On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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At first, Vainner doubted the evidence of his own senses.
The very idea of it was foolish; a thing that the credulous and idiotic would believe. He was neither of those, and so he rejected the conclusion that seemed more and more likely each day. But as time wore on, it became difficult to reconcile his logic and common sense with what he saw around him.
Thinking back, the first incident was probably the woman on the bus. How rude she’d been when his bag had been sticking out into the aisle by all of five centimetres or so. Vainner had apologised and moved it immediately, but that hadn’t been good enough for the bitch. She stood there for a good thirty seconds, berating his lack of consideration and his selfishness. By the time she stomped off towards the stairs that led to the upper deck, he had been embarrassed, and with the passing of another few minutes — and many obvious stares from his fellow passengers — he had been resentful.
The image was so clear in his mind. The woman, sitting somewhere up above as the bus trundled through the city on its regular route. He imagined her sitting there and still being angry, so angry that it rose up in her chest and coiled around her heart and killed her. Then Vainner had smiled to himself, feeling much better. He closed his eyes and nodded off, safe in the knowledge that his stop was the end of the route and the driver would wake him if necessary. Instead, he’d been wakened by the ambulance siren and then the thump of the paramedics’ feet on the bus stairs.
It was a strange coincidence, certainly. But such things happened sometimes.
The next incident was the traffic policeman, and this time Vainner had only been passing by on foot. For some reason, the junction was under manual control and the copper was alternately holding traffic and letting other lanes through. Usually it was because there was an accident nearby, but Vainner hadn’t seen anything yet. Anyway, a cyclist had taken off too early for the copper’s liking, and the word “idiot” had echoed around the intersection. Vainner privately agreed that the cyclist was an idiot — a lot of them were — but he also believed that the authorities should know their place as servants of the public. He had imagined how damned funny it would be if the policeman’s attitude happened to be corrected by a high-speed rolling missile of metal and glass and rubber. The laundry service van crushed the copper less than a minute later, while Vainner was still waiting to cross.
He started his experiments after that. And oh how successful they were.
The fox that lived in the beech hedge behind his house was a mangy thing, and it had two poor habits: screaming in the middle of the night when it encountered a roaming cat, and shitting on the narrow paved path around the side of the building. On a clear, cloudless night at exactly 02:00, it was struck by lightning and killed instantly.
The little yappy damned dog that lived four doors down liked to bark at nothing, like every godforsaken mutt of that size. In Vainner’s view, if you could fit it into a shopping bag, it wasn’t a real dog, and no wonder they all had such a problem with aggression. That particular lap-rat’s insecurities came to an abrupt end when it inexplicably took a leap into the path of a ride-on lawnmower.
Then there was the creep who hung around the local primary school. Vainner had seem him a dozen times at least, always loitering near the gates in mid-morning looking clammy. No reason to be there, unless you counted the obvious and illegal one. Childhood was a sacred time, even if most children were sociopaths, and Vainner felt that innocence should be preserved for as long as was feasible. The paedo died when he slipped while trying to climb over the fence, and was impaled on an iron spike.
The impatient tradesman in the queue outside the post office: catastrophic stroke. The drunk college students smashing their prissy Euro-lager bottles on the pavement on a glorious summer evening: gas explosion of very limited range in their cruddy flat above the Chinese takeaway. The ticket inspector on the train who thought her time was so valuable she couldn’t wait ten seconds for an old man to retrieve his ticket from his coat pocket: ruptured appendix and septic shock.
The list went on. It was difficult to be creative sometimes, but that wasn’t really the point. Tried and true methods were the best, and Vainner didn’t give a damn about plausibility. Nobody was ever going to come knocking on his door to ask questions. And if they did, it would be their last mistake.
He felt no guilt, either. People were monsters to each other.
Kids, teenagers, grown up adult human beings; it didn’t matter. They were all the same. You could see it everywhere. Selfishness was the core issue. People just didn’t care about anyone but themselves. Anti-equality, and anti-abortion, and anti-vaccine, and anti-everydamnedthing. Who cared if anyone else got hurt? Who cared if anyone else’s life was ruined, or intolerable? Precious few people, that’s who.
But people being monsters was the inevitable result of the real problem: they just weren’t afraid. And they had no reason to be, because any negative consequences of their actions seemed so remote; so unimportant. There wasn’t enough to fear, and ultimately it was fear that made people decent.
There were no real monsters anymore. That was the stumbling block right there.
As a young man, Vainner could never understand how people could bear to behave the way they did, but enlightenment and bitter wisdom came with age. He could see now that all hate was based on fear too. Of loss, of pain, of consequence. Fear was hate, and hate made monsters.
It made perfect sense, because deep down, people profoundly frightened him, and so he hated them. The logical conclusion flowed naturally from there.
He’d give them something to be afraid of.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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