The Soldier – Part 4: The Darkness

I sit sprawled in the overstuffed easy chair that comprises roughly half the furniture in the small area designated as a living room in my apartment. Aside from a threadbare, second-hand patchwork rug covering most of the floor the only other piece is a squat table supporting my television which currently stares hollowly back at me through its black, empty screen. I’ve been home two hours. I am unbelievably drunk. I drop the empty bottle from my hand to join its relatives on the floor. From the look of things it’s a family reunion; attendance is high.

People get drunk for lots of different reasons. Some people think they become the life of the party when they’re wasted. Others want to fit in to a particular crowd. Some, like me, drink because the muddling effect of the alcohol occasionally dulls the pain of particularly traumatic events or memories. The really lucky ones are actually able to use it to forget. I’ve never had that option. God. I wish I could forget. I want to forget. For me the alcohol only takes the edge off the memories. Sometimes. Most of the time it doesn’t even do that, the buzz just sort of gives me something else to focus on. But, like tonight, if my thoughts happen to turn to that time… to that place… to that… thing. I shudder involuntarily. God, so much blood, so much pain, so many screams, so many, so many…

I lurch up from the chair and run, staggering to the bathroom, flinging myself at the toilet. I barely make it before an inadvisable amount of alcohol forcibly removes itself. Twice. I stay hunched, clinging weakly to the bowl.

All hail the porcelain god.

Sometime later, satisfied that I have finished retching for the moment, I return to the living room stopping by the fridge to grab another beer along the way. I just threw up a bunch of alcohol; need to keep up the pace if I don’t want to start sobering up. I settle back into my chair. As always, despite my best efforts, I have perfect recollection of the evening’s events.

After my encounter with the unworldly thing disguised as an old man on the train, I frantically searched the car for any sign that it was still there, or where it might have gone, or how it got there. I went over the length of the train car for a second time, replaying the sequence of events yet again, trying to convince myself that the whole thing was just a dream, that I’m not crazy, when the Overbrook stop arrived. I picked up my valet and exited the train, the Glock still held in my right hand and concealed in my coat pocket.

From that point, I think my brain shut down for a little while. I remember the walk home, but it’s like looking at it through a thin film of gauze, or underwater; the motions seem slower, the time takes longer. Fog still crowded around me, but I hardly noticed the lack of vision its sinuous creeping provided. I have walked the path a hundred times, my legs worked on autopilot. I was about a block away from my apartment when the man spoke to me.

“Hey, man, that’s a nice f****n’ coat.”

I turned slowly towards the voice, aware but not aware. I could feel my body move, but like a puppet on strings pulled by someone else. I dimly comprehended the two men facing me under the muted glow of a streetlight, barely more than boys really. In a different world, I might have taught them history. God knows what circumstances forced them outside on a night like this. Doesn’t really matter. One stood around six-two, the other a bit shorter each dressed in the current urban fashion, their clothes loose and baggy. Both had bloodshot, sick looking eyes, and builds entirely too skinny, emaciated. The small part of my mind that still acknowledged my surroundings registered that these two were extremely dangerous.

“You f****n’ stupid or somethin’, man? Whas that f****n’ look you givin me, man? Yo, Tio, I think our boy here be trippin’ or sumpin.”

“Tink you might be right, Dre. Look like sumbody beat the s**t ‘out dis fool already. You trippin’, b***h? Awfully nice f****n’ coat to be trippin’. You best be givin’ that over here.” The smaller of the two cautiously approached me from the side, wary as if I were a sleeping dog that might suddenly wake and decide to take a snap at his hand. In a way, I suppose I was. I stood still, dully looking ahead. I felt a slight pinch from the marks on my shoulder.

The one called Dre gave me a look over. “Hey, Tio, what’see got in the bag, man? Tink he’s got some bills in there, man?”

“Lessee what’choo got in this bag, m’man. See if you got some money on you.” Tio started to remove the valet strap from my shoulder.

A moment later he was sitting down on the ground, hand clamped to his mouth, blood seeping through his fingers. One of his teeth lay next to him on the wet pavement. I stared at him in surprise. Looking down at my hand, knuckles bleeding, I realized I’d hit him.

“The f**k, man? What the f**k?!” Tio’s face was livid.

Dre howled with laughter behind him. “Yo, Tio, man, that b***h popped you good! Right’n ya f****n’ hole! Ha ha ha!”

Tio wiped his lips with the back of his hand and spat, another tooth flying from his mouth. His face was set in a hard expression. “Gonna be the last thing he does too, man.” Tio’s speech sounded off as he tried to talk around two missing teeth. He pulled a knife from his pocket and flicked it open, the streetlight catching the small hard blade. “Think you funny, mutha fucka? Think you just gonna hit me a’int nothin’ gonna happen? You f****n’ wrong, man. You dead f****n’ wrong!”

His lunge was wild, sloppy, but would still do serious damage if it connected. Seeing it through the slow-motion fog that my mind was currently operating in, I had all the time in the world to sidestep. Catching the arm holding the knife and tightly gripping his wrist with my right hand, I drew my left back and drove my palm against his elbow, hard, simultaneously jerking his wrist towards me. With a sickening snap, Tio’s arm bent the wrong way against the joint, the knife clattering to the ground. He screamed.

“AAAAAAOOOO myfuckin’god ohgod ohgod myarm muthafucka brokema goddamarm….”

I let him go and he crumpled to the ground, curling into the fetal position. He cried, cradling his broken arm. “Oh god it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, god oh god…”

“Tio!” Dre’s expression was one of open shock. Apparently, this was the first time any of their victims had ever resisted. “You crazy sonuvabitch. Shouldna f****d wid ma homey, man. You jus’ bought yusself a one way ticket to hell.” I bent and picked up the knife, folded it into my coat and stood straight, hands in my pockets, my face placidly unaware of the whimpering heap at my feet. Dre lifted his sweatshirt and I saw a large .45 caliber handgun stuffed into his pantline. “Gonna make you scream, b***h. Gonna make you bleed.” He reached for the gun. Emotionless, I pulled my Glock from my pocket and shot him.

It’s always surprising to me how loud gunshots really are. In shoot-outs on television, the characters have lengthy conversations punctuated by witty quips while firing gigantic machine guns, explosions going off all around them. In real life, a gunshot is an incredibly loud, harsh thing. When bullets are flying the last thing anyone thinks of is banter.

In this case, it took a second for me to regain my hearing enough to recognize Dre’s inarticulate cries over the ringing in my ears. His pistol lay next to him on the ground where he feebly thrashed, shocked at the gaping hole that had, as if by magic, suddenly appeared in his shoulder. I calmly stepped over and kicked the gun away sending it skittering across the street. I stood over the wounded man frowning.

Just because things didn’t work out for them tonight doesn’t mean a thing. Next time it might be someone else they try to mug. Next time it might be Billy Parr.

A bright flash of rage flared up inside me. It must have shown in my eyes; Dre’s cries quieted to soft, helpless whimpers. I pressed the barrel of my Glock to his cheek and roughly gripped his wounded shoulder, painfully hauling him to a standing position.

I should kill him; it would easily be justified as self defense. Already tonight I’ve seen there are monsters in the world I’m powerless to do anything about. I should take care of the ones I can.

Dre’s eyes went wild, he began pleading.

“P-please, man. Don’t kill me, man! We weren’t gonna do nothin’, please man I’m sorry I’m so sorry pleeease, oooh God, don’t kill me!”

He started to cry uncontrollably, the harsh metal of my barrel still digging into the side of his face. I smelled as his bowels emptied themselves. Tio silently watched from where he lay terrified on the ground, his broken arm bent unnaturally, fear plastered across his bleeding face. My finger tightened on the trigger.

Suddenly a sharp flare of pain emanated from my shoulder, wiping away the fog that had been clouding my mind. It’s as if a veil was lifted; for the first time I observed the situation with perfect clarity. I saw the hurt, frightened boy in my grasp, his hysterical breaths coming in short gasps. I saw myself as I must look to them, a wrecked, half-crazed madman with a gun.

My God, what am I doing?

Dre grimaced as I dug my thumb into the bullet hole and leaned in close, talking low into his ear.

“You and your friend go to a hospital. Stay out of my neighborhood. If I see you again, you’ll consider this night a pleasant memory.”

I let him go and he bonelessly fell to the ground with a cry of pain. Tio managed to get enough control of himself to help Dre to his feet again. I numbly watched the two of them stumble off blindly into the fog in the general direction of a hospital, horrified at what I had almost done. I looked down at the gun still gripped in my hand and shuddered. I flipped the safety back on and reholstered the weapon, picked up the single piece of expended brass from the pavement and put it in my pocket.

The rest of the walk home was uneventful. I took my time, knowing that the frequency of gunshots and gang violence in this neighborhood would not hurry a police presence. I couldn’t stop shaking. I finally reached my building, opened the front door with my tenant key, and walked down the hall to my door. Moving like an automaton I unlocked the three deadbolts in succession, heaved open my slab of a door, stepped inside and disarmed the security system. I dropped my valet by the door and painfully shrugged out of the pea coat that had attracted so much unwanted attention on my walk home. Hanging it on the hook by the door, I moved through my small living room towards the bathroom attached to my bedroom, briefly making a side trip to grab the first of what would ultimately be many beers from the kitchen. I finally heard approaching police sirens in the distance, not that I had anything to worry about. The fog was thick enough that all of our features were sufficiently protected from any potential witnesses.

I stripped, tossing the gun in its holster onto the nightstand next to the bed. I examined my shirt, a dark smear of blood from the oozing mark had soaked through the shoulder. I checked over my wounds and confirmed my initial assessments. The scalp was ugly but shouldn’t require stitches. The lump above my eye wouldn’t win me too many beauty pageants, but once the swelling went down would be fine. I may even look almost normal by the time classes resume after Thanksgiving next week. All my other scratches and cuts were superficial, although the itching as they heal will be considerably uncomfortable. Most curiously, the mark on my shoulder had reverted to looking like it always had, dead pink scar tissue. Without the stain on my shirt as testimony, I would be inclined to believe I had imagined it bleeding earlier.

Even though I just showered before my escape from the school, the ensuing events left me with a decidedly unclean feeling. The frigid roar of water from the shower head was blessedly welcome. I stood there for long minutes, taking deep pulls from my drink. Toweling off, redressing, and about fifteen beers later find me in my current position, slouched in my armchair, drunk as hell. As I sit staring into space and contemplating the pros and cons of another drink, a sharp three raps issue at the door and cause me to hurriedly lurch to my feet.

S**t, s**t, s**t… did that thing follow me? Gotta get a gun. No, think logically, it wouldn’t be knocking. Maybe someone saw the earlier attack? Friends of Tio and Dre maybe. Gotta get a gun! No, wait, could be police canvassing the area. But they’ve never done that before, even with that murder a couple months ago. Still, if it’s cops I shouldn’t answer the door armed… what the hell is going on?

  • Rose Morrison

    Great. Please keep it up. So looking forward to more.

  • Ray Ramirez

    This series is damn good.