His eyesight had dwindled away in the year following his stroke. At the age of forty-one, all that remained for him now was his writing, his love for her, and the terrible burden of the secret he bore.
She turned from the screen, done with her editing. "This is good, Walter, but it's sort of ... "
"Creepy," he whispered, smiling, knowing she'd smile too.
"I suppose, but it is good. Do you want me to read it to you one more time?" she asked.
"No, I think it's okay. This one's only a lark anyhow."
Of course, she knew it was a lark, but she didn't say so. Before his illness, he'd enjoyed some small success, at least enough to eke out a modest living. Now blind and partially paralyzed, he clung to his work as he drifted on the gauzy, gray waves of a tossing sea.
"Shall I post it now?" his wife asked and he nodded his response from the wheelchair.
Instinctively, he reached forward and touched her forearm gently with trembling fingertips. "Thank you, sweetie," he said in a thin voice. As faint keyboard clicks confirmed she was entering a familiar website and copying his text file there, his thoughts drifted to bright Sunday afternoons, her laughter, her loving touch.
"Okay, mission accomplished" she quipped. "We'll look back in tomorrow and see what people have to say about the first chapter of REMNANTS. For now, how about some lunch?"
As she rose, she noticed his slight spasm and furrowed, darkened brow.
Sometimes she worried about these moments, wondered what troubled him so.
It's his illness, the frustration of his confinement, she thought, but she
sensed something else, something terrible and black and cold.
"Evil produces wonder, while pain enlightens."
"What the hell are you talkin' about?" the driver said, shifting uneasily in the seat of the big rig. It was four AM. He'd picked the girl up at the Ponderosa Truck Stop in West Memphis. He hadn't noticed her body odor until now.
"Oh, you know, evil is .... always so deliciously mysterious. But pain, we always learn from pain, don't we?" she asked, sweeping a mass of greasy, bleached hair away from her eyes and tucking it behind her ear.
The driver watched her for a long moment, a ghostly silhouette in the soft light reflected from the big truck's instrument panel. His gaze one of appraisal. Would she be worth it or was she too weird?
"Listen, if you're hungry, there's some snacks and stuff in the back there."
"In the sleeper," she laughed. "I ain't that hungry yet big boy."
"Now listen, missy," he said angrily. "Don't go gettin' uppity on me or you can climb your little ass outta' here right now."
She looked at him like she looked at all of them, like bugs on the windscreen, then she smiled and propped her bare feet on the dashboard. "Why don't you just kiss my --"
Her comment was interrupted as the Freightliner's fender clipped one of the
bright orange and yellow barrels blocking the abandoned weigh station exit.
The heavy barricade wobbled crazily before tilting over and coming to rest on
the shoulder of Interstate 40.
Six hours later, two men stood near the barrel. In the early morning hours, it had been covered in plastic, placed on a narrow pallet, and transported by a Sheriff's Department van to the Shelby County Morgue in Memphis.
"He's never left anything this ... big before," the bald man said, swabbing his forehead with a crumpled handkerchief.
Over the course of the previous eleven months, three grim roadside packages had been discovered, each carefully sealed inside a familiar orange warning cone found near an Interstate construction site. The investigators could only speculate how many other tainted cones might have gone undiscovered. Hundreds of miles of highway resurfacing was underway in the Memphis area.
"Yeah, well maybe this time, because of the ... volume, there'll be a more substantial clue," the bald man's partner said uneasily. Both men stood upwind, at a safe distance from the neon yellow and orange container in question. They didn't speak further as they watched a morgue technician approach with a hand truck.
"This our Fourth of July surprise package?" the grinning technician asked.
"Yeah," the bald detective answered but he wasn't smiling. "Don't tilt it toward the X," he added, pointing to the masking tape cross on the side of the plastic-covered container. "There's a pretty big hole in the barrel, it might start leaking again."
"Too late to worry about that," the technician's expression was grim now as
he stared at the floor of the loading dock. On the opposite side of the
barrel, a putrid magma of stringy, purple-black matter had pooled and the
flies had already engaged a grim banquet.
"Oh, sweetie, listen to this one," she said excitedly, her words echoing off the computer screen as he sat nearby. "'Frightening imagery, will there be more?' The next one's from Allen. 'Hi Walt, I see you're up to your old tricks again. As always, a pleasure to read your scribbling. You should develop this one further. It has real potential.'"
Walter leaned back in his wheelchair with a sigh. "I can't tell you how much my friends and my writing have come to mean to me," he said in a voice barely audible. "Thank you for ... so nice to ..." His faint smile disappeared and his speech slurred as he drifted off into unwelcome slumber.
Tears welling in her weary eyes, Walter's wife gazed at him tenderly for a long moment before turning back to the blank computer screen. She'd typed and retyped this short chapter hundreds of times now. The idle modem hadn't signaled to his friends in over a year. For him, only these few paragraphs remained, suspended in the slashed gossamer remnants of his shattered imagination.
As Walter snored softly, she tucked the woolen comforter snug around his lap, dried her tears, and moved silently away, toward a warm kitchen bathed in early afternoon light.
Standing at the sink, she gazed idly out the kitchen window as the last droplets of a hard summer shower tapped at the glass. In the corner of the yard near the alley, mist was rising from a tall clump of colorful blue Azaleas, Walter's favorites, the ones he'd planted just before illness had overtaken him.
Something startled her and she felt current dance across the nape of her neck. For a moment she attributed her fear to a clap of nearby thunder but then she looked again and the color drained from her lips. There among the Azalea blooms, the pointed tip of an orange highway marker-cone peaked from its resting place beneath the muddy soil.
Jess Butcher resides in Mississippi with his wife and two sons. In the last six months, Butcher's short stories have appeared in numerous e-zines, including Dark Moon Rising, Redsine, Shadow Keep, Steel Caves, Tantalus Fire, Terror Tales, and The Harrow.
Reprinted by permission of the author.