Song: “Lose You to Love Me” by Selena Gomez
I woke up with a start and glanced left and right, expecting to be inside some lab with Tiberius’ scientists probing me. Or strapped to an electric chair with Veronica holding the lever. But none of those were close to reality.
I was on a wooden floor in front of an open chest with red, purple, and white garments spilling over the brim. There was a three-piece body mirror on my left next to a wall where a black tuxedo was hanging. On my right was a small wooden table with several black wands laid out next to gold, blue, and yellow handkerchiefs and a black top hat and on the left of that table was a cage with a white bunny. I kept turning and saw two gleaming golden doors behind me: the one on my left marked with a giant number one and the other with the number two. I reached for my jacket pocket and was relieved to find the phone still there. But now I was even more confused. Why hadn’t Veronica taken it? And why had she brought me here? What kind of sick torture were they planning on doing to me?
I kept turning and saw an older African-American man sitting with his legs crossed at another table, dressed in a blazing white shirt and equally bright white pants. I jumped to my feet and the pain in my ribs forced me back to my knees.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“A friend,” he replied.
I scanned the room for exits, but saw no windows and no other doors other than those two golden ones.
“They call me the Gunsmith,” the man replied. “I made your gun and gave it to you when you were born.”
I squinted at him. “Are you with Tiberius?”
“Have you seen any of Tiberius’ employees?”
“Are the people who brought me here still around?”
“Good.” With that, I pulled the phone out and jumped right back into the mission. The screen flashed on and revealed white boxes for a four-digit password. Tiberius wouldn’t be the type to do a birthday or anniversary and he wasn’t married and had no kids. His name wasn’t even legal and was a combination of his favorite director and favorite emperor. His real name was Jonathan Hamilton. I knew he’d studied criminal justice at Columbia, was obsessed with history and quantum physics, and loved the Mets. What would he have as his password?
“I can help you find what you want,” I heard the Gunsmith say, but I ignored him.
Tiberius was a history buff so I was 99% positive this code would be a date. And since he loved criminal justice, quantum physics, and the Mets, that date would most likely be something significant in those fields.
C’mon, Marcus, time to put that Harvard Law degree to good use.
Maybe it was 1970, when the RICO Act got passed, meaning mob bosses could get tried for crimes they had their subordinates commit. Or maybe it was 1934 when Bonnie and Clyde were killed. But there was no Bonnie to his Clyde so that couldn’t be it.
“I think I can make this worth your while,” the Gunsmith said.
I ignored him again–and the rejection throbbing through my veins. Those dates didn’t ring with me so I went with another one: 1754 BC–the year of the Code of Hammurabi, the very first code of law written in ancient Mesopotamia. That’s arguably where all criminal justice systems started. I entered 1754, but the phone vibrated and a message appeared: 2 attempts remaining.
How about quantum, physics? In 1926 Erwin Schrödinger published the Schrödinger equation, which was basically the F=ma of quantum physics. I typed that in, but the phone vibrated again: 1 attempt left.
“I’m still here, in case you were wondering,” the Gunsmith told me.
I wasn’t. I took a deep breath and stared at the phone. What would his code be? Were there more significant dates in those two fields? Then it hit me. The Mets. Poor guy–they hadn’t won a World Series in decades. I kicked myself for not thinking of this earlier then typed in 1986. The phone pinged and opened up to the home screen. I breathed a sigh of relief and grinned from ear to ear as I sifted through his apps. Within seconds I found one that was assigned to locating his missing belongings, including his phone, laptop, and, of course, his success magazine. I clicked on the magazine’s icon and was brought to a map with a blinking dot indicating where the magazine was. But as I stared at the screen, something didn’t add up. According to the app, the magazine was in this room.
I looked up and the Gunsmith leaned forward.
“Now that I have your attention,” he said. “Allow me to explain what’s going on.”
“No,” I grunted as I climbed to my feet. “I don’t have time. I’ve gotta get to this magazine.”
The Gunsmith pulled out a gun from his belt and fired one shot into my stomach. I went down instantly and lay on my back as my insides shrieked in agony. The rejection in me started boiling like hot lava in my blood and it felt like my ribs were being crushed by an elephant.
“What…” I breathed. “…what did you shoot me with? Pain?”
The Gunsmith blew the smoke out of his barrel before holstering his gun. “Rest.”
Rest? Why did it feel like this? Why was everything being unraveled like a cat was shredding through my intestines and eating my liver? I tried to roll over and claw my way to this man and shoot him with his own gun, but I couldn’t move.
“You need to know something, Three,” he said to me. “Your sister was texting you because there were people coming after her and your brother. Tiberius has been keeping tabs on the three of you for a while now. When you broke into his building, he sent assassins after Nine. Then Nine attacked Six and she attacked you.”
My head spun from the pain, but was reeling with the impact of something new–guilt.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked him.
“Because the best thing to happen to you is to know how much you’ve failed.”
With that, he let me lay there for what felt like an hour, helplessly in pain, and didn’t say another word to me. And I felt it all–the rejection from my sister. The guilt from my brother’s attack. But most of all, the humiliation from failing in front of Veronica. And now I couldn’t run so I just lay there and drank it in.
But slowly, after that hour, the pain subsided, my blood cooled, and I was able to slowly sit up.
“Feeling better?” the Gunsmith asked me.
I sighed and nodded reluctantly. “Thanks. I didn’t realize I needed that.”
“Most people don’t.”
I looked around at the tuxedo and the open costume chest then back at the Gunsmith. “What is this place? Are you some kind of magician?”
“Me? No. But, you might as well be. A magician is a master at the art of deception. And you’ve masterfully deceived everyone around you. But your greatest deception has been deceiving yourself.”
“I don’t I know what you’re talking about,” I told him. But a small part of me did and it was slightly terrified.
“Your greatest strength is your ability to become whoever anyone wants you to be,” the Gunsmith went on. “It’s why you’re so adept at disguises. But your strength is also your weakness. Because it’s kept you from answering the one question that has always evaded you. Who do you want to be?”
I scoffed. “That’s easy. The top agent in the agency.”
“Isn’t that the goal of every agent?”
“The goal of every agent is to ensure the freedom of feelings everywhere, but you didn’t say that. So again, who do you want to be?”
I looked at him and he stared back at me with unwavering eyes, like he was looking into my soul. In that moment I realized that I had no answer. It was like reaching for a magazine in a gunfight only to find out it was empty.
“I…” I started. “I’ve never really thought about it…I don’t…I don’t know…”
The Gunsmith breathed a heavy, grandfatherly sigh as he leaned in closer to me. “That’s the most honest you’ve been with yourself in a long time.”
I lowered my head. Why did I feel so naked and exposed? I didn’t like this. I didn’t know who I wanted to be. It was so much easier to be whoever I was expected to be. It’s what I was good at. It’s what everyone wanted.
But who do you want to be? The words echoed in my head.
“Let me help you out,” the Gunsmith interrupted my thoughts and pointed to the golden doors behind me.
“What you’re looking for is behind door number one. What you really want is behind door number two.”
I stood and turned to face the doors. “Just to be clear, the success magazine is behind door number one.”
“Correct,” the Gunsmith nodded.
“And behind door number two?”
“What you really want.”
“Right.” Whatever that was.
I looked down at the phone in my hand and at the blinking dot indicating where the magazine was. It definitely looked like it would be behind that door. Here I was, just a few feet away from what I’d been dreaming of for as long as I could remember. I could just take a few steps and it would finally be mine. But what was behind that other door? What did I really want? Was it a book on how to be myself? Was it a blank check? My future wife?
I looked down at the phone again and took a deep breath. Then I finally tossed it to the side, walked straight to the doors, and opened door number two. Inside, there was a glass trophy case around a black magazine. I opened the case, pulled out the magazine, and read the gold lettering on the side. When I saw the word, I felt an instant burst of tears swell in my eyes.
The Gunsmith stepped inside and gently took the magazine from my shaking hands and loaded it into his own gun.
“You never had to find success to be accepted,” he told me. “Because the person you were trying to impress works for me. And I’m already impressed by you.”
I wiped my eyes and sniffled as tears dripped down my cheeks.
“You’re a good kid,” the Gunsmith went on. “Now it’s time for you to be who you want to be.”
He grabbed my shoulder and turned me so that I was facing him. Then he looked down at me with such pride in his eyes that I felt like I was his favorite grandson. He pinned the barrel of his gun into my heart and grinned at me.