Snap judgement

Fred’s fat ass made a beautiful target for my big yellow school bus as he bent over the trunk of his Mercedes, and fussed with his groceries. I coasted silently towards him not fast, but with enough kinetic energy to splatter his body like a ripe tomato and mix it with the pulverized remains of his car.

I’d never thought seriously of killing another person until that pin-striped corporate toady terminated my employment without cause two weeks earlier.

I had about ten seconds before impact. I wasn’t worried about witnesses. This was a lonely parking lot of a 24-hour grocery store at midnight in the dead of a North Atlantic winter. People are too busy keeping warm to look around as they head to their cars.

I had become familiar with this parking lot because I needed a job and Shopmart needed somebody to bring its scattered shopping carts back into the store. The job came with unexpected benefits. I began to recognize Fred by the fake-fur overcoat he wore on his regular midnight shopping expeditions. And I learned how ridiculously easy it is to steal a 40-foot, $100,000 school bus. (Drivers tuck the keys behind the window visor so somebody else can fill in if they don’t show up for work.)

I had designated this particular Saturday as the last day of Fred’s life. I had already warmed up my bus and located Fred’s overcoat in the meat section as he hovered over the chicken breasts. I followed his furry form past the vegetables and into breakfast cereals. Then, as he lined up at the cash register I headed towards my bus, fingering the keys in my pocket. I knew it wouldn’t be long before he left the store.

I had welcomed Fred into my office the day he’d fired me from my job as editor of the Podunk Weekly Press. I had been expecting praise for my work and conversation about my future with the company. But he’d stomped in with a thick-necked security guard and thrown a letter onto my desk. It said I had made too many snap judgements and that too many stories had contained factual errors. I had discredited the newspaper chain and I was to clean out my desk immediately.

I’ve been fired lots of times, but never from a job I cared about. I had been editor of the Podunk Post for just three months but I had transformed the paper from a tedious collection of press releases and charity banquets to a scandal sheet that flew off the news stands and smashed sales targets.

Our secret formula was gossip. My reporters had grown up in the town. “You already know what’s going on,” I told them in one of our weekly coffee meetings. “So why aren’t you writing it? Don’t get bogged down with the facts. Write what you know, or think you know.”

I had become a force to be reckoned with. Politicians nodded to me on the street; waiters remembered my favourite sticky bun; I never got parking tickets and best of all, ordinary, God-fearing Podunkians stopped me on the streets with their malicious story ideas.

Take Tom Smith for example. Yeah he was the town drunk but he saw a lot of stuff from his park bench and his brain was pretty sharp. “I saw Mrs Peabody go into the Royal Grande Splendide with Mayor McGillicutty,” he told me. The tip was easy to check. I wandered into the lobby and told the man at the desk that I had an envelope for his honour. “Room 271” he replied.

It was the easiest journalistic coup I’d ever made. I just stood outside the door and listened. “Oh! Tom!” screeched a female voice. “Oh! Yes! Yes! YES!” and words to that effect.

And a great-looking front page it made, too. “Oh! Tom!” screamed the headline in 200 point second-coming type. Everybody knew our insufferably righteous mayor was boffing the nubile Ms Amelia Peabody, except maybe William Peabody. The story wasn’t long on detail as the participants failed to return my calls. But I did hear from William Peabody. He called me at 3 a.m. to share his feelings about our newspaper and journalists like me but kept stumbling over his words and started snoring in mid rant.

We did a follow-up story the next Monday. It was a church service after Peabody’s untimely death due to a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol. It seems he never woke up after cursing me over the phone. The church was jam-packed. I sat in the back row, wearing my trusty false nose and glasses. Peabody was described as a loving family man, a loyal parishioner, energetic Rotarian and the kind-hearted manager of our local hardware store. Yeah, I put all that drivel in my article, an homage to the journalistic truism that there are at least two sides to every story. And I wanted to get our company lawyers off my back.

But the lawyers insisted there were three sides: My version, our smarmy followup and the truth.

Damn the truth! How was I to know I was listening outside the wrong door, and that the exclamations of joy and passion came from a TV soap opera? The mayor had been in Room 217, not 271, listening to a presentation by Ms Peabody, president of the town Parks and Recreation Committee.

All that stuff was recounted in Fred’s letter. More corporate weasel words like judgement, integrity and due diligence.

Seven seconds to impact.

Being fired turns you in a pariah. My former co-workers wouldn’t answer my emails and even unfriended me on Facebook. We’d had fun in our short time together, going to the pub on Fridays, where the waiter remembered my favourite craft beer, and talking about the stories we’d like to do. I hated losing that.

I especially hated losing Mary, our fledgling reporter with the blue eyes and golden hair. We’d had many companionable afternoons teaming up for our person-in-the-street interviews. She’d handle the writing and I’d take the pictures. Then I’d buy the coffee and bask in her adoring gaze as I dispensed pearls of journalistic wisdom. “Don’t let anything get between you and your goal,” I’d tell her. “Think about your career. Strategize.” I loved those blue eyes but I didn’t see the little wheels turning behind them.

She had begun taking my advice to heart and used her looks to coax secrets from her male interview subjects. I began calling her my blonde barracuda. She developed predator’s taste for bylines.

Five seconds to impact.

The passenger door popped open on the Mercedes. A tall woman with silky blonde hair stepped out, blinking into my headlights. Omigod! Mary!

I shut my eyes to hide from the dreadful reality. The bus lurched on, a metallic zombie without a driver.

But I couldn’t hide from the truth. That scheming vixen had deployed those calculating blue eyes on Fred and convinced him to give her my job! Now her life was in my hands. Could I take it?

Three seconds to impact.

Mary had her hands over her face, shielding her eyes from my headlights. Suddenly I thought of a better way. Let them live! Mary would make Fred suffer more than I ever could. He’d die a slow, painful death under her spiked heels, just another stepping stone in her relentless quest for success.

One second to impact.

I wrenched the wheel to the right, brought the bus to a halt beside them and opened the window. “Mary!” I shouted. “Good for you! What a catch! And Fred! You think she cares about you? You don’t know what you’ve got yourself in for! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

And then Mary pulled her hands away from her face to reveal a pair of brown eyes and a mouth full of braces. The tall blonde I’d thought was Mary was a teenage girl. And that wasn’t Fred, peering over the trunk either, unless he’d grown a Van Dyke beard in two weeks.

You stupid shit!” said Fred, or whoever he was. The girl began to cry.

I drove away, nearly weeping myself, with the relief that I hadn’t gone through with my original plan. A mile down the highway I aimed the bus into a snowbank, wiped the prints off the steering wheel and left by the emergency rear exit.

I still keep track of Mary. She got Fred’s job after a few months and did wonders with the company website. Married the designer, actually.

Fred got married too. To his boyfriend. They moved to Bermuda. Who knew?

As for me, I still patrol the parking lot and play bass in the blues band. And every time I see a guy in a fake fur coat I jump. It happens a lot. If I’d known how many guys wore that coat I probably would have found some other way to identify Fred from behind.

Those snap judgements will be the death of me.

1 thought on “Snap judgement

  1. This one was difficult for me. On the one hand, I like the structure a lot, the fact that it takes place mostly over ten seconds or so. On the other, I dislike the main character rather a lot and find it difficult to care about his plight. It’s partly a personal thing as his brand of cynical, who-cares-about-the-truth journalism just really … bugs me, shall we say. I am also getting that’s he isn’t necessarily *meant* to be likeable. Nevertheless, it was a barrier for me. I found myself in an odd position where I had no sympathy for his desire to kill Fred, but nor did I really care if he did, since I don’t really know anything about Fred, except he appears to have more integrity than the main character.

    So I don’t really know what to suggest. As I said, I do really like the way it’s structured. And I think you’re on to something with the ending, those two final paragraphs. I’m getting – though it’s quite possibly wish-fulfilment – a sense of comeuppance that I wish you’d go further with. I wish the character had seen more consequences, fallen a bit further, but I can’t think of anything specific off the top of my head. I do really like the image of him jumping every time he sees a guy in a fake fur coat – though I’m probably imagining it in a more ‘cowed’ sort of way than you mean.

    I think what I’m working my way towards here is that for this story to work better for me, I’d need at least one of the following:
    • To be able to sympathise with the main character’s goal. He can be unlikeable, but then his antagonist must be more so.
    • To have an emotional connection to whether Fred lives or dies, either through care for Fred himself or care about the main character potentially throwing away his future.
    • For there to be a strong sense of either comeuppance or character change for the main character at the end. I can deal with not liking a character if he gets his “just deserts” or learns from the experience.

    On a more practical note, I’m finding it difficult to imagine a 40-foot school bus easily making its way around a grocery store parking lot and even harder to fathom why he isn’t worried about witnesses: a school bus in use at midnight would be noticeable, I feel, and even if people aren’t paying attention *as* he crashes it, surely they’d notice afterwards? And what about CCTV?

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