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A Poisoned Gift
written by: P.C. Darkcliff
Grandpa had always been a bastard, even after his death. Well, especially after his death.
I’d heard rumors about Grandpa murdering his own brother with an ax. Mom once told me he’d regularly thrashed Grandma so thoroughly she’d had to spend a few days in bed. Fortunately, the combined powers of arthritis and Parkinson’s had nearly paralyzed him even before I was born. But that made him even more vicious.
My first childhood memory was of Grandpa barking at Ma and Grandma as they helped him shuffle from his bedroom to the living room: “Not so fast, you rotting lepers! You think I’m a roadrunner?”
I don’t think I knew what lepers meant. I knew Grandpa, though, and I could safely assume it wasn’t a compliment.
Grandpa spent the whole day lying on the flowery sofa, covered with a tattered blanket. He couldn’t watch TV because he was blind. But he never got bored.
That old devil always furtively took off his leather belt and kept it ready under the blanket, listening to the sounds around him with a maniacal expression on his face. When he heard somebody was near, he’d lift the belt and lash it around with surprising swiftness, and he’d holler like a victorious savage when he heard a yelp of pain.
Once I asked Ma what made Grandpa so mean.
“I guess it’s just bad genes,” she replied with a shrug. I asked her why they didn’t buy him a pair of jeans that fit so that he wouldn’t have to use a belt. Ma only laughed and kissed my cheek. That was the only time I remember her laughing. I’d seen her cry a lot, though, and I knew she wanted to take me far away from there. But as Dad had left us and we were poor, we were stuck under the same roof with Grandpa and his belt.
Grandpa also regularly went through tossing phases. He’d throw a plate, a slipper, or even our cat in the direction of whatever sound he heard. He’d also spit half-chewed food with the force and accuracy of an angry llama. The belt was his weapon of choice, though, and he would bite and punch anyone who tried to take it away from him.
Even as a toddler, I learned to stay well out of its reach. And after he’d put a foot-long welt across my chest, I never again fell for his, “Come here, maggot, I’ve got caaaandy.”
As she grew too senile to remember to keep her distance, Grandma and the belt became good acquaintances. Mom would not bring Grandpa food unless he showed her that his hands were empty. But he got her whenever she was too focused on sweeping the floor or dusting the cabinets to realize she’d entered hostile territory. Whenever he had a lucky strike, Grandpa would sing a song he’d probably invented himself.
If you don’t like whiskey
You’re a fucking wimp!
And if you come near me
I will do you in!
On that memorable afternoon when he managed to slash the face of poor old Dr. Cooper (who’d come to check on Grandpa’s alarmingly high blood pressure), Grandpa roared the song over and over for the rest of the day and deep into the night, until he stopped breathing.
Nobody knew whether it was exhaustion or happiness that had killed him, but everybody was relieved he was finally gone. I remember rising to my tiptoes to peek into the open coffin, which stood in the living room beside the sofa. As the undertaker put the black lid on, I thought I got rid of the old bastard once and for all.
I was wrong.
One night, about twenty years after Grandpa’s death, I woke up to the coughing of my wife Leesha. The sound rattled in her lungs and gurgled in her throat like the barking of a dying mastiff. I should have been used to it because she coughed like this all the time, especially at night. But still, I felt like crying.
Leesha had started smoking two years ago when we’d lost our baby daughter. In a way, little Angela had died just like Grandpa had—half asleep and babbling a song she’d probably invented herself. Ever since that day, Leesha had been going through three or four packs a day.
I knew she was going to kill herself. And at times, it made me wail in despair.
Angela’s sudden death had nearly murdered me. And if I lost Leesha as well, I’d have no reason to go on.
Leesha sat up. Her coughing fit was over, but she was wheezing as if she’d just pulled her head from under cold water. She cleared her throat and got out of bed.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Go back to sleep,” she rasped. Her voice had lost all its former ring and brightness, just as her face had lost its healthy glow, rotting into a grayish monstrosity.
“Where are you going?” I insisted.
“To take a dump,” she replied, but I knew she was lying. A few seconds after she’d left the bedroom, I caught a whiff of smoke.
I sighed and rolled on my side. I knew she wouldn’t be coming back to bed any time soon. Once she got up, she usually chain-smoked at the kitchen table for at least an hour or so. I closed my eyes and tried to go to sleep. Then I heard a familiar voice:
“Maggot? You there?”
I opened my eyes with a gasp. “Grandpa?” My hand shook as I reached over to the bedside table and groped for the lamp switch. The light that flooded the bedroom revealed nobody. I was about to turn the light off, thinking I’d only dreamed the voice. Then it came again.
“What a wheezing cancer-whore you’ve got for a wife, maggot.”
“Is that you, Grandpa?” I asked, even though I knew how absurd it sounded. I was just having a nightmare, that was all.
“Guess I’m as invisible to you as you’ve always been to me, huh?” the voice said and chuckled. “Serves you right!”
“This can’t be,” I whispered. “I’m dreaming.”
“No, you’re an imbecile!” the voice snapped. “I really wish I could belt your stupid head to prove it to you that you’re perfectly awake.”
And maybe I was—awake, I mean, not an imbecile. It was easy to believe that such a devil would never really die. And if it was a dream, I could as well play along until I woke up. In any case, there was no need to fear him.
“Are you a ghost or something?” I asked.
“No, I’m a fucking angel” he growled. “Oh, how I miss my belt!”
“But why did you come?”
“To grant you three wishes, maggot.”
“You’ve grown deaf or what?”
“They sent me.” The voice brimmed with resentment. “Babbled something about me screwing up your childhood and having to make amends. I’ll have to return to this smelly bedroom again next year and the one after the next, and each time I have to grant you a wish. So, what’s it gonna be, maggot?”
At that time, I was sure it was just a dream. Nevertheless, I said the first thing that came to my mind. “I want my baby daughter back.”
“No? Why not?”
“You can only make a wish that I suggest. That’s the rule.”
“Then why don’t you suggest it? She’s your great-granddaughter.”
“Don’t want any snotty brats around!” the voice snapped. “But you can wish for Leesha to stop smoking.”
I thought about it for a while. I knew Grandpa was too stubborn to be convinced to bring my daughter back. Getting Leesha off tobacco was the second best thing I could wish for. In fact, it was surprising that he’d make such a generous suggestion. Perhaps the rot of death had somehow softened his twisted heart. It was all just a dream, anyway, so what did it matter?
“That’s a good idea, Grandpa.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just officially make the fucking wish, will you?”
“Okay. I wish Leesha quit smoking.”
“You got it, maggot,” Grandpa said with an amused tone in his gruff voice.
“What’s so funny?” I asked. But he was already gone.
One night of the following year, I woke up and found Leesha’s side of the bed empty. That wasn’t much of a surprise; I knew exactly where she was. Sure enough, when I walked out of the bedroom, I saw light pouring from the kitchen into the hallway.
I hesitated before making another step. I knew I was in for an ugly scene. I would probably scream, and Leesha would cry, and in the end, it would be all for nothing. But perhaps if I kept nagging at her, one day she would get tired and give it up.
I found Leesha exactly the way I’d pictured her—spilling over a chair that had become too small for her ass, her fat fingers grasping food. She was peeling one of the six or seven eggs she’d hard-boiled in the electric kettle. An empty jar of Nutella stood by one of her dimpled elbows. An empty pack of chips laid by the other.
The cigarette she’d smoked during Grandpa’s ghostly visit had been her last. But instead of waking up in the dead of night to poison herself with tobacco, she’d been spending the black hours devouring everything she had in reach.
She saw me come, and her eyes, which seemed ridiculously tiny in her pudgy face, looked at me challengingly. She reminded me of a gorged beaver facing a hungry cat.
I cleared my throat and said, “Honey, you know you shouldn’t eat so much, especially at night. It’s gonna kill you.”
“I can’t wait,” she said, and her small eyes were suddenly wet. Her cheeks were so puffy that her tears stood in her eyes for a few seconds as if unsure where to flow. Then they headed sideways toward her ears, which were the only part of her body that hadn’t gained weight.
I hung my head and blinked away the tears that threatened to overflow from my eyes as well.
“I know you worry, but what can I do?” she cried out—as if the answer wasn’t obvious. “I know I’m so gross. You must hate me.”
“You’re not gross,” I said soothingly, even though it hadn’t been true for a long time. “And I love you,” I added, and it was still true. “And because I love you, I’m worried about you're eating yourself to death. Leave those eggs for breakfast, will you? And come to bed.”
“Oh, leave me alone!” She turned away from me and stuck an entire egg into her mouth. I sighed and went back to bed. There was no point in arguing—she was as stubborn as Grandpa.
As soon as I laid down and turned off the lights, I heard a familiar voice: “What a tub of lard you’ve got out there, maggot.”
I turned the light back on, even though I didn’t expect to see him.
“So it’s been a year, huh?” I asked the empty walls.
“A year. And a hundred pounds. Or more? Two hundred, judging from the way her poor chair groans under her ass. What a fat—”
“Shut up!” I hissed. “You know well why she’s gained weight. And it’s only your fault!”
“My fault?” Grandpa sounded appalled. “If I hadn’t made her stop smoking, she’d have died of cancer! Anyway, it’s time for your second wish, maggot. I suggest you wish she stopped eating.”
“Yeah, right,” I snapped. “And you’ll make her stop eating for good and starve to death. I’m starting to think that you’re even a bigger bastard than when you were alive. You know what? Why don’t you go back to hell? I don’t have any more wishes.”
“Listen, stupid. Your beloved Leesha’s gonna die of a massive heart attack unless you do something! Besides, I have to grant you two more wishes. Orders from above, maggot.”
“From below, more likely,” I snapped, and I froze when I heard Grandpa’s nervous laughter. “What makes you think I care about your orders, huh? Just leave us alone, will you?”
“Listen up, maggot. I gotta grant a wish and that’s the end of it. If you don’t make one, I’ll make one for you. And I don’t think you’d like that!”
I thought Grandpa was bluffing, but the risk was too big to take. It was safer to make the wish myself. If I worded it really carefully, nothing could go wrong, could it?
I heard a faint rattling coming from the kitchen. I knew the sound—Leesha had found a can of something and was now furiously going through the drawers to find an opener. That meant the seven eggs were already inside her. She was going to burp, fart, and complain of bellyache the whole day tomorrow.
“Okay,” I said at last. “I want Leesha to stop overeating and to lose weight. But I don’t want her to get anorexic, do you hear?”
“You bet, maggot,” Grandpa said. And I thought I heard him chuckle.
She was retching again. Not vomiting, because she had nothing more to expel, but heaving and gagging through the thin fingers she’d stuck deep into her throat. The sounds were strong and dreadful enough to wake me up through the closed bedroom door.
I turned on the bedside table lamp to chase the night away. But for a while, I could see nothing but tears. My forehead burnt, and I felt nauseated. I hadn’t slept well for years. And the sounds that had been keeping me awake these months were even worse than the coughing from two years ago or the kitchen clatter from last year.
I wiped my tears, got up, and walked to the bathroom. Leesha was on all fours by the toilet bowl, trying to puke. She was wearing only panties and a bra (not that she really needed the latter anymore), and I could see her vertebrae poking sharply at her skin. With her protruding ribs and emaciated bum, she looked like a greyhound trying to drink from the toilet bowl. The flap of loose skin that hung from her belly reminded me of a dried-out cow’s udder.
Grandpa had got us again. He’d fulfilled my wish, in a way: Leesha was no longer an obese, compulsive guzzler and neither was she anorexic, as she ate quite normally. But instead of making her slim and healthy as I’d wanted, Grandpa gave her a strange case of bulimia, which didn’t make her overeat but which did make her purge herself after each meal.
“Your stomach is already empty, honey,” I said, trying to keep all my impotent rage and despair out of my voice. “There’s nothing to bring up.”
“Oh, no?” She lifted her head, or the thing that had used to be her head but what now looked more like a skull dressed in dry, yellowish skin. “What about the plate of peas I had for dinner?”
“But you’ve already puked it out right after you’d eaten it!” I was suddenly yelling. “And then you used those fucking laxatives and you spent an hour sitting on the crapper, so I can’t see how there could be anything in your stomach at all.”
“What do you want from me?” She got up with a moan, looking like a disturbed skeleton rising from the grave. “Last year, you kept on and on about how fat I was. You begged me to stop eating at night. You nagged at me to start controlling my weight. Well, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. So what else do you want?”
“You haven’t solved the problem, Leesha. If anything, you’ve made it worse because malnourishment could be even deadlier than obesity. You’ve lost such a dreadful lot of weight that I’m afraid you’ll starve to death.”
“A dreadful lot of weight?” she snapped, squeezing the fold of loose skin on her belly and flapping it up and down as if it were pizza dough. It made a nasty smacking sound as it slapped against her flat breasts and bony thighs. “Then what about this? Trust me, I still have a long way to go.”
“But there’s not a gram of fat in there! Instead of puking and getting high on laxatives, you should do some sit-ups or something to tighten the loose skin.”
She began to cry. “I know I should work out, but I can’t. I just feel so dizzy and weak all the time.”
It was true. The lack of nutrition and the constant purging had drained all her energy. All she could do was to shuffle around, the way Grandpa had.
“You can’t exercise because you’re always puking or pooping,” I said. I wanted to hug her, but she’d never let me touch her since our daughter’s death. “Don’t you understand you’ve gone from one extreme to the other? Can’t you be normal, the way you—”
“The way I was before Angela died?” she jumped in, and there was something close to hatred on her face. She planted her gaunt butt on the toilet and burst into tears. “Please leave me alone,” she whispered between sobs.
“Leesha, I’m sorry.”
“Get out!” This time, it wasn’t a whisper.
I bit my lower lip and walked back to the bedroom. My eyes were full of tears as I shut the door and sat on the bed. I knew the tie between mother and daughter was stronger than a chain, and when the chain snapped, lives began rolling toward devastation. But I’d loved Angela as well, and her death was the most shattering blow I could ever imagine. I’d been trying to pull myself together. But Leesha’s self-destructing behavior kept dragging me deep into depression.
I was about to turn off the lights when somebody said, “What a bitchy bone sack you’ve got over there, maggot.”
“Shut up, you old bastard!” I shouted, not caring whether Leesha could hear me. I didn’t even bother to look around to see if Grandpa would show his ugly face this year. “It’s all your fault.”
“My fault again, huh!” The invisible intruder also shouted, but I guessed it was only me who could hear him. “Without me, she’d be already dead, maggot. Don’t you remember the jar of Nutella and the pack of chips and the seven eggs she’d devoured tonight a year ago? She was a walking heart failure!
“Anyway, I swear on my grave that the third wish will make her well and happy. They made me promise that.”
“Get the hell out of here.” The words gushed out of my mouth in a rattling wheeze. I had no more strength to shout. “You’re bound to kill her.”
“The second wish gave her a year of life, maggot! But she’ll croak if I don’t help her now, don’t you understand?”
I jabbed my fingers into my temples to stay the onset of a migraine. I had to admit Grandpa was probably right. Leesha’s heart had been all tattered from the tobacco and obesity, and the strange bulimia had brought on a severe arrhythmia. I feared she wouldn’t be around for long.
“Listen to me, maggot.” Grandpa’s voice came strong and urgent from whatever hellish void he was floating in. “I swear on my grave that the third wish will make her well and happy!”
“Haven’t you already said that, you senile corpse?”
“They made me say it twice, so shut up. At least you can see I keep my promises. So what do you say?”
A car drove by, and the neighbor’s dog started to bark. No sounds came from the bathroom: Leesha had probably cried and retched herself to sleep.
“So what do you say?” Grandpa repeated. “Ready for your third wish, maggot?”
“You’ve been only messing with us, you bastard. How could you even think I’d ever trust you again?”
“I don’t care if you do,” he said and chuckled. “But this time I really have to make her well and happy or they will mess with me. Anyway, remember what I told you last year: if you don’t make a wish, I’ll make one for you.”
I shuddered at the prospect. I would give anything to find out whether it was true. And just like last year, I was too cowardly to risk refusing to make my own wish.
“Why don’t you wish she’d stop being bulimic, maggot?”
“No!” I shouted, smelling a trap.
Grandpa only growled, obviously wishing he had a hand and a belt. There was a long silence, and I thought he’d left. But suddenly he said. “Twice you’ve wished that she changed on her own, and twice it was a fucking disaster. She’s crazy, maggot. Must’ve always been crazy because she married someone like you, but she really went bonkers after Angela croaked. This damned lunatic needs adequate professional help. Why don’t you wish for that, maggot?”
For a long time, I said nothing. The neighbor’s dog finally stopped barking. I thought I heard snoring coming from the bathroom.
“Listen to me!” Grandpa had obviously lost his patience. “You either take this or I’m out of here. I swore she’d be fine, didn’t I?”
“Alright,” I said after a while, afraid that he would disappear and make some dreadful wish for me. “I want Leesha to find professional help to overcome all her disorders!”
Another year had dragged by, and one night I woke up to—silence.
I turned on the bedside table lamp and looked beside me. Leesha’s side of the bed was cold and abandoned. I pricked my ears. No coughing, no guzzling, no vomiting; the house was empty. The silence filled me with an avalanche of clashing emotions.
I got dressed and walked out into the night. I didn’t bother to lock the door: I wasn’t coming back. As I sat in the car, I opened the glove compartment. The small Beretta revolver was still there. I took it and stuck it into the breast pocket of my jacket.
I drove downtown to Main Street and pulled over in front of a tall office building that loomed over a gas station and a liquor store. The front door was broken; the porter fast asleep. I took the elevator to the seventh floor. The name tag on the left-hand door said, “Dr. Robin Pearcy, psychologist.”
This was the guy I had—in a way—wished for. This was the professional help Grandpa had suggested, the savior of my poor, skeletal wife. I recalled Grandpa’s words.
I swear on my grave that the third wish will make her well and happy!
The old bastard hadn’t lied: she looked well and happy alright, which I could confirm when I entered the unlocked office. She was naked (even though she could use a bra now) and her back was arched, but I couldn’t see a single rib under her healthy skin. She was slim but no longer skinny, and she was very happy, judging from the sounds she was making.
Dr. Pearcy looked happy as well. He sat slumped on the patients’ sofa, moaning and grinning like a maniac while she was doing aerobics on top of him. Evidently close to climax, he didn’t see me enter. Leesha had her back to me, and she was now moaning so loudly she couldn’t hear me approach them.
I wasn’t surprised to see them. I’d known for months that—just as she’d been previously stealing out of the bedroom for tobacco, food, or laxatives—she was lately stealing out of the house for some extramarital fun. Pearcy was also married, which explained why they had their nocturnal trysts in his office.
The worst thing was that I couldn’t bring myself to hate her. I’d loved her through all her dreadful crises, and I couldn’t help adoring her now that she was as beautiful as when I’d first fallen for her. On top of that, I felt responsible for all the horrors she’d gone through. Didn’t she deserve to be well and happy?
But why couldn’t she have been happy with me? Why?!
I pulled the Beretta out of my pocket. “That’s enough, you two!”
Leesha screamed, and Pearcy gasped as if her labia had bitten him.
“What are you doing here?” she asked as she dismounted the helpful psychologist and sat beside him. Her flushed face bore the same expression as it had whenever I’d told her to quit smoking, gorging, or puking.
“Just came to see how your therapy’s going.” I aimed the revolver in their direction. “She getting any better, doc? You gonna charge me for doing her overtime?”
Pearcy only trembled and whimpered. He crossed his legs to cover his wiggler, which was as limp with fear as its owner. A dark stain appeared on the sofa, spreading out from under his legs. His urine dripped on the parquet floor.
Leesha only stared at me with a challenging glare that made me wonder if she’d ever loved me.
“I should kill you both,” I said. Then I stuck the muzzle in my mouth.
Just before I pulled the trigger, I’d thought of Grandpa. I’m coming for you, you old bastard. We’ve got quite a few scores to settle!
I've lived in six countries and on three different continents. Although ruinous to my bank account, the seminomadic lifestyle has been hugely inspirational, and many of my experiences have spilled into my stories. My wife and I have recently settled in Southwestern Spain.