TASTES LIKE CHICKEN
Lenny Meeks had survived another day at the prison disguised as a business office. To an adventurous person, it might have resembled a daring escape; leaving the cubicle, passing unnoticed through the exit, and emerging into the afternoon sunlight. But Lenny’s life was the antithesis of adventure, and he didn’t do daring. Not ever. Just stepping outside the recycled atmosphere of the building’s secure interior was enough to make his stomach churn. A cold sweat afflicted him, despite the summer heat. He chewed a couple of chalky antacid tablets, and tried not to think about his day.
He could have had the proverbial corner office by now. A handful of promotions had passed him by. Coordinator, supervisor, manager. But he was soft-spoken to the point of near invisibility, a quivering and obedient jellyfish. Lenny Meeks was a clearly a follower, not a leader. It wasn’t that he hadn’t tried to acquire some spine. He had books in his desk at work, and at home underneath his bed in the tiny guest room. “How to be Assertive,” “Stand Up for Yourself!” “Unleash Your Inner Tiger!” All the strategies he’d pored over were ineffective. There simply was no tiger inside Lenny Meeks. So, day after day, he endured eight hours of anonymity and mediocrity at the huge corporate headquarters, and then headed home to tend to Mum. She’d be sure to remind him of all his failed potential.
A familiar sigh of resignation escaped his pursed lips, as he maneuvered his beige Kia Soul out of the expansive parking lot. Most days, he managed to push all the “Could haves” out of his mind. Today, they were plaguing him. One of the first had been the worst. The only girl that had signed his high school yearbook. The one he’d had an obvious crush on. “You could have kissed me if you’d asked,” she’d written, scornfully, it seemed. She might have been disappointed, but Lenny had disappointed no one more than himself. His chin drooped slightly at the unwelcome memory. Biting at a fingernail, he began the drive home.
Something odd at his periphery caught his eye. Over at the retention pond between buildings, dangerously near it, in fact, was a middle-aged man, standing still and staring at the rippling water. Lenny looked over in horror. There were alligators in that pond. In fact, the man stood very near the sign that warned: “Beware of Alligators – Do not Approach – Feed – Harass.” He was on the other side of the chain link fence designed to protect curious humans from hungry reptiles. What is he doing? He must know he’s in danger! He’s clearly disturbed, Lenny concluded, he wants to die. Lenny wanted to vomit.
He shuddered, and slowed the car. He wished he hadn’t seen anything, had just continued the few miles to Mum’s cottage. To safety. He closed his eyes for a second. He could see exactly how this would end. The unstable man would die a gruesome and painful death. There’d be a tragic story in tomorrow’s newspaper. The man’s relatives and friends would be in shock. Wondering how it could possibly have happened. They’d learn how many people had been in the surrounding buildings, and had seen what was taking place. Such a preventable tragedy. That family, the poor grieving family, they’d wonder why nobody had done anything to save the man. And Lenny, once again, would know that he could have acted. He could have prevented the horrific event. He could! Not quite realizing what he was doing, he pulled the car to the side of the road. His throat was tight, his hands were trembling.
He couldn’t look. But he did. The man was still there, beside the pond. Lenny willed him to turn around, step back to safety. It didn’t work. The man stared into the water, determined to die. Lenny decided he’d at least call for help. Fumbling with his cell phone, he dropped it between the seats. Glancing over, he saw the man move even closer to the water. He was down the embankment now, descending among the cattails and tall grass. “Oh, God,” Lenny squeaked, struggling with the door handle. His hands were moist and clammy. Sweat was pouring down his forehead. He closed his eyes, and moved his reluctant limbs.
Then, somehow, he was across the sidewalk. And miraculously, he scaled the chain link fence. It tore at him as he lurched forward onto the damp grass. He did vomit a little, just then. The man turned to face him. Lenny saw terror in his eyes, terror that probably mirrored his own. “Sir, please!” was his high-pitched plea. The man mumbled, shaky and confused. Dementia, Lenny thought. Then the old man’s eyes closed, and he slumped to the ground, hand clutching at his chest. Heart attack! Lenny found sudden strength, moved the prone stranger safely from the edge of the marsh, and began chest compressions. He prayed that the man would regain consciousness, and every bit as much, that he himself would remain conscious. And he did, as first a crowd, then paramedics gathered around the pair. Then there were hands pumping his, slapping him in congratulatory manner on the back. Someone said, “Hey, you’re hurt!” Lenny looked down at his leg and saw blood. And for once, he didn’t pass out at the sight of it.
The new Lenny would learn that the man in distress did indeed suffer from dementia. That he would make a full recovery. And that his daughter was a well-known celebrity, who was more than grateful, and more than generous. The story did make the newspaper. “Local Hero,” the words surely described someone else. Lenny could never have dreamed that it would turn out this way. Because it didn’t.
Things just didn’t work that way. Not for Lenny Meeks. There would be no heroic rescue. Lenny knew it, the moment he closed his eyes. And as much as he wanted desperately to flee, he was paralyzed. After dropping his phone, he killed the Kia’s engine and stepped out on shaky legs. He ran across the road like a terrified field mouse. He labored without grace up over the fence, crying out as something tore. The man by the water contemplated him as he flopped headfirst into the muck. Lenny could see, not fear in his eyes, but rather, insanity.
“Sir,” he addressed the man, in a quivering and high-pitched voice. The man turned away from him, and took a step into the water. “No!” Lenny cried. Why would he do that? Why isn’t anyone else out here? What should I do? When he saw the ripples in the water, heading swiftly toward the man, Lenny nearly fainted.
“Get out!” Lenny pleaded, moving shakily forward, and down the sloped bank. “You’ve got to get out!” He reached the man just then, fingers grasping at his clothes. “Please,” he begged, “Come with me!” The man’s eyes moved from the water. His gaze locked on Lenny, and he reached out. Clutching arms moved swiftly through the reeds, and Lenny was caught in the man’s terrifically powerful grasp. The man shifted his weight, pivoting, pulling Lenny off balance. Terror paralyzed the would-be hero. “You’re going to kill us both!”
Poor Lenny was half right. The sadistic stranger threw him headfirst into the churning water. He left the world the way he’d entered, with a lengthy and shrill scream. The man on the shore and the alligator wore matching grins.
Lenny blinked and gulped oxygen; he’d been holding his breath for a long minute. He rubbed his sleeve across his sweaty face, and tried to shake off the chilling premonition. It had been so vivid. He re-buckled his seatbelt, willing his pulse to slow back to its normal flutter. He gripped the steering wheel tightly, the sensation convincing him that he was still alive. Forgetting his cell phone, and ignoring the man on the other side of the fence, he focused only on the road ahead. With a shaky leg, he stepped on the gas. My God, he told himself, that could have been disastrous. Could have been.
He stopped the car abruptly, and began to turn around.