“A million years later, I feel like apologizing for the human race. That’s all I can say.”
—Kurt Vonnegut ("Galapagos")
It was such a small thing, insignificant in the grand scheme of it all. It was hardly worth any focus or attention. Enough about me though, the bullet was small too, in a different sense I guess. To be honest, I didn't even feel it when it first tore through my chest. The first thing I noticed was the damage it had done to my book. I had been walking down the street reading the last few pages of "Deadeye Dick", I was just at the part about Will Fairchild’s parachute (or lack thereof) when it happened.
There was a loud bang!, but before I could even register the sound; the pages of the book I had been reading exploded outward and spilled out onto the street. People scattered, but I was too busy reaching for the pages before the wind could steal them away from me. I sank to my knees and reached for the papers. For some reason, I couldn't breathe. At first, I thought it was a car backfiring, but when I looked up, I saw the gun withdrawing into the SUV that was speeding away. It wasn't until I looked down and saw the hole in my chest that I connected all the dots.
I had been shot.
The last thought that went through my head was, “The book, how did it end?” As far as last thoughts go, it was a bit lackluster. I hadn’t really thought profoundly on what my last thought should have been, but I was hoping for something a little more poignant to come forward in that moment. I collapsed onto my face and was dead within seconds. So it goes.
My story should have ended there, out on the pavement with blood spilling out of me, but it didn't. You could call it unresolved issues binding me to this mortal coil, but I think it was really just interest. I wanted to see what happened next. I chose to follow the path of Leon Trotsky Trout and watch the world continue on without me. I died there, but I didn't stop existing.
I watched as police cordoned off the area with tape and tried to discourage rubber-neckers. It didn't work. The sidewalk was soon crowded with people trying to see over the shoulders of the police that were on the scene. The police tried to get witness statements, but nobody had anything noteworthy to say. They saw a black car speeding off and that was it.
The weight of it all slammed down on me like one thousand bricks. I was dead. I lingered there for a few hours, trying to make sense of it all, but I couldn't piece it together. How did this happen? How could this happen? I had so much I wanted to do; so much I needed to do. I had a family! I broke down only a few feet away from my body. It was then while I was crying that I shifted.
One moment, I was lying on the street, curled up in the fetal position, the next moment; I was in my house. I don’t know how much time had passed; I assumed a couple of days judging by the house’s appearance. It looked disheveled. Dust had begun to form and the counters were cluttered. I began to look for my parents, wondering if there was some way I could communicate with them.
I spent a few weeks with them. I kept hoping that they would come to some form of acceptance about my death or at least move on. They didn't. I screamed at them, begged for them to hear me, supplicated to God for some reprieve. Nothing. I could only watch them as they attempted to cope with the loss of their only son.
My dad, who was always such a quiet man, was now belligerent. The smallest things seemed to set him off: a call during dinner, stupid plot twists on a television show, even something as small as stubbing his toe on the coffee table resulted in a violent outburst. He shouted, spat, and swore. He was so angry, at everything, at the world, at himself. There was nothing left of him except a seething mass of anger at the injustice of the world.
My mom was even worse. It was as if the bullet that had torn through my chest had pierced her heart as well. She moved around the house with sunken eyes that were bloodshot, afraid to set off my dad. She tried to keep herself together around him, but it was obvious to both of them that she was nowhere near okay. She cried and spent most of her free time in my room, curled up on my bed and weeping.
My room had become a shrine with my mother being the only supplicant. Nothing in my room was touched; nothing was moved. She spent hours crying into my bedspread when she knew my dad was out. It served as a monument to her all-encompassing sadness. I tried so hard to make my words reach her, but they were as insubstantial as the wind. I wanted to tear apart my room, hurl my Vonnegut books against the wall, anything to ease some of my frustration, but there was nothing I could do. There was nothing I could do. There was nothing.
I left them a few days later. I couldn't stand to be in that mausoleum any longer. I couldn't see my father spend another day consumed by his rage at the injustice of the world or another night of my mother crying herself to sleep curled up with a toy I used to play with. I couldn't bear another second with them as they spiraled into depression. Call me weak if you want, but my only option was to run. I couldn't help them and I had no intention of seeing them self-destruct.
It was then that I made up my mind about what I needed to do. I could visit my friends, but chances were good that it would only make me more depressed. I could visit the girls I had a crush on, and never told, but what would be the point of that? I had to find him. I had to find the man who shot me from that black SUV and left my parents emotionally crippled. At the time, I didn't know what my intentions were, but now I think I knew what I wanted to happen all along. I wanted justice. I wanted retribution.
It didn't take too long to find him. I don’t know if it was some bond we shared, or just dumb luck. I mused to myself that Vonnegut must have been right when he proposed the Bokonist idea of a “karass” in his book “Cat’s Cradle”. This man and I were intrinsically linked. As soon as I saw him, I knew that I would be with him until the day he died.
He looked nothing like I imagined. If anything, he was younger than I was. He looked like he wasn't a day over sixteen. He even had acne for God’s sake! He was thin and lived in an apartment complex with his mother. She was a single mom so she spent most of her time at work, giving him free reign of their tiny apartment. He spent most of his time in his room listening to rap. I spent most of the day watching him in confusion.
How could this teenager have killed me? For what reasons did he have to pull the trigger?
I spent my first week there following him everywhere and watching him. Waiting to see some form of remorse or regret for his actions. He gave no indication that my death had impacted him in any way. He hung out with his friends, who looked like a bunch of suburban teenagers playing at being gangsters. There was one interaction that has been burned into my memory.
He had a friend over and they were both in his room crowded around his window, taking turns passing a joint back and forth. With each inhalation, both erupted in a flurry of coughs, betraying their obvious attempts to mask their inexperience. When they were both sufficiently stoned, his friend started in on him about the drive-by.
“How did it feel to pull the trigger?”
“Come on, nigga,” a statement made awkward considering that they were both lily white, “it was just a twitch of the finger. Nothing more.”
“But you could get caught, I mean you killed-”
My murderer interrupted, “Cops ain't gonna do shit, just another drive-by, just another typical Sunday. As for the punk I capped, his dumb-ass was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was all part of initiation, right? Now the others will know we’re serious.”
That was the end of it. They tried their best to air the pot smell out the room, but the words he spoke hung around me like a malicious miasma. His words echoed around in my brain, beating and tearing into me. I made myself a promise as I stood watching them joke and laugh, I would return the favor. I would drill my words into him like a bullet through his chest.
Every night, as he lay in his bed, I glided up to his sleeping form. I bent down and whispered in his ear. I whispered of the horrible fate that awaited him. I murmured my murderous machinations to him throughout the night. I intimated my intentions of what I was going to do to him once he died and entered my plane of existence. I was going to tear him apart, limb from limb and piece by piece. I was going to turn his after-life into hell, because I couldn't impact him in this life.
I whispered throughout the night to his sleeping form. Much like my previous attempts at communication, it failed. He gave no indication of having heard me, but that didn't stop me from doing it. It was a cruel compulsion. It gave me a reason to exist. I spent the day haunting him and thinking of wretched words to whisper to him at night.
The change was almost imperceptible at first. I had been whispering his sins into his ears for a week now, and I was just about ready to give up and resign myself to my fate when it happened. On the eighth night, my killer rolled over in his sleep and I heard the faintest sound. It sounded like a whimper, some pained response to my tireless labors. That one action, that small sound caused me to re-double my efforts.
Was I able to reach him somehow?
I had managed to intimate a message to someone. I was ecstatic. Maybe, with time, I could learn to control this gift. I had to keep talking to him. I had to keep tormenting him. The thought never crossed my mind to return to my parents and attempt some form of reconciliation or help them move on. I was too busy with the man who had put me in this position. I think that’s my greatest regret in all of this. I had an opportunity to try and help my parents move on, but instead I chose to torment my killer.
As time went on, he began to sleep more fitfully. He would toss and turn as my words echoed unheard into his ears. He began eating less and less. He would pick at his food, enough to trick his mother into believing that he was eating. He began to grow thin. Still I whispered my midnight maledictions to him.
He stopped hanging out with his wannabe gangster friends. He became withdrawn and stopped speaking to people as he grew more and more morose. Still I whispered my curses and invectives. He would sneak off at times during the day, wiping away tears. At night, he would breakdown, crying into his pillow in an attempt to smother the sound. Still I whispered.
He wasn't the only one that was beginning to crumble away. My metamorphosis began as something almost imperceptible. It started with my skin beginning to crack. Tiny fissures spread along my flesh, revealing decaying tissue underneath. My skin turned mottled and gray. I couldn't see my entire body, but I was certain that if I could, it would be similar to that of a moldering corpse.
I reasoned that it was an effect of my body decomposing. My ghostly form was still linked to my body in someway. As it rotted, so did my current form. I wondered what would happen to me if enough time passed. Would I be reduced to mummified remains or would the worms pick me apart, leaving me a skeleton? Either way didn't matter to me, I was too busy tormenting him. I wouldn't stop, couldn't stop.
I continued my malevolent midnight mantras to him for two more weeks before the end came. I had started whispering to him at all hours of the day by then. He hadn't left his room at all that weekend. He just sat in darkness as I told him of my hatred from him and how it would be better if he died. Upon uttering those words, the floodgates shattered. My words couldn't reach him, but maybe my sentiments did.
He shot up from his bed as if galvanized and began tearing down posters, throwing his stuff around the room, and venting his emotions. His mom heard the commotion and began knocking on his door. He ran across the room and locked the door before she could open it. She asked him what was wrong and that was when he began his confession. The words spilled out of him like blood from a bullet hole.
He wept, “I-I killed him. I did-didn't mean to. They said I had to do something to prove I wanted into the gang, that I would be willing to do anything for them. I thought if I pulled the trigger, but missed him, it would be good enough. It was an accident; I swear I didn't mean to shoot him! I didn't- Oh God, I didn't! I-”
I could almost hear the gears in her brain turning to try and connect the dots. It only took a few seconds before there was a loud thud on the other side of the door as she collapsed under the weight of his revelation, her breath stolen away from her. He began tearing apart his closet, looking for something. He found it and returned to the bed, cradling the object like it was a precious gift.
The gun looked heavy in his grip, almost comically large in his small hands. He sat down and thumbed the safety off. I was surprised he could even manage that through his tears. He turned the gun back-and-forth in his hands as if trying to figure something out. He must have reached a conclusion because he took a deep breath, wiped away his tears, and spoke:
“I’m sorry mom.”
A quote from “Cat’s Cradle” reverberated through my mind upon hearing those words. “Now I will destroy the whole world.”
Was this what I wanted?
He turned the barrel towards himself and raised it to his head. He wrapped his lips around the cold steel and I could hear his teeth chattering and clicking against the barrel. The sound of the hammer being fanned back brought everything into a twisted and sobering light. He was going to kill himself.
I should have felt happy, but all I felt was sickness in my stomach. It felt like there was something lodged in my throat, but no amount of swallowing could dislodge it. I didn't want to see this; I didn't want to know that I had caused all of this. I turned to leave, but there was something in my way. It stood in front of the door and blocked off my retreat.
The being was hard to describe. The best explanation I can give of it was that it was static-y and blurry. I couldn't make out a definite form, but it seemed vaguely humanoid in appearance. The air around it shimmered like I was looking at hot asphalt on a desert road. I didn't have much time to examine it, as it spoke as soon as it was sure I had seen it.
“It’s too late to turn away now. Watch what happens next, knowing that there is little to no difference between him pulling the trigger and you.”
I felt myself being turned towards the boy on the bed. I didn't see the entity move, but I felt it exerting its influence over me. I couldn't turn away. I watched as he struggled to breathe around the gun in his mouth. His mother’s wailing drowned out his whimpering. He closed his eyes and I knew what was coming next. I couldn't turn away. I couldn't shut my eyes. He squeezed the trigger.
I stood over his body. He was pitched back over his bed. There was a small dribble of blood coming from the wound. He twitched spasmodically as the last little spark of life he had in him was extinguished. I heard his mother ramming the door in an attempt to break through and reach him. It was too late for him. He was gone. It was too late for me as well. The static-y figure approached me and I knew that my time here was almost done. I just had one last question I wanted answered.
“H-how did it end?” I meant the book, “Deadeye Dick.” After all this time, I still wanted to know. The transparent being shifted and although I couldn't see its face, I knew that it was smiling.
It told me how it ended and I wept bitter tears.
I told the thing that I was ready. His form shifted with what I assumed was a nod. I was ready to leave this world. I felt myself floating up and I let myself be taken. I sank into myself and began to weep again. I thought I wanted revenge, but this all felt wrong. I had taken his life just like he’d taken mine. The only difference between us was intention. He hadn't meant to kill me, I had wanted to kill him. The being tried to carry me, but it wasn't long before I felt myself sinking through its embrace. My soul was far too heavy to be carried.
I wish I could say that the years passed by in the blink of an eye, but that wouldn't be the truth. They dragged by slowly. I suffered under each crawling hour. I filled the first few years watching my parents, unable to do anything as they self-destructed. I thought the news of my killer’s confession would bring some form of solace to them, but it didn't. If anything, it only made matters worse.
My father began drinking himself into oblivion. He would stay out at all hours of the night and wouldn't return home until he could barely walk. Sometimes he would pick a fight in the bar in an attempt to forget about what happened to me. It never worked. His last moments were actually in the alley behind a bar four years after my death. He picked a fight with a kid who he unjustly blamed for his shortcomings. The man laid him out in the alley with a single punch and left him there. As he was face-first on the concrete, he drowned in his own sick.
My mother’s end was no better. The news of my father’s death was too much for her. She survived a few months after his death, but her heart wasn't in it. She swallowed a bottle of pain medication left over from an old surgery. She spent her last moments on my bed waiting to overdose with an old sweater I used to wear across her lap. As the end approached, she reached out as if she could see me standing only a few feet away from her. She couldn't, if she did, she would have cried out in terror.
I had deteriorated so much by that point that I wasn't even recognizable. My stomach had become tumescent and my flesh began weeping a milky substance. My eyes have completely withered in my head, but I can still see. My skin has become leathery and cracked, but I can still feel. The worst part of it all is that I know I am stuck here. The after-life has been barred to me. I am trapped here, left to watch the world that I no longer care about.
It took a few more years for me to figure it out. By this time, all my friends had passed away and I had nothing to occupy my time except my thoughts. I finally figured out why I look this way. It had nothing to do with my corpse. My appearance was directly impacted by my interaction with the boy who killed me. It wasn't due to my body decomposing; it was my soul rotting.
“You want to know something? We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages – They haven’t ended yet.”
—Kurt Vonnegut (Last line of "Deadeye Dick")
Written by EmpyrealInvective