Shooting Blanks

by Tim Kenyon

 

Disruptive wisps of sulfur smoke seep from the barrel of my rifle and circle me. I want to shoo them away, but I can’t. It’s too late. The taste is on my tongue now. It is in my lungs. I have inhaled the angry souls of the just executed.

The encroaching crowd of witnesses fill their downtime with banter. A limp, motionless body is taken away. A live one is put in its place.

I observe, though not caring to. A boy this time, no more than ten. His left hand is still dripping with red paint, freshly dipped in the clerk’s bucket. The judges waste no time anymore, this boy’s conviction not fifteen minutes old.

For the very first time, I feel the slight urge to question. How does any crime of a child warrant this endgame? It is inhumane under any circumstances. But I stay quiet. I cannot risk exposure. Especially not now.

I reload with the shells from my pocket while the other four draw from their ammo bags. Seeking some immediate relief, I tell myself: this boy will die, yes. But not by my hand. Not by my rifle.

The commandant steps to the line, sword raised.

Ready!

I crack a half-smile. I am celebrating, this, the first day of my secret redemption. My solution is not perfect, no. I regret to even justify it considering my past actions. But my involvement warrants it. My job and I share a dangerous intimacy. Attempting to quit would be in defiance of the judges, and I cannot risk my own life.

Aim!

The boy is about to die. The boy is about to die.

I close my eyes and travel backward in my mind. I leave these murderous surroundings behind me and return to earlier this morning. I cannot recall exactly what time I went to bed last night after self-medicating. Nevertheless, before I even open my eyes I am taken by an unknown force, a presence in my chest. Squeezing me. I am paralyzed, dying.

As it subsides, I sense an awareness like never before. Suddenly, I realize the cruelness of my assignment. The immorality. My existence is unfathomable. I will not go to work today, I tell myself. Cradling the blankets, pursing my lips, I wait for the pain in my chest to return. But it does not.

I force my eyes open. My bedroom is a bizarre mixture of black and white. I am terribly alone. And afraid. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of the light. Afraid of the outdoors. Afraid of the smallest corner of my room. I tell myself I am doomed.

I can’t breathe, even though I can hear the air moving in and out of me like raging fire. Burning me. It is confusing, a paradox. I can visualize the flame, a wraith hunting for every weak portion of me it can capture and destroy. It leaves my body and circles me.

I grasp the sheets, cover my head. Uncover it. Cradle my knees into the fetal position. I have become one of the unfortunate who face me every day. I am bound and shackled among those who suffer from what the world can’t provide.

My mind races with visions. Dogs barking. Planes crashing. The murder of my family. And the ideas. An unstoppable faucet of ideas. Sex, desire, religion. Vanity, ego, one-upmanship. All of them, our social pathologies.

Only those in power are immune to these maladies. They are awarded the guns and keys. Inside prison cells, the stricken sit and wait to be put out of their misery. They are the victims, and now I am one of them.

I must find a way to yield my authority.

I scurry out of bed, tripping over sheets and blankets. To the vault. Go to the vault—where I can regain composure, start from the place where my life is familiar. I wish I can say that my breath has cooled, but I’d be lying. I can only move on instinct and hope for the best.

The vault door slams behind me. I take in the sight. One continuous rack of rifles circling me, covering every wall. I forage for my keys. Top drawer right, exactly where I left them last night. Their metal-scraping-metal noise hurts me as my head recovers from the overload of adrenaline.

I count out the fifth rifle from the left, third rack on the west wall. I choose the proper key on the first try. I can barely keep the ring aloft—one key for each rifle. Rifles, rifles, they keep giving me rifles. New ones. More accurate ones. Reengineered ones. I can no longer concentrate on keeping count past the first dozen.

I hold this rifle across my body and commence my routine. Safety first. Always safety first. Slide back the action. No clip attached. Check the chamber. The rifle is clear.

My breath cools. The fear is subsiding. There is nothing to be afraid of.

I try to imagine why my alarm was set off. Did I dream I forgot to unload last night? I have no memory.

My mind is still uneasy. Off in the distance, creeping behind the walls of my vault, I can feel the wraith moving. Circling. The only way to satisfy myself, to end the incessant hovering, looming, coveting of this wraith, is to check each rifle.

The key ring cuts into my palms. It is a lead menace, fighting me. It does not want to cooperate, but I force it to do what I need.

So I begin. Each rifle down the line, key in, twist, key in, twist, until the rack is empty. I turn each corner, ninety degrees, stepping to the right, fervently moving along each wall until every lock lay on the table. They are all free, these rifles, these crazy fears of mine, each one savagely familiar to my touch. My grip.

One by one I go through my ritual, having to blow the dust out of some, needing to remind myself how to work others. They are complicated. So complicated. Every small detail a chore.

Moving along, further down the line. The tragic memory in each becomes an overwhelming equation. My emotions cannot handle this kind of mathematics. But I check them all, methodically, unwilling to divide my time unevenly between them. They are my collective. Indefinable as individuals. I cannot tell them apart.

They are all off the wall, and they are all clear. I breathe moist relief into the stale room. Looking at my rifles, loose, helpless, dead, I wonder what has driven me to keep them here, stored away like trophies, as if I’m not a whole person without them. I am not that simple a human being.

And so I collect them all, as many as my arms can carry. Down they go, to the basement, into the old trunk where I’ve been hiding my memorabilia. Photos of my youth. High school diploma. Collection of Matchbox cars and trucks. Broken rosary beads I’ve been meaning to mend for more than twenty years. Out these things go to make room.

I create a neat stack, one on top of another. Rifle, rifle, rifle. Placing them neatly, head to toe. Barrel pointing left. Barrel pointing right.

Two trips up the stairs, armloads down to the cellar. More and more in place until the trunk is full. Then I lock it. And not just the cheap latches on the outside. No, not only those, but a padlock. Strong, sturdy. A bit more permanent.

I push against the lock, straining against the rust, praying it will work. That it will hold. I realize I haven’t tested it yet for strength or durability. It is imperative I keep out prying hands and itchy trigger fingers.

One final push and it snaps closed.

I covet the key, kicking the lock with my foot, feeling secure for the moment that as long as I keep the two separated—key and lock—nothing can go wrong. I can think of only one safe place for the key, where I will be guaranteed certain control. I lift my chin high, put it on the back of my tongue, and swallow.

I lower my head once I’m sure the key has settled and stare at the locked trunk. My hand is reaching behind me, blindly grabbing for the spade. I grip it and start to dig.

The top soil is loose, easily moved. I keep digging, but the deeper I go the more my body fights me. My biceps and triceps, quads and hamstrings, all working against me. Anatomical opposites with a common purpose. To defy me.

When I’m finished, and with the little strength I have left, I climb out of the hole and push against the side of the trunk. Cramps and all, I don’t let up until it falls into the hole. The trunk lands on its side, then tips over onto its cover.

Fine. There’s no way I’m getting inside now without spilling the contents, letting every single rifle fall out. Waking the wraith. I can’t have that, so there they will stay, upside down, buried in my basement.

My stomach churns and I feel a stinging pain. Ignoring it, I finish filling in the hole and stare at the pile of displaced dirt as I bite a thumbnail. I can taste gritty dirt, but keep gnawing until the pain subsides. The key has moved on. Though in time, I trust my body will discover it is futile to digest it.

I head for my kitchen, cook and eat. Breakfast goes down without issue. I am feeling comfortable again. No more visions. The dogs are heeling, behaving. The planes are landing safely. My family is alive and well.

Cleaning up, I work on the most cunning way to handle separation from my assignment, from my duty. I cannot be expected to perform without emotion. Without repercussion. It is unnatural. Inhuman. And with my rifles buried, with no way to retrieve them, the judges will have no choice but to accept my resignation.

I work the sponge over the frying pan. Circles clockwise, one, two, three. Circles back, one, two, three. Over and over until the surface is clean. I bombard my mind with trivialities. Weather patterns, old jobs, forgotten acquaintances, mundane sexual encounters. But this leaves it in a dangerous state of unawareness.

My breath quickens, rising from my stomach to my chest. My shoulders move toward my ears. I am being prepared for fight or flight. For the unexpected—

A knock at the door. Heightened awareness takes over, tunnel vision, tactile sensitivity. The works. I make my way toward the door without knowledge of movement. Forward, forward. Once again, I am no longer in control. Hand out against my will, and the door is open.

There is an exchange of pleasantries. A package is handed to me. A box that could easily hold two dozen long stem roses, if such a generous person existed in my life. But lover or not, I know these are not flowers.

I struggle to hold my breath as I accept the package and hastily close the door. I make my way to the vault and carefully place the package on the workbench. The walls draw my eyes away. The rifle rack is empty, but not for long. A collection of crippling memories, each with its own key, will start to accumulate once again.

Taped to the side of the package is a brown envelope. A standard instructional letter, I assume. Places, times. A list of victims.

But no. The note is of congratulatory tone. I am to be inducted into the party. A brief footnote details the deadly consequences of a refusal. I drop slowly onto the stool behind me and read the note again out loud, word for word.

This so-called honor doesn’t come to those who perform mediocre duties, those who don’t stand out. It is given to the team players. It is only given to those they want as permanent members, only to those they trust. But I am no longer one of those people. I can never be one of them. However, their intentions are clear. They are leaving me no choice.

I won’t comply, but I will make it seem so. I will create a guise of assimilation.

Leaving the package unopened, I set out, taking quick, desperate steps along the side streets. There is only one person who can help me now. My gunsmith. He is my problem solver. He will have the right prescription.

I navigate the maze of streets, one after another. The trip takes hours. Finally, I reach the stoop of a brick and mortar behemoth. I straighten my collar, wipe my brow. This visit must look like all business.

I am greeted in silence, led to a sitting room and left to wait. The chairs are clean with blue plaid coverings. The magazines are gender neutral. I become wrapped up in their banal photos. When I look up, I’m no longer alone.

The usual small talk is skipped. I explain my situation with minimal detail. The entire story takes less than thirty seconds.

The solution, I’m told, is a simple one. Out of a drawer comes a small canvas feed sack. I take it in both hands. By the tink, tink, tink inside I know it contains exactly what I need. An exchange of furtive smiles is the climax of the meeting. Pay at the door. Have a nice day. I’m left alone to find my own way out.

The walk home is a deep breath of fresh air. I get home in half the time.

I lock my door behind me—deadbolt, slide chain, latch, latch—and rush to the vault. I unwrap my new rifle, remove a random shell from the sack and hold it up. Beautiful. Powerful. Albeit blank. Missing is the soft lead bullet coated in a copper jacket. The shell is empty, save the noisemaker shoved down inside. These will kill no one.

I emit an uncharacteristic chuckle as I load the rifle. A strange feeling of control has come over me. My capacity for trickery is immense. And I cannot be the only one who has come to this same end, desperate for a need to blend in. There are others like me. And I pray that our self-realization is contagious.

Now it is time for a trial run. Time to see if this bag of shells was worth the money I paid, and worth the risk I will take.

I raise the rifle to the mirror, taking aim. I think. Think hard. Taunting. Coaxing. Attempting to bring out the wraith. I want to give myself to it. I work hard at my memory. Pain and anguish. A menacing dog. A plane crash. My mother’s slit throat. I can feel the anxiety coming—worry, panic, fear. And just as the wraith is ready to pounce, I pull the trigger.

My mind scatters with the splitting crack of the rifle. Instinctively, I brace for the recoil, but there isn’t one. I am alone in my head, staring at myself in the mirror.

At first, I find it hard to grasp that I’ve discovered the means to save me from myself. Worry. Guilt. Self-loathing. All part of my history. But how long can this feeling last? I’ve obtained only one sack. It is not endless.

I dump the contents onto the workbench. My eyes move as rapidly as they can, but my mind cannot keep the count. Fifty. Sixty maybe.

I curse my false assuredness. This is no solution. How could I have been so shortsighted? So careless? I ball up the sack in one hand and aim for the trash bin, but I stop shy of tossing it. There’s a thicker texture inside, beyond that of the cheap canvas. It is paper.

I shake the bag open and fish through it. Indeed. A scrap of old, yellowed parchment. The words on it not handwritten, but printed by the old offset process. The type, very bold. The paper, quite expensive. But the words. The value of the words far exceed that of the rich paper on which they are printed. Instructions for making my own blanks. As valuable as a recipe for the creation of humankind.

I look over the list, taking mental notes. Counting. Adding. How profound that I have all the ingredients right here in my possession. All along, a way out for me, stored in tightly closed containers, neat stacks on shelves and in drawers.

I feel elated as I stuff my pockets with the blanks, pack my rifle and slide the folded contact in my breast pocket. I am driven for the first time by enthusiasm for my work. And for acceptance into the party. I will fulfill my duties as a sworn member and no one is the wiser to my new lease on life. I can finally base my actions on compassion. Forgiveness. Goodwill. I deem myself the world’s first empathetic executioner.

* * * * *

My entire afternoon fills me with a sour mix of angst and elation as I am forced to linger in the riflemen’s bunker. How sad, how ironic, that I cannot share my newfound joy with anyone of any consequence. I am surrounded only by those who can’t know, and those who wouldn’t want to.

At last, my rifle line is called to the front. No more than twenty executions before a group is relieved. Shooting wears on the shoulder, you see, but this morning I’ll have to feign my aching joints. To keep my secret, I cannot look comfortable. Or at ease. So I stand rigidly. Tense. My shoulders instinctively move to my ears. I look at the other four and notice theirs are doing the same. I realize for the first time why shooting hurts so much.

The first ten go off flawlessly. I want so badly to grin. My mind is racing with wild joy. Those who sit in judgment cannot tell the difference. On the outside, I look the same as I did yesterday. My signed contract says I am one of them, but I am not. I have been saved. I have divorced myself from the wraith, and there is no going back. Not as long as I have the knowledge. This recipe for making blanks.

The boy is dragged out. The red paint running from his left hand leaves a dark, thin trail behind him. Normally I would comment on how pathetic his broken leg looks dangling behind him, but not the reborn person shacking up inside me. I feel pity. Regret. I can’t help but wonder what hardship has fallen on this boy. What drove him to sin, and how he is any different from you or me.

I load from the shells in my pocket while I unofficially forgive the boy in my silent prayers. A muffled amen escapes from my lips as I trip the safety.

My crosshairs quarter the boy. Dead on. Five shots. Four holes.

The commandant’s call interrupts my thoughts.

Ready!

I am ready.

Aim!

Ready to feign recoil at the exact moment. Perfectly executed. I have it down to a science.

Halt!

I nearly pull the trigger, but stop short and fall to attention with the rest of the line. What could this be? A stay for the young boy? A full reprieve? There has never been such a thing.

I watch a judge make his way down to the line. A spectacle to say the least. It causes chatter among the onlookers. Me—I keep silent, watching his body language. Looking for suggestions of compassion. But this judge is an expert, a natural born poker player.

His sequestered meeting with the commandant takes only a few moments before they turn and march toward us.

They stop, and one by one they inspect our rifles, starting at the other end. I stand fast. Nowhere to go. Moving is a death sentence.

The judge stops in front of me, turns and waits for my movements. I do the drill. Snap the rifle across my body, ready for inspection. My eyes do not meet his. Cannot meet his. I stare instead at the wraith mocking me from over his shoulder. The wraith, with its knowledge of the four bullet holes. The wraith, instigator of the inspection before the bodies were incinerated.

The judge empties the rifle and inspects the shells.

My eyes meet his for the first time. And the last.

In my blind spot, a thousand miles away, I hear the commandant call for the clerk and his bucket of red paint.

 

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