“You feelin’ restless?” Tom asked me that evening at dinner.
I stared at my half eaten plate, a sudden punch in the pit of my stomach.
“I know I am,” he clasped his hands. “How ‘bout you? You feelin’ restless too, buddy?”
I forced myself to take another bite of cold mashed potatoes and chewed slowly, not looking up, fighting the urge to vomit over the whole goddamn table.
“I think we should pay a visit to the other side, the village with the sixteen huts,” he said. “I saw something suspicious.”
For Tom, something suspicious meant one thing. “Sure, no problem,” I shrugged, pretending not to care.
The edges of his mouth pulled into a tightrope. “You better have my back.”
“Yeah,” I took a sip of warm soda. “Okay.”
“Good.” He pushed his plate away and stood up, towering above me, his bulk overpowering, though I didn’t consider myself small. “All set. Let’s go.”
We grabbed our backpacks and I followed him in the dark, stepping a little behind but not lagging so much that he’d notice. Passing villagers, arms outstretched in torn cloth, I longed for a cold, stiff drink.
I tried to think of something to distract him, to put him off, but when he made up his mind, there was no slowing down. “Maybe we should’ve brought eggs,” I said, stepping over a child with hallowed eyes and cheekbones retracting up into his skull.
Tom’s pace quickened. We rounded the corner at the top of the dusty hill. He paused for a breath and looked at me, his amber eyes dancing in a strange ritual, jagged and pulsing.
It was then I wished I could’ve stopped him. On that hill. I wished I could’ve convinced him to turn around, go back to our bunker and have another beer.
“What the fuck is this?” Tom asked, approaching what looked like the head of the table. He ripped the meat out of the man’s hand and slapped him hard across the face. “You think this’s okay? Taking food while the other village is starving?”
“Sorry, sorry,” the man said as the others started speaking in their language. From what I could tell they were all sorry.
“Speak English, morons,” Tom raised his voice and pulled out his gun. “Get up. Move away from the table.”
The four men jumped up, the women ran to their side, clutching their children.
“Out with the kids,” Tom forced the children out of their mother’s grip and shoved them outside, slamming the door shut with his foot. One woman tried to run after her son but Tom intercepted, throwing her to the sandy floor. “Jessie,” he glared at me, “do something.”
I was paralyzed, my boots stuck to the ground as Tom corralled the men into the far corner and started towards the three women who were crying hysterically against each other. Images of the other night struck me. I couldn’t watch it again.
“Your gun. Take out your fucking gun,” Tom pointed at me then at the men. “Make sure they don’t move.”
I fumbled with my holster and pulled the gun out, walking to the group who were shouting sentences I couldn’t comprehend, wild-eyed, desperate.
“Tie ‘em up,” Tom said, pulling the rope out of his backpack and throwing it at me.
I picked up the grimy rope, circling it around their feet, their hands, their bones and sticky skin. When I got to their faces, their eyes pleaded with mine, blackening with each tightening of the rope. I’d seen that look before.
A blistered hand got through the ropes and tried to grab me. It was the youngest of the men, a teenager, the eldest son maybe. He spoke in his language with a drawn slowness, probably trying to reason with me. Then he said, even quieter, “We thank. Please, sir, we thank.”
I met his gaze, wanting to say sorry, that I didn’t want to hurt anyone, that I didn’t have a choice.
“Jesse,” Tom’s voice bellowed. “Get over here.”
I jumped up and wiped the muck off my hands. I walked towards Tom who had his arm around the same woman who’d tried to run earlier. She was the prettiest of the three with long dark hair and hazel, thick-lashed eyes. The other two women crouched at her feet, clinging to each other.
“Don’t I owe you a birthday present?” Tom asked, running a hand down the front of her dress.
“No,” I said. “You don’t.”
“Trust me, the first time won’t hurt.”
“We’re supposed to be here to help them.”
“You fuckin’ pussy. You wanna get shot too?” he aimed the gun at me. “Don’t joke around, kid.”
The woman squirmed and he squeezed her ribs, making her cough and cry out. Her eyes were feisty, though, with fight left.
I had to say something, had to make this stop. “Tom, you made your point. They’re afraid of you. They won’t do it again. Let’s go back and get a drink.”
“No. This is it.” His face reddened and the veins on his neck began to throb purple. Spinning the woman around, he ripped her dress, yanking off her panties. He was turning into an animal and all I could do was watch.
There was shouting from the men’s corner. The woman stood naked, her hair slicked to her face and her dark breasts. The other women covered their faces.
“Jesse, take her. Let’s celebrate.”
The woman sank to the ground, holding her knees, her eyes fixed on something, or nothing, three feet away.
Tom pulled her hair, making her look at me. “Fucking do it or I will. I’m not wasting prime ass.”
As Tom looked down at her, relishing his victory, I wondered if I could rescue them. A swift sweep of my arms, wrapping everyone up, pulling them close and out of there, away from Tom and the dangers their rescuers were capable of. It was what I had always wanted for Cheryl and Marion, to protect them. Instead I’d run away, into the quicksand of drunkenness, surfacing from relapses but never long enough. In the end, it was Cheryl who had to protect Marion from me.
“Do it now,” Tom said, as he opened the woman’s legs, black as the gun he raised at me.
I looked at him, then at the woman. I couldn’t do it, even with a gun to my head. So what? Let him kill me. Get it over with. Maybe it was better to end it, right here in a hut in the middle of a nowhere village. I sure as hell deserved it.
“Jesus Christ,” Tom said, slipping the gun back into its holster. He tugged at his zipper and took off his pants. “I’m not gonna wait forever. Neither’s she.”
My whole insides went venomous as he mounted the woman and wedged himself inside her. Tears streamed down her face but she didn’t scream, no one did, not like the other night.
I lifted my gun and aimed it at his back, at the giant beacon of an ass, and got ready to pull it. The gun was heavy, my finger moist, and I prayed for his life. For my life. For everyone we’d hurt.
His grunts had overcome him. The two women on the other side of Tom gawked at me, their faces frightened as I approached. I put my finger to my lips to silence them. The gun wasn’t for them but it was all they could see. The woman under Tom kicked and tried to push Tom off her. “Oh no, you don’t,” he grabbed her wrists and butted her forehead, making her eyes flicker shut from the blow. “I’m going to finish this.”
“Not this time,” I said from behind and hit him on the head as hard as I could. He rolled onto his side and went for his holster, just as I pressed my gun against his temple. “Don’t move.”
“Okay, okay,” Tom raised both his hands and I grabbed his gun. “Are you serious?”
“What does it look like?” I moved back and raised my gun. “I’m finishing this.”
“Jesse, come on,” he began, but the more he spoke, the more his words bled together, from far away, from another town, another country, not part of this world at all. There was nothing he could ever say.
My finger tensed and the gun went off, right into his chest. His eyes grew bigger than I thought possible. He reached out, his mouth a loose oval, trying to speak but there was a second shot, a third, a fourth. I couldn’t control it anymore.
Then there was silence.