by Josh Sczykutowicz
Wind blew through the trees, and I couldn't see any of the leaves through the dark. It hung in the air like a thick film, oily, moving, shimmering against what little starlight managed to break through the dense tarp of leaves. Branches snapped and acorns popped and crunched, some misshapen feet pressing into black earth below. There was breathing, and moisture, and something hot on the side of my face, despite the cold gusts that seemed to move everything at once, the world shaking beneath the wind.
Something had called out to me, weeks before this night. There was something reaching through the stars, down through the thick clouds that blanketed the landscape beneath, burning through the back of the moon and casting its light upon me. There were voices, so many voices, echoing and ringing, whispering and shouting into my ears. Temperature dropped and fog rolled in, a damp chill running through the fields and woods around me. I’d not lived in the house for long, running from something I knew I’d never really escape.
I’d just gotten used to those trees that looked like they’d grown to be skeletal, wrapped around the land like a perfect circle. Leaves seemed to be just a formality to them. Roots of others had been stripped and yanked free from the earth long before I’d ever set foot here, yet the ghosts of what used to stand seemed to remain. Grass didn’t care to grow in the ground where the woods had been cut down, and it came in patches of tan, soft dirt and shrubs covering all else.
Things had happened; things I was trying to forget about, things that stuck like jagged chunks of shrapnel in the coils of my brain, burning at night as my eyes stayed wide open at all times, examining the sight of the ceiling in half-light for the millionth time once more. I didn’t need working lights; working lights just made it easier, to see all the empty spaces, to see all the things that aren’t there, anymore. I didn’t need to fix the door with the squeaking hinges because I didn’t care about the noise, and I didn’t care about anything trying to come inside. Nothing would, anyway.
There were few places I’d seen with my own eyes that were as isolated as this was, far out by the mountains, distant enough that no hikers were likely to stumble their way across it. And, if they did, the unhinged shingles and peeling layers of old paint seemed to shy them away, never looking like anyone had called it home in at least a dozen years, if not more. I’d look at them through the window upstairs, a layer of dust and the light of the sun hiding me, and I’d think how to anyone but me, I must have seemed like the monster here. I was the ghost in the attic, the face in the window, the thing that lived where nothing did.
It was truer than I liked to think. I couldn’t remember the last time I truly felt human.
Sometimes, by the porch, where they couldn’t see me watching, backpackers would toss their spent cigarettes that caused their lungs to strain even more as they left, feet shuffling across the hill that rolled into the woods that, in their own turn, rolled into the range of mountains they all sought to cut their trails around and through. The sound of helicopters seeking out lost hikers would interrupt the silence, but so rarely, and not for long, and when they did I hardly noticed, too caught up in the sounds of my own loss to pay much mind to others attempting to patch up their own.
This wouldn’t last forever, and that was certain. What I didn’t know was why. What I didn’t know was how.
It was the nights, when it began to set in. It was in the dark that I knew: this isn’t something you outrun.
The full moon came and went and everything turned to a languid black, slow and churning, calculated and waiting. Clouds cast over what stars there were to see, stars that were used to lighting the night so bright you’d wonder how anyone functioned beneath the blackened skies of cities. A darkness enveloped everything in ways only dreams can simulate, those long black sleeps where nothing seems to happen, at most the echoes of memories whispering against the walls of your mind, all of it wrapped in shrouds of swirling dark liquid, fluid flowing amidst neurons and synapses whose embers fail to ignite into a blaze.
Then the sounds started. It took too long to notice. There were rumbles and howls, tearing noises and shredding sounds. I’d seen wolves and bears in the distance of the woods before, their eyes glinting in the night or their massive bodies hulking towards some nearby cave that I didn’t know about.
There was a gun I’d brought, one from before all of this; one that started all of this. It always stayed loaded, safety off, two bullets missing that I didn’t bother to replace. In my hand it felt familiar, cold metal and heavy weight. I knew against a bear it wouldn’t do a thing, but I knew I didn’t much care anymore. In my hand it remained through nights and days, sat on the table while I brewed the morning’s coffee, or by the bed as my eyes focused on pages of books I didn’t read, words failing to form from the letters assembled.
But I knew it wasn’t a bear, and I knew it wasn’t wolves. There were rumblings in the ground, floorboards shaking, dust falling from the second floor as pictures rattled. It didn’t matter what it was, at least not to me, not anymore. It was something I knew had been coming for so long by now. For something so external, I knew it’d come from inside of me, something birthed, something shoved out screaming for air with lungs that didn’t know to suck it in. I was never very good at breathing.
I’d known it since it all happened, since the scent of gunpowder and regret, iron and torture filled the air.
“You don’t have to do this,” she’d said to me.
“You’re right,” I told her. “I don’t.”
I’d known it since I drove away from that house, crossing state lines and cashing out on a life that started with too little potential to ever really be called wasted. I knew it as I swapped out license plates in shopping malls and unhooked door locks with coat hangers, passing into the night of highways and backroads, cell phones smashed and crushed beneath spinning wheels.
This was where it would happen, I knew. This was where it would come. In the jaws of some grizzly, or in the maws of a pack of wolves, or in the seismic rupture of the very ground beneath my feet – it would come, and it would win. Of course it would.
I walked into the woods. I’d heard the words, off in the distance.
“Let me hold you again.”
“It’s going to be okay.”
False sentiments, hollow statements, all just promises built of some imitation stone, stone that wouldn’t hold up to the weathering forces of life. And I thought of all the promises I’d ever had made to me, all the ones they’d broken, all the ones snapped beneath their feet like the branches I now found myself walking on, promises made to break. But it wasn’t like I’d done any better.
My father used to tell me how nothing made in this country was built to last any longer, and I wanted to tell him that now I knew what he meant, that it wasn’t just television sets and rotating tires that that was true of, that it was down inside our hearts, now, in this life. So many promises had been forged in fires not hot enough to temper, just enough to bend. So many words had filled hollow mouths later meant to be filled with ash, that acrid taste in the back of the throat.
Birds fluttered in the distance. Their wings brought rhythm to the night, a sound I knew I’d miss more than any other. Beetles crawled through moist earth. The gun was in my hand, more of a formality than anything else. Just to say I had it. Just to pretend I didn’t give in completely.
But I did.
Birds flew away, knowing better. All those empty promises, maybe meant when they were spoken, but their meaning never sustained, echoed in my ears. My own voice reached me, and that was when I knew I’d be glad when this was over.
Something moved that I couldn’t see. Fog rolled around my arms like smoke from some burning thing. It seemed so fitting. There was a fire that had hollowed it all out inside of me, so long ago, any contents turned to ash that painted the inside of my skin, that coated the forehead of my skull. I didn’t need any extra added on Wednesdays to prove my commitment to starvation. I’d been starving all my life.
The light of flickering candles inside the house faded in the distance as more trees got behind me, rustling leaves interrupting the only light left for my eyes to see. And then they blew out.
I looked to the sky, the swirling clouds concealing the stars I’d grown to love.
On long nights I would sit at the end of the bed, looking up through the window, gazing into those distant lights. I’d go outside and lay a blanket, gun in hand, resting against my head, eyes firmly upward, and if I let myself go I could feel it – feel the fact that all I was was a speck on a rock hurtling through space. I could feel that I was just another satellite, just another piece of debris, floating in the nothing, flying in the sky. I was the tiny form of life attached to a meteorite, spreading strands of corrupted RNA.
I’d look into those stars and wonder if I could fall from the surface of the Earth into the blackness surrounding and float forever free. And I knew that on that blanketed grass was the closest I’d ever get to truly travelling there. And I knew that we are all astronauts, the atmosphere our helmet. And I knew that the thing that called out to me the most, the isolation, the separation from all life that the space between those stars provided was already here, and I could already feel it, and that the only difference it would make to float out there instead of being weighted down here would be that the distance between all of us would be concrete, something I wouldn’t have to explain to doctors and something I wouldn’t have to shove pills into my face to ignore.
No, those stars were hidden to me now – stars concealed by clouds obstructed by trees, leaves and branches reaching. My eyes couldn’t adjust enough to see anything clearly, and a hand had to extend before my face, gripping onto the trunks of trees, feet swishing through sheets of leaves. Things crawled onto me, and I beat them off, creatures flinging into the bed of detritus and debris of things once living long since decayed.
Cold air came through in gusts, carrying more words and leaves with it. The rustling grew to a roar. Something other than me crunched through the ground. I fell, something on my face, something hitting, something ripping skin wide open.
And then it stopped. Frozen, I waited, listening, breathing, anticipating. “Finally,” I thought to myself. But nothing else came. Slowly I rose, a hand to the face, hot and sticky, the sound of something heaving all around me, bouncing in the breeze.
I waited longer still, standing, feet spread apart enough to brace myself, expecting something more. When I walked ahead deeper into the wood still, I sensed whatever it was near me. The ground shook again. Noise filled my ears, loud and unending. Rain began to fall, spatters for a just a moment before growing into downpour within seconds. Lightning lit the skies and brought fragmentary light before disappearing fast as it came, blinding me, eyes trying to adjust, never getting used to what was all around me.
The ground opened up. Lightning flashed. Scattered yellow eyes and white and black fur stood in circles amidst the trees around me. Something was running. Water soaked everything to the bone, washed the blood away. “I don’t want this,” I lied to the dark.
And then, after all the promises, something true was finally spoken to me.
“I’ll take the pain away,” she said.
And she did.
Things fell upon me. I fired the gun, pointlessly. Just to say I did it. Muzzle flash lit the scene. The scent of rain and gunpowder and blood, fur and saliva and drool filled the air. The ground split wide open beneath me and I began to fall. Funny, how I felt so alive when I could see the stars, and yet fate leads us all to a place where we will never see beyond the dirt again. I could smell the packed moist earth. It reminded me of hair.
And then I couldn’t smell much of anything at all.
Josh Sczykutowicz is a young author from central Florida. Most of his work can be described as dark, alternative and literary fiction. He has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Polychrome Ink and Unsung Stories, among others. You can Like him on Facebook and follow him on twitter @jsczykutowicz1 and tumblr at http://joshsczykutowicz.tumblr.com/.