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Atom Bomb of Misery
By Aden Harry
Apart from the fact that he couldn't write with both hands, Jerry Porter had another problem that had bugged him all his life; everyone he touched, everyone who touched him, became miserable. Not only would they become miserable, but they'd be hijacked and driven by it. Alas, he spent the most part of his life all alone.
At first, he didn't know it. Of course, it's difficult to pick up on something like that; the stuff of mythology and pseudospiritual metaphor. But when he reached age eleven, he found himself unable to consider anything else. How could a single touch burden another human being with a lifetime of intense, unbearable misery?
He sometimes called the spurts of misery, “plagues,” because, in his childlike innocence, it just seemed like people were getting sick. They 'weren't feeling very well.' First it was his own parents, who gave him up for adoption after just five months; found dead in each other's arms in their bed, overdosed. Then his grandmother; over a long period of time, she descended in a rough downward spiral with nothing to hold on to nor break her fall. She became silly, bed-stricken, she lost her wits, then her memory, her will to live... then her voice. Trapped inside whatever it was going on behind her eyes, she spoke with no-one. In one last act of baseless courage – perhaps just the fear of taking her own life - she committed herself to psychiatric care.
Jerry's English teacher pretty much followed his grandmother's footsteps; she isolated herself in a desolate paranoia, became a recluse and was then involuntarily committed to care a month after, upon setting her apartment on fire with her still inside it. The day after, Jerry's school friend, Alex, nine years old at the time, was found face-down in cold bathwater. Nobody could have seen it coming, and Alex's mother forever after despised her depressed eldest son, Ryan, for introducing his younger brother to the concept of suicide – which, by the way, he did not do.
All Jerry saw was the people around him disappearing. And as the numbers added up throughout the years; from school, the park, a number of neighbourhoods, doctor's offices and even church, the townspeople became afraid and even tourists were attracted as this “new mystery” befell them. People were being dragged under by something, going crazy, turning to drugs and alcohol, killing themselves, and there were seemingly no connections between any of them, for there were a few – and this tormented Jerry's thinking later on in life – who he probably didn't touch because he had no memory of ever meeting them to begin with.
Thirteen years of age; two of his friends had been committed to care and a shopkeeper was found hanged in his shop. Jerry knew he'd met and had touched all of them. It was then he began to consider that he was directly related to the cause of this mystery. In fact, as far back as he could remember, almost everyone who'd been overcome by it had made some sort of contact with him; anything from a hand on his shoulder to an accidental brush while passing him would be enough. He was the only connection between them all, and he was the only one who knew about it.
See, then the problem became school. Jerry wanted to take himself out of the picture; out of the danger of being touched for everyone else's safety, but the state's rule was mandatory schooling until the age of sixteen, and for reasons unknown to himself at the time, he didn't want to tell anyone about his suspicions. There were four more suicides and seven more cases of what he came to call “The Misery” for the lasting three years, two of which suicides happened at another school. And it was those suicides that confused Jerry, but still didn't cast any doubt on his suspicions. Seeing as he could say for sure that he hadn't ever met at least one of those most recent suicide victims, he considered the possibility that, under some circumstances, perhaps where someone of a certain blood type or something like that was concerned, the 'infection' could be passed on.
When he became sixteen years old, he left school and straight away got himself a job behind a supermarket cashier's desk. He figured it was safe enough. A heavy guilt set in – he'd confirmed his suspicion that he was the cause of The Misery and the suicides time and time again, and yet he felt no surprise, not even a bit of remorse for any of it. He could even be considered somewhat happy, and he didn't miss his parents. Yes, the guilt was the only real, just, easily explicable aspect of it.
At seventeen he left his third foster parents' house – with their blessing and supervision – to live in a shared house with two college guys. He was careful never to touch them; not to shake hands and not to pass on the stairs. It was a step forward to being able to go on to living alone which was what, he’d concluded, he needed the most.
Over another year, three more people descended into The Misery and were involuntarily committed to psychiatric care after being pushed to the edge; luckily, no-one died that year, but Jerry could no longer distinguish between those he'd touched and those he hadn't; with his job, he was meeting too many people. He put in a request to be transferred for work in the warehouse right away.
The work was exhaustive; tirelessly stacking high-rise shelves with heavy stock, but, he reasoned, at least he got to avoid other people and had all those hours to listen to audiobooks about ancient history, human behavior and the like. Those were his interests. And after a thirteen hour shift one day, he decided to stop at a kebab van that was tucked into the corner of some car park to get a burger. There was a short line at the van that day, and Jerry was about to be put through a trial that, in all those years of confused thought, and in his broadest reveries, he had not even imagined.
There were five others in the queue, including a teenage girl, frantic and crying under a verbal assault from her enraged older boyfriend. There was the awkward feeling and the silence of being 'stuck' in the air. No-one knew what to do, so they all listened. The boyfriend, who towered over everyone else in the crowd at about six foot five, was making an example of his girl, spitting out phrases like, “stupid anorexic bitch,” and, “ugly, dirty liar.” None of them could see why. Jerry stood at the back of the queue. He was weak after work and a painful hunger had set in. He watched that girl's boyfriend scream at her, belittle her, the only sounds coming from her side; her sobbing and sniffling. She didn't say a word. And the harder she cried, the more Jerry took notice, the more he wanted to shut her boyfriend up.
Now, Jerry didn't have an intimidating aspect about the way he carried himself; still quite young, and short as if he'd stopped growing after about age fourteen. He had short, tidy black hair and a look on his face that suggested he couldn't look in any way dangerous or angry if he tried. In hostile situations such as these, he was always obviously nervous. But, in his head, he's always the hero; the guy who pushes the abusive prick boyfriend into taking his own undeserved life with nothing but a flick to the cheek; the unknown hero that saves the girl from the raging ego with nothing more than a light brush to the guy's arm on his way past. In a shallow daze while the boyfriend carried on yelling at the young girl about how she'd better come to her senses and realise that no-one but him would take her, Jerry remembered a school bully that pushed him over in the courtyard once, and how he came to pay for it a week later. Then, he thought, the big guy up ahead was so miserable already that one touch would be a sure suicide, and that he could easily run up there, punch him square in the face as hard as he could then run, run, run. He carried on watching.
As the couple got to the front of the queue and the guy started to give their order, Jerry was asking himself, 'what if I just want to say something and not touch him?' The guy was bound to react and push him back, something like that. Besides, who was Jerry to decide who lives and who dies? In any case, if he can't intervene with a touch, what gives him any grounds to intervene with a word? Could he, himself, make such a decision? Buried under the weight of these questions and with no obvious justification, he began to sweat.
The sight of spikes of mascara-tainted tears streaming down the girl's tragically beautiful face, that bullying piece of shit's arrogant, never-spent-an-hour-in-worry pride in every one of his insults, his childish moaning, her sniffling, the spots of his saliva sprayed into her face as he yelled just a few inches in front of her... He was a disgusting human being, and Jerry thought about him killing her. And there it was. That was enough to determine it; he wouldn't touch the guy, but he would step forward.
The couple were given their order bagged up and started moving towards a red Vauxhall Corsa parked beside the kebab van, with tinted windows and double white stripes running around the sides.
The girl was wiping her eyes, trailing a few feet behind her boyfriend. Then, completely unprovoked, the guy turned back and started demanding she hand him her phone. She wouldn't get it back, he said, until she learned some discipline. Her choked tears started all over again. She finally opened her mouth and told him he'd got it wrong, that she... “Hand over the fucking phone!” he yelled. She told him it was in the car. They both got in and sat down. The engine roared.
The guys in the queue looked at each other and huffed. As if they cared enough.
As the car pulled slowly out of the car park, Jerry stepped out in front of it without a second thought. He stopped and cleared his head. Though his legs were shaking with adrenaline, he stepped easy round to the driver's side. The window already down, Jerry didn't let the guy say a word, and went straight ahead in telling him that cars couldn't be only be considered symbols of status, but symbols of ego, and how egos the size of the driver's always shatter under their own weight. Before the driver could say anything, his girlfriend burst into a fury-fueled tirade, demanding Jerry to back off before getting himself hurt. She told Jerry to mind his own business, but, to him, it was his business, and he told the driver, fighting back the adrenaline so his voice wouldn't shake, that if he saw the guy laying into that girl like that again, he'd smash the shit out of both his car and his ego.
At that, the driver kicked the car door open, swinging into Jerry's stomach hard and throwing him to the ground. The big guy stepped out of the car shouting about Jerry minding his own business, about keeping his nose out of people's private matters. Jerry got up. He stepped back as the driver stepped forward; he wanted to give the guy a chance... Keeping his voice down, he told the driver that nothing was private, and all that he'd done was succeed in showing himself as a little child throwing who can throw big tantrums. Under the snap of impulse, the driver lunged forward and took a tight fistful of Jerry's hair. Right then, Jerry knew it was done; he'd been fair, given chances, but the guy had failed himself. Suicide imminent. Everything faded out for Jerry then; he heard only the drowned echo of the big guy banging on about him learning to keep his mouth shut, and felt nothing as the guy swung a huge clenched fist hard, straight to the center of his face, knocking him off the ground, back, and down with a thump.
Adrenaline was rushing. Warm blood sprayed from Jerry's nostrils and he laughed under his breath as it leaked into his mouth and he watched the car drive away. All of a sudden, he felt great once again, no longer tired from his long shift and liberated from a huge unspeakable pressure. One of the guys from the queue helped Jerry to his feet, checking he was alright. He got his burger free that day, and a drink, too.
A week later though, Jerry was almost beside himself with the heaviest guilt he’d had to bear. Taking a shower one night, he punched himself in the head and called himself a murderer. What's more, he was beginning to consider suicide. His life had been little more than misery and suicide, even when he, himself, felt just fine. Suicide some how seemed to be the inevitable. So, just short of two weeks after the thing at the kebab van, Jerry sat on his armchair in the living room to eat dinner with the guys he was living with. The television was on, conversation was low. More exhausted from the work he'd done that day, he pushed dinner aside and took relief from the thought of what was to happen as he scribbled a passive, careless final note on a piece of paper he'd torn from a notepad.
Scribbling his name at the bottom of the note and breathing a cold blast of fresh air, he was then pulled from his reverie by the sound of explosions that preceded the news headlines, and then what followed. There had been more deaths, the brunette female newscaster said, and more sectioning to psychiatric hospitals, all in the same fashions as every incident that had stained the eighteen years prior. It wasn’t just a few more now, though, but a lot more. Over thirty suicides and over a hundred new patients involuntarily committed over the course of a week, and still more at decreasing intervals. All three of the guys, eyes wide open and barely even breathing, paid undivided attention. Jerry's arm shook with the pen in his hand.
The plague had started to spread.
The people in the streets were in panic. Nobody could say the situation was under control. Nobody had explanations, only half-assed theories. The newscaster alluded to a slew of documentary filmmakers moving in on the town, journalists of all kinds, scientific and psychic investigators. There was no evidence of any infection, only the so-called symptoms themselves. Big things were beginning to happen and the authorities feared widespread loss of control, preparing for what was to come in the same way as they would have done for riots. The newscaster called those eighteen years past, “this town's ever strengthening depression bordering madness.”
Shaken up, frightened to the core and hypnotised by the news, Jerry didn't notice his housemate Ian huff and mumble something about how crazy things were getting to be, and how it was probably something experiment the government cocked up that was causing it. Nor did Jerry notice when he got up and made his way to the kitchen to make tea. But he did notice the hand, and he sank further down into his chair to avoid it but, before he could jump to his feet and out of the way, Ian's fingertips landed flat on his shoulder. Ian laughed and made a crack at how jumpy Jerry was. Jerry dropped his head in his hands, breathing deep. Then he shouted, “no! Fuck!” and ran out of the room.
Close to tears, he ran straight to the bedroom. There on the floor, just behind the door was a glistening white envelope, marked only with his first name scrawled dead center. He thought; 'things could still get much worse. The trouble is escalating. Maybe death is the only way after all...' He didn't open the letter for an hour, but just sat on his bed looking at it while he thought up all the possibilities for him being found out and caught; exposed for what he was. Then, his lifelong fear of being strapped to some table while government-sanctioned scientists put him through all kinds of nasty experiments trying to figure him out could quite easily become reality.
He opened the letter for distraction, but what he read thrust him straight back into his intense fear. His shaking became violent, and as he read he whispered to himself, “oh no, no, no, no. This can't be good. This is definitely no fucking good...” And the letter simply read; 'MURDERER. I know what you are. If you don't want the rest of the town to know, I suggest you make it to Reading Park tomorrow at 4.30. Alone,” and whoever had written it didn't sign. His brain so busy, his heart pounding, his pores leaking cold sweat, he dropped the letter and fell back on his bed.
He skipped work the next day. When he woke up to the alarm after only an hour's sleep, he knew that it was no day for work. Instead he spent most of the day pacing absent-mindedly in circles in his bedroom, only stopping to listen to the radio broadcasts which said two more people had committed suicide over that night, and that debates were set to be held about what steps to take for caution and investigation. Other than that, he just paced, listening to the tick, tock, watching the hands on the clock spin round and round again, clearly thinking the worst.
Someone knew something for sure. Murderer? And unless he was willing to kill himself there and then, which, for some reason, he didn't feel ready to do, he knew he'd have to show at the park at half-four, or else it could be men in white coats and endless painful experiments. He knew he'd show, but he didn't know how to be ready. He wondered if he'd be able to talk about it; The Misery – he hadn't before. He knew it; somewhere inside, he knew he'd caused it, but it was still all just... a strong theory.
But, he thought, maybe this could be the break he needed. Whoever it was wrote him that letter hadn't turned him in. Maybe he could talk... Maybe they would listen. He ran his fingertips through his hair and waited.
Four-thirty came about and Jerry had already been sat on a bench in the empty park for twenty minutes. That's when he noticed a silhouette in the distance getting closer to him. From quite a way off, he was able to recognise who it was. It was her; the girl from outside the kebab van.
She walked to him with speed and determination, and she was angry. He asked how she found him but she was already in tears, screaming, “murderer! You killed him!”
“No,” he stopped her. “He killed himself.”
“Because of something you did! It was you!”
“It was not me!”
“Oh no? You think I'm fucking stupid, Jerry?
Jerry didn't react. He inhaled, brought his head back and looked over the empty park.
“No, I don't think you're stupid. How the hell did you find me?”
“You don't think I'm stupid? Then stop lying to me! Tell me the truth!”
“I am telling you the truth!” Jerry insisted.
Suddenly, by her will, she stopped the flow of her tears.
“Then it wouldn't make a difference if I grabbed you...”
“It wouldn't make any difference, even if I were lying,” he came back with a confident bluff.
She took a moment, considering something. She was short, like Jerry, and had shoulder-length blonde hair. Her clothes were worn down – she wasn't presented well and her face was glum. Something about her, something curious appealed to Jerry, though he in no way considered her beautiful. She had his attention though. He thought she looked beautiful in tears.
“Fine,” she grunted, reaching forward and taking big steps towards him.
He moved back, saying, “look, don't.”
“Just say it!” She screamed at him, swinging an open palm to slap him, which missed.
“I said, don't touch me!”
He moved back further.
“Why not? Why can''t I touch you? You let him punch you! You virtually made him punch you! So why not me?”
“I... have a skin condition,” Jerry stammered. “I, you know, bruise up when touched.”
The girl laughed in pity. Jerry knew he'd been busted.
“Oh and what's this skin condition called?” She asked, hands on hips.
“Tetra... Hydra... canni... Ah, it's a long fuckin' name alright!”
“That's very creative, Jerry. If I were some idiot, I might believe you. THC? T-H-C?”
“Oh, you know fuck all about me!” Jerry shouts, swinging his arm into the air.
The girl kept her eyes and intent on Jerry, but he couldn't meet them. He was lying, and he couldn't look someone in the eye while he was lying. But in that instant, the tension vanished.
“Alright. You know, I knew I shouldn't have let that scumbag touch me in the first place,” the girl said, her voice calm and her focus pushed back to center. “I mean, he was a nice scumbag to begin with. A bit of a dickhead, but at least he was nice. I fell for him before he touched me. I fell deep. I thought love might have... He turned into a nasty ghost of his old self...”
“Wait,” Jerry interrupted. “What are you...”
“I thought to myself, at least he didn't kill himself. Not like mum! But I felt so fucking shit about it...”
“What are you saying?”
The girl swung a backpack round from her shoulders. From it she took out a huge ring-binder and dropped it on the floor at Jerry's feet. It was titled, “Loved and Lost,” in glued-on, cut-out paper letters. Sentimental.
“Pick it up,” she said, and he did.
A hundred pages. Hundreds of photographs. People's faces, names, dates. Jerry had seen some of the faces before.
“First, my parents. Then school. Then around the town. Does that mean anything at all to you, Jerry?”
Jerry looked up at her.
“Are you saying that I'm not... that I didn't...”
She laughed again, “oh, keep up, Jerry! You killed him! And you killed all the others too. I was the one who made him miserable though. I was the one who turned him miserable...”
When Jerry came to the back page, he saw it was marked with a green question mark in the center, and five photographs around it. He rubbed his eyes.
“You know any of them?” She asked.
“Yeah, two of them,” he answered.
“I thought as much.”
He slammed the ring-binder closed and put it down in front of her. She picked it up and put it back in her bag. There was no confusion in his face, no panic in his breathing.
“Let me get this straight,” he said. “You're telling me that we both... that you... you have what I have?”
“Or maybe it's more,” she cut in. “Maybe I am what you are.”
He slapped his face and squeezed his head in both hands. Things just took a massive turn but he felt at ease once again, if a little excited.
“Look, can we walk and talk?” He asked.
“Mmm. Just don't touch me.”
As they walked, they discussed. She told him that something inside her snapped the day her boyfriend killed himself, and, in her disconnected fury, she roamed through the town center for hours just touching people. She didn't care who; some were children. She bumped into them, grabbed them, shook hands a few times... She walked through the crowds with her arms stretched out and let the others decide their own fates. They could move, or they could shove and brush past. She said she only stopped when she remembered Jerry. And he told her of his housemate, and the troubles he went through before deciding not to use what he was on her boyfriend that day, which, he admitted, he did do in some respect. Then she asked if he'd been planning on killing himself lately, and so he explained. She had, too, and had also written her final letter to no-one in particular.
Two hours passed. It was beginning to get dark. They'd circled the park a number of times and ended up sitting on the grass face to face. What a strange meeting it was for the both of them. Something new. Like a dream, they would have said. They wondered what would happen to them, if anything, if they touched each other. That was the question; if touching other people overwhelmed them with some sort of deep depression, what would happen if they touched each other?
“Maybe the plague,” Jerry said. “Or maybe it'll stop...”
“The plague?” The girl spat sarcastically.
“Yeah, it’s what I…”
When it was dark and there was no-one else around, nothing left to say, there was nothing left to do but find out. Jerry asked if she was sure, and she was. He held both his arms up, palms out. She held hers up too and drew closer, slowly. Jerry closed his eyes. Just an inch away from each other, their palms tingled; a twitch, a force of some sort. It was there. She pushed forward despite all her nervousness until their palms were flat against each other's. Jerry exhaled. He clasped his fingers over her hand. Suddenly, after a few seconds of stillness, she pulled away. He opened his eyes. They were both smiling, relieved that they hadn't just keeled over and died.
“Do you feel any different?” She asked.
“No,” he answered. “Do you?”
“We should meet again… in about a week.”
So, after it all, they went back to their lives. Experimental. Neither of them went back to their plans for suicide. They got rid of their final notes.
Jerry noticed it on the second day; he felt nothing. He thought nothing. Something had certainly taken a radical change. Something was lacking. He was no longer interested, no longer worried, no longer had any questions. He was just completely disinterested, and nothing could touch him.
When Misery met Misery the second time, they already knew they were one and the same, and so they came together as one and the same. There was nothing inside her either; no more opinions, no more perspectives, but no more guilt nor any more sorrow, and she'd touched someone and it didn't change a thing for them, didn’t make them go crazy or suicidal. She observed what she observed, but it didn’t make a difference either way to her by then and she knew it, because, maybe she didn’t fully understand it, but she didn’t care about it either.
They decided, in their shared nothingness, to remain together as they were; one and the same.
Existing in the world around them where they were expected to feel, to have opinions they no could no longer hold, to shake hands, to respond certain ways to certain things, et cetera, proved to be not just difficult, but impossible. Together, they tolerated it as best as they could while they raised the money they needed to drop the whole façade for good, and after three years, moved out of town and onto an empty plot of land on the hills of the Midlands. No more people died or were sectioned because of them, not since they touched the first time. Whatever it was they either had or were; Misery and Misery, was gone.
In the hills where they were completely alone from then on, they created things to keep themselves occupied with. Jerry's “natural” curiosities were non-existent, but he took up hobbies in chemistry, blowing things up in the field, motor mechanics, history, farming –anything and everything to pass the time throughout the years to come. And the girl – Rachel was her name – planted a vegetable garden and kept three pigs, a horse and chickens. She learned how to knit pretty quickly, all the while writing down an account of her life down to every last detail, all the way up to when she met Jerry and what came because of it.
They weren’t happy nor were they sad. There was no more romanticism at all. Neither of them felt a need to reach for anything, to try to change, to become someone different, someone new. They were just alive and they went with it as they were.
All the mystery in the suicides and misery for that town throughout all those years; it excited everyone, they both knew it. It gave the whole town something to wonder about. And that day they touched each other the first time, the day The Misery was extinguished, Jerry remembered thinking how it was actually quite funny that, from the perspective of everyone who looked in on the situation in that town, it would have all just stopped so suddenly and with no clear reason or even a clue why. It really would go down as a great mystery.
And, at thirty-three years old, Jerry and Rachel had a child; a baby girl named Ellen. Ellen's touch was somehow comforting to all she met and she was amazing in all her compassion. When they both hit sixty years old, her parents drew up a will, and she was set to inherit her mother's book upon both their deaths. After, of course, it had been read in public in their hometown, and everything about those years had been explained away.