It almost seemed as though dropping a cigarette had cued the war.
One brief moment of the hot cinders stubbing themselves against the downtrodden earth. The city that had once been bustling was deathly still and then it was bustling again, only this time instead of with commerce, it was with gunshots.
Bullets ricocheted off of partially demolished cars, shattering gaping holes into glass or bouncing off of impenetrable cement. Sometimes, if lucky, they hit their mark, and planted themselves into human flesh and summoned cries of pain from the victim—or sometimes no noise at all, which was the worst (or best) surprise.
I kneeled down as I took cover behind a pockmarked, detached truck door. Loading the rifle in my hands, I propped it up against myself and peered through the crosshairs. With one, precise pull of the finger, I took away life like it was my authority. How funny it was that nine months, plus years of life, could all be dissipated by a single piece of metal hurtling at ungodly rates.
If only I could find it in myself to laugh at the irony.
Another grenade set off in front of me. Chunks and shards of burnt rubble—and sometimes corpses—sent flying by the impact smashed against the car door, others blew right past into the ruined building behind me.
But what I didn't see was that the grenade was a clever ploy.
In moments I felt the nozzle pressed up against my back. The sound of rushed breathing and excitement. Look, a white man with his back turned to you. Wouldn't it be so great to shoot him? It hardly takes any effort to kill a man when you don't need to see his face. It's when he turns around and looks at you that you realize you're not so different after all.
And it's really hard to kill yourself.
He flinches in his seat as if struck by a sudden epiphany, when in fact that entire time he has been thinking about nothing.
"Sir, are you alright?"
A sharp intake of breath. Fingers running through hair. Compose yourself, dumbass. A forced smile. "Sorry, I was... thinking of something else. Erm... what were you asking about?"
The waitress sighs loudly, visibly, audibly. "I was asking what you would like to drink, sir," she responds testily. She has no time to deal with self-absorbed idiots. She has a job to do and dollar bills to collect.
"Oh." He pauses, glances down at the menu he never realized he had. "Just some water. Thanks."
She nods, heading off. He's left relieved, exhaling, staring out the window again. It's damned dark and rain is falling from the sky like a shit-storm of bullets. He'd almost venture as far as to say it sounds like it, but it really doesn't. The drum of water droplets hitting solids isn't really anything quite like the explosive rupture of a shot being released from a pistol. And of course, he would know. Better than any other man, at least. Some would say he was addicted to the power of a pistol but it was oh so much more than that.
Just for safety's sake, his hand flies to his pocket under his wallet. He is guilty to be relieved when he feels the heartless metal of his gun still there. It feels good, though, to know that you haven't lost everything from your past, however much you might hate it.
It's a good day to be on the move, he says to himself, the only person in the diner who thinks it is nice to travel during rain showers. I doubt that Cobbler will try to get me while it's raining.
Cobbler. He almost feels his spine twinge when he hears that name. His sentimental, stupid heart thinks it's a nice word, but his brain that knows better knows it's just a bad, bad word. Worse than fuck, even. Cobbler for Damian equals death. Just like how Damian for Cobbler also means death.
"Your drink, sir. Are you ready to order?" The waitress gently puts down the icy glass of water on his table. Damian's nose crinkles when he sees a slice of lemon planted on the rim, infecting his pure water with that abhorrent, diluted citrus flavor.
"Yeah. I'll just get fries, thanks," he responds off-handedly. The waitress is mildly pleased by his immediate response instead of taking another five minutes to think about his meal. She writes it down and grabs his menu, departing quickly, leaving him to his thoughts. He gazes out the window again and watches the water slap the ground and rooftiles. They remind him distinctly of kamikaze suicide bombers, how zealously they are pulled to the earth by gravity, and congregate into little corpse-puddles in basins and nooks and crannies.
You know what? They remind me of Cobbler. They remind me of his endless torrent of stalking me. Son of a bitch. Damian's trigger finger itches and he feels his hand flying to the bulge of the pistol in his pocket. Damn me for liking it so much.
Coward. Damian wants to scream the word out loud in the middle of the diner. Coward. It would only get him so many weird glances, but none of them would ever be as scrutinizing as Cobbler's.
"You're quitting the war?"
The bald-headed, carrot-skinned man grabbed me by the shirt and slammed me against the wall. His eyes were bulging and bloodshot with fatigue and paranoia and rage. "Dumbass! What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
I grabbed at his wrists and futilely tried to wrench myself from his grip, to no avail. We both knew who was the stronger of the two of us, even if it's only because I refused to handle a machete. "I told you what I'm doing. I'm quitting."
"No, idiot. That's not what I mean." Cobbler's knuckles were whitening, turning a hilariously contrasting shade against his orange complexion. "You have no place to go, Damian. There's no reason to run like a fuckin' coward if you're just going to get dragged back into it anyways!" He let go of me and stepped back, an indescribable hate filling his normally mild expression. "Killing is all we know, Damian," he murmured darkly. "From the time we were born til the time we will die." His hand went to the machete on the ground. The silver blade gleamed like a winking kiss. "Don't think you can run from who you are."
I looked away. I do not like to admit when I am wrong.
"Your fries, sir." The waitress plops down the tray of oily fried potato strips and summons the soldier back to the present. Damian glances at her, nods to show that he's still conscious, and then starts to eat as quickly as possible. The faster he swallows this down, the sooner he can get moving—and get farther away from his pursuer. Or is it pursuers? By this point, he doesn't even know what Louis Cobbler has in store for him. And he doesn't want the opportunity to know.
The fries are really bland and tasteless, but anything will do if it's cheap and it has enough stuff in it to keep him going. Damian snaps open the crumpled-up map in his bag and traces his finger over the penciled-in path he has already taken. Already two countries' width away from the war and he still feels like he's being chased by Cobbler.
He's about to toss out his tasteless tray of potato fries when suddenly, someone slides into view. "Excuse me," says the blonde with nice clothes. "There's not really any other room to sit, you mind if I sit here?"
"Sure," he mumbles, shooting her a glance. She looks like another rich woman in this presentable city, and even though it shouldn't, it sort of pisses him off.
She glances at him before settling down and putting her purse onto the seat next to her. Her dirty blonde curls are stained by the rain and she removes her drenched jacket. "Oh. And, um, I'm Ellen. Sure is pouring out there, huh?" she says, trying to initiate casual conversation.
Damian doesn't really understand the concept of casual conversation, so he just sort of nods. Ellen doesn't find it all that peculiar. He takes another sip of water, drinking it importantly like it were some kind of expensive liquor, but it's not.
"So," says Ellen curiously, "what brings you out here to the middle of nowhere? It's not frequent for this town to get visitors."
His brows rise. "Just trying to get away, if you know what I mean," he responds, glaring at the lemon in the water. He picks it up with two fingertips as if it were poisoned, and lays it down on his napkin. Ellen briskly glances at the citrus slice with curiosity before nodding to his answer.
"I get it," she responds. No, you don't, he thinks to himself as she says; "What with the conflicts in the other countries at all, it's nice to have a chance to just... get away. Right?"
He glances out the window again. It's less distracting than her face. "Sure."
She grins a bit. He's a little awkward, and she finds that funny. She's a bit too airheaded to figure out that he's awkward because to him, she's just another easy person to shoot dead. "You know," she says softly, resting her chin on her hands, "I wish they would figure out why this war is still going on."
Damian blinks. He shifts his gaze to Ellen before quickly looking away again. "What is that supposed to mean?" For some reason, he feels himself really perturbed. Then it comes to him: he never really knew why he was fighting in the war to begin with.
"Because they refuse to change." Ellen nods at her own statement, like she's pleased that she figured it out. "As long as both sides still hate each other, they're going to keep killing each other for no reason at all." She hesitates, then adds quickly: "There's no reason for the conflict anymore. If either side could see that they could just stop, the war wouldn't have to exist and people wouldn't have to die like they are now."
He stiffens. She doesn't know half of it. You would hate your neighbor, too, if you knew that they kissed the rifles in their house if they had shot down some shitbag with it. It's not that easy to just move on and say, 'Hey, Danny. I forgive you for killing my wife the other day because she was a shitbag.' His jaw tightens. Thinking of the conflict makes him think of Cobbler. And thinking of Cobbler makes his heartbeat accelerate to unhealthy levels.
"You don't agree, do you?" says Ellen softly after observing Damian's reaction briefly. He flinches, looks at her, and then struggles for a proper response to give to this prissy lady with nice clothes.
His hands are in his pockets now and his voice is steely. "I wouldn't try to make judgments about the conflict if I were you," he says quietly. "You don't know how it feels to hate until you feel the hate inside of you."
She looks away as he stands up. She apologizes but he is not listening anymore. Ellen pisses him off. He can't really place it. He doesn't know why. He's met many dumb women with nice clothes that think they know everything, but for some reason, this woman really drives his nerves insane. Silently, he proceeds to the trash can and starts to toss out his crap until there is an abrupt swing of the door.
Instinctively, Damian's head turns to the doorway. His blood suddenly feels like liquefied ice when he spots the familiar shine of a bald, carrot head.
"Louis Cobbler, what a surprise to see you here" is what he wants to say.
What he really says: "Fuck."
Cobbler can't believe his luck. Out of all the diners he chose to pick to eat at, he chose the one with the crappy sign and the neon alcohol symbols, the one he thought would never have a Damian inside of it.
But what do you know, there he is. Damian Lockwoode, ultimate coward, looking like a scared animal.
"Damian!" Cobbler exclaims, feigning pleasant astonishment. "What a delightful surprise to see you here."
Damian backs away into a wall. His face is akin to that of an antelope in the headlights, which Cobbler finds pretty hilarious, considering he and Damian used to shoot antelope for fun.
"I used to think of things that I would say when he would see each other again, but I think letting you see my face is enough," Cobbler says in a low voice. "I want you to know exactly what you did to me when you decided to run away like a fuckin' coward with his tail in between his legs."
Damian is looking, and that is the sad part. His eyes will not leave the deep, pale scar that runs across Cobbler's face. A permanent reminder of his own personal shortcomings.
"I'm sorry," he says, but his throat is dry and it looks like he has just mouthed the word without the sound to voice it. Cobbler seems pissed off again.
"That's all you can say? A wimpy 'sorry'? I would like something more than that," Cobbler growls. He pulls out the pistol. Bad move. The diner guests are instantly terrified once they see the familiar gleam of cold steel. Cobbler presses the nozzle against Damian's forehead. "I have been waiting very long for the moment that I shoot your brains out of your skull. You can at least treat me to a very nice expression."
But Damian is too scared hypothetically shitting his pants to really respond.
Ellen is up from her seat now. She is slowly approaching Cobbler as he continues, raving, like a madman: "I told you many times that you can't run or hide from what is real. You're still carrying that thing around with you, aren't you? Your pistol."
Damian scowls because it's true. Cobbler delights and adds: "I knew it. Once a killer, always a killer. You can't run, Damian! You can't run from truth!"
A click as the safety trigger is removed. Cobbler is really getting into the idea of blowing Damian's brains out.
And then Ellen pounces. She's on Cobbler now, her hand on the wrist with the gun in it. Damian is frozen while the woman with the nice clothes fights for a life that isn't hers. He has never seen this kind of thing and it almost scares him more than the prospect of Cobbler turning him into Swiss cheese.
"Don't just stand there!" Ellen yells. "Do something!"
Damian snaps into focus. His hand is in his pocket now, scrabbling past the spare change and into the compartment where his damned holy thing lies. His fingers are already wrapping around it. He knows exactly how a pistol feels. It's very natural to him as he pulls it out, feels the weight, puts his hands together on the killing mechanism. Cobbler is too busy wrestling with Ellen to realize that Damian is brandishing his weapon.
Cobbler shoves the nozzle up against Ellen's skull just as Damian points his own gun at Cobbler.
"Shoot and I'll shoot," says Cobbler. To any other person, it would sound ridiculous, but both of the soldiers know that Cobbler has survived his fair share of would-be instant-death shots.
Damian shakes. His gun is trembling along with him. It is an extension of his body that represents his helplessness. Lips quivering, he responds, "Go ahead and shoot her. I don't give a fuck."
Ellen's eyes widen. Cobbler's grin widens.
"I knew it," Cobbler says in a low voice. "Once a killer, always. Even if you're not the one pulling the triggers, that's all you know, right? That's all we both know." Damian grits his teeth.
And then he fires.
The bullet hurtles through the air after being released from the nozzle. No one else has ever had such perfect aim. If it hadn't been him, he wouldn't have made that gamble.
The shot lodges itself into Cobbler's gun and wrecks it. His hand is snapped open by the shock and he falls back as Damian rushes up, shoves Cobbler to the ground, props his knee on the carrot-skin's arm and presses the gun against his head.
Both of them breathe heavily for a brief moment before Cobbler smirks.
Damian does not smile because he does not understand what exactly is funny.
"I always knew it would turn out like this. That you would end up killing me." Cobbler's eyes narrow. "But I would sooner be killed by someone with actual skill than by some rookie shot shitbag."
Damian's breath is quivering.
"Shoot me!" Cobbler demands. "Just shoot me already, Damian! Admit it, you want to. Every part of your body wants to do what is natural." Cobbler grabs onto Damian's wrist and his eyes are begging now. "You can't change yourself, Damian. You can never purge yourself of this hate. You keep trying so hard to run away from the truth but you just can't. It doesn't matter what happens to you or what you try to do to yourself. The only thing both you and I know is how to use a gun to kill people. And that is it. That will never change."
Damian's finger is itching badly.
"Shoot me," Cobbler says hysterically. "Shoot me now."
Damian looks Cobbler in the eye. Brown against brown. Man versus man.
Or are they really even men anymore?
He drops the pistol. It lands on the floor with a shallow clatter.
Cobbler has never felt so destroyed.
"I'm not going to kill you," Damian says finally. "I'm not a coward."