by CHRIS CASTLE
Bobby looked down to his hand, tied with rope to the chair; a thumb, four fingers. There was blood trailing over his knuckles and ground into and under his nails. A beating, he had taken a beating and that was fine. That was acceptable, the norm for what he had done, what he had been caught doing. He had stolen and now he was being punished. If he had stolen from a citizen he would be in jail. He had stolen from a criminal, so therefore he had taken and readily accepted a beating.
But a finger?
“What do you mean, a finger?” Bobby asked and felt a thin trail of gruelly blood leak out of his mouth as he spoke. It ran down his chin, feeling like a spider’s web, before pooling on his knee. In his mind, he created a checklist:
Beating to head, check.
Torture to nails and hands, check.
Knees aching but working; bruising only, check.
Ribs sore, possibly broken, definitely beaten, check.
He wriggled in his seat.
Balls intact and swinging, ass comfortable; castration and rape, cross.
So, the finger.
“Your finger,” the man repeated.
Bobby looked at him; he was not one of the meatpacker thugs who had dished out the beating, far from it. Instead, he looked like a businessman, suave…polished, almost. He looked like the type of guy who signed the checks, not broke the fingers. Fingers, finger, Bobby thought. The guy looked just like him, an hour before all this happened.
“You want to…” Bobby began to say and then swallowed. Unfortunately, because he was still bleeding, he gulped down what seemed like a vat of pulpy, bloody phlegm. It tasted like the world’s worst chicken noodle soup. Bobby gagged and tried not to gag. He failed.
“Yes, that’s right, I want to remove your finger,” the man said brightly, positively chipper, Bobby thought. “Well, in actual fact, I want you to remove your own finger.”
“You want me to…” Bobby started to parrot and then felt voice give way. A sensation of vertigo overwhelmed him, even though he was tied to a chair on a floor in a warehouse. Not vertigo, he concluded, so much as blind fear.
“That’s right,” the man said, nodding, seemingly pleased that Bobby was now aware of his situation. The man smiled, seeing Bobby was up to speed. Singing from the same hymn sheet.
“Why?” Bobby blurted out and forced himself to look up to the man, to face him. Maybe the ‘why?’ was a bigger question, one Bobby was really directing at himself, at his situation, his life, how he had gone from a six year old page boy who everyone loved to a bloody puddle of mess strapped to a chair about to lose a digit, but for now, he focused on the man facing him; his tormentor.
“Well, I think, in a lot of ways, it’s a cultural thing,” the man said, putting his own hands behind his back, as if preparing a speech. He took a step back from Bobby, as if there were a wider audience positioned just out of eye-line.
“What are you talking about?” Bobby spluttered. The man’s eyes flashed and suddenly, he looked nothing like Bobby. He looked like a stone cold killer.
“What I’m talking about, is that,” he said, his eyes returning to a lighter shade, “interrupting people when they’re talking.”
“Sorry,” mumbled Bobby.
“No, you’re not,” the man said quietly. “But you will be.”
“Wha-” Bobby began to say and then caught himself. He locked his jaw and the man nodded, satisfied with Bobby’s last minute about face. He began to pace around, as if trying to figure out an equation, and Bobby realised with a certain, cold clarity, that this guy was insane. There was no pretence to it, no acting. The guy was a stone cold lunatic.
“There’s a culture of people being caught and apologising. I’m talking about sportsmen, bankers, politicians, everyone. These people, they all get caught and then they apologise, right?” There was a pause that seemed to go on forever and then the man finally glanced back to Bobby.
“Right,” Bobby whispered, bracing himself for a blow.
“Right!” The man fired back enthusiastically. “So, I look at these people, like everyone else and I wonder: Are they apologising because they’re sorry or just because they got caught? I mean, how many of these people do you think, feel genuine, 100% remorse for their actions? Maybe one, maybe two, at most, I’d say.” The man stopped pacing and spun on his heels to face Bobby.
“So this is where we are. We have people acting…poorly and not wanting to take responsibility for their actions. People in the public eye, people in public office, people…” he paused, “like you.” He stared at Bobby.
“Do you even know my name?” Bobby asked, suddenly infuriated that this guy, this pompous ass, was giving him a speech and didn’t even know how to address him, didn’t even know his name, when it came down to it, to the here and now.
“I know what you are,” he said and for a moment, just a second, Bobby saw a flicker of embarrassment run over his cheeks at being found out. “A thief.”
“Me? Then what the hell are you?” Bobby felt something in his jaw and for a moment wondered if he had broken something. Then he understood and let it out: laughter. “Damn! I’m getting a state of the nation from you?”
The blow came out of nowhere; maybe it was because Bobby had tears in his eyes from laughing so hard, maybe it was because the guy moved quicker than God. Regardless, the blow was a short, hard snap and almost certainly broke Bobby’s nose. The blood began to seep out of him, in a steady flow and in amongst the pain, Bobby couldn’t help thinking how the blood ran like a stream, just like in his uncle’s garden, his favourite place to be in the whole world growing up.
“I’m management,” the man said, his voice cooled with fury. Blinking, Bobby could just about make out the man’s expression. All the colour had drained out of his face, all the joy of giving his speech had filtered out and was replaced by hard, grey rage.
“My dose,” Bobby muttered, realising he was losing too much blood to stay conscious. Though why he would want to? In the same speed of movement, the man plugged Bobby’s nose, wiped his eyes and generally gave him a clean up, all inside thirty seconds. For a moment, Bobby felt like he’d been car-washed. Everything about this guy was fast and clinical. Bobby couldn’t help but think of a great white shark.
“So, your finger,” the man said, after appraising Bobby’s face and deeming it satisfactory.
“You want me to break my own finger?” Bobby said, half hoping, half in self-delusion.
“No, I want you to cut it off,” the man replied and reached into his pocket. Instead of a blade or something equally as horrific, the man presented him with a small black plastic…thing.
“It’s designed to cut the tips off of cigars,” the man said, and a little of the old proud colour came back into his cheeks. In a flash, he snapped it open; looped it over Bobby’s little finger and brought the blades down to the hairs on the skin. Bobby screamed.
“Easy, easy,” the man said and for the first time, his voice sounded human. “You nudge me now and I could slip and snip this thing clean off.” Bobby stilled in his seat and the man carefully withdrew it, as if he were some sort of half-assed bomb disposal expert.
“But I’m going to lose it anyway!” Bobby screamed and heard how high his voice sounded now; like a kid’s. Like the kid he’d always been, no matter how old he was.
“But you have to do it,” the man said, and as if hearing the childish note in Bobby’s voice, started speaking soothingly, as if to a child.
“Why?” Bobby said, and couldn’t remember if he’d asked the question already.
“So you can learn from your mistakes,” the man replied, as if it was the easiest answer to the simplest question in the world. “How else are you going to learn?”
“But I don’t have to do this,” Bobby went on, flat-out pleading now. The feeling of the blades hovering over his skin, the coolness of it, wouldn’t leave his hand now, even after the man had taken it away.
“Yes, you do,” the man said, still talking patiently. “After this, you won’t be able to use a computer, so you won’t be tempted to steal.” The man smiled again and this time, to Bobby’s horror, he looked as if he really meant it.
“You can learn a new trade, become a new person. Start a new life. This here, is an opportunity for you, don’t you understand?” He patted Bobby on the side of the head with his hand. In his palm was the cold plastic cutter.
“You don’t want to help me,” Bobby whispered. He as close to tears now but he didn’t care. “You want to brand me!” The anger mingled with the fear, choking him and empowering him at the same time. “What new career am I going to get? An arm-wrestler?”
“I hope something that doesn’t require you stealing from others. That stops you from taking what doesn’t belong to you; that others have worked hard to earn.” The man stepped away from Bobby and reached into his chest pocket. Bobby braced himself for the gun. Instead, he was faced with a picture.
“Your pop,” the man said. “Next to your pop, your dog. I don’t know which one you love more but you’ll lose them both.” The plastic cutter dropped from behind the photo into Bobby’s lap. “You’re god damned lucky I’m only asking you for a finger. The guy before you slept with my wife. Think about that one.”
Bobby looked down to the cutter which had fallen into his lap. The idea of the man before him, probably sitting in the same chair, flashed into his mind and he quickly got rid of the image. His captor began loosening the ropes around his wrists. They both knew Bobby was in no fit state to overwhelm anyone. The circulation rushed back into his arms, hands and finally his fingers. Bobby drew up both his hands and looked at them, splayed out. Perfect symmetry, and taken for granted his whole life.
“Left or right?” He asked, a dull calmness riding over him.
“Either or,” the man said. Bobby looked up and saw that the man was bringing over a chair, positioning himself for ringside seats for what was to come next.
“You should set up a web-cam. This could be the next big thing,” Bobby said.
“Who says I haven’t?” the man fired back, his expression not changing.
Bobby flexed his hands and reached down to his lap for the cutter. It felt ridiculously light in his hand. Left or right? He wondered and then shook his head at what his life had come down to. Looking round for cameras and finding none, he slipped the cutter over his little finger.
He took a deep breath.
Chris Castle is an English teacher in Greece. He has been published over 300 times and has been featured in various end of year and best of anthologies. He is currently writing a novel. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be reached for feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chris has become a regular contributor to our journal: His stories, Grid, Slumber, Last House on Vector Street, Stealing Three, Zombie Cake, Button and Pa, The Garden and Butterfly Eater all consecutively appear in the January, April, June, August, October, and December 2013 issues of HelloHorror and its February and April 2014 issue.
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