Bourbon Penn 30

The Demon Lord of Broken Concrete

by Alex Irvine

He was always there when Zack walked to school. Tall, stoop-shouldered, reddish hair in his eyes but cut short around the ears and neck. A slow kid, not slow enough to be on the short bus but he goes to special classes. He’s a few years older, been held back some. Lives in a house full of foster kids. Maybe is one himself. Zack doesn’t know. The kid’s name is Tim but when the sidewalks along Hewitt Road are full of kids walking to Ypsi High—down the hill past the church, back up past the soccer field and in the back door if it’s open, all the way around to the front if it’s not—his name is rarely used. Kids fear his kind of difference.

Zack talks to him, though, at least when there isn’t anyone else around, and he always says hi even when the other kids don’t. He feels a little bad for the kid, who doesn’t seem to have any friends beyond the other foster kids. Tim is friendly but a little cautious. People are mean to him a lot. Zack sympathizes. High school is hard enough without people giving you shit while you’re walking to school. What does it cost you to be kind? Nothing, except the way kindness makes you a target for people who suffered for being kind, and now must pass that suffering on.

Then one day they don’t see Tim on Hewitt Road, and after a week they realize they haven’t seen him in a while, and then they hear that a guy down by the dam snagging bullhead has found his body. For a few days nobody says what happened, but Zack already knows. Tim didn’t get over there by himself.

• • •

Do you believe in God? Sometimes Zack and his friends ask each other this question. They all have different answers, and their answers are always changing. Zack believes that there is more than one god, and that different gods rule over different people. Kids like him, all of them worshipped the Demon Lord of Broken Concrete whether they knew it or not. That was the answer Zack never gave, but the truth of it was all around.

The gods of these children do not hold sway over the harvest, or cats, or thunder. They are the Marquess of Daddy’s Eighth Beer, Our Lady of What Did You Just Say to Me?, He Who Reigns over White Panel Vans, Our Lord of Kindly Men Who Want to Show You a Puppy, the Archfiend of This Will Hurt Me More Than It Hurts You, the Earl of The Looks You Get When You Use Food Stamps at the Grocery Store, the Duke of Home from School to an Empty Fridge. The Demon Lord of Broken Concrete rules them all. His chief lieutenants are the Viscount of Rust and the Baroness of Shattered Glass.

Zack learned this in church, although the way he thinks about it is equal parts New Testament and Deities and Demigods. It is a logical consequence of sin that there should be demons as well as God, and demons are essentially of the same nature as God, because they all rule over something. He has never been able to explain this logic to anyone, but in his mind it is as solid as a dam. Everything else he knows must flow either around or over it.

It is possible to catch glimpses of the Demon Lord of Broken Concrete. All you have to do is be in the right place at the right time, and understand that the world is bigger than you will ever know and that you cannot control anything beyond what you can put your hands on, and often not even that. You have to live in a place that is dying and knows it is dying. You have to surround yourselves with other kids who know they missed the boat to catch the American Dream, most of them, because it’s not in Ypsi anymore. The plants are going dark, the people are doing what desperate people do. The Demon Lord of Broken Concrete reigns over places such as this and is well pleased.

• • •

His parents don’t really care where he goes as long as he’s home for dinner, so Zack goes as far as his bike will take him when it’s not soccer season. A few weeks ago, he rode down a newly bulldozed road through a brushy field, with a big sign out front announcing the subdivision to be built. Your New Home for 1984! There was a battered old Ford pickup at the end of the road, and two kids next to it, one about his age and one a little older. They both had BB guns and they showed him a row of dead birds on the dropped tailgate. Sparrows, robins, cardinals, blue jays, other birds Zack didn’t recognize. For weeks afterward, Zack’s dreams were full of death. Worms growing pale in mud puddles, a caterpillar smashed on the sidewalk and a little girl skipping away from it laughing, a cat his father had run over in a parking lot by accident and then backed over again to make sure it wasn’t suffering.

Death is everywhere, and the Demon Lord of Broken Concrete favors children.

Today he’s down by the lake, his bike hidden in some bushes growing up along the fence surrounding a ruined old factory. Henry Ford built it, but it’s changed hands a lot since then. Now it’s rusting metal, shards of glass, cracked bricks. Broken concrete. He doesn’t go inside, he’s got enough survival instinct for that at least, but he finds a hole in the fence and kicks around the property, picking up rocks and throwing them at other rocks. There aren’t even any rats because there’s nothing within a mile that a rat could eat.

This is the east side, the domain of angry factory rats, the human kind. Heavy metal, Confederate flags, babies born knowing how to bleed brake lines. The west side is where the professionals live, close to the college and the rarefied air of Ann Arbor. The south side is historically black, but there are plenty of black people in Zack’s neighborhood, which is on the south side of the west side. Zack’s parents always look for places on the west side, because they are aspirational on their children’s behalf. That’s how they landed on Hewitt Road, which puts Zack in the preferred schools but is still cheap because it’s on the edge of the township.

The factory is partially torn down. In ruins like these, anything can happen because the past has been destroyed and the future still might never happen. This is the realm of the Fallen Angels of Bent Rebar, the lesser hosts of dirt clods and gravel in your eyes, the Principalities of Lonely Plants Dying by Themselves in the Tracks of Backhoes. These are lesser aspects of the Demon Lord of Broken Concrete.

The catechism of the Demon Lord of Broken Concrete is this: Fuckin’ Japs. Fuckin’ immigrants. Fuckin’ OPEC. Fuckin’ EPA. In Zack’s mind, the Demon Lord of Broken Concrete has a face like Ronald Reagan if Reagan was on a Hammer horror movie poster as the monstrous villain. No, Lee Iacocca. A late-night special too soul-suckingly terrifying for even the Ghoul to introduce.

A concrete chip about the size of a taco spins through the air over his head and lands out in the weedy parking lot.

He ducks in close to the rubble pile, not sure if someone is throwing concrete at him or just throwing it and hasn’t noticed him. One time at another place like this, a chunk of concrete fell from on high, out of the sun. Zack scrambled on the rubble, tearing up his knees. A piece of rebar dug into his right ankle. Once there was order here. Something was falling from the sky to bring order once more. The chunk of concrete struck him on the back of the head and for a moment he couldn’t see, there was a ringing in his ears and he felt like he was staring into the sun even though he was face down in the rubble and weeds. His little brother JJ found him like that, and started to cry, saying I’m sorry I’m sorry over and over again. It’s okay, Zack said. I know you didn’t do it on purpose. He didn’t say that JJ couldn’t have done it on purpose. His hand was guided. These are the immutable laws of the construction site, the abandoned building, the overgrown field with an old basement foundation still visible in one corner. The path under the bridge, the cinder embankment by the railroad tracks. These are the haunts of the Demon Lord of Broken Concrete and his innumerable host. Anyone who sets foot in those spaces, especially a child, and most especially a child whose kindness and empathy is a closely held secret—that child is what the Demon Lord of Broken Concrete prizes above all else.

And now it is happening again, only it isn’t JJ whose face pops up over the debris pile. It’s a black kid Zack vaguely knows from history class, maybe? Something about him is familiar, anyway. But he can’t remember the kid’s name. They stand there looking at each other, each with a chunk of concrete dangling in one hand.

Hey, the kid says. Bet you can’t throw as far as me.

Bet I can. Zack has a pretty good arm, and what’s the point of giving up before you try? Zack always tries, even when he knows he’s going to lose.

They both throw. The concrete pieces land pretty close together.

Let’s do it again, the kid says.

Zack’s already getting another chunk of concrete.

Six or eight throws in they’re pretty evenly matched. What’s your name? Zack asks.

Ro, the kid says. Meaning Roosevelt.

Ro what?

Ro McPherson.

It all comes together. You Elvin McPherson’s brother? I sat next to him in like third grade.

Ro’s eyes cut away, toward the empty ruin. Yeah. Elvin’s in jail. Probly for a long time. He’s quiet for a little while after that. Neither of them throws again.

The Demon Lord of Broken Concrete dislikes human connection. He will not permit it in the spaces he rules. He finds your pain, and uses it to pit you against other people. Now Zack and Ro are facing each other like strangers again, each with a chunk of concrete in their hands.

I gotta go, Zack says, before something happens. He drops the chunk. Good throws.

Yeah, you too, says Roosevelt. He’s still on top of the debris pile when Zack gets on his bike, still throwing chunk after chunk out over the weedy expanse of asphalt. Then as Zack rides away, he hears the first crash as Ro turns his attention to the factory’s remaining windows.

Dang, Zack thinks. I should have stayed.

• • •

About a week after they killed Tim, word started to get around about how they did it. The tellings are like campfire stories, ghoulish, darkly gleeful. Zack doesn’t know if anyone else feels the same way, but they leave him emptied out. If he has to have feelings in those moments, they’re going to be feelings he can’t handle. So he has no feelings.

It was a sacrifice. He knows this. Gods demand sacrifices. This sacrifice was lured into a car with the offer of a ride, then taken to a house where unspecified rituals were performed. This sacrifice was given enough whiskey to give him alcohol poisoning. This sacrifice was then taken to the river, just below the dam, at the old boat ramp with algae in its concrete grooves and drowned. But he did not die, so this sacrifice was stabbed until the air he would not let out of his mouth bubbled up from the wounds in his back.

Nobody knows why. But Zack knows why. It was a sacrifice. It could have been any of them, any of the kids who walk down Hewitt Road every morning to school and then in the afternoons range across the city’s empty lots and construction sites, alleys and empty schoolyards and garages. Nobody cares where they are or what they do, until they do something wrong.

He imagines dying face down at the boat launch, the last thing he ever sees the crumbling concrete sloping away into darkness.

• • •

There’s a rumor that Robbie Grabowski got caught fucking a dog and that’s why he hasn’t been in school in a while. Zack’s cousin Clayton was friends with Robbie when they were in elementary school, so Zack and Clayton go over there to see if they can find out if it’s true. Not like they’re just going to ask him, but they’ll see what they can see. The Grabowski house is between the college and a strip of old foundries and machine shops off Huron River Drive where it runs past the old paper mill. The houses here are all the same, little ranches with one-car garages punctuated by the occasional Victorian farmhouse from back before Ypsi industrialized. The farmhouses are all chopped up into apartments. From Robbie Grabowski’s front yard, you can see the smokestacks of the paper mill and the ruin of what used to be the Ypsilanti Underwear Company. Zack is always tickled to remember that Ypsi underwear used to be famously durable.

Clayton knocks on the door. Robbie’s mother answers. Hello, Clayton. Gosh, it’s been a while since we saw you around here. She looks just like him, red hair and freckles and weak chin. Zack doesn’t know Robbie too well, but he doesn’t like the idea of people spreading rumors about anybody. It’s happened to him, and it feels shitty.

Yeah, um, we haven’t seen Robbie around in a while so, um, we were cruising by and thought we’d see what was up.

She sees right through him. Robert isn’t here, she says stiffly. And you haven’t— She looks back into the house. Shakes her head. Looks back at Clayton, and now she’s afraid. It’s nice of you to stop by. I’ll tell Robert. Just before she shuts the door, she adds I remember when you were such good friends.

Man, that was weird, Zack says when they’re walking back toward the college campus. Did you see her? She looked scared.

I’d be scared too if I had to live with Robbie Grabowski, Clayton says. There’s an ugly tone in his voice Zack doesn’t remember hearing before. Shit, it might be true, Clayton says. He snorts out a laugh. At least that’s what I’m going to say if anybody asks.

Not cool, Zack says. He feels like the whole thing has blown up in his face.

Clayton shrugs and starts walking. Who cares?

Zack does. But now there’s nothing he can do. He’s sad because he and Clayton were always close, and Clayton didn’t use to have this mean streak. You can’t help who you’re related to.

• • •

To get back to Clayton’s house, where they’re going to kill the afternoon playing Atari, they cut along the backtracks. It’s an old railroad spur, some paved and some dirt. Homeless people camp in the brush on either side, and kids find spaces to smoke cigarettes they stole from the Stop-n-Go and drink beers from their dad’s basement fridge.

They’re behind one of the apartment complexes by the college when they see a bunch of kids aiming a garden hose into a trash can. Little kids, eleven or twelve. Zack is fourteen. One of them has a stick. He’s poking it down in the can. Water splashes out. They look up and see Zack and Clayton. We got a woodchuck, one of them says. We’re drownding it. Come here. Pretty soon you can see the bubbles coming up. Zack doesn’t know what Clayton is going to do, but he gets out of there. He can’t be there for that much pain. The animal’s pain and terror, the pain those boys have suffered that becomes a living thing inside them that has to get out. Like Zack’s dad. Like the kids who threw rocks at him when he and Godfrey Nabalinde were on their bikes riding to Godfrey’s house, down in the South Side. Hey man, ain’t you in the wrong neighborhood? Godfrey shaking his head, saying Shit, they could mean me. Because he’s African. He runs into shitstorms Zack can’t even imagine. That pain is a god, and all of those boys are its living avatars. The Demon Lord of Broken Concrete binds his people in service, forbids them a life beyond the life that was taken from them when the plant closed.

The guys who killed Tim tried to drown him. But when he didn’t die fast enough, they got out their knives. At least that’s the story.

• • •

He’s been making out with this girl named Penny, mostly in the stairwell behind the pool balcony in the last few minutes of lunch period. One day out of the blue she says if he comes over to her house before her mom gets home from work on Friday, she’ll give him a blowjob. So he does, and she does. She’s never done it before and one time when she comes up for air, he can’t help himself, he’s coming. She bursts out laughing and then clamps both hands over her mouth and runs to the bathroom for a towel. She throws it at him, still laughing, bright red. After a while, he can’t help but laugh too. Hey, he offers, do you want me to…? He’s never done it before and he’s curious what it would be like, but she’s worried her mom will be home soon, so she takes a rain check. He’s late for soccer practice. The coach, a Portuguese psychopath who doesn’t care whether the team wins or loses as long as the players suffer, has him running sprints up the hill behind the high school until Zack thinks he’s going to puke. But he won’t let the coach see him do it.

Something about the way Penny laughed makes the Demon Lord of Broken Concrete feel far away, just for a little while.

The next Tuesday there’s an away game. Zack gets to the bus pickup early, after doing some homework in the choir room until the janitors kick him out. The only other person waiting for the bus so early is Tommy Keenan, who sits on the curb tapping a Coke bottle on the concrete. You hear about Tim? Zack asks. Tommy doesn’t know who Tim is. He’s from the east side, they all bus or drive to the high school. But since Zack brought it up, Tommy’s interested. Who is he? A kid in my neighborhood, Zack says. I guess he got killed.

A group of girls walks by, feathered hair and Jordache and halter tops, Marlboros sticking out of their purses. Tommy says hi to one of them. She says hi back. I’d like to get up on top of her and fuck her between her tits, he says to Zack after they’re gone, tapping the bottle harder. It breaks, and a bright line of blood appears on his thumb. Shit, he says. He goes looking for some Band-Aids and the rest of the team is there by the time he gets back. The bus pulls up. The whole ride to the game, Zack is thinking, you can do that?

As it happens, Tommy’s blood is a sacrifice. They beat a team they’re not supposed to beat, and Tommy scores the winning goal. None of their parents are in the stands, but they don’t think much about it. It’s an away game.

The team is scrappy but only the immigrant kids really know how to play. There’s Phuc from Vietnam, who starts a fight with anybody who calls him Fuck. Zikri from Malaysia, Hung from China, Eduardo from Guatemala, Godfrey from Uganda, Christian the exchange student from Denmark. Their goalie is an East Side kid named Greg, all attitude and veiny lean muscle. Zack could almost be gay for those veins, what does a guy have to do to get veins like those. Greg’s a great athlete, has no idea how to play soccer, but he gets the kamikaze part of goalkeeping pretty fast, so he plays a lot. Zack isn’t gay, even though he let Phil Briscoe press his cock up against his belly a couple of times when they were like eleven or twelve, pretending they knew what sex was. He remembers the heat of it, the way it throbbed. There’s a story that the guys who killed Tim made him do that, too, but Zack doesn’t know.

• • •

His Dad and Uncle Roy take Zack and Clayton bass fishing out at the old quarry. They’re not catching anything, and Zack gets bored. He and Clayton swim out to the craggy little island in the middle of the quarry. There are machines down deep in the water, and of course those have demonic rulers too. If you can’t see the demonic energy in the clawed bucket of a backhoe, reaching up toward sunlight from two hundred feet underwater, you’re just blind, is all. Grownups can’t see it. Zack thinks he’s going to work that into a D&D campaign sometime. Demonic machines rising from black water, there would be a wizard behind it, some kind of lich maybe like in Tomb of Horrors

He tries to tell Clayton about Tim, but Clayton doesn’t want to talk about it. He plays tennis, his dad’s a Vietnam vet who likes to antagonize people, they have enough money that they’re going to Germany that summer. He’s on the edges of different circles than the ones Zack runs in, and he doesn’t have time for some special-ed kid who got himself into trouble. That’s how Uncle Roy characterized Tim’s murder the one time it came up among the adults.

Clayton needs to take a shit but there’s no toilet paper. “Man, my butt’s going to itch for the rest of my life,” he moans. Zack suggests leaves but there aren’t any leaves on this hump of rock, at least not any big enough to work, and Clayton is worried about poison ivy. So he’s going to have to clean himself in the water, and no way is Zack standing around for that even though Clayton is scared to swim by himself. Truth is, Zack is too, but this is his private, unknowable revenge for Clayton being a dick about Robbie Grabowski. He swims back to shore, certain at every moment that a backhoe bucket is going to reach up out of the darkness and scoop him down where he belongs. When he feels the mucky shoreline between his toes, it’s like he’s accomplished something.

• • •

A year goes by. Robbie Grabowski comes back to school. He was down in Tennessee with relatives, staying out of his dad’s way. Some kid mentions the dog thing to him, and Robbie kicks the shit out of him. Case closed. Zack wishes it was Clayton who had said it, and Clayton who got his ass beat, and then he feels bad about that because you’re not supposed to think things like that about family.

In freezing cold and steamy heat, rain or snow, they walk down the hill on Hewitt Road. Zack sees a girl he likes, Trina, but she doesn’t talk to him. He runs into another guy on the soccer team, Kirk, but Kirk doesn’t talk to him either. Kirk and Trina walk right in front of him talking. This is where Tim would always be, too, sometimes talking to Darryl Paquette, sometimes talking to Zack. Mostly walking alone. Zack mostly walks alone, too.

He gets his driver’s license and his dad gives him a car. Not two weeks later he gets in an argument, things escalate, and his dad chases him out of the house. Zack’s standing there in the street, shorts, no shirt, no wallet, no nothing. His dad walks over to the car, pops the hood, rips out the spark plug wires. Holds them up like a trophy with a gleam in his eye. Walks back in the house and lets the screen door slam behind him.

JJ brings him a shirt and some shoes, and Zack takes off. He can’t find any of his friends and doesn’t really feel like talking about it anyway, so he spends most of the night in one of the dugouts over at the Little League field in Candy Cane Park. This is the same park where Scottie Bauman sometimes used to bring Sherri Friedel to make out. Sherri Friedel is so fantastically hot that whenever people see Scottie’s orange Gremlin, they skulk around hoping to see her through the windows. Zack never did this, but he has undertaken his own devotions to Sherri Friedel.

The mosquitoes aren’t too bad. When he figures everyone must be asleep, he heads back to the house, watches carefully for a while to be sure, then sneaks in his bedroom window.

• • •

A few days later, they’re all pretending everything is normal. It wasn’t even like the last time, where Zack got up the next morning and his dad was sitting on the couch. I’m sorry I slugged you, he said, and that was supposed to be the end of it. But he still had to go to school, see people eyeing the bruises, hear Deedee Fields say, I heard what happened, Zack, I’m so sorry. She’s a great soul, Deedee, but Zack doesn’t want anyone to be sorry for him. He mumbles something along the lines of thanks and puts his head down for the rest of the day. His face hurts. Everyone can see it.

Could. Could, could, that’s not now, that was last year. The last bad one. In between, just sporadic moments where Zack felt like things could go sideways real fast. It would be easier if his dad was a monster, but he’s not. He gives everything he has. Wednesdays at Taco Bell where Zack eats five Tacos Bell Grande, wrestling matches in the yard, teaching Zack how to change the Mustang’s oil or build a Pinewood Derby car or sing along with the harmony parts in the songs on the radio. Even the Kinks which is gay rock according to his dad, but he sings along anyway. He doesn’t know anything about soccer, but when Zack is into it, he learns. They talk about books, since Dad is a big fan of old sci-fi and fantasy. Dad taught Zack to play D&D, and what other kid could say that.

But then there was the time when he knocked you out cold in the McDonald’s because he didn’t like something you’d said to Mom. Or the times when you were hanging out with a new friend on the street, and went to his house, down in the basement, to look at his Micronauts. Mom couldn’t find you, and because Mom was scared, Dad got the belt out. The sound of the leather rasping free of his belt loops in the basement, that’s a small god all by itself, a godling of dread and memory who serves at the right hand of the Demon Lord of Broken Concrete. It’s not as bad as what Dad suffered when he was a kid, so mostly it’s all right. Zack understands that he is a sacrifice to the older god his father carries, just as his father was offered up to propitiate the gods who rode his father along the hobo railroads from the Upper Peninsula down to Detroit, and then to war and back, and then to Ypsi. It has to be a god or a demon, because it can’t be just people.

His dad needed Zack to understand how badly he had been hurt, and his only way of saying it was to pass that pain along. Maybe he even meant it as a warning—see what the world will do to you?—and he had no other way to say it. But if that was the case, Zack thought, he had it figured out already. He knew that in middle school, when Eddie Brooks showed up on their front porch with a gun, coked up and still pissed about a fight he and Zack had gotten into in fifth grade. And if that hadn’t gotten the message across, Zack knew it when Eddie killed a guy in the Stop-n-Go parking lot over a girl they’d both been dating. That was the year after Tim was murdered. Zack worked with the girl at the Wendy’s on Washtenaw Avenue, and he would never forget the look on her face when she found out what happened while she was working a shift at the drive-through. How did he go bad, everybody wondered, this son of a prominent realtor, pillar of the community? But Zack knew. The Demon Lord of Broken Concrete grew fat on his subjects’ inchoate rage and pain. The survivors counted themselves lucky and wondered if they would be called upon either to provide a sacrifice or become one.

Love is a broken thing, is what Zack has learned. Broken like concrete, broken like a forgotten god. And you get up in the morning and they say they’re sorry they slugged you, and you’re just supposed to go on like it’s all over even though the side of your face is swollen and it hurts to smile and everyone will try to be nice to you all day in a way that makes you want to die. That’s the Marquess of Daddy’s Eighth Beer, or is it the Lord of I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, reaching out through his father’s hands to make himself known to Zack?

He swears he’s never going to have children.

• • •

Because his car still isn’t fixed, one night Zack sneaks out of the house to visit his girlfriend Mandy. After he’s been there a while, the phone rings. She answers before her parents can get to it, covers for him. He’s out the window before she hangs up, gets back to his house wide-eyed and sweaty, pretending he doesn’t know anything about where he’s been, like he was sleepwalking or something. His parents are uncertain, but JJ is genuinely frightened and that makes Zack feel shitty. The thrill of being out, giddy, it’s all gone. He wants to tell JJ that he didn’t mean it, just like he knows JJ didn’t mean to hit him in the head with a piece of concrete on that sunny morning on the borderland between a subdivision and the surviving woods. The hard part about people caring for you is you’re supposed to care for them back.

Time passes. Even after his parents have forgotten about it, even after JJ has forgotten about it, what stays with Zack is the moment when he and Mandy were lying on her bed, before the phone rang. What are you thinking about, she asked.

Air bubbling up from Tim’s back. That’s what he was thinking about, what he’s thinking about now and always. The broken concrete boat ramp sloping away below his body into the brown water, where souls go, where gods wait.

Alex Irvine grew up mostly in Michigan and now lives in Maine. His fiction has won the Locus, Crawford, International Horror Guild, and Scribe awards. He once won a game of Jeopardy! and got Alex Trebek to bark. Cruise by to learn more.