“I Can’t Imagine” by Sandra Wickham
My little brother had always been a little crazy, but as I watched him pace circles around my kitchen table I thought he might finally have taken a giant leap off the edge.
“I’m telling you, some strange force is screwing with my life,” he said.
“What the hell?” I tried to keep my voice calm to counterbalance his near hysteria. “You think some cosmic force is out to get you? Some unexplainable power?”
He stopped pacing and stared at me. “I’m telling you, Mol, things are happening to me.” He shook his head. “And it’s not unexplainable; I think I’ve worked it out.” He started pacing around the table again.
I motioned to the chair across from me. “Okay, little bro. Share your conspiracy theories with me.”
He gave a short, nervous laugh. “I know I must sound nuts, but please, just hear me out.”
With a forceful sigh he pulled out the chair and took a seat. I could see his hands shaking. Oscar, my black lab, came jogging into the kitchen and pushed his furry muzzle onto my lap. I scratched his chin and he looked at me with joy in his eyes. “No wonder I like you more than humans,” I said and Oscar crawled under the table and flopped down.
Shawn clasped his hands together. “However I put this you’re going to think I’m crazy.” He paused and I raised my eyebrows at him, waiting for him to go on. “Whenever I think or say the words, ‘I can’t imagine’ something, it turns around and happens to me.”
“What?” I was trying to be patient but I couldn’t hide the edge in my voice. “You aren’t making any sense.”
He sighed again. “Okay, look, here’s how it is. Do you know what I did the week before I lost my job?” I shook my head. “I watched a documentary on the homeless people in the downtown eastside.”
“Right, I caught part of that. So what?”
“While I was watching it, I distinctly remember thinking ‘I can’t imagine what it would be like to be homeless like that.’ Then one week later I lost my job and had to move in to live on your couch. Coincidence?”
I stared at him, not sure what to say.
“And this.” He pointed at his face. “Remember when we were at that coffee shop a few days ago and we saw that teenager with the really bad acne? Do you remember what I said?”
I did my best to remember. “You said you couldn’t imagine what it would’ve been like to have had acne that bad.” Both of us had been lucky to escape puberty with flawless skin. “But that’s not—”
He cut me off, pointing at his face again. “You think it’s also just coincidence that yesterday I woke up with my face like this?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You had an allergic reaction to that shaving cream I bought you and you got a rash. It’s not the same as acne.”
“But it looks just the same and I’ve had to walk around looking like a pizza-face for two days, which, it turns out, isn’t any fun.”
“People say ‘I can’t imagine’ all the time,” I said. “Rich people say they can’t imagine what it would be like to be poor, poor people say they can’t imagine what it would be like to
have all that money. Women say they can’t imagine what it would be like to be a man and vice versa. You don’t see people switching bank accounts or genders all over the place, do you?”
“It may not happen to other people but it’s happening to me.”
I smacked my palms on the edge of the table and leaned in. “Did you ever say you couldn’t imagine what it would like to be bald?”
“Very funny,” he said, running a hand over his head. He kept what little hair he had tightly shaved. Then his expression froze. “Maybe I did!”
“Oh, give me a break.”
He got to his feet and started pacing again. “It’s like the universe is out to get me, cursing me with, like, self-imposed bad luck.”
“The universe is not out to get you.” I got up and headed to the refrigerator. Oscar scrambled out from under the table to follow at my heels. Shawn dodged around the door and the dog so he could continue pacing.
“You’re right. It’s more like the universe is trying to teach me a lesson. It’s like it’s saying, ‘Oh really, you can’t imagine being homeless? Okay, here you go’ and boom, I’m living on the street.”
“You’re not living on the street; you’re living on my couch, now stop it.” I closed the fridge and handed one beer to him and sat back down with the other. Shawn and I twisted the tops simultaneously as Oscar wriggled under my chair.
“Maybe I could test my theory,” he said, taking a swig of beer and resuming his trek.
“Maybe you can use it in a positive way,” I suggested. “Like, say I can’t imagine winning a million dollars.” I laughed at my own wit. He ignored me completely.
“The only thing is, I’d really have to mean it. Those other times I distinctly remember meaning it.”
Oscar worked his way out from under the table and looked up at me, his tail wagging enthusiastically. I stood up and scratched him behind his ears.
“Is it time for your walk, big boy? Let’s leave Uncle Shawn here alone with his crazy talk.”
I grabbed Oscar’s leash from its hook and headed out the door. Shawn still looked deep in thought.
The next day things were so busy at work I completely forgot about Shawn’s crazy theory until he called.
“Mol, you have to come home.”
“What is it?” Silence.
“It’s Oscar. Just come home, Molly.”
I slammed to a stop in the driveway. My keys rattled violently as I tried to keep my hands from shaking long enough to get the key in the door. Inside, I set my purse down on the table inside the door. It fell off the edge, hitting the floor and scattering its contents in the hall. “Shawn? Oscar?” I called out, already knowing something was wrong. If it wasn’t, I would’ve heard Oscar’s nails tapping the floor and his collar jingling as he raced to the door to meet me, just like every other day for the past eight years.
I found them on the floor in the living room, Shawn holding Oscar’s limp body. I raced in and crashed to my knees beside them, trying to pull my dog from my brother. Oscar was so big I could only shift him enough to get his head on my lap; the rest of him remained on Shawn. I could feel right away my dog wasn’t breathing.
Tears stung my eyes and blurred my vision. “What happened?” I buried my face in Oscar’s neck.
“I’m so sorry Mol, it’s my fault.” I could barely hear him over my own sobs. He was saying something about his “the universe was out to get him” theory. “I, well I wanted to test it. I didn’t really know it would work. I couldn’t imagine you living without Oscar.” He paused and his own sobs mixed with mine. “He got out of the yard and got hit by a car.”
I lifted my head to stare at him, rested Oscar’s head down onto my lap and shoved Shawn in the chest as hard as I could.
“You killed my dog!” I knew I was screaming hysterically but I couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t want to stop myself. “I can’t believe this. You killed my dog!”
“I’m so sorry, Molly.” He kept saying it over and over as I cradled Oscar’s head in my arms, rocking gently as tears poured down onto his fur. There was dried blood on his muzzle, and the smell of asphalt and motor oil, so out of place, made me nauseous. Images flashed through my mind, Oscar chewing my shoes as a pup, chasing his ball in the park, sleeping at the foot of my bed and those big brown eyes gleaming up at me with unconditional affection. Those eyes were closed and would never look at me again.
We buried Oscar at our parent’s farm, out in the brush near the river. Shawn and I drove home in silence. It took me a week to be able to look at him again. I knew he was still there, living on my couch, but in my zombie-like state of grief I blocked out his existence.
Finally he cornered me in the kitchen. “Molly, I really am sorry.”
With no room to escape I sat down at the table, noticing how painfully quiet the house was now.
“You believe me, don’t you?” Shawn took a seat across from me, his eyes begging for forgiveness.
I shook my head. “I don’t know what to believe.”
Shawn chewed his lip. “It can’t be coincidence, Mol. The universe hates me.” He dropped his head into his hands.
“The universe doesn’t hate you.”
Shawn didn’t look up. “What would you call it then?”
“Well, why does the universe hate you? It doesn’t make any sense. You’ve never harmed anyone or anything in your life.” Until Oscar.
When he lifted his head I noticed dark circles under his eyes that hadn’t been there a week ago. “Maybe it doesn’t work like that,” he said. “Maybe it’s not karma or luck or anything. Maybe the universe is just cruel and irrational. It picked me.”
“Do you think maybe you’re being a little egotistical?”
“Well, isn’t it a little vain of you to think the universe would actually take that much interest in you, and only you?”
He jumped up, his chair crashing to the floor behind him. “I am just trying to figure this out!”
“What are you yelling at me for?” I got to my feet to meet him at eye level. “You bring this theory to me, you possibly kill my dog, what do you want me to do?”
“I just want control of my life back.” He kicked the overturned chair.
“Control of your life?” I could feel the blood rushing to my face, my temperature rising. “Do you think I have control of my life? Do you think anyone does? Look at me! I’m 36, not married, no kids. I have a job where no one notices or cares about the work I do and my best friend was a dog who is now dead. Does that sound like control to you?”
Letting out a sigh like he’d been holding his breath, Shawn reached down to pick up the chair. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” He sat back down. “I just meant whatever is happening to me is a nightmare. I’m really scared, Molly. What if I hurt someone else like I did Oscar? What if I hurt you? I can’t live like this.”
“Okay,” I said, sitting back down. “Let’s be rational about this. If this is happening and I mean, if, what can we do about it?”
Several moments of silence passed. “There is no solution,” he said. “How do you stop your thoughts? These are my gut reactions to things.”
“I don’t know. Try to think about everything as being possible.”
“How? I mean, even if I said I can’t imagine being able to imagine every possible situation I still don’t think I would be able to imagine it.”
“Okay, now you’re just confusing me,” I said.
He grinned and we both laughed.
“I still say you should use this to your benefit,” I went on, relieved the mood had lifted. “Why don’t you just say you can’t imagine winning millions of dollars and do us all some good.”
“I’d rather say I couldn’t imagine you winning millions of dollars. I owe you.” He smiled but his eyes were still sad and frightened.
“You don’t owe me anything. You’ve always been a little annoying, but you’re a great brother.”
“Thanks.” Then his smile faded. “I just can’t-”
“Don’t you say it.” I stood and pointed my finger in his face. “Don’t you dare.”
“I just can’t imagine going on living this way,” he said. I dropped back into my seat.
It took exactly four days for the call to come that Shawn was dead. Out on a job interview he was killed instantly in a car crash. For the second time in one month I drove up to my parents’ farm to mourn the loss of someone I loved.
My parents met me on the front porch and the three of us shared a tearful hug. Other guests were arriving for the wake so I released my hold and let my mother return to her hostess duties. I knew she preferred to keep busy.
My father took my hand. “I have something for you. It’s from Shawn.”
“You do?” I looked up into my father’s eyes. They were sad and reminded me of my brother.
“Come with me.” He led me to the barn. We walked to the back where he kept his small office. “It’s very strange,” my father said as held the door open for us to go inside. “Shawn came up here two days before he died and told me to give you this. Like he knew.”
Dust from the old barn made me sneeze and then I heard a whining sound. I watched my father bend down behind the desk and heard a metal latch give way. Out from behind the desk barreled a black Labrador puppy. It ran over to me, its entire body wiggling from side to side with excitement. I knelt down and he jumped up to lick my face.
My father pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. “It gets stranger.” He leaned over to hand it to me.
I looked down at the slip of paper in my hand and found myself staring at the numbers on a lottery ticket. I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or cry. I guess Shawn thought it was worth a shot.
About the Author
Sandra Wickham lives in British Columbia, Canada, with her husband and two cats. She has been a coach and fitness trainer for over twelve years and is new to the writing world. Her friends call her a needle crafting aficionado, health guru and ninja-in-training. Sandra’s short stories have appeared in Evolve, Vampires of the New Undead, Chronicles of the Order and the sequel to Evolve releasing later this year. You can visit her at www.sandrawickham.com.