Frankie is his least favorite nursing aide. She wears cheap perfume that smells like cherries and he hates cherries, the knotted pits inside them, the red juice that blooms across fingers and teeth, the bittersweet taste spread across the tongue. His mother loved cherries, left bowls of them half eaten sitting on dressers and counters and even stacked on the floor, the pits stinking and rotting with bits of the fleshy fruit still attached. The stain on her fingertips resembling the lipstick smeared around her mouth.
Frankie is rough and loud and she talks the trailer trash way. Is that still the term for them these days? Back in his day they wore their bangs starched an inch off their foreheads and snapped Bubbalicious, drinking Mickey’s from 40 ounce bottles, loitering on porches and in parking lots, sucking on cigarettes so the tips glowed cherry red, back to cherries again, sometimes his slipping mind seems like it wanders in one continuous loop and comes back to the same goddamn thing over and over again. And then Frankie comes along with her cheap cherry stink talking about how slow he is, hurry the hell up or he’ll miss breakfast, is that a gallon of piss tugging his brief down? Just rat tat tat chattering on until his hands long to wrap around her neck and squeeze so hard that her flesh would spill between his fingers and her breath would strangle in her throat so delicate and then she would die, die, die, die. Because the only good girl is a dead girl.
Come on, Frankie barks at him, slipping the belt around his waist to lift him up. He bats at her hands, her chipped nails, painted the same maroon as the scarves he used to strangle girls with. Not girls like her—Frankie is in her twenties, too old, too mean, too loud. They get like that, girls like these do, they grow up and their souls are worn like cheap leather, cracked and peeling. He’s always preferred them standing on the ledge of growing up, teeter tottering between the belief their whole life stretches ahead of them, that they can go anywhere and do anything; and the truth of the matter—that this is their future, nursing aide jobs peeling wet diapers from saggy flesh and going home to change more soggy diapers while their man sits on a battered couch drinking cheap beer. If he stuck around at all.
He always got them before they tipped over and began crashing down the real world slope.
Frankie, like Claire, that nosy little bitch, did not deserve the scarf. He would leave her in a ditch, he would pull her legs and arms off the way he used to pull the wings off flies, and watch her die, the light fading from her eyes until they were nothing more than glass marbles, spun dry in her head, he will give her ample time to be sorry, sorry, sorry—
The belt pinches and pulls at the loose flesh around his midsection. Frankie heaves him up and he howls, his right hand grabbing at the back of her shirt. His nails a brittle yellow still hard enough to sink into her side. He wants to squeeze so hard she screams, maybe even see a few spots of blood leak through her scrub top. That would be—
Well, not heaven, but the closest thing to it since his legs failed him.
But Frankie’s pivoting him, using her hip to push his body around, bending his knee so it sends a sharp needle of pain all the way up to his hip, spearing through the side of his buttock. His hand goes slack, the skin through the thin fabric slipping away, the way the girls have slipped from his memory.
There were others, but the Sixteen are the only ones that really count. The ones done right, the ones chosen, the ones PROCURED. The cream of the crop. His girls.
He was supposed to go home to them. A simple knee replacement. A few days in the hospital, physical therapy and a week at a rehab facility, then home to his castle, home with them. The king and his ladies in waiting. Maybe he’s not using that phrase right. Were ladies in waiting for the queen only?
His mind is getting away from him again. Skipping like an old record.
He wants to see just one of the sixteen. Eyes closed, the red scarf around a swan neck, splashed across the skin with the contrast so bright, he can almost get his fingers around the photograph of it, pluck it free from the confines of his memories to gaze upon, but instead the image of Claire, left just a torso and head tossed in the ditch, spreads across his mind, blotting out the sun and making everything dark and his fury deeper. He can’t even remember the best times of his life.
Frankie’s hoisting his feet up on the wheelchair pedals. Muttering under her breath. He can’t even make that out and he wants to kick her, right in that smart mouth of hers, spread her teeth across the floor.
But his feet are cement blocks at the ends of his legs. The knee replacement, then the infection, then the stroke. A clot jamming up the flow of blood to his brain, and the resulting weakness, and then the home. All that goddamn therapy, the walker graduated to the quad cane, and then hope blooming like a rose in his blackened heart. Hoping until the cane caught the edge of a table and he went tumbling down, hearing the sharp crack of his hipbone shattering, and then, only then, the pain. The pain, washing over him, until all he saw was red, a silk curtain falling over everything in his mind, and behind that red curtain, there was a girl.
He doesn’t know which one of them, but they wore a scarf. It was one of the sixteen.
Frankie pushing him down the hallway, past an open door where the smell of shit rolls out, past an old woman sitting on the edge of her bed, her clasped hands looking like so many knots tangled together, her gaze on the floor.
His mother never came to a place like this. She died first, the pit of a cherry caught in her throat, her face blood red and strangled purple. A bowl tipped over beside her. An empty bottle of vodka on the floor. Her negligee baring one shoulder and the smell of urine sharp through the room.
Eat your breakfast, Frankie tells him, making sure to set the brakes on the chair. He couldn’t go anywhere even if he tried. The smell of powdered eggs and limp bacon, overlaid with burnt coffee nauseate him. He looks at the men and women around him—they are so very old. Their faces sagging off their bones and spidery blue veins showing through frail, paper thin skin, and is he like them? Is he old? Did one solitary, single, knee replacement change him to a crippled has been, torn him from being the ruler of a kingdom filled with his very own dead girls?
He is not scared of hell, because he is already here.
He is scared of forgetting. Of forgetting them, of them forgetting him, of all his secrets in those walls being forgotten, erased away as if they never mattered, when they were all that mattered. All those moments he stole where the world went away and he did not see his dead mother’s face, but their faces. He put his face into their soft smooth hair and they were so still, soft statues under his touch, and he could breathe free.
The silverware clinks and at the end of the room the aides feed the ones who cannot lift their own spoons and forks and there are many vacant faces and their minds must be just as vacant and his own brain is turning into swiss cheese, new holes appearing every day.
He will die here.
Every single night he thinks about them, closing his eyes and trying so hard to pluck the memory of them and their soft, silent bodies bent to his will back from the dark recesses and caverns they hide themselves away in. He gets so close to their ghosts, close enough to believe he can reach out and touch them, live again if just for a moment, and then everything goes red, maroon, a deep dark violent stain obliterating everything he can see and cannot. Then he must lie perfectly still, breathing the smallest, quietest breaths, because they are there, with him, but he is no longer in control. Their hatred is thick and viscous, a lake of clotted blood, metallic copper scent blanketing the room. And he knows—they are still tethered to him.
What has become of his kingdom, twenty years lost?
Are they still HIS girls?
Frankie retrieves him, his plate untouched, scolding him for his lack of appetite.
Bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch.
The day room. Chairs parked in rows. First Frankie thrusts her hand against his pants, to check for dampness, but his brief remains dry as the air passing through his nostrils.
There is a twinge, at the back of his right eye. He blinks, and a black spot floats in his field of vision. He tries to follow it, but it disappears. Blinks again, it’s back. Every time his eyes shutters shut, it grows in size, drifting down from the top of his eyelid, spilling out from the corner of his eye.
On his inner forearm, a perfect circle of teeth. Red dimples in pale flesh. The liver spots on the rest of his body flee from this area, as if it is sacred.
Or as if they too are scared.
There it is! His kingdom, on the television!
A new coat of paint, a bright red front door, not maroon or cherry but the color of an apple hung ripe on a tree. His porch! Exactly the same, the posts, the curved railings. The mailbox, still bearing the address in the same black raised numbers.
Yellow tape, strung all the way around. Figures and bodies, moving this way and that. Police cars.
His girls, hidden so carefully in the walls.
The black spot still grows. It blooms like a cherry stain, spreading ink across his right eye.
He grips the tops of the wheels. He pushes, now nearly half blind, still blinking away, edging closer to the screen. Towards the only world he cares about.
Inch by inch, he scoots. The anchorwoman, much too old, a blue scarf knotted around her neck, talking away, but he cannot hear her! He cannot hear anything, except the faintest sound of screaming.
“Mine,” he mumbles. Or thinks he mumbles. Even his lips feel loose, drooping down towards his neck.
His right eye sees nothing. It has gone full dark, as his mother would say when night settled over their bleak little home.
The pupil of his right eye is moon big, the iris nearly eclipsed, surrounded by a sea of blood.
Above that right eye, a small moon shaped scar, gifted to him by one of the sixteen, courtesy of a high heeled shoe. By his appendix, a puckered twist of flesh, a different girl, the small pocket knife in her clenched fist. The bottom of his left earlobe, also missing.
They left their mark, before he left his scarves.
An ache at the base of his skull, spreading up and out. Another black spot, in his left eye. Blood spilling into that eye, now.
The girls are shadows in the corners of his mind, mocking him, dancing with their scarves, hiding their faces.
Breaking news. Breaking news. Breaking news.
Men in bright plastic suits.
Are they skeletons now, wearing only scarves?
A small vessel, strained by years of high blood pressure, bulging at the base of his brain.
Adrenaline, flooding his body, cranking up the pressure even more.
The brain, it misses the blood leaking from the swollen vessel, demands more perfusion from the body. The body raises the blood pressure again. And now, the split, starting at the base of an artery, threading upwards and bifurcating into two, travelling up and out until it fractures in so many places. Blood pouring out, no longer caged and restrained.
The red curtain, falling over him.
Everything red and heavy and the scent of cherries, everywhere, rotting and cloying and he cannot breathe for the scent of the fucking cherries!
Fingers pressing against the side of his neck. His head rolling, the muscles slack. Everything red, red, red, red, red.
The dying king, his final breath, rattling his chest, as they come flocking towards him, shadows from behind the curtain. Their fingers like ice, wrapping around the essence of him. Lifting. His sight narrowing, narrowing, narrowing, until there is nothing to see. Sightless, he is carried away.
He cannot hear himself screaming, either.
But he can feel everything there behind the curtain, dark red as a spoiled cherry.
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