When it’s cold outside you depend on the warmth indoors to keep you comfortable. What if the heat wasn’t a salvation, but a curse?
Aaron Francis Runyon is a thirty-five-year old husband, writer, and father living in the Midwest. He works full-time, but has been writing horror and fantasy fiction since his early teens. His story “Jill” recently appeared in issue #22 of Dark Eclipse e-zine, “Spectrophilia” in an anthology titled “Horror-tica” by Cruentus Libris Press (both available at Amazon), and “Somnambula” in September on Fiction Vortex. To see more of Aaron you can find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Aaron-F-Runyon/579361512128182.
By: Aaron Runyon
January 13, 1966
I had been up all night. The baby was sick again, probably pneumonia this time, and I blamed Jennifer and her goddamned cigarettes. I admit that I smoke, but never around the baby and outside if I can help it. But Jennifer always has a butt hanging out of her mouth, and there she is blowing big clouds of smoke right into Sammy’s little round face. So here I am at three o’clock in the morning with two hours left before it’s time to get up and go to work. I’m so tired, and I feel just like screaming at Jennifer as soon as she walks in from her shift at the hospital. I sat there on the couch rocking poor little Sammy and watching the new episode of Bewitched where they finally had a baby. I bet Samantha Stevens never blows smoke in little Tabitha’s face. That was when I felt the weird pimple on the back of my neck start to itch. It had been there for a couple of days right at the hairline, but now it was driving me crazy. As I reached back and felt it I grimaced with the realization that it had become infected and swelled into a huge knotted boil. It was now after finally laying Sammy down that I began to mess with it, and to my horror, it burst and became a seemingly never-ending gusher of pus and blood. I crept into the bathroom and got a roll of toilet paper and began to attempt the absorption of some of the noxious soup. I looked at the huge white circle of the clock on the wall and felt my frustration grow; I was not going to get any sleep tonight.
Jennifer walked in right as the hands of the clock settled on five. She didn’t say a word as she stomped to the kitchen with that pensive irritated look she always had. She tossed her coat and bag over the back of the kitchen chair, and came back into the front room standing between me and television in her pea green nurse’s scrubs. “Are you going to get ready for work?” She said with an angry questioning tone.
“I am ready, I never got unready from yesterday,” I said through clenched teeth. “Sammy is sick again, and he may have to go to the hospital.”
“Sick again; with his lungs?”
“Ya, he’d probably be okay if you weren’t always blowin’ smoke in his face!” I snapped as I stood and began grabbing my lunch box from the kitchen counter, and pulled a stocking cap on.
“Are you nuts? I don’t smoke! You’re the one who’s always smoking around ’em!”
“Whatever,” I mumbled over my shoulder as I left the apartment, slamming the door behind me.
I walked past the other apartments in the dark cold morning until I reached the road and began the walk across town to the lumber mill. I hadn’t even put on my coat, and was shivering as I passed my Cousin Grant’s house. Lights were already on inside and I saw him in his garage warming up his car. I tried to be inconspicuous but be spotted me and called out “Hey Mickey!”
I stopped and smiled as cheerfully as possible.
“You out headed to work are ya?” He said as he came out in his red Wilson’s Tire and Auto coat.
“Nothin’ gets past you, Grant,” I said as he slapped me on the shoulder. “I see you’re back to work for your dad.” I commented as I gestured at his coat.
“Ya, I couldn’t take that mill for another day, man. Hey, why don’t you come back to work with us; dad’s been in a forgiving mood since New Year’s. Hell he even took me back and he hates me.”
“No, I need the money, Uncle Gil is great, but I can’t afford it with the baby and all.”
“But with all those hours and with your mom being sick and all; how long since you’ve been over to see her?”
“Look, I’m runnin’ late already. I’ll talk to you later…” It was just as I was saying the last words that I felt a sudden wave of nausea as I was walking away. A moment later the world was spinning as I crashed to the road with a wet thump.
“Mickey, are you alright?” Grant said as he knelt beside me, his bald head shining with nervous sweat. “You’re a mess, man! How long has it been since you had a good night’s sleep?”
I pulled myself up with his help, and brushed off the gravel from my pants. “Too long,” I answered as I began to walk away.
“Come on Mickey, we missed you at the family reunion!” He called to me as I picked up my pace. I suddenly stopped in the middle of the street and stared off at the north eastern sky over the buildings of the town. Clouds of the darkest iron grey were rolling in at a speed that was incredible and unnatural. “You’re never going to make it through that storm, Mickey!” I knew he was right. There were snowflakes falling around me, and I knew that they were but sentinels of the blizzard that was being carried in the mass of those giant monstrous clouds.
I thought of Jennifer back at the apartment alone with the baby, and knew I couldn’t risk them being snowed in alone. I would have to call in from home. I began running towards the railroad tracks by the grain refinery behind Grant’s house which would take me directly to the apartment building.
“You going to run all the way back, Mickey!” He chided as I sprinted. “Good luck with all those cigarettes you smoke!”
He was laughing now, his voice carried cruel and angry by the wind. “Hey, your mom is dying, Mickey; how about you run away from that!”
I ignored the biting comment and concentrated on my run. I took deep breaths of freezing air as I felt the storm building behind me. I could run all the way home; it wasn’t that far.
As I saw the apartment building I dashed across the yard and into the front of the building. Here our landlady Mrs. Crobbin kept a little day room with card tables and a TV where the elderly members of the building could gather to play cards and drink coffee during the day. I could cross the room and exit through the far door to come out right in front of our apartment. As I was making my way through I was stopped by a small firm hand grabbing my arm, and there was Mrs. Crobbin standing in her flower print dress and white apron.
“Hey, there buster,” she said with a smile, revealing the faded yellow remains of a few select teeth. “Shouldn’t you be at work?”
This was all I needed; an interrogation by my nosey landlady.
“There’s a storm comin’, and I didn’t want Jennifer to be stuck alone with the baby.” I explained, edging my way towards the door.
“Oh, don’t tell me little Sammy is sick again,” she shook her head with disapproval and guilt swept over me like a wave of darkness. I nodded that he was and pulled away from her grasp. “You kids have got to learn that a baby is delicate!” She chastised with a boney waving finger. “What about your mother? How is she doin’?”
“Ah, she’s fine, but I really have to…”
“Why don’t you have her come live at the apartments? I’ve got an extra room, and then she’d be close and I could keep an eye on her.”
“She won’t leave the house Mrs. Crobbin. She’s lived there for too long. Hey, I really have got to go…”
“Go on then, but you talk to your mom, Mickey!”
“I will, I promise,” I answered as I dashed to the door and closed it behind me. I took a deep breath to suppress the mixture of shame and anger I felt mixing in my stomach like a pot of boiling bitter poison. I walked down the row of doors until I got to our apartment and quickly glanced at the large number one thirteen which marked it as ours. I took the keys from my pocket and unlocked it before entering.
Jennifer had somehow managed to reorganize the entire apartment in the half hour since I had left. The couch was moved to the far wall and the TV moved to the center of the room by the coffee table. Jennifer was sitting on the couch in blue jean shorts and a tank top beside our sometimes baby sitter Penny Bishop, a teenager who lived in one of the other apartments. Penny had on a black stocking cap and matching scarf over a white t-shirt and slacks. They were just sitting there talking as if nothing else in the world mattered.
“What are you doing home?” Jennifer sneered as she stood and confronted me with aggravated rage.
“Why, is she here?” I growled as I pointed at Penny. “This is your day off!”
She looked at me with angry confusion as she began to storm off to the kitchen.
“I have to go out and do some things,” she answered from the other side of the wall.
“Do some things, or someone?” I heard the door of the bathroom slam shut and knew she had locked herself inside.
Penny stood from the couch and walked over to me and putting her hands on my chest whispered “You should just let her go. Then we can have some time together,” she smiled seductively as he hands dropped to my belt. I pushed her away in shock and stared at her shining blue laughing eyes.
“Are you high or something?” I said with complete disbelief. “Get the hell out of here you crazy bitch!” I grabbed her arm and pushed her across the room to the door. She shrugged her shoulders and left still smirking like a playful child. I went to the kitchen and down the hallway to check on Sammy, but his crib was empty. All the drawers of his dresser were open and empty. How could she have packed everything so quickly? I went to the bathroom and threw the door open to find her standing in front of the mirror putting on her makeup. “What are you doing? Where’s Sammy?” I said grabbing her violently and shaking her.
She stared back with pure, unfiltered hatred and shoved me backwards into the wall. “I can’t take it anymore, Mickey! I don’t even know you anymore; you’re like some kind of head case or something!” She turned and stormed from the tiny bathroom and through the kitchen. I followed and watched as she snatched up the suitcase which sat by the door.
“So you’ve been planning this all along!” I shouted with desperate, confused horror. “Just tell me where Sammy is; he’s sick, and you shouldn’t have moved him!”
She looked at me with what I could only describe as pity. “Sammy is with your mom, Mickey; you know that.” Shaking her head she turned and opening the door closed it behind her, leaving me alone. Why would she take Sammy to mom when she knew she was too sick to care for him?
I walked to the kitchen and taking the phone from the counter placed it on the table as I sat down. I lifted the receiver and dialed my mom’s number and waited for the ring, but was met only by a steady annoying noise as an operator’s voice said “We’re sorry, but the number you have dialed is no longer in service.” I slammed it down and stared out the window at the snow and ice which was building along the edges. Had she forgotten to pay her phone bill? Was my son trapped alone with an invalid in the middle of a blizzard?
I felt a sharp twinge at the back of my neck and reaching back withdrew my hand and stared at the mass of blood which ran over my fingers. The boil was oozing again. I went to the bathroom and grabbed another wad of toilet paper and held it to the sore. I studied the sink and noticed that there were empty pill bottles lining the basin. I picked one up and studied the prescription which I recognized as a sedative. Where did Jennifer get all these pills? How long had she been taking them? There were overflowing ashtrays in every corner of the bathroom, and even the toilet contained blackened floating butts. Ya, she doesn’t smoke, I thought to myself as I returned to the kitchen.
I stopped suddenly and froze as I saw that now there were objects previously not present on the kitchen table. Beside the phone there was now an ashtray, half-empty bottle of gin, and a small black revolver. I sat down and lifted the gun into my hand. I examined the cartridge chambers and found all them were loaded with rounds. Only one had been fired. Carefully placing the gun on the table I looked around the dark kitchen and my eyes froze on the clock which hung near the stove. It was now thirteen minutes after one o’clock. But how was this possible? I had just gone to work in the early morning, only a little while ago. There was no way so much time could have passed. It was then that the phone began ringing.
I stared at it with growing apprehension as I slowly lifted it to my ear. “Hello,” I said with a quivering fearful tremble.
“Hey, honey it’s me, Jen. I just called to say I’m going to have to stay and work another shift at the hospital. We’ve had all kinds of call-ins because of the storm and all. How’s my baby doin’? Are you keeping him warm?”
“Ya Jen,” I answered as the tears began falling down my cheeks. “He’s pretty sick. I think he might have pneumonia.” My hands were shaking as I spoke.
“Oh no, not again. It’s because of all that smoke you’re always blowin’ in his face.”
“I-I know Jen, and I’m really sorry. I’m goin’ to stop… I swear…”
“Well, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to bring him in. All the roads are closed.”
“He’ll be alright; I know he will.”
“It’ll be okay. Hey, I gotta go. Love you sweetie.”
“I love you too, Jennifer,” I said as she hung up.
I sat in silence shivering in the cold kitchen. This apartment could get so cold in the winter. There was a little heater that we kept in Sammy’s room, but you had to refill it with kerosene to keep it going. If you weren’t paying attention then you could easily forget to go in there and check it. It would be so easy if there was a girl distracting you; a girl that came over from a nearby apartment to stay awhile because your wife was working an extra shift.
I withdrew the now soaked lump of toilet paper from my head and stared at the bloody mass. It wasn’t puss and blood as I had originally thought. It was something else, and there were bits of some strange grey spongy residue present as well. I looked up at the window and saw that now the glass was buried in a drift blown against the wall of the apartment. I thought of what some poor sick elderly woman would do if she were snowed in her house by a storm like that. The apartment was so cold and quiet. All I could hear was the wind against the walls outside as the powder grew deeper and deeper, burying my world.
There was that word…burying. Like burying a mother, or burying a child. Staring into the infinite white I could see a place of burials. I could see a rainy January morning amongst tombstones beneath a dismal overcast sky. How could somebody have let those events unfold? How could you disappoint everyone that ever depended on you? Just to look into the eyes of your wife and see the hatred and judgment burning like a cold inferno. A marriage can only take so many hits, and when one partner is nothing more than a selfish ungrateful child it is as doomed as the casualties whom lay…buried, but there was another burial; another plot in the cemetery. Who was the third casualty? For them there was no memory of a funeral. There was only the dim forethought to some action; some random moment of continued self-induced agony. I was going to teach Jennifer a lesson. I was going to make sure that she regretted leaving me alone in this shitty little apartment with nothing but the memories of what I had done. There’d been booze and pills and…the gun. The cute little babysitter never came by again after Sammy…
No, it wasn’t possible! I couldn’t have let it all happen like that! There’s just no way that I let my own mother just…
But I could see the table, the gun, and the clock. I could see that the minutes are no longer passing in this cold dark kitchen. It’s so cold, so cold that even time is frozen. In my mind I can hear a voice saying: Just admit it! Just accept the fact that you destroyed everything of value in your worthless existence! For once just take responsibility for your own selfish actions. Say it! Say it out loud!
But I won’t because it’s not true! I will not admit to a crime that is not my own. It was Jennifer! She was always pushing me and criticizing me. It’s all her fault because she didn’t love me enough! If she hadn’t been such a complete bitch I never would have cheated! I never would have forgotten about…the heater.
Mom was so old. She should have moved years ago. How could I be accountable for her? She was a grown woman who made her own decisions. Why should I feel responsible? I had a life to lead, and bills to pay! I had a newborn child that I just let get sick and…
I will not accept this! Something is wrong with me. I’m going crazy or something. Is this what dementia feels like? I will not accept that Jennifer left me and after a few weeks I put a gun to my head and pulled the…
I open my eyes and I am sitting on the couch in front of the television. I must have dozed off waiting for Jennifer to get home so I can go to work. I had been up all night. The baby was sick again, probably pneumonia this time, and I blamed Jennifer and her goddamned cigarettes. I admit that I smoke, but never around the baby and outside if I can help it. But Jennifer always has a butt hanging out of her mouth, and there she is blowing big clouds of smoke right into Sammy’s little round face. So here I am at three o’clock in the morning with two hours left before it’s time to get up and go to work. I’m so tired…