Short story: Tossing destiny

(Written for the Glen Eira Short story Award 2010)

A tender tear ran down the little girl’s cheek. Her angelic eyes staring deeply into his soul.

“Why did I have to die?” She asks naively, innocently, like a little girl asking her mother why the sky is blue, or the grass is green.

Lying in wait since midnight, the sniper breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed the first crack of dawn. A cloud of his warm breath effused like a silhouette against the pink sky and then disappeared into the heavens. Camouflaged with leaves, only the protrusion of a shiny, high-powered rifle betrayed his seemingly inconspicuous physique. Patience had been wearing thin over the arduous, solitary hours of silent nightfall and the sniper was eager to finish the job and disappear into the desert.

Gently centring the lens onto the window of a mud-brick house, the sniper brought himself to attention and focused every fibre of his body into a singular mantra-like awareness. A passing mosquito, the distant rustle of faraway apple orchards. Every tiny movement and every minute sound was detected in this impulsive state of absolute tension. Suddenly, his target appeared in the crosshairs through the lattices of his kitchen window in the mud-brick house. Having returned from morning prayers, the bearded figure clothed in desert attire served himself breakfast, completely unaware of his impending fate. Stealthily, the sniper retrieved a clear photograph of his target to ensure there would be no case of mistaken identity. There was indeed no doubt that the sought terrorist in the image was this bearded man eating his breakfast in the crosshairs of the rifle. Sufficiently pleased at the ease of identifying his objective, the sniper returned his gaze to the eyepiece, and wrapped his index figure around the enticing contour of the trigger.

Without warning, more figures suddenly appeared in the window. The entire family chanced up for breakfast at this untimely moment. But the sight of young children tugging at their mother, broke the sniper’s passive indifference to the impending execution, and transformed him into an active moral accomplice. No longer, in his mind, was he a neutral mercenary pulling the trigger at somebody else’s moral expense. The act of killing the father in full view of his children carried unforseen ramifications. With this sudden realization, the sniper jerked away from the eyepiece, as the first beads of sweat formed in his brow. He closed his eyes.

Her eternal stare burned him from within. The guilt was unbearable. Her lightly tanned face, her perfect smile. He didn’t know her name, but she accompanied him on every job, every mission, and every nightmare. He opened his eyes.

The dilemma erupted into a full-scale war in the sniper’s mind. The fundamentalist mass-murderer with no compunction would not have afforded him such hesitation had their roles been reversed. A powerhouse of terrorism erased from the earth. Countless lives saved. Planned suicide bombing aborted – all with the single thankless act of squeezing the trigger.

On the other hand, no child should witness the murder of their parent. The sight of their father’s lifeless body bleeding onto the kitchen floor would burn an indelible scar on their hearts, fuelling the seeds of revenge for generations to come.

The humanity and compassion pumped their way through the sniper’s veins, intensifying with each deafening heartbeat. Pulling the trigger was never a problem in other situations. No regrets. Yet this was somehow different. At all other times ethical concern seemed to evade him. Why did it bother him so much now?

He always fired the gun with the regret of stepping on an ant or killing a mosquito – perfect executions, a stream of pay-checks and no moral cost.

An uncanny feeling swept through his body – he wanted to wash his hands. For some reason, his inconvenient conscience parked itself in the driveway of duty and his fingers turned to stone. For all he cared the person in line with the barrel of the gun could be anybody, but the innocent children made him squirm.

Children, child, her. Her faced seemed blurry and out of focus. Her fixed gaze carried no expectation, just a melancholy aura. No regrets. Oh how he regretted that day. If only to turn back time. Not to shoot. To pack up, leave, come back the next day. He could imagine her cheerful, smiling – a lingering fantasy that consoled him as he wondered about her life-cut-short. Maybe learning how to read today, giggling around a skipping rope, dreaming about her life tomorrow. Their paths never crossing.

The opening rays of sunshine bounced back and forth between his face and the makeshift costume of leaves. With every minute that the sun rose higher in the pristine Mediterranean sky, the sniper’s chances of escape decreased. Facing capture in these areas meant certain death – together with a little memento of your beheading posted on Al Jazeera for the world to see. Staring at the terrorist’s family, the sniper developed an eerie myopia, clouding his vision and returning him to another place and time. He imagined his own children back home – the grief they would face at discovering their father flanked by masked mujahedeen on the six o’clock news. It sent a shudder down his spine.

Why is one life better than the next? Will there be one grieving family by day’s end, or none? Who decides who lives and who dies? There were no easy answers, but the sniper knew that the outcome rested in his stony fingers. In another world, his target could’ve been waiting in line with him at a university canteen. His heavy beard but a point of conversation in a multicultural society. His children, attending the same kindergarten and both their wives together organizing a community theatrette. Life, unfortunately had other plans. Destiny had engaged them to cross at this pivotal moment: The sniper contemplating his life in a pastoral orchard, the distant smells of the souq beckoning him to return here on his real visa. The bearded man, eating breakfast with his family, before sending teenagers like his own, to their deaths in suicide attacks. With their inescapable fates, they were wed in unholy matrimony, the 18mm bullets determining whether death do them part. An innate, primal desire to escape and return to his family strangled the sniper’s every decision, but his duty obligated a complete and thorough execution. Shutting his eyes, he asked for a decision.

Just the girl, staring back at him again, and a light sheet of salty water skipping in her eyes.

Looking back on it, it was like every other assassination. Another mundane job. The wear of routine – set up, lie in wait, finish it off, and get out ASAP. He never countered on that little girl running in front of his target. How he longed to know her name, to meet her on the street and plead for forgiveness. . .

Having the life sucked out of his grey eyes, the sniper had made a resolution. Either he would abandon his profession, pack up and disappear into the sprawl of orchards, leaving his target to die another day – or he would go above and beyond his duty, killing the terrorist together with his entire family. Both these options seemed most humane – if there was in fact any humanity in his line of work. Either way, those children would not suffer as orphans – their souls slowly incinerating with the obsession for revenge. But either way the sniper’s integrity was forfeit. Every future death his target authorizes would stain his conscience, every time he would close his eyes, his target’s children will join the little girl to forever haunt his dreams.

Fate had presented him with a decision he was incapable of making. As fiery daggers fell from the sweltering morning sky, the sniper arrived at his unbearable decision. Retrieving a coin from his back pocket, he had resolved to leave the day’s bloody business to chance. With heads, the bearded figure finishing his breakfast would continue his day, completely unaware of how close he came to death. With tails, he and his entire family would be liquidated.

The sniper tossed the coin into the air for what seemed to last an eternity. Fate and destiny had no power over chance, and the coin seemed to absolve the sniper of his impending ‘sin’. Like the petals of a rose gracefully descending toward the ground, the coin silently returned to the muddy Earth and disappeared amongst the symphony of leaves and shrubbery that conveniently concealed the sniper’s ambush position.

Shedding a brief tear, a camouflaged figure covered in bushes whispered a brief prayer of atonement. If only for the high powered rifle aimed at a mud-brick house in the distance, he would be invisible.

Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, and imagined the little girl with angelic eyes – now a young woman, smiling back at him