What it Means to Hurt: Complete Short Fiction
For the past few weeks we’ve published our latest serial fiction in parts. Here is the complete story, complete with it’s conclusion.
Depressed and uncertain, Zachary Thomas wandered the city streets with no destination or purpose. He found himself outside Johnny Brenda’s at the intersection of Frankford and Girard after about five miles of walking. He had never been inside before, though he often drove past it on his way to work. Feeling no longer to be in possession of his faculties, Zachary yielded to the force pulling him into the bar.
He sat down at the bar and ordered a beer. Everything smelled of reality. The dim lighting made him feel better and worse at the same time. A low murmur travelled through the bar, punctuated intermittently by an enthusiastic exclamation or an obnoxious guffaw. Zachary turned around on his stool and looked at the people sitting at the tables on the other side of the room. They all looked to be about his age, so happy, so glad to be out and about in the presence of one another. Zachary wanted them to leave. He turned back around on his stool and faced the bartender and the wall of alcohol behind her.
Several hours passed, people came and went, and Zachary Thomas continued to drink. He didn’t speak to anyone except the bartender, though their conversations consisted of little more than his affirmative responses to her asking him if he wanted another beer.
A middle-aged man at the other end of the bar took notice of Zachary. He walked over to Zachary and sat down on the stool immediately to his right.
“Looks like something’s on your mind,” the middle-aged man said. “Everything okay?”
“Actually, no,” Zachary said, absentmindedly tapping his fingers against his glass of beer. “I just got divorced. We signed the papers today. It’s over.” Saying it aloud for the first time provided him no relief, but he appreciated the man’s concern. “Thank you for asking,” he added.
“Of course,” he said. “I really am sorry to hear that, though. It stings, doesn’t it? I’ve been there myself. Three times, as a matter of fact. Just keep your head up and fight through it.”
Zachary raised his glass of beer to the man and slightly bowed his head. “You’re a good guy,” he said. He took a sip of his beer.
“Oh, sorry, I’m Rick, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Rick. I’m Zachary.”
A silence fell over the two men. Rick turned on his stool to watch the baseball game on the TV at the far end of the room. Meanwhile, Zachary thought about Jane and her long brown hair and her perfect teeth and her dimples and her coin collection and her penchant for yogurt and all the other things that made her who she was. Jane was no longer his.
“This has not been a pleasant life,” Zachary said.
Unsure whether or not it was he Zachary was speaking to, Rick turned back around on his stool and looked at the young man. “Are you talking to me?” he asked.
“I guess I am,” Zachary slurred. “I don’t know. Maybe. I’m sorry, man. I’m just depressed as hell. I feel like the Fates are conspiring against me, you know? They just want me to be miserable all the time, because that’s what I always am: miserable. You have no idea. Nobody does.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m twenty-three, why?”
Rick chuckled, clapping his companion on the shoulder. “Zachary, you’re barely out of the womb. I know you think what you’re going through now is worse than anything that’s ever happened to anyone ever in the course of human history, but it isn’t. It’s just not. You’ve been pricked, that’s all. Just a little jab. Let’s get together again in thirty, thirty-five years, and then you and I can have a real conversation about what it means to hurt.”
Though he resented being compared to a newborn baby, Zachary maintained his composure (that is, as best he could, given the fact that he had already drunk a considerable amount of alcohol). “I don’t know if being young really has anything to do with the fact that I’m in pain,” he said. “People my age can hurt.”
“I agree,” Rick said. “And I’m not trying to minimize your feelings or anything like that. I just want you to realize that, in the grand scheme of things, this is small potatoes. If you go your entire life thinking that every unfortunate thing that happens to you is the absolute worst thing anybody’s ever been through, you’ll never be able to properly manage your emotions. I’m just trying to protect you, that’s all.”
“No,” Zachary said, his voice rising. “I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to convince me that I don’t know anything about life because I’m young. You think I’m some sort of, I don’t know, soft cupcake just because I’m not as old as you are. Well, fuck you very much, mister. Fuck you very much.”
Angered by the young man’s insolence, Rick stood up and held a finger in front of Zachary’s face. Rick was a rather large man, slightly rotund, but proportioned in such a way that made him look distinguished and sophisticated. “You listen to me, you little shit,” he said. “You don’t get to talk to me like that, okay? I understand that you’re going through something, but I’m not going to let you sit there and tell me that you know the first thing about how tough life is. So stop whining and get on with your life.” He sat back down on his stool and took a sip of his beer.
Zachary continued to argue with the man against his better judgment. “You act like you know me just because I told you one thing about myself. Well, that’s not my whole life. You don’t know where I’ve been or what I’ve done and seen and experienced. I’m much more complex than you think.”
Rick stared straight ahead. “I’m done talking to you, kid.”
At this Zachary lunged at Rick. Their bodies collided clumsily. Zachary took Rick by the lapels of his jacket and shook him as vigorously as he could. “Don’t call me a kid!” he screamed. “Don’t call me a baby! Don’t tell me I don’t know what it means to hurt!”
All the other patrons in the bar turned to look at them. The bartender leaned across the counter and demanded that the two of them separate. From the other side of the room came a tall, beefy man who successfully managed to break Zachary and Rick up.
“No wonder you’ve been divorced three times,” Zachary said, his breathing uneven. He grabbed his beer, chugged the rest of it, and walked out of the bar.
Zachary found a stoop on a corner a few blocks away from Johnny Brenda’s. He lay down on the stoop and began to weep. From somewhere in the distance came the faded blaring of a car horn. All was silent otherwise. That wrinkly old waste of life doesn’t know what he’s talking about, Zachary thought to himself as the cool night breeze caressed his face.
Thousands of years passed, or so it seemed to Zachary. Finally he got up off the stoop and continued walking, though he wasn’t really sure where he was going or what he was going to do.
“Hey!” came a voice from behind him.
Zachary stopped again and turned around. Someone was walking toward him. It wasn’t until they were within about ten feet of each other that Zachary was able to ascertain the identity of the approaching figure.
“Hold on just a minute, kid,” Rick said. “Hold it right there. You and I have some unfinished business. Wouldn’t you say?”
At that moment, Zachary felt very vulnerable. He hadn’t been afraid to attempt to engage Rick in a fight when the two of them were in Johnny Brenda’s because he’d known, subconsciously, that it wouldn’t have gotten out of hand on account of the fact that there’d been a considerable number of other people in the bar. And sure enough, someone had broken them up before anything even happened. But now, on the street, in the dead of night with no one else around, there were no rules. There were no referees. Zachary wondered if Rick would go so far as to kill him, if given the chance. The possibility was enough to convince Zachary that what he needed to do was scream, very loudly, for help. But before he could do so, Rick smashed a hard, unforgiving fist into his adversary’s face. Zachary dropped to the ground, blood gushing from his nose.
“You punk-ass kids think you know everything,” Rick said. “You think you understand pain. Newsflash: you don’t. You will, though, once I’m through with you.”
Zachary tried to scramble away on all fours, but Rick stopped him with a swift kick to his side. Rolling onto his back, Zachary clutched his throbbing side and let out a long, loud moan.
Immediately Rick dropped to his knees and put both of his hands firmly over Zachary’s mouth. “Shut the fuck up, kid,” he said. “Now, you listen to me. I’m going to take my hands away from your mouth and then give you the beating of your life. After that, I’m going to go home and feel good about it for a while before I pass out. If you want to try to get away again or make a lot of noise, that’s perfectly fine with me. Just know that, if you do, I won’t hesitate to kill you.”
Just then, Zachary spotted something resting against the curb by his head. It was a large, empty glass bottle with no label on its side. Without thinking, he reached over and grabbed the bottle by its neck. In one continuous, fluid motion, he swung the bottle at Rick, connecting with the side of his head. Glass sprayed everywhere, and Rick collapsed to the ground.
Zachary quickly stood up. He looked at Rick lying on the concrete sidewalk. “Are you all right?” he asked. He gently nudged him with his foot but received no kind of response. Small lines of blood ran down the side of Rick’s head.
“Oh, my God,” Zachary said. “I killed him.” Panicked, he turned and started running in the direction from which he came, toward Girard Avenue. And that was when everything began to fade.
The next morning, Zachary woke up on Girard Avenue in front of a bank down the street from Johnny Brenda’s. He had a massive headache, his side still hurt, and his upper lip was caked with blood. As he tried to recall the events of the previous night (which was no easy feat; at present everything seemed so surreal to him), he noticed a policeman standing over him, hands on hips, looking very stern.
“Rise and shine, my love,” the policeman said. “Let’s move it along, all right? This is a place of business.” He gestured to the bank against which Zachary was now sitting.
“Sorry, sir,” Zachary said, rubbing his eyes. He stood up and began to walk away when everything from the previous night came flooding back to him. With great fear he sprinted as fast as he could to the block on which he and Rick had fought. He came to the place where he’d left Rick, but now no one was there. The only remnants of their altercation were the broken shards of the glass bottle (and a few small drops of blood on the sidewalk that Zachary did not see). Not knowing what else to do, he took his cell phone out of his pocket and checked the time. It was almost nine o’clock. He had a missed call from his boss. Turning to leave, and deciding that he was not going to go into work today, Zachary Thomas thought about what he was going to have for breakfast.
And neither he nor Rick ever had anything to do with the other again.