by VJ Miller, Sr.
When we left Bart, last time he was distraught and trying to drink himself into oblivion. He threw himself onto his bed, but his dreams were nightmares. Snapping out of his bad dream he realized he was no longer alone…
The intruder snapped on the lights before Bart could ask who’s there. The sudden brightness instantly brought Bart’s left hand up before his squinting eyes.
“Hello asshole. Having nightmares, are we?”
“Who the fuck are you? What do you want?” said Bart, his vision clearing. Before him, leaning on the doorjamb was a young string bean of a man, heavily acned, sporting circular lens glasses with wire frames; in jeans, a sloppy sweatshirt, white sox, high-topped sneakers and a baseball cap turned backwards.
“It’s me. Your phone buddy. Reach out and touch someone, y’know.”
Bart’s brain went tilt; his face contorted into that addled look he got when his seldom used logic circuits overheated.
“You’re not Ranken Fyle,” stumbled out of Bart’s mouth.
“No, I’m an independent.”
Again, his face contorted. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You tell me. You brought it up.”
“You’re not the peddler.”
“No. I’m the ped-al-er.”
Bart’s pained expression mirrored the helplessness in his logic circuits. “Wha?…”
“You’ve mistaken me for someone else you stupid asshole. I didn’t think you’d know who I am.” Bart’s blank stare asked the question before his mouth could. “Try to think back to last Friday. You were driving after midnight. You saw a person riding on a bicycle. When you drove past you threw a beer can out and hit him in the face and he went down in a heap in the dirt alongside the road.”
Anthony Ames, by reputation was a geek to the extreme. An unjust label applied to him by fellow workers who had not the capacity nor initiative to peer beneath the surface. Had he been sixty pounds heavier and somewhat more sociable the tag might not have been hung on him. Being a slight little man, timid in public, his only solace came from books. He read everything he could get his hands on, the technical things being his favorite.
Thrust into life a runt, Anthony didn’t get much better growing up; throughout early life he was shorter than anyone else. In school the bigger boys picked on him just because he was smaller. Cruel, they were rarely physical, mostly because Anthony learned to give them a wide berth. The taller girls were a big tease, taking delight in embarrassing him nearly every day. Odds were he’d become introverted. Eventually, Anthony became no fun anymore; everyone simply ignored him, having better fun to seek out. This probably scarred him more than the taunts. For most of his later school years he became an un-person.
Adolescent hormones caused a surge in height and prodded him against his inadequacies into seeking out the opposite sex. At the same time, he was afflicted by every teenager’s worst nightmare – pimples to the max. So badly stricken and so badly embarrassed by the facial eruptions he shied away even more. Though with most every other teenager in the same boat he might have found acceptance had he the courage to take the first step.
High school offered greater advantages. Here he first learned of the uses of computers. If his early years had not retarded his social skills, he might have joined one or more of the clubs where he would have met young adults much like himself with the same interests.
His parents gladly gave him the computer when he asked for one; knowing they were the wave of the future. Anthony spent long hours in the library absorbing any book he could find on computer use. Ultimately, the computer filled most of his idle hours, essentially taking the place of a normal social life. Socially challenged, he could not bring himself to even surf the net for a kindred spirit — remaining a hermit.
Becoming a computer genius in his own right, a self-taught hacker, he took obscure ideas from books and trade journals and applied them to his own purpose. Finding little resistance breaking into most computer systems to download the data for his personal use. He might have made a career in the computer field had he not been seduced by the dark side of the technology.
After high school he got a factory job because he couldn’t convince anyone in the technical field that he possessed the skills. Trade schools and universities were expensive; no way he could scrape up the money to make it happen. Joining the rest of the cattle in the herd of menial labor was the only avenue open. The butt of jokes from fellow employees most of the time he suffered in silence; pretending to be good-natured about the taunts when actually all the ridicule tore his guts out.
Unable to afford a car, unwilling to cough up the ridiculous bus fare and not wishing to walk the four miles to and from work late at night, Anthony rode a bicycle; cementing the geek label much more firmly.
The Fatal encounter:
That Bart and Anthony, these two diametrically opposed men, would ever meet socially was absurdity compounded by inanity. Only through capricious fate did the two cross paths that night. Had Bart known the many times Anthony suffered the indignity of having various liquids and semi-solid objects thrown at him from passing cars he might not have tossed the beer can — but that’s debatable.
Each incident pushed Anthony to greater frustration and anger. Bart unwittingly became the final straw. Anthony managed the license plate number on Bart’s truck before the asshole could speed away. He’d be the one who’d pay dearly for all those years of accumulated degradation.
Seeing this ass-wipe for who he was Bart rolled over for the phone on the nightstand.
“Uh uh, don’t bother. I cut the wires long ago.”
The fear and angst of the previous days boiled over into anger at the thought of being tormented by this skinny little geek. “All right you little fucker, I’ll just take care of you myself. The cops won’t do anything to me for beating a trespasser to a pulp.”
Coming to a sitting position on the side of the bed, just before he was about to stand, Bart’s nose contacted the silencer attached to the .45 caliber Ruger auto pistol with a laser sight Anthony had pulled from behind his back.
“Don’t even think about it asshole.” Bart froze, though he could not control the slight tremble of his upper body. “I’d hate to kill you just yet – but one funny move – your fucking brains will be dripping down the wall.”
“All — all r-right. You got all the cards fella.”
“You’re a smart man Tredan… for an asshole.”
Bart’s guts churned. He’d grown accustomed to having the upper hand most of his wretched life; now he was impotent.
“How’d you know it was me tossed the beer can?”
“With a license number and a computer, you can find out anything about anybody. I know all about you,” said Anthony, stepping back. “The B&E at that poor suckers house the other day, your accident, the fact that you owned a gun — which the police now have; everything about your worthless existence.”
“You did all that to set me up.”
“You got it asshole. Though I must admit I couldn’t have predicted your mistaking me for that salesman; it was just a happy accident.” Anthony snickered. “The neighbors are so pissed that they won’t care what happens to you. And if someone should call the cops… well, they’re so tired of you they probably won’t leave their coffee and sinkers too quickly.”
“And you’re just gonna kill me for nothing.”
“For nothing. Get real asshole. A jerk like you doesn’t deserve to live. And bumping you off will certainly wipe away a lifetime of humiliation for me.”
“Look. Gimme another chance. I’m sorry for what I did.” The liar. He’d say anything to get out of this. Not knowing the consequences, if he had it to do again, one could bet the house and first-born on him repeating his stupidity. “You just go on out and we can call it square — and I won’t tell the cops or nothin’.”
Anthony paused at the absurdity, trying to hold back a laugh. “Do you really think I’m as dumb as you look? The second I was gone you’d be pounding on the neighbor’s door to use the phone.”
“No, honest. Really.”
“Forget it asshole, we’re going for a ride.”
“The desert. Now get your chicken shit ass up. And don’t try anything funny.”
Desperate men oft times do desperate things, while stupid men usually do stupid things — so a stupid desperate man like Bart should be open to anything.
He got up slowly, his hands at shoulder height. Passing Anthony on his way to the door Bart thrust out with one arm to push Anthony over the chair while his other hand doused the lights from the wall switch.
Vip, Vip, Vip.
Three slugs splintered the casing over Bart’s head while he ducked and ran down the hall. Without pause he whirled toward the front door, grabbed his coat from the hook there and bolted into the chilly night.
Stumbling down the brick steps he tumbled over on the dew-covered front lawn. With cat-like agility he’d never known before he was on his feet, running across the slippery grass toward his truck. Slamming into the right front fender he caromed off, making his way around the front like a fleet halfback to the driver’s side. Braking unexpectedly, he had to toss Anthony’s bike aside to get into the door.
Key in the ignition on the first try his heart leaped; sensing he was going to get away for Anthony was nowhere in sight. His heart sank after the engine cranked over but still refused to start. He slammed the steering wheel then jumped from the truck; crouching beside the left fender he peeked over the hood.
Anthony had not appeared. Maybe he was knocked unconscious? Yeah, that had to be it. He’d go back in, grab the gun and blow the fuckers brains out. Sure; the cops’d like as not give him a medal. NOT! For while Bart began to stand Anthony appeared at the front door — gun in hand. Vip, Vip, Vip, the shots whistled over Bart’s head when Anthony saw him.
Sweat cascaded off Bart despite the night chill. His heart pounded in his ears like a rock and roll band. What to do? What to do? Mind racing, his head snapped around for any avenue of escape. There, on the grass, his eyes locked onto Anthony’s bike.
Any Port etc.
Yanking it up he ran the bike down the driveway through the neighbors’ shrubs on the property line, hopped on and crouched low while he rode down the street; pedaling fast as his feet would go.
Grinning, Anthony made his way casually down the steps across to the front of Bart’s truck to pop the hood. From his pocket he pulled the coil wire he’d removed during the cops last visit and put it back in place. In the cab the keys were where Bart had left them. The engine thundered to life on the first try. Shifting the tranny nonchalantly into reverse Anthony roared back onto the street.
From his pocket he pulled a piece of electronic equipment. It beeped softly while he stared at it. Laughing, he dropped the truck in first and drove into the night.
Bart’s chest ached, his heart pounding, his lungs on fire gulping in huge quantities of the chill night air. Pain stabbed his back, legs aching on the verge of cramping up but he dared not slow his pace. Escape desperately prodded him on while abject fear clouded all coherent thought. He had no idea where he was going or what to do if he got there.
Near collapse, the sudden headlights approaching from behind gave him new energy. Against the wall of stabbing pain wracking his lower body he pedaled harder.
The station wagon full of drunken teenagers of both sexes jeered in passing; throwing a bag of garbage at him, laughing raucously while they hung out the windows to watch him fall. One girl dropping her pants, sticking her shapely butt out the back window to moon him.
Bart never saw this, being too busy trying to stay astride the runaway cycle. Handlebars twisting out of his grasp he flew over them to accept a mouthful of road dirt. Scuzzy — blood flowing from his lower lip down onto his shirt collar — racked with pain, he gulped two huge breaths of air, scrambling back on the bike to continue his flight.
Anthony stopped at a crossroads to check his directional finder. The transponder set under the seat worked perfectly. The fool had turned left toward the desert instead of right toward the city and salvation. Was he that frightened or did he think he was that smart he’d forego the obvious choice in hopes of eluding his pursuer. Anthony’s plan was working better than expected. His quarry outmatched in this cat and mouse game.
The night came across crimson and gold twinkling lights through Bart’s eyes, his body bordering on collapse. Fear alone drove this cowardly bully on. Anthony leaned on the horn when he came alongside Bart and roared on past. Seeing his truck and knowing who the driver must be Bart’s tortured heart pounded ever harder; a cry of anguish erupting from his throat gone dry from the rapid exchange of air.
Bart saw the brake lights flare when the pickup went into a skid, swung around and faced him. His attempt to stop and turn only succeeded in rolling the bike and himself over. Hauling himself to his knees he gulped in huge quantities of air.
Staring at him, a hundred feet away, were the headlights of his truck sitting in place, the engine softly revving. He stood bent over at the waist gasping; forcing his spasm racked back to straighten. Bathed in the headlights he heard the horn gently tooting, then the lights slowly approaching.
Shaking his head, stumbling ever backward he searched for the bike. Forcing his leg over the seat he persisted in his futile attempt to escape.
Anthony roared up alongside Bart yelling obscenities at him. Then hurling objects from a bag on the front seat. Bart never even saw what Anthony had placed there when he first tried to escape. Slowing, Anthony pulled behind Bart, lining him up between the headlights. How easy to just end Bart’s flight then and there… but Anthony had other plans for Bart — this torment would not end any time soon.
Roaring past Bart, Anthony spun the truck around again, engaging him in a game of one-sided chicken. Bart yanked the handlebars into the ditch just before Anthony peeled off to the opposite side. Racked with pain he could go on no longer. Flight was physically impossible to continue. Even the fear of death and torture could not override his physical and emotional collapse. He whimpered involuntarily, watching his truck return to slowly circle around him. Bart coughed, gagged and spit out several scuzzy clumps of bloody mucous while his tortured lungs tried to maintain an adequate oxygen level.
After five minutes of slow circling the truck came to a stop ten feet away, the passenger side door facing him. On stuttering legs, he urged himself up, trying to stand erect, his cramped muscles shackling him to a partial stoop. He stared into the darkened cab unable to see Anthony’s face. For agonizing empty seconds, he stood staring helplessly into the dark hole of his pride. The soft thrum of the engine the only thing breaking the quietude.
He threw his hands out to his sides in submission and croaked out, “What… what more do you want of me? I’m sorry…”
He stood unanswered for an eternity; the red dot of a laser sight bobbing on his chest. This was the end. He thought he heard a phffft come from the cab. Then felt a pinch in his chest like a bee sting; seconds later he knew darkness.
Heat — oppressive, clinging, unbearable heat that adhered to the flesh like hot asphalt was the first awareness that Bart knew. His eyes flickered open a crack to brilliant white light prompting reflexes to snap them shut.
Next, cramping pain in his back, legs and arms attacked his senses. Bart tried to stretch his aching muscles in vain. Paralyzed, caromed across his clouded senses while he fought to slap his mind alert. Several times his eyes flicked open then closed gradually adjusting to the glare.
Fuzzy vision coalesced bringing discovery of the reason for his paralysis; his wrists were cuffed to his ankles; all being shackled to an iron stake embedded deeply into the sand beneath him. He sat inside a corrugated metal box so small that even if he were not restrained, he could not have stood up nor stretched out. The bright white light of the open wall before him dimmed when his sight adjusted enough to make out endless stretches of white sand under a cloudless sky. Rolling his head around to clear a crick in his neck he recoiled when two white plastic tubes hanging through individual holes in the roof scraped the side of his head — he cringed.
His tugging at the shackles caused the metal links to clink in response. Seconds later a shadow fell across the opening, a pair of legs appeared. Bart’s ship of hope sank in despair. The legs squatted before the opening to reveal the grinning face of his tormentor.
“Back with us again I see, asshole.”
“Wh—where am I?”
“Oh… about 150 miles out into the desert, and I’d say about 15 miles from the nearest highway.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“Do? Why before I leave, I’m gonna close up this wall. I’d say by noon it should be 130-140 degrees in there.”
Bart’s heart quickened. “And you’re just gonna leave me here?”
“You got it asshole.”
Bart’s face, drained from fear, elicited a wide grin from Anthony. “You can’t leave me here!”
“Oh, but I am. Someone’s got to pay for the lifetime of indignity I’ve had to endure — and unfortunately for you, you’re it.”
Bart’s mind spun its wheels then his face flushed with realization. “Wait. This is just a joke ain’t it. You’re not gonna do this for real. You just wanna scare me then you’ll come back and let me go. Well, you’ve scared me now let me go,” he said, shaking his shackles hopefully.
“You just don’t get it do you. Once I’ve closed up this box, I’m gonna get in your truck and dump it after I get back to town. You’re a dead man. Get used to it.”
Frantic, Bart tugged hysterically at his fetters.
“Yank on ’em all you want. There’s no way they’re gonna come loose.” Bart gave up his futility. “You know asshole, you shoulda read more. Maybe then you wouldn’t have been such a jerk.”
“Whata you know?”
“A lot more than you. Books tell you a lot of things. Like how to make computers do just about anything. How to make cellular phones and tie into the system with someone else’s code and how to make voice synthesizers. How to make air pistols to fire darts. And how to make natural sedatives to coat the darts with. And even how to build death traps. The effects of excessive heat on the human body. I’d tell you but it’d spoil all the fun of discovering it for yourself. You fool. I was standing in front of your house with the rest of the crowd and you didn’t even know I was there.”
“Damn you! This is murder!”
“Sure, it is… but you must admit I’ve been sporting about it.”
Bart’s face contorted. “What?”
“It gets cold out here at night so I made sure you had your coat on. I wouldn’t want you to freeze, that is should you live through today. Trouble is you can’t get it off during the day shackled like that…. Oh well, one can’t have everything. So long asshole.”
Anthony stood, stepped aside. Bart’s prison was quickly dark when Anthony placed the steel door in front of the opening.
“WAIT! PLEASE! YOU CAN’T DO THIS!” Bart was in full-blown panic while Anthony strode away. Bart heard the door of his truck open then close. Instead of the expected roar of the engine he heard footsteps approaching. This was a joke. He’d be set free after all. He knew the fucker couldn’t go through with it.
The door dropped down; Bart was all a glee, holding up his shackles for the expected key.
“Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. See those two plastic tubes hanging down?” Bart obediently gazed back to the tubes that had brushed his head earlier. “If you crane your neck you can get your mouth around one of them. I said I was giving you a sporting chance. Now, if you’re lucky you’ll get the one with the water in it.”
“Wh-what’s in the other?”
“Acid…. If you get that one… well you may or may not live very long. But I can tell you you’ll be in agony for as long as you do.” Bart’s eyes went wide like saucers; feeling a deep revulsion in his throat. “So, make your choice. Just pull on it with your teeth and it’ll meter out as much as you want. Bye.”
The wall closed leaving Bart in the gloom again but for the light filtering in through gaps in the joints of the box. Bart winced in panic upon hearing Anthony secure the opening.
“So long asshole…. Have a nice day.”
“NO! YOU CAN’T DO THIS! PLEASE! I’M SORRY, I’M SORRY!”
Bart’s frantic appeal fell on deaf ears. He heard the footsteps in the sand; each sounding his death knell. Part of him persisted in clinging to the belief this wasn’t much more than an elaborate joke, a punishment for his indiscretions, even when he heard the engine roar into life. Even though his heart pounded in his temples and the truck careened into the distance the part of him that was arrogance refused to believe Anthony would not return
When the long minutes ticked inexorably on to a point where Bart could no longer determine how long he’d been there his flicker of hope became snuffed under his mounting anxieties.
His wrists bled where he’d yanked his shackles, the blood pooling in his cupped palms rapidly crusting over in the hot dry air.
Heat sapped strength and will. He found himself leaning against the back wall of his prison gasping in staccato bursts; the arid air searing his throat, turning his lungs to molten fire.
The afternoon winds threw loose sand into the air; scratching its presence on the metal tomb. Wending its way through each crack and crevice as if seeking to inform Bart he was already dead and to prepare to be buried.
In the gloom the two white plastic tubes shown like beacons in the night. Determined to ignore his thirst, the sight of the tubes enhanced it all the more. He closed his swollen eyelids; the crusted over edges felt like broken glass on his eyes. Devoid of tears he could not keep his orbs moist.
He passed out from both heat and lack of sufficient oxygen. Nightmares of being chased by his truck tormented him, the grill having transformed into huge incisors that snapped at him while he pedaled frantically on the tiny bicycle. When the teeth engulfed him, biting him in half he snapped his head forward off the wall — wide-awake.
His eyes would not open; crusted shut he could not force the lids apart. Leaning forward he could not touch his head to his knees or any other part of his body to break loose the crust. Panic stricken he jerked his head up trying to scream, managing only a tortured rasp. The back of his head touched the plastic tubes dangling down. Another wave of panic captured him. He jerked his whole body to one side lest he accidentally start the one containing the acid.
His dry swollen tongue swiped across his cracked, parched lips. Incoherent, he still knew he could not last much longer without water. He’d have to make a choice very soon.
Slowly he sat erect; inching his head around until his out-thrust chin came gently in contact with the first tube, then the other. Heat, confusion and above all, terror, made coherent thought impossible. Should he throw caution to the wind? Never having had to make any tough decisions in his life Bart possessed no point of reference from which to draw. God, how he wished he had a coin to flip.
Time grew ever critical. If he expected to live until someone eventually found him he’d have to choose now. The right… or the left? The right. Reaching out with his cracked, blistered lower lip he made gentle contact with the end of the tube. His whole body trembled while closing his upper lip around what could be salvation — he froze…
He could not bring himself to pull on the tube. Letting it go gingerly he pulled in both lips. Maybe the other held salvation. He carefully moved in the direction of the other tube, as before he could not bring himself to grasp it. What if he were wrong? Wouldn’t he be better off just drinking the acid and get the torture over with? No, that wasn’t right. He wanted to live to get his revenge. He must choose.
However,… what if the joke were really on him? What if they both contained acid? Anthony said he wanted him dead…. Maybe he wanted him to be the instrument of his own death, allowing Anthony to have a clear conscience.
Swimming in his heat induced delusions and his paralytic inability to make a decision he was stalemated. Should he take a chance at life or else embrace death; something he hadn’t the courage to commit.
Reaching again with his trembling lip he hesitated for a score of heartbeats then shrank back in subjugated resolution. He was afraid… and a coward. For the first time in his pitiable life, he knew deep within his soul what everyone else always knew. The impact of this undeniable truth caused him to shrink down and begin to cry. Dry tears and silent sobs wracked his wretched body and soul….
No Bart Again:
MONDAY MORNING; 8:35 AM. Bart’s boss stood by the time clock. After 45 minutes of waiting, he’d reached his limit. He glanced at his watch, the time clock then the front door one last time. Shaking his head he lifted Bart’s timecard from the rack, glanced at it then tore it slowly in half, into quarters, eighths. Holding them over the trashcan he watched with satisfaction while he dropped the shards one by one into the can.
“Fuck you too, Tredan.”
Karma Is a Bitch:
TUESDAY MORNING; 12:17 AM. A young man was struck and killed by an eighteen-wheeler. The driver of the truck reported he swerved to avoid an oncoming car that had drifted over the center line and did not see the young man until he had hit him. Sketchy reports say the young man was fixing a flat tire on his bicycle by the side of the dark road. The deceased, Anthony Ames, was 20 years old.
8:15 AM. Bart’s truck had been found alongside the road by the Highway Patrol, on the outskirts of town. It was towed to the impound yard; a call was placed to Bart’s home. Unable to contact him due to a change in the number an officer made a call at Bart’s house. Finding no one home the officer noted such in his logbook, left a note at the door and went about his duties.
TWO WEEKS LATER. Bart’s tomb was discovered by a Police Helicopter on patrol looking for a small plane reported down in the area. No one having reported Bart missing the authorities were not looking for him. That he did not answer the requests to come claim his truck was not enough to motivate them to seek him out.
The helicopter radioed in the strange find and hovered above until the Highway Patrol arrived.
“Oh God! The stink coming out of there,” said one officer to the other. “Whata you think it is?”
“I don’t know. Could be some kind of animal trap.”
When they opened the door the first officer retched all over the sand while the other radioed in the find. The local reptilian and insect life had made short order of most of the lower portions while the rest putrefied in the heat.
The autopsy confirmed that Bart died of dehydration and exposure to the elements.
“I can’t figure it,” said the officer on the scene to the Coroner. “We thought it might have been some college prank gone bad. How could he have died of dehydration when he had two twenty-gallon cans of water on top o’ the box?”
This story adapted from my anthology
If you have any thoughts on this series if you liked or didn’t please feel free to comment
COMING IN TWO WEEKS A LOT OF ACTION
Night of the Barbarian
©2023 VJ Miller, Sr. Fair use rights with attributes are implied