Of Crime and Punishment
George Milton walked down the dusky path as the California sun began to set. Dust flew about his face as he walked briskly, head down and without a care. There was only one thing that followed him forever as he walked this path of life alone: silence. Every time he turned the corner, imagining a familiar voice calling to him, the sleepless, anxious nights he spent contemplating his life's choices. Silence, and only so. Had it been several years ago George would be hollering at the tall and naïve Lennie to stay out of trouble, or maybe to keep those mice out of his pockets. If only it had been five years ago.
Aunt Clara was dead
Curley's wife was dead
Lennie was dead
And in a way, George was too.
He walked about nowadays as an air of melancholy followed him like a tempest, sweeping at his back in rivulets of gloom and misery. Every night, he asked himself why, why, why he was feeling this way. His life was fine, he hadn't a are in the world, a job to keep himself afloat and then some. But he still knew, deep as the sun was setting, why he felt despairing: it was the guilt. It was a certain pain that he bear upon his back. A sin, indelible; a crime without punishment. Rather, it was the crime he had committed years ago, the one act that changed his life forever.
Lennie was dead… and it was all his fault.
Curley and his lynch party were following closely, their footsteps resounding through each stretch of brush they trekked through. Closer, closer they drew, weapons in hands and vengeance in their hearts. He hadn't a choice! It had to be done, for the good of everyone, even himself.
No… that's a selfish thought
I had a choice, but I was done… I didn't take it…
And in all of those five miserable years, old Candy was the only man who ever learned of it; he was solemn, yet he was understanding. He knew what it was like to lose a friend, rather, destroy a friend in agony. In the back of his mind, George thought of how, even in death, Candy probably wasn't over that dumb dog.
Yes. Candy was dead, too.
There were whispers, and there were rumors, all of which echoed and resonated through his ears. They were about him, all of them.
Are you sure that's what happened? Is George telling the truth?
They grew suspicious, far too much for his liking, and with a sigh, he left the ranch, too. Shortly after, there was a fire, a passionate blaze that swept through the brush. It enveloped them, coiled around their lungs, and soon, all of them were dead too.
Curley was dead
Crooks was dead
Carlson was dead
Slim was dead
Whit was dead
And the boss was dead, too.
It was just George now, living and breathing only for himself, a change that he had hoped would be for the better. After years of pain and insomnia, however, he had come to realize how foolish he had really been.
He stopped, and looked up at the place to which he had wandered. It was a town. He felt at his pockets, gripping his wallet to confirm it was still there. He looked up and saw a building, yellow and brown from wear, quaint like an old home, welcoming, somehow. He saw a sign: The Turntable, the flashing sign read. With a sigh, he entered the bar. It was quiet, only a few men sitting in booths and tables. He sat at the bar, and for a moment, he was alone.
"Hey, Red! Gimme two of 'em" he heard a voice and a knock on the table.
A glass appeared in front of him, filled with a golden beverage. He looked around, and noticed immediately a woman had sat down beside of him, sipping away at her alcohol.
The man was silent, surprised.
The girl set her glass down with a thud onto the bar, already half empty. Her hair was brown, with a dash of ginger as the light in the bar reflected upon it. Her eyes, deep pools of honey brown, gazed into the golden liquid for a moment, and without a beat, she began to speak.
"Somethin' troublin' ya?" she asked, her gaze still held in the beverage. The man's silence remained.
"Ya know… times 'r pretty tough these days… we all felt it, hell, a dust storm just passed through her' Thursd'y. So, 'salright if ya ain't feelin' too fine. You got a name?" she looked at him, eyes slightly narrowed. He looked at her, and, somewhat grudgingly, he replied.
"George… name's George." He took a sip.
"Ah, so you do talk! Wher' ya from, George?" she asked, a smile now appearing on her face.
"Down over the Salinas Valley… used to work fer a ranch. 'Course it's just me now." Her expression fell, only just. "Just you, huh? Guess bars 'r good fer loners. See, I'm alone too. Ma cousin Melvin died this past June, so time a' been tough, ya know? What 'bout you?"
"What about me?" he asked.
Her eyes narrowed slightly. "Wise guy, eh'? Well, 'm talkin' about you!" she poked him. "Where are your companions? How long have ya been alone?"
"Easy, lady!" he yelled. "Been on ma lonesome fer downright five years." Her eyes widened slightly. She paused, in thought.
"What… what happened?"
George's gaze turned downward. "Guess it don't matter, anyway. Not like you can do anything about it." She was silent.
"I used to have a friend. He wasn't too bright, hell, he was stupid as you wouldn't believe." She giggled at that. "But what mattered was… we were together, we had a pretty rare case on our hands. Ya see, we actually gave a damn about each other… ain't nobody gonna care 'bout ya if you don't, but… it was differn't, 'cause we had each other."
"Well, time after time he got us into trouble. Ya see, he did wrong all the time but didn't even realize it. He ain't done it out 'a meanness, he was just plain dumb. We was gettin' a job at a ranch, 'n I even had to lie an' say he was kicked in the head as a kid." She laughed, and he smiled, remembering the tall companion fondly.
"Well, we was getting' into trouble, well, he was anyway, see ther' was this woman and lemme' tell ya was she a tart! Been flirtin' with everybody in the whole damn ranch!"
"What was it like?" the girl asked, eyes caught in interest.
George replied easily. "Hell, it was great! The hours was long an' the work was hard, but it was beautiful! Green grass and farm as far as the eyes can see!"
She looked in wonder. "What happened next?!"
"Well, see Lennie- er, my friend liked to tough soft things. That's how we lost our other job, see he really liked the feel of a girl's dress an' well, it wasn't pretty after that. Anyway, from what I know, the poor guy accidentally strangled 'er. See, Lennie liked to pet things, too, but always ended up killin' em, just like those damn mice, she crushed her neck in 'is grip." She gasped.
'Well… what happened to him?" his eyes darkened alightly, not sure if he wanted to share.
"Now listen 'ere, I won't tell a soul!" she slammed her hands on the table, animated.
"Fine, just shut up." He sighed. "The husband saw 'er dead an' well, he sent out a bunch o' ranch hands after 'im. I went out before they did and… I tried to find 'im."
"Well… did'ya?" she asked, curiously.
His eyes reflected a whimsical sorrow as he reflected upon the events of that day. The day he lost his only friend.
"I found 'im by the riverbank. We'd made that our trouble spot, y'know, in case either o' us get into trouble. You know… Lennie always had a dream… about them rabbits, how he wanted a place with a farn, with lots of rabbits to tend and, I told him about them. I asked 'im, Tell me about the rabbits, and I could hear Curley's gang gettin' closer, and closer. I…" his eyes reflected, brimmed slightly with tears. "I didn't have a choice!" he grabbed at his hair. "They was gonna kill 'im! So I…" her eyes widened and a hand covered her mouth.
"Yeah… I killed 'im… shot 'im right in the head. And ever since that day, I just… I can't take it!" he shot with misery dripping from his face.
"The guilt?" she put a hand on his shoulder.
"The guilt, yeah, 'n that phantom pain at night, when my hand hurts from where I pulled the trigger.
"And every goddamn time I turn around, I can almost hear 'im… 'George!', 'George!', it's everywhere, but when I turn around, every time…he's gone…just… gone."
The man sat his head upon the bar in his arms, and the girl remained silent, in thought. Her eyes were serious. The man who sat before her, with despair in his heart, but no means was a bad person, and like a brisk wind, it hit her. A realization. With a firm tone, she spoke.
"You said… your said your friend did bad things… but not out o' meanness, right?" he looked up at her words. "Yeah, so-"
"Well you didn't do that out o' meanness either, so in a way, you two were the same!" his eyes widened as he soaked in her words, waiting for her next phrase.
"W…what did you-"
"You didn't do it out of meanness, damn it! You did it because you loved him! He was your best friend, and you saved him from agony...! They say that a true friend will lay down his life for another, but… an even better friend will stain their hands just to save them misery!"
"Lennie would have died anyway! He would've been lynched to death, and you know it, George! So don't you start beating yourself up about it when you could be living for him!" George fell from his chair as the woman stood over him. No one in the bar stirred save the strange pair of travelers. He looked up at her, and in her eyes shown great emotion: anger, sadness, bitterness.
"What the hell are you gettin' at, lady?!" he yelled. "What do you expect me to do?! Huh?! I'm a killer! I killed 'im!
"So what?! You did it out of mercy, George Milton!
It was then that the man realized he had never spoken his full name. He looked with a haunted glance at the woman, who was seething with emotion.
"I never told you my last name…" the woman paused, almost frozen.
"Just…jus' who the hell are you anyway?!" George yelled.
The woman sobered immediately, and returned to her seat, smiling softly to herself.
"You need to stop regretting your actions, George. You're driving yourself insane with all of these thoughts. No one blames you for what you did, not even Lennie himself would, you know."
He was silent, awestruck as he remained on the ground.
"You gotta stop living in the past, and move forward… any way you can."
"Who… who are you?" he asked, almost inaudibly.
"My name's Mandy." She said softly.
"Remember what I said, George? A true friend will stain their hands to relieve their friends of misery, so…" almost from thin air, she pulled out a gun, identical to the one he had used all those years ago.
"So wake up, George. And be happy, okay?" she cocked the gun, and without another moment of passing, pulled the trigger.
A shot resounded throughout the quiet town.
He saw sand, and lots of it, reflecting midnight blue from the moonlight. It was night, and the silence had returned. He was breathing heavily. He looked to the ground, and found himself upon it. With a groan, he sat up. He turned, and found the dusty old trail that he had once traveled. No longer did he see himself and his companion from the days of the past and what could have been, but rather, he saw the road ahead, the road to dawn. It was then that he realized his sin, indelible, was not a crime without punishment. Rather, it was a punishment without a crime. And with a sigh and a distant smile, he thanked the woman with the honey brown eyes.