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Can You Help Me?
By Larry Stephens
Bart Sandstrom whipped a fist the size of an adult goose in an overhead arc and brought it crashing down on his nightstand, in direct contact with an alarm clock that often opted to not perform to specification whenever it damned well felt like it.
Which it did not do on this fine, feckless morning. Hence the smooshed alarm clock.
The lit numbers immediately winked out and shards of crunched plastic exploded all over the place, not including the pieces that punched through the skin of said goose-sized fist.
Bart was late. Again.
He bolted out of bed, not bothering to make it, and raced into the bath of the old two-story walkup located on the north side of Pittsburgh, just across the river from downtown where he worked. Rain pattered on the skylight in the bath, just as it seemed to do every other Monday morning in Pittsburgh over the past three years.
Bart pounded through his ablutions—not the easiest thing in the world for a three-hundred-plus-pound man to do in an apartment the size of a peanut shell. But he made it, stopping at the front door to give himself a quick once-over before daring the ever-present rain.
Pants okay? No stains? Check.
Zipper up? Check.
Shirt tucked in? Check.
Wrinkles? Not so good. Oh well. He shrugged on a rain-slicker and threw the front door open just as a gust of cold wind belted him in the face, followed by angry spits from the skies. Something clanked to the concrete steps at his feet.
What da fu—?
What the hell was a bucket doing at his place?
Bart bent down and picked it up, studying it, his heavy brow creasing. It was bright pink with gaily speckled yellow polka dots and a wooden handle. The brightness of it was in stark contrast to the gloomy Monday morning.
Why was it here?
Bart almost tossed it aside as either a stupid prank or something of complete insignificance, but then he spied a piece of folded paper inside the bucket, and he plucked it out.
All thoughts of being late were cast to the wind as Bart was totally entranced by these odd things appearing on his doorstep. He glanced around, but saw that none of his neighbors had a bucket like the one he was holding.
Grunting to himself, he unfolded the note.
“Hiya Mister Sandstrom.
My name is Amy and I live kinda close to you. I’m eight. Mommy says I should never talk to people I don’t know. She says that to keep me safe. Does your mommy tell you stuff like that too?
Mommy doesn’t like you—
Well there’s a revelation, who does?
—cuz she says that you’re a Bad Man. I axed her why she said you was a Bad Man and she got mad and made me go to bed without supper, and I was really hungry too.
I like Minecraft. Do you like Minecraft? Maybe we can play online? That would be fun.
I don’t got friends; mommy makes me stay inside a lot. She says I’m sick, and a lot of times I don’t feel too good. I axed mommy what’s wrong with me and she said I got an organ that aint working right and I need a new one.
I axed her what’s an organ. She said I ax too many questions. Then she cried and cried and told me those are parts of my body that make my body work. Like stuff like breathing and eating and going poo poo. You know what organs are too, right Mister Sandstrom?
I axed her if that was what she was talking about when she said one of them aint working right. She said yeah. Then she said it was my liver. She said I need a transplant, but we aint got no money so she can’t buy me one. She said someone needs to ‘donate’ one to me. I think that means someone has to give me their liver. Well that doesn’t seem too bad, does it Mister Sandstrom?
So what do you think? Will you give me your liver?
Just put your liver in this pretty bucket my mom gave me for my birthday. She said everyone needs a good bucket, and this one’s the best! Bye!”
What the blue hell?
Bart crumpled the note, convinced it was a prank. He jammed it in his pocket, tossed the empty bucket on his door stoop, unlocked his bike and pedaled off, trying to dodge raindrops.
Bart’s workday sucked, to put it eloquently.
It began its downward trajectory when he got to work and realized that he somehow forgot the bike lock. So it was either run to the convenience store and hope like hell they had one, or face a very real possibility of someone boosting his ride.
And of course convenience store number one had no such thing, although Bart could have one hundred ninety-four varieties of energy drinks.
Convenience store number four did indeed have a lock with an ungodly price tag.
Needless to say that by the time Bart finally lashed his bike to the post and yanked the seat off, he was quite roundly pissed off.
He tried to sneak in but frowned when he saw a bright yellow Post-It note plastered on the dark screen of his laptop with the boss’s chicken-scratch demanding Bart go to his office immediately. Post-haste. As in, right now. He dropped his backpack, wet rain slicker, bicycle seat and his helmet, and motored his big self to the office of Zebnyk Mikalic, a stream of grumbled curses in his wake.
Bart was reeling; replaying the conversation over and over again; sometimes snarling in rage, others in disbelief, fighting off the shocking panic at the loss of his job.
What the hell am I gonna do?
He spun the numbers on the bike lock unconsciously, his brain racing, trying to work out a plan while freaking out about the huge credit card debt that he was now not going to be able to pay.
Somehow Bart was on his bike and pedaling against the wicked-cold wind that roared off the river, threatening to knock Bart off the bike to plunge into the turbulent, iron-gray waters ninety-four feet below, and Bart wondered if taking a swan dive wasn’t such a bad idea. He gripped the brakes on the bike at that sudden thought and dismounted, dragging the bike with him to the bridge railing.
How bad could it be?
Sure, it would hurt like a royal bitch at first, but then, blessed sleep and nothingness and no more bitching credit collectors or worrying about getting another job or feeling like garbage because of all the stares from people who thought Bart was nothing but a fat slob loser.
Tears streamed down his raw cheeks suddenly and brazenly, and Bart… aka ‘Big Bart’ stood there in the relentless wind and cold and bawled his heart out, tears mingling with persistent rain. He dropped to the pavement leaning his back against the sturdy railing, rattling a cluster of padlocks and hoping that the steel would give out and the decision to take his own life would be made for him.
Time passed, the sun was plunging into the west when Bart finally hauled himself to his feet. Many people had streamed by him as his emotions flayed his guts and his pain until everything became just one great big ache. Some dropped coins at his feet. Bart scooped them up and climbed back on his bike.
He chained his bike to the rail in front of his walkup, feeling dead inside. Spent. Exhausted. And more than a little feeling sorry for himself as he trudged heavily up the three steps to his front door where he was greeted by a pink, polka-dotted bucket hanging from the door handle.
Bart lifted the bucket and peered inside to see another note squished on the bottom of the pail. He sighed heavily and jammed a key in the lock and let himself inside.
He dropped his backpack, helmet and bike seat on the floor as he stepped into his apartment; shucked out of his slicker and let that fall to the wooden floor as well, not giving a single ounce of care if the damned floor got wet.
Magically there was a full fifth of vodka in his fist. Glass or bottle? He wrenched the twist-cap off the bottle and chugged a third of it, then dropped onto a beat-up couch from his college days, numb.
The window caught his unblinking gaze and Bart stared at the twinkling lights through the rain tracks on the glass, not thinking, just feeling. Washed out. Trashed. He took another long belt.
A long time passed before Bart climbed to his feet and switched a lamp on, then made his way to the front door and began picking up his belongings when he spied the bucket again. A sudden surge of anger boiled up in him as he scooped the bucket from the floor.
He wanted to take that bucket and crush Mikalic’s head with it; just batter the guy until his face looked like a mashed piece of memory foam. Rage threatened to overwhelm him; he recognized it and pumped the brakes on it.
He had a lifetime of dealing with uncontrollable rage and knew all too well what that rage could do. Bart blinked several times and looked into the bucket. The note…
“Hiya Mister Sandstrom.
I didn’t see no liver from you in this wonderful bucket and I was sure hoping there would be one.
Hows come you didn’t give me your liver Mister Sandstrom? Don’t you like me?
You should like me cuz mommy says I’m a really nice girl. She says that she’d have 10 or even 20 babies if they was all just like me. But I dunno if I’d want all them brothers and sisters. Do you have brothers and sisters Mister Sandstrom?
Mommy says ‘you don’t get nuthin if you don’t ax for it.’ Do you believe that too Mister Sandstrom?
Well just because mommy said that, I guess I’m axing you if you wanna give me your liver so I’d be able to grow up to be a beautiful princess like mommy says I am.
Please tell me that you do Mister Sandstrom. You can just put it in this bucket and I’ll get it and I’ll be the happiest girl in the world! Bye.”
Bart crumpled the note and stuffed it into his back pocket, joining the previous note this crackpot wrote him this morning, just before he was… fired.
He wrenched the creaky window open and tossed the bucket into the night, ignoring the clankety-clank of it hitting the pavement as he slammed the wood casement down, barely missing his little finger. Bart crossed the room and dropped onto the couch and was asleep in under ten breaths, lamp and bucket and liver and Zebnyk Mikalic be damned.
The next morning saw Bart rumbling down the stairs of his walkup with purpose and direction. He flew awake after a horrific nightmare in which all his organs decided to just up and leave his body. Bart awoke screaming.
Shaken, he decided to make some serious changes in his life, and the time to start making those changes was right… freaking… NOW!
First things first. Shave. Then, get a haircut. Break open the piggy bank and get some new business clothes and new shoes and start working out big time to get himself into shape.
And so it was with great determination and purpose when Bart threw that front door open and the cute little bucket fell off the doorknob and rattled around on the walkway, stopping Bart in his tracks.
He watched the bucket, noting the glint of sunlight reflecting from it. It was almost… hypnotic.
He angrily shook his head and strode past it to the sidewalk to set to his first goal for the day, the haircut. Making a sharp left he strode, taking in the cold, crisp air and the bright skies and his heart soared, convinced that this was the Right Thing To Do.
After all, it’s not how a person gets knocked down; it’s how they get back up! Hells ya! Bart wasn’t sure who said that little gem, but it was a dandy for sure.
But something ahead, rounding the narrow corner from Tripoli Street onto River Road. Bart squinted to try to make it out but it seemed fuzzy and hazy.
Something to add to the All New and Improved Bart! New glasses.
As Bart neared, it began to take form. Looked like a girl. Young. But something was off about the girl. For one thing…
Where the hell’s her coat? It’s colder than… Oh f—
Bart stopped cold as the girl approached and realization of who was now standing right in front of him. Amy. I-want-your-liver Amy. “Amy?”
She looked up at him, her face elfin, thick dark blond bangs hung over her forehead. Her lips were thin and pressed together in an even line and when her eyes met Bart’s, he took an involuntary step back.
Flat. Unemotional. They were…
A tingle of irrational fear danced around Bart’s spine and started worming its way around to his belly. Amy took small, halting steps toward him as she pinned him with her lifeless eyes. “Hiya Mister Sandstrom.”
The cheerful greeting was surreal and terrifying when presented with a deep, guttural bark from the mouth of a little eight-year-old girl sporting pigtails. All Bart could do was stand there as that little tendril of fear bloomed into flat-out terror. Unbidden urine tumbled down his legs and stained his pants and the advancing girl laughed which made things far, far worse.
“Can I have your liver, Mister Sandstrom? Just put it in that pretty bucket my mommy gave me for my birthday!”
Please visit Larry on Facebook! https://www.facebook.com/Enzo.stephens.5011