January 12th, 2018.
Stark City, Oregon.
Although my breath was streaming out like smoke, I wasn’t cold as I stepped into Bart Park on that chilly Friday night. For once, the sky was clear, and the half moon glowed pale and sharp above me. I’d just been out for a walk, trying to clear my head. I hadn’t wanted any trouble.
But I should’ve known better.
Unlike the preceding week-and-a-half, the past two days had been fairly normal. After I’d been interrogated at the hospital by Detective Thorson, Joan had driven me back to the Quickie Mart and we’d both gone home to our apartment. Joan was majorly freaked out by the whole thing, and so was I. She didn’t know the half of it, though. Still doesn’t. I’d stopped that guy from robbing the Quickie Mart, then goaded him into suicide. I’d watched his brains leak out from his skull.
But the part that really freaked me out was that, after I passed out, I found myself talking to my father in what amounted to The Twilight Zone. Pop had warned me not to fight the strange curse Death had put over me, and told me to use my power for good.
Wise words, but easier said than done.
That was Tuesday night. I hadn’t gone to work, and I stayed home Wednesday, too. Joan and I had spent the day together, and after a really long conversation, I was finally able to convince her that everything would be alright. She’d been worried that I was losing my marbles, and—though she never admitted it—she thought our apartment was haunted.
Of course, she was right about both, but I’m not dumb enough to ever tell her that.
By Thursday, there was nothing left to do but go back to work. I mean, I may have been Death’s chosen one, or whatever, but I still needed to pay the bills. Plus, I was in really hot water for leaving early Monday and getting behind on my projects. So I went in, reunited with my concerned Quad-mates, and stayed late, trying to catch up.
I pulled pretty much the same routine the next night, and once I’d gotten my fill of sitting in my cubicle, I decided to go out for a nice, quiet walk. That’s how I wound up in Bart Park.
Everyone in Stark City knows Bart Park isn’t the safest place to be—especially at night. But as I strolled along, I left Stark Square and kept going south of downtown. I wasn’t really thinking about where I was going…I was too lost in thought. So much had happened in the last twelve days, and I think my brain was kinda fried.
Either that, or Death and Destiny were guiding me along.
From the outside, it’s easy to see why Bart Park was never very popular with regular people. It’s really just a big city version of a park. More concrete than grass, with a stupid bronze statue of Stark’s first City Treasurer, Melvin Bartholomew Stark. The place is dreary, even in the summertime. More drug-dealing than dog-walking goes on there, and at night it serves as a campground for random bums and winos.
It had been a week since the last major incident. Three people had died of stab wounds in what the cops had said was a drug deal gone bad.
On this particular night, Bart Park wasn’t hosting many people. It was pretty quiet, in fact. No noise except the frozen grass crunching under my shoes. With hindsight, I suppose that I was unconsciously walking toward the spot where those people had died. Places like that draw me like a magnet now. Something about the aura of Death. But at that moment, all I was thinking about was Joan, and wondering how in the world I was gonna keep in her in the dark about everything that was happening to me.
I was also wondering if I should just leave for her own protection.
And that’s when I heard it. A sudden voice calling out from the darkness:
“Hey, buddy…you lost?”
“Huh?” I gasped, jerking toward the sound. I heard laughter—a second voice joining in—and I stopped in my tracks. Oh, no, I thought.
Here we go.
“I said, are you lost?”
It was a deep, scratchy voice; drunken and hostile. And a moment later, I saw the man it belonged to. An older guy, wearing a ratty black parka and even rattier jeans. He had deep wrinkles in his face, and when he smiled, I saw a few missing teeth. He also had an eyepatch over his left eye. Next to him stood a man wearing a cowboy hat, and slightly better clothes. This guy had a thick, graying beard that made him look older than he was. Both of them wore beat-up backpacks, and held open beers in their right hands.
“No, I’m not lost,” I replied. “Just enjoying the park…”
That remark caused more laughter as they sauntered toward me with mocking grins.
“Oh, yeah,” Eyepatch said, nodding sarcastically. “Bart Park’s beautiful this time of year…ain’t it, Hank?”
Cowboy Hat chuckled. He was Hank, I guessed.
“Sure is, Gino…”
I stood very still as they walked closer. I didn’t know what was about to happen, but my gut told me that it probably wouldn’t be pretty. I’d never been in a situation like this, and I had no idea how to deal with these guys. I didn’t wanna hurt them, but I wasn’t sure that I even had a choice in the matter.
Eyepatch’s name is Gino, I thought.
They stopped about three feet from me; close enough that I could smell the beer on their breath—and the stench of not having showered in a few days. They both watched me with knowing smirks, but I still saw telltale signs of wariness in their eyes.
Especially when I didn’t back away from them.
“Quiet kinda guy, ain’tcha?” Gino asked.
I looked at Hank first, the bigger of the two, then glanced at Gino.
“I’m not lookin’ for trouble, guys. I just wanna go for a nice walk and be left alone.”
Gino and Hank looked at each other, then shared another chuckle.
“Well, don’t let us stop ya, kind sir,” Gino said, stepping aside and holding out his hand. “I was just gonna ask if ya had a buck or two to spare tonight.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, Gino. Don’t have any money on me.”
It was the truth, too.
Hank snickered. Gino’s face turned to stone. He glared at me with his eye.
“Now, I don’t believe that, kind sir. I believe you do have some bread on ya. I believe you lied to me just now.”
“I’m sure he lied, Gino,” Hank grumbled.
“No, I didn’t,” I said.
A moment passed. Gino and Hank stared at me with a resentment and rage that I didn’t quite understand. I hadn’t done anything to them…and yet, they were reacting as if I had. As if my presence was somehow insulting. It was strange, but oddly fascinating.
“Ya know,” Gino said, looking me up and down. “You look like one of them college boys to me. That what ya are? A college boy…out here slummin’? Lookin’ for some weed, maybe a cheap blowjob?”
“From a dude, too,” Hank added.
“No,” I said, beginning to feel the same surge of anger I’d felt in the Quickie Mart.
“Fuckin’ pansy!” Hank blurted out as he suddenly shoved me with his left hand.
“Hey!” I shouted, staggering back.
Gino cackled as Hank tossed his beer and rushed toward me. I was still trying to recover, and, not having any street fighting experience at all, I halfheartedly threw up my hands as Hank punched me hard in the stomach—
It felt like all of the air in my lungs had been sucked away as my stomach clenched and I bent over. It wasn’t so much pain as shock. I’d had the air knocked out of me a few times in my life by accident—who hasn’t?—but this was different. This was the result of another human being attacking me, and my brain was having real trouble processing it.
Wheezing, I sank to my knees. More laughter rained upon me as I braced myself for a kick or something.
What am I doing? I thought. This is crazy!
“Shoulda kept your ass at home, faggot!” Hank said.
“Get ’im, Hank!” Gino said, still cackling.
But the kick never came. Hank didn’t really wanna beat the crap outta me, he just wanted my wallet. I squirmed as Hank’s filthy fingers dug into my coat, then my pants. When he found the wallet, he backed away and began going through it.
“Fuck,” Hank said. “Nothing!”
“Well, we got enough for another six pack, anyway,” Gino said.
“Here, faggot,” Hank said, and threw my wallet on the grass near my head.
I took a deep breath. The pain and shock had worn off, replaced by what I can only describe as a cold rage. I was furious, but completely composed. Able to think clearly, and the only thing on my mind was teaching these two idiots a lesson in pain.
Then ending their pathetic lives.
“Come on,” Gino said. “Let’s hit the Quickie Mart over on Spring.”
“Yep,” Hank replied.
The crunching of their footsteps was very loud in my ears. I looked up, saw their retreating backpacks full of beer and dirty clothes, and felt a spike of pure loathing in my veins. Then I stood up, eyes narrowed, fists balled. My knees were wet from the frozen grass, but still, I felt no cold or chill. I was absolutely numb.
“Hey, assholes,” I called, walking toward them. “Why didn’t you take my debit card?”
Gino and Hank stopped in their tracks. Neither said anything for several seconds, and now I smelled fear intermingled with the beer and the B.O.
“You morons aren’t too bright, are ya?”
“Wow!” Hank said as he and Gino both turned. “I coulda swore I heard somethin’ just now. But I know it’s not that little faggot I beat up…”
“Couldn’t be, Hank,” Gino said. “He looked like a smart boy. He wouldn’t say anything that stupid.”
I smiled at them, took another step forward.
“I’m gonna give you this one chance. Either turn around and leave the park, or you both die, right here, right now.”
Gino began to laugh, then glanced at Hank—and quickly sobered.
“Okay, you little fuckin’ fag!” Hank said, shrugging off his backpack. “Now I’m gonna break your neck!”
Gino grabbed Hank’s shoulder. “Hank! He’s crazy! It’s not worth it, man! You gonna end up in jail again!”
“Hands off!” Hank screamed, shoving Gino away as he stomped toward me.
“Better run, man!” Gino said, looking at me with wide, bloodshot eyes. “Hank’ll kill ya!”
“Then let him kill me…”
I’d done it once before, in the Quickie Mart, and I knew I could do it again. So I stared hard into Hank’s blazing eyes…
This time, it happened fast. It still felt like falling, like sinking into utter darkness, but not as disorienting. And when those black curtains parted, I again saw it all. A life of pain. A life of heartache.
The life of Hank Dugan.
“You’re gonna be one sorry little bitch!” Hank yelled, vapor steaming from his face like a locomotive. His right arm curled back, fist balled, ready to throw what I’m sure would’ve been a tremendous punch…but right before he swung, I hit him first:
“It’s a damn chore, Hank.”
The drunken lunatic stopped short. His fist trembled in the night air. His knees shook. He looked as if he’d just walked into an invisible force field; suddenly confused, yet still pissed as hell.
“I said, it’s a damn chore.” I sighed, smiling at the poor bastard. “That’s what your father used to say, right? When he beat your mother…when he beat your sister…when he beat you.”
I think it took a few extra moments because the alcohol had dulled his brain, but Hank finally felt what was happening. Felt that I was seeing into his very soul. And with that knowledge came the deepest fear that he’d probably ever felt in his life.
“Holy fuck!” the drunk said, lowering his arm. “How could you know that?”
“Hey,” Gino said. “You alright, Hank?”
“No,” I answered. “Hank’s not alright. Hank’s frightened. Hank doesn’t want the belt tonight. He doesn’t wanna have to go to school with bruises on his arms again…”
“Jesus!” Hank gasped.
“What’s this horseshit?” Gino yelled.
Then Hank began to back away from me, slow and cautious, as if I were a coiled rattlesnake.
“But it finally ended, didn’t it, Hank? The day your daddy ran off with his buddies and never came back. You were only ten years old…and, despite the pain and the fear and the anger…you still missed him. You prayed every night for years that he’d come back…”
Hank stumbled, nearly fell on his ass. “You’re the goddamn devil!”
“Easy, man!” Gino said, holding up his hands as if he could catch his friend from ten feet away.
Slowly, I started circling toward Gino. Smiling. Enjoying myself. Eyes still locked on Hank.
“But don’t worry. You got the medicine. The medicine will take all that pain away.”
“Sweet Christ!” Hank screamed. “Make it stop!”
“Hey, man!” Gino said, gaping at me. “Whatever you’re doin’, stop it! We don’t want any more hassles tonight!”
“Go on, Hank. Go get your medicine…”
As if suddenly remembering, Hank groaned, turned, and sprinted toward his backpack. His cowboy hat flew off, tumbled to the cold ground. Gino and I watched—me with amusement, Gino with utter confusion—as Hank, huffing and puffing, grabbed the pack and ripped the zipper open. Then he shoved his quivering hand inside and retrieved a cold metal can.
“Hank…what’re ya doin’, bud?” Gino asked, looking helpless.
Hank’s eyes bulged as he raised the can. It glinted in the light as he popped the metal tab and raised it to his lips. Foam spewed from the hole, soaking his filthy hand. Guzzling his medicine, the devastated drunk slowly sank to his knees.
“And you,” I said, turning to Gino. “Let me taste your fear!”
Gino shuffled backward. His eye threatened to eclipse his entire face.
“Hold it now, partn—AHHH!”
Our gazes locked. My mind pulsed with secret knowledge as Gino began to shudder. “I see,” I said, stalking the one-eyed loser. “You drink because she left…isn’t that right? She left, and took your daughter with her…”
Lefty raised his hands. “Just stop it, man! Stop right there!”
I took another step.
“How easily your world fell apart, Gino.”
“So very easily…”
“Mister,” Gino said, trying to sound indignant and failing miserably. “That’s none of your goddamn business!”
“I’ve got another little secret for you, Gino. Wanna hear it?”
“Mister, I…I’m warning you…”
“Sure you do. Sure you wanna hear it…”
What I was about to say had revealed itself to me when I’d looked into Hank’s eyes, and I knew what was about to happen. In fact, I couldn’t wait to see the carnage. That’s what the disease of Death does to you.
Lefty shook his head, closed his eye. “No!” he shouted. “I don’t wanna hear nothin’!”
To my left, I heard Hank belch and rip open another can. “I think we’re in hell, Gino!” he said before tipping the can back.
Well, they hadn’t seen hell yet. But it was definitely coming.
“It was last Sunday, Gino. You and Hank were camped out in the Proebstel District.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Hank twitch. Gino also jerked in surprise. Now I had them right where I wanted them.
“You guys found a nice, cozy doorway to sleep in, didn’t you?”
Gino stumbled back. Breath plumed around his face.
“But your friend stayed awake. He had some things to do, and that’s what you need to kno—”
“SHUT YOUR FUCKIN’ MOUTH!” Hank screamed, spewing beer all over himself.
Gino flinched, again almost tripped and fell.
“While you were asleep, your friend, your runnin’ buddy, went through your backpack—”
“—and found that picture—”
“—of your wife—”
“And what?” Gino barked, interrupting both of us. “He dug through my backpack, found my picture, and…what?”
A hush fell over our little slice of the park. My smile grew wider. Gino stared at me, chest heaving. Hank, open-mouthed, looked from me to Gino, and back. The wind whispered all around us. Trees rattled in the darkness.
Finally, I spoke:
“He took your picture, Gino…and he jacked off to it in the alley around the corner.”
Gino’s eye narrowed. “What?”
“He fantasized about fucking your wife, your daughter, Gino…”
“LIAR!” Hank screamed.
I looked at the bearded, beer-soaked bastard, and laughed.
“Is that true?” Gino demanded, turning toward his buddy. “Is it?”
Hank, still on his knees, snapped toward Gino. “I-I’m sorry, Gino!”
“It’s true?” Gino was walking toward Hank now, flexing his hands as if squeezing stress balls.
“I was drunk as a skunk, Gino!”
“Hold it, bubba!”
“I’ll kill you!”
“He thought about fucking them at the same time, Gino,” I added.
Gino growled; an exhalation of pure hatred.
“Aw, fuck!” Dropping his beer, Hank struggled to one knee, attempting to stand.
Gino slipped off his backpack. For a split second, I thought he was ridding himself of the weight, but instead he swung it like a bolo—
—aiming for his face, but mostly hitting his left shoulder.
“Shit!” Gino yelled, stumbling from the momentum as Hank collapsed.
I cupped my hands around my mouth, and called, “You gonna lie there and take that, Hank?”
Of course, he wasn’t. Roaring like an injured bear, Hank rolled over, using his own momentum to gain his knees and stand. Gino hoisted the backpack again—much like Santa Claus—stumbling forward. Hank charged, slammed into Gino like a football player—
—tackling the one-eyed drunk to the ground—
Gino’s face contorted with pain as he fell, and his scream died the moment he hit the ground. The backpack landed on the ground beside Gino’s head. Both men rocked to the side, Hank sitting on his knees between Gino’s splayed legs. Then Hank sat up—or tried to, anyway. Gino, pained and struggling for breath, had grabbed two handfuls of Hank’s hair.
“GODDAMNIT, STOP IT!” Hank screamed, hauling Gino up by his jacket collar.
Gino, apparently able to breathe again, hissed with rage, yanking both fists to his left.
Both men were standing again, lurching around, using each other for support even as they fought. Hank, reverting to his favorite punch, threw a wild roundhouse into Gino’s gut—
Gino crumpled, fell back to his knees. Hank, reeling forward, joined him. Even then, Hank didn’t wanna hurt his friend. And as he reached out to console Gino by grabbing his shoulders, Gino impressed me by punching Hank right in the balls—
Hank doubled over, and Gino, straightening, grabbed him by the throat with both hands. Teeth bared and grit, the one-eyed drunk glared down, squeezing as hard as he could.
“Lousy, rat-fuck, prick!”
Hank hissed, clawed his way up Gino’s coat, and wrapped his own hands around Gino’s grimy neck. Gino grimaced, stiffened, and shut his eye. Both men grunted like pissed off apes, veins throbbing in their temples.
I couldn’t believe it, but I loved it.
They were literally strangling each other to death.
Of course, being drunk, tired, and pathetic, neither guy had the strength to actually kill the other. Luckily, they were too focused on their mutual predicament to notice their common enemy—namely, me—stalking up to them. I watched, amused, as Gino’s hands fell from Hank’s throat, and a moment later as Hank’s hands fell from Gino’s. Both men gasped, then collapsed onto their sides; Gino on his left, Hank on his right. Both pained, exhausted drunks curled into fetal positions; lying head to toe like the curved teardrops of a yin-yang symbol. Both men shivered in the icy wind. Gino groaned. Hank hiccupped, then retched, vomiting beer all over the grass. The steaming mess pooled beside him, and he buried his face in his hands.
It was finished.
Grinning, I walked up to this pitiful scene and shook my head. In the back of my mind, The Grim Reaper’s cruel, demonic voice whispered:
I reached Hank first. Remembering the sucker punch to the stomach, I knelt down, grabbed his greasy hair, and forced him to look up.
“Hi, Hank. Remember me?”
“Fuck…you…” Hank wheezed.
I opened my mouth to reply, then stopped. That peculiar sensation coursed through me again. A feeling of revelation, of knowing. Some strange new facet of my transformation. From touching the scumbag, I supposed.
“No…you’re the one who’s fucked.”
Hank blinked; all the fury now gone from his face. “What?”
“Liver disease,” I said, looking up into the deep, dark sky.
“Yes, Hank.” I sighed, sliding my other hand under his chin. “You’re in the early stages….but swilling all that rotgut’s hurrying it along.”
Hank tried to push me away. “Get off me, fucker!” Tears were streaming down his face as he whined.
I chuckled. A cloud of vapor drifted up, vanished in the wind. I felt an electric surge of strength as my hands took on a life of their own. Gripping the soused bum’s hair and jaw, I jerked both palms in opposite directions—
—snapping Hank’s neck like a dry twig.
The drunk flopped once, then went limp on the frozen grass. A dark spot appeared in the crotch of his mottled jeans, and from the putrid smell, I gathered that Hank had voided his bowels for the last time.
But a good death, I decided. Quick, clean, easy…
And I couldn’t wait to do it again.
Now I heard Pop’s voice as I stood, turned, and circled the half-dead yin-yang:
Take these tools that Death has given you, and punish the dregs who deserve it…
These are the dregs, alright, I thought as I knelt down.
Gino hitched, trying to sit up, and failed. “You!” he said between gasps. “You did this! Had us fightin’ like starvin’ rats!”
I nodded. “And it was easy, Gino. Don’t forget that.” Smirking, chuckling, I reached down, grabbing the drunk’s hair and chin like I’d grabbed Hank’s.
“Don’t touch me, asshole!”
Again, I felt it. That obscene communion. I stiffened, tightening my grip. “I’m doin’ you a favor here,” I whispered, looking into Gino’s wide, frightened eyes.
“No,” he whimpered, pushing against me with rubbery arms.
“Yes. It would’ve been a car accident. One year from now. A long, painful, death. Very hard on your poor daughter. But you’ve already served your purpose on this earth…”
“Shut your mouth, faggot! Go back to hell where you belo—”
With one smooth, sharp motion, Gino Longoni fell silent forever. He bucked, pissed, and shit just like his friend had. Cradling his scruffy head, I gazed at his blank face with neither pity nor remorse.
I’ll go back to hell, alright, I thought. And when I see you there, I’ll kill you and Hank again and again…as many fuckin’ times as I can…
Forgetting the bodies at my feet, I stood. I stared into the darkness of Stark City, listening as the wind whispered awful secrets amongst the dead trees. None of that mattered, though.
Nothing did, except for the fact that I was now a murderer.
I’d killed someone, not through mind games, like with Cliff, but with my bare hands.
The breeze gusted around me, but I didn’t feel it. Not only was I consumed with Death, but I was too absorbed with trying to accept the loss of my own humanity.
A murderer, I thought.
One who murders.
Then my father’s voice echoed back:
I shook my head. Murderer. Hero. Either way, I felt like a pawn in some cruel game. And either way, I was fucked.
There was no turning back.
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Death’s Avenger continues in Episode #14: https://deathsavenger.wordpress.com/2018/01/31/vol-1-ep-14/