The loud groan distracted Sarah in mid-sentence. She left Sam behind on the porch and hurried into the house, down the hall and into the back bedroom. “Well, Daddy,” she said, “what seems to be the trouble now?”
John Deaton was flat on his back in the bed, his wrists secured to the bedposts with soft strips of cloth salvaged from old bath towels. He raised his head from the pillow and hissed at his daughter through the narrow slit of a smile, but did not speak.
Sarah tried to summon her practiced cheerfulness. Until recently she had been in the habit of asking visitors to “come on back and say hello to Daddy,” although her father seldom said a word or blinked an eye to acknowledge anyone pressed into such service. But matters had changed the day she asked her sister, Macie, to bring her daughter over to perform the ritual visitation, and her father had frightened the little girl nearly to death when he reached out and grabbed her by the wrist and, with the child screaming bloody murder, would not let go until Sarah managed to pry his fingers loose. The wrist restraints thereafter were a more or less permanent arrangement.
Sarah stifled a sigh. “You just try and relax, Daddy, and I’ll have your supper ready for you in a little bit.”
She walked back out to the porch. “Well, you see what it’s like,” she said. “Taking care of body and soul around here is about all I can handle. I just can’t manage any more responsibility right now.”
“I hadn’t thought of myself as ‘responsibility’,” Sam said. “I’ve got the Social Security and my pension, and then there’s them two little water-front lots on the Currituck Sound that might fetch about twenty-five thousand apiece, if the market picks up.”
“Now, Sam, I didn’t mean it that way. You know I’ve got Daddy John to tend to, and that’s pretty much full time.”
“Sure. I know.” He had been courting Sarah for two years—if drinking iced tea on the front porch and escorting her to Saturday night suppers at the S&W Cafeteria counted as courting—and all the while her invalid father seemed to stand in the way.
Sam’s eyes were beginning to water from the trace of ammonia wafting out to the porch from the litter boxes of Sarah’s four cats—a phenomenon he tried to endure without complaint, for fear of giving offense. Warm weather did help, when he could express a preference for being outside on the porch, and occasionally he was able to escape the odor altogether by persuading Sarah to let him move their chairs down to the front yard, in the shade of the mimosa tree.
Still clutching the sweating iced tea glass, Sam struggled to heft himself upright as the sagging wicker porch chair creaked back into shape. He handed the glass to Sarah. “Well, I reckon I’ll be going. See you next Saturday?”
“Yes, thank you. Macie will be coming over to look after Daddy.” Sarah smoothed her skirt with both hands as she stood up and patted Sam on the arm. “Bye now.”
Determined to disguise the pain of joints stiffened by arthritis, Sam affected a jaunty exit down the steps leading from the porch of the modest white frame house. He glanced back once as the screened door closed behind Sarah. He was terribly fond of the spinster, and he had made marriage proposals more than once. At sixty-four, Sarah was nearing retirement from her position as a field agent in the regional office of the Internal Revenue Service. Sam had retired from the same office two years ago, and it was their acquaintance at work that, over time, had evolved into something resembling romance. As a lifelong bachelor, it was his first venture into courting and he had been awkward at first, but Sarah’s “rules” had helped ease his anxiety about how to navigate the relationship.
Back in the house, Sarah heard the peculiar whistling sound, an off-key sort of humming with which her father sometimes seemed to entertain himself. It worked her nerves. She wondered if the whole arrangement for him had been a terrible mistake. It had seemed the right thing to do at the time.
Sarah’s poor mother had “gone off in the head” four years ago, and when she started wandering away from the house at most any time of the day or night, Sarah and Macie and their father reluctantly had agreed that it was time to place her in the County Home, for her own safety. However, her mother would muster occasional periods of lucidity and berate husband and daughters with pathetic “how could you do this to me” lamentations, and it had been more than Sarah could bear. When her father began to display symptoms of dementia two years later she had resolved to keep him at home, where she would tend to his needs. To handle matters when she was at work, she hired Leonard, a middle-aged black man, who proved to be remarkably skilled at calming the emotional storms afflicting her father, and he was strong enough to keep things in line when gentle suasion did not suffice.
Sarah bit her lip in self-reproach, shamed by the realization that she was resenting Leonard’s day off. She just didn’t feel like coping today, and she decided to forgo the afternoon ritual of reading to her father from his old copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Why such a book was to be found in the limited library of a retired pharmacist, much less why it had such a soothing effect on him, was beyond her understanding. She wandered back to the kitchen, spooned some dry food into the feeding dishes for her cats and scooped accumulated detritus from the four litter boxes arranged along one wall of the kitchen. She set out a can of Ensure and a small jar of Gerber’s processed fruit for her father’s supper. She settled onto a kitchen stool, allowing herself to unwind for a few minutes, and mused about how utterly predictable her life had become.
On Sunday morning, Sarah shuffled into the bedroom to check on her patient. Sundays were a bit of a trial for her; she missed attending services at the First Baptist Church, and she hoped things might change after she retired, if Leonard could be persuaded to cover for her part-time on Sundays.
Her father was awake—he seemed always to be awake, malevolently staring into space. She removed the wrist bindings, hefted him upright and propped him against the headboard in preparation for his breakfast. She wondered why she even bothered with the restraints, since he hardly ever had visitors now. Just habit, she supposed. As she turned to leave the room she noticed that her father had kicked the bed covers loose, and his feet, normally encased in white cotton socks, were bare. His left foot dangled loosely to one side at a peculiar angle, and the skin was withered and discolored. Curious, Sarah gently poked the foot with her finger. She went to the kitchen and picked up the tray on which she had placed a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of orange juice. She added a dinner fork to the tray. When she returned to the bedroom she brushed the tines of the fork along the bottom of her father’s foot. There was no reaction. She pressed harder, but again to no effect. Well, she thought, that bears watching, and she made a mental note to enlist Leonard’s help in keeping track of the matter.
Several weeks later, Leonard met Sarah at the front door as she arrived home from work. “Like you say to me, Miss Sarah, I been watching out for that foot of his, when I wash him up and change his socks, and it look like it just slipping away to near ’bout nothing. It don’t seem to bother him none, but it barely hanging on, and it just flop about when I go to move him.”
“Let’s have a look, Leonard.”
The caregivers entered the bedroom. Sarah pulled back the bedspread and Leonard removed the sock.
“Gracious,” Sarah said, “it looks even more dried up, hardly anything holding it together.” The desiccated foot reminded her of the body parts of Egyptian mummies she had seen in the National Geographic. “Well, I’ll call the doctor when I get to work tomorrow and see if he can come by to have a look at this.”
Sarah in fact did not consult the doctor about her father’s wasted foot. She decided it was quite pointless. His overall condition had changed not in the least, there was no indication that the foot was causing him any pain, and the problem, whatever its origin and nature, seemed limited to that part of his body. It was, she concluded, a waste of scarce resources to enlist the help of the over-priced medical establishment.
Life on Scott Avenue continued in its customary pattern, well into mid-summer. Sarah was counting the weeks until she could retire with full pension benefits. Leonard came and went as usual and had expressed tentative interest in part-time work after Sarah retired. In addition to Saturdays, Sam had expanded his attentions to include a second regular outing to the cafeteria, on Wednesday evenings. Macie stopped by every other week to spell Sarah on Sunday morning, so her sister could partially resume the church-going habit. The cats flourished, and Daddy John remained about the same—a grim monument to biological perseverance.
Soon after arriving home on a Wednesday afternoon in July, Sarah decided to have a look at her father’s foot. She pulled off the sock. His foot appeared to be no better—maybe somewhat worse. It was simply there—a pesky inanimate object, to her way of thinking, an irritating inconvenience—and she was getting sick and tired of worrying about it. She found Leonard in the kitchen. “Leonard, I’ve decided to just remove that foot and be done with it, before it causes any trouble, and I’ll need your help.”
“Well, I reckon,” Leonard said, his eyebrows twitching up into twin apostrophes of alarm.
“First, we need to secure his hands and the other foot with the restraints,” Sarah said. “Would you go ahead and tend to that, and I’ll get the rest ready.”
After Leonard left the kitchen, Sarah turned the front burner of the gas stovetop to high and singed the edge of a large kitchen knife. She next doused the blade with a bath of alcohol. Last, she clipped a length of sturdy butcher’s twine from its spool. Equipment in hand, she paused outside the bedroom, listening to Leonard’s softly crooning voice.
“You doing just fine, Mr. Deaton. Everything aw right in here. Miss Sarah going to help you feel better now, so you just try and relax.”
Sarah entered the room. “Now then, Leonard, lift his leg up a bit while I tie this cord around his ankle.”
Leonard gently did as he was instructed. Sarah applied the tourniquet and placed a kitchen towel on the bed below the elevated foot. “Well, here we go,” she said. “Just hold his leg steady and we should have that foot off in a jiffy.” She glanced in her father’s direction. With lips pursed and eyes focused purposefully, he seemed to be observing the proceedings with great interest.
Sarah took a deep breath and pressed the knife into her father’s ankle. The crinkled skin parted instantly, with no discharge of blood or other exudate—the whole thing seemed to be completely dried up. After a few more quick incisions, the foot appeared ready to fall off, and apparently would have done so except for the presence of the visibly wasted bone. Sarah grasped the stumpy appendage with both hands and twisted. With a soft snapping sound, the foot came loose. Her father stared in apparent fascination as his foot was removed. He made no sound and did not move. Leonard, however, thudded back against the bedroom wall, his legs buckled, and he slid down to a seated position on the floor, with his head sagging against his chest in a dead faint.
“Merciful Heaven!” Sarah exclaimed. “What in the world?”
“Sarah . . . hello . . . anybody there?” Sam’s voice echoed down the hallway from the front parlor. “The door was open, so I just came on in.”
“Back here, Sam.” Sarah stepped into the hall and met Sam in the passageway. “Here,” she said, handing the severed foot to Sam, “hold this for me while I get the smelling salts for Leonard.”
As Sarah retraced her steps down the hall, Sam glanced at what she had given him. “Eeeuw!” He jerked his hand loose, as if from the shock of a live wire. The foot plopped onto the floor, slid a little distance and came to rest beside the cedar chest. Sam wheeled around and bolted up the hall, through the parlor, and out the front door.
Sarah caught sight of the back of her fleeing friend. She heard the sound of retching from the direction of the front porch. She paused, a frown of impatience clouding her face. She shrugged, disappointed but not particularly surprised by Sam’s lack of necessary gumption. “Oh well,” she muttered, and headed back to the bedroom, intent on addressing Leonard’s needs.
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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