They say the stars you’re born under dictate your destiny. Holliday and I were born in America during the Cold War, and sure enough, we’d spend our lives ready to blow everything to hell. But we weren’t the only destructive forces descending on Arizona.
The southwestern dust storms started up about that same time. They would rise out of the desert and bear down upon a town with sand and debris that broke windows, bent steel, or tore through a human like the scattershot of a 6-gauge. All the buildings had to be reinforced, the windows replaced with new safety glass, and special, dome-shaped shelters were added in public places for emergencies. All public places except schools, that is.
Schools in our state were basically just a collection of buildings where children were stored until they were old enough to be of use to some company or government. When the storms started, the city mandated that instead of shelters, playgrounds would get special dugouts—narrow trenches in the ground, lined with concrete. They were mostly for show, a hollow gesture to placate the taxpayers. No one ever expected them to actually be used. And they weren’t, until the day I met Holliday.
We collided on the playground, playing soccer, and both went sprawling. I was angry for my reasons, he was angry for his, so our fists were swinging before either of us were even standing again.
I got off a few shots to his ribs before he landed a left hook that shook my head around. Packed into that skinny frame of his was a solid layer of tightly-wrapped sinew over bones made of used car parts and bad intentions. A circle formed around us and everyone screamed in excitement. They all wanted to know who was the meanest dog.
I connected with a solid over-hand right. The kid reeled backward for an instant, looking like he might just spin to the ground. Only a clever little half-step gave warning otherwise. Using the momentum of my punch, he let his body turn all the way around and brought an ugly spinning back-fist across my temple.
I stepped back to collect myself and we locked stares. The teachers had heard the commotion by now. If we didn’t finish soon, we’d be broken up and never know who would have won.
He leapt into the air and tried to get me with flying a mule-kick, but I dodged. He was back on his feet before I could capitalize. We lunged at each other and fell into a wrestling match, complete with short elbows and rabbit punches. One of his errant kicks clipped a girl who was watching too close. We found out later that her arm was broken.
As we fought, a sound came to us from far away. It wasn’t the expected whistles of the teachers rushing in to stop us, but an alarm. After a few more seconds and a good kick to the kid’s chest, I realized the other students had vanished. At the far end of the playground, the school’s flag had begun convulsing in a dangerous wind. A storm was coming.
The kid and I were the last two on the playground, locked in a game of chicken as the sun vanished behind the encroaching brown wall that had swallowed the horizon to the south. Wind started to bite our faces. It became impossible to keep our eyes open. Finally, just before the storm truly landed on us, a single rock flung across his cheek then my scalp, cutting both.
At exactly the same time, we dropped our guard and dove into the small emergency dugout on the edge of the playground. Without a roof, we had to press our backs against the concrete bottom and pray nothing big landed on us. Death swirled above, a terrifying landscape of flying objects and the belligerent howls of nature gone mad.
For a long time, neither of us said anything. We just lay there, side by side, shoulders pressed together in the small space, looking up at the maelstrom. The air whipped by and the sand came in fast enough to leave marks on our skin.
Gradually, the tune of the storm changed. As we watched, it turned into something else, something secret and wild, brutal and beautiful. It was a force that people didn’t understand, couldn’t explain, and ran from. As we realized this, the other boy and I changed, too. Our fight against each other sensed its end and tossed itself into the winds.
When the shrieking sounds died down enough, we started to talk. That’s when I learned his name, Holliday Ringo O’Raff. We talked about where we’d come from, what we liked, everything.
“Uncle adopted me last summer,” I said at some point. “He set to kicking my ass before I was even through the door.”
“You an orphan?” he asked.
“Don’t know,” I said. “Don’t care.”
Holliday lay in silence for awhile.
“Storm like this killed my dad,” he said.
“When?” I asked.
“Last year. That morning he told me to take care of mom. Said I needed to be strong. Storm started up around noon. I got called out of school, the cops took me home. They said he’d walked right out into it. No note or anything. Never said why.”
I let a few seconds pass.
“Wow, man. I’m sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“Meh, forget him. He’s in the Dead Heights, now,” he said.
I didn’t realize it then, but Holliday had told me the innermost secret of his existence. When someone you love is taken from you, your life divides into two distinct epochs: what things were like before, and what comes after. When his dad died, one part of Holliday became frozen as that kid forever. The other part grew up in that very moment. Both parts hated cops from then on.
Once the storm passed, teachers came out of the buildings to see what was left of us. When they found us alive, they sent us straight to the principal’s office. We were expecting it. On the long walk to the front of the school, I turned to Holliday.
“Hey, listen, I’m on my last strike. They told me I’m expelled if I get into another fight. Something about a ‘zero-tolerance policy,’ which apparently means they’ll tolerate exactly four fights. You’d be my fifth.”
“Yeah, same here,” he chuckled. “Sounds like we’re both pretty screwed.”
“Well, maybe not . . .”
The Principal’s name was Gundrumm. He called Holliday in first to get his side of things. It was only a few minutes before I was told to join them. I sat in the chair next to Holliday and tried to look repentant.
He was a middle-aged man, with his few black hairs slicked back and gelled in place. He always wore a pair of inexplicable suspenders that matched his checkerboard ties. If I made a collage of everything I hoped I would never become, the pieces would fit together and form the shape of Mr. Gundrumm.
“So, you boys were playing with matches?”
He was skeptical. We’d both been warned about fighting, but our arson record was clear, and Gundrumm knew it.
Holliday hid a smirk behind a cough as I nodded.
“Yeah.” I admitted. “It’s just dirt out there, so we figured there was no risk. But then I thought he had lit himself on fire, so I was trying to roll him on the ground to put him out.”
Gundrumm set his glasses on the huge metal desk and rubbed his forehead.
“So then, why were you seen putting your hands on him?” he asked Holliday.
“Well sir, I thought that while he was trying to put me out, he had caught himself on fire, so I was returning the favor.”
“Uh huh,” said Gundrumm, not believing a word. “And, show me these burns then.”
Smiling, we both displayed the markings of where the sand had torn into us during the storm. Friction or fire, a burn was a burn.
The Principal gave us a long, hard look.
“I’m going to let you both go then, if you have nothing else to tell me,” he said. “But you’re newer here, so let me give you some advice.” He pointed at Holliday as he spoke to me. “This one is forty miles of bad road, young man. I’ve known him a while. I won’t hold you responsible if you tell me right now that he was fighting you. You’d be free and clear. You sure you still want to say that you two were just helping each other?”
Holliday looked over to me. Even in the stillness of the office, his short, wispy hair moved like a flame around his head.
“That’s right,” I said.
“But I was winning,” Holliday whispered, too soft for anyone but me to hear.
Then a look came over his face. Shyly, at first, but the claws of it gained purchase on his mouth and over-swept his entire being. He was smiling. Not just smiling, though—beaming with a gruesome self-satisfaction. He looked like he might have been chewing something minty and wanted everyone to know how great it tasted. It was at once endearing and unbearable. It ground on the senses like sand-paper, but somehow it still made me grin back.
Principal Gundrumm slumped back in his chair.
“Fine. I shouldn’t have to say this, but no more ‘matches,’ of any kind. Am I understood?”
“Yes, sir,” we said together.
“Run along,” he said, waving us toward the door.
Holliday and I walked home together. Some stray dogs padded along behind. Holliday said it happened to him all the time. Our houses were only one block apart.
I can’t say the exact moment it happened, but by the time we got home, we were best friends. A race of two. Our connection was like loose change, muddy paw prints, or the immutable sky; it simply was.