Short Stories

The Twenty-Two Deaths of Kevin Hannigan

 

I hold up the blueprints and make sure Kevin is paying attention before I go over the mission one last time. “There’s going to be like two dozen guys trying to kill us in there, all right? We may be a lot stronger than them, but we’ve still got to be careful.”

Kevin phases his giant fingers through his hair, staining it with blood. The blazing sun highlights the mixture of crimson and copper. “Yeah, okay.”

“See this hallway on the map here?” I jam my finger against the paper. “This is where we’re going in.”

He pulls out his massive revolver and pokes it next to my finger. “What, you mean here?”

I yank my hand away. “What are you doing? Don’t use that thing as a pointer! It’s a hand gun, not a ball point pen.” I can’t believe I have to explain this to him. He has his finger on the trigger and everything!

“Sorry, Harry.”

Doing my best not to scream, I set down the map and look up at him. I’m not a short guy by any means, but with Kevin I feel like a lanky shrimp. “You don’t have to say you’re sorry. Just be more careful with your gun, okay? We don’t need a repeat of what happened in the armory.”

His shoulders slump. “I just wanted to see what the grenade would do.”

I clap him on the back and hide a sigh. “I know you did, buddy.”

Of all the ways I could spend my Saturday, creeping around the empty husk of a desert town with Kevin Hannigan is not high on my list. This place looks like a background panel from an old Road Runner cartoon and Kevin is a pain in my ass. His usual partner has something I want, however, so I have a pretty good incentive to take his idiocy in stride. It helps that he’s not a bad guy, but God, would it be easier if he were smart. My mom says he’s like Lenny from Of Mice and Men, but at least George had the option to shoot Lenny at the end. My job is to keep Kevin alive.

“Now remember,” I say, fully aware of how patronizing I’m about to sound, “The bullets are only going to phase through you if you use your powers, okay? They’re not to go through you automatically.”

“Yeah, I know.” That’s what he says, but I’ve seen him fuck it up more times than I can count. Hell, it’s a miracle he didn’t get himself killed a few minutes back by the guards camped outside of town. I really thought getting rid of them would take at least three attempts.

Kevin holsters his hand-cannon and looks me up and down. “If I’ve gotta go in there shooting, what are you gonna be doing?”

“I’m gonna shoot people too, Kevin.” That’s a lie. Well no, I am going to shoot people, but that’s not the bulk of what I’ll be doing. The bulk of what I’ll be doing is using my powers to keep Kevin from getting killed.

There are seven of us in our little super-assassin squad, and we all inherited both our powers and our positions through what I’d call nepotism at its finest. Kevin can phase through objects; his partner can fly; our boss can manipulate sound. You know, real basic stuff like that.

My powers are a hell of a lot more complicated. I could explains the rules and mechanics if I had a couple hours and a couple chalkboards, but the simplest explanation is that I can control time. Messing with time is a hell of a thing, however, so it’s not something my boss is good with me telling my colleagues about. That’s just fine with me. I like screwing with them when they nag me about what I can do, anyway. My favorite lie is ‘enhanced taste’. Everybody knows it’s bullshit, sure, but it’s still a great excuse to go hog wild when someone brings donuts into the office.

“Is there anything else you need me to go over before we go inside?” I say as I put away the map.

“No, I get it… but I still don’t get why you’re here instead of Nasim. She’s not mad at me, is she?”

I am here’, I want to say, ‘Because if I can keep you busy long enough for Nasim to fly off for some much-needed vacation time, she will be giving me her Swedish supermodel friend’s phone number.’ I don’t say that, however, since I don’t want him to know that Nasim wants a vacation from him. After all, she is his mistress. Office politics, am I right?

“Of course she’s not mad at you,” I say instead. “She thinks you’re the greatest.”

“Really?” Kevin’s grin spreads from ear to ear. The compliment was total bullshit but it seems to make him genuinely happy. It’s times like this when he’s a tough guy to dislike.

“Really. Now let’s get this over with so we can go home and tell Nasim how great you are in person.”

Kevin hits me with a thumbs up. “Got it!”

We take our positions at the entrance to the compound. ‘Compound’ might be the wrong word for a bombed out high school gymnasium, true, but anything can be a compound if you shove enough rebels in it. But hey, I’m not even sure that they’re rebels. I don’t know who these guys are. All I know is my boss wants them dead, and I’m just despicable enough to accept that without question.

I stand with my back to the rusty door. “Are you ready?” I whisper.

“You got it!” he yells.

I smack my forehead. “Ok, let’s go!”

We burst through the door. A bullet smashes through Kevin’s skull. He stumbles backward, dead before he hits the ground. I take one look down the hall and bring time to a crashing halt.

Kevin’s body hovers an inch above the dirt, frozen in time mid-bounce. A handful of gunmen look on through glassy eyes not ten feet away. Obviously they’d been ready for us.

“Okay,” I say to myself, “Going in blind was a mistake. I can’t blame Kevin for getting shot when he didn’t know it was coming, right?” He should have started phasing the moment we went through the door, granted, but I wouldn’t have told him that earlier if I thought he could handle it on his own.

I could rewind things now, but I might as well take stock of the situation first. After all, it’s not like I’m going to run out of time, right?

The pea-green hallway is twenty feet long. There are six gunmen in all. Two are crouching behind boxes, one is using a closet for cover, and two are behind the door. A sixth sits behind a rusted-out oil barrel. Sometimes I wonder why these places always have the obligatory decaying oil barrel for convenient coverage, but now isn’t the best time to dwell on it.

There’s one last man with his gun sticking through the broken windows of the door at the end of the hall, but I don’t count him in the group since he’s technically not in this room. He’s in the next room, which I don’t see the point in assessing until later. By the time Kevin and me get over to those guys, all of their positions are going to change. For now I’ve got all the info I need to go back.

The best way I can describe the feeling of going back in time is ‘vomity’. Even though your consciousness isn’t an organ, hurling it back ten seconds in time is a little bit like hurling it against the wall in a gravitron. You know, one of those carnival rides that uses centrifugal force to make it feel like you’re in super-high gravity. The further back you travel, the worse you feel when you get there. Ten seconds isn’t that bad; ten minutes and I’ll puke on my shoes.

Thankfully I don’t need more than a minute to update Kevin on the situation, so I’m only feeling a little disgusting when I snap back into my body after the rewind.

Kevin’s standing next to me with a worried frown. Can he tell that something happened to me? “What’s up?” I say to him.

“It’s nothing, but… but I still don’t get why you’re here instead of Nasim. She’s not mad at me, is she?”

Oh great, this again. “Nasim, mad at you? No way. She thinks you’re the greatest.”

“Really?” There’s that grin again. God, he’s like a big Irish child. Why am I stuck with him again? Oh right, that model’s number. I just need to focus on getting that number and all of this will be okay.

I clap Kevin on the back in an awkward gesture of camaraderie. “Of course she likes you, buddy. That’s why we need to get you home safely.” With his spirits as high as they can possibility be, I redirect his energy by pointing to the entrance of the compound. “My guess is that there’s going to be like half a dozen guys positioned behind that door, so the first thing I want you to do when we get inside is phase, okay?”

“Okay. Do you want me to shoot them too?”

“Yes, obviously I want you to shoot them.”

“Will you shoot them?”

“That’s kind of why I’m here.”

“Oh yeah.” Kevin rubs the back of his head again, smearing around even more blood from his hands. He’s starting to look like a monster. “Anything else?”

I could stand here lecturing him for an hour, but this is as good as it’s going to get. “Nope. Let’s get going.”

We ready ourselves in front of the entrance a second time. I nod at him and mouth: ‘Ready?’

“What?” he yells.

God damn it. “I said, ‘Ready?’”

“Oh! Yeah, I’m ready.” He couldn’t have been any louder if he’d been using a bullhorn. Oh well, fuck it.

“Let’s go!”

I kick the door open wide. One bullet whizzes through the air. It takes Kevin through the skull and blood sprays my face as he falls. Second verse, same as the first. Son of a bitch.

Rewind, third attempt. This time I go back forty-five seconds, just to the point where I’ve told him Nasim wants him to come home safely. While I didn’t go back quite so far this time, that ‘vomity’ feeling stacks if you go back multiple times. I take a moment to clutch my stomach before thrusting my finger at the compound door with all the energy I can muster.

“The second you go through that door, you need to phase or someone is going to shoot you dead. Do you understand me?”

Kevin cocks his head. “How do you know that?”

“Because if I was guarding a door and it opened, I would start firing too. So can you please, please promise me you will phase? I really don’t want to see you die.” Again.

“Yeah Harry, of course I’ll phase. Geez, I didn’t know you cared.”

“Of course I care.” I massage the bridge of my nose. “You’re my friend.”

“You mean it?” Before I can stop him, Kevin’s got his arms around me and he’s lifting me up in a massive hug. My ribs strain under the pressure and I gag. If I wasn’t feeling queasy before, I definitely am now.

We take our positions for attempt number three. “You remember what you promised me?” I say under my breath.

“You open the door and I’ll phase.” Amazing – he actually controls the volume of his voice. Hell, this attempt might be the one!

“Great. Okay, let’s go!”

I kick the door open wide. One bullet whizzes down the hall. It passes through Kevin like he’s empty air and flies into the distance. Success!

Now that we’ve got defense figured out, we can move onto offense. I pick off the two guys near the boxes before they can fire and I put a third bullet through the oil drum and into the guy behind it. Kevin seems like he’s keeping the other three busy with shots of his own, but none of them are landing. That’s unusual; he’s a pretty good shot and those bullets are almost as big as he is. Then I realize the problem.

“Kevin,” I shout, darting behind a door to reload, “Your bullets are phasing!”

He stops and stares at his gun. “Huh?”

The crack of gunfire echoes through the hall. A fountain of red shoots out from between Kevin’s eyes. One shot and he’s dead in an instant. So much for the third attempt.

Our fourth try goes much the same way as the third, only this time when Kevin goes to inspect his gun he accidentally shoots himself in the head. The fifth attempt does not go much better. Kevin gets his gun pointed in the right direction without shooting himself, but he dies a moment later since he forgets to phase between shots.

On the sixth attempt he steps on a land-mine. That one was my bad; I had no idea there were any mines in the area. To make sure that doesn’t happen again, I take a break before jumping back to sweep the area and check for other mines. The only others I can find aren’t on the route we’ve been using, but I make a mental note to mark them on the map anyway.

Breaking to find the mines gives me a much-needed chance to throw up in private and remind myself why I’m stuck here working with Kevin. I’ve got a photo of the Swedish super-model in my wallet as a source of comfort and I’ve never been more in need of comfort than I am right now.

Looking at her photo makes my head spin in a way that’s completely different than what happens when I jump through time. She’s sitting in the grass wearing nothing but a work-shirt and panties and she’s got this slightly crooked smile that somehow makes her look even more perfect. Her shirt’s unbuttoned a little at the top, just enough to hint at cleavage but not so much as to give it all way. Pretty chaste for a girl with no pants on.

I pocket the photo and jump back for attempt number seven. When my consciousness returns to my body, Kevin’s looming over me with that same dopey smile he has on every time I tell him Nasim thinks he’s the greatest.

“Really?” he says. His blue eyes are open wide, just like they are each time he dies.

I ignore him and pull out the map. “There are land mines here, here, and here,” I say, gesturing to their locations, “And there are six shooters just beyond the entrance to the hall.”

“Wow, how do you know all that?”

I roll my eyes like it’s the dumbest question in the world. “It was in the mission briefing.”

“Oh yeah.” He scratches his head. There he goes with that bloody hand again. “I remember that.”

I want to tell him he’s a liar and an asshole, but that won’t get either of us anywhere. “Okay, here’s the plan. We’re going to avoid the land-mines and go to the entrance of the hall. Follow me so far?”

“Sure, that’s easy.”

I bite my tongue. “I’m going to kick down the door. Your job is to phase – that’s all. You don’t need to kill anybody, you don’t to punch anybody, nothing. Just stand still and let the bullets pass through you, and I’ll handle the rest.”

“So I don’t get to use my gun?” He puffs up his cheeks like I just ruined Christmas. Well too bad for him, because I’m not taking any more chances on him getting shot.

“It’s okay,” I tell him, “I’ll take you to the armory when we get home.” That’s when I remember that he’s banned from the range because he blew it up. Oh well, not like I was going to make good on that offer anyway.

We reach the compound entrance without stepping on a single mine. I remind him of the plan and he swears he can handle it. I nod at him, he nods at me, and I kick down the door and we go.

I kill seven gunmen in seven shots. Normally I’d pat myself on the back for that kind of top-quality shooting, but I’ve killed each of these guys so many times I should speak at their funerals. Kevin’s impressed though, so I let him compliment me some before we move on.

There’s noise on the other side of the gymnasium doors. The mission brief said we’ve got some two-dozen guys to kill in all, which means there’s at least three times as many in there as I just killed in the hall. I could stop time to do some recon, but why bother when I’ll probably be running through that room ten more times?

Kevin flicks his revolver to the side and pops in another five bullets. “We got this,” he says.

A grenade flies through the window and clocks him right in the forehead. I stare at it as it bounces off his skull and collides with the ground. Ah, fuck.

It takes us six more attempts just to get in the room. In that time I see Kevin get shot, exploded, and even electrocuted. That was a real special one. The dumb fucker stepped right in a puddle of water with a frayed wire running across it. I don’t even think the enemy put it there as a trap; I think it was just there.

Each time I go back, I reset at the moment Kevin reloads his gun and tells me ‘we got this’. The seventh time I hear him say this – our fourteenth attempt overall – I lose my temper and shoot him in the head. I recognize how counter-productive this is, but it’s also a great stress reliever.

By our twenty-first attempt, I am completely out of patience. “Listen,” I say, ignoring his usual affirmation, “I just want you to hang back on this one, okay? I know we’re supposed to work as a team, but you deserve a break. I’ll go in there and take care of everything. Sound good?”

He scratches his head. Though I’ve been cycling through time for what seems like hours, the blood on the back of his hand is still fresh. I want to cry when I see him wipe it through his hair.

“Are you sure you can handle that many guys on your own?” he says. “I mean, I know I’m not supposed to ask what your powers are… but I don’t want you to get hurt, you know? I mean, you’ve been really nice to me today. I don’t know what I’d do if you got shot.”

Ah shit. Now I feel bad for shooting him in the head. “I appreciate you looking out for me, but you’ve really done more than enough.” I pause to catch the grenade that flies through the window and I toss it back in the gym. The room shakes with the explosion and Kevin stares at me like I have three heads. “Just promise me you’ll sit this one out, okay?”

“You got it.”

If Kevin were a little shorter, I’d pat him on the top of the head and tell him to ‘stay’. At his height, all I can do is give him an awkward hug. “Okay buddy, I’ll be right back.”

I barge through the gym doors and start firing. The smoke from the grenade provides me with great cover as I take down the rebels one by one. I can’t see them for shit, but I’ve done this enough times to know exactly where they are. I hesitate to even think it, but this attempt might be a success.

The doors fly open behind me. Kevin runs into the room. “Wait!” he shouts. “I can’t let you go in there alone!”

There’s a hail of gunfire. Kevin falls to the floor. I shout every curse I can think of and bring time to a crashing halt.

His lifeless corpse stare up at me from the blood-stained floor. “You stupid fucking idiot!” I shout, kicking him in the ribs. “What the Hell is wrong with you? I gave you one fucking job: stay in the other room! One job, Kevin! One job that you couldn’t even do!” No matter how many times I kick him, his body refuses to move. He’s as stubborn dead as he was alive.

I rewind back to the beginning. Before the gym, before the hall, before I tell him Nasim thinks he’s the greatest; all the way back to when I first take out the map. It’s the first time I’ve come back to this specific point so I shouldn’t feel like I have to vomit, but I’m so tired and frustrated that I end up doing it anyway.

For our twenty-second attempt, I leave time at a standstill. After making sure Kevin cannot possibly find a way to injure himself in this suspended universe, I take both of our guns and go on a rampage. I don’t know how many bullets I fire or how many men I kill; all I know is that eventually I’m out of ammo and everyone is dead. Had I been alone today, I would have done that at the beginning, but Boss-lady would put her high heel through my skull if she caught me doing something that flashy with a colleague around. Considering the situation I’m in now, I see her point. It’s easy for me to hand-wave away advanced knowledge of an upcoming room; it’s not so easy for me to explain why our assigned targets are already dead. Luckily, I’m explaining it to Kevin Hannigan.

Once I’ve cleared out the room, I dig through the enemy supply cache in search of paper, pens, and tape. These items would seem unlikely to appear in a rebel bunker, but experience has taught me that even bad guys keep office supplies at the ready.

I find what I’m looking for and scramble back to Kevin. Using his frozen back as a make-shift desk, I scrawl a quick note and then tape it to the compound door. An observant person might notice a note seemingly appearing out of thin air and be suspicious. Kevin is not an observant person.

I restart time. Kevin opens his mouth, ready to talk. I don’t give him a chance.

“What is that?” I say, pointing at the note on the door with an enthusiasm that most people only need when they’re training their dogs.

Kevin squints like he’s trying to decipher the fucking Rosetta stone. “Looks like a piece of paper.”

“That’s weird!” I take his hand and pull him to the door. We take down the note and read it together.

Harry and Kevin,

I have sent agents ahead to clear out the compound. Your sole responsibility is clean-up.
– Boss-lady

There are three things wrong with this note: one, it uses our real names; two, it’s written in my hand-writing; and three, our leader has signed her named as ‘Boss-lady’. While we’ve been known to call her ‘Boss-lady’ when we’re feeling either affectionate or antagonistic, she’s never been a fan of the name – and she’d damn sure never use it in lieu of her signature. None of those facts will set off any alarm bells in Kevin’s head, however, since the alarm bells in his head have been permanently disabled.

“We came all this way just to clean up a bunch of bodies?” said Kevin, scratching his chin. Oh good, this time he’s got the blood on his face.

I give him my most nonchalant shrug. “If it’s what Boss-lady wants, we’d better get to it.”

Cleaning up corpses is standard operating procedure for our organization, so we’ve come prepared with a duffel bag full of glass cleaner and bleach. It’s not the most exciting part of the job, but it’s got to be done. Personally I find it soothing, though I can see how other people might disagree with me.

We pick up our bags and get to work on the hall. It’s a real mess, bone and brain everywhere. I wouldn’t have been so sloppy if I’d been thinking clearly, but it’s hard to stay task-oriented after watching the same guy die twenty-one times.

Kevin crouches next to one of the bodies and pokes at it. One of the bullet wounds gurgles and bubbles over with blood. “Damn, what do you think happened in here?”

I pour out half a bottle of bleach. “Couldn’t tell you if I wanted to.” That’s not entirely a lie. The laws of physics get a little wonky when it comes to firing wildly in frozen time.

The hall is silent save for the squeaking of sponges and the scraping of cheap paper towels as we work. The break in conversation gives me a chance to think about taking that sexy supermodel on a date. True, Nasim’s only gonna give me the girl’s number, but I’m sure Ms. Model want to date me once she talks to me. And why wouldn’t she? I know how to clean blood out of cheap tile; I’m a hell of a catch.

I’m about halfway through my clean-up on Dead Guy Number Four when I realize I haven’t seen Kevin in a while. “Hey Kev,” I call. “How’s it going over there?”

I look over to find him standing and stretching his arms overhead. He’s got his eyes shut and he’s yawning, yawning so loud that he doesn’t hear me when I see him put his foot down in a puddle of bleach and yell for him to be careful or he’ll slip and –

He tumbles backward. He cries out in shock. I can’t catch him from where I am. All I can do is yell “Son of a bitch!” as the floor breaks his fall and his life is snuffed out with a reverberating snap.

Attempt twenty-three; back to the beginning. I stop time, vomit, and move Kevin as far away from the entrance as possible. Then I gather up all the land-mines and stick them under every foot in the compound.

Time resumes. An epic fireball extends in every direction. Kevin shields his face and screams.

“What the fuck?” I yell, my ears ringing even though I plugged them in advance. “Are you okay? You just got thrown back like fifty feet by that explosion!”

“Oh my God!” Kevin feels for his face with his hands. His bloody palms leave red prints on his cheeks. “I didn’t even feel it happen!”

“Oh man, that’s insane! They must have blown themselves up!”

“You think?”

“What else could have happened? Buildings don’t just spontaneously combust, you know? No, they must have gotten word that we were coming.” I nod like this is the most obvious thing in the world. “I bet they were so scared of us that they thought the only way to get rid of us was to blow up the whole compound.”

“Damn…” Kevin whistles. “We must be something else if we’ve got people so scared they’re killing themselves to keep from fighting us.”

“Right? Crazy shit, man.”

“Still, that was some explosion.” He rubs the back of his head. There’s no more blood left on his hands. “We’re lucky to be alive.”

“Kevin, you have no idea.”