Book Review – Corridor Nine: A Novel

“Corridor Nine: A Novel”
by Sophie Stocking
Published by Thistledown Press
Reviewed by Ben Charles
ISBN: 9781771871815

“Corridor Nine: A Novel”, written by Sophie Stocking and published by Thistledown Press is an exceptional novel that expertly encapsulates the extremes of soul-crushing emotions and outlandish behaviour in a way that is very accurate to the human experience. Even though this novel could be read within a weekend, it packs wallop. At under 200 pages this novel makes no room for literary fluff, every word is a thread that weaves into a beautiful and fantastical yet tender and tragic story of life and loss.

The story follows Bernadette Macomber, who thought that she had all but completely cut ties with her troubled father, Fabian, to begin again and start a family of her own. In the wake of Fabian’s sudden suicide, Bernadette finds herself returning home. All is not over for Fabian, however, as he finds himself in a completely foreign afterlife named Corridor Nine and in the company of an angel/griffin-figure named Bune. As Fabian transverses life-after-life, Bernadette or “Bernie”, is left in the mundane to seek the source of her father’s recent insanity. As the twin narratives consecutively play out, they also intertwine to result in the closure that both Bernie and Fabian so desperately seek.

As mentioned, this novel is a relatively short read but a truly delightfully one. Those with an inkling towards supernatural series will have a seriously good time tearing through this novel while also enjoying more mature tones, narratives, and characters than something like the Harry Potter or Twilight series would have to offer. That is not to say that young readers could not enjoy this novel, either. There is a certain exuberance to this novel that exudes from all its aspects, from the mystery of Corridor Nine and this universes’ afterlife, the fantastical qualities and characteristics of Bune, to the bizarre remnants of Fabian that he left behind. There were very few parts of the novel that it was not apparent that this story was truly a passion project of Stocking’s and it was story that she had been burning to tell. In fact, the cover painting of the novel, also rich and vibrant, is a work of Stocking’s as well. While it is not the most unusual thing in the world to see authors create their own covers, it is rarely executed so well and is honestly a breath of fresh air.

In conclusion, this is a delightfully read for nearly all ages. It perfectly blends the relatable themes of loss, guilt, and conflicting feelings about loved ones with the imagination of the supernatural. This far exceeds the quality that one would expect from a debut novel and I am excited to see how Stocking’s career flourishes as a great Canadian author.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

Arrangements

I was 26 years old when the hospital called and told me that my father had finally drunk himself to death. They worded it as a “liver cirrhosis-related rupture” but I knew that it meant the same shit. They had told me that he is still alive but does not have much longer. They asked if I wanted to come in to say goodbye to him before he goes. I said no and hung up my phone.
My father’s routine was the same from the time that I was a child up until his hospitalization, and by extension, his death. He was a heavy equipment operator by trade but had trouble keeping consistent employment as he was pissed drunk most of the time. This fact was never apparent to him, however. He would come home from a shift of running back-ho and plop himself straight onto his battered recliner. After downing a pint and half of Alberta Premium, he would preach his tirades to me, or to anyone within an earshot, about how the immigrants, the faggots, and the Liberals were leeching off of the hard-working man to “go-on and live their lavish lifestyles off of his back!” The man never did have much self-awareness. When he wasn’t sitting on his ass choking down cheap whiskey and Players cigarettes, he kept himself busy by either sneaking off to the bar or slapping my mom around. He never did know that when I was 15 years old I started a job as a night janitor at my high school to help Mom keep up with the bills and the mortgage. I wasn’t given the job legally. It was given to me out of charity, or pity, depending on your point of view. I still thank Mr. Krasinski to this day for setting that up. I was paid under the table to work four three-hour shifts every weeknight aside from Friday and one four-hour shift on Sunday nights. As far as the Canadian Revenue Agency was concerned, my wages were filed under Welding Education Supplies: Miscellaneous. I saved what I could to free myself at 18 but I gave the most of the money I earned to Mom. We had a silent understanding that dad could never know.
I remember the Easter of 1998. After two years of working under Mr. Krasinski, he awarded me with an extra $50 one March Friday night. He expected me to get some beer or maybe take a girl out. Neither of those interested me – instead, I bought my mom a large bouquet of daffodils. They were her favourite flowers and she especially loved having them around at Easter time. I spent the remainder of the money on a tin of Skoal for myself and a bottle of Mr. Clean for the house. The flowers were only perched on the kitchen table for about ten hours. After a drunken squabble based on one of my father’s paranoid delusions that mom was cheating on him, he smacked the vase and flowers on to the floor. I’ve watched the man beat my mother’s face to the point of unrecognizable with his bare hands, I’ve seen my mother struggle to walk for two weeks due to the bruises that he left on her legs with his belt. But never did I see her cry as hard as she did on that day.
My father died the same way that he lived – bloated, miserable, and in the absence of a son that never loved him. When I did arrive at the hospital, the nurse informed me that he hung on for ten hours in the palliative care wing before passing away. I had a hard time suppressing a smile knowing that the son of bitch spent his final hours suffering and alone. 
“So, what now?” 
“Well, now you need to make your arrangements. Did you and your dad have a conversation about his wishes after his death?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Good. You know that we legally can’t keep him here for more than twelve hours, right? He will be moved to the hospital morgue for tonight and then to Zens’ Funeral Services first thing tomorrow morning. Will you be okay to continue this process with them? Do you need any time?” The nurse mumbled as she smacked her gum under the buzzing fluorescent lights. Her coffee breath fiercely overpowered the piece of Excel that she started chewing three hours ago.
“No, I’m fine.”
“Alright, hun. Go home. The death certificate and his cremation request have been faxed to them, you can pick him up next week to continue with your arrangements. I’m sorry for your loss.”
Before I could respond, the nurse readjusted her frizzy, red ponytail and marched away from me with as much conviction as someone wearing white
New Balance runners could muster. If I were in the hospital for anyone else, I would have been pissed at how fast I was being pushed out. Instead, I laughed to myself as the nurse stormed off around the corner.
   

When I turned the ignition on my 2003 Honda Civic the next week it barely started. Despite its alternator problems and the fact that I drove across town with the gas-light on, I made it to Zens’. The place was dreadfully drab, even by funeral parlor standards. As I walked in, I was assaulted by the stale stench of formaldehyde and that unmistakable “church-smell.” I walked to the front desk to be met by an overweight woman who was visibly annoyed by my presence. Her eyes were glued to her computer screen and she mindlessly tended to her nails. Her perfume was overwhelming. I think her technique was if she ignored me for long enough that I would go away.
“Excuse me.”
She released an exasperated sigh, “What?”  
“‘What?’ I’m here to pick up my father’s remains and that is all that you have to say to me, ‘what’? Is Mr. Zens here so that I could speak with him?
“Rob’s busy,” the impatient woman snapped, “but if you want to start talking to me politely then maybe I could help you out. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, sugar.”
I was ready to throttle this bitch, but I was more ready to leave this place and all of this behind me. I decided to pick my battles and took a deep breath.
“I am searching for Darren White, Mr. Darren Lee White. He would have been moved from the hospital to here last week. I was told to pick him up at this location. Further arrangments will not be necessary, that has all been taken care of.”
“Lemme take a look for you, gimme a couple minutes. This old computer takes forever to do anything.”
After a few minutes of apathetically searching her files and making various breathy noises, the receptionist had found the file.
“Here he is, Mr. White. Brought in last week and has been cremated. Are you sure that you have your arrangements made? Aside from the cremation request made by him a few weeks ago, there is nothing on his file about funeral arrangements.
“Yes, it has been taken care of. My dad always was a private man, it is no surprise to me that he requested the details on his death be kept close to the chest, too.”
The receptionist gave me a skeptical look but could not be bothered to put in the effort of questioning me. Instead, she lazily mumbled that Robert Zens’ office is through the hall and the second door to the left. I will be able to speak with him when he is ready and will get my father’s remains then.
“Thank you,” I said as I headed towards the hall.
“Yeah.”
Mr. Zens’ office was in a sad state of affairs. The cramped corner office had stacked documents and files scattered everywhere, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the chaos. The desk was littered with newspapers, empty Diet Pepsi cans, and envelopes with PAST DUE stamps on them. One single 60W lightbulb hung over the office and even that was on its last legs. The only positive within the depressing office was a picture of what I had to assume to be Mr. Zens standing with two young girls, probably around ages eight to ten. A tired, middle-aged man wearing an ill-fitting suit entered the office. I extended to shake his hand and he obliged.
“Mr. White, I presume? Thank you for coming in to meet with me.”
“Please, just call me Marcus.”
“Fair enough, Marcus. Your father’s ashes are ready for pick-up. All you need to do is sign a few release forms and you can be on your way. Your father made arrangements with me to be cremated but there’s no indication of any sort of arrangements after that. If I may pry, which church will you be hosting the services at? I can recommend you some good ones in town, depending on your denomination, of course.”
“We’ve made our arrangements. With all due respect, Mr. Zens, this process will be kept between my father and I. Just know that he will get the proper burial that he deserves.”
“Fair enough. Please sign these release forms and you’ll be on your way.” Mr. Zens extracted two forms from the mountain of papers like magic. There was no way in Hell that anyone but him would know where those papers were. As I signed the surprisingly pristine documents he sifted through a series of black boxes in the corner, muttering to himself.
“Ackerman, Rhyhorski, Li, Scott, McCarthy, Verne… ah, here we go, White.”
He hoisted the box onto the desk. It was about the size of a household printer and completely black. The only defining features on the box were the latch to open it and the label on the top, “White, Darren Lee.”
“We’re all set, Marcus. Is there anything else can that we can do for you? Would you like some help carrying this out to your car? Don’t let the fact that its ash fool you, these boxes are heavy.”
“I’ll be fine, thanks.”
“In that case, thank you for choosing Zens’ Funeral Services for taking care of you. I am sorry for your loss.”
“Somebody’s gotta be.” I lifted the box out of the building and into my car.
I drove around with my father in the backseat for a couple of hours, only stopping for gas and a drink at McGee’s, the shitty dive bar that my dad spent most of his time at while he was on this side of the grass. After reaching the end of the second hour, I had found my father’s final resting place. It was on the outskirts of town at a Husky truck stop. I pulled up behind the building, away from the prying eyes of underpaid employees and overtired truckers. I turned my car off and pulled the box containing my father out.
“Well, Dad, someone should probably say a few words. But that person ain’t gonna be me, that’s for fuckin’ sure.”
I peeled the name that he gave to me off of the box, lifted the lid of the dumpster up and slid the box inside. As I drove back home my only regret was that there was a lot of other shit in my car that I should have thrown out while I was there.       

  

 

 
      

Au Revoir à Rien

Sometimes I wonder what’s in the dark.

Sometimes I wonder what lurks behind closed eyes.

Does the world end with a nap?
Or does the soul emerge from the mortal cocoon,
shedding the drudgery, the prejudice, the shackles of our pathetic past?

What was I supposed to do here?
I’ve been told that I need to find my Dad.
I called out for him, he went out for a jug of milk.
So I shrug and I sulk.
What’s the purpose of finding a purpose? I’d be dead lyin’ if I didn’t say that my deadline happening at any moment makes me feel alive.
Bless my poor little heart and the stress that I put it through
Earth returns to earth.
My hot blood spurts a scorching statement, it spits in the face of chance.

Fuck you and your comfort.
I’d rather be full of piss and vinegar
than full of regret.
Fuck me and my polite reserves
this is my life, it belongs to me.
I’d rather ruffle some feathers
than be a bird in a cage.

Stay on guard
Stay pissed off.
Smile in the face of anxiety
We chose half-truths and easy answers
over hard decisions
over rethinking our biases.

We chose of life of being
Docile, infertile.
Medicated, sedated.
tame, lame.
simple, limp.
Formulaic, archaic.

 

Choose life.

 

I’ll Carry You

When you can’t feel your hands,
when you can’t weather the storm.
I’ll Carry You,
back into familiar lands,
back into the warmth.

When your legs tremble,
when you cannot stand on your own
I’ll Carry You
until your strength assembles
and your name the world fears
and your name the world knows.

Yes, I’ll Carry You
when you’re yellow, when you’re green and when you’re blue.
When you’re healthy, when you’re sick,
when you’re ornery, when you’re ticked,
I’ll Still Carry You,
It starts with an “I Do”.

But much like my gold,
I’ll get spent, I’ll grow old.
I’ll Carry You
with a broken back, one knee
and a smiling face.
Like Depends, my bladder might be a maybe
I’ll Still Carry You

Much like this song,
soon I’ll be gone.
I’ll Still Carry You
when I’m laid to rest,
do not fear, do not fret.
I’ll Carry You
through our daughters and our sons
in my arms, in your love.

I’ll sit with St. Pete,
He’ll lean into me.
He’ll ask, “how did you get through life?”
I’ll say, “If I can bum a smoke and light,
I’ll tell you it’s alright.
You know what? It was kinda easy.
Because I had a great woman,

who carried me.

Soapbox Stories Presents: Beyond Shattered Dreams: A Journey Through Grief to Self-Empowerment – A Book Review

“Beyond Shattered Dreams: A Journey Through Grief to Self-Empowerment”
by Gaylene Guillemin
Published by Gaylene Guillemin
Reviewed by Ben Charles
C$16.99 ISBN: 9781775220404

“Beyond Shattered Dreams: A Journey Through Grief to Self-Empowerment”, written and published by Gaylene Guillemin can be best described as a powerful and tender guide through the inescapable sorrows of the human condition that are grief and loss. Guillemin has a wide variety of expertise in the field of loss as a motivational speaker, an angel card reader and from formal education with a certificate in Death and Grief Studies. However, it is not from her studies or her energy work that Guillemin draws from to speak on her experiences with loss but from the tragic loss of her late husband in 2014, Mervin Guillemin, whom she affectionately refers to as “Merv”.

The book begins as Gaylene discusses her relationship with Merv. She had been married to him for twenty-two years and from her descriptions of their family and life together the reader can easily see the deep level of love that she still has for him. Gaylene goes on to discuss Merv’s declining health, and the challenges that losing mobility, being in and out of hospitals constantly, and the potential of organ transplantation bring to a family. Through Guillemin’s beautiful, poetic, and vivid writing the reader is truly brought to her world to see the good times and the bad. The reader gets to experience what an honourable, loving, caring and kind man that Merv was and how much he meant to those around him. After the passing of Merv, Guillemin describes her experiences with themes such as accepting loss, allowing grief, finding identity, and facing new days with optimism and hope.

The subject matter of this book is certainly a heavy one and I would recommend that a reader eases into it with an open mind and the discretion to read at their own pace. The start of the book will resonate with anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one or is currently experiencing a loved one’s declining health. That being said, I truly believe that there is a plethora of wisdom and insightfulness that will help a person through these issues, even if they are hesitant to experience the emotional weight of it at first.

Death is not an easy thing to even think about, let alone talk about and write about. I applaud Guillemin for her bravery and her transparent selflessness that is this book. When life brings tragedy, it is far too easy to become embittered by it, blaming the world for your sorrow. Guillemin instead chooses the altruistic option of helping people that are going through similar tragedy that she has gone through. It seemed fitting to me that I began this book in tears and closed it with a smile.            

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

The Squatters

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.