The first explosion acts as an alchemical primer. The helicopter shudders, its metal singing under stress, and the men inside are swamped in shared adrenaline. Eighteen hearts chugging as one. When the second rocket hits and its flames fill the cabin, the men breathe in a single breath. None of them breathe out again. This is the moment of transformation.
I’m alive, he thinks. The fire didn’t hurt any more, thank god, because if it did hurt it would hurt forever. It takes him a little while to notice – first he just presumes the explosion’s blown out his eardrums – but time has stopped. He stares out the cockpit’s glass. The rotors are frozen spokes. The ocean, below, is an uneven slab of stone-still water. Fire hangs in the air, giving everything inside a sunrise haze.
Slowly, regretfully, the helicopter falls. He stays where he is. The metal passes through him on its way down, and he can feel every seam and rivet and bundled wire like splinters under skin. One of the rotors slices through him as it tears free of his underbelly, plucking a thin, marshmallow tendril of him away with its point.
He ignores the impact splash below and examines the flapping piece of him hanging down like old pantyhose as it slowly retracts. His body’s not what he expected, either. He guesses he’s now around the size of a minivan. He can wiggle the fingers of a half-dozen hands at once and, as he does so, eyes flower all over him. Eighteen blinking pairs of eyes.
He is McCarthy and Wilson and Velasquez and Marta and Edens and Workman and Metcalf and Weichel and Dutton and Helvaci and Burnside and Gurung and Loftis and Hall and Boyce and Szczurowski and Caberera and Rai. He is a misshapen cloud of them, of their flesh and bones and dreams, left weightless and drifting.
No, he thinks, not a cloud. A kite. He sees the man with the rocket launcher on the ship. He sees the trail in the air left by the rocket’s flight. That’s his string, tethering him to his killer. What now? He looks up, down, and sideways at once. I wish I’d read more ghost stories, he thinks, the words a chorus of varied accents and inflections.
While none of his component parts were voracious readers, between them they’d waded through their share of pulpy thrillers. Trying to remember the specifics of each haunting – the rules, the limitations – now floods him with memories. The soft shoulders of Caberera’s girlfriend, so far out of his league; Boyce putting two teeth through his lip falling off a swing set; when Wilson’s father lost the fact he ever had a son to dementia. And Burnside, goofy, loyal Burnside, has fond teenage memories of lighting stray animals and kicking out the flames.
He tries to quarantine those images or spit them out of him like phlegm. His surface bubbles and roils with the effort. Faces appear, mouths open, but so do patches of cloth and leather and the yawning muzzles of guns. These things are part of him now, too. He imagines squeezing a trigger, tightening himself as if about to sneeze. The ghost of a bullet coughs free of one of his guns. It’s a soft, frayed thing, and it disappears before it hits the water.
His frustrated scream is a baritone choir. He tries to reel himself down the rocket’s trail, approaching the ship as a thunderstorm, but no matter how he tries to twist the soup inside him he gets no closer. In fact, the ship seems a little smaller now. His murderer has disappeared below decks. He can’t even remember the man’s face.
And how many men has he killed with his own, thirty-six hands? He couldn’t count. Instead, he presses all those memories into a single victim – one dead man, made from hundreds – and tucks it right in his centre like the stone in a peach. He finds a new clarity of thought, up here. It could be that he has eighteen minds working together, or just the night air. Wherever you die, he thinks, you haunt that place forever. Or you’re too fond of your corpse and left sprouting up through graveyard dirt. Maybe you’re attached to your killer, following him and making angry faces no one can see. None of it sounds too appealing.
The mouths of his guns retract into him, and his puttied flesh quickly fills their holes. He lets his better memories circulate through him. Summer days and strawberry blondes and three chord songs and bullseyed targets and the warm, wriggling embrace of children. It’s all obvious stuff, but so what? Happiness is obvious. Between all these men, there are enough of these memories to encircle him. He wears them as his skin.
Eyes peering up, down, and sideways at once, he thinks: yeah, the ship’s definitely smaller now. The man inside who killed him must be even smaller still. He might be haunting a particular ocean current or a thin wisp of air, but whatever it is, he’s moving. The sun will be up soon. He wonders where he’ll be when he sees it.
Idiots sometimes called him a pessimist. Didn’t they understand the brute optimism required to get out of bed every morning and ignore the fact we’re already halfway dead? Let alone for a man who faced gunfire more often than most of them got laid. He was a dinosaur, dragging himself through the muck, wife and boys on his back and his enormous head hanging down to avoid seeing the asteroid above them. The last few times he’d killed – two bodyguards, a kid with a grudge and bad aim – he’d fought the urge to scream “I told you so!” at their corpses. Now he sees the water collecting his blood below is as black as oil, and dies satisfied he has proven his point.
He hears a glib one-liner tumble from his lips and tastes regret. He was always better at killing than comedy, than most anything else. Why is he talking at all? Why, with his enemy helpless at his feet, is he pointing his gun but not pulling the trigger? A lizardlike voice explains it from back in his skull: Look at him. This man can’t die. He is death. You feel it in your bones and your jokes are graveyard whistles. This voice drowns out the sound as he’s shot from behind; its whispers turn soldier’s logic to caveman’s superstition. He dies convinced the man at his feet killed him with nothing more than a fierce glance and a wish.