This story contains strong language, drug and alcohol use, and violent thematic elements.
The mushrooms were just starting to kick in for Tommy as he stood at the top of the metal loop-de-loop slide that he used to launch himself from in middle school. He thought about days that seemed like a whole other life ago when he, Dante, and Louis used to skip Mr. Hedgeway’s ancient history class and come to the playground at Deerfield Park to talk about the girls in their class, throw rocks at the old utility closet, and smoke cigarettes.
Dante was the only one who still smoked these days, though it was more out of nervous habit than anything else. From his usual spot on the graffiti-covered playground bench, he stomped out a half-smoked Marlboro Red and immediately lit up another one. He cocked his head over at the slide just as Tommy was sliding down headfirst.
“Really, Tommy? What are you, twelve?”
“It’s called having a sense of whimsy,” Tommy quipped. “You should try it some time.”
“We’re working,” Dante rebutted. “That extracurricular shit is for after a job and also when I’m nowhere near the immediate vicinity.”
“Whimsy is actually proven to make you a more efficient worker. I read it in a book once.”
“Say whimsy one more time and I’ll stick this cig in your eye.”
Louis had been pacing back and forth for the last half-hour, never taking his eyes off that dinosaur of a Nextel flip phone. He usually let the guys shoot the shit before a job, so long as they weren’t too loud.
“Stay sharp, you two,” Louis sharply whispered.
Maybe it was just the drugs, but Deerfield Park had seemed – Tommy searched for an appropriate word – rusty lately. Old and rusty. Worn down. He felt like going and getting a huge bucket full of vinegar and a nice bristly brush. He’d start with the slide. Scrub all the rust off. Then tackle the rest of the playground. Then maybe he’d walk around the rest of the park – the picnic area, the disc golf course, the shitty bathrooms where he used to smoke weed after school -- and do the same. For nostalgia’s sake. He was feeling pretty nostalgic tonight. Maybe it was just the drugs.
“You guys remember when we came here after junior prom? What a night that was,” Tommy said as he sat crossed-legged across from Dante.
“Louis was still wearing that stupid fucking prom king crown and that green sports jacket over top the McNabb jersey. They almost didn’t let him into the venue with it on. We sat at one of the tables by the lake and passed around that handle of Captain Morgan. Mark Mendez got so blitzed he jumped into the water with his full suit on. Didn’t even take off his shoes. It’s weird, the moon actually looks just like it did that night.”
Tommy knew that Dante usually liked to give him a hard time. The lightly antagonistic banter kept him calm before a job. If it were another night, he may have thrown out some snarky comment like “yeah, it’s called a crescent moon, dumbass” and kept smoking his cigarette. But, Tommy noticed his friend’s eyes glisten with that same sense of nostalgia that Tommy felt. Every now and then, Dante would be game for a stroll down memory lane.
Dante pulled out a flask of whiskey from his outer hoodie pocket and took a quick swig. What started as a chuckle turned into a nasty and throaty cough. He took a few seconds to compose himself. He really needed to cut back on the smoking.
“I remember you projectile vomited all over Kelly Watkins’ dress,” he said. “I don’t know how you still managed to take her home after that. Better than I can say for my date, and I was a real gentleman to her that night. Shit, what was her name again? Candace? Carly?”
“Carol. Carol Martin. And yeah, Kelly was great,” Tommy said. “No reason to be jealous though, we didn’t even fool around that night. She just came over to tuck me in and make sure I didn’t choke on my own barf. Pretty sure she slept on the floor that night. She didn’t talk to me for a week after that.”
“I always liked Kelly. She was a cool chick. Whatever happened to her?”
Tommy noticed Kelly for the first time at the Deerfield High “Battle of the Bands” competition a week into their freshman year. She was performing with her “Queens of the Stone Age” cover band, and the moment she stepped behind the mic stand, Richie felt like one of those love-struck saps in the old movies with the hearts for eyes and the cartoon birds chirping around them. He was into everything about Kelly: her freckles, her long and curly black hair, the way she talked when she introduced the band’s next song, as if she had been fronting band all her life.
Tommy thought it was bullshit that Kelly’s band didn’t win the contest – they placed second to a brass quartet called “All Horned Up” – and he told her as much when they officially met at a house party five months later. They spent the night smoking weed and waxing poetic about their love of desert rock. They half-joked about how cool it would be if they moved to California, started a band, and toured all over the West Coast. Tommy didn’t have any sort of musical talent, but he gave some half-assed pitch about how he could manage the roadies or something. He didn’t care what he did, as long as he could be around Kelly all the time.
He never really knew what Kelly saw in him, but he made her laugh a lot that first night they met, so he never stopped trying to after that. They dated on and off throughout high school, the off times being whenever Tommy would get into a new drug and make Kelly sad. He’d eventually quit the hard stuff and they’d get back together, but he broke it off for good after the senior year incident.
Tommy hadn’t talked to Kelly since then, but he had heard from a friend of a friend a couple years back that she was living in Washington D.C. and working for some political strategy firm. She had shorter hair now and apparently didn’t smile quite as much as she used to. Still had the freckles, though.
“No fucking clue, man,” Tommy said. “I haven’t talked to her since high school.”
While Tommy had been the one to bring up prom night, he didn’t realize it would bring up such a bittersweet feeling in his stomach. He hated feeling that way. It ruined his high.
“Remember that time you and me were gonna run away from home?” Tommy asked, quickly changing the subject.
“Sixth grade, a week before Christmas. We met up on the swings. It was cold as shit, and you were wearing gym shorts and a T-shirt like an absolute lunatic. We both showed up with our backpacks stuffed with Lunchables and Chewy bars and enough clothes to last us like a week. The plan was, I think you were the one who came up with it, to wait at the Old Town depot, hop on the next train that came by, and go wherever the last stop was.”
“Jesus, I haven’t thought about that day in years,” Dante interrupted. “Why so blast from the past-like all of the sudden? Are you tripping on shrooms again?”
Immediately after asking the question, Dante pulled the flask out of his hoodie pocket again and took another swig, longer this time, almost as if to blatantly acknowledge the hypocrisy of his judgement-tinged question.
Back in the day, Tommy and Dante would hide their pre-job habits from Louis. Nowadays, he pretended not to notice. As long as they were sharp enough to get the job done, that’s all that mattered. And they always were. Whatever they need to make it through, Louis accepted it.
“Anyway, Louis pulls up in that bike he stole from Ben Thompson,” continued Tommy, ignoring Dante’s question. “He’s trudging through like half-a-foot of snow, yelling up at us the whole time, ‘What the fuck are you idiots doing? You can’t run away. We have that basketball tournament this weekend.’ That was all the convincing we needed. We walked home, Louis just pushing that bike through the snow. He just left it in the middle of the road after a couple blocks, remember? ‘I’ll just get another one tomorrow,’ he said. We spent the night at Lou’s brother’s place, each with a pepperoni pizza to ourselves, and watched Happy Gilmore.”
“Good times, man,” Dante said, lighting up another cigarette. “Good times.”
Tommy had never thought about it at the time, but he just realized in that moment that Louis had always been the leader of the group. From that first time they met back in first grade, he was always pretty much running the show. Always protecting them. Always making sure they did what needed to be done.
The loud vibrations from Louis’ phone shocked jolted Tommy and Dante back into the present moment.
“This is Max,” Louis said. “I’ll be right back. Be ready.”
Louis stepped away to take the call. Tommy and Dante had never met Max. He was one of Louis’ dad’s special forces buddies with way too much time on his hands, according to Louis. For all Tommy knew, Max was a decent guy. But, he always felt uneasy every time Louis picked up his call. It was probably less about him and more about what he represented.
Less than a minute later, Tommy walked back to the group. That struck Tommy as slightly odd. The calls were usually longer.
“All right, pretty easy job this time,” Louis said, looking Tommy and Dante in the eyes for the first time that night. “Target is a priest. Old fucker. Likes to touch kids. Let’s do a last check and go. He comes back from midnight mass in thirty minutes.”
As he and Dante double-checked the trunk of Louis’ Ford Escape to make sure they had all their gear, Tommy caught himself thinking back on the past. But, rather than looking back on a fond moment from childhood or adolescence, he thought about the things he wished he hadn’t done and the things that he wished he had that night before Halloween back in 2009.
Tommy wished that he had never had the idea to prank Mr. Petrovich, the Deerfield High school janitor. He wished that he, Dante, and Louis had never followed Mr. Petrovich to Deerfield Park. He wished they had never seen him bury the body of Andrea Simpson, the eight-year-old girl who had gone missing three weeks prior. He wished that he had never let Louis convince him that they needed to take drastic action. He wished that he had never let Dante convince him that “he and Louis needed to do this because of the shit they had seen in their lives.” He wished that he knew what that meant. He wished that he had asked. He wished that he had never played lookout while Dante and Louis drowned Mr. Petrovich in the lake. He wished that they had never made the promise, then and there, to keep doing this to the people who deserved it. He wished that he had never told Kelly. He wished he had just called the cops. He wished he had just gone to Mike Mendez’s party like they had planned to.
Tommy would have these thoughts every time right before a job. They helped to distance him from the reality of the situation. But, there was no getting away from the fact that, tonight, Tommy would break them into the priest’s house and then stay back as a lookout. Louis would shoot the priest right between the eyes with his favorite silenced pistol. Dante would sanitize the scene, bag up the body, and they would load it into Louis’ Escape. They would drive back to Deerfield and dump the body in the lake. Tommy would smoke a joint by the utility shed. They would all go home and do the same thing the next time that Max called Louis with a job. It could be a month from now. It could be a week. It could be tomorrow.
At least Dante and Louis had their lives away from the job. Dante worked for his dad’s construction company. He had a wife and two kids. Louis was the CEO of a successful media start-up and had a new hot girlfriend every other month. But all Tommy did was smoke weed in his shitty apartment, take the occasional temp job from the comfort of his couch, and watch TV while waiting for that next call from Louis. He didn’t hate Louis. He didn’t hate anyone. But he couldn’t help but wonder about what his life would be like if he hadn’t made that promise to him all those years ago.
Maybe he could stop wondering. Maybe he’d book a plane ticket to D.C. next week and see what Kelly Watkins was up to. Would she even remember him? Maybe they could meet up over drinks or coffee and reminisce about the good times. Maybe she’d forget about what he told her back in 2009. Maybe she’d be able to get him a job in political strategy. It didn’t seem that hard. He could probably figure it out.
Every now and then, Tommy would play that what-if game with himself for fun. But he knew it was fruitless. He’d slide right back into reality once the mushrooms wore off.