I was struck with inspiration last night as I remembered a short story that I read long ago, back in ninth grade. A short story called "Bullet to the Brain," by Tobias Wolfe, which to this day remain my ultimate favorite short story. It's one of those stories that just strike a chord in you in some amazing little way that profoundly impacts you for the rest of your life and informs every single endeavor into writing that you take. The story is about 2.5 pages long, but it has long been my wish to write something that short, that simple, and that profound. I don't know if I've done that with this…considering its fanfiction, and South Park fanfiction at that, but….
Consider this a tribute of sorts, at least.
Bullet to the Brain
"This is bullshit," Kyle moaned, tossing his head back, "I can't believe my mom sent us out like this."
He stood in line in the brightly lit convenience store, sagging backwards into his oversized coat and baggy jeans. He shivered and leaned casually on the boy standing next to him.
"This sucks. Why the fuck do stores here have air conditioner? It's fucking cold enough outside."
Stan laughed and nudged him with his shoulder, his arms full with brightly colored groceries. Kyle was equally loaded, holding two large plastic bags.
"Dude," He leaned the side of his face on the top of the shorter boy's head and smiled, "Chill. We'll be out of here in no time."
"Ugh," Kyle sniffed, "Mom treats me like a pack mule."
"A pack mule? Well, I guess she does ride your ass."
He rolled his eyes but inwardly felt a little proud of Stan's clever attempt at a pun.
The stayed in the same position for a while as the cashier, slowed by his twelve hour shift, lazily rang up a older woman's thirty something cartons of cigarettes.
The door flicked open with a click and a ring of a bell. Not giving it much thought, Kyle remained in his position and breathed in the warmness that was his best friend. But he felt his friend tense up and move his head and he looked up towards him to find Stan's eyes staring at the door. Kyle quickly followed.
A man with a black mask pulled over his face had entered the store, his hands jammed into his pockets. Kyle felt his stomach drop.
Suddenly the man's hand pulled out his jacket and pointed at the cashier.
"All right!" The man screamed, "Everybody stay still!"
Fear seized Kyle up and caused him to drop the bags to the floor. As the clattered on the blinding linoleum he instantly felt himself turn cold in sudden panic.
"Hey," Kyle looked up and wished he hadn't. The gunman had turned and pointed the gun at the two of them. His heart leaped up in his mouth.
"Put your hands where I can see them." He throatily barked.
Kyle realized at this point that his friend had put his hands on his shoulders in a protective reflex. His gripped simply tightened as the man threw out the order.
Kyle knew his friend didn't want to let go and leave him vulnerable, but with a gun pointed at him he obviously had no choice. Kyle gently touched his friends hand and, regretfully, Stan slide his arms off of his best friend's shoulders and let them drop to his side.
Satisfied, the man turned away but stole furtive glances at them as he began to harangue the cashier.
Kyle kept his eyes trained on the man's back, as a strange and alien thought entered his brain. A part of his argued that the rational thing would be to let the man take the money and go, but this strange and intrusive thought egged him on.
The cashier was fumbled clumsily with the register and the gunman was obviously getting agitated, as he began waving the gun around and shouting.
If someone didn't do something, this guy was going to snap. Kyle bit his lip.
"Hey, dude," He spoke aloud, turning the gunman's attention to him. Stan looked at him like he was crazy.
"Dude, be qu—" He began.
"Hey!" The gunman shouted, pointing at Stan, "Shut up, punk!" Stan fell quiet, and the gunman turned back towards the cashier.
Kyle took a deep breath. He could maybe talk their way out of this one. Thats what his brain was telling him to do anyway.
"Hey. Hey!" He spoke again, louder and more confident this time. The gunman whirled around again, any sense of expression concealed by the black mask.
Stan was trembling. He looked utterly horrified as the gunman walked over and stood in front of his best friend, gun in hand. But Kyle held out a hand, almost to steady him, and gave the terrified boy an "I can handle this" nod.
"Do you want to die, kid?" The man hissed from behind the mask. Kyle felt a shiver of fear run up his spine, realizing all the man had to do was pull the trigger in order to send the bullet into his chest.
But he didn't plan on dying-that wasn't a part of their plan. Him and Stan—They were Super Best Friends, and they promised each other that neither of them would die before the other. He was convinced there was some kind of magical bond that would keep him from dying, even when faced with a gun toting maniac.
He took a deep breath, trying to formulate a plan in his head that would get them through this all alive. Most of all, get Stan out alive. He wouldn't forgive himself if his Super Best Friend got hurt.
He looked as calmly as he could into the gunman's eyes. Through the hastily cut holes in the ski mask he could see the red rimmed, manic blue eyes crossed over with thin pink capillaries. The gunman looked scared-but not crazy. Not yet insane.
"You don't want to do this man. Seriously." Kyle could help but cringe at how terrified he sounded. He swallowed and tried to continue.
"Dude, whatever made you do this-whatever reason you think you have to do this, money or whatever—"
"You don't know," The man breathed, "Shut up kid."
"Please." He realized he was losing the battle, his voice was becoming tinged in panic and betraying his attempts at rationality.
He was sweating as the gunman pressed the weapon's barrel to the side of his temple,the brush of cool metal against his skin causing Kyle to shiver. The gunman flinched at this small, stupid movement: he was obviously at his wits end, not thinking straight.
"D-dude," He stammered, "Please. Please stop."
To his right he could barely see Stan, his face pale, etched in terror, mouthing silent words. He wanted Kyle to stop and let the man take the money and leave. But something stupid, some moronic thing that he had to prove kept him going.
"Dude," he gulped, "Dude, listen. It's not worth it. It's not worth it." He bit his lip.
"N-no," The gunman was cracking, "No, you don't, you don't—"
Kyle breathed out again and tried to force a smile.
"If you just walk away right now, just right now, hardly anything will happen. Please. Don't do this." He was regaining some of the confidence in his voice.
The gunman was still, his hesitation now evident even with the cover of the mask.
Kyle repeated again.
"Please don't do this."
He could just barely see the gunman's shoulder slide down.
He let out a slight breath of relief as the situation slowly began to diffuse itself.
Then all hell broke loose.
Kyle saw out of the corner of his eye the cashier moving suddenly behind the counter, causing the gunman to turn his head. At the same time he saw a blur of brown and red as Stan jerked forward and grabbed the man from behind. He cried out for Kyle to get away but the gunman led out a small shriek and his hair trigger instincts reacted as he pulled hard on the gun
You feel a hot burst against the skin above your ears and as the side of your head explodes your mind goes with it, bursting into a flash of whites and colors and before you can manage a single thought the universal explosion contracts and it looks like you are finally left with nothing but empty dark.
But from the blackness that at once seems so overwhelming and so enlightening bursts forth a mosaic of geometric lights in a crackle of fatally snapping synaptic energy. Memories; little choice vignettes and petty moments.
And your memories are like TV screens, wide glowing squares of light depicting every single solitary moment throughout the all too cut short stages of your life.
And if you had any shred of consciousness at this point you would have called out the clichédness of this entire scene, but as it is all you do is watch and observe as everything flashes before your eyes.
The first day of high school.
Saving the world for the first time.
The first time you snapped and punched that fucking Fatass in the face.
The first time you broke your arm.
Your first birthday.
Your first kiss.
Your first everything.
And out of the side of the darkness the bullet spirals into the pictures in slow motion, rotating and spinning, and comes in contact with the a memory-your brother's fourth birthday party-and pierces it straight through, cracking the screen into pieces and trailing the entrails of the memory behind in its destructive wake.
The bullet continues through, passing through the screens and shorting them out in a crackle of electricity. Every memory, each screen, one after another, explodes into shards and rainbow colored dust leaving behind nothing but a hissing static which soon fizzles out. You want to stop the bullet's path as it erases everything you are on its inevitable course, but the conclusion of the shot is already foregone and set in stone, so you are left as a helpless observer
And as the bullet splits what seems to be the last memory: your high school graduation, only days passed, you find only darkness, and decide that this is it, that the bullet has made short work of you and everything that you've held dear and is ready to burst through the other side of your skull, trailing behind the broken memories in its comet's tail.
And just as you've given up, as you're ready to curl up into the darkness and accept this as loneliness, a last memory, like an afterthought, drifts into view.
A memory that seems to have been filed out of order, placed randomly after everything, after every single date that can be assigned some chronological significance has been shattered and returned into the darkness.
The memory isn't clear, it isn't distinct, it can't be given a label of "first" or "last" or "birthday," but as the bullet's path grows close you want to stretch out nonexistent fingers and hold onto it, this last shred. You want to pull it out of the way of the bullet's track.
And miraculously, by some sleight of fate, the bullet passes on by this memory, leaving it absolutely unscathed and absolutely perfect.
And the memory's window grows until it encompasses all of your vision, to the point where you can even't see the bullet and its swirling corkscrew trajectory.
Recognition dawns as the picture of a warm, outdoor afternoon swallows you away from the darkness.
Perfect summers, you're reminded, where all the snow had melted off the ground and the air was crisp and warm had been few and far between in your childhood. This particular day was flushed and golden, immersed in the sepia light of a sun on the verge of its descent. The grass of the fields and the sky are the same color, tinted in the same tone of bronzing yellow.
You look around, and instead of numbness you feel the touch of the grass on your legs, and instead of the sensory deprivation of the bullet ravaged brain you taste and smell the warm sugary air and hear the soft rustling of the wind through the fields.
And a boy, a boy with black hair swept flatly across his forehead, cushioned under a red baseball cap, stands in the golden knee high grasses a few feet away, waving at you and calling your name through the pearling air, a smile as warming as the welcomed weather beaming on his face. You smile back and you know that not even your intense hate of America's pastime can tear you away from spending time with your closest friend. You run through the amber waves, kicking up clouds of dust and pollen that powder the sweet air.
You wonder why this memory that you're treasuring like a lifeline has been hidden for so long. Why had this moment been lost to the forgetful clutter all these years?
And then another memory invades your brain and encompasses your view; a memory of what has to be the present, of the tearstained face of a boy framed in white who bends over you, his face a picture of anguish.
For him, the bullet has already completed its course, already done the job it was fired to do. For him it has already passed through your brain and dragged with it the shattered pieces of your skull and all of the memories and all of what made you, you. For him, you have already passed along the path of the bullet.
Both of you are living on two different pinpoints of time: one before the bullet has completed its fatal course, and one existing in the aftermath, the shattered remains and the broken life thats doomed to follow. He doesn't know that you and him are still connected, that you can still see him and see his grief through a tiny square of light.
And then before your eyes the last two memories of your life overlap, and the boy of the past and the present become one in the same, as do the sadness and the pain and the unbridled youthful joy, and they both become your reality: your past and present, all in one little moment.
It's futile at this point, you realize, to hope for the bullet to stop its inexorable trail. The destruction will eventually pierce through your final two—no, one—memory and leave you with nothing but the burning static and then the black. There is nothing that you or the tear stained boy can do to stop that.
But for now-for now, as the bullet twists through the dark of your mind-the memory still exists for you, as you live in both past and present, with him at six and sixteen, with the golden afternoon on the baseball field and the blazing white ceiling of the convenience store, with the tearstained face and the younger one full of joy and the mellow light of a summer sun, with the smell of the salt of blood and tears and the dry and flavorful air of the marigold grass—
And through it all, the soft touch of a voice, a gentle chant, repeating your name over and over through the cool air conditioned breeze of the store, calling for you out over the green-gold of the summer fields.
"Kyle, Kyle, Kyle."
In the words of Prof. Farnsworth, "Ohh. I've made myself sad."