The Middle Child

I must be cursed.

That’s the only explanation, right? It was preordained or somethin’. I don’t know by who, because there’s no one upstairs in charge o’ the universe or nothin’, but some master author got the pen in their hand and decided, “I’m gon’ make his life a livin’ hell.” Then they worked backwards, figurin’ out what the worst situation for me could be, finally decidin’ on stickin’ me with some bullshit redneck family, and then havin’ me pop out on September 11th one hour before the earth shattered forever.

When 9/11 happened, I was brushed aside; I’m pretty sure I was malnourished for the first month o’ my life because my mom forgot to breastfeed. She was too busy, though. She got a reboot o’ patriotism, just like the rest of ‘em. They needed to stick it to the terrorists. Mom was on the phone with our agent and our publicist and our manager and ev’ryone involved with our family, tryin’ to book concerts to help heal the country. And in the days that followed, they gave interviews, promotin’ freedom and tellin’ Osama that he was not gonna bring this country to its knees. They stood next to Bush, his arm around my dad like the two were brothers. Seen the pi’ture? It’s nauseatin’.

Meanwhile I’m hangin’ off a bjorn carried by a personal assistant, suckin’ on a pacifier and a’ready hatin’ this world I just entered.

I grew up surrounded by red, white and blue. I had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance before I even knew what a fuckin’ flag was. From birth to nine years old, I had to march to the tune of Uncle Sam every wakin’ minute. Anytime I was caught listenin’ to Nas or Radiohead or even Britney Spears, that meant a week of Bible study taught by my sister, who could barely even pronounce any o’ the names in that book.

Then Arthur was born, and it was like I stopped existin’ altogether. I became part of the furniture, somethin’ Mom and Dad could move around, but didn’t give a second thought to once it was where they wanted it to be. They had a new doll they could craft into the All-American Boy, seein’ as though I was such a disappointment. I honestly don’t know which came first: my liberalism or their lack of attention toward me. Not sure if this is rebellion or common sense. Either way, they managed to brainwash Arthur and Christina into basically just flat-out ignorin’ me, so…

Now look at this country. I’ll give you three guesses as to who Mom and Dad and Christina voted for. Ev’ry single word outta that orange idiot’s mouth is gospel to ‘em. Ev’ry bigoted, hateful, untruthful piece of vitriol has become their new Bible. Oh, sure, they won’t say anythin’ controversial in public, but you should take a peek behind closed doors. If I wasn’t sick of ‘em then, I’m certainly disgusted by ‘em now.

And yet…

It’d be nice if they fuckin’ looked at me once in a while…



“Wow. Wow, Simon, that’s so… Wow.”

Celia takes an astonished drag off her cigarette and dusts some ashes onto the warm concrete below our table. She looks me square in the face, her thin, red eyebrows arched over the sharp slope of her nose as she exhales a tuft o’ smoke from those pink, glossy lips.

“Well. Thanks for lettin’ me vent,” I sigh.

“Of course,” she says.

“I just wish I had the guts to bring this up with ‘em. My words’d probably bounce off ‘em anyway without so much as leavin’ a dent.” I gesture to the tiny cylinder currently burnin’ away between her fingers. “Could I have one o’ those? My parents’d probably freak out if they saw me with one, but fuck it, they ain’t here now.”

“Yeah, sure.” She reaches into her purse, a shiny collage of gold and silver, and removes her pack o’ Kools. “I don’t know if they’re particularly masculine—”

“Fuck masculinity,” I say, takin’ the pack, findin’ the perfect cigarette and puttin’ it between my lips. “That’s somethin’ my parents would preach about. They caught Arthur thumbin’ through an issue o’ Cosmo last week at the market, checkin’ out the dresses, admirin’ them and whatnot, and they basically lectured him for an hour after that on why that was wrong. Then Dad handed him a fishin’ magazine.”

“They’re something else,” Celia says as she hands me her lighter.

“You said it.” In one swift motion, I light my cigarette and take a brisk inhale, lettin’ the poison fill my lungs. For a brief second, the anger I’m feelin’ subsides. Once all the smoke’s gone from my body, I’m just as pissed as before.

My eyes keep scannin’ the area for hints o’ paparazzi. Here we are, sittin’ in broad L.A. daylight, chompin’ down on scones and lookin’ like poor role models, and not one person seems to be thinkin’ about snappin’ the next million-dollar photo of this teen queen o’ the cinema. Probably because o’ the person she’s sittin’ with. My presence alone gives all the photographers roamin’ the Hollywood sewers a sudden conscience. If they wanted to spread rumors that Celia Winter had a new squeeze, they’d at least want that person to be a more plausible paramour. They’re fine with capturin’ her exitin’ a club while blackout drunk or punchin’ a busboy for spillin’ wine on her dress, but snappin’ a candid pic o’ me sittin’ with her would only defame her image.

I don’t blame ‘em. That’s the image I fell in love with.

But I’m not pi’ture perfect in any way, shape or form. My face is covered in zits, some red, some inflamed, some downright inflated. Miniature eye sores, each and ev’ry one of ‘em; Celia’s probably too polite to stare. I honestly don’t even know why they bother coverin’ me up with concealer before a show or any public appearance. No one’s lookin’ at me to begin with, so go ahead, let them see my pizza face. Shit, if someone were to take a photo, I probably wouldn’t even show up in it, like I was a vampire or somethin’. As far as anyone watchin’ right now is concerned, I’m just some nobody Celia’s taken pity on. Forget that we’ve known each other for nearly ten years. Forget that I costarred in her first ever film and contributed to the soundtrack. I’m Simon Piper, so who gives a shit?


I look back at her.

“Lost again?”

I snort. “You just described my entire life.”

“Just quit the band,” Celia says. Off my look, she continues, “They’re so toxic for you. Go solo. Or go back into acting. Can’t you imagine them showing clips of Father Dad on Fallon when you’re promoting your starring role in one of Marvel’s finest? I think that would be hilarious.”

“I think I lack the build and charisma to be a superhero,” I say.

“Whatever. Just do something for yourself. Something that isn’t whiny, country bullshit. No offense.”

“None taken.” I sigh. “I can’t quit the band. That would be quittin’ the family, and I can’t quit the family. What would I do without ‘em?”

Celia wipes some apple-red strands from her eyes and puts her hand on mine. My heart gets stung and I almost choke on the smoke in my nostrils.

“You’ll figure it out. Once you’re eighteen, you can do whatever you want,” she says, rubbin’ my hand a li’l’.


That number’s s’posed to represent somethin’ good. Mom and Dad made it taste sour.

“One more year then,” I say. I’m starin’ at her violet nail polish as it traverses my knuckles quickly, back and forth, back and forth. I realize I’m starin’ and quickly look up to meet her eyes.

Celia removes her hand from mine and leans back in her seat. “Well. Happy birthday, anyway.” She smiles.

“Thanks.” This’ll be the only Happy Birthday I’ll get today.


            Soundcheck. The same songs, over and over and over again. Tunin’, levels, blockin’, blah blah blah, it’s so fuckin’ dull. Mom is talkin’ to the stage manager about why the American flag won’t stop descendin’ at the spot where she wants it: “Five feet above the stage floor. Not six. Five. One, two, three, four, five. Who said six? Are you even able to count, Julio?”

“Six is what we have, Ms. Piper.”

“Six is not good enough, so fix it or go back to day laborin’.” I guarantee Mom wouldn’t be givin’ Julio so much shit if he were white, which makes her even more nauseatin’.

She’s bad for me

Arthur is takin’ this opportune break to put more fingerprint smudges on his iPad as he tackles Fruit Ninja 7 or whatever stupid game he’s into this week. He don’t look when he dips that tongue depressor thing into the small bucket o’ Fun Dip sittin’ at his side; he just dips and licks, dips and licks. His eight-year-old cheeks are roundin’ out, the baby fat makin’ room for adolescent fat. At this rate, by the time he’s my age, he’ll have diabetes, and Mom and Dad don’t seem to mind in the slightest. Parents o’ the year.

He’s bad for me…

“Hey, Christina,” Dad says, callin’ to her from backstage. Christina, interrupted from her precious moments o’ starin’ into space and most likely fantasizin’ about Ed Sheeran, turns to Dad and smiles, dimples instantly punctured into her cheeks.

“Yes, Daddy?” she says.

“Sing somethin’ into the mic. Joey’s gonna check your levels,” Dad explains.

“What should I sing?”

“Whatever your heart desires,” Dad says.

“How does that one go again?”

If only she were meanin’ to be cute.

Christina finally decides on, of all things, “God Bless America.” She brushes her blonde hair off her shoulders, smiles those pearly whites as though muggin’ for the cameras that ain’t there, turns to the right to show off her favorite dimple, and places her hand over her heart as she sings. Her high range makes my ears burn, and not in a good way. No one can deny the talent my big sister has, but anyone with her lack o’ smarts shouldn’t have made it this far in life without havin’ some kinda dumb accident. She should have been eliminated from existence years ago, the Grim Reaper standin’ side by side with Darwin, both ready to greet her, and Darwin, shakin’ his head with pity, would tell her to follow ‘em and reveal Heaven, which looks like a classroom of sorts, and she would then be submitted to lesson after lesson, taught by Christ himself, of history and math and science and ev’rythin’ that would make her a more intelligent spirit, and within an infinite number o’ years, she would finally graduate from After Life U and would be eligible for reincarnation, one less thick-skulled airhead on this planet.

She’s bad for me

“That’s lovely, dearest, thank you,” Dad yells. “Hey, Simon?”

Who? Me? Really?

“Yeah, Dad?”

“Your turn. Go ahead.”

I sit up and head over to my microphone. I sing somethin’ from “Lift Me Up,” despite hatin’ ev’ry single lyric that flowed outta Mom’s hands and onto the page. But it’s the one song where I get to show off my range, so it’ll do.

I sing one line and Dad cuts me off: “Great, thank you.”

“Yeah, no prob’em.” I lean closer into the mic so ev’ryone can hear me say at full, distorted volume, “I’m seventeen today, by the way,” and I walk back to my spot at the edge o’ the stage.

“That’s great, son,” Dad says. He tugs on his shit-colored ponytail, movin’ it to dangle off the other shoulder, and whispers somethin’ to Joey. They share a laugh. I got no proof they’re laughin’ about me, but they’re laughin’ about me. Then again, that would be assumin’ Dad is wastin’ his breath to make a joke about me, and why on earth would he do such a thing?

He’s bad for me

“You’re up, Arthur,” Dad says.

“Just five more minutes, Dad. I’m almost done with this stage.”

“All right, son. Take your time.”

If there was ever a more shinin’ example o’ preferential treatment…

I step forward and lean over Arthur’s shoulder to take a look at what he’s playin’. “What stage you on?”

No answer.

“How many stages are there? Looks like a sorta sports game, so maybe it’s more like quarters?”

No answer.

“Do you know what quarters are?”

“Okay, Dad, ready.” Arthur pauses the game, puts the iPad down and heads to his microphone, keepin’ his back on me all the way. Yeah, fuck you, too, li’l’ brother.

In five hours, we’ll be performin’ in front of, most likely, the entire conservative population o’ California, all o’ which have flocked to the southern part o’ their state for a heapin’ dose o’ patriotism and the power o’ prayer. We’ll be thankin’ Jesus for ev’rythin’ he has provided for us, as if He don’t have more pressin’ matters to deal with, like ev’ythin’ else. We’ll sing our hits, our lesser known songs, and possibly that Toby Keith cover Arthur suggested, because he’s so in love with that song and plans to marry it, he said so himself. Two hours of my life where I disagree with every word bein’ spoken and sang. Two hours where nobody’s lookin’ at me despite all eyes locked on my direction. Two hours of fakin’ a smile, singin’ my heart out, and not gettin’ one bit o’ love that my family dishes out to the fans and to each other on a regular fuckin’ basis.

They’re bad for me

I don’t know how much longer I can take this.



“Did I wake you up?”

“No, no, I was up.”

“You sound groggy.”

“I was in bed, but I was awake, and whatever, man, I’m awake now. What’s going on? How was the concert?”

“I can call back, Celia.”

“How did the concert go?”

“Well,” I say, clearin’ my throat, “they didn’t wheel out a cart o’ cupcakes for me and the thousands of adorin’ fans or nothin’. Same old, same old. Oh, we did have everyone bow their heads in prayer for, you know, today. Well, yesterday. I did it because, you know, I’m a decent human bein’, but I peeked for a second to look at my family, and o’course, all their eyes are open. Dad’s fixin’ his ponytail, Mom’s pointin’ at the roadies to switch out her guitar, Arthur’s pickin’ his nose and Christina’s lookin’ at her phone. We’re real red-blooded Americans, us Pipers.”

I pi’ture Celia walkin’ around her kitchen, brewin’ up a cup o’ joe in prep for what will likely be a lengthy conversation with someone who doesn’t understand phone etiquette and how ringin’ someone up at 2AM is a no-no. I’m on my hotel bed, alone, havin’ a starin’ contest with the Hollywood sign out my open window. The sign’s winnin’, four to one.

“But I’m not just callin’ to rant, as per usual,” I say.

“Okay. What’s up?” Celia asks.

“I think I’m gon’ need your help with somethin’. It’s a li’l’… weird, maybe. But I think you can help me out.”

“I’m intrigued, Simon. Continue,” Celia says. I can hear her grinnin’ playfully.

“Remember how I was talkin’ about Arthur with the issue o’ Cosmo?”


“And how my parents wouldn’t let me a mile near a Shakira CD?”


“And remember how they pulled me outta the middle o’ the Father Dad premiere once they realized what it was actually about? Dad spanked me, and I was fuckin’ nine.”

“Their own fault for not reading the script ahead of time. And seriously, they’re so awful, leave them.”

“No. I need them to notice me. And I think I know how to make that happen. I just need to do somethin’ they see as ‘inappropriate behavior.’ I need to do somethin’ bad.”

“Okay. So what do you need from me?”

I take a deep breath. “I need to find a drug dealer.”

Silence. Did she hang up? I wouldn’t blame her. This is about as outlandish as you can get. Goodbye, friendship with Celia. See you never again.

“A drug dealer,” she repeats matter-of-factly. “Okay. Two questions. One, how is a drug dealer going to help your family to notice you, and two, what makes you think I’d have access to one?”

“I didn’t mean to offend you, Celia, but you have been… caught… before… And I don’t think you’re still in contact with anyone or nothin’, but maybe you know someone who is? Like Bobby Stevenson. He always struck me as a bit of a pothead.”

“You hit the nail on the head with that one, Simon. When he’s not on set, he’s always hotboxing his trailer. Okay. What’s the answer to question number one?” Celia asks.

I lay back, lookin’ away from the sign, tired o’ losin’ a childish game to an inanimate line o’ letters. “It’s gonna sound crazy, as though it don’t a’ready, but… I wanna buy some cocaine.”

“What?!” she screams.

“Okay, if not cocaine, then maybe meth.”

“Simon, Jesus! Don’t do meth. Trust me, it’s awful.”

I sit up. “You’ve done meth?”

“Why do you think my guest arc on The Vampire Diaries was cut short? Really, Simon… God, I thought you were talking about weed. Don’t go down this road. I’m still struggling, every day. I don’t want to wake up one morning and see the cover of Us Weekly with your car crashed through the front entrance of a middle school. Okay? I should be the first and last person between us who has done that.”

“I’m not gonna use it,” I tell her. “I just need somethin’ to have on me so the cops can see it.”

Silence. Plans sinkin’ into her brain like the Titanic, only this ship is stupid, and I can hear her judgin’ me through her breathin’. What the hell am I thinkin’?

“So…” she begins. “You want to get arrested for possession in order to get attention from your family.” She sighs. “Simon, babe…” Babe?! “Screw your family! Okay? You need to believe that it doesn’t matter what they think. If they won’t see you, then it’s their fucking loss. Okay?”

I look back at the Hollywood sign. These dumb, white letters carelessly arranged for everyone to stare up and admire. They get more attention than me.

“No. No, it’s not okay. They’re my family, Celia. I know they’re bad for me, but… they’re my family, and they’ve been starvin’ me for too long. I’m hungry now. I’m desperate. I’m pissed.”

“I can tell.” She sighs again. “I’m so sorry.”

“I know. I’m sorry I woke you up.”

“You didn’t wake me, remember? But thank you for the apology. When do you leave?”

“Flight’s tomorrow evenin’.”

“Let’s try and see each other before then.”



“Goodnight, Celia.”

I love you.




A storm o’ knocks snaps my eyes open like window shutters, and I’m sittin’ up in my bed, pulled by an invisible string to the hotel door. I check the peep hole… and it’s Celia? What the hell is she doin’ here? I open the door, but halfway through openin’, I realize my appearance must look more than disheveled considerin’ I was just rustled from slumber and am still in my pajamas, and I feel my face shift six shades below pink.

“Hi,” Celia says, wastin’ no time waitin’ for an invitation inside. She’s dressed in a jean skirt, a small jean jacket and a black tank top accentuatin’ her cleavage. It’s moments like this I hate bein’ a seventeen-year-old boy.

“What time is it?” I ask.

“Nine. Did I wake you up?”


“Sorry. Consider us even,” she says.

“I thought I didn’t wake you up last night.”

“Whatever. I barely slept last night anyway. I was up thinking about your plan.” Celia sits on the bed and crosses her legs. She’s holdin’ onto the edge o’ the comforter, diggin’ those purple nails into the cloud white. She takes this moment to eye my appearance and lets out a snicker.

I wince but try to make it look snarky. “And I suppose you’re ‘I woke up like this’ ev’ry single mornin’?”

She wipes her smile away. “Get dressed.”

“Okay. Why?”

“Because we’re going to see a drug dealer.”



My mind’s all cluttered. I can’t focus on what to think about as the L.A. wind grips my cheeks and sends my hair all cockeyed. There’s the suddenness of all that’s happenin’ and how I barely even had breakfast (part of a cookie don’t count). There’s the overall worry that my hair is gonna look like a dirty lion’s mane once we reach our destination, thanks to Celia’s insistence we have the top down on her car. There’s the way Celia walked into the bathroom when I was showerin’ in order to ask if there was any food she could eat, her silhouette a mess o’ colored blots from behind the glass shower door. I must have looked the same to her, only I was buck naked and there we were, together in the same room, and she waltzed in like it was nothin’. Even if I thought there was the slimmest chance for us to be a thing, those wishes were thwarted by her blatant nonchalance about my privacy. I told her there was a cookie in the fridge and she settled for half o’ it.

No, I should be focusin’, no, obsessin’ over the fact that we’re goin’ to see a drug dealer right now.

“You were right. Your family is dicky, but they’re still your family, and they owe you something,” Celia had explained. “And if they only respond to really extreme shit, then let’s give them some really extreme shit.”

I’m actually kinda excited. I’m about to purchase illegal substances, get arrested and publicly scrutinized by every straight-laced person in the world, and I’m actually excited. This feelin’ is almost foreign; I used to get it before, durin’ and after a performance, or when writin’ a good song. Then my whole existence washed away in the tide.

All because I said no to ‘em…

Consider this payback, Pipers.

Celia turns into the parkin’ lot of an apartment buildin’. The place is blue, smooth, mundane. Cliché in all respects, like a kid playin’ with blocks stacked rectangle upon rectangle and was immediately handed a degree in architecture and design. Celia parks and we both step outta the car.

“So this guy, Yusef, I haven’t seen him in a while because of, well, sobriety, plus he screwed me over a while back. Took some money. Other things…” Celia trails off and locks her eyes on the ground. “But he’ll have what you want. Just try not to act nervous.”

“I’m not nervous.”

“You’re sweating.”

“I am?” My heart is definitely tryin’ to break through my ribcage, and somethin’s gnawin’ on my stomach linin’, and shit, I do have a thin layer o’ moisture—no, grease—coatin’ my forehead, but I thought that was all from excitement, not nerves.

Celia walks over to me and hides her hand in her sleeve. She wipes the denim across my face, slatherin’ it all up, all the excreted oil, all the acne soil, and ruin’ her clothes one and for all.

“Don’t worry about it,” she says, readin’ my mind. Her face is so close to mine. She smells like roses and vanilla. Now that she’s touchin’ me, I’m definitely nervous, but for diff’rent reasons.

“Yusef will get suspicious if you seem nervous,” she says. “He’s a paranoid meth-head, so it’s not like he can help it. He’ll check to see if you’re wearing a wire—”

“The tabloids sure don’t pick up on the real good stories about you, do they?” I joke.

“Nothing this dirty. Not yet.” She snickers. “Let’s go.”

We climb the stairs to a door with peelin’ blue paint, chipped off in such a way that I swear it resembles a lopsided skull. Celia knocks, and after a few moments o’ just listenin’ to the birds chirp in the shrubs below us, there’s some rustlin’ from inside, like someone frantically turnin’ the pages in a newspaper. The dot of sunlight pokin’ through the peep hole vanishes for a few seconds. Someone inside is unlockin’ and unboltin’ and unshacklin’ and unchainin’—a dungeon door in an urban apartment.

The door groans open a hair, held to the hinges by a single coil o’ metal rusted to a purple tint. A tan man with short black hair and a beard trimmed close to his face sticks his nose out and stares at us both. His eyes are bloodshot, like I can’t even tell if he has pupils anymore, it’s just dirty magma in those sockets, and his nose is just as red; if I didn’t know this guy was in the drug trade, I’d think we caught him in the middle of an allergy attack.

“Celia,” Yusef says. “This is a surprise.” His eyes stutter over to me and he sniffs obnoxiously. “Who are you?”

“This is my friend, Simon,” Celia says.

“You look familiar.” Yusef squints his eyes and they’re suddenly blades slicin’ through me. He got a gun on the other side o’ the door—I can feel it. Celia, you just got both of us killed, didn’t you? Well, I’m sure my family will at least notice my bloated corpse.

Keep it cool.

Can’t be nervous.

“He gets that a lot,” Celia answers for me. “He’s clean. Can we come in?”

Yusef hesitates, but he closes the door to remove the last chain. He opens it wide and we step inside.

The place looks like somewhere a li’l’ old lady might live: a couch with rat bites and askew doilies faces a dusty flat screen. Knickknacks act as bookends on various shelves: carved wooden cats and dogs with blank stares; a Russian nestin’ doll missin’ two of its top layers. If it wasn’t for the polished hookah on the coffee table and the overall musty fog seepin’ through the room, I would think Yusef indeed lived with his grandmother, as opposed to spendin’ his time in a dank catacomb with mummies for roommates.

“We didn’t interrupt you praying or anything?” Celia asks.

“No. I went to salat earlier. I was about to pray again, but then somebody knocked on my door.” Yusef begins reapplyin’ his breakin’-and-enterin’ prevention system. He looks over his shoulder as he finishes the last lock. “Now we’re here,” he says ominously.

My family would be freakin’ out if they knew I was in the presence o’ this man, and not just because he happens to be a drug dealer. No, their bigoted minds would only see him as a national threat because of his race and religion. They want this country walled off to anyone that don’t look like their dumb faces, especially Muslims. Never mind that all the western religions technically worship the same God. Ours is better and ev’ryone else can have a good time in hell.


I hate that I hate and love them at the same time.

I hate that I need ‘em.

I hate that I’m resortin’ to this.

“Where are you going?”

Yusef has his eyes homed in on me again. Celia snaps her neck to me and tightens her lips. I realize I was slowly backin’ outta the room, only to wind up trapped against the kitchen bar. My eyes dart from Celia to Yusef and back and all I can do is shrug like an idiot.

“Take off your shirt and pants,” Yusef says.


“I’m not repeating it.”

“I told you he was clean,” Celia says with a slight laugh.

“I haven’t seen you in six months, and you show up out of the blue with a stranger. I don’t know what’s happened in all that time. So, if you’d please, Simon.” He sniffs again, aggressively this time, as if all the air in the room is his and we’re invadin’ his territory.

I unbutton my red flannel and toss it on the floor. Yusef picks up a metal detector thing off the table and waves it over the shirt, gainin’ barely a beep. He feels up the shirt just in case and looks satisfied. He motions for me to continue, so off comes my white undershirt, and then my pants, and for the second time today, I’m in a state of undress in front o’ the girl I’m crazy about.

When he’s done checkin’ out my clothes, he nods and says, “Very good.”

I exhale and nod in return. He tosses my clothes back to me.

“Now you,” Yusef says, pointin’ the metal detector at Celia.

“Excuse me?” She crosses her arms.

“Six months, Celia.” Yusef stands up straight, like the metal detector will suddenly transform into an assault rifle and he’ll kill us both if Celia won’t comply, he’s that fuckin’ serious.

Celia stands there in defiance for a moment before sighin’ in disgust. She takes off her jacket and throws it at Yusef’s feet. She slides down her skirt, and she’s standin’ there in nothin’ but the black tank top and a red thong. I move my eyes to the ceilin’ outta respect… but fuck, I hate myself and have to take a few quick glances.

Objectifyin’ douchebag.

“The shirt, Celia,” Yusef hisses.

“I’m not wearing a bra.”

Oh, sweet Jesus.

“Do you see any bulges that resemble recording equipment? I don’t know if they’ve invented perfect nipple-sized technology yet, but if they have, I don’t have access to it. I’m not going to jeopardize my career by entrapping you, man. I’d be just as screwed.”

Yusef considers this and goes on with his routine. He tosses it all back to Celia. “Good,” he says.

“Can we get down to business now?” Celia asks, slippin’ back into her skirt.

“What business is that?” Yusef wonders.

I clear my throat as though about to deliver a big speech. “I wanna buy… some meth.” And there’s my big speech. I pull out my wallet and take out ten stiff twenties. “However much this’ll get me.”

Yusef says no more. He goes right to the kitchen, disappears behind the bar and pops back up with a large baggy of what looks like flavorless Pop Rocks. He heads into another room and returns with a scale. He sets his equipment on the bar and begins scoopin’ the Pop Rocks into a smaller baggy, watchin’ the numbers on the scale tick up and up and up. I wish the smaller baggy wasn’t as small it is, but it’s gotta be big enough to get noticed. Yusef finishes up and hands me the baggy. I hand him the money.

“Would you like my number?” Yusef asks.

“I’m actually just visitin’, so…”

“Shame.” He goes to the door and begins removin’ all the locks. He opens it and turns to Celia. “Pleasure to see you again,” he says with a wink that just screams CREEP, as though that weren’t obvious from the get-go.

Celia returns a sharp smile that quickly retreats once she’s outta the apartment. I follow her and Yusef slams the door behind us. The sound o’ reshacklin’ returns.

Celia mutters somethin’ I can’t understand, probably some sorta profanity. She wipes her eyes, takes a breath and looks at me fondly, tiltin’ her head to one side. “Okay. Let’s get you arrested.”



I can see and hear it happenin’ a’ready: the car swervin’ this way and that; pedestrians jumpin’ outta the way, their tour o’ Sunset Boulevard ruined by reckless drivin’; the screech o’ the tires like birds bein’ strangled; and the big grin slapped across my face as I realize this dumb fantasy. Then the cops come, they pull me over, they see the meth on the front seat and slap the cuffs on me. It’s perfect.

But first, I need a car.

Celia had a good point: I shouldn’t use hers, for multiple reasons, not least o’ which was she was fond of it and didn’t want it impounded or scratched. As much as I liked the image of my hair becomin’ even more mussed as I speed with the top down, I wouldn’t wanna involve her in my li’l’ escapade.

What this means, though, is I need to borrow the rental car.

This means in order to drastically get the attention of my parents, I need to get their attention in a normal way, like a normal kid, with normal parents and normal concerns.

I knock on the door to their hotel room and wait. I pat the meth in my flannel shirt pocket for somethin’ like good luck. A lotta good it does, because no one’s openin’ the door for me. Who’s to say they’ll even do that? Maybe they’ll look through the peep hole and see right through me; I’m just a poltergeist gettin’ his kicks off knockin’ on random doors, transparent and mischievous. Thirty seconds pass and sure enough, no one’s answered the door yet. I knock again, louder, more determined. I make a beat out of it, somethin’ close to “Shave and A Haircut,” only double-time, syncopated, and even more irritatin’.

Finally, the door creaks open mid-downbeat. Arthur holds the doorknob, the iPad in his other hand. He looks up at me, blinks once, then turns around, leavin’ the door open without so much as a hello.

Such a li’l’ shit.

The room is humid, the L.A. air driftin’ through the open balcony window. Guess Mom and Dad are optin’ outta the air conditionin’ in order to make the room feel like the Texan climate they’re used to. I take off the flannel and hang it off a chair. Mom and Dad are on the balcony, baskin’ in the L.A. glare. Mom’s on the phone, as always, while Dad’s got his nose stuck in a copy o’ some golf magazine. He strokes his beard as he reads, as though proud of it, showin’ it off to someone. God, he’s such the pi’ture o’ a typical middle-aged man.

“Hey, guys,” I say. Neither o’ ‘em looks up, o’course, but I’m compelled to keep tryin’. “How’s it goin’? Dad? Readin’ up on that back swing?” I wanna puke.

“Whatcha need, son?” Dad says, keepin’ his eyes on a grainy photo of Vijay Singh. He gestures at it. “I don’t see why they gotta give this guy a profile. Look at him: he’s no golfer.”

Gee, I wonder why he automatically hates him? “You know he’s from Fiji, right, Dad? And he’s of Indian decent? And he’s won a lotta championships? Over the course of, like, a lotta years?”

Dad says nothin’. Prove ‘em wrong and they clam up. Surprised he ain’t pointin’ out some mistake of mine. Oh, wait, he probably sees me as the mistake. Fine, point to you, Dad.

“Anyway,” I say, “I was wonderin’ if I could borrow the car? Just need to, uh, pick somethin’ up before the flight.”

No response. Fuck, if I was dyin’ o’ thirst and asked for some water, they’d let me wither like a flower petal, wouldn’t they?

“Well? I won’t be gone long or nothin’.”

Not a word.


“I assume the keys are in the bedroom or somethin’?” I ask.

“Just make sure this Julio guy never works with us again, Mark, ya understand me? He’s negligent. And I don’t like the way he looks at me.” Mom meets my eyes for just a moment, only to redirect her gaze at her fingernails, a much more appealin’ sight for her.

“Okay. Good talk. I’ll be back in like a half hour, I guess.” I pause, just in case this is the moment where they decide to chime in. I got my hopes up, as usual.

So my search for the keys begins. I look in their bedroom: nothin’ on either nightstand, or in one o’ Mom’s six leather jackets (why does she need to bring all six on tour?), or on the floor. I peek into the adjacent bathroom: nothin’ here either; just half-used bottles o’ hairspray and cologne.

They must be in the kitchen then.

I walk outta the bedroom, my eyes on the kitchen, goal-oriented, ready for this to get started a’ready, when I stop dead in my tracks. I spy my red flannel, no longer hangin’ off the chair it once was. There it is, lyin’ clumped in a swirl beneath the chair like soft serve. And lyin’ next to it is a half empty baggy, the contents of which form a short trail leadin’ to an unwelcome destination:

Arthur, lyin’ stiffly on the floor next to a beige and red and chunky puddle o’ vomit. He’s shakin’ violently like a fish outta water. Blood is wormin’ out between his locked teeth and down his cheeks. His eyes are wide and black, dead starin’ at the ceilin’. A few rocks o’ meth are still clutched tightly in his hand; one seems to have cut his palm and now red is squishin’ through between his fingers.



I dash to the balcony. “Mom! Dad!”

They don’t even flinch.


I might as well be speakin’ French.

“Somethin’s wrong with Arthur!”

Now they look up. They spot Arthur behind me, still seizin’, and knock passed me to go inside.

“Oh baby, baby! What’s happenin’? Baby, no!”

“I’ll call 911,” Dad says, and he grabs his phone. “Dammit, what’s my password? Shit!” He tries some numbers but swears again when it’s no good.

“Bobby, hurry!” Mom’s cradlin’ Arthur’s head, tryin’ to get him to stop convulsin’. She’s doin’ a shit job.

“I’m tryin’!” Dad yells.

“You don’t need your password! Just hit the home button and it’ll give you the option!”

“The what?!” Dad says.

I’m glad he at least heard me. I grab the phone from his hands and get to the emergency dialin’ screen. I slam the phone against my ear and wait for someone, ANYONE, to pick up.

“What’s goin’ on?” Christina stumbles in from the other room, rubbin’ her eyes and squintin’. Reality shoves its ugly mitts into her face and she shrieks and dives to Mom’s side.

“911 emergency response.”

“Hi, yes, my name is Simon Piper. I’m at the Hilton on Highl’nd. My little brother’s taken some meth by accident and he’s sick, really sick.”

Arthur’s startin’ to make this horrifyin’ sound, this high-pitched and raspy siren noise like someone blew the head off a goose with a shotgun and it had one final honk to give.

“Say again? He took some what?”

“Meth,” I say, lookin’ at my family, tellin’ them more than I am the dispatcher.
“Arthur’s taken meth.”

Nobody even looks at me.


            The bleach-white halls are blindin’ me, or maybe it’s the tears I ain’t lettin’ fall from my eyes. That feels too much like mournin’ to me. That makes me feel like I’ve given up hope that Arthur’s gon’ be alright. Although, the way he kept shakin’ even as they lifted him onto the stretcher, even when they led that stretcher into the ambulance, and the color of his face, like a peeled hardboiled egg, and the way his body looked like it’d been speared with too many stakes, no longer able to bend…

How much hope can I realistically fuckin’ have?

Us Pipers can only wait outside the emergency room in the lobby, doin’ our best to obscure our faces from the paparazzi security’s managin’ to keep outside. Ev’ry time the door slides open, it’s strobes of even more blindin’ white, pinchin’ my eyes with the lingerin’ fingers o’ their flashes. Don’t know how they got word o’ The Pipers’s li’l’ incident, but now they’re here, and they’re hungry for the best scoop.

Mom’s pacin’ back and forth, into Dad’s arms, then out Dad’s arms to worry and hyperventilate a bit more, then back into Dad’s arms for a reboot o’ calm. Dad’s tryin’ to keep his masculine demeanor up to snuff, clenchin’ his jaw so tightly I’m surprised the pain o’ preventin’ himself from cryin’ ain’t makin’ him cry. I almost wanna start cryin’ just to stick it to his bullshit notions o’ repressin’ real emotions, but stayin’ numb still feels safest for some odd reason.

Christina’s on her phone. Fuck her.

Think about this for a second: I bought the meth to get attention from my family. Instead, I put more attention onto them, and they’re focused on my stupid li’l’ brother who thought he was eatin’ handfuls o’ candy. I managed to maintain all eyes off me.


Way to be selfish, Simon.

Way to be like the rest of ‘em.

“Mr. and Mrs. Piper?”

A doctor steps forward. He’s a black man in green scrubs. His hair is grayin’ at the temples, givin’ him a professor-y vibe. One of his hands is missin’, somethin’ that looks like a pair o’ tongs in its place. “I’m Dr. Susso,” he says.

Mom and Dad step forward, but step back once they see the man before ‘em. I guarantee they’re not unnerved by his missin’ limb. “You’re the doctor who’s fixin’ my son?” Mom wonders.

“Yes,” Susso replies.

“Um, no. No, no thank you, could we have someone else look at my baby?” Mom says.

“What the fuck, Mom?” I scream, and o’course, no response.

Susso retains his composure, a true professional. “If that’s what you request, I can have someone else handle the case. But for now, I want to let you know he’s still in critical condition. He’s still unconscious—”

“Good, good, now find a better doctor,” Mom says, wavin’ Susso away.

“It’s all right, honey, he’s goin’,” Dad says, takin’ Mom in his arms again and shootin’ Susso a death glare.

Susso just casts his eyes to the floor and lets out a sigh. He looks up at me. “Simon? You’re the one who called 911?”


“Mr. and Mrs. Piper, is it all right if I speak to your older son in private?” Susso asks.

“That’s fine, just go,” Mom says into Dad’s burly chest.

I look at Dr. Susso and shake my head, mouthin’ sorry as he leads me through some double doors…

Where two cops stand waitin’.

I freeze.

“Could you tell us what exactly happened again?” Susso asks.



Celebrities get no special treatment in jail. No warm, luxurious bed. No three-course meal. No beachside view. Not like I was expectin’ things like that, but when this whole plan o’ mine started, I at least pi’tured a li’l’ more ease. Nope. I’m scum like the rest of ‘em.

Good. Glad to have it confirmed once and for all.

Mom, Dad and Christina didn’t even bat an eye when Dr. Susso informed ‘em I was bein’ taken into custody. The cops marched me right passed ‘em in handcuffs and they either didn’t notice or they willfully ignored me. I swear, it’s gettin’ hard to tell now. Out the doors we went, the paparazzi startin’ to go into a frenzy, but o’course, once they saw who was comin’ out, the flashes slowly dwindled to just a few. I swear I heard one o’ the vultures say, “Who’s that?”

It’s me.

The moron who fed drugs to his kid brother.

Y’all know who that is, right? The precocious li’l’ eight-year-old Piper boy who has the voice of an angel huffin’ helium? O’course you do. Y’all know and love ’im.

It’s been hours. The sun’s gone. The crackheads in this jail are serenadin’ nothin’ in particular. I’m face down on a cot, tryin’ to entertain myself with the 8-bit green pixels I see with my eyes closed. I used to have fun with those when I was Arthur’s age, makin’ ‘em dance and dismantle and rebuild. I wonder if he ever got to experience this. Who knows if he ever will now? No one will tell me his status.

Footsteps from down the hall. A thin man in a suit is led to my cell by two uniformed cops, diff’rent ones from the ones who paraded me outta Cedar Sanai. These cops eye me like a caged lion: pity for me, sure, but they ain’t doin’ shit to make my circumstances better, and why fuckin’ should they? The suit, meanwhile, meets my eyes and a mild smile hits the corners of his lips.

“Hello, Simon,” he says. “I’m Detective Howard.” He flashes me his badge.

The cops open my cell door for Detective Howard and he steps inside. He leans against the bars casually, one foot crossin’ over the other, and he crosses his arms, too, lookin’ at me with somethin’ between phony admiration and phony disgust. Not sure which is the phoniest. “I’m actually a big fan of your band,” he says. “You make some real wholesome music.”

And I instantly don’t like this guy.

“Look,” I blurt out, not really sure if I wanna defend myself or ask ‘em to hang me at the gallows. I a’ready told Dr. Susso and the hospital cops ev’rythin’, so Howard’s gotta know the whole story. What more can I say? “I’m sorry. I’m just some stupid kid who… who wanted his parents to look at ‘im, and that turned out to be a lot to ask.” I swallow more guilt. “Is Arthur okay?”

Howard looks at the floor. Shit. He’s dead, ain’t he? Why’d they need to send a fuckin’ detective to tell me I killed my li’l’ brother?

“Just say it,” I mutter. “No need to prolong the suspense when I a’ready know the fuckin’ endin’. Just say it. Just say it and take me to prison because I’m an idiot and I deserve this.”

“He’s fine. He woke up. He’s groggy, but awake,” Howard says, and I wanna melt to the floor in a goopy pool o’ relief. I don’t believe in ‘im but thank God. “And you’re not being charged with anything.” Howard steps forward. “We need your help.”

“Well, I did buy a heapin’ portion o’ drugs, so, what? Y’all want my help to take down the cartel or somethin’?” I ask with a sheepish laugh.

Howard sighs. “Your parents and sister were taken from the hospital.”

I blink. “What does that fuckin’ mean?”

“A group of men wearing masks burst into the hospital and started firing handguns. They killed a dozen people and injured a dozen more, some of whom were already patients, and then found your family and took them. I’m sorry, but we don’t know where they are.”

I blink. “What does that fuckin’ mean?!”

Howard kneels down to my level, as if that’s gonna answer my question. “Is there any reason you can think of that someone would target your family? Anyone at all? For any reason?”

I’m bitin’ my upper lip so hard I’m startin’ to taste metal. I put my hand to my mouth and shrug. “We’re a Christian country music band who preach patriotism and godly values on the outside while holdin’ bigoted points o’ view that should be extinct in this day and age, but hey, The Pipers are here to keep ‘em all alive.” I laugh. “I wouldn’t be surprised if ev’ryone hated us. I’m surprised you enjoy us, because that’s real fuckin’ misguided.”

Howard stands up and takes a seat next to me on my cot. He pulls out his phone and opens somethin’ up. He sticks the phone in front o’ me. I see grainy security camera footage lookin’ down at a hospital floor. Howard presses play and the image comes to life. The slidin’ doors open, the paparazzi flash their cameras, and three people walk in. They have hoods up, and they’re wearin’ Halloween masks o’ Hillary, Obama and The Orange Asshole; the eyes are cut out, givin’ each of ‘em a phantom feel, and if the whole thing ain’t some kinda statement, then I don’t know what is. Each of ‘em fires a gun into the ceilin’. The paparazzi stops flashin’ and dashes away from the door. People in the lobby hit the floor, but one o’ the masks screams, takes square aim at one nurse on the floor and fires into her skull—

This is where I look away and drop the phone.

Howard manages to catch it and he rewinds the footage a bit, before the gore starts. “Do you recognize anything about these three individuals? Have there been any recent threats to your family? We’ll take anything, Simon. They caught everyone off guard.”

“Well, I’m sure Hillary and Barack ain’t big fans of ours, but our Commander in Chief, that’s a bit of a surprise,” I say, half-tryin’ to bring some light to this situation and half-tryin’ not to throw up.

“Take another look,” Howard pleads, and he hands me the phone again. He reaches over to fast forward the footage a bit more, and just like that, I’m seein’ more gore, more brains splattered, more blood graffitied on the once-perfect walls. Howard finally stops on an image that might as well be a movie poster, the three politicians (well, two, really) posed in a perfect tableau, each starin’ forward. “This is the best shot we have of them. Do you see anything you recognize?”

“How the hell am I s’posed to—” I run my fingers through my hair anxiously. “This is bullshit.” I look closer at the phone. I don’t know what I’m s’posed to be lookin’ for. They’re all wearin’ zip-up sweatshirts and black jeans. That’s no good. Ol’ Donny’s lookin’ straight up at the camera. I can kinda see their eyes through the mask and…

They’re bloodshot.

Really bloodshot.

Recognizably bloodshot.

It couldn’t be.

Could it?

He’s not the only person in the world with bloodshot eyes, but…

“I need to make a call,” I say.

“Well you aren’t able to use my phone—”

“Then find one I can use!”



I wanna shout at Howard to stop pacin’ behind me, ‘cause it ain’t helpin’ things go any faster.


I still can’t shake this feelin’ that this is a longshot. It could just be a coincidence, right? Is Yusef that paranoid? Not to mention that fuckin’ irrational? Don’t do you a lot to cover your ass by tryin’ to attack the one connectin’ thread that leads straight to you, does it, buddy?


“Hurry up,” Howard says.

“I can’t control when she answers the phone, sir,” I say.

I wonder if he’s just worried he’ll miss his chance for an autograph. He might be more concerned with my family than I am.

Am I concerned?

Don’t think about that now…




“It’s Simon.”

“Oh my God, Simon, are you okay?” Celia asks. “Where are you?” There’s a scratchiness in her voice, like she’s been cryin’ or screamin’.

“I’m at the jail,” I say.

A pause. “I’d joke and ask if I was your one phone call, but… I’m so sorry about your family.”

“Where does Yusef live?”

Another pause. “What?”

“Yusef. What’s his address?”


“I wanna buy some more meth. What do you think?”

“I really don’t know.”

“He took my family.”



“Get the address,” Howard demands.

“I am!” Learn a li’l’ patience, you fuck. I breathe and say into the receiver, “The cops want his address to look for clues or evidence or somethin’. Maybe he even took ‘em there, who knows and who cares? They need it. Where did you take me this mornin’?”

“Simon, will they come after me—”

“They don’t care about any o’ that—”

“I suggest she quits. She’s supposed to be a role model,” Howard mutters.

I put the phone down and say through my teeth, “She’s sober.”

“I hope she is,” Howard says.

“All they want is the address,” I say back to Celia.

“Okay.” She gives it to me. I relay it onto Howard. He speed-dials somethin’ on his phone and starts spoutin’ out instructions for how to take the buildin’. On the off chance Yusef was stupid enough to go back home, they need to be ready.

“Simon,” Celia says, “are you okay?”

I don’t know how to answer that anymore.



“I’ve got a good feeling,” Howard says, passin’ his walkie-talkie between both hands like a baseball, squeezin’ it nervously. He needs a cigarette.

“That’s not a lot to go on.” I smirk.

“Hey.” Howard narrows his eyes on me in the rearview mirror. I slump in the back seat and look away. Howard lifts up the walkie-talkie and presses a button down. “All teams move out. Repeat: all teams, go.”

They stream outta vans like water from a tipped-over bucket. Their guns are held steady. Their SWAT gear reflects under the streetlights. Bulletproof vests wrapped tightly around their built bodies, blockin’ any o’ that light from sneakin’ through. They trot toward the parkin’ lot.

Okay. Think about it. Now’s the time. You’ve been avoidin’ it, but you can’t anymore. So now, in the time it takes those men and women to take their positions and get ready to strike down Yusef’s overly secured door, think about it: what happens if they die? If they find Mom, Dad and Christina a’ready dead, or there’s a firefight and they become riddled with bullets, what next?

More importantly, truly, honestly, do I even care? They’ve been so horrible to me. They’re toxic, like Ceila says. They ain’t good for me; I know this and I’ve always known this. So if they’re gone, doesn’t that mean I’m free? Sure, I’ll prob’ly mourn, but then I’ll be okay. Who knows where I or Arthur will end up, but I won’t have to worry about gettin’ the attention of a bunch o’ redneck bastards anymore. The world may weep for the loss o’ their beloved Pipers, but fuck the world. I’d be rid of ‘em.

But I’d be alone. I won’t have nobody. Do I think they’ll keep me with Arthur? No grandparents to take care of us, so that means foster care or somethin’, right? Even if Arthur and I did stick together, there’s no guarantee he’ll talk to me. For starters, I pretty much poisoned him, so that at least has to call for a grudge. So, that means no one. No family, no nothin’.

I can’t decide what’s better, if there even is a better.

“Teams are in position,” a voice crackles over Howard’s walkie-talkie.

“Do it,” Howard replies with no hesitation.

An explosion erupts from the complex. It continues to echo and it’s the only thing I can hear. A bundle o’ black smoke rises from Yusef’s door, like that lopsided skull in the paint spat out its demon into the sky. I don’t know what’s happenin’.

Then there’s gunfire. Lots of it. Tiny pops that pack a punch. This ain’t good. That means they were in there. Unless I was wrong. Unless Yusef ain’t responsible for my family’s abduction and I made the wrong call and he’s just tryin’ to defend himself and I got an innocent drug dealer killed. Big whoop, I know, but that means we’re no closer to findin’ ‘em.

Yup. I care, and I want them back.

They’re my family. There’s no changin’ that, and I need ‘em, and pretty soon, they’re gon’ need me. I love ‘em, and that love is stronger than anythin’ else. That’s why I need their attention so bad: all this love inside o’ me and it’s goin’ to waste. I need a release. I need satisfaction.

The gunfire stops. All I hear now is the hum o’ distant traffic, an airplane passin’ overhead, the confused chatter o’ passersby.

“Denton! Report!” Howard screams into the walkie.

Crackles. Silence. More crackles.


“Hostiles are down. The family’s secure.”

I’m suddenly spaghetti, loose in my seat and slidin’ to the floor. Howard lets out a sigh and pounds triumphantly on the steerin’ wheel. “Bring in medical assistance,” he says into the walkie.

“Roger.” Click.

“We got them, Simon,” Howard says.

“I have ears,” I say snidely, but the tremble in my voice says, “Thank you.”



A different hospital. Guess the other one’s still a crime scene. It’s startin’ to dawn on me that I’m responsible for all those deaths. I set all this in motion, and all for selfish fuckin’ reasons. I’ve caused pain for families and friends.

But all I can think about is how angry I am at my family again.

Mom’s on the phone. Her cheek has been stitched up and her bruises have been looked at. Arthur, freshly transferred to this hospital, is lyin’ in Christina’s arms; his eyes still look dazed. Christina, meanwhile, still has some blood smeared through her hair. She keeps askin’ nurses that pass by if they have any dry shampoo. Dad is on his own phone, seemin’ly unaware that his arm is in a sling and part of his ear is missin’.

And the shit he’s sayin’ into the phone…

“I’m just thinkin’ there’s a way to spin this.”

Nothin’s changed.

The same ol’ Pipers.


“Maybe we can invite the team that saved us onstage, thank them, honor them, show the world what true American heroes look like.”


“Schedule the interviews, Mark… Dammit, as soon as possible. Isn’t that obvious? The rounds, I wanna make the rounds.”

I turn to my siblin’s. “Are you guys okay?”

“Please, nurse, just somethin’ to brush through my hair, get this out.”


I look at ‘em, all in their own little worlds, and fuck this shit.

I pick up a clipboard from Mom’s bed and toss it against the opposite wall. It hits a machine and becomes tangled in all the cords coilin’ out of it. “Talk to me! I’m here! I’m not invisible. I’m your son. I’m your siblin’. And y’all’ve been through a trauma, so I’d think a family member who was lucky enough to not be involved would be the best person to comfort you!”

No answer. They just stare at me.

I go to Mom and rip the phone outta her hands. She yelps, but I do the same to Dad, and throw the phones so they can join the clipboard on the other side o’ the room.

“Do y’all even remember how to talk to me?!”

Mom clears her throat. “Don’t you think you should enlist now?” she asks.

“What?” I growl.

“Terrorists, on our soil, just kidnapped us. It’s your American duty—”

“They weren’t terrorists!” I scream.

“They certainly caused me a lotta terror,” Mom says.

“They weren’t terrorists,” I say, tryin’ to calm my voice, calm my head, calm my heart.

“Sure they were,” Christina says. “I saw their faces.”

So much for calm. “Holy crap, you piece of—They were drug dealers,” I say. “Drug dealers who happened to be of Middle Eastern descent. They weren’t attackin’ you to send some message to the country or destroy our values. They thought I was gonna rat them out after I bought the meth that Arthur ate.”

“Meth is bad for you,” Arthur whispers.

“Well I’m glad you now know firsthand, you li’l’ shit, because I wouldn’t know, considerin’ the only reason I bought it was to try and get some attention from all y’all. Do you even understand, can you even comprehend, how much love y’all’ve taken from me? Or are you guys so dimwitted that y’all’ve forgotten who the fuck I am?”

Silence. Ev’ryone in the ‘mergency room is holdin’ their breath.

“Maybe if you enlisted—”

“Fuck you, Mom! Fuck all y’all! You guys are so blind.” My voice is crackin’. “You’re focused on the idea that these colors don’t run when y’all don’t see what’s happenin’ to the country and how you’re part o’ the fuckin’ problem! There’s a bigger pi’ture out there than left versus right, but truth be told, the right’s makin’ this place a shit-infestation, and y’all fuckers are snackin’ on it! We have a zealot in the White House and you wanna suck his dick! And just because I have a brain on my shoulders and don’t take everythin’ he Tweets as gospel, I’m the enemy? Because I happen to keep an open mind about everythin’…” I smack my fist on my thigh three times.

They’re bad for me.

Do it. Finally, do it.

“You know what? I thought I cared. I really did. I wanted y’all to be safe. But if Yusef had slit your red necks… I ain’t got a problem with that. Because I quit. I quit this band, and I quit this sorry excuse for a family. Have fun thumpin’ your Bibles while walkin’ on the backs o’ the less fortunate, the people you claim to represent. If you ever decide to join civilization, don’t bother callin’ me, because no matter what, I’m fuckin’ done.”

And I’m out the door, without so much as a look back.



My eyes are still damp. No amount o’ rubbin’ is gonna get ‘em dry, or at least to a moderate point o’ dryness, some kinda compromise. Celia hands me a cup o’ tea. I take it graciously and set it down on her coffee table. Her livin’ room is huge, with a big screen actin’ as a black background for her. There’s just her, as far as my blurry vision is concerned. She’s in her PJs: purple flannel bottoms and that black tank top. She’s beautiful.

“Thanks,” I say, referrin’ to the tea, amongst other things.

“Are you feeling any better?” she asks.

I shrug. “It’s like… what now? I ain’t goin’ back home with ‘em. They’re probably gonna throw everythin’ I brought with me on tour onto the sidewalk outside the Hilton? Guess I’m stuck in L.A. for the foreseeable future.” I muster up a chuckle. “Maybe I’ll make that triumphant return to movies. Wanna make Father Dad 2?” She laughs, but my frown returns. “Did I make the right choice?”

“Yes. When something’s toxic, you can’t stay with it forever, and you got out. I’m proud of you.” Celia messes with my hair a bit.

I grab the teacup and take a careful sip, but it’s still too hot. The steam risin’ from it slips under my eyelids and feels peaceful. “I’m glad you were up.”

“My bedtime’s been frantic and misplaced since I was ten,” Celia says. “And it was an emergency. I couldn’t go to sleep anyway after the news and after you called.” She takes a sip out of her own cup. Then she sighs and stares at the floor. “I’m sorry,” she says, and… is she cryin’?

“You got nothin’ to be sorry for. I’m the one who fucked up here.” I lean back into the couch. “All those people at the hospital… I wanted to avoid death. That’s the main reason why… I never told you. They were punishin’ me.”

She looks up. I hope she stops cryin’. It makes me sad to see her cry.

“On top o’ ev’rythin’ else, on top o’ bein’ forgotten, bein’ the middle child, bein’ a li’l’ troublemaker when it came to their religion and politics, they were punishin’ me because I said I wouldn’t join the army. Three years ago, they told me, ‘When you turn eighteen, we think it’s a good idea for you to enlist and fight for our freedom.’ What I heard was, ‘Simon, we’d like for you to witness the horrors of war and eventually die for nothin’, ya hear?’” I look up at the domed ceilin’ and bite my tongue. “Who says that to their kid? I exploded at ‘em. Called ‘em bigots and bastards and terrible parents. But I couldn’t quit then. Nope. They still had a hold on me. Not just because we were the All-American family and can’t have real prob’ems, but because… They were around me twenty-four-seven, so how could I not crave their attention? I didn’t give a shit if they were toxic. But after that argument, that’s when the silent treatment started, and Christina and Arthur jumped on the bandwagon, because a Piper ain’t allowed to think for themselves.” I ball my hands in front o’ my face, lean my nose into my knuckles. “It sucked, I’m sure you can guess.”

Celia meets my eyes for a second, but quickly stands up and turns her back to me. “I’m sorry,” she whispers again.

“Celia, I told you—”

“No, this was all my fault. I shouldn’t have brought you to Yusef.”

“You didn’t know any o’ that was gonna happen. It was my dumb idea—”

“But Yusef needed to pay. He needed to pay for what he did to me.”

I stutter, finally landin’ on, “Huh?”

“I told you. He screwed me out of a deal and… more. I didn’t know it would get that extreme, but I knew you at least wouldn’t be able to keep his name out of it. I knew he’d get found out somehow. I knew his reaction would be violent and… I knew what the final outcome would be.”


She whips back around and curls herself on the couch next to me, takin’ my hand. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that Arthur would do that, or… It needed to be done. He needed to die for what he did to me.”

What is happenin’? This can’t be happenin’ right now, so what is happenin’ right now? “Celia…”

She squeezes my hand and scooches closer. “I’m so sorry. You’re the last person in the world I want to hurt. If there’s any way I can make it up to you. I don’t know… If there’s anything…” Her face is mere inches from mine. I can feel her breath on my lips; it’s warm and tastes o’ jasmine. Her own lips are slightly parted. Our eyes are in the other’s, and hers keep sinkin’ down, lookin’ at my mouth, and then back up.

This ain’t right. I understand that. This is beyond fucked up. I see that. This is toxic. This is what I need to avoid at all costs. This is bad for me.

This is bad for me.

            This is bad for me.

            She’s bad for me.

She kisses me.

I kiss her back.