Squad had not planned to make their last stand at the ice skating rink. Here in Jakarta, their smoke smothered city of sewerage rivers and smoldering equatorial slums, it didn't make sense that this was how the end would come- somehow it was just the way things had turned out.
Outside, in the shopping mall, the mob had just set fire to a family restaurant. They were out for blood. Brother Damien kept the insulated door that was the only way in or out of the rink open for just long enough to toss his grenade at them.
"See you in hell, infidels" he screamed before swinging it shut and thus sealing off their one plausible chance of getting out alive. Even from behind the door the thump of the thing exploding was enough to set their ears ringing.
"Booya!” Brother Damien said, actually punching the air, “score one Jesus Squad!"
And if there had have been anyone close enough, he certainly would have insisted on giving them a high five.
The boys of Jesus Squad listened and felt less than positive.
Jesus, thought Budi, three weeks ago he'd been a good school boy at a place called Exalted Cross Academy. Technically Brother Damien still was the chaplain.
Brother Damien had somehow exchanged his dress shoes for ice skates and was cutting across the ice, expertly, the same way he did everything. Brother Damien was shouting instructions at the gaggle of school boys who had climbed up onto the grandstand above the door so they could throw the rocks they were carrying off at the first people to break through.
Moose Night at Puri Indah Mall Budi thought- of all the places and of all the times.
Even now just being on the ice was enough set loose powerful memories of the impossible foreign universe that had been his life up until three weeks ago. Crouching behind the boundary fence where, Brother Damien planned, they would fight or die, Budi toyed with his sling shot and murmured "slide to the right, slide the left, spin, spin, spin, Moose!"
Brother Damien was sliding past on his way to bark at another group of boys, who were milling about as though they'd forgotten what he had told them about the importance of sharpening their machetes, when he noticed Budi's moving lips and nervous fingers.
Damien was a man who never got tired of repeating the bit of scripture where, according to him, Jesus advised that if someone felt his right hand might cause him to sin he should hack it off. In a perfect world, he told people, this type of advice would be taken literally. His thing was that Christian men had become sissies and took the whole love and peace bit far too seriously. Budi looked up and knew that Damien hadn't guessed what he was thinking because his voice was merely an over-baked huff, and not the genuinely indignant roar he saved for the boys he suspected of what he termed ‘thinking wrong’.
"Chin up Budi" he said. "When the first one gets through I want you to put a rock right in his face". He paused to punctuate by slamming his fist into his hand. "David and Goliath Budi, it's all right there in the Good Book".
Budi must have looked uncertain because Damien, seemingly oblivious to the increasingly violent noises produced by the seething mob outside, didn't look away. Instead he cocked his head slightly and asked with a slowness that might have been suspicion "Budi?"
Budi looked up reluctantly with what he hoped was a blank expression.
"Where are you going to put that stone?"
"In their faces, brother".
"Damn right" Damien thumped his fist into his palm again and started to slide off. "Booya! The Good Book, that's where it's at, right there, black and white".
The door was a formidable metal gate, built thick to keep the Jakarta swelter from melting the ice, but they all knew it wasn't going to hold up the mob more than five minutes at the most. To Budi's ears the sound of them trying to batter it down was a slow metallic thumping from the deep ocean.
Above them all, hung from the roof by its expensive fiberglass antlers, was the enormous all seeing head of Mikey Moose.
A lifetime ago (or was it just three weeks?) the ice rink at Puri Indah Mall had been the very place where Budi had come nightly to train as a Mooseling- and not just any Mooseling, but an all singing, all dancing Mooseling on ice.
When Mikey Moose and his Magical Christmas Wonderland went on tour from their home base at the world famous Nevada Moosedome to unlikely places like the Puri Indah Mall Ice Rink the show often had to rope in local ice skating talent to make up numbers. In the first dance routine, ‘Midnight Dance of the Christmas Mooses’, there was just no other way to keep up the sense of movement on stage in the lead up to the bit where Mikey leaped backwards through a blazing hoop of fire.
Training as a Mooseling had been very tough for Budi, who had only started ice skating because the child psychologist his concerned parents had consulted suggested it might be good for his hand eye co-ordination.
As a Chinese Indonesian, part of a culture where the correct response to just about any situation was to at least try and look calm and accepting, Budi had kept the giddy highs and intense sleepless anxiety that he had gone through daily until three weeks before Moose Night to himself. For him, more than the physical strain of ice skating strapped into a full body moose suit complete with the giant antlers, more than the difficulty of mastering the impossibly complicated dance moves, what had really made the Mooseling experience so emotionally exhausting was the uncertainty that went along with it.
Mikey's keepers at Moose Concepts Corporation had for the longest time been unsure of whether Jakarta was really the right place for their Moose and his Magical Christmas Wonderland on Ice. Like most foreigners their faint acquaintance with the city had been defined by alarmist media sound bites.
Urban Meltdown! Population Explosion! Cholera Outbreak! These were the type of phrases that shaped the way outsiders saw the city. And it seemed every newspaper in the west had carried a story about that unfortunate incident in 2000 where drug crazed factions from the police and army had engaged in a small but very noisy turf war over their rival vice rackets.
Moose Concepts executives were jetted in to do lunch and explain, with extreme tact, that in view of Jakarta being 97% Muslim, almost on the equator and generally living on less than five dollars a day, the people at head office weren't sure that it was a place they wanted to bring the Magical Christmas Moose on Ice just now.
They said they had an issue with security.
For the Chinese Indonesian community having Mikey in town was about pride, it was not an issue over which they were prepared to take the word no for an answer. Sure, they weren't living in New York or Paris or even Singapore, but just because they happened to inhabit what was basically a failed city in what was very nearly a failed state didn't mean they would accept being treated like failures themselves.
Community representatives meet with the Moose people and explained the situation as simply as they knew how. Yes, they conceded, Indonesia did have more than its share of problems. On steamy islands out of the world's sight and mind subsistence farmers went in for separatist and sectarian carnage as if malaria and malnutrition weren't already more than enough to make their lives short and brutalized. Within the congested bowls of the sprawling cancerous capital terrorists tinkered with car bombs that always seemed oddly insignificant when they exploded and 10 million people were still drinking untreated sewerage. But, the men and woman from Moose Concepts were informed over soup made from the very last surviving Sumatran cave sparrows (which tasted similar to chicken and were said to be beneficial for eyesight when their bones were consumed after prolonged boiling), these were problems that belonged to other people, not them.
Their community were different, and separate.
Not only did they have money, but according to a study they had commissioned Price Waterhouse Coopers to undertake, they were the most devoted consumers of Mikey Moose products and services on the face of the globe. Their lavish concern for the financial welfare of visiting executives and rumored links to ultra-violent organized crime syndicates, though hard to ignore, had nothing to do with corruption and everything to do with ancient tradition, so it was OK.
They had built Puri Indah Mall and its ice rink less as a place to shop and skate than a bold statement that no matter how extreme the poverty in their broiling tropical city got, no one could ever take away their right to fantasize that they lived in Finland.
The suits from Nevada were told that if could just see it in their hearts to let Mikey come to town, the place would be put at their unquestioned disposal for as long as they needed it.
Even after all that, back at the Moosedome they still had to agonize over it for a year before they made the decision that Mikey, the world's premier Christmas quadruped, would be sent to bring joy and a very special message about the spirit of giving to the children of Jakarta's fabulously wealthy, but for one magical night only.
In Jakarta they called it Moose Night and started counting down the days.
Of the two hundred million people living in Indonesia perhaps the only ones who could say that ice skating was something they engaged in on a regular basis were the twelve children in Budi’s Tuesday night beginners class. It was left to their instructor, a young Norwegian far from home, to break the news to them that all the rumors they had heard about Mikey Moose’s visit were completely true.
Mikey was coming he told them, and Mikey needed their help. On Moose Night they would only be performing bit parts of course, ballast to balance things for the star of the show, but overall their role was still crucial enough to warrant a certified Moose Instructor being flown in to bring them up to scratch.
It was more than a dream come true.
Budi had difficulty getting used to the Moose Instructor. He had pictured an aging athlete with a gentle voice and love for the sport, an older version of the young Norwegian perhaps. Instead they got a squat man with an indeterminate accent and an implausibly red face who shoved one of the security guards and called him a "little yellow fucker" when politely asked to put out his cigarette. Apparently he had been in the Olympics a long time ago for some country that no longer existed, though no one was brave enough to ask him about it.
Still, a meek, accepting bunch, Budi’s elementary ice skating class, now renamed the Moose Support Team, had dutifully turned up Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays to maneuver around the ice and be incomprehensibly rasped at by their coach who installed himself behind the boundary fence with a megaphone and a cigarette and stayed there.
Between his accent and the loudspeaker Budi couldn't understand much of what he said, just what seemed to be the really important bit which was, "slide to the right, slide the left, spin, spin, spin, Moose!"
Until he was forced out of it, three weeks before Moose Night, Budi and his Moose Support Team had come very close to getting it right.
The ice-rink had become the focus of Budi's life. It was what he thought about as he sat in class during the day, it was where he went every evening after school. At night, while he slept, he visited the place in his dreams.
Even now, under siege at the beginning of what all pointers indicated was the apocalypse Brother Damien had been promising them, Budi couldn’t forget what the rink had meant to him before things had gone so terribly wrong.
He thought of how, through the small door behind the drink stall where Brother Damien was showing a group of boys something about Molotov Cocktails, a row of Moose Suits would be still hanging in the dark. He thought of how, night after night in his dreams, Budi had seen himself sitting in that unlit room on the bench beneath his costume, waiting for the show to start.
There had been three weeks to go until the performance when Damien called Budi into his office at school. Damien had told Budi to make himself comfortable. He had then told him that Mikey Moose and all his works and promises were nothing more than cogs in the transparent liberal conspiracy to turn Christmas into a materialistic orgy. He had said that Mikey Moose was almost as bad as Santa, who as everyone knew, was merely an anagram of Satan.
"You have to understand” Brother Damien had instructed him, “that a Moose is essentially just a golden cow, only brown and with furry horns”.
That had been the heart of the explanation Damien had given as to why Budi would, from this point onwards, be forbidden from training with the Moose Support Team. Brother Damien had expanded on the issue over the next twenty minutes, but Budi was concentrating too hard on keeping back the tears to really listen.
It was, he thought wearily, his own fault. He had been an idiot to let himself believe without any doubt that he would really be allowed to perform.
"Are you OK?" Damien had asked horribly. "Have some water".
Budi stayed still and said nothing.
"Come on now, give me a smile? You've still got Jesus Squad. Now that you're not skating any more you'll be able to come along two nights a week instead of just one. Didn't you like that stuff I taught you guys about slingshots?"
Budi hadn’t really liked it at all, but nodded his head because it was what he had to do.
"That's better" he enthused, "and there's so much great stuff I'm going to show you. We have to stand up for ourselves you know Budi. These are amazing times. You wouldn't believe some of the things I could tell you. Anything could happen, at any time- we've got to be ready".
Behind the door the mob gave a frightened roar and something thudded into the metal with a sickening metallic clunk and enough force to leave a sizeable dint.
Jesus Squad stopped sharpening their machetes and funneling gasoline into empty coke bottles to look at each other in a long second of undiluted fear. They could faintly hear the frantic whine of an engine in reverse. There was the muffled squeal of breaks. The frightening discordant clamor of the mob picked up again.
Someone said, "they've got a fork lift".
Brother Damien slid as close as he could get to the door. He looked more alive now than at any other since Budi had known him- a different man from the mildly smiling role model who told them about the endless power of God's love and pointed out how a new translation of Leviticus had revealed that lentils and beans just might be the His answer to their weight loss problems. He tilted one ear towards the noise and looked at the boys, his eyes smoldering with what could only be described as bloodlust.
He said, "it won't be long now".
And although, as he listened to the sounds of his world collapsing around him, Budi Lugu's life did not flash before his eyes, certain events from earlier that day did occur to him with more than ordinary vividness.
It was ten on the Tuesday morning before the night of the siege.
Five seats in from the aisle and two rows up from the front, hushed and groomed and uniformed, Budi sat among the boys of Jesus Squad and listened to the preacher Brother Damien had flown in all the way from America to speak to them.
The preacher was an American named Billy Dwayne Braggart.
As if listening to a man named Billy Dwayne Braggart on the day when he wasn’t allowed to be an ice skating moose hadn’t made life strange enough for Budi, early that morning, while eating breakfast, he had got a call from his homeroom teacher telling him that classes for the day had been canceled.
She had said there was some kind of protest planned in the center of the city that day, and that although there was probably no risk to any of the five hundred students and staff at Exalted Cross Academy, the school council had decided it would be better if everyone stayed on the safe side and remained at home.
It was only the boys of Jesus Squad that were expected to somehow find a way around the gridlock caused by hundreds of thousands taking to the streets and get to the Krystal Kathedral to listen to their American guest.
Budi didn’t know very much about what was going on. There had been a lot of protests over the past few years, and although they were noisy and clogged up the traffic, he never took any notice of them. Anyway, sitting with his fifty comrades from Jesus Squad, swallowed up by the vastness of the Krystal Kathedral, it was very easy to forget about the rest of the world.
The Krystal Kathedral, like the rest of Puri Indah Mall, was designed to make people feel that way.
Puri Indah Mall was a vast hanging garden of imported plushness, replete with a cascade of indoor waterfalls, inbuilt luxury apartments and a petting zoo with a rare white tiger from Sulawesi that had been lobotomized to ensure the highest standards of visitor safety and comfort. In the fetid swamp that is west Jakarta there wasn’t a shanty dweller that couldn’t look up and get an excellent view of the place’s two towers jutting into the poisoned air.
The architects who had designed the mall were given very specific instructions. Next to the multiplex and one level up from the ice skating rink, was to be a Kathedral, a building that they were asked to build in a way that would leave anyone who entered reeling with shock and awe at the strength of God's power on earth.
The Krystal Kathedral had a cross the size of a five story building, a K instead of a C and its roof was an ocean of frosted glass that let the goodness of God's sunlight spill across His faithful without being so clear as to let them see the permanent shade of dishwater grey they had stained His sky. It smelled like a bank and could hold up to five hundred. The carpet was a reassuring shade called heavenly blue.
"Puri Indah Mall" said Billy Dwayne Braggart, standing behind a golden podium molded in the shape of a screaming eagle, "is the will of God”.
Billy D. Braggart was fat. Enormously, blatantly, terribly, grotesquely fat. At a distance, in restaurants and airports, people laughed and marveled and idly asked each other whether they'd have a special seat for a guy like that or just come out with it and charge him for two. In Jakarta, in the monsoon, among the sodden shirted and smooth skinned who had never had a pinch of lard to spare, the shock of his ungainly carriage and dramatic whiteness would have had the potential to stop traffic, which is one of the main reasons why his entire stay there consisted of being whisked from the airport to the Krystal Kathedral and back again in a limousine with tinted windows.
People were always surprised, after they saw Braggart preach, that when it come down to doing what he did best, his fatness was not the thing. If anything it tended to compliment what he had to say and how he said it. Billy Dwayne was no bible basher, not in the literal sense anyway. His voice was a calm rumbling bass, the sound of someone's favorite all American uncle, and spoke of comfort and certainty and the clearest sort of completely non judgmental moral firmness. It went well with his roundness that sound- it turned the ample curves that would normally not be much more than a warning against the dangers of excessive hamburger consumption and a sedentary life style into a rotund endorsement of good old fashioned family values.
Billy D. Braggart could endorse family values while he said just about anything.
He gazed out at the boys who had been bussed in to listen to him, eyes moist with sincerity and the Holy Spirit and said "A Strawberry Fields hypermarket, dozens of boutique shops selling the world’s finest designer labels, a food court where you can find a hamburger and a milk-shake at any time of the day or night”.
Braggart paused pointedly, taking the chance to glance around and see how he was doing. After being told that he would be speaking to five hundred school kids the audience of just fifty had come as a bit of a shock.
Something about a protest they had said.
Mainly he was just was thankful that none of them seemed to have noticed the perspiration running down his face. Brother Damien, wearing a beatific smile and a finely tailored suit gazed back at him serenely and thought, ‘you greasy American tub of lard’. Feeling encouraged Braggart went on.
"Brothers" he said shifting up a gear to a tone that both pleaded and appealed, "there are people who will tell you that these things are not of God. I say to you, don't listen to them. Listen instead to the word of the Lord himself as it has been faithfully handed down to us through the Gospels. Genesis, Leviticus, Judges, Ezekiel and the Letters of Saint Paul to the Mondoshawans, the message in all of these is clear”.
Braggart opened his mouth as if to speak, but instead brought a definitive index finger down on the podium. He tilted his head forward to look dramatically over the top of his reading glasses and moved his mouth close enough to the microphone so that he suddenly sounded as though he was breathing down the neck of every person there.
"God wants you to live the good life" is what he said. "Puri Indah Mall is doing God's work. When you finish here today I want you to leave with Jesus Fire in your hearts and, courtesy of the Intercontinental Bible Fellowship, a voucher for a tub of buttered pop-corn and movie of your choice at the multiplex in your pockets".
Braggart stopped to let his message sink in. There was the rumble of air-conditioning, the background noise of wealth. He smiled. He said "God Bless You All".
Braggart finished his speech to subdued applause mixed with the thump and shuffle of students beginning to stir.
Jesus Squad had been listening to him exhort the virtues of a God that loved hamburgers for over two hours and, although a more polite bunch of school boys probably never existed, they did have a limit. They were expecting to be let out into the mall for a break, so when Brother Damien stepped out onto the stage and seized the microphone before his guest had even been led out the door to the waiting limousine there was a definite murmur of annoyance.
Brother Damien apologized for making them come to in to the Krystal Kathedral when all their classmates had the day off and for not letting them take a break.
But today, he told them, was no ordinary day and there was no time to spare.
Invisible among the sea of neatly combed heads was Budi. For all his talk about how this was no ordinary day Damien seemed to be slipping into his ‘signs and wonders’ speech again, the same one Budi had heard twice a week for the past year, and could just about recite by heart. He didn’t need to listen to know he was being told that the epic show down between the forces of Satan and the bible believing Christians of the world was coming soon, or that it was the duty of every good Christian man to be physically and spiritually prepared.
Instead Budi let his imagination take him somewhere he would rather be.
‘Slide to the right, slide the left’ he was thinking, ‘spin, spin, spin, Moose!’
That morning, three meters away from Budi, standing awkwardly before the stage on which Brother Damien was speaking, was a profoundly wrinkled white man of somewhere around fifty who, even in the air conditioning, visibly sweltered and itched.
He had let himself in and come down the aisle while Braggart was still speaking, although no one had noticed.
The white man was called Frank, and he was the sort of person who went unnoticed most of the time. Five days a week he did a very poor job of teaching final year economics at Exalted Cross Academy. Like all the other teachers he had been given the day off- the reason he stood glowering and gaping at the end of the aisle in the Krystal Kathedral was personal. This was the day, he had tried to convince himself, that he was finally going to sort Brother Damien out once and for all.
Over many long nights made sleepless by indignation, fear and sticky heat, Frank had decided exactly what he was going to say when he finally found the courage to stand up in public and confront Damien about his ridiculous Jesus Squad.
But now he had gotten to the point where all he needed to do was raise his voice it wasn’t happening. He could feel his mouth moving, but no words were coming out.
What Frank really looked like he was trying to do was imitate a large awkward fish that had been taken out of the water and allowed to slowly suffocate. No one seemed to have even realized he was there, let alone trying to speak.
Up on stage Desmond droned on, something about how the second coming of Christ would be in fire, but desperately as Frank wanted to interrupt him all he could do was look on, grinding his yelled teeth ridiculously in intense frustration.
For almost his entire life Frank had been a frustrated man, as well as a fool and a French Canadian- although he did have an excellent heart.
He was the sole owner of drawn out, multi-generational series of misfortunes which had seen his family and a small factory that made coat-hangers break apart and spiral slowly and painfully down the sink. Jakarta seemed an unlikely place to find someone like him, and the truth was that his arrival there had been an attempt to escape from a life that had become a train wreck, and his continued presence more to do with a sordid fixation with a forth rate gold digger than anything else.
Frank had never been a man with a talent for finding ways to blame other people for his problems. The truth is that anyone who had bothered to look could have seen that his business partner was embezzling the money, everyone but him had known about the situation with his wife and his best friend, and if he had have had the backbone to say no to his kids, even just once, then maybe the whole thing with the car accident would never have happened.
But Frank's really grave mistake had been completely his own. He made the choice to live his life believing that the clean cut people who walked the clean swept streets of his home in Quebec went around trying to do the right thing, that the stories of human cruelty that filled the newspapers each day were a result of weakness rather than malice, and that, furthermore, they happened to people other than him.
It was only after 55 years of life, alone and having been definitively screwed by anyone who had ever meant anything to him, that he gave it up.
He looked about the world in which he had lived his life with a fresh new disgust, and hatched the idea that it was the comfort and outward cleanliness of his home that made it possible for people to be so awful. The possibility occurred to him that it was in the unfortunate places of the earth, where not even life could be taken for granted, that he would find people who still had some kind of human decency remaining.
Frank, of course, understood very little about the school in which he taught and almost absolutely nothing about the society which had created it.
Exalted Cross Academy was a self proclaimed bible believing prep school for the choicest of foreign universities, fiercely proud of the whiteness of its imported teachers. It was strange foreign object in the Jakarta slums, a bizarre love-hate child, born of the dilemma of the Chinese Indonesian community who didn't need to be told that they weren't welcome in Jakarta, but had found, much to their horror, that there was nowhere else they could call home.
It existed because they hoped their children would be able to do better.
The community credited the school's continued existence to prayer and a faith that they proclaimed as complete and unconditional, although impartial observers would probably also give some credit to the high fences and dozens of goons who were hired to loiter around the surrounding streets and hurry along anyone who didn't look the part.
Most of the Chinese Indonesian families had been in Jakarta for hundreds of years, some had been there for longer. Among the hundreds of millions of humans who had been drawn to Indonesia by currents of warm water and fragrantly profitable spices they were nothing more than a tiny minority. Gentle mercantile people, their outward traits were mainly shy good manners, but it was their skill in getting and holding onto money that brought upon them the enraged envy of just about everyone else.
In the 1960s the country had come under the thrall of a demented dictator, a renaissance man called Sukarno who, until he was wrecked by cerebral syphilis, had been a sharp negotiator in six languages. His program for national greatness began with appropriating public money for unsubtle phallic monuments to the glory of his rule, continued with telling the Americans to go to hell with their aid and eventually (on the advice of his astrologer) involved sparking off a pogrom of sorts in which the poor Indonesian Chinese were accused simultaneously of being communists, capitalists, foreigners, traitors, Christians, atheists and agents of the devil.
They were lynched and raped and hacked to pieces with machetes in the streets. Their property was burned.
Somewhere in the bloody midst of it all the government was taken over by a general called Suharto, a money minded man who saw that all the killing was no good at all for business. In return for their help in open theft of billions of dollars that had been painfully scratched from the earth by the impoverished multitudes under his rule, he managed to downgrade their incipient genocide to mere harassment. A quieter, slightly less messy form of ethnic cleansing where-by they were able to keep on existing just so long as they dropped all outward signs of their language and culture, and forgot about the hungry ghosts of their ancestors.
It was a deal with the devil, and done out of desperation, but for all that it was fairly profitable for everyone involved.
Since then the Chinese of Jakarta , although careful to pay homage to the fez caps and strangely insipid marching bands of modern Indonesian nationalism, had kept their mixing with the wider population at a minimum. The laws that were intended to destroy their identity only made them stick closer together. Each generation talked about leaving, but their more bitter than sweet attachment to the suffering, disastrous city stopped it from happening. The language of their ancestors slipped away.
Instead they found Jesus and the clean cut image espoused by the likes of people like Billy Braggart. Turning the other cheek had long been a humiliating though very necessary act of survival, the idea that by doing so they could pile up a profit in heaven was one that appealed to them across a whole spectrum of levels.
Where there had been temples they built churches. While once they had done calligraphy now they made banners proclaiming the Good News that the Lord had come, and though He had come been too late to stop several thousand of them from being brutally murdered by their neighbors, no one seemed to hold this against Him.
They built Exalted Cross Academy and imported teachers to run it.
Like the Puri Indah Mall and its Krystal Kathedral it wasn't just a building, it was a statement of things they could never say out loud. It said we're smarter than you and we're different- it said you tried to destroy us, but we survived.
Up on the stage Damien’s speech seemed to be coming to an end.
He was finishing, as usual, by re-telling the story of how he had been saved, witnessing was the word he liked to use. The boys from Jesus Squad had heard it all many times before, though as always they sat still and looked attentive.
Damien was thirty five, he had a blunt, intelligent face and a type of volatile charisma that mostly stemmed from the way he spoke. His understated Singaporean accent brought a faint though very real menace to his evangelical musings, and he was good enough with words to be able to sum up his wayward youth as a budding young capitalist in one short sentence.
"I did terrible things".
Still standing at the bottom of the stage Frank opened and closed his mouth vainly.
The way Brother Damien told the story it was God himself who had pulled him from a wretched life of hedonism, and ultimately saved from the fiery pits of hell. His view was that the least he could do in return was provide his Lord and Savior with some serious payback.
Jesus Squad had been his idea. Since becoming the school chaplain it had been his main project. Apart from Frank, who was frequently heard babbling that the new chaplain was turning the long established after school bible study group into violent neo-fascist militia for boys, and was universally ignored, no one guessed what was going on. This pleased Damien. He felt that it was possible that, even among the good bible believing folk of Exalted Cross Academy, some might not understand if the boys started talking about Jesus Fire or what he had told them about how someone could dispatch an enemy of God using nothing but prayer and their bare hands.
From the front of his economics class Frank had watched the buzz cuts multiplying week after week and just knew that something bad was happening in that gym. It was when his students started greeting other with a decidedly militaristic Boo-ya!, that he decided that he had to act.
Standing at the bottom of the stage, swaying slightly under the red tinged tide of anger that had covered what little sense he had, it occurred to Frank that at age fifty five, with the wreckage of a whole life created and disposed of on the other side of the world, he still felt exactly like a school boy, and that this was unfair.
"The enemies of God are not only spiritual enemies", Damien was proclaiming from behind the eagle, "they're very real. Right here in Jakarta, out on the streets today, there is unambiguous evidence that the final terrible battle will soon be upon us. Boys, it will then be our duty to fight, and if need be to die, for our beliefs"...
Frank's pulse, erratic and panic driven reached a sort of crescendo. Right through the Kathedral an acrid smell like moth balls that could have only been his sweat was suddenly clear. Frank buckled a little, and gripped the back of the nearest seat for support.
In a single movement everyone turned to look at him. On the stage Damien placed his notes on the eagle and stepped away from the microphone.
The boys leaned forward to listen.
"Frank”. Away from the microphone the empty space ate up Brother Damien's words. He sounded smaller. "What are you doing here?"
"I have photos Damien" he stammered. Frank had not been blessed with a good speaking voice. Unkind people had been known to liken it to that of a goat. At the best of times it was bad enough that even his students, who rarely made up names about anyone, tended to call him Goaty.
Desmond gave a nervous smile. He said "Frank, not now".
"Don't try to silence me Damien" Frank squeaked, "I'm on to you. I know exactly what you're about, and I have photos to prove it".
"Frank, please you're making a fool of yourself."
"Friday Damien" Frank quavered, "if I don't arrive at school on Friday morning and hear that Jesus Squad is being shut down then I swear I'm going to take my photos and go to the principal. You'll be out on your arse Damien, and I'll be glad to see it".
How Frank could have got photos and what he might have photographed Damien didn't know, but he felt sure that if photos existed of the time they'd dressed a female mannequin up as the Pope and used it as target practice for their sling shots then they would be misunderstood.
Frank felt everyone watching him as he headed up the stairs and out of the Kathedral.
The way he walked wasn't any more graceful that the way he spoke, he huffed and wiggled. Damien watched with the others, his mild expression of mingled tolerance and bemusement put on completely for the benefit of the boys, who could not be allowed to realize how worried actually he was.
Damien went back to the podium and fiddled with the microphone.
"I'm sorry about that interruption", he said "it certainly won't happen again. What he was saying just now, if you heard it, was of course nonsense, but there's a lesson in it. It's just more proof that we must be on our guard all the time. The Prince of Darkness is everywhere, he's intelligent, he's determined, and he can and will take on the most unlikely disguises. We must never let our guard down".
Damien pointed to a boy sitting in the front row who got out of his seat and bounced up the stairs to the doors Frank had just gone through.
"Are they locked Luis?" Damien called.
Luis rattled the doors. "They’re locked Brother".
Damien walked away from the podium to the center of the stage. He scanned the audience, checking that no other outsiders had decided to visit.
"Boys" he said, a tiny figure standing in the center of the stage beneath the huge cross, "you've already learned that being a true Christian man is a role that comes with the responsibility for self defence. Now for that reason I've already taught you things you might not have known before, how to turn a glass bottle into a weapon for example, or how to make a sling shot that will stop a pagan right in his tracks. Today I have something more for you, something you might not have expected. From today boys, we’re going to have the tools to stand up for ourselves the way Christian men should".
Under the overpasses and by the banks of open sewers lined with slowly burning piles of plastic waste, among the giant rats and rabid dogs and unholy adjectives and toxic smells, in a place where even the scuttling, stunted reptilian creatures who should have been children but never had a chance are scared of the shadows, live the ugliest people in Jakarta.
The place isn't on any maps, but if it was it would be known as Pondock Jaya Avenue flyover, and it was built in the mid eighties to ease traffic congestion.
Today people call it the valley of amputees.
When life in the slums that sprawl forever along its languid rivers of molten excrement becomes too much it is to the fringes of Jakarta’s clogged road system that the deformed and the desperate haul themselves to fight over a place to die. Unplanned and unrestricted the city's traffic, long ago curdled into a grinding jam- and the flyovers, shuddering concrete tangles which must have once been meant to help, simply put a canopy over the dank death scented valleys where lurks the truly unspeakable shit.
The things that are to be seen in the valley of the amputees could be argued to be the worst there are, but by constant exposure the drivers of the wealthy learn to look at the decimated human stumps that exist there with an expression that is mostly regret that it's usually too messy to just run them over. In the back, behind their tinted windows, the rich become able, after years of practice, to look straight through the mutilated and homeless as if they don’t exist at all.
Moving over the surface of the road isn't easy for the amputees, it's ingenuity that gets them there; they'll push with a leg and scrape with a shriveled claw, they bounce along on calloused stumps, the occasional one has a little platform with wheels.
With constant gridlock bringing the chance of being run over and killed down to a minimum, some shelter from the sun, and a constant flow of people able, though seldom willing, to spare a little cash, the valley of the amputees is prime begging territory for which its inhabitants are willing to fight literally with tooth and nail.
Hobbled and twisted, the amputees are not obvious fighters, but with sharp teeth and that look in their eyes that is partially lead poisoning but mostly a complete lack of anything at all to loose, the valley of the amputees is not a place on which other categories of outcast are ever comfortable encroaching.
The starving mothers with starving children, the blind holy men with their prayer beads and pathos, the crazed and down on their luck, the lop side unfortunates with paralysis creeping through their limbs- they all stay away.
Only the kids, who in their brief inexplicable bloom refuse to be kept out of such a lucrative begging place, are willing to risk the amputees spindly wrath.
Even then they are careful, they scamper and they keep to the middle of the road, out of reach of the amputees who tend to prefer the the shaded fringes. They scuttle around and under the taxis and vans, careful to avoid the truck drivers who have been known to throw empty drink bottles at them and swarming when they spot anything with a tinted windscreen- always a good sign that the people inside can afford to drop the soiled equivalent of 20 cents through a crack in the window.
Even after just six months in the city, still completely deaf to its language and blind to a lot of very obvious things, Frank knew about the valley of the amputees and how things worked there. Pillaging beggar kids were the talk of the staff room, for such small children they were capable of putting quite a scratch in the paint work if they didn't get what they wanted, and the staff at Exalted Cross Academy, contractually obliged to be good Christians, loved to complain about them.
So as he sat trapped in a taxi on the edge of the valley and saw a small girl staggering towards him with the blind, oblivious swagger of someone who could no longer see and wasn't conscious enough to care, Frank knew straight away that there was something seriously wrong with her.
Beside him the driver sat unconcerned, leafing through the phone sex ads that were the back third of his newspaper. His taxi had the stale, slightly sick air of a small space that was obviously lived in. A ball of grayish linen was bundled up on the back seat, the air-conditioner smelled like chemicals gone stale.
"The Muslims are having their big march today", the driver said conversationally, flipping a page of his newspaper and nodding towards the seemingly endless river of protesters slowly drifting past. They had become trapped while trying to turn right onto Jalan Merdeka.
In English Jalan means road. Merdeka means freedom.
Jalan Merdeka runs through the center of Jakarta, an area distinguished from the rest of the city as a place where the slums sort of give way, for half a kilometer, to some not quite gleaming department stores and truly ugly monuments.
The taxi driver said, "we might be here for a while".
Frank snarled. He didn't understand a word of Indonesian. He thought, ‘I hate this city’.
Billy Braggart, when called to comment on such rallies in the past, had predictably referred to them as the work of Satan. The sight aroused in him an unusual hybrid feeling that was disgust at seeing so many people he considered heathens in the one place and a glimmer of hope it might be the start of the final apocalyptic battle that would see the return of Christ as conquering king.
In the past, what Billy and his kind had imagined from behind their fences to be seething hordes angry with Jesus had mostly been just cynical political opportunism and rented crowds. In a city where millions had little to do and less to eat, a mob could be rented for the day and by the village. For a basic fee that included a boxed lunch an astute political operator could have thousands of people on the street gnashing their teeth and shaking their fists towards any point of the political compass.
For a small additional sum, plus hospital costs of course, they had been known to be willing to brain themselves on the fence surrounding the presidential palace.
But this was different. This protest, people whispered, was genuine. There were corrupt officials, schools that were falling to pieces and rice people couldn't afford to eat- the dictator Suharto had been gone for six years, and although every year since had brought promises that things would improve, they never did.
The Muslims were the only people with the credibility and the organization to come out and say what everyone was thinking, that it was time for the political elite to wake up to some of the realities that the vast majority struggled with everyday.
There was no shouting of slogans, in the humid city heat even the few green flags they carried hung still. If there was any sound to be heard over the rumble of traffic it was the swish of flowing cloth on sweaty limbs. Frank was surprised to see that instead of hordes of young men screaming "Down, Down USA" the protesters were a well behaved bunch with an unusual proportion of kindly faced old people who seemed to be treating their grandkids to a day out. They filled the road completely, they flowed around the motorbikes parked on the pavement.
Under the traffic lights on the corner riot police wearing evil black uniforms and relaxed Indonesian smiles sat in the shade of their armored vans and occasionally waved and shouted hello when someone they knew came past.
Frank looked at his wrist and realized he wasn't wearing a watch. He thought darkly that if this were Canada the police would be doing something about keeping the traffic moving instead of settling in for a picnic. If this were Canada he wouldn’t have been forced to stand in front of all those people and tell such a dangerous lie.
He didn't have any photos of what went on at Jesus Squad. He'd been surprised to hear himself saying that he did, and regretted it immediately afterwards.
When what he had done got back to the principal he'd be lucky if he didn't get fired, again.
There was no doubt that Brother Damien would get his way and Jesus Squad would continue to happen three times a week. The idea that Frank believed he was using it to push on the boys, that God was some great, all knowing ever present patriarch in the sky with a beard and complete willingness to recline on a cloud and smile approvingly while the big fish ate the little ones, was horrible to him.
The knowledge that he made his living by helping promote this way of thinking, even if indirectly, gave Frank a dizzy, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. It was, he believed, his deepest and definitive failure.
The smart thing to do would have been to accept that's how things were and let it drop. But doing the smart thing was not an area in which Frank had ever excelled.
The girl he had noticed staggering down the middle of the road a few seconds earlier was right outside his taxi now. She wore a decayed T-Shirt that hung off one shoulder and didn't even come near to covering her grotesquely distended stomach. She was close enough for him to clearly see the flies clustered around her mouth that she was too weak to brush away. On her left leg, below the knee, an open sore festered horribly.
When she took a step and somehow missed the ground, insteading falling face first onto the burning mixture of gravel and broken glass that coated the road, there was no way Frank could pretend that he hadn't seen it.
On any other day, from any other angle, the girl would have been nothing more than another shade in a world that was mostly gray. One of the costs of existing in Jakarta and maintaining any kind of normal life was that it was necessary to learn to ignore people like her.
But today was anything but a normal day and Frank, against all sense and reason, opened the taxi door and stepped out onto the road.
He was going to do what he could to help.
It was strange being out of the taxi. The heat came at him from every direction, rearing up from the decaying roadside trash, radiating from the car engines in fumy waves, coming down smothering and complete from the sun.
The taxi driver had wound down his window and was jabbering something in Indonesian, probably about the fare, but Frank ignored him.
Awkward as ever Frank squatted down and touched the girl's shoulder. The bone felt overheated and strangely sharp beneath her loose skin.
Meters away on Jalan Merdeka crowds of protesters drifted past, but none of them noticed the girl who was lying crumpled in a place that, on any other day, would be directly in the path of oncoming traffic.
"Come on little girl, you know you can't stay here" he pleaded. He noticed the way her mouth hung open and the lurid yellow color of her tongue. He didn't notice the man without a face until he reached out with his one good hand and pulled at his shirt.
"Money, money, money, money" said the man without a face, who had obviously been in a fire at some stage of his life.
"Look at her", Frank burbled, "She's going to die".
"Money, money, money, money" he continued, taking the noise coming from Frank's mouth as a positive sign. The beggar tugged harder on his shirt sleeve. A dog appeared from somewhere. It was a frightening gray animal covered only by sporadic patches of fur. It poked its head out from beneath the nearest truck and emitted a sickly, rabid growl.
Frank jerked his arm away with horror.
"What are you doing Mister?"
Someone from the protest had noticed him. A tall man with a striking beard draped in white Muslim robes had broken away from the passing crowd. He looked at Frank with steadiness and pity. A small boy that must have been his son peeked out fearfully from behind his legs.
"Look at her" Frank answered, panic ridden and completely unhelpful. She just collapsed. And her leg... And her stomach.."
"Well mister"... The bearded man made a vague gesture towards the valley of the amputees. Some things just have to explain themselves.
"Look at her" Frank repeated obviously, squeaky and pathetic. "Do you have a hand-phone on you? Someone's got to call an ambulance". Frank remembered when he had been six, sitting in a hospital and eating a bowl of green jelly. He remembered being at a Montreal supermarket late on a Sunday evening decades ago and buying a bottle of lemonade for his daughter who had a sore throat. He said, "she's going to die".
While he was speaking the beggar had got hold of his sleeve enough again. "Money, money, money, money", the sound came from somewhere deep in his throat.
The tall man stepped forward and efficiently dispatched the beggar with a shoe to his arse and a burst of angry sounding Indonesian. He scooped a tin can out of the dust and hurled it at the side of the dog's head which it hit with an audible clunk. He looked at Frank, whose face was grimy with sweat and fumes, and the girl who dying, no different from hundreds of others were dying in the city that day.
"OK", he said.
They carried her off the road and into the shade cast by a crumbling telephone pole. Frank clasped his hands in front of him and tried to think of what he could possibly do to help. Around them a growing crowd looked on, solemn and confused. There were grim faces and the impatient chugging of stuck traffic. A folded up headscarf appeared under the girl's head, a woman was trying to give her some water. It was at the same moment that Frank, lost and helpless, spotted an ambulance stuck in the gridlock beyond the circle of silent onlookers that the girl started to vomit.
She was dying, there was no doubt about it now. For the half second he could bear to look at it Frank saw blood dripping into the filthy roadside dust and clusters of what could have only been worms. He felt his legs go from under him, and things seemed to move slow and shiny as he fell to the road. Somehow the volume was turned down. From his knees, on the road, with his trousers torn and gravel shoved up under his broken nails, the frantic movements of horrified people looked slow and exact.
Some were like him, bent over and retching, others covered their eyes, or quickly walked away, knowing that nothing good could possibly come of this. A brave few onlookers remained with the girl, but even they took a step back, horrified as much by what they saw as their complete inability to do anything about it.
Somehow staggering to his feet Frank ran towards the ambulance. He half fell onto the front windscreen, smearing it with a sticky layer of hysteria and what must have been his own vomit.
"You've got to help her" he slurred thumping on the glass with his clenched fist. The driver looked at Frank in wide eyed terror. Behind him, from the back of the ambulance, a reasonably healthy looking old man wearing white pajamas and an oxygen tube under his nose peered out at him curiously. "Please I'm begging you, open up she's going to die, you can't just leave her here, you've got to help".
Jakarta doesn't have an ambulance system as such, not for those who can't pay, and there not even the dead get anything for free. In that paved over and poisoned place nature wins through in the end. Weeds erupt from beneath the concrete, and the trash piles become jungle a week after they stop belching toxic smoke. Very often the dead are quickly picked from the roadside by rats and birds and dogs, and life goes on. In this city, for the dying, the important thing is not to make a fuss, for the living the essential thing is to look the other way.
Frank didn't understand this.
Even if the driver did speak English he probably didn’t hear what Frank was saying. All he had managed to do was draw attention to the ambulance. With incredible speed it had been surrounded by an angry, screaming crowd.
The driver checked to make sure he had remembered to lock the doors. There was no way he was going to risk his life by stepping out into the clutches of what was starting to look like a lynch mob. Instead he tried revving the engine and turning on the sirens, but it made no difference- the sound of the crowd had become a vicious wordless howl that had risen to such a pitch that it drowned out everything else.
As surely as she had been throughout her short life, in her horrifying death the girl had become completely irrelevant.
Frank felt himself moving away from the ambulance. Someone was leading him by the arm. If anyone had have been listening they would have heard him saying "wait, wait, we've got to help her"- but his words were nothing but noise.
He took a last uneasy look back over his shoulder at what he had managed to create through his spontaneous decision to try and help. The furious crowd, mostly boys with barred teeth and wispy spittle flecked mustaches, had advanced from just shouting to actually attacking the vehicle. One of them had climbed on top and was jumping on the roof while another strode purposefully towards the driver’s window and staved it in with a brick- everyone else was jostling to rock the thing from side to side.
Frank turned away and closed his eyes, glad of the mysterious guiding hand on his arm. The sound of scraping metal and smashing glass that came soon after might have been the ambulance landing on its side, but he didn’t turn around.
He wasn’t interested in who was guiding him either, or why he had taken it upon himself to lead him away from what was becaming the epicenter of a riot. He felt like it might have been the bearded man who had helped him move the girl from the middle of the road, but he hadn’t looked to see for sure, and found that, somehow, he didn’t want to.
Around him the city was ready to burn, but Frank was drifting away, happy to have direction in the unfamiliar streets. He didn’t even open his eyes.
When Desmond talked about having the tools to stand up for themselves the way Christian men should, what he had been referring to specifically was a wooden crate filled with slingshots, rocks and machetes. Someone he had managed to have it smuggled in and hidden in the small storeroom where they usually kept the fold-out tables they used for morning tea after church on Sunday morning.
Given that he had, through very little more than the force of his personality, managed to turn a garden variety uni-sex bible study group into a violent neo-fascist militia for boys and convinced everyone to call him Brother as a weird and completely unexplained term of respect, none of the boys were really all that surprised when, after handing out the sling shots and machetes, Brother Damien had rustled around in the packaging foam at the bottom of the crate and pulled out a grenade.
"Death Before Dishonor" he exhorted as he thrust the ugly thing out for them to inspect before clutching it to his chest.
For all his talk of a final battle Brother Damien couldn’t have guessed what he was going to find when he unlocked the doors of the Krystal Kathedral and led the boys back out into the world. Expecting nothing more than a free afternoon to catch up on their maths homework the boys had lined up politely to pack their weapons back in the crate before they left. He didn’t have to tell them that this might be the sort of thing they would be better off not mentioning to their parents.
Outside, in the four hours since they’d left it, Puri Indah Mall had become a gilded shell, filled with musak and the roar of the indoor waterfall and nothing else.
Everyone had run to somewhere safer. No one had remembered to feed the tiger.
Jesus squad stood at the top of the stairs that led up from the street to the mall’s main entrance and looked out over the plumes of smoke that came from the burning banks and shops and homes of Jakarta in complete amazment.
In the surreal, silent chaos the only order was in the mob, a vast sea of angry people they could see surging as one down the road that led to Puri Indah mall.
To the boys of Jesus Squad the situation seemed somehow unreal. With no idea of how they had got into this situation, or how to get out, they waited for Damien to tell them what to do.
"Run" he shouted after hesitating for a moment. "Fall back" he shouted again, getting into the warlord thing, "stop by the Kathedral and grab your weapons, then go down to the ice rink, we'll stop them there".
The forklift smashed through the door.
Everyone was shocked by the violence and noise of the collision, they had known the door would break, but the force of the impact wrenched it off completely and sent it spinning through the air into the grandstand where it gouged out a row of plastic seats. The forklift lost one of its front tires in the impact but kept on coming, ripping through the fence around the ice in a deafening flurry of diesel fumes and engine noises before flipping onto its side and sliding to a stop meters from Team Jesus and their barricade.
Crumpled and twisted, the forklift's dying engine parts gave off a soft ticking sound.
Somewhere beneath all the metal were the mangled remains of the driver.
Jesus Squad clutched their machetes tighter. The exhaust and burnt rubber from the forklift smelt sharp in the freezing air. Everyone peered through the cold haze towards the small rectangle of light it had opened up.
One of the boys said "maybe they're not going to come". This was a reasonable hope. It would have saved all their lives.
Damien swung around. "Who said that?"
No one was silly enough to answer. In the time since they'd entered the skating rink Damien had found himself a machete.
"Was it you?" he demanded looking madly at the boy who had spoken.
A single figure was entering the rink, through the exhaust smoke and with the glow of the flames from the burning shopping mall behind him he was a shadow. They had all expected some kind of massed barbarian onslaught after the door went down, but instead there was just the ordinary outline of one guy whose movements were cautious and slow in the unfamiliar cold. He didn't look as though he'd just come out of a raging mob. Apart from a bulky jacket that he must had looted from the Mountain Adventures boutique next door he looked anyone on the street.
The intruder stopped at the edge of the ice and blinked blindly out towards the remains of the forklift. Coming in from the smoke and flames of the mall he couldn't see them.
Jesus Squad watched as another figure appeared. No one breathed. A cluster of people formed in the doorway and blocked the light from the fires burning behind them.
"Go", Damien screamed at the boys with machetes, his eyes bulging with excitement. "Go, chop them up before they get across".
They went, cutting across the ice, their faces blank and determined, and the truth is that they probably really would have hacked into the mob coming through the door if the first one hadn't have slipped on the ice, dramatically landing full on his back and sending the rest of them tumbling in all directions.
"Get up" Damien shrieked with predictable hysteria, "get up".
There was a crowd the other side of the rink now, although none of them had crossed onto the ice. They seemed to be confused by the dark and cold and smoke.
It was just as Brother Damien decided to give up on the boys with the machetes (who were having great trouble getting back on their feet) and order the ones with the petrol bombs to come forward and throw them before the mob moved any further that everything changed.
A small furry figure on ice skates with glowing eyes and what looked like antlers was shooting across the ice. It curved past the place where Desmond stood gaping at it with something between horror and disbelief, past the boys with their machetes sprawled ridiculously in middle of the rink and round to the far side where the number of people coming through from the mall was growing by the second.
For a boy wearing oversized moose head Budi looked surprisingly graceful then. Everyone watched as he zipped effortlessly around the rink, seeming to shifting lazily from one foot to the other as he built up speed.
Just by being what he was he had managed to interrupt the cycle of violence, and for a long minute it looked like that might be enough.
On the ice the moose was getting faster and faster.
As far as Budi was concerned there was nothing easy about ice skating while dressed as a moose. If he looked graceful doing it it was only because of all the practice he’d put in. With the weight of those antlers on his neck it had taken him weeks until he had even developed enough balance to go in a straight line. The sliding and skipping were even more difficult, and the famous Moose! Maneuver had at first, seemed to be nothing less than physically impossible, not to mention ridiculously dangerous.
Budi finished his first circuit of the rink and turned sharply to cut across to the middle where the machete boys had just finished dragging themselves away. He pushed his skates into the ice to bring himself up to top speed.
“Under his breath he was saying "slide to the right, slide to the left”...
From the dark Damien looked watched Budi, the all singing all dancing Mooseling on ice, his face drawn tight with disgust. He turned to a boy standing behind him armed with a slingshot and a heavy stone the size of an egg.
"Give me that."
“But that’s Budi Brother” the boy said.