The Fieldstone Review

Cause and Effect

The stretcher came flying through the emergency room doors, gloved paramedics steering the unwieldy vehicle along the crowded hallway, enroute to the trauma room. The chubby, mostly naked, man, his hairless chest crisscrossed with patches of drying blood, lay flaccid and unresponsive as the stretcher swiveled around the corner and down the hallway. His body bounced along and the blanket that had been hastily draped over him shifted down off his protuberant abdomen and was left lying between him and the side rails of the stretcher, exposing a set of torn, navy blue bikini underwear, incompletely covering his meaty buttocks.

The trauma team was able to get a better idea of the source of the blood that was coating the neck and chest of the victim as he was wheeled into the resuscitation suite. A knife had been inserted into his head just above his ear and behind his left eye. The handle had been snapped off in the process, leaving about an inch of the shiny, broad blade sticking out above skin level-the remainder of the shaft resting deep in the skull. The paramedics moved the patient onto the trauma room bed and the medical staff began their primary survey. Multiple other stab wounds peppered the head and chest of the victim; evidence that a more prolonged struggle had occurred before the final, impressive blow had managed to penetrate the skull, putting an end to any resistance.

*******

Randy planned to stay home, have a couple of beer and watch t.v. It was Monday night after all. He had to get the kids-the two who still bothered to attend-ready to go to school in the morning; a job that had been abandoned by their drug-addled mother long ago. He settled into his favourite armchair and was flipping through the channels, when his sister, Valerie, stumbled in.

She was high again. Not an unusual condition for her, but she generally stayed away when she was so obviously stoned. Randy had been harassing her to clean up her act for awhile now and she should know that he'd be on her case for the next week if she showed up in this state.

Valerie was forty-two but looked more like sixty. Her thin, bruised arms stuck out of her filthy, partially buttoned, blouse like sticks on the body of a wheat field scarecrow. The skin of her abdomen hung over the top of her jeans, stretched beyond recovery by six pregnancies. Bare legs and feet were shoved into an old pair of running shoes, laces missing, and her black hair was greasy, nit infected, and only partially contained by an elastic band that attempted to create a small pony tail at the back of her head.

"Valerie...what the hell!...I told you to stay away when you're like this! Brandon and Clint are still up. They don't need to see their aunt in this condition. And shut the god-damned door, it's fuckin' cold out today!"

Valerie looked mildly confused but spun back toward the door, shoving at it with her dirty fingers as she careened off to the side.

The main room of the house was small and Randy was able to grab hold of his sister by just partially rising out of his chair and stretching out his arm to grasp the shoulder of her shirt. He managed to keep her from hitting the wall but she fell against him, forcing him back into the chair and knocking over the beer sitting on the t.v. table next to him.

Valerie laughed and snuggled in against her brother's chest. She obviously hadn't had a bath for quite some time and her few remaining teeth were cigarette-stained and hung there precariously in her swollen, diseased gums.

"Don't need to grab, baby...I'm a friendly girl..." Valerie giggled and licked Randy's neck as she squirmed on top of him.

Randy burst up out of the chair, pushing Valerie off his lap and onto the floor in front of the door.

"Jesus Christ, Valerie! I'm Randy. Your brother. What the hell have you been into? And do up your blouse. This isn't a fucking whorehouse!"

Valerie was partially sitting, partially lying, on the floor, picking at the buttons of her shirt as she tried to respond to Randy's instructions. Her sedated fingertips struggled with the buttons and their corresponding holes.

Randy leaned over and retrieved the can of beer from under an adjacent chair. He walked over to the tiny, galley kitchen to look for a cloth so that he could mop up the spreading pool of liquid before it seeped further into the already soiled carpet. Valerie struggled to her feet, her pendulous breasts readily visible, hanging unconfined, and uninviting, behind the threadbare bits of material. Deep stretch marks and prominent veins coursed over the well-used skin and an old tattoo, a remnant of a previous era, and happier times, wrapped around her left breast at the level of her nipple. Randy could only see the top of the 'N' from this vantage point, but he knew, from years of Valerie's exposing herself in just such a manner, that the tattoo read 'Nick' and was placed in such a way that the dot of the 'i' was formed, most impressively, by an erect nipple. Much of the name was likely hidden now, by the sagging breast, but Randy hadn't had a look at the entire package for quite some time.

Valerie was digging in her pocket. She pulled out a huge wad of cash and placed it triumphantly in the middle of the t.v. table. Beer flooded the dehydrated paper and Randy rushed across the room to snatch up the sopping mass of bills.

"See what I brought you? See what I got for my baby brother?" Valerie grinned, conspiringly, and grabbed hold of the arm of the chair as she swayed slightly on her well-calloused feet.

"Where the hell did you get this? There must be a thousand bucks here!" said Randy, as he leafed through the sticky concoction of paper and beer.

"Those guys. Those fuckin' guys..." responded Valerie. "They think ol' Miss Valerie is just a stupid, old, doped up, dried up..." her words began to slur a bit and she stopped momentarily to spit on the carpet in front of her. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and Randy knelt down to wipe up the gob of spit from between the t.v. table legs.

"Jesus, Valerie" he said.

"But I got them this time!" blathered Valerie. She giggled and more saliva drooled from the side of her mouth. "They're gonna be pretty surprised when they find they're missing fifteen hundred bucks! Fifteen fuckin' hundred bucks! Did ya hear what I said, little brother?"

"What guys? You took this from some guys? Jesus Christ, Valerie! What were you thinking?" Randy paused. His comments were wasted on his bleary-eyed sister.

"When, Val...when did you take the money?" Randy grabbed his sister's shoulders and straightened her around so that she was looking directly at him. She peered at the fuzzy outline of his anxious face.

"Randy! Hey...good to see ya baby brother! Why the crinkles?"

Valerie was studying the worry lines on Randy's forehead. She reached out a tentative finger toward them before suddenly stumbling on her intoxicated legs and falling off to the side again. Randy grabbed hold of her upper arms and maneuvered her over to his favourite chair. He lowered her carefully into the chair but her head lolled back on her chicken neck, snapping from side to side before it fell forward onto her chest and she began to snore loudly. He hurried over to the window to look out at the darkening street. Wind rustled the dry, stiff branches of the autumn trees and crinkled, orange-brown leaves swirled and danced playfully along the cracked, deteriorating sidewalks of this poor Saskatoon neighbourhood.

Since he stopped drinking...well, heavy drinking anyway...since then, things had been better. Oh sure, he still had the occasional beer. They said you couldn't do that...couldn't be a part time drinker...couldn't have just "the occasional one". But it seemed that he could. Maybe it was his age...or the presence of the kids in his life...or the fact that he stopped cold turkey for almost three years, before starting to have the occasional few again. Whatever. He seemed to be able...so far...to have one or two in the evening, by himself, and then go off to bed, still reasonably clear-headed.

Plus he had moved. Out of the apartment, away from the old crowd and the endless partying. Into this tiny, three-room house in Riversdale. A bedroom for him. A room for the kids. And the main room. More than he'd ever had before. His. Well...sort of his. The bank still owned most of it, but his name was on the title. Randy Cote. House owner. Land owner. Employed. Sober. Now if he could only convince his sister to do the same.

Valerie had tried her best to fill the role of parent when their chronically depressed mother had given up the fight and taken herself to an early grave. But money was short and guidance was non-existent. Before she was fourteen, Valerie was working the streets, her pretty face a magnet for the underbelly of Saskatoon. First baby at fifteen. Into the drugs by sixteen. Hard drugs before she was twenty. Only her aging body gave her a break from the endless demands of the slime slinking along the streets of the city. But the hunger for the drugs remained and she gradually lost every one of her kids to social services.

Randy had helped get her back on the methadone program over the past year but he couldn't seem to get her to stick with it. She missed the euphoria, the high that "real drugs" provided and it wasn't long before she was back with her old crowd, looking for the rush, the life-sucking exhilaration, that came with a fresh hit.

Randy let the tattered drapes fall back against the window. Valerie was huddled into the chair. A few more strands of hair had come loose from the unsatisfactory ponytail and they lay across her thin, angular face, looking like deep trench marks biting into the fragile, anemic skin. The beer-soaked wad of money had dropped from his hand when he moved Valerie into the chair. Multiple little piles of bills were scattered around the foot of the chair, sticking to the carpet with a slightly gluey consistency. He knelt down and began to pick up the individual bills, straightening them, counting them and piling them neatly on the adjacent empty chair.

He jumped up and rushed to the window at the sound of a car door slamming. He jerked the drape open and closed it just as fast as he realized, too late, that the warm light of the room had burst forth into the dusk-filled front yard. A beacon. Signaling their presence.

Three men were walking along the sidewalk. One was already turning onto the gravel path leading to the front door. Randy scooped up the pile of money from the chair and ran into the kitchen, pitching the whole mess into an empty drawer. He picked out a wide-blade knife and rammed it into his back pocket. He pulled the rest of his shirt out from where it was partially tucked into his jeans, letting the shirttail fall down and cover the handle. A loud bang on the door made Valerie stir in her sleep, but she didn't wake up. Randy hadn't locked the door after Valerie wandered in and he could see the knob turning.

The three guys ranged in age from late teens to mid-twenties. The two older guys had black and red bandanas wrapped skullcap-like around their heads. All three wore identical black leather jackets and had tattoos carved into the skin of the right side of their faces. The youngest was short and stocky with bad acne and red hair. He was through the door first and spotted Valerie slouching in the chair.

"Here's the bitch, Jack. Sleeping it off, looks like. Want me to wake her up and get some answers?" He glanced back at his boss and moved forward when he got the confirmatory grunt. He reached out and grabbed Valerie by her skimpy ponytail, jerking her head up against the back of the chair. He slapped her hard across the face in an attempt to rouse her. Randy restrained himself from immediately rushing over to his sister. Instead, he moved slowly and carefully into the main room from the kitchen where he had been standing, partially obscured, behind the hanging upper cupboards.

"Hold it, Charlie," warned Jack. "We got company. A big fucker."

The gang turned to look at Randy. Six feet tall. Two hundred and fifty pounds. He was wearing an old checkered shirt and jeans. His shirt was stretched tautly over his barrel-like midsection. His broad shoulders and sturdy frame caused the group to momentarily rethink their approach. The pimply-faced youngster let go of Valerie, allowing her whimpering form to slip back into the folds of the chair.

"This stupid fucking whore took our money. We want it back."

Jack was clearly the leader and the other two men moved into position, slightly behind him.

"That's my sister, asshole. We don't know nothing about no money" Randy responded. He watched the faces of the three men.

"Your sister has our money" continued Jack. "We'll just ask her a few questions. Get her to think on it a bit-think about where that money might be." He nodded at Charlie who moved over to the chair again, grabbed Valerie by her shirt collar and dragged her out of the chair, toward the open door. Valerie screamed and began swinging. She grabbed the arm that was holding her shirt collar and pulled it to her mouth, sinking her decaying teeth into the firm flesh. Charlie shouted and smashed his other fist into Valerie's head, jarring her mouth away from his aching arm. Blood soaked through the sleeve of his shirt. He gripped the ragged wound and proceeded to kick at Valerie where she had fallen on the floor at his feet.

Randy started forward, having decided there was no way he could avoid direct confrontation with these guys, when he heard the scared voice behind him.

"Daddy, daddy...I heard a noise."

Brandon, his five-year-old, was standing in his pyjamas in the hall. Clint, the nine-year-old, was hanging back behind his brother, meeting his father's eyes...his face frightened...more aware than his little brother that something serious was happening.

"Clint, get your brother back to the bedroom. Get out of here!" he shouted, as he turned and saw Jack and the third gang member rushing toward him.

Randy pulled the knife from his back pocket. He held it up in front of him, waving it back and forth at the two men. They came to an abrupt stop, looked at each other, and then at Charlie, who immediately left Valerie where she was moaning on the floor, and moved over to join the group. The three of them rushed at Randy and he struck out at the man closest to him. The knife blade managed to avoid ribs and it slid relatively easily through layers of muscle and into Jack's chest. Jack screamed and veered away from Randy, rushing over to stand panting and shivering against the wall. The other two men came in from the left and jumped at Randy, pushing him into the kitchen counter. They held him against the rigid surface and hammered the knife from his grip.

Charlie picked up the knife and began to stab at Randy as he tried to fend off blows from two directions. Several times Randy felt the knife blade penetrate his shoulders and chest as he swung his heavy arms back and forth, but the piercings were never deep enough to cause real damage. Charlie began to jump up and down, aiming his knife arm at Randy's head, hoping to slow him down by hitting an area that didn't have such a thick muscle layer covering it. The blade bit into the skin of Randy's face and he tasted blood in his mouth.

Randy heard his children whimpering in the hall. He turned his head partially toward them, ever so slightly, pulled toward them despite himself, and it was with this slight turn of his head that Charlie was able to find an open, undefended bit of skin through which to powerfully insert the broad blade.

Jack was sitting against the wall, his forehead wet with the struggle to breath, his respiration comprised of short, quick, little grunts.

"Let's get out of here," urged Charlie and he and the third gang member hoisted Jack up onto his feet and partially carried, partially dragged, him out the door.

Brandon and Clint huddled together in the hallway, afraid to move from where they were squatting, until they heard the car squeal away from the curb and rush off down the street.

******

" It's been forty minutes. I'm going to call it. Stop CPR."

The team leader looked around at the tired physicians and nurses who had been working desperately to save this man's life over the past half an hour. Nothing more to be done. Too much brain damage. Damage at the core. Not fixable.

"What do you think the story is here?" one of the staff members asked another as they began to count the number of stab wounds (eight) on the head and body of the deceased.

"Oh...you know... the usual. Drug deal gone wrong. Pretty violent though...must have taken a lot of force to stick that knife so far into his head!"

******

Clint peeled his little brother's trembling arms from around his waist and stepped over his father, where he lay on his back at the top of the hallway. He crept over to the phone that hung on the far wall beside the front door. He was scared beyond belief that those guys might burst back through the door at any moment and hack him and his brother to pieces. He took a peek at his aunt as he went by and realized that she was still breathing. She looked pretty sick but not as bad as his dad. He dialed 911 with shaky fingers and gave the information to the emergency operator. It was only the presence of his little brother alone in the hallway that gave him the courage to pass by his father again, step over his bloodied form and proceed on down the hallway but not before stooping over his father's body and looking at the knife embedded in his skull.

He wanted to remove it, wanted to take it away. He grabbed onto the wooden handle and pulled. But the handle snapped off in his hand, causing his father's head to wobble from side to side in a sickening fashion. The shock of this was finally too much for him. He gave an eerie, throaty cry and ran to the end of the hall where he waited, entwined with his brother.