Water. His memories of that night are hazy. Someone was passing champagne around and he probably drank too much. The only part he remembers clearly is the water all around him as he wondered whether he’d make it back to the top. The burning in his lungs as he made his way to the surface, the thought that he’d be sweating if he could sweat underwater. Could you sweat underwater? He remembers reminding himself to look that up later. You know, if he survived.
Zach Thomas wakes up alone in the same studio apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City where he’s spent the last five years. In those five years, he can’t tell you how often he’s left this room but he’d be surprised if it’s more than a dozen times.
He wanted to get away from everyone and everything in his life. On that count, his plan has been a complete success. This room has proved about as good a place to do that as you could hope for in New York. Why he’s stayed in one of the biggest cities on earth is another matter. There’s so much crime, so many people. He could leave and head to bum fuck North Dakota or Montana or anywhere if he wanted to. Money isn’t an issue. The only thing stopping him is that to leave he’d have to talk to the company and that’s the last thing he wants. He’d rather live the rest of his life in this tiny apartment than do so.
Logging onto his computer, he starts up the video game he’s been working his way through the last few days. He defaults back to the role playing games of his youth. They’re time sinks and that suits him fine. For at least the tenth time he’s playing his favorite game, Final Fantasy 8. He doesn’t care what anyone says, this is the best game in the series. The music is amazing and the story is awesome. He turns the news on in the background, just for the noise. A habit from his old life, he never feels comfortable unless he has the news going at pretty much all hours of the day. He doesn’t want to live in that world anymore but he still wants some idea what’s happening in it.
As he loads his game, a news story comes on about President Hughes. He’ll never understand how that moron got elected. People must be stupider than he thought. Then again, he didn’t bother voting against him. He would have if it wouldn’t have required leaving his apartment. He doesn’t do that unless he absolutely has to and no election was worth an extra trip into the world. He reasons that it didn’t make any difference, the guy didn’t win New York so his vote wouldn’t have changed the outcome. He still feels guilty.
Hughes is blabbering on about vigilantes. They’ve been his favorite topic for months. He can’t seem to shut up about how he’s going to officially authorize them and return them to their former glory. Zach’s always assumed he was full of it. There are laws and isn’t taking care of criminals what the police do? Why would you want random people running around dispensing their own brand of justice?
A few vigilantes were a big deal back in the 40s, but that was another time. After the war most states never had much tolerance for them. New York police were told that if they were committing violence they could be shot on sight. A few dead vigilantes did a lot to discourage others. He still remembers as a kid seeing one of them chasing a bank robber, moving from rooftop to rooftop and missing a jump between buildings. His scream as he hit the pavement made Zach ill.
Only a few random battles into his game he hears a pounding at the door. “Who is it?” He’s only met with more pounding. For most people that would be concerning but it tells Zach exactly who it is, especially once he realizes it’s Tuesday.
Answering the door, he finds his neighbor Mr. Nowak standing there with many bags stuffed full of groceries. They’re stacked onto some sort of weird cart that rolls along next to him. It’s seemingly designed just for carrying bags of groceries.
Nowak rolls into the apartment with a grumble and Zach quickly moves to lighten the older man’s load. They make their way to the kitchen, or what passes for one in this tiny apartment. As he starts unloading the cart Nowak says, “Making an old man carry all of these groceries around for you. Why can’t you get your own groceries? The store’s right down the street.”
Zach starts to apologize but stops himself. “You’re not that old. I try to pay you a fair amount for what you do, I know the grocery services I’ve looked at would be cheaper but I trust you. Anyway, it looks like that thing makes it a lot easier,” he says while gesturing to the weird cart.
“You like that huh?” The older man seems to soften, at least a little. “I made it myself. I got tired of trying to carry your groceries back from the store and then up three flights of stairs. When I need something, I make it.”
“You do a lot of building then?” Zach isn’t used to having so much conversation with the man. Usually he’s in and out. That suits Zach fine but once in awhile it’s nice to have a real conversation.
“I invented a new propulsion system back in the 80s, still living on the money from that one. If you know what you’re doing you can build anything.”
Feeling comfortable with one of the only regular presences in his life, Zach says, “That was a long time ago. What have you done lately?”
Nowak’s hard exterior comes back and suddenly he’s turning bright red. “Nothing you’d have heard of. I haven’t designed anything lately, at least nothing that’s been released. You know why? The only thing people want at this point are weapons. Anything I make, if they want it, the government will take it from me. I’m not getting rich on the blood of other people. That’s what everyone wants but I have to sleep at night.”
Zach finishes taking care of the groceries and examines the cart more closely. It really is a beautiful design. Sleek, made to support the bags from top and bottom so there’s no risk of them tearing out, it even has a lift meant to help it easily roll up stairs. Probably because their elevator is out of service at least half the time.
He goes to the opposite corner of the room and opens his safe to grab some cash. The first delivery of the month means he has to pay the man. Usually Nowak will stand by the door waiting for him but not today. Perhaps spurred on by their discussion, Nowak follows him to the safe and gets a view inside. Seeing the amount of money in it, his eyes come pretty close to popping out of his skull.
“How does a stupid kid like you get that kind of money? You never seem to leave this place. Are you dealing drugs? I won’t have drug dealing in my building. I could turn you into the building management!”
Zach mostly trusts Nowak but he doesn’t like anyone knowing he has this kind of money. Standing and trying to block the man’s view, he uses his hands to make a calming gesture. “My parents left me some money. That’s all. I get an envelope full of cash every month and I never spend it all so the rest goes in here. I should probably tell them to send less but I don’t want to deal with the lawyers.”
Nowak’s hands unclench and he starts to breathe. “Sorry to hear about your parents. That can be rough. You might want to look into a bank or something. I won’t turn you into the management, but if I get a whiff of any drugs over here, I will then. Or maybe I’ll just call the cops.”
“Thanks, that won’t be necessary though. The only drug I take is caffeine. Anyway, I think I’ll get back to my game.”
Nowak makes a move toward the door, realizing he’s no longer needed. Zach hands him an extra couple of bills, hoping it will help put this to bed. Nowak stuffs it into his pocket. “You know, if you wanted to get your own groceries, I could just sell you the cart. You can afford it.” He glances around the apartment. “I could build you a lot of stuff to make this place more functional. It looks like you barely fit in here with all this crap.”
Zach makes a last effort to assure him that won’t be necessary and opens the door to show him out. A few seconds after the man leaves, he hears his neighbor’s door slam and then hears what sounds like a chicken. A chicken? That man must be out of his mind.
Drifting back into his game, he can’t help but notice the news in the background. Hughes hasn’t stopped rambling. “This guy really likes to hear himself talk,” Zach says before realizing there’s nobody else there. He’s talking to himself now. Maybe he’s the one who’s out of his mind.
“We will restore our society to law and order,” President Hughes says from the TV mounted on the room’s far wall. “Vigilantes won us the greatest war in our country’s great history and they can win us this great war against crime and terror as well. Some will proclaim that they are themselves committing crimes but that’s just stupid. They’re trying to help and want to help. Let’s make sure they can do it. Once we pass the Vigilantes Making us Safe act, or VMUS as I like to call it, they will be legal and we can make them a huge part of our plan. They’ll provide much needed support to our boys in blue so that they can get these criminals before they can get us. They’ll keep people who don’t belong in this country out. They’ll make it so we can once again control our own destiny. That is how we take back our country. God bless America.”
Finally ending his diatribe, Hughes walks off the stage with a smile and a wave. The news desk reports that the vote on VMUS will be coming up in congress next week and right now it looks like it’s going to pass. Failure to get it through would be a big embarrassment for the new president since it was a major campaign promise. The next story’s about an arms deal in Europe and it loses Zach’s attention. He drifts back into his game and goes to a world he actually likes.