18 Sep

Spoiler Alert: The Past

“Spoiler Alert” is a serialized short story, coming in 13 parts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. “The Past” is part four. It’s best if you know the end first, so go to part one if you haven’t read it yet.

I suppose my answer was the same. I mean, someone tells you where you’ll be decades into the future, why should you believe them?

For David, though, things were not that simple. When he was 11 years old, his dad was dying of some lung disease. Maybe cancer. I’m not sure.

He went to the hospital every day after school. And since his mom couldn’t get there until she got off work at 5:00, David was alone with his father for several hours each afternoon. I don’t know how long this went on for, but one day, he showed up at his dad’s room and there was this old guy sitting next to the hospital bed.

David assumed he was some acquaintance of his father’s, but being a shy boy and not wanting to wake his dad, he kept quiet.

The three of them remained in that odd, silent configuration for a long time. Maybe half an hour. David on one side of the bed, the unfamiliar old guy on the other, and David’s sleeping father in between them.

Finally, though, the stranger spoke up. “David,” he said, startling the boy, “you know how old your father is?”

Of course he knew how old his father was. “Fifty-two.”

“Fifty-two,” the man repeated, shaking his head. “That’s too young to die.” Not something you say in a hospital room to a fifth-grader whose father is dying, you know? “You think you’ll live to be 52?” he asked.

By this time, David was becoming annoyed. And he started doubting that the strange man was acquainted with his dad at all. He willed him to leave. But the guy continued. “You won’t live that long.”

Little David still didn’t respond. As he explained to me, “My top priority at that moment was not to wake Dad. And besides, I was a better man back then. Much more willing to put up with bullshit.”

Except it wasn’t bullshit, as David would eventually find out.

16 Sep

Spoiler Alert: The Break

“Spoiler Alert” is a serialized short story, coming in 13 parts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. “The Break” is part three. It’s best if you know the end first, so go to part one if you haven’t read it yet.

The guard that night was a little green. He may have been in on the scheme — I’m sure they all were to some extent — but this guy was definitely just following orders.

Somehow, David talked me into pulling my pants down and sitting on the toilet, acting like I had painful diarrhea. “Don’t worry. The guy’s not going to come over and verify.”

It was a convincing lie. What David privately knew was that the entire plan hinged on the probability of the guard opening up the cell to verify that my problem was only diarrhea and not some more sinister ailment that could land me in a hospital. Apparently, they were scared to death of an American prisoner ending up in a hospital.

“Bad PR?” I asked David later.

“In a sense, yes. The doctors aren’t quite as crooked as the police. So when a gringo ends up in the hospital, sooner or later the whole scandal gets exposed.”

He was full of fun facts, it turned out, but I was still under the impression that he’d learned all this from eavesdropping.

When I told him so, he just smiled and said, “Eavesdropping is your friend.”

If I’d been able to eavesdrop on David’s conversation with the guard, though, we may not have escaped. I’d have known immediately that David had lied to me.

I almost panicked when the guard came into the cell. I kept one eye on David, who told me to “keep moaning” and motioned to the guard’s hip where his keys hung. “He’s going to check you for signs of insect bites and dengue fever.” I was slightly miffed at having been lied to, but I was curious to see whether David could actually pick a policeman’s pocket.

And in fact, he could.

A few hours later, we simply walked out of jail. The guard wasn’t asleep; he was watching a movie — some bootleg copy of Men in Black dubbed in Spanish. We even grabbed our backpacks, which were stashed by the door, albeit missing most of their former contents, and David stole a gun.

Once outside, I was giddy. “That was amazing!”

He shushed me. “Let’s not celebrate until we’re in Guatemala.”

I expected us to head out of town, toward some trees maybe, a river. Instead, we went straight toward the city center. I was inclined to trust the guy who just got me out of prison, but I needed to have some answers. So I asked.

He said it again: “If someone had told you when you were a kid that you’d break out of a Salvadorian prison some day, would you believe them?”

“I’ve heard this question before.”

“Is your answer the same?”

14 Sep

Spoiler Alert: The Beginning

“Spoiler Alert” is a serialized short story, coming in 13 parts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. “The Beginning” is part two. It’s best if you know the end first, so go to part one if you haven’t read it yet.

I met David when I was in prison in El Salvador. What was I doing in prison in El Salvador? Drugs. Not my fault. Some asshat on a bus just outside of Sonsonate stashed an ounce of cocaine in my backpack. I think it was an ounce. Might have been a gram. I don’t know shit about coke.

In fact, I didn’t know shit about why I was in prison until David explained it to me. He said it was a scheme for taking advantage of tourists, especially solo ones — some guy stashes the drugs on you, the police look through your luggage, maybe taking a few choice items, and then they get you to bribe them to let you out of jail.

I asked him how he knew all this.

“By pretending I’m not fluent in Spanish,” he said.

Same thing had happened to him. He kept quiet through the whole ordeal until they finally came to him with the offer. “You give money, you can to leave prison,” they said. He told them to go to hell.

Why? Good question. That’s what I asked David. Here’s where it gets weird.

His answer: “If someone had told you when you were a kid that you’d break out of a Salvadorian prison when you were 50, would you believe them?”

There was a mouse moving across the floor of our prison cell when he asked me this. It came within a few inches of my feet. I remember thinking he had a lot of nerve, that mouse.

Then I noticed David looking at me with his eyebrows raised, like he wanted me to actually answer the question.

“No. I would not believe anyone who told me I’d break out of a Salvadorian prison,” I said. “Are you telling me that I’m going to break out of a Salvodorian prison?”

“Yes. I’m not entirely sure how it happens, but it will.”

I asked him if he knew when it would happen ‘cause Salvadorian prisons aren’t that comfortable. When he said no, I just chuckled and tried to get some sleep.

I think I dreamt of mice running through mazes. It wasn’t a very reassuring dream, but it was better than being in prison with a nutcase. So when David woke me up in the middle of the night, I wasn’t too happy about it.

“I was just getting comfortable,” I told him.

“Now’s our chance.”

11 Sep

Spoiler Alert: The End

(“Spoiler Alert” is a serialized short story, coming in 13 parts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)

Here’s how it ends. I’m on a bus in Guatemala, daydreaming about a woman I’ve never met and feeling slightly guilty that I’m not going to die today.

It’s about 100 degrees, I haven’t showered in at least a week, and everyone else smells as bad as I do. People standing in the aisles have been rubbing up against my shoulder, and the slightly overweight woman next to me has had her leg leaning against mine for the past half an hour.

And then the bus pulls to a stop.

We’re on the highway, for God’s sake. Why the bus is stopping is beyond me.

But five minutes pass, maybe ten, and people start getting off the bus. I figure it can’t be any hotter outside, so I grab my bag and go out.

The pavement is shimmering with heat, and there’s a traffic jam that extends up the road as far as I can see to a bend that sweeps behind a mountain. Somehow, though we’re miles from the nearest village, there’s a guy walking toward us on the road’s shoulder, carrying a cooler full of flavored ice. I flag him down and buy two tubes of the stuff, though by the time I get them open, they’re more like flavored cold water.

Still, they hit the spot. And I’m happy enough that I’m out of El Salvador to care too much about our current predicament. So I tilt my head back to finish off the last of my purple “ice” and relish the short inner chill as the liquid shoots down my esophagus. I’m imagining that it’s a margarita when an explosion reverberates through the mountains.

It’s close. It must be. Because I can feel my chest rattle and I can hear glass breaking. I squint to see beyond the bright reflections emanating from the cars stopped in front of us. In the distance, a cloud of black smoke plumes skyward.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, I’m not. But knowing it would happen doesn’t make it less tragic. In fact, I’m suddenly feeling so sad that my knees buckle a little, like some involuntary part of me knows it’s not worth taking one more step forward. Might as well just fall down right now and die.

I’m not dead, though. And since nobody around me speaks English anyhow, I say it out loud. “I’m not dead.”

I think about how David patted me on the back in Jutiapa just before getting on his bus. “Doubt is a wonderful thing,” he said.

Now, David Schumaker is no more. The plume of smoke rising over the mountain is coming from his bus. I’m sure of it. David’s dead, and there’s nothing he or I could have done about it.

Still, I feel partially responsible.