Tim Millas lives with Susan and Clare in New York and Florida. His stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Adirondack Review, The Battered Suitcase, Confrontation, Eclectica, Exquisite Corpse, Gargoyle, Unlikely Stories, and many others. This is his third story to appear in Amarillo Bay. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Making the IED was no big deal. All you needed was a hardware store and the Internet. Any idiot could do it. Lonny Baum, who had lately realized that he was an idiot, built his first in seven hours. He detonated it in one of the woodier spots in Central Park. Despite the commanding Thrack! and the tree bowing down, nobody seemed to notice. The second one went faster, three hours start to finish.
The next morning, he strapped it around his waist. With his shirt on you didn't see anything, since at forty-two he was already pear-shaped; and his second wife didn't look at him anyway when he entered the bedroom.
"Melora." No answer. She went on painting her pinky toe. Melora was towheaded, full-figured with a lingering of baby fat, and looked like a teenager when she sulked. She wanted to get pregnant. Lonny's flesh was willing but his seed, according to the stork doctor, was weak. You're about to die, bitch, he thought—conceive that. All he said was: "Have you seen my keys?" She pointed her other foot at the TV stand, still without looking at him.
The prospect of being blown up didn't daunt him. And for her sulking alone, Melora deserved to be blown up with him. No, Lonny thought as he picked up his keys and left the room, the reason he didn't act was Perky, sitting at the foot of the bed with her paws crossed. She was fifteen, long past perkiness, but met his eyes squarely as he stood there with his hand on the detonator. How could he kill his wife for writing him off yet also kill the only female who accepted him as he was?
No matter. He had all day. He would encounter deserving targets everywhere he went. When he stepped into the elevator, for example, he found Bradley. You son of a bitch, Lonny thought, but said: "Good morning." It took Bradley several heartbeats to respond, not with "Good morning" but a snooty-sounding "Morm."
All Lonny knew of Bradley was what he observed in the elevator—that he lived in the penthouse, dressed like money, and had traded in his first wife for a much younger, gorgeous Asian—but this was enough to make him a source of envy and inspiration. In fact Lonny once credited, and now blamed, Bradley for inspiring his own divorce and marriage to Melora.
So this was the perfect moment to say it out loud—"You son of a bitch, you ruined my life"—and detonate. But, like Melora, Bradley was not looking at him. He was crouched over a stroller, attending to his twins. One screamed as Bradley wiped spit-up off his chin. The other flung his sippy cup, which landed near Lonny's foot.
"Oh just fucking kill me," Bradley said. Then he remembered someone else was in the elevator. His head dipped lower. "Better yet . . . can you get that for me?"
This so startled Lonny that he obeyed. Handed over the cup and even held the elevator door open for Bradley as he pushed stroller and twins into the lobby.
After all, Lonny reasoned when he was on the street, he wasn't about to kill anybody who wanted to be killed. That missed the point.
The point was that he hurt. In every bone, muscle, and thought. To the roots of his soul and his teeth. He had been places and done things, had made some money along the way, had a young wife determined to have his baby, and his life was nothing but hurt.
Nobody would understand this, of course. He would be terrorist or lunatic. He could already see the headline in the Post—"MAD BAUMER STRIKES." It made him wince but he knew it didn't matter.
He knew that he had to control one moment and the fate of someone else.
And this thing against his belly, pulsing like a fetus, ready to burst at a push—it couldn't be right here on the sidewalk, a random target. To give him relief, it had to be someone who hurt him.
This quickened his step to Dr. Marcy's office. A rundown brownstone off Lexington. Priscilla Marcy, Endodontics and Implantation. As usual, the bell wasn't working; Lonny pounded the door.
Finally Dr. Marcy herself opened it: a stout woman with a plain but perennially pleasant, unmarked face. While Lonny was forty-two and looked fifty-five, she must be past sixty and could still pass for forty.
"Hey Doc, my appointment's today, right?"
"Yes, Lonny. Sorry. Bell and receptionist are out of order today. Good to see you."
"I wish the feeling was mutual." He said this every time—it used to be humorous, but today it sounded odd. She laughed just the same.
"Oh, now. This will be a good appointment, you'll see."
And how many times had she said that? It sounded as fresh and true as ever.
His regular dentist sent Lonny to her for his first root canal, and again eight months later, when the tooth had to be replaced by an implant. He was only thirty-five and assumed this tooth was a bad apple. But he had a mouth full of apples. One by one they went rotten. Always the same, mild pain when he bit down, then shooting stars even when his mouth was still, then the root canal and its reprieve, followed by excruciating recurrence, removal, and implantation. A yearlong saga, six years in a row.
Yet Dr. Marcy's work was impeccable, according to Lonny's regular dentist. And every year, despite her shabby office, she made the New York Magazine list of Best Doctors. His teeth were at fault. He couldn't blame her.
So he came to hate her.
His hatred fastened on innocent things, twisted them: her humming, to piped-in Debussy, became the echo of her drill; her framed woodpeckers (she was an avid wood-watcher) pecked at his teeth in dreams; her gentle touch magnified the horror of what she did in his mouth. Worst of all was her nod after checking the root canal, her soft "Looks good": never an over-promise and utterly cruel, considering that every previous one had failed and this one would, too.
And here they were again, halfway through lucky number seven. If you tell me it looks good, he thought as Dr. Marcy adjusted his headrest, you're gone.
Today, perhaps distracted by her lack of a receptionist, she hadn't turned on the music. The room felt empty—he realized the woodpeckers were gone. She took longer than usual over her tool tray. The hand that entered his mouth seemed reluctant. He could barely feel her probes and the hand-mirror never touched his teeth.
Then she finished, but didn't speak. Just gazed at Lonny.
"So Doc? How's it looking?"
"It . . . looks good."
Lonny knew from his first IED that once it was triggered, he could expect a blank moment before the explosion. But now the moment extended. Became a minute. No Thrack! Nothing. Although Dr. Marcy seemed in no hurry to get him out of the chair, Lonny sat up, pushing her aside. "Sorry—need the bathroom."
Once there he pulled up his shirt. It was still strapped to him, but had shifted slightly to the right. Maybe while he was getting into the chair. So his finger had missed the trigger.
He memorized its position and let his shirt fall. In the mirror he saw that he still had on the stupid bib and that his forehead was wet. No paper towels in the dispenser, so he had to wipe away the sweat with toilet paper.
Dr. Marcy was waiting outside the bathroom. "Are you all right?"
"Overactive bladder. Happens at my age."
This made her laugh again. He laughed with her, moved his hand into position. Then she drew his hand away. In it she put a scrap of paper.
"That's the number for Dr. Narayan. If you have any problems with the tooth, call him."
"The time has come, Lonny. I'm retiring."
"Aren't you a little young for that?"
"Thank you"—now giggling so girlishly that she had to hold his wrist for balance—"but I'm sixty-nine. And I'm tired. I can't give my best effort anymore."
"For God's sake," he said, trying to figure out how to get his hand back, "you look a lot better than me."
"You're sweet. But after next week, I won't be here anymore. Moving back to Maryland. But wait—I can't let you go out on the street like that." She released his wrist, reached toward his neck, undid the metal clips, and removed the bib. "There."
"So this is it?"
"You know, I've had thousands of patients. And to most of them I'm just an extension of my equipment. But you, Lonny—you always made me smile, treated me like a human, and for that I'll always remember you."
Then she turned and walked quickly back to the exam room and shut the door.
"For God's sake!" He realized he'd said this a second time. For a second he wondered. He could follow her. But how happy it would make her to die with her favorite patient! No, his repaired tooth was already throbbing, but his best hope now was Firmender.
Midtown. Of course when he called the office—the office that was once his office—the receptionist pretended not to know him and said Firmender was in a meeting. "Tell him Lonny Baum has signed his release and wants to give it to him personally, and pick up his last check." A long silence, then: "I'm sorry Mr. Baum, but Mr. Firmender is tied up in meetings all day. But Mr. Young in Human Resources would be glad to—"
Lonny hung up, got the building management's number from information, and called in a bomb threat. Then he bought Camel cigarettes at the newsstand around the corner and tried to blend in with the other nicotine addicts standing in front of the building. He had never been a smoker. The taste was vile but somehow soothed his tooth.
Alarms sounded. Soon people were trickling, then gushing out the front doors. It took a while—either because Firmender suspected a trick or because he really was in a meeting—but eventually the traitor emerged, and his height made him easy to spot.
Most of the people had come out holding their phones. Firmender held a folder. And while they used the bomb scare to make personal calls, Firmender opened the folder and continued doing what he'd been doing seventeen floors up. A backstabber, but never a malingerer, Lonny had to admit—the man always came in to work.
He smiled, not out of affection, but because Firmender's focus on the folder enabled Lonny to approach without the turncoat noticing.
Though the crowd clustered with elbows and shoulders touching, there was a small space—like a moat created by his aloofness—between Firmender and the next person. Lonny slipped into it. He ditched the cigarette and waited. He wasn't about to ask for the rat's attention.
Firmender did not look up. Unlike Lonny's increasingly sparse locks, his brown-blond hair was full, parted in a distinct straight line. At some point he became aware of Lonny, but his stillness gave no clue when. He simply closed the folder and raised his head. "Lonny. I didn't know you'd come by. Young give you the check?"
"Hello, Will." He bore into Firmender's eyes, but the stone-cold betrayer held his stare with ease. Lonny glanced away. "How's it going?"
"Oh. Meeting Fleugler's CFO. Going over the last quarter. Our numbers are on target, but they want more."
None of this sounded pompous. Firmender never puffed things. He always spoke factually. Although now he added, "That's all they care about, as you well know. Higher margins." From Firmender this was almost comradely. It was the first hint that he might be nervous.
This gave Lonny the confidence to lock eyes with him again. In the sunlight, the other's blue irises seemed to pale. I hired you, you piece of shit, Lonny thought, I gave you your chance, I made you. And how did you thank me? You watched while they destroyed me. No—you helped them. You convinced them that I was worthless.
Yet rather than powering him, these thoughts shot stars of pain through his teeth and his trigger finger. The silence lengthened. Firmender gave no sign that this was anything awkward.
The prick was the best hire Lonny had ever made—he had to admit that, too. From day one he was hard working, efficient, reliable, and always thinking strategically about ways to help the company make more money. It wasn't long before Lonny was letting Firmender do the hiring, manage the day to day. Treating him almost like a partner. And if he always felt a coldness from Firmender, something unknowable, he could overlook it. The man took so much work off his hands.
Which allowed Lonny the time to plan his next life. To believe he could follow the Bradley template. He could shop the company, obtain terms of sale that would enable him to never feel the pressure of work again. He could divorce his wife and remarry, trading up to a hot young girl with bigger breasts and no boundaries about sex.
But his hot young girl became an obsessed wannabe mother. Lonny had his vasectomy reversed, but couldn't get her pregnant. Melora castigated him, and then, worse, ignored him. So he turned back to work for comfort, and found none: The new owners figured out that the one really running the business was Firmender—who never trashed Lonny, but made no effort to prop him up either. Within a year Lonny was told he was no longer needed. In fact, it was Firmender who told him.
Suddenly, as if by a giant vacuum, the crowd was sucked back into the building, leaving just the two of them. "So where's Young? Did you lose him?" Firmender glanced around.
"I didn't come here for Young." He liked the way he said this. But pain struck again, making him jam his other hand into the side of his face.
"You OK? Toothache?"
"Root canal. My seventh. Soon to be my seventh implant."
"Ah, root canals and implants. Better known as dentists printing money. Why don't you just have it pulled?"
"Well, my dentist tells me we have to try to save the tooth—"
"Yeah, right, don't you love that 'we'? It's your fucking mouth. And just another fee for them."
Lonny had never heard Firmender so passionate. He must have shown his surprise, because Firmender said, "Lonny, I've been there. Believe me, it's better to have them out."
"You have false teeth?"
"Every one of them. This isn't my hair either, by the way. And I have a stent in my chest. That's what two ex-wives and five kids will do to you."
He's pleading with me, Lonny thought suddenly.
"You don't believe me, do you?" Firmender dropped the folder, reached into his mouth, and removed the entire bottom row of his teeth. Then he seized his hair and, with a clicking sound, yanked it off his head, revealing a scalp that was totally bald other than metal snaps imbedded in four places. "There. Put them in every morning, take 'em out every night."
He extended the teeth and the perfectly parted hair toward Lonny. Lonny stumbled back and closed his eyes. He walked blind and only opened up again when he stepped heavily off the curb. A horn blared, a car just missed him. Lonny climbed onto the sidewalk and looked back. Firmender was gone, although in his haste he had left the folder behind.
"For God's sake!" Lonny walked over, picked up the folder, and gave it to one of the security guys in the lobby. Then, hurting in every atom, he walked, slowly, all the way home. Other faces, names occurred to him—the stork doctor, for one—but he couldn't summon the strength. Even with a bomb strapped to you, he thought, you're impotent.
No you're not, a voice in him said.
When he entered, he could hear her in the bedroom, talking on the phone. He told himself it would be fitting for him to do it in the bedroom.
First he took Perky, who had greeted him, and locked her out of the apartment. He positioned his hand, and opened the bedroom door.
Melora screamed—in terror, he assumed—when she saw him.
"Lonny! The clinic just called! We're having a baby!"
Before he could react she had flung her arms around him, pressed hard against him, which pressed his finger into the trigger. But the blank moment lingered, offering hope: Was it possible that he'd missed again—
No. It was not.