Freebird is out now from Graywolf Press.
Jon will be reading this Friday (January 20th/7:30) at Powell’s City of Books.
You could always get unmarried in life. You could switch jobs. You could get fat and turn around and get thin again. You could change your haircut a thousand times. But there was one thing you couldn’t ever change, and that was being dead.
No, death was the great and ultimate threshold of human experience, the one-way door through which no one ever returned. You could swap houses, you could make water into ice and back into water again, but being dead, that was the one irrevocable, un-changeable state.
Curtains for you, Shane Larson, Ben thought.
In ten minutes, the curtains would be drawn once and for all on Shane Larson’s life, and there would be no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. Perched on the roof of Palm Canyon Resort, his rifle cradled against his chest, breathing slowly and methodically, Ben waited patiently for the next pivot point of his own vengeful life to arrive. You could never stop being dead; nor could you ever bring someone back to life once you’d greased them.
His eyes remained fixed on the third hole of the Indian Canyons golf course, framed over the white lip of the resort roof. He’d chosen the Palm Canyon for its slight elevation; it was the only three-story building near the perimeter of the links. The third hole was not his favorite choice—he might have preferred a higher number, if only for the drama of letting the tournament play out—but overall the third hole was acceptable. There were at least three exit routes nearby, paths going north and south along South Palm Canyon Drive, and a vast, empty scrubland -stretching west into the mountains. Plan A was to evacuate on the street using the pickup truck he’d stolen the night before, joining the flow of traffic, finding his car downtown, making the trade and drifting quietly away. Plan B was to evacuate on the street by foot, melding with the street traffic and reconnecting with his car and continuing on as per Plan A. And Plan C, should he need it, was to flee into the mountains. The nest itself was very solid. He could see the lima-bean green abutting a glittering pond at the end of an alley of palm trees. He could see a swath of the mountains sheltering the valley from the wind. He could see an immensity of cornflower-blue sky extending into infinity.
This was a beautiful place to exit the world, Ben thought. Shane Larson was a lucky man in that regard. He would exit the planet in sunlight and fragrant desert air, surrounded by adoring fans, or at least admiring fans, or at the very least people who recognized him. He would avoid all the suffering of the elder years, the decrepitude and disease. He would not slowly wither until his mind was soft cheese and his family didn’t know what to do with him. He would go out in the greenery of the Indian Canyons golf course without a moment of pain. Or maybe just one very brief moment of pain. Depended on how well the shooting went today.
Ben had arrived at the Palm Canyon at three in the morning, wanting privacy for the scaling of the wall and the choosing of precisely the right spot. The resort-goers had been sleeping, and he’d nestled in under the star-throbbing sky. He’d seen the sun rise over the San Jacinto Mountains, the wind-planed clouds turning pink and orange and the dome of existence gradually filling with color. He’d heard the desert birds awaken, including one strange type that made noises like R2-D2, greeting the day with a funny, computerized bleep-bleep-bloop song.
Over the hours, the human world had come to life. The golf course had picked up employees. The tournament spectators had trickled through the front gate in their BMWs and Lexuses and hybrids, claiming parking spots with smooth self-confidence. From the sidewalk, the voices of the men floated in the air, talking about all the petty garbage of their privileged lives. From the pool area, the squeals of the children had begun. Ben had overheard numerous complaints about wives, lawyers, neighbors, contractors and subcontractors, many grousing complaints relating to people’s own revolting wealth. He’d overheard at least a dozen men he would have gladly killed if only their deaths would have meant anything to people. But he’d waited stoically for the one man he’d come to make an example of, Shane Larson.
Doom on you, Shane Larson. Doom on you for all your lies.
The third fairway was a lush, green carpet leading to the spotlight of the putting green. The tournament had begun midmorning, and the players had been wending through in clusters. The gallery had been shrinking and growing but generally sticking to about fifty or seventy-five bodies. Ben had been monitoring the progress of the overall competition on his phone, reading the ticker tape of the incoming Twitter feed, and he knew Larson had begun playing and was already four over par after only two holes. He was not in the running for golf victory today. The third fairway was waiting, only an occasional bird breaking the airspace. It was almost noon when Larson’s group ambled into view, with its attendant caddies and spectators in tow. At last, two hundred yards away on the fairway, the target had presented himself.
Ben watched as the golfers selected their locations and stabbed their tees into the ground. He watched as they made their final calculations for windage, slope, and distance and straddled their balls, squaring their shoulders. He could see the naked napes of their necks as some turned and spoke to their caddies, the vulnerable spots of their temples, their ribs. And then one by one they teed off, swinging their silver clubs like scythes. He lost sight of the balls as they sailed in the sun, carving mountainous arcs, and caught sight of them again as they made their landings with delicate plops near the green. The balls rolled the final distance to their resting places and shone whitely on the turf, waiting, only seventy yards away. The gallery clapped. He could hear one meaty set of palms in particular amid the soft clatter.
The golfers were coming in his direction, and one by one they approached the green, crouching and scoping their lines of attack. They weighed their options, balanced their minuscule judgments, and all the while Ben watched and measured as well. It was all a form of golfing in the end.
Shane Larson putted second. His lime-green shirt and giant black watch shone brightly in the sun, as did his white arms, the consistency of uncooked dough. He waddled over the nubby grass with the overfed confidence of the truly rich, his backside a foreign country. He dug his thumb in his nose, not caring who saw, he was that rich. He approached his dimpled ball, separating himself from the bystanders, and took sole possession of the green apron. He crouched to his knee, angled his head. He stood and shook his leg.
Ben watched him in the crosshairs of the scope on his Ruger Varminter, the fat body flattened on the lens. The gun had come from a dealer he’d found on Craigslist, located in Barstow, and it was not yet familiar in Ben’s hands. The stainless-steel stock was heavier than he would have liked, and he’d never used the .204 Ruger ammo before, but it had been priced to sell, and there’d been no questions asked. He’d gone to the man’s shack with no ID, only his SEAL insignia, and had blustered his way through the deal with anecdotes of killing in foreign lands, and that had been enough. The guy had treated him like royalty, never even asking about the driver’s license or full name.
The temperature was moderate, with no humidity. The wind was nil. The distance was approximately seventy meters. The target was large and ready.
Shane Larson stood still, preparing for his putt, but just before the final pendulum swing, Ben made his move. The trigger pull was three pounds. The barrel was twenty-six inches of alloy steel. He sent the bullet streaking. There was no arc to the bullet’s flight. The bullet entered Shane Larson’s chest on the right side, somewhere near the logo for the global communications conglomerate that transponded his radio signal, and seemed to bounce around in his rib cage, shredding his organs. Mid-putt, Larson’s face blanched with puzzlement as he stared at the wound that had suddenly opened in his chest cavity.
Hole in one.
The crowd didn’t understand what had happened. For three long seconds, no one realized anything was amiss. Shane stumbled back two steps and turned a woozy half circle, his putter extended from his waist like a dousing rod. Then the putter dipped, and he pitched forward, getting hung up on the shaft and dangling there, three-legged, as a bloody bubble grew in his mouth. The bubble was thick and viscous, and popped, splashing blood on his chin and lips. Finally his weight shifted, and he tumbled onto the ground, a sack of potatoes.
Even then, the crowd only dimly comprehended what they were seeing. Death was so incongruous here, in this oasis of leisure. Maybe Shane Larson was just joking around. He had a reputation as a kidder, after all, and he was an entertainer by trade. But as he lay there, unmoving, blood coughing from his mouth, the crowd gradually became more alarmed. Murmurs of concern began circulating as the group mind apprehended that something had definitely occurred, something was crazy. A few fellow golfers hurried over and knelt down and waved for their caddies. One hand rose in the air, covered in blood, and fear traveled through the herd like an electric shock.
Screams commenced, which Ben took as his cue to wipe down the rifle, stow it in a corner for eventual discovery, and crawl on his elbows to the far side of the rooftop to begin his retreat. The access stairway led down to the third-floor hallway. From there he would walk quickly to the emergency stairwell leading to the lobby, and from there onto the courtyard patio–pool area of Palm Canyon. He doubted the docile herd of suburban families and hipster weekenders would even notice him in his cargo shorts and Crocs, and he would walk through them quickly and quietly, heading out the front door to the nondescript truck he’d stolen. In two hours, he would be sitting where everyone already assumed he was, in his desert quarry, next to his RV, drinking a cold, watery domestic beer.
As he crept to the rooftop stairs, however, there near the door, gaping at the scene of mayhem on the golf course, was a janitor holding a bag of Taco Bell and a smoldering one-hitter. The janitor was probably twenty-five years old, just a kid, with coffee-colored skin and facial hair groomed into a razor-thin wedge along his jawline. He was standing directly between Ben and the stairs, eyes agog, processing all the unbelievable information streaming into his brain.
There was no question he understood what he was seeing. He’d been on the roof in Ben’s blind spot the whole time, Ben realized. He’d probably heard the whisper of the suppressor, smelled the gunpowder in the air. Even now he was memorizing Ben’s features, burning his eyes and nose and mouth into the hard drive of his mind.
Ben’s first thought, the thought he was trained to have, was to kill him. One quick twist of his neck, and it would all be over. No one was watching; all attention was fixed on the green. He could just rise up and snap the guy’s neck and end this problem right away. But Ben couldn’t seem to make the decision and engage his hands quickly enough. He just lay there on his elbows as the kid scooted away to the far side of the roof, and Ben let him go, knowing he had just made everything much, much more difficult for himself.
The plan had to go on, however. He leapt up and pushed his way through the roof door and hurried down the stairs as anticipated, walked breezily through the carpeted lobby, wended his way through the ludicrous pool area. He made it out the front door to the sidewalk and all the way to the truck without incident. He got as far as the driver’s seat, reaching down to hot-wire the engine, before he realized plan A was not going to work. The janitor was surely watching him from the rooftop, reporting his every movement to the 911 dispatcher. And even if the janitor hadn’t called the police, the roads were too congested to drive on. The tournament traffic was clogging all the arteries, assassination notwithstanding. The truck was a no-go. He would have better luck escaping on foot.
So Ben climbed out of the truck and started hoofing his way down the sidewalk, going north. He walked briskly, scanning the passing pedestrians for any suspicious looks or gestures, but he didn’t see anything suspicious. He walked, hands in his pockets, ass tight as a screw, aiming for La Verne Way, where maybe he could join with the crowd at the Smoke Tree Village Shopping Center. He had a change of clothes in his backpack, and the janitor had possibly been too stoned to memorize his features all that well. It would be the word of a white guy against that of a Latino guy. In that, he had the advantage. Ben also had a fake driver’s license to show if need be. He picked up his pace, noticing that the car traffic wasn’t as bad as he’d thought, and, passing a burly, garnet Cadillac at a stoplight, he contemplated a carjacking but decided against it.
He passed Granada and Warnock Fine Arts, and he was just starting to feel the claws of the crime scene slackening on the muscles of his back, the poison talons withdrawing, when he heard calls from behind, telling him to stop.
“Halt!” “Stop!” the voices said. He ignored them at first, praying they were aimed somewhere else, but a quick glance over his shoulder told him he was fucked. A trio of policemen was sure enough charging in his direction, jostling their guns out of their holsters as they shambled in pursuit.
Thank God they’d been stupid enough to give him warning. He bolted, charging ahead, and then immediately zagged hard to the left, jumping a low wall into the yard of an elegant, midcentury mini-estate. He sped through the lush, fragrant desert garden, a gallery of succulents and palms, until reaching the rear wall, and blew out of the backyard into a landscape of Paleolithic nothingness. He sprinted full tilt for the beige mountains of the San Jacintos, weaving in and out of giant tufts of sage. If he could just make it across the half mile of scrub brush, the land would lift him up and away, and he would enter a world of stony seams and caverns with all their innumerable trajectories of escape.
Thank God, again, the cops were so pathetically slow. By the time they finally emerged from the palm trees and bougainvillea, Ben was already halfway to the foothills, and by the time he began scaling the lowest layer of rock, they were already slowing down, their legs shot. They weren’t firing at him yet, thankfully, not even symbolically; they didn’t seem to have the nerve or the authority for that, and he was most of the way up the first pile of sediment, a tumble of hamburger-sized nuggets deposited a century or two or three ago when some ledge finally gave up and yielded to gravity.
He arrived at a band of powdered dust and set to the next wall of rock, attacking the splintered boulders that seemed to grow from the dirt. The cops were no longer in sight, blocked by the slope of rubble, but Ben could see the golf course over his shoulder, the palms and the boxes of the surrounding homes.
His breath filled his ears as he climbed, and a glaze of sweat covered his skin. He felt strong, grasping the stones, pulling himself upward toward the beige ridge. From a distance, the mountains had been a study in brown, but up close there was coral, green, yellow, and every shade of taupe. He climbed past beautiful succulents, cacti, yucca. He achieved another level, and the whole of the Indian Canyons golf course spread into view. He could see that the gallery was still gathered at the third hole, surrounding Shane Larson’s bleeding body, and an ambulance was nudging its way through the parking lot, siren flaring. A few stick figures were prowling the rooftop of the Palm Canyon Resort, likely investigating his nest, but they weren’t looking toward the mountain. The cops down below were invisible, probably still struggling to make the first plateau.
He wondered if Shane Larson was dead. He wasn’t confident that the shot had finished him. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever know.
He climbed over a bed of shale, feeling the old war feeling spiking in his blood. His vision was so clear, it looked as if everything had been cut out and put back in place, outlined vividly for his personal apprehension. If he could get to the top of the ridge before they sent helicopters, he could make it. He could survive out in the desert as long as need be. Mother Ocean is your home and solace. This used to be ocean. This whole basin, all the way to Washington State, had once been plunged under prehistoric water, home to dinosauric whales and octopuses. Thus, this was his element. He was a SEAL. Those pathetic motherfuckers following him could never keep pace.
As he jogged a narrow trail, winding higher and higher, the war feeling thrummed alongside an even older feeling, the feeling that had prepared him for the war feeling in the first place. This feeling, this energy, was from childhood. The feeling of hide-and-seek, fox and hounds. The game of chase. One kid searching, picking up allies, until only one kid remained. Ben had carried this deep, gold-hued feeling in his bones since the beginning of time. He knew in that gold haze his mother lived somewhere. Hers was the spirit infusing those days. The feeling went back all the way, so far, there was nothing before it. Alone, his mother alive. And even in that feeling, a yearning. His first feeling, already missing the past. The golden age was only the most potent moment of wishing to be elsewhere. The sense of wrongness was fundamental, original to life.
He climbed past an eagle’s nest knitted into a skull-like cliff. He mounted a formation of sandstone. Already, he was within sight of the first ridge, putting him into the realm of the wilderness, many more ridges ahead. The grid of Palm Springs was below him, spreading over the desert’s skin like a festering wound, and he kept climbing into the desert.
He humped west, toward the ocean, toward his sister and father and nephew, not knowing exactly if or when he would find them out there. He was more concerned with the people behind him than the people out ahead. The men with guns chasing him were his first priority. He didn’t believe in death, but he believed in jail, and he didn’t want to go to jail. He willed himself onward, knowing he had to keep up a decent clip. At some point he’d find a cave. He’d go mujahideen and take refuge in the brutal, cultic land of stones. But for the moment he needed to push. He had enough water for a day or two, and hopefully he’d find some spring or small stream along the way, even an ice pack on a plateau rim. His eyes lifted to the giant clouds trailing their vapor, these immense reserves of water floating overhead, and cursed them for keeping it all to themselves.
He jogged into a canyon, stepping lightly over rock and pebble, sand, gravel, passing terraces of slick, unbroken sandstone. From afar, the landscape looked bleak, but up close there were a million hiding places, a million rifts and wrinkles and seams. He went farther, and the walls rose on either side, becoming parallel faces thirty or forty feet tall. A half mile in, he wasn’t sure he’d made a good decision, but he still wasn’t sure it was bad, either.
He arrived at the end of the canyon, where the walls tapered to a single corner, and he had no choice but to climb or turn back. He wasn’t going back, he knew that much, so he found a foothold and a handhold and began inching his way up. The going was slow, hand over hand, but soon he was midway to the open sky. He continued finding crevices and shelves until he reached a point where he couldn’t find a decent handhold anymore. There were still fifteen feet to go. He managed to swing his backpack around to his front and flattened his spine against one wall and pushed against the other with the soles of his feet. He waited for a minute, his arms and legs trembling, and pushed upward.
It took twenty minutes, but at last he swung over the edge onto a new vista. The land descended in a gentle grade to an open playa, white salt rime and blanched dust. In the distance he could see a mound of reddish rock with sheltering coves punched in the side. To go there would mean being exposed for a few minutes on the plain, but he saw no choice. He’d be exposed in any direction. Gliding like a Paiute, he made his way toward the giant mound. He was already wishing the night would come, but he knew he still had hours of light to endure. He wanted to put in distance.
The mound turned out to be the size of a stadium, and Ben climbed the spill of porous rock leading to a ledge. He walked the ancient, natural trail and found a series of shallow caves lined up in a row. The birds seemed to like the caves. They were padded with straw and bird shit. They had probably hosted humans in the distant past, granting sweet southern exposure in the cold months, shelter in the hot months, a nice mix of sun and shade. It was a good place to huddle for a while, until night fell and he could move in the darkness.
He squatted and gazed at the playa and prayed to the God of America. The God of this land was not the God of the Israelites, that vaudeville thunder machine. The God of America could go for years without making an appearance, and then, with a ripple, transform the world. Here: an elk. Here: a serpent. Here: an army of conquistadors crossing the desert in their burnished armor. Someday the God of America would visit Palm Springs and smite those people in streams of lava. But in the meantime it would appear in the form of wind in the long grass, frost on the basalt peaks, geysers of dust on the playa. Ben sat in the cave’s mouth like the long—ago humans, looking out the socket at the baking landscape, awaiting the spirit’s magic. As they had tried to coax the spirit awake when they’d needed it, and had tried to coax it back asleep, so did he.
He took an inventory of his backpack, even though he knew exactly what was in there. His food amounted to five Clif bars, some cashews, and a destroyed banana. His clothes were a shirt, a pair of socks, and his Oakleys. He had a short length of rope, a Swiss Army knife, a gun, a first-aid kit—the basics.
Once in the late afternoon he heard a helicopter, the whup-whup-whup over the whining engine, but he never saw the source. The sunset was glorious, a torrid scene of magenta and purple, and he fell asleep midway through, waking up to find the moon in his eyes. It was a bright moon, almost full, blanking out the surrounding stars and casting a silver, enchanted light on the land. In the moments of waking, Ben thought he saw figures below, not police or the FBI, but bodies that were shimmery and vaporous. Desert fairies, jinn. They disappeared before he could pull focus.
He shook his head, clearing his senses, and set out walking under the star-killing moon. The moonlight lay all around him like hoarfrost. He descended and skirted the rock stadium, aiming toward the next barricade of ridges. The moon was so bright, he could make out a ridge five miles away and the faint outline of the succeeding ridge behind it. He had lots of land to cross, lots of time.
He came to a crevasse and jumped it. He mounted a gentle hill and walked alongside a meadow-type expanse. He was whistling to himself when the blast of white light ignited in his face. The light came as a brutal shock, a total violation of his senses, and it was accompanied by harsh yelling and the roar of engines. Who was this? But he really meant: How? How could this be? How had they found him? There’d been no helicopter sounds or even footsteps. Where did this disembodied light suddenly come from? How?
“Halt! Halt or we will shoot. We are not fucking around here.”
He stumbled away, blinded, but the lance of light stayed on him. He could hear voices yelling, telling him to get down, lay flat, and feet scuffling and thwacking on the dry earth. He stumbled and ran, his shadow skitting and flashing on the ground ahead. He could find a gully or arroyo of some kind, erect some wall between him and the light. Ahead, he caught glimpses of rutted furrows, tire tread, and cursed himself for his stupidity. He’d been walking next to a dirt road all this time! He’d been walking on the shoulder of a road! For all his sneaking, all his climbing, all his praying, he’d ended up on a BLM service road, pinned in the iron arms of the grid.
He could hear underwater voices and feel heated air, bullets flying past his cheek. He dug for his Beretta and shot wildly at the lights behind him. In the corners of his vision, he could see the pale tulips of muzzle flashes. He kept telling his legs to run, but they were too heavy. He could imagine that he was shot, losing blood, but the pain had not reached his brain yet.
He fell to the ground, his face flat against a powdery swell. He rolled onto his back to see the stars pulsing above. Shafts of light fried out the blackness, but it didn’t matter. The blackness was inside him now, spreading through his cells, seeping into his mind. No noise, no color, no heat was getting through, just blackness within blackness, a roiling withdrawal of his senses. Into this blackness he fled.
Jon Raymond is the author of the novels Freebird, Rain Dragon and The Half-Life, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2004, and the short-story collection Livability, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and winner of the Oregon Book Award. He is also the screenwriter of the film Meek’s Cutoff and cowriter of the films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, both based on his short fiction, and the film Night Moves. He also cowrote the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, winner of five Emmy Awards. Raymond’s writing has appeared in Tin House, Playboy, the Village Voice, Bookforum, Artforum, and other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon.