“Hymn of the Cherubim” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
When I woke up, I was on the ground in the middle of a forest. I sat up quickly and swept the area with my eyes. I was surrounded by trees on my left and right and the ground was dotted with orange and red leaves sticking to the wet ground. A few meters ahead of me was a clear lake with more trees beyond it. I must have been in the woods with the storm cellar. Which meant the bird man could be nearby.
I jumped to my feet and saw a wooden shed a stone’s throw away and sprinted into it. It was the size of a port-a-potty and nearly pitch black. I should’ve been afraid of rats, squirrels, or worse being inside, but I was more afraid of that bird man flying through and finding me outside. I held Three’s gun and it wobbled in my fingers as fear racked my body like a rattle.
I sat there in the shed for what must have been an hour and nothing changed. The bird man didn’t come.
I breathed a heavy sigh then looked at Three’s gun. I remembered shooting him and a sick feeling sank into my gut. I tossed the gun out of the shed and it hit the ground with a thud. Then, as I sat there, after the most harrowing several hours of my life, all of my emotions came crashing down on top of me. The fear from being hunted. The grief from shooting my brother with rejection. The horror from being attacked by that bird man. I hugged my knees to my face and sobbed into my thighs until my pants were damp with my tears.
About ten minutes into my crying, I heard a soft rustling outside and held my breath. Someone was there. But I didn’t dare lift my head or make a sound.
“Don’t be afraid,” a voice said. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”
I kept holding my breath, hoping that whoever this was didn’t actually know I was there.
“They call me the Gunsmith,” he went on. “I’m the one who made your gun and gave it to you when you were born.”
I kept my head buried into my legs and didn’t respond.
“Why don’t you come out?” the Gunsmith asked me. “The view’s a lot better out here.”
I kept my head buried in silence. I heard him brush the ground with his foot before sitting down outside the shed. Why was he here? What did he want? Couldn’t he get the hint that I wanted to be left alone? That I couldn’t be around people? That I couldn’t be trusted?
“Are you afraid the bird man will come back?” he asked me.
My ears perked up. How did he know about that? Was he on his team? Had the bird man sent him to find me?
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not with him.”
I allowed myself a soft sigh of relief. Then I slowly nodded to answer his question.
“There’s something else too, isn’t there?” he asked.
I swallowed, but said nothing.
“You’re afraid of what you’ll do next.”
I hugged myself tighter, hoping to somehow squeeze more silence into the shed so I wouldn’t have to hear him.
Then, as if he was finally getting the hint, I heard him stand up and walk away. Was he leaving? I slowly lifted my head and saw him standing on the shore of the lake, looking down at the water. He was tall and wearing a blazing white shirt with equally blazing white pants, like they were made out of light. His skin was dark, a little darker than mine, and his hair was white and fluffy. I watched as he stared into the water and he started laughing. What was he looking at? What could possibly be so interesting inside a stupid lake?
“You should really come and see this!” he called to me over his shoulder.
I swallowed nervously. This was a trap. It had to be. Why would some random guy want to come out here in the middle of nowhere just to go fish watching with me?
So I sat there defiantly, rocking back and forth. But he went on laughing at whatever he was looking at. And eventually, my curiosity got the best of me. I slowly crawled out of the shed, looked both ways to make sure the bird man was nowhere in sight, then sprinted to the Gunsmith’s side. When I got there, I looked into the water, secretly eager to see what mysterious creature had been making him laugh. Instead, I saw my own reflection staring back at me.
A blanket of disappointment fell over my shoulders and I lowered my head. Not only did I feel stupid for letting this guy trick me, but my face was the last thing I wanted to see right now. Not after what I’d done. I was about to turn and walk back to the shed, but the Gunsmith waved his hand over the water like he was about to cast a spell. When he did, the surface shimmered and my reflection vanished. In its place, I saw myself in my apartment, seconds after Nine shot me. I watched the scene play out in the water like the lake had become a rippling television screen. I saw myself swinging onto the fire escape then rushing down until I made it to the street.
“That was really good form,” the Gunsmith said.
I kept watching as I sprinted through the intersection, but looked away right before I shot Three. I waited a few seconds when I knew that moment had passed then looked back in the water to see myself running through the woods. I made it to the panic room underground then watched as a man in a hood shot the keypad outside the storm cellar. The keypad burst with sparks and within seconds, the storm cellar doors slid open. Wait…who was that?
I watched him walk through the hall, shooting down each of the keypads until he made it to me. Except he didn’t appear behind me like I had remembered. The doors just opened and he grabbed me and slammed me into the wall. And there was no beak. No talons. And no wings.
“I’m confused…” I said. “I thought…I thought he was a…”
“Fear has a way of changing the things we see,” the Gunsmith told me.
I stared into the water as it shimmered again and my reflection returned. Then I remembered Nine shooting me. That Uzi had been loaded with fear bullets. How had I not realized that had been twisting what I saw?
“I was so scared,” I breathed.
“I know,” the Gunsmith said. “But you don’t have to be anymore.”
“Because the bird man isn’t real?”
“No, he is,” the Gunsmith said. “But so am I. And no matter where you go and no matter what you do, I will be able to find you. You will always be safe.”
I looked down at the ground and felt a strange warmth in me at hearing that. But then a thought occurred to me.
“What about Three? That really happened, didn’t it?”
The Gunsmith nodded and the blanket of disappointment wrapped itself tighter around me, this time around my neck so I was choking on my fear of myself. I had shot my own brother with rejection. Who could trust someone like me?
“Everything’s gonna be fine,” the Gunsmith said.
“No, it won’t,” I said, fighting back tears. “Three will never forgive me for this.”
“Are you gonna get revenge on Nine for shooting you?”
“No,” I replied without missing a beat.
“Neither is Three.”
“This is different,” I disagreed. “Nine shot me. I know he didn’t mean it. But I shot Three. So now he’s gonna come after me. He has no reason to trust me ever again.” I lowered my head and frowned at my reflection in the water. “I’m the worst sister ever.”
“No one else thinks that,” the Gunsmith said.
“Why do you think Nine came to you when he was in trouble?”
I opened my mouth to prove him wrong, but ended up with nothing to say.
“You’re smarter than you think,” he told me. “You’re stronger than you feel. And you’re braver than you know.” Then he pulled an Uzi from apparently out of nowhere and held it out to me in one hand and a magazine in the other. I read the inscription on the magazine and my heart fluttered. I wasn’t sure if it was out of hope or anxiety. The word engraved on it was TRUST.
“You can trust yourself,” the Gunsmith told me.
I looked at the Uzi and the magazine then at my reflection in the lake. All of this had been in my head this whole time. How could I trust myself after that? But what if the Gunsmith was right? What if I really was better than I realized?
I took a deep breath and grabbed the Uzi and the magazine. Then I loaded it, turned it so it was facing my chest, and looked at the Gunsmith.
Original artwork by Andrea Ng