This story is by Andy Moir and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A year ago I retreated to the wilderness. Drugs had got the better of me, the beast had taken over. I had served that cruel master for three decades, and to flee seemed the only option. I cowered in fear in the undergrowth, praying only for survival. The beast had reached omnipotence in the town of Reading, and the lost souls are numerous and without aspiration. I required solitude, it was the only way to heal, and escape from the damage of that poor crippled town.
Wealth and poverty exist side by side, a constant reminder of our own shortcomings. I was exiled to the forest to regain my sanity, and in time I achieved new focus. A higher power provided me with a vision, a crusade. Returning to civilisation and challenging the overwhelming penetration of addiction. I have been called upon to slay the beast.
I returned to Reading to free the slaves. The beast has the upper hand, pulling them towards the edge, and certain destruction. But I have found another way. By leaving my environment I was able to sever the connection between myself and that overpowering need to chase the high. My mind is clear, and finally ready to guide a society which has lost its way. I feel better. I have had a year with only my thoughts for company. The epiphany hit, and I need to share it with the world. And what better place to start than a town like this, the underbelly of which is driven by bags of heroin and cans of Special Brew.
The decimation is worse than I remember. The town lies in ruins, populated by ghosts that glide through the streets, faceless and nameless, and drunks that crash through walls. Oxford Road is bleak. Hope has not visited here for a long time. The cosmic dance has finished, leaving behind a few stragglers who were unable to find their way home.
I see faces I recognise, but they don’t recognise me. Maybe my appearance has changed, I have been away for many moons, or perhaps it is just the decay of serving the beast prevents meaningful recognition. People forget themselves in this world; I suppose it’s arrogant to expect them to remember me. It is better this way. I am reborn anew, and having the anonymity of not being recognised serves my cause. I must disable the machine from within, and subterfuge is beneficial for this.
The revolution needs soldiers. The beast has many followers. To challenge him I will need to assemble my own army. And I will need to go deep into the darkness to recruit. I scan shop doorways looking for possible defectors who will join my quest. Anyone who appears willing to come away from the edge, and experience a new way.
The air is thick with death, rotten and acrid. It hurts my skin and penetrates my defences. In the forest I felt all powerful, and while I have the strength of my conviction still, I experience a fear that was not there before. The task seems much bigger now that I have returned. There are more slaves to the beast than I recalled, and they are more loyal than I predicted. The journey will be a long one. I spend my days wandering the town, seeking those who are willing to take up arms and fight. A few answer the call, and begin to accompany me on my quest. We search out the broken who wish to be saved. Some break rank to join our side, but many choose the familiarity and comfort of servitude. Freedom is a scary prospect for those who have always lived in slavery.
We grow in number. More and more join the resistance and I can feel us getting stronger. We continue searching for those on the edge in the hope we can rescue them. Our goal is simple, to overthrow the beast and end the dictatorship.
But I forgot the basic principle of building an army. The ancient Greeks knew. Your defences are crucial, and there can be no weak links. Every soldier defended those beside him with his shield. Any weakness could cause the whole structure to collapse. In my desperation for numbers I was blind to the domino effect that was occurring around me. The beast would send double agents to infiltrate our ranks. They sought out those fearful few, and convinced them to return back to the shadows. Disharmony grew in the camp as those who had lost faith in the cause were chastised by those who remained committed. The love and belief we originally shared became fractured, and ideas began to be imposed on others rather than shared. My perfect vision began to crumble before my eyes.
A manifesto based on love and empathy has become dogmatic, and too late I recognise the flaw in the design. The model was based around people, and people as a whole are stupid. A single person is fine, and that is how it was in the woods. I was alone. My vision worked in singularity, but as a collective we will always seek conflict and a power struggle will inevitably surface.
In this moment I feel so naïve. Of course this was the direction the revolution would take; it was obvious from the start. The passions would always corrupt, ensuring that a united front could never be maintained. I feel a fool, and wonder how many my ideology has condemned. I can feel the beast laughing at me, revelling in his victory. Most of my disciples have defected back to him, and those that remain have lost sight of the message. The cause we set out with has changed completely, like a game of Chinese whispers. How did my vision of utopia become so distorted?
The triumph of the first battles made us oblivious to the fact that we were slowly losing the war. As we celebrated victory, so too did our enemy, knowing that he always maintained the upper hand.
I feel tired. My shield is heavy, so I discard it. I drift through a haze, drawn back to the edge by the passions. Before I know it I am face to face once more with the beast. We look into each other’s eyes and we both know. He can’t let me live. I am to be made an example of, a cautionary tale to any that ever consider rebellion. And to that end I have strengthened the beast’s position. He strikes me down in a car park, leaving the needle in my arm so that there can be no doubt in those who find me that it was he that struck the mortal blow. But as my life ends, I’m left with the comforting knowledge that I tried.
I prepare to meet my maker. It is out of my hands now. Thirty years of nihilistic drug taking and crime versus five minutes of championing a misguided recovery revolt. I am to be judged, and the overall picture does not look good. I walk along a dimly lit corridor, lined with my fallen brothers. Their faces remain neutral; this is my fate, not theirs. As I approach the end of the corridor a ghostly face smiles at me. I recognise him; he died of an overdose in my presence. I failed to be of any assistance in his death throes. His smile is not comforting, it serves as a reminder of the damage my existence has caused. My actions through my fleeting conscious have been largely negative. Even my final actions were of surrender to the addiction.
I stand before the creator, my whole life about to be assessed. A strange calm washes over me, accountability has finally arrived. Rather than shy away from this, I am happy to meet this with dignity and honesty. This may be the only moment in my life where I can truly and unequivocally be myself. The constant inner battle has reached an end, and I am at peace.
The creator surveys me; he has a kind face. He says nothing, but accepts me in a warm embrace, and I feel myself weeping on his shoulder. It took a lifetime to reach acceptance, and required death to achieve it. He takes me by the hand, vowing to lead me to salvation. I feel a cleansing of my soul, and at last I am at peace.