Eyes were shut to the world, but I was awake. Trying to delay the start of the day. I heard a slight scratch and opened my eyes to see Dog sitting by the door scratching the wood frame and watching me expectantly. “Yeah yeah, I’m awake Dog”. I pushed down on the footrest of the faded recliner with my legs; pushing the orange blanket off to the side to fall in a messy pile on the floor. I stood and grabbed a shirt that had been tossed carelessly over the back of the recliner as I shuffled to the closed door and pulled it open to let Dog run outside to relieve himself like each morning. I watched him circle for a second as I slid my head through the hole in the cotton of the shirt. Then walked away from the open doorway and towards the kitchen. I grabbed the dented pot that was already pre-filled with water the night before, turned the nob on the front of the stove, and struck a match to light the small burner. I had found a three propane tanks on day two and found that it was pretty simple to get one hooked up to the stove once I worked my way through the faded instructions written on the back. I stood, trying to wake up, as I watched the water slowly start to steam and create tiny bubbles along the bottom of the pot. I turned and grabbed the small coffee cup that was now claimed as mine and poured some of the heated water into it trying not to let it slosh out the other side. My hand wrapped around the glass container of instant coffee and as I dug the spoon down into the gravel that created my morning, I realized that the container was almost empty. The metal spoon hit the bottom of the glass and I stood for a moment looking at what could maybe make two more mornings. Breathe in. Sigh out. Something nudged me from behind and I was swiftly pushed back to my new reality. I dropped the grounds into my cup and stirred, letting the steam become aromatic before I turned to the brown eyes patiently waiting for his breakfast. I pulled the kibble from the bottom cabinet and filled Dog’s bowl watching a few stray pieces scatter around the bowl. There was another bowl sitting on the counter and I grabbed it to place it on the ground next to the first. The second bowl was filled with water and Dog went back and forth between the two as if he was still starving and skin and bones. I sipped my coffee and watched my new friend; noticing that I could no longer see the bones that covered his lungs and his fur had grown thicker.
I walked over to the open door and sat on the top step as I listened to the breeze work its way through the trees surrounding me. The coffee warmed my body and I sat in peace. Somehow in my time here, I had yet to see another soul seeking asylum in these woods. The dead man must have made sure of that when he came here. His private and hidden cabin in the woods. He must have owned the land; no one came looking for past payments or anything owed. I didn’t even know places like this still existed in the overcrowded world. I sat quiet, breathing in the air, putting my arm around Dog when he finished his breakfast and came to join me. He eventually got bored and ran out into the grass, rolling in it and chomping at the weeds, checking every few rolls to make sure I still sat there watching his fun. It had become routine. A comfortable routine. One that I knew had come to an end. This wasn’t where I was meant to be. It was just a short reprieve from the hell that had preceded it. Today would be a good day for us to prepare. I looked into the sky and saw the clouds rolling in. The storm was coming.
I finished my coffee and stood at the top step, wanting to spend more time watching Dog have his fun, but I was just delaying the must haves of the day. I turned to the little house and walked back towards the bedroom. The room now smelled of soap and no longer held the sight of death. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep on the bed, but I did enter the room to see what I could discover from the man who had died here. Now the bed was made with a clean sheet to cover the stains and there sat a duffle bag that I had pulled from a closet just days before. It held a mound of extra shirts, socks, and underwear. I dug through its contents and pulled out the pile of bills that I had found scattered and hidden around the home added to the tiny stash I had brought into the home with me. I sat on the edge of the bed and opened the stack of cash to count. The pile now totaled over a hundred dollars. I looked towards the ceiling as I heard the rain start to hit against the roof. Dog would be a mess. I put the money on the bed and stood to go find him. By the time that I reached the front door the rain was coming down harder and I saw Dog running around the clearing trying to catch drops in between his teeth. “Dog come on – inside time now” I called to him. He ran to me, tail wagging, and shook the water off while only still being halfway outside. The inside half splattered the walls and windows with sweet dog smelling water. I laughed and fell to the floor, covered in a wriggling and wet Dog as he licked my face. This felt almost what happy must feel like.
We spent the day working together to search the final nooks and crannies of the house making sure we weren’t missing anything that we could use in the upcoming weeks or months. The cans in the cabinets were down to just a dozen and six of those went into the duffle bag, two were saved for tonight, and the rest would remain in the cabinets for the next hungry soul who might find this house looking for a saving grace for a night. I took a few of the long candles and a few boxes of matches and folded them into the clothes of the bag to keep them safe. As we worked the rain pummeled the house from above as if to remind me that I have shelter here and should stay. But I knew it was lying to me. I lit another candle and poured some of the wax on the table next to the recliner before pushing the unlit end down into the moldable material letting it harden and make a permanent spot for the new candle. The main room stayed lit as I took the other candle in my makeshift holder and went back to the bathroom. My feet were now healed into rough scars, but I grabbed the remaining bandages knowing that there would be a time soon that they were raw again. I went back into the bedroom and pushed the box of bandages down into the duffle along with the sandals. I walked back to the living room and sat down in the recliner with Dog jumping faithfully to my lap. We sat and thought as my hand made its way lazily back and forth across the soft brown fur. Finally, I stood, shooing Dog to the floor, and made us some dinner. Soup for me and kibble for the dog. I took my time eating and realized this might be my last warm meal for a bit as I slurped the broth in silence, the candlelight flickering against the walls.
I finished the warm soup and rinsed the bowl leaving it drying in the sink. I sunk back down in the recliner and pulled the lever for my feet to rise. I blew out one of the candles and let the other dance orange throughout the room as I pulled the blanket up over me and drifted into a dreamless sleep, lulled to sleep by the sound of Dog’s soft snores next to me.
The next morning, I woke, just as I did each morning before it. I sat on the front step staring at the water drops falling from the trees and the clouds float away into the brightening morning. I watched Dog flip and flop through the grass. I sat for longer than any morning that had preceded it and my bones groaned when I finally stood to go back into the house for the last time. I walked towards the bathroom after grabbing the scissors I had found in the kitchen drawer and undressed in the tiny room. I stopped and stared at myself in the mirror. I no longer looked like the stranger I had seen staring back at me. Now I looked like a different stranger. Worn and dark with a beard and hair speckled with grey. My skin clung closer to the bones beneath my face. But those eyes. The eyes were the same hollow that they seemed to have always been. How had none of the recent laughter made it to those eyes? I picked up the metal shears in my right hand and held the hair straight up as I started to hack at it. It wasn’t anything to be proud of but at least it would stay out of my face for a while. I looked at my beard and grabbed a chunk with my left fist, but the scissors stopped short. No. Not yet. I sat the scissors down on the ceramic sink with a little ting of a sound and stepped into the bathtub next to a bucket. The bucket had been filled a few days ago and I grabbed it with both hands and lifted the water over my body, the skin dimpling under the fresh coldness. Soap and lather followed, washing away the final stray hairs from my hack job of a haircut and the minimal dirt that had built since my last bath. Once I was clean and rinsed, I stepped out of the bath and patted myself off with one of the grey towels, a rougher version of the grey towel that had existed in the first dead man’s house. I shook my head trying to rid myself of the thoughts of a previous life that kept sneaking up on me. I life I barely remembered now. Towel wrapped around my waist I walked over to the bedroom and put on the clean clothes that I had laid out the day before. Jeans and undershirt on. Flannel over the top. Socks and shoes over my calloused feet. I looked down at the shoes, the only thing I had owned prior to finding this house. They had been scrubbed and cleaned and now just had a slight off-color to them. I grabbed the open duffel bag and closed the door behind me. I could still hear Dog jumping around the front of the house when I sat the bag on the recliner. I pulled the money out of the pocket of the bag and slid two tens out of the pile for the back pocket of my jeans. I stuffed the rest of it down in a clean sock roll to hide it from the world. Working my way over to the kitchen I grabbed the bag of kibble from the cabinet and worked it into the remaining space in my bag. I did a final walkthrough making sure I had put everything away and zipped up my new bag. Leaning over the kitchen counter I peered out into the yard and watched Dog running around the yard without a care in the world. I grabbed the pen and the scrap of paper I left on the counter and started my rough note.
To anyone who finds this home –
I found this home in a time of need. It became a haven. I left you food in the cabinets and candles in the drawer. If you need water – there is a bin out back that catches the rain. If you are looking for the man who used to live here, he is gone, died in his sleep and he is buried in the back yard beneath the shovel. There is nothing of value in this house if you are looking for something to steal.
I put the note on the end table and put a can of beans on the corner of the paper so it wouldn’t be swept away some night and never found. I had thought about how I would share the news of the death of the man if his family ever did come looking for him and found this hidden spot. As soon as they dug him up, they would know that my letter told lies. But if they left him where he lay, they might be able to move through to the next day thinking that he died at peace and it might give them a feeling of comfort. The strap of the duffle bag went heavily over my head and dug into my shoulder as I took one last look back down the hallway towards the room that shone orange from the sun and walked out into the day, pulling the door behind me.
Dog stood looking at me, frozen in a playful stance and ready to pounce on me if I said the right words. I looked at his eyes and he stood straighter, solemn as if he knew that we were being serious today. He ran over to stand by my side, and I rubbed his head and looked down on him. “Ready Dog?” He wagged his tail in response. I started walking towards the edge of the trees in the direction that I knew the highway sat, Dog stepping quietly by my side. We stepped into the dark cover of the forest and I resisted the urge to look back at the clearing that had once been so frightening. I had a new fear that if I looked, I would immediately go running back to its safety with Dog at my heels. Time to push forward. I was ready to restart to this journey and this time I was better prepared and had more accurate expectations. I felt something that almost reminded me of confidence. I kept working my way in the direction of the highway. I didn’t remember the trek in taking nearly this long. I had to be going the right way, right? I couldn’t see the sun above me. What if I was going the wrong way? Were there enough woods to get lost in? I spun around trying to get my bearings and noticed that Dog was no longer trailing behind me. The panic of my location was immediately lost and replaced by a different panic as I tried to think of when I saw him last. He was walking next to me into the forest. Are there animals here? No, I would have heard him if he was attacked. I turned around again and yelled “DOG?” Nothing. “DOG COME HERE!” Not a sound. I started running back towards the direction of the clearing, the duffle bag banging against my side. My foot caught on an upturned branch sent me sprawling against the leaf covered ground. I waited for the padded steps and the rough kisses on my cheek to say ‘don’t worry. I’m here. You just didn’t see me.’ Nothing came. I jumped to my feet and ignored the searing pain that began to rip through my knee as I continued to run shouting for Dog, the duffel trying to knock me over again as it slammed into my side. I neared the clearing and burst through the trees scanning the ground for the sight of the brown fur. I saw no sign of him and I looked towards the cabin. The door was still shut. I ran around the side slipping on the damp grass. I stopped suddenly the duffle bag hit my backside and knocked me forward another step. There was Dog. Lying on the uneven mound of earth that he had ignored since the first day we created it. His chin was resting on his crossed paws and his big eyes looked up at me. He didn’t lift his head even as his tail faintly moved across the ground. “Jesus Dog, you scared the shit out of me. It’s time to go” I patted my hip. The tail thudded the soft ground, but he made no other movement. I pulled the duffel bag strap over my head and dropped it on the ground next to me. Then I slowly walked over to the mound and sunk into the grass in front of him. “Dog?” It wasn’t really a question. It was a plea. It contained my life in that one syllable. Don’t leave me. Don’t do this. I’m alone too. Can’t we just go together and at least not be alone. Thud thud thud. The tail continued its slow motion against the ground. We sat and stared at each other and without another word I knew what he meant to do. I reached out my hand and patted the top of his head rubbing across the spot at his right ear that he liked. He finally lifted his head just enough to wrap his tongue around my fingers in a sloppy goodbye. I leaned forward and put my forehead against his and we looked into each other’s eyes, each seeing the pain that we had forgotten for the short while in our time together. I stood up and walked back over to the duffle bag. I opened it and grabbed the kibble from it before walking around the house and up the steps pushing open the door and seeing my note fluttering on the table. I pulled all the bowls from the shelf and filled them with the remaining water from the bucket in the kitchen. I picked up the bag of kibble and turned it to pour all the pellets on the floor of the kitchen in the furthest corner. I picked up the pen from earlier this morning and went over to the note and added a line to the bottom of it.
If the dog is still here – please take care of him – he is a good dog and a good friend. He doesn’t bite.
I left the pen sitting next to the paper, made sure that it was still secure beneath the can and walked back out the front door, this time leaving it open just enough for Dog to make it through. He might need shelter or would come in here looking for food and water. I just hoped he wouldn’t eat it all at once. I walked back around the house to see him still in the same spot with his big eyes watching me as I picked up my bag and threw it over my shoulder. It felt heavier, even without the bag of kibble in it. I looked back once to see his head back on his paws and his tail thudding quietly. The dead man had been wrong. He hadn’t been alone. The dog wouldn’t forget about him. Maybe he would forget about me.
I walked back the same trail I had run just a short while ago. More solemn and less assured of my path. I could hear every leaf rustle and the breath going in and out of my lungs. I breathed quietly so that I could listen for the padded steps running up behind me. The steps that I knew would never come. Finally, the trees cleared, and I saw the small flimsy wire attempting to block my path in or out. I stepped over it, pain shooting through my leg as I bent it over. I made it over the fence, and I looked down at my knee for the first time, remembering my sprawl against the ground. There I saw a bit of dark red soaking through the denim. Not a lot though so it couldn’t be that bad. Most likely just a decent cut. The numbness crept back into my mind as I stared at the dark spot. It had been a while since it had taken over, but it felt normal again. I looked in front of me and continued to walk towards the sound of the highway; lacking the desire to stop and clean up my knee at this time. Knowing if I stopped, I would run back to the little hidden cabin and the brown beast that guarded it. I struggled a bit trying to climb the damp grassy hill leading up into the road, but I finally made it to the gravel. It seemed like a different life when I was last standing here, sweating and dirty, looking at the blood on my feet and the sticky soda running down my front. I adjusted my bag and stuck out my upturned thumb at the truck that was getting closer. Whoosh. Right by me. I looked down the road and saw another car coming and left my thumb out knowing that this could take a while. I saw the hand sticking out of the passenger window and the pimply teen behind the wheel and I braced for another hit with some kind of rotten food item. I refused to stand down and left my hand upturned towards the car. The empty hand waved, and the car slowed as it pulled into the gravel, sending puffs of grey dust up from behind the tires. I walked over, pulling the strap of the bag over my head and I tossed it into the backseat, sliding in behind it. Two pimply faces turned back towards me and grinned nice enough.
“Where ya going stranger?” teen one asked in a fake deep voice, obviously trying to sound older than his face let on.
“Nowhere in particular, where are you guys going?”
“The city” teen two said, as if I knew what that meant.
“OK, great by me.”
“What’s your name?”
I lied without thinking, “My friends call me J.”
“Welcome J! We should be there in about four or five hours I think.”
Both teens turned back around and teen one floated back into the road and picked up speed as teen two started jabbing the buttons in the console looking for a song. I watched the trees of my found home fade away with my friend hidden in their depths as I felt an unexpected tear fall from my face.
(c) Kassie J Runyan
This novel is in a raw form, post beta-read but pre-editorial - for your enjoyment only