“You’re looking for some answers. I can understand that. I can relate. Isn’t that what the hippies used to say?”
Joe’s gaze remained flat. He waited for the man to continue.
“Don’t say much do you? I’m guessing you’re all out of empathy as well as words right now but if not, I won’t keep you. Good luck in finding a tree left to hug.”
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell us why it started.”
“Why? Ha!” The old man shook his head and snorted. “Why it all started…let me think now. What set the tumblers in motion? What cataclysmic event poked open the wasps nest until everything was fucked and dust…”
“There must have been something that…”
“There was nothing!” The old man threw up his arms, setting his chains to jangling. “You don’t get it do you? The Great Something is just some fucked up fireside story that held a lot of shit-scared people together. There was no something. Never is, never was. Just the constant, intolerable attrition of the small things. Values, honour, community. Pick away the scab. Straw upon straw upon straw.”
Joe gave the old man a bottle of water and watched him sip. Not gulping it down. Even now he’s in control. “Good?”
“Colder than rainwater at least.”
“If there isn’t a why, what can you tell me about the when?”
“I was seven days short of sixteen when it began. I’d tell you how old I was now but I stopped counting around fifty. Unlike this,” he said, tapping his bald brown head, “some things don’t disappear with age. I remember this part too well. The world got up on Sunday and went about its regular business. People prayed to their gods, played with their kids, watched TV. Straw upon straw upon…boom.
“There was a bomb?”
“No. Not a bomb. Something just snapped. A switch in everyone’s head. It was like the whole world held itself up to a dark mirror and saw the truth of those around them. And it made them fucking angry. Most people at least.
We were at church mumbling our way beneath the fervent and faithful when the kill switch dropped. I know I shouldn’t call it a kill switch but I couldn’t keep calling it the event. Makes it sound like some fucking garden party with gilded invitations, so kill switch it is. I went from mouthing unfelt platitudes to running for the door with my sister in less time than it takes the Lord to ignore His prayer. She started biting my arm before we got more than five aisles so I let go on reflex. She fell to the ground and stared at me. The thing that used to be Chrissy.” The man sat back and sighed. “I try not to let that be my memory of her but mostly it is. By the time I got to the door the priest was getting his head caved in by an altar boy screaming you made me. I ran and didn’t look back.
The stories were the same everywhere. A nanny listens to the kids fighting in the back and drives in front of a truck. A husband punches himself drunk on his wife’s face for spilling the last beer. A mother drops her disabled baby into the pool and watches him sink. Boom.”
The old man nodded in thanks as Joe supplied a new bottle of water. Sipped. Carried on. “When I got home I locked myself in the basement. The screaming was worse at night. The laughter was awful whatever the hour. After a week I ran out of water and had to come up. Through the kitchen window I could see the line of armed men all dressed in red kicking in doors. I didn’t wait for them to kick in mine.
Basically the world broke into three. Those who killed. Those who died. Those who ran.”
“Which group were you in?”
“I wasn’t in the second one.” The old man returned Joe’s level stare as he continued. “After I left the house I went up to Wilders Hill and hid in one of the caves. When it turned dark I watched the ranks of the Scarlet Guard set fire to my town. One hell of a birthday candle to mark my coming of age. Years later I did some burning of my own. But by then I wasn’t alone.”
“What happened after you…”
The old man shook his head and rattled his chains. “That’s all you’re getting until these come off and you bring me something to eat.”
Joe grunted and stood up. “I’ll talk to the others.”
In the dark silence that followed the old man wept as he dreamed of a girl in her Sunday blue dress.
Author’s note: This piece was published on Literally Stories in February 2015 and is a classic example of listening to the advice of other writers. The original version was written as a monologue from the old man – I was advised by the editors of LS to rewrite and they were absolutely correct. I’m sure there are still things that could be improved with this piece but it remains one I look back on with fondness – the original monologue version…not so much…