Short Story – Life is Waiting
Leeds Book Club has made a new friend!
I’m originally from Texas, but in 2008 I moved to the UK and have stuck around in Yorkshire ever since.
I’ve only started writing seriously for a little over a year now, and last May I self-published my first novel – Memorial Day.*
When I’m not obsessively staring at words on a laptop, I obsessively play music in Leeds-based band Backyards. Last year we released a couple records and were stupidly lucky enough to perform the 2012 Reading & Leeds Festivals.
I can be bothered and found bothering at @BryanSerwatka
Bryan would like to share the following short story with you. Let us know your thoughts in the comments, via email or on twitter!
It was a quarter past one in the morning when the phone rang. I didn’t dare look at the bright screen in the dark, but I knew nobody else would call me that time of night.
‘Rrraaaay?’ I asked, trying in a single syllable to sound like I had been sleeping.
‘I think I’m going crazy,’ Ray said in his familiarly clipped West Country accent.
‘Erm, what the hell am I supposed to say to that, huh?’
‘Sorry Dave. …. Were you asleep?’
‘Doesn’t matter.’ I’d actually spent the last couple hours unsuccessfully trying to fool myself into thinking I was going to sleep. For those past few weeks I was lucky to get more than two or three hours a night, but that night was different. I knew sleep was out of my grasp. ’So you’re going crazy – why call me?’
‘You’re a therapist, aren’t you?’
‘A couples’ therapist, not a psychotherapist. Besides I’m a divorced couples’ therapist. You might try calling someone with a better track record.’
Last summer my wife left me for one of her coworkers. I keep telling myself that I didn’t notice the signs because I was too busy breaking my back to establish my own independent practice – which has since gone bust – but the thought has never brought me any solace. Anyway, they’ve been out of my life for months now since moving up to Scotland to be nearer his family.
‘Honestly,’ Ray said, ‘you’re the only person I know who might be able to help.’
‘Why don’t you come over?’
‘Why not? You’re only a couple streets over. Besides, I’m not going to get to sleep any time soon. I’ll put the kettle on.’
As I ended the call and rose to my feet I realised I was still fully dressed – shoes and all – and what surprised me most wasn’t the fact that I was wearing clothes from the day before but that they had never fit so loosely. Reaching the hallway I could see I left the lamp in the lounge on, and as I neared the kitchen my ears slowly zeroed in on the familiar gentle drone of the extractor fan above the stove. Every magnolia-coloured surface in my tiny back-to-back terraced house was either excreting or cultivating a fine film of some strange substance that seemed to continually fluctuate between grease, grit, dust and mould. You could only see it if you really looked for it, but even if you weren’t I’m sure you’d be able to smell it or feel it on your skin as you walked in my house. I could.
The rest of my house was littered with a couple dozen battered cardboard boxes marked with the names of different rooms – few of which resided in its designated room. I’d been living there months but I didn’t see the point in unpacking them as I’d not really needed any of the contents aside from clothes, some books and a few dishes. I liked to think this kind of spartan living helped keep clutter down, but I’m not sure that really mattered much.
Ray and I met a couple months ago at our local pub. I remember sitting at the bar, sedately sipping my last-order pint as the news anchors discussed tomorrow’s headlines, when Ray walked behind me and tripped on my chair. His glass fell to the ground and his stocky frame followed closely behind, helplessly paralyzed like a statue pulled to the ground, and just as the glass smashed on the tiles Ray landed right on top of the shards. As he stood, I watched his shirt sleeves quickly redden with blood as it gushed from the gashes on his arms. I’d never seen so much blood in my life.
Ray instinctually started pulling the bits of glass from his arm, and I remember slurring, ‘Leave them in you bloody fool – and raise your arm above your head or you’ll bleed out!’ – or something to that effect.
Aside from the manageress – a perpetually uninterested woman – Ray and I were the only ones left in the pub. With the calloused nonchalance of someone who had seen this a thousand times, she phoned for an ambulance while sweeping up the mess with a dustpan. When the paramedics arrived, the manageress told me with a stony glare that I would be escorting Ray to A&E because nothing was going to stop her from shutting the bar on time. I didn’t dare cross her. In the confined space of the ambulance I could tell how strongly I stank of booze, but Ray absolutely reeked. It was as if the toxic bitterness of the odour intensified as it decanted from his veins onto his clothes and the gurney on which he laid. The paramedics had wrapped Ray’s arms in gauze and suspended them from the ceiling to make sure they were above the level of his heart, and as I watched them dangle all the way to the hospital I was reminded of the cured charcuterie meats that lined the bars of the Spanish tavernas my wife and I used to visit on holiday. Strangely, the pungent smell wasn’t too dissimilar.
That night, after I had left the hospital, the nurses on hand told Ray I saved his life, and since then he’s gone out of his way to make sure I’d never forget it. Every time he spotted me in public, he would run up to me and roll down his sleeves to show how well his scars had been healing. For the first couple weeks the scars were downright gruesome, and whenever I saw them I could only think of the poor sap who had to stitch up those jagged carvings in Ray’s flabby, liver-spotted arms. The very thought put me off meat for a while.
It only took Ray a couple minutes to get to my flat. I hadn’t seen him for a few days since he went to visit his daughter Kate in Kent. As his loud, clumsy knock at my door shook the entire wall, I knew the neighbours would complain about it in the morning.
‘Alright Dave?’ he asked as he clambered through the door.
‘Yeah not bad. Cuppa?’
‘But still crazy, right?’ A remark he didn’t find very amusing. ‘How’s Kate?’
‘She’s fine. They’ve been trying to get pregnant but nothing’s working.’
‘Sorry to hear that.’
‘S’alright. Anyway, she’s too young to be worrying about kids. I told her she should live a little before taking on that sort of responsibility, but she’s made her mind up. Stubborn like Eleanor, that girl is.’
Ray’s wife Eleanor died a few years ago from emphysema. She refused to give up smoking even after her doctors told her it’d kill her if she continued. Ray always managed to bring her up within seconds of starting a conversation.
‘Mind if I smoke?’ Ray asked pulling a crushed pack from his tracksuit bottoms.
‘You know I do.’ I don’t really, never have. I just didn’t want another strange smell in the house. ‘So what’s this about Ray? What’s bothering you?’
He shook his head and stared at the floor. ‘You’re not going to believe me.’
‘For fuck’s sake Ray – you called me in the middle of the night and you’re now in my living room. Try me.’
‘…Okay. It all started with a weird dream I had last week. Now I know there’s nothing more tedious than listening to someone describe a dream -’
I nodded in agreement.
‘- but it’s a huge part of what’s been messing with me. So in this dream, I park my car at the bottom of a hill somewhere out in the country and I start walking along this road that leads up to a small neighbourhood on the hill. Just a single street of detached houses ending in a cul-de-sac. Really lovely place. Lots of trees around but not a person in sight. I get to the top of the hill and look back down to where my car was, and just at that moment I see the clouds break as this sunbeam shoots down right onto a cluster of trees about a kilometer away. One of the trees is huge – I mean fucking massive – so I reach in my pocket for my phone and try to take a quick photo. It wasn’t cold or anything, but I was wearing a pair of black leather gloves. Real strange. Anyway, it takes me a few tries but I manage to get a shot where you could just make out the tree.’
I was growing impatient. ‘Keep talking Ray,’ I said as I stood and walked to the kitchen. ‘I’m listening.’
‘So I’m walking though this neighbourhood looking for number 12 – don’t ask me why – and when I find it I walk around to the back garden. Now, this is when it starts getting kinda weird: I notice a light on in the toolshed and can see this man inside with his back turned to me. For some reason, something deep down within me knows that this guy is a bad man. It’s so quiet up there in the hills I have to be really careful not to make a sound. I see a loose brick from a small pile and grab it, sneak up behind him, and with a few really strong blows I bash this bloke’s head in. He never saw it coming.’
‘It’s hard to describe, but even without seeing the guy’s face, every ounce of my being knows I had to kill him then and there, so I do the deed without any hesitation.’
‘What happened after that?’
‘Well, I know there’s a woman inside so I walk towards the house and open the back door. There was some loud chat show blaring on the television, but she was sound asleep on the sofa. I walk towards her, brick still in my hand, and I kill her just like I did the man in the shed. And just like with the guy, it was like I knew she had done something wrong and I didn’t feel bad about taking her out.’
I didn’t know what to say.
‘I went to the kitchen for a bin bag then left through the back door. Once outside I took off my gloves and put them in the bag with the brick and the rain jacket I was wearing. Then, I walk back down the hill with this bag in my hand, get in my car and I drive away. It was like I was operating on some weird autopilot mechanism doing all this then covering my tracks. The next thing I know, I’m awake in bed. I don’t remember anything else.’
‘A bad dream like that doesn’t mean you’re going crazy,’ I said with a smile, trying to lighten the mood a little, but he stared right through me. From the kitchen I could see he’d been sweating and his eyes looked misty and red. The man looked dreadful.
Ray stood and retrieved his phone from his trousers. ‘I haven’t shown this to anyone,’ he said, his hands trembling as they tapped and swiped through menus and folders, and as he handed me the phone he looked me square in the eyes to watch my reaction. ‘Here. Look at this.’
On the screen was a photo of an enormous tree illuminated by a sunbeam – exactly as he had described. Nothing in the shot was in focus and whoever took the shot hadn’t held the camera steady, but dead in the centre of the picture was the hazy silhouette of a large pine.
‘There’s more,’ Ray said as he gnawed his cuticles. His face had turned quite pale giving his bloodshot eyes a near-glowing effect.
The other photos were even fuzzier than the one he showed me, but it was obvious that every single shot was taken of the same tree illuminated by the same beam among the same hills.
I could feel Ray staring at me but I didn’t dare look up from the screen.
‘Couldn’t you have taken this picture a while back?’ I asked. ‘The mind’s a very complex thing and your subconscious could be remembering things from -’
He snatched the phone from my hand and shouted, ‘Don’t you think I know that!’
‘Keep your voice down!’ I hissed. ‘Christ, I hope the neighbours are too drunk to notice all the fucking noise you’re making.’
‘Sorry Dave,’ he said slouching his shoulders. ‘This is all a bit much for me.’
‘Okay, so let me get this straight: You don’t honestly think -’
‘Think what? That somehow I’m transmitting images to my phone as I sleep through some magical fucking connection?’
To be honest, I didn’t quite know what I was going to ask him. ‘Well?’
‘Don’t be daft!’ he spat. He walked to the kitchen and opened the cabinet where I kept my spirits. It was habit for us to head back to my house for a tipple once the pub shut. ‘Do you mind?’
‘Go for it.’
As he poured whiskey into a ceramic mug he said, ‘I only saw the pictures when I got to Kate’s last Wednesday. I was trying to show my son-in-law a video I took of some baby mice I found living in a box by the boiler in my cellar, but this was the first picture in the folder. And look here,’ he said tapping the screen, ‘the file info says the picture was taken last week – last Tuesday even.’
‘So where were you last Tuesday?’
Ray winced as he necked the glass. ‘…I don’t know.’ He glanced at the bottle and looked as if he was going to pour another but shook his head and walked back to the living room. I haven’t bought generic booze since.
‘You don’t know?’ I asked.
‘If I was still around here Tuesday night I’d have been at the pub, right?’
‘Sure. Arsenal played Spurs.’
‘But I wasn’t there, was I?’ Ray was now standing over me, and if I didn’t know him better I would have thought he was trying to scare me. His large frame combined with the ghostly look on his face would be enough to unsettle anyone.
‘Come to think of it,’ I said, ‘I don’t remember seeing you. Mind you, after Arsenal lost I ended up staying at the pub getting blotto until closing time.’
I sipped my coffee and watched as Ray wandered over to the window. With his face inches from the glass he began to trace the perimeter of the frame with his finger, periodically wiping the slimy condensation on the seat of his trousers. All night I’d been watching his body language, trying to remember whatever training and expertise I thought I’d obtained over the years, but I felt totally out of my depth. It suddenly dawned on me how unnatural the process of counseling had become – not to mention how exhausted I was from sleep deprivation. I hadn’t worked in months since the practice went under and thankfully I didn’t really need to. After the divorce I sold almost everything – house, car, furniture, the modest stock portfolio I’d been developing – and had been living off savings. I figured that if I kept on with the way I’ve been living, I’d manage another couple years or so without having to go back to work.
Still mucking about at the window, Ray said, ‘I tried not to react when I saw those photos, but you know I’m rubbish at hiding my emotions. Kate knew something was going on with me, and she confronted me about it, but I couldn’t tell her – and what the hell could I have told tell her anyway? That I’ve lost a day of my life and can’t remember anything from it aside from a dream – a dream where I killed two people in cold blood? …..You haven’t seen the news, have you Dave?’
‘Not in weeks,’ I said glancing across the room at my dusty television. ‘Why do you ask?’
Ray’s breath completely fogged the window, yet he stared at it as if looking through. ‘A couple in Scotland was found murdered a couple days ago. Their neighbours only checked the property when they noticed all the birds congregating at the toolshed.’
‘It’s got to be a coincidence.’
‘That’s what I thought until I saw the news report. I didn’t really recognise their faces when the photos came on the screen, but when the camera panned to their house and neighbourhood…’ Ray began to light a cigarette but I didn’t dare tell him off. He took a long drag and said through the smoke, ‘Since the moment I saw that bloody photo on my phone I’d been trying to tell myself that there was no way any of the dream was true, and since seeing the news report I’ve been drinking myself sick to try to forget about it. Even if I killed them, what the hell should I do about it? I mean, should I turn myself in?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I went through my house and my car looking for the bin bag, but there was nothing. I guess I could have disposed of it somehow on the way home or something, but I honestly don’t remember any of it. Not the drive there, not the drive back, and not even when I got home – and it’s not like I could have bloody well done any of it drunk!’
‘So you think you actually killed them?’
‘How else could I have known anything about what their neighbourhood looked like? Christ, how else could I have been there to take the picture?’
I shrugged my shoulders. At this point I didn’t want to look upset by anything Ray said. Despite the obvious distress he looked like he was in control, and I figured that could change if I looked or said anything that wasn’t one-hundred percent supportive.
‘I need a drink,’ I said. ‘Want one?’
‘Why not?’ he said as he waved his cigarette in the air dismissively.
I stood and walked to the kitchen and saw he had turned back towards the window. This was my chance. I had to take it.
I snuck up behind him, grabbed his waist with one arm and his forehead with the other, and said firmly, ‘Sleep.’
Ray fell immediately limp and we both crashed to the floor with his fleshy body landing on top of mine, forcing out every bit of of air from my lungs and filling my eyes with tears. My face was pinned to the grubby floor underneath his breast and, gasping to catch my breath, I caught the faint smell of something burning. I suddenly remembered the cigarette in Ray’s hand. As the stink of burning wool filled my nostrils I fumbled around trying to find the smoldering butt, and when I finally did all I could think to do was use the back of Ray’s hand to put it out.
Of course I felt bad at first, but it wasn’t like he was going to remember any of this.
I sat up, dusted myself off and stared down at him and the charred black spot on my carpet. Of all the times I’d put him under, he’d never fallen so limp so quickly.
‘What am I going to do with you, Ray?’
Ray’s right arm gently twitched at the sound of my voice, and I’m not sure why but it made me feel rather uneasy. Part of me was slightly worried he’d hurt himself in the fall, but I realised I was much more worried about him waking up. I wasn’t quite sure I could put him back under if he came to on his own – especially if he woke up distressed or realised what had happened. I leaned over to Ray, knelt down and slapped him hard across the face to see if he’d react.
Nothing. I struck him again.
‘Ray? Hello? Can you hear me? Do you know where you are?’
In that state he should have been somewhat responsive or reactive to my questions, even with just a nod or a wince, but he seemed totally unconscious.
‘Ray? I’m going to count to three, and when I get to three I need you to sit up and face me. Here we go: One… Two…..Three.’
His hands clenched into fists and he slowly slid his knuckles along the floor to his sides like a gorilla as he lifted himself up. His eyelids fluttered momentarily as he sat upright.
‘Ray, do you know who I am?’ He nodded. ‘Tell me Ray, what’s my name?’
‘Dave. You’re Dave.’
‘That’s right, Ray. Do you know where we are?’
‘We’re at your flat, Dave.’ Oddly, with his eyes still shut Ray turned his head in the direction of the window as if that position was somehow fixed in his mind.
‘Very good,’ I said. Glancing down towards the floor I could see where the cigarette burned the back of his right hand. The wound was the size of a ten-pence piece and was dotted with bits of dirt and blackened carpet fluff. ‘Ray, does your hand hurt?’
Ray shook his head with his mouth slightly agape, his jaw loosely swaying with each motion. He might not have been hurting, but I knew something needed to be done about the burn.
As I stood to walk to the kitchen I noticed I’d twisted my ankle in the fall, but the pain wasn’t all that bad. A quick swill of whiskey from the bottle seemed to help – or at least it diverted the pain with a sharp shudder and a vile aftertaste. I then sat down on the floor in front of Ray and took his hand, and as I poured the whiskey over his wound he sharply inhaled. He was visibly in pain now, but at least he was responsive to physical stimulus. At that point I knew I had to put him in a deeper trance, but I started to panic as I hadn’t the slightest clue how to do it. All my formal hypnosis training had centered around getting the patient to let their guard down enough to open up and communicate things they’d normally find difficult. Truth be told, I’m amazed I’ve been able to get Ray this far on my own.
The day he was discharged from the hospital, Ray found me at the pub in the hope of thanking me for helping him, and that night we drank until we couldn’t think. When the pub shut we went to my place for some further drinking, and in no time we got to talking about our lives and how much better we once had it. I told him about my pushy parents who guilted me into studying psychiatry, my wife and the divorce, and everything I wished I could have done or said to keep her, but all he wanted to talk about was the psychiatry. To Ray, being a therapist was as much a novelty as being double-jointed, and that night he proceeded to ask me every psychology-related question that popped into his drunken, blood-starved mind. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure he shouldn’t have been drinking after the night before. Anyway, at some point the conversation slipped into hypnotherapy and we never seemed to steer out of it. Ray told me that when he was younger he saw a stage hypnotist who convinced a woman she was a duck, and since then he’s been mildly fascinated by it. When I mentioned I had performed hypnotherapy a couple times in my sessions, he asked me if I could use it to help him stop smoking. I tried explaining to him that I wasn’t qualified for that sort of individualised therapy and that I was definitely too drunk to start dabbling with it now, but he was so bloody fixed on the idea there wasn’t a word I could say to dissuade him.
I started out gently with the basics just to see how receptive he was to hypnosis and made sure I was able to both put him under and bring him back before I dared moving on to hypnotic suggestion. Obviously it helped he was naturally receptive and trusted me enough to make the session successful, but as I continued the methods got more complicated and I quickly found myself operating totally outside of my comfort zone. The panic that set in made my heart race, and instead of pulling Ray out of the trance and stopping the session, I realised I loved the sensation and my ability to control the situation. I honestly hadn’t felt this energised in years and I couldn’t just let that feeling go.
Ray and I continued heading to my house after the pub and, once I learned to covertly put Ray under, I became more and more adventurous in trying to test the limits of what I could invoke through hypnosis. I’d spend most of my days at home researching different techniques online, and immediately upon coming across it I became obsessed with the notion of being able to remotely trigger hypnosis in Ray then getting him to respond to detailed posthypnotic suggestions when I wasn’t there to direct him step-by-step. With each session I felt I better understood the way Ray’s mind worked and in turn I began to regain a sense of confidence I thought I’d lost. Ideally I would have liked to be working with certifiably tested information on a totally sober subject, but as my own obsession grew and results appeared I became happy, complacent even, with what I had. However, just as I felt I was in control, we suffered a few setbacks as we moved on to methods of memory repression.
As complicated as memory is, the idiosyncrasies of memory repression and alteration are a thousand times more peculiar and are riddled with countless caveats and quirks that can be sparked at any time. Any changes or obscurations made to memory aren’t necessary permanent because the raw details of memory can neither be erased nor changed entirely. At best memories can be repressed through disassociation or something called motivated forgetting – but at some point in the future, any point really, they can be recovered through a range of things from random sensory triggers to intense sessions of psychotherapy.
I began testing repressive techniques on Ray by trying to block out certain small details of conversations such as specific locations or a football team, and as we progressed I moved on to topical events, people and even entire conversations themselves. Unexpectedly, in the days of our final sessions, Ray began experiencing sporadic bouts of both short-term and long-term amnesia which in turn made him become somewhat paranoid and distrusting. The complications themselves weren’t major – a few forgotten names, faces, dates, ruling parties of government – but they severely knocked my confidence. I spent days researching ways to address and resolve Ray’s memory issues, but I had no success. In fact, Ray’s memory seemed to be getting worse with each session. I could feel myself growing more and more hopeless as the one human connection I had was slowly slipping away from me, but more importantly I realised my window of opportunity to act was closing and I had to hasten my plan of action. In stark contrast to the sessions with Ray, when it came to planning the logistics, my alibi and how to get rid of the evidence I found myself bored. That side of things seemed so easy in comparison to everything else.
‘You know Ray, I always assumed I’d either chicken out or fuck up at some point leading up to this. Anyway, let’s get you off the floor,’ I said grabbing him by the crook of his arm before leading him to the sofa. ‘Lay down Ray.’
Christ, I thought, I’m still talking to him like a fucking dog. I hated myself for only really speaking to Ray as a friend was when he was under, and then I hated myself further for constantly berating him as I worked. I occasionally tried to convince myself I hated Ray for being so susceptible to the sessions, but I knew there wasn’t a single piece of blame I could place on him. I’m the one who couldn’t handle being left and I’m the one exploiting another for my own dirty retaliation.
Ray laid on the sofa like a stiff in a coffin, his arms crossed and his hands clasped together on his chest, and I could see that the burn on his hand was getting even worse. It was now a deep, bright red hole with small whitish bumps dotting the inside of the open wound. I took a clean tissue from a pack in his jacket and spilled a few drops of whiskey on it, and as I lightly dabbed his hand I realised how strange it felt helping him in this way. After what I’ve put him through these past few weeks I wasn’t quite sure how I’d be able to act or speak towards him. I tried imagining what life would be like from here on out, but nothing came to mind.
‘Ray, are you still with me?’
‘I need you to sit tight and wait. I’ll only be a minute.’
Life is nothing but bloody waiting, I thought.
I stood and walked to the kitchen to make another cup of coffee – doubly strong this time – and as the kettle hissed to life I stretched my arms as far as I could, for as long as I could, in the hope of somehow stirring up some vigilance or clarity. I opened my laptop on the kitchen counter and browsed through my folder of saved online articles and notes from our sessions, but I knew there’d be no precedent, no method of procedure, for what I had to do next. I’d be flying blind for however long it took to keep things under control, but that was fine. That was the way it had to be.
‘Alright Ray,’ I said bringing the coffee to my lips, ‘we have work to do.’
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