The Pilgrim

Michael Leal García

Abel sat upon their yellowing birch and took in the night sky. He had to imagine the stars for the light pollution that blotted them out. But if he squinted just right, he could see how the lights up in Dodger Stadium looked like dandelions.

In the field before him, he caught sight of a squirrel scampering into a bush and wondered if it could appreciate whale song.

An answer wasn’t forthcoming, but the thought lingered. If only he could whisk the little thing off to a whale-laden coast and see.

As quickly as the thought entered his mind, it left on the back of a zephyr, and his musings went back to her.

The zephyr swirled about him. Its murmur rising and falling, like waves breaking and receding over sand.

But that was all ancillary to her voice. Her sweet, effusive banter.

While that zephyr came and went, taking with it thoughts insignificant, the stinging cold, and a scampering squirrel, her voice and sing-songy inflection remained.

“You know,” Maria sang from the recesses of his mind.

At this, he sobbed and even laughed some.

He shook off the sorrow—what little he could—and stood upon their branch.

He took a breath. And then another.

Content and ready, Abel took a step forward—thought of her crooked smile, a bus-hopping squirrel—and fell.

As he went, showered with spent leaves, olive and brown, and the dander of a passing mourning dove, the rope slid into place and did what it meant to do.

By the ninth week of the school year, Abel had amassed twenty-three tardies at Belmont High, so the dean gave him equal parts of detention. Mandatory, or he wouldn’t graduate on stage, the one thing his grandma was looking forward to that year. She had already bought a frilly, purple dress for the big day.

As a minor thug—a tagger named Alcyone—he was too chickenshit to sit in the back of the detention room with the cholos dressed in Raiders jerseys and creased Dickies, so he sat up front beside the ginger girl bobbing her head to something percussive and loud.

He stared at the graffiti on her folder. The word Pynk written and drawn every which way.

“Nosy much?” she asked.

“Sorry.”

She looked him up and down, from the Adidas on his feet to his porcupine hair.

“What are you in for?” she asked.

“Tardies. You?”

“Vandalism.”

“Let me guess. For writing Pynk?”

“Nope. That’s my new name. I used to be Red—until some ASB goody-two-shoes bitch ratted me out. But fuck it. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have left markers and mean streaks in my locker.”

“Hey!” shouted some cholo from the back of the classroom. “Do the carpets match the drapes?”

The cholo and his crew laughed.

“Watch my stuff,” she said.

She walked to the back of the room, sat across from the offending cholo, and smiled.

“What did the hand say to the face?” she asked.

“Nice ass?”

The cholo’s crew laughed again.

“Close.”

Then she clocked him, square on the jaw, and the cholo fell backwards out of his chair.

A chorus of detention inmates, including the cholo’s crew, hopped out of their seats and laughed.

“So what did it say?” she asked.

Abel fell in love right there.

The way it went wasn’t the way it was meant to be.

The gun, that twenty-pound cannon, bucked like a bitch.

Could never get a good grip ‘round the thing, he would later say.

And never did he have the right stance. Never had the best leverage. So when the thing shot off, into the front doors he went, and off it went again. Pointed elsewhere. A place it never should have been. A place that led to the other.

Inmates nicknamed it the steel mill. The whole damn place was made of it. Steel walls and doors. Sinks and tables. Even the damn beds were made of steel, save for the shit three-inch mattress that sat atop of them. Made little difference to the feel of it, he thought. Might as well be sleeping on the yard.

From the top bunk, his cellmate Fausto said, “You’ll get used to it.”

It would take Abel weeks of cricked necks before he did.

His first month in Abel thought was three. Twenty-four years and 11 months left to go, Abel reminded himself one morning. If he was lucky, fifteen with good behavior.

But he was never lucky.

Twice in that first month he thought was three, he succumbed to the will of another.

After the second time, he found meaning in suicide.

She asked him out, scrawled it on his locker: Wanna hang? Pynk.

He met her at her place on Lookout Drive. He wore the one button-down shirt he had. Black, ironed flat and crisp. She wore baggy grey Dickies and a pink T-shirt. Her coiled red locks packed in braids.

From the front of her apartment, she pointed at the lights of Dodger Stadium and said, “See that? Way back when, before Dodger Stadium was built, this was Chavez Ravine, home to thousands of us Mexicans. And then they came up and snatched it from us. They took our land, our schools, and built this. Just when you think you got your life settled, own a home and all that, it’s taken away in a second. Life’s a bitch, huh?”

He just nodded along.

They walked to a bus stop in Chinatown and took the 91 to Glendale. Somewhere in Cypress Park, he flicked her thigh and then asked, “When’d you start writing?”

“A couple years ago. With my ex.”

He immediately regretted the question.

“Relax. All he ever got from me was a hand job.”

“I don’t need to hear about—”

“Anyway, I always went with him when he and his boys went mobbing. One night I got tired of watching, so I took one of his cans of spray paint and started writing. You’re thinking about me giving him a hand job, aren’t you?”

“Pretty much.”

“Tough titties. You don’t get to censor me. So if you’re the jealous type, you should get off at the next stop.”

He was put off and intrigued just the same.

“Okay,” he said. “I won’t censor you, but can I, at least, ask you not to tell me shit like that?”

“You can ask. I’m not going to promise you jack crap, though.”

“Okay. Fine. I won’t even ask.”

“Good. I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.”

She smiled a crooked smile.

To bide his time from speaking and looking a fool again, he took an X-Acto blade from his pocket and started etching Alcyone onto his plastic seat.

“Where’d you get that name?” Maria asked.

“English class. It’s from Greek mythology.”

“What’s the story?”

“I don’t remember. I chose the name because it ended with one.”

He felt stupid. He could feel the embarrassment sweat seep out of himself.

“Gotta let everyone know you’re number one, right?”

He faked a smile. She smiled for real.

She was smart—real smart—and quick on the draw, too.

He was neither of those things and would never be. That much he knew. Every test at school confirmed it.

There was no way he could keep up with her.

“You know,” she said, “one time I saw a squirrel take the 4 to Santa Monica. I asked him what he was going to do, and he said, ‘I wanna see a whale.’ I asked him, why? And he said, ‘I hear they sing beautifully.’ You should take me to the beach sometime. The squirrel didn’t say that last part. I’m saying that to you. You should take me to the beach sometime.”

“You’re kind of crazy, aren’t you?”

“Just enough to be adorable.”

He couldn’t agree more.

Fausto, that garrulous penguin with a penchant for physics, came to the steel mill by way of bird smuggling, a wayward effort to earn a year’s worth of college tuition. He would have made it in four runs, but he wouldn’t get past the first. At the Piedras Negras border checkpoint, border agents found the half-moon conures, chirping no less, inside 126 rolls of toilet paper stowed in the trunk and backseat of his ‘89 Merkur.

“Looking back,” Fausto said, “maybe it was a little too obvious.”

To Abel’s dismay, Fausto spoke in detail of consciousness and the fabric of space and time. “All,” Fausto said, “were one.”

To illustrate his point, Fausto gave Abel his copy of Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.

Abel had no plans to read the book, but after a string of sleepless nights and doing nothing but thinking of Maria and her tiny pink feet, he took a crack at it.

The book was about Billy Pilgrim, who came unstuck from time and traveled to different moments of his life, from the time he was a prisoner of war to when he was an attraction in an alien zoo.

On that alien planet, Tralfamadore, all moments of time—past, present, and future—coexisted together, so you were simultaneously alive and dead. You simply decided where in your life span to spend your time. And there was no need to fret over the dead, for they were alive at another time and, thus, still alive.

The book was nonsense, but he read the whole thing.

The morning after he finished the book, he tossed it beside Fausto, still curled up in bed. “That,” Abel said, pointing at the book, “is some bullshit.”

Fausto briefly opened his eyes and slid the book under his pillow.

“No, actually, it isn’t,” Fausto said. “The way we experience time—as this linear construct—is a flaw of human perception. Kurt Vonnegut might not have known it, but he illustrated the truest approximation of our universe.”

“You’re fucking crazy if you think that.”

“I’ve barely scratched the surface. Just wait until I explain the nexus between consciousness and the multiverse. That shit will blow your mind.”

At one o’clock in the morning, when Maria was positive her parents were asleep, Abel tossed a pebble at her bedroom window, three floors up. She crept out her window, ambled over the ledge, and slid down a drainpipe like she was a firefighter going down a fire pole.

“This is so Romeo and Juliet,” she said, as she wrapped her coiled red locks in a bun, “but without the warring families.”

In matching black hoodies, they painted the town. Pynk and Alcyone.

At two a.m., she took him to her quiet place: the lone birch standing in the field on Lookout Drive.

They climbed onto her branch, about seven feet from the ground, and took in the night, the three-quarter moon.

There wasn’t much to see. Just the lights of a distant airplane and black upon black.

“It’s the light pollution,” she said. “That’s why you can’t see the stars.”

He furrowed his brow. “What?”

“Look over there.” She pointed at the downtown skyline, a constellation of artificial light. “All those lights and the lights across the city bleed into the night sky and create a haze we don’t even notice. But that haze acts as a curtain, shutting out the stars above.”

He shook his head and smiled.

“You know all this shit. Why do you tag?”

“Boredom. Do this.”

She held her arms over her head, as if she were about to dive into a pool, and fell backwards.

His lungs seized.

He lunged for her arms and missed. For a moment, stretched in time, he felt weightless.

An astronaut drifting in space.

He saw his Adidas eclipse the three-quarter moon, and then he felt the full weight of gravity anchor him back to earth.

He heard the thud of his collapse before he felt it. The air knocked right out of him. He rolled onto his side and gasped for air.

“You okay down there?”

He looked up and saw Maria suspended in the air. Upside down. A crooked smile on her face.

He gave her a thumbs up.

“Sometimes I like to hang off the branch like a monkey.”

“You could have said that first.”

She grabbed onto the branch with both hands and then, like a gymnast, quick and graceful, whipped her feet over the branch and onto the ground.

She sat cross-legged beside him, caressed his pained face with a gentle stroke across his cheek, and kissed him. She held his lips with hers. For a moment all too brief.

“I should have said something,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to freak you out.”

She kissed him again. “You don’t have to worry about me.”

“Of course I do,” he said and then coughed.

“That’s sweet of you to say, but I’ll be fine no matter what.”

“Do you have superpowers I don’t know about?”

“You can say that.”

“Please don’t tell me God is your homeboy.”

Maria smiled. “No, I’m a Buddhist. I believe in reincarnation, so if the worst happens to me here, and I die, I’ll be reborn elsewhere. You see? I have no reason to fear death. But thanks for trying to save me.”

He couldn’t help but smile.

“Anything for my girl.”

On the yard, Abel and Fausto walked the track. Ten laps and neither said a word until the dude with a 13 tattooed across his forehead shanked another inmate doing bench presses. Even when the barbell, loaded with 245 pounds, dropped across the inmate’s neck, the dude kept shanking until the guards on the catwalk shot him down.

The alarm sounded, and Abel, Fausto, and the rest of the inmates on the yard dropped on the ground and put their hands over their heads.

“Abel,” Fausto whispered. “Is that his dick over there?”

Back in their cells, with lockdown in full effect, Abel sat at the desk and continued his work multiplying 52, the number of days he’d been inside, by a factor of two, ad infinitum. It was all he could do to void his mind of Maria’s tiny pink feet.

“That was Lalo,” Fausto said from the top bunk. “Former mafia enforcer. The bosses demoted him a couple days ago. The guy he shanked up was his replacement.”

“Sucks to be him.”

“Who? Lalo or his replacement?”

“Both of them.”

“You got that right. One’s dead. The other’s dead and dickless.” Fausto chuckled to himself.

“That dude will forever be known as the guy who got his dick blown off.”

“Here, yeah. Elsewhere, he might end up a successful businessman, a priest, who knows?”

“Dude, you need to stop talking like that.”

“Remember Slaughterhouse-Five?”

Abel groaned.

“Okay. No more fiction, but hear me out. These two scientists, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, argue that consciousness, which some would call your soul, resides within the microtubules in neurons as quantum vibrations. If you recall high school science—”

“Nope.”

“Energy doesn’t die; it can’t be created or destroyed. So Penrose and Hameroff believe that when you die, the quantum information in those microtubules dissipates back into the universe. Now, the big question: where does it go?”

“I know you’re going to tell me,” Abel said and carried a one over a zero, “but all of this sounds like bullshit.”

“Just listen. This next part is important. A growing number of scientists believe that the very universe in which we live isn’t the only one, that there are an infinite number of parallel universes. It’s called the multiverse theory. Some scientists also believe that across these parallel universes all possibilities of life—our lives, yours and mine—occur. So in this universe, we’re here in prison. In another, it’s quite possible we’re not. We might be free. So back to my initial question: where does our quantum information—again, what some call our soul—go when we die? Quite possibly to a parallel universe where it inhabits another version of us.”

Abel put his pencil down, thought about it for a second, and then continued with his math.

“Like I said. Bullshit.”

As Maria frolicked in the tide and bellowed her best approximation of whale song, he wondered how long it would take to get home and wash his feet.

Beside her funky sounds, something between a cat’s meow and a cow’s moo, all he could hear was the tide and the squawk of seabirds flying above.

“Hear anything yet?” she asked.

“Besides the little Mexican whale in front of me spinning in circles? No.”

“That sucks. You think we missed them?”

“Maybe. See your squirrel friend yet?”

“Not yet. I’m sure he’s around here, though. He’s probably disappointed, too. Hey, I never asked you.”

“What?”

“Why do you tag?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t know. It’s fun, I guess.”

“You guess it’s fun? Are you confused when you tag? Having fun one moment, terrified the next?”

“It’s fun. I think it’s fun. Happy?”

“Speak with certainty, man.”

“Okay, Mother, damn.”

“So why do you think it’s fun?”

He was about to say I don’t know, but caught himself. “It’s exciting.”

“It is, isn’t it? Knowing that at any moment you might get caught or chased by cops or an angry Samaritan. It gets the heart pumping.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself.” He really couldn’t have.

“You want to try something different?”

“What?”

“You’re going to think I’m crazy, but hear me out.”

“Okay.”

“You going to hear me out?”

“Yes.”

“You promise?”

“Dammit, yes. I promise.”

“Let’s rob a liquor store.”

He laughed and laughed until he noticed her stoic face.

“Shit, you’re serious.”

Under the bunk, time passed even slower.

In whatever light he could catch, Abel did his math. Fausto lay on the bottom bunk and kept him company.

“I know you don’t want to hear this,” Fausto said.

He could hear Fausto flip through the pages of a book.

“But you can always find yourself a suitor and plead for reciprocity.”

“In English?”

“I was trying to phrase it nicely, but I basically said you should be someone’s bitch. That way, you can be protected, and you wouldn’t have to hide. You wouldn’t have to worry about the random shit as much.”

He put his pencil down and shook his head. He could still taste the nazi’s cigarette breath, feel his untrimmed nails dig into the back of his neck.

“Better to bottom for one than a dozen,” Fausto said. “Where do you think I disappear off to on Tuesday nights?”

He tried not to think about Fausto’s disappearances. The first time he figured Fausto was transferred to another cell. The second time he just knew where Fausto went.

He laid his head on the cold floor and drew concentric circles over his math. His lines wobbly and uneven.

“I can’t do that.”

“Yes, actually, you can. You’ve got two options. Suicide or joining a gang, but you don’t want either of those.”

“There isn’t anything else?”

“If you had money, sure. But you don’t, so no.”

His circles turned into spirals.

“It doesn’t have to be so terrible. Just close your eyes and pretend you’re somewhere else.”

It disturbed Abel how casual Fausto lent such advice. His tone no different than if he was giving directions to a supermarket. Just as disturbing was a single phrase.

“As much?”

“What?”

“You said I wouldn’t have to worry about the random shit as much. What does that mean?”

“Nothing’s guaranteed in here.”

Without knowing it, he had defaced the floor with his spirals. It was merely pencil, removable with a wipe of a finger, but a violation of the prisoner code of conduct, no less.

“Under the right circumstances,” Abel said, “solitary is.”

Into Sonny’s Market she went and flashed her father’s gun, big as a baby’s arm.

Paisley bandanas wrapped around their mouths, sunglasses over their eyes.

“You nuh-oh,” Maria sang with her upward inflection, “what a Smith and Wesson Model 500 can do at this range?” She sang those words with the muzzle wedged between either hirsute brow of a swarthy pear of a man.

Said pear didn’t hesitate. He emptied the register with one hand in the air.

Abel kept lookout, holding another of her father’s guns, wishing for it all to be over with.

He thought he would shit himself.

After they rolled up their hoodies and bandanas and stuffed them into a storm drain, they went to their birch. He sat at the base of the tree and leaned his back against it. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, with the hope that it would settle his raging heart.

She straddled him and asked, “What you doing there, Buddha?”

He opened his eyes. “Nothing.”

She held his face.

“Are you okay?”

“We’re not doing that again.”

“That guy didn’t even put up a fight.”

“I don’t care. You’re going to get us killed.”

Her face went to stone.

“That’s the last time we do that, okay?”

She slid her hands to the back of his neck and leaned back. Her eyes dropped down and to the left. He could see the gears turning in her head.

“Okay.” She kissed him, combed her fingers through his unspiked hair.

A sense of relief washed over him.

“Your hair’s nice like this. You should keep it like this.”

“I’ll take it under advisement.”

“If you want to get laid, you will.”

“I’ve thought it over. My hair looks better this way.”

They both laughed. She kissed him again.

“Hey,” she said.

“What?”

“Want to rob a bank with me?”

His stomach grumbled.

“Are you out of your fucking mind?”

“Listen, you ever been to that Chinese bank on Broadway?”

“No, but—”

She put her finger over his mouth.

“I go with my mom all the time. She doesn’t trust big banks. Anyway, it’s small, like real small. Only a couple bank tellers and no guards. It’s a glorified liquor store.”

He pushed aside her finger.

“I’m not trying to go to prison.”

“Who said anything about prison? We go in when they open, take some cash, and get the hell out of there. I already know the perfect escape route.”

“You just said we wouldn’t do that again.”

“Actually, I agreed that we wouldn’t rob any more liquor stores. We’re graduating to banks.”

He didn’t know what to say. He knew she wouldn’t relent on the idea.

“You know,” she said and gave him a quick kiss on the nose, “at night, if you squint your eyes just right, the lights up in Dodger Stadium look just like dandelions.”

“What the fuck does that have to do with anything?”

“It’s all about perspective. You can look at something, like Dodger Stadium, and see the ugly, a billon-ton block of concrete that sullies what would be a wondrous night sky, or you can choose to see the beauty, like a plot of celestial dandelions. You don’t have to see the many ways life will fail you. Just, for once, trust that things will go your way.”

He wanted to say no, fuck no, but then he thought of how she’d react. He worried she would seek someone else, someone willing to go on her crazy escapades, for he had nothing else to offer her.

“Come on, do it with me. Just one time.”

The next time he stood in that doorless stall and felt those untrimmed nails dig into the back of his neck, he was ready. So when he tasted the nazi’s cigarette breath again, he spat a double-sided razor into the nazi’s mouth and punched his jaw as hard as he could. As the nazi stumbled and spat out blood and slivers of tongue, Abel drew his shank, shorn from a toothbrush. The next thirty seconds a blur of blood splatter and primal screams.

On that day, Maria led the way. She wore a pink hoodie and matching pink shoes.

“Freeze!” she said as she blitzed through the bank’s doors.

He followed behind her, holding her father’s gun, so heavy he had to hold it with two hands. He pointed it at the crowd of old folk and a mother and her kid.

Before she could give another instruction, the deafening bark of pistol reverberated around his head and voided his bowels of something terrible.

He turned to his left. Beside a water cooler, he saw a guard, a relic of a war long passed. A shaky pistol between his withered hands.

Panic took control, and Abel unleashed a shot of his own, but the thing bucked like a bitch and shoved him into the front door where he fired off a second shot.

The result: an oozing pomegranate spilling out of coiled red locks and splintered braids. Tiny pink feet kicking as if they were swimming.

Had it not been for the scheduled meals, the bologna sandwich and cup of juice slid through the slat in the middle of the door, he would never have known the time of day.

Never had he spent so much time alone. Never had he spent so much time thinking of her, the same few moments he could have done something to alter their lives, maybe just his own. He wished he wasn’t such a pushover, so in love with her he would do any-and-everything, no matter how stupid.

Some days he wished he had never met her.

On what he thought was a Wednesday, the guard knocked on the window. “You shanked up the wrong guy, bud,” he said. “You’ve been green-lit. You got two weeks left in here, so if I were you, I would make peace with myself. On the bright side, your friend asked me to give you this.” The guard slid a packet of paper into his cell.

Sentenced to twenty-five years, and he would barely make three months.

He didn’t cry, at first. It all seemed logical. Go to prison, get raped and killed. His stay went the trajectory he imagined, though he didn’t expect it to happen so fast.

That night, or what he thought was night, he asked the guard for a pencil and paper and wrote a letter to his grandma. He did what he imagined so many other prisoners did and apologized for his stupidity. When he was done, he read his words and said the closing aloud: “I will always love you.”

Only then did he cry.

If only it were possible.

He had no idea what they would do to him, but mutilation and rape seemed likely.

So he would kill himself before they could get to him.

To think of something besides his impending death and Maria’s tiny pink feet, he reached for the packet. The Post-it note on the front of it read, “Life is a state of mind. Close your eyes and jump through time. Unlike Billy Pilgrim, you can do it by choice. Really, you can. – F.”

He rolled his eyes and then flipped through the packet. It comprised various articles on the multiverse, consciousness, something called the double-slit experiment, death, and the afterlife. The last two pages were instructions, written by hand, on how to hang yourself from a sink.

For once, they were on the same wavelength.

He ignored the instructions and started reading through the articles. He didn’t understand much, but by the fifth article, he caught on to the importance of a reoccurring thread: the double-slit experiment. It involved shooting individual particles of matter through two slits of a barrier. If an observer watched the barrier, the particle would go through only one of the two slits—what any observer would expect to see. One particle, one slit. However, if an observer ignored the barrier, the particle would assume both possibilities of existence and go through both slits. For some scientists, this was proof of the multiverse, for people were made of the same particles. If particles could exist in multiple states, then so must the composition of particles: people.

It all seemed crazy, sure, but everything was heretical at some point. He remembered how the Catholic Church imprisoned Galileo for suggesting the earth revolved around the sun.

What Fausto had said about consciousness didn’t seem so crazy anymore. Maybe time was illusory. Maybe past, present, and future—and by extension, life and death—did coexist alongside one another, like multiple slits across the plane of existence.

Maybe Vonnegut was a prophet.

Or maybe not.

What was true: these were his last days, and he might as well die on his own terms, with a semblance of peace, the hope that death wasn’t the end, that he would see Maria again.

A roll of the dice it was, but he had nothing to lose.

He flipped to Fausto’s suicide instructions and read through them carefully. He tore apart his shirt to make the noose.

“The knot,” Fausto wrote, “is of upmost importance.”

He secured the noose to the faucet of his sink.

“Simply lie down (face first to the ground), and let gravity take care of the rest.”


Michael Leal García teaches and writes in Los Angeles, CA. He is currently writing his first novel.