It was the last bit of innocence I had left and I would have done anything to get it back. But how could I take my innocence back when I had already lost my soul? I’d never killed anybody before and God forbid I ever have to do it again. It was 12 o' clock in the morning and I had only gotten two hours of sleep in the past week. Each day, I was becoming a prisoner of my own guilt. It’d been like this for the last month and my sanity was slowly slipping from my grasp. Most men would have taken their own life for much less by now and I was barely stronger than them. My ability to function in society was depleted and I spent most days lying in bed, trying to shield myself from the outside world. “God, please help me.” I soon found myself praying for death. Maybe then, I could finally get some rest. I climbed out of bed and slumped into the bathroom. As I peered into the mirror, sweat pouring down my face, I was unhappy with the person staring back. I could barely even stand to acknowledge my own reflection. "That can't be me. Not him. I refuse to accept you."
The nightmares were beginning to eat away at me. I could still see the bodies laid out around the floor; some were dead, others on the verge of death; moaning in agony, calling out for help and pointing at me as they muttered their final words. I would shut my eyes trying to shake the illusion, but I could still see the bodies and still hear the wailings. There was no escaping what I’d done. The one thing that kept me sane was the city. The sounds of life outside my window were the sole reminder that everything in the world was still very much alive and thriving. I needed someone who could talk me through it; someone to help me make sense of the fear. It was becoming unbearable and the lack of sleep was inching me into a state of pure delusion. After weeks of hesitation, I picked up the phone to speak with the man who introduced me to the chaos.
“Ray, it's Arif. I need you to meet me at the coffee shop on Canal Street. I really need someone to talk to.”
“Right now. It's important.”
I'll be there as soon as possible.
I arrived at the coffee shop ten minutes after I sat the phone down. As soon as I stepped through the door, I was comforted by the sight of my Uncle Ray, seated at a lone table near the back of the cafe, lightly tapping the ashes off his cigarette as he gazed out of the window. He stood out from the rest of the customers, a modest gathering of carefree hipsters in the prime of their lives. A slender, middle aged black man with a slick bald head, he resembled Jack Johnson in the height of his boxing days. One thing I’ve always admired about him is the calm demeanor he maintains, regardless of the circumstances. He glanced at the doorway, motioning for me to come over. “Have a seat,” he said, lighting another cigarette. He had yet to even make eye contact with me as I sat down. He kept tapping the ashes off the edge of his cigarette as he continued to stare out the window. This made it even more difficult to start a conversation.
I was only five when my father was murdered and Ray took me in as his own. Up until then, I was completely unaware of the business he and my father were a part of. Crime bosses, well-known and obscure, would hire them to rough up bookies and small-time drug dealers around the city, take their money, and give it to them. When they weren’t taking money from them, they served as hit men for the same crime bosses, as well. Of course, they were compensated generously for their time and effort. After a decade of kicking in doors, hanging deadbeats off of balconies, and breaking kneecaps, they had saved up enough money to move their families out of the ghetto. One thing they never did was discuss their business amongst the family. They did a hell of a job keeping those lives separate, that is until my father was killed. Then, Ray had no choice but to give me some insight of what happened to him. Afterwards, I made a promise to align myself with them and walk in my father’s footsteps. Society said it was wrong, but it felt right for me.
“Thanks for coming, Uncle Ray. I appreciate...”
“You called me at two in the morning, he interrupted. “You never call me past 11. Something's wrong. I could sense it in your voice.” He obviously knew where I was headed. I wanted to pour my convictions onto the table, but it was still a struggle to put it out there.
“I don't understand what went wrong,” I replied. “I think I’m sick…” “Is it the killings, he asked. “Are they haunting you?” I slowly nodded my head. “Yes. Even in my dreams, I can still see ‘them.’” A regretful look came over his face before he responded. “I warned you about this, but I guess I didn’t emphasize the aftermath as I should have. There would have to be an ultimate compromise; a separation between morals and work. What we do is business. It's not pleasant, but absolutely necessary.” “I know,” I replied, feeling a combination of despair and shame. “How do I get rid of the guilt?” Ray gave me a contrite glance. “You can't. You learn to cope with it. That’s all I can offer you. The harder you try to suppress the memories; they’ll only come back stronger. Each and every time.” Before he had a chance to continue, a waitress walked over to the table. “What can I get you gentlemen tonight,” she asked. “I'll have a cup of coffee. Black. No sugar. No cream,” Ray said. He glanced over at me, slouched over on the table. “He’s sick. A cup of green tea ma'am.” He waited for the waitress to step back into the kitchen before resuming the conversation.
“Once you've killed a man, you take on his soul and he lives on forever within you. There's absolutely no getting rid of that. It’s much too powerful of a feeling to just let go of.” His words were a harsh reminder of how young and inexperienced I was. “I'm sorry Ray. I'm sorry I got involved in this. I thought I could be a professional...like you. Like my father.” Ray sat his cigarette in the ashtray, lighting grabbing my arm. “Don't be sorry. 'I'm sorry' is what people say when they have nothing else to offer. You've offered enough. Your father and I hoped that you would never find out about this life, out of fear that you may gain an infatuation with it. And of course, you did just that. This life is like a jail cell, Arif. A mental prison that can drive a man over the edge and far into the abyss. I still reminisce on the freedom I once had. But when I dwell on my past…that’s the only time it truly bothers me. I’m content with the person I am, the choices I’ve made, and the life I live. I understand the necessary evil that I'm a part of. We all take paths in our lives that affect not only the outcome, but the way we go about living.”
Ray’s words provided me with a little comfort. “How many men did you kill before you no longer felt remorse,” I asked. Ray began to stare back out of the window, as if he were looking for the response amongst the raindrops that had began to come down. “Arif, if I knew the answer to that question, I would have quit a long time ago. A very long time ago. However, the first thing I had to do was ask myself, ‘How does one kill?’ It’s one thing to fantasize about doing it. But, an entirely different concept when you have to do it…in real life. These types of thoughts weighed heavy on my mind after the first ten men I killed. But once I strayed from that way of thinking...it became much easier.” Ray’s words gave me a peculiar sense of comfort I hadn’t felt in a while. “I can never do it again. Some things in life aren't as easy as they seem.”
“You'll never kill again,” he asked.
“No. I don't have what it takes,” I replied.
“To kill someone,” he asked.
“No. To live with the guilt.”
“Arif, you came in much too soon. This life...it shouldn't be sold to children. That's what you are: a child not yet prepared. This is old man's territory. Let us lose our innocence. You hold on to yours.”
Ray never said the dreams would stop. As I stepped out of the café into the rain of the night, this made me fearful to lie down. Fearful that the bodies would still be scattered across the floor, making their way onto my bed and into my dreams. Was I destined to live a life of fearing my own dreams? I had stepped into a warzone for veterans and was paying the ultimate consequence. I began to make my way back home. At least now, I was ready to face my tormented dreams.