THE DEAD WAIT
Published in High Strange Horror
Muzzleland Press, April 2015
John Talus was dying of testicular cancer.
He scoffed each time the thought of impending death crossed his mind, not feeling sadness or grief, but anger and bitterness. Testicular cancer boasted a ninety-five percent survival rate, according to his doctor, but John was part of the rare five percent that wouldn’t make it.
He shifted his tender body in the custom-designed bed, careful not to inflame the constant throbbing ache in his lower back, hips, and testicles, and flicked on his massive LED flat screen. It was almost noon, but he hadn’t yet bothered to pull himself out of bed to piss, wash his face, or even brush his teeth. The pain was titanic today, and he considered foregoing minor hygienics and wetting the bed like a three year old. Who gives a fuck, he thought. His mother would visit today. She’d clean the sheets.
John settled on a CNN talk show and tossed the remote aside, watching as the middle-aged host chatted with a stunning blonde actress whose name he couldn’t recall. The screen, unbearably bright in the heavy-curtained darkness of his bedroom, hurt his eyes, and his eyelids shuddered with exhaustion. Sleep crawled slowly, gently, over him, but he couldn’t ignore the tickertape live feed of headlines running along the bottom of the broadcast. One in particular caught his attention: Walton-Stewart Investment Banker Jumps 49 Stories to His Death.
Through the haze of oncoming slumber, John’s mind stumbled over the declaration. Walton-Stewart Holding had been liquidated in 2009 after declaring bankruptcy. John had started his career at the firm and left just months before its demise. Was his taxed mind playing tricks on him? He turned his head from the screen and closed his eyes, eager for sleep, yet something about that headline nagged him.
The question ebbed as precious slumber soothed the persistent pain below his chest. Sleep—and Oxycontin—would shoo his disquiet. The pair had become friends to John. His only friends.
Since the doctors revealed the chemo hadn’t worked and the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes along his back, John hadn’t bothered with friends. He hadn’t concerned himself with family either…not that he had before the cancer. His father had bolted when John was a baby, right before news of a second pregnancy. And Dipshit Dana—the loving nickname he’d crafted for his poisonous kid sister—had died when they were teenagers. John was unmarried and childless. His only human connection to the world outside his Manhattan apartment was his obnoxious mother, and even she only mustered a little pseudo-sympathy once a week. Not that he cared. In a matter of days, weeks, John would likely die alone in his four million dollar penthouse and, invoking his favorite phrase, he didn’t give a fuck.
Death didn’t scare him.
“Oh no, John?”
The voice was distant, like the dull hum of the talk show host and her guest. John assumed the speaker was the product of an oncoming dream and didn’t bother to turn toward the source. As death approached, his dreams had become unimaginably vivid, and John wondered if dying would be as simple and seamless as the transition from awake to asleep.
“Death should scare you, John.”
That voice; its familiarity irked him, just as the headline that scrolled past his line of sight had caused a brief but troublesome sense of remembrance. He knew that voice…
“It’s me, Bill Farling. Remember me, John?”
John nodded. The dream made perfect sense now. He’d never woken from slumber this morning, hadn’t turned on the television, hadn’t thought about pissing the bed and letting his mother deal with it. The talk show host and her guest, the news streaming across the bottom of the screen, the headline—Walton-Stewart Investment Banker Jumps 49 Stories to His Death—had all been part of the dream, as Bill Farling was now.
Bill had been a former co-worker at Walton-Stewart Holdings. They met fresh out of business school, at a time when John was struggling to pay the bills and consumed by the idea that he’d never escape his shit-poor upbringing. Bill had been the friend and champion he’d needed, and they’d climbed the corporate ladder side by side for over fifteen years. During that time, John introduced his friend to three vices guaranteed to relieve the stress of their high-pressure occupation: gambling, prostitutes, and prescription painkillers. Who would’ve guessed Bill had embezzled funds from the company to feed his insatiable habits? Not John. The news had shocked him, just as the news that Bill had jumped to his death from the 49th floor of the Walton-Stewart building had shocked him.
Shocked him—yes. Upset him…not really. John and Bill had been vying for the global head of corporate finance position, and Bill’s suicide had solidified the promotion—and a very big bonus—for John.
“Hi Bill,” John murmured, hearing his voice in the dream, but not feeling his lips move as he said the words. “How are you?”
“I’m great John. Especially since I found out you’re gonna be a corpse soon.”
John furrowed his brow; the malicious inflection in Bill’s voice disturbed him, and he turned his body toward the television. Bill was there, on screen. The sight of the man—or rather, the sight of what was left of him—sent a cold shiver of revulsion down John’s bare back. The left side of Bill’s face had collapsed; brain matter protruded through the thick cracks in his skull and flesh. One eyeball was missing, the other resembled a roasted marshmallow: black and charred on the outside with bits of white oozing on the inside. Bill smiled, revealing a row of jagged, reddened teeth. The headline, Walton-Stewart Investment Banker Jumps 49 Stories to His Death, appeared in bold black letters across Bill’s chest.
“How did you know?” John asked, feeling foolish for actively participating in such a horrific hallucination. Bill Farling had been dead for nine years; John had long since forgotten the man. Why would his mind conjure such a vile memory now?
“News travels fast in Hell, John. All we do is wait. And I’m waiting for you.”
The statement caused a quick, sharp cramp in John’s groin. He cried out. The sound pierced the quiet of the bedroom and for an instant, John feared he was awake, that he had turned on the television after all, and that Bill’s mangled face on-screen was real. But just as the idea crossed his mind, the warmth of comfort and sleep caressed him again. It soothed the pain in his crotch and thighs, and his surroundings—the bedroom, the harsh glow of the television screen, Bill’s terrifying smile—faded away.
The only thing on television viler than Bill’s face was the porn Dipshit Dana used to watch at night when she couldn’t sleep.
By the time John was twelve, his mother burdened him with babysitting duty while she worked the night shift at a nearby convenience store. Times were tough for the Talus family in the eighties. Rent in a Lefrak City one bedroom was a stretch, so a sitter was out of the question. It should have been an easy job—John’s only real task was keeping eleven-year-old Dana alive from the hours of nine p.m. to four a.m.—but the kid had insomnia and nagged him incessantly.
“John-John,” she’d whisper in his ear, interrupting sleep’s precious arrival. “I can’t sleep.”
He entertained her the first few weeks, no easy feat without a television. They’d go to the roof and throw fruit over the side or split open the elevator doors so the cars would stop between floors and freak residents out. She hadn’t been such a dipshit then, actually. But John started falling asleep in class, and that really pissed him off. His unblemished report card—which never ceased to amaze his dropout mother—was his one-way ticket out of the bleak, underclass existence he’d come to detest.
So he set Dana up in a beanbag chair by the window in the living room with a pair of cheap binoculars he’d pilfered from a friend so she could watch the neighbors’ television. For three years she watched porn—a lot of small seventies tits and fluffy, unkempt pubes—thanks to the divorcee in the adjacent building.
If it had been John (arrogant, contemptible, just like his father) watching, his mother wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass. But it had been Dana (mindless, impressionable, just like her mother) watching pornography for 1,000 consecutive nights during her formative years, and that shit really fucked her up. As a result, John’s mother fucked him up the night she discovered her princess’s favorite pastime. She’d taken a coffee mug, screaming, to his head.
“Christ John, what the fuck?” she’d screamed, and he flinched in his sleep recalling the incident, sure a blow was on its way, sure it was 1981 again, sure he was tucked under the covers of his twin bed in apartment 3J.
“It smells like piss in here,” she said instead, and John opened his eyes in time to see her pull back the curtains, letting the dim glow of early-evening sun into the room. He glanced toward the television set. A commercial for toothpaste played on screen. His memories of Dana, his dreams, and the image of Bill Farling’s mutilated face, had faded, but a feeling of quiet foreboding remained.
John’s mother muttered under her breath as she grabbed the comforter and pulled it away from his body, revealing a large wet stain on the sheets and around his groin. He stifled a quiet gasp; he’d joked to himself about wetting the bed, but he hadn’t meant to do it. He recalled the warmth that eased his pain during the nightmare and wondered if he’d pissed his pants out of necessity or fear.
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” he said, unable to suppress the exasperation in his tone, which flared up each time his mother visited. Her imperturbable (and inexplicable) loyalty irked him more than her cloying presence; she came once a week despite his thanklessness. Perhaps she was trying to make up for all those years of overt favoritism toward a doltish, worthless daughter. Maybe she believed that delivering comfort now might somehow make up for the abuse she’d dished out then—might somehow negate her life-long, palpable distain for a son that, to her idiotic chagrin, hadn’t turned out just like his mother.
Nah. More likely, she just wanted a piece of the small fortune John had amassed over the last two decades. It would certainly alleviate the burden of her recently foreclosed home. But he had no intention of leaving her a penny. She had been a lethargic, oblivious loser her whole life, satisfied with the apathetic existence she’d created for herself and her children. She’d never offered financial or emotional encouragement to her sycophant son, so he’d simply do the same in return.
“Well I’m not cleaning it. You have money; you can hire someone to do it.”
“You’re right,” he said. “I do have money.”
His mother recoiled as if his response had nipped her like a startled rodent. She shook her head and scowled. Her teeth were brown, the gums red and raw, and John found himself thinking of Bill’s terrifying smile. Bill had said something in the dream that had frightened John… What had it been?
News travels fast in Hell, John. All we do is wait. And I’m waiting for you.
As he concentrated on the statement, his mother moved toward the door. She was halfway across the room when John called out to her.
“Do you think I’m going to hell?” he asked.
She turned toward him, her round face red and dewy. Her eyebrows rose as she processed the question, forming two half-circles over dull, sorrowful eyes. The corners of her mouth twitched, as if she was suppressing a smile.
“Well?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered. “I do.”
Two hours after his mother left, John’s cell phone rang. The sound was foreign and irritating, and for a moment, he couldn’t place its origin. No one had phoned him in months, not since news of his fatal prognosis had spawned several obligatory so sorry calls. John fumbled for the device, curious to identify the caller, but the screen remained black, the caller ID inoperative. He pressed the phone to his ear.
He immediately recognized Maddie’s voice, and his pulse quickened. Perspiration greased the back of his neck and under his arms. John hadn’t heard from her in years.
“It’s been a long time,” she said, her subtle southern twang accentuated by words like long and time. Maddie had moved to New York from her native Alabama when she was a teenager, yet she’d never lost that southern charm. It was one of many traits John had loved about her. “I heard you’re fadin’ away.”
“Yeah. Sucks. I heard you’re doing well. Saw your wedding announcement in the paper a few years back. Congratulations.”
“Got any kids?”
Her flat response caused a brief, aching sensation in John’s chest as he recalled their history. In Maddie, he’d met his match. As the only child of a used car dealership magnate, she understood his greed and superficiality, could see beyond it, could recognize his few redeeming qualities. Her pompous father equipped her with the audacity necessary to handle John’s irritability and ire, which she balanced with the impregnable optimism only the endlessly wealthy possessed. She’d stayed with him, even after he told her about his sister’s death. In fact, she’d almost succeeded in saving him from his own malevolence; had nearly persuaded him to be human. Over the course of their relationship, she’d offered John love and trust, yet each moment of happiness had only reminded him of his heinous past and his rancid soul. He hadn’t deserved her devotion, and rather than strive to become a better man, he defaulted to the old John Talus motto: I don’t give a fuck.
Maddie had been four months pregnant when he fucked a stranger in a strip club bathroom. It was ironic, he thought now, that he’d thrust his cock and balls and snuffed the only flicker of hope and happiness in his bleak, sorry existence—and those very organs were now destroying him. He recalled the smell of perfume and pussy that had clung to his mouth and fingers when he entered their apartment. Maddie only had to look in his black, indifferent eyes to know the truth. She left him without a word, and other than this phone call, she’d only reached out to him once: to tell him she’d had an abortion.
“Where are you living now?” he asked, desperate to fill the gaping silence left in the wake of his last question.
She hesitated and said: “It’s dark here.”
John glanced toward the window. His mother had pulled back the curtains earlier, and he could see dusk settling over the city; pale pinks and purples brightened the evening sky. John guessed it was about seven o’clock. It was not quite dark anywhere in America, and he wondered where she’d been living the past few years. He started to ask her, when she said: “Your sister’s here too.”
The comment caused the same abrupt cramp in his groin that Bill’s statement had produced, and John bit his lip to keep from groaning. Maddie’s call was beginning to make sense now. She was the only person in the world who knew what really happened to his sister, and now she was calling to remind him of what a total piece of shit he’d been—to her, to Dana, to everyone. She wanted an apology before he died, and she deserved one. But the I don’t give a fuck in John reared its ugly head, just as it did each time he felt the slightest sense of obligation. He was an incurable asshole; he had been even before his sister’s death and he would be until his own.
“Look Maddie, if you called for an apology—”
“It’s too late for that. I just wanted to tell you that I’m looking forward to seeing you. We all are.”
And before John could react, the line went dead. The emptiness on the other end was deafening, and a sudden irrepressible anger consumed him. Desperate to release his fury, he heaved the phone across the room. The device hit the wall and shattered; its protective case slid across the floor and bits of screen settled under the window. The action caused the unrelenting ache in his balls to intensify, and John let his weighty head fall back onto the pillow.
If Maddie had called to make him feel guilty, it wasn’t necessary. His conscience was already doing that on its own, starting with the freakish hallucination of Bill Farling. Were guilt and self-loathing side effects of imminent death? Was his decaying subconscious reminding him of the terrible things he’d done in hopes he would repent before the end was upon him?
Maybe. Or maybe he was going mad and should swallow a bottle of painkillers or slit his wrists and end it before it got much worse. The thought made John chuckle; he was neither courageous nor impulsive enough for such action. Not to mention, Bill’s ominous threat clung to his thoughts like the hard pulsating soreness that gripped his atrophied testicle.
News travels fast in hell, John. All we do is wait. And I’m waiting for you.
Perhaps he shouldn’t be so eager for death. Maybe there was something to fear—at least, something for John to fear. He had, after all, been the catalyst for Bill’s addictions and Maddie’s heartbreak and abortion. Was it too farfetched to think his dream and Maddie’s nasty comments had some merit? That perhaps those he’d screwed in life might seek vengeance in death?
Lying in bed with nothing to do was really fucking with his head. John turned his attention to the television, hoping the tube would help him forget his conversation with Maddie. But each time he changed the channel, the memory of Bill Farling’s mangled face invaded his mind. Finally, he turned it off, opting for the last of his remaining electronic distractions: the computer. There must be something in the news more depressing than his life, he considered, reaching toward the bedside table for his laptop.
He turned it on and waited as the Internet loaded. The image that appeared on screen caused John to loose control of his bladder for the second time that day. The warm flood of urine on his thighs reminded him that he hadn’t bothered to change the sheets, or his pants, since his last accident, but he didn’t dwell on the realization. Instead, he fixated on the wreckage before him, the silver Toyota Corolla wrapped around a gnarly, snow-covered tree. A miraculously unscathed seventeen-year-old John stood beside the automobile; his body was pressed against the driver’s side door. A small, pale hand dangled from the window. The sight of it caused John’s insides to spasm and hot, sour vomit burned his throat.
Who sent this? he wondered. Maddie?
She had mentioned his sister on the phone; this would be a fitting follow up. But how would she have gotten her hands on this photo? No one had been at the scene of the accident. Had she doctored the image? John could admit he deserved Maddie’s wrath, but this was beyond cruel—it was sick. As much as she may hate him, Maddie would never create such a horrific and realistic photo and then email it to him on his deathbed.
So who then?
Chills attacked John’s bare arms and back, and he pulled the covers up to his chest.
News travels fast in Hell, John. All we do is wait. And I’m waiting for you.
The cold puddle of urine under his buttocks made John shiver. Had it really been a dream? Or had he been awake? He tried desperately to recall the experience, hoping there had been something in the exchange that would prove he’d been dreaming. The most obvious recollection came immediately: Bill had been on the television, part of the talk-show program. Wasn’t that proof it was all a vision?
Ten minutes ago that would have been enough to convince him, but this photograph changed that. This photograph had never been taken; no one had been at the scene that night. Someone was fucking with him. Alive or dead, someone was really fucking with him.
And then he felt their presence in the room. Before he could react, a cold hand was on his shoulder. He screamed and recoiled from the intruder’s touch, then lifted the laptop and thrust it at his attacker’s head—
His mother fell back, blocking her face with her hands. For John, seeing his mom cowering like a frightened child was a fucking relief, and he couldn’t suppress his giddiness; the sound of his laughter caused a red flush to overspread his mother’s cheeks.
“You asshole,” she said, straightening up. She brushed a strand of bottle-black hair from her cheek with a trembling hand. “What’s the matter with you?”
“You scared the shit out of me,” he replied, dropping the laptop onto the bed. “Why didn’t you call?”
“I did, you wouldn’t answer your phone.” She glanced around the room, her nose wrinkled in disgust, reminding John of his soiled sheets.
“Did you come back to change the bed?” he asked. “Because if you must know, I pissed in it again.”
She rolled her eyes. “No. I came back because I’d forgotten to tell you that Maddie died yesterday. I thought you’d like to know. I’d always hoped you two would…”
His mother continued, but John heard nothing. His eyes were fixed on the broken cell phone on the floor. He’d smashed it not ten minutes ago, after he’d hung up with Maddie. But it was impossible that he’d spoken to her—his mother said she’d died yesterday.
She hadn’t been on the phone; Maddie was dead.
Like Bill Farling.
Suddenly, their brief conversation flooded John’s mind.
It’s dark here.
Your sister’s here too.
I’m looking forward to seeing you.
We all are.
We all are: Bill. Maddie. Dana.
Dana—the dainty hand in the photograph. It belonged to Dana.
Christ, the picture. John pulled himself from the sudden, fearful trance and grappled for the laptop. If his mother saw the picture, she would know the truth about that night. She would know that John—
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to the image on the screen. Had it grown clearer since John turned on the device? Was it obvious that he was not just standing by the driver’s side door, but strategically holding his sister’s lifeless body in place?
“What the fuck is that?”
The photo changed again; in it, John had turned away from the vehicle, satisfied with the manner in which he’d positioned his sister’s body: one inanimate hand on the steering wheel, the other dangling out the window. A moment later, the photo transformed again; in this image, John was climbing back into the passenger side of the car.
“I thought you said Dana had been driving,” his mother said, her voice a stunned, nearly inaudible whisper.
John stared at the screen, unable to look at his mother. He’d been lying about the accident for so long, he’d begun to believe it. Now, as he opened his mouth to respond, the lies spilled forth instinctively.
“Liar!” his mouth shouted at him. “Tell me the truth!”
But what was the truth? John wasn’t sure—he wasn’t sure of anything anymore.
“Tell me the fucking truth!” His mother’s hands were on his neck now. Her fingernails dug into the tender flesh beneath his ears. He looked into her eyes and a wild, delusional thought crossed his mind: that Dana had sent the picture. He was the only person who could confirm she hadn’t crashed the Corolla that night. If he died without telling their mother the truth, the truth would die with him.
And then a second, less horrific thought—a revelation—came to him. That this was his chance for salvation. That if he confessed his dastardly actions to his mother, he might be spared, as Bill put it, from meeting those waiting in hell.
He grabbed his mother’s wrists and shouted: “I was driving that night!”
She recoiled, but he held tight.
“I was drunk. I hit the tree.”
His mother shook her head frantically and struggled to pull away, but John wouldn’t let go of her wrists. His hands were numb, his knuckles white.
“She was already dead, so I pushed her into the driver’s seat. I pushed her into the driver’s seat and got back into the car.”
“No!” His mother yanked her wrists free of his grip but didn’t retreat. Instead, she brought her fists down on his torso. Knuckles dug into his exposed belly, draining the air from his lungs; a second punch to the groin sent a white-hot rod of pain through his lower half. Her sudden, unexpected attack extinguished John’s brief desire for redemption, instead reminded him of the coffee mug to the skull, and his cold, detestable I don’t give a fuck attitude emerged again. He hadn’t the strength to retaliate physically, but his mouth could do irreparable harm, and so he screamed into his mother’s crimson, bloated face: “She was a slut! She’d sucked half the cock on the basketball team by the time I dragged her out of that party. And she was pregnant—sixteen and pregnant, just like her mother. I did her a favor by hitting that tree!”
His mother’s tear-streaked face turned a sickening grape-juice purple and she struggled to gasp and sob and scream as she pummeled him with all her strength. John grabbed frantically for her arms, but she was too strong, too fast, and he was weak and pained. Sudden light blinded him, like the flash of a camera triggered in his eyes, and a terrifying idea struck: his mother was going to kill him.
Before today, John would have happily embraced death. But now he knew what was waiting; now, all he wanted was to live.
The light subsided and his mother came into view again. She was still beating him, swinging her fists wildly and shrieking. He succumbed to her attack until she collapsed in a heap of sweaty limbs on the floor. His head fell onto the pillow behind him; his body screamed. The pain chewed his bones and devoured his flesh like a creature eating its way out of his body. He struggled to suck air into his lungs; his labored breathing and his mother’s choking sobs were the only sounds in the room. They remained there for an eternity. Unconsciousness rolled over him like a gentle wave and then retreated, and he was back in his room, the pain still feasting on him. Soon, it became harder to breath. From the corner of his eye, he saw his mother rise.
He tried to turn toward her, but his head was too heavy, his neck refused to cooperate. Words were lost and he could only sputter and drool like a baby as she moved toward the door. Her dark hair, wild and loose from their struggle, clung to her clammy neck and forehead like black veins. His throat stuttered; he willed himself to speak but couldn’t. She was walking away now, John could hear her footsteps; the sound was amplified, thunderous.
Before she closed the door behind her, she said: “I hope you rot in hell.”
When John woke up, the room was pitch-black. He moaned and stretched his stiff body. The piss soaking his sheets had dried while he slept, and even the pain was in hibernation. His mother must have felt some pity for him and dropped a few OxyContin tablets under his tongue before she left.
He cleared his throat and ran his tongue along the roof of his mouth, detecting no bitter residue or aftertaste. If his mother hadn’t slipped him a few pills, why hadn’t their scuffle left his limbs in feverish agony? She’d punched him in the balls for Christ’s sake; he was surprised the diseased testicle hadn’t broken off and bounced across the floor like his cell phone after he’d tossed it at the window.
Thinking of his cell reminded him of Maddie’s call, of the image on the computer screen, and Bill’s appearance on the television. John blinked, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the total blackness, wondering if it had all been a crazy dream.
He pushed the covers aside and inched his body toward the edge of the bed, keeping one hand outstretched. The darkness was unrelenting, and he was careful to plant both feet firmly on the ground before standing. The room felt cavernous, and he shuffled forward, disoriented, feeling for the dresser or desk, anything to help him get his bearings.
Instead, he thought of Maddie, of the way she’d hesitated before telling him: It’s dark here. At once, he understood he was no longer in his room.
And he was no longer alone.
They were all around him, drawing near. He felt warm breath against his naked back. Looks of disgust and loathing bore into his exposed flesh; the urge for vengeance was palpable. A scream crawled toward his mouth and died as it passed through his lips.
Finally, a voice broke the unnerving silence. The sound was more horrific than the sight of Bill Farling’s pulpy, mottled skull, more terrifying than the photograph that had appeared on his computer screen, and even more devastating than the look of hatred in his own mother’s eyes as she beat him to death.
It was his sister’s voice, a lovely, tinkling sound, the sound of a perpetual sixteen-year-old girl.
“Welcome John-John,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for you.”