Written for INFUZEmag.com. It was the very first short story published there.
Jeff was sleeping — which for him meant tossing and turning all night long — alone in his apartment, when a voice whispered his name.
He bolted straight up in his bed, looking all around, his heart beating twice as fast as before.
His eyes were open wide, but he saw no eerie shapes, no obvious menace. He must have dreamed it, he thought, allowing himself a nervous laugh. He heard something in a dream and it scared him awake. That’s all it was.
He looked over at his alarm clock and saw the bright red numbers read 3:29. A wave of relief washed over him as he turned back over and closed his eyes.
The voice was louder this time, though still only a whisper. This time he instinctively reached under his pillow and pulled out the hunting knife he always kept there. He’d never been hunting in his life, but his neighborhood was unsafe, and he often found the knife made him feel more at ease. He flipped it open as sweat formed on his brow.
He reached over to his lamp, breathing quickly now, and braced himself for who or what he might see in his bedroom. But the light flickered on and there was nothing; he was all alone. There was no sound anywhere in his apartment. In fact, he realized with a start, there was no sound at all, anywhere. Even outside, where late at night he usually heard sounds of wild parties, traffic, boom boxes, and the occasional police chase — all was perfectly still.
The silence was so thorough that he was beginning to entertain the idea that perhaps he’d gone deaf, when —
He jumped out of bed, knife still in his hand, and hobbled down the hall as best he could. He turned on more lights in every room of the tiny, low-rent apartment, until the entire place was lit up, but still he found no one. At the front door, he noted that the deadbolt was still locked, and the chain was still in place. Which was how he preferred it.
“Jeff, you must come. Now.”
Now the voice sounded as if it were coming from outside, further away than before. He glanced back at the door as he realized that the voice was trying to lead him somewhere.
Normally he would never go outside at this time of night. It was early July, which meant that the street gangs would be out in force. Everyone knew it was insane to leave your home after dark. But without entirely knowing why, he knew he was going to do it.
He went back to his bedroom and threw on some clothes, grabbed his knife again and slipped it into his pocket, and then opened the front door.
He paused there, listening hard for anything he might hear — anything at all. But the world was no longer making sounds.
He turned his head to the left, the direction from which the voice now came. He walked carefully down the steps, turned left, and started walking as best he could. He favored his right leg, limping wherever he went — the result of an old injury. It was an annoyance, but like so many things, he’d learned to live with it.
“Yes, this way.”
The voice grew louder as he walked. He looked nervously around the area, fingering the knife in his pocket. In all of the places he might have typically seen drug dealers or wild parties or even crime in-progress, there was absolutely nothing. No movement, no sound, no people. It was as if he were walking around inside a movie that had been paused. The only sound he heard was being made by the barely-audible squeak in his tennis shoes. Even the wind was dead calm.
But soon he heard something else. As he rounded a corner, up ahead he heard a sound he knew all too well. It was the sound made by two people grappling over something — probably a purse or a wallet. He was used to hearing that sound in his neighborhood, although he always tried hard to ignore it.
Soon he came upon a dark side alley on his left. He stopped short of it and took a slow, quivering breath.
“You must do this,” he heard the voice say. His mind immediately answered, Why? But he got no answer.
After a moment’s hesitation, he ever-so-carefully peered around the corner. And there, his eyes fell upon a sight that turned his blood ice cold.
A young man, probably in his late teens, was kneeling over an elderly man, who was lying in the street. The old man looked up spitefully at the kid, clearly unafraid of him, yet treading lightly nonetheless. The boy was pointing a gun at the old man’s head.
“Just give me the wallet, and you won’t get hurt,” the boy said. “I saw you at the bank today. I know what you have in there.”
Jeff felt as though he were going to pass out. He knew this scene by heart, word for word. He knew how they’d gotten here, he knew who they were, and he knew what was going to happen next. It was like watching a reenactment, some cruel torment that could only have been thought up in the bowels of hell.
Eighteen years ago, Jeff had been the boy he was now watching. The same clothes, the same gun, the same scenario. He had been 19, and had gone to the bank to beg for a loan for his family. His mother had just been diagnosed with a congenital heart disease and his father was long gone — ran out on the family when Jeff was a baby. Jeff had a decent job washing dishes at a nice restaurant downtown, but his wages would never be enough to cover all of the hospital expenses his mother was adding up.
So in one moment that would haunt him forever, he made the worst decision of his life. While waiting to talk to the loan officer at the bank a few days before Christmas, he’d noticed the old man stuffing dozens of hundred dollar bills in his wallet. After making him wait for over an hour, the loan officer had been very sweet as she told him he had a better chance of sprouting antlers and a shiny, red nose than ever getting a loan. On his way out of the bank, he saw the old man leaving, and that was when he decided to do it. He was only doing what he had to, to help his family, he told himself.
He had spent the rest of his days running from what happened next. He’d suppressed the memory, tried his best to procure one decent job after another, and never, ever committed another crime. But he lived in seclusion, afraid of being found out by someone who knew. More than that, he was terrified of what he might do if tempted again to act on his worst impulses.
And now here he was, watching the great nightmare of his life playing out right in front of him. He had to be asleep. This couldn’t be real.
It couldn’t be.
“Do something,” the voice said, forcefully.
He jumped, caught up in the moment. Then he digested what the voice had said and realized that he wasn’t merely a spectator in this walk down memory lane — if the voice was telling the truth, he could interact with what he was watching. But still he hesitated, mortified at watching what he’d done so long ago, what he’d tried so hard to forget. Knowing what was coming next, he didn’t have much time to intervene, yet all he wanted to do was run away and bury his head.
Why is this happening to me? he thought. Had he not paid his penance by living a life in secluded disgrace, forming no meaningful friendships, and avoiding others? Had his mother’s rapid decline and eventual death all those years ago not been enough punishment to last a lifetime? What more was expected of him?
“Do something, now,” the voice said again.
He closed his eyes and blew out a breath out very, very slowly. Then he moved.
In one moment, he reached inside his pocket, pulled out the knife, and ran down the alleyway. The boy’s gun was touching the old man’s head as he said something about not making him do something he’d regret, when Jeff tackled him. The gun flew out of the boy’s hand and Jeff stood up and kicked it away. The boy rose as if he were going to lunge at Jeff, but Jeff flicked the knife open, and the boy hesitated.
“Go home,” Jeff said looking straight at the boy. He was hoping that somehow, his younger self would intuitively recognize him, because he knew he didn’t have time to explain the situation. “Don’t do this.”
“I have to do this,” the boy said. He quickly knocked Jeff’s knife away with one hand and punched him hard in the head with the other. Jeff went down, seeing stars. It was a powerful blow; he’d forgotten how strong he was when he was younger.
The boy ran down the alley and grabbed the gun again, and spun around quickly, just as the old man was getting to his feet.
“I told you to stay down!” the boy shouted. The man carefully got back down on his knees.
“Give me the wallet, now,” said the boy, running back up to him.
“No,” the old man quietly stated, shaking his head. Oddly, he didn’t seem at all frightened by this dangerous situation he was in.
The boy walked over to him and placed the gun against his head. “Last chance, pops. Give me the wallet, or I’ll take it from you… after.”
Jeff, still laying on the ground, was stung by those words. It was just as he remembered it. He craned his head upward and saw the knife on the ground, not two feet away.
“Then do it,” said the old man. “Because you will never get it any other way.”
The boy took one step back and pointed the gun straight at the man’s head. Jeff could feel it coming. It was going to happen again.
The boy’s finger touched the trigger, but the old man suddenly came to life, springing forward amazingly fast. In under a second, he had grabbed the boy’s wrist and flicked it, somehow forcing him to drop the gun. The man stuck out his other hand to catch it, and turned it back on the boy.
“Do you really think I have so much money because I’m frugal, kid?” he said coldly. The boy recoiled, startled by the man’s sudden change.
“It took guts to try and mug me, I’ll give ya that,” the man continued. “But you should leave this sort of thing to the professionals. First rule of the game: know how to pick your targets.”
Jeff held his breath, he felt it coming. This was it.
“You shoulda listened to that little voice telling you not to do this.” The man looked the boy in his eyes, pointing the gun right at his head. “Me — I stopped listening to that voice a long time ago.”
He was ready to pull the trigger. But as he watched the boy, who was now terrified and on the verge of tears, he appeared to have a change of heart. He instead angled the gun down toward the boy’s left leg and pulled the trigger. He didn’t notice the knife flying through the air until it was too late.
Jeff’s knife never penetrated the old man’s wrist, but the slight impact it made was enough to push it aside by a fraction. And it was enough. The boy’s jeans popped as the bullet sliced through them, but Jeff heart lept when he realized it had only been a graze.
The man recovered quickly, though, and spun to point the gun at Jeff. But the boy didn’t hesitate. He jumped forward and punched the man hard, three times in rapid succession. The man slumped the ground.
Jeff rose up to his feet quickly as the boy grabbed the gun out of the unconscious man’s hand. He stood up again and pointed the weapon down at the old man.
“Don’t do it,” Jeff said. The boy didn’t react. But he didn’t pull the trigger, either. “He wasn’t wrong. If you had listened to what the better part of your nature was telling you, you never would have ended up here.”
The boy turned to look at him, a strange look on his face.
“It’s not too late,” Jeff said, astonished at his own words. “I think… somehow… we’ve changed it. You don’t have to do it this time.”
The boy looked at him for a long moment, and then gazed back down at the unconscious man. The gun never moved.
He looked back up at Jeff and held his gaze for another moment, and Jeff could see the wheels turning in the boy’s head, trying to reason this out.
“He was going to kill me,” the boy said. “He could try again. Why shouldn’t I just end it now?” He looked back down at the unconscious man.
Jeff began cautiously making his way towards the boy. When he was standing right next to him, he stopped and looked him in the eyes.
“Because,” Jeff spoke slowly, carefully choosing his words, “his life is no longer the one with an uncertain outcome.”
The boy seemed to take this in, so Jeff pressed on. “Your mother needs you right now more than she ever will again. Don’t throw that away.”
The boy looked at him again, now with a face full of fear and sorrow. Finally, he dropped the gun. When he looked back at Jeff, his countenance had changed. He still showed doubt and uncertainty, but his shoulders were set, and his eyes held a new resolve.
Jeff felt as though his heart might burst. It was all he could do not to grab the boy and hug him around the neck.
The two of them held each other’s gaze for a long time. Jeff’s eyes were filling with tears and he couldn’t think of anything to say to fill the moment. But finally the boy spoke up.
“How did you find me?” he said.
“I don’t know,” Jeff said, shaking his head and smiling. “Maybe I’m your conscience.”
The boy watched him for a second, and then nodded. “Thanks,” he said quietly. Then he turned and walked down the alley until he was out of sight.
“No, kiddo, thank you,” Jeff whispered, tears rolling down his cheeks, “Thanks for listening.”
He walked out of the alley and found his way back down the silent neighborhood to his apartment. It was only as he sat back down on his bed that he realized he hadn’t limped on his way home. Smiling again, he laid his head back down on his pillow.
Just before he fell into the first peaceful sleep he’d had in years, he noticed that his clock still read 3:29.
Copyright 2005 ©Robin Parrish. All rights reserved.