A version of this story was published in Fire Magazine a decade or so ago. The original was in second person, but this is a re-write in third.
YOU ARE HIS WORDS
There are wasps on the stairs, gliding up and down like reconnaissance planes. Rik sees a seething mound of them over a bag of peaches that someone’s dropped outside the door to the sixth floor hallway. His mother would exclaim at the waste of good fruit. He remembers something she said about wasps being bad-tempered in hot weather and he carefully dodges around them. One blips stupidly at the door of the flat and he waits for a few moments until the creature is well away from the door handle before he dives into family territory.
This is his patch; he’d know it blindfolded – just by the smell. That family mix of stale sweat and food; the pungent overtone of disinfectant.
Kat, his elder sister, is there already, sprawled across an armchair, half-dressed, watching TV, painting her nails in sticky red. She’s wearing matching red lipstick, applied thickly, and with her eye make-up looks like a cheap vampire. Grandmother’s snoring in the chair right by the set, though Kat has it turned up loud. Kat waves her blood-red nails in the air to dry them, ignoring her little brother, but that’s OK, as all she ever gives him is grief.
On the TV there’s some foreign programme, where everyone lives in a fancy house and drives around in a big car. That is not the real world. It is not like here.
Rik slips into the bedroom he shares with his parents, shutting the door on the television noise and pulling the thin curtain across his part of the room. He puts his schoolbag down carefully, listening for Kat’s sneaky, slidy feet outside the door. She has a way of knowing when he wants to be private and she’ll torment him if she thinks he’s keeping secrets. This time she’d be right, but she’d never guess what he has done. In his bag there is a big secret, a really big one. He half wonders if he really had the guts to take it, expecting to find only his battered school books when he unzips the bag. Ah, but yes, amongst the neglected books, is the greasy cloth-wrapped package. With both hands, he lifts it out and gently puts it on the bed. He picks away the edges of the cloth and peels away the shroud-like wrapping. The pistol he stole nestles there like the corpse of a metal bird. It is bigger than he remembers, uglier, more improbable. The grey, silky metal of it is cold, despite the heat. He strokes it hesitantly, noticing the grip has worn smooth in places. Surely it has killed someone? Rik thinks of the men who must have used it before him. The feel of death about it is thrilling, but scares him shitless at the same time. The Leader says that, to make progress, sometimes we have to walk hand in glove with fear.
In the bag, in a side pocket, the boy has hidden some ammunition. Picking up the gun, he slides in a clip just as he has seen the men do lots of times. Stretching out his arms, he manages to hold the gun steady enough to aim it. One does not have to be accurate to kill. A gun like this could blow a hole in a victim the size of a big fist even if the bullet just grazed him. Pushing aside the flowery curtain, the boy aims it at the jacket hung on the back of the door.
Squinting along the wavering sight, he can see the shocked faces of his father, mother, grandmother and sister; they all have their mouths open like fish on the hook. He squeezes the trigger gently, knowing he can take it so far before the gun goes off. His finger tingles, daring him to take it beyond the half-cocked position. His sense checks him – not yet – not yet! That would be stupid. In his mind though, he follows through, feeling the recoil, and sees the bullet leaving the muzzle in slow motion. It slowly rips a hole through the door, slowly moves through the room where Kat and Grandmother are sitting, their faces contorted in static horror, and burrows like a huge fly into the flesh of the wall opposite, spraying bits of plaster everywhere as the world speeds up again.
The boy had watched the men with their guns. One of them took his gun to pieces in front of him, showing him how it worked and how to clean it. The men always had guns; sometimes there were boxes full of them in the old house. Today there had been guns of all kinds there, rifles, machine guns, pistols… They hadn’t fastened down the lids, so when they were busy in another room, it was easy for the boy to take a pistol, and a few clips, and hide them in his bag.
If they knew he had a gun, the boys in school would show him big respect – they’d follow him. And the girls, they’d let him do anything. But he knows he can’t tell them, he can’t tell anyone. Only The Leader must know for now. He has work for the boy to do, so no one else must know. Not yet – not yet… The boy wraps the gun up carefully, leaving it loaded, and stuffs it back into his bag.
His arms feel tingly and light without the gun. The oily cloth has left a stain on the bedcover. His mother will be angry, but he doesn’t care – he feels protected now. He lies on the bed staring at the ceiling, following the maps of brown stains and cracks. The vibration of traffic outside buzzes the windows, and he is immersed in the sounds of families all around. In the distance is the plaintive wail of sirens. He closes his eyes, feeling the light through the thin curtains in bright waves. The Leader is here again, huge and dark, standing against a hard blue sky. The Leader touches the sun with his outstretched right hand, and it seems as though light comes from his fingertips in a brilliant ball. He opens and closes his mouth to let out words that the boy can’t hear, but feels that he understands. He tries to speak to The Leader, tell him that he is listening, but Rik can hardly move – he has a gun in his hands, so heavy it presses him down and his eyes can see only the brilliance of the light. Gradually, The Leader merges with shadows, becoming the darkness itself.
Rik feels hands roughly upon his shoulders, an angry voice. He is being shaken, and he panics, thinking that the police are on to him, but he realises it’s only his mother. She’s saying something, but her words tangle in his head. She pulls him up until his nose is in her warm apron front and he smells the earthy smell of her hardworking body, the smell of the disinfectant, and the lavender soap she likes. He makes out words like ‘truant’ and ‘lazy’, and he knows the teacher’s been talking to her. She sounds angry, but her mouth is turned down at the corners like she’s going to cry. Rik wants to say ‘sorry’ but he can’t; he wants to hug her like he did when he was little, but that would be a trick; she’d think he was still her son, her little boy; that he loved her. The Leader says that such feelings weaken the resolve; he has to learn to ignore them.
Grandmother starts up from the living room; she’s peed herself again. His mother storms off, nearly tripping over the bag, shouting at Kat for not helping the old woman to the toilet.
No one says anything at the meal table; they’re all gawping at the television. It blares out the news; a bomb has gone off at a police station in the city. The boy sits with them around the table eating stewed meat and heavy bread: Grandmother, mother, father,sister; all watching the rescue workers taking victims from piled rubble. They see the blood-soaked body of a young policewoman carried by two rescuers. The camera cuts to the waiting families who blab and gesticulate. They look so pathetic. Then Grandmother spills gravy on her dress and starts wailing, and Rik’s mother helps her clean it up; his father looks on with his misery-face and Kat picks at her nail varnish, peeling off bits that got on her fingers, her red mouth chewing all the while on a piece of stringy meat. The boy merely eats his food; he is hungry, after all. He needs his strength for what is ahead.
But when the meal is nearly over, his father clears his throat he knows he’s in for the lecture again – so he blanks it out. He knows it only too well: how his father never had the chances that he had. How he struggled for his family; works in a factory for a pittance to keep his son, how only an education can save him… Rik thinks of The Leader and his father seems to open and shut his mouth soundlessly, like a newsreader on television with the volume turned down.
There is a crash of a plate and the boy and his father turn to Grandmother. Her dead eyes are suddenly alive. She’s standing up and has knocked her plate onto the floor; her food is in her lap.
Spitting bread, she shouts, ‘Don’t you talk of struggles, you don’t know the meaning of struggle! What I had to do for you…all for your sake and all you do is watch television and talk!
She shakes as she speaks and quickly collapses back into her chair. The boy has heard his parents talk about Grandmother and he knows that some things are kept quiet even after a lifetime of years. He’s often wanted to ask her, but she doesn’t make much sense these days. But he knows she despises his father. Kat looks on in disgust, pushing away her half-eaten food, leaving the table without asking. The man finishes his meal, opening his mouth now only for food. He eats like a dog.
As soon as the meal is over, the boy leaves the flat, getting out before the nightly battle of getting Grandmother ready for bed. Kat’ll get out too; she won’t help. Rik feels just a tinge of sympathy for Kat having to share that tiny room with Grandmother. It doesn’t smell nice in there and often the old woman bangs around in the middle of the night, turning on lights and mumbling to herself.
Carrying the bag on his shoulder, he walks out of the street door into the evening noises of children playing and the sounds of televisions and radios through open windows. The sweet scent of a climbing wild flower he’s never learned the name of filters through the smell of garbage, and, thinking of the dead policewoman, he wonders why the flower bothers.
The sun glides down over the scarred city, making it golden. The reflections in the windows make the pock-marked buildings into tawdry palaces. Some little boys play at shooting with guns made from sticks, and the big boy smiles to himself.
Rik thinks about finding his special friends, although he never knows if they’ll be around, and he doesn’t know their real names. They told him to forget his name, because a name is like lump of concrete tied around one’s neck. But somehow they can always find him, even though they have never asked his name. They’ll pick him up in an old car on his way to school, or he’ll find a message in his schoolbag to go to some squalid place that his parents would have a fit about if they knew. Sometimes they give him a cup of strong coffee and a cigarette, and watch him try to smoke it without choking.
They tell him that he doesn’t need to take shit from anyone anymore. They gave him a pamphlet to read. A tall figure on the cover points at him, blurred by the bad printing. But he’s magnetic somehow; what an important man he is, everyone knows his name, but he’s so well-known that he doesn’t need a name at all. You’d know him anywhere, and when he speaks, he doesn’t need words, his actions speak for him. You are his words the men say – the pamphlet is not important.
The boy walks to the ruined house where he took a ‘package’ a few days ago. The large plastic sack he’d carried had barely fitted into his schoolbag. They had wrapped it in an old embroidered pillowcase before they squeezed it inside after taking out his books. They told him to walk naturally, as if going to school, though the bag was so heavy the boy thought he’d fall like a tortoise on its back. An old man sitting outside his house joked that the lad had a big load of school work. The boy laughed and said it was nothing – it was just a sleeping bag – he’d stayed at a friend’s house the night before. The old man had told him to go carefully, be sure not to be too late for school.
The place is deserted now, and inside, on the floor, are broken bottles and cigarette stubs. There had been boxes and crates in here, but now there is not even a scrape on the floorboards to show how they must have been moved out.
The upper storey is open to the sky, and the boy lies on the warm splintered floorboards amongst rubble, surrounded by broken walls. The bloated sun wavers down like a heavy balloon. His blood is red-liquid-gold and he shines, soaked in sweat, he is so hot he’ll melt into a pool of liquid gold. The Leader appears – huge, glorious – reaching above the city, and he beckons, his hand moving slowly over the setting sun, blotting it out. The boy sits up, lighter somehow, his blood replaced by volatile metal gases.
He takes the gun from its package. It is heavy, but he can handle it; he knows for certain. It’s getting darker, but The Leader looms, a shadow against the bloody sky, looking down at him. The boy knows he has to do something – prove himself.
There is an old picture hanging on the wall. It is a picture of a man in a white robe with rays coming from his head, hands stretched out wide and his mouth is open as if he is speaking. The boy aims the gun at the white figure, flicking back the safety. The man in the picture goes in and out of his vision and the boy can’t really see him properly, everything is dark and blotchy red.
What is important is the weapon in his hand. Shakily, palms wet, he pulls against the curve of the trigger, feeling it move through to the half-cocked position. He is shaking all over, and thinks he will drop the gun, but suddenly, a huge wave of sound rips out from his hands and he’s thrown violently onto the floor. The noise has taken all other sounds away, and his ears ring like alarm bells and his heart beats crazily. The gun is still firmly clenched in his hands, pointing up at the darkening sky. He is covered in plaster and glass. The boy lies there until his heart stops racing. His fingers are stiff and he has to unwind them from the gun. Sitting up he sees that the shot has destroyed the picture as if it never existed and left a deep hole in the wall behind.
On wobbly legs, the boy walks over to the damaged wall. The bullet has gone right through to the other side, and he can feel a draught of cool air through the hole. Looking up into the growing blackness overhead he sees a shadow over the emerging stars. With the blood in his ears still raging, he goes out into the city.