Her murder's bounty roared like a dragon in her hands, snapping her wrists back to vertical and spewing a veil of heavy white smoke. Once, twice, three times she pulled the trigger, wincing and shaking and loosing each burst with more determination than the last, because horrible, terrible things would happen if she stopped. A dozen and a half or more rounds she loosed, the speed and violence of the reports melding into a series of stuttering blasts beyond her counting. But she knew immediately that her line of thinking had been correct; she was no marksman, and she'd sent more than a couple shots straight into the air, but she could see Steven turning and staggering and finally falling as the law of averages did its work.
And now he gurgled on the ground, shooting goosebumps up and down her arms. It was hard to tell when or where her shots had found their mark, but now streaks and puddles blossomed up and down his huddled frame like flowers opening up to full bloom in fast motion before melting disturbingly away. How had she come to this? came the dull though amongst his dying throes. Days earlier - not even a whole freaking week - there was no question of which side of the fence she stood on, because the argument of murdering or being murdered didn't even exist. And then she'd come to a sudden fork and gone barreling straight down one path with no hesitation, the path that saw her standing with palms sore from the recoil of her gun, breathing in the lingering pall of sulfur that stuck to her clothes, listening to Steven Salazar breathing his last.
She strode slowly toward him, daring not to tear her eyes away for the briefest instant. She couldn't do the disrespect of shying from the sight that was a mere shred of his suffering. There were bubbles in the ooze around his chest. He convulsed as he tried to breathe, found himself choking on his own lifegiving blood. The first time she'd seen a former acquaintance, a would-be friend, dying in broad daylight. The first time she'd done it so coldly, so calculated. Hadn't used impending terror to force herself through the nerves. There wasn't a word she could call it other than wretched.
Steven's life ebbed away before her, and Katarina found herself standing all alone in the garden. She stepped the remaining distance, stared down at the body. Made herself reach out, poke his chest with her toe. He'd died, and she'd done it, and she soaked up every second of it. She flicked a finger back over her forehead to calm her stomach. She brought her foot back. No reason not to. It was just a body. Swung it forward, kicked him - it - in the gut. There you go. No reaction, but to flop like the inanimate object it was. A smear of blood on her boot. There'd be worse before the end. She turned her eyes on his bag. There would be food in it. That's what she'd wanted, wasn't it? What she'd decided under that tree. She'd get some food somehow, and Steven had rolled up and she'd decided she could squeeze out some intel while she was at it. What he and the people like him wanted in their insane quests, how to protect herself against it. Get a little practice in. Meet up with the other handful of bedraggled souls at the end and say she'd left her reservations about pulling the trigger in the past. That was what she'd wanted.
Any way you sliced it, the meeting had been a resounding success.
She busied herself collecting the essentials from his bag. A few bandages, just in case of course. Some food. No weapon she could see. Probably chucked it away, back when he was a person that walked and talked and breathed, she figured. He'd be the type for that. And then she had an idea and she turned up the bag and dumped everything out but kept the pile in her arms. The last things he'd owned spilled out. Some small possessions. His clothing. The bag itself and supplies she'd keep. The rest she'd leave behind. She was scavenging what she wanted and leaving his underwear in a pile by his body, because she didn't feel like stealing it.
And so she stood and turned and she had to stifle a sudden laugh, because it was so surreal. One thing had lead directly into another, an unbroken chain of events where she'd marched knowingly forward, and yet she'd slipped by that process into such an alien world. So much suffering and death around her, and she danced above it all like the people on that Japanese gameshow she'd watched a few times, where they tried to run across a pound and half the rocks were real and half of them sent the contestants plunging into the water if they tried to put their weight on them. It wasn't the first analogy she thought might spring to mind, but it rang true all the same. One misstep would do it, and there she was already lamenting her misfortune. Maybe she hadn't fallen yet, but she had to keep it forefront in her mind. Because if she let the tiniest weakness show, deviated from the course she knew best, second-guessed her judgement for a second, she'd seen exactly what awaited her.
Horrible things awaited her on that path. Terrible, atrocious things. But she felt a twisted sort of comfort in herself, in her ability to bear it out and make the correct decisions. Because she knew that when the next hurdle rose before her, the next dilemma and then and the next and the next, that the horrors she faced by any action had to compete with the shots and screams still echoing in her ears.
((Katarina Konipaski continued in It Looks Good on Paper