Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Short Story: "One Simple Wish"

This started out as a novel, but I found out pretty quickly that it was going to be a short. I like this story a lot, even though I haven't submitted it anywhere because I have no idea what genre it is.

On a snowy night that might have been Christmas Eve, a desperate man (his name is irrelevant, though John will do) resigned himself to killing his wife. As he walked slowly down the hall, knowing that he would soon end his own life, as well, the little girl in the room just before his destination called him “Daddy.”
He stopped just outside her door and sight. He tried to ignore her and listen harder at the same time, but he failed at both. She repeated, “Daddy?”
Just keep walking, he told himself. You’ll only make it harder. It’s always difficult to argue with your inner voice, your conscience, especially when you are in absolute agreement with it. He had a job to do, and the sooner, the better. Still, he hesitated, and it was the next sentence that hooked him.
“Daddy, where’s Troy? I think he ran outside.” Her voice cracked, just a little. He cracked much harder, and for no good reason (or every good reason) he walked in the room, sat down on the bed next to her and said, “Daddy’s here, baby.” She smiled without opening her eyes, and she felt around for his hand. He helped her find it. Her hand was so fragile in the embrace of his, like an innocent little girl’s should be.
“Go to sleep, sweetie.”
“But I can’t go to sleep without Troy!”
He fumbled for a response, and came up with, “I think he’s downstairs eating.”
“He already ate.” Her voice cracked a little more, and grew a little smaller. “He already ate.”
He looked out the window. The snowfall was impressive, to say the least. No way was he going to look for a dog in that mess. No way at all.
He caught himself by surprise when he said, “I’ll take a look outside. I promise.”
What am I doing?
Her eyes snapped open. Of course they were that beautiful shade of blue. “Thank you, Daddy!”
He choked out, “Now try to sleep, sweetie.”
He got up. He supposed he should have wondered why he was suddenly feeling dizzy, but he didn’t have to. He took two steps toward the door, turned around, bent over and kissed her on the forehead. He expected her to feel warm to his lips, but she was slightly cool. “I’ll be back in a little bit.” He pulled the blanket up to her neck, grabbed a photo of Troy to show to people, and walked out without looking back.
Once he was back in the hallway, he looked left to where he had been heading in the first place. She would be sleeping; he could almost hear her slowed heartbeat, and how it would pump like a jackhammer as she fought for breath for the few moments it would take for her to give up. It would be so easy. He knew that a decision had to be made, and he also knew that it had been decided as soon as soon as “Daddy?” had reached his ears. He knew that girl’s future, and he was not going to make one of his last acts on this Earth deceiving one who trusted him so completely, if naively.
So he turned right, walked down the stairs, each footfall making a dull thud…like a slowed heartbeat.
John reached the bottom of the stairs, paused, and sighed. He pushed the door open, turned up his collar, and let the storm envelop him.
* * *
His truck was parked only a few feet away, still running. He had planned on killing his wife and leaving quickly. In the dead of night, in this storm, he didn’t worry about anyone seeing him. Even if he was unfortunate enough to have someone see him driving away, there was no way they could identify him or know where he was going. He would just be a nut with four-wheel drive, out on a night when no one should be. If everything went according to plan, he and his truck would never be found at the bottom of the lake, because he didn’t deserve to be found.
He had a little time to look for the kid’s dog, though. That way he could at least tell the truth when he told her he couldn’t find Troy. She would probably cry, but that wouldn’t last too long. He’d be gone by then. He decided he’d walk around calling for the dog for a half hour or so; he could use the fresh air. He grabbed the car keys, and the plastic bag holding the cigar he planned on smoking at the lake just before…just before. What the hell, he thought, now or later, makes no difference, but I am smoking this tonight.
After about ten minutes of walking, John found himself downtown. The main drag really was beautiful under the blanket of the snowstorm, and it didn’t hurt that there were no humans anywhere to screw it up. He breathed deep, savoring the crisp air, when a blast of icy wind and snow hit him square in the face. He turned away from it as fast as he could, which wasn’t quite fast enough. He felt like he had been slapped with an open hand, and it brought a tear to his eye.
As he blinked it away, he saw the dog. Barely, but he saw the damn thing, standing under the eave of Darby’s Barber Shop (Darby’s sign in the window, “$8 Trim”, was always a chuckle-inducer for the men in town who had a sophomoric sense of humor, which was, naturally, all of the men in town). Reflexively he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the dog’s picture, but of course he didn’t have to. He tried to sound friendly, in spite of the storm, as he yelled, “Troy! Here boy!” The dog perked at his name. He cocked his head at the man walking slowly toward him, and it seemed he was waiting to be picked up.
The dog waited until the man was about five feet away before he bolted and disappeared around a corner.
Damn. A chase it is, then.
He broke into a jog. John ran several miles a week, so the bulky coat didn’t present much of a problem. The footing wasn’t all that bad, and he could see the tracks in the snow, so perseverance, and not speed, would be the key. He figured that the dog’s tiny little legs would only carry him so far before he got tired, bored, or distracted by an attractive hydrant. He rounded the corner and loped down the alley, or, rather, an impression of an alley. It was merely the space between a restaurant and a computer repair shop. Clean and well-lit, it was nothing like the corridors of darkness seen in the movies, the kind of places where you just knew something bad was waiting for either star or bit player. As he walked, he passed a few garbage cans. With little thought, he opened one of them and rooted through it, looking for something that a dog might find appetizing. He found it beneath a ripped bra and an empty box of Triscuits: a chicken bone, some meat still hanging on it. He grabbed it by the cleanest, driest part and tried not to think how gross the whole experience was.
He was right about the dog; he hadn’t gotten far before stopping to urinate on a nearby snow-covered bush. John whistled for him and waved the chicken bone. The dog showed some interest, but turned and walked into a large clearing.
The snow blew harder, threatening to take the dog from his sight. John quickened his pace, trying to walk sideways to avoid facing directly into the storm. He caught a glimpse of Troy, lost him, then found him again when he barked. The dog was actually playing a game with him.
Troy stood motionless in the center of the clearing. John heaved the bone in his direction, and it buried itself in the snow. The dog leaped to the spot and buried its snout in the thickening snow cover, tearing at the bone. John moved towards him. The dog noticed this, but gave him a look that said he would accept some company now, that the bribe had worked. Confident that his impromptu quest was nearing its end, he reached the dog and began to bend down to him.
It was then that he heard the first crack, followed closely by a second.
The dog led him into the center of not a clearing, but a pond.
John knew with the third crack that there was nowhere for him to go but down. The too-thin crust of the pond broke, and John’s large frame plunged straight down into water so cold that it felt hot. It hit him all at once, and his body began to shut down almost immediately as his head dropped below the surface. He shot a hand up, blindly groping for purchase on the side of the hole, but he could find nothing but a solid sheet. Somehow, in the span of just a few seconds, he had drifted away from the considerable hole in the ice. It occurred to him then that this was similar to how he had already planned to end his night, though he had skipped the part about killing his wife and went straight to drowning, instead.
His hand found something. It was not the ragged edge of a freshly-made hole, no. It felt more like a dog’s leather collar. He tried to look up, but his body didn’t respond. He merely held to the collar, feeling that the dog was tugging backwards. It wasn’t the frantic movement of a dog trying to escape. It felt more like the animal was actually trying to pull him out, losing proposition or not. With fading lucidity, John understood that there was no possible outcome other than dragging this dog down with him, and there was just no sense in that. With great effort, he released the collar. He drifted down, down, and the darkness crept in around the edges until it overtook him.
John never felt the hand reach down and pull him out.
* * *
When he woke, he was lying on top of the ice, shivering. He was alone; very alone. The storm had waned, the moon shone brightly, and he could see for hundreds of yards in every direction. Whoever had saved him was long gone. They had given him a second chance at life, and didn’t stick around long enough to find out how he intended to waste it. He struggled to his feet, amazed that he could move at all. He had no idea how long he had been lying in the snow, but it had been long enough for the storm to cover the approaching and retreating footsteps of his unidentified rescuer.
But he had only a faint dusting of snow on him, so he couldn’t have been lying unexposed for long.
He was convinced that he had never fallen through the ice. That had to have been some kind of delusion, because he wasn’t wet.
A few seconds later, he realized that wasn't entirely true: one sleeve was in danger of freezing solid, as it had been dipped in water up to the shoulder.
What the hell just happened? John wondered, trying to get his bearings both physical and mental.
He began to trudge carefully back the way he had first come, sure that direction would be safe, as he had already traversed it once. He jammed his hands deep into his pockets, and his numb fingers closed upon an object that could only be a waterlogged dog collar.
* * *
John stared through the window of the toy shop, despondent because he had failed to catch a dog for a worried little girl. He couldn’t even grant that one simple wish. He had learned long ago (more than three years ago, in fact) that wishes were never horses. It was shame that she would know it at such a young age, too. He sighed and began to travel back to where, he hoped, she would be sleeping peacefully, and threw a casual glance back at the toy store for no reason at all. In that moment he saw an object that had escaped his notice for the ten minutes or so he had stared directly at it. It was a stuffed dog, and it looked disturbingly like good ol’ Troy.
That’s too weird, John thought. That can’t be coincidence.
He decided that he needed that dog, and he wasn’t above breaking and entering to get it. He had enough cash on him to cover the cost of the toy and the lock, as well. It won’t do me any good where I’m going, anyway. He grasped the knob, looked furtively around him, knowing that the chances anyone else was foolish enough to be out this late on a night like this were remote, and opened the unlocked door with little problem. Only the tinkle of the bell above the door broke the silence.
Definitely not a coincidence.
He moved quickly, grabbed the dog, checked the price tag and did a double take. “That much? I’d have a hard time paying that for a real dog,” he said to the empty room. “Empty” only applied to other people; a hundred sets of eyes still stared at him. John noticed their plastic gaze. What otherwise would have been creepy seemed almost…approving. He opened his wallet, emptied it, and left more than enough cash neatly arranged on the counter next to the register.
He closed the door firmly behind him, double-checking to ensure it was locked.
* * *
John paused in the doorway, clutching the toy dog. It had seemed right to put Troy’s (wherever he was) collar around the doll’s neck, so he had.
“Daddy?” That same fragile voice asked.
“I’m here, sweetie.” He sat on the bed next to her.
“Did you find him?”
He gritted his teeth. She’s out of it; she won’t notice. I hope. “Yeah. He’s okay. Why don’t you go to sleep now?”
She was drifting down again. She yawned, “I love you, Daddy,”
He kissed her on her forehead, told her he loved her, too, and tucked the toy dog into the crook of her arm (Please don’t let her notice). She went to sleep with a smile, warm and content. He watched her for a few minutes, and shed some tears for her. He was not ashamed.
John collected himself and walked to the door. He looked at her one last time. She was beautiful, and he would hold that picture in his mind until the end.
He went to talk to the night nurse.
* * *
“Excuse me, but the little girl in there…”
The nurse helped him out. “Carolyn.”
“Carolyn. Why is she here?” He was afraid of the answer.
That answer came in the form of a disease that John could barely pronounce. “She doesn’t have long. But she’s been an angel the whole time she’s been here.”
He swallowed hard. “Where are her parents?”
A shake of the nurse’s head told him all he needed to know. She sprung from her chair as an alarm went off. John knew without looking that the alarm came from little Carolyn’s room, and he was certain what it meant. He watched the nurse leave to do her job and discover what he already knew. He left the desk area and entered the room two doors down from Carolyn’s. This was his best chance, now while the nurse was distracted.
His wife, Denise, lay there, as she had for just over three years, ever since a night a lot like this one conspired to take her from him. It had succeeded in destroying them both. She was comatose, with little chance for recovery. He was healthy, and had no chance. Many nights he had come close to doing what had to be done and had chickened out, if that was an appropriate term for deciding against murder. Tonight, however, he was determined.
She. Wouldn’t. Want. This.
He reached for a pillow, and saw the toy dog, nestled in the crook of her arm. He staggered backwards several steps. There was no mistaking that it was the same doll; it wore a collar that still looked a little wet. He moved forward again, confused. He poked the dog as if it were an illusion. His wife moaned a little bit, but she had done that many times before; the doctors had repeatedly told him it was an involuntary reaction, and his optimism had faded a little more each time until he had none left.
She moaned a second time, and, just as he knew that Carolyn had gone without seeing her, he knew that this noise wasn’t like all the rest. He stared at her; he was sure he saw her eyes move behind the lids, like she was merely dreaming. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but it was enough. He leaned into her ear and said, “I’m sorry, baby. I stopped believing in you for a while. I was wrong. Don’t make me wait long, okay?” He kissed her on each cheek, tucked the dog in a little more snugly, and walked down the hall. He glanced into Carolyn’s room and saw the nurse standing over her, possibly reciting a prayer for the poor girl. What he didn't see was a toy dog.
The snow still fell, but the wind gusts had turned into soft breaths, and he reached into his pocket. He pulled out the cigar which, another miracle, was intact and bone dry. He clipped it, flipped open the butane torch, and lit it slowly and deliberately, careful to not miss a spot. He took a deep draw and held it; it was better than he could have hoped. He sat on the cold steps and passed time by focusing on an individual flake as it fell to the ground, and then another after that.
The door opened behind him. It was the nurse. “Did you know her?” she asked him plainly, as she wrapped her coat around her.
He considered telling her the whole story, but decided against it. “No. She just looked lonely.” He took another draw and blew it downwind from the nurse. “Is there anyone to…take care of her?”
“The state.”
“I don’t think so. Send it all my way. Everything. I don’t care who I have to go through.”
The nurse looked ready to respond when they both turned towards the sound of scratching at the door. “Hey!” the nurse exclaimed. “Is that your dog?” She opened the door and let Troy out. He bounded towards John and licked his hand.
What the hell, John thought. “Yeah. He is.”
The End.

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