Though his body was still healthy, Walter’s mind faded quickly after that. Gravely concerned, his two children arranged for him to live in a care facility, where highly trained caregivers could help him grapple with what had become the central fact of his old age: his childhood nightmare had returned, and now it wasn’t just a dream.
(This story was written for the American Fork Library’s 2013 Scary Story Contest. You’ve been warned.)
In 2013 I finally noticed the American Fork Library’s annual Scary Story Contest in time to do something about it, that is, to compose a story before the deadline. I have wanted to attempt a particular sort of story for a long time: an ordinary tale without overmuch violence or bloodshed, and with no reliance whatsoever on the supernatural. I have wanted to portray the horrors which can emerge from the most ordinary circumstances in life.
This story took third place in the contest, deservedly behind — I imagine, well behind — two fine tales by the locally celebrated Sam Beeson. Just to have my name mentioned after his is a signal honor.
One of the judges told me this isn’t even a scary story, because of the last sentence. But no worries; I never saw a piece of writing which spoke to every reader.
Another judge called my tale “profoundly disturbing.” I am delighted. For what it’s worth, what scares me in this story is well before the ending.
I’ve decided that I can do better next year, and I have already started my next scary tale.
A FAILURE OF IMAGINATION
by David Rodeback
As a boy Walter was the smartest of the straight-A students in his school, but also exceptionally well liked. He was friendly, gentle, witty, and kind. No one could remember seeing him angry. When bullies from older grades occasionally persecuted him, he bore it without recrimination or tears. His response was so unsatisfying that the bullies quickly learned to leave him alone.
No one ever saw what Walter did after these confrontations, but it was always the same thing: he reached into his left pocket for a cherry cough drop. He always found one, because his mother gave him a new one every day, as he was leaving for school, in case he started to cough in class. Being bullied didn’t make him cough; he simply wanted the reliable comfort of a familiar thing which came from his mother.
For several years of his childhood, Walter experienced the same nightmare, whenever he was ill enough to have a fever. It was a dream full of doors and drawers and pockets. Whenever a door or drawer closed, whatever it concealed ceased to exist. It was erased not only from reality, but also from his memory and his imagination. The same was true of anything he put in his pocket. His dream consciousness was certain that, if he ever opened a door that was already closed, an irresistible force would pull him through the door. It would close behind him, and he would never have existed at all.
Every time he dreamed the dream, it was as if he had learned nothing from dreaming it before. He would put something important into a drawer, then close the drawer, then open it and find that not even the inside of the drawer still existed. Distressed by this discovery and by his inability to remember exactly which important thing he had put in the drawer, he would reach for the comforting cough drop in his pocket. Too late he would realize the problem: a pocket was just like a door or a drawer. He would instantly pull his hand from his pocket, only to find that most of it – exactly as much as had been in his pocket – was gone. There was no pain, no blood – just a stump that ended about an inch past his wrist. Then he would wake up in horror, turn on the lamp next to his bed, and stare at his hands.
Walter’s studious ways and pleasing personality won him a full-ride scholarship to one of the finest universities, where he pursued a double major in physics and theater. A few years later, several faculty at another prestigious institution interviewed him for a place in their doctoral program in nuclear physics. They expressed surprise at his odd combination of majors. One commented sagely, “It seems strange to us to see the marriage of something so quintessentially real as physics with something so imaginative as theater.”
“It is not strange at all,” replied Walter. “It is the most natural thing in the world.”
“What do you mean, young man?” another professor asked.
“I am quite certain they are real, but I have never seen a proton, a neutron, an electron, or a quark. Therefore, to consider the behavior of these particles requires no less imagination than writing a play or inserting myself into a role on the stage.”
With that the interview was over, and they congratulated him on his admission to the program. He emerged from his scholarly cocoon some years later with a degree, a faculty appointment at a competing school, and a dark-haired bride named Abigail, a chemical engineer he never ceased to adore.
The decades that followed were full of teaching, research, parenthood, and occasional adventures in community theater. There were many awards for his scientific work, including, finally, an invitation to Sweden. In his brief Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he spoke more of Abby and their children than he did of his work in nuclear physics. He had spent his entire life imagining things, he said – not just subatomic things – but he had never imagined the degree of joy he found in his family.
A few weeks after his retirement, Abigail passed away. Though his body was still healthy, Walter’s mind faded quickly after that. Gravely concerned, his two children arranged for him to live in a care facility, where highly trained caregivers could help him grapple with what had become the central fact of his old age: his childhood nightmare had returned, and now it wasn’t just a dream. Except for people whom he saw often or had known for a long time, any person he could not see did not exist in his mind. Things and even body parts which were out of sight were also out of mind, though he was still able to perform some basic functions without seeing all the body parts involved. For example, he could eat without seeing his mouth, and he could scratch his ear or rub the back of his neck without looking in a mirror. But he stopped putting things in his pockets, and he could not remember, imagine, or conceive the possibility of finding something presently unseen by opening a door, a drawer, or a closed container bearing the name of its contents.
Close friends and family mourned the catastrophic failure of a brilliant man’s imagination and watched in vain for its momentary reappearances, which the doctors said would come occasionally, at least for a while.
Walter’s room at Verdant Meadows required some modifications. Drawers had to be replaced with shelves; he would never think to open a drawer. The door to his bathroom was removed. Otherwise, he would forget the bathroom was there when the door was closed and end up soiling himself, or he would stay in the bathroom indefinitely, once closed inside it, because he no longer knew there was a room beyond the door. His shower curtain was removed for the same reason. The door to the hallway and the drapes on his window were removed, so he would not altogether forget that something existed outside his room. They dressed him only in boxer shorts and a t-shirt with no pocket, so he would not wonder constantly about his missing limbs.
After most of a lifetime as an avid reader, Walter couldn’t read books any more. He couldn’t conceive of there being a next page, so he never turned the page. He read only the first part of many newspaper articles, because they were continued on a later page. His children quickly learned to cut out entire articles for him and paste or photocopy them onto a single sheet of paper.
New staff at Verdant Meadows usually would struggle for a while, before they learned how to treat Walter. A new nurse saw him sitting in his t-shirt and boxers and asked him if he would like to put on a robe. He said yes, so she brought and helped him into a plush, white robe. He thanked her with a smile, and she turned to go. She was already at the door, when he spoke quietly to her.
“Nurse, did you know my arms are gone? They should be here, because I still have my hands. But my arms are gone. It seems odd.”
She turned to face him. “No, Walter, your arms are still there. They’re in the sleeves of your robe.”
He stared at her without expression. She turned to go. He spoke again.
“Nurse, did you know my arms are gone? I do still have my hands, though, and they don’t seem to be disconnected. It’s rather strange.”
She shook her head and went to care for her next patient. Hours later, the veteran nurse on the next shift clucked and groused a little, and gently removed the robe.
When his meals were served, nothing could be covered or in a closed container. Everything had to be visible. A closed milk carton might as well be empty, even if the carton were clearly labeled “Milk”; he had to have his milk served in a glass. And any food which looked different on the inside than on the outside was cause for comment, if not alarm. Meat loaf was okay. Fried chicken was problematic. Every Friday posed a challenge, because, when the orderly asked him if he’d like fish and chips, he always said yes.
On his first Friday at Verdant Meadows, the orderly who delivered his meal to his room stopped by a few minutes later to see how things were going. Walter had cut one piece of the battered fish fillet and speared it with his fork. He was holding it in front of his face, staring at it from six inches away.
“Walter, is something wrong with your fish?” he asked.
“No, but something is strange with my fish,” Walter said matter-of-factly.
“What is that?”
“It starts out golden brown, but wherever my knife touches it, it turns white.”
“I see,” said the orderly.
“Do you think other things will turn white, if I cut them with this knife?”
The orderly didn’t recognize this as a rare spark of imagination; nor did he notice how it had invigorated Walter. He simply said, “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“The knives here have remarkable properties.”
“I suppose they do. Why don’t you see how the fish tastes with tartar sauce? Do you like tartar sauce?” asked the orderly.
“Indeed I do. Would you be so kind as to bring me some?”
“There’s some on your tray.”
“Is there?” He searched his tray methodically. “No, I don’t think there is. Would you please bring me some?”
“Walter, see the white plastic container that says “Tartar Sauce” in big black letters?”
“Yes, I do.”
“That’s tartar sauce. You just have to pull off the top to open it.”
“I don’t see any tartar sauce. Would you please bring me some?”
“You already have some, right there on your tray.”
“Young man, I’m sorry to contradict you. I’ve been searching my tray for tartar sauce, and I’m quite certain there is none. This object here says ‘Tartar Sauce,’ so I assume that it marks the proper location on the tray, but there is no tartar sauce here.”
“Okay, I guess I’ll bring you some.” He disappeared briefly, then returned with a small, uncovered plastic cup containing tartar sauce.”
“Oh, thank you! I always like tartar sauce on my fish. Maybe you could make a note of that. Now tell me, what do you think of these extraordinary knives, which turn everything white when they cut it?”
The orderly excused himself.
Walter was assigned Room 116 at Verdant Meadows. It was on the ground floor, so he could see grass, not just sky. It was at the end of the wing, where a room without doors and a shower curtain wouldn’t be too embarrassing.
One Wednesday morning at the end of October, a nurse who had read his file but never met him came to pick him up for his monthly doctor visit on the third floor. She brought a wheelchair, but, instead of sitting in it immediately, he shuffled across the room and picked up an old, framed photograph that was standing on a shelf. “I want to bring this picture with me,” he explained, “so I don’t lose it.”
“That’s a nice picture, Walter,” the nurse said. “May I see it for a moment?” He handed it to her.
She read the small brass plate on the frame. “Walt and Abby, 25th Anniversary.” She handed it back to him. “What a beautiful picture! I love sunsets at the beach. And your wife is the most beautiful part of the picture.”
“I’m wearing white pants and a red shirt,” Walter said, pointing to his younger self in the picture.
“That must be a happy memory for you, Walter. Do you think of Abby often?”
“Abby is in the picture. I look at the picture.”
Walter never left his room on his own, because he knew of nowhere to go outside it. When someone took him somewhere, seeing things which were not always visible from his room confused him. On this day, by the time his checkup was over, he was quite befuddled, though still gentle and polite. When an orderly came to take him back to his room and asked if Room 216 was right, Walter said that it was. So the orderly took him to the wrong room, and neither he nor Walter knew the difference.
When they reached Room 216, Walter sat in an easy chair, holding the old photograph. A nurse who was new to the facility came by after a few minutes.
“Hi, Alfred! I thought your family had come for your trip to the beach already. It looks like you’re ready to go. It’s not very warm out today, so you should wear something with long sleeves, or maybe take a jacket. Try to be back in time for dinner, okay?”
“Okay,” Walter said.
“I’ll close your bathroom door, so you don’t have to stare at it, and I’ll shut this door, so you have a little privacy until they get here. Let’s see, I was supposed to ask you something.” She looked at her notes. “Oh, yes. It’s steak for dinner tonight. How do you like yours?”
“Medium rare,” Walter said. “That will be nice.”
“Okay, medium rare it is. Enjoy your afternoon at the beach.”
“Thank you,” Walter said.
Walter stared blankly around Room 216 for a few moments, then looked at the photograph for a long time, admiring Abby but not remembering her. Finally, he dozed off.
When he awoke, a dinner tray was on the table next to his chair. The steak smelled good, but his bladder felt uncomfortably full, so he thought he should take care of that problem before eating. He looked around the room for a bathroom but saw none. So he got up and shuffled around the room, searching carefully for the bathroom, but he still didn’t see it. He decided he could wait, so he sat down to eat.
He was thirsty, despite his bladder situation, so he looked all around his tray for something to drink. But the milk carton was unopened, so he didn’t recognize its contents as milk. He shrugged, picked up his fork and his steak knife, and cut a piece from the steak, which was still hot. He lifted the piece toward his mouth, then stopped.
“Fascinating,” he said, and began to examine the bite of steak closely, from every side. Then he put it down and began to examine the steak on his plate, which was red inside, where he had cut it.
“Red like cherry cough drops. Red like the red shirt I wear to the beach,” he said aloud to himself. “This is not like the other knife, which turns everything it cuts white. This knife turns everything red.”
He looked at the picture, then looked at his arms and his short-sleeve white t-shirt. Then he looked at the picture again and spoke. “Abby, I forgot to pack my long sleeve red shirt, but I have an idea. I’ll be ready to go in a minute. Don’t worry. We’ll make it to the beach in time to see the sunset.”
“Red shirt,” he said to himself. He pointed to the photo. “Long sleeves.” He felt mentally and physically energized. He was having another burst of imagination.
Smiling broadly, Walter picked up the steak knife with his right hand and cut into his left forearm, just above his elbow. It hurt some, but the knife turned his arm red wherever it touched, just as he had imagined. He sliced the flesh every inch or so, all the way down to his wrist, first on the outside of his arm, then on the inside. He cut more deeply in some places than he meant to, but the overall effect was quite satisfactory: soon his left arm was as red as the shirt sleeve in the picture. The pigment was uneven, so he spread it around with his right hand.
He switched the knife to his left hand and began to use it to turn his right arm red. He was a bit clumsier now, because he wasn’t left-handed, and perhaps also because a sort of happy fog was closing over his mind and his vision.
Finally, he put down the knife, used his left hand to spread the color evenly, and leaned back in the chair. He decided to finish his steak later, along with his dessert, a large sugar cookie decorated to look like a cheerful jack-o-lantern. He smiled for a moment at the happy orange face, then turned to the photograph and murmured, “Abby, let’s go see the sunset on the beach. I’m wearing my red shirt.”
Alfred, the real occupant of Room 216, returned from visiting the beach with his family mere moments before the first floor staff finally raised the alarm about the man missing from Room 116. When Alfred found Walter, the photo was next to the dinner tray, which was still on the table. The steak knife was neatly laid across the plate, its blade somewhat redder than the drippings from the steak on the plate.
Walter was dead in the chair. His face was pale but his arms were quite red, like the arms of the chair and the floor beneath them. No one noticed the resemblance, but the gentle smile on his face exactly matched his smile in the old photograph.