Fresh snow smacked against the double-pane window. Fabulous flakes clung to the smooth surface as if they were holding on to the last threads of life until a strong gust of frigid wind blew them away again. They glittered as they tumbled in iridescent moonlight. Inside, the room was so warm it was stifling. Balmy air blew like a tornado from a vent next to the bed. Machines beeped and green computer-generated lines peaked and dipped and an IV bag filled with saline water drip, drip, dripped as it emptied into a tube.
At the end of the tube and wires Ruth Everly rested. Her black hair fanned out against a brick pillow and her big blue eyes were closed as she slept. Beneath the lids, Ruth’s restless dreams caused those eyes to dash and dart up and down, from side to side, as if she were watching an aerobatic stunt show. Ruth moaned and whimpered. A nurse scurrying by her door poked her head in, saw that Ruth was asleep, and continued with her chores. Down the street, the giant brass bell inside the steeple of the Methodist church began to gong the late hour.
The echo of footsteps reverberated inside Ruth’s lonely hospital room. There was a sharp clatter as the owner of well-worn wingtips dragged a blue cushioned chair to her bedside. An elderly man, wrinkled and weary, collapsed next to her. He paid little regard to Ruth’s slumber as he removed his wool jacket and cap. His white hair stuck out in all directions, but he made no effort to rectify its placement. The man rubbed his hands together as he blew into them, attempting to warm them from the chilly winter night. His nails were long claws, yellowed and dirty. When he felt his hands were the proper temperature, he lifted Ruth’s hand and held it. She moved her head from side-to-side but didn’t wake.
The elderly man and Ruth sat in silence, just this way, for quite some time. Occasionally, the nurse would appear, make a note on her chart, and leave. The elderly man would sometimes check his gold pocket watch. As the church bell gonged again, announcing another hour had past, another pair of footsteps echoed on the tile floor of Ruth’s hospital room. The elderly gentleman huffed in exasperation.
“Sorry I’m late.” The newcomer said as he strode across the room dragging a blue cushioned chair to the opposite side of Ruth’s bed.
“I was beginning to think you wouldn’t make it,” the old man wheezed.
“Small hold up on the way here. My apologies.” The newcomer smiled a shiny, wide grin. He was young and vibrant. His face was happy and kind with sparkling green eyes. As he removed his hat, his chocolatey hair was held in place as if by magic. The young man sat and placed a hand on Ruth’s. “Ruth how are you feeling, dear?”
Ruth’s eyelids cracked and struggled to focus. Her dark blue eyes glittered as they caught the reflection of the twinkling strings of Christmas lights in the hospital hallway. Ruth swallowed hard, her lips parted, and she whispered, “Why?”
“Well, dear, you’ve had an accident,” the young man said. “We simply wonder how you’re feeling now.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know how you feel?” the old man said as he wrinkled his brow.
“Or you don’t remember the accident?” the young man suggested.
“I don’t want to talk.” Ruth said turning her head as she closed her eyes. She remembered the accident. The screaming. The hopeless, helpless shrieking after it was over, and the blood. There had been so much blood. Oh, how Ruth never wanted to think about it again, but even just before she had woken up Ruth had been dreaming about it. She had been reliving it in her mind.
“Unfortunately, we must talk Ruth. You see, we haven’t a choice,” the young man said.
“But you did. You still do.” The elderly man used his free hand to stifle a cough.
“What are you talking about, choice? I didn’t have a choice. I never did.”
“Life is full of choices, dear,” said the young man.
“Not for me.”
“That’s not true and you know it,” the elderly man said sneering across Ruth’s hospital bed.
“Ok. Life gives you two choices. One, you make every day. That is to simply carry on. The second is a choice you make when you can no longer carry on.”
“What choice is that?” Ruth asked.
“To go or stay.” The old man mumbled with his head hung low.
“Go or stay where?” Ruth said forcing herself up but crying out in pain. The electric monitors beeped faster. The lines on the tiny screens scrambled and jumped like little girls on a playground.
“You stay here on Earth, or you move on. The trick is, no one knows what is on the other side, Ruth. No one. If you stay here, if you’re lucky, you get a second chance. Sometimes, you’re stuck in the in-between.”
“What is that?”
“Half-way. You wonder around forever. Not feeling. Not being felt. Just roaming the Earth. Tethered here for better or worse. No one can get you out.”
“How do you know which you’ll get?”
“I won’t choose then,” Ruth said.
The young man tilted his head and smiled at the elderly one sitting across from him. He wanted to take over the conversation without interference. The elderly man often had a way of souring people to the issue, an issue most were already sour to, and the young man thought Ruth might need a heaping dose of sugar.
The young man rubbed Ruth’s hand gently. Her eyelids slowly drifted closed as if they were feathers floating on a warm summer breeze. Her mind journeyed through space and time, memories flashed by like film winding on reels at high-speed. Ruth landed on a memory that was hazy and out of focus. Her mind’s lens adjusted it and the slow-moving technicolor image jerked and came to life.
Ruth and Harry Montgomery sat on a swing set at Sunset Park. The summer sun beat down upon them so that they had to squint to look at each other. Ruth and Harry were each dressed in shorts and t-shirts. Ruth’s black hair was in long braids, a red satin bow tied around the end of each one. Harry’s dirty blonde hair blew back as he kicked his gangly legs back and forth, stretching them into the air. Ruth sat with her forehead against the chain holding the wooden seat aloft. It had created a pink indent in her forehead.
“Harry,” Ruth said as she watched him glide, “Lonnie Bradley said Jessica Baker told him you kissed her.”
Harry Montgomery kept kicking his hairless 12-year-old legs. “So.”
“I thought you were my boyfriend.”
“Well, because I let you kiss me behind Mercury’s Ice Cream.”
Harry Montgomery put his black and white sneakers into the dust and skidded to a halt. “Kissin’ doesn’t mean anything. Stupid girls always thinking too hard.” Then, Harry tugged one of Ruth’s ribbons from her hair and ran off into the summer while Ruth sobbed and tears stained her tanned cheeks.
Ruth sucked in a deep breath and her eyes shot open as if she had received a sudden volt of electricity. The two men were still at her bedside. She was still inside Mercy Hospital. Still connected to tubes and wires. The church bell down the street gonged two times.
“What an awful memory,” Ruth said as she looked at the brown water stain on the ceiling.
“Your first broken heart,” the young man said.
“I didn’t love him.”
“Of course you did. That’s ok. It’s very rare that people keep their first love here. The important thing to remember is that, at that time, you made a choice.”
“I never had a choice,” Ruth mumbled through tears that pooled in her eyes.
“You did. You chose to carry on, keep living, keep loving. It was a choice you made, maybe subconsciously, but a choice nonetheless.”
“I suppose,” Ruth said.
“Stop filling her head with hogwash.” The elderly man grumbled as her lifted his face to look at them. “He likes sunshine and daisies. Likes to make you believe choices all have happily ever after outcomes. Carry on and keep living, bah! Remember, Ruth, pain. You walk in it every day.” The old man patted Ruth’s hand and her memories darted by again.
Ruth stood in a line of people dressed in black. Her mother wore a pillbox hat with a netted veil draped over her face. Ruth watched as she dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. They were standing inside the hall of the Methodist church. The enormous brass bell in the steeple chimed as people Ruth didn’t recognize wept and hugged her and her mother. The scent of the room was over powering, lilies and lilacs and roses overflowed in waterfalls from every corner.
When the crowd cleared, Ruth’s mother took her hand and escorted her to the pine casket. It was lined in gold satin. Ruth’s father looked pale, sick. As if he were resting with a bad case of the flu. His hair was combed, and his head placed in a way that hid the bullet wound on the side of his head.
“You can touch him,” Ruth’s mother said.
Ruth stood rigid. Just a week ago her happy, enthusiastic father had been teaching her to drive his Chevy. She didn’t want to touch him.
“You can kiss him good-bye,” Ruth’s mother said with her hand pressed to the small of Ruth’s back.
“I don’t want to,” Ruth whispered.
“He’s still your father.”
“No, he isn’t.”
“Yes, he is. He loves you, Ruth. He just made a bad choice.”
“I don’t want to.”
Ruth’s mother forced her frail daughter against the casket. “You’ll regret not saying goodbye.”
Ruth reluctantly bent down and kissed her father’s forehead. It was cold and stiff and smelt of chemicals used to clean vomit in school cafeterias. Ruth’s lips never thawed out.
Ruth’s eyes popped open and the sound of the elderly man’s hacking cough bounced around the walls of her hospital room. The wet noise intermingled with the beeps and the drips and Ruth shook her head as she tried to remember where she was.
“Why would you show me that?”
“Choice,” the old man said.
“My mother left me with no choice.”
“Your father’s choice, I’m afraid.” The young man’s enormous smile had grown smaller. “He chose, in a brief moment, that he could no longer carry on.”
“He left us,” Ruth said flatly.
“It was his choice in the end. As I said, you’re only offered two.”
“Did he stay, or did he go? After, I mean.”
“That’s private,” the old man said.
Ruth looked down at the two men’s faces. Then, she drifted into her memory again. She saw the image so clearly. The deep cuts oozing shiny goo. It was hot, like freshly made cider. Rich like molten chocolate. Ruth marveled at the stuff for a brief moment before the panic and the fear overcame her. Before she heard her own voice scream. Then, she was cold. Lying on powder pink tile as her vision blurred. Ruth’s mother’s ancient shrieks resonated in her wilting eardrums. The rest came and went like heart beats. Flickers of memories bound with blank scotch tape. Rushed motions, clicks, beeps, pin pricks, voices that shouted words Ruth didn’t recognize.
Ruth opened her eyes. The two visitors stared at her. The church bell released three gongs. Ruth wondered how the world slept with a thing like that reminding them that time kept moving. “I want to stay.”
“But what if—” the old man started.
“I’ll risk it.”
“You can’t take it back, Ruth. Once you decide—” the young man said.
“I don’t care. I’ll carry on.”
The young man sighed. “Alright then.” He stood, adjusted his tie, and pressed a finger to Ruth’s temple. Ruth’s eyes slid closed. Her breathing was quiet, calm. The monitors beeped and the IV dripped. The snow drifted against the window outside.
The two men let go of Ruth’s hands. Her arms, dressed in bandages, bloodied in long stripes at her wrists, fell gently at her sides. The men gathered their things and replaced their chairs. They walked toward the door to Ruth’s room.
“Guess it runs in the family,” the old man said.
“These things happen.”
“Do you think she’d have chosen you if she knew?”
“What? That she is fated to die in a car crash in a week?”
“Why? She’d already chosen me.”
“That’s humans for you. Death seems appealing until life offers them one more chance. Some of them are risk takers, though. You always get a few.”
#HumpdayHorror #TheVisitors Copyright 2018 Kira McKinney
Welcome to my blog. Sit back and enjoy a short story, a poem, or some flash fiction--whatever I have recently cooked up. I will post a new piece as often as possible. Check back once a week to see what's new.