I sat by the river under the shade of an ash tree. The heat of May had arrived, and the sun beat down upon the water and the banks in the hot afternoon. Beyond that, the buildings stretched for a mile or so until stopping at the fringes of the countryside. Young children played at the waters edge and a couple lied in embrace upon the grass a few meters away. The last spring petals floated along the breeze. It was lunch time and the town had quietened for a little while, the scene was tranquil. Sunset would bring the revelries and debauchery of a town caught between the zealotry of embracing liberalism and the conviction that its particular culture had reached the zenith of moral and intellectual integrity. The result, an ever-growing mess of drugs, violence and suffering beneath the civilised surface.
In the past fifty years immigration had rapidly increased in this part of the world. Statistics doubled each year, outlying ghettos gradually filled up and expanded and the divide along racial, class and religious lines grew ever more pronounced. The various political establishments bickered endlessly over the pros and cons of allowing it to happen on such a scale but the inevitable problem with democracy is that very little is done in time. War and poverty ravaged the south and east and those who suffered moved ever slowly north at any cost. The communists called for open borders, that mass immigration was beneficial, and it had always been beneficial, that all cultures were equal and beautiful, that we were all human on this earth. The right called for isolationism, closed borders and the preservation of Western ideals and societies. To this day, they still do, and it doesn't matter who is right. The cities are overflowing, and crime is rife but as long as the moneyed can remain separated and unaware, change is slow in coming.
I stood and stretched and started the slow walk home. I had missed my lectures this morning, I wasn't in the mood and I knew Emilie wasn't going to be there. She made classes worth it with her wit and warm smiles. I would spend the rest of the afternoon going over notes. I came inside and sat down at my desk and revised till sundown. My phone rang, and Omar asked me if I wanted to join him for a drink with the others, I agreed and headed to the bars. They were packed, but we eventually found a seat and enjoyed the evening. The town was alive, one would think nothing was wrong and that cheerful revelry was all there was. Neon lights flashed, and people danced, laughed and drank. The faces of the young, regardless of race or creed, smiled and bathed in the escapism of the evening. The smell of cigarettes and alcohol hung in the air. I was relatively intoxicated by the end of it, and we said our goodbyes and I began the walk home. The city was bustling.
As I made my home, I took a shortcut through an alley and was lost in thought when I was grabbed from the back of my neck and pushed up against a wall. "Give me your money or I'll fucking cut you." A sharp voice commanded me from behind a balaclava. A sinewy hand gripped my shirt and a knife pressed against my throat. I removed my wallet and placed it in his hand. He looked at it and took off sprinting. It was over in five seconds. I spent the rest of the walk home in shock, sat down on my bed and stared at the roof.
How could I have let him do that? A real man would have grabbed him and turned the knife away with some skill he would have practiced. No, a real man would have chased him down the road and overpowered him. Maybe, maybe he probably wouldn't even have stabbed me if I said no. All other opportunities were open to me and I hadn't taken any of them. I was a coward, a despicable coward. I didn't sleep until 7am as I chain smoked out the window and took sips of my last bottle of wine.
I woke up at 1pm feeling hungover but convicted. I went to the bank and cancelled my card, inquiring into whether a GPS tracking system was possible on cards. They said no, but my card hadn't been used anywhere else. I cancelled it, applied for another and withdrew some money. I then went to the nearest weapons and self defence store and surveyed the goods. A black switch blade winked at me, I asked to take it out. I held it in my hand, its cold, smooth, sharp edge held cruel power. The feeling of it in my hand made me feel equipped and capable. The quivering mass of fear within me stilled as I flicked it in and out. I bought it immediately and put it in my pocket.
The next few days passed uneventfully. I visited my parents in their countryside house over the weekend and we sat with drinks in the garden in the late summer light. I had always had a primeval feeling come over me at this time of day. Something told me that one hundred years ago, our nation would have been deserving of such fine weather. But now, our society was corrupted and changed. Sick from the inside out, infected. Such thoughts came to me more and more often, and I did my best to shake them form my head. Such ideological musings never helped anyone.
"Where is Alice?" I inquired after my sister.
"She's spending the weekend with her new boyfriend in town." Replied my mother.
"Oh, is he nice?"
"Pleasant enough if a bit, rough around the edges I suppose."
I thought I caught my father scowling slightly out of the corner of my eye.
"She's young, she has much to learn I suppose."
I didn't push the subject further as I wanted to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in tranquillity. I fingered the knife through my pocket as I basked in the sun.
I returned to university the following week. I had assignments due and had to start writing. I spent my days between the library and my house, going out for a beer every third or fourth day. I enjoyed the routine and felt relatively at peace. Meanwhile, to the south, riots had erupted in one of the coastal towns and a religious group had taken over a neighbourhood and was demanding the installation of their religious living system in the city. I never let the knife leave my side.
One night I stayed home later that usual in the library in order to complete the word count for an essay I had been putting off. I stood up and walked out before I ran into Emilie. She gave me her warmest smile and my stomach fluttered a bit. "Hi Emile! how are you?" I asked her.
"I'm fine, I see you're here late as well?" She asked, brushing back her thick brown curls.
"Yes, but I'm done now and heading home. What are you up to?"
"If you wait twenty minutes for me I need to print something off and then we can go get something to eat?" She warm brown eyes swirled hypnotically.
"Ye - yeah sure! I'll wait in the atrium."
She smiled and skipped off. I met her after twenty minutes and we went to eat. We then went for a drink which turned into two which turned into a bottle of wine on her balcony. She chatted to me about her thesis, feminism and the European enlightenment. She spoke with such innocence yet such clarity. Her ideas were free of political bias, hatred or condemnation of other peoples' way of life, unlike so much other rhetoric. She merely presented ideas she liked, and thought had benefitted humanity. Even if I disagreed with her on some points, she showed nought but benevolence. I felt the knife in my pocket and felt slightly inferior to her. The night ended as one would expect, and I left at around four in the morning ecstatic and love drunk.
I walked home, once again lost in thought and hence only noticed the third time he called my name. I turned back to see a hooded man leering at me. "Give me a cigarette." He barked.
"I don't have one man, sorry."
He took two steps towards me.
"I saw you smoking along the way here."
"Yeah well sorry, I'm out." I lied.
"Don't fucking lie to me, give it me." He took another step towards me.
I was drunk, and the first thing that went through my mind was the boy in the balaclava, his sinewy knuckles against my face as he demanded my money, those eyes so dead and full of hatred and contempt for me. He had perceived me as prey, and I saw the same in the eyes of the man in front me. As he took another step towards me, I pulled out my knife and plunged it into his chest. His eyes went wide with surprise, as he realised what I had done, and he sank to the floor. I looked around me, the street was empty, and I ran into my apartment, hands in my pocket to hide the blood. I ran into my room, drenched in blood and washed, I stuffed all my bloody clothes into a plastic bag and vomited. I paced my room all night, smoking and feeling a sense of increasing panic. They would find me, I had killed him, he hadn't attacked me, I had just stabbed him. I lay down and must have fallen asleep eventually, because I woke up to my phone ringing and an awful hangover. It was my sister.
"Are you awake?" She asked, her voice cracking and distressed.
"Yes, what is it?" I asked worriedly.
"I wanted to call mom and dad, but they would be too worried about me, so I decided to call you first."
"Okay, what is it?"
"Someone stabbed my boyfriend last night. They think it might be gang related. I'm with the police for tonight and tomorrow just in case the riots reach up here too and I'm targeted for affiliation. Please tell mom and dad, I can't be fucked to have them worried about me whilst I'm feeling like this. Thank you."
"Yeah, sure, sure." I said slightly stunned.
"They'll let me know who it was by tomorrow, they have the video footage."
My stomach dropped.
"Where was he stabbed?" I tried to sound casually curious.
"In an alley by St. Victor's church."
"Okay Alice, I'll tell mom and dad. Hope you're okay!" I doubted my voice sounded convincingly sympathetic, but I think she bought it. That was it. I was going to be caught if I didn't get the fuck out of here. I hung up and packed everything I had, including the knife, and ran outside. I went straight to the bank and withdrew everything I had left. I knew exactly what I was going to do.
I ran home and unlocked the back door with my key. I told mom and dad I was just here to pick something up. I had an old camping tent I used to use when I was a child in the back garden. I packed that and a sleeping bag and left again. I stopped at a convenience store and stocked up on food and cigarettes. That would do for now. I took the first train into the countryside. At the third stop, I got out and walked. I broke my phone and its sim card and threw it into a bush. I kept walking.
I was familiar with this area. We went hiking here several times but not so often as to be a suspected haunt. I had even taken Emily once here on a hiking trip as friends, and it was then that I fell in love with her. There were very deep woods and a river a few miles out. I would stay there. As I walked, my fear decreased, and my anger grew. The man I had killed was little more than a low life scoundrel, accosting people on the street for cigarettes. He had deserved to die, and now I would pay the price. I walked on in the sweltering summer sun.
The fields rose and fell. Sheep wondered at my arrival and farmers drove their tractors along. The countryside was pretty, but rather boring. I had always preferred the woods. They spoke of purity, untamed by man's unending desire to tame and order whatever he came into contact with. By sundown, I had found the path into the woods. I walked into the trees.
The path underfoot crunched slightly as I walked. Birds chirped in the branches above and a silence overpowered all. The beauty of the still woods settled my heart of the incessant guilt, fear and anger. I hurried along to set up camp before sundown.
I caught the last rays of sun as I lit the fire and sat by my tent. The stream gurgled along softly, and I breathed in the cooling evening wind. I ate some bread and meat and drank from a bottle of water. I suddenly remembered the previous night with Emilie. I yearned to be back with her and felt incredibly sad and tired all of a sudden. I crept into bed.
I awoke to the birds chirping and a fine spring morning. I stretched and smelled the air and took a piss. The outside world felt fresh, and it was good to be alive. As I ate, I tried to discern how guilty I felt over what I had done and discovered not that bad. The man I had killed was a bad person and I was a good person, that much I knew and was sure of, and it was all I needed. I cleaned my face in the river after breakfast and began to search for more firewood when I heard a crackle behind me.
"Put your hands up." Two policemen stood facing me with their guns drawn. I put my hands up, Emily stood behind them. She looked sheepish, guilty and afraid.
"How did you find me?"
"You're on every CCTV between here and the city, and once we interrogated her, she had some good suggestions and it was easy enough to find you."
"Am I under arrest?"
I felt the knife in my pocket. If I went to jail I would go down for a hate crime, I wouldn't survive on the inside. I had been a coward once, I had been a coward twice for killing an unarmed man, I would make up for it now, I stepped back towards the river.
"Stop!" The policeman barked. I kept walking. My hand went to my pocket and pulled out the knife.
"This is your last warning, stop!" I put the knife to my throat.
Emily screamed, "no!"
I felt it's cool, smooth blade pull slightly on my skin as it went across my throat. I felt the blood pour across my chest and I felt as I walked backwards the water came up to my knees. I turned around and dived in to the current. The current felt cold and sharp against the wound on my throat, but I pushed further into the water as I felt myself losing strength. I wondered if I would get as far as the southern cities by the ocean where the riots were, to have my corpse picked apart by fish and my memory forgotten. I smiled and hoped.