ATONEMENT


by


Ric Rodriguez



            I’m in the hospital. I’ve been here for the last few weeks. There will be no more remissions. There will be no miraculous recovery. To put it simply, I’m all out of luck. What you read here are what will be my last words. I don’t say this to earn your sympathy, but so that you’ll be more inclined to believe the story I am about to write down. I swear that every word will be true. I hope that I have the strength to finish it.

            If you were to ask the people who know me, they would probably all describe me as introspective and moody. Some might even say that I’m dark. The ones who’ve known me for a long time would say that I changed when I was in Korea -- that I came back a different man. There is some truth to this, as anyone who has been in combat will tell you, but the real change in my personality happened after I came back from the war.

            I had moved back into my mother’s house in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I don’t know if it was because I was in the house I had grown up in, or because I had just come back from Korea, but I was feeling blue -- what they call depressed today. Spending my time milling around the house only made me feel worse, so I took the first job I could get. It was as an orderly on the fifth floor of the Elizabeth General Hospital. Back then, that was where they kept the mental ward.

            It wasn’t as awful as you may think, at least not at first. The patients were all short term. Some were ordinary people who had cracked up because of the stresses of every day life. Most had more serious mental problems. Our ward was a stopping place on the way to permanent care or back to every day life. For me, the saddest ones were the schizophrenics who came in repeatedly. After each visit, they would seem normal again. Then they would be sent back to their lives -- until their next spell.

            The job in the mental ward helped restore some order to my life. It didn’t take me long to fall into a routine. I went to work every afternoon at four, walked home after my shift was over at midnight, listened to the radio for a couple of hours, slept, then spent the morning reading the paper and watching television. Before I knew it, it was time to go to work again. I suppose my life became repetitious and boring, but I didn’t mind it. Maybe it was what I needed. Even the madness I saw on the mental ward had become ordinary and mundane. Then I met Richard Keats.


            “You’re going to get me killed!” Keats screamed as a fellow orderly and I wheeled him into the ward. It was a Tuesday, if I remember correctly. Like most of the patients who came into the ward, Keats was brought in late at night, and in restraints. We stopped in the center of the hallway, then held him steady as the duty nurse injected him with Thorazine. A couple of minutes later, he appeared calm. His eyes remained desperate, however.

            “Take him to seventeen,” the duty nurse said.

            “He’s going to find me,” Keats whispered to me as I wheeled him down the hall. “If I stay here, he’s going to find me. I’ll die here.”

            “That’s too bad,” I said. At times, it seemed that everyone on the ward was going to die -- especially when there was a full moon -- so I had no reason to think that Keats’s words were anything more than the ravings of another mental patient. Now, I know differently. Richard Keats was telling the truth. He was going to die in the ward.


* * *


            My shift ended an hour later. On the way out, I saw a woman standing by the water fountain next to the elevators. I had seen her talking to the staff psychologist on the ward earlier. I had assumed her to be some relation to Keats -- probably his wife. She was a classy looking woman. Not the kind that you usually saw married to mental cases. She looked to be in another world now. Her eyes were red and puffy. She didn’t seem to hear the bell signaling the elevator’s arrival.

            “Going down?” I asked.

            “Yes,” she said, then snapped out of her trance. I held the elevator door for her. “Thank you,” she whispered.

            We road all the way down in silence. I couldn’t help but stare at her. She had a look on her face that I had only seen in the war. It wasn’t just a look of defeat, but of having faced something that changed you completely. The emotional equivalent of getting hit by a bus. I knew it wasn’t my place to speak up, but I guess I felt sorry for her. “He’s going to be all right,” I said.

            She looked up at me as if she had forgotten that I was in the elevator with her. She smiled weakly. “They don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

            “Witch doctors,” I said. “Sometimes people just crack up. He probably just needs some rest. Was he in the war?”

            “Yes,” she said. “But he was fine when he came home.”

            “Sometimes it takes a while,” I said. We were outside the elevator now, slowly heading for the exit.

            “It was the crash,” she said.

            “Crash?”

            “He was on the Conrail train that crashed two weeks ago,” she explained.

            “I read about it,” I replied. Twenty died in the accident she was referring to. The train derailed because of faulty tracks (as was later found out) and smashed head on into the side of a bridge. The ones who died were all in the first car. Crushed. There were hundreds of injuries in the cars behind it.

            “From the moment he came home,” she said, “he was acting strange. He kept saying that something was following him. Not someone, but something.”

            “Was he hurt in the crash?”

            “He was banged up a little,” she replied. “A few stitches. Everyone says he was lucky.”

            “I guess he was,” I said as we walked outside. We had the kind of awkward moment that men and women always have when they’re alone. “Well, good night,” I said.

            “Good night.”

            Mrs. Keats and I went our separate ways. For some reason, she and her husband stayed with me. I thought of them during the long walk home. There was something about them that seemed different than the other cases I usually saw in the mental ward. It was as if I’d been in contact with something that I knew would be important. I think I dreamt about them that night.


***


            Sometime during the next evening, I saw Mrs. Keats talking to the staff psychologist. He led her to her husband’s room. Not even ten minutes later, she rushed out of the room. She looked like she had been crying. Clearly things hadn’t changed for her husband. She didn’t even notice me as she hurried out of the ward.

            Later that night, near the end of my shift, I got a chance to get into Keats’s room. He was still in his bed, still in restraints. He jumped when I walked through the door. He looked distraut.

            “It’s just me,” I said.

            “Hello,” Keats said. His voice was tense.

            “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I said.

            “You don’t know anything,” Keats said. Then he laughed. “If you only knew.”

            “What don’t I know?” I asked as I got closer.

            “Why I’m in here, for instance,” he said.

            “Okay, I’ll bite,” I said. “Why are you in here?”

            “Because no one believes me,” Keats said. “You see, I’m perfectly sane. It’s just that what I’m saying is not.”

            “I heard that you were in that Conrail accident,” I said. I was hoping he wouldn’t ask me where I had heard it. The last thing I wanted was for Keats to know that I had talked to his wife. That was the kind of thing that could get me fired.

            “Yeah,” Keats said. “I was there.”

            “Is that why you’re here?” I asked.

            “It’s because of what I saw there.”

            “Dead bodies,” I said.

            “I’d see dead bodies before,” Keats said. “I saw something else there.”

            I slid a chair next to his bed. I sat down, but I didn’t get too close.  “What did you see?”

            “Death,” Keats said.

            “What does it look like?” I asked.

            “Which one?” Keats asked, then laughed.

            “What do you mean?”

            “There are two deaths,” he said.

            “I don’t understand,” I replied.

            “Do you believe that we pay for the things we do?” Keats asked, sounding suddenly sober. “After we die, I mean.”

            “I don’t know,” I answered.

            “We do,” Keats answered. “And I saw how. I saw how it all happens.”

            “Tell me.”

            “I was the only in my car that survived the crash,” Keats said.

            “You were in the first car?”I asked. I thought they had all been crushed.

            “Yes,” Keats said. “When it happened, I went out. Then I woke up. I could smell the bodies around me. I opened my eyes and I couldn’t believe what I saw. The car had turned into twisted metal. Arms and legs were sticking up everywhere. Blood and insides were all over. Then I saw her.”

            “Who?”

            “A woman,” Keats said. “She was wearing a long blue rain coat. I thought she was a nurse at first. My head was kind of fuzzy. Then I saw that she didn’t have a face. It was blank. She didn’t seem to be walking. It was like she was floating.”

            “Did she say anything?” I asked.

            “She didn’t have a mouth,” Keats answered earnestly. “She motioned toward a couple of the dead people, then they got up. There bodies stayed where they were, but they got up.”

            “I think I understand,” I said.

            “Then she led them out,” he said. “They went through the walls. I saw it with my own eyes.”

            “I believe you,” I said. I didn’t, though. It sounded like another mental patient’s story to me. I had heard so many of them by this point. Still, there was something that kept me there. “Then what happened?”

            “After she left with them,” Keats continued, “I saw something that disturbed me. The shadows began to move all over. It’s like everything had five shadows and they were all moving. Circling, crossing each other. It made me feel dizzy.”

            “What was it?” I asked.

            “The creature was coming,” Keats said. His voice quivered. “I heard it at first. It made these high sucking sounds. Then it came in through a wall. God, it was so horrible.”

            “What did it look like?”

            “Huge,” he replied. “I could barely look at it. It was so awful. It was coming for the rest of us. The ones who had a debt to pay. It was coming to eat us.”

            “Eat you?”

            “Yes,” Keats insisted. “The first one was a woman. It grabbed her with it’s huge claws, then it opened its mouth. There was fire inside. She screamed, then it stuffed her right into its mouth. I saw her flesh turning black as she went in. She was gone in two seconds.”

            “Then what happened?”

            “It went to the next person,” Keats said. He began to cry. “It went through the remaining people in less than minute. It was spitting out blood and ash. Then it looked at me. It had so many eyes.”

            “What did you do?”

            “I tried to scream,” Keats said, “but nothing came out of my mouth. Then something happened and I woke up. Firemen were carrying me out of the wreck. The thing was gone.”

            “So it was a dream?” I asked.

            “No,” Keats said. “You’ve heard about people who die, then are brought back? I think I was one of those. I think I was supposed to die with the others.”

            “Maybe you weren’t,” I offered. “Maybe it was a dream.”

            “That’s what I was hoping,” he said. “When I got home, I tried to forget about it. Then last week, I was in the park with my wife and I saw the shadows moving. The shadows were moving!”

            “You saw it again?”

            “I heard it,” Keats said. “It was close. I grabbed onto my wife and hightailed it out of there. She thought I was nuts, but I didn’t care.”

            “And since then?”

            “A couple of days later, I heard it outside my house,” Keats said. “It was in the street. I saw its shadow. It’s looking for me.”

            “What makes you think it wants you?”

            “Because I’m a bad person,” Keats answered.

            “You don’t look so bad.”

            “I’ve swindled people,” Keats said. “Old ladies, poor people. I’ve got to pay for that. I think I was supposed to pay on the day of that crash.”

            “But you got away,” I said.

            “I don’t think I did,” Keats replied.

            “Excuse me,” a voice called from the door. It was just the duty nurse, but Keats and I both jumped.

            “Hi,” I said, then stood up.

            “Shouldn’t you be going home?” she asked.

            “I was just leaving.”

            “Don’t leave me here,” Keats pleaded.

            “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said to him, then walked to the door. He began to scream as I walked out into the hallway.


* * *


            You’re probably wondering if I believed Keats’s story. I didn’t, until he began to talk about the shadows. You see, I had seen those shadows too. Not here, but in Korea.

            It was the previous summer. I had been part of an attack that had gone terribly wrong. My company had been decimated by artillery fire unlike any I had ever seen. I don’t remember much of it now. I was running. I saw dirt, tree chunks and body parts flying all around me. Then someone crashed into me. I fell into the mud, then lost consciousness.

            I don’t know how long I was out, but I woke up to find myself beneath a dead soldier. I couldn’t call out -- the enemy might be nearby. I couldn’t listen for them either, since my ears were still ringing from the artillery. I slowly worked my way up, pushing one of the dead soldier’s legs to the side. I stuck my head out. There was no sign of the enemy. The field was covered with bodies and wood particles from the trees that had been pummeled.

            I stood up, then checked to make sure I was in tact. Incredibly, I looked fine. Then I saw the shadows. It’s something that’s hard to describe. Each object seem to have six or seven shadows, and they moved on the ground in different directions, crisscrossing each other. Stranger, the sky had grown dark so that I couldn’t see the source of light. I don’t know how long this moment lasted. It was dream-like in its time. It ended when I heard someone call my name. My head snapped, the shadows were gone, and reality seemed to be restored. Later, I thought it had been a hallucination. That is, until the night I spoke to Keats.

            The walk home from the hospital that night was especially frightening. Here I was, a man who had been in hand-to-hand combat, afraid of my own shadow. I couldn’t help it. I tried to stay in the light of the street lamps. I hurried past alleys. I even found myself trying to make as little noise as possible with my footsteps.

            When I entered my mother’s house, I didn’t feel the usual safety of home. No, I was keenly aware of the fact that we were never safe. My mother was already in bed. I peered into her dark room. She was sleeping peacefully, completely unaware of what she might face if she was to die in her sleep.

            “Not her,” I whispered to myself. As far as I knew, she was a good woman. But the truth is that she was alive for thirty years before I was even born. I had no way of knowing what she had done. But death knew. Death knew everything.

            I went to my room, then to bed. I tried to put Keats’s story out of my head, but it was no use. I thought of his vision of the afterlife. The good people being taken somewhere, where they will presumably live on. And the bad ones? Their souls eaten. I suppose they end up knowing nothing. An eternity without light or sound. Without memory. Oblivion.

            I closed my eyes and tried to dismiss it all as the ravings of a madman. In the morning, it would all seem silly. That’s what I had to tell myself to fall asleep that night.


* * *


            When I went to work the next night, I saw that Keats was no longer in his room. I found out from the duty nurse that he had been put in the “quiet room.” This was a padded cell used to hold patients when they were especially dangerous to themselves and others.

            “How did he end up there?” I asked.

            “He went wild last night,” she said. “Then again this morning. A monster is trying to get him.”

            “I see,” I said, then I went about my business. I tried to think of this latest development as proof that Keats was simply insane. I desperately wanted to believe it. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Then later, when it was close to punch out time, I did what I had been wanting to do all night -- I walked to the Quiet Room.

            I peered in through the small window in the door. Keats was sitting on the floor, already staring at the window. It caught me off guard. He and I both jumped. When I looked back through the window, I saw that he was wearing a straight jacket. He gave me a weak smile, then struggled to get to his feet. He walked to the door, then mouthed, “Help me.”

            “I can’t,” I said.

            Keats mouthed something else, but I couldn’t make out what it was. I turned around and walked to the nurse’s station. I was going to try to convince the duty nurse to let him out for a while, but she was nowhere to be found. Then I felt a strange breeze.

            “What was that?” I whispered. I turned around and looked down the hall. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. I turned back around and walked toward the Quiet Room. When I was close to the door, I saw darkness through the window. I stopped. I knew this wasn’t possible. The lights were always on in the Quiet Room.

            “Nurse!” I called out. I inched closer to the door. The darkness I saw through the window moved out of the way, then I could see the room again. “What the hell is in there?”

            Keats’s face suddenly appeared at the window. He was screaming, but I could only hear a faint, muffled sound. He attempted to bang the window with his forehead, but the foam around it was too thick.

            “Nurse!” I called out. I turned around and saw the duty nurse at the very end of the hallway. She had just walked out of a room and had turned toward me. “Hurry!” I screamed.

            “Quiet,” she said as she walked toward me, taking her sweet time.

            I turned around. Keats was not at the window, but I saw that the room seemed to have gone dark again. I pressed my face against the window. I saw Keats crouched down in a corner of the room. He was screaming and looking up at something that I could not see. Then I realized why the room was dark. Whatever he was looking at was casting a shadow on most of the room.

            “Oh my God,” I whispered. I moved my head around to get a better look inside. The shadow covered the walls in my view and most of the ceiling, and it was fluttering. It had to be the creature he had described to me. The soul eater. I stepped away from the door, terrified.

            “What’s going on?” the duty nurse asked as she arrived at the door.

            “It’s eating him!” I screamed.

            The duty nurse looked into the room. I saw her expression change from irritated to concerned. She pulled out her key, then unlocked the door.

            “What are you doing?” I asked. I stepped back a few feet, suddenly more afraid for myself than for Keats. She was going to open the door and let that thing out.

            “Get a hold of yourself,” she said, then opened the door. The room was silent. The duty nurse walked through the doorway, out of my view. I got closer, then peered through the doorway. The room looked normal. The duty nurse was kneeling on the floor, next to Keats. His face was frozen in a look of horror.

            “Aren’t you going to help him?” I asked.

            “He’s dead,” she said, then stood up. “Heart attack.”

            “That was no heart attack,” I commented.

            “I think it’s time for you to go home,” she said.

            “Yeah,” I replied. “I suppose it is.”

            I walked out of the ward feeling unsteady and vulnerable. I took the elevator down to the ground floor, then walked to the entrance. I waited in the empty lobby, staring through the glass doors at the darkness outside. I wanted to go home, but I was too afraid to step out into the night. I wondered if the creature was still nearby. And worse, if it somehow knew that I had seen it kill Keats.

            I spent the next hour wandering around the hospital corridors. They didn’t make me feel safe, but anything was better than going out into the dark. I eventually wound up in the emergency waiting room. I spent the entire night sitting there with pregnant women and gunshot victims.

            I had hoped that what had happened to Keats would seem ridiculous in the morning. That seeing daylight again would snap me back into reality and make it easier for me to dismiss what I had seen as the result of my over-active imagination. But that’s not what happened. Morning came, and what I had seen seemed just as real and as fresh as it had when it had been happening. And worse, I was still terrified.

            It took me a couple of more hours to work up the courage to walk outside. When I did, I noticed that nothing had changed. The world seemed as peaceful and monotonous as it had before, but now I knew better. Now I knew that there was so much to be afraid of. I walked home as quickly as I could, then immediately called the hospital and told them I wouldn’t be in that night. I never stepped foot in that hospital again, not even as a patient.


* * *


            Now, I’m in another hospital. I know that death is near, so I must write faster.

            I had tried telling this story to my wife and a couple of my closer friends, but I was never able to finish it. Maybe it was the looks of disbelief. More likely, though, I wanted to spare them the terrible knowledge that has been given to me. Those nights in the mental ward may have made me wiser about the world, but they also made me into a frightened man.

            If it sounds like I’m afraid at this very moment, it’s because I am. Despite what my wife and daughters may think, I have not been a perfect man. I’ve tried to be good, but we all have our slips. I want to believe that I have been good enough to keep the soul eater away, but I doubt that it is a forgiving creature. I think I may be seeing it soon. And it won’t be just a shadow this time. I will see it in its fire breathing entirety. All I can do now is hope that I am spared.

            My strength is just about gone now. My wife was in the room just a few minutes ago. I’ve been trying to keep up appearances for her, so that she doesn’t get too sad. This time, I couldn’t fool her. While she was in the room, I saw the shadows begin to move. It was just like Keats had described it to me so many years ago, and just as I had seen in Korea.

            “What is it?” my wife had asked.

            “Nothing,” I had answered, lying.

            Now she is in the hall, talking to the doctor. They are talking about my death, but they have no idea. I try to think about the woman in blue. The thought of her is the only thing that has comforted me over these years. Maybe she will come and take me to a place.

            The shadows are moving again. I hear the sucking sounds that Keats had described to me. It is coming for me. As I lay here writing in this book, I realize that it isn’t pain that I’m afraid of. No, it is oblivion. It is my knowing nothing. It is the world going on without my knowing it. It is the loss of everything I remember and everything I hoped for. Oblivion. I wish I could hold my wife’s hand, but she can’t follow me where I am going.

            I see the creature. It is at the door. God.