Chapter 1 — Prologue
*T.V. Anchor reading the NEWS* <Voice-Fade-In> … And in other local news, a tragedy unfolded yesterday in an outlying suburb of the city, where a pregnant woman was mowed down by a speeding car, after which the driver proceeded to flee the scene. Police are investigating the scene of the brutal hit-and-run, which tragically claimed the life of the woman and her unborn child. Sources say the sole witness to the accident could give only sketchy accounts of the incident, owing to being an old, homeless man of poor eyesight. Compounding the investigation is the lack of any CCTV’s in/around the scene of the crime. In light of the spate of hit-and-run accidents in that part of the city combined with the dismal arrest and conviction records, all eyes are focused on the Police Department to bring a speedy closure to the case … <Voice-Fade-Out>.
Chapter 2 — Introspection / Reflections of the Self
I tasted metal — that unique queasy feeling involving its cold bitterness; its smooth texture dissolving faintly into a film coating the surface of my tongue. This wasn’t the first time that I had lost all gustatory sensation — except for the overbearing and sickening taste of metal. But unlike previous occurrences, for which there was a physically attributable cause (like an ailment), this one was purely external in source — for my mouth was forced gaping open by the barrel of a shiny Glock firmly planted deep inside. My jaws were open almost to their maximum, and my facial muscles contorted by a combination of fear, anxiety and panic. My eyes were squinting sharply downwards at an awkward angle of convergence, watching the visible portion of the gun hanging out of my mouth, darting furtively every now and then to the person holding it. My back was up against a wall, and as my body activated the primal flight response, I tried to stagger backwards but with nowhere to go, I ended up tip-toeing. With my fingers gnawing into the wall, I crawled vertically up in a desperate but vain bid to put some distance between me and my attacker.
I used to doubt the accuracy of a victim identifying a perpetrator via a police line-up, wondering how on Earth someone could spend time appreciating the finer nuances of a person’s build, height, weight, facial features and other bodily peculiarities, when their mortal life hangs in a precarious balance! Surely, I used to think, when your very existence is questionable by virtue of the Damocles sword hovering ominously over your head, you would have neither the time nor the inclination to jot down in your neuronal circuits the intricate details of the person scaring the shit out of you. You would probably be consumed by an all-encompassing sense of gloom and doom, frantically focusing on finding bargaining strategies, devising distraction tricks and figuring out escape routes.
Oddly enough, I now found myself in the unique position of being nominated by the universe for empirically verifying my own intuition, and I wasn’t in the least bit happy about it. What ticked me off more than being in this fucking position (pardon the expletive, as I am under considerable duress!), was my misfortune to disprove my own intuition quite thoroughly. It seemed that I had under-estimated the hyper-alert state of elevated consciousness that comes with a flood of adrenaline, corticosteroids, piss and sweat — serving as bodily accouterments to make the experience of being under threat that much more viscerally terrifying and bone-chillingly real. I was stuck rooted to my spot; rendered immobile by a paralyzing sense of white-knuckled shock-and-awe, much less think or act on ways of extricating myself from this pickle of a situation. And I could make out my attacker’s features with the kind of lucidity and vividness of a brilliant author imagining his characters in-flesh while penning a book.
Chapter 3 — Extrospection / Observations of the Other
In the process of looking at another person, you invariably register their features in comparison to your own (the mind seems to be more adept at noticing and expressing in terms of differentials, than recording uniqueness as a stand-alone thing). He looked about a decade older than me; his hair having the distinctive streaks of grey typical of middle-age. He was only about 3 inches taller than me, and yet it appeared that his figure loomed over me like some towering gargoyle — no doubt a case of the lethal weapon he wielded exaggerating his mythical persona. He was gaunt and pale, and yet something about his demeanor suggested that this emaciated form had been assumed by him not quite that long ago. Although he looked terribly disheveled and unkempt, he didn’t have the look of an aimless vagabond; on the contrary, judging by his clothes (crumpled though they were), he seemed to come from a background of relative affluence.
It appeared that his grisly countenance was a product of some tortured inner demon that was haunting him. What exactly was its specific nature — was something I was trying to desperately guess, with my mind churning out speculative scenarios. Even if I somehow mustered courage to overcome my paralysis, any evasive action was out of the question — courtesy of the gun locking me in-place, and the split second it would take for him to pull the trigger. I knew I had to find some persuasive argument to ease the tension and disarm him, but this too was going to be difficult, since vocal articulation was nigh impossible. Even as I was somehow remarkably able to focus on the specifics of the person and the scene in front of me, every instinct and action of mine was motivated by self-preservation — the end-objective: gathering enough information and buying enough time to find some miraculous way out of this situation. At the moment, I was not having any luck in this regard, and with it my chances of emerging alive were quietly diminishing — at the very least, I knew my life was not in my hands (pun regrettably intended).
To my mind, I had never seen him before, with not even the faintest signs of recollection. But in his eyes, I could see the tell-tale signs of vengeful recognition — of a predator having methodically trailed his prey, biding time for the right moment, with the hopes of culminating into this type of a kill-encounter. He was glaring at me, his eyes wide-open and glowering with the kind of rage and intensity you would expect from either an out-of-control alcoholic or a stark-raving madman. I didn’t know which one he was at that moment, and I faced a mirthless Catch-22 situation in terms of what I would prefer him to be — with either possibility a recipe to getting my brains blown to smithereens. There would be a build-up of raw emotion and muscle twitching, of fumbling rage and conflicting angst, all registering on his face and his body-language. Through this ritualistic build-up, he would cathartically gather the courage to almost go through with the act of ending my life. At the summit of this progression of tortured emotional decision-making, he would grip the gun a bit tighter, place his hand on the trigger, pulling it by just a tiny imperceptible amount — enough for me to close my eyes, shit my pants and watch as the moments of my life passed before my eyes, flinching and waiting for the *click*, *boom* and *bang* that would dispatch my conscious alive self into the oblivion of nothingness.
Chapter 4 — Cryptic Clues & Probable Duality
That I apparently cared so much for my life, with a palpable fear of mortality amply evident, is but an obvious conclusion for those who have read this account thus far. And yet, there’s a tidbit of information about myself which the reader hasn’t known — that it is strangely ironic for me to have felt this level of emotional involvement for my own life — a turbulent function of the recent past. Just a few days ago, I was ready to take the ultimate leap-of-faith — by flinging myself off our city’s iconic suspension bridge, into the vast body of water, from whence I had hoped my body would be swept somewhere far away into the horizon, settling into the deep chasms of the ocean, where I may rest alone in watery peace. I had hoped this would erase any and all evidence of my entire life, and expunge all signs of my existence from the planet forever. Most crucially, I had hoped to rid myself of the excruciating and unbearable guilt that was gnawing away constantly at the crux of my soul — wracking guilt over a grave sin I had committed about a year back.
They rightly say a tired man no longer cares — I was utterly exhausted and didn’t want to be a burden to others, but mostly wanted to stop being an onerous weight to myself. I couldn’t carry on tormenting myself with agonizing details of that fateful night from a year back, fruitlessly asking the diverse battery of “What If … ?” questions so typical of the mind’s propensity to bargain with one’s own self in a futile effort to bring solace and closure to the regrets of a horrible past … Except that stuck as I was currently between a wall and a hard barrel, I had obviously decided to stay my own self-decided execution, obtaining an injunction from the sane part of the mind against its insane half (or the other way around, I really wasn’t sure anymore). This change of heart came right in the nick of time — as I was standing at the precipice of life and death — one foot on the edge of the bridge, the other teasing the nothingness underneath.
Was it perhaps cowardice that stopped me in time? While that might very well have been the case, I would like to believe it was my desire to undertake a redemptive journey to cleanse myself, by way of a firm sense of commitment to altruistic causes. In the events leading to that pivotal moment, there was a growing restlessness to end the status-quo of haranguing guilt one way or the other, and it seemed that the vague internal desire for altruistic redemption had concretized into a resolute intent. Since then, I had aimlessly wandered alleys, giving food and clothing to the homeless, giving them the compassion and companionship they were so bereft of. My nightly trysts with those far less fortunate than me was but a meagre attempt at assuaging myself, some lame attempt at quelling the discordance inside. Perhaps, I just wished to delude my mind into swallowing the soothing placebo, sensing that I lacked the courage and conviction to take the irreversible step of finality. That’s how I found myself in an alley at this moment; except the homeless man wasn’t there; in his place, was my attacker. Perhaps I really did need an external confrontation of the kind currently underway to jolt me with the full force of all that I had done, and failed to do. And as I had been facing my attacker in the tense encounter over the past few minutes, it occurred to me that there’s nothing more terrifying than the prospect of not being in control of your own life-and-death — the nauseating tension I felt now was so much more amplified and pronounced than the numbing detachment and the self-wallowing pity I felt when I was contemplating taking my own life.
At this point you might be inclined to ask — What exactly had I done? What is it that had stayed with me for about a year, hovering over my psyche like a demonic halo, clouding my emotions and obscuring my judgement, dominating every thread of my thought, lingering awkwardly in the backdrop of every strand of conversation I had — with family, with friends and the monologue with my own self? And for that matter — what were the answers to (likely) similar questions for the fellow tortured soul facing me right this moment? Perhaps you might even wonder: what if the universe had brought two despairing souls with some common linkage together in this precise moment? What if the answers to these questions yielded a destructive duality of complementary proportions for the two of us facing each other in this darkened alley?
Chapter 5 — The Relative Dilation of Time
Where were we before we made that anachronistic departure to my troubled past? Aah yes. I was stuck in that infinitesimal moment of time where he was about to pull the trigger, and I saw moments of my life zipping by on the canvas of the inner surface of my eyelids. I would wait, fidgeting and praying that it all ends this time — once and for all, quick and painless! I would feel the slight wobble of the gun in my mouth — an indication of his trembling hand, and I knew I was a millisecond closer to the end. But I would keep on waiting. One doesn’t have to be a quantum particle to feel the bizarre effects of being suspended above Space and Time. And just when time was stretching to an eternity, all of a sudden he would heave out an expletive with all the force he could muster — startling me almost into cardiac arrest and a natural death. I would take this as my cue to slowly and gingerly open my eyes. And as I did so, I would feel the tautness of his grip weakening, before he would break out into sweats, cursing and yelling more — at me, at himself, at the gun and to no one in particular — his focus, resolve and decisiveness again evaporated by the shred of conscience, mercy and doubt he had. My eyes would lock with those of my attacker, and I would know that I was damned to face another iteration of this deadlocked cycle!
It was the third such iteration where suddenly it all made sense — why people tend to want clarity over their future, why relationships suffer when exposed to indecisiveness, why markets are so averse to volatile conditions. In that fraction of a moment, I would viscerally and profoundly understand why humans detest uncertainty so much — why they would prefer a bad decision taken quickly and firmly, to the agonizing wait of no decision! Rendered mute by the large gun shoved down my mouth, sensing the futility of putting up a fight, and judging that my attacker could not be persuaded to spare me, I reached a stage of fatalistic resignation. I would heave a deep sigh and utter a frustrated scream inside my mind: “Make up your mind! And get it over with!”
Chapter 6 — The Fork in the Road
As if to read my thoughts, he uttered his first meaningful words at last, finally breaking the silence by going beyond cryptic monosyllabic mumbling and rage filled guttural groans. And he asked me squarely if I recollected the tragedy that had transpired barely a few blocks from here, exactly a year ago to this day. As if I wasn’t already white as a sheet with the preceding minutes of cyclical escalation and de-escalation, I felt myself paling even more, the remaining blood draining out of my face like water disappearing into a whirlpool at the bottom of a sink. Could this really be happening?! Is this the man whose life I had irrevocably altered for the worse through a tragedy of epic proportions — a tragedy which haunted me to this day, which had snapped my sense of sanity, and almost sapped me of the will-to-live?!
He saw my awestruck sense of paleness, and recognized my guilt. He calmly asked the question again and indicated that I nod my head gently to indicate my assent. I sighed and did as I was told with regret, with guilt and with shame. He absorbed this admission for a few moments, after which with his other hand, he went onto produce photographs and newspaper clippings pertaining to the ghastly tragedy from a year back. He wielded each such artifact almost like a prosecutor demonstrating his evidence-exhibits to a courtroom. He would let each artifact linger in front of my face, asking me to acknowledge it. Each such exhibit lashed me with the flood of memories of that night, each one contorting my face into increasingly open admissions of my guilt, forcing me to have a painful and direct confrontation with the ghosts of my past.
With the conclusion of that ritual, he returned all the clippings back to his coat-pocket with a new-found sense of calm, his insouciance almost Zen-like. He removed a small folded piece of paper from his coat-pocket, and slipped it into my trouser pocket, declaring in a matter-of-fact voice that he wasn’t going to kill me. And yet he kept the gun firmly planted in my mouth all this while, and continued to do so. He remarked that he had failed — even at this, and yet there was no sense of dejection; on the contrary, he seemed to be in a state of mild serenity and a peaceful finality. He instructed me to open that folded paper after his departure, and follow the instructions contained within. He indicated that he was sparing me, conditional solely on me honoring the spirit and contents of that note. There was a tone of confident conviction in his voice — some inexplicable belief that I would follow through my end of the bargain in good faith.
What followed that last utterance was a flurry of movements, followed by a crackling sound, reverberating and echoing like lightening in the narrow darkened alley. And as the figure facing me slid away, the gun remained lodged in my mouth, its visible portion now dangling aimlessly. I had no idea what had just transpired, and I was utterly in shock to make any sense out of it. I stood still, with the gun still hanging out of my mouth. I was beaten, broken, scarred and traumatized. I was horrifically injured by the carnage and mayhem that had unfolded, but I was still breathing. I opened my mouth and watched in a stupid-trance as the gun fell clumsily onto the ground with a metallic thud. I lingered there a few moments longer, and turned on my heels and shuffled away still in a daze. As I exited the alley and made my way to my car parked nearby, I was beginning to just about gather my own wits. I wiped off the blood from my face and clothes as best as I could, opened the car and got in. After a few seconds of labored breathing, I retrieved the folded piece of paper and read the note contained within. On finishing it, I looked up and stared long and hard into some point on the distant horizon, stealing glances at the rear-view mirror at myself. As I watched dusk turn to dawn and the pink-golden hues of a rising sun, I made up my mind on what I was going to be doing over the next few months. I took a few painful deep breaths and drove off into the distance.
Chapter 7 — Epilogue
[A Few Months Later]
*T.V. Anchorman reading the NEWS* <Voice-Fade-In> … And in other local news, there are reports of a gruesome double-homicide in a dingy alleyway in the city in the wee hours of morning yesterday. Our sources indicate that this might be connected to the bizarre spate of unexplained suicides that have happened in/around the city over the past few years, the first of which was over 3 years back. If this latest incident is to be included, the overall death toll comes out to be 8, over 7 separate incidents. To recap, these suicides have always involved a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the face in a dark alley. Strangely, there has always been another undischarged gun found at the scene of the crime, covered with the saliva of a second unidentified person. Other forensic data have also pointed to deceased being directly faced by another person, who presumably escaped alive. In this specific case, our sources indicate that the Police have found something almost identical, except for the presence of the Second-Person as the victim of Homicide, shot by discharging the second saliva-ridden gun. Considering the remarkable similarities of this case with the earlier series of unexplained incidents, speculation is rife on the Internet. A note (purportedly found in the pocket of the suicide-deceased) has also been leaked on a website, the veracity of which we cannot verify at this time. The contents of the note are as below … <Voice-Fade-Out>
$> Do NOT ask the WHY. You already know the WHY. You have committed a grave sin — from which there is no recovery. You have wronged someone terribly. Fatally. You have escaped judgement from the authorities, but justice has come to you today through this confrontation. You were made to own-up to what you have done — by looking me squarely in the eye, and baring your soul. Fortunately for you, I couldn’t go through with it. I spared you. But I couldn’t spare myself. Like you will soon read and deduce, I too have wronged someone terribly. Fatally. And my tale is piecemeal replaceable to yours. We are all mere placeholders for the Sonder playing all around us, with the catch being we both are the darkness that lurks like shadows, viciously encircling the silvery silhouettes of the Angels. We are the bad ones. There’s no redemption. There’s no salvation. There’s just emancipation — through death. Like you will read and discover, I was presented with two choices, and was bound by the most powerful of emotions to honor it. You too shall choose, for I have borne witness to the guilt hanging on your coat-tails. Not just guilt of the tragedy you bequeathed to someone else, but also survivor’s guilt — the guilt of knowing I chose an option that spares you, so that you live at the expense of my ultimate failure. And your trauma of witnessing my brutal end at such close quarters, certain that I am leaving an even more tormented self behind.
Find someone like you and me. Trail this person like a hawk and note their every movement. And when the time comes, accost them in a manner identical to our little encounter, get them to confront their guilt, and choose either of the following options:
1. Emancipation for That Someone: Rid their Pain, End their Cowardice & Break the Cycle.
2. [Of course, you will have to live with yourself for having taken yet another life.]
3. Pass this Note onto them, and then attain Emancipation for Yourself.
4. Guilt them into continuing the Cycle.
Do you know how all this started? There was a man who suffered an unspeakable tragedy a few years back. You must have read it in the papers — of two lives snuffed out cruelly and needlessly, one before it even began. He hunted down the Demon who had caused the horrific mess that was both their lives. And he realized the most potent of all human emotions, the driver of so much of our behavior — Guilt. Terrible, wracking guilt. And what he saw in the demon was a creature afraid of it, petrified and mortified, utterly desolate in its Guilt, shriveling at the resulting soul-splintering emotional tug-of-war. That demon is me. That demon is you. And the man decided to compound its woes by amplifying its guilt to exponential levels, and to leave it more tormented than before, thrashing more viciously against its own self. He had nothing to lose and nothing to live for anymore, and so in a morbid sacrificial gesture, he set in motion this cycle. This cycle continues till date, with me as the most recent incarnation, roping you in for the next iteration. Break it if you can. Good luck. <$
X — — X — — X — — X — — X — — X — — X — — X — — X — — X