“Yep, that was when it happened. God, I swear, that voice was so familiar too. Maybe it was just the weird voice modulator he was using, it made him sound like Vader or something.”
“Yeah, that’s probably true. How did that make you feel, by the way...him saying that?” I asked, leaning forward ever-so slightly.
The complex series of emotions that ran across his face was a sight to behold. It seemed as though he hadn’t thought about that as of yet.
“I don’t know, Rob. I guess confused, mainly. I just wish I understood why he killed my parents but spared me? Was it random or did he recognize me or something?”
“You know how random these sickos are. I seriously doubt he had any idea who you were, JP.”
JP nodded and gave me a thankful look.
“Guess that makes sense. I’m sorry to lay all this out on you, bro. It’s been tough,” he said.
“No worries, I’ve got your back,” I said.
I leaned back and took another drag from my cigarette before I flicked it into a nearby patch of dirt. The fact JP’s parents were dead hadn’t been the only thing I’d forgotten this morning was the Ripper. I don’t know if it made it easier to deal with, knowing that the serial killer who’s been tormenting the city for the past ten years was my own father.
At least he didn’t kill JP, I bet that was just making up for forgetting my birthday.
“So, who the hell do you think the Ripper is anyway?” he asked.
“No idea dude, no idea,” I lied.