|Posted by Mark Cantrell on October 10, 2015 at 4:55 PM|
A Short Story By Mark Cantrell
THE young toughs were waiting for him again by the turn into his street, leaving no way for him to avoid the gauntlet of insult and intimidation.
They knew his route too well; all the best places to lie in casual wait for the ambush he couldn’t avoid. Work, shopping, life – such as was left – demanded he brave possible aggression at every turn. Sooner or later, that kind of shit just wore you down.
Tom didn’t know how he’d come to draw the short straw of circumstance, singled out to play the role of a helpless victim, expected to dance to the tune of their lust for power, but he did know that he’d had enough.
At first, he’d written it off as youthful cheek, and that was all it had seemed. It didn’t stay that way. Somehow, he’d been marked. The cheek became a regular occurrence. As the pattern established itself, the abuse evolved to a darker aspect, hatred came to the fore, anger, a carefully modulated threat of violence that occasionally made itself felt as an ‘accidental’ shoulder barge, even a quick punch to the face, and Tom’s sense of bewildered helplessness grew.
In the beginning, he’d responded as any middle-aged man might – with a stern rebuke at misbehaving youngsters. They’d laughed. So had he, at their age, when he’d cheeked his elders, but there was something different about these lads. They weren’t satisfied with cheek. They didn’t back off. They stood their ground, eyes blazing malice and the unspoken challenge: “What you gonna do about it then?”
That was disconcerting to say the least.
After the rebukes, as the ‘sessions’ became more regular, he tried joking with them, reasoning with them, talking to them, they laughed at it all. Once or twice, when the physical intimidation got too much, he lost it and lashed out, only to be overwhelmed by six or more young lads landing gleeful punches and kicks, leaving him bruised and bleeding, cursing and sputtering on the ground as they wandered off laughing.
Finally, he did his damnedest to ignore them, to stay aloof to the jibes, the swearing and the threats, to absorb and be oblivious to the blows. It was easier said than done, and in any case made no difference. The thugs never tired of their entertainment. After that, there was only resignation, but some guttering flame of defiance somehow kept burning throughout it all. He didn’t quite belong to them yet.
After a while, he realised this was nothing to do with him. The abuse wasn’t personal. He didn’t matter enough for any kind of personal. He was just a convenient plaything and no matter what he did or what he said, it was all just part of the pleasure. That was the worst of it, as they turned the streets of his home into a place of fear, stripped away his sense of self-esteem, destroyed his humanity: they cared nothing – one way or the other – for the man they were destroying. That stung most of all.
As for the cops. Get real. He’d tried that once. No, you were on your own. And the street toughs knew it too.
The world had definitely changed since he’d been a swaggering youth, proud of his muscles, of his manhood, but then he’d had other avenues to burn off the rage of youth. No angel, no, especially not after the clubs had shut, and he had the scars to show for it, the scraps, the scrapes, but he’d never haunted street corners to slowly crush the spirit out of the age-worn and work-weary.
No courage, that was these youths, no guts, no respect, and no sense of shame, not that it mattered now, but in his prime – past his prime, even – Tom knew he could have taken any one of these thugs man to man. As if any one of them would have faced him, naked of the security of their mates, these cowards who lived and loved violence, but took little risk of getting hurt.
Tom took a deep breath, gritted his teeth and steeled himself to walk the walk. There was time enough to go to pieces when he got home and shut himself away from the world’s bullshit. For a while at least… Screw the consequences: Tom was tired of living in fear. The worm was turning, a ghost of the man of old resurrecting, and what happened after that, well… he was past caring.
The big one, the leader, was not quite a man but no longer a boy; he watched Tom try to walk tall. Once it was a natural gait, but under the combined gaze of these toughs, the confident stride had gone to putty.
They were all big, always so big for their young age, and clearly proud of their muscles, the strength in them, the carefree freedom to use that strength for their own amusement. They nudged each other and traded jokes, faces shining with eager anticipation of the entertainment coming their way. The sick fear began to ooze into the pit of his stomach.
“Hey, it’s the wanker,” the leader jeered. He puffed out his chest, a lazy grin spread across his face, the tiny eyes glowered malice.
The rest laughed and spread out in a pattern that would force him to break from his straight path and sidestep around their number. The first thug leered as he walked past. Tom heard the throaty sound of phlegm collected, and sure enough the youth spat in his wake. Tom flinched against the urge to hunch his body in a protective huddle. With a nauseous stab of cramp, he envisaged the vile substance clinging to the back of his coat. The boys laughed louder.
Another thug tugged at his beard, causing a sharp pain as if a clump of hair was torn free. The pain made him wince and it brought tears to his eyes. The thug yelled in his ear: “You look like a cunt!”
“Aw, look – he’s crying.”
“Don’t cry, baby!”
The leader led the gang in a round of raucous laughter, clapping his hands in glee, the cruel ringmaster directing his clowns to their own callous delight. Tom felt the anger rise like bile. “Give it a rest,” he yelled. “What is your fucking problem?”
Faces darkened; pictures of perfect wounded innocence. One of the thugs slammed him with a shoulder barge, then kept pace with his victim’s determined march. He pushed his face close to Tom’s. “You getting cocky, wanker? You dissing my mates. You come here causing aggro when we is just minding our business. What is your fucking problem, arsewipe?”
The thug slapped him round the back of the head. Another one came out of his blind side and punched him in the side of the face. The tears were real now; upset and turmoil, not the stinging pain of ripped beard hair. He didn’t deserve this shit. Hunched up, all efforts at walking tall gone, he slipped his hands into his pockets, and then felt the cool weight of his confidence lurking where he’d all but forgotten. The game wasn’t over, if he kept his nerve, some semblance of worth.
“Leave him alone, poor baby,” the leader crooned, all mock sympathy and tickled humour.
Somehow, that was even worse than the insults. It lit a fire of outrage in his belly, burning out the sick fear. Tom clenched the heavy object in his pocket, knuckles strained with fierce rage. He picked up his pace towards the mocking youth. Two paces and he was on the thug, his arm moving swift with the blow they’d never expected.
The first glimmer of doubt in the boy’s dark eyes, the grin sagged as he realised nobody was playing by his rules any more, and then the weapon’s muzzle was pressed hard into his face.
Fear flashed. Satisfying terror deep in the youth’s gaping eyes, his leer was now a grimace, the laughing boys in his gang swore their alarm, begging him: “Take it easy, mate!”
Tom felt the life they’d stolen come flooding back into his being. This was it. All the terror encapsulated in this perfect moment, the nightmare of acquiring the weapon, the expense, the fear of it, suddenly all worthwhile. This was redress. This was power. He was Clint Eastwood making the punk’s day; he was Michael Caine cleaning up the estate…
“No!” The leader drawled from far away. “Come on, please, mate!”
Drunk on adrenaline, Tom's grin felt good: “Laugh this off!”
He tightened his finger on the trigger, accelerating his heart even as he compressed time to its essential slow-motion intensity. One shot and it was over. He was free. The gun clicked. Impotent. The thug flinched. Scowled. The rest of the gang closed in. Tom crashed back into real-time with a tremor that reached all the way down to his bowels.
Oh shit. The safety…
30 May 2011
The above short story is based on a 100-word flash fiction piece. The idea was to 'flesh out the flash' and build out the story without (hopefully) over-stretching things. This is the first publication of this longer piece. The original was published in A Flash of Inspiration (2011), an anthology of micro-fiction.
Copyright © May 2011. All Rights Reserved.