The results are in and we have a new winner for Scene of the Month: Father’s Books, another of my unpublished horror novels. Although (unlike perennial winner The Wolf) this one is finished, I’ve decided to stick with doing the scenes in order; and because the first scene is so short, I’ve decided to include two of them.
The old man lingered before he died.
That was what they told him when he arrived at the hospital. He walked in the door and asked the woman at the front desk what room Mr. Bartoski was in, and she gave him a number; but when he went up there the only person in the room was an orderly tearing down one of the beds. He asked the orderly where Mr. Bartoski was but the man just shrugged and said he didn’t know whose bed this had been and sent him to talk to the nurse on the floor.
Mr. Bartoski was gone, she said, died just a few hours ago. They had taken him down to the morgue. She shook her head, pursed her lips. The poor old man had hung on for hours after the stroke, calling out for his family. Andrew, Andrew! Over and over again, he kept calling, but nobody came; and finally another rupture washed away what was left of his brain, and the calling stopped and the old man died.
If only you had been there, she said. It would have been such a comfort to him.
He said he doubted it.
He was the old man’s only son, and his name was Richard.
The nurse handed Richard Bartoski over to an orderly, a different one, and told the orderly to show him the body. The man took him to the morgue, in the basement, of course, down flights of dim stairs, along antiseptic yet dirty-looking corridors that smelled of formaldehyde, finally coming into a room with cement walls perforated by shiny metal doors to refrigerated chambers. The orderly checked some paperwork and then opened one of the doors and rolled out the drawer from inside. A breath of icy air came with it. The metal tray was lined with some kind of thick paper, the body covered by an opaque plastic sheet. When the drawer banged to a stop, one bony arm slipped free and swung down, back and forth, a pendulum counting out the seconds of the old man’s death. It was a fragile-looking thing, thin and ridiculous, covered in wispy white hairs. Nothing like the strong, dark-haired arms Richard remembered from childhood. The orderly muttered something and picked up the arm and put it back into place. It fell off again.
“Rigor,” the orderly said. “Damn thing won’t stay put.”
He was wearing thick latex gloves; Richard could see the outline of a big wristwatch through the rubber as the man took hold of the plastic and unrolled it, as if eagerly unwrapping a candy bar. Richard watched his hands, which were obviously practiced in this peculiar art.
“Is there going to be an autopsy?”
“Don’t know,” the orderly said. Now that the corpse was naked to the waist, he lifted the old man’s body slightly, swept the errant arm beneath it, and let the cadaver’s weight hold the limb in place. “Old man, high blood pressure, smoker … classic stroke risk factors. It’ll go to the coroner but he’ll probably just rule natural causes.”
“He was never sick before. Hardly ever even had colds.”
The orderly shrugged. “A cold and a stroke aren’t the same thing. Strokes can come on suddenly. Not always symptoms beforehand. You can talk to the doctor about it if you want to.”
“No,” Richard said. “It’s not important.” He stared at his father’s body. It was shriveled and pinched, the abdomen sunken, the ribs showing beneath a dusting of ash-colored hairs. But the face, the old man’s face … it looked as if he had died in terror, with the Devil himself floating above the bed, reaching down with red-skinned fingers to carry him to Hell.
Maybe that had been the case. The old man had certainly deserved it.
“Get a good funeral home, they’ll make him look like a movie star,” the orderly said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Richard said. “My sister and I are the only family he’s got, and we’re not going to the funeral.”
The orderly gave him a funny look, then wrapped the body up again and closed the drawer. He guided Richard back upstairs, where there was some paperwork to sign, some belongings to claim. Stupid little details. Richard took care of them and left the hospital just before three in the morning. A warm, thin drizzle had turned the lights in the parking lot into big yellow spheres, reflected as fuzzy circles on the damp pavement. The trees that bordered the lot appeared jaundiced, like they had been transplanted out of an old sepia photograph. Their leaves fluttered in the breeze that swirled the specks of rain around the lamps, like they were waving goodbye.
He got in his car, started it, turned up the heat; he was unaccountably cold, even though the air was still fairly warm. The chill air in the morgue had crept into his bones. His stomach felt tarry from the vending-machine coffee he’d gotten in the hospital lobby. He sat there feeling unsettled, unable to figure out why he had driven down here, two hundred miles from home, to witness the death of a man he hadn’t seen in fifteen years and hadn’t heard from in nine. By all rights, he should’ve just gone to the liquor store on the corner for a bottle of champagne and celebrated that the world was one asshole poorer. But no, he’d rushed to Bentonville like a concerned son, which he wasn’t; and he’d arrived too late. The old man’s story was over, and he’d missed the ending.
Three o’clock. He could be home a little after dawn if he drove fast enough. But he was so tired, he’d probably wrap himself around a tree. He needed some sleep. Where was the nearest hotel?
His key chain dangled from the ignition of the car. He could see the tarnished brassy yellow key that he’d never removed. He wondered if the old man had changed the locks. Probably not. The old man never changed anything.
Richard drove out of the parking lot, listening to the drizzle tapping on the windows.
For fans of The Wolf who were looking forward to some werewolf mayhem, there’s always next month!