The Bottom Rung

By Tommy Nicholls

The ceasing of life; croaking, expiring, retiring, buying the farm. Dying. It had been something Felix had always thought about. It had been something that had always been so curious and far away from him. But that was his past life, and that life was lost to him now. Before, the safety of his modern lifestyle had shielded him from seeing death. It kept him from experiencing its pain and misery. Now his family was gone, his life, ruined. Now death was his only companion; always with him, always around him. Now Felix wandered the streets of the city, he was a vagrant; broken, lost, and feeble. He was reminded of his many trips to the zoo, watching an anaconda swallow a live mouse whole. He felt that he was slowly being digested by the city, moving through it and becoming weaker and weaker every day. He was losing more and more hope.

Now he was the mouse for a different kind of snake. If the city was an anaconda, slowly swallowing him, the man who stared at him now, who had come to kill him, was a cobra rearing back to inflict a much quicker death. Felix knew his hunter well, he had seen first-hand some of his victims, and read about all the others. Known only as "The Man" by most, this killer preyed on all the other mice. He specifically hunted the homeless, the vermin of the city. Felix had heard about other killers like The Man, they slaughtered the weak and helpless for the thrill of it.

They were lesser than this man. They left calling cards or identifying marks on their victims like they were trophies. They killed in increasingly elaborate ways to increase their own twisted infamy. The Man was different. He left no marks, no cruel mockeries of the men he killed. Their deaths were all simple, painless; and all police reports stated they were unconscious at time of death. It was almost as if The Man was attempting to help them, cut short their long lives of suffering.

Felix supposed it was only a matter of time until the man worked his way to him. The Man seemed to target the poorest of the poor, but Felix had managed to do well for himself since he had been forced to join the forgotten of the city. Felix appeared to have a talent for making friends, he had to, teamwork was essential to his survival. By banding together the men could forestall their doom for a time, perhaps even find way to experience joy, talking and joking around a fire, doing their best to ignore their slow and steady progress through the city's stomach.

The Man had claimed most of them now; the rest has scattered and fled, either out of the city or to some other disgusting corner of it. Felix was now one of the only vagrants left in this quarter of the city. So now the man had come to him. Felix's evening rounds started much like any other; he had been trudging down another damp deserted alleyway in the dark of the night, picking up loose objects or anything he perceived to be of value and storing them in a large sack. Then, a distant police siren blared behind him and Felix instinctively turned around. And there he was. The Man. Felix had heard no footsteps echoing off the alley, no splashing of feet through puddles, yet the man was here, and not far behind him. His trench coat was immaculately clean and dry, as was the hat he wore. It was odd to Felix, the physical contrast between The Man and his surroundings was remarkable and yet, mentally, they were so similar. From the outside they would appear serene and perfect, but both were poised to see him die at any moment.

And now here he was; Felix with The Man, staring at each other down the alley. Eventually Felix's more primal instincts seized control and he spun around and ran. He rounded a corner and splashing through a puddle, hoping to lose The Man in the labyrinth that was the cities back alleys. He heard no pursuing foot steps, but he knew that was not a guarantee of safety. If he ever heard The Man coming, it would be because The Man wanted him to. Felix twisted down another back street and slowed to a stop, doubling over to catch his breath. Few knew these streets as well as he did, but The Man was no common gangster or street thug, and Felix would be taking no chances. He slowly crept to the edge of the alley and peered around the corner.

The man was there. Felix was not surprised. He turned to run, but only made it about halfway down the alley before he felt something grab his arm. He was momentarily stunned. How could anyone be so fast? The Man's grip was like a steel vice around his bicep, and caused his blood to run cold. Defeated, Felix dropped to his knees, and The Man let him. Strangely, Felix felt so calm, so at peace in The Man's presence. To him, The Man felt cold, and heartless, but that feeling also promised a release from pain, from suffering, from the torment of his life. Why was he running? Why did he cling to a world that had beaten and destroyed him, and his family? In a fit of rage Felix raised his bag and threw it at the wall beside him. It fell with a heavy thud, and items spilled out. Most were necessities like food and bottles of water, but a few were special. They were objects from his past life, mementos, and they meant the world to him.

One object in particular caught his eye, a photograph of him, with his family. It was an image of the success he had in his past life. His wife, his children, they all looked so proud to have him. Felix closed his eyes and thought of them. He thought of everything they had done together, how they had supported him, and he them. He thought about what he was about to do, and how his wife comforted and inspired him, every time he fell.

No. No he would not succumb to the cobra's venom of despair. He would have never given up on his family before, and they would expect nothing less from him now. If he died now, he would be making everything his family had done for him a wasted effort.

Felix opened his eyes. The Man could not have his life. Not when he still had them. He balled his hand into a fist, and stood, throwing a punch straight into The Man's jaw. It struck with a crack and The Man's head jerked violently to the side. Felix glanced around, he had to escape quickly. He sprinted away and dove through a bottom-floor window, rolling onto the cement floor and landing in a pile of shattered glass. He glanced around; he was in a disgusting basement, littered with dirt and debris, with light coming from the only exit, a short flight of stairs.

Felix was about to run for the stairs when he heard steps, slowly, coming down from his only escape. The Man walked around the corner. Felix's blood ran cold again. He didn't know how The Man could be so inhumanly quick, but he wouldn't stop now, not ever. Felix let out a feral roar, raised his fist, and charged at The Man. Suddenly a voice rang out, "Stop" It said. The voice was soft, smooth, but it stopped Felix in his tracks. "I will do you no harm." it said. The voice was there, but not there, it was ethereal. "Many have fled me, Felix, but none have fought me." This made Felix's mouth fall open, how did this... thing… know his name? "Felix, you must know that I am not a murderer who slays the unwilling, every person I have approached has wished for their deaths, some have even attempted to find me. I come not as a being of terror, but as one of relief aiding those that this world has broken and left to rot. You are a different case, it is clear to me that your wish for life is sincere, and so I will leave you be. We will not be meeting again, Felix, providing you continue to have hope for your future. And I believe you will. But who can say? Perhaps next time you will be glad to see me." And with that the man was up the stairs and gone, slithering off to another hopeless soul.

Felix let out a deep breath and looked out the shattered window. The sun was rising; He had survived the night, survived The Man, and had vowed he would not be the pitiful wretch he was before. He would do his family proud, and he hoped that, for just a moment, the snake had choked when eating its mouse.

Did You Know

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