Mickey’s day had started out half-decently. He didn’t have school today, though it was a Wednesday. It was still the summer, which meant he didn’t have to deal with school for at least a little bit longer. August was disgustingly hot, but it was better than sitting in class, being mocked, failing exams, making his parents angry. Summer school had ended a few days ago, and he had only a few precious days. So, he and his family were going to Madison Square Garden. His father had brought up the idea, and Mickey had gone along with it. They’d gotten into a cab, which was a rare treat. Usually they had to pile onto the subway.
Mickey hated other people, he thought. He was young, which made it hard to be sure. But school was awful. The teachers were awful. Other people were awful. Even his parents could be awful sometimes, although they tried their best not to be awful. Both of them fought, a lot, and it made Mickey’s head hurt when they did. The quiet helped, but when he couldn’t find the quiet, he had to turn to other things. He was dreading the start of school. Seven hours each day, somewhere where he couldn’t escape the torment, the other people. It made his head hurt just thinking about it. Being around other people was painful.
The game was fun, at least. Watching the players move could be interesting. But every time someone accomplished something, the roar started up. Every person in the stadium thinking that they had to be heard, taking some kind of joy in the sensation of yelling their lungs out and trying to be more of a grating influence on Mickey than the last. He’d have preferred it if he’d been all alone. Sometimes he thought about that, the idea of every person in the world being gone. He’d watched movies like that. They were supposed to be horror movies, but they always seemed so peaceful. His fist clenched just a little bit.
“Hey, Mickey.” His father smiled, and produced a couple of twenties. “How about you go to the concession stand, and pick up something? It’s part of the fun, you know?”
“Richard, what the hell are you thinking? What if someone grabs him?”
“For god’s sakes,” His father’s voice dropped, but Mickey could still make out what he was saying. He’d seen his parents have this argue a lot of times before. He could imagine what they were saying. ‘You’re so determined to fuck up this parenting thing, I don’t know why I ever married you, besides, this’ll get him out of our hair for a few minutes so we can remember what it was like to be married when Mickey hadn’t ruined everything by being born wrong.’
He pulled his mother’s sleeve, and gave her a big smile. “It’s okay, mom. There are lots of people around, nobody’s going to grab me. Besides, I know not to go with strangers.” He stood up, and gave her hand a quick squeeze, before squeezing his way down the crowd of people, trying to keep his head together each time they shouted and roared. Making his way into the corridor leading back into the bowels of the stadium was a relief, as the roar became a dull crash, more like the waves on Rockaway beach than anything else. He leaned against a wall, crossed his arms over his chest, and took a few breaths.
“Kind of a drag, isn’t it?”
He opened his eyes quickly. A man stood in the corridor, a doorway swinging. The man had a cigarette between his lips, the tip glowing bright red. Smoke slowly rose up, covering the no smoking sign above him. Mickey felt a little tightening in his jaw. People always did that. Pretended that the rules didn’t apply to them. And they seemed to get away with it. But every time Mickey broke the rules, it felt like they punished him more harshly. It wasn’t fair. “What’s a drag?”
“The people.” The crowd roared, as if in confirmation of what he’s just said. “They’re a problem, aren’t they? They distract you, they needle at you. Just being around them, it can hurt, a bit.”
“Sure, pedo,” Mickey said. Frankly he had only a loose idea of what the word meant, but he knew how to say it in a way that made adults hurt. Even the most confident ones usually took a step back when he used that word. This man’s smile only spread even further.
“You’ve got a sharp mouth. I bet that gets you into a lot of trouble with others, doesn’t it? Talking just makes things worse. You’ve found that out, haven’t you? People just don’t understand what’s going through your head. That’s why you had to kill it, wasn’t it?”
Mickey froze. “How do you know about that?”
“Oh, a guess. What was it? Stray cat? A bird, maybe?”
“A… A spider.”
He still remembered it. It had been a large one. It had been at the end of summer school, when the bullying had gotten especially bad. He’d found the spider in the bathroom at the school. He’d pinned it with a sharpened pencil, and begun pulling its legs off and watching it wander in increasingly frantic circles, trying desperately to escape from him. It had felt good, hurting something else, having control over the creature, watching it grow more frantic until it was helpless. But he’d never want anyone to find out about what he’d done.
“That’s all, huh? When I was your age, I was already baiting the neighborhood dogs. It was a kind of service, you know? Those dogs were a problem for people. They made trouble. Nobody ever asked questions about why there weren’t so many dogs left around. But when they found the corpses, hoo boy, that was when the shit really hit the fan.” The man chuckled. “You’ve seen that, haven’t you? Humans are stupid about the way that they connect to things. They see you suffering, they see people doing awful things to you, they say, ‘Hey, that’s just part of life, get used to it.’ But when someone sees an animal hurting, they go on and on about innocence and stuff.” The man’s smile turned into something very ugly. “It makes you sick, doesn’t it. But hey, you’re taking the first steps towards something better.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Mickey asked. It was strangely hard not to like the man. For one thing, he wasn’t judging Mickey for what he’d done. He was a little bit patronizing, but that was true of every adult that Mickey met.
“You’re something special, Mickey. That’s why people have trouble around you. That’s why your parents don’t understand. That’s why you’re bullied. You’re different from them. You’re not another one of the chaff, another brainless animal. You actually see the world.” He pointed up towards the sign above his head as the cigarette glowed between his fingers. “You can understand that that sign is just a sign. It has no power unless it’s enforced. And a crime is not a crime, unless people catch you doing it.” His eyes glittered. “Come on.” He opened the door.
Mickey considered all of the ways this could end. He listened to his good judgment and the advice his mother gave him. Then he ignored it all. The man felt dangerous, it was true. Mickey could feel a sort of live-wire tension that floated around him. But the man didn’t feel like he was going to be dangerous to Mickey. The two of them walked into the brightly lit corridor.
The man was tall, taller than Mickey’s dad, and slender. He didn’t put a paternal hand on Mickey. He seemed quite happy not to touch Mickey at all, keeping a moderate distance. His eyes were shadowed, his face lean. He had a lanky build, his limbs just a little bit too long, and his teeth a little too white. He reminded Mickey of a vulture, almost, but with slightly better dress sense. He wore a large black jacket and a black bowler hat over his hair. His overlarge dress shoes clicked on the ground as the two of them walked. “So, are you going to kill someone today?” asked Mickey.
“Well, we can always hope, right?” He chuckled. “Did you know, there are lots of different kinds of… Well, let’s call them the people like us. Sounds much nicer than serial killers, doesn’t it?”
“You think I’m a serial killer?”
“I think that you will be. You’ve got the potential for it, at any rate. It’s about empathy, you see. Some people have empathy for everything. Animals and humans alike. Some people only have empathy for other humans. A rare few, like you and me? Well, we don’t take on anyone’s emotions. We’re our own people. Not some buzzing hive.” The crowd roared again, and Mickey was surprised how much it sounded like a hive of insects buzzing. “That’s what makes us special. That’s what makes us powerful. We can kill, and not feel a thing.”
“Murderers get caught.”
“That’s a lie. Most of the best serial killers never do, you know? The Zodiac Killer, Charlie Chop-Off… Even that grandfather of our trade, Jack the Ripper. None of them were ever caught. There were suspects, but never any proof, you see?” The man chuckled softly. “The police don’t care, that much, you see. They’re just animals, and animals can’t put real effort into anything. People like you and me, we know how to plan. We can think through the consequences of our actions. We can predict what can go wrong. We can find the perfect moment. All they can do is flail about in the darkness.” He sucked through his teeth. “That’s why we taunt them, you know? Because it makes them angry. It makes them flail around like a maddened bull, trying to grab you. And that just makes them look all the more foolish.”
“Okay. so what kind of murderer are you, huh?”
“Killer,” he said lightly. “Not murderer. Not until I get caught. Remember that, it’s not a crime unless someone can punish you. Think of all the things that you’ve gotten away with because nobody knew you did them. You certainly didn’t go telling your parents about the spider you killed, did you?” Mickey looked down at the ground. “And I like to think of myself as an Angel of Mercy. It’s a noble cause. When someone stands on the verge of death, teetering, able to go either way… Well, all it takes is the slightest push. And that sense of power…” The man shivered in a way that Mickey found entirely too creepy. “But I prattle on. We’re here.” He knocked on the large double doors.
A busy kitchen was visible for a few seconds as a man stepped out. He was short, and fat, a kind of jolly faced guy. He almost reminded Mickey of Santa Claus when he was still in middle age, salt and pepper hair and a big beard over a kind face that nonetheless looked like it invited mockery. Mickey had been made fun of for his weight, along with practically every other aspect of his body. He probably shouldn’t mock this man for the same flaw. And yet, something about the fat man practically demanded a kick. The thin man certainly seemed to think so, judging by the expression on his face. “Well, lardass. Any trouble?”
“That health inspector still hasn’t come back. I’m worried,” said the fat man, running fingers through his combover, and then hurriedly patting it back into place. “He cut himself. I’m worried something happened to him, or-” The fat man noticed Mickey. “What the fuck?!” He looked over his shoulder nervously, and continued, his voice softer. “Why the fuck do you have a kid here?! What the fuck could you possibly be thinking?!”
“I’m thinking he has the potential, lardass. I’m thinking that with the right push, he might be one of us. With, you know… A little help from our friends.” The thin man smiled toothily.
“No. No, no, no, that’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard of. And- Fuck’s sakes, he’s a kid, Joshua-”
The thin man’s hand flicked out, and struck the fat man across the cheek, hard. There was a moment of silence, interrupted by the buzzer of half-time. “What have I told you about using that name?” asked the thin man, his eyes harsh. A few strands of greasy black hair were visible from beneath the hat, now. His eyes were mad.
“D-don’t,” said the fat man. “But- listen, please I’m worried.” The fat man turned his head from side to side, and swallowed. “There’s been a lot of wind this week.” Mickey wondered if the fat man was drunk. That was the kind of statement his father might make on a night when he was half-asleep from drinking too much, and talking nonsense. The nights when his mother threatened to leave.
“So let it blow. It’s not going to do anything. It’s just a few more nights.” The thin man slapped the fat man on the cheek again, but it was softer this time, almost convivial. The fat man still froze like a deer in the headlights. “Nobody can track anything back to us. We’re in the clear. Our victory is… inevitable.” He laughed much too hard.
“So why the hell are you here?” asked the fat man, his face nervous.
“Because I just can’t wait. I’m in the mood for something fun, you know? That hunger… It just has to be satisfied.” He reached into a coat, and took out a small vial of something vaguely amber-colored. “Just a little dash.” He chuckled softly. “Something to keep the cops on their toes, you know?” He looked down at Mickey, and winked. “Remember, when you outrage them, they’re going to lose their heads. They’ll begin to flail around. They’ll lose their senses. It makes them crazy.”
“How about you, fat boy?” asked Mickey, frowning up at the fat man. He cringed in his apron, as though he’d been struck. “You seem a little reluctant about all of this.”
“He’s even more hands-off than I am,” said Joshua, grinning toothily. “He can’t stand the sight of violence, or people being hurt. But he just can’t help himself. Can you, buddy?” He smacked the fat man on the shoulder in a way that might have been friendly from someone else. “Now, kid, get lost. Me and my friend have some things that we need to discuss.”
Mickey nodded, and took off down the corridor, back towards the door. He slipped out, and made his way towards the concessions stand. The entire encounter felt strangely dreamlike. He checked his phone. Ten minutes had passed. That was good, his parents probably wouldn’t notice he was gone. He could claim the lines in the concession stands were long. He was already forming the excuses in his head when someone grabbed his arm.
He spun, ready to strike, only to find a gun very close to his face. There was a man holding it, but all Mickey could focus on was the gun. Nobody was around. He began to breathe hard, fear filling him. “Do you feel that?” the man asked, his voice low and harsh. “That is the fear of death. That is what you will feel every day if you continue down the path you have started. I am looking for a killer, boy. You aren’t one, yet. I would rather not take your life.”
Mickey stood very still. He’d one heard that snakes and other kinds of animals wouldn’t attack you if you were very still. He was fairly sure that didn’t include humans, but he had no other ideas about what to do, besides possibly crying, and he didn’t want to give this man the satisfaction. So, slowly, and with the greatest of difficulty, he lifted his head to meet the man’s eyes. “I don’t know who you’re talking about, mister.”
“Jack,” said the man, in a more convivial tone. His skin was tanned, like Mister Ahmesh at the halal stand outside of school, but he didn’t sound like that. His voice was refined, very clear. Curly black hair covered his head, and he had an eyepatch over one eye. He was dressed casually, in a white T-shirt and a pair of black jeans. He slid the gun behind his back, and when his hand came out again, it was no longer in his hand. “You do know who I’m talking about, but you are obstinate. You feel some sense of loyalty towards him, or at the very least, a sense of antipathy towards me. That is good. You see, when you care only about yourself, you become a mindless tool to those around you.” He crossed his arms, and crouched down, bringing him eye to eye with the boy. “I am searching for a killer. They will kill again. Isn’t that a good enough reason to tell me where they are?”
“You aimed a gun at my face,” Mickey said, trying to keep the shudder out of his voice.
“Well, true, true. I suppose I can understand why you’d feel I don’t deserve any answers after that.” Jack frowned, and slowly rubbed his chin. He looked like he’d just shaved, no sign of hair on his chin or his neck, like his dad usually had by this time of day. “How about if I tell you something very important?”
“The world is going to end, young man. You’re never going to live to see adulthood. Your life will be cut short because of the actions of those who are above you. Nothing in your life will ever matter, because of the beings which have power over you.”
The man laughed uproariously, throwing his head back, obvious delight on his features. The laughs echoed through the hallway, as the man stood up. “Gods.” He smiled. “It is not your fault that these things have happened. There are powerful things in the world, and you are nothing but a pawn to them. You have very few choices in life. The one thing you can do is return to your family, and try to live a happy life in anonymity, never accomplishing anything of meaning.”
“And what if I decide I don’t want to take your advice?”
Jack smiled. “Then I, or someone like me, will kill you. When you take a life, it leaves a stain on you.” The man breathed deep. “I can smell that stain.” He leaned closer. “Taking a spider’s life isn’t much of a sin, but it’s still a gateway to something deeper.” This made Mickey stiffen. “If you happen to change your mind… Just shout.”
“Why the hell would I trust you?” Mickey asked, taking a couple of steps back, watching for any sign of that weapon.
“Because I’m going to save the world.” The man gave a sharp-toothed grin. “The meek will inherit the earth.”
“Sure,” Mickey said, stepping back. He didn’t call the man crazy, because the man had a gun and might respond like a crazy person. He certainly thought it very loudly, though. The man didn’t shoot him, so Mickey quickly made his way to the concession stand. After the insanity of the last fifteen minutes, it was a relief to stand in a line. Being around people felt almost safe, compared to the strange men. It was still annoying when people shoved up against him or talked too loud, but he didn’t feel as worried that someone was about to kill him, which made a pleasant change of events. He bought a large tub of popcorn, and his mother’s favorite candy, in the hopes that they wouldn’t get into a fight the moment that he got back.
“Where were you? You missed nearly a whole quarter,” said his father, as he got back.
“We were worried sick,” said his mother, though she smiled as he handed over the Snickers.
“Just really long lines,” he murmured, as he sat back in his chair. It had felt like some kind of nightmare. Even now, the memories were beginning to fade, though he was pretty sure they’d be with him for a while. Like a nightmare you just couldn’t shake. He sat back and watched as the teams broke apart with a time-out, and the crowd began to murmur quietly with one another. It was soothing, a kind of break from all of the strange comments and the roars. His father took a handful of popcorn and munched, but Mickey wasn’t feeling particularly hungry. He rested his hand on his mother’s, and squeezed it gently. She didn’t squeeze back.
A scream rippled through the air from the far side of the audience. Then another. People were looking around in confusion, trying to find out what was happening. His mother slumped over onto him, her body surprisingly heavy. Her fingers were cold, and stiff. Her face was turning blue. “Johanna?” asked his father. Then he made a strange little choking noise, and slumped down in his chair.
All around the stadium, the same thing was happening. People slumping in their chairs, turning blue, unresponsive. Screams filled the air, and Mickey’s head began to pound. Was it about to happen to him? Was he going to die?
Then he remembered the vial, and the cook. His stomach knotted into circles. This was worse. He was responsible for this, partly. That man had done this, and he hadn’t stopped it. He grabbed his mother, trying to shake her awake. She let out a soft little whimper, and slumped further, her eyes not opening. “Hey! Someone help! Please!”
Nobody could hear him over the roar of the crowd.
The paramedics were sorting people out, providing care. There were a couple of dozen of them, and over ten thousand people sick, on the verge of death. Mickey crouched next to his mother and father, and stared down at them. Both were unconscious, shuddering, their heartbeats terribly slow as they lay on their backs. A paramedic approached, and crouched next to them. “Hello, Mickey.”
Mickey looked up, and inhaled sharply. The greasy black hair was familiar. The man was dressed differently, now. No hat. Jeans. A paramedic’s jacket. Joshua smiled down at him, teeth bright and white. He crouched down next to Mickey’s mother, and tested her pulse. “What did you do to them?” asked Mickey, looking down at his mother’s face. She seemed so helpless like this, not moving, not angry, not sad with him, nothing. She was still. The whole world seemed very still right now, just like he’d always imagined it in his stories and movies and things. But he hadn’t thought about what he’d lose if the world was still.
“Simple, really. A poison. Not one that anyone here will recognize, but it’s very hard to actually kill with it. These people will be on the edge of death, unconscious, requiring care for the next couple of weeks. Almost all of them will survive, as long as they receive that care.” The man smiled. “That’s the thing about compassion. It’s much more difficult to care for people than to bury them. When people just die, things get simple. But when they survive, it drags everyone down. It’s kind of a blessing, really, to take their lives when they’re like that. Otherwise, they’re just a burden.” He reached into a large pouch, and withdrew a needle. Mickey’s heart pounded at the sight of the thing. A clear fluid filled it.
“What is that?”
“Morphine. It’s one of the best ways to end someone’s life. Peaceful, you know? Opiate deaths tend to be among the most painless ways to go, from what I’ve heard. Not entirely pretty, but peaceful. Just a little quick dosage, and they’re taken as another couple who didn’t survive. Nobody will ever know about it.” Joshua met his eyes, and smiled mirthlessly. “You could try it, you know. Which of the two is worse? The mother?” He studied Mickey’s face. “No, I imagine she’s harsh, but you aren’t the type to blame your mother, are you? No… Your father, then?” His smile grew a bit wider. “Yes.” He stood up, and shifted over to crouch besides Mickey’s dad.
Mickey stared down at his father. He thought about the way his father drank. The way he screamed at his mother sometime. The anger he visibly restrained when Mickey did something wrong. All of the tension and strain that came from his father. The way his mother sometimes threatened to leave. The way he was never around when Mickey needed him.
“It’s simple, really. Just…” Joshua slapped the man’s arms a few time. “There we go. The vein is right here. Just press the tip in a little bit, I’ll tell you when. Then you depress the plunger. I’ve got a pair of surgical gloves, they’ll keep your fingerprints from showing up. I’ll dispose of the needle. And there you are. You become one of the people who matters in the world. It’s just that easy.” Joshua chuckled, lifting his head, looking around the room. There wasn’t anyone close by. Mickey knew that. Joshua was clearly a good planner, if he’d avoided being caught for this long. “Here you go.” He placed the surgical gloves in Mickey’s hand, and held out the needle.
Mickey thought of the nights when his father came home late from work, exhausted. The stories Mickey read full of heroes doing the right thing when it mattered. He thought of his home. He thought of all the things he had. He thought of his father smiling and suggesting the visit to Madison Square Garden for the day.
“This isn’t a multiple choice,” Joshua whispered, his voice suddenly growing harsher, and colder. “Either you take a life, or you’re just one of them. One of the animals. It’s not that different, really, killing a human. It’s just like killing a spider. They wiggle and struggle, and you might think they’re in pain, but they’re not really people.” Joshua leaned closer. “Or you could find out what it’s like to be the one who’s being pinned down and torn apart.”
Mickey’s eyes lifted. “Jack!” he shouted.
Joshua frowned. “It’s not Jack, it’s Jack-” He stopped, as the barrel of the gun pressed against the back of his head.
“Hello, Mickey,” said Jack. “I see that circumstances have forced your hand.”
Mickey swallowed, staring up at the two. Joshua’s mouth was drawn into a wide rictus, a smile turned into an expression of terror. It was all too easy to imagine that same expression on Mickey’s face. Jack stood over him, the gun held on Joshua’s head, no sign of anyone noticing that something was amiss. “Are you going to kill him?” Mickey asked, a little bit of hope in his voice.
“What? But- you’re going to stop him, aren’t you?” asked Mickey, a bit of desperation entering his voice. “Stop him from doing something like this again?”
“Heavens no. I’m going to help him accomplish something much greater. Doesn’t that sound good, Joshua?”
“That’s not my name,” hissed the greasy black-haired man. “Not anymore.”
“Come now. Stand up. It will be very inconvenient to spray your brains across the boy, and a little bit more obvious than I like. We’ve got a busy day ahead of us.”
“How the fuck did you know about the plan?” asked Joshua, staying stiff.
“Our patrons have been talking, Joshua. They’re interested in a little collaboration. You’ve really impressed the people upstairs. So we’re going to go along with your plan. You need to get things ready. And I need to go meet a corpse.” He chuckled, and the two of them walked out. Nobody seemed to notice them, as Mickey was left kneeling by his parents, his heart pounding. He clung to his father’s shoulders, and sobbed. When the police arrived, he tried to tell them what he’d heard.
But nobody was interested.