Notes: This is named (vaguely) after Christopher Durang's play Death Comes to Us All, Mary Agnes. Which has nothing to do with anything. I just like how it sounds.
Death Comes to Us All
Daddy's study still smelled like Daddy, felt like Daddy; he could feel Daddy so clearly in his mind and under his skin that he was sure the dead man would suddenly appear from around a corner, from down the metalspiralcurvingeverlasting stairs. He would descend and they would stare at each other and the only noise would be that little taptaptap…
As drops of Daddy's blood flowed from the slowly clotting wounds in his wrists and puddled, thick and red, on the cherrywood floor, covering the scuffs and imperfections time had imposed upon it.
Oh, but Daddy was dead and he knew it. He knew it, because he had been the one to jimmy open the lock on the bathroom door with a credit card. He had been the one to kneel beside the bathtub and swallow his nausea as he pressed his fingertips to the side of Daddy's neck to feel futilely for a pulse (because Daddy's wrists were just flaps of skin hanging, hangers on, not keeping his insides inside anymore). He had been the one to call the ambulance, to keep his mother away from the bathtub filled with redpink liquid, to pull down his Daddy's eyelids in that final gesture of respect for the dead. And he knew that they had sewn up those gaping holes, sewn them up with thick black thread and a professional disinterest that fascinated him. He knew that they had taken what was left of Daddy's blood and pumped it from his body, replacing it with the chemicals that would create the illusion of life. He knew that if his Daddy was standing before him, in all his grotesque and final glory, it would not be blood that dripped onto the floor.
But dead men didn't talk and walk, not in real life. So his Daddy would never again tiptoe down those bestial and jaw-like stairs. Willard gave the room a solemn nod, especially those wrought-iron steps leading up to nowheretoheaven. They had frightened him as a child, but their menace had weakened with time. He placed Socrates reverently on his shoulder; even the rat seemed aware of the aura of stale lifenotdeath the room held.
Willard turned his head toward his Daddy's writing desk. He and his mother would never disturb Daddy when he was at his desk, even posthumously. But Daddy was dead, had been dead, and now his mother was too; there was no one to tell him to stay away. So he sat, feeling the vague guilt of a child encroaching upon a parent's privacy. The desk had not been disturbed since the day of his Daddy's death; it was disconcerting for Willard to see papers dated and signed by Alfred Stiles moments before he had retreated to the bathroom to bleed to death. The only difference was the large, yellow envelope from the coroner's office tucked securely atop a pile of manila folders; his mother had placed it there because she had not known what else to do with it. It had never been opened.
Willard picked it up in clumsy, trembling hands and held it cautiously in front of him as if it was a living creature, like the stairs, that would suddenly lash out. He picked up the letter opener and, holding it like a weapon, disemboweled the package, allowing the guts of its contents to spill onto the desktop. A watch: broken. Daddy's glasses: huge and comforting. With a little smile broken by a tear tracking over his slightly parted lips, Willard slipped them on, blinking owlishly as they blurred his good vision in an unnecessary attempt to correct it. They sat heavily on the bridge of his nose and slipped down slightly as he tipped his head forward to unbuckle his own watch and hold it next to Daddy's, observing the slight differences. He smoothed his thumb over the worn leather of Daddy's wristband, noticing how it had cracked and split after years in darkness and disuse. He placed them both reverently on the desk's surface, trailing one finger over the crack in the face of Daddy's watch and tracing the hands where they had stopped at Daddy's approximate time of death. It wasn't the glasses that blurred his vision now; huge, fat, silent tears streamed down his cheeks and he was unable to stop them or conceal them. He licked his lips, tasting salt, and reached again for the package, ready to put everything away again.
But a final item tumbled out, heavy and ominous. A Swiss army knife glinted red and silver in the dim light and Willard almost choked. He stared at it, fascinated by both how huge and how small it was. He picked it up and turned it over once, admiring its age and its sleekness. Sniffling slightly, he smiled, and Socrates' weight shifted uneasily on his shoulder. With a flick of his fingers, far more dexterous than was common for Willard, the tiny blade was exposed. It was covered in rough brown, like rust, which flaked when he pushed his fingernail over it. In that existential moment, in his Daddy's study, wearing his glasses, holding his knife, Willard was not himself; he was his father making that final decision To Not Be.
"Take control of your life," he heard, echoing in his brain, his ears, his eyes, nose, and throat. And he knew that the only way to truly take control of his life was by ending it, by allowing the cycles of history to simply wash over him. He pressed the knife into the flesh of his wrist, watching it yield and bend to accommodate the intrusion of hard metal. He began to press down, feeling the first ecstatic stirrings of intense pain, and realized that he would never again see the corpse of his father painted on the black canvas of his eyelids.
Movement, tiny movement, stopped him, made him twitch with a hyperawareness of life he had never experienced before and would never experience again. Tiny claws grabbed and released at the material of his suit jacket as Socrates scrambled awkwardly down his arm, falling into the crook of his elbow, and racing frantically to where the knife rested against his skin. He felt the rat's cold nose on his sore but unbroken skin, pushing against the stained metal; brown flecks of dried blood rubbed off onto Socrates' soft white fur.
"Oh, Socrates…" Willard whispered, obediently allowing the knife to fall from his fingertips back to the desk, where its exposed blade scratched the varnish. The indentation left in the hollow of his wrist glared at him accusingly; youfailedfailedfailed. But Willard chose to ignore it, pretend that the pain did not exist and that the little voice inside of him wasn't urging his hands to finish what they had started. He lifted Socrates to his face and held him against his cheek. His tears trailed down and darkened the rat's already dirtied fur; however, the animal did not protest the affection, but received it quietly and with a dignity that reminded Willard strangely of his late father. He closed his eyes and brushed his lips lightly over Socrates' ear.
The sudden intrusive sound of chewing caused both to look up, startled from their private moment. Willard's hands shook; he was suddenly afraid of himself and of his father's study. It had become an animal, for a moment he was sure of this, and the chewing noises were the signal that it was about to swallow him the way it had swallowed his father. "Daddy?" He whispered, half-hoping he would see his father just one last time and half-dreading the inevitable moment. But when he followed the sounds with his eyes, his fear became anger that festered deep in the pit of his stomach. "Ben," he growled, clutching Socrates protectively to his chest as he stood, all the while glowering at the larger rat perched atop the bookcase, his face peeking from behind a photo of Willard's father, mocking him. Willard backed out of the room, his roomstillhishouse, carefully and slowly, keeping his eyes fixed on Ben, even as he withdrew a silver goosehead cane from the stand by the doorjamb.
Ben never moved. And after Willard pulled the door shut, he exhaled in relief, his own breath ricocheting off the elaborate wood paneling in front of him and drying the tears still resting lightly on his cheeks. He squeezed Socrates gently and raised him to his lips again, kissing his friend on the back of the neck, grateful that he had left his demons behind in that ancient roomgatestohell and had only a tiny, white angel to contend with.
His Daddy would have been pleased.