He dies hungry. He’d heard the microwave the moment they’d stepped into the galley but was too damn professional to let himself look to see what was cooking. He’d spent much of his life subsisting on army rations: freeze-dried or just-add-water. They kept him alive but made him feel like a steam engine. (Shovel in fuel. Let it burn. Find the strength to put one foot in front of the other.) He knew that killing a cook, a real artist with food, would haunt him later – but that didn’t mean it wasn’t emasculating to be murdered by one. The galley roars with flame; glass from the exploding microwave opens a new mouth in his cheek, wet and ready to chew and swallow.
Peer pressure was the only reason he’d had any fun at all in high school. His strict childhood diet of Catholic guilt had left him incapable of ever misbehaving on his own. If someone else was the ringleader, though? Then he’d happily go along, safe in their slipstream. That’s how he ended up a mercenary in the first place. He met Ben at the gym – this grinning, white-toothed mountain of a man – and one thing led to another. Before he knew it, boom, he was standing guard and hijacking trucks and shooting people in the knees. Ben died a couple of years ago. It’ll be great to see Ben again, he thinks with his last gasp. He’ll know what to do next.
You’re born. You don’t remember it. You go to school and you meet other children. Some are nice, some are horrible, and one can become the other without warning. You get a girlfriend. You force her to go further than she’d like sooner than she’d like. You graduate. You get a job. On the weekends you count down the hours until you have to go back to that job. You get married. You have a kid. Soon the kid no longer laughs at your jokes or thinks you’re amazing. You lose the energy to fight and you and your wife just sit together in front of the TV until one of you dies and then the other one dies. Right? No. Not for him.
There was a book he’d always meant to write. It’d be about the Trojan War, told by one soldier waiting inside the wooden horse. All set inside the horse, too, first page to last. He’d come up with the idea when discharged from the army – dishonourably, sure, but no one needed to know – and told himself he’d now have time to get stuck into the first draft. The Greek soldier hiding in his head, though, only appeared on the page in fits and starts and unconvincing clichés. He felt like a failure but his wife told him not to worry. She said he was already a writer. “Because writers write,” she told him, her hand soft on his shoulder. He swallowed his reply: “And killers kill.”
If it took up the right number of knuckles he would’ve had it tattooed across his fists: GUNS ARE COOL. There’s no point pretending otherwise. Each one is a thousand years of human history – science and ambition and death – melted down into something you can lift with one hand. Men carrying guns share a bond that can’t be understood by the unarmed. It says I could kill you and you could kill me and yet here we are, still breathing. (He was never a very good shot, admittedly, because he was always too eager to pull the trigger.) The sound of one gunshot now rolls into the next and his forehead opens up like a cuckoo clock. He wouldn’t want it any other way.
He leaves behind no wife, no children, and few friends. Everything he has – every cent he’d ever received for his mercenary work – he gives to his ailing grandparents. They’d raised him, despite being too old to deal with a bitter kid, and they’d given him a childhood of strict discipline, quiet afternoons, and dreary old-fashioned snacks. He’d never be able to repay them for their kindness except by becoming the kind of man that would make them proud. Today? He’d been told today was a black-ops mission to defeat terrorists who’d secretly infiltrated the navy in stolen uniforms! It was ridiculous, obviously, but he accepted it as unblinking fact. He dies thinking he’s a good man, blessed to never understand his own stupidity.
If you say you have no regrets you’re either a liar or a sociopath. He’s neither, despite what his jury was told. He can still remember the way the shrink pronounced it, too, stretching out the syllables, making a theatrical little steeple with his hands to impress the judge. No, he has regrets, and has time to count them between finding himself in a choke-hold and watching his chest explode. He regrets taking this job, obviously. He regrets not hunting down that shrink and cutting off his fat fingers. Most of all he regrets how they used the captain’s birthday as cover to sneak onboard today. No one should die on their birthday. He mightn’t feel everything he should but he feels that, deep down inside.
Because at some point you have to choose. Pick a side. Good or bad. And good definitely has its advantages: you feel better about yourself; you might get a reward; you won’t get arrested as often. (Although doing what’s right can be an ocean away from doing what’s legal. His father taught him that.) Once he stopped some teenagers from kicking a dog – this limping, dismal thing – and that felt okay. The dog seemed grateful at least, all slobber and saucer-eyes. But it was all so… reactive, you know? Bad is proactive! You carve out your own hours and your own code. He doesn’t regret his decision. With his final scorched thought, he only wonders if the man who just killed him owns a dog.
He didn’t want to die alone. It’s why he married and had kids – to construct a safety net of others who’d be forced to stay by his side. Legally, genetically, whatever. But his kids left home and he drove his wife away by begging her to stay. As time now downshifts into adrenalised slow motion, he watches the explosion reach for him like a shy monster in a picture book. It takes Chris first. Chris seemed like a pretty good guy. They’d exchanged small talk waiting for the chopper to bring them here: home towns, favourite movies, girls that got away. He was a little philosophical, maybe, but friendly enough. It’s comforting to know he and Chris will die, side by side, in the same fire.
This is the last memory he has of home: the taxi was late. He should’ve been grateful for the extra time with his family, but he’d already flicked the switch in his head to ‘on duty’. The TV played while he waited. A morning chat show. A man and a woman with matching molars were grinning through interviews with mild celebrities. Their manner reminded him of when he’d last tried to have a pleasant meal with parents. He pretended there were snipers present who’d kill everyone in the restaurant unless he could keep talking, just keep talking, even though he had nothing to say. When the taxi arrived, there was blood in his mouth. He’d bitten his tongue. He wouldn’t tip the driver.