William was facing the wall, but he was still able to hear the men talking behind him. He was on his knees in front of a brick wall. They were only about ten feet away, discussing his fate. What they were saying was extremely clear. As he listened, he stared up at the ravaged, brick wall in front of him. Though he couldn’t see the men’s actual faces, he started to associate each voice he heard with a different section of the wall.
There was a deep voice that he put with the rough mortar between the bricks. There was a high, smooth voice that he placed with a brick that was smooth instead of ridged like the others. There was a gravelly sounding voice that he associated with a part of the wall that was below him to his right. It was pock-marked with bullet holes, and some of the mortar was falling out completely, and it seemed fitting for such a rough voice. There was some graffiti on the wall above him, but he listened in vain for a voice to go with it. He kept trying, but none seemed quite right.
Of course, while those were the main voices, there were others as well. There were eight men, but most of them didn’t speak. And even when one of the other men piped up, he generally had very little to say. Even though it seemed like a fairly big decision, there wasn’t really much to talk about. They were on the march and couldn’t take prisoners, so they had to make other arrangements. They weren’t sure whether to execute him, injure him or just let him go free. William was curious, of course, as to what was going to happen to him, but at the same time, he also found it disconcerting having to listen to them.
The gravelly voice was really pushing for execution. He was arguing that they definitely wanted William out of the fight, and the only way to get that done was either to take him prisoner or kill him. Since they couldn’t take him prisoner, they’d have to kill him. William found himself sympathizing with this argument until he remembered who they were talking about. Then he hoped that the best argument wouldn’t win.
For a moment they talked about injuring him instead. The idea was brought forward by someone that William hadn’t heard before. The voice seemed unsure of itself, and even though it had brought the idea of an injury up, it didn’t seem to think it was actually a very good idea.
It was an unremarkable voice, and he couldn’t decide which part of the wall it would even go with. It definitely didn’t fit with the graffiti. William had to smile in spite of himself about how snobby he had gotten about that graffiti. There was no way that a hesitant, mediocre voice was going to get that spot.
The deep voice immediately objected, saying that injury was nothing but a cruel and cowardly method of execution. It pointed out that any injury they inflicted would almost certainly be fatal. William would just lie on the ground and bleed to death without any help. So even if the intent was simply to ensure William’s removal from the conflict, it would likely result in prolonged suffering and death. The deep voice said that, though he wasn’t in favour of it, a straight execution would be a better decision.
After this admission, the two voices argued for a while, but the gravelly voice was clearly winning. The other voices agreed with him, and the deep voice was the only holdout left. William could hear a bit of desperation seeping into the voice, and he kind of knew that he’d lost. Both of them had lost.
The gravelly voice pointed out that William’s side wouldn’t have hesitated to kill one of them. The deep voice responded by saying that that was an even better reason not to do it. They were fighting an actual war so as not to become like the other side, and so if the other side wouldn’t have had any problem with an execution, it was an even better reason not to do it themselves.
However, the first voice had already convinced the others. Different voices expressed varying degrees of sympathy for the deep voice and for William, but the discussion was now just focussed on how they would kill William, not on whether they actually should. They were feeling bad about it, but it didn’t change anything.
The idea of a firing squad was briefly considered, but the deep voice proclaimed that he wanted no part of it. William heard the swishing sounds of someone walking away—presumably the deep voice leaving. After he had left, nobody else seemed to be that interested either, and even the gravelly voice was hesitant. There was no longer any discussion, just the sound of uncomfortable silence. Eventually the gravelly voice spoke up again, saying that, if no one else was willing to help him, he would take care of it himself.
William heard a mechanical click behind him, and then felt the muzzle of a rifle under his left ear. William had often been accused of thinking too much, and that came back to him as the muzzle rested under his ear. He should have been angry or desperate or something, but he mostly just felt sad. It was depressing that his own death seemed so reasonable.
After a while, William started to get a little impatient. The execution was happening, and it seemed like it’d be better to just get it done with. He wondered what the gravelly voice was waiting for, and then the muzzle of the gun jerked, and he stopped wondering. He’d never figured out who the graffiti should go with.