Ben cut across the empty parking lot of the Annapolis Foundation for Sleep Research, picking at the dried paste buried deep in his scalp where the electrodes had been attached to his head the previous night. He enjoyed an odd sense of pleasure in removing the paste, like finding pockets of sand buried deep in his hair after a day at the beach.
It was shaping up to be a warm day, and as Ben neared his car he flung his jacket over his shoulder, letting the sunlight warm his hospital-cold skin. A business card that Dr. Wright had given him slipped out from the inside pocket of his jacket and fluttered across the pavement on a light wind. Ben jumped to catch it, but it danced over the parking lot in a gust and was lost from sight.
Not a problem, he thought. Dr. Wright gave Ben the same business card three times already and urged Ben to call the doctor—whose name was on the card—for over a month now. He explained in detail how important it was for Ben to meet the man. The other cards were at home, somewhere.
Ben fiddled with his keys, found the alarm button, and unlocked his car. He flicked away the dried paste left stuck to his fingers, brushed his hands off on his pant legs and climbed into the driver’s seat. The reflection gazing back at him in the rearview mirror was not flattering. Nights at that lackluster hospital made him feel so disheveled. His face was gaunt, his eyes hazy and red, and the stubble on his face in desperate need of a shave. He rubbed the side of his cheek, enjoying the sensation of the coarse hairs against his palm. The stubble gave off a silvery-hue that reminded Ben that he was getting older. Even the hair on his head was now speckled with grey, like someone splattered a brush with drying white paint all over his head. He looked like his father, or rather how he remembered his father.
He turned his gaze from the mirror and put the car in drive.
Ben yearned for good coffee—not the sour crap they served in the hospital that tasted like the Styrofoam cups they served it in. The clock on the dashboard read 11:37. With any luck he would be home in an hour—that being if he didn’t stop along the way for coffee, and maybe some breakfast. And, of course, if the traffic around I-95 wasn’t particularly unbearable—but the chances of the circle around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor being anything but hellish during lunch hour were slim to none.
He hated that circle, loathed every car that sped along the pavement, cursed it with every breath in his body. As soon as he merged with the traffic, his life was put in imminent danger. Cars and trucks speed between lanes, weaving this way and that, coming dangerously close to hitting one another—inches from disaster. When Benjamin Walker moved to Baltimore, he named I-95 “Maryland’s Inner Death Circle,” and the name became more relevant with each passing day.
As bad as I-95 was, driving the streets of New York was not much better; and Ben was glad his commute was no longer between Baltimore and New York City. Currently his drive between Baltimore and Annapolis takes a little over an hour; and outside of the Harbor, the drive was not bad at all. It was a good thing Dr. Wright left the city to take the job in Annapolis. His loyalty to the man might have eventually worn out. The commute was not worth the money, no matter how much money the doctor paid—unless the doctor started paying substantially more, which of course, the hospitals would never agree to. Ben’s fees and rates were set in contract, per test; and rarely—if ever—changed in the slightest. Compromise and negotiation were out of the question.
Nevertheless, Ben knew in his heart that he would miss the old doctor if he ever stopped working for him. Not exactly like missing an old friend, though Stuart was an old friend, but more like missing a well-accustomed routine. Or like missing an old tree in the backyard after watching it grow over the years. The tree could be replaced, but it would never grow the same branches.
Lately though, the work with Dr. Wright was good. The money was all right, and the tests were regular enough that Ben considered it a real job. He could endure the old man’s stale breath as he hovered over his face attaching sensors and wires to his forehead and scalp. He could endure the sleep deprivation studies, the food abstention trials, the unknown medications presented in white Dixie cups, and the incredibly tedious paperwork and questionnaires he constantly had to fill out.
The biggest problem Ben dealt with over the last few years was not the pay, or the long commute: it was the lack of anything new—anything exciting. The original tests, back when he was a teenager, were groundbreaking. At least they were to him. Over time, they became repetitive. The same sleep deprivation studies, the same food abstention trials, the same melatonin and B-12 supplements; over and over….
However, he could endure the boredom if the price was right. If the money kept rolling in, he would put up with it—and lately the money was rolling in.
Ben’s curiosity was stirred, however, as they were wrapping up the sleep deprivation study earlier that morning, and Dr. Wright said, “Ben, I have something for you. I’m not sure how to do this, so I’m just going to go ahead and do it.” The tall doctor scratched the light fuzz on the side of his hairless head, wrinkling his trimmed mustache. “I want our working relationship to stay as professional as always.”
“Sure, Stuart, so do I. What’s up?”
“Here.” He handed Ben a white envelope. “There’s five-hundred dollars in there.”
“Wait, is this all I’m getting? This study lasted over a month, I’m contracted—”
“Your check for the study is in the mail. This is a little something extra, a bonus. We appreciate your years of work at the hospital. This is just a little something to show our gratitude.”
Ben thumbed open the envelope. Our gratitude? Five, crisp, one hundred-dollar bills were stacked inside, all facing the same direction. The money smelled new, starchy, and fresh. Ben scratched his head. “Is this your way of firing me, like a pension or something?”
“No, no, Ben.” He shook his head. “Nothing of the sort. Not long ago we received some private funding at the hospital from some very generous donors. These individuals are following your work and dedication to the hospital; and in return, the hospital would like to show their appreciation by giving you a bonus. That’s all there is to it. Just a bonus.”
Each payment Ben had ever received, over the many years working with Dr. Stuart Wright, came in the form of a check, written out to the exact amount. He even declared the earnings in his income tax, on a 1099-MISC form. Cash was never an option, never mentioned. Neither was a bonus. Hospitals did not run like that. Doctors got bonuses, but test subjects did not.
“This is cash, Stuart.”
“I know it is,” his mustache moved with his sigh. “I think you can understand why we need to keep this . . . to ourselves. These are private investors, Ben, and it’s just a bonus.” He patted Ben on the shoulder. “We’ve been working together for a long time now, and you deserve a few extra dollars every once in a while. Don’t think so hard; you’ll give yourself a migraine. Just say ‘thank you,’ and take the cash.” He smiled, wrinkling the furrows on his bald forehead.
Private investors rolled around Ben’s head. He stared at the money—cash money, five hundred dollars, tax-free. Ben worked in the bar business for most of his life; even owned a small place in upstate New York, and did quite well while it was open. A few dollars always slipped through the cracks, and not reported to the IRS—which was “normal” in many bars and restaurants—but from a doctor, from a hospital? He folded the envelope and tucked it inside his jacket pocket. Perhaps the less he knew the better.
“Tell them ‘thank you.’”
“I will Ben, I will.”
This conversation played over in Ben’s mind as he eyed his jacket lying on the passenger seat, where the five hundred dollars were folded inside. He shook his head.
Strange, he thought.
Rent money, he assured himself.
Ben survived “Maryland’s Inner Death Circle,” certain that several of the other drivers were trying to kill him, and found a space to park less than two blocks from his door. Walking past a flower-store delivery van, that lately always seemed to be parked on that block, he arrived at the entryway of the four-unit apartment building, an old converted row house that he called home.
At the top of the staircase on the second floor were two apartments with their front doors mirroring each other on opposite sides of a small landing. Ben’s apartment was the door to the left. He unlocked the deadbolt, turned the handle, and hurried inside, happy to be back in his own space, with his own bed and comfortable couch. The apartment was not much to look at: just a narrow one-bedroom flat; but the interior had a bit of character. The living room wall opposite the front door was solid brick, and ran the length of the room. It was open to the kitchen and dining room nook, where Ben stored unopened boxes from when he first moved into the apartment. Ben liked the brick wall—he liked it very much. It probably drove the rent up an extra hundred dollars a month, but he didn’t care. It gave the place a touch of character.
Ben tossed his keys on the kitchen counter and walked straight to the bathroom. He changed out of his hospital clothing, burying the dirty garments deep in the hamper. Whatever he wore in hospitals, during trials and tests, absorbed that antiseptic hospital stench, that sterile smell that reminded Ben of the color white, and lingered on his skin for hours after.
A hot shower removed some more of the electrode-crust plastered in Ben’s hair and scalp, but whatever the stuff was that the doctor used, it never cleaned off thoroughly with soap and water. Now clean and fresh—the hospital smell scrubbed from his skin—Ben put on his well-worn old robe and collapsed on the couch. His body was sore; his mind exhausted. He needed a few hours of rest before heading to his shift at the bar. He wished he never agreed to work that night—but filling in shifts was why the bar hired him. Ben was obliged to work when an employee was sick or went on vacation, or when someone just wanted the night off. A few shifts a week always popped up.
It was times like these—these lazy afternoons—that Ben wished he had cable TV. The old square box on the shelf wasn’t even plugged in. Why he didn’t just get rid of the thing, he didn’t know. Of course, he could plug it in, look for the antenna in one of the boxes in the dining room, and maybe pick up a few channels; but there was nothing on TV worth watching. Besides, he wasn’t even sure if TVs still used those old fashioned antennas. Instead, he just sat there, gazing at the stack of books on the coffee table, debating whether he was too tired to read anything at all. The only books on the coffee table were philosophy—Nietzsche, and the like—all books that he started reading at some point or another and never finished. In his current frame of mind, he couldn’t handle philosophy.
He looked up from the books, his gaze wandering, until the solitary painting hanging by the front door stole his attention. It was the only painting created by his beloved wife Emily that he still owned. It was the only thing remaining from his old life in upstate New York.
It was a small painting, about a foot and a half square.
The swirls of paint were still vibrant, still brilliant. It was the cabin in the woods, the cabin they hiked past dozens of times. It was a small wooden building hidden among the towering pines; a whisper of smoke trailing from the chimney and warming the cabin’s interior from the blustery air. Snow covered the ground in half-melted patches, with stale, dead grass poking out from beneath. Clouds soared in the blue sky, illuminated by swirls of creamy zinc and titanium white paint. The sun was barely visible in the corner, brought to life by yellow and orange swirls, twisting and turning with various shades of red. This painting, out of the many paintings in Emily’s studio—the landscapes, still-lifes, and portraits— was always his favorite. The scene was realistic in detail, yet she used her own flair of artistic imagery to turn it into a surrealistic figment of her imagination. The sky swirled in shades of blue and purple never found in nature—yet her artistic ability was subtle enough to make these irregularities easy to overlook at first glance. It was not until you spent time absorbing the painting in full, that the irregularities became apparent to see. It was genius.
At least it was to Ben.
It was the only painting he took from her studio. He left the others neatly stacked in the corner of her paint-flecked room, exactly where Emily had last touched them.
After she died, Ben could not be around her things—not even the house they lived in. He could not sleep in the bed they shared for the eight years of their marriage, side by side. He couldn't look at her clothes, or her shoes—the leather boots she just polished and left out to dry—or her toothbrush balanced on the corner of the sink. He couldn't look at her watch with its coiled black-leather strap, sitting on the bedside table where she had last taken it off. When he stepped into that house for the first time all alone, straight from the hospital, he was still wearing the same clothes from the night before, speckled with blood—her blood. The quiet and stillness all around him was maddening. It took a considerable amount of strength just to step away from the front door. He wanted to be outside, to run as far away as possible. These things, her things, were causes of great pain—not relief, not comfort, nor gentle remembrance: just pain. She was everywhere in that house. She was still in her studio, standing in front of her easel with her back facing him. Her image on the large plate-glass windows reflected the focused concentration of her creased brow as she applied a stroke with her brush. He saw her applying her makeup in front of the bathroom sink, her face an inch away from the mirror. He smelled her in the almond-scented shampoo and the little jasmine scented bars of soap with the Chinese writing on the packaging. Everything in his home reminded him of her. Emily had seeped into the very walls, the fibers, and structure of their home. It was impossible that she was gone, absolutely impossible—she couldn’t be. She was everywhere in that house, around every corner, and in every room.
But she wasn’t there. She was gone.
Taken from him like all the rest.
A simple accident, a stupid fight at the bar. Two drunken patrons fighting over something, anything, nothing. Sports, maybe. A girl, perhaps . . . it didn’t matter. Words were spoken and punches were thrown. By the time Ben heard the commotion, and ran out from the kitchen, it was over. Stunned customers were circling about. The two men stood slack-jawed and in shock: all their anger deflated. Emily lay on the ground bleeding, the knife by her side. She tried to stop the fight; tried to get between the two men.
That was it, an accident. No sickness, no long hospitalization. She was healthy and vibrant one moment, and dead the next.
Ben left New York, left their old home and sold it all—left everything behind. But, of course, he took just one thing: the painting of the cabin in the woods.
As time passed, his decision to abandon Emily’s possessions caused countless nights of regret and anguish. Those items, however painful they were at the time, would have been most welcome as the years went by and the reality of her being gone truly sunk in. The longing to possess anything and everything of hers became an obsession, a comforting need, and an endless source of torment and sorrow. How could he have left everything? Why? He had to smell her, hold her, squeeze one of her shirts in his hands; smother it against his face. Breathe in lungful’s of her fragrant skin lingering on one of her silk shirts—but it was all gone. Ben called the agent that sold the house and contacted the current owners in an attempt to track down any of the paintings left behind, but to no avail. All of Emily’s possessions were gone, and all Ben had left were his memories.
These thoughts and needs raced through his mind in endless waves of guilt as he stared into the swirls of paint in the sky above the cabin in the woods. Feelings pierced his mind like sharp blades: slashing away without consequence, sinking their cold metal teeth deep into the flesh of his brain. The painting brought back memories both beautiful and horrid. He saw his wife painting, her reflection in the plate-glass window, her forehead furrowed in concentration, paint smeared and dotted all over her hands, forearms, and face . . . he stood in the doorway, just looking, not wanting Emily to see him looking at her. Just enjoying the pleasure of watching her work, doing the thing that made her most happy . . . and that, seeing her smile, was what made him happy . . . so happy . . .
Ben got up from the couch. The bottle of Jameson on the counter was calling his name. The thought of a drink made his stomach rumble and his mind swirl, but he could not let the rest of the day be consumed by dwelling on the past. It was too easy to spend hours staring at the painting while drinking to oblivion, as if the painting held some great divinity that he desired—the answers he needed, and the cure for the pain he both longed for and resented.
He licked his lips. His head throbbed. The yearning for a stiff drink stung at his mind, made his mouth salivate. His throat had a dryness only alcohol could soothe. A twinge of pleasure was released at the very thought of taking a sip of whiskey—a foresight into the relief the alcohol would have on his body and mind.
He went to the bedroom and set the alarm. Sleeping in the middle of the day was tough, but he needed some rest before work. Three hours should do it. He grabbed his blindfold from the bedside table and accidentally brushed off the business card hiding beneath. Bending over, he retrieved the card from the floor, noisily exerting himself from the strain. Printed across the center of the card was the name, “Dr. Peter Wulfric,” followed by a telephone number underneath. He looked at the card. He had agreed to meet doctor in two days time. Dr. Wright emphasized to Ben that Dr. Wulfric was working on a very exciting project and was looking for a client. He paid very well. Ben had put the card in his pocket and then on the bedside table—then forgot all about it. The same went for the other two.
Then Dr. Peter Wulfric called him.
The man was happy and pleasant, and urged Ben to meet with him. Ben shied away, telling the doctor: “I can’t get out of town . . . I’ve got a lot on my plate right now.” Dr. Wulfric volunteered to travel to him, to Baltimore, just so they could talk—a quick lunch. Perhaps it was intrigue, or perhaps, when asked what hospital the doctor worked for, the Doctor said, “We can discuss that when we talk face-to-face,” that Ben became interested. He conceded to a meeting. Dr. Peter Wulfric was coming to Fells Point in two days, and hopefully he would pick up the lunch tab.
Ben tossed the card back on the bedside table and pulled the covers up to his chin. The blindfold was fastened tightly over his eyes, shielding away the intense rays of sunlight penetrating through the blinds. He took a deep breath and relaxed his mind. Sleep was not going to come easily.
Thoughts of the painting along with visions of Emily flashed in his mind: her dark-curly hair bouncing on her shoulders as she laughed, paint on her face, cheeks, and hair. He saw his own finger dip into a pool of dark blue paint from the pallet, and watched his finger move to smear her nose. She shrieked with laughter, grabbed at his palm and fell backwards. She was laughing too hard to resist, and his finger found her nose, rubbing it all over with the oily blue paint. She shrieked, “Stop, Ben!” He heard his own laughter as they kissed. She grabbed him close, not letting him go, holding him by the ears and smearing her paint-covered nose all over his face.
He saw this as it happened, in that paint-speckled studio of hers. He heard the laughter and felt the warmth of love in his heart. His blindfold grew warm with the onset of tears.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish