From The Vault & Behind The Curtain

Today I watched freshmen play variations of handball and thought about this story I wrote five years ago. I remember the idea taking bones on a commute in Kuwait. I was at a stoplight waiting to merge onto the Thirty, heading home, and the BBC was on (I listened to a lot of BBC while driving around Kuwait) and I heard this interview in which someone (man? woman? I don’t recall because what sticks is what s/he said) answered that no, no s/he was not a hero. I remember rolling my eyes because this person was a hero, really. Probably saved dozens of souls, but was too humble to admit heroic action. I just did what any person would do blah blah. So I thought, what if someone in one of these interviews just said, Yeah, I am a hero. I carried eight kids out of a burning building! I got kneecapped for telling the truth! I assassinated a terrorist! Yeah, I’m a hero! Yeah! I thought a person would be crucified in the comments if they said such a thing. And then I had a place to start.

Part of the challenge of Thirty-Nine Stories is to generate new work. But some of my new work feels a little too raw to share yet. There’s a reason why we revise before publishing, and most of what I’ve been writing is more a slog through self-doubt and fear interrupted with pep and prayer for peace, contentment. A few pieces are taking shape (Deo volente might be my first tattoo) but nothing is okay to post here yet. So today when I remembered that weird story I wrote – well, here you are. Never before posted. I actually workshopped this with an editor who had reservations about the ending.

I like the ending. I like the whole piece. Once the BBC interview sparked a what if? all I had to do was find a situation calling for heroic acts, and make a character admit that, yes, he or she is a hero.

Now. A peek behind the curtain. I found my character one day while I ordered a coffee. Behind me was a crew of five or six painters contracted to paint the new shops at the Avenues mall in Kuwait. The one man was broad and muscled and sex just rolled off him. How does that happen? How do some people vibe potency like that? Here is the thing, friends. If you write, you talk with all kinds of people, even the ones that make your insides quiver, and when you talk you learn all kinds of things like that this broad, muscled man from LA paints stores for Victoria’s Secret, and that he’s dying for a drink in a dry land. Also behind the curtain is a podcast host I followed through his move from LA to Seattle. Also behind the curtain is the fear I had while living in Kuwait where security seemed a little loose for the region, that I might die the victim of a spectacular, poorly planned but well executed terrorist attack.

This piece is about as final as you’ll read on this blog. I drafted extra scenes as I wrote, revised two or three times before sharing with an editor, cut a lot, and today I line edited a few things but kept the piece largely same. Before I call this piece finished finished I’ll take a close look the dialogue (structure, tags and interspersed action), and (maybe) the last lines. I like the ending, but. Hm. Oh, as with other pieces, please stop if you must.

The worst part came after the bombing, when Jake was home in LA. He said yes, he was a hero, and talk radio, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere lit up. “Don’t look at it,” Krissy said, closing her laptop, “Don’t.” She looked like she might be sick. He took the computer and opened it to a CNN blurb about the quote Jake gave. There were hundreds of comments, mostly angry. Jake didn’t need to hear the clip on repeat. It was in his head. “People you rescued call you their guardian angel or their hero. Are you a guardian angel?” Jake had laughed a little, “No.” The reporter followed up, with a laugh of his own, “Then are you a hero?” And Jake said, “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero.” The aired interview and the blurbs cut the quote there. It didn’t matter that Jake said he was a hero alongside other heroes of the day. What mattered was that he owned the title. There was a website selling tee shirts and shot glasses with the quote, “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero.”

He was dying for a drink but Krissy tossed even the miniature Baileys she kept for her Saturday morning coffee. He didn’t think she had any other bottles hidden. Jake scrolled through a dozen comments and handed the laptop back to Krissy. “Baby,” she said, but he was already on his way to the bedroom, pulling the blackout curtains, closing the door.

He was in Kuwait to paint murals in the Victoria’s Secret store opening in the Grand Avenue mall. The job was slated to take two weeks, ten hour days. A week into the job, the boss called LA and said they needed another week. The other guys bitched about having to stay another week in a dry country – someone had gotten ahold of date rum, but two bottles between five guys lasted only a few nights. Jake didn’t mind not having booze easily available. A year ago he’d gone to Dubai to touch up The Rainforest Café and the guys got wasted nightly. That’d been hard, at the start of his sobriety.

Painting Victoria’s Secrets was one of his favorites. It was hard to mess up cream bows and pink swirls, gold accents. He listened to music and painted his panel. It wasn’t like painting a patterned grid. Bows didn’t have to be equally pleated.

All the guys had something they added to their panels, nearly invisible signatures. Jake liked to put a circle somewhere in the panel. Once, on the checkered wall of an expensive boutique, Jake painted a circle small as a thumbprint. At Victoria’s Secret, he added a tiny circle at the end of a curlicue. Laura called that cheating. She’d joined their crew a few months before. “Curlicues already have circles,” she said. He shrugged. Laura hid her initials in the panels. They weren’t supposed to be artists with names. “One day I’ll have a show and sell a ton of shit and these crappy bows will be worth something,” Laura said, nose close to a corner of her panel, using the tiniest brush she owned to make nearly invisible cursive letters: LPA. Laura was a few years out of art school and leased studio space with four other artists, took this job as a muralist to pay bills. Two of the other guys had gone that route too: art school, small shows, maxed out credit cards, job as a muralist.

One thing Jake missed about drinking with the crew were the stories. He still ate dinner with the group but when one of them suggested a bar or nightcaps at the hotel, he left. He missed the bullshitting and storytelling and laughing. He missed hearing about cut up credit cards and girlfriends’ cats and the one painting that sold for seven hundred dollars. He didn’t get the jokes told the next day.

The morning of the bombing, before there was a bombing, Krissy called. Jake was drinking his second cup of coffee and had ten minutes before the van took the crew to the Grand Avenue. He could hear a late show on the TV, during the pauses. “I gotta go,” Jake finally said and Krissy murmured something he didn’t catch. “Love you too,” he said. He stood and finished the last of the coffee, patted his back pocket for his wallet, and left.

He was jetlagged. When he got to the mall, he stopped at Starbucks for a latte. He’d order another on his morning break, another in the afternoon. By the end of the day his arms felt tingly from the reach and precision of painting, but also from the caffeine.

It didn’t happen until eleven that morning. By then, they’d been painting for nearly four hours. The boom was thunderous but distant. Jake muted his music and held still, listening. Laura climbed down from her ladder and walked toward the store entrance, opened a door cut into the drywall and turned back toward the guys. That’s when the second bomb went off, at their end of the mall. Jake heard a sharp crack and shattering, then a deafening explosion in his body, in his teeth. He jumped from the platform before he fell. Laura staggered back. Jake ran toward her and shut the door. The wide palm lined path was already rolling with dust and smoke. They stood, uncertain, in the middle of the store. A siren went off with a whoop, interrupted by evacuation instructions in Arabic and English. Jake felt his pockets for his phone and wallet. His heart was wild.

“I don’t think we should go out yet,” Scott said, “What if there’s a third?”

“Give it five minutes, then we leave,” Laura said. They waited, ears ringing. Laura got on her phone to check Twitter. A few witnesses had already uploaded pictures. “Oh my God,” she said. There were numerous routes out of the mall. They decided to run for it: open the door and take the clearest exit.

At first, Jake just saw the structural catastrophe. Mounds of concrete and metal. The few standing palms had no leaves. Plate glass windows blown out. Café chairs and tables scattered and twisted. Where the blast occurred, the high domed ceiling of metal triangles and thick glass was blown open to show sky. The air was gritty. Jake coughed, pulled his tee shirt over his nose and mouth. The broadcast warnings continued, a calm female voice urging exit. Scott pointed at the short staircase where they entered each day. They could go down to the parking area, cut through the cars to outside. Others were already moving in that direction. Some walked or shuffled. A few ran. More hesitated.

Laura saw the first body, a woman slumped against the giant gold brick of Harvey Nichols. Laura went to the body, knelt. Jake followed. Dust settled like snow on the woman. Jake hadn’t seen anyone dead before, like this. He made a slow circle. There were more, bodies thrown like the café chairs and display tables. The surfaces were hard and sharp. Jake was strong, muscled, but the edges and jags of damage made him feel soft.

“She’s alive. Hey.” Laura looked up at Jake. The woman took the shallowest of breaths. Her forehead was broken open. “We can’t leave her,” Laura said. Scott was at the stairs. Jake waved him on, but he shook his head and came toward them.

Now other bodies were waking. Jake heard whimpers and moans, crying. Jake and Scott left Laura holding the woman’s hand. They walked zigzag from body to body to see who was alive. Further down, a store ceiling collapsed; they dropped to the ground, cutting their knees and palms on glass. For another minute it was quiet again. Jake could hear rescuers shouting. He got up and walked toward Starbucks where another hall opened to more stores and more halls: the blast destroyed that section entirely.

Later, Jake showed Krissy where he’d been, pointing on the mall blueprint everyone saw in the days after the attack. “I went here on breaks.” He traced his finger from Victoria’s Secret to Starbucks. “But that morning, I wanted to finish my panel first.” He shivered. His memory was smaller than the casualty and costs numbers reported.

He and others moved concrete, furniture, clothing racks, mannequins, shelving, cooking ranges, appliances, sculpture, lighting fixtures, stair railings: to get to people: men, women, children, conscious, unconscious, punctured, unpunctured, bleeding or not, ambulatory, broken, hysterical, subdued. Jake remembered a few faces: a boy of eight or nine with tear tracks down his gray cheeks; a girl nearby with purple and red ribbons in her hair, mute with shock; an older man with tiny rocks and glass chips caught in his beard. He remembered a few limbs: the fat arm of a woman wrapped at his waist as he helped her to a waiting medic; the dead legs of a man paralyzed, unable to be helped until the emergency workers could get him immobilized on a stretcher; the tiny arm of an infant, like a doll’s arm dislocated at the shoulder, on a storefront window ledge. He remembered smells: burnt electrics, concrete dust, iron blood, vomit, piss. He and others worked without stopping, alongside emergency workers, taking direction, cutting their hands, skinning their arms and legs, turning aside to gag or vomit. Someone brought water. When the day got dark, five hundred watt lights were hoisted on spindly aluminum frames, illuminating the disaster. The emergency crews asked civilians to leave. Investigators on site took names and nationalities.

Outside, Jake, Scott and Laura joined others waiting for transport. Fifth Ring Road was blocked for emergency access only. Buses and vans were shuttling survivors and volunteers to their neighborhoods. The ride to their hotel was quiet and when Jake got to his room he put his phone on the charger and called Krissy, sitting on the edge of the bed in his dirty clothes. His stomach growled. Krissy answered on the first ring. “My God, Jake!” She started crying and he closed his eyes and said he was okay.

“I was so worried. You have no idea. I woke up and it was all over the news. Baby, oh God,” she turned away from the phone to blow her nose.
“My phone died,” Jake said.
“You have no idea. I’m so glad you’re okay. I’m so happy.”

Before he left on this trip, they’d had a fight about leaving LA. Krissy missed Seattle. She had a job she could easily leave, a degree and experience that would find her work. When she opened an account to save for six months of job searching, the fighting started.

“You’re planning without me,” Jake said
“I thought you’d believe me if I took a step,” she said.

When he was packing for Kuwait, Krissy leaned against the doorjamb, arms crossed. “If we lived in Seattle, you could paint murals too,” she said, “Real murals. I bet there are bookstores and restaurants that would contract you.”

He turned to look at her and said, “Real murals?” “Yeah. Maybe even city blocks or homes,” she paused, “Not panty stores.” When they had this conversation a year ago, it was a dare for him to go for it. He’d just gotten home from Dubai. She’d nuzzled his chest and kissed up his neck and whispered she bet he could quit and make it on his own. “No more panty stores,” she teased, pulling her own off. Now the comment was mean.

Later, eating dinner in front of the TV, Krissy said, “I just want to see you be your best. That’s all.” Jake turned the TV off. She was cute, short hair and thick brows, slender neck. Her lips were always shiny. He could see her working her jaw. At night she wore a mouth guard to keep her teeth from grinding. “Krissy, right now, I think this is my best.” He held the lo mien carton under his chin, a short journey for clumsy chopsticks. He pulled noodles into his mouth with his teeth, wiped his chin with his thumb. She put her own carton on the coffee table and left. Jake turned on the TV again, shoveled lo mein. He slept on the couch. The next morning, he went into their room to get his suitcase and she sat up in bed, pulled her mouth guard out. “Hey,” she said, “We’ll figure it out.” She opened her arms and he walked over, kissed her cheek. “Please call,” she said before falling back into her nest of pillows.

The first few days back from Kuwait, Krissy stayed with him, made eggs and bacon and repeated that she would listen when he was ready to talk. She bought him a composition book like he’d used in high school English, to write, if he wanted. One afternoon Laura called and he drove over to her place. Scott was there. Laura offered Jake a Coke. He wanted what she was having, but took the soda. As the evening went on, Jake realized Scott wasn’t leaving. He felt ridiculous, standing and thanking her for the Coke, saying he’d see them in a week or two, whenever the crew was back at work. When he got home, Krissy stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek but also, he knew, to smell his breath. The day Krissy went back to her job, she emailed him links to apartments and condos on Capitol Hill, subject lines like: maybe??? or LOVE this one! He opened a couple.

He was alone when the reporter called. “Is this Jake Welsh? So glad I reached you, Jake,” The voice was warm. Then, without thinking about it, Jake was giving an interview over the phone, telling this stranger what he hadn’t told his wife. They talked for ten or fifteen minutes, Jake standing in the middle of the kitchen the whole time, rooted by the images that came. At one point, early, the reporter said, “Jake, I’m taping this so I get your quotes right. Is that okay?” The questions walked him through that morning, the choking fear of waiting for a third blast, the protective numb while digging out victims, the fear and pain that came in waves he tried to swallow.

“Jake, we got your name from some people on site. I’ve talked with a few people you rescued.” And then, the part everyone would know. “People you rescued call you their guardian angel or their hero. Are you a guardian angel?” Jake laughed a little. “No.” The reporter followed up, with a laugh of his own. “Then are you a hero?” Jake shifted his weight, paused – the pause cut from aired clips – and said, “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero.” He drew an unsteady breath, seeing that first woman bleeding from the crack in her skull, remembering Laura kneeling and taking the woman’s hand. “But I was one of many heroes that day.” And then the interview was over. “Thank you, Jake. Thank you. I think people will be heartened to hear your story.” The reporter hung up and Jake stared dumbly at his phone, trying to remember what he’d said.

The next morning he read his quote in a story, listened to the linked interview online, went cold at the editing, and called Laura. “He cut out what I said about others being heroes,” he said, and made her listen to the interview and call him back. “It’s not good,” Laura said, “The first parts are fine, but the hero bit at the end – he makes you sound, I don’t know.”

“I know. Shit.”
“Don’t let it mess your head,” she said, “No one will hear it.”

But everyone heard it. By mid morning, the “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero” clip was playing and morning zoo shows piled on. “This man is douche,” one caller said, “I’ll tell you who the real heroes are. 9/11 rescuers who never, never would call themselves heroes.” On the phone, Krissy was apoplectic that Jake gave an interview at all, to a reporter he couldn’t even see. Her voice was a near shout. Jake, alone in the apartment, hung up on Krissy and retreated to the bedroom. That night he was in bed reading a book he’d had since high school. Krissy took her carry on from the closet, opened it on her side of the bed. He earmarked his page and watched her zip a suit into its garment bag, wrap her heels in an old tee shirt, pack her running shoes and shorts. She went to the bathroom and rallied her toiletries on the counter.

“Are you going to ask?” Krissy sat next to him.
“I was waiting for you to tell me.”
“I was going to say something this morning. But your interview –” She sighed. “I have a second interview.”
“Wow. I – didn’t know you had a first.”
“I wasn’t sure how it would go.”
“Good, apparently.” He touched her arm.
“Yeah. They called and I scheduled this while you were away. And then – are you mad?”
“I’m sorry.”
“Do you need to be?”
“Kinda. I did this without you. It’s in Seattle.”
“You’re mad.”
“I need to think. If you get the job –”
“I wouldn’t start for two months.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t think you’d want to go.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“Well, see?”
“But we could talk about it.”
“We’re talking now.”
“The night before you leave for an interview.”
Krissy bowed her head.
“What happens if you get the job and I don’t want to go?”
“I don’t know.”

Finally Krissy got up and brushed her teeth. They pulled their covers up, said goodnight. Jake wasn’t sure what time he fell asleep, but when he woke, Krissy was gone, a note on his bedside table saying she’d call later.

He went online, watched a few YouTube videos mocking him. He read an editorial that spent a dozen paragraphs explaining why Jake Welsh was not a hero and why society has so few legitimate heroes, even in an age of so-called-hero worship. The whole piece made Jake think the world was going to shit. He saw a link in the comments to VIGILANTJUSTICE and clicked, found a site dedicated to real heroes, the men and women of the armed forced [sic] who fight and die willingly for our rights to be freedom [sic] and who preserve justice on justice’s terms. Whatever the fuck that meant. He scrolled down and saw his face with a caption underneath: Come out, come out wherever you are!! You soil the word hero!! Who were these people? He googled vigilantjustice and found an unsettling national presence he’d never heard of before. Angry (mostly) white men praising the military and fiercely guarding the title hero. One photo showed a group carrying signs with photos of pop stars and athletes and all caps lettering NOT MY HERO while other signs had photos of soldiers and all caps lettering MY REAL HERO. Jake was suddenly very tired. He lay down on the couch and listened to his voicemail, reporter after reporter leaving their name, publication and number. Delete delete delete. He called Laura.

She answered on the fifth ring. “Hey. I have a news van parked on my street.”
“Are you going to talk to anyone?”
“Not after watching you get nailed.”
Jake didn’t say anything. Laura said, “You should hire someone. PR. Or use Krissy as your spokeswoman.”
“She’s gone.”
“Listen, hang on.” Jake could hear murmuring and then Laura said, “Come over here. Scott’s here.”

Jake looked lifted the blinds facing the street. News crews were double parked at the building entrance. “I don’t think I can get out.”

He organized the kitchen cupboards, listening to roaring music, checking expiration dates on labels and making a pyramid of cans whose best-by dates had passed. He went to the linen closet and folded towels he’d only shoved in before, matched fitted and flat sheets. He found a small jar of shoe cleaner and an old towel, cleaned his shoes, then Krissy’s. His laptop remained closed, green light blinking full charge. He went back to the kitchen and opened the fridge, shelf by shelf taking out old produce, mustard he didn’t remember, a rock of French bread.

Krissy called that afternoon. The interview went well, she thought, and she’d be on a plane tomorrow morning, going straight to work from the airport.

“Are you doing okay?” she asked.
“There’s news vans out front.”
“Don’t go out.”
“I’m not going out.”
“Good. Call the police. It’s probably against the law.” She sighed. “They better be gone tomorrow.”

Jake watched the local news and saw his apartment building. A neighbor Jake didn’t recognize gave a short statement. Jake ordered a pizza and watched the delivery man hold the box above his head, jostling through the reporters. He tipped a twenty and returned to the window to watch the man encircled, camera flashes. He ate half the pizza and drank water. A couple months into sobriety, Jake was at a friend’s place watching the game, eating pizza. He said sure to a beer, took a drink, set the bottle down, called Krissy to pick him up. Now he wished he had a beer. Only one in the apartment, ice cold.

He called Laura and Scott answered. “Laura’s in the shower,” he said.
“You living there now?”
“For a couple days, that’s all.”
“She doing okay?”
“Not really, if you want to know.” Scott coughed. “We dated a little before.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Yeah, she’s cool, but gets dark. I think she feels safe with me around. I tell her what’s real.”
“So what’s real?”
“Fuck if I know, man.”
“I hope you aren’t telling her that.”
Scott laughed. “No. No, I say it’s gonna be okay. I say she’s lucky she’s alive. She feels bad about that.”
“That’s normal, right?”
“Do you feel bad about being alive?”
“Not yet. A little shocked. It plays like a movie.”
“She’s out now. Want me to put her on?”
“Nah, that’s okay. I just –”
“Jake?” Laura said, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I – yeah.”
“Us too. Just worried about you. Are you online?”
“I think you have to say something. The junk they’re saying is ridiculous. It isn’t what happened. It isn’t who you are.”
“What would I say?”
“What you said before, but live.”
“I can’t even remember what I said.”
“Sure you can.” Laura turned away from the phone and then came back on. “Scott thinks it won’t work. I’m supposed to tell you that. But I think you should go downstairs and say what you want to say. They can’t all fuck you over.”

Jake looked out the window. There were only three vans out front now. Tomorrow he wouldn’t be a story.

“I’m still here.”
“Just go say it. Say it live.”

Jake hung up. He thought of calling Krissy, but she would talk him out of it. He went to his closet and pulled on a clean shirt, clean pants. He brushed his teeth. His body was ringing. He shook out his arms, then dropped to the floor and did forty push-ups to level the adrenaline. After wiping his face with a towel and taking an exaggerated deep breath, like the ones Krissy took during yoga, he unlocked the apartment door and pressed the elevator button down.

He opened the lobby door. The street was well-lit. The reporters and cameramen gathered around a van didn’t see Jake until he was part of their circle. One woman jumped.

“Hi. I’m Jake.” They all knew who he was. He said, “I’d like to give a statement, but only if you run the whole thing.” A couple reporters exchanged glances. Jake said, “I mean, you have to run it all. Live.” “Let me call the station,” said one of them and then they all took steps away, talking into their phones.

One of them said, “We can run it live. Give us a minute to patch in.” Jake nodded. The rest of the crews would use the material back at their newsrooms, or not at all. Jake crossed his arms, uncrossed his arms, crossed his arms. Then the cameras were turned on, lighting checked. Jake moved to where they wanted him to stand, in a halo of streetlight. One man suggested he uncross his arms, take a breath. Jake rolled his neck. “You ready?” said a cameraman. The long fuzzy microphones inched closer. Jake nodded. The little red lights on the cameras blinked. A reporter whispered, “Go ahead. You’re on.”

“My name is Jake Welsh. I was at the Grand Avenue in Kuwait when they were bombed and I helped pull men, women and children to safety.” Jake’s mouth went dry. He swallowed. “I said I was a hero. You heard that part. But I also said I wasn’t the only hero that day. You didn’t hear that part.” Jake paused. He said, “I’m not embarrassed of what I said, what I really said.” He stopped again.

A reporter mouthed, “Is that it?”

Jake shook his head. He said, “I’m not going to say anything mean about the misquote. But I’m wondering why that became the story here. Who cares if I think I’m a hero?” Jake looked at each camera in turn. “That’s all. Sad this country got so excited about a dumbass quote.”

After the cameras cut, one reporter said they’d have to bleep the word dumbass. Jake said that was fine. Another reporter asked if they could cut the pauses. Jake said no. The reporter pointed out they didn’t have a legal contract. “Look,” the reporter said, “That was a one minute, forty-seven second quote you just gave and most of it was silent.” Jake stared at the reporter. “Fine,” the reporter said, “We’ll put it online.”

The crews, having got a shot and quote from Jake, started packing. Jake watched with his hands in his pockets. He felt good, high. He was about to head back up the apartment when a cameraman said, “Oh shit.”  Jake turned to see a van speeding down the block, toward them, its headlights out. Jake squinted. The front windscreen said VIGILANTJUSTICE. Everyone had their phones out then. Someone told Jake to get out of there, these guys were fucking nuts. Jake walked sideways to keep an eye on the van, nearly tripping, when its doors flew open and five men wearing black tee shirts printed VIGILANTJUSTICE jumped out before the van stopped. The men carried guns. Reporters put their hands up but the black tee shirts rushed by. Hands dropped. Cameramen fumbled with lens caps and shouldered their cameras, bright flashbulbs sweeping from the black tee shirts to Jake. Reporters ran hands through their hair and began narrating.

“We knew you’d come out of your hidey hole,” said the front man. His breast pocket said Eli. The men behind Eli stared stone-faced at Jake. Jake took a step back, looked over his shoulder at his apartment lobby. The front desk attendant on the phone. The men raised their weapons.

“You gonna kill me?”

The weapons clicked. Eli jerked his head toward the van and Jake stepped forward, got a gun barrel in his chest. “Not you.” Eli jerked his head again and two of the tee shirts went to the van, pulled out a long beam, a coil of rope, and a cordless power drill. “Get the step ladder too,” said Eli.

The setup was swift: stepladder against a utility pole, the beam drilled horizontally in place with six inch screws, then lashed with rope. The reporters stood with their mouths hanging open. In the apartment lobby, the front desk attendant lowered behind the desk. Eli jerked his head at Jake, said, “Climb up.”

“What?” Jake didn’t get it. And then he did. He looked up and saw backlit figures at windows.
“Hero?” Eli jabbed his gun into Jake’s shoulder.
“I just – I just cleared that up. Ask them for the footage.” Jake pointed at the news crews. Eli glared. One reporter wet her pants.
“You don’t clear up nothing,” Eli said. He spit on the ground. “You say hero like it’s a Girl Scout badge. Go.” Eli gestured toward the utility pole.

Jake walked over to the stepladder. He climbed up and turned so he was facing the ring of VIGILANTJUSTICE black tee shirts and the reporters behind them. The cameras held steady. “Like this?” Jake put out his arms, his skin touching the rough cross beam. “You want me to stand here like this?”

Now the man with the drill climbed the stepladder so his body pressed into Jake. Very quickly, he took a long screw from a breast pocket embroidered Sam, and drilled into Jake’s left wrist, through bone to wood. Jake screamed, swung his right arm. Sam jumped down. Eli smiled. “Don’t jump. Tear right through your wrist. Stay put.”

A flashbulb bobbed on a cameraman’s shoulder as he leaned over to vomit.

“Tell you what,” said Eli, “You put your other hand out, promise not to kick, and we won’t drill your feet too.”

Jake thought he might pass out. He stared at his left wrist, the screw sticking an inch out, not much blood. He nodded and lifted his right arm out. Sam climbed back up, his weight against Jake again, and leaned over to drill Jake’s right wrist to the beam. Jake was still screaming when Sam hopped down, produced two more screws and stuck one to the magnetic drill head. Jake kicked and screw skittered across pavement. A couple of men bent to search the sidewalk and gutter, found the screw. Another black tee shirt took off his belt and wrapped it below Jake’s knees, cinched around the pole. Two guns trained on Jake while Sam rubbed a thumb along Jake’s ankle, found the spot and hit right through to wood. The other ankle was easier. Jake was passed out.

Sirens were near. The black tee shirts climbed in their van and sped away, leaving Jake drilled to the utility pole, propped on a step ladder. In his front pocket, his phone vibrated. Jake opened his eyes and asked the nearest cameraman to fish it out. The cameraman set down his camera and climbed up the stepladder, answered the phone and held it to Jake’s ear. It was Laura.

“Jake, I saw it live. You were great.”

Jake swallowed. Cops slammed on brakes, blocked the street. He breathed out, raised himself on his toes. “Thanks. I think they get it.”

Seven of thirty-nine. 5134 words!

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