Pins and Needles, Silk and Sawdust
By Tonia Brown
“Are you a coward?” she asked.
I lifted my head from my desk.
Little Karen smiled a gap-toothed grin and asked again, “Are you a coward?”
“No,” I lied. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh.” She sighed in disappointment. Running her hand across her crimson-stained hair, she pulled away a sticky palm and frowned at it. “I thought if you were a coward, this might be a different kind of story.”
“There’s only one kind of story told here, child,” Mr. Hammond said.
Thankfully, he didn’t get up and walk around like Karen. He remained stretched across the table, staring up at the ceiling. Which was good, because I wasn’t done working on him.
But I hadn’t even started on her.
She still wore her pale blue church dress, flecked with dry blotches of red. They sparkled under the fluorescents like rubies sewn into the fabric. Maybe I was avoiding her. I never had a knack with kids out there in the real world, and in here they always broke my heart.
“One story,” Hammond repeated, “and it always ends badly.”
“Don’t say that,” she said. “Lots of times endings are good. Fairy tales always end good.”
Mr. Hammond snorted. “Who told you that?”
“Give the kid a break, Melvin,” Richard snapped. He sat up on the edge of his metal gurney, smiling wistfully at Karen, his sheet draped in a neat fold across his lap.
“That’s Mister Hammond to you,” Mr. Hammond said.
“Whateva,” Richard said. He looked down and fingered the wide, Y-shaped stitch that began at his stomach and branched at his sternum. “This is good work, man. You should be like, I don’t know, a seamstress or something.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“And you should respect your elders, young man,” Mr. Hammond said.
“Why? What have they ever done for me?” Richard asked.
“Especially now,” Hammond added.
“Especially now?” Richard shook his shaggy head, laughing as he slapped the metal gurney with a wide palm. “Let me tell you something. This,” he paused and pointed to his stitch, as though it defined his state of being, “doesn’t change nothing, man. If anything, it makes us equals.”
Hammond raised himself up on his elbows, throwing a sour look across the long room at Richard. “We will never be equals.”
I could tell the old man was trying his best not to move things around, but his best wasn’t enough. His stomach, which I had just cut free from his esophagus, slipped from his open abdominal cavity and slid down his naked body, trailing a length of slimy intestine in its wake. Mr. Hammond caught the works by the bowels before the whole affair could slip onto the floor.
Karen stuck out her blue tongue. “Gross.”
“Oh that’s just great!” Hammond yelled. “See what you made me do, you lousy bum.” He pulled at his large bowel until he reeled in his stomach, then pushed it all back into its proper place. When he finished, he lay back on the examining table and turned his face toward me. “Sorry, Mark. Really, I am.”
“It’s okay, Mr. Hammond,” I said. “I was nearly done with you anyway.”
“So, do we stiffs get up and walk and talk like this much?” Richard asked.
“Sometimes,” I said. And it was true. I didn’t know why, but it was true. “Sometimes you talk, sometimes you scream, and sometimes you sing. I used to think I was losing my mind, but I’m so used to it by now that I’m almost surprised when you don’t get up and walk and talk.”
“What do most of us have to say?” Richard asked.
I shrugged. “Most cry about their sad lives and want answers I don’t have.”
Richard nodded as if he understood.
“And what do you tell them?” Hammond asked.
I shrugged again and repeated my long-practiced mantra: “I’m a mortician, not a magician.”
Richard laughed, easy and free, like he had done for most of his short life. He clapped then pointed at me. “That is so cool. You should write a book about it.”
“Are you sure you’re not a coward?” Karen stared up at me with her blank eyes wide. They were blue once, like her dress. At least that’s what her file said. I stared for a moment before I looked away. As I did, I caught sight of my wife’s photo propped on the edge of my desk. I flipped it down so I didn’t have to face her anymore either. The kid was right. I was scared. I was too scared to even go home.
“Maybe a little,” I finally admitted.
“Goody!” Karen clapped and grinned again, her blue lips framing the shattered remains of her teeth. “I’ve always wanted to be in this story. Except I don’t think I’m from the same place the other girl was from. Am I?”
I shook my head. “No, you’re not.”
“Do you think that matters?” she asked.
“Probably not,” I said. “It’s just a story anyway.”
“But it has to be proper, or it doesn’t count.” She pulled at the edges of her gown, spreading the bloodstained fabric high in twin angelic arcs as she swayed in place. “At least I have the pretty blue dress. That’s a good start. Right?”
“So if he’s the coward, which one am I?” Mr. Hammond asked.
Karen dropped her handfuls of skirt as her gazed darted around the room, avoiding the crotchety old man.
“Who am I?” the old man asked again, his voice edged with years of authority.
Karen hung her little head and mumbled her answer.
“Louder, child,” he demanded.
“Lay off of her, Mister Hammond.” Richard swung his legs back and forth from the edge of his gurney. A gentle squeak echoed with every rock. His sheet billowed and fluttered. “Come on kid, you don’t have to tell him nothing.”
Karen giggled. “I like you.”
“I like you too, kid,” Richard said. “You remind me of my little sister. I ain’t seen her in ‘bout ten years. I bet she don’t even know I’m dead.”
“Oh.” Karen frowned and turned to me again. “I forgot that part. Do you think that matters much?”
I shook my head, afraid my voice would belie my attempt at a smile. The little ones always break my heart.
“So,” Richard said between squeaks and flutters. “I bet I’m your scarecrow. Huh?”
“That’s obvious enough,” Hammond said.
“I know what you mean by that,” Richard said. “You think I’m stupid. That’s okay. I may be stupid, but I’m not dumb.”
“I rest my case.” Hammond smirked.
“Besides, you don’t need brains when you got soul.” Richard tucked the sheet into a makeshift skirt before he hopped off the gurney, his feet slapping flat against the cold tiles. He danced a bit of soft shoe, snapping his long fingers and humming some old, forgotten tune.
Karen giggled and clapped. Richard laughed with her.
“So I’m the tin man, am I?” Hammond asked.
Karen stopped laughing. She looked to the floor.
“What brought you to such a conclusion, child?” Hammond asked.
“Because,” she said, but didn’t elaborate.
“Yes?” he demanded.
“It’s obvious enough,” Richard said. “Even to a dummy like me.”
Hammond eyed him. “And what is that?”
“You ain’t got no heart,” Richard said.
Hammond’s eyes flew wide and he stammered for a few seconds before he collected enough words. “No heart! What a horrible thing to say about someone.”
“Truth hurts, don’t it?” Richard asked. “We die as we live, Mister Hammond. Die as we live.”
“Is that what you think, child?” Hammond asked.
Karen still wouldn’t look at him. “Well, you were always kind of mean to us in school. The kids called you … you know … Heartless Hammond.”
Hammond sneered. “That’s what I get for dedicating my life to teaching you snot-nosed brats. I’ll show you who has a heart!” Gritting his teeth, Hammond pushed his hand into his chest cavity, feeling around for a few seconds, then stopped and faced me with his hand still deep inside himself. If his blood weren’t already drained away, he might have even gone pale at that moment. Instead he settled for gap-mouthed surprise. “Where is it?”
“Calm down.” I picked up a pan and carried it to his side. With a gloved hand I lifted the offending organ, showing it to him. “I had to take it out for dissection.”
Hammond closed his eyes, laid his head back against the examining table and sighed. “For a moment there, I almost thought …”
The genuine relief that washed over Mr. Hammond left me feeling sorry for him. It was an awkward feeling, because I never really liked the man when he was alive.
He pulled his hand out of his chest with a wet suck, holding his bloody palm to the light before he shot a dirty look at the child. “Of course I knew I had one. I just wondered where it had gotten off to.”
Richard laughed again. “I don’t think I coulda handled you not really having one. I think I’d have laughed myself to death if I weren’t dead already.”
Hammond ignored him. He looked up at me again. “Could you just leave it with me, Mark? Just for a little while longer?”
“I don’t see why not.” I dumped the contents of the pan into his chest cavity. Hammond pushed and prodded at his heart. At length, he grunted and stopped, content that the thing was where it was supposed to be. It wasn’t. It was too high, too much to the left. I could see him measure his success with a little hand over the heart action. He nodded, satisfied. People had funny notions about anatomy.
Karen tiptoed to Hammond’s side, looking across the table at the open hole of his body. “Does it hurt?”
“Of course not. I’m dead.” Hammond cupped his hands over his bare groin.
I didn’t think little Karen was interested in what was down there, but I laid the pan over his nakedness just the same. He nodded but didn’t thank me as I returned to my desk.
“Why would you care anyway?” he continued. “I thought I didn’t have any feelings.”
Karen frowned. “I never said that.”
“Then why am I the tin man?”
She paused as she searched for her next words. “Umm … because he’s the only one left?” Then her little face lit with an idea. “Unless you want to be the doggy?”
Richard howled with laughter. “Not only does she think you’re an asshole, she thinks you’re no better than a dog!” He slapped his knees, and for a moment I thought he would bust a seam and spill his guts all over my clean floor.
“Hey!” Karen shouted. “I liked the doggy the best of all!”
Richard laughed harder.
Hammond pursed his lips. “We die as we live, do we? If that’s the case, then you should really be our lion, Mister Caldwell.”
Richard fell quiet as he hopped back onto his gurney. “You’ll have to explain that one to me, old timer. After all, I’m stupid. Remember?”
“Because you lived as a coward,” Hammond said, “and I’ll venture that you died like one. In fact I will go so far as to say it was either a deliberate suicide or a careless overdose that did you in. Am I accurate?”
I sucked a quick breath through my teeth. That was a low thing to say about anyone, even for Heartless Hammond. Especially because it was so very true.
Richard said nothing.
“I thought as much,” Hammond said. “And in my book, those are the ways only a coward dies.”
“Talk about a horrible thing to say about someone,” Richard said under his breath.
“Truth hurts, doesn’t it?” Hammond snapped. “Richard the cowardly lion.”
I could hear the grind of Richard’s teeth from where I sat. I furrowed my brow; I was surprised I had missed the fact that he was a grinder when I examined him. Of course it had been a busy night, and I was so distracted by the dread of working on little Karen.
“You would make an excellent lion.” Hammond’s gaze returned to the ceiling. “Because you lack the courage to take responsibility for your life. Look at you. You were nothing but a little troublemaker in school, and you grew up to be nothing else. What did you die as? A lowly bum begging on the street for money. Afraid of living a real life. Hiding behind his guitar and his dreams.”
“No way, man,” Richard said. “I’m a musician. I play for people, and they pay what they can for my music.”
Hammond grunted. “I guess folks will tell themselves anything to get to sleep at night.”
“Don’t get me mad, Mister Hammond,” Richard said.
“Why? What are you going to do? Kill me?” Hammond’s laughter lacked the gentle ebb and flow of Richard’s. It was harsh and forced, as though it came from some place long ignored.
Richard launched a stream of obscenities at the old man, which only made Hammond laugh louder.
Just under the barking laughter, I heard a sniffle. I leaned across my desk, peering over the edge. Karen was crumpled on the floor. A long streak of blood traced her path down the metal siding of the desk. She was weeping.
“Karen?” I asked.
She ignored me and buried her bloody head in her lap. It was the first time I had gotten a close look at the damage to her skull. The back of her head was cracked open like a giant, hairy egg, with what was left of her brain and bits of skull mixed in a sticky, black soup. It sloshed in thick swells as she rocked and wept. She was going to be a long night of work for me.
“Karen, what’s wrong, dear?” I asked.
“Go away,” she said, her voice so quiet I almost didn’t hear her over the ongoing argument behind me.
I turned around. “Enough!”
The dead men stopped arguing and looked at me.
I got up, went around the desk and lowered myself to the floor beside the little girl. “Karen, honey. What’s wrong?”
She lifted her face, and her sweet pout almost killed me where I sat. “I want to go home.”
I smiled as best I could, but there went my heart again. “You’ll be home soon enough. Come on up here and let’s finish your story before you go.” I held out my hand.
She shook her little head. “I don’t want to. I don’t like this story anymore. It’s scary. I don’t like the yelling parts. I wanna go home.” Thin streams of red poured down her face in a memory of tears.
Richard was off his gurney in an instant, the metallic ping of his jump ringing out like a gunshot report. He flew to Karen’s side and scooped her into his arms. She buried her half-head in his pale shoulder, where she continued to cry.
“Little girl, stop crying, little girl,” he cooed over and over as he rocked her in his arms.
“It’s okay, Karen,” I said. I knew it wasn’t okay, but I was never good with children.
The thought of this made me wince as it brought back the argument with my wife that morning. I only wished Julia could see what I see sometimes. I thought about bringing her here on a night like this, showing her a little Karen, or Bradley or Michael. Show her what happens to kids in real life. Show her why I just couldn’t … ever.
“You know,” Richard whispered. “Your mom and dad are the luckiest people in the world. I’d have been so proud to have a little girl like you.”
And like magic, Karen’s loud weeping dissolved into quiet sobs.
“You’re so smart and funny.” He rubbed her back in small circles. “And really pretty. Like a princess.”
Karen’s sobs ebbed to a mere hitch in her uneven breath.
I couldn’t help my envy, and I was ashamed of it.
“I’ll be your lion, if that’ll make you happy,” Richard said.
Karen shook her head into his shoulder. She mumbled something.
Richard nodded. “Okay, and I’ll be a good scarecrow. Best ever. You just wait and see.”
“And I would be honored to be your tin man, young lady,” Hammond announced.
We all turned to him, every mouth slack-jawed, every eye wide.
“What?” The old man snuffed. “It only makes sense. Someone has to be the tin man, and I don’t see anyone cutting off their arms and legs with an axe by a magical curse. Do you?”
“Gross.” Karen wiped at her red eyes.
Richard and I laughed. Hammond didn’t.
“And after all, they really did call me …” Hammond paused and wrinkled his nose, then finished with, “that wretched name. I may not have liked it, but it was mine. So that makes me the tin man in this little menagerie.”
“Right on, man.” Richard smiled. “Own your mistakes.”
“That is surprisingly good advice,” Hammond admitted.
“Yeah,” Richard said. “I only wished I’d have done it when I was still up and kicking.”
Hammond cocked his head while trying to keep his body as flat as he could.
“I guess I was just too scared.” Richard shrugged.
Hammond nodded. “It might have been out of turn for me to say the things I did. It was, oh, a bit strong-worded. I apologize.”
“No way man, you were right,” Richard said. “I guess we all got a little lion in us.”
“And a little scarecrow,” Hammond said.
Richard raised an eyebrow.
“You young people think you invented stupid?” Hammond asked. “Trust me, son, I have done plenty of stupid things in my life.”
“Well I’ll be damned,” Richard said.
“I’ll be damned,” Karen repeated.
“Let’s hope not,” Hammond said.
Even he laughed at that.
“So we’re all a little lion and a little scarecrow and a little–” Hammond started.
“And a little tin man,” I finished for him.
The three corpses turned to me.
“I’ve been heartless,” I confessed.
“No way, Mr. Fuller, you’re the kindest man I ever knew,” Richard said.
“The kid is right, Mark,” Hammond said. “Don’t sell yourself short. You were always one of the good ones. Take it from an old, heartless bastard. We know these things.”
“You’re no coward either,” Richard said.
I shook my head. They didn’t understand, and that was okay because they weren’t the ones who needed to.
“But if he isn’t the coward, who will be my lion?” Karen asked.
“He can’t be our lion anyway,” Hammond said.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because he can’t go with us to see the big guy,” Richard said.
Hammond nodded in agreement.
“Oh,” she said. “I forgot that part too.”
Richard set her back on her feet. “Speaking of which, I think it’s time to go.” He took Karen by her little hand, escorting her to her gurney.
“So soon?” I asked. It shocked me to realize that I really didn’t want to be left alone.
“Alley oop,” Richard said as he lifted Karen onto the metal bed.
She giggled and clapped. “Again!”
Richard shook his shaggy head while he touched a finger to her bloody nose. “Not ‘til we get there, little sister. We’ve taken enough of Mr. Fuller’s time as it is.”
“Oh.” She turned to me again and said, “Sorry, sir.”
“No,” I said. “I’m the one that’s sorry.”
But she just smiled, her blue lips stretching in graceful arch across her mouthful of jagged teeth. I could see the meaning of my words went beyond her. As she lay down, I pulled a clean sheet over her.
“Good night,” she said and waved once at me. She fell still.
“Catch you on the flipside, Mr. Fuller,” Richard said. “Come on tin man, we gotta boogie if we’re gonna make it over the rainbow before sunup.”
“Don’t you mean to the end of the damnable thing?” Hammond asked.
Richard just laughed in his carefree way as he stretched out on his gurney and pulled his own shroud across his corpse. He fell still.
“It was nice to talk with you again, Mark. If even for only a little while.” Hammond closed his eyes. He fell still.
And I was alone again.
I sat at my desk, resting my heavy head in my hands. Clarity washed over me and I smiled, grateful in its wake. I lifted the receiver and dialed home. It rang almost ten times before she answered. No surprise there, considering how late it was, and how upset I had left her.
She answered, but said nothing.
“Julia,” I said, “I’m sorry.”
She was quiet for a few more moments before she said, “Me too. I knew how you felt when we first got married–”
“No,” I cut her short. “You had every right to ask. I shouldn’t have been so pigheaded about it.”
“We both overreacted.”
The line went quiet as we worked out what to say next.
I went first. “I’ve been doing some thinking.”
“What do you think?” she asked.
I looked at the shrouded corpse of the six-year-old girl who had run out in front of a car for her ball. Just like a selfish, stupid, scared child would.
Like any child would.
I swallowed hard before I whispered, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
“I see,” Julia said. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
I pulled myself back to the conversation. “That maybe starting a family isn’t such a bad idea. After all, we have plenty of room.”
Julia paused, as if she didn’t believe me. “You aren’t just saying that to make me happy?”
“Why?” I smiled. “Can you think of a better reason?”
“I’m serious, Mark.” Despite this, she laughed.
I closed my eyes at the sweet sound. “So am I. I think it’s time we turned our house into a home.”
“There’s no place like home?”
I started at the sound of the phrase. “I love you.”
“I love you.”
As I hung up the phone, I realized that Julia was right. There was no place like home. Inspired by my wife’s words, I returned my attention to Karen. With a little thread and a ton of patience, she would be more girl and less patchwork. Then, perhaps, she could find her way home.
Even though I suppose she had already gone home long before we met.
Tonia Brown Bio: Tonia Brown is a great lover of weird fiction, coffee, and Victorian dead things. She has cranked out several novels, including Lucky Stiff: Memoirs of an Undead Lover , Badass Zombie Road Trip, and Skin Trade. Her work appears in a variety of anthologies and periodicals. When not writing, she raises unicorns and fights crime with her husband of many years under the code names “Doctor Weird” and his sidekick “Butternut.”
You can find more about Tonia or read more of her sordid scrawling by visiting:
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