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Mean-Spirited
    by Edmund R. Schubert

Mean-Spirited
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

As I picked up my pistol one last time, I found my attention wandering away from the weapon itself and to the withered hand that held it. It looked like a mummy's hand, collapsing from the inside after too many millennia of desiccation. What a grotesque hand. My entire body was so close to death, why not finish the job?

Yes, at seventy-eight years old, I could easily come up with plenty of reasons to kill myself, some of them even logical, valid reasons. Blowing my brains all over Trish's favorite Monet for pure spite probably wasn't one of the better ones, but it was good enough.

I had considered blowing my brains out on the Jackson Pollock in the main hall, but given the nature of Pollock's work, I wasn't sure Trish would even notice. She neither knew nor cared anything about art; she collected it simply because that's what obscenely rich people do. However, a spray of blood-red blood over the renowned Frenchman's white water lilies -- that would not only get her attention, it would really piss her off. Oh, how it would piss her off.

Dear God, how that made me smile . . .

And it wasn't the loss of the money that would make Trish mad. Even if the painting hadn't been insured, the ancient hag had enough cash to buy fifty more. She'd probably let some museum clean the painting, then donate it to them and use the insurance money to spend a month sunbathing, topless, on the French Riviera. The wrinkled, sagging, melanoma-ridden bitch.

No, what would piss her off to no end was the knowledge that I had ruined a century-old masterpiece just to piss her off. Trish and I had raised the art of spite and malice to that high a level. We were grand masters; we had been at each other's throats for thirty-seven years now.

Turning my attention back at the black-barreled .45 caliber pistol in my hand, I imagined Trisha coming into the library. Her hazel eyes would go wide as she beheld the horror of the scene. I prayed that the power of the moment, the memory of it, would haunt her for years. Hell, for all eternity.

I could envision the scene with transcendent clarity. Standing in the doorway, one of her hands would unconsciously drift to her open mouth, the tip of her forefinger coming to rest on the tip of her nose. Her hand would then drift slowly away from her face as her dumb-struck expression transformed into one of unexpurgated rage. She'd rush forward, hurdling my still-bleeding corpse in her haste to get to the painting. "Nooooo!!" she'd howl as her fingers hovered inches away from Monet's bloodstained masterpiece, afraid to touch it for fear the blood might still be damp, that it would smudge the delicate petals of the water lilies beneath.

Then she'd turn back to my body, looming over me like I was an old dog who had just relieved himself on the carpet for the thousandth time.

"You . . ." She'd kick me in the head. "Arrogant . . ." She'd kick me again, even harder. "Pompous . . ." Another kick. "Prick . . ." Kick.

Her tempo would increase, and she'd punctuate each word with a blow, as if her legs were gigantic, living exclamation points. "You think you've won, don't you," she'd rant, legs pistoning merrily into my corpse. "You think you've stuck the last needle under my fingernails and gotten away with it, don't you? Well you haven't. This isn't over; do you hear me?" Aiming a final kick at my ass, her rage would crescendo. She'd be shouting at the top of her lungs, her eyes bulging, her hair disheveled from the fury of her efforts. "This isn't over until I say it's over!!!"

Of course, she'd be wrong.

That was the beauty of it; it would be over. And I would have won. After nearly four decades of tormenting each other, I would have finally, ultimately, unequivocally won. There was no way for her to retaliate because I'd be gone, gone, gone, and there was nothing she could do about it.

I felt like doing a little song and dance.

Nothing you can do about it; nothing you can do about it; nothing you can . . .

Not a good reason to kill myself? I was giddy with excitement. I couldn't imagine a better reason.

I brought my .45 to my head, made sure I was properly aligned with the Monet so I would splatter it without putting a bullet through it, and stuck the bitter tasting barrel into my mouth. I embraced the trigger.

I had expected a loud noise when the gun went off, followed by nothing. Darkness. Sweet oblivion.

What I got was pain.

Dear God, what pain. Agonizing, excruciating, unimaginable pain. Vicious, angry icicles of pain clawing their way out from the center of my brain, tearing through flesh and bone in an effort to be free. But every time they broke through to the surface, they'd vanish -- poof, just like that -- only to start over again from the center, digging and clawing their way through my brain over and over, again and again.

Had I screwed up? Had I managed to put a pistol in my mouth, pull the trigger, and not kill myself?

I dearly hoped not. That would give Trisha too much satisfaction.

But those cruel icicle claws wouldn't stop. They went on and on and on, ripping and tearing, and all I could do was clench my eyes and endure the unendurable. I heard nothing; saw nothing; and felt nothing. Nothing but pain.

I was pain.

Finally, after what seemed like days, I managed to open one eye. It wasn't that the pain had lessened. It had not. I'd simply become more accustomed to its presence. Not much; just enough that I could tolerate the movement of one eyelid by about half an inch.

What I saw jolted both of my eyes open.

Lying beneath me . . . was my body. My body!

It didn't move. If it had, I would have been stunned, because the hollow-point bullet had blown away a massive chunk of skull and brains. There was no chance I had survived that.

Which meant I was dead -- and still experiencing the gunshot. I was frozen in that split second where the hollow-point tore through the roof of my mouth, mushroomed out, and then shredded my brain before blowing open the back of my skull.

And suddenly I knew I would feel this way forever. I had no idea how or why, but I knew. Whether it was punishment from God or simply a unknown fact of the afterlife made no difference. I was trapped in this moment of Promethean pain for all time.

They say people can get used to anything. Apparently this applies in the afterlife, too, because a week later I was in no less pain than before, but I had grown accustomed enough to it that I was able to think and move with a little more ease.

All those schmucks who had heart attacks while getting laid. They had no idea how lucky they were. I pondered that fact angrily. Of course, I did everything angrily. The pain kept me in an eternally sour mood.

And as if the pain weren't enough to maintain my foul demeanor, when I first began to move around, I quickly learned that I was not only trapped in the moment of my death, I was also trapped in the room where I had shot myself. I could open and close the library door, pull books off the shelves, even stumble over my own rank-smelling corpse. But leave the room? Never.

I grew angrier with each passing moment.

And speaking of rank smelling, where the hell was Trish? An entire week and she hadn't come home yet.

For that matter, where was the staff? The maid? Butler? Cook? They were all gone. I was glad enough they were out of the house the day I shot myself; I really didn't want to be interrupted. But someone should have come home by now. Especially that wretched wife of mine. The thought of her seeing what I had done to her Monet -- and I had made a royal mess of it, more than I ever could have hoped for -- that was all that kept me going. So where was that witch of a . . .

"Honey?"

Trish! I hadn't heard her come in, but that was her voice. No doubt about it.

I made sure the door to the library was open and sat down in an over-stuffed chair to watch the show.

Briefly I wondered if she would be able to see me sitting there. That would certainly present some interesting possibilities. I hadn't considered it before, but being trapped here like this . . . well, as long as she stuck around, I could haunt her to my heart's content. I was a poltergeist. An angry, noisy ghost with a foul disposition -- one that I would be more than happy to inflict on her for as long as possible. That had the potential for some real fun.

"Honey?" I heard her call again. "Margot and I jetted down to the Bahamas for the week. Since you'd be all by yourself I didn't think you'd need any help, so I took the staff with me. That didn't cause you any problems, did it? I surely hope not."

After all these years, that was the best she could come up with? Take the staff away to inconvenience me? She was losing her touch.

"By the way," she began . . .

Ah. Here comes the big one. I should have known better; taking the staff had just been foreplay.

"I got tested about three months ago and I have AIDS. You should have contracted it by now, too."

Wow. So smooth; so matter-of-fact. So calculated. Based on her delivery, I couldn't help but think that she had intentionally sought out a way to get AIDS just to infect me.

It also explained a lot: why she had suddenly grown amorous again, as well as those new medications she had recently started taking. She had hidden them well enough that I couldn't find them, but I knew she had been taking a new drug cocktail.

If I hadn't been dead, that would have really gotten to me. That would have infuriated me.

But I was dead. Beyond her. If my head hadn't hurt so much, I would have laughed. To tell you the truth, though, I hurt too much to ever laugh again.

I heard Trish call out again; obviously she was expecting some sort of reaction. "Sweetie pie," she called, "did you hear what I said?"

I grabbed a paperweight off my desk and threw it against the wall, hoping to attract her attention. It whumped twice, once against the wall and once more when it hit the floor.

"Sweetheart?"

Her voice was getting closer. Finally, an advantage to being a poltergeist. I threw a book.

"Are you in here, pudding?"

She came through the door . . .

And froze.

Oh, it was beautiful. She spotted my body with her eyes at the exact same moment that the smell hit her nose. She wears so much perfume that there was no way she could have picked up the stench until she was right on top of me, and it was perfect. I couldn't have planned it any better.

Stunned, she brought her hand to her mouth, just like I had anticipated. But she just stared at my body. She couldn't take her eyes off of it.

I wanted to shout, but I knew she wouldn't hear me even if I tried. But wanted to. Oh how I wanted to. The painting, damn you! Look at the painting!

I contemplated throwing a pen or something in the direction of her precious Monet; she took two steps toward the spot where my body rested.

"Nooooo!!" she wailed.

I was stunned. After all these years, was she actually distraught over losing me?

Snatching up my pistol, she fired three quick shots into my fetid corpse.

Okay - now things were getting interesting.

"How did you find out?" she screamed. "How did you find out I gave you AIDS?"

This time she kicked my body in the small of the back.

"How did you find out?" She screamed again, bending closer to my body as if I could hear her better that way.

Straightening up, she looked around the room - but she never saw the stupid painting. The look in her eyes was one of someone gazing off into infinity. Then she started shaking her head.

"Oh no," she said. Very softly. "You're not leaving me here to deal with this infernal disease all by myself. You don't get to do that to me. I decide when this is over; not you."

She brought the gun to her head, lowered it for just a second, then brought it back to her head again. I saw her fingers stiffen with resolve as she said again, "I decide, not you."

And just like that, the ramifications of what she was about to do hit me like a Learjet.

Nooooo, I wanted to scream. Noooo!

Damn it, no! No! Kill yourself if you want, I don't care. But not in here. Please, God, not in here! I'm not spending eternity trapped in this room with --

Ka-blam.

This time I heard the gun shot.

It was much louder than I expected . . .

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