Challenges after challenge saw our numbers reduce by the day; people were being pushed beyond their breaking points. And, when the trend refused to abate, George summoned me to his office. Now, George was only flimsy in appearance; his record was anything but that. He had handled international projects for three decades – and with a perfect record too: 61 projects, 40 distinctions and 0 failures. Precisely why his words that morning left me visibly stricken. “Do you know the difference between a champion and a legend?”, he started. “A champion knows when to leave a fight; a hero; however, seeks only to be remembered – in living or dying.” I was visibly lost, so he broke it down. “I always thought I wanted to be a hero – that I’d go to any length to get the job done. But, sometimes, that decision is not yours to make. My grandson is due in eight weeks – and my life would not be complete till I’ve seen his eyes. This project has gotten political; someone seems bent on seeing me killed – and going on is brutal suicide; I must stop now.”
By the time he had said hose words, my arms were akimbo, and head bowed. Despair and fortitude took center-stage – and the crowd of thoughts was in frenzy. I wasn’t even aware I had been standing! It felt like my feet had been cut from under me. The lead act in this movie had taken an early bow; whatever was to become of supporting cast?
Still, if his first set of words caused me despair, the next brought with them some hope. George walked over with fatherly comportment and grabbed me by the shoulder. “This, alas, is how my story ends. Nothing says it has to be the same for you. In fact, this may yet be the start of a great journey for you”. He paused, briefly, and then went on. “I’ve known you for how long – six weeks? I know there’s one word that’s eternally alien to you: Q-U-I-T. I know you’ll continue – in spite of whatever I say. I begin my terminal leave in two days; take those off too – and decide what you want to do. I’ll see that your access to the old office remains unhindered – should you need it. Hope you find what you’re looking for.”
There was nothing left to say; had there even been, my stiff jaw would not have allowed it. George and I shook hands slowly, firmly and quietly; all the while battling the betrayal of emotions.
Two days later, I was back at the office, mind sternly made up. The good thing about being at the bottom of a ladder is that falling doesn’t hurt much. Plus, failure at this would still have been more exciting than my old job. Success was always a long shot but even a semblance would require a highly skilled team – a luxury beyond reach. It was a suicide mission, anyways – and only six people from George’s old team signed up. So, there were seven of us headed for the perfect embarrassment.
We got on with the project; tempers flared, logic flickered – but above all else, time passed. ‘Tomorrow Today’, as we called it, was finally ready to be sent it in – albeit a day late. The project had taken all we had – and lots more. So, not knowing what to expect after such a draining “experiment”, the team dispersed; ‘renewal break’, we called it.
Three weeks later, while assessing a gulley in my hometown, George’s call came through. He wanted me to be at the awards ceremony; he thought I might meet a few ‘good people’ – and had gone as far as getting tickets for all seven of us. Logic said to pass it up; respect said the opposite. Had I chosen the former, my story would have ended before even starting.
There we were at the ceremony – all eight of us. Every other face looked alien, too academic or a blend of both. The glory of the occasion was undeniable – so I drank it all in in huge gulps. It was stuff that drew water to the eyes – intoxicating by all counts. In my restlessness, I would have rallied to leave – but I longed to see the legendary Asher Kroon receive his award. I had the feeling that seeing him take that walk would spark a fire within. Plus, his was to be the crowning award – or so I thought. A little more patience and Asher was giving his ‘thank you’ speech. Everyone rose to applaud the icon. What happened next, however, is what the world has refused to forget.
As Asher stepped off the stage, the host, rather than round things off, appeared, bearing two more awards. At that point, I gestured a quick farewell to George and the others and made a dash for the exit. Midway was when I heard my name ring out around the hall. I should never have turned, because my heart, head and lungs stopped that very moment. Right there, in the full glare of 3000 people of note, were two awards bearing my name. On another day, it might have been right to say I was transfixed; on this, though, it didn’t suffice. And, the host did me no favours by recounting the worrying details of ‘Tomorrow Today’.
Everyone in the hall was on their feet before my legs learnt to walk again. The applause was as deafening as emotion was overwhelming. It was, no doubt, the longest walk of my life – and memories of the sacrifices made only made it longer. It was a pretty strong wind that ferried me up that stage – but even that couldn’t supply the words. I had been voted ‘Rookie of the Year’, and ‘Tomorrow Today’, ‘Project of the Year’ – honours that even my dreams couldn’t have process prior. It was obvious that ten years would still have been insufficient to find the right words. So, tear in eye, I lifted both awards up, my face after, and spoke as slowly as emotion would allow. “In this moment of rare glory, I say a prayer for the parents who bore me, the friends who made this – and the world I plan to change”. A loud silence followed the words as they rung out. Nothing moved for a moment – as though Ceaser himself had stepped into the arena. The emotion was a little too much to handle – so I made a swift exit.
That’s how it all started; that’s the story of how a stubborn hobbyist rose to reckoning. I wanted to remember that night for the surprise, soberness and lessons – but the media had other ideas. The news spread fast – and drew more attention by the week. It was hard to live a normal life after that day. If one’s face wasn’t in the papers, there’d be a reporter lurking for an interview. It was everything I wasn’t used to. So, once again, I turned to George for counsel. “Our world has found a new hero in you”, he said. “If I had a fraction of the reputation the media’s building for you, the world would be at my feet”.
I let the words sink deep – and ideas soon sprung up. The next few years, I spent basking in yesterday’s sun; riding on that reputation. There was hardly anyone too ‘important’ to meet; no door too firmly shut. Side-talks had become a routine everywhere my shadow touched – but as long as I got my (often selfish) desire, it was all fair-play. Sadly, the point to selfishness is how quickly it grows and consumes all else. I quickly outgrew my old team. I was now ‘big’ enough to do my own thing – and that reputation was always the game-changer – the door-opener.
One day, though, reality came calling. I had just returned from a game with the minister’s son when my doorbell rang. Even a hurricane couldn’t get past my guards – so I paid no attention when it answered ‘foe’ to my usual ‘friend or foe’ question. What greeted my eyes was beauty that defied gender. It was perfection rechristened; incredibly tall frame, bright blue eyes and features neater than we’re used to. Amidst my admiration, however, I suffered a heavy blow to the head.
I woke to find myself tied securely to my favourite chair; nothing I knew to do could move the ropes. The sweat upon me doubled as I saw the weapons neatly tucked beneath his jacket. And, for the first time in a fairly long time, I felt truly helpless; if this brute had dispatched my guards as I thought, then I was doomed. Tears overflowed their banks as the thought became clearer. “Please don’t kill me, sir”, I muttered. “I know people who can give you whatever you want”.
“I’m sorry, sir”, he responded, with the calmness of a professional. “You made me; you fed me – but you made me cause pain. I’ve killed for you – but now, we level”. At this, he paused to look me dead in the eyes. The eyes that were once blue now burned with a red flame. It didn’t take much to understand; it wasn’t the look of one who lacked for money or clothing. It was one of intent – of passion – of death. “Please don’t do this”, I begged again.
“Why should I listen? I bled to avoid this – but you were just too stuck in your ways”, he said with increased agitation. The shadow beneath me parted company and joined the assassin as he said those words. “You too?”, I stuttered, totally shattered by the betrayal. “You choose now to leave me?”. “Fault not his loyalty”, the assassin replied. “He would have given his life to save yours – but you, you were too focused on the pleasures my hands could fetch; too greedy to look ahead. Against y will, you made me feed you fat on yesterday’s loot, while tomorrow lay starving. He spoke to you – but your music of false self-worth was always too loud.”
By now, my sobs had become audible from miles away. I was certainly going to die – and with nothing to show for the present – only tales of a fading past. My best friends had long been replaced by selfish ambitions – but those never put flowers by anyone’s grave. The assassin was right; I had become consumed by lust and greed – and had used my reputation to fuel the duo. How did I let conceit lead me down this road? “Please”, I muttered. “Please give me one last chance. I promise to right all my wrongs. I promise”.
A look of despair covered his face as I spoke. “You don’t get it; do you? It all ends tonight; one of us dies here. Make your peace; the hour is upon us”. At those words, struggling to recite the only psalm I knew, I bowed my head. My eyes closed firmly at the approaching sound of my death; I had made my peace. The assassin was right. I no longer deserved to live – at least, not in the past, as I have.
“One final question, sir”, I started with false confidence. “Please, what is your name?” I could hear the bullet load in his gun’s chamber as he answered. “I am your reputation. You made me – but my size has blocked your path to real glory. Goodnight”. A loud shot rang out as his body dropped to the floor.
I woke in litres of sweat – thankful that the nightmare was over. The assassin was now gone – but his lessons remained. And, my world would never be the same. I had bred and trained my own killer – feeding him with scrap from the past. Every tree has its roots and every hero, his legend – no doubt – but a single hero may yet have many legends. Maybe it’s time I moved on from the yesterday’s glory and wrote a new legend on the pages that really matter – tomorrow’s.