Perfect Circle: Chapter 3

"Look, this chick, she is after you. I mean, your car is the last thing she ever saw. The dead are like that. They get fixated." The third excerpt from Sean Stewart's ghostly page-turner.

Published July 23, 2004 8:00AM (EDT)

I rocked back and forth, trying to force the shakes out of my legs. Hanlon had murdered this girl, and not just in a traffic accident. She had come back to haunt him, and when he couldn't take it any more, he had called me.

But then I told him I'd have to come to his house, and he was screwed. Haunted, his life was shit, but he didn't want to risk me finding out who the dead girl was and what had happened to her. So between the first time he called me and the second, he had made up the story about hitting her with his car. If I never actually saw her, that would explain why she was in his garage. It would even be sort of true, emotionally: he was admitting he had killed her. If I could make her go away without seeing her, great. But if not . . .

Hanlon was still wearing his raincoat. He had his hand in the pocket. He sure as shit had a gun. We can carry concealed, here in the Lone Star State. This is the kind of thing you think about when you grow up wanting to work for the CIA.

Oh, shit.

I sucked in a long unsteady breath. So I had to pretend not to see the ghost, that was all. "Okay, yeah, I can ...sense, I can sense the presence of a young woman." My voice sounded terrible, strung too tight. Relax, Comrade. You're Dead Kennedy, remember? This is just one more ghost out of hundreds. "Let me take a look around."

The dead girl under the sink was soaking wet. Drip, drip. Hanlon heard her when it rained. Water was her ghost road. Maybe Hanlon drowned her. Maybe he beat her to death and threw her body into a river or lake. Probably he really had killed her over in Europe. Offed her in Amsterdam, or Bonn, and then dumped her in the Rhine or the Danube. That would explain why he wasn't still cruising the autobahn, pushing flashers to German cops and Dutch fire brigades. That's why he had come back to live out of his mom's house and his old Nissan Stanza.

And SIN-ners plunged beneath that flood,

Lose all their guilty stains!

The dead girl under the sink strained against her gag. There were little bubbles of spit at the corners of her mouth. Her eyes were dark, like Uncle Billy's. She couldn't see Hanlon, but she could feel him there.

Creak, creak, said the wooden steps. Hanlon must be shifting his weight back and forth, back and forth. Listening for the dead girl. Sleepless, exhausted, terrified. Do you ever see these ghosts? I mean, maybe even when your client can't?

I walked over to the far side of the garage, away from the sink, pretending to look around. Was Hanlon a serial killer, or was this girl strictly a one-off? On TV, serial killers are crazy and they feel no guilt. That didn't sound right. This guy was no cool, calculating killing machine. He had a Tell-Tale Heart, didn't he? He must be capable of some remorse.

Still, he was a murderer. If he thought I had seen her, would he shoot me to keep me from turning him in? Would he risk killing me here? Maybe nobody would hear the shot, or call the police. Thirty-two-year-old loner disappears after losing job -- probably nobody would even notice I was gone until I failed to pick up Megan the Sunday after next.

Quick nightmare image of Megan roped and gagged underneath that dripping sink.

"Hey, Will?" Hanlon said. "You got this thing figured, kemosabe?"

"Mostly." I frowned, real professional. "There's a couple of things...tell you what. Why don't you drop me at home, I'll do a little research, then we can come back tomorrow and fix you up."

Hanlon shook his head. "You've got to do for me, Will. Now. I can't take another night of this."

"Hey, do you want the job done right?"

"I want the job done now!" Hanlon yelled. He pulled a gun out of his right pocket. The barrel stared at me, a cold black eye. Hanlon blinked at the gun in his shaking hand, like How the hell did this happen?

"Whoa there," I said softly. "Easy, big fella."

"I just can't stand it, DK." He was weirdly apologetic. "One more night, I'm like to blow my brains out."

My legs were shaking uncontrollably.

"'I'll get back to you tomorrow.'" Hanlon shook his head. "I heard that a time or two. I don't even do follow-up on that one any more. I'm real sorry, DK."

"Chill, dude. Tonight is no problem. You can count on me," you sack of shit. Angry. Okay, maybe the planet wouldn't miss me if I got whacked by Secret Agent Man, but I didn't have to make it easy. I have always prided myself on being one sore fucking loser. And I did have one piece of leverage: Hanlon needed my product.

I walked over to the shop area. "Ah," I said seriously. "Hm." Maybe I could palm a screwdriver and stick him in the kidney? Nope -- not through that London Fog coat, Comrade Will. I looked along the bench for something I could throw at Hanlon, or hit him with. Circular saw on the worktable, not plugged in. Power drill, hammer, wood chisel. I didn't have to kill the fucker, I just had to knock him out, or distract him enough to run like hell, with enough of a head start that he couldn't shoot me before I got to the door.

The dead girl huddled under the sink, grunting and working at her gag with swollen fingers. The silk tie cutting into her wrists made it hard for her to use her hands. Hanlon could obviously hear something. He backed up to the top of the wooden steps, feeling behind him for the doorknob, gun wavering in his hand. His eyes settled on the sink. Water drip, drip, dripped down into darkness. The salesman licked his lips. "Qui pasa, DK?"

"Thinking." I forced myself to consider each item in the workshop. T-square. Crescent wrench. Gas can.

Gas can. His feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace.

Thank you, Uncle Billy.

A can of gasoline. I found myself grinning, my body lit like I was nineteen again and up two Black Mollies, with the good hard whine of speed in my veins. "All righty. This is looking better than I feared." There is a FOUNT-ain FILLED with blood... "It's a pretty straight-ahead case here."

"You said you needed to do research."

"I like to be sure. Two hundred proof. But looks like you need a straight shot of bourbon here and now." I was babbling. Shit. "Your ghost is pretty much, you know -- off the rack. But the same name-brand quality you'd expect in one twice this expensive."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

Great question. I moseyed back from the shop area and forced myself to meet Hanlon's eyes. "Look, this chick, she is after you. I mean, your car is the last thing she ever saw. The dead are like that. They get fixated." Ten feet in front of me, the gagged girl grunted and struggled.

Two tears rose and spilled from Hanlon's haunted eyes. "She was so beautiful."

Yuck. "Do you have any candles in the house?"

"Emergencies, in the kitchen cabinet. Mom bought them after Hurricane Alicia, in case the power went out. Why do you need them? She was Catholic?" I stared stupidly at Hanlon.

"The ghost," he said. "She was Catholic, then? That's why the candles?"

"Oh. Right. Catholic." Shit, it would be just my luck if she had been a Buddhist or something and Hanlon would know my whole spiel was bullshit. "Or raised Christian, definitely."

My cousin nodded. His face was wet with tears, his eyes half-blind with guilt and exhaustion.

Okay, Will, push the pace, push the pace. "I could use a few candles, maybe five if you've got them, and some matches. Perfect. And a Bible."

"I don't think there's a Bible."

"For fuck's sake, Tom, Eugenia must have a Bible stashed around here someplace." Shit. Shut up, Will. "That's not the important part, though. The candles are my ammo here. My silver bullets."

"Wait a sec." Hanlon backed into the laundry room, closing the door behind him. I could hear him turning the deadbolt and rehooking the chain lock. I took a long slow breath as Hanlon rummaged in his kitchen. I crept to the workbench, knelt next to the gas can, and twisted the rusty old cap. It squeaked like a stabbed rat. The footsteps in the kitchen went still. I held my breath until I heard cabinet doors creaking open.

A sharp grunt made me turn back to the drain. The dead girl was reaching up from under the sink with her bound hands, groping around the basin. The flesh around her bonds was dark and swollen. In black and white you could see the burst veins on her bruised arms. All her guilty stains. The hands gripped the basin's edge. Drip. Drip. The girl's face emerged from the shadows underneath the sink, staring blindly around the garage. Searching.

Locks rattled and Hanlon opened the door from the laundry room. "I only found one," he said, holding up a stubby emergency candle in his left hand.

I tried to smile but my mouth was dry and my lips wouldn't move. The dead girl inched forward, slow as a crab, until she was crouching with her back to the sink, as if she couldn't bear to leave the basin and the pipes below. She went back to working at the gag in her mouth.

I said, "Stand over by the sink, cowboy."

"No. Why?"

"That's where the ghost is, Tommy."

Reluctantly Hanlon walked down the three creaking steps. The girl stopped working on her gag and reached out as Hanlon edged closer. Her straining fingers trembled two inches from his coat. She rocked forward and then fell back, grabbing clumsily for the basin. "Did you hear something?" Hanlon's voice was hoarse and cracking. "I thought I heard something."

"I heard it. Get over on the other side of the sink. That's it. Muy bien." When I threw the gasoline on him and he caught fire, I needed a clear line to the laundry room door. My heart was pounding like a runaway train.

Hanlon rocked nervously, head bobbing, holding the stubby candle in his gloved left hand. "You gotta do for me here, Will."

"You bet your ass I will. Did you fetch me those matches?"

"Got 'em."

I made a show of inspecting the garage, squinting and sniffing. "All right. Light the candle."

"Why me? Aren't you supposed to do the exorcism?"

"Who is getting his ass haunted here? Trust me, Tom. Light her up."

Watching me every second, Hanlon put the revolver back in his pocket and pulled out a lighter with his right hand. Stalin would have rushed him while he wasn't holding the gun, but I was too chickenshit. "I hope you know what you're doing," Hanlon said. He flicked his lighter and held it to the candle. A bud of light swelled around the wick, and opened into a thin leaf of white flame. Slowly the salesman straightened and put his lighter away. His right hand settled back into the pocket of his coat. So much for that chance.

The dead girl managed to pull off her gag at last. She threw it into the corner of the garage, where it hit with a faint swish. Her chest heaved. She dragged her bound hands across the front of her mouth, leaving a wet smear of blood around her lips, black against her white skin.

Shit, shit, shit. I turned and walked back to the workbench. "Now, I need something to mark with ...a paintbrush? Piece of chalk, maybe?" I bent down so my body blocked Hanlon's line of sight. I grabbed the handle of the gasoline can. Another buzz of adrenaline drilled through me, making my hands shake. I'm fixing to draw a pentagram, I tried to say, but I was strung too tight to get the words out.

"Hey, mister," the dead girl croaked through battered lips. "Aren't you American?"

I straightened up, turned, and lunged for the center of the room, swinging the gas can. Hanlon stared at me as a glittering ribbon of gasoline stretched out through the musty air. It splashed into the sink and through the dead girl. It splashed onto Hanlon's London Fog coat and his business slacks and the hand stuck in his pocket. It splashed onto the candle flame and put it out.

I stared stupidly at the stubby wax candle in the salesman's hand.

There hadn't been enough gasoline vapor in the air. The gas had been too cold and liquid when it hit the candle; instead of exploding, it had doused the flame like a cup of cold water. The can dropped from my numb hands and clattered to the concrete floor.

Hanlon blinked. "Is this part of the-- ?" He stopped. "You saw her." He pulled the revolver out of his coat pocket and pointed it at my chest. "You tried to kill me."

"Tom. Take it easy, man." My eyes were nailed to the barrel of his gun. "So I saw her. So what? What am I going to do? Tell the police I saw a ghost in your garage? You think they give a fuck?"

Gasoline ran out of the can I had dropped, a dark pool of it creeping toward a drain under the sink. I should have been diving for a hammer off the workbench, or ducking under the table, or some damn thing. Instead my legs were shaking and shaking.

(Megan at four, crawling into my lap on the bus, frowning and serious. Are you going to died, Daddy? That was before she had stopped calling me Daddy. Shh, honey. Not for a long time. Megan lunging forward for a fierce hug, mashing my nose with her forehead. Daddy, I don't want you to died.)

I squeezed my eyes shut. No fucking time for that.

"I would have given you a thousand dollars, Will." Hanlon's hand was shaking. The gun barrel wobbled around, pointing at my neck, my balls, my lungs. "I ought to shoot you. You could describe her. The cops would start looking. They would find out."

Adrenaline was screaming through my blood. I felt myself grinning like I used to back in my bar-brawling days, just before the punches started to fly. I held up two fingers, very slowly. "Hey, I won't tell, Tom. Injun swear. I don't give a shit about her, she's your ghost." Obviously he wasn't the cold-blooded serial-killer type, or he would have capped me already. "You think you're the first sorry motherfucker I've met with a ghost following him around?" The gasoline was starting to evaporate. The smell of it rising around the salesman was strong enough to make my eyes water. "You think I'd still be alive if I went around ratting out every brother with a body in the trunk of his car?"

The dead girl jerked on Hanlon's coat. "Hey, mister," she said. "I need a ride."

Hanlon jumped away from her touch. "Shit!" His eyes flicked back to me. "That's a hell of a product, Will." He was breathing very fast and there was sweat beaded all over his forehead. "Get her away from me. Get her away from me, Will, or so help me I'll shoot you where you stand."

"And make another ghost to follow you around? I don't fucking think so, Tom. Looks to me like you're in enough trouble already." Shut up! I told myself. For Christ's sake, Will, why can't you stop ragging this guy? But my whole body was shaking with adrenaline and I couldn't stop grinning. I have plans, you asshole. I'm going to Six Flags.

The dead girl leaned away from the sink, groping blindly for Hanlon's coat with her bound hands. "Hey, mister," she said. Her voice was low and ugly. "Do you know your way around?"

"Shit!" Hanlon's gun hand was trembling wildly. "I loved her." The girl strained forward. Her forearms were a mass of bruises. She had probably tried to cover her face while Hanlon beat her to death. The salesman's eyes filled with tears again. "I loved her."

"Oh, yeah," I said. "I can see that."

Hanlon licked his lips. "Fuck you."

I jumped for the door. Hanlon's bullet slammed me in the chest. I spun and smashed face down on the laundry-room steps. The gunshot crashed deafeningly around the garage. Something exploded and suddenly there was fire everywhere. The flash from Hanlon's gun had set off the fumes from the evaporating gasoline. Burning air roared and popped behind me.

Gasping, I turned my head and looked back into an inferno. Hanlon was a mass of flames. He staggered backward and stumbled into the far wall of the garage. His arms beat wildly against the air. Evil yellow light flickered everywhere. Black stains flowered on the concrete.

His feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace.

Fire thundered down on Hanlon like a waterfall. He fell over and his body jerked. His arms flapped like the wings of a burning wasp, crackling, little fanning motions getting weaker and finally weaker. His screams dried up. His body began to pull in, withering and contracting. I heard bones snapping. The garage was hot. My chest hurt. I coughed and it hurt more.

I squinted at the sink, trying to catch a glimpse of the dead girl. She wasn't there. Hey, mister, I thought, looking back at Hanlon's smoking body. I got rid of your ghost. Where's my thousand bucks?

Oh God.

Oh God.

It was getting harder and harder to breathe. The garage was hot. I tried to get my shit back together. Okay. Okay. So I had been shot. It wasn't too bad, really. My chest had a funny, ringing, buzzing hum in it, but there wasn't real agonizing pain. No gouts of blood. I looked back. Doing better than some, hey, Tom? Hanlon's body snapped and popped. Sometimes the fucking bear gets you, mister. Long live the revolution.

Ropes and strings of black smoke were spreading through the garage. It smelled like burning plastic, and I coughed, a little hack. That hurt. I crawled into the laundry room and closed the garage door behind me. The chain lock jingled. I gulped a big lungful of air and yelped as pain shot through my back. I was beginning to pant, fast shallow breaths separated by that little hacking cough. My right shoulder felt heavy and useless.

A gust of feeling swept over me, Hanlon's gun trained on my chest and the memory of Megan in my lap. What if I had died there? "My, like, biological father, he got shot to death in some pervert's garage." No, not fair. Megan would come to my funeral. She would cry. No father left but fucking Don the ex-Marine. Kennedy lets his kid down again.

A thick, terrible pressure spread from my shoulder to the veins on the right side of my neck and then across my face. It came like a hit of dope, leaving me warm and calm where it had passed. I thought: better call the cops. I seemed to recollect Hanlon having a phone on the kitchen wall. I grabbed the top of his dryer with my left arm and hauled myself upright, then waited for the stars to fade from in front of my eyes. I felt warmer and calmer by the second. That can't be a very good fucking sign, I thought. Calmly.

Yellow light gleamed and danced under the laundry room door. It took forever to walk into the kitchen. Time stretched, dreamlike. Each footstep would begin, my heel would lift, my toes would scuff on the linoleum, my weight would shift unsteadily forward...and already the beginning of the step would have tumbled back into the past, like a dream scared off by an alarm clock. Each moment like waking up again, clueless and blinking.

I was standing by the refrigerator. There was a plain gray phone on the wall next to me over a set of matched canisters, Flour-Sugar-Rice-Cookies. The phone was over Cookies. My right shoulder wasn't working worth a damn. I grabbed for the phone and dropped it.

A long time later I woke at the smack of the receiver hitting the linoleum floor.

Pant. Pant. Pant. Cough. Every time I breathed I felt a slicing pain from the right side of my chest to my backbone, as if I were getting run through a meat shaver. Pant, slice. Pant, slice, cough. I bent over for the phone and the damn slicer nearly cut me in half.

Because thou hast left thy first love.

What the hell had Uncle Billy meant by that? I hadn't had a steady girlfriend since Megan was born. The occasional screw, but nothing serious. It was Josie that left me, anyway. I keep my accounts settled. I will never be one of those sorry bastards who comes back after he dies. I would do anything, I would burn to death a hundred times rather than come back.

I wasn't going to die today. I would call 911. The cops would rescue me. I would live happily ever after. Happy ending.

Josie left me over happy endings. Said I didn't believe in them. Said I wouldn't try. Josie never needed more reasons to be sad. Her dad did beer, pot, worker's comp, smack, and prison. Her mom stuck to weed and welfare. By the time she was eight, Josie was holding that family together with Scotch tape and unnatural competence, cooking tuna casserole made with no-name cream of mushroom soup and hiding the grocery money.

I always thought she liked me because I was smart and saw a world bigger than Deer Park. Maybe that was true, but looking back it's easy to see how much I owed her dad. She had been born into this world to love a loser, after all.

She quit cheerleading because she got bored. Everybody assumed she was pregnant but too stuck up to admit it. When she never got fat, they figured I'd sent her to Houston to get an abortion.

Pant. Pant. Pant. Cough. I slid down to the floor with my back against the refrigerator. It took a long time. I reached for the phone with my left hand and listened as the dial tone got louder, approaching my ear.

I punched a nine.

Josie's eyes were faded blue, like old jeans. She had six rings in her left ear, and wonderful ash blond hair she kept in a ponytail. When we made love, I used to tease the scrunchie out, a gentle tug that would lay the back of her neck bare, and I would kiss it. Her hair like corn silk, slipping across my cheek. Then one day she showed up at our apartment cropped back like that chick in the Eurythmics, Annie Lennox. When I went to kiss her neck, there was only stubble. It was all gone and she hadn't asked me.

She put some food in a backpack and told me to get in the car. I was twenty and between jobs. We headed down I-45 for the Gulf of Mexico, looking across hazy East Texas scrub at the distant refineries of Dickinson and Texas City. We made it to Galveston in just under an hour, rolled over the long causeway and kept on driving to the western tip of the island, where nobody comes. There had been a storm the day before. The sand was littered with little blobs of black oil, and when we walked along the beach we had to step over a thousand dead jellyfish.

I punched a one on Hanlon's phone.

We tried to make a fire out of hackberry scrub and driftwood but it was all too wet. We ate the food Josie had packed, peanut-butter sandwiches and a bottle of red wine. We got drunk and I loved her helplessly. The sun guttered out. The sea grew dark, then the trees. The clouds went out like cigarettes, gold at the tips, then red, then smoke and ashes. I caught glimpses of Josie in the twilight: a line of leg, a dim cheek, hands appearing and disappearing as she drank. I made a joke and she laughed. I taught her a hymn, "Will the Circle be Unbroken." I had the solo on that one in the church choir, back when I was a boy. We sang it together, very badly. By and by, Lord, bye and bye.

Josie drank another thermos cap of wine. "Will," she said, "I want a divorce."

I punched another one on Hanlon's phone. Pant. Pant. Cough. Pant.

She said she didn't want to spend the rest of her life rescuing me. She said I made everything seem hopeless. "You look at me sometimes and I know you're seeing me dead, or dying. Paralyzed after a car crash or something."

"Cancer," I said. "Considering your family." Her granddaddy had died with a tumor in his colon the size of a grapefruit.

"Christ, Will." She cupped her face in her hands. I couldn't believe I was never going to kiss her again. "Is that what you're going to teach your kids?" Josie screwed the lid back on the thermos. "Not mine," she said. Then she packed up our picnic and we hiked back to the car in the dark.

Later, I figured out that must have been the week she found out she was pregnant. Will Kennedy, raising my child? she must have thought. Better no daddy at all. Another reason I never missed a soccer game or a school concert. Wanted to show fucking Josie she was wrong.

When we got back to Houston, Josie said I could sleep on the couch but I said maybe not. I spent the night out walking, marching through the Rice campus and up into the Montrose by the Rothko Chapel. I saw a lot of ghost roads that night, three or four of them. Long quiet gray streets. I remember, there was a pick-up truck rolling slowly down one and I thought about catching up to it, hopping into the bed like I was seventeen again, the summer I did farmwork for my Uncle Chase down by Brownsville, breathing pesticide all day and fainting from heatstroke while the lazy wetbacks around me laughed and dabbed my head with water. Tireless sons of bitches. I told them they better stop working so hard or they'd never fool La Migra into believing they were Americans.

I didn't sleep for seventy-two hours after Josie dropped the bomb. Just walked and walked. Disaster is better than Dexedrine that way. In my exhaustion I remember thinking, Love turns you into a refrigerator. You think you're a person, you can laugh and talk and move around, but it's not true. At any moment your lover can pull you open and rummage around inside, pull out your heart and walk away. And you can't stop it. You can't hold the door closed. All you can do is sit there while she takes your heart and walks away.

I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep and I couldn't stop walking. Lost ten pounds in three days. You too can get these fabulous results with our easy new Miracle Heartbreak Diet! Josie tried to make me see a doctor, but we didn't have insurance and anyway I didn't deserve it. What did I feel? Relief. A big empty balloon of relief in my chest that just kept drifting up and up. What kind of loser can't even work up a good cry over his marriage falling to shit? Well, me, apparently. I didn't collapse at all. I felt sharp as a fishhook. Hard and light.

Never told Josie that.

A year later she married this guy named Don. Just finished his tour in the Marine Corps. I came to the wedding and behaved myself. Watched Josie's mom dandle Megan through the service. I even brought a present. China, I think. Me and Josie only ever had cheap crappy plates when we were together. In the receiving line Josie said, I hope we can still be friends.

I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.

A woman's smooth voice woke me up. "911. Do you need police, fire, or ambulance?"

"Uh-oh," I said. "Hard question." I coughed. I felt like I was trying to breathe through a hot towel. I was panting like a dog but I still couldn't get enough air.

"Sir, are you hurt? Do you need an ambulance?"

"Yes, ma'am." Pant, pant, cough. Little choked-off coughs, but they hurt like hell. Between the coughs, time was stretching and stretching. "Shock," I said. "I think I'm in shock."

"Where are you located, sir?"

"Don't know." It was hard to spare the air for talking.

I went away and came back again.

"Sir, I have you located at 610 Juanita Lane. I'm going to transfer you to the ambulance now."

"Transfer? No, you can't -- "

Then I was on hold.

I drifted back to the night Josie told me she wanted a divorce. Darkness spreading along the beach like black water. Gulls rising over the ocean until the vanished sun caught them, wings suddenly white and dazzling against a sky gone cold.

Lights winking on a trawler running far out to sea.

"Medical emergency. Are you the injured party?"

I talked to the voice. It said an ambulance was on the way. I dropped the phone. I didn't hear it hit, but when I woke up later I could see the receiver still quivering on the floor. Back in the garage, the fire was talking to itself.

From my gut to my skull, the whole right side of my body felt strange and swollen. The pressure behind my face was horrible. Pant, pant, pant. Cough. A coil of smoke drifted into the kitchen from the hallway. Then a muffled boom came from the garage. Can of spray-paint exploding, or WD-40, or paint thinner. It sure would be ironic if Hanlon's house burned down, with me inside it, before the ambulance could arrive. Sometimes the big Russian bear gets you.

I told myself I ought to get to the front door. That way the EMTs could find me. I rolled over so I was lying on the kitchen floor, my head a few inches off the linoleum, my weight on my elbows. Best to stay down, with all that smoke. I was coughing continuously now, choked-off gasps between every pant for air. I pulled myself on my elbows across the length of the kitchen, then turned left into the living room. It was very hot. I gulped for air and the pain in my back dropped me to the floor. The carpet felt rough and hot against my face. I snuffled, gasping up carpet fibers and coughing hard. My mouth was so dry. I dragged myself forward, making for the flowered chintz sofa. I hoped I would cross one of the little plastic runners, so I could follow it to the front door. I wondered if I still had my Petco health insurance, and if it covered bullet wounds. Probably only if you were gunned down on Petco property.

Somehow I had wandered off course. My useless right shoulder smacked into a coffee table leg and I dropped mouth first into the carpet again. I could just make out the bottom of Hanlon's front door. I heard another crash from the garage, followed by a cascade of falling steel tools. I meant to scramble forward, but then darkness blew me out like a match.

The next time I woke up I was flat on my back in an ambulance, naked, and my first thought was: Who took my pants?

It was bright inside the ambulance. There were hot blankets on me, from my feet all the way up to a huge mound of slimy gauze on the right side of my chest. That's covering a bullet hole, I thought. Son of a bitch. I went away and came back. The hot blankets felt good. A cute black EMT in navy coveralls was holding a clear plastic mask over my nose and mouth. The mask gurgled and hissed like a fire. The EMT's fingernails were painted gold with swirly designs. "Oxygen," she said, smiling. "It's the real thing, baby."

The ambulance sped through the city, sirens screaming. The flashers would be going too, fine American colors, red and white and blue and red and white, spinning and strobing. I gathered my breath, which was a mistake. Hell of a product, I thought. Then I passed out again.

We were at the hospital. The EMTs had stuck an IV in my arm. I could see the drip bag swinging overhead as they heaved me onto a gurney and started hauling ass. The whole operation was hellaciously bumpy and noisy, metal wheels chattering up the concrete ramp from the ambulance bay, automatic doors swishing open, another jerk and then we were on linoleum and the ride smoothed out. It's very weird to be moving fast while lying on your back. I rattled through Emergency until they parallel parked me against a corridor wall. I stared up at the ceiling, which was made of squares of wafer board with lots of tiny circular holes in it, with every fifteen feet a stainless-steel sprinkler head. At least I wouldn't burn to death.

The EMTs talked with a doctor somewhere out of sight. I tried to eavesdrop, but all I could make out was something about carbon monoxide that I didn't understand. They wheeled me into another room and put me on a bed. A pale nurse with freckles and sensible brown hair took my pulse and blood pressure. Then she drew off a syringe of blood. I watched the needle fill. I felt shivery, not so warm and not so calm. Don't put me in a room, I tried to say but couldn't. I can't afford a room. Just stack me on the floor.

Periodically an impatient voice crackled from speakers overhead, but I couldn't understand it. Maybe it was Spanish.

I coughed. That hurt. It also hurt when I tried to move my shoulder. Wheels rattled on passing gurneys. We should have corridor races, I thought. Zoom down these halls on our backs like bobsledders. I went away and came back. The nurse with the sensible hair was standing over me with a clipboard. "Is there someone we should call, hon?"

My first love was home with her husband. My daughter who no longer called me daddy would be asleep under a poster of the U.S. women's soccer team.

"Mr. Kennedy?" The nurse knew my name. Must have looked in my wallet. Those pants sure were getting around. "Is there someone we should call?"

I pretended I couldn't hear her and pretty soon I went away again.

When I came back, a lady doctor was holding up an x-ray and tapping it with one hard finger. "You have been shot through the chest and your lung has collapsed. The bullet has entered just below your clavicle, broken your fifth rib on its way out, and made a small hole in your scapula. It will heal." She was a small woman from India with streaks of gray in her short black hair. She spoke decisively and rolled her Rs. When she said the word "rib" it sounded like a ziploc bag being closed in a hurry. "The collapsed lung is the reason for this cough."

I coughed.

The doctor looked at me sternly. "Some blood has collected in your chest cavity. We will be inserting a chest tube to drain it."

"My chest," I said, panting. "My neck. They feel -- "

The doctor gave me a brief professional frown. "There is no lung to keep your organs in position," she said brusquely. "Things slosh around." She scribbled something on a clipboard. "Everything here is highly routine."

The freckled nurse came back later pushing a small wheeled stewardess-type cart loaded with medical supplies. I didn't have a good feeling about it. She started to lift my dead right arm, but I thought that would hurt. We fought over it and she won. She slathered my side with brown stuff that smelled like iodine. The PA system crackled angrily in Kurdish. The doctor returned and held up a syringe. "Anesthetic," she said. "This will sting."

It did.

By Sean Stewart

Sean Stewart is the author of "Mockingbird," "Resurrection Man," "The Night Watch" and other novels. He was lead author behind the interactive Web game The Beast.

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