I Did Nothing - Nothing At All

September 2, 2008
By , Augusta, GA
Sanity is a gift.
Introspection…that is a necessary wrapping to hold the gift together.
And understanding of your introspection is the lights on the Christmas tree.
Yet…when the gift is broken, yet the tape deceitfully holds it together, what is it then?
It is the impact of a train wreck on that which is the most important, the most undervalued gift to mankind….
The mind.



***


“I’ll have a…uh….” The customer continued to study the board. Not that there were many choices. Practically everything had a number meal, and at breakfast time, there were 7. The bacon biscuit, the bacon egg and cheese biscuit, (whole wheat bread optional for an extra 60 cents), the sausage biscuit, the pancake platter, and the usual assortment of fattening foods that are designed to kill you before you have grandkids, give you constipation, and over all make your life outside of eating pretty…uncomfortable.

But oh so tasty.

“Sir? The line is... If you could please just…”

“Don' rush me, lady, don’t rush me. I am having a difficult time making up my…” he trailed off as he continued to study the board.

"I can tell, mister...” Laura bit down on saying. How had she gotten into this crazy job?

Laura had once aspired to be a writer. And write she did, frequently and in great quantities. Although she had not found a publisher for her works, she had placed highly in several writing contests and achieved a great deal of prestige among many writing clubs. Still, money had to come from somewhere and this was the highest paying open job she could find at the moment. It wasn’t that bad, really. She didn’t have to cook. Being of a friendly disposition, she was placed out on the cash register to assist the customers.

This was one of those people that made her wish she was back there sticking crap in the grease vault or cooking artery clogging cholesterol cakes, as she privately nicknamed them.

“I’ll have the number…uh…oh, what the heck. I don’t think I’ll have any…never mind. Uh…what would you recommend?”

Grating her teeth, Laura said in her sweetest sounding (and fake) voice, “I would recommend the number one, sir.”

“I don’t want that one.”

“Sir! Please order.” she tossed her dark auburn hair irritably.

Finally, to both her and the last couple people dozen people in the back, he made his decision on a number two. He then reached down for his wallet.

There need be no recollection of the frustration as he rummaged through the various pockets on his pants and shirt to locate his wallet. He searched for several minutes, then came to the realization that he had left it on the table he had saved. He asked her to wait, and then rushed over to his table, grabbed his wallet, and dashed back to the register. He opened his wallet, and then remembered it was empty. Disappointed, he left the restaurant with the customers behind him muttering a colorful assortment of insults under their breath. Laura glared at his figure hurrying out the door, but then quickly replaced the glare with a false smile and singsong "Welcome to QuickSilvers, what can I get you today?"

***



Laura drove home to her apartment, stoking her temper. The traffic on the rough Chicago streets wasn't making things better. The stress of the day weighed heavily on her mind, and she needed relief. As soon as her feet crossed the doorway, she flung her purse and keys carelessly onto the floor, and stormed towards her small office. When she reached the door, she stopped. She took a deep breath, and slowly walked into the room. It was disheveled mess at first glance, yet Laura knew exactly where things were...somewhat. The stack (if you could call it a stack) of papers on the left side of the office were the essays that needed editing. The heap next to the door was trash (the actual trash bin was overflowing at this point, and she had yet to empty it). The last pile of papers was on her desk, and consisted of all her complete, edited, and perfected works. Essays, stories, and poems - which accounted for why was considerably smaller than the rest of the piles. Laura began her general routine: she rummaged in her desk drawer for the matchbox, took a match out, and proceeded to light the 'sweet vanilla and brown sugar' scented candle she had on her desk. Then she grabbed the half-eaten cinnamon pretzel she had left on her chair and popped it in her mini office microwave. Next, of course, she started the 'office style' coffee. Immediately the room atmosphere changed from one of dark and chaotic mess, to that of a warm and flickering dim cave, an artist's cavern. With all her comforts being prepared, she proceeded to take her place at her desk. She laid out some paper, took up her pen, and began to write.
"Chaos in the City" she scribbled at the top.
"No, no”, she muttered, "that isn't right...”
"Corruption in Chicago", she wrote, crossing out the other attempt.
"No, no”, she sighed, racking her brain. She was having trouble staying focused. Then she remembered, for blocks like this, some time ago she had written a list of generic titles to get her mind going. But where was it? She ransacked her desk drawers. Finally, she reached the bottom drawer. It lay right there on the top. But as she picked it up, she noticed underneath it something strange. It was a wrinkled and faded blue sticky note. Something in Laura's mind jumped. The penciled words were so light she could hardly make out what it said, but she caught a few words.
"...Professor. Jackson...lit paper..18th...meet...dinner...street....Justin..." she mumbled.
"...Justin.."

***

One word, on a faded and wrinkled blue sticky note, kindled a spark in her deep brown eyes. It provided a shower of memories to come raining down on her mind. What had ever happened to him?
Justin Avery was just about the best friend Laura ever had. In high school, of course, things were different. Justin and Laura had gone to the same elementary school and high school, without ever knowing each other. It was a college hunt that had brought them together. They both had attended about three college tours, just hardly noticing each other. Their surprise came the next year, when they found each other in the first semester of the same college. Justin was majoring in philosophy and physical science (as Laura would later tease him for) while Laura majored in philosophy and English literature. They met after their first philosophy class and became acquaintances, but over the next four years in college developed an inseparable friendship. What went wrong, you might ask? Nothing, really. Yet, they didn't date, or marry...it was a complex issue. Their bond was amazingly close. Many people would dream of the kind of friendship they had grown. They held each other accountable of their actions, yet were very protective of the other. They both loved each other, without a doubt. Then came the difficulty of mutuality. Their friendship was based solely on innocence and trust. They wouldn't dare to risk losing that special connection to betray their true feelings. After college, Laura had started out as a hopeful writer, taking out loans to keep her going. However, that didn't last long. Her writing earned her money here and there, but not enough to support her. If she could only find a willing publisher...So, she turned to the easiest thing she could manage for the time being: "QuickSilvers" fast food. She hated it, of course. It was not what she had invested for in college. It was not something she was proud of. She had planned a much better life for herself. Which was why she had kept her family, as well as Justin, in the dark about this new job. Justin left college with a more promising career: an internship as a professor in philosophy at Chicago University College. He was all she thought about when he first left. But after being caught in the corporate swing, the years apart caused her mind to drift...
Just then, Laura was startled by a sudden darkness. It seemed she had been sitting in her chair at her desk pondering memories for so long that the candle had burned out. The coffee had been long ready, and the half-eaten cinnamon pretzel lay stale and cold in the microwave.

***


"Kestwick Apartments, number 496...Laura Woodside!" Justin exclaimed.
"Ssshh!"
"Thank you, ma'am”, he said excitedly, handing the phonebook back to the librarian.
He glanced at his gift, tightly wrapped.
"Laura's going to love this!" he said to himself.
He crossed the street, whistling, package under his arm. He certainly was an interesting sight. At 25, he was dressed in tattered gray jeans, black converse shoes, a plain white shirt, and a strange looking brown vest. His hair was another matter entirely. It was entirely black, short unkempt curls. He had a rugged yet dashing sort of appearance. Certainly not someone you would expect to be a professor of philosophy at CUC! A light rain started to fall, and Justin hurriedly stuck the present under his vest. He hesitated for a moment, looking both ways across the intersection, then set out again, taking the left side of the road. His shoes hit the pavement with a spatter of water with every step. He smiled his big dopey, yet charming, smile to every person he passed.
"Hey boy, watcha think you're doin'?" a rough voice called.
Justin took a hasty glance around, and kept walking.
"You betta' get to 44th, white boy!" the voice called threateningly.
Then he saw a gang of young men step out of the alley.
Justin merely quickened his pace and kept walking. It was horrible to imagine that Laura lived on this same block. They'd jump you simply for being on the wrong street. The men just stood there in the alley watching Justin walk away, opening and closing their switchblade knives.
"493..495..496!" he said quietly, running up the Kestwick Apartment stairs. He had been waiting for Laura much too long. He was finally here, ready to tell Laura what his emotions had been clamoring he tell her for some time. This was it. If he lost her...well...things wouldn't be much different than they already were. He hadn't spoken to her for almost two years...He wasn't even quite sure why. He was just happy to have found her.
"ziiing" the doorbell cried.
"ziing" it shrieked again.
Justin waited for a moment, and took a wary glance around the stairway. Doubt and despair began to fill his mind. He had been
So excited. So ready. So...hopeful. Now of course his hopes had to come falling down on him.
"But wait...” he told himself.
"How many Laura Woodside's could there possibly in the world, much less Chicago?"
He began to slowly turn the knob of the apartment room door. It was open, surprisingly, and it slowly swung out.
"Wait...she's just out! This has got to be her place!" Justin thought ecstatically.
Relief passed through him like a wave, which was soon replaced with happiness. He'd simply leave it here with a note, and have her call him when she gets back.
"Oh wow...” Justin closed the door and sat in front of it on the cement.
"I can't wait."
With that, he ran down the Kestwick Apartment stairs, whistling.

***
Another frustrating day. Besides the usual assortment of customers painful to the ear, she had a splitting headache, had nearly broken the cash register by pounding it to bits with her fist (it refused to open) and worst of all, her car had gotten towed for a smoking radiator. At least her apartment was close. She hurried across the sidewalk. She was the last person who wanted to be alone at night on the streets. Suddenly, she heard heated talking and groans nearby, as though they were right next to her. She peered through the darkness, slightly frightened. Through the shadows, she saw silhouettes of many men hovering around one figure. They seemed to be pushing and shoving the figure around, while taunting him with insults.
"Please!" the figure shrieked as he was kicked to the ground.
"Shut you're mouth!" one of the tormentors muttered, kicking him again.
"Next time you' know betta'!"
Abruptly, one pulled out a knife. Laura gasped. She watched as without hesitation, one of the men whispered something in the figures ear, and stabbed him. Laura's eyes filled with terror. The figure slumped to the street, and the group of men quickly slipped into the silent night.
Laura stood frozen on the sidewalk for minutes. Just staring. She heard the occasional spluttering of the stabbed figure as he moaned. Then, as quiet as a whisper, he fell back on his head and just lay still in the street. The suddenly - she ran. Ran away. Ran from the sight of the black outline laying in the dirty alley street , ran from the profile of the sadistic knife catching the shadows, laughing as it captured its victim.
Ran..........

***

Her mind was reeling.
Dead?
She heard the policeman's words clearly enough through the open window - "Identified as Justin Avery, 25" the words rang. That body, that still body she had left in the alley was laying on a stretcher before her window. She tried her hardest to suppress a frantic sob. She paced the room, in a horrible, dream-like shock.
How did this happen? What was he doing here?
It was then at that terrible moment that she saw the package with the note - that he would be back.
"That was him?"
Here and now, she found her life in two roads, both equally impossible, both equally terrifying. Her mind rushed as if trying to escape from personal connection, and instead tried to rationalize without the trouble of emotional attatchment.

The first, that she was not guilty of his death, and yet therefore were to be left alone in the world again, free of all remembrance.
The second, that in not helping him when she did not know that it was him, that she was partially, in some way guilty of his murder.
Both were horrible.
Both were unacceptable.
For her, there was but one road, one righteous path that she had lived in best she could...and knowing now she had failed that path, now, for one who had always seen one path and one only, to now see two terrified her.
The one was horrible for her.
The second, unacceptable.
"But it's human nature!"
"Selfish pleasures and fears come alike....it's natural...How could I have known?"
"But you know it was wrong!"
"You know that even if it wasn't him, you still should have done something!"
But... was it truly wrong to walk past a group of men beating another, and she being alone? Was it truly unreal of her to say, "Mankind should help one another", when in that situation she herself could have done nothing? By the time she contacted police, or...anyone! The men would have no doubt been gone, and had she intervened, they would have done who knows what with her.
Then she was not truly guilty! She had lost one of her best friends in the world, but guilty of his death? ..No..
That could not be.
With that last thought in mind, she attempted to calm the tumultuous thoughts in her mind, her heart, and went to sleep

***

2:53 AM.

That showed how well she had done in her attempt to sleep.
The thoughts kept screaming.
And to realize them, to truly contemplate on what they said was shaking her to the bone.
Why could she not sleep?
The answer may have been obvious, but she had settled it within herself, hadn't she?
No. Indeed, far from settling herself in reality, she had succumbed to that numbing force called ‘denial’, which sucked the very pleasure out of life because you never learn. If you never learn from life, then you can never truly enjoy it, because you make the same mistakes over...and over.
Yet, was this truly a mistake worth repeating? - Was there even a mistake on her part?
We human beings are so quick to succumb into denial when we believe that it can help us the most. How few of us truly realize that in the end, to succumb to it means that we end up only hurting ourselves?
Now again she felt herself being held over the precipice by an unknown force, the precipice of responsibility, as she again asked herself: was there anything that I could have done to stop his death?
The answer, of course, was obvious.
A group of people had killed Justin in cold blood.
And her? What had she done?
Yelling something incomprehensible and punching the wall, she knew that was indeed the question.
"What have I done?"
Indeed, the answer was nothing.
Was it her fault that she didn't know that was her best friend in the world being killed 20 feet from her?
Of course not.
Was it her fault that she did not help someone else in clear physical jeopardy?
Of course....not?
How she hoped and prayed that it was not.
That little thing that has been the bane of wicked men, that thing that has been the undoing of the most elaborately conceived plots designed: the conscience inside of her cried out that there was no 'not' at the end of that sentence.
What was a murder?
She had always believed that murder was a killing done with the mere intent to silence a life for your own sake, and not for a necessity, like warfare. By that standard, wasn't she justified?
Did she silence a life for her own sake?
Yes.
"HOW!?" She raged.
There was a bang on the floor above her. She was being too noisy.
Walking over to the mirror, she looked at herself. Again, she asked herself:
What have I done?
What...have I become?
Until she could truly answer that question, she was a monster. Of course, there was no guarantee that the answer would justify her...indeed, it seemed all the more likely that the answer would condemn her.
She looked into the mirror, and saw another face staring back. A face that was everything that was despicable to her, a face that held everything that she had swore throughout her life she would never be.
No one would have to know, of course. Yet how could she hold this in? The knowledge she had let someone get killed...for a brief, fleeting moment, a period of relief came as she thought, Maybe I should tell Justin. He would know what to do, he would underst-
Finally, the long, hard slam of reality came upon her that her friend she had adored with a love more pure then any written about or felt in real life, her friend she had shared everything with was finally, and ultimately, gone.
And she was responsible.
Finally, the weight of all reality crushing in on her, she collapsed on her couch...and cried.
Cried because of the loss she had been dealt.
Cried because of her selfishness.
Cried because she knew, deep inside she knew, she had killed Justin.
The very part of whom she was, the part that still desired for her innocence still cried out against this notion, but its scream was a little hoarser now...its call more faint...and the numbness of reality set in. With tears streaming down her expressionless face, she grabbed a pen.


***

Breathing heavily, yet with a determination that would have made anyone proud, Justin left the hospital. In his heart, (which mercifully had not been scathed,) he still yearned to see his friend.
It had taken these past two years, during which times he went through a period of withdrawal to such a degree it was almost as if that person were like a drug to him. Still, he finally looked into his heart, and there he found the truth. He loved her.
Plenty of people would have merely called it 'infatuation,' and yet he knew better because of one simple fact: Despite all the new friends he had made, (and there were many,) despite all the close female friends he had made, (and there were many,) despite all the gorgeous girls on campus, (and there were many), his feelings for her remained unshakable.
Now, his head in a slight daze from the morphine in his system, yet deep inside wincing from the sporadic pain from his bandaged wound, he walked away towards the road, and he hoped, he prayed, a cab.
Luckily for him, the knife had missed his necessary vitals, so his only real threat was infection (he had antibiotics for that), and blood loss, where he was trying to enlist his bandage as a Hoover dam of sorts.



Despite all of this, his stupidity at wandering down that back street, his stupidity at not professing his love for her that year before they went their separate ways, he still held deep inside of himself that fire that raged, and cried out for her.
For years, indeed from the first week after he had met her and felt affection growing for her in his heart, there was the typical feeling and question of "does she feel the same?" However, after being without her for so many years, he decided it didn't matter anymore. They were adults now. Not college students, which meant it was time to both face and own up to their feelings. If she didn't feel the same way...he didn't know what he would do with himself, but he'd cross that bridge later.
God was with him that night, and he found a cab. Sighing, he pulled out a piece of paper he had written her address on and gave it to the driver, and they took off.

***

He could feel the drugs slightly wearing off, so he asked in a voice as strong as he could muster asked how much longer.
For his effort, the man started rambling off to him in Spanish.
Justin muttered something to himself about the futility of the immigration system, and sat back.
Finally, they were there. Paying his fee, he walked slowly but determinedly up the stairs to her door. He started to knock, until with one tap it slowly swung open. The effects of the morphine still slightly upon him, he somewhat expected a ghost to come running out from behind the door.
"Laura? It’s me, Justin!" His expectant voice trailed off as he saw a red stain in the carpet.
No...Oh God, no. What happened here?
What happened was painfully obvious. Laura lay lifeless on the floor. Laura had been stabbed, and from the knife in her hands, probably by herself. Hot tears welled up in Justin's eyes as he scanned her pale body. He closed his eyes and grabbed his black hair as his body shook with sobs. It had been many minutes before Justin noticed the pen in her hands, or the papers on the floor a few feet away from her.
Picking it up, he crouched down next to her and began to read.
"I have committed a horrible sin...I have allowed a man to be killed. In my cowardice, I saw them beating him, stabbing him, and I did nothing.
I have condemned myself to this fate.
Justin, I hope you can forgive me...wherever you are."
***
Smelling something terrible, a policeman investigated the open door of an apartment building. Entering, he found the smell nearly overpowering, and looking around he saw a gruesome sight of two dead bodies, both fatally stabbed.
He reported it in.
Autopsies showed that while the females stabbing was instantly through the heart, the man was stabbed in the back and bled to death.
What puzzled the investigators was that the man was hardly paralyzed; he could have called for help. Instead, they found him holding the females dead body, clasping his hands tightly around her.





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