Love Scars

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A Short Story by Niels C. Quackernaeck

 

LOVE SCARS

 

October 13, 2016, 5:35 pm

“You’re one of the many, you know?” I said, dancing my cigarette between my fingers.

She stopped picking up pieces of scrub suit from the ground and looked at me. Her silky skin shaped the light that pierced through the venetian blinds. Oh yes, she looked good—in fact, better than I’d ever seen ... but marriage?

“Melissah, come on,” I said, “don’t tell me this is new to you—you’re not even the only one in this hospital.”

She didn’t blink, she just eyed me with those big dark orbs. “So ...” she said softly, “this is you and me forever?”

“Did I say that? I don’t believe I said that.”

“Yes you did, just now, before we—” a sudden gleam went through her gaze, and in awe she covered her flesh. “You are such a selfish rat, you know that?” 

Putting my bare feet on the desk I watched her leave. I couldn’t suppress a smile when I heard the panicky stilettos in the corridor. Few things were as sexy as an angry brunette on high heels.

The door opened. 

“What was that about?” Dr. Peters said, looking behind him into the corridor. His eyes turned to me. “And you shouldn’t be smoking in your office, let alone sit in your underwear—what’s wrong with you, man?” 

“What’s wrong?” I said, scratching behind my ear. “Harold, I’ll tell you what’s wrong. Respectively: one, Melissah popped the question; two, the epidemic gains ground, so I needed a good drag of nicotine to pit myself against stress … and three,” I tapped the white around my femur, “I fancy my legs.” 

“You have no idea what you’re doing to these women, do you? You know, I have a sister who—”

“Ah, she’ll get over it, they always do.”

Harold sighed. “That’s what you think, David.” 

He was about to lecture me when, suddenly, he frowned. “What are you doing?” 

“Harold, I want you to stop drooling on about—”

“You’re scratching.”

I looked at my fingertips and saw blood under my nails. My stomach turned; in fact, the whole room turned. 

“I’ll call for an immediate briefing,” Harold said.

 

In the corridor our soles joined an echoing crescendo of footsteps that sped to the briefing. Soon our medical staff was gathered.

“We have to know what causes it,” my assistant said.

“Oh Claire, honey,” I said, “I’ve always admired your clearness of mind.” 

Claire glared to the carpet. “We can’t all be geniuses.”

“Indeed ...” 

I brooded, observing the worried faces around the briefing table. In recent weeks people with minor rashes flooded the hospital; now all the beds were taken by men, women and children blemished by peeled off skin and rotting muscles—and despite the brilliant brains collected in the room, there was no lead to an answer … Great minds that shat in the same pot. 

“Now I face my impending death, I want you guys to accelerate the research—figure out the pathogen, isolate it and find me the damned cure.”

 

October 15, 2016, 10:22 pm

I’ve always loved the long corridors of the hospital, where many seemed to admire me. Look, the professor of the surgery department, I heard them think, such an important man—and brilliant, too. But now, when I walked this hall of fame, there was a deadness inside me. Every room was filled with suffering people, and within weeks I would be one of them. 

Peeking into one of the rooms, I saw a solicitous graybeard talking to a wretched young man in a bed I thought of Dad. I wished I had written one paper, article or book to please him—or made one discovery worthy of his attention. I made it through med-school, no approval—promotion after promotion, no proud looks. If it were me in that bed, would he have cared?

I must have stood there for minutes—gazing at this bond of love—before I went in. I grabbed the file from the cabinet and leafed through it. 

“Since when does he talk again?” I asked.

He mumbled through his beard, “Yesterday he couldn’t utter even one word, but he looks lots better now.”

 

I hastened to the next room and looked inside. Again, the same spectacle. I ran to the next room, and the next—the same, again and again. I saw lonely people with swollen eyes, unable to utter a word while they decayed to death. On other beds I saw people with concerned relatives and spouses—they all had their eyes opened, some were even talking. 

This had to be the answer.

 

October 19, 2016, 11:15 am

“How are things going?” Harold asked me when I entered the briefing room. It was the fourth day since my discovery.

“Not good,” I said, turning to the gathered doctors. They looked worried. I knew they expected me to die. “The findings concerning the improved abilities of the socially favored did not yet lead to the isolation of one single molecule.”

“What do you propose we do now?” Claire said.

“We’re not giving up,” Harold said. “I think for now our best chance is to hand it over to the psychology department.”

I sniffed. “The ugly little brother of the real sciences.”

“You can’t just prescribe love to patients,” Dr. Sarah Verreth said. “For your information, they don’t sell potions anymore since the middle ages.”

Harold strolled around the briefing table. “No,” he crossed his arms, “but what we can do, is promote social activity. Allow visitors at all times.”

Silence fell. All of us were thinking the same thing. There was nobody for me.

 

My wounds had gotten worse, and the pruritus became unbearable. On my way to the office, nausea had turned my stomach. I made a run for the men’s room and filled the toilet with retched blood. I washed my face and looked into the mirror. My irises were blue, but what used to be white was stained with red. Soon all would be bloody and blistered, and after that— … I dared not to think of it.

Suddenly it dawned on me. I had no one; no mother, no father, no siblings—only women, and one of them wished to devote herself to me. 

I needed Melissah.

 

I knew where to find her—she worked as a nurse at the pediatrics department. She was a loving and caring person—adored by many. She didn’t have the best papers, but this one I would have dared to introduce to Mom and Dad ... well, to Mom. 

I looked through the window, and there I saw her, bowing down to hand one of the children a set of crayons. My body began to ache with desire. She wore most of her hair in a bun, the rest of it waved to her shoulders like thin strings of brown silk. Needlessly they flowed over her tall and slender body. 

What should I say to her? The last time wasn’t exactly pleasant. Our eyes met and, indeed, she didn’t look happy. Trapped in her vision, I felt nailed to the ground.

 

“So, I guess you thought about it?” She said. 

“Ah, well, indeed ...”

“David, you’ve hurt me. More than you can imagine.”

“I know ... I know.” I felt my hands sweat in my pockets. “I’m sorry I’ve been so mean to you. I guess I just don’t know how to deal with situations like this.” I involuntarily inspected the ceiling, awfully aware of myself. “I was afraid to bind myself, you know? I’m so sorry.”

She emptied her lungs and her shoulders hung low. “I don’t know ...”

“You’ll be my everything—my princess, my queen. I will never hurt you again ... I mean it ... I just want you.” I made myself believe it, and tears began to burn in my eyes. “I’d do anything to make you happy.”  

The corners of her mouth went up and her cheeks rounded like grenades below her eyes—oh, she was pretty. And she loved me. 

“Does that mean you forgive me?” I said. 

She threw her arms around my neck and kissed my lips. Her face turned back to sadness as she studied my countenance. “I was so angry with you … when I heard of your infection, I was delighted.” She caressed my cheek. “How are you doing now?”

“My skin hurts and itches, and my muscles ache. If my boys don’t find the cure ...” 

“Oh, honey ...” she held me tighter than comfortable.

 

In the succeeding weeks I met Melissah daily, but we didn’t get physical, for the slightest contact was hurtful. The relationship grew wider and deeper, as did my wounds like cracks in an iceberg. The epidemic spread throughout the continent and the life or death of the infected was determined by their loved ones. 

It didn’t work for me. 

 

November 8, 2016, 7:49 pm

My feet couldn’t carry my weight anymore. I was laid on a stretcher in my office. Softly Melissah sang to me. 

The virus had eaten its way through everything. Shades of red and brown stained the sheets at my knees and toes, and the horrible smell of decaying flesh made me nauseous. 

As I reached for Melissah, I was reminded that I wasn’t myself anymore. Those hands weren’t mine—mine were delicate and fit for a surgeon. These reaching for her were purple, swollen, and—worst of all—the nails were black and pushed out of their bands, like tectonic plates underneath the sea. Looking at them disgusted even me.

“I’m here, sweetheart,” Melissah said. I saw a tear dangling under her upper lip. She licked it away, yet more were breaching her lashes. I wanted her to leave, or didn’t I? I wasn’t sure anymore. I felt my skin burst as she caressed my cheek, and the lid of my eye pulled loose. She pressed a painful kiss on my lips. 

“I love you,” she said, while the salt of her sobbing irritated my wounds. 

I began to feel something new, something I had never experienced before … guilt. I raised my chest to draw some air.

“Melissah,” I said with much effort, “go away. You have to go away.”

“Honey, I won’t leave you,” she said, grabbing hold of my hand, “I’ll stay here and take care of you.” 

“You don’t get it,” a burning tear rolled down to my ear, “love is the cure.”

“Then let me love you.”

“No! I found out that people who are loved heal, and people who are lonely don’t. I used you to get better. It didn’t work, because I wasn’t sincere. I lied to you and I misused you. Now, go away!” 

I knew that look, and I couldn’t take it—those big dark eyes again. It was like I tumbled off a cliff and screamed, but there was nothing to be done, except to surrender and fall. Why did I allow myself to hurt her again? I deserved every bit of pain I felt in my rotting body.

“Go!” I whispered. And she was gone.

There I was, lonely on a stretcher, waiting for death.

 

November 10, 2016, 8:30 am

“This is amazing,” Harold said. “Claire, come take a look at this.” 

Both of them stared down at me, as though I was an outstanding lab result. 

“Unbelievable,” Claire said. “I was sure he wasn’t gonna make it, but this scarring is miraculous. What happened?”

I succeeded in opening my eyes. “I think I’m in love,” I said. “I couldn’t force it, but it happened nonetheless.” 

 

November 12, 2016, 12:45 pm

Again I stood peeking through the window of the children’s department, and I felt more nervous than ever before. And Melissah looked more beautiful than ever before. She gave me more than I’d ever experienced—nobody ever loved me, but she did. With small steps I moved toward the door.

I knocked three times. Melissah opened the door and looked at me, her watery eyes reflecting the fluorescent lights on the ceiling.

“Melissah,” I said in a low, shaky voice, “this time I come to you with real, sincere regret, and … I beg you to forgive me.” I fell down on my knees. “What you’ve shown me in the past weeks is something I’ve never experienced before. And I’ve never loved before, but I love you with everything I have—and with all that I am. Please forgive me.”

She covered her face, and her shoulders began to shake. 

“Please marry me,” I said.

She turned her back to me. I dropped myself to the ground and I hid my face in my arms and cried like a little child. All the tears that were locked inside found their way out. 

I felt warmth in my ear, it was the breath of a whisper: “My dad told me forgiveness heals many wounds. I believe he’s right.” 

I felt her soft lips kiss my cheek. I turned around and held her, never to let go.

 

I’m no longer the handsome man I was, my beauty decayed—I’m scarred for life. Yet in these blistered hands I hold a beauty I could never have imagined.

 

 

 

 

© 2014, 2016 by Niels C. Quackernaeck

Author’s note: This story started off as a traditional horror story; decaying flesh and eyelids tearing off eyes formed the core of the story. After sending the first draft to my teacher at Long Ridge Writer’s Group, I decided to give the story more of a personal character—a transformation for the better. The original story I wrote in the winter of 2014, I reedited the story for my blog in 2016.

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Mr. Lowfield on a High

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A Short Story by Niels C. Quackernaeck

 

MR. LOWFIELD ON A HIGH

 

“Have a nice one, Mr. Lo!”

“Oh, shut up.” What did that slick manager know of nice ones? Had that boy spent thirty-five miserable years in this dump—as Mr. Lowfield had—he would have seen more ones than he could digest. Mr. Lowfield put his arm in the laundry basket and pulled out a Scouting uniform. Pee Boiler, read the name tag. He sighed and shook his head. How can parents name their children— …The humanity … It shouldn’t be allowed. It seemed in this day and age everything was accepted, the more ludicrous the better. Name your daughter Star or Glitter and the world’s at your feet.

Mr. Duke Lowfield wasn’t a nice man. He tried to be; he wished he was—but he wasn’t. If he would have been, he wouldn’t be so darned lonely. He took another deep breath and, dropping his jaw, he let the air flow out again—like an elephant tired of his days. Especially after yesterday—the worst day of his life—he wished every breath to be his last. There had been a time, long ago, when every day wasn’t thrice worse than the one before, and he—though he mumbled a lot—was considered a friendly chap. Back when Ella was there, life was far more bearable.

“Oh, my little rose,” he whispered, gazing right through the cloth in his hands, “was it all just a dream?” She disappeared like the sun behind the clouds. And all the fun disappeared with her. The only one on earth who could bring a smile on his face—gone.

They went to law school together—Ella to please her successful-judge-mother; Duke because he hoped for romance. The silly man he was. Duke wanted to believe they were madly in love, and that a natural force would hold them together—like the strings that keep the moon circling around the earth. He lowered the uniform shirt and rested his hands on the ironing board. Then came the war. That all-destroying force that left none untouched.

While he was fighting guerrillas in Vietnam, she cum lauded at Brackston University. His journey to South East Asia changed his outlook on life, as if he was reborn—an exchanged spirit. And not for the better. Duke was ruined. He slept through one semester at campus, then called it quits. To pay the rent on a small condo, he took the first job he could find—the launderette, which had opened in spring. It didn’t matter how brave he had been in Vietnam; even when they became colleagues in this shitty place, he lacked the courage to tell her of his feelings. Ella worked there for the summer; Duke was trapped for life.

“Thirty-five years … Wasted.” Duke felt like a wet cloth draped on a branch—sick of everything. Only a few more years and he could retire—but to what end? He would still be his own grumpy stumpy self. Nothing was going to change.

***

The day before yesterday he made up his mind. And yesterday, in the early morning, he collected his spirits and traveled to New-freaking-York to find the one who never left his heart. In the bus to the airport his fingers began to sweat, and he could feel his heart beat in places where he was convinced he shouldn’t. He began to have second thoughts. The only lead he had was her name and occupation—and that she worked for one of those big firms on Broadway. She was a state-of-the-art lawyer. While he dealt with uniforms he would never be worthy to wear, she worked on transforming her superiors into lazy super-rich asses. Ashamed of his low standards, he never dared to go after her. But now he was old and gray—seeing his life fade away—it was about time he took a risk.

Duke stumbled out of the bus and looked around once or twice, then headed to the ticket counters in the Departures Hall. The line was long. There were about a hundred times more people than he would have liked. But he practiced his patience. It was only a few minutes added to decades. Duke chose the queue in front of counter 9, because that window showed a dark-haired beauty who didn’t seem particularly unfriendly.

“Where to, mister?” she said, observing him from behind the counter.

“To New York Airport, and I want to be back tonight or early tomorrow, if possible. I need to get my pills at the pharmacy in the morning.”

“Well … Let’s see …” … minutes passed by, and just when Duke’s nerves were running low in leftovers, she said, “wow … you’re in luck mister, there’s a last minute available at Pan Am. Let me get your luggage.”

***

The bus drove from New York Airport, through Brooklyn, over the steel structure of the Williamsburg Bridge. Duke felt like a leprechaun in a forest of oaks as the towers doomed up before him. What am I doing here? He had never impressed anyone in his life, yet everybody looked up to Ella—as if she was New York, and he was nothing more than the launderette in Brackston. Insecurity and second thoughts pounded through his body—the tingling one feels when going against better judgment. What if I can’t find her? He had read about her in the paper a few years ago. If only he could remember what firm she worked for. But he was going to try them all.

What if she’s not available? A letter? Writing had always been a nightmare to Duke—everything he’d ever written came out wrong. His grade for writing class at university didn’t lie. Frowning, he took a stack of papers out of his briefcase and placed it on a rickety little tray table. “There goes nothing.” He clicked his pen on his forehead and began writing.

To the love of my life …

 

The vehicle brought him close to his destination, just a minute-walk from the tower in which the law firms were collected. He went from office to office. Each time the letter became more creased and wet between his sweaty fingers. On the fifth floor he entered what looked like a cathedral, with in the middle a well-dressed gaffer behind an oaken desk—a professional beard-scratcher who was appointed the responsibility of inspecting the ceiling. Leaning back in his leather chair, he threw a demeaning glance at Mr. Lowfield.

“Hello?” A loud echo followed; he ducked his head. He continued softly, “Does—perhaps—anyone by the name of Ella Winter work here?”

The receptionist grimaced, tapped the desk with his fingers and thought for a while. He pulled up his shoulders and filled his lungs with air.

“I’m afraid I have some bad news,” he said with raised eyebrows, “Dr. Winter passed away about three years ago. You can visit her grave in the State Cemetery if you want.”

Duke looked at him, shoulders low, a lump in his throat, ready to start whimpering.

“I’m sorry,” the man said. 

 

Duke hauled himself over to the cemetery—his eyes moist and a posture like he was carrying a day’s worth of laundry on his shoulders. In the third lane, next to a full-grown poplar in the back of the cemetery, he found what he was looking for. He stood curved, looking down at the grave of his beloved, his hands in his pockets and his forehead showing dozens of tensed wrinkles. He whispered the words on the stone:

 

“Elanor Winter,

Brackston 1933 — New York 2010”

 

He kneeled in front of the grave, his frail kneecaps on the painful gravel, picked the letter out of his pocket, and read the words aloud. Here, alone, he finally declared his love for Ella. When he spoke the final words “I love you,” a sparrow shot out of the poplar onto the gravestone. Before Duke could think anything of it, it spurted away toward heaven.

“Yes,” he said, “gone, just like that …”

He put the letter in an envelope against the tombstone. Duke tasted the salt of his tears in the corners of his mouth, and, with his face buried deep in his big hands, he gave in to sobbing.

***

Between his shaking fists, Duke almost tore Pee Boiler’s shirt in two. A grave expression covered his face. Dutifully, Duke folded the shirt, and grabbed the next one out of the bottomless basket. He sniffed at it. After all these years he knew every fabric softener on the face of the planet, and he was bored with the smell of every single one of them. And this one was even worse; this was Ella’s favorite.

The manager whooshed around on his stupid fork scooter thing, and stopped right next to him. And out of his throat erupted that annoying, arrogant voice again. “You might find it is actually a nice one for you, Mr. Lo,” he said with a banana smile, winking his eye.

Duke gazed sternly ahead. “Mr. Low-FIELD,” he said, “Low-FI— … Oh, the humanity.”

He raised his head again, this time facing the manager, putting his chest forward, “And I decide for myself when I’m having a good one, you hear me?”

He went back to work, shaking his head. But then … A shockwave went through his body when his eyes met his hands. What is this? The shirt he was holding was from a lawyer’s uniform. Where did that come from?

Something was wrong; he felt it ever since he was at the cemetery. He put the uniform down on the table and cracked his brain, heavily frowning, bumping his fist softly on the fabric. Something didn’t add up. But what was it?

He buried his face in the shirt. Numbers, numbers, numbers …

“Duke, stupid,” he shouted, “she wasn’t born in the thirties!”

In his hands—right in front of his face—the nametag on the shirt unfolded. He was shocked to silence when he read the words: 

Sweetest Duke, I love you, too!

He looked up right into sweet green eyes. His beloved stood on the back of the manager’s scooter thing, holding the crumpled and teared letter in her hand. Duke looked at the manager, eyes opened wide. Did you know about this? The manager winked at him. But this time, Duke felt no anger … only amazement.

“I visit my mother twice a week,” Ella said, her beautiful silky timbre caressing Duke’s ears. “Yesterday I found this letter on her grave.” She held it up between her thumb and index finger.

Duke recognized his handwriting. His heart beat in his throat like the bombs of Vietnam, and blood rushed to his cheeks and ears.

“Duke, my love!” Ella jumped off the scooter and into Duke’s embrace, her eyes never leaving his. She hugged him and pressed a soft kiss on his lips.

And for the first time in years, Duke smiled.

 

 

 

 

© 2013, 2016 by Niels C. Quackernaeck.

Author’s note: Elderly people fascinate me. I loved visiting my grandpa and listening to his stories—to hear how he viewed the world. Often I try to imagine what it is like to have a whole life behind me. This resulted in a song called “Before They Disappear” and the short story about Mr. Lowfield, which I wrote as an assignment for Long Ridge Writers Group in the spring of 2013 and reedited in the summer of 2016.

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Why I Write About Writing

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In my opinion, a writer isn’t per se someone who knows all the hills and valleys of the English language, or knows clever ways to avoid every grammatical pitfall. I believe a writer is someone who can talk about any dull fact with such glamour, that the reader will go to bed with it and wake up with it.

Still, writing without skill is like playing a concert without having learned to play. It leads to cluttered writing, to misunderstandings, and, in worst case, the author makes a fool of himself.

Though I’m a writer and editing (mainly Dutch) texts is my profession, grammar isn’t my strongest point. I studied all the books I could find on the craft of English writing (and soon I’ll have a frame on the wall to show for it), but somehow I keep forgetting the technical details.

I think we can help each other out—I write short essays on the technical aspects of the craft while reevaluating the stuff I learned. Then—to have a direct goal with my study—I’ll publish them here, so you and I may both benefit from them. In time, it may become a database where you can find the answer to any question that concerns the craft of writing.

It’s my nature to write in American English. But sometimes I have to correct British English texts for my day job. To assist in developing a consistent style, I’ll refer to the essential differences whenever I come across them.

Whether you blog or write articles for another kind of publication, your style is what makes or breaks your writing.

I hope this section will be of great use to the both of us.

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