Wendy came into the living room that next morning. She hadn’t slept. None of us had. Her parents, my brother and his wife, were lying awake at that sad hour, searching more tears, trying to crawl into one another. The sunrise was just a suggestion in the dark windows. She shook me and I pretended to wake. She asked me if I still carried a gun and I told her yes and showed her my ankle. She stared at it long enough I felt compelled to connect the two. I asked her if she wanted to hold it. I removed the magazine and cleared the chamber and placed it in her hands. I’ll never forget how it puzzled her as she searched it for the source of its power. She thought it was ugly. She asked me if I had ever killed anyone and I told her I never even removed my service weapon from the holster, had to unsnap it a few times but never drew. I had friends who did but I had a lot more friends who didn’t. I also knew cops who quit being cops because they could never find a reason to draw their weapons. She asked if I had talked to the cops who killed her sister’s murderer. I told her yes, I had. I told her they looked like hell. They had to shoot a kid that night, a child no older than Wendy. She asked me, if I had been there, would I have killed him? I told her I would have if he forced me. She told me she wished they hadn’t killed him. She wasn’t looking at me. She was looking at that kid. She was staring straight into his eyes again through the pleated smoke seeping from the barrel of the rifle. We sat for a long time at the edge of the cot as morning crept into the room and changed the color of the walls. She finally handed back the gun and asked me to show her how to use it.
I taught her to assume all guns are loaded. I taught her to keep the gun pointed down range. Taught her to be sure of her target and what lay beyond it. Taught her never to rely on the safety. Taught her to keep her finger off the trigger until ready to fire. Taught her how to clean the gun, how to dismantle and reassemble it. I taught her how to find a natural shooting position by closing her eyes and bending her body into a firing stance. I taught her not to grip the gun with her thumb. Taught her how to steady the gun with her opposite hand. Taught her how to focus on the front sight. I taught her to squeeze the trigger with consistent pressure straight back until it stopped. I taught her to fire between breaths. She excelled at 10 yards. She never missed the silhouette at 20 yards or 50. Within 10 feet, she was perfection at center of mass. Her groupings only improved after I taught her to draw from her hip. She was winning competitions by 17. By 18, she found a professional coach and could’ve gone pro by 19 but she had other ideas. She had shown patience and now she made plans.
Her mother hated me during those first few months with Wendy and the gun. She reminded me that people who own guns get killed with guns. Hadn’t I seen enough dead children? Hadn’t I considered the endorsement of violence I was giving a 16-year-old girl? Told me if she found a gun in her house, she’d sue me, she’d smear me, she’d ruin my life. Then she willed me from her reality. She wouldn’t speak to me for 18 months. My brother kept silent on the issue. I don’t think he cared either way. Don’t misunderstand me. The idea of Wendy shooting a gun wrecked him. I just don’t think he realized why. Wendy was not his favorite and since his other daughter’s death, he had put up a solid front—the picture of dignified mourning—but Wendy’s new obsession belayed some mysterious final failure and he weakened until he could barely talk. I’ll admit my reservations. That stone façade had yet to crumble from Wendy’s expression. I worried I might be creating a monster. But I also knew there would be no stopping her. If only for safety sake, I had no other choice.
Wendy could barely look at a gun if not at the range shooting it or cleaning it. She never owned a weapon as far as I know, any weapon she ever touched either loaned or, later, issued to her. I stopped inviting her to gun shows not long after we started her lessons. She wouldn’t even watch movies or television shows with guns in them. I told her she couldn’t be afraid of it. She had to have confidence holding it. She told me she wasn’t afraid. She said they just disgusted her. The sight of one literally makes me ill, she told me. Then why in the hell are you so bent on using one? I asked her. She never answered me. The contradiction was unsettling.
Wendy learned to fire a rifle in the Navy. At the end of a year, she could hit a bullseye from the bow of raft in swelling seas. For an attractive young woman who met the traditional obstacles of chauvinism, ridicule and harassment, she soon commanded respect from her peers for not only her intellect and skills but also her dense stoicism. The brass were in a quandary over what to do with her. Her 3.9 high school GPA, the stellar SAT and ASVAB scores and her history of athletics caught the attention of several groups within the branch. The Navy paid for her university education that included foreign studies, Arabic, communications and finally a law degree. She lobbied for and acquired a position in Navy intelligence. At 23, Wendy became one of the youngest field agents ever recruited by the FBI. Two years later, she could no longer discuss her work with her family.
Years after the now infamous event in Chicago, I gathered a few details on her preceding activity. She with a crew of agents and a SWAT team chased a man through the Boston sewers until he broke his neck falling from a ledge. Her partner shot and killed a pair of men in Portland a few months later while she was scaling a fire escape. She almost shot a Saudi national in a parking lot in Houston but he ate one of his own bullets in the back of a van filled with propane tanks and gasoline. There was the incident in New York with a trio of brothers and a car filled with drugs and weapons. They surrendered without a fight. She did manage to unload several rounds into a Kevlar vest worn by a suspect in San Francisco. He lived. Although she received a commendation for the arrest, her fellow agents noted her sense of failure. She destroyed a tire on a fleeing car in Miami. She shot the dead bolt out of a door on a meth lab in Nevada. She tore off a young black man’s foot with a single shot from a .45 automatic in LA. In just two years of service, she had fired her weapon on duty more times than most law enforcement people did in an entire career. But she hadn’t killed anyone.
Wendy withdrew from her parents and paid me occasional visits up state where I simmered in the boredom of retirement in a garden behind my house. She would bring me peripheral details of incidents I could only see filtered through the media. Even without full disclosure, I knew Wendy was deep. I knew she was fully engaged in the war. What a strange label for this whole thing. I guess it doesn’t seem strange to you, I would tell her, you’ve never known any other war. She told me the war meant nothing. Her only concern was the job. This attitude always struck me as disingenuous. What is your job, Wendy? I would ask her. She would remind me that I knew full well she couldn’t tell me anything.
She was never a liar even when her duty might have required it. I like to think the honesty kept her balanced. However, a duplicity stirred in her eyes, a lurking motive she seemed unwilling to admit. Once, I drank too many beers while we grilled steaks behind the house. She was staring into the sun setting in the hills, looking exhausted. We had just finished an awkward exchange over my loaded Glock 21 sitting on the kitchen counter. You can’t bring her back, you know? She feigned confusion. You’ve done amazing things, I told her, but mastering that gun—that thing you hate—and shooting people, none of that will bring your sister back. She told me I was being sentimental and that I didn’t have a clue why she chose this life. You’re damned right I don’t, I told her. It felt unhealthy. Why does a person who hates something so much spend so much time with it? It’s about defending people, she told me. A cause I agreed was noble and admirable but I also told her I recognized revenge when I saw it. Women possess a talent for revenge, I told her. She got angry with me—if you could call it anger—and told me she heard enough of that talk at the Bureau.
She called me one night last December and told me without context that she had just watched a man beat another to death with his bare hands. I asked questions she said she couldn’t answer so I asked her why she called. She couldn’t tell me. People have been killing one another with their hands forever, I told her. I understand that, she said. We evolved a weapon on the end of our arm way back when we still hung from tree limbs. I understand that, she told me again. I asked then why this bothered her, aside from whatever mysterious circumstance she was keeping from me. I don’t know, uncle.
She called again several weeks later, very early in the morning to tell me a bomb had gone off somewhere in Utah. There were dead children. I was speechless. I remember searching the television for the news, listening to her breathing in my ear. What am I supposed to do, uncle? she asked me. Her voice sounded crippled, staggering. I’m having doubts, she said. I knew what she meant but I also knew she wouldn’t elaborate if I pushed her. Wendy, I said, I’ve seen everything. I’ve seen every disgusting shade of violence people can commit against one another, I told her. I’ve seen hostages lose their heads. I’ve seen strangled hookers, stabbed hobos. I’ve seen men beaten to death with pipes. I’ve seen pillows over once sleeping faces, heads held under water, poisoned food. I’ve seen cops beat handcuffed suspects to death with clubs in the backs of squad cars, for christsake. Her breath in my ear, the blinding shine from the television in my eyes, I recalled sitting in a witness stand staring at a grieving family and my murderous colleague. That gun, Wendy, I told her, that goddamned gun on your hip is just the tip of the iceberg. She asked me if I ever regretted my choice to become a cop. I told her I certainly did but it took a long time for me to face the fact that as much as I wanted to help people, I just wasn’t. She asked me if I still carried a gun. You know I do, I told her. You are doing everything you can, Wendy, everything you feel is right to do but you will never accomplish what I know you are trying to do. I pleaded with her to take some time off, go visit her parents or find a boyfriend, find some distractions. She never did.
Now to what happened in Chicago. What finally happened to Wendy. Some of the details we all know. Some we didn’t know until recently. And some of what I’m going to tell you few people know.
Two men and a woman, all from Chechnya, arrived in LA with valid student visas and luggage filled with books and typical travel items. After a brief detention by HLSD, the three took a cab into the city. They ate a meal at a Denny’s then disappeared. One of them stayed in LA and emerged two days later on the train system. Transit authorities arrested him after passersby reported a suspicious individual lurking on the platforms, leaving what appeared to be aerosol cans near ventilation intakes. When investigators noticed signs of disease in their suspect, they realized the nature of the attack and sounded the alarm. Several of them began showing signs of infection by the time Wendy and her team in Chicago got the alert.
Unbeknownst to the LA investigators, Wendy and her partner were tracking a young woman who arrived in Chicago by train a day prior. On a hunch, after scanning reports of airport detentions, her partner decided they should investigate her whereabouts. They were observing her in a local restaurant from a car across the street when their superior contacted them and ordered her arrest. The suspect saw them moving toward the building. She removed two aerosol cans disguised as hairspray and ran clear packing tape over the buttons and placed them under her table then bolted through the kitchen and out the rear service entrance. They chased her into a dead-end alley where the woman drew a gun and began shooting. Her partner told me he watched Wendy do it. She stepped out into full view, he told me, completely abandoned cover. It was as if she was sleepwalking, he said, a bullet tore through her neck and before I knew it, she was unconscious and bleeding out. The suspect fired again and he dropped her. She was the first and last person he ever shot.
Wendy was better than that, he told me. Far better than me, he said. Maybe it was dumb luck, I told him, though neither of us believed that. He would tread a lot of guilt before the smallpox finally took him. I cried at his funeral. I’m crying now. I’m crying for him. For Wendy’s sister. For the almost 100 people that died following the attacks in LA, Chicago and Dallas. For that stupid kid in that high school. For that family I saw in that courtroom. I cry a lot now that I’m older.
A lot more than I used to.
Chrysalis, a growing collection of very short fiction.
That Night Filled Mountain
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Unless noted, all pics credited to Skitz O'Fuel.