(This is another contest entry, this time for a 2000-word limit short story competition.
The theme, which every story has to incorporate, is “A character has a flashback to a time when they were a completely different person.”
I’ll try to be more punctual with updates about the winners this time.)
On a bright day in September, Spencer put on his black suit and drove to a funeral alone. The weather still held the summer’s heat, and he felt the sweat on his back beneath the heavy fabric as he climbed the hill at the centre of the cemetery, the yellowing grass slippery under the worn soles of his shoes. Small groups of darkly-dressed people waited at the top, eyes squinting against the sun. Spencer did not join them, but stood on stiff legs in the slowly-tilting shade of a great drooping willow tree to wait for the service to begin.
“You want to see the body, don’t you?”
The voice belonged to the woman who appeared next to Spencer, a curved branch from the tree held in her hand like a wilted sword. “Have we met?” he asked. Spencer thought he could see the resemblance between the woman and the smirking photograph watching over the open grave. Hair the burnt red of a dying rose, left long and shaggy, almost to the point of neglect, and held back by a moss-green headband, blue eyes that were almost silver in the sunlight, the same distinct upturned nose. With her slate-grey suit and carefully-applied makeup, she looked the part of a dutifully distraught daughter, but the firm, almost combative set of her jaw showed that she wasn’t playing it as well as her costume.
“Not formally,” she said, putting out her right hand. “But I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Shaking the proffered hand, and noticing it was calloused despite an obviously recent manicure, Spencer gave her a polite smile. “Enough to know I’m not the hugging type”
“Elizabeth McGrath,” she said. “The only living offspring of our soon-to-be lamented Red Doctor.” She flicked the willow branch, gesturing toward the hole. “Or just Peter McGrath. That’s all he has to be in death.”
“Spencer,” he replied. “And I’m sorry for your loss.”
Elizabeth’s face showed no emotion while she plucked at the narrow leaves on her branch. “Isn’t everyone? We’re all so broken up that the greatest criminal and villain this city has ever known is being put in the ground.” Crushed leaves fell at their feet. “But you didn’t answer my question. You want to see the body, don’t you? That’s why you’re here.”
Spencer noticed the young woman’s eyes. The pupils were two flinty black points that shone with that distinct zeal he knew so well. “No,” he said.
She frowned. “Why else would the White Wolf himself come out of his hermitage to be here?” Elizabeth pulled the final leaf away, leaving only the fragile, skeletal branch. “You`re saying there’s no ulterior motive?”
“What do you think it is?” asked Spencer. He could see the priest coming up the hill, white robe stiffened by a sudden wind that shook the willow tree above them, scattering more leaves.
“Come on,” said Elizabeth, snapping the branch, a casual movement that didn’t divert her gaze from him. “I know who you are. You’re the bedtime story criminals tell their kids. All the times you got in my father’s way when nobody else would, or could, not even the police. There’s a history. And it’s not as if he hasn’t faked his death before. But you don’t want to see the body?”
“No,” said Spencer.
Elizabeth crossed her arms over her chest. “Why did you come here, then, if you’re not making sure he’s finally dead?”
“This is the funeral of a former acquaintance,” said Spencer. “I came to pay my respects.”
The service held them in its stifling monotony, the priest droning through an eulogy as tame as it was fictional. In words, Peter McGrath was not even a percentage of the murderous monster he’d lived his life as. Spencer continued to stand apart, watching the mourners, thinking about who he saw and who he didn’t see as he baked in his own juices under the glare of the noonday sun.
As the priest continued, Spencer’s mind wandered into the dark alleys of memory, to midnight rooftops where he’d spent years watching over the city. But he didn’t see the Red Doctor, one of his terrorist plots. Physical sensation began to impinge on the daydream–wet crunch of bone and muscle. Ribs breaking under his fists. Sounds followed. Gasps, cries of pain, and Spencer was back there, holding his opponent up by the collar so he could keep swinging.
And even now, years removed, that hot flush of conviction, of righteous, justified anger, felt like a fresh hit of some drug entering his system. In those moments, Spencer felt a seductive release. Nothing else mattered but the next part of the body he could bruise or break, and the next target. The next criminal who deserved his violence. Because it was so simple to act, to do what felt right.
When they finally pulled him away, the young man fell to the ground, twitching, coughing out blood and spittle.
In the present, the priest spoke of legacy, of the indelible impact a person makes on those around him, on society.
In the prison of his memory, Spencer sat in a crowded courtroom, anonymous in the same black suit. Late October then, but it was as hot in there, with the bodies packed together, as it was now. He stared at the young man–the kid–who might never walk again. A boy he had never met before, who had no name in Spencer’s mind. A life permanently ruined because in a desperate moment, the kid made a mistake by trying to hold up a liquor store on the wrong night in the wrong city. That was White Wolf territory, where Spencer and his pups prowled.
They did not clap at the funeral. They had then, at the trial, they had cheered for their hooded avenger, while Spencer saw only that mother standing alone. Going home alone. Living alone. Crying alone.
It took a mother’s tears to extinguish the black fire in Spencer’s eyes.
Elizabeth watched him. Nothing happened in a vacuum. There were always consequences. She watched Spencer, but unlike that mother, Elizabeth did not cry.
After the service, the mourners shuffled off toward the reception hall for some air conditioning and a cold lunch buffet. Spencer followed at a distance, and while he stood in line for a cup of burnt coffee, he heard a familiar voice.
“If it isn’t the old man himself.” Spencer turned and saw a younger man, tall, with broad shoulders and arms straining against a tight shirt the colour of an old bruise. He had the look and cocky demeanour of a professional athlete, with an expressive face. Except for familiar and unchanging hard eyes.
“Drake,” said Spencer. “It’s good to see you looking well.”
A superstar smile, wide and white, something that belonged on a cereal box. Drake held out a hand that he used to try and crush Spencer’s. “You came to see the body,” he said.
“No,” said Spencer.
“Really?” asked Drake, eyebrow raised. “Even after the last time he tried something like this?”
Trying to coax a few extra drops from the milk carton, Spencer shook his head. “The man is dead, Drake. Let it go.”
Drake leaned in close. “Like you did?” he asked softly, but with some edge creeping into his voice. “When you quit and hung us out to dry?”
Spencer stirred his coffee, then tossed the plastic stick into a nearby bin. “When’s the last time you fell asleep without another man’s blood on your knuckles, Drake?” He took a sip. Still bitter.
The big man’s eyes narrowed. “You’re going to moralize at me, even now?” The smile bent, turned into a sneer. “I listened to you once, when I was a kid. Remember that? And the man I looked up to then would never have done what you did.”
“The man you looked up to,” said Spencer. “He wasn’t real. You’re not stupid. You knew that then, and you know it now.”
Drake straightened, looked down at Spencer. “What happened to you?” he asked before slipping away into the crowd.
Spencer found Elizabeth standing alone over the mound of soft, new dirt while she stared at the new tombstone. The soft purr of engines drifted like a dirge from down the hill as people left in their cars.
“He really was a bad man,” she said. “We’re all better off without him.”
“You don`t owe the public anything,” said Spencer. “Or me, or Drake. You don’t have to run around with him every night to make up for what your father did. And if you feel that you do, start a charity. Your family has legitimate money as well. Use it for something other than another man’s vendetta.”
“The old man is going to tell us all about justice and forgiveness.” Drake walked toward them, long easy strides, hands in his pockets. “He’ll fill your ears with stories about good and evil.” He came to a stop opposite Spencer. “Haven’t you done enough to us?”
Spencer could see the shadow lurking under the surface of those calm words. Drake was a man who never stopped tensing for the next battle. “You still think it’s a weakness,” he said. “To not fight, to avoid violence. That’s your paradox, Drake. You say you want to protect civilians, but you don’t actually like them, because they don’t use their fists like you do. You think normal people are beneath you.”
“You sleep at night because I’m out there,” Drake nodded at Elizabeth, who stood between the two men. “Because we’re out there, protecting you even after you gave up protecting yourself.” His words were hardening with each sentence. “We don’t live in your perfect world. We all know that, whether you admit it or not. Human beings are nothing more than animals that figured out how to wear shoes. Only a coward denies that violence is a part of us, is the only language we all understand.”
Spencer saw the rage like deadly tides in an arctic sea as it built behind Drake’s eyes, even as he worked so hard to keep his features blank. It was harder to hide without the mask on. “How long before you cross the line?” asked Spencer. “How long before you kill a man?”
Drake said nothing. Elizabeth looked away from the grave, from Spencer, turning her eyes down to her feet. “I still know people, son,” said Spencer. “I’ve seen the pictures. I know what we’re standing on, even with the closed casket. We don’t have to pretend.”
“He had it coming.” Elizabeth did not look up when she spoke.
“For your sake,” said Spencer. “I hope you believe that sincerely. Because there’s no coming back from this, and it’s not worth it.”
“You don’t have to listen to him,” said Drake, the snarl out in the open. “He made us what we are, and now he wants to wash his hands of it. We did what we had to do.” He turned to Spencer. “I have no regrets.”
And Spencer saw that it was more than that. Drake had enjoyed it. “What comes next?” asked Spencer. “The fearsome Red Doctor is in a box–”
“We’re not looking for an endorsement,” said Drake.
“Then what do you want from me?” asked Spencer.
“I want you to see what we’ve accomplished,” said Drake. “To see that we’re finally making a difference. To see what we’re willing to do to get the job done.”
“To see how far you’ve gone,” said Spencer.
Elizabeth couldn’t face him, but there was no denial in the hot tears running down her face. A pain that was almost physical thudded through Spencer’s chest. He’d wanted to believe there was still hope for Drake, but the man he saw now showed no traces of the sad boy Spencer had taken in all those years ago. “And when does it end?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
Drake said, “When I’m done.”