I used to like killing. I liked it a lot. And I was good at it, once I really figured it out. You see, the trouble in taking a life for me wasn’t the death. I didn’t love blood, but I could stomach it enough to get the job done. For me, it was the creative aspect, the method. I quickly got bored with the single shot to the head. While it is the most efficient, it’s highly monotonous. Besides, blood is one thing, brains are another, so switching it up every once in a while was advantageous. I always figured it would come back to haunt me, but I never guessed it would be in this way.
Recently I died. You know what they say, can’t be number one for long, number two is always gunning for you. I guess in this case it was more car bombing for me, but you get the gist.
I had gotten to be rather decorated in my career. Did two tours in Afghanistan and came back with few applicable skills, fewer friends, and a fifth-a-night, smoke myself into a stupor case of PTSD. Now please don’t think that PTSD and killing go hand in hand, I was a murderer before I went into the army, they just didn’t know. The training honed those skills, but made me utterly useless in a civilian job. .
I started being a gun for hire in my teens. It was more than a career, it was a lifestyle. I lived in the bad part of the neighborhood, where even the bullies from the rough part refused to spend any time. There used to be a joke about getting shot every time you walked out your door, but we had to stop saying it when it started to be true. Guns were a common part of life. You could check most trunks and they were filled with glocks, shotguns, and semis. Shit, if you knew where to go you could find AKs, grenades, and pipe bombs. I’ve even seen a few hatchets and, of course, each car was also selling an assortment of drugs. It was a crazy time growing up. I had several friends who didn’t make it to middle school.
When I was on the block, I killed mostly junkies. Folks who were supposed to pay up, but “innocently” forgot and missed their deadline. So I remembered for them.
I got paid good money, though it wasn’t ever enough to get out. The connections were all invested in making their dime and they paid out for it. I started with intimidation, showing up at 3am in your apartment for reminders, the removal of a finger or two when you tried to play me. That was interesting, but I started to pick up kill jobs after not too long. The money was better and the jobs were quicker. I didn’t have to clean up, that was someone else’s buck.
The first few jobs I did went terribly. Thank God I never got caught. I left more than enough evidence for the cops to convict me, but they never seemed to chase me. One of my mentors told me that the pigs didn’t come down this far on the road. There was a rumor that the folks from the neighborhood would jack and strip their wagons every time they did, and the city told them to stop showing up, they couldn’t afford any more police cars.
Despite my naivete, I was a quick learner and found ways to make things easier on myself. I had a hard time looking at faces at first, so that single shot to the back by the river was perfect. As I grew, the faces stopped bothering me and I started to branch out. I kept a notebook of all the different ways I discovered I could kill a person; cool shit like dropping bricks, hungry rats, or poison. The list went on and on. Which brings me to where I’m at now.
As I said, I died recently, and in my last moments, I remember thinking ‘Hell’s going to be a piece of cake compared to this world’. I was very wrong.
I woke to find myself fully formed, the same age as when I died. I was relieved, I’m sure the explosion left me looking pretty rough, but the broken mirror on the wall of wherever I was showed my wispy gold brown hair, my furry eyebrows, and cool green eyes intact. I actually looked pretty well rested. The dark black bags that had annexed my eyes were gone, and a few of the creases around my mouth from years of Pall Mall Menthols disappeared. I even had a tooth regrow that I lost ice skating with my little sister. See, I wasn’t always such a bad guy.
The room I found myself in was small but comfortable, other than the fact that it didn’t have any windows or doors. The broken mirror was on one side, and an unlit fireplace on the other. There was a desk on the far end with two chairs, one on either side. I went over and found a few books placed on the desk: Toni Morrison’s Sula and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. I picked up Sula and scanned through the pages. The book was largely empty, the sentences all erased, teasingly. I flipped and found one single word randomly placed on various pages, Hell. I picked up the other novel and found the same occurrence. Someone really wanted to make a point here. Luckily for me, I’ve never been much of a reader.
Suddenly the fireplace lit. Large flames began leaping and smoke filled the room. Then, she was there. A young woman; not too tall, not too short. She was dark and had short curly hair. Her features were sharp, pointed, with large brown eyes. She looked both scared and dominant. She stood erectly, silent.
“That’s a neat little trick you got there. This is… uh, not exactly the place I’d expect to meet a beautiful woman, but…” I smiled, she did not. “I’m Char…”
What the fuck? That bitch shot me!
I woke up in the same room; same broken mirror, empty fireplace, same desk. However, upon closer inspection, I see that the books today are different. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd and Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Similarly, the pages in these books were missing the majority of their words. The only one I could find was ‘loss’.
Within moments the fireplace sputtered and coughed more smoke. Before I knew it, she was there in front of me, just as silent as before.
“Hey,” I say hesitantly.
I don’t want this chick to go after me again on some rampage, but before I could get out anything more, she raised her arm, gun in hand, and shot me in the stomach.
I fell to the ground gripping and gagging on the pain.
“What the hell was that for, huh?”
Silence. She raised the gun to my head.
“Please, no! Just talk…”
We go on like this for what feels like years. Everyday is the same. Wake up alone, wait the five minutes for her to arrive, then die. Always in silence. Well, hers anyway, I keep on chatting. I’ve taken to calling her Angel Baby, which she loathes. I see her cringe every time I say it. Until she tells me differently, this is her name now.
Angel Baby seems to be getting more creative in her killing of me. She moved from guns to knives and has enjoyed cutting me in various ways.
“Knife sharp today Angel Baby?”
Silence. Man this is getting tedious.
One morning, instead of waiting patiently to see what fresh hell she’ll serve up to me today, I sat in the chair behind the desk and opened up one of the rotating books. This one was The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and all that is still available to be read is the word fire.
The fireplace comes to life with her arrival and we start.
“Good morning my friend, how are the chambers these days?”
She glares at me.
“Uh huh. Get some good sleep did you? You look rested.”
Nothing. She pulls out her knife. I notice she doesn’t gleam it in front of me in some sadistic parade of murder fantasy. She just holds it knowing the job needs to be done. I realize too, that I’ve been letting her kill me. It was different when she had a gun. It’s a little room and there’s really no escaping her. The knives were avoidable though. Why haven’t I been fighting back?
So I tried it. When she came towards me I threw the book at her. Surprised, she took a step back, obviously not having considered that at some point I might retort.
Every advance she made I made in the opposite direction. Each step led us both together and further apart. She tried to jump over the desk, but I pushed her down. In the process she clipped my arm, but it wasn’t bleeding badly enough to distract me.
“Angel Baby, let me ask you a question. How long have you been in this room, torturing poor souls like me.”
She angrily swiped her knife at my neck and barely missed. I fell back and quickly bounced up and out of the way of another thrust.
“Do you like it down here? I can imagine the solitude is nice, but the humidity is a bitch!”
Another swipe and miss. She was fuming, but holding her tongue and looking for the best position to capture me in.
“Do you know any other women around here? You’re too quiet for my liking. Plus I love a girl with big…”
“Will you shut up.”
BAM! Her words startled me long enough for her to get a stiff jab to my neck. I can feel the blood flowing down my throat as I fall into a sitting position. It is painful and I can feel the lights fading. Until tomorrow.
“So you gonna talk to me again?”
“Come on, now I know you’ve got pipes. Give me something.”
“… Why did you run last time?”
“Oh whoa! Can’t even be friendly enough to ask me something about me, who I am, first huh?”
“I don’t care who you are.”
“Well shit. Ok. I ran because… I guess I hadn’t thought to before.”
“You can’t leave. There’s no way out.”
“Oh yeah? And where do you come from in that fireplace?”
“You either don’t know or you can’t tell me. Which is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you die too?”
“I don’t know.”
“So, what now?”
She pulls out the knife again.
“Are you ready?”
“And what happens after you kill me?”
“Let me guess, you don’t know”
“Why do you care?”
“I want to know what you do, Angel Baby. After you take care of me do you go off to some other furnace? Do someone else in? Another room with no window or doors?”
“No? Okay then, so what?”
“Yes. In here.”
I look around. That must be the reason for the desk.
“So what’s up with the books?”
She lets her head fall and I swear I see a tear drop onto her leg.
“I love to read.”
“But these books are all empty.”
She shakes a little, lifts her head and shows me those tears I saw before.
“I know. I guess that’s part of my punishment.”
I didn’t even consider the fact that she was being tortured just as much as I was.
“So, you’re here, what, all day? Are there days here?”
“Yes. You die and I sit. At some point you disappear and the fire turns on. I walk into the flame, through to the next… day, I suppose. And there you are, waiting. Like it never even happened.”
“Yeah, I guess. So, can we get this over with?”
“One last question. How did you know to do all this?”
She knelt down and opened one of the drawers in the desk. She pulled out a black and white composition notebook, which I instantly recognized. It was my book, my list of ways to kill a contract.
“It’s the only thing with more than three words around here.”
She smiles and hands it to me. I flip through the pages remembering each and every mode and method. It’s all there written down like a goddamn instruction manual. Fitting as that’s what it’s become.
In the front there’s a note not in my handwriting. Conduct the following, is all that says.
“Where did this come from?” I hold up the note.
“I don’t know.”
“I didn’t write this.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, that is interesting. Who gives out the demands around here?”
She sighed and shrugged as she stood up, knife still in hand.
I sigh too, what else can I do?
“Sure Angel Baby, go ahead.”
“Why do you call me Angel Baby?”
“Because you won’t tell me your actual name.”
“Yes, but, why did you start talking to me at all? I was content to be in silence.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve always had a big mouth. Plus, I am stuck in a room getting killed everyday in some variation of my own mind. I wanted to know what was going on.”
We had taken to chatting in the mornings, finding bits and pieces of each other after these terrible days. It was comforting to have her, despite the fact that by the end of our conversation I had her knife in my neck, or was savagely beaten to death with the table lamp.
Today, she was binding my legs with a thick rope. The smell of the fire and cord together were making me sick; or perhaps it was the fact that I knew what was coming.
“I remember this one.”
“Huh?” She looked up from my feet.
“Blue Segay. He was later in my career when I had really gotten bored. I was struggling and I think this method hurt the worst.”
“Hurt who? Him?”
I went on to tell her about Blue, a short skinny guy who was starting to sell his goods in a competitor’s terrain. He went up against the one connect who didn’t care to talk it out or try to discuss things. It was his way and his way only.
She griped at my cool head around such a conversation.
“It’s all I know, money and murder. I’ve been doing it all my life.”
“So what made this round different? You’ve never been able to put a name to your days here in Hell.”
I thought a minute.
“I don’t know. This kid was… just a kid I guess. It was the first time I remember thinking maybe he didn’t deserve it. He was just a kid.”
“And you killed him horribly.”
“Yes. Then I almost killed myself.”
Angel Baby looked stunned at that, but stayed quiet for me to continue.
“I took all the money I got from that hit and gave it to a food pantry in Blue’s neighborhood. Thought that would help me clear him from my mind, but it didn’t help at all. Not long after, I took all the money I had and gave it away, sometimes to individuals, sometimes to organizations throughout the country. I needed it out of my bank and out of my life. I actually started to donate everything I was making.”
“Did that help?”
“No. It all felt blank, numb. I couldn’t give enough to account for the terror and trauma I was causing. Of course to the person I was going after, but even more I started to see it in the neighborhood and environment I was perpetuating.
After moving the money didn’t help, I tried to donate my time as well. I worked at an afterschool program as a mentor.”
At that, Angel Baby snickered with a disgusted tone. She knew the idea of me tutoring children was a bust, both for them and me.
“I know, I shouldn’t have gone in that direction. What kids had to learn from me, they shouldn’t be learning. It was the only thing I could think of doing. But I had to stop after one kid got to me.”
“He asked me about the afterlife funny enough.”
“Like Heaven and Hell?”
“Yeah, just asked me right off the bat where I thought people went when they died. It caught me completely off guard.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him I didn’t know. Told him to stop spending so much time thinking about stuff like that. You know what he said to me?”
“He told me that when someone dies he thought they went right back into something else on Earth. He said you could come back as a cat or a blade of grass until you die again and then jump into something else. He called it The Great Transition. I thought he was full of it and told him so, told him that when you die you just die and there’s no more breathing, chewing, or fucking. Just death.”
“And what did he say to that? Stand up.” She had finished the bindings on my legs and moved onto my chest
“He told me,” I say, shaking my head, “that his brother, Blue, had just been killed, and that he was going to come back to be with him. He told me that he was going to get a dog or a fish and that this would be his older brother in a new form.”
At that I choked. I remembered the pain of my purpose draining from my body. Remembered the sensation of nausea and love playing bongos on my intestines.
“I wanted so badly to reach out and give this kid a hug, but I couldn’t touch him.”
“Because of the program rules?”
“No, because of me. I… I couldn’t even put my hand on his shoulder. I didn’t want any of me on him, taint the purity of his life with the destitute of my own, poison his peaceful mind. Neither did I want any more of his energy in me. It might take me over the edge, I was already feeling too much.”
Angel Baby finished the chest straps and started to tell me the next steps.
“I know what comes next, honey.”
I laid on the ground and she hoisted the rope to pull me upside down. It took her longer than it had taken me with the boy, he weighed less though he struggled more. I would have helped out, but my arms were glued to my sides.
Finally she got me all the way up. I was swinging by my feet, head barely missing the floor. The blood was trying to rush to my head, but with all the bindings I had on it remained where it was. My feet were going numb and my heart was beating double time trying to reach them. Oh this was painful, but no more than my confession. Angel Baby picked up the remainder of the rope which had a large knot on one end. I remember the feel of that rope in my hand: rough, heavy. I wanted it. I was already hurting. It hurt to breathe, the air didn’t take into my lungs as my ribs refused to expand. My head started pounding as the first blow hit me.
Right to my side. I coughed and choked on my own struggle. I could feel my body shaking with the pain. Everything, everywhere hurt. I looked up at Angel Baby and she was crying.
“Don’t cry, please.”
BAM! Another hit, this one to my face.
BAM! Another to my stomach. It sent me spinning in the air where she could land blows to my back, legs, and head. Her hits were frantic, she was trying to speed up the process. Good for her, take care of yourself.
“You want to know why I call you Angel Baby?” I say through wheezes.
Silence, but I could see her eyes, tortured.
“Because I know you are no demon.”
“What do you think would happen if we just refused to ‘conduct?”
“Like if you stopped killing me?”
“Or even if I refused to step into the flames.”
She was getting excited. In her time alone with my corpse, Angel Baby had thought up a plan.
“I guess I don’t get it, what do you think would happen?”
She frantically ran around the room, easing her anxiety through movement.
“I mean there must be a way out right?”
“You were the one who said there wasn’t.”
“I know, but… maybe I was wrong. I mean I keep thinking about that kid. Blue’s brother?”
I nodded my head.
“What if he was right, the great transition moves us from one form to another. What if this is just one more form we could take? Death doesn’t kill us, instead we rejuvenate like when on Earth we slept!”
“I’m not sure I ever felt any real rejuvenation after sleeping, but I guess I see where you’re going.”
“You defy sleep when you stay up all night. Maybe we can defy death by refusing to ‘conduct’.”
“Death, in our case, equals continued life?”
“So by obscuring death…”
“Maybe we die.”
“It’s getting late.”
“How can you tell?”
“I sit here all day. I know when it’s coming, I can feel it. It’s getting late.”
“What do we do if nothing happens?”
“I don’t know, I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”
She paced anxiously around the room and stopped to peer into the broken mirror. I see her push a bit of her wild hair out of her even wilder eyes. She was terrified. In honesty, so was I. What was the likelihood of making it out of this day without any consequences?
“Can I ask you another question?”
“Of course. Whether or not I answer is another thing entirely.”
“What’s your question?”
“How did you know to step into the fireplace?”
“There was another note in the back of the book.”
“What did it say?”
“It just gave the instructions.”
“To walk into the fire?”
“Yeah, sort of.”
“Don’t worry about it, it was just a note.”
“Yeah, but what did it say exactly?”
“Nothing, it just gave the instructions, ok forget it.”
“Come on, I know you’re lying. What did the note say?”
She turned her back to me and dropped her head.
“It said, ‘kill yourself daily.’”
“Yes. That’s how I originally died.”
“Oh… I didn’t realize.”
“I didn’t really want you to know.”
“Why? I’ve practically bared my soul to you. Why would you keep this from me?”
“I was ashamed. Not to tell you, but when I did it. Ashamed of who I was.”
“And who were you?”
“I… I was nothing, no one: angry, envious, impatient, impractical, and lazy. My existence was only ever harmful to others.”
“Whoa, where did that come from?”
“I just know it was true.”
“So, that’s why you killed yourself? Come on, I need more than that.”
“Look, I used to be a social worker for Child Protective Services. I did my job blindly without ever questioning anything. There was a certain protocol, a list of reasons we would come into different families’ lives, and I would follow it to a T. Sometimes we would provide simple resources like food, education, cribs even. However, there were other times when we would take children altogether. We took them from their people, their communities and threw them into this system, a hungry ghost, never satisfied.
There was one kid in particular for me too. When I first started my position, I took a baby out of a house. She was placed with a foster care family miles away from the parents and there was a court hearing for custody. I will never forget how she screamed, the mom, when the judge ruled against the family. I visited them a few weeks later and found mom devoid of everything. Like an empty shell she walked around the house mumbling and asking where her child had gone. The case stuck with me, but I did my job faithfully. I believed in the system, that it was only ever there to help and provide.”
“But that’s not the case?”
She shook her head and continued.
“I used to take my paychecks and do all the things I loved: yoga, art, reading – I loved books and had hundreds around. I would save up and take vacations, buy jackets from pricey stores simply because I could. I even drove up to the homes of people who had everything taken from them by my system in a flashy, fancy car. I had everything I wanted, except I never seemed to be happy. There was something wrong, out of place that I wasn’t seeing.
Until one day I met that first child I had taken from her parents. I was in a different service position, but I recognized her name. She was six. She looked so similar to myself, brown eyes and curly hair. Her case landed back into my hands after her school discovered that she had been raped by her foster father. I started to question what was going on. I studied the history of not only my system, but of myself, my people. I realized the expansive issues that the system was meant to take care of were actually created by it in the first place. The more I learned, the deeper the work cut into me. I realized how my failure to think for myself, to analyze situations with my own intuition, was hurting others.
My sadness now had some meaning and reason behind it. I tried to discuss it with co-workers, but none of them could or would allow themselves to go there. I couldn’t handle it. I was torn up about the harm and terror I had perpetuated in these communities. How hard I worked to not see it, to shelter my mind with the fantasy of books, buying, and believing that all was well, that the past had gone and we were together building the future. The little girl, without knowing who I was, told me that the one thing she had always wanted was her real family, to know where she came from. That hit me. I couldn’t take the anger I was feeling, the despair.
So one night, I gathered everything I had. I pulled my car into my garage and laid my pricey jackets out on the bed along with all my other clothes. I went through the house and plugged in every electrical thing I could find. I turned on Norah Jones, a favorite of mine, as I went through and dumped gasoline and alcohol on all my things. I lit a match and threw it onto the drenched clothing on my bed. It ignited quickly and as the flames rose higher, I stepped onto it. My pyre.”
She sat back into her chair, it was the first time she’d stopped moving all day. Her head heavy in her hands, she fought back tears.
Antsy, I picked up a book on the desk, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. In flipping through the pages, the only word I could find was compassion.
I stood up and walked slowly to her chair. I found my arm around her shoulders and drew her in.
“We’re going to be ok.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t, but I figure we’re in this together.”
“Has the fireplace always been on?”
The stacked charred wood had ignited and was continuously getting bigger.
“Oh, no! It’s starting. What do we do?”
“Throw water on it”
“Have you seen any water since you got here?”
“Again, do you know where you are?”
The flames kept growing until they spilled over onto the floor below. The room was beginning to heat up as the fire spread to all corners. I could feel it lick at my feet.
“What do we do now?”
She looked surrendered, conceding to the ultimate reality that they would die despite their efforts not to. She closed her eyes and I watched her take a few steps towards the inferno.
“Angel Baby, no!”
I grabbed her back into my embrace. She was distant, dissociated, numb. I was burning, the pain was unlike any she had ever dealt me. I realized she died this way every day. Her pain was much more intense than my own.
“It didn’t work. Whatever oversees us has realized we didn’t complete our cycles. It’s stepping in to take care of what we would not.”
I held her closer, trying as hard as I could to take her pain as much as feel my own. I pressed my cheek into hers to absorb the heat infiltrating our bodies. All I could think about was that one word from the book, compassion. I felt her suffering, I had taken it on to be my own. In that moment, we were one person, one entity, together. What was hers was mine and vice versa. Just when it seemed we couldn’t stand it any further I started to see the lights fade and felt the dizziness of death lay its hand on us.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I whispered into her neck. Then it was dark and I readied myself to wake up.
It was a bright day with a sunshine I hadn’t felt in ages. A crisp breeze wisped through pushing me side to side rubbing against the others next to me. Everything was green except the brown below. My feet dug into the deep dirt and chilled me as the sun beat down with its heat. It wasn’t unpleasant, just two sides of the same coin. Heat and cool. Heat and cool. This was daily, my new day anyway.
Sometimes, there would be a loud noise, a huge humming. Suddenly, I would be chopped in half or at times ripped from the ground all together. Then the night would come and up I would grow again, unharmed, waiting for the heat of the sun.
One day, it didn’t shine. The sky had turned sour and grey. I could smell the anticipation of the green around me, waiting for the relief of thirst to come. The sky opened and down fell the rain. I loved it. It was beauty.
There was something familiar about the landing of each drop. There was an energy to it that I knew, a cool that I could feel pressing into my cheek. As I absorbed the rain into my roots, my blade, I realized what it was.
“Morning Angel Baby, how are the chambers today?”