Zero by David McElhinny

Friday, 2:45 A.M.


Zero is having his usual difficulty sleeping, so he decides to pass the time by reading a history book on the rise and fall of ancient Sparta. This is the reason he gets such good marks in school. It isn’t because he has a higher IQ than everybody else. It’s because he can only sleep a couple of hours a night. The television upstairs doesn’t have cable, and he doesn’t own a radio; therefore, studying is what keeps him from going crazy. By pouring himself into his education or working out, he tries to deflect the haunting images of his past.

     He enjoys studying just about any subject, but ancient history is a particular favorite. Stories from long ago make him feel good and content, because it helps him to realize that his own life isn’t really all that long. In a weird kind of a way, that helps him to deal with life. The perspective of time is something he has given a great deal of thought to. The way he looks at it, you’re not here all that long so you should be able to endure just about anything because it’s not forever.

   He has even read the entire Holy Bible, front to back, twice. He took particular interest in Job, a character who endured unthinkable bad luck throughout his life, yet persevered and got stronger from it.

     He shuts his history book when he finishes one of the chapters, gets up, and makes his way up the stairs to use the bathroom. It’s a dingy little lavatory with iron stains in the toilet bowl and the sink, while the cracked counter has a couple of roach clips laying on top from Annie and her propensity for smoking weed.

     Just when he finishes and is making his way back to the stairs to his room, drunk Annie stumbles in with one of her regular bunkmates. It’s Bony Tony, a tall, thin, 35-year-old biker wannabe. Covered in tattoos and sporting a long black ponytail, he fancies himself a real badass even though he still lives with his mom, works part-time at a convenience store, and doesn’t know how to ride a motorcycle.

      “Hey. Mr. Hockey. What’s up?” he slurs.

      In the shadowy light of the hall, Zero, who is wearing just a pair of blue boxers, looks even more carved than normal, sculpted like a Greek god. He offers a nod as he tries to get past the duo, who reek of booze and cigarettes. However, stupidity and drunkenness are a poor combination.

     “Whoa. Whoa. You too good to talk to me? Is that it?”

     “I just want to go to bed, Tony.”

     “I think that’s it. I think you think you’re better than me,” he slurs.

     “Dude. Please leave me alone,” Zero says as he tries to move past the inebriated boob.

     Tony puts his hand on Zero’s chest to stop him from trying to get by. Annie is so hammered that she is oblivious to it all, as she is now on a chair clumsily trying to pull off one of her pink cowboy boots.

     “I’ll tell you something, son. If you try to disrespect me, I’ll kick that ass for you and that’s a fact. I don’t give a damn how many times your picture is in the paper. You will respect me!”

     “I’m not disrespecting you. I just want to go to bed.”

     “You score a goal or two and all the sudden you’re too cool for school. Well, bullshit, I say.”

     Tony is sporting that stupid drunk look, squinting, with his lips rolled up as if his teeth suddenly don’t fit into his mouth. Full of beer muscles, he’s convinced that he could take this teenager apart if he wanted to.

     “You want some? Huh?”

     “No. I certainly don’t want none,” Zero says in his dumbest hick voice.

     “Come on, son. Make a move. Nobody in this town messes with me. Ask anyone. There’ll be two hits. Me hittin’ you and you hittin’ the floor.”

     Zero just shakes his head and starts to push his way by the swaying loser. It’s then that Tony makes his critical mistake. Zero was more than content to walk away as words don’t hurt, but this bozo just had to push it by faking a quick punch. Even though he had no real intention of striking Zero, instinct takes over. Zero grabs the drunken slob by the forearm, pulls it across his body to get him off balance, expertly twists it back, then by controlling the wrist, he sends his opponent to the ground. In agony, Tony screams in a high pitch like a little girl.

     "Luke. You little son of a bitch. Let go of him.” Annie barks as she stumbles toward them, wearing only one boot.

     Tony is on his knees, screaming as tears roll down his face. Zero has opened the joint in this idiot’s wrist just enough to cause excruciating pain. With one hand, he has expertly rendered him helpless.

     “Let him go, you asshole,” Annie shouts.

     After a second, Zero releases him. He continues through the short hallway and down the steps. This guy is nearly as big a joke around town as Annie. Zero tried to walk away, tried to defuse the situation. But he refuses to be anybody’s punching bag. Not anymore.

     “Oh, baby. You okay?” Annie asks in the stupid, comforting way that only drunk people can.

     “That son of a bitch. If he wasn’t just a kid I would have kicked his ass,” Tony says, wiping tears away while still nursing his arm.

     “I know, baby. I know. Come on. Mommy will make it all better.”

     “Seriously. If he wasn’t a minor I would have my boot halfway up his ass by now. That’s a fact.”

     “I know. You controlled yourself.”

     She helps the sniveling weakling off the floor and the two stumble to her bedroom and shut the door.