I wear my Hawaiian shirt when I need to feel safe. No one can hate you when you’re wearing a Hawaiian shirt even when you’re asking them for change and they know it’s for a hit and you smell like you slept in your own puke, because you did. I only really have two shirts, mind you. The other one is denim with cut-off sleeves, which looks sharp, in my opinion, but people aren’t as friendly when I wear that one. I got the shit kicked out of me more than once when I was wearing it.
You’re lucky if you’ve never had the shit kicked out of you and not just because it fucking hurts, although it does. The worst parts are at the beginning, the first few digs when you’re still tense and afraid, before you give up and let them toss your body around whichever fucking way, and at the end, when it’s over and the pain sinks in and you have to think about how you gave up and let them. And it hurts even more when it’s someone you used to count as a friend. Like Marcel.
Me and Marcel grew up next door to each other. Mind you, ‘next door’ in the shit-hole boonies where we come from doesn’t mean the same thing as it does here. When we were kids there was the woods, the gas station and the highway. That was it. We used to like the highway at night. We’d head up to the bridge where it crossed the road to smoke a joint, and we’d sit on the guard rail swinging our feet over the edge feeling like real fucking daredevils. Our boots made this big booming sound when they banged on the metal railings, and the way the car lights kept moving underneath us, on and on, it felt like we were flying.
I’ll never forget the night we left. I woke up because sticks were hitting my window and I knew it was Marcel because, who else could it be? But when I looked out, it took me a minute to recognize him since his face was all streaked with blood. I said, Oh, shit. I didn’t have to ask what had happened. I swear, his dad was worse than my stepdad — a real fucking sadist. Marcel just said, Let’s go. And we went. We used to talk about it all the time, cutting the fuck out of there, but you know, till then, till that very moment, it was hard to imagine doing it.
We argued outside about whose vehicle we were going to jack, which seems stupid now, because obviously it came down to the fact that Marcel had blood coming from the side of his head and wasn’t going to make it any further than my stepdad’s truck. I had to drive because his hand was so fucked. He had it wrapped in a T-shirt and wouldn’t show it to me, because I don’t think he wanted to look at it himself. For that first bit of the drive, he just sat there with his head against the window, turned away from me, so I knew he didn’t want to talk, and I didn’t have much to say for once anyway. There was just the road in the headlights with the white lines in the middle slipping past, and I remember thinking it was kind of like a movie. But when the sky started to get lighter, Marcel said we should switch up the car before my stepdad woke up and called the cops, so we headed off the highway.
We drove until we came to a cluster of dark houses, and then we drove some more until we were next to a field and that seemed as good a place as any to dump the truck. Before we left it, though, Marcel made me get out my stepdad’s screwdriver and take the license plates off so that we could ditch them separately. I remember it was cold, early March or something, you could see our breath and I swore because my jeans got soaked when I knelt down to loosen the screws.
Then we headed back towards the houses. There was an old Ford pickup outside the first one we came to and when we tried the doors, we couldn’t believe our luck because they were open. That was the first time we’d jacked a car that didn’t belong to our parents. The cold made my fingers all numb and clumsy when I tried to loosen the wires so I had to blow on them and rub them together, and Marcel kept telling me to hurry up, hurry up. I just wanted him to shut the fuck up before he set the dogs off or some shit, and I swear, the whole time it seemed like that house was watching.
The sun was starting to come up when we got back on the highway and the road was getting busier, so I told Marcel he’d better clean up his face if he didn’t want to catch some heat. He pulled the mirror down and said, Oh, fuck. I guess he had no idea that he looked like he’d just staggered off a battlefield. Then, after a few more hours, when I tried to tell him the gas was getting low, he didn’t answer so I looked over and his eyes were wide and his face was white.
That was when he showed me his hand, and I swear, I nearly crashed the fucking truck. His three middle fingers were crushed flat and bloody — fuck knows what that asshole had done to him. I couldn’t even look at it, I don’t know how he was holding it together — I’d have been whimpering like a little baby, but then Marcel always did say I was a pussy. I got him some Tylenol at the next gas station and he dumped six out into his hand. I told him to watch out, but that fucking guy said he’d taken eight once and nothing happened. I tried to tell him he should get to a doctor, but he wanted to get to the city first. We still had a ways to go and neither of us had much cash, so we decided to lift another vehicle, one that was full of gas.
We waited until we saw a brand new black Mercedes mini-van pull into the gas station, nice and shiny clean. You could tell it had just been washed because all the other cars were streaky and grey after the snow-melt. We watched the driver get out and fill it up with gas and the minute he went in to pay, we were all over it. I never got an engine turning that quick in my life. We sped onto the highway, both out of breath and laughing because, you know, we’d pulled it off — we had a sweet ride with a tankful of gas. Then Marcel passed out.
It was a while before I noticed the cage. I mean, we’d glanced in the back when we first jumped in just to make sure we weren’t abducting any babies or grandmas, or anyone for that fucking matter. All the seats were taken out so we were just like, all good, without thinking twice about the big box thing back there. It was covered in blankets, but there was a gap in them and through it, you could make out steel bars, and I thought I could see something big inside, but I couldn’t say for sure. I kept checking to see if I could see anything move, trying to keep my eyes on the road at the same time.
The longer I drove, the more convinced I got that there was something in there. I wished so bad that Marcel wasn’t sleeping, but he’d have freaked out if I’d have woken him up for something stupid — he always came awake like you’d slapped him in the face. I just told myself, It’s nothing, it’s nothing, keep driving, and the whole time the sky was getting darker and darker with all these thick, black storm clouds, like the fucking heavens were about to dump on us. Thunder started to rumble, you know, that thunder that rolls around and sounds like it’s coming from everywhere at once, and there’s nowhere you can hide from it? I couldn’t take it anymore.
I turned off the highway right when it started to bucket down, and pulled up as soon as I could. Marcel didn’t wake up even when the car stopped. I was honestly scared to look what was back there, but I was more scared of waking Marcel up for no reason, so I reached over and tugged the blanket away. No word of a lie: full-sized fucking tiger.
We were two kids in the middle of nowhere in a slick-assed stolen Mercedes minivan with a fucking tiger in the back. It wasn’t moving, but it was alive. I could see its chest going up and down with its breath.
I kicked Marcel right then and there and he woke up ready to fucking smack me, but I was just going, Shshshsh! And I guess he could tell there was something up because he simmered down and looked where I was pointing. Then he was jumping out of his skin too. We just stared at each other, too afraid to talk in case we woke it up. The whole time the rain was coming down in sheets, drumming on the roof and pouring down the windshield so you could hardly see outside.
What are we going to do? I whispered after a while, and Marcel said he didn’t know. Where even the fuck are we? he asked. ‘Bout a hundred clicks further than we were, I told him. Who the fuck drives around with a tiger in the back of their Mercedes? I wanted to know. Marcel said he’d heard that sometimes these rich idiots release animals on their land all drugged and lost so they can have a pretend safari. The fuckers wouldn’t know how to hunt an animal in the wild if their life depended on it, but they want to kill something and stuff it and feel like real men.
Just then the thunder rumbled and we both thought it was the tiger waking up. It’s in a cage, Marcel said to settle us down a bit. I said, Yeah, to go along with him, but the cage looked pretty flimsy if you would have asked me — that thing’s head was bigger than two basket balls put together. We could just ditch the cage, I said and Marcel said, No fucking way, that’s an endangered fucking species right there. Well what the fuck are we going to do with it? I asked. Not leave it in a fucking cage on the side of road to starve or freeze to death, that’s what, he said.
Marcel said I should drive as fast as I could, but look out for cops, so I floored the gas. I thought we should leave it at a service stop with the doors wide open so that somebody would find it easily. He said, No, the fucking small-town cops’d probably shoot it straight up. So we took it to the city, and by some fucking miracle we made it all the way without being stopped or running out of gas.
When we got there, we drove around asking people where we could find a vet, getting more and more panicked because the tigers ears kept twitching, and once its tail flicked and dinged the bars of the cage. Imagine that scene — us shouting at each other, swerving around, Marcel all crazy-eyed, holding his hand, and a tiger about to wake up. Well, we finally found a vet, pulled up, jumped out like fucking commandos and opened up the back doors. That’s when the tiger opened its eyes. Just half-way, just for a second, but it was like a flash, a jolt, you know, there was fire in there that was bigger than either of us and we both saw it. We just looked at each other and ran into the vet shouting, Help, help — animal in trouble outside! Then we ran away as fast as we could before anyone could ask us any questions.
We felt like fucking heroes that day, even after we sat in the hospital for five hours and Marcel had two fingers amputated. He was happy because they’d let him out with a big bottle of Tylenol 4s that he was going to try and sell. And, you know what? Now I’m remembering — that was how I got my Hawaiian shirt, the one I’m wearing. It was all this one kid had and he really wanted some of Marcel’s meds, so they did a trade, and Marcel never thought it fit him right so he passed it on to me.
People called us Dorothy and Toto when we first got here, because we’d picked up a big cat on the road like they did. Marcel was Dorothy since he was kind of pretty and I was meant to be Toto, because — you know. You’d think me and Marcel’d be tight forever after all that, but life’s tough in the city. Shit’s gone down since we’ve been here, shit we did to survive, shit that made it hard to look each other in the eye after a while.
Then one day, he turned on me out of nowhere, laid into me with his one good fist and so much hate in his face. He stole my money and my stash, which he didn’t even have to — I’d have given it to him. In the end, when I think about it, I know it wasn’t me he hated — he just couldn’t live with what I knew about him.
I guess he couldn’t live with what he knew about himself either, because I heard he jumped off a bridge onto the highway a few months back. I imagine him sitting there on the guard rail, right before he did it, feet dangling, watching the river of car lights pass under him just like we did back home, and I hope, just for one second, it felt like he was flying.