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Winchester Writers Festival Short Story Competition 2014​ - 2nd place

The dust is so thick it muffles the sound of my entry like a fresh fall of snow. It flies up in flurries as I walk up the aisle. The church has the musty smell of catacombs. Candles, half-burned, stand abandoned; they are disfigured, reassuringly flawed. 

When I reach the front of the church I turn to the pew on the right, where the layer of dust is slightly thinner. I sit here once every year. Always in this exact spot. As I lower myself onto the seat, the wood creaks beneath me the way ageing bones used to.

I rest the gun in my palm and stare at my grotesquely altered reflection in the barrel. I remember the day God died. It was no slow, creeping death. No steady march towards faithlessness. It happened overnight. On Sunday, the pews were half-full, as they had been for years. On Monday, the masses were cancelled. The temples closed their doors. The mosques fell silent. And God died.

There used to be twelve churches in this tiny village. In the beginning, there was a superstition that buying holy buildings was bad luck, so I got this lovely Pugin church for a song. Now, though, it’s prime real estate. I’ve always made good investments.

The locals shake their heads as they pass the Church of St Peter and Paul. Midas Corps, the shell company through which I purchased it, has received thousands of letters over the years. At first it was letters suggesting things we could do with the building, citing helpful examples. The local Methodist church was rebranded as a franchise of a leading coffee chain. The synagogue in the neighbouring town is now a cinema. A Mr Coffin pointed out that there’s a mosque in Bradford which re-opened its doors as a casino.

Then, as the years passed, they expressed their disgust at the continued existence of the eyesore St Peter and Paul had become. Later came a petition for me to remove the graveyard, which was not just unsightly, they wrote, but also in very poor taste. I’ve ignored all their letters. The only renovation I’ve made is the addition of a state-of-the-art security system to keep the church exactly the same, untouched.

I sit with my elbows leaning on the back of the pew in front, my hands steepled. My eyes skirt across the green cloth hanging over the altar, from the embroidered alpha symbol on the left to the omega on the right. A frail sun shines through the stained glass window over the south transept, lighting up Saint Jude’s halo in a dirty gold hue. It’s the colour of the North American and Canadian Remortexia tablets. The diamond-shaped pills also had an omega symbol etched on their top face.

Countless hours were spent in marketing boardrooms debating how the tablets should look. In China, Remortexia tablets wore the symbol: 寿 (shou) –  the simplified Chinese character for longevity. In Germany it was a sideways figure of eight, meant to represent a Mobius strip and in Ethiopia it was a rather boring letter ‘R’, although no doubt they’d argued endlessly about the font. In Japan it was a grinning cat’s face, which I was told is called a maneki-neko and would not appear as bizarre to a Japanese customer. Reknitza, on the other hand, was the same the world over, two clasped hands on a round, rose-coloured pill, meant to idealise unity, wholeness. We could have bonded the tablets together - it wouldn’t make much sense to take one without the other. But the financial director said people needed to appreciate just what they were getting for their money.

It’s the 21st of March today. The first day of spring and the anniversary of the launch of the drugs. The marketing team thought it appropriate, the season of birth and renewal and all that. Today is also my birthday. It seems fitting somehow. No one quite remembers what births are like, but accounts of them in history books don’t make them sound like anything to mourn. We called it a side effect. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Perhaps it was just good planning.

Remortexia and its sister drug Reknitza were not without their detractors. Religious zealots who insisted they paved the path to eternal damnation. Old people who’d simply had enough and didn’t want any more. Those who, like Humpty Dumpty, couldn’t be put back together again, already beyond the help of Reknitza. Of course, they’re all dead now.

I slowly raise the gun and look at it. It is an anachronism. We released Permagesic on the first anniversary of the launch of original two. Once the lurid pink lozenge hit the chemists, guns became as laughable as water pistols. Now they’re antique collectables. Mine’s a stainless steel Smith & Wesson Model 29. It has a shiny barrel and a black handle.   

I fold back my left cuff to expose my watch. It’s nothing like the 18 carat solid-gold Rolex I have for everyday wear. It’s a cheap digital thing, a gift to myself. The richest man alive, the richest man that ever lived, bought himself a cheap £10.99 timepiece for his birthday. Unlike my fancy Rolex though, it has a timer mode, a neat feature that makes measuring limbo so much easier. I reset the timer to zero.

It will take between 35 and 45 minutes, depending on where I aim the gun. The longest was, surprisingly, when I fired into the carotid artery – 44 minutes 37 seconds. I think it’s because it’s particularly bloody that way. Blood is complicated stuff and not as keen as skin or bone to reassemble. I think it over all year - where I’ll aim the gun.

35-45 minutes. The ones I crave. They could easily become my heroin, my crystal meth. That’s why I only come here once a year. But, the other 364 days of the year, I fantasise about these minutes I will never remember. There’s probably something pathological about my need to do this, this ritual. I wonder if other people have this disease. Whether it has one of those fancy labels psychiatrists are so fond of - mortophilia, perhaps. I could probably create a drug to fix it.

I imagine what happens in those 35-45 minutes. I can picture the fate of my body vividly. I filmed it a few times - part of my addiction, I suppose - so that I could re-live it year round. It was like watching myself star in my own horror movie.  Bits of my anatomy spray all over. I was surprised how far they reached. They smatter sideways to the painted Station of the Cross depicting Jesus being laid in a tomb. Pieces of me fly all the way back to the stoup, and float like rose petals on the holy water.

But it’s what happens to the non-flesh part of me that I’m truly fascinated by. The not knowingness is the most seductive thing of all. As with a mesmerising magic trick, though, I’m not sure I really want its secrets revealed. So far, I haven’t found any answers. 99 bullets and I’ve returned from all of them, a little dusty, but otherwise good as new - every last piece of me, every last cell, restored. I’d lost nothing but 35-45 minutes.

I decide on my temple, and hold the muzzle of the pistol to the right side of my head. I press it into the flesh so hard it leaves an indent, although of course, thanks to Permagesic, it causes me no pain. I put my finger on the trigger and squeeze slightly - not quite enough, but just enough. Then I get it. The feeling. The crux of the addiction. The fear. The fear that perhaps the outcome will be different. It’s even stronger today, on the centenary of the launch. A hundred feels like a special number, a historic number. Like something different, monumental, should happen this time.

There’s a beep as I set the timer going, counting the milliseconds. Then I pull the trigger.

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