Johnny Compton’s work has appeared in Pseudopod, Devolution Z and other publications. He lives and works in San Antonio, Texas.
Safety in Numbers
by Johnny Compton
I’ve been told that that I’m “one of those guys who never learns.” I disagree with this, but it doesn’t matter what I think right now. The man pointing a pistol at my face thinks that I’m the type who never learns. Right now his opinion trumps mine.
“Can’t be too mad at you,” says Blake, the man with the gun. “If guys like you ever got a clue I’d be out of work.”
Blake’s smile looks like a mouthful of broken porcelain. He’s a stack of twigs held together by glue and strings, but that black magnum transforms him into a heavyweight. The three hoods standing between me and the door—Kinsey, Levy, and Wade—dissuade me from trying to run for it. Unless I want to try the window, that is, but my apartment is on the fourth floor. The impact with Gracie Street wouldn’t be much fun, and would only save Blake the trouble of flexing his trigger finger.
There’s little for me to do right now except talk. Which is ironic, since talking in the interest of saving my ass is what put me in this predicament.
“Blake, listen, I don’t know what you think you heard or saw but I didn’t say anything to anybody. I swear to God. I’ve never snitched in my life. I swear to God. Please.”
I see him grit those jagged teeth. His lips curl into this delighted sneer. I shut my eyes. I don’t want to see this. Don’t want to be here, sitting on the floor of my living room, my mind cycling through the slide show summarizing my life. What the hell was I thinking about, getting involved with guys like this? I do small grifts and courier gigs, light-work for float money, not the heavy lifting that involves killers. My heart turns into a frozen fist. I wonder if the echo of the gunshot will stalk me into the afterlife, or if I’m sweating out the last seconds of the only existence anyone ever knows.
There’s a sound, metal on metal. It’s light, quick and impotent. It repeats twice before I recognize it. Once more and I place it. A click. I force my eyes open and see Blake staring at his gun like it insulted his mother.
He looks back at Wade and says, “Give me yours.” Wade obliges. His gun’s a gleaming work of silver that reflects light that isn’t even present in the room. It’s smooth and exotic, almost alien looking. This gun belongs in the Smithsonian, not in the palm of an angry gangster.
Even Blake seems seduced by the beauty of this pistol, staring at it like he isn’t sure of its purpose. It looks too pristine to have ever been fired and he’s not thrilled with popping its cherry on an insignificant snitch like me, but he gets over it and aims the gun at me. I stare down the barrel, unable to shut my eyes this time, and the nozzle is like a tunnel that I’ll fall down forever. No light at the end of it, just blackness. Blake squeezes the trigger.
Then I hear that sound again. Click. A simple symphony of survival. I can’t keep from grinning.
“Is this a joke?” Blake asks the gun. Then he looks at Wade and asks him, “This some kind of joke?”
I don’t wait for Wade to answer. I jump to my feet and charge past Blake and his boys while they seem confused by my sudden luck. The front door is oh so close and I swear it takes a step toward me with every step I take towards it.
I hear Blake yell at his goons to grab me, but by then I’m already out of my apartment and dashing toward the stairwell at the end of the hallway. The footsteps behind me sound awkward and comical. Too rapid and furious to actually be gaining on me. Keystone Crooks stumbling over themselves. Meanwhile I’m moving on rails, gliding more than sprinting, my focus Ginsu sharp and I know they can’t catch me. I think of every chase scene I’ve ever seen in a movie and how I always thought I’d never let somebody catch me, because there’s no way in hell they’d want to kill me as much as I want to live. Here I am now, proving myself right.
I make it to the stairwell and start bounding down the steps two at a time. I don’t even look at my feet to see where they’re landing. I don’t have to. I feel like an athlete or a stuntman, a guy who’s practiced this sort of thing every day of his adult life.
I don’t hear Blake and his boys behind me anymore. I think they might have tried the elevator or the south end stairs. Trying to head me off in the lobby. I wonder if I should take a detour, maybe get off at the second floor and try to get out through the hallway window. Do something unexpected.
No. If I just keep going like I am now it won’t matter what they do because I’ll be too far ahead of them. Once I’m outside I’ll hop in a cab or board the first stopped bus I see. Or, if I have to, I’ll keep running. I could run for days if it came to it. No need for rest or food or water. I’m not even winded. I can’t even feel the metal handrail against my palm as I grab it to help myself turn on another landing. I’m going so fast that…
…that I should have been in the lobby by now. My apartment is on the fourth floor and I’ve cleared at least five flights. A part of me is saying, Don’t stop. Don’t think about it. Keep running. But another part of me can sense that something is off and is urging me to stop and figure it out.
My legs keep pumping, running on autopilot. I seize the handrail like it’s the only thing keeping me from a freefall. My feet run out from under me, I go airborne for a second and then I drop. The back of my head hits first, then my lower back. I’m not a particularly clumsy person but I’ve had my share of spills and I have an idea what the impact of concrete stairs on my head and back should feel like, and this isn’t it. This feels like I landed on a mattress. It almost feels like I’m floating.
Get up. Get moving.
The urgency is flowing through me like electrified fire and I know it’s going to burst right out of me if I stay still much longer, but I force myself to pause for a moment so I can think. Something’s not right. The lights are too close and too bright. I can see everything else around me with too much clarity. Every single crack in the wall no matter how slim. Every wet stain on the floor, every speck of dust floating from the ceiling. I can see the damn antennas moving on the ants marching up the wall to my left.
But something’s missing as well. For a moment I can’t tell what it is, but then it occurs to me that those wet stains on the stairs aren’t from water. This stairwell always smells faintly of urine. Living here as long as I have has desensitized me to the smell, but its absence is more noticeable now than its presence ever was.
My courage and confidence abandon me at once. I pick myself up and look back up the stairs. There is another reason why Blake and his boys aren’t following me. A real reason that is dawning on me despite my earnest desire to deny it. This situation feels familiar. I’ve seen or read about something like this before. A story comes to mind, the name escaping me, something I saw in a TV show or a book, or maybe both. It was a story about a man with a noose around his neck falling off a bridge. He was being executed. Then a miracle happened, the rope broke and he escaped. He ran from his executioners, ran for as long and as far as he had to, and he had almost made it home when suddenly he felt a crazy pain in his neck and everything went white… and it turned out he hadn’t actually escaped after all.
I run back up the stairs. I don’t feel so light anymore. I’ve got a thousand pounds of anxiety and apprehension piggybacking up the stairs with me. My knees and ankles throb with each step, my thighs and lungs are screaming that they can’t take anymore. It feels like I’m running upstream through a river with a grudge against me. I keep going.
I make it back to the fourth floor and into the hallway. The door to my apartment is closed. The silence in the hall is terrible. It’s like I’m standing inside the ghost of a dead moment. Part of me would rather sit here and wait for whatever is going to happen to come to me instead of me going towards it. For better or worse, that part of me gets voted down and I walk to the door.
The knob is stubbornly quiet as I turn it. The hinges too. The men inside are voiceless and motionless. The man sitting on the floor with his eyelids cramped shut and the agony of dread screwing up his normally handsome face is of particular interest to me.
“Holy hell,” I say, but no one in the room hears me. I walk to the man on the floor who cowers before the man in front of him, the man with a black pistol. I get as close as I can to the man on the floor. My hands tremble as I reach for his face, too frightened to make contact. God. This is what I look like at the moment of my death? This is how I die?
Next I turn to the man with the gun. Blake’s expression beams with satisfaction. He’s enjoying this far too much, probably doesn’t look this happy when he’s fucking. My stomach starts flipping and rolling and scoring tens in the floor routine from looking at him.
I feel redness glowing through my skin. Pure fury is a sensation I have never known before now. It blends with the terror stirring in my gut and makes for a nauseating cocktail. I look back and forth between my condemned self and Blake and I wonder, is this real? Or am I in Hell?
I look at the gun and I think I can hear the bullet in the barrel. It hasn’t quite picked up the speed to outrace sound yet as it moves down that tunnel towards my head. This moment is not perfectly still after all. Time is crawling forward, shoving the present into the past a microsecond at a time, and when this moment becomes history the other me that I’m staring at will have a fresh hole in his pretty face.
Except I’m the “other me,” aren’t I? The man on the floor is the real me, The Real McCoy. What will happen to me when that bullet plunges into his head? What happens to a dream when the dreamer dies? I’ve got a hunch I won’t like the answer, so I decide to do something about it.
It happens too fast for anyone else to react and that is what saves my life. As soon as I push Blake’s arm to his left time moves at its regular speed again and the gun fires, missing The McCoy’s face by an inch or two. Blake is still wearing that stupid crooked smile when I head butt his mouth shut and snatch the gun from his hand. My forehead stings a bit from the blow, but I ignore it. Blake looks at me like I’m every nightmare he’s ever known come to life. I’ve got his gun in my right hand, pressed to his cheek, and I hook my left arm under his chin.
His boys show off the reflexes of the comatose. I’ve backed into the corner with Blake as my hostage before they can make a move. Wade is the first to finally react. He opens his coat and goes for a boring black piece that’s nothing like the gleaming dream-pistol I had imagined him handing to Blake before.
I say, “Don’t move!” He freezes. So do the other two. Blake has finally started struggling, clawing at my forearm trying to free himself.
In the opposite corner of the room The McCoy is staring at me with wild eyes. I want to say something to ease his fear, but the truth is I’m almost as frightened as he is. I am a trespasser into reality. Everything looks too grimy and intense. I miss the sheen of the fantasy world that spawned me. I miss being immune to panic and not being able to smell everyone’s sweat.
“I swear I’ll kill him,” I say. “If any one of you moves I’ll shoot him.”
My strength surprises me. I’ve got this chokehold cinched like a boa constrictor. Blake’s fighting more frantically now, his legs kicking, his fingernails digging into my forearm, but I’m holding all his muscle in my right hand, threatening to blow his brains out with it.
“Oh my God what is this?” the McCoy says. “Who the hell are you? What’s going on?”
I scream at him to shut up and he cowers like a beaten dog. I turn my attention back to Blake’s men. “Get rid of anything you’re holding right now.”
They’re too dumbfounded to follow instructions. I know they hear my words, but they don’t understand them. They’re still struggling with how I even exist, so I’m speaking Greek as far as they’re concerned. I point the gun at them, certain that this will resolve our failure to communicate. Everybody understands the universal sign language for I’m seriously about to fucking shoot you.
“All right,” says Wade. “Look, you let him go and we’ll be on our way.”
“Lose your guns or I put one through his head.” To emphasize that I mean business, I tighten my chokehold on Blake. A nice clean crack comes from his fragile, bird-boned neck. Blake emits this half-gurgle, half-groaning noise and suddenly he’s dead weight.
Under my breath, I curse at Blake’s inconvenient death, then drop his body and start firing. I shoot at Wade first because he’s the closest. Unfortunately, the close range doesn’t mean a hell of a lot for me as I’ve never shot a gun in my life.
Still, out of five shots fired, two find a home in Wade’s stomach and send him to the floor. Levy draws on me and I’m praying for The McCoy to get off his ass and tackle somebody, or kick someone in the groin, or make some loud distracting noises. Do something to be useful. Instead he starts for the door, which isn’t the bravest thing he could have done, but probably the smartest. Kinsey turns and grabs The McCoy by the collar and puts a gun in his face, leaving Levy free to blast me. And then the cavalry arrives.
Earlier, when I saved the McCoy, I said that it happened too fast for anyone else to react, but now that I’m on the other end of it I see that “fast” is an understatement. There’s this blur of movement that seems to erase the moment and replace it with a new reality. There are two new men in the room who weren’t here a fraction of an instant ago. Handsome guys, if I may say so.
One of the new arrivals grabs Kinsey and throws him through him through the living room window. Kinsey’s scream tells me that the fall to Gracie Street is every bit as unpleasant as I imagined it would be earlier. The fourth “me” has tackled Levy to the floor and is trying to wrestle the gun away from him. Levy’s a big man, and he manages to fight off my clone, punching him in the face with his free hand. Unfortunately for him, he’s all out of teammates. I walk over, put Blake’s gun to Levy’s temple. Can’t afford to miss. The shot cleans out his skull.
The gunfire has my head ringing like a bell tower, so it takes a while for me to hear Wade’s grunting. I look at him. His hands make for lousy bandages. He’s pressing against those holes in his stomach as hard as he can, but unless a couple of little Dutch boys show up to plug the leaks the bleeding isn’t going to stop. I remember reading somewhere about gut shots, how torturous they are, and damn if Wade doesn’t look like he’s in all kinds of pain. I point the gun at his head and fire. I may have recently become a killer, but I’m not a dick. No need to let the guy suffer.
It’s just me, myself, The McCoy and I left in the apartment. The McCoy is easy to single out. He’s the sniveling mess crawling toward the door and looking at the rest of us like we’re space invaders.
“Who the hell are you?” he says. “What the hell is going on?”
“Hey, relax,” I tell him. “You’re among friends, right?”
I smile at him and the other two, trying to dissipate the tension. One of the two new arrivals smiles back, but the other one, he’s got a face of stone that Mount Rushmore would envy. I know what he’s thinking. I’m thinking the same thing, and it’s not How did this happen? It’s, How does this work, all of us living in the same world together? How do we all get out of here? It doesn’t. And we don’t.
I pop two rounds into The McCoy’s knees. The clone who had been all smiles jumps back. “What the hell are you doing?” Smiley asks me.
Mr. Stone tells him, “Look around. Three bodies in the room, one in the street. And then there’s the four of us. We can’t all be here when the cops come, but one of us has to stay here to answer for it.”
“But it was self-defense,” Smiley says. “They were going to kill him. Us.”
“Fine. You stick around to explain it.”
The confusion on his face makes Smiley look younger than the rest of us, somehow. Like he’s the kid brother who can’t understand why the world just can’t be fair all the time.
“What about the rest of us?” he says.
“Get out, go our separate ways,” I say, “and make sure we never see each other again.”
Smiley nods, but his eyes betray his uncertainty.
“Let’s get going,” Mr. Stone tells him. Smiley turns to walk out the door. That’s when Mr. Stone puts the gun to the back of Smiley’s head and fires. Smiley never sees it coming, so there’s no chance of him summoning a clone to save himself. He drops dead to the floor. Mr. Stone kicks him over and fires six more shots into Smiley’s face, leaving him unrecognizable. If we had time, he’d probably burn off Smiley’s fingerprints, but this should be enough to leave the cops confused for a little while, or at least preoccupied.
He turns to me, and it’s like looking into a cursed mirror. He’s not just a clone, he’s a version who went wrong. I figure he’s mine—a copy of a copy—and Smiley belonged to the McCoy. I wonder if he’s wondering whether he’d die if he shot me now, or if coming into the real world means he’s no longer a dream depending on the survival of the dreamer.
“You won’t see me,” he says.
Mr. Stone runs out of the apartment, leaving me alone with The McCoy. I wait about thirty seconds, enough time for Mr. Stone to clear out. When I feel comfortable he’s gone, I make my exit. I drop Blake’s gun at The McCoy’s feet on my way out.
Not so long ago, I was one of those guys who never learns. I’ve learned enough in the last five minutes to fill two brains. I’ve learned things I’d rather forget, and other things that might save my ass yet again one of these days. For now, I know that I need to find someplace to stay for a while. I’ll need to find a new identity, find some work, get some money in my pocket so I can get the hell away from the city and start over somewhere.
But before I get that fresh start I know that I’ll have to track down Mr. Stone, and make sure I see him before he sees me.
Copyright 2020 by Johnny Compton