Although Franklin had what many would see as being one of the most terrible jobs in the world, he had grown to accept it over the years. The pay was half-decent, and yes, the work could get quite messy, and many of the things which he had seen while on the job would remain etched in his memory: things which would be enough to drive many people insane. Still, he had job security and he knew there were others who were much worse off than he was, so he tried to remain as optimistic as possible, despite the fact that on some days this proved very challenging.
The actual job title was 'transit maintenance associate,' and most people thought that the main responsibilities were merely cleaning up around the tunnels, as well as performing light maintenance duties on the tracks. Franklin wished that that was all that was required of him. Unfortunately, there was a much darker aspect to the job which few knew about, or even wanted to think about. There were suicides which occurred, people ending their lives by jumping in front of the trains. Why on earth they chose to do this in such an overtly visible and grotesque way in front of a bunch of strangers, he would never understand. Yet, they did, and someone had to go down there and clean up after it happened. That was the difficult and repellent part of the job.
Franklin and a few of his co-workers were responsible for cleaning everything up on the tracks and in and around the subway station platforms. It was dirty and dusty crawling about down on the old subway tracks, cleaning up debris and refuse. He often saw mice and sometimes even large rats scurrying across the ground in front of him. There was a thick, filthy smell that filled one's nostrils, like the old, foul stench of dried urine mixed with moldy, watery sewage. It was dark, despite the faint light of the small circular bulbs which were embedded in the side walls, so he always carried a flashlight when he was going into the enclosed parts of the tunnels. The trains usually stopped running around 1:30 am, so that was when he and the others went down into the darker, enclosed depths of the tunnels. Strangely enough, though, that was the part of the job that he really didn't mind too much. It was the things that happened out on the platforms that were the worst. Sometimes there would be a long time where nothing would happen. Months, sometimes even up to three or four, would pass with no one jumping. But then there would be two or three in a matter of days. The Christmas season was the worst. It was well known that there were more suicides at that time of year than any other. But why, oh why, did they do it in such a horribly gruesome way?
An incident a year ago on Christmas Eve had been particularly horrific. Franklin and Floyd (a co-worker) had been sent down onto the tracks to remove the remains of a mother who had jumped in front of a train and pulled her two young children, a boy and a girl, both pre-schoolers, onto the tracks with her. They had to remove the ravaged, torn and mangled remains while a huge sea of gawkers looked on, wide-eyed on the platforms, staring at the atrocity as if transfixed by some magnetic, nightmarish urge to see these abhorrent things. He tried to shut them out of his vision, to ignore them, but he could not. He knew that they were there, and their fascination with such a horror appalled him. Imagine if it was one of your children that I was picking up from here, you cold despicable, heartless bastards, he thought. But then he remembered that some of them were not looking because they wanted to, but simply because it was so difficult not to. They were merely following their instincts. Most of them didn't want to look, but like that old analogy of the car crash on the side of the street, they just couldn't help it.
They never called the paramedics, either. And why would they? There was no point. No one who was hit by one of these trains survived. So the burden fell upon him to remove the mangled, crushed remains.
As they removed the remains and waited for the authorities to arrive at the scene and proceed with the grim business that lay ahead, Floyd ran one hand through the oily, frizzy, thinning mess of tangled black and grey hair atop his head, glanced at Franklin and said, "This was a tough one for me. Usually I can handle it, we've both seen a lot of ugly shit down here but this one was one of the worst. I don't know if I'm going to be able to sleep too well tonight. You want to go grab a few beers after?"
"Yeah," said Franklin, staring down at the damp, coal-black ground, "yeah, I think I'm going to need a few drinks tonight."
The bar that they went to was a familiar place to Franklin. He had come here quite often in his early twenties, and although the place had changed significantly since then, he still felt quite at home here. He was now forty years old. Those youthful nights spent partying with friends until dawn were long behind him. But it was hard not to occasionally look back with a nostalgic fondness on the times he had spent at this bar. So he returned here whenever he could. The atmosphere was much more laid-back now. It was quieter. A different crowd came in: no longer the wide-eyed, fresh-faced college students who downed beer after beer with a purely carefree joviality that could only come from knowing that the untraveled open-roads of their lives lay waiting ahead of them. Now, there were older, more mature folks. Professionals, who wore the jaded expressions of their acquired knowledge that life was much less exciting as the years passed, and that it became more of a series of routines and repetitions that were dull and tedious, unlike those exciting, carefree days which they had enjoyed in their youth. As he took a swig of his beer and glanced at some of the faces around him, Franklin thought that this was even more evident tonight. There were around fifteen others in the musty, dimly-lit pub, but he wondered why they couldn't have found some place better to be on Christmas Eve.
"You get all your shopping done?" Floyd said.
"Gifts. Christmas presents, I mean."
"Ah. Yeah, I only have two people to buy for. My parents are both living down in Florida now. They moved there last year, so I usually just send them a yearly subscription to National Geographic, my mom really likes that, and a pair of gift cards for dinner at one of the local restaurants down there."
"Yeah," Franklin said, then finished the last of his beer and waved the bartender over to order another. He felt a painful tingling in his head, but it was a pain that was almost good. The beer was hitting him with a quicker buzz due to his physical fatigue. The bartender laid another large pint glass in front of him, he nodded, then lifted it up and tipped a third of it into his mouth.
"What about you? Did you buy all your gifts yet?"
"Yup. Got everything done early this year. There's nothing I hate more than having to walk around a crowded mall at the last minute, waiting in all those packed check-out lines, so I took care of it all in October. Bought the wife a nice new dress and some perfume, and each of my kids the toys they wanted."
"That's great," said Franklin, staring absently at the small TV set that was mounted in a corner, above the bar. The late night news was briefly interrupted by a series of cliché filled advertisements. He watched the bright images flicker and dance across the screen, but his thoughts were elsewhere. His thoughts were on what had happened that evening.
After a long time, Floyd said "It was pretty bad, I know. I know exactly what you're thinking. This is going to be a tough one to forget. Especially with it being on Christmas Eve, and all."
"Yeah," said Frankin, gulping down the last of his second beer, then holding his hand up to catch the attention of the bartender and let him know that he was ready for a third.
"I know people do this stuff all the time. You and me both know it. We've seen it many times. Far too often. But this one really got to me, man. Those two kids were barely out of diapers, just preschoolers."
"They had no chance. It wasn't right. It was appalling. All of them are."
"When I was picking up what was left of the little girl I looked at her eyes. I didn't want to, but for some reason I just couldn't look away. There was a look of such helplessness, such horror, it was like she wanted to cry out and say 'Mommy, why would you do this to us?' But she couldn't, because she didn't have a chance."
The bartender set another glass of beer down in front of Franklin and he felt himself shuddering inside as he put it to his lips. He wondered if this was what it felt like for those soldiers who came back from the field of battle and had to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of some of the horrible things they had seen. Horrors so great, that it seemed that there really was no limit to the extent of the abominable actions which man was willing to inflict upon his fellow man.
When he finally staggered into his basement apartment at 2:30 AM, he flopped down onto the couch, lifted up the remote control and flicked on the TV. He knew that he should probably attempt to get to sleep. He was tired, his head was throbbing, and his body felt completely drained of all energy to the point where nothing beyond the glimpse of his bloodshot eyes held any sense of realism. Then, as if by some strange, inadvertent subconscious mental epiphany, he remembered what would probably be on. He flicked around the channels until he finally came to it: the 1951 film adaptation of Charles Dickens 'A Christmas Carol,' with Alastair Sim playing the role of Scrooge. It had always been one of his favourites. He and his mother had watched the movie every Christmas eve, since his early childhood until the day when he moved out of his parent's house and into the 'real' world; the 'real world' being that of long, tiresome jobs where you cleaned up filth and the remains of humans who had decided that the world was no longer a worthwhile place in which to exist. He watched as the ghost of Jacob Marley lamented what he might have been, and the heavy burden of chains he carried; chains which he claimed to have 'forged in life' and now weighed him down perpetually as a spirit, then was carried away by the drifting current of sleep into a dream where he was at work.
He was always at work, it seemed. So much of life was spent doing the same tedious things. He saw the woman with the two children looking around nervously on the platform, heard the loud rumble of the approaching train and saw its' lights emerging from the depths of the tunnel. Franklin looked at her and saw fear intermingled with hopelessness in her tear-filled, brown eyes. Then he felt the wind from the approaching train. Here it came. She made her move, but he ran over and grabbed her before she could jump onto the tracks. He grabbed her and held her and would not let her go. She squirmed and writhed and tried to get free, but he just held her there as the two children looked down in curiosity at the strange man who had, for some reason, tackled their mother. The cops arrived quickly and he told them that she was going to throw herself onto the tracks and pull the two kids along with her. Some of the other bystanders verified this and after she calmed down, the cops escorted her away, along with the two children, presumably to a hospital, or a psych ward. Some of the other passengers who had been standing on the platform looked at him, but no one said anything. He just walked away and went back to the business of his work. Then he awoke from the dream and he remembered their dead faces, all of the blood, the crushed bodies and what had actually happened came back to him in a horrible, heart-sinking moment of realization.
Christmas day came and went. He spent the time alone and drank almost every night throughout the duration of his one week vacation from work. Then, finally, the time came to return to work and after a few days of doing this he fell back into the void of day-to-day routine which had been the tale of his adult life. Weeks came and went and turned into months, things gradually seemed to fade back into some bland sense of normality. He walked around down in the tunnels, swept up scattered garbage. Empty plastic bottles which had been dropped on the platforms, potato chip bags, Twinkie wrappers, grimy cigarette butts, some of which were still lightly smoldering, despite the laws against smoking on the subways or on the platforms, sometimes even used heroin needles. All forms of junk which people discarded anywhere except into garbage cans. Still, Franklin did not mind cleaning these things up. It was much better than removing human remains from the tracks.
There were no more jumpers for a long time. His shifts at work went by with relative ease. But he knew that it was just a matter of time before it happened again, and sometimes it was even worse when someone did jump in front of a train after an extended period of time without it happening. As horrible as it sounded, it was much easier to become desensitized to what one saw with regularity, as opposed to having long periods of normality where you reach a comfort zone, only to have that sense of normality suddenly and shockingly torn apart by a grisly incident striking in a flash, like a sudden unexpected torrential downpour from the heavens out of clouds which had appeared out of nowhere.
He had been working the late shift, just before the last train arrived when he saw the skinny, trembling man walking very close to the tracks. There were very few others left. It was 1:25 AM on a Tuesday morning in mid-February. Distant echoes emerging from beyond the great gaping, dark hole of the tunnel cried out the trains' impending arrival. The man, who looked to only be in his early twenties, was not wearing a jacket, which was bizarre considering the city had just been in the grip of a large snow storm, and the temperatures outside were frigid: close to minus thirty. He was shaking, wearing only a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, his skin red and dripping from the dampness of the melted snow. Either a drug addict or someone who is mentally ill, thought Franklin. He saw a lot of types like this come and go. Sometimes there were schizophrenic people who got on the trains and started shouting and carrying on long extensive conversations with themselves or with the voices that they heard inside their heads. While this man's attire gave him the look of someone who wasn't playing with a full deck of cards (anyone who would go outside in such terribly cold weather wearing only a t-shirt couldn't be) and despite his shaky movements, the look on his face was not that of someone who was insane. His dark eyes flashed with intelligence and a kind of knowingness. His sandy-blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail and he seemed almost to be in some kind of a trance. Perhaps being out in the cold in such measly attire had driven him into delirium or shock, but there was still an underlying calm present.
Then, as the train came rumbling out of the darkness, the young man jumped down onto the tracks. Seeing what he had intended to do, Franklin immediately dropped his broom and bolted down onto the track. He saw the train getting closer, and closer. His movements were steady and precise, despite the fact that his heart was racing and the adrenaline was flooding through his system. He grabbed the thin, shaky young man and yanked him back up off the tracks, just seconds before the train came ripping through, shooting sparks as it thunderously shot across the tracks like a thousand black horses pulling a chariot of fire.
The young man had not struggled, he had allowed Franklin to pull him off of the tracks, so when they were both on the platform, Franklin looked at him and said "You didn't really want to die, did you?"
The young man was silent for a long time. He was still shivering and he simply looked down at his feet. Finally, he looked up and said "Yes, I did. I want an end to it, all of it. I hate this life and I hate the world."
"Why did you let me pull you up so easily, then? Someone who really wanted to die would have struggled to stay down there on the tracks. You wouldn't have allowed me to get you off that easily if you truly wanted to die. Come on, you're a young man. You have your whole life ahead of you. Think things over and please don't ever do anything like this again, because next time, there might not be someone like me here to help you."
"I hate the world," said the young man, "I hate it with such an intensity that it's impossible to put into words."
"Listen, kid, whatever is going on in your life right now, whatever problems you've got, whatever demons you're dealing with, it will get better. When you hit your lowest point, when you hit rock-bottom, there is nowhere else to go but up." He felt the words flowing out of his mouth, but did not know where they were coming from. Franklin had never been good at giving words of encouragement, yet, here he was, talking to this kid like some volunteer for a suicide prevention hotline or something. It was surreal, it seemed unnatural, and yet a part of him felt that it was necessary.
"What's your name, kid?"
"All right, Lester. And how old are you?"
"Twenty-three years old and you want to die? That's crazy, man. You've hardly even had a chance to live. Do you know that there are people out there right now struggling and fighting to stay alive, going through chemotherapy, battling through terrible diseases, fighting their hardest to live because they know that life is precious, and here you are, a healthy young man who wants to just throw his life away because of some temporary problems that you've got. You aren't sick, are you? You don't have any terrible disease, do you?"
"So then think things over. Give yourself some time to think and reflect on things. You have your whole life ahead of you. There's so much you can do, and whatever troubles you've had lately, those are temporary. You can work through them."
He didn't know if he was getting through to Lester at all, but he felt that he had to try.
"I have this rage inside of me. This awful, brutal rage. Sometimes it seems like there's a thousand tormented voices screaming all at once, inside my head. I think they're the voices of the dead. I just wish they'd be quiet. But they won't. They go on, and on, endlessly rambling and babbling and shouting inside my skull and I just hate them. I hate it all, everything."
Franklin shook his head. He did not know what else he could say. He had done his best, and now he saw Floyd coming over to see what was going on. Franklin told him that Lester had jumped onto the tracks, but that he had managed to pull him up to the platform before the train arrived. Floyd looked at him, dumbfounded. He instantly realized that this had been a mistake, because he knew Floyd would want to talk about this later, and he had no desire to talk about it. What had happened had happened. It was done. That was all.
"I'm leaving now," said Lester.
"Wait, Lester, don't you want me to get the police? Maybe they can take you somewhere where you can get some help, you know, for your issues. They could take you to a clinic where you would have someone to talk to about your problems, a professional, I mean. Then, maybe they could put you on some medication so you would feel better and so that nothing like this will happen again."
"I'm okay now," said Lester and he started calmly walking away. Then, he turned back for a moment, looked at Franklin and said "Oh, and for what it's worth, thank you for what you did. You didn't have to do that, and you put your life on the line, so thanks."
Franklin looked at that face, and realized now that beneath the veneer of calm intelligence, there was something dark, something burning inside. He thought about asking the kid why he wasn't wearing a coat in such cold weather and to warn him that he might catch pneumonia if he went back outside like that, but he decided not to. What did it matter?
Floyd tapped him on the shoulder. "What the fuck was wrong with that guy? Going back outside with no jacket in this weather? He'll die from exposure to the cold."
"I think that's what he wants anyway."
"Yeah, he told me that he wanted to die, that he hated the world."
"Well at least he won't be able to jump in front of a train again tonight, since that was the last one."
"No. But he'll find a way. If a person wants to die, they'll find a way."
"Anyway, I'm going over to the pub for a few beers once we get
finished up here. You coming?"
"Sure," said Franklin.
Two days later, when Franklin was on his way to work, he walked past a newspaper stand and stopped dead in his tracks. At first he thought maybe his eyes were deceiving him, but upon closer inspection he realized that there was no doubt about what he saw. On the front page of the newspaper was an image of a face that he recognized very well. It was Lester. He picked up the paper and read the headline: MAN KILLS TWENTY-FIVE IN SHOOTING RAMPAGE. He dropped the paper and felt his whole body becoming weak. The man at the newsstand looked at him.
"Are you all right buddy?"
"Yes, I'm fine," said Franklin, reaching down to pick up the newspaper.
"How much for this?"
"A dollar," said the man at the newsstand.
Franklin paid him and opened the paper, flipping through to find the details of the horrible cover story. He felt himself going numb as he read: Yesterday afternoon, twenty-three year old Lester Miller entered an office building with a backpack slung over his shoulder in which he was carrying a semi-automatic rifle. Upon arriving at the twelfth floor and entering the office where he had previously worked as a clerk, he took the rifle out and opened fire on his former co-workers, killing twenty-five, and severely injuring another eight, all of whom are now listed as being in critical condition. When the police arrived a shootout ensued, at which point Miller was shot and killed by one of the officers. This is, without a doubt, one of the worst and most horrific tragedies the city has ever faced. According to a relative who wishes to remain anonymous, Miller had been terminated from his job roughly a month before, and his life had entered a turbulent downward spiral shortly thereafter. The cold, ruthlessness of this atrocious act has left the city and its' citizens utterly shocked and devastated. A memorial for the victims is being planned at a location yet to be determined, next week.
Franklin felt very weak. He had to find somewhere to sit down or his legs would give out and he would collapse. He made his way over to a bench across the street from the entrance to the subway, and sat down. He knew he was going to be late for work if he idled out here much longer, but at the moment that didn't really matter. All he could think about was that he had allowed this indescribable tragedy to happen. It's my fault! Why did I go down there and save him? If I hadn't done that, none of this would have happened! He suddenly felt overcome with grief, and a self-loathing the likes of which he had never experienced before. This should not have happened, it never would have, if he had just let that dirt-bag do what he had intended to do. But he had intervened. WHY? Why had he felt the urge to do so? He supposed it was because he felt that it was the right thing to do. But look at what had happened as a result. The immense understatement revealed in the old saying 'no good deed goes unpunished,' became more real than one could ever possibly imagine. Why try to do good deeds, when the end result was this?
He phoned his boss and told him that he was ill and would be unable to make it to work that day. In all his years working there, this was only the third time he had called in sick, but there was no way that he would be able to focus on his duties after what he had just found out.
When he turned on the TV, the story was all over every news channel, even the non-local ones. Over and over he saw the haunting image of that face: the face of the young man he had helped, the face of the lunatic who had murdered all of those people. When he had spoken to him, Lester had certainly seemed troubled, distraught, depressed, but although he had said emphatically that he 'hated the world,' Franklin didn't think that he had seemed to be the type that would have violent tendencies. He had mistaken the kid for someone who was troubled, and likely to do himself harm, but not aggressive towards others. Of course, that didn't matter now. Initial perceptions were often way off base. He had misjudged everything. Worst of all, he had, indirectly allowed the subsequent atrocities to occur. Why had he risked his life for such a person? Why?
That evening Franklin went to the pub and drank himself into a stupor. Floyd showed up after a few hours.
"How did you know I'd be here?" said Franklin.
"Lucky guess," Floyd replied, "I knew that you'd probably be feeling a little down about what happened." He sat down and ordered them both a drink. By this time, Franklin was already intoxicated to the point where he was slurring his words and when the bartender brought him a double whisky on-the-rocks, he slammed it down and immediately ordered another.
"How many of those have you had tonight."
"A few dozen, you mean?"
He shook his head, his eyes moist and bloodshot and when he spoke, the smell of booze on his breath emanated into the air like a sour gust of pestilent wind.
"I'd prefer to be alone tonight, Floyd. In fact, I don't even know why I came here. I should have just bought a bottle and stayed at home."
"You're blaming yourself for what happened. That's what this is. You want to drown it all out with booze, and that'll work, for tonight, and probably even for a few more nights. But eventually have you to put it all aside. It wasn't your fault, Franklin. You did what was right. You did something brave. You saved that kid's life. There was no way anyone could have known that he would go and do this, so don't blame yourself. It took guts to do what you did. In that situation a lot of other people would have just let the kid get hit by the train, they wouldn't have put their lives on the line to help another human being, but you did that, and at the end of the day it was a heroic act, regardless of what happened after. You had no control over that."
"He killed twenty-five people! They'd all still be alive if I would have just let that miserable bastard die!"
"The two events are completely separate, you did something heroic at the time. What happened afterward was a result of that kid's sickness."
There was truth in this, he knew. Still he was haunted by the horror of what had occurred and he felt a heavy burden weighing him down.
After explaining what had happened to his boss, it was suggested that he take some time away from work. He would be paid, but they felt that a leave of absence would do him good, since it was obvious that he had been severely shaken by what had happened. The boss also told him that it wasn't his fault, that he should not blame himself. But Franklin thought that this was easy for him to say, since he was not the one who had to struggle with the weight of such a burden on his own conscience.
For the next two months he drank excessively, often binging for more than twelve hours at a time until he finally fell into a spinning, drunken slumber in the grey hours before dawn. Life proceeded, and after a while, he cut back on the drinking and returned to his job. It felt good to be doing something productive again, and when he got back into the routine he felt his mind becoming less tormented. He could not change the past, but he did have to live with it, and that he would do. He would live with it every single day.
There were no jumpers for over a year. Of course, he knew it would happen again eventually. When it finally did, he saw it happen from quite a close vantage point. Franklin had been sweeping an area on the platform and a middle aged man, looking quite agitated and nervous, jumped onto the tracks as the train emerged. When he jumped, there was still enough time to do something. The man made direct eye contact with Franklin, who knew that he could have tried to get him to safety. There would have been enough time. But Franklin simply turned around and continued with his sweeping, pretending not to have seen anything. He had decided that it would be better that way.