When a Good Man Cheats

Nothing in the bread bowl had seemed appetizing, but that didn’t stop Carol from chewing through three Pumpernickel rolls before her parents showed up. Mr. and Mrs. Corwin, or “Stuart and Bonnie” as they preferred to be called, arrived at 8:02 pm in outfits that could only be described as intimidating.

Stuart wore a double-breasted suit, jet black and tailored, with a shirt the color of bleached bone and a burgundy tie in a Windsor knot; Bonnie wore an emerald-colored off-the-shoulder dress, and a string of pearls around her neck that could choke a hippo. Carol had chosen her best work outfit: a light grey pencil skirt, a pumpkin-colored blouse and a blazer she’d picked up at Marshall’s for $25.

“Hi Mom, Hi Dad” said Carol, rising from her seat and kissing both of her parents on the cheek.

“Hello Caroline,” said Stuart, pulling out Bonnie’s chair and then his own. “Lovely to see you again.”

“Will you look at that shirt, Stuart? Our daughter is positively glowing” said Bonnie, her white teeth flashing.

“Thanks Mom” said Carol, reaching for the bread bowl again before stopping herself. “You look great, as usual.”

“Oh this old thing? Just something your father picked up for me, I said it was too much but you know him. Always the gentleman.”

A waiter came by with the menus. Stuart ordered the duck confit with garlic potatoes for himself, and the herb-encrusted chicken for Bonnie. Carol asked for the lamb, and a glass of Cabernet. When the waiter left, Stuart adjusted his knife and fork so they sat perfectly parallel to the plate. “So, Caroline, how is Brian?”

Carol hesitated for a moment before saying, “He’s great. Fine, really.” The blue in her father’s eyes glittered like sapphires in the light of the candle on the table. “How have you two been?”

Before Stuart could respond, Bonnie jumped in. “Oh, you know how it is. One month we’re at home, the next month we’re on vacation in Bali; I’m sure Brian keeps you busy like that too.”

Carol stared down at her plate and said nothing. As if in response, the waiter came back with her wine, a long-stemmed piece of crystal filled nearly to the brim with inky crimson. Carol took a deep gulp and set the glass back down beside her plate.

“Actually, Brian’s the reason I asked you guys to have dinner with me tonight.” Carol took a long breath before saying the words she’d rehearsed in the mirror before leaving her apartment. “We’re getting a divorce.”

Bonnie’s face froze in a silent shriek. Stuart’s upper lip quivered for a microsecond, but remained firm. What felt like hours of silence passed, before Stuart broke it. “What did you do?”

Carol spun her eyes up to meet her father’s, stared at him with the sapphires he’d given her. “I didn’t do anything, we just… we can’t be together anymore.”

Her mother’s death mask softened, and she actually let herself laugh. “Oh honey, you’ve only been married a month! You’re still getting used to each other’s little quirks, it’s completely natural; your father and I hated each other for the first two months after our honeymoon. You need to give it time.”

Carol’s eyes began to water. “Brian doesn’t have any little quirks. It’s not about the honeymoon and it’s not about me, we just can’t be together anymore okay?”

Stuart stared at his daughter, before repeating himself. “Caroline, what did you do?”

She began to sob. “I didn’t… it’s not like that, dad!”

Bonnie had a brainstorm. “I think I know what this is. Carol, honey, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world if Brian cheated on you. It’s always hard when a good man cheats, but you can recover from this. Believe it or not, your father and I went through the same thing.” She entwined her fingers with Stuart’s, and said “If anything, it made our marriage stronger.”

Carol’s tears stopped, and her face  “Brian didn’t cheat on me, mom; he beat me.”

Now it was Stuart’s turn to be shocked. He sat in silence, staring at the bombshell his daughter had just laid out before them. “He beat you?”

Just then, the food arrived. The waiter mixed up everyone’s order, giving Stuart’s duck to Carol, Bonnie’s chicken to Stuart and Carol’s lamb to her mother. Nobody corrected him, or even seemed to notice. “Bon appetit,” said the waiter.

“Yes dad, he beat me… with his fist. And before you ask, no, I don’t know what I did to deserve it.”

Bonnie was horrified, but this time Stuart cut her off. “How can you think I’d ask something like that? Is that what you think of me?”

“Really, dad? You can’t figure out why I’d think that’d be your next move? Maybe because it’s all been my fault, every bad thing that’s ever happened in my life. Isn’t that what you’ve always told me?”

Stuart’s upper lip trembled. “But not this… never this…”

“Oh, what-ever. Don’t break character now, it doesn’t suit you.” Carol looked down at the duck on the plate before her, sizzling sweetly in its own juices. It made her want to throw up. “I can’t do any more of this,” she said, getting up to leave.

“Don’t go honey, please” squeaked Bonnie, reaching for her daughter’s hand. Tears slipped from behind her eyes, loosening the mascara on her lashes. “We love you.”

Carol reached for her purse and stopped. “I know you do, mom. I came here to tell you guys, and I told you. I just can’t be around another screwed-up couple right now.” She turned to her father, whose penetrating blue gaze was nowhere to be seen. “Good job cheating on mom, by the way. I hope she fucks a cabana boy on your next trip to Bali.”

Death Is Hard to Live With

Tim died in June but, after the funeral was over and everyone left, he started to get lonely. Even worse, the collar of the shirt he’d died in continued to be as itchy as it ever was. He spent his first few dead days wandering the graveyard where he’d been buried, hoping to meet a fellow ghost or phantom or spectre, but he found the place to be as desolate in death as it had been in life. Row after row of grey teeth shot up from the ground, emblazoned with last names and Born/Died dates, but there was nary a spook to be found.

It was a full week before Tim met his first dead person, an overweight ghost named Clyde. He’d been walking down the street, wondering why he was the only person who’d ever died and became into a ghost, when he rounded the corner and spied Clyde, a fellow apparition at last, licking an ice cream cone. Tim started to wonder how exactly this other ghost was holding an ice cream cone, when he realized that Clyde wasn’t actually holding it himself: there was a young woman standing beside him, holding a chocolate ice cream cone she had ostensibly purchased for herself, and here was Clyde licking it as though this was the most normal thing in the world.

“Hey, what the hell are you doing?”

Clyde took one last fat lick at the dribbling chocolate and turned to face Tim. He was a man in his forties, or at least he had been when he died, with a balding wisp of hair atop his head and a bloated body stuffed into a black-and-gold tracksuit. With a confused look on his face he replied, “What?”

Tim persevered. “I saw you, you were just licking that lady’s ice cream. How can you even taste it?”

“I don’t have to taste it now to remember what it tasted like before. Licking it just helps put me in the state of mind to recall better.”

Tim wasn’t quite sure how to respond, and so he rolled his eyes. It was something he’d hated seeing people do when he was alive, but he wasn’t anymore, so the whole social rulebook kind of went out the window.

“Lemme guess: newly dead?” Clyde smirked in a way that Tim did not appreciate one bit.

“What’s that got to do with it? Don’t try and change the subject.”

Clyde wiped his hands on his tracksuit and extended the left one to Tim. “Name’s Clyde; it happened to me about a year ago. Fell down the steps at a Saints game; trying to carry too many beers and wieners back to my seat, I guess. By the time I hit the bottom, well…” Rather than explain further, he grabbed the top of his head and pulled to the right. His neck bent about 90 degrees, until he was staring at Tim sideways.

“Jesus,” said Tim, “alright, I get it. Enough.” Clyde laughed and brought his head back up to where it normally ought to be.

“Man, you’re gonna have to get a stronger stomach. You’re dead for fuck’s sake!”

Tim began to bristle at this other man’s coarse language, but stopped. “Right… I keep forgetting that.” He sat down on the curb and held his head in his hands. The itchy shirt collar tickled his neck, but he couldn’t bring himself to scratch it.

“Aw, shit” said Clyde, and awkwardly shuffled his bulk until he too was seated; his legs were splayed out into the street, almost unbent at the knee. He patted Tim on the back as he let out a soft whimper. “Alright, that’s enough of that. You’re dead, get over it and figure out what to do with yourself. You don’t see anyone else weeping like a girl around here.”

Tim lifted his head from his hands. “I haven’t seen anyone else around here period. You’re the only other ghost I’ve actually met. How can that be?” He wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his sweater. “Even the graveyard was empty.”

Clyde laughed. “Sheeyit, think about it for a second. Why in the hell would anyone wanna  hang around that creepy place? You’re dead! You can go anywhere, see anything, but instead you’re gonna camp out  in some park full of dead bodies?”

Tim thought about it for a second, and then said “Wow, you’re right. I’m a complete fucking idiot.” Clyde snorted, slapping him roughly on the back. As strange as it was, it felt nice to actually be touched by another human being. He held out his hand, saying “My name’s Tim; I choked to death on a cluster of raisins.” Clyde took Tim’s hand in his own, and began to shake violently with laughter. Tim turned red.

“I guess it’s not as glamorous as being King Klutz. How hard can it be to carry a tray?” Clyde whooped, slapping his knee mirthfully. In spite of himself, Tim began to laugh as well. His shirt collar began to itch again, but this time he wrenched the stuffy button-down up over his head and hurled it into the street. Sitting next to Clyde on the curb in his undershirt, he started to wonder if maybe death wasn’t the end of the world after all.

One Hand Washes The Other

To Jonas, the bathroom was a place for business. The trays of mints and colognes sat waiting to be used, and the tip jar waited anxiously. Rarely fed and forever hungry, that jar.

A young man and an older executive-type entered the room, headed straight for the standing urinals against the wall. Jonas kept his gaze level, his hand clutching the wad of paper towels in his back pocket.

The older gentleman finished first, washing his hands with the almond-scented soap before shaking them dry, splattering water on the mirror. Jonas grimaced.

As he accepted the towel that Jonas held in his hand, the old man winked and dropped a dollar into the jar. Jonas smiled, stuffing the remaining wad back into his pocket.

Now the young man stepped forward. He looked at Jonas in the mirror, and smirked as he scrubbed his hands meticulously. After washing, he popped one of the red and white mints into his mouth and gave himself two spritzes from the clear blue cologne bottle next to the sink.

Jonas held out a paper towel, but the young man rebuffed him. The mint clacking in his teeth, he laughed and wiped his hands on his pants. Jonas smelled the rich peppermint, mixed with the heavy musk of the cologne, and felt it strike his face like a fist.

“Thanks bro, but I got it.” As the young man strode from the bathroom whistling a happy tune, Jonas shoved the paper towels back into his pocket.

Before long, a fat man in an overcoat waddled into the bathroom and stood at one of the urinals. Jonas stood upright, clutching the paper towels in his pocket once more.

The Lighter Kind

After waking up from the accident, Calvin felt no different than he had the for first 9 years of his life. His head hurt like hell, and his entire body was wrapped in bandages, but he was still Calvin. Still the kid who, just a year ago, climbed a tree to chase a lizard and fell to the ground, breaking his collarbone. Still the boy who’d hopped into his father’s new Cadillac with his friend Bobby, and promptly reversed straight through the garage door. Growing, sure, but still the same.

He’d heard the doctors tell his mother that the bandages could come off today. The beeping of the life support machines beside his bed counted off the seconds and the minutes and the hours, and he knew it would be happening soon. He was excited to get up, to get out of his lumpy hospital bed and stretch his legs, and it wouldn’t be long now.

The door squeaked like a mouse, and Calvin heard three sets of footsteps enter the room; he smelled his mother’s perfume, like rich velvet in his nostrils. “Is he awake” he heard his mother ask, “Can you hear us my baby boy?” Calvin tried to speak, and found that he could not. His body felt as rigid as a log lying there in the bed, and he heard the rustling of papers before the doctor spoke.

“He can certainly hear us, and he’s very much awake. We thought it would be simpler if we limited his mobility and stimuli for the time being.” The man sounded like his Math teacher, formal and curt although not unkind.

Calvin heard his father’s voice; “What are we waiting for? I think the quicker we pull this band-aid off the better.” He heard his mother sniff.

“We need to talk to our son,” she said.

There was a moment of silence followed by the tapping of computer keys, and the machine beside the bed began to thrum. Calvin felt the way he did when his foot would fall asleep, except this time the feeling was all over. Tingling, like a warm light was washing over his skin.

The doctor spoke again asking, “Can you feel that Calvin? Move your fingers if you feel the tingling.” Calvin attempted to wiggle his fingers, and found that he could. He knew that they’d moved, but he couldn’t feel it. He heard his mother gasp, and the tapping of the computer keys.

“Wavesigns are normal, this is very good. Can you move your toes for me?”

Calvin’s brain told his toes to wiggle, and wiggle they did. He didn’t feel them, but he knew that they’d moved because he heard his mother let out a faint but definite peep. The computer keys clicked away again.

“Fine motor control is normal. I believe Calvin’s ready to open his eyes now.” He heard another flurry of typing, and his eyes felt as though a weight had been lifted. He opened them slowly, and a brilliant light filled his view.

As the brightness faded, Calvin began to see his mother and father standing at his bedside. His mother had on the same dress she’d worn to his 7th grade piano recital. His father wore one of his brown suits, the one with the pocket that Calvin had slipped a frog into during one of the family’s garden parties. To the right he saw the doctor, an older man in green scrubs seated at a computer station, poring over reams of data as they scrolled past on the screen. Calvin looked down and saw that half of his body was hidden by bedsheets, and the exposed bits were wrapped in white gauze.

The computer keys clacked again, and Calvin felt the warm light spread through his chest, out to his arms, out to his legs and up his neck. “Okay Calvin. You can speak whenever you’re ready.”

“Mom? Dad?” Calvin’s voice sounded like it used to when he would talk into the rotating fan, chopped and oscillated. His mother started to cry, and his father smiled.

“Hey Squirt, where’ve you been hiding?”

Calvin sat up and replied, “Not hiding, I’ve just been sleeping! I’m done sleeping though, I wanna get out of here.” He looked down at his hands and said “I can’t wait to…” Calvin trailed off as he caught sight of the gap in the gauze wrapping on his wrist. The skin beneath it was grey.

Before his mother or his father or the doctor could say anything to stop him, Calvin began pulling at the bandages on his arm. Every layer he removed revealed more grey, from his wrist all the way down to his forearm, and all the way up to his hand. His hand was made of metal.

“I don’t… What is this? Dad?” His voice sounded like a panicked air conditioner.

His father’s face stiffened. He looked like he had something to say, but he couldn’t say anything. In the silence, the doctor spoke up.

“After the accident, we had to salvage whatever we could. Everything beyond repair had to be replaced.”

Calvin looked at his hand. “Replaced… like with robot parts?”

The doctor bristled. “The correct term is full-body psychosynthetic prostheses, but yes; if it helps, think of them as robot parts.” Calvin’s mother choked back a sob, his father rubbed his fingers against the side of his head, and Calvin remained seated bolt upright.

“So… I’m a robot now?”

“No no no,” his mother breathed, “you’re still you. Don’t think that you’re not.”

“But I’m kind of not anymore, aren’t I? I’m like at least half robot.” 

All four occupants of the room sat in silence, with only the beeping and thrumming of the bedside machinery filling the void. Calvin looked at his hand for a moment, then at his parents, and back to his hand.

“This is has to be the coolest thing to ever happen to anyone, ever!” Calvin’s voice trilled like a bird in a bathtub. “Bobby broke his knee last summer and all he got was a couple of lousy screws; I get to be a robot!”

When I Turn

She did her best, but she was young. When her father sighed, she kissed his eyes and placed a wet towel on his forehead, felt the heat of his skin as she touched his restraints. He’d told her what to do, before the fever made it so he couldn’t speak; once he was dead, she was to ensure he stayed that way. No physical contact.

The sun sank in the sky, and the light that colored the workshop’s interior began to change. Now the room was white, and the father’s sweat sparkled. Now the room was yellow, and his mouth made soft sucking sounds. Now the room was orange, and his brow coiled like a viper. Now the room was red, his skin dry and loose, and he stopped making noise.

She knew he was dead, and it made her cry. Her hand drifted toward his workbench ghost-like, past the tin-snips and vicegrips, hovering over the little ball-peen hammer. She’d watched him knock the dents out of the old station wagon’s roof with it. Her fingers curled around its thin wooden handle. The redness of the room frightened her.

In the prolonged silence, the sudden sound of movement made her gasp; the hammer slipped and clattered on the poured concrete floor. She gazed at the table where her father lay, saw his still body begin to wriggle. His eyes never shut, never blinked, and his hands pulled at the restraints. They held, but he kept pulling. She edged nearer to the table.

His eyes locked onto her, and his mouth gaped into a dessicated rictus of teeth and tongue. She knelt to pick up the hammer and stood above his face, biting her lip. He tilted back on his head and reached for her with his eyes, with his teeth. She screamed, and brought the hammer down on his forehead as hard as she could like he’d told her to. The sound was an egg cracking inside the carton. Her father’s face was red.

She placed the hammer on the table and wiped a sniffle from her nose. Leaning over him and placing a hand on his cheek, she whispered something sweetly about how he’d be alright now, and how he was with Mom. She stroked the flesh of his face, felt it like sackcloth under her fingers.

The smell of her stimulated him and he gnashed his teeth, catching the skin of her finger and tearing. She screamed and ripped herself from his mouth, but his teeth wanted more. Grabbing the hammer from the table, she brought it down again and again until she didn’t see her father’s face anymore; all she saw was red.

Backing away from the table, she ran to the utility drawer and found the bungee cord she’d seen him use to strap down the generator when there’d still been fuel for the thing. She coiled it around her thumb, just below the knuckle, until the nail turned red. Then she reached for the tin-snips.