Howard could have sworn that Heather said she would be home today.
He had walked here from the bus stop as fast as he could and he didn’t like being stuck outside of his friend’s house in one of the poorer and more crime-ridden neighborhoods. There were a couple of people in this neighborhood who had told him in no uncertain terms that they never wanted to see him hanging around here again.
He knocked on the door a second time, glancing at the doorbell that had not worked for years. Nothing but silence from inside.
Howard was slightly concerned that Brian might come to the door.
Brian was Heather’s cousin. He had been very sick with something or other for a while and was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago. Since Brian had no other relatives in town, he had been staying at Heather’s tiny house. They had set up a bed for him right in the dining room, as there was nowhere else to go with him. The last time Howard had stopped by the house Brian had looked like shit. Barely able to get up out of bed and not able to eat anything other than the blandest soup.
Howard didn’t want some zombie-looking dude opening the door.
Just as he was about to give up and walk over to another friend’s house, Howard’s phone rang.
It was Heather.
After a brief exchange, she pleaded with Howard to let himself in.
“I left the door unlocked because I knew you would be stopping by,” Heather said.
“You left the door unlocked in this neighborhood?” Howard asked in disbelief.
“Well,” Heather replied, her voice high-pitched and scratchy, as if she was on the verge of tears. “Everyone in the neighborhood knows that Brian is there. And it’s not like I have anything worth stealing.”
“So, you just want me to walk in on your cousin?”
“Well, I want you to check in on him.” Heather started crying at this point. “He’s just gotten real bad. I couldn’t stay there anymore. Every morning I expect to come out of my bedroom and find Brian lying there dead. I mean, every morning I have to face this,” she said between sobs. “I just couldn’t do it anymore. So, I came over to Mickey’s today.” Mickey was Heather’s boyfriend of several years. “I just want you to go in and see if… to make sure he’s okay.”
Yeah, you want me to see if he’s dead, Howard thought. He decided that he did not want to be the one to have to call the ambulance and wait for them to arrive. He would leave that for Heather. Brian was her cousin, after all.
Howard thought about just leaving.
However, he had the reputation of someone who’s seen some shit and done some time in jail, so he couldn’t exactly chicken out. Plus, there was always the chance that Heather had left a few beers or some marijuana laying around somewhere.
“Okay, I’ll check it out,” Howard said as he took hold of the front door handle.
“Thank you!” Heather exclaimed. “Just let me know.” Then she abruptly ended the call.
Howard felt the latch give as he turned the handle.
As usual, the little house was mostly shrouded in darkness. Between having their electricity turned off from time to time on account of overdue bills, and trying to keep the bill as low as possible, the house was always dark inside. There were some windows to let light in. Some in the living room, of course. Another window was in the dining room, under which Brian’s bed had been positioned. The dining room table had been pushed against the opposite wall and a bookshelf had been set up to give Brian some privacy from the living room.
Howard took some tentative steps into the living room, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. It didn’t take long to notice that Brian was not in his bed or in the living room. Just as Howard was about to call out, he heard the toilet flush in the bathroom just beyond the dining room.
A few moments passed before the door to the bathroom opened. When it did, Howard was shocked to see the figure before him.
Brian looked almost skeletal, his skin the color of ash. Howard was surprised to see the sick man up on his feet at all.
Brian glanced towards the door and saw Howard standing there. Whether it took him a moment to recognize his visitor, or if he was trying to figure out what Howard was doing there, Brian did not move for a moment. Then, without uttering a word, Brian gave a slight wave of his hand in recognition.
“Didn’t want to… leave a mess… in the bed,” Brian said softly.
He held on to his pajama bottoms with a single hand as he shuffled toward his bed. He had obviously lost weight, even since Howard had last seen him only a couple of weeks ago. Howard was prepared to smell something disgusting from the bathroom. He didn’t smell anything for a moment. Then Brian paused a few feet away from his bed. The sick man wavered a little bit, as if he was about to topple over.
Howard could imagine Brian falling down and hitting his head. Then everyone would suspect that Howard had attacked Brian, because everyone always thought the worst about Howard.
So the younger man quickly stepped over to Brian, putting an arm around the sick man and leading him back to his resting place under the open window.
That’s when Howard smelled it.
Not a bathroom smell.
The smell of cancer. The smell of decay. The smell of death.
“Thank you,” Brian said just above a whisper as he gingerly moved into a fetal position on his bed.
Howard helped pull the covers around him. For a moment, Howard hovered over the bed.
Looking down at Brian, Howard recalled the many instances over the previous couple of years when he would pop by. Usually he only came over to see who else was hanging out at Heather’s house and whether he could get any pot or alcohol or some money off of whoever was there. Due to his prior record and his quick temper, Howard had a hard time finding and keeping a decent job. But a man had to find a way to live, didn’t he?
Brian had usually been friendly to Howard, only chiding him about his behavior once in a while. Now Brian was curled up in his bed underneath the window like an invalid.
The thought crossed Howard’s mind that someone should just put the poor bastard out of his misery. Smother him with a pillow or something like that. This was no way to live.
Not knowing what else to do, Howard moved toward the front of the house and looked out through the screened door. Just regular neighborhood patterns. Children riding bikes. Cars rattling down the street. The same people hanging out on their porches down the street.
Howard toyed with the notion of leaving the dying man. After all, Heather and her boyfriend just left Brian here to die alone. Why was it Howard’s job to stand watch at someone’s deathbed? The only thing holding him back was the awkwardness of knowing that you were the last person to leave him alone. People would definitely chalk that up to Howard’s poor character. “Just like him,” they would say.
Howard was startled to hear Brian talk. It was a soft voice, barely audible from twenty feet away.
“Can you… do me a… a favor?”
It did not look like Brian had moved, but Howard distinctly heard Brian’s voice. So, Howard moved back into the dining room.
“What do you need, brother?” Howard asked. He felt like he should offer at least some word of endearment on this man’s last day.
Brian opened his mouth as if to speak, but then his face contorted into a painful gasp. Howard thought Brian might puke. Instead, the sick man only gasped a couple of times. Then he lay still with eyes squeezed shut.
Howard stood there, looking out the window that had been Brian’s view of the world for the past couple of years: a narrow strip of weeds, then a chain link fence. On the other side of that was the sidewalk that ran along the side of the house, which sat on the corner of an intersection. The neighbor across the street had taken care to grow a variety of flowering bushes on the side of her house. Splotches of color in a brick-and-asphalt world.
“Can you give something… to Heather?” Brian had to take a breath before he could finish a sentence.
“Sure, partner. What is it?”
Howard waited for Brian to say something. Instead, Brian reached a hand up over his head to begin fingering the books on the shelf over the head of his bed. Upon selecting one thick book in the middle of the others, Brian simply tapped on it. The younger man reached over Brian and pulled the item from the shelf.
Although it looked like a book with gold-colored filigree along its binding, golden lines of paint around the borders to imitate pages, and the title “Magical Journeys”, it was really a box of some sort.
When Howard flipped the lid, he discovered a single stuffed envelope inside.
“You want me to give her the whole book, or just the envelope?”
For several moments, there was no answer. Howard was about to ask again when the weak response was given.
Brian’s breathing was becoming ragged. Shallow.
Howard had never been around someone who died a natural death, like from cancer or some other disease. This was different than watching someone bleed out from a gunshot wound or a car accident. Things like that happened quickly and it was hard to grasp what exactly was going on before the person was dead.
This kind of dying was slower. Colder, somehow, because death was taking its sweet time.
Howard felt a little freaked out and moved away from Brian to give himself some space. He dropped the box on the little dining room table across the room and sat down. Howard took out a cigarette and started going through his phone. At one point, he got up, went to the kitchen, found one last beer in the fridge and took it. He paced around the house a little bit.
Then he thought he heard Brian speak. It might have been Howard’s imagination, but he was pretty sure that he heard something.
“Thank you,” is what he thought he heard.
Howard walked over to the bed and leaned over Brian.
Brian’s lips had become a lighter color. His face was almost completely drained. Howard checked for a pulse at Brian’s neck and thought he still felt a little flutter. Howard sat back down at the table again, drinking the beer and smoking another cigarette while going back to his phone.
Eventually, Howard opened the box again. He took care to remove the envelope as quietly as he could, using his skills to be sneaky which he had practiced since he was a small child.
Going through a dying man’s shit while he’s lying right there, Howard thought to himself. That’s a new low, brother.
The first thing he noticed inside the envelope was a wad of cash.
Although the bills were not in any particular order – twenties and fives and hundreds all intermingled with a bunch of ones – Howard counted it out to be about $630 dollars.
The next thing he saw in the envelope were a variety of gift cards. There were cards for the local department store, some restaurants, some on-line shops, and a few movie theater gift cards. Each card had a tiny post-it note with a name on it. Most of them were for Brian’s and Heather’s relatives. A few were for neighborhood kids. One was for the lady across the street with the plants.
Next, there was a folded-up letter. When Howard picked up the letter, he noticed a slip of paper at the bottom of the box. It had what appeared to be bank account information and some passwords for various websites. Howard put that back in the box. Then he examined the letter.
Four pages with Brian’s sickly, scribbly handwriting on both sides of each page. Dude made out his will, Howard thought. He put the letter back in the box and stared at the stack of money.
Howard got up, walked back to the front door, and tossed the remainder of his cigarette out on to the sidewalk.
Returning to the dining room table, he looked at the money again and then at Brian. The sick man had not stirred at all for some time.
Howard picked up the money, shifted the bills into descending order of value, and recounted them. $641, actually.
Howard put the money down and picked up the letter again. He read through it to see if there was any mention of the money or how to distribute it.
There was no mention of the money at all, but Howard did see that Brian had included mentions of several people in the letter, which was addressed specifically to Heather.
Howard was surprised to see his own name near the end of the letter.
‘And I want to say something about Howard. As I’ve said before, I still think that there is some good in him. You know how I like to believe that there is good in everyone – and I think this is just as true for Howard as for anyone. A lot of people have said some pretty bad things about him or accused him of stuff. Well, how would you feel if people said these things about you or me? We would be a hard-nosed dick, too! I think most of Howard’s attitude is just a defensive thing he built up, starting from when he lived in a home with two alcoholics. Yes, he’s done some bad stuff, and he admits to it. But I’ve seen him do nice things for people without taking credit for it or asking for a ‘thank you’. I hope people cut him some slack. He’s better than everyone thinks - or can be!’
Howard folded up the letter and replaced it in the envelope. Then he picked up the money, took a $100 bill, which he stuffed in his pocket, then replaced the rest in the envelope and laid it back inside the box.
Howard closed the box and tucked it under his arm. After a moment of consideration, he went into the kitchen and found an old plastic shopping bag that he could put the box in.
One last time he stepped quietly over to Brian’s bed in the dining room. The man had not moved or made a sound for almost half an hour by that time. Not knowing what else to say or do, Howard offered one final word.
“Rest in peace, brother. You’ve earned it.”
Howard then turned and left the house, locking the door behind himself. It was getting late in the afternoon and he wanted to get the box over to Heather’s boyfriend’s house before the sun went down. Without a car, it was going to take a while to get there.
Plenty of time to reflect on whether $100 was enough, or too much.
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Aww the story is so sad! So with my writing I write passive and edit active. My criticism would be to make the story more active. The phrase “Howard was slightly concerned that Brian might come to the door.” Could be “ Howard was worried Brian would answer the door.” I’m happy Howard didn’t decide to leave all the money! No one really changes their nature that quickly lol. Good ending!