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- Story Listed as: Fiction For Adults
- Theme: Drama Stories / Human Interest Stories
- Subject: Drama
- Published: 12/05/2016
Harold stood on his landing and looked out at the white moon that hung in the cloudless sky above his neighbor’s house. He had taken to doing this lately since Rose had passed away and, while he was still able to enjoy it from his South facing window, Harold thought it was worth making a wish. Very soon it would be gone when the November calendar finished and the prospect of a Christmas alone would fill his mind.
Most of his year had been a stressful blur of hospital visits, doctor’s appointments and scans since Rose had first felt a lump on her breast. And to be fair on Ben Shingle, their General Practitioner, he had moved fairly quickly arranging her schedule with regards to being seen. But without the top end Medicare insurance they needed the scope of Rose’s treatment was limited. What was the point in spending all that money every month when they were both healthy fifty five year olds? But they weren’t, not Rose anyway. According to Dr. Shingle the tumor could have been growing for at least a year undetected. How could Harold have known, how could anyone know - yet if only he had just paid that little extra, Rose might not be dead.
‘Why are you so cruel god’ he whispered to the silver orb, although he never expected an answer. why would he. God doesn’t care about him. ‘She never did anything to you.’
A phone rang in the distance, it was the one in the study and Harold wondered just who would be calling him at this time of night. He checked his watch in the light of the moon and saw it was fifteen after ten. The sound irritated him, it wanted to drag him away from his astral vision, knowing fine rightly if he returned after finding out it was only Roses sister Beth asking for the umpteenth time how he was fairing, it would be gone, lost behind some wistful cloud which decided to come along while he talked idle chit chat. Don’t you just know it?
Five rings before the answer machine kicks in he contemplates then begins to count them down, one while he was first gazing at the moon. Two when he turned his head to listen. Three when he thought about which phone was ringing. In the study four, five when he decided to let the automated lady Rose had cutely named ‘Orla’ convey to whoever was calling to please leave a message. He waited for the consoling click of his AT and T cordless he had proudly bought at a knock down price at Walmart last Thanksgiving and the soothing airs of Orla. Whose generic female voice now wafted up through the stairway inviting the caller to ‘please speak after the tone’ – there was a pause, there always is, few people are often ready to jump right in and speak however. Most are clearly surprised when the beep suddenly stops leaving the hiss of static white noise pouring into their ear. Startled they blurt out a customary ‘Hi’ or a nervous ‘Hello’ followed by a short version of what they wanted to talk about to the person they rang, embarrassed and self conscious about relaying their important thoughts to a machine. Some hang up, others merely cough or whisper a solitary ‘its only me, don’t worry every things alright, catch you later,' hoping their voice is recognized and not distorted onto the storage chip. Anxious hours then ensue until a call back is received.
Harold listened and continued to watch the moon with mischievous thoughts abundant of how Beth would fret why he hadn’t answered, ‘let her worry for a while’ he smiled to himself. ‘she never really thought I was ever good enough for Rose anyway, stuck up bitch.’
Orla had long finished, and the pause had come just as he had predicted, yet no one spoke. The line was open, he was sure of that. ‘A prank! That’s it!’ Some young whippersnapper has got hold of his number and was making a joke call. He began to think from where, how could he be that careless. ‘’down at the Library maybe?’’ He heard himself say. ‘I was there yesterday bringing back those two Stephen King books I had borrowed to read while Rose went through her chemo, did the receptionist ask me for it so she might update her data base? - how could I not remember. I’m always so careful, did someone overhear?’
A scant cloud began to cover the moon in his moments of uneasy ambiguity, making silver veins full of astral plasma illuminate it from behind. The void of silence from the phone became deafening. ‘there’s no way I’m gonna answer it now’ he thought. ‘Why should I give some greasy little toe rag the pleasure of a stupid wind up, besides it wasn’t the library. No one else was around when I handed them in. But it could have been the blond lady at the hospital. The one who was always twittering on about ‘how you need to check your policy Mr. Cardel, the hospital can’t continue with your wife’s treatment if she isn’t covered.’ Bloody Southern Health! How was I to know it had expired!’
Did she ask for his phone number? Don’t they always? He tried hard to remember but all he could see in his mind's eye was Rose standing with him looking even more worried, her big blue eyes welling up with tears and fear while he filled out endless forms with stupid questions like, how long have you had your policy -tick box 1-5 years, 5-10 years or more. Or have you made a claim in the last year? -if yes go to column 5, if no move to next question. On and on they went. Who's your coverage provider, please fill in the underwriters name in the box provided-. ‘Shitty Southern Health, that’s who, Florida’s worst insurers! And why isn’t anyone speaking’?
Three sessions of chemotherapy, that was it. That’s all they would pay for. Rose cried when they had to leave UF Heath Shands, Florida’s renowned Cancer treatment center. ‘Why not try one of the charity hospitals’ the young blond lady had offered up to him.
‘Charity’! He had screamed at her ‘My wife is dying for Christ sake, and all you can offer is Charity!’
People looked; those waiting to be seen rose up their papers, books and magazines to hide their eyes for his embarrassment. ‘Please keep your voice down Mr. Cardel’, she had hissed at him. ‘Those receiving treatment might hear you’ he remembered flipping her the bird, gripping Rose by her arm before storming out, that much he did recall, to the shock and dismay of the onlookers. But he didn’t care, and who the hell did she think she was. Rose had ignored him all the way home in the car before going straight to bed. It could be her, that uppity bitch from the hospital just waiting for him to say hello before she shouts down the line for him to go and jump off a nearby bridge. ‘Die you creep, just like your wife’ she would say with vile hatred in her voice. So no, not this time missy.
The sparse cloud had drifted away leaving the moon even brighter than it had been earlier when he first came to gaze upon it. It had shifted slightly upwards and seemed to be larger than it was. The moving of the planet and of time no doubt being a factor, a lunar phase, isn’t that what they call it? And where had the time gone anyway? Thirty odd years they had been married, two before with an engagement. And another added from the summer of seventy-two, when they first met.
He’d danced with the best looking girl in Tallahassee on the night of the ‘Straw hat’ break up ball; a little while before he had seen her a few times eating lunch break sandwiches and sipping milk, sitting on the crab grass patch slope near the running track, mostly alone. She’d smiled when he’d walked by once and pushed her long auburn hair tantalizingly up round her ear, teasingly picking at her bread with her delicate fingers, before placing tiny pieces into her mouth provocatively dropping her eyes while pretending she hadn’t noticed him grinning back.
‘Morgan steeple was my best buddy back then’ he began to think. ‘Everyone called him Tower on account of his height, Six foot three in his bare feet, and one hell of a basketball player. His favorite position was power forward for the collage team. Not what you would call good-looking either, with his crooked teeth, but Tower did have an air of confidence around him when it came to the girls. Something he had lacked, but he was quite happy kicking around with those that followed. But this time it was different, Rose had made eyes at him when he walked by. So on the night of the Straw hat Ball it was easy to pluck up the courage to ask her to dance.
‘It could be him calling of course, his best collage pal. He’d promised he would when they met up at the service last week. But Tower would most definitely say something and not just breathe down the line. Which was his style after all, being impetuous and full of his own importance, he often wondered why Beth even married him in the first place. They only lasted five years, and he was sure Tower was having affairs for most of that time, even though he never said to him. He once confided he ‘just didn’t want to be left out when you guys tied the knot’ he’d said, not a reason to get hitched, not as far as he was concerned. Mind you he never married again’
Arnold checked his watch once more, it was ten thirty three and the line was still open almost in virtual purgatory waiting for someone to speak or hang up. He didn’t care which came first.
His next thought was ambiguous and he even wondered why it had chosen to enter his head at this precise moment, but as the moon crept behind another lost cloud he wondered about something which had happened the day following Roses interment. It was early morning when he first heard the voice, a whisper that seemed to surround him, it asked a question, a simple query, but one that jolted him into a terror. Electrifying his spine, all it said was, ‘’Are you sleeping?’’
Sometime before, Arnold couldn’t be sure when, he had been disturbed from his dreaming by the sound of his closet door opening, just a short click of the lock leaving its keeper and a slight creak of un-oiled hinges as it settled into an inch or so ajar. He had risen from his pillow and through sleep filled eyes concluded that maybe he’d left a window open and that was the cause, a morning breeze had intruded briefly into the room and opened the door that he had failed to lock properly after undressing for bed the previous night. The room was bathed in a mellow daybreak sunlight that had found its way in through a crack in the curtains, dust mots floated aimlessly in its sheet of golden rays and he could hear a lonely wood pigeon calling from the Ash tree outside his window. For a few seconds he looked at the door with a puerile anticipation of whether it may continue to open.
A chill moved across his shoulders and made him shudder. It conjured up childhood memories of stories about the monsters and demons that lurk in your closet and under your bed. Unfounded mystical tales unleashed by unscrupulous parents to keep their offspring in their rooms at night only to ensure them an undisturbed evening. Was this phone call just an extension of that same childish imagination? Did it really even ring at all? Harold dropped his shoulders, sighed and gave into the notion the only way to find out was to go and see for himself.
He walked down the small flight of stairs from the short landing into the hallway. The study door was halfway down on the left. He looked, noticing it was slightly ajar just like the closet had been. It was then he suddenly had a real sense of foreboding, it left a feeling if he was to put his hand into the room to switch on the light something would spring from the darkness and grab his wrist. Maybe some closet demon lurking lost from its usual abode.
From where he was standing he could see the blinking red LED on the telephone cradle, he knew this meant someone was there on the line. ‘God damn it, why don’t they just speak, and get it over with’ he heard himself say. Then he had a thought, a great idea! He would go into the study, lift the phone, then quickly put it down again. That way whoever was there would be cut off. The ominous threat of a waiting monster ready to pounce had left him now that he had formed a plan. And besides, they were nothing more than childish fancies. But just to be on the safe side he would first switch on the light before bursting in.
Arnold slid his left hand in through the crack in the door, fumbled for a moment searching for it then tried to move the switch upwards. It wouldn’t budge; it was solid, stuck in the off position.
Why it had got that way he wasn’t sure, it had worked perfectly the night before when he had written the note. The note he had left on his desk beside the phone, the one that was now flashing. And why hadn’t he remembered this before? Fragments were returning the more he stood and watched the intermittent glow, tiny pieces like a jigsaw puzzle were tumbling into place inside his head. He could see himself coming into the hallway. Closing and locking the door as he always did, it was his return trip from the Library ‘those god damn Stephen King books’ he said ‘never even got to finish one.’
Placing his coat on the hall rack and his wet umbrella into the stand, taking the small brown bag he had secretly earlier put into his pocket out and walking to his study. He remembered it felt heavy in his hand. Inside the room was dark except for the flashing of the phone. Someone had called while he was out and had left a message. Much like what it was doing now.
His mind movie continued to play and with each piece of his jigsaw finding its rightful place. slowly he began to remember more of what he had done. He hadn’t bothered to switch on the light before he sat down, choosing to use his desk lamp to illuminate his note pad. He had poured himself a drink from the bourbon he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk. Two fingers, no ice, just the way he liked it. The bottle Rose never knew was there. Finding a pen he began to write on his pad. It was to be short and to the point, that much he had decided. Where was the need of drawing it out longer than necessary?
He took a sip of his drink, the liquor felt mellow in his mouth then warm like the heat of a log fire in winter on his throat as it went down into his belly. He wrote his words quickly and steadily without hesitation. No nervous shake or second thought pause, he had memorized every line to heart all day. Running them over and over as he walked home in the rain. When he had finished he tore the page from the pad and folded it neatly into a square. He placed his note inside a white envelope he had laid ready on his desk before going out to the library. Fixing down its flap he then kissed it gently closed with his lips. He wrote ‘To Beth’ on its cover, then placed it leaning against his paper weight, the beach stone Rose had rescued from the sand while on their last vacation.
His eyes then turned to the bag; he recalled his breathing getting faster, his heart pounding so loud he could hear it in his head. And when his hand grasped the gun inside he was surprised to find it not cold like he expected but warm to the touch, almost as if it was inviting him to lift it out.
He had, twisting it round, admiring its craftsmanship, its shape. Its silver chrome glinted in the light of the lamp and its robust barrel threw back a distorted image of a man with thinning gray hair, tired sad eyes and saddlebag face. He remembered the clink on his teeth it made when he put it in his mouth. There was no noise or pain when he pulled the trigger, just instantaneous blackness and a feeling of falling from a great height. Then there was nothingness until his eyes opened and he was standing on the landing looking at the moon.
It had all come back; every piece had now been placed in the jigsaw.
Harold pushed into the study; he could make out a dark shape in the low light. The body on the floor was him of course; only where his right ear should have been now was a hole the size of a silver dollar. Blood had pooled in a purple mass and dried onto the floor carpet. Above his corpse spatters of brain peppered the ceiling like a thousand black stars on a pale white nights sky. The desk lamp had tumbled to the floor, its glass shade broken into three large pieces. Harold looked at himself lying dead, still holding the revolver in his right hand, his face mangled and bloody. His eyes drifted sadly to the envelope with the note still standing against the beach stone. He noticed tiny speckles of his crimson blood were now sprayed across its face; it made him feel bad Beth was going to find him and it soon. He thought of the words he’d inscribed and of the tears that filled his eyes while he wrote them. ‘Dear Beth’ he had begun. ‘I hope you will understand, but life is nothing without Rose and it’s my fault she died. Harold.'
The red light of Harold’s answer machine was still blinking, still open, waiting for someone to speak. And his once grand plan was now forgotten, blown away like autumn leaves. Harold lifted the handset to his ear. A small voice spoke, and said his name, the same he had heard coming into his bedroom when the closet door had opened. ‘Is that you Rose?’ He asked, but he knew it was.
‘Time to come now Harold’ she said ‘I forgive you.’