It took a while, but in the end we bargained it down to a shot right on my chest, with his mom’s gun. I didn’t know anything about guns, but the thing he showed me looked safe enough, a little pistol that was smaller than the palm it rested on. Then we ran into another problem: Nick wanted to bring his buddies, or at least the ones he trusted.
“What, so you guys can all take turns shooting me or something?”
“Nah, that’s all me, dude.” He pulled out his phone. “I can’t handle this while I’m shooting, right?”
“Only one shot,” I reminded him.
“Only one shot.” Then there was a little pause and he said, “Hey, can I see it again?”
By “it,” he was of course referring to the three bullet holes on my chest, where he would soon add a fourth. I took off my shirt and there they were, blackened and more than a little sad, looking somewhat small and pitiful with the blood and dirt cleaned off.
I let his fingers probe around the bullet hole near my collarbone, and then they traced their way down to the second, a little below. I was mostly numb to their touch; what I tracked of their tracing was more by sight than feel. His fingers lingered around the last of the holes, and then he poked at a spot about an inch to the left of the third one with his index finger.
“Bam,” he said.
• • • •
For the privilege of shooting me Nick was paying about five hundred. Only “about” because he wasn’t certain how much he could pull out of his parents’ bank account without them actually asking where the money was going to—they were usually cool with him taking cash out but questions would come up if he took too much, and the too much was this nebulous, shifting thing from what he told me of it. I figured it could be worse. It was still a pretty sizable sum of money.
Because I knew—had known ever since that day in the bathroom with mom—that what I’d gotten wasn’t some super cool superhero bullshit where I’d be immortal and stuff. I could take a bullet or two, but I also knew that before long my body would fall apart on its own. Already my guts had been pulled out and stuffed into black plastic bags. Already they’d been replaced with whatever we could salvage out of the house—cotton shirts soaked with rubbing alcohol, then whiskey and beer when we ran out of the alcohol, then we’d run out of shirts so we’d stuffed underwear and socks in there. It was held together with an entire roll of duct tape.
As I walked back home—the cold not getting to me at all, but still with a jacket on so it wouldn’t look weird—I tried not to think about it. It came up, though, recurring, no matter how I pushed it under the water. Eventually I got it under control mostly, save for this imagery—this memory—of mom, looking at me with this weird empty look, her hands black with clumps of half-clotted blood.
• • • •
When I got back home I got another text from Nick—he’d bought me a cheap phone so we could stay in contact—saying that he’d pick me up around three in the afternoon tomorrow. By now I was somewhat paranoid that he’d bring some of his friends and they’d tie me up and pump bullets into me like I was a human shooting gallery. Well, he already was bringing friends along—two of them, in fact—but he said he’d only shoot me himself, and something told me that he’d keep his promise if only for the thrill of doing so himself, with no one else being able to claim that honor.
Back inside I could already smell her. Mom handled the frying station at the truck stop and just about everything else, in return for letting Samantha handle the showers, which was one of the grossest tasks I’d ever seen anyone have to do. So she always smelled of grease. The smell filled the house whenever she was in it, which with her chaotic schedule didn’t happen very much. Usually I woke in the morning to find her sprawled on the couch, uniform still on, maybe a half-empty can of Miller Lite on the carpet, the TV on and set to the Today show or something. She’d be snoring—she was a big snorer—and I’d maybe get her legs on the couch, straighten them out, toss a blanket over her. If I leaned in close I’d smell her so strongly that for a moment the world was composed of frying potatoes and chimichangas, corn dogs both regular and jalapeno. Maybe a world like that—where everything was shitty fried food—like Willy fucking Wonka but with everything made of crackling fried carbs instead of dark chocolate shells, and its people less some diminutive slaves but instead endless clones of mom and Sam, two portly middle-aged women with work hats too small for their frizzy haired heads frying infinite batches of tater tots and finger steaks.
She was sleeping again. This was her off-day, and she spent most of it sleeping, and the rest of it watching TV and smoking. She had at least retreated to her room, and had changed out of her uniform, before ending up on her bed. She had left the lights on—I turned them off for her. I stood in the doorway on that edge between the darkness of the room and the poorly lit corridor, where a crossroad of sorts presented two choices, between the dank bathroom where once I’d lain in the tub screaming for help, and in the other direction my bedroom.
I pictured myself pushing a neat envelope of money towards her. We’d be sitting at the dinner table, one of those very rare nights where our meal didn’t consist of something she took from the truck stop, expired sandwiches and microwaveable burgers a day past the best-by date, but rather something we cooked, like Kraft or maybe a meat loaf. She’d open the envelope. In it would be the money. She would smile, though this last detail was something I couldn’t get right in my mind. Her face looked weird no matter how I pictured it happening. The lips pulled away, twisted around in unexpected angles. The eyes always tore out and up and to the side and down.
• • • •
Nick Hatloy called at two a.m.
“You up, Paulie?”
“So I was thinking, why not just do it right now? I can pick you up, there’s no one around, and Joseph and Petey are down with going right now.”
“Did you call them?”
“They’re with me right now.” His words came out sticky, a little slurred. “I told ’em everything and the fuckers won’t believe me. You gotta show them what’s up. I can pick you up and we’ll get going in like an hour, and I already got the cash too. Also,” he said, lowering his voice although it wasn’t like doing so would keep his chatter away from his bros, “Joseph was like, you’re full of shit dude, so we bet on it. He’s putting in three hundred and I’m putting in three hundred, and when we win—BECAUSE WE’RE FUCKING WINNING—” the last came out as a yell that made me flinch—“I’ll split it with you fifty-fifty. You cool with that, Paul?”
“I’m down,” I said. So like eight hundred bucks in an hour. Not bad at all. “Pick me up then, let’s do this.”
“Alright, should be there in like twenty. Maybe thirty because—” He didn’t finish before the call ended.
• • • •
In the car, which was a big black SUV that Nick had said he was sneaking out of the garage, but really, he had his own keys and there was a Post-it note on the dash from his dad about how Nick should remember to fill it with premium if he ever had to fill it up, but anyway, in the SUV—where I sat in the front with Nick driving, with his two buddies in the back looking zoned out and staring out the window when they weren’t staring fixedly at the back of my head, which I observed via the rearview mirror, but anyway, I was worried at first about how drunk Nick was. Then I remembered that I had nothing to worry about. I was already dead anyway. But perhaps my condition was contagious. Perhaps Nick would wreck the shit out of this car and out would come three more of whatever the hell I was. We could become a circus, a traveling freak show. We’d go to small towns like the one we lived in and all the ones we knew of, places where good people would bring their good children and pick up the good rifles chained to the tables separating them from me—or us—and the music would play as they aimed at the targets painted on our chests.
The drive to wherever it was he was going was unusually silent. I’d never been around Nick’s crew, but I’d always had the impression that they had to be more talkative than this. But here they were silent and I had the impression that the two of them were scared of me, which, I had to grant them, was a pretty logical response considering just what I was.
“Show them the holes, Paul.”
“Yeah, right now.”
So I unbuckled my seat belt—why did I even bother with them—and took off my shirt and got up on my knees on the seat itself, so that I was on my knees facing them, the two dudes trying to look politely disinterested. Nick turned one of the lights on and there was my pale chest with the three bullet holes lit up under the orange glare.
“Shit,” said one of them. I didn’t know which one was Joseph and which one was Petey. There was the taller one, and the fatter one.
“Touch it,” said Nick.
“Okay, okay.” And the taller one leaned over and put a finger in one hole. “Jesus, it’s a real hole.”
The other one plugged another hole with his finger. No messing around touching the edges, they just went straight for the real thing.
“This is fucking gross, Nick.”
“I told you. Remember the bet, Joseph? Fucking pay me.”
“Okay, okay, I will.” The fat one—Joseph—pulled out his wallet and slipped out three neat hundreds.
“Wait,” I said, “where’s my share?”
“That’s yours,” said Nick.
“Oh, okay.” I pocketed it from Joseph and then wondered how this betting thing worked. In fact Nick had gained nothing from it. But then it hadn’t been like he was about to lose the money in the first place, being the only one who’d known the truth about my situation.
The taller one—Petey—pulled out his wallet as well. He pulled out a one-dollar bill and rolled it up into a cigarette-sized thing, and then, after a little pause, as if he was contemplating something, he stuck it in one of my bullet holes and the two of them in the back began laughing their asses off.
Nick, glimpsing this, told me to grab the wheel.
“Why?” I asked.
“Just fucking do it.”
So I did, after sitting back down to get a good grip on it, and Nick pulled out a wad of what looked like twenties from his pocket, presumably what he was going to pay me with after all this was done. He peeled out a single twenty-dollar bill, rolled it into a cig, and stuck in the one of the other bullet holes.
“There,” he said, grinning as his buddies laughed again.
I rolled my eyes. It took some effort, but it worked and made me feel better.
• • • •
We arrived at a dirt lot with lots of dirt heaped up into lots of dirt mounds. There was no one around.
We got out—I’d kept the shirt off, figuring that it didn’t need a bullet hole too—and the others shivered and complained about the cold.
And then Nick brought out his suitcase from the trunk and put it on the ground. He opened it up and I recognized some of the guns he’d shown me already in private, and none of them were what he’d agreed on, the little thing that was his mom’s gun.
“Wait up,” I said. “We didn’t agree on this.”
“C’mon, Paul. These won’t even leave a mark. Basically another hole to match the three you got. It’s like, a once in a lifetime opportunity, you know?”
Joseph leaned in, and told me in a very loud whisper, “it’s because we’ll be recording this and he doesn’t want to look like a pussy with the bitch gun.”
“Fuck off, asshole. Look, Paul, just gimme a break, alright? Besides, Joseph is gonna cover—”
“Shut the fuck up, Joseph. But yeah, you’re chipping in an extra hundred, right?”
“Only if I shoot.”
“I’m putting it five hundred, and I set this up in the first place. I’m the one shooting.”
“Wait,” I said. “Joseph, how much you got?”
“Shit,” he said, “like . . . ” and he pulled out his wallet and counted up the bills. I kept count as he flipped through the hundreds one by one. “I got six hundred,” he said triumphantly. “I’m shooting!”
“The fuck you are.” Nick turned to me. “C’mon, Paul. You and me, we go way back—”
“Yeah, like three days, when you found out.”
“We had it all worked out. You and me had a contract going.”
“Which you broke by bringing your fucking shitty ass guns,” I said.
“They’re not shitty. Look, this is a—”
“Hey,” said Joseph, “when do I get to shoot you?”
“How about both of you shut up,” I said. “You can both shoot me, just pay me both the five and the six hundred.”
“I go first,” said Nick.
“I’m paying more than him,” said Joseph. “I go first.”
“What about me?” said Petey.
Nick ignored him. “Look, how about this? I take half the first shot and you can take the rest of the first shot, and then we divide the second shot into halves too.”
“It’s a gunshot,” I said. “How do you divide a gunshot?”
“Maybe he can shoot half and I can shoot the other half.”
“That makes no sense—”
“Nick can go first,” said Joseph, “but I want a headshot.”
I said: “No.”
At the same time, Nick said: “Wait, I want that.”
“No headshots,” I said. “I like having eyes and stuff.”
“This puny fucking thing, you know, like, it’ll barely leave—”
“No,” I said. “Just shut up and shoot me in the chest already.”
“Fine,” he said, looking kinda pissed off, but only for a moment. He took out one of the sleek black things in the case and loaded it up. Meanwhile I saw Petey take out his phone, and handle it with one hand while the other took Nick’s.
“I’ll get Nick’s done this shot,” he said, “and Joseph’s the next.”
“Wait,” said Joseph, “use my phone first.”
“Fuck off, this—”
“Just shoot me already.”
“Yeah. Okay. Oh, man.” A big smile on his face like he just saw light in the dark. The area—lit by the car’s headlight for the most part, that and the faint half-moon light, and the glow of the phones held up like signal flares ready to record—and there in the gloom I saw Nick raise his pistol up, aiming right at me. Hopefully the chest.
I didn’t know how long my body would last. I thought of mom pulling my guts out, throwing up as she did so, but unable to clean it due to how filthy her hands were. In the small house, the awful schedule, the small pay, the Today show on every morning. I’d just made over a thousand bucks for this outing—five hundred from Nick, six from Joseph, and there was the three hundred from the bet, and the small sum that they had stuck in me during the drive here.
I thought of sliding that money across that table, that dinner table with mom. It felt lacking now. I could do more. Not just the next month’s rent or whatever. Something better.
It wasn’t that long until it’d be New Years. Our yearly ritual was waiting for the ball to drop at the end of the year, watching it happen sorta-live on TV. I still remembered her gripping her can of beer so tightly that it got crushed and a bit of it spilled over the top, and a bit ran out of the creases made in her grip. So we could go there, maybe. We would be in the crowd, and we would watch things there in the city, as a part of it rather than some viewer seeing it two hours after the event.
And then Nick fired and I got knocked to the ground and when I got back up Joseph did a crazy cheer and Petey just stared at me with two phones in two hands just recording me get up with really, no blood at all out of the wounds, and there was Nick going what’d I tell you to Joseph over and over. I fingered the new hole—it was near the others, very close to being part of the initial grouping. I didn’t feel a thing.