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No Questions Asked
A violent, profane fever dream of a story about Jerzy, and what he does when he gets out. The first story from THE LAND OF CLOSED DOORS.
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“No questions asked,” he says.
I give him the cash.
He gives me the shot.
I put it together in the hotel bathroom. It’s big, and chrome, like what I imagine an elephant vet would carry.
The bore stretches my vein. I’m glad Raceland’s not here, he’d make it sound like something about fucking.
I think about the last time I saw him, and I’m not glad any more.
I tell myself it will be worth it.
I send the medicine in.
It hurts. Like being born, or dying.
I smell a few colors I can’t recognize. Morning dew burning off the skin of the sun. Cool blue-gray of leaving work early.
I can taste the music on the clock radio.
I try to take the mirror off the bathroom wall. When my fingernails come off, it’s the cannons firing in that AC/DC song.
I throw up, and shit myself.
I don't know the order.
It takes as long as it takes.
Couple hours, feels like more, when you’re on the tile and you wish you were dead.
No one bangs on the door. No one knocks on the wall. Can’t blame them, after what they heard.
But that’s why I chose this dump.
Shitty hotel full of shitty people. But my money’s green, so no questions asked.
The hallway’s tight around my shoulders as I lock the door, slip the Do Not Disturb sign over the knob.
There’s a current in my stomach, two-twenty amps, and it wants to go for a walk.
I let my feet follow, because I want to know where it’s headed.
We both do.
Where I wind up first is that motherfucker Slim Dan’s place. The building’s still a heap, there’s burnouts clustered on the stoop like rats looking for a thrown-away donut, and that motherfucker is in the doorway smiling down on the street. A king holding court.
We lock eyes and he ain’t smiling anymore.
Slim Dan spins on his heel and jogs inside. Laughter clatters up out of the circle of burnouts but none of them’s straight enough to get out of my way. Reddest eyes belong to this dude in a dress shirt and suspenders who looks up at me through John Lennon glasses. His mouth hangs open, and I can see his back three teeth on the right side are fake. The partial is dull because the weed’s given him cottonmouth. I shoulder through them and they scatter. Bowling pins down the stairs of the stoop.
Slim Dan left the door open, so I invite myself inside. I’m standing in his living room, looking at the couch covered in cum stains and Dorito crumbs. The carpet started beige, and now it looks like the forest floor in autumn. A spotless flat-panel tv hangs on the wall. A football video game paused on the screen, and in the lower left corner there’s a porno playing. Two chicks going at a third in a dry riverbed.
I step down on the game controller. The sole of my shoe splits in half. My nose twitches at melting plastic.
That motherfucker Slim Dan comes at me from behind. I turn slow. He’s got a machete in one greasy hand. No shit, he’s got a grilled cheese in the other, and it drips barbecue sauce down his arm. The machete catches me on the dome above my eyebrow. The blade sinks a little bit. Slim Dan’s face changes.
It changes again when I push my fist through his teeth and his head explodes.
The crew used to tell stories in the queasy minutes before lights out. About what we’d do, and who we’d do it to. A lot of those stories involved Slim Dan.
None of them ended like this.
I pull the machete loose with a slurp. Something’s gummed up all down the edge. It looks like an albino Starburst and it smells like a lipo clinic’s dumpster.
I reach up to my eyebrow but the skin is smooth. Hot to the touch, but it beats a ditch dug in my scalp.
Something itches my brain so I check all over. Reaching under my shirt, down my pants, rolling fingers around my face. I had a lot of scars. I don’t anymore.
I shake what’s left of Slim Dan out of the cuffs of my jeans.
Come on, lightning.
I don’t have all day.
I recognize the sound of walking to G’s Spot. It sounds like the soft ground beef flavor of anxiety. It sounds like a neon light shining through a pawn shop window where you just left the guitar you stole from your younger brother, that he loved like it was a big fluffy dog that slept in his bed. It sounds like the feel of wornout carpet underfoot in the last good place you lived, in the before time.
It sounds like the old life, is what I’m saying.
The street’s empty but it didn’t start that way.
Sadness is on me like a kid’s backpack, cinched up tight and drawing my shoulders back.
I’m crying softly, little plaid fireworks exploding down the sides of my face. Each pop leaves a jazzy spray of sparks dying in the night air.
The Spot’s exposed, all up in the middle of the block. Two big guys in suits on the rope. They’re refrigerators in Men’s Wearhouse. The one with the clipboard has a goiter of wiry beard bulging under his chin. The other one’s wearing sunglasses, not the stylish kind, the big boxy things old people wear on the bus so they can give you the evil eye without taking shit for it.
When I get there, I have to walk through six turns in the rope without no one ahead of me. It makes me a dick but I walk through the corridor until I get to the end. The bass is blaring lime-green through closed doors.
Neither suit moves.
The cataract glasses says something I can’t hear. He doesn’t whisper. A cloud comes out of his mouth (two teeth are gold, the canines on the left, top and bottom) and it’s all punctuation and twisting white lines. A photo negative of a comic strip fight, like between the alcoholic guy and his old lady in the housecoat. It comes my way slow. It moves like weather, or a flock of bowling balls, and I wait for it to come to me, so I can hear what he has to say.
Right before it hits, I realize.
This shit isn’t from me taking the shot.
It’s from him taking it.
Fuck you, I think, my mind goes still, I see a river and a stone cottage with a grassy roof and a wheel that dips its fingers into the water, I see a little sheep eating clover, fuck you, I think, and there’s a red-eyed lamb wandering into view from the woods, I’m not going to move. You move.
Cloud hits me.
I’m somewhere else.
It’s cool, and pulsing gently.
It’s dark. A green so dark it’s lightless.
I haven’t been anywhere this nice in a long time.
When I’m back on the street, the dudes are watching.
Sunglasses is calm. His expression a large animal in the sun.
I’m still high. I still taste the nighttime light as it sprays against the back of my head. It tastes like flat Sprite. Lemon lime, I think.
“He’s all right,” the other one says.
My breath smells like dryer sheets.
Sunglasses moves the rope out of the way. The beard sweeps his arm down low, makes toward the door.
I fumble through a dip of my head and walk past them, into the club.
I hope they serve Sprite.
The Spot’s smaller, and darker, and quieter, than I remember. Also everyone’s moving in slow motion. That seems new.
Crowd’s aged up since last time. Looks like early thirties, career people, office folk, tight skirts and tight shirts and sparkling shoes brimming with smoke peeking out from underneath the soles. It’s a little shocking at first, these people are all different races, they’re all talking and laughing and sharking on those hidden columns of kaleidoscope smoke, and for a second I want to put my back to the wall and wait out the riot, but only for a second, because I remember I’m out, I’m out, there’s no riot coming, I’m out.
I’m not there anymore.
The bartender waves me over. She’s slim and shaved bald, with slabs of eyebrow cutting out, and a nose God should’ve put on a hawk. Her skin is dark as an eight-year-old’s bedroom when the night light goes out.
I walk through the slow-motion dancers. Each stands on smoke that descends for thousands of miles into starry skies. Each dances with their eyes closed. I can see behind their lids and in the depths of each eye are old pools made from cellar stones with ink swirling around inside. They dance like sleepwalking.
I belly up and set my elbows down. The bar top is stainless. It’s cold and it’s friendly.
“G,” I say.
“Long time,” G says. Her voice is a fresh-mowed lawn on a July afternoon.
I’m out, I’m out, I’m out.
“Yeah.” I swallow hard. “Been in.”
She does this thing. She half-nods. She half-bites her lower lip. She half-winks. She does a half of a lot of things all at once and each thing is different but each thing is the same. “Long time since we fucked,” she says, “but you still look like you’re afraid of me.”
“That right.” I push my fingertips into the skin of my forearms. Sometime the nails grew back, half-grew, if I look hard I can see the nails inchworm toward the ends of my fingers. My skin feels like a traffic jam. I swallow again. It doesn’t look natural.
“When,” she starts.
Her eyes are like this stuff Wisdom told me about once. Volcano glass. Like it only comes from volcanoes when they explode, and not even every time. You can find bits of it, make it into arrowheads. Wisdom would talk about arrowheads for hours. How to chip them right. How to hold them against your thigh when you do. About the pair of jeans he wore when he used to do it. Then he’d show me the scars on his thigh from making arrowheads. Wisdom told me about this volcano glass, and how it’s real fucking sharp, and real fucking dark.
G looks at me and her eyes are full of volcano glass splinters, and I know down deep in her chest off to the left of her spleen is the volcano. It’s mad and it’s coughing up music.
G laughs. It’s a tight dress in spring pink. “I almost forgot,” she says. She laughs again. This one a kid learning about tadpoles in the rain.
“Yeah,” I say. I push my fingers into my arms a little harder and I feel the muscle go hot, and soft, and if I push any harder I think it’ll go albino Starburst on me.
“Just like always,” G says. “Just like before, Jerzy.”
Her hands move on their own. They start filling a highball with ice. Right one reaches for a can of ginger ale. The left reaches for bourbon.
I shake my head. “Not tonight.”
Those cane knife eyebrows slide up on her forehead. “The horse’s neck is your drink.”
“Sprite,” I say.
“Doesn’t mix well.”
“Don’t mix it.”
Her hands writhe away from the can, and the bottle. They come together in a prayer. “That’s cool.”
She busies herself with the pulltab.
“I’m not Jerzy anymore.”
The ring pulls forward. Can cracks open. The fizz comes out, jazz, and tang, and the first Christmas where you’re too old for Santa. She slides it across the stainless with a screech that’s zebra-striped.
“You never were,” G says.
I drink my Sprite.
At the end of my can she pops another. We aren’t talking. The sugar hits hard. I watch G move from person to person.
I crush up the can in my fingers. The buzz from sunglasses’ cloud is all gone. The acid in the soda burns my gullet. My teeth squeak. One of the crew made beer, as a hobby. Before. Wisdom. His glasses were opposites—one clear, one dark. He said he’d cleaned bottles with bleach. He didn’t get it all out. He got real drunk on those.
I never asked him how he lost the eye.
G comes over.
“How it is,” she says, distracted. Looking away.
“Not as good as it used to be,” I say, with a weight in my mouth.
I watch the air come off her shoulders, hazed like a cold glass and winter sharp.
“Another one, please,” I say, and she’s got it ready.
Something tingles in the back of my neck. Like how your baseball coach would grab you after a good play, grab your neck and give you a shake, fatherly, only it feels like the baseball coach is a spider, and he’s trying to hide it by jamming that long leg in a leather glove.
There’s no one’s hand on my neck, baseball coach spider or otherwise. I turn. The stool slips underneath me. The club’s empty. Music’s playing, softer now.
“Sold me out,” I say, molasses stuck to the roof of my mouth.
G comes around the bar. She don’t look sad. She a woman made of glass from some wicked furnace burnin under sea.
“Sold me out,” I say again. Real tired. Real slow.
She’s got keys in her fingers jingle-jangle. She lean down, kiss my forehead, quick cuts into albino Starburst.
“I did,” she says. Her voice a old VHS about whales I use to watch, when I was little. “No questions asked.”
Fuck you, dreams.
“Jesus shit that’s gross,” someone says.
“Wait,” someone else says. “What that look like?”
“Gross, I just told you.”
I can’t see.
“No, asshole, it reminds me of something.”
“What the fuck it remind you of?” Slapping noise. “We went to school together, dipshit. You didn’t learn fuck in science class.”
A punch. Then a breath sucked between clenched teeth. The sound is as orange as a monarch butterfly.
I take a moment, down inside myself, I sit down inside myself, and I feel it. Really feel it.
I miss Raceland.
I miss Wisdom.
I miss them all.
“Listen, dummy. Candy—that stretchy candy? It was like stretchy and white, and a blue wrapper. Get all up in your teeth.”
“You ain’t got any more room for shit in your teeth, bro.”
“Swear to god. Don’t talk about my teeth.”
Clothes swish past each other. “He asleep, yo?”
“No,” I tell him.
“Oh shit!” the close one yells. “Help us out, guy. Can you smell his breath from over there?”
“Motherfucker, what did I tell you?”
I try to say something else. It gets caught up in all the sadness spiderwebbed up inside me. It comes out as “Nnnnnn.”
“He say yes.”
A sound like a broomstick smacking a ham.
“Fuck, man! That shit hurts.”
“I told you once.”
“You know why people talk shit about you?”
“‘Cause it smells like you got a mouthful of shit all the time!”
Sneakers squeal. The pitches go right to my tongue. I can taste them. Something in that flavor tells me it’s a poured concrete floor, and it got washed twenty-one days ago, first with Tide (really, motherfuckers?) and then with something caustic.
(don’t do this, bro)
used to talk about washing his gear
(come on, bro)
with something like that.
(oh fuck, too late now)
I think about the last time I saw Wisdom.
It opens the Gate, and I hurt, all over, but mostly in my eyes.
“Uncle, man,” the guy says. “Goddamn.”
“I think he’s feeling it.”
“I’m feeling it.”
“Go on,” he says, “you little bitch.”
“Uh-uh. You do it.”
“I put ‘em in there. You take them out.”
“What if I get it on me?”
“Just do it.”
“Fine.” The footsteps come near. I feel his hands grab my antennas and pull. Lightning sizzles in me and it feels like my eyes are gonna come out. The dude grunts and his foot settles on my knee. He’s wearing cheap Keds someone wrote on with a Sharpie. Dude grunts again and the room burns up into white light and I think I scream.
Whistling in my ears.
The white fades down into the real world.
I’m in a shitty basement.
These two sons of bitches…
One’s tall, the other’s taller. Two shaved heads scrape against the ceiling. Tall guy has a tattoo on his fucking face, the bottom half of a playing card coming down from his cheekbone. It’s the four of clubs. He’s wearing a Tyvek jumpsuit but it’s tailored like it’s fucking fashion. He looks like an auto body painter got real confused and went to dinner some place expensive.
The other one, the real tall fucker, he’s wearing a goddamn navy blazer on top of a heather-gray hoodie. The blazer’s gone snowy around the shoulders from dandruff. The hoodie looks like it’s got butter smeared on the zipper. Camo cargo shorts over chewed-pencil legs.
The face tattoo dipshit holds something in each hand.
In the left, a serving fork.
In the right, I don’t know what the fuck that is. Maybe an ice-cream scoop got fucked by a chisel.
They’re both dripping with albino Starburst.
Blood’s smeared under both their noses.
“Someone paid G to drug you,” the tall one says.
“Someone paid us to fuck you up,” taller one says.
“Looks like it’s going to be harder than we thought.”
Face tattoo gives hoodie blazer the weird chisel scoop thing.
“That’s gonna be all right,” they sing, together, their voices going high without breaking.
Guy that sells the shot, he can’t tell you what it will do.
You might get strong, you might die.
You take the risk and you wait to see what’s on the other end.
But when I was in
(not the Land of Closed Doors)
When I was in
(you leave something there)
I talked to a guy who talked to a guy.
Smits, he had a nose like a pear you dropped on gravel, he knew a thing or two. We thought
(the whole crew)
We thought he was full of shit
We thought he was full of shit, and the stories
(as many stories as doors)
The stories he told were fucking wild.
(as many doors as Doors)
So when I got out.
It was time to see a guy who could see a guy.
Fuck you and everyone like you, memories.
The two dipshits work on me a little bit more.
I let them.
When my skin gets hot all over, I figure it’s time.
Face tattoo has sweat rolling down his forehead, gathering up at the peak of his nose. His eyebrows are wires. He leans against the wall with that fucking serving fork in his back pocket. The one in the hoodie’s sitting on an overturned five gallon bucket. I don’t know where it came from. He’s wiping his hands on his cargo shorts. There are tooth marks in the side of his left knee.
I pull against the zip ties holding me back. There’s more than one. When they start to cut into my skin, I smell a stranger glaring at you from the other side of the street. Something goes loose. Zip ties don’t resist. My hands are free.
I stand up.
I roll my shoulders.
Pop my neck.
The dudes are where they were.
The zip ties crackle and burn.
“Tell me what I need to know,” I say.
My voice is one-half a pair of scissors.
The two guys look at me. Melodies crisscrossing behind their eyes.
Blazer’s hands shake, just a little.
“Buyer said not to answer any questions,” blazer says.
“Don’t worry,” I say.
I crack each finger in turn.
“I’m not asking any.”
One day in Free Association, Piller comes in to our billet, half out of breath. He says the suits are coming and they want volunteers.
The suits line up real pretty, can’t make specifics, but say their promises are good.
None of us volunteer. But we don’t get a say, McMardo’s already made the arrangements.
We don’t say goodbye to our shit, because they say we’re coming back.
(“you’re coming back”)
I can see his fucking face.
I can see his fucking face.
It gets real mean.
I’m on face tattoo before he can scream. I tear his arm off at the elbow.
Rainbow light spills out of it, and when it hits the ground, it puddles up into glowing ladybugs and bears no bigger than my thumbnail.
They’ve had the shots, too.
I don’t have to hold back.
The end of the first day the suits put us in a blank room. No doors, no beds, just light. The walls are soft, but there’s no shadows.
Whatever we saw, it’s different for each.
Wisdom’s busted up inside. The lenses have switched. His glasses are the wrong way.
But then, so are his eyes.
Raceland can’t talk, either. He just whispers, like the beginnings to a lot of different words.
Altun holds his head in his hands. He’s trying to push his scalp through his palms.
Visser hums. His whole body hums. He vibrates. I can’t feel it through the floor. Just when I put a hand against his arm.
The five of us hold each other in the blank white room.
Until they make us do it again.
It takes the better part of the night.
But I get it.
Like I promised.
No questions asked.
Basement’s covered in rainbow light and fine sand.
The taller one (Milton Skone) lies in a heap at the far corner. The tall one (Bellow) is at my feet.
“How long,” Bellow says. It’s hard to make out.
The card’s gone.
I wait him out.
“Long you,” he gasps. “Had. The shot.”
“Maybe a day.”
He bubbles. “It buh…” He makes a noise. Not a sneeze, not a cough, not a rachet falling down a drain. “Burn you. Out. Burn out what. You got. In you.”
I shake him loose. He splashes down.
“You. Burn out. Soon.” He mewls. “Can’t. Have much left.”
I take the door off its hinges. There’s a narrow staircase, molding blue carpet, and a bare forty-watt hanging from a cord in the ceiling.
I head up the stairs.
Bellow, I haven’t even started.
I walk back to G’s. The streets flee before me. Sidewalks are all empty and the lampposts are all dark.
With Skone brothers blood drying down, my hands look like they've been soaked in Fun Dip.
The rest of me must look like that, too.
When I get to G’s, she's not happy to see me.
She locks herself in the walk-in freezer.
“I don't want to hurt you, G,” I tell her. My fists leave craters in the stainless. “I just want to talk!”
There’s hysterical sobbing. The kind that makes you think you're going to throw up, you're crying so hard.
“Open the door,” I ask.
“You’re—” she sobs. Only it comes out like yuuur.
I wait for a moment. My fists ping as they cool.
“YOU’RE NOT JERZY,” she screams through the door.
“I don’t want to do this.” I scratch my throat good.
I start singing.
One of the songs I heard, when I was in—
(the Land of Closed Doors the Land of Closed Doors the Land of Closed Doors the Land of Closed Doors the Land of Closed Doors)
—that other place.
I only sing a little.
No more than a couple notes.
She opens the door.
Her skin is blotchy. It’s covered with tattoos of flower petals, animal trunks, the tracks of long tentacles. Where her skin is dark, it is volcano glass. Where the patterns lie, it’s the white of electric piano keys. Her eyes are swollen. There’s spots of blood on her cheeks, but I can hear the blood’s not hers.
Wisdom broke first, then Raceland.
Altun was next.
Visser just hummed for awhile. He seemed like he was okay. We’d get back from—
(don’t fucking do it)
(don’t fucking do it)
of Closed Doors)
—where we’d get back from, and we’d be in the white room, all of us knotted up and holding each other like babies. I remember. Raceland in the middle mewing like a kitten. Wisdom’s eyes messed up again. The good one an ocean at night full of light-up stars you stick on the ceiling. Altun with his back to us. He had to face out. He’d press against us and press against us, but we wouldn’t move. We’d just bend. Visser up against my side. Buzzing like a washing machine full of bricks. Altun would cry and cry.
We’d hold each other as long as we could.
Then they’d make us go back.
“It was bad,” G says. She tells, she asks.
I don’t have words. I try to speak and bits of moss, small animal bones, specks of scratched coins will fall out. So I nod, but G’s not listening.
“It didn’t take long.” G picks at the edge of some piano-key skin on the back of her hand. If she stays silent, orange juice dribbles out of the corner of her mouth. “Couple days after the news broke.”
I work a finger into the corner of my mouth, try to dig out a lichen from my back teeth.
“Didn’t matter who it was.” G shivers, all over, like she’s on a tv with shitty reception. “They’d pay for people who took the shots.”
I put my hands over my face, like I’m wearing glasses.
She’s confused. She coughs, and juice snakes up. “Fuck,” she says. Wiping it off with the back of her hand. “Fuck.”
I point to the doors.
“Yeah. They provided the bouncers.”
I drag my hands through the air in front of me.
“Yeah.” G looks down. “That one softens them up. It doesn’t always work. The other guy does it the hard way.”
I wipe my spitty finger against my pants leg. Bellow’s blood smears around into a paint stripe.
“They didn’t pay me,” G says. She doesn’t look at me. Like I give a fuck. “They didn’t. It was—I had to, Jerzy. I had to. Town’s different, since you been gone.”
I lick my finger. I spell out my question on the floor of the club in Skone brothers blood.
She looks at the name. “McMardo? Who’s—”
I push my finger against her lips.
No questions asked.
We sit on the floor and she talks, and I don’t listen, and it’s just like last time.
She gets around to it, when she gets around to it.
Where he lives.
She promises to take me there, but I don’t want her to.
She draws a map, in Skone brothers blood, on the floor.
First she tries it silent. Then she almost drowns in orange juice. So she talks while she does it. About people she remembers, from before she met me.
The map’s big, and fucking complicated.
I study it.
And try to zone her out.
She keeps talking.
They had to send people in, the last time.
Big motherfuckers with blank faces. Not blank expressions. Just plain skin stretched out. One each. Picked us up by the arms and dragged us, like they were made of rushing water. I swung at one. The motherfucker holding Visser. He was closest. I swung at the back of his skull and the shitty mustard-colored fringe of hair that sat at the back of his neck. Punch was wild but it had force, and it connected and that’s the important part, you may not know it but all the movies and tv shows have lied to you, you give a good shot to the back of a man’s neck and he’ll die, just pitch forward like a fuckin sawn tree in your neighbor’s yard, and he’ll be dead before he hits, one good shot to the neck and it’s lights out forever, and you think when the tingle goes back up your arm through the elbow oh fuck I didn’t even get him that bad, but there he goes, and when he hits he’ll bust up his face and start bleeding all the fuck over the bleachers, and you’ll be like, this is the shit? this is what fucking does it? and that mustard-yellow fringe carpet burned the back of my knuckles, and that’s the only way I knew I hit him, because otherwise it was like punching a water column.
Whole time he’s watching.
I couldn’t see it in his eyes, because I couldn’t see his eyes. Like they were holes and a whole bunch of light was falling out through them.
I know McMardo wanted to get us.
His house is out in the suburbs.
It takes a while to walk it.
The streets are mine. The night’s dark, and the moon hides.
Dust comes off me. I leave footsteps glowing softly behind me, so I can find my way home, or at least back to G’s.
Don’t wait up.
I see him through the bay window
(I see his fucking face)
he’s reading a book in a leather chair. It would be normal—I wonder if it is, to anyone else?—but he’s in a room with the lights off, and all the bookshelves are empty, and there’s a whistle like a train engine a few miles away. Up and down the street, all the houses are empty. I can smell the silence, I can feel it on the backs of my hands, like dust after fine sanding a door you promised your mom you’d fix up. The street lights burn here. Silver light spills out. It’s warm, in the night, but I don’t see moths or mosquitoes or anything flying around the bulbs. I just taste the shadow flutter of a bat circling the neighborhood, starving to death.
He’s sitting in that fucking chair, with a red leather book in his lap, and his glasses perched on his nose, and his eyes are holes with bright burning light falling out.
I stand on the street. My fists crack, my skin goes hot and soft.
I got plenty left to burn.
McMardo licks a fingertip, folds a page over. He closes the book with a snap and it’s the only sound for miles.
He raises his hand, and he waves, like to say, Howdy, neighbor.
Don’t mind if I do.
I climb the steps and this close to the house the air throbs, it fucking pulses, and the air when it moves past me feels like the scent of sheets left in the closet and pulled down when the old lady who owns the place dies, it pulses past me, and then it feels like the sound of the hospital hallway after hours, it comes back into the house. Breathe in, breathe out, motherfucker.
Door’s already open (door or Door?) so I push it with the back of my hand (careful, bro) but I don’t feel anything trip. It slides on its hinges.
My blood’s singing, my blood’s up, but McMardo’s still got his ass in that leather chair, and this is what I fucking came here for.
I step inside.
The goons pushed us in, one at a time.
Wisdom’s a sack of broken things, he slides out of hands as if he’s boneless.
Raceland’s jabbering a thousand miles an hour. He pushes back, he leans against the hands thrusting him forward, the fucker just keeps pushing like he’s an avalanche and can’t stop.
Altun… that big bastard fights like all he’s got left in him is fight. Swinging and swinging until his knuckles are skinned and bloody. Each punch after the next hurts him even more but he won’t fucking stop until he’s got no hands. Something about the big guy pushing him. Something about him is wrong. Not just the fucker not having a face. That part we’d gotten used to. Something else.
Visser kept humming. Like the biggest goddamn drill ever made. A hum like the coldest night in the loneliest world there could ever be. The goon pushing him through, his hands started to smoke. But they put him through.
They put them all through.
McMardo’s all smiles and smashed up glass. Something’s fucked with the light in here—what little light there is—it’s all falling out of his eyes. Where he points them, lit up like spotlights on the exercise yard that night the moon never came out. The edge of his silhouette is bouncing around.
“Mr. Kasparys,” he says. He has too many teeth in his mouth. “I know why you’re here.”
My fists are hot. My nails have grown back full-length and they bite my palms. Feels like lemonade with no sugar.
McMardo nods. Half-nods. His head goes down, but his chin shifts right, like he’s seen it on tv but never done it. His outline writhes.
“Fuck you,” I say.
He makes a sound. A shitty Xerox of a laugh. “You’ve been there, Mr. Kasparys. And now you’re here. I know what you want. I can read it all over you. It’s always the same, with your kind.”
You got to have a project, to keep yourself together, when you’re in.
Something to put yourself in to. So you don’t get lost.
I’m on the motherfucker. Like a shadow, like a light. I heat up my hands real good on his fucking skull, it rings like a bell with every shot, I leave albino Starburst smeared across his face.
You got to keep it real secret.
The chair’s knocked over. We’re on the floor. I keep swinging, and my hands burn now, and McMardo’s got his back against the floor, and he’s singing, and I know this song, I heard it on the radio in the workshop.
Because people will try to take it away from you.
I fall off him.
My hands ache. My arms wrecked up to the biceps, weak and runny and a thousand degrees. Heat shimmers around me and it looks like the taste of a crumbling highway. Drag my fingers across the floor leaving scorch marks and white goo that hardens like plastic.
My project was simple.
McMardo’s right where he was. His whole body a cracked pane of glass. Light falls up out of his eyes toward the ceiling. There’s streaks of all different colors in there. Swirls around like the sound of an ambulance several blocks away. All of him moving pieces, all of him jittering. Like a subwoofer covered in metal shavings.
Or a seashore made of ants.
I don’t know what the others saw.
Of Closed Doors.
I just know what I saw.
McMardo lies there. His mouth is open. It doesn’t move but I hear something breathing further in.
“Talk, motherfucker,” I say.
A seam opens up between his bottom lip and his chin. Splits, an overripe tomato, and a new mouth appears. The old one closes up, the scar becomes a mustache made out of chalk dust and crumpled feathers.
“You can’t solve all your problems with violence, Mr. Kasparys,” he says.
I didn’t know which one. But behind one of the closed Doors, there had to be
I beat him until my arms are nothing but albino Starburst, all the way past my elbows.
“I’m afraid you’ll leave empty-handed,” McMardo says. Making another mouth, the old one misshapen, and when it closes it leaves behind scraps of sheet music scrawled with green crayon.
“No I won’t,” I say. I’m breathing hard, panting. Eyes leaking water. Stomach’s filled with glue and hornets.
The last time.
I found it.
McMardo lurches upright. Every part of him is black as coal, and shaking, his outline breaking up and reforming, like looking down a kaleidoscope at a strobe light. “You’re very strong, Mr. Kasparys. Your recent enhancements are very promising. But it’s not a matter of your strength, or your will. It’s the conditions of my employment. I have obligations.” His eyes vomit blue-green sparks. “Frankly, I’m disappointed in you.”
“Not. A fighter,” I pant.
Hard as the lightning buzzed inside me. Hot as it burned.
I’ve got nothing left.
I should say.
My last time.
Because I left them there.
McMardo’s got his face up close to mine. Each edge of him a smashed up mirror, a waving tentacle, the ragged cloth of a torn-up flag. His eyes burn me. “Let me tell you something,” he says. Past his too-many teeth is a throat slimy with glowing green algae. “You have only yourself to blame. That’s your problem. All of you.”
“racis,” I whisper. Smoke between my lips.
“Please.” McMardo waves an indistinct arm. “Justice is colorblind, Mr. Kasparys. So am I. I’m not talking about your skin. I’m talking about character. All inmates are the same. You refuse to accept your responsibilities. You’d rather be angry, lash out, nurture your petty aggressions. So much energy is lost!”
He looks away. Where the light falls, I see things, projected, upside-down and hazy. I recognize parts of the facility. A few faces. I see—a family, in this house, they all look like McMardo, none of them have shining eyes.
“My employers, they believed you had promise, Mr. Kasparys. They will be disappointed, when I tell them you didn’t live up to it.”
He reaches for my face. His fingers split into a million threads of wriggling shadows. “I will tell your friends that you died a coward.”
“They’re—” I start.
I almost ask.
But I can’t. Not with battery acid in my heart.
McMardo nods. “Yes, Mr. Kasparys. The inmates you wish to avenge are still alive.”
I explode, inside.
I croak. “You think I have promise.”
McMardo shrugs. “Not all theses are born out under experimental conditions.”
“I’ll do it,” I say.
“You’ll…” McMardo brings his hand back. The creeping worms knit themselves back together, into sooty fingers. “You don’t know what you’re agreeing to. That’s not even negotiating, Mr. Kasparys. My employers will always cash a blank check.”
“I’ll do it,” I say again.
I swallow back bile and harmonies of sad songs.
“I’ll go back in.”
McMardo stoops to pick up the red leather book from the floor. Its cover soaked with albino Starburst. “You must have conditions.”
“Let them go.”
“My friends,” I say, my teeth grinding against each other, sandpaper against shards of glass.
“Say their names.” McMardo holds a finger over a page in the leather book. His skin cracks with frost.
“Wisdom,” I say. Choking. “Raceland. Altun. And Visser.”
“You’ll do anything,” he asks, he tells. “In return for their release. Up to, and including, going back. There.”
I say, “No questions asked.”
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