Yellow Mama Archives

J. Scott Hardin
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thewraith.jpg

THE WRAITH

 

J. Scott Hardin

 

 

So how you doin’?  I’m Bobby.  They call me Bobby-The-Wallop.  When you get to know me, you can call me that, too, if you want.  It don’t bother me none.  I guess if you can hear this, you must be in my head anyway.  Don’t bust my chops about it though.  It’s not like it’s my fault or nuthin’.

You just don’t know me yet.

You see that guy over there?  Yeah, that’s him.  That’s Doctor Pettinger.  Herbert F. Pettinger the third, actually.  He looks like he knows what he’s doin’, don’t he.  He’s all smart and scientific.  Pretty snappy suit.  Goes good with that winning smile.

Well, if he’s right about everything he says he’s right about, then he don’t really know me either.  You know?  Like I friggin’ lost my marbles or somethin’.  Holy virgin mother, is this guy for real?  Don’t take my word for it, pal.  Hear for yourself.

“Now stay with me, Bobby,” Dr. Pettinger encouraged.  “I’m right here.  I want you to listen to me as carefully as you can.”

The doctor waved his hand rapidly until he caught Bobby’s eyes.

“Right here,” he continued.  “That’s right.  Now listen.  Do you remember what happened at the restaurant?”

“You keep sayin’ that,” Bobby replied.  “It’s like I told you before.  I didn’t go to any god damn Chinese restaurant.  Okay?  Enough about it, already.  Look, you want me to make up a story?  I could prolly think up somethin’ good.  What kinda story you want, doc?  Somethin’ sexual maybe?”

Yeah, I knew that’d piss him off.  God damn doctors.  You see the kind of shit he tries to pull?  Telling me for an hour I went to a Chinese restaurant. 

It’s like he’s tryin’ to say somethin’ bad happened, but he won’t come out and say it.  I mean, do you trust people like that?  Yeah, well me neither.

I ain’t seen Dr. Pettinger in a long time.  Maybe a year or so.  I dunno, maybe longer.  Still looks the same.  Blonde hair starting to thin in the front.  A sorta gawky way of walkin’.  He’s got the kind of skin that blotches, too.  I mean how can you take a guy with rosy blotches everywhere all that serious?

Fuckin’ guy . . . see what he’s on about now?  Says it’s a relapse of my Schizophrenia Disorder.  He’s telling me I gotta restart the meds, and then everything’s gonna clear up.

You believe this crap?  I mean, have you ever tried all these antipsychotics?  Those little pills ain’t no joke, man.  The very last thing they do is make anything clear.  It’s like they push this shit just so you can actually go crazy.  That’s when you know they might actually get you. 

There he goes again.  That doctor’s worse than a damn pit bull whose got your neck.  He don’t let go for nothin’.  It’s back to that stupid restaurant.  What happened at the table?  Did I know the man slumped over on the floor?

What fuckin’ man on the floor?  This guy, he don’t ever stop . . .

 

*        *          *          *          *

 

          “No that’s it,” Bobby declared.  The thin waiter bowed slightly and accepted the menus.  “No, wait.”  The man reversed his gaze.  “Does that kung-pao come out spicy or what?”  The attendant assured him that the flavor was actually quite mild.  “Yeah, that’s good then.  Hey, bring out some of them lemon slices you got, alright?”  The server promised him he would.

          “Alright you guys, check this out.  This is what I was tellin’ Vino about the other night.”

          Vino nodded his encouragement.  He had heard an abridged version and waited even more expectantly than his fellows for the full monte.  Thursday night at Pei Po along the Bowery was always a spectacle, but when Bobby-The-Wallop got rolling on a story – well, Vino knew as well as his friends that this was going to be a vintage performance.

          The other young men nodded that they too were ready.  Even Danny stopped staring at the girl two tables down.  She was cute, and Danny was notorious, but Vino told him it was going to be worth it.  When Bobby had a dream, it was time to listen.  They were invariably sensational.

          “So here’s the deal,” Bobby continued.  “I’m on this plane, right?  And it’s one of them little ones, you know like they only got two seats on the sides.  A 737 maybe.

          Whatever.  So I get on the plane.  And I’m sittin’ there, and I’m sittin’.  The waitress chick comes out and does the whole safety bit.  And I’m waitin’ there for them to get started, right, and so I start lookin’ around.  You know, it’s the first time I been on one of these birdies since 9/11.  I wasn’t really thinkin’ nothin’, but I felt kinda weird, suspicious like.  I mean you gotta check around, right?”

          As the waiter returned with a huge tray, the rest of the table readily agreed it was indeed best for one to check around.  Bobby caught the waiter staring at him twice.  It made him wonder if the food was clean.  Why did he keep looking?  Shifty bastard.

          “So that’s what I do,” he resumed.  “I start checkin’ out the people on the plane.  First off, there wasn’t that many.  Most of the seats were empty, and that got me to thinkin’.  It’s gotta cost plenty to put one of these babies in the air, so where the hell are all the fuckin’ people at then?”

          Bobby noticed his friends’ guilty expressions.  Some of the customers nearby cast disapproving glances.

          “What, a guy can’t express himself in public no more?”

          The remonstration was loud enough so that more than just his friends could hear.  He stared down the few who seemed reluctant to return to their meals.  “Jesus Christ!” he added with an incensed shrug.  It was his usual afterthought.

 

*        *          *          *          *

 

I lay down in my bed that night with the weight of my own certain extinction pressing every bone and muscle into the busted frame.  I felt as tired as an atom must feel inside the crush of a gas giant.  My room looked exactly the same, even if it had now become a Jupiter capable of squeezing metal into shapeless clouds of elements.  The impossible now had a face and features – and flaws.

As it turns out, the cold, stony fortress of mortality has cracks behind the fašade.  You won’t find anything in reality that would even come close to preparing you for those cracks.  You have no idea.  Nobody does.  Nobody can, no one except for me, that is.  I am the only one I ever met who really and truly cheated death.  Make no mistake, death killed me sure enough, but the bitch of it is, I didn’t actually die from it.

That probably doesn’t make very much sense to you, and believe me I can appreciate your disbelief.  I didn’t understand it myself.  I now know death is a lie.  There is no way around that.  What I can’t tell you is why.  Figuring that out was a big part of why I needed that bed.

My body had healed up fine enough after the incident on the plane, but everything still ached horribly.  My mind had become so overloaded that it, too, ached horribly.  You could check the word “tired” in a thesaurus, but you won’t find anything that really compares.  Even my hair was tired.  And I do mean every single hair.  What kind of word describes that?  If there is such a word, I know it wouldn’t have been created by man.  You can’t create something you can’t imagine.

Shot in the chest, bleeding all over myself, hanging by my fingertips above the greatest drop of all time, I knew I should have died.  My strength ebbed with every heartbeat.  My fingers had more in common with ice than with fingers.  Everything dimmed and started turning black.  I had no doubt at all that I would die.  My imagination admitted to it with perfect certainty.  It could conceive no alternative.  It was supposed to happen.  No one could have been more shocked that it didn’t. 

Because it didn’t, my understanding of the laws of the universe, of physics, of reality itself would have to be revised.  If death doesn’t kill you, what does anything else mean?

If I could cheat death, what else could I do?  I had no idea.  The only truth I could hang onto at that moment was rest.  The time my body needed to regenerate would also be the time my mind needed to learn.  If the rules of life and death no longer applied to me, I had to investigate, experiment, figure out exactly what those new laws were.

It was obvious I had new and strange powers, that I had crossed over some kind of threshold beyond the truths of mere men.  I closed my eyes, proving the mysteries of what I might do, a growing form quiet and alone inside a cocoon of invincibility.

That’s when I sensed it just beyond my bedroom door.

 

*        *          *          *          *

 

“Alright doc, then tell me this,” Bobby insisted.  “If the things I see ain’t real, then how the hell am I supposed to know you are?  And now you’re telling me that I was at this Chinese place.  I don’t remember anything like that.  What you’re basically telling me is that what I do see isn’t real and what I don’t see is.”

You see that?  I got Doctor P. on the ropes with that one.  Why the hell does he get to decide what’s real anyway?  Who died and elected him fuckin’ Pope?  You see?  Look at his ass now.  He don’t know what to say to that.  Doctor Pit Bull got nothin’ to bite on this time.  And no jugular.

“Now Bobby, I want you to calm down and try to focus on what I’m saying,” Doctor Pettinger counseled.  “What you’re going through right now is the manifestation of a chemical imbalance in your brain.”

“Look, I heard all that chemical mumbo-jumbo before, Doc.  I think you’re the one who’s got it backwards.  You’re the one who’s imbalanced.”

“Until we can get you stabilized, I want you to think of what you’re experiencing as something like watching television.  As you know, there are an awful lot of programs you could watch, but I want you to remember that you are the one in control of the remote.  The thing is, Bobby, your T.V. has only one channel that’s real. 

It’s this one, the place you’re at right here, the conversation we’re having right now.  If you find yourself somewhere else, try to change the channel back to this one, okay?”

What, so now my life’s a bunch of stupid T.V. shows?  Then that means I don’t have to watch the rest of the episode of “Doctor Pit Bull”, right?  This guy, he thinks he’d be my favorite drama?  Dramas suck anyway.  Boring shit.

“Bobby, stay with me now.  Come on and try.  Bobby?”

 

*        *          click       *        *

 

“We took off fine, and everything was alright with that part.  The thing is, there was a few of these Muzzlens on board.  I had my eye on them, at least what I could see from the seat.”

“You mean Muslims,” Danny corrected.  The interruption drew a blank stare.  “Muslims,” he repeated.  “That’s what they’re called.”

“Danny, shut the hell up.  Whatever.  It was a bunch of them Bin Laden mother fuckers, alright?”

“Anyway, sure enough they hijacked the god damn plane.  They had a gun.  I couldn’t see all of what happened ‘cause they was all up in the front.  They got it off a guy, so I guess he was one of them Air Marshals or somethin’, so that’s why he had the gun, right?

And then I heard this shot.  They got the Air Marshal right in kisser.  Man he went down hard.   I seen one of them drag him to the side.

Some of the people started yelling.  And there might have been like ten or fifteen passengers altogether.  The one guy, I guess he was the leader, told everyone to stay in their seats and keep quiet.  Or else they’d start shooting.

He had the waitress lady up against the cockpit door with a plastic knife at her throat.”

“You mean stewardess,” Danny interrupted.

“God damn it Danny, you so much as say another god damn word while I’m tellin’ this, and you’re goin’ down, straight down to the bottom.  Plunk with the fishes, alright?”

Of course it was alright.

“So yeah, he had this plastic knife at her throat, and I looked behind, and one of them Arabian bastards was at the back holding out his plastic knife, too.”

By now, everyone at the table was wrapped up in the story.  The waiter arrived with a huge platter and started setting down the dishes.  He left a bowl of fortune cookies and bowed politely.  Bobby never took his eyes off him until he passed through the double doors into the kitchen.

He absently grabbed a cookie and broke off a large piece.  It grew stale even in the wetness of his mouth as he read the fortune:  “IF THERE WERE GODS, HOW COULD I ENDURE NOT BEING ONE?”

With sinking awareness, he realized the thin, little waiter knew his secret.

 

*        *          click      *        *

 

I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there.  It was coming for me, and I had to get out.  It was true that I had survived the impossible, but the prickling sensation that moved in waves up and down my spine served as an acute and unmistakable warning.  This time the danger was a death that would most certainly kill.

The white crests and caps of those prickly waves foamed bubbly fears beneath which loomed the dark weight of a whole ocean meant to destroy me.  Every second that passed metamorphosed a once mundane bedroom into a prison or horror.  My soft bed became a steely bench.  Family pictures transformed into cryptic graffiti.  My door – the only way out – changed itself almost instantly into iron bars.  The thing outside, the executioner, had the key to my cell.  It was approaching without sound, ready to bear me forth to the gates of perdition.

Weak beyond any earthly fatigue, I struggled just to sit up.  It was a hopelessly sluggish process, a feeble effort in the face of a confident, implacable foe.

I needed more time to recover.  My desperation was almost tragic.  Just a little more time, just a little more rest, and I would realize my power.  I would become invincible if I could only pass over the threshold.  I would become a god.

The door pushed open with an ethereal intent no human hand could have imitated.  Its movement betrayed a hard malevolence, and even the creak of the hinge added to its plaintive call.

If no man had ever harnessed this kind of power, surely none had faced such fear.  I desperately wanted to escape, but instinct kept my mind on the opening door like weapon focus.

The completion of its widening arc revealed a creature of unimaginable blackness, a weightless spirit with jagged appendages that flowed gently in the soft breeze of some other world.  It hovered with an absolute grace that forbade the very thought of absolution.

As it approached, slowly and with a confident finality, I recognized in its hollow, onyx eyes a master, a killer of immense evil – a wraith.

Suddenly the bedroom window seemed like the most important thing in all the universe.  The only hope of salvation lay on the other side of it, in the chance of flight beyond.

It must have read my mind because when I backed away toward the window, the wraith spoke.  How are you heeeere? 

The words came out in a deep, throaty bass that lingered for a few seconds in sounds that spoke to my nerves, slowing my body until I couldn’t move.  The pace of its approach remained inexorable and blocked out the bright light of men.

 

*        *          click       *        *

 

“Here,” Doctor Pettinger persisted.  “That’s right,” he added softly.  “How are you feeling now?”  He was observing Bobby’s pupils and eye movements in the bright light of his ophthalmoscope to gauge the effects of the medication.  A frown of concern reflected his assessment.

God damn drugs.  God damn light.  He’s tryin’ to kill me, and I can’t hardly move.  He’s tryin’ to blind me.  I gotta get the hell outta here – now.  But I can’t move.  Jesus Christ I can’t hardly breathe.  Get offah me!  Lemme go!  Oh, please let me go . . .

“You need to remain calm, Bobby, or I’ll have to have you restrained.  I can accept that you might believe yourself to be a god, but it just isn’t true.  And if you don’t start cooperating, I can’t help you.”

. . . Can’t move . . . can’t breathe . . . foggy . . . light’s making me numb . . . Can’t let him get to me . . .

“Nurse!  Nurse!  Get in here, now!  Nur—”

The rabid clutch of a panicked hand cut him short.

 

*        *          click       *        *

 

“And trust me,” he continued, “there’s no way in hell I was gonna let that 9/11 shit happen to me.  Better to go down swingin’, I say.  So I walked up to the front all casual like, and the guy, the leader, he kept yellin’ for me to go back.  When he pointed his gun at me, I ran at him fast as I could.”

All eyes at the table were on Bobby.  He was really getting into it now, and his intensity made his friends feel he was somewhere else, somewhere far away.

“That turban-wearin’, flea-infested son-of-a-bitch shot me two times before I got within ten feet.  One of the windows shattered, and all the pressure got sucked out.  It’s crazy, but I got sucked out too and grabbed onto the wing.  The noise was so loud out there, I couldn’t hardly hear it.”

Bobby had become so animated that he didn’t notice the looks of incredulity on his companions’ faces.  For a moment, he almost forgot about the waiter and his planted message.

“Who the hell knows how I kept my hands on the edge of that wing way up in the sky.  My fingers iced up so bad I couldn’t even feel ‘em.  I felt the blood comin’ outta me, and I thought I was gonna die.  I shudda, you know, but something happened.  Somehow, I was getting stronger and not weaker, stronger than any man could possibly be.  You know, it was like death, it couldn’t even touch me.  I squeezed that metal so hard, I knew I was invincible.  That’s when I crawled back into that god damn plane and all hell broke loose.”

 

*        *          click       *        *

 

The wings of the floating chimera rose up and took hold of my neck from both sides.  Its grip pressed methodically harder and harder, and I felt a racing panic.  I was something I had no right to be.  I had found something meant to stay perfectly and forever shrouded, and though I still held a human form, I perceived that I, too, must be a burgeoning wraith.

My foe pressed tighter.  It was a vise crushing me in its iron clamp.  I finally had the presence of mind to make a stand.  The petrifying effect of its offended voice apparently had a limited duration, but the choking grasp was relentless.

If I could only get away, survive this initial encounter, regain my strength and learn the ways of my new nature – just this one chance, and not even a wraith would be able to defeat me.  I guess we both knew that.

I took a full swing at it, and my arm passed right through the head.  Its grip never faltered.

 

*        *          click      *        *

 

          . . . That’s right, doc.  You ain’t goin’ nowhere.  Hey your eyes look sorta bugged out.  Kind of bulging with the pupils dilated, I’d say.

“You alright, Doctor P—?” Bobby asked savagely.  The torment of a lost soul drove its ceaseless confusion in ten points of piercing determination about the neck.  “Now stay with  me, old boy.  I’m right here.  Listen careful.”

          Doctor Pettinger’s feet began to kick aimlessly about on the floor.

 

*        *          click click click          *        *

 

          “That’s right, I killed every single one of those bastards.  They never stood a chance, not with the power I had.  I tore them apart.  The guy that shot me?  I crushed his windpipe while he stared into my face.”

          The waiter arrived with the check appearing a little self-conscious.

          “Kinda like this,” Bobby demonstrated as he grabbed the man’s arm and pulled him down to the table.  He clutched his throat and held on tight.  Vino laughed, and everyone thought it was a prank until they heard the cartilage snap.

         

*        *          click click snap        *        *

 

          The dark phantom was irresistible, merciless in its determination.  A warm, faint blackness crept into my view from the peripheries.  So I was to be denied my chance at becoming a god after all.

         

*        *          click click static        *        *

 

          “Still nothin’ to say, doc?” he mocked over the lifeless body.  “Don’t worry, it’s just a latent recidivism of antisocial symptomatology.  Perhaps you need some more pharmacological intervention.”

 

*        *          click         *           *

 

          Danny grabbed for Bobby’s arm, but it was too late.  A woman nearby screamed at the top of her lungs.

 

*        *          click click scream          *        *

 

           The wraith let out a shrill cry of ecstasy.

 

*        *          click cry        *        *

 

          Two brawny orderlies crashed into the room and tackled the patient.  The nurse who followed them in let out a wail in shock.

 

*        *          click click wail        *        *

 

          As the woman shrieked, all eyes in the restaurant turned to the murderer.

 

*        *          click         *         *

 

          The unnatural song of a demigod lashed out in triumph.

 

*        *          click lash    *          *

          The sounds of gory instruments whined in a symphony of progressions in time and space, exposing and penetrating and stripping bare the mind of the damned.

 

 

J. Scott Hardin is Senior Editor at The Houston Literary Review and a regular contributor with Ragazine.  His work has appeared at Journal of Truth and Consequence, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Final Draft, Gutter Eloquence Magazine, Danse Macabre and elsewhere.  Readers are invited to see more at www.jscotthardin.com/.

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