Updated: Mar 21, 2021
There was nothing but a hollow feeling as I walked down the clean paved road and away from the home of the man who died. If I was waiting for an immediate change or shift in myself, some kind of revelation, that would turn my feet and send me running back towards the empty house behind me, none would come. I was still a shell. An empty host who was still waiting to feel something remotely human. My body slowed and I stopped moving; standing in the middle of the empty road. Anyone watching would have thought that my battery has slowly died. My eyes closed and opened, and I breathed in and out. I looked down at the feet beneath me as they straddled the middle of the pavement and moved one; almost relieved that it listened to my command. Then the other. I focused on them as they started moving quicker as if they had a life of their own. I didn’t turn to look at the home fading away from me in the distance as I broke into a run away from it. The home that the dead man had lived in with his wife. I shook my head as the image flashed before me again of their first entry into their home. It was replaced by the days painting the outside so that it would stand out just a bit than the other houses that bookended it. I kept running. The images disappeared and I jogged past the rows of grey box houses that I recognized as almost mirrors of my own. I had made the right decision… I had to die. Shit; I had already been dead for months so that wasn’t even a drastic change. I had to leave all resemblance of that life that had existed before my death. Before his death. I had to embrace the anonymous host that I was meant to be. Because there just wasn’t anything else. Fuck. Is that right? I slowed to a walk and looked back down at my feet. Right foot then left foot. Keep moving forward through the dead man’s neighborhood.
The sky was as grey as the pavement beneath my feet. I walked by the old man who is always mowing as if his life depended on him to keep going. I looked over at him wondering if he would notice me and wonder why this body was walking past him in the middle of the day. He glanced in my direction for just a moment before turning his eyes back down to his precise row without even pausing to meet my stare. I don’t think he ever saw me. Did I ever even talk to him? I couldn’t remember. Does he enjoy his life or is he an empty host as well? Bright red birds flew over my head; yelling at each other as they flew. I kept walking. My breath had turned shallow. I made it to the end of the road I was on and froze. Left was another row of houses stretching as far as I could see. Forward was nothing but a field. Right headed towards the buzzing sound of the interstate that the dead man had driven down earlier today. Right was the fastest way away from people who would recognize the dead man and try to get me to conform back into the life he had lived. Or even to a new grey box where everyone tried to get me to feel something that I didn’t even recognize anymore. I turned my body right and put out the left foot and then the right foot. I was walking towards an idea. A thought. The closest thing that made sense. Deep breath in. Long sigh out. I walked and waited for the surge of emotion that wouldn’t come.
It took days before I started to feel something. I felt it come on slowly. I felt fucking cold. Not the kind of cold that makes a nose rosy and eyes sparkle and kids want to run out and experience the joy of building a snowman with the thought that it may come to life. No. This was the kind of deep and resonating wet cold that makes a grown man want to bash his own face against the side of the building just to feel the warmth of the blood. I sat huddled under an awning not nearly far enough from where I had first started. I had walked in circles for days, questioning and going back closer to the dead man’s home before continuing in another direction. And I had ended up here. My legs were pulled deep into my body and my arms held them close as I shivered into a brick corner. I had made it to a row of brown brick stores that lay hidden away from the road just a bit. The interiors were dark, and the parking lot was empty, so it seemed to be a safe place to shelter for the night. I hadn’t prepared for the ice from all directions. It was pelting against my poorly clad body and I could feel the cold material stick to my back as it tried to protect the rest of my body. My eyes closed against the cold and I tried to remember how I had gotten here. I hadn’t really thought about what this would be like before I left. The decision had been made in the night and there wasn’t much imagination left in me anyway. But somewhere in the back of my mind this small thought must have lived, and it came to the surface in the first day. I had an image buried there of what I thought it would be like; thumb out on the highway and drifted quickly to a new world in a car of stoned teenagers that listened to alternative rock. Driving me away from this place to something. Something that could make this all matter.
It took six hours for me to give up on hitchhiking on day five. I think it was day five. Every time I would see a newer suburban I would hide from the potential recognition of an acquaintance. Every time I would hold my arm out for a beater nothing would happen except my arm grew heavy and I was met with blank stares from the drivers. Halfway through yesterday; the storm from hell hit. A storm this time of year. And it wasn’t just any storm. It was a fucking blizzard. My pace slowed and my clothes dampened. I thought I would have weeks before the weather changed back to winter. I thought I would be gone from this area before then. Eyes still squeezed shut, I heard a noise come from my mouth. A noise that was full of scorn and disdain. I had finished my granola this morning, I think, and as I sat there lost in myself with the reasoning that brought me to be sitting in the storm, my stomach grumbled. I had a small amount of cash, now surely a wet wad of worn paper stuck down into my pocket. And even if the lights were on in the stores next to my hidden brown brick spot, I didn’t think I could get the energy to uncoil and purchase anything resembling food. So, I sat. I squeezed my eyes tighter and stared at the darkness that lived inside of my eyelids. I shivered and starved and leaned my stocking capped forehead into the rough brick corner of the building. I could feel the outlines of the surface of the brick indent the skin that wasn’t covered and tried to focus on that to make the other pains go away. My goal wasn’t to see how long a shell of a human could live outside in a blizzard. Shit. I don’t even know what my goal was. I tried to picture her, but she was already fading into the background. Focus. Try to focus on something, anything, to keep me from thinking about the cold and the hunger. I pushed my head harder into the brick but the pain from the stone had been replaced with a numbness. Focus on something else. I saw my dad. The sun shining behind him as he grilled in the backyard. That was odd. I hadn’t really thought about him for years. His big hands holding a small jar filled with bugs that lit up at night. His face above a noose. My eyes shot open and fluttered a few times before I forced closed again. I told myself to not think about dad. Not to think about anything. Focus on living another day. Why did I want to live? There was nothing here. Just pain and even that didn’t provide an escape for me anymore. Why shouldn’t I just lay down and let my soft fragile shell disappear under the white snow. I couldn’t answer why I didn’t give up, but I knew that it wasn’t the answer I was looking for. I pictured the sun and warm water and leaned my head against the cold brick again; and tried to replace the razor of cold that beat against my back. The snow piled against me as I just tried to stay living while I waited for it to pass.
The cold pierced into my bones and I tried to imagine what that looked like. The cold was made of tiny knives that stabbed deep, each thrust sliding into the white bone. And then the bone started to bleed. Like it was skin. The blood oozed bright red from the punctures and warmed the bone around it as the knives disappeared at the red threat. My body started to warm from the inside out while a confused thought ran through my mind before being replaced with a memory of an article read about how a body feels warm shortly before freezing to death. I told myself “this is the end. This is how it ends.” I let myself stop shivering and felt my back growing warm… almost hot. It felt like the sun was shining and warming against my previously frigid back. I sat for another few minutes, trying to slowly warm like a lizard in the sun that was created by my delirious mind. The sun made the pains in my stomach feel a little more bearable. The black behind my eyelids started changing to red and I slowly opened my left eye. I realized my head was not leaning against the brick wall any longer. Shit. I was no longer even looking at a brick wall. Maybe I already died. I shrugged my shoulders at the thought and opened my other eye. Nope – definitely no brick. At this moment, one might start to worry. But there was not one strand of worry in any part of my warming body. I stretched my arms out slowly like a cat and arched my back. I was sitting in a clearing that my body had made in a field of grass. Brown and green grass like what one would see when they go for a drive in the country. So tall I could barely see anything around me. The sky was almost orange like right before a storm but without a cloud in the sky. Deep breath in. The air that filled my lungs was thick and sweet… almost like molasses. I thought molasses before even reminding myself that I had no idea what molasses would taste like. Interesting. I unfolded my legs and slowly started to rise. My stomach was no longer growling as I leaned towards the sky to peer over the grasses. Trying to see if I could find anything beyond the grass. Nothing. The left and right were both grass. The grass moved against me and tickled my neck. The snow and cold were gone but so were the birds. In the thick sweet grass, there were no sounds of bugs or the wind. The quietness sat thick in my ears as I breathed slowly trying not to let my emptying lungs make a sound. I rubbed my ears to try to drain whatever must be blocking the sound of the earth around me. Nothing. I turned around expecting to see more grass coming from the other direction as far as I can imagine. There in the middle of the emptiness was a town. I forgot that I was dead for a moment. I could feel and smell and taste the world that I was in. I rubbed my tired eyes and looked back at the town in the distance, leaning towards it as if that would make it come into focus. I couldn’t place the feeling that was trying to take hold in my body. Was this what ‘peaceful’ feels like? Standing in a field that’s not there and staring at town that lives in my mind? Maybe. I slid my arms through the warm grass and started making a path towards the town. Swimming through the grass, eyes on the town that I worked towards. I walked slowly and steady, as my dad taught me, to watch for snakes and holes in the grass. This field seemed to have a shortage of both. I stretched towards the warm sky and breathed in the sweet air and walked. And walked. I felt more of this… what was this feeling? I think it must be more comfort with each step and with each breath. For what felt like an hour, I slowly made my way to this imaginary town. It wasn’t that far away was it? I peered over the grass and noticed that I hadn’t made it close to the town still. I hadn’t even moved at all. I looked behind me and saw the clearing that had been made by my crouched form. The ease of the dream quickly dissipated as a dull panic set in. I lifted my arm to slide through the grass, but nothing happened. My eyes moved down towards my arms as I willed them to raise but they refused to lift from the side of my body. I pushed my right foot through the grass in front of me, but it wouldn’t leave the ground. The view of the grass in front of me froze and I realized that I no longer had control of the host body that I was in. Was I imagining that I was moving this whole time when really, I was just standing here? Why couldn't I wiggle my toes or fingers? I closed my eyes and tried to focus on just one finger on my right hand. Move dammit. MOVE. Nothing. Wait. Did it move? I tried to force the eyes to look down and check on that finger, but they refused to follow direction. What was happening to me? I closed my eyes again and tried to focus on my big toe on my left foot. Move move move move move. My breathing became shallow and I tried to focus on going back to a feeling of ease or fullness instead of the panic that started to choke the throat of the man who is dead. I opened my eyes again as the grasses shifted so that I could see the town sitting there still far away. It was no longer inviting but had now become an empty ghost town waiting for me in the afterlife. Maybe if I screamed someone would hear me. I had no idea what I wanted but I knew I didn’t want to die alone in this field more forgotten than I was before. Or was I already dead? I couldn’t remember. What happened before I was standing here in this suffocating grass? I opened my mouth to scream. Nothing. Not even a whisper or a yelp. A wave of panic washed over me, and I closed my eyes as my breath shortened to a level that must have been just above a panic attack. Breath trying to shoot into my lungs and emptying before I could draw again. Calm down. Think. What was going on? What is going on? No. Calm down. Deep shaky breath in. Long raspy sigh out. Think think think. A scream pierced the dead silence. My eyes shot open and tried to focus for just long enough to realize that the scream didn’t come from me.
I was forced back into the painful cold and hunger much quicker than I left it. By a kick to my lower back. I was lying down half covered in snow and between me and the snow… a blanket? Where did that come from? Who knows how long I had been asleep. I quickly sat up and saw the looming reason for the new pain in my lower back standing over me in enough layers to have kept us both warm against the storm.
“What are you doing, trying to die in front of my store?! Go! You can’t sleep here! No vagrants!”
As he pulled back his meaty leg to swing at me again, I painfully jolted to my feet and awkwardly ran down the snow-covered sidewalk away from the man. The mysterious blanket left to rot in the pile of snow behind me. I could hear his steps as he chased me, probably thinking I needed another lesson in where to sleep during a blizzard. It was now completely dark, and I ran… mostly slid… over into the parking lot being lit up in every ten feet by the circle of false lights that were scattered in the lot. I held my bare hand in front of me to protect my eyes from the intermittent blinding light and piercing snow. My body moved quicker than it should have in its frozen form, fueled by confusion and fear. Fear of death. Fear of not being dead yet. Fear of the unknown assailant lumbering after me. I finally saw a break in the brick façade of the strip mall. Somehow, I knew that beyond that there would be an open space and I ran towards the gap. I made it through the buildings and paused for a moment to let my eyes try to adjust to the darkness. A sound thudded behind me and I ran painfully away into the dark cold night.
(c) Kassie J Runyan
This novel is in a raw form, post beta-read but pre-editorial - for your enjoyment only