I opened my eyes to see the tall grass swaying above me; the orange sky above it. How many times have I been here now? I was so exhausted that I didn’t jump to my feet to try to desperately to make it to the town I could never reach. Instead I continued to lay there gazing at the sky and allowing myself to enjoy the lack of physical pain in my prematurely aging body. This dream allowed all of the body aches of the previous weeks to drift away. Or was it months? This time was different though. I didn’t feel the giddy adventure and desperation that I was used to feeling here before; this time my heart ached with a pain that I couldn’t describe. The tears welled up in my eyes again as they had done when I was awake, and I didn’t have the energy to contain them. I was forced into a seated position as my body shook with sobs and I felt the full range of emotional pain that my life has been devoid of for so long. The empty nothingness was gone for this moment and was replaced by unbearable loneliness and sadness. What was I doing here? How did all of this happen? I forced my thoughts back to the dead man’s mom. Her frail body shivering as she lay crying on the bathroom floor surrounded by spilled pills that had fallen when she dropped the small container. I cried with her now. I forced those thoughts back to his dad smothering his cries as he lay alone in his bed after mom was gone. I cried with him now. I thought back to the dry eyes of the father floating from a rope in the air. I cried with the dead man, once a boy, sobbing on the floor of the basement with the feet swinging above him as he felt completely abandoned. I cried until I had no more tears to shed and I began to feel the hollow creeping in again. The hollowness I knew. The hollowness that I could deal with. I sat in my thick orange subconscious and opened my swollen eyes to look at the grass around me. I breathed in the sweet air and pushed it back out of my lungs, exhausted from my drying tears. I sat and I breathed and then realized that I had been here for too long. The consistent scream that alerted me that it was time to wake up must be coming up. I stood and I waited. Nothing made a sound. I furrowed my brow and squinted towards the town. Something wasn’t right here. I was now far beyond the time that I should have heard the shriek breaking the silence. The dream was changing. I knew I’ve had now been here longer than any of the times before and the orange sky started fading into a pink. I took a step knowing that my body wouldn’t move. Then another step. My eyes widened in shock as I realized that my body was no longer forced to be stationary. This was different. I took another step and moved a foot closer to the forbidden town. I stared at the hazy buildings in the distance for just one curious moment before I started running. Grass stung against my face as I pushed through it. I worked to keep my footing in the slick ground as I got closer to the town desperate to find what my subconscious has been trying to hide from me there.
I woke up to the sound of water dripping and the smell of newly recognizable decay. The sun had started to light the inside of the cabin to a dusty haze and I could see the source of the dripping water. Dog was standing in front of the closed front door relieving himself. Shit. I didn’t even remember closing that door last night before falling asleep. I rocked the recliner forward to touch my feet to the ground and felt the sharp pain radiate from the back of my head where I hit the wall the previous evening. Everything slowly came back to me; not nearly as quickly as the pain had. I looked at Dog sitting next to his wet puddle of piss and he looked back at me as if to ask “well, what are we going to do now?” I pushed myself to my feet and felt every muscle ache in my body as I moved to stand. The searing pain in my feet and my head were quickly forgotten as my stomach painfully started to growl.
Looking behind me, I saw the dusty kitchen in the dim light of the morning. The cabinets all showing the signs of consistent use where the oils of skin had darkened the unvarnished wood. I limped over to the faucet, somehow knowing before I even got there that nothing would happen when I turned the knob. No stream of water. Not even a hiss of a sound with the hope for water in the near future. The once silver of the spout now had a film over the top restricting my reflection. I opened one of cabinet, expecting nothing but a swarm of bugs working their way into the freedom. Instead, there was row upon row of slightly dusty cans peeking neatly out at me from the shadow. I reached in and wrapped my fingers around the closest can and pulled it close to me like a baby clutching at its most beloved blanket. I looked down and saw that I was in proud possession of a can of dark red kidney beans. It had one of those pull tops that meant I didn’t even need to hunt for a knife or an opener to get to the sweet insides. My mouth started to water as I grabbed another can with a matching label and walked over to the front door of the cabin, barely missing the puddle of Dog piss that still sat there. The door swung open and Dog leaped past my legs and into the damp grass. I leaned against the wood of the door and slid down into a seated position on the shallow porch before scooting my body forward until my legs folded over the worn top step. I looked down at the precious can that was clutched in my right hand and sat the other down on the wood plank next to me. I squeezed my finger beneath the tab and bent and pulled until the whole top of the can was open to me. Savor, I told myself. Enjoy this moment of found food and shelter and the new friend who was now rolling in the shimmering grass. The grumbling overrode the initial thought as I turned the opened can upside down and guzzled the contents like it was a cold beer on a hot day, almost choking on the slimy beans as they slid down my throat. I heard a whine in front of me and saw the eyes of Dog sitting there when I lowered the can. He had lost all desire to roll in the grass the moment he had heard me eating. The sun shone off his patched fur that was now wet with the dew from the grass. “Sorry Dog”. I dropped the can into the grass in front of him and watched Dog clean it out with his rough tongue while I worked open the second can. This time, I listened to myself as I reached my fingers into the slimy mush and pulled out a handful of red beans and sauce to slowly slurp it from my fingers. I pushed to the side of the step as Dog came and sat next to me; the clean can forgotten in the grass in front of us. I reached my fingers into the can again and held it towards him; letting his sandpaper tongue lick away the beans and sauce sitting in the cup of my hand. We took turns until the second can was empty and I let Dog clean out the remaining salty sweetness from within the metal canister. As I sat, the food pains slowly receded from my stomach and were replaced with something resembling a normal hunger. We watched the sun shift through the leaves above us and listened to the wind blow.
We couldn’t sit here all day. The sky was quickly getting brighter and I had work to do. I pushed myself up and looked back into the darkness of the house behind me. I had to force myself to stumble back inside the rot. The door was left open as I started on the living room. Pushing the flimsy material to the side of each window to let just a bit of light in. There was a small space in the worn wood, just under the bottom glass pane. I tucked my fingers under the ridge and pulled. Nothing happened. I moved one hand so that my palm was above the bottom pain and pushed while my other hand pulled. The window shifted slightly. The worn muscles of my arms pulsated as I pushed and pulled harder. Suddenly it gave and the window shot up with a loud thud as it leveled with the top pane. Reluctantly I let go. It stayed in place and I stuck my head out of the opening letting the soft breeze brush against my face. I continued forcing each of the windows open and the breeze pushed its way into the room and back out, pulling the rotted smell with it. Once I finished with the main room, I looked down the dark hallway towards the bedroom. I dreaded walking down that tunnel, imaging monsters waiting for me in the shadows. It had to be done. Forcing one foot slowly in front of the other, I walked down the hall with Dog trailing silently behind me. My breath was locked behind my throat as I turned towards the door and I slid my fingers around the doorknob and turned. The smell smacked me in the face and my eyes started watering before they even had time to adjust to the dimmed room. The sun was blocked by the same flimsy material that was covering the windows in the other room and the walls were untouched wood like the rest of the house. They had faded to a light orange over time. Determined… or just trying to avoid looking at the bed… I moved straight over to the window and pushed the curtain back and pulled the window open. It slid easily, not allowing me more time to gather myself before the next step. I pushed my head out the window for a moment to clear my lungs and my head. I breathed in and turned back towards the room, ready to take in the sight that had been waiting for me.
The man did not die naturally. He sat in his bed up against the wall with his feet straight out in front of him, like the position of someone who is reading a book. He wore what seemed like his everyday clothes; jeans, a button-down flannel shirt, brown work boots. In his right hand was a revolver. But, the most telling sign of his suicide was the blood and brain that was splattered on the wall behind his slumped head, turning it a dark ominous black in the shadowed room. The newly acquired beans were trying to force their way out of my stomach and I sucked in my breath to try to keep them from emerging. I turned from the body and quickly walked towards the door, patting my hip for Dog to follow me out of the room. Paused for just a moment as something caught my eye before I reached the door frame. I grabbed the pair of sandals that were sitting next to the closet on my right and walked out of the room.
I made my way back to the dead man’s recliner and sat, my mind working through what this day would look like. Dog sat faithfully next to me as he understood that I was his only friend left alive in this world. I hunched over and pushed the licking tongue from my face as I slid off my worn shoes and painfully tugged at my red stained socks. Open skin and scabs had dried to the socks again and the old socks painfully pulled the new skin as the fabric came away from my feet. I needed to clean them off but first things first. I slid my feet into the worn leather sandals, relieved that they only touched a few of the red sores and stepped outside into the carefree sweetness of nature again. I stood for a moment listening to the birds in the trees and pretending that this day was going to be different than it really was. I shook the thoughts from my mind and Dog followed me as I worked my way around the overgrown grasses that engulfed this hidden cabin in the woods. I started to give up hope by the time I made it to the third side of the house. But there was what I was looking for. A wooden shed was attached to the back side of the cabin. I walked over and yanked on the small door, barely nudging it open at all. I pulled harder and it finally gave, revealing exactly what I needed. I grabbed the wood handle of the shovel and dusted the remains of the webs from the shaft that now sat in my hand as well as my arm that held it. As I backed out and closed the door, I noticed a bright piece of blue peeking from behind the overgrowth on the other side of the shed. I peered around the edge of the worn wood and tried to keep my hopes from climbing as I saw the barrel with a spout leading from the roof of the cabin into the top of the plastic tub. A metal ladle hung from a rusted chain and rubbed against the bright blue plastic. How had it remained so bright when everything around it had rotted and rusted? I dropped the shovel in the grass behind me and reached towards the scuffed lid that covered the plastic. It fell to the ground as I pushed it off to the side. Waiting until just the right moment to look down into the container. Breathing quietly, as if that would have an effect on what was in the tub. I leaned over and slowly peered into the blue. In awe, I reached both hands down into the tub and slowly cupped the cool water to my face, rubbing it against my worn skin and moaning with the slippery feeling of cool water flowing through my beard. I grabbed another handful and brought it to my lips, not caring that the color was a little less than clear or it smelled like musk and dirt. The dead man that I had been before had cared about those things. Drinking water from a filtered container or from a new plastic water bottle each day to ensure it was fresh and clear of impurities. The man who stood here now: hell, I just cared about the fact that it was water. I slurped through another handful and then with my next glistening bounty I turned to the dog that I knew would be right behind me patiently waiting. I let him lap the wetness from my hands. We took turns, filling ourselves with water before lying down in the soft weed covered ground behind the cabin. The clouds drifted lazily overhead, and we enjoyed this piece of normalcy that I had taken for granted for so many years.
It couldn’t last. I got back to my feet and grabbed the shovel from where I had thrown it in the grass. Glancing around me, I looked for what seemed like a good spot to start digging. I drove the shovel into the ground at my feet, stepping on the edge to get more depth, and pulled the dirt out of the earth. I continued to dig, taking breaks for another handful or ladle of water or a short sit and tongue bath with Dog. The sweat ran down my face. I felt useful as I moved, making a hole in the earth with a friend by my side. The sun crossed so that it sat straight above us and then it moved over to the other side marking the entry into the afternoon. Finally, I had a hole that was deep in the ground. It was the size of a man. It was time.
Walking back into the house, I noticed that the smell of decay smelled stronger, even with the pull of air from the open windows. I made my way to the bedroom and pushed the door open to reveal the man there, still frozen in his last moments, alone and resigned to his fate. The sun had brightened the room as I slowly walked to the side of the bed and gazed down at the man, taking in the detail. He stared back at me, right eye white and stubborn. Left eye pointed awkwardly to the side, past the trickle of black that had made its way from the wound in his head after his death. He looked to be in his 60’s and had a slight shadow of grey hair thrown across his chin. His slack mouth was hung open revealing a neat row of white bottom teeth. He didn’t look much different from me, probably about the same height and weight that I was now. I looked towards his hands. The revolver clutched in his right hand and as I looked closer, I saw a bit of paper sticking out of the death grip that was his left. My hands belonged to someone else as they moved towards his and carefully slid the crumpled paper from the unwavering grasp, managing to only create two slight tears in the words. Without reading it I carefully folded the paper and slid it into my back pocket. My eyes continued to take in details as I noticed the mess beneath him. I made my way down to his feet and tugged on his ankles, trying to pull his stubborn body down further in the bed to the part that was covered by the thick blanket. Finally, his head perched away from the wall, unmoving. By this point, Dog was weaving around my legs whimpering at me and at his abandoning owner. I shooed him away so that I didn’t trip over his quivering body and I pulled at the corner of the blanket that was closest to me. I pulled it straight up and then over the wooden body that sat in front of me, following with the other three corners, trying to cocoon the death inside the rough grey fabric. I leaned over and held my breath as I squeezed my arms between the rigid flesh held within the blanket and the crusted mattress. And I lifted the man, one arm under his back and one under his thighs, holding him like a giant stubborn baby. I walked to the door with Dog lightly jumping around my legs trying to figure out what was happening. Turning sideways as I carried my charge from the room that housed his death, I hit his outstretched feet against the wall. “Shit. I’m sorry” I mumbled to the man who couldn’t hear me. We slowly struggled to the front of the house and down the steps and worked our way over to the hole that I had made to contain this man’s body. I tried to slowly creep to my knees and lower him into his grave, but the blanket slipped, and he fell into the bottom of the hole with a thud.
The blanket fell and covered most of his body but the one lifeless eye and the hand with the gun were exposed. I looked away in shame; I wasn’t sure if it were shame for the man or for me; and reached towards the shovel that I had stuck into the mound of dirt next to the open ground. I started methodically pushing the dirt back into the ground and tried to avoid looking at the man I was covering up. I couldn’t take a break now as my muscles yelled. Dog crept around the opening making sounds of pure pain as I kept shoveling the black dirt into the hole. They were sounds that I hadn’t heard from him yet, even in his starvation. I looked down at the cloudy eye staring at me right before it was covered with dirt and tried to ignore the truth that I saw in it; reflecting my own choice. The sun was getting closer to the trees when I finished patting down the earth with the back side of the metal from the shovel I held, and I dropped the shovel where I stood. I walked over to the blue barrel and dipped the ladle in, drinking all its contents when it made it to my lips. I turned around to see Dog lying on the fresh mound of dirt in the ground, his chin resting on his soft paws as he looked at me with his sad brown eyes. I walked towards him tugging the piece of paper out of my back pocket. And I spoke the words of the dead man as if it were tribute or a prayer.
I know you won’t understand this. I know you probably will never even know this happened or find my body and this note will never find its way to your hands. I just can’t live in this world any longer. I have been stranded in an island for so long. I don’t know how to go on. I don’t think that there will be anything after this life but it has to be better than the pain of living each day knowing that I caused so much pain to those I loved. So much pain that no one noticed when I left or came looking for me. I felt nothing then, I was an empty shell of a human, a host.
I stopped as the word caught in my throat. I took a shaky breath in and kept reading, trying to ignore my own words reflected in this man’s writing.
But now I feel all of the pain. I have the dog and I think he loves me as much as a dog can, but once I’m gone he’ll find another human to feed him and he will shift his love and forget about me too. I wish I could have known your kids. I hope you told them that your mom loved you and hid the truth about her death. I hope you told them that your dad wasn’t such a horrible guy and he did the best he could. But, that wouldn’t be the truth and your kids deserve the truth. I hope you find happiness and forget about me – if you haven’t already.
I folded the letter back into squares and leaned down towards the mound, trying to shake the feeling that I read a letter that could have been written by my father. Or by me. My fingers scraped against the fresh ground as I made a small hole and pushed the note into the dirt. I covered the note to bury its contents along with the man who wrote them, knowing that no one would ever find it and hold it against the man. I stood and left Dog alone in his mourning as I went back into the house to start my next task.
I walked down the hall and closed the door to the bedroom. I would deal with that tomorrow. I had enough of the death and decay today. I went back to the kitchen and opened the cabinets to take inventory of what existed. There was instant coffee, cans of vegetables and soup, pots and pans, and in the last cabinet there was a bag of kibble. Dog would be thrilled. I opened the drawers to reveal rows of utensils and one drawer filled with candle sticks and boxes of matches. I grabbed a few candles and a small container for them to stand up in along with a box of matches. I laid them on the small table next to the recliner in preparation of the deep darkness that would be brought when the sun finally sat behind the trees. I walked down the hall again and found another door. It pushed it to reveal a tidy but dusty bathroom. Knowing again that nothing would happen, I still turned the knob in the small tub hoping that my good deed in the burial of the man would have an otherworldly result and I would be blessed with magically running water. Not a drop. I opened the small door next to the shower and found what I was originally looking for. I grabbed the box of bandages and soap as well as a rough grey towel from the small shelf and I closed the door. Walking back towards the front of the house, I noticed another small door and pulled it open to find a reward I wasn’t expecting yet. I was faced with folded jeans, flannel shirts, and faded grey underwear. I grabbed one of each and carried my full load with me out the front door and into the slowly fading day. Slowly, I worked my way around the house to where Dog was still lying in the dirt that housed his dead friend. I knew his eyes followed my every move over to the still mostly full barrel of water and I dropped my goods to the ground next to where I stood.
I pulled off my shirt first, not even caring that it was inside out, and tossed it on the ground reveling in the fresh air against my rough skin. I slowly undid the buckle of my pants and peeled the dirt-soaked jeans down my legs while slipping off the leather sandals from my feet. I pulled the pants off over my right foot as I balanced on my left and then followed with the other leg, trying to ignore the searing pain from my feet. I tossed the stiff denim to the side watching its attempt to unsuccessfully fold to the ground. And then followed with my boxers that were no longer the soft grey they had been when the dead man had put them on back in the suburban home. I stood in the clearing in all my nakedness, not worrying about the brown eyes watching me from behind, just feeling the skin prickle beneath the soft breeze. I dipped the ladle into the murky water and tossed it onto my body, my skin dimpling with the coolness of it. I leaned over and dumped another ladle over my head and felt it trickle down my body as the wet strands of hair fell over my eyes. I grabbed the soap from my pile of items on the ground and started meticulously rubbing it over every spot of my skin and into my rough beard and hair, lathering every inch as I went. The soap fell into my eyes and down into the sores at my feet and stung both in different ways. I kept scrubbing away the dirt and the sticky soda and the blood. And the pain. As I ladled water over the soapy covered areas, I saw the slack skin turn to a peach color and the darkness run away down my body and back into the ground where it belonged. “Dog, it’s your turn” I called. Dog looked at me wearily but stood slowly and padded over to stand obediently in front of me and we washed and lathered and rinsed all over again. Once I was done, he backed up a few steps and shook, hitting me and my pile of clean clothes with the spray. A sound came from my mouth and stopped when I realized what the sound was. It sounded strange, like a foreign language. I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed. Dog wagged at me and jumped around in a little semi-circle and shook again. I chuckled and this time it felt good. It felt normal. I stepped into the damp but clean pile of clothes that had belonged to the dead man I had buried and as I buttoned up the flannel shirt, I felt more human than I had in years. I sat in the grass and slowly bandaged the sores on my feet before slipping back into the sandals and walking back into the house. My friend walked by my side only stopping for a moment to look back at the mound of dirt with the shovel now stuck in at the head like a marker. The dirty clothes of my previous life lay in the ground to be forgotten just like the man who had worn them. The man that had been me. The night was closing in and the sun was disappearing beyond the line of trees behind the house as I lit one of the candles that I had set out. I found two bowls and filled one with cold soup and a spoon and I filled the other with kibble. Balancing them in one arm, I grabbed the candle with the other hand and walked out the open door into the dark night and sat on the steps. Dog sat next to me patiently waiting as I sat his dinner down in front of him and we ate, listening to the crickets and the crunch of kibble. The stars and moon were gone from the sky, but the night was occasionally lit with the distant shot of lightning striking from the clouds. I hoped it would work its way in our direction and fill back up the blue barrel with the water that we had used today. We sat, full and tired and clean, watching the storm getting closer as the orange flicker of the candle slowly burned out.
(c) Kassie J Runyan
This novel is in a raw form, post beta-read but pre-editorial - for your enjoyment only