This story is by Victor Thong and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My legs had no more energy to keep going. My lungs hurt as if punctured by a spike. My hips burned in pain, threatening to quit. That old back injury of mine flared up once more. It did not help that the weather melted my skin off. The filth that stuck to my pores for months festered in itch and bleeding rashes.
I have already vomited three times today due to the sheer hunger that chewed up my stomach walls.
I clutched my thumping chest while I held on to packets of sandwiches and a bottle of Dasani water in my elbow.
My other hand grabbed onto the plastic bags which had even more packets of sandwiches, biscuits and bottles of water as I told myself to keep running.
“Stop running! Give it back!” The yell from the 7-eleven employee shocked me again with a fresh spike of adrenaline, allowing me to ignore my impediments of pain, hunger and fatigue for a moment.
But only for a few paces, because the pain instantly came back in many spasms nastier than before.
The clerk was clearly not in a good mood to take a shift on a Saturday. To chase after a homeless man and sweat under the hot afternoon sun, however, doesn’t help to make the day easier.
This is still no excuse to further deprive a man of his need for food, is it?
Every pedestrian on the streets looked at us- a bum covered in filth lugging bags of food and the 7-eleven clerk chasing and shouting at me, armed with disgust and rage.
I kept putting my feet forward, until a cold hand grabbed my shoulder.
The pull of the hand yanked me into a punch to the face. The clerk followed the combo up by delivering another blow to the stomach that made me puke again.
This time, I saw traces of blood this time mixed in the yellowish, putrid mess of vomit.
As soon as my body hit the ground, a stomp pummeled my back and my face hit the cobblestone pavement jaw-first.
Ignoring the plight I was in, the 7-eleven employee unleashed the heartless tirade that I had heard a million times, yet always hurt like the first.
“Fucker!” He stomped again.
After the cashier was done stomping me, he bent down and picked up the bags of food that I had taken.
He pinched his nose tightly as he recovered the groceries that I had taken. He continued to shoot dirty side glances at the mess I am while he was picking up.
“You fucking stink.” He hissed hatefully.
The pedestrians looked on. They pointed their fingers and murmured their speculations, while some held on to their noses. Some even had their phones out to record the commotion that occurred under broad daylight.
They did everything except help.
I know this sight too well, at this point.
Growing up, I was always told not to cry by the people around me. Be it at school, home, society or the military.
Where are those people now? I thought. What did they do to actually help me?
I cracked a few tearless whimpers, as the grumbles in my stomach once again turned into vicious grating on my insides. The pounding sensation of the cashier’s blows, still fresh, only worsened my pain.
The old injuries from my back did not make it better still. After all, this is what two hundred parachute jumps as well as bearing heavy military gear over a long combat career can do to the back.
I lifted my head and saw that the 7-eleven employee who dished out the beating was gone too. He was now nothing but a silhouette in the distance carrying bags of recovered inventory.
“Help..help…please help. I was a soldier, I fought for this country.” I tried to scream, but only a croak came out of my mouth. I repeated again, to call for help. “Someone please, I only need some help…”
No one came forward. I was numb to this reaction by now.
No one has ever come forward in the past six years, why would anyone do so now?
The gastric grating made me curl into a ball as my body tried to break down to wail. All that came out however were more deflated groans. No tears came either, but the crying kept on.
My mind drifted back to the past, as I always did when I wasn’t scurrying for morsels and mercy.
Back then, I was a well-trained combat soldier in a paratrooper unit.
I was respected. I was valiant and dutiful.
And then I was deployed.
I killed people and I saw people get killed.
I wiped out enemy units, and so my unit got wiped out too.
After seeing all of the death and destruction I had brought to people and having the same thing brought to me too, I could no longer see my service as noble.
After my deployment ended, I left the military, with my patriotic ideals in smoke.
I had tried but could never accept myself for what I really was. That I was no defender, but a murderer. A legally sanctioned killer but still a damn killer.
I could have had a better paying career without having to deal with death and destruction.
I have never found my dreams, which was why I settled for the military.
It took a toll on me, I blew my money on the bottle and then drugs, to ease the guilt that I had. I thought it could erase my actions. To erase all the gore and death I have caused and witnessed.
But it never did, it only made me feel worse. After the alcohol wore out, I had to face myself again with a throbbing hangover.
I ended up with no more money for rent and after one too many violent outbursts, my landlord threw me out.
There began my official journey as a street bum.
This is life for me now: Hunger. Injury. Pain. Loneliness. Guilt. Drifting in and out of death.
I had passed out from sheer agony and hunger so many times that each time I did, I thought it would be my last.
Fate had, however, kept me barely going in the past six years. Perhaps just to keep tormenting me, to punish me.
By this point, I look like a walking corpse, shrivelled down to skin and bones. My body had been covered in so much filth that could have very well been its own layer of clothing.
Days like that were not uncommon. I had gone through longer days of starvation and pain before, all alone and hungrier than the last.
After all, in this profit-over-people world, who really cares? Who would really help?
After I stopped my whimpering, my muscles went loose like a balloon deflating. My brain stopped registering the different kinds of pain gnawing away at my existence. I know this feeling too well.
Once more I am going to pass out.
I will be going dark again and for a while, I will relax in the void. My only source of comfort.
Then I would wake up one or two hours later and go back to suffering.
Even though I know I would ultimately wake up, a small part of me wondered, the moment before darkness engulfed my consciousness to leave my wounded, hungry body to burn under the sun:
Would this be my last?