JUST A SECOND
by Eric Hackler
Thank you. You left me there.
Wind in my face. Gun in my hand. Weight of your betrayal in my chest. What did you think would happen when you didn’t show up? Did you imagine Wilbanks would simply forgive your insults and call the duel off?
That container? That’s for after the story. We can worry about that in a second. Answer the question.
You knew her. You knew her family. And you knew I would be there.
What does all this mean? Don’t start acting the fool; you’ve already got the part. Honestly just typecasting, in my opinion. Though to be fair, I’m not sure how you’d handle a more complex role if you ever got one. But I guess we’ll find out. Of course, the difference is, this time you don’t have an understudy. You actually have to do a little improv to get that applause. Shall I set the scene for you? It’s six months ago. You, David Alexander Fairwether pissed off the Matriarch of the House Wilbanks and were challenged to a duel. You talked a big game, fantasised and bragged about how people would treat you when you defeated on of the most powerful nobles in the city. Then the promised day came and you left your best friend to die because you didn’t have the guts to keep your word. Do you know what that feels like? Shall I set the scene?
First you check your watch. You were worried about this happening last night. “What if Dave doesn’t show up?” whispered unendingly in your head as you tried to sneak a few hours sleep. The ironic thing is when you finally quelled that storm, the more-worrying thought “Am I going to watch my friend of eighteen years die tomorrow?” rapidly replaced it. Funny, huh? Somehow the gods take pity on you and finally you sleep. But not for long and the same thoughts are there waiting for you when you open up your eyes. “Am I going to watch my friend die?” “What if he doesn’t show up?” But you swallow it because your friend is loyal. Because your friend honours his word. Because he’s your friend and despite all the times in the past you’ve managed to forget, you still trust him.
You arrive early. Not the only one to do so, but your friend isn’t among them. And that’s the first time you check your watch – that watch – the one your uncle gave you. The watch that’s been on your wrist for twenty years. It’s timekeeping as smoothly as ever. You keep meaning to tell David about that watch. Maybe you’ll have a second when he gets there. Which he will. He still has 20 minutes. 17 minutes. 15 minutes. 6 minutes. It’s David. He’ll be right on-time. Wow, these last three minutes are taking forever.
The on-time time comes and then goes, your watch keeps time as you experience the strange phenomenon of excruciatingly long minutes moving by entirely too fast. You keep turning to look for your SIT THE FUCK BACK DOWN! YOU’RE GOING TO LISTEN TO ME THIS TIME!
Where was I?
Right. You keep looking around for your friend. But he never shows up. They bring out the pistols, but he never shows up. The doctor is now checking his watch as frequently as you. But your friend never shows up. You keep saying “just a second”. Keep asking for “just one more second”. And then she walks the ten steps to you and says if your friend doesn’t get here in the next minute, she’ll be just as happy to kill you. After all, that’s what you’re here for.
That’s when you throw up. All the worry, rotten from being left out for twelve hours, expels from you like a cannon. None gets on her – she moves too quick for that; and it’s this realisation that sends you to your knees – tears copulating with the sweat and the spew. You don’t check your watch again. A few seconds pass.
Then a few more. You’re on your feet; someone’s put a gun in your hand. Twenty paces away, Angelica Wilbanks spins her gun around her finger.
No, you can’t imagine. YOU WEREN’T THERE. You don’t know what it felt like watching her rubbing her face excitedly, smearing her lipstick until it looked like blood running down her chin. Knowing instinctively that her seeming nonchalance was for show and you were the latest in a long, and now mostly dead, line to see her do this. You can’t imagine it!
But you know, it’s funny. For some reason, I always imagined death would come on its own. It’s a silly though but I just never figured it would be bringing betrayal along for the ride. I suppose most of life is disappointment that reality doesn’t match the neat, orderly pictures we have in our heads, but when you’re finally facing something as absolute as death, the fact that it seems untidy is oddly aggravating.
Suddenly someone’s counting. 3. When did that start? You’re right handed, why is the gun in your left? 4. Is it even loaded? You didn’t check! 5. Do you usually blink this much? Your mouth is dry. The doctor’s turned his back to the field. He’s supposed to do that, right? Or can’t he bear to watch? Can you blame him? 6. or 7. You can’t hear properly anymore. Another number. The sun is in your eyes. You’re all alone. Another. Your friend betrayed you. You’re going to d- Did she just move? Should you go? Is it time? I can’t hear the counting! Fuck it. Go! Fire! Just do something damn you! He left you to die. Don’t prove him right. Your watch is heavy on your wrist. The watch your uncle gave you twenty years ago when none of your cousins or siblings wanted it. Don’t prove them right. Fucking do something! Blood. Blood spreading slowly across fabric. You don’t feel it yet. For just a second there is stillness. Then you feel the wind on your face. It’s only a light breeze but it still makes you sway. The blood has started dripping onto the ground in front of you. The gun falls from your hand. The wind rustles your hair. But less than you think it should. Why is that? Shouldn’t you be falli-Why did Angelica just kneel down?
And then her face hits the grass. The blood continues to drain out of her, turning the green red and the dirt to mud. Her misfired gun at her side – the gun luck would dictate should have been yours. You drop to your knees. You feel. You feel the grass, the wind, the sun, even the sky seems to be touching you. You breathe. For what feels like the first time in hours, maybe even ever, you breathe. The world tastes sweet and warm. You did it. You won. You have never felt more alive.
Except for a second ago. That second right before you fired.
That’s how I started. Your indifference to my death was my first dose. The adrenaline. The rush. The feeling of being in tune with the world. The question. If her gun misfired, did you really beat her? Did she move faster? Did she have time to realise what happened before you cut her down? You can’t sleep. From the night before the duel and for weeks after, your mind doesn’t allow you rest. Did you really beat her? Did she move faster? You’re consumed. You can’t make ordinary decisions because the great one hasn’t been settled. Did you really beat her? Even though the answer doesn’t matter, you still need to know. Because.
Because what? That’s not an answer you find right away. I mean, to be honest, you know where it is but that’s a very treacherous journey and you don’t know what kind of monster you’ll find in the depths. You only know it’s powerful. You felt its talons before. Do you really want to feel them again? But the question eats at you. Devours you. Until you fear there will soon be nothing left. A few months ago, you would have let that happen. Fall into madness, then into memory. But David’s not your friend any longer and the new you prefers to repel into madness rather than fall.
All you need is someone to challenge.
Have you ever been addicted to something? It’s like being in the kind of love you read about in fables. The kind that keeps you up at night because you don’t want it to end. The kind that you remember every morning when you wake up and you spend the rest of the day smiling. The kind you can’t live without. That’s been my life these past few months. I relive it in my head. Not just the one with Angelica, of course. That was only the beginning. I’ve done it all now. Pistols, swords, bare fists. I guess you could say, I’ve developed a duel personality. I never tire of it. Nothing compares to that feeling. I can’t believe I lived so long without it.
On you noticed? Yeah, no scars. No lasting injuries. I’ve got a perfect record. Second to none.
Who knew indeed. But here’s the thing, it’s not because I’m a good fighter. Yes, I’ve gotten better, but that’s not why I win. I win because I’m the most determined to walk away. Because I enjoy it now. You know, you weren’t the first person I seconded. You were the first one who didn’t show up, but my cousin was the first one to choose me. To deem me the one least likely to be missed. And I actually thanked him for thinking of me. I didn’t see it. Not then, not with him, not for eight years with you. Oh, there were hints. Little moments when the darkness whispered that you cared less for my than I for you. I pushed them aside, but now I know that ember never truly goes away. When you live your life as back-up, it burns in you, flames away in your mind and in your bones. If you don’t use it, it will devour you. Spending your life as kindling to keep someone else warm, it doesn’t matter how hot you get, you still end up ashes. But when you get your chance, if you let that heat fuel you, you can light the world on fire. Something the hero who’s supposed to be there will never be capable of.
Which brings me to the reason I’m here. The reason I’ve spent the last half-year searching for you. I’m finished leading this hand-me-down life. Done being on your leash – letting you tell me it was where I belonged. You abandoned me without a second thought – the last in a very long, and now mostly dead, line to do so. That’s all I was to you. Second class.
Don’t. I see the proud, rationalising smile trying to turn your lips. You used me for years. Good for you. I hope it was worth it. But you’re not special. Everyone has a second in their life. Someone they can just throw on the fire. If they’re lucky, you change your ways before they discover why you keep them around or you never get close enough to a fire to make use of them. Well, this one didn’t burn up. I’m here in front of you – darkness and flame – gun in hand, about to show you what happens when you put other people second. Oh yes, I’ve started a fire of my own and I’m fuelling it with logs that have never felt the heat until now. For some reason, it’s burning higher than most.
And to answer your first question, yeah that’s a can of kerosene. Yep, I’ve got the matches in my pocket. It’s your time to burn. Let’s see how you handle it. Let’s see if you can pull yourself from the flames.
Ah, ah ah! Don’t you goddamn move! You’re not leaving yet. Actually you should enjoy it – for the last time, something is all about you.
At least I finally got to tell you about my watch. You know it stopped that day? The second I fired, some of the gunpowder got in it and screwed up the works. I spent so much of my life asking for just one more second. Now, I have all the time in the world.
So, thank you.
© 2016 by Eric Hackler