[Chapter 2] — Reflections
The loose fabric of my sleeves shot ticklish spasms through the open cuts adorning my wrist. I had thought, when I first started, the blade hurt. I mistook shock for pain, which was merely a façade covering warmth – or love. I shivered and ignored the urge to scratch my love marks—that would hurt.
Again, I caught her sly glint; a distorted reflection returned atop the dark lake; an image wrought from Artemis’ merciful touch. Her features were sisterly to mine own. The mirage dispersed as quickly as it had emerged; however, I had stained every detail to memory.
Sanity had long ago lost meaning. A mirror’s edge whispered dark thoughts. A ghost haunted my mind, promising false hope through a slit tongue; I knew her game, but depravity coerced my participation. This time she would stay; this time I would see my face and smile. I could then take ownership of both body and soul.
My wrist tingled their doubts. Between my clouded iris, I saw the distinct flicker of disappointment. “Fuck you too.”
My skin stretched as skin does. My eyes, though heavy and sunken, weren’t different from any other pair. My blood was warm; I knew this.
The ripples from distant movements contorted my face; a monstrous figure took my place. I squished its cheeks between the palm of my hands.
“Kill me please.” I mumbled to the reflection in a distorted voice. The creature begged me for the same. I was not a murderer, only a failed one.
Monster Reflects in water ; Oil on wood. Begotten from the fervent hand of an artist, deluded from reality.
Pale worms wiggled out of the muddy shoal. I pictured a striped bass biting the middle one off. That was my least favorite toe. It jutted out at a weird angle standing herself a part from her sisters. Would that tickle too? A crimson line to drift evermore through these rivers, creeks, and winding streams. The blood I gave found purpose. My flesh was stained. My prayers fell upon the ears of beasts. My body would fall upon their teeth. Peace was paid in sacrifice. The world saturated the soil with innocent blood, yet here I sit obsessing over a few drops.
Geese waddled aimlessly over the soft-mudded banks. A few swam in the cool water. The gaggle hugged the shoreline, which had confused me. A boat roared around the corner, yet the geese paid no mind. The boat’s engine sputtered to a crawl as it passed a white buoy hidden from my sight. The geese who were swimming drifted out of the vessel’s path; They knew the lake better than I; however, we were all visitors.
I had no claim to Clearwater. The lake had changed. I had barely found my way through mountains I learned to drive on- or, it was just in my head. I was forgetful. I had recently awakened. Everything prior was glimpsed through dead eyes.
The ground was covered in goose shit; I was sitting in goose shit. They lied baking in the summer heat. The rocks, forced to bear the waste, were stained. I scraped a hardened nugget into the water with my finger. The impact of nail against stone twitched a spot in my mind right.
Clouds mercifully gathered in front of the sun’s visage. The world darkened another shade. Superstition was silly, but I found comfort in this new world of dimmed light. The shadows dulled her eyes. I couldn’t help but hope that this was it. The final moment, in which the sun slowed to a halt. Oh, Fenrir take your revenge on those, who had deceived you. The light would be no more. So swift, so silent this darkness would wrap around me as death’s gentlest ambassador. I would sit and watch the final burst of vibrant light scorch the valley. The breeze would blow like Atlas’s breathe casting remnant essence amongst the stars. An early but needed rest. My flame had burnt through the wick quicker than imagined. Even the smoke had dissipated. I was left a pile of stale wax conformed wherever I cooled. I had only now awoken to find my time started.
A lonesome death suited me well. I hoped to meet the void alone to stifle needless pain. A day would come; I will be walking down a city street or reading a book or making love. A glitched streak of light would imprint itself across my vision. My heart would feel an unusual skip—or, my brain or elsewhere. I would think to myself, This can’t be right. My body would then finish what my mind began. I may collapse in unexpected pain, or pass in silent sleep. I feared the pain; although, I was reassured by the promise of eternity- whatever form that held.
Heavy boots crunched bits of woodchips behind me. Leaves, from past autumns, crunched under their heel. I tossed a pebble through the water’s surface. Ploop…
“Sitting alone?” Claire said kicking a mound of goose shit in the water.
“Just thinking.” I casted another stone into the lake. Ploop…
“Were you thinking ‘Man, it’s ninety degrees outside, maybe I shouldn’t wear a jacket’?” Claire said mockingly as she took a seat beside me. Lavender perfume mixed with the fragrance of freshly-smoked Cannabis wafted into my nose with the minor pushes of wind.
Her eyes were green and bright with a series of crimson lightning bolts streaking through her yellow-tinted corneas; bluish-blobs were dappled around her retina like an accidental shake from her artist’s hand, whereupon a mistake created beauty. My artist was a blind, old goat with misanthropic tendencies and a fetish for the occult. The bastard had their fun in the lab, and now I breathe and suffer. The eyes of my shadow held more color than mine. My license decreed my eye’s color to be brown, but I saw nothing there. Two black pits were plastered upon my face, darkening the flesh around.
I had thought for a moment Claire had dropped it, but she bashed my hopes with a sly lift of an eyebrow. “Was I close?” she said, striking a Juul she had tucked beneath her bra strap.
“Sorta.” I said, “I’d rather get high; then, explain my unnatural body temperature.”
“Fair enough, Love.” Claire’s voice came behind a cloud of minty, vape smoke.
“Thanks.” I said swiping the smoke away.
“Welcome home.” a giggle passed through my friend’s lips. Claire threw her shoulder forward spinning a black clutch purse onto her lap. After a moment of jostling the contents around she whisked a dugout from the depths of one pocket. It was a simple wooden block; A rotating secondary block revealed two holes. Green paint danced around the borders. They were in the form of some Americana pattern. I could not tell exactly as the paint was worn and scratched from years of use.
“Remember smoking in the back of the football fields?” I said, grabbing the wooden vestibule, swiveling the top aside. A miniature metal tube popped out from a spring positioned within one of holes. I caught the one-hitter just as it was about to join the debris on the bottom of the lake.
“Smooth.” Claire commented, “And my one-hitter brought that up- Feeling nostalgic?” She asked.
I jammed the metal tube into the larger hole that carried weed. I inspected the capacity to ensure it met my standards then began the constant fight against the wind. Click. Click. Click. The sparks briefly dashed through the air as I looked out over the lake. The sun had won in the end. The clouds dispersed, fearing retribution as shivering rays of an evening light emerged from their withdrawal. I blew a thin white stream of smoke that curtailed through the beaten wind.
“It has been a while.” I said letting wisps of smoke fall from my nostrils.
“Four years is not a long time, stupid.” Claire replied.
“It has felt like it.”
“For you, I guess I can see that.” Claire conceded, “But you’re done now, Mr. College grad.”
“Please don’t call me that.” I said packing the tube again.
“Mr., or College grad?”
“Whatever, I’m surprised you came home.” She said.
“What do you mean?” I said puzzled by the apparent callousness of her response.
“It just didn’t seem like you wanted to come back, Alex. That’s all. I just figured you’d have gotten a job somewhere. That and, well Alex, we haven’t exactly talked in a while- you know?”
“I know; I’m sorry, look school had just started to kill me. I didn’t want to drag you guys around with me.” I felt the pace of my heart quicken as a million thoughts circled through my mind in an attempt to settle on which explanation made the most sense. None did, and none would hold weight. I looked at my old friend in defeat. If there were words for how I felt, then I needed more than a college degree to find them.
“It’s cool,” Claire said calmly; a smirk crept upon the edge of her cheek.
We sat and passed Claire’s one-hitter back-and-forth for a time watching boaters gurgle through the lake. Wooden piers poked algae-ridden arms against the onslaught of man-made tides. The once-wrathful wake softened to a pulse of its former self, worn thin, beaten and blind in their own pursuits. Inevitably, the lake returns the disturbances to fold. The dark water remained unconquered.
My stomach growled; I ignored the cries. I gripped my wrist lightly with my right hand. I placed a finger near the cut, close enough for the warmth of my body to be felt. A bit of blood dribbled onto the rock.
“Should we drink?” I said. I needed something else to distract me.
“How about food?” Claire pushed herself onto her feet. “Come.” She grabbed my hand and with her encouragement I rose from my goose-shat throne. My feet sunk into the black mud. With a squelch I lifted each one onto the woodchipped clearing.
“When I left, Sam tried making burgers, but dropped the pan onto the fire. The idiot didn’t learn that metal is hot until today.” Claire giggled and turned to me, “Hopefully Jason is smarter.”
We walked barefoot on a woodchip-lined path. It bore through a forest of cedar and pine trees. Ahead the mountain rose before us as a crucible. Beside us lay deserted campgrounds.
“Why is this place so dead?” I asked feeling the woodchips dig into my heels.
Claire suddenly stopped on the footpath, “Sam didn’t tell you?” she asked. Her red-webbed eyes paired with an untamed fury of frizzy brown hair made my friend look like a witch, or a rendition of the Starbucks mermaid struggling with substance abuse.
“No.” I stopped as well. The forest was quiet save for the motorboats and a few birds flying overhead, “What happened?” I asked wide eyed. Nothing had ever happened in this town growing up. Occasionally a kid will crash their four-wheeler into a tree, or crash their car into a deer, but never a murder.
“A woman was murdered here.” Claire whispered, “Whole park is shut down.”
“Woah.” I looked around feeling the presence of eyes on my neck, “Are we like hunting down the killer?” I whispered.
Claire laughed at this, “I’m just kidding, weirdo.” Claire pushed my shoulder, “Not like Clearwater was ever that popular to begin with. There is nothing clear about that water. It looks disgusting.”
A fallen oak tree blocked the entrance to the campgrounds. Rough cuts were scratched onto its bark. We ducked beneath the uprooted oak. Desolate campgrounds were strewn atop intimate clearings, separated by untamed foliage. Brown branches swayed ahead of a blue sky; they moved as an entangled web caught in a whipping breath from a child’s puffed cheeks. We were, as it would seem, the only group here. My friends took full advantage of this. Argument could be heard ahead, muffled by a patch of trees.
As Claire and I rounded the path that led to our campgrounds, the indecipherable yelling had gained clarity.
“Read a fucking book.” Jason said.
“I read a lot of books.” Sam retorted.
“Oh, yea sorry forgot you spent a semester at State.”
“I got syphilis, bro you knew that.” Sam fired back with what I guessed to have been backed up with little forethought, “You try learning calculus while your crotch is lighting up.”
“I did not know that.” Jason said horrified, “Why would you tell me that?”
“Whatever.” Sam said, “Let’s just make PB&J’s.”
“You can.” Jason laughed as Claire and I entered the campfire’s boundaries, “Guess who dropped another patty?”
“Its fine!” Sam shouted, “I brought peanut butter and jelly.”
“I see three patties right here.” Jason said.
“There’s four of us.”
“That’s the cost of learning how to use a pan, buddy.”
Sam muttered something under his breath as he withdrew himself from the fire and sat on one side of the oak bench chained to the earth. He sat in silent focus taking sips from a Budlight can beside a loaf of white bread.
Jason cooked the remaining burgers, while Sam dug through his cooler for the jelly. Claire and I silently sat down on the foldable chairs we brought. I needed a moment in my state of mind to adapt to my new scenery. My feet were covered in multiple layers of mud, dirt, and bits of grass that stuck to the contours of my ankles. The fire snapped as the flames consumed the sap-heavy logs. The sap bubbled and spit as it attempted to escape the inferno. A rocky creak shook nearby. I could see now the effects of the previous nights’ weather. The creek was laden with a torrent of water. Moss-covered rocks, which normally protruded through the running currents, were overtaken and swamped beneath the mountain’s runoff.
“So how these burgers looking?” Claire broke the silence.
“Hello to you too. Longtime no see.” Jason remarked.
“I was getting this one.” Claire pointed towards me, “Spends two years away from us, comes home, and is still trying to run away.”
“It’s been a while.” I said, “I wanted to look at the lake.”
“I still can’t believe you pulled up with your entire apartment packed into one little car.” Sam commented from the picnic table, “Do your parents even know you are home?”
“Not yet,” I admitted touching my arm for assurance, “I didn’t know how long we were gonna camp for.”
“Tonight.” Claire laughed.
“Why did we stop doing this?” Sam asked.
“Because camping sucks.” Jason chuckled.
“No, it doesn’t.” Sam said, “Camping is awesome.”
“Yea, except when you already pay a grand in rent a month. Only to sleep outside.” Jason said.
“That’s your fault.” Sam said, “You didn’t want to commute.”
“I didn’t want to be stuck here.”
“Well I agree with Jason. This was cute until now, but I live in the city to get away from bugs.” Claire sparked her bowl, “And now I’m dirty, eaten alive, and doing that same thing we’d do if we were home.”
“I like it.” I said, “I forgot how pretty the mountain was.” Savage stretched above the encroaching pine forest from the valley below. It was small for a mountain. The peak was distorted through the kaleidoscopic overlay of branches and intermingling leaves that rose from behind my head.
“I don’t know,” Sam said scratching his chin, “Always thought it looked pretty weird.”
“You thought the giant rock looked weird?” Claire asked.
“Yea, you know. Like unnatural. Just not my thing.”
“It’s a little banged up.” Claire admitted. The mountain’s crust was black and uneven. The rocks cut the skyline in odd places.
“I mean, it is a collapsed mine tunnel.” Jason pointed out.
“I bet they just say that.” Sam said, “Like what if the government was hiding something. Or a coven of cannibals made it their lair?”
“They’d come for us.” Claire jested.
“You can walk pretty far in. They just aren’t too sure how stable it is.” Jason explained, “Shit rock that shatters when hit. I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead,” Sam said whooshing his hands forward, “All I am is saying is whoever’s bright idea it was to dig into that deserved to be buried under it.”
“Yea because I am sure the man who owned this mountain was there among his impoverished overworked laborers.” Claire said making her sarcasm more than apparent.
The shadows began to lengthen and drag their dark forms over the campgrounds. Jason scooped the grease-laden burger patties and placed them on three separate slices of bread prepared on a paper plate. “Voila.” He said dispersing two plates to Claire and I.
“Sam.” Claire yelled, “Ketchup and beer please.”
“Two beers.” I added.
Jason scooped the items and passed them out as he walked to the tree line.
“Thank you.” I turned my focus to my food. Now you may eat, stomach.
Claire gasped beside me, “Sam. Gross, Sam! you are disgusting.”
“What? I had to piss.” He said turning his head around from the tree he was urinating on.
“Yea I got that. Why don’t you pull your pants up a little?” Claire said blocking the view of him with her hand extended.
“Oh, sorry. Not like you haven’t seen it all before.” The sarcasm dripping from his words like his piss on the side of the tree.
“Not our fault you suck at pong.” Jason laughed.
“You went to college!” He cried, hoisting his pants up and zipping them together, “Not fair, dude. You were probably trained on day one.”
“Yea. First day of orientation they told us all about the physics of a perfect beer pong game.”
“See,” Sam said, “I knew it was unfair. Just a waste of time, if you asked me. Any of your degrees have to do with the environment?”
“I took a marine biology class at Community.” Claire said.
“The whales are dead, Claire. Forget them. We gotta focus on trees or some shit.”
“I’ll give you my old book.” Claire laughed, “It talks about algae.”
Sam didn’t respond for a while save for the stream his urine hitting the bark of an oak tree, “Perfect.” He said, “Nothing better for the after-camp shits like formal education.”
We sat eating for a few peaceful moments before Sam returned straightening his jeans.
“Hey, Claire.” Sam called out from the trees as he rejoined us.
“What?” Claire responded.
“How long do you think fish can survive without food?”
“Hey Sam.” Jason said in between bites of his burger, “Did you feed your fish?”
“I paid my neighbor’s kid to, but he sucks.”
“I don’t know, Sam.” Claire moaned.
“I thought you were a marine biologist.”
“It was one class.” She yelled to the Gods above.
I laughed, but nothing could have been heard over Jason’s laugh-gasping noises for breath on the floor of the park.
“I’m sure they’re fine.” Sam said flippantly returning to his chair and immediately cracking the tab of another beer.
We sat around the fire cooking s’mores and drinking beers. The park, was by all accounts, dead. No ranger roved, and there was no sight of Natural Resources, who would typically make their rounds to scare new campers. There was nothing besides the sun lowering over the peak of Bearpaw.
There lied a bittersweet relationship between alcohol and I just as a grindstone to a knife. I was sharpened; I was imbued; I was cleansed- yet I was brittle. The cracks did crumble easily. A weightlessness blurred the lines of reality. When I was younger, I appreciated the numbing effect. Thought was impossible; perception was just a sip away from complete dissolution. There was perfection in moments where my mind was on vacation as my body crumpled on the bowl of a toilet.
It was not long before the miner delved within the depths of the cooler to retrieve another fifth of Jameson. Claire unearthed her treasure, and together- except for Jason, who had sworn off liquor for the night- we punished the liquid for all the sins it might have caused us to commit.
The night wore on, and without liquor’s energizing guidance, Sam was the first to call it quits for the night. I heard the zip of the tent behind me as Sam stood to consummate his nightly urination ritual.
After what could have possibly amounted to fifteen minutes, Sam relinquished all the fluid his body had to spare, and followed Jason to sleep.
“We cuddling tonight, buddy?” I heard his voice slur through the thin, nylon fabric.
“Please stay the fuck away from me.” Jason replied groggily.
There was a miracle found within nature. In the wild I was able to drink so much more than at a bar or at home. It was strange. The mountain air truly was a gift from above.
Claire and I sat in silence. I was the sole owner of the whiskey at this point. “Are you okay?” She asked. The fire lit only a portion of her frame in the darkness, which was already blurry from the drink. Her eyes turned slowly to me narrowed in sorrowful concern.
“Yea.” I felt my lips move. It was automatic at this point. I was fine. I was okay. The lies slipped easily.
“I was worried about you. This past year with everything…” Claire trailed off waving her hands over the fire.
“I’m sorry.” I said. The fire crackled and split as the wood fell to the flames.
“No. Don’t apologize, Alex. I just care about you.” Claire said frustratingly, “I just want to make sure everything is fine. That’s it.” She said in a more positive manner.
Her eyes betrayed her disguise. She could see the cracks. I was afraid this would begin to happen. My character had been a falsehood. A lie I made when I was younger to portray to the world. “Thank you.” I said turning back to the flames. I liked their spirals. I was intoxicated by the depth of color and opacity in which I could see.
“I’m going to go to sleep. Should I put out the fire?”
I shook the second bottle of whiskey we opened. There still looked to be a few shots left “No. I’ll do it.”
“Just gonna kill that yourself?” She asked.
“Yea.” I said, “Might as well, right?”
“Yea.” She gave a half-hearted laugh zipping open her tent flap, “Alex, you know you can talk to me about anything.”
“Ok.” Claire nodded to herself before turning back to me, “I love you. Say it back.”
“I love you.”
“Love you.” Sam said, his voice coming from within the tent.
“Shut up, Sam.” Jason said beside him, “I’m trying to sleep.”
“Good night, boys.” Claire said.
“Goodnight.” Jason and Sam said. I turned back to the fire. I heard the sound of a zipper closing behind me.
Behind me, within their shared tent, I heard the occasional bickering from my friends until one-by-one they fell asleep. I gulped a few more sips of whiskey before giving up on the venture. I felt sufficiently disposed. The flames swirled chaotically like a ship set ablaze in the midst of Poseidon’s rage.
The universe had released the clips clutching her daylit draperies. The colors had once again drained as syrup through an opened spile. The mountain’s dark rock was the last bit of color to relinquish sight. The leaves continued to shake despite the nightly cover. Occasionally, this was accompanied by frantic steps of paws scurrying across the valley floor. In the darkness, their home had shifted. Now, a foreign land laid ahead fraught with enemies. Silly things. I could not fathom why they would wander out into the night. So little to gain against so much chance of peril.
This curtain of shadow halted its approach. Night and flame danced to the beat of crackling wood.
I laid back against the plastic backing of a foldable chair. The storm had pushed the heat away from the valley. The cool night air sent shivers through my body. I could no longer feel the pangs of itch touch my arm, nor did cyclical thoughts burn as diesel. I flipped the coin and found I had hit my mark. The flame flickered its dancing lights across my skin. The night’s shadows found their way within every nook and cranny.
The illusion of security perished at the setting of the sun, but this fear was instinctual. Just as the instinct of the body to pull back after the first sign of damage, or the first trickle of blood. I had though that would have deterred further provocation, but I never gave in to fear.
The moon had taken the night off. Her cloak hung in her stead, embroidered with golden thread and bordered with silver lace. A staircase of stars shimmered with the touch of her toes. White gemstones glittered as scales upon her dress’s hem, but Where was she to go? A night of freedom. A lover perhaps, or to visit friends. I would have slept had I the choice.
I turned my attention back to the world. The fire’s light begun to lose ground against the impending approach of night. All logs have been sacrificed. If I desired to fight the darkness longer I’d need to forage.
I picked a fairly straight stick that lied beside my feet. I scooched my seat closer to the heat and poked the smoldering logs. The friction caused the air to fill in volumes of beautiful sparks. Occasionally one would singe my hand, or it could have been a bug.
I looked up at what I thought to be the mountain. It was a dark blur that sat in contrast even with the moonless sky. I stopped as I thought I saw the flicker of a light through the foliage. I could not be sure. So faint, yet my eye caught a frame of movement.
I returned my attention to the sparks flying like a blacksmith hammering their molten, cast-iron forms.
“You shouldn’t do that.” A voice warned from the forest, “A fire could start.”
“One already has.” I said sarcastically, but setting the stick down all the same. I pushed the whiskey under my chair in case it was Natural Resources.
Lavender spirals swirled against the contrasting darkness. The flames emboldened the edges of her face.
The girl knelt before the dying fire. Her short, scrappy blonde hair fluttered through passing winds. Her hands drifted just barely escaping the flickering tongues.
“Hello, sister.” Her voice touched my ears like an old song played at a bar. It was faint and soft. There was distraction, and still it gave me pause. Familiarity coated her words.
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