Friendly Fire

By: John Gilstrap

To Joy

Chapter One

Ethan Falk recognized the monster’s voice before he saw his face. The voice in combination with the phraseology. “Be quick about it, if you don’t mind.”

Be quick about it.

With lightning speed—the speed of imagination—Ethan was once again eleven years old, his ankles shackled by a chain that barely allowed for a full step, that prevented him from climbing a ladder without hopping. The pain was all there. The humiliation and the fear were all there.

It had been eleven years. The monster’s hair had turned gray at the temples, and hugged his head more closely. The features had sagged some and his jaw had softened, but the hook in the nose was the same, as was the slightly cross-toothed overbite. There was a way he carried himself, too—a square set to his shoulders that a decade had done nothing to diminish.

Ethan felt his face flush as something horrible stirred in his gut, a putrid, malignant stew of bile and hate and shame. “Look at me,” he whispered. He needed the confirmation.

An old woman’s voice startled him. “Are you even listening to me, young man?”

No, he wasn’t listening to her. She stood there, a silver thermos extended in the air, dangling from two fingers. “You’re out of half-and-half,” she said. Her clipped tone told him that she’d said it before.

Because reality had morphed into the past with such sudden violence, the request registered as a non sequitur. “Huh?”

“My God, are you deaf? I said—”

The monster turned. Raven, Ethan’s nominal girlfriend and fellow barista, handed the man his drip coffee, and as the monster turned, Ethan caught a glimpse of him, full-face. His heart skipped. It might have stopped.

The lady with the thermos continued to yammer.

Please need cream or sugar, Ethan pleaded silently. That would put him face-to-face with the man who’d ruined so much. The man who’d beaten him, torn him.

But apparently the monster preferred his coffee black. He headed straight to the door, not casting a look toward anyone. Whatever his thoughts, they had nothing to do with the sins of his past.

Perhaps they had only to do with the sins of his future.

“. . . speak to your supervisor. I have never—”

“No,” Ethan said. The monster could not be allowed to leave. He could not be allowed to torture others.

He could not be allowed to dominate Ethan’s life any more through recalled horrors.

Another customer said something to him, but the words—if they were words at all—could not penetrate his wall of rage.

Ethan needed to stop him. Stop the monster. Kill the monster.

He dropped the stuff he’d been holding—a tiny pitcher for the steamed milk and the spoon through which to sift it—and was deaf to the sound of them hitting the floor. People looked at him, though. Raven at first looked confused, and then she looked frightened.

“My God, Ethan, what’s wrong?”

Ethan said nothing. There wasn’t time. The monster was on the loose, out in the world, preying on other people. On other children.

Raven tried to step out in front of him to stop him—how could she know?—but he shouldered past her. He moved fast, not quite a run, but close to it. Fast enough to catch the attention of every pair of eyes in the shop.

As he passed the pastry case, he snagged the knife they used to cut bagels. It had always been the wrong style for slicing bread, with a straight edge instead of a serrated one, but they’d learned as a crew that if you kept a straight edge sharp enough, it would cut anything.

The whole rhythm of the shop changed as he emerged from behind the counter with the knife. The old lady with the thermos put it down on the counter and collapsed into a fetal ball on the floor, covering her head and yelling, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

In a distant part of his brain, Ethan felt bad that he’d scared the poor lady—all she’d wanted was a little customer service—but in the readily accessible portion of his brain, he didn’t give a shit. Maybe next time she wouldn’t be such a bitch.

The crowd parted as Ethan approached the door with his knife. He didn’t slow as he reached the glass door, choosing instead to power through it as if it weren’t there. The blast of autumn air felt refreshing after the stuffiness of the coffee shop. Invigorating. Head-clearing.

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