I flicked out my cigarette and watched the cops ram a car into a building: a reminder of the dangers of my job. The man in the car had been blasting this psychosonic music out his windows—the kind of music that messes with your mind and makes you feel superhuman. It was the kind of music that made you stupid enough to blare it out your car in the city.
Two shots—one to the head and the second to the chest to make sure, and then the cops rolled away. He got what was coming to him; everybody knew how dangerous it was to own that music.
The briefcase I carried burned in my hands, “Hey, Tommy. Why do you think we do what we do?”
Tommy was my partner. Real quiet on these trips, but not from experience; he was young and nervous. He wore his cap backward and a button-up shirt missing buttons so he just let it hang open. He was a good guy, though. Dependable. He knew how to fight and when to walk away and he had the scars on his knuckles and chest to show for it.
He thought for a minute before responding, “I don't know. Boredom? We need the money to eat and I guess we both just want what happened to that guy up there to happen to us one day.”
Yeah, I thought to myself as we walked along in silence, We all have a death wish, don't we. Every person alive today wishes they weren't, but it's not so easy as that, is it?
We held our breath as we passed an officer on the sidewalk and tried our best not to make eye contact. They wore these big goggles that glowed titanium yellow and could see into your soul. At least, that's what it felt like every time one of 'em looked at you—like they were looking straight through you and could hear every one of your thoughts and feel everything you were feeling. It always gave me chills.
When we passed him, I watched the tension leave Tommy's muscles and the burning in my hand cooled down a bit. The path we tread was grimy and littered with bits of newspapers and missing person signs. I kicked a soda can onto the street and watched it fall through a gutter. The air smelled of rotten eggs and there always seemed to be a thin layer of dust over everything, you could feel it when you breathed. The only reason I smoked was to take the taste out of my mouth. That's what I told myself as I lit another one up.
Tommy was a big guy, he stood about five inches taller than me and I wasn't short. He didn't grow any facial hair and kept what he had on his head trimmed short. He wasn't much to look at, but he was a good partner. We were standing in front of a building, our delivery in hand, and Tommy buzzed the room. The door unlocked with a *click* and we walked in.
The man we were delivering to was a real mess, a nutjob: a typical client. His room smelled worse than the city and was cluttered with dirty clothes and plates of half-eaten food, save one corner. In that corner sat a music player and some headphones. He looked up at us with big, sunken-in eyes and drool crusted on his gaunt face. His hair was matted down in places. He gave us the cash and I gave him the briefcase and that was that.
As we walked back, I looked up at Tommy and said, “Do you really think this is worth dying for, Tommy?”
He shrugged and answered, “I don't know. But, what's worth living for these days?”
You see that star right there?
Not that one--that one.
The one past the moon and our galaxy.
The one that goes past the edge of our universe
And keeps going.
I miss you so much
It could reach that star
And come back.
“You don’t talk back to me! You don’t have the right to talk back to me!”
I stood firm and wiped the tears from my face. No more yelling, I was sick of it. “Don’t talk to me like that, dad!” My fists were clinched and my face was red.
His face twisted in rage. “Do you wanna fight me!?”
What? No! But I couldn’t say the words faster than his fist could break my nose. I fell to the floor and backed myself against the back of the couch. What’s happening? I couldn’t feel the pain, but I knew it should have hurt. Tears and blood mingled around my lips, but I couldn’t taste it.
“Stop crying, pussy!”
My face hit the floor and I could hear my step-mom come into the room, but I couldn’t tell what she was saying. What’s happening? She was on the floor next to me and she was scared. What’s happening? I tasted his shoe on my face and I felt my lip slowly swell, but it didn’t hurt.
“No, stop!” She screamed, but only once. She laid unconscious next to me.
I tried to back up farther, but the couch was in the way. Please stop. I’ll tell my teachers that I bit my lip too hard and it swelled up. I wiped blood from my face. It smeared against my arm.
“Don’t you get that on my couch! This is my house! You don’t wipe blood all over my house!” He lifted his foot, but I cowered back and he stopped.
The door outside was behind him. I couldn’t make it. The sun through the window burned my eyes. What’s happening?
I was in class and my teacher smiled and gave me some chap-stick, but my lips weren’t chapped, “Thanks.” I smiled and took my seat.
As we scaled down the wall, the taste of fresh air burst in my mouth and, for the first time in years, I felt the cool night air blow through my clothes.
It was a tough climb down, but we weren't in any position to rest, my partner, Tobias, and I. It was his plan and my ingenuity that got us out of that godforsaken hellhole, and the pain in my muscles from the climb was nothing compared to the pain of losing my freedom. In his eyes, I could see the same conviction.
On the shore of the island, far from the piercing cries of the sirens and the barking of the watch dogs, we finally granted ourselves a minute to catch our breath. I could smell the salty ocean and feel it fill my lungs: a sweet aroma compared to the medley of odors inside the prison. I gazed at the stars. “Look up there,” I said to Tobias, pointing to the sky, “What do you see?”
“The sky? The stars. I don't really see much of anything.”
“You know what I see?” I asked, not expecting an answer. Pausing for emphasis, I stated, “Opportunity. You know, Tobias, I've always been an opportunist.” In those billions of stars and planets, in the almost endlessness of the ocean on all sides, I saw my freedom and all the possible new lives I could create. Everything was stretched out before me like an empty canvas, and I had the paint.
Tobias had carried a makeshift raft that I worked on for months, made of raincoats provided to us and our inmates. We promptly inflated it and hopped on. The salty ocean air burned my eyes. I welcomed the new sensations. The taste of the water on my lips, the dirt and grime clinging to my now wet clothes. The pure silence of the whole experience. Tobias stared into the sky, apparently seeing for the first time what I had seen earlier. Tears smeared the dirt on both our faces.
We never saw the rock sticking out of the water off the shore. The darkness of night and the waves hid it from us until our raft smashed into it, knocking Tobias and me on our faces, and then the death hiss of the air as it drained from a puncture in the raft. We were almost close enough to turn back, but the current was pulling us out farther and our paddles had fallen in the water during the impact. My heart raced in my chest and I could feel the adrenaline pumping through me. Tobias was yelling something, wide-eyed, frightened. We both tried to paddle the raft toward the shore with our hands, but it was too late. It had flattened and we were sinking with nothing to hold onto.
Three days later, a young officer approached the chief guard of the prison. The constant roar of inmates fighting and yelling was never out of earshot in this place.
“Sir, their bodies were found, caught against the rocks on the southern end of the island.”
“Thank you, officer. I want a full report on my desk by the end of the week. Dismissed.” The young officer nodded and walked out of the room, leaving the chief alone. The chief turned, a deep frown crossed his face, a permanent feature of the man. “I knew those sumbitches wouldn't make it. Nobody's ever made it off this island, and nobody ever will.”
Back at the sinking raft.
As the raft sank and Tobias held onto it with his life, I swam east just like I'd practiced every night for the last six months. I grabbed onto the same rock to which I tied my personal boat, made from wood and other debris that had washed up on short, much sturdier than the raincoat raft. I turned to watch Tobias sink, as I knew he would. He couldn't swim; almost nobody inside could swim. After decades locked indoors, it's easy to forget.
I hopped in my boat and dumped the body of the man I'd killed, only an hour before we'd left, into the water. I untied the twine, I made, and pulled inside the boat and began rowing away. Tobias's body floated against the rocks just like the other man's. Their faces would be picked away by the fish and they would be unrecognizable by the time they were found.
I leaned back in my boat and looked once more at the sky. Freedom, I thought before closing my eyes. For the first time in twenty-five years, I finally knew freedom.
“Hey, guys! What's up?” A young girl walked up to the group, her black hair almost purple in the light. Her sharp, thin well-defined features clearly marked her as a half-elf. Her smile was big as she pushed her long hair behind her right ear, letting it hang in front of her eye on the left.
“Oh! Hi, Little Susie. We're just on duty, so...nothing.” Tina smiled at Little Susie.
“On duty again? Weren't you guys on duty last night?” Little Susie tilted her head slightly and raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” Nathan's voice was monotone, “Boss must love us.”
“After last night, you'd think he'd give us a break,” Daryn rolled his eyes and pulled his mouth to one side in disappointment.
“Yeah, I heard about the scary wolves,” Little Susie made a baby face as she said it, “Ha!”
“Hey! They were no walk in the park, okay?” Daryn took on a defensive stance.
Little Susie chuckled, “But the way you tell it, you guys fought a dragon!”
“Wolves, dragons, it's hard to tell the difference sometimes, right Daryn?” Gareth elbowed him and knocked him slightly off balance.
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. What are you up to, Little Susie?” Daryn's attempt to change the subject was less than subtle.
“I'm glad you asked!” Little Susie perked up, “I'm on an important mission and I need volunteers, and since you aren't doing anything...I was hoping you guys would volunteer.”
“What's the mission?” Nathan lowered his eyebrows and crossed his arms behind his back as he leaned in a bit.
“I'll take that as a yes!” She hopped a bit as she spoke, “Today,” her tone lowered slightly and she scrunched up her mouth and eyebrows, “we're going to take on the oh-so-important job of scaring the crows from the corn fields.”
“Oh?” Tina fingered the knives on her belt.
“Yep, and I'll show you guys how. It's not as tricky as it sounds, but it takes practice.” She grabbed Daryn by the wrist and dragged him behind her. The rest of the group followed accordingly.
“The trick is,” Little Susie's voice was a whisper. The corn field stretched out before the group as they hunched down, little sprouts dotting the field with rows of green, “you can't just scare them; they'll just go to a different part of the field. You gotta scare them from all sides, so they think there's nowhere else to go. Follow my lead. Daryn, you stay with me. Tina, Nathan, and Gareth, you guys go around and try to encircle them.” She grabbed Daryn's hand and walked, crouched toward the crows. The other three began sneaking around.
Once they formed a solid circle around the crows, they started sneaking in. “Damn!” Nathan cursed himself as stones dropped from their pouch at his side. The crows turned to him and all flew up and away. “Hey!” Nathan's eyes grew wide, “I did it.” He stood up, arms on his hips and chest puffed out.
Little Susie chuckled as the crows landed a few yards away and Nathan's chest deflated. She motioned for them to regroup. “This time,” she looked at Nathan, “we'll make sure all our stuff is on properly, okay?” Nathan looked down sadly and Tina playfully punched his shoulder.
“Fine,” he said, “Sorry, guys. This time I've got it.”
“They'll be more wary now,” Little Susie got serious again, “We've gotta be extra sneaky.” She motioned for them to circle the crows again, and held onto Daryn's hand, dragging him with her.
The group got in close this time and Little Susie motioned for their attention. “Follow my lead,” she mouthed as she counted down with her fingers from three, “Three...two...one. Raah!” She let go of Daryn's hand and charged forward and the others followed. The crows lept up and knocked each other in confusion as they flew away from the field. “Good job, guys.” Little Susie perked up again and bounced as she spoke.
“Thank you. Thank you,” Gareth bowed.
“They won't be back for a while,” Tina looked triumphantly at the fleeing crows.
“Yeah, well, we'd better get back to our patrol,” Daryn smiled at Little Susie, “We wouldn't want to get in trouble.”
Nathan made an obvious frown, “Leave it to Daryn to ruin the fun.”
“Don't worry, guys. Maybe you'll run into another dragon,” Little Susie chuckled and skipped away. The others laughed and patted Daryn on the back.