This story was published in From the Asylum in July 2006.
No Stranger to Frustration
by Jeff Somers
IT WAS the fourth of July again, and the Indians next door were playing music at top volume in their yard. Mister Carrol thought it sounded like a lot of cats being killed, slowly. He stood on the roof looking out across the city, across the river to the other city, smoking a cigarette and feeling the warm roof under his bare feet. The air was still but not oppressive, hanging but not pushing, clear and thin. He took a deep drag on his cigarette and contributed his own minor pollution to the atmosphere.
He glanced down at the backyard. It was overgrown with trees and weeds and rusting metal, completely untended and as wild as yards got in the city. It was a small, dark jungle, surrounded by neat and careful yards, yards with gardens, yards with tended lawns.
Mister Carrol sighed, flicking his cigarette into the night. He just hadn’t had the energy to deal with the yard recently.
He put his hands in his pockets, nodded to himself, and stepped off the roof.
The Indians next door, drunk on cheap domestic beer, heard something big and heavy crash through the trees and hit one of the rusting old bicycles in their neighbor’s yard, but the music drowned most of the noise out, and none of them heard the soft laughter that persisted for a few minutes after. They discussed the crash and finally one man got up and padded, none too steadily, over to the fence.
He returned a moment later, shaking his head, and retrieved his beer. “That man is crazy,” he said to the other men. “He is lying in his backyard, laughing to himself.”
They nodded, sagely.
* * * * *
“How’d you do this to yourself?”
Mister Carrol smoked quietly beneath the NO SMOKING sign in the emergency room while the pretty doctor sewed up one of the many gashes along his body.
“I, ah, I jumped off my roof.”
The sewing paused. Mister Carrol just smoked.
His face twitched as the needle moved through him. “To kill myself,” he said. “But it didn’t work.”
Another pause. “Why not?”
“It never does.”
* * * * *
Walking through the city, bandaged and bathed in streetlight, Mister Carrol smoked, ignoring traffic signals and causing several minor accidents, which he ignored and walked away from. A block away from his apartment, he stopped in a tavern called McCullogh’s. The only patrons were a young man and woman, dancing drunkenly in front of the jukebox. In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning was drifting in the air, languid and smoky. The bartender was a slender young woman with dark hair and a pierced nose. She glanced up as Mister Carrol entered.
“We’re closing in ten minutes,” she said.
He took a seat. “Vodka Gimlet.”
She approached him. “Jesus, buddy, what happened to you?”
He leaned back and plucked his cigarette from his mouth. “Did that hurt?”
She was pouring vodka carelessly. “Did what—oh, the ring? No, not really.”
“Did it get infected?”
She placed the drink in front of him. “No. My friends told me it would, but it didn’t.” She watched him pick up the glass and sniff its contents. “I think I’ll take it out, though; too many guys use it to hit on me.”
He grinned and knocked back the drink in one gulp. He coughed and gestured at his glass. “I assumed that was the point.”
She glanced down at the glass. “Man drink and smoke like that, man is going to die.”
His smile grew. “Oh, god, I hope so,” he said, shaking his head. “But I doubt it.”
She peered at him, glanced over at the dancing duo, and back again. “Like I said,” she grinned, mixing him a second drink, “I get off in ten minutes.”
He raised his glass to her. “It may take a little longer,” he said, “but who’s counting?”
After watching her sleep until the sun was completely up, he crawled out the bedroom window onto the fire escape to smoke a cigarette. When it was done, he stood up, flicked the butt away, and jumped off. Then he found a diner for some breakfast. People stared at him, but it didn’t bother him. He just wished the bleeding would stop. He sipped coffee and kept an eye on the other customers. When the grandmotherly woman left her table and approached him, he eyed her bitterly.
“Go away,” he growled.
She seemed to take his attitude well enough, her face set in a mask of concern. “You should go to a hospital, son,” she said tenderly. “You’re quite hurt, and may be in shock.”
He turned away and sneered into his cup. “Not as hurt as you’d think, mother,” he said, “and not shocked at all, really. Actually, I’m quite used to it. So go away.”
She was getting a little annoyed. “I’m only trying to help.”
He nodded. “And I’m only trying to die.”
She stared at him. He examined his coffee cup, savoring the hot coffee, with milk and sugar and everything bad for most people—he could feel the heat as it moved down his throat, into his belly, settling in and fading slowly. It almost made him able to ignore the aches and pains.
She sniffed. “It’s quite unpleasant to have to see a man, looking beat up, bleed all over the counter.”
He grit his teeth, but as he opened his mouth to reply, there was a sudden presence next to him, dark and tall, as someone took the seat next to him.
“Take a hike, Mom,” a low, scratchy voice growled.
“Excuse me?” the woman asked archly.
Mister Carrol turned to face his new neighbor, a tall, barrel-chested man, with pale, pale skin and dark, shiny hair, dressed entirely in a tight, uncomfortable-looking black suit. Carrol felt tiny next to his bulk.
The large man was gripping a plastic menu in both hands, fiercely. He swiveled his head to face the woman, scowling.
“I said take a fucking hike.”
The woman glared for a moment more, and then turned away in a huff. Mister Carrol turned back to stare at his new companion. After a few seconds, he reached into his back pocket for a cigarette, and lit one.
“All right,” Mister Carrol said, bemused. “Who the hell are you?”
The large man dropped the menu and spun to face Mister Carrol. He let his black eyes move up and down for a moment.
“So,” he said to Mister Carrol, “you’re a Lifer, huh?”
Carrol blinked. “I’m sorry?” he exhaled.
“Don’t be,” the burly man said. “It’s not your fault, after all.”
“Being a Lifer.”
Mister Carrol shook his head, sipping coffee. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“You’ve really been knocking yourself out, huh?”
Carrol looked back at him. “Listen, buddy, I’m not in—”
The man in black raised an eyebrow. “I can do it for you, you know.”
Carrol caught his breath in frustration. “What’s that then?”
The broad, pale face split into a grin. “I can kill you.”
The first time had been an accident. He’d been six, and he’d been hit by a car, hard enough to throw him through the air like a rag doll, high enough for him to bounce when he hit ground. Everyone had been convinced that he’d died. They’d even run and told his parents that he’d been killed.
When his mother had arrived, screaming and bereft, he’d already gotten up and walked away, shaken but unhurt. Oddly enough, when he’d come home hours later his parents had celebrated his continuing existence by grounding him for two weeks.
Carrol squinted at the man in black, forgetting his cigarette and letting it dangle from his lower lip. Then he shook his head, returning his attention to his coffee. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, buddy.”
“Sure I do,” the large man replied cheerfully. “I’m one too. I spent thirteen years jumping off rooftops and bleeding into tubs—endless bleeding, man. “ He winked. “I know what I’m talking about, natch.”
Mister Carrol considered this. Nearby, two waitresses hid behind a menu and held a giggling conversation about them, just loud enough to be conspicuous. The large, dark man glared at them until they looked his way, and then held their return stares until they moved away, silenced.
“I thought I was the only one,” Carrol finally said.
The man in black chuckled. “More of us than you’d imagine. A lot of us don’t even know it—only those of us who try to check ourselves out, and find out the hard way. Like you and me.”
Carrol stared in a dazed, unfocused way. “I’ve tried everything,” he said, trailing off and glancing down at his coffee.
“Oh, I doubt it,” The large man grinned. “I can think of at least one trick.”
“How’d you find out?”
“Luck, naturally,” the big man replied. “I’d just about given up and resigned myself to living for years and years. Then one of my fellow Lifers turned up dead—murdered, it seemed.
“We were perplexed—but not alarmed. After all, he’d wanted to die, right? But of course his family and the cops didn’t understand, and they caught his killer, and got him convicted.”
The big man tried to attract the attention of a waitress, and failed, returning his attention to Carrol. “A few days before his sentencing, the killer asked to see me. He told me he knew what I was, that he knew how to kill us, and that I had to take up the cause.”
Mister Carrol blinked suddenly several times. “Cause?”
“Of killing us,” The big man held out his hand. “I’m the Executioner.”
The first time Mr. Carrol tried it on purpose had been three years ago. He hadn’t been able to comprehend the black hole inside, swallowing up his ambition, his will, his consciousness—but when he’d realized he just wanted to die, it had felt right, and he slept for the first time in months, at peace.
He’d attacked it like a new project, with enthusiasm and creative thinking. He didn’t want to die in a conventional way, like a statistic. As his planning increased he grew happier and happier, his depression falling away like scales. Here was work worth doing, here was effort with effect, a reward for labor. Something, at last, made sense.
Except it didn’t, not for long.
When he awoke, awash in blood, feeling terrible, groggy, as if he’d worked hard labor all day and then gotten too little sleep, he’d thought to himself that there was an afterlife, after all. He remembered being surprised, and a little disappointed. The real disappointment came later, when he sat up amidst his own gore and realized he wasn’t dead.
Mister Carrol had spent a lot of time since studying himself in mirrors, trying to detect evidence of the defect that ruined him. He’d come to recognize the dark shadows, the stretched skin, the perpetually empty eyes. He was intimate with the haunted look of eternity.
He looked at the big man’s cheerful face, and saw it—the ghost of failed death.
The man in black stood up and began rummaging through his pockets. “Well, you think about it, buddy.”
Carrol looked up suddenly. “How do you do it?”
The man in black smiled. “You think about it,” He produced a business card and handed it over. “Call me.”
Carrol looked the card over. It read simply EXECUTIONER and a phone number. When he looked up, the large man was already at the exit. Carrol watched him, but he didn’t turn or glance back.
“See that guy over there?”
The two guys were discussing just about everything over beers, and the tall one was pointing at Mister Carrol, who was a few minutes away from passing out at the bar, surrounded by empty glasses and struggling to finish a depleted Gimlet.
The second guy glanced over. “Yeah.”
“He got hit by a bus this afternoon. Just stepped out into traffic and SMACK! Got creamed by the one-seventy-four.”
The second guy appeared doubtful, sizing Carrol up. “No fucking way.”
“Swear to god. He got lifted up, flew a few feet, and bounced twice. He lay there for a few minutes, and then got up and walked in here. That’s why I suggested we come in here instead. I wanted to gawk.”
Mister Carrol lifted his head and turned laboriously towards them, regarding them with bleary-eyed attention. After a moment he stood up, dragging himself erect by laborious increments, and stumbled over to their table. For a moment he stood over them, weaving slightly, and they watched him carefully.
Without warning, his eyes rolled up and he fell forward, crashing into the table.
The two men leaped back, and stood cursing until the blood, pooling out at a tremendous rate, made them stop.
The nurses eyed him cautiously but made no move to stop him as he wheeled his IV to the bank of pay phones. The wad of bandages at his throat looked dire, but Mister Carrol appeared healthy—if pale and unshaven, and darkened somehow despite the bright, harsh hospital lights.
He cradled the receiver between his car and shoulder and put a cigarette in his mouth, though he didn’t light it. Trembling, he dialed a number. Listened for a few panting moments. Slammed the receiver down with a curse.
The nurses openly stared.
He noticed and shrugged their way. “Motherfucker wasn’t home.”
“How do you do it?” Mister Carrol asked.
The large man in black shook his head. “Can’t and won’t tell you that, buddy. Otherwise I’d have no reason to live, you know? No occupation, as it were. Consider it a trade secret.”
Mister Carrol stared at him, bug-eyed and disbelieving. “You sick fuck,” he whispered. “Why should I have to come to you and beg? To make you feel alive, by deigning to kill?”
The man in black lost his humor suddenly. “Because that’s the fucking way it is, mister, and you can go rot forever, as far as I’m concerned, you don’t like it. What is it gonna be?”
Mister Carrol studied the place mat, the napkin, the limp glass of water. He bit his lip and wondered why it was so hard, wasn’t this just a guaranteed version of what he’d been attempting for years?
He spasmed, suddenly, nodding his head, his hands balled up into fists. “Yes.” His voice was thin, exhaled like smoke.
The man in black just nodded once and stood up. “Okay.”
“When?” Mister Carrol asked in the same voice.
“Who knows?” The large man replied with a hint of his previous cheer. “There’s some preparation necessary. Don’t worry, not long.”
He left, and Mister Carrol just sat, his head down.
It was Labor Day already, and the Indians next door were playing music at top volume in their yard. Mister Carrol sat sweating in the big easy chair in his living room, thinking that he wished the cats over there would just die and stop making such a racket.
The apartment was showing signs of neglect, filled with garbage and clutter, dust and darkness. Mister Carrol was wearing a pair of shorts and nothing else, sitting in the dark, smoking cigarettes.
When the knock on his door came, his panic was so sudden and immense he was unable to move. When it was repeated, he turned moon-wide eyes towards the door, and stared.
“Mister Carrol?” the familiar voice, large and black, came through the door. “It’s time.”
Mister Carrol just sat. For a few seconds there was silence.
“Hurry up now,” the voice same through the door, “it’s time.”
Mister Carrol didn’t move until the doorknob was gently tested, jiggled first one way and then another. Mister Carrol stood and began to back away, into his darkened bedroom.
The knocking mutated into pounding. “Mister Carrol?! This is not an uncommon reaction, but we have a deal!”
Mister Carrol kept backing away. As he carefully climbed out the bedroom window onto the roof, the pounding stopped, replaced by a frame-shuddering impact.
He stood on the roof and looked down. It was still overgrown with trees and weeds and rusting metal. As he heard the door crash in behind him, he put his hands in his pockets, nodded to himself, and stepped off into the thin air.
The Indians next door were once again drunk on cheap domestic beer, but they’d heard the crashes next door so often they did not even react—at least not until a bloodied and torn Mister Carrol burst into their yard, running hard for the street. The Indians just stared until he was gone.
They turned to face their host, who shook his head. “That man is crazy,” he said.
The rest nodded at him, sagely.