Before His Time ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
What can you say about addicts? That they engage in irrational behavior to get whatever it is they are addicted to? That they will kill if necessary, even if they don’t see themselves as killers? Did he really believe that going into a pharmacy with a gun and killing a woman and shooting another person was the right thing to do? Did he think nobody would know it was him? Did he really believe he would get away before he was caught?
His name was Gerald Lashley, but that wasn’t his real name. He broke his back in an accident. (It hurts so bad!) Doctors thought he might never walk again but he did. A long, slow recovery. He took pain killers for two years and came to depend on them. After two years, the doctor said to him, “You’re well enough now that you’re on your own. I will give you no more pain killers.”
Except that he still had pain. A lot of it. He tried to get along without the pain pills but he just couldn’t do it. He drank prodigious amounts of whiskey to take the place of the pills. Whiskey dulled the pain some but not enough. He began laying around all the time, drinking and not eating. Not washing himself and not speaking to anybody.
He saw himself many times going into a drugstore and stealing the pills he needed but he was afraid. He wasn’t the type of man to steal. He had been brought up in the church and had the fear of God in him.
Finally the pain got the best of him. When he called his doctor once again to try to get some help, the young girl who answered the phone told him the doctor was on vacation. (Do people still do that?) He slammed down the phone and sat on the couch and sobbed. He was thinking about the various ways that he might kill himself, but this, also, was against his moral beliefs.
He didn’t remember who the gun belonged to. Somebody in his family. It was still in an old wooden box in the basement along with some other junk. Also some bullets. He loaded the gun and put it in the pocket of his bathrobe and in that moment he felt better than he had felt in a long time. With hope in his heart, he went to sleep and when he woke up he knew exactly what it was he was going to do.
Except that it would never work without careful planning. There were drugstores anywhere but he would have to pick the right one. Not one in his hometown, either, where people knew him, but away, in some other town. And he would take the loaded gun along, of course, but never use it. It would just be to make sure people knew he meant business and to scare them. Not to hurt anybody.
After two weeks of planning he arrived at the “when,” the “where” and the “how.” The drug store was about twenty-five miles away in a town that was connected to the town he lived in by an old, seldom-used country road. He knew they had the kind of pain medicine he needed because he had called and asked. Yes, sir, the lady said, we have in a fresh supply; always happy to oblige. The pieces were falling into place for him.
He chose a Saturday morning at the end of winter. The sky was gray, threatening rain, like so many other days. He wore a lightweight coat with zip pockets and a knit cap pulled down to just above his eyebrows. That would make it harder for people to identify him later, if it came to that. He put the gun in the right-hand pocket—he was right-handed—and zipped it up.
Traffic was light, as he knew it would be. Not a lot of people out stirring on a dreary Saturday morning. He tried to look at the sky and concentrate on the scenery because when he thought about what he was about to do he felt light-headed and breathless. He believed his nerve might fail him, but only if he let it.
The town was nearly deserted. There were a few cars parked at the drug store and other businesses in the block, but not many. He drove around the block and parked on the street in the direction he would need to take to get away. He checked the gun in his pocket one last time and went inside.
The prescription counter was all the way in the back of the store. As he approached it, a female worker came forward, smiled, and asked if she could help him. He handed her the note he had written out beforehand and showed her the gun, holding it close to his side so nobody else would see it. She nodded her head, one time, and then turned away.
When she was gone for more than thirty seconds, he began to panic. She was taking too much time. She was telling somebody else what was happening. She would try to stall him while somebody in the back called the police. But then she reappeared from the back bearing a white plastic bag of the stuff he wanted and he felt relieved for the moment.
“Anything else?” she asked, and he knew she said this to every customer.
Before he took the bag from her, he said, “Put all the money from the cash drawer in there with the medicine.”
At that moment he was jumped from behind by somebody he didn’t see. His gun discharged with the reflex of his hand and he was aware that the bullet struck the female worker and she went down behind the counter as he was being pulled back.
The pain from the weight on his back nearly tore him in two, but he was able to throw the person off, which, he saw in just a moment, was a small old man with bent back and white hair. As the old man got up from the floor and began to charge him again, he fired the gun again. The bullet struck the old man in the upper thigh, taking him down.
Before the female worker went down, she had put at least some money in the white plastic bag with the stuff and the bag lay on the counter. He grabbed for it and ran for the front of the store, hearing gasps and screams as people in the store realized what was happening.
His hands were shaking as he opened the car door and started the engine. He sped away from the curb without even looking to see if the way was clear and drove through town.
As he was about to make the left-hand turn on the edge of town to get onto the highway, two speeding police cars appeared, their sirens deafening. One of them pulled around in front of him and stopped at an angle to keep him from going any farther and the other one stopped behind him. Officers swarmed from both cars and in a moment had him facedown on the ground. The whole thing had taken seventeen minutes.
He was taken to the town jail and then to the county jail. He was wailing and blubbering and couldn’t speak, so he was put on suicide watch and given a shot that made him feel like he was falling down a black hole that had no bottom. When he woke up he was questioned by a roomful of officers whose job it was to piece together what had happened.
During his various court appearances, he didn’t understand what was being said, but he knew there would be no trial since he had given a full confession. There would only a hearing to decide what to do with him. His lawyer told him it didn’t look good for him. The old man would recover, but the woman, mother of three, had died. The prosecution was seeking the death penalty.
After much wrangling between lawyers, he was spared the death penalty—due to “mitigating circumstances”—and sentenced instead to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
Twenty-two years went by in prison. He was an old man before his time. He walked with a terrible limp or not at all. One morning when he woke up he was too sick to get out of bed and was moved to the infirmary. That same day, as he lay dying, he saw a hill on his grandfather’s farm from his childhood. He looked up the hill and shaded his eyes to see if he saw there any sign of the forgiveness that he wanted more than anything else on earth.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp