By Mark Cunningham
Bob Convers was a good guy who got dealt a lousy hand in the game of life. You know the type; harmless, but seemingly doomed. One step forward for every two steps back.
He had a wife that was exasperated by the face of stoic good humor he wore despite whatever slight the universe unveiled, children who had long ago stopped laughing at his attempts to amuse them, and a job that did its best to sand those last jagged edges that remained of his soul.
On the morning Bob died, he was watching his fifteen year old son Matthew play soccer. Bob had a tolerance for Matthew that Matthew did his best to explode the envelope on, but they agreed on football. Bob’s wife Carolyn was sitting next to him, talking to the woman to her right, the realtor they had bought their house from; the one with the lazy eye; the one that Bob knew hated her. His daughter Cindy was somewhere being awkwardly eleven. Bob wasn’t sure about a lot of things when it came to his children, but on those occasions when he thought about it, he would have preferred they had different names.
“Bitch.” Then there was a popping sound.
Bob turned his head at that, just in time to see the realtor’s head come apart in the back, red mist and pieces coating Carolyn, who started making noises herself, arms pin wheeling her backwards, bringing the chair over with her.
The realtor made a barking sound; wet and nasal, before falling out of her chair. The guy with the gun snorted; something unintelligible followed. He turned his head towards Bob, feet planted, his torso following in a swiveling arc; arms following torso, extending outwards, the left palm up as in supplication, the right holding the gun. He aimed at Bob and said “I am sorry it had to be you Bob.”
It was the guy who owned the movie rental place. Bob hadn’t noticed at first, he didn’t rent a lot of movies anymore. He had time to regret not kissing Marjorie Henshaw at the office Christmas party the year before when she had leaned against him in the conference room, her green eyes sparkling so differently than Carolyn’s ever had; her smile unstrained and willing. Then there was another pop and he felt the air rushing out of him: heard it hissing wetly in the stunned silence that followed the report. Looking down, there was blood on his shirt; a lot of blood. He tried to stand, but it was nothing more than a reflex. Carolyn screamed from the ground and the silence was broken; shouts and movement, the sounds of panic.
Bob closed his eyes and everything became silent again. It became so silent that he died.
When he had been dead for a minute, maybe two he opened his eyes.
“Lousy break Bob.” The voice was familiar, but he couldn’t place it. It belonged to a man who was walking across the soccer field towards him, farther away than the volume and clarity of that voice should have allowed, but coming quickly. He was tall with dark hair that hung to either side of a long angular face, or at least mostly. Every third step or so he seemed to shift, the shimmering sun deflecting and distorting his image; his form changing quickly into unsettling images too large to fit the confines of Bob’s vision, before snapping back for a few more steps.
Bob’s mouth grew dry as he turned his head to look around him. What he saw was worse than the approaching man; worse even than the sinking dread that caused him to acknowledge aloud:
Everyone around him was frozen; encased in ice that steamed unnaturally, even as it glittered in the fall sun. His wife Carolyn’s mouth was frozen open: wide in a soundless scream, crusted in steaming glitter, staring at the realtor’s body laying in a stagnant pool of blood and muddish gore. The parents surrounding them were caught motionless in mid cry or point, shrouded in a thin veneer of ice. The action on the field had stopped, hanging in mid air; players caught in mid step, his own son Matthew defying gravity , suspended from the jump that had just propelled the ball off his head.
Bob looked down again at his shirt. The blood had stopped flowing, the whistling sound had gone with the last of his breath, and he realized he wasn’t breathing and he jerked his head back up to see the man standing in front of him, his body seemingly formed into that of middle age, though there was an aura shimmering about him that gave off cold in blinding waves of wrongness.
“What?” It came out in a low groan.
“You are not breathing Bob. Its hard to talk when you aren’t breathing.” The man smiled hideously. “Some get used to it, the ones that stick around. I don’t suspect you will be one of those though.” He sounded very sure of that. Bob wasn’t sure of anything beyond the fact that he wasn’t breathing. It didn’t feel right. He felt like he was choking on nothing.
“I don’t understand.” Bob managed to say.
“How about we get right to the point then; right down to the what of the matter?” He paused long enough for Bob to nod his head in agreement.
“The what of it is Bob, that you just were shot.” He nodded his head toward Bob’s mess of a chest. “Shot dead to be more precise. It was a real tragedy, one of the senseless kinds that just seem to blow into town now and again. It seems that one Andy Walworth, the owner of Movie Mania over on Howard Street was in a bad way over the pay per view folks cutting into his business. He also had a bit of a chemical imbalance that really didn’t help his perspective. To add to this tale of woe in the making, a certain real estate agent made the mistake of insulting him during business negotiations.”
He looked over at her, lying face down in the mud.
“She told him he would be lucky to get half of what he was asking for the Movie Mania building. Something in the way she smiled when she said it really pissed him off Bob, and as for the voices in his head? Wow. There was just no reasoning with them anymore. The rest is recent history. You were just one of the things that make this tragedy more senseless. Luck of the draw; wrong place at the wrong time; call it what you will. To tell you the truth Bob, from what I hear she was a real bitch and maybe even had it coming, although you hate to say something like that.” He smiled obscenely. “But to have you caught up in it? Ouch.”
“Fortunately, before it gets any more senseless, that guy over there with the Mets T-Shirt is going to bounce a soccer ball off the murderous bastard’s head , distracting him long enough that the guy over to the left of you will hit the gunman over the head with his chair and grab the gun, in what will be described as “Hometown Heroism” by the news folks tonight.”
Bob looked behind him. Kevin Hale, wearing a Mets shirt, soccer ball in his hand. He was some kind of engineer; very impressed with himself from Bob’s experience. He was a bully as a man; had been since third grade. His wife Jenny was a mean spirited gossip, a mask of contempt worn on her face like sunglasses. His daughter went to school with Bob’s.
Bob looked to the left. Jerry Camden sat in a chair, staring at the gunman. His wife Theresa sat next to him. Everybody liked the Camden’s.
“So I guess that is about it Bob.” The man shrugged.
‘Who are you?” Bob’s mouth went even drier
“Who do you think I am?”
“I have no idea what to think.” Drier. ‘You say I’m dead? What am I supposed to think?”
“C’mon now Bob.” The man smiled. “I think you might have a slight suspicion as to exactly who I might be.” Then he began to laugh unpleasantly.
“I guess I think you’re the Devil then.” The laughter had become unbearable.
The man stopped laughing. He rubbed his chin as if in consideration, then nodded.
“Close enough for government work Bob, although technically, “a” is closer to the truth than ‘the”. You get the gist though. I am on the job as they say. You can call me Luke if you want” He stopped and the silence hung in the air, the steam of the ice it’s only competition.
“Its not fair.” Bob said it finally. It was all he had.
“I agree entirely. Senseless as I said before. “ Luke shook his head sympathetically.
“I mean it’s not fair that I should…”
“You should what?” Smooth and helpful.
“Should have to…” Bob’s voice was gravel. “Its not fair I should go to Hell.”
“Fair?” Luke raided an eyebrow. “What does fair have to do with anything?”
“I never did anything wrong; nothing really wrong anyway.” Bob could hear the pleading in his voice. It hung in the air with the silence; with the steam from the ice.
“Wrong is one of those words isn’t it?” Luke smiled. “Wrong is like fair when you think about it, although I haven’t spent any real time doing it; thinking about it that is. Some might argue I have spent some time doing it” He laughed at his joke
“So that’s it then?”
“What’s it Bob?”
“You have come to take me to Hell?”
“You?” Luke began laughing. “Of course not. As you say, you never did anything that wrong. Certainly nothing Hell worthy. I am here on other business. I just wanted to offer my sincere regret; that’s all.”
“That’s all?” Bob was confused. “You aren’t here for me?”
“Nope. I genuinely wish you the best of luck in your afterlife.” He reached out and shook Bob’s hand. He was substantial enough to grip, but there was an unpleasant give. The hand was cold, cold enough to hurt if Bob hadn’t been dead; cold enough to steam. “I’m going to turn it back on now.”
“Wait.” Bob blurted. “What about me?”
“What about you? I feel bad as I said, but you are no business of mine. Honestly, I have already broken the rules just by talking to you. I’m afraid you are on your own Bob.”
“What do you mean on my own? What am I supposed to do now?”
“Well, the way I see it, you have two choices. You can either stay here watch the world go by. Some do; more than some actually. You will find them soon enough, or they will find you.” He looked at Bob quizzically, then shook his head. “Either that or you can start walking.” Luke pointed his finger westward. There was a strange glow in the distance.
“Is that Heaven then?”
“I have no idea Bob. I just know its not my neighborhood.” And he was gone. So was the ice and the silence. Time started with a scream. Time happened quickly.
Kevin Hale bounced a soccer ball off the gunman’s head. The gunman snarled and turned; but the gun was pointed down and he was clearly dazed by the impact, until Jerry Camden broke a chair over his head. He went down, dropping the gun. Jerry grabbed it and it was over. The police came. Ambulances followed. Bob found himself watching the whole scene; looking down at his own body as they covered it. He watched his wife and children scream and cry. He saw the relief in the eyes of the others.
“My God, who was it?”
“Bob something. I didn’t know him that well. Poor guy.”
Later it was dark. They had all gone. He looked to the west where it was still glowing.
He had screamed at the crowds, but they ignored him. He had tried to touch his wife; his children. He felt substantial to himself but he passed right through them. He felt the ground beneath his feet, but he couldn’t pick up anything.
The glow wasn’t scary by itself, but it was final and Bob was afraid.
He had seen other ghosts. Some he had recognized; people he had known; others had been strangers. They had seen him, some had responded to him, replied to his questions, but in a language beyond his understanding. They had left finally; some in frustration, most with a seeming sense of sad and haunted resignation.
The glow was all that remained.
It was so unfair, he thought; so utterly unfair. He thought of his daughter Cindy. He thought of the look on her face as they had taken her away. He had seen the eleven year old vanish in her eyes.
So unfair. He began to walk.
“Unfair.” The voice startled him. He turned around. It was Luke.
“I actually thought about what you were saying before Bob. Maybe there is a way that can help each other out.”
Bob looked into Luke’s eyes and quickly looked away. It was horrible in there. He looked to the west at the glow, but was still afraid.
“I’m listening.” He said it after some time had passed. The glow hadn’t changed, but it had gotten easier to look into the eyes. They were still horrible, but there was a familiarity to them: greed and lust; petty jealousies; mad revenge and quick, hot violence. The glow though; that was another thing entirely; strange beyond any comprehension; vast and unsettling.
“It occurred to me that you are a pawn in a game that isn’t fair. Through random bad luck, you happened to be in a certain spot in time when Andy the movie man went postal. Normally, that would be all she wrote, but you do have two things going for you. You are a free agent and you know what’s going to happen. “
“What does that mean?”
“It means that you can stop it from happening.”
“Well, that’s where helping each other out comes in. There are some rules we would have to follow, but there is a way that I can turn back the clock a bit, say to just before you were shot. You get to be the one holding the soccer ball. You get to be a hero. “
“You can do that?”
“I can do that.”
“If I am holding the soccer ball, what is Kevin holding?”
“Ahhhh. That’s the what of it isn’t it?” Luke smiled. “Kevin ends up holding the bag. He gets shot instead of you. Everything else is the same. Andy shoots bitch realtor, Kevin is sitting next to him instead of you and gets shot. You bean Andy with the soccer ball, Jerry finishes him off with the chair. Your daughter gets to have a live hero for a daddy, instead of a dead victim. So what do you say?”
“What do I say?”
“Right.” Luke smiled. “Do we have a deal?”
The smile grew wider. “Well, I would expect some compensation.”
“As in my soul?”
“I guess you could call it that. You wouldn’t be a free agent anymore, it that’s what you mean, but you would get to live another fifty years. You could watch your kids grow up. I happen to know that if you are around, your son won’t become a part time drug addict that ends up dropping out of college to become a full time loser and your daughter won’t end up getting pregnant a month after her fifteenth birthday like they are going to in the future that is about to be if you don’t change it. I also happen to know that Marjorie Henshaw will take you in the conference room at the next Christmas party and do things that you have scarcely dreamed of Bob. Most importantly though, you don’t have to walk towards that light.”
Bob thought about it. Kevin Hale was a douche bag, that was for sure. So he thought about it.
“What about Kevin Hale’s kid?” He had tried not to think about her, but Sissy Hale’s face had come anyway. She was a quiet kid; serious and shy, but polite. Bob had always liked her. He had felt sorry for her in an absent minded sort of way. “What happens to her?”
“Its funny you should mention that.” Luke smiled. “What happens to her is that her father is too dead to keep molesting her; too dead to keep taking the pictures he keeps of it on his computer. This by the way, is instrumental in preventing her from running away next year and growing up quickly enough to become a hooker that one morning will be tortured to death by a client with some issues in a cheap hotel in the city.”
Bob started to speak, but Luke interrupted smoothly.
“I know what you are thinking Bob. You are thinking, how can you trust me? Am I right?”
“That’s just what I thought. I can’t really say as I blame you either. I realize my reputation as a liar proceeds me. So you take your time and think it over. If you do, you will see the truth of the matter.” Luke disappeared again.
Bob thought it over. After a time, he saw the truth of it. He saw it for what it was.
“Why me?” He finally asked. “Why do you want me?”
“Why you?” Luke smiled. “I want you because you are a free agent, Bob. I already have Andy the Movie Man and Bitch the Realtor. She has done things that would surprise you. I already have Kevin Hale the child molester. This way, I get you too. It’s a numbers game. Its as simple as that. So what do you say we get down to business?” Luke extended his hand. “No need for contracts between friends. We can shake on it.
Bob looked at the light again. Luke followed his gaze.
“Back to that are we Bob?” Luke’s smile now looked mockingly affected. “Fair enough. Speaking of which, there is that word again. Fair.” He began to move his shoulders, grooving to music Bob couldn’t hear. The music grew faster by the look of his dancing, more of it now; his whole body became involved.
“How is it that you think the world runs Bob?” Luke didn’t wait for an answer. “You reall y never think about it at all? That’s exactly what I thought. Nobody really does; not in any practical sense anyway. Those that are focused on it at all are caught up in their part in the whole drama, which is entirely missing the point of it from an operational standpoint. What governs the fundamental laws of the universe? Please. How many people even know how their computers work? They live their lives in total oblivion.”
Luke’s dance became a spin. His voice took on an echoing quality; an excitement that had an eerie tinge of more voices, caught just below; trying to get out.
“These people live in oblivion, then when something bad happens, they cry foul. ‘Hey, that isn’t fair they shout.’ So let me ask you a question then Bob. How is it fair that someone who does not participate in the operation of reality should expect any kind of controlling interest? People aren’t shareholders Bob. People are really nothing more than scenery. Sometimes they are potential customers. I happen to be in the sales department. “
Bob started to speak again, but Luke once more interrupted.
“Indulge me for another few moments Bob, I promise, I am winding down. Time is a wasting as they say and it really is a numbers game. You have never taken a chance in your life Bob. On the one hand, that has kept you safe. Never having made a real decision, you have managed to remain a free agent, but it has also destroyed any spark of adventure or genuine curiosity you may once have had. Now spare me your outrage. If I am wrong, I apologize. Just say goodbye to everything you have ever known and walk down that road. Before you do though, consider a few things.” He stopped spinning and yawned, this time with less affectation, or so it seemed. His face seemed slightly weary; less prone to shifting and rippling.
“There are fundamental laws. Gravity, relativity, inertia, et cetera. There are also rules. I cannot lie about your future as it relates to my deal. That is one of the rules. If you walk down that road, everything I have told you will come to pass. The ruin of your family is a certainty. The only thing that isn’t a certainty is what lies down that road. I have no idea what is waiting for you there, but these things I do know: when you get there, you are on your own and there is no coming back.”
Luke began brushing imaginary dust off his shoulders, then looked directly into Bob’s eyes. There was no more horror. There was only truth. Like gravity, it was absolute.
“So go on Bob. Walk down that road. Let a child molester who live and condemn your own family. Either that, or just shake my hand and I will make it fair.”
Bob thought about it. He thought about his family.
“He thought about Sissy Hale.
He thought about the light and the finality of it.
Bob shook Luke’s hand. It was cold and steamy, but that didn’t matter anymore.
“Bitch” Then there was a popping sound.
Bob turned his head at that, just in time to see the realtor’s head come apart in the back, red mist and pieces coating Jenny Hale, who started making noises herself, arms pin wheeling her backwards, bringing the chair over with her.
Bob looked down at the soccer ball in his hand.
The realtor made a barking sound; wet and nasal, before falling out of her chair. Andy snorted; something unintelligible followed. He turned his head towards Kevin Hale, feet planted, his torso following in a swiveling arc; arms following torso, extending outwards, the left palm up as in supplication, the right holding the gun. Luke stood next to him, a leering grin splitting his face in ripples and waves; his eyes were goading.
Bob looked down at the soccer ball again
“Go ahead. Do it.” Luke’s eyes were locked on Bob’s. They were full of what he had said just before rewinding the clock:
“So by now you are considering the possibility of really changing the future perhaps?”
Bob had looked at him. Luke had nodded back.
“You are thinking about throwing the ball early.” Luke had wagged his finger and made clucking noises. “No, don’t bother pretending the idea hadn’t crossed your mind. In any event, Bon Chance Bob. I say go for it. All bets are off when you miss though. “ Luke had slapped his forehead sharply, making a wet thumping noise. “Oh, did I say when instead of if? Gee, guess I let the cat out of that bag.”
Andy aimed at Kevin Hale and said “I actually am not sorry it had to be you Kevin.”
And Bob thought about it. He thought about it. He thought about his family and Sissy Hale and what might have been down that road. He thought about the soccer ball in his hand.
“Do it.” Luke laughed. “Show some balls for once in your life.”
Bob looked down at the soccer ball, then he looked back at Luke.
Andy aimed the gun at Kevin Hale who was white with terror.
“Andy, the voices aren’t in your head. He is standing right next to you.”
Andy looked over at Bob, question forming in his glazed eyes. Luke stopped smiling.
“Bob?” Andy’s voice was unsure.
“Never mind him Andy.” Luke’s voice was different. Again, there were more of them. “Shoot that asshole Hale. It will feel sooooooooooooo good.” Luke laughed, but Bob heard it. Underneath that laughter was fear. Andy started turning back to Kevin, blinking. Sweat was rolling down off his face in the cool fall breeze.
“Andy, don’t listen to him.” Bob pleaded. “He is standing right next to you. Look at him.”
“You are starting to piss me Bob. “ Steam began to form around Luke, rank and dripping. I warn you , pissing me off is something you do not want to do.”
“Did you hear that Andy?” Bob asked. Andy looked back, head tilted.
“The voices in your head are warning me now Andy. I am starting to piss them off.” Bob was sure of it now. “How do I know that? I know that because I can hear them. I can hear them because they aren’t in your head. Look at him Andy. He is standing right next to you. It has been him all along, whispering in your ear. The voices aren’t in your head.”
Andy looked at where Luke was standing.
“He can’t see me Bob. He can’t see me because I am inside his head, right where I belong. Andy’s eyes bulged as he stared. He finally looked back at Bob, silent tears in bulging eyes. He shook his head
I am telling you the truth.” Bob said, nodding his.
Andy looked quickly back at where Luke stood, than slowly turned back to Bob. His gun followed, aimed directly at Bob’s chest.
“Shoot him Andy.” Luke’s voice was calm now. “Shoot him and then you can shoot the rest of them.”
Bob dropped the soccer ball. He walked towards Andy, stopping when he was directly in front of him. He looked into Andy’s eyes. “You don’t have to do it Andy.”
“It’s too late Andy.” Luke shouted, his voice echoing off the trees that surrounded the soccer field.
“Its not too late Andy. “ Turning to Luke, Bob said “He doesn’t have to shoot anybody Luke.” There was certainty in his voice. “He is a free agent. If he wasn’t, you would have made him do it already.
Bob turned back to Andy. Andy pulled the trigger.
Bob looked down at his chest, then back at Luke.
“You aren’t breathing. Its hard to talk when you can’t breathe.“
It was spreading all over his chest.
“But that isn’t fair.” And then he was gone.
The police showed up a few minutes later. While they were waiting, Bob talked to Andy. Everyone else seemed stunned. They didn’t move. Kevin Hale was throwing up in the grass, but everyone else was focused on Bob and Andy.
“I’m sorry Bob.” He heard the sincerity in Andy’s voice. Andy still had the gun, but he was pointing it at the ground.
“I know you are Andy.” It was all he could say. He knew what was coming. It was like gravity and relativity. It was like inertia.
So just before the police came, Andy put the gun in his mouth and blew the back of his head out. Bob didn’t try to stop him. He wouldn’t have known how to.
When the police asked him what Andy’s last words had been, he answered them with hesitation in his voice.
“He told me that Kevin Hale was molesting his daughter. I realize that he was insane, but he said there were pictures on Kevin’s computer. I have no idea how he would know this.”
The police promised they would look into it and did. Kevin Hale was arrested and hung himself in prison.
The legend of Bob Convers, “Hometwon Hero” quickly went viral. One of the parents in the back had taped the ending with his cell phone The audio was terrible, but the picture was decent. It showed Bob approach the gun man. It showed the gun man shoot into a tree, then sit down. Bob sat down with him and they exchanged a few words until Andy put the gun in his mouth. There were actually two versions on the internet, the first one ended there, with Andy putting the gun in his mouth. The other one was slightly longer
In all the interviews that followed, they eventually asked him the same question:
“What do you think he shot at Bob?”
“What does anybody shoot at?” Bob would answer. “I guess we all have our demons. I took the chance that when he took a good look at his, he would see it for what it was”
© Mark Cunningham – 2010
I loved this, Mark. It has your voice very strongly throughout – I could imagine you as both Luke and Bob ;-). It asks the reader to bring their own demons into the light, turn them over, consider them very carefully. Also, to consider what they would do in their own moment of truth. What would that moment of truth be? And do we stake all our moral being on just one choice, one deal? Is our moral self defined by what we choose to do in one key moment, or a collection of minor decisions (or non-decisions) across the course of a lifetime? Some big questions, and very characteristic of you to provoke the reader to ask them.
Thanks Tamara. I think you nailed what I was going for, although I am agog and aghast you would see any of Luke in me. Remind me to tell you sometime about how I wrote part of it on the standing only section of the bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin without any RMB in my pocket. That was a moment of truth alright.
I read it last night, and it is still haunting me. It shines a light on the sleazy sales pitches (even the ones that are born in our own heads) that we listen to and give life to with our decisions.
I didn’t like Bob much at first, probably because he reminded me about the parts of myself I don’t like much. The horror of being “substantial to yourself, but passing right through others,” as if you don’t even matter, or never making a real decision in order to remain a “free agent,” hit a little bit close to home. It’s something I think we all rage against.
He redeemed himself in my eyes when he said to Andy “You are not breathing. It’s hard to talk when you aren’t breathing.” The moment when you turn your back on the thing that you thought was inevitable, and find life in other possibilities, breathe in reality you didn’t know existed. I had to read it again.
Thanks for posting this. It was provocative and haunting.
Robin, thank you very much for your insightful analysis. You are the type of reader every writer looks for. This was an interesting story to write and your comments led me back to reading it again. That, I believe is the ultimate reward for a writer. That said Carina, I will be happy to accept a check should you feel so inclined.