The Sick and the Damned by Jennifer Benningfield

Upon hearing his mother is ill, Kyle reluctantly goes to visit his painfully staid parents; by Jennifer Benningfield.

Kyle's father had not asked, but direct entreaty was never the man's style.

Over the shoulders went the fleece coat. Into the air went the veiny hand. The woman behind the desk, copper-haired and honey-lipped, returned the gesture, envy evident in the set of her face.

"Still looks nice out," she noted.

"Not for much longer, though."

"Big plans for the weekend?"

"I'm going to see my parents. My mother isn't feeling well, apparently. The other day she told my father that another day in bed and he'd need to call an ambulance."

"Oh no."

Kyle sniffed. "My mother tends to exaggerate."

The sun's presence could not prevent the wind from turning his nose from flesh and bone to ice. He sat in the car for five minutes, unthawing.

Kyle could not have have recalled any details of the three mile drive under threat of torture or promise of fortune, so preoccupied was his mind with the destination. Issues of heart and brain, specifically arrhythmias and tumors, had concerned his mother since her brother's death. Yet she'd faced no health scare greater than influenza in that time.

A left onto Rosslyn Avenue, a right onto Gay Street, another left onto Rossyln Avenue (again). His parents lived in the first house on the even-numbered block, a building barely older than either of them. Kyle parked at the mouth of the driveway; there would be no point in going further, since a bedridden mother meant the kitchen would be cold and odorless.

The muted barks from behind the front door made Kyle snicker. He knocked once, before twisting his way inside.

"It's just me, Betty." He bent down to pet the old collie before bothering to acknowledge the other creature in the room.

"You're early," the khaki-clad stump croaked, not rising from his spot on the sofa. "Aggie's been in bed all day again. Nasty bug." Heavy and unfocused, the older man's eyes could not have possibly processed his son's apprehension.

"Think you might use the fireplace this year, Dad?"

"Ho ho! Funny kid, funny kid. The heater will be coming out, soon enough." He scratched the patchy hair on his chin and emitted the cough of a much older man.

"Hope you're not sick. Still up for tackling the sunroom tomorrow?"

The sunroom had been strictly storage space for the woman of the house for the past thirty years, currently dominated by boxes containing puzzle pieces that, once properly connected, formed obstructed views of gorgeous skies. Both father and son secretly harbored wishes that a renegade vehicle would smash into the room, preferably one traveling in excess of 70 miles per hour.

Kyle joined his father. One thin wall was all that separated them from the master bedroom; intermittent evidence of sickness appeared every other minute. He could not avoid fidgeting, blaming it on the obvious concern he felt for his poor suffering mater.

"You ain't gotta sit on the couch. I know it's kinda small."

Kyle considered the options, which were oddly many: a recliner pushed against one corner of the room, covered with a mismatched quilt and pillow; a rocking chair next to the sofa; yet another recliner sitting a mere foot-and-a-half from the front door, haphazardly draped with a blanket once used to wipe up the aftermath of a rainbow explosion.

"I'm good, Dad."

"Good to see you," the man grunted. "Only people that ever come over are the people across the street. At least that's how it seems to me. The German lady, the pilot. They come over here at separate times and talk crap about each other. I think the pilot's got a thing for your mother. I told you about that already, didn't I?"

Kyle chuckled, gaze fixated on the lines running along the wood paneling. He remembered, less than vividly, "driving" Matchbox cars up the walls, an act that earned him admonishments without subsequent punishments. His father chuckled off and on at the black and white images flashing across the TV screen. Kyle grimaced; the living room would seem so much larger without the oversized TV stand eating up more than its share of space.

"Weather Channel said fifty percent chance of rain tomorrow."

"So, that means a fifty percent chance of no rain tomorrow."

"Hmm. Not that I'd be headed out anywhere anyway. But you'd be out on the road."

"I've driven in rain before, Dad."

"I trust you out there. It's the other idiots. Roads get a little slick and ninety percent of drivers forget how to drive. Did you hear that?"

The frown that clouded his jowls momentarily excited the man's son, who'd long ago made it a goal of life to one day witness the old guy get angry.

"Hmm. Guess it was nothing. Son, do me a favor and draw the curtains. I'll turn on the lamp."

Kyle did as told, a good boy even as a man. He did not anticipate his reaction when he attempted to return to the sofa. The brown accents in the carpet, the ridges and folds of his father's face, the inflexibility of the life his parents had made together... he shuddered at what the unnatural light wrought.

"Have you had dinner, Dad?"

The older man grunted. "Not really hungry. Your mother probably is, though."

Kyle paused. "What has she been eating?"

"Mainly soup. Chicken noodle. Vegetable. Hasn't had tomato yet. Best to do tomato tonight."

Kyle had stepped into his parents' bedroom only a handful of times - in each case, to fulfill a request. Each exit had been quicker than the last.

Light from the bedside lamp guided him to his destination. His shoes seemed to sink into the thick, coarse carpet, the fibers alternating shades of blue. His fingers gripped the tray harder as his face locked into a grimace.

"Mom? It's me, Kyle. I brought you dinner." The words struck the air with uncalled-for pomp, their utterer reveling in the ridiculousness.

"Kyle? I thought I heard you out there, sweetie. Oh, look at you. Such a sweet boy."

Body covered up to the chin by a single thick red blanket that he could not recall, Kyle had to rely on the face to gauge the state of his mother - and that was less reliable than his cell phone network. The woman's natural color was "chalk" and her voice always sounded shrill whether well or ill.

"Could you help me up, son? I'm weak."

She was boneless in his arms.

"Thank you, son. Here, I'll take that."

She lifted the spoon, taking a deep breath before submerging the utensil in the steaming liquid.

"Don't forget the crackers, Mom."

"Oh, of course. This is delicious, Kyle."

"Just heated a can on the stove," he chuckled. The boy version of Kyle had pestered his mother to teach him the minor art of cooking. She refused. She laughed. He couldn't shake the image of her amusement; it existed on a locked groove in his brain.

"My hair must look like a mess," she fretted between sips. She reached up to tousle the salt-and-pepper haystack. The slack of her neck contrasted brutally with the taut skin of her cheeks.

"So what's wrong, Mom? Suppurating lesions? Hemorrhoids? Bloody flux?"

The piteous woman emitted an aged whine.

"I have a headache. I've had a headache for three straight days. I should probably be in the hospital. I have nausea off and on. Some dizziness. Sit down."

"No, I'm fine." Kyle did, however, take one step back. Each successive second meant a new record for longest time spent in his parents' room, seconds he could never redeem, and he was spending them watching his mother eat soup and crackers with the vim and vigor of a three-toed sloth, interspersing sips and nibbles with leading questions about his day-to-day affairs before at last spinning the spotlight around onto herself.

"If I think I have a headache now, just wait if I get better. Wally will be trying to convert me to her health cult."


"The German lady. She walks a lot. Bless her. She tries to get me to go along with her. And I bet after all of this, when I'm back on my feet, she'll be over here, 'Oh Lucinda, what did I tell you, walking a mile a day keeps the headaches away!'" She snorted at her imitation of the German lady's choppy diction, one that Kyle could only assume was accurate.

"She walks all the way to Halfway Park. Twenty minutes away! She says it connects to City Park. I didn't know that."

Kyle's eyes narrowed.


"Halfway Park. It apparently connects to the City Park."

The ceiling offered no guidance on how best to proceed.

"The City Park cannot be connected. It's actually not geographically possible. I swear to you, Mom."

"Oh, well, I don't know..."

"Well, uh, I do know! How long has this woman lived here? Not even a year?"

"Since February."

"In all the time you've lived here -"

"Honey, you know I'm not big on walking around the neighborhood. I like going to the mall for my exercise."

The width of the woman's forehead began to agitate him greatly.

"Mom! You don't need to actually walk there, or anywhere really, to realize that what she said is wrong!"

"There's no reason to yell at me, Kyle!"

"Mom. Listen. Think of where Halfway Park is located. Over a mile west of here. Okay? Now, think of where City Park is located. Over a mile east of here."

The clamor in Kyle's head matched the cacophony of constant construction in his neighborhood. His left ear began pulsing - two to three quick beats, a second or less apart.

"But she says it does. Why would she say it does if it doesn't?"

"Maybe you misunderstood her. Her accent can be hard to understand, right?"

"I'm not sure."

"Think, Mom. Take the time and think about things logically. She says something and you believe it?"

She groaned, placing a hand to her forehead. "Thinking isn't really my strong suit right now."

"Look, I'm sorry, Mom. I'm just upset about... a lot of things."

"Oh, don't worry about any of that son. I'm sorry, too, I'm so silly sometimes." Her smile looked as feeble as her voice sounded. "Thank you, sweetie. You really are such a sweet boy, waiting on your poor mother."

"No problem, Mom."

His gaze lingered on the pillow behind her head.

Kyle made a beeline straight for the kitchen once freed. The time spent with his mother stuck in his brain like a drill bit jammed in an over-tightened chuck. He'd thought of apologizing once more before leaving, before uttering a terse farewell and lifting the tray from her lap.

He would not moon over her to assuage unnecessary guilt; that responsibility lay at the feet of the other man.

"How'd everything go?"

"Oh. Good." Kyle pressed a finger to his neck. "How'd the walk go?"

"Great. Imagine if we had the freedoms dogs do. Take a dump in public, let somebody else worry about it. What a life. So you really want to take a shot at clearing out the beige cage?" He chuckled. "Even with your mother out of commission?"

"That's the best time to do it, right?"

The other man smirked. "You know, it's Russell versus Chamberlain. Your mom and me. And I'm Wilt. Always been Wilt."

"Wilt regularly outperformed Bill one on one," Kyle chirped. "But Bill had the better players around him."

"Wilt won once," the older man noted, cocking an eyebrow as he reached out to strike his son on the shoulder in a gesture that the younger man took as 50% endearing, 50% disconcerting and 100% never to be spoken of.

"How long has the faucet been dripping?"

"Not sure," came the murmur. "I noticed it last Wednesday. What I thought I heard... earlier on the couch... I thought I heard a mouse."

"A mouse?"

"Yuh-huh. But since then I haven't heard that sound again, so. I guess a lot of things can make a squeak."

Kyle plunged a hand into his fleece coat, seeking the comforting sting of his car keys. "We never had mice growing up. Why would they start coming here now?"

"That's right. We've kept up a nice house for all these past however many years. Anyway. I'll just make myself a sandwich."

"That's it? You need more than that, don't ya?"

"Eh. When you reach my age... if you reach my age... you'll find out that it doesn't take much to make you a happy man when it comes to food."

"You love a pizza, Dad. You want me to order you one? My treat. You like Pizza Hut, right?"

"I used to like Pizza Hut. Now I eat Papa Johns."

"Why? Because of Peyton?"

"Ho ho. Funny, funny kid."

"I get it. You're on a diet, right? Feeling the competition from that pilot."

"Can't get a damn thing past you, fella," he smirked, patting a gradually growing belly with no discernible chagrin.

The blast of air and light from the refrigerator proved more than Kyle could withstand for long. He grabbed a small plastic bottle of Pepsi and shut the door. Rarely did any brand of soda pass his lips. Growing up, it was water, milk, or juice. It was likewise for his parents, until the last several years, he'd noticed. But man did not expand on liquid alone. Given how his father still worked at a job that demanded more from his feet than his ass, the only explanation had to be the inevitable sluggish metabolism that came with age.

He could change, the old man. Just enough to stave off further flab, if not rid himself of the gut altogether. But the son knew the sun would explode before that happened.

Sympathy dissipated. Irritation pulsed. The light in the ceiling fan shone too brightly. The electric stove took too long to heat. They really should have updated to gas.

Kyle watched the other man move the weak knife along the bread. It had been he who'd allowed the monster to grow so fat, when at any time he could have snatched away the bowls and plates.

He was a scared man. He was berated in public and earned no measure of revenge in private.

"What did you say, Dad?"

"I said, I believe I hear your mother. Lemme check real quick."

Kyle watched his father totter into the hallway. After a minute, he followed, dropping the Pepsi bottle into the trash.

The other man, the older man, was standing still outside of the bedroom door. Kyle moved to his father's side, to see his head bent, hands clasped, eyes fixed on the door as if in deep concentration.

Kyle tried, and failed, to capture his father's attention before speaking.

"What's going on? What's she saying? What did she say?"

The other man did not flinch.

"I can't make it out."


  1. Searing familial pain - very well told and realised. Vivid and authentic. Many thanks,

  2. Realistic dialogue, good imagery and use of language. This story really pulled me in and left me wanting to know more about what happens next in this family drama.

  3. 'Sympathy dissipated, irritation pulsed. The light on the ceiling...' We (writers)'re normally warned off using 'passive voice', but it's perfect here. It serves to show the helplessness of Kyle's situation in the face of his parents deteriorating condition.
    B r o o k e