A groan fell out of my mouth as I thudded to a seating position on the hot gravel and waited hopefully for a wind to cool the sweat that ran down the side of my face and into the rough hair that grew around my chin. No wind came. I sighed audibly to no one and watched the trucks speeding past my resting spot. I could almost see the thoughts behind the wondering eyes of the drivers as they thought, who is this idiot sitting on the side of the road. I tugged at the sleeve of my faded sweatshirt and pulled the fabric from my right arm and then my left. Then I grabbed at the damp hole that hung around my neck and slid the shirt over my head, methodically making sure not to let the rough fabric turn inside out. An obsessive habit of the dead man. One that had stuck with me even after he died. I didn’t know why I stuck with this action when the shirt smelled of sweat and a little bit of piss, and was faded to exhaustion, but it gave me a piece of calm knowing that it remained right side out. A small piece of normal. I folded the shirt and set it next to me on the rough ground. The sweat rose on my arms and started to cool the hot skin beneath it. My legs folded up against my chest so that I could reach down to unlace my right shoe. Teeth pressed against each other in anticipation of the pain to follow and I slowly slid the shoe from my foot. The sock followed immediately, and my vision blurred as the frayed fabric pulled away from the blistered skin that peppered my swollen feet. I looked down at my naked foot and noticed that it was no longer blistered but completely raw. Skinless flesh where the blisters had lived just a few short days ago. No wonder it hurt so badly. I touched my finger to one of the openings and pulled it away quickly. Fuck that hurt. I took off my left shoe and sock and performed the same meticulous inspection with the same results. My face turned towards the cloudless sky and the piercing sun and I tried to take my mind off the pain in my feet. The air providing minimal cooling relief to the red feet as a heartbeat thudded through the sores. I sat in my own sweat attempting to ponder the meaning of life and what I was doing sitting on the side of this semi-tuck filled highway. How did I get here? It was a useless task. There were no deep revelations, so my mind kept making its way back to the throbbing feet and the strands of sweat that tickled my back.
I have to get up. I have to keep moving. I haven’t found what I’m looking for yet. Shit, I don’t even know what I’m looking for yet. I could feel a new line of sweat make its way down my back and my mind focused on the path it was creating. It started right under my right shoulder blade and charted its course towards the middle of my rapidly thinning back while running down towards my tailbone. I could see it in my mind, leaving a faint streak of pink and tan under the brown layer that covered my skin before meeting up with the other wet tracks of sweat. I looked at my feet again and dreaded the moment I was leading up to. But I was driven by a hammer of a reminder that I needed to move. I couldn’t sit out here in this heat forever. There had to be an end. A goal. Otherwise this whole life was completely pointless. I sighed against my own inner voice and grabbed the first sock. I ground my teeth together to keep from yelling out in pain as I slid it over my foot, the rough fabric stinging against the skin. Covering up the red nakedness with a dirty brown sock, yet again. Another truck cruised by. This time it was just a little too close and the gust from the tires sent my other sock flopping merrily away from the doom that was my foot and its fate. I snatched it and slid it up over my other foot before sitting for another moment trying to slow my breath against the pain. It was time for the shoes. In the dead man’s life, these were the most comfortable shoes he owned. That life no longer existed. They were now the shoes that the devil made you wear for all eternity to cause irreparable pain and suffering. I loosened the laces as far as they would go and still hold some purpose and slid the shoes on my feet; letting the noises come when the pain was too much for my mouth to keep quiet. Now all I had to do was walk. I had thought I was getting closer to a town. Maybe I could spend some of my remaining funds on a small hotel room where I could clean up and soak my feet. I didn’t think I had that much left. Maybe just a beer in a nice cool bar and a hidden nap in a corner booth until they kicked me out. That I had enough for.
I rolled over onto all fours and slowly started to right myself into a standing position. Hands on knees for a second longer than what was truly needed in this moment. I stared down at the dirty shoes that hid so much pain and for a short moment I felt another pain. A pain from somewhere deep inside of the dead man as if the physical pain had been a switch to turn it on. I couldn’t catch my breath against the sob that started to fill my throat. Where was this coming from? I forced air into my lungs and forced the sob back down to where it came from and pushed my body upright. I turned and faced the direction that the trucks kept coming from and took a step to steady myself before starting to raise my thumb.
I felt the slam and cold before I saw the open window with the sneering face. I heard high pitched laughter fading behind me as I saw the cheap plastic cup lying on the ground in front of me spilling the last of its sticky contents onto the hot gravel. Assholes. The soda dripped from my beard, a drop at a time, onto my soaked and stained t-shirt. I didn’t mind the sweet smell or the cold of the ice so much as I did now knowing that these clothes would stick to my skin for the next two weeks or at least until I found something to wash them in. The pain from my feet and the unknown sob forgotten in the moment and replaced by an undeniable ‘fuck all’. Screw this, I thought as I watched more trucks approaching on the road. I lost the energy to lift my thumb and wait for a stranger to not be a complete jackass.
I looked behind me to see a wall of trees beyond just a small walk through a field. Maybe there was a stream or something that I could just clean up in for a minute or two. Cool down and maybe take a nap. I limped slowly down into the ditch, watching my footing, knowing that if I fell that I may not be able to get back up. I held my left arm out in an awkward attempt to steady myself as I made it to the flat piece of land before almost falling face first over a flimsy wire fence. No barbed wire. That was good. I raised my right let over the useless wire and followed with my left. Then continued slowly limping, trying to find just one way to walk that brought about the least amount of pain. The trees were close, and I made my way to the edge of the thick growth of trees and looked around for just a moment before disappearing into them. The sound of the highway was immediately gone. The glaring heat of the sun was immediately gone. Any hope of a breeze was also gone. The ground was soft as I shuffled through the overlay of fallen pine needles and old leaves. I continued walking slowly, focused on the dead man’s feet as I pleaded with them to continue to do my bidding and move me in a direction. I felt like I barely moved at all before I saw the sun shining through the dense trees ahead of me. Maybe a clearing with water? I looked down at the feet and told them to move that direction. The air thinned and a breeze picked up the strands of hair that were sticking to my forehead as I walked towards the white light that was framed in the distance.
Shit. I froze. Immediately, I was standing at the edge of a small clearing with tall trees towering around the clean edge. There was no water, but a small cabin sat directly in front of me. It was covered in warning signs. The warning signs were yelling at me about dogs and guns and reminded me, with exclamation points, that I was an unwelcome traveler. My brain raced as I stood frozen waiting for a crazy gun welding person with crazy eyes. I was going to get fucking shot for entering this private opening in this piece of forbidden land. Maybe being shot was ok. My feet hurt. I stood still for moments more but aside from the slight rustle of leaves blowing against the grass, it was silent. I finally breathed out, slowly, and relaxed my tensed muscles. No one was home. I lifted one painful foot and stretched it out in front of me. A branch snapped on the ground behind me and I spun around with my arms up, waiting for the shot that would end my shell of a life. It didn’t come. I slowly lowered my arms from my face and stared… into nothing. My gaze traveled closer to the ground and I saw the large brown eyes that were staring back at me. As I leaned down to pick up the sweatshirt that I dropped in my panic, the owner of the brown eyes padded over to me slowly, not breaking eye contact. I stood up quickly and the dog froze. It didn’t seem aggressive. No growling or hunching. That’s what dogs do before they attack, right? Was it scared? Scared and hungry? I thought so. I could see myself in the sunken eyes. A lost and empty host with an equally empty stomach. My bones creaked as I slowly crouched down to eyelevel with the shrunken beast and ignored the pain that screamed at me from my feet. It froze. If it lunged at me, I knew I couldn’t move quickly enough. So, I waited for it to pounce. It lowered to the ground and slowly started crawling towards my outstretched hand. I looked away; I would rather not see it bite my hand, but I had made my decision of trying to be the first to say Hello. Finally, I felt its cold nose brush against my fingers and low whine start in its throat. It looked back up at me as started waving its tail back and forth like it was on a hinge, dust rising into the air from the sweeping motion. I dropped to the ground with a slight thud and reveled in the contact with another life form as the dog stood and ran into my open embrace, shaking from fear or hunger or the same desire I was consumed with. I pet the greasy fur and felt the bones beneath the slacked skin. The rough sandpaper wet my face and cleaned the dirt and sticky soda from my cheeks. A sound came out of my mouth that I wasn’t expecting. A guttural sound. Not of pain. But a sound that held desperation and joy and relief… all in one groan. I held the dark quivering mass of fur like I hadn’t held anything in my life. We sat like that barely noticing the sun going down overhead or the chirp of crickets slowly awakening in the night.
Shit. What if the owner was coming back? I looked down at the now calm dog that was lying in my arms. How could this dog be here, and so skinny, if the owner was near? No lights came on in the house and no sounds came from outside the clearing we sat in. The dimming light was still bright enough for me to notice that there was decay and plant life growing over what looked to be a gravel path to the house. I moved the dog off my lap and slowly crept into a standing position. The dog whined at my side for the loss of touch in the moment. We walked towards the dark house in the slowly darkening night. Not a sound around me but the sounds of nightly nature and the soft footsteps of my new friend. I made it to the porch and swept away a web that was blocking my entry like a silent trap. I wiped the sticky strands down the front of my shirt and took a deep breath. The narrow porch floor creaked beneath my feet as I reached towards the rusted knob. It turned and the door unlatched, coming away from the frame. Dog pushed past my legs and nudged the door open before disappearing into the darkness within. I reached out and pushed the door open further and stood in the safe zone just outside of the deep darkness. Deciding to go in or stay out when I was smacked in the face with a smell that reminded me of the things that live in the darkness. Things that nightmares are made of. It smelled like death. I folded in half and tried to empty my stomach. Wheezing and hacking up the food that never existed there. Then there was deep whine that came from within the dark. Dog. He was in pain. He needed me. Something needed me. I launched past the smell that rolled from the house and the fear that was building within me; and over the threshold towards the sound of my new friend. Barely able to see my hand that was guiding me as it hit a wall and hurried me towards the pain that was coming from past the hall. I made it to the room that the sound of dog was coming from, but I couldn’t find dog. I reached out blindly in front of me towards the sound and touched soft padding. A bed? I groped the fabric and worked my way around to a corner and a side and then felt something different. A hard sort of different. I rubbed my hand around the hardness and my hands sent the picture to my brain. A shoe. And beyond the shoe an ankle and the start of a leg. Hard as a rock and cold as ice. A leg? A leg. I shot back and fell over something that had been hunched behind me and my head slapped against a wall. Shit. I knew why this cabin seemed empty and Dog was starving and alone. His owner was in that bed. All alone with no one to care enough to find him there. Like me. I tried to pull in a heavy breath and gagged on the death floating in the air around me. I had forgotten the smell in my rush to find my new friend. “Dog” I whispered. “Dog” louder. I heard his soft cry and the padding of his soft feet right before I felt his face against mine. I wrapped my arms around his thin ribcage and picked him up as I awkwardly pushed to my feet. Left arm clutching at him and trying to tell him it would be OK. Right arm reaching out in front of us and trying to find our escape from the death within this room. I almost fell when I finally found the open door frame and quickly launched us out of the room and closed the door behind me.
What now? I dreaded going back outside but didn’t know how long I could stay in this dark purgatory of a home, clinging to this dog. We found our way to a soft cushioned seat and sat down. My body was shaking as I held a quivering Dog in my lap, and we rocked back and forth both moaning in our own separate pain. So much pain. I moved my hand down the coat that covered his back and moved my face down to hide my eyes in his fur, “What are we going to do Dog?” There was only a whine in response. I breathed in and tried to focus on the smell of the fur; musk and dirt; instead of the smell of rotting flesh that was hidden in this house. The pain and confusion rolled over me. I felt everything. And I did something that I hadn’t done in years. I cried. The tears kept coming as I wept for the dead man that was left at my old house and the dead man that died alone in this house. I wept for the desperation of Dog and myself. I wept out of pure hunger and exhaustion. I kept crying into the fur of the moaning dog and we clung to each other as we rocked back and forth in the dead man’s recliner.
(c) Kassie J Runyan
This novel is in a raw form, post beta-read but pre-editorial - for your enjoyment only