Beyond the cracked sidewalk and the telephone pole with layers of flyers in a rainbow of colors and the patch of dry brown grass, there stood a ten-foot-high concrete block wall caked with dozens of coats of paint. There was a small shrine at the foot of it, with burnt-out candles and dead flowers and a few soggy teddy bears. One word of graffiti filled the wall, red letters on a gold background: REJOICE!

But there was no rejoicing. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Not ever again. DeVon died right here. Not like in the movies. And especially not like in the games. And not even in the books he read. Down the street, another shrine stood. Bolder. Brighter. More to the point.

Dark with blood and rain. Dark with stain of a hundred deaths. Some un-shrined. Others marked by fire with drippy little candles and stuffed creatures hanging on chain-link and iron bar and windowsill. Wherever it happened, there arose a makeshift shrine, a remembrance, a totem to shit so old nobody could recall how or why or who. Nothing but “some shit went down.” The feuds stretched backwards so far nobody recalled the insult or slight or disrespect. Just remembered the need. The cold eyes and the hot blood.

“You don’t respect yourself, who’s going to respect you,” the woman that was now his guardian would tell him over and over. Who respected DeVon? He respected himself, tried to stand apart, stand up, stand for something. Dark with blood and dark with rain became DeVon’s end, with no end in sight.

DeVon’s end came silently. There was no confrontation, no honor, no posturing at that moment. There was no time. Not anymore. One minute, DeVon was. And the next minute, DeVon wasn’t. Somewhere, a boy who thought he was a man, thought he knew how a man was supposed to act, thought he was special, settled a feud in a rush of angry words and missed.

But he only missed for two blocks. At the end of a narrow, noisy street, full of harsh, shimmering reflected neon lights, a boy sat on his beat-up bicycle and wondered about being different. What if he had been born different? Different than he was, different likes, different hates, different lives, different gates for him to pass through, with different people on the other side. The boy passed through the final gate as death silently found him from two blocks away.

DeVon’s one friend, weird as hell, read all the time and would tell DeVon about the stories. Fantastic stories where people did things that he only saw in the games. And he read books that didn’t have stories in them. Books about strange stuff where the words themselves became the point of the book.

And now that one friend stared at the concrete block wall and didn’t want to see the hateful word painted tagger-like on the layers of paint, for there would be no rejoicing now. Instead, he idly read the flyers posted on the poles, but they gave little solace. Missing dogs and missing cats told the story of other’s lives while his mind searched the words of the books he read, sure of the power of those words to heal, to give perspective. The power to calm his feverish emotions, sooth the internal rage. His home, so unsure from day to day, never included the luxury of a pet. Alone even when, with what passed for his family, he buried his flat life in words on a flat page and lived in his mind.

Now he watched as the colorful flyers fluttered in the hot breeze like petals on a giant flower. DeVon had been leaning, lounging against those chipped, painted concrete blocks the day they met. Silently, cautiously, they had begun to talk the universal talk of nine-year old strangers. Slowly, over days and weeks, they trusted. DeVon had never read a book, but he loved to hear the stories. Wild tales of distant heroes surrounded by fine companions and fine houses where they did hero stuff…when the shit went down…and died hero deaths when it did.

DeVon especially liked to hear about the books where the people just talked, for DeVon was beginning to understand the power of the ultimate weapon: words. As he watched the flyers, and recalled the first day, he imagined the last day. DeVon, on his beat-up bike, sitting on the cracked sidewalk, waiting for him after school. Waiting to hear the fine words of the fine people, as he delivered them with flourish, as he imagined they were delivered out of the mighty speakers as they wielded the words, weapons of war.

For the speeches had become the power, the shiny blades, the far-flung javelins, the musket ball and cannonball in a war of ideas, a war of minds. DeVon had been, in that one instance, in that one thing, the luckiest of people. DeVon had found a friend that shared his mind. In DeVon’s world a needle was the most shared item between friends.

He stared at the painted, chipped, concrete block wall and recalled how DeVon had been hungrier for words than any baby he had ever seen for a bottle. So he had begun to memorize the speeches. The broad expanse of words, spread out before their intellectual enemies, always had the power to turn a tide of opposition and win the day.

He recalled the hunger in DeVon’s eyes as he delivered the first of those speeches. History came alive in DeVon as he listened to the words Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg as the nation prepared to bind up its wounds. History came alive in DeVon as he listened to Churchill preparing his England for war on an unimaginable scale. But DeVon could imagine it. He lived it through his friend as he recited the words.

He became impassioned in his desire to give DeVon his best performance. He labored over his delivery. He imagined Patton swaggering on the stage of World War II as he drove his armies into the very jaws of the monster. He practiced like the great actors on stage delivering the immortal words of Shakespeare.

Then some shit went down two blocks away and one kid became a man facing life in the joint; the other faced neither manhood, nor life, anymore. The families of DeVon’s schoolmates gathered by ones and twos. Someone fired up a Bic and others began to sing and chant words that held no comfort.

The hot, cracked sidewalk led down the street to a fenced-in city yard. Small, with weedy flower beds, bedraggled flowers, and ceramic garden gnomes. Upon that fence, the real mourners came to cry for DeVon, hug his momma, cuss the city and the neighborhood and the still unknown boy who sought his manhood two blocks away. But all he could do today was replay in his mind those impassioned speeches he had memorized and practiced and rehearsed like a talisman against the evils of ordinary existence. DeVon floated on the bright, foamy tip of that wave of well-wrought words from Seneca to Cicero, from Roosevelt to Kennedy. And now he alone sat in front of the wall and the weed patch, the flyers and the flowers, remembrance and forgetfulness. He sat at the crossroads of life and death, where the miss-spent bullet had found the unintended mark. He replayed over and over and over and over, seeing nothing but the soothing sing-song flow of words and the ebb-tide of face-flushing emotion. A small whimper crossed his lips as he rocked back and forth, repeating his favorite passages. Rhythmic and repetitious, the words hammered against his emotions, chipping away at them until the underlying calmness alone remained.

As he headed home, he believed with all his young heart that he could best honor the memory of his friend by continuing to memorize and deliver those great speeches, those stirring words; he could honor the memory of that which was gone by remembering that which was past and delivering it with the conviction and passion he imagined to have been within the breast of those who first penned the words. As he headed home, a quick, silent harbinger of death came down that same street, missing his left shoe by inches. An old, German shephard-looking dog of mixed ancestry and dubious ownership wandered off the curb at just the wrong moment to scream out in pain at the fire in her hip. He watched this event both in real time and slow motion as he superimposed the face of DeVon onto the poor animal.

He stepped deliberately off the bike beside the panting, prostrate dog and knelt beside his friend, DeVon. Through tears of anguished release, the first tears since DeVon died, he stroked the bloody fur, rocking back and forth on his knees, whispering “I will save you; I will save you.” He lifted the almost-limp dog in his arms, laying her over his shoulder as a mother would a baby. He mounted his bike, sweating his way home through the hot city afternoon. As he peddled, he began reciting the funeral oration delivered by Pericles for all the dead at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War. It was DeVon’s favorite. The animal’s natural inclination toward devotion bubbled to the top as she withstood the stinging pain in the large muscle of her back leg and let her head hang over the shoulder of this strange new person. She drifted off smelling the boy’s clothing, which still carried the delicious orders of last night’s two-day-old gas station pizza. He’d devoured it while striding back and forth delivering Abraham Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address” to absolutely no one. With the dog, he rode the bike into what would be a garage to those who had ever owned a car. It had become a spare bedroom washroom repair shop and storage room for the collected automobile parts and household junk slated for the next yard sale.

When the ride ended, she was lifted again. The kid slid her body onto a soft pile of clothing among the boxes in the garage. He pulled an old coat over the top, creating a cave that emanated the sweetness of old ladies who frequently powdered themselves, a light rose motif that played ironically well in the deep recesses of Rainbow’s ancestral brain. The pizza kid lifted her head to help her lap water from a hubcap. He broke bits of pepperoni and crust into bite-sized pieces and left them where her tongue could reach them. Much later, she heard him practicing his orations like songs. Like monks chanting in the distance, they were a comfort.

A creature of habit, the dog didn’t understand how her old life was dead, her old name never to be used again, her cold and hungry existence over. How her lonely wandering of the city ended the moment the pizza smelling kid had touched her. As comforting as those orations were, she didn’t understand.

He strode the floor, raising his fist, his voice, his spirit, until the easy rhythms of long-practiced speeches soothed his heart, his mind, his reality, bringing back DeVon. As his performance wound to a flourished close, he recalled his new DeVon, laying just on the other side of the kitchen door. He checked the cabinets for some other food for her. Finding none, he simply offered his hand. It was enough.

She licked it for a long time and slipped into an uneasy sleep, twitching the injured back leg occasionally. He sat with her, wishing he had a book so he could begin to memorize new passages, new speeches, new talismans, new chants. He began to rock back and forth, whispering old orations. Without the freedom to move, he believed the performance to be flat and lifeless, but a comfort just the same. Finally, he slept beside her. Boy and dog together amid the ruins, peacefully asleep.

In his world, there was no permanence, no bedrock. He lived with the current adult, unable to imagine an existence so free from hunger and anxiety as to be comfortable. The current guardian had taken him in off the street. Not unlike the dog at his hand, but without the painful wound. He found the guardian’s actions strange, but comforting. She had family, but didn’t see them often. He became her focus, her family, her life. For that, he was grateful. But she didn’t have interest in the books which consumed his waking hours and his dreams. When the books drew he and DeVon together, that made them even more important to him. But to his guardian, the books had interfered with her new found mission in life.

The guardian was simple but not stupid. Uneducated and unsophisticated, the guardian still felt compulsion to serve his needs, took pride in doing things well. She kept house cleanly but not expensively. With no friends and no family, she never had company, never had a neighbor stop in for coffee, never visited a neighbor, never met anyone anywhere for anything. Plodding existence became a phrase he attached to the guardian, when he thought about her at all.

Not alone, often when DeVon lived nearby. Not alone ever in his own mind, when all those great men and women were delivering fine speeches in fine clothes standing in fine places with fine people. He never felt jealousy, for to be jealous, he would first need to feel excluded. He was not excluded. He was included. Always included.

His existence revolved first around reading and delivering the great monologues of literature and theater. Later, his existence revolved around performing them for DeVon. As time wore on, he lived to discover new and powerful passages, adding them to his repertoire voraciously. His existence came to depend completely on the printed word and the look on DeVon’s face when he recited them.

He ate scraps he found when hungry. The guardian fed him simple but good food, and he ate small amounts of it. He didn’t do it to be polite, even though he would never hurt her feelings on purpose. He ate because he was genuinely hungry all the time. Too engaged by words, too enthralled by characters to be interested in real life. He lived a total life of the mind. He only existed inside his own head.

He would appear to be withdrawn, challenged, troubled, by most observers. By most standards, he was devoid of social skills, inept at spontaneous conversation. Those at the school just accepted him as he was, though. No judgment. No expectations. No disappointments. Accepted in this world on a limited basis and ignored by the wider world of reality, he lived as he wished. Time did not exist. Responsibility never reared its head.

The teachers at school talked to him about his passion for oratory. Attempted to direct him to use his love of spoken words in some way he could not imagine. Performing for DeVon seemed easy and safe. Performing for others seemed hard and dangerous. What if they didn’t understand the power in the passage? What if they didn’t understand the feeling found in the phrases? What if they doubted the truth of the text? What if they failed to respond emotionally to the rhythms? What if they didn’t allow him to respond the way he needed to respond?

Too dangerous. Never do that. Too dangerous. DeVon was safe. The new dog was safe. The guardian was safe. Too dangerous, he thought. Never do something dangerous. He began to recite from the book of Genesis. He found the “begets” to be especially rewarding in their staccato repetitions. His agitation subsided, he sat still once again. He looked at the dog, still asleep in the boxes covered by the sweet-smelling old coat. Breathing easily. Him and her. Together, like he and DeVon.

After several days, rusty hubcaps full of fresh water and scraps of food left from his oft forgotten meals, she ventured outside slowly. Gingerly at first, testing the leg, limping a little. Satisfied with the pain level and needing this newfound friend, she walked beside him in his daily routine. Never far away, but never understanding what they were doing, she settled for the doing, the together.

Over time, DeVon faded in importance as he came to believe in her interest in his words, in her need for his words. Over time, she became DeVon. Long, powerful speeches delivered with passion found the same wonder and satisfaction on her face as on DeVon’s. He needed her to need them in the same way DeVon had needed them.

In some way, the words never left him. He read everywhere. He whispered the great orations everywhere. He imagined DeVon’s hungry eyes and ears everywhere as he read. And he quite often fell asleep repeating the great words to find himself waking the next morning repeating the same passage. Like he never even slept.

Wandering the streets after school, he often found strange people who had no appreciation for his powerful words. They sometimes just ignored him. Sometimes they relegated him to a remote part of the physical layout, wherever that may have been like a store or library.

Transitioning between DeVon to dog as best friend and audience sometimes failed him. He could slip into a dark mood. A mood so dark the words could not pull him out of it. The power of the word thwarted by something as small as a person’s loss. The incomprehensible occurred more frequently recently. Now that DeVon was gone. Dead. He had to keep saying the word so he would always know DeVon’s status.

Late into the night recently, he had been hearing DeVon’s voice, asking him to recite a favorite passage. Or tell one of the heroic stories which always stirred DeVon to rise and help him act out the swashbuckling parts, slinging his arms widely as he would thrust and parry and raise the heavy shield to deflect a blade or bludgeon. DeVon had been the perfect foil to his narration, the perfect audience; listener experiencing the action simultaneously with teller.

Two days ago, he had felt an emotion so strong he could not easily recover by himself. He suddenly felt that none of his world was real. Shocked that he could entertain such an aberrant notion, he flung it immediately as far from himself as possible. Bouncing up on the table, he started reciting Plato’s “Apology of Socrates” because it was the most personal and effective defense against certain damnation, certain destruction, that he had ever read. It helped immensely to calm his agitation.

He overheard two of the teachers at school talking about how the young man who had shot DeVon had been caught and had admitted to shooting at someone in the place and time that his gun had fired the fatal, the fateful, bullet. He felt strong compassion for the boy until he recalled just what had happened and just who died. Then there was no compassion. None at all. Just blind fury and hatred. Revenge bubbled to the top. Retribution the better word. And words were important. They contained the power.

Outside it began to rain reminding him of the rain slick and blood dark sidewalk under a flickering yellow street light. A noisy street light, its mercury vapor bulb humming into the night. He recalled the phrase “whistling past the graveyard,” but didn’t laugh, because DeVon was in the graveyard now. Lonely, silent, damp, and dark. No streetlights there. Well, not below ground anyway. He had not actually been to a graveyard, but a dead man had described it to him once. In a book. He thought.

The old, thin dog groaned up from the ground and walked slowly toward him. Her step much more sure-footed now, these many days since her random wounding by one of the many stray bullets in the heart of the cold, cold city. He smiled as a stray flicker of memory passed across his mind. He usually never forgot anything. Odd.

Had DeVon really appreciated that fact. He forgot nothing. Nothing written down. Nothing told to him. Nothing on the television. Memorizing his lines was as simple as reading the page. There it was. Embedded deeply in his conscious mind. Never to be forgotten. And never was a long, long, long time.

He had actually considered eternity one time. Had read of it in the great books. The heavy books. The books in the library where he hid most days so his guardian could not find him. He read incessantly. Voraciously. Hungrily.

Eternity was apparently a very interesting topic. Everyone had something to say about it. The great religious treatises had covered it. The great philosophers of our time, and the times before that, had held forth with great gusto about the length and breadth of eternity. The particle physicists had written thousands of nearly indecipherable pages on the subject. “I must examine that topic more closely,” he thought to himself. But he never did.

What he did do was just relax with the old dog more often. He would spend hours sitting cross-legged on the floor of his room and scratching the dog’s side. If there was music, he would sway back and forth to keep time and tap the dog’s fur with one delicate finger in time with the drummer. He really was very good at that; everyone noticed.

DeVon always enjoyed the music most of all. It seemed to bring a good story to life like nothing else. She would lift her muzzle, lapping from the makeshift bowl he had prepared for her on that first bleeding day while he tapped on her side or head with his fingers. Always tapping, tapping, tapping, tapping.

On the last day of his school, with DeVon gone, and the dog laying on the floor of his classroom, books of every description piled so high around him no one could possibly see in to know what he was up to he felt the need to do that personal examination of eternity. After all, Hawking was never wrong, and Hawking had a lot to say about it.

He took the dog and all the books and went for a long walk. He delivered one of his favorite orations as he walked. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered with chilling prophecy, to a crowd of over a quarter million people on the mall. He imagined all those faces looking up at him as he spoke the words. Adoration is a powerful thing.

But more powerful yet is the desire to be adored. DeVon had adored him. The dog DeVon adored him. His guardian adored him. His teachers adored him. His classmates adored him. But most importantly of all, he adored himself. After all, who else was there to adore him?

If he didn’t respect himself, who was going to respect him? His words had sustained him into the night and into the future. He recalled his past, when the words were all he had. And he recalled a dark time before the word made him powerful. But now there was light. As he walked with all his books, and all his people, he felt the light as never before. A few blocks away, a child attempted to enter manhood in the traditional way for that city, failing by just a few blocks. In the end, all the books, and all the words, and all the friends made no difference. He stepped through the gate, into the light. He examined eternity.