Unlikely Portal

by Charles K. Carpenter

 

Crawling up onto the roof to fix the swamp-cooler is not on John’s list of favorite ways to waste a weekend, but he has promised his wife, Janet, he will have the repairs made before the real heat of June turns their house into an unbearable oven. And, of course, a promise is a promise, even though at the time he was just trying to get her to cut him some slack and let the problem lie for a while. How could he know the temperature was going to jump up into the nineties almost overnight, or that she would be so quick to leave for her mother’s place until the repairs were made. It’s unsettling just how fast those two things came together simultaneously. And very vexing.

Having brought his tools out of the garage at first light, he leans the ladder against the house to carry up everything he thinks he’ll need for the job, setting it on the roof near the alien-looking swamp-cooler unit. He isn’t all that certain what type of repairs he is going to make, but he can start by removing the mounting bolts from the four legs and tilting up one side, holding it there with the board he has brought up for that purpose. Having it tilted up that way, he will be able to see the plumbing, electrical wires, and the drain pipes, most of which hide inside the large, tin duct that connects the cooler to the ceiling vent down in the hallway. It’s a plan. A good one, he thinks. At least, until he drops a wrench down into the duct and tries to reach for it. Then things go from bad to worse.

Bent over the hole of the duct, he’s about as far inside it as he dares to go when he begins to slide slowly down the slick slope of the metal vent. Trying to stop his descent by pushing his arms out to his sides, he only succeeds in getting them ripped to shreds as his flesh comes into contact with the numerous metal screws that have been twisted into the tin to hold the pieces of duct together. As his uncontrollable slide gathers more speed, and before he has completely slid inside the hole, his feet come over the edge of the roof to knock the board out from under the cooler and cause it to slam down in place just missing his ankles. The next second he hits the ceiling vent down in the hallway and rams right through it, knocking it to the floor as he shoots from the vent, hits the wall, and crumbles to the floor.

In some form of shock, he lies there in the dark trying to understand what has happened, and also, how he avoided breaking his neck. Above and beyond all this, he begins to sense something is wrong. It takes him a few seconds, but he finally realizes what it is—it’s dark inside the house. Wondering how this can be, since it is morning, the sun should be streaming in through the windows. He hasn’t been knocked out for any length of time. At least he doesn’t think he has. And besides, he can still feel trickles of fresh blood running down his arms from his tiny, long-drawn-out wounds. No, something else is wrong here. As he ponders this, he begins to hear hushed voices coming down the hall from his bedroom. That’s right. His bedroom.

Wondering if he should run to or from the bedroom, instinct takes over for thought, and he knows he has to hide. Someone is in his house, and soon lights will be coming on. With panic as a helper, he struggles to a standing position and moves towards the stairs that will take him down to the lower floor of the split-level house and into the garage. As he leaves the landing, a strong beam of light flashes down the hallway behind him, and in his mind’s eye, he pictures a big guy standing there in his shorts, a flashlight in one hand and a baseball bat in the other.

Gaining the garage, he makes his way to the man-door that had been left open, but is now locked. Fumbling with the lock, he pulls the door open to the dark of the back yard and runs around the corner to the front of the house. Lights inside the house are flashing on behind him as he reaches the street, and he knows whoever is in the house will be calling the police.

But why? This house is mine, not theirs. Mine!

In the dim light of the corner street light, John turns back to the street to see something he has never seen before, and stops to squat down, running his hand over its cool, slick finish in wonderment. It’s a rail similar to those trains ride on, but not so large nor wide. A pair of them are running down his street. He takes a moment to glance around and finds to his amazement that each driveway has a set of rails running up its length to the garage. Even his! He runs a hand over his forehead which has begun to hurt. Trying to rationalize all this away, he wonders if the city has been secretly installing these rails while everyone is at work, and if they are going to make them convert their vehicles to the rails so they can keep track of them. He doesn’t know. He can’t even guess.

Standing, he notices with some alarm that the porch lights of every house on the street are coming on in a uniform pattern, starting down at the end of the street where the street T’s and coming back towards the cul-de-sac and his home. This can’t be good. Soon he will be spotlighted there in the middle of the street like an escapee in a prison movie. Deciding to hide, he runs towards the closest house sporting excessive greenery around it. If he can get beneath a large evergreen, he’ll be hidden from view.

After hiding himself, he sees with some concern that all the porch lights are now on, and people in robes and slippers are coming out of their homes to stand on the sidewalk near the curb. He has no idea what is going on, but is fascinated by the uniformity of it all—everyone doing the same thing at the same time.

The front door to the house he’s hiding in front of opens, and an older couple comes out onto their porch to look around. He begins to sweat. If they look to their right they’ll see him for sure. He begins to inch his way back into deeper cover. As he does so, he spies a rolled up newspaper the paperboy has thrown to the side of the porch. He stops sliding back when he sees something that brings on fear and astonishment. The date on the paper is June 19, 2042.

A loud humming sound coming up the street catches his attention as the older couple leave their porch and walk towards the sidewalk. Pulling the spider webs from his sweaty face, he adjusts his position so he can see more. A large, shiny globe about the size of a basketball is advancing towards the cul-de-sac, riding the air ten feet above the ground. The humming sound intensifies as it comes closer, and he hears a beeping in the background every time the two red, eye-like lights flash. This thing seems to be searching for something, and it doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to realize it searches for him.

Watching it move around the turn-around, he sees the two people from his house have also come to stand near the street like everyone else. Frowning in thought, he thinks this coming out must be a common practice. What its purpose is, he doesn’t know. But it’s weird.

A louder beep from the globe sounds off as if to draw attention, and is followed by a computerized voice saying, “Alert! There is an unregistered humanoid in your area that has not yet been located. Please move to the left side of the street and follow me down to the intersection so this area can be searched more fully.”

Watching the globe come full circle and start off down the street towards the intersection, John realizes this has to be the time to move, and does so by crawling out from under the shrubs and running towards his house. He believes he’ll make it if the silver globe doesn’t see him and shoot some kind of paralyzing ray his way. He glances back over his shoulder as he runs and sees the globe is still leading the people down the street. He begins to feel lucky and wants to cry out in joy. But, of course, he doesn’t. This nightmare is still a reality.

Slamming the door closed behind him, he twists the lock and dashes up the stairs to the kitchen. Removing a stool from the island, he hurries to pick up his wrench and kick the vent out of the way so he can set the stool beneath the hole in the ceiling. It’s not high enough. He has to get another from the island. Setting it on top of the first one, he begins to crawl up his makeshift ladder and finds the climb precarious; each stool wanting to go its own way Finally getting the height he needs to crawl back into the vent, he hears someone pounding hard fists on the front door, wanting in.

Trying not to panic, he jumps up and begins to pull himself inside the vent. He can feel the flesh on his fingertips being ripped anew by the sharp, wicked end of the penetrating screws, but pays the severe pain little heed. He has to make it to the roof on this first try. Something inside tells him he’s not going to get a second chance.

Once high enough so he can use his feet, he pushes up with them as his tortured hands claw their way towards the top. For the first time he can see sunlight streaming in around the cooler, and it occurs to him he has just left the dark of night. Bumping his head on the bottom of the unit, he braces his feet against the sides of the vent and slides the cooler to the side of the hole. Blinded momentarily by the bright sunlight, he crawls out onto the warming shingles to lie there for a second or two, the cool breeze caressing his sweaty face and body as though welcoming him back. Again he feels like weeping for joy, but there is no time for that. He has to slide the cooler back over the hole and fasten it in place. Slipping the washers and nuts onto the mounting bolts, he begins to tighten them to make the unit immobile.

The urge to weep comes upon him once again when he is finished, but he won’t give way to his feelings. Not now. There’s still one last thing he has to do. Picking up his wrench, he wipes the blood from it onto his shredded shirt front. Glancing at his arms and legs as he works, he sees his blood has stained his jeans and is still oozing from his arm wounds. Standing, he’s hit by dizziness and has to wait until it passes. From where he stands, he can see the street, and is more than happy not to find a floating globe or slot-car rails imbedded in the street.

Long-held tears of joy blur his eyes as he moves towards the ladder, but he hardly notices. He has to get back into the house and do the one thing that will make this nightmare go away forever.

Stepping into the kitchen, he pulls the phone book from a drawer, looks up a number, and with a bloody finger punches it out. Someone answers, saying, “Good morning. Clayton’s Heating and Cooling.”

“Help me,” John says in a feeble voice. “I really need a repairman to come out and see what’s wrong with my cooler.”

“We’ll be happy to come right out, sir. Give me your address, please.”

John relays the information while wiping the perspiration from his forehead onto the back of his arm.

“Oh, I see on the computer we’ve been out there once before. Ah, a couple of years ago.”

“We didn’t own the place then. We just bought it last year.”

“I see. Well, it won’t be the same repairman, anyway. He up and quit right after he finished that job.”

“He quit?”

“Yes. Just up and disappeared on us altogether.”

“But—”

“We’ll be out within the hour, sir. You’ll be there?”

“I hope so,” John says, eyeing the vent grille lying on the floor of the hallway.

 

On the Dotted Line

by KT Pinto

 

People never read what they are signing anymore. With the influx of internet disclaimers and contracts, people have just gotten into the habit of signing anything that’s put in front of them.

So I ask you, why not take advantage of it?

It’s pretty simple: you just slip in that extra piece of paper with the confirmation slip and the credit card application and you now have written permission to kill them.

It’s hokey, I know. I mean, we could kill them without their permission, but it’s such a rush to see their faces blanch when you show them their signature on the paperwork. Their whole lives flashing before their eyes as they realize that they wouldn’t be in this predicament if they had only read the form before they signed it…

We take our turns killing the customers. Since we’re a small garage it would be wrong for only a select few of us to get that rush. We keep track of our kills on a board in the office; we can’t kill indiscriminately or often, otherwise someone might catch on.

We each have our favorite types of victims:

Brady hunts the storytellers. You know, the ones who have to tell you how they got up early in the morning to take their dog to the vet, because the dog’s nose was dry and he was sluggish, and neither of them wanted to go out in the snow, but the vet was nice enough to fit them into his schedule, etc, instead of just saying that their battery was dead.

Linda likes to take the condescending men—the ones who call her “dear” and talk like she couldn’t possibly know the difference between an idler arm and a ball joint.

Jerry likes to spill foreign blood. It doesn’t matter what country they’re from, as long as it’s obvious that English isn’t their first language.

Roam takes on the P.I.T.A.s—you know them as the Pains in the Asses—the customers who keep bugging us every five minutes, wanting to know why their car isn’t in the garage yet; why cars that are getting an oil change are out faster then their car, when they’re getting a full brake job; why their size 20 tires are so much more expensive then the size 13s in the paper…

Mike kills old people. This brings up questions from us about any paternal issues he may have, but he gets people to sign up for credit cards, so we let this slide.

I personally kill women—the mousy ones that have to call their husbands for every little thing, or the ones that try to bond with me with comments like “This is something that only men are really interested in, don’t you agree?” I cringe at the thought that I am the same gender as these creatures.

It’s usually easy to pick who our next victim is going to be. There’s always one “shining star” who aggravates one of us to the point that we have to go out into the garage and have ourselves a good scream. If it happens to be that person’s turn to pick a victim, then that customer is asked to sign three forms when he pays: the pick-up slip, the preferred customer card, and the special pink slip, all of which we keep. We then take a coded sticker off of the pink form and put it on their receipt.

That innocuous little sticker contains a tiny GPS homing device that our resident techno-geek designed. We realized that we needed this particular toy after we tracked one of our would-be victims to an apartment complex—and lost the trail. This sticker helps us track our prey right into their home. It’s very rare that someone would leave their receipt in the car, since most people rely on the misguided belief that we are responsible for monitoring every bit of work that they’ve had done at our garage. So, the receipt gets brought into the house and put in a pile with overdue bills and memos from work.

Then we hunt.

Most people are simple creatures of habit. They go home; they eat; they watch TV… then they hear a noise outside… and they go to investigate.

The scenario changes from there, depending on who comes outside, but the ending is always the same:

Blood.

Guts.

Death.

And, sometimes, we get a nice car for the mechanics to chop up and sell for parts.

My favorite kill was the woman who had more plastic in her than Barbie. Her nails were long to the point of uselessness; her cheeks and chin were obvious implants; her lips looked like a hive of bees had stung her.

And she was as dumb as a box of hammers. She came into the garage in her spiked heels, her hair sprayed high, and her breasts looking like two beach balls pushing their way out of her shirt.

And, of course, she walked right over to me.

“I need tires,” she said, inhaling deeply as Tony walked past with another customer.

“OK,” I replied, already knowing how this conversation was going to go. “Do you know what size tires you need?”

“No,” she giggled, putting her hand on my shoulder. “Women aren’t supposed to know things like that.”

Stepping out of her reach, I asked, “What kind of car do you have?”

Maybe it’s just me, but that shouldn’t be a stumper.

We finally walked out to the car. It was one of those German luxury cars that hardly ever sees the road.

I measured the depth of the tread on her tires and tried to explain why her tires were wearing unevenly.

She giggled again and said that it was all just too complicated for her.

So then I gave her the price of the tires, with all the labor costs.

“Do I really need the alignment?”

So I again explained to her why her tires were wearing unevenly.

“Do I really need the balancing?”

“Unless you want the car to vibrate.”

“My car doesn’t vibrate.”

“Because your tires are balanced.”

“So why do I need to balance them again?”

Grrrrrr. “Because you’re getting new tires.”

“Don’t they come balanced?”

“When you pay for balancing, they do.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s all so complicated! How do you remember all of this?”

I held back the urge to say “because I have a brain”.

Ironically, stupid people tend to understand when they’re being insulted.

The rest of the conversation consisted of her rambling about the amount of time four tires and an alignment was going to take, because she had a nail and tanning appointment in a few hours, and couldn’t we push things along.

I never understood this logic. Why in the world would you want the people who are working on your car to rush through their job? Would you want a doctor to rush through your bypass?

I told her I couldn’t guarantee the time, but told her that she could take the shuttle and come back after she was through with her appointments to pick up the car. As I was explaining this, I saw her reading the work order closely; I hoped that the words weren’t too big for her to understand. I knew the question that was going to come next.

“I have to pay for the labor?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, pulling out the pink form for her to sign.

“I don’t understand that.”

“Ma’am, would you do your job if you weren’t getting paid for it?”

She laughed. “Oh, I don’t work!”

Of course not.

When I finally convinced her that our mechanics don’t fix cars out of the kindness of their hearts, she agreed to the whole thing and went on her way.

Then we went to work.

Based on the address she gave us, we knew that she lived in a middle-class neighborhood where the houses tried to look pretentious even though they only took up part of a city lot and boasted a postage-stamp sized lawn. We knew the best time to arrive on a block like that was between 8:30 and 9:00 pm, when dinner was finished, the kids were being tucked in, and the evening line-ups were just beginning.

So, at 8:47 that night, our inconspicuous mini-van pulled up across from her house. (The company owned five mini-vans, each registered to a different dummy corporation in Asia.) The one we were in was blue with a dent in the front bumper and a “My kid’s an honor student” sticker on the back.

That night it was me, Roam, and Jerry, with Tony driving. Roam scanned the house with his night vision goggles. “There’s only one human in the house.”

“Oh good,” I drawled, “So we don’t have to bring our alien gear this time?”

He made a face at me. “I meant as opposed to pets.”

“Is that what you meant?”

“Is it our target?” Jerry asked.

I looked through the regular binoculars. “Yep. That’s her in all of her plastic glory.”

“How do we know she’s not waiting for her hubby to come home?”

“Easy,” Krantz said from the back of the van; sometimes we forget about Krantz. We heard a couple of taps on his laptop before he spoke again. “According to her tax returns, she’s single… and her on-line date book has nothing scheduled for tonight. There are also no reservations listed in her name anywhere in the tri-state area.”

“What about phone calls?”

Krantz shook his head. “Nothing of note, and her blog is coming up with nothing either.”

“OK then,” I said, slipping my mask on, “Let’s have some fun.”

* * * * *

She woke up bound and gagged in the tire room of our |garage. We were all there; it’s like a little party when we make a kill, even down to the munchies and beer.

I walked over to her, pressing a long, thin blade against her cheek. “Now, if I take the gag out, and you scream, then you will lose your nose. Understood?”

She nodded.

I pulled off the gag and watched her rubbery lips quiver with fear. “What are you going to do to me?” she asked.

“Oh, we’re going to kill you,” I replied with a smile, “After a long, painful torture session, of course.”

Her eyes welled up with tears and I cringed. The bitch had contacts. I hate it when they have contacts. “I don’t understand…”

“And that’s your problem,” I snapped, “You don’t understand a damn thing. Everything is too difficult for you to grasp. You depend on all of this phony crap. This hair, those breasts… it’s all fake. It’s time for us to meet the real you.”

“What… what do you mean?”

“Wow! You are thick!” I shook my head as the group laughed behind me. “We’re going to take you apart. We’re going to cut away all the plastic until all that’s left is skin and bones… so to speak.”

I grabbed her arm, cut her bonds, and wrenched her hand in the air, causing a sickening popping sound as her shoulder dislocated. “Who wants the nails?”

Mike waved his hand in the air, as if he were still in school. I had known he was going to volunteer. Mike collects nails. He keeps them in shoe boxes under his bed. We’ve told him that keeping trophies like that was not a good idea—especially when he keeps the ones with skin still attached.

If he doesn’t start listening to us, Mike is going to have to go.

He came over with his silver-plated pliers and sat on her lap, leaning back on her so she couldn’t struggle as much. Then he started to rip her fake nails off, causing her to scream into his back as her real nails came off with them. He dropped each bloody tip into a plastic bag, sealed it shut when he had all ten, then walked over to a dark corner to admire his new prizes.

By now the girl was blubbering, her fake lips moving like a bleeding gash across her face. I found the irony interesting. The simile made me think of Nick; I called him over. Nick was new to our sales team, and had an affinity for scissors. He sat on her lap, facing her, and showed her a pair of tongs.

“Someone grab her hair,” he growled. Tony stepped forward, took hold of her hair at the crown of her head, and pulled her head back. Tony’s a good egg. He’s not really into the maiming and killing, but he helps out when he can.

So Nick, with the tongs holding the upper lip out, slowly cut the woman’s puffy mouth off of her face. Blood poured from her face as she tried to turn away, but Tony held her fast, and the lower lip came off just as easily as the upper one.

Nick dropped the lip on the floor, then wiped his scissors off on her silk shirt and stood. “Thanks, Tony.”

“Anytime.”

While Nick worked, I had noticed Brady starting to fidget. Brady is a breast man: he enjoys cutting open women’s breasts and finding out what’s inside. This woman’s breasts fascinated the fuck out of him. I was surprised he was able to hold out as long as he did.

So when Nick left the unconscious, lipless woman slumped in the chair, it didn’t surprise me that Brady stepped forward. He leaned towards her, resting his hand on the back of her chair, and slapped her over and over again, leaving gashes on her cheeks from his ring.

“Wake up,” he purred, ripping her shirt opened, “the fun isn’t over yet.”

Before she became fully conscious, he pulled out a professional looking scalpel and plunged it into her left breast, cutting through the skin like it was butter.

She screamed, loud and long. The thing was, our tire room was in the sub-basement of an old bomb shelter, so she could scream as much as she wanted. Our closest neighbors, three miles away in any direction, were not going to hear her. Roam had the DJ turn up the music. Nothing kills a party like a woman screaming her head off.

Brady stuck his hand into her breast like a kid cleaning the guts out of a pumpkin. Blood cascaded from her chest as he dug inside until he found what he was looking for.

The wobbly implant was streaked with blood and other things, and Brady felt the weight of it in the palm of his hand before hurling it across the room, where it made a satisfying splat against the wall.

He then dug for the other one. The woman had passed out again; Brady didn’t seem to notice as he pulled out his second prize. This one he cut opened and squeezed the goop out of it, letting it pour down his arm. He stared at his arm for a few moments with a small smile on his face before he stepped away.

Disgusted with how weak she was, I plunged a needle into her arm, making sure she’d stay awake until the very end. “Who’s next?”

There was a rustle through the group—what part of her should be the next to come off?

“Hey Jerry,” I said as I discarded the needle and got a drink from the punch bowl, “she’s wearing contacts.”

I walked back to the woman with Jerry in tow, watching as she tried to form words with her lipless mouth.

“Why me?” she finally managed.

I smiled sweetly and held up the pink form. “Why? Because you gave us permission to do so. ‘I, the undersigned, give Kear’s Tire and Auto permission to torture and kill me by any means they deem necessary… blah blah blah… give my car to Kear’s to be dismantled… blah blah blah… and have my body incinerated in the furnace.’ And look, right there is your signature.”

Her eyes widened in shock and tears started running down her bloodied cheeks “I didn’t know,” she croaked, “I didn’t read it…”

“That’s really none of my concern,” I answered, “I would say you are now finally seeing the error of your ways, but that would be too cruel, even for me…”

I stepped back as Jerry walked to the girl, holding something that looked like small, flat salad spoons. I turned away. Eyes creep me out, so much so that I won’t even wear contacts. I avoid the eye doctor as much as I can. Just the thought of the grape-like texture and fragility of eyeballs makes me cringe. And now Jerry was going to slide those little disks into her eye sockets and rip the orbs out, holding them gently between the disks so they won’t splatter like her implants did.

What he did with them after that, I didn’t want to know. Roam told me that Jerry made a tasty stew out of them. Linda says Roam is crazy—he only uses the eyeballs to make a broth, then tosses them away. Mike believes that Jerry eats them whole, popping them in his mouth and savoring the juicy middle like it’s a chocolate-covered cherry.

Mike worries me.

I know you’re wondering why I hadn’t done anything at this point besides talk. As I said before, I kill my victims; I don’t torture them. I torture Linda’s (picture a tazer and man’s most sensitive spot); I torture Roam’s and Jerry’s and Brady’s; I don’t torture Mike’s (torturing old people unnerves me). But my own victims, I just kill. I let my co-workers have their fun.

I waited for Roam to finish shaving the woman’s head, all the time whispering to her about her impending death, then stood in front of her, feeling the weight of my gun in my hand.

I’m the only one of our group that uses a gun. Brady uses a knife; Linda favors the garrote; Roam is fond of axes.

I like guns: the feel of one in my hand, the smell of a freshly cleaned and oiled piece, the sound of bullets penetrating flesh…

Roam slapped her a few times, making sure she was awake when I killed her, then walked over to Fredo—our resident DJ—who had just started the song “Last Dance”.

“Do you have to play that song every time?” Roam asked.

“You bet I do!”

I shook my head with a smile, and turned to the woman. “You can’t see this, but I have a revolver pointed right at your thick head. And, in a moment, I am going to shoot you. It’s a lovely little weapon, engraved with spiders on the handle and polished so well, it shines. But the best part, in my humble opinion is that the trigger pull on this is so smooth…”

The gun rang out three times: once for her head, once for her bosom, and once for her uterus. Those were the three places many pagans believe to be the parts that identify the woman as Goddess.

She wasn’t worthy of those parts.

The party wrapped up at that point. Charlie and George—our stock guys—turned on the hose, sending blood down the drains in the floor, while the body and the paper bag full of her hair were put on a gurney.

We have greased a lot of palms to get the permit allowing us to melt down tires on our property. That’s where the bodies go: into the fiery furnace. The temp is high enough that all that remains is ash among the melted tires, and the smell of the rubber hides any other distinctive odors.

* * * * *

We really don’t have much fear of being caught. We take back with us all of the incriminating paperwork from our victims’ homes, and our clothes, being black, tend to hide any blood spilled… unless they used the black lights and luminol.

But that means that they would have to suspect us, and what simple mechanics—who deal with a thousand customers a week—have to do with one lone woman who disappeared?

Will we ever stop? Perhaps. But why should we when fate keeps dropping stupid people right in our laps?

Stupid people who don’t read what they are signing.

So the next time you’re asked to sign something, and you jokingly comment that you’re signing your life away, don’t laugh.

You may be doing exactly that.

 

True Brothers

by K.C. Cooper

 

Hundreds of thoughts flooded Danny Russell’s mind when he saw his best friend, Michael Hart, standing on his doorstep looking like a rabbit running from a hunter, the most prominent being, “Aw, hell, Mike. You’ve really done something this time, haven’t you?” To confirm his friend’s suspicions, Mike said, “I’ve signed my death warrant, Danny. I’m a dead man.”

Mike’s face was too pale, his soft brown eyes too wide in the dim glow of Danny’s porch light. “Uh, hi Mike,” said Danny, unsure of how to respond to this statement. “Come in?”

Mike shook his head. “No. I’m endangering you and Missy enough just talking to you.”

“Ok,” Danny replied. “We’ll talk out here.” He turned back to the house, and called to his wife of only eight months. “Missy, Mike’s here. We’re going to sit outside on the porch.”

Missy popped her head into the hall. “Hi, Mike. You boys want anything to drink?”

“Sure, sweetheart,” said Danny. “I’ll take a Coke.” Mike shook his head, and she disappeared into the kitchen. Danny stepped out onto his back porch, just behind his friend.

“She’s beautiful,” said Mike. “You count your blessings, and take care of her.”

“That’s the easy part,” Danny replied. Missy brought him his Coke, and he kissed her hand. “Go on back inside, baby. You’re missing ER.

Third Watch,” she corrected sternly, then smiled. “I’ll be in the living room if anyone needs me.” She left the two men alone.

Danny followed Mike to the porch swing. He ran his fingers through his short black hair. “What kind of trouble are you in?”

Mike dragged a finger across the mass of white scar tissue along his outer left forearm, and Danny thought of the matching ones on his own hands, and just above his right eyebrow. The true symbols of their friendship. “You don’t want to know. It’ll put you in more danger.”

“Then who? Mafia? CIA? KGB?” Danny had been joking, so he was shocked when Mike shook his head solemnly and said, “Worse. But that’s dangerous information. For you and Missy.”

Flashes of their childhood together poured into Danny’s mind. Mike was always the more adventurous of the two, addicted to adrenaline, sledding down a steep hill onto the interstate, rock climbing without safety gear, driving too fast. He had come to Danny and Missy’s wedding with a broken leg from a skydiving accident. He would try anything once. It was just a matter of time before his amazing run of luck ran out.

Danny dropped his head to his hands. “Oh, man, buddy. How much trouble are you in?”

Staring off into the distance, Mike replied stoically, emotionlessly, “Big time.”

“How big?”

“Like I said, they’re gonna kill me.” He was unable to meet Danny’s eyes. “And it won’t be quick.”

“What can I do? I’ll help in any way I can, you know that. Anything.”

But Mike shook his head. “There’s nothing you can do. I came to say goodbye.”

“No way! There has to be something. We’ve been friends for nearly twenty years! I can’t just write you off! We’re Frank and Jesse James, Maverick and Goose, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday!” He paused, adding their childhood hero and his best friend. “Connor and Duncan MacLeod.”

Mike stood up. “Yup. Jesse James. Goose. Doc Holliday. All three of those pairs were split by death. Maybe, if I disappear, we won’t be. And you saw Highlander IV. Duncan took Connor’s head.” He paused, debating. “Do you remember where we first met Connor MacLeod?”

“Huh… Oh!” It hit Danny suddenly. Mike was telling him where he was going. He was going to his mom’s friend, “Aunt” Jenny’s farm in rural Massachusetts. When they were kids, they had spent a week with her. During that time, they had first seen Highlander, and were fascinated by it. They spent countless hours having “swordfights” with tobacco sticks, taking turns being the immortal Connor MacLeod. Hence, “Aunt” Jenny’s was where they had first met Connor MacLeod.

“I got it,” said Danny, then he fell silent. After nineteen-plus years of friendship, so much was understood, yet they both felt so much needed to be said.

“I–” Danny started.

“So–” began Mike.

Danny paused. “Go ahead.”

“You’re a brother to me, man. No less.”

Danny replied in the words of their favorite of the Highlander series. “Goodbye, Duncan. My true brother.”

Mike smiled. “You got that backwards. You’re Duncan, and I’m Connor, remember? I’m older.”

“Yeah, but two months isn’t fifty years,” said Danny, glad to have this moment of their childhood. He hoped it wouldn’t be the last.

Mike met Danny’s eyes and held them for several moments, like they were the last safe, stable, solid thing in his world, and Danny was reminded of the scene in Highlander IV just before Connor convinced Duncan to kill him. That was the expression on Mike’s face. “Promise me something?”

“Anything.”

“Never forget me.”

* * * * *

Danny lay awake beside Missy, his mind fighting to process what Mike had told him. It couldn’t be that bad. Mike was exaggerating. He had to be. But what if he wasn’t?

The fact that Mike’s greatest fear was fire suddenly occurred to him. He wondered if whoever was after him knew that. A look of pure and absolute terror crossed his face if someone even struck a match in his presence. This brought forth such terrible images of the kind of hell a sadist with this knowledge would put his friend through that Danny shuddered involuntarily.

“Danny?” muttered Missy. She clicked on the lamp to look at her husband, the tension and despair on his face wiped away the last traces of sleepiness. “Honey, what’s wrong?”

He briefly contemplated telling her, but realized that both of them losing a night’s sleep wouldn’t help Mike any. “I’ll tell you in the morning, doll. Don’t worry. Just go back to sleep.”

She wanted to protest, to say that if something bothered him, it bothered her too, but she knew that it would upset him more to worry her. “Ok, but first thing in the morning.” She snuggled up close to him, and closed her eyes.

Meanwhile, Danny was coping with his sudden knowledge of the frailty of life. For his tough, brave, arrogant friend to be scared, not just worried, but actually frightened, it had to be bad. Real bad. With the exception of his pyrophobia, Mike was fearless.

“Missy?” he whispered quietly, hoping she wasn’t asleep.

“What?” she asked.

“I–” The words solidified in his throat, and it was a moment before he could get them out. “I just wanted to be sure you know that I love you more than life itself. I would do absolutely anything for you.”

“I love you, too, Danny. More than life itself. Whatever’s wrong, we’ll get through it. Please try to get some sleep.”

“Ok.” He kissed her, then turned over. Miraculously, he actually did fall asleep.

* * * * *

Some time later, Danny woke to a large crash as their front door was kicked in. Sitting straight up in bed, he saw three strange men shoving their way into the bedroom. He grabbed for the Smith & Wesson he kept in the nightstand drawer, but one of the men pulled out a strange-looking pistol and fired. He barely registered the pain in his shoulder.

The last thing he heard was Missy trying to call out his name and being silenced in the middle. Then it all faded to gray.

* * * * *

Suddenly aware of his surroundings, Danny fought his way through the fog to come fully awake. The bare bulb that was the only illumination in the cellar-like room seemed too bright to his eyes. From what he could see, it looked like a typical unfinished basement room. The exposed beams of the ceiling held the light by an exposed wire. Dirt and dust covered the concrete floor. The worn, filthy gray of the cinderblock walls was interrupted by a series of cracks, and one large black spider crawling lazily up the wall.

He was tied to what felt like an operating table, wearing only the gray sweatpants he had gone to sleep in. He shuddered. Hospital equipment gave him the creeps. The ice cold metal against his bare back sent a chill through him. A deep ache filled every muscle of his body, and his mind involuntarily recalled the events that led to this: The crash, the man with the odd-looking pistol—Holy hell! He’d been shot!—Missy only being able to get out the first two letters of his name before she fell inexplicably silent.

Missy! Was she okay? Was she dead? Was she somewhere in pain while he was stuck there unable to help her? He tugged on his restraints, but there was no give. Thick, rough ropes held his arms over his head, and bound his feet at the ankles. He twisted and fought against them, but all he was rewarded with was exhaustion, and the unpleasant sensation of the frayed ropes abrading his bare skin. He had no doubt who had them; it had to be the people who were after Mike. His questions revolved around the immediate future: Is Missy alive? Is she hurt? Can I get her out ok? What are they going to do to us?

He didn’t have to wait long for an answer.

“Mr. Russell?” called a voice from the door. It was an older man, the type who would put one in mind of Anthony Hopkins. He had short white hair, and a rather evil grin that Danny hated instantly. Dressed all in black, from his combat boots to his t-shirt, he was the perfect symbol of evil. At least to a person tied helplessly to a table.

“Is my wife ok? I swear to God, if you’ve hurt her–”

“Your wife is fine, Mr. Russell. May I call you Danny?”

“Yeah. Sure. Melissa’s ok? W-what do you want?” he asked, his heart hammering.

The man held up a picture of Mike. “It’s very simple. Where is he?”

Hearing the words out loud drove home just how bad things could be. What would Mike do? he thought. Simple answer: Mike would bluff. “I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me,” he stated, hoping his voice didn’t sound as weak and scared as he knew it did.

“I think you do.”

“No!” exclaimed Danny. “He was afraid of this, so he wouldn’t tell me!”

The man actually seemed to be considering this, then shook his head. “Nope. I have the tape right here.” He pushed the button on a microcassette recorder, and Mike’s voice filled the room: Do you remember where we first met Connor MacLeod? The man clicked it off. “Sounds like code to me. So you do know. Now, for future interactions, there are three rules. Rule number one: You WILL tell me what I want to know. Number two: You will NOT lie to me again. I still hold not only you, but your wife, and you will not be released until I have Michael Hart in my custody. And if you tell me the wrong location, well, let’s just say I doubt your wife would appreciate it.”

“He was just making a comment about our favorite movie! I started it, then he said that.” Danny pleaded.

The man looked at Danny angrily. “Didn’t I just tell you not to lie to me? If that was all, why didn’t you answer him.” Pushing the play button again, he allowed Danny’s recorded voice to fill the room: Huh? Oh!… I got it! He stepped back and smiled coldly as Danny tried to hide his wince. “We’ll give you a moment to think about it.” He paused. “Highlander, huh? Well, remember what they said. ‘There can be only one.’ That seems to apply here too. You, or Mr. Hart?”

They left Danny alone to his thoughts.

* * * * *

Time passed in a crawl. His wrists and ankles were torn and bloody from his struggle, but he was no closer to getting out. He knew he could never give in. He had to protect Mike. Because he was his best friend in the world, but it was more than that. Because fourteen years ago, Danny had established himself as Mike’s Angelchra n’etyel, his guardian angel.

* * * * *

“I am Connor MacLeod, of the clan MacLeod!” yelled ten-year-old Mike, launching himself forward with an attack with his “sword”.

Danny blocked easily, and launched his own attack. “I am Kurgan! There can be only one!”

For two ten-year-old boys, the hayloft of Aunt Jenny’s barn was the perfect place to play Highlander. It was about ten feet up, and there were rolls of hay on each side, if one knew where to jump. If a person was careful, they could jump into the hay and take falls just like the immortals in the movie. But as Mike countered his attack, he lost his balance at the wrong spot. With a terrified yelp, he fell backward. He was silent as he hit the ground two feet from the safety of the hay, and a sickening crunch resounded through the confined space. Mike screamed in pain. Scared and hurt, he fought to get up, but instead, he knocked over a kerosene lantern. Flames rose around him, and thick black smoke filled his lungs.

“Mike!” yelled Danny, leaping safely to the ground and rushing toward his friend, but a wall of fire separated them. “Mike, are you ok?”

“My leg hurts, Danny! I think it’s broken! I’m scared.”

“Look, it’s gonna be ok,” Danny replied, though he wasn’t sure how. Should I get Aunt Jenny? Nah, Mike would be a goner before she could get here. That only left one choice. The small bucket of water by the door wouldn’t even make a dent on the growing blaze, but it would provide Danny with a little protection. He doused himself with it, wetting his clothes and his hair. “Hang on, buddy!” he shouted, taking a deep breath, covering his face with his sweatshirt, and running through the fire.

Picking Mike up with a strength born of pure adrenaline, he told his friend to hold his breath and braced himself. His hands, the only exposed part of him, seared with second-degree burns, but he ignored it and sprinted for the door, shielding Mike as much as he could.

Once outside the flaming barn, Danny screamed for help. Mike was in pain, and they were both dizzy and light-headed from smoke inhalation. Danny collapsed beside his friend. Mike was badly burned, especially his left arm, and was still recovering from the terror. He would never look at fire the same way again. “Danny?” he said, with sirens screeching in the distance.

“Yeah?” he replied.

“You saved my life.”

Danny thought for a minute, then grinned. “Yep. Someone’s gotta try to clean up your messes.”

With all the seriousness a child of that age can muster, Mike stared off into the distance. “Thank you.”

Returning the tone, Danny replied, “Any time.”

* * * * *

They tortured Danny mercilessly for almost four hours, his screams of agony filling the small room. Through all the standard forms of interrogation, and a few unique ones, he screamed, and begged for mercy, but refused to divulge Mike’s location. Finally, realizing that no amount of physical pain would give them what they wanted, they left the room.

Danny’s entire body was one massive wave of pain. Each of his fingers was broken, as were his toes, and the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet were slit open and doused with Clorox. At least nine of his ribs were cracked, maybe more, and there were two more incisions down each side of his chest, with salt crystals kneaded into them. Most of the skin had been flayed from his stomach and lower chest by a power sander, and that had also been coated with bleach.

He squirmed, trying to ease the agonizing waves of pain that were coursing through his body, not even looking up as his tormentor re-entered the room.

“Well, Danny, we’ve decided that we’ve done enough to you. We’ve hurt you a lot, and you never even came close to giving up your friend. Quite admirable.”

“Who are you?” Danny spit out in the strongest voice he could manage.

The man smiled. “I guess we’re what most people would call terrorists. We are actually revolutionaries. Like Patrick Henry.”

“Why do you want Mike?”

The man leveled the gun over Danny’s heart. “He is a traitor.” He pulled the trigger. Missy’s face flashed through Danny’s mind just before the world went black

* * * * *

The world was still black when Danny came to, and only the pain convinced him he wasn’t dead. The fear, which had dulled his senses was receding, taking with it the mild anesthetic of endorphins, flooding him with anger, confusion, and of course, pain. Time was running out, he knew that. He had to be strong. Mike needed him, and he and Missy had just begun their lives together.

He was sitting up this time, tied to a chair with twice as many ropes as before. The rough bonds cut into the raw flesh of his stomach, making him hiss sharply.

“I see you’re coming out of it. That’s nice.”

“I-I’m not dead? You shot me in the heart! Point blank.”

“Tranquilizer dart. But don’t be too disappointed. Soon you’ll wish you were dead.”

“Why can’t I see?”

“You’re blindfolded, you idiot! Not as bright as I gave you credit for.”

“I’d love to see how well your intellect works while tied to this chair!” The cloud of fear temporarily replaced by anger, he yelled as strongly as he could, “Go ahead and kill me if you’re going to! I don’t care what you do to me, I’m not giving you Mike!” Drawing strength once again from a Highlander’s words, he said, “The bonds are all that hold us in this world, and I won’t break this one!”

“Aren’t you forgetting one thing?”

“Danny?” a terrified female voice called.

His heart froze in his chest. The receding fear flooded back in with such a force that it took his breath. “Oh my God! Missy!?”

Allowing a moment for this revelation to sink in, the man continued. “This is round two, and here’s how this one is played: You tell me where Mr. Hart is, and I don’t hurt her. You have three seconds.”

Danny’s mind barely had time to process this before the man broke in. “Time’s up.”

Missy’s scream tore into Danny’s soul. It was as if a ton of lead had been heaped upon his chest, and he couldn’t draw in a breath. The fear and anger were shoved aside by a new feeling: complete and total vulnerability. He couldn’t help Missy, he couldn’t help Mike, hell, he couldn’t even help himself. Another scream shook his concentration, and sent a stab of pain all through him. He had to think. Oh, God. What did these sons of bitches think he was made of?! How could he choose between his best friend of twenty years, and the woman he loved more than life itself? How could he choose, and how could he live with himself? Which life was more important? What would Mike do?

One more agonized shriek destroyed the last of his resistance. “Okay! Stop, please! I’ll do whatever you want!”

Missy’s scream faded to sobs, and it was difficult to tell hers from Danny’s own. He couldn’t let them hurt her. That was the only thing he couldn’t endure for the man who was more of a brother than a friend. “Please,” he begged through his tears. “Let me see her!”

“Not yet. You’ll see her when we have Mr. Hart.”

His mind racing, he called out to his wife. “Missy, honey, I’m sorry. Are you alright?”

“Danny?”

“Yeah, it’s me, baby.”

“Who are they? What do they want?”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m gonna give it to them.” His tears fell harder and faster. He knew he was killing Mike just as surely as if he cut off his head, and it killed him inside. “Rural Harmon County Massachusetts. Route 6. An old farmhouse, abandoned for years. He’s there.”

“Thank you,” the man said. Without warning, the tranquilizer once again hit his shoulder, and he was out.

* * * * *

When Danny came to, he was still tied to the chair, but the blindfold was removed. Missy was still tied to a metal platform, unconscious. The door was open in front of him, and he heard a struggle going on outside. Three men were shoving Mike down the hallway, and they paused in front of the door.

Mike and Danny locked gazes for the last time, and a million messages were exchanged in milliseconds.

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Forgive me.”

“I held out as long as I could.”

“Brothers.”

“Brothers.”

The men drug Mike away, struggling violently.

“We have him now, Danny. Do you still want to know why we want him?”

Danny nodded numbly, no longer sure at all.

The man leaned in close and whispered in Danny’s ear. “We want Michael Hart because he spoiled one of our… protests. He informed on us, and now he must pay.” He paused dramatically. “And yes, we know he’s pyrophobic.”

This hit Danny hard. The only thing keeping him sane was the thought that Mike had messed up, brought it on himself. But Mike had saved other people, and now, it would cost him his life. Danny tried to clear his head. Gotta get Missy out. I’ll worry about my conscience later. Maybe I can get help. “You got Mike, now let us go.”

The man smiled sadly. “You disappoint me, Danny-boy. I told you there were three rules. You never asked about the third.”

“What’s number three?” Danny asked, fear oozing back into him like half-melted ice.

The man drew out a real pistol. “Rule number three, Danny-boy, is common sense.” He walked over to Missy’s unconscious form. “Rule number three is never trust a terrorist.” He put the trigger to the young woman’s head and pulled the trigger.

“NOOO!!!!!!” Danny’s tortured scream echoed in the confined space as this final act of violence shattered his heart seconds before the next bullet shattered his brain.

 

Holiday Greetings

by Eric Bonholtzer

He watched out the window with a marked grimace as the children frolicked in the snow, light icy crystals falling gracefully before young impressionable eyes. The white flecks nearly covered his yard with their sloping mini-hills, and in the distance he could hear a too shrill voice bleating out something about joy and the world. Mike Jove merely sputtered, and shook his head.

He turned his attention from the eager pre-Christmas revelers, a Norman Rockwell still life if he’d ever seen one, and gazed instead at an old picture frame held snugly in his hands. Portrait of an ideal family, all wide-brimmed smiles, captured forever in a frame. Mike’s stare was blank and baleful, not really seeing what he was looking at, as he slowly rocked back and forth in a recliner with his own thoughts. A grimy finger rubbed the smooth glass, his eyes closing, as he lost himself in thought. It could have been so different.

It was unnaturally warm in Mike’s house, even for the yule time, yet the large man still wore a sweater. Wrinkles creased in consternation, Mike couldn’t have gripped the frame harder if it were a life preserver in a sea of drowning. He averted his eyes, the frame all too painful to look at, as the don’t-quit-your-day-job caroler hummed on about bells of silver and other such shiny things. His dining room was a more comfortable sight than the joyful kids, but it still held its own sense of loss.

A tree squatted haphazardly near the hearth, precariously close to toppling; Mike rarely used the fireplace anymore and the precious few gifts set before it had mostly his own name on both the to: and from: lines. The mantle itself was barren. He had taken down the crucifixes at the same time he had taken down the pictures. There was no manger and no baby Jesus. The oaken table was set, as it always was, with three place settings, a single unopened letter resting before one of them. It was not just any letter, it was the letter, the only one that ever mattered. The corners of the frame dug into Mike’s hand but he scarcely felt it. It was the stockings, hung with such care, that really got to him every year. They were flat and empty, one smaller than the rest. He didn’t know why he did this to himself. It was almost as if things were kept prepared, maybe there was some hope that things would somehow, some way go back to the way they were, back when things were right. If he could only wait long enough…

It was the small stocking that did it; the soft red felt with carefully cut letters stuck on with the reckless care of an over-eager child with Saint Nick on his mind, those letters with their glitter, a constant reminder of the joy that went into their construction that always brought the tears. Mike Jove had watched and he had laughed and he had shared the laughter, once.

“Owww!” Mike cursed as the glass bit him. He had been pressing harder and harder against the frame and the glass had cracked, a shard digging deep beneath his skin. The broken frame, now in pieces, fell to the floor unnoticed as Mike pried the sliver free. A healthy flush of blood followed, but at least that shard was gone. Mike stood up quickly, only to fall back down again into the chair. He had put weight on his bad leg too quickly. It had been years, but sometimes he still forgot which side was the weak one. Remedying his error, he stood.

Mike Jove applied pressure to his wound, trying to staunch the bleeding. Gathering up the pieces, miring them with blood in the process, the wounded man attempted to pile them upon an end table, not wanting to repeat his luck later on with a shard in the foot, also realizing that he would probably be too drunk to remember if he didn’t do it now. Leaving his minuscule testament to pain, he went into the kitchen. He couldn’t help but stare, as he always did, as he passed the unopened once a year holiday letter, written in that familiar feminine scrawl he knew as well as his own, grimacing at the Florida postmarks. It only made him walk faster. Somewhere, not far away, a voice was crooning that it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

His stomach grew sour as he stared blankly at the blood welling from his finger, thinking about it again. Mike’s mind had been turning back to the subject with alarming frequency as of late, and as he queasily observed the red trickle, he wondered, not for the first time, if he had the courage to go through with it. Mike honestly didn’t know when he’d decided to do it. If he was asked, as he was sure he would be afterwards, he was not even certain if he could articulate a valid answer and wondered, if there truly was a single reason. Sure, there were those old cop-outs: too many holidays alone, too much stress, tack them onto the never ending list, but honestly Mike didn’t have a clear reason. He simply knew he was going to kill someone. That’s all there was to it. He would find someone who he had a valid reason to kill and then he’d do it. People talked about it all the time. Man I’d love to kill that guy or What I wouldn’t give to see that guy dead. His thoughts were hardly abnormal, he reasoned, he was just going to take it one step further.

Mike knew he wouldn’t kill just anyone; that was what a crazy person would do. No, he would find someone who really deserved it and then, bam, he would pop them one. Well, not really pop them one, he rationalized, too loud, too messy. But a nice little slice here and there, that would do just fine. Looking at his bloody finger now, and picturing pools and pools of the red liquid was enough to give Mike second thoughts, but he knew that he’d reached that point where all he could do was plunge the knife into himself or someone else.

The towel soaked up his blood nicely, the pressure forcing his body to coagulate and quell the flow. He gazed about, not wanting to focus on the crimson stain lest he lose his resolve. His kitchen was plain, austere, only the necessities. Mike pulled the towel away, cautiously inspecting the jagged gash. He looked toward his wrists, transposing that line. It was a futile exercise. He had trudged this road before, and glancing at the large carving knife, a multi-purpose Ginsu, sharp for a thousand cuts or so the ad claimed, he knew that if he been serious about taking the punch-your-own-ticket route, he would have done so long before now, like on that first Christmas alone. Picking up the phone he dialed his cell phone number, the task made more difficult by the pain in his thumb, forcing him to cradle the receiver in the crook of his shoulder. Punching in his code, his spirits lifted as the mechanical mistress’ voice informed him he had one new message. Carol? Despite Mike’s best efforts to quell his rising hopes, they came all the same.

It was a sultry voice, one that sounded more than a little drunk. “Hey, Merry Christmas you sexy boy. I hope you’re thinking of me, I’m thinking of you. In fact I can’t stop thinking of you. Give me a call big boy. I’ll be waiting. Oh and Phil, bring some more champagne. We’re all out.” Figures, Mike thought bitterly, the first provocative message I’ve ever gotten and it’s the wrong number.

Mike hung up the phone with resentment. He didn’t have long to think about it because a loud chime drew his attention to the door. He had never really had many callers, and as of late that declining number was trickling off faster than ever. It wasn’t just his cynical unsociable manner, it was his cynical unsociable manner and the fact that, quite frankly, Mike Jove was a man headed the wrong way down a one-way street and everyone knew it. Walking through to the dining room, and hearing a familiar nasal voice jingling from behind the door calling, “Seasons Greetings from your friend Greg,” Mike retreated, grabbed the Ginsu with his good hand, and went to make his acquaintance with his new friend Greg, the limp making the progress slow, if not more than a little agonizing.

“Hey, Merry Christmas to you, friend. Wow, will you look at that hand. Boy that had to hurt.” To Mike, the man was every bit as disagreeable as the tone of his voice. The stranger’s penchant for bluntness, coupled with the fact that he was gawking at Mike’s hand like he had two hands growing from his wrist instead of just some minor cut that was soaking into a towel, unnerved him. Mike’s good hand, held surreptitiously behind his back, clinched involuntarily, tightening its grip around the knife. “My name’s Greg Atan. Nice to meet you. God bless and keep you.” He extended his hand, which Mike made no gesture to shake, and after a few seconds, Greg withdrew the appendage.

Mike smiled. “Merry Christmas to you too, friend.” He was actually kind of enjoying this. Toying with his potential prey, trying to see if this new arrival fortune had so graciously placed upon his doorstep could fit the criteria.

“Wow, what a nice place you’ve got here. I can’t believe it’s just you living here. This is a perfect house for kids.”

Way to rub it in buddy. Chalk one up on the scoreboard. Mike almost slammed the door shut right then and there on this brazen interloper, but something tugged at his mind. “How do you know that I live here alone?”

“Well, Mike, I’ve been doing this a long time and, I mean, everybody knows that you’re here all by yourself, since, well you know.” Strike two.

“How long is a long time?”

“Three years.”

“I’ve never seen you before.” Mike said.

“Well, Mike, let’s face it,” the colloquial, I’m-your-buddyness of his speech was somehow the worst part of all, “you aren’t exactly the most friendly guy in the neighborhood.” This guy was just asking for it. “In fact this is the first year, I’ve even had the guts to come up and knock on your door.” Greg made a gesture like he was going to impart some grave secret, leaning close and dropping his voice a bit with the last, “To be perfectly honest man, you kinda scare me sometimes. You know, all shut up in your house all the time. I mean it’s just a little cuckoo, if you ask me.” He took a step back, laughing as if he’d just cracked the world’s funniest joke. “Ahh I’m just messin’ with you, pal.” Mike did not move, nor did he smile. Becoming a bit uncomfortable, Greg felt it his duty to fill the dead air. “So do you want to hear a tune? How’s ‘Dashing Through the Snow’ sound, or a little ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’?”

Mike beamed at him. “Why don’t you come in?”

Greg smiled like he’d just hit the lottery. “Really? Thanks. You’re so nice.” There was something about Greg’s over-the-top friendliness that rubbed Mike the wrong way. People like Greg looked at everything in life, no matter how bad or hurtful, as if it could be gathered, processed, squeezed and quantified, and turned into something happy and wonderful. To Mike there was just something blatantly wrong with that kind of thinking.

Mike led Greg into the dining room, taking great pains to hide the fact that he limped, but the caroler didn’t even look at his host, taking in every detail of the house, as he plopped carelessly into a chair at the dining room table. Mike fumed at the intrusion, but he kept his composure. His palm grew clammy holding the blade and he took every effort to make sure his guest didn’t catch so much as a glimpse of it. “You must be thirsty after all that singing.”

“No, not really. You get kind of used to it. Man, I just love to see the looks on people’s faces when I show my stuff.” Greg smiled, brushing a recalcitrant lock of hair out of his face. On the whole, his mane was long and unkempt, as if his mission to provide happiness to everyone in the world made it all right to neglect personal hygiene. “Hey, how come you got three place settings? You expecting company?”

“Just you.” Mike had to bite down hard on his tongue to keep from spitting a harsh rejoinder.

“Oh, but look, you got three stockings…”

“Yes, I do, don’t I?” Mike cut him off before he could say more. It stung enough as it was. “So what do you want to drink? Brandy? Scotch? I’ve got a lot to choose from.”

“When I’m doing the Lord’s work I don’t like to drink. Just a little water will be fine.”

Mike turned to the kitchen with a speed that was almost a run.

* * * * *

The knife sat on the center island of the kitchen and Mike Jove was staring at it with a trance-like intensity. He just couldn’t believe this guy. The man had barged into his home and was laying to waste everything that he still had left in his life. And he was so glib as he was doing it. He was practically begging for it. This interloper had done everything but call him a lonely degenerate. But still, there was something… Mike didn’t know if he could go through with it. After all the bolster, all the bravado, he just didn’t know if he could kill someone, especially a Christmas caroler. But on the other hand, the things this guy did, and the way he had appeared at just the right moment, it was almost a sign. Mike paced, wringing his hands as he did so, the wound on his finger tearing open again and a fresh sputter of blood beginning to trickle out. He had to do this. He had committed to it. He ran his thumb along the blade, marveling at the obscene beauty of the crimson smear on the polished steel. It would be done so fast. One, maybe two, slices and it would be over. His stomach could handle that much. The guy would never know what hit him. Sink it in, pull it out, and it would all be done.

Mike shook his head. Try as he might, staring at the blade and all its possibilities, he knew he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Shaking his head, he poured himself three fingers worth of brandy from his decanter and filled a chipped glass with water for his guest. Sardonically he thought, maybe he’ll cut his lip on the chip. I’ve heard bacteria grows in those cracks, nasty stuff, festering stuff. Maybe he’ll get a right good infection. Mike smiled at his own cleverness.

Taking up the two glasses, he started off, and then for the second time this day, he back-tracked, deciding to take the blade just in case, tucking the implement into his waistband, making sure his shirt tail covered the protruding hilt. He picked up the glasses and was off, safe in the knowledge that just because he had lost everything did not mean that he would make someone else lose everything. And to Mike Jove that was enough.

* * * * *

Mike dropped both glasses on the carpet as he walked in and saw Greg’s choice of reading material. Remarkably neither cup shattered, but both made a huge mess on the floor. He was livid. Mike had returned to see his holiest of holies violated. Each year he received a letter from his ex wife. A letter he never opened. He had hoped and feared and wondered and debated every Christmas about what was in each letter and yet he never opened any of them. A plea to come home or a stirring confirmation that his family wished he would drop dead. He would never know, but as long as he never opened it there was always that hope that one day they’d come home. He didn’t know what he would do if he knew that the most important part of his life was gone forever. He didn’t know how he would go on. So each year, for three long years, he looked at the envelope every day, tracing that fine scrawl with his finger, until the pain became just too much, the letter discolored by dried tears, and then it was filed away in his night stand until the next year’s mail came. But this guest, Greg, this stranger, had seen fit to open it and it wasn’t even his mail. And this was something more than just a letter.

“What are you doing?!” Mike demanded, suddenly torn between pulling out his knife and butchering the living hell out of his guest, or simply tearing the man apart with his bare hands. In the end, he did neither, only repeating, in a very strained voice, “What are you doing?”

“Man, that ex of yours sure seems like a nice lady. Seems all she wants is for you to get your act together. Get a job, provide a little security. Stop drinking.”

“Stop.”

“It doesn’t sound all that bad man. And your daughter, I guess she’s doin’ okay too.”

“Stop.”

“And…”

“Just stop!” It was a scream.

“Don’t yell, Mike.” Greg had gotten up, dropping the letter back to the table and with it, Mike’s hopes and dreams, withdrawing a small pistol as he did so. “I really don’t like it when people yell. It’s time for this stupid game to end, Mike. This is one of those turning points in your life.”

“Who are you?”

“Someone who’s been watching you, Mike. Someone who’s been waiting for the right opportunity.” All the colloquial camaraderie was gone, and Mike found himself realizing just how much he missed it in the face of this cold-hearted demeanor.

“But why?” Mike was crushed, his emotions riding a rollercoaster of uncertainty, but superceding all, he was confused, utterly confused. Who was this man and what was he doing here? And more importantly what did he want?

“I guess there isn’t really a reason is there? Its just something you do. Something you decide on, then you do. You look at the rewards, then bang, you do it.”

“But… I don’t understand…”

“I studied you. I knew all about you. Lived alone. Wife took off with the kid a couple of years back. You know, you got some nice stuff here, so that’s a perk. You’re a shut-in so nobody’s really gonna miss you, and there won’t be any unwelcome visitors. You don’t spend a dime, so you gotta have some sort of stash somewhere. Now do you understand what this is all about? Its robbery, plain and simple. And now you’re going to get your money for me or I’m going do you a favor and put you out of your misery. A bullet’s the ultimate painkiller, bud. Wanna try?” He motioned with his pistol.

“So this… this was all a scam?”

“Damn straight. What better disguise than right out in the open. No one’s gonna believe that nice Mr. Christmas Caroler was a stick-up man, and even if they did, no one knows who I am. I case joints and knock ’em over at Christmas time. Best time of year, everyone’s so charitable. I was countin’ on you openin’ your door for me, but I had a backup plan, just be lucky I didn’t have to use it. Now I want you to take me to your stash and gather up anything valuable you have and I’m gonna make like wicked old Mr. Grinch.”

Mike backed up a step and Greg advanced, getting right on top of him. “Don’t even think of using that knife. I don’t know what you’re doing carrying a knife in the first place, but you’re the suicidal loner so that’s your business. I spotted it soon as I flopped down in your daughter’s chair.” Mike cursed and Greg exercised control, pressing the cool steel up against his victim’s temple. “Now, slowly, real slowly I want you to take out the knife and drop it on the ground.” Mike complied, fighting every inch of the way the urge to just lunge for Greg and grab the gun, knowing he had no choice. Now that he truly had his valid reason for murder he couldn’t do a thing about it. The knife made a muted clang as it hit the floor, taking Mike’s hopes with it.

“Now you’re going to tell me where that nest egg is.”

Mike stalled for time. “How can you do this? I don’t have anything anymore. It’s so evil…”

“You’re damn right it is. But hey, one life to live right? You were the perfect mark. Just asking for it. You know holidays are the best time. All that religious junk, it just makes people soft. Just like you. You let your guard down. You let me into your house. And now you’re gonna pay.” There was a marked hatred in his words.

“But you don’t understand,” Mike was near tears, “I don’t have anything.”

“Oh, yes you do. That job incident that ended your career. Why you’re afraid of work, why you drink. Oh yes, I looked into all that, yeah, I know all about you Mike Jove. It ruined your marriage and it’s the reason why you limp. You’re too scared to even leave the house for a few minutes. Afraid it’ll happen again. Shot in the line of duty.” He pressed the pistol hard into Mike’s skull. “And if you don’t do what I say, you’re gonna be shot again. There was a settlement. You cleaned up. Now it’s my turn.”

“No. No you don’t understand. I gave it all to her when she left. I wanted her to have something to know I still loved her, that I still loved our daughter.” His voice was cracking but there was grim triumph in his words. “Apparently you didn’t do your homework well enough.”

Then everything was like a flash frame, etched in perfect detail. Greg screamed in rage, striking out with the gun. The blow took Mike in the side of the head, issuing a ragged gash in his skin, the amount of blood seeming impossible. The blow knocked Mike to the side, Greg taking aim with the gun, apparently reasoning that if he couldn’t get the money from Mike he was prepared to get it in flesh instead. Then something miraculous happened. Mike’s weak leg, which threatened to buckle under the strain did no such thing, held with a strength that felt as if a warm glow was filling the socket, keeping it strong. The glint of the shattered glass from the broken frame caught his eye, and without thinking he snatched up a handful, unmindful of the pain and jammed it into Greg’s unsuspecting face. The agony was intense, the glass cutting both ways, but Mike did not relent, driving the shards deeper into Greg’s skin and eyes. One gunshot went off and then another. Mike felt a tug in his side but he saw no blood. He had little time to think as the gun fired again and he hit the floor. Blinded by the glass, Greg was firing wildly, giving Mike a chance to snatch up the knife. Slashing without guidance, his blade sliced the back side of Greg’s leg, dropping the man to the floor. The wild firing did not stop, but one quick thrust of the knife and it was over.

For several moments, Mike just sat there, stunned, in disbelief that this whole thing had happened to him, whispering prayers of thanks over and over again in a litany. Something had happened this day, something more than just a series of events. It had been a sign.

Mike scrambled over to the letter, his face matted in blood, fear still etched in his eyes, but tinged with hope. His heart beating like a marathon runner’s closing sprint, he read and re-read the floral stationery, tears pouring down his cheeks. He crumpled the paper against his breast, holding it there, letting the sobs wrack him and the warmth fill him. Mike finally realized that he had been living in fear. Ever since the incident he’d been afraid. Afraid of confrontation, afraid of the world. He had let his life slip away from him because he had been too scared to grasp it. Mike was smart enough to know a second chance when he saw one. He always hoped and wondered if he would ever have his life back. And now he had an answer. He thought of his wife and daughter. A slight grin curled at the corners of his lips as he grabbed the phone. Dialing would be difficult, but he would manage.

He would call the police. But, first, he had one more important phone call to make.

 

Shooting Blanks

by Tim Kenyon

 

Disruptive wisps of sulfur smoke seep from the barrel of my rifle and circle me. I want to shoo them away, but I can’t. It’s too late. The taste is on my tongue now. It is in my lungs. I have inhaled the angry souls of the just executed.

The encroaching crowd of witnesses fill their downtime with banter. A limp, motionless body is taken away. A live one is put in its place.

I observe, though not caring to. A boy this time, no more than ten. His left hand is still dripping with red paint, freshly dipped in the clerk’s bucket. The judges waste no time anymore, this boy’s conviction not fifteen minutes old.

For the very first time, I feel the slight urge to question. How does any crime of a child warrant this endgame? It is inhumane under any circumstances. But I stay quiet. I cannot risk exposure. Especially not now.

I reload with the shells from my pocket while the other four draw from their ammo bags. Seeking some immediate relief, I tell myself: this boy will die, yes. But not by my hand. Not by my rifle.

The commandant steps to the line, sword raised.

Ready!

I crack a half-smile. I am celebrating, this, the first day of my secret redemption. My solution is not perfect, no. I regret to even justify it considering my past actions. But my involvement warrants it. My job and I share a dangerous intimacy. Attempting to quit would be in defiance of the judges, and I cannot risk my own life.

Aim!

The boy is about to die. The boy is about to die.

I close my eyes and travel backward in my mind. I leave these murderous surroundings behind me and return to earlier this morning. I cannot recall exactly what time I went to bed last night after self-medicating. Nevertheless, before I even open my eyes I am taken by an unknown force, a presence in my chest. Squeezing me. I am paralyzed, dying.

As it subsides, I sense an awareness like never before. Suddenly, I realize the cruelness of my assignment. The immorality. My existence is unfathomable. I will not go to work today, I tell myself. Cradling the blankets, pursing my lips, I wait for the pain in my chest to return. But it does not.

I force my eyes open. My bedroom is a bizarre mixture of black and white. I am terribly alone. And afraid. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of the light. Afraid of the outdoors. Afraid of the smallest corner of my room. I tell myself I am doomed.

I can’t breathe, even though I can hear the air moving in and out of me like raging fire. Burning me. It is confusing, a paradox. I can visualize the flame, a wraith hunting for every weak portion of me it can capture and destroy. It leaves my body and circles me.

I grasp the sheets, cover my head. Uncover it. Cradle my knees into the fetal position. I have become one of the unfortunate who face me every day. I am bound and shackled among those who suffer from what the world can’t provide.

My mind races with visions. Dogs barking. Planes crashing. The murder of my family. And the ideas. An unstoppable faucet of ideas. Sex, desire, religion. Vanity, ego, one-upmanship. All of them, our social pathologies.

Only those in power are immune to these maladies. They are awarded the guns and keys. Inside prison cells, the stricken sit and wait to be put out of their misery. They are the victims, and now I am one of them.

I must find a way to yield my authority.

I scurry out of bed, tripping over sheets and blankets. To the vault. Go to the vault—where I can regain composure, start from the place where my life is familiar. I wish I can say that my breath has cooled, but I’d be lying. I can only move on instinct and hope for the best.

The vault door slams behind me. I take in the sight. One continuous rack of rifles circling me, covering every wall. I forage for my keys. Top drawer right, exactly where I left them last night. Their metal-scraping-metal noise hurts me as my head recovers from the overload of adrenaline.

I count out the fifth rifle from the left, third rack on the west wall. I choose the proper key on the first try. I can barely keep the ring aloft—one key for each rifle. Rifles, rifles, they keep giving me rifles. New ones. More accurate ones. Reengineered ones. I can no longer concentrate on keeping count past the first dozen.

I hold this rifle across my body and commence my routine. Safety first. Always safety first. Slide back the action. No clip attached. Check the chamber. The rifle is clear.

My breath cools. The fear is subsiding. There is nothing to be afraid of.

I try to imagine why my alarm was set off. Did I dream I forgot to unload last night? I have no memory.

My mind is still uneasy. Off in the distance, creeping behind the walls of my vault, I can feel the wraith moving. Circling. The only way to satisfy myself, to end the incessant hovering, looming, coveting of this wraith, is to check each rifle.

The key ring cuts into my palms. It is a lead menace, fighting me. It does not want to cooperate, but I force it to do what I need.

So I begin. Each rifle down the line, key in, twist, key in, twist, until the rack is empty. I turn each corner, ninety degrees, stepping to the right, fervently moving along each wall until every lock lay on the table. They are all free, these rifles, these crazy fears of mine, each one savagely familiar to my touch. My grip.

One by one I go through my ritual, having to blow the dust out of some, needing to remind myself how to work others. They are complicated. So complicated. Every small detail a chore.

Moving along, further down the line. The tragic memory in each becomes an overwhelming equation. My emotions cannot handle this kind of mathematics. But I check them all, methodically, unwilling to divide my time unevenly between them. They are my collective. Indefinable as individuals. I cannot tell them apart.

They are all off the wall, and they are all clear. I breathe moist relief into the stale room. Looking at my rifles, loose, helpless, dead, I wonder what has driven me to keep them here, stored away like trophies, as if I’m not a whole person without them. I am not that simple a human being.

And so I collect them all, as many as my arms can carry. Down they go, to the basement, into the old trunk where I’ve been hiding my memorabilia. Photos of my youth. High school diploma. Collection of Matchbox cars and trucks. Broken rosary beads I’ve been meaning to mend for more than twenty years. Out these things go to make room.

I create a neat stack, one on top of another. Rifle, rifle, rifle. Placing them neatly, head to toe. Barrel pointing left. Barrel pointing right.

Two trips up the stairs, armloads down to the cellar. More and more in place until the trunk is full. Then I lock it. And not just the cheap latches on the outside. No, not only those, but a padlock. Strong, sturdy. A bit more permanent.

I push against the lock, straining against the rust, praying it will work. That it will hold. I realize I haven’t tested it yet for strength or durability. It is imperative I keep out prying hands and itchy trigger fingers.

One final push and it snaps closed.

I covet the key, kicking the lock with my foot, feeling secure for the moment that as long as I keep the two separated—key and lock—nothing can go wrong. I can think of only one safe place for the key, where I will be guaranteed certain control. I lift my chin high, put it on the back of my tongue, and swallow.

I lower my head once I’m sure the key has settled and stare at the locked trunk. My hand is reaching behind me, blindly grabbing for the spade. I grip it and start to dig.

The top soil is loose, easily moved. I keep digging, but the deeper I go the more my body fights me. My biceps and triceps, quads and hamstrings, all working against me. Anatomical opposites with a common purpose. To defy me.

When I’m finished, and with the little strength I have left, I climb out of the hole and push against the side of the trunk. Cramps and all, I don’t let up until it falls into the hole. The trunk lands on its side, then tips over onto its cover.

Fine. There’s no way I’m getting inside now without spilling the contents, letting every single rifle fall out. Waking the wraith. I can’t have that, so there they will stay, upside down, buried in my basement.

My stomach churns and I feel a stinging pain. Ignoring it, I finish filling in the hole and stare at the pile of displaced dirt as I bite a thumbnail. I can taste gritty dirt, but keep gnawing until the pain subsides. The key has moved on. Though in time, I trust my body will discover it is futile to digest it.

I head for my kitchen, cook and eat. Breakfast goes down without issue. I am feeling comfortable again. No more visions. The dogs are heeling, behaving. The planes are landing safely. My family is alive and well.

Cleaning up, I work on the most cunning way to handle separation from my assignment, from my duty. I cannot be expected to perform without emotion. Without repercussion. It is unnatural. Inhuman. And with my rifles buried, with no way to retrieve them, the judges will have no choice but to accept my resignation.

I work the sponge over the frying pan. Circles clockwise, one, two, three. Circles back, one, two, three. Over and over until the surface is clean. I bombard my mind with trivialities. Weather patterns, old jobs, forgotten acquaintances, mundane sexual encounters. But this leaves it in a dangerous state of unawareness.

My breath quickens, rising from my stomach to my chest. My shoulders move toward my ears. I am being prepared for fight or flight. For the unexpected—

A knock at the door. Heightened awareness takes over, tunnel vision, tactile sensitivity. The works. I make my way toward the door without knowledge of movement. Forward, forward. Once again, I am no longer in control. Hand out against my will, and the door is open.

There is an exchange of pleasantries. A package is handed to me. A box that could easily hold two dozen long stem roses, if such a generous person existed in my life. But lover or not, I know these are not flowers.

I struggle to hold my breath as I accept the package and hastily close the door. I make my way to the vault and carefully place the package on the workbench. The walls draw my eyes away. The rifle rack is empty, but not for long. A collection of crippling memories, each with its own key, will start to accumulate once again.

Taped to the side of the package is a brown envelope. A standard instructional letter, I assume. Places, times. A list of victims.

But no. The note is of congratulatory tone. I am to be inducted into the party. A brief footnote details the deadly consequences of a refusal. I drop slowly onto the stool behind me and read the note again out loud, word for word.

This so-called honor doesn’t come to those who perform mediocre duties, those who don’t stand out. It is given to the team players. It is only given to those they want as permanent members, only to those they trust. But I am no longer one of those people. I can never be one of them. However, their intentions are clear. They are leaving me no choice.

I won’t comply, but I will make it seem so. I will create a guise of assimilation.

Leaving the package unopened, I set out, taking quick, desperate steps along the side streets. There is only one person who can help me now. My gunsmith. He is my problem solver. He will have the right prescription.

I navigate the maze of streets, one after another. The trip takes hours. Finally, I reach the stoop of a brick and mortar behemoth. I straighten my collar, wipe my brow. This visit must look like all business.

I am greeted in silence, led to a sitting room and left to wait. The chairs are clean with blue plaid coverings. The magazines are gender neutral. I become wrapped up in their banal photos. When I look up, I’m no longer alone.

The usual small talk is skipped. I explain my situation with minimal detail. The entire story takes less than thirty seconds.

The solution, I’m told, is a simple one. Out of a drawer comes a small canvas feed sack. I take it in both hands. By the tink, tink, tink inside I know it contains exactly what I need. An exchange of furtive smiles is the climax of the meeting. Pay at the door. Have a nice day. I’m left alone to find my own way out.

The walk home is a deep breath of fresh air. I get home in half the time.

I lock my door behind me—deadbolt, slide chain, latch, latch—and rush to the vault. I unwrap my new rifle, remove a random shell from the sack and hold it up. Beautiful. Powerful. Albeit blank. Missing is the soft lead bullet coated in a copper jacket. The shell is empty, save the noisemaker shoved down inside. These will kill no one.

I emit an uncharacteristic chuckle as I load the rifle. A strange feeling of control has come over me. My capacity for trickery is immense. And I cannot be the only one who has come to this same end, desperate for a need to blend in. There are others like me. And I pray that our self-realization is contagious.

Now it is time for a trial run. Time to see if this bag of shells was worth the money I paid, and worth the risk I will take.

I raise the rifle to the mirror, taking aim. I think. Think hard. Taunting. Coaxing. Attempting to bring out the wraith. I want to give myself to it. I work hard at my memory. Pain and anguish. A menacing dog. A plane crash. My mother’s slit throat. I can feel the anxiety coming—worry, panic, fear. And just as the wraith is ready to pounce, I pull the trigger.

My mind scatters with the splitting crack of the rifle. Instinctively, I brace for the recoil, but there isn’t one. I am alone in my head, staring at myself in the mirror.

At first, I find it hard to grasp that I’ve discovered the means to save me from myself. Worry. Guilt. Self-loathing. All part of my history. But how long can this feeling last? I’ve obtained only one sack. It is not endless.

I dump the contents onto the workbench. My eyes move as rapidly as they can, but my mind cannot keep the count. Fifty. Sixty maybe.

I curse my false assuredness. This is no solution. How could I have been so shortsighted? So careless? I ball up the sack in one hand and aim for the trash bin, but I stop shy of tossing it. There’s a thicker texture inside, beyond that of the cheap canvas. It is paper.

I shake the bag open and fish through it. Indeed. A scrap of old, yellowed parchment. The words on it not handwritten, but printed by the old offset process. The type, very bold. The paper, quite expensive. But the words. The value of the words far exceed that of the rich paper on which they are printed. Instructions for making my own blanks. As valuable as a recipe for the creation of humankind.

I look over the list, taking mental notes. Counting. Adding. How profound that I have all the ingredients right here in my possession. All along, a way out for me, stored in tightly closed containers, neat stacks on shelves and in drawers.

I feel elated as I stuff my pockets with the blanks, pack my rifle and slide the folded contact in my breast pocket. I am driven for the first time by enthusiasm for my work. And for acceptance into the party. I will fulfill my duties as a sworn member and no one is the wiser to my new lease on life. I can finally base my actions on compassion. Forgiveness. Goodwill. I deem myself the world’s first empathetic executioner.

* * * * *

My entire afternoon fills me with a sour mix of angst and elation as I am forced to linger in the riflemen’s bunker. How sad, how ironic, that I cannot share my newfound joy with anyone of any consequence. I am surrounded only by those who can’t know, and those who wouldn’t want to.

At last, my rifle line is called to the front. No more than twenty executions before a group is relieved. Shooting wears on the shoulder, you see, but this morning I’ll have to feign my aching joints. To keep my secret, I cannot look comfortable. Or at ease. So I stand rigidly. Tense. My shoulders instinctively move to my ears. I look at the other four and notice theirs are doing the same. I realize for the first time why shooting hurts so much.

The first ten go off flawlessly. I want so badly to grin. My mind is racing with wild joy. Those who sit in judgment cannot tell the difference. On the outside, I look the same as I did yesterday. My signed contract says I am one of them, but I am not. I have been saved. I have divorced myself from the wraith, and there is no going back. Not as long as I have the knowledge. This recipe for making blanks.

The boy is dragged out. The red paint running from his left hand leaves a dark, thin trail behind him. Normally I would comment on how pathetic his broken leg looks dangling behind him, but not the reborn person shacking up inside me. I feel pity. Regret. I can’t help but wonder what hardship has fallen on this boy. What drove him to sin, and how he is any different from you or me.

I load from the shells in my pocket while I unofficially forgive the boy in my silent prayers. A muffled amen escapes from my lips as I trip the safety.

My crosshairs quarter the boy. Dead on. Five shots. Four holes.

The commandant’s call interrupts my thoughts.

Ready!

I am ready.

Aim!

Ready to feign recoil at the exact moment. Perfectly executed. I have it down to a science.

Halt!

I nearly pull the trigger, but stop short and fall to attention with the rest of the line. What could this be? A stay for the young boy? A full reprieve? There has never been such a thing.

I watch a judge make his way down to the line. A spectacle to say the least. It causes chatter among the onlookers. Me—I keep silent, watching his body language. Looking for suggestions of compassion. But this judge is an expert, a natural born poker player.

His sequestered meeting with the commandant takes only a few moments before they turn and march toward us.

They stop, and one by one they inspect our rifles, starting at the other end. I stand fast. Nowhere to go. Moving is a death sentence.

The judge stops in front of me, turns and waits for my movements. I do the drill. Snap the rifle across my body, ready for inspection. My eyes do not meet his. Cannot meet his. I stare instead at the wraith mocking me from over his shoulder. The wraith, with its knowledge of the four bullet holes. The wraith, instigator of the inspection before the bodies were incinerated.

The judge empties the rifle and inspects the shells.

My eyes meet his for the first time. And the last.

In my blind spot, a thousand miles away, I hear the commandant call for the clerk and his bucket of red paint.