It is a dark pre-dawn late in January. The sun is still an hour away from the horizon, and hazy light from a street lamp across the way casts a ghostly, lambent glow in a rectangle falling from the window of a bedsit.
Erratic, raspy panting disturbs the silence of the room.
John wakes up convulsively. He is clammy with cooling sweat, and draws in his fist to bite hard at the thick pad at the base of his thumb. He gathers up the smothering echoes of staccato gunshots, the blood, the screams, the dust; and pushes them down, down, until they are locked tight in a trunk at the very bottom of his mind. He deflects those images with sheer will, not ease. He reminds himself to breathe.
When the paralysis has faded, and the shaking come and passed, he unclenches his teeth. The clear indentations of incisors and molars on the heel of his hand will fade throughout the day. Until they are refreshed in the next dawn.
He sits up and awkwardly pulls himself to his feet, grip tight on the bedside table, and fumbles for his cane. Stiff and splintered, he lurches towards the shower to wash off the sour residue of the night; to cudgel his body into facing another empty day.
He flicks his fingers through towel-dried hair as he lowers himself to the straight-backed wooden chair in front of his desk. The sky has lightened, but it is not yet dawn. His laptop sits in front of him; it does not beckon. Not the empty blog (“Nothing ever happens to me.”), nor porn, nor the Internet's funniest cat videos. It is as gray as his life.
From the drawer he pulls his SIG, the cool weight comfortable in his hand. He lays it on the desk for a minute, fingers resting gently on top, and then, with a fluttering tap, he lifts his hand again to reach for his ammo. He ejects the magazine, punctiliously loads it, pushes it in with a solid click, and chambers the first bullet. As he does every dawn, he slides the barrel into his mouth. Slow. Deliberate. He allows it to be messy, doesn't try to fold the interior of his mouth away in order to keep the weapon dry. His lips caress, his tongue curls against the bottom of the muzzle. He touches it with cheeks, palate, teeth and saliva. All the way back, until it nudges coldly against his uvula, nestles between his tonsils.
After months of this, he's learned to bypass his gag reflex. His throat relaxes, opens to an old friend.
The flavor of steel bites against indifferent taste buds. The slick taste of gun oil bleeds through his mouth. He doesn't deep-throat the gun. This isn't a sexual thing. He aims it competently. It is tilted fractionally downward against the back of his throat, targeted steadily at the base of his skull. The most fatal blow, for a mouth-shot. Then, jaw lax and receptive, he waits.
Is it today? When he chooses to stop fighting? Gives up the gossamer facade he holds up throughout the day? He's not sure why he bothers with a pretense at all. The chip and pin machine is indifferent to whether he's cheerful or gloomy. Harry can't interpret his expressions from the bottom of her current bottle. Ella is no more than an assigned veteran therapist: her brand of caring is professional and turns on and off like a spigot for one hour per week.
It is the sad truth, cutting and indomitable, that there is no one in his life. No one vivid. No one warm. No one who’d mourn. Well, Harry would mourn of course, by drinking still more, but otherwise wouldn’t be affected. Most days he feels that he walks through London encased in a bubble, nothing touches him; he is isolated. Detached. Reality keeps receding into a blur, filled with fluttering paper dolls of people that he cannot touch. Really, there is nothing to even say goodbye to that he has not already lost.
He waits, eyes closed. He slides his tongue gently on the muzzle, blood-warm now, lets the inner surfaces of his lips rest against the trigger guard. Gun oil has filled his mouth with the pungency of sorrow and memories.
Today is not the day.
John opens his eyes, lets them drop briefly closed again. He does not know if it is bravery or cowardice which keeps him going, and he curses both. The SIG slides out. A tiny strand of saliva joins man and pistol for a moment before it snaps and drops, lying along wet, cooling steel.
Though it was steady five minutes prior, John’s hand spasms again as he wipes his mouth. He gives himself a minute, head bowed prayer-like, gun under his trembling fingers on the desk.
He draws a wavering breath, and begins the ritual. Disassembly. Magazine out. He snaps the slide to empty the chamber: click, eject. The bullet that might have drilled through his spinal cord is popped out, to roll innocently on the desk. Slide off, barrel out, spring assembly: check. He takes his box of tools out of the drawer and pulls out his brushes, his cloths, the solvent and oil. The pieces of the gun and the tools to clean it are laid, neat and orderly, across the desk blotter. He can spend up to 45 minutes cleaning his service weapon, and often does.
Because what else would he do with his time?
He dips his brush in solvent and begins. The slow drag across the interior of the slide, scooping into the grooves of the slide rails; the push in through the muzzle of the barrel, the gentle twist, reminiscent of intercourse; an in and out that never culminates in ecstasy (It could, it could, his deviant brain sings, in the instant before the bullet is discharged, you would feel like you never have before, John, it would be worth it). He drips a tiny bit of oil on all the moving parts, rubbed in delicately with the sensitive edge of his forefinger. And then the cloth, the final rubdown, when his hands always linger, feeling the unyielding contours of familiar metal, tracing the shape of the gun, checking every dip and angle and scratch.
He obliterates every trace of his morbid morning kiss.
When he is done, he sits for another minute, just breathing. And then he cleans his desk and puts everything away.
John limps down Regent Street, hand tight and resentful around his cane. It is painfully cold, but he doesn't shiver. It's a sign of pride. He just keeps every muscle tensed. His shoulders are hunched and he looks stolidly ahead; his inclination is to stare at the ground, but that's too much like defeat, which he'll only admit to at dawn.
The lunch crowd has dispersed from the pavements, thankfully, and John is no longer being jostled by other passers-by.
It doesn't even register.
John does stop at that. Could someone possibly be calling him? Who on earth knows him here in Central London?
“It's me. Mike,” says a rotund, bespectacled gentleman standing in the doorway of an antique shop. “Mike Stamford.”
John smiles politely, but bells aren’t ringing in his memory.
“I know. I got fat.”
Oh. Oh, yes. Lord, it's been nearly fifteen years. “Mike. Of course.”
They shake hands and smile awkwardly at each other for a bit. Mike wants to know what John's been doing with himself.
The short answer is Getting shot.
Mike buys him a coffee and then drags John into the antique shop. “Twelfth Anniversary,” he says proudly. “Got to get the wife a little something.”
“Ah,” says John. He grimaces and hopes it will pass for a smile. “Congratulations.”
“Got anyone special?” Mike asks as he thumbs over a ghastly collection of patinaed brass puppies.
John examines an old phonograph player and begins to flip through mildewed records. “No. No.” It sounds abrupt. “Haven't been back very long,” he hedges.
“Where are you staying?” Mike wants to know.
“Godawful beige bedsit, for now,” John replies before he can filter himself.
Mike laughs sympathetically. “Alright mate,” he consoles. “At least you're here in London. I know there's no place you'd rather be.” He looks around, reaches past piles of Mardi Gras beads and grabs a framed Abbey Road poster. “All you need is some decoration stuff to jolly the place up. The wife swears by it.”
John squints at the picture through the scratched, foggy plastic that takes the place of proper glass. “Yeah. Right.” He laughs, thin and rusty from disuse. “Maybe something else.”
Mike collects a mushroom-shaped teapot with two matching mugs for the wife and then begins a game of foisting the most dreadful things he can find on John.
A pink lamp with plastic ‘crystals’ dangling round the circumference.
A plastic statue of Ganesh, minus two arms and with a broken trunk, stuffed into a birdcage.
A ventriloquist dummy that had been repainted by someone with the artistic ability of a hyperactive two-year-old.
A moth-eaten faux zebra rug, stained and ragged.
A fake tree decorated with dyed feathers and glued over with grubby, molting birds.
John hasn't laughed in a long time, and his heart is lighter, unfamiliar, as they round the last dimly lit enclave and head up towards the register.
Mike grabs a red pillow with marabou trimmings and tosses it at John as he plunks down his teapot.
“Mate, you've got to get something.” His round face beams, Geordie lilt gentle and teasing.
John grimaces a bit. “Alright, then...” He looks around. There's a long bookshelf near the counter made of water-damaged pressboard. It's dusty, like everything else, and there's a tattered spiderweb in the back corner. John stoops to look at the very bottom shelf, as if there might be something interesting there that no one else found because they weren't crawling around on hands and knees. He sticks his head behind the legs of a seven-foot wooden giraffe with a broken ear. There, on the bottom shelf, is a shoebox filled with time-stained tatted anti-macassars, a dented desk globe, a pile of lucky rabbit's feet, and a scrambled cluster of cheap Chinese enameled lamp-shaped jewel boxes.
In the very corner is a real lamp, gracefully shaped, with a spout for pouring oil. Or perhaps that is where the wick goes; he isn’t sure. The cap on top is a crescent moon, swiveled so that the horns point up. It has a slim chain leading to a looped handle and John is instantly enamored. The matte iron is extremely dull next to the glittery glory of the mass produced lamps beside it, but John thinks that renders it more meaningful. He can relate to these scratches and ingrained dirt. Damaged, like me. He pulls it solicitously out and lurches back up.
He grins at Mike. “Alright, then, mate. I'll take this.”
Mike looks confused. “That's not decorative. It's not even colorful. Why don't you get one of those others?”
John wrinkles his nose. “I don't want one of the others. Besides, it looks functional. I'll get some oil on the way home, see if I can light it up. Or some incense, perhaps. It'll add atmosphere.”
Mike good-naturedly shrugs his shoulders. He is not really invested.
They part ways outside, Mike heading back to Barts now that his lunch-break is over, and John limping back to the bedsit via several shops. He gets lamp oil, a wick, and a slim package of Nag Champa incense in case the lamp part doesn’t work out.
He feels more alive today than he has in months, and he grimaces, wry and sad at himself for getting so excited over a dirty old metal lamp. How pitiful is his life?
But he doesn't let himself dwell on that.