Hell is a Children’s Ward

This post is for all the Make-a-Wish kids I worked with who still haunt me:


Their sedan was on a narrow causeway just beyond the Ghost Fleet when the already dented delivery truck a couple of cars ahead spun around and hit the guardrail with such force that its rear axle flew off with the tail shaft still connected.  Together they twirled high into the air, spinning wildly out of control until returning to the ground and bouncing between the hapless cars. Sara watched from the backseat keenly aware that if it hit the windshield, the consequences would be gruesome.  There was no time to duck behind the seat or to say silent goodbyes to her children.

The axle and tail shaft cartwheeled in front of them and then the shaft plunged into a patch of soft asphalt like an arrow shot into the mud, causing the axle to detach, catapult over the guardrail, and roll down the hill toward the bay.  Sparks flew as the truck skidded on bare metal to a smoldering ruin, leaving deep ruts in the road. Miraculously the driver of the truck was not hurt nor were any other vehicles damaged.

They drove the final twelve miles to the army base in silence.

“I want a party – a HUGE party,”the girl began. “In a grand ballroom with at least two hundred people.  And I want Madonna to be there and Boy George.  Oh, that would be so cool.  And of course, kids from school,” she stopped to catch her breath, “and they’d come to the party in limos.  Or maybe helicopters.” She wore a purple terrycloth bathrobe and her hair was brown and stringy. 

Get the dead boy out of your mind, Sara ordered and force a loving look upon your face.

He looked about ten years, the dead boy did, and lay flat on his back just down the hall from the girl’s hospital room. The door to his room had been left wide open.

“Oh my God,” she’d said to the driver pointing to the body.  The man took one look and yelled angrily down to the nurses.  “Hey! Get down here.”

“How did you know he was dead?” the first nurse to arrive on scene asked. 

“I was an Army medic.  Hell, this hospital is still a shit hole.”  His wife, the other Make-a-Wish volunteer, hushed him.    

“You’ve been here before?”  Sara asked.

“Nam,” he replied.  “There was a tunnel running from the airstrip to the morgue so that no one on base got a good look at the steady parade of corpses.  It’s bad for morale, you know,” he said as through it was a very dark joke, “It’s probably still there.”

“I’m amazed you wanted to come back here.”

“I had to keep my sweetie safe.  Don’t like her to drive at night.”

The man and wife were now interviewing the foster parents in another room while she transcribed the girl’s wish.  There would be purple balloons and flowers and even purple gummy bears.  And a band of course, maybe Boy George or Madonna would sing.  “Do you think that’s too much to ask?”

Sara shook her head, no. The nurse trying to insert a tube into the girl’s already bruised and frighteningly thin arm, glanced at Sara with wet eyes.  Many of the “kids” she interviewed looked so healthy that it was hard to believe the doctor’s reports but this girl could have been mistaken for a victim of the Holocaust.

It’s so much easier to interview children under five, Sara thought.  They have no idea what they’ll be missing in life. Dying was the same as going to Disneyland.  Maybe better as they’d get to see Grandma or sit on Jesus’ lap.  No more needles, medicine that made them puke all night long or worse.  No more barbaric excavations into the marrows of their bones that had to be done without anesthesia. 

But the teens and the pre-teens want it all. They are vampires, voracious for life, wanting to suck as much nectar as they can before giving way. They go down fighting. Interviewing them, she felt her energy sucked into a useless, self-absorbed past.

After she finished interviewing the girl, and the man and his wife finished completing the legal paperwork with the foster parents and the doctors, they drove back to the Bay Area across the causeway where they’d almost died and past the rusty ships of war whose drunken ghosts saluted them with their middle fingers.  They all knew the girl would have her party in the hospital ward.  There would be purple balloons and gummy bears.  The Foundation might convince a local celebrity to drive out to the base.   And she would say “so what” because, in the end, that’s what we all say.

Last but maybe least, Sara’s transcription of the grandest party ever planned would be filed in a cabinet somewhere in the Foundation’s basement. Or maybe tossed or shredded or burned.

So Say the Winos, The End

All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream. Edgar Allan Poe

Broken glass. He almost stepped on it. He had to keep his eyes glued to the ground and seldom look up, otherwise he’d end up with a jagged piece of glass in his foot and bleed to death. Or get an infection and watch his foot grow black with gangrene.

“Pleasant thoughts you’re having this morning,” Daniel said to himself. It was time for him to go. He wondered if it was necessary to give two weeks notice at a gas station and then decided, it might not be necessary but it was moral. He knew the boss would hate to see him go. Unlike other grease monkeys, he was reliable, courteous, didn’t smoke or drink and could help with the bookkeeping. But the boss had mentioned retirement on many occasions and so maybe Daniel’s leaving would give him impetus to take that step and thus all would conclude well. Daniel liked conclusions that ended with both sides clear of conscience.

He was only at the station for about an hour when he looked up from sweeping the garage to see the girls from Nevada loaded down with all their earthly possessions and heading for their Volvo. Remarkably it had survived an entire night on the street or so he thought. He watched as they were approached by a panhandler. At first the man seemed satisfied with what they gave him. Then he turned around and followed them demanding more. When they refused, he grabbed one of their guitars.

Daniel ran across the street still holding the broom. It, plus their screaming, was enough to make the man drop the guitar and run. “Let’s get you guys out of here,” he ordered as he pushed them down the sidewalk.

th-10“Oh no,” the Catholic’s Daughter cried. “Look at my car.” The passenger side window had been shattered. Glass shards covered whatever remained inside, which wasn’t much. Just that head of Aragorn looking wistfully up at them. “Oh no! My flute! My flute is gone! We’ve got to call the police.”

“They won’t even take a police report. There are so many robberies down here.”

“That’s so awful.”

“That’s why you need to get out of here. Go across the street to the gas station and ask the man to help you. He’s a crusty old guy but his heart is pure.”

“How about you?”

“I have someplace I need to be.”

“We’ll never forget you.”

He chuckled. “Get on your way now.”

They drove across the street and cautiously approached Daniel’s boss who’d been watching them. “Daniel said you would help us.”

“He did huh?” He disappeared into the grime of wilted walls and then returned with a newspaper folded neatly into a square which he handed the girl who seemed the most sensible. The paper was dated October 27 1967, a year ago to the day.

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“Terrible thing,” the boss continued. “What happened to him shouldn’t happen to a dog, no sir. And that poor woman,” he shivered.  “Terrible. Unthinkable. Gives me the willies. You know, Daniel was a good kid, a little mixed up but then you should have met his mother. That lunatic held vigil here at the station for three days thinking her son was going to resurrect like the friggin’ Christ.”

The girls didn’t say a word, even amongst themselves.  Perhaps he should have softened the blow but then he hadn’t had much experience with the so-called fairer sex. “It’s been a whole damn year and they still don’t have any suspects. Not a one. I shoulda retired.”

“He’s dead?” One of the girls mumbled as the newspaper fell to the ground.

“Yeah, but don’t worry. I see him too, always looking lost. Like maybe he don’t know he’s dead. Sometimes I even talk to him. The winos claim he’s waiting for the return of some ship called the SS Connemoira or so they say.” He shook his head. “Yup, that’s what they say. Okay, let’s get you gals fixed up and outta here.”

He helped them sweep out the inside of the Volvo and put cardboard over the shattered window. He even gave them a can of oil after checking the dipstick and sighing in disgust “women never check the oil, or the tires. We’d better check them as well.” When he was satisfied the little car just might make it to Massachusetts, he gave them directions on how to get out of town. He watched the little car as it sputtered down the road, thick smoke pouring out of the exhaust, young arms fluttering out the windows. They’ll never make it, he thought, but he waved back anyway. Then he disappeared inside the station. He’d dispensed with enough good will for the day.


Happy Halloween, everyone!  Did you guess the ending?  If so, how early in the story?  Like elements of many of my stories, there are bits of a real-life adventure in this piece.  Many people have asked what happened to the three girls – well, after their adventure in NYC they had marriages, divorces, children, careers and two have sadly died – but they never forgot Daniel.

Ghost

Linda G. Hill is an energetic blogger and the founder of Just Jot it January (JusJoJan).  This month she’s been providing a daily one word prompt and inviting folks to write on the subject if they feel inspired. It’s a lovely gesture as bloggers, like writers, ofttimes need inspiration.

I generally don’t get my act together in time (and today is no exception) but a few days ago her word jjj-2016was “ghost.”

My first thought was “ghost of a chance,” a phrase we writers hear all too often.

But what do mortals know about ghosts and their shenanigans in the afterlife?

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In one of my favorite movies (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) the ghost has the chance to come back, write a successful book and win the heart of a beautiful widow!

My first impulse was to search online for the source of this peculiar phrase. Guess what?  No one seems to know.  According to Dictionary.com it could have originated in the1880s when Chinese laborers arrived in U.S. by the thousands willing to work for less than their counterparts.  American workers reacted by using the phrase “A Chinaman’s chance” to describe a futile endeavor, thereby reducing the Chinese to insubstantial shadows, or ghosts.  Today the phrase “Chinaman’s chance” is considered derogatory.

My search did unearth an impressive list of movies, books, songs and even video games inspired by the phrase. A small sampling follows:

  • A 1991 song by the group Rush  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgqkhArHBHM
  • A 1987 TV movie staring Dick Van Dyke and Red Foxx 

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    Ghost of a Chance – Red Foxx, a pianist killed accidentally by Dick Van Dyke (a wayward cop), has a chance to come down from heaven to help his son. Something tells me this movie was a stinker!

  • William Burroughs’ 1991 novel Ghost of Chance described as a “take off on the Book of Revelations” full of a “whimsical hodgepodge of corrosive wit and edgy desolation.” I have to point out other reviewers were far less impressed with Burroughs’ opium fueled visions.

As for me, today I don’t even have a ghost of a chance of convincing Pretty Kitty to get off my lap so that I can work. Any suggestions?

cat

Make New Friends

SnoopyAs promised, the end of Brownie Fright Night.

To recap the story thus far, twenty girl scout brownies and their chaperones (mothers) caravan in their mini-vans to an abandoned tubercular asylum for a stormy weekend retreat. After settling around a struggling fire and singing girl scout songs, one of the mothers begins a ghost story set in her native Norway but before she can finish, the lights flicker out.  The mothers decide it’s time to turn in.


th-1Ruthie finally got more wine (once the girls settled down.) By that time, we all really needed a drink. The little darlings had chosen to bunk in the large room at the end of the sanitarium because it had enough cots that they could all be together. The problem was the room also had an exterior door and we had at least four flight risks. After much debate we agreed that one mother would bed down with the girls while the rest of us chickens slept next door.  Sylvana, of course, volunteered.  She just couldn’t get enough of “her girls.”

Once things were quiet, Cate, Marith, Ruthie and I slipped down to the kitchen where we drank wine from metal cups by candlelight. Outside, branches from nearby trees raked the side of the building but at least the rain had abated.

“Do you think the girls will get any sleep?”  Cate asked.

“You haven’t been on too many sleepovers, have you?”  Ruthie chuckled. 

“Well then, maybe one of us should sleep in there with poor Sylvana.”

“She’s the heaviest sleeper I’ve even seen,” I assured them. “As soon as her head hits the pillow, she’s in Snore City.  At the girl scout jamboree she slept through the tent collapsing and all those girls screaming their bloody heads off.”

I thought it was funny but Marith didn’t smile.”It is not normal to have so much energy and then to drop into a sleep like that. Maybe that is why she goes to Dr. Paulson.”

 “You don’t mean Sam Paulson?  Gwen’s husband?” Ruthie asked.

“Yes, she sees him three times a week.  Gwen says she even shows up at their house!  Uninvited!”

“Shit!  You know what Sam’s specialty is, don’t you?” 

We shook our heads no. 

“He’s the shrink who testified at Meryl Ottoman’s trial.”

“Meryl Ottoman?   

“You weren’t here then, Cate. Meryl Ottoman slashed her sister to death a few years ago – with a machete! She claimed her evil twin did it.”

“Don’t girl scout leaders have to take psychiatric tests,”  Cate asked.

I had to laugh.  The only reason I’d signed on to be a girl scout leader was because no one else would and Sylvana made it clear that if no one signed on to assist her, there would be no Brownie troop. “I had to get a TB test and that’s it.  I’m sure Sylvana’s just depressed.  I don’t think things are going well in her marriage.”

She crashed my Christmas brunch last year dressed as a clown! She scared Winston half to death, poor little thing.  He peed all over the carpet.  Maybe we better get back there.” With that Ruthie corked the wine and put it into the cooler.  In the space of a few minutes Sylvana had gone from being the world’s best girl scout leader to a clown-faced axe murderer with an evil twin. 

We returned to a scene of relative calm.  As I’d predicted Sylvana was dead to the world leaving the girls to entertain themselves with the flashlights they had been ordered to turn off.  A lantern in the hall provided just enough light should one of them need to visit the bathroom.

After confiscating the flashlights and responding to their complaints – two girls had upset tummies, one couldn’t find her sleep bear, one demanded to call her mother and the “usual suspects” wanted to take a midnight stroll to find banana slugs – we took to our bunks fully dressed, knowing we probably wouldn’t get much sleep.  

th-4The lantern in the hall provided just enough light to bring splotches of pealing paint on the ceiling to life. I kept thinking that only a few decades before the room in which we were trying to sleep housed patients in various stages of tuberculosis, some even dying. As I tossed and turned within the tight constraints of the sleeping bag, those splotches grew and shift-changed into the former residents of my bed singing their sad stories in my ears, or so I dreamt.

I woke to a grumble and then footsteps as Ruthie made her way down the hall. She has to go to the bathroom, I thought. Better her than me.  Walking the halls of the old sanitarium, with its creaky wooden floors, bleached beyond character, and yellowed walls at night with a flashlight, well, let’s just say, I’d really have to pee. 

After a few minutes Ruthie returned.  “Jan – I thought I heard someone sobbing but I checked on the girls- they’re all okay.” th-2

Cate snapped to a sitting position.  Followed by Marith.  They’d only been pretending to sleep or maybe like me, had been haunted by previous residents.

Ruthie lit another camp lantern.  “I’m not sitting here in the dark. I don’t care if we don’t have enough fuel…”

She was cut off by a low rumble.  Earthquake, I thought but nothing moved. Mudslide? Rivers of mud run under and destroy the foundations of many structures on the mossy side of Mt. Tam.  Was the sanitarium about to be washed away?

Then we heard the howl of a lone wolf.  Followed by another and another as their pack assembled somewhere not far away. 

I tried my best to make light of our situation. “Well thank goodness we’re not in tents! The wolves probably just killed a deer and are inviting other wolves to… ” 

“Shush!”  Ruthie ordered.  “Do you hear that?” We sat around the lantern listening to what sounded like a pack of wolves sniffing and scratching just outside the undraped windows.  “Go see what it is.”

“Me?” I asked. 

Before any of us could move, there was a racket at the back door, shortly followed by the screaming of brownies.   A pack of wild dogs now snarled and tore at the flimsy door. The usual suspects viewed the whole event with great glee and somewhat perverse scientific interest while the others ran into our room. 

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The “usual suspects” view our plight with delight!

“The kitchen!” Ruthie cried. I’m not really sure why it made sense but we gathered the girls and off we ran down the halls with hearts racing.  Once there I realized why it made sense.  The kitchen windows were small and far above the floor and the exterior door, for reasons I can’t fathom, was metal.  Quickly we did a head count – yup all twenty girls were present and accounted for. 

“Where’s my mommie?”  Sylvana’s daughter cried.

“My god – she couldn’t have slept through all that!” Ruthie said. “Shouldn’t we…”

But there was no reason to worry about Sylvana.  A howl just outside the kitchen door, quickly followed by the scurrying of the rest of the pack informed us that the dogs had followed us to the kitchen.  

Don’t scream girls,” Marith pled, as they began to shriek. “This metal door is strong.  If you scream it gives the dogs what they want.  Let’s sing a song. I’m sure Mrs. C knows a good song.”

I had only one thing on my mind at that moment and it wasn’t a Brownie song. “Ah, ah..  let’s see.

th-7“We should call for help,” Cate said.

“Who’s going to volunteer to fight their way through mad dogs to the phone booth?”

The usual suspects stepped forward, one of them pointing out that she had a yellow belt in karate as she kicked imaginary dogs with her fluffy pink slippers.

“If we sing the dogs will know we are not afraid and they will leave.” Marith explained.  “That is what we do Norway.”

“How about Make New Friends?” One of the girls suggested.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMAxP-95yn4

We survived that night by soothing mad dogs with girl scout songs but left in the daylight as soon as the coast was clear. Our first stop being the coffee shop.  Sylvana, who’d slept through the whole thing and awoke bright and perky, risked her life by suggesting we at least take one short walk in the nearby woods before leaving.


Thank you so much for reading!  If you want to read the whole story without breaks – click here.
Happy Halloween!