“As you might imagine, I was a bad child. What, you’re surprised? It wasn’t that I was impulsive, or even evil – though you might be right for thinking the latter at the moment. No, I was slow. Lead-footed. Stunted in the thinking. It took a turn in jail to free me of my devices, and now here I am.”
“But surely you don’t mean to do harm?” someone asked.
“Harm is something I’m curious about,” returned the man, spinning on his stool. “What’s harm? What’s it mean? What’s it to me or to you what I do to any living creature? What would it mean if I brought harm to everyone here?”
“I don’t mean it like that…”
“You don’t mean it all. Sit down now.”
He scratched his head. The morning was getting on. Sun would come up, and people would try to get in for breakfast. “Still ruminating on things,” he muttered. “All that lack of thinking back when’s just led to this big thinking now.”
“Mister, my mother needs her medication,” said a man in coveralls. The woman was maybe eighty, didn’t matter.
“Come over here then.” He took a sip of coffee. Twirled the gun on the counter. “How old are you, madame? No, you don’t talk? Only stare? Well, let me ask your son a question. Mister, you love your mom. I saw you earlier talking to her in the booth, even though she wasn’t saying anything back. I saw you feeding her those home fries, even though most of them fell outta her mouth. Must be hard. So you tell me – you look around. All these people, and all this talk of harm. What’s it mean to you? Would you spare all these people if it meant the life of one old lady?”
“Not my name. My name’s Aris. I know, a funny name. Some fucking nurse spelled the proper name wrong in the hospital. Only wasn’t a hospital, more like a hotel or something, and the nurse was a janitor. See how that works?” He pointed the gun at the mother’s forehead. “Listen now. You decide what’s going to happen. Pick. I have enough bullets for any sixteen people in here, pretty much all of them. I either shoot them or I shoot this lady. Your mom.”
“I mean to, unfortunate soul. And I mean to make you decide.”
“There are children in here…”
“And you can save them! It’ll be glorious.”
The man put his fingers in his coveralls. He looked about the diner, at the people huddling in various places. He looked at the sign in the window, inviting new customers in.
“I choose her.”
“You don’t sound certain.”
“Just do what you have to. If this is what you have to do…”
“How do you know I’m going to let everyone go afterwards? Are you really sure of that?”
“Have mercy, Mister.”
“That’s a good one.” Aris pulled the trigger. The sound made the coffee cups clink on their hooks. The old lady stayed upright for a moment, looking no more alive or dead than she’d been the moment before the bullet had gone through her head.
“That’s the philosophy of the thing. I’d say the rest of you believe he chose well, right, for all his blubbering? Well, let him blubber. It’s okay, truly.”
Aris put sugar in his coffee. There was a man and his girl in the booth to the right. Behind the counter, two waitresses who looked about the same age. Fans were still running. Grill was still cooking. He could smell burnt sausage, which was a shame. There was no point in burning good meat.
Dawn was coming. Snuck around his ankles and tugged at his socks.
“All right you,” he said, to the man in the furthest booth. “That’s right, bring them over.”
“No.” The man, it seemed, was just on his way through town. No other way to explain his tight jeans and his little t-shirt, or his hair. Just on his way through town, because the town was a pinhead on a map that he’d remembered from his dad’s workshop way back – a nice thing to navigate the roads by, and to bring back some memories. Only today he’d stopped for breakfast, because the kids were hungry.
“There is just no going back from things sometimes. Look, make a deal,” said Aris. “Bring that boy and that girl over here or I shoot them both. Dead as sin. That’s part one. Bring them over now.”
The boy was ten at least. The girl probably eight. She had black curls. He had on a jacket that looked like a suit. Their dad had his arms around them.
“Now,” said Aris, “you kids want to play a game? It’s not a hurting game, don’t worry. There won’t be any harm in it.” They both shook their heads. “No? Kids don’t play games anymore? That’s too bad. I was going to ask which one of you could run faster to the door, and down the street. How about it, that race?” They shook their heads again.
Aris sighed. “Maybe I play with your dad then. Well, dad. Let’s play. Go on and pick. Pick which one of these two is going to run through that door, and which one isn’t.”
The dad was tearing up already. “Just let us go, okay. Please.”
“How come I would do that? The game’s not finished. You always have to finish the game.”
“Don’t know any other words? Rules are simple. But I’ll add one. You don’t decide and I shoot them both. Right dead.”
The other people in the diner shifted, as though they were going to do something about it. Aris sent a bullet at the ceiling, stopping all that. “Damn near hit a fan,” he muttered. Peered at the dad. “The boy or the girl. Pick.”
“I won’t.” And no sooner were the words out than did he jump at Aris. The gun went off.
“Stupid thing to do,” said Aris, as the man fell to his knees with a hole in his stomach. The gun fired again.
The children were screaming. People in the diner were screaming. Aris put up his arms. “Hold on now! Be quiet! This is almost done. Almost done! Just have to ruminate on things a bit more, that’s all. Be at ease. We’re done. Truly.” He looked at the kids. “Listen, your dad didn’t pick. I’m sorry for him, but he didn’t play right. And for all that, game’s not finished. So if your dad’s not picking, the rest of these fine folks are going to. So what’s it to be, folks? I want each of you to point at one of these kids. Go on now. If everyone doesn’t pick, you all get the bullet and these little ones go out the door. That’s the deal.”
Might have been the quietest the diner had been. Not just that morning, but all week, maybe even ever. Maybe even since before it was built, or people had come to this land and thrown out whoever’d been here first. Maybe even since there’d been nothing, no planet or sun, no nothing. Aris waited. And didn’t he smile, slight but getting bigger, as one hand went up after another, pointing at one child or the other, until everyone had a finger extended.
Aris did a count. “Well that,” he said, “proves my point. You fine people, don’t feel bad. You’re still fine people, just in an unfortunate situation. That’s what my whole life’s been. One large unfortunate mishap. I thank you,” he said, cocking the gun, “for being so reasonable.”
When he was done, he walked to the door. Outside, he shrugged and put away his gun. The Cutlass roared as he gave it gas, then shot into the street. “People are good,” he confirmed to the sunshine coming over the hill. “They’re just fine, and they’ll prove it over and over again if you let them. It’s not their fault that I’m just coming into my thoughts now, at this advanced age in my life. Should have happened sooner. Wish it had.” Ahead, a turtle was crossing the road. Aris slammed on his brakes, bringing the Cutlass to a stop about a foot from the unfortunate creature. Sun was inflaming the asphalt that it was trying to crawl over.
Aris got out of his car and watched the turtle cross. “Take your time, son. Where are you headed, anyway?” The turtle was staring east, where the sun was rising over the hard rock. “Go ahead, little guy,” he said, leaning against the car. “Take your time. I don’t mind waiting. Got things to think on. Truly.” A bit of wind swept a dusting of sand into the sky. Aris peered into the distance, as far as he could. There was nothing there. Not one thing worth reaching out for. The sun rising up from the middle of it all didn’t change his mind on that. No, it didn’t at all. Not one bit.