Cleansing

Carolyn O'Hearn


How long had they been walking?


There was really no way to tell. The landscape around them was flat and gray, showing not a hint of dirt or grass. There was not a single rock or feature to mark the passage of distance. They simply walked because there was nothing else to do.


Her companion had been mercifully silent for the last few minutes and Natalie knew she had better enjoy the quiet while it lasted. She refused to let herself look at him, because she already knew what she'd see; young man, mid-twenties, handsome, and still carrying the bullet she'd unloaded into his face less than forty-eight hours ago.


"We were going to get married in a garden." His voice was low and carried an echo of regret.


"Stop." She crossed her arms over her chest to hide the wetness from her stomach from spreading over her shirt.


"Proposed to her in the park where we had our first date. Emily cried when I pulled out the ring."


"Will you shut the hell up?" She shouted, "I don't want to hear your fucking voice!"


What exactly happened? There was Bud. Some fight at a rest stop, and then…


THEN. THEN. THEN. It all came roaring back. Literally roaring like a tidal wave.


Almost got back on the road. Bud gives our fake names, cover story. Almost made it out to the car? Then. Then. Then. Conscience—remember, that thing you thought you left back at that gas station?—it caught up with you. Tap one of the cops on the shoulder and say


"Get me away from him and I'll tell you everything."


Somehow Bud has one of their guns. Screams "BITCH!" Then next? Gutshot on the tile. See one of the coppers nail Bud in the chest and he drops. Ambulance sirens, then darkness like falling asleep.
She lowered her arms from her stomach and looked at them. They came away red.


Died. I died.


The shock of the revelation must not have shown on the outside, because the young man tilted his head, considering her last statement. His right lower eyelid was gone. Directly beneath the eyeball was ripped, red flesh and a dark, wet hole.


"You want me to shut up? That why you shot me?"


She'd said it to him so many times before, sometimes crying, sometimes groveling, every time sincere, yet each time he just looked at her, then continued his laments and her torment.


"I'm sorry! Ok? If I could go back in a machine and stop myself, I would in a heartbeat! If I could die again, I'd kill myself if I thought it would do you any good! Is that what you want from me?" She was half sobbing, half screaming.


Both of them had ceased to walk and now faced each other.


"Sorry doesn't bring me back to Emily." The flatness of his voice and the lack of emotion he'd shown so far sparked her guilt and sorrow into rage. "Not to my parents or my sister, or my friends, or anybody. I am dead because of you, and there is nothing you can do to make that right."


"Fuck you!" She let it all loose. "I'm not the idiot who pulled a taser on Bud! If you'd kept your fucking head down we would've let you be!"


Something shifted. The look in his eyes was no longer so blank."Was that his name? That murderer of yours? I saw him kill that poor woman!" The first traces of anger crept into his voice. Good. Now they were having a good old-fashioned argument. "I didn't know what else he was going to do!"


It was true, Bud had screwed up the gas station. I was supposed to just be another stickup. Scare the cashier into giving up the money in the register. She did without question once the gun was pointed at her face. Then he got greedy. He wanted the money in the safe. Weeping, she told him she didn't have the code. He kept threatening her, all the while Natalie was screaming at him to forget it and get to the car.


And suddenly Natalie is reliving that night.


He gives up on the safe and starts demanding a gold bracelet on her left wrist. This order she refuses. Maybe it's a memento or a gift from someone she loves. Whatever reason, Natalie recalls feeling through her adrenaline rush that there is something wrong about this. She could rationalize their other crimes as acts of love, but somehow taking this poor, scared girl's bracelet is where she draws the line.


Then events begin to jump, like a succession of slides. Bud reaches out to grab the girl's wrist. She knocks his hand away and seizes the opportunity to reach for the gun. Jump.


Simply a red spray where her head used to be. Jump.


A thump behind the counter as she falls. Natalie thinks she hears Bud scream, but that isn't possible. Bud's a man; he never screams.


The young man enters the scene here. He had previously been taking cover behind a shelf of chips with his friend, cowering the moment Bud and Natalie brought out the guns. Yet now he stands, perhaps powered by some chivalrous rage or visions of heroic glory. Out comes a stun gun, and the spiderlike claw latches onto Bud's back.


No amount of blind worship can fool Natalie. Now Bud is screaming. Like the cashier's corpse, he hits the floor. The only thing Natalie recalls from this moment is the way Bud, the man she thinks she loves, twitches across the floor. She thinks the young man is getting ready to charge her and take her gun next. He never gets a chance. Her mind goes red.


Then?


THEN.


The boy is on the ground, knocked onto his back from the shot. (Had she meant to hit his face, or just to fire into the air?) His friend is sprinting away from the store and Natalie is firing out the open door after him. He gets away.


Bud has stopped twitching. White drool (or vomit?) spills from his lips. Every one of Natalie's movements seems to be automatic. She stoops to liit his heavy mass off the floor.
"Bud? Baby, up. We've got to go. Up."


He mumbles something, and tries to prop a leg under his torso only to have it slip.


Now she screams. "Move!" The only order she will ever dare to give him in her life.


Somehow they reach the car. Somehow Natalie reaches the highway without the police showing up. She drives for half a day, knowing they will have to ditch the car soon, but not able to think of anything deeper than that.


Finally Bud, back to full power it seems, commands her to stop. His voice seems to be quivering with quiet rage.


At the next exit, they leave the car in a train station parking lot and steal another one. Before he drives off, he turns to her in the passenger seat and slaps her across the face. Why? Because she had seen him weak. She had seen him defeated and had pulled his ass out of the fire. Because he is angry at himself and she is a convenient target.


"That never happened, do you hear me? Never happened."


For a moment, everything they have done is thrown into sharp relief for Natalie. The full gravity of the situation hits her; she has killed a man. A person's head was blown off right in front of her. Two people are dead, and for what? A Bonnie and Clyde fantasy? She can see beyond the immediate as well. She can see why she chose to follow Bud on his spree. Because he loved her when she didn't think anyone could. Because he took her out of her father's house. Because he acted like he was in control. For a moment, she can see it all.


But only for a moment, and a moment is not enough. It will take three more days for this idea to fester in her head. And when she tries to stop the beast she helped unleash? Gutshot.


Then she is back in the gray with the boy she murdered.


"Why are we here?" She asked, "Is this hell or something?"


"Why would I be in hell? I've never done anything wrong."


"Except get involved in a robbery." She snarled.


"I doubt I'd get sent to hell for being stupid. Maybe I'm just here to make sure you suffer."


"So you get tortured in the meantime? That makes no sense. If you were really such a good person, you'd be far away from me right now."


"I don't feel any pain here. Only regret." Now he seems to be looking past her, off into the distance of that flat featureless plain. "I can see it all mapped out before me, you know? The life me and Emily would have lived. I can see our wedding, our children. I can see us growing old together. But I'll never have any of it."
When Natalie was younger, she had once seen a play called No Exit. The idea was there were three people trapped in a room in hell whose personalities clashed in just such a way that they constantly tormented each other. Towards the end of the play, one of the characters had broken down and screamed "Hell is other people!" Was it something like that on a lesser scale, perhaps? Her destiny to be confronted with her crimes, and his to be confronted with the consequences of his carelessness? Maybe he was right. Maybe it was torture, a fire burning them from from the inside.


But maybe not hellfire. Perhaps...


"What's your name?" She finally asks.


"Will."


"Natalie."


"Can't say I'm happy to have met you."


"I tried to make it right at the end. I really did."


He turned from her face. "We might as well keep walking."


Was redemption waiting anywhere out there? Something beyond this gray? It was this thought that kept them walking, kept their feet moving through the guilt and the pain.


But oh, the fires of purgatory burned so hot.

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