Fate Knocks Twice

by Jeremy Wright

 

One.

Two.

“Someone’s at the front door, Ann,” Hal Sanders yelled out.

Ann Sanders wiped her hands on a dishtowel and said, “Who in the world would be knocking at this time of night?”

Although it was just after nine o’clock, the Sanders weren’t used to and didn’t desire unexpected guests. The majority of unexpected house calls were the obnoxious door-to-door salesmen who tried to sell a truckload of junk for an outrageous price and simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“I don’t know why these damn people can’t read the sign. It’s posted right there on the screen door. No soliciting. Doesn’t anyone give a damn about privacy anymore?” Hal hollered loudly and hoped the person at the front door had heard and was already slinking down the front porch and heading for the next house.

“Just calm down. You’re going to get your blood pressure back up again. I’ll see who it is.”

Ann went to the kitchen door, pulled aside the curtain and turned on the porch light. In the soft glow of the light she saw something that made her feel uneasy.

“Hal, can you come here a minute?”

“Christ Almighty, just tell them to go away. There’s no reason for two of us to do it.”

“I’m not really sure I want to open the door to do that.”

“Then yell it through the glass.”

“Would you please just come here?”

Reluctantly Hal grabbed the handle of the recliner and retracted the footrest. With great effort he worked his large body out of the chair and made for the kitchen all the while cursing the intrusion.

“What’s the problem?” he asked as he entered the kitchen and stopped at the door beside Ann.

“It’s a woman. I don’t like the sight of her. I think it’s a homeless woman.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me? Now they have the gall to come to someone’s door and beg for food? I told you to send her away.”

“You do it. That woman scares me some.”

“For crying out loud,” Hal said. He disengaged the deadbolt and opened the door.

The woman was small, appearing contorted by years of endless arthritic suffering. She was wearing garments that looked as if she had found them at the bottom of a dumpster. Her dirty gray hair hung around her face. Her skin was like battered leather, cracked and darkly tanned by a hard life. Her nose was long and hooked. Her chin pointed and covered in fine white hair. None of that really bothered Hal. What he found most disturbing was one of her yellow eyes staring back at him. The other eye was covered in a milky cataract, but that yellow eye reminded him of a snake’s eye.

“Whatever it is you want, you’ve got the wrong house,” Hal said and began closing the door.

“Mr. and Mrs. Sanders?” the old woman said in an almost frail voice.

Hal paused and pulled the door open again.

“Yes, that’s right. Who are you?”

“Who I am isn’t important. What I want is,” the woman said.

“Whoever sent you this way must have made a mistake. Now if you’ll please leave.”

Before Hal could close the door, the woman said, “You’re the one who sent for me, Mr. Sanders.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow. I’ve never met you before. I’m pretty sure my wife hasn’t met you either. Neither of us have asked you here. You’ll need to leave before I call the police.”

“No, we’ve never met. If you wish to call the police, then very well, but I suggest you don’t do that just yet since I’m here to discuss the boy you ran down four years ago. Of course, you remember him, don’t you?”

Hal felt the blood flush from his face. He felt his knees willing to give out. He also felt the world dramatically take a horrifying spin.

“My god,” Ann said as her hand went to her mouth. “I knew it would all come back to haunt us. I knew we could never escape the consequences of what happened.”

“Hush up now, Ann. You just keep it zipped and I’ll handle this. Look, as I said before, you’ve come to the wrong house. We don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about and we’d like you to leave.”

“I’m here to offer you a choice. I suggest you let me in so that we may discuss what’s going to take place in a little while.”

Hal desperately wanted to close the door in the woman’s face. He wanted to shut out the crude appearance of the woman who suddenly came knocking about a four-year-old incident. But despite all of his mental urging, Hal couldn’t get his body to act.

The old woman stepped inside, removed Hal’s hand and closed the door.

“Well, should we find a more comfortable spot before we get down to the bare bones of the matter?” she asked.

Hal and Ann followed the old woman from the kitchen to the living room. She found a seat on the couch and placed her battered handbag on the coffee table.

“How is it after all this time you found us?” Ann asked.

Hal slammed his fist down on the coffee table, which rattled the decorative pieces Ann kept for show.

“Dammit! Are you trying to cinch the noose tighter around our throats? Why in the hell don’t you run into the street and flag down the next cop that comes by and confess everything? Where’s your brain?”

“Mr. Sanders, you’ll need to calm yourself. I want you clearheaded for a little while because you’ll need to have focus in order to make your choice,” the old woman said.

“Will you just tell us who you are and what you want?” Ann nearly screamed.

The old woman eyed them for a moment, removed a pack of cigarettes from her bag and lit one.

“You look like one of those…” Hal started.

“Go ahead and say it,” the woman replied.

“Gypsies. One of those freaks that ride into town with the carnival.”

“In fact, I am exactly that, Mr. Sanders. Many people call our kind freaks, but we’re not. We’ve just got special abilities that regular people don’t understand. Now, don’t ask me why it took so long to find the people who ran down my grandson. I waited many years for the vision to come to me. It’s taken a long time, but I finally received what I’ve been waiting for and that’s what brought me here.”

“You can’t prove anything. What are you trying to do, blackmail us or something?” Hal asked.

The old woman pointed a yellowed, crooked finger to the telephone on the living room wall. With her other hand she pointed through the kitchen archway and to the door in which she had arrived.

“In fifteen minutes you’re going to have to make a choice. In fifteen minutes two things will happen. The telephone will ring and there will also be a knock at your front door. Only one of these you’ll need to answer.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Ann asked, as her nerves couldn’t take much more.

“I know that you didn’t intentionally kill my grandson when you were leaving the carnival grounds in Bixby four years ago. But you did leave the area without even bothering to see if he was still alive or getting help for the poor boy. My grandson didn’t have a choice. Your son, Brandon, and your daughter, Rebecca, won’t have a choice either. At least one of them won’t have a choice. I’m going to take one, it seems only fair.”

“How the hell do you know our children?” Hal asked as he felt his personal life being probed by this strange woman.

“I know of them, and where they can be found right now. When the telephone rings and if you decide to answer, your daughter will die. If you decide to answer the door, your son will die.” The old woman looked at her antique watch and said, “You have fifteen minutes to make your choice.”

“Are you insane? If this is some sort of twisted revenge, then I’m not answering either,” Hal said.

“Failure to answer one or answering both at the same time will result in two deaths. I recommend you spend your remaining time discussing your decision.”

Hal stood from the chair. “Leave my house immediately, or so help me you won’t like the actions I take. No one threatens my family, especially my children. They haven’t done anything wrong to you.”

“My grandson never wronged you, Mr. Sanders. Still, his life is gone all the same. I’ve given you fifteen minutes to make your decision because that is the amount of time it took the poor boy to die. I can’t imagine the pain and suffering he dealt with before the end. Now pain and suffering has come full circle and knocked on your front door. Which child do you believe you can live without? I’m sure it isn’t an easy decision to make, but one that must be made.”

“Hal, let’s talk this over, like she says,” Ann said as she nervously rubbed her hands together.

Hal quickly turned and looked at his wife as if she had struck him without provocation.

“My god, have you lost all your senses? Did you just say what I think you said? Are you really buying all this crap? How can you seriously justify making a decision that will kill one of our children? How could you even entertain such a cruel thought, Ann?”

“I’m not justifying anything! You heard what she said, both Rebecca and Brandon will die if we do nothing.”

“No one is going to die. I’ve had enough of this. I’m calling the police,” Hal said and moved toward the phone.

When he picked up the phone, Hal didn’t hear a dial tone, but could hear someone on the other end breathing heavily.

A deep-throated voice on the other end said, “Sometimes minutes are fleeting. Sometimes a clock can be deceiving. Soon a precious heart will stop beating. Moments from now there will come a ring-a-ding and a knock-knock you’ll be receiving.”

Hal pulled the phone from his ear and stared at the receiver in bewilderment.

“What is it?” Ann asked.

“They’re messing with the phone line. We can’t call out because they’ve done something to the line.”

“Tick-tock, Mr. Sanders.”

Hal hung up the phone and returned to the chair.

“Okay, I don’t like this sick game you’re playing. You’re right, I accidentally ran over your grandson at the park grounds. I can’t tell you how much I regret leaving and doing nothing for the boy. God, it was dark and he just ran right in front of my truck. I didn’t have time to do anything. Ann wanted to stop. She begged me to stop. I had been drinking most of the day and I knew I’d go to jail for a long, long time if I stopped. Can you understand that?”

“I understand that my grandson is dead. I understand that it’s your fault. I cannot change any of it, but I’ve taken action so that my grandson’s soul is finally at peace. The clock does not stop. You have eight minutes.”

The old woman retrieved another cigarette, lit it and leaned back on the couch.

“Hal, please, I can’t lose my sweet daughter. She’s getting married soon.”

“Sweet lord, you already made up your mind? You’re really prepared to allow our son to die by the hands of these cretins? How can you make a snap decision like that?”

“Okay, okay, so let’s discuss this thing,” Ann said.

Hal pinched his eyes closed and shook his head. This was an impossible choice to make and he knew that either answering the phone or the door would forever haunt him just as the death of the boy had all these years.

The old woman said, “I want you to go to the front window. Across the street you will see a man. That man is patiently waiting to approach your door.”

Hal was instantly on his feet and shuffling for the front window and Ann was a few steps behind. Quickly they moved aside the curtain and pulled up the blinds. In the darkness of the neighbor’s yard they saw the dark figure of a man. They saw the faint wink of a cigarette and something else that eerily glowed. Hal thought it was the man’s eyes, maybe the horrible, unwavering glare of the devil’s eyes.

“Five minutes, Mr. Sanders.”

“I’ll kill you. I swear that I’ll kill you and that man outside if you don’t stop this,” Hal said.

“Oh, prepared to take more lives? Haven’t we become quite the soul collector,” the Gypsy said.

“Don’t you understand? Don’t you see? I can’t lose my son. I can’t lose the child that will carry on the Sanders legacy!” Hal screamed and collapsed in the chair. He covered his face with his hands and began weeping.

“How dare you! How dare you judge me. Your mind was already made up before I said anything about saving Rebecca. How could you even think about saving Brandon’s life over Rebecca’s? He’s taken after you all right. He’s become a drunk and spends half of his time in jail. The drinking and driving, the bar fights, the wandering through life with no job, no goal, that’s what you call a legacy? I suppose with someone like you as a role model, I can understand how he became the way he did. Hell, the only time he even calls is when he needs money. If he’s such a great son, then when was the last time he called and wished you a happy Father’s Day or called on your birthday? He never does and you know it,” Ann yelled.

“Oh, and how about your little princess? She’s quite the saint, isn’t she? Let’s see, arrested for shoplifting half a dozen times, knocked up when she was fifteen and then again at seventeen by two different men. She’s been relying on welfare for years and finally hooks up with a man and promises marriage because he’s got money. God help me I do love her. I do. But that girl has worn me down like a grinding stone.”

“Don’t you talk about my daughter like that!” Ann said and harshly slapped her husband.

Hal quickly stood and said, “I’ve never struck you in twenty-six years of marriage, but so help me, if you do that again, I won’t hold back.”

“Two minutes,” the Gypsy said and smiled, showing a row of crooked brown and yellow teeth.

Ann retrieved a cast-iron bookend from the mantel, stepped toward the couch and said, “You’ve brought this madness to my house! You’re destroying my family and I want you to leave this instant!”

“I will not leave until the choice has been made. The curse has been placed. If you decide to kill me here and now, I promise that your entire family will suffer devastating deaths.”

“I will not lose my son. I won’t. When the phone rings, I’m going to answer. I know that I’ll have to live with the choice I made, but I will manage,” Hal said.

“No, Hal. I’m making the decision. When that person knocks on the front door, I’m going to answer. You know that it’s the right choice.”

Hal looked out the window and saw the dark figure walking across the street. The man moved with a casual stroll, as if he was delivering a pizza instead of death. The man disappeared around the corner of the house heading for the kitchen door. Hal moved from the window and faced his wife.

“I’m sorry, Ann, I really am, but I’ve made the choice. Don’t even think about going for the door. I’d hate to do it, but I’ll knock you to the ground.”

“I’ll die before I let you take my daughter away,” Ann said and moved for the kitchen door.

Hal quickly followed.

When the phone rang and a fist simultaneously pounded on the front door, both of them halted. They looked into each other’s horror-struck eyes. The small part of them that believed the Gypsy’s story to be nothing more than a method to drive them mad began falling apart and reality quickly set in.

Ann dashed for the door and Hal lunged for her, caught her around the legs, and they crashed into a heap on the floor. Immediately they began clawing at each other. Ann’s teeth came down like a vice on Hal’s forearm and immediately blood gushed into her mouth. Hal screamed and threw a punch to the side of her head.

The phone rang and the fist pounded.

Ann drove her knee up and caught her husband in the groin. Hal grunted, but fought through the pain and wrapped his large hand around her throat.

In a gasp, Ann said, “Stop it, just stop it. I won’t let you take away my Rebecca.”

Ann’s thumbs went for Hal’s eyes. In an attempt to avoid losing his eyes, Hal rolled off his wife. Quickly she turned over and in a mad attempt she crawled for the door. Hal gently rubbed his eyes and pulled his hands away to see if he was bleeding. In a state of grief and exhaustion, Hal couldn’t get his legs to lift him up. He rolled to the wall and looked up at the ringing phone. He swatted at the dangling cord and tried to knock the receiver free. He could hear Ann scrambling for the door. As Hal heard the squeak of the doorknob turning, something unseen came down on his chest like a stack of bricks.

With one arm clutched tightly to his chest, he used his free arm and jarred the receiver loose from the cradle.

Hal heard Ann screaming. It wasn’t a scream of terror, but one of pain.

Hal brought the receiver to his ear.

The hinges released a rusty bark as the door opened.

In the kitchen, Ann yelled, “Hal, something’s wrong with my head. It hurts so badly. Call for an ambulance.”

As another shock of pain seized Hal’s chest, he croaked into the phone. “My son. I’ve made the choice. I want to save my son.”

There was no response. Only silence filled his ear.

“Hal, my god, it’s the devil come to take us away,” Ann screamed.

The Gypsy knelt beside Hal and smiled.

“Mr. Sanders, did you honestly believe that I would punish one of your children for your crime? Oh, the curse was set into place. By answering the phone, Mr. Sanders, you’ve sacrificed your wife’s life. By answering the door, she’s sacrificed your life. I told you in the beginning that by not answering one or by answering both at the same time would result in two deaths. I knew the emotional struggle between you and your wife would be spectacular. I was certain your wife couldn’t let your daughter go, just as I was certain you couldn’t let your son go. It’s interesting how both of you were so willing to offer one child to save the other. You and your wife were guilty in the death of my grandson, and neither of you offered yourselves as a sacrifice to save your own children. What a shame. You should know that fate comes with many identities, but no one seems to think it will ever come knocking on their front door.”

 

Fear

by Grant Flint

 

The old man entered the bedroom and closed the door. Just before the door clicked shut, he saw what had been concealed on the back of it—a white sheet of paper with one word in the middle. The word, composed of irregular letters cut from newspaper print, said: “TODAY.”

For a moment the old man stood perfectly still. Then he retreated slowly backward, staring at the word, his mind numb the way he had attempted to make it when seeking sleep during the night. He couldn’t think of any one thing definite, myriad thoughts swirling in upon him. Then as the rear of his legs bumped into the bed, the first line of the telegram returned to him: “Your time has come.” He shook his head slowly, staring at the word on the middle of his door. He found himself moving toward the door as though in a dream. As he came closer, the muscles in his face tightened, pulling his mouth open. Suddenly he reached out and tore at the word. His fingers ripped part of the glued sheet away, and then in a frenzy he clutched and ripped with both hands, shredding the letters on the white paper until only a formless mutilation of scraps remained glued to the door. Breathing hoarsely, the old man continued to scrape furiously at the shreds, and then in enraged frustration he yanked the door open and limped hurriedly past the frightened cleaning girl to the kitchen where he grabbed a paring knife.

“Mr. MacIver! Mr. MacIver!” the girl cried as he hurried back toward the door.

The old man stopped and glared wildly at her. “You! You did it!”

“No! Didn’t do nothing! Nothing!” the girl said, backing up with her hands in front of her. As the old man started toward her, the girl turned at once and ran to the open front door. She was nearly to the street when the old man came from the house.

Breathing heavily, face still contorted, the old man watched the girl until she turned the corner a block away. Then he looked about wildly on the ground, picked up the poker and with the knife in his other hand entered the house. Glaring to left and right, weapons ready, he searched through all the rooms on the first floor and then the second. He found nothing.

Gradually a heavy fatigue replaced the fevered activity of anger and frustration. The old man returned to the bedroom door and started to scrape with the knife on the bits of paper. Finally he sighed deeply and dropped the knife. He went to the bed, sat down a moment, thought of resting for awhile, then sighed again and began to dress. After he had his trousers on, he took the telegram from his pocket and read it again. “Your time has come. What you fear most. Terror of terrors.”

“Today,” he thought, looking at the door. Any time now. This was something specific anyway. Something a man could fight. No joke. Somebody meant it. Well, whatever it was, he thought, they were going to have a fight on their hands. Not scared of anything, living or dead.

But the old man knew he was going to the police now. He didn’t think about it, didn’t make up his mind, but he found himself leaving the house. He locked the front door and then looked for the cat.

“Cat!” he called. “Cat! Damn it, where are you? Cat!”

He walked to the street, looked back briefly at the tall, dead grass on either side of the house, then started slowly toward the pay phone eight blocks away.

“Gettin’ riled up for nothin’,” he muttered, thinking about his reactions of the morning. “Bad as Timmy.” He remembered the time a few months before when his grandson had been at the house and he’d played the ghost game with him, a game he’d played with many children, including his son, Timmy’s father, when he’d been about Timmy’s age. Simple thing. An uneven breeze coming in an open window causing a door, preferably a squeaky door, to close almost, then open, then nearly close. “Slowly, slowly, slowly,” he told Timmy, “the ghost slowly opens, slowly, slowly opens the door.” And Jimmy had stood there bug-eyed, watching the door in the flickering light from the fireplace.

Of course, Claire, the boy’s mother, had been upset when she heard about it, but… that was the way it was nowadays. The “younger generation” was so damn scared of everything, they couldn’t put up with a little old-fashioned spookin’.

Claire telling him that Timmy would end up hating him just like the boy’s father had. Well, hell, the boy’s father had been so damn pussy-footed like his mother, what could you expect? Even died pussy-footed, a stroke at thirty-four years of age. Now what kind of fool thing was that to do? Hard to ever believe he’d had a son like that, any blood of his in that quivering namby-pamby.

And now Claire coming around once a week—would be around tonight or tomorrow—to “look out for him.” Hell. What she was “looking out for” was for him to croak. So she could sell his house and lot for that big money them apartment house people were always putting up. She knew what that young punk of a so-called doctor had said. Warned him to get his pressure down. 185/115. So what? So his kid had had a stroke. So? He’d already outlived the kid by 42 years! Ha! He’d outlive Claire, too, outlive the whole damn bunch, just the way that bastard cat had outlived all the cats in the area. Weren’t nothing could knock off that damn cat!

The old man was more than halfway to the pay phone now, walking slowly, head down, when a teen-ager on a bicycle rode up behind him on the sidewalk, blew his horn, then sped by giggling.

The old man was so startled by the horn, he nearly fell. “Damn them! Damn them all!” he muttered in frustration as he watched the youth hurrying on.

He hesitated for a moment, feeling an unfamiliar numbing fatigue in his legs and the beginning of dizziness. “Ah, damn police wouldn’t do nothin’ anyway,” he mumbled. “Just think I was crazy or somethin’.”

The old man remembered the only time he had asked anything from the police. He had received no satisfaction. It was about the noise and rowdyism of youths returning home from high school in the afternoons. It seemed to the old man that they picked the sidewalk in front of his property to congregate, make wisecracks, and mock fight. One group would go on, then another would come along, stop, and repeat the scene.

The neighborhood had deteriorated fast in the past few years from the way the old man remembered it. The aged Victorian houses had been torn down to put up apartment houses. Although he’d received and continued to receive repeated offers from real estate developers—offers which were becoming increasingly insistent, almost belligerent—the old man refused to sell his house, which stood alone now on the huge weed-grown lot, an isolated reminder of the past.

Those kids, the old man thought. No respect for themselves or anybody else. Especially an old man. He’d run them off enough times, shook his fist at them. But it did no good. Youth. Damn youth. It was hard to say which was worse, those pesky developers, who would not give up, hounding him—acting almost crazy at times, as though he were the villain, and they were the good guys—or the damn kids. All of them, the whole mass of them, developers, kids—never letting up—and him just an old man, alone, just wanting to live where he’d lived, just wanting to live here till he died. Kids. Damn kids.

“Damn cops won’t help an old man.”

But he continued to hesitate, unable to decide whether to go on or return home. The newspapers on the rack at the corner made the decision for him. He placed the quarters he had intended to use for the pay phone into the slot, took a newspaper, and slowly trudged back to the house.

“Cat?” he called tiredly as he came into the front yard.

Before entering the house, he turned to look once more for the cat. “Where are you, damn it? Cat?”

Cat was as tough as he was. And old. Hind legs paralyzed, dragging itself around. Weren’t nothing could kill that cat. Dumb, but unbeatable.

The old man went in, locked the door, walked the final steps to the living room chair. He sat down and leaned back, feeling more fatigued than he could remember. He closed his eyes to rest a moment before reading the paper, not unwilling to fall asleep if it happened that way. But suddenly the word “TODAY” jumped into his thoughts and he jerked up, opened his eyes and saw his wife’s photo on the mantel. “TODAY.” He pushed it out of his mind, wouldn’t think about it. That cowed look, he thought, staring at the picture, those big sorrowful eyes. But there was something else there, too, he thought tiredly, something hidden, something he’d never seen there before. And it was as though she was maybe using a disguise and underneath, underneath that beaten, sad look, she was maybe mocking him, waiting for him to get soft, show a weak spot. A damn disguise.

She’d nearly got him, too, in those first months after they’d married. All innocent, naturally, least that’s the way she’d acted it. Nineteen years younger than him. Sure, maybe he’d had a weak spot once, scared of being made fun of. Like her laughing first time she saw him naked, saw he was a little bow-legged.

Ah, the old man remembered, but he got back control fast! Took her game and beat her to hell and back on it. Easy. Easiest thing in the world. Like that time he’d waited until she got home from a party he’d made her go to, and then told her that her slip had been showing all night. Ah, but the best one was that time she’d spent two hours, two days, if you consider the whole thing, getting ready for that first Sunday with his relatives, and then they’d been on the way, halfway there, and he’d told her, real kind like, nothing outright smart about it, that she had on way too much makeup and that dress she had on, the dress and the makeup, well, it kind of made her look exactly like a whore. And then afterwards, coming home from that first Sunday—been about a dozen of his relatives there—he’d told her they’d shamed him by telling him his wife was like a child, always hanging on him, a clinging vine. When actually what they’d said was how nice it was that he and she were so affectionate, holding hands and all that.

Well, he’d got her all right. Beat her silly at her own game. She never once after that, never dared again to make any fun of him.

“So go ahead and look, damn you,” the old man muttered, staring at his wife’s picture. “Think you’re laughing at me under that damn sheep look. But I got your number, got you down good, and you ain’t never goin’ to win nothin’.”

The old man felt better now. He reached down to pick up the newspaper, but then decided to close his eyes for a moment and rest a bit more.

*****

When the old man awoke, he felt chilled and clammy. He looked up at his wife’s clock. Nearly 2:30. Well, he thought, the day is going and that fool sign said “Today” and ain’t nothin’ happened.

He got up stiffly and went to the kitchen where he warmed up some left-overs, ate standing up, and then brought back some coffee to have with his paper.

He read the obituaries, the want ads, and then the personals. It was near the bottom of the personals: “S.M. tonight. Seven. Y.X.”

The sentence blurred as the old man stared at it. He tried to read the next personal below and then abruptly could think of nothing at all. His hands began to tremble, rustling the newspaper. He lifted his hands a moment as though they were independent agents, apart from him. Then he clutched the paper grimly and read the personal again.

His initials all right, but the initials of a thousand other people, he thought. Probably a love message. A meeting on the sly. Y.X. Probably phony. Nobody had initials like that. Besides, the sign had said today, not tonight. Seven.

The old man looked up at his wife’s clock. For a moment, the clock was blurred. As he stared at it, its vague outline appeared to move. The cherubs seemed to be sliding together at the top in obscene union. The old man sat up and squinted. Twenty after four. Three—no, two and a half hours until seven. A long time. Seven. It didn’t mean a thing. Seven tonight. The cat. Where was the cat?

Everything in the old man suddenly centered on the cat. He had to find the cat. Bring the cat in, have the cat lying there, start from that, everything would be all right.

The old man stood up abruptly and nearly fell as the unaccustomed dizziness came upon him again. He waited a moment, shook his head wearily, and then started for the door, concentrating on nothing but the cat.

He unlocked the door automatically, stepped out. The cat was in the middle of the sidewalk halfway to the street.

“Cat,” the old man called as he came near. “Wake up, you ol’ bastard.”

A few feet away, he sensed it but couldn’t see, and then he was on the other side of the cat and saw its eyes open and mouth open with the worn teeth exposed, and he saw the clean bone, naked white, protruding from its broken neck, and the light red blood glistening in the sun, the blood touching the neck and then extending out and down on the sidewalk forming a nearly perfect number SEVEN.

The old man cried out, a shrill unintelligible sound like a seagull, and staggered in a half circle, looking wildly, blindly about him. Then, quickly looking at and away from the cat, he moved to one side and toward the house, but he stopped abruptly and turned to hurry to the street. He saw the cat again, just as his foot was descending upon it. He twisted his body awkwardly to the left and felt his ankle collapse in the instant of consciousness before he fell heavily over the cat and struck the sidewalk face down.

*****

When the old man regained awareness it was twilight. He lay motionless, listening. He heard nothing. He moved his head slowly to one side. His nose was numb. He could feel the dried blood on it and knew it was broken. Very slowly, listening intently, he began to move. He was distantly aware that his ankle was broken. The sharp pain was there, unbearable if he thought about it.

He felt rather than saw the darkness as he inched along the sidewalk until he was turned toward the house. He saw the exposed white bone on the cat’s neck as he crawled by, pulling his way with his elbows.

As the old man came closer to the front door, his breathing grew louder through his open mouth and he choked briefly on his spittle. He crawled the last few feet in increasing terror as he heard the sounds of his body betraying him to the unseen enemy.

At the open door the old man half rose, then fell forward and sideways and attempted to close the door before his legs were completely in. Tears ran down his face as he got the door closed and lay gasping on the floor. Suddenly he cried out again and struggled upright against the door to put the bolt in the upper lock.

Holding on to the wall, he hobbled in the dark to the front room, and then crawled to his chair. He tried desperately to find the switch on the lamp by the chair, found it with shaking hands, turned on the light, then knocked the lamp over onto his lap. He held the lamp up to see the clock.

Twelve minutes until seven.

He quickly turned off the light, still holding the lamp in his lap. He listened. He could hear only the heavy ticking of the clock. He had never been so frightened in his life. He was alone. Everything outside the house, the house itself, was closing in. The enemy was listening, waiting, ready to strike. He could feel the enemy, he almost knew the enemy, he could sense it, almost remember. The crime, the guilt, the unspeakable, the horrible revenge. He felt it, could almost know it. It had him. There was no escape. The unthinkable would happen, it was coming, it had to be, he could almost know what it was. It would be terrible, the most terrible thing of all. The time, the time—

The old man feverishly switched the light on. Three minutes until seven. He left the light on and stared at the clock, listening to the seconds. He thought once of the cat as his pulse began beating louder in his head. He heard the sounds outside coming closer, and it was part of the throbbing near-explosion in his head. Not yet, his mind screamed. Not yet! Not yet!

The old man stared blindly at the clock. He heard the muffled sound at the door and cried, “Not yet!” And then as the pounding in his head reached explosion he fell forward, eyes protruding, face frozen, the old man knew the enemy who had come for revenge, and in the last seconds of his life, he heard the crash, the rushing steps, the giggles, the taunting onslaught of youth, the wicked life force pressing in on him, triumphant youth.

 

Games Best Played Alone

by Wendy C. Williford

 

Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, yet you can’t even sink the three ball in the center pocket.

Countless nights you’ve been coming here and it’s always the same. The faces are different but in essence they never really change—just a floating mass of bodies that have crowded in, all seeking some strange comfort they’ve been unable to find in their family and work lives. It doesn’t make a great bit of sense, yet, it gives comfort that for a few hours a night you can identify with them, pretend to share a semblance of their problems, fears, hopes, and aspirations. It gives you a chance to be like them before you’re dreadfully reminded that there is nothing in you akin to them, not the same mind, not the same bodies, not even the same DNA. You were raised around them, went through puberty and adolescence with them, entered into manhood along with them, but it doesn’t change the fact that you weren’t born with them, didn’t breathe the first breath of oxygen with them, didn’t suckle your mother’s breast along with them. You are not any of them and it torments you inside.

The glowing neon of the Miller Lite sign looms above the rusty chair in which you’ve taken a seat. Staring at the pool table, you contemplate the next shot. Tonight, you’re stripes and solids, not because you couldn’t find anyone to play with, but because you prefer it that way. It’s just among the many games you play alone, having realized at a young age that you can best anyone at anything without even breaking a sweat in your little finger. These people don’t even offer a challenge anymore. The rednecks take one look at you and assume you haven’t got the sense that their god gave to a mule. The college frat boys think you’re nothing but a middle-aged man, unable to socialize with others, although in truth you’re only a little more than ten years their senior. At least by Earth’s years. And the young girls think you’re something to be pitied as they lean over the tables around the pool-hall, giving you a glimpse down their unbuttoned shirts, the dim lights above silhouetting the curve of their breasts. As they catch the hypnotic trance they’ve placed on you, they pop back up, giggling, gently stroking their clenched fist up and down the cue stick, thinking they’re giving you a fantasy to take back to your singles apartment before they turn around and place a deep kiss on the guy they’ve come with. If only they knew you could look through their clothing anytime you wanted, able to see the color of their thong underwear, birthmarks on their upper thighs, or if they have pierced nipples. But that’s your secret. Even though it would make for one hell of a pickup line, you keep it to yourself. In the end, none of them can fill the void She left.

Taking out a cigarette, you dig through your pocket for a lighter. It’s not as if they’re going to kill you. That very fact makes the thrill a little less enjoyable, but it makes you blend in, so you suck in all the nicotine you can handle, letting it settle deep in your lungs before blowing up to the ceiling, watch the smoke waft through the air of the pool hall and mix with the smoke of the others. The country band on the stage is playing a slow dance; the lead singer in his tight Wranglers and black Stetson thinks he’s country’s answer to Jim Morrison as he eyes a table of young women in the crowd, their bodies swaying to his trite lyrics. It’s a nuisance that you can read their thoughts, but that’s not due to any particular power, you’re just more in tune with human nature. Eyes are the giveaway, next the small pulsing in their necks or wrists. You could be a human lie detector from across the room and that thought makes you laugh.

Human. If they only knew.

You concentrate on the pool table once again. If you strike the cue ball with moderate force at a seventy-three degree angle from the left, it will knock against the purple solid four, send it into the left wall, one inch from the center pocket, ricochet toward the blue solid two, hit its left side, force the purple striped twelve to travel to the red solid three, which will go directly into the right center pocket, meanwhile, the twelve striped will continue on its path, strike the eight ball, send it toward the front right corner pocket, stop five inches away, where you want it to stay until the end of the game. You take a deep sigh. This game is becoming so predictable.

As you crush out your cigarette, Valerie approaches. You hear the sway of her hips before she even enters your eyesight.

“Hon, you want another Budweiser?” her raspy voice rises over the music. She likes you because you tip well. She picks up the five empty longnecks, along with their peeled labels, and places them on her corkboard tray. You nod as you finally glance her way. Your eyes settle on her bar logo t-shirt. She has a pearl-studded bellybutton ring. It’s infected but she’s not aware of it yet. You reach for your wallet, pull out a $20 and hand it to her.

“I gotta say, sweetheart, you are too good to me. You keep this up and I might just have to take you home with me one night.” She smiles and tosses her curly blonde hair over her shoulder. Unconsciously, she picks a piece of lint away from the cuff of your white long-sleeve shirt, oblivious to what the shirt is hiding.

“It’s all good in theory,” your deep voice caresses her ears, “but we both know you’d worry that I might not leave in the morning.”

She laughs, knowing it’s only a joke but truth lies within it. She places the $20 in her tab book and mindlessly scratches her stomach. “It’s a chance I’ll have to take, isn’t it?”

Valerie turns and heads back to the bar. She puts more effort in the sway of her hips this time. You like to watch women play their games with you, teasing you with the way they lick their lips or hold their posture just right to give you the fullest advantage point of their chests. Valerie is no different than the others but it doesn’t bother you. You let her think she’s in control of you, that she’ll keep you at a distance as long as it suits her, but little does she know that with one hot breath in her direction, you’ll have her wet before she knows what hit her. It’s all you’ll give her, though. It’s all you’ll give any of them. And it’s all Her fault. You shake your head, try to make the thought go away and get up.

You chalk your hands, then chalk the end of the cue stick. The blue dust settles over the hairs on the back of your hand. Blowing the dust away, you lean over the table and push your glasses back up the bridge of your nose. As you slide the cue stick against the back of your knuckles, you take the shot. The balls scatter around the green felt, none of them going in the direction you had intended. “Fuck!” you mutter to yourself. The angle must have been wrong. The thought that you might be losing your touch doesn’t even enter your mind.

Valerie returns with the beer. She keeps a $5 for herself, the rest she brings back as quarters. After she sets them on the table, she empties the ashtray into a bowl of half-eaten, stale tortilla chips she removed from a different table.

“The kitchen’s closing in twenty. Do you want anything to eat tonight?”

You shake your head, thinking about the next shot. Maybe a sixty-four degree angle will work this time. Valerie waits for attention, but when you fail to give it, she shakes her head—the pity shake—and walks away, lightly scratching her stomach with her pinkie.

It wasn’t always this way. The top of your class, a promising career as a reporter, and a decent salary were just the highlights of your accomplishments, at least the accomplishments that made you similar to them. It was the normality you always craved, it was the only thing that you yearned for and desired. Until you met Her. It wasn’t in a seedy bar or out on the streets. It was in the copy room. She smiled bashfully, hoping you hadn’t heard her kicking the machine from the hallway, asked if you were the repairman, unaware you were a new hire. Her jet black hair fell against her shoulders, a lock brushing against her collarbone. Two buttons were undone on her white blouse, revealing nothing but her slender neck and that collarbone. It was the first time you realized how that particular part of a woman was the sexiest thing you’d ever seen. You could have easily seen what was hidden beneath her blouse, under the black skirt that hung just below the knees, even the shape of her toes in the black pumps. But you didn’t. You wanted to keep it a mystery. There was a purity about her you didn’t want to violate. She took your breath away and you wanted to earn the chance of having her do it again and again. And again.

She played hard to get with the same expertise as the others. For months you watched her, taking every moment you could to memorize her face, the curve of her hips, the way she held a file against her chest with her other hand cocked on her waist as she intently listened to Murray, the editor-in-chief, raise his voice to her about deadlines, gutter widths, the expense of color photos and circulation decline, all the while, smiling, nodding when he accentuated a point and knowing full well she wasn’t taking a single word he said seriously. In the middle of the tirade, she glanced at you from the corner of her eye, gave a quick smile, letting you in on her amusement, and gave a final nod with a “Yes, sir! I’m on it.” She walked away, her womanly scent overpowering you as she passed your desk, her finger trailing against the lacquered simulation oak, her body heat leaving behind an imprint on the wood that only you could see. You loved her. It scared you to death.

But that’s the past. What did you have, a few good dates? A few nice dinners, a few good movies all ending the same, heavily kissing in the hallway outside her apartment door. The heat of her body is still emblazoned in your mind, along with the throaty moans she gave you as you pressed your body against hers, her hands entwined around your neck, then pulled away as you freed her shirttail and slid your hand up her back. With swollen lips, she gave the same excuse each time. It was always an early deadline and you bought it despite the fact you knew the truth. She just wouldn’t let you get close, no matter how many times you tried to prove to her that you weren’t like the ones before. In the end, you finally concluded, it wasn’t that she didn’t trust you, she didn’t trust herself. And it was the irony that hit you like a ton of bricks when you finally realized. It wasn’t the fact that she didn’t like you, she was just holding out, waiting for the man who secretly held her heart.

Him.

The other You.

You don’t regret saving her life. Any decent man would have done the same. It was the second time you did so which sealed your fate and left her utterly devoted to you. You mean him. You are two different people, you remind yourself. One, the man of steel, the idol of half the world, a dark fantasy of millions of women, any of whom you can take your pick; the other, a fumbling reporter who trips over your own shoelaces, gets sweaty palms and stutters when you ask a woman out. But you never wanted any of those women, just her. It was always her.

It’s your own damn fault, however. You’ve stopped speeding cars, out of control trains, but you couldn’t stop her. What was it that held you back, stopped you from taking off your glasses when that dark cloud loomed over you as she showed you the transfer letter? Why couldn’t you look her in the eyes, reveal to her it was you who had held her in your arms as you both floated down to the sidewalk after she nearly fell from that balcony. What blinded her to the fact that it was your shoulders she caressed when you pulled her out of the burning car, your lock of hair on the back of your head that she twirled around her finger, your neck her breath shuddered against when you told her she was safe. Why did you fool yourself into thinking she’d figure it out? Why couldn’t you have found the nerve to tell her? Even as she hailed the taxi for the airport, she turned to look at you one last time, your breath caught in your throat, you finally managed to say, “I am…” But the impatient honk of the driver pulled you out of the lock of her stare and you left her with “sad to see you go.”

That was eight months ago, and you wonder how your non-human heart can still ache so much. Perhaps it’s the reason you come to these honky-tonks night after night, searching for the answer, surrounding yourself with kindred spirits who are feeling the same pain, listening to the twangy whine of the singers who deliver ballads to the women who left them broken shells of their former selves. You understand why the suicide rate among country music fans is so high.

A moth circles the faux stained glass lightshade hanging above the pool table. The sound of its little body knocking against the plastic brings you back to the present. You look at your watch, decide it’s not too late for a few more quiet games. The thirst for more beer overcomes you and you go back to the table, finish the bottle, and reach for another cigarette. The orange flame dances inside your cupped hand, and as the haze from the first drag fades away, you notice a man has walked up to the table and is making himself busy pushing the cue ball back and forth along the felt. His eyes can’t hide his disappointment. He takes a moment to inspect the cue ball, paying careful attention to the little blue flecks covering the small sphere.

“I thought I’d find you here,” he says. He puts the cue ball back down and looks up, awaiting your acknowledgement.

You smirk at him. It’s just like him to try to get involved, his never-ending quest to be the savior to the saviors. “Mr. Wayne,” you say, almost snidely, the beer has renewed your strength. “What brings you out slum hopping?”

“Don’t call me Mr. Wayne, I’m…”

“I know,” you interrupt. It’s not a matter of reading his mind this time. “You’re just Bruce. I get it.”

Bruce lets out a deep sigh. He rolls his tongue against his lips, finding the right words to say to you. There are few people in the world who understand you and he is one of them.

“It’s been a while since we’ve talked. Are you holding up okay?” He takes off his leather gloves and shoves them in the pocket of his long black coat. You try to ignore him, move to his side of the pool table and place the cue ball back exactly as it was before he got there. He should know how much it annoys you when things are moved around. With the cue stick, you bend down, close one eye and work out a new strategy.

“I’d like you to come by my office next week,” he says. His head slowly revolves around, looking at the walls of the pool hall, spending a few moments looking at the girls at the other tables, then the cigarettes and beer bottles at your table.

“Don’t tell me you need my help with some big business venture,” you scoff. His mere presence in the last five minutes has managed to annoy you. You know why he’s here. He knows the wreck you’ve been since she left and he feels it’s his duty to talk you off whatever ledge he thinks you’re walking.

“Of course,” he says with a nod, attempting to placate you. “It’s business.”

Straightening up, you eye the pool table again, wonder if he plans on being here a while. Valerie comes by, sets another beer on the table. “Can I get your friend anything, hon?”

He shakes his head, as if it’s beneath him to drink with you. He’s so self-righteous, so predictable. Out of all of the lousy places in this city, he crashes one of the few safe havens you have left.

“He won’t be staying long.” You pull another bill out your wallet, not even bothering to notice the denomination. Whatever it is, Valerie will keep what she thinks is fair and bring you back the rest. You wait for her to leave before turning back to Bruce and give him a look that tells him he’s worn out his welcome. He’s slow to get the hint, especially when you gather some quarters and bend down to insert them in the slot. The current game is a bust. You push in the lever, sending the balls back through the long tunnel to the final chamber, racking and rolling against each other, the noise drowning out the sound of his disappointed sigh.

Bruce reaches into his pocket and pulls out his gloves, takes his time placing them on each hand. “I’ll see you next week?’

“I said I would,” you say. You take the balls out of the cabinet and haphazardly toss them on the table.

“Monday, if possible.”

He notices the shake of your head as you place the balls in the triangle. This part is important. Red Solid Three, Green Striped Fourteen and Yellow Striped Nine, Blue Solid Two…

“Are you listening to me, Jerry?”

The heat spreads to your face and you try to remain calm. How dare he? He knows full and well what you’re capable of and he breaks the so called bonds of friendship by doling out an insult such as this? The nails dig into your palms. You know you’re a better man than this. What would people think if you start a fight in the middle of a bar? What would she think if she heard about it?

“What did you call me?” You inhale deeply, wondering if you might have just misunderstood him through the din that permeates the room.

Bruce clears his throat. “I said, Clark, are you listening to me?”

You laugh. It’s strange what tricks the mind can play, especially mixed with a little stress.

“Yeah,” you reply, giving him a friendly smile. No harm, no foul. “Sure, Monday. First thing.”

He’s finally pleased. Friendships are about give and take, aren’t they? If it’s that important to Bruce that you make a visit to his office, then why not? You’re both in the same game, after all—your own secret club, both fighting for truth and justice for all. You take a moment to clear your head. How can you stay mad at him for long? He’s only looking out for you, has been for years.

Bruce clears his throat and moves out of the way as you go around the pool table. You’re lost again in the game. The first shot is a make or break deal. Nothing else matters except for this very first shot.

“We need to take a look at your meds. Just tweak them a bit.”

You nod, wonder why of all things he has to bring up those stupid sugar pills he’s been giving you for the past eight months. He told you they’d help relax you, help you sleep, help take your mind off of her leaving. You relented, just to make him happy. You knew the game he was playing. It was all psychological. The pills didn’t do anything for you at all, just made you think they were working. In the end, you cured yourself—without pills and with very little interference from him. Yet, you can see it in his eyes, he still wants to help you.

“Sure,” you reply, playing along. “They give me gas, anyway.”

Bruce actually laughs. He ties his scarf around his neck. “Do me a favor?”

You nod, sure, anything.

“You have to lay off of the beer. If your insurance discovers it, they might deny your coverage.”

You look back to the table in the corner. One empty, one waiting. “I’ve only had the two.”

Bruce nods. You wonder if that’s disbelief you see on his face.

“At any rate.” He turns and leaves.

You watch as he walks out the door and give it a few minutes just in case he decides to come back in. You finish the beer Valerie left. You’re feeling calm, content, and lucid. You check your watch. Almost midnight. You’ve been out too long. Rather than hanging around for last call, you decide to leave. If you stay any longer, Valerie will offer to call a cab and you won’t have enough left to pay the fare. There’s also a chance she might take you up on your flirtatious suggestion from earlier. She’s a nice girl, but simply not your type.

The new game you set up remains unplayed. Perhaps it’s for the best. You grab your coat, slip it on and start buttoning up. A familiar itch plagues you. You reach up and rub your neck, feeling the hem of the blue lycra suit you wear underneath. There hasn’t been any use for it for days, months even. But still, you never leave home without it, just in case.

You leave the bar, bidding Valerie goodnight as you walk out the door. It’s only a few blocks to your apartment and the weather outside is not as bitter as it usually is this time of year. The walk is invigorating and beats a cold shower.

The night is quiet and peaceful. Only the drone of the streetlights hums in your ears. As you pass the side alley of the second block, another sound begins to resonate in your ears. You want to ignore it, but it grows louder with each step along the pavement. It’s all too familiar, too filled with desperation. Why are you the only one who hears it? Why are you the only one who cares enough to respond?

Looking down the dark alley, you are given evidence as to why you sometimes hate the people you share this planet with. Two young men are beating up on another younger man. He’s on the ground, his arms in the air, protecting himself against their blows. His face is bloody, his nose is already broken, two teeth missing, crying for them to stop. The bigger of the assailants is yelling. He’s high, possibly on crack; you can smell it all the way from where you stand. The smaller of the assailants has ceased his assault and is now rummaging through the young man’s coat, looking for money, perhaps looking for another fix.

You know what you should do, what your responsibility is. The overwhelming need to step in, fight the injustice and protect the week burns through your core. It’s a burden none feel as keenly as you. With one effortless movement, you can shed your disguise, prove to yourself once again you’re needed, you’re depended upon, and reclaim the feeling that faded when she left. There has to be something in this world that will make you feel alive again.

It’s instinctive to go down there, but you don’t. Tonight, selfishness takes over—a trait you’ve managed to avoid all of your life. Turning away, blocking out the sounds of the world, you resign yourself to a simple resolve: you can’t save them all.

You wonder if you can even save yourself.

 

The Rationale

Rationale

Illustration by Billy Tackett

by G.M. Weger

 

In the early morning hours I awoke from a dream, and he was standing in the doorway. He had his father’s olive skin, green, catlike eyes, and wavy golden hair. There was something familiar about him, so I didn’t scream. He came and sat at the foot of my bed.

“Do you know me, mother? I’m your son, Aaron.”

I was speechless. He was so close that I could smell his salty skin and grease-stained hands. I thought that I must be in that state halfway between the waking and the sleeping. Last night was All Hallow’s Eve, the night where it is said that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is lifted and one can speak with their departed loved ones. I laid out my offering of crackers and cheese, ham, carrots, some truffles, and shots of rum—things I thought my relatives would enjoy after their long journey across the worlds. I set out pictures of my mother and grandmothers—my grandmother’s engagement ring, my mother’s pearls, an embroidered tablecloth made by my maternal grandmother—things that reminded me of them or once were theirs, and three small stuffed toys for my lost babies.

“Am I dreaming?” I asked the young man.

“No Mother, you’re not.”

“Why have you come?”

“You invited me.” His manner was direct, matter-of-fact, short.

“How did I do that?”

“You put the blue bear on the table for me and asked that I come.”

“Are you my first?”

“Yes.”

I remember the tacky upstairs apartment I lived in with his father. The passionate fights we used to have. How he would push me around so violently, throw me up against the wall, just short of hitting me. I remember making up after the fights, how good the sex would be, the orgasms, like a surprise. I remember the hurt when Mike wouldn’t go with me to have the abortion. I was so young. It meant nothing to me to get rid of it.

“Is this how you would be if I had you or how I want to see you?”

“This is the truth. I’ve got the scars to prove it.”

Aaron looked older than his twenty-four years. It was in his eyes—pain, defeat, anger, defiance—things that weren’t supposed to be in a young man’s face. The eyes tell so much. Looking at old school photos of my sister I could tell what happened that year just by looking at her eyes. They went from childlike, happy, and innocent, to pissed-off and stoned. Lost was the sweetness of youth. But where did it go? When was the exact moment that the eyes changed? Was it when I was born and took the attention away? Was it the first time I betrayed her by going out with Mike?

“What do you want, mother?”

He didn’t want to be there. I could tell by the way he was sitting close, but with a wall between us. “Just to see you, I guess. I’ve often wondered what you would have been like… if I’d had you.”

“Yeah? I’ve got some questions for you too.” He stood up. “Like, why was I born?”

I was too young to be living with a man. He was the quintessential bad dude—a drug-addicted whore who’d do anything for pleasure. I don’t know how we rented our places to live, but we did—two of them. It was in the second one that I got pregnant. By that time, in addition to pot and booze, I’d either smoked swallowed or snorted quaaludes, valium, seconal, acid, cocaine, morphine, crank, angel dust, mushrooms, and pretty much anything I could find in a medicine cabinet. The time spent with Mike is a blur of drugged-out scenes.

“But you weren’t born. I aborted you.” I finally answered, confused.

“You didn’t want me then. That’s worse.”

“How can it be worse when the life I would have given you was so… insane?”

He glared at me and turned his head toward the window. I could see it then. It wasn’t visible on the left side of his face—a lovely, clear complexion with the smooth, olive skin of his Portuguese father. The right was different, like the front side of a cheese grater—angry purple craters—the scars we gave him from our sexual ignorance, and he wore without choice. They were his warrior marks.

“It’s like saying that it’s better not to try because you might fail. You took away my life.”

“It’s complicated Aaron.” I suddenly felt drained. How could I justify my choice to him? I was just a child without thought for what precious life was growing inside me.

He left then. Just turned and faded into a zillion black specks that fell away like so much flea dirt. I wanted to shake it off of me and leave it there, having been its host for too long. I closed my eyes. Silence, how I longed for it.

“Hey, Ma.” It was a young woman’s voice. “Wake up.”

She was small and sinewy with yellow skin and dark eyes that peered from beneath her dirty brown hair.

“I’m not your mother. Perhaps you should check with the desk for the correct room number.”

“This be it.” She stood with legs planted and hands on her tiny hips. “July 23rd, 1985. Remind you of anything?”

Hawaii, I thought, and a miserable, self-obsessed young woman with a penchant for men and mai tais, and an exotic man who spoke broken English. He wanted to send the baby to his Brazilian mother to raise. All I wanted was to be put to sleep during the procedure.

“Are you Carlos’s daughter?” I asked, but the answer was there in front of me in full jaundiced color. “What do you want of me now? I’m old.”

She sneered. “You’re not so old.”

“I must have a fever,” I mumbled, feeling my forehead.

She twittered, “That’s right, mom, I’m a fucking hallucination.” She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her bag and lit one, inhaling as naturally as if it were air. I smelled the scent of cloves then and remembered how it used to cling to everything in Carlos’s house. I had liked it at first. It was a sort of sweet and spicy scent that was intoxicating to the senses, but after a time it wore on me and made me nauseous. After discovering that Carlos regularly went to a methadone clinic to kick heroine, the cloves smelled a lot less exotic and much more pathetic. I had to get away.

I waved my hands trying to clear the air. Perhaps she would disappear too, but she didn’t. Instead, she pulled a chair close and blew smoke up toward her nose impatiently. “So, Ma, why’d you drag me here?”

“I did no such thing.” Then I remembered the doll I had set out. “I was just reminiscing. I’m entitled to that.”

“No, it’s the drugs and death waiting. The stink in here! It’s poisoning your mind.”

“You must know. It follows you, as it did your father.”

“Bitch! I didn’t crawl out from a rock, you know? You made me!”

Yes, of course, she was right, and it was another mistake. The timing was inconvenient. I wasn’t ready to be a mother. And I certainly didn’t want Carlos to be the father. But there it was anyway. He was so pitiful and hopelessly inadequate as a potential mate. There was no way I was going to have a child by him. The only thing I could do was run away and have the abortion without telling him.

Looking at her now, I knew I had made the right decision. I could see the signs like a road map on her arms. At eighteen or nineteen years old, she was already a big time user. Judging from the color of her skin, her liver was in a highly toxic state. I had seen enough and shut my eyes, so I wouldn’t have to see her accusatory glare. As artfully as a master magician, I said, “Be gone,” and waved my hands. When I opened my eyes, only her smell lingered, but her name, like a cacophonous note shrieked in my head, “Me-lo-dee!”

I breathed deeply in-out, in-out. My breath came as a meditation. It cleared my head. The chatter in my brain finally stopped. I felt my heart slow and then the usual sadness crept in and sat in my chest. I was utterly alone.

There was a whistling sound coming from the window. I went to open it a crack and a small child’s hand snaked through, then a mop of reddish hair, a flannel blue pendleton over thin shoulders, a blue-jeaned backside, and finally well-worn ankle-high tennis shoes. He stood up, shaking his hair out of his blue eyes. I immediately recognized this ruddy-faced boy. “Billy,” I said, holding out my arms to him. But he didn’t come to me. Instead, he shuffled a safe distance away into the shadow by the door. “Come here, Billy. It’s ok,” I coaxed, but he didn’t budge.

“Who are you?” he croaked.

“I’m…” I began. The question, coming as it did from a nine-year-old child, gave me pause to consider more deeply. Children had a way of cutting to the core of a thing. Indeed, what was I to this boy? His father and I were engaged to be married when he was growing in my uterus. I was finishing a ten-year gig in college. At the age of twenty-nine, I was introduced to sex toys and was having a fine time. Jim was fat and balding with bad teeth, but I’d told myself those things didn’t matter. The end came when I became critical of his attempts to keep me barefoot and pregnant. I had bigger plans. Double income, no kids, was my mantra.

I heard a whimper from the corner of the room. Billy was hunched there, his blue shirt lifted up in the back showing his pale, almost luminous skin. It was mesmerizing. Godlike. I went to him, touching his soft hair and felt a warmth through my hand, a sense of comfort and relaxation, like I could get lost in the child.

“Billy, son, let me hold you.”

But he squirmed away just out of reach into the darkest corner of my room.

I called to him again. And then I saw him. He was shorter than Billy, but bigger in a gangly sort of way. He didn’t walk; he jerked to me with arms outstretched reaching. His face was distorted, a grotesque caricature of my angel boy, Billy.

“No!” I screamed, shrinking away from his devil touch. I shut my eyes relieved in a way to finally receive my punishment.

“Wake up Mrs. White,” I heard the nurse say.

He was gone or hiding. “Where is he?”

“Your babies? It was a long ordeal, but they’re resting.”

“Billy’s twin. He was here. He wanted to hurt me.”

The nurse looked quizzically at me. “Are you feeling okay, Mrs. White? Let’s just check your vitals…”

“No, pleeeease tell me!”

“Mrs. White, there’s no one here. Just you and me.” The nurse was all business with her pressed uniform and hair pulled into a tight little bun on the back of her head. Her mouth was a razor slit in her face, a single gaping hole that her voice came through.

I looked around the room for Billy, not ready to believe he was gone. “But he was here a second ago!”

“Let’s try to relax, Mrs. White. It’s been a difficult day. You must conserve your strength. Your babies will need you.”

“My babies?”

As if on cue, Dr. Koonan walked into the room. “And how’s our little mom doing? Feeling more rested?”

“I’m feeling confused doctor.”

“Confused? About what?” The nurse was raising her eyebrows at Dr. Koonan like they shared a confidence.

“What babies?”

Then, as if through some wizardry of its own, the door pushed open and in came a very large, clear plastic bassinet. Inside something moved.

“There must be a mistake. These aren’t mine.”

“Every mother feels a bit overwhelmed at first, Mrs. White.”

The nurse pushed the bassinet closer to the bed. I turned my head away.

“You’re so lucky to have three healthy, beautiful babies, Mrs. White.”

“Three?”

The nurse glanced at the window. It was still open. “You mustn’t think on the other one. He didn’t develop… normally.”

I looked at the doctor questioning.

“He was stillborn.”

The nurse was insistent. “Look at them, Mrs. White! Your babies!”

I did. There were three tiny infants on their backs. They had small white caps on their heads, each with a ball of colored yarn at the top. Two blue and one pink. But I didn’t need the colors to see their gender. One boy had purple pea-sized marks on the right side of his face. The other had flaming red hair. And the third? They say that babies can’t see details until they are about three months old, but this small girl was glaring right at me with her angry black eyes. A smell began to rise around me, like the stink of a thousand sins. I knew it well.