By David Malone
These were always the tensest moments of any job. The long, silent minutes during which the revolving doors and calm facade of the stone building hid the cacophony of shouted orders and threats within. It was in these moments of suffocating solitude, sitting in an idling car, that McClane could not help but ponder how this all came to be.
People-watching helped to pass the time. It helped to keep his foot away from the gas pedal and his hand away from the shifter. It helped to keep his mind from asking the questions he did not want answered. He often played a game to keep his mind occupied, in which he picked the most unique person he could find on the street and created a backstory explaining their presence there that day.
Unfortunately for McClane, there were not many people on the street this day. After four months of sweltering summer heat an unseasonably cold wind blew through the streets, rustling leaves and gently nudging litter along the gutters. This cold wind had the same effect of keeping people off the streets as if it were a blizzard.
McClane’s eyes searched up and down the desolate street — a street lined with brick buildings and trees speckled with golden-orange leaves hinting at the coming changes of fall — hoping for anyone to appear. No one did. He drifted further into his own mind causing his hand to drift closer to the shifter.
Just leave it all behind, he thought as his hand grasped the gear knob. He pressed down on the brake and was about to slide into drive when a flash of red in the rearview mirror caught his eye. His initial reaction was fear that it was the flashing red lights of the cops. A colossal mistake on the inside was about to sink him as well. Soon the initial panic (or was that relief?) wore off, and upon second glance he saw it was nothing more than a small child holding the string of an oversized red balloon in his hand.
The child could not have been more than nine or ten, but walked alone. He had a dirty mop of chestnut-brown hair and wore beige corduroy pants and a green jacket with a tear on the right shoulder, which exposed the white insulation within. McClane started his game in order to put his mind at ease.
The child received the balloon at a birthday party he was at today. At this party, one of the other boys called him a queer for wearing corduroy pants. In return, the boy made a joke referencing the bully’s mother, as kids are wont to do, and a scuffle broke out. The boy fell hard on his shoulder and a six inch tear in the jacket opened up. After the fight was broken up, the boy, in pain and shame, left the party early, not wanting to wait for his parents to pick him up.
This did not feel like the game McClane typically played in these moments of solitude. This story came from somewhere deep within. McClane felt, no, knew all of these things were true. He did not know how he knew, but he knew all the same. The boy seemed so familiar, yet distant, like hearing a song from childhood for the first time in many years.
The child skipped along the opposite side of the street playing his own game of letting go of the balloon only to grab it at the last second. Each subsequent time he waited just a little longer before reaching for the string. A few times he needed to jump in order to catch the balloon before it floated away. McClane watched the eerily familiar boy play his game.
When he gets home he will be punished for getting into a fight and tearing his new jacket, as well as for leaving the party and wandering through the town by himself. He will argue it wasn’t his fault, that he was a victim of circumstance. But his mother won’t listen. He will scream and shout and cry, but it will do no good. Every doomed relationship has its beginning.
The boy came to a stop at the intersection. After a brief, but decidedly thoughtful moment, the boy turned left and disappeared around the corner. McClane stared into nothingness, trying to rid himself of the unsettling feeling the little boy and the game had cast upon him.
A strong gust of wind swept through the streets. A few orange leaves were blown from their branches and swept into the river of air, floating along like furious butterflies. McClane was following the path of these leaves with his eyes when another flash of red exploded in his periphery. The oversized red balloon came floating back around the corner, minus the little boy, caught in the same current as the leaves, and was drifting higher into the crisp blue sky with each passing second.
The sound of the car door opening broke McClane from his trance. His right hand fell to the shifter and he grasped the steering wheel with his left, ready to pull away at a moment’s notice. He looked to the door expecting to see his partners, but instead saw a stranger in his early fifties with a folded newspaper under his arm.
“Cold out today,” the stranger said nonchalantly as he settled into the passenger seat and opened the newspaper with a flick of his wrists.
“I think you got the wrong car, man,” McClane said looking past the stranger at the revolving doors of the building, “You gotta get out, I’m expecting people.”
“We have some time. The cold seems to slow everything down. They friends of yours?”
“No, not friends. Just people. But seriously, man,” McClane began, anger rising in his voice, “I don’t know who you are, but you need to get out now. Or I’m—”
“Or you’re what, McClane?”
McClane furrowed his brow and sat back in his seat, staring in confusion at the stranger. The stranger continued to read his newspaper. “Empty threats have a way of coming back on you. Remember that.”
McClane tried to piece together an explanation for why this stranger would know his name. “What, are you a cop or something?” That’s gotta be it. They must have been following me for days just waiting to catch us in the act.
“Or something. Definitely not a cop, though.”
“If you aren’t a cop, then how do you know my name?”
The stranger ignored the question. “Can you believe that?” he said bringing the paper closer to his face. “That makes four banks in two weeks. Helluva thing, that is.”
McClane shifted uneasily at the mention of the banks. He tried to change the subject. “What are you doing here?”
The stranger put down the paper and looked at McClane for the first time since entering the car. “I was about to ask you the same thing.”
“I told you, I’m just waiting for some people.” The eerie feeling he had experienced with the little boy was returning.
“Waiting for some people,” the stranger repeated with a laugh. “Anyway, that’s not what I meant. What I mean is, what are you doing here?”
“What do you want from me, man? What is the answer that will get you out of the car? If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be here, okay?”
“If? Who was it up to?”
“Just get out of my car.”
“If not you, then who?”
“It’s a simple question.”
“It’s not a simple answer.”
“It most certainly should be.”
“I don’t know why I’m here, okay? Sometimes fate is funny like that.”
A broad smile stretched across the stranger’s face and shortly after loud hollow laughter began to erupt from deep within his belly.
“Fate? Fate is nothing more than a culmination of our choices and the amalgamation of our decisions. Fate is a scapegoat for the failure, an excuse for the lazy, and a tool for the poet. It only exists so far as it can be of use to us. Try again.”
McClane’s frustration was about to reach its apex. “How about you answer some of my questions first?”
“I suppose that is only fair.”
“Who are you?”
“Just think of me as a helpful stranger. Or as an old friend. Neither one is untrue.”
McClane rolled his eyes at the non-answer and continued, “Why did you get in my car?”
“You looked like you needed help, obviously.”
“Well you were mistaken because I don’t need your help. So, if you would kindly get out, it would be greatly appreciated.”
The stranger nodded his head but made no move to exit the vehicle. “What was it about that little boy that you found so gripping? If you don’t mind me asking.”
McClane instinctively looked at the corner around which the little boy disappeared a few minutes earlier and then looked to the revolving doors before his eyes finally settled back on the stranger. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure you do, the little boy with the red balloon. I only ask because, well, I found myself watching him as well. He seemed so familiar — a memory incarnate.”
“What? Is this a game or something? Some sort of psychological profiling before the cops pull out from the alleyway to arrest me?”
“I told you, I’m not a cop.”
“And I told you to get out of the car. Looks like neither one of us feels like listening.”
“The boy,” the stranger urged unapologetically.
McClane let out an exasperated sigh. Defeated by the stranger’s persistence, he answered, “I felt like I knew him. Not like you would know a friend or a relative, but like you would know yourself.”
The stranger was silent.
“I felt like I knew everything about his past just by looking at him, and when I closed my eyes I felt like I could see his future.”
The stranger remained silent.
“I wanted to call out to him. I wanted him to look at me so I could see into his eyes.”
“So why didn’t you?”
“Just didn’t feel right. Like if I acknowledged him then he would suddenly cease to be. He would just disappear like some sort of specter.” McClane glanced at the stranger. “Why am I telling you all this? You need to leave. My friends will be out shortly.”
“I thought they weren’t your friends.”
“Would you like to play a game?” the stranger asked abruptly.
“You asked if this was a game earlier. And I feel like you were disappointed that it wasn’t one. So, I’ll ask again, would you like to play a game?”
“What kind of game?”
“It’s a yes or no question.”
The low rumble of the engine was the only sound. The stranger intrigued McClane to the point that he did not want him out of the car anymore. This, in turn, made McClane very uncomfortable. McClane shifted in his seat and took a quick peek at the revolving doors.
“Excellent. It’s one of my favorite games to play. Do you enjoy people-watching? Of course you do, who doesn’t? Well here is what you do—”
“I know how to play this game, but in case you haven’t noticed, the streets are empty today.”
“Someone will be along shortly.”
And someone was. Not fifteen seconds after the words left the stranger’s mouth, a teenager appeared from the corner behind the car. He was tall and skinny with dirty, unkempt hair not dissimilar to the little boy from earlier. His black Metallica shirt was too big for him, and his black jeans were too tight, obviously having been purchased for someone else. He had the look of a man who had let life defeat him. A look usually reserved for people three times his age.
As he walked along the sidewalk he kicked a can in front of him; the metallic clank of the can was the only sound to be heard. The trees were completely still, and golden-orange leaves clung to their branches, seemingly unwilling to fall and cross paths with the teenager.
“Well, are you going to play or aren’t you?”
Again, it wasn’t a game to McClane. “He’s lost, though not physically, but he still wanders, waiting for that magical f-word you are so fond of to fall into his lap. When it doesn’t happen he starts to wonder; is the only fate we are guaranteed death? Does the universe view human life in the way we view the life of a fly? In the grand scheme of things, aren’t we just as inconsequential? Yet he still believes life has a way of working itself out, so he never diverts from the rails, hoping at the end there is more than a web and a spider.” McClane’s voice trailed off as his unblinking eyes followed the teenager.
The stranger said, “Unfortunately his hopes are misguided. It always ends at a web and a spider, no matter which path he chooses, or doesn’t choose, to take, and sometimes we don’t even get the spider. But in a way, that’s the beauty of it all.” The stranger was also staring, only, his gaze was directed at McClane.
The teenager disappeared around the same corner as the little boy before him. The car was a vacuum of silence.
“You spoke of inconsequentiality,” the stranger finally said.
“Does that bother you?”
“The stranger considered this answer for a moment. “Do you know why I have such distaste for the notion of fate?”
“I guess you’re going to tell me.”
“It has to do with the most arrogant question ever devised.”
“If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The stranger took McClane’s blank look as a comment to say more. “It proposes that all this, everything that ever was or will be, exists solely for us. It’s easy to lose your way with that type of thinking.”
McClane nodded his head.
At this, the stranger began folding his paper. “Well, I should get going. Your friends will be along shortly.”
“They aren’t my friends.”
“Of course not. Either way, I should get going.” He tucked his newspaper under his arm and opened the car door. The cold crept inside the car. “Can I give you one piece of advice?” He did not wait for an answer. “When driving in the wrong direction, the first thing to do is stop.”
“I’ll see you later,” McClane said not acknowledging the advice.
“I guess that depends,” the stranger replied and closed the door. Before he turned to leave he rapped on the window of the idling car. McClane rolled it down. “I almost forgot to ask again, why are you here?”
McClane considered the question for a moment before answering, “Because a falling tree makes a sound regardless of who is around to hear it.”
The stranger gave a single nod of his head and turned toward the intersection. As the stranger walked away, McClane tried to play the game with him, but he was not able to come up with anything; not a single thought entered his mind. A smile crept onto McClane’s face for the first time in awhile.
The stranger paused at the intersection, deciding which direction to go. As McClane watched, his eyes drifted to the rooftops where he saw the little boy’s red balloon. It hung in the air as if it were posing for a photo. McClane, not believing what he saw, shifted his attention to the left and looked at the trees. The leaves were perfectly still. Along the sidewalk some of the leaves and trash from earlier were frozen in their wind-dance — much like the balloon. McClane turned back to the intersection just in time to see the stranger disappear around the corner, having chosen to go right.
McClane sat in the car, now with no stranger to distract him, and fully realized the oddity of the world around him; the whole world was an insect trapped in amber, or perhaps, a fly caught in a web.
A sudden and very loud pop startled McClane. He saw in the distance the red balloon fall to the ground in a heap of bright red latex. As the balloon hit the ground, life returned to the world. The leaves rustled, and clouds once again began moving across the sky. Another gust of wind breathed life back into the desolate street.
Seconds after the world returned, the car door opened once more. McClane, expecting to see the stranger, was again incorrect. Two men wearing balaclavas and carrying fat duffle bags entered the car.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” the man in the passenger seat said as he removed his balaclava.
“Hit it, McClane,” the man in the back said.
The wail of police sirens could be heard in the distance, whether it was for them or not could not be certain.
McClane shifted into drive and hit the gas. At least, he thought he shifted into drive. The engine revved but the car remained in place. Realizing his mistake, he shifted from neutral to drive and pulled from the spot, careful not to spin the tires.
The two men who entered the car congratulated each other on a successful job. It was all white noise to McClane. He drove along, slower than intended, staring at the heap of latex in the distance. The intersection drew nearer and, where the little boy and the teenager had turned left and the stranger turned right, McClane slowed and eventually came to a stop.
David Malone is a former paramedic and current college student in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, Illinois. When not writing about himself in the third person he enjoys watching baseball, losing himself in any available medium of storytelling, and, of course, writing. He is currently working on his first novel as well as various short stories.