December 6, 2020

Bahadur

(c) J. Singh, 2017

Nothing could have prepared fifteen year old Jasmeet Singh for the sight that met him that Sunday afternoon as he walked into the Three Rivers Mall. It was something that he would remember for the rest of his life. He had come to the mall after the conclusion of the weekly prayer service at the Gurudwara, and was looking forward to shopping for a new pair of jeans and checking out the latest release of his favorite video game. It was finally available, after six long months of waiting. And so, he had hurriedly eaten langar at the Gurudwara, bid farewell to his parents and sister, and then caught the number 46 bus to the local subway station. Twelve minutes later, he was walking through the large glass doors into the Three Rivers Mall.

Only, something was different this time. He could sense that all was not well. Even as he took his first steps inside the cool, air-conditioned building, he saw panicked people running toward him. They didn’t see him. They had the look of terror in their eyes. Running for the door, fleeing, escaping. A group of screaming teenage girls dashed past him, shopping bags and clothes strewn across the floor as they fled. A sandal came off one the girls’ feet. She didn’t bother to stop and fetch it, and ran instead with one bare foot out the doors and to safety.

Jasmeet’s first instinct was to turn around and follow the crowd. After all, they were running away for a reason. He was about to do just that when he caught sight of figures on the ground, several feet in front of him, just by the water fountains in the center of the mall. His heart jumped. Were those people lying there?

He froze. His mind raced. What if they were hurt? What if they needed help? But there must be danger. That’s why everyone was running in the opposite direction. Jasmeet took a deep breath. He must get out of here. He was about to turn and head for the doors when one of the prone figures on the ground raised his arm. He was moving, but barely. Then, a face turned and looked at him. The man propped himself up on one elbow, and motioned to Jasmeet. He was obviously hurt, but lucid enough to request help.

The man was looking right at Jasmeet, and motioning for him to come over. Jasmeet sighed. He couldn’t ignore the man’s plea for help. While everyone else was rushing for the doors and the exit, Jasmeet ran in the opposite direction, straight towards the center of the mall. When he reached the water fountains, he crouched down by the man who had beckoned to him. It was clear that he was very visibly hurt. With one hand, he was clutching his abdomen. His jacket, shirt and jeans were soaked in blood, and it was pooling on the floor underneath him. His breathing was shallow and fast, and he seemed to be very weak.

There were at least four other bodies in sight, but all were motionless. Jasmeet dared not think what might have happened to them. He focused his attention on the alive man in front of him, who was gasping for air and struggling to speak.

“Upstairs,” the man said, with great difficulty, “Active shooter.”

Jasmeet cast a quick glance at the abandoned escalator that led to the food court above, it’s metal steps quietly humming, totally oblivious to the emergency that was currently in progress.

The man gasped for air. “One,” he said, emphasizing with his finger, “one shooter.”

Jasmeet nodded to indicate that he understood. “I’ll call the cops,” he said, “and the ambulance!”

The man grasped his arm and shook his head urgently. “People,” he whispered, “people dying. You must stop him.”

“What?” Jasmeet cried incredulously, “How!?”

The man reached into his jacket pocket, and produced a black Glock 19 pistol. He placed it in Jasmeet’s hand and adjusted his grip for him.

“It’s ready to fire. Ever used one of these?” he asked, in between breaths.

Jasmeet shook his head, eyes wide in shock and disbelief.

“Acquire target using the sights, pull trigger gently, focus on your target. You have fifteen rounds. Don’t waste them, make each one count.”

Jasmeet stared at the man.

“There are no reloads.”

“I can’t do this!” Jasmeet whispered. “I can’t! We have to wait for the cops!”

The man looked into Jasmeet’s eyes. His face was becoming deathly pale, and he seemed to be losing the last of his strength.

“People are dying,” he said, nodding up in the direction of the food court. He shook his head sadly, “Can’t...can’t wait.”

“But I can’t do this!” tears were streaming down Jasmeet’s face. He was gripped by fear.

The man raised his hand and touched Jasmeet on the cheek. There was a compassion and fatherly tenderness in his touch.

“You,” said the man, “you are the only one who can do this!”

And then, he couldn’t speak anymore. He lay his head back on the ground, and stared up at the ceiling, not blinking. Jasmeet could see that he was still breathing, but he didn’t know for how long.

He stood, staring down at all the blood and the figure of the man who had placed this unspeakable responsibility on him. He was afraid. He wanted to run. The image of the screaming shoppers flashed in his mind. He could still turn around and leave. He looked behind him. The door was not far away. Sunshine poured in from the glass doors, showing him the escape. But then he looked at the man lying at his feet. People are dying, the man had said. There was an active shooter upstairs. And innocent lives. The police were on the way, the ambulance was on it’s way, but in the few minutes that they would take to get here, many lives might be lost, including his own if he ventured up the escalator.

For some reason that he could not fathom, the memory of the morning service at the Gurudwara came into his mind. He saw the katha vachak sitting on the stage, with his thick black beard and dark blue turban, delivering the message of the day and eulogizing the teachings of the great Sikh Gurus.

Guru Sahib gave everything to uproot tyranny,” the voice was clear and firm, confident, commanding, “he sacrificed his own life, and his family, to uphold the ideals of justice and righteousness, to protect the innocent, and ensure freedom for all. If we are Sikhs of the Guru, then we must honor him by also living up to those ideals! We must not just talk about it, we must live it!

Jasmeet gritted his teeth, took a deep breath, and ran towards the escalator. He lifted his weapon and bounded up the slow-moving steps, taking them two at a time, and reached the top floor within seconds. Upstairs, he turned right and ran into the deserted food court. He was met with a horrific sight -- bodies lying everywhere, and blood splattered all over the walls and tables and chairs.

He crouched among the tables, holding his weapon before him, finger on the trigger. He had played so many video games, but this was nothing like them. His heart was pounding in his chest, his hands were sweaty, and he felt almost light-headed. He kept turning around and looking behind him. The shooter was up here somewhere, but he could not see him.

There was an eerie silence. A television somewhere was playing an advertisement for a new brand of shampoo. Jasmeet eventually ventured out from the tables and dared to make his way down the hall toward the nearest store. Forever XXI. He walked by the large banner that read “Trendy. Affordable. Fashion.” and slipped inside, standing next to the mannequins to camouflage his appearance. He scanned the store but could not see anyone.

Time seemed to stand still. A few seconds seemed like an eternity. He wondered when the police would arrive. He wondered if he would die today, here in the Forever XXI store. Trendy. Affordable. Death. Strangely, his mind was very clear and calm. He was not confused or panicked. He could think and focus. He didn’t expect this. But he welcomed it, and he concentrated on searching for the shooter. There was only one priority in his life right now -- to find the shooter, and to somehow stop him.

Do not fear when you are doing a good deed!” the katha vachak’s voice intruded on his thoughts again. “Do not fear taking a stand for justice! Yes, you may pay a price for it. Because you will be fighting for the innocent, the helpless, the downtrodden, and you will be doing the right thing, and you will pay a price. Maybe a heavy price! But don’t worry about all that. Worry instead about whether your Guru will be pleased with your actions. Will he be pleased if you abandon those people who cannot protect themselves? Will he be pleased if you save your own skin, and you let others suffer!? Well, you perhaps already know the answer to that.

Jasmeet sensed movement. He strained to see through all the racks of clothing. Did he notice something? He held his breath, trying to determine where the movement was coming from. He held the pistol tightly in his hand and watched carefully.

Maybe you will have to give up your wealth, your luxuries, so that you may walk on this path of Sikhi, or maybe you will have to give up even your life. It’s a tall order, isn’t it?

There was definitely movement. The shirts on the rack. They were moving. Someone was coming towards him. He pointed the Glock and rested his finger on the trigger, ready to pull. He was looking down the sights towards his target. He took a deep breath.

The girl burst out from behind the shirts on the rack closest to Jasmeet and darted straight for him. He was taken unaware by her sudden and abrupt dash that he almost pulled the trigger. But something in his brain registered that she was not who he was looking for. She was too short. So he instinctively pointed the pistol to the ceiling as she reached him and hugged him tightly, her long brown hair falling over her shoulders and covering most of her face.

“Hey, it’s ok,” Jasmeet managed to peel her off of him and then he knelt down before her. “Are you alright?”

She nodded, too scared to say anything. She might have been eight years old, but looked like she had aged many years in just the last few minutes. Eyes red and swollen from crying, face betraying the terror she was feeling.

“It’s ok,” Jasmeet whispered again. “You’re going to be ok. Did you see the man, the one who  was shooting?”

She nodded. And then she pointed to the changing rooms. So he was here after all.

“Okay,” whispered Jasmeet, “You know where the escalators are? Do you think you can run to them and go downstairs? Find the doors and run outside. You will be safe outside. The police are on their way. The bad guy is in here, so you will be safe outside. There’s only one.”

She nodded. Jasmeet gave her a hug, and then stood up. He nodded again and she took off running.

Now he knew where the shooter was.

The changing rooms lay before him ominously. He didn’t want to go in. But he couldn’t delay any longer.

If you are afraid, you should focus on the Creator who is without fear. Without hate. Focus on the One, and you will become like the One. Without fear. Without hate.

Jasmeet’s hand trembled. Everything seemed to slow down. Thoughts of his childhood seemed to hover just beyond his consciousness, his earliest memories of the loving warmth and embrace of his mother, playing with his sister, sitting down for the family meal. Emotions surfaced. Family togetherness. Feelings of belonging, safety, security. Love.

Jasmeet was striding towards the changing rooms, in plain view. He held the Glock before him, his eyes peeled for any movement. This may be his last day on Earth, but he was determined to make it count. It was time to remember his Maker. His lips began moving in a silent chant that he had performed countless times before. His mind went blank. Everything was empty now. There was no time, no fear, no hate. Just him and his mission.

He had almost reached the changing rooms when his target appeared. He had been waiting. He came out with the Colt AR-15 pointed right at Jasmeet. The sinister, sick, twisted smile on his face betrayed his pleasure in causing such mayhem and destruction. He was eager to inflict as much pain as possible. He wanted to watch Jasmeet writhe in agony.

But Jasmeet had already fired. Acquire target using the sights, pull trigger gently, focus on your target. Jasmeet had the target in his sights the instant that he had walked out of the changing room. He had pulled the trigger gently, focusing on the target. Two in the head. Three in the chest. Five rounds were dispatched before the target could react.

He stumbled backwards, and then crumpled in a heap on the floor. His rampage was over.

And then, when you have done that almost impossible thing, when you have sacrificed your time, your energy, your wealth, when you have truly served mankind, and fought oppression and injustice, and you have protected the innocent from tyranny and oppression, then you will have the most valuable and precious thing. You will become a Bahadur!

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