stories of faith and fright
Deus Ex Machina
Al Bruno III
It had taken Louise York five years to get her nursing degree and it wasn’t until five years after graduation that she came to understand how much she loathed humanity in general and sick people in particular.
That was why she came in late and she left early, why she was sycophantic to her superiors and a terror to her coworkers, why she spent as little time as she could doing any work at all.
That was why she kept finding her way to room that belonged to the nameless boy, room 549.
In the summer of 1938 he certainly wasn't the Asheboro Public Hospital's only patient entombed in an iron lung but he was the only that had a room all to himself.
The first thing Nurse York did when she was in the nameless boy's room was to close the door firmly behind her. Then she started cursing, letting loose the stream of profanity she had been holding back since breakfast. She kept her voice down so the groan and hiss of the iron lung drowned her out.
If the nameless boy heard her he made no sign. Usually the boy was flat on his back, looking up at the cracked ceiling, but today he was on his side. He stared glassily at Nurse York as she sat in the chair beside him and retrieved the flask and cigarettes from her purse.
She lit her first cigarette and inhaled, then she had a nip from her flask. It usually felt good to hide out here for a while but she couldn’t quite relax with him facing towards her. She thought of repositioning him but then sneered in contempt. He, and all the other saps in the polio ward, got doted on more than enough as far as she was concerned.
“What are you lookin‘ at?” Nurse York said, then she blew smoke towards the iron lung and watched it drift.
The nameless boy didn't blink or cough or complain, he never did. According to the hospital rumor mill he had been found in an alleyway two winters ago, silent and paralyzed, no relative had ever come foreword to claim him and no attempt to learn his identity had ever succeeded.
After a few more sips from her flask Nurse York leaned forward and spoke conspiratorially, “Lucky boy. Private room, all the doctors and nurses feeling sorry for you. I bet you love it.”
She leaned back in the chair and took in the room, it really was the nicest room in the hospital. It was wide and softly lit, there were paintings of starry skies hanging on the walls and a little table on the windowsill that had fresh flowers and unlit votive candles set upon it. The iron lung so clean it almost glittered.
“I bet you’re just lazy, most men are lazy. You like getting waited on hand and foot, we even have to wipe your butt for you.” She finished her first cigarette and lit her second, “You know what? I bet you’re playing with your peter in there.”
The nameless boy regarded her emptily. The iron lung hissed and chugged.
“Are you blushing?” She laughed sharply, “Well, it’s no skin off my nose what you do. It’s not like you’re ever gonna get to use it anywhere else. You’re gonna be nothing but a jellyfish in a few years time... No better yet! You’re like a snail with just the head sticking out.”
More sips, more cigarettes. Someone should be looking for her by now but she didn’t care. “Poor lonely snail...” A wicked grin filled her face. Without bothering to get off the chair she hiked up her skirt and gave him a little flash, “Wanna bite of my sandwich?”
Then she started laughing, laughing so hard that tears came to her eyes, laughing so hard that she fell off the chair. It wasn’t until she righted herself again that she saw the nameless boy had turned away.
He was facing the other direction.
Nurse York’s face went red with humiliation and rage. She got to her feet so quickly that she kicked one of her shoes across the room.
“Look at me!” she grabbed his chin and twisted him back to face her. She didn’t know if the cigarette in her hands was her third or her fifth but she knew he was going to feel it. This was a trick she had played before, just a tiny burn behind the ear or deep in the hairline. Something that was just enough to send a patient a warning.
The iron lung hissed and groaned. The red-orange light of the cigarette made a slow arc downwards.
Then his head came off in her hands.
It pulled away bloodlessly leaving a tangle of boneless, fleshy tendrils that writhed to life like a nest of angry serpents. The sight set Nurse York screaming, she ran vowing to leave the boy, room 549 and this entire hospital behind her.
When she opened the door she found the hospital staff standing in the hallway. It wasn’t just the night crew, there were people from the day shift, even a couple of long term patients were there.
Nurse York tried to shove past them only to have them crowd her back into the room. They were utterly silent and none of them looked at her, they only stared reverently at the nameless boy in the iron lung.
When her arm had been dragged into the iron lung she felt a flare of pain as something bit down. She knew that soon her entire body would be pulled through the neck hole of the machine, her bones would crack and splinter but she would fit.
It was only then that Louise York understood she had transgressed, that this room was a temple to the chosen few. In her last moments she begged to be forgiven her trespasses but the boy in room 549 was not a merciful god.
Thanks to Left-Hand-Path for the heads up on this one!
IN THIS TWILIGHT
The Mask Collector
Sunday October 5th 2003
Darren hadn't gotten himself back in shape because even though the pins and braces were gone the aches and pains remained. It was too uncomfortable for him to do even a single sit up. His doctor had started telling him it was all in his head, that he needed counseling and physical therapy. The bastard had even threatened to cut off his hydrocodone. Darren changed doctors as soon as he got wind of that, starting the whole procedure over again. A second opinion, a fresh prescription.
“I would have gone to the funeral but my damn leg hurts too much and I don't have any suits that fit anymore,” Darren shifted in his seat, wishing that he hadn't answered the door and that Marnie hadn't been so damned persistent in her knocking.
“Everyone's worried about you.”
“I dion’t want anyone to see me like this...” he narrowed his eyes, “...anyone important.”
She winced a little at that, it made Darren glad and guilty all at once. The sight of her made him renew his vow to start taking walks. The only problem with that was that his feet had gotten so swollen that they couldn't fit in his sneakers anymore, that and the fact he got winded making his way to the toilet sometimes.
Marnie took a moment to collect herself and then spoke again, “Look we all care about you.”
“Do you? Or is it just that you want to make sure I don't keel over until after you've had your wedding day?”
“Oh come on, you come over here flashing that engagement ring and think I don't know what's going on?”
She pulled her hand away, “I'm sorry. I didn't think...”
“Sure,” Darren leaned forward but his belly pushed him back, “have you and Reece set a date yet?”
“Why are you acting this way? Are you so stupid that you can’t see that I’m the only person that hasn’t written you off yet?” She looked pleadingly into his eyes, “I know this isn’t really you talking… If it weren’t for all your medical problems I know you wouldn’t be…”
“For Christ’s sake Marnie. This is me talking you just won’t listen,” Darren got to his feet and poked her in the chest to punctuate each word, “I. Don’t. Love. You.”
She started sobbing.
Darren had to bite back a crazed giggle before he could speak again, “You were just persistent and then convenient. But I don't want convenient. Life’s too goddamn short. I want passion. You’re just a rut I got stuck in.”
“You loser!” Marnie slapped him as hard as she could, “You think you’re such a goddamn prize? You think you’re so goddamn special? Well you know what? I was the only person who ever agreed with you. Ask around.”
Good riddance. Darren thought as he watched the door slam, I think I’ll have a few beers to celebrate.
He drank his first beer standing in front of the open refrigerator door, his head tipped back, his head full of his own gurgling and grunting. The second beer he brought back out into the parlor with him.
May as well enjoy the cable TV now. They’ll be disconnecting it next week if my disability check doesn’t get here.
Darren frowned at the realization that before much longer he was going to have to choose between paying off his utility bills and buying food.
I should have hit Marnie up for a few bucks before I let her have it. Heck maybe I can still catch her in the …
Then he realized there were voices talking in the hall, garbled voices punctuated by snatches of uneasy laughter. Both voices sounded familiar and close. For a few minutes Darren stood there, one hand cupped behind his ear trying to make sense of what he was hearing.
“…Not the same… I thought…”
“How… can you ever… know anyone?”
His injured leg screaming in protest Darren shambled for the door, when he opened it he found Marnie and Chad talking on the landing. For a moment he almost didn’t recognize his neighbor, the man was clean shaven and at least fifty pounds lighter.
“Oh!” Chad smiled, “Hi neighbor.”
Darren’s bad knee tried to pitch him forward. He gripped the doorframe, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?
“I heard this lovely young lady crying out in the hall. I wanted to make sure she was all right.”
“I don’t think she is any of your business Chad.”
“From what I hear you just made it very clear you shouldn’t give a damn who she talks to.”
“I need to go anyways,” Marnie gave the other man’s hand an affectionate squeeze. “Thank you Chad, you are a gentleman.”
“My pleasure. Stop by anytime.”
Darren watched her retreat down the stairs. “No. She won’t be stopping by anytime,” He said when she was out of earshot, “Not to see me and not to see my morbidly obese whacky neighbor.”
“That’s a little harsh,” Chad stepped up to him, “and a little mean.”
What the Hell is this? Darren felt his heart drop into his stomach; Is he looking for a fight?
“Well? You got something to say?” Chad smiled.
Darren said, “… I call them how I see them.”
“Really? ‘Morbidly obese whacky neighbor’? Sounds more like you these days…”
“I- you- ” Darren turned back to his apartment and slammed the door. He half-stumbled, half-crawled to the kitchen and found the cabinet where he kept his dwindling supply of hard liquor.
He drank until he blacked out, then when he woke up he drank so more. His head hurt so much it ached, he couldn’t think, he couldn’t make sense of the voices whirring in his head.
And Darren was grateful for that.
The talented indiuduals behind the NOSLEEP PODCAST have adapted my story PRECIOUS MACHINE into audio format.
My story is there along with A DREAM MY MOTHER HAD by Richard Walker, MY BEST FRIENDS GRANDMOTHER by Allison Stuart and BALLOONS by D. K. Auerbach. They're all great!
Price Breaks And Heartaches
A journal of retail and failed romance
Remaindered, Rejected And Irreconcilable
A homeless man had once commented to me that Northway Mall looked a lot like Vietnam and perhaps in metaphorical way he was right. Northway Mall had become a retail quagmire where small local businesses that suffered high rates of attrition due to the failed strategies of the anchor stores.
I was about to find myself a part of that quagmire because I had just been hired by Ivanhoe Books Incorporated. It was a little shoebox of a store, crowded with shelves and decorated with 1970's era paneling. The carpets were faded and frayed, the cash register was practically steam driven.
But those things didn't matter because I was working in a bookstore now and that is every struggling writer's dream- aside from the dream of feeding editors to flesh eating badgers of course.
My first day at work I was shown the ropes by Frank McDaniels, like me he was a dashing young writer. Unlike me he actually pulled off the dashing thing surprisingly well.
“The back room is where we keep the stock, the safe and the cash drawers so of course we keep it locked. After your probationary period we'll give you a key.” Frank McDaniels had a kind of casual confidence and a smooth AM radio kind of voice. I hated him and had a man-crush on him all at once.
I had already been given my smock and hastily fashioned name badge, "I see there are a lot of price guns around here- is that for the special 'Chivalrous Discount' Ivanhoe Book gives to all books on the New York Times Bestsellers list?"
“No. It's for all the books.”
I looked around the store trying to imagine the numbers and price tags such an undertaking, “But why? All books have prices on them- they're on the back or the spines or the inside of the dust jacket.”
“Some guy from corporate came in to do an inspection and he couldn't find the prices so he issued an edict to all eight stores.” Frank explained.
“Well, I suppose he knows what he's doing.”
“Not really, we're owned by a chain of auto parts stores, they don't know the first thing about books. They make decisions on equal parts fear, rage and arrogance”
“Well...” I tried to think of something to say, “That sure is consistent with most of my other jobs.”
“Come on to the back.” Frank said, “I'll introduce you to Karla the manager, she should be here by now. You'll meet the rest of the girls as the week goes on.”
“Are you and I the only men working here?”
“Yes I am.” He paused and then corrected himself, “I mean we are. Sorry.”
“Interesting” We were alone near the self-help books.
“A word of warning Al, this place only has one bathroom and God help you if you get so much as a drop of moisture on that toilet seat.” He shuddered, “God help you.”
And that is when I got into the habit of peeing sitting down.
Counting me there were always six employees at every Ivanhoe Books Incorporated, the payroll budget couldn't afford more than that- truth be told it couldn't really afford what it had. Karla was the manager she was in her forties with a hairstyle that had gone out of style in the fifties. She mostly stayed at the desk in the back room but whenever she spoke it was to tell everyone to do what they were doing faster or their days were number. The assistant manager was named Gladys and she was about my age with an easy manner I instantly took a liking to unfortunately she also had a body odor that knocked insects from the sky- so I tended to avoid her whenever I could, or at the very least stay downwind.
Then there was Mary- a college student with an amazing figure and white-blond hair. She was a student at the State University campus, which meant she had gone to a high school with actual academic standards as opposed to one where the library with books that appeared to have been gnawed on.
And last but certainly not least there was Yasmin, she had a PHD in French Literature but all she ended up with was a job at a mall bookstore. She and I had instant chemistry, and what I mean by that is I was the only thing in the world she hated more than her job.
Tallulah was still looking for work so she came by to take me to lunch and that could mean having some fast food a slice of pizza or sharing something more substantial at the Woolworth's lunch counter. Sometimes we would stroll past the stores and talk about school, work or our parents.
“I'm telling you those guys are the wave of the future.” I had her hand in mine. We walked past the Shoe Warehouse- it had low low prices because it had low low staffing. There boxes of sneakers and heels everywhere, most were stacked in the aisles or shelved in the wrong spots. Most of the signage was incorrect or miss-hung. I thought to myself that this may be what women imagine the Apocalypse to be like.
“I don't think the Head bangers' Ball has to worry about Milli Vanilli Al.” She snorted dismissively.
“I don't know. Have you seen those midair chest bumps? I bet all the kids will be doing them soon.” I said, “Anyway…”
“…Yeah.” I regarded her oddly, suddenly self-conscious. I wondered, Do I really say anyway all that much? I searched her face for some clue to what she might be thinking.
Anyway, we passed a store called Lechmere that had the misfortune to be a department store in an era when no one wanted to shop in department stores. The store always seemed empty and the staff looked just plain bored. Even the shoplifters weren’t interested in the place. To the left of Lechmere’s main entrance was the mall’s public restroom to the right was the door to the mall offices and also the exit to the Dumpster. Make of that what you will.
“What were you going to say?” Tallulah asked.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, “You’re being kind of bitchy.”
“WHAT?” She rounded on me, “You just called me a bitch.”
“Uh… no… my little honey plumb I said you were acting bitchy. I didn’t actually call you a bitch.”
“It’s the same Goddamn thing!” She started walking again. I ran after her, humiliated but determined to straighten this all out before she got to her car.
We passed the children’s clothing store, a jewelry shop, an arcade and the McDonalds. There was a group of old, ragged looking men gathered around the bench in front of the restaurant each nursing their own cup of coffee as gossiped toothlessly. I think watching us was the highlight of our day.
“I did not call you a bitch.” I said again, “I said you were acting bitchy.’
“Yes acting like a bitch which is the same thing as calling me a bitch.”
“No it’s not.” I almost whined, “If you’re acting sleepy does that mean you’re actually asleep? If you’re acting crazy does that mean you’re actually crazy? If you’re acting stupid does that mean you’re actually stupid? Plenty of smart people do stupid things? You think Carl Sagan never locked his keys in the car?”
Tallulah stopped and turned around again, her eyes flashing, her arms crossed over her chest, “Are you really this much of an idiot?”
“Ah. Don’t you mean acting like this much of an idiot? The nuance is subtle I admit…”
She threw up her arms in frustration and started walking again, “Can’t you be serious ever?”
“You like my jokes. Don’t you?”
“Do I?” The Woolworth’s was doing brisk business as always- the place was chock full of bargains- of course by this time in its life it was what you kid’s would call a dollar store. My best girl and I turned to the right, passing the pizza parlor and the bank, the hippie jewelry store and the hair salon, the bicycle shop and the toy store. We were almost the exit and Tallulah was raging at full steam, “I’m so glad I have you to do my thinking for me Al.”
“Hey.” I grabbed her arm and she pulled away, “Don’t leave like this. Let’s talk.”
She wouldn’t look at me, “Your break is over. You better get back to work.”
“Will I see you later?”
“Maybe later. I’ve got school things to do.”
She left without leaving me a kiss goodbye or a smile.
“What the Hell is going on here?” I wondered aloud.
“I guess you shouldn’t have called her a bitch,” a middle aged man in a beret said.