The Victim

Chapter Two: Friends

White lies

In my dreams I see the people I’ve failed, screaming in pain. I see the flames consuming everything, reaching out for me. “Are you ok?” says a voice. “You were speaking in your dreams.” We’re in a car, speeding through the city. Ambulance sirens and firetrucks cross our way. I’m covered in my own cold sweat. I just want to go home.

He’s driving. I don’t understand, since he was in such bad shape. My head hurts as though I’d been hit by one of those trucks. More sirens going in our opposite direction. I try to speak, to tell him the building is full of people, but I can’t. I faint again. This time I dream of nothing. I wake up with a terrible headache, back in the motel room.

He’s sitting on the bed. I reach out to him with my hands, gasping. Finally he hears me and turns back. “Hang on,” he says, and fetches me a glass of water. It tastes like glory. Then it’s like I’m hit with a bucket of ice-cold water in the face. I remember the fire in my apartment, the man I’ve shot, the fire we’ve caused.

“Bu-build—” I struggle to say but my throat shuts tight. “Peo-ple!” “Slow down,” he says, trying to appease me with his hands. “Take it easy.” I drink some more water. “There was people in the building.” He looks away. “I know,” he says. I take my hands to my face. “So they’re…” I ask. “Yes. All of them.” “Turn on the news,” I say. He stays silent. “Turn on the news!” I shout, then start coughing.

“You shouldn’t put yourself through it,” he says calmly. What, he doesn’t feel like it’s also his fault? “Do it or I’m leaving,” I threaten. The ancient tv in the room makes a loud noise, like it’s dying. Finally it turns on. He switches to a news channel and mutters “Yeah, like you can,” thinking I can’t hear him.

We watch images of the fire raging in the building. Firefighters holding tight to high ladders shoot water into it. A banner below reads, “16 KILLED AND MORE MISSING IN FIRE.” My heart skips a beat. “There it is. Happy now?” he asks. He takes a long gulp from a bottle. I weep in silence, trying not to let him see my tears.

What now? What are we going to do? Where can we go? They’ll find us. We killed them. They-they burned alive. But why? Why!? I must know, I have to know. Are they looking for us? I step down from bed, my head still dizzy. I stumble, looking for my phone. “Where’s my phone?” I ask. He shrugs his shoulders. I look for a power socket, thinking I left it charging. I find one near the bathroom, but it’s been completely filled with some unidentified substance.

My head aches too much to go on. I surrender and lie down, with my hands covering my eyes. A loud knocking on the door. My heart pounds. They found us. It’s all over. He signals me to keep quiet as he loads his gun. “It’s me, open up,” says a girl’s voice. Could it be? I struggle to stand up. “What are you doing?” he whispers. With superhuman effort I drag myself to the door and open it. My heart skips a beat. “Oh my god, are you ok?” my friend from school says, holding me.

“How—” tries to ask my dead girlfriend’s brother. I can tell she’s angry. She’s very angry. “How are you still al—” he says. She slams the door, interrupting him. “We need to talk now. It’s time we clear things up.”

The coffee my friend from school makes for me clears my head, but the migraine persists. I sit on the bed, sipping from it. She sits on a chair in front of me, and my dead girlfriend’s brother sits on another so that we form a triangle. “What I am going to say will strike you,” she says to me. “Scar you even. You may be tempted to rush to the police after I tell you what you need to know, but I hope, by the time I’m done, that you change your mind.”

I look at him. He’s very unhappy about the whole situation. It’s clear he didn’t want me to know what I’m about to learn. “So far he has told you about his time with this ‘matches’ guy, right?” starts my friend. “But not about how… or more important, when he started. It wasn’t after his sister killed herself. He actually started about two years ago—” “Thirty-two months to be more precise,” he interrupts. “But sure, go on.”

“Do you want to tell her why, in your own words?” she asks looking at him. He nods. “I… Look, my uncle hates me. He’s told me I’m weak and humiliated me more times than I can remember. Still, I worked hard to make him appreciate me. But it was too much, keeping up with tol and college, so I started using. At first it was drugs to treat attention deficit disorders, then cocaine, and finally, well, you know, meth. I became aggressive, vengeful…Who am I talking to. You’ve seen me like that. I started gambling to afford drugs, and ended up owing money to the wrong people.”

“So the little s-word went to his sister for help,” she continues, “and she turned to me. I knew someone who could give him money in exchange for… certain things.” He comes closer to me, to the edge of his chair. “At first it was just dying businesses, for the insurance money, you know?” he says. “Wait, what are you saying?” I ask. He sighs and takes his hands to his face. “We set up a scheme,” she explains. “My… contact, bought the dying businesses. Then he” she points at my dead girlfriend’s brother, “burned them down when nobody was inside, the owner collected the insurance money and we split the profit. Easy money. Or at least at first it was.”

“You see,” my friend from school goes on, “my contact wasn’t exactly an exemplary citizen. He scammed some of his other ‘business partners’ and tried to run. But he was found hanging from a bridge with his hands cut off… you know, for being a thief.” I just stare at her with my mouth open, unable to believe how easy it is for her to tell the story. “So we decided to start doing it all ourselves. We set up a private fund as a front. It wasn’t hard to convince the small business owners that if they didn’t sell to us nobody would save them from bankruptcy, which was actually true. They sold their business at half what we got from their insurance policies, burned them to the ground and cashed in the insurance money. Then we laundered it through tol as donations and it became perfectly legal money in our hidden bank accounts.”

I don’t know whether to be amazed or terrified. “How-how much did you make?” I ask. She smiles. “A lot. You see, this city has been dying for a long time now. You’ve seen the empty streets and buildings. We just, well, we just took advantage of the situation, and also benefited a good cause—” “But you are criminals,” I interrupt her. “Hmmm technically, yes,” she says. “So if this gets out, we’re all going away?” I ask. She nods and adds “A s-wordstorm would be unleashed.”

I stay silent for a while. “There’s more though, right?” I ask. He’s very tense. I can see him twitching on his seat. “Maybe we could skip—” he starts before she interrupts him. “No. She needs to hear the full story. In fact, we should have told her months ago, as I suggested.” He angrily mutters something to himself. She goes on. “Yes, there’s more. Much more. Do you remember when we doxed those bullies and they got killed?” I nod. “Well, the night before the trip, we started a fire at a grocery store we had just bought. His—” she looks at him, “assistant was the one who took care of that one. At that time, he did most of the dirty work, even though he hated it and he refused to accept pay bonuses. It seems to me he just wanted to keep his job, for some reason.”

“Anyway, that night, two teenagers had broken in to smoke or have sex or whatever teenagers do in closed shops. They were caught off guard by the fire. Their charred corpses were found the next day, and the story broke the news—” “My assistant was out of his mind,” interrupts my dead girlfriend’s brother. “He said he had had enough, that it was time to stop. I made him agree to wait until the trip was over. That was why he was so… mad.” Now it all starts to make sense. “But that’s not all,” I say, fearing what I’m about to say next. “He wasn’t ‘the arsonist.’ You… made him that. You framed him.”

“You see,” she says. “The stars simply aligned. We had to start a fire in buildings that weren’t ours before anyone made the connection to the other fires. We thought doing it in broad daylight would let people get out quicker. Well, it turns out we were wrong. The ancient safety protocols failed, though we couldn’t have expected that. But the funny thing was, we started a fire where his former assistant had just gotten a job. We didn’t even know at the time, but when we found out, we threatened him, and forced him to keep quiet. After all, we had disposed of most of the hard evidence. Everything would have been fine, but he was… a weak man.”

“He began drinking. Heavily. We got him into rehab but he got away and we had to track him down. Finally, the week of the mayoral election, he said he was done after one of his getaways. We too were tired of putting up with his constant preaching and moral high ground… He killed two people for f-word’s sake!” She sighs. “We got him drunk, took him to the backyard and sat with him, looking at the stars…” “Please, no, stop,” he says. “You see… he,” she points at my dead girlfriend’s brother with an accusing finger, “… he just didn’t have it in him to pull the trigger. I had to do it. I splattered his brains all over the ground.”

I throw up. It’s too much, too much information. “For f-word’s sake…” mutters my dead girlfriend’s brother after I spill my guts. “Then we buried him until we needed him again,” she continues. “They’re actually still looking for him… Hah, I bet they won’t guess where he is.” I take my hands to my face and sigh. “Ok but, how does any of this fit with ‘matches’ and all that crap?” I ask. She looks at my dead girlfriend’s brother, amused. “Go on, tell her,” she says. “I…” he starts. “I was matches. I was the one hooked on meth who set hobos on fire. The one who was horrified was… my assistant.”

“And all that crap about working for some men with guns who were afraid of matches?” I ask, angrier. “All bulls-word,” she says, smiling. “In fact, let’s see what he has done to you: he told you crazy stories of supervillains and crawled through rain and mud for your attention and care. But that wasn’t enough. He realized I was a threat, and he wanted you aaaall for himself. So what did the little s-word do? He broke into our apartment with one of your keys while you were out, saw what he thought was me sleeping in my bed (which actually was a mannequin,) then set fire to our apartment and blocked the door. Apparently, he’s not very smart nor original, cause I saw it coming.”

He looks down in shame. “Is that true?” I ask. He nods without looking at me. “Oh, oh, but that’s not even the best part,” says my friend from school. “Fearing he would lose you, he stole your phone so you wouldn’t see my messages and realized I was alive in case he failed. It looks like he was actually good at predicting he would fail. Ironic, isn’t it?” He throws her a threatening look. “Then I bet you did something,” she goes on, looking into my eyes. “Or even worse: you killed someone.” My heart races. With everything, I had forgotten about all those dead junkies. “We,” I start, then swallow and go on, “well, he burned down a building, and I shot a man,” I say. She smiles, pleased. “I knew it, I f-wording knew it. He made you his accomplice so you would ‘be together’ or some s-word. I hoped you would realize what a leech he was before he got you knee-deep into his s-wordy life. I’m sorry, I should’ve told you everything sooner.”

I look at her. Despite everything she’s done, I can’t hate her. I understand they hid their activities from me for everyone’s safety. But he? Oh. He’s something else entirely. “Game’s up,” I say to him. “If you thought you had any chance with me, forget it. I’ll never forgive you for this, no matter what you do.” He tries to open his mouth to apologize, but I stop him. “However, we will get married in a couple of years.” They both look at me with eyes wide open. “Wh-what does that mean?” he asks. “Yes, what the…?” she asks. “Don’t mistake what I’m saying. You’ll never, I repeat, never, have me. But I will be your wife and we will promote each other’s political career.” Then I breathe deeply, and after a few moments, I say. “I won’t go to the police, I’ll never tell anyone.” Except you, of course. “In exchange, I want to know everything. I know there’s more. And we need to make all of this go away.” She smiles, pleased. He looks down to the ground in shame.

If there’s an inflection point in life, this is mine. I could have come clean about everything. But what then? Life in prison? Getting out in sixteen years with no friends, no money, no education? I refuse. I won’t be a victim of other people’s crimes. No. They will be my victims.