He woke up with three bullet holes in his back. The wounds had not been there when he fell asleep, but now they were scabbed over, a miracle.
He tried to look at the bullet holes in the mirror, turning his neck awkwardly and painfully, the flesh on his neck twisting. There was a full-length mirror directly behind him, but he could not quite see the place where he had been shot.
His arms, when he tried to stretch them back there, were not long enough to reach the three bullet holes. He could not grasp them with even the tips of his fingernails.
John Mark had never been in a gunfight in his life. He’d never even visited the O.K. Corral. He’d never had a drug deal gone wrong. He’d never taken a loan out from the Mafia. He had not slapped a Russian officer with lambskin gloves.
It was shameful to be walking around having been shot in the back. Shooting someone in the back was an act of cowardice, but what about him, John Mark? What was he, if not the epitome of humiliation?
He refused to have anyone look at the bullet holes like his wife or a doctor. For one reason, he didn’t have a wife. But he didn’t want to take his shirt off in front of anyone and expose the expanse of his once-pristine back now mottled by three dime-sized holes where magic bullets had entered.
He couldn’t get the bullet holes verified then by anyone, and, since he himself had never actually seen nor felt them, he took it on faith that they were still there.
He was not a devout person, but a week after the bullet holes appeared he began to pray to them.
“Dear Bullet Holes,” he would say at night after he turned out the lights. He used to sleep on his back, but he couldn’t any longer.
“Dear Bullet Holes, if you are willing, please remove yourselves from my back. I know that you must have appeared for a reason, so if you would be so kind as to reveal that reason, I would appreciate it. And then once having revealed that reason, I humbly ask thee to leave.” He did not like the sound of his own voice being spoken aloud in the dark room by himself at night.
The bullet holes remained unchanged and unchanging upon John Mark’s back. They neither revealed their purpose nor removed themselves. They stayed unwaveringly three and puncturing the surface of his skin.
After a month of having the bullet holes, John Mark started to get angry. He wanted to write an angry letter to someone, but he didn’t know to whom. The editor of the local paper? The chief of police? The pope? His parents? His nonexistent wife?
He started writing a letter. It was addressed to his favorite author who had died seven years ago. John Mark had written five unanswered letters to his favorite author while he was still living. So he started writing a letter now and told his favorite dead author everything. How miserable he was ever since the appearance of the bullet holes, how he’d done nothing to deserve them, how he didn’t know why or really even if they were there or what to do about them, and he had no one to talk to, no one in the world. He was sad and lonely, please help me.
The author couldn’t help him. Even if he had been alive he wouldn’t have been able to help John Mark. He could barely even help himself. And, now, thank god, he was dead and didn’t have to do anything anymore.
John Mark thought about killing himself. He could also become dead, he thought. He could place the muzzle of the gun right at the point where he could feel the bullet holes begin, and he could pull the trigger. And another set of bullet holes would reveal themselves upon his back. And maybe these bullet holes would do their job.
But he was so afraid they wouldn’t. He imagined the bullets ricocheting off the scabs of the bullet holes. Like there could only be one bullet trajectory and this path had been claimed.
Anyways, he didn’t even own a gun and the thought of what it would require for him to go out and buy one, he couldn’t bare to contemplate. Plus, he really wasn’t suicidal. He was just tired and confused and frustrated.
What he needed to do, John Mark figured, was just let it go. The bullet holes were on his back, and if he tried, he thought maybe he could just forget about them and it would be as if they had never existed in the first place.
So, that night John Mark lay on his back and smothered his bullet holes. He felt the bullet holes gasping for breath. He could feel the fabric of the sheets on his bed being subtly sucked up into the holes in his back as the bullet holes fought desperately for their lives and failed.
And the next day when John Mark looked at himself in the mirror, he still could not see the bullet holes. And he told himself it was because there was nothing to see.
As he went about his daily activities, as functional as he had ever been, John Mark thought about how he had answered his own prayer. That he had solved the problem of the bullet holes himself, without them.
The more days that passed since he had banished the thought of the bullet holes from his mind and his back, the more he felt like he’d never needed them in the first place.
And then, as the thought of the bullet holes in his back seemed to have left him entirely, he went to sleep at night with a warm sensation in his chest, a sense of pleasure or achievement, as if the heads of three bullets were not pushing their way through soft tissue and, in some instances, bone to rip eventually through his chest on their way to clattering on the floor.
There would be no blood; the scars would once again appear as healed, scabbed-over holes. But this time he would have the bullets there as constant reminders that he had not escaped. And the holes in his chest would be somewhat harder to ignore.