Friday, September 2, 2016


Nevil Neuman looked at the clock over the door on the faraway front wall of the office while he typed. He absolutely had to get this presentation paper done for his boss, Sutton Wheatley, or there would be trouble. It was now 12:25 and everyone else was out at lunch while he sat at his little desk in the corner of the back row typing columns of numbers for his boss to refer to during a 1:00 PM meeting. Mr. Wheatley had given him the assignment at 11:30 and told him he needed 25 copies made to hand out during the meeting, if the subject arose. Nevil’s heart had sunk hearing this. He had hoped to go outside with his sack lunch to enjoy the sunshine but he didn’t dare to say anything to Mr. Wheatley other than, “Yes, sir.”

He was trying not to make a mistake, it was easy to mix up numbers when transferring them. Most of the workers in the front of the office had the new word processor computers, but Nevil and five others in the back row still used electric typewriters. Nevil had nothing against the big IBM Selectrics with their type-ball elements that held the type faces. He loved the sound and feel of them and his model had the correcting feature so simple mistakes were easy to fix, but even minor editing chores still meant retyping the entire document. With the word processing computers, edits were performed on the screen and then everything was sent to the printer. Nevil could not wait until the back row got word processors too.

He was down to the final part of the work which was entering historical production figures for the division broken down by month and product. The entire table was in the last corporate report but Mr. Wheatley wanted the same table inserted at the end of the new mission statement along with selected minutes from the board’s meetings. It wasn’t that big of a project, if Nevil had been given a day to do it, or even a whole afternoon.

Nevil was concentrating so hard on the figures he was getting a headache. He had the corporate report propped up to his left in the document holder and he was careful when moving the horizontal rule down the page so he transcribed the correct line.

The key to getting a clutch job like this done right was to do it right the first time and not have to keep backing up. And the key to that was to go as slow as you could and concentrate. The problem was that he knew he wouldn’t finish on time at his current pace. He had to focus and see how close he could get before he had to cut corners.

The phone on his desk doodled and his eyes darted to the blinking red light on it. He almost stopped and answered it, but caught himself realizing that any interruption now would cause disaster.

Next to his phone he saw the back side of his heat-folded clear Plexiglass desk name plate. He could see the name on it in reverse as he looked through the transparent plastic. They had misspelled his last name as Newman when it was Neuman. He’d mentioned this to his boss when he got it six years before and was told not to worry about it. Nevil agreed it might not be a big deal.

“Darn!” He said as he typed 65 instead of 56. You see. It happens just that way, he said to himself and corrected the error and continued. The phone continued to beedle its warbling tone.

Nevil’s eyes darted back and forth between the source document and platen of the Selectric, double-checking his work as he typed. He could still see the red blinking light on the phone in his peripheral vision as its deedeling went on.

“Pick up that goddam phone! Whoever it is back there,” someone shouted from the front of the office.

Nevil knew that voice. It Ted Dunphy, the senior editor in charge of advertising copy. Dunphy was very important to this floor and everyone said he was in line for promotion to the corporate operations section, two floors up.

Sweat broke out on Nevil’s hairless upper lip and balding head. He hadn’t realized anyone else was working through lunch, let alone Dunphy. This could spell trouble for him. When you went to lunch you were supposed to forward your phone to the operator so that someone would answer and it wouldn’t bother anyone still working in the office.

Nevil considered ducking his head and continuing his typing but if whoever was calling didn’t give up soon, Dunphy might come back to investigate and that would open a whole can of worms. Plus Dunphy might be able hear Nevil’s big Selectric from way up there at the front of the office.

He had stop typing. Darn it!

He stopped and said aloud, “Sorry! Sorry!” and picked up the phone. “Hello. This is Nevil Neuman.”

He heard a click and then the dial tone as whoever it was, hung up.

Nevil set the receiver back into the cradle and looked at the sheet of paper in the platen to find where he left off and then began again to transcribe the rows of digits.

He began slowly and soon he was back up to his deliberate pace.

The phone rang again, this time a doodle-deedle. The change in tone signaled that this was an outside call. Who would call him from outside the company? He needed to finish this line of numbers before answering, just a few more digits.

“Goddamit. I can’t get any work done this way. Do you want me to come back there and be your goddam secretary?” Dunphy yelled from his desk at the front. Every day coming in to work Nevil walked by Dunphy’s desk. It was the first thing you saw when you entered the workroom. Dunphy didn’t like people standing around looking into his office but Nevil had peeked every chance he got.

Dunphy’s office cubicle was big and it had vertical walls set around it to give it privacy and noise shelter. The walls were a maroon burlap and Dunphy had hung pictures of his vacations on them. There were beaches and ocean surf scenes and sunsets and boats. There was a luxurious potted tropical plant that had to have been six feet tall in the corner behind his chair. On the smaller side of his big L-shaped desk was a sleek charcoal-faced case with a built-in screen, a keyboard and a slot for a floppy-disk and the name Wang emblazoned on its front. Sitting next to it on the counter was an electric typewriter connected to the Wang by a cable that could type out whatever was created on the big Word Processor computer. It looked like a shimmering vision of paradise to Nevil.

He stopped typing. “Sorry! I’m so sorry! I…” He picked up the phone. “This is Nevil Neuman.”

“Nevil Neuman?” A woman’s voice said. Nevil’s heart sank, was this necessary?

“Yes, this is Nevil Neuman.” Silently praying that they would make this fast.

“Nevil. How are you today?” the woman asked in a bright and friendly voice.

Nevil thought he felt a molar crack as he said, “Fine, fine. May I help you?”

“Nevil, this is Ellie at Dr. Chowdury’s office.” She said the words as if speaking to a stroke victim who couldn’t concentrate. “You have an appointment with doctor to have your annual cleaning and checkup tomorrow at 5:15 PM and we just wanted to remind you of the appointment.”

“Yes, thank you. I have that here on my calendar. I’ll be there. Thank you so much for calling. Good bye, uh, Ellie,” Nevil said as quickly as he could without sounding rude.

“Goodbye, Nevil. We’ll see-” He hung up on her and then felt bad that he’d cut her off. Sure he was busy and way behind, but it wasn’t her fault and he had no right to act rudely when she was just doing her job. Jeepers, he could really be exasperating some days. He thought maybe he should look up Dr. Chowdury’s number and call her back and apologize for hanging up so abruptly. It would be the right thing to do.

Nevil’s hands shook as he realized how far behind he'd gotten by answering the phone and now this pointless line of thought. But manners mattered. It wasn’t pointless to consider apologizing. How we treat each other was the very basis of any civilization.

A small cry escaped from his lips as he felt torn by these thoughts.

His head throbbed with pain and pressure as he turned back to the paper in the platen and found where he had left off. He slowly began again and established his rhythm, moving his eyes back and forth from the document holder to the paper in the Selectric, over and over, transferring the digits, checking his work as he typed. His speed gradually came back up to where it had been.

Nevil glanced at his watch and saw it was 12:45 and he had at least 25 more minutes of uninterrupted work still to do and that was before going down to the Xerox room and standing in line to make 25 copies. He felt the doom creeping up on him. It was rising around him like cold dark water, it was at mid-chest level, but soon, soon it would be at his lower lip. He shivered and his lower lip shook. His head throbbed and he saw flashes of light in time with his heartbeat.

Nevil would not finish this project on time. He would have to stand up and tell Mr. Wheatley that he had failed and beg forgiveness. He’d never been fired or let go from a job before. His work record was pristine until now. This was a blow that Nevil was not prepared for. He would have to tell his parents about this when he visited them for the Thanksgiving Holidays and it would crush them. Would he be able to find another job before Thanksgiving? It was only six weeks away and with this on his record, he might have to start over in the mail room or perhaps the loading dock.

Many people turned to drink when major downturns like this occurred, he’d read about such things. He might wake up one day with a tattoo of a bird on his arm in some strange woman’s apartment. Sweet Jesus, don’t let me suffer through such degradation. Take me to my heavenly home now, please. He begged in silence but nothing happened. He was forsaken. It was all coming true.

He checked his watch, 12:52. Another few wasted minutes. At least he could show a little dignity and go down typing.

He looked at the paper and found where he’d left off. Nevil began typing slowly at first and then he gradually built speed. As he typed he heard people coming back into the room from their lunch breaks. He heard the scattered ends of conversations and laughter. These were the sounds of failure to Nevil. Still he typed on.

His head throbbed and he could hear the beats like a muffled bass drum in his ears. Somewhere in his fevered thinking he could hear the countdown of the clock to 1:00 PM.

As his co-workers filed in in greater numbers and took their desks, Nevil felt something inside of him grow and his ears rang, dimly at first but with growing intensity. Then his fingers stopped moving on their own and lay lightly touching the keys of the humming keyboard. His eyes turned to the silent phone sitting on his desk and from there to the backside of the transparent Plexiglass name plate on the front edge of his desk. He looked at the backwards name applied to the front of the plate in some kind of opaque material. He focused on the W in the last name. He listened to the sound of his heart beating in his ears behind the incessant ringing. His vision flashed in time with the beat.

Then his phone deedled and the little red light flashed in his peripheral vision. He was transfixed by the W on the name plate. As the phone deedled again the thing inside him doubled in size. It felt as though it was crowding the organs in his chest. It was hard to breathe and his peripheral vision disappeared. He was looking down a dark tunnel at the W on the plastic plate.

As the phone deedled a third time, what he was looking at changed. The W began to shimmer and then smoke. The plastic plate that held the misspelled name crumpled as it lay there. It twisted and compressed as if it had been heated and subjected to some large external forces. The plate became a misshapen and blistered object that bore no resemblance to the name plate it had been.

As it changed, Nevil’s headache disappeared along with the ringing in his ears and tunnel vision. He felt refreshed and alert as if he’d had a short nap. He sat up and took a deep breath and looked around. The office activity moved as if nothing had happened.

Nevil thought for a moment. Had anything happened? He looked at the crumpled piece of plastic on his desk and then reached out for it. As his hand approached the object the phone deedled once again and his hand moved to the receiver and picked it up.

“This is Nevil Neuman,” he said, at ease, with no sense of who it might be or what it might be about.

“Newman. This is Mr. Wheatley. I need that work you were doing for me, pronto!” The gruff voice said.

Nevil felt a brief jolt of panic that disoriented him.

“Mr. Wheatley. I, I, uh…” His thoughts scattered to the four corners of his mind. He felt light-headed and then he caught sight of the crumpled plastic on his desk and he stopped.

“Wait a moment, please,” Nevil said and he considered what had just happened. He leaned forward and touched the hunk of plastic with the index finger of his free hand to see if it was warm. It wasn’t, so he picked it up and held it in front of his face examining it. He turned it around.

It was clear to Nevil that he’d just done that. He wasn’t imagining this. He’d just, uh, caused this plastic to bend and fold and wad up like this. No, that wasn’t quite right. What he meant was, he’d just bent and folded and wadded this thing up like this, with his mind.

“Newman. Are you there?” Mr. Wheatley said impatiently. “Have you got my paper or not, dammit!” He sounded angry.

“Please wait a moment. I’m thinking.” Nevil said still considering the ramifications of this thing.

He had done this with his mind and he thought he knew how he’d done it. If this was true he had to be careful. This could be dangerous, no it was dangerous. He did not know what limits there were to this. How much force and at what distance? A little practice would make this stronger and more controllable, and more dangerous. Enough to kill. Oh! He must be careful.

For an instant, Nevil thought, no, they must be careful. I am a dangerous man. These thoughts came to him with something like bad pride or a cheap sense of power. But he could see that this kind of thinking was not right. This wasn’t like finding $100 on the street. No, this kind of power could cause real trouble. He had to think about this.

This strange turn of events required restraint and responsibility. It was a good thing this had come to him. He shuddered when he thought what could happen if this power had been given to someone without a conscience and benevolent nature. He was the right person to handle this.

“Now Mr. Wheatley,” Nevil spoke as if he was describing a flat tire to a stranded motorist. “I wasn’t able to get that job done. It was a much larger job than you thought. It will take the rest of the afternoon.”

“But while I have you on the phone, there’s been a small accident and I need a new name plate for my desk. One that has my last name spelled correctly,” Nevil said as he put his feet up on the edge of the desk. He looked around and thought that his little work area wasn’t big enough for a Wang word processor and printer. He would have to move, and Dunphy would be going upstairs soon. Perfect.

The End


Dale called in sick to work that morning because he was. He’d awakened nauseated about 3:00 AM and vomited into his bedside trashcan violently and repeatedly until he thought he’d black out from lack of oxygen. There had been little in his stomach, the remnants of Salisbury steak and mixed vegetables but it tasted like stomach acid and bile. It smelled awful but he was so weak after the retching ended he’d covered the top of the trashcan with a pillow. He’d clean up later.

Even while poised over the trashcan, mouth open, long strings of drool suspended from his lips in the darkened bedroom, he’d taken a quick peek and seen that he was not alone and if that sounded cozy and reassuring, it was not.

This had started the night before, a Friday night around 8:00 PM, dark out. He’d eaten his microwaved box dinner along with a glass of water and after cleaning up he’d settled on his couch to watch some TV.

His old television only got four channels and he was watching the local access offering where an old man was giving tips on lawn care. The old guy reminded Dale a little of the actor Wilford Brimley, whom he’d seen in Cocoon. The old fellow was going on about how to save money by using household supplies like dishwashing detergent and ammonia to solve common lawn problems. Dale wasn’t interested in saving money on lawn care because he didn’t have a lawn. He lived in a fourth floor walkup efficiency apartment, meaning there was only one room. Dale had his own bathroom but nothing like a lawn or yard. He’d seen TV shows where the people lived in houses with lots of rooms and yards where children played, but his one room with a bathroom was all he could afford and all he needed. Dale liked the television for the company.

When the subject turned to aphids on roses, Dale noticed something in his peripheral vision in the window to the left of the television’s small screen. He noticed it because being on the fourth floor with an office building across the street, there wasn’t much to see. Lights went off and on in the offices as the night cleaning crew worked and sometimes flashing lights from passing emergency vehicles reflected from the street below but he’d grown so used to those things he no longer noticed them.

His eyes flicked over to the motion in the window and his heart froze when he saw a face almost pressed against the glass of the window. It had crazy eyes with blood centers that bored into his. The features writhed and twisted with a level of hatred and some kind of ecstatic rage that Dale couldn’t understand. The teeth and tongue changed as it moved, from some twisted animal to almost human and then on to something without a name. All the time it was screaming at him, silently. The face of this demon focused on his while it hurled a non-stop stream of vile abuse at him. Dale’s mind recoiled and explanations disappeared as he pressed himself back into his old couch to get away from the sight.

Dale’s heart screamed like a runaway engine fluttering the front of his shirt. He thought the little lump of aching muscle in his chest would soon tear loose from its base and break apart and this would all be over. Nothing made of flesh could keep this up.

He expected the creature to burst through the window and cross the room to tear him open, one second passed then two and the window stayed intact.

A couple more seconds passed and he realized that whatever it was, it was coming no closer, at least for the moment. Dale could hear the voice of the old man on TV talking about diluting the dishwashing detergent and putting it into a spray bottle. The scene was so unreal that he wondered if he’d died and gone to Hell Forever for his sins.

His mind raced as he tried to force his eyes away from the window. At last he pulled his line of sight the few degrees to the right to bring the television back into view. He could still see the frantic movement in his peripheral vision but he forced his eyes to hold the TV. As he tried to concentrate he blocked out the sound of the TV and brought his hands up to his face and covered his eyes.

Dale sat that way, eyes covered, while he tried to make sense of what was happening. Should he call out for help? Should he call the police? This couldn’t be real, could it? He could hear none of the demon’s shouting. Was it pantomiming to ridicule or taunt him? To mess with his mind? If so, it was working.

There was no fire escape outside that window, nothing for anyone to stand on. This couldn’t be real. So then he’d fallen asleep and this was a nightmare. That was what it had to be. He didn’t have nightmares often but sometimes, sometimes he did.

He would wake himself up and look out the window and the face wouldn’t be there and it would all be over. He wasn’t five years old any more, he was a grown man.

With his eyes covered, he shook his entire body as hard as he could. He took a deep breath and coughed. He reached into his mind for something to say out loud, a song or something but all he could think of was the Lord’s Prayer. Dale said the Lord’s Prayer aloud, but not so loud that his neighbors might hear him and call the superintendent to complain. As he recited it, he felt better. He messed it up in a couple places but he kept going and when he finished, he said it once again, concentrating with all his might on each of the words, just in case.

Just in case. What Dale had refused to think but stayed near the front of his mind was that this might be real. An actual devil sent from hell to take him. He’d been warned about it, a long time before. In the Calvary Church of Beulah. He hadn’t had these thoughts for a long time but with his eyes covered, it was easy to put himself right back into that woodgrain paneled double wide and smell the stale mixture of damp church hymnals and cigarette smoke on barely clean clothes. Just about everything in that church scared him.

He was three or four years old and every Sunday his Mom would dress him and his sister in their best second-hand clothes and they would walk together holding hands down the side of the road to the double-wide trailer that served as a church for the 30 or so people in the area.

Dale could see himself, standing next to his Mom and kid sister in the Calvary Church of Beulah Missouri, singing the old hymns. His Mom’s singing voice was high pitched. Later he learned people called that falsetto. He remembered that because her voice sounded false to him.

Some of his earliest memories were in that church. It was loud and the floor would bounce up and down when people walked past in the aisle between the rows of steel folding chairs. He had to sit still and be quiet to avoid the lightning fast slap across the head and threatening frown from his mother. His sister, Ayvon, was younger than him and sat on the chair on the other side of his mom or sometimes in her lap during the sermon. He was expected to sit quietly and listen and not fidget. It was hard and it took a lot of paying attention. Sometimes he wouldn’t even realize he was fidgeting, he’d be looking close at his fingers and then, whack, the backhand of knuckles across his head. He’d look up cringing and see his mom’s fierce scowl silently promising something much worse if he didn’t straighten up right away.

In that little church Dale sat and looked around without moving his head while the preacher preached. Dale would sneak peeks at the big statue of the thin sad man who was nailed to a board behind where the preacher stood. The man looked so real and sad and hurt, that Dale felt sick for him. Dale was afraid that one day he would scream out in pain. The statue scared him and it took a while before Dale could pay any attention to what Preacher Tolmy was saying and what it had to do with the hanging man. But finally he heard the message. Preacher Tolmy was trying to save the people in the church from something much worse than what happened to the hanging man, Jesus.

Just take a look at Jesus there. He got off easy. But no one in the church could expect to get off easy like Jesus. Jesus was special, he was God’s own son and that happened to him. Preacher Tolmy would shout and stomp and point at people in the church and sometimes he looked right at Dale when he said what would happen. After Dale heard that, well he didn’t fidget in his chair anymore and he listened as well as he could to what Preacher Tolmy said.

Sometimes he would sob as he sat there thinking about what waited for him. The old people sitting around him would look down at him and nod with approval and his mom would look proud.

He’d heard even though Jesus looked sad and dead, he wasn’t all that dead and he wanted to help us all. Dale thought this sounded like good news and paid close attention to see how he could get Jesus to help him out. Dale learned that one of the ways you could ask Jesus to help you was to tell him a prayer. Wherever Jesus was and whatever he was doing, Preacher Tolmy said, he’d hear your prayer and he’d think about helping you. So you bet Dale listened close and learned that prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. They repeated it about every time he went to church so he had plenty of time to get it down.

Sometimes the Preacher Tolmy said other prayers but Dale figured that knowing one really well one was enough.

Preacher Tolmy said this was serious and important and Dale believed him. Preacher Tolmy said that while Jesus was willing to help us stay out of Hell Forever, the Devil was ready too and always trying to trick us into following him and that would make going to Hell Forever a sure thing. The Devil had all kinds of tricks and demons and people working for him and you didn’t even have to be that bad a person and do awful stuff. Stuff that seemed kind of small was bad enough to get you into Hell Forever. He didn’t understand all the stuff that was sin, but sin was a big deal and we all had it on us from the beginning. You had to follow Jesus to get rid of the sin you had on you. It all had to do with your soul. Your soul was a ghost that lived inside you and the things your body did, a lot of things, could hurt your soul.

Dale tried hard as a kid to understand what the sins were and how they hurt the soul and he was doing pretty good and remembering them and writing them down and then his Mom went out one Friday night, like she did and she got killed walking home along the road. A guy in a car hit her while she was walking home in the night.

Whenever his Mom went out, he had to watch over Ayvon. He was three years older than Ayvon and knew how to take care of her. Dale made them food from the cans and washed her up for bed. He read her a book or pretended to anyway. When Ayvon cried he went over to her bed and slept with her or sometimes she would crawl into his bed in the night. His mom went out every Friday night and sometimes Saturday too. Him and Ayvon learned to be quiet the next morning so she could sleep in. If anything woke her up she would yell at them and then cry. He and Ayvon would do almost anything to keep that from happening.

Anyway one Saturday morning when he was seven years old a policeman came to the door and told him that their Mom had got killed in the night walking along the road back to their house. Somebody spotted her the next morning and called the cops.

At first he didn’t understand what all would come of that. Ayvon and him cried and cried while people came and went from the house most of the day. Then in the afternoon a lady with a hat had come to the house and said that Ayvon and him had to go with her, because they weren’t allowed to stay at the house by themselves and there wasn’t anyone else to take them.

The next time they saw their Mom they didn’t actually see her. It was two days after she’d been killed and the lady, whose name was Mrs. Eldon, told them that her body was in this long box and the people of the church would bury her for us, and wasn’t that kind of them? The two kids didn’t know if that was kind or not, Ayvon and Dale were still crying and had been for about two and half days only stopping for occasional sleep and a sandwich.

They all went out into a field full of statues and Preacher Tolmy talked for a while saying that their Mom had been a good church lady but like everyone, she’d had a dark side and would have to answer to Jesus for some sins. Dale was afraid that was the deal but hoped that Jesus would help her out because she’d really tried hard. He listened hard to what they said but it seemed to him it was left up in the air just whether she was going to Hell Forever or to Heaven to be with Jesus. He guessed it was too close to call.

After his Mom was buried, they asked around in the church and it turned out that one of the families in the little church in the trailer was willing to take Ayvon in and adopt her but they didn’t have any use for another boy. Mrs. Eldon told them that Ayvon was very lucky and would be fine, so he said goodbye to Ayvon and she went to live with her new family.

Dale went in a van up to Jefferson City and stayed with a couple who watched kids while they were waiting to be placed. Dale wasn’t sure what being placed was, but he went along with it and went to school with the other kids in the house. It was the first time he’d been to school and except for the other kids he liked it. The grownups were nice but he caught regular beatings from a few of the other guys. It wasn’t that bad though. He liked listening to stories and sometimes they’d show movies on the wall that made him feel like he was flying.

Dale was behind in the subjects and so he was older than most of the kids in his classes. He kept waiting to go back to a church but that didn’t happen and nobody around him seemed that concerned so he figured that was OK. It wasn’t as scary.

He was at an awkward age for permanent adoption. Most families willing to adopt kids were looking for younger kids, seven was about the cut off, so by the time Dale had made it through the first part of the system he was eight and change. Odds didn’t favor him being taken in by a family which meant he drifted through foster homes with the other children who made up the human remainders or leftovers of the market for children who had no families.

Over the next ten years until his eighteenth birthday he had stayed in fourteen different homes. Mostly, they people treated him all right. In a lot of ways, it was better than the way his mother had cared for him. His personality stayed mostly intact, he didn’t become a criminal or a predator.

There were two things that he’d thought about over his years in foster homes; he never saw or heard about his sister Ayvon again after the day he’d said goodbye to her, and he’d never been back to any church with any of the foster families. The church deal was fine with Dale, maybe the rules about Hell Forever and Heaven had changed over time but he wasn’t going to bring it up either way, but he still wondered how Ayvon was doing.

Maybe it wasn’t that important. But maybe it was.

Back in his one-room apartment with his hands covering his eyes and Wilford Brimley talking about crane flies, he said the Lord’s Prayer four times in a row.  As he was finishing the fourth time he felt a breeze and smelled a mixture of diesel exhaust, burnt kitchen matches and rotting meat, and then he heard the sound of an old wooden double-hung windows sliding shut.

As he said the final Amen he waited a moment to feel the talons reach around his upraised hands and tear into his neck. It seemed clear to Dale that this was a devil come to take him down to Hell Forever to pay back for his sin including all the years now he hadn’t gone back to the church.

Dale started shaking. It began in his thighs and lower legs and spread upwards through his torso and then on into his arms and hands. Tears streamed from his eyes and flowed into his hands which were still held against his face. He cried like that for minutes. It went on until both the tears and the shaking stopped and he felt spent and empty. He was going to have to look once again into the room and see whatever was there.

He took a deep breath and pulled his hands away from his face and opened his eyes. There was no demon face in front of his for which he was thankful. The first thing he saw was that the program on lawn care was over and some garish credits scrolled by on the television’s screen.

Relief washed over him as he returned to his earlier thought that the whole thing had been a nightmare and that by waking himself up as he had, he’d dispelled the childish fright from his thoughts and all was once again hunky-dory.

“Hsssssssssssssss. Jussssst a bad dream.” Whispered with long hisses interspersed. From behind him, but not right behind him, a few feet away. Once again Dale froze. This time his heart did not react by trying to run away from him. His heart already seemed to have accepted the fate that awaited them both.

Dale turned to his left and looked cautiously at the room behind him. There in the corner by the front door, dimly lit by the flickering blue light from the TV stood the demon. The outline of the demon’s body was indistinct and moved rapidly in and out of focus in Dale’s eyes. At this distance, about eight feet, the face was also in constant motion and the only features that stood out clearly were the eyes and yet they changed constantly. They grew and shrunk in size independently of each other. The colors of the irises and pupils were also shifting as if they were trying on different looks to see which worked best to confuse and intimidate him.

Dale wanted to speak to the thing, to ask it why it was here and where it came from but he could not make his throat and mouth obey.

“You ask the questions of the child,” the vision said in a voice first very low and then very high in pitch.

Dale recoiled. He hadn’t spoken aloud, had he? Now he wasn’t sure. The thing still didn’t move from its place in the dim corner.

“Do you want me to come to you? To sit with you? You want to see me close?” The demon said almost in a whisper, taunting. The voice Dale heard reminded him of someone, but he was not sure who it was.

Dale tried to shake his head but couldn’t move. Instead he closed his eyes.

“Open your eyes or I will tear their lids from your face.” The demon shouted in a high pitched voice that shook the room and made the window buzz.

Dale jolted and opened his eyes. That was so loud, he thought, his neighbors would hear it and complain unless it scared them too.

“You knew I would come for you,” the demon said. “You’ve known for a long time. I took your father and I took your mother. Now, here I am.” The eyes flashed as it said this and something like a smile wiggled across its undulating face.

“Ayvon. What about my sister?” Dale asked, finally aloud.

“The voice of the worm. What about your sissssssster?” The demon was changing size, shape and color so rapidly now that it dazzled Dale to look at it. He felt drawn to look at it, so he did.

“Oh you and I are going to get along well. There’s so much more to look at where we’re going,” the flashing figure in the corner said in a voice moving through cadence and pitch like an old radio dial rolling across many stations.

“Where are we going?” Dale croaked. His eyes were burning and he couldn’t blink.

The body of the demon shrank as its head grew until more than half of the vision was a snarling head and face and Dale saw the mouth was writhing to force the words out. “Hell Forever, Hell Forever, Hell Forever, Hell Forever, Hell Forever,…”

Dale’s vision and hearing faded as the phrase echoed into blackness.

When Dale woke up it was daylight and he was still on the couch. He rushed into the small bathroom to relieve himself and as he stood there the previous evening came back to him in a rush of scenes so real that his head reeled and he caught himself before falling on the cold tiled floor.

He sat on the edge of the tub and thought about it. There was no explanation or meaning for what had happened so he got up and went to his little kitchen area to find something to eat.

The rest of his morning was so ordinary that he wondered whether any of it had happened. Food poisoning? What had he eaten the day before? He’d had a donut, a cheese sandwich and the microwave dinner. Maybe the microwave dinner had been bad. It’d tasted all right.

It was Saturday and he didn’t have to go to work cleaning up at the drive-in burger place until 7:00 PM so he decided to go to the library and look up about the devil and demons to see if he could learn anything. He went down to the corner and waited for the 274 bus at the stop. When it came he got on and showed the driver his pass and walked to the back of the bus to find a seat. There was no one sitting in the back two rows so he took a seat in the next to the last row and looked out the window. As the bus rolled on he thought about the night before. The thing said it had taken both his dad and his mom. Dale could not remember ever seeing his dad. His mom had said she didn’t want to talk about his father but it seemed to Dale that he was still alive but someplace far away. After last night he figured he was half right.

He wondered if there were anything at the library that could help him. He wasn’t even sure how to find out. Somebody could help him.

“There’s nothing and nobody to help you at the library.” The low whispering voice came from behind him and as he heard it a shiver ran down his back and he raised his shoulders and ducked his head between them.

“Did you think I was bound to the corner of your little cell?” the voice asked. “I’m everywhere in your world but you’re only partly in mine. But we’ll take care of that very soon. Right?”

Dale looked straight ahead and saw that everyone on the bus was facing forward. He wondered if they would see the demon if they turned around. It probably didn’t matter, he decided. Maybe everyone on the bus was dealing with their own demon. He decided he would ignore the thing and maybe it would tire of talking to him. Most people did.

“Oh, you don’t want to talk to me. Maybe we should jump ahead to the end of this. Are you anxious to see your new home, Dale?” The voice did its radio station changing thing.

Dale stuck with his silence. He’d come up against hundreds, maybe thousands of bullies during his time in foster care and he’d learned early that talking back never helped. If this thing was going to slaughter him like a broken bird on a playground there was nothing he could do to stop it. Especially with words.

When the bus arrived downtown Dale got off so he could walk the rest of the way. He liked being downtown because the buildings were larger and more impressive than everything else he was used to in life. They made him feel small and safe somehow.

He walked a few blocks to the public library and went inside. He’d been here before but never to look up anything. Sometimes Dale came here to sit in the comfortable chairs and relax. He usually took a book or a magazine to the chair with him because otherwise people would look at him like he didn’t belong, but he didn’t read them. He enjoyed sitting in the chair while people moved calmly and silently around him. He often wished that the rest of his life was like sitting in that library chair.

This time he wandered around up and down the stacks for a while hoping to make sense of how they were organized, but he gave up and went to the counter. He waited in line and then spoke to a young man with a short beard and glasses. The young man typed into his computer and printed a sheet of paper out, made a couple notes on it and handed it to Dale. If the young library worker was suspicious about being asked about books on the devil and demons, he showed no signs of it. Dale thought problems like his must be more common than he’d thought.

Dale followed the notes jotted on the paper and found the shelf was filled with books about devils and demons and the history and study and pictures and references to them. Much more than he needed or wanted to know about them. He found a large colorful book called, The Encyclopedia of Demonology and decided it was a good place to start. Dale took the book down and found a reading chair and sat down to begin.

He opened the book and looked through it. It was slow reading because there were many unfamiliar words in it but he skipped what he could and tried to make sense of the rest. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for but hoped that something would show up that would him understand this problem. One thing was sure, there were a lot of stories and ideas about the devil and demons that he’d never heard of.

It wasn’t long before he felt he was being watched and he was afraid he knew who it was. The feeling was like a high pitched tone that grated on a nerve. It was impossible to ignore and soon he realized he was reading the book with his left eye squeezed shut. He looked around and spotted the demon maybe 20 feet away, standing in the shadows of a corner stack, shimmering and shifting but with his eyes focused on Dale. As he looked at the thing standing there he heard a voice whispering, nearly touching his left ear, “The answer is not in the book, dear boy. I have the answer and you will know it soon.” The voice was like a mosquito or fly buzzing close by his ear and Dale shook his head hard to drive it away.

Dale wondered where he could go that the thing couldn’t follow. Someplace that he could be alone. He had to figure out what the demon thing wanted from him.

“The answer is easy. I want you. You. I’m waiting for you. You’re one breath away from me. Which breath? Your last. Take it now and we’ll go. You’ll get to see your dad. Hooray! Pops is waiting to meet you. Oh yes he is. Mom’s there too. Waiting to give you a big hug and a slap across the head. She loves you. You know she does. You’re only a breath away from seeing them. Tell you what.” Then in a cartoon-like chipmunk voice. “Come with me now and I’ll arrange for Ayvon to join us. One big happy family.”

“No, not Ayvon. Leave her alone,” Dale said out loud at first and then in a whisper.

“OK, come now and I’ll leave little Ayvon alone. Although she’s not so little now. She’s big and fat and stupid and she cries herself to sleep each night. She’d really be better off with us, Dale.” The thing ran its voice up and down the registers almost like a siren as it said this.

“Leave her alone and I’ll do what you want.” Dale said under his breath and then regretted what he’d said.

“Deal! We’re in business. Drop that book and walk out of here on your hind legs.”

Dale did just as he was told. He got up and set the book down on the to be shelved cart and walked straight out the front doors of the building. As he stepped off the last stone step leading onto the sidewalk he looked up and saw the demon for the first time in daylight. The appearance was no less abnormal. The thing was standing partially hidden by the green base of a steel utility pole that held up signs for parking, standing, bus routes and a street light at the top. Dale stopped and looked at the demon and a man coming down the steps behind him ran into Dale’s arm trying to avoid this man who’d stopped for no reason.

“Look out, man,” the man said, annoyed but not enough to stop.

Dale started to apologize and abandoned the gesture as he continued to look at the thing behind the pole. Looking at it was like looking through a splash of water in the eye that covered only the area occupied by the demon. It was a bit like looking at Christmas lights with tears in your eyes. Dale knew that effect. But this was in daylight and it was only on the demon. Dale could not keep himself from blinking repeatedly to clear his vision but it had no effect.

But even as a shifting and dazzling display there was no mistaking the malevolence and rage of the thing that made it. It was at once beautiful and terrifying. It was a brilliant black hole for the soul with jagged teeth at the entrance and wherever you looked the focus shifted to another portion with only the eyes staying clearly in focus and still constantly changing.

“Where am I going?” Dale asked it out loud. Why bother to hide from the people around him. For all he knew he was invisible too.

The eyes of the demon swiveled on their axes.

“You want me to help you? Fine. Walk in any direction and I will give you what you need,” the voice said.

Dale walked farther downtown. It was still very busy with lots of foot traffic. Cars, buses, trucks, filled the lanes of the busy street to his side and as he came to an intersection he decided to give up what little control he had. He walked up to the crosswalk and edged through the people waiting there and then stepped out into the traffic. As he put his foot down he saw the next vehicle in line was a delivery truck. The driver seeing Dale step out onto the street six feet in front of his truck, slammed on his brakes. Dale closed his eyes as the truck stopped with the bumper touching his left knee. The people behind him at the corner shouted insults at Dale. The driver of the truck screamed curses at him and for a split second the world focused on Dale. He felt like the ant under a boy’s magnifying glass. He opened his eyes and there on the far end of the crosswalk, standing on the corner waiting of him was the demon and while everyone else shouted curses, the demon laughed and pointed at him with a hand that became a claw, then a hoof, then a fin. Dale put his head down and walked on across the crosswalk and continued down the crowded block.

As he came to an alley halfway down the block he heard the voice say. “Into the alley.” Dale didn’t hesitate and turned to his left and walked down the alley. The sounds of the busy street behind almost disappeared as he moved a little way down the narrow passage. There were dumpsters along both sides and bundles of flattened cardboard piled along the walls of the buildings that bordered the path. He saw puddles of dirty water along the middle of the alley.  Looking down he saw empty plastic bags, syringes and needles, used condoms and wrappers among the trash there. Next to the wall was a crumpled cardboard box that had once held a dozen cans of beer.

“Look under the box,” the warbling voice said.

Dale bent over and a large brown rat ran out from under the box and skittered down the alley ducking in and out of the cover of the accumulated trash. Dale recoiled and heard laughter.

The demon sounded like someone speaking under water. “You’re precious old son. There’s much worse where we’re going.” And then in a bird twitter, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Look under the box. Remember our deal.”

Dale reached back down and knocked the box away with his hand in case there were more surprises. Nothing ran out from beneath the box, instead he saw a dark revolver with a wooden handle. There were a few spots of rust on the blue-black barrel and cylinder. He’d never handled a gun before but he’d had a couple pointed at him.

“Yes. You have. Haven’t you?” the voice said. Dale turned and looked at the figure on the other side of the alley. “Remember the things they made you do after they pointed the gun at you? You thought that would never end. Remember?”

Dale blushed and looked down at the ground. Ashamed. Ashamed in front of the devil? What did that mean?

“Well now you’ll be the one with the gun. Don’t worry. It’s loaded. Only missing,” the voice paused here, considering, “one shot. So you’ve still got five. More than enough. Four more than enough.” Laughter as if in a sitcom laugh track, but the speed and pitch was wrong.

“What do you want me to do?” Dale asked but he knew.

“What do I want you to do? I want you to save that fat little pig of a sister. I want you to go through with the simple deal we made. I want you to pick up the gun, put it against your head and pull the trigger. I’ll do the rest.” The sound of scattered applause from a crowd.

Dale reached down and picked up the revolver. It was much heavier than he’d thought it would be. He looked at it in his hand.

“Come on. Your folks are waiting to see you. It’ll be a hoot. Don’t worry about them not recognizing you with the big hole in your head. They’ve changed a lot too since you last saw them.” The laugh track again, this time the pitch went from low to high.

Dale raised the gun to the right side of his head, but the higher he raised it, the heavier it got.

“You can do it. Come on. We’re all cheering for you.” This time there was rhythmic clapping as some crowd somewhere pushed him to succeed.

As the clapping built to a crescendo Dale actually tried harder to get the barrel up to the side of his head but when he almost had it there his arm gave out and the gun fell to his side. There was the sound of audience disappointment with a comical trumpet adding a wah, wah, waah.

“So close. Looks like Sis is back on the menu. You stay here and I’ll go get her and then we’ll do this anyway. How’s that?” The demon said and rose up the wall.

“No, no, no, please! Give me some time. I promise I’ll do it. I can do it,” Dale said. He meant it and he didn’t know why.

Why should he do it? What was it to him anyway? For all he knew Ayvon was dead already, or worse. This demon was just taunting him. He’d gotten that much from The Encyclopedia of Demonology. They liked messing with people. It was their main thing. You couldn’t trust anything they said or promised. They were liars. Preacher Tolmy had said that, he remembered it. The devil was waiting right around the corner for you, always.

“All valid points. You’re right. I might be lying, deceiving, messing with you. It is one of my favorite things.”

Dale bent his head forward and tilted it to the right to look at the demon at an angle. At an angle he had an entirely different view of the creature. It still shifted and shimmered but at an angle he saw brilliant flashes of prismatic colors in and around its body. Red-orange to various greens and on through the spectrum, blue to purple and then back into the reds. All this while the outline constantly changed. Once again Dale felt drawn to look at it.

The face smiled. “I can see your second thoughts and doubts,” it said. “I’ll tell you what. You want to save Sweet Ayvon? Give me two others and it’ll be done. I don’t care who. Dealers choice.” The shape raised what would be its chin and pulled back.

“I’ll give you one better.” It raised a misshapen hand into the air and Dale could hear a sizzle. “Give me three others and you yourself may walk away from my magnificent presence.”

The beast was suddenly leaning in close to Dale, face to face, so close that Dale turned his head and squinted to shield his eyes from the heat of the demon’s face.

“Now you can’t say fairer than that.” The demon said into Dale’s face leaving the smell of a rotting carcass hanging in the air. The demon stood tall and there was the sound of an audience applauding and cheering.

Dale stood stock still. He didn’t know what to say or do but he thought any deal was better than the one he had. So he nodded.

“Let’s doooooooooooo it!” It shouted in triumph.

“What do I do?” Dale said hesitating.

“What do you do? Hmmm.” The demon pretended to think about this for an instant.

“How about SHOOT THE NEXT THREE PEOPLE YOU SEE!” It shouted into his face. “That should do it. You think?”

Dale shrunk from the rage.

“Now, now. Now’s not the time for you to be cowering. You’ve got the gun so you’ve got the power. You da MAN! So act like it! This won’t take long. I find it works best to let the gun hang by your side until you’re a couple feet away from the lucky shootee and then raise it and shoot, all in one motion. Like a surprise, only… no, just like a surprise.” The demon spoke in a light mocking tone.

“Of course, after the first shot the surprise is ruined for the others but just do your best and keep pulling the trigger until you hear the click three times. Remember, three clicks and you’re done,” it said brightly.

“Oh and remember, the deal calls or three dead not three wounded. So either the head or the heart. If you want to do yourself last, just plan ahead. Get it? Plan, a Head?” Laughter and applause again from some crowd.

“Let’s get to it. I’ll have Little Ayvon standing by in case of a slip. Ready, set, go!” The demon held its hands up and brought them together as if clapping but the sound they made was a high pitched squeal.

Dale walked back out of the alley and onto the sidewalk. The pistol felt like it weighed fifty pounds hanging in his hand by his side.

He kept his eyes on the pavement. Dale could not bear to look at the people passing by. He not only felt embarrassed and exposed but if he looked at them it might trigger what he'd agreed to do. None of these people deserved this. How could he get out of this? He realized the demon was hearing all this.

“That's right. You're not getting cold feet, are you? You worthless bag of meat. You should already be dead and cooling down, you know. I've given you way too much space for this. This is your last chance. You know you're going to be dead in a few moments no matter how this goes, don’t you? So go out like you got a pair. Go out like a man.” The demon had moved around and was standing in front of him.

“Now just raise it and like you’re pointing your finger and starting pulling the trigger. It will be over in a couple seconds. I promise you, they all deserve it. Now. Do it now or I go get sweet little Ayvon.” The demon smiled or something like a smile. The corners of it’s mouth pulled back to the sides impossibly far and the lips parted. Dale hadn’t seen the thing’s mouth this close before. The teeth had many shapes but they all had edges like razors. There seemed to be rows of them going back into the tunnel of the maw.

Dale took a step back and raised the gun, pointing directly at the head of the demon. He meant to pull the trigger as soon as it was level with the demon’s face but he paused there.

“There you go. That’s the way. Shoot me and we’ll be on our way.” The demon buzzed the words. In the background of the voice Dale heard more screaming. More of the audience soundtrack?

As his finger tightened on the trigger his vision cleared enough for him to see a woman face, dark hair, eyes flared open, mouth open as if holding the note of a song, the palms of her hands pushing toward him. Dale could see her face dimly behind the face of the demon.

He understood then that the gun was pointing at her, not the demon. It’d begun. Could he stop now. He felt his finger continue to squeeze as if on its own. He tried to let go of the pistol but his hand gripped it with even more force.

The demon face at the end of the gun barrel swelled and flared in all directions and the mouth opened wide and with enormous volume, screamed, “DO IT NOW! FIRE! END IT!”

The words crashed into Dale’s ears like explosions, overloading either his ears or his brain and the massive sound crackled and then disappeared. The scene before his eyes remained the same. The screaming demon was still at the end of the gun barrel, but his world had become a dead silence.

With the sound gone, the tremendous pressure eased on Dale. His finger stopped squeezing but the gun stayed pointed at the demon and behind it, the woman. Whatever this silence was, it felt like some kind of blessing to Dale. He could almost think.

The demon saw the change come over Dale’s face and his pantomime scream abruptly stopped. The shimmering face from Hell took on a quizzical look as it scrutinized Dale, studying him.

Instead of being semi-transparent as before, the puzzled demon looked more solid. Dale saw the woman that had been behind the creature had stepped to the side and backed away while watching him and the gun. As Dale took all this in he noticed that there was no longer a voice in his head. No questions, no warnings, no suppositions, nothing.

Understanding came to him as Dale looked into the face of the demon. The thing had no idea what he was thinking.

Dale pulled the trigger and kept pulling until the gun stopped bucking in his hand.

He kept his eyes open while the gun fired even though the temperature of the gasses from the end of the barrel and around the cylinder made his eyes burn and water. He had hoped to see the demon’s head explode like in some gaudy movie, but all he saw were the flashes and a lot of smoke.

It took an instant for the smoke to clear enough to see, and what he saw was a silent film of a city street in panic. People were running everywhere and ducking behind cars. Cars were speeding up and there were collisions. But all in complete silence.

His arm and the gun were still raised as he turned his head to look for the demon and then he felt first one, then two and then a third blow to his right side. As if had someone had taken full swings with an extra-large baseball bat hitting him in the right chest and abdomen. He crumpled sideways and fell to the sidewalk, hitting hard but still in silence.

A moment later he saw a black laced boot step down hard on his wrist that still held the gun, and felt his jaw snap and his left eye-socket break as a 210 pound knee drove his head sideways down onto the cold sidewalk. There was still silence but he could feel the vibrations of shouting telegraphed through the knee in his head. He saw enough in his peripheral vision to understand that these were the police. He wasn’t sure whether they had shot him or if his difficulty breathing was from having at least one large policeman kneeling on his chest and abdomen, but it was out of his hands now.

Dale closed his eyes as best he could and let them do what they needed to do. He was sure they were shouting things at him, he’d seen movies like this before, but he thought it best if he stayed still. They roughly pulled both his hands behind him and fastened them there with tight steel cuffs. He winced but made no other sound.

It was a couple minutes later that his right side burned and ached and they rolled him over onto his back. This movement gave him a coughing fit and he coughed over and over until pinkish red foam sprayed from his mouth. That wasn’t a good sign. As he lay there, some paramedics used scissors to cut his shirt and pants and wrapped something on his arm. Dale couldn’t move his left eye well so he closed it and looked around as well as he could without moving his head. As far as he could see, the demon was nowhere in sight.

A few minutes later several pairs of strong hands lifted him up onto a stretcher and strapped him down. They lifted the stretcher with a bang and locked into a higher position and then shoved into the back of a medic truck and locked down. A couple police climbed into the back with the paramedics, the doors closed and the truck took off. He felt the vibrations and bumps of the street as they drove but when he closed his eyes, had it not been for the searing pain he felt all along his right side, the pain in his jaw and face and the fact he felt as if he were drowning in blood, it was almost restful.

They turned him on his side and released his handcuffs, re-cuffing him to the side rails of the stretcher and the paramedics jabbed large IV’s into both of his arms. At this point. Dale really didn’t care too much about what happened. He was pretty sure he hadn’t shot anybody back at the alley and he was hopeful that if he hadn’t killed the demon at least it had left him alone. If he himself died, well then that was the cost of doing business with the devil.

Dale thought about Ayvon and wondered if he had kept the demon away from her, but in the end, her fate up to her. Probably always had been.

He noticed that, while he still couldn’t hear what was happening in the world around him, he could hear the little voice in his head again and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Time might tell about that, on the other hand, if he died in the next little bit it wouldn’t matter much.

A few minutes later the truck pulled to a stop and then back up a little ways and stopped again. The back doors opened and two uniformed men pulled the stretcher out and rolled it through some automatic glass door. He watched the ceiling tiles and recessed fluorescent tube fixtures glide silently past above him as his cart turned this way and that. As it rolled he looked to the side and quickly closed his eyes. Rolling along this hallway of the Emergency Department he had seen three different shimmering figures standing next to other stretchers with patients on them.

His cart stopped and reversed direction as he was backed into a wide stretcher bay filled with equipment. As he looked he saw five or six different people in medical scrubs and two police officers surrounding him. Hands unbuckled him and he was lifted from the rolling cart onto another more sturdy cart and was cuffed again to the rails. This time nothing hurt.

As multiple hands moved over him attaching wires and tubes, he looked toward the foot of the cart and closed his left eye to stop the double vision. Standing at the foot of the bed he saw two serious policemen frowning and apparently talking to each other and right next to them was the demon. While he could tell little from the shimmering outline he could see it held up one hand and waved it at him.

The pain was letting up in his chest and his air hunger was getting better. As a matter of fact, he was beginning to feel pretty good. Warm and even comfortable and sleepy.

Dale heard the voice in his head whisper to him. “You’re gonna be all right.”

Dale thought, “Finally.”

The End

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


“You can get dressed,” Dr. Henry Lindholm said as he removed the stethoscope’s earpieces from his ears and wrote a paragraph of abbreviations in the open chart using his ancient fountain pen. Dr. Lindholm was a thin old man of 70-some years with thick white hair and a crease in his face for every phone call he’d ever received in the night. His face was that of a man perpetually squinting in bright sunlight, or perhaps cringing at the things his job forced him to tell people. He was quick to smile and laugh and seemed to enjoy being alive.

Dr. Lindholm had seen many things and he’d come to believe that there was a balance to the world that his job had allowed him the privilege of bearing witness to on a regular basis. That balance was easier to appreciate when he was younger, for every birth, a death was owed. He understood that his viewpoint was restricted and he had to trust the universe for the rest. Sometimes one side of the ledger got ahead of the other, but in the end they had to balance. It was the burden or lesson to human beings to feel the meaning of that balance so personally. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t kind, but it was the way things worked.

The doctor had seen more than his share of death and the ways that people dealt with it, or didn’t. Those ways didn’t always make sense to him, but he was convinced that people did the best they could.

It was a paradox to Dr. Lindholm that he pictured effects of death as a weight, a burden. But he’d seen that weight lowered onto people time and time again. Sometimes the death was a weight lifted, especially after a long illness, but most of the time it was like some cruel measure of iron or lead bars heaped onto the next of kin.  He felt it was his job to ease that load onto people. Sometimes that was all he could hope for.

But sometimes, sometimes for some people, the loss was too large no matter how slowly it was applied. Instead of breaking their backs, it broke their hearts and souls. Some people were forever trapped at the graveside, as if their hearts lacked a specific enzyme that allowed them to digest and incorporate the grief, to make them stronger or at least carry on. In other people, the loss was so large, so unbearable that they simply could not hear it. It was beyond their ability to understand or accept. This was the sad case of his current patient.

Dr. Lindholm took his time writing his note because he had no desire to turn around and tell this man that he was going to die very soon, just like he’d told him last visit. The doctor wasn’t anxious to discuss pain control methods and end of life issues. He’d known Curtis Whitbeck for over 10 years, and understood that the terminal diagnosis was the least of this man’s problems. Dr. Lindholm once again shook his head and said a silent prayer that Curtis Whitbeck stop his suffering and get on with dying.

“Well, Curt, nothing’s changed except to get worse. Like we talked about.” Dr. Lindholm said sitting down on a stool at the side of the examination table. The doctor’s shoulders slumped as he felt another little blow to his humanity.

Curtis Whitbeck was finishing buttoning the top buttons of his shirt. He held his chin up and his fingers shook with a fine tremor and moved slowly as they worked to slip a small button through the slit in the cotton.

Curtis Whitbeck was 46 years old and looked 90. He was thin to the point that his wrists moved inside his shirt cuffs like a clapper in a bell. The muscles and blood vessels in his thin neck stood out like an anatomy illustration. There was mound of tumor in the angle of his neck and collarbone on the left side. He struggled to force his weak left hand to help his right finish the job of buttoning his shirt.

Curtis nodded his head in response to the doctor’s pronouncement.

“I understand, Henry. It makes it all the more important that I keep looking for her. I’ll be seeing Virginia soon and I need to be able to tell her that her baby’s all right.” Curtis spoke slowly, stopping twice for breath while saying this. He spoke with great conviction, as if what he was saying was possible.

Dr. Lindholm’s face only winced a little as he heard this. It was what he’d expected to hear but, still he’d hoped that somehow this time Curtis would face the reality of, not his own approaching death, but that of his child, Claire, years before.

Curtis’ wife Virginia and their soon-to-be four-year-old daughter Claire had gone to Bogalusa Louisiana in August of 2005 to celebrate Claire’s fourth birthday on the 22nd of that month with Virginia’s invalid mother, Alice and sisters. Virginia, the little girl Claire and Alice had been trapped as Virginia tried to drive them out of the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. All three had drowned in the car on August 29th, seven days after Claire’s birthday. The bodies of Virginia and her mother had been found in Virginia’s rental car, but Claire’s body had never been recovered.

Curtis drove down to Louisiana and began looking for his missing daughter immediately. He never went back to Lee’s Summit, Missouri and the large Victorian house he’d purchased for his family. He never went back to his profession as an optometrist. He had the flood damage to the house in Bogalusa that Virginia’s mother owned repaired and he lived there alongside a box containing Virginia’s ashes, while searching full-time for Claire.

During the fall of 2011 he got sick with a cold that didn’t get better. In January 2012, he went to Dr. Lindholm who found that Curtis had an advanced lung cancer. When he asked, the doctor told him that there was no surgical cure but that radiation and chemotherapy could slow its progression. Curtis went through courses of radiation and chemo but he never slowed the search for his daughter and he never, ever gave up hope that he would find her, alive. 

The court had issued a death certificate for Claire, but Curtis had torn it up. The insurance company had sent a check for $1000 in settlement of her little life insurance policy but Curtis had torn it up as well. He refused to believe that Claire was dead. Any admission of the possibility of her death represented a betrayal of her too great to fit into his mind.

He had abandoned what had been his life and had spent every waking moment of the last 11 years looking for Claire and being available to be found by her. Even during his fitful sleep he listened to her tiny voice calling him for help. He was tortured by the thought that she was alone and afraid and lost and he was not with her to help her, to calm her, to take care of her.

It had been 11 years ago and every day that had passed Curtis felt the pain and panic of the parent with the lost child, not less but more.

Dr. Lindholm had years ago, referred Curtis to psychologists and psychiatrists but he had never gone. He didn’t need help to deal with his loss, he said, he needed help finding his child. He didn’t want a prescription for something to relieve his anxiety, he wanted to hold his little girl in his arms and smell her hair.

Curtis couldn’t imagine a greater betrayal of his daughter than to sooth himself with drugs and role playing platitudes while she remained lost and alone. The doctors wanted him to believe that a lost child had a price in suffering and worry and effort, beyond which a parent was no longer obligated by nature to feel responsible. After that, you were permitted to write it off as a total loss. Curtis saw no limit to the price, finding his daughter was worth so much more than his own life that his death meant only that he’d failed do the one thing he had to do. No more, no less.

Dr. Lindholm opened his mouth once again to try to reason with Curtis but stopped and accepted his defeat. There was nothing he could do to help this man and he knew that he’d carry that with him as another lesson he was meant to learn.

He stood up and helped Curtis Whitbeck down off the examining table. Holding Curtis’ upper arm that way, the doctor felt as if he might accidentally snap the bone with his fingers.

It took a moment for Curtis to stand as upright as he could. Then he held out his right hand to the doctor. “Goodbye, Henry. I suspect this is the last I shall see of you. I want to thank you for all your help over the years. We’ve both got our work cut out for us. If you would do me one more favor I would greatly appreciate it.”

Curtis reached down and picked up the suit jacket that was folded over the back of the chair sitting next to the table. He removed a sealed envelope from the inside pocket that said, Curtis Whitbeck re Claire Whitbeck, on its face and handed it to the old doctor.

“If you would put this with my chart in case I die before I find my daughter Claire. I’m hoping to leave enough clues for her to find, well, at least find out that I never gave up on her and always loved her,” Whitbeck said with a rattle in his throat.

“Curt, I know you must be suffering terribly. Please. You don’t have to go through this. I can admit you to the hospital or at least let me give you something or call hospice to help you with the pain and shortness of breath.” Dr. Lindholm almost pleaded.

Curtis looked blankly at the doctor and remained silent.

“Fine. I’ll put it into your chart,” the doctor said and took the envelope.

“I’m fine Henry. Really I am. I would not like Claire to find me unable to speak with her. There’s so much I need to tell her, so much she never heard from me. I also put a copy of my will in there. There’s little left of my life but I leave it all to her,” Whitbeck said as he put on his suit jacket.

“All right, Curtis. I know. I’ve heard that for 11 years from you. You have —” Lindholm started to say but Whitbeck interrupted him.

“Goodbye Henry. You’re a good doctor. Just a little stubborn, but that’s normal, I guess,” Whitbeck said and he picked up his cane hanging on the back of the chair and tried to raise his left hand to wave but quickly gave up.

Curtis Whitbeck lowered his chin in determination and walked out of the examining room.

Over the next four weeks Curtis made the rounds of all the agencies once again and re-placed his advertisements and notices in papers and websites dealing with missing persons. He’d had the picture that had been taken of Claire just before her fourth birthday at the Sears portrait studio computer-aged so many times that he had trouble remembering that he hadn’t actually seen her getting older. But he had every computer-adjusted picture tacked to the bulletin board near his kitchen table and every August 22nd he had a birthday party for her.

This year was no different. It was Claire’s 14th birthday and he celebrated quietly, alone in his little kitchen and surrounded by pictures of Virginia and Claire. Once again, he said to himself, this would be the day on which Claire would be found, and like all the days before this, he meant it. He took a last sip of his instant coffee and washed his single cup as well as he could with one hand. Then he picked up his cane and left his house. He took the bus downtown to visit the Red Cross office.

It was a hot and humid morning on August 22nd 2016 in Bogalusa as Curtis got off the bus on Montgomery Street and walked along the narrow sidewalk to the Red Cross office. The office was staffed mostly by volunteers who knew Curtis well from his regular rounds. He was one of the dwindling number of sad people still looking for answers about their missing loved ones. The people in the office felt sad they had no information to give him that might end his lonely watch and bring some kind of closure to him. They’d closed the case files on many missing people over the years yet they were maybe the last ones left that hoped, as he did, that one day they might have real news for him. It hurt them to see him disintegrate before their eyes from his disease. It seemed to some of the volunteers that Curtis’ cancer had become a physical manifestation of the spiritual illness that went with losing a loved without having the certainty of a body.

As he reached for the front door of the Red Cross office, his vision left him and he fell to the sidewalk. They rushed to help him and called the paramedics who took him to Our Lady of the Angels hospital there in Bogalusa. Dr. Lindholm’s card was found in his wallet and he was called and explained Curtis’ situation. He arranged for a private room there but not in ICU due to the seriousness of his diagnosis. Dr. Lindholm made a couple phone calls and drove from his office to the hospital to see if there was anything he could do for his patient.

Curtis woke up in a haze in the cool, quiet and darkened hospital room and remembered becoming dizzy at the Red Cross door. He saw the IV in his right hand and Dr. Lindholm at the foot of his bed looking at his chart.

“Hello Henry,” Curtis Whitbeck said in a hoarse whisper. The effort cost him dearly and he coughed and tasted the metallic tang of blood on his tongue.

“Hello Curtis. I wasn’t sure we’d be talking again. I had to allow the IV because you never signed the Advance Healthcare Directive I gave you. I want to tell you that I also gave you some pain medicine in the IV since it was there. How are you feeling?” the doctor said to him.

“A little rough Henry. I can’t seem to catch my breath.” Curtis spoke very slowly.

“I’m sorry Curtis. I’m afraid it won’t get any better. I’ll turn up your oxygen though.” The doctor went to the head of the bed and adjusted something and then picked up the phone and said. “Excuse me for a moment.”

Curtis closed his eyes and drifted in the fog of pain medicine for a bit as he heard Dr. Lindholm in the distance speaking indistinctly.

He dreamt of being at home in the big house in Lee’s Summit with Virginia and Claire at her third birthday party. Claire was sitting in her highchair with a colorful yellow cardboard birthday crown on with a big orange 3 on the front. She was the most gorgeous thing Curtis had ever seen with her blond hair, wide blue eyes and a smile that shone like the sun. She was opening presents before having the cake. Her excitement seemed to be causing the whole room to vibrate and sparkle with static electricity. The little table in front of her was getting crowded with toys and dolls and every new package caused more excitement than the last no matter its size. He saw her tear open a small box he had gotten for her, her breath caught when she unwrapped a sturdy necklace with a medallion with her name engraved on it.

He saw Virginia’s face change in mock disapproval as she looked him and wagged her finger. “Oh no, not yet. That’s a chokable.” She pronounced her Mom judgment and he looked hopefully back at her, his face begging her. But soon, though.

“Soon enough,” Virginia said. “But for now it goes on the shelf. Maybe for next birthday.” Curtis let his shoulder slump in exaggerated dejection. “OK.”

Claire moved right on to the next package and laughed once again with limitless joy.

Curtis slowly returned to the present and opened his eyes slowly, unsure of how long he’d spent at the party and wishing he could go back. His left arm was completely numb and immovable now but nothing hurt and he suspected that his doctor had slipped him a little more pain medicine.

He could feel the closeness of the edge of what was coming. He could slip quietly across any time he wanted. He was not at all afraid of dying, but it would mean that he had failed in the only important thing in his life. What would he tell Virginia? He could not give up yet.

Curtis saw the doctor sitting in the chair next to the right side of his bed.

“Thank you, Henry. How long do you think I’ll have to stay here Henry?” He said very slowly with several pauses between his words.

“The rest of your life, Curtis,” he said without humor. “I’m a little surprised you woke back up.” Lindholm said getting out of the chair and looking down at him.

The doctor took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “On the other hand, I have some good news for you, Curtis.”

“You’re going to write off part of my bill?” Curtis tried to smile but abandoned the effort.

“They found her, Curtis. The Red Cross found Claire. She’s here.” The doctor said moving his eyes from the pillow to Curtis’ face.

“What? What did you say?”

“The Red Cross found Claire. She was in Texas.”

“How did she... It doesn’t matter.” Curtis slurred the words trying to say them quickly. “Can I see her?” He slowed to make himself understood.

“Curtis, she doesn’t know you. She doesn’t remember Virginia or the flooding. She was an orphan taken by the Red Cross and when they couldn’t find her parents she was turned over to Social Services and eventually adopted by a good family in Colorado.”

“Is she here now? Is Claire here?”

“She has a good life, Curtis. Her parents love her, she has a brother and two sisters. I didn’t tell her who you were Curtis. She doesn’t need to know.” The doctor said looking pointedly into Curtis’ eyes.

Curtis swallowed and took as deep a breath as he could. He seemed to gather himself up for what he had to say. When he spoke, he spoke as clearly as he could so there would be no question of his meaning.

“I understand. You’ll see that she gets the envelope when she’s older? Won’t you? It’s important and there’s a small inheritance. She needs to know about her mother. How much she was loved by her mother and myself. There are pictures too. The lawyer has everything, some of Virginia’s things. It’s all in the letter.” Curtis looked up into the doctor’s eyes begging him to understand and accept the charge.

“I will Curtis. I will make sure she gets it when she’s older. I’m sure she’ll want to know. You did the right thing, Curtis. You were right. I’ll make sure that she knows about you and how you never gave up on her. I’ll tell her, Curtis. When she’s older. I promise you.”

“Can I see her now, Henry. I need to see her.” Curtis said lifting his right hand a little.

“Remember she doesn’t know you, Curt.” Dr. Lindholm said once again with tears in his eyes.

“It doesn’t matter. I just want to see her.” He was so weak now he couldn’t raise his head from the pillow.

“I’ll get her.” The doctor left the bedside and returned a few moments later with a slender, graceful looking young woman with pale skin and honey blonde hair and glasses.

The young woman stayed back a little behind the doctor and glanced briefly with concern at the man in the bed. She was almost as tall as the doctor and looked like she was at the awkward age when her body was changing. She looked uncomfortable, shy and uncertain of why she was there. Curtis could see her. She was straight and tall and strong and his heart hurt with love.

“Curtis. This is Claire. Claire, this is Mr. Whitbeck.” Dr. Lindholm said in formal introduction.

“Hello,” the girl said as she stepped up next to the bedside and gave Curtis a quick smile that, to Curtis, seemed to be sunlight breaking through the clouds. There was instantly something so very familiar in the smile. It was Virginia’s smile. Tears came into his eyes as he looked at her face. It was his Claire standing before him. He had endless questions that he realized were all answered simply by her presence. As her gray eyes met his, he looked for and found an end to 11 years of torment and suffering. He didn’t see a frightened, lost panicked little girl. He saw an intelligent, poised, normal, untraumatized strong young woman at the beginning of an entire life filled with promise. He saw everything he had wished and prayed for.

Curtis smiled and opened his mouth to speak and felt peace and warmth rush over him. For the first time since he could remember he felt complete and finished and — happy.

The doctor stepped forward and briefly felt Curtis’ neck on the right side, then with his fingers, closed Curtis’ eyes.

“Is he — gone?” The girl asked with a trembling voice.

“Yes,” the doctor said. “He’s gone.”

The young woman began to weep and an older woman who was standing by the door moved forward and wrapped an arm around the young woman’s shoulders and led her away from the bedside. “It’s OK honey. You were very kind to come here and help Grandpa out. You did wonderfully.”

“Yes, Milly. I hope someday you will understand what that moment meant to this man. I really appreciate you doing this for me. You too, Sandra. Thank you.” Dr. Lindholm smiled at the women.

“Sure, Dad. I could see why you asked us to do this. Come on, honey. I promised we’d go do some back-to-school shopping after this.” Sandra said to the old doctor.

“It was so sad, wasn’t it? Did you see him smile at me?” The girl asked her mother. She was pulling herself together.

“Yes, honey. I saw it. He loved his daughter very much. You could see that,” The mother said and looked at her father. “Are you sure this was the best thing to do, Dad?”

“I don’t know if it was or not. I deceived him, but I’ve watched him suffer for 11 years and was unable to do anything for him. I couldn’t stand to watch the torment any longer. If I was wrong, then I’ll accept the blame.” Lindholm said. “Thank you both again. I owe you one. I’ll see you this weekend, right?”

“Right, Dad. You know, you’re a nice guy and I love you.” The woman hugged the doctor.

“Bye, Grandpa. I love you.” The young woman walked over and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

As the door closed behind the pair the doctor turned toward the bedside.

“Curtis. I hope that you forgive my lie. I thought you deserved a little peace at the end of your work. I promise I will keep all of the promises I made to you if I can. I’m glad it’s over.” The doctor looked down at the face and saw that the smile was still there. He reached down and closed the mouth. He pulled out his stethoscope and listened to his chest for about 30 seconds. He lifted his eyelids and shone a penlight first in one eye and then the other. Finally, he rubbed Curtis’ breastbone vigorously with his knuckles. Satisfied, he pulled the blanket up to cover his face then went to make his note in the chart.


It was hot and humid on August 22, 2016, so the construction workers didn’t mind having to stop work almost immediately after starting that morning. Some of them sat in the shade while others stood by the backhoe which had been shut down. They were supposed to be excavating the embankment of a creek in order to replace the small bridge where Montgomery Street crosses over Coburn Creek in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Two men were kneeling in the bottom of a muddy hole about three feet in depth. One was the manager of the job site and the other was from the coroner’s office. Some of the idle construction workers stood along the hole’s edge watching as the two men examined the skeleton of a small child that had been uncovered by the backhoe. The man from the coroner’s office held up a necklace covered with mud and washed it off with the bottle of water he was carrying with him on this hot August Louisiana day. He wiped the small medallion with his thumb as he poured the water and he could just make out the first three letters, CLA

The End