The air on his arm was soothing. Eric held his hand out straight, allowing the wind to push it around, like a road trip scene in a movie he once saw. He sighed, watching his fingers. His peripheral vision spoke up and he saw the streak of deer hide for only a moment, enough time to jerk the wheel hard. As he careened off the road, he locked eyes with the animal, a moment of slow motion wherein the deer had a chance to ask him what his problem was. He could come up with no good answer.
He awoke sometime later, his head hurting bad. He opened his eyes, slow, to the lightning protests of his brain. As his eyes focused, he saw the dashboard; the blinker arrow was pulsing at him sardonically.
Waiting another moment to be sure he wasn’t too badly hurt, he sat up, removing his face from the steering wheel.
“Where’s my airbag?” he asked no one. They obliged with the expected answer.
Eric looked around. It was dark now; he must have been out for a few hours. The deer, of course, was gone. Eric had been left alone on the road, nose down in a shallow ditch. He genuflected and looked skyward, thanking God that his instinct had been to turn left toward the mountainside, and not right and out into the air beyond the guardrail.
With a slow, careful motion he turned off the blinker.
“Vacation?” he muttered. “Shit on that.”
Eric climbed out of the car, then ducked back in and pulled the keys. He made his way around to the trunk, taking note of the damage on the car. Not much. He had also come away relatively unscathed, with only a headache for his trouble.
The trunk of his car was at eye level, the nose having pitched into the ditch and stuck there comically. He was careful not to stand too close as he opened the trunk, in case the car decided to let loose and fall on him in a final, unfunny punchline.
“Fuckin’ Buick,” he said opening the trunk and sliding his arm in. After a few moments of struggle, he decided he couldn’t reach the bag. A brief search of the ditch later he found a rock big enough to help him. He positioned it, stood on it, and retrieved his backpack.
He took it to the side of the road and sat down. He dug into it and began to get frustrated before remembering he had put his phone in the outside pocket. He ousted it and quickly discovered that he was still within the dead zone.
“Cool,” he said aloud.
Never being one to sit still, he stood, slung the backpack over his shoulder and began walking along the road. He stopped after a few yards and turned back. He raised his hand and pressed the button on his alarm remote. The car beeped and flashed at him. Eric smiled and turned back to the road.
It had been a day like any other.
He’d arrived at five in the morning in relief of the overnight surgeon, a kid named John, who patted him on the shoulder without a word and left.
Eric remembered when he had been younger. All the dirty shifts and dirty jobs. You had to work your way up in this world, that was for sure, and so far it had worked out for Eric Renney. He had put in his time and his labor, but instead of letting his foot off the pedal, he’d kept laboring, kept putting in his time. Eventually, and before too long, he would be sitting pretty for the rest of his life. Then again, most people considered him to be fairly close to sitting pretty as it was; or as close as most people deserved to get. A great job, a beautiful wife, a healthy and happy home.
Things were working out for Eric Renney.
Then Tom Shaw showed up. He was a quiet man, simple and easy to deal with, as most unconscious people who are near death tend to be. He was wheeled into Operating Room Three at seven thirty that morning, the first patient on a slow day at the hospital.
“Who gets shot on a Monday morning?” Eric asked one of the interns, who laughed politely in response.
Tom Shaw had taken one in the back, a 9mm slug that had just missed his spine and was buried somewhere deep inside the man’s torso.
It was Eric’s job to find the slug. The procedure was barely surgery. It didn’t even occur to him he was saving a life; digging out a bullet for a surgeon was akin to a lawyer being an asshole.
It came with the territory and was effortless.
Procedurally, Eric had done nothing wrong that day. He just slipped.
Mistakes happen. Eric Renney knew this, and was not the kind of man to torture himself forever over human error. But when you paralyze someone, it tends to fuck with your karma.
All karma aside, when the man dies a few days later of complications from surgery, you end up asking yourself a lot of hard questions.
After dodging most of those questions with an increased dedication to scotch and soda, Eric Renney went looking for real closure. The first and only step was to find out about the man, and accept what had happened.
If the man had been a bad sort, or a middle-class car salesman, or a rich prick of a banker, Eric would’ve found what he needed.
Instead, Tom Shaw was something else. Tom Shaw was a millionaire more than once over, who would’ve been a millionaire thirty times over if he didn’t give so much of his money away.
Tom Shaw lived on a ranch where he regularly rescued abused animals.
Tom Shaw gave five hundred thousand dollars annually to help veterans get back on their feet.
Tom Shaw offered both his time and his money to women’s shelters and help hotlines for the abused.
Tom Shaw had been given the key to his city.
Tom Shaw was fucking perfect.
So Eric had stayed in the bottle a little longer than he ever had before. After a few weeks, he thought often of his mother, who’d stayed in the bottle her entire life after her husband died. He kept reminding himself he wasn’t her, that he wasn’t capable of losing sight of what was important.
Then he was offered a sabbatical. And then his wife kindly offered him the couch. And then his kid offered him up the finger rather than a good night kiss.
That was the one that snapped him back. Seeing junior look at him like that. The finger and the anger behind it wasn’t the problem. It was the disgust in the kid’s eyes. The idea that this monster would want to come near him made the kid want to puke.
He went to a psychiatrist only twice before the answer became obvious.
Step one: stop drinking, you idiot.
Step two: get out of Dodge. Give everyone a break and clear your own stupid head.
He knew it, on that last day, that he’d made the right decision and in the nick of time. The relief he saw in his wife’s face was undeniable. His newfound enthusiasm to get out of her hair and let them heal, and then come back renewed, made her breath again. That meant she still loved him, and that was the most important thing in the world. The kid would forgive him, he’d always known that. He hadn’t been so sure about her.
After walking for nearly three hours he’d only passed one driveway, and presumably one house. Twenty minutes past it, he decided to turn back, cursing himself for not going up to the house in the first place. If nothing else they might have a Wi-Fi signal he could piggy back on.
The driveway was harder to find on the way back, which made absolutely no sense. When he did find it, he could’ve sworn it had been less overgrown the first time he’d gone by. He also thought he’d seen a mailbox and now there was nothing. Or where the mailbox had been had been covered in foliage.
Again, that was a ridiculous thought. He hesitated at the entrance, considering digging in the brush for the mailbox, then realized he was being an idiot. It was obvious what had happened. This wasn’t the same driveway. In a trance of purpose he’d walked past this less noticeable one, that was all.
With a nod, pleased with himself that he’d solved the mystery, Eric started up the driveway. It was paved for about fifty metres, then the asphalt ended and the road turned to white stone. It turned three times and wound on for three hundred metres at a slight incline before the house came into view.
He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but surely not a white, pillared monstrosity. The place looked like it should’ve been on the cover of a southern romance novel, or providing the back drop for a man in an ascot who’d recently decided to run for governor.
Two wide, tall, oaken doors, stained dark and fitted with bronze knobs and knockers, stood out in great contrast to the white façade of the house.
Eric laughed to himself about the word knockers and took out his earbuds. There was so much in his visual spectrum that all of a sudden he felt like he couldn’t pay attention to the audiobook he’d been listening to as he walked.
There was a circular driveway before the house, or maybe cul de sac was the proper term because it was just a round open space. It didn’t wind around a central fixture like a stone water fountain or a patch of hedges. The white stone looked odd in such a wide expanse, and didn’t seem to match the haughtiness of the pillared house, if at least roughly matching the color.
Eric stopped in the center of the patch of stone. There was something about the place that he couldn’t put his finger on. It looked like an old estate house, and yet if he was asked outright what he thought the place was, he might not immediately think of it as a place that people actually lived in. The place had an aura that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. From a distance it almost felt like a holy place, like a church. Now that he was closer, the place radiated the feel of an institution, maybe even an asylum. He could almost smell the hospital smells.
“You need a drink,” he said. It was supposed to be funny, but hearing himself say it aloud made him feel bad. He wanted to be the kind of man who could overcome problems with willpower alone. Separating himself from the booze was enough to keep him from drinking, but that didn’t stop him from thinking about it. Or apparently talking about it.
“Not an option, Renney,” he said, starting toward the nine stairs that led to the dark, stained doors. He checked his phone again as he climbed. There was no signal. It looked like he would have to go inside for help.
He reached for the doorknocker and hesitated. What he’d thought was bronze looked like gold now that he was closer. Probably just gilt, a thin layer, but still.
Impressed, he lifted the knocker and let it fall. Once, twice, three times.
“Coming,” said a voice from inside. For a second there was a strange buzzing, like he was somehow near a beehive.
The door opened. Eric Renney took three, hurried steps back, stopping just before his heel slipped down the stairs and sent him tumbling.
Tom Shaw had answered the door.
“What’s going on?” Eric asked. It wasn’t the casual greeting it could’ve been. Instead, it was a Twilight Zone, ringing your hands, pulling out your hair kind of delivery.
“Are you okay?” asked Tom, the dead man.
“I’m not,” Eric said.
“You’ve got quite a bump, there, friend. You have an accident?”
“Something like that.”
“Wreck your car?”
“A deer,” Eric said, trying to get his bearings. “A deer jumped out.”
“A deer? Really? They usually stick to the forest in these parts. Smart enough not to jump into the road. Saw a mountain goat cross the road once.”
“A goat. That would’ve been better,” Eric said. “Wouldn’t have sent me into the ditch.”
“Depends on whether or not you’d swerve to avoid a goat.”
“Is that a question?”
“No. You don’t look so hot. Would you like to come inside?”
“Just looking for Wi-Fi,” Eric said, flashing his phone.
Tom Shaw laughed. “Won’t get any of that around here. But I’m sure we can find you some help. Maybe even some lemonade.”
Eric shook his head.
“Something else then?”
“No, I wasn’t saying no. I didn’t mean…just this place, the house, the lemonade…”
“Oh,” Tom said, looking up like he’d forgotten where he was. “Right. Strange house for these parts. You familiar with the area?”
“A lot of old rich folks up this way. People that want to get out of the city but don’t want to pay too much for flat land. I didn’t build this. Just bought it.”
“Depends on your means, I guess.”
“It was. Hey, man, you don’t look so good. Are you going to come inside?”
Eric wasn’t sure what he wanted to say, but his head nodded yes, more polite than the rest of him. None of this was at all possible.
Luckily, he didn’t have to struggle with that for long. He stepped forward. One, two, three steps…and four. The moment he passed the threshold of the house, everything grew dark.
Not pitch black, just considerably darker as though the sun had ducked behind clouds. But along with the darkness came a smell, like mold.
Tom Shaw had ceased to exist. The darkness was not so deep that he shouldn’t still be there, right in front of Eric.
He looked back outside. Nothing there had changed. The light was the same, the stairs, the crushed stone walkway. And inside, it looked as he’d assumed it would, a natural continuation from outside.
When Tom Shaw had been standing there, there’d been more light. More natural, more electric light, more everything.
Eric sat down on a bench in the foyer. It creaked beneath his weight.
Tom Shaw hadn’t been there, of course. Eric had taken a bad knock on the head, and he’d imagined the man. There was no way he’d lived. Eric had gone to his wake, seen the body, dressed up and dead.
He checked his phone again. Phantom Tom had been right about that, at least. There was no signal inside the house.
Eric stood up. The feeling of the place was different from inside. He was almost sure it was an abandoned home. Not a church or an asylum, nothing so strange or sinister. Just a house that had been left alone.
The feeling didn’t matter; Eric could see nothing to support the theory of abandonment. It wasn’t like the place had cobwebs or wild plants climbing the walls. The hallway was clean, if dark, and the floors looked recently swept.
So why was he so sure that it was empty?
“Because there’s a ghost in it,” he said. He’d meant it as a joke, but didn’t like the sound of it aloud. Remembering how he’d offered himself a drink outside, he made a note to himself to shut the fuck up.
He decided that maybe his best bet would be to find a bed and lie down. If the three bears came home, so be it. He’d rather deal with that than another hallucination. And even three actual, live bears wouldn’t be worse than having to see Tom Shaw again.
To the left of the foyer was an ornate dining room with a long table. To the right, was a living area. Eric chose right and found a daybed near the front of the room. He’d just snuggled into it when he remembered something from his youth as a rugby player.
You weren’t supposed to sleep on a concussion. Not unless you had someone around to wake you up once in a while to make sure you hadn’t died.
“Fuck me,” he said, forcing himself into a sitting position. His stomach muscles hurt too, and the sit-up was not the most graceful of his life.
The dead zone for cell reception in the mountains only took forty-five minutes to drive through. How had he managed to get a wreck right in the middle of it?
Now realizing he should’ve kept on the way he’d been walking – he couldn’t have been very far from the edge of the dead zone – he considered getting his ass up and walking once more.
But the couch was comfortable.
How often in life was it as simple as that? Sometimes, even if the task was closing a window or going to the fridge, you just couldn’t do it, because the couch was too comfortable.
Tom Shaw appeared in the doorway with a silver platter. His eyes flickered for a moment, like the pupils had blinked out and returned. “Lemonade?” he asked. It was brighter, again. The house smelled normal and lived-in, like linens and flowers.
I’ve fallen asleep, Eric thought. Wished. Hoped.
Tom bent to lay the tray on the table in the center of the room. There was blood soaking his shirt in the back.
A fresh gunshot wound, no doubt.
“I’m unconscious and I should wake up,” Eric said.
“That’s an odd thing to say. Hey, have we met before?”
“You’re bleeding,” Eric said, evading the question.
Tom frowned at him. “Don’t you worry about that, Mr. Renney.”
“I didn’t tell you my name.”
“You didn’t have to.”
Eric felt like he was suddenly in a chess match.
“Here you go, Mr. Renney. Here’s your lemonade.”
Tom passed over a tall glass. It was no longer yellow and bright.
“What is this?” Eric asked, taking the glass and sniffing at it.
“Rye. That’s your favorite, isn’t it?”
The glass was absurdly full, no ice. In itself it was a taunt, a joke.
“Drink up, Doctor. Nothing bad is going to happen. Not to you. You’re invincible.”
Eric looked around, wanting to put the glass down. The table was not close enough, and Tom Shaw was blocking it anyway.
He sniffed at the glass again.
“Probably not a good idea,” he murmured.
Tom Shaw laughed.
Eric looked up. The man’s face was distorted, colorless. He looked a dead man, wearing makeup to seem alive, just the way he’d looked in his coffin. Blood dripped from the tail of his shirt and pattered against the hardwood floor.
He continued to laugh, hard enough that creases appeared at the corners of his mouth, cracks like splitting drywall. His skin bubbled and turned red, blood dripping from his mouth and eyes, from his ears, even his cheeks.
Eric heard more pattering.
Everywhere, the walls were bubbling. It was as though every pipe in the house had sprung a leak, and the water was making its way quickly through the walls. Only these pipes weren’t filled with water.
They were instead filled with something red.
Eric bolted for the door.
When he turned, he wasn’t where he should’ve been. He found himself in the dining area, not the hall, as though the intervening space had never been, like it had been squeezed out of existence.
He stopped and tried to turn back. Liquid splashed on his hand. Somehow he still held the glass of whiskey.
Eric sat in the nearest chair, legs failing him, heart racing. The chair had a little, golden cushion on it and gilding at the feet, carved into tiny paws.
He stared at the glass, smelling the liquid on his hand and jacket sleeve. It called to him like an old lover, a promise of something better, more youthful, a world with less responsibility.
The room was stable. No blood, no swollen drywall, no dripping.
He was looking down at an empty hand. The edge of his sleeve was wet, but the stain was darker. He touched it and rubbed his fingers together.
Blood, dark and real.
He pulled up the sleeve of his coat and saw more blood. Like magic, now that he saw the life leaving his body, he sensed the source, could feel the slight bit of pain he’d been ignoring since the car wreck. His head had been so much worse.
Standing in a stranger’s house, still wondering how bad his head wound was, he stripped to his waist. There it was, just at the shoulder. A small piece of glass. He could barely feel it, even though it looked like a fairly substantial cut. He reached for it and as soon as his fingers touched the glass, the pain erupted.
“Fuck you,” he said and pulled the glass out. It burned like fire. He was happy to see it wasn’t as deep as he’d feared. It was just a long gash, wide enough to require stitches if that had been an option.
At his back was a swinging door. Assuming kitchen, he pushed through and went inside.
He was at a bar. There was a man, there, drinking, running a hand through his hair. It was him, Eric Renney. He looked old and tired. He’d never seen himself like this, never been outside of his body.
It was disturbing and familiar. The Eric Renney before him smiled at the bartender, threw down a twenty and stood up. The bartender shook his head at Eric’s back. It was a bad shake, a disapproving, bewildered shake.
Eric knew the place, the bartender. It’s where he’d gone afterward, when the accident during Tom Shaw’s surgery wouldn’t quite let him go. It was his favorite place, after all.
Eric blinked and the scene was gone. He was in a gorgeous kitchen full of glistening white tile and grey marble. Eric had been hoping for a junk drawer, a place where he might find some glue or a first aid kit. He knew he was out of luck. This place was immaculate; there’d be no drawer that wasn’t fully organized.
He set about searching the place just the same. In one drawer he found some cheese cloth, and used that to staunch the flow of blood from his shoulder. With some butcher’s twine he was able to fashion a little bandage and keep it affixed.
Satisfied that it was the best he could do, he put his shirt back on over the wound.
As he ducked through the collar, he opened his eyes and was facing a dumbwaiter that he was fairly certain hadn’t been there before.
It was the sort of house that would have a dumbwaiter, he thought, assuming that he’d just missed it in his initial perusal.
“Denial,” said a voice behind him.
Eric spun so quickly that had he been able to find glue for his wound, he’d have pulled the damned thing open again.
Tom Shaw was there. Normal, healthy, no blood. “You’re a doctor. You should know about that condition.”
“Denial?” Eric asked. “What is this? How are you here? Am I hallucinating?”
“Oh yes. You’re on the side of the road, dying. Or is it better that you went over the edge? You hit the ground and died in a blaze, and this is heaven!”
“That’s not funny.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Doctor Renney. People know when they’re awake and when they’re dreaming. Are you dreaming right now?”
“Then why waste the time? No, don’t answer. I know the answer. Because of denial. You’ve become a bit of an expert over the years.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Behind him, Eric heard the sound of sliding metal.
“I think that’s your ride,” Tom said.
Eric didn’t take his eyes off the man. “Not this time,” he said. “What do you want, Shaw? I fucked up, you know that. I barely kept it together, almost lost my wife and kid. I never said I wasn’t responsible, I know I was. But that shit happens, man. It’s not the first time and it probably won’t be the last.”
“Denial,” said another voice.
There was a table and two stools in a little nook at the back of the kitchen. One of the stools was filled with a large, older man.
“Lacey,” Eric said.
“Ah. I’m surprised you remember me.”
“This is madness,” Eric said.
“Your ride,” Tom Shaw said, gesturing beyond Eric.
He looked. The dumbwaiter was open. Beyond was a glistening, red tunnel.
“What the fuck is that?”
“You’ll figure it out,” Tom said. “You’re so practised at denial, Doctor, that we’ve decided you should see a few things up close.”
Eric didn’t know what to do. Cameron Lacey was sitting there, watching him, fingers laced and laid gently upon his crossed legs. Cameron Lacey, the first man Eric had killed on the table.
“You weren’t my fault,” Eric said. “I’d worked a twenty-hour shift.”
“Managed to get to your locker, though, right before you put your knife in me,” Lacey said.
“What? What does that mean?”
Tom Shaw and Cameron Lacey looked at each other. Their mirthful grins were abhorrent, full of something sick and filthy.
“You drank a lot, didn’t you? After you killed Mr. Lacey?” Tom said. He reached into a drawer near his waist. “Almost lost your wife then, too? Correct? But she was pregnant. Pregnant and she was afraid and you convinced her not to leave.”
That’s why that bar had been his favorite, Eric realized. He’d drank then, too. Of course he had. He’d forgotten that, the weeks after Lacey’s death, the same pattern.
“Yes, I remember,” Eric said.
Cameron Lacey unfolded his hands and clapped them together, a slow, loud applause.
“He’s capable,” Tom Shaw said, pulling a huge knife from the drawer. “But there’s something I’d like you to remember, so get in that fucking hole right fucking now.”
A familiar smell wafted toward Eric. The scent that came from a man, cut open, innards splayed out in the fresh air. Something bright and metallic.
“You’re not really going to use that,” Eric said, pointing to Shaw’s knife.
“You cut a hole in his back and he died,” Lacey said. “You wanna bet he won’t use it, Doctor?”
“Turn around and get in the hole,” Shaw said. He smiled like he hoped Eric would protest further.
That metallic smell grew, so bad that he could taste it in his mouth like someone had slipped a piece of aluminium foil between his teeth. Shaw started around the counter.
“I can’t fit in there,” Eric said, looking at the strange wound beyond the dumbwaiter.
“Hurry,” Lacey said.
Eric could hear a low buzzing. He spun and saw Shaw coming for him. His eyes were gone, replaced by hissing screens of static.
It’s not real, not any of it, Eric thought. It can’t be.
Tom Shaw was close. The knife was closer.
Eric turned and climbed up into the dumbwaiter. For purchase he had to sink his hands into the sides of the fleshy tunnel and pull himself inside. Once through, the door of the dumbwaiter slid down. It crashed onto one of his ankles, right on the bone and he yelped, pulling it inside.
I wasn’t dark. It should’ve been, and yet he could see all around him.
It was a familiar sight, as the smell had been from outside. He was inside something living; he knew the texture of muscle and artery, even this large and this close. He’d climbed into the flesh of the house.
Though this wasn’t exactly healthy tissue. He could see the signature marks, the tearing that occurred when something hot tore through musculature.
He was inside a bullet wound.
“No, no, no,” he said. He kicked at the dumbwaiter door, again reminding himself that this couldn’t be real, that it was impossible.
“Deeper,” came a voice from outside. It sounded like the humming of a giant fly.
And yet it was real. Real as anything he’d ever experienced. Only fools thought they were dreaming when they were awake. They’d accused him of denial, but he wouldn’t cower and wait to be woken. He wouldn’t deny that this had happened.
He began to crawl deeper into the bullet wound. What he assumed was Tom Shaw’s bullet wound; no one had shot the house with a bullet this fucking big. He hadn’t seen a cannon outside.
As he crawled, knees pushing into the flesh like an old water bed, he remembered those days after Cameron Lacey’s death, the time he’d spent in the bar. It was odd, like a layer upon a layer, so closely did his behaviour mimic his more recent actions. How had he managed to forget how bad that had gotten?
“Because you had to,” he said. “Because you have to forget some things to survive.”
On his right the flesh gave way to a slick, white wall. The spinal column, he guessed, moving past without hesitation. He remembered it well, despite –
He shook his head.
He remembered the wound, the depth. He’d decided not to go through from the back because the bullet had passed so far into the thorax. He’d gone in from the front, a little more blind, confidant that it would be safer.
Eric crawled on, not going far before reaching the spot. The bullet was gone; he’d removed it, after all. He could see the damage, the extra scrapes along the spinal column. He’d slipped only briefly and caught the scalpel against the bone. It could have glanced off in any direction, could’ve caused a small amount of tissue damage anywhere. Instead, it had found purchase between the vertebrae.
Facing it, so close, he felt sick. The clumsiness of it, the sheer stupidity.
If only he hadn’t stayed up so late. If only he hadn’t been –
“No,” he said aloud. “No.”
The world shivered. The bone before him began to decay, the tissue started to slough away and liquefy. He was suddenly in a waist-deep pool of detritus, splashing back toward the entrance of the wound, trying to keep his head above the rising ichor.
When he reached the dumbwaiter door, it caved easily beneath his weight and he spilled out onto the ground.
The buzzing was there, strange and thick, like the static in Tom Shaw’s eyes had invaded Eric’s every orifice.
He forced himself to open his eyes. He was alone, and dry, curled in the fetal position upon the white tiles of the kitchen floor.
For a brief moment he let fantasy win, imagined this was the floor of his own home. That he’d passed out, drunk, like so many times before, and it had all been a bad dream.
It was working. Who gets hit by a deer? Who finds southern, palatial houses in the mountains? Who meets dead men?
He grabbed the counter and stood up.
The room melted and he was at the bar once more, facing Mike the bartender.
“You sure? Looks like you haven’t slept much.”
“I’ve got a shift,” Eric said.
Eric shook his head again. No. This wasn’t real. This couldn’t be real.
He turned from the bar and was at the hospital, in the locker. John, the night surgeon, patted him on the shoulder. But his face was full of sourness, shock and confusion. And something else? Disappointment?
“Why don’t you stop me?” Eric shouted. John faded away, and the walls of the kitchen returned. Eric fell to the ground, sobbing. “Why didn’t you stop me, if you knew?”
Cameron Lacey’s hands clapped again, a more thunderous applause than before.
But the man wasn’t there. Instead, Tom Shaw was leaning against the counter, knife in hand.
“Got it, did ya?” Tom Shaw asked.
“I’m a drunk. It’s not news.”
“I want you to say it. What I need to hear. Go on.”
“I just did.”
Shaw crouched. “No. Say it. What you did to me.”
“I was drunk,” Eric said. “I was drunk.”
“And what?” Eric spat. He felt feral, abused, exposed. “That’s why you died? Bullshit! I could’ve killed you any day. Any surgeon can fuck up. And I’m better than most! Better than most even with a buzz on.”
“I think you were drunk when you killed the other guy, too,” Shaw said. “But it’s been a while, and he’s not much of a grudge-holder. Older folks are calmer about that sort of thing. Still, he was pissed enough to show up, so maybe you should admit that, too.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Eric said. “You can’t gut me. You’re a ghost.”
“Hmmm,” Shaw said. “Didn’t think to gut you.”
His eyes became static once more.
Eric flashed back, to the bar that morning.
“What’s wrong with the television?” he asked Mike, sipping on a double of some new Japanese scotch.
“Don’t know,” Mike said.
“Can’t you turn it off?”
“I like the static. It’s soothing.”
Tom Shaw leaned in, the buzzing of the static growing louder in Eric’s ears. “I was thinking of something a little more fitting.”
Tom pushed him flat to the floor, prostrate on his stomach, his hands strong. Eric tried to wriggle away but he was easily overpowered. He felt the tip of the knife bite into his back and he screamed.
The woman before him cried out, banging her head on the door as she retreated.
“You’re alive,” she said, one hand to her chest and one to her head. “You scared the hell out of me.”
Eric felt pain. In his head, his back. Right there, right where the knife had gone in. Right where Tom Shaw had suffered a bullet wound.
For a second, Eric panicked. The bastard had paralyzed him! That was his fate!
But he felt the pain. Felt it.
He reached up, moved the mirror. There was blood all over his face.
“Just a scalp wound, I think,” the woman said. “Maybe a concussion. You feel okay?”
“No,” Eric said, his throat raw.
“Looks like you clipped a deer,” said the woman. “I had to put the poor thing out of its misery with a rock.”
“Oh,” Eric said. He reached around behind him. The buckle of the seatbelt was digging into his back.
“Can’t get any reception up here for phones,” the woman said. “Best you come with me. I was heading into town anyway. I’ll drop you at the hospital. You want this?”
She handed Eric a towel. He took it and stared at it. It took him a second to remember what it was for.
“Felt so real,” he murmured. “You’re supposed to know the difference, aren’t you? Between reality and dreams?”
The woman shook her head, then opened the car door from the outside. “Come on. I’ll help you out of there.”
Not long after, he was in her pickup truck. She was cranking up the heat, and she’d given him a blanket.
“Not sure how concussions works. Seems like keeping someone warm is always a good idea,” she said. She reached across him and opened the glove box. “There, if you want it.”
Eric looked at the flask of rum. A buzzing entered his ears. He looked over at the woman, and her eyes had become static.
He slammed the glove box closed with his knee.
“No thanks,” he said. “I don’t touch the stuff.”
Keith Kennedy writes and rights wrongs. His wife, though left-handed, helps a little.