Death, Where Is Thy...?

By Bert Benmeyer

You want to know why I would kill myself if I could? Any animal in pain beyond repair deserves sweet death. Ah, but how could I do it? Don't think I haven't tried.

Do you know about the man who wanted to be sure of dying? He took poison, hung himself by the neck from a tree on the bank of a river, and then shot himself in the head. But he missed, hit the rope, and dropped into the water. By the time he surfaced he had swallowed so much water that it diluted the poison . . . and, discovering a fear of drowning, shouted for help.

Is that funny? I don't know. None of it would apply to me.

You don't want me to make jokes? You need to know the truth about my life? I can supply details, but you say you want understanding, the truth behind it all, with a capital T? Ah, that's a different matter. Understanding of what happened has always been denied me. If you figure it out, I'd be grateful.

Fourteen years old. No different from the other kids. No smarter. No stronger. I complained no more about my parent's absurdities than my friends did. We hung around, doing stuff. That's why we went to the park on that damned night, just doing stuff like kids do, when a harsh, bright light burst through clouds dense enough to hide the stars and the moon.

Shining straight down, it moved erratically toward us . . . and chose me! For a moment I froze—my friends told me afterwards that I looked like a kid praying that the teacher wouldn't notice him—and then I ran, zig-zagged, hid behind a tree, but the light remained fixed on me. My friends scattered, frightened that it would desert me and choose one of them. But from a distance they shouted advice.

"Jump in the lake!" screamed one. "Take your shoes off!" yelled another. (Don't ask me what that was supposed to accomplish.) "Stand still, it'll go some place else!" shouted a third. All useless to me.

You must understand the mysterious light did not hurt me, it just illuminated me. When it winked out it was as if it had not been. We searched the sky trying to locate its source, but nothing was there. Just the clouds.

The event soon disappeared in the daily routine of hanging around. Later, I realized it was the light that had started this cursed process.

Did I tell my mother? Imagine this dialogue.

"Uh, Mom, something really weird happened last night in the park."

"Oh, dear, I've told you a million times not to go to the park at night. You know what happens there."

"But Mom, some kind of light came right through the clouds and shined on me. I was scared."

"Dear, it must have been a police helicopter."

"Come on, Mom, not through the clouds. Anyway, I'd hear a helicopter."

"Well, whatever it was, I don't want you going into the park at night. Now promise me."

We also went to school. It's one of the mindless things that you get to do when you're a kid. Later, maybe you figure out that it wasn’t so empty after all, but when you're fourteen it's like the weather, always surrounding you with its own inevitable reality, mostly boring but always with the possibility of overwhelming you..

A few weeks after the park experience I made the mistake of going to the bathroom without my friends . . . and was trapped there by one of the school nasties. I was his favorite target. He never really hurt me; oh, he was too decent for that. A few shoves cause no physical pain . . . but the threat was there. I was too puny to challenge him. I hated his guts.

"Hey punk, when are you going out for the football team? We need something in the locker room to kick around."

This was, of course, greeted with much laughter by the crowd of toadies who gathered on such occasions, all grateful that they were not his victim. He would have continued his vile behavior, but someone called out "Teacher." He looked away and I dashed past him, in the process giving his body a glancing blow with my shoulder. To my astonishment this 200-pound lineman staggered across the room into the wall, slid to the floor in a daze.

Horrified at my effrontery I ran for my life, expecting pursuit and slaughter, but he was in no condition to chase after me. I spent the next day skulking through the school corridors until I learned that he was too hurt to return before the school year was over. He had a dislocated elbow and some broken ribs. The principal concluded that when I brushed past him in my escape he had tripped over his own feet and smashed into the wall.

But I was still not aware of what I had become—you know what I mean—until I did something really peculiar, so out of character that it took me days to assimilate.

More details. I was walking alone along a downtown street when I heard a woman call out, "Help! Oh, God, no! Help! Help!" Without thinking—that’s not entirely accurate because in an unencumbered part of my mind I wondered what the hell I was doing—I ran toward the sound of her voice. It came from a dark alley between two huge apartment buildings.

You of course understand that going into such a dark place unaccompanied by strong companions is absurdly dangerous. Yet I dashed in and saw, frozen at my sudden entry, two men and an old woman, one holding her while the other had begun to rip her clothes off. A shattered bottle of milk lay on the pavement, and apples and oranges rolled everywhere. Tears streamed down her cheeks. How can I describe her expression? Horror? Terror? Shock? The bad guys had grins on their faces, the grins of power, letting her see the pleasure that evil enjoys just before crushing its helpless victims.

Ignoring the knife that one of them brandished, I charged at them. They were hopelessly slow. Everyone is when I start to move. I dodged past the knife, caught its wielder's arm and snap, it broke. His companion released the woman and, backing away, pulled a gun out of his jacket. Before he could get it clear I was on him. Poor fellow, I was rougher than I intended; he died. The woman was not quite aware of what had happened—I disappeared before she could thank me

Did I feel guilt or remorse? For maybe ten minutes. Let me go back over this again. I was never strong, I was never brave, and I certainly knew the rules for survival in the bowels of the city-monster. Don't get involved. Don't bleed over others' misfortunes. Run from trouble. Feel remorse? Hell, I didn't feel remorse, not when I could defy reality.

There was no one I dared tell, not my parents, not my sister, not my friends. Besides, I was too full of myself, my power, my superiority over everyone around me. I spent nights in the park exuberantly uprooting trees, shattering boulders… and rescuing people. What else do superheroes do? Comic books told me how to live: Rescue people and above all, be unknown.

Muggers, rapists, thieves, and murderers could always be found by any idiot foolish enough to try a shortcut through the park at night, risking disaster to save a few minutes. But I was there, an inconspicuous fourteen-year-old, and the park's crime rate went down.

Well, not really, because while the innocent could walk freely, the malefactors died. I mean, they were slaughtered. Do you understand me?

The mayor protested because the bodies of criminals cluttered up his park. The newspapers called me the "Hard Man" because I gave only the sentence of death. The police, usually absent at night, protested that vigilantes could only make things worse and pleaded in the newspapers with me to give myself up, turn myself in to face the majesty of the law.

Of course the people I had rescued had a different perspective. They variously described me to the police as ranging from six to seven feet tall, sometimes blond, sometimes speaking with a French accent, sometimes black, and so on, all patently false, protecting me from official attention. The police vigorously patrolled the area at night, looking for me, and inadvertently driving the criminals away. I had no more work to do. At least not in the park.

The police weren't stupid, though. Don't ever think that. They have ways of finding things out. A squad car pulled over as I returned home with some groceries. The officer beckoned to me.

"Kid, you've been hanging around in the park."

"Officer," I started, "I don't…."

"Don't interrupt me," he growled. "You've been there. At night. What do you know about the murders? Did you see anything? You must have seen something."

"No sir, not a thing. Besides, who cares what happens to those guys?"

The officer leaned out of his car window. His uniform smelled stale; he looked tired, beyond anger, as if only inertia kept him going.

"Kid, it's against the law to kill people. When we catch the murderer we'll lock him up just like the rest. What do they teach you guys in school these days? Stay out of the damned park. If I catch you there it'll be tough on you."

He drove off. I felt scared. Did they suspect that I was their "vigilante?" I thought I had been doing a public service. Certainly, the victims of the criminals were grateful, but no one else seemed to be. Well, I had been doing something worthwhile and I wasn't going to stop.

But the cop’s interest in me meant that I had to be more secretive lest the government try to own me. No, anonymity was best. Hell, it was necessary. I swore that no one would ever find out and devised a sort of working outfit, a black mask and a black sweat suit.

Hell, everybody knows what it looks like, that's what gave me away.

The encounter with the officer unsettled me. Killing the bad ones caught in the act seemed only reasonable to me, but he had reminded me of my civics classes about the right to a fair trial. Later, when I got older, I realized that the state, in its wisdom, reserves the right to kill only to itself.

Don't get tedious. Of course I know about self-defense, but you know what I mean. When you think about it, there are lots of things that are immoral if you and I do them, but pure and desirable if sanctioned by the state. Sex (marriage, you idiot), gambling, drugs, killing… it's clearly not the behaviors themselves. If they're carried out according to law, you can do what you want.

Oops. Sorry for the digression into the backside of political science, but you've got to understand me.

I gained lots of control over my body and became quite a lover. Let's not get into sex, but my stamina during lovemaking got to be the talk of the field hockey team. Ah, but those days weren't always fun, though. I had no use for my friends any more, and except for the girls who wanted sex, I became quite isolated. That was fine with me.

What did I do besides protect people and clean the scum from the city streets? I went to college and became an accountant with a nine-to-five job. My evenings and weekends were devoted to catching bad guys and to sexual encounters. It was pleasant to be able to walk among you all, incognito, a righteous destroyer, under the control of his private morality.

Then I found out I couldn’t die. It was a neat trap. Like shark hunters, they set out live bait and waited for me to appear. It worked. I leaped forward to rescue a child snatched into a car, tearing the side door off to get at the driver, but he dashed away. The floor ripped open and violent flame tore through its interior. But as fast as it moved to engulf the child and me, I was faster. I scooped her into my arms, protected her from the explosion with my body. The flames burned the clothing from my back, leaving a residue of soot and ashes, but I arose like the phoenix, and moved toward the perpetrators of this vile act.

Okay, so you know my story. You think you know why I want to kill myself? You think it's because of all the people I've killed? Hell, no. They did the act and deserved to die. Don't tell me about extenuating circumstances, that their mothers loved them, that they might have been salvageable, that they were products of a destroying society. All of that’s no doubt true, but they were also murderers and rapists and muggers, driving people indoors, corroding our society with fear. In medieval times the same sort of roving bands terrorized society at night; we’ve been regressed to that state because of your "poor unfortunates." Me feel guilty and depressed over them? Hah….

Well, not until it happened, and then….

Just be quiet, and I'll tell you.

My boss had his yearly barbecue, and I went because "business" was slow. His kid sister and I made moves on each other, and I didn't find out that she was a reporter until after some fairly strenuous sex. It was during that nice lazy time. You know what I mean? The two of us were half asleep, her head on my shoulder, and just chatting about this and that when I asked her what she did. That she worked for the local rag didn't trouble me too much. I never saw the same woman twice.

But she was a busybody. After we dressed, she asked me about my working clothes, which she had found in a closet. "You really don't seem like the sort of person who would follow a fad."

People had started wearing their idea of my disguise. It was a way of identifying with power. I was distressed that she had found my outfit, but she'd soon be gone. "Oh well," I responded, "You never can tell. Shall I call you a cab?"

"No," she said, walking to the bathroom and rummaging through my hamper, "you aren't a faddist." Look at this." She pulled something out. "Two black running pants and two black sweatshirts…. Hey! I bet you don't wear this stuff at work, and you sure didn't wear it at the barbecue."

Suddenly speaking faster, she said, "You're stronger in bed than anyone I've ever known… are you him? I mean, are you the ‘Hard Man?’" She giggled. "Oh, God, I didn't mean it that way. You know what I meant."

Walking up to me, she stared up into my face. "It is you, isn't it?"

I hit her, and she died. Just like that. She had penetrated my secret, and I felt fear for the first time since confronted by the police officer.

It was easy to stuff her body into my car and bury it in a lonely field in New Jersey. It was even easier to rationalize that her death was minor compared to the good I had done for the city, but that night, the dark dreams started.

Night after night they came, phalanxes of the dead and she their Alexander, tearing through my self satisfaction, ripping up my righteous indignation, battering down my feeble belief that I had a right to be outside the law in order to destroy outlaws.

I could see the side of her head, concave and bloody where my fist had smashed it in, and each night, before I could awaken, she would say, "Join us."

The dreams never went away, but the daytime was worse. I had no respite from self-loathing.

Do you know what I mean? Have you ever hated yourself? I would look at my hands and want to tear them from my arms. The mirror became my enemy, so detested had my face become. In the old days penitents wrapped themselves in sharp thorns so that every move became agony, but I was not permitted even that atonement. My impenetrable skin would blunt them.

I tried to kill myself, many times, but you know the result. I cannot die.

So I turned myself in, hoping the government could accomplish what I could not. But the electric chair, the firing squad, hanging, lethal injection—all failed.

Now I continue my miserable existence in this prison cell. No, they can’t keep me against my will, but how else can I pay for my sins? The government wants to study me, to learn the secret of my extraordinary existence, but I won’t permit that.

And you know something? I think I’ve stopped aging.

I’m here for life.

Copyright 2000, Bertram Benmeyer

About the Author

Bertram Benmeyer is a retired clinical psychologist who has taken up writing in the last few years. He has published more than 20 short stories and articles and is currently working on a science fiction novel. He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, classical, and other music.

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