Christopher Cosmos was raised in the Midwest and attended the University of Michigan as the recipient of a Chick Evans Scholarship. He’s an author and Black List-screenwriter whose debut novel, ONCE WE WERE HERE, was published on October 28th, 2020, and is now available from Arcade and Simon & Schuster. More information can be found at www.christophercosmos.com.
Before much longer, I’m going to know what it’s like to take a life. Either that, or I’ll have mine taken from me in return. I never thought that I would be here, in this place, as I thought tragedy like this was something that was reserved exclusively for people who weren’t me, or anyone that I know, or that I’d ever met. But here I am. I’ll explain how. Three days ago I was sitting in my office on the 23rd floor of the Boeing Headquarters at 100 North Riverside Plaza across from the downtown loop when the plain-clothes officers showed up at my door. They came without warning and I didn’t know who they were. They asked if they could come in, and then when they did and they sat down they told me about my brother and his assignment in Rio de Janeiro to take photographs of the new president at his second inauguration, but he’d gone to Caracas first, or maybe instead, and to La Fiesta de Corpus Christi and then they told me about the government and current state of affairs in Venezuela. But I don’t listen to any of that until they explain how all the power in the city had gone off, something far too common in recent months, and that’s when it had happened, they think. They told me that they think he’d been lured to an apartment by a woman he’d met at the festival, and that sounded about right – because women had always loved my brother, and he’d loved them – but now he’s gone and because he’s gone I know I won’t be able to think about the best memories my life anymore. I won’t be able to think about all the times we were young, because when we were young was when we were together, and I won’t be able to think about any of that anymore because if I do I’ll picture his lifeless eyes staring blankly up and into the sky in some strange place and strange city that’s not his and not where he’s supposed to be or end as his life seeps out, out and away, and then disappears. I always thought there was too little of my blood in this world. And now… now, there’s even less. The men keep talking. I don’t really hear the words, but they say them anyways, then they leave. I’m given a week of leave from work for family hardship and I don’t know what to do with the time, so I decide to drive home. I haven’t been to Westphalia, where I grew up, since my father died and we sold his house, so I have nowhere to go, I just drive. Up and down Main Street, I go, and then back again. I go past my first dentist, the bar where I had my second legal drink, the corner where I had my third kiss, and the new BBQ joint next to the fourth-best antique shop where five months ago my father ordered us both brisket and soggy macaroni and cornbread and told me about the cancer in his lungs and that he was dying. I shake my head. I shake my head to try to clear my thoughts. There was once life here, but I just see death now. I see death everywhere. My home’s no longer my home, I realize, my brother’s no longer my brother, I’ve just learned, and so what am I supposed to do? I’d asked the officers before they left if the police in Caracas had caught the men who’d killed him, or had any leads, and I now remember something that they’d said when I thought I wasn’t listening, but I suppose maybe I was: they’d told me that while many think of Caracas and Venezuela as a tropical paradise, it’s also currently the most dangerous city in the world, with widespread corruption in police and government, and an estimated total of 98% of homicides and crimes go unsolved, they told me. No possessions had been recovered from his body and so the case was being filed as a robbery turned homicide, and it would soon be closed, if it hadn’t been already. So that’s going to be it, they’d said. It’s over now, they’d told me. There’s nothing else to be done. I know I’m supposed to accept that, and to go on, but the only thing is… I’m not sure I can; I’m not sure if I know how.
This could be a story about grief. This could very easily just be a story about tragedy and grief, but I’m determined to not let it be, and I know there’s only one way for that to happen, and for me to be able to keep living. I know there’s only one way for me to not see death anymore, everywhere that I go, in everything that I feel, and that’s to take control of death myself. That’s what I think and the excuse that I make (though, is it really an excuse if it’s the truth?) when I buy the first-class ticket that I can’t afford, and that’s what I think again when I land at Simon Bolivar International Airport and take a taxi to Sucre Municipality Police Station where the murder had been called in and processed. The Detective who speaks with me – Detective Sarcos, according to the name-plate on his desk – speaks in near-perfect English, which is good, because I only took two semesters of Spanish from Ms. Gillespie in tenth grade and I don’t remember any of it. “The case is now closed,” he tells me, in a matter-of-fact tone. And I tell him that’s not good enough, which is what I’ve come all the way here to tell him. I tell him that I have money, and that I’ll pay them to continue the investigation. I tell him that someone must have seen it, someone must know something – the owner of the apartment, a person on the street, someone – and there must be more that can be done. And I’ll pay whatever they ask, I tell him, but my offer of money doesn’t have the result that I think it will have as his eyes don’t change, his lips don’t move, even in this economically ravaged country where people have to bring bills by the wheelbarrow to the store just to buy bread and milk, the same as they did in the Weimar Republic and who knows when and where else. I find it strange for a moment, and then I don’t, because I know why, and that this isn’t America and justice isn’t the same thing here, is it? Or maybe it is, but everything here is just less hidden, carried out with less pretense, less ceremony, less paper-work, less lip-service, and certainly less attorney fees. “You’re very aggressive for a woman,” the Detective smiles. And even before I hear his words, I already know that this is going nowhere, so I stand to leave, and turn towards the door – away from Detective Sarcos’ desk and office – and when I do, that’s then when I see it: A vintage submariner, made of gold, with a small chip above noon. It takes the breath from me. It’s my father’s watch, the one that he wore in the 70’s during his service in Vietnam and that he gave to my brother when he turned twenty-one and told him to never take off until he gave it to his own son on the same day. But now here it was, a world away from all of that, and on the wrist of a man that my father never intended it to know. The police had told me twice that nothing had been recovered from Jacob’s body, but here was his watch, unmistakably his watch, which should be my watch, and now in an instant I know why I came, and for what reason. I rush towards the man, and I yell, but I’m caught and pulled back. He turns to look at me, and I see his face. I’ll learn later that his name is Diego, but right now all I see are his sunken dark eyes, his hollow cheeks, his pointed features, his sharp chin, his peaked hair. I see him realize who I am and why I’m here, and then I see him laugh at me, deep and mocking and from his belly, and then he just laughs even more as I struggle and am hauled out of the station, thrown back out onto the street, and then I’m calm again as soon as they leave, after they’ve told me not to return, and to go back to America – to forget about them, and Venezuela, and Caracas – and I’m calm again now because I know I’ll need the rage and the anger later. I know I’ll need later all that I’m now feeling inside. And these men that I’ve just seen, these men who I now know and have seen their faces and learned their names, they should know one thing about me, too, about the woman that they’ve just thrown out of their station and told is too aggressive and to not think of them anymore. They should know that I’ve been cursed with memory. They should know this, just this one thing about me… But they don’t. And I’m glad, for the first time in my life, that I’m someone who never forgets. So this, then, I realize, as I nod… this will now be how it begins.
I wait outside the station and I follow Diego when he leaves. He walks with other officers from the precinct and they go through the winding and small streets of Caracas that climb up the mountains that rim the city in beneath them. He goes past the old women that are doing laundry in horse-tubs filled with soapy lukewarm water on the cobblestone, and past the children playing full-contact soccer with a ball constructed from discarded waste and rubber-banded together, bouncing irregularly along the uneven and ancient path. And I follow them as they finally come to an open-air bar, one of the only vibrant and full places that I’ve seen since I’ve landed here, with a sign that says “La Mariposa” hanging over it. I hide near the building, far enough across the street to not be noticed, but close enough to hear as Diego talks to his friends – his friends that slap him on the back as he orders a cuba libre – and I don’t know much Spanish, as I’ve already said, but I know enough to hear them call him Diego and that’s how I learn his name and where he likes to drink after work. I have what I need, so now it’s time to get ready. I leave. I go back through the city, the same way I came. The soccer game that I passed has ended now and the boys are all going their separate ways and I stop one of them, one who looks at me with wide and curious eyes – I’d guess that he’s never seen an American before, except perhaps on TV, and even then, I suppose, there’s probably a chance that he hasn’t – and I tell him what I’m looking for, and when I do his eyes go even wider. But he doesn’t say no, or anything else similar or negative, and I’m surprised when he motions for me to follow after him, looking quickly over his shoulder, to make sure that we’re alone, and I do as he asks. I follow him. He leads me down an alley. Then he takes me through a small, unmarked door. We go into a cramped courtyard that’s on the other side of the door and that’s where his uncle’s sitting on a chest and using a machete to split the tops off a pile of coconuts that are stacked beside him. I tell Uncle in English that I want to buy a gun, and I know he understands what I’ve asked because he gets up and opens the lid to the chest that he’s sitting on and I look inside to find all that I’ve been searching for: automatic rifles, pistols, rusted grenades, cracked scopes, home-made silencers. I point to one of the pistols and Uncle takes it out and tells me a price in Spanish that I don’t understand, so I just reach into my pocket and give him all the money that I have there, and I don’t ask for change, and in return he doesn’t ask anything further either. I book a motel room nearby, the first one that I see when I leave. And when I go to my room, I lay on the bed, but I just lay there… I don’t sleep. I stare at the fan that’s above me and I listen to the soft hum that it makes as it goes around, around, around and I think about what I’m going to do, about what’s going to come, and then soon it’s morning and it’s time to go because it’s now time for the end, for him, for me, for everything, and especially for the pain, the sleepless nights, the ache in my heart and the now-hardened edges and depths of my battered and broken soul. I’ve seen his face, and I’ve heard his voice. He who did this to my soul. And soon now, very soon now… it’ll be my turn to do the same to his.
I wonder if he has children, a wife, a family, but I realize that I don’t care, because if he does, he shouldn’t, and besides… that’s what he took from me, and doesn’t a life deserve an equal life in return? I stop just short of hoping that he has all these things, and then I put it out of my mind as immaterial as I watch him leave the police precinct again in late afternoon, with the sun now setting over Pico Naiguatá in the distance and above us as he walks through the streets. He reaches “La Mariposa” and orders his cuba libre with his friends again and I watch the women that now come to them, too – the women who are very clearly there for one single reason, of which they have no choice in the matter – and these men are also clearly going to be happy to oblige them of their forced trade. And I’m surprised that I feel nothing as I watch this and then I take the pistol from where I’ve been holding it at my side. I look both ways, then start to walk across the street, towards “La Mariposa” and the man called Diego, the man that’s wearing my brother’s watch, my father’s watch, then-- I feel hands. They grab me, tightly, from behind. I try to yell but my mouth is smothered by the hands that grab me and I’m pulled backwards towards the alley by arms that are stronger than my arms, and then we’re there, and we’re alone, and the hands leave my mouth and I spin around to see who it is that’s behind me and I realize that I recognize him. I don’t know his name. But I saw him. He was at the police precinct, too. He tells me to be quiet, but I still struggle, so he pulls me further from where Diego and his friends drink and he asks if I know who it is that I was about to kill, and I tell him of course I do, it’s Diego, and he killed my brother, and that’s when he tells me who Diego really is, who his father is, who his brother is, and that his last name is Vibora. But I don’t care, and I tell this man that I don’t care because I didn’t come here to Caracas for life, I came here to Caracas for death, and he tells me that I’m a fool and then the anger rises again, it rises from deep within, clenching and unclenching in spasmatic bursts, but before anything else can happen, and before anything else can come, the power shuts off. Everywhere in the city, every light, every appliance, every last bit of it. I think of him again, I see him again. I see his eyes, staring up, I see his blood, escaping, disappearing. Then there’s shouting around me, scrambling, running for shelter and cover, and when I turn back to “La Mariposa” I’m angry when I see that Diego’s now gone. “Let’s go,” the man says, and it’s not a question. “We need to get inside, too.” I remember, I remember again. I remember my brother, and where, and how he was killed. “What’s your name?” I ask the man. He looks deep into my eyes with his own, dark and brown and kind and broken, and I’m surprised to find that they answer as many questions as they ask. “Edgar,” he tells me. And then he pulls me after him, and this isn’t a question either, and we leave.
There are gunshots in the distance, then closer, then all around. Edgar takes me to his motorbike and we get on without helmets and there’s not quite enough room for the both of us comfortably, but it’ll work, and he starts to drive. I see the looting, the crime, the lawlessness that overtakes this city when the power shuts off as it does once, twice, maybe even five times during the week, and then I see the military in the middle of it all, too, looting and stealing as much as any citizen, and often even more. I tell Edgar to take me to my hotel and I try to remember the name of it but he tells me that it isn’t safe, not even with a key and a locked door, and so we keep driving, through the night, heading north and west along the base of the Cordillera de La Costa, our path illuminated only by the moon, and soon I can smell salt and taste it on my lips, too. Then, soon after that, we’re at his house. We park the motorbike and we go inside and he gives me a glass of water and as I drink I ask him about the outages and he tells me how they can last for days at a time, sometimes even longer, and that’s when the army takes over the city and murders all the enemies of state that have accumulated since the last blackout and when he sees my eyes, and all the questions that are in them once again, he tells me more about his country because he can see that this is injustice and corruption on a scale that an American like me just doesn’t understand. So he tells me about their President, and his corrupt regime, and the President’s opponent, who lost an unfair election but still won’t give up and has been recognized by the United States and Great Britain and so many other Western powers as legitimate until new elections can be held, but inside Venezuela, he still has no power, because he doesn’t have the military. Edgar tells me how inflation has now reached ten million percent this year. He tells me how the people can’t eat, they can’t work, they can’t do anything. And he also tells me the reason. He tells me about the policies of the current regime and how the government of their country has become the biggest cartel in the southern hemisphere and even given a name, Cartel de los Soles – the Cartel of the Sun – and in Caracas and Venezuela they’re in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis in the history of the modern West, but no one cares, no one listens, and I’m ashamed because I came here and I had no idea what was happening, either, I just came for one reason, one reason that I almost finished. But I didn’t. And I haven’t finished it yet because he stopped me, and now here I am with him, this man with the motorbike and the house by the sea and the police badge that’s pinned to the belt of his jeans, and as I look at it again, I wonder what’s next. I look outside. I see the beach and the wind kicking up waves in the Caribbean. It’s paradise here, but it’s also death. And so am I. I’m death, too. Edgar tells me that it’s late and it’s time for sleep now and he gives me his bed and he goes to the couch and I want to protest but he’ll have none of my words. I watch him settle in on the couch and close his eyes and then, with nothing else left, I go to the bed that’s his bed and as soon as I do, I close my eyes, too, and it’s not long after that until everything again goes dark.
When I wake, I find that my pistol’s gone. I see a table set on the patio with breakfast already made and Edgar’s sitting there, too, and when he sees me he motions for me to come and join him. He has two glasses of fresh coconut milk and a large plate of sliced fruit for us to share there in the bright and early tropical sun. I ask him about my gun, and where it’s gone, and after he finishes eating he then motions for me to follow him, and we start to walk, away from his house. We walk through the thick and heavy sand that’s always soggy and wet from the humid air and we go down towards the sea. We get there and then when we do we walk along the edge of the water, the sand still heavy under-foot here, too, and after we walk for a few more paces, Edgar tells me that he put my gun in his safe. I begin to protest, but as soon as I do, he stops me. Why? Why would he do that? “You know why I’m here,” I tell him. “I do,” he answers. “But there’s also something else, something else that you need to know, before you do this.” “And what’s that?” I ask. He’s silent for a moment. He’s silent, and then… he tells me. He tells me again who Diego is, who his father is, who his brother is, and who they are in this city, and if what he tells me is supposed to scare me – the criminal empire that his family runs, the power that they have, over everything that happens in Caracas and in Venezuela – it doesn’t, because like I’ve said, so many times now, I didn’t come here for life, I came here for death. But Edgar tells me that this is bigger than that, because taking a life is something that’s more than life and death, it’s eternity, and I should think about that. I think I have, but he tells me no, I haven’t, but I need to, that’s what I now need to do. “I’ll help you do this,” he finally tells me, very slowly. “But only if it’s really what you want, and only if you really understand what will happen when it comes.” I begin to speak again, but he cuts me off, and he tells me that it’s not a decision to be made here, or now, but one to think about, and reflect on, and so I will, I tell him. Then we keep walking, together, and I look at all the beauty around us – the palm trees, the brilliant azure water, the crashing waves – and then I look back towards the mountains, back towards the city, the most dangerous city in the world, Edgar tells me. And don’t I already know it. When we get back to the house, he leaves. I ask him where he’s going, but he doesn’t tell me. Instead, some hours later he returns and brings back dinner, something he calls pabellón criollo which is a mix of grilled plantains on a bed of black beans and rice, and when I see it I ask him if he’s vegetarian, and he tells me no, and we finish eating, and then that’s when it happens. The sun’s gone down and he starts to move towards the couch again, to go to sleep, and I know I’m supposed to go to the bed, to do the same, to sleep, but I don’t, and I stop him. I don’t know why at first, except I do, of course I do, and he looks into my eyes. “Are you sure?” he asks, quietly, in that way that he does. “No,” I tell him. “But I want to find out.” He hesitates. He hesitates, just for a moment. So I take his hand and I lead him to the bed that’s his bed and then as soon as we get there the lights come back on, they come back on everywhere in the city, not just here, but we don’t need them and we turn them off again as I pull his shirt over his shoulders. And that’s when I see his scars. I see them in faded and angry lines on his chest, on his stomach, on his shoulders, on his back, and I know it’s only right that I see his because he’s already seen mine, because mine aren’t hidden beneath cotton or denim, they’re right there, I know, right there in my eyes, for all the world to see. I take my shirt off, too, and then also everything else after my shirt, until there’s just skin. His skin. My skin. The light from the moon. I pull him on top of me. I feel his tanned and weathered face with my hands, and then I feel his shoulders, his chest, everything about him bigger than what I’ve known before him and bigger in every way possible. I haven’t had a real boyfriend since I was in college and I wonder if this is what it feels like to make love as an adult, a whole new world that I haven’t experienced, and yet here it is, and it’s come in the least likely place that I ever thought that it would come, and let me in, into its mysteries, into its wide, deep, and many unexplored depths. When we finish we lie there on top of the sheets in the humid darkness and as he smokes a cigarette and I watch his chest rising and falling in a gentle and synchronized rhythm as he inhales, exhales, inhales, exhales, I ask him again about his people, and his city, and why he stayed, why he’s still here, and this time he doesn’t not answer. This time he tells me. He tells me about how men don’t run, about how men stay and fight, and then as I watch him I can see something that changes in his eyes after he says that, and he looks at me, next to him, and I realize that it’s something that he’s perhaps believed for a long time, what he’s just said, but doesn’t anymore, because I’m here, too. Then, he continues. He tells me more. He tells me how his people were once great – Bello, and Bolivar, and Chavez – and he knows that they can be great again, and I realize, maybe isn’t that all of us? Maybe isn’t that all people, stuck between two book-ends, between two great times, somewhere in-between, always somewhere just in-between. I stay at Edgar’s for two weeks and we make love many more times, every night that I’m there, and then one morning for no particular reason other than I’m becoming dangerously content, I wake and instead of going to the table where he’s set breakfast again, I go to the safe and I stand in front of it and I tell him that I’m ready. “Are you sure?” he asks me. And he asks me very quietly. I look at him and I look into his eyes and they give away his secrets now, they give them away to me, which is only fair since mine have already done the same. And I realize now why he’s helping me, which I’ve wondered since the beginning, and I realize now that he’s lost, too, and he’s lost in the same way that I have. I wonder who it was that was taken from him, and how, and which of the Viboras are responsible and then I wonder about what he plans to do to them, and I wonder the most what it says about fate and the world and our lives that we’ve been brought together like this. Before we go he wants to make sure once more that I fully grasp what I’m asking him to help me do, and so he tells me what’s going to happen, and since I know now that we both speak the same language – the language of broken hearts – I understand. He tells me how we’ll be able to find Diego and separate him from his men, and that’s when I’ll have my chance, and when I pull the trigger one life will end for me and a new one will begin. He tells me that I need to be more than sure that this is what I want to do, and what I want to be, because taking a life takes our own from us in turn, but now I don’t know what he’s talking about, because that’s why I’m here, isn’t it? My blood was taken, and so now I’ll take his. That’s the world and laws of men, Edgar tells me, and I tell him I don’t know the difference, I only know the world, and what it’s done, and so we’ll go. There are third acts in stories, I know, and there are third acts in lives, too. And this, I tell him… well, this will now be mine.
Everything happens as Edgar said it would. Diego’s separated from his men, and disarmed, and at the end of my pistol. He pleads for his life. I wasn’t expecting that, not from him, not from the type of man that I thought he was supposed to be. I hesitate. I look down at his face that’s at the end of my barrel and this all seems again like something from a movie, and not my life, or anything that’s real and possible. But, I know it is. It’s real, all of it is. And it’s here. For a moment I think that I’m going to stay paralyzed because of his tears, and his words, and the pleas for his life, and for a moment I think that I won’t be able to do it. But then I see the watch that’s on his wrist, and when I see the watch… then, I don’t hesitate anymore. I pull the trigger. It’s loud, louder than I thought a gunshot would be, louder than I thought that I’d heard before, but then again maybe I haven’t, maybe I’ve never really heard a gun up close, but now I have, and there’s so much blood as his head snaps back, the shot still echoing between the buildings that line the small street where we stand. Then, I bend down and I take the watch of blood and gold from his wrist, and I finally let myself feel again. I’m broken, but I’m whole. I’m shattered, but I’m reborn. I think of my father, I think of my brother, I think of myself. I feel different, like I knew that I would, like Edgar told me, and there’s something gone, something missing. But there’s also something that’s returned. I’ll need to let it settle, I know, I’ll need to let it settle before I find out who I really am now, who I’ve really become after this, but in the end I had no choice, did I. “What happens now?” I ask Edgar. He hears my questions, hears what I’ve asked him... And then he tells me. He tells me how now both every gangster and every cop in the city will be after us, led by Detective Sarcos, and Diego’s father, and brother, and how very likely the power will soon go out again and once we escape the city – if we’re able to escape the city – there’s a narrow stretch of highway that runs along the base of the mountains and it’s the only way to the airport, and that’s where we’ll go. I want to know more about Edgar, I want to know more about his own scars, and who he is, who he wants to be, but I know from our nights together that he won’t tell me any more than his eyes already have and instead he just says that our enemies might be there, too, blocking our way to the airport, but he knows of a private airfield nearby. We speed through the streets on his motorbike. I remember that I told him one night in his bed after we’d made love again that I used to work for Boeing, and even though I’ve never flown a plane before, I’ve just read books and designed technology to make them easier to fly, I know that if I have to fly one, I’ll be able to. And I think of that type of knowing and I realize that it’s also perhaps the greatest gift that any of us can ever been given – if I have to, I’ll be able to – and then I see it now, too, the future, our future, the same as he already has, I see what’s going to come. I see the airfield. I see the small plane that’s there. And I see our last moments, too. I hear myself ask the questions that he won’t answer, and then I see him leave, and tell me to hurry, too, that there’s not much time left, and I’ll wonder what our future would be like if we weren’t each who we are and this wasn’t how it had to end. But it does. And so then I’ll shake my head and I’ll get onto the twin-engine Cessna 21 and I won’t wonder who it belongs to as it barrels down the runway with Diego’s father and brother speeding in their car, doing their best to catch me, to stop me, to block my path, to be able to one more time pay for blood with blood, but this time won’t be the same as the others. I know. I’ll look at them, and then I’ll look down at the now-clean watch on my wrist, the watch that’s once again only gold, and not gold and blood, too, my brother’s watch, my father’s watch, and now… my watch. I’ll look down at that gift that was never supposed to be mine, that I was never supposed to receive, and there it’ll be, bright and shining against my now pseudo-tanned skin, and isn’t life dangerous, and profound, but perhaps not as mysterious as we’d like to believe, and I’ll think all of that to myself and hope that someday I might get another chance, another chance to have it all go right, another chance with another Edgar and that’s what I’ll be thinking as I lift the nose of the plane so that it rises – up and over the Viboras, over the city, over the mountains, over everything – and I’ll go even higher, into the strikingly blue sky, and it will be all around me, everywhere, ubiquitous, consuming. Up, I’ll go. Up, and away. Into the clouds, and towards the sun. It’s time to go north again, I’ll think to myself. And so I will.