The nurse opened the door for me into the dark room. It was bright outside, but the light from the hallway was blunted fiercely by the inner darkness. I stepped into the room, unquestioning, and it was shut quietly behind me, manufacturing a quiet breeze against the nape of my neck. In the dark, my shoes glowed, and my feet within them moved of their own accord. They led me to an aluminum folding chair. I sat down, and my left elbow smacked against the corner of the room. My shoes faded just as the front wall of the room was illuminated. The entire wall was covered by a white projector screen. The light allowed me to see that others were in the room with me. Clustered at the other side of the room, far away, were all the women I had been involved with in my life. They stared as one at the screen, feeding me only with their profiles. They were silent. The screen flickered, and although I could see no projector, a slide came on. My heart jumped. It was me when I was six years old. I was small, with long, curly hair. A long-fingered hand held my arm. My mother’s. Another calloused hand rested on my shoulder, dwarfing me. My father’s. I was lying on a gurney and I looked terrified. Four brutish hands gripped the rails of my gurney. My six-year old voice emerged from the still picture, freezing me. “Nooooo, nooooo,” it screamed. The slide changed and I involuntarily jerked backward. My child-image was encased in two barbed platforms, stomach down, facing away from me. In an operation room. The image was three-dimensional, and my feet poked out into the dark viewing room. They spasmed. The four mean hands that had been holding the rails now all held sharp tools, which pressed into an unseen wound in my back. The picture moved crudely, hands stabbing, my body twitching in pain. My young voice continued to scream while the image unmercifully switched to a close-up of what the hands were doing to my back. My spinal cord was open and four scalpels poked and jerked at the jell-like discs of my vertebrae. Amid my soft shrieks, I heard the doctors’ shadowy laughter. The image changed from the wound to me lying down to the tortured wound again. Back and forth first slowly, then the change quickened into a flash that bathed the viewing room in a wild light. The pain became mine. I felt their cruel investigations chewing at my lower back and I bucked sideways, knocking over the chair and falling on the floor. I opened my mouth to scream and it emerged not as an adult’s, but the weary, horrified lament of a six-year old. “Noooo, Noooo.” It said. The screen blackened, and the agony left me. I sat up, disoriented, and another image arrived. I gasped. It was me, eight years old, staring directly at me. I don’t know how I recognized myself. The child’s hair was long, black, dirty and straight. His eyes were pinched, and underlined by thick stripes of coal exhaustion. He was starved, skin between his ribs like flesh runnels. Grotesque, ancient scars swallowed his entire upper body. He sat down, shoulders slumped. His attention on me was frozen, permanent. Something moved at the four corners of the screen. Points emerging first, blades following, handles, then the wicked, gripping hands. Syrup’s progress, lazy but inevitable, coming for more. I glanced to the right and noticed the women were staring at me. They opened their mouths in unison: “So that’s why,” they said. “That’s why.”
I woke up early this morning to the whining sounds of a baby crying. I opened my eyes and noticed commotion in the kitchen. The pretty neighbor who lives above me stood in the doorway to my bedroom, carrying a sack of what appeared to be black feed. She spilled a little bit on the floor in front of my bookshelf, then came to my bedside. One of my eyes was still glued shut by sleep, but I noticed she was dressed slick, pressed blouse and business skirt. She gave me a dazzling smile and said, “Remember that Francis account I was talking about once last month?” And I was thinking, WTF? How did she get into my apartment? What the hell is she talking about as if I would know? But, the girl was very pretty. So I nodded, sitting up in bed. “Well,” she continued. “The deal went through, and now I can do anything I want. Come look.” I got out of bed and followed her into my livingroom. A well groomed dog sat on my reading chair, making that whining sound. My kitchen was brilliantly clean. My neighbor said, “Because you’re so nice, and never complain to the man about my baby crying, I decided to come down and clean out your refrigerator.” She made a sour face. “It was disgusting.” I opened the fridge and noticed it was unusually clean, but she had somehow switched the freezer section to the bottom. Also, the entire appliance was filled with individual bottles of Corona in wet paper bags. I shut the fridge. “I was wondering,” she said. “If you could watch my baby while I go to Citibank.” I turned to the chair and the dog had transformed into a chubby baby that looked like my nephew. She grabbed him and put him in my arms. “For how long?” I asked. “I’ll be gone for a few minutes.” Grabbing her purse, she stepped outside and got into her car, which had “EUROPE OR BUST” painted on the back. The baby cried. Dream Over.
Todd Austin Hunt was born in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and raised in Central Kentucky. At the age of 13, free from the restrictive canon of Catholic School, he read Misery by Stephen King. This reading opened up a new threshold of wonder and purpose. He earned his B.A. from University of Kentucky and M.A. from Eastern Kentucky University. His thesis was a collection of short stories entitled What the Chickens Play Before Sunday. Publishing speculative stories since 2003, Hunt won an Honorable Mention in the 2003 Annual Ray Bradbury Writing Contest and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2007. He currently lives at the edge of the Wando River in South Carolina, amid the shrieks and squawks of unimagined wildlife.