Ben Bales is an engineer at a small optics company living in Dallas, Texas. He writes many short stories, some of which he doesn't shred.
by Ben Bales
Four. And he was only a couple of minutes late. If he had gotten there a little earlier he would have beaten the fire department, and maybe it would be less. Now the men in yellow were swarming the scene and keeping everyone back. Paul stood in the street watching the burning building and couldn’t help thinking that his four could have been in there. He sighed and walked away. There would always be more opportunities. More ways to get his four.
He climbed into his old beat-up Buick parked a few blocks away. From here he could barely see the distant glow of the flames. He wouldn’t be adding any blue names in his notebook tonight.
“I was too late,” he said to an empty car.
He tore his eyes off the far away fire and began rummaging around the trashy interior of his vehicle. All of his possessions lay somewhere on the cracked, purple leather. Piles of clothes, both clean and dirty, filled the backseat. Papers littered the dashboard, with a swaying hula dancer stuck to the center.
“So, where to next?” Paul said aloud, as he fished a map out from the pile of junk in the passenger seat. The car was silent and still, save for the gentle movement of the hula dancer. Paul studied the map for a few minutes. Without a word, he folded the map and put the keys in the ignition.
“So now you know,” Paul said. A simple statement carrying heavy meaning.
Jessie just sat at the small kitchen table, staring at the small notebook between them.
“Please say something, Jessie.”
“I … I don’t know what to say.”
An audible silence filled the room. Paul looked at Jessie. She lowered her head, causing a lock of brown hair to slide across her forehead. Paul leaned across the table to gently sweep it out of the way, but she pulled back before he could.
“I think you should go,” she said.
Paul stopped, his mouth open. He regained composure and said, “Please don’t. Please.”
“You can’t be here. I don’t want you here, knowing what you did. Knowing what you do.”
“I don’t do that anymore though,” Paul said, standing abruptly. He noticed Jessie’s slight flinch, and said quietly, “I’m done. I’ve quit.”
“That doesn’t erase what you’ve already done. How many people’s lives have you destroyed?” Jessie’s voice quivered and threatened to break.
Paul looked at the floor and whispered, “A lot.”
“How can I be okay with that?” Jessie stood up, putting more room between the two of them. “You’ve done so much,” she scrunched up her face as she searched for the right word. “...evil. You’ve done too many bad things, and not enough good things.”
“Hey buddy,” a guy from down the bar said, “Long day?”
Paul just stared at the glass in front of him.
The stranger got up and sat on the stool next to Paul. This unwelcome guest gestured at the mug in front of Paul. “You gonna finish that?”
Paul slid the full beer over to the man, hoping that would end the interaction.
“Are you too good to talk to me or something?”
Paul shook his head, but still didn’t say anything. He looked up, wanting the barkeeper to do something about it, but the barkeeper must have gone into the back room. It was just Paul and the man pestering him.
“Oh I get it.” The man was standing now; “You’re one of those retards, right? Can’t form full sentences.” He laughed at this.
Paul’s hand was in his pocket, holding the small switchblade he kept there. “Leave me alone.”
The man gasped. “So it can speak,” He was talking loudly, as if he was putting on a show for the whole room, except he and Paul were the only two customers. “Let’s go idiot, say something else!”
Paul slid his hand out of his pocket.
“Look at how many names are in this book!” Jessie said, grabbing the notebook from the table. She turned page after page filled with black names.
“It was my job. It’s what I did for Dom,” Paul said, hanging his head, no longer able to meet her eyes.
Jessie looked like she was about to say something else, then dropped the book back onto the table and turned away.
Five. Paul sat in the driver’s seat, slowly cleaning his knife. He opened the notebook that he kept on his dash. After flipping past pages and pages of names, he added the name he had found in the stranger’s wallet to the end of his list. It had been a long time since his number had gone up, but going from four to five wasn’t a huge setback. After all, he had started at so much higher a year and a half ago, the number of black names in his notebook would attest to that. Throughout that time the number of blue names had slowly grown, and was now close to equaling the black names.
“Don’t give me that look,” Paul said to the wobbling dancer, “you weren’t there. You don’t know what he was like.”
It was hours later and many miles from the bar, but Paul still couldn’t shake the feeling of regret. “I don’t care what you say,” he said, continuing his one sided argument. “That guy was worth having five. Now can we drop it?” The car fell silent, except for the occasional crackle of news from the police scanner.
Paul was just starting to doze off when he heard what he had been waiting for. There was a fire. He tore through his map, desperately searching for the location stated over the police scanner. He found it and peeled away. It was close, he could make it there in time.
The dancer swayed as the street lights flashed by.
“I’m done, I’m out. I’m not going to do those things anymore.”
“But what will you do, Paul? Can you do anything to make up for…that?” she gestured towards the book on the table.
“What do you mean?”
“I guess I’m asking, when’s the last time that you’ve helped someone?”
“You want me to go help people? I can help people,” Paul said.
“Paul,” Jessie said, looking off into nowhere, “I want you to be someone who has helped more people than you’ve hurt.”
“You’re a hero,” said the EMT wrapping Paul’s hand.
“He’s an idiot, that’s what he is,” said a nearby fireman. “What were you thinking, running into a burning building like that?”
“I don’t know,” said Paul, trying his best to hide his smile.
The scene was very similar to the one from the night before. An apartment building was smoking heavily, and flames flickered through various windows. People stood outside staring. Some were talking and pointing, others were just crying.
“He saved that family over there.” The EMT nodded towards four people with oxygen masks sitting on the curb.
The fireman shrugged his shoulders, and then went back to his truck.
“Are you sure you won’t go to the hospital? Even with minor burns like that, it’s better to play it safe.”
Paul shook his head.
“Alright,” the EMT said. “Just keep that hand wrapped and it should be good in a few days.”
Paul stood, and again walked the few blocks to his car. Unlike the previous night, though, he was bringing the hula dancer good news.
“I can do that Jessie. I can be that person.” Paul paused. “For you.”
Jessie looked up and held his gaze. She gave him a small smile.
Paul smiled back and held his hand out to her. “Come on. We can do this. We can make this work.”
She stared at his outstretched palm, not saying anything. Paul stood frozen in that position, hoping for the best. She reached out and took his hand.
One. Four more names were inked in blue in Paul’s notebook. Paul’s elation would have been perfect had it not been for the nagging thought that he would be at zero if it hadn’t been for the man from the bar. He did his best to force this thought to the back of his mind and focus on how close he was. One. Only one. He had never dropped four numbers at once, and now he was unexpectedly so close to zero. He was so close to not being a negative force in the world.
His old car was pointed toward his hometown, toward Jessie, and he was already in the outskirts. He knew he could get at least one here somehow. Then he would find Jessie. He pulled into a motel parking lot, and thought about the possibility that he would find his one tomorrow. That was his last thought before falling asleep.
Paul awoke in a better mood than he had ever been in, at least for the past year and a half. He grabbed his coat and headed out, planning to get breakfast before he checked out.
The diner was everything you would expect from a mid-western suburb. Old people lining their usual booths, truckers laughing loudly in the corner, and waitresses tending to everyone in their mustard yellow uniforms. This atmosphere that had irritated him so much now washed over him as a warm sensation that he was back home. He slid into a booth and opened his menu.
Paul closed his eyes. He willed with all his might for the voice to not be connected to the person that he recognized it was coming from.
“It is you, Paul. Hey fellas, look who I found.”
“Hello Dom,” Paul said, opening his eyes to see the short, greasy balding man he had so feared to see.
“Long time no see, Paul. Where ya been?” Dom was soon flanked by two men that dwarfed him, each the very epitome of what it was to be a goon.
“That’s my Paul, never did like talking. Traveling, huh? Strangest thing, I can’t remember giving you no vacation.” Dom scratched his head in an exaggerated motion. “Did I give you a vacation Paul?”
“No bo-” Paul barely stopped himself from slipping into his old routine of saying ‘boss’. “No, Dom, you didn’t.”
Dom’s lip curled at the specific emphasis Paul had put on his name. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. You of all people should know how much I dislike it when my employees take vacations without my knowing.”
A waitress interrupted, “Should I set out three more plates for you folks?”
“No,” Dom said, “we were just leaving.”
Paul was pushed out of the diner without too much commotion, and was soon behind the diner.
“Well, Paul, are you coming back to the family?” Dom asked.
Paul shook his head.
“I didn’t think so,” said Dom, and he motioned to the two large men beside him.
Paul shoved his hand into his pocket.
“No. I can’t,” Jessie said, ripping her hand from Paul’s after only a moment. “You aren’t the person I thought you were.”
Paul ran his hand through his hair and tried to think of how to put his thoughts into words. “Jessie,” Paul said, “ever since I met you I’ve wanted to be better, to be everything you want me to be. However many names are in that book I’ll match with people I’ve helped. I’ll be equal.”
Four. It was hours later and Paul’s entire body still felt numb. Four. Again. He sat on the floor of the dirty motel shower cleaning the blood off of his knife and himself. Three more black names in his book and he was back to four. He had been so close, so close to zero. His hands started to shake, and the knife clanged to the porcelain. He raised his eyes to the ceiling and began to weep. His sobs echoed out through his empty motel room. It would take him so much longer now. So much more time before he could be back at zero. So much longer before he could be equal. Paul looked back down at the water, now almost completely devoid of red blood, flowing into the drain.
“I’ll get there. I will.”
“And how long will that take Paul?” Jessie asked, turning towards the window once more. Paul had never felt further from her.
“I’ll make this right, I swear,” Paul said, “I won’t be a negative force on the world anymore.” He turned and hurried out of the apartment, not stopping to close the door.
“It’s not about being equal, Paul; it’s about what you’ve done. I could never be with you after what you’ve done,” Jessie said, turning around. But Paul was already gone.