And the man next to you Serial fiction

Serial fiction

Everyone who dies in Under Siege | 2011 – 2012

An interview about the project | a “Great Job, Internet” mention


He used to dream of his death. Not nightmares, exactly. He figured it was his brain getting him used to the idea, and he didn’t wake up white-faced or screaming. He was still coming to terms with the fact he might actually die in bed, or in the street, or climbing a flight of stairs too many. At least it meant his wife could now say goodbye to him without sounding like she’d just swallowed something hot and scalded her tongue. He hated that sound. Today, as the music stops and the men clap and holler and he sees the band’s singer inexplicably has a gun, his final thought is this: But I was just starting to have a good time.


It was too easy, he always thought, to let curiosity ebb out of you as you get old. He liked to know how things worked. Especially as he’d lived long enough to see so many amazing things arrive, as if from the covers of gaudy science fiction magazines, only to be treated with the wonder one might give a new shoe. So ‘your life flashes before your eyes’? He already had a theory about it: it was a last chance to grab onto a happy memory and let it carry you towards death. But nothing happened. No flashes, no insight. The last thing he sees, and now would ever see, is one of his men wearing a dress while killing him.


His funeral will be amazing, no doubt. He was born to be eulogised. Sweet but not cloying. Smart through hard work instead of easy genius. He’d never broken a heart, not once. And while he often felt afraid – afraid of pain, of death, even of water – he still joined the navy because he honestly thought it was right. If his grieving mother, searching for the contact details of his enormous circle of friends, happens to find the pornography on his computer? She’ll see how it, too, is sort of sweet: mostly women’s faces, their eyes rolling back in soft focus. It’s nothing that will haunt her as she stands over his coffin. He leaves only good memories behind except, of course, this death.


As bullets tear into the meat of his chest, he has only one regret: he never took his son fishing. His son hates fishing. The boy’s one of those vegetarians who won’t even drink milk but that’s not the goddamn point. The two of them, rocking on the water – it was like a faded photograph he’d always carried in the back of his head. He regrets not dragging his son out of the house before dawn one morning and shoving him into the car, the boy still in pyjamas, too confused to cry, and driving to the nearest lake. He should’ve slapped a rod into one of his son’s soft hands and a squirming mess of worms into the other. They should’ve gone fishing, in silence, together.


Why is he thinking about Bruce Lee? It might be because the gunfire’s echo makes everyone’s voices sound overdubbed and alien. He used to love those kung fu movies when he was a kid: the tortured dialogue, the garish colours, the fierce screech Lee used as punctuation. Once, at school, a snotty little redhead claimed Lee’s action scenes only looked so fast because the camera was slowed down; he bloodied the redhead’s nose for saying it and refused to apologise. (It was the first time he’d ever made someone else bleed on purpose.) Now he knows he should move, fight, do something – but he’s frozen stiff. He dies as a quote from Enter The Dragon pops into his head: “Any bloody fool can pull a trigger.”


He doesn’t see or hear it coming but that doesn’t mean it’s instantaneous. It feels more like thunder than lightning. First there’s a sudden, summer heat that sweeps up from the base of his skull, down his forehead, and into his eyes. It was a miserable day – still better than being stuck below deck, obviously – but now the sky begins to glow. Blinking, he sees a new sun rising so big and close it should be boiling the sea! Instead it wraps him up in a warm, white light and whispers: You can fly, you know. You’ve always been able to fly. His feet leave the deck, first heels, then toes, and he’s dead before impact proves the sun was lying.


Even as he got down on his knees he thought it was probably just a joke. It wouldn’t be the first. The men were always hiding his clothes, wrestling him to the floor, or drawing on his face in thick black marker while he slept. (Penises. Forever penises.) But this abuse wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been in training, and training wasn’t nearly as bad as high school, because god knows nothing could be as bad as high school. You can bear almost anything if it feels like it’s getting a little better every day. This is no joke, though, and once he knows that he feels the bullets before they come, flinching at each phantom impact and cursing himself as a coward.


Okay, Jesus, he prays. Here we go. You know the drill. This had always been his plan. Not the dying part; he didn’t wake up this morning sure a cook would toss a knife into his neck. He just knew he’d die praying ever since the theological loophole was explained to him by a well-meaning Sunday School teacher he never saw without a hat. He used to imagine her brain was exposed underneath, pulsating and raw. I’m sorry for all the money I stole and men I killed and widows I made. I’m just so, so sorry, and I want you to forgive me. Okay? Forgiven? Great. Thanks, Jesus! Now as he falls he’s almost laughing at how getting into heaven is this pathetically easy.


The irony of all this? He took this job to be less evil, not more. He’d actually killed seven women over the last four years. Strangled them, mostly, though he’d stabbed two as well and always wondered if going off-brand like that was why the newspapers hadn’t given him a clever name yet. (He had some cool suggestions but it wasn’t how it worked.) He didn’t feel guilty about the women but he still wanted to stop. It was a matter of control. And this job seemed like it’d be perfect! He could kill dispassionately, without staring into his victim’s eyes, without seeing the blood vessels throbbing and popping inside. He wonders what colours and shapes are blooming in his own eyes, right now.


His friend, Sarah, once neatly bisected her car around a pole right in the middle of semester. Killed instantly, they said, though they would say that. He wasn’t the least bit surprised. We let idiot teenagers – and he’d included himself in that category – get into roaring steel machines with a bare minimum of training and say hey, just try not to murder yourself or anyone else, okay? It was insane! When he first flew his own plane, he wasn’t frightened at all; he was utterly calm for the first time since Sarah. Even traversing a war zone at the speed of sound felt safe compared to the suburban deathtrap of sluggish reflexes waiting down below. He dies in fire, thinking: instantly, instantly, instantly.