The Last Gospel
By Jonathan M. Maloney.
The last enemy shall be hidden
for it has the power to deceive even itself.
…Evil is associated with darkness, because it, like darkness, is feared. As we as children and as our ancient descendants first learned to fear the dark, we have put all that we have feared within it, to keep it from our sight. With the creation of fire, that demarcation became all the more obvious, as even our most primitive ancestors associated it with safety, and faced with the prospect of light or darkness, we always turned towards the former. As a result, we never grew past our dread of darkness, we have failed to realise it is merely the opposite of light, and that by themselves, neither light nor darkness have any moral association whatsoever.
In putting all we fear into the darkness, we blind ourselves to it. And as we no longer see it, we close the door of our mind to it. We do not question it, and we fail to attempt to understand it further. We thus shall never realise that perhaps we are wrong – how can we have a revelation of that which we cannot or refuse to even see?
But eventually, we may learn through the most awful of means that we were wrong to put our fear in such a place, with all the rest that we hold in dread. For there, in that place which exists but we refuse to contemplate, it feeds upon itself, and upon others, and grows, and swells, into something vast and terrible. And it will resent this unwanted majesty, and it will not forget those who forced it upon them…
It was a Tuesday.
The bedroom was quiet, like so many are when the sun is just beginning its slow ascent into the great blue sky. Drawn curtains kept the worst of the bright, helpful blaze from disturbing the inhabitants, and muffled the outdoor sounds along with it – single cars cruising along the street, the rise and fall of their engine marking their coming and going. Birds greeting the burning sun, proclaiming in loud voices that they once again survived the pitch black night. A barking dog down the street, greeting the postman and sending them fleeing. But the sound from the room itself, the focus of the occasion, was muted. There were but two people, breathing quietly, soft, gentle sounds of air passing in and out, slowly and peacefully. It somehow added to the stillness, a moment before other moments, a clarity that could only be achieved by the knowledge that there was, in fact, something there, that this was a happening thing, rather than a single frame taken, a snapshot of a life rather than the actuality of one existing. Two people, sprawled and yet close, asleep and comfortable, that peculiar peacefulness brought about by sleeping next to the one you love.
Naturally, such things could not last forever.
The clock set beside the bed hovered on 6:29 AM, as though waiting, building itself up to the crescendo that awaited it. It lurked, loaded with electric mischief, holding its breath until, at the very instant that it flicked its digital display to 6.30 AM, it began to shriek, a cacophonic gleeful cry that shattered the murmuring peace, replacing it with those few brief, terrible moments where the mind, disjointed and caught still between the world of dreams and the real world, struggles to align itself to the correct reality. Under the screaming din, it was made all the more difficult. Subconscious questions swam through the still waking mind – ‘where am I?’ ‘Where is here?’ Or even more simply, just the singular syllable of ‘why?’ which was usually expressed in a puzzled snort or grunt.
A hand reached out and slapped aimlessly at the bedside table, searching blindly for the creator of the terrible discordancy, finally pressing the button that set its wail to silence, a stillness that lacked the peace of before, but instead seemed to ring with the after echo of the electronic wail.
A man sighed. It was his hand that had hit the alarm, and he spoke quietly now, one hand covering his eyes which had not yet adjusted to the light, as though to himself. ‘We’ve got to find a way to turn that thing down.’
There was a murmur of a chuckle beside him, a woman’s voice, sounding amused and muffled with sleep. ‘If you did that, then she wouldn’t hear it... and you know how sad that would make her. As it is,’ and at this she started to yawn, her words coming out stretched and slow in the midst of it, ‘I think I hear a certain princess storming the hallway towards us...’
The man quirked a smile at that, still covering half his face with his forearm, as the door to the room flew open, and a small figure, blonde hair flying behind her, blue eyes sparkling, hurled herself across the room with the speed of a cat and leaped full onto the bed, scrambling up with the clumsy, boundless enthusiasm as only a child can to reach her parents, landing on her father in such a way that he let out an ‘oomph’ sound as the air escaped his lungs. The forearm came away from his face, and he half sat up, propping himself up on his elbow, to look down to the grinning face before him that was, in his eyes, his best reason for existing.
‘Hey there, muffin.’ He reached out with one hand, ruffling up her slightly sleep curled hair as the little girl giggled in appreciation. ‘You’re up early.’
In her excitement, she chewed on a lock of golden hair, and blurted out, her voice high with her enthusiasm, ‘can we have pancakes for breakfast?’
Beside the man, the woman shifted herself slightly, smiling up at her daughter, her expression one of slight amusement combined with serenity, as she took note of her child's lack of preamble. ‘Ah-ah honey, what do we say?’
There was only the briefest moment of pause, before the girl looked back to her father and bringing her hands together in a tense supplication, her eyes big and artfully attuned to the most desperate expression to get her father’s attention and assent. ‘Pleeeeaaase?’
He pretended to consider it, his expression becoming amusingly mysterious for a few brief moments, the girl biting her lip at the terrible, unbearable tension, before he laughed, unable to help himself, and ruffled her hair again. ‘Course we can sweetheart. Run along to the kitchen, I’ll be there in a few moments. Grab the mix from the cupboard, and some milk.’
She was already scrambling clear as she bolted for the door, calling out over her shoulder as she did so. ‘Love you mummy, love you daddy!’ And then she was gone.
The man sighed, and slumped back onto the bed, chuckling to himself. His wife nudged him with an elbow at the sigh. ‘Don’t you start.’ He turned to face her at that, and affected an air of wounded innocence. ‘Hey, I didn’t say anything.’ The look in her eyes spoke that she was just teasing, a game they often played with one another, each one knowing the other well enough to be able to read the other with just a glance. He chuckled, and shook his head, and then, eased himself up out of bed, stretching his tall, lean frame as he did so. There was a faint rasping sound as he rubbed at one cheek, feeling the stubble there, as he made his way to the bathroom. As he relieved himself, he saw his wife roll over in the bed behind him, saw her sit up, calling out over her shoulder. ‘You know, when she gets older, and starts breaking hearts and falling in love, you are going to wish you could do this again.’ He grinned at that, shaking his head, and started washing his hands, speaking through his reflection to her as he did so. ‘Hun, I got to warn you here and now. When that day comes, I’m locking up every teenage boy in the state. It’s the only way I can be sure.’
She replied with a sound of disbelief, shaking her long hair out as she did so. Behind her, the man looked again at his reflection, noting the few gray hairs poking through the dark hair on his head, rubbing his cheek and feeling the harsh, grating stubble beneath his hand. He felt arms slip around behind him, and then, lips press against his shoulder. She was shorter than he was, so it wasn’t a mystery how she had stayed out of his line of sight, but he was still surprised that she could still be so stealthy, but of course, he was practiced enough to not let it show.
He reached up and squeezed her hand. ‘I will say though, again – thank goodness she takes after you, and not me.’ He felt her chuckle, felt it vibrate through him. ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Her voice was lightly teasing. ‘You aren’t so bad...’ she kissed his shoulder again.
He chuckled, as she let him go. ‘Thanks. I’m overwhelmed.’ She smirked, that small knowing smile she had, then smacked him once playfully on the behind. ‘Good,’ she said, pulling her hair back out of her face, her expression becoming a touch more serious. ‘Now get out of here so you can make our daughter breakfast, and I can get ready for work. The longer that you leave her alone out there, the more chance she’ll try and do it herself – and you already know how that will work out.’
Thoroughly chastised, he shrugged, and turned, to stroll nonchalantly out of the bathroom – but not before returning her smack from a moment ago with a touch more enthusiasm, his hand lingering for an instant, before he darted away, closing the door even as she turned with the light of vengeance in her eyes.
He partly stumbled as he trod down the corridor, pausing a moment to rub his eyes. He grimaced a touch, a reflexive response as a memory shivered down his spine for a moment, one he had been trying to ignore without success for over a week now. He paused, looking out the window to the backyard while he did so, noting that the lawn needed cutting again, focusing on other, little things, until the nagging memory slid aside, replaced by more immediate, pressing things which demanded his attention here and now. And then there came a clatter from the kitchen, just ahead but as of yet out of sight, that dragged him forcibly from his reverie and pushed him forward.
He entered just in time to see a very guilty, very ashamed little figure standing over a plastic bowl and some scattered cutlery, all of which was spread upon the tiles, evidently a result of the difficulty of trying to juggle too much with arms that were too small. She looked scared in that moment as he lumbered into the room, as though she had done something singularly dreadful, that he felt a flash of shame himself, hot and burning in his chest, and he stepped forward, kneeling down in front of her, putting a smile onto his face. ‘Hey, muffin. You all right? You didn’t hurt yourself?’ She shook her head, cheeks red, looking up at him from lowered eyes, not yet trusting herself to speak, her hands fidgeting at her back. He ruffled her hair again with a soft chuckle, that familiar gesture letting her know it was all right, that she hadn’t done anything bad. ‘Then let’s get these put away before Mommy sees... and then we’ll make you those pancakes, okay?’
By the time that his wife was out of the shower, dried off and dressed, the father daughter duo had already prepared a small stack of pancakes. Admittedly, the pair had cheated, using a premix shaker purchased from a supermarket, but despite the fact all they had done was add water and milk to the mixture, the little girl beamed with pride as her father sang her praises. Pretty soon, the girl was bundled off towards the television for the early morning cartoons, doing her best to deal with the slightly overlarge pancake on her plate, complete with syrup and cream. She set it down, turning the television on with the remote control, looking to the buttons. It came up on the morning news, which the little girl ignored, instead looking to change the channel to the brightly coloured entertainment she preferred, but it was enough for the news reporter to speak ever so briefly, his young face looking intently and seriously towards the viewer as an animation of space, complete with swirling galaxies and stars, played over his shoulder.
‘...NASA is saying that the unexpected atmospheric phenomena might in fact be a solar event such as a flare, and that it should in fact be visible in our atmosphere sometime tonight...’ And then, the child found the button she was after, and the news report vanished in a blur of technicolour frenzy that was whatever children found so fascinating that it shut down their mind entirely to all other stimuli.
He was so busy between this jarring moment and cleaning up the dishes, that he didn’t hear his wife saying his name, so she had to repeat herself.
‘David. Earth to David?’
He did a double take, then turned off the water at the sink, where he was soaking the pan, and looked over his shoulder to her. Her expression, framed by her hair, tightly held back in a business like manner, was serious. He already knew what she was going to speak about.
‘When are you going to go back to work? It’s been over a week now, you know that.’
He sighed, shook his head, and looked back to make sure his daughter still not very far away, was at least out of earshot. He turned around, folding both arms over his broad chest, and shrugged once, his expression relaxed, but with a pinched, troubled look at the corners that he knew she would recognise, but he could not hide.
‘I’ll call Cooper today, see what's happening with the investigation. He told me that it could take a lot longer though – they've got to do this thing properly, after all. No mistakes when it's one of your own – you know that.'
She was picking up her handbag, but she was watching him intently as she did so, her expression sympathetic. ‘The sooner you go back, the sooner you can start moving on from it. And you know Jim will put you down for desk work if you ask for it, let you take it easy for a while.’ She paused, then spoke hesitantly. 'Maybe even look for a different job entirely. You know, like we talked about?'
He nodded, looking down as he did so, as though to answer, but she could see he didn’t want to talk about it. Before he could get lost in remembering, she crossed the kitchen floor to reach him, and slid one hand around his neck and into the hair on the back of his head, her fingers smooth and cool, and gently pulled him down, her forehead resting against his.
‘You’ll be all right. You know that. I know you said it doesn’t feel like it, but you did the right thing. They'll figure it out, and you'll be fine.’
He shrugged, his mouth working into a sour grimace. She thought he was upset by the memory of the event that had caused all the trouble. She knew she had to head that off. ‘David. David, look at me.’
She waited until he raised his eyes to meet hers, and she took a moment to speak again, her eyes holding his, as she spoke quietly and firmly.
‘Everyone knows you didn’t want to do it. But if you didn’t, then either you or Terry wouldn’t be here, and someone would have had to tell me or Suzy why her husband wasn’t coming home again.’
He let out a breath at that, looking down at the ground again, and she pulled away, her hand resting now on his cheek as she did so. ‘What would we have told Caitlyn? What would I have had to tell our daughter?’
He shook his head, but the worst of the sour expression was at least gone now, his eyes a little clearer. ‘You know I’d never want that. It’s just... well, it just didn’t feel right. It still doesn’t feel right. And I know you, and everyone else, says I did the right thing, that I didn’t have a choice, but...’
She cut him off, putting a finger to his lips. ‘You’re a good man, David. That’s all. A good man, and a good cop. It’s why I married you, and it’s why I love you.’ She took away her finger to give him a brief, light kiss. ‘I could never love you any less, especially not now.’
He quirked a slight, half smile. ‘Why are you so good to me?’
She grinned, her face made all the more youthful by it. ‘Because I’m a good woman for a good man.’ She scooted on past, got a pancake, and rolled it up into a tube shape, easier to eat on the run, but taking care not to get the light smattering of syrup on her business suit. ‘Now, I’ve got to get running, or I’m going to be late for work. You’re going to see your mom and dad, right?’
He nodded, and turned back to the dishes, working to get the burnt bits off the bottom of the pan as he did so. ‘Mom asked me to come round, help him with the gutters. Dad was going to do it himself – you know how he is – so Mom “suggested” that I came around to head him off.’
The look on her face showed that she understood his father all too well, as did her mother in law. Despite his years, David’s father thought nothing of working a difficult job at the best of times, even with his issues with blood pressure and the occasional chest pains. Despite the best efforts to remind the old man of his limitations, he seemed determined to hear none of it. So, instead, his family worked around them, and made sure that while he stayed active, he didn’t over exert himself too much.
‘Take Caitlyn with, you all right? She doesn’t need to go back to daycare yet.’ He nodded, but he had beaten her to this conclusion a while back, and needed no encouragement. He knew his parents wanted to see her again in any case, a trait of grandparents everywhere, or so it seemed – parenthood, with its highs and lows, could be a trial at times, but being a grandparent had none of the disadvantages. And besides, Caitlyn had already skilfully wrapped both around her little finger, and was sure to get a treat of some kind for the journey. David knew it would take no persuading to get her to come along.
She was almost out the door before he realised she was going. Shaking away his thoughts, he dashed down the main hallway, slid on the smooth tiles before the front door, and caught it just before it closed.
She paused, just as she reached her car, and looked back to him. He leaned on the doorframe, a sly smile coming to his face. ‘Forgetting something?’
She rolled her eyes behind her glasses, and took some quick steps over to him, a smile finding its way onto her face as she did so, and gave him a light kiss on the lips. ‘Goofball.’ Her tone was teasing, and gentle, and he flashed a quick grin. ‘Stay safe, okay?’ His voice was soft, but firm, and she nodded, giving him an odd look, but smiling despite herself, as though she could not tell how serious he was. ‘I’ll be home before you get back from work.’
She nodded, waved goodbye, and hurried off to the car again, the little red hatchback waiting patiently, glinting in places where the morning dew had not yet been banished by the rising morning sun. He watched her leave, waving her off as the car slipped out of sight down the road.
He paused there, for a second, looking from his front yard out over the street. It was quiet here, a quiet neighbourhood. It had, and still was, costing him and Lucy a fortune, their modest home costing twice as much here as it would in some of the other suburbs, and the drive to the city was longer here. It was all but impossible to avoid the worst of the traffic. And yet, when Caitlyn had come into the world, there really had been no question of being anywhere else. David knew, from close experience, just how bad some parts of town could be. He and Lucy would work their fingers to the bone for the next twenty years paying for this house. And if it meant their daughter could grow up safe, it was worth all that and more.
And now, everything was thrown into uncertainty. David was suspended from his job, pending investigation. It was an open and shut case they said, and things should work out just fine, according to those helping him with his brief, but there was still that echo of doubt that it would not. And a part of David wasn't sure if he could go back to work, regardless of what the decision was. Too many nights he'd woken up in a cold sweat. He was grateful that he'd finally managed to get a decent sleep this time.
The sun was well up now, and blindingly bright. Looking up and down the street, he was struck, for a moment, just how quiet it was. It raised the hairs on the back of his neck, as he realised he was the only thing in sight. A cat flashed into view momentarily across the roar, sprinting for a tall oak tree that all but obscured the house it grew in front of, a blur of ginger fur that vanished out of sight, and then, all was still again. Almost like it was waiting for something. The world was quiet, uncannily silent, a breath of wind blowing, even the sound of distant vehicles muted out, and for just a brief moment, David felt like he was the only person in the world. It was not a comforting feeling.
The spell was broken, as down the street, a horn beeped out a farewell. Jack Brinkley, going to work, tooting his kid’s farewell, as he pulled out of the driveway of his own home. He waved to David as he passed by, big, friendly face lit up with a smile as always, and David returned it, driving off a shiver as he did so, without knowing why.
The television inside blared, some sort of cartoon, loud and obnoxious. He turned back inside to find his daughter.
The drive was a short distance away, but the road traffic had a habit of stretching it out further than David would have liked. Caitlyn was in the back seat, and for her part, was keeping quiet, listening to the songs on the radio – listening, but hopefully, failing to catch the double meaning behind a lot of the words in the songs. She was too young for that, thank goodness – but personally, David felt that the pop singers that dominated the air waves were too young for it at times as well, singing with the help of an autotune device to spew out innuendo that they recognised, but did not entirely understand – particularly when it came to how it made them look, as well. But then again, music these days was less about the sound and more about the image, which, he privately felt, was just as well – if it was the other way around, most of them didn't have a chance.
It wasn’t that hard to mask a lot of the radio signals today, however. The radio, despite his best efforts, was scratchy, and indistinct, no matter what channel he changed it to. The SUV he was driving had no fault with the antenna, he knew that, but despite that, it seemed that the radio was on the blink. He hoped it was covered under warranty.
He drove on, glancing back to Caitlyn from time to time, making sure she was secure in the back seat, keeping the pace of the vehicle steady, the gear changes smooth and unhurried. He let his mind drift even as he drove, a trick he had learned from years of habit - the eyes and instincts remained, level, sharp and alert. The mind, however, worked elsewhere. Thought of other things, even as he changed lanes in preparation for the turn up ahead, dropping down a gear as he started to slow. The SUV was a big car – while the turn was some distance away, leaving it to the last moment would result in cutting someone off, and David was a thoughtful enough driver to take a little longer getting where he needed to go rather than cause someone else irritation. Besides, he was in civilian wheels today. Patrol cars had better luck getting away with it, but they had to be careful to avoid getting a report.
He thought of work, of how it would be good to get back to it – or at least, that was what he tried to tell himself. On the other hand, he dreaded it. Dreaded what it would mean and what would come of it, what people would say and remind him of. He tried to push the thoughts back, thought of the people instead. Terry, his partner, Jim Cooper, his boss, the other guys in the locker room. He’d called Jim, like he’d promised, and the man had been understanding.
‘We need you back, Dave, of course I’ll put you back on. Things haven’t been good on the streets the last few days. I need a good man out there making sure folks are safe – but you and I know that these things take time. You've got to follow procedure for this sort of thing. I'll find out where the investigation is at, and get back to you with an answer as soon as I can.’ He hadn’t mentioned the incident in detail. He didn’t need to. Not at all. But he wish he’d had the chance to ask for a desk job, if only for a little while. But he had to go where he was needed.
He turned right, having to give way to an impatient jerk in a sedan, who had failed to indicate. For a moment, his temper flared up a touch, thinking of what he would have done if he was in a patrol car – but at the same time, he knew the likelihood of the guy doing it with a cop car right behind him was pretty low. It constantly made him chuckle how cars would behave completely differently depending on what he was driving. Drive a patrol, and everyone but the greatest of idiots or the unobservant drives sensibly, carefully, and politely. Drive civilian, and the rate of idiocy usually increased tenfold with seeming miraculous speed.
It also made him uncomfortably aware of where his passions lay. He wanted to be go back to work. He just wasn't sure he was ready to do so, or ever would be again. That was something Lucy didn't understand, and something David could not talk to her about. He gave her platitudes when she suggested he find another job, but in truth, there was nothing else that David wanted to do. Which is why he was filled with utter dread at the notion that, when it came to it, he wouldn't be able to.
He glanced to his right as the radio crackled again, a garbled news report flowing out in fractured segments, mostly unintelligible, as he passed a dark alley. It flashed, momentarily, into an entirely different image. A dark hallway, lit by a flickering light that hummed, close to burning out, the only sound that of dripping water in the distance. And then a glint of steel, a blur of movement, and the muzzle flash...
The radio snapped him back, a particularly sharp static crackle followed by more words. SHHHK unsure wha-CRRSSSHH –ausing the distu-...SSSHHHKKK ...will keep yo-...SZZZZSSSK of any develop-.... he flicked it off.
‘Think we’ll do without the radio for a little while... that okay Caitlyn?’ He called it over his shoulder, glancing in the rearview. The little girl looked a little put out, strapped into the middle seat via a seatbelt, but he hoped it was mostly because the radio was being so unco-operative.
‘Almost there honey. Should only be a few more minutes.’
The road had taken him to the edges of one of the worse parts of town. He knew it, he didn’t like it, but it was the only way to get to his folks place. Other people didn’t think much of just driving through this part of town. David knew all too well exactly what could happen there, had seen some of the results first hand. Thankfully it was still early in the day, but the overcast sky did not hide the worst of it.
The first sign was the trash. It tended to pile up here more, for no other reason than people didn’t care enough to either get rid of it or put it in the right place for the garbage trucks – when they came down here at all. And then there were the prowlers, the most obvious sign, growing in number. Men who walked with slouched shoulders, rolling steps, and wide, glaring eyes, hiding the fear within with aggressiveness without. They had loose fitting clothing, to conceal whatever it was they carried, gang colours showing here and there. They made brief contacts with one another, then broke off, both pretending they never saw the other one. The women walked alone, wore clothing that was too tight, too small, and did nothing to hide their desperation, their expressions hardened by wear, their eyes lost, but hopelessly defiant for no reason worth such a show.
Worst of all were the truly lost. The ones who wore foul, unwashed clothing, who stumbled, twitched, their faces marked by sores, their hair uncut and bedraggled. The homeless, the lost, the addicted, the altogether forgotten. They wandered here and there, at this hour the most common sight, going aimlessly from one moment to the next until they died. David knew them well, had seen them, or ones just like them, for far too long, and knew he could do nothing about any of them.
David looked away. This was not his part of town, and right now, it was not his responsibility. He had other, far more important things to worry about, most of all the little person in the back seat who did not look out at that which surrounded her and her father, and thus remained perfectly oblivious of the darker sides of humanity that waited for them.
But David knew then, as he looked upon the rows and rows of hopelessness and despair, of people living a life that they could not escape or did not wish to, that he was not going to go back to work and ask for a desk job. He knew, already, even after this brief exposure, that he needed to be on the street, cleaning things up, doing something, making a difference.
Scrub it away. Clean up the whole world.
The words came back, burned into his memories and dreams, and he shivered, as sweat broke out on his neck and forehead, the dark, terrible smell of memory rising in his brain and nostrils both.
The lights had changed. He pushed away his memories and stopped, the SUV rolling gently to a halt, as David scrubbed the words away, let his mind drift away from the things around him, and refocused on the here and now once again, shaking his head at himself. The dream of changing the world was one he knew was just that – a dream, the same dream a naïve young man had once had when he had put on the uniform for the first time, before the harsh reality of life presented itself, before he had realised that money and time were the most powerful weapons of cleaning the world, and that there simply wasn’t enough of either. Especially not for a beat cop. And most of all, it was before he realised, amidst the blood, the terror and tears, that the only differences he could make were small ones, personal ones – lives could be made better, but only on an individual basis. The grand picture was one he had learned long ago to leave to other people, who had the means to see it – and hoped they would get it right.
The light stayed stubbornly red, vehicles crossing in intersecting patterns before eyes that saw but barely comprehended. Restless now, David felt his eye flicker around, here and there, seeing and vaguely remembering licence plate numbers, car makes. And then something, off the road, caught his attention, and he slowly cast his eyes to the right.
The street sidewalk was mostly empty at this point. The buildings were grey, industrial, rotting concrete, warehouses and shopfronts that had long since been abandoned and forgotten, beginning a long, slow decay, until some enterprising individual came along with a wrecking ball and visions of a shopping mall. But here and now, it was an empty sight, a washed out memory of what had once been, and somehow deeply depressing, if one looked at it for too long. But the row of dying buildings was not what had caught David’s eye.
Four figures stood, in a row, leaning against a rusting steel fence. It was not just their stance that made them so unusual, but rather, what they were wearing, and how they were behaving, that caught his attention and held it. Time seemed to stand still, as the four stood out in his eye, arresting his attention entirely and completely unexpectedly.
The first was wearing ragged army fatigue pants, in green, black and grey camouflage pattern, and heavy boots with broken laces. A load bearing vest was worn over a skinny, wiry torso, which had no shirt on otherwise, the skin pale and somewhat dirty in places, the dirt rubbed into the skin. The face was covered, however – a gas mask, the eyeplate reflective and impossible to see through. Dark, messy hair stuck up through the straps binding it to the individuals head, sticking out at different angles. A picture of an addict, but the steady, still stance, without trace of tremor or unsteadiness, the lack of sores, made David think it was either that or some sort of weird fancy dress. The people with him reinforced the latter considerably.
The second one, also male, was grossly fat, bulges of swollen tissue causing their ill fitting clothes to stretch almost obscenely. Their face was one of abject misery, the nose and eyes red with what looked like a dreadful cold, eyes staring off into nothing, jowls a-quiver as though trying to hold back tears. Looking at him made David feel uncomfortable, the figure looking like something only a hairs’ breadth from bursting, from spraying unspeakable foulness in every direction. He shuddered, his eye shifting away, to the next figure quickly – there was something morbid about the overweight man, who did not appear that old.
The third figure was, dressed , even more than the first, most unusually. A cowboy outfit, complete with a wide brimmed hat, high, dusty leather boots, and a worn black leather duster, all the clothes marked with long wear, one hand resting on an empty gun belt, the other slowly pulling a smoking cigarette upwards. It was a such a perfect picture, but it was so perfectly out of place, something out of an old western film – one of the darker ones, not the shiny, overbright ones where the line between hero and villain was cut and dried. But it didn’t belong. This was the Midwest, on the coast. No one dressed like that here – at least, never before that David had ever seen, and he’d seen a great many things on the street. Oddly enough, the wide, lowered brim of the hat kept the face well out of view, even as the cigarette disappeared beneath it, to be followed by a slow expulsion of smoke a few moments later. There was something discordant about the man, a person out of time and place, and when the coat rustled as though from a wind that was not there, David shuddered and pulled his eyes to the last of the four.
This one was looking right at him. He was completely out of place as well, not because his clothes were completely mismatched like the others, but because it was so well tailored. A suit of impeccable quality and refinement, complete with oily, well combed hair – and a liquid, knowing sort of smirk. He looked like a salesman, but whatever it is he sold you could not afford – and when you had it, you would regret listening to whatever words sold it to you. The well trimmed, stylish goatee and moustache reinforced the image, and the face itself was sharp, with smooth, knife-edged features. It was hard to make out the eyes set above the razor bladed cheekbones, but they were dark, and shadowed, and it was hard to make out the whites, as though the pupil and iris were overlarge.
He had between his hands, a square card. With a complex, smooth rolling motion of the fingers on both his hands, he was rotating the card swiftly between his fingers, holding it by each corner to form a diamond shape in the air that flickered as he spun it around so fast it could not made out. David could not read it, but the man’s dark, knowing gaze seemed to hold him there regardless, unfocused, watching his face as he tried to become aware of what the card said. He became acutely, terrifyingly aware – the sound of his heart, beating in his chest. The dull, subtle whir of the air conditioner. The muted, controlled roar of the engine, the slightest movement of his foot upon the accelerator making it rumble louder, like a caged animal. And his breathing, getting faster and shallower.
The card suddenly stopped, as the well dressed man froze it in place, and David tore his eyes away to refocus and finally see what it said.
He blinked, and looked back up to the smiling man, who winked at him. And then a car moved between them, sliding up through the lanes, and the eye contact was broken, bringing back the world – a horn beeping behind him, demanding movement, his daughter calling out to him, the green glow of the changed light, and blinking back his surprise, he slid the SUV into first and jolted forward.
‘Daddy! That man was honking his horn at you!’ His daughter’s tone was scolding, and truth be told, David was glad that Lucy had not been there to hear it. He had drifted there – something about the four figures had confused him, and for a moment, the world had felt slightly, strangely unreal. A moment where it was out of sync with everything else, and he wasn’t sure of where he was, or what he was supposed to be doing. The call of his daughter, thankfully, had brought him out of that.
‘Sorry about that sweetheart.’ He apologised. ‘Daddy wasn’t paying attention.’ He gave her a friendly smile through the rearview mirror. ‘You keep an eye on Daddy, okay? The moment it looks like Daddy’s not driving like he should be, you keep count – and for each time, I’ll get you a sweet from the store afterwards, deal?’
She grinned at that, giggling, and nodded enthusiastically. David chuckled, and settled back into his driving, the memory of the four forgotten, as he wondered just how big a number his daughter was going to make up, once he’d reached his parent’s house.
‘At least ten, you say? Really?’ His daughter nodded her head firmly, arms folded over her chest, her face very, very serious – so serious, in fact, that it went the other way around back to amusing. ‘I counted!’ Her words were emphatic.
David chuckled, shaking his head with a sigh. He was carrying her, not because he had to, but simply because he wanted to, as they walked up the leaf littered brick path to his parents, the solidly built, two story white washed home just like David remembered it as he was growing up.
Ringing the bell, he stood back a pace and waited, until he heard the rattling of bolts, and the door eased open a little, and a bright eye framed in a wrinkled face looked out, and then small sound of surprise and happiness combined, before the door was shut partly again, and there were further rattles before it was thrown open fully, and David’s mother came out to wrap both of them up in a hug. ‘David! Caitlyn! It’s so good to see you!’
David juggled daughter and mother for a moment, before easing Caitlyn down, and returning the hug properly. ‘How you been, mom?’ He asked the question gently, even as she let him go, looking up at him with a smile. She looked up at him, smiling still, and shrugged, letting out a little sigh, but it was not a sad sound. ‘Well enough, for people our age.’
David chuckled, untangling himself, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and stepped past her into the house. ‘Dad!’ he called out, the voice echoing through the impeccably tidy hall of the house. Behind him, Caitlyn allowed herself to be guided in by her grandmother, seriously telling her that her father owed her ten sweets – and that the debt of them was, in fact, due immediately.
David’s mother’s name was Sarah, and she was a woman who had raised David as an only child through whatever trials and tribulations had taken place, been there for him, and guided him when things had become difficult. She was the gentler of the two of the parents – it was she who had taught him the value of kindness, and to smile. But she was also a terrifically skilled negotiator, who with a gentle smile and a clever word had been able to curb the worst of David’s childish excesses throughout the term of his youth, and had helped keep him disciplined and steady without resorting to threats and force. The small, dark haired woman had raised a good son, and David, thankfully, was intelligent enough to recognise just how much her influence had effected him growing up – and for the better.
That was not, however, to say that he had not been a hellraiser from time to time. All young men go through a phase where things become difficult for those who care for them. But Sarah had endured, had dealt with the outbursts, the teenage angst, and had quietly, patiently pointed out just how foolish the young man had been doing the things he had, at the time, thought were terribly, terribly important.
Gradually, he had come around. Not as quickly as some, but not as slow as others, and eventually, finally, he had grown up into the man he had become. And he knew full well who had helped him do that.
There was, however, one other who had helped him in his growing up. As his mother and his daughter pottered off to do whatever it was that grandmothers and granddaughters do, he saw a head poke outside of a doorway up the stairs – the one that led to the study.
David’s father was looking tired, his clear gaze marred somewhat by the spectacles that covered them, as he looked out at his son who was rising the staircase towards him. His steely grey hair was cut short, trimmed close at the back and sides, a reminder of the military upbringing that he’d had, a habit he’d kept – among others.
He nodded to his son as he approached. ‘David. Fancy seeing you here.’ There was little surprise in his voice, and the knowing look in his eye told David that his father knew of the duplicity involved in his visit before it was even voiced. Perhaps he had even expected it. There was, truth be told, very little that fooled David’s senior.
David simply shrugged. ‘I didn’t have much else worth doing today. And Caitlyn loves to see you both – so here I am.’ He stepped past his father into the study, even as he heard the old man chuckle.
‘Did you now? And the fact I planned on cleaning the roof gutter today had nothing at all to do with it?’ He settled back against his desk as he folded his arms, looking to the younger version of himself before him. They were both tall men, strong and sturdy. David was the broader, the more powerful of the two, that much was certainly clear. But his father still had memories of an old strength, an old ferocity, his skin, while mottled with age, also bore scars, and were his worn plaid shirt to be removed, tattoos on his shoulders, depicting the motif and insignia of the marine regiment he had fought with as a young man.
David watched his father steadily, a slight smile twitching at the corner of his mouth, but he knew there was going to be an argument in the works. His father, aged though he was, had his pride – a stiff backed, unbreakable and unbroken pride that had caused the pair of them to come head to head many, many times during his youth. His father was a man to whom nonsense was abhorrent, and to whom discipline, particularly of the self, was paramount. But while he had despaired of his son in his youth, he had felt that pride and self discipline was fully justified the day he had watched his son give his oath of service at the academy.
David decided that truth, in this case, was the best solution. He shrugged again. ‘Mom called. She was worried about you doing it on your own – so, she asked me to help. So here I am.’ He glanced out a nearby window. His mother and Caitlyn were watering roses together. ‘You can’t blame her for worrying about you, dad.’
His father snorted, a disgusted note coming to his voice. ‘One little angina attack and everyone treats you like a goddamned invalid.’ He muttered, looking away. ‘Going to make me sit back and watch then?’ There was a note of challenge in his voice, as he looked back out of the corner of his eye towards his son, eye narrowed somewhat.
David shook his head. ‘No Sir. We’ll do it together.’ He had already planned on this little compromise. He knew his father would never sit idly by while someone did a job for him, and that would make him far more stressed out than the work in question. And he knew his mother would be upset by it, but that she would understand. It did, however, seem to be the right answer. His father’s face relaxed, and he nodded, letting out a breath.
‘All right. We’ll get to that in a minute. Hand me that oil tin, would you?’ He gestured to a set of shelves, which had small, useful tools on it, beside books on engineering and history, his father’s two favourite subjects. David glanced over to the desk, saw what his father was working on, and picked up the small tin of gun oil, stepping over to the desk as his father sat down at it.
There, spread out on a stained, oily cloth, was a fully disassembled pistol. A rather important pistol, for various reasons. It was heavy, and black, the grip a worn brown, made to look like wood, the rough pattern of the grip worn down almost completely by decades of use.
‘Still got that old thing, huh?’ David gazed at the pistol as his father took the oil bottle from him, applying drops to the stripped out springs and mechanisms that fed the fat, heavy .45 calibre bullets up to the firing chamber.
‘Of course I do. Survived the war, and I survived because of it. I’ve told you that many times before, son.’
David nodded, remembering. How could he forget? Watching his father field strip, clean and put together that deadly weapon, in this very study, even as they both talked about this or that matter. About the game, about kids at school, about the trouble he got into, about his grades – the subjects were endless. After watching it so many times, he could have taken the pistol apart and put it together himself with his eyes closed.
Not that it would have been terribly tricky. He had often marvelled at the design of the M1911A1 pistol. A Vietnam war era sidearm, it was issued to officers and sergeants, and anyone else who could get their hands on one. David’s father had been one. He had carried it through the war, and afterward, and managed to smuggle it home with him as well. And now, despite the fact it had not been fired since the end of the war, he kept it with him, in this study, locked in a strongbox at all times.
But the gun itself, that was something that had always drawn David. It was a simple design, very simple – but elegant, despite all that. The M1911A1 was not a weapon for showing off, or for waving about like so many young punks liked to do on the streets. It was neither nickel plated nor bearing ivory bound grips, or anything like that. It was a weapon of almost brutal simplicity, holding only seven rounds instead of the usually much higher numbers that his standard issue Glock pistol held, but they were a much larger bullet than his serviceable 9mm rounds. They were designed to put a man down – hard, fast, and without chance of getting back up again. It was the reason why the weapon had been around for so long. After more than a century in service, it was one of the oldest weapon designs in active duty in the world.
He watched the gun as his father started to put it back together again, moving without hurry, but with a deceptive speed as he slid metal against metal and the weapon came together again, once again forming that deceptively heavy shape, threatening still after all these years, still causing a thrill of danger. As the slide slid home with a loud click, however, David’s memory jumped back suddenly. He was back in a darkened building, water was dripping somewhere, and he was turning as someone was pulling back on the hammer…
David realised suddenly his father had spoken, and shook himself out of his memory in a hurry, turning his head to the old man, who was frowning in slight concern. He shook his head again, and tried to force a smile to his face. ‘Sorry Dad, was drifting a bit there. What did you say?’
The old man frowned a little deeper, and spoke again, a bit slower. ‘I was asking how the inquiry is going. If they're going to let you go back to work soon – it's been a week already, how much time do they need?’
David looked away at that, and shrugged. ‘I called the precinct. They're still looking into it. Still following procedure.’ He said nothing more, and hoped his father would let the matter drop.
The look behind the spectacles was knowing, but also concerned. He nodded, and turned back to the desk. He inspected it thoroughly, looking down the barrel sideways to make sure he had aligned it correctly, and set it down. He sat at the desk for a long moment, then spoke without turning around.
‘I’ve told you before about why I brought this gun home, didn’t I son?’ His voice was quiet, and he did not turn around as he spoke.
David shrugged, folding his arms over his chest. ‘You’ve told me dad. Many times. You said it kept you alive throughout the war.’
His father nodded, but did not look up. ‘I did, didn’t I?’ He said it quietly, as though to himself. ‘But I’ve never told you just what that meant. Maybe it’s time that I did.’ He pondered it for a moment, then got to his feet, and reached out for a somewhat ragged coat hanging on a hook nearby, putting it on to ward off any chill. ‘Come on. Let’s get a start on this. We’ll talk as we work.’
David wanted to argue. He wanted to tell his father not to worry about it, not to talk about it. He didn’t want to confront the memory he had, didn’t want to contemplate it. But he knew better than to outright deny the old man. And despite the differences they’d had while growing up, differences only the careful mediation of their mother had prevented, he respected him too much for that. With a subdued nod, he followed him out of the room and downstairs.
They had retrieved work gloves, thick and insulated, as well as the ladder. Changing into some of his father’s older work clothes, the pair of them had climbed up to the roof. There was little time for talking, however. Taking it in turns, and working together, they moved the ladder along the gutter, scooping out the rotted leaf matter and throwing it to the ground below, the one down the bottom shovelling the debris up and into a wheelbarrow. David, however, was wise enough to do the harder part of the work, making sure to take longer turns, and look for the larger clumps to clear. His father, his honour protected by his participation, did not make an issue of it, but David was not fool enough to think he was fooling anyone.
There were a few other jobs here and there that needed doing. A step needed replacing. A section of hedge needed trimming. David quietly busied himself here and there as his father used the gathered up the leaves to replenish the compost pile at the back of the garden. The sun was well up, and beginning the slow dive towards the western horizon, before it finally came to an end. The pair of them sat at the crude but solid wooden outdoor table David had helped build many years ago, while Caitlyn and his mother brought them some freshly made sandwiches, apples and juice.
They ate quietly, talking about this and that, but David got the sense that his father was working his way up to something, his face serious as he contemplated it in the privacy of his own head. Finally he gave his wife a serious meaningful look, and she, seeing it and knowing it, gave a small nod, and with a smile to Caitlyn, invited her back into the house to help with the cleaning up.
David waited patiently. His father had never been one to talk about things before he was absolutely sure he was saying the correct thing. It had led to some fairly drawn out conversations in the past.
Picking at his teeth with a toothpick, the old man leaned back. ‘I told you about that gun before. How it saved my life back in the war. I never really told you the truth of “how” it did that. What did you think I meant by it?’
David considered it, but not for long. He had a fairly good idea what a gun was used for, after all. ‘I’m guessing you shot people with it.’ He was watching his father’s face as he said it, and he saw a flicker of the flint within as he did so.
The old man nodded, his expression grim. ‘You’re guessing right. I did. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t nice. They were all young boys like us, and regardless of just how much they hated us for what we were doing, and regardless of just how much we hated them right back, it didn’t change the fact that killing them wasn’t a good thing to do.’ He went quiet again, his gaze dropping, and David had a sudden realisation he was not the only one haunted by old memories. He straightened a little, paying more attention, as much as he didn’t want to be doing so.
His father went on. ‘But the thing is, I did it anyway. Not because I wanted to. Never that.’ His tone hardened as he said it, the wrinkled edges of his eyes hardening. ‘There were some over there that did, but I was never one of them. I never enjoyed it, and always regretted it. But I never let it stop me either, and you know why?’
David shook his head, a frown on his face, mute in the face of his father’s confession as he went on. ‘I did it, David, because I wanted to live. I wanted to come home to the wife I’d just married as they sent me away to fight. I wanted to come home, I wanted out of that hellhole of muck, mud and blood. And just as strong as that, I wanted to keep the guys next to me alive as well – because you can be damn sure if I didn’t kill the guys trying to stick me with a bayonet or pump me full of holes with their rusting AK’s, they’d get me and my buddy next to me.’
David frowned, and settled back, folding his arms. ‘Dad, whatever point you’re coming to, you better make it now.’ His voice was firm, but he searched his father’s face carefully as he spoke, trying to understand, to learn more as he spoke.
The old man gave a sigh of slight exasperation, fidgeting somewhat at the table before him with his toothpick as he regathered his thoughts, before flicking it out of his fingers. ‘The point, David, is that no one is blaming you for shooting that kid. I talked with your commander, with your partner, and everyone backs it up. The little son of a **** was going to put a bullet in the back of your partner’s head, and he was hopped up on crack and all kinds of other horrible poison. You couldn’t save him, but you could have saved your partner. And you did. You did the right thing. Stop punishing yourself for it.’
David looked away. For a moment, the world shifted again as he was back in his memories. He remembered it all so clearly. He looked up, to the clouds scudding over the sky, and drifted for a moment, before looking back down to his father, who was watching him in silence.
David considered it, shaking his head, then, looking his father in the eye, steadily and without looking away. ‘You asked everyone else about what happened. But you never asked me about it.’
His father leaned back, folding his arms over his chest. ‘Then tell me about it. What happened out there?’
David rubbed his eyes, and leaned forward. He allowed himself to drift fully back into the mire of the memories he simply wanted to forget, but knew that he never would. And started to tell the story.
David leaned back, and continued to rub at his eyes slowly, remembering – but not really wanting to. Finally he shook his head and came back forward again, staring at the table as he recalled, not really seeing the old, worn wooden surface. His thoughts were cast back into elsewhere.
‘Terry and I got the call first. We were a couple of blocks over, someone had called in a shots fired over on 20th and Adams. We knew the place, everyone in the precinct knows it. We’ve had to clean it out a dozen times over.
‘We got there, and we heard shots immediately. As we pulled up, we could see the muzzle flashes, on the third floor. And backup was still on its way – we were first on scene. We would have stayed there, if it wasn’t for the screams.’
His father frowned, arms folded. ‘There were people still alive in there?’
David nodded, not looking up as he did so. ‘Station wanted us to wait, but I told them we couldn’t. Not if there were people still alive up there – Terry was already heading in. So we went in, letting the precinct know. They tried to tell us to wait but… but I didn’t listen.’ He shook his head, and paused a moment, before taking a deep breath and continuing on.
‘We got in, and it was a mess. The ground floor was empty, but we found the first victim on the first floor, next to a fire in a bucket set in the floor, the only bit of heat they had. Three of them on that floor, all gunned down. He must have surprised that first one, and just opened up – they dropped where they fell.’ He shuddered, closing his eyes. ‘The smell in there was just so… thick. Blood, piss and ****, so strong that my eyes watered. And gunpowder, that too. I could taste it on the air.
‘We found another one in the corridor outside, sprawled, shot in the face. A woman. Could barely tell, she was wearing all this clothing, probably everything that she had. It wasn’t enough though to soak up the blood, it was all around her, a great thick pool of it. The staircase leading up to the next floor had another guy in a heap at the bottom of it. He must have tried running, he’d been shot in the back.’ David grimaced. ‘There was one more on the next floor.’ He did not elaborate further.
‘But then we... we heard him. Heard him making this sound this…’ he shook his head, lost for a moment, staring ahead. ‘It was like he was laughing, and crying, at the same time. The two sounds just didn’t match up. Didn’t make sense. It was just…’ he shook his head again, and grimaced. ‘I’ve seen things on the street. Dealt with a lot of it. But that sound, Dad. I’ve never heard anything like it before. I keep hearing it, all the time.’
He fell silent, for a long moment, rubbing his jaw, staring ahead, until his father gently prompted him. ‘What happened then, David?’
David blinked, and looked back at his father, as though startled into wakefulness, and shivered, before setting his jaw grimly and continuing on. ‘We heard a scream, and another shot, and so we went up the stairs, clearing it like we were taught as we went up.
‘And then we got there. We opened the door, and…’ he fell silent, a haunted look in his eyes.
‘He’d lined them up along the wall in the first room we entered. They’d gone like sheep, standing, waiting, terrified. I could see tears on some of their faces. Four of them, with nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. Junkies, crack addicts, homeless and crazy – but people, real people, and helpless. People that were supposed to help, or fix, or… or something. But they’d been lined up and shot and we’d missed it.’
His eyes were flat and empty as he said it, staring off into the distance, eyes on the garden now, watching the roses that his daughter had just watered. His father thought he had stopped before he heard his son speak again.
‘He started shooting as we stood there, in shock, and we didn't know exactly where from. Who wouldn’t have frozen, seeing that? He opened up on us with a handgun, and I don’t know how he missed, I really don’t. There was plaster raining down on us as he fired, and he wasn’t trying to do it to run. He was trying to kill us. We fired back, but we didn’t hit anything, we were just keeping our heads down.
‘Me and Terry scattered. We managed to get clear, and we could hear him, a few rooms over, reloading, and making that weird, freaky sound – the laughing, the crying, none of it making any sense. We loaded up and went back after him.’
‘Did you know what you were dealing with?’ His father asked the question quietly, watching his son intently. David shook his head.
‘No, not yet. We hadn’t even seen him, but we knew he was a crazy one – the ones who don’t back down, the sort they always tell you to watch out for. Most guys when confronted with cops try to run, and if they are crazy enough to shoot, they shoot and run. This guy didn’t. Either he didn’t care, or he didn’t know, but he wasn’t afraid, and now, because of where we’d run, he was between us and the exit. We had to go after him. We had to take him out.’
David was quiet for a moment. ‘It must have been the training, I guess. I’d never shot at anyone before. But in that place – no light except for our torches, smell of blood, gunpowder and dust on the air, me and Terry both knew exactly what we had to do. We had to take him down. And so we went looking for him.’ He fell silent yet again, and shivered violently. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my life, Dad.’ His voice was quiet, almost a whisper.
His father was about to speak, before David shook himself out of it, and continued on, grimly, pushing back the memory of the fear. ‘He got between us. I’m not sure how, but he did. One of us on each side of the room, and Terry stepped out into the corridor again, looking down it, and suddenly, there he was. Right in the middle of the room, like he’d just appeared out of thin air. He’d cut through the torch beams, I think, maybe used some of the junk as cover, and was raising the gun, pointing it at Terry from behind. He couldn’t have missed, not from that range. So I called out.
‘He… he turned, at the shout, spun around to face me, lowering the gun, and I got to see his face.’ David fell quiet again, his eyes haunted. ‘He was young, blonde hair, blue eyes, had to have been around fifteen at most. Just a goddamn kid, just like any other you see a hundred times a day on patrol, except this one was carrying a shiny new glock and a head full of crazy. And he was crazy, I could see it in his eyes, in the way that his face looked like it was frozen. There was this weird, unnatural grin on his face, but his eyes looked desperate, like someone else was making him do it. I’ve never seen anything like it.
‘I told him to drop the gun. But he didn’t. He just grinned wider, like someone was stretching his face further than it was supposed to go, said something, and raised the gun again.’
David’s father was quiet, his eyes boring into his son, watching him carefully and clearly. ‘What did he say?’
David grimaced, and did not look up, then spoke quietly. ‘He said, “scrub it away. Clean up the whole world.”’ He shuddered again. ‘I’ve been trying to forget it all week.’ He fell quiet again.
‘And when he turned away, when he raised the gun – that’s when you shot him, right?’ David’s father asked the question shrewdly, eyes thoughtful. David nodded, without looking up.
‘One shot. That’s all it took. I was so close to him I couldn’t miss. Terry had already hit the deck, and I knew I wouldn’t hit him. But the shot made the kid’s head explode like a melon. He fell like someone had just cut his legs out from under him. And then he just lay there. Legs kicking, twitching. Just like that. Dead and done, and I was the one that did it.’ His voice was flat, and almost clinical, but he was rubbing his hands together, nervously, without looking up. David’s father was up and resting a hand on his shoulder before his son could pull himself out of the memory haunting him.
‘David. David, look at me.’ Blinking, tearing himself out of the nightmare, he straightened up, looking to his father, even as he crouched down beside his son. It brought back a flash of memory to him – how his father had adopted that very pose before in his life to help him with things that were troubling him. Looking his son in the eye, his father went on, his gaze sharp.
‘You’ve been told this a lot already. You are still in shock over what you did, but you’ve got no reason, no reason at all, to blame yourself. What you did was not a terrible thing. It wasn’t even the wrong thing.’
‘But he was just a kid, dad,’ David’s voice was agonised, his face conflicted, tormented. ‘And you didn’t see the look in his eyes. It was like he didn’t want to be doing it, but couldn’t help himself.’ He grimaced. ‘I’ve never seen anyone look like that before.’ He shook his head again. ‘I’ll be all right dad. I will – I just need a bit of time to get over it, that’s all.’
‘Then you don’t blame yourself for it?’ His father watched him carefully, studying his expression. David shook his head in reply.
‘No, Dad. I don’t. I just wish we could have stopped him sooner.’ He chuckled sourly then, shaking his head in disgust. ‘Captain wanted to get me signed up for a medal or something. I didn’t want it. I don’t want anything to do with it – we didn’t save any lives, and we didn’t do something brave, just stupid. I’ll never be that stupid again.’
‘It wasn’t stupid.’ His father’s voice was hard, like iron. ‘Don’t take the medal if you don’t want to, but don’t ever think it was stupid. You had no way of knowing if anyone was still alive in there. If you’d stayed outside, then they would have had no chance. You did the right thing, son. You did your job. You should be proud of it.’
David looked away, and shrugged quietly, thinking about it, turning it over in his mind. ‘If you say so.’ He said it a bit dubiously, but he felt he was beginning to grasp the edge of the idea.
Watching his son, his father could clearly see that he needed to give a little more encouragement yet. He leaned forward, and the hand on his son's shoulder tightened its grip. David was momentarily startled by the strength still in that worn, callused grip.
'You tell me something son. What do you see when you look in the mirror?' His father's voice was firm, but quiet, as he asked a question he'd asked his son many time before.
David lowered his gaze. He already knew what the answer to this line of inquiry was going to be, but he knew it was important that he finished it regardless. 'I see me.'
'And are you ashamed when you look yourself in the eye, David?' The question was cutting, but David approached it honestly, thinking about it. Considering it. There was guilt there, certainly. But while there was certainly no pride about what he'd done – he didn't feel ashamed either. He shook his head. 'No. No, I'm not.'
His father watched him for a few moments more, then nodded, letting out a sigh, and patted his son on the shoulder as he released his grip. ‘Hold on to that, David. Hold on to that, and you’ll feel much better. Don’t let it get the best of you.’
David nodded, and sat back. He was surprised – he actually felt a lot better now, like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders somehow. He considered it, looking over to his father. ‘Did you ever feel like that about some of the things you did?’
His father didn’t look at him, but simply shrugged. ‘A few. I’ve dealt with that, though.’ He went quiet, and David knew he wouldn’t be able to get more out of him than that – it was too long ago, and the wounds his father had suffered had long ago healed over. Digging around in them now wouldn’t achieve anything.
His father looked up then, and frowned slightly, noting how the sunny afternoon was getting darker much quicker than it should have, a thick, boiling wave of cloud hanging overhead. ‘Looks like the weather turned on us. We should get inside before it gets worse.’
David nodded, and got to his feet. As he did so, his father fixed him with a penetrating look. ‘I’m going to go out on a limb here, and guess you’ve not told Lucy about this, right?’ David shook his head.
His father nodded. ‘Keep it that way. Some things you should talk to her about. But this isn’t one of them. ‘ He glanced skywards again, frowning at the increasingly foul looking weather. ‘Come on. Let’s get inside.’
Father and son walked back into the house, closing the door behind them. Inside, Caitlyn and her grandmother were counting out the sweets she was owed, by her father, one at a time, each one wrapped individually. David gave a wry smile at the sight, the dark thoughts of the outside banished away. He had been hoping she would forget as the day went on, but clearly, she had just been biding her time. He had a feeling she’d gotten that trait from her mother.
David’s father snorted at the sight. ‘She’ll be running around like a jack rabbit if she eats all those.’ His wife looked up as she finished counting, and Caitlyn held the sweets in both hands with an ecstatic look on her face. ‘She’ll be fine. She knows not to eat them all at once, right dear?’ She glanced down at her granddaughter, who already had shoved a handful of the wrapped sweets into one pocket, and was fumbling another open, but still had the presence of mind to nod happily. David loved his daughter, but didn’t believe her nodding for a second.
Neither did his father, it seemed. He cast a knowing look to his son, and shrugged. ‘Anyway, I’m glad we talked, David. I hope you are feeling better about it – but you better get moving before the traffic gets worse.’ He held out his hand, and David shook it, noting that as much as his father had faded in strength, that callused, worn and slightly cool grip was still startlingly strong. ‘I’ll be seeing you, Son.’
David nodded, as he shook the older man’s hand, and realised, that he did feel better. He was still haunted by the memory, but telling his father about it had helped, a lot more than he thought it would. Letting the hand go, he scooped his daughter up into his arms easily, lifting her up into the crook of his elbow, and gave his mother a hug with one arm and a kiss on the cheek, chuckling as Caitlyn took advantage of her position to do exactly the same thing. He pulled her back at last, and spoke to Caitlyn directly. ‘Now, remember your manners, what do you say to grandma?’ Caitlyn, her mouth still full of chocolate, grinned happily, and said exuberantly, ‘thank you grandma! Love you!’ His mother laughed at that, a little glow in her eyes, and gave each of them a kiss in return before sending them on their way.
As they drove out, he glanced over his shoulder to the little girl in the back seat behind him, firmly secured into place. ‘So, did you have a good day honey?’
She nodded, a grin on her face, her little blue eyes bright. ‘Yes daddy! Did you have a good day too?’
He gave her an affectionate smile at that, and looked at the main reason he was feeling better after that terrible night in the apartment block, and nodded, for the moment, banishing the memories that plagued him away. ‘Yeah, sweetie. Daddy really, really did.’
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