It was while he was sitting in backed up traffic, stuck behind a new Buick Enclave with a bumper sticker that read "I Heart Warthogs" and in front of an old Dodge Ram pickup with a hood and both front fenders in clashing colors that the little man finally found the key.
It had been a horrible week, even worse than most in his life.
As usual, his Friday pay covered only about two/thirds of his bills, even though he bought nothing for himself except soap, and nothing for his only friend except the cheapest of store-brand dry dog food.
So, through Saturday and Sunday, he'd washed a few dishes, and did laundry until his detergent ran out. Then he sat, doing nothing. There were no sounds in the house. No voices, no laughter, no friends or family coming to visit.
He heard the sounds of children playing in the yard next door, and smiled for a moment. There were a lot of kids there. Sunday was July second, and they were having an early Independence Day barbecue. They had invited him, as always, and were obviously relieved when he said "No, thanks," as always.
He noticed that his friend was still scratching and biting at herself, and her hair was coming out even faster, despite the fact that he'd given her a bath in moisturizing shampoo, and was putting baby oil on the worst of her dry skin to ease the itch.
It was when he was doing that, before bed Sunday night, that he had found the hairless, veined, thumb-sized thing, a growth on her right thigh. He did not think it had been there the week before when he had bathed her, and she yelped when he touched it.
"Oh, no," he sighed. He knew there was not anything left in his checking account to pay a vet, and he thought that, if the thing had grown so big, so fast, that it was something serious. His friend looked into his eyes, trusting him to do something about the pain, as he always had before. But this time he knew there was nothing he could do.
The little man felt a tear start down his cheek, and he hugged his friend around the neck and just let them come. He thought of all the things he could not do, all the things he would not ever try to do, and the tears came faster. They burned his eyes, and his friend whimpered with him. She forgot her own pain for a while, and worried about him. He felt her caring, and that made him cry even more.
After a while he finally stopped himself crying, and blinking his eyes clear, continued to rub the baby oil into his friends dry, crusty skin, carefully avoiding the thumb-sized lump. If he could not do anything else for her, at least he could do that.
He sat, long after the sun was down, long after the sounds of celebration were gone from next door. He sat in the darkness, both inside and outside of his heart. He thought of all the hopes he'd had, all the things he'd wanted for his life. All the things he could never have.
The longer he sat, the more he thought, the deeper the darkness became.
He knew he was something special, something different. He knew he could do something that no-one else had ever done. He also knew that was why he had no friends, no family to call on him. He had separated himself from them out of fear of the thing he could do. He did not want to hurt anyone who did not deserve it. But what did he deserve?
"Dammit!" he said to himself. "Why can't I control this? Why can't I turn it down or up, why is it so damn hard!?" He felt the burning behind his eyes, the beginning of the power building.
"But how? I'm not thinking about anyone. I'm not angry with anyone, or afraid of anyone."
"Except myself," he added after a few seconds.
Breathing fast in fear of what was happening, he carefully pushed the burning back down. He closed his eyes and imagined water pouring through his mind, a torrent, a Niagara of water quenching the burn, stopping the fire. He felt the cool mist inside his head, and finally fell asleep in his chair, his friend at his feet.
The little man dreamed he was in his old family home. He recognized the kitchen wallpaper with the big roses. He recognized the faded linoleum, and the old wood-fired cookstove. He recognized the smell of fresh-baked bread. He even recognized the little blond-haired boy in the high chair looking at him. It was himself.
"Humry, Daddy," said the little boy to the little man.
"Of course, son," he answered himself, and went to the cabinet to get what he knew would be there. A jar containing a mix of sugar and cinnamon. It was the only real treat he remembered from his childhood, and he was happy to see the jar.
He sliced a piece of bread from the loaf on the cooling rack, still hot enough to melt the Government Surplus butter that sat in the dish on the table, and sprinkled it thickly with the mix from the jar.
As he got a melamine plate from another cabinet and turned to give the treat to himself, he heard the front door open and close, and a strange shuffling sound coming down the front hallway toward the kitchen.
The little boy screamed, and the little man whirled to see a hairless, veined thing staring at them with red eyes. It looked like a giant rat, almost as big as a man, with pointed snout and sharp teeth, and it shuffled slowly toward them.
The little man stood between the thing and the little boy, who was now crying. As the rat-thing came closer he slowly backed away, pushing the wheeled high-chair behind himself, trying to get to the back door, and out of the kitchen. Out of the house.
The rat jumped, and the little man felt its teeth in his arm. He screamed. The little boy screamed. The little man felt a POP in his head and the rat thing screamed, and exploded.
He sat up in bed, gasping. Suddenly he realized that the rat thing's scream, that had wakened him had actually come from his friend, on the floor beside his chair.
He turned on his table lamp. Blood was everywhere, all over the walls, the floor and him. He scrambled out of his chair to kneel beside his only friend. She was whimpering softly as the blood poured from the hole in her thigh where the growth had been.
The little man picked up his friend and ran through the early dawn to his car. He laid her gently on the back seat, then ran back in for his keys. He'd take her to the emergency vet, whether he could pay or not. They had to help her. He would make them help her!
When the little man got back to his car, his friend was dead.
"Oh, God," he said to her blood-soaked body. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you! I'm sorry, I'm sorry." He kept saying it as his knees sagged and he slowly knelt, with his forehead against the cold metal of the car.
The gas man found him there later, and said "Hey, what the Hell happened here?"
It was light outside, now. How much time had passed, the little man did not know.
"My dog died last night," he said the the man standing beside him, looking into the car, gaping at all the blood.
"Jesus!," said the gas man, "did somebody shoot her?'
"She, she had a growth. A thing on her leg, it was growing, and it popped. I tried to get her to the pet hospital, but she died."
The gas man shook his head, "What a mess. I'm sorry for you. Umm, I hate to do this, now, but I'm here to shut off your gas."
"What? Why? I paid. I sent them a check last week !"
"It wasn't enough, guy," said the gas man, with a sympathetic look. "Didn't you get the notice? I hung it on your doorknob Thursday. You're way behind on your bill. The office wants $437, or I have to turn it off"
"Can I have one more day, please? I'll get the money to you. I'll go get my checkbbook, right now!"
"Well," said the gas man, "can't take a check, but if you give me cash, I'll turn it in when I get back, tonight."
"Oh! I don't have that much cash." He thought quickly. "I can go and get it, can you give me an hour, please!" He was almost in tears, again, and he was beginning to feel the burn behind his eyes.
"OK, guy, calm down. I'll come back in a hour, I have another house to do a couple of blocks away. But only an hour! I have to check back in, then, and they will want to know that I have shut you off, or have your payment in my hands."
He shook his head, sadly. "God, I really hate shutting people off, like this."
The gas man never knew it, but that last sentence saved his life.
The little man jumped into his car, dried blood making his clothes stiff and scratchy. He did not notice the blood on his hands and face as he backed out of the drive, and raced to his bank. As he pulled in, he saw the sign that read, "Bank Offices Will Be Closed July 3,4,5 In Honor of Independence Day. Have a Safe And Happy Holiday!"
The little man stared, his mouth hanging open, then had a sudden thought, and headed for his work.
He pulled into the parking lot about 20 minutes later, threw open the car door and dashed into the lobby. The gas man would be back at his house in only a few minutes!
He'd forgotten the blood on his clothes. The receptionist's scream reminded him.
"Quick," he said to her, "I can't explain, but I need to see Mister Rogak, right now!"
"He, he's in his office. What happened to you?"
"No time," called the little man over his shoulder as he ran down the hall.
He burst into Rogak's office and poured out his story. But his boss' face was stone.
"You're late again," Rogak growled. "You didn't call, you come running in here looking like that, and now you expect a loan?" Rogak looked at him with disgust. "Well, you aren't getting any loan, and as of now, you don't have a job, either."
The little man staggered. The burn was getting hotter. Rogak grabbed his head.
"Dammit, get out of here! It's giving me a headache just to look at you!"
The little man stared at his ex-boss. He thought how easy it would be.
Rogak moaned, and a trickle of blood started to run from his ear. Seeing that, the little man turned and ran from the building, trying to get home in time, ready to beg or promise.
He'd forgotten the holiday. He'd forgotten what traffic would be like now, as people left work early to travel to the beach, or to grandma's house, or to anywhere out of the city. Traffic was crawling at single-digit speeds as the little man's time ran out. He was struggling to control the burning in his head.
He was stuck behind a brand new Buick Enclave with a ridiculous bumper sticker. Horns were blowing everywhere, it was hot outside and hotter inside the car, and the body of his friend, still in the back seat, was starting to smell very bad.
In his mirror, he could see a big man in a three-colored Dodge behind him, gulping down a beer. He stared at this, and did not notice the Buick had begun to move in front of him. But the man in the Dodge saw it. He laid on his horn, and screamed at the little man.
The burn was getting hotter, as the little man shook his head, then turned to drive.
The man in the Dodge hit his horn again, then banged into the back of the little mans car. His head jerked back, and he heard his friends body jolt off the seat, and land stiffly on the floor.
The big man in the dodge was screaming at him, and blowing his horn, he heard the Dodge's engine rev up, and saw a fist shaking at him out of the open driver's window.
Time seemed to slow, then stop. The little man was aware of the beating of his heart. It also seemed very slow, but he knew it was racing. He felt the fire inside. It was hotter than he'd ever felt before. He felt a strength he had never had before. He realized that something had changed. He did not know the drunk in the Dodge, but it did not matter.
Knowing was not the key. Rage was the key.
In his mirror, he could see the big man in the old Dodge back up, to gain speed and slam him even harder, and the little man let the power go.
It was not a POP, this time, it was a BOOM! He even heard the explosion from inside the truck. It sounded like fireworks, behind him. It did not hurt, this time, it felt good. It was the best feeling he'd ever had.
In his mirror, he could see the glass of the pickup cab. It was covered in blood, and bits of bone, and small pieces of gray matter the little man did not care to identify. A speed limit sign on the road shoulder beside the pickup was also soaked, and the little man could see some blood on the trees more than twenty feet from the road.
The big mans headless body slumped against the sterring wheel, and the old Dodge's horn began to blow continuously.
The little man drove away, toward his home.
He saw the yellow sticker and the seal the gas man had placed on his meter when he shut it off, but did not care, now.
He took a shower in the ever-colder water, and thought of all the hopes he'd had, all the things he'd wanted for his life. All the things he could never have.
But this time, there were no tears. There was only the fire.
After it was dark, the little man dressed in his best clothes and walked out into the night.
That night, the fireworks were incredible.
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