There's a way of looking at a man, really looking at him, and seeing him for what, not who, he truly is. This was one of the things Nick's father often told him, especially in those moments when Nick had done something wrong, failed in some known or even unknown way, and his father made it a point to place the moral spotlight on the transgression. In his father's eyes, it was as if the failure, left unchecked, could take on a life of its own and metastasize into a cancerous worm that would bore itself through Nick's core, hollow him out piece by piece, and replace his insides with more and more cells until one day there would be no more Nick. There would only be a shell of what once was—a facial doorplate hung out for everyone to see, the optics there to suggest that all remained the same, but the room would now be occupied by a different tenant, cold and lifeless. The key, then, was to avoid the misgivings at all costs.
"Guard your soul," his father often said. "Treat it as if it were more priceless than diamonds. ‘Cause you know… Jesus is coming."
Standing at the water's edge, watching the morning sky bleed through the blackened curtain of night, hearing the waves hiss and claw at the shoreline in a desperate fight against the tidal pull of the sea, Nick gave the memory a dull smile. With all that had happened last night, this was the kind of memory that rooted through his mind like an unwanted weed?
He closed his eyes and shook his head. His father had certainly meant well. The old man only dished out what he himself had faithfully received without question. The thing for Nick to do—what was expected, actually—was to accept and believe. And at first he did. While his friends tucked their heads under school desks, fearing that Brezhnev would someday lose his mind and send the Big One, Nick had cowered down beside his bed, offering prayers and lamentations, worrying more about being left behind than being vaporized by a cloud of radioactive matter. After all, what were a few isotopes to the power of God?
That was then.
Somewhere along the way, through a combination of classes and readings and personal introspections, along with a few years of living on his own, Nick no longer heard the voice of his father. It was one thing to have a proper respect for the Almighty, quite another to live in fear. He didn't weep. He didn't pray. He didn't worry about what the future held.
Nick's cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and looked at the screen. It was his wife this time. She had probably heard the news by now. He didn't answer, but instead sent her to voice mail. As much as he wanted to talk with her, to hear her voice, he couldn't bring himself to do it. What would he say? Something witty, no doubt. Hey, honey, you'll never believe what happened at the office yesterday. You know all those times I used to joke about going postal? Well, guess what—it's not a punchline anymore. Thinking through it, though, hearing himself say the words, Nick knew it would never work. You just couldn't joke about something like this.
The phone buzzed again, and Nick turned it off.
He knew what some would say. Why not just leave? If he didn't like his job, why didn't he find a new one? It would be easy for them to say. They didn't have the mortgage he did. They didn't have the family with high expectations. No, people who spit out easy solutions probably never had the strings that employers used, cherished even, to keep their employees submissive. Come to think of it, Nick believed his father was on to something about the cancerous worm changing a man. All those days and years at the office had certainly changed him. He had long ago given up his ideas of advancement ("You're doing great, Nick, and we certainly appreciate you, but right now...") or acknowledgement ("That's a great idea, Nick. We'll give it some thought and get back to you."). And for all of the abuse he took ("Nick, really?" "What kind of short-sighted thinking was that?" "Idiot.") there seemed to be no level of self-regulation to deal with the stress, no meditation to help him through the journey. It wasn't like he could redeploy, either, not at his age, not with his lifestyle. He was no longer a child, but once again he had been expected to accept and believe. The company, and the fraternity that it embraced, was all that mattered. The familiar line from Pink Floyd flitted through his brain: What did you dream? It's all right we told you what to dream.
Taking a deep breath, Nick looked out across the water and noticed how the waves sparkled with the colors of red and blue and white. At first, it struck him as odd. Then, he glanced over his shoulder and saw the reasons why. Police cars flanked his own.
It didn't take much to understand how they knew. All the cell phones these days came with a "Find Me" app. In fact, his wife had probably assisted them. So, why the phone call? What had she wanted to say? That he should turn himself in? That he should toss the gun and raise his hands until they told him to lay face down on the pavement?
Two officers approached him now. Both had their guns raised as they shouted out orders. Nick ignored them and looked out at the sea, hearing his father again.
Guard your soul...
He was out of bullets, so there was nothing he could do to hurt anyone else.
Of course... they didn't know that.