A businessman faces an uncertain reality as his headaches grow increasingly worse. A short fiction piece about disassociation, privilege, and people in the basement.
Every day Henry Dawson woke up next to his wife Claire, caught in the ragged edges of a dream he couldn’t quite remember. He got up, got dressed, and shaved before fixing himself some toast or a waffle, sitting in the kitchen where the big glass doors let the perfect amount of early morning sunshine in.
His daughter Zoe got up in a mood and tore her brush through her disheveled hair at the kitchen table, which bothered Henry because he didn’t want hair in his food. They talked about small, inconsequential nothings and Zoe kissed his freshly shaven cheek and went outside to wait for the bus, her purple backpack drooping off her slightly overweight frame. She preferred floral patterns, the same way Claire did. She looked so much like her mother with her curly red hair and angular, pointed face, pale and almost fae in composition.
Then Henry went to work for a stockholding business and sat behind a tall stack of papers, sipping his coffee. His friend Tim Wilson came over and commented on the new intern, an attractive woman in her 30’s named Beatrice.
“Do you think she’s single?” He asked Henry.
Henry was a little annoyed that he’d been interrupted from working, but decided to smile and play along.
“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her?”
Tim was such a poonhound. He had asked every woman in the office out at least once, including the lesbian. Can’t fault a man for trying, he had said. Maybe she’ll like me so much she’ll realize she’s actually bi. Because of sexual harassment guidelines, Tim wasn’t allowed to ask one woman out multiple times so he couldn’t put her in a situation where she felt uncomfortable, but he treated each new female employee as an opportunity.
“She has ass for days,” Tim said dreamily, looking at Beatrice as she handed a stack of reports to an older male employee.
“Could you be any more crass?” Henry asked.
“Come on, you must notice. The girl’s a heartbreaker.”
Beatrice looked like she was of Middle Eastern ancestry, with dark but slightly freckled skin and a generous bust.
“I love my wife,” Henry said with considerable restraint.
“Still. There’s nothing wrong with looking.”
“I guess. But the way you’re looking you’re going to scare her off.”
Beatrice turned and looked at Tim and Henry like she knew they were talking about and Henry’s face flushed bright red.
“Damn it, now she thinks we’re perverts.”
“Relax,” Tim said. He was still looking straight at her, and he smiled and waved. Beatrice gave him a look. “You have to loosen up, dude.”
“I have to get to work.” Henry didn’t like being told to ‘loosen up,’ even by his friend. He sat down and took a long sip of coffee, wiping his mouth. The papers in front of him weren’t going to do themselves, and he didn’t want to deal with another visit from his passive-aggressive boss, Gary.
Gary was always popping up and talking loudly about how he needed to ‘lay off’ some employees that ‘weren’t pulling their weight’ to his goonie, Jack. He would never even think of firing Jack: the guy laughed sycophantically at all his jokes and every idea Gary came up with was, of course, genius.
Henry went outside for a smoke during break and saw a bag lady staring at him. She had a shopping cart full of random junk and her hair was in a short afro, like a man’s. It was the middle of October and getting pretty cold and Henry told himself that right before he left he would offer to buy her a hot meal, but he didn’t.
There were sounds in the house, and even though Henry wasn’t superstitious in the least it put him on edge. He sat at the table with his family eating meatloaf and mashed potatoes (his wife’s mashed potatoes were perfection, that’s what him and Zoe always said) but he kept grinding his teeth and he was starting to get a headache.
“What is that sound?”
“That goddamn beeping.”
“I don’t hear anything.” Claire took another bite of her supper and wiped her mouth delicately with a cloth napkin.
“And that awful squeaking, like wheels on a linoleum floor.”
“Henry, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he snapped. “I just want to know what kind of house makes those sounds.”
“Can I go do my homework?” Zoe asked.
“Yes. Load up the dishwasher after, okay, honey?”
“Sure.” She jumped up and walked out, her long black skirt brushing against her ankles. Henry practically felt like he could hear it. Swish swish. Swish swish.
“Honey, you’re freaking Zoe out.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to. I just keep getting these headaches.” He started grinding his teeth again and took a swig of water.
“Maybe you should go see a doctor.”
“What, so they can tell me to ‘drink more water.’ ‘Exercise more?’ It’s just the same old bullshit. Nothing helps. I feel like somebody’s moving around in my skull with a pickaxe.
Claire reached across the table and took his hand. “I was talking to Paula the other day and she suggested that the issue might be psychological. You had a rough childhood, with your uncle and all that. Do you think you’re going through repressed trauma?”
“No. I think I have a bad goddamn headache.”
“Okay. I’m just trying to help.”
“I went to a therapist when I was in college, Claire. He didn’t do shit. All he told me was that I was mad at my parents and my uncle and that trying to pretend everything was normal was hurting me.”
“Maybe he had a point.”
“NO. I’m not mad at my parents. My parents tried their best, and my uncle is dead. I don’t need a therapist. I just need medication that works.”
“You realize that to get medication that works, you have to see a doctor?”
“Ugh.” He laid his head on the table and he could hear pounding through the floor.
“I’ll be right back,” He kissed her and went to the basement door, unlocking the latch and opening it. It was a bare-bones place for a laundry machine and some tools and gardening equipment, with walls made out of cement blocks and a dirt floor in some places.
The man was huddled in the corner, asleep.
He was filthy- stringy brown hair, a matted mess of a beard, and yellowed rotting teeth. He was wearing an old denim jacket and dingy gray sweatpants, with a drawstring to make them fit over his gaunt frame.
Henry pulled a biscuit out of his pocket and handed it to the man, who ate it ravenously.
“I’m sorry,” Henry said. The man didn’t say anything.
“Really. I’ll bring you more before I go to bed tonight. Can you wait that long?”
The man never spoke. He was mute but a fierce intelligence shone in his pale milky blue eyes. He had been there for as long as Henry could remember, maybe longer. He came with the house, as strange as that sounds, as much a part of the house as the windows and the walls.
Was he a ghost? No. Ghosts didn’t eat. Claire and Zoe knew about him and accepted his presence, but Henry still tried to be slightly inconspicuous when he brought the man food. He got the impression that Claire thought if he stopped feeding him he would go away, but Henry knew how fundamental he was.
It would be like expecting the sky or the ground to go away and leave you with a murky gray void in its place. He didn’t know what would happen if they evicted the man but he knew it would be potentially disastrous. It would be like removing a vital organ from a hospital patient’s body and just expecting them to go along with business as usual.
Henry’s head hurt worse. It was almost unbearable. The man grinned at him, showing his rapidly decaying front teeth.
Henry stumbled upstairs and Claire was waiting for him.
“That man needs to leave.”
“He can’t. He belongs here.”
“Why? This is our house.”
Zoe came up behind her and said “He freaks me out. I hate going downstairs to do laundry. He’s always staring at me.”
“He belongs here and that’s that,” Henry said firmly.
“Fine,” Claire said, her lips pressed into a tight line.
Swish swish swish. Zoe’s skirt as she walked to her room. Pound. Pound. Pound. A deep, trembling sound, maybe something in the pipes.
That night Henry dreamed of a hospital. He dreamed about being covered in bandages and every part of his body ached like he’d been flayed alive.
“Male, 36, severe burn wounds and some trauma to the head,” a stout male nurse said.
“Fucking monster. I hope he gets the death penalty.” Someone was crying but it was hard to see through all the gauze. He recognized his mother’s voice.
“I should have taken him in. It’s just… he gets so angry… it’s like he forgets where he is sometimes.”
“How long has he been on the street?”
“Six months. He was staying in a homeless shelter but then he got kicked out for getting drunk and starting a fight.”
Henry felt panicked and wanted to rip the gauze off his face, but his hands were weighed down by his sides with drugs and exhaustion. He wanted to look at his mother and tell her he was sorry but his lids were already heavy with sleep.
“Who would do a thing like this? He was just sleeping in the park, and some bastard came up with a lighter… I just don’t understand.”
Henry remembered. He remembered being asleep and the agonizing burn of the hot flame as it spread against the blanket he was wrapped in. The searing sensation of fire against skin as he screamed and the man- a boy really- laughed and laughed.
“Get a job, you piece of shit!”
Now he couldn’t see his mother and he could see the nurses and he wanted so much to say he was sorry, that he hadn’t meant to be a monster his family covered for and hid from. He wanted to die right then so he didn’t have to hear his mother cry.
Then there was a jolt and he woke up from a dream he couldn’t remember, his skull pounding like a drum.