“There is no death in this wood, there is only permanence…”
Every time the wind fails to blow, Howie “Hoots” McGee dies on the inside a tiny bit more.
Across from St. Wuester’s Church of Madison Avenue is a six-foot tall cinder fence that used to proudly keep a backyard safe and out of view of the sidewalks and all the grubby little passersby they host throughout the day. Perhaps there was a dog who liked to run around within the confines of this fence, or perhaps a family lived in the house from which the fence extends, a big family with a lot of loved ones who’d come over every weekend to blow up the inflatable pools and grill burgers and hot dogs and enjoy what it means to live a life where you fall asleep in your own bed at night and wake up in the morning still living your American dream.
The fence is now littered with holes, the once broad planks reduced to warped shavings of charcoal ready to crumble if the wind ever blows again. If there was a dog here then it’s dead, if it had puppies then they’re dead too, no matter how many of them the family was able to pass off. The kids are dead, if the folks ever had any, and the folks are likely dead as well. There’s only one way to find out, Howie knows it in his heart and he fully intends on knocking on some doors eventually to seek out survivors, but not yet. Like Sister Letty said, this is still new. It’s all right to be scared. He can take things slow.
“Yeah,” Howie says to himself with yet another boot’s worth of ash displaced into the air he’s forced to breathe. “Just take things slow. One step at a time.”
Howie takes a step. Howie takes another step. Howie takes a third step, then begins searching his pockets for a joint. He finds one in the big pocket on his hoodie and sticks it in the corner of his mouth without so much as a shred of surprise. If the man steps out the stu’ he likes to have the goods on him, that’s just how Howie rolls. He’s America’s next greatest stand-up pot comic, you know, ladies’n’germs; Howie “Hoots” McGee is the next big hit. Remember his name folks, “You all remember my name, because you’re go’n’a be hearing it in a few years.” He takes his eyes off the unwalked sidewalk in front of him and forces himself to look into the broken window of the house he’s passing. It’s dark in there, real dark. Nothing like the church. Howie turns his neck to look behind him, but he can’t see the church. Not anymore. He’s on the way now, Howie is, on his own way. Wherever it might lead him.
“To home,” Howie reminds himself. His tongue, slick and moist from the water the Sisters gave him, grabs the crutch of the joint and moves it to the opposite corner of his mouth. “I’m on the way home. Don’t forget that.”
Walking through snow piled up to the ankles makes a ruckus of crunching as millions of infinitely complex snowflakes all compress and pack together into oblong disk-things emblazoned with raised lines and curves or whatever patterns line the bottom of your boot; walking through ash is silent, utterly and macabrely silent. Every now and then he’ll hear the lost song of a windchime or the snap-laden whoosh of a tree giving up its load for the last time, but for the most part Howie is trudging through eerie, hopeless silence as the ashen air gets dirtier and more taxing of breath with every single step he takes.
“I’m making good progress, though. I’m fine,” Howie tells himself. He looks back over his shoulder and squints a little more than he previously was. He finds that he can still see the church after all, just the tip of the bell tower over the treetops, but it’s definitely there. He turns around and swallows a thick gulp of ashy saliva, cringing as it stabs at his throat. “Good enough progress, anyway.”
A few more hatefully stealthy steps. Howie begins to cough again. ‘How are the windchimes singing?’
Distracting himself, “Maybe I could use a mask.”
The thought of turning back and grabbing an extra tee shirt from the clothing dispensary at The Last Stand of Civilization slinks around in Howie’s head for a few dozen paces, but he eventually shoos it off with a little fresh anxiety. ‘I just left, it wouldn’t look good to come back immediately demanding more free supplies just to leave again and never come back until I inevitably need supplies again.’ A few dozen paces later he doubles down on this thought, coming to the conclusion that leaving the Sisters Three to think he’s actually coming back is bad enough, and sometimes, partner, sometimes it’s best to leave bad enough alone.
Time theoretically passes as the infuriating silence grows ever stiller around Howie. He’s been walking for a while now, could be five minutes, could be a quarter hour. The church is at the end of a moderately long stretch of pavement called Madison Avenue, for whatever reason it may be called as such. Do any streets have meaningful names, or could it be that they’re all just arbitrary because they must be called something and humans are always lazy about doing things they don’t necessarily want to do?
“Vhykus sure doesn’t mean anything,” Howie grunts. He clears his throat out and empties his sinuses into his mouth, then spits the slime through the building storm of ash orbiting around him and into the foundation of ash that God laid down upon the Earth to smite the retched humans He didn’t do a very good job of fathering in the first place. “Fuckin’ stuffed up again already,” he declares five minutes later. “This is ridiculous.”
Howie stops walking then, clamping both of his eyes and his mouth shut from within and using his thumbs and pinkies to hold his ears and nostrils closed for as long as he can make it without breathing, which doesn’t turn out to be very long. His lungs, already reeling from the ash, are on fire, they feel heavier than they should feel and the impractical carbon dioxide building up inside his chest like helium gas inside a water balloon doesn’t feel particularly pleasant out in the middle of this blindingly white walk down a petrified gray deathscape, so Howie finally relinquishes his self-control and exhales through his nose and then immediately inhales back through his nose and suddenly Howie is gasping for air, swallowing particulates of airborne ash by the truckload and loving every second of it, honest to God he is.
Then he begins to cough.
Then he clears his throat and almost falls over when he sees a glob of black gunk fly from his mouth onto the street.
Then he coughs some more.
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” Howie pleads as his raw throat splits apart like a log left to burn on a bed of hot embers. ‘Like a world left to burn under the fires of Heaven.’ “How could you do it, God?! For the love of fucking Christ!”
He takes a slow, strideful step, successfully removing himself from the cloud of ash he summoned. In taking his next step he begins the ubiquitous process of building up another ashen cocoon to slowly suffocate him by way of clogging the pores in his lungs, but that’s unavoidable for the foreseeable future, as this is the end of the world, it’s really the end of the world.’ Howie pinches his eyes tightly shut. Tears cut obsidian streaks through the dirty ash on his face. The filthy ash, the stuff that came from Central Wuester. “Wuester Central, really? Gi’me a fuckin’ break. Guarantee none of those wacko Sisters have ever been to the center of this town… if there even is a center of town.”
Howie stops walking for a moment to scan around and get his bearings in the physical world; in his mind he wanders on unabated.
‘I’ve never been there, I don’t know that it exists,’ he reasons with himself, looking at the collapsed remains of a house across the street. They didn’t have a driveway big enough to park a car on so their whole family had to use the street in front of the house as a driveway.
‘Just like the pyramids and places like Australia. And the Moon and Mars, and other planets and shit. I’ve never been there, I don’t know that they’re actually real.’ Their cars are eviscerated, reduced into unrecognizable heaps of black metal covered in thick gray ashen moss on the street in front of their house, that’s how their story ended. As a set piece in somebody else’s ashy walk home. ‘I don’t know that they ever existed in the first place. Maybe the world I remember doesn’t exist at all, maybe this end of times thing all started right when I woke up.’
Howie stands in the settling ash for a moment. Not so much as a single gust of wind blows by. There’s not a sound but his labored breathing and the inconvenienced beating of his heart, two sanity-draining sounds Howie would kill somebody to not hear at the current moment. ‘Maybe it never started, maybe it’s just always been this way and I’m only realizing it now.’
Standing in the road ahead of Howie there’s a figure, a tall, slender form with an inanely large head. Cupping his hands around his eyes, Howie proceeds forward with caution and notices for the first time the sweat dripping down his forehead, chilling his back, soaking his chest and stomach. He’s going to resemble a mad mime by the time he gets to the apartment, Jhan will never let him hear the end of it.
“It’s a stop sign.” He stops when his feet come back together. “I’m here.”
The church is nowhere in sight, and it shouldn’t be. Madison Avenue is a long stretch of Avenue, and Howie McGee walked it all in just under… Christ, it could have been days. The sky didn’t get any darker. ‘I wonder what the name is for. Madison. Who’s Madison?’ He ultimately shrugs on the matter.
To Hoots’s right is Cannonball Road and to his left is also Cannonball Road, but the connective stretch where nobody lives and everybody else’s street branches off of. He’ll just take that a ways and cut through the woods to Vhykus, or he could even go all the way down past Ryker and swing through Rosebud if he absolutely has to. It’s a walk but it’ll be doable. Normally in a situation like this Howie would worry himself to a halt over walking down Cannonball out in the open with pot on him; as much as he hates to admit it, he’d much rather take the side streets and backroads to get home to Jhan, but he also has this funny feeling that nobody will be out today to catch him on the main roads and give him shit for carrying pot, plus it’ll be faster anyway. A funny little tickle in his stomach is telling him he’s worrying too much and that all will be fine, or maybe that it’s all gone to Hell and it’s too late to save anybody.
It’s over, isn’t that painfully clear? Can’t Howie see that? Isn’t there something to realize in the total fucking lack of wind blowing, in the absence of noise and general life all around me? Like, hello!? Is this, are we… is it going to be okay or not?! You know what, yeah, I think I got it, either it will all be absolutely fine or it will all be terribly horrific, just awesome! There won’t be balance, none of that in between bullcrap, it’s either fuck yeah or fuck me, like, really God?!” he started shouting to the sky at some point, his fists clenched and swinging furiously. “What the fuck?! What have You done? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO US YOU TRAITOR? YOU DEADBEAT ASSHOLE!!”
A tree crumbles under the weight of the devastation off in what used to be a specific house cat’s favorite place to ambush squirrels when they were distracted by the hummingbird feeder the cat’s owner’s first daughter built in elementary school ten years ago. Howie opens his eyes to the stop sign again, its reflective red sheen throwing off glaring beams like headlights through the fog as clear as sunshine on a cloudless day.
“Stop sign. Right.” A deep breath down to the pit of his stomach. “Stop, Howie. Just stop.”
Howie hooks a left onto Cannonball Road. He’s on the way to Vhykus Path. On the way home.
Hello Commons, this has been the first subchapter of the second chapter of Flowers, a novel about a man who smokes the last of his pot.
Flowers is part of the Third Spiral, an anthology of sorts called The Here and Now which is comprised of stories told from the various planes of Existence.
Flowers is available to read for free in its entirety on my website. Click here to check it out.
I’ve written a few other books, too. Click here to see the list.
If you like Flowers and would like to help support my work, click here and buy an autographed copy of the book (or anything else!) from my store. Alternatively, you can snag a cheaper (and unsigned) copy from Amazon by clicking here OR you can buy the ebook for even cheaper here.
If you’re there, hypothetical reader, thank you for being there. Be well Commons~