At first there was music. Popular songs played on her little radio, the volume pitched low enough to keep the music from interfering with her thoughts. Then, as the sky darkened outside her window, she got up, crossed the room, turned on a lamp, then changed her mind and switched it off again. And, while she was at it, switched off the radio as well.#
Better to sit in the dark, Madeline thought. Better to sit in the dark, and in the silence.
That way, though, you had only your own thoughts for company. And her own thoughts were bad company these days. They were a whirlpool, a vortex, sucking her deep down within herself, making her see parts of herself she didn’t wish to look at. It didn’t do to see too clearly into the darkness, didn’t do to listen too closely to those thoughts. That was why the whole world played the radio loud, and kept the lights burning. To keep the thoughts drowned out. To keep the darkness safely at bay.
But there came a time when you couldn’t do that anymore.
How long did she sit there, motionless, her mind hewing its own paths, finding its own way through a maze of ill-formed thoughts? She never knew. There was a watch on her wrist but she never looked at it.
Finally, without even thinking about it, she got to her feet and walked to the closet. Enough light came through the open window so that she could do this without stumbling. And she knew this little room well enough, had lived here long enough, so that she could move through it in pitch-darkness, with her eyes clenched shut.
She stepped upon a box to reach the closet’s highest shelf. There she reached into another box, groped until her hands found the soft bag with the hard object inside it. She drew it from the box, left the closet, returned to the chair where she had been sitting. And sat down again.
The velvet drawstring bag had once held a bottle of Canadian whiskey. Now it held something more immediately lethal.
She loosened the drawstrings, removed the gun from the velvet bag. Its smell seemed to fill the room, a scent composed of the smell of metal and the smell of machine oil. She fancied, too, that she could detect the scent of gunpowder as well. Perhaps the gun had been fired since its last cleaning. More probably, though, the gunpowder smell had been supplied by her imagination. The gun had been her father’s, and as far as Madeline knew, he had never fired it.
He hadn’t needed to. He had killed himself slowly, and in a more socially acceptable, less scandalous way.
With the whiskey. Expensive Canadian whiskey at first, of the sort the velvet sack had once held. Then, toward the end, with cheap rye whiskey and cheaper California wine. Until one night, they told her, he had a seizure and died on the street.
He’d left the clothes he was wearing, and another few changes of clothing barely worth giving to the Salvation Army. He’d left a manila envelope of meaningless old letters and postcards and newspaper clippings; she’d given up trying to make sense of them and dropped them down the incinerator long ago. And he’d left this gun, this revolver, as his sole real legacy to his sole daughter.
And here it was now, the metal cold in her hand, the smell of it oppressive in the little furnished room.
What a legacy! What a parting gift!
In case you ever want to kill someone, Madeline.
Or in case you ever want to kill yourself.
How strange that he’d kept it all those years while he treated himself to a slower, quieter death. You’d think, she thought, that he’d either have gotten rid of the gun or used it. But it had been in his room when he died, and, miracle of miracles, the cops who searched his room had delivered it to her instead of appropriating it for their own purposes. And so it was in her hands now, ready for her to do with it as she wished.
Her hands couldn’t leave the thing alone. She passed it from hand to hand, curled her index finger around the trigger, caressed the hammer with her thumb. Holding the weapon at arm’s length, she sighted at various objects across the room, aiming at the little radio, the lamp, the darkness at the far corner of the room. She took aim, felt the trigger trembling under her index finger like a living thing, but never gave the trigger that final squeeze that would transform fantasy into reality.
Why keep the thing? Why have it around the room where she lived?
Because it was all she had left of him, she thought, but decided that wasn’t it. She had tossed his papers down the incinerator, had given his clothes away, without a second thought. She had kept the gun because—
Because she must have known she’d have a use for it.
Her blood ran cold at the thought. Was that it? Was her father’s last gift to her to be the means of ending her own life?
Put it away, she told herself. Put it back in the sack, and in the morning, when night thoughts have been banished by sunlight, take it out and get rid of it. Drop it in a trash can or down a sewer. Get rid of it before it got rid of you.
Did it even work? Was it even loaded? For all she knew it was empty of bullets, its firing mechanism long since rusted shut, the whole thing useful only as a paperweight. But she didn’t think so. It seemed in her hands to give off a murderous energy, as if the capacity to destroy, to kill, existed in it as a palpable living entity.
She put the barrel in her mouth, tasted metal on her tongue.
Felt the trembling of the trigger.
She took the gun from her mouth and held it to her temple. She put the barrel into her ear, then held it to her throat so that it touched against a pulse point. Just squeeze the trigger, she thought, and in an instant there would be no pulse, no thoughts in the mind, nothing, nothing at all.
That, she thought, was the strangest part, because the question was unanswerable. Why kill herself? Because her life was empty, she thought. Because there was no reason not to kill herself. But was that ever a reason to do anything? By the same token, she could argue that she ought to go on living, if only because there was no reason not to go on living.
Did people ever have reasons for the things they did? Did they even need them? Life, after all, was not a problem in logic. You didn’t get a prize for figuring it all out, and that was just as well, because no one ever figured it out. Whether or not there was a reason to go on living, some people went on living. Whether or not there was a reason to kill oneself, some people killed themselves.
Turn on a light, she thought savagely. Play some music. Sing along with the radio, sing at the top of your lungs if you want to. But get out of this mood and get through the night, and first thing in the morning you’ll get rid of the gun.
Somehow she could not put the gun back in the velvet bag. Thoughts flickered through her mind. Something she’d heard once, a rule of drama: If you showed a gun in the first act of a play, you had to make sure it was fired before the curtain at the end of the third act. And weren’t there tribesmen somewhere who, having drawn their daggers, would not return them to their sheaths until they had drawn blood? In the absence of an enemy, they would nick their own thumbs rather than sheathe their weapons unblooded. Perhaps this was superstition, or perhaps it was to prevent them from brandishing their weapons too casually.
Again she found herself holding the gun to her temple.
Her life had no purpose.
It was hard to say how it had come to this. Perhaps her life had never had purpose. She had drifted through it, living in one place or another, working at one thing or another, without realizing the extent to which she was drifting. She had lived without a purpose, blissfully ignorant of the need for a purpose, and now she found herself confronted by the purposelessness of her existence and felt devastated by the confrontation.
You could live a short life or a long one. You could nip a purposeless life in the bud or let it spin itself out for seventy or eighty or a hundred years. Either way you died, and once you were dead it was as if you had never lived.
You were gone and that was the end of it.
Then why hurry it?
Or: then why delay it?
Play the radio, she told herself. Turn on some lights.
Instead, once more she brought the gun to her temple. Once more her thumb drew back the hammer. Once more her finger tightened on the trigger.
Did she decide to squeeze the trigger? Are these things decided? Her finger tightened on the trigger as it had done before, only this time it went on tightening, and she squeezed the trigger.
The hammer descended on an empty chamber.
Relief flooded through her, relief that expanded to fill her own body. She had been spared, she had been saved, and her life of a sudden felt infinitely precious. Even as she trembled at the narrowness of her escape, at the same time she thrilled to the excitement of being alive. A moment ago life had held no excitement, and now, suddenly, the mere fact that she was alive was exciting in and of itself.
She had survived. She had played out her hand, risking everything, and she had won.
She sprang to her feet. Tomorrow the old gun would go where it belonged—in the trash, down the sewer, wherever it could do no harm. She would not need it again. She had kept it, she knew now, for this very purpose—to stand on the very brink of death and be given her life back. She had taken a horrible chance, but it was a risk she need never run again.
She danced across the room, switched on the lamp, filled the room with its cheering glow. She turned on the little radio, let the room fill up with music. She moved gaily to the music, her feet as light now as her heart had been heavy mere moments ago.
And, dancing, she realized with a start that she was still holding the gun.
She stopped, stared at the thing in her hand. Very nearly the instrument of her destruction, it had instead been the means of her deliverance, and her feelings for the object were impossible to sort out. One thing, though, was quite certain. She didn’t want to carry it around with her now.
She found the velvet bag, tucked the gun into it, drew the drawstrings tight. And then, dancing again, caught up in the music and in her own joy in life, she slapped the gun down on a table. Perhaps she meant merely to set it down. Perhaps the rhythm of the music and the joy of her own life urge made her slam the gun down so dramatically.
The gun discharged upon impact.
The noise of the shot was enormous in the little room. She caught her breath at it, and her heart clutched in her chest. Even as the sound of the gunshot was dying out around her, she moved quickly and without thought to switch off the radio, so that the silence which followed the shot could be complete.
Where had the bullet gone?
She moved, frantically, to touch her hands to her own body, as if she could have been shot without realizing it. What irony, to fail in an attempt at suicide, then to shoot oneself by accident just minutes later. But the bullet had not struck her.
Yet there had been a bullet. The room reeked of cordite, and the velvet bag showed a black-edged hole where the bullet had torn its way out.
She looked for a bullet hole in the walls, for damage to anything within the room. She saw nothing.Then, as if magnetically, her eyes were drawn to the open window.
She was gazing at the window when she heard someone moaning outside.
A woman, alone, sprawled on the pavement. A woman, young, moaning, sobbing, her head cradled now in Madeline’s lap.
A woman, shot in the chest on the sidewalk across the street from Madeline’s rooming house. Shot in the chest, bleeding, the blood streaming from the wound. Eyes trying to focus, a mouth trying to form words.
Around them, a crowd was forming. People cried out questions, supplied answers.
Who was she?
Why, she lived here in the neighborhood. Starr, her name was, Starr Barrett.
No, not Barrett, Bartlett—Starr Bartlett.
Who shot her?
Why, there had been a shot fired from a passing car. Some lunatic, some thrill killer, driving through a quiet neighborhood, rolling down his window and firing at random.
My God, here? In this neighborhood?
Hell, it could happen anywhere. All it takes is one madman with a gun and a grudge. That’s all it takes and it can happen anywhere, and to anyone. You get some madman shooting from a window, some lunatic killing little kids, some maniac stabbing hitchhikers. Or someone like this, firing at random from a moving auto.
The voices were background music to Madeline. She barely heard them because they didn’t know anything. There had been no shot from a passing car, although death had been as random, as capricious, in selecting this young woman.
Her gun, her father’s gun. The gun had spared Madeline’s life and taken this life instead. It was true—you couldn’t return your weapon unblooded to its sheath. The gun you showed onstage had to be fired before the curtain fell.
Now the curtain had fallen, and a comedy had turned to a tragedy.
There was a siren, a police car on its way. But she barely heard it. She was looking down into the woman’s eyes, and as she sought to see into them she saw the very life go out of them. The girl shuddered once in her arms and was still.
Copyright © 1987, 2024 by the Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A. as Executor of the Estate of Cornell Woolrich, and Lawrence Block