The old rocking chair groaned, threatening to give away Carl’s position. Tense, his neck kept his good ear cocked as his eyes held the dull gaze of the door knob tightly. His will alone couldn’t keep it from turning, but it would give him just enough warning to hide the evidence. She’d smell it of course, but the old b***h wouldn’t catch him red-handed again. No siree. He wouldn’t give her that satisfaction.
The silent lull coaxed the crickets back into their evening chorus, as Carl retrieved the crumpled pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, all the while maintaining an eagle eye look out for the Mrs. Once the ensemble of chirping reached its climax, he brought the pack of smokes to his lips and bit down on the end of one, pulling it from its home as his hand returned the box to his pocket.
Carl pulled a single match from behind his ear, and quickly struck his thumb across its head, never allowing his eyes to move from the door. The sound of a creaking floorboard from within the house froze him still. The only movement was that of the newly born flame eating its way across the match stick and the small twitch in his left nostril, leaving him with a snarl in the flickering light.
Satisfied she wasn’t coming, he slowly moved the fire to the cigarette in his mouth and breathed it to life. Flicking the burnt stick to the yard, he pulled the unfiltered smoke in and exhaled it from his nostrils. Like a weathered Dragon, the smoke bellowed from his nostrils as he stared down the door. A growl escaped his lips as he imagined himself guarding the mouth of a great cave from the pompous queen of the kingdom who tried constantly to extinguish his flame.
A dull cough from one of the back rooms relaxed his spine, knowing she was not about to jump out from behind that blasted door. He let the chair rock back as he took a long pull on his cigarette, closing his dry eyes in an attempt to enjoy his smoke. Short lived was his relaxation as the image of his wife invaded his mind’s eye, spitting an endless tirade of threats and curses in his face. “I’ll be dancin’ on your grave when you’re long gone,” he whispered at her visage as he took another drag.
Carl hated her with every last bit of strength his old body still possessed. He couldn’t quite pin point when the hatred begun, and every time he invested energy in the thought, his facial twitch came back in full force, but he knew it felt like forever. A long time to stay with someone you abhorred so much, but she was his atonement. She was his payment for the blood he soaked his hands in decades ago. For the lives his cowardice stole away. He wanted her in his life to remind him how weak he truly was, but he also loved to hate her for that very fact.
A smile deepened the wrinkles etched in his face, as he thought about the last time she caught him smoking. The dirty end of a broom slapping his face so hard, he bit the cigarette he’d been smoking in two and nearly swallowed the one end as the other flew across the porch. She stomped on the burning end like it was about to bite her foot had she ignored it. Each smash of her foot accentuated every syllable of venomous hate spewed from her mouth, all the while keeping the broom pointed at Carl as if daring him to argue with her.
All he had for her was the same promise offered previously, “I’ll be around long after the Devil comes to bring you home. I’ll be dancin’ on your grave you old harpy!”
Another cough from within the house brought his mind back to the porch. From the sound of it, she was probably in bed nursing that chest cold that didn’t want to go away. He smiled at the opportunity, pulling another cigarette out of the pack and lit it using the b**t of the other.
As he dropped the smoldering b**t between the floor boards, he froze, mid breath. Foot steps. Boards creaking within the house. She was moving. The Harpy was on the hunt. The crickets fell silent. Even they knew danger was near.
Carl hopped out of the chair, a bit too quickly, nearly launching himself over the wooden handrail. He hobbled off the porch, down the stairs, into the darkness of the yard, sucking air as a quickly as he could through the nights presumably last cigarette.
“Carl?” His wife called. The footsteps grew louder. He stared at the front door, ignoring the head rush wobbling his vision as he continued to s**k on the smoke. In, out, faster and faster until all that was left was a bright cone of red embers poking from his mouth like a demon blowing a raspberry.
The door flew open, flooding the yard in a yellow light, bursting out from behind a dark figure haunting the threshold. He spit the burning husk from his mouth so fast, he nearly sent his dentures flying into the bushes.
“Carl?” The shadow in the doorway called out.
As long as he stayed in the darkness, she wouldn’t be able to throw anything at him, so he shuffled his feet backwards away from the oblong cone of light spilling across the lawn. Not that she would be able to hit him at that distance, he still didn’t want to take the chance.
“Carl,” she began as his excuse stumbled from his mouth.
“I’m out in the yard. There was this bird…”
“Carl, I think I need to go to the hospital.” She continued to cough as she held the door frame for support.
He cringed, waiting for something, whatever was closet to her hand, to come flying at him, but the only thing that escaped her was another round of violent coughs.
“Somethings wrong Carl,” she weezed between trying to catch her breath, “I think I need a doctor.”
His fear of the woman quickly melted away, leaving nothing but a skeletal frame of disdain and hate to haunt her. With anger prodding his feet, he stepped into the light and said, “I told ya before woman, I can’t afford to just take ya to the doctor whenever you ain’t feelin’ right.”
She made no reply, which kind of caught old Carl off guard. Leaning her shoulder against the door frame, she continued to cough. She couldn’t hear him over the gales of air pushing their way from her lungs.
“You just don’t learn do ya,” he growled, climbing the steps, but stopped short of reaching the top when something warm hit the back of his hand. He looked down to find a dark spot running down his knuckles. As he held his hand up, he bit his lip in realization of what it was that the light was now shimmering off of; blood.
He looked up slowly, following the shiny droplets across the porch to the doorway, where his wife continued to cough. She looked up at him and with one last cough, she fell to the floor. Carl knelt down next to her, rolling her over, it occurred to him that this was the first time he had laid hands on his wife in years. He gladly would have gone another decade without doing so. She looked like a homeless bag lady who took her last meal from the neck of some unsuspecting kid; blood splattered across her mouth, running down her chin.
“G******n it,” He muttered as he stood up, stepping over her wheezing body. He stopped short of grabbing the phone on the kitchen counter and smiled. He looked back at her as he retrieved the pack of smokes from his pocket and another match from the stove top. He lit the cigarette, never taking an eye off her and blew the smoke all over the kitchen. How long had it been since he had a smoke within his own four walls?
He cackled, spinning on his heels and moved along to the bedroom. Like a voodoo priest offering the smoke as a gift to the spirits, he blew his acrid scent all over the room and moved on to the rest of the house. He lit a second cigarette from the dying end of the first and flicked the b**t over his wife through the door.
“S**t,” He said, staring at his wife. As much as he wanted to assist the reaper in escorting the old Bat to the great here after, he couldn’t just let her die on the porch. There would be questions. People in crisply ironed uniforms asking questions that he simply didn’t want to answer. There were always questions following death. They questioned his actions that got four people killed back in the war and they would certainly enquire about the circumstances of an elderly woman’s bloody death.
“S**t, s**t, s**t on me,” He barked as he snatched the phone and dialed 911.
He was quite relaxed and three more cigarettes deeper into a new pack on the rocking chair when red and white lights washed across the lawn from the approaching ambulance. Two EMT’s jumped from the truck, at break neck speed, and dropped down next to his wife.
“Sir,” one of them shouted as he felt her wrist for a pulse. “What happened to her?”
Carl replied with a silent shrug as he took another drag. As far as he was concerned, she was damned lucky that he even made the call for help. She wasn’t even dead yet and they had already begun the interrogation.
He just stared off into the darkness, smiling, as they loaded her onto a gurney and wheeled her off to the ambulance.
“Sir, would you like to ride with us,” one of the paramedics asked, as he closed the first of the two back doors.
“Fer what?” Carl shouted.
“A*****e,” replied the EMT under his breath, closing the second door. He made his way around the driver side door and stopped as a new set of lights strobed into view; red and blue atop the sheriffs car.
The sheriff stopped next to the ambulance as it backed out, and turned off his flashers. Exiting the car, he placed his hat on and grabbed the clipboard from the dash.
“What can I do ya for Sheriff?” Carl asked, rising from the chair. He made sure to step around the spots of blood on the floor. A weeks worth of bleach and elbow grease was what that was. Twitch went his lip.
The cop blinked at the absurdity of the question. Surely, this old man knew why he was here. ” I was hoping you’d be able to tell me what happened to your wife, Mr…” looking down at the board, “Mr. Tiller?” He folded a sheet of paper over the top of the clipboard and began writing.
“She started coughing and then she fell over,” Carl replied, wondering how he was going to get the blood off the porch without creating a bigger mess. She tortured him, even from her deathbed.
The officer stopped writing and ogled Carl for a moment. Something didn’t sit right with this old man. That was his wife for crying out loud.
“These next questions are just routine, I assure you,” the cop began, knowing that was not the case. These next questions would only be routine when interrogating a suspected murderer. “Did you harm your wife in any way sir?”
Carl looked up, meeting the cops eyes for the first time. “I haven’t touched that woman in years.” His cheek shook, jerking his upper lip into the Carl Snarl.
“Do you have any ID sir?”
“I.D.? How’s this for I.D.” Carl said, shooting the cop a middle finger that looked more like a knotty piece of driftwood.
The officer took a breath. This guy probably just lost his wife of Lord knows how many years. A bit of patience was called for here. “Are you aware that I could arrest you for that little wag of the finger you just shot at me?”
Oh, Carl was well aware but didn’t give a good G******n. So what if this little piss ant wanted to haul him in? He reached in his pocket for another cigarette when it occurred to him that they probably wouldn’t let him smoke while at the station. All those stupid public smoking laws. That simply wouldn’t do. Not siree.
Carl lit his smoke and replied, “I’m very sorry for that officer. As you can imagine, I’m under a bit of stress here.” His nostril began to twitch again, contorting his face at the officer as he apologized.
The officer nodded and said, “I understand completely. I tell ya what. Go on inside and fetch me that I.D. I just need to make an official record, take a statement from you and we’ll consider that bird you shot at me a bit of friendly fire.”
Carl smiled. “I’d appreciate that officer. Give me a moment and i’ll get that for ya.” He nearly flicked the cigarette off into the yard before catching himself at the door. He eyed the officer once more with a smile as he took a long drag crossing the threshold.
He returned quickly with his wallet and thumbed the license out from its pocket. The officer began writing his information down on the clipboard. Carl wanted to know what he was writing, but his attention kept getting pulled back to the dark droplets splattered across the porch.
“By law, I’m obligated to e****t you to the station for an official statement, but, considering the circumstances, I think your wife would appreciate you by her side.” The officer offered a weak smile of sorrow.
Carl’s upper lip curled at the notion. If he declined the officers request, he was going to spend the next few hours at the station; smokeless. Deaths door was finally replying to her knocking and still, she held Carl tightly. If he could just nudge her on through the rest of the way, he would finally be rid of the old nag.
He stared at his wife with contempt as the Dr explained that she had stage four lung cancer and didn’t have long to live. Bunch of poppycock Carl thought. How could his wife have lung cancer? The wench never smoked a day in her life. She may have fooled the Dr. but he knew her all too well. This was just another ploy to give him s**t about his smoking habit.
The Dr. must have excused himself while Carl grinded his teeth at his faking wife. Carl thought she hid her evil well, beneath all the tubes and wires running in and around her unconscious body. Small coughs fogged the clear cup covering her mouth, feeding her face needed oxygen her lungs could supposedly no longer absorb. Her skin, ashen grey, laid loosely across her bones like a soiled sheet.
As weak and frail as she looked, Carl didn’t trust her. He stood over her, staring at her quivering eyelids, just waiting for them to open. Waiting for her mouth to open and spew curses around the sanitized room. He even poked her leg a couple of times to make sure, but received no response. He was sure this was just a ploy to piss him off. Spend his hard earned money on an expensive stay at Club ER, getting pampered and waited on like she was royalty.
What was he supposed to do. Just stand by while she drained his wallet. For what? Spite? Forget that. That simply would not do. No siree.
He reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a fresh pack of smokes and pounded them into his palm as he stared at her. He was sure this would make her peek out from her behind her vail of b******t, but her lids didn’t part, even for a moment.
He leaned into her ear as he opened the pack, “You known what I have here you old crow?” He pulled a single cigarette out, and began tapping the b**t end on her forehead, sure her eyes were about to open. He kept one leg off to the side in case he had to move away quickly. He was sure she was about to jump out of that bed.
When nothing happened, he tried again. “This is no old, stale smoke that I hid from you some time ago. No siree. I just bought this pack brand new on the way to see you.”
He swallowed his fear whole and inched in a bit closer. Close enough that he could smell the Ben Gay she liked to cake on her neck. Close enough for the Harpy to bite his nose off if she so chose. Near enough to know she was not giving up the ghost yet.
“Well,” He said, pulling a match from his pocket, “O.K. then.” He backed up a step, sure this was gonna end the charade. “I’m gonna light this up right here and now.” He waited, but no response came. He ran the match along the metal arm of the bed, smiling as the stench of brimstone fought back against the overwhelming scent of chemical cleaners in the room. Again, he waited a moment, with no reaction from the actor.
His lips trembled slightly, making the awaiting cigarette bounce as he slowly brought the lit match to his face. Her continued silence told him all he needed to know. She was invested in this show, and the curtain wasn’t coming down anytime soon.
“Fine by me,” he said, lighting the cigarette and blowing the smoke right at her face. Still, nothing. No movement, no curses, nothing flying at his face. Nothing. Ah, the reason why just occurred to him. That stupid mask covering her mouth and nose kept her from fully respecting his threat.
“Ya put some thought into this did ya,” he said as he took a step towards her. “What if I took this mask off and blew some of this sweet smoke up that crooked nose of yours?” No response. “Well, I’m not one to disappoint,” he said as he placed a hand on the mask. “No siree.”
“Christ on a cracker!” Shouted a woman as her hand snatched the cigarette from his mouth. She threw it violently into the sink and turn the faucet on. “Just what exactly ran through that old skull of yours telling you it was o.k. to smoke in my hospital?” The young nurse was fuming, her hands shaking at her sides as she stared at Carl.
His mouth began to mumble an excuse amidst another twitch sneering his face before she cut him off.
“On second thought, get out,” she shouted, immediately covering her mouth with her hand. Quicker this time, she said harshly, “Visiting hours are over.”
Carl recognized that look in her eye. It was the same accusing look that stupid Dr. had given him. Their eyes told him what their mouths would not. That it was his bad habit that killed his loving wife. It was his fault she was here. Murderer is what their eyes screamed even if their mouths were silent.
He suddenly found himself surrounded by voices, all being led by the ringmaster herself, damning him for his smoking. He ran from the room, as fast as he could hobble to the safety of his truck. At least he could smoke there without being harassed by the world.
Three days later, he stood in the only suit he owned next to an open grave, surrounded by people who stared at him with those same accusing eyes. Their mouths allocated with sorrows and condolences, hiding the truth their eyes glared at him.
He supposed the service was nice, although he couldn’t repeat a word of it. All he could do was use every bit of energy he had to suppress the s**t eating grin that wanted to explode across his face. He was free. Finally and irrevocably free.
The minister was the last to leave, jawing on about the afterlife and sin, even as he walked away. Carl knelt down, feigning interest in an untied shoe, but in actuality, stretching his legs. As he rose, he looked around, making sure he was alone for the grand finale. He spotted two workers, diggers he supposed, ducking behind a neighboring mausoleum.
“Enjoy your smoke boys,” Carl said to himself, lighting a cigarette of his own as he watched the tail of their shadows disappear around the corner of the building. “Cause I’m gonna enjoy mine.” Taking a few drags as he looked around once more, his gaze returned to the coffin in the ground.
“May I have this dance you old b***h,” he asked the encased corpse. Not waiting for an answer, he twisted his hip and began to dance. His freshly polished loafers pounded the ground, as his tired legs pulled the last of his energy into flopping his torso about. It was less of a dance and more of a flailing about. He looked like some deranged guy who just found Jesus beneath a hot tent out in the country. He was so happy at that moment, he would not have shied away from kissing the rattlesnake at one of those revivals.
He raised his hands to the heavens in praise, and spun around. Carl took another drag, but as he pulled the cigarette away from his lips, a glowing ember broke away from the tip and flew right into his left eye. His free hand rubbed at his burnt eye as his feet continued their dance, before they slipped, sending old Carl into the hole. Back to the wife he was almost free of. His head smashed into the corner of the casket, cracking his head open like a rotten nut.
“Hey, Joey,” called one of the diggers from the open graveside, “you got plans tonight?”
Joey stopped walking towards him, a grimace melting his face away. “Don’t play with me. You know I’ve got tickets to the Stones tonight and a date with Carla.” The thought of Carla was enough to stretch a smile across his face, but it faded fast as he neared the hole. He knew what the extra body six feet down represented.
Not able to look away from the light-grey colored brains seeping from the old man’s opened skull, Tom offered, “You can probably sell the tickets to Hank. He loves the Stones.”
“Are you joking,” Joey said, “You know how long it took me to get Carla to agree to go on a date with me?”
“You remember how long the cops kept us at the station last time this happened? There’s just no way you’re getting to that date tonight.” Tom put a hand on Joeys shoulder as he pulled his cell phone from his pocket with his other.
“Wait a minute,” Joey said, an idea jerking a smile back to his face, before he caught site of the phone that Tom was about to use. “Are you calling the cops?”
“No. I’m calling your mother to cancel our date for tonight.”
Joey just stared at him, mouth agape.
“I’m callin’ the cops moron,” Tom said with a laugh.
“Hold on a second,” Joey said, placing his hand over the touch screen of Toms phone. “You remember my Grampa?”
“Yeah, he died last year didn’t he?”
“Yup. Exactly three days after we buried Grandma. He was so heartbroken over losing the love of his life, that he laid down and just….died.”
“Well, he was pretty old…..I mean, he was going to die eventually.”
“No man. He couldn’t live without her and he willed himself to die so he could follow after her.”
“I don’t know about all that Joey,” Tom said, shifting his glance down to his friends hand still resting on his.
Joey released the uncomfortable grip on Tom’s hand. “Listen. Don’t you think that’s what this guy did? He couldn’t live without her. He couldn’t imagine just one more day without her, so he jumped in with her.”
“I don’t know man,” Tom said, eyeing his phone, “that love b******t never sticks with me.”
“That’s because you’ve never been in love,” Joey explained, slapping Tom on the back.
“B******t!” Tom looked from his phone to the brains and back to his phone again. “Anyway, what do you propose we do then.”
“What do mean nothing?”
“I propose,” Joey said, stretching the word out, “we do something for him.”
“We bury him with his wife.”
“What…,” Tom said, shocked that his friend would even mention such a heinous idea. There would be questions. There would be people looking for him. The cops were sure to go to the last place he was seen, which was here, where they presently stood. If they ever discovered what they’d done, they’d go to jail. No if, ands or buts about it. Straight to the pokies. But, how would they find out. It’s not like the old ladies body would ever be exhumed. She died from cancer after all.
Tom thought for a moment about his own life. Sure he had never been in love, but it didn’t mean he wouldn’t down the road. It was apparent the old man jumped in. It was a giant hole he’d stood in front of for an entire hour as the minister droned on about life after death. If that was what the old man really wanted, why not give it to him. A dying wish of sorts.
Falling short of either he or Joey confessing what they did, he couldn’t see how they would ever get caught. Tom took a breath and decided it felt nice to do something for someone else. Besides, Joey was bound to throw him in with the old man if he threatened his date with Carla again.
Tom slid his phone back into his coveralls and climbed into the small backhoe. Joey smiled, nodding head as they began to fill in the hole.