Blake flinched as the earbuds were ripped out of his ears. The ambient drone music he'd been listening to reflected his flat mood and the monotony of packing boxes for a living.
He turned around knowing it was one of his co-workers whose idea of fun was to pick on the guy who wasn't one of them. He didn't want to be like them: jackasses whose horizons rarely stretched beyond beer and football. A part of him knew that boredom brings out the worst in people, but he wondered why they couldn't daydream like him to pass the time instead of acting like a pack of wolves in search of prey. In the last year at the factory he'd become public enemy number one just because he didn't have a girlfriend and liked weird music. He'd admit that much of his music was weird by most people's standards, and wished he'd never told anybody what he listened to.
“Hey. Boss wants you to help out in dispatch for an hour as they're a man down and overworked,” Daryl said, smirking. As he spoke his breathing acted like a fan blowing trashy breath stink into Blake's face.
Blake hated it when that guy stood so close to him that he had to stifle the urge to gag and turn away from the halitosis. Ironically, Daryl was the one who was always well groomed and who you wouldn't expect to have dog breath, whereas Blake's pasty and greasy complexion warned people not to get too close.
The stress of working with these guys had rubbed away Blake's sense of self-esteem. He'd forgotten what having self-esteem and not feeling on edge while at work felt like. Lately he'd taken to grinding his teeth whenever one of them called him a faggot, or if he overheard them using the word in what passed for conversation between them. Even kids had more interesting things to say than most of his co-workers. He suspected that someone in the factory must be gay because he'd read it was commonplace, which made it aggravating that he was the butt of anti-gay jokes when he was straight – he just didn't know how to get a girlfriend.
In all likelihood this was another prank, again. Daryl was the supervisor, so Blake was left in a bind. If he ignored the instruction and it was for real then he'd be in trouble, and he had the feeling Daryl would like nothing better than an opportunity to give him a formal warning.
Robotically Blake packed another box while deciding what to do. He imagined shooting Daryl in the back of the head when he walked away. With a shotgun. Yeah, that would make the best noise and splatter bits of brain, bone and blood over the boxes and floor. His body tingled during this reverie. And he could pack bits of brain into one of the boxes with a note to the customer that the cost of their product wasn't only money, it was people.
Daryl turned around and caught the stare. “Get down to dispatch and leave those fuckin boxes for the others to do.”
That was it, Blake had to go. Better to be jerked around if it was Daryl pulling his chain rather than risk his job.
“Okay, boss. I'm goin,” he said wearily. Now he dreamt of shooting the bastard in the crotch first before finishing him off with a head shot. Then doing the same to the rest of them. Yeah, that'd give them what they deserved. A smile broke his beleaguered expression.
It came as no surprise when John, the dispatch supervisor, denied asking Daryl to send someone to help. There was no sympathy, he just laughed and told Blake to get back to packing.
Was John in on this attempt to belittle him further? Blake suspected so as he and Daryl were drinking buddies. His list of imaginary victims grew by one person. A voice told him to “Shoot them all before they turn on you physically. That's what they'll do one day. You know it.”
He looked around to see who had said it, but there was nobody. And the voice, it had sounded like his own. How could that be? He was sure that he hadn't spoken aloud. It must have been in his head, an aural hallucination. Recently he'd sometimes heard sounds or indistinct voices that weren't there in the real world. Also, he felt tired all the time as though he'd been getting half the amount of sleep he actually had. Upping his coffee intake hadn't helped. Surprisingly, he hadn't been yawning more than usual. Something was wrong and now he wondered if he needed to see a doctor. But he couldn't afford to. The job didn't provide any medical insurance, and his meager savings were to be left untouched in case of a real emergency like losing his job.
The other packers clapped and whooped when he returned to the packing station. “How was it in dispatch?” someone shouted.
Slumped shoulders signalled Blake's unconscious admission of defeat. It wasn't the first time something like this had happened, and he knew it wouldn't be the last. Even quitting the job and finding another one was unlikely to help. It was as though there was a sign on him telling everyone that he would be easy pickings, that he was one of life's losers.
He put the earbuds back in and resumed work. Overlaid over the musical tones a voice added a sporadic commentary: “Get rid of 'em. Shoot the scumbags.” The words, stark and cruel if spoken aloud, gradually softened almost into melody and became pleasurable to listen to. Blake's grip on reality weakened. Lightheadedness set in. Like floating in an out-of-body experience, he felt detached from what was happening. His hands worked their rote pattern and packed as they should while he observed as if someone else was doing it.
The voice grew insistent and extreme in what it ordered him to do. He warmed to the idea. In his aloof state it was easier to justify shooting them – all of them. What had they ever done for him except make his working life even more miserable than it had to be. Yes, they had to be executed; it was the punishment they deserved. What did it matter if a few dickheads were killed. It would probably make the news for a few minutes then the world would continue not giving a shit about them.
By lunchtime he'd decided what to do. While the others sat around the break room eating their lunch he drove home.
The landlord had bolted a safe to the wall at the back of a closet in Blake's tiny apartment. He unlocked it and pulled out the handgun he kept in case of emergencies. This side of town was not a place to take risks with your safety. Especially at night.
He checked the three clips; all were full of bullets as they should be. Enough ammo to take out every one of the bastards who'd picked on him or joined in when others did. The inner voice continued to exhort him to kill; he slammed one of the clips into the gun and shoved the others into a pocket.
“Fill the place with head splatter,” the voice demanded. “You'll love it. It's the fate they deserve.”
It didn't take any longer to persuade him. In a dreamlike state he left, determined to do go on a controlled rampage. Nobody who had to die must avoid his aim.
Karen, the only friendly neighbour in the block, was on the way out to her car when she found Blake sat in front of his apartment door crying, head in his hands. His body shook with sobs, and a teardrop filtered through his fingers.
She bent down and put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey. What's the matter?”
For a few moments he ignored her, then finally looked up. He held out his hand to show her something and said, “I shot them all. They've been making my life hell recently and I shot them with this. I'll have to do time because of those bastards. Probably get the death penalty.”
“With what?” Karen said.
He snuffled. “All they had to do was leave me alone.”
There was nothing in his hand. She backed away and wished she'd not got involved. Should have suspected he was out of his mind the way he was sat there crying like a baby.
“With this gun”, he yelled, waving his cupped hand.
“There's nothing in your hand,” she blurted. She rushed away to her car, and almost dropped the key as she fumbled trying to fit it in the lock.
Blake ignored her and continued to look at his hand as she drove away, the tires squealing. She was right, his hand held nothing. Stupidly, he turned his hand over as though the gun could be on the other side of it. But it had been in his hand! He remembered the reassuring weight of it and firing off shots at the people in the warehouse. The satisfaction of seeing their heads explode and their bodies crumple, surely that had been real?
He wondered if he'd totally lost his mind and was hallucinating. Maybe she was involved with them – trying to make him question his sanity by lying to him. But she'd always been friendly to him before, and even helped him out occasionally when he needed a favour. None of the other residents paid him any attention.
“Oh god, Oh god,” he mumbled. He stayed on the floor, put his head back in his hands and began to rock back and forth.
The voice returned, demanding, cajoling and insistent. He'd already done what it wanted. Confused, he had to piece together what had happened today.
Trying to calm himself he stopped rocking. Think. When you killed them you still had that out-of-body feeling. He still did. The scent of death, the coppery smell of blood that spurted from each victim was fresh in his mind. They'd lain randomly on the floor like discarded waxwork figures with juice flowing out of their heads. Oh god. It had been satisfying. The only callously enjoyable thing he'd done during his life. A grin stayed on his face while he went through the warehouse gunning them down – he was sure of it.
No sirens and cops swarmed around him. Maybe he'd gotten in and out of the workplace before they could arrive.
He slid his back up the wall to ease himself to his feet, swayed a little with dizziness, and patted the pocket where the clips were. Instead of hard metal his hand felt no resistance under the material. This discovery brought no relief. He was going mad thanks to the voice that wormed its way through his mind. Avoiding jail or being shot by the cops was no consolation when the alternative would be to end up being locked away in a psychiatric hospital. Whether his sanity had buckled under the pressure, or he'd become possessed, he didn't care. Ever since being a kid he'd wanted to dispose of those who wouldn't mind their own business and needed someone to torment to make themselves feel better.
Blake turned the key in the lock and entered his apartment. Something deep inside his mind must have stopped him last time by pretending that he'd done it. This time there would be no doubt or hesitation.
He went to the safe.
Ten minutes later the gunshots were real. So was his grin. And so was the coppery scent of blood.
Bio: Dene Bebbington works is an ex-IT professional who feels more at home writing horror fiction. He's had short stories published in various anthologies (Dark Corners #2, Dark Light III, Behind Closed Doors, and Disrupted Worlds to name a few), three stories as podcasts at The Wicked Library, and is the author of the ebooks Zombie Revelations and Stonefall.