I heard the fireworks blast through the air, punctuated by the crowd’s whistles and shouts. Their laughter drowned out the sound of my hushed sobbing. While the New Year’s celebration exploded into rainbow colors, lighting the midnight sky, the frosty air chilled me to the bone. Though a sea of humanity swirled around me, no one looked my way. I was facing this new year alone.
Slowly, I turned away from the celebration, shuddering at the night that felt as cold and empty as my life. How I envied the crowd and their joyous smiles. More to the point, I envied those with relatives and friends who cared about them.
The crowd’s gaiety had become more than I could bear. No matter how hard I’d tried to make friends, my thoughts remained my sole companions. The dark alley I wandered into provided a welcome silence. The gloom closed over me like a coffin lid.
I tried not to think about my poverty of friends. Sometimes I succeeded by keeping busy at my job as supervisor at Fairview Hospital’s respiratory therapy department. During work hours, the loneliness whispered so softly I hardly knew it was there. At home, it gnawed a hole in my heart, especially during holidays. Watching people hug each other speared the memories through my consciousness, reminding me of the tragedy which had ruined my life.
During my last talk with my father, his tiny, hard eyes glittered like tarnished silver under the faint light in his living room. The faces on the football trophies lining his cabinet gave off more warmth than his shadowed features. He was delivering a harsh lecture. Telling me to leave home. Disowning me because of a car accident that had caused my fiancé, David Wood, to die.
He called me a bad seed because I inherited my mother’s fondness for liquor. David died, he said, because I had too many beers before getting behind the wheel. Never mind that the car I broadsided had raced a red light. Never mind that David had refused to wear his seatbelt. Never mind that each day I relived the accident, watching David’s head plow through the windshield, hearing the tinkling glass. I made a mistake; I remembered telling my father. Couldn’t I have another chance?
My father’s face turned crimson, and dark lines creased his granite chin. Meeting my gaze with his cold eyes, he pulled an envelope from his blazer pocket. It made soft wisps as he shoved it across his coffee table. The words on its contents blurred in the salty tears that flooded my eyes. A massive ache, warm and smothering, swelled up inside my chest.
The envelope contained a letter from the Woods’ lawyer. They were suing my family for damages. According to David’s father, I’d shown up at their home drunk the day of the accident, but David had borne the consequences. Head injuries had rendered him comatose, dependent on a respirator, while I’d gotten off with minor lacerations.
While I read the letter, my last visit with David came to mind. His eyes, fixed and dilated, focused at the ceiling. He did not respond to my voice. I recalled listening with helpless horror as the doctor pronounced him brain-dead. I watched, eyes filled with tears, while the Woods had David disconnected from the respirator. Moments later, his heartbeat flickered to a stop.
David’s father had called that night, threatening a lawsuit, Dad said. When my dad pointed out that David should have recognized my condition and taken over the wheel, his father wouldn’t listen. Instead, he said two words before hanging up the phone: bad seed.
The sub-zero temperatures impinged on my consciousness, nudging me back to the present. The alley’s stone wall frosted my cheek, whispering a rumor of the chill lodging in my heart. I imagined a jagged ice splinter wedging through my chest, draining the love I felt, leaving only a dead feeling. Sometimes I drank to ease the pain. It never worked. My loneliness became worse.
David’s death had motivated my present calling, but mastering patient care skills wouldn’t do. I had to atone for my crimes. That meant taking assignments in Fairview Hospital’s long-term ventilator unit, where victims of car accidents languished for months. Not a muscle moved when I stuck these patients for blood. I never complained about working with these people. Instead, I thought about David, dead, his last breaths pumped by a machine.
Around my workers, I manufactured a brittle smile, and the stories I invented about my romantic escapades were limited only by my imagination. No one saw past my false front. No one cared to look, especially during my chart reviews. When I found errors, my harsh voice grated like fingernails on a blackboard. Sometimes my shouts drowned out the sound of my sorrow.
I gave one therapist, Gary, a written warning after I observed his Singer sewing machine method of drawing blood. He’d attempted the procedure without wearing gloves or swabbing the site with alcohol. The other therapists used to joke about Gary’s incompetence, but I shadowed him during rounds, watching and waiting for him to screw up. After reading my memo, Gary called me a witch. I threatened to get him suspended for insubordination. He challenged me to go ahead. Gary ended up getting fired, and my father’s voice whispered the words “bad seed” inside my head.
Brilliant red rouge covered up the memories. My grandfather clock ticked away like a time bomb while I stood before my mirror, sculpturing my face into that of a stranger’s. Layers of hairspray froze my chestnut curls into place. I manicured and polished each fingernail. My hair clips and jewelry glittered like shields of armor. Though I created a flawless appearance, I still heard my father’s voice calling me a bad seed. The memory faded.
Before I realized their intent, I felt my hands pulling at my leather gloves. The frosty air chilled my fingers as I yanked off my sapphire ring. David had given it to me as a pre-engagement gift. The gem glowed in the gloomy light afforded by the street lamps. At one time, that ring had meant everything to me. Now it had become nothing more than a hard stone, a symbol of everything that had gone wrong in my life. I tossed it into the snow-covered street. It made a faint plopping sound.
I turned away, ready to leave when out of the depths of gloom floated a man’s gravelly voice. “Susan,” he called. “Susan, where are you?”
Whirling around, I searched the alley for the source of that voice. My eyes squinted, trying to see, but they only saw icy patches glinting in the half-light. My breath curled up before my eyes. I stepped into the shadows, heart thudding inside my chest.
Something cold and knobby brushed my leg, and I started. I covered my mouth, trying to stifle the screams building inside my chest. Looking down, I saw a man sprawled at my feet. He wore tattered hospital scrubs. No coat. White scabs and dirt-crusted his bruised skin. Soon, he’d freeze to death.
I took off my overcoat and draped it over his inert form. My fingers felt ridges of bone beneath his scrubs. At first, I thought that he had already died and that I’d imagined the voice. Instead, the man sat up, wrapping the coat around him. His arms and legs appeared bruised and blistered.
A profound sadness rolled through me, bringing tears to my eyes. His cracked skin stretched over his pointed chin and stick-like limbs. Bare bone protruded through the tears in his skin. His hair hung to his shoulders, clumped together with frozen mud. His swollen lips twisted into a smile that didn’t touch his sunken eyes. For some reason, he looked familiar.
“Wait here,” I told him. “I’ll call an ambulance.”
“No ambulance, Susan.” His voice sounded like tearing parchment. “It’s too late.”
“Do I know you?”
Lame question, but I couldn’t think of anything better. How did he know my name? Something moved under his eyelids, but I couldn’t tell what.
He nodded. “We have unfinished business.”
“You’re hurting badly,” I said. “I can’t leave you here.”
“My pain and suffering have ended. Now I’m alone.” He paused. “Like you.”
His anguished voice pulled at my heart, tugging also at the corners of my mind. Something shiny flashed before my eyes. When I looked down, he was fingering my ring. He stared at the ring as its sapphire flickered in the dim light. A wistful look crossed his face, and then he pitched the ring back into the street. His lips tightened as if he’d tasted something sour.
“Alone,” he said again.
No treatment could save this man, but I still felt the need to help him. Perhaps this need had something to do with David’s death. Maybe I identified with another lonely soul. Whatever my reasons, I longed to do something for him.
To my surprise, the man rose to his feet without wobbling or moaning. I held him against my chest. Cold cobwebs of bone poked through the coat; he couldn’t have weighed more than eighty pounds. The chill from his body seeped through my clothes, turning my skin to goose-flesh. I shivered.
My heart hammered away, each beat quivering through my muscles like pinpricks of electricity. He stiffened in my arms. His body had a rancid odor. The stench of advanced disease, perhaps forthcoming death.
“Alone,” he repeated.
“I’m taking you home with me,” I whispered into his scabbed ear. “I’ll do my best to make you comfortable. If you like, I’ll call someone from the clergy.”
My companion looked up at me intently. His black pupils had swollen, covering most of his eyes. Like David’s. He pressed closer to me, his elbow like a knife in my stomach. Alarms went off in my head.
“A lonely woman with a good heart,” he said quietly.
“You think so?” Before I could stop myself, I burst into tears. My mascara ran, stinging my eyes. My sobs reeked with bitterness, tears I should’ve shed over David, but didn’t. “Maybe you’re right. The question is, do I have a soul?”
My companion laid his skeletal hand on my shoulders and stared into my eyes. His haunted face spoke of festering nightmares and the tragedies that had created them.
“You and I came from the same place,” he said.
Without answering, I ushered him out of the alley and to a dimly lit lot, where I’d parked my Honda. The celebrants’ shouting faded behind us.
At my townhouse, I led him to my kitchen, where I kept my first aid supplies. I draped an old blanket over his shoulders. After drawing up a pan of hot water, I set it on the linoleum floor. Gently, I lifted his fragile feet into the basin.
I soaked a rag with water. As I knelt before him, I expected to feel his sour breath against my hair, but the air remained still as death. This sent chills up my spine.
The shivers settled around my neck when I proceeded to wash his legs. Tufts of skin and fascia fell away from his calves, leaving behind naked bones. Within minutes, the water turned deep red. When I looked up, he was removing his scrub shirt. I screamed when the glow from the overhead light fell on his sunken chest. For a moment, my surroundings blurred. I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the dizziness to pass, but the image burned into my mind. I opened my eyes again.
The skin on his chest had withered and blistered, with ribs poking between the open sores. A gaping hole near his sternum revealed splintered bone and flesh crusted with dried blood. Streaks of blue and red laced his skin around his upper torso. I probed under his bony chin, knowing that I wouldn’t find a pulse. The skin broke, oozing greenish pus.
“No, no,” I wept, drawing back my fingers. I stood up and backed toward the sink. My mind whirled, trying to decide if I was going crazy. Maybe I was asleep, having the granddaddy of nightmares. “You can’t be real.”
“You brought me here,” my companion said in a reasonable voice. “How can you deny my existence?”
“Dead people can’t—they aren’t supposed to come back to life.” My voice rose and fell, hitching with sobs. “Who are you? What are you?”
“I think you already know, Susan,” he said. “I’m not dead yet. I’m dying by inches.”
He reached toward me, with his shirt in hand. Flakes of skin fell from his mottled arms like grisly rain. I looked at his shirt. A faded tag under its collar said, “Property of Fairview Hospital.” I turned it over, imagining what the shirt looked like new, and …
The memory came back to me like a vision. The shirt had belonged to Gary, the therapist whom I’d gotten fired, the one who’d called me a witch. His savings had run out, and he ended up on the street, shot and beaten to death.
“No, Gary,” I stammered. “Who did this to you?”
His eyes narrowed, and a tremble flickered over his lips. “I pulled the trigger because I saw how hopeless my life had become. Like you, I’ve lost someone dear to me. Like you, I’ve had to pay for my mistakes.” His head tilted sideways. “Mistakes caused by liquor.”
Sudden fire burned in my chest, melting my frozen heart. The terror I’d felt fled, and utter longing took its place. Love. Whatever his body had become, I saw the pain of unrequited love on his face. For the moment, I forgot that my visitor was a dead man. I forgot everything except the love blooming afresh in my bitter soul.
“What?” I gasped. “How did you know …?”
“You’d be surprised at what a person learns after death. I never knew, until my passing, that loneliness wears many disguises. For example, your anger toward people. Do you remember the day?”
The love I felt burned into my very heart, melting my thoughts and feelings. Images rose from the smoke, memories of the days I’d worked with Gary. Worked on Gary. His eyes held a blank look, like someone who’d wandered into a black hole. Did Gary drink because I’d broken his spirit? “I came down hard on you,” I said at last, “because your work had gotten sloppy. What did liquor have to do with that?”
“I’d gotten wasted the night before, and a nurse complained that she smelled whiskey on my breath. I failed a breathalyzer test. Human Resources offered counseling, and I refused because I didn’t want people at work knowing my business. So they fired me, and no other hospital would hire me.” Gary affected a deep sigh. “My wife told me to get lost. My mother refused to help because I reminded her of my father, who’d lost jobs because of his drinking. She called me a bad seed.”
From deep within the darkness of my closed eyes, I felt Gary’s hand on my shoulder. I wept noiseless sobs, tears for Gary and myself. When I opened my eyes again, I gazed at his drawn face. I recognized his heartache, having seen it in my mirror enough times.
“After my marriage went sour, it was like I went to a dark place, where no one could get to me.”
“I’ve lived in that place,” I said quietly.
“I know you have,” he said. “I want to thank you for your honesty. Harsh as you were, you told me the truth when no one else would. I owe you for that.”
Gary rose to his feet. “I must go now and rest.”
“Don’t leave,” I begged tearfully. “We’ve left so much unsaid.”
“No, we haven’t,” he said. “I couldn’t rest until I made my peace with you. You’ve made every aching step worth it.”
I had nothing more to say. Silence could describe my feelings; words could not. He turned and crossed the kitchen. After opening the door, he melted into the shadows on my porch. A heartbeat later, he was gone. His clacking footsteps became a memory.
I tried to picture Gary. I wanted his face to be etched forever in my mind. His papery skin and ragged hair. The bottomless pupils on a withered face. The self-inflicted wound on his chest, where the bullet had left an open hole as if he’d sliced something from his body. I tried to imagine angel wings where only rotting flesh remained.
After some time, I got up and headed to the window, hoping to see Gary one last time. Outside, a full moon cast silver shadows on the snow-covered streets. Scattered stars surrounded the moon, glittering like jagged diamonds. Or like my shattered heart of ice. Somewhere the shouts of celebration drifted from the streets. The end of the old year. The start of the new.
Only this year, I loved.
To give you a flavor of my brand of horror, I took “Bad Seed” from my City of Brotherly Death Collection. Hope you enjoyed it. 🙂
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