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Earth Improvement Day
Published by Ripley King, 2015.
This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.
EARTH IMPROVEMENT DAY
First edition. November 20, 2015.
Copyright © 2015 Ripley King.
Written by Ripley King.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Also by Ripley King
The 5 series.
One Last 5
5 Omnibus Edition
And Jesus Wept
Earth Improvement Day
Lonely Hero Thing
Nightstrider: The Spaces Between
The Pre-dead Saga
Watch for more at Ripley King’s site.
Also By Ripley King
Earth Improvement Day | Chapter 1
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Further Reading: Burnt Offerings
Also By Ripley King
About the Author
This one is for Bob and Connie. That's it, all I need to say.
Shine a Hard Light
Billy had his mother’s eyes, intelligent eyes, expressing love and joy; eyes alive with wonder at almost everything his limited world had to offer; eyes filled to overflowing in their final moments with an unfathomable fear.
He pushed his fluffy, strawberry colored teddy bear, Carter, off the backseat of the car and onto the floorboard so Carter wouldn’t get hurt. Such a considerate boy.
Billy pinched shut those beautiful green eyes, and hunched his narrow shoulders, pulling a thin arm up to cover his handsome little-boy face. A useless gesture, like all useless gestures, conceived in a moment of desperation.
It was the best he could do, the only thing he could think of at the time, and nobody could fault him for it. He was only five fucking years old.
The sawed-off scattershot blew Billy’s little arm and hand apart, his head splooshed into a cloud of red foam and gray smoke, as yellow strands of hair and pinkish brain tissue coated the automobile’s plush rear interior.
Everything he was, the questioning crooked smile, bundle of feet running through the house when he was told repeatedly not to, stubborn foot-stomping “I don’t wanna go to bed yet!” bouncing baby boy, was gone.
Just . . . gone.
Jacob Hard woke with a start. In-between each gasp his heart thundered. Cold clammy sweat poured off him to dry in the chill night air.
Did the neighbors hear him scream?
If the thin walls carried the sound, it wouldn’t have been the first time. Maybe, just maybe, the scream was all in his head. Something he imagined. One thing for sure, if he did scream, the nosy neighbors could give his farthest hole a good Frenching. Like they didn’t have their faults?
Old man Carruthers on the right, across the hall, was a heart attack on the verge of happening. All gut and no ass, Carruthers paced the narrow hallway at night in his worn socks, tattered boxers, and dirty tee.
The old fart seemed lucid enough, from what Jake knew of him. The man could hold an interesting conversation about the state of the building or the weather. Perhaps his nightly jaunts were an attempt at an overall exercise program?
Walking, good for the soul.
Then Desperate Deena next door. Forty-five years desperate, fat and ugly ta-boot. Nightly ordering takeout, hoping to get lucky, hoping the delivery driver was more desperate than she was.
Most drivers would waive the tip and run like hell. Though once in a great while she’d get lucky. She had to have a hell of a job to pay for what little comfort she got. The warmth of another soul, pushing the bush.
That left Mrs. Boswellia across the hall, as she hovered day and night by her peephole or windows. The only thing more exciting than Jerry Springer or NYPD Blue reruns seemed to be the soap opera that played out beyond her dirty panes or peep hole.
Maybe Mrs. Boswellia had a thing for old fart Carruthers in his boxers, fat gut and flat assed as he was. Each door that opened could be her secret squeeze, parading back and forth for her viewing pleasure.
Maybe Carruthers was hoping Desperate Deena would take notice of him, and give him a nut-draining knob job, or a naughty roll on the carpet. Fat people sex.
Jake never had much to say to Carruthers, had never made the acquaintance of Mrs. Boswellia across the corridor, and avoided Desperate Deena like a curse. A prophylactic stance, to be sure.
A nightmare woke him. The faces of his family’s murderers once again paraded past his inner eye, one after the other. The same horror night after night, year after year, forever repeating their dastardly deeds.
Jake caught his breath, held it for almost two minutes, forcibly calming himself, and checked the digital display next to his bed. Much too early.
He knew he would never get back to sleep, so why bother trying. He hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in over three years. Five hours most nights, four this night.
The pain Jake felt as he oh-so-slowly rolled out of bed and stood, gripped him by his balls. He arched his sore back, throwing his chest out, listening to the top half his vertebrae snap into place.
He bent over, twisting a little from side to side, listening to the bottom half of his spine do the same. He then popped his neck, and gingerly took his first step. His knee voiced a hefty snap when it straightened.
If he had a friend to call his own, one that faithfully stayed by his side all these years, holding his hand day after day, it was his pain.
The physical pain that wracked his torso and limbs, he could deal with that pain. He would choke down aspirin after aspirin, and pretend the rest away. The emotional pain . . . was considerable.
He had lived.
They had died.
Jake gingerly walked into the bathroom for his mandatory grunt and flush, and afterwards . . .
His shower was a womb of sorts. Warm, wet, comfortable. But like all good things there had to be an end. The water all-too-quickly cooled. He stopped the wondrous cascade and exited, sorry it couldn’t have lasted forever.
He wrung out his long thick hair, and squeezed the excess moisture out of his lengthy beard. The towel was rough on his skin.
Jake dressed: Blue jeans, a gray tee with pocket, gray socks, and black leather biker boots. If he was anything, he was comfortable.
The sun-bleached blond hair on his head got tied back into a pony tail, using a thick tan rubber band. The darker brownish beard he braided. One long braid, hanging straight down from his chin. A small black rubber band held those strands together.
He unintentionally scowled at his image in the mirror, and then scraped his tongue and brushed his teeth.
Coffee had automatically perked while he had been in the shower, and the smell was pure heaven. A big cup poured was first and foremost. Black.
The flavor pulled him together, and the caffeine jump-started his reasoning. There was still the tank to fill, but not yet. The morning had to be properly greeted.
Jake opened the living room curtains and scanned the immediate area. Side to side, top to bottom. Occasionally a light would come on in another window, down below and across the way, signaling the start of someone else’s day.
He sipped from his cup, thinking nothing but good thoughts for these invisible masses, all snug and warm in their beds. In two days their ordinary lives would be a little safer, and they would never know. They would never know the sacrifices he had made, and would soon make on their behalf.
His stomach growled its annoyance. Time to feed the beast.
In the kitchen Jake poured another cup of coffee. He pulled a pound of bacon out of the refrigerator, and fried it all in a large cast-iron skillet. Nice and crisp.
Only in a cast-iron skillet could he get his bacon just-right crisp, the way he liked it, without burning even one strip.
A trial and error thing, the skillet. A dab of grease launched itself out of the pan and splattered on his arm.
He over-easied eight eggs, using the bacon grease. Almost at the same time he toasted eight slices of whole wheat, slathering each slice with real cream butter, not flavored vegetable ooze, and his cholesterol level be damned.
Screw the overall carbs, and fuck the calories. He would feast like a monarch in the morning, grabbing what he could the rest of the day. A third cup was poured before he sat down to eat.
Not bad, Jake thought, sprinkling more pepper over his plate, forking in bite after bite, sipping his coffee. Not bad at all.
Those first few months on his own, Jake tried the restaurant thing, but had gained weight in all the wrong places. Weight that didn’t fit in with his then plans, such as they were. He didn’t need to diet, but when he looked down he wanted to know his dick was still there.
Books, most of them, told him how he could lose weight, change his eating lifestyle, live for the joy of food, but it was a magazine that finally caught his eye. A magazine that answered all his unasked questions. The latest Mr. Universe was on the cover.
Jake learned how to cook good food that was good for him, and he learned to enjoy what eating really meant. He learned what it took to pack on quality muscle. He also learned how to live alone, how to do his own laundry, and how to clean up after himself.
Jake learned to hate, too.
Hate was as simple as letting his mind dwell on what had been done to him, and what had been taken from him. Hate that bloomed like an endless spring meadow in his soul, fed by needs he’d never understood before, but now had an intimate relationship with.
Food gone, memories hastily raked over, dishes done, Jake pulled a fourth cup of coffee, and watched the sun rise over the nasty trash heap others called a city.
It was like the bright yellow globe was there for him alone, bathing him in life’s affirmations. A smile from the living universe itself, there to brighten his day.
Maybe there was a God out there . . . somewhere.
He knew in his heart that if there was a God, justice would be served from his hand, and his hand alone. He would be an avenging angel of the most savage kind.
Jake wanted to stand there with a fifth cup of coffee, watching the sun as it stretched higher into the sky. Or a sixth cup as the soothing rays melted the ice from around his wounded soul. But, that was the one thing he couldn’t allow. The ice encasing his soul had to remain.
Soon, he reassured himself. Soon the pain would be gone.
He sat the cup down, knowing his coffee would be cold when he returned.
Jake had to play his games of pretend. Pretend he was fighting ten men at once. Slow, deliberate moves.
Punch, kick; hands, feet, elbows and knees, turning small circles within the confines of his living room. Couch to one side, two chairs and an end table to the other side.
Move a little faster.
Joints screamed, lacking proper lubrication. He ignored them and pushed through the pain. More imaginary opponents arrived to get in his face.
It was nothing for Jake to visualize an endless supply of first-class fighters at his disposal, thanks in-part to his son’s unlimited imagination. Billy’s “Batman” to his “Robin.” The numerous games of trucks and cars in the dirt, Saturday morning cartoons, and Billy’s toy box being more important than his laptop.
One of the many benefits of fatherhood. He had been a good dad.
Story time had been heaven. The best told tales were the ones he made up on the spot, leaving the store-bought books on the shelves for Donna, his wife, to read.
Donna loved the store-bought books. Billy didn’t care if the story came out of a book, or his head. Bedtime was a magic castle built with words, inhabited by creatures of the odd but fun persuasion.
Silently Jake thanked his dead son Billy.
Every single day of the week Jake had to work his body and mind to exhaustion. Each day the situation changed, and every possibility had to be thought out, explored to its fullest, options devised.
Push hard; then push harder. He knew his plans could go wrong at the very least, with Murphy’s Law detonating in his face at its worst.
Faster. Feel the burn. Jake could feel his once-damaged heart beat proud and true.
Suck more air.
It wasn’t over yet. There were still two days left out of three very long years of intense preparation. Two glorious days, with one endless night between.
The area he would have used for a dining table, instead contained a large weight bench with four sets of weights spread about on thick steel bars of various lengths. Well over eight hundred pounds of muscle-building metal, ready for pumping.
Legs first. Thighs. Two hundred pound squats with the bar squarely over his shoulders. Dip low, push up hard. Five sets of ten.
Calves second. Then five hundred gut-busting crunches, twisting at the top for maximum gain.
Three hundred each: Weighted dips, wide grip angled bench presses, close-grip pushups, wide-grip overhand chins. Afterwards he did preacher curls until his biceps threatened to burst.
The harder he pushed himself, the less likely he would explode before he was ready, and he was almost ready.
“Never, not even in prison, have I ever witnessed one man work with the single-minded intensity you gave those weights. Absolutely possessed.”
“Monk,” Jake said in-between breaths. “I’ve changed . . . that lock . . . three times . . . because of you . . . I’m going to start charging . . . for the repairs.”
Monk was a tall thin man, naturally muscular up to a point, with a kinky mane of brown shoulder-length hair, receding at the temples.
He wore his beard short and bushy, but Jake often wondered what lived within those nappy strands. Fleas, lice, pubic crabs? Probably all three, warring for superiority. Survival of the fittest.
Monk was also crazier than an alcoholic clown on payday. Jake’s thought was to use the tags psychopath and sociopath as bookends, and put everything Monk did and said between them.
Monk jimmied the lock for a reason, and Jake had a pretty good idea what that reason was, but didn’t care. He also knew that to show Monk fear or guilt, anything other than I’ll kill you if I have to expression, was a bad idea.
Jake put the weights away and held himself loose but ready, letting a friendly practiced smile spread across his easy morning face.
Monk laughed a dry laugh, and said, “I do that to keep in practice, bro. You’re not the only one. The occasional surprise can yield stupidity or graft. I don’t tolerate stupidity, certainly a personal glitch, and I’ll kill you or anyone else in my way when it comes to theft. I’m greedy that way.”
“What’s a little larceny between friends?” Jake asked. “I know you can afford it. And just between you and me, Monk, if I had been asleep, in my warm comfortable bed asleep, I’d have probably shot a hole in that fuzzy melon you call a head. That or snapped your neck.”
Monk’s eyes narrowed, just a bit. He said, “You think I’d let the likes of you get to me? The only reason I’m not kicking the shit out of you right now is, I like you.”
Jake’s smile widened, just a little, just enough to shorten Monk’s distrusting smirk.
“The only reason you’re not kicking the shit out of me,” Jake replied in a light easy tone, “is you know I’ll kick your shit back.”
Jake leaned forward a hair and a half and said, “Between you and me, Monk, I don’t like to lose. Did it once, only once, and won’t ever do it again.”
Monk straightened his back and let his smile fade. He said, “Smell the testosterone.”
Smell whatever you want, asshole. But what Jake said to break the tension was, “Why are you here, Monk? I didn’t think this early in the morning was your style, addicted to the nightlife and such.”
Monk stiffly replied with, “Shove enough crank up your nose, and sleep becomes a moot point.”
Monk then turned his back on Jake, and went about sticking his nose into places he didn’t belong. Jake let him, trying hard not to laugh.
“Let me get that pesky closet door, Monk. Feel free to look under the bed. Need a flashlight? I have a flashlight. Fresh batteries.”
“I had a neighbor dig through my medicine cabinet once, looking for prescription drugs. The bathroom is through there. I have tons of aspirin.”
“Don’t piss me off. I’ll stomp your sorry ass into the carpet, and tear this place apart.”
“Give it your best shot, Monk. I mean that, too. You give it all you got, because you ain’t big enough, or bad enough, to stomp my ass anywhere.”
Monk’s face reddened. He said, “Someday we’ll see who crows at the top of the hen house.”
Jake kept his easy smile. “You ready for that flashlight? I’ll hold it for you.”
Monk stopped and stared that mean hard stare of his. He then smiled an uneasy smile and said, “I want you to tell me about the other night. That’s why I’m here. The niggers say they were shorted ten pounds of C-4.”
“That’s not right.”
“I don’t like it when a deal I set up turns around and bites me on my ass. I may not like niggers, but I’ll take their money. Green is a good color.”
Jake took it, all ten pounds of it, but wasn’t about to say so. It wasn’t in the apartment, either.
Eight of those ten pounds were already in place, and the other two were in a safe place, waiting for the wedding. A wedding where the guests boozed themselves up to their eyeballs, ate all they could eat and then some, and got their various vehicles gassed up the next day—courtesy of the club—for the trip home.
“Tell me about the shipment,” Monk said. “And don’t lie to me. I’ll slice your throat if you do.”
Poker: A game where the last two players butt heads, with a little luck thrown in to ramp up the excitement. What nervous habit will pop up in the heat of the game to tell the other player to either up his bet, or fold and take the loss.
Jake could keep the flop sweat off his brow with no tells. Not one thing for the other player to use against him. He loitered there, at that point, waiting for Monk to play the hand he was dealt.
Monk looked like he was about to explode, but only said, “What happened the other night?”
“Tommy-boy was in charge,” Jake answered, mentally scraping the pot to his side of the table, “which he made very clear to me at the start. He pulled the bricks out of the warehouse locker. He packed each and every brick into two boxes, covered them with packing peanuts, sealing those with packing tape. That’s the way he wanted it. ‘Your orders.’ He even put the boxes into my trunk all by himself, and we delivered the shipment with me at the wheel. Tommy-boy never let the shipment out of his sight, and I never touched a single brick. He collected the money, and I took him home.”
Monk nodded. “That’s what he said.”
Jake was counting on it. He said, “Sounds like them bangers are greasing our dicks.”
“Not the first time,” Monk said.
“Masturbation isn’t my style, though, one more thing comes to mind.”
“I thought of that. The only problem I see is that, well, I’ve known Tommy-boy for a long time. Most of his sorry life. He’s greedy, no doubt about it, but aren’t we all?”
“Then the bangers are lying.”
“One of them black bastards stuck his nickel-plated cannon in my face, and demanded to know where the other ten pounds went. I don’t think he was lying, do you? Lying niggers, when they think they’re playing the game, the white boy on the shitty end of the stick is supposed to be stupid enough to fall for their line of lame-ass bullshit. Be scared of the black man. Boo! Jigaboo!”
Monk thought in racist terms, but Jake knew the truth. Black or white didn’t matter, because people were all the same. There were more good people than bad people, and the good just wanted to live their lives with a little respect and decency.
“Then Tommy-boy is lying,” Jake insisted. “It’s that simple.”
Monk was also one of those people who were too damned smart for their own good. The man thought he had a good bead on his piece of the world, and on the people who inhabited it. One of those people who thought he couldn’t be lied to, being a consummate liar himself.
“Tommy-boy isn’t what I’d call smart,” Monk declared. “If he thought he could get away with ripping me off, he probably would. Self-preservation was never his strongest suit.”
“You’ll know the minute he tries to use or move the stuff. Though I don’t see him using it, as moving it.”
“The stupid fuck doesn’t realize I have him by the balls?”
Jake said nothing, sure his answer was in the silence.
“I gave the nigger his missing ten pounds,” Monk declared, “and then I stuck my big gun in that stupid spook’s face, and told him that if he ever tried that shit with me again, I’d blow his dumb nigger ass away. I shot the earring off his left earlobe. ‘Can you hear me now?!’” Monk laughed and actually slapped his knee. “We almost had us a war.”
“What stopped it?” Jake asked.
“Ten of us against four of them. Plus, I have the niftiest toys for sale. I reminded them boys they can’t play their games without my toys.”
Monk held up a long dirty index finger as the universal signal to wait a minute. He turned and slipped over to the front door, opened it, reached around the sill, and retrieved a small black gym bag he had left in the hallway.
“You’re a trusting soul,” Jake said.
“It’s too early in the morning for normal people,” Monk countered with a self-righteous boast. “You’re not normal. I don’t think your neighbors would want to jack with you. Am I right?”
“For the most part.”
“Then I could have left that bag outside your door all day, did my business, and it still would have been there when I came back.”
“What’s in the bag?”
“Money. A wad large enough to choke a Great Dane. Add to that a big gun, and a camcorder. I think Tommy-boy fucked up for the last time. Friend or not, plant him. I want a first-rate epic.”
Even though he had anticipated something like this, Jake played it like he hadn’t expected it at all. He took a slow deep breath.
Monk, watching closely, nodded. He said, “I want his woman and brat growing maggots, too. You don’t have any problems with that, do you?”
Not at all. And, having his reasons for thinking such thoughts, said, “I’ll take care of the loose ends.”
“Is five good enough for you?”
Five thousand to wipe three turds off the sole of the city’s shoe? More than enough. Hell, Jake would have done it for free, but wouldn’t tell Monk that. He had to keep up appearances.
Jake said, “Five is good. Ten would have been better, but I’d have settled for eight.”
Monk grinned and handed him the bag.
“Don’t push your luck,” he said. “We’ll need gas, too. You know how it works. You get me a full tanker, and I’ll give you three more. Not bad for a day’s worth of work.”
“Damien couldn’t pull off the gas?”
“Nope. He’s home, nursing his wounds.”
“The tanker will be parked under Fletcher’s canopy before the day is over,” Jake said with a big smile. “Have him dig a hole for three in the garden.”
“Something in mind?”
“Tommy-boy, his woman and kid will help me deliver the gas. Your orders.”
“Done. We’ll dance on Tommy’s grave tomorrow night. I can always count on you.”
“Four birds with one stone. And speaking about tomorrow night . . .” Jake reached over and pulled a small black box off of the kitchen counter. He opened it for Monk’s casual inspection.
“You like?” Jake asked.
“Is this the ring Baldy’s giving his ugly little slit?”
“Damn. The stone . . . it’s small. Need a magnifying glass just to see the bling.”
“This is what he gave me.”
“He bought that. Nobody in their right mind would steal something that tiny.”
“You’re his best man, Monk. You want to take Baldy’s ring now?”
“Give it to me tomorrow. I might lose it between now and then. Christ that’s small. At least Baldy loves her.”
“Somebody has to.”
Monk reached into his pocket and pulled out and popped open a small, fat glass vial; then spread some gummy yellowish powder on a mirrored tray Jake kept handy for precisely that reason.
Monk cut the powder into four fat lines with the blade on the tray, and did two. He passed the tray over and Jake snorted his two. The powder burned its way deep into his head. The rush hit almost instantaneously.
“Whiskey,” Monk choked.
Jake licked the residue off the tray, popped into the kitchen, and pulled a bottle off the top of the fridge. He took a big swig and held it out. Monk took the bottle and slammed half of what he had left.
“If Tommy-boy calls, Monk, go with it. What I said.”
Monk handed the bottle back and turned for the door. “I just want him dead.”
“And the next time you stop by, knock first.”
Monk tapped his head and said, “See? I’m knocking.”
It was Monk’s untimely appearance that threatened to set Jake off.
His personal space had been violated, and despite the cool he had shown Monk, his rage instantly rose to a roiling boil.
Mentally getting a grip on his reality wasn’t going to be easy, but had to be done. Too much to lose. Thoughts swarmed around inside his head like wasps around a broken nest.
Jake closed his eyes, took a deep breath, held it, and that was when he locked onto the first true memory his new life would ever have. The incredibly bright light and deep-rooted pain he would always associate with his second birth.
Three years and two months ago, Jake woke up in a room full of noisy machinery and bad smells. He heard ear-piercing bleeps, low pitched buzzing, loud hums, and rhythmic whooshes.
He smelled his own sweat, somebody else’s fecal matter, and industrial strength cleaners.
With more than a little effort one gummy eye managed to open, but it had a hard time focusing on anything. The light above him was too bright.
For the love of God, he hurt.
Jake’s befuddled, pain-fueled brain called the noisy shapes machinery, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize the equipment was surrounding him for a reason.
Blood and other liquids were being forced into his veins, drop by machine-fed drop. A respirator filled his lungs up with oxygen on time, every time. The beating of his heart was being watched for discrepancies.
From what he could see, squinting and stretching his one eye down across the bright white sheet that barely covered him, he wasn’t going anywhere too soon.
Thick casts covered his arms and legs. Metal rods sprouted out of the plaster that cocooned his legs. Those had been bolted to a massive metal framework over his bed.
He closed his one eye, exhausted from the overall effort, and slept.
Jake woke to white-hot pokers of pain rammed deep into his brain. He stayed awake, letting the machine breathe for him, good eye closed, until the pain receded.
There had to be another machine by his bed automatically supplying relief, for that he offered a silent prayer of thanks, and went back to sleep. That was how time passed, though it was nothing he could readily measure.
After a few days the swelling around his bad eye receded, so with two eyes that worked, the world was bright by his bed, and dark beyond.
Looking around his room had a window, but the curtains remained closed. Most of the time he was alone in his room, the machinery his only company. His keen sense of irony told him he was the source of the sour toilet smell.
Jake rarely saw a nurse or doctor, and as far as he could tell, his wife hadn’t visited him, not once. His bedside remained empty. More pain medication was pumped into his IV, and again he slept. Everything was easier when asleep.
Perhaps a nurse or a member of the cleaning staff left the television opposite his bed, high on the wall, on, because after that fateful day nobody bothered to turn it off.
There was no sound to speak of, his little call button/speaker paddle was missing. Not that he could reach it if it was there, but the images provided were a most-welcome distraction.
Watching television gave him a sense of real time passing, and took away most of his immediate loneliness. The morning news could be on when the pain welcomed him back into the real world, some cheesy cable show followed by a bad movie, or the endless parade of late-night infomercials, with little consciousness between times.
Where was his wife? His son?
Were they in other rooms, struggling through their own tangle of metal, plastic tubes, and green-screen electronics?
Jake had a hell of lot of questions floating around inside his head with no way to ask them. He didn’t think the doctors or nurses, those that tended to him on a daily basis, knew he was actively conscious when his eyes were open.
Then, miracle upon miracle, his day nurse noticed his open eyes would follow her from station to station around his bed. When Jake winked at her and tried to smile, she damn near peed her pants.
“Are you in there?” she tentatively asked.
Jake blinked once, and then stared at her.
“Is that a yes?”
Jake blinked once, and then stared at her some more.
“Oh my God. Do you know where you are?”
Jake blinked once.
“Do you know how you got here?”
Jake blinked twice.
“Once for yes?”
Jake blinked once. That was when the nurse ran out of the room, squawking like a mother goose that had triumphantly laid her first golden egg.
About ten minutes later a whole herd of doctors stampeded into his room and lolled around his bed, mooing to each other their findings.
They asked him questions. Jake blinked a lot, but knew who he was, who the current President was, and blinked once when the right year was mentioned.
They asked him if he was in pain. He blinked. Real tears streamed down his cheeks. One of the doctors made an adjustment to the pain medication machine, and he slept.
Nurse Rhoda, his day nurse, introduced herself the next day. She was sweet, somewhat pretty, and like a proper nurse should be, round in all the right places.
More often than not she knew when he was awake, and more often than not she could guess what was on his mind by staring into his eyes, which, she told him once for fun, looked brown, bloodshot, and tired.
If he could’ve smiled, he would have.
Nurse Rhoda couldn’t answer his unspoken questions, those about his family, or why he was there in the first place, but she did turn up the sound on the television, and changed the channel when something decidedly bad was on.
Her tastes in programming closely mirrored his, and for that he was grateful.
The group of seven doctors that gathered in his room every morning inevitably shrank to two before the month was out. Those two doctors, after quite a bit of discussion with very little input on his part, gave him (more like taped it down to his left hand cast) a button that would pump something for the pain into his IV when he needed relief.
After Nurse Rhoda set up the new machine, he thumbed the button twice (all the pain medication the machine would allow at one time, not letting him abuse the privilege) and slept.
Another week passed before they took the tube out of his throat. Jake tried to ask a question then, but all that exited his mouth were a few muted squeaks.
Nurse Rhoda noted his struggle to breathe, the low numbers on the oxygen sensor, and they stuck the tube back in an hour later, instructing Jake to let the machine do its job. Maybe they would try again in a few days.
Jake didn’t like a machine breathing for him. He wanted his voice back, the answers to his many unasked questions, and found he could work his lungs alongside the machine. He was going to ask his questions sooner, rather than later.
When the mental and physical exhaustion finally claimed him, Jake pushed his pain button twice, and hours later had his first nightmare.
He woke in pain, wanting to die. The nightmare, though not fully remembered, had imparted on him the impression that his wife and son were not coming to visit him. Not ever. They were dead.
And as much as he wanted to die himself, the damned machines surrounding his bed conspired with the doctors and Nurse Rhoda to keep him alive.
Jake worked to strengthen his lungs. He had to know. He had to know if what his brain said as he slept was true.
Penning his desire for knowledge was out of the question, because there was too much plaster wrapped around his writing hand. The one hand with the least plaster around it had the pain medication button taped to it, and that button wasn’t going anywhere too soon.
Though it didn’t seem possible for things to get worse, on the plaster next to his taped-up pain button were three signatures from people he didn’t know and could care less about, and one of them used a red marker to draw a big smiley-face. He hated smiley-faces.
A week had passed before the doctors were satisfied his brain worked with minimal detectable damage, and he could finally breathe on his own.
A doctor by the name of Anderson, a fat man with rich black hair, removed the tubes from his throat. Anderson asked Jake if he wanted something mushy to eat.
Jake managed a squeaked yes. He was starving for some real food. Having his meals pumped directly into his gut through a tube down his nose was not his idea of fine dining.
The doctor said he would take care of it. It took about two hours before any food arrived.
“Hi,” Nurse Rhoda said as she entered his room with a lunch tray. “Since you can’t feed yourself . . .”
Stating the obvious and letting it hang was Nurse Rhoda’s way of dealing with everyone, patient or not. One of the many quirks that endeared her to him one day, and made him want to kill her the next.
“What is it?” Jake asked. Only the word what came out as a whisper, and the is it came out as a soundless squirt of air.
“Baby food. It’s not as bad as you think, and about the only thing you can handle. Maybe someday you can have some hospital meatloaf. It’ll kill or cure, guaranteed.”
“Okay,” he returned, and that too came out as a raspy whisper.
“I’m glad you’re not going to argue with me,” she said, lifting up the first of many small spoonfuls. “I hate it when my patients argue with me. I’m only trying to help. Open up . . .”
It felt good to eat again, even if he didn’t have any choppers.
Jake, the next day, finally asked about his wife and son. He could barely hear himself speak his few words, and his throat hurt.
Doctor Anderson looked him square in the eye and said he didn’t know about his wife, or his son, but would endeavor to find out. There was a look on the good doctor’s face that said he was lying through his whitened teeth.
With no other choice in the matter, Jake let it pass. He said nothing more that day, which disappointed Nurse Rhoda, who told him practice makes perfect.
“You do realize, Mr. Hard, that the more you say and do, the faster you heal?”
At night, Nurse Connie took over, but she wasn’t one for conversation. She was easily better looking than Nurse Rhoda, yet could care less if she did her job or not. Nurse Connie was usually too busy doing nothing to feed him his dinner, rendering her unattractive.
A matronly volunteer, usually the fat grandma, but sometimes the old gay man—both named Joe, or Jo and Joe—would spoon his supper.
Jake would request from them a certain channel for his nightly viewing pleasure, and after some very simple after-dinner conversation on his part, they would leave him alone for the night with his much-appreciated pain button.
Days passed, and the whispered questions gave way to a quiet but earnest pleading. Dr. Anderson knew he couldn’t avoid the issue forever, and finally entered his room with two of the hospital’s shrinks. Doctors Parker and O’ Quinn. The first being old and thin, the latter old and fat.
Dr. O’ Quinn began with a, “I think you know your wife and son are dead.”
And Dr. Parker continued with, “They died in the same accident that brought you here.”
To which Dr. O’ Quinn concluded with a sincere, “We offer our condolences.”
It was a Thursday afternoon smack-down, the way these two were ricocheting off the ropes of their linguistic ring; a verbal elbow here, a metaphoric knee there. Questions bounced off his head like a corner’s padded turnbuckle.
How did he feel?
Did he remember the accident?
How did he feel about not remembering the accident?
After a few more incredibly stupid questions, Dr. Parker added a, “We’re here to help you through this transitional phase of your life.”
After which Dr. O’ Quinn said, “You can reach me during the day, Dr. Parker is on call at night. Use us.”
After that was said, their verbal tag-teaming became so much background noise.
Jake nodded a lot in what he later hoped were appropriate places, while his eyes glazed over. After they were gone he cried for his dead wife and son.
It hurt to cry.
Several days passed where everybody pretty much left him alone. It was during these few days his attitude began to change for the better.
Jake ate everything the kitchen served soft, and enjoyed everything but the adult diapers he had wear because of the obvious.
The pain still burrowed deep into his brain, but the drugs held the worst of it at bay. He knew the nightmares, each and every time he closed his eyes, were real.
Like most folks, Jake never really paid attention to his dreams at night, letting any and all images fade each morning in favor of reality. Yet now, day or night, if he had a nightmare, he tried hard to remember it. All of it. The sights, sounds, and smells.
The only real answers he had were locked up in his traumatized head, and their only outlet were his nightmares.
After a fitful nap, Jake awoke to see Fred Carnes, his father-in-law, by his bedside. Fred was a somewhat tall, lanky man, with a full head of rapidly graying hair.
Jake had always liked Fred, and now knew why. Fred had the demeanor of an old country doctor. The kind that used to make house calls, all hours of the day or night, took chickens or baskets of vegetables as payment, and didn’t mind sitting for a spell as long as there was little hard lemonade about.
“We almost gave up on you, son. The doctors in this joint finally contacted Mother and me this morning. How long have you been awake?”
His voice, doing much better than the week before, asked, “What happened to Donna? Billy?”
Fred closed his eyes and said, “Right to the point.”
“You expect less?”
Fred opened his eyes. “Them two doctors, Parker and O’ Quinn, they said I wasn’t supposed to talk about Donna . . . or Billy. Not yet. They said you narrowly missed slipping into a profound catatonia. Any pressure and you could still tumble into one for the rest of your life. Eyes open or closed, doesn’t matter, because nobody would be home.”
“That’s never going to happen. I have to know, Fred.”
“I know you do, but I’m afraid for you, Jake.”
“Nobody around here tells me a damn thing. I’m tired of it. I have to know what happened to Donna and Billy.”
Fred took a deep breath. He said, “They killed them, son, and almost killed you.”
Jake swallowed hard and asked, “Who?”
“Don’t know,” Fred said. “Some detective came around and asked a lot of questions, but there were no answers we could give him.”
“We were in a car . . .”
“Most of what I know is from the nightly news or the newspapers. They were dead, and you were found on the side of the road all shot up and beat up, barely alive. The police never released any real details to the media, or to us. Do you remember anything about what happened that night?”
Jake finally said, “They shot Billy in the car. I can’t remember where they shot Donna . . . in the car, out of the car . . . and they shot me in the chest.”
Fred cleared his throat and said, “I had no idea with the police keeping the details under their hats. They say they have their reasons.”
“I should have . . .” but Jake couldn’t finish his thought, or his sentence.
Fred finished it for him. “Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve. You tried to save their lives, and it almost cost you your own. They shot you, Jake, and broke your bones.”
Jake, tears running down his cheeks, squeezed out a, “I could have done more.”
Fred said nothing for a full two minutes, and then he said, “Look at you, Jake. They took who-knows-how-many bullets out of your chest, you got casts up and down all four limbs. Metal sticking out of that. All of it holding you together, and you’re as toothless as I am without my dentures. Between you and me and these four walls, you’re still a sickly green color from the beating they gave you. The cops did hint that more than one person was involved. They wanted to know if you had ‘enemies.’”
“I’m having dreams about it all, Fred. Nightmares. A jumble of mixed images.”
“Did you have enemies, son?”
“How could you ask that?”
Fred’s voice became insistent. “Do you, son, have enemies?”
Jake stared Fred down. He finally said, “You know me better than that.”
It took a minute, but Fred finally blinked. “Them shrinks can’t help?”
“My depression is their priority. They say I’m suicidal.”
“I’m in pain. Pissed. Confused. ”
“We buried Donna and Billy last month, together, in the same casket. I hope you approve. Green Hills. Halfway in, to the right ten yards or so. A nice spot.”
A month ago? Was what he wanted to say, knowing time had passed. What he actually said was, “You did the right thing, Fred. They should be together. I’m tired. Come back when you can. Bring Rita.”
“Rita won’t come, Jake. She can’t face you in this bed. Not after the loss of her daughter and grandson. I had to put her on some strong antidepressants. Donna and Billy seemed to take everything out of her.”
Rita was a gentle soul. The kind of woman who took to him as the foundling he was, on just her daughter’s word.