*Originally an excerpt for a novel. Now, a self contained story.
“What did I do to deserve this?” I asked out loud to the waiting room.
It was the first thought that came to mind as I gazed at the metal shine of the knife protruding from my chest. An agonizing whimper had leapt from my vocal cords, but the three or four people nearby paid no mind to me. The only support I received came from underneath in the guise of a cold, uncomfortable chair.
I gripped on to the handle of the offending blade. Life’s final breaths had escaped the scream from my dry, cracked lips as I searched for the eyes of my killer, but my father had left the room almost as quickly as he had arrived.
Grief stricken, my father had said, “It’s good night, Billy. It’s good night for good,” driving the blade deeper into my chest. He said, “I’m sorry. There is no coming back from this,” left me all alone as he passed through the double doors that led to the hospital’s ICU.
Frightened, I called out for my mother, but she wasn’t coming. It was too late. She was never going to be there for me again.
It never occurred to me to consider an afterlife at my age. At thirteen-years-old, it was not practical that I would need to, but my father had made that decision for me, hadn’t he? And, I’ll tell you, it is okay to wait as long as possible to witness what comes next. This place blows.
See, it’s about as cool as stepping on a piece of dog poop, scraping that poop off of your shoe, and stepping on the next piece you find, because, upon the moment my heart gave out, I woke up in a big pile of red dirt. That pile of red dirt was surrounded as far as my eyes could see with bigger piles of red dirt. I struggled to get out of the pile, but my efforts served to sink me further.
“Am I about to die again?” I said, frustrated. I halted my movements, which locked the dirt in place.
My frustration was only exacerbated by the unbearable heat radiating down from the storm clouds above. Each cloud was intricately woven with flames. I mean the sky was on fire. In the swelter, sweat began pouring down from my brow and in to my eyes, stimulating an uncomfortable sting. I started to wipe the sweat away but stopped when I saw the dirt that had taken over my arm. I could safely conclude I might have gone to Hell.
A rumbling noise filled my ears. I couldn’t hear myself think. The cloud hanging over my dirt-tomb flickered like a malfunctioning strobe light. Its flames unraveled from their fiery binding. It appeared I was about to get struck by lightning. Lucky me.
The rumbling gained momentum. I wiggled my arms, hoping to fall to the side of the dirt pile and escape its pull. My efforts were useless. The dirt hardened around my arms like a vine and held me in place. I wasn’t only going to get struck by lightning. I was being served up for the slaughter.
I looked down at the open tear in the chest of my shirt. Dried blood caked around the spot where Father had stabbed me. I hoped the lightning would treat my breast plate as its bull’s-eye, popping me like an old balloon, and take me away from this awful place. But, in spite of my call for cessation, the cloud returned to a placid state snuggled up in its inferno blanket. I felt like it was mocking me. After that little bit of excitement, I was left to roast under the blaze, immobile.
I studied the way the flames linked the clouds together like cotton tangled up in chicken wire. Every now and then a solar flare would pelt down, narrowly missing my face, and start a small fire on the ground. I got nervous after the first few times, but they would eventually extinguish themselves.
Curiosity about the patterns of the solar flares distracted me from my predicament. Occasionally, I could make out the dull tones of what sounded like whispers, but the flares are what helped me pass the time.
It was unlikely that my social calendar was going to fill up anytime soon, so I set aside some time to reflect on my situation. What got me here? Sure, Father held the knife. That went without question. But, why did Father hold the knife? I was a good son. He was a decent dad. It seemed like so much of the last few days had been erased from my memory like I was an Billy Lucas etch-a-sketch.
The morning, of what I remember, was quiet, sort of…
At eight o’clock in the morning, I awoke face to face with the family dog. Lady, we named her, had her mouth poised to lick my face. Narrowly avoiding a slobbery smooch, I lightly pushed her back before she could make contact.
“Not today, Girl,” I said.
An older dog, Lady glared at me through filmy cataracts and unwavering eye contact. She barked loudly to benefit, in part, her partial deafness, which I interpreted as “get out of bed.” I wasn’t willing to experience the ensuing headache that would follow another round of her barks, so I got up.
My bangs, previously matted to my forehead with the assistance of my oily skin, fell over my eyes as I arose from my slumber and stretched my long, pale arms to shake off the remaining shrouds of sleep.
A chill crawled up my spine. It was freezing. I immediately wrapped myself in my covers, noticing the air vent, positioned conveniently over my bed, was pumping a steady flow of wintry air directly on to my bare shoulders. If it was any colder in my room, I would be able to see my breath. Mom was overcompensating for the Kansas summer, again.
I stepped out of bed, pressing my feet to the wooden floor, and scrunched up my eyes to guard them from the sunlight bleeding in through the window blinds. Stumbling over the piles of laundry I had left on the floor, wearing my covers as a cloak, I looked out the window.
It was a pretty day in our neighborhood in Ashton, Kansas in spite of the weakened branches on the ash tree that occupied our front yard. The tree had been a staple of my childhood for many climbs. Now, it was dying, having fallen victim to the emerald ash borer, some pesky insect, or so I heard my father say the night before. He had been going on and on about it, so I just went to bed.
Father had an irritating habit of obsessing over the smallest details. If it wasn’t the ash borer, he would be complaining that the tree was affected by an overwhelming squirrel to nut ratio. The answer was never allowed to be “the tree is just dying.” Something else had to be at play. Last night the reason became the ash borer due to a report on the nightly news. Today, it was probably going to be my fault.
The door to my room creaked open behind me. I craned my neck to accost the intruder, but no one was there. Keeping my back turned, I said, “Hello?”
I threw down the covers and snatched an old t-shirt out of the closest pile of laundry and pulled it on. Gently grabbing Lady by the collar, I walked her out into the hallway on the way to the kitchen. Eight o’clock was typical breakfast time during the summer, so I breathed in, hoping for the sweet, savory scent of fried maple bacon to grace my nostrils. I drew in nothing but the sour sleep smell ascending from my upper lip. It dawned on me that I might be home alone.
“Mom? Dad?” I called out.
Lady trotted over to her food bowl, which sat on the patch of linoleum floor next to the kitchen sink. On the counter space, next to the sink, there was a picture frame holding a photograph of me. In it, I was reading a book, but my eyes were scrunched up together. I picked the frame up.
Looking back, I remembered the day depicted in the picture fondly. I was four. Mom was on the couch, holding on to my father as he watched me from afar. Lady, a puppy at the time, was nibbling at the ankles of my Aunt Margaret, who was standing on one of her toys. Aunt Margaret held the camera.
I had tried hard to remain focused on the book, but the goofy face Margaret was making didn’t make it easy. Luckily, she snapped a picture before Lady tripped her up, bringing her down to the ground. Hearing Margaret’s yelp, Lady apologized by kissing her on the mouth, causing my aunt to giggle. Her giggles shortly evolved into laughter, which broke everyone else in the room.
Around that time, the camera in her hand, a Polaroid, printed out the finished product. The picture turned out crooked and a little blurry, but you could see me wince, holding back tears from laughter. In the background, you could see my parents red in the face from their own amusement.
I recalled we didn’t stop laughing or making jokes about Aunt Margaret’s tumble with Lady until a few hours later when it was time for dinner. Even that was a challenge.
“Today will be remembered forever,” Mom had declared at the dinner table. She was holding the picture in her hand.
Aunt Margaret chuckled, “I’ll deny it in court. Besides, I am not in the picture.”
Mom’s golden locks bounced down past her eyes as she smiled. She said, “Nothing to do with you,” as she glanced at me and winked.
Mom held her statement true by placing the picture and its frame out in the open by our sink. She told me she put it there to remember her “sweet little boy”. It was always her secret weapon when we argued. She would hold the picture up as a token to remind me I was disappointing her. Good times.
Startling me, the front door of the house opened up and slammed closed. Lady shot up from her food bowl with a flash of concern, ignoring the crumbs of food falling from her open mouth.
I said, “Hello?”
My father responded, “One of these days, I am just going to have to chop the tree down. If I can’t enjoy the things and people I love, no one will. Maybe, they can take me down next.” It didn’t feel like he was speaking to me.
“Nice to see you too,” I said. “Where’s Mom?”
Father walked up the small set of stairs that led from the front door to the living room. When he made it to the top, he threw his briefcase to the other side of the living room, sending the papers inside flying. He said, “Oh, that is just fantastic,” as he scrambled to pick up the mess he had created.
“Where is Mom?” I said, impatiently.
Once he gathered all of the papers back inside the case, he gently placed it down on the fireplace. Moving past Lady, who had moved swiftly to greet him, he strolled into the kitchen, planting his feet in front of mine.
“Good Morning, Billy,” he said through gritted teeth. “Want the truth or do you want the lie? Your mother is going to be fine. I’d appreciate if you would just not ask again today.”
“What was that for? What was he talking about?” I said to myself.
Father stomped towards the kitchen table. With his back turned, he began patting around for something frantically.
“Well, can you make breakfast?” I begged.
Father responded, “I’m not sure, Billy. Can I? Oh, here it is,” and held up a letter opener. The light from the kitchen fixture shined down on the blade of the letter opener as Father grinned. He looked like the Grinch. “This will have to do,” he said.
He began to approach me, the letter opener gripped tightly in his hand. “I wish I didn’t have to do this, Billy. I really do, but rules are rules,” he said. The letter opener was pulled back, primed to strike.
“Dad? DAD?” I yelped.
Father stopped and held the blade by his side, “Can you hand me the envelope behind you? I need to open it.”
I gaped at him. Why had I thought he was going to stab me?
“Shocking, I know,” he continued, “I left the house without opening all of yesterday’s mail. I’m having a hard time keeping up with things after these last few days, Son.”
Speechless, I grabbed the envelope next to the stove and handed it to him. I felt equal parts frightened and silly for being so frightened. Father would never deliberately try to hurt me, I didn’t think.
Father grabbed the envelope, opened it up, quickly peered inside, and relaxed his tense shoulders. After a sigh of relief, he said, “That’s better. I’ll just take this with me on the way back to the hospital.” He peered down at me, a gentle look on his face, “I’ll be back to get you tonight. You’ll see her again, I promise,” and walked back into the living room to grab his briefcase.
He scratched Lady on the back of the ear, saying, “Good girl,” before walking back out the front door, closing it behind him.
Reliving the moment in real-time, I started to reach up to wipe away the drool from my mouth, but my arms were still held down by the rock hard constraints of the red dirt.
And I couldn’t remember, for the life of me, why Father was going to the hospital.
Thomas William Shaw is an author and stage actor from Birmingham, AL. He lives with his wife, Lauren, their children, and their cats in a quiet place. Occasionally he will post about it.