He finished them all in the same register, invoking the magic word, and though the inspiration behind individual prayers may have escaped him now in adulthood, the closing refrain from long ago still rang within him on its predictable, if not greedy, note.
Amen, Amen, Amen.
That was how all the good ones ended. He knew from the Sunday morning television broadcast over breakfast, where appeared the robed, regal prophet wielding the magic word like a sword, slicing through the heart of the seated crowd, inciting the air around him into wind, practically pummeling a congregant struck blind by brain swelling and bound to a chair, who, miraculously, only after the magic word had been trumpeted into her forehead with the appropriate force, was able to stand unassisted and read from the holy scriptures as they were one after the other presented to her—cured.
The boy wept, spooning cereal into his credulous head.
It was a demonstration that marked many, many wakeful nights for the boy. Looking back, he understood his early conception of this magic word as a correlate to the fairy-tale scenarios recited nightly, tucked-in and storied-to just before lights out. In such tales, he encountered children who, like him, were wronged, harmed by the world’s turn, but who, unlike him, were time and time again allowed avenues of respite or revenge aided by the benevolent oversight of fairy godparents, specters, other marvelous beings, often the cosmos itself. Whereas these children triumphed over their daily assailants, the boy was simply taunted, backed into brick walls. The disparity allowed the boy to conceive of himself as a wearied beneficiary due his prize, a deserver, so long as he sought refuge from the true evildoers of this world and wished comeuppance only to them.
Exploiting the auspices of the magic word, he reeled off scores of wants and needs, settling disputes, defending himself in advance, forming the magic word as the television prophet had with a curatorial lilt that toed the line between certitude and threat. The boy wanted his prayers to be good ones, after all.
The boy wanted for what he wished to come true.
A friendless life for Kamaj Beane for pulling down his gym shorts to the ankles. No more gossip from Ginny Chase after she transcribed secrets from his diary for homeroom to read. Mom and Dad, who must pay for making a stink about the green army-man mess arranged in the middle of the bathroom floor.
Amen, Amen, Amen.
Some of these prayers came back to him now, and some did not.
Decades later, there was no earthly reason for him to think anything of his prayers, so unflinching was the silence they had been met with at the time. Every night he capped his list of demands with the magic word, and every morning he woke with the stone-gut feeling that the coming day would somehow hold worse terrors for him than the one previous, that really, all he found in his sleep-eyed wishery was fewer hours to rest himself for whatever torment awaited him.
And he was right.
But still he tried, he tried and tried and tried, until one night he lay down his head and did not.
He grew from a thin and brittle boy into a dark and daunting man.
Much like his childhood existence of bruised face and lunches alone, he spent a great deal of his adult life spent wandering the city on pocket change with a pistol in his jacket, unsure as to whether he would benefit most from employing it against fellow human beings or in fact, after enough boredom, himself. No longer timid, he intimidated, and though people now knew his name and wildness, his penchant for the hard last word, quick to draw blood, he felt weaker, wilted, worse off than before.
He was not even supposed to have heard the news.
Now that police were once again inquiring into his routine, he dodged life from across town, in a bar where his legend did not precede him. The home he was raised in, the school he attended, were but a few blocks’ walk; it was an area in which his parents forbade him to do his seedy work lest they themselves turn him in. Still, the hours needed passing.
Catty-corner his barstool he watched a group collect a triple digit tab, meanwhile planning to follow the small bunch down an alleyway to shake down for cash and rings. They may not have feared his reputation, but he was prepared to make sure they soon would, law and territory be damned.
The names, though, the names they bandied about in their table-talk tickled a familiarity he had not recognized in some time. Among these names he heard those of schoolmates, neighborhood bullies, adults who, in both small and large ways, had contributed to his young life ending up an exitless maze of pain and uncertainty. The people seated here seemed regretful in their handling of each name’s fragile report, discussing the inordinate amount of tragedy surrounding their community in the last few months, the droves of newly afflicted.
There were—what did one of the women say?—enough to fill a prayer list.
Kamaj Beane, whose lungs flared up in a plague of pocks. Pretty Ginny Carlson’s blonde hair fell out—cancer in her bones. Others he had long since forgotten but now recognized as a lineup of his former oppressors, if not ill then dead, whose sins had gone unnoticed and unrectified for so long.
So, so long.
At his parents’ door, expecting the pair to peek out from the front-window’s closed blinds, he was surprised to be greeted by a cousin instead, her head barely out in the open. Part of him still relished that there was, behind her eyes and in her mouth, the unmistakable shake of fear.
No, his parents were not home, not even in the country. The cousin was house-sitting during their anniversary abroad. Worse, she was beginning to grow anxious, as they had not checked in by phone at all this week, though thrice the week before, and what with all the crime down there against the elderly tourists, a shame, an awful mess, but his parents were no twits, they held their own, were fine as far as she knew, and she would let him know the second they called, she really would, God bless.
Amen, Amen, Amen.
He followed his feet wherever they would take him.
For several days he convinced himself the burning trail in his wake would soon find its end in smoke, that what strange happenings befell those who crossed him in years past were just that—strange happenings, the result of lives lived, nothing more than a statistical aberration in a chaotic world. But the longer he spent tracking down obituaries, keeping an eye on emergency rooms and prayer bulletins, the less he wished he had ever learned the magic word to begin with, for although a few of his findings were no surprise to him—people who, if they did not deserve their fate today had surely deserved it once—others shocked him in their implausibility.
Names of people he chased behind growing up, who shared with him the occasional comic book or front seat on the floor, who were tough to please but in the grand scheme good. People kind enough to pretend. People he remembered liking.
People toward which he, even now, after so many years, felt more than that.
With what small grudges had he felt forced to use against these people the magic word? Senseless equity, the odd workings of the Lord. No logic satisfied him, no more than there seemed an end to the wide orbit of his hate, which appeared to spiral out farther and farther than he would be capable of ever knowing.
Somehow it was better not knowing.
Who else, he wondered, awaited theirs? How long had he kept that routine of his, palm-to-palm beneath the sheets, marking off the ways in which the short end of the stick worked its heft ever over him, pairing faults to names, deeds to dues, as if a judge with his best interests in mind listened close? Just how many scores of names had slipped between his clenched teeth to be cast down into recesses unknown?
Most of all, who now or ever in the span of his storied standing, prayed for him?
He waited quietly for answers, as any good child would.