I fear this darkness here. What could be out there? What is that? A swooping shape—it makes no sound—appearing out of some black corner of my room and dipping closer to my head with each pass, seeking me out by hearing my breathing, and I hold the air in my lungs until they burst and frothy blood bubbles up and over my lips and that is the way I finally die. Sleep never comes on nights like tonight and in the morning I’ll wonder what happened the previous evening; if I lived through something horrible, or if it was all a mere nightmare. Or maybe I will not remember at all.
* * *
My daughter has come to visit. She says to visit, but I understand the implications: she has been coached by some nurses on how to become a caregiver. I am what they refer to as her elder. The one she needs to look out for, the one she needs to make sure does not wander or put his car keys in the dishwasher or give all his money to some Bible-bitching huckster on television. She looks young and the first thing she asks me when she comes is, “How are you feeling today?” and the question she does not ask, Do you know who I am? is written loud on the features of her face, but she will not ask that. I wonder how she would want me to respond to that.
“I’m fine,” I say. And I am. This moment is fine. There is the phone, not ringing, in the kitchen where we sit. There is the sound of the coffee maker burping, brewing behind me by the sink. Some kids are laughing outside. I know it is summertime. I am wearing shorts and a season-appropriate t-shirt, so everything is fine.
“Good.” Just a moment too slow, my brain jabs me into the realization that she is saying it is good that I am fine. But she is sitting across the table from me and I look at her hands; they are folded together protectively, like she is holding a small delicate bird. I know this means she is keeping a secret from me, or withholding some emotion. “What do you want to do today?”
I notice the pamphlets spread in front of her like debris tossed from a trashcan by a raccoon. On the front pages there are smiling elders and smiling caregivers, sometimes more of the elders than the caregivers, sometimes the other way around, each constructed to convey a certain situation or emotion. How long has she been here? An hour or a week? We are in my house. “I want to do something,” I say, finishing the sentence the best way I can after having started it. There was an image in my head, but I could not give it words quickly enough. Something outside.
She smiles. “Don’t laugh at me,” I say, words bubbling up like blood from inside me. “You aren’t part of the tontine!” This last word is foreign to me, but somehow right.
But she just smiles and nods and says, “Okay.” She looks down and leafs through the pamphlets, starting to stack them neatly. I imagine my thoughts being organized the same way. “What do you want to do today?” she asks.
I think about it for a moment. It is nice to be asked—it must mean she is willing to do something with me. But what is that shadow of scorn I see wrapped up at the edges of her face? “I want to do something outside,” I say.
“Maybe go for a walk?” she says.
“I don’t have my keys.”
She just nods and smiles that idiot smile. It is hard for me to believe I have raised such a dullard as her. Lauren is her name. She works at a bank two counties south of here. That is where I keep all my money. I love her, but how long has she been staying with me?
We are outside and it is bright and I still feel cold. “I want,” I begin, then grope for the word like an old fool searches for his glasses in the middle of the darkest night. The thing that is heavy and which covers your torso and arms and can be zipped against the cold. “Nothing,” I say finally, and she looks at me as if I have just uttered a completely random word which has no connection to my earlier words.
“How do you feel?”
“Fine.” It is warm outside and there are children playing, swinging together, laughing. She is watching me watch them.
“We should go back in,” she says.
But she is already going in the opposite direction, and I follow her, and it is nice inside my house. She dials somebody on the phone and I do not say anything about the charges it will incur. I never use the telephone anymore. I don’t have anybody to call. Only Lauren, and she is with me now. But I wonder who she is speaking to, in hushed tones, her head tilted down toward the kitchen floor. She thinks I cannot hear, but if I wanted to, I could listen.
Later, she sleeps in the room next to mine, but sleep comes to me with great difficulty, and finally I rouse myself and shamble to the bathroom where I look in the mirror at the man there and wonder what has become of him and how he has gotten here.
* * *
Blue magic carpet tontine loose tooth phone booth wrecking ball on the run. My wife was smaller than me by ten years and pretty and we rode in my Chevy across Arizona New Mexico Nevada. She was more beautiful when she was pregnant she lost the first baby and the second was Lauren. She taught Lauren to ride a bike while I was working at the factory. Lauren was afraid to use the brakes and went down a hill and finally just rode off the road and into the ditch because she thought that would be the least painful way to stop. I went to parent/teacher conferences and argued with Mr. Hammond, a graying man of forty who taught Geography but had not traveled anywhere. I told him I would stick Greenland up his ass and that was the end. His name was Mr. Hammond.
My wife used to tuck me into bed after a long day of hauling car parts off the assembly line and she would kiss me on the forehead and pat me there and say “Goodnight.” She died of breast cancer in the dark year but that was an age ago. Lauren moved away soon after and—
—and the girl behind the pool who needed to change and asked me to help her and I said yes, of course I would. And I helped her like this—I pulled down her orange and red polka-dotted shorts and white underwear and guided her chubby legs into her swimsuit bottoms, just like I would have done for Lauren, and I kissed her and then there was yelling, screaming and hitting and police—
—and a life locked inside a cell with men who had no friends except themselves and who made me touch them and I did it, I did it, I had to do it to live and I wanted to live but my wife died and all I could dream about was her tucking me in, and me sore after a day of fighting car doors not sore like this—
—that swooping thing again, and this time I can see its bloodshot eyes. Am I sleeping, and if I am, why am I so tired? It lands somewhere over by my dresser and I can hear it shuffling around the sock drawer. Maybe that is why they never match when I put them on in the morning.
* * *
Morning, cold frozen morning and Lauren’s eyes are large and swimming with tears when we sit at the table across from one another. She is like a doll or a statue and I fear her tears will freeze before they fall, and the thought seems utterly important for a moment and then it is gone like a snake in the garden. I itch but don’t scratch. I feel like somebody is following me today but I do not tell her. I need to take a shower but she does not trust me to stand in there by myself, and I do not want her to help me. People have showered with me before, I think, and I can see the soap bubbles sliding down their hairy calves and hear the sound of pattering water against the floor and maybe even see the water, tinged with a thin tendril of blood, swirling down the drain.
“How do you feel today?”
I pretend to read the newspaper. My eyesight is not so bad and I can get through an article but they are all like bad stories where directly after finishing you cannot remember the characters or what they said or what they stood for. I don’t even dare attempt the crossword puzzle. Even the shape of it looks like a medieval torture device.
Walking is fun today. Nobody is out so there is Lauren and there is me, the road to ourselves. She locks the door four times for me and when we go down the front walk I keep turning to see that it has not blown open. She says something but does not grab my hand or lock her arm with mine to better guide me. Somewhere near the park she says, “I need to ask you something.” I don’t say anything, and so she says, “About the girl. The one you hurt.”
I would never hurt anybody, much less a lady. The one time I threw a rock and cracked a girl in the head when I was seven, my father tanned my backside with his belt until I couldn’t take it anymore. He made me bend and grab my ankles and already I was crying, anticipating the pain that would come to only me. Somehow that made it hurt more, the knowledge that I was the only one in the world facing that thing at that moment. My mother was in the kitchen, sitting at the table, listening to my wails, and she finally got up and grabbed his arm and said, “That’s enough. He’s just a boy.” Which I was. “What?” I say now to my daughter.
“The girl at the pool. Katrina.”
I don’t know any Katrina, but Lauren is insisting, so I do not say as much. I know that will only make her angry, or disappoint her, and then our walk will have ended. “What happened?” I say. But Lauren shakes her head, and I know that I have not done a good enough job of hiding my ignorance.
“There was a girl at the pool twenty three years ago,” Lauren says, stopping. Now we are standing in the sun in front of a park. “You touched her and went to jail. I want to know why you did it.” She looks on the verge of tears and I wonder if this is all some practical joke. Now she steps closer to me, and her face is very close to mine. I cannot remember the last time a human face was so close to me. It is not comfortable. “I need to know,” she whispers, “if you ever did it to me.”
I open my mouth and it hangs agape for a moment before I respond, “I’m sorry if I ever hurt you.” It is the only thing I can think to give her, and after I have uttered the words she just stares at me for a moment, as though tasting their flavor. And then she turns, muttering something. I do not want to ask her what. I follow her, hoping that we are going home.
* * *
We are in a cave. There are four of us. There is a dead girl laying in the middle of our circle, her arms stretched straight up over her head, as in the act of diving. It is cool in the cave. You are sniffling, though I cannot tell if it is from the chill or because you are crying over the girl. We have killed her; that much is clear. None of us knows why. A voice is coming from some deep recess and is starting to laugh but nobody reacts to it. I say that we need to bury her. But you say that we cannot just hide her forever, because it would be unfair to the family. Outside, the sun is going down. “We’ll do a tontine,” you say. I ask what that is and you explain it: “We’ll bury her and keep it secret, but the last one of us living has to tell the police. People usually do this kind of thing with treasures, where the last guy gets it all.” You look at our faces quizzically for a moment, and then you add, “Except this time, it’s not a treasure. It’s the truth.”
We shake on it and all of our hands are cold. Your grip is firm. We drag her to a tree and I carve the girl’s initials in the bark as you and the other two dig the hole. LB. It takes me as long to make the letters as it does for you to reach four feet down. It is far enough. Without ceremony, we shove her in. She seems to bounce when she falls but the sound is just like a boxing bag being thrown to the gym floor, or a sack of grain to the ground. She lands face-down and I say a secret thank you for that.
We hit the town later that evening and you have too much to drink and we have to cart you back to your parents’ house, where you stumble in as quietly as you can to avoid waking them. I spend a few hours walking dim streets after that—
—startled awake again and there is the beast, crawling along the bedroom floor. It is making a noise like snoring as it ruts along, and I get the impression it is searching for something, sniffing me out, perhaps, waiting for me to sleep so that it can suck on me and steal something vital. My heart is racing and I do not know why. It is cold in the room. Where is Lauren? I am given a moment of clarity: shackled and dragged to a nursing home where everybody wears slippers, where everybody’s toes are red and swollen like little undercooked sausages. Where we drool on ourselves and cannot stop the pee dripping down our legs and collecting in puddles beneath our chairs. The orderlies and nurses step around us and avoid touching us unless absolutely necessary. I eat pureed meals, all uncomfortable shades of brown and green. She is going to put me in a place like that. I know it. I saw it in her eyes and the colors of the words that flowed from her today. The only thing I do not know is if this dark monster will follow.
* * *
The kitchen is a wonderful place. I take my breakfast and my coffee here and let the sun stream through the windows and land on my hands, which are unfolded on the table in front of me. There is a newspaper there, but I have not opened it. It reads June 12, but I do not know if that is correct. I want to believe that it is, but I know better.
A woman comes into the kitchen and asks, “How are you today?”
“Fine,” I tell her, and she scoffs like a mummy coughing. She is familiar to me, and beautiful. She is not my wife. I have not seen my wife in such a long time, now I doubt she ever existed. But this woman exists, and now she is sitting at the table across from me. My manners are too good to ask her who she is.
“What do you want to do today?” she asks me, reaching across the table and snagging the newspaper away from me.
“Nothing,” I say, and she looks up and into my eyes for a moment, as if I have surprised her.
“Why can’t you tell the truth?” she asks. “That’s all I want. One time. The truth.”
I cock my head and the angle makes it a little difficult to breathe, but it is pleasant. She is mystifying me, this stranger. “What?” I say, because already I have forgotten what she is requiring of me. I only know that it is important.
“The truth. About what you did to me.”
There was a cave. This woman was in it. She must have been. The pact—am I the last one? “Get out of the cave,” I say to her, quietly, reaching across the table to take her hand. “Get out and run.”
She shakes her head and now she pulls a tissue from her purse. It is as fragile as a precious memory. She dabs her eyes with it but I do not see any tears there. “Say it,” she says. “Tell me.” The tissue falls from her hand and lights upon the floor.
I stare at the tissue. She seems to have forgotten it already. I shift my focus briefly and see that tears are welling in her eyes again. Then I look back at the tissue. “What do you want?” I ask her. “I’ll give you anything.”
“The truth,” she says.
“So I’m the last one,” I say, marveling. How I survived is a secret I’ll never know. I wonder what the beast in my bedroom does during the day. Does it sleep? Does it fly away and torment other unfortunate souls? “The truth,” I say, “isn’t in here.” My hand is patting my head, as if of its own volition. “It is here.” Now it moves to my beating heart.
Already she is fading away from me, and soon enough she is gone. I wish that meant I am alone. There is a girl buried by a tree near a cave. The tree is marked with LB, although time may have healed the bark of this intrusion. I see the opening of the cave now. I do not know if I am entering or if I am leaving, but I run toward it anyway.
© Jake Walters
[This story was selected by John Haggerty]