A Quiet Man

Mike Shaw spent the morning on his front porch watching traffic. He had cultivated a snowball bush so that it hid him from any prying eyes on the street. There was already a camera installed over the front door and on every corner of the house, but he preferred to watch personally.

Three people driving down the residential street came too close to his sidewalk for comfort. He jotted license plates down for future reference.

One car stopped as the passenger door opened. A man leaned out and poured the remains of a Big Gulp into the gutter in front of Mike’s house. His business done, the man closed the door and the car drove off.

Mike didn’t bother writing the plate down. He put on his holster and got in his truck.

Mike collected injustices like other people collect stamps or bottle caps. On quiet evenings he would mull over them, the action gave him a grim sort of satisfaction.

Mike found the car again, a two-door grey sedan. He began tailgating them and laying on his horn. The car changed lanes. He changed with them. The car began brake-checking him. Mike tapped their bumper a few times, to let them know he was serious.

Through the tinted back window, he spotted the telltale glow of a smartphone. The passenger was looking up into the rearview mirror, trying to read his plates backwards. The truck still bore the logo of the construction company that had forced him to retire on either side.

Mike suddenly swerved into a turn, letting them have a parting shot of the horn as he peeled away. Let that be a lesson unto them.

Back home, he cataloged all the infringements his neighbors committed throughout the morning. The neighbor girl walked her pomeranian down his side of the street, even though he had left several anonymous notes hinting that the dog needed to stay in its own yard or risk harm. He watched her ponytail bounce as she stopped to visit with the old woman across the street. Despite his repeated advisory to plant hedges so he didn’t have to see the front of her house, the old woman rebelliously grew roses that did little to hide her eyesore of a cottage. She’d planted the roses after the geraniums she used to grow all died suddenly and mysteriously.

The girl with the dog chatted, elbow leaned on the old woman’s white wire fence. How cosy they were. He knew they were talking about him, just covering up with a sunny disposition.

The guy from two houses down started his Harley and let it idle for a minute. Every person on the street had their own little part in the symphony of annoying Mike.

He decided to deprive them of their fun and go out for a while.

He went to the hardware store to get some small screws. He had stuck a few in some marshmallows and tossed them over the dog girl’s fence, but nothing had come of it. Maybe these ones he could plant on her daily walk route, surprise the little shit.

He parked a little close to the line. He meant to correct it, but he saw a woman dragging one of the lumber carts to her car. A little boy was perched across the bars, clearly enjoying the ride. Mike fiddled with his hair and got out.

The woman was already picking up the boy to put him in the back seat.

“Careful, now. A lot of accidents happen that way,” Mike said, grinning as he stood just behind her.

The woman jumped. She hadn’t seen him walk up. Now she turned with a nervous look on her face. She began collecting the potted plants off the cart and putting them on the floor of the backseat, never taking her eyes from him.

“I bet you’d like some help with that, huh?” Mike leaned his elbow against her car.

“No—no thank you,” the woman stammered. She tossed the last begonia inside, snapping off a branch. This carelessness made Mike frown.

“There’s such a thing as having too much pride, you know.”

She didn’t answer. She got in the car without putting the cart back, locking the doors before she even started the engine. Mike stood behind the car so she couldn’t back out, just glaring at the rearview mirror. He took the cart and shoved it up to the storefront. She peeled out of the parking lot so quickly her tires smoked.

Mike was only there to stock up on essentials. He needed two-by-fours so he could hammer nails into them and scatter them around the hinterlands of his property. Bailing wire to string at neck-height on the paths around his house. A few small, sharp screws.

There were three registers open by the time he finished. One had no line at all. Of course, as he was pushing his cart down the aisle, a man and woman swooped in with their cart and stole his spot.

Mike could feel the resentment build hot on the back of his neck as they took things out to scan slowly, oh so slowly. Three potted plants. Some tomato stakes. A shovel. An aerating fork.

The cashier frowned and flicked a box repeatedly over the red laser of the checkout counter. “Sorry, the peat moss doesn’t appear to be scanning.”

Mike growled, just loud enough for them to hear. The woman of the couple glanced around, looking for a dog. The man pointed out another bar code on the side of the package, which scanned. The cashier smiled. Mike seethed.

Of course they paid cash. Mike wondered why they didn’t just pay in pennies, go the whole hog. Then of course the cashier had to count out change, struggling with coins in the damp heat of the day.

The couple finally finished and wheeled their cart out the door. Mike rolled up.

“Finally!” he said, “don’t you just hate people like that?”

The cashier’s blank, neutral expression gave him no satisfaction.

There were a handful of people by his back bumper when he emerged from the store. Mike tensed, ready for conflict.

The old man who looked up and pointed at Mike had glasses thick as a slice of bread. “I think that’s him.”

The security officer with him was Sikh, with a sapphire turban that clashed with his olive uniform. “Is this your car, sir?”

Mike was careful to sound neutral. “Yes. I have my license and everything.”

The guard gestured to the passenger seat of the car parked next to him. An old woman, far too ancient to be the man’s wife, sat like a sad dream.

“You’ve parked too close. This man’s wife cannot exit.”

“Well then, why don’t they park over there?” Mike gestured to the next spot down.

“No can do, chief.” The old man gestured to the handicap placard on his rearview mirror.

Mike could feel the back of his neck heat up.

“Maybe if you had parked straight…” he began, but the guard was shaking his head.

“Sir, I’m afraid you must leave.”

“I wasn’t over the line!”

The guard put his hand on his radio, gazing implacably at Mike. The old man’s expression remained neutral, just like the cashier, just like the people in his neighborhood.

Mike nodded fiercely at the old man. “I get it. You can’t swing a punch, so you use this—” he thumbed at the placard, “—to bully people.”

“Son, I ain’t—”

Mike shoved his cart at the carousel, not bothering to unload. So what if he’d already paid? He went in the passenger’s side door and threw the truck into reverse. The guard just barely pulled the old man out of the way before Mike roared out of the parking lot.

What was in Mike had been simmering for weeks. Months. Years, even. There was nothing special about the parking lot incident besides its timing.

But oh, what timing.

Mike drove erratically, cutting people off, using the bulk of his car to intimidate other drivers. On what he thought was a whim, he decided to visit the barn on his property. But it wasn’t a whim. It was the culmination of much unconscious planning.

Mike’s property extended quite a ways behind his house. He enjoyed the thought of boundless wilderness and so had resisted his neighbor’s construction of a fence. The fence went up, well behind the property line as a sort of appeasement. In response Mike had built the barn, really a glorified storage shed, directly over the property line.

The barn really only held one thing, but it was the one thing that had taken most of his attention in the past weeks. Every time he felt small and insignificant, he would undo the three padlocks that held the door shut and look upon his treasure and dream of the day he would use it.

Well, today had turned out to be that day.

He breathed in the metal smell that came wafting out of the barn when he opened the door. It was a beautiful smell, a clean smell.

The thing in the barn had once been an armored van. Under Mike’s care, it had become more armored. It had gained gun turrets, and been retrofitted for tank tread. He had sealed the doors with cement and installed a special hatch on the top. Once he entered, it could not be opened from the outside. He intended it to prevent his capture, but unconsciously he always knew it would be a one-way trip.

Mike slid down into the seat, turning the key and choking the engine to life. He laughed as he sealed the hatch behind him, seating himself on boxes of ammunition. He had gutted the inside of the van to make room for his modifications.

Mike shifted into drive. He would not back out of the barn. He would not back up ever again.

The barn wall held against the push of the van. Mike pressed down the gas, sweat already beading down his neck. There was a creak and a tearing sound, and suddenly the whole building came unmoored. Mike laughed as the van labored under the weight of the barn, imagining the sight from outside.

The van sputtered.

Mike’s laughter stopped.

He jerked knobs and levers, beating frantically at the hatch.

 

Six months later, they found him. The neighbor had never seen the barn due to the thick, tangled undergrowth of the property. It took hours to crack the shell, and when they did, they found Mike’s decomposing body.

“Helluva thing,” Mike’s neighbor opined from atop his Harley as he watched them wheel the gurney to the curb, “he was so quiet. Kept to himself. What was going through his head?”

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