Big Sky

What would you give up to have it all? Your job? Your family? A story told in reverse (Memento-style!) explores the lengths to which we go….

August 28, 2013 by Michael Shields

It almost doesn’t look real,” Karen remarked while leaning forward in the passenger seat of Brendan’s station wagon, her glance slated upwards at the splattering of clouds blanketing the electric blue sky. A huge grin adorned her face as the wind rifled through the open windows, furiously gyrating her hair about her face, bothering her not at all.

“It’s the top of the world honey. Truly nothing like it,” Brendan responded with a matching grin.

They continued down the open road in silence, soaking up the intoxicating feeling of being alive, of being finally free. Montana had been a dream of Brendan and Karen’s for years now. At first, it was more of castle in the sky than anything else; a mantra they would utter to each other amidst the tough days to ease the pain. A cathartic safe word that symbolized a utopian promised land free of problems where they could live out the rest of their days in utter peace. Soon, as the heat start coming down on Brendan things changed, and finding a way out became imperative. It was then that Montana became a likely destination, as Brendan had a history in Big Sky Country. He had people there who could possibly help them.

As the hours drifted by and the light begin to dim, the ominous mountain range they have been driving towards all day loomed close. Brendan removed his aviator sunglasses and took a deep, exaggerated breath, catching Karen’s attention.

“We aren’t simply running away my love. We have always wanted this,” she assured him. “It’s our dream come true, remember?”

Brendan shook his head unconvinced. The weight of weeks of worry had taken their toll and the bags under his eyes had an almost purplish hue.

“The only thing I care about right now is that they can’t find us here. That’s all that matters.”

Signage along the highway began to amplify as they approached a small town, and Brendan let his foot off the gas and snapped the blinker to life with a flick of his wrist, and with that the backseat came to life with a ferocious whine as if on cue.

“How does she always know?” Karen laughed while reaching in the back seat to comfort their 8-month-old daughter, Maya. “It’s remarkable, out like a light the minute we hit the highway and the instant we get off……It’s ALIVE!”

“Luckily, we are almost there. We can feed her in just a couple of minutes,” Brendan said through a grin. Karen’s sense of humor always set him at ease. She was the ying to his yang, the most positive person he had ever met and the light of his life. How she had managed to stay with him through all of his missteps and hustles was beyond Brendan’s comprehension, but it made him love her even more so. There were times when he had urged her to leave, to have the baby without him so that they would both be safe and she defiantly wouldn’t hear a word of it. “We are in this together my love, all of us,” was her steadfast stance.

After a few lefts, and a reasonable amount of rights, Brendan veered the station wagon into a long winding gravel driveway. The shards of rocks crunched beneath the wagon’s tires as Brendan and Karen accessed the house that they hoped to make a home. If they had conjured up lofty expectations of their future domicile, they were not met upon first introduction. The two-story A-frame was enclosed on all sides by a rotting deck, and was composed of faded and discolored wood. The deck previously had a railing, a fact only made apparent as pieces of it lay scattered about the lawn. The roof’s shingles were absent in spades, many also littering the lawn, and the front windows were covered with plywood. Karen, always holding a glass half full, broke the silence noting, “The yard is certainly big enough for a dog!”

Brendan sat for a moment in silence. It was his fault they had to jump town. It was he who had uprooted his family and carted them thousands of miles from their loved ones, and now he had led them to a home that at first glance appeared uninhabitable. His hands, which were choking the steering wheel of all its life, began to shake, and his head began to throb along with the beat of his accelerating heart. Karen, already busy retrieving Maya from her car seat, noticed Brendan’s diminishing state and did again what she does best. “C’mon Bren, let’s check her out. It could be worse, right? I mean this isn’t Jersey or Florida.” God, he loved her. “And after I clean up Maya the first thing we do is change those bandages. You haven’t since we left and that just isn’t gonna cut it young man. Now let’s go.” Brendan looked down at his left arm dressed with a white bandage neatly affixed with medical tape. He had almost forgotten about the wound and the thought of it momentarily stung, and the bandage itself was an imposing reminder of the life he was forced to leave behind. With a click he unfastened his seatbelt and hoisted himself from the wagon.

As they stood at the front door Brendan searched his pockets for the key while Karen soothingly whispered Hush Little Baby to Maya. Finally, Brendan withdrew a folded white envelope that held within it a single silver key. Slowly, he inserted the key into the lock and turned the handle. As he pushed the door open his jaw dropped. Karen’s lullaby came to an abrupt halt the moment she laid eyes upon the home’s interior. It was immaculate, absolutely stunning and in direct contrast to the buildings facade. The home looked as if it was recently gutted and refurbished. “Holy Fucking Shit!” Karen yelped, unable to help herself, even with Maya neatly tucked in her arms. “Holy shit indeed,” Brendan reciprocated.

Shaking off the overwhelming shock, they crossed the threshold into their new home and began to explore. Karen whisked Maya upstairs while Brendan inspected the downstairs. He unhurriedly entered into the kitchen equipped with new and state of the art appliances. The whole kitchen glowed with the sparkle of a freshly polished diamond. Brendan was in awe. Through the walls of the modernized interior echoed Karen’s joyous shrieks. “There’s a fucking nursery up here!” she wailed with glee. Brendan smiled. A feeling of relief that he did not anticipate washed over him, and for the first time in a long time he had a feeling that things might actually work out. As he came to terms with this novel idea, he noticed a piece of paper on the center island, which sat next to a silver house key identical to his own. It was a letter, drafted on white notebook paper and addressed to him. He nervously retrieved it.

The letter fell from Brendan’s hands. His whole body felt numb and his eyes began to well up. Just at that moment Karen hurdled into the kitchen, visibly beaming with joy. “This place is incredible!” she belted out. She threw her free arm around Brendan, cuddling up to him as much as possible while still keeping a firm grip on Maya. Nestling into him she noticed the kitchen windows offered a view of a long expanse of mountains. A hint of sun was peaking over the purplish snow-capped peaks, and the clouds above were illuminated in oranges and reds. Karen’s utter and complete joy was encapsulated as she echoed the word “Incredible,” soaking in the landscape before her. Brendan threw his right arm around Karen, and with his other hand wiped the tears from his eyes.

July 3rd-4th, 2013 (Independence Day) by Chris Thompson

Brendan awoke with a tremendous gasp. He felt like he was drowning. Fat, swollen droplets of frigid water poured down his face, filling his mouth and flooding his ears. The sensation of being smothered was fast becoming tangible and he was afraid.

Up until that very moment, Brendan had been drifting along peacefully, wrapped in the numbing embrace of an unending abyss. But now, with his sudden return to consciousness, came the harsh flood of reality and the realization that if he was truly awake, then he was in serious pain.

Brendan took another ragged breath, this one shallower, more exploratory, and felt it expand painfully into his battered chest. He puffed out his cheeks as he exhaled, flushing stale-tasting air past bruised and battered lips. Every breath was agonizing, yet he did this time and again, struggling to regain control over his trembling diaphragm. His mind screamed for him to run, to flee, but his senses failed him at every turn, preventing any understanding of the situation at hand. Brendan was just about to call out, to cry for help, when he was struck again by a powerful deluge of icy water.

The liquids frigid temperature caught Brendan off guard, smacking into his face like a punch from a fist. Thick currents of sharp, freezing pain roamed freely over his body, racing down his neck and across his torso like a flame following its fuel. Brendan contorted his face sharply as pain sensors fired off across his body ad hoc like a summer fireworks display, overwhelming his nerve centers and causing him distress.

For a quick moment Brendan’s thoughts drifted back to the inviting embrace of nothingness. His liaison with unconsciousness had offered him a respite from the pain, but it brought with it a heavy cost. It was a slippery slope once a person began to yearn for death and Brendan wasn’t ready to give up yet. He was a survivor. Growing up the fifth of six brothers had made sure of that. Brushing aside his thoughts, Brendan began to struggle about in his chair, desperate to find sanctuary and a reprieve from the pain.

His attempts to move his body however, were met with failure. But it wasn’t his body that refused to comply. As Brendan jerked about his limbs, hurling his arms and flailing his legs, he began to realize that he was fighting a losing battle. There was an unsettling press of leather about his extremities, firmly restraining him and anchoring his body where he sat. His chair was as rigid and unyielding as anything he had ever felt, replete with a wooden seat and curved back, like the kind you would encounter in a schoolroom. But this one was rusted and water-stained, like it hadn’t seen the inside of a school in ages. To the cement floor beneath Brendan’s feet it was firmly bolted and he found the chair uncomfortable, as much an unwelcome throne as it was an indication of his captors prowess. Finally surrendering to the realities of his fate, Brendan collapsed dejectedly into it.

There were parallel rows of light fixtures humming steadily above Brendan and as he looked upwards they filled his vision with fluorescent light. He blinked his eyes rapidly, desperately trying to find focus in their harsh, saturating glow. The icy water continued to run down his forehead and across his face, matting his long brown hair into clumps that pressed upon his eyes as he struggled to see. Ultimately Brendan slung his head low, letting the strained muscles of his neck relax as he drained the liquid from off his face. He tried to focus on his feet, to ground his world on something that he could understand before digesting everything around but at the peripheries of his vision he sensed dense, shapeless forms, silhouettes of grey on a background of white, each one wavering as it flowed in and out. It was a chilling reminder that he was not alone.

Brendan soon became aware of a sad, desolate groan, like the moaning of the wind through the hollow of a tree, and he quickly recognized that it was coming from him. He tried to clamp down on the sound, lest it incur the notice of the shapeless forms moving about, but the flinty taste of blood was suddenly thick in his tightly clenched mouth. The blood poured forth from his gums and from deep, fresh gashes across his swollen lips. Every swallow became a battle with his stomach not to retch. With his tongue he felt probingly around the inside of his mouth and his heart rate hastened upon discovering that there were gaps where his molars should be. What the fuck? he fearfully thought. I wonder what the hell else is wrong with me?

Abruptly a new sound penetrated Brendan’s ears. He cocked his head slightly, like a bird listening for its next meal, and tried to process what he heard. It was a familiar sound, a rhythmic, hollow tapping of metal on stone, but he couldn’t quite place it. He listened in further, holding his breath in silence as the sound drifted in, his damaged mind racing to find a connection with the staccato note. Then, like a supernova explosion of understanding, it all came rushing back to him.

Brendan let out a sharp laugh, a laugh entirely devoid of pleasure or joy. It was the laugh of a man bereft of hope, of a man broken in spirit and accepting of his fortune in life. He suddenly knew exactly where he was. That this wasn’t the first time he had passed out and it most likely wouldn’t be his last. He knew what the sound represented and what was its source. On some level that thought was comical to Brendan and opening his mouth slightly he spat; a thick, clotted wad of blood and saliva issuing forth from his bruised and battered mouth.

His vision was coming back into focus and Brendan watched through thick strands of dampened hair as his saliva impacted with the dusty cement floor. Dense currents of panic coursed through Brendan’s veins as he watched a highly polished black leather shoe come into view and step on the wad of bloody saliva, rubbing it out like it was a cigarette. A chair was hastily dragged into place, a twin to his own, and the owner of the shoes sat down with a grunt, a faint squeak of protest emanating from the rusting chair.

Brendan’s pulse hammered at his temples as he watched a silver-tipped walking cane come to rest between the flawlessly polished shoes. A moment later it began to tap repeatedly on the floor, replicating the sound Brendan had heard before. It was the sound. The sound that carried with it a promise of pain. The sound of the man he dreaded. Brendan’s eyes narrowed their focus, following the cane up its carved wooden length, across the folds of an impressively tailored suit until finally, they locked with Janko Cordelia, Brendan’s employer, and the owner of the tapping cane.

“Ahh, Mr. Beckett. Glad to see that you’re awake. We thought that last blow may have sealed your fate,” his employer said with an eager smile. “Victor said he thought he heard something crunch, but, being a witness to many of these interrogations, I wasn’t so convinced. The body has an amazing level of resilience. Did you know that? Even under the most extreme duress, the mind still wants the body to survive. That’s why I keep these buckets of ice water around. I’ve found it has a powerful effect in certain situations. I like to think that the shock wrenches the soul back from death, so that I may play with it just a tiny bit more.”

Brendan’s face went white. He was scared. Frightened. Desperate for an exit from this reality and beginning to listen to that voice that was growing louder inside his head. It was a voice that longed for death, for release, and Brendan, a man who actively courted peril, who had lived at the extremes of life, addicted to adrenaline and the rush of danger, was slowly realizing that he had finally met his match. He had no idea how long he had been locked in this room, strapped uncomfortably into this rigid, unyielding chair. It could have been hours or it could have been days. He just didn’t know.

The last thing Brendan could remember, he was having dinner in his backyard with his wife and inlaws. It was July 3rd, Fourth of July weekend, and a perfect summer night. The cicadas were humming a flawless backyard symphony and the strong odor of honeysuckle and jasmine were mingling to give the evening a sweet perfume. Brendan was in high-spirits, having just learned that an especially daring heist had increased the value of his offshore bank account by many millions of dollars. He hadn’t yet told his wife, but it appeared their money troubles would finally be over and they could live-out the rest of their lives in comfort.

The chicken was sizzling on the grill and he had just basted it with another coating of barbeque sauce when his father-in-law Ray had motioned for another Corona. Brendan, smiling at his wife as she looked up from feeding their daughter Maya, had gone happily inside to grab a few more beers. As he strolled into the kitchen, he sent off a quick text to Mike, his partner and best friend. I can’t believe we pulled it off! it read, and as he crossed the kitchen, Brendan hummed along to the Grateful Dead’s Sugar Magnolia as it drifted in from the garden speakers.

Standing before the doors of his Viking subzero, a recent upgrade from their old Frigidaire, Brendan stared at the postcard of the Montana skyline that Mike had sent him several months back. In bold, cursive script was written the words “Big Sky” in the top right corner and Brendan smiled as he imagined himself below its brilliant expanse. His spirits were high and swinging the subzero’s double-doors wide, he deftly navigated a pair of Coronas from behind several bottles of infant formula. He closed the doors and was startled to find two hulking, black-clad men immediately to his left, where the open door had once been. Ski masks covered their faces and their dark, fathomless eyes were lumps of coal staring back at Brendan. The two intruders had dressed sharply in well-tailored black suits, as if ready for an evening out, and the fabric shimmered faintly in the kitchen light, suggesting a fine quality to its weave.

Instantly the men sprung to life, lunging for Brendan with powerful gloved hands. A moment later Brendan’s world exploded in a shower of light as the glowing blue end of a cattle prod connected powerfully with his chest. The last sound he remembered hearing before he passed out was the shattering of the Corona’s as they impacted loudly with the tiles of his kitchen floor.

Brendan had no idea how long ago that had happened but it didn’t matter anymore. His life before that moment, the smile of his wife, the laugher of his daughter as she crawled across the room, none of that was important. He had begun to abandon the notion of seeing them again and to revisit their faces would only result in further suffering. He looked up into Janko Cordelia’s sunken, shadowy eyes.

“Get it over with.” Brendan mumbled through broken, swollen lips.

“In time Mr. Beckett. There is no rush. We still have much more to discuss. Many of my questions still need proper answers and only when I say so, will the end be achieved. Do you understand this Mr. Beckett?”

“I u-u-understand…” Brendan spoke weakly. He was having a hard time focusing on the man before him, to keep him from drifting off and dissolving into colors and shapes. “You’re melting away,” Brendan yelled half-heartedly. “Try to maintain your shape you bastard. At least show me some respect.”

Janko Cordelia smiled, obviously amused. “Perhaps Victor has landed too many blows to the side of your head Mr. Beckett. You most likely have a concussion. Sometimes Victor is a little too good at what he does as you well know. Let us take a break from the beatings and come at this from a new direction. I’d like for you to be honest in answering the questions I intend to ask next so maybe we can focus on a more disposable portion of your body? Like say your arms or possibly your legs?”

Brendan almost passed out upon hearing those words, but he quickly came back to focus when the dull, heavy sound of machinery being arranged assaulted his ears.

“I have been honest. I swear!” Brendan shouted, sitting up straight, a newfound vigor coursing through out him.

The mechanical clatter behind Brendan continued, sounding hollow, like parts of machinery were being assembled together, and Brendan struggled against his restraints, his eyes splashing wildly around, searching out its source. Brendan knew that Victor was somewhere in the room and he also knew that there was an entire world of unknown things going on behind him. And it was this unknown, this inability to see what Victor was doing, that tortured Brendan above all else.

“P-p-please. I’ve told you everything. Just tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it. Victor doesn’t need to be involved. This is between you and me, Mr. Cordelia. We’re all adults here. We can figure this out.”

Janko Cordelia merely smiled, occasionally glancing over Brendan’s shoulder to nod or shake his head as Victor continued with his duties. There then came the sound of something heavy being set down and the creaking of rusty wheels as it was rolled across the floor. Eventually, over Brendan’s right-hand shoulder, came the imposing form of Victor and when what he was wheeling came fully into view, Brendan’s heart again thundered inside his chest. The moment he had been dreading had finally arrived.

Brendan and Victor had a history. A shared past. That much was certainly true. The three of them, Brendan, Victor and Mike, had all been on the same crew, working for Mike’s uncle, Janko Cordelia. And Victor had served a very specific purpose on their crew, a role at which he truly excelled. He was the muscle. The enforcer. The one who pounded you into a pulp when you fell afoul of Janko Cordelia. It was true that Victor came across as your run of the mill oaf. An eastern European looking thug who liked to dress in Adidas track suits and wear thick golden crosses around his neck. But he was also really good at what he did. And now Brendan was finding himself on the receiving end of that singular quality. Locking eyes with Brendan, Victor smiled sinisterly, his smile suggesting that he was taking immeasurable delight from the pain that he had caused.

“Please…..Victor. I beg of you. You know me man. We go way back. You don’t need to do this. Think about Karen. About Maya. What kind of a life will they have with me gone?”

“Mr. Beckett, I fear Victor is beyond your influence. He’s no longer a part of your crew. You see, he’s the one who turned you in. Made me aware of the disloyalty within my ranks. And for that he’s been rewarded. He now works solely for me, in whatever capacity I require, so nothing you could say to him will prevent what is about to occur.”

Looking up at Victor, Brendan watched in horror as the brute put a plump finger to his lips, as if asking for the world to be silent, and then dropped his gaze to the object cradled in his massive, meaty hands.

It was a long, cylindrical tube made of silver metal and brass. Along one side was what appeared to be a lengthy, slender lever that Victor moved freely up and down, methodically testing it out. The lever made a click, click, click sound as Victor squeezed it repeatedly, causing Brendan to cringe. At the end closest to Brendan, the cylinder had a small opening and at the other end was attached a pair of faded red and green hoses. Brendan followed the length of the hoses to where they attached at the top of a pair of tall, cylindrical tanks. The one closest to Brendan was labelled Oxygen in faded yellow and black and the one directly behind it said Acetylene in green and red. Brendan breaths came in quick gasps as he realized that the hoses and tanks were part of an oxy-acetylene cutting rig and that Victor was holding the torch.

“Victor, Jesus man. What are you planning to do? This is crazy. It’s me Brendan. Listen…”

Brendan was suddenly at a loss. He wanted to speak further but he didn’t know what to say, what combination of words to string together to prevent Victor from doing what he was about to do. As Brendan watched, Victor deftly opened the valves on both the tanks, made a few slight adjustments to their flow and then pulled a striker from out his pocket. The blow-torch erupted violently, belching a yellow-orange flame on the first strike, the burning of the pure acetylene casting the room in a shadowless blue glow. Victor then adjusted a dial on the cutting torch, opening the valve for the oxygen and changing the color of the flame to a fiery hot white. He then looked up at Brendan, the threatening glow of the torch reflecting in the pupils of his cerulean eyes before looking over to Janko Cordelia seated in his chair.

“What do you want to know!” Brendan screamed with all his might. He could feel the heat of the torch radiating outwards towards his skin, its terrible heat licking at his limbs. He was fast becoming hysterical with fear. “I’ve told you everything I know! What else is there to say?”

“Do you think that I do not know when I am being lied to Mr. Beckett? That I am some amateur who is unfamiliar with this game? Where is Mike? Where is the money? Who put you up to this? These are the questions that need answering. You are a strong-willed, thrill-seeker type Mr. Beckett, always chasing the fleeting rush of your own death. Well I represent that death and in time you will tell me all that I need to know. And then Victor here will kill you. But until we come to that point you need further convincing of just how serious I am.”

Brendan eyes darted fearfully from Janko Cordelia’s to Victor’s and then back again.

His mind was racing, struggling for some way to prevent what he knew would be an entirely new level of suffering. Victor merely smiled and pulled the visor of a battered-looking welders helmet over his face, the cruelty of his eyes replaced by the harsh, tinted reflection of the acetylene torch in the helmets window.

As Victor approached, the torches 10-inch flame devoured the air around Brendan’s arm, stripping electrons away from their very atoms. The atmosphere of the room quickly became acrid with the harsh odor of ionized gas and within seconds the flames tongue was lapping at Brendan’s forearm, destroying the upper layers of his dermis.

Brendan screamed. The smell of burning flesh rose swiftly as Victor went to work. It mingled with the biting smell of burning acetylene and stung Brendan’s senses as his arm exploded in spasms of pain. Victor brought the searing bite of the flame closer, its white hot intensity devouring skin and muscle indiscriminately in great sweeping arcs. Brendan was on the verge of collapse, no longer a man but a being who existed at the intersection of madness and suffering. Nothing made sense to him anymore and across Brendan’s vision flashed glimpses of his life, flickers of his past as his brain misfired, struggling feebly against the hurt. He felt himself drifting quickly away, to the other side of suffering, to a place beyond the pain where there existed only darkness. But before Brendan could fully sink below its waters, to finally submit, there came into his world a repetitive popping sound resemblant of muffled gunfire.

Victor raised the torch and paused for a moment, flipping up the visor of his welders helmet and looking off to his left. Janko Cordelia, rapping his cane quickly against the floor, stood and limped off behind Brendan, in the direction of Victor’s gaze. There was then a screeching sound of metal on metal as a window sash was raised and a cool breeze flowed into the room.

Brendan, half-mad from the pain, collapsed into himself, his breath coming in short ragged breaths. A brief glance downward showed the skin of his forearm blacked and red. Wide swaths of his lower wrist were smoldering and unrecognizable and where his skin was black it appeared crackled, like the bottom of a dry river bed.

“Ahh Victor, the fireworks have begun!” Janko Cordelia shouted excitedly from behind Brendan, causing him to flinch. “And such a view we have. Look, we are so close. Come Victor, turn off the lights and help me open this window wider so we can have a better look. I so do love a good fireworks finale. It is a truly remarkable sight.”

“Sure boss.” Victor grunted, switching off the welding torch and setting it on the edge of the rig. He then lifted off his welders helmet and laid it on the ground, wiping swollen beads of perspiration off his forehead with the fabric of his shirt. Brendan watched through a shroud of delirium as Victor lumbered over to the wall and turned off the overhead lights before joining an ooh-ing and ahh-ing Janko Cordelia at the window’s sill.

The fireworks continued to sound noisily behind Brendan, their eerie glow painting the room in hollow rainbows of light. Each explosion was torture for Brendan, the discordant sounds of their detonation burying him under layer upon layer of fright. He was beginning to lose his grip on reality and the repetitive ooh’s and aah’s emitted by his torturers only added to his decline. After what seemed like an eternity, a series of powerfully loud explosions went off behind Brendan, painting the room in luminous white light. The shadows of tables and chairs arced across the room rapidly as they followed the pyrotechnics flight. It was the fireworks finale and in the brightness Brendan imagined he saw a door at the end of the room open and a ghostly figure creep in, pressing along the opposite wall. But he quickly dismissed this as irrational, the imaginings of his tortured mind and drifted summarily back to semi-consciousness. A moment later a gunshot rang out and then all around Brendan was chaos and shouting.

He heard Victor yell “Down boss!” in a thick, throaty accent followed by a burst of rapid gunfire. There then followed a gurgling sound as someone heavy fell to the floor. Again, another volley of shots rang out and this time Brendan closed his eyes tight. “You!” someone shouted behind Brendan accusingly before Brendan felt the abrupt sting of a bullet graze his left shoulder and its metallic thump as it buried itself into the dense metal of the chair.

The force of the bullet knocked the chair backwards, ripping it from the ground and sending Brendan tumbling onto the hard cement floor. His body landed with a powerful thud, the impact almost knocking him out. All the while Brendan was screaming as the shots continued to rain down, the flashes of gunfire mixing with the fireworks explosions overhead. And then like that it was over. The chaos replaced by silence. Both the gunfire and the fireworks finale had seemed to culminate simultaneously and Brendan was left laying on the floor, tied to his chair with his head pitched to one side. Opening first one eye, then the other, Brendan found himself face to face with the dead, lifeless form of Victor, a trickle of thick, crimson blood pouring from a gaping hole in his bloated neck.

“Brendan! Brendan! Hey, are you alright!” A vague, shapeless figure leaned over Breandan and called. Brendan was half-deaf from the gunfire and his vision was fading in and out. “Brendan!” The voice called out again, this time louder, more intent and Brendan felt two powerful hands reach down and pull him upright in his chair. The hands moved quickly, freeing Brendan from his bonds and pulling him up to his feet, cradling a portion of Brendan’s weight as they made their way across the room. Brendan could still walk but his head was ringing with pain, like church bells on a Sunday afternoon, and his arm was on fire. His head hung low on a neck gone limp and as his savior spirited him across the room, Brendan noticed the bullet-riddled body of Janko Cordelia, Mike’s uncle, lying in a pool of blood. The wizened criminal was still alive, moaning as he writhed in pain, and the knuckles of his left hand were ghostly white as they gripped tightly to the handle of his silver-tipped cane.

“Mike?” Brendan managed to utter, resisting a strong desire to pass out. His world was spinning. “Is that you Mike? Your uncle….he’s…he’s”

“Brendan, hey buddy. Yeah, it’s me. Listen, everything’s going to be alright. Forget about Janko. We’re going to make it out of here and then I’m gonna get you all fixed up. I promise. Karen and Maya are in a safe place waiting for you. I had to go away for awhile and take care of some things but I’m back. And I’m going to make this all go away Brendan. I promise. I’m gonna make things right.”

Before Brendan completely passed out he raised his head and flashed Mike a bloody smile, locking eyes with his partner, his best, and only friend.

“I know you’ll fix things Mike. Thanks for coming back to save me. I didn’t give you up to your uncle once. I never said a thing.”

June 12, 2013 by Douglas Grant

Brendan knew Mike wasn’t the most punctual of people, but after waiting for forty-five minutes on the rooftop patio of the latest gastropub that had been erected on South Main Street, he began to grow squirrelly. He decided to make the most of it, and used his thumb to flip through the photo album on his phone that had the dozens of pictures he and Karen had taken of Maya. Suddenly he wasn’t in such a hurry.

Brendan knew he ought to have cut Mike some slack. If he was out running around on errands with Victor, then any number of things could be keeping them.  These weren’t exactly nine to five jobs they had. Brendan was also a little apprehensive about whether or not he’d be receiving the money he was owed. He couldn’t exactly muscle Victor into paying him. He just hoped Mike had mentioned it to the thug. Mike had more pull with these unsavory sorts than Brendan did.

Mike and Victor reached the top of the stairs and quickly scanned the deck before spotting Brendan sipping his beer in the midday sun. They approached the table and took a seat. Victor had a folded up newspaper under one arm, and with care he placed it on the table and slid it over to Brendan. “Nice work the other day,” he said casually. “You’ll want to check out the funny papers.”

Brendan tried to mask his relief by controlling his sigh. Finally he’d been paid. As good as the money was in this line of work, the jobs were inconsistent, and you never really knew when you would actually receive your cut. It made starting out with a wife and a newborn rather nerve-wracking at times. Still, if it hadn’t been for Mike’s good word, he wouldn’t have any work, and he’d be lucky if Karen didn’t just take Maya and walk out the door. He needed to provide for them.

Victor was dense, but what he said next made Brendan think he’d read his mind. “I’ll have another job for you two next month.” Brendan’s spirits sank. He had financial obligations and a lifestyle to maintain in order to keep up appearances, and the cash folded up in the periodical in front of him would probably be pissed away inside of two weeks. It made him wonder why he was even out there risking his neck when all it ever really amounted to was the same salary as a guy grinding at a typical dead-end office job.

“Hey, that’s great!” Mike said jovially. He turned, grinning, to Brendan. “That’s great, isn’t it, man?”

“Please thank the boss for this opportunity,” Brendan said humbly.

“Well,” Victor said, slowly rising to his feet. “I’ll leave you two boys to it.” He left them at the table and descended the staircase, an enormous man moving at his own pace, oblivious to the hustle and bustle of the world around him. Unless, of  course, they were on a job. That’s when they’d see Victor really move.

When he was gone, Mike’s smile faded, and his look of disillusionment was one that Brandon had never seen before. It occurred to Brendan that Mike might have just been putting on an act for Victor’s sake a minute ago. Brendan came right out and asked, “What’s wrong?”

Mike held Brendan’s gaze with a contrite look on his face. “I’m sorry I got you caught up in this life, Brendan.”

“What do you mean?” Brendan asked. “I’d be nowhere without you. I’ve got a wife to take care of and a daughter to feed, and you’ve helped me put food on the table. I owe you big.”

“No, man,” Mike said patiently. “This life . . . the thrills will wear off. We both have families to think about now.”

“I don’t see what you’re so concerned about,” Brendan said curiously. “We’re part of a huge organization. We have protection from way up on high.”

“No,” Mike insisted. “That’s all coming to an end.”

“You’re the boss’ nephew,” Brendan said, a little perplexed with his friend’s loss of self-assuredness.  “He pays off law enforcement and officials. They look the other way. The other crews would never dare to come at us.”

“The other crews . .. “ Mikes said, breaking eye contact as his voice dropped. Brendan knew that Mike had just accompanied Victor to go visit the other crews. More than likely someone had gotten bloodied up, or even killed. This was probably what was weighing on Mike.

“What happened in Summerville?” Brendan asked with concern.

“Summerville,” Mike muttered. “We had to tune some people up in Summerville.”

Brendan could tell from the tone of Mike’s voice and distant look in his eyes that something had happened on their trip.  Something that had altered Mike’s perception and his belief in what they were all doing. As if to confirm this, Mike said, “We’re on the wrong side, Brendan.”

“Wrong side? There is no right or wrong in our sides. Just bad and worse. At least your uncle, our boss, is a pillar of the community. He helps build schools and hospitals. He helped to gentrify this whole neighborhood. We wouldn’t be sitting here having these beers if it weren’t for him.”

“You know who else did just that?” Mike said cynically. “Pablo Escobar. But philanthropist only comes after the comma, after the title: mass murderer.”

“What happened in Summerville?” Brendan repeated. “What did you see?”

“It’s simple,” Mike answered cryptically, while at the same time holding out both hands, palms facing down. “Push down here,” he continued while he lowered his right hand to the table, “and it comes up over here.” He lifted his left hand so that it was above his head.

Brendan shrugged. “You lost me, buddy.” He smiled, but he was truly concerned about this turn of events. This wasn’t the Mike he knew.

“Like you said, hospitals and schools. But for every hospital and school here, there’s a morgue or a cemetery in Summerville. Every life saved here means a life lost over there. We simply can’t live as large as we do without there being dire consequences we can’t see on the other end. I’ve seen it, man. Firsthand. It’s the kind of thing that’ll change a man, and Victor introduced me to it in Summerville. It rattles you to your core, and makes you want to beg a higher power for forgiveness.”

“So what do you propose to do?” Brendan said with practicality. “Walk away? And do what?” He raised his eyebrows. “You’re family, for chrissakes. You’re married into it.”

“What if I told you that I’d been planning an exit strategy for years?” Mike said flatly, leaning forward with a conspiratorial posture, his elbows resting on the table. “What if I told of a job, a real score, where it would be just you and me, and that we could both make off with millions? What if I said we could both be set for the next twenty to thirty years, if not the rest of our lives? What would you say to that?”

Any other time and Brendan would have asked what the job was, but instead he asked with increasing trepidation, “Who’s the mark?”

“My uncle,” Mike uttered, barely audible.

“Your uncle,” Brendan said disbelievingly, and far less quietly.

“Keep your voice down.”

“Have you lost your goddamned mind?”

Mike reached out and took a firm hold of Brendan’s forearm. “Brendan, listen to me. I brought you in on this, and regardless of what you say about gratitude, I feel terrible about it. It will probably burden me with guilt for the rest of my life. But until now you’ve trusted me completely every step of the way. Now I’m asking you to trust me one more time. You and I . . . we need to do this one last job, let all of the noise die down, and then quietly disappear.”

“Karen and I would have to uproot ourselves, and then look over our shoulders for the rest of our lives. So would you and Alice.”

“You’d have to go on the run with Karen and Maya, but I could never take Alice and Jeffrey with me. My uncle wouldn’t kill them. They’re family, blood. But if I were to abscond with the both of them I’d be hunted down for sure. On my own I’d have a chance.”

Brendan couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You’d give up your family for a job? Just like that?”

Mike talked through gritted teeth, spittle hitting the table. Why wasn’t he getting through to Brendan? “It’s not the job. It’s the life. I have to make one last score before I leave the life. I can’t keep doing this after the things I’ve seen.”

“You’ve got get out too, man,” Mike pleaded. “We can both get out together.”

It wasn’t a matter of Brendan thinking Mike had lost his nerve, or his mind, or his soul. Brendan wasn’t going to put up a fight on this one, even though he had his doubts. He might be putting his family’s safety at risk, but if Mike said that this was the right course of action, then it was. Brendan had always followed Mike, and his friend had never let him down before. He would follow Mike to the gates of hell.

He exhaled slowly, contemplating.  “Tell me about this job.”

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