Nothing’s Wrong [Short Story]

The fragrance of fresh bread woke Thomas up one morning. He leaped out of bed excitedly, knowing what the smell signified. It meant that Uncle had come for a visit.

Thomas was six years old, and he could tell, with the instinct that all young children share, that his father liked Uncle a lot, but that his mother didn’t, even though Uncle was her brother. Thomas didn’t know why his mother didn’t like Uncle, but he sensed that it had to do with Uncle being a baker. He thought that maybe bakers weren’t as good as bankers, which is what his mother was. Thomas thought that being a baker was much nicer; Uncle wore comfy clothes and always smelled good, whereas Thomas’s mother always complained about her pantyhose and put too much perfume on.

Uncle was tall and skinny, but this morning, when Thomas went downstairs, he thought that Uncle had become like Flat Stanley, the flat boy that they were reading about in school. The illusion passed, and Thomas realized that it was only that Uncle looked even thinner than usual. He looked gaunt, although Thomas didn’t know that word, and he looked worn out and weary, more words that Thomas didn’t really understand.

“Morning, Tom-Tom.”

“Hi! What’s wrong, Uncle?”

“Drink your milk. Eat. We don’t want you to be late for school.” Thomas’s mother pushed a plate of eggs and a glass of milk at him without looking at Uncle at all. Then she swept right out of the room again, and Thomas and Uncle looked at each other as they hear Thomas’s parents yelling at each other upstairs. Uncle got up and checked on the bread in the oven. Whenever he came to visit, he’d let himself in very early and would bake fresh bread that would be ready for the family’s breakfast when they awoke.

“Here you go,” Uncle said, pulling the bread-pan out of the oven. He cut a thick, still steaming slice, and put it on Thomas’s plate. “Eat up.”

Thomas wasn’t going to give up on his question, though. “What’s wrong, Uncle?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all.” Uncle smiled.

In the car on the way to school, Thomas asked his mother the same question. “Nothing,” she said. “Why? Has Uncle said anything?”

That evening, Thomas tried again. He went into the bathroom where his father was drying off after a shower and began to swing from side to side while holding the doorknob.

“Stop that, you’ll break it,” his father said, without much conviction. Thomas kept swinging.

“Daddy, what’s wrong?”

“Well. What did Mommy tell you?”

“Nothing.”

“And Uncle?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh dear. That must mean that whatever’s wrong, it’s a big deal. Listen, bub, you and I – we shouldn’t get involved, okay?”

“Okay,” Thomas said. But when he went to bed that night, he couldn’t help feeling scared by what his father had said. It sounded like his father didn’t know what was wrong either. If nobody knew what was wrong, then what would happen now? For the first time in months, Thomas had nightmares and wet the bed.

On Command

“Sir-yes-sir!”

Lyle was practicing in front of the mirror again. He had on the army uniform costume that he’d worn on Halloween, and he’d stolen the medal out of his mom’s sock drawer. It was draped around his skinny neck, the gold-colored part resting somewhere around the level of his belt. He marched up and down in his room, trying to make his limbs as stiff as possible, and then turned back to the mirror.

“Sir-yes-sir!”

Under different circumstances, the sight of an eight-year old boy wearing a Halloween costume and walking like a robot would have been amusing. But as it was, it made Robby, Lyle’s older brother, throw his backpack violently across the room. It hit Lyle, who went down right in the middle of another salute.

“Shut up, you idiot, mom’ll be home soon!” Robby gave his brother an extra shove and went to the bathroom to shave. He’d been with his girlfriend after school, and she’d told him she didn’t like his itchy stubble. Trying to calm himself, Robby took out the old razor and placed it on the sink. He lathered his face with lotion, and began, with hands still trembling with anger, to scrape the old, thin blade across his cheek. He managed not to nick his right cheek, his upper lip and his chin, and moved on to the left cheek.

A scream seemed to tear the house into pieces. In the bathroom, Robby cursed as the razor blade cut into his cheek and blood started to seep out of the thin slice. It mixed with the shaving lotion until the lower half of his cheek looked like a marshmallow. Rinsing himself off, Robby got a wad of toilet-paper and held it to his cut as he opened the bathroom door with a crash. A horrible scene met his eyes.

Lyle was face down on the floor, his mother leaning over him. She had the ribbon the medal hung on in one thin, wasted hand, and she was pulling at it, hard. It was still around Lyle’s neck.

“Mom!” Robby dashed forwards, and forced his mother’s hand to let go. He heaved her backwards, away from Lyle, pushing her until she was leaning against the far wall. Her eyes looked dead, and she made no move to go back to strangling her son, so Robby left her and bent over Lyle, turning him over. He was breathing – crying, choking on his mucus and tears, but breathing nonetheless. He huddled in Robby’s embrace, hiding from their mother. Flashing a look of scorn towards her, Robby picked him up and carried him to their tiny, shared room. He took the medal off of him, got him out of the costume and put him in bed. He drew the covers over him and tucked them snug. Lyle was already asleep when he left the room, curled up into a ball.

“How could you, Mom?” Robby faced his mother, who still hadn’t moved from where he’d pushed her. He held the medal forth. “This is what you want? This stupid piece of tin and some gold paint? Take it! Here, take it!” He threw the medal at her feet. Her eyes moved towards it, and she finally moved, kneeling down to pick it up. She looked at it lying in her hand, caressed it, and then held it closely to her breast. Raising her eyes, she gave Robby a withering glare. He didn’t budge, didn’t say a word.

“You never – do you hear me, son? You never talk about your father’s memory that way again.”

She rushed into her bedroom, closing and locking the door, before Robby could scream at her that his father was dead, that he died in a stupid war, that the medal didn’t really mean anything, that his father’s memory lay nowhere near the stupid thing. He slumped against the wall. It was too much, suddenly. It was all too much. His mother had never gone this far before. And Lyle – Lyle was just like her! Why did her need to steal that thing out of her drawer every other day?

Trembling, forgetting about the tissue that was still stuck to his face, Robby went down the hall to where the phone rested on a small table – his father had managed to get a great bargain on it at the flea market, Robby remembered that day… Without dwelling too long, though, he picked up the phone and dialed.

“Aunt Jenny? It’s Rob. Robby. My mom – she – Lyle – I just… We need help.”

Click

Click. Click. Click.

Thomas followed one link after the other, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. It was incredible. For the first time, he saw some meaning in the world. He clicked the next link, and it took him to yet another website, with another link. Clicked again. And again. He leaned closer and closer to the screen and his eyes started to tear up. For the first time in his life, he prayed. He prayed to the grand intelligence that was leading him, was showing him the truth. He prayed that he would never lose this connection, that he would keep feeling as inside and outside everything. He prayed that he’d get sucked in to the computer itself, wished that the molecules in his body could turn into bits of information, switching on and off, ones to zeros. Then he could follow the design of the powerful being he’d discovered.

Click. He kept going. Click. It never ended. Click. Thomas could feel the belief in him spring from a well he thought had always been dry. He felt as if light and warmth were flowing through his veins as he clicked again. But he was no closer to the truth! He knew it was there, he knew that he was seeing fleeting parts of it, and clicked onwards, trying to understand, trying to get to the root of it all. He knew that if he were a machine, if he could see things in absolute dichotomous terms of on or off, then he’d understand. He would surely understand. For now, all he could do, was keep faith. He felt as if the force that was guiding him was growing stronger by the minute. He knew, he was confident, that he’d be shown the way.

Thomas sat and stared and clicked and clicked and clicked.

His parents stood outside the door, peering in through the small window. All they could see was Thomas leaning forward on his bed, drool dripping out of his open mouth. His eyes seemed to be trying to burst out of their sockets, he was staring so hard. His hand, which rested on his knee, was the only part of him that was moving. And it wasn’t even the hand that moved – just the index finger, moving quickly, going up and pressing hard on the knee when it came down. His parents were both weeping quietly as the doctor ushered them away soothingly, explaining about treatments and options. They couldn’t listen properly. All they could see was their son, deranged.

But Thomas was seeing the truth, for the first time in his life.

Di’s Date

“Amazing.”

“Do I detect a hint of sarcasm there, Mister?”

“No, no, not at all… Me? Sarcastic?”

“If I had a dollar for every time I saw that angel face, I’d be very rich by now.”

He snorts his laughter and goes back to digging into his apple pie. This is a normal Tuesday afternoon for us. We sit in the corner booth, I have a banana-blueberry milkshake, and he has a slice of apple pie with a big dollop of vanilla ice-cream. I tell him things about my life, and he doesn’t take them seriously. Next up, he’ll tell me things about his life, and I’ll be sympathetic, interested, emphatic. At the very least, I’ll pretend to care.

“So listen, Di,” he talks with his mouth full, and I cringe a little. “I hear you’ve got senior-prom coming up, yeah?”

Uh-oh.

“Yeah… Why?” I know what’s coming. I just know it.

“Only I’ve got this friend, he’s my age, and he never went to his prom, and I was thinking that, you know, you could go together.”

See? I knew it.

“I’ve got a date already, thanks.” I take a huge slurp of my milkshake, hoping that my full mouth will stop me from wringing his thick neck. Stupid Brian. He always thinks that I just have to meet his friends. He just knows that they’re all perfect for me. Truth is, I think that’s the main reason we have these little Tuesday meetings. He’s had a girlfriend for years – not that I know how she can stand him – and his friends make him exploit the fact that he’s got a step-sister, a fresh-faced high-school girl, to try to get set up. I don’t know about you, but I find that mighty sad.

“Oh, yeah? Who? Only, you know, that guy in your chemistry class works for your dad, remember? So my mom started talking to him the other day, and she asked about you, and he said that no one knows why you haven’t got a date since you’re so pretty and all.”

I swear, he almost leers at me. Almost, but never quite really. Thank goodness he seems to actually be devoted to that Anna he’s been with since they were both twelve or something. Thank goodness she’s got the diamond on her finger and the caterers booked for July. Thing is, I know who it is who blabbed to Brian’s mom about me. It’s Rob, and he’s my best friend, and he thinks that my quote relationship unquote with my step-brother is hilarious. He thinks that I’m a complete nincompoop for having agreed three – yes, three – times to go on blind dates with Brian’s friends. I mean, come on! Statistically, one of them had to have been nice, right? Well, apparently not. I swear, if Brian’s going to talk me into just giving one more of his bad-mannered, greasy-haired, wandering-hands friends a chance, well, I don’t know if I’ll be responsible for what I might do to him on prom-night.

“No, Brian. NO. I’m not going out with another of your little friends. I can’t even believe that I agreed to those three idiots you tried to foist on me.” I’ve finished my milkshake, and Brian’s busy scraping his plate with his fork. It’s almost over, and I can’t wait to get out of here. If my dad hadn’t insisted that me and his new step-son try to get along… I mean, I love my dad, and I guess Mary’s okay and she makes him happy so whatever, but why on earth did they both think that this would be a good idea? Sure, he makes me laugh, and sure, we’ve been doing these meals for a year, but still, he’s such an ass.

“Well,” he sighs, leans back, and pats his stomach a bit. I can just see him in twenty years, turning forty, leaning back exactly the same. I can’t really see Anna in the picture then, but hey, I don’t know her that well so who am I to judge, right? “Well,” he repeats. “I guess that’s your choice.” He throws some money on the table – Dad always pays for these meals – and we head outside. He gets into his car, this banged up old thing that he’s got, and rolls down the window.

“Hey, Di!” I’ve been looking the other way, since my mom’s supposed to come pick me up. I turn my head to look at him. “Just don’t come crying to me when you realize that this friend of mine is that guy you were couldn’t stop talking to Rob about – the smart, motivated, classy guy who came to speak at your class about how good it is to go to college!”

Wait. No, seriously, wait. Matt, the adorable junior at the U who came to class last week is Brian’s friend? Holy cow!

“Brian, wait!” I shout, but he’s already rolled up the window and he’s pulling out into traffic.

Damn.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

… and the wind was blowing against the windows, making them shudder and rattle. It was almost impossible to see anything outside unless all the lights were off. Even then, the only thing that Patricia Nicole Baker could see was a blurry outline of the pine trees and their branches weighed down and tired from the barrage of water being dumped from the sky. It was a moonless night, and Pat knew what that meant. She shuddered, turned away from the window, and lit up every light in her small house.

It looked snug with the warm glow of half a dozen small lamps. There was the familiar lumpy couch, faded from red to pink over the years. There was the armchair, contrasting horribly with the couch, still a too-bright, too-light green. She’d picked both up at yard sales in town, years ago, along with the three rickety bookcases that stood side by side at the wall. Then there were the kitchen table and chairs, the familiar cupboards with little designs she’d painted on them. Pat walked to the bedroom, reassured again – the heavy wooden dresser, the floor lamp casting a blue glow through its shade, the double bed with crisp white sheets – she’d changed them just today – and the minuscule desk, just big enough for a laptop, a cup with pens in it, and a coaster for her drinks. The printer had to sit on the floor.

Normal, all was normal. Pat avoided the windows and puttered around, taking comfort in little tasks. She washed the dishes she’d used to eat her dinner off of, put the kettle on the stove, waited for it to boil and made herself instant coffee. Opening her mini-fridge, she drew out the bottle of fresh milk that she still got delivered to her – one of the perks of living isolated as she did was the rapport she’d built up with the farm-owners. Adding a dollop of milk and a spoonful of sugar, she picked up the mug and held it between her hands, enjoying the warmth it gave her clammy, cold hands. Striding to the bookcases, she looked through and found what she wanted. It was at the top of the right hand one, in the corner.

The children’s book she brought to the couch was well-worn. The spine was frayed and the front cover had some stains on it. The inside, though, was still beautiful. The images of the soft pastel colors washed over her, the familiar words forming in her mind without needing to read them. Sipping her coffee, she put it down on the floor beside her feet, took a deep breath and glanced at the old-fashioned clock on the wall. It was 9:45. Two more minutes, then, she thought. It was always at the exact time that it happened.

And then, on the moonless, stormy night, Pat lifted her eyes and saw a small figure standing in the middle of the room. He was dressed in a small, cheap gown with pictures of sheep on it. His hair was shaved off completely, though Pat remembered its original dirty-blond color. She knew that if he turned around, there would be a line of stitches at the back, looking fresh and congealed with some blackened blood. She’d asked for that – asked to see him without all the bandages wrapping his head. The doctors had allowed it, knowing there was no hope anymore.

Seth looked at her, his blue eyes shiny with tears.

“Mommy!”

Pat caught him in her arms, sobbing with him, hugging him so close she could suffocate him. Only she couldn’t, of course.

“Mommy, why?”

It was the question kids asked the most, especially very young ones. Pat had read all about it, about how you should give honest answers and admit it when you didn’t know. So she said, quietly, “I don’t know, darling. I don’t know, Seth-boy.”

Once they’d settled together, Pat opened the book, and started reading it to him in a bright voice. He stared hungrily at the pictures, laughed uproariously at the giraffe who got tangled up with his neck in a tree, pointed at the cute monkeys like he always did. Pat read slowly, trying to savor every page, but Seth was a little boy and he always wanted to know, even though he’d read it a hundred times before, what the next page held.

Once she would finish reading, she knew that Seth would fall asleep in her lap while she stroked his forehead. She always fell asleep, too. She knew that once she’d wake, he’d be gone, and she would wait for the next night with no moon, half fearful of his coming and breaking her heart all over again, and half fearful that he wouldn’t show up this time.

Survey

“Hello?”

“Hi! My name is Cheryl, and I work for SFTW, a worldwide survey company. May I take up a few minutes of your time, Ma’am?”

“Huh? Wait a sec – PICK THAT UP, TOM! – sorry, this is a survey?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Would you like to participate?”

“Uh, sure, it’s not long, is it?”

“No, not more than a few minutes.”

“M’kay. Just a second, the cat’s on the table… GET OFF. Good boy. Yeah, I’m with you.”

“Here we go. What sort of cereal do you own?”

“Uh, let me check, let’s see… Cap’n Crunch, Cornflakes, Kellogg’s, and wait, we had one just this morning – TOMMY, WHAT CEREAL DID YOU FINISH THIS MORNING? OH OKAY, THANKS. Yeah, and Quaker Oat Squares.”

“Thank you. Now, how would you rate each of those cereals – let’s start with Cap’n Crunch. Would you say Cap’n Crunch is a very good brand of cereal, a good brand of cereal, a mediocre brand, a bad brand, or a very bad brand of cereal?”

“It’s okay, I guess, I don’t eat the cereals, my kid does.”

“I understand. I still need you to answer the question to the best of your ability. As far as you know, is Cap’n Crunch a very good brand of cereal, a good-”

“I get it, I get it. It’s good, okay? Are you going to do this for every brand?”

“Yes, ma’am. So let’s move on to Cornflakes-”

“Can you just list them all as good brands? I really don’t have a lot of time here, sweetheart.”

“Well, I’m really sorry, but I really have to read you each of the questions. It’s the survery policy.”

“Well, honey, I can’t stand around here listening to you read each of those brands and if they’re good or not. No offense or anything but – TOM, WILL YOU GET YOUR SHOES ON, WE’VE GOT TO GO SOON! – I’ve got to drive my kid to soccer practice soon.”

“Alright, okay, just for you, ma’am, let me just write the brands as good… Okay… Yup… Now, let’s continue.”

“There’s more?”

“Not much, ma’am, please stay with me, just another couple questions.”

“Fine…”

“Out of the cereals you mentioned, which you would say is your favorite?”

“What? I just told you, I don’t eat them, my kid does – TOM, HURRY UP – and I really need to go.”

“I understand that you don’t, but still, to the best of your ability, please. Which is your favorite?”

“Lord, I don’t know – darn I need to fill the cat’s food bowl, hang on a sec, I just need to get – ouch! TOM LEONERD DAVIES, I TOLD YOU NOT TO THROW YOUR GREENS IN THE CATFOOD!”

“Ma’am?”

“Listen, hon, this isn’t a good time, let’s say it’s Cap’n Crunch, okay?”

“Okay, now I just need to ask some statistical questions for our database, okay? I’ll be quick about them!”

“How many of those are there?”

“… Just twelve.”

“…”

“Hello? Ma’am? Hello?”

“…”

“Damn. Lost another one.”