I’m tired of trying to see the good in people. Hell, who even knows what good is anymore? It seems everything is up for debate, definitions no longer defining. I don’t even think about definitions anymore. Everything has changed. I changed along with it, into something I don’t recognize anymore as me. It’s been ten days since that point of no return.
It was another now-normal work day. I slid the Bowie knife into its scabbard and tucked the Smith and Wesson Shield in its holster inside the waistband of my slacks. I grabbed my briefcase in my left hand and Mossberg shotgun in my right and went down to meet my carpool.
“Mr. Big Shot Lawyer going to work, I see,” said Brownie. I didn’t know his real name, but the first time I’d run into him he’d offered to share his brownie with me. I didn’t know what might be in the brownie and politely declined. He’d taken offense to that and shoved me into the gutter. I don’t know how he found out I was a lawyer. Probably asked one of my neighbors. As far as I know, I’m the only gainfully employed person in my building. I nodded to Brownie and kept my distance.
Chuck pulled his blue Chevy up to the curb and I heard the locks pop. I looked around, walked quickly to the car, and opened the door. I heard movement behind me and whirled around to my left, aiming my briefcase about head high in case there was an attacker. There wasn’t. Just Brownie walking away from the building. He wasn’t even watching me.
I closed the door with a satisfying thunk and slid my briefcase to the floor, shifting the shotgun to my left hand. Chuck activated the door locks.
“Morning, Chuck. Stan. Earnest.” I turned and nodded to the other three men in the car with me.
“Morning, Dave,” said Earnest.
I pointed to the police scanner mounted on the dash. “Anything brewing?”
Chuck replied, “Yeah. Protest march on Elm just turned into a riot. SWAT’s been called. Looks like we’re taking a detour.”
“Who’s protesting today?” I asked.
“They didn’t say. Does it matter?”
Protests on Elm were nothing new. It housed City Hall as well as the District Courthouse, so one group or other with a bone to pick was often out there marching. Since the last election, though, things had gotten progressively less civil, and more and more of those protests were turning violent.
“Can’t take Fowler. It’s still blocked off,” said Stan from the back left seat.
“Can’t take Euclid, either,” said Chuck, “It’s got that pro-choice sit-in going at the Catholic church and the church counter-protesting outside.”
“Damn squatters. Why don’t the cops just chuck them out? Let us have our church building back?” said Earnest.
Chuck replied, “Cops are super busy these days, buddy. As long as those squatters don’t burn anything or start throwing bricks, then they’re fine. Guess you Catholics are going to have to do something yourselves.”
“Is that a crack at my religion, Chuck?”
“Nope. I’m just saying you guys got guns and bats and stuff. You should suit up one night and go in there and start cracking heads. That’d clear those asshats out in a hurry.”
“Can’t. The Pope expressed his desire that we deal with this situation peacefully.”
“So, what? You’re going to keep holding services in the civic center?” Chuck asked.
“Can’t do that anymore. Too many protests. Management kicked us out,” Earnest replied.
“So, what are you guys going to do?” asked Stan.
“Same thing the early Christians did, I guess,” said Earnest, “Hold services in our homes. It’ll be hell for the priest trying to reach as many of his flock as he can, but at least we can gather together as friends and do Bible study and pray.”
“What about other parishes?” Chuck asked.
“Haven’t you been paying attention? We’re under siege all over the city.”
“Other pro-life groups are, too,” Chuck countered, “including the group I’m in.”
“With all due respect, Chuck, your church building isn’t overrun with baby killers right now. So you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I don’t equate your situation with mine.”
“That wasn’t what I meant, Earnest. I just meant that maybe you should hold your services in connection with another parish, that’s all.”
“That wouldn’t change the basic problem, though.”
“No,” Chuck continued, “but it would give you all a place to congregate and worship. And we all know what the power of prayer can do.”
I snorted and Chuck cocked an eye at me before negotiating a turn. “What? The atheist has something to say?”
I spoke up. “Now, why do you want to put it like that, Chuck? And you, Earnest. Baby killers? Really?”
“It’s what they are.”
“It’s the phrase, and, I guess, the sentiment. Part of what’s wrong here is we can’t be civil to each other, and language like that doesn’t help.”
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll be civil when they stop killing babies.”
“Yeah. Tell it brother,” Chuck shouted.
I shook my head. Stan spoke from behind me. Stan didn’t say much on our rides. I always thought it was because he was a paralegal and afraid to speak up in front of three attorneys, but I’d never asked him.
“We’re getting close, guys.”
I looked around. Sure enough we were just a block from Elm. Smoke drifted and swirled on the street in front of us. At least I hoped it was smoke. It could have been tear gas, which always made driving more eventful. We entered into the cloud and hoped for the best. The smell of burnt plastic and wood was welcome. No burning, watery eyes, no snotty nose, no coughing.
I clutched the shotgun with my left hand and kept my right hand on the window button, ready for action if needed. A fellow lawyer had been attacked on his way to work a few weeks ago, dragged from his car and beaten to death during an Antifa rally. Since then, we’ve all taken to carpooling. I knew that Earnest had his own shotgun at the ready, and that Stan, behind me, was holding his MP5 in his lap.
Chuck blew through the stop sign and turned left onto Elm.
Ahead of us we could see a mob of people holding signs against a backdrop of smoke and flames.
“Looks like a car fire,” Chuck muttered, spinning the wheel to align us with the underground parking garage of our building.
Once inside the garage, the tension in the car eased up, but not much. It was not uncommon to find protesters in the garage using it as a bathroom facility or hiding from the cops. I stowed my shotgun in my office and got down to work. As a criminal defense firm, we were very busy these days. I wondered how many of the people we’d witnessed burning the car this morning would end up as our clients. I kept the TV in my office tuned to the local news, keeping tabs on the riot and other problem areas around our small city. Stan came into my office carrying a file, glanced at my TV, then turned to face me.
“How’s the riot going?”
“The police don’t seem to be actively breaking it up. My guess is they’re going to wait it out, let the rioters get bored and go home.”
“That’s not what we pay them for.”
“No, it’s not. But as many riots as are breaking out even here in Lakeview I can’t blame them for not wanting to mix it up every time. That’s dangerous work, and they’re only human.”
“My wife can’t even get to her job because of them. So now she loses a day’s pay. We can’t afford that.”
I had nothing to say, so I simply nodded. His wife works in the courthouse. She’s three months pregnant.
“Maybe tomorrow will be better,” Stan said.
He took a step to the door, then turned. “Do you see any hope? How do we get out of this mess?”
I patted the Smith and Wesson on my belt. “I don’t know. All I know is that I intend to survive.”
“Is survival enough?”
“No. But for now that’s all we’ve got. When society breaks down, all you can do is survive and hope you’re one of the ones that gets to rebuild it.”
“It all seems so pointless. I used to think people were basically good.”
“I did too. Then all this started. Now I don’t know what to think,” I said.
“Do you really think you could kill someone?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “I’m not sure anyone knows that until the moment arrives.”
“It’s a big deal, killing a person.”
I nodded, wondering where he was going with this.
“I carry that MP5, you know.”
“I do. Nice gun,” I replied.
“Thanks. I’ve only ever shot it once. At the range.”
“It scares me to think I might have to use it for real.”
I shrugged. “Scares me, too. I mean me, of course. I’m not sure I could do it. Like you, I’ve always tried to find the good in people. Killing someone means I’ve given up on that.”
He furrowed his brow again, nodded, then turned and left. I sighed, a feeling of doom settling over me like a blanket.
The riot never bogged down. I looked up at the TV from time to time and the crowd kept getting bigger and bigger. The police moved in finally, firing tear gas and rubber bullets. I could hear the commotion through my closed office window when it started and watched the action on the screen. Bottles and rocks were thrown, then Molotov cocktails. The police line moved in with batons and shields only to be repulsed by the sheer force of numbers in the mob. The overhead pictures from the circling news helicopter showed more cars being burned, still others overturned.
Chuck trundled his corpulent body into my office and said, “The partners are worried. We’re closing down early. Courts are closed anyway and no clients are willing to come close to this shit. Be ready in five minutes.” Then he was gone.
I didn’t need to be told twice. I closed the file Stan had handed me, tucked it into my briefcase, retrieved my shotgun, and made my way to the garage. I was the last to arrive.
“We’d better hurry,” Chuck said.
We piled into the car and Chuck screeched the tires. Leaving the ramp, I looked to the right and the cordon of police was practically on top of us. Chuck turned left and floored it, the engine revving before the gear changed.
“Jesus, they’re right there! Chuck, get us out of here!” Earnest shouted from the back seat.
“Holy crap! What about the people still in the office?” Stan asked.
“They’re not getting out any time soon, that’s for sure,” Chuck said, turning right onto Euclid.
“Not Euclid, you idiot. Don’t forget about the St. Anthony’s demonstration,” Earnest said.
“Fuck!” Chuck pounded the steering wheel as he braked. A large crowd of demonstrators blocked the road ahead of us.
“Turn around! Turn around!” I shouted.
Chuck executed a high-speed three point turn, but ahead of us we could see the riot on Elm blocking the way we had come. As we watched, some rioters broke off from the crowd and started running up Euclid at us.
“Floor it!” Earnest shouted. “Run the bastards down!”
Instead, Chuck started another three-point turn, but the swiftest of the rioters were already on top of us. Bats cracked the windshield and back window and hands started beating on the doors and windows. Through the crazed windshield I saw the rioters from Elm Street start mixing it up with the demonstrators outside the Catholic church. Signs were used as weapons and soon the two groups were one indistinguishable mass of writhing humanity. But we had bigger issues.
The car was being rocked as rioters pushed back and forth on it. Stan was screaming incoherently in the back seat and I could hear Earnest praying the rosary. Chuck was honking the horn and inching the car forward, but there were bodies everywhere and the car wasn’t moving much.
“Floor it! Floor it! Get us out of here!” I urged.
In response he honked the horn again, but a bat crashed into the windshield, punching a hole in it. The roar of the rioters swelled and the car started rocking harder.
It was a defining moment. One of those moments that tells you who you are and what you believe. A sudden calm overtook me, and I saw what I had to do. I rolled my window down, took a deep breath, and fired my shotgun through the opening. I didn’t think of what I saw before me as a human being. I was beyond that. I was in terror. The calm term, the legal term, is “in fear for my life.”
The shotgun roared and my ears felt like they’d exploded. Something warm and wet landed on my face. I didn’t want to think about that, but I noticed that the flailing arms and pressing crowd around my side of the car receded.
“What the hell, man?” Chuck screamed, grabbing my left arm. I shrugged it free, thinking “six more shots.” I pumped the action and loaded another one, stuck the barrel through the window, and fired toward the front of the car. The rioters scattered, two of them falling to the ground. I pulled the gun in, looked at Chuck, and calmly said, “Floor it.”
To his credit, he did. The car rocked as it rolled over something and the rioters scattered as the car lurched forward. Rocks, or something hard, landed on the car as we surged through the crowd toward Elm Street, but our flight was short lived. The mass of the riot was still in front of us. There was nowhere to go.
“We’re going to have to run for it, boys,” I said, turning around to look in the back seat. Earnest was crying. Stan, sitting directly behind me, was wide eyed. Chuck looked like he was in shock. “Guys! Wake up! We’re in trouble here!” I punched Chuck in the arm, but I’m not sure he noticed.
“I’m with you,” Stan said, his voice steady.
“We gotta go! Now!” I said. “Chuck! Earnest! We gotta go!” I turned and fired out my window again as a hand landed on my arm. My ears were ringing and I could barely hear the roar of the shotgun or the crowd. I unlocked the door and swung it open, stepping out of our metal coffin and facing the surging mass of anger and hatred around me. Behind the line of rioters, an alleyway stretched. It was free of humanity and offered an escape route. I was aware of the door to my right opening, and I looked to see Stan emerging from it, his MP5 flashing as he stood. Another rioter in front of me went down.
I pumped my Mossberg again and again, sending more buckshot downrange. This time I saw the impact on the woman in front of me, dressed all in black with a mask over her face. Her blonde hair swung up as she fell, the ponytail obscenely waving as if she were merely jogging. I had no thoughts to spare for her. I only thought about survival. I ran, racking another shell into the chamber. Two more shots. I needed to break free now.
Dimly, as if through a wall, I heard Stan next to me firing. Rioters fell to my right and the crowd parted in front of me. There was a clear path to the alley now, and I ran like I hadn’t run since I was a kid. I ran as if the ice cream truck was pulling away and I still had a dollar in my hand. I looked over my shoulder and Stan was right behind me. I didn’t see Chuck or Earnest, but the crowd had completely engulfed Chuck’s car. I didn’t look back again.
Stan and I made it without expending any more rounds. We separated at King Avenue, him going left to his house, me going straight. It was two miles back to my home. Two miles with ringing ears and swirling thoughts. It’s impossible to stand in the middle of so much focused hatred, so much boiling anger, and not feel its power rub off on you. And I’d killed people. I’d deliberately pulled the trigger five times and shot at another human being. What, now, was I? A murderer? It was self-defense, though. Anyone would see that, right? But, in the end, I’d still killed people.
It’s been ten days since then. The riots spread all over the downtown area. Seventy people dead, several hundred more injured. Cars burned, buildings torched. My law office was a smoldering wreckage with at least five people unaccounted for. Chuck and Earnest were among the missing, but I knew what had happened to them. And many of us, those with some humanity left, wondered the same thing.
What now? What had we become? Where do we go from here?
I had a more specific thought. What had I become? I’d always tried to find the good in people, but all I could see when I closed my eyes now was a flying blonde ponytail falling to the ground. It doesn’t matter what her intent was, I’d taken her life.
I’m tired of trying to see the good in people. I can no longer see it in myself