The good news: The wife won big. The bad news: I have brain worms.
Worse still, the medication I’m on makes me furious and paranoid. Not to mention my memory is totally shot from the worms. What a lousy combination. Thankfully, we have more than enough cash to pay for the best medical care. If the wife is resentful about a good chunk of her winnings going towards keeping me ticking, she hides it well.
How she won was she went in on the ticket for the Megaball SuperMillions with Marcy, her workmate. It doubled their odds but half of the prize went bye. Both halves were substantial, though, so all parties were pleased.
And the money could not have come at a better time, brain worms or no brain worms. I’d been laid off last year due to a “redundancy” and Linda was forced to get back in the work force as a greeter at ShopTown. Even at 40 hours a week, Linda was barely able to provide our basic needs. The past 10 months, we’d dug ourselves deeper into debt, we were super late on all payments, and we’d already refinanced our house twice. We were preparing to do a major downgrade; we’d sold our second car and had already started looking at cheap apartments on the other side of town. Then came the lottery win. Problems solved. Then came the diagnosis, three days later. Thank god the lottery win came first. It definitely cushioned the blow.
“We’ll be OK,” she said. And I believed her. What choice did I have?
Parelaphostrongylus tenuis is the official Latin name for what I’m dealing with here. Parasitic nemotode for the slightly more erudite among us, and plain-old brain worms for a guy like me.
My buddy Rich who fancies himself a big game hunter had bagged a large adult deer last fall. He had the thing flash frozen and chopped into sizable portions, of which he gave to all his friends and family. What a gent.
And he is a gentlemen. He isn’t the kind of hunter who puts the animal head up on the mantle as a grotesque display of strength—he really does do it for the right reasons. He says if you’re willing to buy beef from the butcher, you should be willing to pull the trigger on a wild buck. So he gave Linda and me three big bags of venison, which sat in our freezer for a few months before we reluctantly hauled it out. We weren’t keen on eating the meat, but cash was low and the fridge was barren. Linda prepared the meal, and though it was a bit gamey, I didn’t totally hate it. Fortunately, Linda is a great cook and used just the right amount of seasoning to mask most of the wilderness.
Unfortunately, my portion of meat contained something that didn’t much mind our stovetop’s high temperatures—turns out my particular slab of fawn flesh was teeming with a whole nest of tapeworm eggs, all of which I ate unwittingly.
Thanks to the secretions in my stomach, the eggs hatched into larvae and hitched a ride on my bloodstream. Destination: my brain. Once there, the little bastards set up camp and developed into a big cyst. It had been going on for a few months before we figured out what the hell was going on with me. After suffering a seizure this spring, we went to the doctor for some tests, but he couldn’t find anything wrong. By the time he tapped my spine—after a particularly nasty bout of projectile vomiting and profound dizziness—the cysts had long ago blocked the flow of cerebrospinal fluid within my ventricles, and I was in deep with what the doctor called hydrocephalus. My head was engorged like a watermelon. This was why I was puking and dizzy. The news of worms would have killed me mentally (and financially) if not for Linda’s lotto luck. Once we got the diagnosis, Linda went on the hunt for the best doctor in town. And she found one who was certain, thanks to the windfall, that I’d be on the mend in no time.
Did Linda also get tape worms hatching in her brain? No! Did any of Rich’s other beneficiaries get tape worms hatching in their brains? No. Sure, his brother Ed got an entire chunk of deer that was full of buckshot, but did Ed get, like, lead poisoning? No! He didn’t even mind the taste! He just cut out the bits with big shards of bullet.
So, just my dumb luck, out of the eleven people who ended up with Rich’s generous deer meat, I’m the only one to fall ill.
Now they’ve got me on something called praziquantel, which sounds like a dialect they might speak in Botswana but really helps with the upchuck and the swelling. Problem is, it also makes me suspicious and angry, as I said earlier. It’s all been a real stressor on mine and Linda’s relationship.
They’ve scheduled me for surgery. It’s quite a situation—they’ve got to drain the excess cerebrospinal fluid built up by the worms. They’ll place a shunt—a piece of plastic tubing—in the empty spaces between my brain and skull (“Do they have enough plastic for all that space?” The wife teased. Gotta love her.) They’ll run the shunt all the way down to my abdomen and flush the fluid away. Not sure if it goes out the rear end or just back into my stomach acids because at this point in the doctor’s diagnosis, I stopped listening. I’m squeamish in the best of times and this was not the best of times. I once got a tiny splinter on my pointer finger from an old 2×4 and when Linda got out her tweezers, I hid in the bathroom for 20 minutes before I let her extract the thing. Needless to say, I’m dreading surgery.
As if God showed some mercy upon my soul, the new fancy doctor agreed to write me up a script for some brand name anti-anxiety meds which I’ve been getting really into. It tempers the fury and paranoia from the praziquantel, it’s calmed my nerves about cyst stuff, and as a nice side effect, it’s really helped ease tensions between Linda and me.
The cat got ringworm a week after I got on Calmonol, which Linda said was his way of expressing sympathy. Great, thanks, but now I have to apply this stinky antifungal cream to his anus? I was pretty relaxed about it (thanks to the Calmonol) but I’m thinking, Can he not find another way to commiserate?
Linda’s been spending a lot of time at work. I didn’t understand why she decided to keep working—we were rich now—she could retire! For some reason, she was more determined than ever to work. Nothing could stop her. She said there was an attempt to organize a union among some of her younger colleagues which resulted in a strike. Linda was more than happy to cross the picket line and be, as one insolent young man called her, a “scab”. Work was work, she said proudly, and Linda was a very proud woman. She noted more than once that almost all people who win the lottery wind up destitute and she was determined to avoid a similar fate.
And then Patti came to town. I shouldn’t have been particularly surprised—I knew she’d show up eventually. It was like she had a homing beacon for other people’s prosperity. Linda had two sisters, and while Patti wasn’t the black sheep of the three, (those honors would go to eldest sister Bianca) she definitely had a storm cloud over her head wherever she went. She was a miserable, horrible mother, and now that her kids were grown and moved on, she was just a plain horrible person. Her two children were now adults, and they’d excommunicated her from their adult lives. Apparently they were doing quite well, too. Brian, her youngest was getting a full-ride masters degree in botany, and her daughter Bo was a paralegal. I have a foggy memory of being at their house for dinner when Brian was only 8.
“Would you like a glass of wine, Brian?” She asked casually.
“Yes please,” Brian said with profound nonchalance. He said it without even looking up. He said it like they were at the zoo and she was asking if he wanted to finish off her bag of peanuts. He took a big gulp as though he’d done it hundreds of times. I looked on, aghast. The corners of his mouth were stained with the rotten grape juice. Was Patti showing off? Trying to incite outrage in Linda and me? I looked over at Linda and she clucked her tongue in quiet disapproval. She never stood up to her big sister and neither of us said a thing. When he started to act belligerent was when I excused myself to the living room. The whole thing seemed darkly perverse and that evening has stuck with me all these years.
Patti showed up on the doorstep while Linda was at work.
“She’s at work,” I said.
“She’s still working?” Patti said with a glint in her eye. I didn’t say anything. “Hm?” She said again, a smile building in the creases of her mouth.
“I was laid off last year and she got a job at ShopTown.”
I was confused by her line of questioning and hoped this would deflect. Linda hadn’t worked in ten years. Still working, she said. Like, still working after winning the lottery? Was that was she was alluding to? Did she know about the money? How could she? We’d been extremely tight-lipped about our winnings, didn’t tell a soul. one of the main reasons being we didn’t want people coming by looking for a freebie, certainly not a freeloader like Patti. She hadn’t been in touch with Linda for six months, so it was strange timing, to say the least. I studied her face for a tell, but she gave no indication.
“May I come inside?” She asked. I let her in. “I’m in town for a conference.”
This was almost certainly a lie, but I chose to avoid an inquiry.
“I’ve just been laying down,” I said as I led her to the living room. “I have brain worms.”
“Ew,” was her response, and that was all she said on the subject.
I removed my blanket from the couch and gestured for her to sit down. She looked at it like my brain worms were all over the cushions. She sat in the recliner—my thinking chair. No one but me sits in that chair.
“Got anything to drink?” She asked as she kicked out the footrest and let the chair shift all the way back into full recline position.
“I have grapefruit juice,” I said.
“Grapefruit juice!” She hollered. She smacked her hand on her thigh and let out a big belly laugh. “What, did you guys go and become millionaires?” She looked at me extra long, with a foul smirk.
“Patti, what’s the reason for your visit? You know, we haven’t seen you in a long time, it’s just quite a surprise is all.”
“I told you,” she said. “I’m in town for a conference. I thought I’d stop by and see my little sister. Is that a crime?”
“No,” I said. “Do you want that grapefruit juice?”
“Do you have anything with alcohol in it?” She asked snidely.
“We don’t really drink much to begin with, and now because of the brain worm medication I’m on, the doctors strongly advise against alcohol.”
Patti rolled her eyes, as if I was inconveniencing her with the explanation.
“I might have a bottle,” I said and shuffled off to the kitchen and checked the cupboard. There was an old bottle of red wine that had long since gone off and was now a red wine vinegar used for cooking. Behind that was a dusty old bottle of gin, half-full.
“I have gin,” I called out.
“That’ll do,” she yelped from the living room.
When I returned from the kitchen, I was greeted with a stench that hit like a slap across the face. She’d kicked off her boots and the smell of her mildewed socks filled the room. She looked quite comfortable, reclining there. I handed her the tumbler of gin.
“No ice?” She said.
I went back to kitchen and fetched two cubes, wrapped up in a paper towel. She took one of the cubes and set the other one down on the side table. I watched the abandoned cube slowly melt, soaking the paper towel and dripping onto the table. Patti stared at a clock on the wall.
“Is that new?” She asked.
It was an odd question—she hadn’t been at the house in three years. Newness was relative, I guess.
“It’s um.. Yes. Linda bought it for me.”
The clock was an authorized model of a 1968 Robert Rauschenberg sculpture. Linda had purchased it from the Museum of Modern Art Design Store website as a way to cheer me up after my bad news. I was a big fan of the pop art movement and she knew how much I loved Rauschenberg in particular. The numbers were completely rearranged, so the 12 was where the 4 should be, the 7 was where the 9 should be, the 2 was where the six should be and so on. It was funky. I loved it.
Patti stared at the clock, and scoffed.
“I get it,” she said. “Numbers are all fudged. Time is an illusion. I get it.”
It was one of the few purchases we’d made with the money, the other being this fancy thing on my wrist. It was a designer smart watch that could send and receive texts, tell me the weather, and alert me to take my medication. It had a beautiful little mosaic design too, which was based on the work of modernist artist Eduardo Paolozzi, one of the founders of the pop art movement. Linda got one too. It was a way for us to stay in touch while she was at work.
I snuck into the kitchen, and sent a covert message: your sister showed up. she’s in my chair and being her rude self. what do I do
In the living room, I stole a quick peek at my wrist. Still no response from the wife. I pulled my sleeve down so the watch was covered up. Patti didn’t notice; she was still staring at the clock.
“What’s a clock like that go for?” I shrugged. I didn’t like her line of questioning. “Seems like you guys are getting pretty fancy around here. Grapefruit juice and weird art clocks. What other treasures are you hoarding, huh?”
With all these references to money, I grew worried. Could Linda have spoken with Patti? Perhaps she’d let slip to someone in their mutual circle and the news made its back to her sister? My mind was racing now. The mistrust nestled deeper into my ventricles. Was it possible Linda was having an affair with someone Patti knew and somehow Patti found out and was blackmailing her? Had she come by like a mafioso to send Linda a message? Or were Patti and Linda plotting some bigger conspiracy against me? My watch beeped. It was time for my paranoiac pills.
Patti finished her gin, took another look at the Rauschenberg clock and said she’d best be going. She set the glass down on the soggy paper towel and put on her big stinky cowboy boots.
“I’ll tell Linda you stopped by,” I said while we lingered in the entranceway.
“I’ll come by tomorrow before I leave town,” she said.
When Linda returned from work that evening, I asked if she’d gotten my text message, but she said she hadn’t. She’d left her watch on the bedside table. I told her that her sister had visited. I observed her closely to study a reaction, but she produced nothing besides a slight brow furrow.
“That’s odd. She hasn’t visited us in years,” was all she said.
“Yes,” I said. “I thought it was strange too. Do you think it’s possible she found out about the money?”
“I don’t see how,” the wife said. “We haven’t told a soul.”
And that was the last we spoke of her sister. Patti didn’t stop by the next day and pretty soon we had forgotten all about her surprise visit.
The suspicious part of my mind still wondered if perhaps I had intercepted some kind of scam. I fought very hard to suppress the idea that Linda was a part of something behind my back, and decided to chalk it up to coincidence. It was around this time the head started to swell again. My surgery wasn’t scheduled for another 2 weeks and I was in a considerable amount of discomfort, so the good doctor prescribed me some pain medication, which I started on immediately.
“The great thing about Reprievemeze,” Dr. Tonkin said, “is the pill’s time-release component. Because it slowly works its way through your system, the chances of addiction are only 8%.”
“That’s great news,” I said. “I have a bit of an addictive personality,” I said with a chuckle.
“Don’t we all,” he said with a smile.
Additionally, he upped my dose for Calmonol and prescribed me something called Harmonizoron Edgervan. I guess it helped me from getting sleepy, which the higher doses of Calmonol had a tendency to do. And it worked!
One morning I was feeling exceptionally spry so I decided to get off the couch and pay a visit to ShopTown. I thought I could surprise Linda on her lunch break, thought we could go somewhere nice. She was content with the egg and tuna sandwiches I made her in the morning, but we were flush—why couldn’t we go out to eat now and again? Linda had our only car, so I decided to walk. It was a 45 minute walk to ShopTown but like I said, I was feeling spry and the weather was clear and cool. I put on a light coat and set out. Along the way, a few people I passed gave me strange looks. There was still some swelling, but my head had shrunk back almost to its original size. So, why were they looking at me strangely, I wondered? I fought the urge to let my mind race with possibilities and, to quell my suspicious mind, I decided to up my already doubled dose of Calmonol. I had never been so relieved to discover, twenty minutes later, that my fly was down. All I could do was laugh. I zipped up and that was the end of the funny looks. Phewf!
I got to ShopTown at 12:57. Perfect timing! Patti would be leaving her post in three minutes, and I could sneak up and intercept her by the break room. I made sure not to get too close to the entrance until I was sure she’d left her station. I hid behind a big SUV and watched the entrance. In the foreground were the remaining strikers. About 8 of them were milling about, holding placards. They were approaching the customers who entered the store and handing out small tracts with information about their attempts at organizing a labor union. When the clock struck 1, I walked towards the entrance briskly, almost tip-toeing. I felt a little like a cat burglar. I hadn’t felt this kind of exhilaration in months. When one of the strikers handed me the union tract and began to tell me about the poor working conditions at ShopTown, I waved him off as politely as I could. I didn’t want to miss my chance to surprise Linda!
I was greeted at the big sliding doors by an elderly man who, judging by the name tag was named PHIL. He nodded hello, and I returned the greeting.
“Hello Phil!” I said with as pleasant a tone as I could possibly muster.
I strode quickly down the cleaning aisle towards the back of the store and posted up next to the break room. I checked my watch: 1:01. At 1:03, when there was no sign of the wife, I walked down the hallway to the break room. I peeked through the door and could just make out a pretty young girl sitting at a long table eating a salad. I knocked on the door and she rose to open it. I peered inside. A cursory glance revealed no sign of the wife.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Yes?” She said, chewing with her mouth open. She had cilantro in her teeth and a bit of salad dressing on her shirt.
“I’m looking for someone,” I said.
“Who are you looking for?” She asked.
And it was the darnedest thing—I couldn’t remember my wife’s name! It was a real foggy moment, all thanks to the brain worms. I felt panicky and stood for a second, fidgeting. I must have looked real weird, but I kept my wits about me.
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to forgive me,” I said. “I’m a little under the weather, mentally, and her name eludes me.”
“Well, it’s just me back here, anyway,” she said.
Bless her heart, she didn’t seem nervous or afraid, just eager to get back to her salad and enjoy the precious 20 minutes she had off her feet.
“OK, I said. I’m sorry for bothering you.”
As I was walking away, my brain settled itself and the wife’s name came roaring back to me. I poked my head in the break room.
“Linda!” I said. “Sorry to bother again, but her name is Linda. She’s my wife. I have brain worms. Do you know where she might be?”
“Oh,” the young girl said, looking up from the remains of her salad. “You know, this is only my second day here, and so I don’t know anyone by that name.”
The store was big, but I couldn’t believe she hadn’t at least crossed paths were her at some point in the morning.
I frowned. I found the whole thing unsettling. Walking back to the entrance, I was met again by PHIL.
“Find everything you need, boss?” PHIL said.
I hate when people call me “chief” or “mac” but especially hate being referred to as “boss”. On the surface, it may seem deferential, but it’s patronizing at best and at worst, it’s a kind of reverse-psychology power play. It irked the hell out of me.
“I’m actually looking for someone,” I said. “She’s a greeter.”
“I’m the greeter,” he said, chipper as could be.
“Yes I know. Her name is Linda, she’s a greeter too. I was going to surprise her on her lunch break.”
PHIL craned his head and looked up to the ceiling, where I guess his memory was.
“Linda,” he repeated, like he was reminiscing about an old college flame. “You know, boss, I’m actually new here and I don’t think I’m acquainted with Linda. She a friend of yours?”
“She’s my god damned wife,” I said firmly. I was getting a little agitated now and I was taking it out on PHIL. Was everyone new here? What kind of an operation were they running at ShopTown?
“Would you like to speak to the manager?” He asked, but I was too annoyed.
“No. Forget it. I’ll text her.”
I went outside and sent a message on my wristwatch: hey, thought i’d surprise you at work but can’t seem to find you. if you get this soon, text me back! i’m right outside, thought we could grab lunch nearby
I stood and waited. A striker approached, but I shook my head furiously and he stopped in his tracks. I guess my face was severe enough that he knew not to bother. I waited for another 20 minutes, but no response from Linda. I was really annoyed now, and worse, the angry, paranoid thoughts were pumping through me again. I didn’t want to entertain them, but I went in all kinds of directions anyways. Did she quit the job and not tell me? If she did, where was she? Did she have a secret family? We never had kids, and I know there was a period when she wanted some—I was insistent from the beginning that I wasn’t interested and eventually her desire subsided. (Problematically, my urge to finally have kids came right when she started going through menopause). I was building this scenario in my mind—the secret family—when I had to stop myself. How could she have done that? I would have noticed if she’d been pregnant! It would be more likely that I had a secret family (which I didn’t). I laughed. And then I took another Calmonol pill, backed with the Harmonizoron Edgervan for a little recalibration.
I started the walk home, still wracking my brain. OK, no secret family, but was she having an affair? Maybe the job was a cover—it was possible she quit when she won big, and honestly I wouldn’t have blamed her. I fired off another quick text, more aggressive than before: heading home. not sure where the hell you are. please text me when you get this. i guess i’ll get started on dinner and then a minute later, I angrily wrote only: porkchops??
It was colder now. The sun had gone behind the clouds so I pulled my jacket tight for warmth. By the time I got to our street, I was a lousy combo of freezing and starving. And I still had no response from the wife.
When I approached the house, I noticed a car in the drive. I recognized the car, but my foggy brain was making it hard to know how. Naturally, my thoughts were racing. Was I about to catch Linda in the act? Was this her mister’s car?
As I got closer, I saw someone in the vehicle—it was a face I’d recognized. My friend Corbin. He was just sitting there, in the driver’s seat. What the hell was he doing here? Was Corbin Linda’s paramour? My heart pumped fast and I felt like I was going to be sick. As I got closer, I saw that he was on his phone. I tapped on the glass.
“Corb?” I said. He rolled down his window.
“There you are! I was just about to take off!”
“What are you doing here?” I said cautiously. He let out a laugh.
“I came to check on you! I thought you might like some company, what with being stuck at home with a giant worm inside your head.”
“Thanks,” I said, but I think he could tell I was annoyed.
“Everything alright?” He asked. I let out a sigh.
“Yeah, fine. Want to come in? I was going to make some lunch.”
“Perfect,” he said. “I was hoping you’d say that. I’m starved!”
So Corb came inside. He went through my record collection while I made us sandwiches.
When I brought the sandwiches into the living room, he was sitting on the couch holding up one of my rarer 12 inch records, a collaborative one-off between Bill Wymann and Carly Simon (Here Comes Wymann/Simon).
“How much is this going for?”
“What?” I asked.
“I’m assuming you’re gonna auction these off.”
“Why would I do that?”
“I was just wondering.. Can I have this one if.. You know…” His voice trailed.
“No, I don’t know,” I said. I was properly irritated now.
My cheeks were red and I wouldn’t have been surprised if you’d told me steam was coming out my ears. A friend who shows up to check in on his “buddy” because of a “giant worm” in his head but one of the first things out of his mouth is “can I have your record collection after you kick the bucket?” Unlike Rich, Corbin was not a gentleman. I set his sandwich down on the coffee table. It had a pickle as a garnish and everything.
“I’m going to be fine, Corb. Thanks for your concern.” But was I? I feel fine, but I’m not really fine. Was I just papering over the problem with various medication? The brain worms were still there, no matter how much praziquental or Calmonol or Harmonizoron Edgervan or Reprieviemeze I swallowed. Paranoia set in.
“I know,” Corbin said. “Sorry, that was highly rude of me. I just love this record! Don’t get rid of it, OK?”
“I have no intention of that,” I said icily and changed the subject. “How long were you in my driveway?” I asked as he took a bite of sandwich. He licked his lips.
“This is really good,” he said. “Is this tuna?”
“It’s egg and tuna,” I said.
“It’s really good.”
“Were you waiting long in the driveway?” I asked again, rearranging the words to sound less aggressive.
“No, barely a minute. I was about to text you when you walked up on me. You gave me a serious start!”
“I apologize. It was a weird sight, seeing you at my house, is all.”
“I’m glad you’re on your feet again, buddy! You’re lookin’ real good—your old melon is almost back to normal size!”
“Thanks,” I said and quickly pivoted. “And you didn’t see my wife or anything?”
“Today? Doesn’t she work on Wednesdays?”
How does Corbin know she works on Wednesdays? And why didn’t he answer my question directly?
“Is everything OK, buddy? You seem bothered.”
I was about to stand up and whip my egg and tuna at his head. I was about to flat out accuse him of shagging my wife and throw a big fist into his stomach, but right then my wristwatch beeped. I checked it. It was Linda. Oh my god!! Honey, you came by work? I was here! How did you not see me??
My first instinct was to say, she’s covering up something. She knows I’m with Corbin now, so she’s scrambling to extinguish the fire. Corbin inspected my expression as I read the message.
Corbin looked genuinely concerned with my well-being. What was I doing? I took a deep breath and gathered myself. This praziquental was making me totally loopy. The people I’d talked with at ShopTown—the young girl and the old man—they were her new co-workers. It wasn’t Linda’s fault they hadn’t been acquainted. ShopTown was massive. I didn’t tell her I was coming, so how could I be mad that I’d missed her. “Yes,” I said to Corb. “Everything is good.”
“Good,” He said and took another bite of his sandwich. “Is this dijon in here?”
My watch beeped again. Linda again. I’m sorry, honey. Porkchops sound like JUST the thing.
The next few days went by with no strangeness. I again tried to make lunch plans, this time with her foreknowledge, but because of Linda’s short lunch breaks, she was unable to. I had the thought that I could have a paranoid thought but not the paranoid thought itself. This was progress. Sure, the thought that she was making yet another excuse, that she didn’t actually work at ShopTown—it crossed the part of my mind where things were permitted to cross, but it never entered my mind, per se. I’d cut it off instead. These kinds of thoughts about thinking made me exhausted, so I decided to leave it at that, and things went on as usual.
One particularly sunny day, I took my lunch (egg and tuna, natch) to a park bench. Shortly after sitting, a derelict lady approached me and said, “Did Bud Hayes tell you to sit here?”
“I don’t know who that is,” I said flatly. Don’t engage I thought.
“It’s not his real name,” she said.
“If Bud Hayes asks you to sit here, it’s a trap.” She made a twirling motion with her finger. “This place has very bad juju. It’s being monitored by the feds 24 hours a day.” She fixed her gaze on me and said, “how does that make you feel?”
“Like I’ll probably leave soon,” I said and she laughed.
I may have been funny, but I was grateful that I wasn’t as nuts as her.
Because I was had more energy as of late, I would take these walks to eat lunch outside. Occasionally, I would walk down to the nearby field around 3:30pm to watch little league games. These kids weren’t particularly good at baseball, but if I decided to root for a particular team in the beginning, I felt more invested and the whole thing made for a more engaging experience. At this point, I wasn’t feeling anything screwy with the cysts. I knew the worms were still in there, but it was as though I was completely healed. All the medication coursing through me really was doing its job.
Not only was I feeling physically back to normal, but these terrible thoughts of the wife having an affair, or my friends trying to take advantage of me had completely dissipated. I started to daydream about post-surgery. Linda and I had decided we’d go on vacation after I was healed up. We were going to Belize. We’d heard about the beautiful blue waters, the coral reef and the friendly locals and how good the scuba diving was. We were pleased that they spoke English as their official language and were not besieged by any kind of military takeovers like so many other countries down there.
She had even relented a little and promised to cut back on her hours. We were filthy rich, after all—she didn’t need to be grinding away like she was. And we’d still save most of it—it was almost a good thing we didn’t know what to do with all the money.
After the last baseball game on the last day with no strangeness, after I walked back to the house and set foot in the room, strangeness shot back with a vengeance. I entered my home and there was a chill in the air, a literal chill. The window by the kitchen was open and I hadn’t opened it. I looked around to make sure everything was still there, that nothing had gone missing. It seemed like everything was right where it was.
Then I noticed the furniture in the living room. The couch and the recliner had been moved. Not a few inches, but completely swapped. The recliner was now by the window, and the couch was up against the fireplace. It made absolutely no sense. I could feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
“Hello?” I shouted into the empty house. No one answered. I was spooked so I texted Linda. Instead of freaking her out, I decided to keep it neutral and ask her what she wanted for dinner. She wrote back right away asking for pork chops. Easy peas. She’d be home in three hours, so I had a bit of time. I decided to chill out and watch some TV. Perhaps some kids in the neighborhood were playing a prank on me. Maybe it was the Calmonol but I decided not to be upset about this. It was a funny prank, I decided. I moved the recliner and the couch back where they belonged, shut the kitchen window, kicked back on my favorite thinking chair and turned on the news. About 30 minutes into watching, the telephone rang.
I got up to answer it. “Hello,” I said but there was no response on the other end so I said “hello” again. Still silence. I hung up and sat back down. There was a report on the news about a violent coup taking place in Belize. Well, so much for that. Then the phone rang again. I shot up, irritated.
“Hello?” I said firmly. Still nothing. “I can hear you breathing!” I barked, but in fact it was still totally silent on the other end. Then I heard a weird clicking sound. What was that sound? “What was that sound?” I shouted.
I slammed the receiver down on the set and plopped down on the couch. The very second I did, the phone rang again. I picked it up but this time said nothing. This time I heard breathing on the other end. It thoroughly creeped me out. I hung up and dialed 911.
“Are they threatening you?” The operator asked.
“No,” I said. “They’re not saying anything at all.”
“And you’re sure your phone is working properly,” she said without inflection.
“I’m talking to you, aren’t I?” I said with a whole helping of attitude. My anger was rising.
“Well, I’m afraid there isn’t much we can do here. Call us back when they threaten you.”
That evening, I told Linda about the phone calls, studying her face closely. She didn’t seem all that troubled by it. I could have thought: Are you not troubled because it’s not in fact a menacing sociopathic killer who wants our money but in fact your secret lover calling to intimidate me? But I chose not to have that thought and we ate our chops in silence.
The next day, I saw cops outside the neighbors’. Mr. and Mrs. Kroger. Friendly old couple in their 80s. It turned out, their house had been broken into. They were staying at their daughters’ sixty miles down the road last night. The burglars must’ve called them too, and when they didn’t answer, they ransacked the place.
I insisted to Linda that we move. The neighborhood was getting less safe every year. We had enough money to move to a better neighborhood, to install security, and have a little privacy. I had always wanted a pool, but I figured I’d save that bit of knowledge for when we started to actually hunt for houses. One step at a time.
To my surprise, Linda agreed on the spot and we set about looking for places to live. She found an adorable little spot in Chestwoods, a very tony neighborhood on the west side. It was smaller than most homes in the neighborhood but it was twice the size of our current place. We put in an offer (cash) and were approved almost immediately. The place didn’t come with a pool, but it was a damn fine domicile. I started daydreaming about all the things I could do in the house, all of the pop art we could fill it with. Life was finally getting good—Linda was even getting a raise! The strikers hadn’t managed to unionize ShopTown, but they did manage to secure a 75 cent an hour increase for all employees.
And finally, my surgery. I went in completely terrified. I made them jack me up on Calmonol—had it going in intravenously just for the pre-surgery interview. By the time they did the thing with the shunt and the cerebrospinal fluid, I was deeply unconscious in a cloudy reverie, care of carfentanil—the primo stuff. The surgery went well—they drained all the fluid build up and got rid of the bastard cysts from those shitbag brain worms. I was as good as new. I didn’t die, and Corb wouldn’t get my coveted record collection! Eat it, Corb. Linda had planned to pick me up from surgery, but a serious situation with work kept her from the hospital. Instead, I had Rich come get me. The whole thing was, after all, entirely his fault. I never made him feel too bad about it, but I wasn’t about to turn down a free ride. Rich scooped me in his big GMC Sierra 1500 and ferried me to our new house. I was still feeling the effects of all the drugs swirling in me, and I’d be on the pain meds for another month or two. I decided to re-up the anti-anxiety medication—I realized I had gone undiagnosed for years. We turned onto Rosewater street and I expected Rich to comment on the new neighborhood, but he didn’t say anything. When he pulled into my new driveway, all he said was “We have arrived at the castle, your majesty.” I was off the praziquental so no part of me thought he was being passive aggressive. I was a little confused as to why he didn’t even ask about the huge upgrade from the last place to this. I thought of telling Rich about the big win. People were going to find out about it soon enough, so why not tell one of my closest friends?
“Can you believe this house?” I said.
“It’s a beaut,” he said.
“You must be wondering how a slob like me ended up in a place like this, huh?” I asked. My tone was playful but I was still pretty hopped up, so my words slurred a bit. I’m sure I sounded ridiculous.
“Other people’s money is none of my business,” was all Rich said. A true gentlemen, through and through.
I was about to tell him. Make it his business. What did I care? It might ease my burden, anyway. It wasn’t easy keeping this secret! I wanted to tell him about Linda and her workmate going in on the lotto, winning the 8 million dollar ticket outright. Tell him how they split it 50/50 even though Linda had to convince Marcy every single week to go halvesies on the upfront ticket purchase, and every week Marcy made a big stink about she wasn’t going to pay. She was tired of throwing money away on an “idiot tax”. She hadn’t even paid for the winning ticket! Just before Linda went to the ShopTown counter to purchase the MegaBall, Linda had reluctantly agreed to cover her half the following week. Marcy had done this in weeks prior, and never got around to paying the wife back, but the wife was too laid-back to make an issue of it.
And then they won. And sweet Linda didn’t even mention the outstanding money she was owed. A deal’s a deal, she said. And she gave 4 million dollars to Marcy. Marcy—Stupid Marcy. I wanted to tell Rich about Marcy—how she squandered damn near all of it, was down to her last half-million and was surely going to lose that too. She’d made bad investment on top of bad investment; opened up a restaurant no one cared for, bought a truckload of exorbitantly priced digital paintings from a DJ/Hacker named Würm (yes), sunk the majority into a novelty cryptocurrency that quickly went bust and couldn’t help but brag to her entire family about how wealthy she’d become. Well, they all got a piece of her pie, that’s for sure. Last I heard, Marcy was in rehab.
I decided to leave all that inside my head, and just thank Rich for the ride. He said “no problem” and apologized, I guess for giving me the funky deer meat.
“It was an accident, pal,” I said. “No hard feelings.”
Walking up the drive to my brand new house, I was filled with a calm I hadn’t felt in years. A sense that things were going to be alright. It was almost like I could hear the quartet playing me on: violin, viola, cello and double bass. It felt like the angels were looking down, giving me the thumbs up. It felt like I was walking on cotton candy as I turned the key, opened the door and stepped inside.
And then, something terrible. The most terrible, strangest thing imaginable.
The second I walked in the door, I was greeted by that unmistakable foot odor.
I turned the corner, down the hallway, and the smell intensified. The violins, the violas, the cellos and the double bass suddenly flung wildly out of whack and the whole piece collapsed into something that sounded like eight songs at once.
Pure dissonance. Where were the angels?
I entered the living room, and there, sitting on my brand new Siesta UltraBoy was Patti. She was asleep, snoring, her muddy cowboy boots splayed on the nice carpet, her filthy socks half-off her filthy feet, her legs dangling akimbo.
“Hey!” I shouted with alarm. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Patti popped to in a flash. She shot forward, the leg rest shooting down and retracting into the recliner. She sat up with a big toothy grin and extended her arms. Where the fuck was Linda?
“Honey! You’re back early! How did it go?” She said.
I said nothing, just stood there with my jaw as low to the floor as it could possibly go.
“You’re empty handed,” she said with a laugh. “Marcy had phoned earlier. Said Rich had texted her from the woods—She said he was being cryptic. Did you shoot any? Marcy seemed to think Rich shot an elk! Did he? Where’s the beef!”
Stunned like a fawn in headlights, I said nothing.
“Well?” Patti said. “Well?”