The Ends and the Means
The Ends and the Means
Nowadays, there aren't many records of the past. Some say there was a war. Others disagree. However, archeological digs have found ancient human remains. Whether these bones were faked -- made in some assholes science lab, no doubt -- is currently up to speculation. They still say the chances of any remaining human life are slim at best. So, more or less, I had no way to prove my grandfather sane. When I was a teenager, he would always tell me stories about the war. I’ll admit I questioned how many marbles he had left -- but I was still transitioning to adulthood and my thinking was clouded. I had no time for stories. I was busy chatting up girls, sleeping, listening to the top 40 and discovering myself. If I’d only paid more attention back then the old timer might still be here. But anyway, if it’s a story you want, it’s a story you’ll get.
I remember it most clearly on one sweltering hot day. I was slumped uncomfortably against the ridged velvet couch, sweating all over and picking at my shirt collar. I had nothing to do. No friends to go to. No radio signals broadcasting at the moment. So I just lay there, brooding, and picking out my loose teeth. My grandfather was at the other end of the room, reading a dry, crumpled magazine. His ancient face shook as he leaned in close to the paper, squinting and muttering under his breath. Of course, he couldn't read. He blamed it on being drafted at such a young age, but actually his amnesia was too severe for him to pick up any skills. Never picked up anything, that guy. All he could ever remember was the war. Was it real? Maybe. Only he knows. But magical thinking won’t get us anywhere. It could just as well be a story. Anyway, he was leaning back in a rocking chair, the two crescents grinding against the floor with a torturous grating sound. It was like a ticking clock, just taunting me. I rolled over put one hand over the side of my head. My grandfather looked up at me, a bewildered expression on his face.
“Boy. What'cha doing that for?”
I only rolled my eyes back in my head and crossed my arms, staring at a crack in the ceiling.
“I have a name. It's Gus.”
He shook his head slowly, his wrinkled gills opening and closing rapidly, as if they were gasping.
“Do you need something to do, gussy boy?”
He smiled at his own joke, revealing his mostly toothless mouth. I heard a scraping and chuckling as he came closer to my side of the room.
“If you really have so little to do, you could just listen to another war story.”
Before I’d even opened my mouth to reply, he had launched into a narrative.
“It was my fifth day waking on the pavement. I felt like a bag of trash. There was nothing but rubble everywhere you looked. All around me there were wrecked buildings, utterly unrecognizable in the carnage. It was the sixth day in the fight for Dallas –”
I interrupted, already tired of his slow, throaty speech.
“What? Dallas? As in the people city? Isn’t that just a rumor?”
I really didn’t care either way. In that moment, I would have given anything to get the man back to his magazine. Unfortunately, it was futile. He was too absorbed in his nostalgic musing, and when he was absorbed he would lean in. That's how I knew he wasn’t going to stop, I could feel him rasping on my face.
“It was the real deal, alright. Dallas, if a ruined one. Six days. But, I wasn’t exactly counting. It could have been longer. Our squad had been utterly crushed. We were spread out all over the city, speared and separated by a tactic People would call baiting, named after how they would catch animals. We were all over the city, cowering in pits and alleys, hoping that our luck kept up and we’d get rescued before our rations ran out. Anyway, I was sitting there in me trench, wiping the mud off my face. I would have given anything to sleep in some clean water for once. The half-wet mud was still not enough, and I had to lie on my side not to hurt my dorsal fin. Sometimes, I would just lie there for hours, unable to move, frozen in place by the fear. If we were seen even once – it’s over. People shot on sight, you know. Anyway, I was just sitting there, feeling bad for myself, practically crying, and then I hear a voice -- it's not just any voice, though, it was the commander. So I climbed out of the trench, walke through the buildings, and the commander was waiting for me.”
There was a brief silence, only broken by the creaking rocking chair.
“And that's it? That's the entire story?”
I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes. The old guy was just sitting there staring into space, his mouth open slightly. I slowly sat up.
I waved my hand in front of his face, but he didn’t move. At last, his frail lips moved, if only for a second, and he slowly cranked back to life.
“I… I don’t remember what happened next.”
He looked at the ground as though he were ashamed. What I did in that moment I swear never to do again. I was right in the heat of the moment, but I take no pride in what was said. Sitting down and crossing my arms, I just sneered at him. Then, before I had time to think about my actions or what I might cause, I was spitting out words.
“Have you ever stopped to wonder, even just for a second, why you don’t remember these things?”
He looked at me as if he had seen a ghost. However, there was no stopping me once I’d gotten rolling. I took his weakness to my advantage then, in the worst way. I stood up and got close to his face, my rage building.
“You said that all the People died! Worldwide wars, you said! Don’t you think you would have remembered the details? Machines that could do any amount of math in seconds? Cameras so high in the air we can’t see them from the ground? Does any of that seem even the slightest bit far-fetched?!”
My grandpa had his mouth open wide, like he couldn’t believe it himself. He was as white as sand, and his lips quivered. I didn’t miss a beat.
“How could you possibly fight in a war for six years, and not remember being rescued, even after you were stuck under enemy fire FOR FIVE ENTIRE DAYS?”
I was shaking with excitement.
“Ill tell you why. Because none of it was real. Because you’re crazy. You. Are. CRAZY. Try to remember it. For your own sake.”
With that final blow, I sat down. For god-knows-how-long we just sat there and stared at each other. Finally, my grandfather stood up.
“I… need…to go.” He murmured. Grabbing his cane and hat, he slowly trudged out the door, letting it gradually slide shut behind him.”
Gus crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair. The scrawny, unshaven man just stared at him for a few minutes, not sure what to make of his overwhelming tale.
“And you haven’t seen him since?”
“No. Not for five years.”
“Now do you see what I’m doing here?” Gus leaned forward in his chair, his face serious and intense.
“I have to admit…I have no idea how that relates to nitro glycerin.”
“You’ve seen the papers: ‘Delusional man detained after five years in hiding.’”
“Is that him, then?”
“Yes. His case will be taken to court in two weeks.”
“I’m still not seeing the point of all this. This is twenty pounds of explosives, for fuck’s sake. Your daddy-issues story is entertaining, but what are you actually planning to use this on?”
“Look. Martin may not have been crazy. I hope to god he really was, but he might not be. If he is, then I can spare him the courtroom and put him in a home. I’m a doctor. But, if somebody finds proof that he’s sane…”
“He will die in a prison.”
“And once more --“
“I’m getting to it. The thing that points towards his insanity is his belief that humans existed. Now, a major archeological dig is happening not too far away from here. The researchers there think they might have found a pre-war city. If they dig it up, and its there, my old grandpa is spending the rest of his days behind bars. But, if something stops them from making progress --”
“Like an explosion?”
“Yes, precisely, like an explosion… I will have enough time to get Martin in the clear.”
The two men just sat there for a minute, looking at each other. Then, Gus extended his hand.
“Sold.” said the low-life, giving him a firm handshake.
Gus stood up, and picked up the duffle bags with a grunt of exertion. The dealer walked over to the door and held it open for him, letting the last ray of sunshine into the room. “Go get your grandpa back.”
Gus drove more slowly than he ever thought possible in a wheeled vehicle. He would put on a brave face but Gus wasn’t a brave or courageous man. He did what he did because he thought he had to. And when you have twenty pounds of explosives loose in the back of a pick-up truck, lethargic is the keyword. Several other drivers sped past him at alarming rate -- but at the same time, it was completely understandable -- this place was a no-mans land: just vast stretches of dust and the occasional shrub. This open area was no small discomfort for Gus. He was constantly afraid that someone would know, check his vehicle, his person, or worse. But he kept driving at the same rate, slow and steady. Eventually, he had to stop. His hands were shaking like leaves in a storm, and he couldn’t stop gasping. He felt dizzy, and he couldn’t help but step outside for a moment. The sidewalk along the ruined road was crumbling and dusty. Three walls of a building stood here, imperial and foreboding in the flat lands. The doors are windows were either boarded up or gone entirely, and all furniture was already taken. There must have still been some power, however, because a greasy and dust-blasted phone booth still stood. Gus leaned against it for a moment, staring at his bagged burden in the pick up back. He took out his wallet and hurriedly emptied the contents into his hand. A couple of spare coins clinked and jingled in his palm. He clasped one edge of the booth and pulled himself inside, pressing the coins into the machine with sweaty hands. Quickly smashing the numbers into the pad, he whipped the phone up to his face and breathed heavily.
“Gus? Where are you? Your wife is gonna blow a gasket!”
“Tell her I’m fine. I’ll be back soon. I just need to handle some personal business.”
“Is this about grandpa Martin?”
Gus bit his lip. His older sister had been quick to catch up to him. He needed to make sure she didn’t try to follow.
“Gus, please. Come back. It’s not worth it. You’re just putting yourself in danger. We can win the case without this.”
“You don’t understand. My kids need him. I need him. You know that you need him.”
“But Gus –“
“I’m doing it, and you can’t make me stop.”
“Martin isn’t worth throwing your life away!”
“He’s worth more than you and me combined.”
“Why? Is he so important to you that you would–“
Gus couldn’t stand it anymore, and slammed the phone back onto the machine. A mechanical clank and his sister’s voice disappeared. For a while, he couldn’t move. Instead, he slouched there, rubbing his temples. It was all getting worse. But without Martin how would he ever figure out the truth? That was what was important right now. Truth. Finding newfound zealous strength, Gus got up. He stepped back into the pick up truck and started the engine.
The dig site was a cross between a sandbox and a movie set. A gaping hole extended through the dusty plains, and hundreds of bright lights sent brilliant pillars down into the darkness. Stepladders connected makeshift scaffold panels and Gus could hear gigantic machines somewhere far out of sight. Nothing moved but the dust in the wind and not a sound was heard but grinding metal. Gus was sitting on the hood of his truck, bent over to look into the darkness. He had never seen a project this large. This presented him with a vexing problem -- where would he plant an explosive? With so many tunnels and excavations, and only twenty pounds of nitro to go around, he wasn’t sure how much damage he could do. It would only be a matter of time before the sun rose and he needed to work quickly.
He swung over to the side of the truck and dropped down to the sandy floor with a satisfying thump and reached over to the back. Each duffel bag weighed more than his own son and required more than a little effort to heave over to the first ladder. Gus’s heart pounded as he dropped the bags down a platform at a time, following the light shafts to the bottom of the pit. He had never done anything illegal in his life -- and here he was, dutifully climbing down, like a professional. But as composed as he may have looked, Gus’s nerves were excruciating. He whispered to himself to keep focused, in quick rasps under his breath.
“Nobody will know. I’ll be long gone by the time they go off. Everyone here is probably on break or something. They won’t get hurt. They’re too far away. Nobody will get hurt. Nobody will find out. Once they’ve detonated, what evidence will there be? I’ve got to be quiet…”
His internal narrative didn’t end until he heard the thunk of the duffel bags hitting solid rock. This was the bottom. The darkness was choking and dust clouds rolled over the chiseled stone like a herd of slow-moving animals. A couple swinging gas lamps were the only thing that penetrated the miasma. Gus put his sleeve over his face to keep back the thick smog. He couldn’t stay down here, he had to decide. Crouching, he dragged the sacks of explosives to an important looking mass of tubes. It would have to do. Out of his pocket Gus took a long spool of flammable twine. He let out one end and crawled back to the ladder. Before he left, he took one long look back. There could be the most important discovery ever, and he was about to destroy it. He went back up to the surface as fast as he could, and didn’t look back.
When he was back at the truck, Gus took one look back down at the abyss. It was time to choose. He had what was left of the spool on the ground in front of him, and a single burning match in the other. The flame was slowly creeping towards his fingers. He felt so dedicated, but he wasn’t sure anymore. Anything could happen after what he was about to do. What if this affected him? His kids? What if he was found out? Before he could decide, the flames licked his fingers and he dropped the match. It hit the ground, and in the split second before it went out, the fuse ignited.
Gus watched in horror as the dot of light snaked down the thin line towards the bottom. The damage was done. Gus kicked up dust as he leapt into the seat of his truck, and slammed down the gas pedal. He sped down the road like a bat out of hell, tears streaming from his face, and his hands shaking. He didn’t stop once. Not when he passed the phone. Not when he heard the boom in the distance. He went forward as fast as he could until the needle on the gas meter hit empty. Then he sat and cried, out loud and openly, until the sun crept from beyond the mountain range.
Two weeks later, Gus and Martin sat wordlessly together in the twin seats of the truck. They were still and silent, in mutual grief of what they had done to get this far. They were miles from the precinct, but Martin still turned his grizzled face to see it. It had only been five years but Martin looked older by centuries. He was still wearing the clothes he had when he left but now they were tattered and faded. He wore a pair of cracked spectacles and clutched a brand new cane, his hand shaking as always. His lips were pursed and his eyes watery. Finally, Gus swallowed the lump in his throat and spoke.
“Um… When we get home, what will you say to Sena?”
Martin opened his mouth, then closed it, but no noise escaped.
“Is something wrong?” Gus asked, taking care not to look his grandfather in the eye.
“Yes.” The older man slowly spit out. “I’ve done some bad things. You shouldn’t have shown up when you did. I deserved prison.”
Gus spun his head around. “Don’t say that! I worked very hard to get you out of that room. You’re sick, Martin. You can’t handle –”
Martin turned to face Gus, and put one finger to his lips to silence him. “I’m not crazy, Gus. But I’m sick. I must be sick.”
Gus pulled the old man’s crooked finger from his face and shook his head, confused and despairing. “What are you talking about?”
When Martin’s old face turned again to confront his grandson, there were tears in his eyes. “I knew you would do it. Blow up the dig site. In fact…I set it up. I was put into prison because they found me while I was setting up the diversion.”
“To keep the workers out of the dig site…so that they wouldn’t catch you.
“But why would you do this? You knew what it was like before the war. Why would you destroy a project like this?” Gus was subconsciously pressing the brake pedal, stopping right in the middle of the street. People in other care were shouting and screaming, but Gus couldn’t move.
“Because… Because the weapons that they destroyed Dallas with… They can’t be found again. No matter what. If it happens, the war will start over. And maybe you will have to go through what I did.”
Gus was getting hot and dizzy. He felt everything, the words, the sights, the smells, the noise -- all spinning. He saw Martin shaking him, and saying something, but the words all came out wrong. In another minute, he was out.