Click here for Chapter 1: The Gas ‘n’ Gulp
My day began like any other. I woke up and turned on the percolator in the kitchen before taking a hot shower. That way the pot would be ready by the time I was dressed. Once I was dressed I would usually spend around seven and a half minutes, give or take, deciding what to eat for breakfast. A futile task, as I always settle for eggs. Creatures of habit, we are, I suppose. It was Wednesday. I always visit mother on a Wednesday, which is an obligation I carry with pride, love and duty. Duty and reluctance. Don’t get me wrong, I love mother very much. She raised me well. She prepared me for the horrors of life and gave me all the opportunity a man could desire in his upbringing. It would be dishonest of me to claim I have not failed her and her expectations. Even on her deathbed she finds the words to tell me I’m living wrong. That I’m a failure. That I’ve squandered my talent. But, you see, things are just so difficult. Everything seems easy for people. People who are not me, that is. I don’t know why I find everything so difficult. I just do. To this day, I am the only kid to have been held back for two consecutive years at Ravenholme High. The third year I was probably only passed out of pity. I don’t deserve my Highschool Diploma. I didn’t earn it. This town just couldn’t bear to see me fail anymore. The rest of Highschool were the most confusing years of my life. I passed tests without understanding what was in them and I can’t even remember how to write an essay. I’m not even sure I ever did know. So many words in one place messes with how my brain works. I can’t really explain it better than that; if you put too many words on a page I just can’t figure it out. Sure, I can try, but gosh darn is it hard. I’ve never finished a book. Not even a short one. Sometimes I wonder how many people there are in the world who haven’t read books. I often think about other people while I’m in the shower. Like how many people have overbearing mothers. How many people still drink percolated coffee?
The air hung thick on that day. It was like a fog, only not. Maybe a mist? I’m not really too sure. I was only sure that it had a definite weight to it, as if the weight of the world was being laid upon the shoulders of man. At least, the shoulders of Ravenholme. As I sipped a mouthful of coffee and stared out of my kitchen window with a blank expression, I remember thinking something big was about to happen. Coincidentally, at that very moment, Tommy Johnson came hurtling past my window, charging down the street with his lacrosse stick raised above his head. His mouth was agape, though I am unsure if he was screaming out of anger or fear. The double glazed windows do a spectacular job of keeping unwanted racket at bay. It had startled me for a moment, on account of how sudden it seemed. The coffee only spilled solemnly on the countertop and was mopped up with a paper towel without much trouble. One of the perks of a percolator is that there is almost always enough coffee to top up a spilled cup.
Nevertheless, the air was heavy that day. I felt it from the moment I sprang upright in bed, drenched in a cold sweat. Was the air this heavy yesterday? Probably, but I couldn’t say. I haven’t been sleeping well for some time now. Lack of sleep tends to have a strange effect on the memory. You know, the little things that can easily be taken for granted. Like how thick or heavy the air is on a particular occasion. You know when you get into bed and roll around a little bit until you fit into your bed just right and close your eyes and drift off calmly to a far away land of dreams and splendor? I can’t remember what that’s like. I have had it, but it’s one of those things the memory takes for granted. Oh what I would do to fall asleep like that again. Why, I would kill to have that again. I think any person would after, what, at least two months of restless days. I know it’s been at least two months. Two months ago was when they shut down Ravenholme Mine and I hadn’t been sleeping well then, either. When they shut down that mine, it’s like a reference point in the memory. I wonder how many people use reference points in their memories. I look at it like if I’m trying to find my way around town, I use geographical reference points, you know, landmarks and the like. I do the same when I’m trying to find my way around my memories or the inside of my head. The closing of the mine was a monumental event in Ravenholme, and therefore an evident temporal marker.
They said it would save the town; the mine. From what, I always thought, I hadn’t realised we were drowning. And if we had needed saving, are we again doomed that the mine has closed? Of course not. We’re still here. The sweet little fishing town of Ravenholme. We might not be rich in minerals worth mining (though, we might be, I don’t know the details of the mine closure), but we are rich in community spirit. This town likes to win, which is probably why they couldn’t stand to watch me fail. When Ravenholme rallies together it cannot be beat. So if we do need saving, the spirit of the people will surely prevail where the mine could not.
The microwave told me my eggs were ready and I gobbled them up ferociously. I still couldn’t shake the habit of eating quickly lest the seniors doubled me over and stole my cafeteria tray. However, I was in a hurry on that day, as I usually am on a Wednesday, to get to the florist before it shut at five o’clock so I could pick up some Pansies for mother. They are her favorite. Only the deep red ones, though. Almost a blood red, with little yellow markings. They make me think of ember-spitting fires.
I reside on Oaktree Avenue, the street that runs downhill through the centre of Ravenholme towards the Coastal Highway, which is often referred to by the cool kids simply as “Coastal.” It is the only road in or out of Ravenholme. We are a nook in the landscape and dense cliffs that surround our town. No point in drilling a tunnel through, either. Despite it not being of much public interest to get here, it was decided it would be too expensive without aid or funding from the wider regions, which would not be given. “Can’t be drilled,” they said. “Can’t be mined,” they said, too, when the works began. Boy did we show them. Ha! Or did we? The Regional Council was probably sitting chuffed in their cushy chairs bearing smug mugs when the mine closed. Anyway, I’ve gone off topic. The florist was on Main Street, which dissects Oaktree about two thirds down. It would usually take me about six minutes, give or take, to get there by foot. I don’t own a car. When I turned the corner of Oaktree and Main, I checked my watch about three times consecutively and began to perspire. There were not the usual groupings of flowers displayed outside. Only a remnant of a broken pot and some left-over soil seemingly spilled in a hurry. I was in a hurry, it was Wednesday, and I had hurried there. They should not have been closed. Turns out they weren’t. Just unusually disorganised. I rapped three times on the glass door and peered in through the display window, which looked as though it was in turmoil. The pots that were still there were bare and flower stalks were strewn on the floor as though they had been torn and broken with bare hands. Alice, the nice girl that owned the florist, released the deadbolt and opened the door. She looked paler than usual, and was shaking ever so slightly. Tapping my watch I murmured to her, “uh, it isn’t quite five o’clock yet, should you be shut so early? I do get the same flowers at this time every Wednesday, and it is Wednesday, and I am in a hurry to get to the hospital to visit Mother before visiting time is over, so I won’t keep you. Are my flowers here? The Pansies. The red ones. Like blood.”
“Um, yes, of course. My apologies, there have been some, er, mishaps this afternoon. I should hope I still have your order out the back.”
“Mishaps? Whatever could go wrong at a florist? You seem to work like clockwork. To be honest, I sometimes wonder how you manage to stay in business. I suppose it is just as well Ravenholme is so sentimental in their flower gifting.”
“I’d rather not get into it, if you don’t mind. Let me see if I can find some flowers for you.” She closed and locked the door. As I waited I tapped my foot in time with the second hand on my watch and imagined a concerto in my head. I wondered how many flowers were thrown at orchestras. And then I wondered if anyone had ever given Tommy Johnson flowers. I started to wonder where he was running to down my street. Or was it something he was running from? Alice returned with an adequate bouquet, though smaller than I usually purchase. She waived the fee today through strangely frightened eyes. They were not in great shape, “will die within the day, I’m afraid,” she told me. What was I to do, except take them with me to visit Mother?
I arrived at the hospital about twenty-two minutes later, give or take. Darkness had befallen the town by that time and the hospital looked eery in the strange fog. It seemed to be unusually unlit. The solitary street lamp at the start of the cul de sac provided dim lighting that offered nothing in terms of increased visibility, rather just gave the air a faded yellow hue. As I reached the visitors entrance I noticed the sign’s green glow also saturated more than it normally would have, painting my face with a tint that made me slightly nauseous. I believe they call that ‘irony.’
I approached the visitor’s desk, which was unmanned. I checked my watch again to be sure, and visiting hours were still running. It worried me that it was unmanned because I had a little over half an hour to visit, and Mother was always displeased with my short visits as it was. A small, rather gaunt looking nurse came scurrying over to the desk from around the corner after I rang the bell exactly seventeen times. There was some kind of commotion coming from the hallway from which she had emerged and the lights kept turning on and off. “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Fredrickson,” she told me, “ some unusual happenings today have had the hospital in a bit of disarray.”
“Yes, well, there seems to be a lot of happenings today causing disarray.” I wondered if it had anything to do with Tommy Johnson or what happened at the florist. I also wondered when the last time the nurse had eaten something. “I hope it hasn’t had you overworked without a meal break.”
“Although unusual in this town, Sir, it isn’t uncommon for nurses to be overworked. Lucky, I am, on most days. Here to see your mother I presume?”
“Of course. Same day, same time every week for the past two years.”
“I’m sorry, silly question. Just go on up, dear, the elevator should still be in order, despite these odd lights.” The lights were behaving oddly. I wondered if the hospital employed their own electrician or if they contracted out.
Possibly the strangest thing to happen that day was the doctor in the elevator. It might have been a close second to my experience I had in my mother’s ward, but we’ll get to that in a moment. I had not met him previously. I do not recall ever sighting him in the hospital, in fact. This made me wonder if it was like in the movies when someone puts on a doctor’s coat and plays with people’s trust. He was visibly sweating. His hair was a testament to that, although it also could have been overly greased. It looked very wet, nonetheless. When I entered the elevator he was facing the wall and no floor had been selected. My entering the elevator did not seem to startle him, either. Instead, he slowly turned to me and recognition washed over his face. “Mr. Fredrickson,” he said, apparently aware of who I am, “I should talk to you about your mother.” I feared the worst. She is the only terminal patient in Ravenholme hospital. She should have died well over a year ago, if the doctor’s predictions were anything to go by. “She’s alright,” he went on, “well, as right as she can be for someone of her status. However, she has been acting somewhat unsavory as of late.”
“Unsavory? Whatever do you mean? And who are you? I don’t believe we have met.”
“There have been some . . . incidents.”
“Incidents? What the devil are you on about?”
“On more than one occasion she has attacked a member of staff and she is refusing to eat or take her medication. We’re going to have to put her back on I.V. meds. There really isn’t any good news here. I’m sorry, Mr. Fredrickson, she just isn’t herself any longer.” I stood there in silence. There was a howl in my mind. My top lip curled up and I pinched my elbow. I counted the seconds with my foot and tried not to grip Mother’s bouquet too tightly. Thirteen. Thirteen seconds until the elevator reached the floor my Mother has lived on for the past two years. The doors opened with a muffled, drawn-out squeal and I squinted into the hallway before stepping off the elevator. All the lights were out, bar one that was flickering intermittently at the far end of the hallway. The doors had begun to crawl closed again, but I had reached back with a clammy hand to stop them. “Why are all the lights out?” I asked.
“Oh. A simple electrical fault, I’m sure.” And with that final exchange, the doctor turned again to face the wall. The doors shut. He hadn’t even selected a floor. I listened in an attempt to hear if the lift moved from that floor, however found myself wondering if I would know what that sounded like. I decidedly would not. And so, I turned to face an ominous, dark hallway that, for just a moment, began to swing and snake about as I squinted harder to see the end of it. I knew Mother’s room was almost at that end of the hallway, despite wishing it to be at the other, with the occasional comfort of fleeting light. I began to slowly step down the corridor with one hand on the wall so as not to lose my direction or footing should something block my path. I had counted seven steps when I could swear I spied a figure at the doorway to my Mother’s ward. “Excuse me! Sir, Madame!” I called out to them, to no avail. They were gone upon returning my gaze from glancing over my shoulder when the distant light flickered. The walls and floor looked to me as though they were moving. Surely my eyes trick me in this darkness, I reassured myself. After all, hallways don’t snake the way I had seen it do. My assurance was short-lived when something on the wall touched my hand. I recoiled and let out an embarrassing yelp. Nothing, it’s nothing. More tricks. Just the darkness. I returned my hand to the wall and continued to walk towards Mother’s ward. Just nothing. Just nothing. There’s nothing. Nothing. The darkness faded to a fog when the beacon far behind me beamed for a moment. I saw the ‘M’ on the sign that juts out from the wall just above her door before the darkness swallowed it once again. ‘M’ for ‘Mother,’ I used to think. Of course I knew this wasn’t the case. ‘M’ for ‘Mortal,’ no doubt. No one has ever shared the ward with her, despite the extra beds. No one has been terminal here, either. ‘M’ for ‘Morgue.’ She will die in that room. I quickened my feet and the lights flickered again, all of them this time. They all lit up sequentially, and faded almost as quick. I was reaching for the door when it happened, but my left arm was still on the wall, which was covered in swarming cockroaches. They crunched under my shoes and flew past my face. They screeched in my ears and crawled up my arm. They were the ceiling and the floor at once, making it snake and swing. Making me sweat and squeal. The door slammed behind me, and Mother’s ward looked as it always did.
The lights were far too bright in that room. “Why you have to wake me like that, boy?!”
“Sorry, Mother. I didn’t mean for it.”
“I’m dyin’ and here y’are tryin’ to frighten the life outta me.”
“I said I didn’t mean for it, Mother. There was . . . it was an accident.”
“Yes, okay. Come here, son, it’s okay. You look drained, come, come.” The lights were always that bright, even when she slept. Even when she was pacing around the room or staring into the night at four a.m. She says she’s used to them these days. I can’t imagine it to be helpful to her health.
I took her old flowers out of the vase on her bedside and replaced them with the pansies I’d bought that day. They didn’t look much better. “I got you some new flowers.”
“Rubbish, they don’t look new.” I sat on the side of her bed.
“There was an incident at the florist. I don’t know much of what happened, but these were the only ones they had. Still your favourite, at least.”
“Ha. At least.”
“The doctor said you haven’t been yourself lately. Said you wouldn’t be much for a conversation. What’s going on? You seem right to me.”
“Nonsense. Why would you say that? Which doctor said that? Howard isn’t in today.” Howard was her usual doctor. “The one in the elevat- you haven’t had a new doctor see you today?”
“He has greasy hair. Wait, who was in your room just now? Someone left as I was coming down the hall.”
“No one. Nonsense. Why do you always have to come here preaching nonsense at me, Clarence? I’m not well enough for this. Just once it would be lovely if you’d come in here with your life screwed on straight. Could you do that for me? Just once? Clarence?”
“Yes, well, I don’t know what you want me to do. I’m sorry, Mother. I have a job and pay my rent, and my bills. I thought I was doing okay.”
“You’ve thrown your life away and now you’re comfortable in a hole. Do you still play that clarinet?”
“I play the trombone now, as well,” the sad trombone, “I was thinking I could try to join the town band, again.”
“You know they don’t want you around. Even though you’re better than mos’ of ‘em.” It was true. I’ve only ever been great at one thing. No one in the town band is great.
Her curtains were still open and there was a chill in the air, so I stood up to draw them closed. “Are you cold? It’s cold. I’ll draw the curtains. I can’t stay long. I have to get to work,” I said, trying to divert the conversation.
“I know. Always fleeting, you are. Every week you can’t give your own mother the time of day. Slaving away at that stupid place. They can’t even get your name right. What is it today,” she squinted at me, “‘Roger?’ why strangers gotta call you ‘Roger?’”
“It’s just a name tag, Mother, it’s fine. I have to wear one, doesn’t matter what it says.” The fog outside looked thicker now. I could hardly see the light at the end of the cul de sac. My chest felt heavier and I lost my breath. The lights were far too bright. I took a knee and swallowed a lump in my throat. I remember the howl in my head grew to a deafening scream. The lights were somehow getting even brighter. Blinding. Glass was showering over me and scattered all over the teal linoleum. The lights were far too bright. The ceiling convulsed and lifted away. It was sucked into a maelstrom of clouds in the sky. Cockroaches covered the walls.
Then there was a bright light shining in my eyes. The doctor from the elevator turned it off and asked, “are you alright there, son? Bit of a fall on the lino, was it? Can you stand?”
I looked over at Mother, who appeared asleep.
“I was just speaking with . . . what time is it?”
“I’m sorry, son, I told you she isn’t herself much these days. Hard to talk to, even when she is awake. She’s been asleep all day.”
I felt confused. Maybe I was concussed. It was too bright in that room.
“I’ve got to get to work, am I allowed to leave?” Why I asked permission, I don’t know.
“Yes, yes of course. Don’t let me keep you.” So I left. I walked out of the room and I ran. I ran down the hallway, and I ran all the way to work. All the way to the Gas ‘n’ Gulp. I prayed I wouldn’t be late; my boss would kill me if I was late.
Click here for Chapter 1: The Gas ‘n’ Gulp