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Playing Possum Part 2

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    Posted: June/16/2007 at 2:55am
* * *

Kevin stepped through the side door to find the kitchen filled with the mouth-watering aroma of bacon and pork chops. He found the possum at the stove, a spatula gripped in his tiny right paw.

“What’s going on?” Kevin asked.

Fred used the spatula to transfer three strips of sizzling bacon to a plate and said, “I just figured you’d be hungry after a long day at work.”

“That’s awfully nice of you.”

“Got pork chops, bacon, and some scrambled eggs.”

“Smells divine,” Kevin said, taking a seat and digging in. The bacon was crisp and flavorful, the eggs mixed with gooey cheese, and the pork chops coated with tangy barbecue sauce. Kevin stuffed his face without thought of manners or etiquette; sauce dribbled down his chin.

“Well, this really hits the spot,” he said between bites. “Of course, I’ll have to make something for Neil before he gets home.”

“Why? Is he crippled in some way that prevents him from making his own dinner?”

Kevin found this particularly funny, and bits of egg sputtered from his mouth as he laughed. “No, but since I get home before he does…”

“Home from a hard day at work, right?”

“Well, I don’t know about hard. I mostly just sit there all day, waiting for customers to show up.”

“Business not exactly booming, huh?”

“No, I thought the antique store was such a good idea when I came up with it. I thought the wealthier citizens would flock to it, but I was wrong. Neil thinks I should just go out of business, and I’m beginning to agree with him.”

“What about your painting?”

Kevin’s head jerked up, his tongue poking out to absently lick away some barbecue sauce. “How did you know I like to paint?”

“I have my ways,” Fred said with a small smile. “When’s the last time you took up the brush?”

Kevin sighed, pushing away his plate. “Almost a year. I just never have the time or energy.”

“It used to be a source of great joy for you,” Fred said.

Kevin smiled, his eyes growing misty with memory. “Nothing made me happier than putting paint to canvas and creating something from nothing.”

“What happened?”

The mist cleared from Kevin’s eyes, and he said, “Life happened. All my paintings are stacked up in the attic, collecting dust.”

“Why don’t you take it up again? You could paint at the store when business is slow. That way, your time won’t be completely wasted.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Kevin said, taking his dirty dishes to the sink. “Fred, I think that might just work.”

Kevin turned back toward the table, but Fred was gone. Back behind the refrigerator no doubt, leaving Kevin alone in the kitchen.

* * *

Kevin rushed into the kitchen, hoping to find Fred waiting for him, but instead Neil was sitting at the table, sipping coffee and reading over the paper. He glanced up at Kevin and said, “Why are you in such a hurry?”

“What are you doing home so early?” Kevin asked, eyes darting toward the refrigerator.

“I let my afternoon class out early.”

Kevin hovered near the refrigerator, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“What’s wrong with you?” Neil asked. “You’re dancing around like you have to use the bathroom or something.”

Kevin did have news he was dying to share. He wanted to share it with Fred, but the possum wouldn’t come out while Neil was around.

“I sold a painting today,” Kevin said in a breathless rush, feeling a bit lightheaded with joy.

“Great,” Neil said with a decided lack of interest. “Which one?”

“The one of the wheat field with the mountain range in the background, the one I painted during our vacation out west.”

Neil looked up then, focusing for the first time on his partner. “You mean one of your paintings?”

“What did you think I was talking about?”

“I assumed you were talking about something from the store. Who bought one of your paintings?”

“Dr. Jenkins.”

“That rich old bastard that lives up on Heatty Hill? How did he even know about your paintings?”

“Well, I’ve been using some of the downtime I have at the store to do a little painting. Dr. Jenkins came in last Friday and saw the piece I was working on; he asked if I could bring some more in for him to look at. I did, and he ended up buying one. He said he had some friends who might be interested as well.”

“How much did he pay for it?”

“Four hundred dollars.”

“What?” Neil said with an explosive laugh. “He must be senile to shell out that much dough for one of your paintings.”

Kevin stiffened, immediately on the defensive. “And what’s so hard to believe about that?”

“Hey, a thing is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it, I guess. If you can convince some half-wit old coot to part with that much cash, more power to you.”

“I really don’t understand you, Neil. You teach drama, for Christ’s sake; I’d think you of all people could appreciate the value of art.”

“Come on now, I’d hardly call your little doodlings art.”

“I should have known better than to tell you about this,” Kevin said, rubbing furiously at his right temple, behind which another fierce migraine was being born. “You mock everything that’s important to me.”

“Well, if you ever get some serious pursuits, let me know,” Neil said, turning back to the paper.

In no mood to continue the conversation, Kevin stormed out of the kitchen. He spent the rest of the afternoon alone in the attic, choosing a selection of canvases to show Dr. Jenkins next week.

* * *

Later that night, Kevin slipped out of bed and made his way to the kitchen. He found Fred rummaging through the garbage can.

“Oh, sorry,” Fred said, and Kevin thought he actually saw the possum blush. “Caught me red-handed.”

“You know,” Kevin said, “you’re welcome to help yourself to anything in the refrigerator.”

“Not my kind of cuisine. I guess congratulations are in order.”

“You heard?”

“I was listening earlier when you told Neil about it.”

Kevin’s face took on a stretched, pained look. “So I guess you also heard how he reacted.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Fred said, motioning for Kevin to have a seat at the table. “Don’t let Neil taint this accomplishment. Be proud of yourself; you’ve earned it.”

“I believe I have you to thank.”

“Your talent is responsible for the sale.”

“No, don’t minimize your hand in all this, Fred. This wouldn’t have happened without your encouragement. It’s been so long since I received that kind of encouragement, I’d almost forgotten what it felt like.”

Now Kevin was positive that the possum was blushing. “It’s easy to be encouraging of someone who deserves it.”

“Who would have thought that my biggest fan would be a possum that lives behind my refrigerator?” Kevin said with a laugh.

Fred fixed Kevin with a serious stare. Silence stretched out for several seconds before the possum said, “Kevin, you should be surrounding yourself with positive influences. You don’t need negativity in your life.”

“Are you suggesting—”

“I’m not suggesting anything,” Fred said quickly. “I just recommend you reevaluate your life. Keep what works, and throw out the rest.”

“Sounds like sensible advice to me,” Kevin said and reached out, putting a hand over the animal’s paw. For the first time in years, he didn’t feel so alone.

* * *

Neil came home after a long day at school to find most of his clothes packed in suitcases and stacked by the front door.

“What the (i'm 12 and just learned how to swear) is this?” he asked as Kevin came down the hallway, carrying a duffel bag bulging with more stuff.

“You’re leaving,” Kevin said simply, his voice devoid of inflection.

“And where exactly am I going?”

“Not my problem,” Kevin said, dropping the bag at Neil’s feet. “Hotel, your little boyfriend’s apartment or dorm room or whatever. I don’t really care.”

Neil was wearing a puzzled smile, but it gradually evaporated as he stared into his partner’s steely eyes. “You’re not seriously kicking me out of my own house?”

“This is my house. My Aunt Nancy left it to me fifteen years ago.”

“Yes, and for the past six years I’ve been helping pay the property tax and bills, not to mention upkeep.”

“Fine, I’ll reimburse you. Just go.”

“What the (i'm 12 and just learned how to swear) is going on here?” Neil said, looking around as if the answer to his question could be found in the air. “What brought this on all of a sudden?”

“This isn’t sudden, Neil. It has been coming for quite some time now. If anything, it’s long overdue.”

“Kevin, we need to sit down and talk about this before we do something rash.”

“We don’t talk anymore; we yell, we curse, we exchange insults. Maybe ‘something rash’ is exactly what we need to do.”

“If you think I’m just—”

“Look,” Kevin said, his expression softening. “I’m not laying all this at your feet. I take my share of the blame. This isn’t working, it hasn’t been working for years now. We’ve just been too…comfortable, I guess, to do anything about it. We make each miserable; neither of us should have to go on living that way.”

“Are you saying you don’t love me anymore?”

Kevin rubbed at his temple; he was having another migraine, the worst he’d ever experienced. His vision around the edges actually seemed to be graying out, as if everything were being eclipsed by a dense fog. “No,” he finally answered. “I don’t think I do. Can you honestly say you still love me?”

“Kevin,” Neil said, concern coloring his voice, “are you okay? You don’t look so hot.”

Kevin could see Neil’s mouth moving, but he wasn’t really hearing the words. An intense pain sliced through his head like a knife blade. He cried out, clutching his head in his hands. His vision faded out and he felt himself toppling over. He thought Neil may have grabbed him to break his fall, but he couldn’t be sure. The world around him was swallowed by the pain, which grew large and all encompassing. A giant with an insatiable appetite that wouldn’t be satisfied until it had consumed everything in its path.

There was nothing but the pain, then not even that.

Then he was alone in the darkness.

* * *

Kevin awoke to find himself in hell.

At least, he assumed it was hell. Where else would have walls painted such a queasy shade of puke-green? Where else would have such harsh lights that stabbed at the eyes like tiny luminescent blades? Where else would have beeping alien machinery attached to his body with tubes and wires?

“Kevin? Kevin, are you awake?”

Kevin turned his head, and there was Neil, sitting in an uncomfortable looking chair the same putrid green as the walls. Neil was in hell, too? Well, that seemed about right.

“Kevin,” Neil said, placing a hand on Kevin’s arm. “You’re going to be okay.”

“Where am I?” Kevin asked in a croak. His mouth was dry as a desert; he thought he could feel a sandstorm kicking up in there.

“The hospital,” Neil said. “You passed out. I called 911. Turns out you had a brain tumor.”

“Brain tumor?”

“Yeah, that’s why you were having all those headaches lately. They had to operate.”

Kevin reached up and tentatively touched his head. It was smooth, shaven.

“Don’t worry,” Neil said. “They think they caught it in time, got it all. Your prognosis is good. I’ll take care of you until you’re one hundred percent again.”

Kevin looked at Neil. There was such compassion and sincerity shining in the other man’s eyes, and yet Kevin felt nothing for him. “Neil, about what we were discussing before I passed out—”

“Don’t worry about that either. I know that wasn’t you talking; it was the tumor. The doctor said brain tumors can sometimes impair judgement and perception. I understand that you didn’t mean any of it.”

“That’s what the doctor said?”

“Yeah, and I want you to know things are going to change at home. This was a wake-up call for me. Made me realize just how important you are to me. I’m going to be a better man and a better partner, I swear it.”

Neil leaned over and kissed Kevin softly on the lips. Kevin believed what Neil was telling him, but it meant nothing to him. Whatever feeling Kevin had once had for Neil was long gone. But how could he tell Neil this when Neil was so obviously genuine in his professions of love and change?

Kevin decided not to worry about it right now. Exhaustion overcame him, and his eyelids began to flutter. He slipped back into unconsciousness, his last sight Neil smiling down at him.

* * *

Neil brought Kevin home two weeks later. The house was spotless, and Neil had even placed some of Kevin’s paintings on the walls in the den. Kevin stood by the fireplace, staring around at the room. Everything was as it had been when he’d gone into the hospital, but it all felt different somehow. It felt hollow, empty.

“Do you want me to fix you anything to eat?” Neil asked. “I went grocery shopping yesterday, so we’re fully stocked on all your favorites.”

Kevin shook his head.

“You sure? I don’t mind whipping something up.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Neil fidgeted, seeming at a loss if he wasn’t doing something. “How about a bath? A nice hot bath to help you relax?”

“Yeah, that might be nice.”

“Okay, I’ll go run the bath.”

“Sure. I’m going to go get a glass of orange juice while you’re doing that.”

Neil hurried to the bathroom and started the water, filling the tub a third of the way with hot water then turning on the cold. He was rummaging in the cabinet under the sink, looking for that bottle of bubble bath, when he heard a loud crash from down the hall, following by a muffled pounding. Neil bolted to the kitchen, yelling Kevin’s name, fear clenching in his gut like a fist.

Neil pushed through the swinging door then skidded to a halt. The refrigerator had been toppled, lying on its side, the door hanging open, broken bottles and food littering the floor. Kevin was also on the floor, kneeling, pounding on the wall. He had actually managed to punch a hole in the plaster. He was crying.

“Kevin, what’s wrong?” Neil said, squatting down next to Kevin, reaching out but not daring to touch his partner. “Did you hurt yourself?”

“He’s gone,” Kevin sobbed, clawing at the wall. “He’s not here anymore.”

“Who? Who’s gone?”

“Fred,” Kevin said, then he turned on Neil with a fierceness in his eyes that was frightening to behold. “Did you do something with him? Did you make him leave?”

“Kevin, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t know anyone named Fred.”

“He was my friend,” Kevin said, slumping against the wall. “He was the only one who understood, the only one I could talk to. What will I do now that he’s gone?”

Badly shaken by Kevin’s irrational behavior and incoherent babbling, Neil rushed for the phone in the den to call the doctor, leaving Kevin alone in the kitchen.

Alone.

THE END
We are not strangers to ourselves, we only try to be. --Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote breezit Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: June/16/2007 at 3:01pm
I enjoyed it, FinalExam. I suppose my only suggestion would be to flesh out the characters a little better.   This story is quite dialogue heavy, and I would have preferred more back story about the Kevin character and his relationship with Neil.

Also, Kevin seemed to accept the fantastic nature of the Possum rather too quickly for my tastes.
"In the real world as in dreams, nothing is quite what it seems.” Dean Koontz

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote FinalExam Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: June/16/2007 at 3:05pm
Thanks for your comments breezit. I understand what you are saying about the acceptance of the Possum, but I actually did that on purpose. It was meant to be part of the story's charm, that Kevin so readily accepts the Possum into his life. Maybe I didn't do a good job of getting that across though.

My boyfriend actually thinks that just by making my characters gay that I'm alienating certain editors. I don't know if that's true or not, I certainly would like to think in this day and age that wouldnt' be the case, but I write what I enjoy.

Still, the couple may not seem realistic. I mean, maybe I do need more backstory to flesh them out. The problem is that the story is already pushing the limit of what most magazines will consider in regards to word count, so I will need to find some other stuff to cut. Any ideas?
We are not strangers to ourselves, we only try to be. --Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote breezit Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: June/16/2007 at 3:24pm
You know, I did a word count and I realized this story is close to 5000 words. It didn't seem that long at all, largely due to the fact that it's mostly dialogue.

I must admit I'm not entirely sure what to cut. I like what's there already, I personally would prefer this story to be longer, like in the 7500 word range.
"In the real world as in dreams, nothing is quite what it seems.” Dean Koontz

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote FinalExam Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: June/16/2007 at 3:29pm
It actually was longer to begin with, to be honest, but most magazines out there have a 5000 word cut off for submissions, so I cut out quite a bit just to get it short enough to be considered. There are a few that do allow longer stories, but those are few and far between. Unfortunately, the market for short stories in general is drying up.
We are not strangers to ourselves, we only try to be. --Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
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