The cutter in his hand grows wet, soft tissue brushing his fingers. Snip. Snip. Biological current severed. The house will be sold soon. His mother’s garden has to look decent.
She calls for him, weak as the wind.
“I want you to have something,” she says, eyebrows still dark under paling hair. Her voice is like autumn leaves crumbling from humidity.
He is acutely aware of bringing a loaded gun into his mother’s house, each bullet containing enough explosive potential to eradicate the face gently weathered across a lifetime.
“I put your father’s watch in the box.”
He wipes his hands on his jeans, green sap staining the torn denim. Inside the box, old photos, flattened slices of time like yellowed tissue samples:
Middle school, playing soccer, his hair short and dark, biggest smile he ever had, until he learned to moderate it, don’t want to look like an idiot. His smile slid sideways until it reached the back of his skull, gnawing at his brain stem.
High school, his hair long, looking away from the camera, in the garage surrounded by machine parts. A few blocks away, a family had died in their sleep from carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective water heater. He checked everything that could possibly leak, poison, explode.
The day he joined the agency. Dinner celebration with mom. There’s a trace of that smile again, caught off guard by her kiss on his cheek. She just got off work, coaching track, so she had a green track jacket on and a stopwatch hanging from her neck. It used to tap the top of his head when he hugged her.
The photos diminish. One snapshot every few years. At first he thinks he’s smiling, a polite smile, but where is it? Not in his limp lips, his heavy eyes, just a fragile interplay, the impression of a smile. A surface for others to reflect on. A one-way mirror. Watching and listening for what’s coming.
Something ticks under the last photo. His finger perches, hesitating on the tired nothingness of his face. The gray expanse of the last decade is so visible now. This jellied concrete tomb of time. He flips the photo over like a tarot card in reverse and picks up what lays underneath.
The watch in his hand is baby blue. Chunky plastic, dented and scratched, analogue heart ticking inside. This is what he wore in high school. His father’s watch is still out there counting down a separate time.
She lays in the bed, wet towel over her eyes. “Did you find it?”
He looks down at the watch, only his dark eyelashes visible. “Yes.”
“I want to see.”
He straps it on. A little tight, but it fits. She pulls the towel off her face and stares in the low light of the bedroom, dimmed for her sensitive eyes. Her glasses are on the night stand.
She says, “You’re sad.”
He holds her hand, careful with the arthritic joints. The only bodies he’s touched lately are ones he could shatter with a touch. They stay that way for awhile, say nothing as the room grows darker. The older he gets, the more he trusts to silence.
“What a pain in the ass it is.”
He doesn’t ask her what she means. He understands by now that the natural state of the universe is a pain in the ass, dynamite or not.
“I know you can pick up the phone. But I’d like it if you wrote.”
“I can do that.”
“I don’t always have the words. On the phone. With the flat, the surface, you know, the paper, I can take my time.” She smiles defiantly. “I get there. I get there.”
“I know you do.”
“It’s important to make it, line up somewhere. When it’s clear.”
“I’ll drive up every week.”
He kisses her forehead. “Don’t ever doubt it.”
She shrugs. “Okay, I won’t.”
He goes back to packing her things. His phone buzzes, another message. Psych evaluation. You missed it last week. You’ve been putting it off. You can’t deny them your brain forever. He checks his watch, the colorful regressed plastic tight around his wrist. He can make the appointment. Driving her old car, on this transitional day, it feels easier somehow, like he’s playing with extra time, in the spillage of her years. Chrono-hydrants bursting across the street on a hot solar day.
The watch counts down to when the aides come to drive her away. He tried to find a good nursing home that wouldn’t fuck with her. He’s paying for it with the hazard pay he got for fucking a bomb. He has to get out there. Keep fucking ‘em. Or his mom will end up on the street like a dog, eaten by dogs, asphalt bedsores. They probably shoot old people now. Or maybe they never stopped. He doesn’t plan on finding out.
Rubicon lays next to the grandfather clock, his leg out behind him dragged along the side of the wall, fingers playing with the air. The pendulum hums through his bones, swaying his little skeleton.
His dad faces the window. Rubicon says something and his dad doesn’t turn around.
Is it because you missed something? Can you read the paper on the table. The watch has a time. Is it time for school? Did you miss dinner. You can’t know if you don’t know. You made a mistake. Too late to fix it.
He runs away. Comes back. Look at me. Why won’t you look at me?
Am I not from your illumination?
The air is hot. Thickening. Suffocating darkness.
Look at me!
Crying. Please just look at me.
The grandfather clock is counting down. This family is a bomb. You have to drop from the window. The grounds are big and take time to run. The shadows of buildings join the smoke from the fire. We enter an open field.
He laughs as he runs. The field catches on fire. It is beautiful and he is everywhere within it, skipping between the flames, earth rising in slow fountains.
He slows down, harder to move. His shirt catches on fire. He pulls his shirt up, feeling the smooth skin of his chest, his stomach. The shirt covers his face and he can’t see, can’t pull his arms out, the fabric stretches tight over his face, scream like a muppet, the air is too hot to breathe, he panics and rips the shirt apart and the flaps of his skin hang around him.
He yells and his lips split open, he takes a step and his leg breaks, each muscle he tries tears open, he claws across the floor unable to smell the air, blinding drone in his ears, eyes deafened by harsh blobs of light.
His legs flop behind him, riddled with cavities, he drags himself by his arms but they don’t bend right, he has to reach the door has to get help has to fix this, the floor is hard, banging every bone of his torso without padding, hips and ribs scraping, he can see the door now, rectangle sharpening, he gets on one knee and lunges up for the handle and something yanks between his legs, dropping him to the floor with a hot stab that curls him up fetal tight, skull ringing like glass. His balls are stuck on something and it feels like they’re being torn off. He reaches down and his fingers close around a plastic tube. He stares at the scarred blank of his crotch, catheter like an obscene placeholder for his penis, hydrogel-coated silicone anchored inside his flesh by a balloon. The tube trembles taut across the floor, leashing him to the plastic bag caught under the tire of his wheelchair, full and yellow with nightmare piss.
He touches his face with shaking fingers, then laughs in terror, shreds of blond hair fluttering against his rapid breathing, hyperventilation gnawing at his single lung, heart sucking the skin of his naked chest in and out like a rubber prop to be burst open, claustrophobic inside the prison of his body.
The cold concrete floor shines blue on his shoulder blades and he looks to the side, as if hearing something.
Dirty condenser coil. Annoying sound. Soundtrack to my dream. I could turn it into a bomb. But I need the high-powered AC running at all times. This is a heat wave and I don’t have a lot of sweat glands left. If the machines break down, I die.
I could call for one of my aides. Press of a button. But I won’t be an object right now. That’s the only touch I get. Just enough to keep me alive. I want to be back in the dream. I might meet you there. I wish I had that photo of us together. The wind blew it off my lap like it blew my dick off. Somewhere out in sunny Semi Nova there’s a picture of us whirling around and you don’t even know. But they say when your dick gets exploded…your other senses compensate. My glands are seething, my heart ripe and red, I circulate my hate like a lasso, I catch you and pull it tight.
You’d be really mad if you knew what I was working on. I can smell it from my desk. You’re going to evolve a whole new amygdala just to experience the kind of fear I’ll put in you. Institutional whore. You’re just one padlock on the world but you’re the one I’m going to break. Because I like your eyes.
I see it now. Your tired glance back, eyebrow raised, just enough age lines to transform it from cheap disdain to pathetic dignity. Your big brown eyes, stretching beyond the limits of their crows-feet and infuriatingly heavy lids. Your hair comes burnt black, your tantalizing bedhead is a prophecy, white streak like the bones I’m going to birth through the cunt of your total body disruption.
And he has a great sense of humor!! You turn into such a little bitch when you’re stressed. Grr. Grr. Exposing the edges of your teeth and all the other furtive little facets of your face.
A flash of red through my shattered pelvis, I claw at the sensation but it’s not enough. I used to jerk off just so I could concentrate, a sparkle of white powder on my nostrils, white mess under my desk as I assembled destruction. I would cum fast, I was very sensitive.
Now all I can do is hump this useless crotch into the floor, denied my catalyst. All I can do is think. You force me to think about you. You’re as alive and hard as my cock was, as pent with blood, and as suddenly soft and toyable.
You swell with panic, your oblique muscles tightening against the countdown. I drop you like a plate. You stupid, resistive coil. You dumb bitch. I’m so much smarter than you. Why can’t—
In a flash he feels his skeletal wrist completely encircled by Lazur’s hand, the healthy tan skin concealing his burnt hide. Those fingers that so carefully dissect a bomb, strong but precise, using no more force than necessary, even in anger, his muscle pressure perfectly matched to Rubicon’s resistance.
These bony arms gripped from behind, his needy cockless body straining into that stable mass, that calibrated musculature, not intimidating, but there under the surface, more than enough to unscrew him like a doll, popping out the plasma-sprayed thermoplastics and titanium rods, take a peek at his polyetheretherketone, return him to the broken state before he realized he couldn’t be fixed.
Getting distracted again, you see the problem now, right, all these stupid thoughts that break the combo. What was the image again, his hands, my wrists, then what? I can’t get hard, he can’t penetrate me, focus, his fingers, just enough to smell his fingers, feel them push through the holes in my cheeks, play with my uvula like a clit, bobbing throbbing inducing saliva like precum, forcing up my stomach acid I’m so wet—
Urine shoots through his catheter tube, arcing yellow into the bag, excitement dribbling pathetically. He shudders from the false release, wiggling the tube back and forth just to experience anything.
Your arm is red and wet. You ripped your IV out in your sleep. The stimulants allow you to function, but they make you a little too cute and talkative, hopelessly compromised and hating yourself later. Embarrassing body, embarrassing mind, leaking everywhere. You think you were being funny? Have to be more serious next time, choose your words, don’t get so manic.
But Lazur is just so easy to talk to. Not like your peers, irradiated with irony but perpetually surprised by the slightest aberrance, taking any opportunity for a serious conversation as a chance to issue profundities they have not earned, nodding sagely before you even finish a sentence, and too fucking fragile to handle the ruin of your flesh, because could they really be seen next to someone like you at parties.
Lazur is a loser but there is nothing like the excitement you feel when you slam into his density, his experience, his formed opinions, because when you talk to him it feels like something finally matters, and if he gave you the time of day, you might matter too.
Why does his opinion matter so much? Like the crushes you had on teachers. What is the chemical reaction of his begrudging respect that creates this intense heat you feel deep in your scarred pelvic tissue, an ache through your whole body—
My crotch is starting to chafe, I feel my pulse raw against the floor through a surgically routed blood vessel, melting a hot wet spot into the chilled concrete, a desperation of urine, sweat, and blood. Racing my own body for something I know I can’t reach, how stupid am I? You stupid child. I hear it in his voice. My meat mirror, he delineates the borders of this Skoptic hell. I chase the shrimpiest twinge of sensation but my body is wearing out, I can’t breathe fast enough, my circulation can’t keep up. The painstaking pattern of whatever I was thinking about explodes, leaving the smoke of lung waste and the sweet smell of ketones. When you get fried like me, the main thing your body burns during recovery is skeletal muscle. The muscles attached to your bones store most of your glucose. So my insulin resistance is shit.
Hump hump hump. This isn’t enough. I need something real. I think of your tic, your tick. I crawl to the mess under my desk and pull out the strip of leather and let it lay across my palm, slither through my fucked fingers. 18 jewels. Ruby or sapphire, I forget. But the stone is the same. Corundum. A crystal of oxygen and aluminum. The only thing that makes it red or blue is the impurity.
His watch. It hangs skinny on my wrist, sliding down to cuff my arm nice and tight. I hear your heart ticking inside. The leather of my daddy’s watch is the color of your skin.
I stare into the glass disc, past the disgusting warp of my reflection. At the extra second hand.
There’s a complication.
A complication is when a watch does more than tell time. Most people just tell time. But you listen.
Rattrapante is the complication on this watch. Catching something that was lost. Or catching up. Two things I can never do but I don’t let it stop me. Two second hands for tracking events that begin at the same time but end differently. My daddy was always comparing things. Time zones, currencies, me, to other children, my grades, always had to be the best—
I pant into the floor, too weak to bang my hips, two sleek bruises on the shaved juts of my pelvis.
You are my complication. The oozy little secret between hours. The heartbeat that skips a second. I’ll see you soon. The mania is rising. The explosive potential is building with that super exciting feeling of losing control. When the cage of my body falls away and I feel only the white of my teeth, the red filling my eyes, and I’m free in you. The blood bursting from your carcass will be my ejaculation.
The round, institutional clock ticks on the wall of the interview room. Lazur feels like he’s waiting for class to be dismissed.
Psych eval. It sounds like the name of an alien when he says it repeatedly. It’s kind of beautiful. He wonders where he could meet this Psych Eval. The interviewer is asking routine questions and Lazur is pretending to be sane, which, if you think about it, is the sanest thing you could do.
The questions stop being routine. “There is confusion as to why this terrorist is targeting you specifically. Asking for you by name.”
A crescent of sweat forms on the back of Lazur’s neck, tingling in the curly black hairs.
“This business with the Semi Novan hotel. Did you do anything to draw attention to yourself?”
Lazur rubs his watch under the table, the childish color concealed. “I was dressed kind of provocatively that day.”
The interviewer clicks his pen out. “Is that so?”
“Yes sir. My miniskirt was riding up my ass and the unfortunate outcome was a terrorist incident.”
The interviewer stares like a confused fish.
After a beat, the interviewer laughs. “Humor is a positive sign for men in your position.”
“What position would that be?”
The pen swirls in a circle. “Well. You’ve probably noticed. These incidents seem angled around you.”
“I did notice some of that, yeah.”
“Why do you think he keeps targeting you?”
“He holds me personally responsible for his disfigurement.”
“So kind of a vengeance thing.”
Lazur stares across the table with his dark eyes. “It is vengeance, sir.”
“So why doesn’t he kill you?”
“Dead guys don’t feel terror.”
“I’m still struggling to get the whole picture here…”
I can’t tell them I’m the cat toy he plays with instead of designing someone a reasonable, mainstream bomb that will explode in a densely populated civic center. I can’t tell them they can’t protect me, no matter what they say. They failed repeatedly and I’m feeling very exposed, if I’m being honest, which I am not. When I go outside it’s like I’m not wearing clothes. They can never watch me as faithfully as he does.
They say, well, we’re doing our best if you don’t want to go into witness protection or change your name. Like it’s my job to eliminate my own existence.
Lazur Cortázar. My mother gave me life, then she gave me that name. It’s a good name and it’s mine and I won’t let it go. Because this could end at any second and whatever is left will be engraved in stone.
Stop nodding. He asked a question.
“You had contact with him at the restaurant.”
Lazur’s palm itches with the memory of burnt flesh stretched around knobby wrist bones, the boy’s ulnar styloid process rolling under his grip. “Contact?”
“What did he say to you?”
“He said something is coming.”
“It was very ominous, sir.”
“Do you have any idea what he meant by this statement?”
“He’s probably going to blow something up real good.”
“What was that? Let me turn the fan down.”
“I said, whatever it was, it won’t be good.”
“Are you worried by his access to hyper-exotic materials?”
More talking, saying all the right things. Look at my worry, sir. Isn’t it nice and pert and just the right size? Not crazy worry. Not like I’ve been inhaling bomb fumes for the last decade of my life. Just the kind of worry an action hero would have, knowing he can walk off set when his scene is done. I would never look like a pussy in front of my beautiful fake wife, and especially not in front of the mental health professional my brain is auditioning for. Yes sir, my amygdala can tap dance. But the best trick is when I time travel back to the worst moments of my life and perfectly recreate the heart rate I had at that exact juncture.
But I am worried about his access to hyper-exotic materials. His contacts were burnt. Where is he getting them? And for that matter, what the fuck is a hyper-exotic material? Isn’t a slow bomb unrealistic? Stretch my anus, not my disbelief.
I could have made him tell me. His wrist was so thin I could feel his heart.
Well, Laz. I don’t wanna give you nightmares.
What gives my nightmare nightmares?
The interviewer looks at the clock. “If he contacts you again, you’ll let us know, won’t you?”
Pause. Tap tap of the pen. “We understand if you’re not ready to go back into the field yet.”
I don’t know which outcome to push for. I’m exhausted but insanely wired. Half of me wants to chase him down and finish this forever. The other half wants to disappear to a small town and let them run a controlled detonation of forty years of my life. Maybe this name is worthless. I’ll always be the guy who fucked a bomb. There’s no medal for that. But maybe there should be.
A small town wouldn’t be so bad. Or go Unibomber in the woods, minus the bomber. If you could find one nice thing, just one, and keep it safe, that might be enough.
“—the intel does substantiate him having a new supplier. But—”
Lazur sits forward. “Who?”
“Some guy. We’re not sure yet.”
“Just some guy?”
“A man of means, apparently.”
“Yeah. That’s probably it. Just a wallet.”
The interviewer sets his pen down and gives a friendly, you-can-trust-me, just us guys look. “So. Do you think you’re ready to go back out there?”
I’ve been doing this long enough to know you have to let them decide. Either choice is indicative of a deep moral and psychological failing. Yes means you’re about to shoot up the entire office. No means you’re an unpatriotic coward and both of your ethnic roots have finally revealed their particular genetic deficiencies.
So I shrug and say, “It helps to have something to work on. But you’re the expert. You make the call.”
As I see him make the decision, the pain finally hits me. The pain of being asked all these questions by someone I can’t be honest with. When I badly want to tell someone how I’m feeling.
A week later, a ticket arrives in the mail. There is a desert and this ticket belongs to it.
A visa falls from the envelope and his face pleads silently from the plastic. Diplomatic visa. Peace mission.