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.
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!