Scott Emerson Bull
Alex Kent cradled the deer's head in the palm of his shovel. Its lifeless eyes seemed to register not surprise or horror, but the acceptance that cruel fate visited us all. Ain't that the damn truth, he thought, as he flicked the head into the back of the public works truck. He didn't need any dead deer to remind him of that.
"Godawful shame," Grease said through his cigarette. He stood with both arms resting on his shovel enjoying the most recent in a long line of smoke breaks. On this, their third weekend of community service - which consisted mainly of removing animal carcasses from Carroll County's network of country roads -- Grease had assigned himself as Alex's guardian and protector, a service Alex didn't particularly welcome. Grease smiled through stubbled cheeks and tossed the smoldering butt to the ground. "Some damn fine meat on those bones," he said.
Alex nodded, as one of the sheriff's deputies came over to break up their little chat.
"Come on, ladies," he said. "We got another mile and a half to cover by noon."
"Just having a quick butt," Grease said.
Alex went back to work on the deer's body, scraping the torn muscle and guts into a pile. His breakfast churned in his stomach. What an awful job.
"Got a problem, Kent?"
Alex looked up. "No sir," he answered.
"Then get those guts in the truck."
The deputy adjusted his mirrored sunglasses, then moved on to hassle somebody else.
"He's got your number," Grease said.
"So do a lot of people. He can just get in line with the rest if them."
They finished with the deer, leaving a broad, blood red, swath on the road as a sad memorial, and walked behind the truck as it crept along the road. With long handled pinchers, they picked up empty beer cans and discarded fast food wrappers. Alex trailed at the back so he could look at the others, ten of them in all, each serving community service for driving under the influence. They were an odd collection. The stuffy school teacher who got nabbed running a red light after an evening of gin and tonics. The mousy waitress who'd been drowning her broken hearted sorrows at a local country bar, then damn near drowned herself in Liberty Reservoir. And of course Grease, the old pro, who'd just gotten his third DUI. He'd been pulled over mainly because of his reputation, though the lime green sixty-nine Camaro he always drove too fast hadn't helped either. With the exception of Grease, who gave him no choice, Alex avoided their stares. He knew what they were thinking. There but for the grace of God....
Grease lit another cigarette. He had that look in his eye and Alex knew what was coming next. The same question asked the same way, three weeks in a row.
"That girl still breathing?" he asked.
Squonch loitered in midair outside the private hospital room, enduring the stench of disinfectant and sorrow. Normally he liked hospitals, but something about strong scents bothered him, probably because he shared their ethereal state. Being there but not there. A wisp on the wind. He fired off a fart in self defense and the sound of his flatulence caused him to laugh, which in turned triggered a nasty sneeze. Yuck. As he wiped invisible snot from his invisible nose, he wondered if this assignment was ever going to end. He squirted back into the room and addressed the body lying motionless on the bed.
"Would you die already?" he huffed.
But Stacey Cameron didn't answer. Stacey had been in a coma for four months now and Squonch had been here the entire time. Once or twice he'd thought about yanking the tubes out of her skinny body or placing a pillow over that sweet, innocent face, but he knew that would be pushing his luck. Squonch's dithering over how best to render the girl's fate had caused the screw-up that put the girl here in the first place, and he still had the scars to remind him of his master's wrath over that one.
Footsteps echoed in the hall. Not the boyfriend, he thought. He slunk into the corner as the boy swaggered in, all blow-dried hair and cheesy look of concern. Just behind him came Stacey's parents returning from the cafeteria where they had taken a break from their bedside vigil. Squonch wanted to vomit as he watched the two slather affection on the boy. Dumb asses, he thought. If you only knew....
"Any change?" Boyfriend asked.
"I'm afraid not," Mother said.
Boyfriend moved to his customary position at his baby's side. He took her limp hand and caressed it, the same hand that on more than one occasion had found its way into the front of his jeans.
"I still can't believe that bastard is walking around free," he said.
Father put his hand on Boyfriend's shoulder. "I know, Rick. They nailed him with what they could. They'll only charge him with more if...."
"...the little bitch croaks, snuffs it, expires, bites the big one," Squonch screamed. "Devil in Hell, I can't take it anymore." He left his perch in the corner and hovered over the machinery that kept Stacey alive. He couldn't read the words on the scattering of buttons and knobs, so he selected the one that looked the most important and pushed it. A funny "bing" sound erupted from the machine, causing everyone to look up, but the only thing his action caused was a sharp rebuke from his masters.
Leave it alone, Squonch!
"Come on. I can't take much more of this."
Do we need another lecture on patience, Squonch?
"No." Then leave it alone.
"But at least let me do something rotten to her boyfriend. You know he knocked her up, right?"
Yes, Squonch. That was an order you carried out for us.
"Oh yeah, right. Pretty good job, huh? I really had the squigglies jumping that night. As many as got through to her egg, it's a wonder she doesn't give birth to an army. If she lives, that is...."
That decision has not been handed down, Squonch.
"Well, what's the hold up?"
Patience is a virtue.
"Patience is a virtue," Squonch mocked. "Patience is a virtue!"
Whatever, Squonch thought. He moped back into his corner and watched as a nurse came in to check the machine he had just touched. Out in the hallway, an orderly pushed a cart full of hospital dinners. Squonch made a jerking motion with his hand and the right front wheel parted company with the cart, causing it to lurch sideways. Plastic plates of pressed turkey and creamed corn scattered across the polished floor.
"Patience," he groaned.
A bar is an unlikely place for a convicted drunk driver to pass his time, but Alex liked Stem's because it gave him the solace of invisibility. To use the local vernacular, as long as you didn't mess with nobody, nobody was going to mess with you. The dim blue lights and atmosphere of stale beer and workingman's sweat fit Alex like a glove, though in all honesty he'd rather be sleeping. He hadn't had a decent night's sleep since the accident. If only he could drift off to a dreamland where deer guts didn't have to be shoveled off the roads and seventeen-year-old cheerleaders named Stacey Cameron didn't lie around in comas.
He ordered another beer, his third. The woman behind the bar nodded, before giving him a long second look. Alex dreaded what was coming.
"You work up at the Easy Mart?" she asked.
Alex relaxed a bit.
"You look familiar...."
I bet I do, Alex thought. "Just passing through," he said. The words stumbled out of his mouth. Bad enough I put cheerleaders into comas, he thought. Now I'm lying about who I am.
The woman nodded her black tower of hair, opened him a Bud, and moved off to tend to a group of men at the other end of the bar. Alex looked them over. Just a bunch of working stiffs stealing a little time before they had to head home. Alex shook his head. Go ahead, he thought. Drink up your beers and your whiskeys and get in your pickups and see what nasty little tricks fate has in store for you. But almost as soon as the thought popped into his head, remorse chased it away. He knew they were just poor slobs like him, men with heavy loads to carry, with nagging wives and screaming kids, and bills that out weighed their meager paychecks. They were already well acquainted with fate.
One of the men was now looking back at Alex. The moment Alex noticed, the man turned back to his beer, but not without Alex first seeing the glint of recognition in the man's eyes. In the bar mirror, Alex could see the guy talking to his buddies. Now they were all staring. Oh Christ. He downed the rest of the beer and threw a couple bucks tip on the bar. Time to leave.
"What's the hurry?" the man called out.
Alex ignored him. He kept maneuvering towards the door on rubbery legs. He felt buzzed, much more buzzed than the night when according to the police report he had careened off Stacey Cameron's car. He'd had to rely on the police report since a concussion had removed most of his memory of the accident. He only remembered sirens and flashlights shining in his face and a lasting image of Stacey Cameron being pulled from her parent's crumpled minivan.
"That's right," a voice called. "Go drink somewhere else, asshole."
Alex threw open the door. Fog had rolled in with the evening's darkness and the halogen streetlights had turned it into a sludgy haze. From Main Street came the sound of squealing tires, triggering a dormant memory from the night of the accident. An image of Stacey Cameron's Minivan crossing the line and coming towards him, an image he also saw in his dreams, but dismissed as so much wishful thinking. Now it made him wonder. Could he be innocent? And why did it always look like there was someone else in the car with her?
Tears dampened his cheeks. He kicked some rocks out of his path and
crossed the road towards Center Street. Here the road curved up towards
the highest point in town. Above him, the hospital lights loomed.
As always at eleven-thirty, the evening nurse came in to check on little Miss Vegetable, which was Squonch's new name for his comatose charge. Just a whole lot of nothing kept breathing by a lot of tubes and machines. Yeah, he knew she had brain waves -- he imagined her plotting ways to off her sex happy Boyfriend -- but that was subject to change. Squonch only needed the command.
But when? He was tired of this hick hospital. Nothing "good" ever happened here. Just babies being born, old people croaking, and the occasional drunk plowing his car into a tree. Where were the drug overdoses, the chopped up victims of serial killers, the shotgun-blast-in-the-face suicides? This place was dull. D-U-L-L.
The nurse took a vial of blood. Squonch thought of making her drop it or put a wrong label on it, but even that bored him. Besides, they knew he was here now. He'd overheard them in their lunchroom talking about the weird stuff that happened around Room 1511. He could see that this nurse knew it too, in the way she kept looking over her shoulder, as if waiting for the appearance of some long-gowned apparition.
Then, just as he crawled into his corner for a nap....
She lives, Squonch.
"What do you mean, 'She lives'? Not after all this time!"
A machine near the bed maybe a happy chirp. A vital sign improving. Squonch squealed in horror.
"What are you doing to me? I've been patient. I've been patient beyond belief."
There was no answer. Squonch wept, which made a nauseating sound like sewage being sucked down a drain. This was so unfair! He'd blown four months of eternity in this rotten hellhole just for "She lives!" He had an urge to throw the entire place into utter chaos, but he knew he'd pay dearly if he did. Instead he slunk back into the corner.
Then he heard footsteps out in the hall. An evil smile ripped the frown
from his face. Ah. Who do we have here, he wondered?
"What in hell you doing here, boy?"
Alex turned in the direction of the voice. He saw Grease coming out of the Emergency Room.
"Taking a walk," Alex answered.
"You're coming to see that girl, aren't you?"
"What if I am?"
Grease took out a cigarette, then thought better of it and stuffed it back into the pack. "Dumb move, son. They catch your ass in here, they'll hang you out to dry."
Alex sat down in one of the waiting room chairs and let his body process some of the alcohol. That was when he smelled Grease.
"Jesus, you stink," he said.
Grease laughed. "Don't I know it. Was hunting deer, when I spooked a skunk. Damn thing pissed his whole load on me. To top it off, I fell down an embankment trying to get away and twisted my arm." He pulled a sling-covered arm from under his camouflage jacket. He then started bitching about how it hurt like hell and they wouldn't give him any drugs for the pain, but Alex didn't hear any of it. Instead, he was listening to the words in his head, wondering where they were coming from. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw something swoop by his head, but when he turned, nothing was there.
"Gotta move," he said.
Grease shook his head. "What good's it gonna do?"
"Kill a few demons. I don't know."
"Come on, boy. Let me drive you home. Truck's outside. We can ride with the windows down if the smell gets too bad."
Alex stopped. Logic told him to turn around and walk out the ER door, but when his feet moved, they took him further into the hospital.
"I have to do this."
Sqounch cartwheeled through the air. So what if little Miss Vegetable was going to survive, he'd still get his fun in. He finished his last pirouette and rubbed his slimy hands together. Let's get this show on the road.
First stop was the nurse's station. He needed a way to guarantee that one of the nurses would show up just as you-know-who committed the dirty deed. It got quiet at this time of the evening and he couldn't depend on someone just happening by. Besides, luck wasn't his job. Luck was the province of those smarmy little elves with the fat tummies and the red noses. This here was demon's work.
He studied the station for a moment, then saw what he needed. Of course, he thought. How obvious. Satisfied, he headed back to the room, blubbering happy obscenities. On his way he passed a bent old man of about eighty making his painful way to the bathroom. Squonch raised an eyebrow and cackled as the man tripped and slumped to the floor.
"Yessirreebob," he squealed. "Squonch is back!"
Alex knew Stacey Cameron's room number by heart. It had been printed week after week in the Times to allow well-wishers to send cards and flowers. Alex had even sent one himself - an anonymous card showing a cheerleader leaping into the air. B-E-T-T-E-R. Get better. Yay!
A sign pointed him towards rooms 1500 to 1525. The corridor was empty except for a wheel chair and a cart filled with medical equipment. An eerie silence hung in the air. Alex had an urge to get the hell out of there, but his feet wouldn't cooperate. He could see the far end of the hall and the nurse's station, where a middle-aged woman sat working at a computer screen. Fifteen Eleven would be up on the left.
He walked as quietly as possible. He had just a few feet to go, but as he
took his next step, a sound erupted from the girl's room, as if someone
was already in there. Alex looked back down the hall and saw the nurse
staring at him.
Squonch watched with glee as Boyfriend surveyed the room. He could barely believe the boy's stupidity. It was dumb enough that he wanted to kill her because he thought a pregnant girlfriend would ruin his chances to get into the Naval Academy, but what idiot would show up to commit murder wearing his varsity letter jacket?
Be careful, Squonch. Remember, the girl lives...
As if to emphasize this fact, one of the monitors gave a happy chirp.
"I know. I know. Just give me a second here will you?"
Boyfriend moved closer to the bed. Squonch did the same, positioning himself by the headboard. He could see the boy's face. It registered no emotion and that scared Squonch a bit. He knew if he screwed this up, and the girl ended up dead, there would be worse than hell to pay.
Ethereal goo dripped from Squonch's lips. Boyfriend moved in closer and removed the pillow from behind Little Miss Vegetable's head. So it begins, Squonch thought. All we need now is for the cavalry to save the day. He curled his nose and watched the red button with the little cartoon nurse on it depress as if pushed by an invisible finger, then for good measure he pressed it a second time, and then a third. There. Nothing should bring a nurse running faster then a call from the room of a comatose cheerleader.
He focused back on the action. Boyfriend had the pillow over Miss
Vegetable's face now. He rose up into the corner of the room to watch the
fun. Already he could hear the squeak of sensible nurse's shoes coming up
Nurse pointed at the watch on her wrist.
"Excuse me, sir, but visitor's hours are over."
Alex didn't know what to do. He could say he was sorry and just leave, but then what would all this have accomplished? Not that he even knew what he had intended to accomplish anyway. Suddenly, it didn't matter, when he saw the shock of recognition on her face.
"Oh, my God," she gasped.
"Please, I just wanted to see her. Just for a moment."
"Of all people, you shouldn't be here. Now please go or I'm going to have to call Security."
"Please, Ma'am. Don't. I'm not sure why I came here, but one thing I'm certain of is that I wasn't the one that put her here."
The nurse looked at him with disbelief, but for Alex, finally hearing himself speak those words made them stick. He was certain of it now. The accident hadn't been his fault.
"I'm sorry," she said. "But I'm going to call Security."
"Please don't do that," Grease said.
Alex turned to see his pungent guardian angel standing behind him. He must have followed from a safe distance. He walked up to Alex and put a hand on his shoulder. "Can't you see he's tore up with guilt?"
"It's not guilt," Alex muttered.
But Grease went on. "Just let him have a quick peek at her, okay? Then I'll see he gets home all right."
The nurse seemed torn. It was obvious from the look on her face that she
didn't trust either of the characters in front of her, but Grease's
impassioned plea seemed to have struck a chord. For an awkward moment they
stood frozen in their loose triangle, three bodies of inaction.
Squonch watched the scene outside the hospital room with horror, as inside the once optimistic medical machines made pessimistic noises.
"I know. I'm thinking."
Well don't think! Cause a disturbance to get their attention.
"But what is he doing here? Isn't he in enough trouble already?"
Squonch, the girl is dying!
He looked over towards the bed. The boy had straddled the girl, holding the pillow tight over her face. As if on schedule, the girl had regained consciousness and Squonch could see her weakly fighting her attacker. He looked for something to overturn. A table of potted "Get Well" plants by the door caught his attention.
But as he approached the table, a lethal stench caught hold of him and
dropped him like a stone out of the sky.
The nurse had finally broken the frozen moment in the hallway by going to get Security. Alex was now trying to get into the room, but Grease blocked his entry.
"This is a bad idea, Kent."
"Come on, Grease. I just want to see the girl's face. Maybe say a prayer for her."
Grease sighed. "You sure that's all?"
"Well all right, but hurry. Here comes that nurse faster than a scalded cat."
They entered the room. Alex remembered the noise he'd heard as he saw shadows moving against the curtain that surrounded Stacey's bed. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see a large bald-headed man in a uniform standing behind him with the nurse. Both of them were now looking at the curtain, too.
"What's in Christ's name?" Grease said.
Alex pulled aside the curtain and looked in horror at the boy holding the pillow over Stacey's head. He resembled any kid you'd see in high school preening about in his varsity letter jacket. The boy stared at them, his eyes wild, then turned back to his work.
A voice shot at Alex like a bullet. A gurgling strangled voice that seemed to come from out of thin air.
"For shit's sake, do something already, will you?"
They pounced on the boyfriend, yanking him from the bed. There was a flurry of punches that ended when Grease's steel-toed boot kicked the boy's kidneys. The security guard dragged the boy into the hallway and clamped some handcuffs on him. The nurse went to the bed to check on Stacey, who seemed to be awake. She pushed a button above the bed, then ran out of the room to get more help.
Alex walked over and stood next to Stacey. She looked so weak and pale compared to the image he had of her in his head. Her eyes were only part of the way open, but when Alex saw them, he knew why he had come here. The last time their eyes had met it was in the split second before their cars collided. He remembered the look of horror on her face. And he remembered the boyfriend in the front seat, forcing her to drive the car into his path.
Stacey's dry lips parted. For the first time in months, Alex didn't wince when he saw the recognition in someone's eyes.
"Are you okay?" she asked. "I thought we'd killed you."
Scott Emerson Bull has been crafting his tales of dark fantasy and suspense for several years, sending his offspring out amongst the small (and the occasional larger) press.
His work has appeared in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Darkness Rising, Corpse Magazine, Outer Darkness, and the Gathering The Bones anthology.
Scott lives in Westminster, Maryland with his wife, Deb, their two children, and their dog and cat.
His website is at www.scottemersonbull.com.
Published by permission of the author.