B. A. Booher
Dad came home to die. Radiation treatments had been a last ditch effort, a Hail Mary by a godless bunch. He looked fine but winced when I hugged him. Pressed by my ten-year-old hands, the back of Dad's shirt was blood-stained with two small handprints. Even I, his baby girl, caused him pain. Within a week the morphine drip couldn't stop my old man's screams.
Mama was too tired to take care of me properly. She cleaned homes during the day and stood watch over Dad at night. Summer streets hold dying light longer than anything else. I played hide-and-seek with my fears there until I thought my absence might worry Mama.
Mama didn't trust Mr. Greeves. I didn't understand then why she would fret about an older man talking to me. That kind of awareness had not yet fostered itself. I should have listened to Mama.
At the time, my best friend was my dog, Rue. The dog had arthritis and we didn't have the money for any more medicines. Mr. Greeves had done it for free. Seeing me coaxing the dog to get up, he walked over and began stroking Rue's head. "My name's Mr. Greeves, and you are," here he paused in thought, "Hailie Thompson." His voice was thin, not raspy, but windy.
I asked how he knew my name and he just said he knew lots of things. I was uncomfortable with him and his confidence. I tried to be polite and just leave but Rue wouldn't get up.
"I can help your canine companion's pain," said Mr. Greeves. "I promise he'll feel much better and your mother won't need to have the old boy killed."
"She won't have him killed!" Mr. Greeves raised an eyebrow at this. "You don't call it that. You say put to sleep," I explained.
"Is he going to awaken sometime? No, then saying the dog will be put to sleep is a lie. Lying is for incompetent fools. You're not one of those, are you Hailie?" He stood and looked down at me. His brow was furrowed and his gaze pressed down on me. I was about to answer when his upper lip curled slightly just before a smile bloomed across his mouth. "Rhetorical question only. If you don't want me to help this fine dog I will respect your wishes." He stood and tipped his hat in farewell.
I looked at Rue and then back at the departing Mr. Greeves. "What are you going to do to him?"
Mr. Greeves turned around and grinned. "I'm going to suck the pain right out of him."
He did too. I just hoped he could do it for Dad.
Mama hadn't believed me at first. Dad's moaning convinced her to try anything. Dad would fight himself to keep from groaning, but he wasn't that strong. I don't know if she was indulging herself or me. A week before Dad died, Mama asked Mr. Greeves to pay us a visit.
I was told to wait in Dad's bedroom. I hated being in there. All the shades were drawn leaving the room dark even on the brightest days. The light burned Dad's skin, seared his eyes. Occasionally a ray would creep around the sides of the shade and fall on him. He'd scream until we snuffed out the light by hanging a blanket over the window.
Candles Mama had placed around the room were the only source of illumination. Their melting wax smelled of lavender and attempted to cover the stink of a dying man. When he was awake, Dad would stare at the wafting smoke, looking for the secrets of the people only he could see.
I waited in Dad's room but I did not watch my father. I had had enough of watching him die by then. Instead, I peeked through the door, as it was cracked open just enough to allow me to watch Mama and Mr. Greeves talk for a moment. They spoke in hushed tones and quick whispers. He wore a simple uniform of black and white. He was sickly thin with pale skin stretch taut over his tall frame. His smile always started with his upper lip and spread over the rest of his face. He handed Mama his hat to reveal a shock of white hair around his balding pate. She offered to take his small black bag but he kindly refused. I ran over to the side of the bed as they began walking towards the room.
Mr. Greeves slipped into the room and smiled broadly at me. I had pulled up a chair for him so he could sit while examining Dad. Mr. Greeves set his small black bag on the bed and took Dad's right hand in his.
That black bag was a shadow with handles the kind doctors once carried on house visits. I remember the bag the best. The handles were carved ivory yellowed with age. Light from candles crawled over the bag's scaly black leather trying to break into the contents within, but the alligator hide was too slick for the light to grab hold.
The long syringe Mr. Greeves pulled from his bag was like no syringe I had ever seen. The plunger was pewter cast in the shape of a thin tongue curled at the tip. The finger grip, carved to resemble bodies writhing, was ivory like the bag handles and the barrel was glass not plastic. The craftsmanship of the grip and plunger hid the needle by misdirection.
Mama said something about the needle. She wanted to know who else he had used it on or if it was new. He smiled kindly and asked if it really mattered. "I'm taking your husband's suffering," explained Mr. Greeves, "not his disease."
Mama's lip trembled just a bit before she nodded. Mr. Greeves gave me a smile and asked if I could help roll my father over. "I just have to be able to get to the back of his neck." Dad groaned as he was rolled over. I held onto Dad's shoulder while Mr. Greeves propped his knee against his lower spine. Mama held Dad's head still.
Mr. Greeves then inserted the needle where Dad's head met his spine. Yellow liquid swirled with red filled the barrel of the syringe as Mr. Greeves pulled slowly back on the plunger. I thought I was immune to the cacophony of hurt Dad could emit but I was wrong. There was a new note of suffering. While the needle sucked out the liquid, Dad's screams were reduced to whimperings. Dad was never so weak, pathetic.
With the barrel full, Mr. Greeves retracted the syringe and put it back into the black bag. Dad slipped into a peaceful sleep and Mama and I hugged each other. Mr. Greeves smiled kindly at us both.
"Remember," he said, "I don't want any publicity. Don't tell the doctors what I've done because they won't understand it."
Sniffling a bit, I asked why he had to be so secretive. Mr. Greeves crouched down so he could look directly at me. "I'm not of their world of science and medicine. They'd cause trouble," he explained.
Mama flittered around Dad's sleeping form. Mr. Greeves smiled and took my hand. I walked him out to the porch. I asked him to dinner since I knew Mama wasn't paying him anything. He quietly refused. "I need to get home and feed my pet," he told me. He patted his bag absently and looked down the street. He bid me goodbye and started off with a confident gait. The sun was low and his shadow long.
When Mama finally came out of the Dad's room, she slumped onto the couch and rubbed her eyes. I sat by her and she tapped my knee. "Your father's sleeping. I think it's the first time in weeks he's really rested," she said. "Has Mr. Greeves gone?"
"Yeah, he said he had to feed his dog or something," I said.
Mama quickly stepped into the kitchen and pulled down the sugar shaker in the cupboard above the stove. She withdrew a fifty, the first I'd ever seen, and gave it to me. With instructions to give the money to Mr. Greeves and return promptly, she hustled me out the door and into the summer evening air.
It had been less than ten minutes but there was already no sign of the mysterious gentleman. Night was stretching across the sky and heat lightning flashed. I meandered for an hour, first running then walking, but I found no trace of Mr. Greeves.
The next week Dad called me into his room. He asked who had come to visit him. I told him and he nodded as if he already knew. "The pain's gone," he told me, "and so is the fear."
"They stopped talking to me though," he said. "They promised to show me all my friends but I haven't heard from them in so long." He was looking at the wisps of candle smoke. I never really understood what he was saying.
Dad died the next day.
Five years passed before I saw Mr. Greeves again. I needed to call Mama but she was working a double at Jangles on her day off from the factory. I knew she'd be mad at me. I wasn't supposed to be out, especially with Tommy Kline. His bruise was still fresh on me. Thunder threatened rain and I was a long walk from home. Running my tongue over my swelling lip, I stepped out to the road.
Mr. Greeves was sitting at a bus stop with a black umbrella resting between his knees and a hat beside him on the bench. He looked up just as I was coming around the corner. The streetlamp was a pale yellow moon under the clouds. The light cast deep shadows over his eyes and made his hair appear yellow. He smiled and picked up his hat.
"Hailie Thompson, right?"
"Mr. Greeves?" I didn't want to be seen with a bruised ego or busted lip. I also didn't want to be out alone.
A smile crept across his face. "Did you trip?"
I looked away and mumbled a quick and quiet "Something like that." Changing the subject, I told him I didn't think the bus ran after nine. Crestfallen, he offered to walk with me awhile. I had never noticed just how tall he was. When I last saw him I was only ten and most people seemed tall to me. However, as I walked beside him my head could not quite touch his shoulder.
We walked with little discourse between us. I tried not to think about Tommy, and failing to mentally avoid the subject, I tried not to cry in front of Mr. Greeves. Eventually, that failed too. Tears marred my makeup and it was several minutes before I realized Mr. Greeves had his arm around my shoulder. He asked if my mother was waiting for me at home. Learning that I was going home to an empty house, he offered to take me to his home for some tea.
I was astonished to find that Mr. Greeves lived in my neighborhood. I didn't even see the house he steered me toward until I was standing in front of it as Mr. Greeves unlocked the door. The house sat just off the park where I had first met him. Lead gray paint flaking off, it was a surprisingly large house. For its size, I wondered how I had never noticed it before.
With a mild attempt at flourish, Mr. Greeves ushered me in. His feet beat a firm tattoo on the hardwood floors. He guided me through rooms with Pre-Raphaelites on the wall and antique furniture to match. The kitchen was in the back of the house just off the formal dining room. He pulled out a wooden chair beside a butcher-block table as if he were seating me at a fine restaurant. Smiling, I sat down.
He talked of many things while preparing the tea. He asked how Mama and Rue were. I told him about Rue first so I could rush past the dead dog and focus more on Mama. He seemed very interested to know how we had gotten on since Dad died. I asked about the house and he offered to give me a better tour after the tea. As he sat down, he mentioned that it was too bad about Rue dying.
"Why? I mean, at least now I don't need to worry about walking him and we certainly don't have the money for the vet," I rationalized. I held my bone-white cup and sipped the orange spice tea. The flavor was light, not cheap and overpowering. The cup was almost too hot to touch and I cozied up to the near burn.
"I've always been amused at how the masters are always the servants," replied Mr. Greeves. I told him I didn't understand. "I too have a pet and I know which one of us really rules the roost. Who feeds whom? Who has to worry about the other's well being? Watch a dog owner and see who dictates the schedule. The so-called master has to get up at a certain time to walk the dog, get home to walk the dog, so on and on. We live for our pets."
"But they live for us too," I said. "Do you have a dog or a cat?"
"I have a rare breed," explained Mr. Greeves. "Which reminds me, he'll need feeding soon."
"What's his name?"
"Los." We fell silent. I watched slow undulations of steam rise from the cups. Finally Mr. Greeves asked if I wanted it.
I knew what he was talking about instantly. I had not thought to ask the entire time but his question opened the doors of possibility. My jaw ached and the split in my lip still stung, but I thought of his needle trick as a bit of overkill. I told him my lip didn't hurt much.
Mr. Greeves reached across and held my hand in his. "I'd bet womanhood has brought cramps that hurt worse than that little scrape, but then I wasn't really talking about the pain from Tommy's delicate touch. He wasn't even the first one, was he? No, I didn't think so," His grip tightened. "You expect to be left and it hurts. Daddy left, Rue left, Tommy left. They can smell the perfume of self-loathing on your skin and in your hair." He stood and pulled his black bag from off the top of the fridge. "I can take the pain away; you know I can. No headache the next day either or groping for the pills the older boys are so willing to give you. No quick high to mask what ails you, no emotional fugue mistaken as relief. I'll draw out the id's own bile." He pulled the syringe out of the bag.
"I think I should go home now," I said too stunned to really feel indignant. I pulled my collar close and stood up. He gently grabbed my shoulder.
"When your hymen broke, did it feel like penance?" he asked. "Or do you keep doing it to make it seem okay?" His voice dripped poisonous pity. "Just tell me you want the hurting to go away and it won't concern you anymore."
I sobbed and fell into him. The trust I had felt was crushed by his offer to help. He had known all the time and I could see him savor the words describing my pain. My shame a was tight dress on me before him. The disgrace I felt having the man know me so well, the cut of him relishing the suffering, the betrayal of his words all only added to the ache. He knew that too, and he knew I was ready to cave.
"God, please don't," I said.
"God let you hurt. I won't," said Mr. Greeves. I sank back to the chair. He closed his eyes and his nostrils flared as he inhaled. I pulled up my hair to expose my neck and he traced my skin with his finger. His breath was hot against my ear as his fingers slipped down my collarbone.
"I do not have the same proclivities as the other boys for it is only your heart I want," he whispered before telling me to unbutton my top and I choked another sob but did as I was told. When I reached the fourth button he had me stop and pulled my shirt down my shoulder a bit. I tensed and my breasts ached as his calloused hand slid the strap of my bra down. I was not exposed but understood the indecency of the situation.
"This won't hurt but a bit," he said before the needle punctured my skin just above my breast. I cried as my heart was pierced. He pulled the plunger back and filled the barrel of the syringe with a muddy grime of green and crimson speckled with black. With the barrel full he pulled the needle slowly out and sighed. "How do you feel?" he asked.
I didn't answer at first because I didn't know. I felt nothing. I wasn't numb. I wasn't relieved. I was only empty. Body and soul felt nothing. For a moment I even forgot the proximity to exposure of my breast. Coming closer to my senses, I covered up and said, "I'm okay, I guess."
"I suppose that will do. Would you like another cup of tea before you head home?" I refused the second cup and stood up to leave. After putting the syringe back into the bag, he took me gently by the elbow and started walking me to the door.
"What do you do with it?" I asked him just inside the foyer.
"The stuff you take out, the stuff in the syringe?"
"Ah, you mean the sorrow, the suffering, the guilt, and a host of other maladies of the body and soul. What does it matter, you no longer need to dwell on it?"
"I just wanted to know."
Mr. Greeves looked back into his house and then back to me with a smile. "Follow me," he said and walked back through the house. Just off the kitchen was a door that he opened to reveal a set of stairs leading into an unfinished basement. He grabbed the bag on the table and started down the stairs. He did not turn to see if I followed but simply walked on trusting that I was coming.
A lamp far in one corner lighted the basement. The room itself contained another room with an entrance behind the stairs. It was to this smaller room that Mr. Greeves led me. He opened the door and guided me in to blackness. I was about to make up some reason to leave when he shut the door leaving me completely lost in the dark. He flipped a switch by the door and a red light turned on.
There was a large cage covered by a cloth on a table in the center of the room. Mr. Greeves walked over to and rubbed the fabric. "Inside is Los. He's grown a bit since I saw your father, but he's still too small to hunt on his own. He can't even take down a small child by himself without getting hurt. His kind are slow to mature but when they do, well, they can be rather monstrous." He chuckled at the joke and opened his bag. Something in the cage moved. With the syringe in his right hand, Mr. Greeves whisked the cloth off the cage and revealed Los.
At first I thought I was looking at some kind of cat under a filthy blanket. I gasped as it stretched and revealed that the filthy blanket was actually a set of thin wings. The beast's three eyes twitched from me to the syringe. A barbed tail snapped back and forth inside the cage while the thing's maw mashed at the air. "Isn't he beautiful?" asked Mr. Greeves. Los growled before emitting a long screech. Drool hit the bottom of the cage and hissed in acidic evaporation. "I know precious is hungry. Daddy's got din-din." He held the syringe and the beast opened its mouth. Mr. Greeves shot the viscous liquid past the creature's rows of teeth.
Two small bumps pushed up between the cat's ears. The beast screamed as the skin broke above the bumps to reveal two small horns. Its wings twitched as something coursed through the veins. When it was over, Los cleaned himself with feline grace.
"What is that thing?" I asked.
"Don't get too close. Los bites," said Mr. Greeves as if that explained everything. "Look how he grew! Yours was a tasty batch I think."
"He feeds on that stuff?"
"Mostly. Every time he gets a shot he grows a little bit bigger and a little bit deadlier. Marvelous beast! Eventually, he'll hunt down his own food."
"You lied, tricked me."
"I did no such thing," said Mr. Greeves offended. "I never needed to. That pain of your Dad's was nothing, a snack barely big enough to grow maybe one more tooth. But your pain, now that was sweet. Yours was a suffering of the soul and therefore so much richer, more potent."
"Then why not just wait until after Dad died when we were still grieving?" I asked.
"He told you he didn't fear anything anymore and you've always wondered if perhaps I had something to do with that. The wonderful logic being that if I took dear old Dad's fear, I must have also hastened his death. If I hastened his death, you were responsible since you were the one that introduced me to your mother. The guilt has been growing inside you ever since and what a heady vintage it has become."
"You think that I felt guilty for ending my dad's pain faster even if that meant he died sooner?" I asked. "He wasn't living. A bullet to the brain would have been a blessing. You were just a gentler remedy."
Mr. Greeves’s smile deepened. "Of course, and had that been your motive you wouldn't be here. No, you wanted your dad dead but not to end his suffering but to end yours. The moaning, the screaming, the wretched reek of the man. You had more compassion for your dog, and now you don't even have that guilt."
I asked him how he knew all that and he simply looked at the caged monster. "He shows me. He shows me whose pain to ease and how so that he can feed and grow."
"I'll tell," I said but couldn't finish the sentence.
"Who and what would you tell them?" asked Mr. Greeves. "You know a man that can make you feel better instantly with no side effects? Or maybe you'll talk about Los here. That should get you a new white coat. No, you'll go home and keep your mouth shut knowing the entire time that you helped feed a monster that will one day feed on every living thing in this town." He held up the syringe. "Let me know if the guilt ever gets to be too much."
Uprooted from the edge of the Ohio river, Bret Booher is a recent addition to the Las Vegas sprawl where he teaches English. After a day of being a model adult for teenagers, Bret likes nothing more than to find sanity again in fiction.
Published by permission of the author.