This story is by Shane Fitzpatrick and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I want you, Martha, to tell everyone, that I saved your life. I’m not some ravaged, cold-hearted person. There were many reasons behind the bomb.
Foibles and infuriating personality traits irritate me. Twitches, itches, bad hygiene, scratching, pant-pulling, inconsideration, nose-plucking, throat-hocking, and constant sniffing make my fists clench, my teeth grind. These people need to get their problems sorted – I did. I had a stammer for seven years and managed to get over it.
I love being alone.
Prison taught me to appreciate things. Waking up by yourself, in a six-by-ten is a subtle pleasure, with a thick glass block emanating light upon your face as you wake. The warmth, the silence, the sound of your own exhale and watching your chest rise, is underrated.
No one to wake up next to you coughing up a furball for fifteen minutes, while they scuff their nether regions stumbling to the toilet, first thing in the morning. That’s always been my hell, as I lived through it. I’m suppressing nausea rising, as I recall.
My last name was Jon Smith. I occasionally used my birth name of Joseph Smalls, but quickly stopped when people recognized the surname. Changing my name by deed poll was necessary.
I got a job in television – they were desperate for a stagehand at the last minute. Coincidence placed me in the right place at the wrong time for them. I worked hard and no questions were forthcoming. Background checks were obviously not completed. Dressing conservatively and being professional made it easy to slink into the background.
People used to spot me on the street as ‘the guy from Family Fortunes’. I was the one who ushered the second contestant into the isolation booth before the start of the ‘Big Money’ round. The side of my face might get caught onscreen. The individuals that recognized me were atypically idiots of low IQ. Being noticed was never what I wanted.
When I was seven, I saw my mother shoot my father in the face, before turning the gun on herself. It’s probably why I prefer the company of men. I watched from the treehouse in the back garden, gazing through the slats of handmade ash, the lingering smell of decaying cut grass rotting behind the tree and my only thought was ‘who’s going to make my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?’
I became known as Treehouse Joe until the media settled on Terrible Treehouse Joe when I was a teenager. Had you heard of me, before we met?
Anyhow, my fascination with matches and poorly chosen foster parents led me to experiment with pain, and how to inflict it. I started with birds and small animals. Twisting a wing, pulling a tail, crushing a windpipe, all led me to see the life drain from a body close up. I never stayed with any foster family for more than eighteen months, whether my imagination or their patience gave out first.
Once the authorities knew I had issues, I was thrust into all manner of psychotherapists, therapists and psychoanalysts, poking and prodding my subconscious. I loved the deep hypnosis, bringing them on a journey of utter nonsense, making up stuff. I had an aversion to being under someone else’s subversion. I got a kick out of it.
As a sixteen-year-old, I went too far, for which I now admit. I denied all culpability at the time, blaming childhood trauma from my parents’ deaths and sexual abuse from foster parents, that never occurred. I was tried and sentenced as an adult for arson causing the death of an eighty-four-year-old man. I just wanted to see how fast dry hay bales ignited.
Second-degree murder brought admission to a detention centre for three years. I played the silent, brooding teenager, developing a love for books and weights.
I ate a hefty breakfast in Sandstorm Juvenile Facility, bulked up in the gym in the afternoon, and read for two hours every evening. I took refuge when it came to sex, fulfilling a need, a release. I took the same routine when I technically became an adult at eighteen, transferred to Dansfort Correctional Facility.
Offending people who annoyed me came without consequence. I repressed emotions, facial expressions, and tried not to use violence where possible. I started to train my non-verbal skills in prison, my own practice ground. Having the physical advantage of being six feet tall and weighing two-hundred-and thirty pounds, people rarely argued with my imposing presence and the emotionless gait.
The rain lashed down when I walked free, the orange jumpsuit becoming a hue of faded red, no one to greet me.
Impetuousness grabbed hold outside cinderblock walls, guiding my legs toward the harbor of Ridgewall. With no previous experience, I joined the crew of the Prawn Cracker, fishing for shrimp off the Eastern seaboard. I enjoyed my time on board, being part of a team and so close to death on several occasions. The guys thought me weird, making a pointed note of not getting to know any of their surnames. I made good money in nineteen months until the fishing quotas hit hard.
Maritime experience got me another job on a Greek freighter called the Andalucía Calling. The skipper on that boat figured me out for an ex-con because I was the one he turned to when they kidnapped someone. They caught a photographer taking pictures of cargo being loaded out of Baltimore.
He told me to ‘sort it’, once out at sea, heading to Amsterdam. I said nothing, merely meeting his eyes with assent.
You gasped when I opened the cargo container. Your water bottle was empty, crushed, and your frame similarly bent over, deprived of fresh air.
For one close to death, you talked a lot.
I remember listening on my hunkers, twice your size, peeling an apple with my pocket-knife. Your lips pursed every time I slotted pieces into my mouth as if tasting each morsel.
I will be honest and tell you that I reveled in watching you wince. I felt compelled to leave half the apple each time and my chilled bottle of water. I wanted to see how you would react.
The night prior to making land in Holland, I was asked if I had sorted the problem. I sniffed and shifted my feet, the skipper taking my body language as confirmation.
In Amsterdam, I rang the Dutch Police, after going AWOL. I had been moving you in between containers, lifting your silent, sunken body in the oceanic darkness. I’m not sure if you realized in your delirious state, that each new morning brought a different location. I suppose containers all look the same on the inside.
That’s why I’m sending this to you, Martha Brent. You know me at my best. I want you to tell my story.
Even though we met many years ago, I know you haven’t forgotten me.
You were the first person in the world to sincerely ask me ‘How are you doing?’, without an ulterior motive.
Despite the fact you were dying in a hot cargo container, your first thought was not for yourself. You were alone, halfway across the world and the news did not mention your disappearance for many days. I held your phone and it did not ring. You never mentioned your family.
It’s odd that you thought of others, though no one was looking for you. Your slight frame and calm demeanor seemed accepting of your fate, but you never gave up.
You need to understand why I gave up.
Idiots within our world that do not try to better themselves, despite all help thrust upon them, drive me bananas. Obesity disgusts me. When you talked and dreamed of running just once more along the Charles River in Boston, I saw a kindred spirit.
For three days, we recorded the longest ever episode of Family Fortunes. The show lasts a total of twenty-four minutes on air, not including ads, fitting into the half-hour slot of evening TV. We record two episodes per day, but we’ve never had two families quite like the O’Sullivan’s and Dombrowski’s.
Ten adults with an average waistband of forty-two inches. They had more irritating idiosyncrasies than a crowd of four thousand. Eating lunch took forever and the constant sweating under the studio lights required a retouch of make-up every five minutes. Their self-entitlement and annoyance resurfaced my former demons.
I know the FBI are looking for me. I want you, Martha, to tell them why.
I am already gone. They won’t find me, so please tell them to stop looking.
I have made a life of going unnoticed.
I have changed my name, once again.
I have changed my appearance. No one would recognize me, not even you.
I am fitting into the background, hiding in plain view.
I no longer walk your damp soil.
You would really like it here.