A short story inspired by Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Time to get up, already? She had only just rolled into bed.
What time was it?
Probably the dog going off, again. Bloody Tyson, that thing is a menace.
Terri’s hair lay across her eyes, and her mouth was open, a breath interrupted.
She had been snoring, that was what had dragged her out of sleep. That made sense.
Rolling onto her side, she tried avoiding the judgmental glow of her clock.
Eyes closing again, she sighed.
No. Something else was happening. Someone was here. Somebody was shaking her by the shoulders. One of the kids was awake. Bad dreams again. She pulled the covers to one side, urging them to hop in and snuggle up with her before they properly woke.
When next she stirred, the space next to her remained cold and empty. Lowering her arm, she replaced the covers and opened her eyes to the soupy grey night. A silhouette leant over the bed; a figure framed against the meagre hallway light. There was no time to breathe, let alone scream. Hope died a watery death in her bladder. She wondered if she could get to the kids.
She would get to the kids.
“Mum,” said the spectre. It stepped back, hands by its side. “Mum, it’s me.”
She would get to the kids if it killed her. Somehow, she would.
“Mum!” Again the thing spoke, this time leaning in to turn on the bedside lamp. “Mum!”
Illuminated, she recognised the youngster before her, though it wore a waxen mask hiding the hideous rictus that appeared each time the mouth stilled.
Peering into the ashen face, a horrifying realisation crawled into her throat, gloating at the base of her tongue.
“Robbie?” she said, sitting up. “Robbie?”
He nodded. Beneath the frozen features, his eyes were dark as obsidian. “What’s happened?”
“Mum, I’ve killed him.” He said it so quietly she almost missed it.
Downstairs, Tyson barked at a car passing by on the quiet street.
The moment stretched.
She took a few more breaths.
The dog stopped yapping.
“Mum, did you hear me? He’s dead!”
“I heard you,” she replied. “I heard you.”
“What am I going to do?” he sobbed. “I’m screwed!”
His dark eyes overflowed, cascades of pain flooding his waxy features, faint colour rising to his cheeks. Somehow it made him more vulnerable, like a rouged porcelain doll.
He’s so young, so fragile, she thought My little china-doll boy.
“Ssshhh!” she said, reaching for him. “It’s okay.”
She lifted the covers and pulled him in beside her, holding him tightly as he rent himself apart with misery and fear. When he began to calm, she let him tell his story.
Even Tyson kept his silent counsel for the rest of the night.
By the time the sun kissed the morning sky, she had the choreography all mapped out.
The girls ran squealing across the kitchen when Robbie appeared in the morning. Terri may as well have been invisible as they gave him a full rock star welcome.
“It isn’t every day you get to have a big brother for breakfast,” Terri joked, and told them most kids only had cereal or toast. Everyone giggled, even Robbie, though she noticed his eyes remained dull. The girls laughed as they flung themselves into his arms, nearly knocking him to the kitchen floor.
“Are you going to take us to school?” asked Etta.
“Pleeeeease?” begged Lilli. “I want to show you the snails.”
“Well, I don’t know if I can,” stuttered Robbie. “Mum, what…?”
“Of course you can,” said Terri. “You can make their lunches and walk them both over.”
“Yay! I want choc-nut in my sammich, and some cucummer for the snails.” Lilli skipped towards the fridge.
“Yuk, Lilli!” said Etta. “Robbie, our class doesn’t have stupid snails any more. I’m in Year 3.”
“I’m in Year 1 and we have snails and I love them and they love cucummer.”
“Girls,” said Terri. “Let poor Robbie get a coffee and you can tell him all about school. Etta, don’t be mean to your little sister. You know how she is about those snails.”
Robbie flicked the kettle on, positioning himself at the kitchen table as he waited for it to boil, preparing himself for a year’s worth of his sisters’ social updates.
As she watched her children from the doorway, Terri knew this innocent chatter would help quieten the other voices singing in her son’s mind. Now, it was down to her to do her part and make the music stop. Not looking forward to the day ahead, she headed upstairs to dress.
She hoped she would remember to take everything she needed, making two trips would lead to complications. What if she messed it all up? There was already so much to think about.
Think, Terri. Think.
By the time she got to the other side of town, workday traffic was just beginning to build. Feeling a familiar biting pain at the back of her lungs, she admonished herself for not taking something for it before she left. It was too late now, the nagging, gnawing agony having settled in for the day. It was as if something was eating away at her spine from behind.
She hated coming here. She hated the feelings that washed over her like dirty water, as though she was lowering herself into a stagnant pool of filthy seepage. After five years, she could still smell the fear on her skin.
But now, he was dead.
If only it hadn’t been Robbie, though. What a mess. Poor kid, just starting out, and that bastard totally stuffed up everything for him by being dead.
It kind of suited him, being dead, and she wished she had done the deed years ago. Avoided all those years of being something between a servant and a punching bag. She should have hefted him off a tall building, like a cartoon coyote. Splat!
Chuckling softly to herself, she felt a little more in control of the fangs gnawing on her backbone.
Turning into her old street, the small group of people gathered by the corner shop surprised her. She had hoped to slip into the terraced house without being noticed, but there was no chance of that now. She would just have to come back later. Ducking down in her seat, she tried to avoid eye contact with anyone.
“Damn!” she muttered, realising Sally, the only watch-witch the neighbourhood needed, was waving at her. Yes, she was definitely waving.
“Bugger!” she said, waving back. She had no choice, she had to stop. Pulling over, she locked the car and crossed the road.
“Terri!” said Sally, flushed with excitement. “They called you, then?”
Terri couldn’t drum up a decent reply, so gave an indeterminate nod, waiting to see what Sally would say next. Her brain was trying to catch up with the new situation. This was not the way it was supposed to go.
Breathe, Terri, breathe.
The spine monkey gnawed harder.
“My Jamal found him, you know,” Sally continued, and the gathered group murmured in agreement. They considered this a good thing, Terri surmised, but nobody seemed overly shocked. What was going on?
Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.
“Saw him through the frosted glass, came and got me.”
Nods and murmurs all round.
“Oh,” said Terri. That was really all she had at that point.
“Look, long story short, he’s had a fall, he’s in hospital, and it’s not looking great.” Sally delivered the news with relish.
“St Aggy’s, about two hours ago. They made a mess of the door getting in, but we’ll get it secured.”
Terri blinked a few times, surprised there was any of her backbone left for the monkey to chew on, but it continued frantically gnawing at her spine, the toothy little bastard.
“Door? Broke the door?”
Shaking her head to clear the brain fog, she struggled to find any shape in what she had been told.
“Robbie’s been away for a few days, hun,” continued the nosy neighbour. “We didn’t have a number for him.”
“Robbie? Right. I’ll track him down.” Her brain had joined the dance again. “Thanks, Sal, really.”
“Listen, we know your old man was a prize arse, but Robbie is a good lad. We didn’t want him coming home to that…” trailed off Sally.
She pointed towards the broken front door, which Terri examined properly for the first time. It was just as Robbie had described, even down to the cracked pane just below head height. She gulped and felt the blood drain from her face. The lumbar monkey chewed on with renewed vigour.
“Oh, Terri, you’re upset. Still carrying a little candle for him, are we?” Sally sounded almost pleased with the prospect of some added drama.
“No, God, no. It’s just a shock, that’s all.”
Sally nodded. “Of course, dear.”
Fumbling with her keys, Terri did the “time to leave” dance. She thanked Sally and her ensemble, gave the door one last glance, and returned to her car.
St Agnes’ District Hospital was two miles away. It wouldn’t take long to get there. She was unsure what came next, but knew she was in this bloody thing until the music stopped.
The young doctor held the image against the light-box, pointing at things. It looked like a shadow show, a silhouette of a head with grey and white splodges. She was unsure if she was looking at the thing from above or below. Either way, she did not know what it all meant. It could have been a cauliflower for all she knew. Maybe that was the bastard’s problem, he had a cruciferous vegetable for a brain. It would explain a lot. Well, except most cauliflowers weren’t violent, vindictive, misogynistic bullies.
She’d tuned out again, what was the doctor saying? Something about bleeding on the brain, that was it. He was bleeding in his brain. He suffered a stroke and sustained a head injury from the subsequent fall down the stairs. It was uncertain if he would survive this trauma. Terri was to prepare herself for a non-favourable outcome. If he survived, the prospect of long-term brain damage was inevitable, the damage to the entire brain significant. In layman’s terms, he was buggered. Not quite in a persistent vegetative state, he might notice light and dark, perhaps understand some sounds, but he would no longer participate meaningfully in life.
She appreciated the medic’s honesty, noticing the absence of hope in the delivery of his news. Before he left the room, he handed her some information sheets, pressing them into her hand with a wan smile.
What a nice man, she thought.
While she flicked through the leaflets, a nurse appeared, her soft shoes making her arrival silent and surprising. “Terri?” she said. “I can take you through now, if you’re ready.”
Terri stuffed the leaflets into her bag, and nodded before following the nurse down the corridor and through some double doors marked “No Entry”.
Then, she finally saw him, connected to pipes and lines, like a badly designed vacuum cleaner, with bits hanging out, hissing and beeping. She stifled a giggle, turning it into a passable sob, and the nurse laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“It’s always a bit of a shock, seeing this equipment. I can talk you through it if you like?”
“No, no, I’m fine. Can I just sit here?”
“Of course you can. There’s a comfy chair for you. Can I get you a coffee or something?”
“I’d love a cup of tea, if that’s okay?”
“No problem, give me a tick,” said the nurse, and slipped away as silently as she arrived.
Terri sat at the bedside, staring into the face of her personal monster. Someone had written his name on the white board above the bed. “Robert T. Slaywood”. Next to his name was a smiley face she could not bring herself to look at. She wondered if there was a space to write “Bastard”, then gulped down another chuckle. He had never been this much fun to be around when in life.
Stop it, Terri.
The slow hiss and gentle beeps of the machines seemed to soothe her spine monkey, and she felt it slowly clamber up between her shoulder blades, its sharp claws finding purchase in her muscles. Stopping there, it perched just below her jaw, its warm breath in her ear, its teeth grinding in anticipation.
She looked down at the sleeping figure lying supine on the bed. He wasn’t long for this world. Digging deep for some pity, she found none.
A whoosh of air preceded the bone-monkey leaping onto the bed, and she spied it for the first time. It was smaller than she had imagined, its fur a soft brown. However, there wasn’t anything cuddly about the thing, not with those talons, teeth and speed. Quickly, it disappeared under the white sheet, and was soon nothing more than a receding lump amongst the tubes.
Beside the bed, a monitor began shrieking. The nurse, returning with the tea, pressed a button to stop the noise.
“Sorry,” she said. “I need to grab some meds. I’ll be right back.”
Alone with him again, Terri smiled. He did not look peaceful any more. Not surprising really, what with all the other alarms now sounding.
She sipped her tea.
He was slipping away, uncomfortably. It was glorious.
Her little family was finally free of his hideous shade, free and clear of any damage he might do.
Footsteps approached, accompanied by the squeak of trolley wheels.
Terri raised her voice above the increasing cacophony, making sure he would hear her final words.
“Guess what, Robert,” she said. “I finally got that monkey off my back.”
If you wish to have little peek into my head space whilst I was writing this piece, close your eyes and listen to the original version of this song.