It was like stepping back in time. The men wore hats and beards, the women long dresses and head coverings. No phones, no television, no locked doors. In the streets, you could hear the clip-clop of horse hooves, the laundry flapping on clotheslines. He was one of their only contacts with the outside world; the children would come running when they saw him, hoping he'd remembered to bring lollipops, and the parents would marvel at the milk tank truck and his beardless face, his modern clothes and the little phone he carried. Tonight was no different. He finished his route at 3 am and was up just five hours later to prepare his two oldest for school. As he walked them to the school bus, his thoughts returned to his other daughter, dead nine years now, and the other little girls, the ones he'd hurt twenty years ago, the ones he still saw in his sleep. Just before the bus doors closed, he called his children back. He said he loved them. He had to make sure they knew. Then, he loaded the neighbor's pick-up with items he'd purchased in the last six days, crossing them from his check list one at a time:
Guns x 3 (+ stun)
Ammo x 600
Knives x 2
2 x 4s
Change of clothes
K-Y jelly x 2
He wrote letters to his wife and children and hopped in the truck. It took everyone a minute to realize what was happening later, when he stormed into the one-room schoolhouse waving that gleaming piece of metal and shouting at the boys and teachers to get out. They simply stared. They had never seen one before.
It used to be you could put them in their places. Separate bathrooms, separate schools. Now here they were seated at his table during the mandatory diversity and ethics meeting at Lockheed Martin. Three of them. He hated when they got promoted above him and hated working next to them on the assembly lines, piecing together parts for the C-1301 Hercules and the F-22 Raptor jet. Once, he had overheard one of the men complimenting a white woman on the factory floor and had been filled with rage: To think of her pure white skin sullied by ebony, those dark hands running through her blond hair. Worst of all, he hated how they struck when his back was turned. This was Meridian, Mississippi. He had a right to wear the white hood if he wanted, to call them what they really were without worrying whether he would lose his job, whether the company would make him seek anger counseling. Just sitting next to them in this confined room —all this talk of honesty, responsibility, and getting along—was making his skin crawl. He stood up, sweat running down the back of his black t-shirt and green cammo pants. If the company didn't want to help him, if they were content to let the impurities spread, he would take matters into his own hands, as a good soldier must. He was ready. The equipment was in his car. The war was coming.
This is how it works. First, the surface gets a positive charge. Then you expose the document, and the charge dissipates across the non-image areas, so that the negatively-charged powder sticks to the image areas. When you place paper over this powder image, it gets a positive charge that attracts the powder. Powder and paper then fuse with the heat, and you get a perfect copy. Hot off the press. Copies of copies of copies, each one step removed from the original. A little grainier each time, a little more pixelated and deformed. If only you could make perfect copies that never degrade. If only you could copy his brain, the original one from before the car accident. Not the copy that causes the poking sensation two to three times a week, usually in his head but sometimes in his neck, shoulders, legs, and arms. Or the copy of the copy that causes him to see shadows, that tells him to pummel his head with his fists and to kick in the elevator door at the Honolulu Xerox warehouse. Or the copy of the copy of the copy that convinces him his co-workers are sabotaging his work machines, the cops putting sugar in his gas tank, and the FBI tampering with this fish collection. This is how it works. First, the boss calls him in to demand he learn the new machines. Then they schedule a meeting tomorrow to discuss his light workload, and the copy of the copy of the copy of the copy fuses with the heat.
He made sure they were asleep. Then he swung the hammer as hard as he could, forty-four years of rage exploding from his wrists. It was over in less than five minutes. Blunt force, just like with his first wife in the Alabama camping trailer. To be sure, he held them face-down in the bathtub, and as soon as the water turned red, as soon as he was certain, he carried them back. His wife to the closet, behind boxes and clothes so the kids wouldn't see. Then his son and daughter to their rooms, where he pulled the sheets to their chins and wrapped their heads in towels. Only the faces showed. He lay a teddy bear on his daughter, a Game Boy on his son. A handwritten note on each, a typed note with his signature in the living room on the coffee table. Later, at the Atlanta day trading firms where he'd lost six figures on internet stocks, they did not suspect a thing. They saw only a man in red shirt and khakis, a Boy Scout troop leader, a church-going father of two. But, for many years afterwards, long after his chilling prediction that the bad trading day was about to get much worse, long after they knew what he had done in Cedar Buff and in Stockbridge, they would wonder how they missed the signs. How, with all their predictive software, with all their charts and data and algorithms, they never saw it coming.
Fort Worth, Texas
They used to see him leaving the wood-frame house carrying a blue canvas bag. They used to see him exposing himself in the street. They used to hear him ranting and cursing and hitting his elderly father, before the old man finally died in July. Now there was no one to support him. No one to repair the damage to the house: the walls bashed with a crowbar, the toilets filled with concrete, the fruit trees poisoned in the backyard. No one to pull the desecrated Bible from his hands or return the books to the library or confiscate the notebooks where he wrote about the CIA targeting him, the cops drugging him. No one to halt the paranoid letters to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram or the neighbors. No one to block him from entering the Wedgewood Baptist Church in the middle of September wearing jeans and a black jacket. No one to put out his cigarette. No one to prevent him from slamming his fist on the sanctuary door to get their attention.
Seal Beach, California
The water always calmed him, and he needed to calm down. His hands were still shaking. That was how hard he had slammed the phone in its cradle after his ex-wife hung up on him. Just yesterday, they had argued in the Santa Ana courtroom. He said she had a drinking problem, she said he was physically abusive and bipolar. In the end, the court recommended against giving him sole custody of their son, love of his life. Just thinking of her with his son filled him with rage, causing the shooting pains to start again in his legs. He put on body armor, gritted his teeth in agony, and limped to his white pickup. Sitting only worsened the pain; since the accident he had been unable to sit in a chair long enough for even a desk job, not that he wanted one. He took deep breaths and thought of the water. The pain eased, and he was able to drive, first to his son's school, to drop off some paperwork, then to Bolsa Chica State Beach, where he pulled off his shoes and exited the car, digging his toes into the sand. He loved the tiny grains rubbing between his toes, the sun on his face, the salty wind whipping his graying curls. The water reminded him of happier times: following his fisherman grandfather into the surf, working the fishing charters as a crewman, running along the beach shoeless with his son. Before the divorce and custody battle. Before the surgeries, the months in bed. Before the tugboat accident that killed his twenty-six year old crew-mate. He could still see her hair tangled in the rope, feel the sharp metal piercing his thighs as he dove for her, hear the dull crack of her neck snapping her life away. Too late. Too late for her but not for his son. He closed his eyes, letting his mangled body sink further and further into the cool sand.
Emily Greenberg is a writer, artist, and book editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Potomac, A Bad Penny Review, Matter, The Copperfield Review, and Rainy Day Literary Magazine, and her art has been shown at Smack Mellon, AC Institute, BRIC, Intermedia Arts, St. Mary’s College Museum of Art, and elsewhere.