Moments Before Death
Copyright Joseph Nardone 2017
Distributed by Shakespir
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Beaten and broken, Leo is quivering on the couch. Too many drinks, after too many consecutive days, with too many of the wrong people. It is a typical Sunday afternoon for the town drunk.
“No qualms,” he thinks to himself as he remains in the fetal position. It is a saying his mother used to mumble under her breath while her deadbeat husband came home after work. Work, for Leo’s father, being a few hours at the job that pays him and a few more spending it away at the place that put him in a more volatile state of mind.
He looks around his rustic house. His home, but not his in the way most would think of their living space, as it was given to him by default after his mother’s passing. A woman he holds great disdain for. She may have married poorly, slumming it to a degree, but she was a beautiful woman. The story the neighboring kids would often joke about, at Leo’s great angst.
The white walls in his mother’s home stained yellow from Leo’s chain smoking, the windows so old air freely passes through the cracks, and the couch in which he has his head being so filthy with remnants of too many night befores that an animal would scoff at resting on it.
The phone rings.
Leo stays on his couch, staring at the phone sitting on the coffee table. It couldn’t be more than two feet removed from the reach of his arm. For him, however, that is two feet too far. He takes a mental election, and decides whoever is on the other line is no worthy of the effort it would take to answer it in time.
He remains comfortable in his own filth. Wallowing in self-pity, thinking of a day that will never come, while pretending his life is anything other than expendable. Leo stays, willing to risk whatever offer that phone call might illicit for this other option he comfortably accepts as deserving.
It stops ringing.
It is near dusk now, and Leo has finally decided to start his day. First thing is first for him, which means checking the mailbox to see if his disability check has come in. It is the man’s lifeblood, the monthly check that allows him to live the life of luxury he has chosen – a polite way to say the man is a drunk and drug addict.
This slots him gently in a place where he needs nothing but enough money to fuel his multiple addictions.
His voyage from the couch, to the front door, to see if his stipend has arrived ends in vein. There’s nothing there but collection notices, other unpaid debt letters, and junk mail. Leo’s not disappointed, he is furious. Not getting what he wants, specifically when he wants it, is too much to handle.
“I gave my back to those people, and in return they can’t even give me what is mine?”
With his back turned to the rest of the house, his phone rings. This time, since I’m already up he thinks to himself, he decides it is a call he will answer.
“Hello,” Leo says.
“Too,” the other person on the line responds.
The line goes dead.
Naturally, this infuriates Leo. Who dare call him with a prank? Too? What the hell does that even mean?
He doesn’t spend too much time thinking about the unsolicited call. Rather, he turns his attention to his first chore of the day: Showering and cleaning himself up just enough so he can head to the corner bar. With a few dollars leftover from his previous month’s check, he figures he can get by on that, as well as the altruism of others. The code of drunks really. That those who have now, might not have later, so best to buy a round of drinks when one can.
Leo is a have-not at the moment, but is betting enough of his bar buddies will have at the moment that he’ll be able to get the proper amount of sloshed this evening.
“Leo,” another regular drunk bellows when he walks into the door. “How are you doing?”
For Leo, this is a welcomed sound. Not that the person shouting his name is anyone of importance, but that he’s too easy to manipulate, and that means Leo is unlikely to spend a dime tonight. He’s spend time with the man at the bar in the past. He’s always too willing to help Leo whenever he’s in a bind.
Time passes, rather quickly, as it does when the bottom-feeders are grasping at their last chances of relevance. For them, it is not by way of professional or personal success. It is through impressing the other addicted-to-whatever who have you that’s gullible enough to believe whatever lie is about to be heard even as quickly as it is being told.
Hours go by, shots and beer of all varieties already in our loathsome hero’s stomach, and the bartender begins to make his way back to Leo unprompted.
“He’s going to cut me off,” Leo mutters. “This is some god da…”
Nope. The man behind the bar is not there to put an end to Leo’s night. Why would he? His job, legally speaking, might be to make sure his customers aren’t too messed up to drive, but being loyal to his employer – as opposed to state law -- is more often the case.
In what is a relative shock to Leo, the bartender informs him he has a call.
A call? He thinks.
Of course, he isn’t expecting a call. His mother dead, father dead even longer, with no family to speak of, and the only friends he has are the acquaintances already at the bar with him, Leo believes it is a debt collector attempting to chase him down.
“Tell the person I left two minutes ago,” he begs the bartender, who obliges.
Quickly, Leo begins to turn his attention back to his drinking. To the left of him an empty chair, to the right of him the easily manipulate man, and in front of him the drinks another is purchasing on his behalf.
“Man, Leo,” the person to his right begins. “You probably don’t remember, and maybe I’ve never told you, but I really appreciate all you’ve ever done for me.”
This sincerely puts Leo in a strange position. He knows who he is, what he is, and that there’s not many good bones in his body. What can this person be talking about?
“When we were kids, and Johnny Warren used to,” the man continued.
That’s right. Leo can now recall. Long before the life of addiction took him, as a child, Leo had a habit of sticking up for those bullied. It wasn’t necessarily to help the downtrodden, though that’s how he often justified it, it was to release some of the unbridled anger resting inside him. A heavy burden for any child, as his home life was less than ideal.
“… and you punched him right in the ear. You did it with some disinclination, though.” the man finishes.
Pausing for a moment, trying to figure out what the word disinclination meant, Leo chose to focus on the more positive that came from this story. It gives Leo even more irrational, false confidence than the alcohol he is consuming. Somehow, magically, he convinces himself that deeds done too many years ago to remember make him a decent person.
And with that, he orders a six-pack to go for his journey back home. The man to his right wishing him well, waving his arm as Leo leaves.
Barreling his way through the door, with only four of the six drinks surviving the 15-minute ride home, the couch looks awfully appealing to Leo. The smell, stained, and repulsing piece of furniture is his final destination for the night.
He knows far too well that his eyes are not long to stay open. Leo makes his way, with great drunken haste, to his figurative polyandrium.
Leo makes it to the couch after allowing the door to self-shut as if a 50-year-old door has that ability, knocking down an unlit lamp in the process as well.
No matter. Not for Leo, at least. He made it. His day is complete. He is on the couch.
The phone rings.
“You have to be kidding me,” he barks. “It has to be two or three in the morning… who has the nerve?”
Feverishly, he begins to search for his phone. Last he saw of it, it was resting on his coffee table.
“Did I move it before I showered,” he thinks to himself before realizing it likely fell to the floor when he returned home from his night of debauchery.
“Who the hell is this, and why are you calling so late?”
It is silent, but only for a few seconds, “Too, Leo. It is too…”
“Too what,” the inebriated Leo exclaims. “I swear to god if this is some kind of joke I will find you… and I will kill you.”
“You, too,” the voice on the other line responds.
The call ends.
Shaken, Leo doesn’t know what to make of the call. He thinks about it briefly. Genuinely curious as to who was on the other line, and what that person actually wants. Still very much chemically imbalanced, though, it does not take long before he passes out.
Awakening to his phone emitting noises he never heard it make before, Leo’s hangover quickly makes way for more fury. He believes… no, he knows this somehow has to do with the person that’s been calling him too many times over the course of the last 24 hours.
Trying to figure a way to stop his phone from making strange sounds, the type similar to the whimper a dog makes during its final breath, but over and over, Leo gives up. He hurls it against the wall, and the noise stops.
“No qualms,” he says aloud with a small scent of laughter. The absurdity of the person on the other end relentless bothering him now clearly getting to him.
Pacing around his living room as if there was some place to go, Leo begins to simply look at the phone as if the inanimate object itself was the literal cause of his issues.
Suddenly, Leo’s eyes begin to shut without consent. He feels pain in the back of his head, reaching his arm to feel where that sensation is coming from, he feels warmth. Before he can take a look at his hand, Leo falls to the ground. His body partially on the couch, with his hand and arms slouched over the cushions.
“At least two qualms,” a voice says.
Confused and physically hurt, Leo hasn’t the slightest idea what is going on. He begins to turn his head to see who is speaking to him. As he does so, what is only now a voice, begins to speak again.
“Your mother was too beautiful to be with your father. Too wonderful of a person. You ever think about that?”
His head fully turned, with blurred vision still trying to make out the face of the voice speaking to him, the man continues.
“As kids, we all knew. Your father was a violent, petulant man. Too disturbing a member of the human species to be with your mother. We often wondered how he even managed to land someone so far out of his league. Hell, to the point we assumed she got knocked up by him, presenting her with the unwanted gift of you, she decided to marry him for reasons due to faith.”
Eyes less blurred, Leo can see it is the man who was sitting to the right of him at the bar. He begins to try to speak, but is stopped before he can even get a word out by now not only the voice, but the face that goes along with it.
“Here’s how I see it, Leo. You have two qualms at the moment. That’s going to be two too many for you, and you’ll come to understand that quickly, but there’s not a terrible need to worry. This won’t last too long. Nod if you understand me… Now, don’t speak. Just nod.”
Leo does what he is told.
“Your mother was certainly a beautiful woman on the outside, friend. The kind of appealing a person would normally only see in a magazine. Unfortunately for me, and I assume others, I eventually figured out how your dad was able to secure her hand in marriage.”
Only listening at this point, with his back against his couch, Leo continues to listen.
“She didn’t marry him because of you, or for love, or because she had poor taste in men. It was because he was a lot like you, actually. Too dumb, too unwilling, too incapable to see beyond the drink that’s only an arm’s length away. You see, she married him so she can hide herself.”
“I don’t understand what you…” Leo starts to say shakily.
“Stop. Shh,” the man says. “You no longer have a speaking part in this story.”
The man to his right slowly walks to where the lamp Leo tipped over is, grabbed something, then walked back.
“Do you know what a predator is? I mean, of course you know from a National Geographic standpoint,” the man says with a comedic tone. “But do you know that a person can also be a predator?”
Leo doesn’t answer. He is still shocked and trying to figure out what is going on.
“Predators are smart. It is why they are the hunters and its prey the hunted. Your mother, Leo, she was a hunter. For what? Dumb little boys.”
The man from the bar, the person sitting to the right of him, buying him all his drinks, kneels closely to Leo as he is pressed back to the couch to the point of becoming one with its cushions. This person who told the story of Leo sticking up for him in their youth suddenly, and with great violence, moves his arm down to Leo’s upper-thigh.
In his hand was a shard of glass from the lamp. It is now in Leo’s leg.
“She used your father, and even you, as a way to camouflage herself. She was the pity of the town. People feeling sorry for her. Such a wonderful woman with such a horrible man and disgusting child.”
The hand of the man with the voice, that now has a face to go along with it, removes the shard from Leo’s leg.
“So there’s qualm one: Your mother was a pedophile. I am going to give you a moment to let that process through your sick skull.”
The man begins to trot about Leo’s living room, glancing at pictures on the wall, things on the floor, and everything else in view. While this is being done, Leo is doing exactly what the man said he would, which is to try to process what was just told for him.
“Are you ready for qualm number two, Leo,” the man asked.
“I… I don’t even know…” Leo muttered.
“It was a rhetorical question, Leo. I already told you that your speaking role in this story was done. So, please, just shut up. Qualm two is quite that conundrum, actually. Something that’s bothered me for years. So much so, the years of tedious planning being a pain in my life was only outdone by having to pretend to be a worthless piece of scum like you each and every single night at that dungy bar you go to.”
The man grabs one of Leo’s few family photos. It is framed. It is the only picture Leo has in which his mother, father, and himself are all smiling.
“Anyway,” the man began. “I thought I’d have to earn your trust or something to get to your house. But time went on, and it dawned on me that I’d just have to choose a night to follow you home. In fact, I’ve done it several times already. You should really be better about shutting your door.”
He pauses. Then he sits on the coach directly next to where Leo’s head is pressed.
“Thing is, I could have done this a long time ago. But to be honest, watching you suffer in your own wretched existence was rather enjoyable. I mean that. It was bringing me as much joy as this moment is about to bring now. Yet, Leo, that’s the real kicker here. The tied into one double-qualm. Your whore of a mother gave me HIV as a child. It wasn’t until I married and had a child that I even found out, but I sure as shit found out as the doctors told my ex-wife our daughter wasn’t going to make it in this world very long.”
The man takes a giant sigh. He rests his arm more gently on the couch.
“For me, it was manageable for a time. But not anymore. So here it is, buddy. I’m going to die a an unnatural death soon thanks to your mother, and there’s no one left in your family to punish but you. I’d like to offer an apology, but I won’t, because sincerity would be unattached.”
“That’s your second qualm.”
With that, the man begins to beat Leo with the framed picture. Over and over he smashes it off Leo’s head. That is, until it breaks, leaving one wooden part of the frame free, with the man then using it as a stabbing weapon. He bludgeons Leo’s cheeks, ears, and eyes. The man does so until there are no more whimpers coming from Leo.
“There, Leo. Now you really have no more qualms.”