Trauma

by Shane Steven Smith

TRAUMA

by Shane Steven Smith aug 2004

"He'll be alright, kid." Sam said, not really looking at the child, but just staring off into traffic and wanting a smoke. "If there's anyone who can make it through this, it's your father."

"How can you be so sure?"

Because this ain't the first time I've done this, he thought, but of course said nothing. That wasn't the kind of idea that you wanted to put in a worried, little boy's head. Truth was, he had been avoiding thinking about it; mostly what rolled around in his head was how bad he wanted a ciggerette. No, needed one.

"I just am," he said. "And you should be too, if you know what's good for you. Now c'mon, put some of that food in you. You're too thin."

"You just say that because you're too big." Alex said, but he did reach to grab one of the glazed donuts. Sam knew from experience that they were the boy's favorite, but now, almost an hour in the car, and the boy hadn't even touched one. The Dunkin' Donuts box lay on the faded seat in the back, propped open a little. "Ahh, Unc!" the boyed yelled. 'Unc,' short for Uncle, was what he always called him. "You ate them all!"

"You should've been quicker." Sam said laughed. So did Alex too, and that was good.

Much better than the emotionless face, the white one he'd had on earlier. The one that just stared out the window.

He wondered how much the boy actually knew, for that matter. No one yet had made any great attemts at helping the child through this. The boy was, afterall, only twelve years old.

That's because the only one around is you, Sam. There IS no one else.

It was going to be a ten hour operation, that much he knew. That's what the sweet-sounding receptionist had said on the phone. She delivered the news like she had sold him a shiny new car; Sam imagined her now, holding the jingling keys and grinning maddly: "Will that be all sir?" And though Sam was no Doctor (a freight hauler for TransAtlantic for twenty three years, in fact) and he didn't even watch 'E.R.', (or any television, for that matter) he did know one thing: Ten hours was a long time. A fucking long time to be under the knife.

Longer, even too, Sam realized, than way back when they were just boys. Longer than the first time, and by a mile. Somehow, that made it worse.

It made it worse because the first time was so bad. The blood had sprayed like a fan when he pulled his arm from underneath the rider. The blades had chopped his palm into pesto.

But he wouldn't think about that now. No time to think about that now.

Sam put on his signal, looked quickly to each side of the large, blue hood that jutted out in front of them, and darted into the passing lane. It was the first time Route 2 East had been anything but a single, narrowly winding road, and Sam was happy to see the change; the tack red-lined for a moment and then subsided with the sigh of the engine. As the dial read forty, then fifty..then eighty, he sat back in the big, leathery seat of the Malibu, and took a sip from the paper cup the punk at the drive-thru had given him. The coffee was way too sweet and tasted as if it had had a gallon of cream in it, but it quenched his thirst nicely. At least it was hot, he thought to himself. Better than nothing. Sam let Mali settle back into her groove. She purred beneath him.

He remembered Alex asking him one time why he had bought the car, and remembered responding, "I've always driven Chevys.," but that wasn't the real reason. It was far less complicated even than that: big men needed big cars. Plain and simple. And then she had grown on him. Now, it was like Mali was a member of the family.

He turned towards the boy now, who had gone back to looking out the window, watching the cars wizz by, and was going to say something but then decided against it. Alex had taken his earphones off-- which earlier, Sam could hear just as loud as if he'd had the stereo cranked-- and all that could be heard now was the gentle whipwhoosh of the wipers. In a lot of ways it was worse; at least before, his thoughts could be muffled by distractions: now all there was, was this damn silence.

Oh, the ironi.

Of course, the rain wasn't helping matters any, either, just a little pinging sound ringing above you. It hadn't really started to pour yet, but Sam could tell it was going to. It was drizzly... or maybe just gloomy. Like some sort of sick director of the macabre was drawing the curtains and setting the mood. Alright, now... ACTION! the director would yell, and scene One would begin. The actors were the wipers: whipwhoosh, whipwhoosh, the small hum of the fan in the desfroster, and the crank of the knob that went from mostly-blue to mostly-red. They would speed down the wet road as tires sprayed the pavement. Until they found Boston, anyways: the Director's title for the Show. This road's end lay in the city streets of Boston Medical.

But this wasn't really scene One, was it? If this Show was to be told correctly, Scene One went way back. Back to a time of laughter and boyhood. A time when Sam had been fourteen, Josh sixteen. Years back; twenty two, in fact. Back to their house on the hill where they had served together under Mother's reign. Yes, scene One went way back. He could remember making this drive for the first time. Mom drove, just the two of them in the car. Sam could remember having turned the heat all the way up, then too, but still his mother shivered and shook. And cried. That was the first of her little Joshy's "accidents" . The first of many that would follow.

So if that was scene One, what was this, then? Years later, making this familiar drive out to Route 2, then I-495 and connecting to the Mass Turnpike, to find Boston, hand-sergion capital of the world. What Scene was this then?

Maybe this was the last Scene.

Maybe this was The End.

Yes, how brave you are Sam. How adult. I mean, look at your nephew over there: you're sweating more than HE is. And how old is he-- TEN?

"Twelve," he muttered under his breath.

"What?" the boy asked, turning away from the glass. His breath had left a little cloud on the glass.

"What?" Sam asked. The child's voice startled him slightly, and he might have jumped a little. Couldn't be sure. He hope Alex hadn't seen.

But he had. "You said something," the boy said.

"Never mind."

Why are you being short with him? He's only a kid.

I'm not. Change the subject.

Sam rubbed his eyes. "You got to pee or anything? There's a rest-stop right up here."

"Naw, I'm good. All the good stops are on the pike, anyways."

"Alex, we're gonna stop once."

"Don't stop then," Alex said. Then he sat back and slumped in his seat. He didn't even make little finger drawings on the glass of the window, where his breath had made a nice little canvas. No Alexander the Great, or Alexander the Cool or Alexander the Anything was scetched on the window (something that Sam had reminded the child countless times how it marred the glass) and he couldn't believe how much he longed to see one. To see something. Anything really, that reminded him a little bit of, what was it called? Ahh, yes: Normal. With a capital 'N.' Sam wished he had a smoke, and as he sped by the reststop, he wondered if he should've stopped. Surely a Malboro or a Pal Mal pack could be found behind one of the counters. He realized he'd been thinking about a drag all morning. That itch that never goes away.

Because nothing was Normal, with a capital 'N' or otherwise, for that matter. He suspected the boy knew as much. Not many twelve-year-old's in his class, Sam was willing to bet, that had a father who spent as much time in the hospital as this one's did. And the time he stayed in the mental-hospital hadn't helped matters any either, he could imagine. And the pills, the hundreds of presciptions (Band-Aids for the Brain, Josh called them) that the sergions had issued him. Surely those hadn't helped in the schoolyard; he could imagine the taunts, the teasing. "They'll help him out of the fog," the Doc's had said, but Sam wasn't so sure. If anything, it seemed like the drugs made it worse. There were days when Josh didn't even seem to remember Sam's face.

Sam shuddered when he thought of the emotionless expression that lived in Alexander's eyes. It reminded him of the boy's father, all too well.

You're not going to tell him, are you? Don't do that.

Why not?

Because he's TEN, for christ's sake!!

Twelve. And so what? Sam was only fourteen when it started, the whole maddening mess, and he didn't think that was a hell of a lot older than twelve. Besides, a kind of thing like this ages one in a way that can only be understood if it's happened to you.

You're going to tell him everything? I mean, about Mom and--

Maybe. Maybe not. He didn't know yet. Like he couldn't really see, the picture wasn't clear. Besides, he wasn't sure even how much he'd have to tell; Alex had been alive for a couple of the incidents, as well. It would be foolish to assume the boy hadn't at least noticed the shear amount, and maybe even the similarity. But it wouldn't make sense to him until he knew the whole story. Saw the big picture. He only hoped he could see it too.

Do you think he noticed when you carried his father, unconsious and bloodied, over your shoulder to the car? I do. I think he noticed, all right.

Sam slowed the car, hearing the transmission pop into fourth, and took the exit. His car found I-495, and thus came the second stretch of rainy desert to cross. It was a smooth transition, and they were plaining through the wet asfalt with determination. Muddy water sprayed in a fan from the Malibu's retreds.

"Do you know what happened, Alex?" he asked quietly, and slowly, turning a little towards the boy. He looked right at him.

"Yeah. He stuck his hand in a wood chipper."

Sam felt like he had been slapped. His voice was so flat; he said it so matter-a-factly.

"Jesus."

"Well, that's what happened, isn't it?" Children sometimes don't seem to have the fear of such things, he guessed. He accepts it with faith. Yes, that was it.

Or maybe he just doesn't need everything sugar-coated . It was the older that one got, the more needed that blanket of reassuringness became.

"Yes..I guess. But I don't know if I would say he put his hand in there, Alex. I might--"

"Why not?"

Because that's exactly what happened, that's why. He PUT his--

"Because it just sounds better, I guess. Shit."

Immediately he felt awful for snapping. If there was anyone who didn't deserve it more, it was this child. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay."

"No..it's not. But, I only asked because I just wanted to see if you had any questions. This kind of stuff's hard to deal with sometimes, if you ain't got someone to talk to, you know."

"Trust me, I know." Alex said confidently. "I always gotta deal."

Sam supposed that was true. The boy had seen, over the years, many of the accidents that had befallen his father, and now kind of went through the motions with a kind of mechanical blindness; like he had done it so many times now that it had become a habit, and his mind wasn't really even on. The shock. The worry. The fear. He had done it all before.

But this one was the worst. That was the part that Sam didn't know if his nephew understood. This was a bad one. This wasn't just cutting your hand while cooking dinner. This was fucking Med-Flight. And at first Sam hadn't-- of course-- wanted him to know that. Now, he wondered if maybe he ought to know that. Anything to wipe that expressionless gaze out of his glassy eyes.

"Yeah, I guess you do, don't you."

"We all do."

What did he mean by that? Alex turned, his corn-colored hair brushing slightly in his eys. Sam could see a little on top was still matted a little on top. He was wearing a blue jersey that boar the number of some football player Sam was unsure of. He looked small, slumped in his seat; even younger than his age.

The child seemed to see it in Sam's eyes. "I just mean that he's always getting hurt, and all that. And we always have to go and make sure he's alright, and he always is. But still we all worry and I worry and things get good and then BAM! It happens again!" At this point, Alex put his face in his hands, and his head in his lap. Sobs, deep and choked, could be heard even above the whipwhoosh of the wiper blades.

"There, there." Sam said and touched the child's back. His meaty hand swallowed the boy's form, skinny and bird-like, and Sam could feel ribs under his fingertips. "In and out, Alex. In and out. Breathe." He could feel the once uneven rise and fall slow to a less convusive rate, but the boy's heartbeat-- Sam realized-- was still beating like crazy. "Shhh..." he whispered quietly, almost under his own breath.

Then Alex sat up suddenly, after a moment, as if he had waken suddenly, and asked a question to Sam, only when Alex said it, it came out of his lips not as a question but rather a statement.

"And he never talks about Gramma, either."

But the question was really 'What happened to Gramma?' The boy had come close, was just needling the subject.

It seemed they were wandering all over place, not really making sense in their conversation. But they weren't. Not really. Afterall, they had been talking about accidents, and his father's unfortunate collection of them. And talk of mishap and talk of Death are not too far apart. No, not at all.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I know she died and all. But, you know, it's his Mom. You'd just think he'd talk about her more." The child looked upset almost, discouraged that he couldn't figure it out.

Then Sam asked a stupid question: "You ever talk about your mom?"

The boy glared at him. Josh's wife had deserted Alex and Joshua when Alex was just born. He never even got to meet her. It was sloppiness to bring it up, and Sam couldn't believe he'd been so dumb.

"I didn't mean it like that," he added quickly.

"Then what did you mean it like?"

"I just meant that sometimes, most times, people don't like talking about all the bad stuff that happens to them. Especially Josh. You ever hear me talk about Mom either? It's in our blood, Alex."

"But you talk all the time."

Sam couldn't quiet the comic within him. Did he just tell me to shut up? "I mean about important stuff. You think I talk all the time cause we joke around and eat burgers. Really, my brother and I are a lot alike."

"So what happened to her, then?"

There it was. The Question.

"She died." That was all he said. "She died one night in the kitchen back home in Maine, where your father and I grew up. It was just Mom and us kids at the dinner table, and the coversation went sour and turned into an argument. Her and Josh. It was always her and Josh..." Sam realized faintly, like in the back of his mind, that he was in fact just rambling now; speaking to himself, barely at all to the child.

"What were they fighting about?" The boy asked, now completely turned in his seat. His legs were tucked underneath him, and his eyes were wide, like a young boy's sitting sround a fire and telling ghost stories.

Sam slowed, somewhere still aware in his mind that he was driving. Maybe it was the gentle pings of rain on the roof of the car, or the toll signs that helped him remember. But he pulled underneath the CASH ONLY, handed the guy two bucks, made change, and got back in lane. Welcome to The Mass Pike the sign read.

The boy asked the same question again, Sam could tell dimmly, but his mind was on other things. With a crash of lightning that seemed to come from no where-- zaaaaaaaapppppp-- the clouds suddenly darkened a hundred shades of grey, a thousand-- maybe more-- and split vioently, like a soft belly under a sergion's knife. Down, down came the rain now. And hard.

"Shit!"

People were driving like idiots now, like they always did when rain came down like this. It's just a little rain. It'd be fucking PERFECT to crash right now, wouldn't it BOSS? Have our own little accident?

But he was just telling himself that. And it wasn't just a little rain. It was a mother truck load, and it came down in sheets, heavy and hard. It pounded the roof of the Malibu, and now nothing, not even the whipwhoosh of the wipers-- which was really more of a screach at this point-- could be heard above the roaring storm.

"Wow!" came a yelp that Sam didn't even hear.

And then came the thunder. Loads of it. By the truck load, like everything else, it seemed. It shook the Chevy, pushed her a little to one side of the road.

"Woh!" Alex exclaimed.

"Woh, is right." Sam said and got the car under control. He felt the heavy weight of Mali, which is what he'd always called her, sink her treads deep into surface. They grabbed quick and raced up the turnpike. This was, after all, what Sam did. Frighthauler for TransAtlantic and all that. "Good girl," he said. "That's my Mali."

And then, as in no break at all: let's move on to the next chapter, Alex asked: "What was the fight about?" For a third time.

What? Fight? What are we talking about? Does anything faze this kid?

"They were fighting about his hand. Mom wanted to see it and Josh didn't want to show it. Mom got mad and.." He trailed off.

"And what, Unc'?"

"Mom got mad and took a look. Mom was strict, and I mean strict. Mom always got her way. She ran that house like you couldn't imagine. She used to have his wooden rolling pin, you know the one's like for making pies and stuff like that? Well, she used that one to hit me and Josh with mostly." Sam knew for a fact that that pin saw more skull than it did crust. Wack! if you missed a grade. Wack! if you swore in the house. The list goes on. So that night, at dinner, she had already grabbed the rolling-pin when she went to talk to Joshy. "She had wanted to see under the gauze."

"Under what gauze? What do you mean? Did Dad hurt himself again?"

"Yeah, but it was the first time."

"It was his right hand wasn't it?"

"Yeah," Sam said, but he wondered for a split-second: How had he known? But then he came to his senses; It was always his right hand. The accident with the cooking knife, where he'd quite nearly taken off two fingers: his right hand. The time he'd missed the board completely and had swung the led hammer into the meaty flesh of his palm: his right hand! It had swollen up huge and purple, and it was weeks before it had deflated any. At least it hadn't been as bad as some of the other ones. No Boston path to find themselves racing towards that time, thank God.

"So why did she want to see it?"

God, this kid is BRUTAL, Sam thought. "Because he was hiding it from her," he said finally. "That's the way Mom was: if you were holding out, she knew it" She could smell it on you almost, he almost said, the way a dog could sniff you out.

"I thought the nail-gun was the first one."

"No. The first one happened way before you were born. The first one was a lawn-mower."

And it wasn't a nailgun, either, as Alex had so delicately put it. What it had been was a nice Stanley all-purpose screw-gun. Josh alone in the house, and child gone, had seemingly found a way to put not one, not two, but three, black-ended drywall-screws into the webbing that was his right hand. And he'd done it from the top, palm down, drilling one each of the three threaded screws between each knuckle, sinking into the coarse meatiness of the drywall.

He'd had to rip him off the wall when he found him, Sam could still remember (how could he forget?), passed out and mumbling. His body limp and his face white, he had still been hanging there on the wall by his suspended right hand, his NAILED hand, staked to the wall. Blood had formed in a pool on the floor, and you could see the trail that ran down his back...and how it was getting just a little black. Sam had to pull him off the wall himself-- thank god Alex's in the car, he could remember thinking-- to get him to an ambulance on time. And how did he free Josh's right hand from the wall that was the divider between the living room and the kitchen? Why, he had used the Stanley all-purpose screw-gun, of course! Sam shook even now, remembering the way his hands had shook when he fumbled with the control for reverse.

"And it was an accident, what happened that first time. If it was anyone's fault, it would be mine."

"What do you mean? What happened?" The boy looked genuinely concerned, and had lost that look of a listener by a campfire. Maybe tell of Dad's accidents had brought the tale to heart, Sam had no idea. But he was different.

Sam sucked a breath in. He would just say it quick. Get it done with. "We had been messing around with water-balloons. It had been a sweet day and we were out fooling around and trying to wail each other. Your father was quick, too,'cause he was older and he always got me. This time I wanted to make sure he didn't. So I was running, fast so he didn't ream me, and when I reached the end of our yard, I went to the next, The Jamisons', and went down the hill over..." He didn't finish.

Alex didn't say anything. He guessed maybe he knew a little bit about when and when not to say things, and he could tell right now that this was no time to ask a lot of questions. So instead he waited. He watched the rain, still coming down heavy but even now. All the drivers on the roads had switched on their head lights, and some even had their high-beams on. He hadn't realized how dark the sky had gotten, even though it was in the middle of the day. Though the clock flashed in green light: 3;33, it could've been midnight. And wasn't that odd? Three thirty three. Like they had stepped into some Hellish portal where the clocks spun around backwards and so did the childrens' heads.

CRASH!! The brown corrolla in front of Sam swerved with the sounded of the thunder. A couple of kids, he thought. They stayed in lane and passed signs that said they were nearing the last toll. 2-miles the marker stated gleefully. The clock showed 3:49 before Sam began to talk again.

"..I ran into the neighbors' yard to out run him, you know?" he was reasoning with the twelve-year-old, it seemed. "I didn't even see the lawnmower, and neither did Josh. When he came from around the barn we had out in back, he ran so fast and so quick he stumbled and fell over Mr. Jamison, who was out on his big riding LawnBoy. Josh did a somersault right over the hood, not looking at him-- looking at me-- and landed squarely on his back."

It hadn't been anything at first. Josh had started to laugh, and so had Sam. Oh shit, Mr. Jamison had shreiked. They could tell he was more realieved than mad. It wasn't until Josh went to get up that it became a disaster. "When he went to get up, your father accidently stuck his right hand, all the way up to the wrist, into the blades of that running lawn-mower."

"No way."

Sam just glumly nodded.

"Oh my god."

Sam shook his head. "Not that day. We rushed him to the hospital, and they flew him out to Boston."

"Just like today?"

Sam heaved a big heavy sigh. "That's right," was all he said.

Just when the hornet's nests of questions seemed to cease for the moment: "What happened to his hand?" Alex asked.

"They had to amputate all the way up to his wrist. Nerve endings and all that. He had a little nub and thirty stiches."

Alex didn't get it. His father had two hands, he was sure. He it seemed stupid to suddenly have to confirm this. He had hurt one of them with a nailgun, he could remember that too. He could even still see the day when he'd been out, still not out of the car yet, that Unc' Sam had carried his own father over his shoulders, screaming. So why was Unc' Sam sitting here trying to say that his Dad had cut his whole hand off? It just didn't make any sense.

And, still another accident with the hand-- which hand? The right hand, it's ALWAYS the right hand-- was a cooking accident, where he had slipped and, woopsie dazie, slit four of the fingers on the hand. His right hand, of course. Why had so many bad things happened to that hand?

"Hand's don't..." Alex tempted. Grow back, was what he'd been thinking, but dared not say it.

"No I suppose they don't. And it's not fake either." He said, thinking prosthetic, but not sure the boy would know what the word meant.

"Then what?"

"I don't know, I guess. I just know what I saw. A week after we got back from I.C.U., that's--"

"I know: Intensive Care Unit."

"Right. Anyway, about a week after, he tells me he wants to show me something. Says we have to go up in the attic to do it, you know? So: No Mom."

Alex nodded.

"I follow him up there, trying to help him. It was slow work after all, doing everything one handed and weaked still from the hospital. There seemed like a thousand steps to get up there, each one getting a little hotter as you climbed higher. Then at last we're at the top, and he sits down in the corner, underneath the only window in the room. The light will help me see, he says, come here. And I mean, I'm scared. I'd never seen him like this. His eyes were all lit up, his face was all bright, and he was sweating all over him. It was just pouring in his eyes, but he didn't care. He was unwinding the gauze, I realized, layer by layer. As I stepped closer the boards creaked and croaked, and I sat Indian-style next to him. At last he was finished. 'Look,'he said."

"What did you see, Unc'? What was it?"

After a pause.

"Two small, wrinkled fingers. Like a babies, no more than an inch long."

"Are you serious?" the child demanded, but in his heart he knew. Certainly he couldn't get around the fact that his father had used two hands, not just one, of course, to lift him high above his head into the air. He couldn't get around the fact that his father did a lot of work around the house, carrying sheets of plywood... It was the only thing that made sense.

But it didn't make sense. Alex realized that's what the whole problem.

You don't think Uncle is lying, do you?

..No..

Then what?

I don't know.

But he did know. There was something else he couldn't get around as well... but it was also something he might not really have payed attention to until this moment. He knew he'd seen glimpses of it, but never acknowledged it in this way before. It was hard to explain, but still harder even to get the images out of his mind.

It was the way his father always kind of hid it. Did that make sense? Alex wasn't sure but it didn't matter because it felt sort of right. Josh was undoubtedly left handed, did most everything he could with his left hand. And the things that did require two hands, he did quickly. But it wasn't just that he used his left hand hand primarily, the way any left-hander would; it was the way he avoided it. Like it was a part of him that he just wished would fall off and die. It was the way that when his father sat at the diner-table, he kept it dangling beneath the table-clothe. It was the way he kept it tucked under his pillow when he slept. It was the way he kept it snugly in his jeans when he walked. It was everything, Alex realized suddenly, and he wondered why he'd never acknowledged it before.

Then why? He didn't know. Instead he asked the million dollar question: "How did Gramma find out?"

Sam smiled. "Caught us in the attic. But she didn't tell us until later. That's how Mom used to like to do it."

"She told you at dinnertime."

"Yes."

At this point Sam realized you could see Boston in front of you. The rain subsided just a little, you could hear it mellow out. Like a sleepy cat after a meal. Then it was gone completely, and the stormy rain turned into drizzle again. East meets west. In like a lion and out like a lamb and all that. Sky-scrapers towered overhead, highways turned to streets, streets to tunnles, and then, it spit them out into the center of Boston Medical.

"Look for Brigaman and Brian's Alex."

"Okay."

They slowed, and went around two corners. He had told him to look for it, but they both knew exactly where they were going. This hospital had been used in the nail-gun incident, as Alex so adaquetly put it. Others had been used too, but all of them were in this center, all of them were in Boston. And why was that?

Because Boston has the best hand-sergions in the world. And Josh needed the best, because his right hand had been operated on so, so many times.

They went up the street a little, and pulled into the parking gargage. It was dark and gloomy. Long shadows draped themselves like black tongues, soaking in the pavement. They went around in circles, up, up, and around, until they reached the fifth level. They found an empty slot and slid into it. He gunned off the engine. Mali heaved a huge sigh of relief, and collapsed to sleep.

Sam clicked the key back. Took it out. Man, he could use a smoke.

Alex waited.

Sam whispered: "At dinnertime, after she hit him with the rolling pin like fifteen times, and I mean hard. He staggered against the wall, and she came after him, holding pin high above her head. 'Show ME!' she was screaming, over and over, I remember. Josh would run to one corner, than another, hiding. But she was too fast, and she finally beat him to it. She grabbed him, held him off the ground with him in one hand and the rolling pin in the other. Then, she realized she couldn't do both and dropped the pin. The clank echoed through the empty kitchen. All you could hear was breathing. Heaving. She used her free hand to wrip the mesh off and when she had it bared, she gasped. Her whole face turned white and she fell squarely to the floor, dropping the both of them. He scampered a few steps away, and sat kneeling on the linolium, watching her. But all she did was sit there, right there, and stare. 'It was cut off. It was cut off,' she said over and over again. Disbelieving."

It was darkish purple, all the way from the wrist down. And it was vainy-- you could see them sticking out. The bones looked sharp enough to poke right through the pinkish-purple flesh because the skin was so thin, especially around the knuckles. It was a horrid thing, the way it writhed and twitched. And the puss. It was yellow and green and dark, do you remember Sammy? Do you remember the way it bubbled? Still healing, Joshy had said.

But he would tell the child none of that. They got out of the car and started walking. It was the kind of place that looked like it might be perfect for a mugging. They walked briskly to find the hospital's giant spinning door. Sam held Alex's hand as he hurried to catch up. For every one of Sam's steps, Alex had to make two, and they made squishing sounds on the pavement. "Did Gramma die that night, Unc'? Right there on the floor?"

"Yes." Sam said, No more than a foot from your father.

And for now maybe the boy was satisfied. Maybe all his questions answered, for now. Sam doubted it, though the child kept quiet the whole rest of the walk. They made their way out of the parking garage, down the streets that led to Harvard Medical School and many others, walking briskly in silence the whole time. Sam wasn't sure if the boy would inquire at all anymore or not, but he did know one thing: Sam would talk no more of the night his mother died, and of how. Let the child wonder.

They were finally there. Big bold print read: Brigaman and Brian's. They passed cautiously through the hospitals huge spinning doors.

"How can I help you?" the girl at the desk asked them blankly when approached. She had that smile on that was just on her lips. Not in her eyes. Sam thought of the sweet-sounding receptionist who sounded like she sold cars. Was it something they were trained to do? Be so so damn NICE?

"Trauma, please."

"Down the hall, to your left. Follow the fish. Is the doctor expecting you?"

"Yes," Sam said and hurried down the hall. It was true: the orange stripe down the floor led right to several doors with orange smiling fish on them. Welcome! the fish seemed to grin. They passed through two more heavy doors, Sam huffing quite a bit now. "You okay?" he asked the boy instead. See? This is why you quit smoking. You hear that? Vaguely he wondered if they sold smokes anywhere in this place. There was that itch again, the one that never quite went away.

"Fine." He seemed sort of dazed. Sam supposed they both were, but he hoped the child wasn't thinking too much. Sam was starting to wish he'd just kept his damn mouth shut, let sleeping dogs lie, and all that. But it was too late now. The skeliton was out of the closet.

Alex hadn't asked how, exactly, it came to be that a women died, right there at dinner time, with a mouthful still of string-beans. He hadn't asked how her eyes had turned white and rolled back, as the last drops of life slid from her body. And that was just as well. A boy of twelve didn't need to hear of such things.

But it wouldn't be a mystery to him for ever. Soon he would learn of how his grandmother had been found, the left side of her face spiderwebbed in red, like a cracked windshield. Soon he would hear from friends on the school yard how one of her eyes had actually fallen out and rolled down the side of her dead head. Her left eye. He would hear about everything, eventually. Even the part about how the rolling-pin, dried with blood, still had a little flour on it.

And the part about how all the wounds had been on the left-hand-side of the body. Like she'd been attacked by someone one handed.

Right handed, actually.

As they approached the final doors that promised to contain his brother, the boy's father, Sam put all of that out of his mind. He wouldn't think about how they had carried Josh off, kicking and screaming the whole time: "Oh God what happened? What happened? What HAPPENED!!" He had screamed, like he didn't know. And then they had tucked him away, put him into the car and sped away.

He wouldn't think about the way Josh's right hand had looked. He wouldn't think about how it had been caked in a kind of pinkish paste. The kind of paste you might get if you mixxed flour and--

None of that. Truth was, when they at last pushed that final double door open, Sam was only thinking one thing. And it was not the kind of thought you wanted to share.

He was thinking about cutting himself. Just a little bit. Just to see what would happen.

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