It starts with the collision. Everything prior to that is gone. The collision itself, he re-lives in dreams—swirling, drug-sodden nightmares—that he awakens from mystified. Since the accident, he cannot see continuous motion or color. In the hospital room, pretending to be out, he listened to specialists mutter things like achromatic vision, no history of retinitis pigmentosa and hallmarks of conversion disorder. His life is a series of black-and-white stills. In dreams, as well, he can only see greys, but things progress at a normal clip.
As he was driving through the woods on a summer evening, a pick-up truck emerged from a side road and plowed into his door. There was no move to evade him. The truck didn’t even slow down. They, whoever they were, had done what they’d set out to do, which was to drive Paul off the road and into the woods, as hard as possible. Their intent was to kill him; of this, he has no doubt. Their motive, however, baffles him. Again and again, while he’s under, drugged into a stupor on the couch, he is there, winding through the trees, catching a sudden glare to his left and then pulling back and raising his hands and screaming.
He has the dream tonight.
When he comes to, it takes a moment for him to recover—not only from the trauma of the crash, but the fluid pace of the dream, as well. He sees the white of the cast on his leg, the gunmetal grey of his crutches, the duller grey of the floor and walls and the hard black panes of the windows, bare, as they suck in the country dark.
The cabin belongs to Roger, the elder of his wife’s two brothers. Roger bought the place as a refuge from everyday life. The problem was, the isolation and quiet unnerved him. Roger lacked the patience for a hobby. He never read. He needed to be constantly entertained, to have his attention pricked like a child. He tried having parties there, but his guests, of like temperament, developed cabin fever the moment they stepped inside, no matter how many revelers or types of debauchery he made available.
He decided to keep it as an investment or a possible contingency shelter. You never know, he liked to say. The last time he was there, on his way out, he nailed a hand-painted sign above the porch, which read:
The night Paul was released from the hospital, his wife Nancy was there with her mother, Roger and her younger brother, Dennis. He took Roger’s word for the status of their relationship. To him, they were merely kind strangers. Roger had arranged for Paul to stay at the cabin. He explained DULLSVILLE on the way over. Take all the time you need, he said. You can move in, for all I care. He talked incessantly as he drove. Paul cringed in the passenger’s seat. Nancy and Dennis and their stone-faced mother sat in the back. He could hear them talking, but had trouble making out what they said.
Nancy, it so happened, was a beautiful woman. If he had a type, that would be it. When he first saw her at the hospital, he’d been surprised at his luck and was hoping for a kiss. She gave him a cold, rigid hug, instead, leaving him sad and even more bewildered.
Roger carried Paul’s bags inside, then gave him a quick tour. There was a living room up front, which “elled” into a kitchen back-right. Leading off the living room, in the opposite corner, were a bedroom, bathroom and storeroom, packed mostly with unused party supplies. Nancy and her mother cleaned the place, while Paul took meds, swayed and looked out the kitchen window. Roger left some numbers on the fridge. Nancy waved and averted her eyes.
And just like that, he was alone.
The days are short. They hop by, rather than spool. The doctor, a friend of Paul’s from college, gave him so many pills that he could have paved the driveway with them. Roger also donated some leftovers, mixed in a plastic food container. He sits on the couch and watches TV, his plastered leg on the ottoman, flipping between the “classic” movie channels, where most everything is already black-and-white, people stand still and the camera just sits there and watches, like him. The bottles are on the end table, with a glass. There is a carafe filled with ice-cold well-water on the floor. He takes pills when he feels like it, in one’s or two’s or three’s, not even bothering, after a while, to see what they are.
The dreams get more intense. While the accident is occurring, he hears voices: I saw you with him. Always me. You don’t know. Business. What the fuck do you care? My life. Glad. You never trust me, anyway...
The female voice is Nancy’s. The male’s, he supposes, is his own. They play through the crash, overlapping, fading in and out, a word here and there between the thumps and squeals and shattering glass. He and Nancy change parts. Or is it all her? It’s difficult to separate. Is he only listening to the dream and commenting, out loud, in the present?
“I think I’m losing my mind,” he says.
No one, real or remembered, answers him.
He has no idea how long he’s been there. No one comes to visit. Although Roger left numbers, there are no phones. The guide on the TV has a date, a time, but when did he come? What does it matter? Once, when he gets up from the chair to use the bathroom, Paul finds himself trapped in the kitchen and discovers that the refrigerator and cabinets are stocked. Most of it is snacks and he paws through it with no appetite.
In the storeroom, he finds party favors, hats, paper cups and plates, streamers, fireworks, cases of untouched alcohol, a cheap boxy strobe light, a pair of snowshoes, a pack of chopsticks, the skeleton of a rodent, long wooden matches, an empty wallet, a portable stereo, an album of CDs that look like they’re from a VH1 nostalgia collection, and, thumb-tacked to the wall, a tiny plastic robot doll, no bigger than his pinky. He removes three-quarters of the bottles from the case of gin, then fills the rest of it back up with assorted junk.
There is so much in that little room for his eyes to ratchet on that he gets confused as he’s attempting to find his way out.
What do you care? Nancy says.
He walks into a corner.
You don’t make the decisions and you’re not doing this to me.
Groaning, he walks and turns, tacking around, until he has found the doorway.
He turns off the light as he leaves. Her voice seems to come from the darkness behind him: Fine.
“Shut up!” he screams. “Shut the fuck up!”
We’ll certainly see about that, she says.
He can’t tell if it’s one of the unmarked pills or the fact that he’s washing them all down now with G&T’s, but Paul is feeling so thick he can hardly move. He unpacks the box and forgets about it. He puts on a party hat, puts a second on top of it, then takes the second one off. He wonders when Chuck Norris movies became American classics. They announce a David Lynch marathon. Paul, eyes closing, marvels at ERASERHEAD.
The dreams don’t improve and Nancy’s voice is everywhere.
How about this, she says.
His crutches, resting against the E-Z chair that matches his couch, look like giant sci-fi hypodermic needles.
You have no proof.
A moth lands on the window to his right. It must be day because the moth is black. Will it leave black powder on the glass?
I won’t let you.
There is a fluffy white dog that resembles the one he had as a child, but it vanishes as he calls it.
Time ticks by and, in a waking dream, he sees the crash, all out of order, then hears noises from the crash, but sees other things, like Nancy with her arms around a co-worker’s neck, he and Nancy fighting, him pointing at the door for Nancy to leave and her laughing, saying: I’m not going to lose everything I have because you’re feelings are hurt. We’ll get through this. And if we don’t, so what? You do your thing, I’ll do mine, but I’m not leaving and neither are you. I will not get a divorce!
“Nancy,” Paul says.
If you keep this up, I’ll tell Roger you’ve been hitting me and he’ll fucking kill you, Paul!
Ha! You’re scared.
“Roger is a lunatic.”
I won’t take no for an answer.
“So are you.”
And I refuse to let some uptight judge tell me what I can and cannot have. If you don’t let this go, I’ll tell him. I mean it, Paul. I swear. Oh, God, I swear on my own sorry life. And then we’ll see what’s what.
There is a head in the window. It’s starting to get dark, but the head is there in silhouette. Paul recognizes it as one of the shadowed heads from the truck that nearly took his life. A moment later, he recognizes it as belonging to Roger, his brother-in-law.
There are two heads in the window. Roger and Dennis.
The window is empty.
One head, Roger’s, is in the window by the door.
“Don’t,” Paul says quietly. “Please, Roger. Don’t.”
He reaches for the glass, but changes his mind.
He stops taking pills.
The lights go out and the dark turns black. He watches the image on the old TV shrink to a pin-prick, then disappear.
There is a small tap, a grating sound as Roger turns the key in the front door. Paul can’t remember locking it, but is glad he did, even though Roger has a key.
The door swings open for a moment, then closes and the room is black again. Paul feels his heart actually slowing down, thudding in his chest. He rolls up off the couch and uses it as a guide to find the other end table. His fingers touch the battery-powered strobe. He flicks the toggle on the side of the box.
The living room starts to pulsate. In between the black spaces, Roger is there, by the door, looking perplexed, then grinning his stupid grin.
“What the hell?” he says.
He inches closer when the light is flashing, but freezes in the dark. In his hands are rope, a sack, a long wooden bat.
Paul moves his eyes with each on/off click and things begin to stream around him, almost like normal. He glimpses his reflection in a window, sees himself, mouth and eyes comically wide, groping around in a party hat.
“Welcome to my brain,” he says.
He takes the drinking glass off the first end table and throws it at Roger. It misses, smashing against the doorjamb. While Roger is reacting to that, Paul circles around and finds his crutches. He picks one up. Roger drops the rope and sack and, guessing where Paul is, swings the bat in the dark. Paul already has the crutch in the air. The bat catches it near the tip and breaks the last six inches off, causing Paul to lose his balance. He puts his weight on the cast and goes down hard. Roger is trying to get his bearings, grunting, swinging wildly now. Paul gets up, ignoring the sudden pain in his foot. He ducks under the bat and brings up the splintered metal crutch, driving it forward with all his might. It goes into something soft and is wrenched away from him. Paul topples forward. Warm, wet liquid sprays his face. Roger is tipping away, reclining, out of sight. There is a thump.
Paul steps back.
In the flashing light, he sees Roger on the floor with the crutch sticking out of his neck, blood spurting around it. Roger is motionless. The drops of blood suspended in the glare look like a crowd of angry insects.
The second head from the window is back again and then gone.
Paul hears Dennis running away.
Far off in the distance, through the woods, a pick-up truck starts.
He staggers to the couch, laughing because he just can’t help it. He drops onto the cushion. The remote is still beside him. He aims it at the TV, thumbs it, but nothing happens.
He laughs until he’s crying, then laughs some more.
The batteries in the strobe wear out.
Somewhere in the middle of that long, dark night, Nancy says: It’s not over, Paul.
“I thought I told you to shut up,” he says.
And this time, for once, she does.
BIO: Walter Conley has worked in comics, children's entertainment and film, but his first love is the short story. His crime fiction has appeared at such online venues as Blue Murder Magazine, Judas E-zine and Opi8. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
made my sunday.
A real noir puzzle. Good job.
Glad you enjoyed it. The story was based upon a series of b&w photographs a friend of mine shot while recovering from surgery.
great. clever stuuf.
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