UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 12/2011
A SECOND SHOT
A photo, a description and my life savings. That’s all it took. Who knew it could be so easy?
“Eyes,” – I called the kid Eyes because I knew better than to ask his real name and because he had the most captivating green eyes, like emeralds set among flesh, I’d ever seen – “It’s all there,” I told him, handing over two envelopes. He opened one of them, the one that mattered most.
“Twenty-five Gs,” I said as he opened the larger of the two envelopes and started to count the bundles of bills inside. “The cash is clean. Your boss has nothing to worry about.” The twenty-five grand was only half of what I owed, but the rest wouldn’t come until later. That’s what we agreed upon.
The boy of a man grunted and went on counting until he was satisfied. He tucked the smaller envelope, the one with the picture and the description sealed inside, into the inner breast pocket of his winter jacket.
“Few things,” he said. He had a New York accent even though we were in Ohio, and he made big motions with his hands unnecessarily. “You gotta get outta town. Get away for a few days until it’s done. And while you’re away, talk to people…make yourself seen. Create your alibi. Understand?”
“Trip’s already booked,” I told him. “Cancun, Mexico. Figured I’d get out of the cold for a while.”
“Yeah,” he snorted, clearly not giving a damn about where I was going or why I’d chosen the destination. I, however, would have given serious consideration to buying another ticket if he asked to come along.
He crammed the bulging envelope with the cash in it beneath his seat and for a second I thought that he was reaching for something else, but when his hand came back, it was empty. I breathed easier. We were in his car – my own was parked a few feet away – behind an all-night diner called Frank’s Place that advertised $2 Tacos, $2 Pancakes on the sign out front.
“You know, the reason I’m doing this -” I started, my voice quavering just a bit, but he stopped me with a sweeping arch of his right hand.
“All Boss cares about is the who, the when and the where. Boss already knows the what and the why doesn’t matter. You keep that to yourself….Your money negates the why. Got it?”
I nodded, still feeling the need to talk. Naturally, no one – other than Eyes and his boss – knew what I was doing. And now, it seemed, I’d be the only one who knew why I was doing it. But I wanted to tell someone. I wanted to get it off my chest. Not only that, but sitting in silence, especially at a time like this, was worse than a root canal. The quiet when Eyes wasn’t talking was so loud that I felt like screaming just to save my ears from the overwhelming nothingness.
“When do you want it done?” he asked to my relief.
I sank a little lower into the passenger seat. The upholstery smelled like cigarettes. I wouldn’t have taken Eyes for a smoker, but it must have been the kindness of youth that kept me from thinking that about him. His lips had yet to wrinkle. His teeth had yet to yellow. It was well after midnight and he didn’t even have a five o’clock shadow. I wondered if he could grow a beard or if he was younger than I originally thought. I shook my head and forced myself to think about what Eyes had just asked. He was glaring at me. The sharpness of his emeralds cut into my soul.
The flight I’d booked was leaving in little over twelve hours. As long as there were no holdups at the airport, everything would work out just fine. “Tomorrow night,” I told him, “around eight or nine…eastern time…is that all right?”
“It’s fine,” he grumbled. “And where’s the target…the mark?” he asked.
“Chicago,” I said. “I put all the information in the description. He shouldn’t be hard to find.”
“The Windy City,” Eyes said in a way that made me think he’d been there a time or two. “You want standard?”
“Standard?” I echoed.
“It’s cut and clean,” he said. “Two rounds to the back of the head.”
“What else is there?” I wondered.
“If you’re worried about witnesses, we’ve got witness removal. If you don’t want the body found, it won’t be found. If you wanna frame a suspect, Boss’ll make it so that even the framed thinks he committed the crime. And if you’d prefer an ‘accidental’ death, Boss can make that happen too. It’s all extra, but you gotta do what’s right for you.”
“The standard…” I said, questioning.
“It’s not very pretty,” he explained. “Boss leaves ‘em where they fall. He assumes no responsibility for whatever happens once he’s off the scene.”
I pulled my fingers through my hair. Eyes communicated quite clearly and confidently for someone so young. It made him all the more intriguing to me.
“What’s it gonna be?” he asked.
I shook my head to align my thoughts. Did I care about whoever might see? Would a bloody mess really matter? I shook my head again.
“Standard,” I said. “Standard’s fine.”
“You got it,” Eyes said, making a mental note.
It started to snow outside and fat flakes landed against the windshield, quickly obscuring the already obstructed view. The snow made me want to find someplace warm – and someone warm to hold on to.
“Coffee?” I asked, jerking my chin toward the diner.
“No,” he said.
“It’s on me,” I offered.
“I don’t drink coffee.”
“I’ve gotta get back. And you’ve gotta get packing.”
I didn’t bother telling him that I was already packed and ready to go. I really wasn’t taking much. There wasn’t much that I needed.
He pressed the button to release the door locks. I got the hint and yanked on the door handle.
“You’re sure you’re not up for a drink?” I asked as I swung my leg out of the car.
He seemed to consider it. He could use something to loosen him up. I knew I sure could. What we’d just agreed upon wasn’t exactly a wholesome deal.
“I’ve gotta get back,” he said again, shifting the car into drive.
I left his car for mine and watched Eyes drive away with my money and the photo and description still sealed in their envelope. It was when I couldn’t see his taillights any longer that the reality of what I’d just done came crashing down upon me like a fell tree. The weight of what I’d enlisted hit so hard that I couldn’t see, speak, hear or even breathe for a full minute. My sight went black. My ears rang with what sounded like an everlasting minor chord floating from the pipes of a church organ. My oxygen-deprived lungs ached so badly that I thought they’d collapse.
“Easy…easy…” I gasped. I got out of my car again and staggered toward the diner then stopped. It wasn’t two-dollar pancakes that I wanted or even tacos for that matter; I really did need a stiff drink. If I didn’t find a way to shatter the dread that had built up inside of me, there’d be no way that I’d get on that plane in twelve hours. I limped back to the car, got in and headed over to the Old Mill.
It was Wednesday and Charlie, the bartender, looked at me funny when I walked through the door because he never saw me at the Old Mill on Wednesdays, but still he smiled and pulled my favorite beer without having to be told.
“Thanks, Charlie,” I muttered, sitting in my usual spot.
“Eh…” I said, shrugging my shoulders. I couldn’t be honest with him, I couldn’t tell him what I’d done, so I picked up the glass and started drinking as fast as I could. The beer was so cold that it burned my throat on the way down.
“More,” I demanded when the beer was gone, “and get me a Scotch on the rocks while you’re at it.”
“Scotch?” Charlie muttered. I never ordered Scotch. Only beer. “Now why would you want Scotch?”
“I’m going away,” I decided to tell him. “On a trip.”
“So this is a celebration,” he said. “Where you off to?”
“Mexico,” he exclaimed, smiling wider than before. “In that case you must have tequila.”
He poured two shots, got a salt shaker and sliced a lime. “Salud,” he said, raising one of the glasses to his lips.
“Cheers,” I grumbled, feeling none too cheery even though I’d just put the nails in the coffin to solve a problem that had been haunting me for years.
“You don’t seem too happy,” Charlie observed.
I sighed. “Nervous,” I said because I couldn’t think of a better excuse. “I don’t like to fly. Never have.” It wasn’t an all out lie.
“In that case…” Charlie poured another two shots, both of which he left for me.
I didn’t like tequila any more than I liked Scotch, but I licked the salt, downed the shots, bit into the lime and ordered more at least three times, and by the time I had a nice little pyramid of shot glasses stacked in front of me, I could barely feel anything from the neck down.
Suddenly it seemed that it was just me in the Old Mill; me and my rampant thoughts, which were running wild now that the barrier of common sense, self-consciousness and tact had been obliterated by the tequila. The booze made my eyelids so heavy – like iron shields – that I couldn’t even tell whether Charlie was still behind the bar or not.
I let the overwhelming weight overtake me. My face landed against the bar top, yet I didn’t know I’d been moving until my cheek met the cool, wet surface. The stench of stale beer reminded me of nights from my past…nights that led me to do what I’d done this very evening.
I’d kept so many secrets. I was good at keeping them too. No matter how much beer I drank or how desperate I was for a friend, I told not one of my secrets to a single soul. Now I had a new secret; one, unlike the others, that I wouldn’t have to keep for long.
I was so young the first time it happened. He was young too. We crossed paths in the park and I foolishly followed him home. It wasn’t long before we were together. But it wasn’t meant to be. He hurt me. I hurt him. We hurt each other because neither of us knew what to do.
If I had known to do what I did tonight, I would have stopped the hurting a long time ago; not just my own pain, but the pain caused to countless others.
Death was the only way to end it. And death was deserved. All the innocent boys that cried; all the pain they endured. It all could have been avoided if I’d acted earlier.
I’m pretty sure I started crying on the bar. I could feel my body trembling. My face was wet, but it might have been the spilt beer that was stinging my eyes. I must have let out a sob – a sob I couldn’t hear for the ringing in my ears brought on by drunkenness – because Charlie shook me out of my stupor and splashed a shot of cold water on my face.
“You can’t sleep here,” he said, still smiling. “Besides, you’ve got a plane to Mexico to catch.”
“Mexico,” I muttered.
He chuckled. “You’ll have many more nights just like this one while you’re down there.” He propped me up on my stool and went back to wiping down the bar. I wanted to ask him how long I’d been out, but it didn’t really matter. For some reason I was comforted by watching him work.
“Want me to call you a cab?” he asked.
I shook my head and nearly fell from the stool thanks to the weight of my ever-sagging eyelids.
“I’m calling you a cab,” he said.
I hardly heard him giving the directions over the telephone to the taxi dispatcher. In my mind I was hearing other things. Screams and pleas and sobs echoed between my ears. They brought back more of the unpleasant memories I’d tried so hard to suppress. If only they’d stayed buried deep in my subconscious, perhaps I wouldn’t have had to withdraw my life’s savings. But then again, if those memories hadn’t haunted me, the hurting would have won.
Time passed in such a way that it was as though I had the power to teleport from one location to another. One minute I was sitting on my usual stool in the Old Mill, the next I was in the back of a cab cruising down St. James Boulevard toward my home. I didn’t remember paying Charlie any better than I remembered stumbling out of the bar, but I supposed I must have paid the man because when I checked, my wallet was empty.
“Do you take credit cards?” I asked the man driving. Despite all that I’d had to drink, my throat was incredibly dry. It hurt to talk…at the moment it hurt to do just about anything.
The driver grumbled something that I took for a yes, and I settled back in the seat, letting my eyes close once again. Not quite as drunk as I’d been before, the horrible images – bloody, tear-streaked, stomach-turning images – that always flashed in my mind’s eye when I was feeling particularly down, made me pitch forward and gasp.
“What?” the driver shrieked, clearly frightened by my sudden startling behavior. He even swerved the cab halfway across the oncoming lane.
I shook my head and leaned back again, my heart playing a drumroll against my sternum. My life had been ruined. So many other lives had been ruined as well. All the shattered hopes, dreams and wishes weighed on my shoulders like the casualties of a rich man’s war. The irreparable aspirations sent to early graves brought tears to my eyes; I was sure of that now. As dizzy as I was, I suppose I wasn’t able to hold in my grief as effectively as I thought I could. The driver kept looking at me through the rearview mirror. He frowned when he noticed the streaks on my cheeks.
“Everything all right?” he asked.
My lips quivered. I wanted to tell my secret so desperately that I almost entrusted him with everything. I just wanted the world to know the good that I was doing. I wasn’t just some lost cause devoured by pain; I was a compassionate human being finally doing the right thing.
My mouth fell open. Something came out, but neither he nor I could make out what I’d said.
“Huh?” he grunted.
“It’s nothing….Third house on the left,” I said, pointing out the lonely two-bedroom I called home.
I almost couldn’t bring myself to go inside once the cab pulled away. Home was where everything was normal. But I wasn’t normal anymore. The step I’d taken earlier that night with Eyes blew apart my normalcy. I’d never be normal again, not in the way I’d been normal before, anyway. From now on I’d be the definition of someone else’s normal. In that moment I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
“Inside,” I told myself, forcing my legs to move.
I went straight for the shower once the door was locked behind me. There was so much that I needed to wash away that I didn’t strip away my clothes until I was under the hammering water.
“New,” I told myself – promised myself – as I scrubbed my flesh until I was as pink as a pig in the sun, “I’ll be someone new.”
All I’d have to do, I thought, was get on that plane the next day. After that everything would be settled. There’d be no turning back. And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I felt compelled to change my mind. Pacing, I held my arms crossed tight over my chest to keep my hands from reaching for the phone and dialing up Eyes to call it all off. It had to be done. I couldn’t cancel. No matter how awful it would be, I had to let the hit go through. The hurting, I knew, wouldn’t stop otherwise.
Somehow I slept through the night. To my surprise, there were no nightmares of what I’d done, and yet I woke the next morning – only hours away from catching my flight – to find myself shaking more violently than a maraca in the hand of a skilled percussionist. In the light for the first time since handing the envelopes over to Eyes, I was hurt, shattered and shuddering over what I’d done and of what would now come of my actions.
It took all of my might, it seemed, just to breathe, and when I tried to get out of bed, which I then noticed was damp with sweat, I tumbled to the floor where I hit my head hard against the bottom shelf of my nightstand. The corner clipped my left eye, rendering me temporarily blind.
I writhed on the floor, allowing the pain caused by the impact to usher in the self-pity that I’d always tried to keep at bay. The depression washed over me so effectually that I practically melted into a motionless blob just waiting for my breathing to slow and my pulse to stop in order to save me from it all.
I don’t know how long I laid like that, but eventually the self-pity wore off, my sight came back and I lumbered to my feet, heading to the bathroom for another shower; it was the cold sweat I had to wash off this time.
The sight of my purple left eye, like road kill splattered across my face, made me jump back from the mirror above the vanity. I supposed that I should have felt the throbbing in my face, but, then again, it occurred to me that perhaps I was back to burying the things that pained me.
Once my skin was clean and pink again, I finished the milk in the fridge so that it wouldn’t go bad while I was gone, and gnawed on what was left of a stale loaf of bread. I didn’t bother going back to the Old Mill to get my car. Figuring Charlie would watch over it, especially since he was the only one who knew I was getting out of town, I gathered my things and called a cab to take me to the airport. When the car pulled up out front I had a vague remembrance of the man who’d dropped me off early in the morning, although I couldn’t remember him entirely for the amount of tequila I’d consumed. For all I knew, the man driving the cab out front could have been the same man from only hours earlier.
I asked if he accepted credit cards and he grumbled something that I took for a yes, but he didn’t say anything else, so I knew we hadn’t had the conversation before. I got to the airport only an hour before my flight was set to leave. For everything else, especially suffering, an hour seemed like plenty of time, but in the airport an hour was nothing. I rushed from checkpoint to checkpoint, grateful that being pinched for time kept me from thinking about more troubling things. Even the slightest pause to consider a change in heart would have made me miss my flight. But I didn’t miss it, and before I knew it, I was watching my city disappear through the window next to my seat.
Assuming Eyes and his boss would stick to the timeframe agreed upon, the sound of gunshots would be ringing out only hours from now; gunshots that would act as a savior to some and an executioner to another.
I slumped in my seat and looked out the window at the endless blue speckled by white. The tranquil loveliness, which should have reminded me of my aversion to flying, made me think that things could be right again instead. There was a chance that all I’d been afraid of, hid from, enacted and blamed myself for could be erased – abolished forever, never to be feared ever again.
That thought – that most desired promise – let me breathe easier. I slid lower in my seat, my hands clasped upon my chest, and focused on feeling my heartbeat through my jacket. It reminded me that I was still human. Despite what I’d become in the hands of the great beast known as Suffering, I was still a child of this earth, one who deserved a second shot no matter the price.
I was feeling fine when the plane landed, resolute, confidant and assured. And I couldn’t wait to get outside to see the sights of a place I’d never seen before. This would be where my new start would begin, I thought; something different to end the old.
There was a shuttle waiting at the airport to take me to where I’d reserved a room, but when I got there, I didn’t want to go inside. I didn’t want to take a nap or wash up. There was too much to see around me, too much to take in before the night was through. So I walked, my head up, my neck craning from side to side. Despite Eyes’ instructions, I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t look directly at anyone either. I was afraid that if I did they’d see right through, that they’d know I didn’t belong. Moreover, I was afraid that I might see something that would challenge the commitment I’d made.
The time passed quickly as I knew it would, and soon the sun was setting in the sky. What I really wanted to see before the sun went down completely was the water. I’d heard it was beautiful, which is why I’d scheduled myself there at sundown.
Walking down along the deserted beach, the frozen sand cracked beneath my feet. The icy waves, navy blue and frothy white, crashed against the shore, spraying me ever so slightly with a chilly mist.
Even in the winter, the water was beautiful. And so was the striking skyline of skyscrapers that lit up behind me. Having had just enough time to take it all in, I turned on that Chicago shore of Lake Michigan – glancing up one last time at the towering structures of glass and steel as I did – and found myself face-to-face with the man who would end my life with two shots on that strip of sand. It had to be done. I’d hurt myself as much as I’d hurt those young men. And I didn’t want to hurt anymore.
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