UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 12/2004
A limp wrist emerges from the half-open window of a silver suv in my rearview mirror. The fingers flick ash from a menthol cigarette. I can tell itís a menthol because it has two green lines on the white filter. There is so much lipstick on the filter, it looks like a used tampon from a yard gnome.
Iím trained to notice details.
In the mirror, airborne cobwebs of smoke escape from the window, climbing to get their heads above the heat waves shimmering off the silver hood.
That smoke in my mirror, government scientists are only days away from using Chaos Theory to explain why it makes the curls and furls that it does, as it rises into the air. Once we thought it was completely random. Now we know there are patterns to everything. The tides. The stock market. Even the weather. Especially the weather.
Only a handful of people know what the government is doing, right now. What we are capable of. I am one of those people. I have clearance. I have access. You cannot protect what you do not know.
Everyone says that government technology is ten to twenty years ahead of the private sector. Ten to twenty? Try a hundred. Try a millennium. Try a galaxy of time that can only be traversed in the abstract. That can only be known in theory.
Presently, deep under-cover in a stinking crotch of a traffic jam, itís hard to remember that I donít exist, officially. That if I am caught, my government will deny any knowledge of my existence. They will disavow my being. They will not claim my body. If I am caught, I must kill myself without hesitation. No note. No funeral. No eulogy for a man who never existed.
My truck hasnít moved in five minutes. In five years, they have never given me a car with air conditioning. Not in Bangkok. Not in Burma a month before the monsoons. Not in Niger when the sun literally boiled the paint from the hood of my beat-up Peugeot. And not even now, in an old Ford pick-up on the tail end of a Texas summer. They tell us that air conditioning makes us weak.
A woman, Hispanic, thirty-five to forty years old, five-foot four, walks by on the sidewalk. Shuffling along at a slow clip, yet passing us all in our cars and our sea of exhaust. Sheís fat. First detail. That and sheís dressed like sheís leaving work in an office. Her high-heeled shoes are probably hurting her feet. The next detail: her hairís held up with about a half can of hairspray.
Details can tell you everything. This fat woman, her ass hangs in layers under her skirt, like chins trapped in the net of her underwear. Like soft strata, like dunes of the Mojave, each casting its own shadow across the taught red fabric of her skirt as she trucks along on dress shoes with a shelf life of ten thousand steps, exactly one month of lunch breaks.
A month of lunch breaks. Sheís too fat for her clothes, too fat for the world, too lazy to take the stairs and too stupid to realize the elevator cableís about to snap like her hip bone when her skeleton finally grows too brittle to frame the 2,200 pounds of food she will eat every year for the rest of her natural life.
Within the next few years, the number of overweight and obese people in the world will equal the number of malnourished and famished souls. That information is not classified.
When I am not undercover, I have to exercise everyday. I donít mean go to the gym. Or sit on a stationary bike. I have to run no less than five miles. The last mile must be a sprint. I can do between 140 and 160 push-ups before my triceps begin to quake. Underwater, I practice slowing my metabolism. I can hold my breath for six minutes and forty-five seconds. Once a month, I have to find a mountain and climb it. No ropes, no harness. I can slam-dunk a basketball in street shoes with my pockets full of change from six different countries.
After my workout, I practice my languages. I can speak French, Arabic, and Russian. I am functional but not fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, and several African dialects. I can balance a checkbook by glancing at it. I can tell you the name of every person Iíve met in the last six months. I can analyze a blueprint of a building and tell you exactly where to place a series of small charges that will level the entire structure with an acceptable amount of collateral damage to the neighboring buildings.
I am the single greatest investment you never knew you made.
I refer to your tax dollars. They dumped millions on me. Money you made so I can live and die for you. Thank you.
And, youíre welcome.
Because Iíve done things for you that youíll never know about.
But then, thatís the whole point.
Like the deadly virus that was almost released on Johannesburg. Or the suitcase nuke in Omaha. The bomb under a famous bridge in Prague. And literally dozens of plots to kidnap or assassinate presidents, prime ministers, and diplomats from countries you canít pronounce and probably couldnít find on an unlabeled map.
I stand between your morning cup of coffee and your worst enemies. Only politicians and the media call them terrorists.
Wherever there is money, land, clean water, or oil, there is somebody willing to do something drastic to take it. Or protect it. Or take it back. My superiors decide which ones we can allow to happen. The rest, well, someone like me shows up. The military only comes in when something has gone wrong. When someone like me screwed up. When someone like me is dead.
My hand-to-hand combat training taught me that anything can be a weapon. A ring of keys curled up in a fist can take out an eye. A broomstick is as deadly as a sword. In my hands, a disposable pen might as well be an ice pick. A paperclip can be fatal. A plastic bag can take a life. Even chopsticks can be a weapon, if theyíre inserted in the nostrils and shoved up into the brain.
As if this knowledge can fix this traffic jam. As if it could take away the heat of summer.
As if it matters.
As if I have anywhere to go.
I have on object surgically implanted under the skin of the sole of my right foot. Itís about the size of a grain of rice, made of carbon fiber, so it wonít set off a metal detector. This carbon fiber, it will resist temperatures up to 1700 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot enough to cremate a body. This piece of rice, all it has is a number stamped on it. That number, well, itís pretty much just my name. They find it in the foot of a dead man and my file gets put on Ďinactiveí.
If my cover gets blown, under no circumstances am I to be captured. I am not to be interrogated. The enemy has ways of making you talk. Horrible things no one can resist. The common word to describe this kind of torture is Ďunimaginableí. But, really, anyone can imagineí it. Most people have fantasized about doing these kinds of things, at least at one time, to at least one person. And you no longer have to go through secret military training. Or become a communist in Central America. There are horror novels and programs on television that will give you a fairly accurate representation of what kind of treatment you can expect to receive.
Like Hell, only it doesnít last as long.
Iíve seen the videos of those people getting their heads cut off. Thatís not torture. The fact that it can so easily be downloaded on your personal computer means itís actually entertainment, by definition. For the benefit of a particular audience. To the end of eliciting a specific response. Torture takes you to rooms with no windows. There are no cameras, and nothing is done for an audience.
Itís all for you, baby.
They give us new cyanide pills for each mission. So I save the old ones. I keep them in a candy jar on my dresser. Iím not sure why. One works just as well as a hundred.
If you do not have your cyanide pill, you can jump off a very tall building. You may not sit in a running car in a closed garage. You may not slit your wrists in a warm bathtub. You may not hang yourself. All these methods create moments in which you are incapacitated, giving the enemy access to your person before you are completely dead. Even if you are clinically dead, the enemy can bring you back to life. They will stop your bleeding, they will cut your rope. They will nurse you back to health so they can extract information in an extremely unpleasant fashion.
If you try to slit your own throat and they manage to keep you from dying, the fact that you cannot speak will not help you. They will still torture you, theyíll just be limited to Yes or No questions.
If you still have your side arm, you can shoot yourself in the head. But do not put the gun to your temple. The bullet may not go deep enough to kill, just lodge into the thick calcium of your skull. Or even ricochet off. Occasionally, when someone tries to shoot themselves in the temple, the spin on the bullet and the thickness of the bone causes the bullet to merely circumnavigate the personís head, giving him nothing more than a lacerated scalp and the last truly great headache of his life. The proper technique is to put the barrel of the gun in your mouth and aim up into the brain. Through the soft pallet. If your gun is clean, you have very little room to fail. But remember to aim for the brain. If you hold the gun at a wonky angle and just blow off the side of your face, the enemy can still save your life. They will put you in a secret hospital and nurse you back to health until you are ready for torture. For questions.
Being afraid of torture is okay. Itís what they call a Ďhealthyí fear.
So you use what you have at hand, preferably to escape, or, if escapeís not possible, to take your own life.
Used to be, cyanide capsules were hidden in a hollow false tooth. All you had to do was bite down, and it was all over. But then they started forcing sticks in our teeth so we couldnít bite down. So they invented this other kind of capsule. It was buried in your palm, under the skin, so all you had to do was press down on your palm with your middle finger. You could do it in handcuffs. Then they started cutting off our hands as soon as one of us was captured. Theyíd cauterize the wrist with an acetylene torch.
It seems like every time we find a new way to kill ourselves, they find a way to keep us alive. Itís an ironic cycle of Supply and Demand. Some of us have a new system implanted. Obviously, I canít tell you about it. The rest of us just have cyanide pills in our pockets. If a guard dog attacks you, wrap your coat or sweater around your forearm. Let him bite down. When his jaws lock on your padded arm, seize his neck arteries and squeeze until he passes out. Or put your thumb in his eye and crush it. Repeat on the other eye. Once heís blind, break his neck to silence his cries.
Something interesting I learned about cars a couple years ago: When a car stops, suddenly, the air in the tires keeps spinning. Thereís very little resistance inside the tires to slow the air down. So it just keeps turning around the hub. The axis.
I thought about this as I watched a car buried into the side of a cafť in the capital city of an African nation. Broken stones from the caved wall littered around the smashed Mercedes. The driver was quite obviously dead, his brains having splattered across the dashboard and what was left of the shattered windshield. The trunk of the car was full of explosives, and the car crashed less than a football field from its destination, a British embassy. The bullet in the driverís head was from the smoking 9mm still in my hand.
I had been posing as a photojournalist.
I should have gotten out of there. But I just stared at those tires, perfectly still on the outside, yet revolving, I knew, on the inside.
I should have run not because I was afraid of being shot. I should have scrambled because part of me remembered that most suicide bombers carry packages that are triggered by remote control. See, the people who do these kinds of things found out pretty early that suicide bombers are not as reliable as they seem. Sometimes, theyíll get stopped before their target. Sometimes, theyíll loose their nerve and head back, using their personal judgment as a futile explanation for why it wasnít the right time.
So I should have run because, at any moment, I could have been blown to smithereens. By remote control. But all I could do was watch those tires.
That was my last assignment before I got shipped home.
People like me, our jobs are so stressful, we spend most of our time on Ďvacationí.
I found my way to Morocco, and was flown to an Army base in Germany. I was shown a medal I would probably never see again, and given a physical followed by the standard psychological examination, the results of which I would never know. Except that I was put on Ďindefinite leaveí. A first for me.
Iíve gone three blocks in half an hour. Now Iím stopped on an access road to a split-level highway. The shade from the overpass isnít as cool as it looks. Thereís a man with a squeegee and a bucket of soapy brown water, waiting at the last light before the on-ramp. The traffic breaks up for a moment, but the light turns red before I can make the intersection. Now Iím stopped, the man with the squeegee just outside my open window. He raises his squeegee hopefully, and our eyes meet. I raise one hand and make the international symbol that clearly states ĎNo, thanks. Stay the fuck away from me,Ē and he moves on.
The lightís still red, and Iím still stopped. But the compressed air in my tires keeps spinning, keeps turning in the dark foulness that spins around the axis.
In my rearview mirror, the window washer wades through exhaust, approaches each car as hopefully as the next, gesturing with the squeegee. No one beckons. Cars without air conditioning roll up their windows. Doors lock. A slobbering dog barks at him from the back of a pickup truck.
My rearview shows a sea of cars. A sea of idle Americans. The irony is, they donít matter. Everything is done for them so nothing is done to them. But theyíll never know about any of it. And as long as theyíre in the dark, everythingís okay. And as long as theyíre in the dark, theyíll never matter.
No one will give them clearance.
People, Americans, who watch television and read their city papers, they think thereís a war going on, the whole Muslim world against us. They think thereís a jihad going on. And, I guess, there is. But itís not Us against Them. Itís a few hundred thousand of us against a few hundred thousand of them.
People say itís The Crusades all over again. I think, they donít know how right they are. Just a handful of assholes willing to use the religion of their poor to wage war against an enemy so unknown, they can make him out to be anything they want. And, of course, if I was ever allowed to speak my mind, someone would be dense enough to ask me which side Iím talking about.
A war fought by children barely come adults. A war fought by virgins. Soldiers who have never been to New York City. Or Paris. Whoíve never planted a garden, who havenít read a book since they were in school. And still, which side am I talking about?
If our kids ever come eye-to-eye with their kids, this world will tremble before them, and no one will ever be able to stop it. Not a million people like me, no matter how many push-ups we can do. No matter how long we can hold our breath, it wonít be long enough to wait out whatís coming. No number of languages spoken will talk us out of what will happen when these kids finally decode the shit theyíve been fed.
Something unseen still turns on its axis. I can slam on the brakes, but I canít stop the air from spinning.
But when it comes out, it wonít be my battle.
Iím tired of fighting demons. Iím tired of fighting men. Iím turning in my gun and my chopsticks. My carbon fiber grain of rice.
I donít want to be a hero.
I donít want to be on the winning side.
I just want to go home.Benjamin Reed's work has appeared in Mobius, Blue Mesa Review, Snow Monkey, Taj Mahal and several anthologies. Online, he has been published by WordRiot, Slow Trains, Starving Arts, somewhat.org, Clean Sheets, and others. He has also published a novel, The Bow Tie Gang. Last year he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is twenty-six and live in Austin, and is, at present, working on his second novel and a spoken word album.
© 2004 Underground Voices