Everybody wants something.
Every waking and sleeping moment we want something. It could be as simple as some quiet so we can sleep, a day without pain when we’re sick, a new toy, someone else’s old toy, time alone, time not alone, fresh air, sweet water, or sunshine. It could be as grandiose as a billion dollars so you could buy everything you want, or as insignificant as a used rubberband for a bundle of old letters. We never stop wanting.
I wanted to live. I’m really not afraid of dying. I just didn’t want to do it right that moment.
I had too much to do. I wondered if we could reschedule the meeting. Redlands seemed intent on covering the entire agenda. I hoped I would have a chance to laugh with Valerie when I told her how I had peed myself, too.
“I am so glad you came.” His voice was full of a menacing pleasure.
I felt the gun next to my ear. Curious, I thought they were supposed to be cold. This one felt warm, very warm. I had no voice. I couldn’t find it.
The pistol and the air were still. The city buzzed low in the background. The air smelled like tea brewed with oak leaves. I was very conscious of my pulse. It was slowing gradually. I could almost sense the rhythm of Redlands’ heart beating across the muzzle-built bridge connecting him to me. We were synchronizing.
He spoke again — the sound of a dry branch. “Why do they call you Tools?”
There it was — my voice. “I am very good with my fingers. I can open almost anything. Why did you want to meet?”
“Let me lead the way here. I want you to listen to me very closely.”
I listened with every cell in me. Every hair on my body strained to hear.
“The truth will set you free.” He might have been smiling. When his face changed expression, I almost thought I could feel the pressure of the air that moved in concert with his tiniest facial muscles. “Promise now to tell me the truth.” The smile faded.
“I will tell you the truth.” There were no contractions in my words. I would be precise. I would not hold back in this place, at this time, for all the moments of this confession under the bare lilac.
“Why are you so good with your fingers?”
“It is a gift.”
“A gift from God?”
The truth was my truth. “Yes, it is a gift from God.” The warmth of his bulk, so close, was like a lamp in this shaded place. He radiated heat. The gun was warmer.
“Why do you misuse your gift?”
“I use it as I can.”
“You are a thief.”
“I am a thief.”
“You steal from people.”
“Yes, I steal from people.”
“Isn’t that a sin?” Each word was spaced and distinct.
“Some would say it is.”
Almost before I finished. “…say it is…” The air grew warmer. “Do you think you are the one who decides what sin is?”
“No, I do not make that judgment.”
“You do not. But I will make a judgment here tonight. That is why you are here.”
I was to be judged. I had feared judgment all my life. Now that it was here, I could only be amazed that the air tasted so good in my lungs.
“What is the punishment for sin?”
I had learned this years before. Was the answer I had learned, then, the right one? I knew it wasn’t. I gave the answer I had learned since. “Sin is its own punishment.”
“Is there no other penalty? How can sin be punishment?” He was putting my words on some internal scale. He was weighing them against the feather of his sanity.
“Sin separates us from God. To be separated from God is the most terrible of punishments.”
The scale did not tip yet. No wind disturbed us on the Albino Farm. Redlands held the gun so lightly, without the slightest tremor. I held my head just as still. We were both very strong at that moment.
“Are you an honest man?”
I had to be faithful to the real. “Yes.”
“But you are a thief.”
“I am a thief.”
“Are you an honest man?”
Truth does not change. We are all honest or dishonest, depending on how clearly we see ourselves, and how we share that with others. Honesty is not based on propriety or law. It is not diminished by our mistakes. If we genuinely seek honesty, we find it. The dirt under my knees was soft.
I think I smiled. Terri’s body had been right here. She needed some honesty even more than justice.
“Are you an honest man?” I hadn’t answered.
“Have you hurt other people?”
“Yes, I have.”
“Then you are judged.” I felt the air move around his finger. In slow motion I heard the click of the trigger, pulling springs, and the drawn-out slide of the firing pin. Metal on metal like the rasp of death itself. The slap was deafening as it struck home with an almost seismic jerk. I realized I was ready.
There was no bullet in the chamber. He judged me. He pulled the trigger and pushed me from one side of my life to the other. I had crossed a line.
Quickly, he brought up his other hand, lifted the gun, and slapped in a clip. The gun had been empty, unloaded. It was deliberate. I was here to push his buttons, and instead he was pushing mine. Redlands worked the slide with a calm efficiency. I heard a round hit the chamber.
CLICK! CLICK! The sound of the mechanism accepting its hard purpose.
Within an eternal second, the warm barrel was back to my head, and my blood matched his again as it moved through our bodies.
“The next judgment may be harsher.”
“It’s yours to make, James.” My own voice sounded strange to me.
“You aren’t ever scared?”
“Yes, I am scared sometimes. But not of you. I have wild blood.”
“What does that mean?”
“Something from a dream. I can’t explain.”
He took a deeper breath. We were out of synch for a moment. His voice was not as dry as it had been. “What are you afraid of?”
“Today, I am afraid my son has been hurt beyond healing. I am afraid for him. And I am afraid I can’t help him. I am afraid I am a poor father.”
“I am not a father.”
“I know. You and your wife have had some problems. It must be hard for you to want something so badly…” I think I was feeling some empathy for that man. I really don’t know why. I didn’t want to.
“I hit my wife.” The gun slipped down a quarter inch.
“You hit her? When?” The feather grew heavy as it switched sides on the balance.
“Last week. I slapped her. I slapped her once.”
I had become a priest. The night was my cassock. I knelt on Terri’s tomb. “Did you hurt her?”
“Yes.” He took three shallow quick breaths off rhythm.
“Is she all right?”
“She left me.”
“Have you ever killed a human being?” The gun abruptly pushed very hard at my temple.
“No, never.” It hurt. The muzzle grew very cold.
“Have you ever wanted to kill a man?” I feared my answer and what it might bring.
“Yes.” The truth will set me free.
“Have you ever planned the death of this man?” His breathing was inside my breathing. One.
“Will you kill him?”
“He will die.”
“Why will he die?” The air moved. Had he? Was he closer? Were his lips touching my head right next to the muzzle of his gun? He whispered again, “Why?” The hairs in my ear were electric. Death is more intimate than sex.
“He will die because he is a monster.”
“Heh heh, a monster. Does he look like a monster?” It was almost a laugh that turned into a chill.
“No… He looks like a man.”
He spoke almost before I finished. “He is not what he appears to be?”
“When he dies, will it be a sin?” He held his breath this time.
“No. It will not be a sin when he dies.”
“You have judged him?” He exhaled, and I found myself without air.
“I have.” I could barely say it, but I forced it out again. “I have.” My throat was empty. I accepted what I was.
“I know what he did.”
He went on, “I know what you do. I know what she does.”
“Valerie does only good. She is honest. She is exactly who she appears to be!” I needed him to hear that. I needed him out of her life.
“You will not kill him.” Redlands spoke as if he were reading an inscription on a tomb.
“You cannot do it. I know you. You are a thief, not a killer.” His stare was a pressure on the side of my face.
“You don’t know what I can do. You don’t know what I have done already…” I wasn’t sure of my words. I was sliding carefully away from the complete truth.
He was inside my head now. “Have you ever seen a man die?”
I saw Doug and the fountain from his brain. “Yes.”
“But you did not kill him?”
“I have seen someone die. I have killed.”
Did he expect absolution from me?
“I have killed. Was it a sin?” Redlands asked. There was sorrow in the words.
“Who did you kill?” I was scared now. Had he killed Valerie while I was out driving around, plotting in my head? Why had I left her? I felt my right hand in my jacket pocket. It was wrapped around the gun Ahmed had given me. I had been holding it the whole time. I had forgotten it. Now I became aware of its handle in my palm, wet with perspiration. I felt my finger on the trigger. Mother Mary, pray for me.
“Who did you kill?” There was no more union between us.
“A pervert. A dishonest man.”
“Who did you kill?” I held my breath. So many awful possibilities. Had he done it already? Was I there for no reason at all? I didn’t want it to happen so soon.
A flashlight clicked on behind me. I followed its beam as it tracked away from my knees to the trunk of a tree. The yellowish beam climbed up into the branches. There she was, about seven feet up. It was an image straight out of a Renaissance painting, the shadows and the agony. Two bare branches extended out from under his arms, supporting her limp torso. He was naked and covered in blood. He’d been shot right under her left breast. She’d been shot in his groin. She was very dead. He was Lonnie pinned to a tree by hate.
“Lonnie… You killed Lonnie!” Flour, beans, celery, melba toast; I was cold. “You killed Lonnie.” Some all-spice, a bar of soap, three Milky Ways; that poor, sad meth freak who tried to rob me, the transsexual Mikey had fed drugs to for years, had been executed. I hated Mikey that moment. I hated Redlands.
“He was almost dead when I found him. The drugs had eaten him alive. He needed to die. He was not honest.”
“He was a thief like me.”
“Look at him!” He jabbed me hard with the gun.
Lonnie’s flaccid female breasts were emaciated. Lonnie’s male organ was distended and caked in blood.
“He was not what he appeared to be. He was dishonest.”
“So you judged him?” Where was the heat in my body? I had thought, in my conceit, that I was moving Redlands with my deep philosophical truth. He didn’t work that way. He thought in concrete primitive ways. To James Redlands, honesty was something he could touch with one of his senses. He smelled it. He tasted it. He heard it. He saw it. He kissed it. Then it was real to him. He was over the edge now, and you can’t steer a falling man. The question in my mind was — had he stepped over the right cliff?
“I judged him and I killed him. Now you have a choice, Mr. Tools.”
“A choice?” I wondered if I had gone too far. Some weapons blow up in your hand.
“I have killed and I will kill.” Redlands took a deep breath out of rhythm.
“You will kill?” I wanted to be sure.
“But you must join me, Mr. Tools.”
I felt all the blood leave my face. The November wind had picked up, and I was very cold at that moment. “I must join you?”
Redlands sounded like he was standing at the bottom of a pit. “I will kill.” He pushed the barrel of the gun hard into my skull. “If you join me. If you kill.”
“If I kill.” It wasn’t a question. The time had come for me to understand the price of what I had decided to do.
“Promise me that you will kill him.”
I don’t know whether I was frightened or amazed. James Redlands had, somehow in the depths of his insanity, seen the truth. He had looked into my heart and understood the nature of my revenge.
He pushed the gun hard into my temple. “Now is the moment. Choose. Will you kill him?”
“Marty!” It was Valerie. Her voice was distant. She was on the switchback trail. “Marty!” She was coming up the hill.
“She’s coming, Mr. Tools. She’s coming. Make your choice. I will kill.”
“Leave her alone! Kill me, but leave her alone!”
“Can I kill you? Will you let me kill you if I promise to leave her alone?” He laughed. It was loud after our reverential tones earlier. He laughed again.
“Martin! Are you up there?” She was halfway up.
“Yes, kill me now and go!” I was almost begging him. There were tears on my cheeks. I was begging. I let go of the gun in my pocket and reached out with both hands. Turning, I grabbed Redlands’ gun barrel and put it to my forehead. I held it there. His finger was on the trigger. His eyes were on mine. I screamed at him. “Shoot me now! I am the dishonest one. She has done nothing wrong! Kill me now! Dammit!”
The gun at my head was trembling a bit. “Is that your choice?”
He leaned in close to me. My hand went back into my pocket. I had my gun in my hand. My finger found the trigger. Once again his lips were as close to my ear. I could shoot him now so easily. I had never killed, but I could kill…
I said it. “I will kill. I will kill.” At first it was a whisper. I made my choice. “I will kill.” Louder. Hell, I’d already made my choice before I went up to the Albino Farm. Redlands just wanted me to admit to it. We were both killers. “I will kill,” I shouted. My words echoed across the ridge.
“Marty!” Val was very close to the top.
“Then kill, Mr. Tools. Kill.” He took a slow breath. “I will.” Redlands pulled the gun back away from my head. I turned and saw his ghostly face. And beyond his shoulder I could see into the void and the face on the crucifix pallid with agony.
Suddenly he pulled me close, and he whispered in my ear. “Truly I tell you. Today you will be with me in paradise.”
The spit in my mouth evaporated as if the devil had sucked it away. The two thieves. Lonnie and I were the two thieves. He had quoted Luke’s gospel, Jesus crucified between the two thieves. One is saved by his honesty. That meant Redlands was Jesus. Sweet Mother of God, he thought he was Jesus Christ. I hoped I had not pushed too far.
I shouldn’t have asked him, but I did. “Are you Jesus?”
“I am the Saviour, Mr Hutchence. I am the Saviour.”
Redlands was up and away before I could think. I saw his dark form dart away without cracking a single branch. He slipped away across the Albino Farm and was gone.
Valerie crashed through the bushes and almost fell over me. I was just kneeling on that mound by the lilac. I was shaking. I could not stop shaking. I realized I was squeezing the gun in my pocket so hard my hand was beginning to hurt. I had not shot him. I had not killed him. I hoped I was right. I hoped I had passed his test. But…
“Marty!” She grabbed me. She kissed me. “Marty, are you all right?” She kissed me a hundred times.
“I’m O.K. He’s gone. I’m O.K.” I thought I was going to live. I wanted to live.
“I love you, Marty.” I was surely dead after all.
“What did you say?” I stood up on my shaky legs and pulled her to her feet. “What did you say?”
At that moment, Sally R. Rosemond reached the top of the hill and emerged from the bushes shining a flashlight on Valerie and me embracing.
“Better back off, Val.” Sally was smiling.
“Why, Sally?” Valerie was holding me very close. I looked at my rival. It was my turn for the look of triumph.
“Better back up. I do believe Mr. Hutchence has peed himself.”
forgotten about that.