Be careful what you wish for: A Halloween tale

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Ken doll

Gary kissed his wife and patted the dog on the head. “See ya in two weeks.”

“We’ll miss you! Be safe and come home to us as soon as you can.” His wife scooped the little pup into her arms and held his paw with her hand, making it look like they were both waving good-bye as she stood at the door and watched him pull away. Gary once again thought he must be the luckiest guy in the world to have such a beautiful wife. He still couldn’t figure out why someone so incredible and smart would marry a guy like him, but after ten years he’d stopped wondering and chalked it up to pure luck. And while he would miss her terribly for the next 13 days, he was looking forward to the time alone so he could think. 

This fiction was penned by Overdrive contributing writer Wendy Parker. Click through this link for another of her Halloween tales.

The Qualcomm message came across just before he shut down for home time three days ago, and had been churning through his head every minute of his break: 

Attention all drivers: As of January 1, 2015, the Health Mandates will be effective. FMCSA will begin imposing weight restrictions on each individual issued a commercial drivers license. If you are not in compliance, according to company policy, you will be given a grace period of 4 weeks to become compliant or be terminated. Your health is our concern. 

The your health is our concern part made him snort. His health was directly related to their insurance premiums — they could give a damn about him. They cared about the huge increases about to come with the new FMCSA mandates. Gary didn’t matter to them much, but Gary’s health could be expensive, so they were hella concerned about it

It was October 31 and he was still 100 pounds heavier than the mandates allowed for his height, which not only meant no Halloween candy for him; it also meant there was no way he was going to make the deadline. The last thing he needed was the added stress of worrying about it to tax his already over-taxed heart. Gary knew his weight was an issue — he wasn’t stupid — but he also wasn’t terribly unhealthy. He didn’t smoke or drink, he just liked food and disliked exercise. He was rarely sick and felt remarkably well until the company doctor told him how ill he was with the weight.

His thoughts rolled on with the miles of the day. He considered how he was going to tell Shelia he was soon to be unemployed and wondered how quickly a job as a Walmart greeter would make him crave a young death. Surely there were other jobs a big guy with the ability to drive just about anything could do. He had never really thought about it, all he’d ever done or wanted to do was drive. He wished there were a way to will the weight away, because he sure wanted to enjoy some Halloween goodies.

He mindlessly parked for the night and wandered into the truck stop to find food and other humans. He didn’t really feel like talking to anyone, just wanted the assurance they still existed. Some days the animated corpses he watched through the windows of the truck weren’t enough to fulfill his social needs. The voices of others reassured him, along with three scrambled, three links, a short stack and a bowl of grits. A tiny sugar pumpkin his waitress left with the check was the cherry on top. He got his Halloween treat after all.

A display by the cash register caught his eye as he was paying the bill.

THE NEW SKINNY PILL! The GoJi Berry Miracle! All natural weight loss, with NO dieting! 

On a lark, he grabbed a bottle and threw it on the counter with his check. He was on a carb high. “What the heck,” he thought, “what’s the worst that could happen? If they work, I get to keep my job and my hobby.” Gary paid the bill and left, feeling optimistic and full of 4,000 calories. He was absorbed in the gleeful thoughts of being able to eat anything he wanted and maintaining a government standard weight. It would be his way of sticking it to the man. For about the thousandth time that day, Gary wished fiercely he could just will the weight away.

The hobo stepped out of the shadows just as he put the key in the door of his truck and startled him so bad he dropped the bag with his magic GoJi berry pills inside.

Full of the added adrenaline of pancakes and syrup, Gary lost it:  “What is wrong with you, man!? What do you want, you want trouble?!”  

The hobo threw his arms up in a defensive position. “No man, no. I don’t want no trouble.” He back away a bit. “Look. Look man, I can’t even hurt you. Look.”

He held his arms out toward Gary. Both of them ended in perfect, shiny stumps. Gary relaxed, but only slightly. The guy was beyond ragged and the smell coming from his was indescribable.

“Are you a vet or something? You need some food?” 

“Nah man, I’m not a vet. I’m here to help you, man. I’m here to give you the flies. They’ll help you, Gary. Forget the pills under the truck, use the flies. See? My hands, they used to do bad things, Gary — the flies, they helped me.”

The guy was creeping him out and he was getting sick from the smell. Garbage. The guy smelled like a landfill. Gary didn’t remember ever meeting him, though the driver was a regular at this stop and most of the homeless people who frequented it knew Gary was usually good for a meal. They might even remember his name.

“Look man, I’ll give you a couple of bucks, I’m tired and just want to go to bed.” 

The smell intensified with the stranger’s eagerness.

“I am the LORD, Gary. I’m here to give you the flies! They will fulfill your deepest desire! Look! Look at me! I used to do bad things, but now I’m the LORD!”

He stumbled toward Gary, pushing the top of his tattered sweat pants down with his stumps to reveal a shiny-smooth, Ken-doll front end. The brief flash of stump he saw there was enough to freak Gary right on out. He grabbed the guy’s shoulders as he stumbled forward and shoved him down to the pavement as hard as he could. He opened the door and swung himself up into the truck fast as he could and quickly shut and locked the door.

“Well, that was different,” he said. The tinny sound of his own voice echoing in the truck creeped him out even more and he grabbed the phone to make his good-night call to Shelia, so he could calm down and stop acting silly. He listened for Garbage-Ken-doll-fly guy, half expecting him to jump up on the side board and bang on the window with his shiny stumps any minute. He put the tire thumper on the floor beside him, just in case.

Fifteen minutes of hearing her voice was enough to lull him back into reality. The puppy was a handful, and Sheila had a lot to tell him about the trials of house breaking. Garbage-Ken-doll-fly guy had apparently wandered off to freak someone else out. Everything was good with the world again by the time they said their good-nights and I-love-yous. He closed the curtains and settled into the bunk and dreamed about flies. 

He woke the next morning angry and determined to kill the fly that had gotten in the cab and haunted his dreams all night. He threw off the covers and went about the daily business of groping around in the semi-darkness of a curtained cab for his pants. He was angry at the scary coincidence of the weird Ken-doll hobo and the fly in his cab. He was mostly angry at himself for getting rattled over something so stupid.

Again lost in his thoughts, Gary sat on the bunk and absentmindedly slipped his feet into his jeans. The big toe on his right foot felt like it was asleep, and he glanced at it as it peeked out of the pants leg. What he thought he saw made him scream a little, and he could feel his heart pound in his chest so hard it hurt.

He fumbled for the light and drew his foot up on to the bunk as far as an overweight guy with his pants half on can. He thought his eyes were playing tricks on him and his heart pounded harder as he realized they weren’t. His big toe was gone. Just a shiny stub, where the toe used to be, followed by his other four toes. 

“This isn’t happening, this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening.” 

He repeated the phrase aloud twice more, to wake himself up, and reluctantly realized he was as awake as he had ever been in his life. 

“I’ve got to get my shit together. I’m not going to be that guy. I’m not going to lose my mind on the road.” 

He forced himself to calm down enough to finish putting his pants on.

“I’m going to put my boots on, go wash my face, and drive. And when I take my boots off tonight, this is all going to be a dream.”

He also made a mental note to quit talking out loud to himself, because seeing things was about as crazy as Gary cared to be. Somewhere, in the dark recesses of his mind, he wondered how much closer losing a toe would put him toward the weight mandate, but he wouldn’t admit it to himself, because that would really be crazy. 

Once he got on the road and done with his morning talk to Shelia, he felt remarkably close to normal, which was amazing. The stumble-fest that walking across a truck stop parking lot became when he stepped out without his big toe for the first time was challenging, to say the least. He never realized how important toes were when it came to not looking like a lurching drunk. Sheer determination propelled him, and for once he was really glad to be the fat guy no one pays attention to.

The familiar hum of the road was soothing and he let his mind wander. He’d read a story about a guy who developed a neurological disorder that caused him to think his wife was a hat. The poor guy’s wires were crossed and his brain told him “hat” instead of “wife” when he saw her. Gary thought for sure he had something like that going on — he kept the mental visions of how similar his toe stub looked to the hobo’s alarming stumps pushed down as far as he could.

He didn’t get out out the truck for his break — he wasn’t really interested in looking like a drunk for another parking lot full of people. He peed in an empty Coke bottle and thought about how hungry he was, which led to thinking about the flies, which led to thinking about his possibly nonexistent toe, which made him a lot less hungry. In the dark recesses of his mind, he realized the flies were helping him, but he wouldn’t admit it to himself.

His afternoon call to Shelia was tense and difficult. He felt like he should tell her, talk it out with her, but how does one tell their wife they woke up without a toe? He made small talk and excuses for being short, and promised to call her later.

Evening fell, and he passed his regular stop. No one knew him at the rest area fifteen miles ahead, he opted for an anonymous spot in the transient lot. He didn’t get out, but he did search the entire cab for flies, and when he was certain there were none, he fell into the bunk, exhausted and hungry. Gary didn’t have the wherewithal to take his boot off and look for the missing toe, he knew it wouldn’t be there. Just thinking about it made his heart hurt. He dozed off into a fitful sleep, and dreamed about the flies.

****
Shelia knew. She knew when he missed his bedtime call something was wrong. He never missed the good-nights and I-love-yous, even if he had to wake her up late to make them. When he missed the hello-good-morning call, she got on the phone with dispatch and officially put the word out. Gary was missing.

In the worried fog of a distraught wife, the six and a half hours it took from the time she reported him missing to the time she got the call from the North Carolina state police seemed like an eternity. She knew. Shelia knew before the trooper told her that Gary was dead. Her heart broke a million times with every word from his mouth.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to report the EMTs on the scene believe he had a heart attack. They were unable to revive him.”

A very small part of her heard him go on to apologize for her loss and tell her Gary’s body would be transported to the county morgue for a coroner’s report and someone should be getting in touch with her about making arrangements. 

The weeks and months following were sad and confusing for Shelia. Six weeks after she buried him, she had the guts to read the coroner’s report. It confirmed Gary died of a massive coronary. Shelia knew Gary had been overweight, but he’d been exceptionally healthy otherwise. She would have been able to accept the fact that he just up and died of a coronary if the same report hadn’t stated he was an amputee. She had called the coroner himself as soon as she read the report, and he insisted Gary was a right leg total amputee. He even emailed her x-rays that were supposedly of Gary’s body, missing the whole right leg. Mistakes had clearly been made, and her petition to exhume the body had fallen on ears that thought she was a crazy, grieving wife, unable to accept her loss and move on.

In the sharp-edged darkness of a cold January night, Shelia awoke alone again and wished she could talk to Gary one more time, so she could understand and have peace. Her faith was exhausted. She was tired and just wanted to know. She would give anything to know. Drifting off, she dreamed of a stinking, hand-less hobo, calling her name, promising to grant her wishes and smudging the window with his filthy stumps while flies swarmed and buzzed around him.

Glaring sun on snow intensified the urgency of daylight. She didn’t care. Shelia didn’t want to get up any more, and if she didn’t have to feed and take care of the dog, she wouldn’t ever get up again. As she sat and gazed toward the window, clear swaths cut in crystalline frost brought her dream back full force. The dirty hobo had been there. Beyond the window, his footprints in the snow led to the answer. She opened the back door and followed them, into the cloud of flies and her one true desire…

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