GONE–ROUGH CUTS

Over the last couple of days, I wrote this story based on the picture in the body of the post. I saw it on social media and it really hit home with me. IT IS COMPLETELY UNEDITED, so please don’t trash it because of errors I may have made. Yes, I know I could have edited it, but I want to try something. When you get to the end of the story, I would love for you to leave your thoughts on it. Also, would you like to see more of Abigail Sherman and find out what happened later in life? If so, what would you like to see? I hope you enjoy the first story of what I’m calling ROUGH CUTS, completely unedited first draft pieces. 

Here is GONE. Please like, share and comment. It is very much appreciated.

GONE

Her name is Abigail Sherman and she used to live in a small neighborhood where everyone knew her as Abby and knew her parents as Gail and Wes. She was six when her family moved away from their nice home with the chain link fence, a huge back yard with lush grass and a pecan tree in the back corner. Sometimes they set up a tent and slept under the stars. They had cable television and this thing called the internet, though Abby didn’t quite know what that was. She wore cute pink dresses and took baths daily. She went to a good school for first grade and had made several friends whose families often had cookouts or ‘get togethers.’

When they left home one morning, she didn’t know they would never go back. Her mom handed her the pink book bag she used for school and her stuffed bunny, Floppy Ears. Then she took her hand and they went to the car, just her and Mom. 

“Where’s Dad?” she asked from her car seat in the back.

At first her mom said nothing but in the mirror Abby saw her wipe at her wet eyes. Then her mom spoke and said one word. “Gone.”

For Abby that word didn’t mean much. She didn’t understand such a small word. 

Gone is just Go with a N added, she thought, so he must have went somewhere. He’ll be back. 

For Gail, gone meant everything. Abby would learn that in time, but at first, it was just go with a N added

She’s still six and Gone is what she and Mom now were. Gone from their comfortable home, gone from her bed, gone from the big back yard with the pecan tree in the corner. Gone from the school where her friends still were, but where she no longer belonged. This is something she didn’t understand either. If she belonged before, why doesn’t she now?

They went from a place Mom called a hotel to another one, to sleeping in her car. Eventually, the car became Gone as well. She didn’t understand that, but she understood things were bad. Mom didn’t smile and she was constantly on the phone at the hotel. Abby tried to ‘mind her own business,’ but with just Mr. Floppy Ears to keep her company, she couldn’t help but hear Mom’s end of the phone calls. It was after one of those calls where Mommy argued with someone on the other end about it not being her fault Wes did what he did. She slammed the phone down on the receiver. That’s when Abby approached her mom with questions.

“Mommy, why did we leave home?”

At first, Gail didn’t answer. How was she supposed to answer such a question from her sweet, innocent child? Then she did. The conversation went like this:

“We had to.”

“Why?”

“Your dad … well, your dad …”

“What about Daddy?” Her blue eyes were wide and full of wonder and how can you lie to a child who will eventually learn the truth?

Gail pulled Abby onto her lap and put her arms around her. “Your daddy got into some trouble and …”

“Bad trouble?”

“Really bad trouble.”

“Is that why the police came?”

“Yes. The police were not happy with Daddy and they took him away.”

Abby nodded, said a soft “Oh.” Then she added, “But why didn’t we stay home so when he came back we wouldn’t be gone?”

Gail sniffled. “We had to leave. I didn’t want to, but they made us.”

“Who is they?”

“The police.”

Abby sat up and looked up. Tears were in Mom’s eyes and she stared off toward the wall of the hotel that held a large painting of a bull and a man with a red cape and his arm pulled back to throw a long spear he held. “Are we in bad trouble, too?”

Gail shook her head, sniffled again. This time, she wiped at her eyes with the palm of one hand. “No, Sweetie. We’re not in bad trouble. Just Daddy.”

Abby stared at Mom. She didn’t know how, but she knew Mom was lying. She only called her Sweetie when things were not good. They were in trouble. In six-year-old Abby’s mind, they were in bad, bad trouble. 

Abby pushed away from her mother’s chest and slid off her lap. She went to the hard chair with the blue cushion on it where her book bag sat. She put her crayons in it. Then went to the small dresser near the foot of the single bed the two of them shared and pulled the few clothing items from it. She put those in the bag. She then picked up Mr. Floppy Ears and set him next to the bag.

“Abby, what are you doing?”

“Getting ready.”

“Getting ready? For what?”

Abby turned to her mom. She almost rolled her eyes but didn’t. “To be gone again.”

And they were gone again. This time, with no car to go in. They walked, Abby with her backpack on her shoulders, Mr. Floppy in one arm and holding Mom’s hand; Mom carrying a black trash bag over one shoulder and her head down toward the road. They walked until they came to an overpass.

“Stay here,” she said.

“Why?” Abby asked.

“Just do it. If anything happens, scream.”

That scared Abby. Chills ran up her small arms. “Where are you going?”

Gail jerked her head toward the dark underpass. “To make sure it’s safe.”

Though her mother wasn’t gone long—two minutes at most—it seemed to last the entire night. Abby peered into the darkness but could only see a faint impression of her mother. Tears formed in her eyes and her bladder suddenly felt like it would let go. She licked her lips and held Mr. Floppy Ears close to her chest. She let it her breath out when her mom came back into view.

“Come on,” she said.

“Is it safe?”

“As safe as it’s going to get tonight.”

Abby took Gail’s hand and they stepped into the darkness of the overpass. Once beneath the road above them, Abby’s eyes adjusted to the dark. It wasn’t a big area and the road connected the small downtown area to what looked like a neighborhood on the other side. A long fence separated the two sections of town. 

“Here,” Gail said and reached into her trash bag. She pulled out a pink blanket, one that Abby hadn’t seen in a while. It was her ‘sweet sweet,” at least that was what she called it when she was smaller and younger than she was then. One corner was frayed where she chewed on it when she was teething. Abby took the blanket and held it to her cheek. It didn’t smell freshly washed, but stale, as if it had been at the bottom of her closet or under her bed in her old house.

Gail led her close to one of the walls of the overpass. On the ground was a long piece of cardboard. “Lay on that,” she said. “It will be better than laying on the hard concrete.”

“What about you, Mommy?”

“Don’t worry about me, Sweetie. I’m going to be right here beside you.”

Abby first sat on the cardboard. It was thin and old looking. Then she laid down. It was stiff and hard and nothing like a mattress on any bed, not even one of the firm ones in the hotels they stayed at. She pulled the blanket over her shoulders. Her legs stuck out and that bothered her, but at least her arms were covered. She clutched Mr. Floppy Ears tight to her chest and stared off at the fence separating one part of town from the other. Before she could close her eyes and fall asleep, she wondered if that was their life now. Living under a road that cars passed by overhead on. Eventually, her eyes grew heavy and the last thing she saw before falling asleep was her mother with her knees to her chin and her arms covering her face. Abby thought she might be crying.

When she woke, the sun was out. Her body hurt when she sat up and the blanket lay beside her. Mr. Floppy Ears was still in her arms, but Mom was nowhere to be found. 

“Mommy?” 

She stood. Her heart sped up. 

“Mommy?”

She spun in a circle, taking in her surroundings and hoping her mother had just laid down in a darker corner or was sitting somewhere else. Maybe she was beyond the fence. The couldn’t have gone too far. She left without Abby and her trash bag laid near the cardboard bed. 

“Mommy?”

She ran to the open end of the overpass and looked up the road, then down it. Cars passed overhead, their tires thumping on sections of concrete. A bird chirped from somewhere. A lawnmower grumbled angrily from the neighborhood behind her as it chewed up grass. A dog barked then grew quiet. But Mom was nowhere to be found. 

“Mommy?”

Abby ran to the other end of the overpass, crossed the crumbling blacktop and stood at the fence. She clutched it with her right hand as Mr. Floppy Ears dangled from her left. Tears spilled down her cheeks. She sniffled.

From where she stood, she could see a road and the fronts of several yards. Most of them were neatly cut. On the porch of a house painted yellow with several creepy looking lawn dwarves standing watch in the yard, an old woman sat in a rocking chair. Her hair was gray, verging on an ugly shade of blue. She wore a long gray gown with some sort of pattern on it that Abby couldn’t make out from that distance. The old woman stood and went to the edge of her porch. She looked toward Abby then went down a couple of steps. 

Abby turned and ran back under the overpass. She went to the piece of cardboard she slept on the night before and sat down. She pulled the blanket over her knees, then pulled her knees up to her chest. With Mr. Floppy Ears sitting tight between her chest, Abby cried. 

After crying, Abby straightened her legs and stared toward the entrance of the overpass. Her stomach grumbled. Abby crawled to the trash bag and looked inside. There were clothes and some toilet paper. There were a couple of dollars in a clear zip up bag. There was a grocery bag with a couple of small bags of chips. There were no other food items and no drinks. Abby took a bag of chips, sat back on her cardboard and ate quietly. It did little to satisfy her hunger, but it was better than nothing.

Abby remained on her overnight bed. Her bottom hurt from sitting. Her back hurt from laying the night before. At some point, she saw the old woman near the fence. She pretended not to see her. After all, she was a stranger and strangers meant danger. Instead, she reached into her bag, hoping to find something to do until Mom came back.  Her crayons sat at the bottom of her bag. She pulled them out—a box of 64 with a convenient crayon sharpener in the back. She never used the sharpener, preferring to peal away a little of the paper wrapper at a time until it came completely off on its own.

She looked for a pad or any paper but couldn’t find anything. Her shoulders slumped and she shook her head. She let out a sad breath that rattled in her chest and sniffled. Tears threatened to form in her eyes again. From the corner of her eye she saw the woman walk away and all the tension in her little body went with her. 

Abby thought about Mommy and Daddy and got angry. Daddy did something bad and was gone. When she fell asleep last night, Mom was beside her. Now, she was gone. But Abby was not. No, she was still here and she was alone. She thought of home, her room, her table where she drew pictures at. So many of those pictures hung on her walls and …

Abby stood. Her legs and back hurt as she did so. She looked at the concrete wall she had leaned her back on. It was rough to the touch, but not too bad. Once, when she was only four, she drew on the wall behind her bed. Daddy had made her a tent of pink sheets and closed tacks and she hid inside with her crayons and her imagination. She got into trouble that day and Daddy painted over the walls eventually. 

“Daddy’s not here,” she whispered. “He’s gone.”

But … Mommy …

“She’s gone, too,” she whispered. That word—gone—she still thought of it as go with a N, but it started to take on a new meaning. It wasn’t just go it was never come back. Maybe that was what the N stood for: never. 

Abby picked up her box of crayons and flipped the lid open. She plucked out the black and set the box on the ground. She didn’t care that it tipped over. She cared only about the things that were gone in her life. She thought about drawing stick figures of Mom and Dad, but decided they left her—they were gone by choice—and drew something else. To the left of her cardboard bed, she drew a series of squares that formed a dresser with a television on top of it. To the right of the cardboard, she drew a table with a bird cage on it. She never owned a bird, but had always wanted to. Next to the bird cage she drew a box, then wrote the word CRAYON on the top of it. Directly above the cardboard and between the dresser and table, she drew a window, much like she would if she had drawn a picture of a house. In the body pane, she drew a candle with a flame she imagined flickered from time to time. 

When she was done, the crayon was not much more than a nub. She stuck it back in the box and sat down. At some point, she picked up Mr. Floppy Ears and laid back on the cardboard. She pulled the blanket over her shoulders and stared at the crude window. Her eyes grew heavy and Abby slept.

She woke to the sound of a car door closing. She sat up and blinked several times. It was still daylight out and Mommy was still nowhere to be seen. 

“Hey, little girl,” a woman called. 

Abby looked to the edge of the overpass. Two women stood next to a police car. The blue lights were off. One of the women wore a police uniform. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She might have been Mommy’s age. The other woman wore a gray gown and her hair was a shade of ugly blue. 

Abby grabbed Mr. Floppy Ears and pulled her knees to her chest.

The lady cop walked up to her, knelt beside her. “Hey.”

Abby said nothing.

“You don’t have to be scared. I’m not going to hurt you. Mrs. Hayworth saw you and thought you might need some help.” She pointed back to the lady with the blue hair. “What’s your name?”

She licked her lips. Her heart thumped hard in her little chest. Her skin felt cold and wet at the same time. 

“It’s okay,” the officer said. “My name is Camilla. It’s nice to meet you.”

“My name is Abby. I like your name.”

“Thank you. I do, too. There’s not many Camilla’s out there these days. I like your name, too. Is it short for Abigail?”

Abby nodded. 

“Okay, Abby. Can I asks you a couple of questions?”

Abby nodded again. She squeezed Mr. Floppy Ears a little tighter to her chest. 

“It’s okay,” Camilla said. “I’m not going to hurt you. Neither is Mrs. Hayworth. We’re just here to help you. Okay?”

Another nod came.

“Abby, are you here by yourself?”

A nod.

“Okay. Umm … did you run away from home?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“How did you get here?”

“My mommy brought me.”

Camilla looked around. “Where is your Mommy?”

Abby shrugged. “Gone.”

“Gone?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Where is your daddy, Abby?”

Another shrug. “He’s gone, too. He got in trouble and he’s gone.”

“He got into trouble?”

A nod.

“Abby, do you know where you live?”

Another nod.

“Can you tell me.”

“I live here. See the window and the dresser and the table. I watch tv from right here and I draw on that table with my little bird. He doesn’t make much noise.”

“I see.”

“Are you hungry, Abby?”

She nodded, a little more intensely than before.

Officer Camilla stood. She held out her hand. The nails were pink. “Come. Let’s get you something to eat and we’ll see if we can find your parents.”

“They’re gone.”

“Yeah, but I hope I can make them un-gone for you. Would you like that?”

Abby nodded, reached up and took Camilla’s hand. They started to walk away, then Abby let go of the officer’s hand and went back to her piece of cardboard. She picked up the box of crayons and took the nub of the black one out. With it, she wrote on the wall just below the window. When she was done, she dropped what little bit of black crayon was left into the box and shoved it into her book bag. She zipped it up, slung the bag over her shoulders and took Officer Camilla’s hand again. 

As they walked away, she glanced back once. On the wall below the window were two words: Abby GoN.

Communion, A Short Story

My dad sat on a tree stump every day before dinner. It was about three feet tall and stood near the back fence. Dad looked more like he was leaning when he sat on it. Usually both hands dangled between his legs and he stared off beyond our yard toward the trees that ran along the backside of the neighborhood. If you walked through the trees, you could only go about ninety or so feet before you came to a stream that split the center of the wooded area. 

It didn’t matter how hot or cold or rainy it was, he went to the tree stump, sat for a few minutes, then came inside. On some days—mostly in early fall—he would sit a little longer, sometimes with his head bowed as if he were asleep or maybe praying. Dad wasn’t the religious type, so I doubt he ever prayed.

I guess I was four or five the first time I noticed him go outside and to the stump. I went to go after him, maybe so he would play with me, but probably out of curiosity more than anything. 

“No, Heath,” Mom said from where she stood at the counter, cutting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in half for me. 

I looked back at her. “I wanna go outside,” I said—or I think I said. Time has a funny way of playing with memories. 

“Not right now.”

“Why?”

“Your dad’s having communion.”

“What’s com-u-non?” I asked. 

“It’s what your dad is doing right now.” She set my sandwich on the table. “Now sit down and eat. Your daddy will be inside when he is done.”

I didn’t sit and eat. Not at first anyway. I went to the back door. It was open and the screen door was shut. I could see Dad from there. His shoulders were slouched like he was tired. His head was down. I thought he just might have fallen asleep. Then I saw his shoulders go up then down a couple of times. His head bobbed in sync with them.

“Sit down, Heath,” Mom said and steered me away from the door with both her hands. She closed the door gently.

I ate my sandwich and set my plate on the counter. Dad came in as I was leaving the kitchen to take a bath. He looked so tired. His eyes were rimmed red and there were angry red squiggly lines in them. The tip of his nose was pink. He wiped it as he went by me and to the bathroom where he washed up. He didn’t say anything to me as he passed, just went by without even glancing in my direction. I remember how bad it felt. He walked by me as if I were invisible. Maybe I was.

“Get ready for your bath,” Mom said when she saw me standing at the foot of the hall looking toward the bathroom where Dad went. She sounded irritated. That was her default setting.

“Dad’s in there.”

“He won’t be for long, so do what I said to do.”

I went to my room and gathered my night clothes, then took a towel from the hall closet. I waited outside the bathroom door until it opened, and Dad walked out. His eyes were no longer red, and he didn’t look as tired. 

“Hey there, Heath,” he said with a smile. He bent down and picked me up, then gave me a big hug. His hugs always made me feel safe, like everything would be okay. He set me down and all was right again. He didn’t look worn or weighted down at all. He didn’t look sad. 

Every day for the next six years, I stood at my window, watching Dad out on the tree stump. After the first time I was shooed away from the  back door, I didn’t think Mom would take too kindly to me going and watching him as he had communion. 

I still didn’t know what that meant.

***

I was eleven when Mom died. She wasn’t really the loving type. She was stern and rarely gave hugs, kisses or said ‘I love you.’ I should have felt more, but I didn’t. I think I felt more ashamed that I wasn’t as sad as I thought I should be. It didn’t help that we had argued before I left for school. I wanted to go to Jerry’s house before coming home. 

“Not with your grades, Heath. You come straight home and do your studies.”

I guess it wasn’t much of an argument after all. I left for school, angry at her for the umpteenth time in my life. 

Mom died while I was at school and Dad was at work. It wasn’t anything terribly tragic like the house caught on fire and she couldn’t get out or she was in a car accident, or even someone broke into the house and murdered her. No, it was nothing like that. Mom choked on a piece of toast. 

I found her when I got home from school. She lay on the kitchen floor, faced down. She was still in her bath robe and nightclothes and her face was a shade of purple that bordered on black. I stared down at her. And I didn’t feel anything, at least not right then.

I called Dad, then I called 9-1-1. Then I sat on the front porch and looked out on the road in front of our house. 

The ambulance made it there before Dad did, but not by much. They were inside tending to her body when Dad pulled up in his old truck. He was out of it in a hurry. He forgot to close the door before he ran across the yard to me. His face was red, as were his eyes. I had seen that look every day for the last six years of my life. 

I stood.

Dad reached me and put his arms around me. Just like when I was little and he would pick me up, I felt safe. I know it sounds crazy, but even with Mom in the house dead and the emergency people inside the house doing what they do, I felt safe in Dad’s arms. Everything would be okay.

Dad released me and went inside. I walked over to his truck and gently closed the door.

For me, everything was fine. Like I said, Mom wasn’t very loving, and we never really got along. But for Dad, nothing would ever be the same again. 

One thing didn’t change, though. Like every night since I could remember, Dad went out the back door to the tree stump. He sat, stared off into the woods, but this time I could tell he was crying. I stepped away from the window and sat on my bed. And I cried. too.

***

Dad did the best he could. He was a widower and he and Mom had been together since they were kids. They were high school sweethearts and married right after graduation. 

For the better part of my life since her death I’ve regretted not being closer, not trying, though she never really tried either. Guilt is a funny thing. You don’t realize you’ll feel it until you do.

***

I was sixteen when I finally worked up the nerve to ask my dad why he went outside every day before supper. He was already out there with his coat on and his hands between his knees. His head was down, and I could see his lips moving when I approached him.

“Dad?”

He didn’t jerk in surprise of my presence. His head didn’t swivel on his neck and he didn’t look irritated to see me standing there, my hands jammed into my coat pockets, vapor pluming from between my lips.

“Everything okay, Heath?” His voice was shaky.

I nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, everything is okay. I just …”

“You just what?”

I shrugged. “Dad, why do you come out here and sit on this stump every day?”

He looked away from me, back in the direction of the woods. By then, some of the land had been sold and some of the trees further down from our place had been removed. The frame of a house stood like a silhouette in the dying sunlight. When he looked back at me, he had tears in his eyes. He wiped at them and looked away.

“My Daddy died cutting this tree down.” He patted the side of the stump with one hand. “I was a little older than you, eighteen, I think. He had a heart attack and died where he fell. I come out here to be near him. It’s like he never left. I can feel his presence.”

Dad looked back at me again. His eyes shimmered with tears. “I know it sounds crazy but sitting here makes me feel like he’s still around and not dead and in some box in the ground in Meacham Cemetery. I come out here and talk to him. Then I listen for his voice. I reckon you can say I come to have communion with him.”

I never bothered him while he was out there again. I still looked out the window from time to time, but I never bothered him. It was sacred for him.

Now, I understand why.

***

Barely two years later, Dad passed away. I just turned eighteen, and yes, I see the foreshadowing in our lone conversation about his visits to the stump. He died before supper, and yes, he was sitting on the stump.

He had aged so much in the seven years since Mom passed. He looked older than his fifty-four years. If you do the math, you can figure out my parents had me when they were in their mid-thirties, but Dad looked like he was in his mid-seventies that last time he walked into the back yard to the stump to have communion with his father. 

I stood at the back door, something I hadn’t done since that first time when Mom shooed me away. He sat gingerly on the stump. As always, he looked out to where the woods used to be, but now they were all gone. Houses now sat where trees once stood. His head dipped, his chin touching his chest. Then he leaned to one side and fell.

“Dad,” I yelled and ran from the house. I vaguely heard the clatter of the screen door as it slammed shut. Dad was gone by the time I reached him. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell. Much like when Mom died, I dialed 9-1-1. This time I didn’t wait on the front porch, my elbows on my knees and my head down. No, this time I waited in the back yard, Dad’s head on my lap. 

***

It’s been two days since his funeral. The coroner said he died of a massive heart attack. He was dead before he hit the ground. I can still see him toppling off the stump. I can still hear me yelling for him. 

Tonight, just before I sat at the table by myself for the first time in my life, I walked out to the stump where my dad died, and where his dad died. I sat down on the stump with my hands between my legs. Tears spilled down my face.

“I miss you, Dad.”

Then, like so many times as a child, I felt his arms around me, and I knew I would be okay.

AJB

10/15/2020

I Want To Go Home (Free Fiction)

I Want to Go Home

A.J. Brown

I want to go home, away from here where the ghosts talk to me, whisper my name, smile their dead smiles, and wink their dead eyes, as if they know something I don’t. 

I want to go home, away from these sterile white walls and white tiled floors, mopped every other night by a balding guy with only three teeth left in his ancient mouth, and skin as dark as mahogany. His jaundiced eyes glow on the backdrop of his dark skin, and he coughs the cough of a dying man, one with lung cancer or tuberculosis or some other respiratory illness. I think his name is James.

Mary, in room eight, calls him a ‘lunger.’ Mary’s a spiteful old bitty with grey hair verging on blue and a hump on her back that makes her look like a camel. She shuffles up and down the halls at odd hours of the night, her slippers whisking with each short step she takes. She doesn’t like the balding guy with the dark skin and jaundiced eyes. 

She laughs when she passes my room. 

I saw her peek in once, her grey eyes sitting deep in their sockets, wrinkles pulling on the corners of her face. She laughed, deep and throaty. Startled at the odd grin and loud booming cackle, I spent the rest of the night sitting up, eyes focused on the doorway, heart hurting with each thump thump. Sometimes I hear her whisking feet, her impish cackles, her mean words to James—at least, I think that’s his name.

I want to go home, far from the uninterested doctors and nurses who parade in and out of my hospital room, wearing white coats to make themselves feel important. Even the pretty little blonde intern carries herself like she is far better than those she’s charged with taking care of. Sometimes I wet the bed on purpose, just so she would crinkle her nose and mumble under her breath how pathetic I am. Imagine that: me, pathetic. Never thought those words would come out of someone’s mouth about me. Other times I wet the bed, but not on purpose. It’s during those moments when she says I’m pathetic that I look away, my head down, and think she is right.

This place wouldn’t be so bad if everything wasn’t as bright—so bright it’s almost drab, if that makes any sense. The television screen has a glare on it, put there by the overhead light (or the sun, if the curtains are open during the day). What possessed any sane man to put a television in there is beyond me. I leave it off most of the time—there really isn’t anything on worth watching now that Bob Barker has left The Price is Right and the soap operas and court shows have taken over the afternoon programming. 

The curtains themselves are a light brown, the color of dry chocolate. They’re nothing more than window dressing. The sun peeks through during the day, the moon says hello in the evenings. 

The moon is hiding tonight, playing behind the clouds, or maybe even taking the night off to rest its weary head. The splat-swish of the mop is louder than usual. James is close by. The aroma of an old tobacco pipe hangs in the air well after he moves down the hall. He usually pokes his head in, nods at me and keeps going. Tonight he lingers, his yellowed eyes peering at me beneath half-open lids. A sizeable knot sits just above his right brow, stretching up to the top of his skull.

“Eldridge,” he says, his voice strong, his lips barely moving.

“Yeah,” I say. “Can I help you?” 

I should laugh at that question. I can’t help myself with this battered body, so how am I going to help the janitor, a man older than me, who can still mop a floor with no effort at all, his back bent over, arms pushing out, pulling in, pushing out again. 

“Not much longer,” he says and nods. A cut opens up from eyebrow to skullcap. A trickle of blood drips down his face. He leaves the room and drops the mop head to the floor. It splats then swishes, but there is no water left behind, no swirl of dirt or shine left by a swabbing done right. James moves on down the hall, the sounds becoming fainter, splat-swish splat-swish. There’s no bucket behind him.

With nerves dancing along my skin, I settle down in the bed, tuck the covers to my chin and close my eyes. I’m tired tonight, more so than usual. A deep breath fills my lungs and it’s like cold milk going down my throat, cooling my insides after the heat of a hard day. 

I think I’ll sleep for a while.

Mary’s cackle wakes me. My hands and legs jerk reflexively and my heart skips. I lay still until my head clears and I know for certain it is her and not some vile creature I may have dreamed of and forgotten. I turn my head to the door. She stands in the entrance, her hands clutching a walker, her grey hair sticking out on top of her head. Her eyes bore into me and she’s smiling a smile of pure insanity, her brows forming an arrow above her nose and the sides of her lips point up toward her skin-tight cheekbones. All she’s missing is the white paint and she’d look like a saggy-breasted clown in an old blue housedress and pink slippers.

“Eldridge,” she whispers then giggles. “The lunger is dead. Fell down the steps, he did. Busted his skull right open.”

I say nothing as the fear of what I saw earlier and what I just heard collide. I try to hide the revulsion spreading across my face, but I’m not certain I succeed. I wait for the old bitty to walk away, her slippers whisking with each arthritic step. She lingers a moment longer, then throws her head back, a roar of laughter echoing in the room. She’s so loud my ears hurt and I try to cover them, but my shaking hands make it impossible. I close my eyes and sink further down into my bed, pulling the pillow over my head.

“Not much longer,” she says, and cackles again. The laughter fades but I don’t hear her shuffle up the hall. 

My heart speeds up. It hurts to breathe. I can’t move, can’t lift my hand to touch the call button on my bed. A surge of pain leaves me weak as it trails into my shoulder and down to my elbow. My jaw hurts. 

“I’m having a heart attack.” Did I say that aloud or only think it? I’m not sure, but a moment later, the light switches on and the pretty blonde is pulling the pillow from over my head, her blue eyes actually full with concern.

OLD MAN“Eldridge,” she says, her voice slightly high pitched. “Are you okay?” She holds a needle in one hand while glancing at my monitors, the heart rate a steady beepbeepbeepbeep, probably too fast for her liking—certainly too fast for mine. Seconds pass and she has the needle in the IV, pushing a clear liquid into my veins. A few more seconds and my heart rate slows, my breathing restored to its simplistic in and out rhythm. I relax. 

My eyes are heavy, but I try to hold them open. They slide shut, and then snap open at the fetid smell of a dead skunk wafting in the air. 

Mary is inches from my face, her mouth open, rotting teeth several shades of brown. “Eldridge,” she whispers and the dead skunk strikes me across the face. Tears well up in my eyes. “Not much longer,” she says. “Oh, not much longer at all.”

Gagging, I try to push her away so I can sit up, but she holds me down. She is stronger than I ever thought she would be. My stomach lurches and I vomit all over the front of my bed shirt and sheets. I swallow some of it. I gag again, try to catch my breath, but find it has left and doesn’t seem to want to come back.

“Eldridge,” the pretty nurse says, her hands out to her sides, a terrible look of worry and disgust on her face. I can see evening spaghetti drenched on the front of her clothes. I think she is angry. I shake my head, confusion tickling my brain, telling me everything is all wrong, telling me Mary was never here and James had stopped mopping a long time ago.

My head hurts.

The nurse’s eyes are wide. She presses the red button by my arm several times. I look at her in confusion, open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. Doctors and nurses rush in, their shouts a muddled cacophony in my ears, each word echoing, then falling away. Nothing makes sense. 

I close my eyes. Maybe if I go to sleep they’ll leave me alone. Maybe I should tell them about the ghosts … how they haunt me nightly. But what good would that do? I’m a senile old man with bladder issues, dying from the disease they call age. They’d never believe me.

My eyes open, but not because I want them to. They just do.

Blurry figures race around, their white coats flapping like wings on giant birds. Their words make no sense. A beeping noise echoes from somewhere in the distance. But it’s not really beeping at all. It’s a long, drawn out wail from a phone or a television or a monitor. 

As they dart about I think of home, of being far away from Mary in room eight and James with his eternal mopping and cancerous cough. I long to be home where the sun can warm my cold skin and I can sleep in my bed, the one I shared with my Louisa for all those years before she died. I want to go home, where my television sits in the perfect spot, where no glare from the overhead light or the sun or even the winking moon can hit it, and where Bob Barker still hosts The Price is Right.

I want to go home, where there are no nurses to call me pathetic, no doctors to fake interest in me, no needles or heart monitors … 

Brushing the multitude of hands away, I struggle to stand, fighting against their collective strength. I push myself to my feet, the cold of the tile floor sending slivers of ice through my legs and up my spine, touching the back of my skull with a shiver. I back away from the doctors and nurses, their mouths moving but nothing coming out, their eyes full of a determination I haven’t seen since coming to this place … this place where I’m supposed to die.

I take a couple of steps back, ease around the frantic hospital workers, and walk out the door. They don’t seem to notice. They are hunched over my bed, their words panicked. The light from the hall is a deep yellow, no glare to sting the eyes. The floor is clean and the walls are as white as the ones in my room. Another doctor brushes by and runs into my room. I shrug and walk up the hall, peeking into room eight when I get to it. 

Mary is long gone. In her place is another lady, probably younger than I am, her hair still clinging to some of the dark color it once used to boast. She glances at me and her eyes are as blue as the clear sky. Her bottom lip trembles and the monitor near her bed beepbeepbeeps, it’s pace quickening as her eyes grow wider. 

Cocking my head to one side, I realize I know her name. “Rachel,” I say. “Not much longer.” A chuckle escapes my throat. I wave to her before heading up the hall. The elevators are just around the corner. Maybe I can get out of here before the doctors realize I’m gone. Maybe I can go home, where a man can die in peace …

_____

Some stories have more meaning than others. Some stories I just write because the story tells me to write it. Yeah, crazy. I know. But when the voices speak (no, not like that) I tend to listen to them. This story has meaning.

Let me explain, if I can—honestly, I’m not sure I can.

Years ago, when my grandfather was dying he was stuck in a hospital. He didn’t want to be there. He wanted to leave and be done with the place. He wanted to go home.

One afternoon my dad paid a visit to my grandfather at the hospital. It was just the two of them.

“Larry, give me a hand here,” my grandfather said.

“What do you need, Rex?”

“I’m getting out of here. Come on, let’s go before the nurse comes back.”

I imagine it was hard for my dad to tell him “no, Rex, we can’t leave.”  

Dad told me this story one day shortly before my grandfather passed away. In that spot in my brain where all creativity lives, a clear picture formed of my grandfather ducking out of his room and hurrying down the hallway to the elevators, his hospital gown open in the back and flapping as he went. He didn’t have much hair on his head, and he probably had his glasses on.  

In that image, my grandfather is smiling, as if he knows he just got one over on the hospital staff. A couple weeks later, he passed away, not in his home where a man can die in peace, but in that hospital room.  

That image has stuck with me for years. It is also the basis of I Want to Go Home. It is what my grandfather wanted to do. Though he couldn’t have it in life, I wanted to give it to him in this story.

Earlier this month, I posted a piece titled, Home. In that story, the young man got his father out of the nursing home he was in and took him to his real home to die. I imagine if my dad thought he could have done the same thing for my grandfather, he would have.

I hope you enjoyed this final story of April. I also hope you will like it, share it and comment on it. Thank you for coming along for this ride. Come back tomorrow, and I will explain why I did this. Have a great day.

A.J. 

Torn (Free Fiction)

Torn

A.J. Brown

I found her on the streets, worn by the world and her spirit broken. She offered me sex for a few dollars, just enough for a meal and a place to stay. Maybe that was so; maybe she really wanted a meal and a hotel for the night. I think she wanted enough money to buy some white dust so she could escape the reality of her world for a little while. It doesn’t matter what she wanted or needed cash for. The ‘why?’—now that’s the important part.

Her name was Poppy, and she sat at the edge of an alley, her head down, dirty hair meeting me. She barely had enough energy to lift it up, let alone give me sex like she offered. I helped her to the car, lifting her off her feet and carrying her as if she were my bride. She couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds. I set her in the front seat, buckled her in and let her sleep as I drove the few miles home. Every few minutes I stole a glance at her, especially when the car passed under a streetlight bright enough to shine on her once beautiful features. Her blond hair was dirty, her skin marked with scars, bruises and tracks from heroin use.

Compassion washed over me, followed by anger. Anger at the world for allowing people to fall off the face of society because of money, drugs, sex or just plain hard times. Heat welled up inside and my face flushed. My heart cracked a little and I had to force myself not to look at her.

Home greeted me with the cool of the air conditioner. I took her inside, her arms around my neck, though I don’t think she realized it. I hoped a warm bath would rouse her, would bring her back to this world. As gentle as I could I slipped her clothes off, dropped them in the trash can and set her in the water. Her eyes fluttered, showing hints of blue behind purple lids.  

addict-2713598_1920Soap, water and a rag washed away the grime a life on the streets left behind. There were teeth marks on her small breasts and thighs. My jaw clenched. My heart cracked a little more. Visions ran through my head of mean lovers or abusing pimps and johns who wanted all sorts of perversities from her. My stomach turned and I tried to block the images with other ones. A little girl picking flowers for her mommy; a teen preparing for her first dance; a graduating young lady, smiling bright, wearing a blue and yellow cap and gown.

She stirred, a moan escaping her. Her eyes opened. She shielded them with one boney hand showing cracked and yellowed fingernails.  

“Who are you?” Her voice was weak. She shook, out of fear I believe.

I said nothing. My mouth opened but words failed me; my throat constricted and the vocal cords froze. 

She dropped her hand and gazed through her drug induced haze. The light went on and her cheeks bloomed with two rosy splotches. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Maybe even a bit of anger crossed her young face. I said nothing of her state and handed her a towel and a robe.  

The lights were down in the kitchen. My head ached, as did my saddened heart. She walked in, smelling of coconut cream instead of filth. The aroma was sweet, and I couldn’t help but smile a little. She sat down to a bowl of cereal and a hot cup of coffee. We didn’t speak while she ate but I watched her as only someone who loved her could.    

“Tell me,” I said.

She did. And my heart cracked a little more. I felt it breaking, pulling apart with very little chance of it ever being whole again. When she was done, I led her to a room. I closed the door when I walked out, my shoulders slumped and tears in my eyes.  

Alone in the dark in the front room I prayed for forgiveness, though I had done nothing wrong. I went to the kitchen, the light still dim, and made a list. I recounted everything Poppy had told me.  

Some time during the night I dozed.  

I don’t know when she left but when I woke, she was gone.  Her clothes were gone from the trash can and the cash in my wallet was as well. My heart cracked a little more, a piece chipping off and falling away forever. I looked for her in all the places she had mentioned. She wasn’t at any of them, though many of the people I spoke with knew her. I took mental images of their faces.

That was four months ago, and I hadn’t seen Poppy since the evening I found her on the streets.  Five days ago, a homeless man found her body in a dumpster behind a burger joint, beaten and broken, stabbed to death. My heart broke and tears fell, more so than any other time in my life, even more than when her mother died. Her funeral was this morning. My little girl now lies in a casket six feet into the ground next to her mother, never to be harmed by this world again.  

But, I’m still here, hurting for the girl I watched grow up, become a young woman, then disappear to the streets. This evening I prayed again for forgiveness. Until now, I had done nothing wrong.  

I hear the screams of the people in the drug house at the end of the street. They had boarded the windows up some time ago and even put condemned signs on the lawn. I guess that was to make it look as if no one ever went there. Poppy told me differently that last time I saw her alive. Flames reach to the sky, licking the air, pushing ash up with it. There’s no escaping—the lone door out has been nailed shut. It’s amazing how little you notice when you’re high; things like a hammer nailing boards in place, trapping everyone inside.  

This is only the beginning. I will bury them all under the weight of my torn heart …

__________

I have to admit that I am not a big fan of this story. No, it’s not that the story isn’t good. It is. It’s also very short, which means I could go back and build it a little more. I find I don’t want to do that. The reason I am not a fan of this piece is I have a daughter, one who I worry a lot about. I worry something will happen to her, that someone will hurt her. I worry a lot. 

When I wrote this piece, the image of the father carrying the young woman into his house, her body emaciated and dirty, her arms riddled with needle tracks was the first image I saw. Him sitting in his chair, hands to his forehead and praying for forgiveness because of the grief and anger he felt was the second image. The third was a gravesite burial. That’s a bad image to have when you fear something like this playing out in anyone’s life.

I hope you enjoyed Torn and please, like this post, comment on it and tell your friends about it. The more readers, the better. Thank you for reading.

A.J.