Chapter 8 (end of part one)A Chapter by Domenic Luciani
A little of Beck and Sarah's backstory. Action will pick up again in the next chapter as Beck, Tyler, and Sam try to get out of the city.
Beck Huxley snapped into an upright position when he heard the sound of someone knocking at the door. It wasn’t the heavy forceful knocking of a troupe of police officers ready to kick down the door, but rather a quick triple-tap of perhaps the manager or a next door neighbor. Slowly, he crept out of bed, trying to stay as quiet as possible while leaning against objects for support.
Tyler was already at the door, putting his ear to it. Sam stood behind him holding the taser out in front of her. Beck put his weight on a little table in the hallway and waved them back from the door. He cleared his throat and said as clearly as he could, “Yes, who’s there?”
“Stephen Vitello, sir?”
Beck thought for a moment. “Yeah, what do you want?”
“Sir, you haven’t been collecting your mail lately. The manager was beginning to be concerned. I have it here if you’ll open the door.”
“Just leave it outside the door, please.”
“You heard me, leave it outside the door.”
“But surely you’re aware that that is against policy, sir.”
“For crying out loud,” Beck groaned. He opened the door just wide enough for his arm to shoot out and snatch the papers in the man’s hand, then slammed it closed. The other man started to say something, but seemed to think better of it. Beck held his ear to the door again and listened to the man’s footsteps growing distant. He drew in a deep breath and took a look at the mail. He carelessly flipped through bills and catalogues and was about to toss the entire stack into the incinerator when an envelope turned up bearing an address he had never heard of before.
Beck turned the envelope over, inspecting every inch of it. You rarely saw physical letters anymore considering most things went by email, yet here one was. Something was very curious about it, but he couldn’t decide if it was good or bad, or even if it was worth finding out. In the end he gave in, removed a knife from the rack in the kitchen, and sliced the envelope open. Inside was a single sheet of standard printer paper with a message scribbled out in a pen that was apparently losing ink. By the time he read the bottom line, he had his nose pushed up against it, squinting to read the faint letters. The handwriting was deplorable, even when the ink was clear, the words ran together and Beck could hardly make heads or tails of it.
What he did manage to get out of it was that this was some sort of thank-you letter. The signature was from a Zach . . . something: the last name was illegible. He wanted Steve to know that he appreciated the information and would be investigating as soon as he could. Beck had no idea what it meant, but he had a feeling Steve had been up to something illegal that he hadn’t been letting Beck in on. That was probably why it was a written letter, Beck thought. It would be much more difficult to track down a sender than it would have been through an email. Beck kept the letter and shoved everything else into the incinerator.
Beck felt nauseous the rest of the day. He threw up three times and couldn’t stand the sight of food. Tyler made him eat a few salty crackers every now and then, but he had no appetite besides that.
There was a frightening moment on his third trip to the bathroom when he couldn’t remember how long he had been there; not on the bathroom floor, not that. How long the three of them had been living in the apartment? A week? Maybe more. It probably wasn’t safe for them to stay any longer. He decided to bring this point up at dinner time.
The thought was pushed from his mind as vomiting turned to dry heaving. His muscles felt like freight trains slamming into each other as he convulsed over an empty toilet. When it stopped, he could faintly hear Tyler and Sam talking in the other room. To get them safely out of the city, he was going to need a bloody miracle.
Dinner was already on the table by the time Beck felt well enough to move. The kids were eating instant noodles. Beck stared glumly at the single slice of wheat bread in front of him, bits of it torn off where the mold had been growing, that and a small glass of water. He tried to tell himself over and over that he was hungry, but his mind wasn’t convinced. He didn’t have an appetite; at least not for bread. What he could go for right now was some of those instant noodles, but he knew if he had any he would be paying for it dearly later on. He cringed at the thought: the last thing he wanted now was to spend another second in that bathroom. He ate the bread regardless of how little he wanted it, downed the water, and retired to the couch.
Beck thought about turning on the television, but decided it would only depress him more. He closed his eyes and listened to Tyler explain to Sam some of the things he learned in school. At the very least, he could find some amount of solace in the fact that they weren’t entirely miserable.
When next he opened his eyes, it was very late. A blanket hung loosely around his middle and his posture had sagged into a somewhat uncomfortable position. He sat up slowly, removing the blanket and noticed Tyler on the adjacent couch. He took care to drape the blanket delicately over his son’s curled body. As he passed through the kitchen on his way to the bedroom, he something odd: the bathroom door was wide open and the light was on. He assumed it Sam, but he heard an unfamiliar noise and he thought it sounded like someone was in the tub. Amongst the three of them, nobody used the tub. Still, he didn’t turn down the idea that it was Sam, and so he walked over to the open doorway, taking care to make his footsteps audible.
As he reached over to close the door, the person in the tub called his name. Beck stopped, his hand still frozen on the doorknob, all of the air seemed to have fled his lungs. He quivered, unable to bring himself to look over at the person in the tub. He would have known that voice anywhere, even if it had been years since he heard it.
The figure in the tub didn’t make another sound, clearly expecting Beck to make the first move. He shut his eyes tight, hoping that he when he opened them, the figure would be gone. No such luck. He could feel her eyes on him, and that girlish smile etched into her face. The memory of that smile was carved like a marble statue in the depths of his mind, and even though he had endured months of therapy, he would never be able to forget it.
Drawing in a deep breath, he turned his head to the side and looked upon the face of his wife. His dead wife. He knew beyond a doubt the she was dead, even seeing her here in the bathtub smiling up at him as if nothing had ever happened could not change that.
“You’re up late, honey,” she said, her smile broadening. “You’re pale as a ghost, too. I wish you’d take better care of yourself.”
Beck couldn’t tell if she was reciting a past argument, or speaking about his current state: she had once said the exact same thing years ago, when he had cut open a deep gash on his arm operating a machine at MedTech when he was still in Practical Applications. He had been in the hospital for three days. They had a spray to speed up skin cell reproduction that turned his lacerations into paper cuts in a matter of hours, but he had still lost a significant amount of blood. Sarah sat next to him while he was in bed, took his hand, and whispered the exact same words to him. Tyler was only four at the time, playing with his favorite blue dinosaur toy on the chair next to her.
“I know I do,” he said, wearily repeating the same answer he had given her then. Beck took a seat on the toilet, keeping his arms folded on his lap, his posture upright, and his gaze straight ahead.
“What’s wrong dear? After all these years, you don’t even want to look at me.”
“What would change if I did? This is a dream, or a hallucination, or something else, but whatever it is, it isn’t real. It can’t be real. How could it?”
“Still asking yourself all the hard questions and never taking a moment to just enjoy what’s around you. Always with your nose buried in your plants. Just look at me, Beck. Look at me.”
Beck had to force his voice to keep it steady. “What do you want from me?”
Sarah looked genuinely hurt. She switched sides of the tub, bringing herself closer to Beck, rolling onto her stomach and crossing her arms over the edge. “Why do you assume I want something from you?” Her airy tone was gone and Beck could hear the reality of her voice.
“This isn’t right. You shouldn’t be here.”
Sarah put a hand on his lap and gazed at him with sad eyes. The touch of her skin was like an electric shock, and Beck was finding it harder and harder to believe that she was just a figment of his imagination. “Beck, I’m not some specter. I can leave if you really want me to. I just want you to know that you’re not alone. I can help you, if you want me to. You don’t have to do this by yourself.”
Beck thought for a moment. “Just tell me . . . how it is that you’re here.”
“Does this mean you want me to stay?”
“I haven’t decided yet. Tell me and I’ll let you know.”
“I’m in your head, Beck. You already know that I can’t really be here. But don’t worry, you’re not going crazy. I’m not dead, Honey. I’m not.”
Beck could feel his heart rate going up, but no amount of blood rushing to his brain would help him comprehend his wife’s words.
“That’s not possible"there’s no way. I was there,” he said, but his resolve was slipping.
“Honey, think about it. Are you remembering what you saw, or what MedTech told you. Think back on it, Beck. Remember what you really saw.”
As much as it pained him, and as much as it would have pained his therapist, he could remember the events of that day perfectly. In all honesty, he had been forcing himself to relive it every time he picked up a vial of the formula, the same one that was sitting dormant in his briefcase.
The three of them had still been living in the old apartment. Tyler was seven years old, watching television past his bedtime because it was his birthday. They had celebrated, but the party had been just the three of them: none of them had many friends. Beck’s present had been a new khaki jacket with pockets all down the front. Tyler didn’t care for it, and he hadn’t yet reached the age where he understood the common courtesy of accepting an unwanted gift with a smile and a thank you. He pouted for a while until Beck reasoned that he could watch television past his bedtime. Sarah laughed at his expression when he received the jacket. She had said it was a sign of maturity, not the opposite. “He’s at the age where he knows what he wants,” she said, holding the hand of a downtrodden Beck. Fathers determine their worth by how well they can connect with their sons, and Tyler’s rejection of the jacket had damaged his father’s pride.
Beck kissed Sarah on the cheek then went to sit down with Tyler on the couch. Sarah hung about in the kitchen, loading the last of the plates into the dishwasher.
After a while, Beck noticed that she had not come to sit down with them, and he didn’t hear her in the kitchen which was adjoined so the silence discomforting. Still, Beck didn’t think anything of it: he had no reason to believe anything bad would ever happen to any of them. He got up and headed into the kitchen anyway, fully expecting to see Sarah emerge from the hallway or the bathroom with that beautiful smile on her face.
Instead, he found her lying on the floor in the kitchen, unconscious. Her face was blue and Beck couldn’t tell if she was breathing or not. He didn’t panic, he couldn’t. This was more for Tyler’s sake then anything. Keep calm, he told himself, make the rational decision.
Beck picked up the telephone and called MedTech for an ambulance, making sure to state that he was an employee. He wasn’t sure if this would make a difference, but it couldn’t hurt to try.
The paramedics arrived not three minutes later. Beck had been trying to explain the situation to an impassive Tyler, who, for the most part kept on watching television. Two men entered the apartment carrying two suitcase-sized bags of medical equipment. They knelt down beside her, took her pulse, checked her breathing and then hooked her up to an IV and a breathing apparatus. Then they carefully laid her out on a stretcher then whisked her out of the room, down the hall, into the elevator, and into the ambulance. Sirens kicked in and the vehicle sped off into the night. Beck calmly tucked Tyler into bed and kissed his forehead goodnight. Tyler never even questioned the fate of his mother. He took his father’s word for it when he said that she would be alright. He headed for the bedroom and grabbed his MedTech keycard from the dresser.
Beck left the apartment, swinging his jacket onto his shoulders while he walked into the elevator. The doorman looked up at Beck as he made his way through the lobby and said, “Doctor Huxley. Give my best wishes to your wife. I’m sure you’re headed to the hospital now?”
“Of course, and thank you. I’ll be sure to do that.” Beck replied graciously.
He hailed a taxi outside. This was fairly unusual for him; taxi’s were faster, though more expensive, than taking the subway, but Beck figured the situation called for it. The taxi driver only nodded when Beck gave him the destination, and very soon he was handing the driver cash and walking into the lobby of MedTech hospital. It was the first time he had ever used the visitor’s entrance at the hospital and he found himself slightly disoriented. An elderly woman at the front desk prodded a touchscreen for a moment then pointed him in the right direction. Up three flights of stairs and down the hallway on his left was ambulatory surgery.
They had Sarah laid out on a gurney, a monitor nearby was beeping along with her rapid heartbeat, an uncompromising metronome ticking off the seconds of her life. Suddenly, Beck felt his own heart rate quicken. He walked up to her bed and took her hand. It remained cold and limp. Her eyes fluttered open for a moment, but she didn’t seem to recognize her husband and she faded out again. A doctor rushed into the room, gazing intently on the tablet held in his hand.
“What’s wrong with her?” Beck asked, hoping the doctor had not noticed his voice crack a bit.
“It looks like a blood vessel popped in her brain, and it’s causing quite a bit of internal bleeding,” the doctor said, as if he were reading it word for word from the tablet screen.
Beck didn’t allow himself time to wrap his head around the situation and sped right on into the next question: “Is there anything we can do?”
The doctor sighed. Beck knew the sigh all too well, it never meant anything good. His mind raced to the worst possible conclusion and his fears were confirmed when the doctor’s next words were, “I’m sorry. No.”
That was it. With one word, a man who had never known Sarah had ended her life. A realization bubbled up in the depths of Beck’s conscious. It swelled up as memories fueled its growth; meeting Sarah when she had been a nurse at MedTech, getting married at the botanical gardens, Tyler being born. These events marked eras in his life that had only come about because of a chance meeting a beautiful dark-haired woman in a hallway eight years prior.
Now her death was to mark another one.
A relentless tide of emotion rose in his gut and he began to hyperventilate. He hadn’t even noticed the doctor had left, but now that he did he was glad. He didn’t want anyone to see that he was crying. It was something he had never done out of sadness before. Crying was for children who couldn’t control their feelings, although he had shed more than a few tears when Tyler was born.
He was falling into a sea of his own guilt, but what did he have to be guilty of? She was dying because of a freak accident, a one-in-a-million tragedy that could not have been predicted. But still, it was there. Maybe he hadn’t been the best husband he could have been. He thought back to all of the times when he had argued with her, or ignored her, or simply could have been better to her. He hated himself for it. He hated himself for every standard he hadn’t amounted to. Beck shook with misdirected rage that he was ready to fuel into any outlet he could get his hands on. If the doctor had been in the room, Beck might have lunged at him. How dare he give his wife a death sentence! Is this what modern medicine has become? If the solution to a problem seems to expensive, you walk away and let nature run its course.
These thoughts bounced around inside Beck’s head, gaining more and more momentum every time they hit a wall. Finally something happened: the bubble popped, or rather exploded cataclysmically like a shotgun blast of atomic bombs. In essence, he snapped.
Beck stormed out of the room and down the hall, disregarding the looks that people were giving him. He was running on autopilot now, and he hardly even noticed that there were others around him. He was on the skyway, in the elevator, in the workshop of Practical Applications, inside his tiny gray-walled cubicle, at his desk. The formula was in the locked safe inside the bottom drawer of his desk. He grabbed it and retraced his steps back to Sarah’s room. Security was there, talking to the doctor who must have seen Beck rush off. The doctor saw Beck coming and promptly warned the security guards. Beck had a moment of hesitation but kept on going. At this point, either he would make it to her in time, or security would tackle him and toss him into a prison cell.
The two men stood in front of him with their hands on their belts, showing off the yellow tasers holstered in them. They were nearly identical in size and stature: all security guards and police officers looked the same. Beck walked calmly up to them for as long as he could bear, then burst through the gap between them, shoving them both aside. The security guards were unprepared for his resistance and fell flat on their backs, buying Beck just enough time to load the formula into a syringe and inject it into his wife’s outstretched arm. The guards were up on their feet in a moment, rushing into the room and throwing Beck against a wall. He could feel the cold tightening metal of handcuffs as his wrists were bound together. Beck continued to struggle, hopping from foot to foot and shoving and squirming his way out of their grasps. He knew he would be tased any moment now, but he needed to see what would happen to Sarah.
Beck watched as her skin turned green, the heart rate monitor was beeping like machine gun fire and her body began to spasm. Vines sprouted from her arms and veins began to writhe under her skin. Beck was fixated on the event, unable to look away. A moment later he felt the sharp pulse of electricity shooting through his body and he collapsed. He face planted on the floor, screaming his wife’s name before blacking out.
When he woke up, the first thought that ran through his mind was that the last image he had of his wife was of her tortured and mutated form. He shut his eyes tight, hoping that when he opened them, he would not be in the hospital, but he knew he was. He could hear the steady beeping of the heart rate monitor and the probing feeling of tubes beneath his skin.
He took as long as he dared to come back to reality. He could feel the presence of people standing around him from time to time and hear their footsteps tapping the linoleum floor as they came and went. Doctor’s would enter, scribble something down on a clipboard, adjust the machines, then leave. All the while Beck feigned sleep. He wasn’t sure if they believed it, or if they were just letting him rest.
He had no idea how long he had been in there. Obviously he hadn’t suffered any injuries, so they had no real need to keep him there for medical reasons. The only explanation was that they were holding him there to keep an eye on him. Yes, that must be it, he thought. He showed a ludicrous display of emotion and now they probably thought he was a threat to the public wellbeing: that’s what they would call it. If that was the case, he could only hope that the exiled him or killed him, the last thing he wanted was to be strapped down to a bed for the rest of his life.
Wait, he wasn’t strapped down, was he? He opened his eyes when he was sure nobody was in the room and looked down. He was in luck: there were no restraints and nothing particularly vital hooked up to him. Waited a moment, straining his ears to hear any movement from outside and then detached the tubes from his arms and left.
The door slid open and Beck’s heart fell. The same two security guards from earlier were looming over him in the door frame, as if they had been waiting for him to attempt this. He didn’t wait for them to say anything, but returned to his bed and leaned back against the flat pillows feeling frustrated and embarrassed.
The first person he talked to was the Chairman. He had his eyes closed again, but could feel more energy in the room than was normal and looked up, seeing the chairman staring at him from beside the bed, his nose mere inches away from Beck’s.
“Chairman,” Beck said, startled.
“Huxley, I’m glad to see you’re awake.” The Chairman said as if they were having a casual meeting in the hallway.
The Chairman seemed genuinely concerned for Beck’s well being, not like the doctors who treated him as if he had some sort of incurable disease. He had spilled everything to the Chairman, about how he felt sickeningly angry about Sarah, and how he couldn’t stand to be in the hospital anymore. He wanted out. Beck nearly got on his hands and knees to beg the Chairman to make them let him go. That was when the Chairman offered him a house in the gated community outside the city. The fresh air would do the new head of the Botanical Sciences department some real good, he had said. A new house and a new job; this would wipe the slate clean and wash MedTech’s hands of the whole thing. Beck had been grateful at the time, but every day after he moved to the house, contempt would fester in him.
If he ever asked anyone about Sarah, either the would say they didn’t know, or throw on their best attempt at sympathy and tell him that she passed away after he gave her the formula, as if that explained everything. Beck could feel they were hiding something: he had attained a new sense of cynicism towards people, and believed that every ounce of information he received from them was potentially a lie. Of course he never let this show, and if he could he would suppress it. If you can’t trust anyone, then what’s the point of living?
Enter Sarah in the bathtub. She was looking at him with those big brown eyes and he was fighting the hope that she was real. She wasn’t, she couldn’t be real. He tried to steady his breathing, wrap his mind around the scenario and find the logical course of action. But then he would open his eyes, look at her, and all logic would fly out the window. He thought about calling in Tyler, maybe if he couldn’t see her then he would know for sure that she was a hallucination. Then again, he had the sinking feeling that Tyler would rush in and see her there, and then where would they be? No, he decided to leave Tyler out of this.
“So, if you’re not dead, but you’re not really here, where are you?”
She smiled and Beck cursed himself for the sudden jolt of happiness he couldn’t help but feel. “I’m still at MedTech. I was being held prisoner, but you let me out. It’s because of you that I can be here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t want to talk about that, Beck. No matter what happens, I want you to remember me as human, like I was before.”
“You mean before I killed you.” Even Beck was surprised at the amount of spite that had leaked into his tone.
“Beck, what happened to me wasn’t your fault. I was dying and you did what you could to help. I don’t blame you in anyway, please don’t think I do. Your heart was in the right place and that’s what’s important. Actually, I need to thank you. If you hadn’t done what you did, I wouldn’t be able to be here right now. I wouldn’t be able to see how big Tyler has gotten,” she brushed Beck’s hair back and kissed him on the cheek. “I wouldn’t be able to be with you now.”
“Have you been talking to Tyler, too?”
“Only in his dreams. But don’t worry, I haven’t told him anything. Not yet.”
“Am I dreaming?”
“No, honey. Not this time.”
Beck went silent for a while. Maybe she was real after all.
He made up his mind. He would trust her. It seemed silly now, that he didn’t know whether to trust his own wife. What did he have to lose anyways? It wasn’t like he was in the midst of employing some master plan. He was a stream without a current, a slave to the tide: he might as well unfurl a sail.
“Okay. What should we do?”
Tomorrow, at five o’clock, go to the gate that leads toward the gated community.”
“But there will be guards there; we’ll be spotted in a second.”
“Don’t worry, everything will be fine. Trust me. Five o’clock sharp, remember.”
“How can you be sure?” Beck asked, but it was too late. Sarah was gone. The tub was empty. Beck sat on the toilet for another hour, wondering if everything that had happened was real or not. Well, he thought, tomorrow he would know for sure. At five o’clock, he would either be a free man, or a dead one.
Goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.
© 2012 Domenic Luciani
Added on March 20, 2012
Last Updated on March 20, 2012
Forest of Men
AboutThat is my real name, and that is really me in the picture. Like Patrick says, I'm not in the witness protection program. I mostly write books and stories. I like fantasy, or fiction, but if.. more..