— A Short Life
The world turned in on itself the moment my head fell upon the makeshift pillow I engineered from a couple of jackets I had found in the back of my car. My sleeping shit was somewhere under the horde of every belonging I cared about from college. I had my tent and sleeping bag prepared as the comfort of a pillow faded from thought.
Just as suddenly did the reverse occur and consciousness was forcibly injected into my sleeping body. As I slowly came to terms with the dread of existence, I despairingly came to understand my body had woken me earlier than needed. In my exhaustive state I had forgotten to zip my tent completely; a bright stream of summer light darted onto my face; a morning kiss upon my cheek. Boat engines gurgled nearby. Robins and blue jays sang in the branches above as the wind whistled through the leaves, whose green hues were repainted by the sun’s brush.
I shoved my head into my one remaining jacket, which had survived my nightly thrashes, to force a return to practiced death. This was to no avail. I threw my jacket over my head. I had hoped for the comfort of darkness; instead, I felt dozens of compressed, strands of grass brush the edges of my cheek fuzz, which sent irritating tickles pulsing across my face.
The sounds and discomforts of the world eventually blurred to white noise within my ears. I had entered a loll away from the confines of physical space. That was until a zipper slowly, yet with a constant high-pitched scrape, winded around the outer edges of my friends’ tent. The plastic sheet wrinkled with the sound of knees walking out to feet. I guessed it was Claire. The sound was light and fast paced. I heard the flick of a lighter and was without doubt. She sat near the fire sparking her one-hitter.
For the first ten or so minutes the noises were purposefully quiet. Then, the zipper opened again. A heavier set of legs pushed into the ground. This was Sam. I heard the zipper whip through its predetermined path, until at the last moment the zipper caught upon a part of the fabric. I heard Sam attempt to fix his hasty judgement until Claire told him to give it a break.
“I’m Sorry.” Jason’s voice, to my surprise, begged quietly as another chirp in the air. Jason’s feet stumbled out beside my body. The only separation was a thin wall of plastic. I could not hear Claire’s response. Sam joined Claire. They whispered for a time.
I was interested, but not enough to move my head above the warmth and privacy of my sleeping bag. I groggily felt the ground around me.
Thoughts of the other night began to unfurl themselves in front of me. I had not decided whether to call it all fiction and carry on with my life or- oh… My fingertips touched the flask that had lied as a makeshift sleeping companion through the night.
I lied thoughtless for a while. It was not until Sam emerged from their tent, in which the three of my friends had shared, that I felt obligated to move. I crawled my way out of my thinly, walled shelter and into the streaming morning light. The ground was damp and a fog settled over the distant shoreline, but the sun split through it like volleys of Apollo’s arrows.
The mountain had a renewed mystery about it. The formations of rock no longer appeared natural. There was something sinister in these woods. I turned to my surrounding as if expecting the wind to reveal the green dress of Stella. She was nowhere to be seen.
“Morning starshine!” Sam sang.
“Gross.” I replied taking my doc kit to the fire pit.
“Who were you talking to last night, Alex?” Claire asked as I squeezed a glob of toothpaste onto my brush.
“Probably myself.” I lied, “I finished the bottle and passed out.”
“Boo alcoholism.” Sam mocking jeered.
“Bullshit.” Claire said, “I tossed that bottle in the trash this morning. There was a sip or two left, bitch.” She giggled.
“I didn’t see anyone else helping.” I quickly retorted before Sam could pile on. My counter-attack worked and the group seemed satisfied. I didn’t want to share my adventure with Jason. He would only criticize it or say I was high.
I don’t know what Sam would think either. That scared me too. I shrugged my shoulders spitting a fat, desaturated bit of minty-spit onto the spent ashes.
“Are you coming to the city with us, Alex?” Claire asked.
“I wasn’t sure.” I said, “I’m pretty beat from driving.”
“There is no better remedy than dancing.” Claire said moving her hips to a nonexistent rhythm.
“Sleep is a strong contender.”
“We haven’t seen you in two years, and you abandon us on the second day?” Sam said, “Come on, let’s get smacked; then, find some bitches to throat.”
“Say something like that again, and I’ll make it three years, Sam.”
“I’ll join you, baby.” Claire said, “What if it were just us two, Alex? We don’t need to bring the drags.”
“Much more tempting.”
“Yea, because nothing is more fun than falling asleep in the back of Seasides with a little sugar dripping off your nose.” Jason nudged Claire, who shot him a malevolent glare.
“You have to meet my coworkers. They would adore you, Alex.”
“I’m down,” Sam said.
“We knew you were, stinky.” Claire said, “I was mostly referring to this one.” She said gesturing to me.
“Maybe.” I said, “I should unpack my car.”
“Just drop your car off, and I’ll pick you up.” Sam said.
“Probably not the best idea for me.”
“Alex, say you will dance with me. Even if it is a lie. I will go out with butterflies in my tummy, leaving disappointed, but all the much better for it. Say you will come.” Claire said.
“How long is it going to take you to unpack your stuff?” Jason asked. “You got a lot of shit in your car.”
“Leave it for later, darling.” Claire cooed, “I am tired of nature. Let’s get drinks that didn’t sit in a cooler for two days.”
“Yea, Alex-guy and I are riding together.” Sam said enthusiastically. The hit of my false-name mixed with calling me a man was the perfect combo.
“Okay” I said, taking a pile of sheets from inside my tent. “When are you coming back, Sam?”
“Tomorrow.” Sam said, “Easy, one-nighter. Might puff a doobster down by the docks, then, find a nice, lady to court, but we’ll get gone by afternoon. Scout’s honor.” Sam crossed his fingers in a mock salute.
“Can I park my car at your place?” I asked.
“I don’t give a shit.” Sam said as he joined Sam by their tent.
The boys began stripping their tent as Claire and I checked the grounds for any loose gear or trash, “So be honest. You don’t remember?” Claire asked with a hint of doubt in the corner of her eye.
I looked behind my shoulder to ensure Jason and Sam were far enough away, “Something weird happened last night, but I can’t tell you now. It’s a long story, and I want to make sure I’m not crazy.”
“Oh my god was there a girl?” Claire whisper-shouted, “I thought I heard a girl. Did you bring someone back? That’s weird, dude.”
“No.” I said frustratingly, “It’s weirder than that… I mean not like that.” I paused trying to let my brain catch up. I did not know how to explain this, I could not just say a girl came out of the forest and asked me to take drugs with her. Would she believe that?
“So, who’d you fuck?” Claire whispered.
“No one.” I turned my head to see Jason and Sam bickering over which end the rolled tent needs to be shoved in the bag, “I’ll tell you later.” I settled with.
“Lame.” Claire yawned stretching her arms above her head cracking the shoulder blades in between, “It better be good if you’re going to make me wait.”
I rolled my eyes and left her to finish grabbing my gear. I wanted to try the drug now, but I could wait until I wasn’t about to drive. A flame flickered within my stomach; excitement charred my thoughts, which had distracted me from the torn cloth clinging tightly across my wounded arm. I shoved the loose ends of the fabric within my sleeves.
I turned to Savage. There was an allure to the spiraled, black rock that pointed like spearheads through the air. The bravest clouded did not dare venture toward the tips for fear of gutting their puffy innards. I felt a desire to go back. I wanted to see that grove once more. It was otherworldly and rekindled the cogs I thought I would have abandoned after college. I had accepted my life for what it would be, and yet there was something never known. Here was something beautiful, strange, and dangerous. I crossed the gravel path to the edge of the forest that separated the camp sites from the sunken ravines and rocky gorges. The forest was alive, which was unsurprising given we had already passed noon. The land returned to as it had always been. The animals within only had to fear what they always had to fear, but that was better than adding darkness to the equation.
I wanted to return to the grove. I knew it had to be North-west. If I walked around the edge of the mountain I would surely find it eventually… “Alex, hurry up and piss buddy. We got to get out of here” Sam called out.
“I’m done.” I responded walking back to the group.
We said our brief farewells beyond a torn section of the fencing. Claire gave my arm a squeeze as she and Jason left together.
Sam rolled up in his truck; he slowly started cranking the window down. Halfway, he poked his head from the small opening, “You meeting me at my crib?”
“Yea, if that still works.” I said pushing the last of my gear in the back of my car among a dozen books I had bought and never read littered atop piles of clothes and old paintings I had hung on the walls of my apartment.
Clearwater had two roads the intersected in the middle on the town. One leading to the highway going North-South, and another heading East-West. Sam and I pulled off at the entrance to his neighborhood, while Claire and Jason rode together back to Peregin.
I locked myself inside Sam’s bathroom and brought out the flask. In private, I uncapped the bottle. Floral scents returned my mind to the grove. It was as if the strongest herbal-tea were steeping within my nose. I hesitated for a moment, but what was another drug?
I took a sip. It was strong, but tasted of honeysuckle and lavender. Thankfully the sweetness offset the thickness of the goop that I drank. It had to of only been a shot or so, but I gasped for air as if I had chugged an entire bottle of water. As soon as the liquid hit my throat a warmth rippled in waves across my body. The sweat and grime from camping and my long drive from school were ignored as I basked in an immediate relief to a weight I had grown used to. At once it was as if I could breathe. I pushed my hand against Sam’s sink to steady myself. I kept my gaze away from the mirror. I did not want it to ruin this moment. I had never known inner peace, karma, or any alien jizz that Scientology claimed was floating within me. I was never one for religion, and yet this drug was everything faith had promised.
I adeptly navigated Sam’s shower system as a testament to the duration of our friendship. A jet of water burst from the showerhead, which echoed a thunderous spray akin to the underground. I quickly undressed, kicking my soiled clothes in the corner. I brushed my fingers across the flowing water. After a slight adjustment to the temperature I retreated to the mirror. I felt the quickening pace of my heart fight the calming breathes I took. My heart was familiar with the pain of removing fabric from dried wounds. I bit my teeth in the side of my shoulder as I carefully unwound the fabric. Surprisingly there was no pain. I could feel the pressure of dried blood gripping from the lacerations on my wrist onto the dirt-covered dress Stella had given me. In place of pain was an acknowledgment of the pain, as if a dentist had pierced my arm with Novocain. I felt the relief from pressure as the crust was removed. Fresh blood pooled in the wounds, but they were healed enough to no longer need bandaging.
It was not only the pain that had ceased. The warmth within me had protected me from the guilt. The self-hatred that accompanied the time I had to heal, which inevitably ended the same. I could feel the presence, but not the weight. I saw the reflection of my arm in the mirror. I wondered if this drug would numb that pain too. I had thought to check, but the steam reminded me of the water I had already wasted. I distanced myself from the mirror’s edge, and comfortably escaped to an illusionary-existence within the boundaries of the hot water. The sensations felt renewing to wipe the dried-sweat, dirt, and smell of lake water from my skin. I held my injured arm close to my stomach to keep the water from directly entering the cuts. I forced my eyes to inspect the lower half of my body for ticks or any other unauthorized travelers. All I found were streams of red water dripping across my thighs. No bloodsuckers as far as I could tell. Only the ones I was forcibly acquainted with.
I prepared myself for the expected sting of the dark introspective voice, and yet she too slept. My body was there, but I relinquished control. A separation that gave me the moment I had dreamed of obtaining. A breath of air that had at long last paused the world around me. There was only water and a white wall I knew it was the drug, but this was something more. I could not think straight. Not with the steam and the heat of the water singeing my shoulders. It did no good to dwell on things that could not be changed. In retrospect, I had hoped my moment of peace would be anywhere other than Sam’s piss-stained shower, and yet it hardly mattered.
I slid the curtains aside. Steam was released in a dramatic flourish. As the heat was absorbed with the room’s temperature, my awareness of the drug had heightened. The air I inhaled brushed across, what I imagined were an uncountable amount of fibers, which lined my internal organs. A faded, golden web tinted the edges of my vision.
My feet squished Sam’s shower mat. I rubbed my uninjured body and paid special mind to keep everything away from my cuts, which would need to air dry.
I dropped Sam’s towel and examined my body. The grime of the world was washed away as best as I could have managed. There wasn’t anything wrong, out-of-place, or otherwise noteworthy. I had never looked at myself. Not truly anyways. Deprecating-thoughts rode in the vanguard of self-analyzation. The drug, Euphoria, silenced the noise. I traced the outlines of my figure from my bellybutton to the indents of pelvic bone above my groin. Time moved without my awareness.
My fingers touched my cleaned wrist. The cuts looked innocent after showers. Pink smiles, which were puffy along the edges. The blood had always made me think the worst, and now I barely saw the scratches. A few lines here and there, but it was not as bad as I had thought. My overreactions were going to kill me one day, I mused.
I ignored the mirror. There was no need to test the drug’s resilience. I dared not tarnish these sensations. I tossed on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and wobbled out of the bathroom.
White carpet tickled my feet as I walked over clothes, strewn upon the floor, a guitar lying on its face, and an opened pack of hastily opened condoms. The box was ripped in half in what could have only been an act of passionate love.
“Sam!” I cried as I opened his bedroom door. His house had two levels, but the second floor was merely a balcony holding two rooms, which were Sam’s and his Dad’s respectively.
“What?” He called back from his living room.
“Your fish dead?” I asked.
“Nah, Rodney did alright. Kid earned the money.”
I walked down his steps until the carpet gave way to wooden floorboards.
“Can I ask you something?” Sam said unaware of the impact those five words had upon me. If it were not for the drugs pumping love through my system, then dread would have seized its infectious claws around my throat, pursued by a thousand questions and hypotheses stringed in reckless abandonment.
“Sure.” I responded looking at the patterns of his fireplace. My focus was hazy. The warmth in my body disrupted my control. I took a seat on a brown sofa across from my friend. He cracked another beer.
“So, what’s up?” he said to my immense disappointment.
“What does that mean?” I asked slightly peeved at the disappointing finish.
“What do you mean?” Sam asked shifting to the defensive.
The drugs had succeeded in rousing an energy within me. My tongue had loosened with a desire to say something truthful for once, “Sam ask what you want to ask and we can move on from whatever it is you are too afraid to bring up.” I said with more edge than I had anticipated.
This was more than Sam was expecting as well as he retreated over his own words, “Afraid? I’m not afraid, I just don’t know how to go about asking if you tried to kill yourself or not.”
“What the fuck?” I asked.
“I told you about Eric, right?” Sam said, “You’ve met him a few times. He’s a cool guy.”
“And he told you I was suicidal?” The word made Sam cringe.
“Yea, he told me you disappeared for a week after…”
“After what?” I said.
“Forget it, man.”
“Don’t call me, man.”
“What the fuck?” Sam said, “What is wrong with you?”
My brain buffered for a moment as anger flooded through my body. I felt free; I felt powerful, and for once I found my voice. Unfortunately, my mind could not participate, and all that fell out of my mouth was a booming, “Nothing!”
Sam twisted his mouth irritably. “Sorry” I said calmly. Just as the rage burned within me it was quenched by the return of internal warmth.
“Whatever. I’ll finish this beer and we can dip.”
Sam’s car was covered in dust. Hard-hats, shovels, construction vests, and climbing harnesses were all strewn in the back. We said nothing to one another as he started up the gas-guzzler and connected to AUX.
The road stretched across the valley for miles around the rising landscapes and up into mountains seemingly disappearing into the cloudy sky. Sam rolled along in his ’06 Pontiac. Nearby cows were blurred as we roared past blaring whatever tune was coming out of the stereo. The wind made it indecipherable. The car swerved shakily from one side of the lane to the other. The engine occasionally sputtered as he pedaled more gas into the chamber. The body shook as the beast clambered up the side of another steep hill. Sam, to my anxious nature, gave a relived sigh as the car reached the top of the hill.
The barns and fields gave way to great stretches of farmland that spanned from the valley to the suburbs eastward. The landscape laid plain and uneventful. Miles of cornfields lulled my eyes to finally shut. The gas-guzzler hummed and shook from Clearwater through the mountains and out past the Northern Shore. It was mid-day by the time we reached the outer-city limits.
I awoke to find the farmland having subsided to sprawling suburban neighborhoods and strip-malls.
“Morning princess.” Sam said mockingly, though it filled me with a pleasant glow.
“Morning.” I shifted my posturing and watched the distant mountains of Appalachia attempt to hide the buildings tucked behind.
“Have you even been home yet?” Sam asked as if I had not screamed at him an hour before, “All your college stuff was still in your car.”
“Not yet.” I said.
“I’m surprised Kristine isn’t freaking out.”
“I’m keeping my homecoming a surprise. They’re fine.” I said watching the passing trees.
A few songs played quietly through the distorted speaker, which had to occasionally be hit to stop it from sputtering the words in a high-pitched squeal.
“So, what are you going to do now?” Sam asked over a low-mumbling country song, which made me thankful for the sputter.
“I don’t know.” I forced a chuckle, “I had a plan before I graduated, but now… I don’t know.” I admitted.
“That’s cool, man.” Sam said causing me to cringe, “Ever think about military shit? That would be cool.”
“Yea, probably not at that point yet.”
“I thought of joining the army last year.” Sam said.
“Oh.” I said, “You?”
Sam gave me a questioning look, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
I put my hands up in mock surrender, “Nothing. Just you don’t seem like the military person.”
“Yea.” Sam mused, “I’m not good at taking orders, or shit from random people.”
I made a noise to acknowledge his statement, despite the internal clawing of an impulsive thought to tell him those reasons were not the same ones I had thought.
“So why think about it?” I asked swallowing the urge to push his arrogance.
“Figured I’d get sent off somewhere to dink some skulls and eventually get mine blasted.” Sam said reflectively.
“Whatever, don’t tell me.” I retorted.
Sam paused for a second chewing on his response. Roughly, a minute passed before he spoke again, “There’s prestige in it. You put on the uniform, and all of sudden you are bigger than you were a moment ago. I know you haven’t been to the city for a while, but you remember seeing the navy people getting off their boats? The ones in front wearing white with the medals on their chest. I wanted a medal.” Sam said, “I think my mom would think it’s cool too.”
“She would.” I affirmed him, “But you don’t need to be bigger. No one needs to be bigger. I wish we’d be a little more content on feeling small.”
“What does that mean?” Sam laughed, “Why would you not want to be better than everyone else?”
“I just want to feel safe; bigger people don’t do that.”
“I guess we just see things a little differently.” Sam said.
Sam spun the volume knob as I returned to lazily gazing at the passing landscape. It was the same thing with different people at school. I had never meant to retract myself from society, yet no one seemed to understand me- myself included. Words were foreign and weightless in meaning. Nothing I read and nothing anyone ever said, or sang, or scribbled on a note made me feel better. Drugs made me feel better. Alcohol did sometimes.
Sam took the exit and dipped through an opening, blasted through the bottom of a mountain. The sun disappeared entirely as the flash of passing tunnel lights guided us toward the city.
A moment before we returned to the surface, I had thought we died and this mountain was somehow Sam’s purgatory and my hell; however, I was proven wrong as summer’s bright rays shot through the front window.
Sam immediately threw down his blinders, but I was too stunned by the flash of the sun’s light as our elevation leveled. The city of Peregin bore before us with great bravado. A rainbow pattern of painted, brick buildings were tightly squeezed together along the Longston River on the Mountain side. The townhouses were tall, thin, brightly-colored marshmallows squished together in odd places. The river separated the city in two neatly organized halves, like an elbow, with the mountain acting as the shoulder. The other half of the river was utilized as a port for merchant and Navy ships. Sam pointed out a cruiser docked in the bay, which I nodded at unenthusiastically.
The road wrapped around the side of the mountainside and through the western-half. Sailboats littered the mouth of the river as water striders skittering around a shallow pond. Small trolley boats ran to-and-fro; duck boats, paddle-boards and canoes lazily sat atop the still water.
The Euphoria had since passed my system, and my anxiety touched me once more. People made me nervous, and cities tended to occupy more of them than my home… I thought of my past decisions to find which one had brought me to this point, but all led nowhere. I balled my hands into fists, and prepared myself for the night ahead.
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