By D. Seth Horton
“Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.”
The hidden security cameras throughout our house record my emotions getting the better of me. At least I’m not alone. God is here. He folds my hands into his and says, “You can look at Tijuana through the tinted windows of a car. Or you could look out through the stained glass of a church. It’s your choice, Gabriel. Just as it’s always been.”
Outside, the doors to the SUVs are closing. I’m glad you’re not here to witness any of this shit, Myra.
I have a lot of regrets. One of them is that I only met God yesterday, a few hours after you said a final prayer for me and left with the kids. I was eating an early dinner on the patio of your favorite seafood taquería out there by the ocean, and he walked by the place sporting a vested suit, a pocket watch, and a silver, knee-length beard that a few of my associates would have killed for. I’d seen some crazy people in Tijuana over the years, but they didn’t have the same kind of intensity or power. His head was surrounded by a sparkling golden halo like in the paintings at church. Something about that gave me a bit of hope. I decided to follow him. Maybe he could forgive me for what I’d done, and then maybe you could too, Myra. I paid for dinner and handed what was left of the food to some kid panhandling on the corner.
God walked straight through the western edges of the city towards the ocean. I followed him. I tried to build up the courage to introduce myself, but I was embarrassed by the person I’d become. Why hadn’t love been enough for me, Myra? Why had my heart been reduced merely to a meaty, swelling, pumping organ? You said it yourself the other day: the whole situation was fucking scary and sad. The look of horror then on your face left me burning with guilt. I’m pretty sure that somewhere in the Bible, God became disgusted with men like me. I understood why he might leave me to my fate.
Toward the end of his walk, the city streets yielded to the sand of the beach. Only when his feet got wet and there was nowhere left to go did he finally twist around to face me. A silhouette against the reddening sun, his angular jaw was patriarchal, his eyes bulbous as though he had a thyroid condition. “I’m in the middle of something here, Gabriel,” he said in a rich, baritonal voice.
“Please,” I said, trying to catch my breath. The air stank from a nearby whale carcass. The whale must have swallowed the bags of coke that our partners had recently dumped over the side of a ship before they were caught by the U.S. Coast Guard. I’d heard somewhere that for whales, breathing is not an automatic affair, it has to be willed. “I need your help.”
He looked at me as if I were a door-to-door salesman who wouldn’t get off his front step. “What exactly do you want from me?”
I told him that I was a sinner, the worst of the worst. Now I was repentant. I repeated the confession I’d made to you yesterday, Myra, before you left on a potholed highway heading out of Tijuana, rubbing your newly chipped tooth with your tongue. I said that I never meant to become a sicario and only got into the business to support our family. At the age of twenty-two, I decided to do a little smuggling. No, that wasn’t admirable, but at least there would be food on the table. Soon I learned how stupid I’d been. My boss thought he saw something special in me. I was sent to a training camp out in the desert where I learned about shooting, explosives, and hand-to-hand combat.
I also learned how to kill.
I told God that one night they made a low-level ventana they’d kidnapped from another cartel kneel down in front of me. They put a .45 in my hand and ordered me to do him at point blank range. I didn’t even feel myself pull the trigger. It was like I was outside of my body, watching the events unfold. I saw the man’s fear and the short-lived shock when the bullet entered his brain. Then there was only blood and blankness. Afterwards, I told myself that I shot him because I sensed what would happen to me if I didn’t, but I admitted to God that such ultimate power also felt pretty good. Maybe even euphoric.
His eyes flickered and turned into distant moons. Their milkiness was uncanny. “How many commandments have you broken? All of them, right? So whatever it is you’re asking for, the answer is no.”
I kicked at the sand and said, “OK, even if you can’t forgive me or nothing, what about Myra and the kids? They weren’t involved. I need them to be safe after I’m gone, you know?”
I thought he would offer a little solace, but no, his face turned stony. When looked at from my angle, his rigid pose suggested a descent from heaven into this, our mistaken, man-filled world. He merely shook his head in disappointment, as though he couldn’t believe what I’d asked of him. “Genesis is pretty clear on this. No one is innocent, not even the children.”
I shouldn’t have lost my temper, Myra, but I’m sure you remember how protective I can get of the children. As my boss was fond of saying inside the death houses, once a pendejo, always a pendejo. I did what I was trained to do and punched God in the face, squarely below his left eye. Then I hit him again. And again. Eventually he began to shake and I finally stopped. He hid his face in the infinite solitude of his hands. At that moment, I realized how lonely he must have been. Damn it, what had I done?
He wiped away a bit of moisture from his crow’s feet and said, “I’ve about had enough of everyone blaming me for what goes wrong in their lives. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of everything.” He stood up and took one last glance at the lights of Tijuana off in the distance. I wished you were there, Myra. Somehow, you could have made this right. You would have known what to do to lessen our pain.
What happened next wasn’t the kind of shit you’d see in the news. At first, the water beneath his feet seemed to be moving backwards, the friction from the tide and riptide creating a kind of liquid web that somehow held his weight. As he walked further away from shore, he slowly began to sink. Suddenly the sky broke out into arteries of light. A meteor shower burned through the sky. Gulls shrieked out their warnings, their white wings curling against the black backdrop of the sky like shredded paper. The ocean swelled, it started to rain, and at that point, Myra, I felt that the threat of death was real.
I waved at him wildly in a hopeless attempt to apologize. I don’t think he saw me. Clapping his hands together, he looked toward heaven and boomed, “Fuck it. I give up.” He allowed himself to be submerged in water that now bubbled from the horizon to the shore. He didn’t resurface. Any chance of redemption was over for me. At least his suicide was a clean one. A cooling body, soon to be mere flesh, food for the calico bass and halibut that would swim away with tiny bits of celestial skin in their bellies. I’d love to tell you, Myra, that I dove into the water and tried to save him, but that type of instinct failed me long ago. Is there anything more than the brutality that ends life? My own experiences have taught me that the answer to that question is a resounding “hell no.”
I thought I’d felt terror the first time I was ordered to use a blowtorch on the face of another human being. Now I recognized true terror: the promise of eternal solitude. I left the stinking seascape behind and went back to the taquería. The SUV wasn’t there. Maybe it was stolen, or maybe I couldn’t remember where I parked it. Not that it fucking mattered either way. I needed to clear my head so I started walking. Above me, the light of the moon was opaque, blurred from the falling rain. I wondered if this was some type of omen.
The roads back into the city were peppered with makeshift shrines to honor the dead. Soon I would join them, but I wasn’t going to run away. My boss would ultimately find me no matter where I went. I didn’t want him to take his revenge out on you and the kids, Myra. Two nights ago, I’d refused to kill the son of a local crime reporter because he was only seven years old. Saying no to my boss made me expendable. There was to be no escape.
I passed a couple of transgendered prostitutes waiting underneath a bullet-punctured awning. They were all bone and dressed in pleather. Later, a truckload of police drove by. Their faces were hidden behind black masks, though the women still decorated their eyes with mascara. Theirs was a brutal business. But you knew all about danger, didn’t you, Myra? Traveling alone with the children through Sinaloa, pregnant again with our third and trying to make it back to your parents’ home without being seen by men like myself. I’d give anything to hear that you were OK, that you had made it out of the city and would soon see the lights of Guadalajara. It was best that you left, Myra. To the left, to the right, straight ahead: nothing here in Tijuana was G-rated. This was no place to raise children.
My mind was still racing through itself when I stumbled home close to morning. A new Cadillac SUV was perched a block away from our house. A light rain trickled down its windows. I could feel the eyes of the lookout boring into me as I opened my front door. I changed out of my wet clothes. Realizing that they might barge in at any moment, I went to the medicine cabinet and swallowed gringo pills with names I couldn’t pronounce. Next to the sink was a matching pair of old toothbrushes. You had forgotten to pack yours when you left. I kicked the trashcan and emptied its contents onto the floor: used Band-Aids, bloodied gauze, a home pregnancy test kit.
I lay across our bed and almost cried. If only I could forget about yesterday. The kids were playing at a neighbor’s house and you were kissing me, pressed up against the kitchen counter. I didn’t respond. You laughed, just a little, making an innocent joke about it not being a big deal. There was nothing cruel about your teasing. There never was. In the awkward silence that followed, you finally heard my heart going off bump bump bump like a rapid-fire machine gun.
Chunks of tension suddenly seemed to coil down your spine. I felt a dizzy redness and in that split second between flare and no flare, I made my confession. I’d become an entirely different person than the one you had married. I yielded to the facts and answered all of your questions. Yes, I was a hitman. No, I couldn’t remember how many people I’d killed, maybe a hundred. Some were women. I promised you that there were no children, but who knows if you believed me. When it was over, I said you needed to pack up your things and get out of Tijuana with the kids, immediately. My boss wasn’t a patient man. My punishment would be swift. Of course, you could never come back to the city.
“Just get the kids and get out of here. Before it’s too late.” I pushed you towards the bedroom without realizing my own strength. You slipped and slammed into the door. Blood dribbled down your split lip and you gasped. You touched your face and pulled your fingers away, staring at the blood, and that’s when I saw the new chip in your front tooth. I looked away out of embarrassment, feigning interest in the wall.
You took off your wedding ring and threw it at my slouched head. Maybe you guessed that it had come off the finger of one of the bitches I’d killed.
The shape of shame: me hanging my head. I’m sorry became my mantra until you eventually locked yourself in our bedroom to pack. I went to get the children. I scrounged together some food and held them one last time. “Remember, Papá loves you. Always remember that, OK? I love you.” Thank God, they didn’t really understand what was happening.
You packed what few belongings you could carry: a bar of soap, some extra snacks for the kids, a gun. It was a short goodbye. I gave you the numbers to a bank account with over two million pesos in it. I thought you’d rip it up, but you hid the piece of paper in your brassiere. You recognized that you’d need that money after I was gone. “Good, you’re thinking clearly.”
The trip would be dangerous. Stay strong, I wanted to tell you, don’t trust anyone, except you didn’t need my advice. I kissed our crying children and told them to be brave.
“Don’t call me. The phones could be tapped.”
“May God help you, Gabriel.”
It was the last thing you said before backing the car out of the driveway. At that moment, I knew with absolute certainty that the best part of my life was over. I would never find out if you made it to Guadalajara. I wouldn’t even learn the name of our youngest child. What was wrong with me? It didn’t matter any longer. Nothing mattered. I was alone there in our bedroom. Other than the occasional gunshot in the city, it was so very quiet. Fuck my stupid life, Myra.
I must have slipped into a light sleep there on our bed. I woke up at dawn with a sense of someone lurking outside and thought to myself: shit, this is it. I bolted to the security monitor and saw a figure loitering behind the corpse of a rusting car. There was something about his regal disposition that I recognized. The chiseled chin and holy expression were clearly identifiable, despite the air of death that clung to him. It was God. He’d risen up from his watery grave, completely nude except for clinging starfish and a browned beard laced with sand and shells. His hair was longer, and he appeared to be more youthful than when I’d seen him last.
“Can I come inside?” he mouthed to the camera, shivering.
He was smaller than me. I gave him a pair of sweatpants and one of your old sweaters, Myra. I noticed that his body emitted a human odor. Perhaps humidity affected him like the rest of us. I reused some old grounds to make a pot of coffee and said, “Sorry, it’s all I’ve got.”
He winked and there on the table stood canisters of cream and sugar, huevos rancheros, and a steaming bowl of beans. I didn’t know why he’d come back, but it felt good to sit down and eat one more meal with someone.
“Look,” I said, spooning some food onto his plate, “about what happened back there on the beach—”
He waved me away. “No, no, I had it coming. I should’ve changed a long time ago. My power trips hurt a lot of people. Let’s face it, Gabriel. I was a lot like you.”
God closed his eyes. I didn’t want to disturb his sudden reverie. Outside, the birds were silent, either from extinction or because the city had become deaf. The bars in the windows dripped from last night’s rain. Soon the moisture would dissipate. The hardness of Tijuana would congeal once again. He eventually opened his eyes and said, “Let me tell you a little story. It’s about a man named Carlos Estrada. Do you remember him?”
“I don’t think so.” I sipped my coffee. No matter how much we drank, the cups remained full.
“He was one of the men you killed in that big shootout last April. After the funeral, his dad built an altar for him out of recycled plywood. Despite the limited material, it didn’t look too shabby. This guy is a master carpenter. His mother decorated it with photographs of Carlos, and she placed the letters that she still wrote to him there on the mantle. Whenever they can afford it, they light a candle in his memory. His mother thinks it’s beautiful the way the wax melts onto the surface of the wood. The flames remind his dad that what’s real can’t always be touched. The altar makes them feel connected to their son.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
God wiped his mouth with a napkin and moved his chair over next to mine.
“Carlos’s parents have understood for a long time that their son’s future was going to be limited, but they still can’t let go of him, not yet. They’re stuck in the dreams of the past. That’s why they need the altar. Someday, when they’re finally ready to move on, I’m going to be there to help them. Just as I’m also here for you this morning.”
For a minute or two we watched the orange sky brighten and the clouds slink through the sky as soft as butter. And then a second SUV appeared outside my house. There wasn’t much time left.
The men would be coming for me soon.
“I never wanted to become a monster,” I said.
“I’m not here to judge you, Gabriel. I’m here to help you let go.”
God holds my hands. Suddenly, I’m shaking. I try to ignore the clank of car doors outside. Would he promise that you’ll be OK after I’m gone? He shakes his head. “You already know the answer to that, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess I do.” Like me, he has lost most of his power. I realize that I’ll worry about you until the very end, Myra, my sweetheart, my heart-shatterer.
“What about the kids?” I ask.
“All we can do is pray. Do you want to learn how to do that?”
I get down on the floor and say, “Yes, please.”
“All you have to do is talk. I’ll be right here with you. Even after they come inside, I’ll be listening. Don’t worry about them. Focus solely on me.”
Mercy has a price, and he is willing to pay for it. Somewhere in the vast waters of the ocean, the Old Testament God of rules and judgment has been discarded. Part of me was buried alongside him. We are both weaker now. We are also kinder, more loving incarnations of our old selves. I wish you could have seen this transformation, Myra, even though I understand why you needed to get as far away from me as possible.
“Dear God,” I whisper.
Behind me, I hear the men kicking down my door. I am terrified, but I don’t let the fear stop me. I press God’s hands and pray for a soft heart so that I can forgive them for what they are about to do. And I pray for God to lead me beyond this world of darkness and light where men kill one another. I pray for some kind of a resurrection after the hanging or shooting or beheading is all over. Mostly I pray for you and our children, Myra, navigating the streets and highways amongst the fallen. Like a shooting star wished upon after it is gone, baby, I pray.
D. Seth Horton has published thirty short stories, essays, interviews, and reviews in various journals, including Michigan Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, and Southwestern American Literature. His fifth anthology, Road to Nowhere and Other New Stores from the Southwest, was recently published by the University of New Mexico Press. He is a book reviewer for the El Paso Times, and he teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Virginia.