“J24” by Chuck Augello

When I was seven my cousin John put a water pistol in my ear and pulled the trigger, laughing so hard he peed himself while I stumbled around the patio shaking my head and crying. Earlier that morning he’d boasted that everyone in the world was shit, except me, and someday he’d make the shits pay. That summer John was only nine, his arms covered with self-inflicted bite marks and Magic Marker skulls.

“Why’d you do that?” I asked, my ear still ringing.

“We were playing,” he said. “That’s what friends do.”

“How do you know? You don’t have any.”

“Be careful,” he smiled. “Unless you’re one of the shits, too.”

Now, seeing the news alert—Active Shooter at Rockaway Meadows Mall—I wonder if today is when John finally gets back at all those shits? Last week he posted a Facebook photo: John, nearly thirty, his head shaved, the skulls on his arm replaced by tattoos of swastikas and red coiled snakes; John, bare-chested and smiling, clutching a semi-automatic rifle in his mother’s garage.

The Rockaway Meadows Mall is only ten minutes from my Aunt’s house, where John still lives in his childhood bedroom. The last time I visited he showed me that old water pistol and laughed.

I turn on the television to the usual images—cops in body armor rushing through the parking lot, the survivors huddled in circles, crying and thanking Jesus, the helicopters circling overhead. Already the newscasters are branding it the June 24th Massacre—J24.

Ellen walks into the room, buttoning her blouse as she glances at the screen, already late for her shift at Applebee’s.

“Isn’t that the Mall near where your family lives?” she asks.

“The next town over.”

“Jesus. You should call, make sure they’re all safe.”

The one time Ellen met John, at a family barbecue, he licked his lips and simulated jerking off. We left right after my Aunt told us to check out John’s gun collection in their remodeled basement. “He’s so proud of them,” she said.

The reporter on the scene, the pretty blonde woman who always gets the worst disasters, nods grimly into the camera. “…eyewitnesses report that the gunman is a white male with a shaved head and visible tattoo markings, most likely in his late twenties …”

How many shits visit the mall on an average day?

“…so far twenty confirmed casualties, but authorities have yet to …”

“This country is insane,” Ellen says, heading for the bathroom to blow dry her hair.

A grandmother-type tells the reporter that the gunman laughed as he pulled the trigger. The J24 graphic lingers at the bottom of the screen. The newscasters babble about ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the NRA and the next election.

“Fucking insane!” Ellen yells from the hall.

My phone buzzes with an incoming text, and when I check the screen, my stomach drops.

Hey Cuz, at the mall! R U near a TV?

During high school John once tried to kill himself. His parents found him behind the wheel of their Hyundai, the engine running, the cracks beneath the garage door stuffed with blankets and rags.

When he joined the Marines at nineteen, his family was relieved. Make a man out of him, and all that crap. He lasted three months. There were rumors about an incident, something with a gun, yet no one except John really knew, and all he ever mentioned were those military shits.

One Christmas John refused to leave his bedroom. My Aunt asked me to bring him down for dinner, and I found him curled like a fetus on the floor beside his desk, his face in his hands, sobbing, “Everybody hates me.” John was fourteen. I put my hand on his shoulder and sat beside him until my Aunt brought him leftover turkey in an old Tupperware dish.

On TV the SWAT guys assemble, ready to end it. “Trained sharpshooters …only one command: shoot to kill,” the newscaster says.

I hold the phone, my eyes struggling to focus.

Day of Reckoning. Bang, Bang, so fucking funny.

For a while there was medication and John was okay, working himself up to manager at the FedEx warehouse, learning to play guitar, even joining a local bar band. But then he found God and His Biblical bloodlettings; then it was Hitler, then the Flag, those immigrant shits ruining the U.S. of A. A few weeks back John slit the tires of their Mexican neighbors, said it was a gas.

Cuz, u there? Bang-Bang-beautiful-thing

My senior year in high school John walked into the Friendly’s where I worked and handed me the new Audioslave CD. He knew I loved Tom Morello’s playing—no other reason. “Enjoy it, Cuz,” he said, and walked out. “Nice guy,” my manager said. “You’re lucky to have him.”

“… latest estimate, twenty-three dead, fourteen wounded…”

J24.

“Are you okay?” Ellen asks.

Hey Cuz, exactly like I imagined it

My hand shaking, I dial John’s number. His voice is soft, high-pitched. Screams in the background.

“Just like I imagined it, Cuz. The shits are going down!”

My throat tightens, my heart pounding so hard I might faint. “John, please, don’t…”

On TV black body bags stacked on gurneys, ambulances camped by the entrance.

“Don’t what? If I had my M4 I’d help the fucker out. I’ve got great video of all the little shits running…gonna sell it to Fox News for major bucks.”

The pretty blonde reporter: “… the gunman has been identified as Paul Arnett, thirty-three years old, from Sparta, New Jersey. Police have spoken to his ex-wife…”

“Only sorry he beat me to it,” John says. “Cuz, it’s goddamn wild. Here he comes… my Man!

And then nothing, except a gunshot.

Ellen grabs her keys, sees my face. “Hey, are you okay?”

In the news the next day he’s Victim #27, beloved son, ex-Marine, passionate music fan. No one ever mentions the five hundred rounds of ammo in his glove compartment, or what might have been.


j24-aguello

Chuck Augello lives in New Jersey. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, Word Riot, Smokelong Quarterly, and other journals. He is an editor for Cease, Cows, a contributor to The Review Review, and publishes The Daily Vonnegut, a website featuring interviews and essays on the work of Kurt Vonnegut.

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