Sam Harvey has always liked to see trees and flowers through half-open doors. From the bed he gazes at a walkway through a two-foot gap between the French doors of his hospice room. The walkway is lined by a bed of hostas sprouting delicate blue trumpets on spindly stalks and ends at the gnarled black trunk of an oak. The hospice is as pleasant a place to die as he can imagine.
The room is large and filled with light streaming in from the courtyard, which is artfully landscaped and includes his private patio. When the long folds of a filmy, beige curtain that just sweep the gray carpet are pulled back he can see the bird feeder, see macho cardinals and sometimes bloody-crowned finches or anxious, prissy nuthatches, never still.Right now the curtains are closed and there is only the narrow slit to look through. More than enough. A needle’s eye. The thought engages him, though he has always been fiercely unreligious. He rotates the concept, adjusts the needle’s eye to fit the door opening, but loses his purpose, with the deliberation and sudden forgetfulness that characterizes painkiller thinking. A line from a poem – Keats? – floats by: “…into the forest dim.”
The cancer has engulfed his stomach and is pitching out fireballs to plant camps of flame in his pancreas and small intestine, showering sparks into his lymph nodes and bloodstream. Now that he is in the hospice after refusing any more treatment the blaze is accelerating, and he can’t seem to keep his conscious moments from vaporizing in the heat. But he doesn’t care. The glimpses of the cool courtyard are enough.
He has been there a couple weeks – less, maybe? He found the hospice himself, checking out places on the Internet, making calls on his cell phone. His daughter, Julia, brought them to the hospital for him after he said – untruthfully – that he was feeling better and wanted to do some work. Really, laptops and cell phones are enough to beam you from anywhere to wherever you want to go. Of course money and a good lawyer help, too. He couldn’t have done it without Sheldon, his long-time law partner.
A month before he had been in his room at the hospital, awakening from another round of radiation and chemo, another trip to hell, his third in two months. He felt like part of the bed, a wrinkled sheet, except a sheet that could unaccountably feel pain, was in fact composed of pain rather than cloth. He saw Julia sitting by a gray and green machine making funny sounds, like a den of feral animals. He faded out and then came back again, this time clearly a person, Sam. A viscous, slimy Sam.
He shifted to look at Julia. She was wearing a turquoise dress and a necklace of big, different colored rocks, blue, brown, green, red, simple colors. She looked like a kid, as always. She glanced up from her book.
“Daddy.” She kissed his cheek. Deep lines ran from her nostrils to the corners of her mouth. Then the film strip started, bleached from rewinding.
His wife, Grace, is in the room, her wispy hair standing out from her temples as if electrified.
“Do you see what all this is costing me?” Grace says, voice cracking. She throws a sheaf bills onto the bed. They land on his legs, well below the cancer region.
Julia grabs the bills. “Mom, what are you doing? How could you say something like that?” She presses the bills into her chest as if trying to smother them. “Mom, are you out of your mind? ” she says, tears starting.
“Yes. I’m out of my mind with worry,” Grace yells.
They both stand weeping. Sam is throttled by a clot of nausea, as if a bat were trying to fly out of his throat.
“Fuck,” he shouts, trying to clear both his chest and his head.
“It’s okay, Daddy. Don’t pay any attention to her,” says Julia, grabbing his fists, which are pushing against his belly.
“I’m going to die poor and no one cares,” yells Grace.
Later, Sam listened to the hissing and scratching of the machine. Raccoons, maybe? Was it night? He was not so astonished at his wife. Or at anything, come to that. The list of indignities had grown too long. But with Grace in particular he had seen it coming. When he was first diagnosed she said, “What about all the plans we made? What about all those things we were going to do when you retired?
In the hospice, he imagines Grace dribbling Rose’s lime juice into vodka and ice, sitting at the kitchen table where bills are spread out. How could one bill have so many items? There are four pages of lines so small and closely spaced she can barely read them beyond the first item at the top of each page. I’m going to be staring at bills for the rest of my life, she thinks. It’s too much. Why is Sam leaving me with this mess?
Sam always treated me like an idiot about money. Now all of a sudden I have to do everything. What am I getting out of this? I always let him do it all his way, it was easier than fighting about it. Now I’m just some something to be paid off, like these bills. It’s not fair.
Grace’s head is splitting and she is drenched with sweat. She runs a finger over her forearm and stares at a drop of moisture she has scooped up on the tip. Look at that. See, it’s killing me. And I always loved him. A sweet smell of garbage sweeps through the kitchen. She tilts the vodka in her teacup, pondering the shifting surface.
Another time, he sees Julia.She is trying on a pink dress. It is a little tight across the top – not unattractively – and the skirt is full and swirly. Julia loves it, but she can’t afford it, even though it’s marked down 20 percent like all of the summer clothes now. But it’s exactly what her father likes, she thinks, girlish and just on the romantic side of sexy. It’s too young for someone who’s 40, of course, but she’s stuck in time by the looks he used to give her in high school and college, his pride at having a pretty daughter – pretty, smart, charming. You’ve got it all, he’d say, hands spread out as if no one could ask for more.
She wonders if he still feels that way. She’s not married and has no real job, just working at Starbucks and doing occasional free-lance consumer writing -- the best places to shop for boots or perfume or chocolates. But he loves her, he’d always helped her out, he’d forgive her anything, that she’s sure of. She pays for the dress and smiles too brightly, relieved that the credit card charge goes through.
What Sam can’t bring up is the scene where they get to the hospital and find him gone, nobody knows where. All he can picture is a kind of jerky spinning, like a carnival tilt-a-whirl. He had to leave, even though the doctors said he could have months more if he continued the treatments. He has no taste for it. Grace and Julia want him to continue as ringmaster. But it’s time to drift. Let them live their own lives at last.
They will find him, of course. Any concerted search is bound to turn up the hospice. It’s the best there is, world-renowned. But by then all will have been engraved in stone. What an apt use of the old cliché, he reflects serenely. His mind flickers away, and he opens his eyes a slit to the walkway outside the door. The breeze has pushed it open a little wider.
Bio: J.Linn Allen teaches journalism and writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and has recently had his first fiction publication in the ezine, Sweaterbrain.
Hurrying himself around a boxy, council pre-fab building, Donald arranged eleven plastic chairs in a circle, all ready for the new-comers who were to attend the A.A. meeting.
With the room now ready, and looking as though a séance were about to take place in it, Donald placed his rotund frame on a small, uncomfortable chair that was set behind a tiny desk. Squeezed in like a tinned sardine, his stomach protruded over his belt and greeted the edge of the table with a plump kiss. From a beaten, brown leather case, he pulled out a plastic thermos flask and an enormous, novelty Homer Simpson mug. He poured himself a coffee, sipped, and let out a relieved sigh as he awaited the arrival of the members who'd signed up to the meeting.
Whilst he drunk his coffee, from a side pocket on his case he retrieved a leather-bound diary. He flicked through until he located the required page. On this page was a list of names, all of whom were shortly to attend his meeting. Donald liked to try and put a face to the names; see if he was somewhere near the mark when they eventually turned up.
He had arrived at the third name down and, picturing a rather rough looking character in his mind's eye, a gentle knock on the door dissolved the image.
Donald escaped the clutches of the confining office furniture and swiftly made his way over to greet the first of his members.
He opened the door to a young, attractive woman and three middle-aged men, two of whom you would call very ordinary looking and the other bordering eccentric.
On initial meeting, it didn't matter who was behind the door, Donald always thought they had the appearance of naughty school children, all standing in line outside a headmaster's office awaiting stern discipline. It was as though admitting being an alcoholic was so shameful to them that they thought an imminent scalding was heading their way.
"Ah ha! Welcome, welcome, do come in," Donald cried, suddenly becoming over animated. He gesticulated like an orchestra conductor with his chubby hands.
The four members passed each other quick, shy glances before forcing nervous smiles. Then, heads down, they made their way into the room.
Donald led them over to the circle of chairs and asked them to take a seat. "Feel free to chat," he said, "We're still waiting for another six members to show. There's a vending machine in the hall if you require refreshments."
Leaving the strangers sitting in their chairs, Donald returned to his desk and, as he finished off his coffee, there was another knock.
"Come in, come in!" Donald cried.
Three men appeared from behind the door. One was in his early thirties, the other two, late forties. The younger man was scruffy and he'd polished over a pair of scuffed work boots.
After introducing them to the seated members, and then after the absent members finally showed, Donald ticked them off on his list.
"All here." he said.
"You wouldn't believe the amount of people that don't turn up. You know, you've passed the first step just by turning up today."
They remained silent; the embarrassing ambience still lingered in the air. The young woman sat with her hands in her lap and it was as though she was rubbing in an invisible moisturizer. The man with the scuffed boots sat with his legs outstretched and the younger gentleman looked clearly uncomfortable being there; he clenched his jaw as if gritting his teeth would see him through the meeting.
Donald placed the huge mug on his desk.
Right then, he said, ”Ladies and gentleman, my name is Donald, but you can all call me Don. Together, I'm sure I can help you all quit alcohol." He approached the circle of chairs and pulled out the remaining empty one, before sitting amongst his new members.
Donald's presence clearly had a calming effect; everyone apart from the man with his legs outstretched appeared to slouch in their seats.
"Now then, we'll start with a little introduction," Donald said. "Starting clockwise I would like you, in turn, to stand and tell everyone your name and how long you have been an alcoholic. If you want, you could perhaps explain why you want to give it up; what effect it's having on your life."
Sitting on Donald's left was the attractive woman. Now realizing that she was the first to stand, she appeared to stiffen like a pole.
Donald smiled. "In your own time, my dear. Just a short introduction, that's all."
The woman slowly stood and cleared her throat with a feeble cough. "Hi," she began, looking nervous. "My name's Tina. I've been an alcoholic for eight years now." Her eyes met Donald's and he nodded in encouragement. "Um, I want to quit because I can't go out without a drink. I feel useless without it, empty and scared." She then sat down and appeared to study her shoes.
"Thank you, Tina, that was great," Donald said. "Well done, my dear." He then proceeded to stand and began clapping.
Everyone else reluctantly joined in, and Tina's oval face reddened.
The clapping resided and the man wearing the scuffed boots stood up. "My name's Terry," he said. "I've been an alcoholic for about eleven years. I guess I wanna quit 'cos it's affecting my relationship with the wife."
Terry was the rough looking character Donald had pictured in his mind, and as always he had guessed right. "That's brilliant, Terry," Donald said, "Well done!" He thought that Terry had no doubt been sent here by a marriage consultant or his wife; Donald doubted very much that he came here off his own back.
Again everyone clapped and this seemed to inject a dose of confidence as everyone took their turn to stand and introduce themselves.
Donald was now walking around the circle of chairs as the remaining members opened up their hearts to a room full of strangers. He was full of enthusiasm and praise and he nodded and smiled away, his way of making the group feel wanted, to be listened to and understood.
Whilst the ordinary looking man took his turn to stand, Donald returned to his seat within the circle. He took in everything the man said and as always made the person speaking feel as though everyone wanted to listen to them. The man finished and Donald applauded and encouraged everyone else to do the same, although the group was already getting into the swing of things on their own accord.
"Fantastic, Lionel," Donald said. "It feels great to get it off your chest, doesn't it?"
Lionel nodded and everyone except Terry clapped. Donald thought that Terry probably wanted to join in, but he was the sort of guy who'd never show his own emotions.
Now it was the turn of the eccentric looking gentleman. His dyed hair gave the impression he was wearing a wig. His bizarre attire consisted of a pair of orange, cord trousers and a green, tweed jacket. "My name is Gilbert," he said. Terry smirked and even the timid Tina disguised a grin. "I've been a heavy drinker for thirteen years," Gilbert continued. "I want to kick the bottle because I would like more from my life. I don't want to rely on the drink the whole time. I would very much like to meet somebody, live a life with a partner. That's if anyone would ever have me, ha!" Gilbert snorted; he sounded like a donkey as he sucked in and exhaled air as he laughed.
Donald chuckled and clapped, and everyone else joined in, glad they now had the opportunity to disguise their smirks. "Well, Gilbert, I wish you the best of luck in that department," Donald laughed.
The group spent the next twenty minutes chatting about their experiences living with alcohol, and Donald listened and continued to give encouraging words.
After another five minutes, Donald glanced at his watch. "Now then, ladies and gents, I'm glad you all turned up today," he said. "You have all cleared the first hurdle just turning up and admitting you have a problem. Believe me when I tell you that you'll leave here on a high; you'll sleep better now you have talked about it to somebody other than yourself."
Donald then gestured for everyone to stand. "I think we can call it a day. We don't want to rush things. However, I would like you to do something for me before next week's meeting. Call it homework if you like."
Everyone was now listening intently. Donald retired to his desk. "I would like you to think about how you felt opening up here today. Perhaps even write it down, okay? We can spend next week's meeting talking about it... I'll see you all the same time next Friday?"
The whole room agreed as they prepared to leave. Donald watched them all as they headed out into the hall. Gilbert was last out and, as soon as he had left and the door had closed behind him, Donald's face dropped; it was as though every muscle in his face had systematically shut down. "What a bunch they've sent me this month," he said, sighing. With his face in his hands, he slowly shook his head. He then picked up his beaten case and unzipped a side pocket, pulling out a quarter-full bottle of Jim Beam whiskey. He emptied the bottle into his flask and replaced the cap. With the skill of a cocktail waiter he shook the flask, uncapped it and poured the contents into his Homer mug.
"Ahh, that's the stuff," he said, leaning back in his chair. "Oh yeah, that's the spot," he continued, lavishing in the coffee-whiskey concoction as he downed the whole lot in one.
Bio - James hails from sunny old Sussex in the UK. He has loved horror and mystery since day one. Ever since he witnessed the death of King Kong (aged four), he has loved the genre, watching and reading everything that is macabre and grim. He has been published on many online ezines and was featured in two print publications. Once happy with his short story ability, James will attempt the novel .
This story was workshopped on EOTW.
Welcome to Cornpepper
Mitchell Craig Sneddon
Edward Tate, businessman, thirty-four years old, had missed his flight. He had not wanted to drive to the convention, because he had work he needed to do on his laptop, while he flew there. Now it wouldn't be finished because he was forced to drive instead .
Swearing under his breath, Ed is moving fast through the city in his BMW, with GPS and a mini-television news display, swerving through busy traffic. He hasn't checked the map lately so he doesn't realize that he has missed a crucial turn and is headed in the wrong direction. He is glad that at last he left the eight-lane and went to the four-lane highway on the edge of town. Ed accelerates to pass a car and at that moment, he hears his cell phone beckoning with urgency. The new technology, along with the ring, has a voice-activation that sings out, "Answer me! Answer me!" Impulsively, Ed responds cynically to the phone and says, "I will!! I will! Just give me time!!" He reaches for his cell phone with one hand, veers off the road, hits a tree, and totals his car. Everything goes black.
Ed awakens sometime later and looks up. He stands up, stretches his body, and rubs his neck, which he can tell from the pain is bruised. Seeing that he is in a crevice by the road, he turns and looks around to discover that where there was a busy highway, there is now a dirt road. He gets his briefcase and looks for his cell phone but it is not there.
At first, he is scared and confused, but he knows that this is a safe area because he feels a strange comfort in his heart. He starts walking down the road to find help and is amazed at how calm and peaceful it seems, even though he is aware that he could be in danger. He knows that this is a rural countryside, but something about it feels different.
Down the road, a few yards, Ed spies a humongous tree in the middle of the road with huge roots above the ground. A man is sitting on one of the large roots, dressed in overalls with a straw hat. The man on the root stands up and they walk toward each other.
"Hey, there, Fellow, I'm Pete," the man says. "Won't you come on in and join us? We're having a get-together tonight and you're invited. "
Ed looks at Pete who holds a large piece of flat wood that apparently came from the tree. It has millions of little wood chips on it that actually look like writing, but when Ed gets closer, it seems to be one big indentation.
"Are you reading something there?" Ed says to Pete, "What is it?"
Pete responds with a big smile, "Oh, it's the invitation list to our get-together tonight. See, there's your name right there."
Ed looks but he doesn't see anything written there, just a lot of little raised and lowered parts that slightly resembled Braille.
"Go on in, Ed." says Pete, "Just walk on around the tree."
"Say," inquires Ed, " Do you happen to have a cell phone? I need to call my boss and tell him I'm running late for the conference and I won't be there tonight."
"Nope. We don't have any cell phones around here ... not allowed ... besides, you won't need a cell phone for a good long while."
Ed looked at him suspiciously, but decided he would go on. Ed slowly moved around the huge roots of the tree, and suddenly his eyes focused on what appeared to be a beautiful valley lying between two vast, enormous mountains on either side. The tree extended over the whole area of mountains and valley, and a huge rock sat inside the valley. The sun shone brightly, but was partially blocked by the shade of the tree. The bright, white sunlight slivered in, slid around, and danced through the tree limbs and branches. The tree shade extended for many miles and covered green plains and pastures farther than the eye could see.
The sight in front of Ed's eyes was something so beautiful that he slowly dropped to his knees and sat on the ground. Seeing a huge, neverending town perched upon the rock, he started toward it. There were stepping stones on the side of the huge rock, covered by fertile grass and wildflowers. Ed had not seen either a tree or a rock of this magnitude, so large and so enormous that they seemed to extend forever and yet his intellect told him that they must have parameters.
As he walked into the town, he saw that it was heavily populated, with children playing in the shade of the tree as far as he could see. There were many people there, but they were not bunched up together, pushing and shoving. They had enough room to move around, converse, and carry on activities. He saw no vehicles right away, but he was sure some were there somewhere.Simple dwellings were dotted all over the horizon, and he assumed that everyone had his own home.
Moving along, Ed was suddenly aware of pleasant fragrances, penetrating his nostrils, smelling like country air, freshly cut grass, honeysuckles, apple trees, berry vines, ands strawberry plants. There were no loud noises and he noticed that people spoke in quiet, peaceful, friendly, low tones. The land looked spacious, cool, bountiful, and seemed safe.
As he moved through the town, he asked several people whether they had a cell phone or a home phone where he could make a call. He knew that his mother and his girlfriend would be worried about him by now. Everyone was friendly, acting unsurprised that he was there, but patiently responding with, "No, I'm sorry, no phones here, but welcome to you. We're glad you came."
Ed began to feel as if he had walked for thirty miles and several hours, but he seemed to have gone through the city and was coming to the other side. Still awestruck at the beauty of the outstretched environment, he noticed that the tree shaded the whole city. He had never left the shade of the tree. He could see a beautiful, blue sky through the tree branches, a few white clouds floating around, and one that looked amazingly like his pet poodle. He heard a few birdcalls and looked up among the branches to spot a redbird, a bluebird and a few little hummingbirds moving busily.
Suddenly, Ed stopped walking for the first time. He stared with amazement at what he saw on the horizon , the skyline of a huge city with tall skyscrapers, planes in the air, and smoke here and there. He started running toward the grand-looking city because he knew that someone there would definitely have a phone. As he ran wildly, he saw wide roads with heavy traffic, car horns, and loud noises. A river lay between the peaceful town and the grand city, and soon he came to it. Spanning the narrow river was a broken bridge, which held a small sign on his side that stated, "Warning. Bridge is Unsafe."He thought, "It's OK, I can make it - just one man - I'm not that heavy.”
As he started to set a foot on the bridge, he got a better look at the city. People seemed to be like little mice running here and there, with the yelling and loud noises, cankerous odors, people pushing each other, vehicles and signs everywhere, angry people shouting at each other, nothing simple. Then the mayor appeared on several huge television screens on top of several buildings and announced that the terror alert was on super-red, the highest level, indefinitely. Flying through the air above the city were vultures, dark, and black and ready to dive. In the air was a stench of death.
Ed heard a loud series of crashes and he saw a terrible eight-car pileup on one of the roads. People were yelling and crying, and horns were blowing. He put his hands over his ears, and at the same time, he looked down into the waters of the river. The water was murky and dark and nothing could be seen through the water. He looked again at the city and he got a faint sniff of an unpleasant smell.
"What is that awful smell?" he said out loud and he moved his hands from his ears to cover his nose and mouth. Suddenly the city took on a red glow. It was uncomfortable to even look at, and it occurred to him what the unpleasant smell was - fire and brimstone.
He turned and ran desperately back toward the safe city. He saw a large group of people standing at a distance, waiting for him. As he got closer, they moved forward slowly and embraced him.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked with tears streaming down his face. "Why didn't you tell me?"
One of the men answered him compassionately. "Because we knew that you must have the free will to choose, and you yourself were required to make the choice. No one could make the choice for you."
Bio: Mitchell Sneddon is a 14-year old high school freshman from Georgia.This story has been rumbling around in his mind for several years, being modified and changed over time. Three of his poems were published in a poetry book Skeletons in Rhyme: Free Verse for Captive Minds, published in March, 2005. Mitchell is "testing his feet" in the writing world.