“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
What is the point of holding a gun to a dead man’s head?
This is the question I ask myself over and over as I stare down the barrel of the handgun leveled at my forehead.
Rain blasts from the sky, soaking me to the bone. Clouds the color of tar boil above us like a witch’s brew. Droplets stream down my pale face. My rump is getting damp as water gathers on the roof beneath us. We are at the top of a twenty-story skyscraper, and there is nothing to stop the wind from gnawing at us. I’m afraid it might knock my poor brother right off the roof.
Aiden, my fifteen-year-old brother, stands quivering twenty feet away from me on the edge of the roof. I can only see his profile, and sometimes not even that as our captors mull anxiously about us. He has uncooperative dark hair, slicked down by the pounding rain, and a sharp nose. His wide eyes are fixed on the traffic below, and he trembles, hands clutching the loose flaps of his jacket. Dried blood sticks to his forehead from a superficial but painful-looking wound. I know him well enough to recognize tears mingling with the raindrops dripping from his pointy chin.
He’s always believed that your choices manipulate the outcome of your life, but he’s done nothing to deserve having a gun to his head, and it’s killing him.
Desperate to comfort Aiden, I try to stand, but pain shoots through my broken leg, immobilizing me. It’s all I can do to keep from blacking out. I’d already taken too much of a beating to get up. I’m not very big for my age anyway. The man holding the gun gives me a sharp kick, and I double over, groaning through my teeth. My crutch lies nearby, out of reach.
I shoot a pleading glance at Dominic, the useless, fidgety man standing nearby. He keeps his gaze on the ground and refuses to look my way.
Sighing, I rest my head on the wet concrete. With my clothing soaked, I look like a cat that was thrown into the rain – mangy, small, and miserable.
Xavier Mandus paces back and forth next to a looming generator on the center of the roof. The yellowish lights coming from the windows of surrounding skyscrapers cut across his thin, ghoulish, tattooed features. Inked in his skin is half the face of a dragon or a demon or goodness knows what. It spans from his right ear to the center of his nose, chin to forehead. The tattoo darkens the area around his right eye and makes it look like a hollow cavity. Its leering smile leaves my stomach twisting. If not for this disturbing fact, I would never have suspected he was a murderer.
Mandus snarls into the receiver of his cell phone, “I’m giving you ten more minutes, and then your boys are going to start eating bullets. How much good will your 80K do you then?”
Aiden squeezes his eyes shut as another round of tears roll down his pale, soaked cheeks. His lips quiver, but he doesn’t say a word.
The urge to comfort him swells inside me, but I have no way of getting to him. There are five men on the roof, and I’m a nineteen-year-old boy with a broken leg.
Mandus looks at me with pitying eyes as he snaps the phone shut. His tattoo gives me a soulless stare, and I can’t help but remember the day that he held me as I died. Petted and comforted me as my lifeblood soaked the ground. Then again, only an hour ago, he’d beaten me with my own crutch. How could a man be so cruel and so tender?
“You weren’t joking when you said your parents didn’t care, did you, Jack?” Mandus says in a gentle tone.
“I may have problems, but lying isn’t one of them,” I reply.
He offers a sad smile and pulls a walkie-talkie from his belt, murmuring, “Any sign of the money?”
After a moment, a gravelly, buzzing voice replies, “Not yet.”
I’m trembling with fear but not due to the prospect of dying. I can’t die. That one fact stood firm amidst this horrendous situation. If not for Aiden’s presence, I would have been confident in my ability to talk my way out of this. My gaze flits to my miserable, crying brother, then to the gun in front of my face. He’s the one I’m scared for.
“You don’t need the guns, Mandus,” I say as calmly as I can manage. “We’re not going anywhere.”
“I know.” Mandus shoves his hands in his pockets and takes several steps forward, letting his tall, brooding shadow fall over me. “But I don’t want to take any chances. I only get one shot at this, and I couldn’t make 80K this quick anywhere else.”
“It won’t do you any good, you know.”
He lets out a laugh, the skeletal tattoo contorting grotesquely. “Don’t tell me you’re still clinging to that delusion.” Shaking his head with amusement, he waves the gun monkey away and crouches in front of me.
I glare at him, disturbed by how much he knows about me.
He rests one hand gently on the cast beneath my knee. “If you are dead, why can you still break bones? Why can you still bleed? Why are you even still here?”
My tongue lies dead in my mouth. These same questions have been writhing and twisting inside my mind like beasts at war for two years.
“It’s called a psychosis, Jack. You should understand that by now.” His cold fingers brush the rough scar on my forehead. “All it takes is a couple misfiring neurons. A mechanical failure.”
Terrible rage overwhelms my senses until I think I might explode, and my hands ball into fists. But I close my eyes and count to ten. After all these years, I’ve learned to be patient with people like Mandus, even when they think they’re the ones in control. “You don’t know anything about it,” I said quietly. “Let my brother down from that ledge. We aren’t going anywhere. You know we aren’t.”
Mandus stands, rubbing one hand against his chin. He is silent a long moment.
My eyes drift to Aiden. He’s looking at me through pleading, teary, swollen eyes. Eyes that always awarded him attention from the girls at school. He was the good-looking one of the family.
It’s okay. I mouth. It’s okay.
Trust glistens in his eyes, and he gives a faint nod. Self-hatred begins to boil inside me.
How can I save him?
Before Mandus can reply, the voice buzzes through his walkie-talkie again. “They’re here. 80K, like promised.”
The effect these words have on the group is instantaneous. The four gun-monkeys relax a bit, rolling their shoulders or shifting to the other leg. Dominic’s shoulders slump, and he lets out his breath. Aiden begins to sob with relief, his shoulders heaving. The only one that doesn’t appear relieved is Mandus.
Mandus looks down at his watch with slow, deliberate movements, and he shakes his head skeptically. “They’re two minutes late. For a businessman, your father ought to be better at keeping his deals.” He takes a gun from one of his companions, then glances at Aiden and I. “Don’t worry. I’ll make it very quick.”
An uneasy, humorless laugh bubbles up in my throat, before I can stop it – my immediate response to fear.
“W—wait,” Aiden protests, shaking with terror as one of the men locks his arms around his chest and jerks him away from the edge. “P—please... Please...”
“It’s not nearly as bad as you think,” Mandus says in the calm voice of a man that puts down animals for a living. He looks at me and asks, “Would you like to stand up? Or would it be easier if you’re lying down.”
Stunned, I choke out, “I...want to stand.”
It takes a few moments for two of the men to prop me up against the generator. With my back pressed against its icy gray metal, I only have to put my weight on one shaking leg. I can’t help but wonder if it will hurt, if it will go through me harmlessly...or if I really can be killed.
Aiden has no faith in my claims, and he begins to struggle weakly against his captor’s grip. “No! Please!” he cries. “Please! I’m begging you...” The man clamps a hand over Aiden’s mouth, muffling his protests. Defeated, my brother hangs from his grip and sobs, tears streaking his cheeks.
“Let my brother go,” I croak. “He doesn’t need to be involved.”
Mandus shakes his head. “He’s seen our faces. I can’t let him go now.”
I close my eyes, taking a deep breath, and say, “It’s alright, Aiden.”
Raindrops run down Mandus’ tattooed face as he points the gun at my forehead. Whatever I feel, I won’t feel it for long. Mandus offers a faint, mocking smile. “Maybe it won’t be so hard the second time, huh? Maybe you’ll be more ready to let go.”
Aiden begins to wail through his captor’s hand.
And I can only stand there and wonder how it all came to this.