At the end of last year, a creative group I belong to sponsored a short story competition. It had to be fiction and there was a limit of 2,500 words. It was quite a challenge, particularly the word limit. I enjoyed the exercise and it has inspired me to write more fiction. Below is the story I submitted.
Helen closed the hotel room door behind her and flipped the security latch. She dropped the dirty duffle bag in the corner and placed her purse on the dresser. Her eyes burned and her skin felt like sandpaper. The A/C was turned all the way up and it still felt hot. Maybe if she closed the blackout drapes. The glare was blinding, even through the sheers. She walked to the window, kicking off her shoes. She should have brought sandals but she had packed so quickly it was lucky she remembered clean underware. She pulled the drapes shut and sat on the edge of the bed. She should call Rob. He’d want to know how things went. But she couldn’t stand the thought of talking to anyone right now. Not even Rob. She’d text him later. She glanced over at the canvas bag on the floor. “That’s it”, she thought. “After 48 years, that’s all that’s left of a life.”
On Tuesday Helen returned to her desk after lunch to the message light blinking on her phone. The first two messages were business but the third was personal.
“Mrs. Duncan, this is Felicia Cummins, Bradley’s social worker. Please give me a call. You have the number.”
“Shit”, thought Helen, “I don’t have time for this now.” She considered ignoring the message but decided to get it over with instead. She dialed the number. Felicia picked up after one ring.
“Hi Felicia. It’s Helen Duncan. What did he do now?”
There was silence on the other end of the line and then, “Mrs. Duncan, I’m sorry to tell you, but Bradley died last night.”
Helen was stunned. She knew she would get a call like this sooner or later but not now. She wasn’t ready.
“What happened? Was he in a fight? Was he in some kind of accident?”
” He had a heart attack Mrs. Duncan. Apparently he went to the ER complaining of nausea. He told them he couldn’t get his breath. They were having a busy night – GSW, stabbing, multiple car accident – they just told him to have a seat and someone would call him shortly. A little later, the security guard saw him slumped in his seat and thought he was asleep. He went over to roust him and discovered Bradley wasn’t breathing. They rushed him in then but apparently, it was too late. He had been dead for some time.”
“Jesus. What about the people from the group home? Why didn’t they take him in?”
“Bradley was thrown out of the home a few months ago. I tried to get him into a shelter, but he wouldn’t go.”
“Why didn’t you call me! Has he been on the street all this time? Damn it! I should have known.”
“Bradley didn’t want me to tell you. He said he was working on something and that in a month or so, he would be able to rent a nice apartment.”
“You’re kidding me, right? That was just another of his crazy plans. He thought he was a financial genius, you know that. He was going to start a huge hedge fund and run an international corporation. He was going to be in the President’s cabinet, for Christ’s sake. You should have called me!”
“I couldn’t Mrs. Duncan. You’re not his guardian. He told me not to contact you. I had to follow his wishes.”
Helen knew she was right. Bradley always wanted his independence. Except for the times when he didn’t. But the thought of her brother living on the street, dying alone in a ER waiting room, maybe she could have done something if she knew.
“You’re right. I know. I apologize. Where is he now?”
“The hospital is holding the body until you can claim it. They are being very helpful. I think they are afraid you might sue.”
“I should sue their asses. He needed help God damn it. OK, listen, I have to make some arrangements here. I’ll get down there a quickly as I can. Would you be able to put me in touch with whoever I need to talk to about this?”
“I can help you handle things on this end Mrs. Duncan. Just give me your flight information when you have it and we can arrange to meet.”
“Thank you Felicia. Thank you for all your help. And thank you for everything you did for Bradley. He always told me how kind you were to him.”
“I always liked Bradley, Mrs. Duncan. He was so sweet and funny when he was on his meds.”
When Helen hung up, she immediately called her husband Rob and told him about her brother.
“Are you going down there?”
“I have to. There is paperwork I have to do to claim the body.”
“Can’t you take care of that from here?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. But I want to bring him home and can’t stand the thought of him in some cargo hold of a plane by himself.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“No, no. I’ll be alright. I really would rather do this myself. And I need to feel the comfort of having you to come home to. ”
The first flight Helen could get to Phoenix was the following evening. It was late when she landed at Sky Harbor. She picked up her rental car and headed to the hotel, too tired to stop for something to eat. She had no appetite anyway. She just wanted to try to get some sleep. She was meeting Felicia at the hospital in the morning and if she didn’t get some rest, she didn’t know how she would get through the next few days.
When the alarm went off, Helen couldn’t believe it was 8:00 already. It felt like she had just laid her head on the pillow. She got up and made coffee with the brewer in the room. Then she went into the shower and stood for a long time with the hot water beating down on her neck and back. She tried to clear her mind but it kept going back to the question of how they got to this place. How could her brother, a successful marketing director, end up on the street? She knew he was bi-polar and that the cocaine and alcohol made it worse, but still, she felt like they’d gone down the rabbit hole.
Helen got to the hospital a few minutes before 9:30. Felicia was waiting for her in the lobby. They went to the Administrative offices and filled out the necessary paperwork. Then they went to the morgue to make a positive ID. Helen would have walked right past Bradley in the street. There was no doubt it was him but his hair was long and he had a full beard. He was bloated and his skin had the doughy look of a creature that had lived too long in a dark, wet cave. “I should cry”, she thought. “Felicia must think I’m a terrible sister.” But she couldn’t. All she felt was tired and empty. She signed some more papers and they gave her a manilla envelope containing the items he had on him and his duffle bag. She shook Felicia’s hand, thanked her again and left. The funeral home would pick up his body later that day. There were other things Helen should take care of while she was in Phoenix, closing up Bradley’s bank account and post office box, but she couldn’t deal with it at the moment. It could all be done from home later.
Back in her hotel room, Helen sat on the edge of the bed, looking at the manilla envelope in her hands. She dumped the contents out. A plastic watch. A P.O. Box key on a string. Two pieces of cardboard held together with a rubber band that was a makeshift wallet. Between the cardboard – seven dollars, Bradley’s NY drivers license, his Medicaid card, his Maricopa County ID, Felicia’s business card, a piece of paper with Helen’s name and number and a photograph. The photo was a picture of a much younger Bradley and another man she didn’t recognize. They were holding drinks and smiling and had their arms around each other’s shoulders. She walked over, got the duffle and emptied it out on the bed as well. Some clothes, a Yankee cap, a zip lock bag with toiletries, junk mail and a spiral notebook. She flipped through the notebook. Crazy shit. Paranoid rants. Political manifestos. Notes on businesses he was incorporating. She tossed it on the bed. That was it. Nothing else. Nothing to connect him to his past, to the life Helen remembered. They had been so close. This might have been a stranger’s things. What happened to all the history they shared? Helen was suddenly furious. She grabbed the duffle and tried to tear it in half but the canvas was too strong and she cut her hand on the zipper. She was crying; angry, strangled sobs. She let out a yell and threw the duffle with all her might against the wall then stood there, panting. When her heart stopped pounding, she thought for a moment and then picked the duffle up. She shoved all of Bradley’s things into it except the photo which she slipped in her jeans pocket. She went to the mini bar and took out two small bottles of bourbon, put them in her purse and slung it over her shoulder. Then grabbed the duffle bag and her car keys and left.
Helen turned the car south toward the desert. Before she hit the highway, she stopped at a Walgreens and picked up a few things. She drove more than an hour toward Tucson, in silence with the windows down and the A/C off. After awhile, traffic thinned out and there was nothing on either side of the road but desert. A secondary road came up and Helen made a left onto it and headed toward the hills to the east. Another hour and she spotted a dirt road that circled around behind the hills. She took that and kept her eyes open for the right place to stop. Finally, she spotted what she was looking for. She turned off the road into the open desert. The rental car company would not be happy with her. Fuck it. She wasn’t stopping now. She pulled up about twelve feet from a rock outcropping and got out. There was a large, flat topped rock about waist high. It looked like a primitive altar. Perfect. She walked around to the back of the car and popped the trunk. She took out Bradley’s duffel bag and carried it to the rock where she unzipped it and dumped out the contents. She picked out a tee shirt and tore it into a long strip which she tucked under the bag and let hang down off the rock. Then she went back to the trunk and dug in the Walgreens bag for the can of lighter fluid and butane lighter she’d bought. Helen went back to the rock and doused the duffel and all of its contents with the lighter fluid, lit the tee shirt fuse and stepped back. The fire traveled up the shirt. There was a whoosh and it all burst into flame. Helen backed up toward the car, keeping her eyes on the bonfire. She dropped the empty can and lighter on the ground, reached in the open front window and dug around in her purse for the bourbon. She found a nip, pulled it out, unscrewed the top and took a swallow. She leaned back against the car and watched the smoke curl up into the air. She hoped she’d gone far enough into the desert so it wasn’t visible from the road. She didn’t want some DPS officer asking her what the hell she was doing out there.
As she watched the fire consume all that was left of Bradley’s life, she tried to think back to a time when he was just her sweet, charming little brother. “This all happened so fast”, she thought. “He slid down a steep slope and off a cliff.” But Helen knew that wasn’t the truth. In retrospect, Bradley had been this way a long time. It just happened gradually. She considered the different jobs he’d had. All successful, high paying positions. He’d had what, four or five over twenty plus years. Left each one because of office politics. Someone always had it in for him; someone was always trying to sabotage his career. His social life slowly took over. Weekend clubbing became mid-week partying became daily binges of coke and booze. In the end, he walked away from everything; quit his job, abandoned his house, loaded up a trailer with everything that would fit and took off cross-country trying to outrun whatever it was that was chasing him. He blew through his savings and 401K, maxed out his credit cards. Helen still got calls from collection agencies trying to track him down. Along the way, everything he had was lost, sold or stolen.
She finished the bourbon, dropped the empty in her bag and fished out the other one. She pulled the photo from her back pocket and studied it. It was taken in Bradley’s first apartment after college. She could see it in his face even back then. The smile too big, the eyes open too wide; everything always too, too, too. She walked over to the fire and tossed it in. This was not the Bradley she wanted to remember. Seven year old Bradley, that’s who she wanted to remember. The little boy she took care of after their mother died of cancer when Helen was still in high school. The one who waved at her from the outfield at Little League games; whose homework she checked; who made her pink, paper Valentines and cardboard Christmas ornaments. All those other memories: the late night bat-shit crazy calls, the hospitalizations, the arrests, the suicide threats, the lies, the broken promises, all of it. She wanted them gone, burnt up with the rest of his crap. She squeezed her eyes shut and willed it with all her might. “Be gone! Hasta la vista! Adios Mother Fucker!”, she shouted over and over until her voice cracked.
When Helen finally opened her eyes, the fire was almost out. The bad memories were almost gone too: just smoldering ashes at the bottom of her heart. Sooner or later, they’d flare up again. But not now. For now she was OK. For now, that smiling, happy boy was with her.
Helen got in the car and started the engine. She took one last look at the fire which was now just wisps of smoke. Then she turned back toward the road and Phoenix. But this time she drove with the radio cranked up.