Purchase Lives Less Valuable
Read more

Excerpt from Lives Less Valuable

Smell of Danger (p. 105)

From chapter "Part Three"

Dujuan does something he has never done before: he goes by himself to the river. He’d been there plenty as a kid, to fish with friends under one of the bridges, though they knew even then not to eat the fish. Sometimes they’d waded in the shallows. Occasionally in high school he’d come down to the wreckage of the amusement park with a girlfriend and a bag of weed to stay till three or four in the morning. But he’d never been here by himself.

He comes at night, to the opposite bank from the ruins of the amusement park. He brings his father’s gun. Many times since the night the hammer fell on an empty chamber he’s put the gun to his head, but never again has he pulled the trigger. He wonders whether tonight he brought the gun to shoot himself or to protect himself should something move in the bushes. Perhaps he brought it to fend off the dreams.

Beyond the sickly yellow cone of his dying flashlight’s beam is a different sort of dark than he’s used to inside a building or on the street, or even the sort of dark he’d experienced here with a girlfriend. The dark now is deeper, more hollow and rounded, more resonant, layered, less static.

He hears a skittering in the bushes, and touches the gun he carries in his waistband. And now a sound from another direction, followed by a fluttering sound he thinks must be a startled bird.

He flicks off the flashlight and freezes in place. His heart seems to stop, and when it resumes he feels blood pulse in his neck and deep in his ears. He looks around, but sees nothing in the dark. He listens. Still nothing. In the distance the river. His shoulders hunch and his legs tighten.

He inhales deeply, yet slowly and quietly. He smells nothing. That’s good. He can continue; he smells no danger.

He flicks back on the flashlight and continues down a small path toward the river. He’s thankful for what he has come to know is an uncommon—a strange—sense of smell, otherwise he would still be frightened.

Dujuan’s earliest memory was the smell of danger. He was five, and holding his brother’s hand, standing at the intersection of two busy streets, waiting for the light to turn green. That’s when he smelled it, strong, sour, bitter. He recoiled from the smell, and in stepping back pulled Boo’s hand hard enough to make him, too, step away from the street. The smell became more intense, and he retreated again. Then suddenly the smell vanished, and in that moment, one he will never forget, a bus cut the corner too tight: with the growl of a diesel engine revving from a downshift, the machine drove where they had just stood. They’d looked at each other, and Dujuan’d begun to cry.

He didn’t make the connection right then between the smell and the danger. It took years before that connection filtered through his body to become conscious, years of sporadic reinforcement: a subtle whiff before falling on ice, a stronger smell before getting hit hard in basketball, a stench he somehow ignored before being beaten in an alley. And there’d never been a moment when he’d said to himself, “This smell means danger.” Instead he’d experienced a gradual, embodied movement back to where he’d been at the beginning—a physical recoil from something that stank—a slow training of his mind by his body to pay attention. And so he learned. More and more he began to move with the smell, before the danger became obvious, before it became unavoidable.

He never told anyone about his sense of smell, at first because he thought it normal—something everyone experienced yet rarely talked about—like hiccups or hunger pangs or occasional rage. Later, when he realized not everyone could smell danger, he didn’t talk about it for fear others would think him strange, or even that they would try to convince him that what he experienced wasn’t real. And later still he didn’t talk about it because in time people began to notice he didn’t get hit so often, and so they started to follow his lead. After that he never even considered talking about it, because he realized that with this knowledge comes power. And when you’ve got power, he’d known even when he was young, nothing much else matters.

He reaches the river, uses the flashlight to find a comfortable rock, sits, and turns off the light.

He thinks maybe he should have killed that woman at the bus stop. Maybe he still will. Maybe then the dreams will stop. He’s never killed anyone before, but this might be the time to start. She’d had no right to compare him to the people at Vexcorp. She’d never been poor a day in her life, and she’d never had to watch her sister die. She has no idea what he has suffered. She has no business judging him, and no business invading his dreams.

The moon comes out. It shines off the river, broken flickers of light against the empty black of the water.

I’m not like that, he thinks. I’ve got nothing in common with rich people. I wish I did.

He could see himself in an office like he’s seen in movies, with carpeting and a view and private secretaries. He’d sit behind his desk and not lift a fucking finger. He wouldn’t have to: money would roll in no matter what he did or didn’t do. And if somebody crossed him, pfft—he snaps his fingers—the cops would take care of it.

Dujuan had once heard that justice is blind, that the rich and the poor both go to jail for stealing a loaf of bread. He thought that was bullshit at the time, and he thinks it’s bullshit now. The rich don’t go to jail for nothing.

The longer he sits, the more angry he becomes. Maybe he should just pop her tonight. Walk up, put the gun in the center of her forehead, and . . . No, not like that. Because in all truth he isn’t like them. He would never do to her what the others had done to Shameka. She couldn’t know that she was going to die. It’s okay to let someone know you’re going to beat the hell out of him, but if you’re really going to kill someone, you need to at least let them die unafraid. It would be better if he came up behind her, put the gun, already cocked, behind her ear, and then did it. Or maybe find some way to make her feel safe before killing her. He would give that much to anyone.

He’s glad he hasn’t been able to kill himself. It’s stupid and pointless to aim a gun at yourself when so many others already line up to do it for you: cops, teachers, bosses, all out to get you, all gunning you down with bullets and insults and orders and condescension. It’s better, he thinks, to turn the gun around.

He reaches to touch the cool stones beside him, then the soil beneath. It, too, is cool, and gritty between his fingers.

Suddenly he’s scared again. This time not of the night or the bushes or the river or the dark, but of himself. He’s thought about killing people before, but it’s never felt this good. And that scares him. He needs to talk to Boo. Boo will know what to do. He always does. He will know how to deal with her, and how to deal with the tangles he feels inside.

The river glistens in front of him. Something jumps in the middle, and Dujuan jumps, too, at the sound. A fish, he thinks. He hears crickets and other bugs singing. The sounds of the river and the trees surrounding it becomes lightly more comfortable, though still foreign. He thinks that someday he might have to come back.