The Writer sits alone in his office.
It should be poignantly obvious that anyone who plays Russian roulette alone is aiming to lose. No one is more acutely aware of this fact than the player, even more so should he be writing about it to an audience he will never meet. An audience, if he should lose, that will never exist. But it is not his choice to lose. It is not his choice to win. It is the hand of God, Fate, Providence, Fortune, Destiny, or—that most horrifying of all possibilities— Luck, that decides his future each night as he spins a single bullet within one of six chambers, stops, aims, and—fighting tears of fear, frustration, self-loathing, and guilt—squeezes the trigger. Always squeezes, never pulls.
These are the thoughts that squirm through his head as his eyes remain closed and his arms remain tensed.
Two figures stand to his sides as he plays the game. An angel and a devil at his shoulders. And while they always argue, they always agree.
Kane Strayman: the Stray Dog. He is the angel covered in blood. Fueled by a directionless fury, he one day chose to direct it instead. And desperately he sought to find somewhere else but inward. Vengeance, retribution, justice above all: these are the roads upon which he drunkenly swerves, the lanes between to be avoided at all costs, yet somehow crossed.
He is a hero. It is important that he is, because it may be nobody believes it. A writer who never publishes will never be known a writer; a hero whose actions seem cruel, even if the outcome is just, will never be known a hero. But one is a writer, and one is a hero, because it is the only thing they could possibly be.
Daniel Munn, the Mundane Man, stands across. He is the devil with a halo in place of horns. A villain who accepts his role with a grim determination. He is not the scum of the earth, he is not an egomaniac. He is not, perhaps, even Evil. But he has given up on being Good. It used to be his ends justified his means. He bore the world on his shoulders, taking the hardships of the world and the blame for them too. Yet that blame, under that pressure as he attempted to internalize everything, burst outward instead.
It is important that he is a villain, because his sympathetic traits might convince one otherwise. But even if others don’t believe it, he does. He accepts it, even as he continues to judge himself for it more than anyone else.
These two have worn a thousand faces, claimed a thousand names, and lived a thousand lives. Not one is a lie. They are not fractions of a whole, but perspectives. New frames for the same picture. A picture of them both, for they are always together. They do not exist without each other, two sides of a coin spinning eternally in the air. The roles of Protagonist and Antagonist ever changing between them.
Moreover, they do not exist without the Writer. They are his. Born from his hand, it is for them that he is the Writer, and not just a man. Yet, like a parent to a child, they are not under his control by virtue of his authorship. They are not tools. They are alive, even if only to him—in him—and so they can talk to him, even when he wishes they would not.
“Put the gun down,” Daniel says. His tone is not friendly. Not concerned. It is determined.
“You owe it to them to live. If you are guilty, repent. Redeem. You won’t fix anything a dead man.” Kane’s response is more to Daniel than to the Writer.
“He owes them nothing. It’s them who put him here. They hold the gun to his head. He must fight. At any cost.”
“If it’s shame that put him here, let pride pull him out. Pride in what he does, not what they call him.”
The Writer does not speak to them; he only listens.
In the literal sense, he listens. It might be better to say he only hears. Because while they urge him to live, in their own separate doctrines, clashing and coalescing in a self-destructive amalgam of burning passion and cold logic like a firestorm on the ocean, he squeezes—never pulls—the trigger anyway.
The world stops for a moment. Nothing moves, but everything changes. Shadows loom, the wind moans, all things that in basic premise of existence remain the same. Yet the shadows did not loom, before; they simply were. The wind did not moan; it only blew.
Daniel is quieter now. Softer, and sad. “It doesn’t get any easier. If anything, it gets harder. You can fight, but they fight too. They fight without trying, without knowing, and that is the secret to their success. You try too hard. Think too much. There’s only one way this can end, there’s no shame in accepting that now.”
Kane Strayman growls. Frustrated and disappointed, but with what? In whom? “All you do—all you ever do—is hurt them. Maybe it’s not your fault, and I want to believe that, but it also isn’t theirs. Maybe there’s only one way you can help.”
“Do not make him a martyr. Not for them.”
“It’s better than dying for nothing.”
“Better to die for nothing than the lost cause they are. He deserves better. They deserve worse.”
“All he wants is to do some good. Can’t you let him do that, now that it’s his last chance?”
In the vain hope that he still actually has a choice, he puts the gun down. He dismisses their pleas, for now. He will pick it up again tomorrow.
This is life and death for him. Of course there’s more to his days: work and words and waste. But these are incorporeal to him. Those who know him know nothing of his struggle, because to tell them might take it out of his control in a way even he dare not allow. Everything outside this game of his is the breeze across a river; they touch, they interact, but neither changes the other. These two ideals— composed of a hero and a villain, who are but a thread from changing places—are all he has.
Them, and the gun.
Today is different.
Today he no longer fights the tears. They fall freely, not a torrent of water dammed for ages, but a trickle, what little has not evaporated under a burning sun.
Today he is more alone than ever. The Stray Dog and Mundane Man are absent, perhaps returned home to their evolving, revolving frames. Perhaps they have finished trying to help, in their own twisting ways.
Whatever the case, they are not there, and so he is finally embraced by true loneliness, where even he cannot stand his company.
He looks at the gun, no longer following the rules of the game. There is a bullet in every chamber. This time he defies Providence. For once he demands a choice, in the one place he can. He cannot place the cause of this change of heart, the point where a desire for agency finally overwhelmed his need for an excuse from responsibility. These contradictions—this hypocrisy—are the soul of his dilemma.
He spends a moment considering aim. From below? From the side? From inside his mouth? There were no doubt benefits and problems with each choice. Implications and ramifications. He can’t help but laugh at the irony. He is worrying about the consequences of an action that by its very nature rendered them irrelevant to him. Wasn’t that the point?
Yet knowing this may indeed be the End, he hesitates. Even without the bickering avatars, he is in torturous conflict against himself. His hand far from the trigger, he rests the gun against his temple and shudders at the initial cold touch. Somehow, it feels right. It feels appropriate. The pose suits
him, and he is glad that were he to pull the trigger he might die in style. Style was always very important to him. It is why he chose the gun over pills. He knows there must be no doubt, and no turning back. Either do, or don’t. And he wants to leave a mark, even if he cannot help but feel sympathy towards whoever will eventually need to remove that mark from the carpet and the walls.
On the desk next to him is what is so often referred to as a note. In his case, it is less a note and more a letter; it is an explanation and apology—individually addressed though all in one document—to the few he still believes might care about the inevitable outcome of this choice. He glances at it to remind himself it is there, that he will not leave without offering answers to those who ask questions. He tries not to consider it the last thing he will ever write. He closes his eyes, brings his finger to the trigger, and…
He trembles. He shakes. And he cannot squeeze the trigger. It isn’t sudden; it was gradually building from the start. But only now does he feel it. This is not a headache but an attack. His thoughts pound from within his skull for some sort of answer, for understanding before the end. To seek it, he turns around.
Behind him, still, is no one. They have gone.
The Writer chases after them.
“Where did you go?” the Writer asks in a mix of fury and fear. They are not surprised to see him, because why would they be? They have known all along.
“Here,” Daniel responds without a shred of humor.
“Even you… gave up on me? You can’t. You don’t have the right! I won’t let you!”
Even as he says it he chides himself for the histrionics. He despises his own inclination towards the dramatic and loathes his tendency to overreact. Of course, in this, he considers all things an overreaction. If he thought his troubles worth reacting to, he likely wouldn’t be playing the game at all.
“We didn’t give up on you. We’re just done. There’s nothing more to say. Stories end.”
Strayman refuses to be left out. “And you don’t let us do anything. You get that by now, don’t you? You know what we do. You don’t choose it. You’re a medium, not a magician.”
They are no longer playing the parts he wrote for them. Now they are only themselves. Whether they are even aware of this—whether they care—is inconsequential to the fact that it means the Writer will finally be having a conversation. He will not Hear but Listen. Not just Listen, but Speak. Even if it is only to himself.
“I… I know. But I… I don’t want this, you understand? I’m not…” The Writer waves the gun in his hand, ignoring for a moment everything he always held so dearly about firearm safety.
“This isn’t what I want! But I… I have to. I feel like I’m the bad guy. The villain of everyone else’s story, and I have to… I feel like I’m at a dead end. If I keep going, this is the only place left. So I need you, I need help. I need somewhere else to go. Please.”
He has never asked for help. Not from anybody. Why would he deserve help? Other people, after all, had it worse. So many, so much worse. He had no right to put that on them. His troubles simply weren’t worth it.
No, that isn’t right either. It isn’t a matter of his troubles. He is not sad. He is not depressed. He is afraid, and angry, but none of this stems from some insurmountable obstacle placing him in some immeasurable misery. The only problem is himself.
This is the one time he can ask, the only people he can ask. These two have nothing else and nowhere else to weigh them down, or pull them away. They are the only ones who can help him, because they are the only ones he will accept help from. The only port he will use in this storm. They had helped him before, in times of heartache, self-loathing, and doubt. Couldn’t they help him now? Now that he is willing to ask?
“We can’t do that.” This they say together. Though so often enemies, they are finally on the same exact page. A page opposite his own.
“Why not! Then what can you do?”
Kane cannot contain his wrath in the face of a challenge. “We can’t fix you. We can’t save you. That’s your job. It’s on you! Don’t put that shit on us. You need to pull yourself together before you blow yourself away.”
Daniel, as always, remains calm. His cold demeanor counters Kane’s fury, but with a sharp pain of its own. “And, as you say, you can’t seem to do that, either. So there is your puzzle. What is the solution? What do you do?”
“How am I supposed to know? If I knew, I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t be here like some nutcase!”
“Then figure it out!” Kane says.
“Why are you here?” Daniel challenges.
“Wh…What?” This question, comically self-evident, disrupts his downward spiral. “I- I live here. Where else would I be?”
“No. Why are you here?” The Mundane Man raises a hand to the gun.
This, the Writer has already considered. It was a question he often asked, because he didn’t feel he could go without knowing the answer. That’s simply not the man he is.
“Because I… deserve it. I’ve hurt people, you know? And I don’t mean to. I never meant to. But. That doesn’t stop anyone, does it? And if that doesn’t, then… then something has to.”
There is a moment of silence as Daniel and Kane share a glance and a revelation. They have reached an understanding that skirted the perimeter of the Writer’s own mind.
“It’s a grim trigger, isn’t it?” Daniel looks away, now, and something in his words reflects a profound sense of grief. A combination of nostalgia and loss.
“The only deterrent to evil,” Kane starts, sounding more calm and collected than ever, his fire cooling against the cold reality, “is the threat of unrelenting punishment. And what’s more unrelenting than death?”
“So you seek to act not only as judge, but as judged and executioner.”
The Writer knows this. Knew this. It is why he must face it alone. He cannot afford to be convinced he is worth saving. What if they’re wrong?
Kane places a hand on Daniel’s shoulder, who turns to face the Writer once more. They are ready to speak:
“If you’re your own worst critic, should you really be the only one?”
“You’re not Atlas. The world’s not yours to bear. Not alone.”
“As long as you only have us, you’re talking in circles. You’ve created a feedback loop so you can’t possibly escape your own judgment.”
“There are people who disagree with you. They exist, and they’re closer than you want to admit.”
“But you don’t dare even ask, because you’re afraid of disappointing them. Betraying their faith in you.”
“They deserve a say. If you’re supposed to be doing this for their sake, you oughta hear from them first.”
“A dissonance you cannot resolve. You need to talk to someone, actually talk to them, instead of hiding behind platitudes and pleasantries.”
“Don’t you think it’s worth a shot? Seems to me your only alternative is a gun to your head, so what do you really have to lose?”
Kane has never spoken with so much tender concern. Daniel, too, shows signs of his harsh demeanor cracking. The firestorm has become a comforting hearthfire; the icy ocean a serene pond. The Writer cannot help but question whether these were still the characters he had originally envisioned, though it was never a mystery to him that a character evolves and grows with or without consent. So he looks at the gun, and he looks at his angel and devil, now even harder to distinguish from each other, and he runs his hands through his hair roughly, brutally, pulling at each strand.
And he laughs.
“Why is that funny?” they ask in sync one last time.
He doesn’t stop, but manages to respond: “because if it wasn’t… It’d be really sad.”
This is his breaking point. He will either pick the gun back up and fire in a single moment of impulsive courage—no hesitation, no time to regret—or he will pull back and follow a new path.
He takes a deep breath.
And they are gone. Not for good, but for now. They are replaced only by the brightness of his computer screen. A screen now filled with words.
In front of him is possibly the worst story he has ever written. A fragmented, bloated, obfuscated tribute to self-pity. A shame, considering the thought that went into it. An outpouring. An outburst. There is more of him there than in himself.
He examines it, reading it for the first time. Each word is as he believes it should be. A perfect first draft of a terrible story. But if he is in this—and he is—then perhaps it doesn’t matter that it makes for a poor story.
He cannot ask for help. Even after his internal melodrama, he could never bring himself to put that burden, that task, on anyone. But here is everything he wants to say. No less and certainly no more. And if he can only bring himself to ask someone not even for help, but just to listen. Well, maybe it’s enough.
He sets it to print, and stares at the confirmation. The number of pages. The preview.
He knows that for all the fanfare, this is not an endgame. He has not, through all this struggle, acquired a revelation to change his entire lease on life. To free him from the chains of his self-judgment. He is only putting off what may prove to be inevitable. But he understands that he has to start, or his only recourse will be to stop.
He glances at the gun, and with that belated impulsive courage, he clicks “print.”
“Grim Trigger” by Regan Farnsworth appeared in Issue 37 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Regan Farnsworth graduated from UC Berkeley in 2016, and is currently putting his writing talents to use developing an independent project, as well as recreational short story writing. “Grim Trigger” is his first published piece.