Cause And Effect

dark alley

Photo: emutree

The following is an original work adapted from a short film I wrote with a long-time friend.

Athena stood before a full-length mirror in her drab one bedroom apartment, an attractive woman in her late twenties, staring at her image critically, scanning it for flaws.  She was dressed in casual evening wear:  short skirt and pantyhose with a low-cut blouse showing just a hint of cleavage.  She took in a deep breath.  This would have to do.

She exited her apartment building to find the night moonless and dark.  Taking a quick glance to the left and right, she approached the bus stop at the corner.  She looked up at the bus schedule and then down at her watch.  The summer breeze blew warmly on her skin.  On impulse, she decided to walk.

As she set off, a taxi pulled up behind her and stopped.  The door opened to deposit onto the sidewalk Colin, a twenty-something year-old wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned with a Superman “S” under a green army jacket.  As he turned to close the taxi door, he tripped, sending a pile of envelopes in his open backpack flying.  They scattered over the sidewalk.  Cursing, he scrambled to gather them up.

Abruptly, another figure, Barry, came jogging past in a suede sports jacket, accidentally stepping on one of Colin’s envelopes, freezing it in place, enabling Colin to grab it before the breeze whisked it away.

Barry continued his jog across the street toward a flower shop.  He slowed to a disappointed stop, however, as the sign in the front window came into focus, announcing the store was already closed.  A mound of multi-colored roses in the front window taunted him.  He sighed.  Then he shrugged.  Smiling wistfully, he turned right and began walking in the same direction as Athena.

Back across the street, Colin finished gathering up the last of his envelopes and deposited them in the mailbox at the corner by the bus stop.  He glanced up at the bus schedule as Athena had before him and then down at his watch.  He did a quick calculation, frowned, and then walked off briskly in the same direction as both Athena and Barry.

Athena turned down a dark residential backstreet.  She squinted, trying to make out shapes in the dark.  She shivered a little as the wind picked up in spurts, wondering if walking had been such a good idea after all.

Half a block behind her, Barry appeared from around a corner, moving at a relaxed pace in her direction.  He peered down an alley as he walked past it but saw only darkness.  After he’d walked half a block up, however, Colin emerged from the alley’s mouth and started walking behind him, head bent down, eyes on his own feet.

Athena passed by a fenced-in front yard when suddenly an angry Boxer leaped out of the shadows at her, gnashing its teeth and barking ferociously.  She startled, jumped back half a step, and quickly walked on.  The Boxer strained against its chain, but then gave up and settled down as Athena moved out of its territory.

Barry heard the barking up ahead but couldn’t make out its source.  He glanced behind him, catching a brief glimpse of Colin, who was still about half a block behind still walking with his head pointed down.  Barry turned back to face forward as he passed by the same fenced-in yard.  The Boxer lunged again, barking ferociously as before, startling Barry in almost the same exact way it had Athena.

Hearing the sound of the dog again, Athena glanced behind her and saw Barry’s indistinct figure about half a block back.  The rest of the street remained empty.  She continued moving forward.

Barry glanced over his shoulder again and noticed Colin coming up closer behind him.  Barry casually started to pick up his pace.

Athena glanced behind her and realized Barry was gaining on her.  She, too, started walking just a little bit faster.  She swung her purse up over her head and around to her front, grasping it tightly in her hands.  She reached a corner with more light, turned left and crossed the street.  As she reached the other side, she looked behind her again and saw Barry approaching the intersection.

At the sound of the dog barking, Colin registered Barry and Athena up ahead, noting Athena’s backwards glance at Barry.  He regarded Barry suspiciously.

Athena turned to look in front of her, but then couldn’t help glancing behind her once more.  She saw Barry crossing the street toward her.

Colin reached the intersection and stopped.  He stared off at them both, his concern growing.  He looked down the street in the direction he’d intended to go, then back at Athena and Barry.  He considered a moment, registered a flash of determination, then decided to follow them.

Athena was beginning to feel a little nervous.  She started looking around for a weapon of some kind.  She passed a garbage can with a large piece of wood stuffed in it.  She contemplated grabbing it but decided it was too large and moved past without even trying to dislodge it.  She studied the front windows of the apartments she passed looking for signs of people.  The entire block seemed blacked out.  Not knowing what else to do and hoping to put some distance between herself and Barry, she abruptly crossed to the other side of the street, trying to look nonchalant.

Barry missed seeing Athena cross the street ahead of him, however, as he was glancing backwards again at Colin.

Colin was close enough to him now to see his expression when he did it.  Definitely unfriendly, Colin decided.

Barry passed the same garbage can as Athena had with the same piece of wood stuffed in it.  As he moved by it, he stretched out his hand and tugged on it once, tentatively.  It was stuck fast.  He kept going without slowing.  He glanced up and down the street.  No cars were in sight, so he moved into the center of the street where the light was brighter and continued walking.

Athena glanced nervously back at Barry once more, getting a better look at him in the brighter light of the street.  Why had he done that?

Colin sped up noticeably, trying to keep up with Barry.

All three walked in parallel now, Athena slightly ahead of Barry who was slightly ahead of Colin.

Barry, facing forward, heard Colin’s footsteps getting louder behind him on the otherwise quiet street.  He crossed over to Athena’s side, now only twenty feet or so behind her.  Growing more concerned at the narrowing distance between Athena and Barry, Colin crossed over, too, moving even more briskly.  The three of them walked in line down the block about twenty feet apart.

Athena reached another intersection and crossed the street moving straight ahead, her eyes darting around as if they had the power to see behind her.  She was too afraid to turn her head.

Barry reached the intersection a few moments later, crossed the street and turned right, now walking in a direction perpendicular to Athena’s.

When Colin saw this he stopped, the tension flowing out of him instantly.  He shook his head ruefully.  Then he crossed the street and continued in the same direction as Athena.

Athena stepped under a streetlight beam and stopped.  She abruptly turned, feeling somehow safer in the light, and looked back into darkness.  She saw nothing and started to calm down herself.  Then she thought she heard something…footsteps?  She narrowed her eyes.  She squinted.  Nothing.  Then—the sound of a can getting kicked.  An animal?  A person?

Breaking into a sudden sweat, Athena turned and unhooked her purse from around her neck.  She took several casual steps out of the cone of light, back into darkness, and then bolted into a run.

The wind whistled by her ears, her breathing coming in ragged gasps.  She reached the next corner and cut right, now running perpendicular to her original direction.  Half a block down, her purse suddenly flew out of her hand.

She halted, panicked, and went searching for it, almost sobbing in fear.  She couldn’t find it.  Where was it?  Where was it?  Should she just leave it?  She scraped her knee on the ground, tearing her pantyhose.

Colin approached the corner behind Athena and stopped.  He reached into his backpack.

Athena’s hand landed on her purse and she almost laughed with joy.  Crouched down, she turned to look behind her.  She waited.  Nothing.  Then she stood, a little calmer now.  She heaved out a relieved sigh and after a moment resumed walking.  She flapped her blouse to cool off her sweat and fear.

Athena approached the next intersection as Colin remained standing a full block behind her at the same corner.  Barry was now approaching the same intersection as Athena from the perpendicular direction to her right, having walked around the block.

Athena crossed the intersection.  Barry reached it a moment later and paused.  He glanced left to see a car turning onto the street from a block down, heading toward him.  As it turned, its lights crossed the silhouetted figure of Colin as he stood motionless, lighting a cigarette.

Colin’s eyes rose up over the flame of his lighter to spot Barry, who was now starting straight back at him.  Colin’s eyes widened.  Barry quickly turned right, in Athena’s direction, and began walking again.

Colin dropped the cigarette, stamped it out, and hurried after him.

Athena heard footsteps again and glanced over her shoulder to see Barry behind her again, much closer now than before.  She started to panic.  She started walking quickly, almost at a half-run.  Up ahead, she spotted a hardware store and headed toward it.

Barry again failed to notice Athena noticing him as he was glancing back again at Colin, who seemed to be gaining on him.  Barry picked up his pace and started scanning the street for a safe place to hide.

Colin was now half-walking, half-running, wondering what he was going to do when he reached Barry.

Athena reached the hardware store and entered.  She stopped just inside the doorway.  She made eye contact with the solitary store clerk and immediately felt a powerful sense of relief.  She surveyed the store and noticed a pay phone in the back.  She couldn’t believe her luck.  She’d somehow walked into the one store in America that still had a pay phone.

Barry spotted the hardware store and headed toward it.

Athena hung up the phone and turned back toward the store’s entrance only to see Barry standing there, the door closing behind him.  Athena stiffened and turned away quickly to avoid eye contact.  Again failing to register her, Barry pretended to be browsing as he walked to the front window of the store.  He picked up some duct tape at random and surreptitiously stole a glance outside.

Athena ducked down an aisle away from Barry and walked to the end of it.  She peeked around the corner to watch him.

Peering out the window again, Barry saw nothing.  He glanced at his watch.

Athena walked back into the center of the aisle, looking for cover.  She glanced at the items on the shelves in front of her, trying to decide what to do.  Then she spotted something that interested her:  pepper spray.  She picked it up and looked at it.  She read the instructions quickly.  She weighed it in her hand.  She put it back.  Then she picked it up again.  Then she put it back.  She walked away…

Then she returned and picked it up, grasping it firmly in her palm.

Barry, meanwhile, had put the duct tape back and turned toward the front of the hardware store only to see Colin standing just inside the door as it closed behind him.

Colin surveyed the store, his eyes landing on Barry.  The two stared at each other a moment.  Then Barry broke eye contact and looked back at the shelf in front of him, pretending to look at another item.  He glanced at his watch again with a sense of urgency.

Athena too glanced at her watch.  She looked up, worried.

Colin moved into the store and entered Athena’s aisle.  He pretended to be looking for something, his gaze flickering from the shelves to her and back again repeatedly.  He wanted to say something, to ask her if she was okay, to offer his protection, something, anything, but he couldn’t quite get himself to talk.  As Athena walked by him, he noticed the pepper spray in her hand.

She headed to the front of the store, towards the clerk who was now involved in an intense conversation on the phone.  Colin quickly grabbed an item off the shelf at random—a light bulb—and followed her to the front.

Suddenly seeing Barry approaching the clerk as well, Athena turned around, almost colliding with Colin who was walking right behind her.  They both startled.  They each seemed about to say something—but then didn’t.  Athena walked back to the aisle in which she’d found the pepper spray.  Colin looked back at the clerk and saw Barry walk up to the counter.

Barry stared at the clerk, unsure what to say, trying uselessly to catch his attention.  He glanced back once at Colin, who was now staring at him with an undisguised challenge in his eyes.  Panicked, Barry moved off down one of the aisles, fully aware of Colin’s gaze following him as he went.  Colin waited a moment, then followed Barry.

Barry walked down the aisle and, as he reached its end, impulsively grabbed a hammer.  Colin reached the opening of the aisle just in time to see Barry grab the hammer and turn the corner.

Starting to panic himself, Colin raced down the aisle after him, picking up a large wrench as he went, his heart beginning to pound.  He reached the end, paused, and then turned the corner after Barry.

Staring fixedly at the shelf in front of her, Athena saw Barry in her peripheral vision as he turned the corner into her aisle.  She immediately turned her back to him, paralyzed with fear.  She closed her eyes briefly, then uncorked the pepper spray.

Barry began to accelerate down the aisle toward Athena.  In the distance, a siren started to wail.

Colin turned the corner after Barry, jumped into the aisle and flew down it, the wrench coming up in his hand…

Athena shook the pepper spray…

Barry rushed toward Athena…

Athena turned as Barry reached her—and sprayed him full in the face.

Barry fell back, shrieking in pain, and stumbled into Colin, who grabbed for him.  Barry broke free and whirled around, swinging the hammer wildly, thinking he was fighting for his life, and managed to bury the back of it into Colin’s shoulder.  Colin screamed in pain and smashed the wrench into Barry’s head with a sickening thud.  Barry fell.

An ambulance and a police car littered the parking lot in front of the hardware store.  Colin sat on the curb next to the ambulance, a paramedic bandaging the wound in his shoulder.  A detective stood above him while inside the store a policeman talked to a very animated clerk.

“So he never actually said anything threatening…?” the detective asked Colin.

Inside the hardware store a gloved paramedic examined Barry’s body and in particular the fatal wound to his head.  Then he pulled out a wallet from Barry’s pocket and handed it to the policeman who’d been talking to the clerk.

Athena was talking with a second detective.  “…so then you called 911?” he asked her.

She nodded silently.

“On the pay phone?”

“I forgot my cell phone at home.”  Her voice trembled.

“How soon after that did he attack you?”

“I don’t know… a couple of minutes, maybe…”

“And then you sprayed him with the pepper spray and the other guy grabbed him and then…?”

“I told you:  he swung the hammer into his arm and then the other guy—he hit him in the head with the wrench.”  Athena’s eyes started to well up.  “You’re not going charge him with anything, are you?  I mean, if it weren’t for him, I could be dead.”

The first detective approached them, holding a video tape in his hand.

“The whole thing got caught on tape,” he told the second detective.  He pointed to a surveillance camera perched behind a dark glass bubble mounted to the ceiling.

The gloved paramedic closed the zipper of a body bag over Barry’s head.  He and a second paramedic lifted Barry’s body onto a gurney.

The second detective asked Athena, “You’ve never seen either of these two men before?”

“Never.”

The first detective said, “And you have no idea why someone would follow you five blocks into a brightly lit store and try to assault you with a—”

“No!” Athena interrupted with sudden intensity.  “I told you.”

“How can you be absolutely sure he meant to hurt you?” the first detective asked.

“Because he was running at me with a hammer!”

Barry’s body was wheeled by on the gurney.  The detectives exchanged glances.

“We can have the officer give you a lift home,” the first detective told Athena.

Her voice drained of all emotion, Athena said, “I had a date.”  She spat out a short laugh.  “Our parents set us up.”  She looked at her watch.  “He probably thinks I stood him up.”

The first detective reached into his pocket and handed her a cell phone.  “Why don’t you let him know you didn’t.”

The two paramedics loaded Barry’s body into the back of their ambulance.  One of the paramedics climbed in back and the other slammed the doors shut.

Athena walked out of the hardware store, rubbing her eyes.  She felt completely drained.  Numb.

From inside the back of the ambulance, the paramedic watched Athena flip open the detective’s cell phone.  Glancing at a crumpled piece of paper, she dialed a number.

From under the body bag, the muffled tones of a cell phone suddenly rang out.

NEXT WEEK: Become A Force For Good

7 comments to Cause And Effect

  • You should write a book; oh wait you are, when can we expect it?

    Julien: Half-way done. Have a regular job (and I’m a perfectionist), so I’m a bit slow. :)
    Alex

  • Charles

    Can I have more description of Athena please? She sounds sexy.

  • In reply to Julian, you wrote:

    >Half-way done. Have a regular job (and I’m a perfectionist),
    >so I’m a bit slow. :)
    >A.L.

    I hate to be a party-pooper, but in that case, you might like to correct Athena’s sudden, unexplained name change:

    “Barry missed seeing *Sally* cross the street ahead of him, however, as he was glancing backwards again at Colin.”

    Nevertheless — an outstanding piece of writing. Thank you for sharing it.

    Morton: No party-pooping there at all. Thanks for the catch. And the compliment.

    Alex

  • Elizabeth

    I am very grateful that I found your site! It’s clearly inspired and inspirational.

    This particular story takes my breath away! Assumptions—eeek!

    Fascinating that as a ‘perfectionisto’ you’d say you’re just ‘a bit slow’…I am smiling with you!

    Elizabeth: So glad you liked the story (and got it!) and the site. Yeah…a bit slow…a bit of an understatement…sigh… ;)
    Alex

  • jrm

    Were the boxer’s gloves laced or had he not put them on yet?

    JRM: Right. Fixed. Thanks.

    Alex

  • tran nam

    Sometimes assumption can lead to sorrowful consequences such as death.

  • tran nam

    At the end of the story, you wrote: “No!” Athena interrupted with sudden intensity. “I told you.” It seems that she knows she has made a wrong assumption about why Barry followed her.

    tran nam: Either that or she felt upset for being involved in someone’s death at all…

    Alex

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