Time to Choose

A short story by Tina Konstant

One of them has to die.

That’s just a fact. As certain as the sun rising on Jeremiah Pope that morning and as certain as it will set on him that night. The three month rent on the house he took to watch the two people he was choosing between was almost up. In one week he’d have to move on. Less than a week: six days.

He let his gaze shift between the man and the woman separated by brick, wood, a little plaster and a lot of attitude. He liked to give himself real choices. If he was choosing between two men or two women or two children or two geriatrics, then he might as well toss a coin. Today’s choice is between a 26 year old man and a 22 year old woman. It wasn’t so much their ages or their genders that differentiated them. There was something else entirely that made the choice difficult.

“Billy! You Wanker!” the woman screamed from the front door as her partner and father of two of her four children stalked out the house raising his middle finger without turning to see if she’d noticed. It was 7.15 in the morning and the woman was wearing a red negligee that didn’t hide much from anyone. No doubt half the street was watching -the men grinning, the women shaking their heads, embarrassed for their kind. For a moment Jeremiah Pope wondered if the woman had any underwear on.  Didn’t matter. He wasn’t interested in the frivolous aspect of anatomy he was more interested in the psychology of mortality. That’s why he liked choices. A 22-year-old mother was going to have a different response to death compared to a 27-year-old bachelor.

“You’re a whore!” Billy the Wanker yelled at Kathy-May, then climbed into a white Audi that he valued more than his childrens’ education, jerked the vehicle in reverse and skidded into the road.

Choices, choices. Jeremiah rubbed his face with latex gloved hands. Maybe it should be her. The kids would thank him. As would Billy the Wanker, no doubt. Jeremiah spread his hands on the scrubbed, bleached kitchen counter and turned his attention from Kathy-May to the man next door.

That man had almost caused Jeremiah to shut this project down. Something he’d never done before. Jeremiah took in a deep breath, then let it out. It had been a close call, a good one though. Someone else used to live in the house next to Kathy-May. A 59-year-old widower. Then one day, with no warning at all, the old man moved out. Just left. The next day, Angus Fairchild moved in. He arrived with a small, battered suitcase and nothing more.

Jeremiah was only three weeks into his project, so he’d have forgiven himself if he’d cancelled it and moved on. But Angus Fairchild was so perfect.

A man of habit. Unusual in one so young. Jeremiah had enjoyed uncovering his life. He was born in London and had traveled as far as China in the East and Chile in the West. Unlike Kathy-May, there was no TV in the house. He’d asked the landlord to remove it. He didn’t like distraction.

For the last eight weeks Jeremiah had done more than watch Angus Fairchild, he’d studied him.

Angus Fairchild woke at exactly 4.52 a.m. every day. Compared to Kathy-May who woke whenever her children started to scream, Billy the Wanker stumbled in from a night out or her best friend and dealer, Elanda, dropped by.

Angus always got up immediately, put on his trainers and a tracksuit and was out the door for a run by 5 a.m. precisely. The run lasted exactly 60 minutes and he walked back into his house at 6 a.m. with a Telegraph under his arm which he picked up at Frankie’s Corner shop – open 5.30 a.m. ‘til late. After a shower, Angus would sit at his kitchen table at 6.20 a.m. and eat scrambled egg on rye toast, then he’d read the paper until 8.30 a.m.

Jeremiah glanced at his watch and straightened his cuff. 7.23 a.m. Angus Fairchild turned the pages of his paper as Kathy-May seemed to forget how angry she’d been and stretched a grin across her face as Elanda parked a black Mini Cooper in front of the house. Nineteen stone at least, the woman lived well on her friend’s addiction.

Jeremiah watched as Angus glanced up from his paper to see Elanda stride up the path to his neighbour’s door and knock. He returned to his paper as Kathy-May let her in.

No wonder neighbours don’t talk, Jeremiah thought. It wasn’t possible to get two more opposite people in such close proximity.

It made the choice all the more difficult. Six days. That included the time he needed to manage the police, the media and the fallout death brings with it. In truth, he only had 48 hours. In 48 hours he had to choose and exercise that choice. He rolled a coin over his left knuckles. Tossing it was not good. He’d tried and it felt like cheating. No, the choice had to be his. Always had been. This wasn’t his first project. Jeremiah pressed his fingers against his temples. “Come one, come on. Think, think and choose!”

He never really understood how he chose but usually it wasn’t so difficult. He would watch two people for a while and then just know which one had to go. There didn’t seem to be a pattern. But there was clarity. Always. The choice was always made within the first two weeks of watching which left him the rest of the three months to focus on one person. One subject. One specimen.

But when the old man left and Angus Fairchild moved in, Jeremiah felt momentarily lost. He hadn’t expected it. He’d done his research. There was no reason for the previous occupier to move house. Now, everything felt rushed.

The move had saved the old man’s life. He had been chosen. He was next. Jeremiah Pope had all but forgotten about Kathy-May and her kids and her dealer friend, Elanda and Billy the Wanker and the cigarettes she smoked while her children ate dry toast for breakfast in front of a 52 inch TV.

Jeremiah hadn’t chosen Kathy-May because the thought of spending even a moment in her tiny two-up, two-down with a discarded mattress littering the front yard and a caravan on blocks taking up the tiny, overgrown back yard made him want to use a sniper rifle on her and not the up-close and personal kitchen knife he preferred.

Jeremiah could have stuck to his plan and left Kathy-May alone, but Angus Fairchild was different. He had control and discipline and a peace about him that seemed almost inhuman. Jeremiah wanted to sketch him and send the drawings to the National Geographic to say Look, I’ve found a new species.

8.24 a.m. Nothing obvious happening at Kathy-May’s house. He turned his attention back to Angus Fairchild’s kitchen window. He’d be just about finishing the Telegraph, then he’d…

Jeremiah frowned and checked his watch. Not possible. Angus never changed his routine. Never. “No, no, no!” Jeremiah almost whimpered. “I’ve made my choice. I’ve chosen her. I chose her because you’re so perfect. You deserve to be enjoyed and studied. You belong in the world to maintain balance. You stand on one side of the scale to offset the likes of Kathy-May on the other.” Jeremiah closed his eyes for a moment. Of course, he thought. That’s how I’ve made my choices. He smiled. Unbelievable. How had he never seen it before?

There was a pattern. He always chose the person who gave less to the world. He took out the trash. Cleared out the rubbish. A Samaritan, that’s what he was. He provided a public service.

Right back to his first choice. That had been between a 19 year-old boy and a 36-year-old woman. She was a nursery school teacher. The boy was studying law. He had chosen the woman. The boy would one day put thieves and carjackers in jail. The woman had to go.

Then he chose between a Vietnam War veteran who sat in his house getting drunk on cheap brandy and a guy who ran a local chemist. He chose the chemist. Why? The old man had survived a war. How many lives had he saved? Countless. The chemist was replaceable. The chemist had to go.

Then there was a nine-year-boy and his 31-year-old father. Jeremiah had never chosen between two people in the same family before. He liked it. The father was a doctor. A clever man. A good man. But there was potential in the boy. Jeremiah could see it in his eyes. Untold potential. The father had to die.

That had been a difficult choice. It wasn’t so much the choice between what two people were, but what they could be.

The boy had found the father’s body. It was wonderful. Everything Jeremiah dreamed of. The tears, the fear, the fury. Even in one so young. The fury had been palpable. It had been a hard choice, but a good one. Same as today. This had been a hard choice, but it was a good one. Angus Fairchild would live. The woman had to die.

Jeremiah stretched his arms above his head and laughed out loud. He’d been sweating! My god, sweat dripped down his back. He laughed again and strode through the sparsely furnished house. He’ll be happy to see the end of it in six days.

At last, the real work could begin. The choice was the hard part – the thinking – the act of God. Now that the decision was made it was time for the clear unfolding of resolution. He’d do it immediately. Why not? No need to delay or extend the suffering of her children any further. Billy the Wanker was out and would be all day. Elanda would leave soon. She never stayed more than two hours. Just enough to dose the kids up to make them sleep for the rest of the day giving Kathy-May “a break, babe. I just need a break. Is that such a big ask?” “No,” Elanda smiled and crushed a tab into their peanut butter sandwiches.

That would leave Kathy-May. Just Kathy-May, alone, a little high, a little out, a little loose, a little easy.

Jeremiah smiled and chose an eighteen inch, stainless steel carving knife from his set and waited for Elanda to leave.

She didn’t disappoint. 9.20 a.m. she stepped out the house, waved spiked, painted fingernails without turning around and directed her six inch patent leather boots between the twisted metal and weeds in the garden. Reaching her car, she glanced briefly towards the house and tucked notes into her bra, then got into her car and drove away without looking back.

Jeremiah glanced briefly at Angus Fairchild’s kitchen window. Still not there. But then it was 9.20 and he was always in the shed in the back of the house, painting. Ocean scenes. Water colours. Jeremiah wasn’t an admirer of art, but even he liked them. They were simple paintings that seemed to tell a tale. Probably from his childhood. A beach scene. A child running on the sand with parents looking on. All smiling. All happy.

Jeremiah breathed deep. A good choice. Angus Fairchild needed to live so he could find that happy place again.

It took Jeremiah exactly 22 minutes to change from the black shirt and trousers he liked to wear while he watched, into the “every-man” costume he’d chosen to blend into the estate. Faded jeans, off-white T-shirt, grey tracksuit top with a zip up the front. No hat or sun glasses. The weather wasn’t cold or bright enough for either. The jacket was thick enough to conceal the knife. He needed no more and no less. 22 minutes. Target ready.

He took two minutes to cross the road and get into Kathy-May’s house through the back door. He’d been there a total of 34 times since the project started. Research. He had to know the layout of the premises. He had to get the vibrations of the lives that lived there under his skin. He knew what he’d find because he’d found it before. Four sleeping children and one hazy, lazy, dopy Kathy-May.

With the blade wrapped in a cotton cloth and nestled comfortably against his skin, Jeremiah watched the children, all asleep with half eaten sandwiches at their feet and the TV on mute. Silence. Beautiful. Calm before storm and all that. Angus Fairchild’s beach came to Jeremiah’s mind and he smiled. Happy places. This was his happy place.

The kids would have a chance now. Hope. Bill the Wanker wouldn’t qualify as a single father. Social Services would step in and take the children away. Maybe they’ll find their way to a happy place, just like Angus, just like Jeremiah.

This will be Jeremiah’s 19th project and by far, he decided, the best. Maybe it was time to retire? Maybe he should quit at the top? Maybe it was time to hand over the task of clearing out the trash to someone else? Maybe it was time for him to spend days on the beach?

Treading lightly and avoiding boards he knew creaked, he glanced left into a toilet that stank like it hadn’t been flushed and right into the kitchen where he knew Kathy-May would be. Her head would be resting on one arm on the kitchen table, her other arm flopping uselessly beside her, knuckles reaching for the floor. She’d be moaning quietly, whispering words from a dream she wished was her life. She wouldn’t feel a thing. She wouldn’t scream or plead. Jeremiah didn’t mind. He didn’t want a fight. Not this time. He wanted quiet like rolling oceans and sand under his feet.

He turned into the kitchen and frowned.

This wasn’t right.

That was out of place. The painting didn’t belong there. What was Angus Fairchild’s painting doing in Kathy-May’s kitchen?

“No!” Jeremiah snapped like a teacher scolding a child who persistently broke the rules. He reached under his jacket for his knife, put it on the kitchen table next to Kathy-May then gripped the painting with both hands. This was supposed to be a special day. Now he was going to kill the screeching bitch, then he’d have to slice Angus Fairchild’s painting to ribbons, then deal with Angus Fairchild himself. What was the man doing? Things are beautiful when they’re in their place. Put a rose in a pile of shit and the rose is no longer exquisite.

“Am I spoiling things?”

Jeremiah let go of the painting and glanced to his side. His knife wasn’t where he’d put it. It was in the hands on the man standing behind him.

“Angus?” Jeremiah glanced at his watch. 10.03. Angus Fairchild should be painting, not standing in Kathy-May’s house spoiling things. Yes, that’s exactly what he was doing. He was spoiling things!

“Yes you are,” Jeremiah said, searching for Angus behind him in the window reflections.

“I’ll be brief then.” Angus Fairchild slid the blade carefully between the cracks of Jeremiah Pope’s spine rendering his legs useless.

“Oh, God,” Jeremiah gasped and tried to turn around to look more closely at Angus Fairchild’s eyes.

Angus did the polite thing and moved around so Jeremiah could see him. “Do you see me now?” he asked, polite, like this was the first time they’d ever met when they both knew it wasn’t.

“You… I didn’t choose you…”

Angus smiled. “No, you didn’t. You didn’t choose me last time we met either. I’m beginning to feel offended. Like perhaps you aren’t fond of me.”

Last time? “You…” Jeremiah tried to focus on his breathing but it was too hard and too fast. “You had potential.” Jeremiah wasn’t looking at Angus Fairchild anymore. No, this wasn’t Angus Fairchild. How had he not seen it? This was James Magus, nine years old, son of the doctor and the housewife. The boy with potential. The boy with the tears and the fear and the fury.

New name, some years, same eyes.

“You should have chosen me,” Angus Fairchild said, then pressed the blade under Jeremiah’s chin and, with expert and evenly applied pressure, pushed the blade through his chin, his tongue, the roof of his mouth and into his brain.

“Potential.” Those were the last words the knife chased out of Jeremiah’s mind. “The boy has such potential.”