Everthing Quests: Scary Stories (yep, this is fiction - the only piece of fiction I've put in E2, and probably the last...)
My little brother Michael passed away after a long struggle with cancer. For me, probably the worst part of his death was our estrangement; there had been some silly argument between him and my mother and me – I can’t remember what it was about, but the three of us used to argue and disagree with each other quite often, sometimes taking contradictory or irrational positions just to stir something up with one of the others.
But before slamming down the phone I do remember shouting– "Ok if you want it that way, I won’t talk to you for a year!" And I meant it. I felt terrible as soon as I’d hung the phone up, but I’m nothing if not a stubborn bastard. I wasn’t going to talk to him for a year.
Well, next year never came because less than six months later I got a phone call from the hospital. I went dumb as soon as I the news was passed along to me, and I can’t quote the conversation exactly but the message went : "Your brother's very ill. He’s on life support. It doesn’t look good. You’d better come".
I was living in New York at the time, and my family was just where I’d left them ten years earlier : in Western New York state, a small town called Lockport, roughly twenty thousand people located close to the Canadian border. It was about a thirty minute trip by air, so I flew to Buffalo where a close friend picked me up at the airport and drove me to the hospital.
Now Mike had some rare form of cancer, and he was not only in intensive care but also in a "clean room" environment. You couldn’t just walk into his room off the street – you had to remove your shoes and thoroughly wash yourself down, then don these surgical gowns and gloves and caps lest you inadvertently introduce some contagion that would ravage his chemo-therapy damaged immune system.
Maw and I go through the motions, we enter his room and it was gut-wrenching. My little brother lay there, eyes firmly closed, motionless and insensate in a bed, with countless tubes into and out of him, various machines nearby, clicking and humming as they carefully watched over his breathing, his heart, his brain, his excretions, his life.
When Computer Scientists talk about the man-machine interface they usually mean a keyboard and mouse and GUI and you know, I used to understand it to mean that also. But since that moment whenever I’ve heard the phrase its meant something completely different to me.
I tried to talk to him but he never responded. The attendant on duty reassured us that he knew we were there, and in fact she’d talk to him as if he were wide awake as went about her activities : moving him about to prevent bed sores, taking periodic blood samples, checking for eye motion and cleaning his bronchial tubes.
I genuinely appreciated her tenderness and familiarity and the fact that she didn’t treat him like an inanimate object. She would say hello to him when she entered the room, tell him what she was going to do before she did it, praise him when it was over and say goodbye to him when she left. It fit in with my mental picture of "this was just a little problem that soon would pass". And then I could freely beat the shit out of that little fucker for dragging me away from my job as an Investment Banker.
But no matter what I said to him, he simply wouldn’t respond. His eyes remained firmly closed and he never moved.
Now this wasn’t the way it was supposed to work : when I left New York I had fixed in my mind an image of big brother to the rescue; that no matter what, as soon as I entered the room Mike would sit up, open his eyes and talk to me. Especially talk to me, if for no other reason than to finally let me apologise for that stupid disagreement.
Having to look at him like that royally sucked. And as if this experience wasn’t bad enough, the duty nurse later took me aside and delivered the bad news that Maw already knew : Mike was dying. His liver was failing. Waste ammonia building up in his blood was killing his brain. He didn’t have long to live.
Two nights later I arrived at the hospital to find nurses packing my little brother in electric blankets. When I asked "why?" they told me his body was having problems regulating its temperature. Now I seriously wanted to be a doctor at one point in my life and still consider it to be the noblest of callings. Before switching to a Math / Computer Science double major at University I actually took three years worth of hard science and biology classes with an eye towards perhaps entering Medical School. Due to an all consuming interest in computers, I never did attend Medical School but I knew enough about the autonomous nervous system to realise that this indicated brain stem failure, and I steeled myself for what would happen next.
A week later we buried Mike. We’d purchased the one night / one day economy viewing package, and I recall that last afternoon at the funeral home. I’d brought a boom box and some of his favourite CDs with me and pumped up the volume during the viewing. Folks there were divided into two camps on this : those that knew our love of music approved, while others didn’t quite know what to make of it, but knew that they didn’t like it, that this "just wasn’t done".
I didn’t care. Its what I wanted and most importantly, I knew it was what he would have wanted. When challenged about the sound, I’d just tell folks "It was his favourite album", which technically was true since him and I both loved all kinds of music.
We packed Mike up in his coffin, wearing his best suit, his new shoes, his best pocket watch, and I carefully put his treasured bible – a gift from our great grandmother – into his left inner suit jacket pocket. I’m really superstitious, so I put a particularly lucky silver dollar I’d owned for years into his pants pocket. Like some Egyptian pharaoh, my little brother was ready for what ever the afterlife was going to toss at him.
We drove off to the cemetery, words were said and Maw and I watched as his coffin was lowered into the ground, the concrete vault cover pushed into place, and the dirt began to rain down.
It was over.
I took Maw back to my childhood home, the house she had shared with my brother before his illness and protracted hospital stays. I had agreed to help clean out his room and sort through his possessions. I wasn’t going to return to New York until this was done, since Maw needed the support and I wanted her to have a clean break.
I didn’t feel comfortable staying in my brother's room and sleeping in his bed that night – although I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded it was still his place – so I slept in a guest room in the rear of the house. Both Maws and my brothers bedrooms were in the front, close to the noisy street.
I set my Newton to wake me up ten hours later, and dozed off.
Several times during the night I awoke, hearing noise and voices but put it off to street traffic and the recent, traumatic events.
Nevertheless, I managed to get a fitful if not solid nights sleep and woke when my Newton roused me. I smiled as I smelled coffee. "That wonderful coffee!" I thought to myself. I’d totally forgotten! My Maw makes coffee the way her Maw and my great grandmaw used to make it – percolated grounds, with egg shells. A simple formula and it might sound strange, but it does make a fine cup of coffee. I think the egg shells absorb some of the acid in the coffee, making it exceptionally smooth.
I was still groggy when I entered the kitchen and gave Maw a hug. She was still using that damn wood stove that I had been bugging her to get rid of. Dangerous fucking thing would kill her yet. The gas stove I’d bought and had installed for her eleven years before stood off in the corner, covered with junk, clearly unused.
"Morning Maw" I kissed her cheek and hugged her. "Ok?" She poured me some coffee. That wonderful, thick aroma. You just couldn’t get coffee like this in New York, no matter how much folks went on about the quality of coffee in those expensive shops.
"Did you hear?" she asked excitedly.
"Wha?" I was still pretty groggy, feeling much like I do when I take a late afternoon nap, then force myself to wake up in the early evening.
"Did you hear him?" she asked again, standing there in her housecoat, coffee pot in hand. A beam of mornings light leaked in through her dirty yellow window blinds and splashed onto her thin grey hair. It was then that I realised my Mother was getting old. "He was here last night".
"Who" I took a slurp of coffee. It was just as I remembered it : dark and smooth and instantly invigorating. I was raised on this stuff, and I’ve never found another cup as satisfying. I took another deep gulp.
"Didn’t you hear?" she asked again.
"No Maw, I didn’t hear nothing, I’m at the back of the house. Who was here?" I slurped down the remainder of the cup, scalding my throat but I didn’t care since it was so damn good. I extended my arm for a refill.
Maw obliged, filling it to the brim again. "Never mind". She turned brusquely away.
I had no idea who she was talking about, and didn’t give it any mind. You see, my family has lots of open secrets that we rarely discuss, and a surprisingly large number of dark corners containing even darker secrets that we all know of but simply don’t talk about at all, including a murder, a murder suicide and infanticide.
My estrangement wasn’t the first nor was it large in the overall scheme of things so I was sure she’d tell me in good time. Maybe my uncle – her brother - the fuck up and all around hell raiser was finally back in town. Maybe fifteen years ago he’d taken an entire hit of four way acid, mistakenly thinking it to be a single hit. Later that night, fucked up on vodka and after the LSD had really taken hold, he’d grabbed his hunting rifle and barricaded himself up in a nearby church tower to defend Lockport against the UFOs that were landing nearby. No one doubted his intentions but the only problem was what he in his hallucinogenic state thought were alien landing craft were in fact passenger jets headed to the nearby Toronto airport.
He was lucky he ran out of ammo before he managed to bring one down, and got his ass institutionalised for his trouble. Maws only brother, I didn’t want to open an old wound so I figured she’d tell me in her own time.
"Ok Maw, we’ve got a lot to do today". I pulled out my Newton. "I’ve got a checklist here, and gimme the phone – I’ve got to call the junk man, schedule him to come here this afternoon. We’ll box up Mikes stuff, and try to at least dispose of the real junk this afternoon" I was operating at my most organised Investment Banker best. " How’s that?"
My mother turned to look at me. I could see a tear dripping down her cheek. "Can’t we a while please wait? It might be a little early to…" her voice trailed off into a choked sound.
"Aww Maw, I’m sorry. You’re right - New York’s ruined me! Always rushing around! I’m sorry!" I stood up and hugged her. "We’ll take as long as you need". ‘As long as it’s no later than next Saturday, so I can be out of here and back at work’ I thought to myself as I hugged my Mother.
Career. Always career. You see, career was a large part of if not the total reason for the estrangement, the reason I’d lost touch with my family. There just weren’t a lot of jobs upstate there, and I had ambitions. I wanted to do things. I wanted to go places. I wanted to see strange things and meet strange people. And my family couldn’t understand why I couldn’t satisfy those ambitions there. In that small town in upstate New York. So I’m afraid I sacrificed family for career and I guess by inductive reasoning, for money also. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time and before leaving New York if the question had been put to me I would have been certain of my choice.
But a full decade later, the day after we buried my little brother, hugging my mother in her ancient kitchen, smelling her wood burning stove and drinking her egg shell coffee, I just didn’t know anymore. I just didn’t know.
That day I busied myself about and outside the house, taking on any little odd job she had. The place had been gradually deteriorating, since neither Maw nor my brother were in the best of physical condition, and he’d been in the hospital for at least four months solid. There was a lot to do, and at the end of the day I was exhausted.
Maw made a nice dinner that night, and even though she served me more meat in that single meal than I cared to eat in an entire month, I didn’t complain and in fact surprised myself by chowing down with gusto.
Maw also makes an awesomely strong strawberry wine – in high school chemistry class I’d tested some, measuring it at %15 alcohol – so we retired into the living room and shared a bottle in front of the fire as we swapped remembrances of Mike.
We were both on our last cup from the bottle when I confided to her how much it hurt me, never to have been able to tell Mike that I was sorry for our argument. Our stupid argument. And he never opened his eyes at the hospital – it was like I wasn’t there. Like he was refusing to acknowledge my existence. I almost sobbed telling her that.
Maw leaned closer and rubbed my knee. "Its ok, you can tell him yourself!" Looking around the room she sat back and added in a near whisper "Later!" Her eyes were alert and glowing. "Later!" She put her index finger across her lips, shussing me like it was a secret.
"Of course Maw, I’ll remember him in my prayers, and I’ll ask that his soul be blessed". We were raised into a strict sect of The Southern Baptists, and although I had given up the church habit years before I still remember the five hour sermons, the heartfelt hymns, baptism by complete immersion, and the hard wooden pews. No cushions in our church - religion and faith were not supposed to be comfortable. I thought it would please her that I was still somewhat religious in spite of living in New York. I knew that Maw didn’t think too highly of New York.
"No, tonight! You can tell him tonight!" She was giggling to herself and behaving like a school girl with a secret. I blamed it on the booze.
"Maw, what are you going on about? You’ve had too much to drink, and so have I". I was feeling pretty dizzy from her wine. How she fermented that shit up to %15 alcohol I’ll never know.
"He was here last night and he’ll be back tonight! He will, I know he will!". I was starting to understand. This fucking wine was doing a number on me, and I’d only had half a bottle. Due to the stress she’d probably been drinking an entire bottle a night for months. I was now sorry that we’d shared a bottle. It would have been better to let her dry out and detox for a few days.
"You heard him last night, didn’t you?"
"Heard who Maw?" This was going to be a big problem. I had to be back at work in New York next week and now my mother was losing it. As my proper British boss would no doubt commiserate on the phone when I called him with the news "Terribly inconvenient, that" while he moved someone else into my desk. "Who are you talking about Maw?".
"Why your bother Mike! He was here, he was! The Sweet Lord has mercy on us all your brother was here! And he’ll be back tonight! He will! I know he will!".
I grabbed her hand and stared directly into her eyes.
"Maw Mike’s dead. We buried him. He’s dead. You’ve got to deal with that, accept it. I don’t like it either but – hey! How many bottles of wine did you make this year? How many do you have left?" I was either going to lock it up or pour it down the toilet. That shit was strong, and she had enough problems as it was. Under these circumstances alcohol wasn’t going to help.
"No dear David, no, no more wine for us, we can’t drink anymore. We’ve got to be able to wake up when he gets here".
"Aww, Maw!" I didn’t know what to do, so I leaned over, kissed her cheek, rose from my chair and waved my hand dismissively. I’m going to bed."
Leaving her in her chair next to the warmth of the fire, I headed towards the back bedroom.
"David?" almost a whisper.
I looked back and saw my mothers silhouette, against the open fire. This place was so damn old, she had to heat hot water on the kitchen stove, lots of memories. I wondered if I could get her to move out – maybe I’d buy her a new place with central heating, cable TV, the works.
"Sometimes it happens you know" she said quietly. I could see her hand raise up to her head, and heard a gentle slurp as she drank her wine.
"What happens Maw?"
"Those things what you learned about at University there in those books – they don’t make it so. You were taught better than that. Things can happen more than one way. You should know that." The fire cracked and hissed in the dark. "Sometimes it happens".
"Maw, you’ve had a tough time but lets both just get a good nights sleep – all right?".
"Folks don’t talk about it much, but it happens. Its like those green or yellow people you used to hear about living down south in the Tennessee hills, or that snowman guy in those mountains – what do they call it – a Yuppie?"
"Yeti Maw, its called a Yeti". At that moment I hated her ever so slightly for dragging me into her neurosis.
"That’s right, Yeti. Well two, maybe three times I’ve heard of this happening, and your great grandmother told me about it too."
I remembered my great grandmother well. I’m part Native American so she was far, far more Indian than I am. When I was a kid I lived with her for about one year, and she was always talking to me about animals and plants and herbs and stuff. All of it was interesting and some of it was true, but I’m afraid my higher education had categorised most of it as nonsense. Great grandma had lived and died in this very house.
My head was starting to hurt and I rubbed it. "Maw, grandma was always talking about crazy stuff. She…" I paused, not wanting to insult my mother nor the memory of my dead great grandmother. "She was really old and – Maw she talked about a lot of stuff. Look I’m tired".
"Sometimes it happens. Used to be more common back in her time, sometimes it happens. Its happened in our family before, at least once that I know of, on your fathers side of the family." I could see her head titled backwards, draining the cup. Well at least the fucking wine was gone.
"Maw I’m going to bed". And with that I went off to the back bedroom, pulled back my covers and almost immediately went to sleep.
Now maybe it was the combination of physical labour, a heavy meal and lots of wine, but I fell into a deep and untroubled sleep. Unlike the night before, I hadn’t set my Newton since I didn’t have any plans for the next day.
It was around four AM, perhaps three hours before dawn when I awoke, covered in sweat. I didn’t know what had awakened me – I just woke up and looked at my watch. And then I heard it. A solid thump thump thumping coming from the front of the house, and a muffled voice.
I thought maybe I was coming down with the flu, and put the noise down to the busy road. I drowsily managed to fall back asleep without much effort, but woke once again maybe one hour later, covered in sweat and hearing voices. This time I could hear my mother, apparently in the living room. Who she would be talking at this hour to I didn’t know. I put on my t-shirt and cracked the bedroom door while I hopped about on one leg, trying to put on my pants. I could hear Maw really clear now.
"How are you feeling? Better? Good, good." She sounded excited. "There is some tea you’ve got to drink. Let me boil some water and I’ll get you a cup."
"Maw" I whispered out into the hallway. "Is everything ok?"
"David" She rushed into the hallway. "He’s here, I told you, I told you, come out he’s here".
"Maw WHO is here?" My pants were on now, so I opened the door wider as I zipped them shut and tucked my shirt. "Who are you talking to out there?"
I felt a chill. This was worse than I thought, there was no fucking way I was going to be able to get back to New York next week now. Maybe now for weeks even. I had a selfish thought – what about my job? Investment Banking was so competitive, I’d likely return to find someone else at my desk, doing my work. And then I’d be invited to a meeting at Human Resources. Shit.
"Maw knock it off. Now who are you talking to?" I felt like smacking her out of it, but held off since that was such a Hollywood kinda thing, and besides, you don’t hit your own Maw no matter how nuts she’s acting.
"I TOLD YOU SOMETIMES IT HAPPENS" she said in this icy voice. "You were taught better. Go see for yourself".
And with that she pushed past me into the kitchen. I heard her first messing around with the wood, then smelt the match and finally heard the clanging of pots and running of water.
Somehow I knew what was out there, because it must have taken ten minutes for me to move ten feet but when I peeked around the corner I pissed my pants and retreated to my bedroom. Panting with the sweat forming on my brow again, I alternately touched my Newton, my Apple PowerBook, my cellphone and finally my GPS receiver like some modern form of sacrament. Then touched them all again and again and again.
I opened my bedroom door and crept back towards the living room. I heard my Mothers voice. "Is that better? Good. Just wait – we have all the time we need. Its ok. Just wait".
When I peered around the corner I saw my Mother tending to a figure sitting prone on the couch. This clearly was my brother – I remember the suit, the pocket watch fob, the shoes. I pissed my pants the first time I’d seen him on that couch. This was definitely him.
My Mother had a cup in one hand, and held the saucer in the other. "How was that? Wait, just wait" she repeated. "I know what to do. It’ll be ok".
"Maww" I couldn't help myself - it came out as little more than a hoarse whisper. "Maww".
"Ahh, look" she said to the corpse thing. "Your brother David is here. David, come here and say hello to your brother Mike".
"Maww what is going on?" I avoided looking at the figure on the couch. "Where did that come from? I…I…"
"David I told you. Sometimes it happens. I kept telling you sometimes it happens." She turned back to Mike, and pushed the cup of steaming liquid against his blue lips.
"Maw what are you doing?"
"You great grandmother taught me. I know what to do. Sometimes it happens, but you’ve got to know what to do". She paused to pour more hot liquid between the corpse’ lips. Some of it drooled down his chin but nevertheless, most found its way into the mouth. I swear I could see motion in the throat, the cheeks. "You’ve got to know what to do when it happens".
"Maww, I.." I became aware of the urine dripping down my leg and the front of my pants.
"It ok honey. Come here. Say hello to your dear brother. He can’t talk yet but he hears you. He knows you’re here. Say hello to him. Help him. Help him back".
There had always been a slight resemblance between her and my great grandmother, but for several seconds I could have sworn that my great grandmother was in the room, pouring hot tea down a corpses throat, once again teaching me as a little boy the things that her great grandmother had taught her.
I slowly walked over to the brother-corpse and kneeled in front of it. I tentatively reached out and grabbed his hand as it rested on the couch’s arm. It was cold and rubbery and felt strange, so I dropped it almost as soon as I’d picked it up.
"Its ok. Be gentle. He knows you’re here and he needs you to talk to him. To bring him back. Just talk to him. Its ok." Maw was rubbing the back of my neck. I grasped Mikes hand again.
The fire reflected off his now slightly cracked open eyelids. "Maw – I think he’s opening his eyes!" I shouted and looked back at my Mother. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
"Its ok honey. Just talk to him. I’m going to get him more tea". She left the room.
As dawn approached I knelt there in that dark room, the warmth of the open fire on my back, peering into my dead brothers cold dead eyes, looking for signs of life, looking and willing to accept anything, anything at all, but hoping to find forgiveness.
ORIGINAL and scarily close to the truth.
Mutant, London, 2002