The sharp crack of not-too-distant gunfire jolted Fred from his fitful slumber. V.C.!!! his brain screamed, They're on the attack! Scenes of death in the sweaty jungle exploded in his mind - friends and comrades being cut down in a hail of bullets. Rolling to attention, fumbling in the trash for an imagined M-16, he stared with wide-eyed terror at - an empty urban alley?
And then it hit him, like it always does. The hurt - the humiliation; he was having another one of his attacks. "Happens to a lot of kids," the doctors told him, "The ones who are drafted too early. Uncle Sam teaches them how to kill people, but he never teaches them how to deal with it. And so they never do. It just eats away at them inside, leaving only a thin shell of sanity that can crack at any time." He had heard all of the rhetoric before. "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" - they called it. He didn't care what they called it; he wanted them to cure it. But, that they couldn't do. And now, after ten years, he was on the street.
The Army? They had left him nothing. They turned him into a killer, and then sent him to Hell for 22 months. Then, all of a sudden, the war was over, and they sent him on his merry way, with honor but no skills.
Jobs? Oh yeah, he had plenty. But each time he had an attack, he would be out the door. Slam a door, and he'd hit the carpet, screaming like murder. Tap him on the shoulder, and you'd end up with a broken hand. And then there was that time at McDonald's - one of his last jobs. Somebody's car backfires in the drive-thru line, and the next thing you know, Fred's cowering behind the fryer, biting chunks out of hamburgers and hurling them into the dine-in section. Sure, people thought these things were funny, but they were deathly serious to Fred. Things like this happened once too often, and then places stopped hiring him. Too much of a risk, they said.
So he lived between the toes of society - sleeping in alleys and on loading docks, rummaging through other people's refuse for food and other things of merit. Things like clothing. His grubby blue corduroys and tattered brown overcoat - once green - were lucky finds. They would serve him well in the approaching winter months. Other things were more difficult to come by. Shoes, for example. He had to buy those, using the precious little income he received from collecting recyclables from dumpsters. It was a pitiable existence, he knew, but it was beyond his abilities to change it, except for the worse. It could always seem to get worse. "Over here!" a man's voice shouted. "I think I found something!"
Fred awoke again to find a police officer standing over him. He didn't have another attack- the humiliation from the last one was still fresh in his mind. Anyway, they didn't happen that often. They were unpredictable that way.
"Excuse me, but there's been a shooting in this alley," the officer said. So the gunfire was real after all, Fred thought. At least this time I freaked out at the right noise. Several more officers hurried over, as the first continued, "The shooting occurred only couple-hundred yards away from here." He pointed down the alley. Sure enough, there was a body there, laying prostrate in a puddle of blood and grime. "You're going to have to come with us and answer a few questions," he concluded, his fellows stepping forward to pull Fred from the pile of rubbish in which he reposed. He offered them no resistance - he knew that he had no choice.
Jail. He had always imagined that this would be rock-bottom. To be caged up like an animal, he always thought, would be the ultimate indignity - the last step toward true madness. Strangely enough, however, he kind of liked it. After all, he didn't have much dignity left after sleeping in piles of trash and dog shit for five years. He got a meal that evening, and they questioned him about the murder. He had heard the gunfire, he told them, but he thought he imagined it, and never even looked to investigate. They thought he might be lying - this being a hard-to-swallow story, and so they held him overnight for further questioning, for lack of a real lead. So they took his dirty, ragged clothing, and issued him a clean jumpsuit. He slept on a jailhouse cot - much more warm and comfortable than concrete and trash, and had a bit of breakfast in the morning. Then the investigation took another turn - a witness identified a suspect. The suspect checked out - the murder weapon was in his possession - and so Fred was no longer needed. They returned his washed and folded clothes and released him. So he returned to his alley, and his scavenger's life.
Jail. He couldn't believe he had liked it. It was just wrong to like it. But he could not shake the image of those clean sheets, those clean clothes. No man likes to live in squalor, although some learn to live with it. Two meals in one twenty-four span. He couldn't remember the last time when he had eaten that well even once - much less twice - in the same month. And so these thoughts turned in his brain, as he returned to his slovenly life. A stack of old newspapers didn't make such a comfortable bed anymore, and a soiled, torn sweatshirt wasn't such a golden find. Rotten dumpster fruit wasn't such a delicacy anymore either, nor were the fatty plate scrapings from the bin behind "The Gentleman's Steakhouse." All of this wore on him, and he often argued within himself.
"No!" protested his conscience - a proud, whiny little voice that echoed weakly within his skull. "Prison is not a place for recreation, but a place for punishing those who commit serious crimes."
"Why, then, does prison life sound so much more appealing than the dreary life we live now?" his temptation replied. "It's not a punishment; it's a country club."
His conscience was adamant. "You must not allow our bad fortune to turn us into a monster!" it cried.
"Face it, we are a monster," temptation replied. "Thanks to Uncle Sam, we're a walking time-bomb. All we know how to do is kill. And thanks to you, we can't do that, and set ourselves up with food and shelter."
These thoughts stewed within Fred's head for days - weeks, and all the while the weather grew colder and more miserable. Another winter was in full swing, and this time he wasn't so sure he would make it through until spring. Food was harder and harder to come by. To keep warm, he covered himself with piles of loose garbage. Cold wind swept this off of him, and eventually he had to resort to burying himself in dumpsters, deep in the decaying refuse, risking the danger of being emptied into a garbage truck's trash compacter. Things were getting almost unbearable. And then there was the day his conscience died.
It was a cold day, like any other, and he awoke to find one of the neighborhood mutts pissing on his overcoat. He screamed at the animal, and tried to get up and chase it away, but he slipped and fell in the fresh pile of shit it had left beside him. Luckily, he was not hurt. He got up, and walked out of the alley, to the sidewalk. He was out of food again; he had to go find something to eat.
As he walked slowly down the street, the passers-by noticeably avoided him. He smelled of his morning encounter, and looked even worse. He stopped in front of one of the stores - this one an electronics shop with a dozen television sets on display in the front window. He sometimes liked to stop by and watch them, although he had long since given up on
having one of his own. The evening news was on, and the top story involved the sentencing of the man who was convicted of the murder in Fred's alley. He had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, which was the harshest punishment allowed by the system.
Upon hearing this news, Fred felt something snap deep inside his brain. Hurt and rage boiled up within him, and he screamed inside his head. This man - this murderer! - was getting a lifetime stay at the country club because he could do what I can't make myself do? The man was a killer! He should face a flogging! a hanging! the electric chair! But no! He lives high on the hog, while I languish here in filth! Where is the justice!?
The snap was Fred's conscience, dying, and temptation took full advantage of the whiny one's absence. "Justice, Fred? Why, wherever did you come up with such a quaint thought," it whispered smoothly in his throbbing head. "There is no justice - only survival. So do it, Fred. Kill for us. We've got nothing to lose and everything to gain. The only thing we would lose is freedom. And what use have we for freedom? We would have no desire to leave, where we're going. Prison would be granting us a better life than the free one we live now."
And so, right then, Fred knew what he had to do. A month's worth of anger, frustration, and indecision fell from him, and he became calm with resolve. His thoughts - they were frighteningly robotic and focused. Murder is freedom. If he didn't do something drastic, he would die in the gutter. Kill or suffer. His only learned skill was killing other people. Jail is Home. In prison there was peace - a release from this madness. And there was no time to waste - he had to do it now. Now, he was ready.
Fred walked into the closest building - the accounting offices of Wiltstein and Wiltstein, and surveyed the lobby. His thoughts were cold, but rational. If he killed two or three people, there must still be plenty of living witnesses. There were plenty of people here, so he was safe.
Yet unnoticed, he picked up a pointed silver letter opener from the front desk, and walked over to an area where several people were working at desks. There he was approached by a young, brash-looking secretary, who gave him a disdainful look. "I'm sorry sir, but I don't think you are where you want to be. This is an accounting firm, not a restaurant, and we don't give handouts."
Fred's mind was already well beyond the reach of provocation, but if he had any lingering shadows of doubt, they died with her words. Cradling his chosen weapon in his right hand, he doubled the woman over with a left jab to the stomach, and before she could even scream, the letter opener was buried deep in her neck. She never even saw it. Instead, she fell to the ground without even having made a sound, and as Fred wrenched the weapon from her limp form, cries of surprise and terror rose from the few who witnessed the gruesome spectacle.
Fred wheeled around, seeking another hapless victim, and although most of the people in the lobby were turning in retreat, he spied a rather feminine-looking man standing frozen in horror not more than ten feet away. Number two, he thought.
As the murderer leapt toward him, the man realized his peril, and turned to run. Unfortunately, he acted too late, falling prey to his assailant.
By this time all of the other people had disappeared, and Fred stood alone in the room, save the corpses of his two victims. Now, at last, it was done. The whole thing took no more than two minutes.
But he didn't exactly feel relief. He was dizzy, and he sat down on the cold floor, leaning against the wall, trying to bring some order to maelstrom in his mind. Images kept appearing in his head, circling. Dumpsters in barren alleys. Cold, biting wind, carrying the scent of defecation and decay. Years alone, without a friend in the world. Was this all he was trading in? It seemed like he had lost something valuable in the exchange. Yes - there was something more. His conscience. His decency.
Was it worth it? He thought of jail. Clean clothes and a warm bed. Regular meals, and regular company. Hell, there's even a T.V. - so they say. All of this in exchange for his decency? Yes. It was worth it. What good is decency in an indecent world? Nothing.
So he surrendered, wanting get on his way as soon as possible. The police had surrounded the building, and he came out - slowly, unarmed, with his stained and tattered mittens reaching skyward.
They told him to lay down, prostrate on the ground. And as he lay there, in a grimy puddle in the street, with the officers cuffing his hands, he remembered the body in the alley. There were two ways to escape the hell in which he lived. That man in the alley took one route, and Fred was about to embark on the other. Both theoretically led to a better place. Fred had made his free choice - it was the only freedom that he had left. Now, he was going to reap the benefits.
These were his thoughts as he was loaded into the back of the squad car. And as it pulled away, Fred looked out the window, watching his old life recede into the distance. He could not help but smile. He had a better life ahead of him; he was going home.
Acknowledgments: These people gave me important advice and input while I was working on this story: First and foremost, I would like to credit Jon Bates. He was the teacher of the high school class for which I originally wrote this piece. This was the very first piece of fiction that I had ever written, and without his encouragement, I may have given up on writing before I ever made it this far. His ideas and suggestions helped to form the base of this idea. Now, on a more topical note, I'll get to people of the present. I would like to credit the entire class, for everyone's input was greatly appreciated. More specifically, I thank Chris Butler, because it was his idea for the opening that I used. Other than that, I can't say that I used specific ideas - only general ones that were a consensus of the class. Melanie Doerpholz helped me with final editing, and for that I am grateful as well. Overall, I'd say that our efforts resulted in a pretty good story.
Fantasticoe Home Page