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The "remarkable" (The New Yorker) debut story collection by the author of The Orphan Master's Son, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction
An ATF raid, a moonshot gone wrong, a busload of female cancer victims determined to live life to the fullest—these are the compelling terrains Adam Johnson explores in his electrifying debut collection. A lovesick teenage Cajun girl, a gay Canadian astrophysicist, a teenage sniper on the LAPD payroll, a post-apocalyptic bulletproof-vest...
The "remarkable" (The New Yorker) debut story collection by the author of The Orphan Master's Son, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction
An ATF raid, a moonshot gone wrong, a busload of female cancer victims determined to live life to the fullest—these are the compelling terrains Adam Johnson explores in his electrifying debut collection. A lovesick teenage Cajun girl, a gay Canadian astrophysicist, a teenage sniper on the LAPD payroll, a post-apocalyptic bulletproof-vest salesman—each seeks connection and meaning in landscapes made uncertain by the voids that parents and lovers should fill. With imaginative grace and verbal acuity, Johnson is satirical without being cold, clever without being cloying, and heartbreaking without being sentimental. He shreds the veneer of our media-saturated, self-help society, revealing the lonely isolation that binds us all together.
When I reach the rooftop, I pull the dustcovers off my rifle scope and head for a folding chair leaned up against an air-conditioning unit-right where I left it the last time I was up here. Sitting down, I have a clear view across a courtyard of lawns and fountains to Hewlett Packard. I line up a couple breakfast burritos on the parapet wall, in case this is a long one, and I crack a can of Nix. Most of us drink Nix because of how other sodas make you twitchy. I dial in my optics by focusing on flowers in the distance, impatiens and pansies, mostly, and I'm tuning the rangefinder when I get the go-ahead from Lt. Kim.
"Blackbird," Lt. Kim says over the radio, "at your leisure," which is code for the fact that the hostage negotiations are failing and it's time to get to work. There's a tone in her voice, though, that kind of sounds like my mom when she gets on my case to join the private sector, where the "real money" is. I'll admit I sometimes daydream on the job, but I'm trying to better the community, so it's like, get off my back already.
I sweep my scope along the flowers a little longer-there's a giant H formed from orange poppies and a P of velvety petunias. One of the perks of being a police sniper in Palo Alto, aside from the satisfaction you get from serving the public, is the serious commitment these software companies show toward floral displays, toward making the world a more beautiful place. I shoot over flowers every day.
I fix the bipod of my Kruger Mark VI and chamber a round. The Kruger's an old South African rifle, made in the gravy days of long-bore ballistics, but the scope is state of the art, a fully digital Raytheon with cellular live-feed, so that it's a camera, phone, and radio, all in one. That means Lt. Kim can see and hear everything on a bank of screens in her command van down the street, but it's my shoulder she's usually looking over. I'm one of the best shots in the world-I mean, I have the gift. I've been lead sniper for over a year, but Lt. Kim can't get past the fact that I'm only fifteen.
The target is a Pakistani guy over in HP's think tank. He's wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt that says "Cherry Garcia," and he's pacing back and forth in a cubicle decorated only with an Aladdin movie poster. The guy's pretty worked up, yelling into the phone, probably to Gupta, our communications officer. In the poster, Aladdin's hauling ass on his magic carpet with his little monkey friend, and there's an evil genie hot on his tail.
There's no hostages that I can see, only about 475 meters of open courtyard between me and Cherry G. The shot will be a tricky one: the bullet will become wobbly and transient as it moves through different temperature zones-bucking in the heat waves above the hot parking lot, diving as it crosses cool, shady lawn, and finally tumbling through the rising humidity of a man-made lake.
To the west, Cedric and Henry are dragging their heavy, water-cooled magnum into position atop a Jamba Juice, while across the way, Twan climbs a cellular tower, a sleek rifle equipped with satellite-assisted targeting dangling behind him on a rope. The satellite rifle is essential when the fog rolls in, and Twan is just the man to operate it-he's got the cool, the confidence, to fire on faith into a blanket of white. That dude is smooth, and it has nothing to do with the color of his skin. Lt. Kim tends to only hire African Americans for my team. I think it's because they had it bad for a long time, and we need to make it up to them. Snipers in general take pride in not discriminating.
I'm calculating the crosswind when Lt. Kim calls back.
"Tell me how you're feeling about the shot," she says.
I don't answer right away. I can hear her sipping tea in the command van, waiting for a response, while in the background, Gupta is negotiating his ass off in Urdu, though I do make out the word pizza.
"Maybe let's talk about it later," I tell her. I know the guys are listening, and I'm gonna get some razzing about "my feelings" in the locker room.
"Do you want to try a few visualizations?" she asks.
"Just leave me alone, all right?" I radio in, trying not to let my voice crack, which is a problem lately.
Lt. Kim's one of those sniper commanders who also has an MSW, so she's always all over my emotions. I've been having some dreams, I'll admit, and we've been working on replacing bad images with good ones. Flowers are supposed to be my replacement images.
I ease my eye back into the scope. Even when Cherry G's standing still, his figure warps like a mirage at this distance, and the crosshairs, flinching with my pulse, skip across his body. The only way to get closer to him would be to belly crawl through a hundred meters of flowers, but I don't think I could handle sneaking through bed after bed of what's supposed to be my positive imagery.
"Yo, homies," I say into my scope. "Who's calling the shot?"
I try to talk cool to the guys, you know, to work on our unity.
From his perch on the tower, Twan just grunts.
Henry is huffing and puffing when he calls in. "We've got a decent shot," he says, running out of breath. "Probably seventy percent." He's working the foot pedals of the huge twenty-millimeter magnum while Cedric aims.
Like me, Cedric and Henry came out of the target-match circuit, with Cedric riding a full sniper scholarship to BYU and Henry touring Asia for Team Adidas. But Twan is different. He's self-taught, on the rooftops of Oakland, and like they say, the Lord looks out for left-handed snipers. Twan's an ayatollah with a rifle, completely composed, but he's touch-and-go as a police officer because he refuses to shoot women.
Any of us could probably make the shot, but I don't want to look like a puss in front of the guys. Besides, not that I'm stuck up or anything, but I'm the one with the gift. I won the Disney Classic at age eleven, scored a perfect one thousand at the North Hollywood Open, and took gold in the summer Sniptathalon in Bonn, all before thirteen.
I flip down my clip-on shades and take aim. Sometimes, when I look through my scope, I am overwhelmed by the illusion that I know this stranger in the crosshairs in an essential way, like we're old friends, like you can see their soul. This effect is known as "flash empathy." The LAPD has conducted a lot of field studies and found that "flash empathy" is a leftover from the reptilian part of our brain and can't be avoided. You just got to turn a cold shoulder to it. Luckily, we have these new Raytheon scopes, which make it so you're not actually looking at the dude-it's just a video image. Sunglasses help.
"Blackbird has the shot," I announce and begin my positive visualization, which Lt. Kim says gives my mind a newer, more optimistic vocabulary for violence. A slug to the chest resembles a dwarf rose blossom, for example, so I would try to think of that. The head produces a pink mist of baby's breath. If you've ever seen the maroonish-green bloom of a chocolate beauty, then you'll know when you clip the liver. Exit wounds in general are trailing vines of red, kind of tangled and groping, like the new chutes of a spring hibiscus.
Finally, I do the math. At this distance, the slug will drop thirty centimeters, and the way the poppies are leaning suggests a slight breeze. So, I'll need to train my crosshairs above Cherry G and to the right, making it look like my target is really the skinny monkey with the fez on the Aladdin poster.
Then it hits me, this feeling that I really know this guy. In the rinsed color of my video scope, I study the tinsely lines of sweat coming from his brow, the flush of anguish in his skin. In a flash, I see a guy who left his culture and traveled around the world, only to become a hopeless outcast. His words are always a little off, and maybe the people make fun of him because he looks different and can't dress so good. Forget about the girls. It's like, because of your job, you have to leave your old friends behind, and then your new friends are always saying things to keep you down. You work side by side with them, and you're really trying, but it's like you're not even there. They never ask you to lunch or anything. Sometimes you eat alone at a restaurant and spot one of them, but they don't even see you. You overhear them talking about some new movie, and it's a movie you want to see, and-I stop myself, try to get a grip. Like the LAPD says, this isn't real.
I shift my aim toward the little monkey, and start my countdown.
Here's where the gift comes in: the secret to being a world-class sniper is knowing how to stop your heart. I exhale, my chest goes quiet, and there's a ghostly feeling of serenity in my limbs. The rifle seems to just settle into its purpose, and things feel clear and flat in the scope. There's a hollow crack, and for a second, the time it takes for the spent shell to spring and glint to the ground, Cherry G and I will both be lifeless.
Duck, you fool, I can't help whispering.
The slug goes, connects-a neck shot, my trademark, the wound lapping like the tongues of orchid petals. The target's knees go out, and he falls from view, dropping into the beige of his cubicle.
"Morning has broken," I radio in.
"Copy that, people," Lt. Kim announces. "Blackbird has spoken."
Back at the police station, I slip in through the side door and take the back way, around the squash courts, toward the locker room. I'm supposed to debrief with Lt. Kim after every assignment, but I'm just not into talking about it today. She's been worried about my "problems with intimacy," which she always drags back to the fact that my mother's a classic "sniper mom" who shuttled me around to every child firearms contest there was. And I'd be on psych leave for a zillion years if I ever told Lt. Kim about the shrine my dad built out of all his second-place shooting trophies.
I run into my team in the hallway. They're standing next to a soda machine, working on some song lyrics. They've got a band but they don't get many gigs because they all play bass. Eyes closed, Cedric holds two fingers to his ear while Henry and Twan sing backup, snapping their fingers. It's an old love ballad.
"Pardon, mon cheri," Cedric sings. Snap. Snap. "Why you rebukin' me?"
Twan jumps in with the chorus; he's a large man with a booming voice.
"Ce soir, ce soir," Twan sings. "Girl, you're having me."
I never thought much of French, but it sounds tough coming from these guys.
"Word up," I say.
Twan stops mid-snap when I say this.
"That French is phat," I say. "Bet the lady friends go for that smooth talk."
That's when ROMS rolls up. ROMS sniffs us, then lifts a claw in greeting.
"Yo, holmses," he says, which is something I taught him. ROMS is the only one around here who's geekier than me, and he's a bomb detection and disposal robot. He's got some basic hostage negotiating programming, so I've been trying to teach him to talk cooler.
"Hey, ROMS," I say. "The posse and me was thinking about grabbing some chow. Wanna chill with us?"
"Let's eat and make friends," he announces. "Food is the first step in peaceful resolutions. Pizza, burger, baba ghanoush."
"Shit," Twan says and just walks away.
"Maybe another time, sir," Cedric says, and Henry looks like he wants to bust a stitch something's so funny.
"It's a date," ROMS says to them as they walk away.
ROMS is clueless to how the guys are always avoiding him, and I try to shield him from that. You see, ROMS and I are both Cancers, which means we're sensitive and a little moody, but with a lot to say. For his birthday in July, I'm planning on getting him an update-Negotiator 5.0, with the latest Black English Converters-because ROMS wants to express himself, but he just doesn't have the programming.
For now, ROMS and I decide to eat lunch without those guys. I have a learner's permit, but there has to be someone in the car with me, and technically, ROMS doesn't count, so we walk across the street to grab a Sony burger.
Generally, people don't like to see a bomb robot enter the building, so ROMS and I use the drive-thru, which is a little humiliating. The ugly truth is, though, robots are way looked down upon in our society. Just because some people are different doesn't mean they're not the same as you or me. That's why, when we're working at a playground or day care, I tie a "Barney" mask on ROMS's display panel-purple and humorous, it helps ensure the next generation won't have to live in fear.
I order a double Sony dog with a large Nix. For ROMS, I get a water, no ice-you have to wet his sponge reservoir every once in a while to keep his sniffer from drying out.
The girl at the drive-thru's kind of cute. She's about my age, with some skin trouble, though I like the cock of her headset. When it's our turn in line, I can't think of anything to say, but she's the one who speaks first.
"Nice rifle," she says when she hands me the bag.
I want to make my move, but ROMS won't quit sniffing her, and he's ruining everything! I kick him on the sly. When I do open my mouth, all that comes out is "extra ketchup." Then I go and add, "s'il vous plaît."
She shakes her head and hands me two packets, like there's a ketchup shortage or something.
The car behind us starts honking, so ROMS and I move along.
The only place to eat outside is the kiddie area, so I sit in a dinky seat, and ROMS parks on the rumpus pad. The play area's really just a giant food recycler dressed up to look like a jungle gym, and the thing's loud as heck. I look past the little rope that's supposed to keep kids out of the heavy gears, but I don't see a muffler on the thing, a total code violation.
I sift through the fries for my instant game card, while ROMS pulls out a really long straw. I get excited when I scratch off a bikini and then a martini, but it turns out I'm one machete short of winning the trip to Haiti with the Sony Girls.
I throw the game card on the ground. What's the use, anyway?
ROMS can see my disappointment. "Why the long face?" he asks
"Thanks, ROMS, but I don't want to talk about it."
"We can resolve this crisis together. We're friends. First let's start with some small talk. What do you think of the Raiders this year?"
That puts a smile on my face. ROMS is my friend. Some bomb robots, every time you turn them on, you're a new person to them. You have to reintroduce yourself and everything. But ROMS is different. We're like a team-both of us dedicated to saving people, though I do it indirectly, of course.
"Okay," I say. "Tell me this-you ever find a bomb, and when you touch it, you get a feel for the person who made it, like, who they really are, and suddenly you're connected to them?"
"All the time," ROMS says, though it's a little hard to hear him over the gnashing blades of the recycler. "I'm versed in the signature detonation devices of most major terrorists."
"No, man. I mean, like, see their soul."
ROMS slurps. "Is this about the Sony Girls?" he asks.
"Don't even talk about girls. This problem is way different. Say I'm about to resolve a crisis, okay? I go to pull the trigger, and I get this weird sense of connection with the target, like we're old homies. But then, as soon as I shoot them, that closeness goes away, and I'm left feeling sort of mechanical."
"I know where you're coming from. I've been there."
"I love you, man," ROMS says.
I chew a mouthful of hot dog, and looking at ROMS, wash it down with Nix. Because of his hostage skills, he always has something good to say when you're down, but this surprises me. This is not in his programming.
"Are you feeling okay?" I ask ROMS.
"Love makes the world go round," he says and sniffles.
I reach out, and his instrument shield is cool to the touch. When I check his power light, it's flashing. He gets pretty emotional when his batteries are low, and his bomb sniffer resets to default, so that it sounds like he's sniveling, like he's about to cry.
"Can't we all just get along?" he asks me, his voice slow and slurred.
Poor guy. I use my scope to call Maintenance to come pick him up.
"Hugs," ROMS mutters before all five of his arms droop, and he finally goes out.
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