This story is by Michael Calder and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
‘It’s odd, y’know, holding onto life.’ John sagged back in his chair, tipping his head over the headrest, and stared at the dark ceiling. There was an intoxicating swirl that ran through the plaster, capturing his attention, drowning him in the vortex of memory. ‘First gunshot shattered the window to my left – fifty feet, maybe. Remember exactly how the glass splintered. Don’t recall any screaming, though. Everyone expects panic, but it ain’t like that. Rabbits in headlights, the lot of them.’
The gentle patter of rain began to trample the windowpanes and he pressed both palms into his knees, subduing the urge to float away. Thunder cracked outside and lit up the neglected office. The whitewashed walls peeled and flaked like dead skin, revealing the rotten flesh below. Between its buckling legs, a walnut desk sagged, carrying the weight of its existence with tragic regret. Fifteen years since he had sat before that desk. Yet, the same blank stare which had haunted him for a lifetime met his eyes.
His heart pounded in his skull.
‘The second punched a hole in the wall five feet from my head,’ John continued, uninterrupted. ‘Then silence. These lot stopped, man – civilians,’ he scoffed. ‘Everyone stopped moving and stopped thinking. Impossible to hear someone breathe. Only one noise in the whole place. The double tap-tap as the shooter walked. I remember the heel of his boots clicking against the tiled floor in a rhythm – dancing, I reckon.’
Nothing. Just that stare. No pity or empathy. Blank, cold, and steely.
John’s eyes began welling-up. He hated crying. Some told him it would help; others said it was pathetic. Truth be told, he hated the sticky, itchy streaks that etched into his face and the empty space that crying left behind. A gaping void would rise out of his stomach and swallow his torso like the pain drained away and nothing could take its place. It always struck him as odd; he never felt less human than when his emotions overflowed.
‘Three gunshots – four a half seconds from first to last, roughly. Not slow firing. Ain’t quick, neither. No rush so there’s no distinct target and no expectance of survival. Kamikaze mission, then. That’s my thought process. Two possible responses; same two choices any person has in a time of crisis when the shock’s lifted; fight or flight. Life boils down to that, dunnit?’
He didn’t expect an answer, not even a twitch.
Leaning forward in his chair, John dug both elbows into his thighs and cupped his chin with his hands, resisting an impulse to get up and leave. The tears formed a pool between his fingers and dripped like a faucet. This was a mistake. That implacable, flat stare couldn’t help him. It couldn’t help anyone. His fingers itched to reach across and put an end to this dreary monologue.
That dreaded emptiness started feeding on his insides and briefly stirred his anger.
‘When I was still a soldier, I might’ve confronted the bastard. Could’ve led some blokes to intercept him or guided people away. Saved lives, somehow, y’know. Should’ve been the leader. But I ain’t that guy anymore.’ The truth writhed like a worm through his innards. ‘Just a civilian, now.’
A jagged weariness washed over his anger and left him desolate. A tarnished soul. As broken and dismal as the derelict office that held him. His eyes hovered over the nameplate which languished on the distressed desk. Coated with a layer of dust and claret red, the black letters imprinted on the golden plate were impossible to decipher, but he remembered every accentuation with which the engraving had been printed. They matched, almost identically, the inscription at the base of the photo frame poised on the southern wall. The cracked glass had stayed in place perfectly. A fine spider’s web erupted from the bullet hole in the upper-left corner, growing into tremendous fractures across the blood-stained glass, but no shard dared move, even fifteen years later. Between the impact’s scrambling legs, a pair of thunderous eyes perched beneath fiercely furrowed brows, daring the shattered photo frame to give way. That furious gaze struck an uncanny fear in him. He’d come to this old, forgotten place of death and tragedy in search of understanding, but found no sympathy in the judgment of those familiar, grey eyes.
He lowered his tone and began to mumble like a scolded child.
‘Yeah, right. No excuses.’
Between unbalanced sobs, John snatched his attention away from the portrait and re-locked stares with the emotionless blur that rested against the sagging desk.
‘Already been shot once protecting people and it’s different out there too, y’know, when you’re betting on your own survival during a firefight. It’s all sweat and heat and blood and bullets. You take that shot and keep going. Couldn’t take that same chance with my family and don’t think anyone would be willing to roll that dice.’
John wrung his hands together as he spoke, grounding himself within the visceral sensation of coarsely worked skin. An oily mixture of sweat and tears dulled the comforting motion and coaxed him to glare down at the scars which ran across the back of his hand. A physical remnant of his choice. A manifestation of his guilt. He brought them up and examined the grooves carved into the fabric of his existence. They were gradually fading into the recesses of regenerating cells, becoming a residual fear that sank beneath his skin, burrowing into him like an infection.
‘Anyway,’ he continued. ‘I picked up Lilly and grabbed Sophia’s hand, and it was like those tiny movements set off a chain reaction – whole world came back to life; prams being forced through the crowds, bags being dropped, even old folk stumbled passed if they could. Families came together, or they fell apart. People shoved, rammed, pushed, trampled. Chaos. Silence broke, too. Children cryin’ was the worst. No fear more honest than a scared child.’
‘Sophia begged me to run. Couldn’t move another muscle, though. Too much like the battlefield – froze up, didn’t I? She tried to pry my arm away and get at Lilly. When I close my eyes, and sometimes even when I don’t, I can still see the tears run over her cheeks and her nails digging into the flesh of my arm and drawing blood. That image seems far off, weirdly, like someone else was watching and stuck me with the memory. Either way, I squeezed my daughter closer and watched. Idiot. Funny thing about guns; first thing they teach you as a soldier – having all the bodies in the world between you and a shooter won’t guarantee safety.’
‘Then, she snapped. Slapped me. Bit theatrical, probably, but she wasn’t one for holding back and it wasn’t like those cheesy action movies. Still, the cogs got turning. Shock to the system, y’know, being slapped by your wife – instincts kick in. Information started to flow. A constant stream of shoppers herded in our direction. We’d been missed three times, but the gunfire was close. Shooter must’ve come through the complex’s main entrance and couldn’t be too far away. Needed to act. Rear exit, then, would be safest.’
‘I searched the crowd for something that might compel me to stay and fight, y’know. Nothing. I didn’t owe those people anything. Not one stopped for us. Then the manic horde thinned and only the disorientated and abandoned trudged towards us. I looked at my daughter’s face, full of a raw terror which I could never understand, and there was no choice. I owed her everything.’
John rubbed the heel of his palms into his eye sockets.
‘Made the decision too late. A bullet caught Sophia in the back and threw her on her face. Blood sprayed. Lilly screamed and thrashed. I couldn’t think. Panicked.’
‘Y’know, there are moments in life that force who we really are to the forefront and not many of us are heroes. I left her – left my wife to die. I tucked my daughter’s blood-soaked face into my chest and, for the first time in my life, I ran.’
The air drifted from his lungs. Relief washed over him. The story was over. He gazed at the portrait of his father which hung on the wall and the bullet hole which punctured the glass.
‘Though neither of us could be heroes, I suppose.’
Lifting himself out of the shallow, moulding armchair, John dropped into the rickety desk chair that had once belonged to his old man. Cautiously, he reached over and picked up the rifle which rested against the desk and returned the blank, metallic stare of the barrel. It wasn’t quite the same model used by his father. Strange, though, that the thunder of gunpowder igniting, and a bullet being projected across a room, is always followed by an ominous, empty silence, were his final thoughts.
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