Dissonance: Part One
I walked away from him as the rain soaked my clothes, making my coat heavier; it did not distract me from the fact that my pockets were noticeably lighter. What had happened to me? It wasn't really in my nature to give away money like that. No, I preferred to sit in front of my fireplace, a radiant fire crackling inside, and count up my coins. Money was the symbol of my superiority above everyone else in this riff-raff town, and yet here I am feeling pity for the same sort of peasant I had no problem taxing just hours before. I think I'm losing my edge.
I used to rule the world, or at least it felt like it with the sort of reverence and fear that Neovians showed me. I was a force to be reckoned with, the mere sight of whom could make them recoil in anticipation. A simple walk down the street would resort in everyone fleeing back inside, windows being closed, doors being slammed and blinds being shut, and though I couldn't see inside these pathetic homes, I knew what the image was within. Families would huddle in anticipation, breath held, hearts still, waiting to hear if I would come rapping on their door. For me, it meant collecting usually all that they had. For them, it meant the end of everything, the loss of home and health and a life destined for the streets.
Just imagining the fear that they felt, it made me feel so alive, so satisfied, and although the silent tension brought everything to a standstill, the feeling of validation within me was the rush that I craved. They'd open the door to greet me, a camouflage Krawk dressed in clothes they would never even imagine affording, and know that soon it would all be over for them.
"Good evening, Sunil," I said during one particular visit a few weeks back. "I'm sure you know what I'm here for." Greeting me at the door was a green Shoyru, his clothes stained and dirtied, sloppily sewed up in places where it had torn; it was obviously one of his few sets of clothes, if not his only. His wings hung limply from his back, and his eyes, bloodshot red with fatigue, carried massive bags beneath them.
"Oh, Wild, I... are you positive that today's the day?" he responded wearily, holding the handle of the door so tightly that his knuckles were turning white. "I'm sure that we have..."
"No, I'm afraid that your time is up; your taxes are due," I interrupted, strolling past him into his house uninvited. It was a rundown sort of place, a home that you could tell belonged to that of the working lower class. The steady low income of the family was reflected in every manner imaginable: the furniture was faded and falling apart, the wallpaper was worn and tearing, and the entire home smelled of perhaps soil and mildew. This was a poor home, a cookie-cutter model of many others in this town, and I was here to do what I would do to every last one of them.
"I hope you understand that I've been more than lenient, cutting deals with you to give you more time to... acquire your funds?" I took a seat at the decaying dining table, which was old and splintering with age, and gazed upon Sunil with expectation. "As you know, I don't normally make such kind exceptions."
"I understand," Sunil responded, closing the front door and joining me at the table. He sat himself at the opposite end, the chair groaning under his emancipated weight.
"I was... unable to get enough money to pay off my tax." I grinned maliciously, sensing the desperation and defeat that Sunil had felt in that moment.
"So I'm to understand that, even after I had agreed to give you another week if you paid extra, you failed to come up with the funds to pay your taxes."
"Yes, but you don't get it!" Sunil cried out, banging his fists upon his table, the explosion of noise echoing through the entire home. "I have a family to care for, mouths to feed! Maybe I would be able to pay your taxes if I didn't have to eat or survive."
"I've heard that story many time, Sunil, and I'm afraid I'm not moved," I replied calmly, staring the Shoyru in the face. "We have these taxes in place for a reason, and I'm afraid I just can't ignore my job."
"So you're just going to take every last bit of gold that I have and leave my family to starve?" he asked. "This isn't right. You know it isn't fair!"
"I'm only doing what I'm supposed to do."
At that moment, a small voice had cried out, "Daddy?" Both Sunil and I turned our gaze towards an open door in a dark hallway, where a small blue Shoyru was poking his head meekly out of the door. Of course he had children; the lower class workers in this town typically have many, because for each child that they had, it meant an extra Neopet to help pull in income.
"Aesun, please go back into your room," Sunil said calmly to his son. "Daddy just has to handle some business, alright?"
"But you were yelling," the young Shoyru replied. "Are you okay Daddy?"
"Just leave me be son, I'll come talk to you after this is done." Aesun nodded silently and withdrew back into his room. Sunil watched as he slowly closed his door, and did not turn back to face me until a soft click sounded down the hallway.
"Are you honestly going to tell me that after seeing that, you're still going to tax me?" Sunil asked. His conversation with his son seemed to have grounded him, as his voice was level and calm once more, yet he still appeared defiant. "You're going to leave me and my family without any means of support?"
"Do you realize how many times I see families like yours? How many sob stories I get on a daily basis?" I asked. "It's a part of my job, Sunil, and I don't expect it to ever change. It didn't affect me; it never has and frankly, I don't think it ever will, so let's just get down to business." I pulled a small record book from my inside pocket as Sunil folded his arms and sighed.
"Fine," he replied, defeated and broken. "What's my tax?"
"Well, you did owe twenty coins before, and since I gave you that week's extension, I've increased it to thirty. So you owe me thirty coins at this moment." I gazed upon him expectantly, waiting to hear the answer that I had heard so many times before in this job.
"I... I don't have enough," he muttered.
"I said I don't have enough," Sunil said louder, rising from his seat and retrieving a small box from a lopsided cabinet against the wall. He opened the box and turned it upside-down above the table, sending a streak of gold shine cascading downwards onto the table. The coins clinked and chimed as they hit the surface and came to rest scattered across the table, shining brilliantly against the dull color of the house in general. I scooped up the coins and counted them quickly; there weren't too many to go through.
"Only eight, I see?" I chuckled. "Well, I'm afraid that just won't do. You've still got a tax of twenty-two on your record." I pocketed the coins and scribbled a note in the record book, indicating the partial payment. "You have a week to come up with the remaining funds, and of course, there will be a fine involved for failing to pay on time."
"Yes, I'm aware," Sunil muttered, folding his arms.
"Well, I'm glad that we're on the same page," I said, standing up from the table, the clink of the coins sounding so satisfyingly from my pocket. "One week, Sunil. And in a week's time, I hope that you're better off when it comes to your finances."
Of course, he wasn't better off, and when I had returned a week later, collecting the measly amount that he had been able to amass, it almost destroyed him to do so. That's how it typically went, and the sense of satisfaction that I got with each and every collection made me feel more and more powerful. There was nothing that could stop me from doing my job, a job which instilled so much fear in the citizens of Neovia. As even the mere sight of me could mean the loss of all your finances, they've learned to be afraid of my form, and honestly, I enjoyed that. Nothing was going to bring me down from the pedestal that I was positioned on above everyone else.
That is, until I saw him, dirty and sickly-looking, huddled in the shadows of the alley between shops. It was the end of my day of work, the pockets of my coat lined with the harmonious sound of gold coins clinking together with each step that I took, and like the end of every work day, I had decided to stroll through the main square on my way home; as many people occupied the square, there were many people to recoil at the sight of my presence. As expected, when I appeared, people began to pick up their pace and hurried away from me. Others did the standard of retreating into shops or slamming windows shut. With my presence came the silent tension, as cheery conversations became hushed and idle chit-chat came to a stop. It was silent in that square, except for the quiet sound of little sobs.
I'm used to the sound of crying; after seeing so many families over the years turn on the waterworks to try and sway me, I had become immune to the noise. And yet for some reason this drew me in. I had to find the source of it. So I followed the sound of the quiet sniveling, and when I saw him, sitting in the shadows of the alley, I think I felt my heart sink.
It was Sunil's son, the small, blue Shoyru child who had interrupted our conversation weeks prior. He looked poor, really poor, much worse than he did back when I had seen him last. Granted, he didn't look too healthy to begin with, but against all odds, his appearance had deteriorated, and I'd assumed that his health had as well.
Then, that's when he looked up and saw me, and the familiar expression of terror had appeared upon his face as he recognized me. Suddenly, he began screaming, sobbing hysterically and huddling up against the wall as if hoping that it would become permeable and absorb him away from me. My expression rigid as stone, I squatted down and brought my face close to his. He tried to avoid me, turning his face in all directions to deflect eye contact, screaming all the while. I stretched out my hand and took a hold of his chin, and forced the child to look at me. Perhaps out of utter and complete fear, he stopped, his cries trapped in his throat, and our eyes met.
"Aesun, is it?" I asked. He didn't respond.
"Where's your father?"
"I... I don't know," Aesun stammered. "He's sick, really sick, and I tried to go and find him some medicine, but I got lost and now I don't know where he is and it's getting dark and I'm... I'm..."
"Why aren't you at home?"
"I don't have a home. You took it from us." Our gaze held for a while before he spoke again. "My daddy was forced to sell our home to pay off the taxes."
"And you're living now on the streets?"
"We have nowhere else to go," Aesun replied meekly.
I let go of his face, and he recoiled once more against the wall, not screaming like he was when he first saw me, but softly sobbing into the wall. I was at a loss for words at everything that was happening within me at that moment, all the thoughts and feeling that were swirling in my head. I didn't enjoy his terror; rather than elating me, his fear broke me and shattered the immense joy that I had gotten from scaring those of the town. This was the first time that I had seen firsthand the ultimate finality of my actions, what my duties as the tax collector have done to the citizens of this town. As much as I would have expected to enjoy this, I didn't, and I couldn't explain why.
The sky, which had been growing steadily more overcast during the moments in the alley, opened up and began to send heavy rain pelting down to the earth. Almost immediately Aesun's worn-out clothes became soaked to the bone, and he began shivering as he continued to sob. It was perhaps the most pathetic thing I've seen in my life, an image that filled me with such an immense feeling of guilt and empathy I couldn't handle it.
I did this. I ruined his family so badly that he was forced out into the streets, where he was huddled up, miserable and alone, separated from his family for what might be the first time in his life. I couldn't handle it; I had to do something. Anything.
I extracted from my pocket the coins that I had amassed that day, contained neatly within a velvet moneybag that I normally used to store the funds I collected. I paused, contemplating my action, before automatically extending my arm out and dropping the bag into the small Shoyru's lap. His sobbing ended immediately as he turned his attention to the bag, filled to the brim with shining golden coins.
"Find your father and bring him that bag," I said numbly. "Use the money to get shelter and medicine, and whatever else he can use it for."
Aesun looked at me in disbelief, but before he could say any words of gratitude, I had already risen and was walking away. I had no idea what I had done or why I had done it, but it was disturbing me. And I knew that as I walked away from that moment, that even though I had fixed my mistake and possibly saved that family's life, and therefore had no more reason to feel guilty for my actions, I knew that I would continue to feel broken until I had made up for everything else that I had done to these people.
To be continued...