By Oswin Sellers
I told them to wear earplugs, but they never listen. Not just these three. I mean, any of the clowns Grandpa sends along with me. A few of them show potential, but so far, none last more than a few jobs.
I always tell them, wear earplugs. They make really good ones now, like for musicians, that only block out high decibels. There’s no reason to not wear them, but these guys, they’re always afraid they won’t hear something when we go in. Most of them never saw more than two firefights, some none at all. They can’t believe how loud it gets in a small room. If they actually make it through the fight, they look at me and shake their heads and point to their ears. They yell, Can’t hear! Yeah, I guess you can’t, dumbass.
We’re in what would be the living room of the house, but looks like a little warehouse. We just dropped five targets and the room smells of gunsmoke. I used to hate that smell, but now I love it. It reminds me I won. The lights are out in the room, but light from a giant electronic soda billboard along the highway strobes through the window, letting me see clearly without my flashlight. Smoke wafts out through a shattered window, and because I’m wearing my musician’s earplugs, I can hear the rain pouring outside. I want to both laugh and cry, the giddy post-combat rush making me stand on the balls of my feet. Raids are funny like that, a few seconds of blazing chaos and screams and muzzle-blasts and then, if no one is screaming or crying, this heavy silence crushing you to the floor. The billboard light shining through the rain on the remaining windows throws runny patterns on the bare wall. I want to be still and savor it.
But because my crew can’t hear, I’m the only one who notices the three assholes bust through the door on the left. The first target falls down, and the others stagger in over him. Adrenalin squirts through my veins. All three of the boys clutch AR’s. I aim my Model 500 at the head of the closest one. How stupid it is to take a head-shot? The thought flickers and disappears. Muscle memory squeezes the trigger before I can lower my aim. The revolver belches out a whump and a flash of light, and the man flops backward.
I feel myself moving sideways as the other two targets, one standing, one laying on the floor, light up with the AR’s. Their eyes half-closed, neither one aims. They just hold down the trigger and spray the room. I drop to the floor, knowing the shooter will aim too high, especially if my squad is still standing up. Anymore, the gunfire sounds like a machine to me, the fast rattle of automatics splitting the air. It’s all a machine, and the way I operate it is by being at the right place, to point my part of the machine at the right part and press the button. I vaguely wish this still scares me, and thump out two shots at the floor man, then the last two into the standing man. I see neither one moving, and hope the fat rubber slugs did their job. I claw out a speed-loader without thinking about it, scanning the room for movement. I practice reloading everyday, and can do it without looking now.
Bad news for my squad. I run a glance across the room, doing a quick triage in my head while I adjust the small pack on my back.
Grover lays on his side. His good hand, the one that wasn’t shot into a broken, bloody claw, he uses to press his neck, his throat pumping out blood through his fingers onto the hardwood floor. He looks like he’s trying to apply direct pressure, his finger digging into the ragged hole, trying to find a pipe to plug up. Good luck with that, kid. I’ve been calling him Grover, because he sounds like the Sesame Street character when he gets excited. His fading eyes lock onto me. Pleading? Accusing? I don’t know, but with the growing pool of blood on the floor, he doesn’t look like much of a candidate.
Yin kneels, his upper body resting on the seat of an old easy chair. I see exit holes in the lower back of his hooded sweatshirt. He’s wearing body armor underneath, but nothing thick enough to stop a .223 at five yards. All of our clothes are soaked from the rain outside, but the small of his back and the seat of his pants look dark with blood. He’s crying. Since he’s making noise, Angel might use him, depending how long everything takes, and if his kidneys hold out.
I chuckle when I see Pumpkinhead. It’s a shame. His real name is Plotkin or something like that, but I started calling him Pumpkin because it sounds similar enough, and because he has a really big, round, shaved head, it became Pumpkinhead. But now it looks like a smashed pumpkin, the top of the skull popped off like a bowl, his brain spilled across the floor like his head just vomited out thick bloody porridge. Definitely not a candidate.
As I close the now-loaded cylinder of the 500, I’m already moving across the room. I reach back and pull flexi-cuffs and ball-gags from my pack. My team is liquified, but at least we got all eight targets. I flick on a fluorescent light, which is propped up against the wall instead of in a ceiling. Aside from getting blind-sided and killed, my crew makes me proud. Scattered across the room lay the eight men we came for, in various stages of consciousness. Except for me, my team members all used shotguns loaded with bean bags. I use the Model 500 revolver. It seems like a corny piece, a big, 5-shot video game revolver. But once I tried it, I was hooked. Grandpa got someone to machine the bore of the ten-inch barrel, altering it for the rubber slugs, which I learned to handload myself. I can corner well with it, it’s intimidating, and it throws a half-inch chunk of rubber. If I just needed to kill, I would use something different. I could use an AK or an AR like these jokers.
What the fuck was the name of this crew? Glenwood 74s? They come and go so quickly, I can barely keep them straight, usually named after whatever shitty neighborhood they come from and a number that means something to somebody. It doesn’t matter. I already have two of them gagged and cuffed up. I could search the place first, and probably should, but one of them may get up by the time I get back. It would easier if I could just sedate them, but for whatever reason, Grandpa shot that idea down every time I asked. They all look amazingly fucked up, like junkies without any clean time for a year, but, unless they have an old habit, I know I won’t find any puncture wounds on their skin. Their flesh dents in with dehydration as I wrap the plastic cuffs around wrists and ankles. I wonder why we even bother to come in and do all this, since it looks like they’d all be dead soon enough anyway. But I know how Angel works. She won’t wait for them to die of malnutrition.
I know she’s in a backroom somewhere, just like every other time. Yin is still making noise. His real name is Yeung or something like that, but since he’s from Pittsburgh, I call him Yin. He looks like he’s going to slide off the chair onto the floor. I wish he’d die already, and the thought crosses my mind to pick up one of the AR’s and do him. I could just say one of the Glenwoods was still loose and popped a couple off. But that’s not what I’m going to do. Instead, I pluck the 9 mm from Yin’s hip holster, kick away his shotgun, and cuff and gag him. I don’t lie to Grandpa, and lying to Angel would be the same as lying to Grandpa, since she would repeat the information. Besides, she’d know it was a lie, because it never happens that way.
Don’t lie to Grandpa. That’s my biggest rule. Part of it is, I don’t want to get caught. I’ve seen what happens to liars. But more than that, lying to superiors implies weakness. I have nothing to hide. If I fail, I’d rather he knows it up front, instead of finding out later, like I was hiding something, like I was a sneak. It would be too humiliating. I do sometimes lie to the clowns Grandpa assigns me, though. I lie to them about the survival rate for the position. I lie to them about what Angel does and will do. I lie to them because it’s easier for me, and easier for them. But most of all, I lie to them in the interest of following the second biggest rule. Finish the job. If we leave anyone alive, our people or theirs, the job isn’t finished. No running, no retreating, no quitting. Grandpa used to loan me morphine or other painkiller packs when I went on other runs. He stopped giving them to me when I started doing Angel runs. I never asked, but the reason seems clear. If I can’t walk out on my own, I’m just another Yin, Pumpkinhead, or Grover. I don’t lose sleep over these guys, because it could be me on any run. And when I can, like tonight, I’m the first one through the door.
I have to move quickly now. Some of the men, boys really, start to twitch or groan. None of them are much over 21, but I only know that from pictures and previous information. They look like teenagers who got old overnight. I collect any phones I find and cuff up one guy after the other, feeling like a farmer handling livestock. I get to the one I shot in the head, the face, actually, now that I see. The reason everything seems to hit us in the eye is because the socket sort of acts as a funnel. In this case, I see where the slug hit his cheekbone, opening his flesh before sliding or tumbling through the eye, which is now a pulpy mess, what little is left of it. I check the back of his head, but see no exit wound. Somewhere, in the hole blown through the thin bone behind the eye, lies buried the rubber slug. I almost want to stick my finger in to see how far it went. He’s still alive, croaking the way some fish do, his body moving in a slow motion convulsion. He’ll probably last a few minutes at least. As I cuff him up, I remember how that used to bother me. Before I ever killed anyone, I overestimated the neatness of shootings. It took some getting used to, the way people shot in the head often spasm a while, or made the croaking noise, or tried to talk through a shattered face. I guess it’s more of a curiosity for me now. The hard rubber slugs usually make less of a mess, once I learned to load less powder in the rounds. The first few times, using too much powder, I ended up blasting the slugs right through the targets. I didn’t know rubber could do that, but I guess it’s like firing a superball out of a cannon.
“Christopher?” I hear faintly, thanks to the earplugs. No one calls me by my first name except Angel. And she always says “Christopher,” never “Chris.” How long have I been out here? Here I am, contemplating sticking my finger inside this croaking kid’s eye socket, just killing time because I don’t want to go find Angel.
Time to get this over with. I stand up, the 500 ready.
“How many, Angel?” I call out.
“Ocho, Christopher,” she calls back.
I keep the revolver ready anyway as I move down the hall, opening doors and peaking in. I’m wearing nitrile gloves and the clean-up crew will be here after we leave, so I’m not worried. Some of the rooms look like workrooms, where they bagged product. Others just have sleeping bags, empty bottles, trash, and various debris, each room filthy.
I know which room she’s in even before I get to it. The air seems to buzz. I open the door and face the darkened room, not wanting to turn on my flashlight for fear I might see something I don’t want to see.
“Light’s on the left, Christopher,” she says, her voice soft, almost a purr.
I reach over and follow the cord of a trouble light up to the switch and turn it on. The trouble light hangs from a nail hammered into the ceiling and bent into a U.
“Help untie me, Christopher,” she says.
I have to look now. Angel lies naked and spread-eagled on a stained bare mattress. For someone kidnapped, tied up, and abused for a week, she looks dirty but unfazed and healthy. She looks far better than any of the men out front. Flimsy pieces of clothesline tie her wrist and ankles to the bed frame. Her long black hair flows across the bed as she moves. She smiles and I have to look away.
“Untie me, Christopher,” she says.
I take a step back and grip my gun more tightly to stop my hands from shaking.
“I think you can manage,” I say, looking at the doorway. I know the weak, badly knotted cord wouldn’t hold her for a minute if she didn’t let it. And I don’t dare get closer. It’s like standing on the edge of a building, and having the terrible feeling that you might jump off, just to see what it’s like.
“I don’t know if I can.” I hear the silent laughter behind her words.
“Time, Angel,” I say, looking around the room. We do need to wrap things up out front, but I also don’t know how long I can last.
She laughs softly and I can actually smell her breath, like buckwheat honey, sweet and strong, mixed with a spice I can’t name. I hear four quick pops, the sound of the clothesline cord breaking, and I turn and leave the room. She’s right behind me, her breath hitting me in the back of the neck, and I know she’s doing that on purpose. I force myself to not turn around. I used to try to bring her clothing first, but she always ignores it until it’s time to go.
Grandpa calls Angel his daughter. She’s not really his daughter, and he’s not really my grandfather, and I don’t know if her name is supposed to be some kind of joke. I don’t know who she is, and, except for these jobs, I never see her.
The first job, I thought it was real. Grandpa told me a crew kidnapped his daughter, and I was on deck to rescue her. This daughter, who I had never heard of before, Angel, had dated some cat in a gang, and then dated his friends. After Grandpa didn’t see Angel for some time, he suspected she was being held captive.
I hit the place as a 4-squad, just like tonight. And just like tonight, the targets all looked like junkies in a concentration camp. Grandpa told me to keep one of them alive, and I did. What happened next rattled my brain, but some things you just learn to not think about.
Then Angel got kidnapped again, and this time, I had to keep two alive. And it happened again, and this time, it was, keep three alive. And so on, until at one point, I had to try to keep all of them alive. I think I hit that mark eight jobs ago. After sixteen times, I would have thought people would catch on, but no, they never do. Maybe Grandpa says the same thing about me. It doesn’t matter. I lie to my men. Grandpa lies to me. We all do what we have to do. Even if we don’t understand why. The difference between me and my men is, I also do what I am told to do. No questions, no doubts. If you have doubts, you move on, but if you’re in, you’re in until you finish the job.
And what a job it is, I think, as we walk into the living room. Grover’s half-hooded eyes stare, unblinking, from a ghost-white face. He makes no movement. Yin remains where I left him, still sobbing through his gag, but sometimes choking out what may be a “Help.” His eyes lock onto me with pain and rage. I look away. Some of the Glenwoods have recovered enough to attempt movement, slithering across the floor, wormlike. The worst part is, they don’t try for the door out of the house. Instead, we find them squirming into the hallway, towards the room where Angel was. The sound they make sickens me, a kind of bleating noise, muffled by the ball-gags. I quickly hop over them into the living room, not wanting to touch them.
One of them grunts as Angel steps on him. She barely seems to notice them. Inside the living room, I’m grateful when she turns off the fluorescent light. There’s enough light from the billboard for me to see, and enough shadow for me to pretend not to. She steps up to me, her hands outstretched for my shoulders, and I freeze, wondering what she’s doing, my heart beating faster. Then I remember my pack and step backwards. I slide the straps from my shoulders, and hand her the pack. I don’t want her to touch me, but I also know I couldn’t stop her.
Angel’s hand hesitates, stopping in the air above the pack. I push the pack towards her, wishing she’d take it already. I see movement and look down at the floor. The Glenwoods are writhing towards Angel, slobbering through their gags. I want to finish the job and get out and away from them.
I jump as I feel Angel’s hand lock around my wrist. Lock isn’t the right word. Her grip feels soft, but when I try to pull away, she comes with it. Her palm feels so warm, even through my sleeve. Her honey breath fills my lungs and I can’t help looking into her big brown eyes. I want to stay in this moment all night. I taste the scent of her body.
“Mire,” she says, her voice buttered gold, and touches my shoulder with her other hand. I look down and see blood stains around the hole in my jacket. “Hurt?” she asks.
“No,” I say, wishing it did just so she would keep touching me. But I have to touch her. I reach for her. She grabs the backpack and turns away. It hurts to have her pull away from me that way. I touch my shoulder and now I feel it, not anywhere as bad as the wounds should feel, but I notice it. We’ve had this conversation before, I remember. But I’ll probably forget, and the shoulder wound will join the many other mystery scars on my body. I don’t think about them. They just happen.
Angel digs into the backpack, removing the tool she always uses, then hangs the pack from a doorknob. I don’t know the name of the tool, and never saw it before Grandpa handed it to me before the first, or at least, my first, Angel rescue mission. A piece of steel about six inches long, one end is bladed, and the other ends in a sort of slot, but the inner edges of the slot are also sharp. She nods towards Yin. Yin’s forehead creases and he squirms. I see him looking around for a weapon, even if he’s in no shape to use one.
I think about saying “sorry” or “nothing personal,” but would that really make Yin feel any better? Best just to get it over with. I grab the hood of his sweatshirt and yank him. He falls backward onto the floor, his legs bent under him. He moans, arching his back. Angel clambers over him like a spider, her body red and white with the colors of the billboard. She straddles his hips. Yin’s eyes dart back and forth between me and Angel as we work to remove his sweatshirt and body armor. I use my folding tanto knife, and Angel uses her device, and soon he have the straps of the armor cut away. Yin makes noises that sound like questions as we work. He breathes out ragged bursts of air as Angel cuts away his shirt. She pulls away the fabric to expose his chest, her fingertips tracing the outline of his sternum. He sucks in his breath as Angel leans down, tucking her hair behind her ears. She sticks out her tongue, tracing it along the same outline on his chest.
Yin’s face contorts, looking confused, and Angel sits up again, leaning over him. She purses her lips and I feel a pain in my side. Jealousy? But I tell myself that can’t be right. A line of saliva trickles from her bottom lip, the strand dropping to Yin’s mouth, trickling in around the ball gag. For a moment, the strand connects them, and now I cannot ignore my jealousy. The strand breaks, and I let myself breathe again.
Angel moves quickly, the steel in her hand flickering in the light as it slices into the skin and muscle around Yin’s sternum. He lets out a low howl, but I don’t know if it’s all fear and pain. I’ve never fully understood the sound people made when Angel did this. Nor have I ever understood how exactly she uses her cutting tool. Her hands move quickly. I watch closely, wondering if, this time, I’ll get it. It’s hard to tell with all of the blood welling up, but Angel seems to cut a v-shaped groove around the area, until I definitely see bone. Yin starts to flop around beneath Angel, and she only has to glance at me. I feel ashamed for letting her down, and I lean in, pinning the man’s shoulders down. Angel spins the cutter around in her hand, sliding the slotted end in between two ribs, right next to the sternum. She cuts through the cartilage with almost no sound, or at least no sound audible behind Yin’s grunts and splutters. Blood runs down to cover his neck, down his shoulders, down to the floor where it soaks into the knees of my pants.
One after another, Angel slides the cutter in, turns her wrist, and with a popping tear that I feel through my grip on Yin’s shoulders, cuts the cartilage. When she gets to the last rib, Angel grasps the sternum and pulls it up like a handle. It makes a crunching noise before she cuts it free, tossing the bone aside like so much packaging.
Enough light shines into Yin’s chest cavity for me to see the twitch of his heart. Angel makes two cuts on each side, through the skin between the ribs at heart level, the blade making a sound like slicing leather. The cutter clatters as Angel sets it down on the bloodsoaked floorboards. Reaching into Yin’s chest, she grips two ribs on either side, and with one motion, yanks up and out, snapping the bones. The noise still makes me squirm, but I hold down Yin’s increasingly spasmodic shoulders. My arms ache and it feels like he could throw me off if I relaxed.
Angel squeals in a way that sounds like a shriek deep inside her belly. Straightening her hands, she plunges them into Yin’s chest, as if she would dive inside him. But instead, her hands both squeeze and lift Yin’s beating heart until it protrudes from his chest, just enough for Angel to lean down, squeezing it tighter now so the tissue deforms. She opens her mouth, baring her teeth. I yearn for her to look up at me, to let our eyes meet, if only for a second, just to share this moment. But her eyes lock with Yin’s eyes, until her teeth clamp down into the organ. She shakes her head like a dog killing a rat, and crimson spurts up across her cheek, into her hair.
Her hair falls, sticky and wet, framing her face as she drives her mouth into the chest cavity, slurping, gnawing, sucking noises filling my ears. Yin no longer moves, and I let go of him. I can do nothing but watch and listen. At this moment, I no longer feel regrets for Yin. I envy him. Yin is my offering to Angel, and Angel needs her offerings. I feel close to her, maybe even a part of her, but Yin grants a greater service.
I kneel and wait patiently for what happens next. Angel’s frenzy slows and grows languorous. Her mouth and chin buried in Yin’s chest, she looks up at me and I smile, her gaze warming me like a flame in my own heart. She sits up, her mouth closed. The red and white billboard light criss-crosses the blood patterns on her face. Angel crawls forward over Yin’s body, and kneels facing me. Her wet hands grasp my cheeks and I can’t help but cry, hot tears of joy running down my face. Angel presses her soft lips to mine, and I feel her energy pulsing into me, every drop of blood in my veins charged, electric. I open my mouth to accept her gift, and she pushes the thick piece of heart into my mouth. I cannot stop from embracing her, holding her as I chew the tissue, and then swallow it. Now, we are joined, Angel and I. Only this matters. Only this has ever mattered.
She pushes me away, and the cold rushes back into my body. I ache for her as she stands up. I look around. The eight Glenwoods surround us like spokes on a wheel, like ribs on a sternum. They look like larva, white and red in the light.
“Ocho, Christopher,” Angel says, crouching down to pick up her cutter. “Time, Christopher.” She points to one of the Glenwoods, one of the writhing worms, and I quickly flip him over and pin him. I stare at Angel’s face, and pray for eye contact.