Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 18, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

THE CASE FOR CALM....Since there was much talk in the blogosphere today about anger and its proper expression, tonight's bedtime story is about rage and redemption. If you don't like stories, of course, feel free to skip it.


They are looking for me. I can't see them yet, but they are around here somewhere, with their flashlights and two-way radios and heavy black shoes, talking to each other, and they are closing in. One of them is close to me now. I can feel his mind and his intent is written all over it: he is determined to hunt me down like an animal and kill me.

It is dark and cold in this alley and the young one is around the corner, his heavy black shoes moving slowly, very slowly, toward me. A moment later he turns the corner and works his flashlight across the alley, but finds nothing except old trash, fat brown rats, and puddles of urine.

Then, just as he steps past a garbage bin, he sees me, and at once he understands. He is quicker than I expect, however, for just as I am about to put him into a deep sleep he pulls out his gun and points it at me.

He has left me no time for subtleties. I scream pain and terror into his mind and in an instant he is unconscious. I recoil at the pain I have caused, but he will recover soon and I know that I had no choice. I know this as surely as I know he would have killed me had I given him the slightest chance.

Quickly I strip him of his clothes and put them on. I have done this before and I know just what to do. His radio is a common model and I work the controls easily. There is no one here, I say, I am coming back in. The tinny quality of the radio masks the awkward throatiness of my voice.

Unhurriedly I step out of the alley and into the street. The other policemen are on the other side. I wave to them and continue on my way. Five minutes later I am ten blocks away, safe once again. I have gained two hundred dollars and made a clean escape this evening. I have also nearly killed a man. It has not been a good night.


I have been in this city too long. It is my home town and I have allowed that to keep me here, even though I know better. In the last three weeks I have been caught twice, and both times, through my own carelessness, I have nearly killed a policeman. This is a frightening sign perhaps I am losing control? and also a source of danger. There are a great many policemen and they pose a very real threat to me when they act together.

So I will stay one more night and then leave. Perhaps I will find a smaller town this time, one more peaceful and less painful. The large cities, with their millions of minds, all loud and selfish and undisciplined, put me on edge, make me nervous. But at the same time they are more satisfying: there are more of them around, the people who want to kill me. It is difficult for me to leave them behind.


The next day I sleep through most of the daylight hours and wake only when darkness has fully come. The streetlights on the corner I have chosen are all either dim or burnt out completely and it is easy to hide. Several people walk by, but none of them is right. None is the right game.

The prey I am hunting is them: the vicious young thugs who inhabit all cities, the muggers of old ladies, extortionists of small shopkeepers, murderers of the innocent, the ones who have never in their miserable lives given a moment's thought to anything beyond their own pitiful needs. It is ironic that the police hunt me down, unaware that we have the same goal: protecting the world from them. The only difference lies in our methods of accomplishing it.

When I find one of them, I don't arrest him and I don't kill him. Instead I change him permanently. I show him what he has done to his victims, the ones who are afraid to open their doors to strangers or buy food unattended or take a simple subway trip. I show him, quite simply, the hard, unyielding face of fear.

I am in a poor section of town and it is mostly old people who walk by, in a hurry to get home and scared to be out this late at night. I have no quarrel with them and I leave them alone. Their minds are mostly closed to me anyway and I catch only fleeting glimpses of them, just enough to make me feel sorry for them.

Soon, however, a familiar sensation crosses my mind and I reach out. It is there. One of them. I look around; he is across the street, so I start walking behind him. I am studying him as I walk, touching his mind. I reach more and more deeply until...

Them!

Not just a pale imitation like the others I have hunted, but one of the ones who was there, at the scene, all those years ago.

I quicken my pace and cross the street. Naturally I do not recognize him by sight: I was only eight when I last saw him, and unclearly even then. But I recognize his mind, swaggering down the street with the confidence of a small-time hood who owns the local police force.

My body shudders as I close in on him. I want to stop; reason tells me to follow him, find out where he is going, but suddenly reason is no longer in control of me. Within seconds I am there, and in a blind fury my mind leaps out, tearing at the man, twisting his brain into senselessness, searing his mind with thoughts of revenge.

He does not know who I am and that is unacceptable to me, so I tell him. He recoils in fear he thought me dead and with the pent up wrath of ten years I burrow into him, concentrating on making him feel the blind, helpless terror he once instilled in me. I am assaulting him savagely now, and I know that if I don't stop I will kill him. I have become one of the animals I hate, but I cannot stop myself.

Suddenly, there is someone behind me. I whirl around but it is too late: I feel a sharp crack on the back of my head. As I fall to the ground I see the person who has hit me. It is a policeman, an old one, old enough that his mind was able to creep up behind mine undetected while I was busy killing my enemy. As I crumble to the ground I extend my consciousness and find that I have one solace: I have killed him.


I am awake now. They have put me in a small cell, by myself. I don't know what it is, but I know what it is not. It is not a jail. It does not have bars across one side, only a rather ordinary door. It is not cold, and barren, and concrete. In fact, it is rather comfortable. I open my eyes further: there is a camera in one corner. Someone is watching me.

I have not moved yet and I close my eyes again. Two people are approaching the door and they are talking about me. I cannot hear what they say, but their meaning is clear.

There is something strange about him, one of them says. No, the other replies, he is just mentally disturbed. They are using psychiatric terms, of course, ones I could not understand if I could hear them.

I can, however, feel what they are saying and this is much more useful to me. They both agree that I am dangerous, and one of them, the one in charge, has medication of some sort, a tranquilizer. They have already given it to me once, but it is wearing off.

Since I have kept my eyes closed I do not notice it when they open the door. I only notice that their minds are coming much closer. I wait for the one-in-charge to pull out his hypodermic needle and lean over me. My mind is very sensitive now, and just when he is about to thrust it into my veins I tap his mind gently and he is asleep.

I knock out the second one quickly, relieve him of his key, and walk out into the corridor. Of course, there is a camera there too. I hope whoever is on the other end has chosen this moment to be asleep; I do not wish to deal with him too.

I walk quickly down the long, tiled corridor before I come to another locked door. Through the window I see a single guard. After trying several keys I come across the proper one, open the door, and leave him lying on the floor. They are such easy targets here.

As I reach the front door an alarm goes off. Someone has finally looked on the TV monitor and seen the two doctors lying in a heap in the middle of my cell. It is of no matter, however. I am far more experienced at evading guards than they are at catching inmates, and within ten minutes, despite a splitting headache and a lot of huffing and puffing, I am more than two miles away. Once again I am free.


Until the night my family was murdered I had no peculiar powers of mind. I was awakened that night by the shouting in the living room. I heard my mother's muffled, dying scream, and I was able to hide under my bed before the murderers came into my room, searching for anyone else in the house who might be a witness to their crime. They found both my seven-year-old brother and my five-year-old sister and slit their throats.

I was paralyzed with fear the whole time, unable to move a muscle even if there had been anything I could have done. When they quit the room they left the door open and I could see them dimly: three young, shabbily dressed, well built men with ignorant, bigoted hatred written on their faces.

One of them said something then. I didn't hear it, but I saw him turn around and come back toward my bedroom. Did he know there was someone else in there or was he just coming back to make sure his friends had done their job properly?

It didn't matter, for I was convinced he was coming back for me. Blind, horrible terror filled my heart and in a paroxysm of fear I lashed out.

At first it was utterly in self-defense that I did it. But when my mind made contact with his, the emotion turned to rage, both at him and at myself for thinking that there was anything this mindless scum could do to hurt me. I discovered in that instant that no matter what his physical attributes, he was no match for me.

It was all over in a second. Fear once again washed over me and I pushed myself out from under the bed and ran for the window. Moments later I was fleeing down the street. It was my first of many flights from them, and the only time until now I killed a man. If such a brute can be called a man.


It was not for some time that I discovered that I had lost the use of my hearing. At first this alarmed me, but soon I found that I could hear with my mind better than I ever had with my ears. With your ears you can hear only what people say; with your mind you can hear what they mean.

At first I could hear only dimly, sensing no more than the surface emotions that make up the ragged edges of people's thoughts. Even this quickly became too intense for me to bear, however, and I made up my mind that I could never again join the company of men.

It was simple, even then, to remain hidden. I knew which places were empty of people and chose those places to hide. I could sense when people were approaching and it was easy to escape. And, when I was taken by surprise, I could disable my pursuer with a flick of my mind.

It was easy to harness this rudimentary power, for it uses as fuel nothing but raw, primitive fear. As time passed, however, my powers developed further. I found that I could sense more than just a person's presence. Increasingly, I could discover what he was thinking, not just what he was feeling. I could sense images in his brain and I could anticipate what he would do next.

I can do that now. And my senses extend much further than they first did. It is this that will allow me to find the men who killed my family. Back on the dimly lit corner last night I found an image in the mind of the man I killed, an image of my parents buried deeply within him.

It is my image now, and I hold onto it tightly and jealously. I am going to use it as a beacon, to search out the other one who is still alive. His mind will have the same image buried within it, and all I have to do is look for it. I know I will find it, too, because the dead man told me so. He is still there, he said, waiting for you.

His wait will soon be over.


It is dusk now, time to begin. The street corner is as dim and cold as it was last night, but there is a difference: two policemen are there, rubbing their hands against the chill and cursing their luck at having drawn this assignment.

Obviously someone thinks I am stupid enough to show myself there again. Carefully I step into a sidestreet and make my way around one of the shabby, broken down buildings that make up this section of the city. I reappear a block farther down; the policemen are still on their corner, shuffling around, looking bored, waiting for their shift to end.

I am ready to start. All I need to do is go from building to building, looking for the image of my dead mother. It is around here somewhere; I can feel it.

I move in and out of buildings quickly. Nobody bothers me: this is not the sort of area where people inquire about your actions. They have business of their own and they go about it with their eyes on the ground, avoiding contact, wishing only to be left alone.

For two hours I search for the image. The man did not live far from here, but there are hundreds of buildings within half a mile of the street corner. Unfortunately, I did not start my search with a plan, so I find myself coming back to the same buildings once more, the same small, filthy lobbies with their identical rows of battered metal mailboxes.

I curse myself for my stupidity. I start again, but this time I search methodically. Up one street, down another, up, down, up, down. In a few minutes I have covered an entire block and go on to the next. In half an hour I am five blocks away and I have searched every building within two hundred yards of the street.

Another half hour and it is time to cross the street and make my way back. Up, down, up, down....

Them!

I can feel the ugly, repulsive mind, just as I did last night. I step into the lobby and look around. There is no one there except a small boy, who scurries up the stairs when he sees me.

I look at the mailboxes, running my finger over their rough surfaces, feeling for something. My eyes light on one of them: there are two occupants there, both sharing the same last name.

Of course! They are brothers. Suddenly, memories come flooding back and everything becomes clear: two of the three men who murdered by family were brothers. Last night I killed one of them and the other one is here, his brother's name still on the mailbox.

I fly up the stairs without another thought, holding in my mind only the idea of his death. The stench of his mind is everywhere now, overwhelming me, sending me into a killing frenzy. Savagely I kick at the flimsy door and it splinters open. Inside is the man I am seeking.

He looks startled and gets up slowly from the kitchen chair he is sitting in. There is a woman in there also, feeding a small baby no more than a year old.

He moves toward me, yelling something that I can't hear but can certainly understand. They are both radiating panic, but the woman does not have the sense to run across the hall for help.

I unleash a blast from my mind and he drops in his tracks. I am bringing up from his memory the image of my parents as he last saw them, letting him feel the fear and pleading they felt before he cut their throats. He writhes on the ground, trying to say something. But, as with all the others, nothing comes out.

I poke around in his mind savagely, looking for agony of any sort. When I find it I set it loose, but with far more intensity than it ever had the first time around. He is utterly under my control now, and I am surrounding him from all sides with pain and the memory of pain.

His past is an endless well of brutality. His father beat him when he was a small child, his teachers despised him for his dullness, his friends avoided him for his short temper. Unskilled and unfit, he has never been more than a step away from the unemployment line. He cannot support his wife, he cannot afford his only child, and he knows there is no hope that he ever will.

All at once: this is why he murdered my parents. His mind screams at me: people like you have taken away my livelihood, my money, my self respect. He hates me and everyone like me with a hatred nurtured from childhood.

I let up for a moment and he gasps for breath. Instantly I bore in once again, this time filling him with my own pain, a thousand times sharper than anything he has felt himself: the panic-stricken fear of a child watching his parents die, the crushing feelings of helplessness and guilt that come from being unable to stop it, the loneliness of being isolated from human companionship in a way no ordinary man can comprehend.

For a moment I hesitate, but I cannot wait. A shriek of fury looses itself from my mind and tears into his. His body jerks upright, nearly snapping his neck, and he falls.

Then, just as I am about to administer the final killing blow, something stops me something behind me. I turn toward the woman, but she has made no motion save a protective squeeze to bring her baby closer to her breast. I sense that she feels no fear of me, and this surprises me. I feel compelled to find out why, so I reach out and touch the outer fabric of her mind.

She has given up completely. She has tried for years to forge a decent life with him, to make him give up his bitterness, but it did not work. Bad luck was followed by worse and now he is about to die, killed by a force incomprehensible to her.

She feels pity for me and love for her child. It washes over me and makes me feel limp. I have felt nothing like this since my parents died.

But why does she pity me? Somehow....she knows who I am, why I am here. I reach deeper into her mind.

She knows her husband's past she knows that he was weaned on violence and hate. And she has known for years that someday he would get into trouble that he could not get out of and that it has finally happened. She knows what motivates me. She can feel the razor-sharp force of revenge burning within me. And she knows, in some primal way, that I am alone in the world and her husband is to blame for that.

I look at her. She has a gentle face and understanding eyes. She understands, she knows. I feel her mind reach out to mine. I reel at the sensation but slowly come back. The press of her thoughts is warm and comforting.

I can feel revenge fading from my mind, but it is kicking and clawing desperately as it goes until, finally, I am near collapse. I slump heavily to the floor and stare at her. After a few moments she gets up and comes toward me. She holds out her child to me and I look at it dimly, finally taking it into my arms.

She sits on the floor next to me and holds me. Our minds meet. It is like a dream: she has gained the same control over her mind that I acquired all those years ago.

It was rage and hatred that sparked my mind out of its stupor then, but those are not the only emotions that can unlock the powers within us. Now, sitting on a cheap tiled floor with my mother's murderer ten feet from me, I remember what I forgot so violently on that dark night ten years ago.

There is still love in the world.

Kevin Drum 11:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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