Previously published in 100 Menacing Little Murder Stories ©1998
“Now hatred is by far the longest pleasure, Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.”
The sun beat down on me without mercy—blazing, tearing the world apart—the hottest sun the world had ever known. I was in the desert, a middle Eastern one, the kind with no plant life—just rolling dunes and vast, unbelievable stretches of dusty grey sand. Survival did not really seem like an option.
The post I had found to lean on was still digging into my back. It hurt no matter how I moved, but I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Except waiting for Tom.
How we had gotten stranded in the desert alone, without supplies and left to die, none of that was important any more. The heat, the baking, frying dryness that had burned my skin and cracked my tongue ... that was all that mattered. That and waiting for Tom.
When I had first started to make my way forward out of the dunes, I’d stopped sweating in less than half an hour. It had only taken my body that long to adjust to the situation ... to understand that we were lost in a hell of burning glare and blinding pain, and that it was going to take everything we had to get ourselves out alive.
Where Tom was at that point, I didn’t know. Or care. For the first time in years I had actually forgotten about him. I’d had more important things to worry about. Every step across the drily blowing sand had been a nightmare. Caring about my own neck had shoved the memory of Tom from my mind for the moment.
For the moment.
It took me two days to find my waiting place. Two days struggling across the fires. Across the suffocating forge ever blasting at me—draining me, reducing me, searing and boiling and charring me—stripping me to the most basic components ... those that kept one foot moving after the other.
Step after step ... step after step ... step after step ... after ... step
... after step ...
Until somehow blind instinct finally dragged me to the dirty wallow and the sickly tangle it supported. What I had found wasn’t much. The oasis, for lack of a better word, was a hellishly small thing. It had no trees, no lush patch of veld surrounding it. It was a mud hole, no more than two by three, with a scattering of some scrub cactus and tangled weeds and bits of grass and the such around it. So small, in truth, and yet the lie of it as wide as an ocean. That was where I found the rifle.
The pole driven into the ground near it by some unknown traveller gave me something to lean against. The rifle I found at the base of the post gave me something to hold. Something to hold as I leaned in pain and waited for Tom.
I had to wait because I knew he would come. I knew he would find the oasis. Say what you wanted about Tom, no matter what you had to admit that he was a survivor. He would survive the desert. He had to, I thought, as I leaned against the uncomfortable post.
He just had to.
And, he did. I don’t know how long it took, but eventually I saw him, on hands and knees, dragging his way across the sand. Coming toward me and the water at my feet. My burnt fingers twitched. Skin cracked as they tightened around the stock of the rifle. Just for fun, I lined Tom up in the sight’s cross hairs.
Just for fun.
“Come on,” I whispered, throat scratching, head reeling. “Crawl. Crawl, you bastard. Like you made so many others crawl.”
How many lives did you ruin? I wondered. How much pain did you cause? Ruthlessly. Needlessly?
I gripped the rifle tighter—more determined.
You’re still in my sights, Tom, I thought grimly. But, suddenly it’s not so much fun any more.
I kept my bead on him. I wanted to fire so badly I was shaking. Suddenly I didn’t care to let him reach the water. Somehow, seeing him crawl toward me—head gleaming in the sunlight ... such a tempting ... perfect target ...
One bullet—such an easy shot—a simple pull ... and it would all ... finally be over.
I could move away from this painful post ... and make my own thirsty way out of this inferno. Just one ... easy ... shot.
But, as I watched Tom drag himself across the broiling dunes, imagining the scraping heat of the sand scrubbing away his skin, as I remembered all he had done, I finally decided against the bullet. With each passing second, I simply watched him strain to pull himself closer. Foot by foot. Until finally, he was before me, inches from the mud hole.
As I lowered the rifle Tom thrust his head under the water. He sputtered and retched, but kept himself submerged in the wallow, gulping it in as deeply as he could. I let him drink undisturbed. Then, after a long moment, He pulled his head up out of the water. Dripping wet, refreshed and arrogant, he smiled at me, his blazing Irish eyes twinkling as he sneered,
“HaaHaaaaaaaaa. You’re still a fool, Harrison. Just like all the others. Weak and stupid—all of you.” Shoving his left hand into the water, he splashed it across his head and back and neck.
“That’s why I always won,” he added. “That’s why I always—”
And then, Tom’s body froze as sudden, incredible pain exploded within him. Red claws of agony tore through his guts. His eyes went wide, distorting grotesquely. His hands slapped at his neck, blistered fingers digging and rubbing in futile desperation.
Finally, I thought, as Tom rolled across the sand, dying in pain that seemed all I could have hoped for. Finally, I could step away from the gouging pain of the pole.
I sighted with relief as I pulled my back free from the puncturing horns. The animal skull that had been placed atop the pole to warn desert travellers about the poisonous waters at my feet was an ominous, nasty looking thing. I waited for Tom to see it, waited for recognition of what I had done to him to show in his eyes. The glimmer of realization coincided with a bleating scream that tore itself loose from the center of his tattered soul.
Earlier, when I’d had Tom in the sights of the rifle ... oh how I’d wanted to pull the trigger. Now ... now I was so glad I didn’t. A bullet would have been too clean.
As I struck out once more across the desert, I whispered,
“Remember me over the next few hours, Tom. As your guts boil and your stomach bleeds. Remember the stupid weakness I showed in letting you gobble down your death.”
I hadn’t had a drink in three days. But it was worth it. Worth waiting for him to catch up with me. Worth it to see the look on his face ...
I knew it was quite possible that I wouldn’t survive. That perhaps my hate had killed the both of us. At that point, however, it didn’t matter. I’d reaped all the pleasure I needed from life at that point. All I could want.
The longest pleasure of all.