MALCONTENTS

 

CHOOSE

by Ryan C. Thomas

 

When there’s a gun to your head, every single heartbeat that pumps in your ears, every blink of the eye that snaps the world from white to black and back again, every single goddamn second that your brains aren’t splattered on the floor like last week’s spaghetti feels like an eternity.

Seconds.

Too small to make decisions.

Just enough time for a single thought.

I’m still here, you think. Tick. Another second gone. When is he going to pull the fucking trigger!

The anticipation is worse than the thought that the next world might not even exist. It plows through you like a bullet more powerful than the ones in the gun kissing the hair above your ears. It’s outright torture.

If the gunman has done his homework, he knows that your brain is fixing to have itself a breakdown. And this, of course, becomes part of the game. Because maybe if you get desperate enough, if you just can’t stand the waiting anymore, well then maybe you just reach up and help him with that trigger.

Tick. Tock.

I was teetering on the edge of such a breakdown that Monday morning in the small back office of my computer repair store, some disgruntled customer’s revolver pressed hotly to my temple. A big gun at that, the kind Dirty Harry would be envious of. The kind that could stop a stampeding elephant, and maybe take out the trees behind it in the process.

He was a young man in a silver, shark skin business suit and white cowboy hat who’d been outside the door at nine o’clock waiting for me to open the store. Said he wanted to talk to me about some work I’d done on a computer, but I hadn’t the foggiest idea who he was. He’d kept his head down, staring at his shoes, his big hat blocking out his face. I figured he was afraid to meet my eyes out of embarrassment; I see lots of things on people’s hard drives—most of the viruses that cause computer crashes come down through hardcore porn sites. I’ve seen everything from nasty scat photos to foreign rape scene to bestiality videos that’ll make bile rise in your throat, but hey, who am I to judge? It’s a free country, right? People have their kinks. Told him I’d go through my records if he gave me ten minutes to fire everything up. He nodded and followed me in.

Before I could flip the lights on, I was on the ground begging for my life.

His voice became a graveled mix of phlegm and Marlboro Reds, and he gave me a kick in the spine to make sure I didn’t try to stand up. “Stay down,” he ordered. “Don’t make me any madder than I already am.” Oh, he was mad all right, mad like a man who gets into arguments with post-it notes and peanut shells; that kind of mad. The kind where I knew he was loving every minute of making me cry.

The seconds passed in silence. I could smell my own fear as I shook with uncertainty. I felt that gun against my head, saw the shadow of its massive barrel on the floor. He was watching me sweat, enjoying it.

Just shoot me already! I wanted to scream. But I didn’t want him to really do it. Of course not. I wanted to live. I’ve got a wife and daughter, was all I could think, and I need them and they need me. We’ve got a nice home and live a good life. Very nuclear-family kind of shit, which some might find boring, but it’s good, secure. I wanted more than anything, just to wake up and start the morning over, have my cereal and coffee again, watch the morning news about the politician who got caught wearing adult diapers while he banged his maid. I didn’t want to die and I didn’t want to be driven insane either, although I was getting close to the last one.

“How’s it feel, huh?” he asked, giving the gun enough of a shove to send shockwaves of pain behind my eyes. “How’s it feel to be this close to death?”

I couldn’t speak a word. My tongue was far too dry to move.

“You thought you were a man of respect, huh?”

Man of respect? Sure. No idea what—

“Thought you’d go about your business, huh? Thought you could just ruin my life and everything would be hunky dory? That’s why this country is in the shitter. People like you don’t care about anyone but themselves. Love thy neighbor is just a folk song from the past they teach to kids in history class. Well, maybe I squeeze the trigger now.”

The gun bucked into my head. Oh God!

Tick.

“Or maybe not. There’s more hell in the anticipation. Man, don’t I know.”

Sonofabitch.

“Let’s say we count to ten, and then I pull it. Sound like a fun game? Okay? One . . . two . . . three . . .”

Tears cascaded down my cheeks, their coldness reminding me how just last week my daughter Mandy had gotten the best of me in our backyard snowball fight. I hadn’t suspected a fourteen year old could throw so hard, but she’d knocked my glasses clean off.

“Seven . . . eight . . . nine . . .”

Tick.

Oh Jesus, it was too much to bear. When was he going to actually do it? Was he going to actually do it?

I fought for my voice. “Please . . .” I said feebly around a mouthful of snot.

“Please what? Please shoot you? I don’t think I’m ready yet. I don’t even think it would make up for what you did to me.”

“I don’t know who you are.” The tears ran into my mouth and continued down my chin, plopping on the floor. A warm, wet stain was spreading out beneath me. 

“Well, smart guy, you’ll know now then, wont you?”

“What do you want?” I started to rise, wanting to plead with the guy, was on all fours now, like a dog. Beneath me the puddle of my own drool and tears reflected the pathetic visage of a grown man sniveling. This is what you look like dying, I thought. You don’t look like a man, that’s for sure. You look like a joke.

Suddenly, I was yanked to my feet, bent over a small laptop I keep on my desk for record-keeping purposes.

“Turn it on,” he said, “I want to show you something.”

My fingers shook as I hit the power button. It took a lifetime for the startup screen to boot up. The desktop photo was a picture of my family taken just ten days ago at Christmas, my daughter holding her new Macbook in her hands. My wife’s hair was tied back because she was in the middle of cooking a turkey for the dinner; her parents drove down from Flatwood for the day. All in all it was a good time.

“See that?” my captor said, still behind me. “See those faces? Happy. Perfect. Faces. I’m gonna give you a choice now, which is more than you did for me. Listen close, because I’m only saying this once.” He spun me quickly to my right, bent me over and forced me to look down next to the filing cabinet where I kept a small safe. “There’s a gun in your safe there. Shoots pretty accurate for a .357. Loaded with those .38s I bet it barely bucks. Take it out. Bring it home. And make a choice. Either your daughter or your wife. One of them goes. Tonight by midnight. Bullet in the head. I’ll be keeping tabs on you, and if I see them both still alive even a minute after, then they both go. Got me? It’s one or both. And you gotta choose? You take one of them out and our business is done. You can try to run, but it won’t help. I’ll find you no matter what. I’ll show you I’m a man of my word.”

If this whole situation made no sense before, it sure as hell made no sense now. “What?” I asked. And I was being serious. It was a universal what the flying fuck was going on? Who was this guy and what the hell was he getting at? He wanted me to kill my family? Was he fucking serious? Was I still asleep? Was Allen Funt hiding in a closet?

“What nothing,” he replied. “Kill one of ’em. It’s your choice. When you’re done, maybe in the future you’ll learn to have some guts, make decisions that matter, be a man.”

“What did I do!? Just tell me and I’ll make good on it. You want some new computers? You want money—”

“Don’t fucking insult me, Mr. Baker. Don’t even try to make me feel stupid.”

He had to have the wrong guy. I just needed to explain it to him. There are lots of Peter Bakers in the world. Clearly this was some issue of mistaken identity. “Okay, look . . . ” I made an attempt to calm down, which isn’t that easy when you can smell your own piss all over you. “I can see you’re mad. But I’m pretty sure you’re confusing me with someone else. I repair computers, see. Like, when people get a computer virus, they bring it to me and I reinstall the hard drive and reboot the OS. I can do Windows, Mac, Linux—”

“Shut up! I’m not mistaking you with anyone.”

Really? Had I really done something, then? “Um . . . did I work on your computer? Can you tell me what I did to it?”

He bopped me on top of the head with his gun again. A searing pain ran down into my teeth. “See you tonight, Mr. Baker of 1453 Montana Road. Don’t let me down.” And with that, he kneed me in the side and drove the wind from me. As I fell to the floor like a sack of laundry, desperately gasping for air, I watched him saunter out through the small showroom where I sold various computer peripherals and then out the front door, the little bell over top jingling with holiday cheer.  I never saw his face. All I saw was the damned cowboy hat and the gun by his side.

As my breath came back to me, I closed my eyes and began to cry. It was all over and I was still alive. Just some whacko, I thought, just some fucking nut out for a good time. Oh Christ, what a sicko. You hear about these random acts of violence in the paper and you never think it’ll happen to you. What does it all mean? How the hell did he choose me? The world is just a sick place.

The bell over the front door jingled as Kelly walked in, a MacDonald’s breakfast burrito in one hand and his laptop, in its case, in the other. Kelly was my assistant, a young man of twenty-four. He was a hell of a computer programmer, using the job I’d given him to put himself through college and get his masters in Computer Science. He was also fat and geeky as hell and hated his name. I told him Kelly was a cool name for a guy, but truth was, it was only really cool if you had the looks to go with it. Kelly did not. He looked like a pink Michelin Man.

When he saw me on the floor, he rushed over and stared down at me. “Mr. Baker? You okay?”

I grabbed the edge of the desk and hauled myself up, my breath stabilizing into a normal breathing pattern. The muscles in my abdomen were tight and throbbing and I felt like I’d be constipated for life. “I just got mugged. Call the cops, would ya?”

“Serious?” His face went slack for a moment, and then he waddled over to the phone on my desk and dialed 911. As he relayed my message to the dispatcher, I found myself staring at the photo on the desktop of my laptop. An uneasy feeling began to sweep over me as I realized two things. He’d mentioned my address (which anyone could find since my number was listed in the phone book) but even stranger, he’d known about the photo I took last week and the gun in the safe. The gun he could have guessed at—maybe—but the picture . . . how the hell had he known that? Just eight days ago my computer desktop was a big picture of a golf course in Phuket; I’d been trying to book a trip there for three years now. No one, not even Kelly, knew that I’d changed the picture on my laptop.

Kelly hung up the phone, took his own laptop bag off and set it on a chair. He glanced at my wet crotch, then back up again. “They’re on their way. Do you know who the guy was?”

“No. Not a clue.”

“Did he take anything?”

“No.” I wasn’t about to tell him what he’d demanded of me. That kind of shit was for the police.

“Did he hurt you?”

Just my pride, but again, I wasn’t gonna relay that information. “I’m fine. Couple of bumps on the head but I’ll live. Let’s get a disc ready for the cops.”

“I’m on it.” Kelly shoved the whole burrito into his mouth and then went out behind the counter in the showroom and pulled up the security camera feed on the cashier computer. I had a digital camera hidden behind a small mirror in the showroom. I watched as Kelly opened the video capture program on the screen and scrolled the time bar backwards. “There!” he said, stopping the file at the point when I could be seen opening the front door. He let the file play forward. On the screen, I came in, the man in the suit and cowboy hat behind me. He followed me toward the office and then we were both out of frame. There was no evidence of any violence.

“Rewind it,” I told him.

Again, we watched to see if we could make out the man’s face, but the cowboy hat blocked it out, almost as if he’d known about the camera and had kept his head down on purpose.

“Nothing,” Kelly said. “Shit. Maybe they can use the hat. Like if it’s a custom job or some rare hat you can only by in Europe or something.”

“I seriously doubt it, this isn’t a movie,” I replied.

It took ten minutes for the cops to finally show up. Not a super long time, but long enough to make me daydream about the gunman coming back and shooting me and Kelly. At first it was just of couple of patrolmen asking questions—Did I know the guy? Did he take anything? Was I hurt?—then a Detective Larson showed up and asked me many of the same questions again. When the evidence team arrived, both Kelly and I were fingerprinted to rule us out of any trace findings.

“Can we see the tape,” the detective asked. It wasn’t a question.

“Kelly, show him.”

The lot of us stood around and watched it a couple of times, but it was the same with each viewing. 

“We’ll need to take it to the station and analyze it,” Larson said.

I had Kelly burn the video file to a DVD and handed it over. “Do you need anything more from my employee here?” I asked. The detective said that they might contact Kelly for further questioning, but for now he could go. “Take the next two days off,” I told him.

“You closing up?” he asked me.

“Not for good, if that’s what you mean. But for now, yes.”

When he was gone I decided to offer up the demand the gunman had made of me.  The detective wrote it all down in his notepad, then flipped it shut and said, “Not a random request, asking you to hurt your family.”

“Certainly not.”

“Sounds like something personal. You’re absolutely sure you don’t know this guy?”

“As God is my witness.”

“Okay. We’ll post a car outside of your house, keep an eye out.”

“You think the guy was serious?”

“Don’t know, but we take all threats seriously. You have any place you can stay for a couple of days?”

“Not really. My closest family is in Achron. My wife’s family is in California. They just left two days ago, in fact. But school’s just started again.”

“Hmmm. I have to ask you if that firearm you mentioned in the safe is registered.”

“Of course. Are you going to take it?”

“No. But be careful. If you see or hear anything suspicious, don’t get ballsy. Call us first. Got me? Don’t go trying to fight this guy, gun or not.”

I nodded, suddenly numbed by the thought someone was out to kill my family and that my only option may be to kill him first. Murder was not the reason I got into the computer business.

I hung around the store for a bit and watched the cops dust for prints. Of course they found hundreds—I average about four to ten customers a day who come in with viruses and spyware problems, sometimes broken screens or keyboards they’ve spilled soda on. Most of them like to touch the display monitors and keyboards I have for sale near the counter. Computer customers are like monkeys in a playpen.

I informed Larson I was taking the gun home and he watched as I put it in the black carrying case and stuffed it in a gym bag that had been living in the back of my office for two years.

When I pulled into my driveway at home, I realized I’d done a shitty job shoveling the snow over the weekend and would have to do it again. But not right now. Right now I needed to get in touch with my wife and daughter, needed to tell them what had happened. I still had not decided if I was going to tell them everything though; explaining the proposed threat to our lives seemed like it could wait until there was more concrete evidence to support it. I was still banking on the cowboy just being a whacko who’d had his fun and was now on his way to mug a little old lady at a bus stop somewhere. 

The cold air bit into my neck as I made my way through a small white snow bank to the door. Before entering, my keys in hand, the gym bag over my shoulder, I cast a look around to make sure I was alone. My house butts up against some woods through which a creek winds its way out to Lake Jasmine some six miles north of town.  The closest neighbors are a little ways down the road; within sight, but of no help should I suddenly get jumped at my front door. It would take someone at least a minute to run to me, and that’s if they were in prime shape.

The surrounding fields of snow were bare with the exception of dead trees, chirping birds, and a squirrel digging in the ground for food. It came up with a rock in its mouth, spit it out, and went back to work. 

When I entered, the inside of the house was strangely quiet, and I felt disoriented. I hadn’t been home during a working day for over a year—when you own a small business, you wear too many hats to be absent. All of a sudden it felt like it was Sunday, chiefly because the only time I ever experienced the sun coming through the windows at this angle was on my one day of rest. I stomped the snow off my feet on the small rug inside the door and unbuttoned my coat, slung it over one of the kitchen table chairs, set the gym bag on the table. I grabbed a new pair of boxers and trousers from the hamper near the bathroom, used a wet towel to clean my legs, and changed in the kitchen. At least I smelled better.