Dissonance: Part Two
The images kept flooding my mind, appearing one by one and repeating mercilessly until I felt like I was going to go mad with guilt. No matter what I tried, I couldn't erase the memories from my mind. I could see them all, each and every person I had taxed, crying, sobbing, screaming, pleading. Each and every time they had done so, I had that feeling of pleasure and joy that swept over me, a feeling that makes me sick every time I recall it. I can't even look at the money that I had collected, sitting so radiantly in its usual spot in front of the fireplace, because even the mere sight of it made me feel sick to my stomach. What had happened to me?
I tried to continue my job like normal. I had written off the exchange between Aesun and myself in the alley as a fluke, as a result of working a long day with no break, and that the next day would continue like normal. But no matter what I did, I couldn't shake the feeling that everything I was doing was wrong. Taxing these people who had little means of providing for themselves, taking away all the coins that they had toiled to make and try to have ends meet. None of it felt right anymore.
Even the act of witnessing people recoil at my sight, something that used to bring me so much pleasure and joy, now made me feel as if I were the scum of Neovia. I couldn't handle the feeling as I made my typical rounds, appearing at the houses of those that I was required to collect from that day. The same effect happened as any other day: my appearance caused those around me to withdraw into their houses and shut their drapes in fear, and yet the feelings weren't the same. Throughout my days I went through the motions, collecting the fees, hearing the same sob stories and witnessing the same heart-breaking images of broken families. Yet instead of gaining the simple sense of satisfaction that I had extracted before from these situations, I had felt empty and numb inside. Yes, I was still the force to be reckoned with, as even the mere image of a well-dressed Krawk reminded everyone of me enough to be afraid, and yet I was broken. I wasn't the same as I was before.
After seeing the state that Aesun's family was in, I couldn't get the same joy, because I had felt for the first time the pain that it had been causing. I remember how strong that pain was from how Aesun reacted in that alley when he saw my face, how he began screaming and crying as if I were planning to hurt him. That moment is clear and vivid in my head, seemingly permanent as if it were scarred into my brain, because for the first time in my life, it had made something to startlingly clear to me. People weren't just scared of me; they were utterly terrified, because my heartless actions resulted in the same consequences as what happened to Aesun's family.
Sadly, all my regret couldn't stop the memories from flowing into my mind, and I just couldn't handle it anymore. I had to make sure that they were alright, and that I had at least made up for the actions that I had done to their family. But where would I find them? What happened to them? Was Aesun able to find his father? Get his family back together? He mentioned that they had sold their home. Were they able to get it back? I hadn't stopped walking through the town's main square on my way home, and I had not noticed Aesun anywhere in the few weeks after the experience. I could only assume that everything went better than expected and that they were back at home, trying to get their lives back on track.
At the end of another one of my working days, I had found myself standing in front of their house, rapping on the front door. The neighborhood around them had scattered at my sight, and the typical silent tension that arrived with my presence had set in, except for the first time, I could feel it myself. Is this the feeling I was taking so much joy in forcing people to experience? Before I could ponder it further, the front door opened up a crack, and I was flooded with a feeling of relief; Aesun stood behind it, peering meekly through the crack, gazing upon me curiously.
"Daddy," he called into the house. "Mr. Wild is here."
"Let him in," I heard a voice reply, before coughing hoarsely. With that Aesun stepped back and opened the door a little more, inviting me inside. I passed through the threshold and heard the door shut behind me with a click, and viewed the dismal house for what seemed like the millionth time. But for some reason this time, it was different. It was still filled with the same shoddy furniture, the wallpaper still wearing off, but the smell of dirt and mildew was gone. Unexplainably, it almost felt livelier. If anything, it didn't seem so pathetic and rundown, and that was perhaps because the inhabitants were noticeably healthier.
Now that I was inside the house, I could properly gaze upon Aesun and see the difference in his demeanor. He appeared healthy and well-fed, his skin free of any dirt and body rid of any illness. He also appeared to be wearing new clothes, which looked much better upon his form than the torn and soiled linens that he had been wearing only weeks prior.
Across the room was Aesun's father, Sunil, sitting at the same table where I had harassed him for his income not very long ago. Much like his son, Sunil appeared healthier and was also wearing fresh clothes. The bags were still under his eyes, but they were reduced and not as severe; you could tell that he had been resting more, and apart from his coughing every now and then, it seemed that he had gotten over the illness that Aesun said he had come down with. Unlike his son, however, who was looking upon me with curiosity and gratefulness, Sunil glared at me with a look of fear and what seemed to be defiance.
"Aesun, go and check on your sister," Sunil commanded.
"Oh, but she's fine! I want to stay and listen to you talk to Mr. Wild," Aesun whined.
"Go!" Sighing and rolling his eyes, Aesun retreated down the hallway further down the room, leaving Sunil and me in the room alone. He glared at me questioningly.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I'm not here to tax you," I said, quieting the fear that I knew was occupying his mind. "I'm just here to talk to you." Sunil sighed.
"Well, have a seat, I suppose." I obliged, sitting upon the same worn-down chair that I was so accustomed to occupying.
"Aesun said that you were sick."
"Yeah, I was," Sunil sighed, before starting to cough again. "The dang thing nearly wiped me out. It would have left Aesun and his siblings without anyone to look after them." I shifted awkwardly in my seat as he went on to say, "Thankfully he had those coins you gave him and we were able to get me medicine in time to help me get better."
"And after that, you were able to get back on your feet?" I asked hopefully.
"Almost," Sunil replied. "We were able to get the house back, and as soon as I felt well enough again, we went out and purchased these clothes." He shrugged. "I may not be well enough to work yet, but I might as well look decent again."
I gave a hesitant chuckle as Sunil began to cough again. My feelings of guilt must have been visible, as Sunil then asked, "So I suppose our situation was poor enough that you took pity on us?"
"Well, no," I replied. "When I saw your son hiding in the alleyway, I felt... responsible. I didn't even know that it was because of my actions, and..."
"When you take away every last coin that a family has, chances are they'll end up on the street," Sunil interrupted coldly. "I'd like to see you try and survive without your income."
"That's the point. I knew that what I did wasn't fair, and that leaving you without any way to provide for your family... it just wasn't right, and I felt responsible and guilty."
"So you just gave Aesun those coins to feel better about yourself then?"
"No, it's not like that at all!" I said quickly. "I haven't been able to enjoy myself as I used to. This job doesn't hold the same passion as it did."
Sunil looked deeply troubled at my words. "You actually enjoyed ruining the lives of those just trying to get by?" he asked. I swallowed hard before nodding. Sunil sighed, folding his arms and shaking his head.
"Did it not occur to you how much we disliked you? How much we were afraid of you? A visit from you was essentially confirming that everything was over," Sunil said, the heat rising in his voice with every word that he said. "We don't live comfortable lives. If anything, they're difficult, they're messy, and above all, they're painful, and having you come along and take away everything that we worked for to try and stay afloat just ruins us."
"I know," I said.
"No, you don't know!" Sunil said hotly, rising to his feet so fast that the chair he was sitting in toppled backwards. He slammed his hands down on the table. "You have no idea what it's like to live like we do. We work from dusk till dawn for our measly income. We try to stay fed and healthy. We try to do everything while losing most of our income to these ridiculous taxes. How hard is it for you, a Krawk who can afford to wear nice clothing, who I'm sure has no problem getting three solid meals a day, while there are those of us that starve?
"You don't know what it's like to be like us, and that's why we can't stand you. It's not just the fact that you take everything that we work for; it's the fact that you do it so easily and that you get enjoyment from ruining us, and that just makes us sick. You've ruined so many lives, and I don't think that you care."
These words hit deep, striking a chord within me that resonated strongly. For the first time, one of my victims was in a position to say exactly how they felt about me, without fear of retribution. I was a crook, scum, someone who everyone feared and looked negatively upon. This wasn't something to bring joy from; this is something that should inspire me to change. Instead I took every instance of fear and loathing and let it feed me like a hungry Skeith, gluttonously feeding yet never feeling satisfied. I let it build up my own sense of superiority, when it really should have been knocking me down.
The commotion in the room must have stirred Aesun, for he appeared at once, a look of concern and worry on his face. Upon seeing him, Sunil's expression softened, and he stooped down to set his chair upright once more.
"Daddy, you were yelling again," Aesun scolded. "You know you shouldn't be yelling while you're sick."
"I know son," Sunil replied. "I just got carried away. Daddy knows better now."
"Don't yell at Mr. Wild. He's a nice Krawk."
A nice Krawk? I'm... nice? This wasn't registering with me. It couldn't register. How could someone like me, who has shown himself to be so evil on the inside, be nice? Has my one act of kindness made up for all the pain I caused? No, it definitely hasn't. I just did one kind act out of an emotion of guilt, and then carried on taxing like nothing had happened, even though I had seen first-hand what I was doing to families. I wasn't nice. I was despicable, and Sunil made it clear that that was all I was.
Sunil looked just as surprised as I did at Aesun's assertion of my character; surely he felt differently, considering I was the reason for his suffering. And yet he agreed, kneeling down to his son's level and saying, "Yes, he is a nice Krawk. Everyone makes mistakes, but at least he's doing the right thing and making up for them."
"He used to be bad, right?" Aesun asked? "Is that why he took our money?"
"Yes, he did, but now hopefully he's good," Sunil replied. "He's showing that it's never too late to do what's he knows is right."
I couldn't handle it anymore. I didn't deserve the praise that I was getting in that moment, even if it was being given to teach Aesun a life lesson. Hastily blurting out that I had to leave, I vacated the house, quickly shutting the door behind me and scurrying away as quickly as my legs could take me. I passed by others as I departed, and the looks of caution on their faces at my presence only cemented the fact in that I was a horrible Krawk, a miserable being. I did bad things to the good people of this town, and there was nothing I could do to make up for it.
Or was there? I thought once more about the conversation I had witnessed between the father and son moments prior, and considered what was being said. Everyone makes mistakes. I can do the right thing and make up for them. As I stopped in the middle of the town square and tried to catch my breath, I looked around at the people who were curiously eyeing me, wondering why I was panting and looking confused, rather than appearing composed and vicious and waiting to collect their coins. My eyes were drawn to the dark alley in which Aesun and I had our exchange, and in that moment, my mind was set.
I knew what I had to do to make up for everything. After all, Sunil was wrong. I did know what it felt like to be them.
To be continued...