They say our instincts act in a split second.
My head was ringing, my jaw clenched. It was a cold windy night, the alley not any kinder. I pulled my coat tighter around myself. My body was fighting the cold, but the fear coursing through seemed to warm it enough to make my clenched fists sweat. I wanted to put my hand into my pocket but knew that won’t do me any good at this point.
I kept seeing him out of the corner of my eyes, grinning, his eyes lit up like he’s happy right where he is. He looked better than the last time I saw him, more alive. He didn’t look a day over how he looked then, brown eyes, caramel skinned, his clothes the same as that day. I suppose that’s just what happens when you go through something like that. It is what it is.
It was quiet, the stillness almost suffocating. I wanted to get it over with, but time seemed frozen just like the air around me. Some stragglers went past us, but other than the odd look now and then, they didn’t seem to suspect anything. So we waited, him and I, paused in that moment, feeling every breath leave my body, every whisper of wind through my hair, afraid to make any movement that might break this trance. But even as my eyes were wide open, I could see that day play out.
It was about a year ago.
“There has been a mistake. The officer will be punished suitably. We are truly sorry.”
He stood beside me, an officer hat in his hands. I couldn’t meet his eyes. Nor hers. I couldn’t imagine that this day will end like this. And the worst part is, it was all my fault.
Why did this happen?
I don’t remember who, I just remember a voice asking those words. The sweat in my clenched fists almost felt like his blood on my hands.
“We can’t begin to say how sorry we are. We got a distress call from someone passing through that there seemed to be a suspicious individual in the neighbourhood. Our officers on call were closeby and responded to it and it just so happened that he fit the description.”
Have you heard a gunshot?
I have. I think its sharp, like a clap maybe? No, no, its dull, slipping past like a breeze. Honestly, you can’t really describe it. It is just a sound that rings around your head. It feels like it has a life of its own, and when it is through with you, all you are left with is wondering what ghosts it left behind.
I thought I’d never pick up something again that could make that sound. Never feel the cool metal beneath my fingertips.
Her voice rang in my head. It did ever since that day. The wailing of an inconsolable mother. A mother who lost her world in what to some was a split second instinct.
What could console her? Was there any punishment that would feel just in this world? Was there any in the universe? Her cries made me wonder every day.
A mandatory leave of absence sure doesn’t. Why else would I find myself here?
“What could you possibly have imagined a 10 year old capable of committing? Enough to warrant him a fatal wound?” The voice choked out the words. “He’s a child! H-He was ...”
The words just buzzed in my ears. My throat felt clogged, like I couldn’t speak despite desperately wanting to.
It continued. “I was just there. I had asked him to wait out on the lawn for me, for just a moment. To wait, on OUR LAWN!” Eyes squeezed shut, fingers pressed tightly to stop the tears. “Why would you think my boy standing on our lawn made him the first suspicious individual huh? A 10 YEAR OLD! He listened to his father and simply stood there, and he was killed at his own house! What world are you protecting us from if you are the ones going around killing us?!”
I could stay silent no more.
“Now listen here, mister, that is no way to talk to an officer...”
“Jerry, shut up. Sir, again, as we explained, he made a sudden turn which was why the officer had to act quickly. We can’t discriminate between criminals based on age ...”
“But you can based on colour. That’s what this is about, isn't it?”
Her voice rang out.
The man looked like he wanted to speak out. He then looked at me in the eyes, hazy with the need to defend his comrade but he could see that in the depths of this day, nothing else could explain why it happened. Nothing else could say why an innocent boy with a brown eyed smile had to die. Nothing but the caramel of his skin.
“We were just going to the park. My wife had gone ahead earlier to get the birthday picnic set up but she texted me about some things she forgot. I didn’t want him to see, that’s why I told him to wait out in the lawn. It would have barely been a couple of minutes. Just a couple of minutes.”
Hopelessness rimmed that voice. It crawled over my skin, making me want to throw up my insides.
“He turned around because he heard me close our door. He saw your guns and understood the danger it posed. He was scared and he looked for his father to protect him. Was that so wrong? In the end, though, it got him killed.”
It sounded like someone who had lost all purpose. Someone who just wanted to give up. But that was a year ago.
“You remember me, don’t you?”
This voice no longer belonged to the helpless father from a year ago. This was one that knew what its sole purpose in life is, and would do anything to get to it.
And it’s hands held clenched in the pocket of its coat the one tool that help it get to it.
I could see the recognition etched in his eyes, the face that came to me every night in my sleep, eyes that then seemed so hateful now filled with something I couldn’t quite understand. He was frozen, just like I, the midnight air speaking the words we couldn’t.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget a face from that day.”
His voice, I wanted to say, sounded smug. But there was something off about it, like my appearance after disappearing for a year didn’t affect him at all. And that bothered me.
He continued. “I saw it in your eyes that day, you know.” He smiled. “I saw them burning with a desire for justice. And I remember it every time I dream of firing that shot.”
It almost seemed like he was goading me, as though he wanted me to act before even I myself desired it. My fingers tensed around the metal, wanting to pull it out yet not wanting to give him the satisfaction.
“Do you now? A murderer who remembers his victim, how ironic.” I sneered at him. It only seemed to make him grin wider. I didn’t have to imagine I heard smugness in his voice to get triggered by his smile.
My clenched fists felt colder now with the metal in them exposed to the air. He held his hands up in mockery.
“Shh, Arthur, the doctors will fix you right up, its okay.” I looked away, holding his hand tighter in mine. My other hand was holding pressure to his chest, but even the slightest shift felt like he life was slipping away right beneath my fingertips.
“Daddy?” I couldn’t look at his eyes. He always had a light that in them I could look towards to make any day better. But today was different.
Because today, it was fading.
I met his brown eyes, and in that moment, I wanted to scratch away my skin till it all but bled just to see if it makes his stop. “It’s going to be okay, I promise.”
He closed his eyes. “Sleepy, daddy ...”
“Arthur”, I shook him, “Arthur?”
The fear of God struck his eyes at that moment. He looked like he was about to turn, so I held the gun with both hands. “Don’t move!”
He froze, and it gave me a moment to see where the voice came from. He stood behind him, a boy of 7, maybe 8, and he was shivering. I’d like to say it was because of the cold but I but deep down, I didn’t have to guess the reason why. I looked away from him.
“Jim.” He spoke with his hands still held up. “Jim, what are you doing here?”
The boy’s eyes started to fill with tears. “M-mom told me to come l-look for you”, his voice choked.
“Go back to mommy, Jim, its going to be okay. Just go back to mommy.”
That’s when I turned the gun to the boy. All this time, he looked unbothered, but the fear in his eyes now looked exactly what I needed.
“Don’t!” he shouted, pleading in words he didn’t say. “He’s just a boy.”
I sneered. “So was mine! Now you’ll know how that feels!”
The words rang in my ears, but it didn’t make sense. Every day for the past year I dreamt of all the ways his face would look like pleading for his life, but none of those faces matched the man before me.
He smiled sadly. “You see him still, don’t you?”
Arthur stood beside the boy now, his caramel smile nowhere to be seen. Instead his eyes were fearful, just as they were that day.
“I do too. Every day. That’s why I resigned after the leave of absence. I kept remembering I chose to fire every time I picked up the gun. I knew you were looking into me, that one day you’d come for me. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of what I deserve.”
I felt as though my brain was finally putting together the pieces from tonight. Everything I found off about his demeanour, from his voice to him smile, it all made sense. For the look in his eyes that I couldn’t understand before, it was not smugness or fear. It was acceptance.
“Why should I believe you?”
He smiled, “I can’t tell you why.” His eyes turned, “Just let the boy go, I beg you. He doesn’t deserve it just as much as Arthur didn’t.”
I finally looked into the boy’s eyes. He was more human to me than anyone’s ever been in the last year, his light no different from my son’s. As I looked on, the ocean blue of his eyes changed color slowly. Now all that stared back was a brown eyed smile that slowly died every second my gun continued to point to it.
What am I doing?
You are no different from him.
My hands shook. But the man didn’t seem keen to use my moment of weakness to escape. He stood still, like a man who had nowhere else he wished to be.
The light in Arthur’s eyes were no longer dying. In fact, they seemed to start glowing. I put the gun back into my pocket.
“GO! Before I change my mind!”
He kept his eyes on me while walking backwards, protecting the boy from my line of fire with his body. If only I could’ve done the same that day.
They were gone and I fell to the ground defeated. Where was the justice I sought? Why do I still feel like clawing my chest out? What could I do?
I screamed out into the night, until I could no more.
It was quiet now.
My hands hung limply by my side, my coat sifting softly in the breeze, brushing every now and then against my hand. My fingers were cold, the ground freezing. I put them into my pocket but there was no more room, so my fingers clenched around the gun. I don’t know how much time passed, only that I was down on the ground waiting for something to happen.
“Sleep, daddy ...”
I heard my second gunshot. I still couldn’t say what it sounded like. But it was quiet now, and so I just closed my eyes and slipped into a dreamless sleep.