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My name is Ray Neflong. That's not my real name, of course - the beauty of the Internet is anonymity, isn't it? But this is a true story.|
This goes back to the days when I was a paramedic. I worked alongside Bulbuck Hostang. I wouldn't call him a bad guy. Still, he did the worst thing I've ever heard of anyone doing, ever. But I'll tell you about that later. Anyway, right now I want to talk about twenty-seven. Patient twenty-seven.
All this happened a long time ago, back when I was still quite young. It didn't make so much of an impression on me at the time. However, I didn't forget it - and, the older I get, the more it eats at me.
Have I told you about Peter Shuffle? No. Well, I thought I just did, but it seems the monsters of cyberspace have just gone and eaten that part of the story. Or maybe I just imagined writing it. I don't think I'm slipping, but there are moments when it seems possible. That I am slipping, I mean.
Anyway, Peter Shuffle was my uncle, and he was nuts. I mean, crazy. He'd sniff things. You invite him into your house, he'll be sniffing at the corner. Sniffing the birdcage. Sniffing your dog. You'd see him snuffling away at tables in bars, stuff in the hardware shop, you name it. Once, a cop busted him for sniffing a girl's bicycle seat. The judge called him a pervert, but, hell, he was an equal opportunity sniffer. If it had a smell, he'd give it a good whiff, check it out. And, if it didn't have a smell, he'd sniff it anyway, to try to figure out why.
(Was? Is. He's not dead yet. He's still alive, sort of, in that veterans home.)
Anyway. Peter Shuffle, my uncle, he was good at fixing things. A handyman. The night Bulbuck Hostang and me - and I? - anyway, the night us two guys went to the nuthouse, Peter was there.
The nuthouse was a place called the Linnerston Heights Astrokarmic Center, which has its own story. Maybe you know it, but, anyhow. There was this guy called Olbert John Ebisu, born in Alaska, who made big bucks through selling junk bonds. He died (a lot of people do this, in the end, even rich one) and left a bunch of money to build this nuthouse. Reason being, he figured crazy people are actually aliens. They've kind of shoehorned their minds into our brains, which causes malfunctions of one kind or another.
Anyway. This was back about the time when most of the lunatic places were being closed down, their inmates dumped on the pavement someplace. But Linnerston Heights kept going for a few years after that - only closed down after that cult thing, actually. (But that's got nothing to do with this story, so let's not get into that.)
So. My story.
We were in the ambulance, me and my partner - this guy Ray Neflong, this crimes against humanity person I'm going to tell you about later. Anyway, we were sharing a beer - we were really careful, we'd split one between us, didn't want to lose our jobs or anything - when this transfer job came over the radio.
Some guy - I forget his name - had fallen out of bed and maybe broken his hip, so he was being transferred to a proper hospital for an x-ray.
So, nine o'clock at night, we rolled up to the premises of the Linnerston Heights Astrokarmic Center, which looked like something built by vampires - and guess who we found inside? It was old Uncle Sniff, old Peter Shuffle himself (not so old then, really, though he's become the authentic article since), who was standing on a stepladder, sniffing the ceiling.
"So they've got you at last," I said.
"I'm repairing stuff," said Peter.
Didn't seem likely - I mean, hell, it was after working hours. But, anyway, we didn't argue about it, because we had a job to do. So we maneuvered the stretcher round Peter's stepladder, and left him standing there, sniffing, and we kept on following the deaf mute, who was still holding the chainsaw. (I told you about that, right? Let's check ... no. Seems not. But, hell, this story is getting too long as it is. You don't need to know about that, anymore than you need to know about the goldfish in the balloon, or the squashed mouse in the sandwich.)
Finally, the deaf mute brought us to the nursing station, where there was this very pretty blonde nurse, a woman, who was busy doing a tatoo job on her male colleague. I kid you not. The people who work in the mental health industry are basically crazy, if you ask me. (But maybe I've got the wrong idea. On the ambulance, we were always going to Linnerston Heights, and maybe it's not typical.)
Anyway. The female nurse left her colleague mopping at his tattoo, which was bleeding a fair bit - he was smiling, though, singing to himself and showing no pain - and she took us to the bed. There was this guy, whose name I've forgotten. There was a big "twenty-seven" painted on the wall at the head of his bed in that same shade of glaring yellow green that our town now uses to shout out its fire engines.
Here's his story. He was an old guy living with his family. He got depressed, and he pretty much stopped talking. So they got worried and sent him to hospital. There, the people in white put him into these shuffling old pajamas and put him in this big ward, and after a bit he fell out of bed and broke his hip.
"And this," said the nurse.
By that time, we had the nameless guy stretched on the - I mean, strapped on the stretcher. (Well, he had a name, I mean, we had paperwork and all, but I've forgotten it, as I've said.)
"What's this?" I said.
"It's his stuff," she said.
What was in the paper bag? I have no idea. I didn't look. I mean, it was getting late, I'd had a beer - half a beer on the job, and a bit more before starting the shift - and, hey, I didn't give a monkey's. It didn't matter to me then. But it's started to matter more and more as the years have gone by.
Like last night.
I came home, last night, and the house was empty, and my wife was still dead, has been dead now for fifteen years, and there was this cup full of shadows on the table, and there was this strange kind of shadow moving very, very slowly across the linoleum, lisping slightly as it went. Only, when I turned on the light, there was nothing there. Nothing on the floor, I mean. There was cup, all right, on the table, and a couple of thumbtacks inside. I don't remember how the thumbtacks got there. I haven't been drinking recently, not since the motorbike thing, so it can't be the booze.
Anyway. Back then, I didn't give a monkey's what this space alien (that's what we used to call them, locally) had in his bag. At a guess, his toothbrush, his razor - if they trusted him with a razor - and his comb. The point is that what little was left of his life was in that paper bag. That was all the dignity he had left in the world.
I look around at my stuff, now, and count up all the things that wouldn't fit in that paper bag. You do that exercise, you see how you feel. You don't feel anything? Okay, then, you're too young. Or maybe I just can't get across my reality to yours.
Our shift ended two in the morning, and we went to Heroin Blue, which was the unofficial name of a place that was operative back then - and still is, in fact, so I won't give you its real name. Don't want to get anyone in trouble.
Heroin Blue was a bar - and it was other things, as well - and it generally closed up about ten in the morning so they could sweep the broken glass off the floor. It stood pretty much on the edge of the world, out by the railway tunnel, and maybe you'd like to hear the story of how we ran into the runnel the time the cops busted the place. But I don't feel in the mood. (To cut a long story short, there was a train already in the tunnel, and it was coming our way.)
Heroin Blue had this stuff I've never seen anyplace else, perhaps only because I haven't looked too hard, this Polish vodka, called "rectified spirits" or something like that, over 90% alcohol, and that was what Bulbuck Hostang was drinking that night, because his ex-wife had kidnapped his dog, and he was feeling all broken up about it.
I was still on beer, and, anyway, I was on antibiotics, for embarrassing personal reasons that I won't go into here, and so I wasn't supposed to drink too much - doctor's orders. (Actually, I think he told me not to drink at all, but I don't think he was a hundred per cent in contact with reality.)
So I was stone cold sober, kind of, when Bulbuck Hostang told me his story. He used to work at a home for the - what's the politically correct term? Sorry, I don't know. Retards, I guess. Well, I mean, that's what they were, the hell with correctness. And, the thing is, there was this bell. At the home, I mean. A dinner bell.
They'd ring the dinner bell, and all these retards would come running. And Bulbuck Hostang and his buddies, they'd be waiting. Round the corner. The retards would come running, and the good guys - Bulbuck Hostang and his buddies - they'd knock them down as they came. It was kind of a competition. See who could knock down the most. You got bonus points if the guy went down and stayed down, down for a count of ten.
Bulbuck Hostang was drunk when he told me this and I'm sure he never knew he'd actually confessed. He was drunk enough not have remembered the next day.
Well ... that's the worst thing I've ever heard of anyone doing, ever. I mean, I might cut a few corners now and then, but at heart I'm a responsible guy. It's the betrayal of trust thing that gets to me.
So that's the crimes against humanity bit I was promising you. And I can see you now, sitting back, kind of disappointed, saying - what? That's all? Yeah, well. Isn't that enough?
Anyway, this has nothing to do with Peter Shuffle, and Peter Shuffle has nothing to do with the guy with the paper bag, and the paper bag guy has nothing to do with my wife. But it seems to me that life is all made up out of bits and pieces which don't have anything to do with each other, which is another way of saying that they're all part of the same story, although the train (I can't really explain this) the train in the tunnel is not.
Well ... to continue. I wasn't into the Polish stuff, but beer will do it for you, if you drink enough. Come daybreak, I found myself walking home (I'm not sure why, but maybe it had something to do with losing my car keys, or with not being able to remember where I'd parked the car) and I was really tired. So I found a place to sleep along the way.
When I woke, it was afternoon. I was almost home - feeling only ten per cent alive, but still able to move, somehow - when I went past Peter Shuffle's place. My uncle was in the front garden (goes past his uncle's house) whitewashing his two Chinese lion dogs. For once, he wasn't sniffing. (Actually, he never sniffed paint. Or glue, either, come to think of it. If it wasn't some kind of weird behavior that you could maybe get a patent on, he wasn't interested in doing it.)
So I guess he wasn't crazy after all. He really was in the Linnerston Heights Astrokarmic Center to fix something, and maybe just got distracted by the sniffing opportunities.
I like to think about that, sometimes. It kind of amuses me. In a world full of things I'd rather not think about, it's nice to have something to focus on.
And that's it. Our story, I mean. The bottle's empty, I got to go buy me a new one.
This story, "The Transfer of Patient Twenty-Seven", made its first appearance when posted on Hugh Cook's website zenvirus.com on 2003 February 23 Sunday. Copyright © 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.
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Do you support terrorism?"
The killing needle was against his neck. The scanning machine clicked relentlessly as it monitored the functions of his brain. Sweat beaded on his forehead and ran down his face. He could feel his legs shaking, could feel his very bowels loosening.
"You must answer. Do you support terrorism?"