The Joke by Russ Porter

I was smiling. I could sense it. The pain is no longer a concern. The urgency that had been present is now just an afterthought, replaced by a calm realization of it all. Questions from the past echo from afar. The warnings, once easily dismissed, come to me again, perhaps an answer as to why this might have all come about. I’m ready now, I swear.

A brilliancy waits ahead, beckoning me forward.

Thou shall not! The words haunt my mind and fill my thoughts. I await judgment. I await an answer.

A twinge of pain. I feel it. I've opened my eyes. I’m back! Like a flash it all comes rushing at me.

Was it a simple joke? Maybe.

An act of vengeance? More than likely.

A joke, never the less. A cosmic joke.

I remember the beginning...

I had been watching a baseball game at one of my favorite hangouts. Our team was losing as usual. My friend Fatty left the pub in a huff, after I had called him an “idiot” for rooting for the hometown clowns. “Fatty” was the nickname I bestowed upon Herman Todd, a friend since grade school. He didn’t enjoy being called ‘Toad’ as most in school had referred to him and since I was his friend, I called him ‘Fatty’. After all, I was his friend and he didn’t seem to mind, much. He was also very fat.

Anyways, I was left in this poor excuse for a drinking establishment, with only the barmaid and two guys seated at the end of the bar for company. They seemed more interested in chatting about a new reality show then watching the game, which was probably a good choice. Miraculously, the hometown clowns managed to come within a run of tying the game. But it was the ninth inning, with Chicago’s best closer on the mound. He had already struck out two of our guys, but walked our pinch hitter. Then, to a round of boo birds, our lowly shortstop comes to the plate. The television announcer mispronounces his name and rattles off some statistics. I think he had had something like two home runs in his lifetime, and that probably included high school.

As he stepped to the plate, the pub seemed to go dim around me. The only light in the place came from the television screen, mesmerizing me with its soft glow. I wanted to look away, hoping someone else had noticed the change in lighting, but I could not draw my attention away from that batter. My hands tensed and I could feel the sweat as I gripped the bat. The crowd’s noise was not coming from the television, but radiated all around me. I could smell the beer, the popcorn, the stadium grass. I could feel the wooden handle of the baseball bat!

The first pitch whooshed by me and I felt it cut the air as it sailed pass. The umpire signaled a strike. I watched the screen as our shortstop stepped back and adjusted his grip on the bat. I did the same, seated on my bar stool. The second pitch was high, inside; I jerked back slightly, as did the shortstop. But, as he moved away from the ball he kept focused on the pitcher’s eyes, never looking away, never blinking. The pitcher was about to come back across the plate with a fastball. I knew it, the shortstop knew it. I just knew it! I watched as the batter crept forward ever so slightly, anticipating the next pitch. I felt my body tense and then coil, waiting to swing at the next offering. I was about to hit a home run. I mean the shortstop was about to hit it. I’m not sure what I felt, but somehow knew it would happen! I saw the ball approach, like a giant beach ball it came: an easy target. I could feel the shortstop step into the ball and lift it out over the infield, over the outfield, depositing it into the left field stands. I stood up and cheered! “Did you see that?” I yelled. “His first home run ever!”

There was dead silence all around me. I turned and noticed the two men at the end of the bar staring at me, their mouths open and eyes wide, staring at me as if I were some sort of lunatic! The barmaid stood frozen in her tracks, clutching an empty beer mug; her eyes too were on me. The bar was completely silent, except for the sound from the television.

“What?” I asked, not understanding the interest I was attracting.

My attention was drawn to the television again, I turned and listened as the announcer mispronounced the shortstop’s name and mentioned that he had never hit a home run in his professional career. I watched as the first pitch went for a strike. The second pitch sailed high and in.

From the end of the bar, I could feel the eyes on my every move. I watched now as the shortstop inched forward and with one great swing, belted the next pitch into the left field seats. I thought for a second that I must be watching a replay, a second showing of the feat. But the two idiots at the end of the bar were reacting to what they had just witnessed for the first time, cheering and high fiving the barmaid. All three in unison stopped talking and turned my way. They whispered to one another, stealing second glances at me.

I quickly got up, gathered my change on the bar and proceeded to leave. I didn’t bother to leave the barmaid a tip. I should have left her a tip.

By the next day I had convinced myself that my experience at the bar had been the result of a mixture of bad beer and worse company. But, later that day I experienced another episode.

The phone rang and I knew who it was before I answered. It was my mother. She was calling just to say hello as she always did. She talked about how she was feeling, about the weather, about the missing girl she had heard about on the afternoon news. She wanted to talk, wanted someone to talk to. I never had enough time it seemed. I never made enough time. I thought at first it was a lucky guess, the fact that it was my mother calling, until the phone rang again. I answered and once more knew who it was before a word was spoken by the other party.

“Hi Frank!” I said, before saying hello. “How have you been?” I asked.

Frank was surprised, for I had not spoken to my lawyer since he represented me for a fender-bender more than two months ago. It was because of him that my driver’s license was suspended. He wasn’t calling to chit chat, or to ask how I was, no, he was calling to try and collect on my obligation. The nerve! I quickly hung up on him.

How did I know who it was?

I sat down at the kitchen table and drank the remainder of a mixed drink, one left over from the night before. Flat and obnoxious as it tasted, I quickly finished it and proceeded to make a fresh one, my hand shaking as I held the glass. I finished the bottle of Wild Turkey, but craved more. I promptly went out and purchased another bottle and fell asleep about the same time I’d emptied it.

The next morning I opened the newspaper and was disappointed at our town’s rendition of a tabloid. I already knew about the horrific fire at the warehouses downtown, about the mayor’s affair with his assistant, and had already known about the disappearance of the little girl from a nearby suburb. No, not because my mother had mentioned it, but because I already knew all the details, some not even reported in the paper.

But, wait! How was this possible? As I skimmed over the articles it came to me that something was not right. Many of the stories, these events, they had just occurred, many just the evening before, and I didn’t remember watching any television the previous night, and not that morning! How the hell did I know all these things? Perhaps I should have slowed down on the drinking.

Along with this fortune telling ability, for lack of a better term, I felt stronger. I know it sounds strange, but I felt I was actually becoming stronger! I could do things that normally would be strenuous, even down right physically hard, but now they seemed easy. I could run faster, lift more weight, and dig in my garden with little or no effort.

I felt unease nonetheless. My privacy was a concern, the need to have isolation. I pulled the blinds shut, the ones that I did have and closed the drapes the best I could in other rooms. I cleaned my home and made it spotless, anything to use up this endless supply of nervous energy. My once cluttered surroundings were now clinically clean. The dirt that had mysteriously made a ring in my tub was now gone and my pile of dirty clothes, muddied and stained, was either washed and freshly pressed, or simply tossed out. I was on this cleanliness is next to godliness kick...

I went so far as to clean out my car. I vacuumed and scrubbed the interior and the trunk, for I found them both soiled and in need of a good cleaning, as badly as my clothing. Maybe my mind was telling me it was time to turn a new leaf. My former wife had called me a slob, as well as a drunk, a good for nothing waste of skin, a degenerate, and well... many other words of endearment. Maybe I really was, a slob that is, I just hadn’t realized it. Maybe I was all those other things, too!

It was while cleaning my car that I noticed the dents on the grill. They hadn't been there before, or at least I hadn’t noticed them. It was possible that some drunk backed into me at the bar I had been frequenting, but I just hadn’t noticed them. It struck me as funny, my new abilities; my new powers. I possessed all these new, incredible capabilities, but had somehow lost memory of certain events. Things didn’t seem right. I didn't remember how I had gotten home the night before last. I woke up that morning, confused and sweating. I wrote it off to late night partying, bad booze, bad company, bad everything! I found my sheets filthy and I felt the urge to shower.

My hands were the dirtiest. I scrubbed them with a stiff brush, feeling the need to meticulously get every spot of grime off of them, especially from under the nails. Why? I asked myself later, but could not answer my own question. What the hell was going on? I had no memory of why I felt so dirty, why I was so dirty.

It was done. I felt I had accomplished some goal; I’m not sure what though. I had cleaned my home, my car, my garage, myself from top to bottom, and I felt energized. I felt safe to go out. I put on sweat pants and a t-shirt and I ran and then ran some more. I felt the sun on my face and smelled the fresh air, breathing deeply, taking it all in. I felt the power in my legs and the strength in my lungs to carry me to new distances. I was like a God! I passed lesser men and women on the jogging trail near my home that day and felt pity for their weaknesses.

I awoke the next morning not bothering to look at the morning’s newspaper, for I already knew! I would always know! I dressed and went to work. It was an uneventful day. I gave thought of tendering my resignation before I left, but didn’t feel the need to waste the time.

As I entered the parking garage and approached my car, I noticed the ticket on my windshield. My heart seemed to speed up and I felt a sudden panic. I removed it from my windshield, looking first to see if there were any eyes on me. Quickly reading it, I recognized that it was just a warning, given by the parking garage attendant for parking in a handicapped space. Why would someone waste my time with this? My time! I couldn’t believe the nerve! No one parked in those spaces. Even if they did, why on earth would they need to park so close to the building? Wouldn’t it make sense to have them park a distance away, so that normal people didn’t have to ruin their day by witnessing their deformity, or be slowed by their inability to function normally! Why am I being punished for their shortcomings? I crumpled the warning and threw it onto the windshield of the car next to mine. I was raging! I pounded on the hood of my car, not thinking about the attention I might draw to myself, not caring.

My mind raced. I got into my car and headed to my local stomping grounds, leaving tire marks on the pavement as I accelerated out of the parking lot. I noticed a police cruiser as I left the lot and then the officer, standing some distance away from his car, frantically trying to write down my license plate number as I went past. But he wouldn’t be able to catch up with me. I was much too fast... for him, for anyone!

My bar! The Dew Drop Inn. The place I always went to after work, or at least for the last month. I stopped going to The Pit Stop due to a difference of opinion with the barmaid on what was considered appropriate behavior. I didn’t care for that place anyways.

The Dew Drop Inn was a first rate sports bar. It had everything you’d want in a bar, plus the drinks were cheap. I ordered my usual and then a few more as I contemplated my next move. This new power, this power to predict, it could be profitable, I thought. I could play the stock market, maybe the lottery! There was no limit to the possibilities. I had a few more drinks and fantasized about this, the possibilities, everything.

My new found strength was another story. I snapped out of my haze and suddenly felt tense. I wanted confrontation. I wanted to start a fight. I wanted to hurt someone. I needed to strike out, needed an outlet, an outlet for this energy, this unrelenting energy. There were always punks coming into this bar, trying to show off their masculinity, trying to impress their buddies or some woman at the bar. I wanted them to know, I wanted everyone to know, who I was. What I was!

I was distracted momentarily by others in the bar who had stopped talking and were now listening intently to the news anchorman on the television. There was a new development on the missing girl: I didn’t need to listen. I shook my head and smiled to myself: my own little secret. I already knew. I knew all of it. I knew the sports scores, I knew the weather, I knew it all. I knew I needed to get out of there.

As I left the parking lot at the bar, I noticed a police cruiser parking out front. Two policemen got out, one uniformed and one in a suit, a detective. They entered the bar as another police car pulled into the lot. The local authorities pulled this sort of thing occasionally, especially at this bar, to thwart drunk drivers. I didn’t want to be hassled tonight and was relieved that my new instincts had helped me avoid this inconvenience. I quickly turned the corner and accelerated away from the situation.

I drove south on the road leading out of town; every part of my being seemed to sense an event. I was agitated. There were the distractions, so many unanswered questions, my unexplained powers, and my new found strength. As I drove, I pressed the accelerator down harder, making the car jump forward, moving swiftly to my destination. My thoughts were circling, gathering momentum. I could feel my brain deciphering the answers. I was on the verge of discovering something astonishing, simply amazing!

It was at that moment that I heard it. I heard them. Footsteps! Leather soles scraping pavement. I lowered the window and listened more intently as I slowed the car. I could hear crickets in the nearby fields. I felt the soft night air and heard the swaying of long grass blades. There was a disturbance ahead, a rabbit maybe, or possibly a stray dog, running away from the sound of my approaching car. No! They were footsteps, definitely footsteps. I detected them again, not far ahead. The chatter from the crickets stopped. The wind stilled. The light coming from the stars and partial moon now dimmed. Clouds curtained the late night sky and the road grew suddenly darker.

The scraping noise came again, the steps were quickening. She could hear me coming. The headlights of my car searched the road. There was no trace of her! It was just like the night I had last seen her. It came at the final moment, the last second, just before I ran her down as she appeared out of nowhere, on her bike, her little pink bike. Only then did I see her face, that angel face. But, by then it was too late, too late to save her!

Why do I hear footsteps? Oh yes, her bike. Her bike was destroyed; she would have to walk now. I remember now, the missing girl. I spotted her on the road, after I had left the Dew Drop Inn. What the hell was she doing out so late? Didn’t her parents teach this kid not to be out late, riding her bike on a busy road, in the middle of the night! It wasn’t my fault! How could anyone have avoided hitting her? Her damn parents. It was their entire fault!

I recalled picking her small body up from the roadside; so small and frail. She must have died instantly. I’m sure she felt no pain. The force of the impact had thrown her and her bike into a nearby field. She was covered in mud, her dress torn and tattered, her bike bent and twisted. I placed her body in my trunk and the bike in my back seat. I later disposed of the bike in a nearby lake and decided to bury the girl in my garden. I didn’t want to leave her out there, in the field, with no one around. She was so small, so defenseless. How could her parents have let her go out so late at night? What the hell was wrong with them? They didn’t deserve such a precious little gift. I couldn’t return her to them. I could not! I would take care of her now.

I felt the power surge into my hands. I gripped the steering wheel tighter. It felt small. My senses sharpened, my reflexes finely tuned. This would not happen again! I was being given another chance. I had seen the accident in the future, it had not really happened! But, it would happen, it would happen again if I did not take action quickly enough. These powers had come to me for a purpose. I was ready. I listened as the sounds grew closer. I could sense her fear. She must see my headlights as I approached!

I drew closer, I sensed it. I let up on the accelerator pedal. But wait! I cannot slow my car! My adrenaline rushes to my legs and I cannot control their movement! My hearing is heightened; I can hear her heart beating now. It is racing. She’s panicking. Please stay calm little girl, don’t move, I’ll miss you this time. Please, don’t move, don’t walk onto the road. I’m yelling at the top of my lungs, but she does not hear me. I search the road, but I cannot see her. I hear her running. I feel her presence, her beautiful child smell, her essence! Where is she? Where the hell is she? I must miss her this time!

My lights! My headlights go out. I have no headlights. Is this something that happened that night, did I forget to turn them on? It’s dark, incredibly dark, how will I be able to see her, how can this be? I won’t let this happen again, I won’t. I could hear her heart again, beating incredible fast. The sound of her heart fills the interior of my car, it fills my head.

I hear the scream! It penetrates thru my being. I won’t let this happen again. I feel the strength in my hands. I grip the wheel and yank it hard to the left. I leave the road and try to regain control. I know that I will miss her. I have missed her this time! The sudden jolt and sound of smashing metal fills my head and I catch a glimpse of the tree as my car folds up around its trunk! I feel the pain, the heat, it hurts so badly. Will it ever end?

They’re lifting me into the ambulance now. They’re not careful, I feel the jarring, the pain sears down my spine and into my legs. I don’t care, I missed the girl this time, I know it, I just know it. I try to move my head and they tell me to relax, to try and stay calm. I can see now, I’m back again. Its daylight out, not nighttime as I had thought. I see a crowd of people gawking at my wreckage, wrapped around a phone pole, not a tree. The firemen are dosing my car, smoke still lingers.

I ask the attendants if the girl is alright and they respond, “What girl?”

What girl?

“The little girl that was missing! The girl in the road, the girl I just saved!”

They look at each other and shrug.

“There was no girl in the road sir”, the bigger of the two replies as he holds me still while he positions one of my crushed limbs. He then turns to the other attendant, ignoring me now and asks, “Did you hear about that missing girl? They found her body at some creep’s house, buried in his backyard. Do you believe that? Some people just shouldn’t be allowed out in public.” He shakes his head and tightens the belt around my stretcher, sending a lightening bolt of pain up my back. “They’ll get him though,” he continues, “If there’s a God in Heaven, he’ll get his, one way or another!” The other attendant nods his head in agreement and they shove my stretcher into the ambulance, ignoring me, my pain.

The ambulance is moving now, I think. The pain is all but gone. I feel nothing, except the smell of burnt hair and skin... mine. My sight is dimming, but notice the attendants look at each other after the big one checks my pulse. He shakes his head as he stares down at me. I hear the ambulance’s siren fading, slowly fading until I hear nothing. The brilliancy comes again, and then quickly fades away. I can hear the screaming, feel the intense heat. The footsteps, I hear them once again, they’re not far away. The beating of a heart fills my head and slowly comes to a stop. I understand it now. I get it! My judgment, my answer. I get it now, please not again! This isn’t funny anymore. Please not again!

“Thou shall not!” The words haunt my mind and fill my thoughts. I await an answer. I feel a twinge of pain. I open my eyes. I’m back!

Russ Porter lives in Richfield, Ohio with his wife Vicki. He has written several short stories, all slanted towards the supernatural and macabre. The short stories are considered a fun pastime, but his real aspiration is to complete his first novel entitled, Peninsula, a thriller.