“Nice being out of those crack houses, huh?” Hardwick asked, thumbing through a stack of books like he was browsing a shop instead of responding to a call. The seal on his shirtsleeve folded down on itself, the torn stitches poking up like eyelashes. I wondered if he owned an iron.
“I don’t know,” I said, singsong. Neither of us took our work too seriously, so walking around a college campus seemed like more of a coffee break than an assignment. “I’m trying not to touch much. I went to university for a month or two, I know all the hot spots.” I paused to purse my lips. “I’d really love to trade my gun in for a black light.”
A low, long whistle slipped from his lips. “In a library, really? I mean, I knew you were a little slut, but there should be some moral line.”
“Were?” I asked with a wink. “I haven’t lost my touch yet.”
The smile he gave me made my own mouth twitch. I’d vowed to stop flirting with him the day his wife left. Back when she was around, I’d found our banter hot. A secret that would lead to nothing and have zero consequences.
Now, it just made guilt swirl in my stomach. I’d never fuck him, so why make his wife suffer through watching us flirt from heaven or hell or whatever world she opened a portal to?
“What’d the boss say, again?” I asked, wanting to skip to a new conversation.
“Reports of kids breaking into this building after hours. When the boss heard ‘college,’ he assumed it meant drugs and poof — he put us on the job.”
“Aren’t schools supposed to have their own security guards?” I asked as Hardwick’s fingers clutched the handle of a metal door. The last place we had to check before we could run back through cold winds into the heated car. “Tell me it’s good in there?”
His fist stayed on the handle long after he pushed the door open. Whatever he saw caused him to jolt his head down so quickly that his chin smashed into his chest, making a crack. “Shit. Fuck. Shit,” he sputtered out, alternating the curses until he could think of a few new ones to add to the list.
I grabbed my gun from my belt, keeping it aimed at the doorway until I realized that no horror movie props would be bursting through, no AK would fire bullets into my white uniform.
I stepped toward Hardwick, whose entire body shook with the intensity of a cokehead in withdrawal. I went to nudge him with the barrel to snap him out of it, but then I saw what he saw.
Three dead. All in the same way his wife went out.
Rows of computers filled the room, but the students’ bodies (two male, one female) sat one next to the other. Hardwick refused to release the handle while I walked behind the corpses, paying special attention to the woman.
Just like the others, her left wrist had two deep punctures in them. A wound, to me. A socket, to her.
A plug sat inside of the slits, connecting her to the computer in front of her. Tiny drops of blood clung to the inside of the transparent wire.
“Will unplugging it do anything?” I asked. Only the cops trained for Mechanical Mutilation knew how to handle these situations. Everyone else was in the dark. Even the news had been banned from running stories about suicide via electronics. They didn’t need more people learning about the technique and polluting their minds with the idea.
“Don’t unplug it. Don’t. They’re not dead. They’re transformed,” Hardwick said. “They’re still alive. Just not here.”
Transformed. It’s what he always said about his wife, but I never knew the details. All he’d disclose is that she had jabbed her wrist with a plug and had been taken away by a higher power.
His mouth moved to say more, but then a gurgling erupted that sounded more human than mechanical. I placed my ear against the drive, listening naively for a few beats until I noticed the body at the end of the row with bent fingers. They had been flat against the desk earlier, but now they were curved, his nails boring into the polished wood.
The gurgling morphed to coughing, heavy and watery. I expected strings of blood to swing from his lip like drool, but when he found the strength to lift his upper body, his face looked fine. A bit pale, a little droopy, but alive.
Blood sloshed inside of the transparent wire connected to him, pushing back into his body. Once it emptied itself, he could speak.
“It was a mistake,” he said, yanking out the plug and covering the flesh wound with his hands, trying to seal it. “That place is hell. Not for me. No fucking way.”
“What do you mean?” Hardwick asked. “You went and you came back? You can come back?”
The kid’s breathing remained rushed, and he kept swiveling his head in search of something to grab. “Don’t you have water? A first aid kit?” he asked, and Hardwick sped out to the car to get the items. Or just to get away.
“My body was still hooked up to the machine, so I could return,” the kid said once I repeated my partner’s question. “With criminals, they just unplug the machines right away. Keep ‘em stuck.”
“What do you mean? What criminals?”
His smile, filled with plastic looking teeth, bothered me. “You’d think the police would know more about the government’s secrets than an eighteen-year old.” He laughed. Cocky college kid. “They use this equipment for criminals. Murderers, to be more accurate. In place of the death penalty.”
I hated asking questions, letting him think he had knowledge I needed. But hell, I did need it. Maybe not for the job, but for myself. “What happens to them?” I asked.
“Their consciousness gets transferred into a program. It’s a virtual reality thing.” The hand holding his wound tightened. “I couldn’t handle it. I tried, but it’s like a bad drug.”
A drug. The word made my skin tingle, my mind moan. Before I’d joined the academy, I’d tried every drug on the market. Heroine, cocaine, meth, oxycontin, angel dust.
I was never an addict. Only tried each thing once — but I had to try it. Even as an officer, whenever we’d find something new (an altered form of Molly, a new type of mushroom), I’d have to get a taste.
I’d be fired if they ever saw me slip evidence into my pocket, but I never took enough for anyone to notice. I hadn’t tried anything in a while, had no new experiences to lock up in my mind, and the Mechanical Mutilation mumbo-jumbo started to sound like something fun and fresh. My teeth gnawed at my bottom lip, trying to bite away a smile.
When Hardwick returned, he bandaged up the kid’s arm, muttering to me as he did so. “I wish I could go in there. Maybe get her back,” he said. “But my girls… They’re too young to be left alone if I… I can’t.”
“The kid just told me you can’t come back to this reality unless the body’s still plugged in,” I said softly, my lips barely moving.
“She is plugged in,” Hardwick said, playing with the torn patch on his shirt. He did the same thing whenever he didn’t have the files the boss needed on time. “I did my research. I knew I couldn’t bury her. She’s still at the house. In the basement. I couldn’t tell anyone. I never even told her family she was gone.”
Well, that settled it.
“Move, kid,” I said, filling his seat once he stumbled to his feet. He grabbed onto the back of a nearby chair to steady himself, but let go once he grazed the hair of his friend occupying it.
“What? No. I won’t let you,” Hardwick said, his orders more like questions.
Fulfill my drug-fueled cravings and end up a hero or go home to an empty apartment littered with cat hair from neighboring strays? No question, no hesitation. I picked up the plug and hovered it above my wrist, ready to dig in.
“Hold up,” the kid said, fishing a double-bladed knife from his pocket. It looked like a glittering peace sign. “You have to slit yourself with this first. Then jam in the plug.”
Instead of grabbing the weapon, I held out my wrist, delegating the job to him. He made the slash sharp and quick, then pushed the plug through the oozing holes before I could take another breath.
My eyes shot open, my lashes nearly hitting my brows. When my body convulsed, it felt like sparks were snapping at my veins, jolting them with electricity. My sight switched between flashes of black and white, so I could barely see the wire my blood slipped through.
One more flash — this time a deep yellow — and my body slumped, my mind fully transported into the machine.
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the emptiness that stretched on for miles. The walls and ceiling, if there even were walls and a ceiling, were all white. So was the floor. The only color came from the people scattered around, each equipped with a series of weapons.
To my left, a woman strangled a guy with a piece of fishing wire. To my right, a man with a rifle fired a dozen bullets into a kid’s torso. In front of me, a teenage boy plucked out an eye with a screwdriver.
Unable to stomach the scene, I turned on my heels. Behind me, I saw a familiar face. Just not the one I wanted.
“You were in the library today,” I said when I approached the young girl. “You and your two friends. One bailed.”
“You here to arrest me?” she asked when she saw my uniform. “I’m already among criminals, so there’s not much you can do.”
“Aren’t you worried they’ll kill you?”
She laughed. I could see how she and her buddy back on campus were friends. “We’re a projection, a consciousness, a series of 1s and 0s. No one can kill us. The people dying are conjured up by the criminals in here. That’s the point of this place. A safe spot to kill.” Her smile sparkled with excitement. “Close your eyes and think of someone you know. They’ll pop right up.”
I refused to do it, but agreed to watch her. She gave a long blink and a boy materialized in front of us, the same cocky kid from back in the library.
Without hesitation, she pulled a knife from her pocket and stabbed him in the chest with it. “Pussy,” she said. “Us three were supposed to stick together.”
After seeing my widened eyes and unhinged jaw, she added, “Like I said, it’s not real. He’s safe back at home. Look, I could make him come back again.”
She closed her eyes and a new doppelgänger popped up.
I never responded, just ran, hoping it wouldn’t take long to find what I wanted.
I kept up my pace, only stopping to examine the tall, thin females that matched up to the one in my memories. About twenty minutes later, I spotted a woman with blonde hair chopped straight across the center of her neck. She straddled a corpse, spooning out its innards with a knife as tiny as her pale hands.
“Kaylee,” I said, each syllable getting softer. I felt like my cells were stumbling around my body, looking for a place to hide. Four years of police work and I’d never been so flustered.
“Freeman,” she said, addressing me by the surname she’d heard her husband use over countless dinners and bedtime discussions. Red dots littered her face, but they made her look more beautiful, like a splattered canvas. “Here by force or by choice?”
“By the power vested in me by God.” I said it without expecting a laugh, but a splash of embarrassment hit me when I didn’t get one. “I’m bringing you home. Did you realize you could go home? No one’s mad at you. It’ll all be fine.”
She jabbed her knife into the body’s shoulder and pushed herself to her feet. After wiping her hands on her pants, leaving dark streaks and bits of clinging flesh, she motioned for me to walk alongside her.
“When I was little, we had rats in our apartment,” she said. “My mom put out those metal traps and when we caught one, I saw its back snapped, not a chunk of cheese missing from it. I cried over it, wished he would’ve just gotten a nibble of the cheese to make his death worth it. So I made mom get rid of the traps and I made my own, safer ones. Actually caught a few and let them go in the woods. Until one bit me. Instead of throwing it across the room, I squeezed down on it.” She mimicked the gesture with an empty hand. “It felt nice, so I did it again. With frogs, pigeons. Little things, back then.”
The walls of my throat crammed together. “But when you got older?”
Of course I did. Hardwick gave me more updates about his Dachshund than his two daughters. While we’d ride around the block, he’d tell me how healthy Biscuit’s new brand of food was, how he learned to nudge open doors, how much he loved his squeak toy shaped like a gun.
Every single day, a new story about his precious pup. But then the stories stopped with no indication of why. I never asked, because I knew Hardwick could never say the words.
“I mean, Biscuit was old, right?” I asked. “Ten years is a long life for a dog.”
“Twelve. Kenny thinks we had him put down, because he bit Hailey.” She paused. “I bit Hailey.”
One eyebrow rose as the other lowered. Hailey and Hannah, Kaylee’s twins, were spoiled rotten. Their house was falling to pieces, but their college funds were already up to five digits. Kaylee took good care of them. She would never hurt them.
She sucked a deep breath in through her teeth and continued, “She wouldn’t eat her food and I just wanted her to take the damn spoonful. Just one spoonful, so I dug my nails into her and I bit her. I don’t know why, I just… My mom’s a doctor, so I had Hailey stitched up in her house. Couldn’t risk going to the hospital and having them see the bites were from human teeth.”
She blinked until some tears dropped, her first signs of actual emotion. “I blamed it on the dog, because the story was easy. Believable. But then I realized I could kill the dog, too, since he was ‘vicious’ and needed to be put down. I told Kenny I’d bring him to the vet, so he didn’t have to watch. But I brought him out to the woods instead.”
She paused, her voice softening. “I loved that dog. I loved him, but I made him suffer as much as I could. Didn’t want the moment to end.”
I shook my head, trying to knock her words out of my ears. “You need to go home.”
“I’m always tempted to.”
“Let’s go, then.”
With one blink, her eyes changed. The wetness vanished and a cold, hard look shot straight at me. “Humans are murderers, Freeman. I’m not saying it’s right to kill. But it’s natural.” She straightened her back. “I’ll hurt my girls if I go back. That means I stay here.”
When she had been speaking, I’d listened intently, leaning in for a closer look at each word. Now that she was done, I pushed new thoughts into my head, moral thoughts, about how fucking psycho she was. About how sickening her stories were. About how she was the abnormal one.
She must’ve sensed my judgment, because she said, “You carry a gun. Don’t tell me you’ve never wanted to use it.”
“Police brutality’s not my style.”
When her lips curled up, her dimples had perfectly placed drops of blood in them. “Try it before you leave. If you can’t kill something here, something imaginary, then how are you going to kill someone that threatens your life, or Kenny’s?” She licked her lips before adding, “The high is great, you know. Best drug you’ll ever take.”
I wondered how she knew about my experience with illegal substances, but the thought drifted away as I considered her offer. One killing, just to see how it felt. No. To see whether I could save my partner when placed in an emergency. That was the real reason. It had to be.
“How do I do it?” I asked.
She circled back to the spot where we’d first interacted. “You can have one of mine,” she said and after blinking her eyes, the body she had been straddling earlier was walking around, lively as ever. “Have fun.”
The man stood ten feet away from me, as stiff as a mannequin with a face as empty as one. My hand moved toward the gun in my belt slowly, trying to guess his next move. But he never made a first move.
“I can’t do this,” I said, my hand dropping to my side seconds after I’d aimed. “He’s completely innocent. Not harmful at all.”
When Kaylee rolled her eyes, her whole head moved with them. A ridiculous gesture to match how ridiculous she thought I was acting. Her lids closed to focus, to find control.
When they opened, the man sped toward me, his arms poised in front of his torso like he wanted to box. With one hard hit, he knocked me to the ground and pinned me down by the shoulders. He swung at my cheek and dots of light flashed across my eyes.
“I thought they couldn’t hurt me,” I yelled back to Kaylee, saliva spilling down my chin.
“All in your head,” she said. I imagined her staring at her nails, already bored. “It looks real, so it feels real. You’ll be fine when you go back.”
After one more punch, this time to my chest, I found the strength to lift my gun. I pressed it against his heart, ready to give him a quick death, then moved it to aim at his lung. Let him bleed out instead.
The drops cascaded from his wound onto my stomach, staining my uniform, so I pushed him off of me, my hands shaking with adrenaline. Kaylee slow clapped from behind me.
“Do me one favor?” she asked. “You need to unplug my body from the machine. I don’t want to be tempted anymore.”
I let my lids shut without giving her an answer, focused on leaving this reality and returning to mine, and the process begun.
My throat constricted. My limbs tightened. It felt like a vacuum pressed against every inch of my skin, sucking it dry. I woke up gasping, swiping my lips for blood drops that never came.
When I could see again, Hardwick yanked the plug out of my arm. He waited for me to deliver good news, any news, but I shook my head, which stopped him from asking. He already knew.
“I let the kid go,” he said, a bit embarrassed. “I wanted to wait until you got back to radio in our findings, so the boss wouldn’t come down here and see you using the equipment. But the kid threatened to tell on us, so I just told him to run. Little brat.”
I pictured the kid’s best friend holding her knife against his doppelgänger, slipping it in like it was nothing.
“Maybe I could stay with you tonight?” I asked. I forced a cough once I realized how it sounded. “Crash on the couch, I mean. Saw some brutal stuff in there. Don’t want to sleep in an empty apartment.”
“Don’t have to ask me twice.”
After telling our boss details about the ‘suicides’ and filling out a few hours worth of paperwork, we headed to Hardwick’s house. A tiny, one-story place with light blue paneling.
From far away it looked cozy, but up close it seemed cold and broken. The gutters stopped midway across the roof, like a rollercoaster falling off its tracks, and the steps leading up to his patio all had water damage. A mouse scurried out from one of them.
“Kids home?” I asked.
“Unless they ran away.” He tried to smile, but the corners of his lips barely lifted. “They should be asleep by now.”
When we walked in, the brunette babysitter walked out with vomit stains on her sweater.
“What a hottie,” I said, nudging him. Anything to get his mind off of his wife.
“She’s into chicks, so you have a better shot than me.” Bitterness tinged his voice, so I kept quiet the rest of the night. Let him silently toss me a pillow to prop my head up on his stained couch. Let him kiss his twins goodnight. Let him fall asleep himself.
I waited until his snores drifted from his room to mine. When they did, I crept toward the basement door, but my sneaking felt senseless. Even if he didn’t hear me, he’d know who did it. Maybe I should’ve explained everything to him and let him pull the plug himself. Maybe I should’ve let the matter drop. But I never had been the best decision maker.
After descending a dozen creaking steps, I saw her. She sat against the wall with her legs straight out, head lolled to the right, laptop perched on her knees. I walked closer and a few flies lifted off of her hair.
A deflated air mattress sat beside her, and I used it as a spot to crouch. I wondered how many nights Hardwick sprawled out on it, hoping she’d come back to life if he held her hand tightly enough.
I should’ve found it sweet, but the word pathetic popped into my mind first. She looked like a corpse and she smelt like one. If the scent ever wafted up the steps, his daughters would get curious. They would stumble downstairs to see their dear mommy all limp and corroded. I was saving them from that.
I yanked the wire from the computer, yanked the plug from her cold arm. For good measure, I smashed the screen with my gun. It cracked like a spider web, creating only superficial damage, so I heaved it up and tossed it against the wall. It hit an old painting of a bull that came crashing down, making more noise than I intended.
I cringed from the sound, but my pulse remained steady, my hands still. I saved Hardwick from the wife he thought he wanted, saved his girls from early graves, and felt nothing. I noticed a hole in one of the floorboards and wished another mouse would pop out.
“What the hell are you doing?” Hardwick asked, his voice creaking like the steps he had fled down.
I refused to look at his face, keeping my eyes on the ground. “She’s not coming back,” I said. “Bury her body, give her a funeral, call up her parents. It’s sick you haven’t told them by now.”
“It’s sick — I’m sick? You…” He paused, and I imagined smoke steaming from his ears. A cartoon character that would cool off after a few one-liners. “You want to be with me so badly that you kill my wife?”
A burst of air left my nose as a small, unbelieving laugh. “She asked for this,” I said. “I gave her what she wanted.”
“You saw her?” he asked, his face dropping with his voice.
I nodded, then inched closer to try for a consoling hug. Before I reached him, his hand grabbed for the gun still attached to his hip, but I aimed mine first.
I never realized how small the room was. We were still on opposite ends, but the barrels of our guns almost grazed.
“You wouldn’t fire,” I said. We’d been through too much. No, we never took a bullet in the line of duty, but we spent hours patrolling the streets together with nothing to do but talk. Impossible not to become best friends with the person you see more than your own reflection.
“She’s gone, because of you,” he said, his veins as blue as lightning.
“Oh, come on.”
“I’m serious. She hooked herself up to that fucking machine after we had a fight about you,” he said. “She thought I was cheating. She thought I’d leave everything for you.”
(Fuck. He was really going to hurt me. His eyes screamed it.)
“She got violent. Scratched me up a bit and broke a few frames. Threatened to slit my throat if I didn’t tell you to back off. Next day, she was gone.”
(One pull of the trigger. Just one.)
“Hailey wanted me to braid her hair the other day. Cried, because I didn’t do it like her mommy. How the hell am I supposed to pick out clothes and shoes for them? How am I supposed to do it alone until they’re 18?”
(Better than drugs.)
“And then I’ll have two weddings to pay for, two colleges to pay for. I can’t even afford to fix the stoop, and I’m going to put ten grand down for them to—“
I pulled the trigger to stop his whining.
No, no. It was in defense. I’d have to repeat those words to other cops, to my boss, to a judge. In defense. I didn’t want to do it, didn’t mean to. If I didn’t shoot, he would’ve. I was almost positive about it.
While catching the breath I lost in the commotion, I looked from his slumped body to the transparent wire thrown across the floor, wondering if I could reuse it. Wondering if the high would feel as good as it had the first time.