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Coming of Age Fiction Horror

Don Benway and his father were regulars at the hospital’s oncology department and on familiar terms with Gerry, the head porter. 

‘Morning, handsome,’ Gerry would say as he approached. ‘How are we today?’

‘A darn sight better than you,’ Walter would say, muttering behind his bandages.

Walter had undergone regular surgery for over three years and during that time they’d snipped, sliced and cut away so many facial lesions he was almost unrecognisable.

‘Your usual seat, sir?’ Gerry would ask, smiling as he pushed Walter’s wheelchair.

‘Do I have a choice in the matter?’ 

The plastic surgeons couldn’t keep pace with Walter’s disfigurement and, as a result, he’d retreated from life and deteriorated both physically or mentally. 

#

Don was nine years old, back in 1977, when his family moved to the house that became their long-term family home. The Benway family attended a viewing the week before they moved in. It was the first time Don had visited the house and met Mr and Mrs Jollie. The couple had lived there most of their adult lives and cherished their old place. Despite their advanced years, they’d maintained the garden, and the Benway family would inherit an impressive collection of mature trees, shrubs, and plants, not to mention a curious menagerie of assorted wildlife.

While Mr Jollie escorted Don’s parents around the interior, Mrs Jollie showed the lad all the secret nooks and crannies in the garden, concluding her tour with an introduction to her tortoises, Thomas and Tabatha. Don’s face beamed like an early morning sunrise when he met the wrinkly old reptiles. Their cold scaly flesh and severe faces were both characterful and hideous at the same time. The old lady encouraged Don to offer them lettuce. His hand trembled as he offered the crisp leaves, and he laughed out loud when they recoiled into their gnarled shells. 

‘Oh, no! What did I do?’

‘Don’t worry, they’ll get used to you.’

‘Are you leaving them here?’

‘It’s their home,’ she said. ‘And they’ll bring good luck.’

She held Don’s hand and, holding his gaze, made him promise to look after them.

‘I’ll do my best,’ he said.

‘Let’s meet the other creatures.’

‘Yes, please,’ he said with twinkling eyes.

Mrs Jollie introduced Don to the other inhabitants of her garden, explaining how to care for the small aviary of chirruping canaries and the modest, ornamental pond containing a dozen lethargic goldfish. 

#

At the exchange of contracts, the conveyancing solicitor notified Don’s parents about the deal breaker. ‘It’s “yes” to the menagerie or no sale.’

Don’s father’s jaw sagged in disbelief and he voiced his objections, saying how much he couldn’t abide pets. The lawyer shrugged and made it clear he got paid either way. 

However, Don’s mother, Anita, had fallen in love with the house and fought her corner. Mr Benway backed down for once and agreed to sign, providing he had no responsibility for “the damn beasts.” 

So said, so done.

#

The completion date went ahead as planned, despite Walter’s issue with the caveat, and he refused to acknowledge the animals.

‘I can’t see the point of those ugly old creatures,’ he said, shaking his head. 

‘They’re supposed to bring good luck,’ Don said. ‘If we look after them.’

‘But they look half dead to me,’ said Walter. ‘And they’re so slow.’

‘You’ll be old and creaking one day,’ said his wife.

‘Nobody would miss them if they were dumped in a hole and covered in soil.’

Don’s mother rolled her eyeballs and sighed. She knew how to pick her battles and when to walk away from a pointless conversation. The solicitor completed the legal arrangements and Don assumed charge of his new animal companions.

#

Prior to marriage, Anita Benway had enjoyed the company of an excitable terrier called Dougal, who now lived with Don’s maternal grandmother. 

‘Don’t you miss Dougal?’ Don asked his mother one day. 

‘Why, yes,’ she’d said. ‘But I can’t look after him here, dear.’

‘Why not?’ 

‘Your father’s not keen,’ she’d said, sighing. ‘Besides, Dougal’s splendid company for Granny.’

Under the circumstances, Don was fortunate his father granted him any time to care for the motley collection in their new garden. The new found responsibility was a life-enhancing experience Don would remember forever, however short-lived.

#

It was the goldfish that vanished first. Mr Benway blamed the local heron for their disappearance. Don accepted his father’s explanation without question and it wasn’t until years later that he queried events. It was possible the beady-eyed predator had spotted the listless fish basking in the warm summer water. But had it swooped down and skewered them? It was doubtful because they’d covered the water with a strawberry net, designed to prevent such an occurrence. There was little chance of the bird reaching beneath the mesh, unless somebody had removed it.

#

Walter’s skin complaint started with one or two minor blemishes he couldn’t stop scratching. He had dry patches on his cheek bones, forehead and temples that irritated him; the long-term result of a casual indifference to the perils of sunburn and skin protection. Don noticed him digging at them with his finger nails while he read his newspaper, watched TV and during mealtimes at the dining table. Walter’s urge to scratch was an instinctive and almost unconscious reaction. His tiny weeping sores would bleed, scab over, dry out, and itch like mad again. 

#

The aviary remained intact for about a year until the last of the canaries vanished. It never occurred to Don that their dwindling numbers might be associated with his father’s activities in the garden. Don was diligent about shutting the wire mesh door after feeding times and couldn’t work out how it was often ajar or why Mephistopheles, the neighbour’s tabby, looked so pleased with himself; licking his moist claws as if he’d enjoyed a three-course meal.

Walter dismantled the rickety wooden structure after the last resident disappeared and burned the remains at Hallowe’en. Don asked for a replacement. It wasn’t an option. 

‘You’ll just have to be happy with the tortoises, son,’ said his father, smirking. ‘And make the most of them while they’re alive and kicking.’

It was after Hallowe’en when Don first noticed the tortoises had vanished. There was no obvious explanation for their disappearance. He didn’t suspect the heron, and Mephistopheles was nowhere to be found.

‘No point in worrying,’ said Mr Benway. ‘I’m sure they’ll return to trouble us again.’

#

Don’s mother was a brave soul, bless her, and always gave sound advice based on common sense and astute observation. Anita had warned Walter about the dangers of scratching himself years before she passed away. She told her husband he was making his complaint worse and threatened to either clip his finger nails or knit him woollen mittens to prevent irritation and subsequent infection. Walter tutted with exasperation at her remarks despite acknowledging she was correct. 

But would he stop? 

No way. 

In Anita’s absence, Walter persisted against her advice and his condition deteriorated.

#

After fifteen years of itching and scratching, the affected areas of skin expanded beyond all expectation, screaming out loud for medical intervention. 

‘It’s standard practice to have sun-damaged skin removed,’ Walter’s consultant said, recommending an initial series of minor operations to remove the first malignant lumps. The surgeons described the offending growths as blossoms as if they were intriguing botanical discoveries to be dissected, examined and archived for future generations of horticulturists to study and discuss in their PHD essays.

#

Three years ago, Walter’s consultant found a lump on his neck that looked like cancer. He took a sample and the lab results were indisputable. It was serious. They had to take positive action. The hospital rushed Don’s father to the front of the queue. Within two weeks, they admitted him to hospital and started a month-long course of radiotherapy, resulting in emergency surgery. They removed a golf ball sized tumour growing on his neck between his clavicle and jaw bone. Walter’s condition had started as sun damage and developed into galloping melanomas. 

It was the turning point for Walter. The oncologist gave him a low percentage chance of surviving another year. Contrary to his prediction, however, they prolonged Walter’s life a further three years, but at a cost.

Don’s father took on an uncanny appearance. His once inquisitive and bright features disappeared after countless amounts of invasive surgery. The tip of his left ear was the first item to be snipped off. His attitude was stoic at that point. 

‘It’s you lot that have the problem,’ he’d said, brushing aside the issue. ‘I don’t have to look at it and I’m not worried about losing it.’

Very brave, Don thought, until the other ear faced the same treatment. 

Walter was much less philosophical at that point. He often pondered on cause and effect and cursed his years of pottering about in the sun and dodging his wife’s factor twenty. 

#

Two years later and he had both ears removed and eighty per cent of his nose; both nostrils were bloody gashes above stretched and scabbed beak like lips. Both eyes stared, unblinking, out of lidless sockets, and they’d reconstructed his forehead and eyebrows with pale and ill-matching flesh grafts. In places, the new skin flapped like an unfurled sail in the doldrums and in other locations it was tight like a snare drum at a state funeral. His entire head had become a work in progress, because the surgeons had struggled to keep pace with malignant outcrops. They passed him around the department for every aspiring surgeon to add to the disfigured conglomeration; rebuilding his features as if he were an ancient building in need of a face-lift; bashed back into shape and finished with a few quick licks of skin-toned emulsion. 

#

It’s easy to underestimate the psychological damage inflicted. Walter’s habits changed to accommodate the process of assessment, consultation, and surgical procedure. He seldom ventured out during daylight and then, with a great coat and a raised collar; his own shell-like protection, like a reptilian secret agent, disguising himself and hiding from the world lest he draw aghast reactions or pitiful tight-lipped expressions of sympathy. It was painful to watch the slow transformation unfold and heart-breaking to witness him become a wretched creature hobbling about like the monstrous denizen of Geneva that Mary Shelley transformed into a famous fictional creation; stitched together from ill-matched body parts and second-hand components, and destined to a lonely existence or hounded by ignorant townsfolk baying for blood.

#

For the last year, every part of Walter’s life revolved around the work required to fix him up and restore some degree of his former dignity. Given the state of his face since they started tweaking and tinkering with his facial lesions, he would have been better off employing Cecilia Giménez to restore his looks. At least her work was consistent, as poor as it may be. In Walter’s case, it looked as if they’d invited a dozen Cecilias to have a go. 

Don couldn’t help looking at his father and thinking about the absent tortoises; their unblinking eyes, angular beaks and scaly reptilian skin. He didn’t believe in reincarnation, but Don couldn’t help wondering if the missing amphibians had made their presence felt in some awful and grisly fashion; creatures embroiled in karma’s stealthy activities; visiting the family, perhaps in some other guise to remind everyone that life in all its forms matters.

#

It was after Mr Benway’s recent funeral that Don discovered the remains of Thomas and Tabatha. He was turning over the soil to the rear of the old family home when his spade hit something hard. After further investigation in the immediate area, Don unearthed not one but two hollowed out tortoise shells; their former inhabitants long reclaimed back to the earth. With the grim remains at his feet and the childhood memories of the menagerie’s quiet demise, Don clenched his jaw and drew a long breath. What would drive any creature to burrow into the ground to die?

A question he had long abandoned returned to haunt him. 

Surely it wasn’t deliberate?

 

THE END 




September 22, 2023 21:14

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42 comments

Martin Ross
12:00 Oct 05, 2023

That is a beautiful piece of LITERATURE and absorbing and quietly chilling entertainment as well. The human mind and our response to pain, abuse, or resentment and the karmic cycle that so often accompanies it fascinate me, and you truly explored some dark ground in an elegantly chilling manner. Excellent!

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Howard Halsall
22:49 Oct 05, 2023

Hey Martin, Thank you for your thoughtful response and positive feedback. I agree with your analysis and share your interest the human mind and the karmic cycle. For me, what makes it even more compelling is when family and inter-generational loyalties are brought into the mix and the power of denial comes into play. HH

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Danie Holland
12:13 Sep 29, 2023

What a chilly tale of what goes around comes around. A reminder all of our actions come back to haunt us or help us. This story leaves a bitter after taste, but alas. Life does, at times, as well. Very well written.

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Howard Halsall
14:53 Sep 29, 2023

Hey Danie, Thank you for taking the time to read my story and share your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. Take care HH

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Helen A Smith
07:23 Sep 29, 2023

I loved this story Howard. There was so much to it and a great backstory. The idea that all life matters and that there’s consequences to actions seemed a key theme here. I guess the tortoises had been buried by the father, hopefully not while they were still alive. I actually had a tortoise and large terrapins as a child and they disappeared (if memory serves me right). I know they like to hibernate and can easily go missing. I loved them, particularly the tortoise. There’s something creepy here like the father’s actions have come back to...

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Howard Halsall
09:08 Sep 29, 2023

Well said Helen, You’re so right, we can learn so much from animals and especially their behaviour and habits. Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts, and enjoy a peaceful weekend. Take care HH

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Rose Lind
22:26 Sep 28, 2023

Hh. I thought a little about our discourse. I realised I will always bring something of my own current events into the story to connect. Eg. I'm giving up smoking, using patches that will be in my next story. I've lived long enough to accumulate a data bank of truth is stranger than fiction category. I might only use a snippet or generalisation of many stories never making them too personal to one storyteller.

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Howard Halsall
23:09 Sep 28, 2023

Hey Rose, I think we all draw from our experiences to a greater or lesser degree and then expand from that point; possibly asking the question, “what if?” That’s when the writing starts, in my opinion and answering that question is the point of departure. It’s the ticket to an unknown destination and a bit like riding on a train not knowing how fast it’s travelling or where it’s heading. So the work might have started as a memory or personal recollection based on a specific idea, theme or moment, however my ambition is to make it resonate an...

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Rose Lind
02:46 Sep 29, 2023

😊 ty I did this spiritual writing course a long time ago, can't remember the teachers name. Not to use her language, it's about incubating, writing or lose it? I guess ur ready for the next prompt. I will see if it resonates and hopefully write. I don't like argumentative prompts as that is stressful. Also I'm in downtime from work, so I can ponder and weave my story. Good luck in the next prompt, I knew you would reply sometimes it's like being in outer space calling is there anyone out there? It's comforting when you have comrades for the ...

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Howard Halsall
05:44 Sep 29, 2023

TBH - I’m struggling with the latest prompt; it happens sometimes…. Anyway, don’t worry; “intense” is fine. It shows you care :)

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Rose Lind
03:34 Sep 29, 2023

I'm comfortably numb friend.

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Rose Lind
06:09 Sep 29, 2023

I get the prompt Saturday here. I'm zenning at moment. Have a rest, write when ur inspired or passion filled

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Adrienne Ellis
17:40 Sep 28, 2023

Aw Walter. Now you know how it feels to need someone to take care of you. To be vulnerable just like the tortoises.

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Howard Halsall
18:01 Sep 28, 2023

Hey Adrienne, Thank you for taking the time to read my story and share your thoughts. Karma in action…. Take care HH HH

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Adrienne Ellis
18:48 Sep 28, 2023

I really love the way you develop a father and son relationship. It's clear that Don looked up to Walter, but they really didn't know how to relate to each other. In spite of also loving each other. I really enjoyed the way you showed their relationship. Someone once told me that to understand jazz, you have to listen for what happens in between the notes. And you have done a really nice job of that. What is in between the notes here us a father and son trying to love each other, though there are profound flaws.

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Howard Halsall
21:05 Sep 28, 2023

Hey Adrienne, You got the whole picture and the jazz reference was perfect. Yes, there is a strong bond between Don and Walter; they’re together after Don’s mother passed away and Walter would be lost without his son. Their family ties are solid despite the glaring lies and appalling behaviour. I can’t imagine how Walter was brought up and the events that formed his personality. Even with the evidence at Don’s feet, he’s still in denial…. HH

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Karen Corr
15:45 Sep 26, 2023

"What goes around...." Poor Walter!

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Howard Halsall
18:16 Sep 26, 2023

Hi Karen, Thank for reading my latest tale and sharing your thoughts. There’s no doubt that Walter is a difficult character, however nobody would wish that fate upon him. Take care HH

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Mary Bendickson
04:47 Sep 26, 2023

Right back at you,Walter. What was so annoying about the animals his son loved?🐢 Thanks for liking my Walking to California. And mys 'When Falls the Night'. Way behind on my reading.

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Howard Halsall
04:53 Sep 26, 2023

Hey Mary, I reckon Walter disliked life in all its forms; the product of an unhappy and/or traumatic childhood. He carried his misery with him like a dark cloud, hovering in the immediate vicinity and casting its shadow on all who came near….

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Rose Lind
01:07 Sep 26, 2023

I liked how you mentiined Dons physical appearace and his self esteem. I grew up with a late someone who survived a fatal, fiery car crash. His appearance back in those days, begged an explanation! That were those days, people were not educated about opening up severe trauma wounds. They would stare, ask out of curiosity, or impose. Obviously, someone who looked different, ugly, might be a shaddy character. I also like how you inferred latent genes igniting due to his capacity to survive.

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Howard Halsall
01:33 Sep 26, 2023

Hey Rose, Thank you for taking the time to read my story and share your experiences. I’m pleased you liked the tale and glad that it rang true. You’re so right when you mentioned appearances and how judgemental people can be in their responses to severe scarring, as if the victims’ lives and personal situations weren’t bad enough. Thank goodness there’s more awareness and education nowadays and hopefully more understanding. A little empathy goes a long way; kindness needn’t cost the Earth. Take care HH

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Rose Lind
03:02 Sep 26, 2023

I agree. Ppl in the past did not have the resources or understanding granted to anyone who cares today. Plus most ppl are informed now about the potential pain it causes to open up scars. I noticed with the person I forementioned, how that intrusion became his identity. The human mind triggered on innumerable times develops was like another personality where the mind egressed in low self esteem or dissociated to have like what I saw was a stardom based on tragic events. Im telling you this because it some sort of ending to his story. That pe...

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Howard Halsall
03:21 Sep 26, 2023

Yes, too late alas….

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Rose Lind
03:40 Sep 26, 2023

Yer.

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Howard Halsall
04:11 Sep 26, 2023

As someone said, “A tragedy can become a horror if you’re not allowed to deal with it as a tragedy.” Just a thought but in some way it highlights the need for grief, or at least the grieving process and closure…

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12:58 Sep 25, 2023

Yes yes this is like a Roald Dahl cautionary tale but more unsettling. really enjoyed.

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Howard Halsall
21:04 Sep 25, 2023

Hey Derrick, Thank you for reading my latest tale and sharing your thoughts. I’m pleased you enjoyed it despite its disturbing nature and gruesome details. Take care HH

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Michelle Oliver
11:44 Sep 25, 2023

What a father. A product of his own bitterness. Karma got him in the end. Love the foreshadowing: ‘You’ll be old and creaking one day,’ said his wife. ‘Nobody would miss them if they were dumped in a hole and covered in soil.’ Great story thanks for sharing

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Howard Halsall
21:11 Sep 25, 2023

Hey Michelle, Thank you for taking the time to read my story and leave your feedback. It was a tricky one to write because I wanted to reveal more of the father’s character and background but ho hum, perhaps another time or in another format I’ll get a chance. Take care HH

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Nina H
19:46 Sep 24, 2023

“creatures embroiled in karma’s stealthy activities” - this says it all! Troubling tale, and the ending works so well.

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Howard Halsall
20:23 Sep 24, 2023

Hey Nina, Thank you for taking the time to read my story and share your thoughts. Your positive feedback is much appreciated. Take care HH

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Judith Jerdé
21:36 Sep 23, 2023

Howard, what a great story, but I need more! What is going on? My mind will be trying to work it out for the rest of the night. Best of luck and thank you for liking my story that means a lot to me.

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Howard Halsall
01:29 Sep 24, 2023

Hi Judith, Thank you for reading my latest story and sharing your thoughts. I’m glad you enjoyed it and pleased it provided some intriguing food for thought; that’s more than I could have asked for in response. Take care HH

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Stevie Burges
08:02 Sep 23, 2023

What a well-written and quite honestly, horrible story. I failed to summon any sympathy for Walter despite trying. But Thomas and Tabitha plus the rest of the managerie had my good thoughts in bucket loads. My only question was: Why did Mrs Benway marry the old misery and, worse, stay with him?

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Howard Halsall
01:23 Sep 24, 2023

Hi Stevie, Thank you for reading my latest offering and sharing your thoughts. It’s a bit of a tough read in many respects and what an interesting question regarding Walter’s wife. I imagined she was loyal and committed to their marriage through a misplaced sense of duty and a product of a different era, perhaps? The question for me is, why was Walter so brutal and heartless? Maybe he’d had an awful childhood and his actions are an example of history repeating itself? I think the short story format restricts involved backstories and lengthy ...

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Stevie Burges
01:59 Sep 24, 2023

Sorry, I didn't mean to put you through the wringer explaining one of your MCs. I was only musing as a reader - but you replied to me as a writer! Apologies. As a reader I hated Walter.

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Howard Halsall
02:09 Sep 24, 2023

No need to apologise, Stevie. Your thoughts are valid and I made an opportunity to reread my story and consider it from another POV, which is always useful…. :)

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