This is a story I wrote in Taipei in 2011. Picture by Jono Hunt of Ghostworks Design.
Daniel knew that his life belonged to the next few moments, but he still had to get one last look at the room. Boric was advancing towards the window in huge, hulking steps that gave the impression of an enraged ape. One of the girls jumped into his path and shouted something along the lines of ‘he’s just a kid,’ but a savage backhand caught her across the face mid-sentence, sending her reeling out of view and into something made of glass by the sound of it. With that, Daniel decided that he had seen enough. He launched himself over the railing of the fire escape, down the metal stairs, and onto the pavement below, pushed to the extremes of speed and exertion by a finely honed survival instinct. But Boric was never too far behind.
Their pursuit snaked its way through the maze of desolate alleys that both of them knew so well. Against the rhythmic tempo of his shoes on wet pavement, options flashed through Daniel’s oxygen-starved mind. He knew that he was losing ground and that it was stupid to try and outrun an adult. This left him with one remaining option: to get vertical. It wasn’t long before the opportunity presented itself in the form of a dumpster stacked high with bags of garbage. He scrambled up the stinking heap, the summit of which was just high enough to reach the emergency ladder of an adjacent building.
Upon pulling himself over the roof’s parapet, Daniel saw three drunks sitting in a makeshift parlour, complete with milk box seating, a folding card table, and a filthy orange tarp overhead. He had made it halfway to the stairwell on the far side when one of them stuck a leg out and sent him tumbling against the slick tar of the roof. A chorus of laughter ensued, and it was still ringing in Daniel’s ears as he navigated a poorly lit hallway three stories down. He tried doorknobs at random, hoping that one of them had been left unlocked in spite of everything he knew to be true about the neighbourhood. The sound of faint shouting drifted in from the stairwell; Boric must be acquainting himself with the drunks upstairs. The distant shouts ramped into screams before ending abruptly with a gunshot. Daniel gripped the doorknobs tighter now, twisting them with more force. Footsteps were thundering in the stairwell like a mob in pursuit. Face wet with tears, he put his hand on the final doorknob, twisted, and to his utter incredulity it bent to his will.
Daniel pushed his back against the door and let himself slide to the ground, pulling his knees to his body. He closed his eyes and tried listen, but nothing registered over the frenetic pounding in his chest. There he sat, completely motionless, acutely aware of every second that ticked by without incident. Over a half an hour passed like this, with no signs of life in the hallway, no shouting, no pounding on the door, no gunshots- no signs of Boric at all.
After deciding that he was safe for the time being, Daniel got up and began to take stock of his surroundings. He was sitting at the end of a long hallway, with a bathroom to his immediate left and what looked to be a bedroom at the other end. The only light on offer was a strange red glow that emanated from the far room.
And then his eyes came to rest on a large object that was just out of reach of the red light. It looked to be roughly the size of a person, and it was sprawled out in the middle of the hallway. Daniel slowly got to his feet and approached the bulk, pausing only for a moment when he made out the vague outline of a human hand. It turned out to be a thirty-something man, one who seemed to have drunken himself to oblivion for the time being. Far from the peaceful look that settles in on the face of most people when they’re asleep, the bulk wore a distinctly predatory expression. Instinctively, Daniel bent down and checked his pockets, taking care not to disturb him. The guy didn’t even have a wallet.
He clicked his tongue in disgust and began to search for something worthy of being carried out of the apartment. Rounding the corner into the far room, he came face to face with the source of the red light, at which he could only stare in dumb awe. The entire opposite wall was covered in video screens; all arranged into a deliberate pattern of one massive screen surrounded by a ring of smaller ones. There were fifteen in total by Daniel’s count. Every screen was displaying the same violent shade of red, and their uniformity was broken only by an occasional burst of static.
Daniel also noticed a strange machine tucked away on a desk under the screens. It was gray and looked boxy and awkward, almost ridiculous. It reminded him of his grandmother’s old tape recorder. The machine didn’t have any knobs or wires, just three colored buttons: red, green, and a blue one that was currently flashing. Daniel felt an urge to press it, but he held back out of fear that he might wake up the bulk. Wearing an expression of childish frustration, he returned to the man for another look. He crouched down and took a whiff of his breath, only to immediately reel back in disgust. It smelled like this guy had spent the night alternating between swigging moonshine and eating shit. He was probably down for the count, but to be totally sure, Daniel delivered the lightest of kicks to the man’s leg. There was no response.
He walked back into the room and pressed the flashing blue button. The red disappeared from the ring screens and a video began to play on the large one. It showed a middle aged man with receding blonde hair, dressed in bright new clothes. Daniel recognized the type immediately: he was the kind of guy who would give you a twenty, but only if there was someone with him to witness the deed.
The man on the screen glanced around nervously before addressing the camera. When he opened his mouth to speak, fragments were all he could manage:
‘I didn’t start out wanting it…’
‘And it just happened because she’s so…’
‘And so young…’
Daniel stared, unmoved by the entreaties on the screen, entreaties that ranged from swearing it wouldn’t happen again to begging not to be caught to emphasizing all the reasons that he was a force for good in the world. The man ended his speech by invoking his son and asking that he not be forced to grow up without a father. Daniel bit down hard on his lower lip. He was sure he had guessed the nature of this man’s crime.
The screen shut off as soon as the man had finished talking, and the two other buttons on the machine lit up, painting the walls with alternating bursts of green and red light. Daniel once again found himself gripped by the urge to press a button, though this time it was simply a question of which one. He considered it for a few moments and decided that green is always a safer color than red.
The screens on the ring all turned on at once, each displaying a different video. It happened so quickly that Daniel couldn’t take all of it in. Every screen seemed to be displaying the blonde man at a different stage of his life. They followed a chronological order that progressed clockwise from twelve o’clock. Daniel only caught parts of it: the blonde man at a park with his wife and a young boy, in a car trying to calm down a little girl who was crying, inside a bar shouting at two well-dressed men, gray-haired and sobbing in a washroom stall, and most perplexing of all: a woman kicking over a tombstone.
Before Daniel even had time to consider what he had just witnessed, a grunting noise brought the bulk back to the forefront of his mind. He crept out of the room and peered down the hallway. The man’s position had shifted, though he was still on his back and his eyes remained closed. This was another lucky break for Daniel, and he took it as a sign that he had pushed his luck enough for one night. He returned to the video room, opened a window, and put his foot down on the metal fire escape. He didn’t even bother to close it behind him.
It wasn’t until the next morning that Daniel began to reflect on the events of the night before. He was washing his t-shirt in the sink of a public washroom when the first question popped into his mind: Was that a real person? If the screens were to be believed, the blonde man had been praying and the green button had answered his prayers. Thus, it seemed safe to assume that the man would have been caught by the cops or something had Daniel pressed the red button instead. And where the hell would this kind of machine come from, anyways? Were the police listening to people’s bedtime prayers? Or maybe it was some kind of alien technology…
By afternoon, Daniel had convinced himself that the machine was real. Staring down a bustling lunch crowd with a face made dirty for maximum effect, his thoughts were dominated by the blonde man who by dumb luck had been granted a second chance. He felt guilty about his part in extending mercy to someone who probably deserved far worse, and he found no comfort in the thought that he hadn’t known what he was doing; it didn’t matter whether he knew or not, his actions had produced a result. His guilt eventually shifted into anger. What gives this guy the right to ask for forgiveness? He had a wife, a car, a son, and a house, but apparently that’s just not enough. And then there was the way he squandered his reprieve. He just went right back to hurting people as soon as he realized he wasn’t going to be caught…
His anger eventually took on enough momentum to pull him back to the apartment. He set about carefully retracing the panicked steps of the night before and eventually reached his destination. Normally, he would enter via the window so that he could scout it out before committing himself. But this time he was struck by a strange urge to go in through the front door again. He had a feeling it would be unlocked.
His premonition proved correct, and upon entering the apartment he immediately saw that the bulk had shifted positions, though he remained just as comatose as the night before. Now he was sprawled across the threshold of the bathroom, one cheek pressed against the ground. His open mouth was the fountainhead for an impressive stream of drool that had pooled between the tiles. Daniel didn’t give him a second thought. He stepped over his legs and walked into the veil of red light. The window in the video room was still open, just as he had left it, but that didn’t concern him right now. He walked over to the machine and pressed the flashing blue button.
A middle-aged woman appeared on the central screen. She had a kind and motherly face, though her puffy eyes gave the impression of not having slept for several days. She was sitting in the middle of a large living room that was full of expensive looking furniture. Half of her body was shrouded in sunlight that poured in through two large picture windows. Daniel’s attention gravitated towards the backyard that was visible beyond these windows. He could make out a rusted swing set and a massive tree.
The woman’s story concerned a puppy that she had recently bought for her daughter. The dog had a rare condition where its brain grew too quickly, so much so that it pressed up against its skull. Her original intent was to end the dog’s suffering immediately. It was, after all, an extremely painful condition. But her daughter loved the animal to a fault and she just couldn’t bear to see her child suffer the pain of loss at such an early age. Ultimately, she decided that they would pursue the only medical option available to them: an expensive, experimental surgery that had a very low rate of success. The middle-aged woman then shifted in her chair and brought the subject around to her impressive record of church attendance over the past twenty years. She concluded by asking that the dog survive its surgery next month so that they could all go on living happily together. She smiled before being recalled to the void, leaving Daniel to stare at his own reflection in the black glass of the middle screen.
He hesitated for a moment, torn between his love of dogs and a strong desire to make sure that the woman on the screen didn’t get her way. Everything he had heard might have been forgivable apart from the church thing. The thought that church attendance determined whether or not a prayer was answered itself was annoying, say nothing of the fact that the prayer in question was for something so stupid. So only those who attend church for 40 years qualify for an immortal hamster? Daniel raised his hand into the air and slowly extended his index finger. With dramatic flair, he brought it down on the red button to a ‘dun-dun-dunnnn,’ that played out in his head. The ring screens turned on. The top one showed a young girl, who Daniel could only assume was the daughter, crying in a room cluttered with toys. The other screens told what could only be the story of one daughter’s dogless life. It ended in a car crash, but he couldn’t make out how old she was at the time.
Not the least bit satisfied with his first judgement, Daniel pressed the blue button again. He was eager to preside over more cases. This time, the central screen offered a man whose face said mid-forties but whose clothes implied he thought himself a decade younger. His haircut was tidy enough to be a recent addition, and it seemed specially chosen to go complement the thick pair of black glasses that adorned his face. He must be in a good mood, Daniel observed, because this guy was all smiles.
The man got right down to business. He said that he wasn’t really the praying type, but his visualizations had not been getting him anywhere, so he thought it might be best to try for some outside help on this one. For two long years he’d been toiling away in the same department, and though he’d received a raise or two, his work had never gotten the recognition it deserved. Things finally seemed to be looking up however, because a management position had just opened up after one of his bosses died of liver failure. Two people were currently in the running to fill this vacancy- himself, and a guy named Rick from another department. Apparently, Rick was a bastard who didn’t deserve the job as much as he did. In order to leave nothing to chance, this man had been visualizing his promotion for two hours every night since the job opened up. Something must have gone wrong though, because word has it that it’s going to be Rick that gets the promotion and not him (leading him to suspect that Rick might have been doing some visualization of his own). The man concluded by saying he just wants what he deserves and nothing more. He disappeared from the screen wearing the same grin that he showed up with.
Daniel reached out to press the red button and stopped. The man hadn’t asked for anything tangible. He just wanted ‘what he deserved,’ a request that begged the question of who got to decide such things. Daniel was curious about the answer, so he painted a mental portrait of what he thought the man deserved before reaching out and pressing the green button.
The ring screens came to life and what they strung together was nothing short of a life destroyed: the man being fired in what may have been Rick’s new office, throwing bottles at a wall in an alley, sprawled out on a stained mattress, having his ass handed to him by two cops, an arm riddled with infected sores, and a corpse in a derelict warehouse. The overall impression was that of a process which hadn’t taken very long to play out.
Daniel frowned; his mental portrait hadn’t been anywhere near so brutal. A little shaken, he bit his lip and tried to make sense of what was going on. Was he killing these people? The thought slipped away as quickly as it came. The only thing that could keep his focus was the dull flashing of the blue button in front of him, forever calling him to the next case. He submitted to it, exhausted, and felt a prick of anger towards the world at large as he reached for the button once more.
The screen displayed a man looking down at his feet, his face hidden by long and filthy gray hair. He was wearing clothes that were various degrees of ancient and their colors had long been dulled into a mulch of greenish-brown. When the man finally looked up and out of the screen, it occurred to Daniel that he’d seen his sunken eyes before.
He spoke very slowly, saying that he’d never been one to make excuses, but his father was rough on him growing up. He’d been cussed at, beaten, stolen from, and locked up for days on end, but again, he wasn’t one to make any excuses. He said that he had the bug, and that there wasn’t much left for him in this world. No one gave a shit that he was going to die and he didn’t blame them. For all of his life, he nurtured the bile that had built up during his younger days, spitting it in the face of anyone who was unlucky enough to get involved with him- friends, family, whoever. At this point, his voice faltered, and he paused to spit and clear out his lungs before continuing. He finished by saying that he didn’t want the people he fucked over to go on screwing the next generation, so it was up to God to wipe the hatred from the hearts of all those who he’d wronged. His prayer ended with the final caveat that God was probably bullshit, anyways.
Daniel didn’t pause to think it through; his finger came down on the red button immediately. He swallowed hard as the screens assembled a collage out of the lives twisted by this man: a woman lying on the snowy steps of an old-looking building. He waited until he’s about to die before having any remorse. An enormously fat man belting a little boy in the face, yanking off one of the kid’s sneakers and throwing it out of an open window. And what does he do? He fucking prays about it. A police officer attending a graduation ceremony. They should all suffer like he did, and that can be his punishment for not pulling his shit together when it mattered. A twenty-something staring at a television screen through dilated pupils.
They should all suffer like I have…
Daniel dropped to his knees. The red light was seeping through his skin now, tainting his blood, and curdling his marrow. He clenched his teeth. Fuck this shit, no way, no fucking way. Something was welling up inside of him, a feeling that he couldn’t keep down. It was the weakness and vulnerability of old, the last remnants of a world lost forever. He began to sob in wretched gasps that shook his entire body. Almost involuntarily, his hands came together and he began to pray:
I want to go back to the way things were when Gran was still alive. I want to sit in her breakfast nook and watch dust swirl in the sunlight. I want to hear her be cross with me. I want to go back there, to my safe place, where I can watch the ugliness of this world without having to participate in it.
Daniel knew that it was a long shot, but he couldn’t help but feel a spark of excitement as he reached for the blue button. The spark ignited a flame when he saw himself on the screen, and it raged into wildfire as he listened to his prayer being spoken back at him. By the time the two buttons had lit up, he was smiling again.
He went to press the green button, but was suddenly wrenched backwards. Someone had a hold of his right shoulder and they were gripping it with such animal ferocity that it felt like his clavicle would surely soon snap in two. He was paralyzed, unable to bear the agony that resulted from even the slightest movement. A giant, hairy arm reached over his other shoulder, its fat finger inching towards the red button at a pace meant to tease.
Daniel closed his eyes.