Author’s Note: I wrote this story back in the early ’80s. Stan is loosely based on the boss I had at that time at my first real job while in high school. This boss was a laid back, mild-mannered guy most of the time, until the stresses of life, and a nagging wife, coupled with the pressures of owning his own small business would build up in him until he just couldn’t bottle it up inside anymore. He would fly off into violent rampages, shouting at his wife at the top of his lungs, throwing tools and scraps of metal in all directions, and peeling out and skidding around the gravel parking lot of his business in his truck.  On one of  his mild-mannerd days, I was helping him load some parts it to his truck to deliver to a client and I noticed he had a rifle behind his seat. Naturally, my imagination did not have to work overtime to come up with this dark tale…

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Answers

by Bob Langham

Stan stared at the certificate of achievement hanging proudly on his office wall. He could hear the roar of machinery outside his office door. He glanced toward the corner. His rifle was propped up against the metal file cabinet, the barrel aimed toward the sparkling white ceiling. The gun appeared to hold up the file cabinet, to support it and keep it from falling.

Pain shot through the bridge of Stan’s nose, causing him to pinch it between his thumb and forefinger and squeeze his eyes closed hard. He could not remember how long it had been since he had been home. Things were getting lost on that dark, slithering path, that others affectionately called Memory Lane.

He wanted to call Gina and tell her that he needed help, that his mind wasn’t right.But he opened his eyes and a memory shot through him. The phone was a mangled, distorted heap of metal, wires, and plastic fragments cowering in the corner. He had taken care of the phone this morning – it wouldn’t stop ringing.

He swiveled in his chair and opened the bottom drawer of the file cabinet. It was loaded with several boxes of shells for his rifle. One box showed signs of being rapidly ripped opened.  A few loose shells rolled around outside of the box.

Stan heard a polite gentle rap on his office door. He pulled himself out of his chair, limped to his office door and slowly pushed it open – no one.
    

He crept out into the shop. The belt sander was still running but Pete was not standing at it. Stan shook his head. If I’ve told them once, I’ve told them a thousand times, don’t leave the machinery unattended while it’s running.
Stan made his way over to the belt sander, unknowingly kicking a spent shell across the shop floor with his boot. Pete’s blood-soaked body cowered lifelessly underneath the sander. His face no longer existed. All that remained was a scarlet emptiness lathered with grains of sawdust.

Stan jabbed the Stop button, killing the sander. It moaned into quiet stillness, but not before letting loose with one last desperate creak.

Stan turned and dragged his feet over to the large bay door that faced the driveway. 
The tiny company delivery truck crouched silently. Its two front tires were flat, it hunched forward like a wounded animal. The windshield showed signs of implosion. The driver’s door was ajar. It beeped a rhythmic reminder that the keys were still in the ignition.

Andy’s rigid body was still inside the truck. One stiff hand clutched the wheel. The other rested lifelessly, palm up on the seat. The seat was littered with crumbled glass, glittering in the early morning sun, giving life to the scarlet puddle. Andy’s mouth hung open. His eyes stared blankly skyward, questioning silently.

Stan removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying to erase the pain that was now shooting through his head. He stuffed his hand in his pocket and felt the crinkled scrap of paper. He pulled it out, eyeing it carefully. Stan had written it several months ago when the first terrible pain had stirred him out of a sound sleep. It had been the worst pain yet. It had been nearly 2 a.m. as he sat at the kitchen table, an overturned aspirin bottle in front of him. The words had begun to flow like blood from an open wound. It had written itself, coming from some dark, unfamiliar corner of his mind. Stan had scratched it down and had kept it with him ever since.

A Few Questions About Friends

Have you ever been in the sights of a high-powered rifle?
And how did you feel
when a bullet wearing your name
sliced the air in front of you
with fragments of laugher following close behind?

And which blow was worse?
That of the bullet,
or the realization of the familiar face
grinning sadistically behind the scope?

It had scared him so much, that he couldn’t get back to sleep that night, even after the pain had temporarily subsided.

As he held the crinkled scrap of paper now, he stared down at it, hoping it would give him some answers to why the dark corners of his mind were taking charge – or why he was doing things that the Stan of a year ago would not have even thought of, without the burden of guilt riding him.

Stan realized that he could stare at the worn scrap of paper until he died and still come away without any answers to these questions. He stuffed the crinkled paper back into his pocket. He repositioned his glasses, as the pain became just a faint tingling in the bridge of his nose. He thought about calling home to talk to Gina. He could tell her that he needed help, but realization shadowed his face – he had taken care of her this morning. She wouldn’t stop. She wanted to know what was wrong. He had no answers, so he did what he thought was the next best thing. He ended the questions.

There would be others with questions, he reminded himself. People like Pete and Andy. Suddenly, Stan gasped, as if his air supply had been cut off. What about the kids? He let out his breath slowly, as he remembered. He had taken care of the children too.

Stan spun around quickly. He thought’d he heard someone whispering his name – but he was alone. He was alone when he heard the sirens wailing out their cries on the wind and ricocheting off the shop walls. Stan cocked his ear upward as a stranger’s grin overtook his face. They would have questions of their own, and they wouldn’t be verbal. They would be in the form they knew best.

Stan casually shut the door to the delivery truck and hurried back to his office and closed the door behind him.

The achievement award was the first thing to catch his eye. The bright glare from the office lights bounced of the glass and blurred the words underneath. He thought back to when he had received it for his efforts to work with the community. He had accepted it enthusiastically. Gina had worn her black dress and she had been so proud of him. That had been before the headaches – before the darkness had shrouded his mind. Stan looked down at his desk. There were no stray papers or writing utensils. Everything was in order.

He sat down behind his desk and reached into the bottom drawer of the file cabinet. He removed a box of shells and placed it neatly on his desk. He opened the box gently with trembling hands. The shells gleamed with authority under the fluorescent lights.

Stan searched his pocket and pulled out the wrinkled scrap of paper and placed it in front of him on the desk. He read it once again. Still, it offered no answers. He slowly swiveled in his chair and grabbed his rifle. His head was a hornet’s nest of pain. He shoved the shells into his rifle and then pulled out three more boxes of the gleaming shells. He swiveled back in his chair and lined them up orderly across his desk. He flipped open the lid to the next available box. The shells winked at Stan underneath the lights as if they shared a dark secret with him.

Beyond his office door, Stan heard the scraping of tires on gravel, and dying sirens abruptly squelched by authoritative hands. He heard the rapid opening and shutting of car doors, then the pounding of heavy feet on gravel – feet that meant business and did not mess around. Another car door opened and was followed  by a familiar rhythmic beeping which sounded like the helpless cry of a wounded animal. He heard someone throw up breakfast – a door slammed and the beeping stopped. He could hear the static babble of police radios.

Stan’s nose began to bleed on his upper lip – a byproduct of the pain that ricocheted in his head. Seeing his own blood, Stan panicked and jerked the trigger of his rifle. It sent his chair back several inches. His office door gave way and surrendered to the force of the bullet. Stan continued to jerk the trigger, until the dull click of emptiness reminded him to reload.

He ripped open a new box, and in the gleam of one of the shells, he saw an ugly distortion of himself. He glanced down at the wrinkled scrap of paper glaring up at him. Blunt realization struck him. The answers came. Why couldn’t they have come sooner?

He began to cry silently, as the truth came home.

The last thing Stan knew was the KAWOP of an police issued rifle and the dull thud he felt between his eyes. Black emptiness swallowed him whole, as the external pain competed with the internal pain and then overcame it.

– Bobman

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