Awarded 3rd place in the Mystery/Suspense/Thriller category by Premier Book Awards for 2009.
[Some language may not be suitable or acceptable by all readers. If you are offended by vulgar language, please use the "BACK" button or the Navigation bar on the left.]
It's the off-season in Hawaii and the winds were favorable. It's been sixteen months since I've been here and the memories flooded in when the islands appeared on the horizon. I've been wrestling with the memories for three days now, somehow getting the supply shopping in between bouts of guilt, depression and drunken stupor.
The boat is fully stocked, fresh water and fuel tanks topped off, and I'm ready to leave, but I need to get this down and mailed before I do. Before it's too late. I've got this hunch I won't be seeing civilization again.
Excuse me, I need a cigarette.
I remember the day it all started:
It was a Sunday night and I was walking the streets of Los Angeles proper like I usually do, to get a pack of smokes and unwind. Except for the occasional booming car or someone homeless pushing their cart of worldly possessions, the streets were empty. When the rain began two hours later it caught me by surprise. I started home, taking shortcuts across parking lots and through alleys. I usually check the skies before leaving home, but another bad week at work had me in dark clouds of my own, thinking a lot about my career and if I should possibly make a change, at least employers, and had not noticed the weather.
The heavy rain came while I was on Fourth Avenue, still three miles from home. I ducked into an alley, dashing under the nearest overhang to wait out the cloudburst. I had chosen a metal staircase in my haste to escape the deluge. I stood beneath the landing, a thin piece of concrete keeping the rain off. Further down, as the stairs neared the ground, was a cardboard wall. The wall moved.
A thin man in rags crawled through the opening. His hair was long, mangled into dreadlocks by neglect and dirt, nearly dragging on the ground as he approached me on his hands and knees. His filthy white shirt had the seams ripped on both sides, the back fallen to one side exposing a large portion of skin. The skin was streaked and marred with what I thought were sores. As he neared, I could see that the streaks and discoloration were filth, not open sores. His grey, slacks dragged behind him, exposing only bare toes.
He stayed on his hands and knees until he reached me. Then he stood. He was an inch or two taller than me, but I outweighed him by twenty pounds. His untrimmed, scraggly beard was matted and twisted, his asymmetrical whiskers giving his head a distorted outline.
"Get wet, did ya'?" he asked. His voice was course, harsh, as if he'd smoked three packs of non-filtered cigarettes daily for decades.
I withdrew my pack from it's dry pocket. "A little." I picked out one for myself, then shook one part way out of the box and tilted it at him. I nodded at the pack. "Smoke?"
He looked at me, into my eyes, then down at the pack. He reached to it and plucked out two cigarettes. "And one for later." He put one in his mouth, one behind an ear, and the third in the breast pocket of the tattered rag of a shirt. There was enough of the pocket left to hold a cigarette, but just enough.
"Got a light?"
I handed him the pack of matches that came with the cigarettes. I had purchased the cigarettes half an hour earlier, the matches coming with it.
"Thanks." He lit the cigarette. "For the smokes, too." He inhaled, then coughed.
I lit my cigarette with my lighter and shrugged.
"Got any change?"
"No." I lied.
He looked down the alley, into the rain. I inhaled on my cigarette, waiting impatiently for the rain to lighten up. I looked up, hoping to see a break in the clouds, but I couldn't see through the rain. I was either stuck here with him, or doomed to get soaked to the bone. It was February and the rain was cold. Home was still three miles away. I chose to stay, hoping the rain wouldn't last much longer, and that he wouldn't try to start a conversation.
"You sure you don't got any change?" He coughed again.
"What?" I asked incredulously.
"Fresh pack of smokes. Fresh pack of matches. I'd reckon you just bought that pack. You do it with exact change?" His tone was accusing.
I was at a loss momentarily. His deduction surprised me. Then, with a flair of arrogance I retorted, "As a matter-of-fact, I did. I often stop there for that exact purpose, with exact change."
He grunted at me, snorting a bit through his nose. The rain continued. Minutes passed before he spoke again. I knew the silence wouldn't last. I stamped out the butt.
"These are what put me here." He raised the rest of his cigarette out in front of him, exhaling on it.
"I'm sorry I offered them to you," I said coldly.
"Oh, no. Don't be. Like I said though, they're why I'm here. When they discovered cancer, they told me to stop smoking. I couldn't. The insurance refused to pay the bills. The doctors refused to see me. My job refused to employ me. Assholes. All of 'em, assholes." He flicked the remains of his cigarette into the rain.
"It's my own fault. I can't quit. I just can't. I did once." His voice was suddenly energetic. "For 'bout two weeks. 'Bout went mad, too. T'was then I got the Rage."
"The what?" I had to ask.
He turned to me before continuing. "The Rage. I've seen it in action." I could smell his breath. It stank of rot and decay. I prayed he light another cigarette. "Nasty thing to see. Nasty." He snatched the cigarette from behind his ear then shook his head. "Nasty." He lit the cigarette.
"What? You watched someone pissed off beat the crap out of somebody else?"
"It's a lot worse than someone getting the shit kicked outta 'em. The Rage causes it to get deadly. The Rage causes some really serious shit to happen."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
He checked the area, as if someone might hear what he was about to tell me. He inhaled from the cigarette as if it was giving him life, instead of stealing it away. As he exhaled, he began. "I've seen the Rage twist a man's head off, just to see if it could. I've seen it break every bone in a man's body just to ease a little of it's own suffering. I've seen it cut a man up so bad birds were flying away with pieces of 'im."
"You've seen all of this?"
He inhaled from the cigarette, watching the rain in the alley. "In a way. I've watched myself do 'em. Sitting still inside, far, far removed."
"What?" I laughed. He didn't look strong enough to rip up the cardboard box he lived in, let alone rip someone's head off.
"The Rage. It takes control of ya'."
"So you mean when you're pissed, you turn into this Rage thing and tear people apart?" I eyed him up and down. He was emaciated to the point of skin and bone. He looked next to death. "You?"
He gave me a steely gaze that chilled my blood. In his raspy voice he said, "Damn right. The Rage gives you strength. Unhuman strength." He looked out into the rain again. "Shit of it is, you can't control it. It just comes. Takes ya' over. Controls everything ya' do for as long as it lasts. All's you can do is watch it happen from the inside, on that hard, cold stool."
"Ain't bullshit, Mister. You don't want to see it."
"What are you afraid of?" I asked point blank.
"The Rage," he said. "Of what it might do to ya'"
I blinked with bewilderment. "What, or who, is this rage?"
He looked around again with obvious determination. Satisfied that we were alone, and making me sufficiently nervous, he began. "Me. I'm the Rage. The Rage that lives inside me. The Rage that took my wife, family. It took my job, my home.."
"What? Are you like a superhero gone bad?"
He moved towards me. "I lost fucking everything to the Rage!" He hissed, then relaxed. He squatted, letting his body rest on his haunches. "I just blame it on the smokes." He inhaled deeply on the paper tube.
"I had everything. A loving wife. Beautiful children. A good, secure job. Two cars. A house, three bedrooms, two baths." He had started rambling.
I tuned him out as he listed all the things he had lost to this "rage". I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into, and why I haven't left. Just when I had convinced myself that the rain was the lesser of two evils and leave the alley, something he said caught my attention.
"What was that?" I asked.
"About it being given to you," I pushed.
He looked at me with blank eyes, then snarled, "Hunh?"
"What did you say about the Rage being given to you?" I spoke slower than usual, giving time for each word to sink in.
"Oh..that. Well, maybe ya' wouldn't call it given. More like...put into me."
"Well, the Rage really isn't anything you really want. You don't really have any control over it. Not when it comes. Not what it does. You just kinda sit back and watch as the Rage does things that you only dream of doing at your angriest. 'Cept it don't take much to start the Rage going. Nope. Not much at all." He inhaled, then pitched the cigarette into the alley.
"It whispers in your head. But you can't understand what it says, so you ask 'what?'. That's when it grabs ya'. Leaps into ya'. Takes over. Takes control."
The uneasiness I had when he checked for "company" came back, but much stronger. Now there was a queasy feeling, worse than butterflies, better than nauseous. "What do you mean it was 'put' there?"
"I'm get'n to that. Just give me a sec'." He pulled the cigarette from his breast pocket and lit it. "It was when I quit these." He held the lit cigarette up to my face. I leaned away.
"I was walking at night, like you are. I was fightin' the urge to smoke, ya' know. Minding my own business. Keeping my head down. Just walking when this good looking broad, totally naked, walks right up to me and starts kissing me. But her lips are cold. She's cold.
"She just stops me there on the sidewalk, traffic going by, other pedestrians walking by staring at me like I was crazy. She starts kissing me, holding my face between her cold hands.
"Then, she sticks her tongue in my mouth and holds my tongue down. A second later something crawled from her mouth to mine. I felt it go down my throat. I thought I was going to choke.
"Then, she just walks on past. I stand there stunned a bit before turning to ask what she did to me, but she was gone. I figured she ducked into a doorway. I didn't really care. My lips were cold, my face was cold, my hands was cold, and I could feel cold inside me. Down my throat, in my gut, it's just cold. Like I'm freezing from the inside out.
"I start walking, wanting just to get home and stand under a hot shower. That's when this fucking guy jumps me.
"He grabs me from behind and knocks me to the sidewalk, then jumps on me. Suddenly like, I had this hot feeling in me. Like I was on fire inside. And the strength," he pulled another drag, "I pushed him off me like he was nothing. He flew against a building and his head busted open. Blood and brains oozing all over the sidewalk. That just gave me more strength. Made me want to beat him some more. So, I did. I pounded his face 'til you couldn't tell who he was." He inhaled from the cigarette again. "Then, then I just walked away."
That feeling that had been gurgling in my gut erupted into a panic that had me trembling. He would have noticed had there been more light. I tried to stay calm.
He stepped towards me and I stepped away. He kept coming, until I was backed against the building. When he reached for me I reacted and pushed him away. He fell to the pavement and laid there, motionless. I paused, unsure of what just happened and what to do. After a few moments and he hadn't moved, I leaned towards him. As I did he reached up and put his arms around my neck. Then, with more strength than I had given him, he pulled me towards him.
It happened quickly. I wasn't ready for it and he had our lips together in a blink of an eye. His mouth was wide open, engulfing my lips. I held them closed tightly as he prodded forcibly with his tongue, trying to pry them open.
When this failed, he started to bite my lips. I tasted blood. My own blood. This caused my mind to react on its own. I watched, seemingly from a distance, as I raised my knee into his groin. His grip on my lips, and my neck, were released.
I stood and stumbled backwards, landing on the pavement in a sitting position with my back flat against the dumpster. I heard him moaning and moving around, but the hit on the dumpster knocked the wind out of me and I was blinded as I searched for breath. It felt like hours as my mind scrambled to kick start the breathing mechanism. As I gasped, I could hear him moving. Moving towards me.
"I almost gave it to ya'. Yup yup...almost gave it to ya'."
My mind split between breath and death as I assumed he was talking about giving me some disease. My lungs felt on fire, as though they were going to burst. I needed to breathe. Soon.
"I know ya' got a taste of it. It'll light a fire in ya'. It's small now, but soon, after I..."
I suddenly felt the damp, stench air of the alley rush into my lungs. I made primeval noises as I gasped lung full after lung full of the foul air. I had, momentarily, forgotten about my smoking buddy. My sight came back to me when he was only feet away.
"Got yer' breath back, eh? Well here I come to take it away ag'in." He laughed. I scrambled to stand, slipping to the ground.
He fell on me, pinning me in the wet garbage. He struck me across the face several times with his elbow. I laid there in semi-consciousness as he put his mouth to mine again. He sucked my tongue into his mouth and bit. Hard!
I could feel my blood flow down my throat. I swallowed to keep from drowning. With the swallow, I felt something else go down my throat. But not like I swallowed it, and it wasn't blood. It crawled down my throat and it was a thick ooze, like oily mashed potatoes. It spread through me from my gut outward in every direction. It was hot. It tingled like electricity.
Instantly I knew it came from him. Whatever entered me, came from him. He gave it to me. He put it there. I was enraged!
Suddenly I was vibrant and full of strength. I felt invincible. I pushed this perverted lunatic off me, using my legs and arms in tandem. He flew across the alley and into the shadows, landing amidst a lot of noise. I was on my feet and walking towards him before I knew I had even stood. I could hear him mumbling something as I approached him.
When I made out his outline against the wall of the building, I was mildly amazed and surprisingly satisfied that I had thrown him that far. I could make out what he was saying as his eyes appeared out of the shadow of his face.
"Gone. It's gone. I can feel it's. . .gone! Gone...gone...gone..."
I felt no remorse as I put my foot into his face.
Two hours later I was at home, in my apartment, in the dark, the glow of the cigarette a distinct reflection on the window. I remembered what happened in the alley. I remembered everything he said, even though I wasn't listening. I could hear him now. Every word. Everything he said about the Rage and what awaits me, now that I have the fucking RAGE!
I sat in darkness all night, worried that the police were going to knock on the door any moment while I contemplated turning myself in. When dawn arrived and no knock on the door came, I readied for work. Perhaps I had gotten away with it after all.