This story won an Olive Woolley Burt Award for Creative Writing at the 2020 League of Utah Writers Quills Conference in the Short Fiction category.
(CW: Mental Illness, Suicide)
“Please don’t make me go again,” he said, doing his best to keep his tears on the inside where he’d been told so often they belonged.
“But you must,” she said. “The doctor said you must.”
He moaned like one of his cats when it was ill. “I don’t think I can do it again. Don’t make me do it, please.”
His hair was stark white with age and was, like the man himself, frazzled at the edges. He rubbed his temples with delicate fingers, right where they put the device. “I can’t survive another treatment. It will kill me as sure as time itself.”
“You’re being overdramatic, Papa. You know this is how you’ll get better.”
He leaned back into his high-backed chair and tightened his hands into fists. Once, they were powerful bricks he could use to hit whomever was giving him a problem. But what could he hit with his mitts when he was his own problem? The broad surface of his knuckles whitened as he flexed his hand, wishing he could punch the wellspring of terror rising in his chest, a geyser of anxiety ready to extinguish him in a hot spray. “What is getting better,” he said through clenched teeth, “if this is what I must endure?”
“You know, Papa, that you’re not well. The doctors have all said that this will help you. You don’t want their help now?”
“You don’t know what this is like, little dove. You don’t know the terror or the loneliness of it, to say nothing of the excruciating pain. It’s as if they strap my very soul into the contraption and they suck every piece of me from it. Everything that is me leaves and I’ll be left a husk.”
“They said this would give you a clean slate. You’ve been through so much, could that be a bad thing?”
When he felt fingernails digging into the heels of his palm, about to draw blood, he released his fists. He needed to do something with his hands, though, so he ran his fingers through his thick, gray-white beard. “If they strip the layers of paint from my canvas, I’m left stark white. Naked gesso. And the details of who I am, the things that make me me disappear. Vanish with a spark.”
“They’re not stripping paint, Papa. Think about it as a fresh coat over the top of all you’ve done.”
He sighed, resting his hands on his knees. He inspected the backs of them thoroughly in order to ensure that they, too, hadn’t been stripped of their details. “I don’t want a fresh coat.”
“Think of it this way, then. The canvas took a wrong turn. The darks overwhelmed the lights below and they’re just stripping a few of the top layers to find the original masterpiece below. They do it in museums all the time. Plenty of artists used to paint over their own works.”
He considered this for a moment. “This is a bad metaphor. Men aren’t paintings and our younger selves are rarely masterpieces.”
“You have always spoken of being honest and true, Papa, but is the way you find yourself now, the person you’ve become, the way you feel, is it you? Honest and true?”
“No,” he admitted quietly. “I’m unraveled.”
“So we must do something to get you back to your truth, yes?”
He groaned again, clutching his knees tightly. “You just can’t send me back. And that is honest and true. What bit there is of me shining through the clouds knows that this won’t clear that storm. I beg of you: don’t send me again.”
“We must listen to the doctor. Don’t they know best?”
He stood, rough and with a growl. “No. He doesn’t know best. How could he? All he knows is what a bunch of books have told him. He doesn’t know me. The real me.”
“Books have truth, Papa. Otherwise you wouldn’t write them yourself.”
The anger crept into his hands and he balled them back into fists.
In his mind, he saw the doctor there and he’d traded his white coat and stethoscope for boxing gloves and satin trunks. They both brought their mitts up to fight. One punch connected with the doctor’s face, but it was a glancing feint. His other fist, bare somehow, came in and the doctor’s nose crunched like a bite of celery. It exploded in a spatter of blood.
“Let them put that on the canvas,” he said.
“Papa, you’re doing it again,” she said.
“You’re boxing again, aren’t you?”
Caught, he shrank back into his seat, unclenching his fists. He had to prove he wouldn’t hurt anyone. Even if they were only figments of his damaged imagination.
“Why don’t you try writing, Papa? That always used to relax you.”
He groaned. “Nothing comes. Not when I’m like this. I can see the ideas, the people, I see what they’re doing, but I can’t make the words come. They’re blurry. Phonetic symbols may as well be hieroglyphics for all I can see.”
“Sure you can, Papa. You were always so good with words.”
He didn’t quite remember when she left him. He was staring out the window, watching the snowfall and tracking each flake from the gray sky to its landing spot. Some landed on trees, others the blanket of snow leftover from the last storm. After tracking one particularly fat, fluffy flake, he looked back into the room and realized he was definitely alone again.
Alone in reality meant alone in his thoughts, too, and those thoughts carried him to the future and the fear he felt there. Left in his own mind, he knew where it would take him. He knew what that long trip would be like. And he knew that the anticipation of the pain was as torturous as the pain itself.
But the threat of the pain replaced itself in his mind with anger. Anger for the doctor. For the nurses. For that infernal machine. If they hadn’t strapped his hands down to the table, he’d have knocked them all down and fled.
What a sight that would have been, running in a bare — assed hospital gown, escaping persecution with his hair flying wild in the wind.
He could almost feel the leather straps on his wrist, pulling him back down to that reality. The pain from pulling against them still crept into his arms and shoulders. It was an old soreness. He could have almost blamed his age, but he knew better.
He found himself rubbing his shoulder, trying to work out some of the hurt. But once he realized that the soreness wasn’t going to get less sore, he dropped his hands back to his sides and shifted his gaze back out the window. In the sheets of snow in the dwindling light, all he could see was the cloth of the orderly’s jacket.
As the light dimmed further, the cloth turned darker and reminded him more of a straight jacket and that set off a flood inside him; intensity rolling in waves over his heart and crashing against the weak shores of his stomach. The waves grew until he could feel the water on his face.
He wiped the sweat from his brow with his forearm and wondered why he had to go through with it anymore. If she didn’t believe him, if she didn’t listen to him, if she didn’t understand how it all made him feel now, what made him think she’d listen to anything he had to say? Now or ever again?
He was driving in a long tunnel and there was no light on the other side, but he supposed that was true of the life and death of any rational man. There was no light at the end, but at least rest. Every treatment brought him further and further into the dark. He wondered if the air down there was poisoned, but then a curious smile crept across his face. What if the air was poisoned?
That thought steeled him, warmed him like a blanket and glass of heated milk.
“Are you ready, Papa?” a voice said.
Who else would it be?
He didn’t realize she was there. Had she been there the whole time and he’d just lost her again? No. She had left. He was sure of it. When he thought harder about it, though, he couldn’t be sure, one way or the other. Then, he thought it would be better to keep that bit of confusion to himself.
“Of course,” he said, not knowing what he was agreeing to have been ready for.
“Let’s go, then.” She came around in front of him and reached out to help him from his seat.
He was sitting.
In his high-backed chair.
He hadn’t realized.
He took her hand and she pulled him up. Every bone in his body creaked like old hinges.
Once he was on his feet, she wrapped her arm in his like they were out for a night on the town and led him from one room to another until they were in the rustic dining rooms. Candles were lit and food was laid out, a stationary feast.
So that’s where they were heading.
Food was always easy for him to deal with, no matter how far gone he was.
He couldn’t help but think of the meal laid out before him as a last supper. There he was at the center of the table and everyone surrounded him, hanging on his every word. But his was a silent Jesus. He just wanted to eat in peace and quiet. He tore a hunk from the bread in the basket and dipped it in the pasta and cheese. When he drank the water, he was sure it must have been wine. Lovely and dry.
“Papa,” one of them said, “When do you think your next book will be done?”
He didn’t think it was her. Maybe it was someone else. But he realized he must have been experiencing some sort of double-vision or delusion. Only she was there.
There were no siblings. No parents. No children. No grandchildren. No apostles.
The woman who had conspired with the doctor to torture the life from him.
“I’ll work on it tonight,” he lied. “We’ll see how it comes, but truth escapes me.”
“What’s it about?” she asked, but he didn’t answer her.
He didn’t know the answer.
The book was probably about him, as all stories that he wrote were, in the final accounting. But the details were hazy.
He vowed, if he could remember, to examine that manuscript of his life and come up with a fitting ending.
“I’ll read tonight perhaps and end it first thing in the morning.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” she said, clasping her hands together and smiling brightly. “I can’t wait to read it.”
“It’s different than what you’re used to, I think. As hard as I’ve tried to be honest, this may be the first genuinely true thing I’ll have finished.”
“You always say that when you near the end of a book.”
“This time, I mean it.”
She laughed like things were how they ought to be. “You always say that, too.”
He exhaled deeply, as though he was expelling smoke from his lungs. “Maybe so.”
He sopped the rest of the sauce on his plate with the last bit of bread. He hadn’t realized that he’d been eating steadily the whole time, pausing only to speak occasionally and sip at his transubstantiated wine.
When the meal was over, he felt a twinge of contentment that infringed — encroached — on his fear. They mixed together momentarily as he shook, but they separated quickly, like oil and vinegar.
“You go, get back to work, Papa. Do your reading if you feel up to it. I’ll clean all this up.”
He nodded to her politely as he shoved away from the table. He tried to smile, too, but the smile felt unnatural, dishonest somehow, so he abandoned it.
“Do you need me to help you up the stairs?” she asked.
“No. No need to fuss over me any longer.”
He made his way up the stairs with no problem and found himself in his writing den. The desk was a tall bureau, each drawer filled with all the paper and supplies he could want. On top of that was his typewriter, his pen, and, pinned beneath a smooth rock, was the most recent manuscript. He was sure that the work was as good and honest as he could conjure, but even still, it was probably garbage.
It always was at that stage.
Slowly, he limped over to his desk, just the right height to stand over.
He pulled the rock from the manuscript and flipped through the last few pages of his opus. The letters on the pages seemed to form words and sentences, but his eyes had a hard time focusing on them. It all just looked like gibberish. Hieroglyphics.
The thing he knew honestly was that he hadn’t written in ages. All of these ciphers, one after another, they were ghosts of who he used to be trying to talk to him. To tell him something. To reveal a secret.
But he knew he wasn’t going to write anything else.
The words simply wouldn’t appear.
He had always said that writing was easy. You’d just stand at the typewriter and bleed.
And that’s when he realized exactly how the story would end.
In the morning, he would rise before the sun, careful not to wake her. He would put on his robe and slippers and slip out to the shed where he kept his tools of violence.
And then he would bleed his final truth.
“Are you ready for bed, Papa?” she said, standing in the doorway.
An angel, come to take him.
“Yes dear,” he said. “I welcome the rest.”