April 12th 2016: Inspired by The Gift of the Magi
, by Nick Johnson

The icy corridors of Chicago had been thawed out by the warm air of spring. As the cold receded and the clouds heavy with snow dissipated allowing the rays of the sun to illuminate the streets life began to reemerge out from under winter’s heavy hand.

Chicago is a hive of concrete and steel. It is an ecosystem carved out by the people who run through its concrete channels like a river. The arrival of spring as it does for many animals awakes that one powerful instinct that is second only to self-preservation, the overwhelming desire for procreation. The people arranged their appearances much the same way a peacock arranges its display of feathers and headed for their urban watering holes.

Matt Summers was walking down Clark Street in Wrigleyville, perhaps the city’s busiest mating grounds. He was walking against the human stampede fueled by alcohol and hormones. He observed the gelled hair, designer clothes, and tightly fitting yoga pants. He recognized the lust crazed looks on the faces of all the 20 somethings that had deceptively shrouded themselves in the garments associated with high society.

He was familiar with this game. He had mastered its subtleties and understood the formula. No nuance no matter how minor escaped his attention. Even in alcohols haze seduction had been an easy feat, but now he was merely as an observer. He was there as a man pathetically trying to live in his memories. He came here again and again, night after night as if somehow visiting his favorite monument to indulgences would somehow resurrect the past.

Not much more than a year ago Matt had left single life. There was a life he had been aspiring to build, and it had included marriage. Matt had already enjoyed all the trappings of what most would consider a luxurious life, and it was imperative his wife be a reflection of that. She was to be the final piece of his monument to his success.

When he had found Laura, he felt, what he was pretty sure at the time was love. She fit so perfectly together with his image of perfection. She was a yoga instructor and did some modeling on the side. Her long light brown hair flowed down her back and rested itself gently over her shoulders; her oval face was adorned by soft blue eyes and sat atop a long and slender neck. Her perky breasts were in perfect proportion to the rest of her body, her torso was flat and sculpted, and she filled in her yoga pants just right, but what Matt loved most about her were here legs. They were long and toned, and she used them with unparalleled grace.

They had met just two years ago. The first time their eyes locked was across the dance floor. They seemed to sense each other across the sea pheromone emitting bodies locked in their charged embrace. Matt had just secured his position at a prestigious investment firm and was beginning to give thought to what he considered to be the beginning of the rest of his life.

They were intoxicated by the combination of lust and cocktails, but by some chance that night had turned into five months, and that had turned into the promise of forever, but just a little over three months before the big day Laura was in a car accident. She lived, but she was left a disfigured amputee, and what they had to take were her legs.

When Matt learned what was happening, he instantly felt obligations chains snap around his wrists. To call off the engagement for such an obviously superficial reason would make him a pariah. He found himself hoping she would be too brain damaged to be considered competent, or even that she would die in the hospital. What happened to her didn’t matter now that she didn’t fit in the grand future he had crafted for himself, but he had no such luck.

She recovered, and a few months later he was forced to watch as they wheeled his bride to be down a the aisle of the church, and he grimaced as he stood before God, his family, and all his friends and slid a wedding ring on the finger of a double amputee.

He had almost reached the summit of success. The peak was in his sights, but it disappeared from view forever when his climb turned into a free fall. For obvious reasons, Laura could no longer find work as a model, and the yoga studio kept her on only briefly as an act of pity. They were somewhat relieved of their guilt when they witnessed for themselves just how ineffectual a yoga instructor without legs really was, and just like Matt had found himself with the responsibility of having a financial dependent.

His boss’s at the firm no longer saw a rising star in Matt. They ceased to invite him out for cocktails at lunch, and soon they avoided eye contact with him in the hallways, deciding instead to use another peon to shield themselves from him. His career never advanced and the salary that had once provided him with a luxurious lifestyle was stretched thin by a constant stream of medical bills. He was forced to abandon his prized condo in the ultra-hip enclave of Lake View for a more humble dwelling. The shame he felt when his friends helped him move his belonging into a working class neighbor where his neighbor was a PTSD case would gnaw away at his pride for the rest of his life. He abruptly stopped on the sidewalk, and the stream of people parted around him. He looked across the street at the two-story temple of alcohol-fueled debauchery called The John Barleycorn. The streets reverberated with the pulsing bass coming from the club’s sound systems had an almost magnetic effect that pulled people towards it. Short skirts seemed to be pooling around its entrance. Matt stared longingly at the display of flesh. His senses provided him with a faint physical connection his memories. For the shortest moment, he could taste the whiskey, and he could feel the heat of skin against skin. The sound of the music mingling with the chattering crowd was calling to him, and he could feel it like a magnet, but as soon as he moved he found himself anchored by the small white paper bags containing his wife’s various prescriptions.

Each bottle was part of an extensive chemical regiment meant to help deal with the physical and emotional aspects associated with her condition. He looked over at a nearby garbage can. The paper crinkled as he tightened his grip around the translucent orange cylinders inside. He shook off the trance and turned to leave.

As if having just materialized in front of him there was tall lightly tanned and blonde, Her white teeth sparkled behind her crimson painted lips. Her breasts peaked in perfect symmetry from under her short black one piece. Matt’s eyes traveled down to her legs, even covered to the knee by boots Matt could still see enough running up her barely thigh high skirt to know just how fantastic they were. Not like Laura’s in her prime but still top contenders.

“Matt!” she said with a smile.

“Hi,” Matt answered with arched eyebrows that seems to suggest he didn’t remember her.

“It’s me Sophia,” she said with an accent that Matt pegged as Eastern European.

That was just the association his brain needed to recall her.

“Hey, Sophia how’ve you been?” Matt asked with guarded enthusiasm.

“I’ve been good, how about yourself?” She said showing even more of her pearly white teeth.

“Getting by,” Matt replied somewhat aloof.

“You look well.” she said with a smile.

“Thanks,” Matt said concealing his surprise.

Matt had always been painfully aware of every detail of his appearance no matter how minute. Until recently, he had always taken painstaking care to maintain what he had created, but he had let his gym membership lapse, he allowed his clothes to fall out of date, and he no longer elusively ate expensive freshly prepared food. Whenever he looked in the mirror, he found something new about him that had begun to deteriorate. He was counting the days before he finally fell into ruin, but somehow her compliment seemed genuine.

“You’re looking pretty good yourself.” replied Matt with a playful smile.

She returned his smile and her eyes locked with his. Matt felt a tension he didn’t even realize was there wash away.

“What are you doing tonight”? Matt asked feeling a little more bold.

“Me and some friends are going over to Barleycorn,” She replied.

“Oh, one of those nights,” Matt said with a suggestive grin.

“They’re my favorite!” She giggled.

“Why don’t you come in with us?” She suggested.

Matt’s desire to follow the siren into the club and crash against the rocks was checked by his better judgment, and he found himself stuck in a kind of mental gridlock.

“Oh uh yeah I can’t. I have to get these back to Laura.” He said holding up the prescription bags. “Oh, right, of course,” Sophia said somberly. “How is she”?

“Good, good she’s doing much better,” Matt said.

“Good, tell her Sophia says Hi,” She said.

“Oh yeah, you got it.” Said Matt.

“You must not have much time for going out these days,” She said sounding disappointed.

“I’m freeing up these days.” Matt blurted out.

“Really?” said Sophia, her bright eyes lighting up

“Yeah, its no problem for me to get out. Laura doesn’t mind.” Matt said aloud, his mouth outrunning his brain.

“Well let me get your number and I will text you next week.” she said.

“Sounds good.” Matt smiled. He recited his number as she typed it into her phone.

“Does Laura still have my number?” she asked.

“Hmm, I don’t think so,” Matt answered.

“Here text me and I’ll save it” he suggested.

“Ok.” She grinned. She quickly tapped out a message on the glowing screen.

“Alright see you soon!” She said before hugging him and running across the street.

Matt walked away in a daze. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He checked his texts. It was Sophia: Nice seeing you! Let’s get together soon! 🙂

Matt’s old instincts had switched on. All the signs were there, the hurry to exchange numbers and her almost indifference to Laura. Her “friend,” who lost both her legs was simply an afterthought to her. This made him quite confident she had little regard for things such as marriage vows.

As soon as Matt walked through the front door of his apartment he could hear Laura calling him from the bedroom.

“Matt? Matt is that you?”

“Yeah.” he called down the hall.

He hit the light switch next the door, but the light didn’t come on. “Shit,” He muttered.

“Matt come here a second. I want to see you!” Laura called in her same chipper tone.

Matt wasn’t exactly sure how, though he suspected the drugs might be playing a role, but she was every bit as upbeat as she was before her accident. She went through an initial phase of despondency but made what her doctors called a “remarkable psychological recovery.” She claimed it was because her extensive yoga training had trained her mind to focus and tune into positive energies, but he suspected the painkiller, anti-depressants, and anti-anxiety medications were most likely responsible for the “positive energy.”

Matt felt his way through the dark labyrinth of unpacked boxes and hastily arranged furniture covered by clutter. He found the bedroom and stood in front of the door. He took a deep breath before opening it. He always needed to prepare himself mentally to look at her when he came home. He decided it was best to treat it like getting into cold water it was best to simply dive in.

She was sitting up in bed bathed in the glow of the TV. “Hey, honey!” She greeted him warmly with outstretched arms.

“Hey.” he muttered.

The room stank of old food and bedpans. The stench stung Matt’s eyes, and he tried not to gag.

“Did you get my prescriptions?” She asked.

“Yeah, they’re right here,” he said holding up the bag. She reached over and turned on the lamp sitting on the nightstand next to the bed. Matt felt his stomach churn, and he tried to keep himself from visibly cringing.

She stared at him from behind drug glazed eyes. Her once slender and toned body was now an amorphous mass of fat, her elbows, in fact, all her joints seemed to have been swallowed up by the flab, her long flowing hair had been cut short almost as short as his. A large vertical scar ran through the cleft of her chin making her face look like it had been split in half.

“How was your day?” she asked sweetly.

“Fine just fine,” Matt answered.

She threw the covers off her lower body revealing the scarred stumps where her knees had once been. The flesh was red and pulsating with an on setting infection.

“Can you apply my cream?” She asked. Matt didn’t answer. He was mortified, but he couldn’t look away. “Matt?” she said again.

“What?” He said snapping out of his trance.

“Can you rub the cream on?” she said twitching what was left of her legs.

“Oh yeah sure,” he said. “Give me a minute. I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t be too long” she complimented her mischievous smile with a suggestive wink.

Matt went to the kitchen. When he flipped on the lights, he could see the roaches fleeing from the food crusted dishes that had piled in the sink. He opened a cabinet and moved a box of frosted flakes to the side revealing a bottle of Bourbon. He took some pills from his shirt pocket. A little cocktail of Laura’s painkillers and anti-anxiety medication. He swallowed the capsules down with a large gulp of the viscous brown fluid that burned its way down his throat to the pit of his stomach.

Matt spent the next morning laying face down on his desk. His windowless office was hidden away in the subterranean levels of the highrise where he worked. He had long lost favor with the overlords that sat behind oak desks dozens of floors above him.

They stuck him down there and forgot about him, like old clothes, or tacky holiday decorations. At the moment thought that was probably for the best. He couldn’t even lift his head much less do any work. The hangover was painful, but at least he couldn’t remember anything from last night past getting home.

His eyelids began to flutter, and he began to drift from consciousness when his phone vibrating against his desk rattled him awake. He looked at the screen it was a text from Sophia…

Sophia: Gah Mondays suck!

Matt: No arguments here….

Sophia: LoL you should have come out with us Saturday sooo much fun…from what I remember! LoL Matt: The best nights are the hazy ones

Sophia: So true!

Matt smiled to himself. The work text had made it official. She was interested.

Matt left the office holding his head higher than he had in a long time. He had forgotten what it was like to have a woman like Sophia as a sexual prospect. It gave him a sense of superiority when he looked at other men and knew for them a girl like Sophia was simply a fantasy. Something they would live out their entire lives without every experiencing.

He gave the security guard a friendly nod as he passed through the checkpoint in the lobby. The guard returned his gesture. After he had passed through the turnstiles, his phone played the jingle that let him know he just received an email. He checked his phone. It was the HR department. He had just been fired. He stopped in his tracks and looked back at the security guard his smile had vanished, his arms were crossed, his shaking head and furrowed brow silently warned Matt away.

The rest of his week was spent keeping up the charade of employment. Every morning he put on his work clothes and went out the door. He frittered away his days in chic cafes and used the WIFI to submit his resume, all while keeping one rather impressive looking balance sheet open he could click on in case any women looked his way.

When he wasn’t putting off writing another cover letter, he was answering texts from Sophia. The conversations seemed to progress the same every time. They would start with something inane, crescendo into mutual personal revelations, and then fritter off at least for awhile with sporadic joking. Every time they talked the idea that they should meet up was reinforced. Finally, Friday morning came, and the first text Matt got was from Sophia asking him if he wanted to meet up at the Red Ivy after work, a bar right in the heart of binge drinking country.

Matt’s mind had already begun living out what it was going to be like having sex with Sophia. It ran through his head all day as if there was amateur porn in his brain stuck on a loop. As he dreamily stared out of the bus window, his phone ripped him away from his dreams. Laura flashed on the screen of his phone. He groaned.

“Hello?” he said.

“Matt! “ she gasped “are you almost home?”

“Uh yeah almost. Is something wrong?” he asked.

“I’ve been having seizures Doctor Phillips thinks it might be my new medication.” She

“The mediation HE prescribed?” Asked Matt

“Yes.” Said Laura

“Well isn’t that something he should have maybe seen coming? I mean he is supposed to be the doctor isn’t he?” said Matt indignantly.

“Look whatever Matt I just need you here!”Cried Laura

“Alright, alright I’ll be there in a bit.” Matt groaned

“Thank you” Laura sighed.

“Yeah.” muttered Matt.

“I love you,” She said softly.

Matt ended the call. He opened his text log with Sophia and started typing his cancelation text, but his finger abruptly stopped. He wasn’t ready to give up on this just yet. Sophia was the only way to get back what he once had.

“I still got time maybe I can get out of the house quick,” He muttered to himself.

When he returned home, he went right for his bottle. He found Laura much as he had left her disheveled in her nightgown wrapped in food stained bed covers.

“Hi,” She said weakly

“What’s wrong?” Matt asked.

“I’m sick.” she whispered.

He sat down next to her on the bed.

“Can I get you anything?” he sighed.

“Can you get me some iced tea”? She asked.

“Yeah sure.” He stood up and set his glass down on the nightstand next to the bed. He went to the kitchen and pulled the pitcher of tea out of the fridge. It clearly hadn’t been changed in a while, and a ring of mold was beginning to grow on the inside of the glass pitcher.

“Whatever.” he muttered as he poured.

“Hey, Matt!” Laura called from the bedroom.

“Yeah?” He answered.

“I thought we could just have a movie night tonight. That way it won’t be so boring for you looking after me!”

Matt’s breath froze in his chest. Just how long was she going to be awake? His phone vibrated. He pulled it out of his pocket it was a message from

Sophia: Sophia: Hey got a lil hung up just gonna be like 20 min late or so. See you soon!!!

He had to act fast.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable staying in the hospital or something? Seizures can be pretty serious!” He shouted back to her.

“No, I think I’m ok I just want to play it safe. It won’t be so bad. We can watch a season of something just like when we first started dating!”

Matt looked back at his phone. What could he do? He couldn’t cancel on Sophia as she surely had no shortage of prospects, and he wasn’t sure there wasn’t enough Xanax and Viagra in the world to make him do what he did the night before.

In an instant what was left of Matt’s conscience vanished. The prospect of a night of uninhibited lust with Sophia was enough to convince him to shed the thin veneer of morality he had worn all his life. The blend of narcotics he dumped into the glass of ice-tea, Matt figured was probably strong enough to dissolve her brain and ease her into death.

The chemical concoction would whisk her away into a dream before she slipped forever into darkness. Given the circumstances Matt felt this was obviously the humane option. Given her condition he reasoned he was at this point doing her a favor, she was long owed.

He returned to her with her with a glass of tea and warm smile. He handed it to her and watched with bated breath as she took a bird like sip. He grinned picked up his glass of Bourbon and drank it as fast as he could and set the glass back down.

“So what should we watch?”. He asked.

About ten minutes into the first episode of “Orange is the new Black”. Laura had finished her iced-tea. Matt checked the time it was almost 7. He would have to get going pretty soon. He could feel himself start to tremble and didn’t even notice he had ceased to breathe. Everyone once in a while he would have to shake off the anxiety that comes with murder by entangling himself in the long, complex web of justification he had spun.

His mind was preoccupied with details. He would have to write a suicide note before he left. He assured himself however this wouldn’t be too difficult. To any objective viewer, she had plenty of reasons to kill herself and given all the drugs it wouldn’t even have to be too well written. As his mind got carried away with the aftermath of what he had just done Laura suddenly burst into tears. Matt was caught by surprise. He looked at her with arched eyebrows.

“What’s wrong?” he asked her.

“I….I…pois pois” she was struggling to speak through her spasm of sobs.

“Wait what? Take a deep breath than talk.” Said Matt

“I poisoned you, and I just feel so bad about it!” Laura sobbed

“You poisoned me?!” Shouted Matt.

“Yeah,” Laura nodded whipping the flowing tears from her fiery red face

“I found out you..you got fired, and we have all these bills and I didn’t know how we’d pay and I’m so tired of living like this, so I decided to kill you to get your life insurance!” she broke down at the end of the sentence.

“Holy shit you poised me?!” yelled Matt.

“I put a bunch of pills in your drink”! Laura cried “I was going to write a suicide note for you after you went, but now I don’t know if I could do it” Laura buried her face into her hands and sobbed uncontrollably.

Matt grabbed her. “Laura, Laura this is important!” he said shaking her what did you give me?!”

“I don’t know a bunch of Morphine some Ambien… I don’t know a bunch of stuff! “She choked.

“Fuck Laura you couldn’t even get life insurance money if I committed suicide you dumb bitch!” he screamed in her face making her cry even harder.

“Fuck, I gotta get this out of me!” He lamented. He tried to stand up, but he couldn’t feel his legs it was as if his head had disconnected them from his body

“It’s too late!” she cried. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry!”

The massive amount of opiates coursing through his blood and connecting themselves to the receptors in his brain were quickly dissolving his fears about his imminent death.

“Well, its ok I guess.”

“Why what?” stuttered Laura

“I poisoned you too,” Matt said calmly “With the iced-tea.

“Wh-why?” she asked sniffling.

Remember Sophia?” He asked.

Laura nodded.

“I ran into her the other day, and we were gonna meet up tonight. I don’t know I just really wanted to be with a knockout again.”

“Was it just all about looks the whole time is that why you asked me to marry you?” Laura asked as her sobbing abated into sniffling. Matt nodded.

She sniffled again and wiped her eyes one last time.

“It’s ok,” She mumbled.

“Huh?” Matt replied, somewhat surprised.

“I guess it wasn’t all about love for me either. I just loved introducing you to my friends. I mean you had such a good job, your place was so nice, my friends were jealous. I don’t know being engaged to you just kinda made me feel like my life had worked out.”

Matt was silent for a second. “I guess I know the feeling.” He sleepily replied after a moment.

It wasn’t long before the drugs stopped their hearts, and they silently died in their bed. In the moments before they drew their last breaths it felt as if they were simply floating away into the waiting darkness. The flood of drugs had swept away the fear. They simply were carried off the same way falling leaves are taken by the wind. Their eyes shut, and they were simply lost behind them, but finally for the first time since they met that they truly knew one another.


Nick’s work has appeared in a number of publications including; Skive magazine, Sleepy Town Press, Third Flatiron Publishing, and the award-winning Crooked Cat Publishing in the United Kingdom. His stories are his attempt to address the sickness called the human condition. His work can be found at DimeNovelsFromOblivion.blogspot.com

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