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.       

  

 

 
      

Large Richard

The bartender gave me his most sorrowful look as I limped to the bar.

He already knew what I wanted but went through the motions, perhaps out of pity, to ask anyway.

“What’ll it be?”

“Two beers.”

“That’s one for you and one for your friend over there?”

“Yeah.”

My hands wrapped tightly around the brews and I trudged back to my booth. I tried to prolong the trip back to him as much as I could stretch it. I wish I could just walk out the door and go home.

“Got the suds?”

“Yeah.”

“Aw, yeah!”

Nearly three-quarters of Richard’s beer was gone in one greedy slurp.

“You’re welcome.”

“About time, man. I was dying over here.”

“How much longer do we have to stick around here for?”

“Until I feel like leaving. That gon’ be a problem?”

I stared at Richard. I stared right through his fat face and into his shriveled soul.

“No.”

“Good,” Richard laughed. “Try to lighten up, would you? You asked me to hang with you, not the other way around. You used to literally drag me here.”

Richard slurped the last of his beer and gave me a “friendly” slap on the back that knocked the wind out of me. He was a large man and becoming less aware of his strength as he continued to feed beers into gullet at my expense. God, I hate this dude.

“Hey, Rich. I think that I’m gonna go hit the dancefloor, see if we can maybe find some women to hang out with tonight for once.”

“You think you’re gonna find a skirt, do you? By all means, then, Casablanca.”

I opened my mouth to correct him but decided against it. What would be the point? I sauntered towards the dancefloor and boldly hung out on the outside of the crowded throng.

As I awkwardly picked the label off of my beer bottle and did my best to stay out of Richard’s sight I could have sworn that I had heard someone speaking to me.

“Hello? I’m speaking to you!”

I recoiled in both the amazement that someone was talking to me at a bar and that someone was the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen.

“Y-yeah?” I sputtered.

“Is that your friend over there? The big guy?”

Of course.

“I know him. Why?”

The instant that my sentence was over my face met a lukewarm and sticky assault. I could taste the lime and cranberry as her cosmopolitan dripped down my face and onto my shirt.

“If you or that pig ever comes near one of my friends again we are pressing charges. Last chance, perverts!”

She stormed off and I was left standing with a drink on my face, no money in my wallet, and alone in a room full of strangers. The only thing that I had was the lesson that I had learned: finding women at the bar scene does not work better if you have a Big Dick.

The Hunted

This night was not unlike any other at The Pig Head Tavern- loud, obnoxious, and no place for womenfolk. Tonight’s hunt had been a success and the men were celebrating and cooking their lot. The tavern was between the villages of Noird and Broek, and the villagers who had gathered there were warm with each other’s company in the wee hours of the night. With each passing minute and pouring beer, they seemed to have forgotten all about the petty rivalries that the villagers had carried with them for generations. The sounds of clinking glasses, laughter, and singing replaced the begrudged mumbling that a man would typically hear during an exchange of these villagers.

Amongst the camaraderie were also the Chela folk, farm men from the Southern Fields. By nature, they are more reserved than their more impulsive counterparts in Noird and in Broek. They were hard-working folk and did not like to speak. However, they did have a love of drinking beer and casting lots when the work was done. Tonight’s celebration was a chance for them to break from their harvest, and the usually recluse Chela men could be seen sharing stories and playing dice with the village men.

The iron stove was glowing hot and travelers from miles away could see the lights and sounds of the party through the light snowfall. The world within the tavern was a warm place. The world within one man at the tavern, however, was not. For the skulking figure seated at the bar, the world was a cold place. The Hunter had wished for nothing more than to brood, to be left alone with his thoughts as he withered away. The only thing he wished for more than that was revenge, but he was not even sure of that anymore.

The Hunter’s silent wishes to be left alone were rudely interrupted by an exaggerated pat on the back and laughter that reeked of booze. It had to be none other than Jacob Mann, a local rancher, a drinker, and a notorious welcher. Amongst his faults was loyalty, however. The townsfolk would say that even though he would drink all of your wine, he’d always be there to help you find more. The Hunter had kept predators from Jacob’s flocks in the past, and even though Jacob was late paying him most of the time he had always come through.

Jacob slid up to The Hunter at the bar and withdrew a small wooden pipe from his ragged coat.

“You got any of that Golden Import on you, brother?”

The Hunter replied with a disdained grunt.

“Fair enough,” said the rancher as he conjured a small leather pouch of tobacco and filled his pipe to the brim. After quickly packing it with a match he ignited the bowl and savored his first draw as his pipe bellowed strings of earthy haze.

“You still on about that Wolf, brother?”

The Hunter glared at the rancher, “Yes. I am still ‘on about’ that Wolf.”

Jacob was a small man, but never let the world intimidate him. The full wrath of The Hunter would make most men of the Noird rethink their next words, but not Jacob. He scratched his beard and drew another puff of his pipe, his bowl ablaze with char and smoke.

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, lad. You’re as mad as a werewolf about this whole business, and for what? So you can stew here, doin’ nothin’ all day and all night? When was the last time that you even went hunting, Mr. Huntsman?”

The Hunter was annoyed but knew that the rancher had a point.

“I am to depart tomorrow morning. It is time to hunt again.”

Jacob shook his head slowly and tapped his pipe, “I wish the best of luck to you then, brother. If you’re heading up the Mispons, be wary. I lost close to a dozen sheep there a few weeks ago to those sharp peaks.”

He stood up and gave The Hunter a reaffirming smile, he looked upon The Hunter as if he were saying goodbye to an old friend.

“Just remember, lad, I will be here to drink with you when you return. And it’s here you should be drinking with me and celebrating life with the boys, not out moping in the mountain tops over death.” He paused for a moment and put his hand on The Hunter’s shoulder both for reassurance and to regain his balance. His words would have been sagacious had it not been for the drunken hiccuping between every second of them.

“Going after that Wolf isn’t going to bring her back.”

After he had said his piece, the rancher jaunted to a nearby table to play cards and tell embellished stories of his fishing and romantic conquests. The Hunter withdrew his pipe and his Golden Import. He sat at the bar and thought as he smoked. Perhaps the rancher was right. Either way, The Wolf must die.

It was well before dawn when The Hunter arose from his straw bed in The Pig’s Head. After bathing and eating a small breakfast, The Hunter packed his horse with his provisions and his weapons. It was to be an enduring journey but his broadsword given to him by his father and his bow was all that he would need in the Mispons. His plan was to catch The Wolf in his slumber and slay the wretched creature in his sleep. He was a humble man but was given his name for a reason. If anybody could track down the animal and kill it, it was The Hunter.

He rode from the tavern towards the Northwestern Mispon Mountains. According to Wanderers and other huntsmen in the region, it was there that the Wolf had taken up residence in one of the high peaks. He had only come down from his slumber during the winter sporadically to raid cattle caravans or ragdoll hapless travelers. That was to soon come to an end, for The Hunter rode hard and rode fast. He rode through the howling winds of the prairies. He rode with conviction.

After a few days of relentless travel, The Hunter had made it to the HorseEye River just a few miles south of the Mispons. Plains had changed to ridges as him and his horse had changed from tireless warriors to weary campers. He pitched a tent on the Western coast of the HorseEye River where the Great Trade Route crosses the river. As night fell, the roaring of the river and the crackling of the fire put him at ease while he rested with his pipe.

He could not help but think of Mila, and how he had never taken her camping riverside at the mountains. How he was always too busy out on his hunts to make time for her. Being out here in the forest at the steps of the mountains with him would have made her so happy.

Although he was at rest, he was not completely on his laurels. The Hunter was always listening to the Earth and to the winds. Both were bringing a traveler and an ass, the sounds of clanking pans and crunching snow became progressively louder as the traveler approached the campsite. The Hunter had his broadsword cloaked, but was now grasping its hilt.

“State your business,” said The Hunter.

“I’m just passing through. On my way to Shyayn,” replied the traveler, “I saw your flame and thought that I would stop by to let you know that there is a fire ban in effect in the HorseEye District.”

“I do not see what concern that is to me, nor to you.”

The traveler had come to a complete stop at the foot of The Hunter’s camp.

“Well, for starters my boy, you are in HorseEye, you know? If The Riders caught wind of this then you will be subject to prosecution.”

The Hunter clutched his sword harder, “And how will they know?”

“I will put it to you this way. Put out that fire now or I will inform The Riders. They will find you and you will be penalized as they see fit.”

The traveler was now close enough to The Hunter that he could run him through in an instant. No one would ever know. He unclutched his sword and kept it hidden under his cloak.

“It’s getting late, be on your way, traveler. I will put this fire out posthaste. There is no need to get The Riders involved.”

“Thank you for understanding,” replied the traveler. “The Barrier Forest is drier than it has ever been. Not even the snow of the Mispons can protect it from even a single getting way out of hand.”

The Hunter gave the traveler a compliant nod and he was on his way. He disappeared into the darkness as the clanking of his wares became a distant whisper. The Hunter was disappointed that he could not have the warmth of his fire near his tent but knew that reports to The Riders would slow his mission. A man has to pick his battles, and this one was not worth fighting. He snuffed out the flames with a few handfuls of snow and settled in his tent for the night.

It had been a treacherous path up the mountains the next morning. Several hours and a little sleep had passed since The Hunter’s run-in with the traveler. The morning sun could only manage to get momentary peeks in between the thick fog rolling over the mountainside. The Hunter remained undeterred as he trudged through the snow. He had sent his horse home and was now relying on his mocassins to carry him the rest of the way. His sword on his back, his bow around his shoulder and a hunting knife and a lantern on his belt now being the only supplies that he was carrying.

While The Hunter walked he reviewed his plan to slay The Wolf. He knew that for the next few miles he must tread lightly, move slowly and stay low. The Wolf could hear and smell far better than any man could imagine. Legend has it that The Wolf could even ambush approaching prey in his sleep. The Hunter knew that he only has one shot to bring the beast down, and even in its slumber it would not be easy.

The fog was growing thicker but The Hunter pressed on. He could barely see past his feet, but that’s all he needed. Just below him was the first paw print. The Hunter crouched down to inspect the gaping holes in the snow. One print alone was enough to fit a child inside of, and The Hunter knew that many children and other innocent people had met their end under those paws. He followed the tracks diligently for about a mile on the treacherous peaks. With frost on his face and rage in his heart, he continued up the mountainside.

On the rocky cliffs of the Mispons, he had found what he had been looking for. It felt like he had been searching forever, and now that he found it he was not sure that he wanted to go inside. The Wolf’s cave was finally in his sight. It was a dark and curved entrance that almost looked like a twisted perversion of a smile. The Hunter could not help but think that The Wolf took some kind of twisted pleasure in that. The Hunter struck a match, lit up his lantern, and stepped inside.

The interior of the cave somehow seemed colder than the unforgiving peaks of the Mispons. The light of his lantern flickered as he stepped over the bloodstained stones and old bones that cluttered the cave’s floor. For many of his steps, The Hunter could only feel discarded ribcages and limbs under his moccasins. The stench was unbearable. The scents of wet fur, carcasses, and urine forcibly entered his nostrils. It only got worse as he pressed on through the catacombs.

The Hunter had noticed that the bones he was stepping on were parts of complete skeletons, many of them still wearing the clothes or armor that they died in. There was no sign of The Wolf caching gold or weapons, there was not a glimmer of silver to be seen in the caves. Judging by some of the positions that the deceased were in, it seemed that these poor souls died in the cavern. The Ravens had a love of human treasures and are known for stealing all that shines. The Wolf did not. The Wolf detests men above all else, he despises their treasures and their greed. His treasure was suffering. The Wolf would thrash men within an inch of their lives, and drag them to the caves to watch them die. He rarely showed mercy to women and children either, tearing their skin off alive and eating it in front of the men as a cruel way to inflict pain on them. To inflict the cruelty that The Wolf had seen men so easily give out. The wrath of The Wolf was insatiable. He carried it with him since he was just a cub and now knows no other way.

Even though his crimes against nature and The Hunter were unforgivable, The Hunter felt a small sense of pity for The Wolf. The Wolf had lost his way, but so had the men of late. Men were now more concerned with building treasuries and fueling industry than living with dignity and freedom, living as subservient hoarders instead of proud men in living off of nature. There was a time when men protected all on the Earth, and would proudly ride with Wolves for grand hunts and to deliver justice. The Hunter’s Fathers rode with Wolves. Perhaps, if they were in another time, The Hunter and The Wolf would have ridden together.

There was no time to reminisce about the Old Ages now. A flicker of his lantern revealed a large, hirsute mass sprawled across the cavern’s floor. Had it not been for The Hunter’s sharp eye he would not have seen it, for it was as black as night. The Hunter held his breath and quickly sought refuge behind one of the cave’s walls. He crept his head around the stone and focused his light on the creature carefully as not to wake it. He inspected the seemingly lifeless body and knew that this was his chance. This was what he was waiting for. He – well – he and Mila would finally get their revenge. He smothered his lantern and drew in the dank, frosty air through his nose. He stepped around the stone and began to stalk the beast. The hunter had become the hunted. Each step was taken with more caution than the last as he got closer to the sleeping giant. He stepped breathlessly to not crunch bone or kick pebbles. After the longest few yards that he had ever walked were done, he was at the neck of the wolf. It was dark as Hell, but he could see the fur and the curves of his body. The wolf had been in such a slumber that it appeared dead, not making a sound. This was it. The Hunter slowly withdrew his sword from its sheath. His cold hands wrapped around hard leather, the gleam of the blade shone even in the deepest pits of the cave. He lifted the hilt above his head and drove the blade through the fur and into the bone. The wolf did not respond. The Hunter took the opportunity and ran the wolf through several more times. His sword driving deeper and deeper with each strike. The Hunter left his sword in the wolf after piercing it deep as the hilt and dashed back, drawing his knife and readying himself for a fight.

A fight did not come.

“What in Ariel’s name?”

He grasped his sword and withdrew the blade from the fur. After a few seconds of silence, he relit his lantern. The carcass below him was certainly large enough to be The Wolf, and it looked strikingly like The Wolf. However, there was something incomplete about it, as if it were a sum of many parts rather than one body. The Hunter brushed his hand against the coarse fur and lowered it to the ground. The fur had a bottom as if it were a massive rug. The Hunter pulled from the bottom with a long stroke and flipped the rug over to the side, revealing the contents underneath. Laying under the fur were ten or eleven large sheep carcasses, arranged to appear as the bulk of The Wolf. The remainder of the rug was stitched together with another wolf skull, paws, and bear claws. These caves were ancient and powerful, a strong enough wielder could create illusions to convince even the savviest of hunters. The Hunter knew that he was in danger.

“Oh, fu-“.

Before he could finish his words, The Hunter felt the weight of one thousand knives enter his ribcage and his back. He released a bloodcurdling cry as he felt his body lift off the ground and move with impossible speed. It had taken him about ten minutes to get as deep into the Mispons as he was, and now he could see the light of the grinning entryway within a matter of seconds.

The frigid wind slapped him with impossible force as he felt his attacker fling his body weightlessly. He braced himself for a crash landing and hit the snow. The seeping crimson of The Hunter’s wounds was a stark contrast to the pure white blanket of the Mispons. His ears were ringing, but The Hunter could make out the sound of deep, guttural laughter. It had sounded like the Earth itself shaking, and it possibly was. The Hunter lifted his face out of the snow and then his whole body. There he stood in front of The Wolf.

“Well, if it isn’t the mighty hunter? Did you come to show the ‘Big, Bad Wolf’ the meaning of justice? You should have stayed in that rat’s nest near Noird, boy.”

The Hunter stood firm despite the searing pain in his ribs.

“Yeah, after this I will end up doing exactly that. But they needed a few ashtrays and a chamber pot. Thought I’d run up here for your paws and your skull to help them out.”

The Wolf bellowed his unholy laughter, “Is that right? For such a small fellow you do have courage, you do have that. Your words aren’t enough to cut me, Huntsman, and neither will those infantile blades. Men greater than you have tried to fell the Beast of the Mispons, and all have failed.”

To be fair, The Wolf towered over The Hunter. The Wolf stood twofold the size as one of the Grand Bisons of the Chela Plains. The Hunter could not see the entrance to the cave behind The Wolf as he swallowed the area with his massive stature. The Wolf began to circle The Hunter, preparing for an attack.

The Hunter grimaced and put his hand on the garments over his wound. His hand now covered in frozen blood.

“Enjoy this bloodshed, monster. It will be the last that you ever see.”

The Wolf lunged at The Hunter faster than lightning, the Hunter drew his bow and drove two arrows into The Wolf’s neck. The Wolf did not feel them and was instantly within striking range of The Hunter. He was close enough to The Hunter that he could smell The Wolf’s rancid breath, The Hunter evaded the beast’s jaws with a lateral dive. The Wolf snapped his neck back and caught The Hunter’s leg with his mighty jaws. Once again, The Hunter was flung into the snow.

The Wolf laughed so hard that he began to cough.

“You are no different than all of your men-kind. You mistake arrogance for conviction, greed for justice.”

The Hunter rolled to his back and slashed The Wolf across the face with his broadsword. The strike opened a gaping wound in the Beast of the Mispons’ face as he fell back and bellowed, but it also served to anger him. He bared his teeth and snapped them at The Hunter’s shoulder, lifting him off of the ground. The Hunter withdrew his knife and repeatedly stabbed The Wolf behind the ears and in the neck, as the teeth of The Wolf drove deeper into The Hunter’s shoulder. The knife was enough to subdue The Wolf after a dozen strikes and he relinquished. The Hunter had the upper hand for the first time and seized the opportunity, he drove his broadsword into The Wolf’s ribs. The Wolf cried as The Hunter continued to hack at the beast. Each strike gnashed fur, snow, and blood. For the first time since the Wolf was a cub, he was vulnerable. He retreated to the cliffside and laid across the rocky peaks. He was beaten.

The Hunter was breathing heavy and bleeding heavier. He looked down at the mighty creature, now a dying wretch. The Wolf seemed to enjoy watching his prey die, but The Hunter would not give him the satisfaction of partaking in the cruelty that he was expecting. The Hunter began his journey home to let The Wolf’s tyranny become a thing of the past.

But The Wolf had different plans, he smiled through his bloodstained teeth.

“That’s just like you to leave me here to die, Huntsman. You seemed to have no problem doing the same to that wife of yours. What was her name, again? Mila?”

The Hunter stopped dead in his tracks. The sound of her name coming from that degenerate’s mouth made his blood boil. He clenched his fists.

“Yes, that was it,” The Wolf continued, “Mila. Her last words were your name, you know? She begged you to save her. She cried in vain for something that was never strong enough to save her as I snapped her pathetic bones in half.”

The Wolf laughed as he sputtered blood onto the stones. The Hunter was shaking with rage, but The Wolf was as deceitful as he was cruel, The Hunter stood strong to ignore his taunts. He wanted to walk away, but his feet felt as if they were one thousand pounds.

“As a matter of fact, go into my cave before you leave. I left you her spine. She could never be protected with a spineless man, borrow hers so that you can try again with another harlot daughter of a drunkard.”

The Hunter screamed a warcry loud enough to be heard from the Nabi Desert. He pounced at The Wolf with his hunting knife in hand. The Wolf bore his final grin and in an anticipated swoop, he snapped his powerful jaws around The Hunter’s wrist and slid them both into the darkness below.

 

Forgive Me, Father

FORGIVE ME, FATHER

by Ben R. Charles

The two teenage boys shifted and stirred uncomfortably in the dated classroom chairs that they had found their asses in. Every slight movement caused the rusted metal legs and the cracked plastic seats to moan and creak. At the moment, every one of these minor infractions of the peace was louder than the last. The boys had been in trouble before, but never quite like this.
Across from them was seated Father Riley, a relatively new priest who had been with the church for a decade even though he was just passed the age of thirty. To Robert and Mitch, he might as well have been in his sixties. To be fair to the boys, he looked the part of a sexagenarian; his genetic lottery had blessed him with a prematurely receding hairline and a salt-n-pepper barrage of greys on the thick black hair that he had left. His stern expression added to his authority as he seemed to have stared into both of the boys’ eyes at once. The only distractions from his gaze in the small church office included the humming of the lights, that distinctive church-smell, and those damned creaky chairs. The fulcrum of the tension in the room was between the boys and the Father; it rested silently on the Father’s desk and was yet stuck out like a sore thumb. It also seemed to be the only thing in the room unaware of the tension, as Vida Guerra’s peppy, smiling face looked up at the church ceiling. Her dark, barely-clothed body was covered only by a black laced thong and her long, brunette hair cloaked the title Playboy.
The Father hummed and slid back into his chair, finding relief in the soft velvet of its lining. He removed his grain-farmer glasses to reveal his crows feet and his tired eyes. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger.
“Your parents have already been called and you’ve already been caught. There’s no point in lying anymore, boys. I’m only going to ask you this one more time: where did you find the magazine?”
“We already told you!” Robert said, his voice quivering from frustration. “It was laying there just behind the church by the crick. Me and Mitch go down there just to fu- mess around and we just found it under some tall grass. It’s the truth! Tell ‘em, Mitch!” Robert glanced over to his friend, his eyes begging for reassurance.
“Yeah,” Mitch said softly. “We was gonna throw it away, I promise. It wasn’t ours, we just picked it up. We knows we shouldn’t have, we wasn’t thinkin’.”
“No, you were not thinking,” Father Riley replied sharply. “What made you believe that reading this filth was acceptable? Did you boys listen to none of my sermons over the past year? Do you not care for your own sanctity? Have you no respect for yourselves?”
“Yes, Father, we do,” Robert replied. “We weren’t gonna keep it. We just wanted to show our friends and have a laugh. You know, we thought it would make us cool. And you gotta admit, she is pretty hot. You woulda picked it up, too. Whoever it belonged to had good taste.” He laughed nervously.
Robert’s explanation did not impress Fr. Riley. It seemed to have annoyed the exhausted priest even more. He leered at the boys. Robert slunk into his chair and began playing with the strings on his sweater.
Father Riley raised his eyebrows and lowered his voice. “You thought it would make you ‘cool’? Tell me, how? How would it make you ‘cool’, my son?” The Father knew that he had to maintain a stern composure, but he could not help himself from chuckling on the inside in anticipation of hearing the fourteen-year old’s explanation.
Robert bit his lip and cleared his throat to no avail, his voice cracked anyway.
“Well. It’s like- um- yeah, I guess it is kind of stupid. Forgive me, Father.”
“It is kind of stupid, and I know that you boys know better,” the Father replied calmly, partially disappointed in the safe response but relieved by it at the same time. “Now, go in peace. We will deal with this further with your parents next Sunday after mass. You two will be staying here all day to help Mrs. Kovach clean the church top-to-bottom. There’s a whole day’s worth of grass cutting and weeding that you will be doing, too. I will be speaking to the bishop about this,  and you better believe that we will find out where this smut came from.”
The boys moaned and sheepishly walked out of the priest’s office, leaving the door slightly open. Fr. Riley could hear the sounds of muffled footsteps and a shushed argument as the boys left the church.
Father Riley dipped his head into hands and ran his palms over his forehead. A pool of sweat gathered from his head and into the heels of his hands. He ritualistically wiped the moisture onto his lycra dress pants as he had done thousands of times since the church moved him from the East and into the dry prairie heat. The heat and his hectic schedule had made him more tired than he usually was. First of all, he had the bishop on his case about ordaining a new deacon. It would not be such a difficult job if the bishop wasn’t such an arrogant, self-serving prick- not that Riley would ever say that out loud. Secondly, Riley had two funerals, a wedding, three confirmations and a baptism booked in this week alone. Every priest expects summertime to be busy but this had just been absurd, especially for a small Saskatchewan town. Riley had much bigger fish to fry than dealing with a couple of kids who had found a magazine in the bushes. Is looking at a few dirty pictures really that bad, anyway? It’s natural for kids that age to start getting curious about that kind of thing. Big deal.
Fr. Riley sighed, and then stood up into a long stretch. He walked over to his office window, he had always enjoyed the birch and the oaks that surrounded the church and crept into the crick, and the way that the birds would sing outside of his window. Even the bishop, as much of a hard case as he is, loved the beauty of the trees at this church and would often go out for hiking and prayer excursions in the small forest nearly every time he visited. Fr. Riley took a moment to soak in the heat of the afternoon and the chattering of the sparrows. He took in a few deep breaths and he smiled.
Upon regaining his tranquility, the priest knew that he was thinking rashly. It was true that, yes, it is natural for boys to become curious. However, the word of God and a mature perspective are necessary to guide these young minds away from the seduction of pornography and into healthy relationships with their partners and families. To normalize pornography and to cheapen love at such a young age is harmful, dangerous even, for a young mind. Too many times the Father had seen good men fall victim to pursuing lust and too many times had he seen those men lead empty, lonely, and hollow lives. The men of tomorrow need guidance to lead richer lives. If that cannot be provided by a man of God, than by whom?
The sunshine parted through the clouds and into the Father’s office. He became blinded by the bright rays and turned himself to escape the irritation. He shifted his gaze away from the sun, down to his desk, and straight to Vida. Her radiant, brown eyes stared right back at him, and her luscious hair draped over her bare back. She may have been just a model on a magazine cover, but she might as well have been right in the room with him, whispering in his ear. The room became quieter than it was just a few moments ago before he began lecturing the boys. Fr. Riley reminded himself that his next meeting was not to start for another two hours, and he had no expected visitors today. He began to think that maybe he should see for himself what it was that he was giving the boys so much trouble over. It might be best to know his enemy if he wants to continue preaching the word of God in the future, after all. The young priest had successfully kept his vow of both poverty and celibacy for over a decade. Surely taking a quick peek at a magazine wouldn’t hurt, right?
The priest sighed and slid into his chair, caressing the wooden armrests and listening intently to anything that could break the silence in the church before he fully relaxed. Once he was convinced the coast was clear he placed his outstretched palm over Vida’s face and pulled the glossy magazine across his desk and into his hands. He slowly picked the magazine up and examined the covers it carefully, as if expecting it to trigger an alarm. He revealed the back cover to himself, which was nothing more than an advertisement featuring an ecstatic golfer, his female caddy, empty promises of male enhancement in a pill, and some bad puns about “club sizes” and “making a hole in one”. He flipped the magazine back into the reading position, cradling the smut under his desk and on his right arm as if holding Vida, herself. He licked his left thumb and began leafing through the slightly soiled pages.
While glancing through the first few pages the priest had thought to himself how easy it would be for someone to mistake this for a lifestyle magazine. There appeared to be nothing except for advertisements for luxury cars and watches, fitness advice, and even some surprisingly well-written editorials. This would not last long, as the priest had found what he was secretly hoping for. Right there in the center of the magazine and now permanently embedded into the holy man’s mind was Vida’s centerfold. Fr. Riley couldn’t remember the last time he had seen something like this or felt something like this. It felt so aggressively wrong, he knew that he had to stop now and put the magazine away. He knew that, but he was powerless to stop staring at Vida’s completely nude body, her dark curves contorting and contrasting over ivory satin sheets. His mouth hung open and his fingers gently traced over the silhouette of the woman. He thought of his high school crush, Becky Wilson, for some strange reason. He felt a flush of ecstasy invade his Garden of Eden; he began adjusting his robes over his lap to hide his rising Moses and the parting of the seams.
“Those robes can be quite an itch to scratch in the summer, can they not, young Father Riley?” A hoarse voice rattled from above.
“Jesu- Jiminy Cricket!” Riley exclaimed as he almost fell completely backward in his chair. “The Most Reverend Joseph Bolen, I was not expecting you for another few hours! Please, have a seat.”
The young priest hurriedly folded his robes back to his sides and placed the magazine face down on the desk.
The old classroom chair released a metallic moan as the bishop lowered his ancient frame into the seat. The bishop crossed his legs much closer together than any man Riley had ever seen, it was almost impressive. The Father was tempted to make a comment on the bishop’s flexibility to break the tension but thought that it was probably for the best not to, considering the circumstances.
The bishop glared knives at Father Riley for what felt like an eternity. He began to question if he had actually died and that this was all some sort of sick Purgatory punishment.
Finally, the bishop spoke. “That is an interesting choice of reading material for a man of the cloth, wouldn’t you agree, young Father Riley?”
The priest immediately lifted his palms towards the bishop and pumped the air twice, as if pushing away the old man’s implications.
“Whoa, whoa. Ok. This is not what it looks like!” Father Riley exclaimed. “Two boys from my parish had found this down behind the church in the trees, I had actually just sent them home. I will be discussing this with their parents and punishing them in a few days. I had just decided to take a brief look at it to see what I am up against. Nothing more, I swear.”
Father Riley had started to sweat heavily, the beads now pouring down his neck and soaking his shirt. Bishop Bolen is not a forgiving man, he had caught Riley red-handed, and he has fired priests for far less. Riley gulped; he knew that this may very well be the end of his priesthood. The magazine advertisement’s dopey grin of Smilin’ John and his ridiculous golf outfit would be the last thing Riley would see as a man of God, he thought to himself.
“What do you take me for, young Father Riley, a fool?” The bishop asked through his teeth. “Do you see me as the blind man from John, 9:1-12?” The bishop became more irate with every word.
Father Riley kept his palms in the air and said, “no, it’s just- I…”
“Shut up,” the bishop snarled. “Close that fly-catcher of yours before you embarrass yourself and The Lord any more. How dare you even think about practicing such a shameful act in The House of The Lord? Have you no shame, young Father Riley, have you no respect?” The saliva and vitriol from the bishop’s mouth were now spraying Riley’s face.
“I do- if you’d just listen…”
“You’re suspended- for three months- without pay. This will be placed on your permanent record, as well. I am being more than merciful, more than fair; I should fire you right now. It’s not like you care about being a priest, anyway.”
Father Riley lowered his face into his hands; he fought back the hot tears welling up in his eyes. This was not right; he had been a devoted priest for ten years. He did care. The bishop had just happened to catch him at the worst possible moment.
As if it were not enough injury the bishop began to berate him some more. “Only you would think that indulging in such perverted acts was even close to acceptable here,” the old man sneered. “It’s bad enough that you brought this… this, harlot into our church, one who does not even have enough dignity than to cover herself with more than a black shoestring.”
Father Riley’s head snapped back up from his hands and his eyes pierced the bishop, no longer sad and defeated, but rather inquisitive and sharp. They flitted down for Riley to see Smilin’ John and his male enhancement advertisement. The magazine was face down.
“What did you just say?” He asked.
“N-nothing!” The bishop stammered. “It hardly matters, you are to be suspended effective immediately. Take your things and get out of my sight. Leave this filth here to be disposed of by a real man of God.”
The priest stood and began to collect his books and knick-knacks from the office. He knew exactly what was going on. He never understood why the bishop needed the hikes and the solitary prayers down by the crick; no other priest, let alone a bishop ever did that. It was all starting to make sense. He collected his items in an office box, taking his time as he lumbered towards the door. He turned to the bishop one last time.
“So, you want me to leave your magazine here, then?”
“Yes.”
The bishop immediately recoiled at what he had just said. He stuttered and bellowed every excuse on God’s green earth. His face became the most violent shade of red that Riley had ever seen. The bishop ceased his fit, he knew that resistance was fruitless. He lowered his head and raised his eyes to Riley’s unconvinced expression.
“No one needs to know about this,” The bishop whispered sheepishly. “Your suspension is lifted, and this little incident will not go on your record. Please, forgive me, Father. Is there anything that I can do to make this right, to make sure that this stays between us?”
Father Riley lowered his box to the ground and smiled.
“You know what? There is. Mrs. Kovach is going to need some help all day next Sunday to give our church a much-needed cleaning and grass cutting. We got weeds growing all around this old building that needs pluckin’, too. And I think that you’re just the right man for the job.”

 

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.

The Life of An Adult-Baby Daddy

I took the last drag of my cigarette and slowly exhaled the cancerous, delicious tar. The poisonous mist danced gracefully away and disappeared into the hot summer air. My eyes gazed up towards the streetlights and stars wistfully. I wanted to light another one to prolong the peace of the summer night and the beautiful sky. I knew deep down that I had to go back inside.

That I had to go back inside to her.

I creaked the door and entered my house slowly, with the caution of an experienced burglar. I slunk over to fridge to grab a Miller High Life and plopped down on the couch to crack it open, pulling the tab ever-so-delicately as to make as little noise as possible. A pop and a small hiss escaped the cylinder. After the break in the failed to alert any attention, I turned on the hockey game and watched mindlessly. It’s all I wanted to do after my 10-hour shift. I needed this. Maybe tonight I could finally get some normality. That’s when I heard bare feet pattering towards me on the hardwood floor.

“Honey, we need to talk.”

Maybe not.

“Okay, what is it?” I asked.

I didn’t need to ask, I knew exactly what was coming. I knew I had to choose my words carefully. I knew that my life will never know peace.

“I’ve had a rough day today, and my anxiety is really bad. I’m going to revert tonight. Once it happens I’ll need a diapy change.”

The word “diapy” pierced the core of my soul.

“Alright, well, look, this is a playoff game. The Jets haven’t been this close to the Cup in a long time and there’s only 10 minutes left in the third period. Just let me watch it and-”

“No!” She shrieked. “Baby need diapy change and stowy-time now!”

I sighed deeply, but not loud enough for her to hear, and turned off the TV. I held her hand and walked her to our bedroom. I sleep in a bedroom with over 200 stuffed animals.

As I placed a pacifier into an adult woman’s mouth I thought back to when Melissa and I had first met at a La Dispute show in 2015. We hung out that night after the show and partied until dawn. She even told me she was into some weird roleplaying stuff when we had breakfast together the following morning. I just assumed that she meant she liked to pretend she was a school teacher, or a cop or something during sex. I never imagined it would be anything like this. She was cute, fun, and seemingly cool when I met her. I was a young, desperate fool who just had to have a girlfriend. I was too desperate and too impatient. Now here I am, reading “Green Eggs and Ham” to a 22-year-old with a septum piercing, a pacifier, and sparrow tattoos.

 

My life is a cruel joke. I drive to work and back every day in complete silence. No radio, no podcasts. Nothing. I do it because it’s the only solitude I get in a day and I cherish it dearly. My friends belittle me mercilessly, family does not take me seriously. I must adhere to all of her rules and follow Melissa’s vegan diet, I haven’t had friends over for a BBQ or even grilled a steak in years, I’m not even sure I can anymore. I’m not sure I can do any of this anymore.

I snapped out of my cruel past and back into my cruel present. I had to get Melissa ready for her “beddy-time”. I carefully played my part in her routine of singing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” to her, putting on her jammies, and tucking her into her crib. The crib that I had spent my Christmas bonus on last year.

“I wuv you, daddy.” She said in her faux sleepy voice as she nestled her nose into my chest. It’s a good thing I had died inside long ago, or else that would have sent me into the brink of insanity.

“I- I wuv you too.”

I sat back down on the sofa after Melissa’s “beddy-time” was over. I downed my Miller in one thirsty swallow and immediately cracked another. In total tranquillity and darkness, I stayed, staring into the void. The late-night infomercial salesmen were far more comforting than they could ever know. I had thought that I could finally be free for the night. Melissa’s piercing cry molested the moment over the baby monitor. I thought about setting myself free forever. But instead, I finished my beer in one efficient, numb-seeking slurp. It’s time to be “Daddy” again.

My mother always wanted me to have a baby, and now I do. Do not live like me, for I am dead.

 

The Hunt for Phil Begins

“You know the Council of Nine isn’t going to go for this, right?” Mr. Claus had mumbled with apathetic caution. He drew a hot cherry of his wooden pipe, the rich tobacco adding a fitting haze to his humid, humble Havana office. The sweet stench of heat, wood and rum still overpowered the smoke.

“My balls are already in a vice with them as it is. It doesn’t help that my work overshadows the bosses’ birthday. That puts me on thin ice already, you know. Now you’re here to put this shit on me? I don’t need this.”

I stared through his steel grey eyes. They had a cold quality; as if they had seen countless lifetimes. Maybe they had. I wasn’t sure. All I knew was I actually was quite fond of this man, but I was desperate. My despair formed rage and it slammed my fist on the thick wood of his desk. It hurt like a motherfucker.

“Now you listen to me- you fat, sorry excuse for a demigod! I don’t give a hot, sweet fuck with Eleanor goddamn Roosevelt that you got issues with the Council of Nine. We all do- they’re dicks. That does not change the fact that one of your miniature servants is out there, making life Hell for me and all mankind! Will you do nothing? Or fight, like a man!?”

Mr. Claus drew again from his oak pipe. His face was cherry red; the sweat from the heat and the anger now almost a vapour. His eyes pierced my soul, smoke now smouldering from his nose. Despite his anger, he knew that I was right. He sighed remorsefully.

“I created all of the Elves with powerful magic borrowed from the Council. I don’t even fully understand it. Phil is no exception. His lust for power and weaponry grow; malevolence in his tiny black heart. The Council isn’t going to like it, but it is true, my creation and my mistake must be destroyed. It is of the Fallen.”

The silence was deafening. I rose from my leather chair with the pace of a Redwood tree’s growth. I picked up a burlap bag from from his floor and a hammer from his workbench. We gave an unspoken nod of agreement as I walked out into the blistering Caribbean heat. We both knew what must be done.

You can’t ask Snap, Crackle or Pop how damn good I am at my job, because I did it well on them. Oprah Winfrey, your TV career, nor a fake doctorate can save you, I’m comin’ for you Phil. Cash me outside.