I didn’t go looking for the man. We crossed paths in the street, and he spun like I was a magnetic thing.
Hey. Hey, girly. Hey!
He stumbled slightly, not drunk, just unsure of his feet. I tried to walk past him, but he was stuck on. Shoe-bubblegum. I stopped, I turned. The man was surprisingly clean, his face shaved, his hair cut, his breath was musky but not terrible. His eyes were clicking around in their sockets, but they focused on me, and I felt a muscle clench just above my stomach.
“You know something? You know what? You know what? I did it. You see that guy? Did you see him? On the corner?”
He gestured vividly to a building, behind which was a street lined with yellow tape.
“The police were there,” I said. Trying to say: and that is because it is their job to be there. In the same way that it is not yours and not mine. In the same way that we are not a part of this, not even if you pulled a random trigger on a random guy on a random street. And so you should run away. You should go home to your sixteen-year-old wife and two-year-old kid and you should forget me and forget this street and if you walk away right now and never come back, you will be free in a way you can’t even imagine.
I suppose it didn’t get across, because the man continued, “’cuz I blew his brains out. I shot him in the head.”
You couldn’t have shot his brains out, I did not tell him, because he stumbled two blocks before collapsing in front of that restaurant. The waiters came out, and he mumbled. Said some guy tried to mug him, said he ran. They called 911. And when the paramedics came to take him away, he muttered something that nobody else could hear. They lifted him into the ambulance, and he muttered more, the parts of his brain still there firing at random. It was beautiful day. Lovely and white and crisply chilly, and it was so bright that there was nothing to do but lie down on the sidewalk and try to die. He left a pool of blood behind, which it is somebody’s job to clean up.
A reporter came up to me as I left the place, and asked if I’d seen anything. I hadn’t, save for the medics, and the blood.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I blew his brains out! And that motherfucker ran! He was running, even as his brains were leaking out! Like he’s a fucking Stranger. Do you think he was a Stranger? Man, if I killed one, that’d be it.”
He said “it” like he’s reveling in it. Like it’s a jubilation. Like he’s won the lottery, and all he has to do is pick up the check.
There was a bulge in his jacket pocket. I hadn’t noticed it before, but once I did, it was impossible to not see. It expanded like a cancer, becoming bigger than the man, bigger than me.
“He didn’t do it right, you know? When someone has a gun, you respect them, right?” It’s not a question. “That’s what you do. That’s what’s done. But he was, like, I’m bigger than you. I know you. I have power over you. But whose brains are now on the sidewalk all like paint?”
I felt a burning in the back of my throat, rising up very slowly.
“Jesus! Why are you talking to me? Why are you saying these things? Why are you saying these things to me?”
“I guess I just like you,” he grinned a little, goofy and genuine. And then he was all business. “But you’ve seen me.”
His hands slide towards to the pocket-balloon-cancer-gun, and my legs lock up. The sun is just dipping below the buildings, spilling that brilliant red-orange glow over the glass and concrete, and I realize once again that knowing the future does not bring calm.
“You can’t just go. You can’t. Isn’t how it’s done.”
“That’s stupid,” and I am at this point very aware that I’m reading from a script, “I don’t know you. I couldn’t pick you out from a bunch of random guys. Witnesses don’t mean shit. Our eyes lie, your face lies”
“You can’t,” he shook his head vigorously, “You can’t.”
I tried to look him straight in the eyes, but they were sliding over the street and buildings and twitching into the sun.
“You are not going to enjoy the next few minutes of your life. I am a Stranger.” And as I turned away, he tore out the just-a-gun, and pulled the trigger.
If you don’t know you’re going to get shot, I’m told, it’s not so bad. Shock sets in immediately, and every medic has a story of someone who comes in not even knowing they got shot. When you know you’re going to get shot, it’s all different. You tense up. Every muscle just locks into on, and this is the most worthless possible response. And knowing the pain is coming, your brain looks for it, and finds it before the shock jumps in and cuts all the switches.
He fired two bullets. One went into my leg, and cracked my femur, and broke into nine separate pieces. One went straight through my left lung. I screamed in a way that’s so loud and so piercing that it doesn’t have a sound. They don’t make sounds like that, not after Babel.
He’s saying something, but at that point, crumpled and screaming on the sidewalk, I was somehow much more concerned about the mess I was leaving than I was worried about what he was going to do. He just drifted away, like I was being pulled into a bog, and he couldn’t keep up. His voice and footsteps dulled, became soothing and muted and rhythmic.
The Stranger pulled me up again, and I had no choice but to spasm, choke for air, and swear profusely.
“Fuck. Fuck! God.”
“Shh. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. Not meeting him today.”
Her voice was light, and clean, and crisp. She held my head up and massaged my scalp as her fingers probed inside the hole in my torso. This hurt exactly as much as it sounds like it might.
It was almost dark.
“Jesus, Naz. How long?”
“Five minutes, honey. Sorry.”
“Had to take a shit?”
“There’s a lot of damage here.”
I could feel her fingers inside me, pulling and kneading tissues together like they’re putty, repairing me like a damaged sculpture, trying to avoid the nerves that would cause me the most pain. I try to avoid thinking about how her hands must look right now, while they’re inside.
“They get him?”
“Kasta and Ikasi bound him. They’re waiting for the police.”
I had to laugh at that, slightly, though I immediately regretted doing so. She became more serious.
“He’s very damaged. You shouldn’t play with them.”
“Fuck, Naz. This isn’t a game. Which of us is dying, huh?”
I tried to look up at her, but my eyes could barely open through the pain. I had seen her before, though. Gleaming. Pure. The Protector. Her eyes are white, her hair the pearly-clear of fiber-optics and polar bear pelts. These were natural; she was born an albino. Her skin is not skin, but a coat of tiny, soft feathers. You would not notice this from afar, and it is, relatively speaking, a recent development.
“You are not dying,” she told me, her fingers now twisting tiny lead shards out of my leg. “You are the opposite of that.”
I heard another bullet fragment drip onto the sidewalk. I heard, far away, a three-eyed man and a winged woman moving on the ground. They were holding a man in thin chains not made of silver, with a scarf not made of silk tied around his jaw and head, and something similar wound around his heart to keep him quiet. He and they were waiting. And I heard, far, far away, a gunshot, a scream, dripping blood, running.
“So if it is either of us,” she worked a bit free—twist, twist, plink—“Then it must be me.”