Mercy by Kenneth Radu



by Kenneth Radu


Novelist, short story writer, poet — Kenneth Radu has the unique ability to uncover the extraordinary within the everyday, to peel back the fabric of the superficial to expose hidden depths of meaning. In “Mercy” Urban Graffiti is pleased to present Radu’s story of how a dark, unspoken family secret tears apart a family’s very foundation. ~Editor


Tattoo Nude 1. Photo © 2006 by Devin McCawley

Tattoo Nude 1. Photo © 2006 by Devin McCawley

Her head had cracked against the cement floor and she believed her life had come to an end. Her mind plummeted in a tailspin down a black well. In the descent she heard a voice demanding cunt and Adrian offering “be my guest” as if inviting him to use something he owned. She had never forgotten those words as the friend clutched her hair in a fist, repeating “holy fuck.” She would die with the stench of engine oil and whiskey swirling around her brain in the depths of the dark. Dizzy from alcohol, her brother smoked and laughed while his friend, also rank with booze, grabbed under her skirt and clawed off her panties. His nails razored her delicate flesh, he fingered her private parts, and she jolted upwards. His weight pressed hard against her breasts, she struggled to breathe, she couldn’t push him off, and she appealed to her brother: help me, Adrian, please, god, help me. A hand clamped over her mouth and she tried to bite it and scratch the guy’s face, but her jaws wouldn’t move. Both Adrian and the second friend held her arms apart by the wrists while the first friend drilled deep into her body and screams cut through the soft tissue of her brain.


All shadows … her eyes turning to the dirty window …. some kind of light but the dead could not see … moon … half a moon … face in the moon like a demented clown … he was choking her neck, gripping and pummeling, grunts spitting out of his throat … her legs immobile as if disconnected from her body … her body rocked against the cement … separating … from itself … moon man scowling through a dirty window … she could sense some parts of her body, others not … was she dying in stages … and then a pause…the friend dug into her as far as he could go… and cawed fuck fuck fuck before relaxing his entire bulk on top of her wounded flesh …  voices in the dark … alcohol forced into her mouth … she coughed it up … spewing …  he lifted himself off … rolling on her side … her head heavy as a rock …  still alive … and then she was rolled back and her legs separated again … but they did not seem attached anymore … and a sewer mouth covered hers and a tongue like a rotting snake forced between her teeth and again her jaws locked … and … no … please … no … she could near herself speak as if she were in a another room … distant … not there and yet … sweet mercy …. Help me … her legs hoisted high and even the desire to protest died as the second friend  … she couldn’t see their faces half obscured despite the moonlight … heavier than the first  he rammed and crushed into her body … Adrian voice again urging his friend on … moon darkened … a black moon …


Left bruised and bleeding on the garage floor, Donna recalled opening her eyes … closed for how long she didn’t know … her brother and his friends like shadows smoking by the window, passing a bottle around. It took a while for her to realize she lay on a garage floor, half-remembering how Adrian had wanted her to join him and his friends for a party … in a garage … she would have followed him into a cave if he had asked …dark, still dark, and she never really saw their faces, for she was grabbed the moment she had walked in. And her head cracked against the floor. It still hurt … scarcely breathing, feeling sticky splotches between her legs … but climbing somehow out of the dark well, inching like a crippled spider up the rough stone wall … her voice dredged up as if disinterred, some part of her not yet dead … more a whisper than a shout: I’ll kill you bastards, just wait and see if I don’t. They might have heard, they might not, for they left the garage without giving her another look. How long she remained there, she couldn’t tell, except that the moon had vanished from the sky and all parts of her body shivered in the dark.


She never learned the names of the other two bastards, and the third, the chief orchestrator of the event who had stood by watching his friends, looked even older than his 63 years, and if the gods showed mercy, or if she did, would not live out the month. She was not the sort of woman who would travel half way across the world to murder her brother. She had waited for him to come home. His breath smelling like a plugged toilet, his hair fallen out, Adrian now lay weak and vulnerable in his hospitable bed. Staring down at his bony and sallow face during her last visit, Donna had scarcely recognized the boy she used to know.


Tattoo Nude 2. Photo © 2006 by Devin McCawley.

Tattoo Nude 2. Photo © 2006 by Devin McCawley.

Her parents returned from their Florida holiday ten days later. The bruises on her face had receded and her vagina and rectum didn’t bleed when she pissed or shit. Adrian had warned her not to say anything, grabbing her by the throat and hissing in her ear to keep her mouth shut, and then for a few days jollied her along as if he had played a practical joke, and had even mentioned a replay, if she wanted. If she wanted … Jesus! Did he really think it had been a game, that she had enjoyed it? Escaping to her room from eyes that seemed to stare right through her clothes, she had sat on the edge of her bed wondering how to get rid of that persistent, rippling sensation inside her body as if she needed to puke but couldn’t dredge it up, so always had to swallow the filth deep into her belly. Not even the shower had washed it away or the many showers after that. She began barfing up her food, excusing herself from the table and shoving two fingers down her after every meal. “You should eat more,” her mother said a few months later, “you’re getting too skinny.” Eventually she got used to the discomfort of vomiting, absorbed it like water in a sponge, and never forgot her promise to kill those bastards, one of them at least. She gargled with mouthwash to freshen her breath and when she looked in the mirror, she saw nothing. The dead did not see themselves in mirrors.


Now that her brother lay dying in hospital, killing him seemed redundant. And yet, despite a whiff of mothballs, she opened the box and pulled out a longing for revenge: old, but still serviceable.


If it didn’t rain soon, she’d have to water the vegetables. Donna worked the soil of her vegetable patch with a hoe. The tomato plants flowered. Kale and romaine looked vigorous. For years she had eaten very little, but a residue of good sense and a failed attempt at suicide overcame resistance, and she sought help from a Toronto therapist whom she visited once a week for as long as it took to keep her food down. She could also drive to a garage rank with the smell of engine oil and not freeze with panic anymore. Occasionally she stared at a mechanic doing an oil change and wondered if he had been one of Adrian’s two friends.  But no, searching for likely suspects had proven fruitless.


“Get out and do something besides work, something outside in your own back yard would be a good place to begin,” had been the repeated advice of the therapist, but it had taken her a few seasons to begin the effort but she got the puking under control, it still happened but not every meal. She began by cultivating vegetables in a patch of ground that she had dug up, and even managed to swallow her breakfast which consisted of just coffee and toast, eventually a boiled egg. Still, she did not feel her stomach churn as she buttered the bread. Careful not to dislodge the carrots as she hoed between the rows, Donna was pleased with the doctor’s assurance that Adrian had not long to live.

“A week? A month?”

Perhaps she had sounded too hopeful. The doctor demurred, unwilling to predict the exact date of demise. But he was dying? There couldn’t be a mistake?

Yes. No.

Donna had thanked the doctor and continued to sit by her brother’s bedside, pulling out her desire for revenge like an old fur coat. A wheezing sound like a slowly deflating balloon slipped out of Adrian’s partially open mouth.


When conscious, he was often in pain, poor dear, no one should have to suffer, and she considered it an act of mercy to put him out of his misery. And a pleasure. He hadn’t really come home, for their town lacked the cancer treatment facilities of Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital. A two-hour drive, though, was close enough for Donna’s purpose. From years of weekly sessions with her therapist, the travel had become easy, the city familiar. She always returned home with a purchase from a book store; her library had grown, and she built book shelves. The first time she had visited Adrian, he had been alert enough to greet his sister cheerfully. He accepted the bag of licorice all sorts, his favourite candy, a personal preference Donna still remembered after all these years, and ordered her to park her ass on the chair and chew the fat a while. He joked about having lost fifty pounds in the past year.


Adrian had worked most of his adult life in warehouses. He had also acquired a fleet of trucks and a million bucks or two. He could have died in private luxury, but had chosen this semi-private room, as close to their hometown as medically possible, a room without frills. He wanted to be buried next to their mother and father. He had long ago bought the plot and made the arrangements, so Donna needn’t worry about all that. Which Donna hadn’t ever imagined she would. For all she cared, the hospital janitor could have disposed of her brother’s body in a plastic sack along with the other trash.


Adrian asked standard questions about her life, but didn’t wait for any kind of answer before he changed the subject to his last wishes. He spoke about his prepaid funeral, gave her the name of his lawyer, and asked her to call his divorced wife who should come see him with their adult children. They lived a three-hour flight away, and he really needed to speak with them before he kicked the can. They should let bygones be bygones. Donna wondered if Adrian always spoke in clichés. He even used the phrase bottom line at a certain point. To what it referred, she didn’t know, but presumably it had something to do with finances or dying. Holding the glass of ice water as he sipped through a straw, she realized that he had shut the rape of his mind, or he had forgotten. He had let it go, a bygone incident.


They would come if Donna asked. She could put them up at her place. Would she do it? Of course, she agreed, knowing that she would not. Why was he depending on his sister now when he had disregarded her for years? Apparently she was his only visitor. He looked like an exhumed corpse, his skin grey and patchy over his skull, his lips shrunk above his gums. No one else had troubled themselves to see him. Good girl. Good girl, Adrian always said that, when he got his way, or thought he did. Since her last visit, he had slipped into a coma out of which he probably wouldn’t emerge. He had a tube snaking up his nose and his eyelids fluttered, indicating some brainwave activity. As children they used to play street hockey with neighbourhood kids, until Adrian assumed a bored air, and went off with boys his own age to throw around a football between hydro pylons.


After working in the garden, she would shower, try a clear soup and crackers, and maybe check out the movies on television. She had watched movies wherein some patients were murdered in their hospital beds. Usually cutting the oxygen line or inserting poison in the IV bottle or simply smothering the victim under a pillow before a nurse entered with a bedpan or syringe. Donna had long imagined how she’d do it: Adrian must first understand who was killing him and why. Revenge lifted out of the box and shaken loose and put on like an old but favourite coat, she could whisper in her brother’s ear before pressing down against his stricken face with the pillow. She had read that patients in a coma were capable of hearing. She would speak very slowly, each word a drop of cyanide poured into the porches of his ear. While sleeping Hamlet’s father had been murdered that way by his own brother. Expected to pass away sooner than later, Adrian’s death would occasion no surprise. Donna could depart safe and satisfied.


No church service would be required, according to his wishes. The church his parents attended had burned to the ground one winter night, quite a splendid fire licking up from the white snow. Donna often rolled her eyes during hymn sing, and shifted from one foot to the other standing in the pew, her mind incapable of conceiving what the minister droned on about. Not even her father’s smack over the side of her head had induced belief. When she thought of God showing mercy and relieving her brother of prolonged dying, she wasn’t really expecting divine intervention. She could have told their parents, but they didn’t much like her because she had gone sullen since her twelfth birthday and read all the time, and sassed her parents back like any self-respecting, post-pubescent, smartass girl would.


She discovered grubs in the soil, thick, fat, creamy, curled like fetuses. She gathered five of them and placed them in a can to be disposed of later. Adrian had sucked up to her parents, mowed the grass without being asked, and entered mind-numbing conversations with his father about football and hockey and car engines. They worshipped the football field upon which their beloved Adrian played quarterback. They forgave Adrian’s bullying and staying out late. Only fifteen at the time, she couldn’t bring himself to reveal to their parents what Adrian and his two friends had done. She had been so happy when he had promised to take her to a movie and let her hang out with his best buddies, even invite her to a private party. Instinctively, she knew her parents would blame her, even if they could have believed the story in the first place. She had entertained the notion of going to the police, but that had seemed impossible.


Revenge, she discovered, like learning to eat again took time. And she was glad that she had created a garden. She enjoyed the labour. Such a lovely day for it. It had taken time to speak to her brother without spitting out words, but she learned to pretend. He didn’t know that often she stood by his bed back home in the middle of the night while he slept, her mother’s knitting needles pointed over his closed eyes. Her mind would not direct her arms and she drifted out of the room like an ineffectual spirit. Sometimes Adrian remarked that she was getting skinny as a stick, and she’d make a big show of eating a huge meal. Out it spewed as she knelt and bent over the rim of the toilet bowl, undigested peas and ragged clumps of dead grey meat plopping like shit into the toilet bowl.


Kill Adrian. Pretty hard, when she was younger: decades ago, pre-computer age, how could a fifteen year old to devise a plausible and foolproof way of executing her brother? This was Canada, not the United States; guns in the household did not present themselves for convenient use. People were always shooting their relatives in America. It was the expected thing and nothing came of it after the grief. Despite her nocturnal visits, once with a butcher knife, she had retreated from the horror of it all, and threw up in the bathroom as if she had been force fed shit. She had known a tough boy once who would have beaten the brains out of anyone for a price, especially if she let him fuck her, which she had considered. She didn’t care about what he wanted to do with her body as long as he agreed to wipe out Adrian. His father worked in the local abattoir and appeared in church with bloodstains on his shirts, so Jimmy must have learned how to separate flesh from bones.


Having so little before getting a job after college, Donna had live frugally. She had saved a fair portion of whatever money she acquired through a small allowance and her part time job in the local grocery store that paid only minimum wage. She believed six hundred and nine dollars would have been sufficient to wield a baseball bat and apply it to Adrian’s head, and to the two other bastards, once she discovered who they were. Say, two hundred a hit, with change left over to buy the assassin a hamburger and cherry coke, or all six hundred to eviscerate her brother. He was more important than his friends. Then she’d sweeten the offer by giving Jimmy a blowjob in his pick-up and act as if he was doing her a favour. She took no pleasure in sex, but did it because for a few minutes she experienced some sort of power over guys who wanted her and called her a slut. They treated her like a nice slut, though. The word had no meaning for her. No one beat her, so the fucking was tolerable. She never had any female friends to speak of. Too late: Jimmy had been sent to Reform school for threatening his history teacher with a jackknife. In the end, Donna realized safety lay in secrecy and self-reliance.


Just about done the garden work, she heard her neighbour’s son shouting something to his mother. Adrian and she had played well together until she entered Grade One by which time Adrian had developed a whole new set of relationships. You’d think they had never met the way Adrian snubbed his sister in the halls. Pick and choose your friends wisely, their mother always said, you don’t want to get into bad company. Over the pot roast at supper, her parents had beamed at Adrian as if he were Jesus reincarnated. Her father added that Adrian was too smart to hang around with riff-raff. Donna remembered that her brother had joined a gang of boys who smoked in the alleys and fondled their genitals in front of girls, stole candy bars and magazines, broke windows of empty houses, and even got their names written down in a police officer’s black notebook. She yearned for him to pay attention to his little sister. Wasn’t that big brothers were supposed to do? His father had joked about boys being boys, sowing their wild oats, and warned him to be careful. When her father belted her for some infraction, “I’ll teach you to obey,” being his oft-repeated justification for abuse, Adrian never tried to stop him. Her mother wrung her hands and lamented, “Donna, you’re breaking our hearts. Try to be a good girl.”  Well, she went silent, stayed out of their way, and disappeared in her books.


She had looked up her former sister-in-law’s number, but did not make the call. The divorce had been rancorous. Yes, there were two sons and a daughter, but Donna knew little of them and cared even less. Once he had left town to find his way in Toronto and Vancouver, and in various cities of the States, Adrian didn’t much bother with his family back home. Talking to his former wife and children would be like talking to strangers. It took her a lot time to become comfortable around people she didn’t know, and she avoided looking at strangers in the face or speaking more than necessary.


Her neighbour’s eight-year old boy Charlie began singing at the top of his voice. He couldn’t carry a tune very well, but he plugged his ears with an IPod and listened all his waking hours to music. Donna wondered what would happen to Charlie if his parents died this very day. Parents often died unexpectedly one way or another. A simple fact of life. She had trouble recognizing her father after the transport truck crashed through the parapet of an overpass and came to a shuddering, scrunching halt on top of the roof of the family sedan coincidentally available on the road below at the precise moment of its plunge. Squashed, his mother and father had died instantly. Her mother’s face could be recognized by the three moles on the underside of her chin. Escorted to their home from the mortuary by the police who assumed her silence meant grief, even though she by then had moved into a small two room flat, she assured them at the front door that she was alright and, yes, would call if she needed anything. She had made tea in her mother’s sparkling and lemony smelling kitchen, and turned on the television, indifferent to the program and utterly unable to shed a tear. It was never proper to express satisfaction over the death of parents, but in the privacy of their darkened living room, half-lit by moonlight slipping through a clean picture window, she smiled over her cup in front of a situation comedy and consumed a bag of potato chips retrieved from the pantry and she did not throw up.


Adrian had been too busy to attend the funeral, or to do much except send an extravagant spread of Madonna lilies in a blue ceramic vase to the funeral home. He was directing a fleet of transport trucks from Fort McMurray to Calgary, he said on the phone. Donna took five days off work at the Supermarket where she was produce manager. Among the various employees over the years she met a few men, fellow workers mostly, who shared her bed, or the randy high school boys who worked part time. Complications, she was happy to say, had never arisen. Although she acted the part and encouraged the guys, her mind was often roaming elsewhere as they pumped themselves empty. She could absent herself from the moment, remain only pliant flesh, her mind roaming elsewhere over a dark sea. Not eating much for some years had kept her body thin, but her waist had since softened and skin was beginning to roll in folds on her stomach and thighs. Most of the boys weren’t as attracted to her as they used to be. She didn’t miss the sex.


Time to put away the hoe and take a shower before eating. Despite being reserved, she was popular and competent at work, and in a small city soon everyone knew who was responsible for fruits and vegetables at the best supermarket around. It helped that the older men were already married and didn’t need attention drawn to an affair with the produce manager. Donna had never met anyone she wanted to marry. She’d rather suck up her own vomit than marry, but she had acquired lingerie and nylons, all the costumes they seemed to enjoy. In the bedroom mirror she could now see herself standing in panties the men liked to clutch. She also bought and renovated an old, two-bedroom raised bungalow on a quiet street, large enough for her personal library of a thousand books, created the garden in the back yard, and despite their noxious, now dead cat, became very good friends with Charlie’s parents who never complained about the frustrations of their life. Often on a summer’s night she’d sit on the back stoop overlooking her vegetable garden and smoke three cigarettes, feeling as distant and separated from the world as the stars.


Her parents bequeathed almost everything to Adrian and his children, no mean sums. If it had served any purpose to dig up their graves and grind their skeletons, she would have done so. They had visited the grandchildren three times in twelve years, and sent birthday cards with generous checks. Every Christmas Adrian’s children phoned when they grew old enough to do so, and thanked Grandma and Grandpa for the money. Although she regarded her father as a sack of manure, Donna ate dinner at her parents’ house once a month before the accident and imagined him choking to death on a clump of overcooked meat while she watched. Her mother knitted Afghans all day, and collected recipes she served for dinner. Donna complimented her on the excellent cooking and fancied sticking a carving knife in her mother’s back, surrounded by pictures of Adrian and his family. Perhaps she could have been a good actress. Not for a moment did either of her parents sense her loathing even though she often flinched when they dared to touch her. “That’s just her way,” her mother often explained to her father who wondered aloud why his daughter was so standoffish. She’d never get a man that way at her age. Donna received a mere three thousand dollars. There didn’t seem to be grounds for dispute. Adrian didn’t offer to correct the injustice and share the wealth.


She had once, only once, asked Adrian for a loan to help pay her expenses through college as her parents had not been generous in that regard. And when she thought of him, as she did daily, even into her middle age, she knew the day would come when she would see him dead and that helped sustain her through many a sleepless night when the house echoed with the laughter of men in a stinking garage. She had juggled classes and part time work, and a simple gift or loan of a few hundred dollars from her rich brother would have made all the difference. Before putting their house up for sale, according to the terms of the will, the proceeds to go into a trust for the grandchildren, she had gathered all of Adrian’s pictures her parents had displayed in gilded frames, lay them on the garage floor, similar to that of the garage where they had taken and banged her head against the concrete. She smashed a mallet against each picture as if applying it to Adrian’s face, and burned them in a metal barrel behind the house.


She drove to Toronto to see Adrian one last time. She remembered appealing to him in the garage: help me, Adrian, please, god, help me. As if carried by a breeze through the open hospital window, she smelled whiskey and motor oil. How easy to expunge him off the face of the earth. Like a slug in a can of oil. There was a mirror in the room and although she didn’t like to look at herself, she could now see her reflection without grimacing. She patted the tight curls of her hair, still more brown than grey. Would he struggle against her hand tight against his mouth? She didn’t think so. Dying in a coma, his body under the blue sheet would be as unable to protest as hers had been in the garage. A pillow would be softer. If she waited for the cancer to reach its inevitable result, she’d be denying herself the bone-deep thrill of revenge at last. She sat by his bedside. It was always pleasant to have a choice. One way or another, Adrian would soon be granted mercy.UG
Kenneth RaduThe author of several works of fiction, including Flesh and Blood, Sex in Russia, The Purest of Human Pleasures, and Home Fires, Kenneth Radu’s most recent collection of stories Earthbound was released in 2012 by DC Books (Montreal). Having recently completed a novel set in Russia and Montreal, he is currently working on a series of linked short stories, one of which “Latrine Duty” appears in Urban Graffiti. He lives near Montreal.

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