by Douglas Light
“Fun isn’t the right word,” the gravestone mason says, “but we can be creative.” He shows me a monument shaped like Disney cartoon character.
“You can do that?” I ask, running my fingers over the granite. Its cold smoothness reminds me of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and the job that went sour. They still haven’t found the body.
“With computers,” he says, “I can pretty much carve a slab into anything. Once, I had a request—”
“Legally, I mean. Disney is good with it?”
He hits me with a glare. I crush his with my own.
I order the simplest monument. Small. Flat. $325. “Get a pen and paper.” I write out my son’s name and his birth date.
I write out his death date.
Laying four hundred-dollar bills down, I say, “I need it by Thursday.”
He looks at the money and makes a noise like he’s clearing a popcorn kernel from his throat. “Very aggressive timeline.”
I add to his stack, a hundred at a time. “Say ‘when,’” I tell him, hitting six hundred.
Seven. Eight. Nine hundred dollars.
I pause, look up at him. Our eyes lock. “Raccoons,” I say.
Confusion dashes his face. “Like the animal?”
“You want a monument shaped—?”
I rap my knuckles on the counter, stopping him. “You lock four, maybe five raccoons in the trunk of a car, starve them a couple days. And just as they’re turning on themselves, you give them”—I smile—”something to eat.” I take a business card from the counter, snap it with my finger. “Understand?”
His eyes turn murky with terror. “No,” he says, voice breaking. “But you’ll have the monument by Thursday.”
The death of child kills a marriage. Sadness, blame, guilt. Hollowed out by shared trauma, how can two people continue on together?
At least that’s what you’d think. But less than a sixth of couples who lose a child divorce because of it.
I’m careening violently toward the minority.
The graveyard grass glistens. It’s raining. My wife stands with her family, their umbrellas folded. My father-in-law refuses to acknowledge me. I’m not welcomed, no longer family.
“Taking his life doesn’t mean you own his death,” my wife said this morning, paring knife in hand. She stabbed a grapefruit, the juice arcing out. “This is his day, not yours. Fuck it up and I’ll fuck you up.”
I bit into my cold toast, chewed silently.
She was wrong.
For me, it had always been his day—all 521 of them.
He was my purpose, my link to life.
Before all this—before I’d even met my wife—I had a drug-fueled breakdown in San Paolo and stumbled on a truth that only a gun could pry lose from my mind: there are no good endings in life. For anyone.
The best we can do is mitigate tragedy, hold it at bay for as long as possible.
The pastor’s voice pitches then wanes like a drunk auctioneer.
A hand grips my shoulder. I hear my name. Turning, I find Merket.
Last I saw him I was being led away in cuffs by the Belgium police. That was six years ago. I’ve been out of the business since. “A question,” he says. “Are you up on your vaccinations and do you have something that resembles a valid passport?”
“That’s two questions.” I nod at my son’s tiny casket. It looks like a carry-on suitcase without the wheels. “I’m a bit busy right now, Merket.”
The pastor pauses the service and looks at us with irritation. He’s banged through this kind of thing so often he knows it by rote, but now his rhythm has been broken.
“It’s a quick trip,” Merket says, staring at the casket, the grave. “Two, three days tops. You fly in, meet with my guy, do your magic, and then fly out.” He glances around the cemetery like he’s just now realizing where he is. “Did I mention that expenses are no object?”
But payment is, I think. It always is.
Time has been brutal with Merket, but then I guess it’s probably been brutal with me too. Small damages go unnoticed when you glance at yourself in the mirror everyday.
He names a figure. “Enough to buy a small house,” he says.
“In war torn country,” I say, adding, “How did you find me?”
He wipes the rain from his eyes and makes a noise deep in his throat. I imagine it’s a stillborn apology. Thirty months I served because of him. “You’re like a comet, my friend,” he says.
“I burn bright?”
“You’re constantly casting off bits and pieces of yourself. You leave a trail that anyone can follow.” He lets out a chummy laugh. “You remember the time when—”
“I’d prefer not to remember,” I say, cutting him short.
Merket leans into me, his breath stroking my neck. He doubles the offer.
I look across to where the others stand. I don’t see my wife. Not at first. She aged a decade in a handful of days. Our boy was her mooring. Now, the currents of grief are sweeping her away.
Raising my raincoat collar, I turn from the scene. “Text me the details,” I say, walking away.
I met my wife online. She had furniture for sale and I had an empty apartment. “A grown man with no furniture. So which is it?” she asked, helping me load my rental truck. “Freshly divorced or fresh out of prison?”
“There’s a difference?” I asked.
She laughed, the happy sound vibrating through my body.
A mattress and frame, a small table, two chairs. She pointed to the pink dresser. “You know, you can paint that,” she said.
“Or not.” I held out two hundred dollars. She waved it off.
“It was all stuff I was going to donate anyway. I’m just glad it’s going to good use.”
I thanked her, then climbed into the truck. Rolling down the window, I called to her. “Listen,” I said, “would you be interested—”
“Yes,” she said. “As long as you answer me one thing.”
I waited for the question.
“You were in prison?”
“Was it for murder?” Her face was even, cold. She was serious.
“That’s two things I’m answering,” I said, “but no. I wasn’t in prison for murder.”
I had murdered. Three men total. Each deserved it. But I was in prison for something else entirely, for a mistake I wasn’t going to repeat.
“All right,” she said, “but I pick the place.”
That Tuesday, we went to Chuck E. Cheese’s where she kicked my ass at Whac-A-Mole.
Everyday, we wake to a lie of ourselves, a myth that helps propels us through our day, our lives. In our minds, we’re smarter or more loved or better looking then what reality states.
But the myth can break. And when it does, truth pours in—the capital T kind of Truth. We see life for what it is, ugly and sad. Stripped of our artifice, it’s nearly impossible to find the energy to live. Yet gathering the strength to kill yourself is just as difficult.
During my thirty months in prison, I’d woke to my Truth. I’d slipped into the shadows, and when I did, time ceased. Minutes no longer mattered. My days were measured in remorse for the past, fear of the future.
Now, with my boy gone, the same holds true. Time no longer exists.
I pack a bag and pocket my forged passports. Merket already texted me the details of my travel.
My wife stands in the middle of the kitchen, smashing plates. Seeing me, bag in hand, she pauses. “The door swings one way,” she says. Her voice is powdered with exhaustion. Resignation. But no bitterness. “You leave and it’s over.”
I study the shattered flatware and think of all the meals we’ve shared as a family.
I say her name, but she shakes her head. Her eyes well with tears. “Not this time,” she says. “There are no buybacks. No free rounds. If you leave, you leave.”
The weight of my bag is overwhelming. The clothing and items hold history, are part of a life now past.
I set it down and try to speak. But I can’t find the words for what I need to say.
Gently, I close the door behind me as I leave.
When Merket said expenses are no object, he meant he’d spend anything to ensure my travels were miserable. Cincinnati to New York to London to Frankfurt and finally Monrovia, Liberia—all in cramped economy class. After twenty-eight hours of breathing an air already breathed, I feel hungover, aching. Ill. My throat rages like I’ve swallowed steel wool.
Stepping off the plane, I’m greeted by the smell of spent jet fuel and hot tar. A single starred American flag stares at me, a lonely Cyclops who’s long lost its mother.
Covering my mouth to stifle a cough, I flash one of my US passports. The customs official waves me through, no questions asked.
Outside the terminal, the street swirls with heat and traffic. People stride. Dogs lope. A foul, sweltering dust covers everything.
I grabbed a cab. The interior of the battered Mercedes cab reminds me of an over-baked potato, blackened and cracked. Chez is my driver’s name. It’s painted in white on the back of his headrest. C.H.E.Z. “Like the musician,” he says.
He places his thumb to his lips and wiggles his fingers, making a noise. Baaa, baaab, bab, baaa. “The trumpeter. Heroin addict. Died falling from a window,” he says. “My Funny Valentine, you know?”
Chet. As in Baker.
I let it go.
We drive in silence for some time. Then Chez asks, “Monrovia is a beautiful city, yes?” He maneuvers the cab around a legless boy panhandling in the middle of the road.
I swallow a cough as we pass by a banner reading Ebola is real. “James Monroe would be proud of his namesake,” I say.
Chez throws me a look in the mirror. The whites of his eyes aren’t white but chicken-fat yellow. “You are a doctor?” he ask.
He pulls to a stop in front of my hotel. “Only two types stay here,” he says. “The first are people out to end a crisis, like doctors from the World Health Organization.”
“And the other?”
He turns to look at me. “You.”
I tip Chez well, ask if he works on call. “I need someone to show me around the next couple days.”
He hands me his card. “My country was founded by freed men,” he said. “But this”—he holds up the money I’d just given him—”is my master.”
Stripping the bed is my first act in any hotel room. The thought of the last stranger in the room makes me itchy. I cover the mattress with a layer of soiled Liberian dollars, order them by year. The room’s AC huffs out stale, tepid breeze too weak to disturb the money. Why I lay out the money, I don’t know. Boredom. Loneliness. Frustration at what little I can control. Studying the bills, I see that all were minted before my boy was even born.
I pick up a hundred dollar bill. President William R. Tolbert, Jr. stares out. A coup d’état ushered him out of office—and into a mass grave with twenty-seven others from his government. Now he graces a currency worth only slightly more than a US dollar.
It’s fake to me, these Liberian dollars. But then all currency is. The value is built on faith—faith that everyone is playing along, believing that a scrap of colored paper has worth. Believing in the same lie.
A cough rumble about in my lungs. Get through this, I think. But then what? What’s waiting for me?
I pick up the hotel phone, dial my wife. Hold tight. Stay strong. We’ll get through this together. That’s what I wanted to tell her. I wanted her to know that if we can just be there for each other, we can find our way back. We can repair the life we have together.
The line clicks three time, then silence.
Then a voice comes on. “I’m sorry,” a woman says, “but the number you’ve dialed has been disconnected.”
“The less I know, the better,” I tell Merket on the phone. I slept a solid ten hours, but feel no better than when I arrived. “Plausible deniability.”
The phone line whistles with static. “That’s not like you.” He sounds like he’s battling through a sand storm. “You live for details.”
He’s right. I do.
We’re all gifted a talent, something we’re good at. But being good at something doesn’t mean you enjoying doing it. Which is why there are so people excelling at jobs that make them miserable.
For me, I’m brilliant at puzzles. That’s what Merket calls my magic. The ability to imagine the whole from random-seeming bits of information. How Merket ends up using the information I’ve mapped together is another thing. That’s his magic, making money off of what I’ve discovered.
“Okay, fine by me if you want to walk in blind on this one,” he says, then, “Listen, I need to ask a favor, since you’re already in Africa.”
I ring off before he can ask.
Calling Chez, I tell him to pick me up in an hour. Then I jump in the shower.
The showerhead pisses cold water. Sitting in the grimy tub with my knees to my chest, I realize my wife is right. My son’s death my fault. I was charged with watching him, lost sight of him for a minute. Not even that long.
Life’s most savage of lessons are taught in an instant.
Dried and dressed, I study the password one last time. Merket keeps things simple. He sets up an online bank account, puts money in it, and then provides the contact with the user name. Once I get what I want, I give the contact the password. Logged in, the contact changes the user name and password, making the account—and the money—his.
Out front, Chez is waiting. He opens the back door of his Mercedes for me. “I’m up front,” I say, wanting a clear view of what I’m heading into.
I have no address. Merket described the house. “It’ll be a cigarette’s drive north from the hospital,” he said.
“A cigarette’s drive? Is that a specific distance?”
“You’re the puzzle man,” he said. “Figure it out.”
I tell Chez to drive to the hospital. He shakes his head. “Don’t go there,” he says. “Not if you are sick.”
“I’m not,” I say, wiping the sweat from my face.
Chez smoothes the cab into the traffic. He turns on the radio, the voices filling the car. Then he turns it off. “In America,” he says, “you have your TVs and internet and fancy phones, but you don’t see. Here”—he waves at the chaotic street—“we see nothing else.”
Chez turns his marbled eyes to me. “The truth, my friend,” he says. “We see nothing but the truth.” He nods to the picture of a woman and a girl taped to the dashboard. His wife and child. “Are you a father?”
“I—” The answer barbs in my throat. I shake my head.
He clicks his tongue, nods. “Someday,” he says, then touches a small leather pouch bound with bright red thread that hangs from rearview mirror. He mumbles something to himself. An amulet and a prayer. To ward off evil or to increase his chances of a big tip—I don’t know. Habits and rituals and superstitions. No different than a Catholic crossing himself when he passes a church or a Jew swaying while he reads the Torah. All to get a leg-up on life.
My wife is a firm believer of karma. “Whatever bad things you did in your prior life,” she told me early in our relationship, “you’re paying for now.” But I pay as I go, carry no debt in this life or the prior. And if karma is real, then the death of my son has credited my account, filled it to the brim. If there’s any fairness in life, then I’ll never suffer another moment of pain.
Pulling to a stop a half block from the hospital, Chez says, “Know one thing: you go in there you’re not coming out and I’m not driving any closer.”
Men in hazmat suits carry a wrapped body out on a stretcher, lay it in the back of a pick-up truck.
That’s two things, I think, breaking out a fresh pack of cigarettes. “I’m not going in.”
Chez taps the No Smoking sign. I offer him the pack. He takes it, shakes out a cigarette and lights it. “What now?” he asks, smoke leaking from his nostrils.
“Keep driving until I say stop.”
When the ember on his cigarette gets tight to the filter, I tell Chez to stop. “We’re here?” he asks, flicking the butt out the window.
Merket said the place was a batter-bowl green and had a large roster painted on the front.
“Batter-bowl green isn’t a color,” I said.
“Just look for the cock,” he said.
I already found him, I thought.
We bump along the potholed road a quarter mile more before I see the place.
Built of corrugated sheet metal, the squat shanty is a strong rain away from collapsing. A boy stands in the doorless doorway, his soul seeming to have seeped out of him. He holds a metal pole, using it to prop himself up.
“You do not want to go in there,” Chez says.
I open the door. “You’re right, I don’t,” I say. “Give me twenty minutes.”
I close the door, lean into the open window. “I hired you for the day.”
“Days have a way of suddenly ending.” He nods toward the house. “Pay me now and I’ll wait your twenty minutes.”
“I pay you now and you’ll wait twenty seconds.”
Hurt clouds his face. “I am more than your driver. I am your friend.”
I look toward the building, the vacant-eyed boy. Friend or not, I’ll choose Chez over whatever’s inside. “Be here when I get back,” I say, and toss him my wallet.
Worth—or perception of worth—is a currency more powerful than cash. My mistake in Belgium was in thinking I was worth something to Merket. To him, I was a loose end, someone whose usefulness was spent the moment the gig was complete. So he flipped me—though he claims otherwise. Claims it was all bad luck.
There is no such thing as bad luck, only bad business partners.
I was about to board the plane when two policewomen and a German Shephard rolled in hot. My passport, they said, had raised a red flag. “Perhaps we could have a small conversation?” one of the policewomen said, cuffing me.
“Perhaps over a coffee and pastry?” The metal bit my wrists.
Everyone watched as I was perp-walked out—except for Merket. He kept his head down, worked on his Sudoku.
The trial opened then swiftly closed. Guilt for the entire scheme got pinned on me, which is like blaming the potato farmer when some asshole’s heart explodes from eating too many french fries. For the Belgians, having a conclusion is more important than having the truth. With murderers, smugglers, thieves and scammer from the world over, the prison was a model UN. I learned pick-up lines in six different languages. I learned to sleep with my back to the wall.
The boy with pole bends like young bamboo as I shoulder past. Inside the shanty, an acrid stench of old urine bites at my nose and sets me coughing. Daylight stabs through the tear in the roof, klieg lights the center of the space. It’s impossible to see who or what is in the dark corners.
“Come,” a woman says.
I cautiously head toward the voice, my eyes adjusting to the dimness. An ancient woman wearing mirrored sunglasses, the kind favored by African generals, hunches in the corner. On one side of her is a stack of car batteries, the other a pile blankets. The ghostly blue glow from her laptop haloes her face.
“You have the key?” I ask.
A rattling cry shoots terror through my bowels. The pile of blankets next to her heaves then drops. A head emerges. A man. Sick. He hacks out vomit.
I hedge back a step. “Your friend?”
“My son.” She beckons me closer. “The password. Give it and I give you the key.”
Her mirrored sunglasses reflect the laptop screen. The Afriland First Bank of Liberia. How she gets an internet connection out here is beyond me.
I glance back to make sure the boy in the door hasn’t come to life, isn’t coming at me with the pole like a starving Babe Ruth.
He hasn’t moved.
“Ready?” I ask the woman.
She tilts her head downward, slowly taps in her user name. “Go.”
I list out the numbers and letters of the password. Watching her closely, I pause.
She lifts her head and I see my own reflection. “That’s it?”
“One more number.”
“Tell me,” she says.
“Show me the key.”
Reaching over, she places a hand on her son. He moans like a stabbed elk. “Charles, show him,” she says.
A trembling hand rises from the blanket, holds up the key.
My lungs flood with sadness, nearly choking me. Which is worse, losing a child instantly or having to watch on helplessly as he die?
This isn’t her operation. It’s her son’s. But she’s stepped in, is trying to secure the cash that will change their lives—whatever’s left of them.
Fuck Merket, I think. Fuck the key. Fuck this whole gig.
“Four,” I say.
She enters it. “No,” she says. Her voice spikes with worry. “It didn’t work.”
“Try again.” I watch the reflection of her fingers tapping at the keyboard.
By her third failed try, I have the username. The money is mine. “Keep trying,” I say, leaving. She’ll never get it. The number is nine.
Outside, Chez has the cab running. The brake lights are on, his foot ready to shift from one pedal to the next. Ready to race away.
I slide into the front passenger seat.
Chez hands me back my wallet. “You got what you came for?”
I think of the mother and son, Merket and the key. “No.” I exit the car.
“Mind if I have a look at that?” I ask the hollow-eyed boy. I take the pole. He doesn’t resist.
Inside, I’m swift and brutal and finished in seconds.
Emerging, blood speckles my shirt and face. I lift the pole to smash in the boy’s head, finish off the job. But he looks up at me, his face expressionless. My heart clatters to a stop. He’s someone’s son. I can’t do it. Dropping the pole at his feet, I say, “Thanks.”
Back in the car, I study the key in my hand. The word Krush is printed on the bow. “Let’s go.”
Chez stares at me in terror. “What did you do?” he asks, knowing.
Chez eases off the brake.
Dust clouds swallow the boy as we pull away.
I empty a bottle of water over my head and change into a Duran Duran t-shirt Chez in the trunk. “Wish me luck,” I say to Chez, then head in. Krush is a cigar lounge on the top floor of a four star hotel. The key is to a locker in the humidor.
I make it across the lobby without notice. But the moment the doors to the elevator hiss open on the lounge, I know I don’t belong. Suits, ties, and highly polished shoes. My t-shirt and soiled jeans are no match.
“Can I help you, sir?” the host asks, coldly eyeing me.
“A scotch would be great. Rocks.”
He blocks me. “Sir, we have a dress code.”
“And it’s a very nice one,” I say, holding up the key and an American hundred dollar bill. “I’ll be gone before the ice in my drink melts.”
He retreats, the bill securely tucked in his pocket.
The locker opens easily.
I take the items out, spreading them out on a table. A shipping manifest, newspaper clippings, two cellphones and a jar of strawberry jam. I check the call logs on both cell phone. One number each. Hitting redial on one of the phones, I wait for a voice on the other end.
Someone picks up.
I hear my name.
“When someone flashes a ‘V’ with their fingers,” he says, “does it mean victory or peace?”
“Depends on the person,” I say.
The host set the scotch down before me and then hovers.
“Depend on the situation, the context,” I say to Merket. I hand the host another hundred-dollar bill. “Keep the change,” I tell to him.
“There is none,” he says, gliding off.
“So what’s the word, Mr. Puzzle Man?” Merket asks. “What’s the score, buddy?”
Buddy? Merket is trying too hard, trying to sound like a friendly international spy. I crack open the jam jar and sniff it. It isn’t jam, isn’t edible. I study the shipping manifest again and it all comes together, a rush of insight. The Freeport of Monrovia, crucial economic lifeline for the country. “Shit,” I say, understanding. If this comes off as planned, Ebola will be the least of the Monrovia’s worries.
Merket laughs. “You got it?”
“Lockerbie will look like a tricycle accident compared to this.”
“Brilliant! So now all you have to do is—”
I kill the call. I know what I have to do.
I pick up the other phone, hit redial on the one number.
A man answers. “Charles?”
The elderly woman’s son. The man with the key.
“Charles isn’t available,” I say, then state the situation. State the information I have and that I am available for hire. “Thought you might be interested.”
The line falls silent, like the connection has been severed. Then: “I’m interested.”
I’d married. I’d started a family. I’d put my past behind me, and with it all my anger for Merket.
Or so I believed. Now I see it isn’t true. I’ve kindled a flicker of spite all these years, kept a small flame alive. A pilot light hidden deep. All I need is right opportunity and I can ignite a firestorm.
At the internet cafe, it takes less than a minute to lock Merket and anyone else out of the bank account. It takes less than a minute to choose my fate.
Calling up my new client, I give him the account information. When I see my account add a comma, I offer to return the money to him in full.
“That’s quite generous of you. But why?” he asks.
“How are you at hunting down animals?”
He rumbles out a laugh. “I am African,” he says. “Tell me what it is and I’ll add it to my trophy collection.”
“Good,” I say, then tell him all about Merket.
“What are your dreams?” I ask.
Chez stares straight ahead, his hands death-gripping the steering wheel. He hasn’t said much since I got the key, has shuttled me around in near silence.
Even if my client kills Merket, he’s not getting his money back. I transferred it all to the account my wife and I shared. It’s hers now. A gift. An apology. An attempt to fill the vast hole I’ve created.
Chez says, “The cab is on fire. Every inch of it. But I’m still driving like nothing’s wrong. I’m still trying to find a fare and people are running away.” He clicks his tongue. “I dream that a lot.”
“I mean when you’re awake,” I say. “What do you want most in the world?”
Chez touches his amulet. “It doesn’t work that way,” he says. “Not here.” He guides the cab to the front of my hotel, pulls to a stop.
I pull out my wallet. “I’m leaving for the airport tonight,” I say. “So if you can—”
“Did you have to kill them?” His face is glossy with sweat and fear.
I check my cash. I have enough but I want to give Chez more. A good tip. An amount that might not change his life but will change his year for sure. I’ve that kind of money in my room.
Climbing from the cab, my kidneys ache like I’ve been hammered in the lower back. I don’t feel well, feel feverish. “Wait for me. I’ll be back down.”
Chez kills the ignition. “You go in there you’re not coming out,” he says. “You’ll disappear and I’ll never get paid.”
His words sting. “Trust me,” I say. “I’m more than your passenger, I’m your friend.”
Still, I leave him my wallet. I tell him my room number. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, come up.”
The problem with firestorms is that once you set one off, it owes you no loyalty. It’s indiscriminate in its destruction. It’ll destroy anything.
It’ll destroy everything.
The front desk clerk hands me my room key, says, “Did he find you, sir?”
I cough out my question. “Who?”
“You’re friend.” He points his chin past me, toward the bar. “Said he’d have a drink while he waited for you.”
The cold hand of fear cups my balls. Turning, I see a man sitting with two women. “Him?”
The clerk shakes his head, glances about the lobby. “He’s…no, he must of left.”
“What did he—” I break off. It doesn’t matter what he looks like. Whoever he is, I know one thing for sure.
He’s not my friend.
I pause outside my hotel room’s door, listen. Silence. If there’s anyone waiting for me inside, they aren’t banging about.
I dial my client, keeping my ears open for a ring inside the room.
My client picks up. “Yes?”
“Where are you right now?”
He clears his throat. “Anywhere you need me to be.”
Keep your friends close, your enemies closer.
I give him the name of my hotel, my room number. “Can you be here in twenty minutes?”
“I’ll be there in ten.”
“Perfect,” I say, knowing I’ll be long gone.
I toe open my hotel room door, crab in quickly. If my “friend” found his way in, I want to give him a proper welcome.
The room is empty.
I elbow the bathroom door open, staying hard to the outside wall in case of—what? A flash of a knife? A gun shot? I don’t know.
The bathroom is dark, silent. The place is clear.
Fuck it, I think. I’m out. Grab my passports, my cash, and have Chez take me to the airport. Then I’m on my way home.
Elsewhere. I’m on my way elsewhere. Somewhere.
As I toss my few items into a carry-on, a voice stabs me. “It’s so low-end Hollywood, but fucking hell, it worked.”
I turn. Merket. Pistol in hand. Pointed at me. “The shower,” he says, motioning to the bathroom. “You didn’t check the shower. The bad guy always hides there in B movies.”
“You’re the bad guy now?”
He lifts a shoulder, a half shrug. “I don’t do labels.”
Exhaustion crushes me and I vomit on the floor.
“Jesus fuck,” Merket says. “You’re taking this all so seriously.” He wags the pistol at me. “I mean, it’s not like I have to kill you.”
A tooth. A severed finger. A tuft of hair. The table is littered.
“Just give me what I paid for,” Merket says.
I hack out a damp laugh that dapples the carpet with blood.
“Something funny?” He wipes the knife clean on the pillow.
My wrists are bound to the chair with the phone cord. The pain has moved beyond pain, is now part of me. “Two things,” I say, pushing the words past my swollen tongue.
He steps to the window, stares down at the stained street. “I’m listening.”
I mind slips back to my boy’s first birthday, the party we had for him. Our neighbors, members from the church, and women from my wife’s yoga class came. We had barbecue and cocktails for the adults, cake and ice cream for the kids.
No presents, we said. We got a ton.
Worn out from all the activities, our boy fell asleep long before the party was over. “I’m so lucky,” my wife said, standing over the crib. She was three gin and tonics deep, had a sweet, sweaty glow to her.
As our boy breathed softly, the sound of laughter seeped in from the living room. Normal people with everyday woes enjoying this moment of life. Enjoying now.
I took my wife in my arms, kissed her neck. I wanted to tell her that there is no luck in life. There’s only actions. There’s only outcomes. There’s only what we create.
I laugh again.
Merket turns to me, says my name twice. “What’s the first thing that’s funny?”
“I can’t give you it to you, what you paid for.”
A look of sadness pools in his eyes. “That pains me.”
I wiggle what’s left of my finger. “Not as much as it pains me.”
He crouches down in front of me, places his palm to my face like a teenager preparing to go for a kiss. “And the second thing?” he asks. “What’s the second funny thing?”
I close my eyes and think of my boy, of my wife, of the lives I’ve ruined. I think of Liberia, how it is one of only two African countries to never be colonized.
The pounding on the door is loud and firm.
I open my eyes, smile brokenly. “See for your self.”
Douglas Light is the author of two novels, a story collection, and the screen adaptation of his debut novel, The Trouble with Bliss. www.douglaslight.com
Image source: Igor Kazantsev/Unsplash