The moral imperative, he thought, was certainly there. Almost as if he was living in a fable, unable to control his own life because he had to represent some deeper meaning unknown to himself.

Flashing into his mind, the battered cardboard signs reading NO JOB PLEASE HELP and NO HOME IN YEARS GIVE ANY AID YOU CAN as their owners sat in gusty parking lots in the western end of town for all the huge supermarkets and strip malls.

But what was moral imperative, another part of him wondered, except for another way of saying The Right Thing to Do?

“All right,” he said to himself, as the shadow of the shell he was contemplating crossed over him. “So there’s such a thing as the right thing. But this doesn’t make it the wrong thing to do. There’s nothing wrong with buying a house.”

The shell, if the online ads for The Estates at Hartford could be believed, had seven master bedrooms, twelve-and-a-half bathrooms, the obligatory pool in the back surrounded by a pair of hot tubs, a garage big enough to fit four cars and a boat and still have room left over, and a patio with more square footage than a typical two-bedroom apartment. Its terracotta–or, he supposed, faux terracotta–tiling and glimmering red roof were showing themselves off to him at that moment.

He bent his head to read the sign the realtor had stuck in the front lawn, a sign he considered the one thing spoiling the perfection of the property, but every time he tried to make out what it said, visions of backpackers, the dozens who roamed the city in the daylight hours, labelled “armies” and “hordes” by his friends on the rare occasions the backpackers came into everyday conversation, came into his head.

Panhandlers were one thing, he thought. He could deal with those. The police sent out warnings every now and then about them. He didn’t have to feel guilty about panhandlers.

But backpackers were another matter entirely. In an absent way he wondered how many could fit in the shell facing him. He knew that if he bought it, it would just be him. King of ten thousand square feet.

Stop beating yourself up, he thought. There’s nothing to feel guilty about. Other people live in bigger houses than this. In a hundred years, they’ll call this place a freaking historical monument, and you could have your name on it.

The images of trudging backpackers, though, refused to leave his brain.

Turning on his heels, he walked away from the red-roofed shell. A warm feeling, not to the point of discomfort, came over him. He smiled. He had made his sacrifice.

That smile grew into a grin when he came to the next shell over. It had six master bedrooms, nine-and-a-half bathrooms, a garage that–

He stopped. This next shell seemed so much smaller. Unless his eyes were tricking him, the man was sure the original mansion dwarfed the other shell by a factor of at least three. Hanging his head, the man began walking in circles. A hollowness he could feel racing up his spine. He hoped he would run into something that would smack some sense to him. After all, he figured, he couldn’t walk in circles forever. But he was walking at the end of a cul-de-sac.