On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
I’d love to have you as a subscriber to the weekly free story. You can subscribe via email here. Unsubscribe any time, from the link in every issue.
Clark kept asking himself the same question, over and over again in his mind, just as he did every day now.
What had I done by the time I was eleven?
He had finished primary school and was just starting high school, he was fairly sure. Or maybe that was a year earlier, or later. But that didn’t really matter. He’d had his first true love of childhood, unrequited of course. He had even chosen what he wanted to be when he grew up, which was a deep sea explorer.
Clark had become an optician, though, and he was now in his forty-seventh year of life, recently divorced, and bereaved of a child who had reached only the age of eleven years.
I’d visited maybe four or five countries by that age, he thought, standing outside the closed-down old corner shop and looking across the quiet street. It was dark, but there were still lights on in the bank building opposite, up on the second and third floors.
Clark had a vague memory of going to one of the Disney theme parks with his parents when he was young, but he wasn’t sure if it happened before he was eleven, or after. His own son had at least been to one of those places, too. A life experience he did actually get to share.
The aftermath of the accident took a surprisingly long time; it felt endless for a while. Well over a year, all told. The event hit the newspapers immediately, then the media attention died down, with just a brief resurgence when the case finally came to court. Most of Clark’s memories of that time were actually memories of reading about himself in the papers, without any direct recollections. His doctor said it was normal to lose those personal memories, or at least for them to become inaccessible. It was a result of the trauma.
The sole positive thing was that the crash was immediately fatal. No suffering or even any awareness. One moment, Clark had a son, and the next moment he didn’t. The man who was driving the car while heavily intoxicated wasn’t even injured, because it was an expensive car with many safety features to protect those within it.
It didn’t do much to protect those outside, however.
A ten-year driving ban, a suspended custodial sentence, and a fine that was frankly insulting, and that was it. The balance sheet for a life of eleven years.
The driver was important in the community, the judge had noted, and it was his first offence. Those words had always stayed with Clark. First offence, as if acknowledging that there might be more in future. As if you got credit for not having ended any other lives before. As if offence was a sufficient term.
Clark’s marriage hadn’t officially ended for a further three years, but really it was all over on that day in court. His wife was a destroyed woman, and while Clark was as much a victim of their circumstances as she was, ultimately he was too much of a reminder of what she had lost. Clark didn’t even resent her for withdrawing, and ultimately for leaving. In truth, he felt the same way about her. Signing the document was a relief.
That was four months ago, and by now the man who had torn their lives apart to save the cost of a taxi home from the pub had returned to his own existence. He took plenty of taxis these days, because he wasn’t allowed to drive, and also because he could afford it. He had a decent job, after all.
Clark looked up at the light on the third floor, seeing the building’s layout in his mind from memory. The man’s office. He always worked late on Thursdays, probably because those used to be his drinking nights, and indeed it was a Thursday when it happened. Clark had wondered again and again if the man was doing a sort of penance, but he had finally decided that it didn’t matter one way or the other. The man had lost a driving license, but Clark had lost a son.
The light in the window went out, and Clark’s pulse didn’t even stutter. Neither up nor down. He’d ceased to experience either anticipation or anxiety years ago. Those feelings were simply gone from his repertoire. He didn’t miss them, either. Without them, he was stronger.
It took about five minutes for the front door of the building to open, allowing a portly shape to exit into the murky light of the street lamps. The evening was mild and dry, and on nights like this it was the man’s custom to walk the half mile or so to his home instead of taking transport. Maybe it was part of the penance. Maybe he just liked to clear his head. That didn’t matter either.
Clark had plenty of time, but he’d also had more than enough time already. In fact, time was the problem. Once, he’d wanted to have as much more time as possible — but then the man across the street had ended all that in one moment of drunken loss of control. Ever since then, each subsequent moment was one too many. And there had been a lot of them.
The man had locked the door now, and was walking away from the building. He didn’t see Clark across the street, and he didn’t glance around when Clark moved from his position and crossed over, falling into step just a few metres behind him. The two men walked in silence for a minute or two, until finally the man, who was the manager of the bank and the killer of Clark’s son, slowed to a halt and turned around.
The man opened his mouth, clearly about to ask something like Can I help you, or Is there a problem, or Are you following me, but the light of recognition dawned in eyes, followed quickly by first the light of guilt, and then the light of fear.
The two men stood and looked at each other, and Clark found that he didn’t actually feel anything at all. There was no anger; not now. Only inevitability, as if this were all predetermined by fate and the positions of strange stars, completely beyond his own influence or control. The handle of the knife in his pocket was warm from the grip of his palm, but it was not slick. It wasn’t even damp.
“You… I paid my debt,” the man said, eyes wide and dark. To Clark, it felt strangely fitting. The language of finance was this man’s world, after all. His life was one of transactions. But not all things were reducible to numbers. “I can’t change what happened, but justice was done.”
“There’s only one kind of justice,” Clark replied calmly, and his voice was a little hoarse from lack of use. “And when the law can’t provide it, a man has to get it for himself.”
The bank manager — the killer, the destroyer of lives and worlds — didn’t respond, but nor did he look confused or surprised. Clark thought that he had probably been waiting for this day. Perhaps a part of him had even longed for it. But it didn’t matter.
The man nodded slowly, and there was finality in the small gesture. When Clark’s hand moved, glittering in the street lamps, he still did not look surprised.
Did you enjoy this brief tale?
I'd also love to hear any feedback or other thoughts; you can find my contact info here.
I encourage you to share this story with anyone you think would enjoy it. If you’d like to receive a tale like this via email every week, you can sign up to receive them here.
Thanks for reading.