A photo floats on the ashy water, charred along the white edges. Lazur picks it up and it drips as if fished from a tray of developer fluid.
In the camera flash, the 5000K explosion of a false sun, his naked body looks snuff-film obscene, his face vulnerable and agonized from the stick of dynamite inserted in his ass, invisible except for the way his knees are thrust forward, chest arched, legs spread.
The boy next to him smiles, the half-boy, shattered boy, buried teeth glowing in the burst of light, jawbone strewn like a constellation through blasted flesh.
Their eyes are red from the flash bouncing off the blood in their retinas. They look like demons set apart from the rest of humanity. Demons of the bomb.
He understands now that the protections of his government and his agency are insufficient. The countdown never stopped. He just stopped hearing it.
He stops going to his favorite restaurant. He doesn’t attend another wargaming convention. He doesn’t visit his mother. He sends her postcards. He’s on paid leave. He doesn’t leave his apartment. He stops going to the gym. He does a search for “are panic attacks cardio”?
When he was younger, he would look at the mirror while he was brushing his teeth or at his reflection in the window as he had his morning piss and he would say, I’m an extremely cool guy. It was just something he did without thinking about it and it seemed to work for him. But now he doesn’t feel like such an extremely cool guy. He feels very, very tired, and at this age it gets pecked into your face.
It is possible that what he thought of as maturity is simply an increasing sense of “being unable to get away with it”. He wonders what he was getting away with in the past and it doesn’t seem to have brought him much happiness. He didn’t fall in love or have a beautiful adventure. It was just the absence of additional inconvenience, the reward anyone gets for basic confidence coupled with a reasonably attractive face.
His family was Roman Catholic, but by the time he was a teen it was mostly a kind of activity that had once taken place. The agency has a chaplain who Lazur has never seen and strongly suspects does not exist. God is one thing, but a chaplain stretches the limits of believability.
There was an online portal for accessing faith-based literature and mental health. Lazur wouldn’t have minded a little mental health but you could become addicted to the stuff. Wouldn’t it be so sweet to offer him a little stale air telehealth safety like a trompe-l’œil tunnel? He’s broken the nose of his brain enough times that way. And no one understands better than himself his own particular needs and the mental wellness practices of the modern male.
He tries saying I’m an extremely cool guy at the mirror again. But the mirror in this apartment is broken, at least for this specific purpose.
Someone from the agency keeps calling. He doesn’t pick up. It gives him a feeling of empowerment and soft despair.
Lazur jerks off to Raiden’s ass in Metal Gear Solid 2, switching between various save files to see Raiden at different phases of his erotic journey.
A closed-system airgapped jerking solution is required for even partial relaxation. The government can’t spy on his PS2, or at least the clenched, tightly clustered sub-unit of the government hypothetically assigned to watch him must surely lack the insight into his character, unknown even to himself, regarding the use of retrograde gaming paraphernalia as a masturbation aid. If they did, they might find him unfit for service, which would offend him, or fit for service, which would offend him.
The government probably isn’t watching him. The more he thinks about it, the more slighted he feels.
Why does mommy watch you in the crib? Because she doesn’t trust you not to kill yourself. Now he watches himself for similar reasons. It’s exhausting. He wants to run around the muddy dull mazes of metal and be told what to do and where to do it. He wants that high-frequency sword to carve up his insides. He wants to fail over and over again, his pale fantasy body riddled with bullets. Of course I’m not fucking happy.
Every time he imagines his head getting cut off or his organs being blown out, the shame flies away like startled seagulls.
He has pending messages from a dating app. Are you the one? Are you the one? How much time can he afford to waste on acclimating someone else to his peculiarities? They might recognize him from his counter-terrorism work, or they might have no idea. He can’t explain how his body needs to be touched now, how selfish his pain makes him feel. He thinks whatever he needs to cum with another person would be so self-absorbed and idiosyncratic that he can’t even begin to articulate it to himself. He’s most comfortable focusing completely on them. But either way he’s not there, or they’re not here. So he jerks off instead.
He started working out again, but not at the gym. Running in random directions, at random times until the event horizon of his doom stops crushing his lungs. He gets hard after each run because he’s so bad at jerking off and has a tightness in him at all times, emotionally disconnected vascularities he has to squeeze out like throbbing pimples. He rubs inside his black sweat pants. He remembers when he could sit around like this in his twenties and not worry about a thing, the future felt limitless, 00:01 forever, because he lived in debt he wasn’t fully aware of, debt mundane, debt cosmic, one tick closer to the next invisible bomb going off. His potential orgasm is contained within the time capsule of this game, rerouted back to a year where he can jerk without fear.
He never finished Metal Gear Solid 2. He never finished lots of things. Seeing the credits means 00:00. You can’t allow yourself to hit 00:00. Always freeze at 00:01. Freeze the game, the movie, the relationship. Your life. Don’t take that promotion. 00:00. There’s no time. His time is running out. He can’t get the time back. His muscles ache. He has less and less energy. Except when the adrenaline hits.
A rectal memory of dynamite, the smell of a mall revolving around his cock, certain seconds burn white-hot and everything else is less real. He tries to focus on the fake terrorism instead. The old PS2 spins with the encoded information of these lonely cold corridors and spasming twink vertices. He thinks of the drawing from Playstation: The Official Magazine, of Raiden like a mermaid. Dig these child-bearing hips, baby.
What kind of teratoid chromosomally aberrant offspring of war would those hips spawn? Something like Rubicon.
Mutilated flesh replaces the nude polygons. Rubicon is already lowpoly so it grafts on seamlessly, gnashing jags of pixelated nega-boy in exposures of adrenalic memory, deep amygdalic flash photography—
A bomb is supposed to be impersonal. Is that why he’s working out? Because the pointless destruction of the world finally has a face, or a parody of one? What an ugly enemy to have, but so primally transfixing. He can barely jerk off because of that ugly fucking face. He strokes faster, wrist chafing against the waistband of his sweats. Raiden’s ass is so clean and tight and snapped, how would it feel once those organs start failing and the blood drains through his eyes and—
The tip of his cock explodes in the dark sweats, a sticky mess of time returned to the world, soaking into the porous cotton, in that uncountable interstice he is not young or old, dead or alive, he is the explosion, pure and mindless with the pleasure of its combustion.
He lays there as it dries, realizing what a mistake it was to ejaculate. He feels very lonely. He picks up his phone, then puts it down, then picks it up again after forgetting he put it down.
Red LCD numbers count down. Sirens scream. The room is dark, he’s trapped, shirtless. He grips the case, no tools, just his sweating hands. The angry machine screaming gets louder and louder and his nail digs into the plate and pops it off, tearing out the guts until the screeching dies under his fingers.
A light turns on. Black shards of plastic litter the floor at his knees, AAA batteries warming in his shaking hands. The guy he met on Grindr is sitting up in bed. “Did you just kill my alarm clock?”
He looks terrified and pissed, like he might hit Lazur or call the cops. But Lazur knows that’s just the panic of being woken up. He’s not a bad guy. But it’s too much for a first date.
“I know,” Lazur says. “I know.”
He gets dressed and leaves. Outside, the new year countdown runs on endless screens, signs, billboards, reflecting in puddles and windows. Everyone is drinking and laughing and he’s walking alone, clothes soaked with sweat. They were a little drunk but he doesn’t think anything happened beyond oral, giving, because he didn’t want his cock to fail, which it might for a lot of reasons. I’ll be some kind of old soon, the best I can do is make someone happy in some meaningless, gloryholed way, because why else would they be around me? So he gave dutiful, patient oral and the other guy seemed to have an OK time but was too drunk to cum, and they fell asleep some time in the evening and the guy must have set an alarm clock so they’d wake up for the new year and the next thing he remembers is red numbers.
Ten. Nine. Eight.
He knows when the countdown happens, fireworks are going to make his heart jump. The adrenaline is wearing off and he needs water but the street is packed with traffic and people and everything is blurring so he leans against the wall of a bank and slides down.
You can’t be doing that, a cop says. Lazur wants to say, don’t you know me? As seen on TV? I fucked a bomb. I saved you all. But it was some other city he saved, if that even happened. He really needs some water but he’s on his feet now and walking away from the cop and the crowd is screaming the numbers and his heart is banging on his chest and he waits for the world to explode.
He tells his date he’s a bomb technician.
“That’s an amazing thing you’re doing for society, but I kind of have this thing about dating someone who might die suddenly. I have a lot of trauma around my mother passing when I was—”
Lazur wants to say, well, outside of a few deadly encounters with my terrorist stalker, I stay inside and rot, so from an actuarial standpoint, it probably balances out. But he doesn’t want to change anyone’s mind. He agrees with his date. It wouldn’t be fair. His PTSD is a disease, bypassing the defenses and rituals people use to live in the same world as death.
He’s accepted their decision, but they’re still talking, still justifying themselves, so all he can do is stare at their face while the words come out. Suddenly, he says, “You take good care of your skin, don’t you?”
“Uh. I have a basic regimen, yes.”
“Not a mark on you.”
“If you think my high-risk job is bad. Wait til you find out I want to kill myself. You dodged a bullet.”
“I’m sorry. This got really awkward, I should…”
Lazur cranes his head back and looks at the blue, blue sky. The birds are calm and undisturbed on the edge of the building. He imagines 256000 pounds of heavy glass window shattering and falling on his face. From this angle, it would catch the light for a few glittering seconds.
He taps on his phone and deletes the dating app in front of the other guy, then gets up and walks away.
He jogs across the street on a gray day of autumn, in a quiet residential neighborhood with boulevards of browning trees, not nice enough for anyone to have a HOA, kid toys scattered across lawns, but the kind with a park every now and then.
Pain explodes across his right side with a massive jolt, hand whipping from his pocket so fast his wallet flies out and coins ring across the asphalt as the air screams. His eyes whip down to check his physical integrity, finding only a dark spreading ache. The car is motionless inches away, it braked just in time to bruise, not break, skidding with a screech. The windshield is pale and washed out under the overcast sky, concealing the occupant.
He slams his hands on the hood. “I tried so hard to stay alive. I was careful. I did everything right. I live like a fucking rat.” He feels the enormous frequency and cost of his stress, the vigilance that stretches the seconds out. “I do all that and you’re going to hit me with your car?”
The cold metal of the hood is warming under his shaking hands. He comes around to the window and sees the driver is a teenage boy staring at him open-mouthed.
A flying animal chirrups, passing from tree to tree. A backpack on the floor stretched by textbooks, next to sunscreen, a fanny pack, other signs of adult life. His parent’s car. The boy is paralyzed, knuckles white on the steering wheel.
He understands that because this happened, the boy will drive safer in the future. The boy won’t gain a false confidence. Won’t crash with another kid in the car. Won’t grow up and hit someone at an age where he can be charged as an adult.
Lazur feels a kind of joy. The pain in his hip feels significant and fruitful.
“No one died. But you learned to be safe. Right?”
The boy grips the wheel with both hands, staring at the logo in the center. “Yes, sir.”
Lazur is so quiet that someone on the sidewalk would only hear a murmur. “So what happened. It meant something. You learned. But no one died. It didn’t have to happen later.”
“It’s okay,” Lazur says, embarrassed at being called sir. “We all make mistakes.”
“I’m really sorry about this. Um.”
Lazur rubs the front of the car. “It looks good up here. Your parents won’t know.”
The boy leans forward, almost sagging into the wheel. “Okay. Thank you.”
“You’re good. You’re okay. Have a nice day.”
He walks away, hands in pockets, leaves swirling around him, staring at the sky, the seconds flowing effortlessly into each other with no effort required from his muscles. He feels so relaxed that by the time he’s ten blocks away, he makes a reservation for his favorite restaurant. His birthday is coming up. He deserves something nice.