Her name was Judith–that much she mustered from the few who offered condolences at the funeral. Birds chirped overhead as worn men muttered words they had rehearsed–their eyes rarely making contact with hers. Some took hold of her hand. Judith felt many years in their coarse skin. Calluses had made their palms bulge.
Judith felt years in her knees, rubbing them deeply in between sympathies from strange men. Her lower back also ached from the leather of her wheelchair. She had not forgotten how to walk just yet, it was the destination that had escaped her. I suppose the chair makes life easier for my nurse, thought Judith.
The nurse pointed her toward the closed casket. Sunlight poured down upon it through the trees. No clouds sullied the pristine blue vastness above, and all she felt was the cool fall breeze on her ankles. My heart should be breaking for that man, thought Judith. They tell me he’s my son.
The casket was a box of stones too small to house the body of a man. A full-sized coffin was unaffordable, and she was not about to spend her last dollar on cushioned lining for rubble. “I have no love for rocks,” said Judith.
Her nurse shushed her while the priest spoke. He had nothing to say about the boy, only a generic prayer that did little to affect those gathered. When the service concluded, the grievers left en masse as if their shift had ended. Why would those people know my son?
“I would like to leave now,” said Judith. The nurse wheeled Judith through the cemetery. She watched families pay their respects across the rolling green hills. Some planted tiny American flags near tombstones.
“Was Ronald a soldier?” said Judith.
“No,” corrected the nurse sharply. Their pace quickened, and the trail became unsteady, shaking Judith in her seat. They passed by the tall bronze gates of the cemetery and into a small forest preserve nearby.
“Where are you taking me!?” said Judith as she thrashed about in her chair.
The nurse did not respond until they stopped at a secluded area. “I had hoped the service might have given you some closure,” said the nurse. “That was stupid, I know.”
The nurse pulled out a small metal case the size of a lunch pail and placed it on the ground beside Judith. He knelt down and removed a folded piece of paper. Underneath the paper was a syringe and vial cradled in spongy grey foam.
Is he one of Allred’s men? thought Judith. Is this how it ends?
Of all the people she could have remembered in her last moments, it had to be him–the mysterious benefactor that had seduced her with promises of legacy and justice. Instead, Allred ensured her enduring memory would wilt alongside her in the void.
The nurse picked up the syringe with one hand and held the paper in the other–his eyes darting between them.
“I know what this is,” said Judith. “I won’t fight it.”
“What exactly are you not fighting?”
I’m not even worth a bullet!? “Tell Allred I didn’t scream.”
The nurse lowered the paper and looked Judith in the eyes. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just…I just want to make sure I do this right.” The nurse extracted a clear liquid from the vial. He pressed the plunger slightly and fired a thin stream into the air. He flicked his finger against the syringe and took a deep breath.
“I love you,” said the nurse. “You don’t have to say it back.”
The tip of the needle seared into Judith’s left bicep. Soon her entire arm throbbed with an unnatural heat. The nurse slid the needle out and placed the syringe in the grass.
Judith’s body contracted and seized for a moment–her eyes wincing with each spasm. Sweat filled her face as visions popped into her head. Countless faces flipped through her brain, spinning, turning, jolting around her like a rollercoaster until a harsh and sudden stop. Her ears rang with the sound of underwater bombs.
She awoke to her son Luke, wiping the sweat from her brow.
“Say something, mom!” said Luke.
Her hand shot out and clenched Luke’s wrist. “Are they dead!?” said Judith. “Jake and Jessup–are they dead!?”
“You’re safe, Luke,” said Judith as she pulled her son close. “You’re finally safe.”
Luke pressed his hand to his mouth and closed his eyes tight. Tears streamed down his fingers. When he pulled his hand away, Judith took in a shaky grin.
Judith cupped the side of his face. “How long will this last?”
“Mr. Doogan’s letter didn’t say.”
Judith stood up from her wheelchair. “Come with me, and we’ll say goodbye to Ronnie.”
The elevator doors opened in front of Gator. Inside waited three men in black suits and a woman with a lazy eye. There she is, thought Gator, the fuck-eyed mutt that framed me.
“You Hampton?” said Gator standing with a metal briefcase handcuffed to his person. “We spoke on the phone?”
“Welcome, Mr. Doogan. Please, call me ‘Mother.’”
Gator stepped onto the elevator as one of the agents hit the door button.
“Is that some kind of joke?” said Gator.
Mother chuckled. “I’ve gone by ‘Mother’ much longer than you’ve gone by ‘Gator.’ Rest assured, your mother is safely en route to our agreed upon destination until the repairs on her home are complete.”
“Prove it, Hampton.”
Mother turned to one of the agents and motioned for them to do something. The agent revealed a tablet with a live feed from inside Gator’s mother’s limousine. The motion of the elevator sped up in tandem with the traffic in the video.
“I imagine that briefcase is feeling mighty heavy,” said Mother.
The elevator door opened to reveal Allred’s office. It reminded Gator of the room he was held hostage in Chicago. Allred’s taste in decor was expensive, and it followed him no matter where he hid.
“Go fuck yourself,” said Gator. He stepped off the elevator to find Allred seated at a raised desk of solid oak with the skyline of Detroit framed in the window behind him. He already had a glass of red wine in hand as Gator and the agents approached.
“That won’t make this easier,” said Gator pointing at the glass.
“I should be sharing this with Howard Fettel,” said Allred. “I was very clear about our arrangement.”
“I brought you something better than Fettel,” said Gator holding up the briefcase.
“So I hear. Come forward please.”
Gator hesitated at the sight of silver plating fashioned onto the floor of the office.
“It’s just a precaution, Mr. Doogan,” said Allred. “You’ve spent some time amongst dogs, merely checking for fleas as they say.”
“Take off your shoes,” said Mother.
Gator did as she instructed and approached the desk. He stood below Allred, staring up at him defiantly.
“Open it,” said Mother.
Gator unlocked the case and presented it to Allred. The grey foam housed one syringe filled with a yellow-tinted liquid. Two indentations above and below the serum caught Allred’s attention.
“This set looks incomplete.”
“This is all I found out there,” said Gator. “You’re lucky to get anything.”
Allred instructed an agent to take the serum from the case, but Gator snapped the case shut before their fingers could get in reach.
“And this will make us square?” said Gator. “No more hit squads? No more threats?”
“This will conclude our relationship,” said Allred with a nod.
“None of this was worth it you know,” said Gator.
“Worth is hard to quantify,” said Allred, “it’s a matter of perspective.”
“What was Sarina’s perspective?”
Allred raised his glass to his lips, but he did not take a drink. He placed it on his desk with a sigh.
“It was never ‘us versus them,’” said Allred. “The Finishers provided a civic duty in the absence of leadership. It fell upon us to bring judgement upon them—if not for their own good, then for the good of others. We decided early on that the heart must be replaced by the brain. That decision saved millions of human lives, Gator. History will call us heroes, even if it means glossing over our dead.”
“So people like me are flawed for having empathy?”
“No, but I would say the scope of your empathy is limited. The world is more than just your friends and family. We had a whole country to triage, and that sometimes meant removing the people we love. That little miracle you’re holding is the result of decades of research that would have been impossible if we shirked our responsibility. With it, we have the potential to save millions more. So I will respectfully disagree, and say that my investment was indeed worth it.”
“And if this serum–the ingredients–came at the cost of children,” said Gator, “you still wouldn’t hesitate?”
“Well, not human children,” said Allred. “I’m not a monster, Mr. Doogan.”
I know, Char. I heard it too. “Monsters are ‘hard to quantify,’” said Gator, “‘it’s a matter of perspective.’”
Gator tore the syringe from the case and injected it into his heart.
“What have you done!?” said Allred.
Mother Hampton and the agents drew their guns and opened fire. Gator’s body healed faster than his blood could spill. He leapt up onto Allred’s desk and seized him by his skull. Gator’s fingers poked through gritted teeth, gripping Allred’s maxilla and mandible.
“‘This will conclude our relationship,’” said Gator.
He visited his mother later that day, wearing a new black suit.
Eustace ran his palms across the steering wheel. His eyes were framed by the rear-view mirror. They looked lost–shifting between the road ahead and what sat behind him.
“I didn’t know what names to give you at first,” said Eustace. “I figured Claire would get the final say, but I have some thoughts on the matter.”
Eustace pointed in the rear-view mirror to indicate who was who, “Daniel, Kalvin, Bernadette, Timothy, and…Samantha. Bernie, Claire will try to name you after your mother. Don’t worry, I’ll fight for you. Wish someone had fought for me when my daddy came up with ‘Eustace.’ Nothin’ against Char, I just think there are better ways to honor her memory.”
The car stopped in front of the blinking lights of a railroad crossing. Eustace sighed.
“I have no doubt she’ll love you with all her heart,” said Eustace. “She just has this way about her. It can be painful at times—no love isn’t. There’ll be cryin’. A lot has happened that she’ll need to process. I just want you to know she ain’t sad about you. That would be impossible.”
When they arrived at their destination, Eustace sat in silence, sizing up the new ranch.
“I’ll only be gone for a moment,” said Eustace as his lip quivered. “Everything is going to be okay.”
Eustace stepped out of the car with his cane. The old man hobbled his way across the yard. As he reached the steps, his wife met him on the porch.
Daniel climbed over his siblings to look out the window of the car. Their tiny faces peeked up to find Eustace placing his hands gently on Claire’s shoulders. His lips moved briefly before they both collapsed into each other’s arms. The sound of Claire’s sobbing bombarded the car window, and soon they huddled together in mourning.
Daniel placed his hand on the glass. It was joined by the reflections of his brothers and sisters. None were afraid.