A Monthly Feature
by Theo John
Lights out at the Missouri Psychiatric Center was at 10:00 p.m. The overnight attendant made her rounds through the adult wing, checking that all forty beds were occupied and that all rooms were dark and silent. The next shift would not arrive until 5:00 AM, with the first nurse usually fifteen minutes early. An occasional late-night screaming fit or bed-wetting notwithstanding, the nurse on duty had nothing but paperwork, bi-hourly room checks, and computer solitaire to occupy the remainder of her shift.
Just after midnight, the quiet inside of room nineteen was interrupted by a steady, guttural sound, a deranged laughter that escalated into a shrill crowing. When the cackling finally petered out and silence returned to the room, it was replaced with a pitiful whimpering. The laughter and crying seemed to alternate, like two separate people responding to the same stimulus, but both came from the same room.
Jimmy Butler was securely fastened to his bed, heavy nylon straps stretched across his thin chest, belly, knees, and ankles. At the sides of the bed, his wrists were confined by padded belts. His dark eyes darted from wall to wall as though watching an invisible tennis match. Sweat beaded on his pasty forehead, matting his hair in place like ashy blond talons that could not quite reach his eyes to still their relentless movement.
Alongside the bed lay the facility's custodian. A wheeled trash receptacle stood in the corner, assorted chemicals dangling from the rim by their spray triggers. Beneath his Navy blue jumpsuit he bore no bruises, scrapes, cuts, or any other signs of struggle. A contented expression graced his features, placidness apparent in his glossy eyes.
Jimmy knew the man was dead. Terror gripped his face, as another fit of laughter rumbled within him and spewed forth.
* * *
"That's when I turned and ran," said the nurse. "I looked in to check on Jimmy, and then I saw the janitor lying on the floor." Marcy Coleman had been the first to discover what had happened, when she peered through the small window built into the door to room nineteen. The pink scrub pants and white top dappled with pink and purple flowers she was wearing had brightened her day from the start, but she now looked drained. She stared at her hands, picking at her thumbnail, a residual redness from crying dimming her blue eyes. Strands of hair wriggled free from her blond ponytail, pointing every which way. "I should have stayed, at least to check on Jimmy. He must be so confused right now, but I had to get away."
"Ms. Coleman, you did what any sane person would have done," said Detective Aaron Briggs. "You had no idea what else could have been in that room. For all you knew, there could’ve been a killer on the loose. It's all about self-preservation."
Marcy offered a tight-lipped grin. "Yeah, I guess."
Briggs was what most of his colleagues called a hardened veteran, working murder after murder, each with a renewed sense of vigor, and never satisfied with the obvious answer. He treated the so-called open-and-shut cases with the same attention to detail as he would a case in which a custodian was found dead with no obvious cause of death and a mentally unstable mute as the only witness to the crime.
"You did what you thought was right, Ms. Coleman," said Briggs. He paused for a moment, resting a soothing hand on her shoulder. "Is there anything else you can tell us about what you saw?"
She shook her head. “Nothing.” And then, "Any ideas what happened?"
"I'm not at liberty to discuss the case at this point, ma'am."
* * *
In actuality, Briggs had nothing he could discuss even if he wanted to. Upon arriving at the scene, he had not yet been allowed into the room. The crime scene techs were snapping photos and scouring for clues like some a bizarre interment ceremony. The first officer to arrive brought Briggs up to speed, which took all of two minutes: no signs of a fight, no obvious cause of death. Jimmy was restrained at night because, while unwilling or unable to talk to anyone, the mild-mannered mentally disturbed guy was prone to herculean night terrors and had injured himself on several occasions before a late-night nurse could reach his side. The janitor must have let himself into the room; the on-duty nurses saw nothing and had no idea why he would have been in with Jimmy in the first place. Word from a couple other staff members was that the janitor sometimes took liberties with patients who were strapped down at night. Nothing concrete, just nasty rumors about a perverted old man.
Rather than deal with the territorial group of crime scene guys, Briggs went to the surveillance office to check last night’s footage. Flashing his credentials at the chunky surveillance technician, he was led to a cramped room where they could review the tapes.
“Any reason there was nobody on duty last night?” Briggs asked.
The surveillance tech gave a noncommittal shrug and said, “Last guy goes home around eleven. We’re on a budget, so we don’t have nobody here on the overnight.”
A wall of six monitors, each relaying four video feeds, was situated in front of a desk with two chairs and a panel of knobs, dials, and switches. The surveillance guy sat in one of the chairs and waved Briggs into the other. "I assume you've already had a look at the feed from last night?" Briggs asked.
"Yep. It's pretty weird," said Surveillance Guy.
"Weird how?" asked Briggs.
“The feed stops around midnight. Just stops."
"It stops?" Briggs raised an eyebrow.
Surveillance Guy blew up one of the four boxes on the main monitor, so the layout of the psych ward filled the screen, and ran back the footage between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. at increased speed. Nothing unusual happened until the tiny clock in the bottom left corner of the screen read 12:01. The nurse, involved in what looked to be a rather lively phone conversation, cast her attention toward the fluorescent lights that flickered for a moment, then went out altogether. Emergency back-up lights beamed to life within seconds. The nurse examined her surroundings, trying to determine what happened. Thirty seconds of video elapsed before a black-and-white static danced across the screen like a pile of skulls spilling down a hill. Then seven minutes of blackness.
When the picture returned, power had been restored, and the nurse was chattering away like nothing had ever happened. Briggs and Surveillance Guy watched feed from 11:55 until 12:09 from several different angles, and each one conveyed the same result: everything’s normal, lights flicker, lights go out, screen goes blank, everything’s normal again. The one Briggs was particularly interested in was an angle from the end of the hallway, out of view of the nurse’s station. It showed the janitor mop his way to room nineteen and glance both ways down the hall before pulling a large ring of keys from his belt, selecting the correct one, and entering Jimmy’s room, mop bucket and all.
Briggs watched that feed in fast-forward until the display read 2:03 a.m. The janitor never came back out.
* * *
Marcy had a way of making all of the patients feel special. Whether it was listening for the twenty-third time to a story about a fluffy, white cat with an affinity for peanut butter or remembering what each person liked on his or her turkey sandwich, she individualized her treatment. Her relationship with Jimmy Butler, though, was singular in its intimacy. After the childhood he had—his father's early passing and his mother's ensuing alcoholism, his brothers' and sister’s untimely burials—Marcy was certain his delicate psyche must be tattered, no more than a few gossamer strands of sanity holding it in place.
Counseling was prescribed after his father’s death. With each ensuing fatality, additional counseling was recommended. But the loss of life became a room from which there was little chance of escape; each funeral was another stone in front of the exit. Words and feelings were like rubber balls thrown against the amassing pile, occupying the mind for a time, but an inadequate means of breaking through. A large portion of Jimmy’s vocabulary was interred with each passing family member, rendering therapy ineffective. Words like happiness, feel, and devastation lost much of their meaning. Happiness ceased to exist, he could feel nothing, and devastation was woefully inept at reflecting even a shard of the events that shattered Jimmy's life. He had not spoken a word to anyone since arriving at the center—anyone except Marcy.
* * *
Several of the psychologists on staff spent the morning with Jimmy in an interview room. The alternating spurts of laughter and sobbing had ended, and the sweat-matted talons of hair had released their grip, but his vacant stare was still present. No one was surprised when unable to draw so much as a grunt from the young man. Nevertheless, Detective Briggs decided to ask a few questions.
Jimmy sat on the couch, and Briggs took a seat in a chair across from him, greeting the patient as he sat. Jimmy responded by gazing past the detective's left ear. Briggs flashed a practiced smile that rivaled anything Denzel Washington could muster and tried again. "I can’t imagine what you must be going through,” he said, “but it would be very helpful if you could give us a little insight as to what may have happened, Jimmy." Still beaming, he looked for some hint of understanding in Jimmy.
Briggs's smile was wiped clean when Jimmy's eyes met his own.
For less than a second, something flashed in Jimmy's eyes. Conflicting emotions—love and hatred, compassion and malice—wrestled in a fiery ring. Briggs could almost see the faces of the dead, of Jimmy's fallen relatives, in those black irises, and knew the fight raged in more than just the young man's eyes.
I am Death. Briggs heard it, but wasn’t sure it was actually spoken.
He blinked, and Jimmy’s gaze was again focused somewhere beyond the detective, absent of any images. A glimpse toward the doctor in the room told Briggs he was the only one who heard those words. I am Death, he thought. What the hell would that even mean?
That the patient responded to the detective’s plea for information was not in itself disarming, but the struggle that presented itself in Jimmy's gaze forced Briggs to his feet. He inhaled cautiously, as though afraid to draw in whatever spirits he had just seen. With a timbre he hoped would quash any unease he felt, he said to the doctor in the room, "We’re not going to get anything useful here, are we?"
Briggs eyed the silent patient, searching for the phantoms he knew were in there. "You were strapped to the bed, and the other guy is the dead one." Suspicion narrowed the detective’s eyes, frustration pursed his lips. "I'll be back to talk to you later, my man." And he turned to go.
Briggs stopped. Left eyebrow raised, he half turned back toward the couch as though a full turn would frighten away the word he had just heard. Again the mute spoke, "Marcy."
The detective returned to Jimmy and crouched in front of him. Briggs had been told he possessed his own fiery stare—most saw nothing supernatural in it, just confidence and authority—and he hoped it blazed now as he looked at Jimmy. “Let’s find Marcy."
* * *
The first time it happened was about three weeks after Jimmy was admitted. Marcy knew all about his past, after reading an anthology of paperwork submitted from the scores of professionals who had spent time with him. Still she felt a strange pull to the young man, something she did not understand and wasn’t sure she even wanted to. Certainly there was nothing physical about the attraction, but she felt like she could help. Upon making her rounds that morning, she hovered near the doorway to Jimmy’s room, several times deciding to leave and each time finding a reason to stay. Inexplicable as it was, she was helpless against the thought that he needed her. Her resolve had finally been set on continuing to the next room when a voice stopped her mid-stride.
“Can you help me, Marcy?”
He shared with her, in a way that transcends mere words, an incredible story that explained so much about who he was and who he had become. A single tear escaped her right eye. It was a tear of joy, born of her lifelong belief in the resilience of the human spirit. The tear was but a trickle from a geyser of hope that sprang in her, hope for Jimmy that he may one day find the strength to open up again.
* * *
"He talked to you?" asked an exasperated Briggs. "He’s the only person who may have any knowledge about what happened to the victim, and you didn't think it was important to tell me about it?"
Marcy's lips parted, but no words escaped. A paragon of innocence, she had not intentionally withheld information from the authorities, but failed to see the relevance of her omission. Eventually, she managed, "I’m sorry. I didn’t think it mattered."
Briggs massaged his forehead and tried to knead away the rising tension from behind his eyes. He took a deep breath that calmed his nerves, and presented his brilliant smile. "Ms. Coleman," he said, "Mr. Butler has said only one word since I've been here, and he’s said it twice. Now you seem like a very nice woman, but we have a man dead here and the only suspect we have at this time would apparently like to speak with you. As a detective, I am trained to identify apparent evidence in a homicide investigation, and I believe I have reason to be more than a little anxious by your blatant exclusion of what I see as a very valuable piece of information."
Humiliation blossomed on her cheeks, growing from pink buds into rosy blooms. "Are you saying I'm a suspect?" she asked. "Officer—"
"Detective," he corrected, "and I'm fairly certain you have nothing to do with this death, but you might be the only person who can help us find out who does."
Marcy did not possess the necessary mental components to articulate an emotion even distantly related to anger, but she was more than capable of expressing a desire to withdraw from situations where she felt she was being condescended. Briggs was doing a marvelous job of invoking that desire. Marcy, retreating behind crossed arms and an averted gaze, had all but refused to offer any additional information when Briggs issued an apology of sorts.
“Ms. Coleman, I’m sorry if I’ve offended you. You obviously have a very special connection with Jimmy, and if anyone has any details that can help us, it’s him. Unfortunately, he hasn’t said a word to anyone except you in over a year.”
As though her own crossed arms were holding her captive under a shroud of standoffishness, an air of good-spiritedness accompanied by a childlike naivety returned the instant she uncrossed them. "Did he really ask for me?" she asked, not expecting an answer. She considered this for a moment. "I’ll go talk to him, but I'm not sure what to say. How do we know he'll talk to us?"
Briggs shrugged. "We don't. But unless you have a hidden camera that didn't magically black out when we needed to see what happened, we don't have a lot of other options."
* * *
Like any healthy child, Jimmy’s imagination led him on countless adventures into uncharted territories. The day he met the man in the woods, a helpless maiden was locked in the tallest tower in all the land. A treacherous dragon stood sentry, waiting for a foolish knight to attempt a daring rescue. Crouched in a thick copse of trees, Jimmy knew the clearing ahead was the site of his impending battle. Armed with his oak-branch sword and cardboard shield, he was ready to face the beast.
But the clearing featured no dragon. There was no tall tower casting forbidding shadows across the land, no princess calling for salvation. Instead a man and a woman were situated near a large rock at the center of the clearing. The man was crouched with his back to Jimmy, helping the woman lean against the rock, and did not hear him come forward. Jimmy was drawn to the couple, trepidation guiding his approach to the unexpected scene before him. When her head lolled back and struck the rock with enough force to make the young boy wince in pain, Jimmy realized she was not in need of assistance. She was dead.
Jimmy drew a frightened breath. The temperature had nothing to do with the frost that filled his lungs. The man turned to meet Jimmy's anxious gaze. The child froze, ready for an assault. Or at the very least a swift reprimand for meddling in grown-up affairs.
The man gained his feet and stood motionless in front of his astonished spectator, grinning. The grin was quickly replaced with a pained expression somewhere between that of stubbing one's toe and having the toe cleaved off with a rusty hatchet. This expression was then swapped with a grin-grimace hybrid, like his lips were at odds with his facial muscles and each party was fighting to take charge of the situation.
Not sure what to make of the look on the man's face, Jimmy asked "Is she ok, Mister?"
The man charged, picking the boy up by his shirt. He hoisted the boy into the air and held Jimmy's eyes even with his own.
"She's dead," said the man, "and I killed her." He seemed both ashamed and proud of the same feat, and this ambiguity revealed itself in the man’s eyes. They were dark, almost black, and Jimmy saw images in them he could not understand. Like a war raging, with neither side winning.
Then the man blinked, and it was all gone. Tears streamed down his cheeks, falling toward the grin-grimace. At once he dropped Jimmy to the ground. Stunned, the boy craned his neck to look up at his assailant and caught the glint of sun reflecting off the metal from an eight-inch hunting blade in the man's right hand.
* * *
Marcy and Briggs were joined by a doctor who directed them to their seats, shut the door behind them, took his own seat, shuffled some papers, and asked, "Shall we get started?"
The now-vacant look in Jimmy's eyes did little to ease the paranoia Briggs felt as the memory of the eerie encounter from their first meeting produced tiny pinpricks on his scalp and neck. An outward act of chivalry, Briggs's decision to allow Marcy to enter the room first and occupy the chair farthest from the door had less to do with being a gentleman and more to do with making a speedy escape if necessary.
Marcy leaned forward, elbows on her knees, hands clasped in front of her. Her gaze alternated between Jimmy and her interlocked fingers. Unsure of what to say, she just sat for five or ten minutes. Briggs was growing impatient, but he left the two to their awkward ritual, assuming Marcy knew best how to communicate with the young man.
Hands. Jimmy. Hands. Jimmy.
When she looked back to her hands for what seemed like the ninety-ninth time, Briggs rolled his eyes. Before he could protest, Marcy crossed to the patient, knelt in front of him, and took his hand in hers. She looked deeply into Jimmy's eyes and squeezed his hand. "You've seen so much death, Jimmy. I can't imagine what that must feel like. But I am here for you, and you can always talk to me about anything. I know you have the capacity to open up, and I know it's hard, but I will wait as long as it takes to help you." A single tear made its way from the corner of her left eye toward the floor. This homily carried a familiar, rehearsed tone, Briggs thought, but even he felt a stirring that nearly prompted him to confess his sins to Marcy.
Jimmy responded. It wasn't much, but his chest rose with a deep inhalation and his vacant gape returned from whatever plane of existence it had been visiting to meet Marcy's intense eyes. The gentle squeeze Marcy gave his hands was reciprocated as his grip tightened almost imperceptibly. Marcy smiled, silvery rivulets streaking her freckled cheeks. Briggs again felt the swell of emotion in the room.
Then at once he felt something different.
Jimmy's hands snapped to either side of Marcy's head, his hold on her firm but not crushing. As he inched his head closer to hers, his eyes widened as if inviting her to view a slideshow of macabre images within. Her own eyes enlarged, but she did not struggle against him. The two stared at one another, Marcy jerking once, twice, in response to whatever grisly scene she was witnessing.
Springing to his feet, Briggs took two steps toward the pair, and then stopped, Jimmy’s beady, onyx eyes broadcasting a new set of images to the detective.
Briggs was looking at himself from above; the third-person version of him was kneeling down over a battered and bloody body, the victim's dark skin splotched with crimson that gleamed in the haunting glow of an overhead light. Third-person Briggs cradled his murdered wife’s head in his lap.
In his mind, he saw himself look up from his deceased wife, Erika, surveying his surroundings for the culprit. Third-person Briggs drew his gun and held it in a two-hand grip. It was aimed through the doorway leading from the kitchen into the dining room of their home. As the attacker entered, the room was illuminated by five starbursts sparking from the barrel of the pistol. The attacker stumbled through the doorway, and Briggs immediately recognized the blond hair and pallid complexion as that of Jimmy Butler.
I am Death.
As though the bullets fired in Briggs’s mind actually hit Jimmy, the images relented, and Briggs and Marcy found themselves returned to their chairs. Jimmy’s empty gaze greeted them from his spot on the couch. Briggs sat in slack-jawed bewilderment. Seeing the same terror in Marcy's eyes that he knew was obvious in his own, he opened his mouth to speak only to be interrupted by a closing door. Turning toward the sound, Briggs again watched the doctor who entered the room with them take his seat and shuffle some papers in his notebook. In an eerie replay from just minutes earlier, the doctor asked, "Shall we get started?"
* * *
Briggs excused himself and took Marcy by the arm; she felt herself being jerked through the door and into the hallway. The detective released Marcy's arm, placed his hands on his hips, and paced for a moment, searching the walls for words that might make sense. He wandered in front of the young nurse, eyeing her each time he passed. Marcy only exchanged glances with a plaque on the opposite wall that indicated the exit was one way and the reception counter was the other. Finally, Briggs spoke. “What did you see?"
She met his stare, her eyes glazed with the memory of what Jimmy had just shown her. Working with individuals who had mental handicaps was part of her job, but she had never been prepared for any of this. There were many others in this hospital who were more qualified than she to speak with the authorities. Why couldn't one of the psychiatrists deal with Briggs? Why her?
Folding her arms over her chest and averting her stare, she said, "Nothing. I didn't see anything."
Briggs slapped his open palm on the wall beside her head. "Bullshit!" he said through gritted teeth. Marcy started as his hand clapped the concrete. Hushing his tone, he said, "Bullshit, Marcy. You saw something. I know you did, and I want to know what it was."
A sudden confidence straightened her back and firmed her stance, her folded arms acting like a barrier, impervious to Briggs’s fiery gaze. She narrowed her eyes and said, "I already told you I didn't see anything. Let's go talk to Jimmy and get this day over with. I need to go the fuck home," she said, blushing at the four-letter word, and then added, emphasizing the middle syllable, "Detective."
* * *
Jimmy bolted back the way he came, but the man was on him within seconds. He jerked at the boy’s collar, pulling Jimmy to his back. Ignoring the tiny, ineffectual fists pummeling his thighs and midsection, the man brandished the knife just inches above Jimmy’s head. The sight of the knife mesmerized him and his flailing arms fell dormant. Captivated by the polished metal, his eyes traced its path through the air, waiting for the blade to drop. It moved from left to right and back again. With each pass, the distance between the blade and Jimmy’s face closed. The pendulum was dropping, but no pit existed for a quick escape.
The man’s grin-grimace swung to the grinning end of the continuum. Adjusting his grip on the hilt, moving the blade from horizontal to vertical, he leaned in close. His breath stank of booze, onions, and hatred. A bead of sweat rolled from the man’s forehead, down the bridge of his pointy nose, and dangled on the tip.
Afraid to look into the man’s eyes and terrified by the foreboding repositioning of the knife, Jimmy concentrated on the bead of sweat. The drop grew as perspiration made its way from hairline to nostril. He knew it was about to fall.
As the bead of sweat accumulated moisture and broke contact with skin, plummeting toward Jimmy’s face, his focus was interrupted by the simultaneous plunging of the knife. He knew both would touch his face. The only question was which would land first.
* * *
The doctor welcomed Marcy and Briggs back into the interview room with an exasperated sigh. He, like the rest of those involved in this atypical day, was eager to turn his back to these odd hours and march onward toward tomorrow. Marcy repeated—or performed for the first time, depending on which timeline was consulted—her routine of kneeling before Jimmy, holding his hand, and delivering her stirring speech, but to no avail. The room contained a whole new aura now. Where compassion and tenderness had been just a few minutes earlier, anxiety and suspicion lingered. She could feel Briggs behind her, brooding over whatever he had seen, his hand never straying far from the butt of his gun. When it became evident she would have no more luck drawing information from Jimmy than she would spinning straw into gold, Briggs grew frustrated and called an end to the fruitless interview. He thanked everyone for their time, the jumpiness in his voice belying any pretense of gratitude, and left the room two steps ahead of the doctor.
The moment she and Jimmy were alone in the room, the silent patient reached for her hand and focused his eyes on hers. Marcy had never before seen such agony and torment inside one person. Even for a young man who had lived with so much death and despair, the grief he was expressing was implausible. "Save me from him," he said. "You saw what he'll do."
The roles were reversed, and Marcy now found herself without words as Jimmy awaited a response. The vision she had witnessed earlier chilled her as it replayed behind closed eyes. It was preventable, that much was clear. Still, Marcy wondered if she would be able to do what was needed when the time came.
As if in answer to her own question, words found her, and she spoke for the voiceless. She said, "He won't hurt you, Jimmy. I won't allow that to happen." Then she kissed his cheek, squeezed his hand once more, and left the room, walking directly past the doctor and the man who she would not allow to hurt Jimmy.
* * *
Jimmy jerked his head to the right and screwed his eyes shut. A dull sensation struck his cheek. His yelp drowned out the brief splat of objection that issued from the earth as the knife sank into the ground to the left of his head.
“Do you want to die?” the man asked.
Reluctant to reopen his eyes, he left the man waiting for an answer. Still gripping the exposed hilt of the knife, the man repeated his question. Jimmy repeated his answer. Silence.
Patience eluded the man. “Do you want to die, boy?” He sprayed the words, his face red with ire, veins throbbing at his temples. Jimmy responded with the same intensity, violently shaking his head.
He stared at Jimmy, concentration constricting his features, then removed his right hand from the knife. His eyes were closed and he drew a deep, steady breath. The man appeared to be exercising extreme effort to control his emotions; new beads of sweat stippled his face and head. “When I let you up, you have to take the knife and—” A crippling convulsion cut him off and he nearly collapsed on top of Jimmy.
The boy looked to the hilt sticking up from the ground, wondering why he was being asked to take it when just moments before it was inches from ending his life. The man regained his composure and finished his interrupted thought. “You have to kill me,” he said.
Jimmy was dumbstruck, never before having thought of killing anything more dangerous than an imaginary dragon. He hesitated, trying to comprehend what he had been asked to do. Wracked with pain, real or imagined, scrabbling at the earth like a wounded deer, the man kept repeating the same two words: Kill me.
Jimmy had slid closer to the knife, as though it provided the only shelter in the immediate area, the way a small wooden dock provided shelter for an ocean liner. The man bolting to his feet and darting in Jimmy’s direction made his decision for him.
Though the man moved quickly, Jimmy was able to remove the knife from the ground. Right hand gripping the handle, left hand gripping his right, Jimmy thrust the blade upward, eight inches of metal piercing the man's abdomen.
Still the man was able to clutch the Jimmy's throat. Eye-to-eye with the man, he had no choice but to meet his strange gaze. The inner battle was still raging, but it appeared less intense, like the war was coming to an end. The combatants, though, were still vying for control.
Then his grip began to loosen. Contorting facial muscles danced beneath the skin until a smile forced its way through the chaos. He dropped the boy and fell to his knees. Strength fading, he was able to raise an arm and beckon Jimmy closer. Not fully aware of what he had just done, of the lasting consequences his actions would have on his life, Jimmy sat by the man.
“Thank you, child,” said the man. “I’m sorry for what you have to live with now.” He coughed, and blood sprayed from his lips. Jimmy struggled to make sense of everything as the man’s eyes closed on this world.
* * *
Marcy watched her microwave timer tick off the seconds before dinner was ready. Thinking about her vision, about what Jimmy was asking of her, she wondered if she harbored the necessary gall to carry out what she knew in her heart to be right. That Briggs was unnerved by whatever he had seen was apparent, but were the images broadcast into his mind disturbing enough to force him to physically harm Jimmy?
Then she thought about the source of her information, the manner by which the young patient had shared with her this impending peril, and knew it must be true. She had accepted all other details he had conveyed to her in this way without question.
His experience with the man in the woods was a series of visions shared via some telepathic bond that ran between them. The look on Briggs’s face, the slack-jawed bewilderment, the wide-eyed disbelief, had been the same one she remembered feeling the first time it happened to her. Only she chose to embrace it, to let Jimmy in and foster his attempts to open up to her. Based on the way Briggs looked at Jimmy, she doubted he, Briggs, felt the same way. And based on how her vision ended, the detective standing over the disturbed young man, a bullet hole in his forehead, she knew Briggs saw him as a monster rather than a victim.
And Jimmy was asking for her help.
Jimmy was not normal in the generally accepted sense of the word. But what six-year-old child would be normal after witnessing first-hand the end of a man's life? Deep and irrevocable was the emotional damage caused that day. That little boy—not the troubled young man whose memories she had seen— needed the protection.
Before the timer reached zero, she strode on rubbery legs back to her car, floating on a wave of numb indecision as much as walking, and drove back to the center.
* * *
Time bore no significance; the day's hours passed in a whirlwind of eccentricity and general weirdness. Briggs took a long pull from a bottle of Bud Light, stretched, and yawned. He was physically exhausted, but his mind was jogging in place, like it was on a treadmill and couldn't find a way off. After what he had seen in his vision, his wife's grisly murder, he rushed home to find her putting away groceries. Relieved she was okay, he even offered to help, an act that had her wondering what he was feeling guilty about.
Briggs shared the events of the day with her, doing his best to paint the inexplicable with a heavy coat of logic. He offered his theories and suppositions, and omitted completely the part where the mute patient transmitted gruesome images directly into his brain. Once dinner was finished and Erika climbed the stairs to the bedroom, he sought solitude on the couch in the living room, just a couple of beers and his thoughts to keep him company.
After draining the second bottle, he checked the time on his phone. It was after eleven, later than he thought. Displayed next to the time was the white reel-to-reel icon indicating a pending voicemail. Briggs found it peculiar that there was no icon denoting a missed call, but what about this day wasn’t a little off?
Hopeful it was not someone from work, but doubtful it could be anyone else, he played the message. The voice did not immediately register because he had only heard it speak very briefly. The context of the recorded message, however, left no doubt about the identity of the caller.
“Detective Briggs, I think we need to talk now. Your wife is safe, but I’m afraid Marcy may be in danger. You should really come see me tonight.”
* * *
Marcy returned to the center just after eleven. The on-duty nurse had been of legal drinking age for all or three months, and was more than willing to let Marcy work the rest of her shift in exchange for an evening of debauchery. Within five minutes of arriving, Marcy was alone on the wing with Jimmy and the thirty-nine other patients. There was no custodian scheduled tonight.
Peering through the tiny window in the door to room nineteen, she was not surprised to see Jimmy wide awake, concentrating on a spot on the ceiling. She let herself in and assured Jimmy that everything was okay. No one was going to hurt him.
He did not respond at first. The same broken man did nothing more than occupy space on the bed, alive but not living. Marcy held firm his hand, offering a reassuring squeeze from time to time. Anticipation of a confrontation with Briggs made her hands and feet run cold, and the warmth in Jimmy’s hand provided her with a modicum of relief.
Kneeling before him, as she had been in the interview room, she let Jimmy once again place a hand on either side of her face. She was surprised at how much comfort this offered, at how she had come to relish these moments of sharing and revelation. After everything that happened, she wanted to be strong for him and encourage his need to share this new vision.
* * *
As his senses returned, a tear streaked Jimmy’s cheek, bringing with it a chorus of whimpers. Save a number of startled birds that had been stirred into alarm by the tussle in the clearing, he was alone, night falling, the temperature dropping, and he was searching for the will to return home. Instead, he cried.
Solitude was interrupted by a hand snatching his shirt and pulling him down. The dead man’s eyes opened, ablaze with evil and hatred, and he spoke.
“I am Death.”
Jimmy could not breathe or think. And he could not look away from those fiery eyes. Flames writhed in them like tiny demons dancing around a pyre. The fire within emerged from the dead man’s eyes, seemingly engulfing everything in the clearing. Unable to move, the boy felt a smothering heat swallow him as the blaze inched closer to his face. The flames were so close now Jimmy could see nothing else. His eyes felt as though they would melt and seep from their sockets.
Then the fire exploded into him, around him. Silence draped over the clearing as the birds dropped from branches and nests and from midair. Insects ceased their buzzing, and rodents collapsed in place. Jimmy was aware of none of this; he was watching the last flicker of life inside the man grow dim, then extinguish.
The flame entered his soul and became an inferno. Hatred filled him; he now saw humanity as a scourge on the earth, and human life was to be detested rather than revered. Death was a necessary end to a meaningless existence.
The man he killed had become weak, unable to fulfill his obligation any longer, and let compassion and hope back into his life. But Death had found a new host, a stronger and younger one, who possessed the capacity to kill. Jimmy was the new harbinger of order. Jimmy was Death.
* * *
More images were transferred to her now, replays of a past she never knew existed: Jimmy’s past. From his point of view, she saw his father, his mother, his siblings. She saw the face of the janitor. The memory of each of their deaths played in her brain as if she was seeing it through her own eyes. She watched him enter their minds and, using powers befitting only a harbinger of Death, drove each of them to terminal insanity. Like a thug ripping out a car stereo, he ripped and yanked at their psyches until they just stopped living.
As she stared into his eyes, the flames leaping and licking, she knew Jimmy was still in there. But he was too weak to control his actions—or more aptly the actions of Death. His body was no longer a useful carrier. It now needed someone younger and stronger.
Marcy’s final conscious effort was a shriek of utter terror.
Immobility prevented her escape. Death had already begun its reassignment into Marcy Coleman. Between hosts it was like a noxious chemical, incapacitating every living being it touched. Until it completed its transfer, it was an unstoppable plague.
She felt it filling her body, hatred and loathing replacing happiness and compassion. She watched the fire dance between his eyes and hers. She felt the flames explode into and around her, filling the entire psychiatric wing. A voice issued from Jimmy, though it was not Jimmy’s voice. It said, “I am Death.”
* * *
As Briggs edged through the already open automatic door, he saw the corridor cloaked in darkness, just as he expected. The blank screen of surveillance footage replayed in his mind as his efforts to flip on a light proved futile. The only glow was that from room nineteen; it beckoned Briggs like a siren calling a sailor toward waters too shallow to navigate. He placed a hand on the pistol at his hip.
Three doors ahead on the right was the entrance to Jimmy’s room. Briggs thought of Marcy and what Jimmy might do to her. To this point, he had heard no voices, no indication that anyone was even present in the room, and he was hopeful that no more lives would be lost here.
A horrified scream split the air, filling the hall like a nerve toxin, causing temporary paralysis. Marcy. In the cone of light pouring from the room, Briggs watched the shadows play out whatever sinister act was taking place.
Rushing forward into uncertainty, beads of panic formed at his brow and began rolling down his face. The scene was undulating, like a current of air spilling from a convection oven. The vision Jimmy shared with him earlier was on a permanent loop at the back of his brain, Jimmy’s eerie voicemail providing the soundtrack.
Rooms lining either side of the hall came to life with yowling. One by one, patients began thumping on doors and walls, baying for serenity. The commotion grew in volume, but the message was not entirely clear. Briggs realized for the first time that he, too, was beginning to moan.
As he reached Jimmy’s room, he was seeing both the real images playing out before him and the vision of him cradling Erika’s dead body, unsure of which was actually taking place. In room nineteen he saw both Erika’s lifeless features peering back at him and a blaze streaming between Jimmy and Marcy. The screaming of every person in the wing, including the three in Jimmy’s room, had reached a fever pitch. The racket muted the sound of any thoughts in Briggs head, and the terrifying images of his wife’s fatal wounds blinded him to reality. As his vision played out once more, he was unable to bring down his attacker. This time it was Jimmy who prevailed, striding through the bullets Briggs fired in his mind. With lethal agility, Jimmy consumed the detective’s line of sight, consuming his mind. Staring into those beady black eyes, Briggs again heard him speak: I am Death. The words blocked all other sound, and they were the last words he heard. Briggs’s last image before being devoured by Death was a pair of black eyes. But they did not belong to Jimmy Butler.
They were Marcy Coleman’s eyes.
* * *
Silence once again descended upon the hospital. Marcy sat for a time relishing the seclusion. Too much of her precious time had been devoted to assisting others. The sight of Jimmy and Detective Briggs on the floor at her feet pleased her, though she would rather they display a more disturbed expression than the contented smirks they wore.
The rest of this branch of the hospital was equally calm. Behind each closed door was another pest eradicated. She visited each room, opening the doors as she strolled past, admiring her accomplishment. All forty patients, Jimmy included, and Detective Briggs were dead.
Marcy finished her tour of the deceased at an interview room—the one where she and Briggs spoke with Jimmy—where she caught her reflection in the large two-way mirror. It intrigued her, and she stepped closer to it. Marcy liked what she saw. She stared at herself through two lumps of coal, where a pair of sapphires once resided.
A grin began to crease her lips, but was suddenly in conflict with a frightened grimace. Then she began to sob. She watched herself crying in the mirror. Something told her this was not the appropriate reaction for what had happened, but the tears still fell. Angry with herself, she forced a wicked smile onto her face. At once a mad chortling replaced the violent shudders of sadness.
Throwing her head back, Marcy Coleman belched a wild cackle. Staring again at her new reflection, she spoke:
“I am Death.”
About the Author:
Theo John is the secret identity of another man altogether. By day he is a mild-mannered project manager from St. Louis, Missouri. By night (and sometimes by lunch break), he emerges from the phone booth as a mild-mannered project manager who dabbles in authoring stories just weird enough that the reader is almost pretty sure the events within will probably never happen. Theo holds both a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Master of Business Administration with an emphasis in marketing. He has spent time as a burger cook, a waiter, a mailman, a lifeguard, a financial analyst, a training manager, and a promotions supervisor. At three weeks shy of his thirtieth birthday, he now reports directly to no one but his wife and son, who are anxiously awaiting the day when he sells a novel, quits his job, and buys them a toilet made of diamonds. What, all famous authors buy diamond toilets, right?
About TBL's Monthly Feature:
Every month in our web journal, Tethered by Letters publishes a work of exceptional literary talent. Ranging from traditional short stories and poems to comics and flash fictions, we publish any kind of "story" that quickens our collective heartbeats and makes our jaws fall open. We are constantly accepting submissions for our features, so submit today!
A Monthly Feature
by Carol Michaels
I saw the red hair first. The city’s newspaper had apparently added a color printer—first page only—and that’s where I saw the bright red hair, on the front page of a newspaper dated three weeks earlier. It was lying folded on one of the kitchen chairs, leaving me to wonder if my mother had left it out on purpose knowing I would one day come home to clean out her things.
I moved aside my fish oil tablets and cup of decaf and spread the paper out on the table. I stared at the picture before I read the print. It was Darryl, all right. Heavier, with creases finally aging his baby face, and that famous red hair, now beginning to recede. His eyes were the same: pensive, figure-out-the-universe eyes. Only in this picture they seemed on the edge of lost. Scared.
The caption under the photo left me stunned:
Darryl Rudman, of Reedsville, was sentenced today to twenty-five years in prison for the murder of his business partner, Lloyd Harahan.
Detached denial was my first reaction. I was still too immersed in the grief and guilt that accompanied my mother’s death to fully register what I was reading.
I had not been the best of sons. Too few letters and phone calls had passed between my mother and me in the years since I had left home. We were not at war; we just didn’t work at a relationship. When she became sick, I only found out from my aunt. More visits, phone calls instead of letters, and multiple flower deliveries were my scrambled attempts to mend the gap.
In the last part of her illness, my mother had written me some vague comment that my old friend Darryl was “in a bit of trouble,” but had not expanded on it. Being that my own life at that point was in many bits of trouble, I had stuffed Darryl into the far reaches of my mind. The finalization of my divorce, financial difficulties, and dealing with my mother’s downward spiral had used up most of my emotional strength.
Seeing this picture of Darryl put me back to a time when we were closer than maybe anyone else I had ever known. A dare in the first grade was the seed that sprouted our friendship, when we scribbled on the wall in the girls’ bathroom with colored markers. During detention we bonded over our shared bravery. The minute we were free we plotted our next deed, knowing we could count on each other to see it through. Over the years our trust grew until we knew each other’s deepest secrets, up to the horrible day when he had to move out of town and we lost touch. Even with the long separation, there was no way I could believe the kid I had grown to rely on was a killer.
I sat down and read the whole article detailing Darryl’s trial and conviction, and looked for clues that I was reading about the same Darryl I had grown up with, on the slim chance I could be mistaken. When I finished, my coffee was cold and my eyes were moist. It was definitely him.
I’m not sure how long I sat staring at the paper, my mind frozen with emotion. I knew that eventually I would have to start moving again, but I couldn’t budge.
I knew I should call Jan. I had tried to avoid thinking about it since the minute I saw the sign welcoming me back to Maine. There was too much “stuff” there for me to pick up the phone. Now, seeing this, I knew I had no choice. She was still the only one I could totally be myself with, even after all the ugliness there had been between us.
I knew she still lived out in the sticks, in the house she had moved into after graduation, with Bill. The last time we talked, in fact, was when she told me she was marrying Bill. Before that I had thought it was going to be my own last name behind Jan’s, not Bill’s, not anyone else’s. The cop who pulled me over after I raced away from her that night said I looked like I was on a suicide mission.
I also knew that Bill had moved out over a year ago, since at the beginning of my mother’s illness she could still get the facts straight. Even though I had reason to gloat, I couldn’t. Having failed at marriage myself, I could only feel bad for her. I had tried to keep Jan out of my thoughts and life after I left home, and during my visits back, I managed to avoid any contact with her. I knew now I had no choice.
I found the number in the phone book and dialed half of it a few times before I finally punched in the whole thing. I gripped the phone tightly until I heard her voice.
“Jan, it’s me. Roger. Please don’t hang up.”
Silence, and then I heard her take in a deep breath,
“Roger, why in the world would I hang up on you? I am so sorry about your mother. I saw the notice in the paper, but there was no mention of a funeral. I didn’t even know where to send you a card. Where are you, anyway?”
“I’m here, at my mother’s house. Just for now, to clean things up. She wanted to be cremated without a ceremony. No need to feel bad. I’m the one who vanished off the planet. But I’ve been back a few days, so I figured I should start reconnecting with some people.”
“Some people?” Her tone took on a sharpness I remembered and I cringed.
“Look, I know this is awkward for both of us. But I just read about Darryl in the paper and I had to talk to someone. I can’t believe he murdered someone. Do you know what happened? I feel awful for being so distant, for losing touch. I guess I just need to talk about it and find out the story, and you were the one I thought of…” I knew I was rambling, but I needed to get it all out and I half expected Jan to slam the phone down.
She didn’t. Maybe in some way she was glad for my call.
“Do you want to come over? There’s too much to say for a phone call. I work second shift so I’m here for a while longer.” She seemed a little too eager but I was rusty at reading her.
I hesitated a moment. Too long, I guess, because she jumped at me.
“Look, you called me. This is stupid—just get yourself over here and we’ll get through the muck and I can tell you about Darryl, okay?” She didn’t wait for an answer and I couldn’t help smiling as I hung up the phone.
I found the place fairly easily and nervously knocked on the door, like I was picking up a date. She opened it right away and I took a step back, the onslaught of emotions catching me off guard.
She hadn’t changed much. A bit heavier here and there, but her dirty blonde hair was still hanging around her face, freckles still dotted her cheeks and nose, and her smile as she opened the door was the same familiar one that drew me to her in the first place. But that was a long time ago and I was here for a purpose.
I looked around her modest house as we walked through to the kitchen. She and Bill hadn’t had children, and her home was tidy and simple. Over coffee, strong and black for both of us (screw the decaf, I decided), we tried to catch up on lost years. It didn't take as long as one might think, possibly because we both avoided any emotional details. We each outlined our marriages and divorces, and the ups and downs of our careers. I told her about my current job teaching science at a Buffalo high school, and despite it being short of my ambition to be a college professor, she actually looked impressed. I guess, compared to her supervisor job at the factory, I was a success. When we were through we sat for a moment and looked at each other with an uncomfortable silence hanging mid-air.
Finally, I remembered again why I was there.
“So, you said you could tell me more about Darryl. He was always so mild and easygoing. I just can’t fathom the idea that he murdered someone. Is this a mistake? Have you gone to see him? How is he?” I took a long breath and stopped myself from going on.
Jan looked down and twisted her hands together. Her trembling voice was barely a whisper.
“A few years ago he moved back to New England. He had a business degree from somewhere or other and started up a contracting business outside of Bangor. I think he was doing rather well at first. The man he killed, his partner Lloyd, was from around here and they met at a conference and decided to partner up. I don’t know everything, but I guess the business started to have problems, and there was some talk that Lloyd was stealing from him. One day a worker arriving early found Lloyd beaten to death in his office, and Darryl standing over him. Darryl admitted he had struck Lloyd in a fit of rage but had never meant to kill him. The whole thing is horrible. And no, I haven’t gone to see him.” She finally looked up at me, obviously trying hard not to break down.
“There’s no crime in crying, you know.” I wasn’t sure why I said that, but it certainly hit a nail on the head because she turned into a faucet.
Several sheets of tissues and she was drier, more composed. She silently got up and walked out of the room, then came back carrying a photo album. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to look over pieces of our past, but she dropped the book down on the table and flipped to a page that showed the three of us together.
“I can’t stop looking at this picture. Ever since this whole murder thing, I keep opening the album and staring at this. Do you remember when it was taken? It’s driving me crazy.” Jan looked at me with such intensity I got scared for a minute. I looked down at the photo. Jan had on a hideous pink tank top and tight shorts, her hair in a loose ponytail. She was in the center of the shot, laughing, squeezed in between Darryl and me. Darryl was smiling a crooked smile, his eyes half closed, while I had my usual nerd-serious face. I strained my memory muscles trying to place it. Finally something snapped and I remembered.
“It was the day we went fishing up at Darryl’s father’s cabin. His sister Ruthie took this, remember? That was right before he moved away, I’m pretty sure.” I looked over at Jan to see if she remembered the same thing.
She looked back at me and smiled.
“Yes, that’s it, I’m sure of it. Thanks, I just felt like I really needed to know. Yeah, that was right before he moved away. What a terrible summer that turned out to be.” She lowered her eyes and we were both silent.
I felt like it was time for me to go. I tried to will myself up from the chair; instead, I stayed and began flipping though the album, reconnecting with past emotions. Jan sat quietly, every now and then pointing to a picture. So much was between us but neither one of us wanted to break open all the hurts. Finally the last blank page was all that remained.
“You should go see him,” Jan said, after the silence became too intense. She reached over, placed one hand over mine. A familiar jolt went through me as I felt the softness in her touch, saw the look in her eyes.
“Of course I should,” I finally said. “I definitely should.”
I left then. I didn’t tell Jan I would call her, and she didn’t ask. I knew it was better to leave things vague.
Driving home I let my mind wander into the past. For some reason I thought back to the time I tried to help Darryl with a science project. Science and math were my passions; for Darryl they were as bad as getting a tooth pulled. For a week straight we met after school so I could help him make a model of a rocket that would actually take off and travel for a few seconds. My own project was long finished, some deal to do with the solar system. Darryl struggled and cried and threw up his hands over and over, stomping around like a spoiled brat. I kept helping him despite his ranting. In the end, he got a better grade than I did and I swore I would never help him again.
Girls were another matter altogether. I was his “coach” on numerous occasions, telling him what and what not to say, although who knows why I figured I was any authority on the subject. He always thought he was just a total dork, but in fact he was no such thing. In truth, I was the overweight nerd, my head always in a book.
I had no brothers; Darryl was my brother as far as I was concerned. When he told me he had to go live with his dad, five hours away, I felt lost and abandoned. When you can’t drive and your parents don’t have the money for long distance phone calls, five hours away is another planet. This was way before e-mail.
I guess that’s when I really began to notice Jan. She was always part of our group, but when Darryl moved away we connected differently. That summer her parents went through a nasty divorce and her life was utterly miserable. I guess I seemed like a solid place for her, since my parents were still together. They were the rare exception that stayed together “until death did them part,” which was in the fall of the year I entered college. My father had a massive heart attack and was gone from our lives in a second.
The summer that Darryl left, Jan and I began hanging together every day. We slid from friendship to more by the time school began. By then, I knew more about her ugly home life than I knew what do with. She would come to me in tears and I suppose after a summer of comforting embraces, the next step was inevitable. The momentum lasted through the first three years of high school. I had always thought we would get married, have a family and live together forever, but Bill moved into town and changed all that. It took me awhile before I noticed the way Jan and Bill looked at each other. Love is blind, after all. Then came the lying about why she was always too busy to go out, or get together at all. When I finally realized she had lied to me multiple times, our explosive confrontation was the talk of the school for a week. Soon after that, she announced she was marrying Bill.
I drove into the garage, still thinking about Jan. A lot of years had gone by and we were different people now. First loves are hard to erase; time and distance had dulled the pain she had once caused me, while the good memories seemed to be taking over my focus. The possibility that perhaps we could reconnect hung in my mind. Still, nothing was clear at this point except that I knew I needed to concentrate on helping Darryl.
* * *
Stale air and silence greeted me as I entered the kitchen. The paper was still out on the table and I read through the article again, looking for what I needed. Finally I found it. Darryl was in the Maine State Prison. I called information and got a number to call to ask about visiting an inmate. I stared at the number, and then shoved it into a drawer.
I knew visiting Darryl was the right thing to do, but the closer I came to the actual encounter, I wanted to stick my head in a bag and disappear.
Well, I had already disappeared for way too long. I retrieved the number and dialed before I could think.
I learned that I had to get on Darryl’s approved visitor list, and for that I could even apply online. It could take a few weeks but seemed fairly simple. I resolved to do that as soon as I returned to Buffalo, no excuses. I felt a bit of relief knowing I had taken the first step.
There was nothing left for me to do now but take care of some final details, which consisted mainly of packing up the items from my mother’s house that I wanted to keep. Everything else would be sold in an estate sale, and then the house itself would be sold. Thankfully, a lawyer was handling all that; I didn’t think I had the emotional stamina to handle it myself.
I worked until midnight and fell into bed. My dreams were unsettling collages: Darryl and Jan, their faces distorted, running, shouting, fading out. I woke up in the morning and felt as if I had never slept.
I resisted the urge to call Jan first thing after I woke up. I knew my emotions were treacherously unreliable. I finished packing up the things I had decided to take: photos, some things that were my father’s, a few books, and a few other odds and ends that I wasn’t even sure why I wanted.
I decided to leave the next morning. I called and told Jan I was leaving but would be back when my visitation rights cleared. No mysterious disappearances this time around. Her reply brought more of our past to the surface.
“You know, Roger, you can call me anytime you need to talk.”
What is it about those words that are so compelling? I thought about Jan all the way to Buffalo.
* * *
I kept my promise and applied for visiting approval as soon as I returned to Buffalo. Waiting to hear back seemed to take forever and allowed me time to think myself into a pit of worry. I had no idea what I would say to Darryl if and when I saw him. I didn’t know if he would be ashamed or angry or a person so different from my childhood memories that I would feel like I was visiting a total stranger. I tried to keep busy. Despite being on summer leave, I had plenty of home repairs to do and I tried to channel my worries into constructive energy. It worked for maybe a third of the time.
Jan was a different matter. I thought about her constantly and finally called one night when I couldn’t stand it any longer. She was as eager as I was to talk. I learned more about the path her life had taken; drinking had caused her to lose job after job and eventually contributed to her break up with Bill. She had been sober for some time but every day was a struggle. Being at her current job for over a year was a big deal and I felt glad for her. She had even started doing some volunteer work at a community center. I shared snippets of my own bad choices and even though I hadn’t wanted to talk about my divorce, I wound up telling Jan anyway. There was no drama to it, just two people who had rushed into something that wasn’t right for either of us. To my credit, I did bring the conversation back around to some good choices I had made, including my teaching job.
She told me she had taken up painting, and I told her about my try at photography and we both laughed at our artistic attempts. I even told her about a book I was thinking about writing, even though I hadn’t gotten to page one. Our conversation lasted over an hour and I felt a connection to someone for the first time since my divorce. The thought of a possible new beginning for the two of us was hard to escape. After all, we had both made mistakes. We had something once, couldn’t we have that again? Experience warned me to be cautious. My emotions said to hell with experience.
The letter confirming my clearance to visit Darryl came on a Friday. I called to make an appointment for a Sunday morning visit, and headed out Saturday morning for Maine. My focus was split as I made the return trip. Between the anticipation of seeing Jan again and my increasing anxiety about visiting Darryl, I was on emotional overload.
My mother’s house was on the market and I had booked a hotel for this stay. An hour after I checked in, I was on my way to meet Jan for dinner. I hadn’t decided how far all of this was going; dinner somewhere seemed safer than meeting at her house.
She looked beautiful, sitting at a corner table, neatly dressed in a silky red blouse and black pants. She looked happy to see me and I made no attempt to hide my own pleasure at seeing her again.
Dinner was a slow-motion haze of small talk mixed with unspoken questions. We talked about stupid things, like the weather and the high price of gas. Jan kept looking around nervously, while I stumbled over my words like an anxious kid. I hadn’t counted on it being so difficult to meet like this, but at the same time, I felt tingly with anticipation. By dessert, we had exhausted the one-liners and sat awkwardly in the “what next?” phase.
We settled for a kiss outside the restaurant, promising to meet again the next day. There was a lot in that kiss and both of us knew it.
It wasn’t until I was on my way back to the hotel that a sinking feeling came over me. Vague questions kept nagging at the edges of my brain, too blurry for me to see clearly but enough that I could feel a pit forming in my stomach.
* * *
The sun was just poking out of the clouds as I came to the turn in the road that brought the prison into full view. I stopped the car and sat motionless, contemplating retreating. But I knew I couldn’t run now. I kept going and parked in the lot.
I was led through one door, then another. Cold metal slammed around me as I went through several security checks. Eventually, I was taken into a room with tables where I sat and waited. Loss and sadness hung heavy in the air.
Finally a door opened and I saw Darryl. Our eyes locked. He kept his gaze on me as the guard walked him over and he slowly sat down, his face a blank page. I, on the other hand, was not so blank. The breath left my lungs and tears filled my eyes from out of nowhere. This was not how I had pictured myself reacting and I fought to regain control. Darryl’s eyes never left mine, and a crooked smile began to form on his face. He placed trembling hands on the table.
I tried to smile back. He needed me to be strong, not to crumble pitifully. I didn’t know quite what to say, so I kept it simple.
“Hey, it’s been way too long. I’m guessing we’ve got a lot of catching up to do, you and I.” Dumb, I thought, but at least I noticed he was smiling for real now.
“Yeah, Dweeb, I gotta say, it’s good to see you. Not the greatest of circumstances, but when I heard you were coming I was glad.” He paused, looked down and away, and then brought up his eyes to meet mine again. “I guess you already know the story. Before you ask, I’ll just tell you, yes, it’s true. I did kill him. But I’m not a cold-blooded murderer, it just all happened like a horrible nightmare. It’s definitely not how I figured my life would turn out.” He stopped, looked down again, fiddled with his shirt. Then he popped his head back up, looked at me with a grin.
“So, what’s been going on in your life for the last twenty years?”
I had no idea where to start and I knew our time was limited. I gave him the nutshell version of my teaching job, my failed marriage, and my mother’s passing, deciding to leave out my recent encounter with Jan, mainly because I had no idea what to make of it myself.
As I spoke, I began to relax, glad to be chatting with an old friend. He loosened up as well, and we bantered back and forth, reminiscing about our prankster days.
“Do you remember Mrs. Pallack’s toilet paper jacket?” When we were young, we stuck toilet paper strips to our teacher’s suit jacket that hung on the back of her chair while we were up at the board writing an essay. It was our proudest moment.
“That was the best! We were the team, weren’t we? We really should have kept in touch, Rog. Now look at us. I’m sure this is no picnic for you—first your mother and now coming to this hole to look at a dud like me.” He looked away and his shoulders fell into a slump.
“Well, I’d much rather be meeting you in a bar, that’s for sure.” The small laugh that came out of him made me glad I still could do that for him.
He told me how he almost got married once but it didn’t work out, then went into some dating stories that had me laughing so hard tears dribbled down my cheeks.
When the moment seemed right, I tried to pry out more explanation of how he had come to kill a man. He looked at me briefly, and then started talking quickly, like he had been holding it in and just waiting for someone to ask.
“Roger, I really thought I knew myself, you know? I thought I had a pretty good grasp on my life and where I was going and all that. I never thought I had a temper, but when something is pushing at you so hard, and so much is at stake, you can snap. Can you understand that? I snapped. This guy was stealing my whole life away, as far as I was concerned. I worked so hard for years to just get where I was and then find out this guy who I was trusting with everything was lying to me left and right and I lost it. It just took a second, and I never meant for him to die, but I slammed down on him harder than I thought, I guess, because he did, he died.” He cradled his head in his hands and I let him be for a moment until he continued.
“He had a wife, you know? I couldn’t even look at her during the trial, but when I got to say something after the verdict, I told her how horribly sorry I was. Lot of good that does, to say sorry I killed your husband. Sounds so lame now, but what else did I have? I’m not a killer but I killed someone.” He heaved a tired sigh, like he had used up all his strength telling me this.
“I know, Darryl. That’s one thing I am absolutely sure of, that you’re no killer.”
We sat looking at each other, not knowing what else to say. I stammered out the muck that was on my mind. “This is strange, isn’t it? I mean, all these years, and now we meet again like this? But I don’t hate you or anything, or think you’re a monster, just so you know.” Not so eloquent but better than nothing.
The guard came over and I knew our time was ending. Sadness swept over me; I didn’t want to let go of this reconnection. Darryl looked like he felt the same way.
“So, do you think you’ll be coming back? I mean, I know it’s a long trip and all from Buffalo, but maybe once in a while?” He seemed afraid to ask, as if he were certain I would say no.
“Of course I’ll come back, Darryl. Every chance I get. I’m a teacher, remember? We get all the holidays off and there’s spring break and Christmas break and just about every month there’s some kind of break, not to mention summer vacation. You’ll be sick of seeing me.” I tried to laugh but it came out sounding like a grunt.
He looked like he wanted to say something else, and since the guard was busy picking his nails, I asked Darryl if there was anything more he wanted to tell me.
He stared hard at the tabletop and I thought he had gone somewhere else. Then he slowly began to speak, his speech choppy from calculating the right words.
“I just have to ask, before you go, because you didn’t mention her. Jan. Did you see Jan at all? I mean, I know it didn’t end well with you two, but I was just wondering if you saw her?” His voice swung into a higher pitch and I suspected there was more to his asking. I kept my answer brief.
“I did. Yes, I did see her for a short time, when I came back into town, just to reconnect a bit.” I hated to lie but I didn’t want to get into all that with no time left.
“Did she mention me at all? Or did she tell you about us, or, no—never mind. Forget it.” His voice faded out and he looked down at the floor.
A bad feeling came over me then. My stomach lurched, and I had to get out of there.
“We talked about you, of course we did, Darryl. She’s the one who suggested I come see you. I’m glad I did. But I’ve got to get going now—the guard looks like he’s about to haul you away. I’ll be back, and we’ll talk more, for sure.” I gave him one last look as I stood up, and then I turned and walked out.
How I got back to my hotel is a blur. The whole ride there I was busy trying to glue bits of a puzzle together in my mind. I knew the last pieces would come by calling Jan, yet when I got to my room I ran into the shower instead. I didn’t want to know but I thought I already did.
The outline of the puzzle was wondering why Jan had never tried to find me when she first heard about Darryl’s arrest. True, I had left town without a good-bye all those years ago and hadn’t been in touch, but she could have contacted my mother, no matter the awkwardness. Something that big should have been enough to put aside our sour ending. And why hadn’t she ever gone to see Darryl in prison? In all our talking she never said why, just that she hadn’t gone. She had urged me to go, yet she was closer to the prison than I was.
I knew I had to finish the puzzle, no matter how painful. I quickly dialed Jan’s number.
She picked up on the first ring. Waiting for my call? Given my suspicions, I didn’t return her cheery greeting. The connection I had recently felt seemed to disappear in a cloud of past bad memories, all the times she had lied to me with the same cheery voice. I kept myself composed and came out with it.
“Jan, did you and Darryl have an affair? Was that why you never tried to contact me, or see him in prison, because it ended badly, like with us? Is that what broke up your marriage?” The line went quiet. I could feel Jan thinking hard.
When she finally answered, her voice was flat.
“Yes, it ended badly and no, my marriage was already breaking up, and no, I didn’t want you to know about it. It was around the time he moved back this way, before all this mess happened. I thought maybe Darryl wouldn’t say anything but I thought wrong.”
I tried not to raise my voice. “Why didn’t you ever say anything? How could you not have told me something like that? We talked for hours, remember? I don’t get it, Jan. You knew how close I was with Darryl, how could you not say anything? I thought we were connecting again, but you keep something this big from me and for what reason?”
“I don’t know, Roger. You’re right, I should have told you. I guess I didn’t know how you’d react, and I don’t do that well with stuff like that.”
Stuff like that?
It hit me then, the final piece of this. There was never going to be anything deeper with Jan and me. There would be no new, lasting love, nothing. She had been my first love, true, but even at that it was a shallow love. Whatever connection I thought we had restarted was just the same old shallow one, with more baggage than when we were young, but nothing more. It was clear to me what I needed to do.
“I’m leaving town tonight, Jan. I told Darryl I’d be back to visit him sometime, but I’m not sure when. Take care of yourself, okay?” I heard her mumble a good-bye and I hung up before I could ramble out anything else.
* * *
It took about two hours of driving before I calmed down enough to begin to make sense of things. I realized that people I had once been so close to had faded back into my life after all these years. It was almost like I had stepped back into time and was in the first part of my life again, which felt amazing and overwhelming at first. But those broken pieces of the past were still broken. I had wanted Jan to be “the one” so badly I was willing to forget the past, but you can’t base a relationship on a few good memories and erase the shallowness and hurt. She never was “the one.” I saw that now.
Darryl and I had more than years between us and we were not those prankster kids anymore. But I would keep my promise to visit him and over time we would learn who we had both become.
The loss of my mother was something I would have to work through; hopefully time would help heal the wounds of my regrets.
Driving into the blackness toward my home, I knew that going forward was the right direction. The past held lessons for my future; that simple reasoning would suffice for now. I drove on.
About the Author:
Carol Michaels has lived numerous places but now calls Connecticut home. She works in customer service and after a day of the stress that can cause, writing is an outlet that gives her a sense of fulfillment. She has had half a dozen or so stories published in print and online magazines. Without analyzing it too much, she thinks the heart of writing and reading is in connecting us all as humans. Coming up with situations, real or imagined, and showing how people react, is a way for us to realize that we aren’t alone in all of this; other folks have the same habits, thoughts, and feelings that we do. Then again, sometimes reading is just for simple entertainment, with no deeper meaning involved… She plans to keep writing and hopes to continue to enjoy the satisfaction it brings.
About TBL's Monthly Feature:
Every month in our web journal, Tethered by Letters publishes a work of exceptional literary talent. Ranging from traditional short stories and poems to comics and flash fictions, we publish any kind of "story" that quickens our collective heartbeats and makes our jaws fall open. We are constantly accepting submissions for our features, so submit today!
Wrath of God
A Noteworthy Short Story
by Melanie Peterson
“Now, you sure it won’t fester if we leave it open like this?” asked Mrs. McDonald.
“Not at all, Miss Carla,” said Dr. Douglas. “The air will help it heal. Leave a wound bound up too long and it just breeds infection.”
Mrs. McDonald looked at her son Alvin’s scraped knee.
“Well, you’re the doctor,” she said after a moment. “When do you want to see Alvin back?”
Dr. Douglas smiled. “Unless it gets worse, or doesn’t heal, I don’t think it’s necessary to bring him back.”
Mrs. McDonald considered this advice, picking at her stiffly starched skirt with her right hand. Dr. Douglas waited. If it weren’t for her hypochondria, which she extended to her entire family, he wouldn’t have much of a practice anymore.
“All right then. I thank you kindly, doctor,” she said. “How much do I owe you?”
Dr. Douglas asked her for five dollars. As she reached into her purse, she commented, “I hear tell some Yankees moved into the old Tucker house.”
“Yes, indeed. I stopped by the house the other day.” Dr. Douglas had left his card with the family. They’d probably go to the new clinic on the Pike, though. It had opened only five years ago and had all the latest equipment.
“They seem mighty nice, Miss Carla. Name of Fogarty.”
“They got any kids for Earl and Alvin to play with?”
“Not that I saw. Just a husband and wife. Frank and Doris.”
“Hmmm. Well, as long as they’re not down here to impose their ways. We’re getting along just fine, I say.”
Dr. Douglas smiled. “I doubt they’re here to shake things up. Husband didn’t seem like much of a firebrand.”
* * *
Dr. Douglas locked the office door and lowered the Venetian blinds at the windows. He hadn’t had to open his practice today until two o’clock. It was now five. The Nashville neighborhood he lived in was declining. Many homes stood empty. Over the years, most of his patients had moved away to the suburbs. Straightening his shoulders, he decided to enjoy the free time, as Ellie had always told him he should.
“You don’t get a break much, so savor it when you do,” she’d said. “Most times, you work too damn hard.”
The doctor walked to the back of the office, which was attached to the side of his house, and opened the door to his home. Unlike the doctor’s office, which was cleaned nightly by a service, the house smelled of dust and last night’s dinner. He made a mental note to get Belle in to clean soon.
Reaching beside the door, he flicked off the office lights. With the fluorescents extinguished, a quiet descended over the building. He heard a car swoosh past on the Pike, then another. He turned on the light in the back hall and closed the office door.
The back hall ran the width of his house and connected the office, at one end, to his study at the other. From the study one had access to the rest of the house. Dr. Douglas made his way to the dining room and then the kitchen. He settled into one of the kitchenette chairs. It was a set that Ellie had bought just a year before she died, of the very latest style, with both the padded chairs and the table top decorated with liver shapes and stars and moons in pink and turquoise. She had been very happy with it and had insisted that they eat all their meals in the kitchen after its purchase, even though they had a full dining room in the house. Dr. Douglas hadn’t minded. Ellie had been a good cook, no matter where you ate her food.
He heard a tapping at the side door. That would be the Widow Pierce. Dr. Douglas sighed and lifted himself out of the chair. He went to the door and pulled the curtain aside. As expected, the Widow Pierce’s face appeared. She smiled and waved with her free hand. Her other was occupied in holding a covered dish. He opened the door.
“Why, Miss Margaret, how good to see you.”
She simpered. “I saw the lights go out in your consulting room and I thought, ‘Well, now what is that poor man going to eat for dinner?’ so I brung you some little leftovers from my dinner last night.”
Dr. Douglas decided to ignore the “brung,” although Ellie would never have said such a thing. Ellie had been a stickler for grammar.
“Well, won’t you please come in? This is really so neighborly of you, Miss Margaret. Thank you so much.”
“Oh, it’s just a little macaroni and cheese and some beans, nothing fancy. Now, I wouldn’t dream of letting you try to heat this up yourself. Men just are no good for such things. Let me help you with that and then I’ll be gone.”
The Widow Pierce set the dish on the table and turned on the oven. She went right to the cabinet where the pots where kept and pulled down a one-quart saucepan. She set it on the kitchen table. Dr. Douglas would’ve preferred if she’d put a towel under the pan, but he didn’t say anything. The Widow Pierce had been very kind to him since Ellie’s passing, although Dr. Douglas, a private person, sometimes wished she would not be present so much of the time.
The Widow Pierce removed the towel from the top of the dish. Dr. Douglas could see the cold, congealed macaroni and cheese, and a smaller dish with green beans and bits of pork fat in it. The beans glistened with grease. While the Widow Pierce was a wonderful cook, Ellie’s cooking had always been lighter. He resigned himself to the indigestion he would suffer through later tonight. It was either this or go out to the Pink Pig, a local BBQ joint where the food was just as heavy.
“Well, Miss Margaret, if you give me this, what will you eat for your own dinner?” he asked.
“Why, I’ve been making a roast with potatoes and vegetables all day long. It’s just about ready. As a matter of fact, if you’d prefer that, you could join me for dinner.”
“I wouldn’t dream of imposing on you, Miss Margaret. What you’re doing here is too much as it is.”
“Oh, it would be my pleasure, Dr. Douglas.” At the word “pleasure,” the Widow Pierce fluttered her eyelids. Dr. Douglas suppressed a grimace.
“You’re good with people,” Ellie had told him. “You make everyone think you like them, even when you don’t.”
“Well, that’s mighty kindly of you Miss Margaret, but I’m just plain tuckered out tonight. I had a full day today, you know.”
Miss Margaret’s lips pursed. “I see,” she said. She’d clearly been watching the office all day, and knew this wasn’t true. He immediately felt badly.
“Perhaps another time real soon,” he offered.
“Yes,” she said. She took the green beans out of the dish and put the macaroni and cheese into the oven.
“Well, this will take a while to heat and the beans won’t take any time at all. I suppose you know how to heat up the beans on the top of the stove?”
“Yes, I suppose I could. But why don’t you sit a spell and have some tea? I made some yesterday.” Dr. Douglas really didn’t want her to stay, but he felt badly about lying to her. Perhaps this would be a good compromise.
She brightened a bit at this. “Well, perhaps I could, just for a bit. I don’t want to stay too long, what with you tired and all.” She looked him straight in the eye as she said this. How could someone be so helpful and unpleasant at the same time, he wondered.
“It’s just right here in the Frigidaire,” he said as he walked to the refrigerator. The Widow Pierce stood and protested at him waiting on her but he waved her down.
“No trouble, Miss Margaret, no trouble at all. This is one thing I can do in the kitchen.” Dr. Douglas drew out a pitcher of deep black tea and set it on the counter. Taking an ice cube tray from the freezer, he yanked back on the silver handle until the ice cracked and separated. He pulled two tall glasses from the cabinet over the sink and filled them with ice.
“Do you take lemon in your tea, Miss Margaret?” he asked.
“Oh, no, much obliged, Dr. Douglas.”
“Neither do I,” he said. He poured the tea into the glasses and took some cork coasters from a drawer by the stove. He put the coasters on the table and then put the glasses on the coasters. He sat.
“Well, cheers then,” he said and lifted his glass. The Widow Pierce giggled and lifted hers as well. The glasses clinked together. Dr. Douglas made sure none had spilled on the table and then he took a sip.
“Mmmm, there’s nothing like a cold glass of sweet tea at the end of the day, is there?”
“No, there surely isn’t, Dr. Douglas. I reckon I can start those beans though.”
Miss Margaret stood and walked to the stove. She dumped the beans into the saucepan and set it on the burner. She turned the burner on low—it was an electric stove, only a couple of years old—and returned to the table, where she had another sip of tea. She ran her finger over the back of the chair next to her. It came away gray with dust.
“When was the last time that colored girl came in?”
Dr. Douglas winced. Belle was in her fifties, with two daughters and one grandson.
“I was just thinking I need to get her in, Miss Margaret. Thank you kindly for reminding me.”
There was a lull in the conversation while the Widow Pierce went to the sink to wash her hand. She gave the beans a stir and then returned to the table. She took a sip of tea and then spoke.
“I can’t help but notice that your practice isn’t as busy as it once was, Dr. Douglas. Now, I don’t mean to criticize, you know me. But don’t you think it might be time for you to retire? Why, you’re hardly an old man. I’m sure you’ve been able to save up enough money to travel, for example, if you had a travelling companion.”
Dr. Douglas almost bit through the glass he was drinking from. He wasn’t sure what repelled him more: the suggestion that he retire, or the thought of spending his retirement seeing the world with the Widow Pierce.
“Well, Miss Margaret,” he laughed. “As you say, I’m hardly an old man. I think I still have a few years of treating patients left in me.”
“Well, yes, I reckon so,” she answered. “You know I’ve got no need of that clinic with its new-fangled machines.”
“And I thank you for that. You know I do.”
* * *
The next Sunday was hot. Dr. Douglas gave a sigh of relief when he walked into the cool of the house. He loosened his tie and removed his jacket and hat. He opened his shirt button at his neck and rolled up his sleeves. Placing the fan he’d been given at church on the kitchen table, he opened the refrigerator for some tea. Before he took out the pitcher, he just stood, letting the cool air wash over him. Ellie would’ve fussed at him for that. He fixed himself a big glass of tea and sat at the table, savoring its coolness.
Dr. Douglas heard the screeching of brakes and then a horrific crash coming from the Pike. He went as fast as he could to the front door and stuck his head out. Down at the corner, there was a car crumpled up against a light pole. From around the driver’s side, Dr. Douglas saw a man stumble to the back of the car and then sit on the fender, his head in his hands.
He went into his office and grabbed his medical kit. By the time he got out of the house, a crowd had gathered around the car. He could see Frank Fogarty and the McDonald boys talking to the driver, and Sarah Guinness standing apart with the Widow Pierce.
He walked to the corner, wishing it weren’t August and that he’d remembered to put his hat back on. As he came up on the accident, he realized that the driver wasn’t the only one involved; there was a man lying unconscious on the ground. He was colored. The Widow Pierce separated herself from Sarah Guinness.
“Dr. Douglas, how lucky of you to come,” she said. “This man here is all shook up.” She nodded at the driver. “Can’t hardly talk straight.”
Dr. Douglas looked at the driver, a white man in his thirties. His color was bad and he was sweating, although that indicated not much at all in this heat.
“Has an ambulance been called?” he asked of no one in particular.
“My mama called the ambulance,” Alvin McDonald said.
“All right, that’s good,” said Dr. Douglas. He walked over to the colored man. He could see that the man had a bad head wound which had bled into a puddle about six inches around.
“This man’s hurt bad. Better get your mama to call a colored ambulance or a colored doctor, Alvin.”
“She don’t know no nigger doctor,” Alvin said sullenly.
A colored woman separated herself from the crowd. “I know a phone number you can call,” she said.
Alvin stared at his shoes.
“Alvin, get the number from this lady and go tell your mama,” said Dr. Douglas.
“Don’t got no paper,” Alvin said.
“You can’t remember a phone number for the time it takes you to get across the street?” Dr. Douglas snapped.
Alvin listened to the number the colored lady gave him and ran home. Dr. Douglas knelt beside the colored man. He checked for the man’s pulse and didn’t find one. He looked at Earl McDonald, Alvin’s brother. “Get me a board, you got one behind your house or something?”
The boy looked confused.
“I think this man here needs seeing to,” said the Widow Pierce. She indicated the driver.
“He’ll be fine until the ambulance gets here,” said Dr. Douglas. He looked at the McDonald boy. “What about that board?”
“Ain’t no need to be messing with that nigger,” the Widow Pierce objected.
“He’s not breathing. Get me that board, Earl.”
The McDonald boy took a step backwards and stopped. “I think I got something,” Frank Fogarty said. He went back to his house at a trot.
“I don’t see why you just can’t wait. That colored doctor’ll be here any minute,” said the Widow Pierce.
Dr. Douglas bent over the colored man, pinched his nose and put his mouth on the man’s mouth.
“You’re going agin’ the natural order of things,” the Widow Pierce said, her voice rising in pitch and volume. “This is not pleasing to the Lord.”
He blew air in and saw the man’s chest rise. He blew twice more and rested. He looked up and saw Carla McDonald on her porch with Alvin and Earl. As soon as she knew he’d seen her, she crossed her arms over her chest.
Dr. Douglas blew some more air into the colored man’s chest. Frank Fogarty came scurrying back with an old board.
“This is all I had. Is this all right?” he asked.
“It’ll do,” said Dr. Douglas. The call of an ambulance’s siren could be heard in the distance.
“I told my wife to call that number the colored lady gave Alvin,” Frank said.
“See now? They’re coming for him. Let his people see to him,” said the Widow Pierce.
“Help me get his head and neck on the board, Frank,” said Dr. Douglas.
Frank got around the top of the colored man and held the board as Dr. Douglas gingerly lifted his head up. Frank slowly slid the board under his head.
Dr. Douglas sighed. “Well at least he’s somewhat stabilized,” he said. “Now, just hold the board and his head as steady as you can, will you, Frank?”
Frank nodded and Dr. Douglas gave the colored man another breath. He checked for a pulse and then pulled the man’s arms above his head. He pushed on the man’s chest and gave him a breath. The ambulance pulled up. It was a white ambulance. The two ambulance drivers began tending to the driver.
“His people will be here any moment,” said the Widow Pierce.
“Miss Margaret, please,” said Dr. Douglas. “The man will die if I don’t see to him.”
“Let God see to it, I say,” the Widow Pierce repeated.
Dr. Douglas ignored her and continued working. After a few moments, the colored man groaned and his eyes fluttered.
“Don’t move,” Dr. Douglas said. “You’ve been in an accident. I’m a doctor and your own doctor is on the way.”
The colored man muttered something under his breath and closed his eyes. Dr. Douglas could see his breathing was ragged, but he was breathing.
Dr. Douglas sat back on his haunches and exhaled. Sweat had soaked his shirt through and the sparse hair on his head was dripping. He looked across the street and saw Carla McDonald gather her sons to her, turn her back and walk into her house.
“Can I let go of the board, Dr. Douglas?” said Frank Fogarty.
Dr. Douglas smiled at him. “Yes, Frank,” he said. “And thank you very much.”
Frank nodded his head. “Sure shook me up, I must say.”
Dr. Douglas nodded. “It’s amazing there aren’t more accidents the way they run up and down this road.”
Frank Fogarty leaned in close. “Can’t we just take him around to the clinic? Me and Doris went yesterday to check it out. It looks real nice and clean. We could put him in my car.”
Dr. Douglas shook his head. “I’m afraid not. They wouldn’t accept him.”
The ambulance men had loaded the white man into their vehicle. As they drove away, a colored doctor pulled up in a rather timeworn 1955 Chevy. Dr. Douglas approached the car.
“Hello, doctor,” he said. “We’ve got a pretty serious case here. Let me show you.” Dr. Douglas opened the car door. The colored doctor got out and removed his hat. Dr. Douglas led him around the wreck and showed him the colored man.
“Yes, sir, he is in a bad way all right. I thank you for calling me, sir,” said the colored doctor. He bent over the man.
“He wasn’t breathing at first, but I got him going,” said Dr. Douglas.
“Yes, I see,” said the colored doctor. He felt the man’s pulse. “Yes, he needs seeing to. It’s best for me to take him to my office. The only Negro hospital is way over on the other side of Nashville.”
“Do you need any help with getting him in the car?”
Frank Fogarty stepped up. “I can help. You don’t need to be doing any heavy lifting, Dr. Douglas,” he said, and laughed. Dr. Douglas managed a smile.
“Well, sir, that’s very kindly of you,” said the colored doctor. “Are you sure you don’t mind, now?”
“Not at all,” said Frank. “Here, I’ll keep hold of the board and his shoulders and you grab his feet.” The colored doctor hesitated, and then put his hat on. He grabbed the man’s feet and they loaded the colored man into the back of the Chevy. The colored doctor removed his hat once again and thanked Frank. He turned once more to Dr. Douglas and thanked him.
“You’d better get going, he’s not doing so well,” said Dr. Douglas.
“Yes, sir, I guess I’d better,” said the colored doctor.
Dr. Douglas picked up his kit and turned back home. The Widow Pierce blocked his way.
“I thought you were decent folk, Dr. Douglas, but now I see what kind you are. You can be sure you’ll be getting no more food from my house, nor no business from me, neither.”
Dr. Douglas simply walked around her and went home.
* * *
Eight years later, Dr. Douglas choked on a chicken bone eating dinner. He was discovered three days later by Belle.
“It was the wrath of God,” the Widow Pierce told Sarah Guinness.
About the Author:
Melanie Peterson was born in suburban Detroit and now lives in Queens, New York with her husband, John Huftalen, a professional photographer, and their pit bull, Ella, a professional pit bull. She loves comic books, caving, the outdoors in general, and reading, reading, reading. She’s scribbled stories in dark closets behind the shoes all her life, but has just now started showing them to people. She has previously won a 5th Honorable Mention in the Writers-Editors Network International Writing Competition and is thrilled beyond belief that Tethered By Letters has seen fit to publish one of her scribblings.
About the Noteworthy Publication:
Steeped in TBL prestige, the Noteworthy is dedicated to publishing a vast collection of writing, including short stories, screen plays, first chapters, and more. We accept writers of all ages, stories of all lengths, and genres of any kind. TBL offers a unique service to its members: each submitted work will be assigned to one of TBL’s on-staff editors for free and professional revisions and will be considered for our monthly publication and our yearly anthology! If chosen, your work will be published for one month in the Noteworthy and our members will have the opportunity to read and post their opinions. Simultaneous and multiple submissions are allowed; please visit our guidelines page for details. Keep in mind that TBL only publishes the best possible work to share with its members, so have your piece polished and ready for revisions. Good luck and thank you for your contribution! Remember, however, that you must be at the rank of Author to submit for possible publication, and we do not accept any submissions that are late (see deadlines) or incorrectly formatted (see specifications).
Winter Short Story Contest Winner
by Mark Wagstaff
He shook hands a very loose way, folding himself in a chair to leave me standing, awkward in my own office, my hand raised as if in blessing. At the time, I took that merely for busy rudeness.
“I’ve seen your brochure.” He split open his plasticy document wallet. He meant the museum guide—the easy-read glossy in over-bright colors. Not the full catalogue, which nobody knows exists.
I moved my chair. He wasn’t a large man, but the fact of him took space. “May I ask, Mr…?” I asked.
Shuffling pages, he looked up, very directly, pushing his name ahead of him. “David Grace.”
“May I ask, Mr. Grace, what this is about?”
He folded the guidebook double, compressing its spine. “This.”
The Emperor: a solitary magnificence. Even today, our statue of Emperor Hadrian radiates majesty and awe. At least, so I think. “One of our proudest treasures,” I replied. I meant it in a wholly factual way. “Excavated near the site of the Roman fort at Reculver in Kent, by Roger Carstairs in 1931.”
“Roger Carstairs?” The young man sliced open a cheap-looking notepad with a pen that might have been picked up from a bank counter.
“The statue is unique,” I tried again, “Remarkably well-preserved, its head and torso intact. It is also, remarkably, a personal likeness.”
“Wouldn’t a statue be a likeness?”
“Not at all.” I stretched back, seeking expansion. Lately, I’d found my office— indeed, all space around me—increasingly cramped. “It was usual among Roman emperors for a template portrait bust to be distributed to the provinces, to be copied by local craftsmen for further distribution. That enabled a consistent likeness of the emperor’s image to be transmitted throughout the empire. We have a selection of these pattern pieces in the collection. But the statue is a study of Hadrian himself. The man, not the managerial image. You’ll notice, he’s posed in Greek-style dress…”
“Roger Carstairs.” His voice overrode me—harsh, almost metallic. “I don’t know the name. Was he someone?”
I’d grown too tired, too cramped for space, to bother with PR. “Roger Carstairs was treated appallingly. I don’t mind saying it. He’d been shell-shocked in the Great War—traumatized, or post-traumatized, whatever it is now. London in the 20s was increasingly frenetic, and Carstairs found noise and bustle very hard. He was really only at peace on excavations. One of the old school, a Victorian, when excavation was a business for gentlemen—”
“What happened to him?”
Not only did the young man not wait for me to stop speaking, he didn’t even look up from his notes when he interrupted. That fuelled my nagging annoyance of not knowing, really, who he was. “As I’m sure you know, there are plentiful Germanic clues to the decline of Roman power. After he found the statue, Carstairs became something of a celebrity—attention he hated. The Trustees posed him as their favored son, and as anyone who’s held that unfortunate position knows, it creates intense pressure.” I could sense him stir to interject, so I pitched up to a lecture-hall bellow. “At that time the museum was getting cozy with several German institutions, to agree acquisitions and broker exchanges. Museums trade pieces to bolster their prestige. With crass venality, the Trustees sent this poor, shell-shocked man to Germany. To do deals. Carstairs had no skill for that kind of thing, but was too fatigued and well-mannered to say so.”
“The trip wasn’t a success?” If any irony lay in his voice, only a spectrograph could find it.
“You don’t need me to tell you about Germany in the 1930s. Carstairs found that all the dull, donnish Meisters of the institutes had been supplanted by lively young men in uniform. It was their braying about Teutonic triumph that provoked his rebellion, though—like all rebellions—it did its instigator no good. Carstairs was educated, a historian—he could see through these odious people. He told them the museum would not transform itself into a temple of Wotan, simply for a sniff of Caesar’s cast-offs. Years later, the younger fellows used to joke that the Luftwaffe bombed the place every night because of Carstairs.” I paused, allowing him in.
He reviewed his pages a moment, flicking forward and back. When he looked up, his irritation was plain. “Yes. So, what happened to him?”
Mr. Grace wore suit and tie. Grey suit. Plain tie. I struggled for a second. When had students stopped wearing ties? The mid-60s? The late-50s? How hard in the present to spot the enduring changes. “Carstairs’ entirely correct and principled stand fell like lead with the Trustees. He retired—was retired—to the Sussex Downs, to potter in the chalk. Wrote a couple of small monographs, just local interest. Never married, of course. Left no memoirs. But we have the statue.”
When my secretary, bless her, brought Mr. Grace’s email to my attention, I thought he must be an amateur enthusiast, some crumbling history master with butter stains on his trousers. But not so. Young-middle-aged, his nylon suit and—I guessed—washable tie, put me in mind of a bankruptcy accountant. He took constant, rapid notes, the random flicks and jags of his pen suggestive of shorthand, the method of the efficient and secretive. He talked when it suited, and let silence drift, reviewing his papers with dyslexic intensity.
“Reculver?” he said suddenly. “The object was found at Reculver?”
“Regulbium. Important, in Hadrian’s day. Now mostly in the sea. The fleets would land at Rutupiae—Richborough, near Sandwich. Reculver was a look-out point and light, to guide them in.” Only afterwards, I noted the airy way he said the object, as though a half-ton of marble could be smoke.
“In what context did he find it, if this place was merely a lighthouse?”
A perceptive question that Carstairs never had leisure to answer. I gave the standard line. “It’s believed the statue was in transit, possibly to London. The fact that it’s not a pattern-piece which suggests it may have been a gift to some influential, some native notable, maybe, who fell from favor before it was delivered. Local politics was very fluid. Emperors shrug off alliances like old robes.”
He glanced from his scribbling—more industrious scribbling than one sees in lectures. “So why wasn’t it given to someone else?”
One dreads the simple questions. Indeed, if I’d commissioned an exquisite likeness of myself in solid rock, I’d want someone to be grateful of it. “Our best guess is that it was stored and forgotten.” I sounded unconvinced. “Remember, the Roman Empire was a huge operation—logistically, administratively; and the Romans had significant public order problems in Britain. One reason Hadrian himself paid a visit. In the context of armies and stores on the move all the time, it’s possible that a statue might be left off the inventory.”
“Possible,” he repeated, on his feet before I finished. “Of course, I must see the object.”
“The museum is open…”
“Yes. The website is comprehensive. But it’s important to achieve clarity. I’ll make an appointment for pictures.”
It wasn’t my business. The museum’s commercial arm employs a squad of unfriendly young women whose task is Brand Protection, which I understand as licensing our treasures for tea towels. “Can I ask your interest in the statue Mr…?” I floundered, forgetting his name.
“Necessary. My interest is necessary.”
There’s a bureaucracy to studying the collection. Online questionnaires, declarations of intent. In the nineteenth, a gentleman could walk in and borrow a piece if he wanted. Now we have forms, disclaimers and charges, to discourage focused study and penalize those who persist. Intrigued how the nylon-suited man would get his appointment for pictures, I was soon to find out.
Interrupting another attempt to write my valediction, my secretary told me she’d committed Friday afternoon to Copyright, most emphatic of Brand Protection’s many teams. I told her to find what Copyright wanted, and she returned with the news that I’d booked the meeting. As I avoid initiating anything these days, that seemed unlikely. Instructed to dig further, she discovered that someone had emailed Copyright, claiming my say-so. David Grace.
He was unapologetic; indeed, seemed to find it strange I should care for my time or privacy. Not argumentative, he simply elided discussion. He was accompanied by a morose young woman with a sketchpad and a box of pencils. Despite his expensive-looking camera, he asserted that drawings had inestimable value, enabling one to see as others saw. Copyright types hung about, perplexed at the exhibits, not impressed as, dutifully, I still am by the Emperor. Some of us get a blurry snap in a journal, a portrait on the odd, fading flyleaf. But it’s a challenge to imagine oneself life-size in marble, sent hundreds of miles on dubious seas as a gift, proudly cherished by the recipient as indicative of their own status. A politician as monumental as Caesar Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus himself. A strong, solid man; powerfully-built, purposeful: in many ways the pattern of an emperor. Unlike his contemporaries, the statue depicted him with a beard, a Hellenism that would be the required mark of strength for generations of kings to come. Indeed, in portrait busts, his soldierly appearance often seems more modern, for want of a better word, than his aquiline successors. He looks precisely what he was: an almighty man of action. In a space emptied of visitors, I felt ritually trivial at the Emperor’s feet. I hoped Mr. Grace did too.
He used every second of the two hours allowed him. When not scrutinizing pictures on his laptop, he fiddled with the kind of electronic measuring device estate agents use, pinging beams of laser light at the Emperor’s vast frame, entering myriad values in a spreadsheet. His companion never spoke, but with laborious diligence sketched the Emperor, again and again. Sometimes, Mr. Grace took an interest in her work. They shared what appeared to be a gross telepathy which—disgusted—enthralled me. It seemed natural, and not unexpected, when he said, “I will need to sample the object.”
We gawped, unsure of what he was saying.
His face betrayed a jaundiced annoyance that, on reflection, was never that hidden. “The object.” He pointed, as though we’d blocked it, elephantine, from sight. “I must undertake physical tests.”
I couldn’t expect the others to grasp this extraordinary violence. Samples had been taken, for the blunt, destructive chemical testing of Carstairs’ era. The few slivers left in the materials store were probably useless. I offered them anyway, suspecting he would know that.
“I need something clean. In situ.” No one had authority to give what he asked. But an imperium sat on Mr. Grace’s shoulder: for all his clerkish looks, his unconcern for consequence was Roman. I watched in bedazzled horror. The Emperor stood, passive, as the clerk snipped holes in his robe. Mr. Grace gave me a colonial look. “I shall make my report.”
David Grace is not an exotic name. The search found too many. I scrolled results with the vague, miasmic anger that’s a function of online research, till I happened on a post, on an art history forum, asking if anyone knew a David Grace interested in Renaissance paint components. The post was two years old and had no replies. A couple of days later, an email from a professor of conservatorship in Padua—sweetly apologetic for her English—told how a David Grace came to see her unannounced, very keen to examine paintings her institution had loaned from the Vatican. This Grace was especially diligent on the chemical composition of paint, given the presence of materials not used today. She agreed to let him view the works and—fretful of their delicate state—became alarmed at the “proximity of his attentions.” She wasn’t sure, but thought he might have loosened specks of pigment. “I could not,” she added plaintively, “be always watchful of him.” Further emails to the Paduan professor brought silence. As did messages to Mr. Grace.
Traces and their absence much in mind, I stayed late, my secretary thinking I had exam questions to work on. A self-conscious walk through the halls, carting her potted cactus, but there was no closer nor more defensible source of dirt. The galleries after hours aren’t a place to linger: lit just enough for the cameras, the clatter of visitors gone, the halls have an enmity of stillness insinuating, through the porous present, the hatreds of the past. Most things we collect have tragedy inherent: the grave goods of pharaohs from pyramids built on slaves; vast Assyrian lions tearing glory from desert tribes; delicate Chinese armor cleansed of tortured barbarian blood; African totems of bone magic, crated back by loud-voiced men in khaki. Without conquest and despoliation there’d be almost nothing at all and—in long retirement. The objects brood on unresolved history.
I switched off the Emperor’s trip wire; found the whited scalpel scar no one noticed in the folds of Hadrian’s robes, but it shouted through my fingers, stark as a quarried hill. Once known—and it would be known—the conservators would have no trouble to date the damage. I scraped dusty earth from the potted cactus, smeared it on the cut, trying to blend alien soil with millennial ageing. I worked along old, cold ridges and folds, until Mr. Grace’s excavation resembled more the carelessness of antiquity.
I worked an hour and more, till my hands, like the Emperor’s, were dulled, anonymous. Perhaps in his world of intrigue he might have seen the joke. Back in my office, exhausted, I remembered the cameras. Long past when I should’ve been home, I chanced the lock of the security room like a car thief. Through the glass, the bank of monitors glowed dark with bubbled views of walls and car parks; with split-screen bird’s-eye quadrants showing friezes, sarcophagi, cabinets of sterile things; a panopticon of days. A sign taped to the door gave the duty officer’s mobile number. He’d be patrolling the labyrinth: an intriguing job, if you’d shoulders for silence, a mind to endure the menace of history. I hadn’t the will to call him, to lie my way into the office; distract him, find and take the discs. Even to think how I might do all that was too much. Defeated, weary, I slumped to my room, telling myself they didn’t always check the discs before erasure. That if there’d been no visitor incidents I was safe.
The phone rang loud, echoing too late at night. I stumbled to my desk, fatigue conjuring thoughts of detectives, pointedly calling me “Sir.”
“Oh, I’m glad I caught you.” Mr. Grace made it sound as if it were ten o’clock on a Monday morning. “I thought you’d appreciate a heads-up.”
There were men in Rome like Mr. Grace: of driven, viral existence, their interest not the harmony of the polis, nor expansion of trade, nor glory in art or war. Not even in their own worth, or not directly. Men who would have made profound servants of the state, but with energy antithetic to servitude. Somewhere, in the texts of form and heresy, was the like of Mr. Grace. Caesars would order deserts to be made paradise, to occupy such men.
“I’ve had some interesting preliminaries from the lab.” He skated smoothly across my silence, expecting no better reaction. “You’ll want to know my emerging thinking.” His tone recognizable as the attrition of research, the wearing-away of cherished ideas with each glassy grain of discovery. “The object has much to commend it,” he said, generous to whatever lost master distilled an emperor from raw stone. “The workmanship is especially fine; the materials top class.” The insurance assessors—their insoluble brief: to value the collection—use much the same slang.
“It is the premier focus of that branch of our legacy,” I replied, my stuttering translation of the website’s shouty vulgate.
“Precisely. Of course. Which is why we should consider how it was mislaid in the first place. It has,” he eclipsed my silence again, “always been regarded as a remarkable survival. Tell me: have you visited Reculver?”
When I didn’t reply, he went on:
“Interesting place. Very little there: the sea has seen to that. Local sources confirm a light was kept through to the 1700s, if not later. But the cliffs have long collapsed, taking the settlement with them. And the archaeology, of course.”
My neck twitched.
“People I spoke to confirmed Richborough as far more strategically important. Fleets from the German coast would touch base there before proceeding to Southampton. What I was struggling with…”
My arm tingled.
“…is why so…material an object was off-loaded to Reculver. Rather than simply taken on from docking to destination.”
“Perhaps there was…” I tried.
“Some disturbance? Possibly. I agree conditions were volatile. But what were they doing, shifting the thing around? That’s the key to the matter.”
“And these matters will be addressed in your report?”
I met him in a hotel lounge, in the stucco side streets symptomatic of Russell Square. I thought that heavy-coated doormen, piled carpet, and a room of buttoned armchairs, with fondant fancies and iced sombreros on silver service, would present an environment so doomily stolid as to inhibit his ardor. But men like Mr. Grace generate their own oxygen.
He accepted tea, which he didn’t drink, and refused all confections. Foolishly, I’d chosen glace fruit tart, which his bewilderingly puritan stare prevented me from eating. It hardened on its doily, a congealed decadence.
He handed me some neatly-bound papers. Flicking through it brought bleary suggestions of diagrams, maps, what looked like spectrographic analysis.
“You can study the detail later. You’ll want my recommendations.”
“Is there a summary…?”
“You can study the detail. I don’t intend to talk through the report.”
People might ask why training, why critical rigor, allowed it to happen. I’d say we act absent of certainty; the more we uncover, the less we know. All anyone needs of antiquity is four or five large ideas. But, approach the present and nothing is clear.
I listened, and he talked. “The object has much to commend it. Characteristics that, in context, are remarkable. The treatment of the subject combines gravity and fluidity, which—if one supposes aesthetics for a motive—is impressive. It has the benefit of proportion. What it does not have is the benefit of integrity.”
That twitch to my neck erupted in icy shivers of sweat. The discreetly attentive waiters; the clipped, county ladies taking tea with old girlfriends in Town; the tweedy gents with diaries blank till the sherry hour; the finery, fondants and faux-colonial niceties hung frozen, in the quiet terror Mr. Grace unleashed.
His gaze never wavered. “I do not mean to say that the statue isn’t genuine. It is. A genuine…something. But it is not the Emperor Hadrian. Or rather, it does not quite manage to be.”
“Are you saying it’s a forgery?” The word spread between us, obscene. “I’m sure our conservators…”
“Indeed. Quite. Your institution’s conservators would not miss anything so blatant. I have to say”—he gestured airily: a rare glimpse of affectation—“I’ve heard that said before. Many times. It’s often the case, people like the story they like. I have considered whether the object might be inauthentic: the test results do suggest discrepancies. But we are not dealing with one of those Victorian fabrications put around for someone’s amusement. Your statue is far more interesting.”
“What you need to remember…” I began with my preferred way in, said a little too loudly, “…is the statue has been subject to numerous tests; most recently, being x-rayed in the late 1990s.” Suddenly self-conscious, I dropped from lecture mode. “It isn’t feasible.”
Nothing in his tone suggested vindication. He had no need. “I understand,” he assured me, “that others have given opinions. Although, of course, techniques refine all the time. As to what is feasible, the key question for my method is what is tested for. Works considered integral for many hundreds of years—works which have been subject to scrutiny every bit as rigorous as that applied to your statue—reveal discrepancies through disaggregated testing of their critical factors. I am not talking about forgeries. These items are genuine, but to a different measure.”
“I said your object lacked integrity. Would you like to explore the meaning of that term? The test is the point at which you locate proof. A virgin female who loses her virginity loses integrity, on one measure. But on the measure of being female is still echt.”
My critical faculties bristled to take his unreason apart. But there were more pressing concerns. “In terms of provenance…”
“It may assist if I set out my conclusions in relation to Professor Carstairs.”
We were talking over each other, heedless of audience. “The Trustees will want…”
“I shall meet the Trustees if necessary.”
That ghastliness stopped me cold. The Trustees were placemen, sponsors, useless ex-professors. He’d terrify them. I reached for my cold tea but couldn’t lift the cup. “What about Carstairs?”
“You provided some interesting insights. His unsuitedness to public life, his privileging of narrow expertise above wider achievement. You mentioned his wartime trauma. That is a factor, plainly. I would also add his father’s indifference and eventual disappearance. He seems to have lived his life in pursuit of his father.”
“You’ve done your research.”
“Of course. How do you reach your conclusions?”
I closed my eyes, his voice the only sound.
“I would call Carstairs a nervous man, reaching for mastery. His choice of career, for instance: consider the extraordinary influence archaeologists deploy. The right find, at the right time, can change perceptions utterly. If I dug a bone, or found a coin, or unearthed a pattern of post holes, that instigated a chain of events, that led one day to general acceptance that Britain was colonized by Phoenicians not Romans, I’d not only rewrite the history books, I would change the past. There are many drivers to seeking to do this. Truth-and-knowledge-and-the-greater-good is possible, but unlikely. Professional and personal aggrandizement ranks very high. There are other drivers between these extremes, some venal, some with pathos. Perhaps as pathetic as a sickly boy’s wish for a father’s love.”
I rubbed my face, the skin waxy and inelastic. “What’s wrong with the Emperor?”
“Nothing.” His boyish look taunted me. “He sleeps where he was taken from the Gardens of Domitia. You should rid yourself of these thoughts that there’s anything wrong with Hadrian Augustus. It is your object that’s discrepant.”
“What is it? Tell me what’s wrong with the statue?”
Ladies chancing a second apricot parfait glanced across gold-rimmed Wedgwood, whispering, tilting their heads towards two men by the fire: one, young and poised; the other, old, collapsed, seemingly engaged in business not unlike blackmail.
“Based on evidence from other cases, I thought at first your difficulty was a cultural fraud—a lie told inadvertently, not for pecuniary gain. But the more I discovered of Carstairs, the firmer I felt that, for instance, to commission a simple forgery was more than he could stomach. Reculver’s a singular place, I can tell you. Any purpose it might once have had is long submerged in grey sea. So I considered: perhaps it was forgery. Not of artifact, but of place.”
“Talk sense for heaven’s sake.”
“Please: you’ll alarm these people. Who would go to Reculver? You said you’ve never been there. I’d stake my fee in this matter your Trustees never have. It’s nowhere near the railway. It’s nowhere near anywhere. You’ll see from my taxi receipts. And the locals seem not much moved on from your Emperor’s day. Carstairs found objects all right. Of course he did. But at Richborough. The only place he would find them. You were less than truthful when first we spoke.”
“Please: there’s no need. I mean by omission: the curse of academics. You quote a line you approve of, but omit the author’s sub-clause that negates the meaning you choose. Have you never done that?”
“Well, of course one is selective…”
“Selection: exactly. My notes show the clear impression, I could only have gained from you, that Carstairs was packed off direct from wearying Kent to the excitements of the Reich. But he wasn’t, was he? Itineraries for excavations are in your institution’s own archive. As are requests for leave of absence. Carstairs may be long dead, but his landlady’s daughter—though cruelly deprived of most of her functions—has a remarkably sprightly long-term memory. He was often at Reculver, after his finds. Finds. In the plural. At Richborough.”
I asked what Carstairs was doing at Reculver, as Mr. Grace wanted me to.
“Creating, then erasing, an ersatz excavation. Close enough to the cliff edge to succumb in a single winter.”
“But Carstairs found it, surely? Just got the site wrong.”
“Got the site wrong? He was a fucking archaeologist.”
A teaspoon clattered into the silence.
“I said, a moment ago: finds, objects. You really should pay attention. And sit straight. The torso is probably Greek. That your keepers think it Roman work says more about them than I ever might. I can only guess they have never properly interrogated the residual tool marks, nor sequenced the laterals in the robes, in relation to the grain of the marble. Of course your x-rays wouldn’t show this: x-rays understand less of the questions to ask than your keepers. And those sheep-dip tests for provenance you tried palming on me were plain wrong. Does your institution believe everything told to it in the 1930s?”
“That wasn’t a question. Really, you’re too silly. When he returned from the wilds with this thing, everyone wanted to believe it. Look around the museums of Italy, Spain, Greece: full of the most uplifting reminders of golden ages past. We’d won the war and what did we have? Assorted luggage stolen from round the world, and from our own country: some sticks and stones and woad-stained bones. We’d won the war but we were eroding, collapsing into the sea. We had to assert our supremacy over history, just as Carstairs had to assert his expertise over bureaucracy, and his adult self over his pitiful childhood.”
He sat back, tapping his fingers lightly on the leather.
I looked up, some local downpour interfering with my eyes. “You said… the torso…?”
“The head might be Hadrian. I really don’t know. Emperors are gods. The Emperor says: ‘This is my face’, so that is his face. To think otherwise is both treason and blasphemy. Your object has a bearded head, of solid proportions reassuringly imperial, and with slight indentations to the earlobes. We believe that Hadrian had these lobal creases and your object has them. To me, that hardly seems basis to say the two are the same.”
“So the statue is a forgery?”
He slapped the arm of the chair. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not the issue. The head —which has been reworked, as a child of ten could tell your curators—is most likely Roman. It is a genuine something. The torso, from a different age and quarry, is likewise a genuine something. Together, they make an illusion of something else. A mirage that you want to make king. Then make the illusion your king. It doesn’t matter. But for goodness sake, give the man some credit: Carstairs took extraordinary care with his masterpiece. Cunningly managed crazing around the neck and jawline beautifully hides the restorer’s art. My associate’s drawings revealed that to me. X-rays would merely show an expected pattern of fracture. But drawings make the pattern of linkage clear. That dreary old man hasn’t made you all monkeys. You’ve done that yourselves.”
An extraordinary violence took hold in my body. I wanted to smash the tea plates; pull curtains from their rails; kick over the towering silver stands and trample pink and lemon icing in the spongy rug. I wanted to smack the waiters’ mouths and break the old women’s pearls. Most of all, I wanted to destroy this man who smiled through regicide. My legs twitched; my arms jerked on angry strings. But what could I do?
His look read me as inauthentic. “Now, now. Trepidation is not a medical condition these days. Your institution has a fine object. A fine portmanteau object. Savor it. Give it a polish.”
He’d calculated the price of our Emperor being a fiction. Income attributable to the statue was a factor, but more significant—he impressed on me—was the cost of doubt. What else in our galleries might be discrepant; what advice had we sold to others that might now look less than expert? “People don’t like doubt.” I still hear his voice. “Doubt is expensive. Far cheaper to make up a king to run your life for you. The Emperor’s price is fact.”
He wanted only his fee in the matter. I emptied my accounts, took a loan against my pension, sold books and other pieces, scraped the money together. What could I do? This man that I’m stuck believing is Hadrian Augustus knew that what matters is the appearance of Rome. From Turkic steppes to Atlantic shore, from burning desert to frozen hill, he travelled continually, sent his likeness everywhere; even to a drab little island in the North Sea.
I’ve seen a cottage in the Downs. I might manage the cost, if I sell up, if I work more years, if I’m careful. I’m tired, I need to rest from imperial surveillance. Find local interests, erode among the small things. Listen for storms blowing up from the Channel. Leave no memoirs.
About the Author:
Mark Wagstaff was born on the south coast of England, close to the lost village of Reculver mentioned in “The Emperor.” Mark lives in London. Since 1999 he has been fortunate to have around sixty short stories published in magazines and anthologies in the US and UK. He has also published four novels and a novella. Mark won the Aesthetica Creative Writing prize in 2011, and the 2012 Machigonne Fiction Contest. Mark's 2008 novel The Canal is available in ebook from Bristlecone Pine Press of Portland, ME. His most recent novel In Sparta (a story of radicalism, conformity and terror) is available in print and ebook. A second collection of short stories is due to be published by InkTears in 2013. For more about Mark's work, please visit www.markwagstaff.com.
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