Annie’s entertainment lawyer—one of the many who’d tracked her down as soon as the pictures appeared in the paper; she picked him because he told her to take a couple of days and think about her options and not to sign anything from anyone until then, even if she picked someone else, and maybe that was a con too, but it was a different kind of con than the pressure the rest of them were putting on her, and she was very much feeling the need to slow down--anyway, Annie’s entertainment lawyer told her that they technically didn’t need anyone’s permission to make the movie. Facts are in the public domain. But they liked to get releases from the real people involved, because they could interview them and maybe get private details that would be good in the movie, and because the insurers liked it, and because you had to sign a thing that said you wouldn’t bitch about how the movie came out no matter how dumb or wrong it was. The paper said words other than bitch, dumb, or wrong, of course, but that was the gist of it. The plans for movies seemed very complete, unlike the plans for LA’s municipal services, which seemed about right for LA.
So Annie’s list of things they changed in the movie was a list for her, and for Jack. She couldn’t share it in the interviews or anything like that. The list could have been for Harry, and would have been a useful topic of conversation for them when she and Jack visited him in the rehab hospital where he was still, six months later, working to regain function in his legs. But Harry’s coping method was not to talk about that day, and Annie’s coping method very much was, so there was a certain amount of awkwardness. Mostly Jack ended up going without her. “Harry understands,” he said, which was probably true—it wasn’t because she didn’t want to see Harry’s fresh scars and his attempts to operate his new body. It was because two hours shouldn’t be able to change a life that way, and so she was still stuck in those two hours until they somehow accordioned out and became the next part of her life.
The list included: The Good Vibrations ad on the side of the bus, which was cute local color until some game company paid six figures to advertise its new game instead. It’s the demographic, the flunky who dealt with her said. Young men, they’re the demographic for the movie, and it would be a waste not to reach them. “Yeah,” she said, “a total waste to remind young men that women like orgasms,” but even though the flunky was a woman she was corporate enough not to react to that one. Annie didn’t think that Good Vibrations would’ve spent six figures to stay in the movie anyway, though it was sort of funny that she got paid to stay and then they got paid to take out the vibrators.
Also, they changed Helen’s character to make her Hispanic, because of the demographics of who had speaking roles in the movie. But then a grey-haired Hispanic woman terrified out of her mind and making what might seem like a pretty dumb choice if you hadn’t been there, equally terrified and still not sure how much of this was a prank, was apparently “not relatable enough.” So then Helen’s character was rewritten to be feisty or spunky or whatever it was you called a woman who wisecracked through extreme danger and then didn’t live. Also she was twenty-five years old, chubby (by Hollywood standards), and super cute, of course.
Annie didn’t know whether that made it better or worse for Helen’s family, having her not in the movie, her death erased and rewritten into someone else’s. She wasn’t even sure if Helen had been in contact with her family. But they were the ones who got the money and signed the forms.
Then there were the changes suggested by the technical consultants. At least some of them were supposed to make it harder to learn how to build a bomb just by watching a movie, which sounded pretty unbelievable to Annie in the first place, but she’d been kidnapped twice by a bomb-wielding maniac so what did she know about believability? Based on the fan mail she received, there were bomb fans out there obsessively documenting the differences in the bombs who would definitely write a treatise on the difference between movie-bombs and reality-bombs, which would then defeat the point of making the changes in the first place. But, she reminded herself, making the movie better wasn’t her job. Her job was getting through the day without too many intrusive thoughts, and also thinking about finding an actual job for when the movie money ran out, as it was going to do very soon.
As if the original scenario hadn't been dramatic enough, they added a politician who was worried about how the blown-up bus and potentially blown-up bus was making him look, and who interfered with the cops trying to do their jobs. Jack said nothing like that had happened, but would Jack even know? His boss seemed like the type to insulate his men from attempted interference.
Which Annie knew, because she’d joined the wives and girlfriends crew at their get-togethers. Wives, girlfriends, and very occasional husband. If you were a woman, you wouldn’t bring a boyfriend to that concentration of testosterone, unless you were testing him one last time to see if he could handle being married to a woman who worked with these assholes every day. Most of the ones who could handle that, it seemed, declined to come to the parties, which felt to Annie like a reasonable choice.
Coping mechanisms, her therapist said, differ a lot in their details and in how healthy they are. Does Jack ever say the things you hear the other officers saying?
No, Annie always said. No. There’s a difference between jokes about death in the abstract and dismissing a real person’s suffering. Jack was the man who’d cared about the lives of everyone on that bus, about a homeless woman’s baby made of cans, about getting them to safety whether they trusted cops or not.
In the movie, Harry died. There was a funeral, Jack’s character in his dress uniform, placing the folded flag on Harry’s coffin. There was a weeping wife and a tow-headed toddler in a bowl cut, staring uncomprehendingly at the adults all around, wondering where his fictional daddy really was.
The screener stuttered to a halt, and the studio person popped it out of the VCR and sprinted away with it. That had been the deal—special for Harry, who was not going to a theater to watch a premiere but who deserved to know before it opened. So Harry got a tape where the image cut off on both sides because it was showing on a TV instead of a film screen. There were still a couple of places where the effects weren’t final and they just showed a screen that said [effects] for a few seconds.
“So,” Jack said, meaning both ‘what do you think?’ and ‘people who make movies are assholes, hunh?’ Underneath that was the bigger question, ‘Do you wish it had ended like that for you?’ which he knew Harry would get too.
“So,” Harry said. He cleared his throat and pressed the button on his recliner that lowered his legs towards the ground. “I need to piss.”
Jack waited while Harry levered himself to his feet, shuffling towards the bathroom with the help of the cane that would now be with him forever. Moving around was good for him, he’d told Jack, and no he didn’t need any help doing it.
From behind, Harry looked just the same, maybe a hunch of the shoulders that hadn’t been there before.
They were talking about clearing him for desk and teaching duties. With his remaining eye and 80% function in his hands, he could read reports and send officers out; he could train bomb disposal experts and be a living monument to what happens if you think you’ve found the bomber when you’ve only found the bomb.
Jack had never been a coward, so when Harry returned, he said it: “It’s okay if you’re mad at me.”
Harry groaned, only half a second too late for it to have been an unthought response, and busied himself getting back into his chair and raising its legs—for circulation, he’d explained before. “I need a fucking drink for this conversation.” He brushed his hair away from his forehead; two of his fingers were fused together, so now he and Payne had something in common. “But I can’t drink because of the meds, so I guess we’re gonna do this sober.”
“It’s my fault,” Jack pointed out. “I pissed him off, I swallowed the clues like I was supposed to and sent you right there. He outsmarted me, and you’re the one who paid for it.”
“I’m not gonna pretend I don’t have nights when I am so mad at everyone I could cheerfully strangle the next person who’s nice to me, except of course I can’t strangle anyone anymore.”
“Not without a plan, anyway,” Jack said automatically.
“Yeah, I’d probably need a rope and some leverage, and for them to move slow enough that I could get in position.”
“Drugs, or a gas grenade, maybe.”
“Flashbang could work, depending on the setup, whether they could see an easy way out,” Harry threw right back. “My point is, yes, it sucks. I wish I still had my pretty face and honestly I’d rather have my original nose back than two working eyes. I wish my therapist would lie to me and tell me that in a couple of years there won’t be any pain. But none of that is on you. You didn’t decide to hit the house, and you couldn’t have stopped me from going in if you’d been there. We didn’t have a choice right then. We couldn’t take the chance that he was in there, about to kill all those people.”
“That what you really believe, or just what you’ve learned to say to everyone? It’s me, Harry.” Him with his still-unscarred face and body. Annie had a jagged scar down her outer thigh—road rash from the exit from the bus, complicated because it got infected during the first few chaotic days afterwards, and then she didn’t want to go with any medical personnel if Jack wasn’t with her, so that had been a whole thing. But Jack had walked away from it all a hero, just like Payne said. Unmarked. Blessed, which meant that there were other people not so blessed.
Harry sighed. “Sometimes there’s not a real difference between what you believe and what you say to get yourself through. I didn’t leave a widow and kid behind. That’s good, right?”
“That’s good,” he agreed. Harry’s wife had bounced a few weeks after Harry had gotten out of the ICU. Not what she’d signed up for. Jack didn’t blame her, except for the moments that was a lie. He knew it wasn’t her fault, anyway, and he hadn’t exactly been a fan of her hairstyle. At least they weren’t messing up any kids with the split. “If you need someone to be mad at, I’m here.”
Harry made a noise indicating vague disagreement. “Rather get mad at you for the new stupid stuff you do. You need a partner who can balance you, do some thinking while you’re running towards danger.”
“I have a partner,” he said, and Harry rolled his eyes. "Thinks I'm an asshole," he added, for the amusement value.
“At least he's got some sense. Anyway, I’ll always be your first,” Harry said, which was true only for SWAT—true enough, then. “They must be trying to match you up with someone who can keep you from getting killed.”
“Apparently I’m not very communicative.” Jack smirked at Harry, and Harry grinned back.
“Talking’s overrated anyway.”
So they sat like that for a while; Jack replayed the movie in his mind, seeing all the details that were wrong or dumb.
“You know, that movie star is almost as good looking as you, but he looks ten years older,” Harry said when Jack got up to leave.
“I have good bone structure,” Jack told him. “It’s ageless.”
“Hear he’s dating the other one, the girl.”
“Pretty sure that’s just for publicity, since me and Annie are still a thing.”
“Yeah, and isn’t that a shock to everyone. Over a year now.” His tone suggested that he was waiting for Jack to tell him when the ring would appear.
“We’re taking it a day at a time.” And had heard every speed-related joke there was about it, too, since cops weren’t known for extreme sensitivity. That was ok; he knew who he worked with. And he knew both he and Annie were better off having someone who understood why they woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. Sometimes they sat it out together, wrapped in a quilt that Annie’s grandma had sent, waiting for sunrise. Annie could be quiet, when she wasn’t in the middle of reacting to something. They could be quiet together.
"Weird how the girl with the suspended license, who you met on the job, might turn out to be a keeper."
"You make it sound like I arrested her," Jack objected.
"Nah, she's good for you."
"We're thinking about getting a dog," he admitted, which was more than a ring would have meant.
Harry nodded. "Nothing small and yappy though."
"No sweater dog will ever cross my threshold," Jack promised solemnly, and turned to leave for real this time. At the doorway, he paused and turned back. "You should come over," he said. "To meet the dog."
"I should," Harry agreed, which Jack chose to take as a promise.
They named the dog Hot Shot, which was like "Fuck You, Payne" except a secret between them. She'd flunked out of K9 training--too curious and easy to distract. She sat up with whichever of them couldn't sleep and wriggled underneath the quilt with just her dumb white butt and waggy tail hanging out. Annie adored her and Jack indulged her, and even Harry had to agree that she was a charming miscreant who never once mistook his cane for a throwing stick despite the many other things in the world that confused and astonished her.
They got semi-matching tattoos. Annie's, on her left shoulder, was a speedometer with its needle showing just under 50 miles an hour, because she could slow down if she wanted. Jack's, on the back of his left calf, showed just over 50, because he was still the guy who ran towards danger. He had a better idea of what he was risking now, but that didn't mean he was going to stop. There was no cheap gold watch in his future. Instead, there was Annie, and Hot Shot, and Harry, and all the other people he was going to save, like the dozen people labeled Additional Bus Passenger in the credits. They all had their own stories, and Jack's was going to be about letting those stories play out to their natural ends.
You could let the flow of all those stories past you make you feel small, like Payne had, or you could let it make you feel like part of something bigger. Jack planned to keep choosing bigger.
After all, it had worked out okay so far.