New Neighbours

“My, that’s quite the costume you have there, young man! But where are your parents?”

The boy standing on our doorstep beneath the porch light was maybe 8, and for whatever reason had forgone the usual costumes chosen by boys of his age – cops or robbers, knights or wizards, ghosts or skeletons – and was simply covered in fake blood from head to toe.

He held out his treat bag. “They’re next door!” he said. “And I’m a big boy! I can go trick-or-treating by myself this year because I know to look both ways before I cross the street!”

Judy dropped some sweets into the boy’s bag and tousled his hair.

“Happy Hallowe’en, little guy!” she said. “You run along now!”

“Okay!” the boy said cheerily. He took off down the porch steps and across the street into the night.

Later, when the tide of trick-or-treaters had subsided, Judy and I sat on the couch in the living room, surrounded by the orange glow of the plastic jack-o’-lantern lights from the dollar store.

“What a sweet boy that one little guy was,” she said. “You think we should go next door tomorrow and say ‘hi’ and meet his parents? Since we are new in the neighbourhood?”

“Sure dear,” I said, and sipped my beer. “Anyone raising a kid like that must be all right.”

Judy brought some of her Hallowe’en brownies. An old man with his aged wife behind him answered the front door and held the storm one open.

“Can I help you?” he said defensively.

“Hi, yes, we’re the new neighbours from next door. Just thought we’d stop by and say hello since we saw your son trick-or-treating last night.”

A look of painful sorrow, then disbelief and fear overtook the man’s face.

“That’s impossible! Our son is dead. He was hit by a car on Hallowe’en fifteen years ago, when he crossed the street in front of your house.”

The Lost Ring

Where could it be? Where could it be? Oh no, oh no, oh no, how could I have been so foolish? Beatrice Benedict was in a panic. It has to be here somewhere. It has to be here somewhere. Oh my God, my God, I’ve got to find it or Ralph is going to kill me!

She’d turned the whole house upside-down already in a panic. At first she’d not even noticed her ring was missing. It hadn’t been until she’d finished cleaning everything.

Beatrice Benedict trembled at the thought of her stocky husband bursting in through the door, coated in grease from head to toe, then turning bright red in anger when he discovered she’d lost it, the one true symbol of their beautiful union, and then the sound of his thick leather belt flying through the air and the thwack thwack thwack as the blows rained down upon her. God help them, she knew Little Johnnie could hear it, even from upstairs in his tiny bedroom beneath the comfort of his little rocket ship bedspread.

Oh God, oh God, I’ve got to find it! Beatrice overturned all the couch cushions she’d vacuumed only an hour ago and turned over only 10 minutes before once again. She shook them out above the ugly brown striped pattern of the sofa, hoping, just hoping, that her repeating the same process and expecting a different result wasn’t insanity. That her precious missing wedding ring would fall out onto the floor, and then she could breathe a sigh of relief and all would be well again. But it wasn’t there.

Beatrice collapsed to her knees on the carpet, buried her face into her hands, and sobbed. She cried and cried and cried, the sound seeping out into the surrounding beige walls of the simple bungalow she and Ralph called home, and the walls watched silently, shaking their heads in disapproval.

Oh Bertie, Bertie, Bertie, the one wall, the one behind the China Cabinet, cooed out to her. It seemed older and wiser than the others. She felt that maybe it was their mother. Could walls have mothers?

You’ve gone and made a real mess of things, haven’t you? the wall continued. Ralph was right all this time. You really are worthless. How could you lose the ring like that? Don’t you care about Ralph? Don’t you care about your marriage? About Little Johnnie? What’s wrong with you Bertie?

Well, I’m not surprised. We walls all saw it coming. We see everything. And we’ll see it all when Ralph gets home soon and lays into you with his belt again. Just like he has so many times before.

Beatrice stopped crying and sat up. She’d already turned the living room over a dozen times. Then she thought maybe it’d fallen from her finger and gotten sucked up by the vacuum. She’d emptied the bag out and pawed all through the dirt with her bare hands. She’d gone through all of the bedrooms, tearing apart all the sheets and comforters on both her and Ralph’s and Little Johnnie’s bed, but there was not sign of her missing ring.

What was she going to do?

Wait, the bathroom sink? Or the drain in the tub? No, she’d put on her stretchy long yellow latex gloves as soon as she’d started on the bathroom, just like she always did, because she so hated cleaning the bathroom. She knew that the chemicals for getting rid of the kind of filth in there – stray pubic hairs and evil bacteria and mold caked into the grout and festering disease and rot and microbial death – were harsher than anything else she’d use to clean anywhere else in the house, harsher than anything she’d use in the kitchen.

Of course. The sink. She’d taken her ring off and set it on the counter next to the faucet, hadn’t she? Terribly absent-minded of her. But had she put it back on? And that clattering in sink had been that fork the fell from the drying rack, she’d seen it. But if she’d accidentally hit her ring with her elbow at the same time the fork had fallen then…

The garbage disposal. She had to look.

Dark and foreboding, the circular maw of the metal beast gaped at her, taunting her. I’ve got your ring, Bertie, now what are you going to do? You should have listened to the walls! The metal monster laughed maniacally at her.

Beatrice peered down into the depths of the hole, but could see nothing. She glanced from all angles but all was black; there was not so much as a gleam of light reflecting off the blades at the bottom.

She ran to the hall closet and bent down to the bottom shelf, rifling amongst the ratty old comforters and a big box of ancient used batteries. She found it, the big yellow plastic flashlight, the one her and Ralph had always taken camping with them each summer those first few years after they were newlyweds. Beatrice Benedict pushed the big black circular button with her thumb and it made a satisfying click-click. The beam from the light was still strong and lit the rusty brass hinges of the closet door next to her.

I don’t see it. I don’t see it. Beatrice squinted. She tilted her head every which way, this way and that way and a hundred other ways, but it was just so damn hard to see anything down that little hole, even with the light of the flashlight. Please God, please. Let my ring be in there. Beatrice tilted her head again and squinted into the depths of metal tunnel leading into the belly of the garbage disposal.

And then she saw it. Thank you God! A glimmer of light reflecting off her wedding ring.

Beatrice took a deep breath. She knew there was nothing in the kitchen, no implement, no wooden spoon or whisk or spatula or pair of tongs or scissors that would reach the bottom of the disposal. She’d have to reach down there with her arm and nimble white fingers and pluck the ring from those hungry metallic depths herself. It was the only way.

Think. Think about Ralph. Think about your ring. What that ring means.

She rolled up her sleeve and then stopped, recalling horrible stories she’d heard about household appliances turning on by themselves. About young boys reaching for things in the bottom of blenders and having their fingers turned into strawberry milkshakes with crunchy pieces of bone. About housewives falling headfirst into clothes dryers and being tumbled-dried to death, roasted alive all alone in empty basements while their cries for help went unheard, echoing in the scalding air of the hungry metal drums.

No, Beatrice Benedict thought. I have to. For Ralph. For Little Johnnie.

Beatrice took another deep breath and stuck her arm down the black hole, down into the hungry maw of the garbage disposal, and felt around with her nimble white fingers for her precious wedding ring. Her hand pawed and slipped against the wet steel, and she swore she could smell something foul rising up from the throat of the beast, up into the sink basin and assaulting her nostrils. Her digits danced a clumsy dance in the darkness. It was there. It was in there. I saw it! Just a little deeper. Just a little deeper. Before Ralph gets home.

There was a loud bang as the front door swung on its hinges and slammed shut. Beatrice looked up from the sink with a start.

“Bertie!” her husband called out. “I’m home!”

Oh God, it was Ralph! He’s home early! Beatrice thought. I can’t let him find me like this! And the ring! Oh God, the ring!

And then Beatrice realized her arm was stuck. And then she began to panic. She pulled and pulled and pulled but her arm was jammed in the hole of the drain at the elbow – she was like a minnow that had swum into a steel trap and but couldn’t squeeze its way back out.

She pulled and pulled but the circle of the drain was a snake coiled around her arm. She heard Ralph’s footsteps coming toward the kitchen. “Bertie? You there?” She was panicking now. She yanked and and twisted, and then her elbow turned the screw in the sink assembly and the metal monster roared to life.

Beatrice Benedict screamed as the garbage disposal ate her arm.


“She’s heavily sedated,” the doctor in the white coat said. “But she’s conscious. You can speak to her now.”

“Thank you,” Ralph Benedict said heavily. His wife lay docile beneath the hospital green of the bedsheets, an IV snaking down to her left wrist and surrounded by beeping machines keeping vigil.

“Ralph?” she said weakly. Her eyes fluttered. “Are you there?”

Her right arm was hidden within the cast. Ralph knew it was a courtesy. A sham to hide an ugly truth. He knew beneath that plaster his wife’s arm was all ground up to hell, a potpourri of flesh and skin and bone. The doctors did what they could, but had already told him she’d never regain use of her arm, let alone her hand, for as long as she lived.

A tear welled in the corner of the burly man’s eye, and slowly wandered down the side of his face. He hadn’t cried since his father’s funeral when he was 11.

“Ralphie,” Beatrice said weakly. “I’m sorry…”

“I’m sorry too,” Ralph said, reaching into his pocket for something. He set it down on the tray above the bed.

“It was in the car,” he said. “Found it beneath the passenger seat on the way home. It must’ve fallen from your finger the other day. You’re just so careless, Bertie, just so damn careless…”

Ralph Benedict’s wife cried.

“I’m sorry, Ralphie!” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry! I just didn’t want you to be mad! I’m so sorry for everything….”

“I know,” he said, rubbing his face with his hands. “I know. So am I.”

He took off his ring and set it down next to the other one the tray over the bed, and it rolled in place in a circle, rattling against the cheap plastic. The monitors behind Beatrice kept their steady pace, but nothing would ever undo what had been done.

Ralph Benedict stood and left. A doctor passed by the open door to the room, and the halls of the hospital continued to smell of antiseptic.

Blue Collar

“Come on down from thar, Buck!” Wayne Crenshaw hollered up to the roof from down on the grass. “Sometin’s wrong with Ozzie!”

Buck walked over to the edge of the sloping shingle, his safety harness following behind him like an obedient snake, to shout down to his boss.

“What?!” he hollered, orange nail gun still in hand.

“I said come on down from there! Something ain’t right with Ozzie.”

Buck took off the rope, something he’d normally never wear at a job out in the country, unless like now when the slant was very steep, and raced down the metal steps of the ladder, making them clang beneath his work boots.

“Where’s he?” Buck said, wiping his nose with his free hand.

“O’er here, c’mon.”

Oswald lay under the trees on the brittle brown leaves from the past autumn, heaving his chest up and down and uttering pained moans from dry, chapped lips.

“The hell’s the matter wit ‘im?”

“Fuck knows,” said Crenshaw. “He just fell down like this after goin’ the woods fer a piss. Reckon we should call an ambulance?”

Ozzie moaned louder, something like words.

“What?” Buck said. “What is it, Ozzie? You dyin’?” He leaned down toward the greening man.

Ozzie moaned again and rose from the leaves in a start, plunging his teeth into the other’s shoulder. Buck screamed and blood gushed from the wound, pouring down over his work shirt and staining the mouth biting him bright red.

“Jesus fucking Christ Oz! What’s got induya?!” Crenshaw took off his old ball cap and swatted at the man, hitting him in the face over and over to little effect. Buck continued to scream and struggle but it did nothing to loosen the vice grip of the teeth sunk in the meat of his shoulder.

“Get him off!” he screamed. “Christ, get him off! Fuck!” Buck punched Oz in the face with his other fist, over and over again, and blood poured from his assailant’s nose, mixing with his own.

Suddenly the stillness around the cottage was broken by a loud thwap, and Ozzie’s body fell back against the dry leaves again, making them rustle beneath it. Crenshaw stood, holding the nail gun limply at his side.

“What the fuck was that?!” Buck said, standing. He held his bleeding shoulder with his hand. Already his shirt was soaked with red. “I need to get to a fucking hospital.”

Wayne Crenshaw stared into the rustling leaves of the forest, then looked down solemnly to the lifeless body before him.

“Shut the fuck up, son,” he said, and dropped the nail gun onto the grass beside him. “Now we’s got ourselves a bigger problem.”

Somewhere off in the forest, a bird sang.

 

Anesthesia

Don’t let him drive. That was the last thing Kate had said to me when the two of us left the house, heading out to the local bar to knock back pint after pint and watch the Avalanches take on the Blackhawks.

But of course I had let him drive. When we’d stumbled out of the red light of neon signs advertising beer brands and into the sodium yellow of the parking lot, I knew Frank had had too much. I knew he was in no condition to drive. But I was drunk too, and the thought of waiting for a cab, of arguing with Frank long enough for him to give me the keys just seemed so difficult, so tiring, while heavily sliding into the passenger’s seat, as I found myself doing, just seemed so easy. So natural.

That was three months ago. Frank is gone now. Kate knows everything. Kate knows what I did. Or rather, what I didn’t do. I couldn’t make it to the funeral, but I wonder how much the tears she must’ve cried were of sadness and not rage. Anger at the senselessness of it all. Anger that the man she loved was gone. Anger at me, for breaking my promise. My only promise. My simple, simple promise I just couldn’t have been bothered to keep in my state.

The last surgery is today. After this it’s just one more month and I’m free to go, good as new.

“There’s a new anesthesiologist in the OR today,” the surgeon says as I stare up at white fluorescent tubes. I feel the mask come down on my face.

“Just count backwards from 100,” I hear a familiar voice say.

The doctor does not see my terrified eyes. I try to struggle, to call out, but already I am immobilized.

“Goodbye Michael,” Kate says, looking down at me.

That Escalated Quickly

Everyone is pushing, pushing and shoving – busy, busy, busy in the mall. Everyone in a hurry to get somewhere, anywhere, not sure where but they need to get there fast and shop, shop, shop.

“Hey man, your shoe’s untied,” a hipster with a skateboard says, rudely cutting in front of me and boarding before I can.

The escalator is crowded and I can feel the other bodies around me in my bubble, pushing against my personal space, all standing, rising slowly with the brainless mechanical steps as they complete their transcendence to Pedestrian Transport Valhalla, only to be reincarnated at the bottom as steel amoebas and do it all over again.

I reach the top and the hipster steps off in front of me. I follow him but am jerked back suddenly.

“Dude, your shoelace!”

And then I’m stumbling like an ungainly newborn fawn trying to find its feet. The brainless hungry steel machine is eating my shoelace like a stringy earthworm – pulling it slowly down into its hidden mechanical depths and my leg with it. The other passengers behind are piling up on top of me, alarmed, shouting, not knowing what is happening, trying to get past me.

“Help me! Please!”

The escalator continues churning away, pulling my foot into the tiny crevice between reality and abstract thought where the stairs disappear. The gap is a giant steel mouth with hideous sharpened steel teeth, pulling me in, crunching the bones of my ankle with its monstrous jaws, eagerly devouring its meal, as I can only listen to the sounds of my bones crack and grate against the brainless mechanical beast, helpless.

Night Drive

The night is dark and the headlights of the oncoming traffic are blurred and hazy, not entirely from the rain. My head my feels light and full of stuffy air and cobwebs. I shouldn’t be driving.

“Dad-day! My seatbelt!”

Mikey is crying and fussing in the passenger seat next to me. It wasn’t bothering him before, why now? Rain pours and the windshield wipers beat out their syncopated song. I stop at the light, its redness is blurry beneath the water still trickling down the windshield, refusing to succumb to the machinations of the wipers.

“Don’t fuss, Mikey, here, here,” I unbuckle him and try to buckle him in again.

“Dad-day! Dad-day!”

“Mikey, stop!” I struggle with the metal tip and his resistance at being resecured.

I lean over, too far, I feel the leaden liquor pulling me down. My foot slips from the brake.

“Dad-day!” he screams.

The car rolls out into the intersection but I feel – I know – it’s already too late to do anything. I realize I’ve seen this moment a thousand times before. Lived it, a million times before, and only once.

The world of the car interior is blasted with blinding white light, the headlamps of the oncoming transport truck. The horn sounds, loud and low and angry.

“DAD-DAY!” Mikey screams one last time, the terrified scream of an innocent child, and then there is only the sound of the collision and twisted metal.

I awake calling his name into the empty darkness of the bedroom, and the coating of sweat on my face is indistinguishable from my tears.

My son is gone, again, until tomorrow night.

Compound Fracture

I’d never broken a bone before.

The pain was excruciating, it was all I could think about. I scarcely noticed the chaos on the soccer field while the paramedics came. I barely realized I was being loaded onto a stretcher and taken away. I didn’t hear the voices calling my name, or even my own screams of agony. I hardly noticed the exposed white of my bone, poking out from my skin and exposing the surrounding muscle. Because all I felt was the unbelievable pain of my shattered limb.

Once at the hospital and the unreal haze of surgery was over – my arm all done up in a cast, my body all done up with morphine – the doctor assured me everything would be fine. But I told him I still felt a strange sensation; an itching, no, more like something writhing, inside me.

“Itching’s normal,” he said. “It’s just a part of having a cast. Best get used to it.”
“No, you don’t understand,” I said. “The feeling’s inside me. Where the bone broke.”
“Yeah, they’ll be all kinds of sensations while you heal up. Wouldn’t worry about it.”

scribble scribble scribble on the chart. Release form. Out the sliding glass doors. Have a nice day.

The sensation is still there, and it grows worse each day. I can feel it inside my body: squirming, crawling, writhing. I can hear it while I fall asleep, scraping away my flesh and bone in the quiet stillness of the dark.

But lately what terrifies me these nights is not the thought of what’s inside my body, but what will happen when it finally gets out.

Wintergreen

I stroll along the cold pavement and breathe the chilled December air. There is snow, large delicate bunches of flakes, falling slowly from the grey sky, but I know it will not stay. The grass is green and obstinate again this year; no warm blanket of white will cover the ground and bury the memories of winters past.

My long coat flaps in the light gust of breeze as I round the corner. It is not frigid, only cold, only lifeless like the quiet street before me in this tiny neighborhood down by the water. I try admire the beautiful homes in their stolid quiet but my appreciation is tinged with disgust; they’re all the same, formulaic, cookie-cutter, McMansions.

I come to the spot and slow. I take in a deep breath of the winter, then let it out slowly and watch the steam of my exhale in the stillness. A puff of smoke from the last living dragon. The final blast of steam escaping a dying locomotive. The last of my life escaping from me in cloud of vapor.

This was the spot. The ground will never be the same again, never be flat, never be even, never be unmarred, no matter what a landscaper or psychiatrist does.

I see us leaving the party late that night, so many years ago, laughing, flirting, smiling in the cool December air and warm embrace of alcohol. Then from nowhere, the sound of the engine, too loud and too high. The SUV of the drunk driver, full of his drunken college friends, plowing into her and pinning her against the stone wall of the yard. Her screaming. Me screaming. Sirens. Her last words as her eyes stared from her tear-soaked face into mine, and her bloody hand clenched my fingers tight one final time: I love you.

I take a deep breath, and begin to walk again. Another year and I know the snow will not stay. Another winter without her embrace, only the warm one that slowed me that fateful night. Only my cold bed and her calling in my dreams await me.

I know no matter how much snow falls, I will be forever stuck in this cold world, the cold empty world of wintergreen.