by Starsky Hutch 76
Agony. Total agony. That was all Winslow Percival Schott knew these days as he occupied the single, iron-framed bed in the hospital ward of Blackgate Prison. His once-corpulent form now lay emaciated from the cancer that riddled his body.
He used to try to take his mind from the pain by watching the green line of the EKG as it traced its way across the monitor. That was before the sickness took his sight. Now, all he could do was lay there and feel it growing within him. He could hear the nurses and orderlies as they talked about him, their comments ranging from sympathy to loathing and disdain.
How had fate brought him to this? All he had ever wanted to do was make children happy with his toys. Now they called him a villain — him. Someone who made toys should never be called a villain.
His own damnable luck had made him a criminal, a wanted man. And now he would die alone and afraid, lying in his own filth.
“You feel you deserve better,” he suddenly heard a voice say. He let out a gasp, trying in vain to peer through sightless eyes for the speaker.
“Here, let me help.” He felt the close proximity of a hand as it waved over his eyes. The cataracts suddenly seemed to melt away, and he saw a man dressed in a sharp green suit standing by his bed. It wasn’t perfect sight, but it was sight, nonetheless. It looked as if he were seeing him through a haze of heated air, as if they were in the desert. He had a thick mane of blond hair, and he was almost sinister in his handsomeness. The green of his eyes was a perfect match to the green of his suit.
The man who stood before him reminded him a little of the actor Rutger Hauer from his favorite film, Bladerunner. He had thought how wonderful it would be to make toys as perfect and real as the replicants.
“Who are you?” Schott croaked. “How did you get in here?”
“There are few in this world immune to my charms,” the man said, smiling. “As to who I am, I’m sure in your heart of heart, you already know.”
“Are… are you here to take me…?” Winslow started.
“Oh, no,” he said with a smile. “A soul such as yours you don’t take all at once. It is to be savored.”
“Mine? But why?”
“Because your soul was once one that could once have been called good… kindly, even. It was life that twisted it into its current shape… made it bitter. And that makes it all the more special to me.”
He lifted up a colorful teddy bear that rested on the table. He smiled down at the lavender-furred bear. “One of yours?”
“No,” Winslow said, swallowing painfully. “I haven’t been able to make toys for quite some time. Some… good-hearted person probably felt that might ease my suffering.”
The blond man chuckled. “Ah, yes. No matter how horrific the crimes of the wretches who populate this place, there will always be someone out there willing to take pity on them in their moment of need. I wonder if the one who put this here knew it would be a constant reminder to you of what you’ve lost.”
“If I’m not dead yet, why are you here?” Schott coughed. “You’ll have me to torment for all time eventually. Can’t you wait?”
“I’m not here to torment you,” the blond man said. “The opposite, in fact. I’m here to give you your heart’s desire, to put you back in touch with that for which you are most passionate.” He reached inside his jacket and pulled out an old-fashioned scroll and feather quill. He unrolled the scroll to reveal a contract. “Do you accept?”
Winslow gulped painfully before giving his answer. “I…”
A sad feeling came over Nurse Claire Burch as she stared at the empty hospital bed. Most of the patients in the hospital ward ended up there as a result of their own violent nature. It was rare these days that a patient came along whose death touched her at all. This one was different. He looked so kindly and frail. She had heard that he used to have frequent battles with Superman. She found that very hard to believe. He hadn’t looked like he was capable of hurting a fly.
Frank, one of the security guards, came up beside her. She was glad it was him. She wouldn’t have felt comfortable with any of the others seeing her so choked up about one of the prisoners.
“Just when you think you have these super-villain types figured out, one of them comes along and surprises you,” Frank said, also looking down at the empty bed.
“What do you mean?” Claire asked.
“Well, he did the usual thing these guys do to try to get their slice of fame from beyond the grave. You know, like leave instructions on where to find all his secret weapons so they can be donated to a museum… the Superman Museum, in his case. It’s what he did with all his money that’s surprising.”
“What’s that?” Claire asked.
“He left it all to the Metropolis Children’s Hospital for the care and treatment of children with terminal illnesses,” Frank said, running a hand over his shortly cropped salt-and-peppered, crewcut hair as if he was still surprised by the news.
Frank shook his head in disbelief. “I swear to God. Just when you think all these guys are rotten to the core, one of them does something like this.”
Later that night, as Claire helped the new occupant into the bed, she noticed the stuffed bear that had been left sitting in the chair beside it. As far as she knew, the toy bear had been the only tenant the chair had ever known. She hoped it had at least brought him some comfort, making him feel a little less alone in his last hours.
She lifted the bear up and stared at it. She was surprised that it hadn’t been taken to the children’s hospital with the rest of his toys. How had they managed to overlook it?
The end of her shift was near, so she headed toward the locker area, carrying the stuffed bear with her. She decided no one would mind if she took it home to her daughter Natalie. The girl had been so sullen and quiet lately. Perhaps this would cheer her up.
After removing her duffel bag from her locker, she changed out of her uniform and into her street clothes, then placed the bear on top of her uniform before zipping the bag shut.
Claire let out a sigh as she pulled into the driveway beside her small house. The lawn was still not mowed. She had asked Mel every day for the past five days to mow the lawn. Every day he had said he would. It made it harder for her to defend him from his detractors when he did so little to reassure her faith in him.
She slammed the door to her old station wagon and walked inside. Naturally, the door was unlocked for anyone who might want to get in. God forbid Mel should actually go out of his way to protect his chosen family.
“You left the door unlocked,” she said sullenly as she walked in, finding Mel Harper sitting on the couch in his T-shirt and boxers, eating cereal and watching TV.
“Well, hello to you, too,” he said.
“I’ve asked you to not do that.”
“Hey, I’m right here if anyone tried to get in,” he said.
“What if they had guns?”
“Then I’d imagine they could shoot the lock. One deadbolt isn’t gonna stop anyone who really wanted in.”
Claire sighed. “How about the lawn? I’ve been asking you to take care of that for days now. I’m sure the neighbors are talking.”
“Ah, I don’t care what they think.”
“Maybe you don’t, but I do,” Claire snapped.
“Hey, you asked me to find a job, too,” Mel said. “How’m I supposed to do that if I’m out there playing yard boy?”
“So you’ve been looking?”
“I looked at the want ads, anyway,” Mel said. “Didn’t see nothin’ that excited me.”
“You mean you couldn’t find anything in all those ads?” Claire said. “The Sunday paper is full of jobs!”
“Not in my field!” he said. “I’ve got special skills!”
“Yeah, well, the bills are piling up while you’re waiting for something to come along for those special skills of yours,” she grumbled.
“Well, you’re doing all right, aren’t you?” he said. “Taking the night shift for those flex hours is paying pretty good. You keep doing that, and we should be OK.”
“Self-centered jackass,” Claire said, storming out of the room.
“Hey, watch that mouth of yours,” Mel called out, looking over his shoulder, “so’s I don’t have to watch it for you.”
Claire let out a sigh as she peeked in on Natalie. Sometimes, it felt as if the only sight she got to see of her little girl these days was her sleeping head poking out from under the bed sheets. She started to slowly close the door when she heard Natalie’s voice call out, “Mom? Is that you?”
“Yes, sweetie,” Claire said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.” She walked in and sat down on the edge of Natalie’s bed and stroked her hair lovingly. “I brought you something.” She handed Natalie the colorful teddy bear with the heart in the center of its white belly.
A large smile crossed the usually sullen girl’s face. “Thank you, mom!” A serious look crossed her face again. “Mom, when are you going to get another job?”
“What?” Claire said, startled. “Why would you ask me something like that?”
“I don’t like being here with just Mel,” Natalie said.
“We’ve been through this before,” Claire said. “You need to learn to get along with him. He’s going to be your stepfather someday.”
“I sure hope not,” Natalie said.
“But all he does is sit on the couch and drink beer and boss me around! And he–”
“I know things are hard right now, but they’ll get better someday,” Claire said, leaning down to kiss her on the forehead. “You’ll see. Now you lie back down and try to get some more rest. You’ve got school tomorrow.”
“Not another word,” Claire said. “You need to get some rest.”
As Claire closed the door, Natalie laid her head back down on the pillow. Her eyes stayed open, though, as she clutched the bear to her. If only her mother would listen to her.