Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Not so Short Story: Wolf, Chapter 3

Originally, Wolf was going to be a short story, but I'm currently over 15,000 words with no end in sight. Hopefully, I can make it novel length. I'm currently trying to publish a novella (In the Depths of the Valley) but there aren't too many small publishers looking to publish anything 40,000 words in length. Read Chapters One and Two here and here.

Chapter Three 
I'm at the bottom of the abyss, walking on nothing, seeing nothing, feeling the empty space in my hands, breathing it into my unprotected lungs in calm, collected breaths. The vastness around me narrows as I walk, my steps soundless in the vacuum, and I begin to see lined ribs forming a tunneled path lit with a red light. It is ominous; I can feel a preternatural energy, one soaked in crimson colors, undulating across the gulf. But there is nowhere else to go, and I do not fear it. The tunnel is filled with stalactites and stalagmites which jut from its surfaces like ragged teeth, so I step carefully, my fingers groping, my eyes burning with the red light, sweat pouring from my face. It has become unbearably hot; I see water boiling in a puddle, steam rising from it in scalding clouds. Cloven hooves, I remember, and the prints appear, their awkward trail continuing down the tunnel. Blood drips from a stalagmite, evidence of the beast's wound; my nostrils twitch, smelling an animal odor. The gun has disappeared, lost in the abyss. All I have are my hands.
            I emerge from the tunnel into a spacious chamber. Suggestive formations rise from the floor, shapes with wide hips and protruding phalli that seem to shudder in the pulsating red light. There is a throbbing heartbeat echoing through the cave, the life rhythm of some gigantic thing. I try to peer into the dark corners and see what lies there, waiting, its breath coming in ragged gasps. But the light calls; it steers me toward its source, the center of the chamber, where a crude altar sits, stony and ancient. As I walk toward it, the light brightens, illuminating the ceiling of the chamber and revealing an enormous painting. Bison, camels, wooly rhinos, and mammoths shimmer above me; sabertooth tigers and maneless lions pursue them in vivid detail, their pelts golden, shining through the red light. Men with the heads of wolves move among them, their eyes empty with large black orbs. I reach the altar, this thing of stone, and find a tooth resting on it, a huge incisor, and I take it into my hand, unthinkingly. There is the deer, limping on broken legs–it bleeds hot blood from its fractured shoulder–and it calls out in a plaintive wail, its antlers chipped, its crown sullied, its kingship in ruin. I approach it slowly, the tooth grasped tightly, my jaws aching, a strange elation bubbling up in my heart. Here it is, the object of your desire, the hurt, the wounded, the sufferer begging for release. I growl at it, my upper lip pulling back. It is blind with terror, it snorts and huffs and waves its great broken head. In one quick motion, I grab its neck, bend it back, and slit its throat.
            I lie with it for some time, stealing its warmth, my hand resting on its tawny chest. The heartbeat of the cavern reaches a thundering volume, shaking the ceiling, rattling the floor. The shapes move, dancing, their rocky hips and breasts crumbling as I place the tooth back on the altar. Suddenly I feel a stabbing pain in my right hand; I have cut myself somehow with the incisor, and my blood mingles with that of the deer, dripping onto the altar and running down its side, traveling a well-worn gully carved into the floor,   running like a river past the carcass of the deer and into the hidden depths of the cave. The heartbeat turns into a roar. My vision flickers; I grasp the altar, trying to steady myself as it comes from the darkness, a huge beast, a lumbering mass of teeth, claw, and fur. I can do nothing as it takes me into its jaws but listen in terror as it crunches my bones and devours my flesh. I watch my own hand twitch on the ground, the fingers clutching nothing but smooth limestone. My death happens somewhere else, to someone else. I fall into a deep sleep.
            “Harry, Harry!” shouts a voice. Someone slaps my cheek; my eyes flutter, seeing the bright light of day. There is a sycamore tree above, its great arms stretching toward the sun, the fog having dissipated. Rob stares down at me, his expression wild. He is pushing a bottle of water toward me. I take it and sit up. I drink the whole bottle in one long gulp.
            “Jesus, buddy, you okay? You must've been out for an hour. I looked for you at least that long. You got a little cut on your head.” I touch my head and feel a wet scab. “Why the hell did you go in that cave?”
            “There deer went in there,” I reply.
            “No it didn't. I finished it off in the gully. It's right there,” says Rob. And there it is, the deer, lying dead from a gunshot wound on the ground close to us.
            “Christ, I must've hallucinated,” I say, looking behind us at the cave.
            “You had to have fallen and hit your head,” says Rob. “We oughta take you to the hospital.”
            “So where was I when you found me?” I ask.
            “Right there at the mouth of the cave,” says Rob. We get up; I feel achy, but nothing is broken. I help Rob field dress the deer and then haul it back to the cabin, despite his protests. I'm embarrassed; I feel like a jackass for having ruined his shot and then disappearing and passing out in a cave like a crazy person. The red light, the incisor, and the sexual shapes are pushed back into the deeper recesses of my mind. It was a dream, a bizarre fantasy brought on by a head injury or natural gases. I tell myself these things and take comfort in their conventional logic. The thought of reentering the cave never crosses my mind. I ignore the wound on my hand, attributing it to a stalactite or sharp rock.
            I go to sleep early, complaining of fatigue, leaving Rob to sit next to the fire by himself. The howling starts as soon as my eyes shut. In the dream, I'm running on all fours; I have the body of a wolf, but the head of a man. Men sit in great white trees, bows in hands; their comrades patrol the woods, searching with spears and crude clubs made of oak. I stick close to the earth, moving at a rapid pace, tasting the air with my nose, snarling at invisible enemies. They will find me someday–they always do–but I will run and rape and tear at their throats for as long as I can, for as long as my lungs have breath and my mouth teeth. There is an implacable urge to rend flesh from bones, to grind fresh meat between carnassial molars, to steal life and heat from those that would steal it from myself. That is the only truth, I think as I crawl beneath a fallen log and wait for the sun to set. There is only the will to overpower. They cease their patrols by night, having retreated to the shelter of the cave, bonfires protecting their vanity, their hearth, their barbarian home. The moon has risen high in the sky; it is a primordial eye, a great searching beacon, a friend, a father, a god of crawlers and weavers and roamers. My face changes, my jaws becoming long and narrow and full of terrible teeth. In the firelight, they see my horror, my grotesque bestial form, and though they throw their weapons at me, nothing can pierce my hide. They run from my shadow, retreating into darker darkness, away from the light of the moon and their fires, and I follow, the terror, the monster craving human flesh. I wake up in the morning with the taste of blood in my mouth.
            I go home to Debra on Sunday evening. Rob drops me off, and I go inside, Rufus welcoming me with his usual overeager display. The girls are all sitting in front of the television, content in their amusements. I sit down like a decoration next to my wife, who glances over at me with a slight smile, her soft hands resting on her lap. How was your trip? she asks. I tell her it was a bucolic paradise: wine, nymphs, gullies. She snorts like a camel, and says little else. On the television two men argue over the placement of a table. They shout and cough in a heathen language, but I cannot understand them, no matter how hard I try. Chastity gets up and announces that she is going on a date. I look at her mother and her mother looks at me. Expectations have risen out of the dismal depths of weekend bliss. What am I supposed to do? I ask who she's going out with. “Kyle,” she says, getting up from the couch and retreating to her room. I look at her mother and her sister. Nobody knows who Kyle is. For all we know, he could be a heroin addict, a gas station attendant, or a roaming vigilante. Should we let her go? asks Debra, as though we possess actual power. I shrug; what Chastity does is her business. I roamed when I was her age. I courted girls; I took them to bars, to dance clubs, to place of ill-repute. Never once did I think of what their mothers wanted. My own needs were paramount – flashing lights, alcohol, sex. What advice can we give a sixteen-year-old girl? What bits of wisdom will she listen to, coming from the mouth of her surrogate father, the interloper, the confused, the silently befuddled? I don't know my place in this tragedy. I only know my seat on the couch.
            Debra makes dinner, stir-fried Chinese food. We gobble it down like wolves, the television moving on the wall, Brittany playing a game on her phone in between bites. I stare at the screen with a sullen dead-eyed menace. Things are not how they should be. Chastity comes down the stairs and sprints past the kitchen, slipping a mask on her face before darting out the door. Her mother calls out her name in vain while I spear another mouthful of soy-sauced meat with my fork. “Harry, go after her!” says my wife. I stare at Debra, chewing my cud, slowly comprehending her exasperation and panic. Of course. This is one of those situations that requires me to act like a father rather than a fellow denizen. Comply, you fool says a voice. I push the chair back and head to the door. Outside it is a rainy night, the acid pooling in puddles, oozing down the drains. Chastity is at the end of the walkway, an umbrella in her hand, toxic sludge sloughing off of its thick protective surface. A black car wheezes up; a door opens and a scruffy head pokes out, its facial details obscured by a billowing cloud of smoke. I raise a hand and shout out a warning. My step-daughter disappears into the dismal interior, the umbrella left carelessly on the sidewalk, and before I can move, the vehicle tears out of the drive, its tires squealing.
            I go back inside and reclaim my seat. A fuzzy feeling of incapacitation has blanketed my body, as though I just smoked marijuana.
            “What the hell, Harry?” yells Debra.
            “What could I do? She jumped in the car.”
            Debra looks at me for a minute. I return her look. Her eyes have settled far back in her skull; her skin is pulled taut, like she just received a facelift from hell. To my right, Brittany plays with her phone, her hands fleshless, slender sticks of bone.
            “Jesus,” I whisper. A piece of fried beef sits on my fork like the dead hunk of meat that it is.
            “Just eat it, Harry,” says my ghoul of a wife. The meat quivers, and a drop of blood congeals on my fork, sliding slowly down its tines.
            “Just eat it, Harry,” says Brittany, not looking up from her phone. A lock of her hair falls from her skull and lands on her plate, revealing a decayed scalp.
            “I need to take a walk,” I say, pushing my chair back, an uneasiness churning in my stomach.
            “It's seven-thirty at night,” says Debra. “It's raining outside.”
            “No one gave Rufus his walk today,” I explain. “I'll put him in his suit. I got to get out of the house.”
            “Fine. Go,” says Debra.     
            “Bye, Harry,” says Brittany.
            Rufus steps eagerly into his biohazard onesie, a spiffy orange number that matches my own. The girls relocate on the couch and sit in silence as we go out the door. What the hell is wrong with me? I think. The cave hovers in my thoughts, unwilling to be repressed much longer. Everything looks normal outside. My neighbor Ronald sits on his front porch steps, smoking a cigarette, Charles the pug at his side, his round face surprisingly serene.
            “Had to get out of the house?” asks Ronald. “Shitty time for a walk.”
            “I'm not going to have any kids. Neither is Rufus,” I reply.
            “How much would you pay for that dome they're talking about?” asks Ronald. “I think I'd pay a little more in community fees.”
            “I wouldn't pay a cent,” I say.
            “They say you lose a minute off your life for every minute you spend outside breathing unfiltered air. Don't know if I believe that, myself. Don't know if it's a bad thing either, really. There's too many old people clinging on to feeble lives. We all gotta die, right? So I'll sit outside and smoke these cigarettes, which aren't doing me any favors. I like it, though. You should be able to do what you like.”
            “I'm going to go for a walk in the park,” I say, tugging Rufus along.
            “All right, neighbor. You have a nice night.”
            We trudge along, moving quickly down the drive to the park, a small wooded space that serves as a hiking trail on better days. There used to be playground equipment here, but then that study came out a few years back that said children were especially vulnerable to contamination from IAP (“Inexplicable Atmospheric Phenomena,” a term that deniers cling to even as their very world melts before their eyes), and the public responded by keeping kids indoors. The rusted bones of a set of monkey bars still remain, the last remnants of a vanished time. Rufus commemorates the past by urinating on the rotting artifact. We continue at a brisk pace, avoiding large puddles of waste and sticking to the trail. The book I stole from Hutch's trailer weighs in my mind, full of chicken scratches and scribbled secrets. Something happened to me in that cave, and I haven't felt right or seen things correctly ever since. We wind through a grove of skinny trees, their arms scratching toward the light of the moon. Maybe there's something out there in those trees, hugging the earth, making its den in the rotting logs, eating the carcasses of our mutated fauna. The raccoons around here have four legs; they said that on the brochure, citing it as proof that this was fertile ground and a clean place to live, yet I don't know anymore. Everything seems to move awkwardly, as though it is sick and dying. The birds flutter from trees like paper airplanes; they flap their wings and sag toward the earth, headfirst. Rufus and I watch as a squirrel hobbles past us, dragging a tumor the size of a baseball on its rump. Even the dog is rendered immobile by the scene; he shows no desire to chase the diseased animal. His ears perk up suddenly as we hear the footfall of a jogger. A slim form comes toward us, dressed in neon yellow, every surface covered but the mouth. A running suit of this caliber is a pricy investment–they usually cost at least a grand–and is seen by some as a status symbol, the kind of luxury item normal people can't afford. Back when I was a runner in my college days, I used to pay close attention to the forecast, resigning myself to the treadmill if the weather was poor, having not the funds for fancy gear. Of course, the rain and ash fall weren't as bad in those days. As he gets close to us, I begin to raise my hand in a neighborly greeting. Smoke clouds of breath billow out from his mouth, his eyes invisible behind dark-tinted low-light goggles.  His arms pump, his legs hit the pavement like a metronome, keeping perfect rhythm. He veers close to me, spitting a word in my direction like a bullet. “Nigger,” he says, his lips revealing his large capped teeth. I see something behind the goggles, a glowing red light like the dying embers of a fire. Rufus barks at him as he sprints past, his legs flying, the distance between us growing to star-like proportions. We stand there awhile in the rain, two figures marooned, scuttled in the seething, foaming wake.
            “Are you sure that's what he said?” asks Debra. She lies in the bed, thumbing through a magazine, while I stand in the bedroom, brushing my teeth.
            “I heard it clear as day,” I say, spitting into the sink. In the mirror, my body is gaunt and tight, wiry cords of muscle striating my shoulders.
            “This is a good, enlightened community, Harrison. They've been nothing but welcoming to us since we moved. You were wearing your suit when you were out there, anyway. How could he have seen your face?” ask Debra.
            “Probably seen me around, knew the dog.”
            “Honey, my girlfriends are jealous that I have you, you know that? Where do these feelings come from? The suspicion?”
            “I'm not imagining it. It's okay, though, all right? It wasn't the first time I've been called a nigger.” Debra recoils, as though I've just been unimaginably vulgar. She always acts this way when she hears that word.
             My father always called my brother and me nigger; Get this, nigger, go do that, nigger. It was not a term of endearment. The word was emphasized, spat with venom. It was a declaration. You are nothing. I say you are nothing, and that's all you're gonna be. I look toward the window and see him suddenly, in the flesh for the first time in twenty years, my old man, one foot in the house, the other outside, his gnarled hands grasping the window sill, his eyes mean and cruel, alligator lens, his face wearing that ugly smirk we knew to fear and to run from. Harry, he says, dirt falling from his lips. You're a...
            I run at him, screaming, my arms drawn back, wanting to strike him with all the violence in my heart. My fists go right through him, hitting the closed window, shattering the glass and drawing blood, but he disappears as suddenly as he came, tendrils of smoke dissipating into thin air. Standing there panting, clutching my bleeding hand, I still smell his heavy cigar odor, damning evidence of his manifestation and my decreasing grasp of what is real and what is imagined. My wife remains in bed, the covers drawn up to her neck, her eyes bewildered and scared. We exchange a long look of silence before I go to the bathroom and bandage my hand, wrapping it with gauze.
            “Harry?” she asks, knocking on the door.
            “I had a hallucination. I'm not feeling well. I'm going to go to the doctor this week.”
            “Okay, honey,” she says. I can feel her lingering as I stare into the mirror. I look like him, my old man. We have the same high cheekbones, the same thin but muscular build. My brother says I laugh like him, but I dispute that. There was a strange intensity behind his laugh, a mirthless energy that I'll never have, that I never want to have. I look at my hand suddenly, where the tooth pierced my flesh. There is a line splitting my palm, a thin, jagged mark of raised skin. No scab, no pain.
            “You coming out?” asks Debra.
            I get in bed with my wife and turn the lights out. The silence is heavy, a palpable static roar. Usually I fall asleep quickly in absolute quiet, but not tonight, not with the image of my father's ghost climbing through my window. It's a ridiculous fantasy; those windows do not open. Even on a clear, sunny day there are invisible particles that would wreak havoc on your respiratory system if given the chance, and no breeze is worth the damage, or so the thinking goes. But still I lie here, waiting for a knock, a signal, a sign of his coming. Eventually, I get up and pull the blinds back, and oh, the moon, it is huge and cream-colored and shining through the glass with a pale, hungry light that raises all the hair on my body, that gives my skin gooseflesh. What is this? I whisper, as though it can hear me. Something is happening, something that I don't understand, and I am moving from my bedroom and gliding across the floor, shedding my clothes, opening the door and bounding across the yard, a rippling change coming across my body, a tremor that grows into a quake that sends me hurdling into the woods, the light of the moon upon me, bathing me, protecting me, giving me the light of a god.

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