Harry Bales heard the slap of the newspaper on his doorstep as the paper boy cycled by. Whistling cheerfully, he went out to get it.
It was a placid early summer day. A light breeze ruffled the tops of the sycamore trees up and down the street. Bales picked up the newspaper, glanced at the top half of the front page. More dead soldiers in Iraq. More lay-offs from major corporations. More salmonella in canned goods.
He nodded, comforted by the predictability of the news. He started back into the house, flipping the paper over to see the bottom half.
He stopped cold in his doorway.
A photograph took up most of the space at the bottom of the paper’s front page. It showed a man with thinning hair, a pleasant but slightly crooked nose, an unassuming mouth. The caption under the photo read: Harold J. Bales, 36 years old, Complete and Total Bastard.
He stared at it for a long moment.
He rubbed his eyes, shook his head, looked at it again.
It was him. There was no question about it.
There was nothing else about him on the front page, no explanation at all. Just his picture, and that awful accusation. Trembling, he thumbed through the rest of the paper, but found nothing else. He looked again at the front page. It was still there.
Bales looked up and down the street, his heart racing.
A prank, that’s all. One of my buddies from work is setting me up. But then: no, I don’t have any buddies at work. And even if I did, why would they stage such an elaborate prank? And how?
He dropped the newspaper and cut across his lawn to the neighbor’s porch. He picked up their newspaper. The same top half. He flipped the paper over to see the bottom.
And there was his photo, there was that caption. Harold J. Bales, 36 years old, Complete and Total Bastard.
He dropped the paper and scrambled to the next porch. And the next. And the next. They were all the same, they all had his photo, they all said the same monstrous thing about him. Complete and Total Bastard.
He pushed himself back against his neighbor’s front door and his eyes shot up and down the street.
The front door opened behind him and he almost fell into Mrs. Fraser.
“Harry,” she said. “What on Earth are you doing on my porch?”
He held the newspaper in his fingers.
“Oh,” Mrs. Fraser said. “You have my paper. Did the boy throw it in the bushes again? Thank you so much.”
She took it from him, glanced at the top.
“No,” Bales said.
“What?” Mrs. Fraser flipped the paper over, and the smile died on her lips.
“No. It’s some kind of prank.”
Mrs. Fraser’s mouth went hard and when she looked at Bales again her eyes were flinty and hateful.
“You. You filthy sonofabitch.”
“What? No, you don’t understand. It’s a joke, you see. Someone’s playing an awful joke on me.”
“I’ll play a joke on you. I’ll go in my kitchen and come back with a butcher knife and carve your ugly eyes out. How about that for a joke?”
“Mrs. Fraser… please, you don’t understand…”
“I understand plenty.” She threw the newspaper at his feet. “You wait, Bales. You wait right there. Don’t you move.” She went back into the house, calling over her shoulder. “I’m gonna get my knife and I’m gonna slice your ugly face off!”
“Jesus!” He turned, nearly stumbling off the porch, and ran back to his house.
He slammed the door shut behind him and locked it. The newspaper lay open just inside the front door and he looked at it in numb horror. He could see part of it—the lower part of his face, his weak mouth, and tal bastard.
I’m having a nightmare, that’s what it is. A bad dream. But the newspaper still lay where he’d dropped it, the damning photo and caption still there.
Slowly, he bent over and picked up the paper again. He looked at his mild, inoffensive face. He read over and over again the caption. Harold J. Bales, 36 years old, Complete and Total Bastard.
His usual parking space in front of the building was littered with broken glass.
He braked just in time to avoid puncturing his tires, and sat staring at the parking space. Must’ve been an accident. Someone must’ve gotten their windows smashed.
But the broken glass looked more than a little… arranged.
He found a different place to park. When he walked into the office, he found everyone else was already in. They looked up when he came in, and Harry said, “Hey, everyone, good morning,” but no one answered him.
They glared, raw hatred etched on every face.
Jeanette, who sat opposite him, snarled.
Behind him, Mr. Alter appeared from out of his office. “Bales. I can’t even believe you had the brass cajones to show up here.”
“Listen. Listen, Mr. Alter, if this is about that thing in the paper this morning, you have to believe me. I don’t understand it. It’s some kind of sick joke.”
“You’re the sick joke, Bales. You show up here, as if you still have a job? You bastard. You dirty, stinking pile of refuse. I fired you, Bales, the second I learned the truth.”
“Truth? What truth? For Jesus’ sake—“
“Don’t you go bringing our Lord and Savior’s name into this, you puss-wad. He hates you as much as everyone else does.”
Bales felt tears brimming in his eyes. “Hate… hate me?”
“Get out of my building, before I lose control of myself and pop you right in the face.” He paused, shook his head, and said, “You know what? Too late. I think I am going to pop you.”
He swung at Bales wildly, missed by inches, and Bales stumbled back into the line of desks. Jeanette stood up, grabbing at Bales’ collar. “Hey! If you get to hit him, so do I!” and all the others chimed in, rushing toward him with furious faces and swinging fists.
Mr. Alter said, “Get him!”
Bales broke free of Jeanette’s grip, ripping his lapel, and bolted for the door.
He made good time away from the city. After that, he drove aimlessly, alternating between boggled confusion, tearful self-pity, and righteous indignation.
His hands shook and he was having a hard time concentrating on the road. Why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong?
He pulled into the parking lot of a Thrifty Lots mega-store, found a space far away from the entrance where no one else was parked, and turned off the ignition. He sat there for a long time, trying to pull himself together.
He flipped on the radio.
The announcer was saying, “Bales—or Harry the Bastard, as he’s come to be known—was last seen speeding away from his former place of employment, where he managed to escape justice at the hands of his former co-workers. Police advise not to attempt approaching Bales, but they also point out that he is NOT armed and NOT considered dangerous, so you more than likely wouldn’t have much trouble with him—if you decided to ignore the police’s advice. Be warned, however: Harold J. Bales is a complete and total bastard.”
Bales turned off the radio.
“Oh God,” he said.
His mother used to sing him a song when he was a little boy. “The world is made of candy,” she sang, “and everything is good, all of life is dandy, if you just do as you should…”
Lies. His mother was a liar. Bales had always done just as he should. Always. The world wasn’t made of goddamn candy. The world was an awful place.
After a long time, he managed to pull himself together somewhat and looked around the parking lot. There was a fast food restaurant at the far end of the lot and he realized he hadn’t eaten anything all day.
He craned around to reach into the back seat. He had a hat back there, a wool-knit winter cap with a cheerful snowman sewn into it. He put the cap on and pulled it down low on his forehead.
He drove over to the drive-through. He ordered a cheeseburger value meal and when the crackling voice in the speaker said, “Second window, please”, he pulled a crumpled five dollar bill out of his pocket and pulled up.
“Four-eighty-seven,” the lady at the window said, and Bales kept his eyes straight ahead and stuck the five at her.
She didn’t take it. Bales heart pounded. He said, “Here ya go,” shook the five. She still didn’t take it. Bales turned his head and looked at her from under the brim of his cap.
Her face was stone. She said, “Bastard.”
“No,” Bales said. “Please.”
“You goddamn slimy bastard!” She shouted at some people inside the restaurant. “It’s him!” she shrieked. “It’s him!”
Even from inside his car, he could hear the commotion in the restaurant. In a heartbeat, they were pouring out the door and swarming toward him. The girl at the window reached through and tried to grab him. Her fingers clawed his cheek, ripped the winter cap right off his head.
“You filth! You slime!”
Bales slammed the gas hard and peeled out of the drive-through and past the mob. They shouted and screamed, pounding his car with their fists and trying to get at him through the open window. Bales slapped their hands away, and shot out into the street.
They gave chase, running out into the street after him. He saw two or three running for their cars, and a couple more on cell phones.
“To Hell with you!” Bales screeched. “To Hell with all of you!”
He got on the freeway and drove for a long time, weaving in and out of traffic. Every car behind him, he felt certain, was someone giving chase. Every driver in the surrounding lanes was an enemy, trying to box him in and take him down.
“The world is made of candy,” he said, “and everything is good…”
He got off the freeway well into the suburbs.
He drove through a nice, peaceful neighborhood and he knew that in each pleasant little house was a monster. A vengeful creature that would pounce upon him and rip him to shreds if it only could.
He found a small, tree-shaded park that appeared empty. He got out of his car, looked around cautiously, and walked stiffly over to a picnic table under the branches of a very old oak tree. He sat.
The spot he’d chosen afforded a pretty good view of everything around him. He needed time. Time to figure out what to do, where to go.
A large rock, about the size of his fist, hit him in the shoulder and he fell off the picnic table.
He could hardly see through the pain, but close by someone—a kid?—shouted, “Got you, you asshole!”
He used the picnic table leg to pull himself up. Wincing, he gripped his shoulder and saw them: a kid, about eleven years old, about to throw another rock. Mr. Alter, Jeanette, and everyone from the office. The girl at the fast food window and all the customers. And countless others besides.
They were at the far end of the park, by his car, and were rushing toward him, screaming and gnashing their teeth.
“Kill him! Don’t let him get away!”
They chased him across the park, throwing rocks and insults, and up the street. Before he’d gone half a block he was winded and his sides ached. But he kept running.
People were coming out of their houses now and giving chase along with the mob. Someone tossed a lawn chair at him that caught him right in the shoulder and he almost fell. Another person rushed at him from a driveway and tackled him. They both went down and Bales scraped his jaw along the sidewalk. He kicked at his attacker, managed to get free, and stumbled away.
“You bastard!” they screamed. “You stinking vermin!”
They were gaining on him. He knew he didn’t stand a chance. They were going to catch him and kill him. He’d never before seen such seething hatred in his entire life, never even imagined it could have existed.
He saw someone at the far end of the block, someone in a uniform. A cop. A cop, walking a beat. Did cops still walk beats, for God’s sake? In the suburbs?
No, of course they didn’t. The cop was looking for him.
Bales ran on, and he thought, that’s it. There’s the cop, looking for me, and I’ll just run right up to him. I’ll turn myself in and he can protect me from the angry mob. Whatever happens to me after that, it couldn’t be any worse than what they have in mind for me.
“Hey!” he cried. “Officer! Help me!”
The cop glanced his way, his hand going to the gun at his hip.
“Help!” Bales cried. “I surrender!”
The cop pulled out his gun, aimed carefully.
The paperboy was just coming up the adjoining street on his bike, flinging the afternoon edition at the houses along the block. He veered past the cop, who lowered his gun until the kid was out of the way.
When the paperboy had wheeled past Bales, the cop raised his gun again and took aim. Bales stood still and squeezed his eyes shut.
Someone yelled, “Hey! Don’t shoot him!” and Bales opened his eyes.
A man stood on his front lawn, looking at the newly-delivered paper. He yelled to the cop, “Stop! Don’t kill that guy!” He waved the paper in the air.
Behind Bales, the mob slowed down. Newspapers were picked up off the lawns and sidewalks. No one even looked at Bales anymore.
“Stephen Girty!” someone said. “I know him! He lives two blocks from here!”
“Girty!” another said. “Get him!”
And the mob ran off in the other direction, one huge organism, pulsing with hatred. The cop pushed past Bales and followed them.
Bales, breathing hard, watched them go. He walked over and grabbed a newspaper off the nearest lawn.
The top part was the usual. War, misery, famine, etcetera.
The bottom part showed a photograph of a man with wavy brown hair, wire-frame glasses, and a wide, friendly grin. Stephen Girty, the caption read. Unbelievable scumbag.
Bales was overcome with loathing at the sight of this Stephen Girty. He crumbled the newspaper and threw it to the ground.
The sky above was clear and blue, like blue raspberry hard candy. A flock of birds went by like yellow Easter chirps, and, above them, the whitest of clouds, as white as marshmallow filling.
“Girty,” Bales said. “You scumbag.”
He ran as hard as he could to catch up with the mob.
Heath Lowrance’s first novel, The Bastard Hand, will be available from New Pulp Press on March 20. His short fiction has appeared in Chi-Zine, Necrotic Tissue, The Nautilus Engine, Well-Told Tales and other print and web-zines. He lives in Detroit, where the weak are killed and eaten.