Matthew Brennan is a novelist and screenwriter from Tempe, Arizona; originally from Connecticut, he earned his undergraduate degree in creative writing and biology from Colgate University in New York. His short fiction has received several awards, including Colgate University's Lasher Prize, and an honorable mention for Arizona State University's Swarthout Award. Brennan has won fellowships to teach abroad and attend conferences and residencies in China, Mexico, Canada, and Australia. Brennan works at Arizona State University as the Program Assistant for Global Engagement at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, and is a former prose editor for Hayden's Ferry Review. He is currently finishing his MFA degree from ASU.
My brother's bandana hung from the fence in the alley alongside my school as it had every day that week. Quinn suspected that the police had been keeping an eye on his gang again all of last week and didn't want me meeting him. It seemed he was trying to make it up to me. I reached up on my tiptoes to pull the bright red memento down, supporting my weight with my other hand stuck through the chain links of the fence. I was careful not to tear the cloth on the barbed wire. I folded it and tucked it into my pocket. It was November and cold, the trees barren, gray, thrusting up into the sky like a wrought-iron fence; a few dry, brown leaves still clung to the branches, trembling in the wind. I walked the eight blocks to the river with my collar turned up against the cold, my gloved hands shoved deep into the pockets of my jacket. Quinn was waiting for me on the bench.
I sat down and handed him the bandana. He took a blue one from his pocket, shook both out, and began his careful ritual of folding them within each other; neither of us would speak until this was done. Red and blue were the colors of his gang. Separate, they were neutral. When we had first started meeting like this last spring, Quinn had told me of the sacrifice he made in leaving one as a sign for me, that he was incomplete in the eyes of the gang until I returned it to him. His folds were slow and meticulous, despite the cold. He wasn't wearing gloves and the skin of his hands looked pink and raw. I looked down at my gloves and wanted to ask him to wear them, just for a minute, but I didn't. He would have said no anyway. He would have been annoyed that I'd asked. I looked out at the river, cold and dark and colorless like the sky and the steel and concrete of the city rising up toward the clouds on the far side.
“Hey, Little B,” Quinn said. The bandanas rested in his hands, the red and blue edges outlining each other between his fingers. He held them a moment, then tucked them into the inside pocket of his jacket.
“Hi, Quinn.” I turned to look at him. He blew on his hands, held together like he was praying, then rubbed them together. “I didn't know if I was gonna see you again today. You gonna come tomorrow, too?”
“I don't know.” He put his hands in his pockets. “How was school?”
I shrugged. “School.” I didn't want to tell him that I was supposed to be in detention and had skipped it to bring his bandana back, and that I would probably have to go on Saturday morning instead. And I didn't want to tell him why I'd got the detention. I hadn't done my math homework in over a week. When Mr. Harris got on me about it, I'd pulled a little pocket knife on him. Just fed up. He said I was lucky he was only giving me a detention. I knew he was right. But then I found the bandana. “When can I drop out too?” I asked.
“You've got a few years still,” Quinn said. “You have to go until you're sixteen. But you should try to get through if you can.”
“You didn't get through.”
“I didn't try.”
I hated school, but not for the reasons my brother and teachers thought. They thought I was like most of the other kids and hated it because it was stupid busywork, which was true. But that wasn't it for me. I hated it because I wanted to be somewhere else.
“But Quinn, I want to live like you. I want to join you.”
“You shouldn't want something so much that you don't know about.”
“I know enough.”
“Maybe you do.” Quinn took one hand out of his pocket and put his arm around my shoulders. He squeezed the back of my neck. “I want to show you something,” he said. When he took his other hand out, he was holding a gun: black, sleek, powerful. It wasn't one of the old-fashioned six-shooters you were handed to pull a job and throw in the river. This was a Smith & Wesson nine-millimeter. It held ten bullets in the clip, one in the chamber. This was the kind of gun you could be proud of. This was the kind of gun you showed your little brother.
I sat staring at it. “Is it loaded?” I asked.
“Of course it's loaded.” He cocked the hammer. “Takes weight off the trigger. Less force, less pull, better aim.” He flipped the safety off and held it up; the tiny exposed dot of red stared back at me. “Web of your hand goes here at the back of the grip, under the slide so it doesn't hit you on the recoil, trigger finger extended. Left hand supports under the clip like this.”
“I know how to hold a gun.”
“I just do.”
“Want me to shoot it?”
I did. Very much. But I was worried that someone would see it, that someone would hear the shot. Guns went off all the time around here, but that didn't mean no one noticed or cared. I didn't want Quinn to end up in jail again. He wasn't a minor anymore. “Into the water?”
He nodded his head up toward the opposite side. “See the city?” he said. “See those tall office buildings, apartments?” I nodded. I didn't understand why he was asking. “You squeeze the trigger. Never pull.”
The sound was deafening, louder than I ever imagined it would be. I jumped, my whole body twitching all at once; my heart pounded, adrenaline rushed through me. My ears rang with the sound of it, long after Quinn had lowered the gun and taken a quick look around us.
“Quinn!” I said. “That could have hit someone!”
“Yeah. It could have.”
“How do you know it didn't?”
“How do you know it did?”
“But why would you do that?”
His green eyes glittered. “It's a bit of a thrill, isn't it, Little B? Bit of a mystery. There's all those windows, but there's all that space between them, too. Did it hit a cement wall and lodge there? Did it splinter a hole through a window and travel another twenty feet across a room before stopping? We don't know. We can't know. Is the glass half-empty or half-full? Think of it how you will. Just because a gun goes off doesn't mean someone was shot.”
“But Quinn,” I said, “that's how Mom died.”
“Yes, it was. And the chances of that happening are so very small that it only makes it worse that that's how it worked out for us. All that cement? Chances are the bullet got stuck there and no one will ever know the difference. But say it beat the odds and hit a window. Chances are even less likely that someone was in the room at this time of day, and even less likely again that they were in the direct path of the bullet at that exact moment, that they could have looked out and seen us sitting here.” Quinn waved at the city. “If you want to think that I just killed someone, go ahead, but there's no way you can know one way or another.”
Quinn put the gun away. With the echo of the shot still ringing in my ears, I looked behind us again. Surely someone would have heard. But there was no one in sight. We sat in silence for a while.
“Why do you have it, Quinn?” I asked.
He nodded his head and smiled a little. “Good for you to ask that,” he said. “'Why' is always a good question. Without it, there would be no point in doing anything at all. Why do you go to school? Because you're told to. Why do you come to meet me here? Because I need my bandana back and you understand why, and because without this we wouldn't see each other. Any why not? Because I try to keep you at a safe distance from what I do.”
“What do you do?”
“No, B, that's not a good question. What I do doesn't matter, only why. And someday you'll understand that, too. Why do we lie and love and hurt each other? Sometimes the answers aren't as easy or clear. Why did that bullet hit Mom? Why did Dad leave us? Sometimes we can't know, but the search for the answers obsesses us. And that's good, B. That's good. It keeps you sharp, aware. It keeps you free. Always ask why. So why do I have the gun? Because I'm going to need it soon. Very soon. That's why I don't know if I'll be here tomorrow. But I'll leave my sign for you.”
“What … why won't you tell me what you have to do?”
Quinn threw his head back and laughed. “Because that would be answering 'what'.” Quinn stood.
“Quinn,” I said. “Why did you shoot it just now?”
“For the same reason I need it to begin with.” Quinn turned and began walking away. “I'll be seeing you, Little Brother.”
I stood and took a step after him. “Quinn … would you say 'hi' to Monica for me?”
He stopped, his back to me. He was big, his shoulders and back broad, just slightly hunched down. He held his hands in loose fists at his sides, still pink, but the thickness of his fingers made me think maybe they weren't cold after all. That nothing could hurt him.
“I will,” he said and walked away.
Quinn had been with Monica since high school, or even before. I can't think of one without the other. I can't remember a time when they were apart. They were soulmates, two banks of the same river, yin and yang in some ways, identical in others. Three years before, Quinn turned sixteen a month before Monica; a month later, they both dropped out of school. Quinn still lived with us for a while, and Monica was always over at the house until Mrs. Humphries got tired of them hanging around all day and kicked them both out. They worked a series of jobs and got their own place, which I would visit after school whenever I could until last spring when Quinn told me he couldn't have me coming around anymore. That was that. I had met him since on that bench by the river whenever he left his sign. I didn't see Monica much after that, but often asked Quinn about her.
The truth was that I had had a crush on Monica as long as I had known her. At first I saw her as a mother figure, a sense I'd never felt from Mrs. Humphries, and then in a boyishly sexual way once I was old enough to think like that and understand that side of us. She was beautiful, always has been. Looking back, I sometimes think Quinn must have had a foresight about the way she would mature, but I've realized that the grace I saw in her at nineteen had been there all along. She hadn't grown into it through an awkward adolescence; for all I knew she'd been born with it. She carried herself with a composed, confident ease that suggested comfort with herself but never arrogance. Her blonde hair fell in a long, silky cascade that added to this comfortable air in its cloak-like embrace, as did her soft blue eyes, smooth skin, and ready smile. She was a grown woman by the time I was old enough to notice the shape of her body, the fullness of her breasts. These shadowed curves intrigued me at night when she would lean down to kiss my cheek as I lay in bed, thinking of her there in the darkness afterwards until the wetness‚ warm and thick in my hand‚ reminded me of my own blooming maturity.
She had always been honest with me, kind and genuine as though she too felt the maternal role she played in my life while everyone around me, especially Quinn‚ seemed to look down on me. It was just the role that he in turn played, taking on many of the responsibilities of raising me and teaching me about the world, but in doing so, distancing himself from me beyond the five years between us. He was hard on me, demanding that I pick myself up on my own, that I find my own way under his guidance, but never his assistance. When I was suspended for my involvement in a fight, he ignored my black eye and asked if I had hit back. If I had won. Monica was the levee between his storm and my city. She would wait in silence until Quinn's rant or lecture had run its course, then take me upstairs and hold a washcloth or ice pack to my bruises while she listened to my story. And I knew that she would relate it to Quinn later that night. The day after my suspension, Quinn took me out into the lot behind our house and, standing before me, slapped me across the face.
“What'd you do that for?” I yelled.
“Why did you let me?” he asked and slapped me again.
The third time, I raised my arm and blocked his hand. He smiled without humor, and for almost an hour he pushed me around, hitting hard enough so I would feel its sting, and making me find ways to defend myself. Then he taught me to fight back, yelling “Hit me! Hit me! Hit me!” while I backed him across the lot until we collapsed onto the back steps. A moment later he stood, put a hand on my shoulder, and walked inside. The three of us had built a fellowship against the world and each of us understood our place within it, and never begrudged the others theirs. Needless to say, the dynamics of this fellowship changed the day Quinn and Monica were kicked out, but they'd already had a foot out the door anyway. I only wished I could have gone with them.
The day Quinn shot his gun across the river, I walked home against the cold autumn wind, threw my backpack onto the floor of my room, and sat down with my homework. I knew exactly why: if Quinn left his sign for me the next day or any other, I didn't want to risk being trapped at school. I had finished all of it by the time Mrs. Humphries got home from work. She was a custodian at an office building downtown and always came in smelling of bleach and garbage and those bricks of air fresheners they put in the urinals. A widow to cocaine, she had taken us in for want of other family. But we couldn't replace Mr. Humphries or become the children she'd never had, so over the years she had grown to tolerate us, respecting her promise to shelter us, but pouring little more of herself into our well-being. It was never unpleasant and I never feared going home, but I have only ever called it home because it's where I slept at night.
The next day was Friday, and no red flag beckoned to me from the top of the fence after school. I looked around in the alley and the street beyond in case the wind had carried it away, but I knew Quinn hadn't come. I spent three hours on Saturday morning in detention doing all of my homework for Monday. I walked down to the river after and threw rocks into the black, oily water before going home. When the last bell rang on Monday, I ran out to the alley, nearly shaking with anticipation, but Quinn still hadn't come.
Monica was waiting for me at the river when I arrived with Quinn's bandana on Tuesday afternoon, winded from sprinting eight blocks. I knew it was her before I'd even left the street to cut across the narrow strip of lawn that separated the city from the boardwalk. I slowed, watching her as I came from behind, trying to figure out why she had come and not Quinn. She had never met me like this, and I hadn't seen her since my birthday two months before when Mrs. Humphries had allowed them to come for dinner. My first instinct told me that Quinn was in trouble, but I wanted to ignore this. His foreman had kept him at work, but he wanted me to know he was trying to make it. He wasn't feeling well. My secret hope was that Monica had come on her own because she wanted to see me, but whatever the reason, I knew that Quinn had not been the one to hang the bandana. He was nowhere nearby.
I stopped a few steps behind the bench. Her beautiful hair draped itself around her shoulders and down her back where it disappeared behind the gray, weathered wood. The wind played with it, a few golden strands drifting up into the air as if they thought they could float away, free and unattached. I wanted to go up to her and touch her hair, bury my hands in it. I wanted to put a hand on her shoulder as a friend, or flat against her back, which seemed more intimate. I wanted to wrap my arms around her and hold her. She seemed so small there alone by the river. She was small, I had outgrown her a few years ago, but with Quinn she always appeared bigger than she really was.
I circled around to the sidewalk and walked to the bench and sat down. I handed her the bandana, already folded. I doubted she had the blue one. She was looking out at the river, her eyes a little watery, her nose reddened from the wind. It made her eyes brighter, her flushed cheeks prettier. She looked down and took the bandana and tucked it into her pocket. She sniffed as she looked back toward the river and I thought maybe she'd been crying.
“Where's Quinn?” I asked.
“He can't make it today, B,” she said.
“Why not? Where is he?” I was putting the pieces together and didn't like what I saw, but my curiosity and her presence there were stronger than my fear.
She looked at me and her eyes confirmed my first instinct about him. “He was arrested on Thursday night.”
“Who did he shoot?” I asked, hoping to show off what I knew, but she didn't seem to notice.
“A rival gang leader.”
“How'd he get caught?”
“After the hit, someone shot him in the leg while he was getting away. He made it home but the cops came while I was dressing the wound. They'd followed him. Apparently the guy he killed had political connections.”
“I hate those fuckers!” I said too loudly and jumped to my feet. “Let me join the gang, Monica, I want revenge! You can get me in, right?” I looked down at her, feeling big again, but she shook her head.
“No,” she said. She looked away. “You can't join.”
“Why not? I'm old enough to shoot a gun. Monica, please.”
“Because the gang doesn't know you exist.” I sat down. “Why do you think Quinn told you to stop coming by? He doesn't want you in the gang, B.”
I didn't say anything. I couldn't. There was nothing to say. Monica was quiet for a while, too. I just looked at her and she looked at the river. When she turned back to me, she was smiling.
“Hey, it's not such a bad thing,” she said. “You've still got a chance Quinn and I fucked up for us. Stay in school. That's what Quinn wants. He always says you're the smart one.”
“I hate that place.”
“He believes in you,” Monica said. She reached under her jacket and took out the Smith & Wesson nine-millimeter. “He gave me this before the cops came. It will be harder for them to convict him for murder without it. They'll either let him off, or at least cut his time down. You know what needs to be done?”
“Yes,” I said, “of course. Won't they look for it?”
“It isn't worth their time. Even if they bothered, it would be almost impossible to find in there. They searched the apartment, but that's all. I've kept it on me the whole time. Cops get nervous frisking a pretty girl. They don't want a complaint getting in the way. Y'know?"
I nodded and wondered what part of her body she'd concealed it against. I took the gun from her. It was heavier than I expected, but the weight was reassuring. I could tell it was still loaded.
“Why do you think he does what he does?” I asked.
“Quinn used to say, 'Life isn't a game, but we do still have to play it. No one wins, and no one survives it, but I'll go out fighting'.”
“He'll make it through, won't he?” I said.
“Yes,” Monica said, “I believe he will.”
“What will you do?”
“They can't keep a guy like Quinn locked away forever,” she said. “I'll be waiting.”
Monica stood as if to go, then turned back to me. I stayed where I was. She seemed older. Tired. “Quinn said you'd know what to do with it.” She nodded toward the gun.
“I'll take care of it,” I said.
“Thanks, B,” she said. “I'll see you around.”
She left, walking away down the path with her hands tucked in her pockets and her hair sweeping out behind her like a boat's wake. I watched her go. I didn't know when I would see her again, but I thought that maybe things would change now.
I looked down at the gun that lay cold and black in my hands. I slid my fingers around the grip as Quinn had showed me. Though I hadn't shot one, I knew about recoil and that it would be strong with this size caliber. I cocked the hammer back and flicked the safety down and took a glance behind me. I lifted the gun and pointed it toward the city, toward its politics and its prisons, toward its schools. I pointed it toward whatever wall it happened to find. And I squeezed the trigger.
And I knew exactly why.
I hurled the gun as far as I could out into the water.