Badlands

By: Callie Hart

ONE





In Newmains, Alabama, if you look up at the sky at night, it’s as though you’re staring into the very soul of all creation. Out there, with barely any light or people to pollute the atmosphere, you can travel back in time as light from long dead stars and ancient celestial bodies finally reach the Earth, hit the walls of your retinas, and for a second they still exist, aren’t forgotten, remain a part of the universe still.

And then they’re gone.

It’s the most amazing experience, if you truly comprehend what you’re looking at. That’s how my brain works. I can’t look at something and simply see pretty pinpricks of flashing lights in the sky. I see burning hydrogen and helium, vast seas of nitrogen, oxygen and iron. I see death and destruction and life and creation all at once, and it’s a symphony of chaos that clean robs me of breath every single time I witness it.

The same thing happens to me now as I stand over Freddy Clough’s body as he dies on the uneven concrete flooring of the underground parking lot of my employer’s apartment building. I see more than a beaten man taking his last breaths. I see a perfectly designed machine malfunctioning. His lungs aren’t capable of binding oxygen molecules to iron and sending it to his heart with so many bullet holes riddling them. Kidneys can’t work if they’ve received the kind of internal damage Freddy’s have. A man can only walk if his spinal chord hasn’t been severed.

Basically, Freddy is a mess. His blood is pooled around his torso, a dark crimson mirror reflecting the strip lights overhead, slowly turning black. I pick up the gun that lies at my feet, frowning at the dirt and grime encrusted along the barrel, into the handle, around the slide, into the crosshatched pattern of the metal handle, and I learn a lot about its owner. It’s clearly not one of Zeth’s. Like with everything else he owns, Zeth takes exceptional care of his weapons. The Desert Eagle he’s taken to carrying around is always highly polished, clean and ready to go. It’s surprising that a gun like this—rusted, never cleaned or maintained since it was procured—even works. There’s enough shit caked all over it to jam up the mechanism for sure.

“Please…hel…help.” Freddy grasps up at me with blood-covered fingers, the whites of his eyes showing. He’s afraid. There’s nothing I can do to save him, no help I can give to him really, so I simply crouch down beside him and hold his gaze, allowing my chest to rise and fall with his as he dies. Me being close, me breathing with him, being here to acknowledge his death, is enough for Freddy. He gives me a single, sharp nod and then the life flees his body.

When I pulled into the parking lot and found Freddy seven minutes ago, I carefully slid his wallet out of his pocket to hunt down some ID. Once I had his name—not one I recognized—I discarded it in order to assess the situation at hand. Felt rude to be rifling through a dying man’s personal belongings while he was still in the process of bleeding out. Now that he’s gone, though, I turn my attention back to the worn leather in my hands.

Freddy Clough,

2164 South Meadow,

Aimes,

PA 72340

A picture of a beautiful blonde woman with slightly gappy teeth smiles out at me from the laminated photo slot. She looks happy. A huge birthday cake sits on a table in front of her with only one candle lit. She looks late twenties but the single candle probably makes her mid thirties—what woman wants thirty-five candles on her birthday cake, after all?

Freddy has three credit cards, one of which is a platinum American Express. Three hundred and eighty dollars in fifties and twenties in the back of the wallet, too. Freddy’s not short on cash by the looks of things, and yet whoever shot him left it all behind, along with their dirty gun and two stretches of tire tread on the concrete where they burned out of here. There’s every chance Freddy’s attacker was disturbed before he could steal Freddy’s wallet, but I doubt that somehow. I didn’t pass anyone when I was coming in.

My cell phone rings, and predictably it’s Zee. I hit the green answer button, frowning at Freddy, who’s died with his mouth hanging open. “Hey, man. Sorry, I’m here but there’s a bit of a situation in your parking garage.”

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