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The carefully folded strip of paper in my lucky locket reads I want to survive the next five days. I kiss it and tuck it under the tight neck of my long-sleeved black tee with the solemn reverence my mom would give her rosary. Or, in the last six months, her Vicodin.
I sit on the cramped cot in the back of a refurbished mail truck, surrounded by band posters and crocheted afghans and half-finished knitting projects, trying to pull myself together. I can’t stop shaking. At first, the truck smelled like welded metal and fresh paint. I stuck prints from my bedroom at home on the walls, draped my favorite quilt on the cot, and arranged my vintage pillows with a few stuffed turtles from my collection. I even tried hanging up some embroidery hoops, but they kept falling down. For a couple hours, I pretended that it was a dorm room or my first apartment, the freedom and comfort I’ve always craved. But the illusion didn’t last. Now, with fast-food bags crumpled up under the cot and a digital clock ticking down the minutes to failure, it reeks of hot garbage and desperation. It’s one step away from being in prison. Or worse.
I’m already running out of time on my first assignment, with only thirty minutes left before the twelve-hour limit. I’ve been sitting here in my truck, waiting for . . . I don’t know what. For my feelings to coalesce, for some sort of determination to set in. But it never has. I just feel empty and thin and shaky, as flimsy as the fast-food salad I could barely choke down for lunch. I knew I should have gone for fries. Fries would have given me strength.
I swallow again, fighting to force down the lump of fear in my throat. I’ve got a job to do, and not the one at the pizza place where I’ve worked since my fourteenth birthday, slinging pies with my friends Jeremy and Roy to help pay the bills. No, this job is far more disgusting. And dangerous. And I can’t just quit.
“Shit,” I mutter, the word echoing off the metal. A few minutes ago, the digital clock set into the dashboard started blinking, which is a noxious reminder to hurry. They’ve given me twelve hours each to complete ten deliveries, so five days to finish out my “shift,” as they called it. But I supposedly get a bonus if I finish early, and I really need that money. And I need to finish. So I need to get started.
I squeeze back into the driver’s seat, which is on the wrong side, and pull the US Postal Service hat down over my hair. Dark, wavy chunks straggle out underneath, and I wish it were long enough for a decent ponytail. This hat is required, and it’s possibly the ugliest thing I’ve ever worn—and that’s saying a lot, because I have a closet at home full of sweaters straight out of the eighties. At the last possible moment, I button the scratchy new Postal Service shirt over my long-sleeved tee. It’s stiff and itchy, and I can’t wait to take it off again. Just wearing the thing makes my skin crawl. Looking down, I make sure the top button is buttoned correctly, not blocked in any way, and I slide the small signature machine snugly into the front pocket.
The package I’m supposed to deliver is riding shotgun, and I can’t stop staring at the printed card that goes with it. I’ve been reading and rereading it all day, but it barely makes sense and my brain is full of snow like a broken TV and I know I won’t be able to remember it. And it has to be done perfectly, word for word.
I’ll be lucky if I can remember how to read.
I shove the key in the mail truck’s ignition and turn it, and the engine sputters to life. I drive around the corner to the house I’ve been watching all day and put the truck in park, leaving it running as I step onto the uneven sidewalk. With shaking hands, I lean in and pick up the fruit basket, the plastic crinkling against my fingers and short but wild nails. I painted them alternately bloodred and bright green with dollar signs just last night. It’s not like I could sleep, anyway, what with the unusually large mail truck parked in an abandoned lot and me having a complete breakdown. The nails look a little Christmassy, but it’s really my own personal protest against what I have to do. I’m still me—even if they’re making me do something very, very bad.
I walk up between dried-out, overgrown bushes, holding the basket like a shield. This neighborhood used to be really impressive. We pass it all the time on the way to the store. The Preserve, it’s called, like rich people are just milling around in a beautiful, protected oasis, dumb and magnificent as wild animals. I remember wondering how someone could ever earn enough money to have one of these gigantic, brick castles with a filled four-car garage. Now I understand that they couldn’t. Which is why I’m here in the first place.
The yard is yellow and dry, half overtaken with clover killed by the first frost just a few nights ago. A small tree has fallen over, surrounded by earth gone cracked and hard without constant watering from the sprinkler system, but no one has done anything about it. I trip on an old garden hose and drop the fruit basket to catch myself painfully on my hands. If it were a real gift basket, I would be scrambling to pick up bruised pears and broken apple jelly jars. As it is, the entire thing is still in one piece, the plastic fruit glued firmly together and the foam now dented. The signature machine is still in my front pocket, and I wonder how much abuse it was designed to take. A lot, probably.
For just a moment, I stay on the ground, feeling the burn of cold concrete under my stinging palms, trying to breathe. I want nothing more than to run back to the truck, to run home, to cry, to scream, but I can’t, so I stand and brush myself off. When I pick up the basket, carefully, as if it mattered, I turn it around so the dented part doesn’t show.
There are two steps up to the house, steps that aren’t even really necessary. The paint on the door is peeling, the doorbell dangling by wires. I seriously hope this guy is home. Robert Beard, the list says. With a deep breath, I step up to the door and knock. A cold trickle of fear drips down my spine, and I shift from foot to foot in mismatched sneakers, wishing this was just a bad dream and hoping I don’t lose my salad.
For a while, nothing happens. I start to worry. What if he’s not here? What if he’s already moved on? What if he’s at work? And for just a second, relief floods me as I imagine skipping back to the truck and driving away to get a milk shake and some fries. But the relief is a silly dream, not real, because that would just make my job harder, if he wasn’t here. It wouldn’t get me off the hook. It would keep me here longer, like a writhing worm stuck right through the heart. If worms even have hearts, which I can’t remember. And I don’t want to find out what happens the moment that blinking clock in the car stops counting down.
The curtain to the side of the door twitches to reveal the flash of reading glasses and squinting eyeballs. I smile and hold up the gift basket. Guess what? It’s a package for you, Mr. Beard! He smiles back like a dog slurping over a steak and nods, and the door unlocks and swings open. The hot air inside hits me like a wall. He’s still got enough cash to cover electricity, then. At my much smaller house, we just put on more clothes and live without heat until the pipes are about to freeze, but this dude is living in his own tropical paradise to escape the sharp chill of November, which isn’t sharp at all in Candlewood, Georgia.
The man inside is big and disheveled. What once must have been a nice body has migrated to an old dude pregnancy. He looks like he hasn’t left the house in weeks, with patchy stubble and dark blond hair that’s too long for a rich guy. But his robe is the fluffy white kind you get at fancy hotels, and one of his teeth winks gold when he smiles. And something about him is eerily familiar, but I don’t know why.
“Robert Beard?” I ask, voice squeaking.
“That’s me,” he says.
He holds out his hands, and I give him the signing machine. Without reading the message, without pausing for even a single heartbeat, he signs it, sealing his fate for the second time. I don’t realize until he hands it back that I was holding my breath. Exhaling a tiny cloud of fog, I look down to make sure the digital stylus worked.
His signature is big and bold with a line underneath it. Bob Beard.
And that’s when it clicks.
This was the Vice President Bob Beard who fired my mom from her nicer office job downtown. She cried for days and never got over the fact that if she’d been prettier, younger, more put together, he might have let her stay. Behind his closed office door, he told her that being a personal assistant was a job for an optimistic young woman with up-to-date skills, a winning attitude, and a fresh-faced appeal. A go-getter.
And my mom knew exactly what that meant, so she boxed up her mementos with what was left of her pride and walked out before she was forced to train her big-boobed twenty-year-old replacement. We started looking for new jobs that afternoon and ate nothing but peanut butter sandwiches to make her two weeks of severance pay last as long as possible. Her next job was a step down in every way, with insurance so bad that my mom’s had a broken tooth for two years but won’t get it fixed. She winces when she drinks ice water now. Since her car accident, we’ve switched to even cheaper peanut butter.
All thanks to Bob Beard.
I press the accept button harder than necessary and nestle the signature machine in my pocket. My pulse speeds up as I angle my body toward him. I’ve hated this guy for years. He holds out his hands for the basket, a little closer, a little more insistent. Bob’s not used to waiting for anything.
“Well?” he says when I don’t shove the goodies at him and run. I shift the basket to my hip, holding it one-handed so I can read from the card. And so he’s directly in front of me.
“Robert Beard,” I start, my voice low and angry, all squeak long gone. “You owe Valor Savings Bank the exact sum of $643,762.80. Can you pay this sum in full?”
His eyebrows go up, and he snorts like a bull.
“Of course not,” he says, confused and angry, like I’m not supposed to know the true depth of his failure as a responsible human being. Like it’s my fault. He licks his lips and pulls the sleeve of his robe down over the shiny gold watch on his wrist. “Are you with a collections agency?”
I clear my throat and take a step back as I read from the card, just a little too fast.
“By Valor Congressional Order number 7B, your account is past due and hereby declared in default. Due to your failure to remit all owed monies and per your signature just witnessed and accepted, you are given two choices. You may either sign your loyalty over to Valor Savings as an indentured collections agent for a period of five days or forfeit your life. Please choose.”
I look down at the card, wishing there were more for me to say, more than all the tiny-print legal crap on back, the language so thick and official I can’t begin to understand it. It’s so confusing, really. They probably did it that way on purpose. I push the basket up against my chest, right over the top button of my shirt and, underneath that, my lucky locket.
“It’s pretty simple, Bob,” I whisper. “You either agree to work for them as a bounty hunter or I have to kill you.”
“What? Who the hell do you think you are, kid? You can’t just walk up to my door and read shit at me and threaten me in my own home! What about charge-offs? What about declaring bankruptcy? That’s how it’s done. There’s a system. Valor isn’t God. This is America, for Chrissakes.”
I sigh. There’s no helping this guy. He sure didn’t help himself. When you look back at the chain of events that brought me here, he’s one of the biggest dominoes that fell. If he’d let my mom keep her job, if he hadn’t been so goddamn greedy, if he’d paid back his debts, I wouldn’t be standing on his doorstep at all. I move the basket back to my side, let that top button get a good look at his snarl, at his gold tooth, at his I’m-a-wealthy-white-guy-so-I’m-protected-from-everything rage.
“Robert Beard, you have two choices.”
“I’m going to take that as a no,” I say.
“Great. It’s a no. Can I have my goddamn basket now?”
I take a deep breath and reach behind me, to the waistband of my jeans. I pull out the Valor-issued 9mm Glock and point it at his chest. We’re so close that I can’t even extend my arm all the way. My hand is shaking like crazy, and the gun feels like it weighs a million pounds, and my fingers are numb and slippery. Bob Beard’s hands shoot up, his body going tense.
“Wait, kid. Let’s talk about this. I might have some cash. . . .” He wiggles his arm, and his sleeve falls down, showing his watch.
My vision goes weird, like I’m looking down a long tunnel, and at the end is this guy I’ve never met but have hated for years, and for just a second, I can see the tiny red veins in his nose lined up in the pistol’s dead-black sights. I lower the gun, close my eyes, say a prayer to whoever is listening, and completely fail to pull the trigger.
A soft beep starts up from the truck, the siren getting louder and louder, like an alarm clock that hasn’t reached full volume yet. How much time do I have? A minute? Less?
I swallow hard and whisper, “I’m sorry.”
Eyes still closed, I pull the trigger and shoot Bob Beard right in the chest.
The gun barely recoils, and I take a few steps back. God, it happened so fast. And it’s so unreal. And he still doesn’t understand. He gurgles and clutches the door frame before sliding to the ground, one hand to his heart like he’s about to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I lean over him, angling the top button of my shirt, the glossy black one, so that it’s right over the bloodstain blooming on the front of his fluffy white robe. I wait until he stops breathing. I want to make sure they know.
With trembling fingers, I place the printed card from Valor on his chest for his next of kin. Not that the explanation is going to help much unless one of them is a lawyer. Maxwell Beard has the same address and is tenth on my list, and I’m guessing it must be his son. For just a second, I consider stepping over Robert Beard’s body and going inside to find Maxwell and get that bonus. But I’m pretty sure I’m going to throw up, and I don’t want to do it in a dead man’s house. Seconds have passed, but it feels like forever.
I leave Bob lying there, his door wide open, and jog back to my truck with the basket under my arm and the warm gun in my hand, finger firmly off the trigger. My feet are numb, my heart trying to pound out of my chest. I feel cold all over, cold and empty, except that there’s something warm all over my face, and I know I’m crying, but I don’t have a free hand to wipe away the tears. The lump in my throat is about to come up, a writhing ball of lettuce and fat-free ranch. Killing a person—it was both a million times easier and a million times harder than I’d thought it would be. And because it was him, because it was Bob Beard, God help me, it almost felt good. And that scares me.
Today is the first day of government-sanctioned assassination, and the faster I can get through my list of ten debtors, the better my chances of catching them like this, unaware. I can only hope that they’ll all be this uncomplicated—one person, alone, at home, confused, with no warning or rumors. It will be so much easier if they haven’t heard mysterious gunshots all day or found some accidental slipup on the Internet. The guy from Valor Savings said they would prevent that, but we all know that the Internet was made for conspiracy theories, even ones that are eerily true.
I slow to a walk to stick the gun in the back of my jeans and unbutton the Postal Service shirt with one hand. God, it’s just the itchiest, scratchiest, we-don’t-give-a-shit-about-your-comfort-est piece of clothing imaginable, even with a tee underneath. Plus, since I know that the camera in the top button never turns off, I’ll just feel better when it’s wadded up in a ball on the floor under the seat. I’ve still got my pride, and I don’t want them to see me puke, whoever they are.
“Dad? Dad!” someone shouts behind me.
I don’t turn around. I walk faster.
“You! What did you do?”
I break into a run and sling the basket and shirt into the passenger seat as strong hands yank me down, flailing, from the open sliding door of my still-running truck. The guy spins me around and holds the front of my T-shirt bunched in one fist, shoving me against the truck hard enough to make it rock, hard enough to hurt. Rage sings through me, and I don’t need to throw up anymore. I need to fight.
“What did you just do?” he yells, slamming me against the truck again.
I gulp down my anger and grab his wrist with my left hand, struggling to put some room between my body and the cold metal of the truck. Reaching behind my back for the gun, I whip it around and put it to the side of his chest, tight, so he can’t jerk away. So he can’t see my hand shaking.
“Let me go,” I say, quiet and cold.
I look at his face for the first time, and my heart wrenches in my chest. It’s like looking at a ghost. He looks like his father, like what his father used to be when he was my age. Dark blond hair falling over buttery brown eyes, tall and broad-shouldered like an athlete. And yet he’s wearing the shirt of a band I like, a shirt I have too. Or used to have. It’s at my old house with my mom and most of my stuff, just another part of the life I was forced to leave behind.
His fingers fall open as the gun kisses his ribs. I yank my shirt away and step back. But the gun doesn’t budge. The kid’s hand is open between us, frozen in place, and I’m transfixed by a prominent Adam’s apple that bobs all the way down and back up.
“What just happened?” he says, staring into space.
“Your dad had a debt, and Valor Savings called it in. This is totally legal.”
“Valor Savings? The . . . the bank? But why? You can’t just go around shooting people.” Rage and sorrow war on his face, and he’s panting like a dying animal.
“Go read the card, Max,” I say.
I exhale, a soundless sigh.
“The one I left on his chest. Just read it, okay?”
I climb into the truck backward, my eyes locked with his and the gun still pointing at his chest. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t turn to his father’s body. He definitely doesn’t go read the card, which would explain how Valor Savings Bank, now just Valor Savings, paid off every debt the US government owed to every other country on earth and now owns everything from sea to shining sea, plus Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.
If he would just read it, the dumb asshole, he would know that Valor Savings is now calling in debts and that, thanks to a tricky and vague little clause in a credit card application that no one bothered to read before signing, they can legally kill their debtors. Even if Max did read the card, he still wouldn’t know that he’ll be making his own choice in exactly four days, if not earlier.
Kill or be killed, and God bless Valor.
I could shoot him right now. Could just pull the trigger while he stands there, stunned. Easy pickings. I could have done it a moment ago, while he was holding me by my shirt and the adrenaline and defiance were shooting through my veins, making my trigger finger as itchy as my Valor-issued shirt. I should have done it then, before I looked into his eyes. It would have made my life a hell of a lot easier.
But I couldn’t do it. And I still can’t. Not while he’s wearing that T-shirt. It would be like shooting my favorite band, like killing my old self. And Valor may force me to do things I don’t want to do, but they can’t take away the things I am. Or the things I love.
That’s what I tell myself as I get in the purring mail truck and drive away, my Postal Service shirt crumpled up on the passenger seat by the dented foam gift basket. Max stands there, watching me, until I turn off his street, the big game hunter leaving the Preserve behind until I come to claim the next dumb but magnificent animal in four more days. I swerve to the side, quick, and barf up my salad into the bushes by the neighborhood’s elegant, brick-framed sign.
As I climb back into the truck, the clock on the dashboard stops blinking and calmly begins counting down from 12:00:00.
When the GPS tells me to turn right, I do.
Goddammit, I do.