AN: I wrote this piece a few months ago and I’ve been sitting on it ever since. I feel now that I’d rather see it as part of a larger work rather than on its own but I’d like to share it here as it stands.
Content Warning: violence, death, self-harm, religious imagery
Saints of the Raritan
Frankie came home near 10:30, loud as a thunderstorm; Jimmy didn’t even look up from his phone when the back door slammed and heavy footsteps trod across the kitchen linoleum. As Frankie crossed the living room the air filled with a quick flare of gasoline fumes, strong enough for a minute to make Jimmy feel like choking but then the scent dissipated, leaving a dream-taste somewhere in the back of Jimmy’s throat.
“She’s asleep,” Jimmy said, still not looking up.
Frankie didn’t respond but when he took the stairs at a much lighter volume. Jimmy listened. Frankie’s bedroom door shut with a soft creak instead of staccato slam so at it must not have been too bad of a night for him.
A news alert popped up: FOUR DEAD IN THREE CAR PILE-UP ON DRISCOLL BRIDGE. Jimmy stared for a moment then sighed and turned his phone off, slipping it into his pocket. He stood as quiet as he dared and slunk into the kitchen, still smelling phantom wisps of gasoline; he grabbed a beer out of the fridge and cracked the top off with his keychain, waiting.
Right on time: a piercing scream erupted from upstairs.
Jimmy took a quick swill and put the bottle down, the cold condensation stinging the palms of his hands. He hurried upstairs and the screaming grew louder as he got closer, a balloon of sound pushing against the edges of the night until Jimmy thought the pressure might force a puncture somewhere.
Frankie’s bedroom door popped open and he slid out.
“Christina!” Jimmy’s voice came loud and clear, sounding way too much like his dad’s used to. He knocked on the purple-painted door at the end of the hallway but all he got in response was more screaming.
“Christina!” This time Frankie joined in, his rough sandpaper growl of a voice making the name sound almost threatening. Like a curse. Still more screaming, even louder now, and again Jimmy felt like the noise could push through, force the air to rend into some unholy opening. God, if Frankie sounded like a thunderstorm the screaming was a goddamn category five hurricane.
“Christina, we’re coming in,” Jimmy said. He turned the knob, pushed the door open.
Dark, thicker than normal–gasoline again, but more than that, more than fumes–a choking wreathe of invisible smoke, the acrid spit of burning rubber, a metallic scent that settled right in the pit of Jimmy’s gut and the fear of course–always a hush of fear that coiled inside of him, a wrought twisted thing digging rust into his spine. He was always afraid of her for the briefest blink of time, terrified of the dark and her right in the middle of it but then Frankie flipped on the light and as always, the fear dissolved leaving only a burning shame that it had existed in the first place.
In the bed: a teenage girl, black hair knotted and tangled with sweat, back arched, mouth open and screaming like an ambulance siren, thin fingers curled into cat’s-claws, digging into the pale skin of her distorted face. Jimmy moved forward slow and careful, gently grabbing her wrists, pulling her hands down and away.
“Wake up honey, come on,” Jimmy said. Even in the faint blue light from the hall he could see dark gouges in her cheeks, stains under her fingernails.
“Come on, it’s all right,” he said.
She convulsed beneath him, her scream cut off into a clotted-sounding cough.
“It’s just us,” Frankie said. “Just us.”
She stilled. A second later her eyelids flickered and a flush of red erupted against the broken skin of her face. She opened her eyes, pupils so wide the iris-ring of soft brown was swallowed whole. Frankie flicked on the light and in the yellow glow she looked ruined. Dead. Her pulse throbbed against the skin of her neck.
“It’s ok,” Jimmy said, sitting down on the bed and letting of her wrists. She dropped her hands down and Jimmy had to keep himself from wincing–he was always afraid she’d shatter right in front of him.
Christina took a deep, ragged breath. Then she shuddered.
“Four people died,” she said in a ragged voice, wrecked from screaming. She sounded like Frankie–of the three of them only Jimmy had inherited their father’s smooth Sinatra tenor; Frankie and Christina had voices like their mother, as if chain-smoking was a genetic trait.
Jimmy nodded, pulled his phone from his pocket and showed her the news update. She propped herself up to read it, her skin slick with blood and sweat, the blue light glowing stark against the scarred-up ridges of her cheekbones. She looked like a kid you’d see in a charity commercial: huge eyes in a hollow face, thin mouth, lips bit raw red and scabbed.
She handed Jimmy his phone back. “I knew it. Just like I saw. The angel…” she stopped, took another deep breath. Her eyes were full of tears now, and she wiped her face with the back of her hand. “Can you go, Jimmy? Please? I think…it’s gotta be tonight and I’m…” she shuddered. “I’m so tired.”
“Of course I can,” Jimmy said, standing up.
Frankie sunk down on the bed, taking Jimmy’s place. “What’s he need this time?” he asked, and when he spoke the gasoline-tasted sparked in the back of Jimmy’s throat again. It was why Christina knew better than to ever ask Frankie to go.
Christina sighed, closed her eyes. “Candles. Mom’s candles. From the closet in her bedroom, on the third shelf. On those silver trays.”
“Got it,” Jimmy said. He checked a quick glance Frankie’s way but Frankie’s face remained impassive. The gasoline scent grew stronger, filling up the space Christina’s scream had vacated. Jimmy thought about saying something but decided against it and he walked out of the bedroom, shoving his hands in his pocket to keep them from shaking.
The Battaglia boys knew all about miracles.
Fifteen years ago: Francis and James Battaglia. They looked just like they were supposed to: oil-slick hair and roman noses, angel-bowed lips, heartbreak eyes, the usual. Peak New Jersey in their tight white tanks and loose jeans, skin sun-smeared, grease already already their fingernails from weekends in their dad’s shop.
That was when the first miracle happened. The baby. Loretta Battaglia, forty-five years old and told by every doctor from Brooklyn to Philadelphia that she’d never carry another child bringing a big-eyed little girl into the world: a weak thin bird-like creature that barely had the strength to cry at first. And Frankie and Jimmy had known then, known something–not love, not yet, because they were fifteen and selfish little monsters but something, a kind of fierce and unexpected devotion because this little baby wasn’t just a baby she was a miracle and miracles had consequences that could ripple on out into infinity if what the priests said ended up being true.
The second miracle came six years later. The car accident. A drunk driver cutting across all four lanes of the Driscoll Bridge, pinning the Battaglia car against the guardrail–just a few inches of concrete and steel keeping it from falling into the filthy currents of the Raritan below. No one could live through a wreck like that. Loretta and Sal Battaglia certainly didn’t. But lo and behold, a six-year-old girl in the back seat, terrified but completely whole and unharmed, big prophet eyes staring up at the green exit sign over the smoldering ruins and screaming incoherently about angels.
Frankie was twenty-one; he got the shop. Jimmy dropped out of Rutgers as quick as the paperwork could go through to go help him. But it wasn’t just the shop, although neither of them ever said it out loud. Miracles were like cluster bombs; they didn’t explode once or twice but endlessly. You had to be there to dampen the fuse, chase away the divine, keep the unwilling vessel whole. Christina hadn’t asked for any of it. That was the goddamn point. She was a sixteen-year-old kid who liked bad hair bands from the 80s, a kid who loved cats and Impressionism and comic books. A kid who saw angels that tore her brain apart from the inside, asphalt-winged angels made of rust and bone.
They were done cleaning up by the time Jimmy made it to the bridge. Whatever traffic had clotted by the accident had managed to untangle itself and there weren’t many cars on the road. Good. The wreck was on the northbound side, not far from where the bridge ended and smoothed back into highway. Jimmy put on his hazards and pulled off onto the shoulder, sliding across the front seat so he could get out on the passenger side, away from the few cars that hurtled past–blurs of light and exhaust that streaked by like dirty comets.
He had the candles in the footwell and he took them out carefully; his mother’s devotional candles, gaudy high-colored images of holy men and women stuck on the plastic around the wax. Loretta had bought out whole stores; there were so many St. James and St. Francis candles Jimmy thought they’d last for a century but he knew better than to use those. This time he’d grabbed two St. Judes, a St. Michael, and a St. Anthony. He’d asked once if they’d meant anything–if the saints themselves were the important pieces or not–but Christina hadn’t known.
They were all made of yellow wax. Jimmy grabbed a lighter from the glove compartment and knelt down on the edge of the asphalt, the wet earth damp through his jeans. He arranged the candles in a tight cluster, lit them one by one and said a quick Our Father just for good measure. He didn’t know if it’d help but it sure as hell wouldn’t hurt. Then he stood up, looked at the exit sign hanging overhead, refracting headlights as cars hushed by. He stared, his gut knotted up in a rush of rage and regret and doubt…they had Christina trapped in their impossible fists, didn’t they. Invisible beasts. Not for a moment had he doubted her visions but for the first time he felt anger like bile rise up the back of his throat because why. Why the goddamn hell did those monsters have to nest in his sister’s brain, why her, why some poor little kid who couldn’t even go to school anymore–why not him?
“Show me,” Jimmy said in his crooner’s voice. “Come on you bastards, let me see you. I’ll bring your candles, I’ll say your prayers. Leave her out of it, huh? Show me.”
Nothing. Nothing at all. Just the traffic hush and the candles sputtering in the barest whisper of a warm breeze.
Frankie was maybe cursed. Jimmy hadn’t ever really thought about it much because of Christina’s miracles and because Frankie wasn’t the kind of guy to ever be open about what went on inside his head. Frankie had come first, after all, the first Battaglia (the first failure Jimmy’d thought once, drunk off his ass at a party at Rutgers, two girls sitting on either side him. Frankie wasn’t a girl and I wasn’t a girl so we were the failures that made Christina and the girl next to him had asked if he was okay. Jimmy hadn’t really known) and there had to have been some magic there, some worked-up hope and then bitter disappointment.
When he got home from lighting the candles Frankie was still there; that surprised Jimmy. Frankie was so rarely home; when he wasn’t working he was driving and then maybe he’d stop in to sleep or eat or if Christina needed him or something but Frankie wasn’t Frankie unless he was behind the wheel. In the dark of the living room Frankie looked monstrous for a moment, standing against the paneled wall, next to a paint-by-number Jesus one of them had done as kids. Jimmy paused in the doorway, the whole room thick with the scent of gasoline and waited.
“She went back to sleep,” Frankie said in a rough whisper.
“Good,” Jimmy said, feeling like there was more–something indefinable waiting in the dark between them, a spark lit in the fumes. Jimmy didn’t know how to talk to Frankie; he never had but now, for the first time, it seemed to matter. And he didn’t know why.
Frankie cracked his bruised-up knuckles.
“Next time I’ll do it,” he said, his words like cut glass. Jimmy imagined they hurt Frankie, when he forced them out.
“Sure,” Jimmy said. He didn’t believe him but that seemed unimportant.
Frankie paused, shoved his hands into his pockets. “I gotta go out again,” he said.
Jimmy cocked his head. Frankie rarely announced his coming and going.
“Okay,” Jimmy said. What else–? Because there had to be something else. The air was so thick with Frankie’s highway ghosts that Jimmy felt his own breath clot at the back of throat, rough and waiting.
Frankie nodded once and then walked across the living room, past Jimmy and out into the dark.
Christina got up early the next morning. She looked awful; her skin stretched wan and taut over the bones of her face, scabs crusted where she’d dug her nails in last night. But she smiled at Jimmy as she walked into the kitchen and she poured herself a cup of coffee.
“Stunt your growth,” Jimmy said, looking up from the invoices he’d been reading. He found running the shop easier than maybe he’d imagined it would be; Frankie and the crew did most of the actual car-work; Jimmy liked numbers, liked organizing this small space of a strange world. Their father had been the same way; quiet in chaos, looking down charts and lists like they were poems or fairy tales.
“I don’t think I’m gonna grow anymore,” she said, quirking up the corners of her mouth. “Thanks for last night.”
Jimmy lifted his own cup in salute. “Anytime, kiddo.”
“Frankie still out?”
“Yeah. You know him.”
“I guess,” Christina said. She chewed at one of her fingernails. “I dunno. I feel like you’re the only one I really know. Or ever will.”
“Don’t say that,” Jimmy said, frowning.
“You’re like dad was,” she said in a small voice. “You’re like…I dunno. A rock. A bridge. Something like that.”
Jimmy sighed. “Nah, I’m just me. You’re just you. Frankie’s just Frankie.” He didn’t have the right words to explain what he meant. “We’re just…us, right?”
Christina shrugged. Drank her coffee and watched Jimmy work. When she finished she glanced out of the window over the sink. “Jimmy can you take me to see Mom and Dad? If you’re not too busy?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said, putting the papers back in their manila folder. “Yeah of course. Now?”
Christina nodded. “We won’t tell Frankie, he doesn’t like us going…being around all those dead people, right?”
“I dunno,” he said. “It’s hard…to know what he likes.”
“He likes us. I guess that’s all that matters, huh?”
Jimmy smiled at his little sister. “Guess so.”
They never made it to the graveyard.
Their parents were at Saint Mary’s, in South Amboy–not too far from Parlin–but halfway there Christina went into another fit, her eyes wide and frosted-over white, her fingers digging into her skin. Jimmy’d swung to the side of the road, his heart knocking against his ribs, his breath caught in his throat as he grabbed her wrists and pulled her hands away from her face. Somewhere–somewhere close–sirens came screeching to life, an all-too-human wailing in time with Christina. Were there candles in the car? Jimmy didn’t know, could they turn around and go back? He didn’t even know where they had to go, where the accident was, where the angels were waiting.
“Christina!” Jimmy yelled, the traffic hushing around them. “Come on talk to me, tell me, tell me what…what to do!” Blood poured down her wrecked face like those crying statues of Mary and Jimmy felt within him a rage some complete he didn’t know how to swallow it down. Why her? Why the fuck is this happening to her? And for a moment his vision flared–like the white of the sun at its hottest, a wreathe of light and shadows against it, immense twisted shadows unlike anything Jimmy knew how to describe–
“Route 9.” Christina’s ragged, broken voice cut through Jimmy’s vision. “Parkway Overpass on Route 9.” She took a deep, shaky breath.
“Do we need candles?” Jimmy asked, his own voice somehow solid and steady.
“No,” Christina said, trying to wipe the blood off her cheeks. “No. I’ll be enough.”
Oh honey no you won’t Jimmy thought, his eyes burning now, his throat tight and caught around a thousand things he wanted to say. You won’t be enough for them. They’ll swallow you whole.
Jimmy pulled into the parking lot of a transmission place within sight of the overpass. Beyond the white fence, the first green of the season sprung to wild life in the tangled mess of forsythia bushes and low scrubby maple trees. Jimmy could see the accident: two SUVs; one had tried to change lanes without looking and thrown both onto the shoulder. Traffic was knotted to a surly standstill while cops and EMTs milled around. Christina stood against the guardrail, as close as she dared. They didn’t need the cops coming in and interrupting. Jimmy leaned against the hood of his car, waiting.
She knelt down on the glass-strewn asphalt, her head bowed. The EMTs were cutting into one of the SUVs, the one that’d been hit and the flashing emergency lights reflected in the shiny twisted metal of the wreck. Someone’s dead. Someone’s dead in there. They might not even know it yet. Christina meanwhile had reached into her pocket, pulled out a rosary that’d been their mothers. Her lips moved against it as she prayed, her voice drowned out by the traffic, the shouts.
Where are you? Jimmy glared up to where the Parkway forded Route 9, traffic backed up from the exits. Where are you goddamn monsters? He pushed his hair back, rubbed his hand over his face and swallowed hard, trying to clear his throat. His phone rang and he pulled it out. Frankie.
“You there?” Frankie’s voice was harsh against the receiver.
“Yeah, we’re here,” Jimmy said.
“Not done yet,” Jimmy said.
“We gotta do something.” Jimmy could hear traffic noises in the background and wondered where Frankie was calling from. “We can’t…look. I’m…I’m gonna call someone. Father Diaz. Remember him?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said, surprised. “Yeah, ‘course I do.”
“I’m gonna call him,” Frankie said and he hung up just as Christina collapsed onto the asphalt. Jimmy hurried over to her, picked her up as gentle as he knew how and laid her down across the backseat. They weren’t moving for a while, not until the traffic let up and Jimmy imagined the angels waiting, infused by whatever it was they wanted from Christina, hovering over the accident like a pair of fucking vultures. Her turned, look back at Christina. She was curled up into herself, so small and pale, shivering and muttering a little.
It’ll kill her Jimmy knew. It’ll fucking kill her.
Like it killed Mom and Dad. To make her…into this.
He put his head down on the steering wheel, warm from the heat of his hands. He didn’t know he’d been crying until Christina woke up and put a small, shaking hand on his shoulders and then he made himself stop.
Jimmy woke up the next morning with sun streaming in through the half-closed blinds and a dull throb pushing against his right eye. Frankie was there too, standing in the corner of Jimmy’s bedroom, staring at the corner book shelf.
“What the–?” Jimmy demanded, startled. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Frankie said. “It’s time to go.”
“What?” Jimmy asked, sitting up. His muscles felt raw, worked-over, like he’d been beaten. He rubbed a hand over his face, trying to clear his vision but when he opened his eyes again the morning was still blurred at the edges. Frankie looked rough–dark bruises blooming across his cheeks, a deep cut just starting to heal on his jaw.
“I asked Mrs. Janowski to keep an ear out. Come on.”
“Frank what the hell are you talking about?”
Frankie looked over at Jimmy. “The appointment, remember? I asked you to come with me. I can’t say it right, on my own.” He jammed his hands in his pockets, dropped his eyes to the scuffed-up hardwood floor.
“With Father Diaz.”
Jimmy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Oh yeah, right. Yeah. Sorry. Ok. I’ll be ready in a few, ok? Did you tell Christina?”
“Yeah, she’s ok. She’s painting.”
Jimmy nodded. “I could go you alone know. You don’t have to.”
Frankie glared at him. “I made the goddamn appointment.” His voice was rougher than usual, like all the cords in his throat had near rusted through; it’d been maybe a week since Jimmy had seen his brother in sunlight and he’d forgotten how angry and delicate Frankie could look. Frankie was like Christina in that–slim and half-wrecked, always on the edge of shattering. But of course, Frankie wasn’t any miracle so Jimmy didn’t worry about him as much. Whatever magic Frankie made when he was out alone, whatever demons he raised when he drove, whatever clung to him in ragged tatters, ghost-fumes of gasoline was a mystery to Jimmy.
At least it didn’t have anything to do with angels.
Jimmy drove the quick distance between their house in Parlin and the Church of St. James in South Amboy. They’d gone with their parents as kids but they hadn’t kept up much with it after the accident; still, Frankie had seen it as the best option. Christina’s school–back when she had gone to school–was at St. Stanislaus’ in Sayreville but Jimmy and Frankie knew better than to ever go to back there for help. After what they’d done to Christina, Jimmy would rather burn that place to the goddamn ground.
Father Martin Diaz met them out front. He looked almost the same as Jimmy remembered him–big, broad-shouldered guy who seemed much more like a boxer than a priest. His hair was greying a bit but his broad face still looked young and bright, somehow glowing even above the neat black of his vestments. He reached out, shook Frankie’s hand with both of his and then did the same to Jimmy.
“Please, come.” He led them inside.
They’d had the funerals here of course. Jimmy didn’t want to think about that. Instead he took in the waxy-white Easter lilies, the faded painted figures of Mary and Jesus stationed in the nave, the blue and yellow light filtered in through the stained glass windows. Father Diaz motioned for the brothers to follow him back into a little office where he’d pulled out two folding chairs from the basement. Jimmy sat but Frankie remained standing, his hands in his pockets, looking pale and uncomfortable.
“I’m glad to see you two again,” Father Diaz said. “I’ve thought of you often. And your sister. Your parents were good friends, very good. Tell me. How is she?”
Jimmy didn’t have to ask who he meant, but Frankie spoke before Jimmy could.
“She’s why we’re here,” he said in a gutted whisper. “We need help. We need to help her.”
Jimmy looked over at Frankie, wondering about the urgency in his voice.
Father Diaz frowned. “What is wrong?”
“You know,” Frankie said, staring down at the floor, scuffing his shoe against the faded linoleum. “You talked about it with our mother. You know, right?”
Father Diaz didn’t respond, but his frown deepened.
Frankie closed his eyes, shook his head. “Jimmy,” he said, barely audible. A plea.
“The angels,” Jimmy said, looking at the priest.
“Your mother mentioned,” Father Diaz said, steepling his hands and meeting Jimmy’s eyes with a direct, unblinking stare. “She didn’t know. Christina was young then. Six or so. Loretta wondered if, perhaps, she should see a doctor–she worried about brain tumors, psychological problems and I told her of course. Of course she should seek medical answers, but if none were present then–” he stopped, took a breath. “Then we must think about what to do. What I might be able to do. Before she died, Loretta told me–they’d gone everywhere they could. All sorts of specialists. I don’t know if you remember–”
“We…we knew she went to doctors. But not why,” Jimmy said, the same sick rise of guilt blooming in his gut as he remembered the self-absorption of being young–how he and Frankie had been able to turn away from whatever it was their parents had seen in Christina.
Father Diaz nodded. “Well she said that…that there was nothing wrong with her at all, so perhaps…there was something to what she saw. What she sees?” He waited and Jimmy nodded once, in confirmation. “Ah. So it’s continued.”
“It’s gotten worse,” Frankie said, raw now. Angry. “She can’t go to school anymore. She can barely eat. Sleep. Nothing. She…she rips herself to shreds. We gotta…do something about it but–” he stopped, pushed his thin hand through his hair and stared down at the floor again. “She can’t carry it all alone. It’ll kill her.”
And Jimmy knew what Frankie really wanted to say. What he wanted to ask. Why he’d made this appointment in the first place.
“We need to see them too,” Jimmy said, staring at the priest.
Father Diaz met Jimmy’s eyes and nodded. “Yes. Of course you do.”
Late afternoon settled uneasy, with a ridge of clouds coming up in the west and a muttering wind that pushed through the budding tree-limbs, hinting the unsteady atmosphere was fight-ready. Jimmy and Frankie sat on the back deck, watching Christina paint. She’d started six years ago, trying desperately to get everything in her head out somewhere so she could sleep again. It hadn’t helped but she still seemed to take comfort in it, although her paintings were anything but gentle. She painted the angels as best she could–horrifying things, Jimmy thought, twisted and broken, like a car wreck wrapped around a semi-human form but huge and and hulking and entirely inhuman. Jimmy watched the latest one take shape, a thing of rust and asphalt and darkness cupping a candle in its steel-tipped claws. The eyes had a sick dim glow like half-dead headlights, cracked and fogged.
“So how’d the meeting go?” Christina asked, trying to sound casual.
“We made a decision,” Frankie said, leaning back on an old rusted deck chair. “Jimmy and me.”
“And we want to see them too.”
Christina put down her brush. “No.”
Frankie looked at Jimmy.
“Yeah,” Jimmy said. He felt the old picnic table creak beneath his weight as he shifted forward. “Yeah, you can’t do it alone. So Frankie and me, we want to help. We want to spread it out, you know? So it’s not just you.”
“You guys have jobs. You have Dad’s shop. You…you guys shouldn’t have to have…this.” Her voice was hiss, a sharp whisper. She jabbed her finger at her painting, her big sick eyes dark now against her paper-white skin. The red trenches her fingernails had dug in her face stood even starker as she paled.
“Neither should you,” Jimmy said. “You didn’t ask for Mom to pray you into existence.” His bitterness surprised him, the words tasting like bile.
Christina blinked. “That’s not…”
“That’s not what? What happened? ‘Course it is. Father Diaz knows. Ma wanted a girl and she reached out for whatever…whatever might wanna listen and then she had you. That’s not your fault. None of this is. So let us help ok? Let us see them too.”
The wind picked up, pushing damp dead leaves across the dead grass. Spring might’ve been coming but it wasn’t there yet.
“I don’t even know if you can,” Christina said. She looked at her painting, her eyes fever-bright. “I don’t know.”
“There’s gotta be a way. Father Diaz said he’d help.”
“No,” Christina said, still staring at the dim-headlight glare of the nightmare she’d worked on canvas. “No, it’s not…it’s not his god.” She took a ragged breath. “I don’t know if it’s god at all. I don’t want you two to get hurt. You’re all I have.”
“That goes both ways,” Frankie said, his jaw locked tense and tight, his hands curled into white-knuckled fists around the rusted chair-arms. “It’s gonna tear you apart if you don’t let us in.”
Between them passed a quick current Jimmy could only intuit, rather than feel. He knew the air around Frankie and Christina was crackling with whatever magic made them and his only thought ran: please let it leave me enough of myself to keep them safe.
“Okay,” Christina said, looking down at the water-stained deck. “Okay. Frankie. Tonight. Drive us three to the river. I’ll…I’ll try.”
Christina’s angels seemed willing to keep Frankie alive. Jimmy hadn’t driven with his brother in years because Jimmy knew no one wants to bring along company when they pray. But Frankie hadn’t changed much, whipping down 513 through a rain-choked midnight, his eyes narrowed and furious, speeding through red lights and yet never did Jimmy feel like Frankie might lose control. Frankie spent his rage on gasoline, burning it up inside of him as he pushed his red Chevy through countless near-misses. Jimmy sat up front beside Frankie, watching his brother’s face, the wrecked topography of it looking like a starved saint’s. Frankie hadn’t said much at all since the afternoon. He’d gone out for a while and come back bleeding, his knuckles swollen, bloodied, maybe broken–Jimmy knew better than to suggest Frankie getting them looked at.
They both look like Mom Jimmy realized, catching Christina’s eyes in the rearview. They both look like she asked god for them. Any god.
He wondered for a moment what his father thought about the miracles. Sal Battaglia had never said much one way or the other but he’d watched, hadn’t he? And Jimmy could make his voice as calm and sweet as his dad’s had been.
Frankie pulled into the Middlesex County Fire Academy’s parking lot. They’d have to walk the rest of the way, through the dark wet earth toward the river. It was poison country here, the runoff of factory waste and thick smoke fumes settling into the currents; they didn’t speak as they hurried across the access roads, ducking from the wide sweeping lights of trucks as they hissed and screeched their way from the steel yard and oil holdings back toward the highway. Jutted tangles of rusted metal clawed free of the mud and Jimmy grabbed Christina’s hand to keep her from tripping. A sick dread spiked through his gut, feeling how close her bones were to the skin but she held on tight to him, warm against his own work-rough palm. Frankie pushed ahead, the scent of gasoline clinging to him like a thick shroud and Jimmy though there was just the barest hint of a glow to him, a yellow luminescence that looked like distant headlights tearing through a low heavy fog.
They tripped over the train tracks and there the Raritan waited.
“Now what?” Jimmy asked. Christina was drenched, her black hair streaming down her back and Jimmy took off his Rutgers sweatshirt and gave it to her. She held it close but didn’t put it on.
“You have to go in the river,” Christina said, her teeth chattering. “You have to submerge yourselves. You have to die and then…come back.” She wiped her face and her voice hitched. “Please don’t die. Please.”
“We won’t,” Frankie said, and he reached out, grabbed Jimmy’s hand in his. There was a throbbing beneath Frankie’s rough skin, a pulse that drowned out his brother’s heartbeat and Jimmy thought oh they’re both magic, just like Mom was and I gotta be like them to save them. I gotta become them so I can keep them safe. Frankie’s grip was tight, almost painful, but Jimmy didn’t flinch.
“Come on,” Jimmy said.
They waded through the thick mud, the marshy limbo between land and river and the water wasn’t nearly as cold as it should’ve been. Jimmy could taste the thick brackish waste as he and Frankie made it waist-deep into the current, the poison, the metallic refuse, the thin coppery spike of blood at the back of his throat. Frankie’s hand was still tight around Jimmy’s and he paused, looking over at him.
“You gotta burn it off,” Frankie said in a low voice, barely audible above the river and the rain. “You promise? Come with me.”
“I promise,” Jimmy said. He hadn’t realized until his voice caught thick that he was crying.
Frankie nodded once and smiled. He let go of Jimmy and dived under the water. Taking a deep breath, filling his lungs with the dirty wet night air, Jimmy dove too, following his brother beneath the water.
Frankie and Jimmy Battaglia submerge in the river
and they don’t die, they breathe in the brackish
streams until their lungs are more water than tissue,
all the screaming impulse of blood burned away in
cold and poison, and this, then, is where they should
die but the river doesn’t allow it; the river knows
only how to survive-
they emerge coated in the river’s skein, great glowing
immensities sparking the air between their fingertips,
brave brothers, o, and their sister in the sick poisoned green
her big prophet eyes wide and unblinking to the asphalt angels,
to the factory fumes and the rattling comfortable
traffic hum, their miracle sister in the accident glow
watching above the bridge-span and praying
let them see, let them see, let them see the river the road that doesn’t know dying let them know the awful magic Mother worked to keep them safe to bind them and their deadly strength that I became their patron saint, seeing the angels so my brothers would always come home make them holy now in your dirty river-mouth make them holy and let them see, let them see, let them see.
The air was cool and slick as metal on Jimmy’s tongue. He stood dripping wet, Frankie’s hand in his again, staring up at Christina as she stood by the railroad tracks, her thin body glowing white and her eyes as bright as headlights.
Frankie turned to Jimmy.
“Did it work?”
“I dunno,” Jimmy said. “Let’s go see.”