The Twenty-Seven by Grant Riedel
Five hundred and forty fingers and toes, fifty-four irises and ears, thirty-six breasts, nine flaccid penises. I walked past them, steam rising from my black coffee. I had four minutes and thirty-five seconds to make the train. The sound left me eighteen seconds too late. Twenty-seven gun shots. Twenty-seven bullets passing through flesh, bone, and brain. Twenty-seven empty casings making seven hundred and twenty-nine similar jingles as they danced across the pavement. Twenty-seven lives extinguished. Twenty-seven killers, meticulous, like trained artists. I turned, saw twenty-seven bodies but only heard the single note.
“Twenty-Seven Die. Cult Suicide.” Twenty-five letters. The Gazette headline rested above three columns surrounding a photo of two policemen barricading yesterday’s scene. The columnist devoted three thousand, two hundred and twenty-one words to the issue. A waste of resources where twenty-five letters, five words, sufficed. It was a tragedy, in seven letters, soaked with the lament of twelve husbands, five boyfriends, eight girlfriends, and two wives. Thirteen children hung their heads beneath the dark cloud, too. The twenty-seven’s trail of blood and selfishness touched more than those who the columnist mentioned.
Obsession. Nine letters. I dumped the ashes in the waste bin. I had smoked four cigarettes while reading. My twelve-by-sixteen office was situated at the end of four flights, forty-eight steps plus ten or twelve, lit by a small desk lamp and frosted window pane. Folders canvassed my desk. Seventy-two hours had passed, the streets were clean, asphalt pours were digesting the final particles of human matter. I had discussed the twenty-seven with a psychiatrist earlier. He called the pursuit tasteless, nine letters, that it was an obsession. Stop–four letters–the staff sergeant insisted. He said I would be fired if I couldn’t drop the case. After another psych evaluation he advocated for reason. I told him reason was all I had.
Speculation. Eleven letters. Was it a desire for attention? A message? Fact: Over ninety-five percent of people commit suicide solo. Fact: Eighty percent of those suicides involve a firearm. Fact: We, the public, could only ruminate, absorb figures collected through websites and televisions and debated between drags of cigarettes and cups of coffee. Their actions gave the census a stronger buzz than ninety proof alcohol. Forget Hollywood. The twenty-seven’s blood created a red carpet that spanned the globe. Reason dictated the charge would wear off. Sixty-two days had passed and the event was the highest discussed topic on Reddit and Twitter.
Religious. A nine-letter word uttered in coffee shops, blared loud over television sets, wallpapered discussion board threads. A word painted crimson, encrusted with captivation that could amass an army of millions. Coast to coast they had become infamous phantoms, replacing names like Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown. Their point of exit was speculated to have had two hundred and forty-six visitors a day. Instagrams surfaced, loaded with index fingers and thumbs pointed at heads. With the gavel down, the verdict passed, the twenty-seven were labeled, their phenomenon treasured.
Mercy, five letters, might have been the word choice of the twenty-seven. Eighty-one pages, divided evenly among twenty-seven envelopes, addressed to only one; each contained the five-letter jewel. No address, no stamp. They were sealed, signed, but harbored no solace for the seekers. I watched them on the television, crying, producing three hundred and eighty-five tears collectively. I listened to the twelve husbands curse at Internet reporters. I read that three of the boyfriends and six of the girlfriends followed suit, leaving notes of their own. Soon, twenty-seven multiplied to thirty-six, thirty-six turned to ninety, and ninety into three hundred. Three hundred letters, nine hundred pages, one word: mercy.
Observance. Ten letters. Bleached pavement, black boots, neckties—blueberry and periwinkle, blue striped pajama bottoms, brown oxfords, beige sport coats, and blood red jumpsuits; all witnessed from a bench three thousand, two hundred and forty inches away. I had smoked twelve hundred and fifty-two cigarettes there, witnessed forty-six murders, and read eighty-five papers. Of the forty-six I watched, sixteen pairs of lips touched, eighteen held hands while firing, and two pairs touch foreheads just before dropping. The others appeared as singles or coincidental pairs. The twenty-seven had created a fissure that partitioned reason. Their followers transcended humanity into controlled chaos funneled and expanded through social media. Maybe after forty-seven I’d stop.
“Dropping Like Flies.” Seventeen letters. The Gazette had been keeping a daily column for some time. Over twelve thousand words, spanning eight pages, were devoted to the killings. Exposés devoted to the victims’ families; full biographies, sometimes a childhood photo or an interview from the last person to see them. These replaced the classifieds, the gossip and advice columns, and even the weather. The world was twisting, splitting, the common thread—will to live—was being enveloped in their faces; immortalized in these stories. I was a fraction, a mode of existence, passing commentary with pigeons while I sat at my bench. I was an irregularity. One that watched and experienced, but didn’t participate. It was like watching a movie, then reading the review the next morning; it wasn’t really happening.
Confession. Ten letters. A word once gilded, misplaced now. It used to draw out pain, inflict remorse, or guarantee your soul’s freedom. Now it was just an envelope left for someone, something we couldn’t see, a trifold of disappointment. It had been one hundred and ninety-two days since the first twenty-seven perished. Some people worried. An online poll suggested that sixty-five percent of Americans were afraid of committing suicide. The other thirty-five percent were undecided or not sure. Bodies were piling up globally. Exit points had been established in major international hubs like Hong Kong, London, and Amsterdam. A new communism had taken roots; it had no face, no flag, no purpose, but it was equal. From twenty-seven to five thousand, they were united. I read what I could, watched what I couldn’t. I didn’t cross the line. I didn’t save any of them.
Hope. Four letters. A group had risen, Life Crusaders; their name was stenciled across a folded pink paper I kept in my wallet. The Crusaders had one mission: hope. Their members could be found at street corners and in subway terminals with stacks of pink papers. I once sat at Terminal A and observed one hand out four hundred and twenty-one pamphlets over the course of eighteen hours. This amounted to one thousand six hundred and eighty-four pages of false hope. They would surface in the Gazette, being portrayed like cockroaches found in a restaurant. Memes satirizing their efforts plastered the web and were printed on T-shirts and posters adorning college dorms. They offered help to those on the verge, those caught up in the chaos. I plucked a pamphlet from a trash bin before leaving that terminal. It never hurt to be safe.
“White House Walls Off Major Exit Points.” It was a sign that a world where political correctness held more power than the President was finally being subdued by a need to save humanity. People still found ways. Exit points surfaced in fields, parking lots, and tennis courts. Confusion tainted our psyches, twisting our reality, denouncing reason. Everywhere you looked, people questioned their choices. It didn’t matter if it was wheat or white or eighty-seven octane or ninety-one. Talk shows, radio and television, debated the big question: “Should we stay or should we go?” It would take some form of martial law from Washington to stop all communications, to control the feeds, to secure the bonds that made the world revolve. Fact: “Keep Calm, We Should Go On” was the number one selling t-shirt during this time. Fact: The t-shirts were forty-thread-count posters signifying backward movement. I found it strange that I bought one myself.
Art. Three letters. Subjective, ambiguous, multi-versed in culture, and essential to humanity; it covered the stones of the many walls across the continent. It enshrined the Exit points, creating beauty out of something dangerous, or maybe it was something beautiful accentuating something captivating. The walls transformed into one of the best forms of propaganda. People would journey to them, snap selfies, try to chisel out keepsakes, and at night paint the concrete with their blood. I watched the wall materialize over time from my bench. Two guards were stationed there months after its completion. They kept nightsticks, not guns. In addition to the nightstick, each carried a six million, eight hundred thousand-volt stun gun. There was a theory circulating that the sites harbored a magnetic field that caused the chemical imbalance leading to suicide. I had been there for several months, perfectly balanced. I had witnessed the stun gun’s use sixty-four times.
“Supreme Court to Tell Us if We Can Exit?” Freedom, a wet towel being contorted to rid it of the last drops of uncertainty. The Life Crusaders were picketing Washington seeking resolution. Exit points had been multiplying. They couldn’t build walls at places they couldn’t find. Washington had tried to control the social media but failed. They strong-armed popular search engines and Internet service providers into shutting down for three weeks. Pictures were still taken, t-shirts still sold, and the body count rose. A rumor surfaced that the President had given up after three members of the senior staff Exited. Others thought he was losing control, that he was destroying American values, and that he was infringing on our free will. Whichever the case, it didn’t matter; bullets aren’t suppressed by words or flesh.
Choice. Six letters. Its very nature makes it infectious, available, and unique. It used to be menthol or regular for me. Now it was available or cheap. The individuality that choice represented was diminishing rapidly. It had stylized itself into a trend of nine millimeter or forty-five. Of to go or not. If class was indicated by choice of ammo it would have been the latter, but the twenty-seven had represented an amalgamation, not distinction. Equality was rising and falling around us at a near consistent rate. Neighbors, friends, work colleagues transcended daily. Take a selfie before they’re gone. I took one outside the wall in Burbank last week, three heads in the frame.
Nervous. Seven letters. If they were nervous it never surfaced. I had been there so much I knew there were seventy-two stone tiles that separated us. Beautiful, twenty-four perhaps. She was the first person I had witnessed arriving alone for some time. It was near one in the morning. No guard in sight. She looked everywhere but up. She knelt on the ground, reaching into a bag in front of her. The average resting heart rate was sixty beats per minute. I could feel mine climbing flights of stairs even though I hadn’t moved. She stood up, looking around, trying to cock the gun. Then it happened.
I looked down, my hand on hers, and hers holding death. She looked up at me. I had misjudged her by at least four years. She was slender at the waist and dressed completely in black. A tattoo, the number twenty-seven, was visible above her left collarbone. She was pale, the color of fresh frost, and her skin smooth as smoke in the moon’s light. She didn’t move as death transferred its grip to mine. I closed my eyes. I heard the jingle of hollow metal against asphalt. When I opened my eyes a Jackson Pollock in deep red overlaid the graffiti and transitioned into a black and white blot at the wall’s base.
Performance. Eleven letters. Orchestrated. Twelve letters. Rendition. Nine. I had watched the performance so many times. She had been a B level actress in every way, lacking agency and confidence. She couldn’t inspire or even aspire. I wondered, did she write a letter? It didn’t matter now. I had saved her. She released me. I looked up the wall; it was three hundred inches tall, wearing a waistband of pandemonium about the middle. Keep calm, get going was it? Maybe I should stop and take a selfie next to her body. Maybe someone would take one next to mine. Was it twenty-seven or seventy-two? Somewhere a conductor was swinging a baton and reason was choking on the sound; I felt the cold metal before the crescendo.
© Grant Riedel
Grant Riedel is an artist who hails from the Midwest. He holds both a B.A. in Art and a M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Northern Iowa. In terms of writing style, Grant recognizes the influence of authors such as Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver, and J.D. Salinger. When Grant isn’t creating new broadsides for the North American Review, he spends his time with his wife and daughter, Raegan. Most recently, he was published in the summer issue of Black Fox Literary Magazine.
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