Editor's Note: The following story was the 2012 Dayton Daily News/Antioch Writers' Workshop Short Story Contest winner for best in show. Submissions are now being accepted for the Dayton.com/Antioch Writers’ Workshop Creative Writing Contest. Submissions for the contest, open to those 15 and older who live in the greater Dayton area, must be postmarked by May 11.
A stranger is coming to kill Patricia, and all she can think about is vacuuming her apartment.
She runs the vacuum across the carpet. Its vague roar consumes Patricia, gives her something to focus on besides her body. Besides Cal.
Cal knew a lot about creating stories. He once told her that every good story starts with a moment that changes everything — a dividing line between then and now. For Patricia, that moment was a year ago.
Then, she vacuumed monthly. Now, at least once a day. Then, she started her day with a cup of coffee. Now, she never drinks caffeine. Then, she slept seven hours straight through the night. Now, she’s lucky to sleep two straight hours. Then, she brushed her teeth morning and night. Now, she brushes almost hourly. It’s the only way to get the taste of Cal out of her mouth.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Barely hearing the knock at the door, she pulls the plug out of the wall without turning the vacuum off. Almost instantly, something foreign rattles inside her belly, tickling her insides. She opens the door, expecting a priest in a feather headdress? Perhaps a robed stranger carrying a wooden stick?
Nope. Instead, she’s greeted with a warm smile by a slightly stooped guy with oversized glasses. He looks like a hotel concierge.
"I’m Carter." He picks up an oversized briefcase from the welcome mat. She ushers him inside, and he heaves his briefcase onto the couch. "Nice place. Very tidy."
"I clean a lot."
He chuckles. "So do I." He opens the case, revealing an assortment of vials, gleaming tools, and dirty leather bags. "So, where do you want to die?"
Patricia’s heart stumbles. The skin over her right hip swarms as if infested with bees. She fights the urge scratch herself raw.
She shrugs. "Where would you recommend?"
"Wherever you’ll be most comfortable."
"You’re making me uncomfortable," she told Cal. "Slow down."
This was more than a year ago. They were coming from a friend’s party. Cal’s car sped down the country road, such that the trees along the road seemed to spin haphazardly.
"If you have something to say, just say it, Cal. But don’t drive like a jerk. I don’t appreciate it."
"You don’t —" He flailed his arms. "You’re such a child when you drink."
"I’m the child? You insisted on being the designated driver. I offered to drive. Don’t get mad because I had a good time."
While she drank merlot wine at the party, Cal had sipped on coffee the entire time — black and loaded with sugar. Now, he was all jittery. He’d probably be up all night. Talking to her. Touching at her.
"You don’t even know what you did wrong, do you?"
"Did wrong? So, you’re judging me now?"
Ahead, a golden retriever crossed the road. She shouted for Cal to stop, and he swerved off the road. The car rolled and crunched into the earth. By the time the ambulance arrived, he was dead and she was unconscious.
She spent three days in the hospital. Two days after going home, she discovered the bump.
"So, you get rid of things that go bump in the night?" asks Patricia. "How’d you get into this business?"
Carter stands over her, pouring little mounds of red powder on the bed. "I used to be a chef," is all he says, as if that explains everything.
Patricia is lying down, covered only by a towel. An invisible hand taps its fingers against her spinal cord. She knows this motion. Cal used to tap his fingers on the kitchen table like this while Patricia was in the middle of one of her long, rambling stories.
"I never dreamed I’d do this for a living," adds Carter.
"Well, I never thought I’d do this for a dying."
Carter chuckles. "Clients aren’t usually funny. Thanks."
"No, thank you. I’m unraveling here. I just want to be at peace. I can’t go on like this."
Nodding sympathetically, Carter wipes two silver rods with what smells like a spicy Asian dipping sauce. After spraying a blue mist into the air, he waves the rods around, studies the air, then nods, apparently satisfied.
"It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon," says Patricia. "Doesn’t really seem to fit, does it?"
"Would you prefer I come back on a full moon night? Perhaps a Saturday with thunderstorms?"
Patricia frowns. "This’ll do. Nothing real is ever like it would be in a story. That’s what I tried telling Cal so many times. But for him, we were a fairy tale. Happy ever after."
Carter examines a profile sheet that they’d completed earlier, detailing her age, weight, height, blood pressure, blood type, and so on. He’d examined her thoroughly, tapping each of her teeth with an iron rod, measuring the circumference of her ears, counting the hazel flecks in her irises, and making several illegible notes about her navel. Now, he adds pinches of powder to a glass of what looks like dirty water. Patricia sniffs the drink, expecting it to stink of death. Instead, she smells spiced flowers and moist dirt.
"Chamomile makes it more palatable," he says. "Drink every last drop."
She takes it all down, and lies back on the bed. The liquid warms her belly like a ray of sunshine. Gradually, the warmth fades, and she feels absolutely normal.
"I don’t think it’s working," she says.
"It’s working." Carter stares at his notebook, then stares at the ceiling as if doing math in his head. "This is going to hurt quite a bit."
"Does it hurt?" asked her sister Payton, running her fingers over the bump on Patricia’s hip.
Patricia shook her head. "Sometimes it aches." Patricia pulled up her skirt, revealing her inner thigh. "Watch my thigh while you press on the bump."
As Payton pressed down on the bump on Patricia’s hip, an identical bump appeared on Patricia’s inner thigh.
"He used to hold me there at night, Paypal."
"What the hell’s going on? You missed Christmas. You haven’t returned my messages. And you look awful."
Patricia smiles, points at her gleaming teeth. "Yeah, but my teeth have never looked better."
Patricia put her hand over her sister’s, holding it against the hip bump. "Do you feel the bump’s pulse? It’s not mine. Sometimes it’s faster. Usually slower. Sometimes it’s the beat of songs we used to dance to."
Payton pulled her hand away. "Can’t you just have it removed?"
"It hides from doctors. I’ve tried cutting it out myself."
Patricia pulled up her shirt, revealing the ugly scar on her breast. "It just comes back somewhere else. It’s Cal. He’s haunting me. When I try to sleep, he tickles my flesh, knocks on my bones. I feel his hands on my breasts. In my breasts."
"In your breasts?"
Patrica nods. "He once told me that if he had my body, he’d never go out. He’d just touch himself all day. He would go on and on about how much he loved me, but I swear he just loved my body."
"Pats, if you have a ghost, just leave. Move in with me."
"He’s not haunting this apartment." She grabbed Payton to make sure this next part sank in. "He’s haunting my body. He’s inside me."
Payton nodded. "We’ll find someone who can help."
"Carter!" Patricia calls out, as a wave of agony rolls over her insides. A murder of crows flaps and claws in her stomach. A clowder of cats slashes and tangles her veins.
Meanwhile, Carter waves his silver wands over the bed, as if prodding at an invisible octopus. Patricia tries to scream, but her lungs are frozen. Her vision crackles, fades. She hears nothing but her own heartbeat. And Cal’s.
And then suddenly the pain is gone.
She sits up, a sensation like Velcro tearing apart. Sitting next to her on the bed is Cal, staring dumbly at her. They’re both naked, except their finer features are blurred – as if they were made of wax and had melted in the sun.
Oh my, the sun.
In the distance is a startlingly bright light — as bright as the sun but as soothing as the moon. Its light passes through everything. Bits of Cal and Patricia flake away, spilling toward the light. She’s vaguely aware of Carter using his wands to wrangle these bits of them floating away.
"Did you miss me?" asks Cal.
"When did I have the opportunity to miss you? You were kissing the inside of my throat at your own funeral, Cal. Why are you haunting me? Was it the party — our argument after? Tell me what I did wrong, Cal."
He shakes his head. "I just want to be close to you. I’m lonely."
Patricia points at the light. "So go there! Can’t you hear all those voices? Don’t you feel how peaceful it is? It’s calm. Go there." As she says these words, she can’t take her eyes off the light. It’s so inviting. True peace. "The fairy tale’s over, Cal. We aren’t going to live happily ever after. This story you had in your head about us — about our love — it’s over."
Cal grabs her shoulders roughly. "It doesn’t have to be."
"Cal, a love story only works if both people believe it. Otherwise, it’s a dream. It’s time to wake up."
"Wake up, Pats" Payton snaps her fingers.
Patricia’s eyes open. Carter is gone. Payton sits on the bed, studies her.
"I let myself in. You’re fixed. Carter said your body has only one soul now. He wanted someone here when you woke."
"Can I have coffee?" asks Patricia’s voice.
While Payton fixes coffee, Patricia studies her body, runs her hands over the smooth flesh. Patricia’s lips smile blissfully. Soon, Payton returns with a steaming mug.
Patricia takes a sip. "Can I have sugar, Payton?"
"Really? Since when?"
Patricia’s shoulders shrug. "Life can always be a little sweeter."
When Payton returns with the sugar, she begins talking. "I’m just glad you’re okay. I can’t even imagine what this must have been like. You should consider..."
But Patricia’s ears aren’t listening. Patricia’s fingers drum impatiently on the nightstand.
"What did you think about Cal? Really?"
Frowning, Payton strokes Patricia’s face. "He was okay, but I agree with you. Sometimes you’re better off being alone, than with the wrong person. Why?"
"It doesn’t matter, does it? Then and now, I suppose. But speaking of solitude, Payton, I’m fine. You don’t need to stay."
"Everything okay, Pats?"
"Usually, you call me Paypal."
"Right. I’m fine Paypal. In fact, I think I’ll be happy ever after." Patricia’s arms cross over her chest, hands cupping her shoulders. Her hands slide down her front, fall into her lap. "I’d just like to be alone with myself right now. I’ve missed me."
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Rob E. Boley grew up in Enon, graduated from Greenon High School and then Wright State University in 1999. Shortly after, he started working for the Boonshoft School of Medicine at Wright State, doing special events and alumni relations. Boley earned his MA in English from Wright State in 2005, the same year his daughter was born. He continues to work at Wright State, now in the University Development offices.