Chapter no 5

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Andrew and Eric are with Wen’s body. They are huddled on the floor to his left. They hold her. They surround her. They shield her from Leonard. They wail and scream her name, and then they are just screaming.

Moments ago, the gun and Andrew’s hands were nested dolls inside Leonard’s hands. Andrew was fatigued, weakening, and ready to yield. Leonard felt the waning resistance in Andrew’s quivering, failing attempts to push him away. Leonard was going to graciously accept surrender without judgment, without threat of reprisal, and gently guide the gun out of Andrew’s hands, and salvage salvation from ruin, but then Andrew wrecking-balled himself to the floor and pulled Leonard off-balance, bouncing his head painfully off the wall. Anger flashed like a bright and hissing road flare. He was not cold, blank, removed. Leonard was not nothim as when Redmond was killed. Leonard was as angry as he’s ever been and he wrenched and torqued Andrew’s arms like he wanted to rip them off, discard them, and tear the rest of the cabin and then the world into irretrievable pieces. Andrew’s hands were a fistful of hornets inside Leonard’s hands, and he squeezed, trying to crush them all. And when Leonard squeezed, he felt the subtle vibration and click of the trigger under his palms. (Leonard’s hands are currently pressed flat against the floor, yet he is still feeling that trigger click, which is now a physical time stamp delineating his brief history into before and after.) There was the gunshot and the jolt that reverberated up his arms. It was only after Wen fell that he noticed the heat of the passing bullet glowing on his fingers still wrapped around the gun.

Leonard wasn’t looking directly at Wen, but in the instant after the gunshot, there was a blooming flower of red, a sunspot in the blur of her face. He wasn’t looking directly at Wen, but he saw her fold backward.

He is on all fours and he is crying. His head is down. He will not look at Wen now. He cannot look at what happened to her. He won’t. He is a coward and a failure, and he doesn’t deserve to see her ever again.

Leonard whispers, “I’m sorry,” over and over. He says it out loud and he says it in his head, hoping someone will believe him.

He is still going to do what must be done, what he was asked and then commanded to do. He crawls and Adriane’s legs pass below his carriage like the yellow lines of a lonely mountain road. He makes sure to witness and remember every detail of this small journey over the length of her body. This is the first penance of many to come for breaking a promise to a child, for the hubris of issuing the promise in the first place.

Adriane’s death, he knew, was a possibility, a probability even. Leonard says, “Sorry,” again, and this one, the quietest one, is for Adriane. He is sorry because when she was shot, he felt relief and a spark of joy that the burden of her death was taken away from him; he wouldn’t have to kill her like he killed Redmond. That Redmond might have had another name and assaulted Andrew (right now, he believes Andrew) shakes his faith in what he is doing here more than he has let on. But what choice does he really have at this point other than to continue? Continuing is neither brave nor cowardly, and it is both. Having seen what he has seen and felt what he has felt, Leonard puts his faith in the soothing power of having no choice. He reminds himself that he is only a vessel, and an imperfect one, but he fears all that has gone wrong-so terribly, horribly wrong-is his fault and his alone.

Leonard continues to crawl over Adriane’s body and his hands sluice through her still-warm blood. His hands have always been bloody and are finally being honest about it. He was born in blood like we all were.

He slides his right hand under Adriane’s waist and backside. He retrieves her mesh mask from a back pocket. It is soft and as fragile as a baby bird. He tries to not get blood on the mask, to keep it white for as long as he can. He has the same mask in his pocket, too. He imagines what he will see when it slides over his face. Will he see the world through it or only outlines and dark shapes? Will he no longer see the blood? He wonders if he’ll be afforded the opportunity to put the mask on himself or if there will be anyone left alive to fit it over his face after he is dead.

Mask in hand and knees wading deeper into her blood, Leonard crawls until his face is directly above Adriane’s. Her throat is a mess of ruined anatomy, still leaking blood and fizzing air bubbles and a coppery odor tinged with the acidity of bile. He does not want to linger on the ragged skin and exposed tissue of the wound, but seeing her turned-to-stone face is worse. Her lips are parted, a door thoughtlessly left open. Her squinty brown eyes are obscured by sagging upper eyelids, one hanging lower than the other. This malfunction of her smallest muscles and the resulting asymmetry is a final indignity, and he already has difficulty recalling what she looked like when she was alive.

Leonard does not want to disturb her head or body. He fears the mask erases who you were, but he must put it on her. The mask is part of the mysterious, seemingly random ritual he doesn’t understand, that was never fully explained beyond vague, dire consequences of incompletion; the ritual must be followed bureaucratically; otherwise, Wen’s and Adriane’s deaths would be wasted. If they die for naught, what would be the point? At this thought he remembers the cabin’s TV hanging on the back wall, that eerie portal to the wider world, and he feels its black screen, that single unwavering eye leering at him. He is afraid to turn on the TV and witness its judgment, but he will have to soon.

He stretches the mask open and slides it over the crown of Adriane’s head. There is no maybe about it; he is erasing her with this mask, and it is a blessing, one he hopes he is worthy to receive. Leonard only wants this to be done and then to be taken away from this cabin and never be made to remember the promise he broke. He is careful to not jostle or displace Adriane’s head, but his hands were not made for this task and he is rough and clumsy. It takes two attempts to get the mesh over the back of her skull and all that blood-soaked hair. When he finally coaxes it onto her, the mask hugs her face and features, a new simplified skin. Given how much blood is on his hands, the mesh is remarkably white. He has the defiant urge to protest what has happened and all the shitty things he’s been made to do and smear a red slash over her mouth and dots over her eyes.

Andrew is now standing next to Leonard and pointing the gun. He shouts, “Fucking get up!” His eyes are glowing coals. His teeth are bared and his cheeks are blotchy red; the blood underneath is eager to come out and be free.

Leonard does not fear the gun. He does not fear for his own safety. That will never again be his concern. Whatever happens to him, he deserves. He says, “I promised Wen she would be okay and I wouldn’t let anything happen to her. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry-” This is not the right thing to say and he knows this confession will only torment both Andrew and Eric, but he has to say it; he selfishly has to have it on record. For all the blood already spilled and for all the blood to come, he still meant to keep that promise to Wen for as long as he was standing, until the end of everything.

Andrew pistol-whips the side of Leonard’s face, just below the temple. A bright light goes supernova, washing out his view of the room. A stabbing pain quickly morphs into the simmering sting of an open cut and the dull ache of swollen tissue. Leonard falls off his knees and returns to all fours, a reversal of the evolutionary ascent-of-humans pictograph. His hands are again baptized in Adriane’s blood. There’s a high-pitched tuning fork ring in one ear, and he is gazing into Adriane’s masked face when Andrew kicks him in the ribs. Leonard remains prostrate, penitent, and ready to accept more. He deserves this.

Andrew shouts at Leonard to stand up. His shouts degrade into incoherent, larynx-shredding growls. He presses the gun’s barrel against Leonard’s face in the same spot where he hit him.

Leonard stands up slowly, an electric current of agony splintering through his head. Over Andrew’s shoulder he sees Wen’s body on the floor and the red on her face and he looks away. He says, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry . . .”

Tears, spit, and snot stream from Andrew’s face. His arm shakes; his whole body is shaking. He hits Leonard with the gun again, smashing his jaw, spinning his head, and redlining the volume of the whine in his ear.

Leonard looks at Wen’s body again because he can’t help it. He prays for her to get up, yet another prayer of his that won’t be answered.

Eric lumbers up from his crouched position by his daughter’s side. After two foal-like steps, he stumbles and falls to the floor, blocking Leonard’s view of Wen. Eric throws up and he sways and swoons into a sitting position, a line of vomit hanging from his open mouth.

Leonard says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . .”

Andrew limps backward, never taking the gun off Leonard, and grabs the chair Eric was tied to. He drags it across the short distance and it tumbles into Adriane’s legs. “Sit in that chair. And don’t fucking move.” He asks Eric, “Are you all right?”

Eric rocks back and forth. His eyes are closed and his head is lost in his hands. He says, “No.” His voice is a sigh, as heavy and lonely as a name whispered into an empty room.

Leonard says sorry again and again. He’ll be doomed to say sorry for eternity and no one will listen and no one will believe him. He picks up the chair and takes two small steps toward the kitchen so he is not sitting in Adriane’s blood. Before placing the chair upright on the floor, he kicks aside a coil of rope with which he tied up Andrew. The rope careens into the end table and wobbles its little yellow-shaded lamp, which spins in two slow, drunken circles, waiting until he places the chair on the floor before going still. He sits, ending the concatenation. He will follow Andrew’s instructions. He will not move. He will sit there and he will wait for Andrew to do whatever it is he’s going to do.

Andrew goes to Eric and coaxes him onto his feet. Eric says, “We have to leave. We have to take her with us,” and they both look behind them at Wen, and they rest their foreheads together, and they break down into more tears, the kind that bow, bend, and mesh the men’s bodies into the shapes and symbols of grief.

Andrew breaks from their embrace, is the first to stand upright, and he props up Eric. He whispers in a flash flood of words, “I need your help. We need to tie him down. We’ll tie him down so he can’t follow us and then we can go. The three of us will go away.”

Eric says, “Okay, okay,” but he doesn’t appear able to focus and he sinks to his knees. Eric is not well. Because of the physical strain and exertion of the fight, he must be experiencing renewed symptoms of his concussion.

Andrew speaks in a conspiratorial lower register. “You hold the gun, and hold it on him. I’ll tie him to the chair. All right? I’ll tie him, you watch him, make sure he doesn’t get up. You can do that, right? I know you can do it.”

Eric says, “No.” He shakes his head as deliberately as a shadow creeping across a sundial. “I can’t do that.”

“You have to, please. I’ll tie him down and you hold this.” Andrew looks at the gun in his hand and his eyes widen as though utterly horrified by what he sees, or horrified by what he saw.

“I’ll tie him. I can do that.” Eric staggers and careens away.

Andrew continues talking as though Eric is still next to him, leaning on him, listening to him. “And you shoot him if he-” He can’t get it all out and he breaks down and the gun rattles in his hand.

Eric wobbles like he’s navigating a high wire. He veers around Adriane’s legs instead of passing over her and plops himself onto his butt in front of Leonard. Eric’s eyes are all whites and pupils. He looks at Leonard once, or through him. He reels in coils of rope; one end is still tied to the leg of the chair in which Leonard sits. Eric then winds the nylon around Leonard’s legs, making no mind of knots, snares, and tangles. He isn’t doing a good job; there’s no pattern or reason to the loops and he isn’t pulling tightly on the rope to ensure there’s no slack.

Leonard initially thinks he will be able to wiggle free if he wants to, but there is a lot of rope and Eric uses it all on Leonard’s now mummified legs. Eric then belly-crawls behind the chair and gathers the other rope Leonard kicked away moments ago.

Leonard puts his hands behind the chair before Eric asks him to do so. He tells Leonard to do it, anyway, and his voice floats up like he’s speaking from the bottom of a hole. He winds a couple of lines around Leonard’s chest, under his arms, the back of the chair, and then spindles the rest of the rope around his hands and wrists.

A blast of wind crashes the open front door into the wall and drags into the cabin its tail of dirt, dried grass, leaves, and pine needles. Eric cries out, startled and terrified, and he collapses to Leonard’s left. Eric cries and talks to himself, and he crawls to the front door that indecisively hovers on whorls of air, pushed and pulled by unseen hands.

Andrew limps over Adriane’s body and stands in front of Leonard, well within arm’s reach if Leonard had a free one. The gun is lowered. He isn’t looking at Leonard and he isn’t looking at Eric. He looks at his red swollen hands and the gun.

Leonard knows what he is thinking. How can he not think it? Saying it will not help, but he says it anyway. “It’s not your fault, Andrew. It was an accident. You can’t blame yourself. I know you didn’t-we were wrestling and the gun was in both our hands and . . . and . . .” and Leonard can’t bring himself to say that he squeezed his hands and the gun went off. He is not going to say that out loud. He is not going to say that he knows, ultimately, Wen is dead because he and the others heedlessly went along with what they were told to do and he couldn’t say no because it was too hard, maybe even impossible, but he still should’ve tried to say no anyway. He is not going to say that despite the horror of what’s already taken place, he will still try to save the world, even as he fears it is no longer worth saving.

During Leonard’s stammering pause, Eric makes it to the door, which winnows in and out of his grasp.

Andrew’s face is stippled with overnight growth of black beard stubble and his hair hangs in front of one eye, and the other doesn’t blink. He presses the end of the gun barrel, that black dot rimmed in steel, against Leonard’s forehead.

Leonard hopes he shoots. He wants this to be over. He is sorry he couldn’t save everyone. He couldn’t even save one child.

The front door slams shut and Leonard jumps in his chair and exhales the breath he didn’t know he was holding. He grieves that the slamming door was not a gunshot. He wants to cry that he is still here with Andrew looking at him the way he’s looking at him.

Leonard finishes off his long pause because he’s selfish. “The gun just went off, Andrew. It’s no one’s-it just went off. And I’m-“

Andrew pulls the trigger. Leonard hears the empty click. He hears it even though Andrew is screaming in his face. Andrew pulls the trigger again and again and again. He presses the gun harder into Leonard’s forehead, forcing his head back until Leonard is looking up at the ceiling. The dusty old wagon wheel hangs above. Leonard’s eyes water and the wheel is blurry and it sways slightly, acknowledging the struggle below it, but the wheel is not turning and it will never turn again.

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