by David McBride
I awoke to the ever-annoying buzz of the alarm clock. It couldn’t possibly be eight o’clock already, could it? Apparently it could, so I dragged my lazy ass out of bed and headed to the shower. After ten minutes of the rough equivalent of molten lead being poured on me, I was ready to start the day. I got dressed using my keen sense of style; that means I throw on whatever isn’t on the floor. I ended up in a t-shirt that states, “Guns don’t kill people, I kill people,” and a pair of jeans that are survivors of the Reagan administration. Then I was ready for work. Hooray.
You may think that a t-shirt and jeans is a bit underdressed for Washington, D.C. in the middle of January, but I think that cold is only in the mind, and therefore it isn’t actually negative 100 out, merely negative 10. See, positive thinking at it’s finest. Damn, I’ve got to get a coat. I headed out of the apartment complex I live in and got into my car: a spiffy ’93 Cavalier with a well-driven engine. You’d think my bosses would spring for some better wheels, but no, they insist that since I don’t actually need to drive, I don’t need a nice car. I, however, disagree.
Heading down the freeway, I popped in a tape of Led Zeppelin to unwind. I flew by the other cars doing about 80; all the cops around here know who I am and don’t bother me. It’s one of the fringe benefits of the job. I got off at the exit and headed towards the building. I pulled up to the gate and saw that my favorite guard, Frank, was on duty.
“Hey Frank, what’s happening?”
“I thought you were going to tell me, Mr. Stevens,” he replied, a smirk crossing his lips.
“Don’t call me that Frank. Just Josh is fine.”
“Okay, Just Josh, I’ll tell them you’re here. Go ahead.”
“That’s a horrible joke Frank, don’t quit your day job,” I shot back.
“I don’t plan on it. See you later, Josh.” Frank then pressed a button, and the gates in front of the White House opened wide.
I drove the Cavalier up to the front and hoped I wouldn’t stand out too much amidst all of the limos. A guard came out to escort me in. Everyone seemed pretty on edge as we began walking to the front, but then that’s usually why I get called in. One of the secretaries had called me a few days ago requesting a meeting for today. I was hoping it wasn’t serious, but the way people were scurrying about made me doubt that.
“Hey Josh,” the security guard called to me, “is that your car?”
“Yeah, like it?”
“No, it looks like a piece of shit,” he laughed.
“Bite me.” Witty repartee is my other job if you couldn’t tell.
“C’mon, everybody’s waiting for you,” he said, all laughter gone from his voice.
We started down the main hall past all the busy worker bees bringing graphs and polls and other assorted paperwork from room to room. I got the usual treatment, some people nodded a greeting, some avoided eye contact all together, and some of the interns undressed me with their eyes. Not a hard thing to do considering all the holes in my jeans. We picked up the pace as we turned a corner past a bunch of people discussing the latest opinion poll. And then we got to our destination: the war room.
The security guard, his name might have been Jeff but I’m not sure, opened the double doors for me, wished me luck, and closed the doors behind me. Even after being in here at least two dozen times before it’s still a bit intimidating. Around the large rectangular table in the middle of the room sat a dozen high-ranking military officers, the Secretary of Defense, and the President at the head of it. It was glossed to a mirrored shine reflecting some of the light caught by all the medals worn by the military officers. In the back of the room there was a large map of the United States that took up the whole wall. I took it all in before I made my way to my seat to hear the inevitable bad news. Only the President looked me in the eye as I rounded the table.
“Hello, Mr. Stevens,” the President said soberly. He looked like he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in over a week.
“Mr. President.” I made a slight bow before sitting down. I may be disrespectful, but he is the President after all.
“Do you know why you’re here, Mr. Stevens?” the Secretary of Defense growled.
“Is it time to repaint already?” I didn’t like him. A General stifled a laugh by pretending to cough. The Secretary began to respond but the President interrupted, spoiling my fun.
“Not quite, Josh.” Finally, someone used my first name! Now it doesn’t quite feel like I’ve been called to the principal’s office. “As you know, we’ve been monitoring certain terrorist groups for some time now trying to pinpoint their bases and leaders. Well, we’ve gotten some info that says they’re going to try to attack a number of our foreign interests at one time and we’ve decided it’s time to stop monitoring them and take action.” There was a grumbling of agreement from the group. “I’ll let General Wallace fill you in on the specifics.”
General Wallace was a Vietnam vet with more metal on his uniform than I have on my car. Overall he’s a pretty nice guy and one of the few that actually appreciate what I do and treats me as an equal instead of some government sponsored killing machine. Wallace stood up and approached the map on the wall; his massive 6’2″ frame casting long shadows in the awkward light. He wore a grim expression that made him all the more intimidating despite his advancing age and bags under his eyes from staring at a computer screen for hours on end.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” he began in earnest. “At 2130 last night we received word from a source on the ground that a well-known terrorist faction was in the last stages of planning a large scale attack overseas. At 0500 this morning we received word that the leaders of this group have scheduled a last minute meeting to congratulate their members who will be involved in the actual attack.”
“You mean the main people will all be at this gathering, even the higher-ups?” an Air Force General asked, not quite keeping up with the conversation.
“Yes, that is the theory.” Wallace continued, “If we can dim the lights and turn on the projector I’ll show you your objective, Josh.”
The lights dimmed and the General started pointing to various points on a satellite photo of an unfriendly country that could have been anything from a nuclear missile silo to a Burger King. I was starting to drift in and out of the conversation, hearing only certain terms: target, eliminate, bunker, fanatics, money. The last one caught my attention and swung me back to reality. The President was saying that if I did this and was successful they would make sure I was well taken care of; maybe they’ll cough up the cash for a new car. He finished by telling me I had twenty minutes to get there: I didn’t need that long.
I stood up and began walking to the wall with the map on it. As I passed I heard some disgruntled snorts from the assemblage: probably jealous that their branch of the armed services wasn’t going to get to annihilate any terrorists. I met the General at the back and had him point out the general location on the map. He muttered some encouraging sentiments about patriotism and doing the right thing, but I was already concentrating on that point on the map.
I started to feel the power surge through me. It starts at a point in my brain and begins to move down and out to my fingers, like fire ants marching across my spinal cord to every point on my body. I closed my eyes and imagined the pictures they showed me of a country whose name I can’t even spell. Then I opened my eyes and I was there: 500 feet up in the air. As I hovered there silently, I remembered I had nineteen minutes to burn; I hope this shit hole has a bar.
I spun around taking in my new surroundings: A small village off to my right, my target off to the left, and a whole lot of nothing everywhere else. The houses in the village were reminiscent of third world shacks made of whatever material was at hand; lucky for them there’s a lot of rocks around. There were a couple nice open-air markets in the center of town bustling with dozens of people, mostly trading for food by the looks of it. Maybe I’ll help the town out before I leave; balance the scales a bit for what I was going to do.
As I floated there watching inquisitive birds fly by, my mind drifted. I wonder what the newspapers will say tomorrow? My work is never hard to identify if you know what to look for, but most people will never know I existed. My stuffs been referred to as anything from anomalous weather, to tragic accidents, to acts of God. While the last one’s quite an ego boost, I get paid better than God. My personal favorite was in Desert Storm; an entire Iraqi division disappeared beneath the sand and the newspaper called them ‘treacherous deserters.’
Reminiscing about past jobs always leads me back to her. I met Eva while on assignment in the former Yugoslavia back in ’93. I was given the task of eliminating a Serbian General who was massacring the local Albanians; he had already decimated three towns by the time I got there. After wiping out his personal guard and boiling his blood and internal organs, I made my way into town to grab a beer. On my short trip I encountered a convoy of people who were of the wrong ethnicity for that area and were headed north; she was at the front of the exodus.
Eva was beautiful in a way that only a refugee running from a genocidal death squad could be. She was tall, and thin from malnutrition; her dark, tattered clothes hung off her in shambles. Dirt mussed her angelic face; brown hair fell gracefully down to the small of her back. Her bangs tried to hide her ivory skin and sharp features, which, in spite of her surroundings and an obviously hard life, were perfect. I felt like I was suddenly in a tunnel where it was just she and I. There were two problems however: I didn’t speak her language, and the people she was traveling with thought I was a spy. Going into the minds of those around and taking their knowledge easily remedied the first. The second though, proved to be a bit harder. As I approached, a couple of freedom fighters with very big guns tried to persuade me to leave by shooting at me. I’m almost positive this strategy would have worked on anyone else. I decided to impress the girl by not killing her friends, merely turning their guns into large snakes; I got quite a kick out of how fast they went from Rambo to screaming girls at the sight. After helping the refugees to a safe place, and a cease-fire agreement between warring factions was signed, I began dating Eva.
The higher-ups were not happy at all that their personal killing machine now had a semblance of a life but they weren’t going to argue with me. I still see her from time to time, mostly after missions when I need somebody who loves me despite what I do for a living. I’ve been debating asking her to move to the states, but in a choice between a bullet-marked house in a war-tom country and my apartment, it’s a toss-up. I thought about stopping there after I finished up with this. Which reminded me, it was show time.
I looked down and saw the large fortress surrounded by vehicles. It looked like everybody decided to show up: hooray for military intelligence! I started floating forward and stopped directly above the target. When I tap into the power it changes the way I think about things, which I suppose is a good thing. Instead of feeling guilt about what I do, which I hear is pretty common, I feel indifferent. I mean do you feel bad about stomping on an anthill? That’s what everyone looked like from up there; I decided to stomp some ants.
I started feeling that burning in my brain, but now it’s like boiling water streaming over me, the power urging me to use it. I spread out my hands face down and closed my eyes. I imagined every molecule of air, every atom composing it. Visions of dancing shapes littered my mind. Then I imagined every single one of those shapes bursting into flames. I felt the heat from the blast before I heard it; the shockwaves jarred me from my position making me move back a few hundred feet. Jets of white-hot flame leapt into the air, the ground beneath the structure bucked and began to collapse in on itself. The rubble blew around like a house of cards in a tornado, some of it getting dangerously close to the neighboring village. I decided to reign in the destruction and put the fire out; nothing could have survived.
I made my way down to earth, touching down fifty feet away from the hole in the ground that used to be a training ground for wannabe soldiers. Reaching the edge of the camp, I looked through the broken stone and mortar only to be greeted by smiling corpses with little or no flesh left on them, all of them staring at me. Accusing, unblinking eyes gaping at their murderer. I decided I needed to get out of there… fast. I closed my eyes and thought of Eva.
I arrived at her house a split-second later and knocked on the door. I couldn’t get those images out of my head, burned and dismembered corpses littering the barren landscape. I start remembering every job I’ve ever done: Iraq, Yugoslavia, and a couple dozen other countries with equally macabre results. Terrorists, soldiers, and tin dictators laugh at me from their graves showing me what I’d done to them. No one’s answering the door, I need Eva, and she’s the only one who can help me. A man comes up from behind me and taps me on the shoulder.
“Are you looking for Eva,” he asks me in his native tongue.
“Yes, where is she?” It probably came out harsher than I meant, but I was starting to get worried. I tried to take the panic that’s plastered on my face off.
“What’s your name?”
“She left this for you. I’m sorry.” Before I could ask what he meant by that, he handed me a note, turned, and walked away.
The note read:
I’ve written this note and given it to a friend because I’m not sure if I’ll be here the next time you come. The death-squads have come back and are looking to restart their ethnic cleansing campaign. I’m not sure how long I can stay hidden from them. I wish you would come back soon so I can come with you to America. I love you Josh, and I hope you feel the same way. I’m going to try to head further north where my cousins live, I’m sure you can find me if you want to. Hope to see you soon.
I busted down the door nearly taking it off its’ hinges. Looking around I could see signs of struggle all over the place. Then I saw what I feared most: Eva was laying on her back in a pool of blood, sightless eyes staring at the ceiling. In a panicked rush to get to her I stumbled over some shell casings lying on the floor and ended up on my hands and knees in her blood. I took her body and cradled it in my arms, crying and whispering for her to come back to me. Even with all my powers I still felt as helpless as a little boy. I looked up through the tears to see her lone suitcase sitting by the front door. She was getting ready to leave when they found her.
I carried her body out the front door and into the street. Passersby looked at me sadly and quickened their pace to be away from me. Even after a decade of coming here I still couldn’t tell you why these people kill each other, I guess it’s just something they’ve learned and perfected over hundreds of years.
I felt lava pour down my spine and began to imagine Eastern Europe.