No Other Option
No Other Option
It was a massive blast.
You could smell the ashes and feel the death it had caused lurking in the air. I wiped my tears as I stood in the middle of the road and stared at what was now left of Chokey's pizza shop. The gasoline blast had devoured the whole place and taken down a lot of people with it. The place where I used to go whenever I felt lonely. The place where I had chugged down one large smoothie on a dare by my friends. The place where I had innumerable memories. Today, a pile of black ashes replaced it.
I turned my back and started walking away from it.
"Hold up, Nathan!" said Kiara. She came running towards me. She is one of my best friends in the world. Joe was my other best friend. We three had had so many enjoyable and unforgettable memories at Chokey's. Now it seems like a lifetime ago. The blast had also taken Kiara's uncle- whom she loved- with it. Her eyes were puffy and red. I wasn't surprised. This sudden incident shook all of us. The whole town was grief-stricken.
"Nate, I have to tell you something. But you're going to think I'm paranoid," she said in a rushed tone.
"Paranoid? Kiara, what's up?"
"I think there's more to the accident than what it seems like from the outside."
"What are you talking about?"
"An hour or so before the accident, I saw my Uncle Dan at Chokey's. Uncle Lucas was inside at the time. I saw Uncle Dan go in, and come back after forty-five minutes or so. Then a few minutes later, the blast happened."
"No! You have to agree that it is possible. There's a chance that Uncle Dan might be responsible for the blast."
Kiara's Uncle Dan and Uncle Lucas had a lot of bad blood in their relationship. Grudges, resentment, hard feelings from the past, spite, money-related issues, and anger. But to think that one of them would kill the other? That would be crazy.
"Nate, you know that the gasoline and flammable substances are handled very carefully at Chokey's. Isn't it weird that the blast happened today? The one day that Uncle Dan and Uncle Lucas were in there together? Even though they may not have spoken to each other while they were in there. Doesn't it seem a bit too much to just be a coincidence," she continued.
"But why get involved?"
"Nate, I have to find out what happened. For Uncle Lucas."
"You can either try to find out with me or ignore me. But I'm going to find out. Or at the very least, try to find out what happened, no matter what you say. So what are you going to do?" she questioned.
I sighed. Of course, I'd help her. How could I say no?
"Okay. I'm in. And let's bring Joe into this. He'd love to help too."
Kiara nodded and said, "Okay, let's go to Joe's then."
"Wait, what?" Joe burst.
Kiara and I nodded.
"Look, man, what's the harm in trying? If there's nothing, then there's nothing. But if there is something fishy, well then, let's do it for Uncle Lucas. We loved him," I said.
"I mean, I don't know guys...I think we should stay out of it and let the police do their work."
"Joe, it's not been a day since the fire, and the police have already ruled all the deaths as an "accident"."
"Well, then maybe it is just an accident!"
"JOE! Are you saying that an accident right at the time my two uncles happened to be at Chokey's together is a co-incident?"
"Ugh. Hard to argue with that. I'm in." Joe said uncertainly.
We agreed to meet tomorrow at nine and left.
"Come on! Isn't there anything you can do?" Kiara desperately questioned the church pastor.
We were trying to find out if there was anyone from the accident who had come out alive. The church had a record of all the deaths in the fire. Turns out there was one man who came out alive but was too injured to help us.
"I'm sorry ma'am. I've given you the name of the sole survivor. There's nothing else I can do."
"Okay, sir. Thanks a ton. We appreciate the help," Joe said before Kiara could get any more desperate.
We were walking towards nowhere wondering what to do next, when Kiara made a decision, "We have to visit Mr. Richards."
"Kiara. He's too sick to help us. And asking him about the blast will not do any good. He must be traumatized!" Joe argued.
"Well, then let's take him flowers. If he can't help us, no worries. We'll pray for his speedy recovery."
And then we decided to what-are-the-odds it. "What are the odds" is a decision-making game like stone-paper-scissor. If both the players call out the same odd number between 1 and 10 at the same time, then one has to listen to the other.
In this case, fortunately, or unfortunately, Joe and Kiara called out 7. So Joe ended up listening to Kiara and we went to visit Mr. Richards.
He was tucked in his bed. Severe burns from the blast still glowing a dark shade of red. He slowly turned to look at us. He was one of the cleaning staff at Chokey's. We've never spoken to him before.
"Hi, Mr. Richards. How are you feeling?" I made sure to speak slowly and not cause any disturbance to him.
He tried to get up and sit straight but we urged him to lie down.
"Mr. Richards, we just came here to ask you if you saw anything unusual at Chokey's yesterday. Was it really a gasoline leakage, or something else?" Joe asked.
Mr. Richard looked petrified. Scared to death. He stayed quiet.
"Mr. Richards, if you know something, please tell us. Your valuable knowledge may help us find out who did this and make sure something like this never happens again," Kiara said.
Something was definitely wrong. Mr. Richards was terror-stricken. He clearly knew something but was too afraid to say it.
"Guys, let's leave. We'll figure out some other way to solve this case." I wanted to let Mr. Richards rest.
We left the flowers, stepped out of the room, and let the door shut noisily behind us.
"Well, now what?" Kiara asked.
Joe and I looked at each other. I ran my hand through my sweaty hair as I tried to think of a solution.
"Let's try to recall what we saw that day. After all, we were at Chokey's an hour and a half or so before the accident weren't we?" I said.
I thought back to that day.
"Would you rather always be 10 minutes late or always be 20 minutes early?" Kiara asked. as she opened the creaky door to Chokey's.
"Definitely 20 minutes early," Joe and I said at the same time.
We entered the shop, greeted by the heavenly aroma of pizzas and cheese.
"Well, then I would never get another lecture from my mom for missing by bus!" I said.
"Well, I guess you don't have to ask me the reason of my choice..." Joe said.
We then burst out laughing. Joe was never on time. Never. Not once in a blue moon.
We then went and sat in our regular spot. Right corner, last seat in the shop. After a round of "what-do-you-want-to-eat"'s, we ended up ordering our regular. Burgers and fries.
Uncle Lucas entered.
"Hey there kiddos," he came over to our table.
"Hi, Uncle Lucas!" We said at the same time.
We chit-chatted for a while about how our families were, what food we like, and how school was going on. He then left to grab another table and have a bite.
A quarter of an hour later, Uncle Dan entered.
Joe, Kiara, and I looked at each other. And then we turned to look at Uncle Lucas.
He didn't notice Uncle Dan entering. He was too busy on his phone.
We sat there for a while. Clearly, nothing was going to happen. Joe went to the washroom in between and when he came back, he looked like he'd seen a ghost.
"There was a..a..a.."
"What's up Joe?" Kiara and I looked at him.
"COCKROACH IN THE WASHROOM."
After teasing him, we left. We left.
There was nothing fishy. Nothing out of the usual. Nothing that suggested that in another half hour, Chokey's wouldn't exist.
"Okay. So nothing happened while we were there..." Kiara broke the silence.
Which meant that something major had happened in the time after we left.
We left Mr. Richards' place. And we started walking. Towards Chokey's.
The ashes had been swept. It was replaced by black ground. We went and sat on the ground. The ground where we had made so many memories.
"They're all gone, you know?" Kiara said.
"So what? We'll make new ones," Joe consoled her. She nodded.
We sat there for an hour. In silence.
"Let's continue this tomorrow guys. I just...need a break."
I walked each of them to their houses. It was on the way to my house. When I reached my doorstep, I turned right back.
I had to do something.
The door shut noisily behind me again. Mr. Richards woke up.
"Sir, I know that there's something you know about the blast but are hiding from us. And I need you to tell me what it is. It may be of great help." I pleaded.
He was extremely injured. He couldn't talk. He couldn't move. I had no idea how he would tell me....whatever it is, that he knew. But I had to try.
I decided to ask him questions. Simple yes/no queries. One that he could nod or shake his head too.
"Was the blast at Chokey's just a gasoline leak?"
He shook his head indicating a "no".
"Does it have something to do with Mr. Dan?"
He shook his head again. That blew me away. There is someone else in this already-super-messed-up picture?
"Who is it? Who started the fire?" I whispered.
He moved his eyeballs to my left. I turned.
There was no one. And then I understood what he was trying to say.
I didn't get a wink of sleep. I stayed up the whole night. How could I not know? It'd been there all along.
Kiara and Joe came over the next day.
"What's with you? Those dark circles look scary..." Joe commented.
"Thanks," I said wearily. "I have a plan, guys. Let's split up. One team of us goes to the police and asks them if they have found anything suspicious. I know that they've already ruled the fire an "accident" but if there is something they're withholding, we have to find it out. And the other person collects the names of the people who died in the fire from the church pastor and goes to each of their families and consoles them. In the process, they also ask their families if they think that there is anything suspicious about the fire."
"I'll go to the church pastor. You and Joe go to the police." Kiara said.
I knew she'd say that.
She turned and left.
Joe then looked at me, "Let's go to the police."
I rammed him into the wall.
"How could you? You started the fire, didn't you? Why? Why did you do that? You killed Uncle Lucas bro! What is wrong with you?" I yelled.
His eyes reflected guilt. I then knew for sure. He was the culprit.
"Dude, let go of me. I can explain."
"Great. Talk." I still held him by the collar. I could possibly take him down. But I needed to know why he did it. My best friend...
"Uncle Dan's got nothing to do with it. It was all Uncle Lucas. I stole a lot of money from him."
"You've got to explain better, you murderer."
"Remember that safe he keeps at home for Kiara's college fund? I needed the money. So I figured out the safe password, unlocked it, and took the money. Lucas caught me. He said he wouldn't expose me if I managed to bring all the money that I took back to him. I needed money. I couldn't possibly bring anything back to him. So I had to..." he trailed off.
I couldn't believe my ears. The friend I knew since kindergarten seemed like a stranger to me now. The friend who didn't like to pluck flowers because he thought it would hurt them, was a murderer now.
"When did you do it?"
"I opened the gasoline tank when I went to the washroom that day at Chokey's. And then I took you guys out of there before anything could happen to you. That's why I was hesitant about joining you guys to investigate this. I never thought Richards would escape alive and complicate things."
"Do you hear yourself right now?"
I was ashamed to call him my friend. I had to tell the police. Kiara would never forgive him. And I don't think I will either.
"I'm sorry. I'm going to have to tell the police."
"I understand. I was going to turn myself in any way. The guilt is unbearable."
I turned and left without a word. I walked the whole town searching for Kiara; hoping she'll take it slightly better coming from a friend rather than a grief counselor.
2 months later:-
The shrill bell announced the end of the third period.
"Hey!" Kiara smiled as she caught up with me in the hallway.
"Does Ms. Rinsky always have to pop out her glass eye and leave it on the table? We get the pun! She's "watching" us!"
We laughed and enjoyed the moment. It'd been hard. We were desperately trying to return to our normal lives.
Some friends betray you. But some also stick around.