Joey nearly died for the second time in as many months getting chased down an abandoned park path at three in the morning. He and Vinny were sprinting through the park in effort to get away from Rondheim because Joey had made the mistake of selling crack to people in Rondheim’s territory. Joey knew it was Rondheim’s territory, but he had been under the, albeit mistaken, impression that Rondheim was on vacation. He wasn’t, as it turned out, and he was incredibly pissed that Joey had encroached on his territory. Rondheim was with three of his burly ox-like human shields, but Joey had only gone with Vinny. Fortunately, both of them were scrappy and fast. And, of course, both of them were wearing their running shoes.
And then Joey tripped over a stray tree root pushing up through the cement pathway and took a tumble into the river.
It was fucking cold. He could feel it instantly everywhere, like someone had injected liquid nitrogen into his bone marrow. He choked on the water, murky and just beginning to thaw, thrashing around and trying to push himself to the surface. He was wild with panic. He began to think that he would drown for sure. He imagined his mother crying over the bloated corpse of his body, dead and buried before his nona even. He wasn’t so sure selling a hundred extra dollars’ worth of crack was worth it in the end. He decided to make peace with it. There wasn’t much he could do at that point. He couldn’t break the surface, he was swallowing water at an alarming rate, and he’d begun to lose feeling in his outermost extremities. It was only a matter of time before he drowned for real and his bloated river corpse became a reality.
But then someone was grabbing onto his arm and the front of his shirt and he was being hauled upward. Joey broke the surface gasping for breath as Vinny dragged him toward the muddy, partially frozen riverbank. They collapsed there, shivering and breathing heavily. Rondheim was nowhere to be seen, no doubt having assumed the river would do his work for him.
“That’s twice, little cousin,” Vinny told Joey after a moment. He got to his feet and then hoisted Joey to a stand as well. The pair of them trudged along the riverbank until they reached a low stone wall that lead to the park above. Vinny vaulted over it and then reached to help Joey climb over it. Joey was having a hard time controlling his legs. He was so cold and stiff. It felt like his lungs were full of wet cement. Vinny threw a skinny arm around his shoulder and steered them out of the park so that they could walk home. It took Joey a little while to realize that Vinny wasn’t taking them in the direction of either of their homes.
“Where are we going?” Joey asked, talking slowly. It was possible his tongue was frozen.
“Hospital,” Vinny answered simply.
“What the hell for?” Joey asked, still speaking slowly.
“Secondary drowning,” Vinny answered.
“The hell?” Joey turned his head to give Vinny and incredulous look, going cross-eyed in the process.
“It’s a real thing, numb nuts,” Vinny returned. Never had a nickname been so accurate.
Vinny and Joey sat in the emergency room under hospital-issue blankets before he saw someone. They X-rayed his chest, discovered he did not in fact have secondary drowning, and then questioned both Joey and Vinny about why they were in the middle of a partially frozen river at three in the morning in the first place. Vinny told the doctor they had gone for an early morning run, apparently because they were training for a half-marathon, and Joey had taken a wrong step and fallen into the river by accident. That part at least was true. The doctor raised an eyebrow at the idea that they were taking an early morning jog at three in the morning, probably because that was a very early jog indeed, but seemed to accept it, likely because of Vinny’s full Adidas track suit. Nevertheless, the doctor gave Joey some drugs to help him sleep and endure the pain in his chest, which was growing increasingly worse as time passed.
In the morning, Joey’s alarm woke him up in time to get to church as per usual. He took his prescribed dose of painkillers and then got dressed in his Sunday best. On that particular morning, that meant a pair of black jeans without holes in them, his Nike Frees, and a grey t-shirt with his gold chain of course. Joey walked to the church, feeling a little out of sorts, which he attributed to his near-death experience the night before. Presumably, nearly drowning would make a person feel a bit strange so he ignored it. He entered the church and took his usual seat next to Finch, alone today, and threw him a sharp grin. At least, Joey hoped it was sharp. He was feeling unusual. He had a feeling he hadn’t quite hit his mark because Finch gave him a questioning look.
Things began to take more a turn throughout the sermon. For one thing, the stain glass windows were talking to him. Joey kept looking around to see if other people were noticing, but no one else was reacting. The old woman sitting in the pew across the aisle from him turned to look back at him as he was checking to see if she had noticed the shepherd above her head was singing the baritone part of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Her face was melting from her skull. Joey shrunk back in horror, colliding with Finch’s arm. Finch looked at him, first in annoyance, then in concern. Meanwhile, the rest of the stain glass windows had joined in so that they’d created a choir singing Queen. As they reached the crescendo of the song, the crucifix hanging above the pulpit, right above the organ pipes, rose up to join in. Joey watched in horror and awe.
And then Jesus, nailed to the cross for Joey’s sins, began to speak to him.
“Joseph,” he said, the stain glass choir quieting to a dull hum. “Only the meek shall inherit the earth.”
The humming of the stain glass choir grew louder.
“This is, like, your spiritual wake-up call,” Jesus continued. The humming got even louder. “Crack is wack.”
And then the stain glass choir exploded into noise, belting out the mid-choral section of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”. From the corner of his eye, Joey could see Finch staring at him avidly in abject horror, clearly quite concerned about Joey’s well-being, but all Joey could focus on was Jesus and his cross and his chorus of stain glass people.