Chuck stood back and thought, This isn't right.
It was too stuffy in here. Too penned in. He needed to throw open a window, but of course that wasn't an option. Not down here. He'd tried everything to gain some leverage on the area that he was working on; he'd tried using hammers, but he was afraid he'd do permanent damage and would have to call in specialists.
Not at THOSE prices, he told himself. He stood in the basement for the longest time, his toolkits spread out on a canvas picnic blanket on the floor. All of his drill-bits were far too cumbersome and fit far too awkwardly. He scratched his head and caressed his temples. His head hurt. He frowned and thought of Hannah.
Chuck, go and see a doctor. Your headaches are getting worse, aren't they?
I can see it in your eyes. The light hurts you. Are you ok? Chuck?
He would go see a doctor, of course he would, but there were things to do first. Things that needed done while Hannah was at work. It was quiet when she was out, and he liked it that way. He went around the house when she pulled out of the driveway, pulling down all the shutters and shades so the sunlight wouldn't get to him. He decided to light candles instead. It soothed him. Fluorescents and watt-bulbs hurt his eyes after a while. And he could always sense a buzzing; not so much heard as sensed, or, if the headaches were really bad, felt through the teeth and gums.
When it came right down to it, he was sick.
And he needed to see a doctor.
But first, the work. But to do the work, he needed the tools. And simple nails wouldn't do the trick. Not with this problem.
Wasn't that just the problem with being a handyman? Everyone expected you to know what to do when things went wrong. You were always expected to be able to solve things, and have the tools with which to put things right.
He sighed and crossed the basement as quietly as he could, passing a candle-bracket on the wall. The flame guttered and righted itself. He pulled the chair to his worktable out and sat down. It was cold in here. The one window which offered any sort of light, he'd pasted over with newspaper. It was high up above his desk. He stood and tugged some of the newspaper aside to gaze outside. He regretted it nearly immediately.
The world outside was a swirling mist of whites. The snow was getting worse, it seemed. At least the sun was mercifully hidden by boiling clouds.
Thank Heavens for small miracles.
As he watched through narrowed eyes, a black truck with a plough on the front trundled up the road. It's engine made his teeth hurt. He lowered his head and gazed at the floor. The world swam back into focus.
He was afraid. He was afraid of what the headaches might be, of course, but there were other things which bothered him. Things which he hadn't even told Hannah about, although they kept him awake some nights while she slept and dreamt of nothing. Her breathing always came rational and regular. It punctuated his worries. But the worries always won in the end.
And the darkness would settle on his mind and sit there until the first few fingers of dawn broke through the curtains above their bed. Hannah would wake and smile and ask him how he slept, and every answer was a lie.
Like a baby.
What he'd never added, however, was that he'd spent every wakeful night wanting to cry. And that he was in horrible pain.
This is a weak moment, he'd told her once, when she had caught him crying in the bathroom with the blinds pulled down.
Nobody is supposed to see this. Everyone has their crosses to bear. Everyone has their problems. I'm not going to be one of those people who drops theirs on someone else.
But she'd taken his fear as readily as a relay racer receives the baton. She had offered to take him to the hospital countless times. She had bought seemingly infinite bottles of aspirin and pain medication. She'd suggested he see an optician, but deep in the black well of his soul, he knew that his eyes weren't the problem.
Eye problems didn't make you vomit blood.
Eye problems didn't keep you awake for days.
Eye problems didn't make you dream of the things he dreamt of, when exhaustion finally did catch up with him. He could see perfectly well. He wished he couldn't.
Chuck wasn't much of a religious man. He wasn't too keen on the notions of ghosts and ghouls and long-legged beasts.
Chuck was seeing ghosts.
The other night, while Hannah slept beside him, it happened. At first he thought someone had broken into his house. There were footsteps and hushed whispers coming from downstairs. His eyes widened in the darkness, trying to gather as much light as possible. The wind moaned around the house and a fresh gust of snow snickered against the glass. The streetlamps cast everything with a baleful orange glow.
"Hannah." He whispered groggily. "There's somebody downstairs."
She slithered beneath the blankets but didn't wake. She moaned dreamily.
He placed a hand on her back and shook her slightly. She stirred again but disappeared beneath the covers. She would not wake.
"Don't move. Stay here. I'm going to check it out."
She moaned again. And then the sound of her sleeping.
He padded out of bed, his feet cringing against a cold wind that slithered around his ankles like a secret. He picked up the only thing he could think of as a weapon; a pewter statue of a Samurai that Hannah had picked out when they went to a county fair a few months prior. It felt dependable and he turned it deftly in his hands.
The cold metal grew warmer in his grip. The darkness spoke of nothing.
He entered the hallway and peered around the corner. Nothing. Nothing except the walls, littered with family photographs. A vase of flowers stood stupidly on an end table near the stairwell. They fluttered in an unfelt breeze.
The carpet felt alive beneath his toes.
Am I dreaming?
He passed the double windows with their net curtains and watched them breathe and flex, as if pulled by an invisible hand. He watched for a long time, ears tuned to the slightest betrayal. Nothing came, except for the sigh of the cold wind, begging to be let in. Chuck watched his shadow pass along the square of orange light thrown from the glass. The snow made it look as though the floor were rippling. He shivered again. He turned into the stairwell and noted that the flowers seemed to bend at his arrival. And yet he was oddly unafraid.
I think I'm dreaming. It'll be over soon.
He descended the stairs, still gripping the statue. His heartbeat seemed to slow and he moved like a man in a dream into the lounge. There was nothing out of the ordinary and yet everything seemed wrong, the way the most commonplace of items can seem lunatic during the wrong circumstances.
The wind moaned again. The back door rattled in the kitchen. Chuck turned to glance down the hall when he saw it. There was a light in the kitchen. Only dim. Flickering.
Chuck crept forward, feeling like an intruder in his own home. He raised the statue to shoulder height and approached the kitchen. Somebody whispered again. Creaking floorboards. The sound of dripping water. He came to the doorway of the kitchen. The open plan design allowed him to peer around the corner.
Hannah sat at the kitchen table with a mug in her hands. She saw him and smiled.
Her smile faltered. Something like trepidation slid into her eyes, and then something like worry. Her eyes fell on the raised Samurai and her mouth worked in confusion. He lowered it.
"What the hell are you doing down here?" He asked her. She had lit one of his candles and it stood on the table, swimming back and forth in a lazy winter breeze.
"What do you mean?" Her voice was low and hushed. Chuck didn't say anything. He stood there, feeling strange.
"How are you feeling now?" She asked him. She sipped from her drink and watched him with fearful eyes.
"What do you mean?"
"You don't remember?" She probed. Her eyes dropped and he thought she looked sad.
"You were having headaches all day. Again. You passed out at dinner. I wanted to call an ambulance but you were demanding I take you to bed. You said something about needing to watch the moon. And that you liked the snow. And that you needed to talk to someone called Mary. You said you saw her in the moonlight."
Her voice came out heavily, like lead dropped on stone.
Chuck's mouth fell open. The candlelight guttered and corrected itself.
"Mary?" He asked her finally.
She simply shook her head and shrugged.
"I don't know her. Who's Mary, Chuck?" It was Chuck's turn to shrug.
"You're sick, Chuck. You need to see a doctor." She instructed.
Chuck remained silent. He stood in the doorway and crossed his arms. A bad, malformed thought was boiling on the fevered surface of his brain. He looked away from Hannah and spoke.
"I thought you were upstairs. With me."
The house creaked around them. Cold wind laughed across the kitchen floor.
"Why would you think that, Chuck?" She sipped again. He thought of touching Hannah's back in bed. He thought of her moaning sleepily and sliding away beneath the covers. He knew that when he returned to his bedroom, there would be nothing there but tangled covers and the smell of sickness.
Sad fear leapt into his heart.
"I don't know."
That was the last time Chuck went to bed alone.
It was the headaches. It all came back to the headaches. Photosensitivity, maybe. He would see things in the snow. Thrown in the confusing glow of the streetlamps outside at night. Things that made no sense. He saw a man with the head of a dog. It peered up at him with arcane eyes and licked it's chops.
Chuck wept at night. He suspected Hannah knew. She brought him coffee every morning with that same sweet smile. She could see the rings of red around his eyes, surely. Surely, she must know.
He lay awake all night some nights and pondered, in the way only a man can ponder when the lights are off and his wife sleeps beside him, lost in nothing, feeling no pain or fear. He pondered his existence. His head would throb.
And he would hear the ticking of a clock.
It was time to see a doctor.
But the problem was that he didn't seem to have the right tools to do the job properly. And Hannah would be home soon, and then there would be no time for what needed to be done.
Chuck stood gingerly and crossed the basement again, wincing against even the candlelight this time. Some fresh air would definitely do the place good, he thought dimly. He licked his fingers and tamped out the candle, feeling the hot wax against his skin. He fancied he could hear a faint sizzle.
He would go to the hardware store. There he might be able to find the tool he needed to let some air in here. It was more than just throwing open a window, although he agreed with himself countless times that that was precisely what he needed to do.
The basement was bathed in suffuse blue darkness. His eyes pulsed against it, struggling to find focus, and when they did, Chuck found that the images that floated out of the black were smoother, more defined. They came with less rough edges. He listened for a moment to the sound of the wind outside. Somewhere, a dog barked mindlessly. The sound cut into his brain like a hot wire. He spied his sunglasses on a shelf beside the stairs and he picked them up deftly. Putting them on, he felt foolish, but the folks outside didn't know what was wrong with him. In fact, Hannah didn't really know what was wrong with him.
That he was sick.
He took one last look around the dim basement, thought about dousing the furnace that stood idiotically in the corner like a great sleeping cat. It radiated warmth that made his face itch. He thought against it. He'd be back soon enough.
And with that, he wandered slowly up the wooden steps to get his coat.
The sky was mercifully grey. There was little traffic. Chuck wore his sunglasses, eyes pinned to the ground as he locked up his Ford. He stamped snow out of his boots as he crossed the parking lot, wincing when a truck with a loud muffler trundled past. The rumbling slapped his mouth with an ache that made his eyes see colours. He pulled his woolly hat lower over his ears, rubbed his hands together and frowned. It was getting colder.
And his head hurt.
He could feel the pain seeping into the back of his skull and pulling on his eyes. It crept up on him more and more, like a poison tide laced with broken glass.
When he was feeling like this, colours seemed too bright, like a television with the contrast turned up too high. Greens seemed like bright, neon blues. Whites were unbearable to face.
I need an aspirin, he thought, and fumbled in his coat pockets. They were empty.
Chuck made it to the front door of DIY and could swear he tasted blood for the second time today. The automatic doors rolled back with a disgustingly musical jingle and the smell of sawdust was immediate and pleasing. He smelled pine wood and paint. Comforting smells. It set the pain to rest momentarily before it rose again, prodding his eyes. Wood and paint weren't the things he was in the market for. He strode past these aisles, trying to block out the sounds of people talking and cars pulling into and away from the parking lot. He focused on his breathing and approached the huge back wall, marked POWERTOOLS.
He wandered up and down the aisles in this area, trying to find the tool that felt right. He wondered briefly about a cordless Silverline sander and rejected it with a bitter laugh. He came to the handheld drills and stopped.
It was like experiencing something that just seemed right. He walked along the rows of shelved DeWalts and Black and Deckers. He selected a nickel-plated Silverline with four horsepower. The battery pack came with it and he lifted it from the rack to test the display model. It fit nicely into his work-calloused hands. It felt natural.
He imagined the work that he needed to do and thought that the drill should perform just fine. He probably didn't need to use it for long, anyway. He just needed enough torque to punch through that one wall. Just to let some air in. He really needed to get his ass in gear. Hannah would be home very soon.
He checked his watch and grimaced when he caught a burst of glare from the fluorescents above him. They hummed maddeningly and every syllable of spoken word from the people that milled around him sounded a thousand times louder than normal. He caught their words like bursts of static from broken radios. Chuck settled on the Silverline and paid in cash. The cashier was a gawky looking teenage girl with blonde hair. She had the skin complexion of a reject. Chuck felt an odd pang of sympathy and moved on.
Hannah would be home any minute.
Despite time rolling on, Chuck walked home slowly, careful not to step on any black ice. A fall to the pavement would be the last thing his headache needed. He could feel pain in his face, in his eyes and in his teeth. He could taste the hot copper taste of blood and spit. The snow fell in drifts and the wind pushed him home.
At least it's at my back, he thought to himself.
He shouldered open his front door after fumbling with his keys for several minutes. He popped open his purchase and placed the battery on charge. A few minutes would do. He would probably leave Hannah a note instructing her to return the Silverline to DIY. But right now, he needed to let the battery have enough juice. He thought about making a drink and decided against it. The cold wind sighed against the window panes and he shivered, partly out of excitement.
He would finally crack a window open. He would finally be able to breathe. As if to illustrate this point to himself, he crossed the kitchen and leant over the basin. He pushed open the window and let the winter air in. It was bracing and he shuddered in delight. He could hear a police siren, and despite the pain he laughed. He felt his own laugh grind against his sinuses.
The light hurts you, Chuck. Are you okay?
Chuck glanced at the battery pack and saw the little light flashing yellow. In his pained state, it seemed as bright as the sun.
Something moved inside him and he lurched to the kitchen sink. He gripped the basin and leant in, feeling hot pain slither up from his stomach to his throat and into his mouth. With a sound like ripping cloth, Chuck vomited heartily into the sink, spraying blood and coffee all over the stainless steel surface.
Are you okay?
His eyes pulsed and the world began to fade to an ominous shade of grey.
Storm clouds. He thought randomly, and smiled. Blood ran from his lips and plonked into the sink with a hollow noise.
He turned back to the drill and lifted it from it's cradle. It felt so heavy now, as his strength seemed to ebb away under his sickness.
You need to see a doctor. The light is hurting you.
Hannah would be home soon.
Chuck lifted the cordless drill to his right temple and pulled the trigger. Pain screamed in his head and blood and flesh flew in a crazy spray across the work-surface. The drill bit tattooed a crazy rhythm around his skull and to Chuck it sounded like endless construction work taking place inside his thoughts. He could feel the drill bit winding strands of hair in thick bunches and pulling them from his skull. He pushed harder to dig a groove. The pain was bad, but not as bad as the headaches. Not as bad as the sickness. Not as bad as all the sleepless nights where he saw the ghosts.
And suddenly, with the sound like a cork popping out of a bottle, Chuck dug clean through his skull with the drill. He let it fall to the floor and a stream of pinky-red fluid flowed from his head onto the floor and table and work surfaces. He staggered around the room like a man in a dream, fingers twitching, blood and saliva dripping from his mouth. His eyes were unfocused. He was sick again, violently, and when he finished the world swam away from him. He collapsed hard on the linoleum, nearly striking his face on the kitchen table. He rolled over and felt his own blood slime his back. He watched it pulse from his head from the corner of his eye.
And the ghost of a smile touched his dying face, followed by a look of stern concern.
Fixing the ventilation was all well and good, but now, damn it all, somebody was going to have to do something about that leak.
After all, Hannah would be home any minute.