Stench — A Medical Horror Story

This story is offered up to Eric Douglas’s Halloween 2018 Challenge wherein he invites writers to submit their scariest and most unsettling work.  I’m not sure this qualifies as Halloween-ish, but I’m told it is unsettling.  Do enjoy it.  And enjoy the other stories that are part of the challenge.  They can be found here.

Had it been anything other than what it was, it could have been mistaken for something beautiful.  The texture was that of heavy cream as was the color – white with just a hint of gold.  It was thick, luminous and, when she held it up to the light, the tiny drop on her finger shimmered.

Hannah reached again to her left buttv cheek, gently squeezed.  At first, she was astonished.  Then repulsed.  Finally, nauseated.  Gagging with the stench, she examined the fluid in her hand.  With the last squeeze, the cream gave way to something more like egg yolk and then blood.  The fluid, an infection, flowed across the white curve of her bottom and down a slightly bronzed thigh.  She threw up in the sink.

Nothing in her experience prepared her for the smell.  It smelled like rot and decay, but sharp, pungent, acrid.  The odor was more alive rather than dead – the hot breath of a scavenger, perhaps.  The smell arrived with the fluid, but grew in power.  Hannah continued to retch, heaving over the sink, hanging onto the rim.  She pushed away the thought that sense of smell is dependent on ingesting particles.

Hannah rinsed her mouth and attempted to sit on the edge of the bathtub.  Standing quickly, she winced as she gently and tentatively probed her left cheek.  It felt swollen and even the gentlest touch provoked radiating streaks of pain.    Considering the swelling, she decided there must be more pus.  She squeezed again.  Thick, viscous fluid erupted, quickly filling her hand and then over-filling it with blood.  She gagged again, but had nothing left to vomit.  The volume of fluid was astounding, but after her legs quit trembling she felt better.

For more than a week, she had looked forward to this moment.  Last Tuesday, she had been showering when she noticed an itchy tightening.   For two days, surreptitiously in public, she’d scratched her butt like some middle-aged sitcom buffoon.

The itch finally emerged as a hard, round pimple-like bump.  By Friday, it had quadrupled in size and sitting was difficult.  She tried to pop it by squeezing, but it was too far below the surface.  She carefully sterilized a needle and tried to lance it.  All she accomplished was the letting of a little bit of blood and further assault to her pain-ridden butt.

She contorted her body, twisting and turning, to try and view it in a magnifying mirror.  As far as she could tell, it wasn’t a splinter or something else equally as simple.

She was miserable.

Sitting was especially painful.  Hannah called in sick on Monday and then called her mother.  “Why, honey, it’s just a boil.  Get a needle and poke it.”

“Mama, I’ve already done that.”

Myra heard the frustrated tears in her voice.  “Did you try bacon?”

“Bacon?”

“Get some bacon that’s nearly all fat, spread it with mustard, and apply it the boil.  Works every time.”  Myra, in fact, did not know if it worked, but that’s what her mother had always done for Myra’s brother and a positive attitude was the best cure. “I’ll bring some over.”

Myra attempted a few jokes, but quit when her daughter snarled.  Hannah felt ridiculous and though she could see the potential for humor, the pain was too much for quips.   She was face down on a beach towel spread across the bed, and Myra was doctoring her with mustard, bacon, gauze and first aid tape.  “Honey, that’s a good sized boil.  No wonder you’re miserable.  I’m going to get you some aspirin and water and then I want you to sleep.  Just remember that a good sense of humor aids healing.”  She puttered around the apartment straightening things up until Hannah slept.

The bacon-mustard poultice was a complete failure.

On Tuesday, she called in sick again.  When she hung up, she immediately called her general practitioner’s office.  When she asked to get in that day, the appointment clerk passed her on to Dr. Conley’s nurse.  Hannah, who knew Becky fairly well, explained the situation and even managed to laugh about it.  Becky, with a giggle in her voice, said, “Oh you poor thing.  Get your butt and your boil in here about 2 and we’ll get you fixed up.”

Lying face down on the examining table, her butt sticking out between the edges of the paper gown, Hannah clenched her teeth and let Dr. Conley probe.  The flashes of pain as she gently palpitated the boil brought quick tears to her eyes.  At one point, Hannah gasped.

“Hannah, it’s very deep.  There’s not much I can do.  I’m going to refer you to a dermatologist.  No more bacon, okay?”

Hannah’s disappointment could be read in her face, read in the way she held her body, read in the way she tried to cover her butt with the paper gown suddenly hyper-conscious of what she must look like.

“Hannah, it’s going to be okay.  I’m not the right person to excise something this deep.  With any luck, it will burst internally and your body will take care of it with no further ado.  Take warm baths and Tylenol for the pain until we get you in to see Dr. Eggle.”

Dr. Eggle’s appointment clerk offered an appointment for three weeks hence.

“Three weeks!”

“Yes, that’s the best we can do.  I can add your name to the list of people to call in the event of a cancellation, but Doctor is very busy.  It is prom season, you know.”

“Prom? This is an emergency.”

“A simple boil is hardly a dermatological emergency.  Put warm compresses on it and with any luck it will open and drain in the next day or so.  Remember, we require 24 hours notice of cancellation or we will bill you for a missed appointment.”

Hannah slammed the phone.

Most likely due to Dr. Conley’s prodding and poking, the boil was even larger and more painful.  She took some aspirin and poured a beer.  She discovered that she could, if careful, lie on her side.  She called her mom to update her on the day’s events, forcing herself to laugh about the spectacle she must have been on the examining table.  The beer seemed especially cold.  After the second beer, she fell asleep on the sofa.

She wanted to call in sick the next morning, but didn’t want to explain the nature of her illness.  Hannah figured she couldn’t miss more than two days without a detailed explanation.

She explored the boil in the shower.  She was sure it was bigger.  The pain took her breath away.  Dressing proved a challenge.  She rummaged around in her underwear drawer until she found the what-was-I-thinking thong.  Uncomfortable as it was, it was better than the constriction of her other choices.  She caught herself in the mirror.  The boil, blazing in its angry red fury, stood in high contrast against the lacy straps of the black thong.  It was as revolting as mouse turds on a crème puff.

She went to work and, as much as possible, stood or shifted her weight to her right cheek.  By the time she got home, the boil was enraged and her back ached.  She sat in the bathtub and cried.

The boil felt mushier.  It was no longer rock hard, but the pain increased to a constant throb with periodic shudders of agony.  Hannah couldn’t bring herself to try lancing it again.  She decided this was indeed a dermatological emergency, prom be damned, and prepared to go to the emergency room.

Her spirits lifted now that was taking decisive action.  She drove with purpose, smartly parallel parking a block from the E.R. entrance, and striding to the double doors – only wincing now and again.

At the reception desk they took her insurance information and asked the nature of her emergency.  She was pleased with the term she’d come up with during the drive.  “I have a badly infected abscess on my hip that is very painful.”

Three hours later, she had not even made it to the triage station.  Her knees ached from standing.  She had observed her cohorts in the E.R. carefully.  It seemed that those in the worst shape were called first and taken to the cubicle marked Triage.  From there, they were ushered into the E.R. or sent back to the waiting area.  Tears of frustration welling, she went to the receptionist to make sure of her place on the list.  The receptionist said, “Yes, ma’am, but as you can see we’re very busy and some of these people are very ill or hurt.”
Hannah waited another hour before leaving.

She slept fitfully that night.  The next morning, the boil opened releasing the stench.  After washing the vomit, the pus and the blood down the drain, she showered and wrapped a towel around her.  Gingerly, she sat on a kitchen chair.  It hurt, but not nearly as bad as it had.  Though weak and nauseous, she was happy.  She sipped her tea and tried to decide if she should bandage the burst boil.  It began throbbing again and soon the stench arrived.   When she stood, she was horrified to see a pool of blood and pus on the kitchen chair.  The back of her towel was bright red and near dripping.

She cleaned the kitchen and bathroom with bleach.  The boil would periodically release another round of noxious fluids along with the stench.  She told herself that things would get better now.  Her body just needed to expel all of the infection.

She called in sick.  Her apartment reeked of the stench and bleach.  She sprayed air freshener only to find that the apartment reeked of vanilla scented stench and bleach.  She opened windows.

Four hours later she was still cleaning up fresh batches of pus and blood.  She called the dermatologist’s office.  This, too, did not qualify as a dermatological emergency.  She was advised to sit in a warm, not hot, bath.  Hannah argued, attempting to explain the sheer amounts involved.  She received the curt reply that boils were noted for producing large amounts of pus.

After the bath, she clenched her teeth and squeezed.  The stench was unparalleled.   She vomited her tea.   The boil, the pain, the stench – it was all just cruel.  Gagging and retching, she lay on the bathroom floor and squeezed, twisting her body to squeeze from different angles.  She squeezed and she gagged.  She squeezed pus.  She squeezed blood.  She didn’t stop until she squeezed something that looked like cottage cheese.  “Aha,” she thought.  “That’s it.  I’m done.”  The cool tile of the bathroom floor felt good against her skin.  Eventually, on shaky legs, she stood and cleaned the bathroom.  She taped a gauze compress to her butt.  After calling her mother to share the good news, she fell into bed.  For twelve hours, she slept the heavy, dream-laden sleep of the feverish.

When she awoke, her thoughts turned to her butt.  The pain had returned but was now compounded by a badly bruised feeling.  She had a headache and her mouth was sore from stomach acid.  She slumped in front of the mirror.  Besides angry red, her butt was black and blue with tinges of orange and yellow.  She was sure she was running a fever, but had neither the strength nor the inclination to find the thermometer.  After considering the odds of getting fired, she called in sick.

She couldn’t decide if it was an improvement or not, but in the shower the boil oozed yellow pus and blood without any help from her.  Nearly screaming with the pain, she swabbed it with alcohol and put on a new gauze compress.  On her stomach, she sprawled on the bed and tried to decide what to do.  She called Dr. Conley’s office and made arrangements with Becky for an afternoon appointment.  By the time she got there, the aspirin had taken the fever down and Dr. Conley thought the worst of it was over.  She dressed the wound and gave Hannah an antibiotic cream to use.  Hannah was encouraged to keep her appointment with Dr. Eggle.

The fever and the pus returned that night.  Hannah forced herself to go to work.  She told her supervisor about the badly infected abscess, but did not offer a location.  It was clear to everyone that she was sick and in pain.

The amount of work that had piled up on her desk was of sufficient urgency to almost take her mind off her butt.  The fever came and went, but Hannah found eating near impossible.  The pus would build up, the boil would erupt and the stench forcibly robbed Hannah’s stomach of anything she’d managed to eat.  She slathered her butt in antibiotic cream.  Every day, she called the dermatologist’s office for news of a cancellation.  It seemed to Hannah that the receptionist got progressively ruder.

She called the other dermatologists listed in the phone book.  None offered an appointment sooner than what she had.  That is was prom season signified something akin to her trying to get a last minute airline reservation for the day before Thanksgiving. On her lunch hour, she prowled drug stores looking for miracle cures.  She bought colloidal oatmeal, cortisone cream, and topical painkillers.  She also bought gauze pads, first aid tape, and antibiotic creams.  She bought vitamin compounds for healthy skin and she bought immune system boosters.

The boil oozed and dripped.  With every emission, the stench lingered.  People on elevators gagged.  Shoppers at the drugstore quickly went to other aisles.  Hannah’s co-workers avoided her office.  Whispering stopped when she walked in, but resumed when she had passed by.  She became reclusive, her actions almost furtive.  She quit making eye contact and tried to be invisible.  She changed the gauze pads several times a day, but the stench permeated everything.  Occasionally, the blood and pus would leak through to her clothes.  She would wash it out as best she could in the employee bathroom.  She carried antibiotic soap in her purse.

With a week to go before her appointment, she had a moment of clarity.  “This is ridiculous.”  She drove to the medical complex where the dermatologist was housed.  Walking across the parking lot, she practiced what she would say.  She would be firm and insistent.  She would refuse to leave until examined.  Across the parking lot, in the elevator, and down the hall she practiced her speech – preparing for different scenarios.  The office door was locked.  The sign next to the door informed her the office was closed on Wednesday.  She pressed her forehead against the cool glass and cried quiet tears of misery.  She felt the boil give way and pus drip down her leg.  She fought the stench, not wanting to vomit in the hallway.

She went home and lay face down on the bed.  She didn’t bother to clean herself up or call in sick.  Her misery was complete.

She quietly sobbed.  Sometimes, she turned her head and looked out the window thinking about life before the boil.  She did not call her mother.  She had no sense of humor left.

Her skirt had dried to her butt and she couldn’t bear the pain of peeling it off.  She considered showering with the skirt on, but instead went back to bed.  She stared out the window at the streetlight through the night.

The next morning she drove to the dermatologist still wearing the same clothes.  She did not practice her speech.  It took all her concentration just to drive.  When she got on the elevator, many of the passengers chose to get off.  The few that remained gagged.  The boil opened again when she leaned against the wall.

She was too early.  She pressed her face against the cool glass while she waited for the door to be unlocked.  Finally, she heard a voice she recognized as the receptionist’s.  “What…?”

Hannah’s knees collapsed and she fell to the floor.  The boil exploded spewing pus and blood in such amounts that even Hannah would have been surprised, had she any strength left for emotional reactions.  She heard the receptionist vomit.  She heard the other patients arrive.  She felt herself being lifted on a gurney.  She heard the paramedic gag.  She realized her skirt was soaked.  She felt the needle slide into her vein.

She remembered rolling past Triage, but not much after that – a succession of bright lights, people asking questions, the delicious darkness of Demerol.  In the moment before unconsciousness, she noticed the pain now existed outside of her.

Hours later, she was awake enough to hear, but opening her eyes took more strength than she had.  She wasn’t sure if it was a nurse or a doctor, but she heard someone say, “The patient was brought in through ER with a temp of 104.2, borderline low blood pressure, and what has been preliminarily identified as a bad episode of hidradenitis suppurativa.  We’re waiting on more labs.  Right now she’s badly dehydrated with an elevated white blood cell count.  The area of infection has been lanced, excised, stitched and treated with topical antibiotics.  Bandages every four hours.  We’ve got her on saline and an antibiotic drip.  Fever is down.  She should be coming out of the Demerol soon and she can have pain meds every four hours.”

She drifted back to sleep, but a dull ache awoke her.  She meditated on the pain.  It was different.  “I could live with this.”  She opened her eyes and reached for the water.  The sun was up, but she had no idea of the time.  She stared out the window until a nurse came in.

The chatter annoyed her, but she answered the questions.  The nurse gave her pain pills and Hannah gave her mother’s phone number.  Someone brought her chicken broth and jello, but she went back to sleep.

When she awoke, her mother was there.  Myra looked worried yet angry.

“Honey, why didn’t you call me?”

Hannah raised her hand off the bed and then let it drop.  She couldn’t find the words.

“Baby, I would have helped you.  Your fever’s down, your white blood cell count is approaching normal, they’re letting you out in the morning.”

Hannah drifted back to sleep.

By morning, she felt lucid and much better, if weak.  Her butt was heavily bandaged, but she managed to shower.  It took some doing to put on the jeans her mother had brought.  She enjoyed being able to sit.  It hurt, but in a manageable way.  She ate her toast and scrambled eggs.  She was savoring the orange juice when a woman came into the room and pulled Hannah’s privacy curtain.

“Hannah, I’m Sheila with Patient Support Services.  I have some questions I’d like to ask you.  Are you up for it?”

Hannah said, “Sure.”

Sheila started with the questions.  All of them were pretty innocuous at first.  How old are you?  Where do you work?  Do you live alone?  Previous medical history.

“Hannah, why did you wait so long to get medical attention?
“I didn’t.”

“Hannah, our records indicate that you went to E.R., but left shortly after registering.  You were very sick and clearly needed medical attention…”

Hannah began to understand what Sheila was really saying.  “You think I did this to myself?  You think I just let myself get sicker and sicker?  That I don’t have any sense?”

“Hannah, I didn’t mean to make you angry, what I’m trying to say is that….”

“Listen, you don’t know jack about what happened.  It was prom and I called and I called….”

“Hannah….”

Hannah started screaming.  She tilted her head back and howled three weeks of frustration.  She stood up and threw her glass of orange juice and then her giant mug of water against the wall.  She turned to Sheila and screeched, “You pretentious little bitch.  You have no idea…” but Sheila was headed for the door and calling for help.  Hannah continued to scream up and down the scales of frustration and degradation.  She screamed her anger and she screamed her rage.  She sang a wordless dirge of pain and dismissal.  The festering boil of professional apathy exploded and Hannah keened an aria of betrayal.  The pus rose up again and again, the stench of arrogance filling the room.  Hannah vomited, moaned, and finally fell silent.  Lanced.  Spent.

She lost track of events.  She found herself in restraints on a gurney and headed for the Psych Ward.  Her throat was raw, her face tear-stained, her blouse covered in vomit.  She felt the salty tears drying, tightening her skin.  Her hair was damp.  She felt the sedative numb her body and brain.  She went to sleep.

Several days later she was fired for job abandonment.  The following day, Dr. Eggle’s office mailed a bill for the missed appointment.

The Plum

plum editedWe call it The Plum.  It’s the prettiest moonshine that we make.  The shine is made from my PawPaw’s PawPaw’s recipe in a copper still just like it was a hundred years ago.  In each jar, we put 13 sweet plums from the trees my great-aunt planted after the ’37 flood.  Thirteen because that’s the number of the disciples plus Jesus, the number of full moons in a year, and the number of children PawPaw’s grandmother birthed.  Not counting the ones she buried before the rest of them buried her.

The river-soaked land fed those trees well and the plums we harvest are the best you’ve ever had.  They’re a beautiful dark ruby color and as they soak in the shine, they release their juice and turn the shine a color that reminds me of a summer sunset when you just know it’s going to storm in a few hours – the sky all dramatic with bright color and swirling clouds.  I love twirling the mason jars in my hands so as to get those plums moving round and round – the shine gets prettier and prettier as the movement releases even more color from the plums.

Yes, I’m a moonshiner’s daughter and even though I wasn’t the longed for son, Daddy taught me the art.  He passed a few years ago so now it’s just Mama and me making The Plum.  Folks come from miles away to buy it.  One fella bought 40 cases of it – 6 jars to a case!  I asked him what he was going to do with that much shine.  He said, “Why drink it, of course!  Me and my friends just love this stuff.”

He asked me why my Mama and me weren’t more afraid being on our own and selling shine.  What he meant was being without a man to protect us.  I told him that I’m meaner than a wildcat and my daddy taught me to shoot just as well as he taught me to  ‘shine.  He laughed, but I wasn’t making a joke.

He came back every year for The Plum.  The third year, Mama said to me, “He’s courting you.  Or trying to.  Be friendly at least.”   I hushed her and went on stringing beans.   The stuff that get in her head!  I could tell you stories.

Every year he came and each time he stayed a bit longer to visit.  One time he came when a storm was stirring and we put him in my bedroom and I slept with Mama. She hissed, “Foolish girl!  That man is trying to court you.”  I was beginning to think she was right, but he left the next morning.

A few months later, he drove up the holler when we wasn’t expecting him.  He announced he was there to help us ready for winter.  We use a wood stove to heat with and the mountain winters need a lot of wood.  I was used to doing it, but thankful to have the help all the same.

That night, he slept in my bed and I slept on the sofa.  Before either one of us did much sleeping, we did a lot of talking and a fair amount of sipping us some Plum.  By then, I figured Mama was right.  Still and all, I was surprised when he leaned over and kissed me when I was telling him about helping to calf a cow.  So, yes, he kissed me and then he said his goodnight.

I tried to figure out whether or not I should go get in my bed too.  I spent most of the night wrestling with that question, but I did finally fall asleep.  I woke to the smell of sausage sizzling and biscuits baking.  I was surprised to find him in the kitchen doing the cooking.  And playing a mandolin, soft and sweet as the dawn.  I kissed him.  He wrapped his arms around me and said, “I’ve been waiting on that.”

We got married three days later.

Yesterday, I birthed a boy.  Daddy would have been so tickled.

Daddy loved me, but he longed for a boy.  It’s nice now, being loved partly because I am a girl.  I’m a moonshiner’s daughter and now I’m a moonshiner’s wife.  He learnt real quick.  I expect I’ll be a moonshiner’s mother.  My family has been making The Plum for generations, but now it has a love story to sweeten it even more.  Maybe it’s always had a love story, but I’m making sure this one gets told.


This  was born of a writing prompt.  The prompt was to listen to Rhiannon Giddens’ Moonshiner’s Daughter and write a thousand words or so.  This was my offering.

Second Hand Smoke

tellabration november 2017Good Evening. 

My name is Connie Kinsey.  I’m a writer who lives in a converted barn in West Virginia. I’ve been there 32 years now.

I’ve put down deep roots in that old barn, but I grew up a nomadic military brat.  I went to something like 5 different elementary schools.  You get used to people coming and going when you’re a brat.

One of the people who came and went a lot was my dad.  As an officer in the Marine Corps, he did four tours of Vietnam.  Of course he had PTSD.  He died almost two years ago and I’m still mourning him.

This story is about Vietnam.  Sort of.  The narrator could be me, but is not.  The Marine captain in the story could be my dad, but he’s not.  Fruitcake, the young marine in the story, is an amalgamation of teenage Marines I met at the skating rink.  This story is fiction.  Never happened.

But it could have.

I’ve titled it “Second Hand Smoke.”

Second Hand Smoke

Damn.  I like men.  I have always liked men.  I was a certified daddy’s girl.  My daddy was the best man of all, he was pretty tickled with me, and I just assumed that most men were more likely than not to be like him.

My mama tells a story about the time I was three years-old and hospitalized for bronchitis.  I can’t remember, but to hear her tell it I couldn’t wait for visiting hours to be over because that’s when the Corpsmen would sit inside my oxygen tent and play Pocahontas Indian Princess with me.  In those days, even parents had to observe visiting hours.  Mama shakes her head now when she remembers how it never ever entered her head to fuss about that.

So anyway, I like men a lot.  That whole Indian princess thing must have stuck with me even if the memory of the hospital didn’t.  Now, I’m not anymore Indian than I am anything else, but I look more Indian than I do anything else.  Everybody thinks my green eyes come from my mama’s Irish people, but the only kin I have with green eyes come from my daddy’s side – the same side that produced the genuine, 100-proof, Cherokee grandma.  Of course, nobody talked about Mawmaw being Cherokee until Indian got to be cool sometime in the late sixties.

A couple of years later, I was fourteen looking twenty and living in a town with forty thousand Marines — most of them still teenagers and either fretting about going to ‘Nam or about what happened there.

Skating at the rink was all the rage.  I was on the speed skating team and taking all sorts of lessons.  For dance, I was partnered up with somebody the right size, finally, to get on with learning to do lifts.  It was 1972 and a lot of those guys had seen some horrible things.  Some of them drank, and a lot of them took up karate so as to feel like they had some control, but almost all of them smoked weed.

A lot of the kids in my junior high smoked pot.  I stuck to cigarettes.  I was an officer’s daughter and the teacher’s pet.  I was supposed to be too smart to fry my egg-head, but I liked the kick of a nicotine rush.  Both of my parents come from mostly poor white trash, but the Corps made my dad an “officer and a gentleman.”  He said that a lot.

I was just me.  I wasn’t all that different from the other girls in that time and place even if I was an Indian princess who skated with the Macs.

It was the summer my dad quit smoking.  It was quite a summer, but I remember that night best.  A lot of stuff when I was young – well, I don’t have complete memories of it.  I haven’t blocked it out or anything, but most things I remember in snippets – freeze frames – not video.  Except for this — I remember this night.

That song Indian Nation, was popular and I was pretty impressed with my newfound Indian blood.  Between the leather headband and the turquoise jewelry, the Macs took to calling me Pocahontas which was just fine with me.   I’d recently decided my parents were morons for having named me what they did.

It was hot.

Hurricane season had just set in and breathing was like trying to grow gills.  The old man had given up on trying to cool the rink.  There were these huge hangar fans that just roared.  The Jackson Five were Rockin’ Robin at a volume guaranteed to blow ear drums when I decided I needed fresh air and a cigarette.

Back then that wasn’t a contradiction.

Between the heat, the noise, and my sunburn, I was ready to jump out of my skin.

Of course, we weren’t supposed to go outside with our skates on, but mine weren’t rentals and I knew the guy at the door.

I skated over to the door, toed to a coast and rolled into the dark.  Walked on my toe stops to the guard rail and sat down.  There was a guy about ten feet down in the shadows.

About all I could see was the glow of his cigarette.  I could hear him banging his skates against the edge of the sidewalk.  It set my teeth on edge.

The cigarette glow reminded me of my dad.  I fished around in my bag for cigarettes, but didn’t find any.  I was already irritated.  I clomped over and sat down next to him.

“If Tim catches you banging those skates, he’ll have a fit.  He’ll have to repack your bearings and he hates repacking.  Besides, you’re not supposed to be out here with rentals.  Can I bum a cigarette?”

He quit clanging his skates.

“I’m not afraid of Tim.  You old enough to smoke?”

“You old enough to kill?”

He dragged a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and handed it to me.  In the flash of his Zippo, I saw his face for the first time.

He was simply beautiful.

I was astonished.  Even though a fan of men, I had never regarded one as beautiful.  I hadn’t even considered men could be beautiful.  Handsome, rugged, cute, smart, tall, short, old, young — all of those I knew.  But beautiful.  I was already having trouble breathing, when I noticed he was Indian.  I’d never seen him around before.

And I knew all the guys at least by sight.

“What nation?” I said.  It was a line I’d heard in a movie.  I thought it sounded cool and knowing and older — Indian.  Like I really was one.

He looked at me.

My eyes were adjusting so I could see pretty well by then.

He was still beautiful, but details were coming into focus.  His skin was perfect.  He could have been the Cherokee Nation Noxema poster child.

I had never seen a man with skin like that.  Like marble, there were no pores and not even the trace of razor stubble.  I’ve seen baby butts less delicate than his skin.

Of course, he was dark.  The North Carolina sun turns even the very fair dark.

Years later, I saw Michelangelo’s David and commented that ol’ Mick got it wrong.  The image of that man that night burned into my brain with the flash of a Zippo.

“I’m Lakota, white girl.”

“Don’t call me white girl.  What’s your name?”

“Fruitcake.”

“Fruitcake?”

“Yeah.  My buddies call me Fruitcake.”

“And you let them?”

“I kind of like it.”

I couldn’t think of a response.

Fruitcake?  I was already hopelessly in love with this guy and trying to turn the name Fruitcake into something cool.

Stalling for time, I took a long drag on the cigarette and about fell off the guard rail I got so dizzy.

Sometimes the kick will kick you.

Fruitcake laughed for real.

Fruitcake, white girl.  When I rotated stateside, I took to drinking rum.

My wisdom teeth were bothering me and Grandmother told me to chew on cloves.  My buddies said I smelled like fruitcake.”

“So.  How are your teeth, now?” How are your teeth?  I could have died.  I took another drag on the cigarette.

“The base dentist took them out.  Now, I’m just another dumb Mac.”

“I don’t think you’re dumb.”  Good grief, Charlie Brown.

He laughed again.   We both took drags on our cigarettes.

“Stateside, huh?  Just back from ‘Nam?”

“Couple months.  I finished thirty days with the family and shipped here a month ago.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen you here before.”

“It’s my first time on skates.”

It was my turn to laugh.

“Is that why you’re out here?  I could show you how, you know.”

“Naw.  It doesn’t seem that difficult.  All that noise gets to me after awhile.”

I scrubbed my cigarette out.  My breathing was starting to get somewhere near normal.

“Well, I’d like to skate with you sometime.”

“We’ll see, white girl.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“OK.  So, what’s your name?”

Oh god.  No.

“The guys here call me Pocahontas.”

He about fell off the rail laughing.

Big, hearty, deep belly laughs.

“I haven’t laughed like that since R&R in Tokyo.  We were all down at the . . . ”

“How come everybody that’s been to ‘Nam doesn’t talk about anything but R&R?”

“Maybe because nobody asks.”

“Nuts, I didn’t ask you about R&R in Tokyo either.”

He licked his index finger, made a sizzling sound and drew a line in the air.

“One for you, little sister.”

“So.  What’s it like in Viet Nam?”

He didn’t say anything for a long time.

I could hear David Cassidy singing I think I love you.

I reached over and fished another cigarette out of his pocket.

This time, I got close enough to smell him.

I used to think Corps regulations required English Leather aftershave.  It’s the only thing my father ever wore and still wears.   Fruitcake, though, smelled all of Ivory soap and cloves.  I couldn’t detect any rum.

While trying to grip a filter, I felt the beat of his heart.  He leaned sideways, bumped into my shoulder, and stretched to drag the Zippo out of his Levi’s.  My heart pounded and my hands got sweaty.

Lighting my cigarette, he said, “What’s it like? Well, your feet and back are always wet.”

Before I could say anything, he jumps up all of a sudden forgetting he’s on skates.

Arms windmilling, he finally gets control.

It takes me way too long to realize my dad is standing there.  I toss the cigarette behind me hoping he didn’t see it, but knowing he did.

“Captain!  Sir!”

“At ease, Marine.  We’re not in uniform.”

“Sir!  Yessir!  Sir!  I mean . . . Thank you, Sir.”

“Hi, Daddy.”  Jeez.

And the guys wonder why I don’t tell them my real name.  It was the first time my dad had ever picked me up from the rink.  Usually my mom did it.

“She’s fourteen, you know.”

“Sir!”

“She’s too young.”

I could have just died.   “I’ll go get my shoes.”

“See you at the car, Punkin.”

Punkin!  Good grief.

I turned to look at Fruitcake, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes.

I clomped back inside and started pawing through shoes looking for mine.  By the time I got to the car, I was furious.  “Daddy!”

We drove in silence for a while.

There’s this desolate stretch of scrub pine between the skating rink and where we live.  It feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere – No Man’s Land – Jacksonville’s very own DMZ.

Here’s where my memory starts freeze-framing.  I can’t remember what provoked me or if I just got lost in thought or what, but I heard myself say, “Daddy, can I have a cigarette?”

“No.  You’re too young to smoke.”

“How old do you have to be?”  My heart was thundering.

“A lot older than you are now.”

“Daddy, did you kill people in Vietnam?”

The car slowed and pulled to a stop on the shoulder.

He lit a cigarette and started to hand it to me.  Then he pulled it back and took a drag off of it.  I don’t think he noticed the kick.  He threw it out the window.  And then he threw the pack of Pall Malls after it.

“Yes.”

I couldn’t think of a thing to say.  We drove the rest of the way home in silence.

Of course, he told Mama.  She grounded me for four weeks.

There was no sign of Fruitcake when I got to go skating again.

There was a constant rotation of men and I always kept an eye out for Fruitcake, but I never saw him again.

I read this story for the Athens, Ohio Tellabration Celebration at Athens Uncorked on November 19, 2017.

A Halloween Story: Julie

Branches scratched at the window and the floorboards creaked.

The woman sighed and got out of bed.  She went through the house opening every door, searching every closet, looking under beds.  She got the flashlight and searched the cellar and the front porch.

She couldn’t find the baby.

Nearly every night she looked for the baby.  People suggested to her that what she was hearing was a cat in heat.  She told them, “No.  I don’t think so.”

The baby didn’t always cry.  Sometimes, she could hear it cooing.  Infrequently, the baby giggled in that sweet way that a child of four or five months will do.  Peals of laughter like angelic chimes.

Standing in the yard with her flashlight, she watched the October wind blow her nightgown around her legs.  It was warm for the season and she rolled up the sleeves of her nightgown.  She sat in the Adirondack chair on the porch, straining to try and figure out from what direction the baby’s faint cry was coming.

Robert had left because of the baby.  For thirty-two years, he told her it was her subconscious grieving for Julie.  “Myra, hun, I think you need to get some help with this.”  With that, he turned and walked out the door.

After she retired, she sometimes heard the baby during the day, but that didn’t happen often.  She kept the tv turned up too loud.

Robert had been gone for two weeks and three days.  She missed him.  She thought about his last words.

With the baby still crying, she opened the front door.   The baby’s cries were louder in the house.

Fishing around in the closet, she pulled out the phonebook.  She wondered how one went about choosing a psychiatrist.  She sipped hot tea while perusing the names.  She hoped one of them would jump out at her.

The tea was making her hotter and the list of doctors was frustrating her.  She returned to the front porch where it was cooler and the baby’s cries were softer.  It almost sounded like the child was trying to comfort itself – sobs interspersed with thumb-sucking sounds.

Myra walked down the front steps of the porch into the yard.  There was no moon and she had left the flashlight in the kitchen.

She found herself walking down the road to the cemetery.  “I should really go back and get the flashlight,” but she forged ahead.  It was only a mile or so.

At the cemetery, she quickly made her way to the three little tombstones all lined up in a row.  She couldn’t hear the baby crying amongst the ruffling leaves.  The wind was picking up, cooling the night and scattering clouds so that a waning moon lit her path.

She thought about that night.  She and Robert were preparing to go to sleep.  Robert went around checking to see that doors and windows were locked.  Myra straightened the kitchen before going upstairs to check on Julie one last time before crawling into bed.

Now that the baby was sleeping through the night, Myra wasn’t as tired, but found it difficult to sleep through the night herself.  She still found herself slipping into Julie’s nursery in the middle of the night to gaze at her.  She was perfect.  A little angel.  She never tired of watching the child sleep.

She stood in the doorway, hall light scattering across Julie’s nursery floor.  Something seemed wrong.  The room was too quiet.  Myra went to the crib and pulled the blanket up over Julie’s small body.  She was cold to the touch.

Robert found her rocking the baby, wrapping her in a blanket, trying to warm her.  Tears streaming down her face, she said, “She’s so cold.  If we can just warm her up.”  Crying himself, Robert took the baby from her looking for a breath, a pulse, a heartbeat.  It was the third child they had lost.  The other two had been stillborn.  Julie was the only one who had cried.

Myra sat down in front of the graves.  They had named the two who had never drawn breath Michael Paul and Lily Jeanne.  She traced their names on the small stones.  Tears begun to stream down her face.  A sound welled up from her inner core, the pain of three dead babies finding voice.  She keened.

Bent over with the sobs, she stretched out and lay among the leaves silencing herself.  She listened to her own heartbeat, calming. The leaves rustling.  The moon softly lighting all she could see.  For thirty-two years, she had not cried after that night.  She felt the tears stream down the side of her face as she gazed at the moon.

She heard the baby while the warmth seeped from her own body.  She closed her eyes.  The baby was babbling.  The baby was in her arms.  She was afraid to open her eyes.  Afraid there would be no baby.  Trying to draw warmth from the child, she held her close.

The baby struggled against being held too tight.  Myra opened her eyes and found herself staring at Julie.  Warm and pink.

Myra’s last words were, “There you are.  I’ve been looking for you.”

NOTE:  This post is part of Eric Douglas’s 2017 Halloween Short Story Collection.  Read more here