1. Gannon

    Gannon Contributor Contributor

    Jan 15, 2007
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    Manchester, England

    Reciprocal Altruism - Gannon (3707 words)

    Discussion in 'Strong Character Contest' started by Gannon, Oct 10, 2007.

    Reciprocal Altruism – 3,707 words

    If survival and reproduction are the two most base of instincts, why might someone risk their life to save that of another? Discuss with reference to the following statements:

    - The man in peril is a rival; there is therefore no reason to endanger your life to save his.
    - The savior could expect benefits to offset the risk.
    - In this instance there is no difference between risking one's life and sacrificing one's self intentionally.

    Michael groaned audibly. His assignment was way overdue and he knew he wouldn’t finish it by the extension. When would he realistically need to use such reasoning skills? He sat in the semi-darkness of his room as the rain beat against the shroudless window. His plan was almost ready. The table lamp ghoulishly illuminated his face as he flamboyantly turned the page on his writing pad to put the work to bed for the night. ‘Benefits?’ he scoffed out loud. No one it seemed had benefited when his father had died on duty eight years ago. Michael’s gaze drifted across to his bed and to what he knew was under the mattress.


    It was winter and it felt like it. Glassy puddles shone orange in the streetlight as college cleared for the weekend. Streams of subdued students headed home bundled up in tucked in layers. Michael was seventeen and awkward. His hair grew lank and kinked behind his ears. The beginnings of a downy moustache clung to his upper lip and his glasses steamed as got in one of the cars that idled outside the college gates. His neighbor and friend Carl was inside wearing gloves and a black cap. He stared dead ahead and scarcely acknowledged Michael.

    ''Don't rough her up. Do not hit her. Just grab her like we discussed, OK? I'll be watching and straight over...''

    Michael withdrew a hundred dollars exactly in various, crinkled denominations from his pocket. He quickly placed it on the dashboard of Carl's small European car and got out. The insidious cold instantly returned to Michael's feet as he began to loiter on the corner outside college. He looked at his cheap plastic watch: two minutes to go. Carl had pulled away and waited at the lights before turning left and out of sight; his large frame hulked over the wheel. They had been friends since Carl and his mother had moved in from out of town, even though Carl was a couple of years Michael's senior. He now spent his time equally between playing basketball and working the door for several bars around town, even though he was still too young to drink himself.

    There she was. Michael looked at his watch and started to follow at a distance. The day’s gray sleet had stuck in patches to the sidewalk and crunched underfoot. He’d have to pull back in a little while so as not to alert her to his tail. It was approximately a thousand paces, or eight minutes to where Carl would be waiting. The hundred dollars had been guaranteed as part of the deal. Michael could not afford to spook Melissa this early on. In the distance she pulled on her hood and adjusted her red scarf before walking across the road and toward the street-lit car park adjacent to the college playing fields. The number of potential witnesses steadily diminished as she reached the far side of the lot. Not far to go. A police siren in the distance stirred Michael momentarily from his quest but he pushed on undeterred. If Coach Wade ever found out about this Michael was sure he would never swim for the college again. Fathers, he was sure, would not take kindly to their daughters’ assailants. This was however an acceptable risk Michael reasoned. This had to go to plan.

    Carl’s car sat empty at the curb. A streetlight flickered in pathetic fallacy and the air smelt cold and unfriendly. Carl would be waiting around the next corner. Michael split from the pursuit and walked quickly into an alley that ran between two streets of solemn houses and led to the other end of the street. There he could then double back on Carl and Melissa at a run. He glanced again at his watch as he jogged through the puddles, his breath trailing behind him. She should almost be there.

    Michael exhaled hard, the cold air burning his lungs. Why couldn’t he hear anything? What was going on? Had Carl shown? Yes, Michael thought, his car had been there. A stifled scream punctured his apprehension and without thinking he stepped out from the alley. Carl had his prey by the throat and against a fence. Michael could see her struggling and he started to jog, then run toward the pair. ‘Hey!’ he yelled, disturbing the quiet night. Carl spun toward him bringing Melissa with him. The gap between the three narrowed in a matter of moments. Carl was huge and in this situation even intimidated his friend. His smile was the only give away as to what was happening.

    ‘What are you doing? Leave her the **** alone!’ Michael got into character quickly.

    Carl growled a ‘**** you’ as per his role-play response but seemed to mean it. Pausing and then throwing Melissa on cue toward Michael the pair skittled to the ground as Carl made his escape. His pounding feet on the asphalt echoed to the beat of Melissa’s warm heart.


    ‘It is with great honor that I award you, Michael Chalmers, with this token of our appreciation. I, like Coach Wade, am extremely grateful for your outstanding sense of civil duty, and of course your impeccable timing! Please don’t however make this a regular occurrence. I don’t think the PTA will stand for such willful endangerment in the future, and neither will our lawyers!’

    Michael stood before his ageing principal, an envelope in his hand. It seemed he had recouped his hundred-dollar outlay, albeit in paltry book vouchers. The principal was yellowish and waxy, his hair thin and tufty. He was a small and unassuming man, gullible as well Michael thought. Michael had sheepishly turned to Melissa and Coach Wade during his wave of platitudes and they had both beamed back at him.

    ‘Now boy,’ Coach Wade joked ‘we’ll just have to improve your swimming!’ His girth wobbled as he laughed at his own joke. Michael smiled. Melissa had smiled throughout. Her hair, Michael noted, shone in the early morning light, which shafted through the principal’s blind glittering the dust that hung in the stuffy office air.


    ‘Michael, what the ****?’ Melissa stood in the doorway to their house with a hand on her hip and a look in her eye. Their dog sat on the porch by her side, his head cocked inquisitively to one side. Michael had known that this day would come. In her free hand she grasped his notebook and plan. It was supposed to be well hidden. Michael liked to read it from time to time and feel vindicated. It housed dog-eared clippings from the time of his father’s death and it detailed his and Carl’s plan from four years earlier. It also contained some crude diagrams from the latter of the two periods and diary style entries of just how successful his plan had been. There were even a couple of grainy Polaroids of locations and of Melissa sleeping. Worse, it contained a new plan – one he’d put into action last week.


    He’d chosen the building that afternoon at random, but not his weapon. As the fire wound upwards his time was near. The three-story town house neighbored similar builds on the sleepy street. Michael had shivered on his way to his target that night. He’d wet his clothes as a precaution before leaving the house. Melissa was not due home from her father’s for hours. The dog seemed not to notice anything. Standing silhouetted against the blaze Michael began to steam. Now his father could rest easy and be proud. With his guiding hand on his shoulder, Michael sprang into action.


    ‘You … started it!’ Melissa glossed over his previous crimes for now. Her hands fell to her stomach and she started to cry. Her case stood solemnly inside the door. Michael walked slowly towards her across the yard and with his arms outstretched. He mouthed something about having saved them but the words never came. He walked past Melissa and into the kitchen as she stood statuesquely on the porch, pivoting as he walked by. A brown estate pulled up out front at speed and the passenger door sprung and gaped open. Michael recognized the balding Coach Wade leant over the seat and beckoning toward Melissa.

    The fire had been hotter than Michael could have imagined and he picked at the gauze on his arm. He liked the idea that he might have a little scar from the incident. The guy he’d saved had fared less well and was still in the hospital.

    Placing his head on the table Michael exhaustedly shut his eyes. The silence she left screamed like sirens. The dishes lay unwashed in the sink and the phone hung off the hook. The adjacent hallway glistened. Melissa had slammed the door so hard its glass had smashed. In the centre of the destruction lay the notepad, strewn on the floor and buried in icy daggers. “Michael, I’m pregnant.” Her parting words still hung in the air.

    A sharp knock at the door broke the air. Michael stood slowly and shuffled to the door, glass breaking under foot and head bent low. ‘Melissa, I …’

    ‘Michael Chalmers, we’re arresting you on suspicion…’ It all went black for six years.


    The long approach to the penitentiary gate snaked from the road. The scrape of metal on gravel roused a black flock of birds into the air. As they scattered into the early mist, Michael stepped clean-shaven from the compound and into the cold morning. His eyes flamed as he started the trudge up to the road. The flock darted around him before settling above the road in the trees. Coming onto rain, Michael looked skywards and into his future.


    Approaching the steamed windows with apprehension Michael snorted and cursed himself audibly, “Still haven’t got the balls for this ****, huh?”

    “I’m here for the class,” he managed finally. Michael had always been shy. He wouldn’t speak up in school for fear of ridicule and he hated calling a cab or dialing for take-out because he would have to speak to people. He wouldn’t ask for directions. He wouldn’t take the bus in case the driver didn’t understand him or he didn’t know the name of the stop at which he had to alight. He disliked entering a bar or restaurant alone or first in case the people looked at him. They were the problem: the people, and what they might think of him. Should he even be here?

    “Michael Chalmers,” he said more confidently.
    “The changing rooms are to your right and through the double doors. Mr. Phillips is waiting for you pool-side”

    Avondale Leisure Centre hadn’t even existed when Michael was sent to prison. It was the first thing he saw when he got off the bus that morning. Where once there had been a wheezy railroad warehouse there now sprawled a leisure complex. Its yellow brick build and aluminum trim didn’t please Michael but the thought of a local pool did. God he reasoned had forgiven him. This was his chance. Perhaps he could get her back after all?

    The young guy in front of him whose nametag read Gavin flashed Michael an insincere smile before sitting and returning to busy himself with some papers. The garish red plastic of the décor did nothing to help change Michael’s mind as to the building.

    Michael proceeded through the light double doors, letter of recommendation in hand.


    Later that year Michael finally became what he was destined to be. He held in his hand a confirmation. He was to start work at North Beach. He drove straight there and looked out to sea. A dangerous swell patrolled the coast and a strong wind forced Michael back from the front. Spray, whipped from the peaks of waves, stung his sandblasted face. A red flag cracked above the noise of the wind behind him. Michael beamed with his hands lodged in his pockets and shouted with pleasure, the wind stealing his words from his lips. He turned back to toward the car park following his trail of stumbled footsteps. The car park stood empty save for his isolated vehicle, sandy swirls blowing around his feet. The car door blew shut hermetically as he cocooned himself in for a while. He’d have all the time he wanted to take in that view, but he wanted to bask in it now. He reached for his cell. Excellent he thought, Carl had replied.


    He’d show them all. This one was for Dad: A hero in his first week. Maybe even Melissa would see him in the paper. Michael wheeled his observation tower down North Beach taking care to avoid the early bathers. The sun was out and the townsfolk were making the most of it. His boss Kevin would be along shortly with the flotation devices and binoculars, he’d drop them off in the beach pickup that patrolled between the watchtowers. With a healthy set of sun freckles decorating his nose and cheeks, Michael inhaled and exhaled, deeply and calmly. This plan would be all right.

    Carl still lived in town. He now had a son that he saw at weekends; he and Carlton Junior seemed inseparable. Michael had had to use all his charm and persuasion to coax Carl down to the front. In truth Carl wasn’t much of a swimmer, this made their plan even better assured Michael. They’d met for a couple of beers mid point between where they lived. The bar played Jovi and Carl hated it. A couple of older guys argued pointedly at the pool table and the TV competed with the music. Michael tried to slide the bottle across to Carl but it stuck and wobbled in the spilt beer on the bar. They drank in silence.

    “You sure this’ll work?” Carl broke the ice. “I’m only here ‘cause I need the money, just like last time. Baby Carlton needs some new **** or other. Christ knows he does enough of it.” They both smiled at his deadpan and took a deep swig of their beers. “I’ll see you tomorrow dip****. Be sure to look out for me. I’ll be the one drowning!”

    Michael stayed for a few more rounds watching the game. He looked to his wrist for the time. He stood and headed out back to take a leak, muttering to himself all the while. He pinballed down the corridor toward the acrid smell of ammonia. Releasing himself he exhaled and placed the side of his balled up hand on the wall. It was all going swimmingly Michael thought to himself, before giggling to himself and zipping up his jeans.


    On the horizon a storm gathered. Blackened clouds jostled for position and grumbled and flashed their anger out to sea. The tide continued to gently slap on the shore oblivious to it all for the time being. Michael’s eyes drifted from side to side and out to sea doing the rounds whilst perched on high. A high leg bikini caught his glance as it and its owner tottered down to the front, “…benefits to offset the risk” he muttered.

    Retreating under the shade of his tower, Michael mopped his brow and eyed the dark clouds in the distance with suspicion and hoped that Carl would arrive before they hit the coast. Kevin drew up slowly in the white beach pickup. “Hey man, I brought you a soda.” He threw the cold can toward Michael who grabbed it from the air, cracked it open and drunk deeply.

    “Anything for the report?” Kevin asked.
    “No, it’s quiet. Though they should scare enough off later this afternoon.” Michael gestured toward the horizon. Miss Bikini floated back up the beach to her towel and began drying herself off. Kevin raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips in admiration. “I’ll leave you to it man, adios.”

    Carl lumbered in to view half an hour later as Michael lolled beneath the tower. Dressed in an open plaid shirt and shorts he chose a spot off to Michael’s right to lay down his towel. He slowly removed his shirt to bare his stomach. It had been a while since Carl had last been on the courts; his large frame was fleshy and bloated. He had started to recede and looked tired. The waves had started to grow as the clouds rolled closer, their crests foamed and spat and crashed further up the shore. Carl looked to the tower uncertainly. Michael nodded toward the ocean emotionlessly before returning his stare to the water. Carl trudged down to the waves with his head down and his hands in his pockets. A dog ran in and out, barking and snapping at the racing water at the sea’s edge. A thunderclap growled out from much further along the shore. Carl again looked to the tower but Michael stared glassily over him.

    Stepping out amongst the foam Carl proceeded to waist depth, struggling with the waves. A large one caught him unaware and sent him sideways and under. Michael didn’t flinch. Carl stood wiping the salt water from his eyes and spitting. He labored on past the breakers and into open water. Here he waited a couple of minutes trying to catch his breath whilst fighting the tide back toward the tower, all the while under Michael’s watch. Carl slipped under and resurfaced coughing. The tide suddenly drew him back to the breakers. Michael stood placing his binoculars to one side and reached for the flotation device. He took a deep breath and jumped from the tower sprinting toward Carl. He again slipped from view as Michael dove into the waves.


    They huddled together under the forgiving arms of a skeletal tree. A low mist clung to the dewy grass and clouded around their ankles as they shuffled and waited uneasily. Melissa stood aside from the group wearing fur lined gloves and a distant stare. Her lips and cheeks reddened in protest to the chill morning air.

    Further down the hill Coach Wade sat in the driver’s seat of his large German estate and talked earnestly with another man who flicked a pen over a notepad. The engine idled softly. A small fair headed child played in front of the car pretending to be a dragon and galloping like a horse: his breath visible in the headlights.

    A frail Mrs. Sobers and Elizabeth Chalmers exchanged platitudes in the shadows of the tree and Carlton Junior spent his time equally between teasing a spider on its bejeweled web and inquisitively eyeing the other child further down the hill.

    Kevin and Mr. Phillips appeared from the far gate, their take-out coffees billowing steam behind them. Starting to take their seats and with some standing, the priest began. A glum photo of Carl rested against a wooden box running with condensation, and a photo of Michael lay against the other. Michael was only a child and his father could be seen beaming in the background. A single tear ran down Melissa’s cheek as she turned on her heel and made her way back towards the car. She waved off a journalist on the way.

    “A selfless act to save a man and a friend. Michael gave his life, a daily sacrifice to the public. The sea cruelly took the pair and leaves us to pick up the pieces. So, now and forever, side by side, ashes to ashes …”

    The chubby journalist cornered Mr. Phillips as he left the service.


    Jim Rowan took off his coat and sat down at his computer. He hated the morning shift. He took a gulp of hot coffee. The photographer hadn’t shown at the cemetery and he was pissed. Still he thought it had been far from a wasted trip. His notepad was full.

    Opening his email he saw that Dennis Wade had sent him an item very recently. Attachment one, Rowan’s own article from the previous week: Double drowning of hero & pal at North Beach. Attachment Two, a photocopied article from eight years previously: Trophy Arsonist gets six years. His phone rang disturbing the quite office. Rowan reached across a stack of papers, his hand catching a small, inscribed cup in the process, which clattered to the floor. “Jim Rowan?” “Yes, …thank you, Marshall.” The cup’s engraving stared up at him from his feet. Best Runner-Up.

    Jim hung up and slowly typed in the search engine A-L-A-N C-H-A-L-M-E-R-S. Seconds later, Jim was reading an even older article: Local Hero dies in blaze as son looks on. A doe-eyed picture of a small fair-headed child leered from the grainy gloom.

    A new email popped into Rowan’s inbox from Brian Phillips.

    The ARC would like to distant itself at this time from any association with Michael Chalmers, pending a full investigation…

    Rowan didn’t read on. He raised his eyebrows and placed his hands on his neck. ‘Not in this town’ he said loudly to himself and the empty office. Opening a new document, he began to type:

    Correction to Tuesday’s early edition:

    This journalist is in possession of certain information, which proves that Michael Chalmers, who died a hero last week at North Beach, staged the rescue in which he and his estranged friend Carl Sobers both perished. The fame he sought from his actions will now, at this newspaper for one, be downgraded to infamy. The praise he received from local lifeguards and association body the ARC has been withdrawn pending a full investigation…

    Rowan looked up when complete and a tear ran down his flame-scarred cheek. A lot of time had passed since the fire, but it still hurt. His tears turned into a smile as he turned off the light and left the office, Chalmer’s blazing image forever washed from his mind.

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