Authors: Ray Garton
He faced front and walked toward all that wet, spattering red.
Grandma whimpered in the passenger seat as Bob Berens drove up the hill to the hospital. Long accustomed to her whimpering, he barely heard it. He focused his attention on the talk station that was playing on the radio—KGO from San Francisco—but as usual, he was unable to tune Grandma out entirely. His window was down and the warm evening air hit his face as he chewed a stick of Juicy Fruit.
“If only I could afford to go to the sanitarium,” Grandma said. “I’d feel so much better there. They’d treat me well, take care of me.”
“It hasn’t been called the sanitarium for a long, long time, Grandma,” Bob said. “It’s the St. Helena Hospital.”
the sanitarium,” she said testily. “Sister White was treated there. She died there.”
Bob expelled a burst of breath from his nose. “Guess they didn’t treat her too well, huh?”
Grandma scowled at him. “She was
. It was her
. That was a long life back then. People didn’t often live to be eighty-seven in 1915. But she was God’s chosen messenger. The Lesser Light. So she lived a long life because she lived for God. Led an unblemished life. Ate healthfully. Did God’s work.”
Bob tried to narrow in on the talk show again. Grandma went on and on about Sister White as he drove. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t listening to her—she didn’t care. As she did so often and always had, she quoted Sister White’s writings, rambled on about the problems the Seventh-day Adventist prophetess had overcome—being hit in the head with a rock at age nine, comatose for two weeks, disfigured by the injury, and yet she’d gone on to write so many divinely-inspired books, to receive so many prophetic visions directly from God, and to lead the Remnant Church to his light. That was one of Grandma’s favorite stories about Sister White, the injury early in her life that the church claimed had twisted her features and plagued her health for all her years. Many people claimed that the injury had brought about in Sister White a condition called temporal lobe epilepsy, a symptom of which is often ecstatic religious “visions” and delusions of grandeur, but Adventists didn’t like that theory one little bit.
Mom and Grandma had a few pictures of Sister White hanging on the walls of the house. The pictures had been there Bob’s whole life, a permanent part of his environment. He’d decided that getting hit in the head with that rock had not disfigured her at all—she’d simply been a very ugly woman, and probably had been an equally ugly little girl. Blaming it on the rock sounded better, of course. It was good marketing.
As a boy, the grainy black-and-white pictures of Sister White had haunted his dreams—her stern, homely face glaring at him from the past, those fat lips pressed together hard in a straight line, sharp eyes accusing him, condemning him. The Lesser Light (as they called her), the co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist church and prophetess of God, the final and infallible interpreter of scripture and arbiter of doctrine for the church, seemed to glare across the decades into Bob Berens’s eyes to let him know how wicked he was, how iniquitous and base... how doomed.
Of course, she still haunted his dreams, even now at the age of thirty-eight. Sometimes she even haunted his waking thoughts. The stern face, condemning eyes, all those hundreds of thousands of words she’d written which seemed to exist only to tell him how sinful he’d been his entire life. Sometimes he imagined a great mountain of all her red hardcover books piled on top of him, crushing and smothering him.
Grandma’s ramblings were not the result of senility—at eighty-eight, she was sharper than Bob’s mother, and probably healthier than he, although she enjoyed whining about her myriad ailments. When she was hit with one of her “spells”, she insisted he take her to the Emergency Room. Doctors familiar with her—and there were several in Big Rock, including those in the ER—always sighed when they saw Marion Berens coming. They knew they not only would have to tell her, once again, that there was nothing physically wrong with her, but that they would be subjected to her sermonizing and proselytizing, that she would invariably dig some Adventist literature from her purse and insist they take it home and read it. “And when you read it,” she would say, “think about your sins, and about eternity.” Bob felt sorry for Grandma’s doctors. His mother’s, too, for that matter—Mom had a lot in common with her mother-in-law, although she’d rather die than admit it.
When the road forked, Bob veered to the left and into the Emergency Room parking lot. He got out, went around to the passenger side, opened the door, and helped Grandma out of the car. He held her elbow as she walked slowly and haltingly to the ER entrance. At home, she walked with the speed and steadiness of a woman decades her junior, but now she shuffled along like an old cripple. Bob knew better than to offer to get a wheelchair for her. She preferred to be seen making a tremendous effort to get into the hospital—it made her look more frail and sick, and more courageous, than being wheeled easily through the door in a chair.
When they entered the Emergency Room, Bob heard muffled shouting and what sounded like frantic activity coming from somewhere. He took Grandma to the front window. The woman on the other side looked harried and distracted. Her name was Winona, a willowy, youthful woman in her fifties who had checked Grandma in on some of their previous trips to the Emergency Room.
“Hello again,” Winona said. “Can I help you?”
Bob slid a chair to Grandma and she slowly lowered her slender frame into it. “Yes,” Grandma said, “I need help. I’m feeling... well... my nerves... I’m short of breath and very weak and shaky and I have a rapid heartbeat and I—”
As Grandma listed off her symptoms, Bob looked beyond Winona and through the half-open door behind her. All the shouting and activity was coming from beyond that door. Bob caught glimpses of rapid movement through the opening. Even worse, he saw red splashes of blood on the floor and heard a cry of pain so agonizing that it made him wince. Someone back there was seriously hurt and it was keeping everyone very busy.
Bob bent toward the window and placed his hands on the counter as he interrupted Grandma. “Excuse me, but you seem to have your hands full back there.”
“Yes, we do,” Winona said. “We’re pretty swamped at the moment.”
Bob glanced again at the blood beyond the open door. “They’ll probably be busy for awhile, won’t they?”
“Oh, yes.” She turned to Grandma. “I’m afraid you’ll have to wait some time before anyone can see you.”
Frowning, Grandma leaned forward slightly and peered through the open door, as if skeptical that something back there could be more pressing than her own needs.
“Grandma, do you want to wait?” Bob said. “It’s going to be awhile.”
She sat up straight in the chair a moment, thinking. Finally, she slowly stood. “I don’t have time to wait at my age. I could go any second. Let’s go home, Bobby.”
Bob sighed and smiled at Winona. “Thank you,” he said as he led Grandma back out. At the Emergency Room door, he tossed his gum into a nearby garbage can.
Behind the wheel again, Bob started the car, backed out, and left the hospital to return home. Home to the house where he lived with his mother and grandmother; home to the Victorian-era pictures of stern, condemning Ellen G. White on the walls; home to the bedroom in which he’d played and slept as a little boy, in which he’d masturbated with frantic adolescent energy... and in which he still masturbated as a single middle-aged man with no social life, no love life, no life at all apart from his mother and grandmother, the religion that dominated them.
His younger sister Rochelle had left the house years ago to pursue a life of her own—she was married and had an eleven-year-old son. She took every opportunity to point out to Bob how dysfunctional he was, still living at home at his age, contributing little with his part-time job of keeping the church clean and helping out Pastor Edson now and then. Rochelle seemed to enjoy pointing that out almost as much as Mom and Grandma did.
Bob wished more than anything that he were not going back to that house, that he was going anywhere but there. But he had nowhere else to go.
All that remained of the most recent patients in the ER was the blood on the floor that had not yet been cleaned up by someone from housekeeping. Adrenaline still pumped through him as he tried to come down from the pressure of treating the two severely injured bikers, one of whom hadn’t made it, as well as the driver of the moving van, who had gone straight into surgery, and the little nine-year-old boy who had been viciously mauled by an unidentified animal in his backyard just after sunset. He went to the refrigerator in the small, cluttered lounge area in back and got a bottle of water, removed the cap, and drank. Dr. Rodriguez had arrived and was ready to relieve him.
Another animal attack,
Abe thought again. He’d been at Sisters of Mercy a little more than three months, and the boy he’d just treated was the third animal-attack victim he had seen. That did not include those he had not treated himself, or those that had taken place before he began working at Sisters of Mercy. There had been an inordinate number of animal attacks in the Big Rock area for the last several months, as far as he could make out. He’d heard about them from nurses and other doctors, and there even was a little talk about them around town. No one seemed to know what kind of animal was doing the attacking or if there were more than one such animal, and oddly, no one seemed to care much. The attacks did not happen often enough to raise any real alarm, but at the same time, they seemed frequent enough to Abe to be a concern.
Abe’s thoughts were interrupted by a hand on his shoulder.
“You look like five miles of bumpy road.”
He turned to Dr. Hugo Rodriguez and smiled wearily. “Rough evening,” he said. “Four motorcyclists hit by a moving van, two not so bad, two a real mess, and one died. While we were working on them, a woman brought her little boy in after he was mauled by some kind of animal.”
“We have leash laws in this county, dammit,” Hugo said as he went to the coffeemaker and poured some into a white mug. “It’s about time people started following them.” He was in his mid-thirties, around Abe’s age; medium height, a bit soft and fleshy, with a paunch, light brown skin, and a full head of black hair that usually looked uncombed.
“I’m not so sure this was a dog,” Abe said as he removed his white coat and hung it in the locker. “The boy kept saying it was... well,
“So maybe it was a
dog.” Hugo put some sweetener into his coffee.
“No. He said it was upright.”
Hugo kept his back to Abe and said nothing a moment as he stirred his coffee. Finally, he turned slowly as he took a sip. “That’s a pretty strange dog, Abe.”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean. It couldn’t be a dog if it was upright.”
“What kind of animal around here walks upright?” He smirked. “Have we got chimps on the loose, or something?”
“Chimps don’t growl. At least, I don’t think they growl the way the boy said
animal growled. I was thinking a bear, maybe.”
“Haven’t been any bear sightings around here in a long time that I’m aware of. Not since I’ve been here, and that’s seven years.” He winked joshingly. “Maybe it was Bigfoot. Where did it happen?”
“In the back yard of a house over on Sutter, in the Cooper Heights neighborhood. The boy had forgotten to feed his dog, so he went out after dark to do it. The yard is fenced, with a patch of woods backed up against it, but there’s a narrow segment of the back fence that’s broken down near the doghouse. The boy was feeding his dog when something—this animal, whatever it was—reached through the opening in the fence and tried to pull him through it.”
Hugo tilted his head back slightly and frowned. “So he didn’t actually
“Oh, he saw it. The mother said there’s a light that shines over the yard from the back of the house, so visibility wasn’t bad. And this thing pulled him through that gap in the fence. By the legs. The dog saved him. The boy said the thing’s arms were hairy, the hands clawed, but it was standing up. It tore up his—”
Abe shrugged. “That’s how the boy put it. It tore up his legs pretty bad, ripped his pants to shreds. Lost a good deal of blood.”
“So maybe it wasn’t an animal,” Hugo said. “Maybe some guy in a, uh... I don’t know, a gorilla suit?” He smirked again.
“He said it smelled like an animal. It stank.” Abe took another drink and put the cap back on the bottle of water. “You notice a lot of animal attacks around here, Hugo? In Big Rock?”
Hugo shrugged. “Dog attacks, mostly. Like I said, people don’t follow the leash laws. Read a letter to the editor about it just the other day in the paper, people complaining about it. It’s a problem. What became of Seth tonight? Why isn’t he here?”
“Nobody knows. He didn’t call, nobody can reach him. Just disappeared tonight.”
Hugo chuckled as he put his stethoscope around his neck. “That Seth. Probably found a woman he couldn’t resist. That guy gets more pussy than a toilet seat. He’d blow off anything for some tail. He’ll miss his own funeral getting laid.”
But Abe wasn’t so sure. He’d been worried about Seth all evening, wondering where he was that he couldn’t call in to say he wasn’t coming. He carried a cell phone that was always on—wouldn’t want to miss a booty call from some nurse he knew, or a cute young lab tech. But he simply didn’t strike Abe as the type to miss work for a little nookie—he got all of that he wanted on his free time.