There is a tiger inside him that’s always hungry. Sometimes it’s an alligator, too, or a gorilla. Sometimes it’s an eagle, plummeting down from above, and the wind tearing through its feathers sings like an ‘80s power chord. This beast in him doesn’t change from one vicious form to the next like a werewolf. It clacks and clatters as it transforms, showing quick glimpses of lights and wires and pistons within. That’s right: it’s a robot. A nuclear-powered shapeshifting hulk programmed with the schematics of every deadly creature on earth! He feels this thing like other men feel their full bladders or beating hearts; he pictures it and it makes him strong. As he dies, a zoo and a toy store die with him.
Hollywood says every hitman has a heart of gold. They kill and kill until they get that one special target. Voilà! It awakens something inside them. They reconnect with their humanity. Sacrifice. Redemption. He felt his own turn coming. He would see his latest kill’s face through the sniper scope and think: No, not this time. It’d been getting worse lately. He caught himself staring at a rainbow, for god’s sake. A snatch of a children’s choir on the radio froze him to the spot. He’d started requesting more extreme assignments to see if his conscience would kick in. Murdering kids to teach their parents a lesson, that kind of thing. Still no revelations. After waiting so long, this explosion comes as a relief.
If he doesn’t come back from this mission – and considering he’s already on fire it’s not exactly looking good – his daughter will be given a suitcase containing three hundred thousand dollars. She’s a beautiful girl, smart and strange, and a living prophecy of all his future failures. What could he possibly teach her? As soon as he held her, all the lessons his father beat into him were clumsy and wrong. He hated her for it, and hated himself for feeling that way. Three hundred thousand dollars isn’t a bad haul for having him as a father for her first five years. She won’t remember him. There will be no funeral. She’ll just remember the money and all the ways it made her happy.
Oh god oh god oh god, he thinks. Jesus it hurts. It hurts so much. He’d been injured before and had scars to prove it. Sometimes he’d check them when he was shirtless as if they could disappear, leaving him with no proof of past courage. Nothing like this, though. He expects shock and numbness but – oh god please please jesus – this is excruciating! He can’t grit his teeth and ignore it. Instead he waits for the next flash of pain and imagines grabbing it, pulling it apart, stretching it open. It’s smooth to touch like once-burnt skin. And once he’s sculpted this agony to the shape and size of a man, he lets out a long breath and steps into its arms.
What if you want to kill a whole bunch of strangers but don’t want to be on TV? When he was a kid he’d been a bully – a constant, vicious bully – and it’d made him famous. Children would whisper and flinch wherever he went. The last thing he wanted was to end up splashed across an ironic T-shirt or to win a middle-aged actor an Oscar for copying his accent and moustache. That’s why this gig was perfect. His targets were chosen for him. It felt random, like a tornado or tidal wave. He’d killed and killed and killed and now, as his own life ends, he’ll soon be snug in an anonymous grave. The worms will carry his secrets down into the dark.
He always carries a Bible. Sometimes he even reads it, too, if he’s bored or lonely or it’s three in the morning and sleep won’t come. The everybody-love-everybody stuff in the back doesn’t grab him, but the Old Testament’s weird enough to be worthwhile. At one point God sends two bears to eat some teenagers. (2 Kings 2:23-25. He memorised the chapter and verse. Bears!) He didn’t believe any of it, not really, but he wished he could, and soon he was carrying the book into battle like a rabbit’s foot. Today it was tucked in a pocket right over his heart. Unfortunately its pages are thin like ghosts and its cover flimsy cardboard, so the bullet burrows all the way from Genesis to Judgement Day.
Without doubt, this was the single funniest joke he’d ever made: “When Anton Chekhov walks into a room and sees a gun hanging on the wall, he must think ‘uh oh’!” He’d ruined the telling by smirking through it and the girl he’d told didn’t exactly laugh. She was impressed, though. He could tell. He forgot all about how he loved theatre – arguments over cheap red wine, plans to stage Godot in a laundromat – the moment he held his first gun. He’d forgotten about the joke, too, but now he’s dying he can feel it inside him. It’s curdled and black. He watches its punchline spurt rhythmically out of his chest and pool on the floor. Son of a bitch, he thinks. Chekhov was right.
His parents worshipped at the church of ‘no’. He heard the word so often he mistook it for his name. Banned TV and confiscated music and friends he wasn’t allowed to see were supposed proof of their love for him, and the weight of their disappointment kept him pinned down in his bedroom until he was sixteen. Then he stole everything in the house that’d fit through the door and never looked back. His first ‘yes’ was to a tattoo, small at first, but he soon gave more and more of himself over to it. Back, ribs, shoulders, and heart. Now he just regrets not dying in a knife fight with his shirt hanging off him in ribbons. He wishes everyone could see what he’s become.
The universe is too vast to ever be understood – and if that means he’s sometimes called stupid for believing in aliens or ghosts or prophetic dreams or psychic powers? So be it. Now he forgets how to breathe as bullets thud into him, burning hot at first, soon to turn cold. This is his last chance. He concentrates on his engagement ring, visualising it expanding and radiating out around him in golden waves. Somewhere far over the ocean, this telepathic signal reaches his ex-fiancée and rings her like a bell. Yeah bitch, he thinks as she’s (presumably) bursting into tears. I bet you’re sorry now. It feels good, but still dies frustrated. Last night’s dreams hadn’t predicted any of this.
Open wounds let blood out and philosophy in. Or theology, maybe. All he knows is he killed a man today – his first, if you can believe it – and ever since he’s been in hell. Now he’s dying, he sees exactly how killing cursed him. Murder a man and you steal all the years he’ll never have. It’s one more lifetime you have to live with what you’ve done. If he murdered another thousand, he could stay alive long enough to see everyone he knows as bones and the sun burn out and the earth grow cold. He’d deserve it, too. Thank you, he tries to whisper to the cook who’s just killed him, and I’m sorry. You’ll have to carry what’s left of my life.