Here’s a short story I wrote a few years back and I am still not sure what to do with it. This is part one and I will publish the second part next week. I hope you like it.
Professor Sutherland, fifty years old, was looking at cucumbers at his local grocery mart when the beginnings of a headache touched just behind his eyes. He must have thought the feeling was strange, as he didn’t suffer from spontaneous headaches or frequent migraines. In fact, just moments prior, he had been looking at one of those eye-catching specials that beg you to purchase as much as you can even though you’ll never be able to eat as much as it promises: buy three cucumbers for one dollar. Professor Sutherland, though, was going to buy 30, cut them up, and put them in plastic baggies as snacks for a month. Meticulous was a word for it. He rubbed his temples, took off his glasses and had to smile at the suddenness of his pain. In mere moments, the smile faded away and a look of terror spread across his face. I imagine it’s hard to maintain a grin when there is a bug burrowing through your brain.
An elderly woman, Ms. Nora, was buying tomatoes when she took notice of the professor’s odd body language. By the time she peered into his face, he was drooling and squeezing a cucumber so hard that it snapped in his hand. Then suddenly he dropped the pieces and grabbed the sides of his head and cried out in pain: “Jesus Christ, I wasn’t flirting with her! Let me go back to sleep!” He thrashed violently and assaulted a row of yogurt and sour cream with one frantic hand. The containers fell to the floor and exploded in a sloppy mess.
Witnesses said he began frothing at the mouth and shaking uncontrollably. His head arched back, and his arms leapt out straight and rigid. He began to walk forward, they said, his mouth full of spit and bile, each step inching toward some unknown objective, his arms outstretched like Frankenstein’s monster taking his first steps. Another witness, Ben Piffman, a teenage clerk and novice mop handler, later claimed Professor Sutherland screamed his last words as he reached for a row of lettuce. “Forgive me, mom!” Ben Piffman heard him say. “I didn’t mean it.”
All in attendance said his eyes suddenly bulged and one of them popped out of its socket. Ms. Nora didn’t know it, and Ben Piffman didn’t know it, but the bug that was burrowing in the professor’s head was reaching peak unruly. Ms. Nora wasn’t able to recall much else, as that’s when she threw up in a bin of unripened bananas and fainted. Ben Piffman, sadly, was caught in a bout of youthful undecidedness and wasn’t sure whether to tend to the unconscious elderly woman or the thrashing professor.
When the paramedics arrived, they administered CPR and even used the paddles on him because they were positive his heart had stopped beating. Alas, it was to no avail, as the bug in his head didn’t respond to electric shocks or the heavy breath of a frightened EMT. No, the bug was only hungry for the soft brain matter that doled out all the professor’s thoughts, memories, and regrets.
“Independent study, they call it,” I said to Maggie as she painted her toenails in front of a thin stand-up mirror. “That’s how I met him.”
“What’s ‘independent study’?” she asked. She wasn’t really listening, her eyes on Home Makeover, her posture similar to a plastic flamingo, except her foot was stuck way out in front.
“It’s what happens when either a) you are at the end of your degree and just need three more credits but your university isn’t offering the courses, or b) you really messed up your four-credit lab class and need to pass it so you can get your bullshit degree and go back to serving ungrateful douchebags for slave wages.”
“That’s nice,” she replied, but she was talking about a European sink and an upright shower the renovators were adding to the bathroom on Home Makeover.
I was laying on Maggie’s bed smoking a joint and thinking about life after graduation, but my thoughts never strayed far from Professor Sutherland’s last moments. Maggie, meanwhile, that overachiever, that senior in college a few months away from graduation, interning at a job that was bound to hire her after it was all said and done, kept her eyes on the television, occasionally focusing on her toes for a dab here and there. Strangely, I thought, companies keep tabs on people like that.
“The damn thing’s done,” I said. “I went and trudged through the mud and crap to make that guy happy. I collected a bunch of fishflies in jars, so he could take them home and we measured a cut bank for his research. After all of that, I figured he was gonna ask me to do his taxes.”
“Well, did you?” Maggie asked as she dabbed her big toe and missed.
I put out the joint and laid back. “No, but my final is done, and it’s at his house. Do you know how the registrar’s office treats students who show up claiming they’ve completed a course with nothing to show for it? I’m sure they’ll even appreciate the ole’, ‘Dog ate my homework,’ excuse. But, this time I can use the ole’, ‘Professor got his brains eaten out by a bug,’ excuse.”
“I’ve never heard that one,” Maggie said, and then pointed at the television. “Look at that bed, Garrison. I want that bed. Maybe a sandwich, too.” She reflected for a moment. “Some pistachio ice cream would be amazing.”
“I want my final.”
She turned toward me seriously and slapped my leg with the back of her hand. “Then quit complaining and go get it.”
I suddenly regretted putting out the joint and rubbed my chest absently.
“It’s not that easy.”
I was standing on the street corner outside of Professor Sutherland’s house watching for movement in the windows. He had owned an old house a few blocks from the university. It was not a nice house. It was a college professor’s house, so if you thought there would be neat gargoyle’s and bookshelves everywhere—take another stab at it. It was the place a bachelor lives because he doesn’t make enough money and he doesn’t have a significant other to help pay his bills. A sad state of affairs maybe, and the windows were dark. An unoccupied home always made me feel better about breaking and entering. Once, I broke into this nice loft above a restaurant looking for your usual expensive objects but the guy who owned the place was asleep on the couch. He didn’t wake up, but I was uncomfortable sacking his place the entire time.
I approached the back door of the recently deceased professor’s house like any good burglar and smashed the window with my fist wrapped in a damp towel. Why not just a dry towel, you ask? Because a damp towel adheres to the window better, and if it’s only slightly damp then it acts like a bag of concrete on a dry surface and it easily knocks the glass out without much fanfare. No mess. No stress. For the laymen, it dulls the sound and prevents you from cutting yourself on the harsh, broken mouth you produce from a solid hit. You learn after the first time that smashing a window with your elbow doesn’t work like the movies. You end up with stitches. A buttload of stitches. It also helps if you smoke a bowl before you go so if you cut yourself, you have less feels, like a drunk who needs a few shots to pick a fight. It’s a latent effect of substance abuse.
The glass splashed onto the basement landing, and then I took a moment to listen for any sounds within the house—but it lay still. There was a second door up a short flight of stairs which barred any sound from the landing or the basement, but my experience running up and down those stairs depositing rocks and specimens for Professor Sutherland reminded me of the door’s unwillingness to bend to man’s will. Even so, I had learned a few tricks in operating it, such as lifting it off the ground and driving my shoulder into it, which seemed to guarantee its obedience. I don’t weigh much and I’m not all that imposing, but, like I said, with experience you tend to learn things.
The hallway was empty save for some boxes which were stuffed with odds and ends. Two large boxes, opened, decorated the end of the hallway and loose papers festooned the floor as if a paper plant had exploded and nobody bothered to clean it up. Yet, with the boxes out, it looked as though someone was trying to pack his house for him, which would make sense because the guy was six-feet-under and crawling with worms. If he was the one packing, there would be a problem. While I don’t mind the odd horror film, the sight of a real zombie might be enough to explode my heart and drive me mad with fear.
Regardless, I traipsed down to his office, plucked the key from behind the picture of the professor and his ex-wife that was on the wall and unlocked the door. It was untouched. Perhaps whoever was packing hadn’t discovered the key yet and was waiting on a locksmith. Could be. Professor Sutherland and I used to sit in this office while he studied and analyzed student papers, and I would listen only as close as necessary to feign attention as he corrected errors on assignments and asked me questions about the course. Questions I probably should’ve known.
“What geophysical methods can you use to map subsurface areas?”
“Ugh … seismic waves … er … ugh … penetrative … penetration….”
“Why don’t you go get me some of the samples we acquired from the basement?”
“Yea, that’s probably a good idea.”
Presently, I rummaged through his desk, and then some of the drawers, and then back through his desk. It wasn’t there. My final was missing. It was gone. And I was pretty sure I would never see it again. Which meant I was going to fail, and I was going to have to retake the course, or I was going to have to flunk out of college and start living on the street. Sure, Maggie might take me in, but for how long? Smart, beautiful Maggie, whose boyfriend was an unemployable college dropout.
I continued digging through his drawer and then I found a picture of him and his ex-wife. He looked happy. She didn’t. Then, right then, it struck me in that moment that I didn’t even know Professor Sutherland’s first name. This was even sadder than the bleak picture of a modern family of the romantically disenfranchised. Sadness compelled me, and I began digging through his drawers looking for his name. I had spent enough time with him searching for rocks, so I reckoned he liked those, but, for the love of God, I didn’t know his first name. How could I know intimate details of his relationship status, but I didn’t know his damn name? And he was dead. A memory of a man without a name is doomed to be forgotten.
It was then that I noticed there were lights coming up the driveway and I ducked down. I couldn’t get a good look at the car, so I started crawling on the floor like the lowly bug that I was and crossed the hallway to the next room over where I found a nice cluttered closet. I stood inside, closed the door, and looked out through a few slats, even as I heard the front door open and close shut, and the sound of footsteps come down the hall.
If I just kept quiet I would be safe, I thought.
“Who the hell is in the closet?” a female voice asked as soon as it entered the room.
“Shit,” I said.
“Who said that? And why does it smell like pot?”
She was on to me.
“It’s me, Mrs. Sutherland,” I said.
“Garrison?” and the voice was right outside the closet door. Through the half-opened blinds, I saw a hand grasp the handle and turn the knob. Mrs. Sutherland, her face a little white, and this look of indignation in her eyes, ushered me out of the closet.
“Well, it certainly has been a long time since we’ve seen each other,” I said, scooting by her with my shoulders down, the thought of bolting toward the doorway entirely plausible. “I wasn’t here to steal anything, I swear. I’m just here to pick up a paper that your late husband forgot to give me….”
“Ex-husband,” she said. “And I’m not Mrs. Sutherland anymore. It’s Livesee.”
The thought of calling her a different name precluded any thoughts of escape and I stood dumbfounded for a moment. I knew her name was Heather Livesee now, but I didn’t know the professor’s, which still made me profoundly sad.
“You look like you need to sit down,” she said.
I nodded because she was probably right.