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Counting Down

Peter M. Ball is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. He's a blogger, convener of the biennial GenreCon writer's conference, and the author of the novellas Horn and Bleed from Twelfth Planet Press and the Flotsam trilogy from Apocalypse Ink Productions. He can be found online at petermball.com and tweeting @petermball.

Phil says he can catch a bullet, and none of us believe him.
You have to know Phil: he says shit like this. The first night I met him, he swore he could backflip from a standing start. Bet me twenty bucks, and I put up the money. He got halfway over before he crashed into concrete.
We called an ambulance. They took him away.
I ran into him a week later, and Phil showed me the stitches, a neat row above his eyebrow, straight like the seam of a shirt.
"That looks bad," I said.
Phil nodded. "But man, it could have been worse," he said. "My head is full of bats, you know? If they'd gotten out, that would have been awful."
I said, "Better to have them out though, instead of leaving them in there, yeah?"
Phil blinked. Then he grinned. "I like you," he said.
And so I became Phil's friend, and learned you can't get rid of him.
The bullet thing is new. And this time, he's adamant. Swearing up and down that he can do it. It's not a good idea. Phil's been drinking. Hell, we're all pretty buzzed right now. When Angie holds a party, all of us fucking drink. And plenty of people will take him up on it, if Phil's got a gun.
No, not if. I know he'll have one. Phil commits. He throws himself into things. "For real," he says, "I can totally do it. Somebody get my Luger."
When no one goes, he calls us all a pack of assholes, gets the damn gun himself.
Daphne says she'd be down with shooting Phil. She says it quiet, in my ear, low enough that I'm the only one who hears. I'm glad of that, I really am. There are all sorts of people here who are tired of Phil's shit. All sorts of people who figure, what the hell, let the goddamn asshole get shot, you know?
People who'd take what Daphne said and use it to egg her on, put the Luger in her hand and make her take fifteen paces before shooting.
It was Phil who introduced Daphne and me. Three years back, at another party. We owe him for that. Together, it's been three years of happiness. Or, you know, something close to being happy. Phil says it wasn't his idea. The bats told him to do it. I don't care. We owe Phil, or we owe the damn bats. They're both walking around in the same goddamn skin.
I don't want to shoot him, and I don't want Daphne to do it either. If it's Phil we owe, I want him alive. You don't repay friends with gunshots.
If its bats we owe, I want them inside his skull. I sure as hell don' want them out here.
Being Phil's friend isn't easy. I know. I've done it for six years now, and there's always shit going down. He used to do this trick with knives. First, he wanted to throw them at you. Told you he could do it clean, had real steady hands. No one was stupid enough to say yes, until our friend Mandy said sure, stood against the wall and posed.
"Come on," she said. "Get it over with. Money where your mouth is, yeah?"
And Phil, he went to work. Put three knives into the wall plaster, all tight and snug against Mandy's arms. We started to believe his shit, a little. I mean, he was drunk, but he was pulling it off.
Then he put the forth blade into the meat of Mandy's leg, staggered over to the window and threw up in the garden.
Mandy fell, screaming. She wasn't alone in that. Once again, we called the ambulance.
Phil likes to tell people he grew up in a circus. Sys he learned this shit from his mother, a knife-thrower and an acrobat. He never really had the knack, not enough to go professional with it. He clowned for a while, as a summer job. Learned to make people laugh.
And I'll say this: Phil can pratfall like a motherfucker. He does it for fun, while shopping. One minute he's walking the cereal aisle, the next he's on the ground. People rush over, worry about his health.
Store managers run over, worried he'll try and sue them.
Phil says it hurts sometimes, having a head full of bats. He says he does shit 'cause he needs a distraction. Says it's the only escape he's got, outside of a bottle of scotch.
Daphne used to say we fell in love at first shirt. Because she wore a Lou Reed Transformer shirt, the first night we met, and I wore a Meat is Murder shirt I'd stolen from my older brother. We bonded over eighties pop, after Phil introduced us. We talked, we flirted, we friended each other. It still took me three weeks to ask her out, and even then, Phil goaded me into it. He listened to me talk and he snapped, one day.
"Throw this knife at me, motherfucker," he said. "If I catch it, you sack up and you ask her. Otherwise, you stop telling me about her, dig?"
Phil and I were sharing a flat that year. He badgered me about the bet until I gave in and he won.
When Phil likes a girl, he falls back on what he knows. Mostly, that's drinking, and a bunch of carnival shit. This one time, to impress a girl, he hammered a six-inch nail up his nostril. Pulled it off okay, but there were nosebleeds for two weeks after.
This one time, to impress a girl, he threatened to pull a live bat out of his ear. Gave her the whole damn spiel. "I can hear them all the time," he said. "Squeaking and flapping around in my skull."
Of the two, the nail is the tactic that worked better for him.
And really, even then, it didn't work better by much.
This one night, a week back, I stayed at Phil's place. He was drunk, I was drunk. It seemed like a good idea. I crashed out on his couch, woke around three. Heard him talking as I made my way to the bathroom, wondering if I was going to puke. I heard him through the bedroom door.
There weren't any words in what he was saying, but there was rhythm, like poetry, undulating and strange. It gave me an ugly feeling. I knocked on Phil's door. Went in, when he didn't wake.
It's February and it's hot as hell. I learned Phil slept naked, when I sat down by his bed.
The muttering stopped, when I sat there. Phil's eyes stayed closed and he lay there, very still, a sheet tangled around his legs, covering his junk. When he spoke, his voice sounded very, very far away.
Phil said: "Mattie?"
Then: "Mattie, you shouldn't be in here."
"Dude," I said. "I just wanted--"
Phil opened his eyes and looked at me. They weren't the eyes I knew. They were dark and endless, black like polished marble. I could see things, behind them. Bats, maybe, just flitting about.
Or, you know, not bats at all.
Nothing like bats, not really.
"You shouldn't be here," he said, real quiet, and he didn't sound like Phil anymore. I got the hell out of there, caught a cab home. Told Daphne nothing about it.
Phil's walking around the party, looking for volunteers. He goes past me and Daphne twice, looks me in the eyes both times. Decides something, and comes back to me, pushes the Luger against my chest. "Mattie," Phil says. "You're designated shooter."
Daphne squeaks, beside me, like she's realized that he's serious.
"Phil, man, come on," I say. "We believe you. You don't have to do this."
He leans over, and he hugs me. "It's going to be okay," he whispers. "I swear, it'll be okay."
"Phil," I say, "I really don't know."
"Come on," he says. "You owe me."
"Ladies and gentlemen," Phil says, every inch the showman. "Please, for your own safety, don't try this at home. And please, for the sake of your defense attorney, only try it when you're drunk."
People laugh. They're used to laughing at Phil. He's a funny gun.
He turns towards me, spreads his arms wide. Takes a step back, all smiles.
Another step. Another. Fifteen paces in total.
"I'm counting back from ten," he says. "When I'm done, you shoot."
I shake my head, say nothing.
"Aim here," he says. Puts a finger against his temple. "Don't worry. I'll catch the bullet. Not going to hurt me at all."
He lowers his finger and takes a deep breath. Steadies himself with a nod.
I'm not. I'm totally not.
"Ten." He smiles. His eyes turn black.
"Nine," he says. "Eight... seven... six..."
And me? I lift the gun.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 3rd, 2017

Author Comments

Some stories have interesting origins, worthy of becoming stories unto themselves. I've written stories based on a dare, or because I wanted to prove someone wrong, or because friends have told me a certain story needed to exist but wasn't out there yet. This isn't one of those--it's the result of listening to The Birthday Party's Release the Bats on repeat, and not getting a lot of sleep. There is only so long that combination can continue before you start wondering where the bats are being released from....

- Peter M Ball
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