Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Wanderer - Part 2

There was no telling how far he had fallen. The ravine that claimed him had come from nowhere, and he landed in its valley with a bone crunching halt. The world swam as he tried to gain some point of perspective, some glimmer of his surroundings. All in all, it had not been a good few weeks. His health had fallen steadily along with his remaining hope of survival. A ragged cough had set in, and now each Velcro breath took every ounce of remaining strength to be separated from his raw lungs.

He attempted to sit up and found that his right arm had either been broken into shards or had suddenly refused to cooperate with him. He struggled upward with his left. The effort took longer than he had concentrated on in ages and finally, he was hauled into a sitting position against the tree that had bloodied and threatened his skull.

Blood ran thick into his eyes, and using his good arm he continually had to wipe away the red smear that formed across his vision. The rain didn't help. It had caused him to slip and now it prevented his sight. He was sure that this was the way the Earth eventually undid you. Slowly it would wipe away your capabilities until there were none that remained. He sat there for a while trying to convince himself that there was something worth getting up and walking on for. Every cycle of his internal conversation was answered with the simple fact that getting up and walking meant you weren't dead yet; you might be damn close, but you still had a claim on life. This alone was not initially enough to motivate him. What was life anyway? He asked himself a million times and always answered differently. Today, life was a way to walk and air to attempt to breathe. All in all, he decided, that was better than nothing. Slowly and quite diplomatically, his brain tried to convince his battered limbs to lift his weight. They were not swayed easily, but eventually he garnered enough support to struggle upward and onto his feet.

He remained there, leaned awkwardly against this tree blinking hard against the blinding efforts of his own body, his own blood until he could see well enough to move forward. Moving had brought him this far. His last hope was that it would continue to see him well. He staggered several feet. He had no way of knowing just how fragmented his skeleton had become, but even the idea of walking caused several places in him to mourn. There he was, all ragged breath and blood, trying in vain to keep living.

It was the very picture of pity.

He'd only gone a little ways when he saw an unfamiliar sight before him. There, in the distance, was a small structure. It looked to be some sort of outhouse. It leaned a bit in the downpour as if to protect itself from more exposure. He exhaled some sort of muddy laugh that reeked of internal demise and hobbled towards it, looking for a last place to lay that might be out of this damned rain. He wiped another fistful of blood and water from his eyes and willed himself again to move, but just as he began to lift his foot from the ground he halted in alarm.

Suddenly, he wasn't alone.

From behind the leaning shack, a din of familiar noise leaped out at him. And shortly after that, so did the dog. It cavalierly jumped out, barking, its hackles raised in alarm. His heart had almost ceased to beat, both in terror from the sudden appearance, and in joy for the slim hope that he'd found a companion who might provide some affection to a dying man, and who might possibly give him one last bit of happiness before the lights went out for good. He stared, all dopey and bloody at this welcome creature. But, just as easily as the initial smile had crept across his face it was replaced with doubt. This dog was not the type that he would see still living. It was some kind of house pet, completely unequipped to survive alone this many years. In fact, it reminded him distinctly, painfully, of a dog he'd loved as a boy. This was no survivor.

Slow tears found their places at the edges of his eyes. This was no friend and companion. This must be a hallucination.

Then, even as his incredible grief fell slickly down his cheeks, he laughed harder than he had in a long time. It was hilarious, really. Hilarious, and terrible. God, or whatever it was, had brought him a last thought of his former life, a harbinger that would bring not terror, but would welcome him into what was to become.

The dog yapped on as he approached, and his face contorted into a goofy scene of joy that foretold of madness and eventual death. It was at this point, when he was mere paces from the little, wet beast that he felt it: the swift, intentional touch of metallic coolness at the base of his skull.

Immediately he froze, his arms went stick-straight at his sides in spite of the pain that shot through his every fiber at the action. Even though he had never been at its mercy before, the cool steel of the gun's barrel was surprising in its familiarity. There was no mistaking the severity and finality present in its touch. His mind scattered to the winds of panic, but somewhere inside the knowledge remained that guns do not hold themselves. No, there was someone here. A person. With a voice.

"Who are you? State your name and business, or die in pursuit of nothing."

The voice was as steely as the barrel nuzzling his skull. He searched for the right answer to the question and came up empty. Panic rose fast and hard into his entire being, he urged himself to speak, to say anything, and urgently forced an ejection of air that he hoped would say the rights things. If you'd asked him to, he never would have been able to recognize the horrible rasp that now passed for his voice. "I, I'm dying. Please. I need help."

"Your name?"

He paused. It had been so long, he wasn't sure it meant anything anymore, but managed to choke out, "Matt. My name. It's Matt."

There was no pause in the gun's insistence for use. But in spite of himself, he could feel his mind begin to journey elsewhere. It almost felt like falling, or flying, or just drifting away somewhere. He didn't mean to, but the stranger's voice was fading now, like a dream or a memory of something lovely. Lightness filled his aching body and flooded out through his skin. And slowly a tunnel of darkness appeared around his vision. It was quite nice actually, an interesting picture of mixed Autumn leaves surrounded by a shrinking black circle. He swooned with movement and watched dimly as the leaves approached him and the circle tightened to a close.

He could not sense the unceremonious smack of his skin as it collided with marshy dankness of the forest's floor. He did not hear that one last painful breath driven sharply from his chest or the overlaying sounds of the stranger calling shortly to the still barking dog, "Logan! Shut up, you're driving me nuts with that racket!"

Rain continued to fall, the dog continued to bark, and the stranger looked down seemingly apathetic to the mess of human being sprawled indelicately before them.

Peace came. Blackness became the new world.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Letter

It was one of those days that made you feel like you were suffocating, drowning, dying some awful death that made you feel too close to yourself. The temperature had risen steadily from an early 85 degrees to a stifling 102 by noon. She lifted the brim of her straw hat off her forehead and wiped away the slow rolling sweat that had formed too quickly. Stooped there, in her garden, she could feel the torturous sun peeling away her patience. Suddenly she couldn't stand to be there anymore. She had to get out of this heat.

Her knees popped and creaked as she stood. 67 years of wear and tear had taken their toll on the cushions of life, and now every movement was a reminder of how old she had become. Stretching her back she glanced idly at the glare coming off the blackened pavement. If she had looked down the street she would have seen the telltale glimmer of an oasis, a simple mirage that pointed out, not that relief was coming, but that you were so damn hot you were hallucinating.

She stripped off her hat as she walked up the back steps to her home. It was only just now becoming possible for her not to expect her husband as she walked in the door. It was only now that she was finally beginning to see that he was indeed gone and he wasn't coming back. All of his jokes about death had been leading up to the day when she would have to learn to laugh at the real thing. He’d always said, “When I go I want you to have a big party. No one is to cry, and there is to be no sad music. Everyone will have a drink in their hand and you will lead a toast. You’ll say, ‘This is for my husband, the lucky son of a bitch who got to go first.’”

And in the end she had done as he’d asked. But it wasn't nearly as hilarious as he’d made it sound.

The shocking cold of her air-conditioned home forced a grateful sigh from her lips. She slung the wide-brimmed hat over the coat rack and gingerly pulled her gardening gloves from each finger, the same way she had always done without ever having been told to. Simon snaked his way around her ankles, grating his angular chin upwards against her calf and revving his motor to prove he loved her. She, in turn, bent down to scratch his ears and say to him, yet again, the only praise she could muster: “Simon, you should thank God that you’re a cat.”

In the kitchen, she poured herself a cold glass of water and sat down at the table to pay the monthly bills. The stack of mail stood tall before her so she settled her reading glasses onto her nose, inhaled deeply, and opened her checkbook. As much as she hated the depletion of her checking account after paying her bills, she rather enjoyed the ritual. She loved to feel a job being completed. She loved the idea of progress, of moving forward. Even in the past few dark months she had found some sort of joy in simple tasks; it was as if by completing one she had moved somehow further from her grief. So it wasn't surprising that she found herself humming quietly and smiling slightly halfway through the pile of mail.

It was just as she was sealing the electric bill that she noticed it. Here, among her pile of junk mail and bills, was a letter. It took a moment for her to realize what it was; after all, people just didn't send letters anymore. And it took her even longer to recognize the lack of a return address and the use of her maiden name.

The letter looked as if it had been traveling for years. At least twenty different postmarks littered the dingy envelope and several forwarding orders had been put into effect. But, somehow, even with all its stamped on bruises and signs of wear, this letter was the single most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

Her breath became slow and shallow, the same way that, as a small girl, she would breathe in Sunday church service. It was the breathing of a reverent child. It was a sign of wonderment and innocence and all other things that had been lost. She carefully broke the seal of the martyred envelope, and she oh so carefully sidled the stationary from its pocket, laying it to rest in the light of her kitchen under the shelter of her eyes. She unfolded the pages and began to read:

My Dearest Olivia, 9/22/1998

Greetings from India! Oh Olivia, you would be absolutely smitten with this place. Everything here is so vibrant and rich and seemingly expensive…I cannot even imagine your face when I bring you here someday; you will probably do that thing where you light up from the inside and knock my socks off with how beautiful you are. Come to think of it, I probably shouldn't bring you here… the Indian government may be upset if I bring them the one woman who is more perfect and beautiful than their sacred country.

Work is going fine. Some of the action sequences have gone awry, and the narrator still refuses to learn the correct pronunciations of many, many words, but no one ever said being a hit documentary film maker would be easy.

I know it’s probably strange for me to be writing you this letter. I mean, I have only known you a couple of weeks now, but there’s just something about you that I can’t stop thinking about. I am hopeful that when I get back you will still be willing to go on that date we talked about. I am hopeful that at the end of it you may let me kiss you goodnight. I am hopeful that at the end of everything you’ll be my girl and we can celebrate the apocalypse together. I am hopeful that my blatant and, perhaps, premature declarations of love will not scare you away.

I will be home in three short weeks. I cannot wait to see you again.

Beyond Love,

Time no longer existed.

How could it exist when a letter from 42 years ago, from her dead husband, had found its way onto her kitchen table? She felt disconnected from the present. She came unhinged from her senior citizen status and flipped around until she was 25 again. She flipped around to the day they’d met, to the day she had found out what living was really for. She landed back in the late summer heat, back in time, back to the moment she’d stumbled across perfection in the public library.

He was nothing she had ever expected to deserve. She saw him standing amongst the stacks, comfortable, as if he had been grown from that very spot, as if he belonged there exclusively in a world of leather bindings and beauty. He was flipping through a copy of some peer-reviewed scholarly chemistry journal and smirking, looking thoroughly amused by a diagram of something too complex for her to fathom. She was impressed, not by his choice of literature, but rather by his nature. He seemed to glow somehow.

She had never been one for flirting with strangers, but when her search for Ernest Hemingway found her standing only inches from his frame she figured it might not be a bad time to start.
“Have you read this one?” she barely whispered as she held out a copy of “The Old Man and the Sea” for him to regard. He turned to her. His hands dropped casually into his pockets, and his angled frame rocked back on its heels. He seemed to consider his response for a moment, casting his eyes towards the ceiling and sucking in a deep breath. A knowing smile spread slowly across the fabric of his face, and he locked his eyes on hers and said, “I’d like to ask you for a date.”

And that was how it began. That was how it began for them, suspended in a library in a moment too great to be real, waiting for time to clip their heels and tell them to get moving, to tell them that daydreams can’t last forever. But when time’s pursuit never made itself known they both realized that this must indeed be love.

But time most certainly did exist. It caught up with them eventually; it caught up with them as cancer and it killed him as punishment for happiness. Time kills us all eventually. Time wraps its icy hands around your ankles and makes you slow and encumbered. Time takes you away from the bookshelves and summer heat and beating heart you had at 25 and turns you into an old woman clutching an ancient piece of stationary in an outdated kitchen. Time had turned her into this seated statue with the wide, glazed look of a terrified animal. She felt the rising bulge of grief edging up and out of her eyes. She let it all consume her. Slipping from her chair, she collapsed to the linoleum. Pounding, aching sorrow drenched the ancient olive tiles. Ferocious loss, impossible love, and undeniable hurt racked her widowed body. Incapable of speech she seemed instead to hum her pain, the sound of brimming over, the sound of finally breaking and not knowing what else to do.

And Simon, who remained settled on his perch, squinted his green eyes and felt nothing.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Wanderer

Many nights were passed there, huddled up as tightly as he could beneath his jacket. This old tree had become his savior in a world where salvation seemed impossible. He'd lost track of the days now. There had been a time when he'd marked them down in a notebook he'd brought with him, but an unfortunately timed fall had brought him down hard into a swift stream; and his last piece of normalcy, his sense of time, had been swept away in its torrent. Now, he just walked. He walked and tried to find food and waited for death to come to him just like it had done for all the others.

The end had come just as no one had expected. They should have known it could never be predicted. The Earth makes its own decisions and follows no known time and pays attention to no creature's will or want. The plaguing population that had burdened it was eradicated by its wrath. And it had cleansed itself, leaving very few people behind to experience its rebirth. In truth, he often felt he might be the only one left. Even the sense of loneliness he'd felt so intensely at the beginning had waned. Loneliness, like any feeling, requires fuel. And without the reminder of others, without hearing a voice or seeing a face, there was nothing left on which the feeling could burn.

The sun shone brightly and warmed him through his jacket. Even though the days had grown a bit cooler, and the nights had become close to unbearable, the mornings still brought warm relief. He knew this wouldn't last long. Last winter he had managed to find a small house with a wood-burning stove. He'd made due in spite of nearly succumbing to hunger many times. At the remembrance of this a stab of panic brought him out of his slumber. He keenly realized that time was running short. He would need to keep heading south quickly if he wanted to survive that dead season again. Even more acutely, he knew that the blind luck he'd stumbled into last year would most likely not repeat itself. He would not likely find another antiquated cabin like the one he'd left.

He had laughed until he was delirious when he'd found it lingering there in the rough. Although unimpressive to look at, he could see it was solidly constructed and it's window panes remained in spite of all the rage the Earth had poured out onto it. He lurked outside it for several hours, hiding both in fear of an occupant, and in hope of one as well. When his voyeuristic surveying had born no fruit, he scurried forth in the dark to try the door. It had swung open easily, and unlike most of the homes he'd entered on his journey, the only scent to greet him was the distinctive plea of staleness. He sighed in relief. No matter how many times he encountered the remnants of death he could never quite pull back the sting of his own fear nor the heavy pool of disgust and grief that immediately gathered weight in his gut. The moon was in its height that evening, so searching the small space had been easy enough. The iridescent beams broke through the darkness and splashed irreverently across the contents of his new home, revealing the plump blackness of the stove, and sending waves of sweet relief streaming into his heart.

At the realization of what he saw, he'd laughed until he cried. He laughed until he was rolling around on the floor and clutching at his sides. He laughed for his good fortune until rivulets of tears poured forth from his eyes. He'd laughed until he sobbed and then he sobbed again for all he'd lost.

Hard time was passed there, but the inevitable spring had taken hold. And as soon as the weather felt consistent enough for travel he had taken what he could and continued south. Now, it was time to keep on with the trek. Now, the green was fading and falling. The autumn was taking its turn, and the deathly ice of winter was lingering on its breath. Now was a time for motion. So he thanked his arbor Christ, grabbed his things, and walked on again.