Story number one. Feel free to let me know how much you hate it.
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The service is exactly as he imagined it would be. For some reason this strikes Tom as an odd thing, like when you walk into a picture show half way through and you get this idea you've seen it before. You watch the actors recite their lines and you feel like you could play along. That's how it feels, listening to the minister finish up his rambling ode to life. He hasn't been to a funeral in fifty eight years. Sitting there makes him feel like he is still that eight year old boy. The preacher is different, as are the guests. It had been his mother in the coffin that day. Despite all of that, it is exactly the same. Different actors, same plot. Of course he knows plenty of people who passed away since that awful day. When the funerals came he just didn't go.
The minister's voice runs over the sniffs and wheezes of the assembly like a river passing over the time worn bed of a river. To Tom, the words take on a droning quality. They meld into an amalgam of sound that no longer holds any meaning for him. Instead it is like the sound of the white noise machine Alice bought him when he was having his sleeping troubles. It is oddly comforting and disturbing all at ounce. It is the buzzing of a hive of bees, the warbling of a flock of pigeons. The room is filled with the intoxicating perfume of a hundred different kinds of flowers. They watch the mourners from their vases and pots, monolithic one eyed creatures bearing witness to an ancient ritual. Everyone brought their own bouquet and placed them wherever there was room, as if the mad kaleidoscope of vibrant color would somehow lessen the atmosphere of death. Underneath the choking tendrils of pollen is the stale smell of the church. From behind him comes the sound of someone breathing heavily through their mouth in an effort not to sob. It joins the warbling sound of the minister's voice and becomes a warm summer breeze. Off to his left Mable Werts blows her nose twice into her handkerchief in a startling imitation of the sorrowful call of a goose.
His mind takes off like an old plane that has taken to doing its own thing. He is now standing in a park he had forgotten a long time ago. The tall grass around the feeding pond bows at his feet under a lazy winding breeze that carries the scent of water fowl. Underneath this earthy aroma, like the subtle remnant of a long gone passenger, is the smell of baking bread from the local market. Two geese skim the surface of the water, lacy white trails curling from the tips of their webbed feet. The sobbing sound of seagull cries fill the air. The edges of the world blur like an oil painting when you stand too close. It is like being an actor on a stage set in his mind. Chill fall air caresses his skin, leaving tingling goose bumps with its soft touch, and making him feel alive. He is in his thirties, still a young man on his way to the top of the world. This is long before his accident.
He walks around the edge of the pond, listening to the sound of laughing children as they enjoy the last months before winter rears its bitter head. They run across the other side of the lake, a bright red Kite carving a wild path through the sky behind them. These sights and sounds are no more then a backdrop. The real show is his own, and it is focused on one thing. Her hair flicks and waves in the gentle teasing wind, the strands like fingers calling him. It's so violently red that it almost seems to be trying to put the turning leaves to shame. This is the sort of woman that is beyond a man like him. The delicate lace of gold jewelry around her slender throat and the immaculate condition of her flowered dress tell him she's from money. However, today is his. He removes his hat and twists it in his hands for a moment. The boys down at the docks would recognize this as a sign of his nerves, but when he speaks his voice is steady.
"Excuse me lass, can you spare a moment?" He asks.
"For you? My father would say no."
Her smile is warm enough to take some of the chill out of the air.
"And what would you say?"
"I would say my father's a bore." She answers.
Tom comes to with a start, realizing as the blood rushes to his cheeks that the minister has ended his sermon and old Mable is staring him down. He can feel the wetness on his face and knows that he's been crying like an old fool. He wonders absently how long people have been shuffling by, giving him their regards. Mable is roughly the size of a small barn, and due to this fact Tom can't tell how many guests may be standing behind her. He tries to remember what it was she said, while simultaneously doing his best to ignore the vast shifting plane of fabric covering her midsection. It is like trying not to be pulled into a black hole. No answer comes to him so he improvises in the best manner he can.
"Thanks" He says.
Not the right answer, that much is clear as her eyes slide into narrow slits, but it does the job. Mable thunders by with no more then a sniff.
Todd makes his best effort to humor the rest of the guests as they pass by, one by one. He endures the I'm-sorry-for-your-lossses and the she-was-a-good-womans with what he imagines is grace. He has always thought of it as a stupid ritual. Probably makes them feel good, but it leaves him feeling no better. If anything it puts him in a piss poor mood. Finally the procession ends with his son.
"You ready dad?" He asks, halfway making to grab the handle on his wheelchair without waiting for an answer. The boy looks sharp in his crisp three piece suit. He always has, even as a ten year old boy.
"Can I have a moment with your mother, Bobby?" He hates the way his voice sounds, like listening to a dying car sputter.
"It's Bob, dad. Just Bob."
He hates that too. He hadn't named him just Bob.
Bobby looks back over his shoulder and then to the double doors leading outside before letting out a long sigh.
"Yeah I guess. Don't be long, they're going to be coming along for her anytime."
"I won't get in no one's way."
He doesn't say anything more as Bobby strides out. Tom watches his back, feeling the old familiar wrench in his neck. He turns slowly back towards the long silver casket. It's an offensive thing, all shining lines and hard angles. It makes him think of a bullet waiting to go off and take his wife with it. He pumps his arms, ignoring the pain that shoots through his fingers. By the time he is within a foot of the open lid his breath is coming in ragged gasps. A single strand of white hair dangles in his face and tickles his craggy nose. One more push and he will be able to see inside.
"I'm over here, Tom."
The sound of his wife's voice, so close and so life like, nearly gives him a heart attack. Tom sits for a long moment clutching his chest and waiting for the spastic thudding to stop. Knives stab into the back of his eyes as the blood rushes into his head at an unnatural pace. When his motor settles back into its normal rhythm, he spins the chair towards the sound of Alice's voice.
"Alice?" He asks.
"Yes darling, who did you expect? The Michelin man?"
"But you're... You're.."
He feels foolish. Looking at her standing next to the bar she had insisted on having, he feels as if he has lost his mind. The bar had been for him of course, none of her fuddy duddy friends would partake.
"I am dear."
Tom is now entirely sure that he has lost his mind. He has finally crossed over that bridge and into the land of senility beyond. Soon he will be riding his old John Deer through town and trying to mow the parking lot at the local Seven Eleven. Staring at his wife now he wonders wether that might not be such a bad thing. Her red hair has faded away to a snow white over the long years. Her eyes are marked with deep crows feet. There is something odd about the tilt of her nose as well. He tries to remember exactly when she may have broken it and cames up blank. That isn't much of a surprise, so many things happen nowadays that travel right through his mind. She is still beautiful though. His heart wells up in a way he had started to believe it is no longer capable of doing.
"I know this is rough, dear. Here, why don't you have a drink?" She tips some of the contents of one of the various bottles into a shot glass and holds it out to him. The amber liquid sloshes inside like a molten gemstone. Tom can feel the saliva filling his mouth and swallows reflexively.
"I don't drink no more Alice." He answers, not able to shake the feeling that this is some kind of test.
"Well this is a special occasion." She places the glass in his outstretched hand. He hadn't even realized he had reached for it. "It was a beautiful service, wasn't it?"
"I guess, you know I hate these things."
"I'm glad you came, I almost thought you might not."
"For you, I did."
He upends the shot glass, unable to ignore it any longer. The whiskey feels like wildfire as it tears down his throat and into his stomach. Tom resists the urge to push the glass back out towards Alice for a refill, but only just barely.
"So why.. I mean how..." He says, not quite able to put his thoughts into a coherent string.
"How am I here?" She asks. Her smile makes him feel more at ease, "I don't know. As for why, I guess I just wasn't finished. You know me, always forgetting that one last thing."
"Like our trip to Ireland. Boy, we almost missed that plane because you couldn't remember whether we locked the door." He says with a chuckle.
Tom sits looking into the shot glass clutched in his cracked hands. He twists it back and forth, watching the tiny golden bead of whiskey roll across the bottom.
"Sometimes I'm as surprised by what you remember as what you forget, Tom."
"What I forget seems to be more and more every day," He frowns. The simple gesture sends a shock of deep chasms spreading across his features, "They say it's early onset. I never told you."
"I knew, Tom, you never were very good at hiding things from me."
Alice takes the shot glass from his hands. The chill in that touch makes him shiver without even realizing it. Tom watches the gentle sway of her buttocks as she walks back to the bar to refill it. The minister was upset by her request for the open bar. He finally allowed it because everyone agreed not to use it. She returns the newly loaded glass to him. The warmth spreads through him again. He feels a little dirty drinking with Alice watching him, like he has been caught in the mens room with a skin mag.
"Why are you letting me drink, Alice?"
"So you'll remember, Tom. I would feel awful guilty if you didn't remember."
"The bad times. I need you to remember the bad times."
"What do you mean, Alice?"
"I need you to remember this, Tom."
She leans in very close and he realizes he can't feel her breath on his skin. Goose bumps push their way through his leathery skin. As Tom watches she begins to change. The eyes come first. The lids begin to swell shut around her pupils. A garden of blue, purple, and red flowers bloom under the translucent surface of her skin, leaving behind grotesque blotches. Her lip swells like an over ripe piece of fruit until finally it splits. A single thread of bright blood runs down to her chin. The blood collects in a pregnant bead until it falls, landing with a plink in the empty chamber of his shot glass. Her nose twists to one side and finally lets out a loud crack like a distant gunshot. Fresh gouts of blood pour from the shattered nose.
Tom whimpers helplessly as he watches his wife turn into a horror before his eyes. She looks like a prize fighter that has gone ten rounds with a pit bull.
'What.. What is this, Alice? What is happening to you?"
"Remember." Her voice sounds as if it has traveled from the bottom of a wet swamp to reach him. The gurgling of a gas bubble striving to reach the surface.
And he remembers. He had done this to her. It's the reason he promised to stop drinking. It had gotten worse at first. His nerves had been like a down power line. He remembers the last time he beat her. That was when he broke her nose. It had also been when he had fallen down the stairs. If it hadn't been for his fall he may have killed her that day. It got better once he was confined to the wheelchair. Why had she stayed with him?
"I remember. God, I remember."
"And are you sorry, Tom? Are you sorry for the prison you kept me in all those years?"
"Yes." The word sounds weak, even to his own ears.
"Then you'll make it up to me won't you Tom? You love me enough to make it up to me don't you?"
"Yes, I do."
She leans in closer, her split lip nearly touching his. There is a sucking sensation, as if someone is taking a vacuum cleaner to his insides. Hot tears once again sting his cheeks as he stares into Alice's icy blue eyes. Those eyes are glossy and doll like now. Tom realizes suddenly that he is looking down at her in the coffin. He is hunched over it's side, using his arms to propel himself forward. To anyone checking in on him it would appear that he is praying. His vision begins to fade. First darkening at the edges like an old photograph and then edging in.
And then the world goes dark.
He stares into that tenebrous darkness for what feels like an eternity. The intoxicated feeling still hangs onto his mind like a snail clinging to the side of a fish tank. Tom is beginning to wonder whether he has died when he senses a pressure in the darkness. Light returns slowly as his eyes are peeled open. A familiar hand retreats from his vision leaving behind a clear view of the church ceiling.
And then a face enters his vision. It slides into sight like the moon rising over the horizon. The blur of features comes into sudden sharp focus, making Tom want to scream. It is his own face.
"Goodbye, darling." His face says. The voice that comes out of those cracked old lips sounds harsh and ancient, like dust from a tomb.
"Mr. Hamton, we need to move her now."
His face turns away.
"Okay. Be gentle."
Tom watches as the coffin lid swings closed. He screams in silence as darkness falls over him once again.