The Stranger

I’m in the kitchen making a sandwich and my dad is upstairs in bed. I can hear the bed springs groan as he turns. The peanut butter gets stuck in globs and tears the bread. I can hear every black bubble from the glass of coke beside the plate.

It’ll go like this. I’ll approach his bed. I’ll try and be calm and ignore the sweat forming around my neck. I’ll put my hands in my pockets, or stroke the back of my head. Maybe I’ll have watery eyes, but I doubt if I can force tears.

I’ll ease my way in with some soothing words. I’ll say I bumped into Mrs. Kyle, who told me about her fantastic dream. She saw an angel, full of color, who led her into a moonlit garden. The angel had dug a large crater in the grass and they sat in it together. The angel smiled and said Mr. Kyle was recovering in heaven. And I’ll say to dad, “That’s nice, right?”

“Yes, that’s beautiful,” he’ll say. Then, “But why is he recovering? Something terrible must have happened? Did he die in pain? Did he die in pain?”

I’ll attempt to hide my anger behind a sympathetic sigh, and try a different tact. I’ll say when I was very young, all my friends turned against me for no reason. In the school playground I found a little stone; a purple piece of flint embedded in the concrete. It became my friend. I spent hours standing around it and talking with it as if it was wise and understanding.

One time it talked back. It said something I vowed I’d never tell anyone. But I will whisper it into my dad’s ear, and then say, “See, I understand. I’ve had hard times too.” But he will see me as crazy, I know it. He will look me up and down and grumble, “You say the strangest things. Do you really think this is helping? Why do you keep saying these strange things?”

I will look firmly into his eyes, slightly squinting. I will tell him how I know he made fun me; my lazy eye and strange bent walk. I overheard him laughing in the cellar one morning, talking to the boys in a haze of cigarette smoke. He owes me. Not money. What I need is… and then I will tell him what I want. He’ll have to listen.

I stare at myself in the grand hallway mirror. I anxiously flatten my hair at the back and straighten my tie. As I adjust what needn’t be adjusted, I am caught by the beauty of the surface; a perfect pool of silver water. I fall forward and my head breaks the surface. Beyond, I see cold darkness.

I knock on my dad’s bedroom door. There is no answer, so finally, without being beckoned, I inch the door open and creep into the room. Despite being almost completely shrouded in darkness, the room glows blue. My dad is tucked into the double bed, only his balding head and slender arms poking out of the duvet. He is quiet and his eyes are closed.

A man is sitting across the room by my dad’s side, whispering in his ear. He has broad shoulders and a round face, but I can’t make out any other features. I gently close the door and walk a couple of paces into the room. As I near the bed, the darkness enveloping the man diminishes, revealing his scruffy black hair and thick woolly jumper, but no more. I think about turning back and returning another time. But I won’t.

“Take a seat,” the man says quietly. I think about it, then do as I’m told. I place myself beside the bed on a little stool opposite the man. I’m still unable to see most of his face but I can discern the movement of his thin lips.

“You’re Don’s son, aren’t you? You should say something,” the man says, “it’s very serious now.”

“Sorry, who are you?” I say, leaning towards him. I try to bore a hole into the darkness.

“I’m John, a friend of your dad’s.”

“Oh.”

I forget his name immediately.

My dad’s eyes are flickering and his chest is heaving steadily up and down. He wheezes, and his breath stings my nostrils. I try to remember my strategy, but I hadn’t counted on another person listening in. The words I’ve rehearsed have slipped from my mind, as if swallowed by the shadows.

“Well,” I say, “I wanted to talk about my mum.” I decide to discuss something obscure, something the man could know nothing about. I feel this is the best way to avoid being judged or caught out.

“Well, ok,” I say, positioning myself to face my dad. His face is pale grey with stiff skin, as if chiselled from stone. “Before you became ill, mum had told you she didn’t want our dog anymore. He’s menacing. He’s been known to follow children,” I say to the man. “He doesn’t growl or anything, but it’s the way he stares. Anyway dad,” I say returning my gaze, “mum’s just had enough. She wants Sammy put down. I thought maybe I could solve the problem and take the dog as my own.”

I take a deep breath, trying to exhale the tension in my chest. The stranger mutters into my dad’s ear.

He pulls himself upright and says, “Did you know your mum has been spending your dad’s money? Draining it away.”

“I don’t know anything about my mum,” I say, folding my arms.

“She even tried to buy a car, but the credit card was cancelled.”

The man’s back is slightly arched. He looks straight at me, waiting, encouraging me to speak. He wavers between a smile and a ruffled brow. He knows what I’m thinking, as if he were able to pick the thoughts from my mind, like coins from a wallet.

“I may as well come out with it,” I say, looking again at my father as if he might butt in to the conversation, changing the context of my words. “Well it’s obvious, I guess, I want what any young man would want from his...dying...father. See, I’ve had to plan what to do when he goes. When it’s all over, that is. A coffin. Dad is traditional. A funeral. Thousands of pounds. Not to mention, taxes, inheritance fees, extended family pulling this way and that, you know. Endless complications occur when dealing with a death.”

The man nods, pushing his lips together into a thoughtful expression. I shift forward in my seat, and lean myself over my dad’s midriff.

“We’ve had problems in the past,” I say, nodding my head at my dad. “It’s the same for everyone though, isn’t it?”

The stranger blinks.

“I want to make amends,” my voice wilts. “I do. I want to say some things. But you’re here and...I’m not trying to be rude.”

“No, it’s a fair point,” he says.

I lean my elbow on the bed, beside my dad’s thigh. “You see, as a kid growing up in my dad’s supermarket, it was wonderful. Everything colourful and bright. Lines and lines of tins and packages perfectly stacked, all facing the same way. I thought it was quite beautiful. And, you know, if you stay there too long you begin to think nothing bad can happen. It’s stupid. But of course something bad did happen, lots. I’ve had many problems with my looks.”

“You look fine to me.”

“Of course I don’t,” I snap, “I look hideous. I bump into things. I’m always bruised and in pain. My dad, he would laugh and… it doesn’t matter now. But I want to say to him, it’s ok. Before it’s too late.”

“I think you’re probably being a little unfair to your dad. He always loved you like a son.”

“I am his son,” I say, thinking carefully. “Anyway, you weren’t there. Were you.”

“But I have spoken with your dad a lot recently,” the man says matter-of-factly. “He said you and I are very similar. Did you notice we both have the same slightly bent legs? Anyway, I don’t know if he meant you harm or not when you were young, but he has spoken a lot about you. Honestly? I feel like I understand you.”

“Right,” I say to myself. I stand and walk to the other side of the room. I peel back the curtain. A slither of light shoots into the room then gets trapped by the darkness. My back is to the stranger. He hasn’t turned to me.

“How could you understand me? I doubt it,” I say angrily.

“Perhaps not.”

“All I wanted was a few small words from him to make things right. Some memento, something that I could carry with me, like a lucky coin, or a photograph inside a locket. Maybe just a touch of the hand would make up for all the hugs I missed out on.”

I turn to the sickbed, look at my feet and shake my head.

“That's embarrassing,” I say.

The stranger twists around slowly to face me, and gives me a friendly smile.

“How can anyone know what they want from their dying father?” I continue. “Someone screams and shouts, and then realizes they have to be silent at some point. That’s how it is. My dad is one long scream, nearly silenced, and there’s no time to get a word in… He never screamed at me, though.”

I walk back to my stool, but I stand behind it now and rest my hands flat on the seat.

“So you think you know me? What I think or want?”

The man waves me over to him. Finally, I do as I’m told. Up close to him, he is harder to see than before. His eye sockets cast shadows around his eyes. The darkness conceals his mouth and most of his nose. Then a bar of dim light is exposed from the bottom of his face. He is smiling.

He wraps his arm around my shoulders. Then we walk together, limping, like conjoined twins. There is an oval mirror by the bedside table, coming into view like a moon being unveiled by a slow moving cloud. There are tiny golden orbs dotting the frame.

We stand together, and stare. For a moment, neither of us appears in the mirror. But within a blink of the eye, the reflections are there, solid and real. Now light is fluttering, like the sea lapping against the side of a boat.

We look the same. Except he is still smiling and I remain serious.

“Isn’t it strange? Such a coincidence, no?”

“I’m unsure of things. What do you think?” I say.

I wait for his reply. I know the answer. I can go home now. I can go back to my life and carry on pretending, just getting through, because getting what I want won’t help me. I wait for the stranger to say what he has to say. But he is still gazing into the mirror that almost fits our reflections, wrapped together, and stuck.

“You want to see his eyes close forever. You want to see his heart stop beating. You want to hear the last breath from his lungs. You want to see him die, right?”

Right.


Tim Frank is a writer of original and experimental short fiction and film. He has written and produced a number of short films that have been shown at festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe film festival and the Falstaff International film festival. He also has a column for satire magazine Home Defence UK.