AThe vest was heavy under his jacket; he was beginning to break a sweat as he trotted down the street. Although it was raining, the sidewalks were heavily traversed and a wave of umbrellas bickered over the limited airspace. He turned his umbrella sideways and dodged between two elderly women, unwilling to linger behind the slower pedestrian traffic. Glancing at his watch, he realized that only thirty-five minutes remained until the deadline. Faster, walk faster! Even though he was in a hurry, he didn't want it to show. He tried to act casual, examining the merchandise in the windows of each shop he passed. He did his best to carry himself like a local - he hated being recognized as a foreigner.
Thirty-five minutes. He celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday last week, but was too absorbed in last minute planning to note the occasion. He didn't feel any older than twenty-five; he was in excellent shape and abstained from smoking, drinking, and other physically detrimental habits. He'd smoked hashish once, maybe fourteen or fifteen years ago, with some friends after a show. Chuckling to himself at the memory, he turned his umbrella sideways again and skirted a young man who was cursing into his cell phone. The hashish had affected him swiftly, changing him from an intelligent and respected young scholar into a giggling teenage girl. His friends, who smoked more frequently, collapsed with laughter just watching him. Everything had been so surreal! Colors were blindingly lucid and sounds vibrated in his ear drums. After several minutes, he'd grown dizzy and vomited in the bathroom. That was the first and last time he'd allowed a foreign substance into his system; it was a funny memory of a youthful indiscretion, but not worth repeating.
Thirty-four minutes. He heard sudden laughter behind him and glanced over his shoulder to identify the source. It was a girl, maybe about thirteen, who'd just stepped into a puddle and splashed filthy rainwater over her friend's white boots. Something about the dulcet, bubbly tones of the laugh reminded him of his younger sister. Well, she hadn't laughed that way in years - not since she'd married and started having children annually. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he'd heard her laugh that way, but one occasion from his childhood stood out in his mind. . .
Memory was such a fickle thing, and the arbitrarily selective details amazed him. He remembered that day so vividly: how the sunlight streamed in through the dingy windows, dust motes dancing through the beams of sunlight like minuscule humans on an iridescent escalator. Suddenly, two stray dogs from the street burst through the open front door of the house, playfully nipping at each other's flanks. The canines' invasion was unexpected but brief - they entered and exited all in the span of a few seconds, leaving his family with no time to react. As he and his sibling gawked with surprise, the larger mutt backed against him. The jostling caused him to spill his cup of hot tea all over himself, and before he had time to utter even the mildest of curses, the dogs had already returned to the street, yipping and growling in bestial jest. And oh, how his sister had laughed, until tears were pouring down her cheeks and she was clutching her stomach in pain. . . That laugh! She didn't laugh like that anymore.
He was now sweating as if he'd already ran twenty kilometers at full speed. The vest grated under his arms and over his shoulders. SHIT! Thirty minutes, that was all he had left! Of course he could be a little late - in the end, it wouldn't really matter - but he'd always been a punctual person; his father taught him to be precise and disciplined in every undertaking. That was the only way to live, by treating time as though it was golden.
Thirty minutes left. He quickened his pace.
His father had already been gone for eight years; his death was long and excruciating for everyone in the family. This was a man who never lost his bearings, always knew how to fix anything, and never quailed in the face of conflict. He'd always been so robust that no one believed the cancer could win. The old man knew how to handle any situation but, when the enemy invaded from within, he faltered. Of course, his father fought as intensely as any cornered beast would; it was almost three years before he finally succumbed to death.
Shifting his umbrella to the other hand, he sighed heavily. A young woman next to him glanced over in surprise at the unexpected noise and, when he met her gaze, she averted her dark eyes and quickened her stride. Everything, even her lilting feminine gait reminded him of his wife.
Ah, his wife. . .
Although she was a bit more temperamental than he would have liked, she was still almost as beautiful as the first day they met. She gave him three sons, so her body didn't look the same as it had on their wedding night (it certainly didn't interest him as much as it had then) but her eyes were so dark, like soot purified by its passage through fire. Her eyes were still the same. She was a wonderful mother; stronger than his mother had been, more assertive. She watched over their young sons like a hawk, restraining them until the day that they would be stronger than she, and then they would take care of her. And she loved him, he knew it - even when she hated him, she still loved him.
She was so far away right now. If he could see her one last time, he would explain everything. He would be honest with her, he would let her see him as the real person that he was, the real person that he'd never allowed her to meet. He'd wanted to be like his father, he'd wanted to be strong, impenetrable. No mere woman should ever breach that fortress.
For the first time in his life, he wished that he had let her in, even if only for a few minutes. The last time he saw her was almost a month ago, as he was packing for the trip. Her face was hardened, resigned, and mournful; she knew he wasn't coming back. But she seemed strangely relieved as well. What did that expression of relief mean? He knew he sometimes frightened her, and once he'd even struck her. They'd been quarreling, she'd said something caustic and snide, but now he couldn't remember what happened, or why it happened. His hand had acted independently of his mind, it seemed. He'd never raised a hand against her since, but everything between them had changed as a result of that one action. One swift, thoughtless movement had alienated her from him completely.
Had his father ever hit his mother? He didn't think so, and he'd never seen any sort of violence from his parents. His father had been strong in a quiet way - he didn't use his fists to show his power. He remembered the old man always said that physical violence was a sign of mental weakness. The memory of those words shamed him now and fueled his agitation.
He paused for a second and the other pedestrians streamed past him. Their umbrellas jostled his without regard, but he didn't even notice. What did that mean? What was the last thing she said to him? It hit him like a lightning bolt - the memory was as sharp as the moment she said it: "God with you." But her eyes said something else. . . it was hard to read the darkness of her eyes sometimes. He started walking again, his pace substantially slower than before. He shouldn't feel ashamed, there were so many happy memories! Why was he being tormented by this? Why now? What had that argument been about? Why couldn't he remember? What was she thinking as she watched him walk away? He knew without a doubt: she'd been glad to see him go.
He tripped over a curb and it jolted him back to reality. He'd never loved her, at least he didn't think that he'd ever loved her. Not in the metaphysical sense of the word. He didn't believe in the weak human emotion called love. It was just a mental reaction to a physiological condition and a sign of weakness. If he'd ever been close to love, to feeling that emotion in its purest and most unadulterated form, it was when he'd first set eyes on his newborn sons. Such perfect, tiny little bodies, even as they twitched and squealed and bawled for attention! A baby is the quintessential symbol of human weakness, completely reliant on others for survival. But there was some sort of knowledge in those brand new eyes, some sort of age-old wisdom. His sons were so pure, so unflawed, and it made him doubt himself. As they grew older, the responsibility overwhelmed him and made him feel weak.
Overwhelming responsibility. . . the thought dragged him back, once again, to the present. He glanced at his watch. Fifteen minutes! He squinted through the rain and shadow of his umbrella; he could already see his destination. He would be early, but he didn't want to be early. He veered abruptly into an alley.
It was hard to distinguish the cause of his clothes' dampness: rain or sweat? He felt as though he was carrying a thousand pounds of extra weight, although he knew it was substantially less. Everything, every disjointed memory was more tangible this morning. Even the raindrops falling around him seemed more distinct, more prismatic. He wanted to go home more than he ever had in his entire life. He hated it here, enough to abandon everything he'd worked for. He remembered the determined, pinched faces of his peers, and the way his wife had bid him farewell, and he knew there was no home for him anymore. It was impossible to go back.
He leaned against the brick wall of a building, the sound of car horns and stereos blaring some awful pop music. The cacophony of the foreign metropolis stung his ears. What was he doing here? Was it really that important? He could leave now and no one would ever know. It's not as if he was the only one here with a deadline. No one would miss him because the others would still do their jobs.
But what if they didn't? It was more than a job, it was a mission. Even if he couldn't feel it yet, even if he could only imagine it, there was a goal there - a prize behind all the doubt. Others would envy him, his wife and sons would finally be proud of him. Doubt was weak; like love, it was a human reaction. If he could just do this, if he could meet his deadline, then all of this confusion would end and he would be blissfully content. The weight of everything would drift away and fade into light. Or blackness. He winced at the mental interjection, trying to guide his train of thought away from the darkness. If he could just do this, then everything else would instantly become clear. All of his questions, all of his silly doubts and emotions and worries would evaporate. But a twinge of doubt coursed through his gut, growing more intense with each second. His father's words, violence is a sign of mental weakness, echoed in his brain.
Stop thinking, stop thinking, stop thinking. He'd been warned about this - what he was feeling was normal, they'd said. He glanced at his watch and saw that he was down to ten minutes. He dodged back onto the sidewalk again, walking faster than before. His destination loomed before him, growing larger and larger with each step. The rain was falling even harder and the wind drove the drops against him like liquid razors. He'd left his umbrella in the alley, propped against the brick wall, but it was too late now. It hardly mattered anymore because he was almost there.
Nine minutes. Don't think, don't think, don't think. Stop thinking. Those dark eyes soared in front of him, followed by the shrill squeals of his hungry and cold newborn sons, the gaunt features of his father's dying face, the echoes of his sister's abandoned mirth. . . Home, home, home. He wanted to go home. Don't think, don't think, don't think. He tried to remind himself he'd be there soon enough.
He stepped through the threshold and heaved a sigh of relief. A wave of central air assailed him, along with the sight of hundreds of human bodies, the closest ones jostling him so his wet clothes pressed against his goose-pimpled skin. He looked over his shoulder through the glass doors at the pedestrians and their umbrellas, at the cars and their windshield wipers. The locals said that the weather was strange this year, completely abnormal. The elderly ones thought it was a sign of the end of the world. Maybe they were right.
He felt more calm now that he was here. Seven minutes. His father was always on time, his father was never late. Don't think. Find the escalators.
Ok. He needed to be on the second floor, in front of a pizza parlor by the escalators. He felt completely disoriented, the crush of people and the indistinct murmur of their voices bewildered him. He hesitated, backed up against some strangers behind him, his eyes darting about in search of something familiar: the escalator. Five minutes. It was so crowded, more crowded than in the rain-drenched streets. He elbowed his way past the crowd and edged onto the escalator. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion; he glanced up and scanned the people on the downward escalator. THERE! A familiar face in the crowd, a barely perceptible nod of the head from a descending passenger. Four minutes. Everything was going as planned.
There was the pizza parlor; it reminded him that he should be hungry, that he hadn't been able to eat for days. He glanced briefly at the hot trays of steaming food and he knew he wasn't hungry at all. His stomach was too knotted with adrenalin to crave anything. He noticed an empty table amidst the cluster of occupied tables in front of the restaurant, and took the opportunity to seat himself. Three minutes. Some sort of tinny music was blaring over the PA system. It was awful, with an electronic beat and an out-of-tune female voice.
Suddenly, an explosion tore through the lower level of the shopping center, near the foot of the escalator. The surreal din of fragmented metal and glass raining down on unsuspecting heads, shrapnel drilling into unprotected bodies, screams of pain - it all instantly drowned out the background music. His ears rang, his heart stopped, he glanced at his watch. He still had two minutes, it was too early, he wasn't ready, he didn't want to! A woman's wail tore through the air from below, and he glanced at the table beside him. The table's occupants, a man and a woman, were paralyzed, still trying to process the onslaught of strange sounds and smells. Their faces contorted with fear and disbelief as a massive wave of dust rolled up the escalators in the direction of the food court. Between them was a stroller; from inside a tawny-haired toddler examined him, completely unabashed. She had dark eyes. The child was maybe one year old, maybe two, but was examining him with the sagacity of a man of eighty years. She was only three feet away from him; he could see the tiny rainbows adorning the buttons on her little boots. She clutched a ragged stuffed animal in her dimpled fists, her dark eyes were locked on his. She knew. If no one else knew, she knew. Then the wave of dust swept over the seating area and obscured her from his view. It was hard to breathe; he tried to check his watch one more time, but couldn't see his own hand. The other, the one going down on the escalator, had gone too soon! It was as if time had stopped, but he desperately wanted those last two minutes. If he waited - no, he should leave! He should run! Silence settled throughout the shopping center along with the dust, then the renewed sobs and groans of the injured returned in full force. Someone screamed something - he didn't understand the words, but he didn't need to. They were calling for help, their anguished voices rising above the background music, which was audible again but somewhat off-tune.
Don't think, don't think, don't think. The mantra returned. He couldn't go home, he'd be shamed. He couldn't leave, he'd be caught. The choice was no longer his own, no matter how much he wanted to make it his own again. His mind went blank and he reached inside his pocket, through the hole in the lining that gave him access to the vest. Although he was seated, the vest was so heavy that he found himself wondering stupidly how the chair could support his weight. What a strange thing to wonder at this juncture in time! His stomach churned and his eyes burned. Don't think. It will all be over soon.
He pushed the button.
L.R. Collier started writing as soon as she learned how to hold a pencil, crafting shameless knock-offs of "Anne of Green Gables" and other classic works. She lived in Moscow studying literature from 2005-2006, and received an MA in Russian from Middlebury College in 2007. Nowadays, Ms. Collier strives to avoid the fan-fiction mishaps of her youth and writes strictly original works of literary fiction and poetry.