I slowly trailed my fingers across the desk. I wanted a drink.
That was important. I wanted a drink. I didn’t need it. I never needed to drink. I might want it, I might crave it, I might feel desperate for it. But I didn’t need to drink. No matter what life threw at me, I could face it. I’d promised myself that some time ago. Alcoholism was a common trait in police officers, and more so in my family. There was no need to let it consume me. So instead, I sat with my father’s broken truncheon in my hands, and spoke aloud to my dead father, while he spoke back. Because that was perfectly healthy and sane.
“I can’t stop worrying about them. You know? I keep thinking about them.”
‘Well, they have been hurt before. It’s natural for you to worry. But pain makes you stronger, sometimes. I think you can trust your men to be strong. You can’t be there for them every second. If you try to live your life protecting others, then you’re just going to drive yourself mad, and you won’t be doing them any favors.’
The voice wasn’t quite like my father’s. It was younger than I’d ever remembered him sounding. It sounded eerily similar to my own voice, though still masculine. Maybe like a brother I’d never had. But it sounded about as bone-tired as my dad, at the end.
“It really weirds the shit out of me when you do that,” said Jack, sitting on my desk, frowning at me. Her arms and legs were both crossed, hunching in on herself protectively. She was nervous.
“Watch your language,” I said, giving her a hard look. “And I’m just talking to my night-stick.” I dropped my gaze back down to the nightstick.
‘You can’t trust her to protect you, but you can trust her to work in her own best interests. If you drop her, if you die, Ariel takes her, and breaks her. I don’t think that’s the right thing. But you know me.’
“You were always a softie,” I murmured, staring down at the truncheon.
“That thing’s dead. It’s broken. If it could ever have a Tsukumogami, it can’t anymore.” Jack fidgeted nervously. “Broken tools don’t have a purpose. Broken tools don’t have life. So stop fucking talking to it.”
“It’s still a fond memory,” I said, giving her a dark look. “It’s not my father talking to me. It’s not even the nightstick talking to me. It’s me, talking things through to myself.” I ran my fingers along the wood. “Nothing more. Just me, talking to myself.” I sighed, and looked up. Ariel stood at the entrance to the office. “Well, if it isn’t miss unhelpful.”
“Yes, I’m terribly sorry that my role in balancing the fate of your entire species has inconvenienced you. Imagine, this is time you could be using to hunt down the supernatural equivalent of purse snatchers.” She frowned. “You know, it’s things like this that make it impossible for me to empower you. Have you ever left your comfort zones? You followed the same path your father did, you’ve worked in the same city. Hell, have you ever been outside of New York City?”
“Visited Jersey once.” I sniffed. “They get a bad rap.” I paused for a moment. “A well-deserved one, but still.” I shrugged. “So, in the world of monsters and gods, you have to leave home to be blessed, huh? This guy you’re obsessed with, he left home?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Ariel stared off into space. “He left the prosaic world behind. He stepped into the world of monsters, and gods, and forces of nature. He didn’t know whether there’d be solid ground under his feet, but he kept walking. He had been diagnosed schizophrenic as a child. Can you imagine what that’s like? To live your life, surrounded by chaos and monsters, and to be told by everyone that it’s all a lie, that it’s all just your brain playing tricks on you?”
“I have some experience in that,” I said, frowning.
“You have had your world touched from without. You have felt a raindrop on your head. You have not stepped out into the ocean.”
“Great, fine. So I’m too set in my ways for your blessing. Can I get a second opinion?”
“Four sisters. Four elements. Water requires compassion. Empathy. Love for others. A willingness to sacrifice, and to trust. Forgiveness, above all else. Sitting with someone who had tried to murder you, who had come close to taking your life, and promising to save their child.”
“Sure doesn’t sound like me.” I looked down. I still thought of those men who I had killed. The dozens of men, pawns of the Church of the Survivor, who I had shot. And what had I achieved by doing so? Nothing at all.
“Fire, maybe. She demands a code. A stricture. A morality, that you stick to even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts. A goal that is yours, and yours alone.”
I stared at the truncheon. “Feels like you were all doing everything you could to not help me out. And Earth?”
“To bear the unbearable. To endure the unendurable. To be broken, and be made whole again.”
“Yeah…? So, which of those gifts did this guy get? Air? You decided to share him with War?”
“He took all of them.”
I frowned, lifting my head. “Well, that certainly sounds unfair. You can do that? Just all pile on and help a single person?”
Her fist tightened, and her knuckles popped and crackled. Her teeth clenched. “No. We can’t. We are each of us so different, so tempestuous. For a human to align their thoughts with one of us is an epic task in the true sense of the word. Most heroes only ever do it with one. A rare few might do it with two, over the course of many years. Few live long enough to manage it. He took our gifts, one after another, over the course of four days. Aligning your soul with more than one of us at a time is… dangerous. Like a windmill trying to harness the power of a tornado. It is destroyed by the very thing that gives it power.”
“So…” I frowned. “This guy’s dead?”
“No.” She laughed, resting a hand on her face. I could see she was not smiling. “War discovered an elegant solution to the problem, you see. She flensed his soul away. Drove his mother mad, made him think he was insane, scared away those who might have been his friends, sullied and poisoned his accomplishments. She left him with no connections to the world. No soul, nothing to be torn apart by the power. When he dies, nothing will remain of him. As long as he lives, he can’t be around other people, or he’ll burn up inside. He’s going to be alone until the day he dies, and when he dies, he’ll be gone for good.” Her eyes turned towards Jack Knife. “Just like Jonathan.”
“It’s not my fault,” the knife hissed, quickly moving behind me. “Look, I’m sorry the boy you like went crazy, but you have to stop blaming me. Maybe you should have opened yourself up to him more, huh? Maybe if you didn’t keep running away whenever things got the least bit hard, he’d still be alive, and this guy you like now wouldn’t be flagellating himself for your sake! Maybe, if you were a little less weak-”
A very deadly silence filled the air, and Jack closed her mouth, seemingly at a loss for words. Ariel cracked her neck, and I slid back slightly in my chair, ready to stand. Then she smiled. “You’re right, of course, Jack Knife. War is perceptive in that way. The reason I am here is to try to take one more burden off of his shoulders. I cannot be around him, for fear of giving him a soul, and killing him. Destroying the thing he sacrificed everything for. But maybe, I can make sure that he does not have to suffer forever.” She sighed, and turned her head to me. “And maybe one of my sisters will think you’re worthy. I’ll try to ask them. The reason I tell you all of this is to warn you.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Warn me about what?”
“That man fell in love with War. After everything she did to him, after all he did to stop her, he looked into her heart, and he fell in love with her, and her cause. I don’t know which one of them was corrupted, but be fucking careful with Jack Knife.”
I frowned. “Thanks. I doubt I’ll need that advice, though. Li Fang Fen’s pact has done… a fairly good job of keeping me competitive, so far.” Ariel nodded. “Ariel… What did this man do to make you all so impressed with him?”
“A few things. He swore he’d never kill anyone. He wanted to give everyone a happy ending. That’s the kind of weight he took on his shoulders. Do you really want to live that kind of life? He sure didn’t want anyone else to have to.”
Then she was gone.
“You can see why I have trouble with her, huh?” asked Jack, as I walked towards the subway. She sat in one of my pockets, but was still talking to me. That was unsettling. The broken halves of the tonfa hung from my belt, clicking together occasionally. The sun was still up, but it had been a long day. I was going to catch a few hours sleep, and then ask Hector, Marco, and John about their investigations.
For just a moment, I imagined losing everyone. My father’s tonfa, the Neighborhood Watch, Horace and Betty. I didn’t have many connections in my life. The few I did have were precious. The idea of losing them made my heart ache. The idea of never having them. My fingers tightened around Jack.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said, eyes narrowed.
“You’re thinking about being alone. Aren’t you? I know what it’s like. I hate being alone.” Her voice was very soft. “I’m useless alone.”
“Sounds like co-dependency to me,” I murmured, as I stepped down the stairs to the subway.
“What the hell do you call life? None of us can survive on our own. We’re all dependent on other people. If you want to survive, if you want what matters about you to survive- If that’s kids, or what you believe in, or your religion, or whatever else- you need other people.” She snorted. “You need someone strong. Someone who you can depend on. That’s all I’m looking for, Dane. Someone who’s strong enough for me to trust. I’m not all that bad.”
‘You still broke me.’
“You still broke me- my father’s tonfa.” I frowned. “You can’t expect me to just forgive you for something like that. You made your bed, now you get to lie in it.” I stepped on the platform just as the 2 train was arriving. I jogged forward, and slipped into the car in front of me, taking a seat. It was relatively empty as it started on the long trip back towards the upper west side, where I might spend the evening getting a few hours of fitful sleep. My eyes flicked around the train car. Young and old on their way back from late night work. Cooling down after a long day. The car stopped at the next station, and several more people walked in. I watched them, scanning for trouble.
“Brothers and sisters, we live in a dark time! Cults are on the rise! Old gods are demanding blood!” The man’s left eye twitched. He wore a black jacket, and a white under-shirt, stained with food and neglect. Several days unshaven beard graced his chin. His eyes were rimmed with red, and he was swaying. “The world is going mad, my friends! We are in a time of loss, and sorrow! There is only one rational choice! We must turn to the lord!”
I sighed. People were starting to give the man uncomfortable looks. If there was one way to make New Yorkers nervous, it was to bring up religion in front of them. I considered that thought for a moment, and decided it was a lot less funny after the plague last year. I stood up. “Hey, friend.” I gave him my warmest, most comforting smile. Then he saw the badge and everything went terribly fucking wrong.
His hand lashed out, grabbing the red emergency brake cord. The car heaved violently, and half a dozen standing people were thrown to the ground. I nearly fell with them, grabbing one of the metal poles and hanging off of it desperately. For his part, the preaching nut barely rocked on his heels. That he could keep his feet so easily was suspicious. I reached out towards Li Fang Fen, and prepared myself. The gun came out of his coat, a cheap AR-15, but he held it with a soldier’s practiced aim. “There must be sacrifice!” he roared.
Close quarters. I lunged, and shoved the gun down. There weren’t a lot of good directions for that gun to be pointed in a tunnel, so I went with the simplest. My other hand lashed out, striking for his throat, trying to grab and strangle. He intercepted it with his palm.
I had had a long day. Hell, a long week. I might even call it a long lifetime. The infusion of energy from Li Fang Fen helped, but it couldn’t do all the work of rest and recuperation. Even so, that wasn’t enough to explain all of this. The strength of madmen was proverbial, but he was demonstrating skill along with that. I raised my knee to strike him in the stomach, trying to wrench at the gun to throw him off balance. He released his hold on the rifle, sending me stumbling backwards with the gun. I yanked the magazine out, throwing both ammo and firearm to the side, where they hopefully wouldn’t do any further damage. I raised both hands into a low stance. I really wished my tonfa wasn’t broken.
“Dane. Be careful. Look, let me help. I can help you stop this guy. He just tried to open fire on an entire crowd of innocent bystanders. You can’t let someone like this run around. You have to stop him, and stop him cold. Do you understand me? Wield me.” Jack’s voice echoed in my head, and met another.
‘You can do this.’
I narrowed my eyes, and lunged forward. He was stronger than me, even with Li Fang Fen’s blessing. He was damned skillful, too. He was fighting defensively, backing towards the subway door, keeping me at bay with quick punches, long arms giving him the advantage. I harried him, and then fell back as he struck my cheek, moving with the blow. Exaggerating it. He spun and grabbed the handle on the door, yanking at it. I grabbed the broken tonfa, and spun the rest of the way around. The piece of hard wood slammed into his knee.
The knee is a delicate, elegant arrangement that tests the limits of biological ingenuity. It is flexible, strong, and capable of incredible feats. It’s also very dangerous to damage. When someone’s knee is attacked, it can cripple them for life. It’s a very permanent solution to any temporary problems you may have with the owner of the knee. I would not normally have gone for it. But I wanted to take one of these bastards prisoner. I wanted to win.
He fell like an oak, screaming as he clutched at his knee, writhing and arching. I stood up straight, and placed the tonfa into my pocket. The police would have been notified the moment the emergency brakes went off. They arrived less than five minutes after the fight ended.
“Hey, boss. Having a little fun on the town?” asked Hector, grinning. Marco stood with him, the two of them checking out the crime scene. “We’ve got an ID on him already. Herbert Walter. Veteran of the Gulf War.”
I frowned. “Homeless?”
“No. The dude did well for himself when he got back from the war, he was working with an investment bank. He didn’t show up for work last Saturday, his wife hadn’t seen him for days. She says he’d been acting more withdrawn, reading the bible, quoting scripture to himself a lot. They had two kids.” Hector frowned. “Poor bastard had a clean bill of mental health leaving the service. Hell, they’re still waiting for him back at his job. There’s no figuring it.”
“A sickness of the soul,” I murmured, frowning. I rubbed my jaw. One of my teeth felt unpleasantly loose, and I pressed it down with my tongue in the vain hope that I wouldn’t lose it. “Any luck with those people you tracked down?”
“We made it through them all. Weiss had talked with all of them. Each one seemed pretty shocked to hear he’d died, but one of the women had an odd vibe.” Marco frowned. “I can’t put my finger on it exactly, you know? She didn’t seem to react much when she heard he was dead. Really nervous about her apartment, too.” He took out the notepad. “Angela… Jordan, it says.” He nodded. “John called in a few minutes ago, let us know he’s finished with his work, too, and didn’t have any luck. Chief, you need a ride home?”
I frowned. The subway car was still stopped, sitting in the middle of the tunnel. 1, 2, and 3 traffic would be delayed for the better part of an hour. “Forget it,” I said, giving a smile. “I’m only a couple miles from home, I’m going to walk. It’s almost bearable out.”
The walk let me organize my thoughts. A wind blew through the streets, clearing the air and making it possible to breathe. The heat was still as damp and overwhelming as ever, but at least it was textured now. The setting sun provided shade that kept things cool, at least by comparison. I walked down the avenue, hands in my pockets.
“Sometimes, the only way you can survive is killing someone, you know.” Jack’s voice was petulant.
“Yeah, but that clearly wasn’t one of them. You really made me feel confident, the way you immediately tried to get me to kill someone to survive, there.”
“You’re good. A born survivor. But that could’ve gone another way, couldn’t it?”
I didn’t answer. I thought about the empty fridge back home, and my stomach rumbled. I lifted my head, and saw a 7-11 just up ahead. I thought for a few moments about my last physical, where the doctor had recommended cutting my salt intake. Then I thought about junk food, and my decision was already made for me. I stepped inside, giving a quick nod to the convenience store clerk. The sun was just beginning to set, the light turning a golden shade, and it was gorgeous. I walked past a couple of the employees. One of them smiled at me. A young white male, a little taller than me, face a little scruffy, but friendly enough. I returned the smile, and stood in front of the Slushie machine.
I watched, almost hypnotized, as the green slush filled the cup. I thought about obesity and diabetes and all kinds of other awful things, while my hindbrain whispered seductively of how good it would taste. “Dane,” said Jack, her voice tense.
“What, Jack?” I muttered, still watching the level of the drink.
A breeze fluttered across the back of my neck. I turned, just in time to catch the man’s wrists as he lunged at me, a massive bread-knife in both hands.
His weight bore me down, even as I caught him. The two of us fell. The back of my skull cracked against the hard tile floor, and the world spun around me. When my brains stopped bouncing off the inside of my own head, the knife was an inch away from my throat, my fingers tightened around his, both of our arms shaking with the tension. I took a deep breath, gathering in the chi the way Li Fang Fen had showed me, and reached out to the connection.
With absolutely no fanfare or warning, the connection was gone. There was no gaping absence, no sense of deep loss. I just couldn’t feel the Jiangshi anymore, and I couldn’t tap into that power. The man straddled me, his eyes wild. He was the same one who’d smiled at me before, his eyes wide as he forced his weight down. The knife began dipping down glacially, but irresistibly.
“For fuck’s sakes, Dane, let me help you!”
I gritted my teeth. He was stronger than me. He had gravity on his side. I was bracing my arms, but my grip was slipping. Any second now, he would overpower me, and cut my throat out. I did the only thing I could.
My legs reached up. I’d always fancied myself flexible, and he wasn’t expecting it. My shins locked around him, one over his chest, one over his neck. I pulled back, my entire body arching like a bow to pull him off of me. He let out a scream of frustration, and the knife pulled across my collar bone, down my stomach, ripping open the shirt and leaving nicks down the length of my torso. I sat up, grabbed the arm still holding the knife, and began to twist it. I watched as his face turned white, my blood pounding in my head, my skull aching. The injuries I had sustained were no longer remaining quiet. I could feel the ache in my chest, the stinging pain in my lower back, from the beating Jill had given me.
The pain was an excellent motivator. I slammed the back of my assailant’s head on the ground twice with my legs, and his fingers loosened around the knife. I ripped it from his hands, and pinned his throat under one ankle, forcing it down. He choked and scrabbled, grabbing at my leg, trying to escape. I pressed down harder.
I loosened the grip, and the man gasped for air. “Listen, buddy.” My eyes were on his, and he stared back, wild, teeth clenched. “You give me any more trouble, I will choke you unconscious.” I looked up, and saw three or four people standing, phones out. They were filming me. An irrational rush of anger filled me, and I bit back a snarl. That would probably not help the image. “Can one of you call 911?” I looked down at my chest. “And get me some gauze so I don’t bleed all over my shirt.”
The cuts weren’t deep, and the police arrived quickly. This time, John was with them. As the other officers took statements and watched the security footage, he sat with me. “You okay, Larson?”
“Eggs are feeling pretty scrambled, but I don’t think it’s a concussion. Cut’s not too bad, either.” I rubbed the back of my head. “You heard about what happened to me earlier this evening?”
“Yeah. Little odd, isn’t it, chief?”
I looked down at my pocket, and my eyes narrowed. “A little odd, yeah.”
“Hey!” Jack protested. “I’m not doing this! Intentionally, anyway. They might be drawn by my aura of power. That’s YOUR fault for wanting to keep ahold of me all the time.” She frowned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to kill him, I just- You were in danger, okay? You’re a cool person, I’d rather you not get murdered right when we’re starting to get along!”
“We’re not getting along,” I muttered. John helped me up to my feet.
“Got a call from the EMTs. Officer Li and Blanski got into a fight with Jack, of ‘Jack and Jill’. Blanski took a bullet to the aorta. He’s in surgery now, and they’re surprised he was alive long enough to make it there. Li’s unconscious.” He slid an arm under my shoulder. “I’m going to take you back to your apartment. Want me to keep you company tonight?”
I frowned. I briefly considered protesting. But while one attack could be coincidence, two was my limit for taking things lightly. “Yeah. That’d be great, actually, John. It’s been a while since we’ve had a chance to talk. I should warn you, though, I don’t have anything to eat.”
“Yeah, boss.” He gave a mild grin. “Like that’s anything new. I’ll order a pizza.”
My apartment was nothing special. A large living room with a kitchenette set in one corner, and a bed sitting in the other. The bathroom was the only thing that kept it from being a loft. I walked into the bathroom, plugging my phone into its charger on the wall by my bed as I passed, and opened the medicine cabinet. I changed the gauze on my chest, dashing some antiseptic over the wound. The bleeding had mostly stopped, and I probably wouldn’t need stitches for it or anything. It’d be another in a series of gnarly scars, though.
I stared at my own stomach. The jagged lines of scar tissue across my belly, where I’d been cut by Mary, Deacon of the Church of the Survivor, in her wild years. Just another set of bad memories.
‘Scars are just a mark of personality. Who wants a girl without any scars? That’s how you know she’s never done anything fun.’
“Thanks, dad,” I muttered, tracing a hand over the marks. The skin there still tingled occasionally. I’d thought, for a long time, that when the rat-thing was dead, I’d stop having those nightmares. For the most part, I’d been right. But they still flared up from time to time. Closure is a lie.
The doorbell rang. I splashed some cold water over my face, and listened as John paid the delivery guy. I changed into a T-shirt, and stepped out of the bathroom. The rich aroma of the pizza filled the air, the box open on the small table I used for most of my paperwork. Sausage, cheese, fat, piquant sauce, garlic. A thousand special things that were designed to trigger the human desire for food. In the mood to state the obvious, I said “That smells great.”
“Yeah.” He took a seat across from the table. I cast my eye over towards the table where I kept the liquor bottles. A half-empty bottle of cheap whiskey sat there. It was plastic, which really just added to the shame. I wanted to pour myself a cup. I really wanted it. Instead, I sat down across from John, and picked up a slice of pizza, placing it on a napkin. I lifted it, and noticed the steam rising off the cheese. I blew on the crust a couple of times, and sighed, putting it back down. He grunted.
“So, you finished checking the people on our list? Any particularly notable suspects?”
He slowly shrugged. “Can’t say for sure that it was anyone I met with, boss. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine.” I sighed, leaning back against the couch. “Shit. I really hope Li Fang Fen is alright.”
He frowned, and gave me a suspicious look. “She’s not human, boss. Why would you want her to be alright?”
“She’s still a cop.” I gave a half-hearted smile. “She’s not so bad, really. A little weird, a little stiff, but she saved my bacon at least once today without even being in the same neighborhood, so I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.” I blew on the pizza again, and sniffed, frowning. “Hey, what toppings did you get?”
“Sausage and cheddar, boss.” He was watching me. His eyes were just a little too wide. I put the slice down again. “Something the matter?”
“You know, when it happens once, it can just happen once. But if it happens twice, you know it has to happen three times.” He frowned.
“You feeling okay, Dane? Maybe I should call the paramedics, it sounds like your brain got a bit more scrambled than you thought.”
“The attacks. One person attacks me, that’s just fine. Two people attack me, though, and you know a third has to do the same.” I stared in his eyes. “What the fuck did Jackass say to you that you’d want to kill me, John?”
He went stiff. His hand rested at his side, near to his gun. “You remember that fight with the Ateroleum, boss? The black smoke I breathed in? The nightmares.”
“It’d be hard not to remember, John.”
“You saved me. Got the Ateroleum out of me. I remember that. Clear as day, boss. I remember it all. But the thing is, you ever have a nightmare, and you think you’ve woken up out of it, but it turns out it’s still going on?” He met my eyes. “Ever since I came out of that nightmare, the world’s been insane. Cults, gods. The shadows all seem to be getting darker, boss. What if the nightmare never ended? What if it’s all just nightmares? What if there’s only one way to escape it?”
I swallowed slowly. “That explains why you’d want to die, even if I think it sounds like a pretty shit-poor reason to do so. So why are you trying to kill me?”
“Isn’t that obvious, boss?” He smiled. “If it’s a dream, nothing matters. You can do the things you never would. Get the revenge you never could. And you put me in this fucking nightmare, boss. You led me into this hell. Whether I die or I wake up, at least there’s a bit of closure. I was just going to try to poison you, let you understand what it was like to feel your own body betraying you, but…” He drew the gun. I kicked the table up, as hard as I could. Hot pizza landed on his lap. I made an instant calculation, and ran for the bathroom, and the only locking door I had available. I slammed it shut, and reached for my pocket, and the phone.
It wasn’t there.
“Well, this isn’t good,” said Jack, sitting on the edge of the tub, looking distinctly nervous. “Do you have a plan?”
The door rattled violently as John struck it. I’d seen him kick open an iron security door when he was sufficiently motivated. I had a minute, at most. He was armed. He was healthy, even if he was rattled. He had a gun. “Die, I guess.”
“Terrible fucking plan. Dane, let me help you.”
“I would rather die, and I am willing to demonstrate that.”
“I don’t have to have power over you! I don’t have to make you do anything you don’t want to! I swear, I’m not going to control you, but I don’t want to fucking die, Dane! I don’t want either of us to die!”
‘You can do it, Dane,’ whispered the voice of not-quite-my-father. ‘You can hold her back. You’re strong enough. I believe in you.’
I buried my face in my hands, and tears ran down my fingers. I couldn’t even trust the voice of my father, anymore. I couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t her, fucking with my perceptions. And in that moment, I felt more alone than I ever had. I started to feel like I knew what Ariel had meant. About having everything taken away from me. About all the shit in this world that had been poured down on top of me. The anger blossomed inside of my heart like a red rose, the edges of my vision tinting towards red. How dare the world do this to me? How dare it put me in this position?
I took the knife. “If John dies, you do, too.”
“Fucking preserve me from technical pacifists,” muttered Jack.
God help me, but it felt so good. Li Fang Fen had been a flickering spark of strength, a quicker breath, a stronger arm. Like I’d not spent a life drinking and smoking, slowing and damaging my body in tiny ways. She’d made me strong for a human.
The door shook, and I kicked at it at the same time. It crunched, and flew back, throwing John to the ground. He was already raising his gun as he hit the ground, his eyes tracking me. He was good. He’d been doing this for years. But he was a human, and right now, I was not.
He pulled the trigger, hard. Repeatedly. I lifted Jack Knife as he did, the blade flicking out without my finger even touching the button. The entire world seemed to move in slow motion, except for me. The bullets flashed through the air, and were met by the knife, struck out of the air. It was physically impossible for any number of reasons. A human’s reflexes were not fast and precise enough to intercept bullets. My arm should have been shaking with the force of a single deflected shot. A human couldn’t do this.
It felt so good not to be human.
John stood up, tossing the empty gun aside, and lunged at me. Counting on me not to kill him. To want him alive. A lethal weapon wasn’t much of an advantage in close quarters if you weren’t willing to use it. His arms went wide, and he put me in a bear hug, tendons and muscles standing out in his arms as he clinched his fists together around my lower back. My back arched, putting my face next to his. His white teeth gleamed. “You’re just like them, boss!” he screamed in my face, his eyes wild. “Just another one of the fucking monsters!”
I tilted my head back, and slammed my forehead into his. His nose broke with an ugly crunch, and he stumbled back. His eyes flicked around, unfocused, glazed, as he tried to grab me again. I punched him in the cheek three times, each blow sending him stumbling back further, until he slumped to the ground. Jack’s handle braced my knuckles, making each blow harder, stronger. I raised the knife into the air.
The strength left me in a rush. My arms shook. The pain filled me, the strain of overworking myself. The realization of what I’d just done. The echo of Jack and my father’s cries in my head. I stared down at John. His nose was bloody, and tears were running down his cheeks. “Boss.”
I slumped down, checking his cheek. He winced, and I could feel a gap. I’d broken his jaw. “John.” I rested a hand on his cheek. Jack’s blade had withdrawn back into the handle. I couldn’t remember doing that. I could only remember the anger.
“I want to wake up, Boss.” Tears ran down his cheeks, mixing with the blood dripping from his lips. “I don’t want this to be our world anymore, boss. I want the nightmare to fucking end.” He sniffled. “I’m so sorry, boss. I just wanted this goddamn nightmare to end.” He reached into his pocket, and I tensed until the card came out. “Wake me up when it’s over. Okay?”
I took the card from him, and stared at it. One of the addresses. Doctor David Crenshaw. “Jackass” was written in pencil under the M.D. I nodded, and slowly leaned John back onto the ground, pulling a pillow under his head.
I picked up my phone, and called 911 for an ambulance for him. Then, I poured myself a double from the plastic bottle.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea, Dane?” asked Jack, frowning.
“I need it.”