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With seconds left to live, my life flashes before my eyes. His hands slowly close around my throat, choking off the precious air that my lungs yearn for. I can feel his dry, scratchy skin against the tender flesh of my neck. I know who he is but even now, I realize that I have never seen his face.
It’s as if, in this split-second, everything is moving in slow motion and all of my childhood memories rush back through my mind. It’s as if my subconscious is desperately searching for a way out; a way to remove myself from the danger.
Or maybe, it’s like the preacher said. My guardian angel has kept a record of every action and spoken word in my life, and is now playing it back for me to reflect on, reminding me that I will be judged on every word and deed, and that it’s only through the blood of Christ and turning away from sin that I can have that record cleansed. Then I will be given a second chance at life.
Only, for me there will be no second chance. He will make certain of that.
My name is Jake Sumner. I am fifteen years old. I met my personal demon around two weeks ago. It was a day just like any other. Early September, and the air was already turning crisp and cool in the evenings. I had finished up my chores early and Pa let me go off to “do whatever it is that fifteen year old boys do nowadays,” in his words. Fact is, I didn’t know what fifteen year old boys did on late summer evenings when they had no friends.
The closest thing I had to a friend was my older brother, Jeb. He was seventeen and had recently taken up with that Finley girl from two farms over. She was pretty, I’ll give him that. I guess if any girl like that showed an interest in me, I wouldn’t be wanting for something to occupy my time. I’d have spent every spare minute by her side. More’s the pity, that will never happen now.
So it was that I took Jeb’s rifle from under his bed and went up the hill to play make-believe with it. I wouldn’t actually fire it. Pa would hear, and after the last time, he said that he would beat my behind if he ever caught me with a firearm again. He said that I was “irresponsible.” So I snuck out with Jeb’s rifle any time that I knew he wouldn’t catch me. Even if I couldn’t shoot, it was satisfying to hold it in my hands. You probably wouldn’t understand if you’re not a man. Boys are drawn to guns just like bees are drawn to flowers. Pa says that guns are an extension of your manhood. Ma says “Well, they won’t make your pee-pee grow longer.” I think that I sort of understand.
Like I said, I took Jeb’s rifle up on the hill to play around with it. At first, I just stroked it. I liked the feel of the weathered stock and the oiled steel barrel. I pretended to run the bolt a few times and yank it up in the air like I was going to shoot someone. Practicing, I guess, because I just knew that someday I would have to protect my family. Just a young boy’s fantasy. Then I saw him.
I spotted a lone rider across the field. He must have been a half mile away. I drew a bead on him, to practice my aim. “Pow!” I said, pretending that I’d shot him. “Pow! Pow!” My finger must have actually squeezed the trigger, because Jeb’s old rifle went off in my hand. A shot rang out, louder than anything I’d ever heard before, echoing throughout the valley. The horse took off running, but the rider slumped and hung dead in the saddle.
I became dizzy. My vision got all fuzzy and it felt like I had left my own body for just a second. It was like all at once, I was nauseous, sweating, twitching. My arms and legs went tingly and numb. I felt like I needed to escape, but escape from what? Such fear. I knew… knew that if I stayed where I was, I would die.
I threw my brother’s rifle into the weeds and took off running down the hill and into the south fields. I found my way to a stand of scrub trees, an island in the middle of the dry grain, where I used to play when I was younger. That’s where they found me the next morning, rocking on my haunches and crying and cradling my head in my hands.
The sheriff asked me why I had run. The weight of what I had done came to me all at once. Until then, it had been only senseless fear. Why did Jeb leave a cartridge in the rifle? Why had I taken it from under his bed? A man – a real human being – was now dead. All for no reason.
Just one piece of lead.
The sheriff could see that I was rattled. He took me to the jail and put me in a cell all by myself. He gave me a blanket to cover up with, but I hadn’t been shivering because I was cold. I was still in shock. One of the deputies had fetched Ma and Pa, and they showed up later with Jeb. They were just glad to see that I was okay. They had been worried when I hadn’t come home the previous night. Jeb was all sniffles and apologizing, as if it had been his fault. I wanted to tell Ma and Pa not to worry. I wanted to console Jeb and tell him that he was not responsible. I couldn’t, though. I was sick to my stomach and couldn’t even bring myself to speak. I felt so selfish.
I stayed in that cell for a week, barely eating or drinking. I got out of bed only to relieve myself, and even then, I would wait until the urge to go got so bad that I had no choice. I could not sleep, but I suppose that I passed out from exhaustion a few times. Then he started coming to visit. The sheriff said that I was hallucinating because I wasn’t getting enough sleep, but I know that he was wrong.
During the night, the deputy stationed to remain at the jail would turn all of the lamps down. At first, I began seeing him in the shadows – just a flitting shape of a man appearing darker than the rest of the shadows. Then, the shadows started coming closer and closer to my cell door, although his face was never fully revealed in the light. I was thankful for that. I knew who he was. I did not want to look at him. Especially not after what the deputy had told me. Apparently, I had almost missed the rider. The bullet hit the top of his head. Another fraction of an inch and it would have been a flesh wound. Regrettably, though, it had taken off the top of his skull. The thought that I had killed him was awful enough. The injury that I had inflicted was something I did not want to see.
As the shadows drew closer, I began hearing whispering. I knew that he was addressing me, but I didn’t know what he was saying. Once again, I did not really want to know. He was most likely admonishing me for what I had done to him, or worse yet, telling me that I was forgiven.
I knew that he had not forgiven me when the torture started. Several times a day, I would shift in my bed and feel a sharp piercing sensation; sometimes in my thigh, sometimes in my back. I would instinctively touch the area and draw back a hand smeared with blood. Each time, I would search the mattress for a thorn and shake out the blanket, but I never found anything. In my feverish mind, I became convinced that it was him. That he was scratching at me with thick and goatish nails. That he had begun taking his revenge, and it would quickly grow worse. I remembered one of the preacher’s sermons where he told about how the dead could take vengeance on the guilty.
There was a date set for a trial. The circuit judge would be making an appearance in town at the beginning of the following week. The unknown future that lay ahead of me made me antsier than ever, so the sheriff asked the preacher to come talk to me – to try to bring some peace to my soul.
Preacher Carey did just the opposite of comforting me. When I spoke of the stabbing, scratching, and blood, he confirmed that it could, indeed, be the spirit of the dead man taking his revenge upon me. He said that there were four physical signs of possession: pricking, headaches, paralysis, and finally strangulation. I expressed my conviction that the pricking of my skin, along with my visions in the shadows, established the fact that I was, to be sure, experiencing a haunting.
When I asked what I could do to relieve my suffering, the preacher quoted the bible. “James 4:7 ‘Subject yourselves, therefore, to God; but oppose the Devil, and he will flee from you.’” Pitiable comfort in my current situation. It wasn’t the Devil haunting me. It was the rider.
The headaches started the day after the preacher’s visit. I must have fallen asleep, or more likely passed out, and was startled awake by the sound of screaming. Once the fog of sleep wore off, I realized that the sound was actually coming from the bell of the old town church. I thought that to be odd, since it seemed to be the middle of the night. The bells never stopped, though. The sound alternated from bells to screams and back again constantly for the next two days. I gnashed my teeth, I wailed, I wept. I felt as though my head would explode. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the bells stopped. My head echoed with the sound for a while, but I was relieved when it finally started to subside. Sheer exhaustion helped me to sleep that night – actually sleep. I thought that perhaps the haunting was finally over. Perhaps I had paid my penance, and the Lord would have mercy on me.
I was wrong.
I awoke during the night once again. Alarmed to see the familiar shadow, not outside my cell door, but looming above me, I tried to jerk up from my bed, intending to run into the corner of the cell to hide my head. I found that I could not, though. It was as if the shadow was holding me down, pressing on my chest and holding my arms at my sides. I could not even kick my legs. I imagined myself as a butterfly wrapped in a cocoon that was ready to burst, but I did not have the strength to break free. With the hope that the deputy would find me soon, I cried myself to sleep that night.
When the deputy did wake me in the morning he was surprised to find that my blanket had been tucked under the mattress on all sides, swaddling me like a baby and leaving me helpless. He, nor I, could understand how I had come to be that way. I certainly couldn’t have done it myself. As far as he knew, no one else had been in the cell during the night.
The anxiety quickly built all through the week. I could only dread what would come next. Before the ensuing torment that I feared would come next, I was informed that the judge had arrived in town, and my trial would be held the following day. No shadow came during the night, but my sense of panic had grown so great that it did not matter. I was a wreck. I looked forward to going in front of the judge and a jury of my peers, so that I could be exonerated or sentenced to hang. I did not care which, as long as it meant that I would be leaving the confines of the torture chamber that was my jail cell.
I stood behind the bar in the courthouse the next day, hands tied behind my back. It seemed like the whole town was there to watch. The judge sat impossibly high up in his chair, and asked me to explain my depravity to the jury. What went through my mind? My life was now in the hands of the jury. Just as I had played God with the life of the rider, so now my own fate would be decided with their verdict.
It wasn’t long before I discovered the power of life over death. I had widowed the man’s wife. I had made orphans of his children. I begged for their forgiveness but, although they agreed to pray for my soul, mercy was not something they were willing to give.
Early the next morning, they took me from my cell and led me outside. I gazed up and saw the gallows on top of the hill. Out in the distance, surely a trick of the light, I could swear that I saw a lone rider silhouetted against the horizon. I suppose that he’d come to fetch me, so that we could ride together to kingdom come.
The ride up the hill was all too short. I walked the stairs up the platform and felt them slide the noose around my neck. The snap as the platform dropped out from beneath me was barely audible.
His hands slowly close around my throat, choking off the precious air that my lungs yearn for. I can feel his dry, scratchy skin against the tender flesh of my neck. I know who he is but even now, I realize that I have never seen his face.
Author’s Note: “One Piece of Lead” was inspired by the song “I Hung My Head,” written by the singer-songwriter Sting and released on the 1996 album Mercury Falling. It reflects Sting’s childhood fondness for TV Westerns, as well as his avowed interest in Country music. In 2002, Johnny Cash covered the song in the album American IV: The Man Comes Around. These wonderful lyrics have also been covered by Bruce Springsteen and countless others, which attest to the deep emotional response that they invoke.
It tells the story of a boy who accidentally kills someone, the resulting shame, and the consequences he faces. Many credit the song to Cash, but personally, I think that his cover is an abomination to the original. My story goes a few steps beyond – perhaps too far, and if so, I apologize in advance.
I have great respect for Gordon Sumner, and his work, as a whole, has provided a great deal of motivation in recovery from my disease. Any references to the original lyrics are intentional and used utterly out of deference for their original author.
Credit To – Kenneth Kohl