Johnny America




Once a year, we pre­tend­ed we were dead. And we didn’t even get to choose our ca­su­al­ties — we drew slips of pa­per from a shoe­box in the mid­dle school cafe­te­ria and were stuck with what­ev­er we picked out: Light­ning Strike, Nu­clear Fall­out, Nephri­tis. The idea was to be ready when the shit hit the fan. Not the teach­ers’ ex­act words, of course, but they might as well have been. Af­ter all, this was the Eight­ies, the be­gin­ning of The Age of Bet­ter Safe than Sorry.

On Worst Case Sce­nario Day, be­fore the Med­ical Sci­ence Re­search Club en­tered the gym and saved as many of us as pos­si­ble, the prin­ci­pal di­vid­ed us in­to groups such as “Mo­tor Ve­hi­cle Ac­ci­dents,” “En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­t­a­m­i­na­tions,” and “Med­ical Mis­ad­ven­tures.” We took our places, sprawled here and there over the hard­wood floor, some of us writhing and shak­ing and groan­ing, oth­ers ly­ing silent­ly still with fake blood jel­li­fy­ing on our faces.

The med­ical sci­ence kids can­vassed the gym. They hun­kered close, probed for puls­es, asked di­ag­nos­tic ques­tions. How’s your breath­ing? Do you feel cold? How many fin­gers am I hold­ing up? To my left, a kid said that a bomb had gone off in his tree house. To my right, a girl said she’d been stung by a scor­pi­on and was see­ing an­gels. When Eli, one of the pre-premed kids, came around to me, I told him that I was ba­si­cal­ly okay, aside from a chalky taste in my mouth and some mi­nor loss of cog­ni­tive func­tion. But maybe he ought to check on Ben right over there be­neath the bas­ket­ball net, be­cause he’d been flop­ping around, mouth work­ing like a guppy’s.

When Eli rolled him over, Ben’s face was bar­bi­cide-blue. Eli called over some of the oth­er med­ical sci­ence kids, and then Prin­ci­pal Al­varez, who scratched his head, frown­ing grim­ly. At first every­body thought it was part of the act. But then some of the kids took Ben by his arms and legs and car­ried him out of the gym­na­si­um. Mr. Al­varez told us that no, sor­ry, this wasn’t part of the drill, and that Worst Case Sce­nario Day would have to be post­poned un­til fur­ther notice.

There was a gen­er­al shuf­fling out of the gym in­to the large hall out­side, where the­o­ries were passed back and forth about what hap­pened to Ben. Maybe he’d been poi­soned, stabbed, elec­tro­cut­ed. An over­dose was men­tioned, then sui­cide. Au­top­sy would even­tu­al­ly re­veal that Ben had died of an em­bolism, but it would be weeks be­fore we learned this. Now, the teach­ers de­nied know­ing any­thing un­til word even­tu­al­ly got around that Ben was re­al­ly dead, a ru­mor con­firmed when Prin­ci­pal Al­varez made an an­nounce­ment over the PA sys­tem. A vig­il was held on the foot­ball field, and then an im­promp­tu memo­r­i­al ser­vice, dur­ing which we shared our fond­est mem­o­ries of Ben.

It was around din­ner­time, a cool Mag­no­lia-scent­ed twi­light, when my par­ents picked me up in front of the school. They’d al­ready heard about what hap­pened; the school sec­re­taries and nurs­es had spent the af­ter­noon leav­ing mes­sages on an­swer­ing ma­chines. I sat in the back­seat of the Oldsmo­bile as they talked, say­ing that what had hap­pened was ter­ri­ble, trag­ic, but that some­thing must have been fishy for a boy to have died so young.

“Maybe,” I said, and there was some­thing sullen in my voice that made them turn around.

“Buck­le up, mis­ter,” my moth­er said.

“Re­lax, kid­do,” my fa­ther said. “You wor­ry too much. Noth­ing like that’s go­ing to hap­pen to you.”

We con­tin­ued on­ward in si­lence as I pressed my face against the back win­dow, star­ing out at the gath­er­ing dark­ness, and for a sec­ond I could have sworn that it stared vi­cious­ly back.

Filed under Fiction on May 5th, 2007

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Anonymous wrote:

Beau­ti­ful­ly written!

Anonymous wrote:

Beau­ti­ful­ly written!

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