You think you know yourself? Turns out, you do.
Reflex by Nik Korpon
Nathan just sipped his lemonade, watched the last couple patrons mill through the bodega across the street.
‘Fucking brutal.’ Chuck rolled down the window and wrung out his cloth, continued wiping.
‘It’s just the humidity. Try to think cold.’
Chuck looked at his big brother like he’d said the Virgin Mary wanted to suck his cock. ‘“Think cold?” That some Jedi mind-trick you picked up?’
‘Desert’ll drive you crazy if you let it.’ Two men left the market, lugging groceries through the parking lot, and he readied himself. Then the last one, a tiny woman, headed down the chip aisle. He settled back in his seat. ‘You’re sure this is where they hold it, right?’
‘See that?’ Chuck pointed at the edge of a small industrial-looking freezer behind the building. ‘Look for the frozen stuff inside.’
‘Because there isn’t any.’ Chuck wedged the cloth between neck rolls. ‘Fat Billy says this is where they hold numbers money, so this is where they hold it.’
‘You’re okay with his say-so?’
‘Cop and crook, all in one diabetic package? What’s not to trust?’ Chuck smiled. ‘Imagine the conversations inside his head.’
‘Everyone does what they need to provide.’ Nathan shrugged.
‘That mean you’re going to finish your tour?’
Nathan sucked the last bit from his cup with a long draw as cashier bagged up the shrunken woman’s food. ‘They don’t call it deserter because you like sweets.’
‘So you really are tired of killing terrorists.’
‘The difference between patriot and murderer is just the color of the uniform.’
Pulling the seatbelt from between the folds of his stomach, Chuck leaned forward to watch the woman shuffle around the corner with her wire cart of groceries. He turned over the ignition, sat back and let the tepid air sluice over him.
Nathan looked at his watch. ‘It’s 6:25 now. Billy’s expecting you by, what, eight?’ Chuck nodded and Nathan set his cup in the console. ‘I’ll meet you at Penn Station at 7:30. Train leaves at 7:40. I don’t have to explain what happens if you’re late.’
‘They’ll hold it, right?’
‘Is Fat Billy going to have a problem with you taking off to Richmond?
‘If I’m not here, he can’t really tell me, can he?’
‘Anyway, it’s time I flexed some entrepreneurial muscle of my own. I thought you might join me. Family business and all. If you’re going to stay AWOL, you’re going to need a job, you know. I was just thinking we could do our own thing.’
‘That’s a thought.’ Nathan clocked the parking lot, the bodega again.
‘You’re sure you’re not going to go back, right?’
‘Do you understand what deserter means?’
‘Nate, that kid wasn’t your—’
‘You’re positive this is the drop?’
Chuck put up his hands, conciliatory. ‘Just saying that this could be something good for you. Give you some purpose, you know, without Ruth and the girls around.’ Chuck handed his brother the pistol, handle first. ‘We’ve got time to figure it out down there.’
Nathan shook his head at the pistol and opened the car door. ‘Left those with my camo, too.’
The fat man just shrugged and slid it beneath his thigh. He rolled down the window and called out, ‘Hey, so which side are we on?’
Nathan kept walking. In the reflection of the bodega’s glass door, he watched his brother head west on Eastern Avenue, headed back to Pigtown to pack for the both of them, then went inside, the bell ringing out above him.
As the door closed, Nathan let his hand flip the sign to cerrado. The cold air hurt his skin. He went to the back and grabbed a Mexican Coke.
During leave-time in the desert, him and McCutcheon, the other combat instructor, spent some time in the villages and discovered that the Arabs made their Coke with real sugar, not corn syrup. After returning home from endless months in the sand, Nathan found he couldn’t stand American Coke anymore. Luckily, bodegas like this always had the good kind. He’d take his oldest daughter Kath to these shops before everything went FUBAR, trying to share with her the heavenliness of these Cokes, but, like her mother, she wanted little to do with him by that time and some stupid fucking soda wasn’t going to help.
A quick glance around showed no freezer section, and a camera in each corner, their red lights winking. He wagered there was a person on the other side of those, not a VCR. Fat Billy says, Fat Billy says.
Walking to the counter, he popped the lid from the glass bottle and took a long drink to wet his mouth so he could speak. ‘Lemme get two looseys.’
The clerk turned around to grab the cigarettes and Nathan smashed the bottle on the crown of the clerk’s skull. He hopped over the counter as the man stumbled forward. A thin line of blood trickled down his neck. Nathan picked him up by the collar.
‘The money. Now.’
With a steady finger, the clerk pressed a button on the till and the drawer creaked open.
‘The numbers money.’
The clerk looked through Nathan. When he swallowed, Nathan noticed a tattoo across his throat but couldn’t understand it. La Mara.
‘I know you hear what I’m saying. Get me the money or get hurt.’
The man just smiled, so Nathan shoved him toward the back of the store. The clerk caught his feet and fell to the floor. This is getting ridiculous, Nathan thought, until the clerk turned around with a pistol pointed at him, chin cocked back, begging Nathan to try something.
He tasted grit between his teeth, felt a hot, dry wind blow across his temple, smelled oil burning somewhere, heard his knuckles and knees pop. Reflex. He opened his mouth to laugh at the man then looked down and saw the gun in his hand, saw the clerk scooting backwards along the floor, a hand covering his throat. Nathan stepped forward, moved the hand aside with his foot. Blood poured over the tattoo.
He dropped to his knee, ripping off a shirt sleeve and folding it twice before pressing it against the wounded man’s throat. He heard the echo of high-caliber fire in his skull, the scream of an Arab woman as he tried to unbreak the neck of her son who’d happened into his path during a raid, the red haze surrounding Nathan making every shape, every toy, a detonation device. The clerk blinked slowly, and didn’t respond when Nathan slapped his cheeks. He dropped his head to the man’s mouth, pinched his nose with two fingers and blew short breaths. Pressing his fingers to the underside of the man’s jaw was just a way to stave off realization, acknowledgment, for another few seconds; he knew the man was dead as soon as he pointed the gun.
He wanted to scream, to smash things, to yell why’d you push it. Instead he exhaled hard through his nose.
Nathan balled up the sleeve and stuck it in his pocket, picked up the clerk’s feet and dragged him behind the counter. From the outside, the freezer looked to be ten feet inside the western wall, so he cleared all the sodas from the shelves with three swipes. Broken glass and a liquid rainbow spilled over the floor. It looked like the painting McCutcheon had hung on their canvas wall, one his youngest daughter sent, one Nathan had memorized through the nights.
The solid thump behind the panel told him there was only concrete behind the refrigerated section, so he cleared another two sections before hearing the echo. With a downward strike of his heel, he broke away the shelves, then took two kicks to knock the panel inward.
Shelves of unfinished two-by-fours lined the walls of the freezer, four feet deep and three wide, upright cinderblocks at either end. One wall of shelves sat empty. The others held knots of bills, bound by rubber bands. Nathan hurried back to the register, stepped over the dead clerk, and grabbed four paper shopping bags.
He’d only finished filling the second one when the bell rang.
A whole wall sat filled with bills. Two empty bags at his feet. A woman’s voice at the front, speaking Spanish. Nathan held the filled bags under his arms and crept along the perimeter, staying below sightline. Her voice continued and he wondered if she was on the cellphone or just assumed the clerk was listening.
With a quick peek around the corner, he clocked her to be twenty-three tops, barely five foot, one-ten if she was carrying all of her groceries. Her skin was soft brown and seemed to glow. One punch would break her beautiful face. Might kill her if he wasn’t careful. He didn’t want to be careful; he didn’t want to be near her. Crouching lower, he slunk.
He was ten feet from the door when she screamed.
Head ducked down, face behind the bag, he shouldered open the door. Glass spiderwebbed but didn’t break. The woman’s rusted Corolla sat diagonal across two spaces, the motor coughing and on life-support, but still alive.
Three blocks away, Nathan pulled into an alley, popped the trunk, put the spare on a garbage can and the bags in the empty compartment. He checked twice then pulled out into traffic, whistling along to the salsa cassette.
Chuck should have everything packed and be headed to the station, as Nathan had no more than a duffle bag and preferred to live out of that. His brother was even more spartan, or slovenly, depending on perspective. Everything’s a matter of perspective. Hero, robber, gang, brothers, killer, savior. The easiest way to reconcile the two sides was to not try, just do. He’d tried explaining that to McCutcheon during one of their leaves. Nathan had been on an existential kick after thinking too much during some particularly slow watch nights, and was trying to help his partner navigate an argument with his wife, but McCutcheon’s Catholic Guilt kept getting in the way. Nathan said that if you could only—
A short whoop. Blue lights flashed in the rearview. Nathan swallowed twice, pulled over to the side. He draped his wrists over the steering wheel.
When the officer sidled up the door, Nathan gave his best smile, nodded. ‘Officer.’
‘Know you got a taillight out?’
‘Damn it.’ Nathan sucked in his lips, shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, officer. I told my wife to get it taken care of, but,’ he shrugged, ‘you know how those Irish can be.’
‘License and registration, sir.’
Nathan pulled out his wallet, handed the officer his military ID.
The officer looked him over. ‘Where’d you serve?’
He gave a small laugh. ‘Where didn’t I?’
‘That’s the truth. They got you boys running all over.’
‘Indeed.’ Nathan smiled again, tried to stop chewing on the inside of his lip.
‘You ever run across a Marine named McNally? Brown hair, shit-eating grin. He spent some time in Fallujah.’
‘No shit? Which unit was he in, the, uh,’ Nathan dipped his head, snapped his fingers.
‘Second Battalion out of Pendleton.’
‘That’s it.’ Nathan pointed at the cop. ‘That CO was a real sonofabitch, wasn’t he?’
‘All are, really.’
Nathan tried that smile one more time. ‘Can’t imagine it’s too different in your line of work either, officer. Everyone’s got to answer to someone.’
‘Yeah, well.’ The cop looked around the street for no reason, probably trying not to smile. ‘Look, don’t wait for your wife to get this fixed, hear? Go to AutoZone and get a light so you don’t have to be bothered again.’
‘Thanks so much, officer. I’ll head there right now.’
‘No, son. Thank you.’ The officer nodded and held out the ID. He cocked his head when Nathan reached out the window for it. ‘Son, what’s that on your hand?’
He looked down, saw a thin mist of the clerk’s blood on his hand. He shook it, said, ‘Damn. Must’ve hit it on something and not noticed.’
The officer leaned forward, took off his sunglasses. ‘You hit your neck on something too?’
Nathan touched his neck, felt the tacky blood on his fingertips. A tightness inside his neck, thrumming blood through his temples, echoes in his skull. He threw out a last desperate shot. ‘Fat Billy says I’m okay.’
‘He does, does he?’ The officer coughed, spit on the ground. ‘Fat Billy can go fuck himself. Get the fuck out of the car.’
Nathan let go a long exhale, closed his eyes. He knew the sound of a safety coming off by sound alone, the click that echoes forever.