This is perhaps the longest short story I’ve written so far, which is why I’ve divided it into two parts. Like most of my stories, it grew from a dream kernel. I’ve only ever submitted it once and I got detailed feedback on it that reminded me yet again how subjective the perception of fiction could be. This story spawned another one I’ll be publishing later and I liked the two main characters so much they’re in Eleven Doors.
“So you did him in the school yard?” I asked, still a bit incredulous.
“Yep!” she said and tossed her hair back. Then she giggled. “He loved it.”
“Gemma, you’re such a whore,” I sighed and pulled on my cigarette. I gave her a sympathetic look that didn’t fool her for a second.
“I know!” she squealed with a wide smile on her face. “I’m telling you, that bastard is mine.”
“No, ‘tis not, Josie,” she said and punched me in the shoulder.
“Okay, fine, do what you want.” I gave up just as I had always given up. Gemma was a grown-up. She could do whatever she wanted though a lot of the things she did do were pretty reckless even for me and I’m no stranger to recklessness. I got my shit together a couple of years ago, though, after a wild night that ended in hospital. I don’t really want to remember that time and Gemma who I guess you could call my best friend knows it and doesn’t bring it up. Strange, since she’s not exactly the embodiment of tactfulness or anything even close but apparently she’s capable of keeping her mouth shut sometimes.
After I decided to change my life I got a job (in a coffee shop at first, then an electronics one, not a career job) and even joined the local community theater. I remember Gemma laughing her head off when I told her and only stopped when I kicked her in the ass. She, on the other hand, kept looking for the perfect walking wallet that would live up to her high standards. She didn’t just want them rich, she wanted them rich and handsome plus smart and funny as a side order.
She met Benjamin, I think he name was, two weeks ago, and since then she’s been busy making him believe that Heaven is real and she’s the one who’s got the key to its gates. Using sex, of course. She’s good at that and she does not give the tiniest bit of shit about what anyone else thinks, including her parents. Well, she actually moved out of her parents’ place about the time I moved out of my mum’s and I did it after I was released from the hospital. We lived together for a while, quite a while actually. Almost a year. The string of men that passed through that flat was unbelievably long, constant and diverse. Gemma was really open to variety, I can’t deny her that. Or anything else when it comes to men.
“What’re you thinking about, Joe?”
“Hmmm? Oh, just working on my book, you know,” I said, a little embarrassed.
She turned to face me and gave me a pissed off look.
“Could you possibly do this when you’re not entertaining company?”
“You’ve never been good at acting snobbish, Gem.”
“Still,” she insisted. “I don’t want you thinking when you’re with me.”
We looked at each other and burst into laughter. And then I died. Again.
Something zinged in the air and I felt a dull blow to the back of my head. A little to the right, behind my ear. It was like I’d bumped into something but not too hard. I raised my hand to touch the place and felt… Well, I felt the edge of something hard buried into my skull. A piece of metal. I looked at Gemma, whose face was a classic Three Os. I opened my mouth to speak though I wasn’t sure what I’d say. I suspected this was a dream, a very vivid one but part of me knew better. A part that went Whoops!
“Are you okay?!” she squealed, still with that horrified, incredulous expression. She looked like she was waiting for me to fall to the ground any second. But I didn’t feel like falling to the ground at all. It didn’t even hurt. Yet I was absolutely sure it was a bullet.
“I think so,” I said. I touched the thing again. Yes, definitely hard, a hard edge.
“We should get you to the hospital!”
“No, wait.” I hated hospitals and she knew it. I hated everything that had to do with hospitals since that thing two years ago. Not that it was the hospital’s fault but still. It brought bad memories back. “Let’s just go to my place, see what this is. It doesn’t hurt, honestly. Can’t be too bad, right?”
She shook her head slowly, blinking hard, as if she was recovering from a blow.
“I’ve no idea, Joe, I don’t know shit about gunshot wounds. You just got shot, for fuck’s sake! You just got shot! In the head!”
“Shush!” I looked around nervously. Luckily there was no one around. But she was right. I got shot. Why would anyone want to shoot me? I’ve never done anything illegal, I mean, consciously. And since then I’ve been a good girl with a steady job, a steady boyfriend and a dream about writing a book. “I don’t want the whole town to hear you. Let’s go.”
She tried to protest but she shut her mouth when she saw I wasn’t going to wait for her. I was marching home, feeling funny. I had a hole in my head, it didn’t hurt but I was a bit shaken. Well, a lot. And I was getting mad because I really did not deserve to have a hole in my head. What made it worse was this feeling that I should be dead – a feeling that made me uneasy because of Gemma. And because I had never been shot before. Thank God I lived just round the corner, in the first block on the left. I shared a flat with my boyfriend, Peter, there. I really hoped he wasn’t home although the chance was slim. Pete was a comic artist and worked from home.
Of course he was in. I took a deep breath and stepped into the flat, followed by Gemma who was still staring at me as if she couldn’t believe I was upright and breathing.
“Stop it!” I hissed at her.
“Stop what?” she said, taking a step back
“It’s OK. It’s making me nervous,” I said through clenched teeth. The uneasiness was starting to subside but I was getting mad now. How could they shoot me in front of her!
“Pete?” I called to the closed door of the living room. We had a pretty cozy place here. The living room doubled as kitchen but it was big enough. And we had a bedroom and a bathroom, which is more than what some of the people I knew had.
Pete opened the door and peered at us. Then his face lit up with a smile. All for me, none for Gemma. I still wondered sometimes how I got to be with such a nice guy.
“Hey, guys, what are you doing here?” He opened the door more widely and strolled over to where I stood wondering how to tell him. He slipped an arm around my waist and kissed me.
“She got shot!” Gemma interrupted me. Her eyes darted from me to Pete and back. “She got shot, Pete and she doesn’t want to go to the hospital!”
Pete’s smile disappeared in the blink of an eye, literally. I blinked and it wasn’t there. He let go of my waist, put his hands on my shoulders and started looking me over, his eyes worried, searching.
“Where did you get shot? Where?” he said, feeling my chest and stomach for a wound, looking at my legs.
“In… in the head. But look! It doesn’t hurt. At all!” I said, while he put his thumb on my chin and the rest of his fingers on my cheek and turned my head first right and then left. His hand froze.
“Oh my God! Joe, we have to take you to a hospital! How…”
Pete’s face had become the same mask of horror as Gemma’s though, I suspect, for a different reason. The same reason that was making me uneasy. Three O’s, two light blue, his eyes, one dark red, his mouth. I understood the reaction, I did, but I was getting fed up.
“Look, Pete, I’m fine. Seriously, look!” I moved my head to the left and the right, I shook it, nodded and shook it again. “See? It doesn’t hurt, honestly, people!”
Peter swallowed hard, pursed his lips and let go of my face.
“How?” he asked, taking a step back. I saw him glance at Gemma.
“I have no idea, just as I have no idea why anyone would shoot me,” I said. I touched the hard edge of the bullet again. Good thing it hadn’t gone all the way in. It would have been harder to take out. Now I thought how weird it must look to Gemma that I wasn’t freaking out. I wasn’t known for my self-control and level-headedness, except during the last year or so but a bullet in the head? I should have been in shock.
“Why are you not worried?” Pete asked, reading my thoughts, or maybe giving me a hint. He was looking at me meaningfully, so it must have been a hint. This happened sometimes and always caught me up short. I think it was one of the reasons I actually loved him rather than just felt comfortable with him but it was still weird to have someone know exactly what you’re thinking.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I was just wondering about this.”
Something like the beginning of a smile pulled up at the left corner of his mouth. I went to him, took his face in my hands and kissed that mouth. I saw worry in his eyes. I knew what he was thinking about – a jump from a tall building.
“Look, I really don’t know anything. I have no idea who would shoot at me or why. Maybe it was some mistake, a random bullet. And I don’t know why I’m not freaking out, honestly. I’m not drunk, I’m not on drugs, so…”
“Very funny,” Pete murmured frowning at me. “Okay, let’s see it in some more light,” he said and pulled me to the bathroom. Gemma followed. She hadn’t spoken a word after her initial outburst. She moved in a sort of dazed way as if she wasn’t sure she wasn’t dreaming. Yeah, been there, doubted that. It wasn’t a dream.
We all went into the bathroom, which was just large enough for three people to fit, packed tightly. Pete turned my head so the wound was directly in the flow of light coming from the single lamp on the ceiling.
“Jesus Christ,” he mumbled.
“Is it very bad?” I asked nervously. It was really annoying that I couldn’t see the back of my head. I didn’t even have a hand mirror to do it. Never was one with a vanity problem, me.
“Well,” Pete started slowly. “It’s a hole, definitely. Not very big, though. There’s a little blood around it. And the bullet’s sticking out. A bit.”
“Thanks for the update, I already knew that,” I said. I couldn’t help the ironic tone but underneath it I was starting to freak out. What were we going to do with Gemma? She would talk. Or maybe she would believe me when I tell her that some people can live long lives with bullets in their brains.
“And you’re sure you’re feeling fine?” Pete asked.
“I am. I mean, it doesn’t hurt but my neck does,” I said, my chin still pressed to my chest. Pete let go of my head.
I smiled at him, still nervous. I wanted this bullet out. OK, so it didn’t hurt but I didn’t want a piece of metal in me. Would I die if we took it out? I had some vague memory about people living with bullets in the heads because they would die if the bullet is taken out. I didn’t think I’d die. I definitely didn’t.
“I want this thing out of my head,” I said firmly and looked from Pete to Gem.
“What, here?!” Gemma burst out. Her eyes looked huge on her delicate, whiter than white face.
“As soon as possible,” I said and crossed my arms, sticking out my chin for further emphasis. I could deal with her later.
“Then let’s go to the hospital,” Gemma said for the third or fourth time. She was clasping and unclasping her fingers, knuckles white.
“I don’t want the hospital,” I said.
“Then who will take out the bullet?!” she yelled, throwing her hands in the air.
I looked at Pete. He raised his eyebrows questioningly. Then I saw a flicker of understanding in his eyes.
“No, Joe, don’t make me do this.” He slowly shook his head.
“I’m not going to a hospital,” I repeated. Pete made a face. I didn’t blink.
“Joe…” Pleading now.
I continued looking straight into his eyes.
He sighed and pulled out his phone.
“I guess you’re not,” he said with a sigh and dialed a number without looking at me.
“Thanks,” I said and kissed him again. He shook his head again and went out of the bathroom, phone at his ear.
“What’s all that about?” Gemma asked. She was sitting on the toilet, arms crossed tightly. She looked confused and angry. I could relate but not sympathize. I was the one that got shot, after all, not her. I wanted her to go but I didn’t know how to tell her without making her even more suspicious.
“Pete has old friends who know how to take out bullets,” I said.
“Pete?” Her eyebrows shot up, giving her a funny look.
“Mhm,” I said, staring at my reflection in the mirror above the sink.
“Good guy Pete?”
I was getting tired of the conversation. Peter hadn’t always been Good Guy Pete. He had a past and this past included knowing people who shot at people and got shot at by other people. Long story short, in his previous life as he called it, Pete had been a dealer. He’d got into the business thanks to his brother and then he’d got out—barely—thanks to a lot of money and a promise to relocate, which he did gladly. After which he met me. But he still had some old acquaintances he could call.
I turned the cold water tap on and tried to wash off the blood around the wound. It felt massively weird to touch a hole in my head, a hole with the bullet that made it still inside. It was… Mo, weird will have to do, I guess. Gemma stood up behind me and stared at the back of my head.
“Gem, stop staring!” I protested. I saw my chance and took it. “You know, people can live for years with bullets in their heads. No damage at all.”
“I… I can’t help it. Sorry,” she said quietly, something very uncharacteristic.
“You can home go if you want. Pete will take care of me.”
The water felt nice on my head. Cold water. My fingers came back bloody but not much. I touched the edge of the bullet and tried to move it just a little bit. It didn’t budge, of course.
“Okay, Gareth said he’ll be here in an hour,” Pete announced. Seeing my questioning look, he added, “Gareth’s the guy I used to know who took care of shootings. But, Joe, he’s not a doctor. I’d really prefer that we go to the hospital. There’s nothing to be afraid of, is there?” Another meaningful look.
“You know I hate hospitals.”
“I do but… You could die, Joe. Maybe this was luck. It happens, I know. But letting some self-taught amateur take a bullet out of your head… I’m really not sure I’m fine with that.”
“And yet you called him.” I said and smiled.
“Well, yeah but…” He looked confused and angry, like a weird mirror image of Gemma. Nothing alike in features but the very same expression.
I hugged him tightly and he hugged me back.
“I will be fine, I promise.”
“I’d better go, then,” said Gemma finally. She sounded a bit awkward, also very uncharacteristically. “See you, guys. If you don’t die, that is,” she added, shooting me an unhappy glance. Still in shock, I thought.
I let go of Peter. He kept one arm around me.
“I will be fine, honestly. I promise.”
Gemma snorted and waved at Pete. It was a half-hearted gesture but I appreciated it. She didn’t like Pete all that much, probably because he wasn’t tall, rich and handsome enough for her or because he didn’t turn into a giant erection every time he laid eyes on her. We followed her into the hall, said bye and closed the door after her. Peter turned to look at me. His look was concerned, penetrating, searching.
“Don’t bother,” I said.
“In case you’re wondering if I had something to do with that shooting, the answer’s no. I didn’t. I think I got hit by some random bullet. I haven’t done anything that deserves shooting.”
“You’re saying these streets are full of random bullets flying in every direction on a daily basis?” He was standing right in front of me, arms crossed, eyes dark and suspicious.
“Something like that.”
He smiled a bit. OK, so the neighborhood wasn’t a ghetto but it also wasn’t the safest one in the city. Poor neighborhoods rarely are. So the idea of a random bullet wasn’t that far-fetched. And I really did not have any other explanation. Unless I had a mortal enemy I didn’t know about, which was stupid.
“I need a cigarette,” I said and headed to the kitchen.
I’d been planning to write a book for about a year. The idea came around the time I got together with Peter and my life started to feel normal. I wasn’t really sure what the book would be about, I thought it could be something funny, a humor book. Like a sitcom, only in a book. The problem is that I’m not that good with words though I do have a sense of humor and everyone who knows me agrees. That’s probably because I didn’t have a very happy childhood and I used humor as a weapon, swinging it in life’s face every time it got too tough on me.
My dad left when I was ten. Mom had a pretty rough time for a while after that but she found Ronnie about three years later and calmed down, having a family again, etc. Ronnie, who was an accountant but a surprisingly cool one, had a son, about two years older than me. I had a huge crush on him but never did anything about it. Neither did he, though I’m sure he knew. Not that I was much to look at in those days. Not that I’m much to look at now but I feel much better about myself than I did five years ago when I first met him.
Charlie, his name was. At least the unrequited love made me lose a few pounds and boys started noticing me. So anyway, I had a pretty wild time in the last year of high school and then a couple of more wild years. It’s a miracle I avoided getting hooked on this or that but maybe I just don’t have an addictive gene or whatever it is.
Then came that night at the club, which was going as usual until…
I looked up startled out of my thoughts. I was leaning on the kitchen counter, looking through the window and not seeing anything. Not that there was much to see besides the gray sky hanging over gray buildings. The cigarette had died out between my fingers. Pete came to me.
“How’s the head?” he said and stroked my hair.
“Very funny,” I said, chucking the cigarette in the ashtray and putting my hand on his. He took it and kissed my fingers. “It’s the same, I don’t feel anything. Almost.”
He raised his eyebrows. I pulled my hand away.
“It’s a bit tingly but mostly numb.”
It was, too. A very slight tingle along the edges of the wound but the hole itself was totally numb, which is how I knew it was there. You don’t usually feel your head numb, do you?
Peter was watching me carefully. I’d told him about that night that ended in the hospital. He believed me. I mean, he said he believed me and I believed him. I had a pretty good reason.
“You’re thinking about that again, aren’t you?” he asked quietly, sat down at the table and pulled me into his lap. Pete’s not a very big guy but he’s just big enough to make me feel safe when I’m in his arms.
“Yeah,” I admitted, putting my arm around his neck. I pulled on a strand of his dark hair thoughtfully. He always knew what I thought. At least when I thought about that night. He stroked my cheek.
“It will never happen again,” he whispered.
This I didn’t believe. I so wanted it to be true but I seriously doubted it and I knew Peter knew it, too.
That night I was out clubbing with some friends and, unbelievably, Charlie. I still don’t know why he asked to come along that particular night. We had run into each other at clubs before but each stayed with their own crowd and we didn’t communicate much, just said hi and moved on. This time it was different. We sat at the same table and even talked, despite the noise. He opened up – another surprise – and told me he wanted to go to university and study some sort of engineering, mechanical, I think. I was really impressed – by his ambitions and by the fact he was sharing them with me. And he sounded superdetermined. Only he never got to go to university, of course, because of that night.
I drank beer until a guy that sat at our table because he knew Charlie brought me a vodka tonic. I don’t usually take drinks that other people, men more specifically, bring me. I’ve had my drinks spiked twice, and though neither case ended with anything major – both times it was Gemma who did it, for laughs – it did not feel good at all to completely lose control.
But this time I took it, for some reason. I thought if the guy was a friend of Charlie’s he wouldn’t do anything bad to me or if he did, Charlie would defend me. Right, my crush was still there. I thought I might make a move if I drank enough even though I knew making a move drunk was not really the best idea. I would say the wrong thing or be too pushy and end up rejected. Still, I took the vodka tonic.
At first I thought I was having a weird hallucination. There was smoke in the glass, in the liquid. A thin plume of reddish smoke. I looked at it very hard, blinked several times to make sure it’s not the lights or anything. It was smoke, definitely. It was really pretty. Well done that barman for the novelty, I thought. Then I took a sip. It tasted different, too, a bit smoky. This was turning into my favorite drink, I decided at that moment, and I turned to tell Charlie about it. He was staring at his own vodka tonic glass with an expression that I guess was pretty similar to mine.
“Did you see the smoke?” I shouted in his ear. He flinched at first but then grinned and nodded.
“Pretty cool, right?” he shouted back.
“Right!” I said and gave a thumb up to his friend who’d got us the drinks. He grinned at me and raised his own glass.
The music was thumping so loudly I couldn’t hear my thoughts so I stopped thinking. I sipped from my vodka tonic with the pretty red smoke in it, savoring every sip so it’d last longer and I could look at the smoke some more. I felt so perfectly at peace. I had never felt like that before. I was constantly worrying about something. But not now. Now I was just enjoying my pretty drink, listening to the music and not even thinking about Charlie and whether I should make a move on him. Right now, I didn’t even care if Charlie was still there or not. This thought surprised me. I looked up to check if he was still there and my vodka tonic fell to the ground.
Someone knocked on the door and startled me. I realized I had almost dozed off on Pete’s shoulder. He was completely motionless so he wouldn’t disturb me. At the knock, his arms tightened around me.
“It’s Gareth,” he said. “He’s early.”