“Okay,” I say, pointing the gun first away from my own head, then directing its aim at his forehead. “Your turn.”
A sense of comfort returns to Ned’s smile. It’s an infectious smile. I join him in the disease.
“Don’t pull it at once. You have to squeeze slowly,” he says.
“I know,” I say, “but not just yet.” I step closer and closer to him. His eyes are at the length of a head above mine, and I have to raise my gun-hand higher as the distance between us diminishes. His mouth is at about the level of my forehead and that’s where I bring the gun.
Ned’s smile flickers. It’s about to blow out, but it doesn’t. It stays like a stubborn ember, as a much more minute version of itself. Enflaming the pucker of his lips. Instinct, I guess. He knows where I’m going to bring the open hole of the gun.
“Open your mouth, Ned,” I say. He dare not refuse. I have a gun to his head. Even his O-shaped mouth seems to be full of mirth. I bring the gun closer. His eyes widen. His lips and those of the gun make a kissing couple. Then I shove further, the barrel is inside his mouth, with my finger hanging loose just above the trigger.
“Mmmff,” he says. Any person not watching would detect a hint of pleasure in that sound. Here, in Ned’s case, I know there is surprise, fear, submission, resignation, hope, and faith that this is not how he will die. Poor thing.
“I’ll make it easy for you, Ned,” I begin. “I won’t dole out my message in puffery. I won’t even cloak it in oceanic layers of waves upon waves of excuses disguised as reasons. There will be no subtextual undercurrents in what I fling from my larynx to your eardrums. You hear that, Ned? I’ll be direct.”
I shift my feet. He follows my lead, arms on his side. We both get comfortable where we are. I start again, trying harder to be direct, creases on my temple.
“Someone has to be sacrificed, Ned. And it could be me, of course. I’ve considered that. Taking power as a symbol, with its potential to be an abstract ideal, rather than as a living being, with all of life’s flaws, does sound appealing. I’ve seen it being done. You know, in the movie theatre, with drama, action and epic-scale music. The spectacle makes you think ol’ Braveheart’s sacrifice is akin to Christ’s. Tears. La dee da. The whole thing. But there’s got to be a way of becoming a symbol without crossing over, right? That’s rhetorical, so you don’t have to nod. I know you understand what I’m talking about. It’s pretty simple.”
Ned drools from one side of his mouth and “mmmfffs” in response.
“But then why you, Ned? Why did I pick you?” He’s right not to nod, because this bit is also rhetorical. “You’re just right for it, Ned. You fit the scheme like seeds belong in the ground. You’re the start of it all, Ned. I know, I know. You won’t get to see the whole thing. Even I won’t get to see the whole spectacle. None of us were meant to. But some of us do get the principle of it all. It’s not difficult, when you put your mind to it. It’s about what we want as human beings. That’s not complex at all, Ned. That’s not too indecipherable. We want lights, camera, action, symposium.”
My raised arm has numbed a little. To be expected. The man is moaning, questioning, but not panicking. I know he has not flown off the handle because he is amenable through alcohol, and I have lulled him further with my voice. He has not attempted to swat away the gun. It’s too late for that. When the gun was aimed at me, he could have saved my life. But he can’t save himself if he panics. I’ll fire. He knows it now.
“Mmmfffmmm,” he mumbles. Not bad. Spiritually different, for sure, but not too far off the high standards that Grandpa Pir established for indecipherable utterances.
“Are you ready to become part of the spectacle, Ned?” I ask. Unfortunately, this too is rhetorical. The gun’s barrel is coated on its open end with thick saliva. I sincerely hope the trickle doesn’t gravitate down the barrel onto my hand before the right moment comes. “I would ask you to kneel and be tested. And after that, I would ask you to rise and be welcomed to a new life. But it will be more difficult for me to do this if you’re kneeling, Ned.”
That shuffling sound outside the front door. It must be our awaited guest. But, oh no.
This could have been better. I could have actually explained everything to Ned, to give him a worthy ending. Knock, knock, knock, on the door. Not too tentative, is Guardian Greg. Not too ready, am I. Could have used a few more minutes with Ned here. The bouncing hulk and I stare at each other with our deepest fears bared. I don’t think it’s the gun that he fears, or the bullet, to be more precise. We do not move.
Knock, knock, knock, knock. The full three and four equals seven. It’s him. I keep looking at Ned and sigh with all my despair. “I’ll handle this,” I tell him, and say louder, “Come in.’
Ned’s eyes shift to the right corners of their sockets and he’s meaning to turn around.
But I nod at him and whisper, “Wait. Don’t do that. Just wait.”
The door opens and a thin voice asks to see me, Al. Ned has questions in his eyes, I have reassurance in my smile. Too bad we couldn’t cover everything. But at least we tried.
There’s Gregory Jeronimo, my Guardian boy. He brings joy and purpose in his voice, does Gary Guardian Jeremy, today of all days. Fitting, because now the three principals of today’s song and dance act are finally gathered on stage.
I keep the gun lodged in Ned’s mouth and peek around his body to look at the emotive reporter who has entered the inner sanctum. He must perform, or be performed at. This is the law that I was just beginning to get into with Ned. Makes me wonder if I shouldn’t have perhaps written out the speech before getting to the performance of it. That way, timing could have been tweaked, and this minor error of incomplete monologues would not have arisen.
Ned’s wide span is not easy to lean around while holding up my arm at the level of his face. But I achieve it while putting all the weight of the universe on one foot. Imagine that!
I line up the shot thinking mostly of the second sacrifice. And I face my demons. And I think to myself how much this is like thinking of someone else while having sex with your own wife. I tell GGGJ Greg to stay where he is. And I tweak the direction of the gun a smidgen to the right and down. And I breathe deeply, like an expert yogi in tree pose, to let oxygen and chi flow like a river up my tired, tired, fucking exhausted, arm.
And I start squeezing the trigger, cajoling metal parts of the gun to come closer to each other, slowly. And it takes forever to compress the thing enough. But then it snaps into position. And Ned’s head pops open from behind. I hear a sharp crack of wood, or wooden metal. I keep hearing it. My head rings like a bell with that thin and thick sound, it becomes an extended echo.
Ned’s head is no more. At least from the back, where the bullet made its way through the layers of his meaty flesh and nerves. Bodily viscera exude from him. Of course, Guardian’s dead too. The whole future-of-journalism is head-shot via mouth-shot through someone else’s body.
The single bullet stays firing in my head like an eternal recurrence. It always happened; it will also keep happening. There will be no person who does not hear this blast from a 38 or 45 for their entire life on Earth.
It was about time, though. It was definitely time.
I look at my dark clothes and notice one or two sprinklings of what can be passed off as thick bloody wine.
On the other hand, the floor is bespattered with brain and organic bits of flesh. Poor Ned, with his incomplete life. Hardly given any explanation. No more or less than Greg the Guardian is his dual-sacrifice partner. Maybe that’s enough consolation for the dead body.
In any case, he is cheaply, clearly departed.
I step over his body carefully to go to un-Guarded Greg’s. He’s quite done. Near the centre of his forehead is his leakage spot. But more than just the bullet that reached his body, he’s covered in brain matter from Ned’s head. Like a Pollock painting on a mannequin.
Greg Guardian Gary...lifeless, staring up to the ceiling. I can’t say anything to him now. But I still say something. I say, “You’re better off this way.”
I hear my voice. Every word comes out like a new version of the one gunshot. I hope my sense of hearing will return to normal.
Good fortune abounds. The sharp sound of the single bullet does its trick. It befuddles. Witnesses: none. Neighbours have heard a sound, but they can’t be sure. Video game? Film? They can’t be bothered to call this in, in this upper-middle-class neighbourhood. They won’t get involved. No siren rings in the five minutes I stay and watch the bodies settle into death.
Excerpted with permission from Call Me Al: The Hero’s Ha-Ha Journey, Sheheryar B Sheikh, HarperCollins India.