Death Rattle

by Shayne Woodsmith

My grandfather used to cut the filters off his cigarettes. With a jackknife that looked as if it had survived, alongside my grandfather, getting shot down over Germany and being held in a POW camp, he’d decapitate the cigarette without ever losing a single, wiry hair of tobacco. Then he’d toss the filter—his only protection against the nicotine—light up, and puff. As he sucked the smoke down into his lungs, the cigarette turning to ash between his lips and fingers, the red end glowing hot and making me squint, I’d wonder why he wanted to die. Was he trying to kill himself before the cancer got a chance? Did the pain make him long for death? I wanted to ask him why but couldn’t. He knew what he was doing, and so did the smoke; it moved through my grandfather like Death on horseback, racing in and out of his body and laying an ever-thickening shroud across his face. From where I sat, way down beneath the haze, the cigarette sucked while my grandfather shriveled and turned to ash.

~      ~      ~

In the dark and all alone under the warm strangulation of my Raggedy Anne and Andy blanket, I couldn’t sleep. I feared the sneaky hand of Death wrapping around my throat if I let my guard down. I knew he was there, waiting. I could see him moving in the darkness, so I closed my eyes. But then I could sense him creeping towards me, getting closer and closer.

While awake, if no skin beneath my neck was showing, I thought he couldn’t get me. That I was safe. But if I dozed, he’d bite into me. At the thought of huge, alien teeth sinking into my flesh, I’d spring up, wrap myself in the visages of red-yarn-haired, country bumpkins, and run upstairs. I’d turn on all the lights and the TV and lie as still as possible on the couch. There I’d surf through channels and fall asleep to the flicker of the TV screen. Waking up to some 2:00am infomercial, I’d shut off all the lights and the TV and practically sleepwalk back to bed, forgetting about the figure hiding in the dark waiting for me.

~      ~      ~

When somebody dies, the last time I saw him or her becomes an eerie memory, that final goodbye forever yesterday. It’s like that with Kelly.

He was my brother’s best friend. I watched all of their hockey games growing up. Doug scoring goals and Kelly making saves. One year Doug even paid me to keep stats and fill water bottles.

After what would be his last game, Kelly drove me home. It was my first ride from Kelly because I usually rode with my brother. But Doug had to work, so Kelly dropped me off. I laughed at one of his final quips while shutting the car door. We waved. He drove away.

“It was nice knowing you,” I should have said.

“Have a nice life,” he should have called back out his open window.

I don’t remember being there for the call. I just remember knowing as if I’d always known, as if he’d always been dead.

~      ~      ~

My grandpa died with his seven children huddled around his bed.

“Do you want to come and see him one last time?” my mum asked before leaving to meet up with her siblings and say goodbye to her father.

I told her I didn’t. That I wanted to remember him alive and like himself, not in a bed, withered and frail, gasping for his last breath as if he were falling and reaching for a rope just beyond his fingertips. Mostly, I was afraid. I’d never seen somebody die before and never wanted to. When my mum got home, she told me about the death rattle she heard at the end—the noise a soul makes when it leaves a body for good. As she described the rattle, I heard and felt it or at least an echo of it that had saturated her. His final breath shook my chest until I almost threw up.

At the funeral, Pa looked weird: small, with makeup on. He never wore makeup when alive. They might as well have put a flower in his hair or a ridiculous, red hunting cap on his head. The makeup was supposed to make him look more alive and like himself but there was nothing left of Pa in that body, nothing human. I’d never seen a dead body before and never wanted to again.

When we got back from the funeral, there was a condolence card in the mail. After my mum opened it and read, her hand flew up and over her mouth, dropping the card on the table. She then retreating a step and froze, staring at the card. It was from Kelly. He’d mailed it a day or two before the brain aneurism. There would be no open casket for Kelly. He was young and healthy; they’d had to dig deep for the cause of death.

“He wouldn’t look like himself,” my mother said.

But that was the point. That’s when it sinks in that a person is gone, because you see it. Pa hadn’t looked like himself either. He wasn’t at his own funeral and neither was Kelly. Just a casket that could have been empty or had someone else in it. It didn’t even feel like a funeral. More like a somber going away party thrown the day after the person had gone. Kelly was on vacation. Maybe off running the Hawaii marathon again or another one somewhere else.

My mum read his condolence card out loud, his final postcard. He was sorry for our loss and his thoughts were with us on our difficult day. I crept forward to look at the card. My mum held it out to me, but I couldn’t take it. I didn’t want to touch it. After seeing Kelly’s handwriting up close, I ran to the basement and cried into a pile of Doug’s dirty clothes.

~      ~      ~

I’ve only seen my mum hysterical twice. The first time, she dropped the phone and ran to my dad. He held her in the middle of the TV room while her wail drowned out whatever show was on. I thought something had jumped out of the phone and bitten her and that we had to go to the hospital for stitches just like when we went for my head and my cheek and my eyebrow. She’d held a bloody towel against my wound every time while I cried in her arms.

I wanted to help stop her bleeding, but I couldn’t move. My dad cradled her. I wished I could drive them to the hospital but I didn’t know how and I didn’t remember the way. I did remembered the bright lights staring down at me, the prick of a needle, the pull of thread through my skin, my eye swollen shut the next morning. I could even remember the stitches being removed and the feel of the fresh scar beneath my fingertips.

“Frank’s dead,” my mum said, pulling herself from my father’s shoulder. “He was working on his car and … and it fell off the jack and crushed him.” She turned back to hide in my father’s shoulder, her sobs muffled.

My sister, Amber, joined my parents’ embrace. The three of them held each other while Troy sat completely still on the couch next to them, and I stood in the kitchen staring. There was nothing to say and nowhere to go to make it better.

I don’t remember if it took a few hours or a few years for my mother to tell us how Frank really died. If she—after looking at that picture of me and Amber sprawled across Frank as he reclined—began by reminiscing about how she met him at the post office, how he used to come over all the time, and how we loved playing with him. In the end, the car was actually a gun. And the jack that slipped, Frank’s own finger.

~      ~      ~

The second time I heard my mum scream was right before Troy said, “Go get mum and dad,” while standing behind the couch with a makeshift noose in his hands.

He dropped down, and I ran away screaming, “Mum, dad come quick. It’s Troy.”

They ran around the corner with Amber in tow. “What? What is it?”

I pointed behind the couch. She glanced over and shrieked; I had to cover my ears. She fell back into my dad’s arms again. Amber looked over the couch and then joined my parents’ embrace, her tears hitting the carpet. I peeked over at Troy—the rope around his neck had squeezed his tongue out of his mouth. I stepped back and began sobbing, practically hyperventilating. My parents waved me over. Believing it was all my fault, I moved towards them slowly. They reached out and pulled me close. Right then, Troy popped up from behind the couch with the rope dangling around his neck.

“It was just a joke,” he said, glaring at me. “Why are you crying you idiot? You knew it was a joke.”

I shook my head and sobbed into my mum’s hip. “I didn’t know,” gasp … gasp, “what you were gonna do.”

~      ~      ~

On the floor of my parents’ windowless, closet-sized bathroom, I sat with my back against the toilet; Amber sat propped against the murky shower door. The Ouija board—lit only by candlelight and balanced on our touching knees—awaited our second question. The heart-shaped planchette carrying our fingertips pointed at yes: someone was in there with us.

“What is your name?” Amber asked.

… F … R … A

I thought Amber was pushing it so I lifted my fingertips off the planchette even more. Then I felt the pull.

… N … K

I knew Amber wasn’t moving it.

“Hello Frank. Thanks for joining us. Are you still in our house?” Amber asked.

YES.

“Why are you still here?”

“Do you miss us?”

YES.

“We miss you too Frank,” Amber said, searching my face for another question. “Do you regret killing yourself?”

“You don’t have to tell us,” she said quickly.

YES

“Why did you do it?”

“Were you unhappy?”

YES

“Are you happier now?”

“Is there anything you want to tell us?”

GOODBYE

“Bye Frank. Thanks for talking to us.”

We lifted our fingers, blew out the candles, and left the bathroom with smoke chasing after us.

~      ~      ~

I stand beside my other grandpa. He looks dead—his mouth droops down like melting wax, his skin pasty, the tattoos on his forearms blurred and unrecognizable. The acrid stench from his catheter bag stings my nostrils just as a nurse steps inside. I sit down away from the bed and press my hand against my nose to smell something other than piss.

“Are you his grandson?” she asks, working quickly.

I nod, hoping she’ll leave just as quickly. But instead she leans into my grandpa’s ear and yells, “STAN, YOUR GRANDSON IS HERE.”

Her loud voice makes my eyes and face twitch with each word.

“HE CAME TO SEE YOU,” she says, turning towards me. “He’s been waiting for you you know.”

Suddenly I hate her even more. I shift in my seat, not wanting to be the final visitor, the one waited for. “What makes you say that? Did he say he was?”

“No, but we’ve been telling him you were coming.” She leans into his ear again. “STAN, YOUR GRANDSON IS HERE.” She messes with the tubes and adjusts the sheets. “DON’T YOU WANT TO SAY HI TO YOUR GRANDSON?”

The room suddenly feels like a closet. I can’t breath and all I can smell is piss. I turn towards the open door and long to be in my car driving away. I stand to leave.

“You don’t have to go,” she says while adjusting my grandpa’s pillows. “I’m almost done here.”

Without looking back I say, “I was just leaving anyway.”

Walking down the hall, I hear the nurse say, “STAN, YOUR GRANDSON WAS JUST HERE TO SEE YOU.”

I wait down the hall, taking deep breaths and soothing myself with thoughts of smacking the nurse across her loud mouth. When she leaves his room, I slip back inside, kiss him on his clammy forehead, and say, “Goodbye Papa.”

That night, I wake up at three in the morning. I’m wide awake and freezing. I get up, put on socks, another shirt, and wrap myself in a second blanket. Staring at the ceiling and rubbing my feet together to warm them up, I eventually fall back to sleep.

Five hours later the phone rings. It’s my mum. “Papa passed away last night,” she says. “It was time. They said he went peacefully.”

“That’s weird.”

“Why?”

“‘Cause I woke up at around three feeling like someone threw a bucket of ice water on me.”

“That’s about the same time he passed on.”

I can hear her laboured breath through the phone.

“He must’ve came to say goodbye,” she says. “The nurses thought he was waiting for you, you know.”

“Yeah I heard,” I say, still wanting to smack the loudmouth nurse.

When I hang up the phone, I feel someone behind me. I turn around, but no one’s there. I see only an empty space where someone once was.

~      ~      ~

“There’s a recurring one I used to have all the time when I lived here,” I say. “It’s about the basement. Your basement has always freaked me out.”

“Why?”

“Mum it’s creepy down there. Don’t you feel the bad vibes?”

“No. I’m fine in the basement.”

“Well, you’re lucky.”

“Anyway, the dream.”

“Right, so I’m in the basement and there’s nothing behind the staircase. No bathroom or furnace or anything. It’s just black and it goes on forever.”

“Like a cave.”

“Yeah, like a cave and there are big piles of stuff everywhere. I don’t know what they are but they’re big and everywhere.”

“It’s like rubble right,” my mum says. “Like big piles of rocks.”

“Yeah, and I’m hiding behind one of those piles looking at the basement.

‘Cause over there the basement looks normal, with the carpet and everything. So I hide back in this cave and watch people.”

“What are they doing?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s weird,” she says. “That’s like mine except I don’t look back at the basement. I just keep wandering back behind the stairs and it just goes on forever.”

“You go behind the stairs?”

“Yeah. And it just keeps going.”

“What do you think it means mum?”

“I don’t know. I … I think there’s a huge aquifer beneath our house. Or at least there used to be.”

“But why would we both dream about it and why would I hide there?”

“I don’t know.”

“What am I hiding from?”

“I don’t know.”

~      ~      ~

Lying awake, my eyes closed, I’m hot but can’t push off my blankets. I can feel Death. I fear never waking up, dying in my most vulnerable and helpless state. But then I wonder if Death already got me. If my mind is just playing out how my life would’ve gone had I lived. Or did I die as an old man and now my mind is replaying my life over again in the eternal moment after the final gasp?

I’m in the dark, all alone, without the TV. The only sound is of my breath flowing in and out me. I listen. And I wait. But my breath doesn’t stop, and there is no rattle. I open my eyes and look around my room—there is nothing waiting to get me and there never was. I chuckle, kick off my covers, and fall asleep.