I don’t remember much about this story, but once I began reading it, remembered having written it. I think I may have actually gotten a red envelope in the mail one day. This feels very familiar. But other than that, that’s all I remember.
I’m not using publicly available images in my posts anymore, but as I searched for images of red envelopes, I was surprised that they weren’t more prevalent on the web page I used to use (Wikimedia Commons). But I did notice a lot of Chinese associations. So, I searched and found that giving red envelopes as gifts at social and family gatherings was a “thing.” That the red color symbolizes good luck and is supposed to ward off evil spirits.
Yeah, well, you haven’t read this story, yet.
This story has never been published.
The Red Envelope
© F. P. Dorchak, 2003
Naked and sweaty, Harry Black stumbled through the overturned bourbon and vodka bottles littering his scant, alcohol-reeking, bedroom, on the way to the closet. Images pummeling his exhausted and bruised psyche: his wife and their three kids. Being fired from his stock analyst position. His anything-but-gradual descent into hell, at the hands of his own personal weapon of choice: bourbon. And bourbon’s distant, Russian cousin, vodka. And throw in a little hanky-panky for good measure.
Disoriented and disillusioned, Harry switched on the closet light, and reached up onto the top shelf, pulling down the cloth-wrapped parcel he’d stashed there just days ago. Or was it last month? All time blurred, when you were at one with the bottle. Didn’t frigging matter. Tears running down his face, he hugged his little package tightly into his chest and collapsed against the wall and floor. He sat there, legs sprawled out before him, and stared blankly at the bed and its rumpled sheets. At the spent bottles. The “lady” with whom he’d shared those sheets, earlier, was long gone, but his guilt was not. Harry unwrapped his little parcel, and openly began to weep. A .38 Special. For those special jobs you just couldn’t trust to any other method. It was loaded; he’d seen to that during one of his lately infrequent, in-between episodes, when he hadn’t yet made it back to the booze. Figured he’d have to have it all primed and ready to go, so as not to make any mistakes. Fumbling around for ammo, you know, when he was, well, as wasted as he currently was. Without any further ado, he cocked the hammer, and stuck the barrel into his mouth.
Then he spied the partially drained bourbon bottle at his feet.
Well, now, can’t have that, now, can we? One more for the road, old boy? One more certainly wasn’t gonna hurt anything, now was it?
Harry removed the barrel from his lips and reached for the bottle. Damn, what a waste that would have been! Smacking his lips at the taste of raw gunmetal, he drained the last of the rust-colored fluid in one fell, practiced, swoop, then tossed the bottle away. It skimmed maddeningly across the floor and under the bed, until it came to a clunking stop, somewhere outside his field of view. Squeezing his hot, swollen eyes shut, and wincing from the pure goodness of the devil’s own burn down his throat and into his belly, Harry again licked his lips and returned the barrel to where it should be—when a loud, pounding commotion at his apartment door interrupted him. It startled him almost as much as pulling the trigger would have. He jumped, jerking the gun from his mouth.
Never one to be deterred from his chosen path, Harry reinserted the barrel.
The knocking returned, however, and louder, and Harry swore the person was in the room with him. Again, jerking the gun from his mouth, and feeling a different pain in his belly this time, Harry shouted out in a half-whine, half plea for mercy, to go the hell away. Didn’t his visitor understand his need to rid himself from life? Of putting himself out of his—and everyone else’s—misery?
The knocking ceased.
Sobbing now, hand and revolver limp on the floor beside him, Harry slurred a whispered “thank you,” and brought the gun back to his mouth…but no sooner had he re-inserted the barrel through his tear-stained lips, when he heard—felt—another knock he swore was inside his head. This time, Harry shot stupidly to his feet, dropped the weapon, and threw his hands to his ears. The knocking continued, loud, powerful, and unabated…inside his head.
“Go away!” he yelled, wavering stupidly on his feet.
When it didn’t, he stumbled, bouncing off walls and doorjambs, as he angrily, and somewhat difficultly, navigated his way into a living room he never expected to set foot in again. The hammering at the door (and inside his oh-so-throbbing head) continued in a steady stream of pound-pound-POUND. He reached for the door, hastily fumbling with the lock, then threw it open.
“What the f—”
He stood naked and wobbling before a deserted hallway, angrily glaring at the apartment across the hall, the scent of cooked cabbage thick in the air (or whatever it was that aggravated his already sickened stomach). Blinking, and scratching matted hair, he poked his head out and around the apartment door, squinting down the length of the hallway. No one. Not a soul. He waddled out into the hallway, continuing to squint down its length. Admittedly, his vision wasn’t at its best, in his present state, but he could still make out that he was the only one out here. Alone, naked, and drunk. He turned to reenter his apartment…and stopped. There, on the floor before him, just inside the door, lay a red envelope. Addressed to him.
Harry stumbled back into his apartment, teetering to a stop just before the envelope. He blinked. No illusion. There it was…brilliant, almost radiant, and very, very, red. He’d never seen anything so deeply, so thoroughly, red before. It almost hurt to look at it for any length of time. And it had his name on it, in splendid, flowing gold calligraphy, which seemed to float over the somewhat translucent paper of the envelope.
Harry stooped over to pick it up, grew momentarily faint, and took a tumble. He ended up collapsing to his hands and knees, hands thrown out to either side of the letter, in support.
Harry Black, it read, simply. No address, no apartment number, just his name. Regaining his balance, such as it was, he picked up the letter, and got back to his feet. He stumbled back around, and made one last check out into the hallway, red envelope in hand. Nothing. He closed the door.
Harry couldn’t take his eyes off the envelope as he carried it into the bedroom, like a fish chasing a shiny lure, and when he looked up, the first thing his gaze fell upon was the gun. There, on the floor by the closet. Ready and waiting, its purpose yet unfulfilled. He picked it up.
Don’t desert me now, he thought. But another thought also entered his mind, as insistent as the knocks had been, drowning out all other thoughts:
Harry ran an unsteady finger underneath the envelope’s flap, lifting it open. It was almost as if it opened itself.
Inside the gold-lined parcel lay nestled a sheet of high-quality stationary, also red. Very red. He removed it. The paper was heavy and thick, with perfect, sharp creases, as if ironed. He unfolded it and read the singular line.
What is your passion?
That was it. That was all it said, in beautiful, gold, calligraphy, set into the center of the sheet.
What is your passion?
Harry flicked the letter away, tears heavy in his eyes, his face a grimace of pain. With a lump in his throat, he grumbled, “Here’s my goddamned passion,” placed the barrel of the gun against his right temple, and pulled the trigger.
He pulled it again.
“Goddammit!” Looking to the revolver, then shaking it, Harry saw it was, indeed, fully loaded, and crazily began to click off the trigger several more times, aiming the revolver at his head, and various other parts of his anatomy, but still…nothing.
In a fit of disgust, he pitched the revolver across the room, where it slammed into the wall…and discharged. Mewling pathetically, and never one to give up, Harry went after the revolver for yet another try, but stepped on one of the many empty bottles littering his apartment and slipped. The last thing he saw, just before his head smashed into the floor, was the red, red letter and its red, red envelope….
Harry’s eyes fluttered open, and he swore he had to be lying on the C&EI tracks, back home in Illinois, because of the rampaging locomotive thundering through his two-sizes-too-small skull. But the first thing he saw was that damned red envelope, propped up on the floor by its extended flap, so he could clearly read his name on the front. He couldn’t move, at first, but just stared at it, wincing in waves of pain. His name glistened in the rising morning sun, some three feet away from his face.
What is your passion?
But Harry wasn’t stupid, or naïve, just hung over. He knew everyone had their own inner dialog, their own inner voice, running rampant inside their heads…some were just a little more active, like Harry’s had always been, that’s all. Letters didn’t talk to anyone. They conveyed messages, scribbled there by their writers.
Do you feel better? his little voice inquired. A bit hung over, perhaps? Good…now, read me.
Slowly, Harry pushed himself upright, sitting against the wall, and the world spun in direct proportion to the square of his movement. His head protested from the knot he’d received from his tumble. Still naked (and now chilled) he saw the gun, the spent bottles—his spent life—all before him. He shivered uncontrollably. Good, God, had he really? Had he really tried to take his own life? What’d happened, for chrissakes? Lifting a trembling hand to his head, he felt as if he was about to…and did. Into his lap.
Well, his voice chided, isn’t this just how you imagined it, all those years ago, as a kid growing up in Waukegan? Successful and well-to-do? Well, whoop-de-do, congratulations, my boy!
Dehydrated and weak, and stinking of sickly sweet alcohol and fresh vomit, Harry stiffly picked himself up off the floor and stumbled toward his bathroom, where he caught a good, hard, look at himself in the mirror. Yeah, this is it, sport. It don’t get any better than this, do it?
Harry turned away in disgust. Leaning against a wall, and wiping away vomit from his chin, he used an upraised arm against which to rest his forehead, closed his eyes, and tried to blank out all thoughts. Tried to wish it all away. When he’d next open them, he told himself, confidently, it would all be gone, and he’d be back with his wife and children, the way it used to be, in his dreams.
He opened his eyes, looking down to his pelvis. The vomit was still there. His nakedness was still there. His dismal failure of a life…still there.
Harry backed away from the wall and turned on the shower, as if recovering from suicide attempts were what he’d done every day, and slowly, carefully crawled into the bottom of the tub, rolling onto his back. He pushed on the shower lever with a foot, increased the water temperature, and let the warm, soothing water wash over him. The closest thing he had to a confessional. Showers always seemed to make things better. Must be a water-womb thing. Who cared. He just wished he could sleep here, warm water splashing over him, forever and ever….
You’re a long way from Waukegan, Illinois, mister. Remember Waukegan?
He lifted his head (yeah, it spun, but what the hell, he’d just tried to take himself out, so, what was a little pain and vertigo?), and looked out the stall. If he leaned forward a bit, he could just see into the bedroom and make out (big surprise!) that damned envelope. The red one that seemed to glow in the golden morning sunrise, like Monica from that stupid Touched By An Angel series his grandmother loved to watch. Hi, I’m Mohnica, and I’m an angel sent by Goyd, to tell you how much he loves hewww….
(what is your passion?)
“…so, son, have you decided what you want to be when you grow up?” an eleven-year-old Harry Black’s father had asked him one, beautiful, summer’s day, while he helped out at his father’s law firm—when he should have been outside, swimming, playing explorer, or chasing dragonflies.
Harry blurted out his answer before he realized it, an answer he’d been thinking about for a long time, by boy’s standards, anyway, an answer that had been burning inside him forever. “I wanna be a saint!”
Not only had Harry’s father stopped dead in his tracks, but so had everyone else within earshot, in the office of Black, Hegelsson, and Millot. After all, when one’s father, a respected and successful lawyer, asked what it was you wanted to be upon growing up, the expected response was lawyer, stockbroker, or financier extraordinaire. President, even.
Not some fucking saint.
Hell, they didn’t even know how to spell the word.
But the Harry senior response had been what was expected, had Harry junior been a little older and knew about awkward moments in public places with respected community leaders: laughter, quickly followed by one of the usual, tension-easing expressions parents use, such as Well, don’t those darned kids say the darnedest things? Or That’s no kid of mine, heh, heh! Or Agnes! Did you lose our son in the supermarket, again and again take home the neighbor’s kid? As soon as possible thereafter, however, when everyone returned their attention to work, had come the not-so-well-known trademark Black fatherly stare young Harry was more than familiar with—in private. His father’s real stare, which unmistakably said How dare you embarrass me like that, you little shit…we are going to talk about this later, little man, don’t you mistake that, then I’m gonna kick your ass from here to Lake Superior….
Ah, the wonder years.
Passion. What had been his passion? Where had it gone? And what the hell kind of question was that, anyway, and from where? Some stupid-ass piece of junk mail slid underneath his door? A joke? Well, bad timing, pal.
Harry lay back down in the tub and allowed the warm water to spray over him. He pressed the shower lever to the left, with his toe, upping the heat a little more.
Now all he wanted to do was die. Gruesome or quiet, it didn’t matter, but he couldn’t even pull off that simplest of tasks without screwing things up. Like his entire life…all screwed up.
After an untold amount of time trying to drown his sorrows in the shower, Harry toweled off, and reentered the bedroom. It was no hallucination, after all, it was still there among the bottles and the gun. That damned letter. Scooping it up off the floor, Harry sat on the edge of his bed and looked at it with a somewhat bruised—if sober—mind.
What an odd little piece of paper.
It didn’t look like a chain letter…it was crisp and fresh, Hallmark quality…but who’d delivered it to him? His name was clearly written on the front of it, but that was it—no address, just his name—and that brought up another matter: who’d been wailing on his door last night, interrupting his planned departure from this world?
Harry winced. Don’t try to think too hard, yet, my friend, you’re still in hangover mode.
Last night. He looked around the room. Spent bourbon and vodka bottles, everywhere (not to mention, he thought, rubbing his head, that little bruised reminder, on his scalp), and his revolver. It was all real, none of it made up. There it was, the gun, lying on the floor, as innocent as ever.
And he was thirsty. Very, very, thirsty.
His glanced down to the red sheet of paper in his hands.
What is your passion?
I’ll tell you what my goddammed passion is. Booze. And lots of it. Firewater, my friend. Al Ke Hol.
But it hadn’t always been that way, had it? that stupid, nagging, voice inside insisted. It hadn’t always been the bottle. You’d had other passions before. Cynthia. The kids. Before that…you’d actually wanted to be a saint, hadn’t you? What’d happened, Harry, where had you taken such a wrong turn? Where had you sinned?
I don’t know what’d happened. All I know is that daddy beat me down, over the years, told me I’d not amount to anything if I didn’t Get In Gear, and that no son of his was ever gonna be any kind of a deified bullshit saint. Saints were dead people, for crying out loud, people who did great things with their lives, died or were murdered, then became canonized. You couldn’t be a saint while living, and you certainly couldn’t make a living while living as a saint—not to mention marry and have kids, and by, God, that’s exactly what you’ll be doing, so you better find yourself a more practical way of living, my boy!
Yeah, that’s what’d happened. Life got in the way, like it always does. What the hell good was it to grow up, anyway? It was far better to die while you still had dreams, than to grow up and lose them all. Life just sucks. Sucks out loud, and there ain’t no way around it.
Harry again looked to the paper. What is your passion?
But he’d had that passion, once, so very long ago, in another life, and that passion had been to help others. Pure and simple. To be the best possible person he could be. To be, in a word, a living, breathing, not-dead saint. Adult rules meant nothing to kids. He’d seen that show, The Saint. If Simon Templar could do it, then, by God, so could Harry Black!
It was then that Harry felt something he hadn’t felt in a long, long time.
Not anger and hatred, but a sadness and empathy for that little boy he used to be, and how sad it was that he’d killed him…him and his dreams. He missed that boy, that young and naïve Harry Black, junior. God, had he so messed up his life that he was forever damned? It didn’t have to be the official, religious sense of the word, but it suddenly hit home how he still wanted to do nothing but help people. And maybe that was why he’d married Cynthia. She—neither of them, actually—had been perfect, in any sense of the word, but he’d seen something in her…something that’d touched him, once, something in her that had made him fall in love with her….
Yes, deep down, Harry’d always wanted to be someone who went around the world, helping people out. If they didn’t have enough money, he’d give it to them. If they didn’t have work, he’d find it for them. If they were lonely and destitute, he’d help them out, become their friend. A shoulder to cry on? He was there. But what had happened along the way? Daddy had had other plans for him, and he’d been sent off to college. Got his degree, and had then been put to work in daddy’s law firm. So, in an effort to get out from under daddy’s thumb, Harry’d found an investment firm to work for. If he couldn’t be a saint, so the logic went, at least he could make lots of money and someday create a foundation of some kind, and still get part of his dream….
But more life got in the way, hadn’t it?
You see, there had been this Christmas party, and there had been this girl, see?, and they had gotten rather looped, Harry and this girl, and ended up in this broom closet, and, well, one thing’d lead to the other, and before he knew it, Harry Black had found himself engaged to Miss Cynthia Barlow, daughter to Troy Barlow, CEO and president to the firm that provided him with his rather lucrative remuneration. Three kids, several bank accounts and Christmas parties later, Harry found loving wife Cynthia in the broom closet, yet again, but this time with another. It wasn’t long afterward that Harry found his new best friend—the bottle.
Better a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy.
That had been his bottle—battle—cry. That had been his life. And when he’d finally confronted Father-in-law with this information on his wunnerful daughter, what had been the reply? Have his own goddammed affair. No one divorced in this family, he decreed, be a man, and take control of the situation! Suck it up. This is the Big Time, my boy, and you obviously hadn’t been satisfying her up to now, so you better shape up, bring her back around, and get with the program—or I will make your life extremely uncomfortable.
Oh, he got with the program all right. Program Bourbon. Program Vodka. You name it, you drink it. But it, eventually, all came back to that one little, nagging, question, didn’t it?
What is your passion?
He knew it; was surprised it was still there. Thought it’d been killed long ago, with that little boy. Saints were supposed to go through trying times, weren’t they? A life full of despair and torment, only to, somehow, rise above it all, in death, and become…anointed?
And it was still his passion, after all those years. He no-shit wanted that dream. Harry looked to his letter, again, and just about had a heart attack. He shot to his feet, tossing it away. Where it had previously only had that one line on its crisp, stiff paper, now it read:
In gold calligraphy.
Harry stared at it.
He blinked. Rubbed his eyes. The words remained.
What the hell?
Cautiously, he walked over to the letter and its envelope. The letter, face up and twisted at an angle to him, its envelope beside it. Harry angled his head to read it without touching it. Repositioning himself…he kept his focus on the golden calligraphied words. Again rubbed his eyes.
Okay, what was going on, here?
He picked up the letter and held it out before him. Crisp, heavy paper. Picked up the envelope. Gold lined. Also heavy and crisp. Brand new stationary in a brilliant, vivid, almost translucent, red.
This couldn’t be happening. Letters didn’t change from one set of wording to another, without someone doing it.
But he held the evidence in his hands, and where had been the words “What is your passion?” now were the words “Do it.” And what had he been thinking about when this happened? Being a saint. Helping people.
Do it, the words accused.
Harry folded the letter up into its tri-fold, and hastily stuffed it back into the envelope, then put it on the nightstand, backing away. He stared at the bottles littering the floor of his bedroom. The gun…still there. Looked to the rumpled bed. Thought about last night and how he wasn’t supposed to be alive this morning. He wasn’t supposed to be here, today, plain and simple. The neighbor’s cat was supposed to have found him, scratching at his apartment door, because of his putrid stench. Or someone was supposed to have called 911, because of the gunshot….
But none of that had happened, had it?
Now, what the hell was he supposed to do?
Harry Black pulled the lapel of his jacket up around his neck. It was pleasantly brisk, were such words as “pleasantly” to enter his mind. Late October, and he was supposed to be dead. It was almost as if he felt that other him was dead, up there in that apartment of his, right now, lying on the floor, his brains blown out across the room in one of those funnel-shaped spatter patterns. It made him shiver. He’d come so close to actually doing it—and was that something he’d normally do? Was that something that was a part of the normal Harry Black psyche?
Was cheating on his wife?
Was looking the other way when his boss shaved off some numbers in the books?
Was living in an apartment his wife knew nothing about (or did, but didn’t care)?
Where had Honest H gone? What had happened to him that he had to accept a life so less-virtuous?
Right here, fired back the answer. Right here, right now.
Where had things taken such a wrong turn? Did it even matter? No matter how you may have been raised, there eventually came a point in your life when you were considered an adult, which meant there came a time when you, and no one but you were held responsible for your actions. All of them. Sure, it’d been easy to blame his life on his parents. Or, once free of them, on his wife and her father. Bad business practices. But when it came right down to it, no one twisted his arm to marry her, and no one twisted his arm to go down the path he now found himself trekkin.
A fine saint he’d make, indeed.
What is your passion?
Well, if he was supposed to have killed himself, was there, now, anything to his life more daunting? If he (or the letter) changed that part of his life, do you think he could change other aspects? If the worst had already been averted, what did that make everything else? Why not just walk away from it all? Start anew?
And, just where to start? He pulled out the envelope from his jacket pocket. The idea came to him in a flash. Mrs. Barbara Crown. That’s where he’d start.
Harry stood before the post office mail box, thinking, little did anyone know he wasn’t supposed to be here. That he was supposed to be lying in a pool of his own gore, back at his apartment, stinking up the place. But one little red letter turned his entire life around. Now, he’s standing in the post office, awaiting to do good by someone.
Harry looked to the envelopes he held, ready to be mailed. And in all of them were hefty sums of money to help each of those he chose to mail. He had more money than he knew what to do with (well, not exactly, but it sounded good), why not spread it around, like to Mrs. Barbara Crown and company? An old neighbor of his, back in Waukegan. Make a day or two a little brighter. Harry deposited the envelopes, and turned to leave the post office, when he spotted an elderly gentleman, having problems opening a mailbox. Smiling, Harry walked over.
“Excuse me, sir, but is there something I could help you with?”
“I’m having trouble opening this box. I can’t seem to get the combination to work,” the man said.
“Let me find someone to help you.”
Harry went off to one of the windows, talked to one of the employees, there, and in no time a helpful postal employee assisted the gentleman in gaining access to his mail box.
Harry Black had spent the better part of the week reevaluating his life, and cleaning up the mess he’d made of things the past ten years—though he kept the apartment. He cleaned out the bottles, and got rid of the gun. He’d also begun the paperwork for that non-profit foundation he’d always wanted to start, listing his children as silent partners. Of course, he wasn’t telling Cynthia any of this. Once he named his board, he quickly asked them to select the as-yet-unnamed head of his foundation. He would remain in the background.
But as Harry now sat in his apartment, sipping tea, and looking out over three a.m. New York, listening to the sirens off in the distance, he looked to his red letter, on the table before him. Something about it felt different; felt…restless.
What is your passion?
Where the hell had it come from? Who’d sent it to him? Was he being watched? Tracked? And there had been the unnerving business about who’d been knocking at his door. He knew he’d been drunk, but he remembered something distinctly disturbing about that intrusion. Not only persistent, but also like it had been, not only at his apartment door, but in his head. How could that be? And the knocking didn’t go away until he answered it. Then, there had been no one in the hallway! Had he imagined it all? Got it all messed up in his drunken haze and suicidal tendencies, and that letter had, in fact, been there all day?
Of course he had. It had all been in his mind, the weirdness of it, anyway. The letter was obviously real, because he had it, and it was anything but to be ignored. A vivid red envelope, with his name embossed on the front—in bright gold. This was clearly deliberate. Inside, a red letter, also written in gold, the line “What is your passion?” written in the center of its sheet, which later changed to “Do it.”
Or did it?
He opened it up. “What is your passion?” was still there. Where had the “Do it,” gone? Had it really ever been there, or was he just pleasantly losing his mind? He ran his fingers over the words. They were real. How could words change themselves? They can’t, that’s how. He set the pair back on the table.
Okay, he had to have imagined the “Do it” part. But, it almost didn’t matter, because the end result had been that it had saved him from personal annihilation and turned his life around. Given him the passion to start over, to say no to his current path, and forge ahead on a new one. He wished he could repay whoever’d sent it—
Harry’s blood ran cold. There, again on the letter, were the words: “Do it.”
He shot to his feet, hands thrown into the air in exasperation. “How? How do I do this, when I don’t know who sent it?”
Was all it said.
Go for a walk.
Those words entered his head, and he swore this thought was different. It didn’t quite feel like it came from him, it felt…alien. Maybe it was just his heightened sensitivity to what was going on, his current, estranged, state of mind, but this voice felt separate from who he was.
Go for a walk, the thought insisted.
A walk—in this neighborhood, at this time of night? He’d be asking for it, he thought back, this wasn’t exactly rural, upstate New York, this was New York City. People didn’t just go walking certain streets at night unless they were looking for trouble—
Go for the walk.
What is your passion?
Hey, you were going to kill yourself just the other day, his voice countered, what difference does it make, if something happens now? Where was that backbone you had a failed suicide ago? One day you’re all gung-ho to leave this world, the next you’re afraid to go outside your apartment?
Life is funny that way, ain’t it?
Harry chuckled. He had a point. Him. If he’d been so ready to end it all, this should…this should just be a walk in the park, shouldn’t it? Live and let live! Die and let die! We all have to die sometime of something, and all his time was borrowed, now, wasn’t it? A life he wouldn’t have had, had he never received that letter. A regular red letter day, if there ever was one! There ain’t ever gonna be any more overt acts of Divine Intervention the rest of your life, baby, so grab it while you can!
Yeah, a lot of strange things had happened, as a result of that letter. Go with it. Do it. Take that walk.
That letter. The red, red one. With the shiny, gold calligraphy.
Harry threw on his jacket, stuffed the letter into a pocket and locked the door behind him. He felt curiously liberated…and sad. As he walked away, he turned, looking back to his apartment one last time. It really was interesting how life turned out, wasn’t it? He would not be where he presently stood, had a certain outcome occurred over another. Would not be standing there in the hallway looking back at that door, right now, had things turned out just a wee bit differently.
Booze and bullets. There was never anything good that came from mixing those two together. Ever.
Harry left the building.
Harry’d had this happen before, but, somehow, it had a little more impact, now, than it ever had previously. He found himself walking up steps inside some other building, in an area of town he wasn’t familiar. And it wasn’t a friendly, Hi Ya, Doin, Neighbor! area, either. It’d happened before, this zombie-like state. He remembered how once, while in high school, he’d been driving home, but had been so tired, he’d never actually remembered, consciously, driving home. He’d done the whole twelve-mile trip on autopilot—and at night. And another time, while in college, same thing. He’d been so preoccupied with an upcoming test, he’d actually walked smack into a light pole on a public street. So this was not without precedent, but this was the first time he’d found himself entering what looked like a crack house, at two-twenty-two in the a.m., the smell of death and decay everywhere. He actually stopped partway up the stairs, and thought about heading back, hell, running back. He did not feel at all good about being here. There were far too many shadows in this dark, foreboding den of inequity, for it to be any kind of safe. The people he passed? Well, the polite description would be that they all appeared to be “societally challenged”….
But…they left him alone.
Never…never in a million years…had he ever thought he’d be caught dead inside one of these places, and here he was. That’s when he realized he held that envelope in his hand. The one that he’d had in a jacket pocket when he left his apartment. He was holding it, and it still had his name on it. Harry found himself again moving upward. Up, ever up, along the creaking, dark, steps, until he came to the landing he was meant to step off on. His legs and body
had a mind of their own.
Yes, he knew the difference between this experience and what had happened before. There was no hiding it, now…it had to be the letter. Had to be. As much as he tried to ignore the weirdness of all that had happened, there was no ignoring it, now. Whatever this letter was, it was definitely on overdrive, on a mission, and he was its merry messenger boy. Harry felt its sudden and intense sense of urgency. Hey, it saved his life, maybe it was about to save another! Harry backed off the skepticism, and allowed himself to just go with the little red package. It wasn’t easy, but it was doable.
At the landing, Harry turned right, and went down into a darker part of the building. Wonderful. He could see shadows moving about down there, too, but, like a roller coaster ride, he just told himself to go with it. The letter knew what it was doing, and had saved his life—and who knew how many countless others, before him. He had to trust it. As they made their way through the shadows, Harry watched—felt—those in the dark watching him. He couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
But they all allowed him (them?) to pass.
Harry now stood before a door at the far end of the hallway. Boy, had he gone through with his earlier intentions, he would never have known this hallway, either, at this time of night. How lucky for him. There were definitely some experiences one could stand to do without.
He stared at the door. Looked to the letter in his hand, still with his name on it, which still seemed to…not so much as glow, in the streetlight-illuminated darkness of this narrow, rancid-smelling hallway, but…but seemed more like that he could really see the depth of redness to it.
Okay, magic or not, this was très weird. But, still, there was that sense of urgency—hurry!—and he wasted no time in sliding it under the door, giving it that little extra push to make sure it went all the way in. He could feel it riding on a cushion of air, as he slid it under the door.
But that wasn’t enough.
For some strange reason, he felt—was absolutely consumed with—the notion that he had to wail on that door to beat all Hell.
(And hurry it up, mister—Do it!)
So he did. But it wasn’t no ordinary, familiar, knock he’d felt exit his body, no, this one left goosebumps all over him as he did it. The first time he knocked took him by surprise, because his hand just reached out and slammed against the door with a mind of its own, but as he tried to take control of it, the knock began to consume him, and he began to severely pound on the door…he was actually… reaching out…into the room, trying to make (oh, give me a break!, he cried, mentally)…some kind of…extrasensory contact…with whoever was in there.
He paused. Oh my God—this was for real!, his little voice again cried. He listened, holding his breath. He still couldn’t hear much, but felt someone was in there… someones…and he’d heard faint movement….
Now, entirely certain he was possessed, he found himself pounding against that door as if his life depended on it. With all his heart and soul he laid into the door, and saw as it shook before him from a power he’d never knew he’d had. And he didn’t stop, either. He rapped and rapped and rapped, and in his mind’s eye he saw them, the two of them, in the midst of a life-and-death struggle, a man and a woman. He knew not what brought them to this brink of self-destruction, only that he now saw, in his mind’s eye, the man pinning the woman to the floor, his hands closed tightly around her slender neck. He also saw that the woman was scrambling behind her for something, anything, and saw her hand grab a pair of scissors, as she was ready to—
He poured his heart and soul into his plea, forced himself into the knocking, and found himself as if in the room with the couple, knocking not on the apartment door, but right behind them, beside them, knocking with an intensity of the gods inside their very heads.
And with that, his sense of urgency faded, and he withdrew from the door, emotionally drained. As his consciousness withdrew from the scene, backing out of the apartment, he saw the red envelope, there, on the floor in front of the door, a new name now written in gold calligraphy on the front of it. He smiled.
His job was done.
Exhausted, Harry left the apartment, and walked uncaring past the dark shadows in the hallway. He made his way all the way back down to the dark streets below.
He’d done it, by God!
Saved the life of just not one person, but three, for as his consciousness withdrew from the apartment, he’d also seen the child. Had seen that, somehow, those scissors had turned into a wooden play ball, and that the woman had clubbed the man in the head, with it, instead, knocking him out. But the thing that had really turned his stomach was that he’d also seen and felt rage…all this uncontrollable anger within the man, and a history of violence. The lives that had been taken and controlled by a wickedness he couldn’t bear to continue sampling. The fact that the wife had bravely decided to take a stand and fight back was commendable, however things hadn’t exactly gone in her favor, and their eight-month-old had been in the same room with them during their muted struggle—until he showed up, they’d showed up, him and that red envelope—and he’d begun pounding at their door with an intensity that was more than just Harry Black….
Outside, Harry found New York was still there, as cold and dark as ever, and he actually found that vaguely comforting. He felt high, as if walking on air. He’d saved lives, this past week, when he’d originally meant to take one. Had he actually went through with it, he wouldn’t have seen this building, this night, never would have heard the noises that were presently going on all around the city, smell that distinctly New York City smell. Wouldn’t have helped that man in the post office, or set up that foundation he’d always wanted. Yes, life was funny! It didn’t always go the way we thought it should, but did manage go the way it needed to.
Harry turned a corner, and came upon a Mercedes, stopped in the middle of the street. All feeling of elatedness instantly evaporated. Harry looked to both sides of the street, behind him, saw no one, yet felt something wasn’t right. He cautiously approached the car, and found a lady sitting in it, nervous and wide-eyed, clutching a cell phone. Armed with a smile, he cautiously approached, calling out to her.
“Ma’am! Do you need any help?”
Without rolling down her window, the lady projected her voice through the window, and said, “It just stopped! I was trying to take a short cut home, but the engine just quit on me!” Harry observed her hands nervously gripping the phone, he again checked out the streets. Still clear, yet his senses remained alert.
“Okay…and you let it sit for a little while, before trying to start it up, again?”
The woman nodded vigorously. “Yes…and I’ve called for help and a tow. They’re on the way.”
“Okay. Could you pop the hood? I could take a look.”
The lady gritted her teeth in a hesitant grimace. “I’m sorry…I, well…look, I-I don’t know that I should. I….”
Harry sadly nodded in acknowledgment, looking down to the asphalt, and sighed. “You don’t trust me, I understand,” he said. “Well…are you going to be okay?”
The lady again nodded. “I-I think so.”
“Do you have 911 dialed into your cell?”
The lady checked, then nodded vigorously.
“Well, okay, then.”
Harry was torn. Should he leave, or should he stay?
What would a saint do?
And who was safer here—her, in the locked car with a working cell phone—or him, outside, unarmed? He doubted she was going to let him in with her, but what could he do, by himself, should someone decide to check her out, so to speak? Maybe he could walk up a little way, and duck into a dark corner, and keep an eye on her, maybe that would be the mitigating action. But would telling her that help her feel any safer? She didn’t know him from a hole in a wall, and for all practical purposes, he could be a rapist or ax-murderer. For that matter, how did he know who she was? She could be a decoy, for all he knew. There just wasn’t any way to win any more. The world was growing far too paranoid. Far too angry. Far too fearful.
Harry grimaced. “Well, then…I’m just going to go—okay?”
At this, the woman’s eyes grew wide. As Harry made a move to leave, the lady nervously rolled down her window an inch.
“Do you…do you have to?” Her tone took on a softer, gentler tone. “I-I’m sorry…I’d let you in, but—”
Harry suddenly smiled that everything’ll-be-all right smile, and, indeed, he actually felt that way. “Ma’am,” he chuckled, “it’s all right, I understand. Neither of us knows each other. If it makes you feel any better, I can just walk on over there,” he said, pointing, “and duck in the shadows. I’ll keep an eye on you, til your tow arrives, then leave. How’s that?”
The woman studied him, then nodded. He could see the conflict on her face, and it pained him to see her in such philosophical torment. “Well…okay, I guess.”
Harry again turned to leave, when the lady said, “I’m so sorry.” Her eyes were beseeching, sorrowful.
Harry smiled, and continued on his way. He wondered what he would really do if the need arose, and scanned the street before him for something to use in defense. There was still unfinished business, here, he felt it, and no sooner had the thought crossed his mind, when he heard a loud, glassy, concussion behind him. Spinning around, his heart sank. Two guys stood to either side of the Mercedes, one with a baseball bat, the other crouched with a gun, held out before him, anxiously. They both looked to Harry. The lady was frantic inside the car, but he could see her on the phone. To the police, no doubt.
Harry didn’t need to think about anything. Hell, he’d been ready to take his own life less than a week ago, this was nothing—except that a fellow human was now in danger. Someone beside him. Goddammed people! Why was it we felt the need to kill each other? Harry rushed to the lady’s aid.
The thing about life, a distant part of Harry thought back to on his hurried return, was that it was funny. A lot of the time we never know what will happen and why, only that there are times where we must do certain things….
Harry Black defended that woman who gave him the pleading look, but at the price of his own life. And the irony of it was that he did end up taking a bullet to the head after all—the right temple, as a matter of fact. Unfortunately for Harry, he also met Mr. Baseball Bat, but in so doing, had diverted the attack from the woman long enough to give her precious time to make her 911 call and for the police to arrive. It just so happened that a patrolling cruiser one street over had responded to that call. Saints have been known to produce a miracle or two.
This lady, it also happened to turn out, was the newly appointed person designated by the foundation’s board, the one Harry had created, who was to run his foundation. Her grandfather had had the difficulties in the post office that one day, and recognized Harry’s face on the news, on the next. The two assailants had been apprehended, but the light at the end of the tunnel for Harry Black was that he’d attained his passion…with the naming of the Harry Black Benevolence Foundation. He also managed to get a change-in-name of the avenue upon which the foundation was headquartered. Harry Black Avenue had a good ring to it.
Be careful for what you wish for.
What’s your passion?
Short Story Links