NOTE: One of the cooler things I did with this story is have the ladies rescue the guys at the end, not for any big political reason. Just because it was fun.
John settled into the manual wheelchair, now locked and immobile. He grimaced through another spasm. Were they bothering him less these days? Hard to tell. Maybe he just didn’t care anymore.
He began again.
“People want the world to make sense. They want there to be a clear reason why the murderer on TV did what he did. If he was abused as a child, then the world is sane, because a sane world has room for insanity. When there’s a reason.
“But life’s not clean like that. Not really. Some guys will hold on, push through the torture, for their kids. But then, I’ve seen guys with everything to live for, good fighters even, experienced soldiers with difficult missions under their belt and two kids and a pregnant wife back home . . . just get to that point where they give up. I don’t mean surrender. I mean they just can’t take anymore. They’d rather it just be over, they’d rather be dead, despite everything that would mean.
“I’ve seen other guys, some of them with almost nothing, hold on for weeks. For a dream. A wish, even.
“I guess what I’m saying is, that’s hope. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Some guys will hang on for a loved one. Others will say goodbye. Some guys will find it in spite, or rage, or a job left undone. There’s just no telling where it’ll come from, or what will be enough. To endure. And we can endure. All of us.
“When I was at the hospital, I tried giving folks a little hope. That’s where I learned you just never can tell what someone’s Big Important Thing will be. You have to find it. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes you have to go digging, ask a lot of questions. Wrestle, even. But you can never tell in advance. And sometimes it’s the craziest thing. Like a picture of someone who isn’t even born yet.
“I knew this one gal. Ex-Navy. She was going through months of painful rehab, just attacking it, showing up every day before the therapist, going all out, enduring the humiliation of falling down in front of strangers, the agony of someone forcing a leg straight that don’t want to go, of drooling on yourself because it takes every ounce of what you got to make it one more palm-width down the bar. And I’m pretty sure she was doing all that just so she could walk up to her ex’s door, ring the bell, and see the look on his face when she stood there—stood, on her own two feet—and threw his ring on the ground.
“Hope is like that. It ain’t always pretty.
“Most of the time, of course, most folks don’t have to think much about it. Not hard to come up with a reason to live when livin’ is good.
“What I’m saying is, I don’t know what will do it for you. No one does in advance. Not even you. Not till the pain starts. But I do know this: there’s always something. Always. There’s always a reason to keep going. Because you don’t have to make it to the end. It’s never, ever about making it to the end. It’s only about making it to tomorrow.
“Just tomorrow. Okay?
“I’ll never ask for more than that.
“Not that that’s easy. I know how hard it is. I thought for the longest time I was hanging on for a chance to walk again. I thought that’s why I kept running. When that got taken away, I thought, ‘Well, shit. This is it. No reason to keep going now.’ May as well give up. It’s too hard. I’m too damned tired. Of the pain. And the looks. All of it.
“And I am. Damned tired.
“But there was that day, back at the garage. Xan had spent the whole afternoon dead-lifting stacks of crushed cars and you sneezed in the bathroom and teleported yourself and exactly two-thirds of the toilet out into the yard, and she screamed—more at your bare ass and the magazine in your hand than that you came out of nowhere—and she let go of the chain and the stack of cars fell and shook the ground and almost crushed Roger the cat, who ran into the building and ended up right behind one of Wink’s doohickeys and spent the next three days floating weightless and randomly appearing and disappearing all over the place. And later that night we were all sitting around that little table in the kitchen and Xan was making quadruple-decker pizza sandwiches and Wink was sticking green peppers up her nose and the whole lot of us were just laughing and carrying on.
“I didn’t know it could be like that. After Mom.
“Like I said.
“You never can tell.
“The world doesn’t make sense. That’s for sure. Not like people want it to. Or maybe it makes perfect sense and it’s people who are messed up. Doesn’t much matter.
“Believe it or not, my time in the cave wasn’t the hardest thing I ever had to endure. There was this one time. I came home from school. Dad was still at work. My sister was locked in her room, wouldn’t come out, wouldn’t say why. Turns out my step-mom had taken my little brother to the hospital. He’d acted out in class, and she’d had to pick him up early. Her story was that he was playing with the cigarette lighter in the house where she couldn’t see. That he had stole it from her purse. And that’s why she had hit him.
“But the burns . . . she said the burns were his own doing.
“I had football practice, so my sister came home and it was just the three of them in that house for the longest time. She never would say for sure she saw it. My step-mom holding my little brother down, all of seven years old, and flicking that lighter under the skin of his elbow until it blistered and smoked.”
John looked down.
“She was only ten. She probably figured she’d be next.
“Torture is hard.
“Sometimes family is harder.
“Shit. You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you this. I guess I just wanted you to know. Why I did it. Why I got myself captured. That’s the big question, right? That’s what everybody wants to know. You. Mr. King. Everybody.
“My step-mom took away something that day. And I think, on some level, that’s why she did it. Like with these assholes trying to break you. Not just anger. Control. Things were never the same with my brother and sister after that, that’s for sure. I held on as long as I could, but I was a bigger kid. Harder for her to get ahold of me. And other adults, teachers at school, they might listen if I had stories to tell. So she let me off easy.
“But they weren’t so lucky. And whatever was left of my mom . . . of my family, got taken away.
“I had a lot of guilt. Lemme tell ya. For the longest time. About not being able to protect them. About not being able to hold onto that. That thing I didn’t even know we had until it was gone. That thing my step-mom destroyed. It was the doc, ya know, who really got me to see it . . .”
John thought about Amarta.
“Part of my old job was recruitment. We all had to help. Guys who passed always had to help identify candidates for training. It starts with something called Hell Week. You can probably figure out what that is. We make those guys lift downed trees over their heads and set them on the ground, over and over, for no other reason than to make them puke and then have them do it some more.
“Part of it, of course, is that we need strong guys. But there’s a real limit to how much shit like that matters. We need fast guys, too. And smart ones. The real point is to see when they give up. So we make them run through peat bogs, waist-deep in water, until their legs give out and they have to crawl on their hands and knees five hours in the dark to make it back to camp. If they’re one of the faster ones, they’ll get a couple hours’ sleep before we wake them up with bugles and blindfold them and drive them out to the middle of nowhere and leave them there in their underwear and make them navigate back with nothing but a star chart. Only they can’t talk to each other. No sound. We got guys up in the trees in full brush camo, listening. One guy speaks, he’s out. Game over.
“But most of the time, like with the log-lifts, we wanted them to tap out. We wanted them to quit. On their own. Because we weren’t looking for the strongest or the fastest or the best marksman or some guy with forty kills to his name. That’s where the movies get it wrong. They always show us picking the super-soldiers who can snipe a target silently through the throat from half a mile away in high wind. That’s all well and good for the line services, but in my experience guys with all kinds of crazy awards turn into assholes more often than not. My team needed something different. We needed the guys who were above average marksmen, sure. Guys who were reasonably strong, reasonably fast, definitely. But who, on top of all that, just wouldn’t quit. Ever. No matter how bad it got.
“In my line of work, you never knew what was gonna go sideways. Guys on the front line have support. Sure, they get cut off sometimes. But what they’re trained for is to hold a line. And to advance it.
“My job, there was no support. There’s only the team. Anyone gets caught, their existence is disavowed. So the other men in your unit are everything. You get a mission, you divvy it up. You have to. And so, at some point, you’re gonna have to run intrusion and show up with the hostages at the rendezvous point having entrusted your life to the man who’s supposed to meet you there with transport. And you need him to be there. No matter what—bleeding, with a broken leg and a fractured jaw, holding his own intestines, driving an old beat-up Chevy rather than the chopper he was supposed to have. Whatever.
“Shit.” John snorted.
“I’m talking a lot.”
He shook his head. “Funny how much easier it is to open up when the person you’re talking to can’t talk back.
“Point is, I had a decision to make. Back in Texas. I had to decide whether or not that guy was gonna show up with the transport. If not . . . well, let’s just say I had a good run. I was ready to call it quits.
“But it didn’t come to that. In the end, it was an easy decision. For me. I didn’t know where you all were. I didn’t know where you’d be. And I couldn’t chase you all down. So. Yeah. I got myself captured. Because . . .”
John took a deep breath.
“Because I knew, of all the places in the world, this was where you all would be.
“Do you understand?
“I knew it.
“And look at you. Out there trying to finish the mission. By your damned self. Ha. And here I said you weren’t a fighter.
“But I knew you all would come. And that’s why I’m here. On the inside. Ready. Waiting. And that’s why you gotta hang on. You hear me? You gotta hang on.
“Because Ian . . . man . . . you might be the only one in the world who would believe this. But . . .
John looked down at the armrest of his chair. He knocked his fist on it twice. “The ladies . . . I promise you.” He grasped it again as if it were the foundation of the very pillar of the world.
Excerpt from from my superpowered sci-fi thriller THE MINUS FACTION. Sale on the Omnibus edition supposed to end bright and early Monday morning, but I forgot, so it ends tonight.
cover image by Ron Wimberly