The Squatters


by Ben R. Charles  

Late afternoon sunlight saturated the living room of John’s humble home, exposing a shroud of dust dancing wistfully in the air. The breezy June day was calm and peaceful, but John was not at peace. Daytime T.V. whirred in the background tales of divorce trials, empty promises of free credit checks and guaranteed approval on premium insurance rates. It was hardly entertainment, but it was more appealing than silence.

Lately, it always felt like he had somewhere to be, but it’s not like he could just get up and go. The doctor had ordered at least another month of resting at home but told John that he wanted a check-up before then. Rest was all that John did, but it always felt as if he never got enough, as if he never got any. Everything hurt, all the time. He could not move, save for pushing his wheelchair around slightly and doing basic day-to-day things like making tea or attempting to eat. He did not have the strength to speak; his throat was burnt and charred. He feared that he would never tell a tale again. His physical wounds kept him grounded in his home, bound to a wheelchair, his mental wounds kept him bound in time.

Every single day he replayed that crash in his head. What he could have done differently. What could have been?

If only he wasn’t so dark that night. If only it wasn’t so dark and icy. If only he wasn’t so fucking drunk. He knew he was a monster, and reminded himself of that every day.

He shook his head sleepily and tried his best to focus on Judge Judy. Despite his every sight and sound becoming fuzzier and more distant by the day he fought to keep focused on the mundane. Otherwise, he knew he would get thinking about the people in that Caravan that night. He wasn’t ready for that.

He wasn’t ready.

John had completely lost track of time, and not just of the time of day but of the date. He did know it was sometime in the mid-afternoon, around 3:00 or 4:00 maybe? He squinted at his old Coca-Cola clock, he couldn’t quite make it out. Ever since the accident looking at a clock was like it would be in a dream, where every few moments the hands distort into something completely different. He felt like he might have an appointment with the doctor today. But maybe it was tomorrow?

“I’ll just take ‘er easy today and give him a call tomorrow. I’m sure he’ll forgive me for mixing up one day considering my circumstances,” he thought to himself.

He closed his eyes and attempted to get some rest, but in what felt like only a few moments later he was jarred by the sound of a key opening a lock and his front door swinging open, followed by footsteps.

“Hmm”, John thought indignantly, “Dana finally decided it’s time for a visit, did she? Christ, woman. You’re my only family left alive and you stuck me here me to rot. I never even got a phone call. I’ve been doing fine so far without you, and I’ll keep doing so after you leave. First thing I’m gonna when I get my voice back is giving you a piece of my mind, you stupid bitch.”

John fantasized about the righteous venom that he was going to bring down upon his sister, but that was immediately cut off by another set of footprints and distant voices.

John was now annoyed and puzzled. “Who the Hell could that be? Does Dana have a new boyfriend? Wouldn’t doubt it, she can’t hold a man down for a week. Can’t say I blame ’em for leaving, either.”

All of John’s energy was now solely focused on trying to hear the intruders. The footprints sounded closer now but the voices were still muffled. John faintly made out the voices of a man and a woman.

“Great, fucking great.” John sneered. “Dana’s probably got some new trust-fund, boat shoes-wearing, middle-management soy boy with her. I’ll get to sit here while both of them pretend to feel sorry for me and talk to me like I’m a fucking Labrador.”

John made one of the voices out, but he couldn’t tell how far it was yet. Finally, John made out the man’s voice saying, “After all that we’ve been through, I’m still amazed that we got here. I love you.”

“All you’ve been through!?” John laughed. “You people are real pieces of work.”

The footsteps were now fully audible, even for John. They were careless and aimless as if they had been wandering around, snooping. After a few minutes, they began closing in on the living room. John closed his eyes, let out a sigh, and prepared himself for the worst.

The man turned left through the corridor and into the living room. He was basically what John was expecting, but younger. He was dressed well, handsome and tall, he seemed like the kind of guy who does pretty well for himself but is cripplingly boring. He had that ‘My father is a lawyer’ look to him; John guessed that his favourite band was probably Capital Cities or maybe Imagine Dragons.

“Yeah, that’s her type.” John thought. “Good for Dana for snagging a younger one, I guess.”

The young man seemed more interested in surveying the living room than he did in acknowledging John, scanning the whole room up and down, his eyes flitted in every direction. He would momentarily look at John before instantly catching another detail in the living room.

The woman then walked in, and to John’s surprise, she was not his sister. This woman was at least ten years younger. She had shoulder-length brunette hair and the biggest blue eyes John had ever seen. John was taken back at how beautiful she was. She had an innocence to her as if she was just a child herself. Or at least she would have, if not for the infant wrapped in a pink fleece blanket clutched to her shoulder.

John pulled himself out of his bewilderment. He gathered all of his strength to attempt to ask just who the Hell these people are and what they were doing in his house. But before he could, the woman spoke, “I love this living room! It’s so cosy! Imagine how nice it will be once we get this carpet replaced for hardwood and get rid of this outdated furniture. That ugly old thing in the middle of the living room has got to go, too.”

John was so furious that he was shaking.

“I don’t know- I kind of like it, Jen,” the man laughed. “Besides, it probably belongs to Dana. We should probably hang on to it at least until she comes back to see if she wants it. If not, we’ll throw it out.”

“It!?” John gasped as loudly as he could. “I may be stuck in this wheelchair and eat out of a tube, but I’m still a human being, you assholes!”

“I guess so,” said the woman, seeming to completely ignore John. “We still have a full day of unpacking ahead of us. It will be a while before this house really becomes home, this is the least of our worries. Why don’t you set it aside and I’ll start getting more boxes out of the car?

The man agreed and kissed his new wife with a quick peck on the cheek. She disappeared back into the hall as the man approached John and took hold of his wheelchair.

“I’m sorry.” The man said as he grabbed the handle of John’s wheelchair. “If it were up to me we’d put you away somewhere in case we needed you. You know how it is, though. She’s the woman, so she makes the rules.”

The man started pushing the wheelchair out of the living room and into the hall. John’s anger turned into panic. He tried fruitlessly to make a sound, grab the man, protest in any way. It was all to no avail, despite his best efforts the man did not notice his pleas.

“No. Please.” John helplessly bargained softly to anyone who would listen. “Come into my home, take anything that you want, even stay here. Just leave me be, don’t put me in there. I don’t want to go into the dark. I won’t, I can’t. I want to stay.”

The man either could not see John’s panic or didn’t care. He had reached the end of the hall, his hand stretched over John to open the stairwell closet door.

“Ok, buddy, in you go. I hope Dana comes for you soon. You can’t stay here, but I hope that someday you find somewhere you can.” The man gently pushed John and the chair into the tiny stairwell closet. John barely fit in his old closet that he once used to keep old coats and empty liquor bottles in. The light reflecting off his tear-filled eyes was fully extinguished as the door shut on his silent anguish.

The stale stench of mothballs and mildew was the only sense that John had in the darkness. He would be completely numb had it not be for the white-hot rage that was pulsing through him. His anger never had the opportunity to subside as every time he heard the man and the woman’s muffled voices and footsteps either above or around him was another insult to injury.

Despite his rage, John knew that he was defeated. He sat in the darkness and thought that he might as well just wait to die. While he waited he wondered how these people just strolled in and flipped his already pathetic world upside down in a matter of minutes. He wondered why his own sister was the one who let them do it. But then again, she was never there before, she never had an interest in ever helping him before or after the accident, why would it be any different now? He cursed her name and bet to himself that she couldn’t wait for this to happen. He was fed-up and exhausted, he was ready to let go and leave. In that moment he would have, had he not heard the woman clearly over the sounds of moving furniture and busy footsteps.

“We will have to do some work on this place, especially on the windows and the foundation. Can you feel that? I get a wicked chill every now and then in the living room. If I can feel it that bad now imagine what it will be like in the winter? Amanda has been way fussier than usual too since we got here and I’m thinking that’s is probably why. We need to do some maintenance here, fast.”

John had heard enough. No one asked these people to come here, and they’re certainly not welcome. How can someone just walk into a place that’s not theirs, lock an incapacitated man in the closet, and start complaining that it’s not good enough for them? The audacity and the arrogance of it all made him sick. John made up his mind that he was not going to waste away in this closet to be thrown away and forgotten. He was going to get out and show these millennial dipshits that they aren’t entitled to everything. The only problem was figuring out how to do it.

He focused his eyes on his immediate surroundings. His movement was limited, but if he could find anything at all that could help him he might be able to pry the door open and at least find some help. He wished that he had the strength to get the couple out by himself. If he did then they would have been gone a long time ago. After a few feeble attempts, he was finally able to lift his arm up to feel around the walls and clutter in the closet. There appeared to be appeared to be only old coats and water-stained boxes within arms-reach. Nothing that could pry or even pick the door was open was there. He did not like it, but he knew what he had to do.

John’s shaky hands miraculously clasped the doorknob. Clasping both of his hands on the doorknob required all of his focus and surgical precision, keeping them there was even more difficult. He began to push and pull on the doorknob, rocking his body back and forth to gain momentum. John was going to go right through that door and he knew that he only had one chance to do it. Once he had all the momentum he could get John lunged at the door with all of his weight. Darkness turned to light and before he knew it he was lying prone on the floor of his hall. He didn’t hear the door slam open nor closed, he didn’t care. He was out and that was all that mattered.

He lifted his face off of the dark, tattered hardwood floor. A few feet from him were the man and the woman’s backs; the worst of it was who was speaking to them in front- Dana. John’s rage came right back at the sight of her, but he couldn’t deny feeling a sense of relief that someone would be here to help get these people out of his home and out of his life.

“Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Lavasseur. You are now officially homeowners.” Dana said as she shook their hands and pulled a set of keys out her pocket for each of them.

John was still not strong enough to lift himself off the floor; otherwise, he would have leapt at that moment and socked that bitch right in the cheek. On the other hand, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to lift himself off the floor. Why would she do this to him? John could understand that he was not the easiest person to be around, not the easiest person to love, but this is the coldest he had ever been treated. What did he do that made him deserve this? John felt the hot welling of tears gather in his eyes.

“Thanks, Dana,” said the man. “We’re excited to start a new chapter in our new home. We’re excited to bring love from the pain of the past. You’ve been so great this whole time to all three of us, especially with your circumstances.”

“Tyson- what about the thing?” The woman piped in.

“I’m right here. I am right here! Might as well just drag me out and throw me in the dumpster, you bastards.’ John said almost audibly to himself, the sadness and wrath in his eyes now piercing Dana.

“Right,” said the man. “We have something that I believe belongs to you, Dana. Did you want it back?” The couple turned around and faced John. John lifted his arms, preparing for the man to drag him, however, the man stepped right over him and opened the closet door. After a brief lift, the sounds clinking glass and a mild curse word the man withdrew the wheelchair from the closet and rolled it to Dana.

“John,” Dana whispered.

“Yeah. John. He’s right here on the floor in agony, you know? You don’t have the stones to even look at me but you’re all torn up about my wheelchair? This just keeps getting richer and richer.”

“If you want a moment, we can go for a coffee or a walk or something for a bit. I know that this all can’t be easy for you,” said the man.

“No, no. That’s alright,” assured Dana, despite the quivering of her voice. “You two are sweet, though. Little Amanda is going to turn out just fine with you as parents.” She forced a smile and pulled the chair to the front door.

Dana exhaled regretfully, “I do have to throw this away, though. I can’t hang on to it. I need to let go of everything in the past, and that includes my guilt. Can I tell you both something?”

“This is really fucking rich, now,” John mumbled, still on the floor.

“Of course,” the couple stammered almost in unison.

“After the accident, I helped John back home from the hospital. The doctors insisted that he stay, insisted that he needed medical supervision for at least another week. I… I was just so angry, but I still loved him.”

Loved me, huh?’ John thought, rolling his eyes.

Dana took a moment to compose herself and continued, “I thought he deserved to at least be in his own home, but he was so stubborn. So was I, he wasn’t ready to be home alone yet and I was just so damn mad, tired of arguing with him. I dropped him off here and decided to let him figure it out. I wasn’t mad at him for the accident, as awful as it was; I knew that was gonna happen eventually. I was mad that I told him over and over and over again that his drinking needed to stop, but he never listened to me.”

“Way to drag my name through the mud while I’m right here on the floor. You haven’t spoken a word to me yet.” John was starting to wonder why that was; a part of him wished that she would.

“I wish that I could speak to him again.” Dana was now fully in tears and struggling to talk through stifled sobs. “I was so busy being mad at him when I should have been there for him. I say that he was stubborn as if I were any better. I left him here in his condition; I turned my back on him then and for almost his entire life. He was dying his entire life, why didn’t I forgive him and stick by him? I just let him die, I don’t even remember the last time I told him that I love him.”

The couple and John were all totally motionless for the same yet different reasons. The man reached out and massaged Dana’s shoulder, he glanced at his wife with uncertainty and concern.

John closed his eyes and took a breath, not believing what he had just heard.

“No, no. This can’t be right. How can I be dead if I’m still here if I’m still in so much pain? This doesn’t make sense. It cannot be. The doctor fully expected me to see him again, he couldn’t be wrong.”

Dana and the man were now in an embrace, which was short-lived as the baby began to cry. In his rage, the cries gave John an awful idea.

“The baby… None of this was my fault, and you were never there for me, Dana; you said it yourself. I never chose death, neither will the child. You all brought this upon yourselves.’

John found new strength and resolve in his wretched idea. He rose from his stomach and on to his feet. A sense of pride overwhelmed him as the doctor said he would never do that again. Trudging and determined footsteps carried John to the stairwell, each one carrying blistering pain.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

Each heavy step assisted by a deathly pull on the handrail was heavier and more difficult than the last, the sound of his steps was deafening. Despite their noise, only the odd step captivated nothing but a split-second glance from the couple and Dana.

John made his way through the familiar yet surreal upstairs of his house. Shuffling as if a drunken stupor, he creaked open the first door on the right into the baby’s room. There she was, the baby. She was laying in her crib sleeping like an angel. She was at peace. John stared down at her, shivering in contempt.

He remembered how the last time he this it was an accident, not this time. He cupped his hands as if he was holding on to his anger and descended them towards the baby’s throat.

At that moment Amanda opened her eyes. Her eyes were sleepy and dazed at first, and then lit up at the sight of John. Her infectious giggle pierced the silence and John’s spirit. He stumbled back, never taking his eyes off of Amanda and hers from him. Her arms flailing and legs kicking erratically as she babbled and giggled, her bright smile welcoming John. He collapsed on the crib, his hands clutching the rail.

“No, I can’t do this again, not like this. This pain; I cannot pass it on to you, too. I will not. It is no way to go through life,” John paused for a moment and sighed. “And it is certainly not the way to accept death.”

John rose from the crib. Something had changed within him and within the world, and now he stood tall. Ironically, he never felt more alive. If only the doctor could see him now. He glanced back down at Amanda, and for the first time in perhaps an eternity, he smiled.

“Young lady, let me tell you: your life is a gift. You will only ever be given one and there are no refunds, returns, or in-store credit. Though that is the truth, I’m sure that you will hear that cliché line a few several hundred times throughout it. What people will be less comfortable telling you at graduations, weddings, and dinner parties is that the gift given to you is also merciless, cruel, and inexplicably unfair. You will see cheats go unnoticed, liars celebrated, and monsters harming the innocent with no justice. You will feel pain, suffering, failure, and heartbreak. I’d like nothing more than tell you some sap about how enduring it that is all worth it because you will find love, but that’s not the truth either. You might go through your whole life and never find love, or even worse, you might have more than you deserve but chose pride and anger instead.”

John paused; an overwhelming urge to leave overtook him. He remembered that his appointment with the doctor was soon.

“But, you can choose to be better, Amanda. Find the worth of the gift that you have. Never feel ashamed or bashful of what that worth means to you. If others do not see what it all means to you then to hell with them; it’s your gift, not theirs. That worth is what will someday save you, will let you endure. Life will do everything in its power to break you as it did me, be better than I was, Amanda. The gift will teach you to endure, and in that endurance, you will find strength.”

John smiled down at the baby and pulled her pink covers up to her chin, his hands flat and calm. He then put his hands in his pockets and walked soberly back to the staircase. He looked down at Dana, Tyson, and Jen, but did not look down upon them. He had so much to say to all three of them but no piece of his mind to give them. He slinked down the stairs and came to Dana, who was now in John’s precious living room sitting on his old couch. John stood behind her and rested his head on his sister’s shoulder, wrapping his arms around her. Unlike the closet door mere moments ago, he felt and saw every second of this. He did not want to go but knew that he had to, and he was ready.

“Goodbye, Dana. I have so much I regret in life and how I treated you. I regret that I held on to so much, both good and bad, including everything that I needed to say to you. I hope that I found a way to say it to you now.”

John kissed his lovely sister on the cheek and then stepped into the hall and towards the front door. He looked back and smiled at the newlyweds. He wanted to speak his peace with Tyson and Jen too but felt that this was their time, not his. It was time to leave them in peace.

Besides, he had an appointment with the doctor, and he was ready to go. He opened the door, stepped out into the summer light, leaving only ashes and dust swimming gracefully in the humid air.

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A schemer and a dreamer. I'm a #Métis author located in Saskatchewan who writes short stories, poetry, book reviews, and jokes.

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