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This is Part 3 of the fiction story Giving the Devil His Due :
[Previously in “Giving the Devil His Due”, Bert Wells is confronted with a choice—continue to try to publish his socially conscious horror prose, or jump into the dirty water with his portfolio of unpublished fiction and End It All.]
You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. — Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 2: 47 (Easwaran translation)
Herbert contemplated the next morning’s headlines: UNKNOWN SCHLOCK HORROR WRITER TAKES OWN LIFE.
What headline, beef brain? asked a disparaging voice from right of center. You’ll be lucky to make the obits. Give us a break, here. Nobody knows who you are but those self-centered quease-in-arts you hang out with at the Espress-O. And they’ll think you’re some kind of idiot saint. Saint Herbert, Patron of Pansies. Your mother didn’t raise you right.
Herbert became highly offended at the disrespectful tenor of his thoughts. Leave my mother out of this!
That, Bert decided, would never do. He swung one leg back over the wall onto tarmac firma. He paused in mid-rage. Mother. Someone would have to tell his mother that her only son had kissed his life goodbye and taken a header into the River Charles. She might even have to identify his body. What would she think? What would she do? He knew exactly what she’d think. She’d think she was a BAD MOTHER—a failure. She’d get depressed, maybe even…
Dufus, said the left-hand voice. Can’t even do suicide right. I’m sure your mom loves having a zombie for a son. What does your boy do, Dr. Wells, Ph.D. in astrophysics, hmmm? Oh, my little Herbie, he recycles paper…lots of paper. Great, kid. Really great.
Bert wobbled, straddling the wall. A peculiar whoosh-clickety-clickety sound filled his brain and he thought for a moment he was headed for a psychotic Walter Mitty episode. He raised terrified eyes and met the curious ones of a kid speeding toward him on a powered skateboard. The kid and the whoosh-clickety-clickety both stopped right beside him.
“Geez, mon,” the kid said, looking sincerely concerned, “You look like your Mom just died. What could be that bad?”
Bert blinked. “I can’t write,” he said, shocked into total honesty. “I’m a failure because I can’t write cyber-shock.”
The kid looked at him; he looked at the kid. A little globe and crossbones dangled from one earlobe and the letters “IT OR” were clearly visible on the patch of green T-shirt that peeked between the lapels of his black demin jacket.
“You know,” the kid said finally, “there’s an exceptionally good literacy program at the library.”
Bert coughed. “Thanks.”
The kid smiled. “Sure.” He whoosh-clickety’d off, leaving Bert miserably alone.
The right-side voice was back, popping in like a fritzy channel on a bunged stereo. Some people, it said, can’t even read.
Bert swung the other leg over into the walkway. Yeah, he thought, and even I can do that. Maybe I could even teach other people to do that.
“Yeah? And where’ll it get ya?”
Bert was trying to think of a comeback when he realized the voice had not come from inside his head. He looked up. Standing before him on the river walk was a short man in a fur-collared stressed leather coat, matching Gucci shoes, gloves and burgundy sharkskin pants. His hair was fashionably cut—a straight, glossy, lobe-length pageboy, black, obviously natural, center parted. He was handsome in an oily sort of way, and was smoking a red, spice-scented cigarette.
Bert found his eyes hypnotized by the glowing tip. Cigarettes were highly illegal for public consumption. He only knew one person who smoked them—a beefy, middle-aged fictioneer who had been a correspondent during the last known war (years ago in Swaziland or someplace) and who thought he was the reincarnation of Ernest Hemingway.
“Want one?” asked the Smoker and held out a little ebony box. The cigarettes lay inside on black velvet.
“No. No, thanks.”
The box disappeared.
“I asked a question, Jack,” the guy said. “What’ll it get ya, this literacy bunk?”
“I…I…I want to do something. Help somebody. Make a difference.”
The Smoker laughed. It was an acrid sound. “And teachin’ a bunch of snot-nosed ghetto geckoes how to read is gonna make a difference? Great. Yeah. They’ll be able to read those little signs that say ‘shoplifting will be prosecuted.’ That way they’ll know what they’re bein’ busted for. Get real, bwana. These guys are gonna be doin’ their reading in a cage.”
Bert stood. “Well, I’m going to do something with my life, dammit. I don’t care if I have to write copy for the Salvation Army.”
A gloved hand shot out and patted his arm, pushing him back onto the parapet. “Cool your thrusters, Jack. I’m not saying you can’t do nothin’. I’m sayin’ I think you can do better.”
“Do better? Look, who the hell are you, anyway, and where do you get off interrupting my private thoughts?” He glared fiercely at the little man, then felt the glare slip. Those really had been his private thoughts.
His silent, private thoughts.