The Bystander

Submitted into Contest #42 in response to: Write a story that ends in the past.... view prompt




“Why didn’t you do something?”

The words were spat at him with a ferocity that only a 10 year old could muster.

Behind the fire of fury blazing in his grandson’s eyes, Ed could see his own silhouette reflected in the emerald flames.

He would forever be the shadow that marred his light.

“Why grandpa?”

Ed cast his eyes downwards and tried not to allow the shame to show itself.

He focussed on breathing slowly as he always found that helpful to stifle the incessant pull of sorrow that always seem to be present in the hollow beneath his heart.

“I tried.”

Ed whispered the words because he knew they weren’t true.

He hadn’t tried. Just like everyone else.

He glanced up at the sound of Tom’s footsteps leaving and the sadness finally overcame him as he picked up the old magazine and let the tears join those of the last white rhinoceros on the front cover.



“Why aren’t they doing anything about it?”

Ed shifted upright in his armchair and watched intently as the snippets of the gathering of world leaders played in a stereotypical newsflash montage.

The images flickered and glowed on his retinas as his mind became a hive of swarming bees.

Mary murmured from her recliner chair, “They never do, darling.”

He sipped his coffee and the warmth made him feel better inside.

“Do you think we should do something?”

Mary made a sound in the back of her throat like she had a piece of something stuck in there.

“I’m serious.”

Mary swung her nimble legs down onto the floor and sat up straight.

Her brown eyes glowed silver in the light of the TV.

“You’re serious?”

Ed nodded and put his tea down on the coffee table.

“Eddy, what could we possibly do?”

He thought about the question for a long while. 

In his mind he saw the angry people holding up their signs and screaming at the tall men in grey business suits trying to get to work safely.

He didn’t want to be one of those people.

He hated those people just like everyone else. Didn’t he?


Ed sighed, shrugged his shoulders, and muttered, “Nothing I guess.”

They both turned their attention back to the television.



Ed straightened the crease in the glossy cover and touched a shaking finger to the majestic beast’s face.

The old magazine had once belonged to him.

When he had gifted it to Tom for his 10th birthday a few moments ago, he had felt his heart leap with joy as the young boy’s eyes had widened with each turn of a delicate page.

And as he watched his grandson turn the fifth, sixth, and then seventh page with the level of care that a historian handling an ancient text would employ, he felt something else slither its way into his heart.

An aching pain of remorse.

The realisation that his grandson hadn’t known a world where the things contained in that magazine existed outside two dimensional form.

What had he been thinking?

It was a terrible gift.

He inhaled slowly through his nose and exhaled through his mouth as the monster inside him gnawed at his composure.



“Did you see the bastards blocking the freeway this morning?”

Kevin shook his head angrily as he poured coffee into his ‘I’m sorry, I don’t give a sip’ mug.

“I did,” Charles answered, taking a seat at the lunch table.

“I’m telling you, if the police weren’t there I would have flattened them under my tyres.”

Charles faked a smile as Kevin’s rant turned into a tirade against ‘those bloody hippies.’

He was grateful when Marsha entered the room to make herself a cup of tea and Kevin asked, “Did you see those morons blocking the freeway this morning?”

He picked up the newspaper that was left in the centre of the table and returned to his desk.

The phone light was flashing.

Probably Gordon from Accounts returning his call from earlier.

Ignoring it, he sat down and unfolded the paper.

The major headline read, “Prime Minister’s landmark energy deal with CEO of mining.”

Below that was a smaller feature on the protests happening around the country in light of recent global events.

The picture showed a young woman holding a sign that said, “Less Meat = Less Heat. Climate Action NOW.”

And underneath that was an advertisement for a 20% discount at “Mick’s Meat Barn.”

Charles folded the paper back up and watched the red light accuse him of ignorance.



Charles hugged the magazine to his chest and looked towards the doorway to where his grandson had just stormed through.

When Thomas had turned the final page he had looked up and there had been water brimming at the edges of his eyes.

“Did they...did they really exist?”

Charles had nodded and briskly wiped a sleeve across his own cheek.

“But how did this happen?”

Charles had opened his mouth to answer, closed it, and then walked over to place a comforting hand on his grandson’s shoulder.

“I’m not sure I really know the answer to that, Tommy. And if I do, I’m not sure you’d want to hear it.”

Thomas’s mouth had turned down at the corners like his grandfather’s had done when faced with the burdensome truth all those years ago.

“How come I didn’t know this?” His tone was sour.

The porcelain skin on his brow had folded into worry lines.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Charles felt the pull again and cleared his throat.

“Because I was ashamed.”



“Look’s great, Ma!” Charles’s older brother, Ben, patted their mother on the back as she placed the roast chicken in the centre of the table.

Charles took his seat next to Mary and gave her leg a squeeze.

She smiled and kissed his cheek.

When everyone was finally seated, his father bellowed, “Merry Christmas and bon appetit!”

They raised their wine glasses filled with sparkling champagne and chanted, “Merry Christmas.”

Charles watched his brother pass the plate of ham across to his wife as his mother said, “and may we spare a thought for those affected by the bushfires.”

Carla, his sister-in-law, swallowed a large gulp of champagne and said, “Oh yes! Terrible misfortune that was, wasn’t it? I feel so sorry for all of those poor families who lost their homes.”

Charles scooped some potato salad onto his plate and eyed the roast vegetables currently in his mother’s ageing hands.

“Yes, very sad. Shame that the greenies used it as fuel for their climate change nonsense though,” Charles’s dad grumbled.

There was a murmur of agreement around the table.

Mary squeezed Charles’s leg under the table.

He stabbed a potato with his fork.

“Don’t you want any chicken, Charles?” The question was laced in disappointment.

He continued to chew the potato slowly as he thought of his response.

He didn’t want to upset anyone on Christmas Day but he wasn’t too keen on eating the flesh of a bird today.


He’d sworn to Mary a few weeks ago that he’d try going without it for a month after learning about the devastating effects of the meat industry on the environment and species extinction.

Mary squeezed his leg again.

His mother picked up a slice of the chicken and placed it on his plate.

“There you go. Don’t want you to miss out. It’s delicious.”

Charles thanked her and pierced the meat with his fork.

When he placed it into his mouth he tried not to think about how much he had missed it.

Needless to say he had seconds.



Charles knocked on Thomas’s door.

“Go away!”

He opened the door and saw Thomas lying straight on his bed, staring up at the ceiling.

“I’m sorry, Tommy,” Charles took tentative steps over to the boy and sat on the edge of his bed. 

There were shiny silver tracks on his temples where tears had recently fallen.

“I’m sorry.”

Thomas sniffed and shifted his body so he was seated upright.

“We should go, grandpa. Mum and dad will be waiting for me.”

Charles felt the monster inside claw its way into his throat. 

He wanted to let it out. He wanted to sob and wail and beg for forgiveness.

Instead he swallowed the hard ball and winced at the pain of it.

“Okay, Tommy boy.” The words were like cracked pavement crumbling.

“I love you.”

Thomas gave him a half-hearted smile.

Charles gathered his grandson’s belongings from his home, placed the magazine carefully on top, and secured an air-filtering mask to his grandson’s face and his own before opening the door and stepping out into the harsh afternoon light.



Charles stopped at the sight of his own reflection in the window of a fast fashion store on Second Avenue.

He looked old and tired. This job was slowly killing him.

His fingers clenched tighter around his takeaway lunch as he continued on his way back to the building that was responsible for quite literally sucking the life out of him.

“Excuse me, sir!”

Charles bristled at the touch on his forearm from the obtrusive stranger but turned around nonetheless.

“Could you spare a moment to help us save our future wildlife? It will only take five minutes.”

A young man wearing a vest with various black capped pens in the top pocket and a confident smile offered his hand to Charles.

Charles sighed and said, “Look, I’m sorry but I’ve got to get back to work.”

The man’s face fell slightly as he nodded and retracted his hand.

“Have a lovely day, sir.”

Charles flashed a smile and was about to step forwards when a strange feeling curdled in his gut.

He cleared his throat. “I’ll take a pamphlet though.”

The man grinned and handed it to him, “Thanks sir.”

There was a white rhinoceros on the front cover with a bold heading that read, “Help us save them before it’s too late.” 

Charles thanked the man and took his pamphlet and lunch back to work.

As he ate his meatball sandwich and flicked through the pamphlet he pondered the sentence, “Will your inaction now be the reason that future generations will ask ‘Why didn’t you do something?’”

May 22, 2020 07:24

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.