By Thomas Sanders
Runner-up of the HT22 Short Fiction competition judged by Brian Catling.
Rain slipped from the leaden sky as Andrew lifted the revolver from its box. It had been a long, wet winter. His clothes seemed perpetually damp, black mould bloomed in the corners and behind the cupboards of his flat, even his acne seemed to feed on the ever-present wetness. It had been a losing war against the tide of damp, fought with dehumidifiers, antifungal sprays, and skin cleansers.
He regarded the weapon. Snub-nosed, with the coiled menace of a snake, shimmering with strange blues, it made his heart quicken. Outside, the crackle of fireworks heralded the approach of the New Year.
He had inherited the revolver from his grandfather. As a child, he had watched as the old man arranged the solvent, bore brush, oil, and cleaning rag on the table like a toilette, the weapon laid down reverently on a lint cloth. The slow and methodical pace of the cleaning – the swish of the brush, the smell of the oil - had hypnotised the young Andrew. On his 18th birthday, he found a box waiting for him on the kitchen table. “It’s yours now,” said his grandfather, “take care of it”. He’d been so elated that he had not stopped to wonder why he had been given it. Weeks later, the old man was in the ground. It made sense, the speed of it. An ambush was the only thing that could have taken the tough veteran out. Andrew had envied his resilience, his discipline, his stoicism. His grandfather had taught him to find solutions and told him that a man did not complain, that it killed the soldier inside him each time he did—a strange thing to say, even for him.
Andrew had finally accepted that life had not gone his way. Broke, isolated, and strung out, he had eked out a living writing music, his bank account reliant on the uncertain streams of five different zero-hours contracts. He often went days at a time without speaking to another human being. If this year was going to be like the last one or the one before it, he was happy to cash out. He had tried to write a goodbye note once, found it impossible to say anything sincere that did not sound like a song he had once heard or the complaints and justifications of a child.
He took a bullet from the box and pushed it into the cylinder. The plan had been taking shape for a while, and he had decided that New Year's Day was the time to execute it. Once a day, in the evening, he would spin the cylinder, lift the revolver to his head, and pull the trigger. Rinse and repeat until desired result achieved. This was the coward's way out par excellence: by leaving his life in the hands of chance, he would avoid the inertia brought on by the knowledge of certain death. And after they found his body, after they cleaned the pink mist of brain and blood from his room, his mother and sister could reassure themselves that it had all been some horrible accident – a gamble, a drunken error of judgement, and not a decision to die.
Slowly, he lifted the revolver to his head, kissing his acne-ridden temple with the cold barrel. At least this would solve his acne problem, he thought. Suddenly, he remembered the feeling of standing on the diving board at the public pool as a child, heart hammering, trying to summon the courage to jump. The trick was to not think, to short circuit the mind; just act! Just act! He spun the chamber, took a deep, shuddering breath, and squeezed the trigger. The hammer clicked.
The next day, Andrew woke up early, got dressed, and stepped outside. He walked to the local park and found children playing on the swings, their parents regarding him with polite suspicion. He gave them an uneasy smile. He spent the day wandering around the neighbourhood, trying and failing to get lost in the familiar streets.
That night, he locked his bedroom door, slid the box from under the bed, and took out the gun. It seemed harder to lift the weapon, as though it had grown heavier overnight. He took a long swig from the bottle of vodka, spilt some on the desk, started cleaning it, and laughed at the absurdity. Then put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
A week passed. The game of Russian roulette had become a ritual, like brushing his teeth. The vodka, the pulling of the trigger, the click. He examined the revolver carefully, checking for defects, and found none. If he was to play the game, he’d play it fairly. He cleaned it every morning, taking pride in its sleek, oiled appearance. The days lengthened; shards of sunlight cut through the clouds. Death, it seemed, did not want him quite yet.
After nine days, he went to the gym. It was full of New Year's patrons, uncertain and self-conscious, staring at the floor or their phones. He warmed up, bench pressed, did a few sets of curls with 2.5kg on each side of the bar, pushed his embarrassment down. Instead, he focused on the stir in his blood and the feeling of his muscles swelling against his skin. After he was done, In the changing room, two men were laughing uproariously, mid-conversation. One was naked except for a pair of socks, his muscles gleaming in a post-workout glow, one foot perched arrogantly on the bench, his cock poking from a tangle of pubes. Glancing at the mirror, Andrew felt a spasm of self-consciousness as he regarded his unkempt beard and long, lanky hair.
The next day, he went to the barber.
"I'd like it gone, please."
"Gone?" said the barber, a large man with what looked like burn marks running across the left side of his face.
The barber gestured towards the chair.
Andrew stared at himself in the mirror. Was it the lighting, or had his acne receded? Maybe the gun had scared it into submission. He stared at the heavy instruments, the razors, the clippers, and the mysterious jars of blue liquid. Barbicide. Is that when barbers commit suicide?, he thought, grinning.
"What's funny?" said the barber. For a second, Andrew felt like telling him about the gun. He shrugged. The barber unwrapped a razor, coated his face in cream, and dragged the sharp edge across, the metal cold on his skin.
It was windy on the walk home, and the cold of the breeze was shocking on his red, raw face. In the local off-licence, he bought beer instead of vodka. The girl behind the counter, blonde, with blue, glassy eyes like fishbowls, stared at him as he placed the cans on the table.
"What's wrong?" he asked, surprising himself.
The fishbowls flashed. A smile rippled over her face. "I didn't recognise you."
He smiled nervously, paid, and left.
That night he pulled out the gun with a flourish, like a cowboy, and spun it around one finger. Do you feel lucky, punk? His newfound confidence reminded him of something his grandfather had used to tell him. What was it he had said about war? It was that soldiers on the front lines of battle had to convince themselves that they were charmed, elect.
Clutching a gift from a loved one or a battered bible, they assured themselves that the bullet with their name on it would never find them. Their faith made them fierce; their fierceness kept them alive; their survival made their belief in the power of these charms even stronger. It had always been that way, his grandfather had told him, since man first invented war.
Maybe, thought Andrew, we are all immortal in our own reality. Each time we die, our consciousness branches into a world in which we keep on living. Others die in our world, but we are cursed to continue forever in our own. Perhaps death would forever be denied to him.
He scowled. Where was all this nonsense coming from? This time, the familiar stab of self-loathing made it easy to pull the trigger.
For a moment, he considered the maths, the probabilities. Logically, each day presented him with a one in six chance of death, odds that would appeal to all but the most fearful gambler. How could the outcome of one day affect the next? Perhaps he was no longer in the realm of coincidence, perhaps he was. If each day was only one in six, was it so unlikely that he was here, alive, uncsathed? What could be surprising about the failure of the unlikely to occur?
He summoned the courage to ask the girl from the shop on a date. They sat opposite one another and drank – him beer, her half lemon, half lime with a splash of tonic. Her name was Kate; she liked disco music and Taiwanese cuisine. She wanted to write for TV; she was working on a script about a woman who lived in a department store, hiding from the shoppers and security guards, emerging each night to graze on the food that filled the shelves.
Hours in, during a lull in the conversation, she screwed up her face, looked right at him and said:
"I'm going to kiss you now."
Andrew thought about his acne, about the revolver, and then he didn't think about anything at all. As they kissed, someone at a nearby table laughed and threw a crumpled-up receipt at them. It missed them both entirely.
They stayed late, her monopolising the jukebox, leaning on him, laughing, singing along. He handed her pound coins for the slot, one after another. Every time he gave her one, he felt lighter, and by the time she kissed him goodbye, he was weightless, free. Walking home, he narrowly avoided being hit by a car; the horn blaring at him. The world was on his side.
Was he being kept alive for some purpose, like the playwright before the firing squad in the Borges story? He considered his music, his mother, Kate. He thought, foolishly, about his grandfather protecting him from beyond. If he were a guardian angel, he mused, he probably wouldn't have bequeathed him a revolver. Unless… This was how one went mad, he thought. Trust the maths. Trust the plan. Click. Click. Click.
The next day, one of his zero-hours offered him a small raise and a guaranteed salary. He won ten pounds on a scratch card. On the TV in the gym, he saw a ship landing on Mars, to the begrudged amazement of the newscasters. That evening, he stood beside his bed, staring down into the darkness. Maybe it was time to stop, he thought.
He fetched the gun, examined it for the hundredth time. He opened the cylinder, rotated it once, twice. The bullet, fat and ugly as an insect larva, was hard to remove; he grunted with the effort. He rolled it in his fingers, held it up, and examined it closely. With growing horror, he saw the deep indent in the bullet’s base. That meant that the hammer had already struck more than once, each time failing to discharge the fatal shot. He had cheated––the bullet with his name on it was defective, a dud, a failure. He should have died a dozen times. He should be dead.
He dropped the gun, gagging. His ears filled with a high-pitched whining noise. His vision narrowed; his temples thrummed. He was not charmed; he was not elect. Death was certain, but he had failed to find it on his own terms. As he felt the colour drain from the room, the thought flashed into his head – the thought that he might never have the courage to try again. In the dark corners of the room, the black mould stirred.
THOMAS SANDERS is a graduate student in Creative Writing at Somerville College, Oxford. He is a writer, performer, and martial arts enthusiast. He is currently working on District Zero, a surreal and fantastic story set in the churning underworld of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Art by Kathlee Quaintance