Decade and One - The Path Untaken #2
Life as a fugitive: Day 422. The setting sun squats like a bloated pumpkin on the jagged skyline, sending burnt-orange slices of light into the dusty ramshackle room I've been renting under the alias 'Thomas Kwok.' Living on the run means avoiding the daytime world as much possible; I keep vampire hours, sleeping while the straight world goes about its business, emerging only in darkness to stay a step ahead of my pursuers. When I think about everything that went wrong that led me here, the image of Lucas Grissom's stone-faced visage returns to my mind's eye.
Hunted men who sleep deeply don't stay hunted for long; one of the most important survival skills you pick up is the ability to slumber lightly, maintaining a hair-trigger awareness of your immediate environment at all times. Ten more minutes, I think. Ten more minutes of dozing and I should be on my way. As I watch the wall clock count down the six hundred seconds of semiconscious rest I allotted for myself, I absently run my thumb along the magazine release of the SIG-Sauer P220 I keep curled in my fist.
Only fools sleep with empty hands; the rest of us carry iron.
Ten … nine … eight … seven … six … five … four … three … two … one … zero
As I stumble toward the cracked mirror and pause, I look hard at the haggard face staring back at me, crowned by a shock of preternaturally gray hair. No. Grissom wasn't the one that tipped the domino of misfortune and deceit that was my life these long years.
It was me. Just me.
One of the most destructive things to the human soul is getting rewarded good outcomes for bad reasons. Imagine an investor who chooses stocks based solely on the charm and charisma of their executive officers; should his portfolio perform well a few quarters in a row, it will amplify his confidence in his flawed methodology - and in the process, set him up for a brutally painful reckoning when markets turn against fad-chasers and smooth talkers.
Similarly, every thoughtless act, every lie, every underhanded scheme that you get away with, ultimately takes invisible nibbles from your soul. Nobody becomes a monster overnight. It is the height of naivety to believe that the first dishonest act of Wall Street crooks or embezzling CEOs was that [x] million dollars they were caught stealing; it was only 'success' at undiscovered thefts of smaller denominations that gave them the inflated confidence to pull schemes that brought the house crashing down on their heads.
The erosion of a man's soul, conscience, whatever you want to call it, is a accumulative process - and the great tragedy is that the less you have it, the less you care about its absence. After all, what's the point of playing it straight when you can cut corners and bluff your way out of situations you behaved yourself into? And when the trickle of half-truths, swindles, and deceptions of your life cascades forth into a river of sin, the reckoning can be very, very painful indeed.
Welcome to my life.
Thinking back on it now, I could have passed on the complex swindle that Grissom offered me six years ago. I could be living a life in which I didn't have to lie about who I was to everyone I meet. I could have told him to go to hell and never to call me again.
Could have, would have, should have.
But the smell of easy money was catnip to a man whose life was already an elaborate maze of rationalizations and cover stories to begin with. Grissom only offered the opportunity - my integrity, my soul, was forfeit long before we met.
A light rapping on the door snaps me out of my reverie. I cock the hammer on my SIG-Sauer and point it at the door.
(continued from main journal)
"There's some men downstairs showing pictures of you, asking if anybody's seen you around. I told them I saw you leave a month ago. Just thought you'd like to know."
Robert Miller. My landlord for the past three months and the closest thing to a friend as I've had since I've been on the run.
I lower my piece and open the door: "Thanks Bobby. Well, it looks like I need to go. Can you keep them busy for five minutes?"
I peel off two hundred-dollar bills from my bankroll and press them into his palm.
"Sure thing." His eyes sadden. "I'm never going to see you again, am I?"
I sigh. "Afraid not. I'm so sorry."
"I'm going to miss you, Thom."
We embrace awkwardly - and for one terrible moment, I wanted to tell him everything: my real name, my crimes, my sins - the whole sorry chain of events that brought me here. But time was the enemy - as it always has been - and the moment passed as quickly as it arrived. He smiles and closes the door.
"Pack your things. I'll hold them off as long as I can."
Laptop, check. Bankroll, check. Rucksack, check. Gun, check.
I duck into the fire escape and shimmy down to the ground floor, walking casually toward the building parking lot where I load my gear into the trunk of the stolen BMW M3 that was waiting for me.
As I settle into the driver's seat, an index card falls out of my jacket, filled with text in my handwriting:
Thereafter he walked very carefully, with his eyes on the road, and when he saw a tiny ant toiling by, he would step over it, so as not to harm it. The Tin Woodman knew very well he had no heart, and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything.
"You people with hearts," he said, "have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful. When Oz gives me a heart, of course, I needn't mind so much."
L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz
Damn. I still get chills seeing those words ... just like the first time when I read them in a public library six months ago and copied it onto the yellowed card before me. For whatever reason, I can't help but wonder if my life could have gone differently had I discovered that passage earlier. It's a fool's dream, of course - nobody's life is ever changed by a single quote, no matter how pithy.
It may not be much to cling to - but for those of us who've lost everything but our freedom, we cling to what we can.