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Round and Round by Steve Carr

My story "Round and Round" in Bewildering Stories, out now. …

2:53 AM - 13 Mar 2018

Round and Round by Steve Carr

The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round.

That tune, those words to that children’s song, play in my head on an endless loop. In the humidity of a summer night, the hot breeze fans the bedroom window curtains. The song echoes in my brain. Covering my ears with the pillow does no good, nor does trying to think of countless other things, including other songs.

Thrashing from side to side, I’m like a mummy with the sheet wound around my sweating body. Rivulets of sweat run down my spine, under my arms and between my legs. Janine lies beside me sleeping peacefully, undisturbed by my movement. Midnight, our black cat, is lying at the foot of the bed. In the darkness I can see the glint of his green eyes as he stares at me.

The tips of the branches of the dead oak tree beside the house scrape the aluminum siding, producing metallic reverberations that break the silence in the room. Closing my eyes only increases the volume of the song.

Sleep is impossible; I keep my eyes open, my teeth clenched until they ache. Janine turns and unconsciously places her hand on my chest. It lays there like a fiery lump of coal burning through my skin. When I look at it, the red glow of the digital clock on the bedside stand burns my retinas. It’s 4:30.

I risk awaking Janine and disentangle myself from the sheet and sit up on the edge of the bed. Facing the window, the breeze washes over my body. When I stand up, Midnight jumps down and runs to the open doorway, then stops and turns and stares at me.

At the window, inhaling the air laden with the aromas of dead vegetation and barren soil, I cover my ears with my hands, and yet the song plays on.

The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round.

* * *

The pages of the newspaper as I turn them on the kitchen table sound like angry whispering. The newspaper’s black ink has stained my fingertips, coating my fingerprints. In the obituary section, I read that one of my grade school teachers, Mrs. Keaton, has died. She used to snap me in the back of the neck with a plastic ruler when I wasn’t paying attention. She always smelled like spoiled milk. I turn the page of the newspaper.

“You look awful.” Janine sits down at the other side of the table with a cup of coffee in her hand.

“I didn’t get much sleep.”

“Why not?”

“That song, The Wheels on the Bus, kept playing through my head. ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round’,” I sing, but the melody is off, sounding more like a funeral dirge. “It was the first song I learned in school.”

“Mine was Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Janine says. “Funny, how those songs stick with you.”

“I hadn’t thought about the bus song in years.”

Janine takes a long sip of coffee, making a sucking noise. “It’s Saturday, you can go back to bed if you want to. I’m going to Mom’s and help her try to revive her dying garden.”

Mrs. Keaton, the tree, our lawn, my mother-in-law’s garden. Death and dying.

* * *

The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round.

I awake with a start, drenched in sweat. The song is lodged in my pounding temples; my entire skull aches. Bright sunlight is streaming through the open window. I’m pinned to the bed by the oppressive heat. I run my tongue around my parched lips, feeling slightly nauseous from dehydration. The sheet under my body is soaked. From outside the incessant croaking of cicada invade the bedroom.

I sit up and see my reflection in the dresser mirror across the room. My skin is pale, my eyes hollow. My hair is plastered to my head by the sweat. I comb it back with my fingers and wipe the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand.

Midnight is sitting on the chair in the corner and staring at me.

“The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round,” I sing at him crazily, violently, my throat dry, my voice raspy.

He arches his back, the hairs raised, he hisses at me and leaps onto the floor and rushes out of the room.

I crawl off the bed and go to the window. Nothing is moving outside, as if everything has frozen in place. Then seemingly out of nowhere my friend, Tim, pulls into my driveway in his black van.

* * *

“What’s that tune you’re humming?” Tim asks while sipping on a bottle of beer.

“Was I humming?” I feel feverish. I put the cold bottle of beer to my forehead.

He puts his feet up on the coffee table. “Yeah, you’ve been humming that same tune ever since I got here. And you look like crap.”

“I haven’t been sleeping well.”

In the moments of silence between us that follows, I hear myself. I try to not hum, but it’s impossible. I can feel the song inside me, vibrating, drilling through my skull, trying to escape. “I think I’m going insane.”

He laughs mockingly. “You’re the sanest guy I know,” he says.

“No, seriously. I have this tune stuck in my brain and it has been going non-stop. It’s like a strange form of Chinese water torture.”

He takes a long drink of beer. “What’s the tune?”

“‘The Wheels on the Bus’,” I say. “I learned it when I was a little kid.”

“You’re telling me a little kid’s song is driving you crazy?” He laughs again.

“Stop laughing at me.”

His cellphone in his shirt pocket buzzes. He takes it out and begins talking.

I get up from the chair and go into the kitchen. Midnight is sitting by the door. He emits a low, guttural growl. I open the door and kick him out. I open the tool drawer beneath the sink and take out a mallet. Tim is still on the phone when I go back into the living room. Casually I walk around the sofa and, once I’m behind him, I raise the mallet then bring it down hard on his head. I hear his skull crack. He drops the phone and slides down.

* * *

All the children are laughing.

A cloud of chalk dust hangs in the air. The blackboard eraser lies on the floor beside my desk, its white imprint left on my left cheek. Mrs. Keaton is at the front of the room and holding another eraser preparing to throw it at me.

“You’re such a willful, ignorant child,” she says. “Now answer the problem I put on the board.”

Tears sting my cheeks. “I don’t understand fractions.”

She throws the eraser and I duck. It lands in a puff of chalk dust on the floor behind me. She takes the ruler from the pocket of the apron she wears over her dress. Also in the pocket is a bag of cough drops and a roll of toilet paper. She walks toward me, bending the ruler back. “Maybe I need to remind you to pay attention in class.”

As if propelled from my chair, I rise up and rush at her. I smash into her obese midriff. She drops the ruler and grabs me by the ear and pulls me toward the door. “I’ll see they put you in reform school for that,” she shrieks.

All the children are laughing.

As she pulls me down the hallway, we pass the open door of a first-grade classroom. Inside, the children are singing, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round.”

* * *

It’s cool and dank in the basement. It reeks of stagnant water and the sickeningly sweet smell of rotting flesh. For a very long time Janine has refused to come down here. In the dim glow of a single bulb that hangs from the ceiling by a single wire, I roll Tim’s body into the shallow grave I’ve dug for him. He will join the young man with the petition, the woman looking for her missing Pug, and the newspaper boy. The bag of cement and bucket of water are by the wall. I shovel dirt onto Tim’s blood-encrusted head.

“What are you doing down there?” Janine says from the top of the stairs.

I forgot to close the door.

“Nothing. I’ll be right up.”

Her footsteps make the stairs creak. I accidentally hit the bulb with the shovel handle. It swings back and forth, throwing shadows from one end of the basement to the next.

From the middle of the stairs, Janine sees me, sees Tim’s body and screams and screams and screams.

* * *

The room is cold. The straitjacket is tight.

In my head the song plays in an endless loop.

The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round...

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