Thursday, January 04, 2007

Saving Joe

Category: Issue 5, Short Story Winners

Saving Joe.

The bars beneath my curled fingers are cool and I press my hot cheeks against them. Beyond the outer shatterproof window, a man is mowing the expanse of lawn that runs the length of the garden and down to the gates. I think about Joe every day and how he will greet me when I leave here.

I’d always admired Joe. He was tall and broad, with Nordic blonde, good looks. Added to that, he was also easy going and generous. Talented on the sports field, he made the first team football and was an excellent swimmer. He took the resulting admiration in his stride. I felt no jealousy. It was his due. I remained on the bench, listened to the cheers and as his friend basked in reflected glory.

I was seventeen when Joe won the five hundred metres swimming championship and clambered out of the pool amid a roar of approval. I moved forward to the edge of the seated onlookers and cuffed him gently on the side of the head. ‘Congratulations, you were magnificent.’

White, even teeth appeared between well-shaped lips. ‘Just luck, Tom, that’s all,’ he said with a grin.

I ran my hand through my dark hair. ‘I don’t know about that.’ Steel braces, resembling grey spinach, between each tooth made me reluctant to smile back.

He threw a wet arm across my shoulders. ‘Fancy going for a drink to celebrate?’

‘Can’t, I’ve revision to catch up on, I’m way behind.’ I tried to keep my face noncommittal, but it didn’t fool Joe. He’d guessed, long before, that my life at home wasn’t going well.

‘Things still shitty at home?’

Not wanting to go into the specifics of the violence that erupted between my parents during the year. I shrugged. ‘It’s okay.’

The uncertain atmosphere at home shattered any hope of studying. I wasn’t surprised when at the end of term I opened a brown envelope containing exam results and a long row of C’s flowed down the page.

Joe had excellent marks. He’d been accepted into the University of his choice, which was not far away from where I lived. We were both under the age limit to drink, but that night we went from bar to bar across the city, got uproariously drunk and swore undying friendship.

I arrived home at two o’clock the following the morning. My heart dipped when I saw lights in every room in our small three bed roomed house. With a deep intake of breath, I prepared to face a confrontation with my parents. I staggered past the once neat garden, which was now dotted with yellow-headed dandelions, and through the front door. Mother sat at the imitation wood grain, kitchen table, white-faced and picking at a wet handkerchief. She looked at me with tear-swollen eyes as I entered

‘The son of a bitch is gone.’ Her voice was thick and halfway between tears and defiance.

The shock of that short sentence was like a kick. I wasn’t sure what to do or say. I put my arms around her slim shoulders. She felt tiny, vulnerable and I buried my nose in her dark hair. ‘Don’t worry, mom, he’ll be back,’ I said.

He didn’t come back, not even to pack his clothes. Did he hate us so much he couldn’t bear to look at us, not even long enough to get his belongings? Weeks passed without a word from him and I swung between abject grief and burning rage.

I suppose that was the beginning of all the changes that led me to this point in my life.
Mother was drinking. I smelt it on her breath, even early in the morning. She cried all the time and stopped caring how she looked. She became helpless and dependent and clutched at my arm when I attempted to leave the house.

Money was the biggest worry. I had to find work. Joe came to my rescue and recommended me for a job, answering the phones in his father’s estate agency.

‘I know it’s not what you wanted to do, but look on it as keeping things going until you can find something better.’ He put his arms round me in a bear hug and I leaned against him for a moment, glad of the warmth of human contact.

I was grateful for the chance to earn money, but I hated the work. I was bored, frustrated and constantly worried about mom. Her drinking had escalated to the point where she was never completely sober. It took all my willpower to get out of bed each morning and start another day.

My fall into the abyss began when I came home from work to find mom, bloody and crumpled, at the foot of the stair. Her head twisted into an unnatural angle. I sat with her in my arms all night and it was Joe who found me next morning, keening and weeping over her body. Joe called the police and ambulance, and later it was Joe who arranged the funeral.

He pulled up the edge of the stair carpet. Claiming she caught her foot and whether she’d had a drink or not, she would still have fallen.

He suggested I sell the family home and downsize to a flat. He invested what was left from the transaction and the insurance money from my mother’s accident.
Perhaps it would have been better for me to return to work straight a way, but I didn’t. I nursed my grief over mom’s death.

Joe came by every day and I became dependent on him. I couldn’t function without his approval. My heart lifted when he walked along the path towards my door, covering the ground with easy loping strides. Sun caught the blond strands in his hair and made a halo around his face. He brought order to my life. When he wasn’t there I was confused and imagined myself to be sliding into some dark, unknown place.

A knock on the door one morning sent me scurrying through the flat. To my disappointment it wasn’t Joe, just a thin, almost bald man holding a sheaf of pamphlets.’ What do you think about the state of today’s world? It says in the New Testament – ‘

‘Excuse me, isn’t that about Jesus?’

‘Yes - and his teachings.’

‘Sorry, I’m Jewish,’ I lied.

The man’s face fell. ‘Sorry to have troubled you.’ He trundled back to the road and made his way along the next path.  Moments later a door slammed, leaflets fluttered like falling leaves and came to rest on the wet ground. I watched him pick them up and dry them with his sleeve. ‘If at first you don’t succeed,’ he said, with a wry smile in my direction. He waved the soggy leaflets in a friendly goodbye and continued on his way.

I sat at the kitchen table pondering on the little man. His beliefs and his dedication to something he couldn’t be certain existed.  As a non-believer, brought up in a strict catholic household, I felt the weight of guilt for my denial. Nevertheless, I couldn’t believe without proof.

That night I had my first nightmare. The little man was dragging me towards a huge crack in the earth, his eyes spitting fire. ‘No heaven for non- believers,’ he chanted. Joe was pulling me back and I heard the crack of my limbs as I slowly tore in two. I woke in a sweat and knew that once again, Joe had been there to save me.

Voices whispered to me, mostly at night. I had visions that left me exhausted and afraid. I begged for forgiveness for having doubted. The voices promised redemption if I believed. I was convinced Joe had been sent to help me and was the new Messiah.

I spent every spare moment studying the Testaments. I spread the word among neighbours and friends. At first they just laughed and after a while avoided me.

‘You’re not all the ticket. Go to and get help,’ someone said and shoved me away. I just smiled and forgave him.

Weeks passed and I noticed Joe gave me some quizzical looks. Perhaps he was expecting me to ask him outright was I to be his Peter? I decided to broach the subject and tell Joe I knew who he was.

We had spent the evening drinking wine and discussing theology. We were relaxed and the moment seemed right. I moved towards his chair and sat at his feet, took his hand and kissed it. ‘You know I love you…’ I began.

‘Yes, I know Tom,’ he replied, touching my head. He leaned forward, took my face in his hands and kissed me full on the lips. ‘And I love you too.’ He leaned back with a smile and unzipped his trousers.


I looked at Joe’s unconscious body and put the heavy glass decanter back on the table. Blood crawled down its faceted surface and pooled at the base in a sticky circle. I had been such a fool, Joe was sent from the devil to tempt me - to test my faith.

I dragged him to the door and I hoisted him to his feet. The first nail slid though his palm and into the doorframe. His eyelids flickered in his pale face. By the time I had driven the nails through his sides and feet, he was awake and screaming. I stuffed a cloth into his mouth.

Joe hung there several days, his eyes pleading. I read him passages from the bible. Finally he was still. I prayed for his soul and called the priest.

I didn’t care when they locked me away. I’d saved my friend. The doctors here want me to admit I crucified Joe. They don’t understand that it wasn’t Joe. It was the devil posing as him and Joe is waiting for me beyond the institution gates.

Posted by littlewhitewolf on 01/04 at 10:19 AM | Permalink
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