“The Fifth Hero” – Chapter 1

This world… really sucks…

Kevin gazed over the road as he turned left at the light, barely acknowledging the blaring horn from the truck he cut off. His hand felt numb to the touch of the searing wheel, set ablaze after sitting in the parking lot for two hours. The wind blowing through his driver side window did little to relieve the heat, and now that he’d been fired yet again, he certainly wasn’t going to be able to fix his AC.

His anger had faded now that he was halfway home, replaced by a hollow realization that his life was effectively over. No one was going to hire him now. Hawk Mart had taken pity on him, despite his history. They had even arranged it, so he’d only have to work in the back, away from customers.

But it didn’t matter. On his way back from his break, he heard a customer screaming at one of the cashiers, and as always, he couldn’t simply walk away.

Kevin altered his route to look down the lane. The customer was a bulging, middle-aged man with a mustache so curly Kevin half wondered if he had a scrawny boy locked underneath his stairs. He jabbed a meaty finger at the poor high-school girl behind the register, yelling at her for overcharging him on his ground beef.

“Look here!” The customer yelled, pointing at the screen, “The label on the ground beef says buy-one-get-one-half-off! But it says here that you’re trying to charge me full price for both. Are you so incompetent that you can’t even put in the correct price?”

The Cashier tried to apologize and said she was trying to reach out to her coordinator to help. She had the phone receiver pressed between her shoulder and cheek, and looked nervously over at the self-check-out, trying to get sight of him.

“Are you so stupid that you can’t even fix a simple price error without having your hand held?”

Kevin glanced over at the two packs of ground beef set aside. Neither the customer nor the cashier acknowledged him as he approached. The label on one of the packs was indeed part of the “buy-one-get-one-half-off” sale, but the other was not. The sale was for beef that was 80% lean and 20% fat, but the second packaging was for 85% lean and 15% fat. Not the same product.

The poor cashier quivered as she held the receiver. Kevin noticed that the coordinator was busy helping another customer with self-checkout. He wouldn’t be able to get over to her anytime soon and there was no sign of the Front-End manager to help either.

So, Kevin approached the register, got the customer’s attention, and pointed out the reason for the supposed error in the prices. He even offered to run it back and get the correct packaging of beef for him.

All this accomplished was turning the customer’s anger on him.

“I’m not going to let some stoner kid go off telling me I made a mistake when it’s your people who screwed up.” He said, now jabbing the finger at Kevin, “This package was on the rack with the rest of the “buy-one-get-one-half-off’ packages, so I’m not going to pay full price for a product that you told me I’d get for half off.”

Kevin wasn’t a stoner. Hell, he didn’t even drink, even though he was twenty-two. But that didn’t stop people labeling him as such. His high cheekbones made his face look sunken in. Add to it his curly brown hair, freckles, and freakishly large eyes, he always gave off the appearance that he was on cloud nine despite being told he didn’t smile enough. It didn’t matter that he kept his polo tucked, khakis ironed, and shoes wiped clean, the upper middle-class in this town always used his face or whatever else they could find as an excuse to look down on him.

He took a breath, forcing himself to ignore the insult. He started to apologize and explain again what happened, offering the explanation that someone might have put that ground beef on the rack by accident. But before he could even finish saying “sorry” the customer jabbed his finger right up to the bridge of Kevin’s nose.

“Look here,” He said, “It’s your store’s policy that whenever a product doesn’t ring up right on your screen, you’re supposed to give it to the customer for free. It’s you lot who messed up, so stop wasting my time trying to cheat me and my wife and swipe your little card so we can be on our way.”

And there it was. The real reason the man was getting so upset.

It was like clockwork. Customer comes in, starts making a scene claiming that the company wronged them over the price of an item, start screaming at the cashier or customer service rep. Then, to appease the enraged customer, the Rep apologizes and caves into their demands, giving them the item for free—all in the name of providing a positive customer experience! Then, the customer returns in two weeks and starts the entire process again with a new item they’d been supposedly wronged over.

Still, Kevin didn’t expect that this customer would be so blatant. Most tried to be subtle or act as if they didn’t know the policy existed. But this man outright said it. Kevin was willing to bet that he intended to grab the wrong package, then picked this girl’s line so he could bully her into not looking to carefully at the discrepancy between the two labels.

Kevin no longer faked his smile. His customer service face was gone. The customer hesitated and backed away from him, not expecting that kind of expression from a retail worker.

“I’m sorry sir,” Kevin said, picking up the pack of 85% lean beef, “But Hawk Mart is not responsible for your inability to read labels. If you don’t want this ground beef, I will gladly take it back for you.”

The cashier stared at him, terrified. The customer’s mouth dropped, as did his wife’s who clutched the handlebar of their emptied cart. People behind them cocked their heads, unsure if they heard right what had been said. Kevin swore he heard somebody snicker.

He turned and walked away, carrying with him the pack of ground beef. He knew he crossed a line, but he didn’t care. Seeing the stunned look on that jerk’s face was worth any scolding he might receive later. And if it had ended there, well, that might have been all he received.

He felt a meaty hand grip around his wrist, yanking him back and causing him to drop the ground beef. He heard the smush as it landed, spilling bits everywhere. But the hand pulled him back toward the register, ignoring the mess.

“How dare you!” The customer yelled, “Who do you think you are, talking to me like that! I work hard every day, providing for my family, and I won’t have some freeloading druggy disrespect me or my family. Where is your manager, I will have your job!”

“Let go of me,”

The customer tried to drag Kevin to the Front-End Office, but he wouldn’t budge. He’d always been skinny, never having much meat or fat on him. But over the past few years after being kicked out of college, he’d built up a decent amount of muscle working in the warehouses and pushing carts for various stores. He’d also learned how to balance himself, knowing how to lift and stand to not topple over when carrying heavy loads.

He braced himself against the side of a register, pressing his knee and foot against it he wouldn’t budge. The customer continued to pull on his arm, gripping it with both hands like in tug-of-war. His face reddened, and despite how hard he “worked” he wasn’t strong enough to pull even Kevin an inch.

The customer roared as he made one final pull. But then, his foot gave out. He tumbled back, his grip broke, and he slammed back against another register, the back of his head impacting with the edge. His body spun in the air and collapsed on his floor, his eyes staring blankly up toward the ceiling.

It was at this moment, of course, that the managers suddenly materialized at the scene: With Kevin leaning over the register he’d been using for support, and a pool of blood forming around the unconscious customer’s head, mixing with the puddle of spilled ground beef.

“What happened here?” One of the managers asked.

Kevin opened his mouth to answer, but a woman behind him shrieked, “That man just attacked my husband!” It was the customer’s wife, and she pointed an equally meaty finger right at Kevin, “That boy shoved my husband and made him hit his head on your equipment!”

“Oh, that is bull!” Kevin shouted back. “Mike, I didn’t—”

But his manager’s glare silenced him. Kevin remembered during their interview, after becoming fearful when his record was brought up, the smile on Mike’s as he assured him they could find a place for him. He believed in Kevin’s work ethic, despite his conflicts with customers in the past, and knew he would become a positive influence for the Hawk Mart Community.

Now the only look he saw on Mike’s face was one of anger, of betrayal, and disappointment.

“Forget it!” Kevin yelled, and he sprinted out of the building. No one appeared to try and stop him. He dashed through the parking lot, got in his car, and drove home.

The last of his adrenaline faded when he parked at his complex. He pressed his head against the wheel, letting the heat burn an imprint in his forehead. He waited. For what, he wasn’t sure. To fall unconscious? For the police arrive and arrest him for assault, or manslaughter? Or maybe some angelic being might descend down and charter his spirit off to heaven or hell, either would be better at this point than here.

Why bother walking upstairs, only to be dragged down again later. No, better to sit here, and hopefully, disappear from this awful reality.

Unfortunately for him, reality forced him back with a phone call.

His phone vibrated on the passenger’s seat, with the name “MOTHER” blazing across the top half off his screen.

Kevin hung up on her.

The call jerked him back to his senses, providing him the motivation to get out and head up to his apartment. His phone began ringing again seconds later, and as before he hung up on her midway through a ring.

It buzzed again when he reached the top of the sets. Not a call this time, but a text. His phone lit up and an alert lit up his screen with the message.

DON’T DARE HANG UP ON ME. CALL ME BACK THIS INSTANT.

All caps. Many assumed his mother was technologically illiterate and couldn’t figure out how to turn the caps lock off. But that wasn’t the case. If you met with her in real life, you’d realize she “spoke” in caps lock too.  

She tried to call again. This time however, Kevin let it go to voice mail. She didn’t leave one, but instead sent him a longwinded text that took up a whole third of his screen:

ASSAULT! ACTUAL ASSAULT! I DON’T BELIEVE IT. DON’T EXPECT YOUR FATHER OR I TO BAIL YOU OUT WHEN THEY TAKE YOU TO JAIL. DON’T YOU EVEN CARE WHAT THIS WILL DO FOR YOUR SISTERS SCHOLARSHIPS YOU UNGRATEFUL CHILD!

Kevin scowled at the last sentence. He unlocked his phone, and speedily texted back to her:

Like you ever gave a damn about your children.

Her reply came almost immediately, but Kevin didn’t even read the alert bubble before powering down his phone. He growled, pushed open his apartment door, and threw the phone on his couch. He expected he’d have over twenty plus alerts from his mother alone, and probably ten or so from his father and younger sister, telling him just to do what she told him.

He sighed and turned the lights on to his studio apartment. Everything in it was second hand: from the beer-stained couch, which also served as his bed, he’d gotten from a former co-worker who was throwing it away. The bookshelf in the corner, which held various fantasy novels and manga, he’d gotten for about ten dollars at a flea market.

 Even his old TV and only game console, an old N64, he inherited after his old college roommate dropped out, left all his old stuff behind, and got married to his sweetheart. It was the best Christmas ever.

He turned on the N64. It already had the cartridge of Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time in it. He didn’t bother picking up where he left off the night before, instead loading an older save file where he’d already beaten the game and could load in to face the final boss. He climbed the steps of the tower, and began fighting Ganondorf again for the thousandth time.

People now-a-days expected more from their games. They wanted sympathetic villains and flawed heroes. They say the world wasn’t black and white, that people were more complex than that. But Kevin thought those people were idiots.

There was clearly a right and wrong. Those who did the right thing were good, while those who did the wrong thing were bad. Good people had to stand up to the bad people and put them in their place, so all the other good people could live happy lives.

But unlike in the game, where you could become the hero and defeat the villain, the real world favored the evil doers. Bad people got away with lying and cheating. They’d ravage nature to fill their wallets, spread slander to ruin other peoples lives, or even terrorize young girls just to save six dollars in ground beef. And whenever someone stood up, called them out on their crap, society would always find themselves on the side of the villain, and knock down the hero until they too stepped into line.

It was truly a rotten world where evil always triumphed.

And no matter how hard Kevin tried, he was never going to change that.  

A bright light shone through his curtains, causing Ganondorf to hit and kill him. At first, he thought the police had arrived, their cars parked outside his window, and were getting ready to charge in. But police lights were red and blue, not golden yellow, and he was on the second floor!

He got up, dropped the controller on the floor, ignored the game over fanfare, and opened his door.

The source of the light came from a tiny object on his door mat. From how they pierced his curtains, he was sure he’d have to shield his eyes from the rays. But instead, the light appeared to dim as he drew close. As he got to his knees, he realized the object was a small crystal. It was no bigger than a golf ball and shaped like an eight-sided dice, with each of the edges cut at an even length.

As he knelt lower, he could see the light pulse inside the crystal, coursing through the creases and grooves like blood through a vein. The pulse was soft and alluring. It made no sound, yet he could feel a soft melody in its motion. It soothed him as any calming song would, casting away all his cares and worries.

It… beckoned him somehow. Called him.

Take me by the hand, it seemed to say, and I shall show you wondrous things.

Kevin reached out. And as his hand hovered over the Crystal, he knew his life would change forever. Gone would be the crummy life of dealing with customers in terrible work conditions. Gone would be his nagging mother and constantly being compared to his sister. Once he took the Crystal in his hand, the crappy life he knew would be a distant memory.

And he would be taken to the place he was meant to be all along.

He yanked his hand back and got to his feet.

“Nope,” he said, and turned back into his apartment.

Continue to Chapter 2

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Brian J. Branscum

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