“There is no death in this wood, there is only permanence…”
Taking Cannonball Road down to Maple Street is a rather terrifying prospect, Howie comes to understand now that he’s begun to attempt it. The breathing was hard enough earlier with the ashes in the air, but he decided to act on impulse and convert the hood of his ashy sweatshirt into a remedial facemask. It works about as well serving hot tea in a drinking glass without a handle: kind of. Howie has to work for every breath he takes, and every breath burns more than the last, but it’s clean air. Clean enough, anyway… right?
‘Well, I was covered in ashes before,’ Howie reminds himself, ‘when the tree dropped its load on me. And now I’m breathing through the same ashes in hopes that the hood underneath them will clean the ashes out of the air.’
Yeah, so clean enough, then.
Howie takes a few dozen labored steps. The ashes are weightless, they don’t make a sound as they’re shifted about in the digging of the trenches by his heavy leather boots. The ashes capture the noise of the worn soles of Howie’s boots scraping against the hidden pavement and passively dampen it below the range of the human ear as Howie drags his feet forward one step after the next, with each breath he takes moving that much closer to either saving his boyfriend or wearing an irreparable hole into the soles of what is likely his only pair of footwear for no reason other than… pride? Assholitude? Both and neither. Mostly for the pot, honestly. Howie misses Roscoe.
The tall street sign for Madison Avenue is still visible over Howie’s shoulders. The church and its Sisters on his mind, Howie takes a moment to thank God for letting the wind be still, and while the egregious silence aloft in the air may be driving Howie dangerously close to the edge of madness, it’s better than being caught up in a constant ashstorm where he wouldn’t be able to open his eyes. The little forcefields of the stuff he kicks up as he walks are plenty bad enough, there’s no need for things to escalate into an ashstorm out of what amounts to little more than divine spite, now is there? He also apologizes for losing his cool earlier, reminding the Almighty Lord that it takes a real ‘man to nut up and take ownership of his feelings like this, and not the masculine type of ‘man, neither.
Howie opens his eyes and finds himself scraping his boot against the curb on the right side of the road. “Well that’s great,” as he corrects to the middle of Cannonball. “I can walk in a diagonal line with my eyes closed! What else can I do? Aside from ditching a triad of weird nuns who only wanted to help me, not a whole lot! I’m Howie Hoots McGee: Civilization’s Last Hope.”
“Yeah, those are pretty useful skills, I suppose.”
‘There used to be big plants at eye level on this road.’
‘I used to high-five them.’
‘Who am I kidding, I just thought of that now. I’m like Sister Letty talking about Wuester Central. Old bird’s off her gourd for Christ’s sake, puns intended ladies’n’germs. Ten puns in ten did hit as inten did, badda-boom-badda-bing babygirl, we’re in the game, woo-hoo!”
Howie “Hoots” McGee stops dead in his tracks in the middle of Cannonball Road. He’s about a third of the way between Madison Avenue and Road Street, and he’s been walking for… “Christ, how long have I been walking for?”
He gets the only answer this perished world can give him.
“Did I come through this way last night?” he wonders aloud. Changing the subject, “That joint with Sister Letty was so loud, my ears are still ringing from that shit.”
“Well I didn’t take the roads all the way last night, I know that much.”
“Yeah, I must have cut through the woods. Duh.”
“I’ve done it a million times.”
A dozen steps. A dozen breaths.
“A million times, right?”
“Was that church real?”
“Am I… am I higher than the holy right now? ” Howie asks himself belligerently before collapsing into a semi-manic spree of jovial giggling. “Yes sir, yes indeedy I am. Good Lord the blessing was pungent, this is some dank-ass bud have I ever smoked it. Thank you for putting it in my pocket, Lord my Almighty God. I’m looking forward to seeing Roscoe soon.”
“And Yahn. Mostly Yahn.”
“You know Yahn is at the top, God.”
“You know he is, I don’t need to defend myself. Not to You, not to anybody.”
“Ever. My word is law.”
“God I wish I knew how to take myself seriously.”
“I wonder if I’m halfway there yet…”
Howie turns around to discover that he’s still about a third of the way to Road Street, the first of three roads on the left Howie has to walk past before hooking the second right to traverse Maple Street and then… “No, wait, I was going to cut through the woods. That’s right.”
‘Where is that spot on Cannonball?’
“I don’t know. It’s not super far though, I don’t think.”
‘Not super close either, past Poundcake Parkway for sure.’
“Oh yeah, past Poundcake Parkway for sure.”
Many steps forward are taken, as are many laborious breaths.
“I wonder if I’m ever going to pass the street sign for Poundcake Parkway.”
Step after breath after step.
‘Maybe I’m just making that up.’
Breath after step after breath.
Perhaps Hoots is just thinking of the hilarious Keith Stubbs special he watched on Drybar the other night, just a few short days before the world ended. He was lain in the twin bed he occasionally shared with Jhan because Jhan had a queen-sized at home that they used to share but they had to stop because Jhan’s father threatened to deport Jhan to Europe if Howie ever showed up at their house again so now – the now of before the world ended – when they want to sleep together they have to squeeze into Howie’s little twinner, the very one he likes to relax on and watch stand-up comedy.
Yeah, just a few nights ago that was. A few spins of the Earth. Before ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Howie coughs a fat wad of corrupted gray spit into his mouth. He tears the hood away from his face to spit it out and a good-lookin’ chunk of it gets stuck to his bottom lip and dangles there until it gets stuck and spreads to his chin. Howie doesn’t notice it, as the ash is thick enough to block minor sensations such as the touch of a warm and foamy loogie to his bottom lip, and unlike the sweat it will continue to go unnoticed because the man’s saliva is so dry it won’t soak through the ash, it’ll just sit on top of it until it evaporates and collects more ash. The poor man looks like he’s frothing at the mouth rabid, a stark raving lunatic if ever one roamed the land… if there were anybody left to see him they’d think so, anyway. Surely they would… but there’s nobody left to see Howie.
Nobody left to see anything at all.
The green street sign for Road Street glimmers darkly behind Howie like the branches of a chopped Christmas pine in a roadside tree farm after a fresh dusting of snow. How long ago Howie passed it he does now know, how long it took him to pass it he hasn’t the faintest idea, nor does he have any memory of watching it sit still as he ambled past it whatsoever. He left a queer trail of dragged footprints and craters of mucus and saliva in his wake while the rest of the ash in the greater world around him stayed clean and untouched, he just needs to turn around and he’ll know exactly where he’s been… unless I go to check and there’s no tracks behind me…!’
Howie spins, kicking up a viscous smog of dirty ash only to see the parallel foot trenches he’s dug through the otherwise pristine ash leading right up to his ankles like the legs of a disturbingly long shadow. He looks up and though the sky is too bright to keep his eyes open on it for long, Howie picks out four individual clouds among the otherwise solid white.
“Rainclouds are forming.” He grips the straps of his backpack. “Good. Rain’s coming.” Displaced mountains of weightless ash surround Howie on all sides; he’s far past the residential curve of Cannonball Road now, if he stays steady and doesn’t take any turns he’ll eventually end up in the center of town.
“In Wuester Central,” Howie reminds himself. A few productive coughs, a few deep black craters spat into the ash. The smog he spun up died down considerably but the air is far from still, far from clean to breathe. Won’t be clean again for a long while, Howie imagines.
“I wonder what’s in the center of Wuester…”
To hear one’s heart beating inside one’s head is one thing; to be aware of the blood flowing through one’s own veins is another thing entirely.
“Still not past Poundcake Parkway,” Hoots reminds himself, tightening the straps of his backpack. He gets a’walkin’, holding on to those frayed straps for dear life. “The shortcut’s a ways past Poundcake Parkway. Way down the road there.”
Seconds pass, that’s the only thing Howie is sure of while walking down this long road towards the center of Wuester. Perhaps they collect into minutes, perhaps even an hour of shuffling down Cannonball Road hauling tired feet and a large bouncing gut slips under his already tight belt, but Howie doesn’t know it. In a way he doesn’t want to know; somebody might be still be keeping track of that nonsense, maybe one of the Sisters back at the Last Stand of Civilization, but not Howie “Hoots” McGee.
Hoots, as per usual, has bigger fish to fry.
“Something has to be there, right?” he asks himself sincerely. “Like, some kind of fountain or little memorial walkabout, like those memorials with the walls with the names of war veterans.” He takes an uncounted number of steps. “Yeah, something like that but less morbid.”
Step after step after step. His labored breath has faded into his subconscious at this point, and while he’s talking aloud, he isn’t really saying all the words he’s meaning to say. Were a passerby to do to Howie what passersby tend to do to those they pass by, they would hear incoherent gibberish in a low and faltering voice and then be able to match that up visually with an overall lean man with a disproportionate gut sagging over his thighs and a bald spot taking up the majority of the top of his head choking himself with the hood of his sweatshirt so he can pretend he’s able to breathe without actively consuming ash by the sinusful. It’s not an entirely good look but it’s Howie’s current predicament, he’s doing the best he can do with it and it doesn’t have to look good to a theoretical random passerby. There are no theoretical passersby left in the world, not anymore. It starts with an R and it ends with an E. It cometh unto you and it cometh unto me.
“Wait, where’d that come from?” Howie asks the air. “I didn’t… is that how the rest of that rhyme goes?”
No crickets chirp in the background. No winds blow through the trees, no branches give out and rain down their extinguished Hell. No birds are singing their songs, no squirrels are chuttering their shit. There’s only Howie and the sound of his body working overtime to process and excrete all this ash that keeps flowing into it.
“This was a mistake,” Howie admits to the deaf and windless air. “This was a huge mistake. I shouldn’t have left so soon.”
Howie finds himself forty paces closer to the center of town.
“This was all a big mistake, but this is what Yahn has me for, so I can make all the mistakes and he can learn better.” Howie chuffs speckled air out his nostrils. “You better be there waiting for me when I get home, Yahn. I know you’re there, but…” A hot tear cuts a fresh black line through the gray ash on Howie’s face. “You just better be there, you little bastard’s wench.”
Jhan always hated when Howie would call him that. Howie thinks he’s cute, see, Howie “Hoots” McGee thinks himself all sorts of funny and clever, Hoots McGee takes a common insult like son of a bitch and genderbends it into the abominable mishap of a phrase bastard’s wench, it’s a violation of the English language as far as Jhan is concerned… but still he tolerated Howie using it, still he gave that big bald oaf the benefit of the doubt no matter how obnoxious he got…
“Yahn… you better be waiting for me when I get to the apartment.”
Something long, tall, and tepid catches Howie by the right shoulder and nearly topples him. Holding his hands out like he’s projecting some sort of field, the backpacker steadies himself and slowly returns to form. He looks up. It’s a street sign.
“Poundcake Parkway,” Howie says to himself almost in veneration, his stark amazement nearly past the point of verbalization. “I didn’t imagine it, it… it’s real.” Nobody is there to enjoy this existential gratitude with him, but still Howie spins slowly around looking for the others. There’s nobody there, Wuester is a wasteland of charcoal and ash and perfectly preserved street signs. And Howie “Hoots” McGee finally came to the mouth of Poundcake Parkway.
“This is all so strange,” Howie confers with himself. “I don’t think I’m dreaming anymore…”
He looks over his shoulder and sees a traveled stretch of thickly ashen roadway fade into indiscernible shades of gray. Ahead he sees the same except the Lord’s blanket is pure, the ashen path rests untraveled though the road beneath it was paved over many times. The sky burns an eternal white. The indirect sunlight hurts Howie’s eyes.
“I’m not sure what all this is.”
The street sign marking the entrance to Poundcake Parkway stands tall and steady to Howie’s side, devoid of animation and life. Howie stares at it for a couple seconds and tries to remember where he is.
“Right. The shortcut, it’s right up ahead.”
Howie gets a’walkin’.
“I’m close now, closer than I’ve ever been.”
Ashen step after hooded breath after burning blink.
“I’m almost home, Yahn. I’ll be there soon.”
Were a crow to caw off in the distance Howie would likely release his bowels into the seat of his pants, but there are no crows left. There’s nothing but ash and dirty air. Filthy air. Thick, filthy, ashen air, everything the air of Wuester Central is not. Probably.
“I haven’t taken a good shit in weeks,” Howie reminds himself. “I don’t even remember the last time I went to the bathroom in general. I don’t remember the last time I ate. Drank some water at the church, but before that…”
Howie turns around. The church is gone, long gone and far, far away, but he can still see the street sign for Poundcake Parkway.
“Good. I should see it, I’m not at the shortcut yet.”
Keeping his eyes fixed on the Poundcake Parkway street sign, Howie takes a few tentative steps forward.
“As soon as the sign fades out of sight I should be able to cross into the woods.” During the winter he can see the cut-through plain as day, it’s a literal minute of woods travel that brings you right to the end of Rosebud Avenue, and from there it’s just a left and a slow hook right and boom, Howie’s home, Jhanny boy! Come to Daddy!
Howie bursts out laughing, then coughs up a storm and ejects it into the world. It leaves a wide yet shallow black crater in the virgin ash beside him.
“He’d deck me. Right in the face,” as the last limbs of the laugh finally give out. “I’d probably lose a tooth over it.” He walks a bit. “No probably s about it, he’d knock one of my teeth out.” Step. Breath. “I’d deserve it, too. Wouldn’t complain once.” Step. Breath. “Probably write a joke about it, too. Why the fuck not?”
Nobody explains to Howie why the fuck he wouldn’t write the joke. Howie turns around. He can no longer spot the Poundcake Parkway street sign. He turns back afront and scans the left side of the road looking for the street sign for Stickup Bend, but he doesn’t see that either.
“Did I walk too far already?” He rubs his eyes, then is reminded by said eyes why doing something like that is a horrible idea. “I should be able to see Stickup Bend, too. Maybe I haven’t walked far enough.” Howie considers all the many reasons why seeking out a road called Stickup Bend during an apocalyptic situation would be a bad idea, then ultimately decides to walk down it on his eventual trek back to St. Wuester’s Church. He has to get back to the Sisters at some point in this nightmare of a new life, he acknowledges that he holds a certain responsibility towards them in knowing about their existence at all, but he’s got business to take care of first. That’s what this really is, going home to Jhan is just business. He needs to make sure his boyfriend is okay, and he needs his stash too. In this moment, the pot stash and Roscoe are almost more important to Howie than Jhan is, and that probably wasn’t true earlier, probably won’t be true later, but in this one solitary moment spent drudging down the middle of the ashen tunnel that is Cannonball Road, Howie’s stash is all that matters to him.
“God damnit I could use a fucking smoke.”
He takes the joint out of his big sweatshirt pocket and rolls it around in his fingers, just to get a feel of the thing. There’s no bends in its form, no creases in the paper. It’s in perfect smoking order, it’s shape preserved perfectly by the gracious spaciousness of the hoodie’s big center pocket. All he needs is a little fuego, a little zap from that electric lighter he has in the stash and zoom, Howie’s up among the stars. Off into the haze, into the special private headspace where the fog is thick and the air is thin and thoughts act more like living things than constructs of the mind.
Howie stops walking mid-step to theatrically shake his head for his own amusement. “Yeah, I could definitely use a smoke.”
Howie resumes walking.
Enough steps and breathes are taken to finally bring the street sign for Stickup Bend into Howie’s perception.
“Huh, and there she is.”
Howie stops walking and looks into the forest to his right. It’s thinner down here than by the church. Save for the maple trees around the driveway, the woods up at the head of Cannonball are dense and hard to walk through. They’re also burned to a state of shattered cinders; down here the trees are all burned flat, but they don’t seem to be as brittle. These out here could probably withstand a pisser of a kick without dumping their ashes where the maples back at the church couldn’t handle a nudge… not that Howie’s going to try.
“Definitely not.” Howie stands, one hand in a pocket, staring into the ashen wood. “Just gon’a walk through without making any trouble and come out on the other side. Then I’ll make a new plan, maybe use the landlord’s car and–… oh for the love of fucking Christ.”
If Jhan is alive, then the landlord is almost definitely alive. If Jhan is dead then the landlord might be alive, the house has a wine cellar underneath it. Like the church’s basement but much less spacious, and not nearly as well maintained either. If the landlord is alive… if the fucking landlord is still alive after all this…
“Well I’ll just have to deal with that when I get there,” Howie reminds himself. He looks into the ashen forest. Miserable scorched trees stare back at him, and behind them lurks a dimensionless gray gloom, shapeless in its horror, infinite in it reach. “Damn, kind’a wish I had my phone.” Time passes, or so Howie assumes. “Kind’a wish I had a lot of things.” He kicks the ground and more ashes fly up than the kick was worth lifting. “Yeah. Wish I had a lot of things.”
Vile silence fills Howie’s ears and rots his brain one decaying myelin sheath at a time. The pores of his lungs are clogged with ash and his intestines are likely stuffed up with the shit, too. There’s no trace of a sense of taste in his mouth and very little sense of smell in his nose, which Howie is actually immensely grateful for because he’s unwilling to so much as imagine the fetid stench of his breath right now… Lord, if Sister Etty could catch a whiff of Howie’s morning breath after smoking himself to sleep before he got a chance to brush the chompers the night before then she would praise You for waking her up with her face in my ashtray. That much I promise you, Lord, on Yahn’s gr–… on my, on…”
Howie “Hoots” McGee hasn’t moved in a long time. Long enough for his legs to blend into their surroundings on a sensual level; he knows they’re there, Howie can feel his legs and he knows he can move them at any time he wishes, in fact he can even do so with ease, but he cannot figure out exactly where his legs end and reality begins.
“Goddamn I’m high,” Howie reminds himself. “Very, oh so very high. Can’t even help it, woke up like this and smoked some more despite it.” He takes the joint back out of his pocket and experiences a love tap of déjà vu. “And yet there’s still some pot left. What do we do, Hoots?”
Hoots puts the joint back into his pocket and pats it gently from the outside, as if to let it know he cares about it. “I’m almost home, Yahn. We’ll fuck the landlord up and live out this shitstorm in the house, not cooped up in the dormer anymore. In the house proper. Hell, I’ll even hide his corpse up in the apartment with all the garbage we’re not go’n’a use. We’ll clean out the wine cellar and take it for ourselves. It’ll be just you and me, Yahn.”
He takes a step towards the awful, pallid ashen wood.
“Just you and me, Yahn.”
Another step taken, another breath labored. The gray ashen wood stands frozen, silent in its wait.
“Just you and me.”
Hello Commons, this has been the second 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.
Be well Commons~