Exoskeletons in the Closet
by Martin Bayne
|part 2 of 3|
“Mark, before you go, I need to ask you a favor.”
“I’m listening,” I said casually.
“If it’s not a terrible imposition, I was hoping you would spend the weekend here.”
A knot in my Adam’s Apple tightened its grip. “Can you tell me why?”
He smiled. “I already did.”
I was silent. Joel sighed and walked slowly into the living room to the right of the entrance hall. I followed him and helped him as he lowered himself onto a beige lounge chair. I found an armchair opposite him and sat on the edge while he reclined slightly.
He looked at me, then down at his hands folded in his lap. “Mark, I don’t want to die alone, I...” He stopped in mid-sentence. “Uh oh,” he grinned, “I see that special I’ve-been-talking-to-Geraldine look on your face. Well, whatever that woman told you about my hypochondria” — he paused to clear his throat— “is probably accurate. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m going to die this weekend.”
I leaned forward. “Joel, you don’t have to convince me. I would have stayed with you regardless of what Geraldine had said.”
“I’m not sure.” I looked around the room: a cozy, but not rustic, living room, with a stone fireplace, sofa, low table on which a crossword puzzle began to reveal the outline of a city. I gave him as much as I knew of an answer to that question, which I wanted to know, myself, as I continued to look. The room began to absorb me. “There’s a story, Joel, that’s being written this weekend, chapter by chapter. I want to see how that story plays out.”
“Why?” he repeated.
“The same reason you do.” I turned my gaze to him and said, with a degree of force and enthusiasm that surprised me, “Because you think it’s an important story. Because you think it’s the first book — a Genesis, if you will, a basis and ground for all the other books of your life. And because you’re arriving at the end of your life, you’d like to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
“I don’t know exactly how I end up putting those pieces in the puzzle, but I know that’s what I’m here for. So do you. And strangely enough, it’s not just your puzzle. It’s my puzzle, too.” I felt strangely exhilarated.
“I’m tired, Mark, could we talk about this in the morning?”
“Oh, sure,” I said, coming back to myself.
“Good.” Joel started to get up and held his arm out for me. I got up and helped him out of the lounger. He let me guide him out of the room. Once at the stairs, he leaned on the banister as we climbed slowly to the second floor.
“Guest room, top of the stairs, on your right,” he said, pointing. “The bathroom is across the hall. You’ll find plenty of towels and such and there’s a clock in your room. I’ll have breakfast on the table at eight o’clock. That sound okay?”
“Yes, Joel, it sounds fine. I hope you sleep well.” I patted his shoulder and watched him as he headed for his room.
“You, too, Mark. Goodnight.”
* * *
I turned toward the room he had indicated as mine, and then wheeled on my toes as something that had been rising within me opened my mouth. I caught him just as he was entering his room.
“Yes?” He stopped and looked at me.
“What happened to the huge tree that used to be at the end of the driveway?”
“You mean that big old elm? I had to cut that down forty years ago, why?”
In the dim light, separated by years and 12 feet of hallway, we paused, aware of how important this weekend had suddenly become.
I tossed and turned in bed, wondering whether I’d ever get to sleep. Maybe a walk would help, I thought.
I stood in the moonlight studying the stump of the old elm tree. I yawned and turned toward the house when my first internal klaxon sounded after picking up a hint of movement on my left. I stopped and held my breath. Someone whispered, “Hey, boy... We’re over here. It’s the Jensens.”
“I don’t know any Jensens,” I whispered back, my heart racing so fast it ran ahead of my breath.
“Didn’t Joel tell you he has neighbors?”
I summoned up the courage to look directly in the direction of the voice. “I don’t see anyone,” I said. “Show yourself.”
“I’m afraid you’ll need Joel’s permission for that.”
I eyeballed the distance to the house, prepared to sprint. “Why would I need Joel’s permission for that?”
“For the same reason you blew the last four lines of your Bar Mitzvah.”
Every muscle in my body froze. “What did you just say?”
“Joel knows. He doesn’t forget anything. He told us about your Bar Mitzvah.”
“What? I mispronounced two lousy words — two lousy words!” I shouted. Then I felt a sharp snap as my etheric body was yanked back into my physical body. I opened my eyes.
* * *
“What did you say?”
A pleasant-looking woman probably somewhere in her early 50’s said, “Everybody’s entitled to mess up with two words, honey, I just came to wake you up for breakfast and tell you I’ve got a stack of pancakes waiting for you.”
“And you are...?” I said, wiping the sleep from my eyes.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sweetheart, for not introducing myself. I talked to Joel earlier this morning. Well, I just assumed he had told you about me. I’m Mrs. McCarthy, one of his nurses.”
“Well, Mrs. McCarthy, I’m glad to meet you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a nice, hot shower and shave, and then I’ll join you for pancakes.”
She reached over and pinched my bottom, and said, “I’ll make that stack extra big.”
As I walked into the bathroom, shaking my head, smiling, I said, “Did you really just pinch my bottom?”
She giggled and continued walking downstairs.
If there is such a thing as a perfect bathroom, Joel had designed it. Large, comfortable, with lots of towels, soaps and bath crystals in clear view, a cast-iron bathtub and a walk-in shower big enough to hold a senior prom. I stood under one of the six shower heads embedded in the ceiling, allowing its pulsating jets of water to cover my body with a fine mist and a directed spray.
I would have stayed longer, but a familiar and terrifying sound instinctively jerked my body backwards against the wall, where I clung, desperate to calculate the probability of the experience as “real” or a continuation of the dream I had earlier.
“Hey, boy, did ya ask Joel yet? Can we talk freely now?”
I felt my heart slamming against my chest as urine ran down my leg. “Go away!” I whispered, barely able to breathe. “Joel doesn’t want us to talk!”
“Did he tell you that?”
“And more. He said you’re one of the dark ones, and that I should never speak to you again.” This I said, hoping to drive the Jensens away.
“Did you hear that, Martha? The nerve of that sonofabitch. After what he gone and done to us, taking away our humanity, every ounce of blood from our bodies, he calls us the dark ones. Well, I guess we ain’t gonna be inviting him over for dinner any longer. All right, boy, we’re sorry to bother ya. You can tell Mr. Joel Davidson we’re awfully disappointed.”
* * *
That’s when he leaned close and whispered in my ear, “Hey, boy, you wanna see what a 300-pound insect looks like?”
I felt the urine trickling down my leg for the second time, gagging on the smell of rotting flesh and formaldehyde. “If you don’t leave this moment, I will begin screaming for Joel!” I hissed, with every bit of ferocity I could muster, slapping an open palm against the Italian-marble tiled wall.
“Okay, okay, don’t get so touchy.” said Mr. Jensen, dragging his wife out of the bathroom by her hair.
Moments later I heard the shower door close, but I was shaking too badly to do anything functional, so I just sat in the middle of the floor and collected myself, letting the terror pass.
It was Mrs. McCarthy who saved the day. “If you don’t come down here and eat these pancakes I made for you, I’m coming there and taking you out of that shower myself.” Her voice sailed up the stairwell, filled with dangerous and subtle passions.
Under normal circumstances, I would have been only too happy to let Mrs. McCarthy come up for a mutual scrub, but the stench of 300-pound insects was still in my nose.
“I’ll be right down.” I yelled, and fifteen minutes later, walked into the kitchen. “Where’s Joel?”
“I imagine he’s still sleeping,” Mrs. McCarthy said.
“Then I think it’s about time I woke him up. I’ve got some questions about his neighbors, the Jensens.”
“I don’t know any Jensens and I wouldn’t wake him if I were you,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” I quipped, “I’m a 15th-degree pink belt.”
Suddenly a loud, deep burbling laugh came from Jude’s corner. We both turned to look, and found him looking at the ceiling, laughing and drooling, his tongue lolling out of his mouth and his hands banging excitedly on his metal tray. Yep, I thought, just like a two-year old.
As Mrs. McCarthy returned her attention to my flapjacks in her frying pan, I took one more look at Jude. This time he was slowly smiling and nodding his head, looking deep into my eyes. No, I said to myself, it’s not possible. A thought, like a bit of popcorn stuck between my teeth, had suddenly insisted on my attention — a thought so improbable that I pried it loose without mercy, but so tantalizing that I walked over to Jude and whispered, “Are you in there? Can you hear me?”
* * *
Jude threw a cup of milk in my face and banged on his tray with his plate.
“Now look what you’ve done!” said Mrs. McCarthy.
I held up both my hands and shrugged apologetically. “Let me clean up this mess. Please,” I said and as I grabbed the mop I chuckled to myself, “Hey, my intuition can’t be right one hundred percent of the time.”
When I got to Joel’s door, I knocked quietly and called out his name, but there was no response. Regardless of how hard I knocked, there was no answer from within. I became worried and opened the door, and found Joel lying half off the bed, unconscious. I walked quickly to his side, knelt down, and gently moved him so he lay more securely on the bed.
I ran into the kitchen. “Mrs. McCarthy, Joel’s unconscious!”
“Oh, my!” she said, and took off toward the bedroom.
I remembered seeing a list of telephone numbers taped to the refrigerator. I called Geraldine.
“Geraldine, this is Mark Richter. I’m still at Joel’s. How quickly can you get here?”
“How quickly do you need me?”
“Now,” I said.
“I’ll be right there.”
* * *
I walked back to the bedroom to find Mrs. McCarthy just finishing a phone call to the local hospital.
“Well,” she said, placing the phone back in its cradle, “I think Joel’s luck is finally running out.”
“I called Geraldine; she’ll be here as fast as she can. Are you a nurse, Mrs. McCarthy?
“What’s wrong with him? Is he dying?”
“His vital signs are normal but something is definitely wrong.”
“Who’ll take care of Jude if he dies?”
“I don’t know, Mark, I just started working here six months ago.”
I walked back into the kitchen and sat down by Jude. “Well, little buddy, it’s you and me.”
Jude put his hands on my face and moved them slowly to my shirt pocket. He took out the pen that was in the pocket and put it on the tray in front of him. “Hold on there, fella,” I said, “and I’ll get you some paper to draw on.”
I found a few sheets of note paper by the telephone and put them on Jude’s tray, then went back to Joel’s room, but it was clear by the look on Mrs. McCarthy’s face that I would only be making a nuisance of myself, so I went back into the kitchen and poured myself another cup of coffee.
When I glanced at Jude he seemed to be absorbed with the pen and paper. “Let’s see what you’ve got there...” I said, as he handed me the paper.
* * *
I turned it over and read what Jude had written: and it was as if someone had struck me on the head with a ballpeen hammer. My coffee cup fell from shaking hands, spilling the hot liquid onto the kitchen floor, and my body shook so badly it was all I could do just to stand up.
I looked at the paper once again. If you value your life — RUN.
I walked back to Jude, pulled a chair next to his, and whispered, “Did you really write this?” but he clearly had his own ideas about who would lead and who would follow in this dance. He reached out, grabbed my shirt collar, and slammed my head into the stainless steel lap tray that straddled his wheelchair. “Do I have your attention?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, with an equal mixture of disbelief, fear and outrage.
“Good. Move your chair away from me. I want you sitting about five feet away, looking out the kitchen window as if you’re deep in thought. And don’t say a word; just nod your head yes or no. Got it?”
“Are you armed?”
I shook my head, no.
“It’ll take Geraldine twenty minutes to get here, but let’s not take any chances. Run into Joel’s bedroom and get the .45 he keeps in the top drawer of the table next to the bed. It may be locked, so I’d grab a cleaver from the kitchen cupboard on the right side of the stove, third shelf from the top.”
I found the cleaver easily, wrapped it in several kitchen towels, and bolted into Joel’s room.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Martin Bayne