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Friday, May 17, 2013

Short story: "Suicide or Not?

       This short story earned me a fourth-place finish out of a couple hundred entries in a spring 2013
Delizon Annual Short Story Competition. They chose 10 finalists, and the top three got the "big money" (though I earned $60 on a $20 investment). More importantly, it was my first fiction piece of work ever published outside of a newspaper. Hope you like it.

         The worst possible weather had descended on Iowa, a mix of sleet and rain that left a sheet of ice on the dormant fields and quiet back roads, but more importantly on the city streets and sidewalks. Ben wasn’t going anywhere on this bleak Friday night in Dubuque. Not that the 26-year-old with the gimpy left leg and nose that announced his presence from fifty feet away had much of a social life. His only two acquaintances were Gus the bartender at the Corner Tap and Sheila, a lesbian co-worker at Wal-Mart. He still hadn’t found a “real” job, Mom had died years ago, and his closest relative, Grandpa Joe, had passed two weeks earlier. No wonder he was contemplating suicide – again.
            “C’mon, Angry Cat, I’ll get you some food and me some liquid,” Ben said to his Siamese, who he had named after his favorite Smart Phone game. “We’ll make the best of tonight.”
            After giving her a scoop of Meow Mix, he popped open an Old Milwaukee and Tweeted “Angry Cat devouring sup, I’m stuck with Old Swill - at least somebody in this God-forsaken house happy. #depressed person.”
Ben owned all of the modern technological toys of his era, despite his employment status. He passed the time on Twitter, Facebook and the Internet. Not many people followed his Tweets,
but he had several dozen “Friends” on Facebook and he occasionally played virtual reality games on the ‘net against anonymous opponents from places such as Ocala, Florida, Curitiba, Brazil, and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Tweets of all types and topics rattled through cyberspace that night, but none longer than 140 characters and none acknowledging Ben’s post. It didn’t surprise him. He was pretty much resigned to his fate as he wandered out of the kitchen.
After Angry Cat finished his meal, he tracked down Ben sitting on the couch in the living room and rubbed up against his leg. “Hi there kitty. You’re such a good kitty, aren’t you, you little cutie?” Ben purred. It was a rare moment of warmth on that cold, cold night. He tried getting some laughs by watching an episode of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on his laptop. It’s where he got his news, the little he cared about. He refused to watch the talking heads on cable TV. He seldom listened to Public Radio. And he never considered getting a newspaper subscription, even though his father worked at a distant paper and Grandpa Joe had spent his life in the composition room a long time ago.
“Stewart’s boring tonight,” Ben said to Angry Cat. “Time for some Facebook.” He spent the next several minutes scrolling down the endless comments, photos and videos posted by his “Friends.” He clicked “Like” on several before finally answering the question at the top of the page, “How are you feeling, Ben?”
            “Don’t mean to bring anybody else down, but life really sucks sometimes, doesn’t it? Can’t go out tonight, and even if I could, it’d be the same old, same old. No good job prospects in my future. No relationships. I think I’m catching a cold and I miss my grandfather. Any advice out there?”
Before long two people had inexplicably clicked “Like” on his depressing post. “Unbelievable,” he murmured. Sheila posted, “Hey Benjy, hang in there. Life has its ups and downs. It will get better. If you need to talk, call me. Otherwise, see you Sunday at WM!”
Ben shrugged. Sheila was always upbeat, always an optimist. Even though he liked her, he also realized now that he wasn’t in the mood for a pep talk. After a couple of more “Likes” appeared on his plea for help, he regretted ever posting it. Yet, he shouldn’t have been shocked. Ben was known for seeking attention through desperate pleas online, even publicly hinting at suicide. His few acquaintances had helped talk him out of it, but the routine was starting to get old. That night’s post wasn’t taken too seriously.
Ben shut down the social media, grabbed another can of beer and headed to the upstairs bathroom. He filled the tub with warm water. The ever-present razor blade was on the floor, well within reach. Twice in recent months he had brought it close to his wrist, only to change his mind. He wondered if he was just a chicken-shit or if a guardian angel watched over him. He used to have a strong faith. He used to believe in God. Now, his only prayer was to put an end to his agony. Nobody would really miss him. Gus had plenty of customers. Sheila had a girlfriend and so did his father. Even Angry Cat would be adopted by someone.
Ben put on his blue swimsuit and got into the tub. He didn’t want people finding him the next day naked in his pool of blood. He slouched down so that the water was up to his chin, his knees sticking up like a couple of crooked tombstones. Slowly he psyched up to end his wretched life. He remembered the previous attempts and once again had second thoughts.
“What the hell is wrong with me?” he thought. “If anyone has reason to kill himself …”
Ben reached for the blade and held it to his wrist. It glistened next to his bulging blue veins. He thought about the burn it would cause and the bloody mess. But he also thought about the relief of death. He moved the razor back and forth, as close to his wrist as he could without touching it. His breathing became heavier. Sweat beaded on his brow. Back and forth, back and forth. A tiny line of blood began to appear. Suddenly, he jolted his hand back, letting the razor blade fly across the room.
“Damn it!” he cried. “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”
Tears welled in his eyes as he again slouched into the tub. The mark on his wrist was no worse than some of the scratches he had gotten from Angry Cat. He realized then that another power must be keeping him from suicide. But it wasn’t a heavenly power. It came from hell. He was completely helpless. He cleaned up, went downstairs and cuddled up with his cat and the rest of the six-pack.
                                                            * **
Ben was awakened by a hideous howl. At first, still a little drunk, he thought Angry Cat was in trouble. But then he noticed his cat sitting on the window sill, staring intently out the second-floor window. He glanced at the clock: 5:38.
“Murrrrowwwww,” the sound came again.
Ben stumbled out of bed and looked out the window. Through the frosted glass, he could make out the figure of a black cat, huddled under a bush, halfway up the flight of stairs to the front of his house.
“Oh, man. That little guy’s probably freezing,” he muttered.
Ben was not thinking clearly. Along with the alcohol, he was emotionally drained. He stumbled downstairs, twice bumping into the wall. Though he had almost killed himself earlier that night, he was going to save that poor cat.
“Here kitty, kitty,” he said as he opened the front door and stepped onto the covered but open porch.
“Damn it’s cold out here.”
The cat looked up at him warily from its perch several feet away. The porch had three steps, which led to a five-foot concrete landing, which in turn tilted slightly downward toward the main set of thirteen steps. All of it was covered in a thin sheet of ice.
Ben put his foot on the uncovered top step off the porch and almost slid off.
“Whoa. It’s kinda slippery,” he laughed as he grabbed the railing.
The cat waited intently, which encouraged Ben. Using the railing, he managed to get to the landing. But that’s where the railing ended.
Ben’s next step was his last. As his wobbly legs went out from under him straight up into the air, he was in no condition to break his fall. After his butt hit hard, his head flung back and hit even harder. That first impact did not knock him out cold. But the next eight bangs on the steps insured he wouldn’t wake up for a long time, and he finally came to crumpled rest. The cat, meanwhile, had recoiled in its relatively safe spot under the bush. Eventually, it would creep over and snuggle up to Ben’s beat up body.
It was now 5:45 a.m. and the wind-chill was below zero. Less than an hour later, a bundled-up and determined paper boy would be out slipping and sliding around the neighborhood. He might have come upon Ben, slowly freezing to death on the steps. He could have called 911 on his cellphone. An ambulance, loaded with all of its modern medical marvels, may have even arrived in time to save Ben’s life.
But Ben didn’t have a newspaper subscription.