Story: Penultimate

By: Andrew J. Gleason 


I have decided to kill myself.

Know that it is not out of love or sadness that I perform this most heinous act but because I chose it over the alternative, for that seems far, far worse. As I lift the gun off the table. It strikes me as odd how heavy it is. This is only the third time I have ever held a gun before. I lay my pointer finger on the cool metal trigger as my fingers bind tightly to the wooden grip. I bring my thumb to unlock the hammer with an audible click. Glancing outside the window the carriage barreling here with great haste, kicking up the deep, red, Georgian clay. I sigh as I remove my top hat and place it on the table. I raise the gun to my chin, strengthening my grip. I say a short prayer of apology and then go for the trigger. But I stop.

What should be my last thought? What shall be the penultimate thing to pass through my brain?

Not many people get to choose what their final thoughts should be. Most die from unexpected things, or from long bouts of illness like my mother. Too delirious at the end to comprehend what is happening. Even when they find themselves in a similar situation like me they are so consumed with guilt or sadness they can think of nothing else. But for me? I am not bound by any of those things. So what shall my final thought be before I am judged before God?

Perhaps something from my childhood?

All I can think about from then is when mother died and father took me in the field after she had finished coughing up blood for the final time. It had been raining all day and it had finally stopped, leaving a damp and muggy feel to settle over the land. He walked me out into the fields, it was during the planting season and the slaves were on the far side of the field. We watched them toil away in silence for several minutes. I would occasionally look up at his stern and furrowed brow. He never looked away from the fields, but as I watched him I saw lines of red threaten to invade his blue eyes as he let small droplets escape the otherwise perfect shell of emotional depravity. The silence stretched as I sat there, uncomfortable, until he finally spoke, “Son I am only going to tell you this once. So you listen good.”

All I could do was nod blankly as he kneeled down to my eye level. It was in that moment, and only ever in that moment, that I saw pain in those stern, dark, blue eyes. He rested his thick, callused, hand on my shoulder and said, “Listen, Jeb, you are the oldest. And I won’t live forever so someday all of this, the farm, the crops, the slaves, I am giving it all to you. Now with your mother gone I can speak freely to you. She wanted both of you to get a good education. But you aren’t smart enough for that. I’m sorry but that is the hand you were dealt. But your younger brother is too weak for farm work. So I expect you to see him through schooling. I will not have both of my sons resigned to the life I had. But your brother is smart enough to become a great man. You are going to make sure that happens. Do you and me have an understanding?”

The last part was said with such malice, I cried. He smacked me across the face so hard that I almost fell over. The tears dried up as I watched the pain turn to anger in his eyes.

“Do we have an understanding?”

“Yes.” I said, signing away my future. He smacked me again.

“Yes what?”

“Yes, sir.”

Perhaps not the best memory for my last thought. Leaning back in my chair, tapping the pistol against my temple. How I hated father. A brute, a drinker and he would take mother to their bed room and had loud and violent sex, even after she got sick. He claimed it was his right as her husband to make use of her whenever it pleased him. After she died he indulged himself in a string of night walkers. Detestable women who I would spit on and throw out at every opportunity as I grew older. I could not stand the shame of it. It was this string of disreputable woman that was finally his end. He died of a sickness of his desires. I remember his funeral. What a joyous day! Perhaps that shall be my final thought. I remember standing over his casket, closed as he requested, unable to die with the shame of what was his end. A shame he could never live up to.

George walked up behind me and patted me on the back. He had spent the entire time crying for the sake of the roughly ten people who had shown up. Not even any of the dozens of women who had shared a bed with him had showed up to take responsibility for the death they contributed to. At least Mrs. Shilling showed up and I have seen her and father spend much time together. Though she only came because her unsuspecting husband came to pay his respects.

“I can’t believe he is gone, dear brother,” George said.

“I can,” I stated, wiping the sticky July sweat from my brow as I turned to take my seat before the eulogy began. I had nothing to say and desired to hear nothing on the matter. Though George gave a very emotionally charged speech, “My Father, Ernest Law was a great man. He touched so many of our lives. He taught us all so many different things. I know he taught me the meaning of a hard day’s work. He taught me about the natural order to the world and how the white man must rise up and take control of not only his own destiny, but the destiny of those depended on him! He taught me that I should stay in school and become a great man. That is all he ever wanted for his children, for them to become greater men than he. With that in mind, I, George Law, swear to take the money he has left me to become the great philosopher he wanted me to be!” George finished, there was a brief pause of silence before a slow trickle of clapping came in and George resumed his seat next to me. He was grinning like a madman.

No I don’t think I want to dwell on father anymore. My life has moved past him and so should my death. I glance out the window again and see as the constable was climbing out of the carriage. He is a rather portly man with a thick handle bar mustache and beady eyes. Scarlet was with him as the both began to walk toward the house. It seems I am almost out of time.

Perhaps my wedding? No that was a loveless marriage of convenience and not of passion or economic gain, but because we were both getting on in years and simply wished to not spend our final years with a cold bed. And on the wedding night after I had finally finished consummating the marriage, I couldn’t comprehend what father saw in the experience. It was pleasurable but not worth suffering for. Vivian and I tried for a while but the bed grew cold after the first failed attempt at producing an heir. No! My fist slammed against the desk, causing my hat to fall over onto the floor. I will not contemplate my failures! But now the thoughts I have been trying to stave off have only tightened their grip further. They scream at me so that I can at least consider them before I place this bullet in my skull. So it is with great reluctance that I consider this morning’s events.

It began yesterday. After four years of schooling George had come home for the first time, he only wrote to congratulate me on my wedding and to make sure the check for his schooling came. But now he was a graduate and was to come and regale me with his grand plan for becoming a great philosopher.

I remember rocking back and forth in my chair, after a hard day of tending the field with Jacob and Marcus as the sweltering May sun beat down upon us. With the tobacco weed finally planted it should make for a great harvest. I watched as Ruth brought ice cold water to the slaves resting under the tree. They had worked hard today and I was proud of them. I used a handkerchief to wipe the sticky sweat from my brow and ignited my pipe. I was in the middle of a long drag from my pipe, enjoying the fading heat of the dying sun in the amber tinted evening, when the carriage appeared in on the hill just beyond my property. I released the smoke for my nose as the carriage was pulled to a stop in front of my house. The driver, a curiously short man, jumped off and opened the door like he was escorting the president instead of the son of a farmer. Out walked my remarkable older looking brother. He had finally been able to grow a full mustache and his eye brows had become bushy like fathers. He had slicked back his hair, a style probably popular in Boston. He was dressed in the finest clothes I had ever seen. He ran up to me as soon as he saw me. I stood up and extended my hand to greet him but he embraced me fiercely.

“Brother it is so great to see you again!” George said with the little southern accent he had left.

“Yes,” I said with genuine joy in my voice. “It is good to see you again.”

It is then when I noticed that another person was climbing out of his carriage. She was wearing a very simple red gown, it was at just the right place to not show any of her breasts but offered a hint at where they were. Strands of her curly, blonde, hair flowed down her shoulders and began to glow with the tangerine sunlight as she stepped out of the shadow of the carriage. Her thin red lips revealed as pleasant of a smile as I had ever seen. Her hazel eyes began to match the glow of her golden hair as she walked up to the porch. George had taken notice and said, “Ah, brother, this is Scarlet Jenkins. My fiancée.”

Vivian walked out on the porch as I bowed to the princess my brother had brought before me. I turned to see her and felt a wave of fear and resentment consume me as I saw my plain faced, dark haired wife approach. “So this is George?” she said walking off the porch toward us.

“Yes,” I said as I forced my attention away from Scarlet. “George, this is my wife, Vivian. Vivian, this is my brother George and his fiancée, Scarlet.”

George looked at her and then me for a prolonged moment of silence. He seemed to be weighing his future wife against mine as a way of measuring how much success his education has brought him. He smiled and kissed her hand. This decadent gesture flattered her to no end. But I was too focused on the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Living my entire life in this small town in Georgia left me a bit depraved at the diversity in the world.

“Well, supper will be out soon,” Vivian said, but her subtle glare was directed at my wandering eyes. Scarlet seemed to only smile a small crooked smile and walked into the house carrying her luggage.

“Here let me help you with that and I can show you the way to the guest room we prepared. I’m afraid we only prepared the one room for you, George. We didn’t know you would be bringing a guest,” I said.

“Oh, I am sorry to inconvenience you.” Scarlet said, her thick northern accent even sounding beautiful to my southern ears.

“Oh it’s no trouble, but George will have to sleep in the sitting room is all.”

“Brother,” he said forgetting the southern draw he used when he first came. “I don’t think that will be necessary.”

“Yes, it is, George,” I stated, “You aren’t yet married.”

“Yes, well, you see…” George began.

“You didn’t tell him?” Scarlet spoke up.

“Tell us what?” Vivian demanded. She always was fond of gossip.

“I am with child,” Scarlet said with the simplicity one might expect from stating they own a dog.

I could feel my grip tighten on her luggage as my gaze turned into a glare directed at George. “When was I to be informed of this?”

“At dinner,” he stated as his wrathful gaze turned to Scarlet, who looked away immediately. A thick silence hung over the four of us like a damp fog on a rainy morning.

“Ah the roast!” Vivian yelled breaking the silence.

“Yes, well I will show our guests to their room,” I said, taking Scarlet’s luggage up the stairs.

I remember the fury that my brother could be so stupid, so improper. I loosened the grip on the pistol. The anger at my brother is still present though it wasn’t as bad as it was at dinner.

Once we had sat down, Ruth walked in and served our food. I was in the middle of pouring Vivian’s second glass of wine when my brother turned to Ruth as she walked in with the large peasant. “Ruth, how are you? Still working here?” he said cutting himself a slice of the meat.

“Of course where else should I be?” She said setting the bread down.

“Are you happy here? Being forced to serve?”

“Why, yes. Mister Law treats me very well.”

“But wouldn’t you be happier as freed woman?”

“I wouldn’t know, never thought about it.” She smiled politely then returned to the kitchen to prepare desert.

“See? She is so oppressed she hasn’t even thought of freedom.”

“Perhaps this is not the best time to discuss this,” Scarlet said. She slid her hand to clasp George’s in an effort to calm him but he shifted his hand away quickly shooting a glare at her in response. This caused me to take an involuntary swill of wine through my deep frown.

I was pouring my second and Vivian’s third glass of wine when I said, “I take it you have something to say.”

“Yes, I do. How can you keep slaves? It is unjust and immoral. What right do you have to own another human being?” George spat with a degree of anger that father would’ve smacked him for. I took another involuntary gulp of wine.

“Of course,” I said. “I couldn’t mind the field myself, and Vivian needs help around the house.”

“You could hire farm hands,” George said.

“With what money? It all goes to your schooling, my dear brother.” I said slicing at the thick meat for myself.

“Well, at my ‘schooling’ they taught us that slavery was evil. That one man could not own another man because we are all created equal.”

“That may be what those northerners think but father taught us that the niggers are below us and deserve to be subjected. That is the way of the world,” I said barely maintaining my proper composure.

I forced my grip to loosen on the pistol as I heard the front door fling open. I tried to escape this spiral of anger and regret and resume my quest to find my final thought. But the memories wouldn’t release me. I remember slamming my fist into the table after he accused me of being no better than the savages out west.

“You are contributing to the greatest atrocity this country is facing. How can you live with yourself brother? You can’t own another person! The mere notion is horrible!” He was shouting by this point.

“The work we do put you through your school! And what does that school teach you but fill your head with bullshit propaganda! Father would be ashamed!”
I sigh as the thought of my cursing at the dinner table still fills me with shame.

“He should be ashamed! How could he purchase a person! He was a monster, just like you!”

In the corner of my eye I saw Vivian had finished the wine bottle after five glasses. I saw Scarlet cowering in her seat, scared this could turn violent. But I pressed on, “Those slaves are what allowed you to have a better life! You should be grateful to them and most of all to me! But what do you do? You leave, never return, even for my own wedding, and then you commit adultery, and then you come back into this God loving house and call me a monster? I can’t stand to talk to you now.” I stood up nearly knocking my chair over. The wine was beginning to get to me as I almost fell over myself.
I turned to storm out when my brother said, “You know those ‘slaves’ have names.”
I turned around sharply, which was difficult with the belly full of wine and yelled, “Yeah, Ruth, Jacob, and Marcus! But you wouldn’t know that, would you?”

“Nothing with a name should ever be made to serve against their will.”

“Dogs have names too.” I slammed the door behind me and walked out into the cool night air. I watched as the orange fireflies danced in the air in front of me. I stood out there for a long time, smoking, pacing, and thinking. After some time I returned to apologize. He was my brother after all, no matter how stubborn.

I walked into the house and saw Vivian passed out on the couch in the sitting room, again. I shook my head, resigned to that a long time ago. I made my way upstairs to the guest room. The door to their room was slightly ajar, and I heard Scarlet and George talking on the inside. She sounded upset, probably because of dinner I thought to myself as I stood outside their door.

“No, please,” she said.

“Yes now get down here. I have had a rotten day and I deserve this. On your knees!”

“But your brother doesn’t approve of this.”

“I thought dinner made it clear that I don’t care what my brother thinks of me. Now get you your knees you little harlot. I demand to be delivered from my grief now!”

“I don’t want to. Please don’t make me do it again.”

I heard a smack.

“It is my right to make use of you whenever I choose to wa-”

I burst through the door. He stood over her with his pants down. Anger consumed me. The anger at father, the rage at George, the jealousy over Scarlet, it all mounted into one swing. I decked George in the face so hard his nose cracked. His face hit the floor. Scarlet screamed. There was rumbling around the house and in the slave’s quarters in the attic. George picked himself off the floor, the blood sticking to his face. He stood up, his nose pointed to the left, his face coated in red. His eyes filled with tears. “I accept.” His voice was muffled but I understood. “At dawn. I assume you have your own.”

I nodded in agreement, feeling suddenly calm. He nodded. I turned to the cowering, crying Scarlet. She still looked beautiful even through the tears and the shaking. I extended my hand to help her out of the corner. When I felt a firm grip on my arm. I turned and saw the half bloodied face of my brother. “Get out of her room,” I said. His glare increased a hundred fold. He stormed out of the room grabbing her luggage and throwing it down the stairs before going into my room and slamming the door behind him. I calmly retrieved Scarlet’s things and put them in the guest room.

I remember how much I simply wanted to take her from him. How I considered going down there and throwing him out of this house. How we could just leave in the dark of the night. How all of these desires eventually compounded on me and forced me to say, “You should leave him. You deserve better.”

“No, I don’t,” she said with a blank stare. She turned to face me. I remember the pain and tears that coated her eyes. “I know your type. The bored, proper man. You would never leave your wife, no matter how little love is between you. That’s the difference between you and your brother. You won’t accept anything that doesn’t follow society’s rules. And why is that?”

“Because this is the way things are and how they are supposed to be.”

“No, it’s cause you are scared. You’re scared of judgment, of change. Well, your brother’s not. He is willing to fight for change, to try to make things better for the world. I respect that. He has a deep passion for the cause he fights, and sometimes that passion overflows. It is a consequence I am willing to pay. Now take your leave.”

The words she said last night still echo in my head tempering my anger. Her words cut straight through me. The pistol in my hand feels a lot heavier. The pounding of the constable sprinting up the stairs exploded throughout the house. I returned the pistol to its previous position, my focus renewed. But still the event of this morning rests in my mind, continuing to plague me.

The mist was thick this morning, and the temperature climbed from the humidity. I remember having to wipe the sweat from my eyes to remain focused, as I stared at the pistol in my hand. It was only the second time in my life I had held a firearm. The first being the time I purchased it for protection. It was heavier than I thought it would be and the handle weighed on my fingers. I tightened my grip as my brother walked out of the house carrying his shining, silver pistol. He glared at Scarlet who flinched and Vivian put an arm around her. George walked up to me. “Ten paces. Turn and shoot. This will solve any transgressions.”

I nodded and turned around sharply, the dew was so slick this morning that I almost slid to the side, but I was able to maintain my composure. I heard the grass rustle as he pivoted without incident. He called out the paces as we made them, “One. Two. Three.” I felt the sweat condense between my palm and the handle. My mind drifted from the basic task of walking. I thought of George, and how he has changed. I thought of what mother would say about him causing a fight at the dinner table, and how ashamed she would be. “Four. Five. Six.” The grass itself seemed to sweat as I paced with his count. I thought of how I wished Vivian was more like mother, strong enough to stand with me through thick in thin. Like how she stood with Father even though he was a brute. “Seven. Eight. Nine.” My knuckles turned white as the image of Father came to my mind. I thought of the way he treated mother, and the way George learned to treat Scarlet. Then I thought of Scarlet and what she had said the night before. The words that still haunt me. About how I am afraid of losing my composure, and how much I wished to no longer be afraid. “Ten.” The anger of all of these thoughts, of Father, Vivian, George, and even Scarlet boiled in me as I heard George yell, “Fire!”

I spun around and pulled the pistol up and in that moment of pure rage at everything in my life I lost my composure and gave in. It is considered honorable to only graze one another’s shoulders during such an event. But I was incapable of doing that.
I fired at his center.

The world grew quieter after the sound of the bullet faded from my ears. I watched as he crumbled to the ground. Horrified I turned to see Vivian faint, and Scarlet screamed. I felt my blood come to a standstill in my veins as the realization of what I had just done turned the fiery blood in my veins into ice. Scarlet turned and ran away, screaming for help.

There is a pounding at my door. “Mister Law. Open up,” I heard a gruff voice say from the other side of the door. The door bounced against the frame. My anger had returned. I tried to force myself to loosen my grip on the pistol but was unable. The pounding continued to weigh on my nerves as I leaned back on my chair and pressed the barrel against my temple. The thick layer of sweat made my finger stick to the trigger. The pounding seemed to grow so bad that I felt it within my mind. Turning to point the pistol at the door for a second, nearly pulling the trigger to silence the irritating pounding. I breathed deeply trying to stop myself from such a rash action. The door was beginning to crack as the pounding grew worse. I will not die angry. Think what calms you?

Then it came to me. All at once I felt relief wash over my body as I finally found what makes me happy. One of my pure moments of bliss in my life. The anger was replaced with joy as I finally found what would be my last thought. I closed my eyes and remembered.

One day my brother and I went fishing when we were very young. He had hooked this fish that was too big for him to reel in. I grabbed him and together we brought in this huge fish. We watched, laughing together in amazement that fish even came that big. It was bigger than a chicken and we couldn’t believe our eyes as it just flopped up and down in front of us. I remember looking at George, who smiled at me revealing the tooth he lost pulling that thing out of the water. I laughed more and more until I couldn’t breathe.

We had to carry it home together because it was too big for either of us alone. We were laughing and smiling the whole way home. By the time we returned to our house Father was resting in his chair, smoking on the porch. He saw us walk up with the fish and smiled wide, “Wow, I didn’t know you boys had it in you to catch a fish that big. So which one hooked it? Was it you George?”

George had been the one who hooked it so I had no reason to dispute that so that George could once again bask in the praise of Father. But instead he said, “Nah, it was Jeb who hooked this rascal. I just helped reel him in.” George turned to me and smiled with a deep level of gratitude. I returned the look as I stared at my brother and I thought how I see now why Father felt he would grow into a great man.

I took a deep breath to drown out the door that was almost broken down. I exhaled and got ready to pull the trigger. The door had a huge hole in it by this point and the Lawman was pulling out his gun.

I simply aimed the gun and pulled the trigger, and with a loud bang I silenced my final thought.


Categories: Fiction

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2 replies »

  1. Wow. Really enjoyed this short story. Was on the edge of my seat wanting to know why he was going to kill himself. Very well written. Very descriptive.

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