Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger

Lost Springs, Wyoming, 1890

It starts as a twitch.

Or that’s what I thought it was. At first.

A jitter in my thumb. Then it’s in my wrist, a jolt of energy running up my arm. All at once, too fast to know exactly where it had come from. There it is, I would start to think, but it was over before I had finished the thought, and there I was, gun in hand, smoke weeping from the barrel. Forty paces in front of me, a dead man in the dirt. He never had any idea it was coming. That made two of us: I was as surprised as he was.

• • • •

I’d never been known as fast before, never been a man other men knew to steer clear of. Every now and then, a new gun would ride into town, preceded by his reputation, infamous for being mean and quick. And when these troublemakers came through, most of the other gunfighters, myself included, well, what can I say? There was a lot more of us looking down at our boots, or off toward the painted, bloodshot red mountains to the south. Anywhere but in the eyes. You could see them, just looking for it. Someone to step in front of them, someone to spit on the ground within fifty yards. Any excuse to start a fight, a fight that would end with one guy dead and the other guy moving on to the next town, his legend a little bit bigger.

But even these assholes knew who was who in our town. A lot of towns have a fastest gun. We had three: Fallon, Ratface, and Pete. But never mind their names, because it was Pete who looked like a rat. Fallon was the ugliest of the three. And Ratface, well, he was actually a good-looking fellow.

Fallon and Pete were friends, until they had a falling out over a woman, the only woman who ever took a liking to Pete and his rat-ugly face. Pete caught Fallon sniffing this woman’s wet undergarments, which wasn’t great, sure, but wasn’t that big a deal, really, except that the woman was still wearing them at the time.

“I’ll see you tomorrow at noon,” Pete said.

Fallon said, “Where?”

Pete said, “Are you kidding me? At the, uh, place. You know, the main drag. Oh God, why am I blanking.”

“Just think about something else,” Fallon said. “It will totally come to you if you think about something else.”

“Fallon, what in the hell is wrong with you? Shut up.”

“I’m just saying. It totally works for me if I think about a cactus or a rock and then I remember what I was trying to . . .”

“Goddammit, Fallon, you ruined the moment. Just meet me in the place where guys like us go and draw our guns.”

And then Fallon started laughing at Pete, and Pete tried not to laugh, tried to do his best to stay angry, but that never works, and the harder Pete tried not to laugh, the more he laughed, until Pete didn’t want to kill Fallon anymore.

• • • •

But then later that night, Pete was lying awake, alone, and looking up at the stars, and realizing he was sleeping close to his horse just for heat and the skin contact, and he didn’t want to be ugly anymore, but there was no way around that, so he got his boots on and walked over to Fallon’s little shack on the edge of town and roused him out of bed with a gunshot to the moon.

“Pete?”

“Yeah.”

“What can I do for you? It’s an hour before dawn.”

“I don’t want this ugly face anymore.”

“Well, nothing much I can do about that. Your face is your face. Can’t change it.”

“I know. So instead, I’m going to do the next best thing.”

“What’s that, Pete?”

“Kill you.”

“Oh. That all?”

“I mean it. I’m going to kill you dead.”

“Now that’s just redundant.”

“In front of the whole town.”

“And dramatic.”

“If you’re done, Pete, I’m going back to sleep.”

• • • •

Word spread fast. By sunrise, all the boys in town were placing bets on Fallon vs. Pete. This was a big deal for the town. Ratface was the fastest gun, not just here, but within a hundred and fifty miles, at least by most people’s accounts. But Fallon and Pete were clearly number two and three, in some order. And now we were going to find out what that order was. Two would probably be standing, and three would certainly be dead.

At about quarter to noon that day, people started lining the center of town, like they were waiting for a parade to come through. Mothers kept their small babies inside, but you could see the little heads peeking out from the windows, straining for a glimpse.

Pete and Fallon stood facing each other, forty paces apart, starting the stare-down.

“I reckon you got what’s coming to you, Fallon.”

“That’s how you talk, man? That’s not how you talk.”

“Yeah. Why? How do you talk?”

“Like a regular person.”

“What do you mean? I reckon that was an insult.”

“That’s what I mean. Reckon. Who says that? Stop saying reckon.”

“I can say reckon if I want. Reckon. Reckon. Ah reckon. Ah dew reckun.”

“Real mature, Pete.”

“Reckon, reckon, reckon.”

Then Ratface walked out from the saloon, whisky still in one hand, half a glass of beer in the other.

“You two idiots,” he said. “You both know I’m faster than either of you. How about this? Whoever wins gets me next. So then you’ll both be dead, and I’ll be out a bullet. How do you like that? That’s what I thought. Now get your asses in the saloon and let’s play some cards.”

Fallon said, “Get out of the way, Ratface. This is between Pete and I.”

And that, to my great and everlasting surprise, is where I come into the story.

So there I am, look at me, I am standing on the porch of the general store, leaning on a post, arms crossed, just observing, like I always do. That’s my job. I guess you might call me the narrator of the town. I sell sundries, do a little bookkeeping on the side, and watch everyone come and go, keeping a mental ledger to go along with my ledgers full of numbers. The town and its people and their stories.

I’ve never had any problems with anyone, certainly not any of the gunslingers, including Fallon.

But for some reason, I just can’t let this one go.

Fallon says, “Excuse me?”

Ratface just starts laughing, like he knows I’m a dead man.

“Correct grammar is Pete and me. You said . . . Pete and I.”

“I know what I said, bookkeeper.”

“It’s a common mistake,” I say.

Pete says, “Come on, Fallon, he doesn’t mean any harm.”

But it’s already too late. Pete vs. Fallon has been cancelled, and replaced with the new matchup: Fallon vs. me.

• • • •

By noon the next day, people are lining up again, but this time there aren’t any bets being taken. People either feel sorry for me, or think I am incredibly stupid. Or both. I guess those things aren’t mutually exclusive.

We stand face to face, about forty paces. We do the stare-down thing. Fallon stares hard. He has a good gunslinger stare. What I do is more like squinting. It is bright and hot and dry and dusty, so you can imagine I am squinting pretty hard.

I close my eyes for a second, half wishing it could just be over with, wishing I could lie there in the dirt like the dumbass I was, half feeling like I deserve this, for being so stupid as to be giving unsolicited grammar lessons to someone like Fallon, someone with the dangerous combination of being both a prick and really quick on the draw.

And then this is what happens, in some order. I will tell you what order it feels like it happens, which is not necessarily the order in which it actually happens:

I hear a scream.

I hear everyone in town gasp all at once.

I open my eyes.

I look down and see my gun in my hand, smoke curling out of the barrel.

I come to understand that Fallon has screamed.

My brain figures out what my body has known for a while: My hand has fired my gun. My bullet has found a resting place between Fallon’s dark eyebrows.

I hear another scream, this one escaping from my own mouth, as I realize there is a dead guy. And I am not him.

• • • •

It’s later, over a beer, that Ratface tells me Fallon never screamed.

“Think about that,” he says.

It’s even later that night, while drifting off to sleep, that I realize Fallon did scream. Just not out loud.

• • • •

It isn’t long before guys start showing up.

Sometimes they ride in alone, sometimes in twos and threes. They don’t want Pete. He’s small potatoes now.

And even though everyone still figures Ratface to be the guy to beat, they don’t want him either.

They want to test themselves against me. The guy who shoots with his eyes closed.

It’s the same thing, every time. Stranger rides into town. Looking for trouble. Can’t find it—and I’m certainly not going to give it to him.

I stop going to the saloon, stop going anywhere I don’t need to go. But sooner or later, they all find me anyway. It might take a day or two, but eventually they find a way to cross paths with me.

I continue to work at the general store. Which makes it easier on them—they just wait for me there until I close up shop for the day, catch me on my way home.

Their first reaction is usually relief. Then a smirk. I don’t much look the part of town gunslinger. Killing me, they figure, is going to be easier than they thought.

So then I even stop going to the store. Doesn’t matter—they come to my home, make up some story, some imagined slight, something an uncle of mine did to them in the past, just whatever it takes to start a fight, and then, the next day at noon, there we are, stranger dead, me with my eyes closed, trying to remember how I did that.

This can’t possibly last, I think. And so everyone else in town privately agrees. You don’t just get this fast overnight. You are born with it, or you aren’t, and I wasn’t. Bad eyes, bad hands, bad reflexes. There’s a reason I’m the town bookkeeper.

So if not skill, then it must be some kind of luck. Some kind of quirk that happens once a century, in some small town, some coin-flipping in the cosmos, coming up heads a hundred times in a row. There is just no way I could have killed all these killers, these bad men, men who can shoot two holes in a silver dollar before an average man has his gun drawn.

It’s the twitch. The jitter in my thumb, the jolt running from my wrist to my shoulder. It’s just some freak of my body, gaining some kind of ability, a hidden gift that just happens to be manifesting itself now. It has to be, right?

Except, maybe. It isn’t. Except, maybe it has something to do with the fact that I close my eyes, something to do with that scream I heard from Fallon, a scream that didn’t come from his mouth. Came from somewhere inside of him. Unless, maybe, it isn’t my body at all that was fast.

But that’s just hooey. This can’t last. Any day now, I’ll get killed. Any day now, some really fast gun will ride into town, and put a bullet in me, and end this lucky streak once and for all. That’s what everyone in town thinks. I can hear them thinking it. At least that’s what it feels like.

• • • •

I see Ratface once in a while. He’s usually at the bar, seeming bored by it all, and possibly, and I can’t quite believe I’m even saying it, possibly a bit envious of me. Of me. The bookkeeper. But he’s always been good. Or if not good, decent. At least to me. So I give him a wide berth, while he watches me with curiously intense interest.

• • • •

And then, Deke comes riding into town. He doesn’t even try to pretend he’s come for any reason other than to kill me. He rides straight up to the store. It’s early in the morning, I’ve just opened up shop, and he walks in, draws his gun, and leads me out to the place where I killed all those other men, just like I’m going to have to kill Deke.

Maybe this time will be the time. Everything feels wrong. I’m standing with the early morning sun in my eyes. I haven’t even fully woken up yet. And the night before, I drank myself to sleep, thinking of all the men I have killed, men who’d asked for their own death sentences by wanting to draw against me. My legs felt heavy, my whole body was sluggish.

Deke did the staring thing. And I am thinking, what is with the gunslinger staring thing? Why do we have to do this? And my mind sort of drifts off and maybe it’s because I am lost in thought that I don’t close my eyes this time, but for whatever reason, I have my eyes wide open which means I am looking at Deke’s butt-ugly face and I see exactly how it happens.

“Now,” Deke says.

Don’t do it, I say.

Except when I say it, Deke hears it, in his head, hears me, responding to him, even though he hasn’t said a word, and although his hand is reaching for his gun, the sound of my voice inside of his head freezes Deke, just like three dozen others before him, freezes him in terror at the feeling of someone else inside his head, and in that instant, my gun is out, my finger already squeezing the trigger.

• • • •

After Deke, it just gets worse.

On the one hand, I have become the town hero. The de facto sheriff. Can I say de facto, in this kind of story? Aw, hell with it. It’s my story. I can say it if I want to. Women come to me every week, asking me to kill their husbands for beating them. Bad men come through town looking to exact revenge, and I am the designated guardian of our population. I have a cheering section. I have fans. Hell, I have a job.

My fans get a little cocky, knowing their guy is always gonna be the winner, knowing that in just a second, I’m going to wipe the smug grin off of the stranger’s face. Knowing, but not knowing anything. Just knowing their guy is going to win.

And that feels good. I’m not going to lie: It is nice to be loved.

• • • •

But the feeling doesn’t last long.

I win. But I don’t feel good about it. Now they’re coming with faster guns, bigger guns. People want me to close my eyes. People are placing bets. It’s not fun, and it’s not fair, and I don’t feel good. This is murder, what I’m doing, even if it looks like self-defense. But what am I supposed to do, turn down the gunfights? Turn my back on my town, my fans? Live looking over my shoulder? Wait until someone catches me in a bathtub, or asleep in my bed?

I try to shoot some of them in the hand. I’m a good shot, but I’m not that good a shot, and some of them die anyway. And the ones who live through it are madder than hell and demand we go again as soon as their hand heals.

And before long, the town turns, too. They’ve gone beyond asking for protection. They developed a thirst for it, for the sport of it. Boys line up, imitate my style. The women, now freed from their abusive husbands, look at me different. I get dirty propositions. Sometimes more than that.

Some of the men who were my fans now sneer at me. I walk into the saloon, and the music stops. People look at me, whisper. Made a deal with the devil. Some kind of witch. Saw him going into an Injun tent and come out without a soul.

Now the kills are piling up. There are hardly any gunfighters left to come challenge me.

I walk through town now, alone again. I go back to working at the store. People pretend none of it ever happened. Pretend I didn’t save their asses. People forget quickly.

I almost forget myself. Almost.

• • • •

And then comes the day. This day.

It starts early, with the moon looking out of place, and rain falling from a cloud, there must be a cloud, but it’s nowhere to be found. Maybe up high and thin, a very diffuse cloud, but whatever it is, there’s water cleaning our roofs, there’s a half moon in the morning sky.

The stranger who rides in today is different. He doesn’t seem to be looking for a fight. At least not in the way the other ones all have.

And I’m minding the store, selling picks and shovels. Selling dreams and tools. Selling snake oil and stories from my ledger. Keeping the books, feeling the judgment, hearing the thoughts.

The stranger—and this one is a she—she is just out there, on her horse. Not bothering anyone. Not looking for me. I’m not even sure why she’s here. It’s been so long since we’ve had a sincere visitor that I almost don’t know what to do.

So the two of us are in agreement: no fight. I feel sure she feels the same, although it’s not quite yet clear why.

And then I hear it: the town, goading us on. It’s the town who does this, who pushes us together for their amusement.

They push us together, me and this mysterious woman.

We are forty paces from each other. The sun seems to have gone into hiding (maybe behind the invisible cloud). But for whatever reason, everything seems wrong again. Like against Deke, but more intense.

I look over at Ratface.

Come on. You gotta be my help, back me up.

This is your battle, he says. I’m here to help.

It takes a second for it to occur to me what has just happened.

Oh, that’s what happened. Ratface never opened his mouth while saying any of that to me.

You too, I say?

Yeah.

And you’ve known all along. You’ve just left me out here, to kill all these poor . . .

Hold it right there. Those men came looking for you. They asked for your best, and they got it.

But you could have at least told me. Helped me puzzle through this.

That’s all part of your learning. Your training, if you will.

My training? I’ve killed half a hundred gunslingers.

Those men had it coming. You did the world a favor by taking them from it. Gunslingers don’t seek each other out like that. They respect each other. Generally. Like me giving you space. To work it out. Those men weren’t real gunslingers.

If they weren’t, then who is?

She is, Ratface says, pointing to the woman forty paces from me.

The town’s whooping and hollering for a fight now. So loud I can barely hear when this stranger puts her lips right up to my mind and says, Welcome to the club, buddy. You thought you were the only one?

Ratface says, There’s a lot of evil out there, outside of our safe little town, outside of your organized little general store. Welcome to the new world—you ready for it?

I look back at my opponent, and square off. I don’t do the staring thing, and neither does she. We’re both silent, on the outside, and the inside. I wonder how many others there are like us out there, wonder why a quiet little bookkeeper. But then I think, why not me? People think it’s your hand, that’s what makes you a gunslinger. Or it’s your eyesight, your reflexes. And sure, it is. It’s about who can do the stare-down, about people who don’t flinch. But it’s also about this, right here. This little moment in between moments. When you and the other person are just waiting. It’s about a moment, knowing what a moment is. It’s about picking the right moment. Knowing that a moment is a coin; you flip it, on one side is death. The other side: life. For one more day. For one more moment.

Charles Yu

Charles Yu by Christine Skari

Charles Yu is the author of three books, including the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. He was nominated for two WGA awards for his work on the acclaimed HBO series, Westworld, and has also written for upcoming shows on AMC and HBO. His fiction and non-fiction have been published in a number of publications including The New YorkerThe New York Times, Slate and Wired. His novel, The Book of Wishing, is forthcoming from Pantheon.