From the author: John Minor suffered a brain injury that left him with physical disabilities and a really wicked scar. He didn't die, though, and now he sees the world uniquely. He can't function the way he did before the accident, but maybe he can still make a difference.
In the midst of life, we are in death.
The Book of Common Prayer
John Minor realized he saw and heard things other people did not six months after a one pound tin of Winchester's Best Black Powder blew up in his face, sending a ball peen hammer off his forehead and across the room. The accident left him with a small disability pension, a large insurance settlement, and a dark dent like a thumb print in bread dough one inch above his nose.
But he wasn't thinking about the accident as he shuffled up to the mailbox by the bus stop. Mostly he was concentrating on his balance, which he knew wasn't worth hell anymore. Yesterday he had fallen on the stoop at his apartment and since no one was around it had taken several ludicrous moments for him to coordinate his arms and legs and the cane into the right motions to stand up again. At the time it seemed vaguely ironic that a year ago he finished the Denver Marathon in two hours and fifty-four minutes, good enough for twelfth in the 40 to 45 age group. The certificate hung in his living room next to the picture of Ann and Christina. They both smiled out at the photographer (him). His wife wore his checkered flannel jacket that she had borrowed when the mountain air had gotten too cool, while Christina was in a blue sweatsuit, her arm around her mother's waist. In the background James Peak rose up, a huge purple presence.
Ann died within a year of the photo--from a tumor that started in her ovary--and Christina moved to Seattle with her new husband.
Forty-five steps separated the entrance of the apartment from the mailbox. Another fifteen to the flaky green bus stop bench. He measured everything in steps now-a-days, which was all right with him. Just two months ago Doctor Ferguson said he might be able to use a walker (Like an old man? said John at the time.) if he was lucky and worked hard with the physical therapist. Of course, this was the same doctor who had told Christina that he would never come out of the coma. "They were checking with heart transplant units all over the country to see if you were a match for anyone," she had told him later and cried so loudly that two nurses rushed in to see if he was alright.
He paid close attention to the sidewalk in front of him and ignored the traffic noises to his left. The problem wasn't that he couldn't walk, really, it was that things distracted him so easily now. His mind was like an open mike, recording everything equally. And sometimes he would daydream, sometimes about his past but other times about things he didn't recognize: a field of wheat, something coming out of the ground, something forming in the clouds. But more than anything else, what the shrapnel of bone fragments had done was remove his power of discrimination.
He lifted his left foot over a crack and shifted his weight so that he moved forward in a kind of lurching motion. The right foot started dragging so he bent his knee and picked it up, making sure that it too cleared the crack, which wasn't any thicker than a dime. His cane never touched the cement. The extra motion of placing and leaning on it caused him more problems than not using it, but the therapist insisted he carry it, and rather than risk her ire, he did.
So went each step: lift, lurch, drag and lift. His hands waved little circles away from his hips so that he maintained balance. Someone watching him would assume that he was drunk, or senile, or one of those unfortunates that the homes didn't have room for anymore in this age of "mainstreaming."
He checked to see if the letter was still in his hand, which it was, though he had crumpled it a bit, and began tipping over sideways as his feet failed to keep up with the shift in his center of gravity. He scrambled back to equilibrium by taking three quick shuffles to the left, and then two to the right because he overcorrected.
When he reached the mailbox, sweat shined on his forehead and stained the back of his shirt, but he smiled. Doctors can't be right all the time.
He first saw the dwarves that no one else could see on the downtown express bus from Mercy Hospital, where he went for his weekly physical therapy. Three teenage boys in letter jackets climbed in at the Alameda stop and behind them the dwarves, two of them, skinny, dressed in blue uniforms, sawed-off pump shotguns hanging from their shoulders, twin bandoliers loaded with fat red and brass shells crossing their chests. They took the front seat across the aisle from him. The door wheezed shut; the bus swung into the traffic, and John, who was sitting sideways in his seat, his legs stretched in front of him, studied the pair surreptitiously over his newspaper.
The closest one twitched his head back and forth like a bird, checking the back of the bus and then the front several times. Half of his shirt was untucked, and John saw now that it needed laundering, but other than that it looked much like a policeman's uniform, all the way down to a black plastic name tag on his chest, but instead of saying "Officer so-and-so" it said "Naggle."
"I hate busses. Why do we have to ride the bus? Can't we just get him outside his house?"
The other one, John couldn't see his name tag, slouched down in the seat, his feet swinging freely above the floor. "Did you see our list! We're all over town today. We walk and we'll never finish, ninny." He took a sheet of paper out of his pants pocket. "Two in Westminister and one in Littleton. Whoever makes up these assignments doesn't look at the map."
"But the bus!" Naggle snapped his head around again and looked behind him.
"Stay alert and we'll be O.K. Besides, it's not like we're helpless." He pulled a shell out of his bandolier with a dramatic flourish and chambered it into his shotgun. "Full load: instant, massive coronary thrombosis. This would drop a football player in nothing flat."
John folded his paper onto his lap and glanced back to see if anyone else had noticed that there were two heavily armed dwarves traveling with them, but the bus was almost empty and nobody seemed to be paying attention. He knew he should be nervous, or even scared, but his emotions were flat, and had been since the accident. That was something else the doctors couldn't tell him about. They said that the brain doesn't heal, it makes new pathways, and that maybe it was a blessing right now since it meant he wouldn't become deeply depressed, a common reaction to a debilitating injury.
The description of what the "load" was didn't make sense, but John knew his gun laws and a loaded shotgun in the city was definitely not right. He leaned forward to tell him, but Naggle beat him to it.
"That's illegal! That's illegal! We'll get popped for sure if the Supervisor finds out." Naggle's hands twisted around and around in his lap as if they had a life of their own.
"You haven't been on the street long, have you?" Naggle shook his head no. "First time out?" Naggle nodded yes. "I've been out for sixteen months. Four hitches. And I've learned two things: the supervisors don't care what you do as long as you get the list done, and nobody looks after you but yourself. So if you get a sport-shot off once in a while--just to relieve the tension, you understand--or you pull one to protect yourself, then it's fine. It's part of the job." Naggle took a deep breath and stopped his hands.
"Yeah. It's part of the job, I guess." He appeared unconvinced. "So when should we do him?"
"Anytime. You make the hit, and I'll cover." Naggle took a shell from his bandolier, compared the writing on the side of it to the sheet of paper the other held out to him, and loaded the shell into his gun.
All this amazed John, because the dwarves carried this whole conversation out loudly. He heard them as clearly as if they were talking to him, but no one else seemed to care. The bus driver, who they sat directly behind, never turned his head. A mother with her child in the next seat didn't flinch. The child, an ice cream streaked six year old, never looked. Surely a child would stare at such a sight. The teenagers in the back of the bus murmured among themselves.
Naggle pumped his gun with a distinctive "chink-chink," stood on the seat, leveled the end of the barrel at the back of the bus driver's head--John opened his mouth--and pulled the trigger.
The twelve gauge blast filled the bus with a sound so vast and palpable that "sound" would be a completely wrong word for it. John's ears ached. His heart slammed at the surface of his chest, but he could do nothing. The event ended before he even really understood that it had started. Then a number of negative items hit him at once. The windshield of the bus was not covered with blood and bone. The bus driver was not slumped over the steering wheel, his head a sloppy, hairy sponge. People were not screaming at the sudden, incredible violence. No one did anything that they weren't doing before the shot.
"They didn't hear it. They didn't hear it, and only I did. Everyone on this bus is deaf," is what he thought.
Naggle sat down. "What did I get him with?" The other looked at the list.
"A brain aneurysm next Thursday at 2:05 p.m." He looked at his watch. "If we're near here, remind me to take another bus. This one is going to have an accident." He laughed a high pitched "hee-hee-hee" like a manic cricket.
Then he said, "You're no virgin now kid, so what say we celebrate a little? Load up with this one and I'll let you pick the target." He handed Naggle another shell.
"Really? I mean, you think it's o.k.?"
"Sure. We all do it. Slam it in there and take out someone else. Hell, I remember my first shot. Gave an old fart a brain cancer. Checked up on him every week. Last time I saw him he didn't weigh eighty pounds and he was swearing and crying and wetting himself at the same time. No death with dignity shit for him."
John started at the mention of cancer. He leaned sideways in his seat and groped the floor for his cane, which had fallen when the bus turned a corner earlier. His fingers scratched over the metal floor.
Naggle held the shell up, reading its side numbers. "What's this?" he said.
"AIDS. Standard stuff now. Very nasty. We're doing a lot of them lately. No cure." He grinned showing a mouthful of pointy teeth, like a cat. "You're lucky Naggle. Ten years ago you wouldn't have had this chance. Half of everything was treatable. Now we got this. Those boys in Research and Development scored a real coup here."
John finally found the cane--it had skittered under the seat--and with some effort pulled it into his lap. He thought he should do something, but he didn't know what. He half didn't believe what he heard them talking about, but they sounded sincere. Worse than sincere, they sounded real and serious.
Naggle put the new shell into the gun. "Maybe I could get the kid?" He indicated the little girl in the seat behind them.
"Sure. What the hell. Most the time we use it on young men and druggies. Confuses them. Makes them think there's a pattern to it."
Naggle stood on the cushion, rested the gun on the seat back and pointed the barrel down at the child. The girl's mother was trying to wipe her squirming daughter's face.
John realized he must do something, so he yelled "Don't shoot!" The woman stopped wiping, looked at John and pulled her daughter close. John raised his cane over his head. Naggle, startled, turned to John and shrieked as the cane came down.
To John the striking with the cane seemed less the result of a conscious decision, and more something that he stood away from and observed. It wasn't even that he was afraid for the girl, but that he didn't want to experience another gun shot so close again. He heard himself shout "Don't shoot!" He saw himself lunging forward, one foot on the floor of the bus, the other awkwardly curled beneath him. Naggle screamed and started swinging his gun towards him; the other dwarf fumbled for his weapon that was now trapped between him and Naggle; and then the cane struck Naggle with exactly the same result as a sharp rock hitting a water balloon.
He popped, messily, spraying milky water-like substance everywhere. And the cane passed through him without pausing until it bounced off the bus seat and out of John's hand as he fell into the aisle.
The driver yelled something at John (it sounded like a curse); the child started laughing; the mother looked concerned, and the boys at the back of the bus jumped up to see what the fuss was about.
From his vantage point on the floor John saw his cane lying in a puddle of the remains of Naggle. "I wonder how many gallons in a dwarf?" he thought hysterically.
The other dwarf, soaked, jumped to the end of bench seat and pointed his gun at John. "You can't see us! You can't see us!" A single black hole, seemingly wide enough to accept John's fist, was all John could see of the shotgun. The dwarf's eyes, comically huge and rolling in fear, peered down at him. In a moment of insane clarity John noticed a series of inappropriate detail. The dwarf's name tag read "Wisnet"; there were no chest pockets on the shirt; his hair was parted in the middle; the blue trousers had no fly (as if they were on backwards), and "Wisnet" was left handed.
He saw all those things, and at the same time felt grains of sand beneath his back from the dirty floor, and he smelled onions from a discarded sandwich wrapper, and he heard the transmission of the bus shifting gears.
Which saved him.
Standard Regional Transportation District procedure, when a passenger experiences a medical emergency, John found out later, is to pull over and radio for help. The driver down-shifted and swerved the bus into the curb. Wisnet's foot slipped off the edge of the wet seat and he tumbled backwards. The shotgun exploded harmlessly into the ceiling. John reached for his cane but missed. On the second try, he grabbed it and pushed himself into a sitting position. Wisnet, swearing, fumbled a shell out of the bandolier and dropped it.
He said, "Please," just before John caned him into a splash of watery nothingness.
Fifteen minutes later the para-medics arrived and John spent a half hour convincing them that he was fine, and that "No, I've never had a seizure before." After they discussed his head injury, and he tolerated their pitying looks at the dent in his forehead, the bus restarted its route and took him to the stop near his apartment. By the time he arrived, the dwarves' "blood" and everything they carried, paper, shells and guns, vanished. Either they evaporated or were absorbed. It didn't matter. No one else saw anything.
Late that night, John lay on his back in bed staring at the cracks in the ceiling, seeing shapes there as he had in clouds in the summer once during a fishing trip with Ann and Christina. Then, eight year old Christina busied herself in the mud on the creek bank. Ann rolled next to him and brushed her fingertips against his ear. Her breath smelled of pickle and bacon they'd eaten for lunch. "Go away," he'd sighed. "I'm counting clouds." She traced a line behind his ear. "Maybe I can distract you," she said. "I doubt it." But later, when Christina was asleep in the camper, the sky was a high quivering blue and the clouds drifted without a hand to guide them, she did.
He jerked back to his apartment and the cracked ceiling. In the distance, through the open window, beyond the sounds of traffic and the muffled voices in the darkness, he had heard it again, a shotgun, the third one tonight. He wondered how often he had ignored the sound before.
The cracks in the ceiling still looked like clouds, but they were dark clouds, rolling painfully, and something was in them moving down towards him.
The Thompson Insurance Building's elevator swallowed John and whisked him to the fifteenth floor, where he picked up a portion of his settlement money. His former employer, L & R Ordnance, with a minimum of fuss, had agreed that John's accident was the result of their negligence (they violated Federal regulations concerning humidity in a shop where gunpowder is regularly handled), and for his part John did not insist on receiving his money in a lump sum. So he made a monthly pilgrimage to sign for the check, a trip he enjoyed particularly this time because he walked in on his own rather than riding in a wheelchair as he had four weeks earlier.
"Mr. Minor! How good to see you," said the secretary with genuine affection and surprise when she looked up from her desk. She hurried around it to open the inner office door for him. Her hand on his elbow provided welcome support. He feared the humiliation of falling in public. "Oh, this is wonderful how well you're doing."
They joked as he left, and in the elevator he was thinking wistfully how attractive she was when the car stopped on the fourteenth floor to let in a maintenance man wearing a tool belt and pulling a rolling work bench behind him. He glanced dully at John, did an obvious double take at the purple splotch on John's forehead, then put his back to the wall and watched the progression of numbers as they headed down.
Three floors later the elevator doors opened--John was fingering the check in his coat pocket, deciding whether he was well enough to fly to Seattle--and a pair of dwarves scuttled on and jammed themselves into the front two corners of the car. John pushed himself against the wall and froze. The maintenance man punched the first floor button. "Damn kids," he said.
"Kids?" John's voice squeaked. The dwarves were outfitted the same way as the two from yesterday. They watched John and the maintenance man warily. John tried not to meet their eyes.
"Yeah. It happens all the time. You know most people think when an elevator stops and nobody gets on that it is a malfunction, but it's those damn kids. They push buttons and then run."
He could smell the dwarves, unwashed, sweating, a gross unsanitary smell. They slid out at the second floor. The maintenance man cursed and slammed his fist on the button. "Damn kids."
But he didn't start getting mad, until he read a small article on the second page of the city news section of The Denver Post a week later, about an RTD bus driver who died of a stroke while waiting for the light to change on Colfax Ave. and University Blvd. No one was hurt. "Richard is survived by his wife and two children," said the article and then went on to quote a RTD official who assured the public that this was a freak occurrence and they needn't worry about the health of the drivers.
John sat in the back of the tiny church during the memorial service, and, when he offered his condolences, the dry eyed wife, whose weightless hand trembled when he shook it, said, "Lots of people on his route liked him."
Snow fell at the cemetery. Beautiful wet, white flakes that vanished when they touched the earth or spun into the depths of the grave.
Stapleton Airport turned out to be the best place to study the "death dwarves," John discovered. Thousands of people daily wandered around the overpriced shops at the end of the concourses, browsing in the news stands, fingering "Ski Vail" T-shirts, or sitting in the lounges watching daytime T.V. And, attracted to this concentration of humanity, pairs of dwarves sidled along the walls, consulting their little lists, marking names when they made connections, like demented and sadistic civil servants, and, occasionally, blasting away at the unaware.
They stayed away from any place people walked or sat and seemed practiced at finding observation points where they could be undisturbed, although John did see one dashing across B Concourse get "splashed" by a United Airlines courtesy cart.
He eavesdropped, and the things they talked about sickened him: disease in all its forms, strokes, carcinomas, lingering illnesses, heart attacks, epilepsy, sudden infant death syndrome; and of the lost arsenal they fondly remembered: plague, leprosy, tuberculosis, yellow fever.
They mocked the people as they passed: businessmen with briefcases, family groups towing their bags behind them like Naugahyde pets, lost looking youths carrying duffel bags. The dwarves spit at them. They danced and laughed and called names.
John waited at the foot of the escalator. With his back braced against the polished aluminum base, he waited, cane in his right hand, casual, nonchalant, and when a pair jumped on the top and came gliding down, at the last instant he swung his cane through them. Their wet remains drained into the grooves of the moving stairway. He would have stayed all day, picking them off pair by pair, but a security guard started watching him, probably wondering what this strange looking individual with a dent in his head was doing.
John became a death hunter. For a few days he stalked them, as he had the pair in the airport, but it became increasingly evident that the dwarves firmly believed that he would not, could not, did not see them. His main challenge was in maneuvering them into positions where they couldn't skitter out of his way, something they were expert at. His encounter with a pair in the produce section of Albertson's, between the bins of apples and bananas was typical. They crouched below the overhang under the fruit display, their guns slung clumsily in front of them. John spotted them when he turned his cart down that aisle for peanut-butter. The plastic handle felt cool and solid under his hands, and the cart gave him something to lean against so that to someone observing him he would not appeared handicapped at all, only a little stiff. Fortunately, his physical rehabilitation was progressing well and he seldom fell now. Only the purple dent in his forehead marked him, and when he looked in the mirror it was the first thing he saw. Dark, deep, soft. He examined it closely for changes in color or depth that would warn him of swelling or infection, Dr. Ferguson's last doom predictions. "Head injuries are tricky," he said. "Everything seems fine and then a weak wall on a blood vessel blows out like a bad bike tube and we lose you."
The dwarves under the produce shelf were arguing, which is what most of them seemed to do, as he rolled closer and closer. John pulled his cane out of the cart with his left hand, the side they were on, and when he walked by them he swung the front of the cart into the bin, cutting off their one escape route, and before they could react he had reduced them to a pair of puddles with a casual wave of his cane. They were his forty-first and forty-second kill.
It was easy.
Framed certificates covered the walls in Dr. Ferguson's waiting room: undergraduate work at C.U., Doctorate from Harvard, member of the Better Business Bureau, good citizen awards for eight years, etc. The Doctor's achievements were commemorated with gold lettered parchment. John saw his own reflection in each pane of glass. He was alone in the waiting room.
"You can come in now, John." The doctor leaned out of the half-opened door. His lab jacket glowed an immaculate white under the fluorescent light fixtures; the black tubes and chrome joints of his stethoscope looped out of one large pocket. His long face and receding hairline gave him the high foreheaded look that John associated with intelligence.
A series of X-rays hung from clips in the examining room. Doctor Ferguson moved from one to the next, his arms across his chest; he hummed softly. The paper on the examining table under John crinkled when he moved. His shirt was unbuttoned. For some reason the doctor always listened to his chest when he came in. The routine was comforting though. "Breathe in," he would say, and John would. The stethoscope would slide to the next spot. "Breathe in." It made John feel like a kid again. The doctor concentrating on John's chest sounds; his breath smelled of mint; in the background the office music system played.
He turned from the X-rays. "You should be dead you know." John nodded. "There are splinters everywhere we couldn't get."
"So why aren't I?" John could see the X-ray over Dr. Ferguson's shoulder. His own grey and white skull floating on the black background grinned back at him. Just a wispy suggestion of skin covered it. The hole looked like the result of dropping a bowling ball on the thin ice of a newly frozen lake.
"Dumb luck, as far as I can tell. Somehow the bone fragments missed all the vital spots; we managed to not kill you when we operated, and none of the normal opportunistic secondary infections set in. I have seen head injuries half as serious as this one that were instantly fatal. In fact, I am working up a paper on your case. It will give me an excuse to go to this year's medical convention."
"Glad I could help."
"It's in New Orleans. I love New Orleans." He laughed, sat in the chair next to John, crossed John's right leg over his left and tapped at his knee with a rubber hammer. The leg twitched reflexively. "And how is your physical therapy coming along?"
"They think I might be able to jog again in a few months, but my fine motor control is still terrible. Threading a needle, writing, buttoning a shirt, tying a shoelace--those are hard to do. We're working on it. I'm in a night class that helps me on concentrating. Last night they had me do math problems with a television on behind me."
The doctor put the hammer back in a drawer in the table, pulled out a pen light from his coat and directed it into John's eye. The light glared like a giant sun, and John tried to look away, but the doctor's hand, warm and firm on his face, held his head still.
"And how are you feeling? I mean, emotionally?" He switched to the other eye.
"I've found plenty to keep me busy."
"What are you doing?"
John thought of the last three weeks, the dwarves he had snuck up behind, the ones he had ambushed at blind corners, the ones that he caught in narrow hallways. Most of them never knew he was coming. He was their own unpleasant surprise. And then he had a sudden vision of the state of the world. He had seen parts of it before, but never fully, never with this clarity. He saw the death dwarves being born, some of them oozing up from the ground, from tiny fissures in the earth, weaving thread by thread until they stood whole and malevolent; and others coalescing in the clouds, dark particle piling on dark particle until their own foul weight bore them down to walk among men, and only he could see them. There were millions, maybe billions of them, and in his vision he swung his cane like a scythe until his arms ached with the effort, but they kept coming. A blanket of them covered the plain in front of him, their guns poking in the air, waving aimlessly like wheat. The horizon was crowded with ranks of them forever marching. He could never win. But he saw himself, glowing, a figure of light, swinging around, and they shrank back from him forming a little circle where they did not cover the ground, one place for a moment where they did not rule.
"I struggle with death." He realized how peculiar that must sound. "I mean, I think about ways to defeat it."
"Funny kind of hobby, John, but I am glad you are keeping a positive attitude. Many people would give up after an injury like yours."
"It's not in my nature to quit."
"Good, good." Doctor Ferguson moved his light to the dent in John's forehead. "If your brain has stabilized, which every indication says it has, then we may be able to do something about this too. A plate, some cosmetic surgery to remove the color. I'm afraid you will never look like you did before though."
John thought about the dark place in his forehead, like a badge, like the center of his vision, and he said, "That's all right. I'm getting used to it."
This story originally appeared in Talebones.